Traveling with over three hundred people in tow was difficult in the best of time. When those three hundred people had lost their homes, their jobs, and the entire planet though there were a few extra challenges that arose.
“The Ulitani get car sick? All of them?” Connie asked, looking at the long line of buses that was pulled over on the side of the interstate. A small army of people had fled from them and some had even made it to the bushes on the side of the road before losing their lunches.
“Wheeled vehicles,” Val sighed and buried her face in her palm. “This is the first time any of them ever rode in something that wasn’t hover equipped.”
“We probably should have thought of that,” Jen said, surveying their ragged charges. None of them looking to be in dire condition, but getting ill wasn’t any more pleasant for an Ulitani than it was for a human.
“It’s easy to forget what a change this is for them,” Anna said, emerging from one of the buses with a mop and a bucket. Zoe emerged after her carrying her own mop and bucket.
“They’re going to have a lot of other ‘fun’ learning experiences like this to look forward to,” Zoe said, and began wheeling her bucket over to the rest areas washroom. The busses weren’t going to clean themselves and asking the Ulitani to clean up after the mess they’d made seemed a crueler request than anyone was willing to ask of them.
“That leaves up with a pretty serious problem in terms of what we do next,” Val said, hoisting her bucket to take the next pass at cleaning out the bus and making it livable again.
“We’ve got about a hundred miles left to go still,” Connie said. “That’s a long hike to ask them to make. I know the Oshari family has some people with mobility issues and I don’t think any of the kids will do well if we ask them to walk that far.”
“I don’t think setting them up here is going to be a viable option,” Jen said, following onto the bus with a mop lodged under her armpit.
“What other choice do we have?” Connie asked, following the other two in.
The inside of the bus had already had a round of cleaning but the smell remained, mixed with the caustic odor of cleaning chemicals. All it had taken was one person losing the battle against the queasiness and that had tipped the rest over the edge.
“I’m working on that,” Jimmy B said, glancing up from scrubbing down down one of the seat backs that had caught an unfortunate amount of splatter. The wireless headset he was wearing had lights on that indicated he was on a call but had put it on hold. “Was thinking we could try to air lift them out. Unfortunately I can’t find enough helicopters available to get everyone to Judestown by tonight.”
“You’re thinking they might be more accustomed to air travel?” Anna asked, returning with Zoe and buckets of fresh soapy water.
“Seemed like it was worth a shot but I don’t think it’s going to pan out,” Jimmy said. “I’ll keep working the air travel angle though if you think it’s worth pursuing?”
“I think there’s a simpler solution,” Zoe said.
“What’s that?” Val asked.
“Talk to them,” Zoe said, gesturing to the Ulitani who had recovered and were returning to the bus.
The trip resumed a few hours later, after a few test drives had been made to prove out the Ulitani’s plan.
Packing them together into a bus hadn’t worked, in part, because they were too isolated from the environment. The simple expedient of opening the buses’ windows had addressed a significant portion of that problem. For further stress reduction though, the Ulitani had turned to prayer.
It wasn’t quite like an Earthly church service. No specific requests or offerings were made to the divine, no songs were sung, and no speeches made to the gathering. Instead the Ulitani sat down together in irregular groups and began to hum wordlessly.
Over time the humming grew deeper and more synchronized as the overall tension of the group ebbed away. After a half hour of their prayers, the Ulitani rose and moved back to the buses, their steps slow and plodding, like they were walking through in a half-slumber.
“Is that an alien super power they have?” Connie asked, watching the crowd sleep walk in an orderly fashion back to their seats.
“No,” Anna said. “Anyone can reach that sort of state with practice.”
“Though reaching it that quickly takes significant practice,” Zoe said.
“Talking to them was a good idea,” Val said. She’d never fully warmed to Zoe, despite Anna’s connection to her, but she was at least willing to acknowledge good work when she saw it.
“We’ll be a few hours late arriving in Judestown but I think our setup crews are grateful for the extra time,” Jen said, tapping the comm control built into the back of her left arm to end the call.
“I thought they were on track to be done this morning?” Val said. She glanced back at the half-dozing Ulitani to see if any were disturbed by, or even aware of, the news that their new housing might not be ready for them.
“We have hit a few snags,” Anna said.
“It turns out that re-establishing a defunct town is subject to some federal regulations as well as state ones,” Zoe said.
“At least in the case where a large part of the land has been used as a federal toxic waste disposal site,” Anna said, sighing as she sank deeper into her chair.
“Oh, that’s a new wrinkle, isn’t it?” Connie asked, the same concern that weighed Anna down beginning to percolate through Connie’s expression.
“We’re lucky James knew of it,” Anna said. “And that someone thought to bring him in on the plan.”
“It was such a good plan too,” Zoe said.
“Where did you get the idea to use a ghost town as our refuge home anyways?” Connie asked.
“From Anna,” Zoe said. “Indirectly at least. I remember her telling me about a location Prima Lux had turned into a ghost town which she and Val, I believe, fixed?”
“Oh, yeah, the time loop town,” Val said. “That was fun.”
“It got me thinking about resources that are forgotten about or have been laying fallow for a long time,” Zoe said. “Some ghost towns, most of them I believe, dried up and died because people were drawn off to better places to live.”
“So where better to put people who don’t have anywhere to live than somewhere that no one is interested in living anyways?” Connie asked. She’d been pulling a needle and thread through a ripped jacket one of the Ulitani kids had given her. The resulting fix wasn’t perfect but it gave the tear an artistic flair, as though it had been made deliberately.
“That was the general idea,” Zoe said. “I thought there would be less pushback to their arrival if they were taking up space that no one was really paying attention to anyways. I’d hoped we could have them in their new homes for a few months before anyone even noticed they were there.”
“The car sickness could have helped with that,” Val said. “I’m guessing once we get them settled in, these folks won’t be going out all that much.”
“That presents its own problems,” Anna said. “We’d planned for the settlement to become self sufficient over the course of a few seasons.”
“They’ll need time to learn how to adapt to life on Earth, including the basics of agriculture here,” Zoe said. She rubbed her temple as though to squeeze further thoughts from a tired and overworked brain.
“Is it all that different from what they’re used to?” Connie asked.
“In the sense that many of them weren’t farmers, yes,” Anna said. “Also the general methodologies of agriculture on both worlds are similar, but the specifics of which crops to plant where and how often are something that they will need local experts to help work out.”
“Or they would have needed that,” Val said. “I’m guessing we don’t intend to have them farming in toxic waste right?”
“Is it toxic to them?” Connie asked. “I mean, they are essentially aliens. Maybe they would react differently to whatever’s in the ground there than we would?”
“In theory the toxic waste is all buried so deeply that there wouldn’t be any contamination issues, but if that proved to be incorrect it would be a problem,” Zoe said. “Biologically, the Ulitani are close enough to us that almost anything toxic for one species will be a problem for the other too.”
“Should we turn the buses around then?” Connie asked. “The crews will have the temporary shelters we had assembled in the gym mostly torn down by now but we can reassemble those a lot faster than we can go finish a remediation project on an ghost town.”
“It’s an option, but not a viable one long term,” Jen said. “And I think we still have a better one.”
The town meeting in Candle Falls was the most well attended one in the small town’s history. Nearly half of the small village’s five hundred people were able to attend thanks to a variety of fortune circumstances such as child care options opening up, days off from work being declared, and a general order for all town employees to be present.
When the townsfolk arrived they saw a much larger group than they’d expected waiting for them.
“Thank you all for coming,” Anna said as the new arrivals settled themselves into seats that had been set up on the football field that was serving as the meeting place for the day’s meeting.
“Before I begin, I’d like to introduce you to the people here you won’t recognize,” Anna said. “They have come here from a long way to make a single request.”
Anna gestured for one of the Ulitani to step forward.
“My name is Belisha Pondogrove,” Belisha said. “And I speak for my people, the Ulitani. We are refugees, driven from our homes by war and oppression. We ask if you will welcome us, and if we may live together with you in peace for the prosperity of all.”
A chorus of voice arose from the assembled townsfolk, people talking among themselves loud enough that the ones who wished to ask questions had to shout to be heard over the din, and in turn drowned each other out.
“Please,” Anna said, her enchanted voice projecting over all other conversation. “We have setup a microphone at the front of each aisle. If you have questions, approach and we’ll have everyone ask whatever they wish to know one at a time so we can all hear the answers.”
The people who had been so raucous a moment earlier were strangely shy. Or at least the adults were. In each of the three aisles, children began to step forward and head to the microphones.
“Why do you want to come here? It’s boring here,” a young girl asked.
“Boring is not so bad,” Belisha said. “The last thing we want is excitement like we saw on Ultil.”
“Where’s Ultil?” a young boy asked.
“On another planet,” Belisha asked.
“Are you human?” a girl asked.
“No, though I think you are very like us,” Belisha said.
“Yeah, you’re Cotton Candy is amazing!” a young Ulitani boy shouted from the group behind her.
“I know!” the girl said. “I can’t wait for the carnival! It’s so good there!”
A small round of laughter swept through the room at that as an adult finally stepped up.
“What do you mean by another world?” the heavy, bearded man asked.
“Exactly that,” Anna said. “We explain that part in detail, and show any of you proof that other worlds exist. In short though, the are many places out there, and many which our world will soon be exposed to. We know Candle Falls has been suffering lately, your population dwindling as people move out and don’t move back in. We’re not asking you to take on a new burden, what we’re hoping is that you’ll be willing to let the Ulitani move into the places that have been abandoned, and begin to renew the parts of your town that have fallen into disrepair.”
“And you say we can ask any questions we want?” an older woman asked, stepping up to the mic for her turn.
“Yes. This is something you should all go into with open eyes. If there are problems then we might be able to work them out, but we need to know about them first,” Anna said.
“Ok, then, Belisha tell us about yourself. Do you have any children?”
The meeting lasted for hours and was still going when Anna next caught sight of Estella Carmicheal, the older woman who’d gotten the real conversation going. It was a discussion that had continued well into the night,prompting JB and Jimmy to arrange for delivery of food fit to feed the entire town so the meeting could continue.
In ones and twos, the rest of the town had arrived over time, and as they’d arrived, the overall conversation had broken up into many smaller groups with a handful of Ulitani talking to a like number of Earthlings here while a pair of each species spoke beside them and a larger group of mixed children played a game of their own invention in a corner.
“So, other worlds?” Estella asked.
“And even stranger things,” Anna said.
“Good,” Estella said. “Nice to know there’s some other people out there.”
“What do you think of these ones?” Anna asked.
“I think we’ll make a home for them here,” Estella said. “I was talking with Belisha and I like how she sees us. I think we all want to live up to that image of what we can be. More than that though, I think they want the same thing we do, maybe the same thing everyone does.”
“What’s that?” Anna asked.
“A second chance at making a good life,” Estella said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.