It had been fifteen days since I had headed out from the homestead. I had no plans, no arrangements, no real intentions. I just had to get away, you know? It tears, right, when you're stuck on a world with no more than a dozen people on it and one of them is your sister. I had watched the vids Dave had shown me of the Universe, the ones of Pendor and llerkin and all the spaces in between. I wanted to go to Terra, I wanted to see the Museum at Kessel in something more than a VR hologram. I don't care how much Dave tells we the difference isn't noticeable. I can feel that there's a difference.
I walked all day through a sparse forest, coming out into a gently sloping hill covered in tall grass and yellow flowers. I think the flowers had managed to crowd out any other species trying to wind in on their soil because there was nothing else in the field. I climbed up the hill and tried to see what lay on the other side.
According to my calculations I had walked only about three hundred kilometers from the homestead. That wasn't very far. If Dad had let me take the shuttle I could have gone that far in a couple of minutes. But walking was good. I felt great. The food was okay; The portable survival unit made a lot of food. It was meant to feed small armies. It was enough for me. I was having trouble keeping my feet comfortable, though. The socks I wore itched sometimes, even though I had done what was necessary, even calling Dave to ask him if there was anything else I should be doing to keep them clean. He wasn't any help.
At the top of the hill I looked out on a sight I had not expected. The hill descended to the banks of a great river, and then a lower hill on the other side hid the start of what looked like a great stretch of grassland that seemed to go on forever and ever. I couldn't believe how huge it was. It went at least to the horizon. I reminded me of the time Dad had taken me to the desert.
I wondered why Dad had always taken us to the outer reaches of Haven rather than show us this. This place was beautiful.
Maybe because he knew that I would get here on my own. I wondered if Christiana would ever go walking. She probably would.
It took me an hour to figure out that I wasn't going to be able to wade across the river. It was both wide and deep. I finally decided to swim it. Testing it with my hand, I decided that it wasn't really that cold, although I did want to get out of it as quickly as possible. The river was very slow-moving. I also didn't know if the pack was going to float. I expected it to, but I wouldn't know for sure until I tried it.
I dropped the pack on the bank and rolled it into the water. It floated, so that was one less thing to worry about. Pondering what I should do, I realized that I should tie the pack to my belt and hope that it wouldn't take on water and drown me. But with it loose, it might encumber me less.
Taking a deep breath, I went swimming. The water was colder than it had felt on my hand and arm, but I would live through it. Swimming was hard. It took nearly ten minutes to reach the other side but soon I had dragged myself up onto the opposite shore. I then hauled in my pack.
I checked it. It hadn't leaked. I was still checking the contents when I heard a voice say, "Wow. That looks heavy."
I was so surprised I fell on my ass. I managed to turn over to see a femHuman standing there, about my age, with red hair and freckles. "Who... who are you?" I managed to say.
"I should ask you who you are," she said. "I mean, it is my planet."
"Your planet?" I asked. "It's an uncharted Annapurna project world. It's for whoever decides to live here."
"My planet," she insisted. "I'm Heather."
"Random," I said.
"Where are you from, Random?"
"That way," I said, pointing. "About two weeks' walk."
"That's a long walk." She reached down and offered me a hand up. I took it and stood. "My family's place is about a day that way."
"What are you doing out here?" I asked. "We didn't detect anyone here when we landed."
"You must be joking," she said. "My parents have been here a long time."
"Longer than seventeen years?"
"Oh, much longer," she said. She spoke Quen but with a thick accent. A Terran accent. I couldn't place it but I knew it was from somewhere on old, old Earth.
She was just a little shorter than I was. I liked her smile. It was a kind of crooked smile below a slightly crooked nose and sparkling green eyes. She had a lot of freckles.
"So, are you just walking around, like me?"
"No, I'm out looking for some herbs and spices to cook with. Those Annapurna ships were complete, weren't they?"
I nodded. "They sure packed everything into those ships. Too bad so few of them reported back in."
"Oh, I don't think so. This one left us this world." She laughed. It was the prettiest sound I had ever heard. She was the first person other than family that I had ever seen. I knew nothing about her.
"What have you got so far?" I asked.
She pulled her own pack off. It was a lot smaller than mine. Inside, she had some small bags with leaves inside. "See? Basil, cilantro, saffron, and a lot of sagebrush."
"Why don't you just have your synthesizer make you some?"
"It's not the same."
That was just what I said about going places by VR. "No, I guess it isn't. Which way are you walking?"
"That way," she said, pointing.
"That's the same way I'm going," I said.
"Let's walk together, then." She shouldered her pack and I did mine. We walked.
The land was flat and green but Heather found little flowers that fascinated her and small buds that she picked and collected carefully in small sacks made of cloth.
The day headed into early evening. She looked over her shoulder. "I have to head home soon."
"Where do you live? It's not shielded, is it?"
"No, no," she said. "It's just, my parents came here for some privacy. To get away. I think they would be annoyed if strangers showed up."
I nodded. "My folks would be the same way. I'll tell them you're here, though."
She smiled. "I'll come find you, okay?"
I held out my hand. She touched it, grabbed it, pulled me into a hug. Sure, my parents had hugged me, and Christiana and Allyx and I had done some playing around, but... I felt this thrill, this floaty feeling as I held her against me. I had never felt anything like that. I didn't want to let her go. "Uh, Random?"
I finally released her. She had a really big smile. "Sorry, Heather. I didn't mean that. I just... I like you."
She leaned over and kissed my cheek. "I like you too, Random." And then she was walking away. I watched as she disappeared over a hill.
When I got home, I didn't tell anyone about Heather. I spent days looking over the satellite charts, so much that I think Dave figured out what I was looking for. He asked me if I was looking for other people. "No," I said.
"Good," he said. "Because I've been watching over this world for twenty years now and I haven't seen anyone else. I would hate to think that I'm slipping with the years."
I also watched a lot of old Terran films until I found one that had her accent. I took me nearly two weeks, but I finally decided that she was Irish. Scottish, maybe. But I'm pretty sure it was Irish.
I waited a few weeks, then headed back out. Dad understood. I had all the room in the world, but I still felt cramped unless the family was over the horizon.
It took a little less time than last, but I knew where I was going this time. I walked through the woods, crossed the river, and headed in the direction she had pointed. I crossed over the grassland for two more days. If it hadn't been for the compass, I would have gotten completely lost.
That night, as I camped out in the open, I heard her voice, singing, coming closer. She walked right by my campsite before I called out her name. "Heather!"
"Random?" she replied. She didn't sound at all surprised to find me. "I asked you not to visit my home, remember?"
"I didn't want to annoy your parents, but I wanted to find you."
She smiled. "I wanted to find you too. But please, promise me, you won't try to find my home."
"I promise," I heard myself saying.
She smiled. "So, no fire, no light?"
I shrugged. "Didn't need one."
She sat down next to me on the ground. "It's beautiful out tonight, Random. See all the stars?"
"Yeah," I said. "Do you know which star is Pendor?"
You know we can't see it from here, dummy," she said, bopping me playfully on the arm. "I'm not going there ever, anyway."
I looked away from the sky. "Why is that?" I asked.
She shrugged again. "I'm just not." She turned to look into my eyes and touched my cheek with her hands. "Don't ask questions of me like that, Random." I wanted to ask her why, understand why she was so reluctant to talk about herself, but she stopped any question I might ask with a kiss.
It was a brief kiss, just a peck, nothing like what I'd seen in the movies or between my parents, but it was the first kiss I'd ever had that way. Isn't that funny? I'd done all kinds of experiments with Christiana, but when you're living so long with your sister like that you don't think of things like kissing. I wonder why the grownups do it and seem to like it after so long– they've been together forever.
Heather smiled at me. "I've wanted to do that since I first saw you."
"Me, too." I laughed nervously, not sure what to say next.
"Random?" she asked. "Would you, I mean, like me to stay with you tonight?"
"Yeah," I said. "I would."
"Good." She dug out of her pack a nightbag, a pretty bulky one, too. It was twice as large as mine all rolled up, and mine rolled up to about the size of a tennis ball. She let it fill out, open, and tossed it out next to mine. "Open yours up too?" she asked.
I didn't pause for even a second. She was heading right where I wanted her to go.
We jumped between the layers of the doubled-up bag. Mine had recognized the older style of her bag and the two had melded together perfectly. We snuggled down; the night wasn't that cold at all, but cool enough that we wanted to stay under the covers. She stripped down as quickly as I did.
"I didn't..." She drew in her breath in a gasp that sounded just like mine. Her body was so warm. I hadn't expected her to feel so... so alive. Her leg brushed against mine, her hands touched my sides. I reached up to touch her breasts, soft and so loose, not like Chris's at all.
"Oh, Random. Touch me, please. Touch me more." I did as she asked, mashing her breasts with my hands. I was afraid that I might hurt her, but she just moaned louder as I squeezed and caressed them.
And then her hands found my dick and I almost exploded. Not come, but explode. It took everything I had just to keep from losing control and.. I don't knew what would have happened next. She was so beautiful, and so hot. She smelled good, like fresh grass after a warm rain. I kissed her arms, her shoulders. "Yes, Random. Kiss me."
Our mouths pressed together. We were sloppy and got spit everywhere and I didn't care at all. I reached around and touched her back, caressed her spine, ran my hands down to her bottom and cupped her ass in my hands. We were on fire, both of us. I didn't even know when it happened but I found us rolled over and I was on top. My dick was poking against her muff. "Now?" I asked.
"Now," she said. "Now!"
I dropped into her. She surrounded my dick, sucked it into her. Her body arched up to meet mine. It felt like we were merging together, becoming one. Her arms encircled me, hugged me, held me tight as we thrashed together in the bag. She was an animal. She thrust against me, I slammed into her. We were out of control.
"Oh, fuck, Random, fuck me hard! Yes, please more!"
"Yes!" I shouted back as we reached a high point, a point of no return, a point I can't describe any other way. We came at the same time and our cries of pleasure bounced off the clouds overhead.
I awoke in the morning alone and bewildered, my bag again reduced to a single. I looked for any sign of Heather but she was gone. I could still feel the warmth of her body, the smell of her sweet red hair. The trace of her was still fresh, but there was nothing left of hers here. I packed up and went home.
I waffled back and forth, but by the time I reached home I had decided to tell the family about her. "Dad?"
"Random!" he said. He hurried out of the kitchen and hugged me, hauling me off the floor. I don't know where he hides that muscle. "Enjoy your walkabout?"
"We need to talk." He put me down and gave me the don't-keep-me-waiting look. "Is there anyone else on Haven except us?"
"We scanned the planet completely before we landed. There was no radio, neutrino, or gravitation signs, no signs of construction, nothing even to indicate tool-using primitives, not that that's likely since this is an Annapurna world. Why?"
I told him about Heather. I told him everything. He stroked at his beard. "I believe you, Random, but... we'd know if there was anyone here."
"Dad, I'm telling you."
"Well," he said, "Let's look into it."
By the evening, everyone knew what we were looking for. "I have looked everywhere in the radius which Random described. There is nothing in that area which could even remotely be a human habitation." Dave's voice sounded sure.
"She's there!" I insisted.
"I believe you, Random, but we have to look at this from the evidence. There's nothing there."
"Ease back, Random," Aaden said. "Dave, run a hogan. You're looking for the original Annapurna capsule."
We waited. Both Chris and Allyx thought it might be cool to have neighbors, Dad was worried about neighbors he couldn't find, and I could see worries about my mental health going through Mom's mind. It's the way she's programmed. Twenty minutes later, Dave announced that he had found two possible locations for the Annapurna lander.
"Two?" Ken asked. "Is that normal?"
"No," Dave agreed. "One might be the landing zone for Heather's family, but it's a long way off."
"Over a thousand kilometers from here. Random had the right direction, but it's not a three or four day walk– more like two months. I'll be able to get a better view in daylight tomorrow morning."
I was up with the sun. I had gotten used to it with the walking. "Dave?" I asked.
"The sun will be over the position in five minutes. I will have to wait a little longer for my satellite to got into position and for the light to be good."
"Good morning, Random."
"Hi, Mom," I said. She had always been the morning person.
"Anything new on our mystery?"
"Not yet," I said. I sat at the monitoring board and watched the screen. The angle on the image became clearer and the light brighter. Nothing showed up, though, except rolling hills of grass. The grasslands that covered that part of the continent remained unbroken. "Dave? Are you sure that's it?"
"That is where I'm detecting a large mass of worked metal. It has the wrong mass to be an Annapurna lander. That is it. It may be buried, like our own home."
"But even from space you can resolve all the other things around our house. Like the garden. Like the shuttle pad! There's nothing there."
Dad entered, wearing a robe that wasn't tied shut. "Then let's go find it."
It took all morning to decide who was going to go. Dad, Mom, Aaden and I were finally it, and Aaden was going to fly. The sky was overcast as we took off– not a good omen. But it cleared as we approached where Dave had said the ship was. At least, he thought it was a ship. I waited, my chest tight. Would she be mad if she saw me? " Maybe I should stay in the shuttle. "
"That would probably be a good idea. She didn't tell you not to tell us, did she?"
"No," I agreed. "She just told me not to look for her home."
"Well, she didn't tell us," Dad said.
"Strap in if you un'ed," Aaden said. "We're landing."
I waited in the shuttle. I didn't want Heather to see me, to get mad at me. The girl who you give your virginity to shouldn't be angry at you. I watched through Aaden's monitor camera he had put onto his vest. They walked over a hill together, then came into view of the mound that was supposed to be the ship.
Then the camera went dark.
They returned a few minutes later. Aaden spoke first. "She was right. You don't want to go see."
"What?" I asked.
Dad said, "Do you believe in ghosts, Random?"
"I met one once. A ghost of an AI, actually. I... I met her only once."
Aaden said, "There's a ship there. It's the shell of a ship, anyway. It looks like a Jupiter Mark II model– big, family-type ship, lots of rounded curves, huge front room with a curved upper window. It's all burned up in there. We found, well– we found Heather."
Aaden nodded. "I'm afraid so. There's a uniform with her name on it, and..."
"We should give them a burial, at least. Record their names," Dad suggested.
We buried them near the ship. There were four people on board, one person younger even that Heather. A boy, Dad said. I cried all night.
I never saw Heather again.