by Gustavo Valitutti
translated by Carmen Ruggero
“Nobody knows where they got their name,” the old man said. “This planet was colonized in the first space age, and although the Ein certainly did not go unnoticed in the history of the human colonization, that detail has been lost. Nobody knows where the name came from.”
The old man ran his red, lumpy tongue across his lips. “Ein does not come from any language of Earth,” he continued, “yet it is believed to be one of the first words that we settlers learned. It is strange. Without the Ein, we would not have been able to continue colonization, particularly on the cold worlds, where the ships carried provisions that lasted barely one or two years.
“At that time it was impossible for Earth to provide the number of vehicles needed for the new worlds. The Ein solved the transportation problem and provided food when necessary. Their contribution to our civilization is without a doubt comparable to that of the dog or the horse.”
“But that’s not what brings us here, and you know it,” the officer’s voice was abrasive. He was a young man of impeccable appearance.
“I know,” the old man agreed and then fell silent.
The officer took a note pad and began to record the incident.
The old settler gazed sadly at him. He noticed the young man was wearing a medal at his collar: the Messiah receiving the light. All the colonists wearing it had been baptized into a religion born a thousand years before. Like almost all human beings for generations now, the young man had probably never been to Earth.
“No, of course,” said the old man. The uncertainty in his voice contrasted with his earlier enthusiasm. “That’s not what brought you here. I cannot believe I was the one who called you.”
“Allow me to say that you were doing your duty. All settlers must inform the authorities of unusual events, to protect the colony.”
“Yes, I know. I have always lived by that rule. Of course, I have never had to apply it so strictly as now. I have lived in three different colonies throughout my life, which is much longer than you probably imagine, and in all these years, the only events I have had to report concerned insects or alien animals the likes of which I had never seen.
“As a rule, I reported them in the morning, when I went to work in the field. An officer from the colonial authority usually arrived in the afternoon, freezered the specimen, and then told me to go back to work without giving it any more thought.
“In those days, they were cordial enough to send a letter a couple of days later, thanking me for my interest. They included a detailed report explaining how the poor animal had been classified. Generally, it had been done by an android search during the initial exploration of the new world. Otherwise, the government made sure that you received a check as a reward for having performed such a dangerous task. I received three of those checks, did you know? “
“Yes,” said the officer. “In fact, I read all that this morning before coming to see you, and I must say not too many settlers have found as many unclassified specimens as you have.”
“Thanks, but we both know that is completely accidental. I have had many accidents in my life. One of them, the third check I received, was for reporting the carnivore that took my family’s life.”
“I know that, as well. That species was so aggressive that almost every settler left that world, the year following your tragedy.”
“But once more,” the old man rushed in, “the Ein came to the rescue and demonstrated their amazing ability to mutate. The last ones I saw on that world were able to fight and overcome members of that killer species whenever one of them crossed their path.”
“Are you going to tell us what makes these Ein so different?” the officer asked the old man while ostentatiously looking at his watch, which did not disturb the settler in the least.
“Well... I should. Besides, it would be better than getting myself killed for hiding information. You know,” said the settler as if changing the subject, “the Messiah’s religion is not practiced on Earth. In fact, their society is like a great beehive, and a small bee like me can easily be replaced; it would not be worth the trouble to run the risk by opening my big mouth to one outside their authority. However, the Messiah does not allow killing,” the settler added, while filling his pipe with terrestrial tobacco.
“It seems you like to exaggerate a little. Nobody is going to kill you.” The officer relaxed in the armchair, the most comfortable place he’d seen in the last three weeks. He had spent the last two weeks in a cargo transport. The room assigned to him was no larger than a closet; he had had to remain in it fourteen hours a day, what was commonly known as fourteen-ten for the military, which followed a schedule of twenty-four hour days, terrestrial time.
The young officer felt very tempted to fall asleep. He straightened up and assumed a position uncomfortable enough to stay awake.
“Perhaps you have noticed that I talk too much,” the old man said with a smile. He leaned forward, pushed down on the arms of his armchair and sighed as he lifted himself from it. “I don’t know how much customs have changed, but during my five years in the service, this was time for coffee and cookies. The cookies were brown, oval-shaped, and tasted like crap. I couldn’t be sure; I’ve never tasted crap, but I suppose I am not far from the truth.”
“Coffee for two, then,” replied the young officer.
“Coming up,” the settler smiled. He lit a burner on the gas stove which the young man had only seen in historical museums. The sight of it seemed to bring back everything technology had taken away.
“What was so different about your Ein?” asked the young man bluntly. His training often overshadowed his manners, .
“The Ein’s ability to mutate is very powerful,” the old man continued, not exactly responding to the question he had been asked but maintaining the officer’s interest long enough to allow himself time to find the right words and the appropriate moment in which to relate the information he needed to give him. “I have heard it said that even experts on Earth think the Ein is the only animal that, because of his ability to adapt, can compete with man.”
“Yes, I have also heard that. But still, it does not tell me how these Ein differ from the others.”
“In a way... they do not differ at all from the others. They are born from larvae that the females leave in nests buried underground. They inherit a gregarious instinct that makes them cluster in small groups of five or six individuals. On the other hand, those born under this Moon have taken greater steps toward adaptation. We know so little about them... perhaps, if we had paid more attention to these mutations, they would not seem so strange to us but rather... predictable.”
“Can you at least tell me what these mutations are all about?”
“Of course... I am doing just that, believe me. I am giving you all the clues to help you understand them. Only you must pay attention to me; there isn’t much more left to be said. What you have to keep in mind is that my family was destroyed in that planet by a species that seemed to possess an indomitable aggressiveness, and the Ein adapted to defeat them. They adapted, and they helped us to remain on that world. Remember that and remember... “
“Don’t take it wrong,” said the officer who had a way of losing patience, “but I must take care of other reports from settlers, and they are very frightened. Frankly, I have just a short time. Would you believe me if I told you that some of your neighbors have reported seeing ghosts? The truth is that my men went to get their animals at the same time I came through your door.”
“I know, and they will not find anything. That is to say, they could take each Ein they find, but not these, they will not recognize them. They will not be able to see these... but I believe you are no longer listening to me and if that is so, I will not speak to you about this, or anything else. Pity, because if you were to understand this, you would understand why those men reported having seen ghosts.”
The officer, tired of listening to what he deemed to be hot air, stood to talk to his subordinates and gazed out the window pretending interest in something, while the coffee pot still over the flame, began to whistle.
“Ah, who am I fooling,” said the settler. “I will say it anyway; now pay attention!”
“My men say that there are no Ein on this property.”
“And in a way they are not mistaken. But I already told you, they would not recognize them.” The old man gazed at the pipe he’d just lit, and at the coffee, he’d just served. “How stupid! I cannot allow myself to throw overboard terrestrial tobacco, so I will smoke while you drink, I suppose.
“I have already told you that my family was left back in that damn colony and I had to abandon their tombs, because I could not take the pain. The Ein always consider their owners part of the herd, and they protect them. That is why they adapt, in order to protect to us, because they know we must occupy other worlds to subsist. Believe me, they know.
“This planet,” the settler continued, “is where almost all the settlers who survived that infamous colony ended up, before those who remained could control the situation. Keep in mind that my neighbors have known me for years. They were my neighbors in that colony, as well.”
The old man gazed at the officer to see if he still had his attention.
The officer returned the glance, took a sip of coffee, and gestured for the old man to continue speaking.
“My son’s name was Job, like the Messiah. His mother, Alicia, an extremely religious woman, chose the name. Job was only ten years old when both he and his mother died twelve years ago. They were asleep when the animal attacked them. Alicia always slept late.”
“I know... the reports...”
“Job, come here. There is a friend papa wants to introduce to you.” The settler called, interrupting the officer.
The door to the garden opened, and a bashful boy entered the room carrying a ball in his left hand; the dog he had been playing with followed him inside.
“Hello.” The boy greeted him politely and cordially. “Papa said that you were coming to visit to us. Are you from Earth?
“As you can see, the Ein will always help us adapt,” said the old man. “They consider it their duty. Or is it part of their nature? I do not know. All I ask in exchange for this information is that you not take me away from my family.
“The rest of the settlers believe they have seen ghosts. Some of them have been sticking their noses where they don’t belong. People are often afraid of the unusual, but I am sure that you will understand me, and for other reasons than mine you will want to conserve these Ein.” The settler caressed the boy’s head with sadness and then directed his gaze to the officer: “I need you to help me keep my family.”
“Job,” said the officer, “tell your mother that your father and I will chat a while and we will have dinner later. That is... if your father invites me.”
Job gazed at his father who agreed with a smile. Then, followed by his dog, he ran upstairs to awaken his mother.