The Hunting Horns of Hades

By Velvet Belle Tree

 

“A little wind?  Is that what you’re complaining about Annie?” I heard my father say.  And then Frank uttered that phrase that I hadn’t heard for more than twenty years:  “Why that’s nothing compared to the hunting horns of Hades.”

That’s what he’d say throughout my childhood every time I complained about a siren or the wind or any other loud noise.  And whenever I’d ask him what it meant, all he’d say was: “Nothing you ever want to hear.”  Mom and I brushed it off, putting it down to the tall tales members of the Exploration Corps liked to tell.

Frank met my mother when he was back at headquarters between assignments.  He’d managed for almost fifty T-years to keep his relationships with women numerous and casual.  Ethel was in her thirties and a top-notch analyst.  She once told me that the explorers brought back massive amounts of data and it was the analyst’s job to make sense of it.  She’d known enough about the explorers to respect their daring and courage but she’d known enough of them, both male and female, not to swoon over one as she had when she was a naēve young girl, just starting in her job.

But she’d told me that when she first met Frank Butler, she knew that he was something special, that he had depths to him that the others hadn’t.  What he saw in her, he never said.  But I saw the way he looked at her…

So Ethel took a chance and let herself become pregnant.  To her great relief and joy, he didn’t hesitate when she told him.  The next day they signed a contract for the duration of my childhood and found the apartment I grew up in.

Ethel continued at her job, taking on ever more responsibilities until she was the head of her department.  Frank took a job as an instructor at the Explorers Academy.  He was a good instructor and enjoyed his work.  He especially liked regaling his students with personal anecdotes.  It was up to them to filter out the exaggerations.

Several times they tried to promote him to administrative jobs. But he resisted.  Teaching, interacting with the students, giving them the benefit of his years of experience was satisfying.  But he hated the tedium of giving tests and grading them.  He said that all that mattered was pass or fail and he could tell without formal testing who should flunk out.  And he was ruthless with those he thought unworthy of the Corps.  “Better to kick out more people than necessary,” he’d say, “than to leave in someone who’ll get themselves and their teammates killed.”

The best part of his job was the field trips.  We could see the joy in his face when he prepared to take his students off to a fairly wild part of a settled planet.  But the worst part was the graduation ceremonies.  Then, we could see the haunted look in his face when he sent his students off to explore the galaxy.  Sometimes I worried that he’d find a way to go with them.  But Ethel said not to worry: “Your father gave his word.  He’s never gone back on his word and he never will.”

He was a good father, as good as any of my friends’.  He was loving and patient with me.  And he told the most wonderful stories, better than any holo drama.  He was the hero of most of them, and he swore they were all true … well, mostly true. 

Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, Ethel took me to get a contraceptive implant.  About a T-month later, I attended the nineteenth birthday party for Lew Clark, one of Frank’s most promising students.  Lew was ruggedly good-looking with a devastatingly boyish grin.  At the end of the party, when everyone else had left, I gave him a birthday kiss and said:  “I couldn’t make up my mind what to get you for your birthday, so I decided to give you my virginity.”  His face broke into his signature grin.  He took my hand and led me into his bedroom.  After the gift had been joyfully given, he whispered in my ear: “That was the best birthday gift I’ve ever received.”

Half a T-year later, my parents took me to the spaceport.  I was on my way to university on Earth.  All my life I’d been around explorers but had done almost none myself. My experience had consisted of life on the space station orbiting an uninhabitable planet that was the Exploration Corps headquarters and then the few trips with Ethel to young colonies.  I think those trips with her were scouting trips, trips for her to find a new home after Frank left us.

 My excitement warred with my sorrow at leaving my parents.  I was sure that somehow I’d see my mother again.  But I was absolutely certain that I’d never see or hear from my father again. 

The previous day we had gone to Legal together.  I produced my letter of acceptance at the university and I was awarded a Certificate of Adulthood.  Then Ethel and Frank declared that their contract had been fulfilled and their union was dissolved.  Our family life was over. 

At first, the sheer size of Earth and its billions of people threatened to overwhelm me.  But I gradually got used to it and became immersed in university life. 

My classmates were from varied backgrounds.  They came not only from all parts of Earth and the long settled worlds of the diaspora, but also from many of the younger colonies.  And I learned how much their customs and mores varied, especially those related to sex.  There were a few students so strait-laced that they were horrified by any sexual activity outside of marriage.  And there were some who went to the other extreme and foreswore any long-term arrangements.  I felt that the open and caring sexuality that I had grown up with was fairly well in the middle of the two extremes and I made friends, both male and female, among those who felt the same.

During holidays, the native Terrans took the opportunity to show us off-worlders the cities and the natural wonders of Earth.  Visiting the cities was exciting, with their night life and museums.  And when the cities’ noise seemed almost too much for my nerves to take, I heard Frank’s voice:  “That’s nothing compared to the hunting horns of Hades.”

But much as I got to like Earth, I knew that I didn’t want to settle there or  on any planet as built-up as our original home.  No, what I wanted to do was live on a fairly young colony.  I wanted to see a colony grow and prosper and I wanted to be able to contribute to its growth and help shape it.

I had trouble settling on a major, there was so much that interested me.  I really loved history, especially the history of the human diaspora to the stars.  But a degree in history wouldn’t get me a position on a young colony.  Then I realized that colonies always need teachers.  I remembered how much Frank loved teaching and how good he was at it and I thought that I too could be a good teacher.  I thought that shaping the minds of a colony’s children is one way to shape the colony.  So I decided on a double major: history and education.

My course work kept me busy, but my life was a happy one. Although I was engrossed in my studies I still had time for a social life and a satisfying sex life.  I told Ethel all about it in my responses to her sporadic messages.  Not long after the breakup of our family, she emigrated to the colony world Sagan. Within a T-year she’d met and become pregnant by a man her own age who she described as very much like Frank, only not as exciting.  Soon, I was showing my friends a video of a squalling baby who was my half-brother.

My sampling of the male students came to an end in my senior year.  I’d gotten permission to take a graduate level seminar in colonial government.  There were only twenty students and we sat around a large conference table.  At the first meeting, we were asked to introduce ourselves.  One of them was Tom Finch, in his first year at the Graduate School of Governmental Studies.  He didn’t seem very prepossessing at first, but then someone said something amusing and his face broke into a broad grin, reminding me of Lew and the birthday present I gave him.  I laughed out loud at the memory, and I hoped that everyone assumed I was laughing at the witticism. 

It became the habit of the students to hang around after class continuing the discussions on a casual level.  After a while, Tom and I gravitated towards each other and soon we were seeing each other away from the class.  It didn’t take us long to become lovers.  We began spending so much time together and so many nights in each other’s rooms that we decided to room together. 

We often spoke of the lives we wanted to lead and our dreams of the future meshed beautifully.  One night, as we lay in each others arms surfeited by our lovemaking, Tom said: “Have you ever considered raising birds?” 

“Raising birds?”

“I was thinking of finches, in particular.”

“What are you suggesting, Tom?”

“I’m suggesting a contract, of course.”

“For how long?  I’m not even pregnant.”

“Open ended. No time limit.  And as for not being pregnant … I’m sure we can rectify that any time we want.”

Of course, I  joyfully accepted.  It was only another month to my graduation; we signed the contract that weekend so that our friends could celebrate with us before they dispersed to their homes.

We found a small apartment near the campus.  Tom continued in his graduate studies and I began teaching in the local high school so that I would have enough experience to be a valuable asset when we joined a colony.

Two years later, Tom had his master’s degree in colonial administration.  He took a job teaching at the university while awaiting an assignment.  A year later, the Finch family, Tom, myself and our year-old son Kevin, boarded the starship Voyager with the second wave of colonists for the aptly named colony of Birdsong.

Well, maybe not so aptly named.  It turned out that there were no birds or avian-like creatures on the planet to fill the air with song; the colony had simply been named for Josiah Birdsong, the leader of the first exploration.  But our family grew as the colony grew and prospered and the sound of our children’s voices filled the air.

One evening, we were all getting ready for dinner when there was a loud knock on the door.  Beth had just finished setting the table so I told her to see who it was.

“Ma,” she called from the door.  “There’s a man here says his name’s Frank Butler.  Says he’s your father.”

The water sloshed from the pitcher I was taking to the table and I almost dropped it.  I put it on the table and went to the door.

“Hello, Annie,” he said.  And there was the man I hadn’t seen in twenty T-years, the man I would’ve sworn that I’d never see again.

“Well,” he said.  “Aren’t you going to say something?”

I took a deep breath. “Of course.  Sorry.  I was just so shocked to see you. Please come in.”

He picked up his bag and entered our home and I introduced him to Tom.  Frank looked around and said: “Are all these kids yours?”

I laughed.  “That’s one of the great things about a young colony.  They encourage you to have as many children as you like.  Kids, introduce yourselves to your grandfather.  And Beth, after you do that, set another place at the table.”

And so, Frank met his grandchildren:  Kevin was fourteen, Beth ten, Leah seven and Jeremy four.  And the four-year-old, as they are wont to do, piped up: “And Ma’s going to have another baby.”

Frank laughed.  “I can see that.  When’s the baby due, Annie?”

“Two more T-months and Benjamin will join the family.”

When things had settled down enough for me to get a word in, I asked Frank how he’d found me.

“It wasn’t easy Annie.  But I still have connections.”

I took a good look at him.  He was eighty-six T-years old.  His black hair was now shot through with grey and there were wrinkles on his face.  But he didn’t seem to have gained a kilogram since I’d last seen him.  Despite his years, he still seemed to be a man in his prime and I thought of several unattached women who would be glad to make his acquaintance.

Dinner was a clamorous affair with the children asking him questions, sometimes all at once, and he responding.  More than once I had to intervene and tell them to be quiet for a while so that their grandfather, and they, could eat.

After dinner, the kids cleaned up and then went about their evening routines while Tom and Frank and I talked.  Tom and Frank seemed to be getting on very well.  Frank asked about the colony and we were both very happy to tell him all about it.

I asked Beth to put Jeremy to bed. Frank seemed surprised when Jeremy gave him a goodnight hug, but he didn’t hesitate in returning it. After that, Leah came down to say goodnight and then Beth.  When Beth went up to bed, Frank began to look a little uncomfortable.  “Is there a hostel nearby that I can stay at?” he asked us.

“You’ll stay here,” Tom said firmly.

“Are you sure there’s room?” Frank asked.

“We’ll make room,” Tom answered.

Frank started out on the living room couch.  But then we all pitched in, moved things around and with a little creative carpentry Frank had a very small room of his own which he happily furnished.

So Frank moved in with us and became part of our lives.  And he also became part of the life of the colony.  He would spend his days in town getting to know people, getting to know how the colony worked.  Everyone seemed to like him.  As much as he loved to talk and tell stories about his adventures, he was also a good listener.

I had him come to the school and talk to the students who hung on his every word.  Some of the students organized an exploring club and asked him to be their adviser.  And so he once again took on the role of teacher.

At home, he seemed to bask in the attentions of his grandchildren from the serious questions of Kevin (a member of the exploring club, of course) down to Jeremy’s incessant pulling at him.  He somehow had time and patience for all of them and never tired of having them around.

Yet, I was still surprised at his reaction to Benjamin.  As soon as he held that new morsel of humanity in his arms he seemed to light up inside and his love for his new grandson was tangible. 

Frank seemed thrilled by every little milestone in Benjamin’s life.  Of course, Frank received Benjamin’s first smile.  He was there the first time Benjamin sat up, the first time he crawled, and it was to him that Benjamin took his first steps.  And Frank insisted that his first word was “Fank.”  Once, when Benjamin had been quiet for a long time, I went into the nursery and found Frank in the rocking chair with Benjamin on his lap, telling him stories of his explorations, stories which it would be years before he could understand.

Evenings were the best time.  Dinner conversation was always lively. I have to admit that sometimes I was a little jealous: the children often told Frank their good news before they told their parents.  The only times that Frank wasn’t with us were when he was taking the exploring club on a field trip or when he spent the evening, and night, with one of his lady friends.  And at those times the house seemed quiet and empty.

One day, a few months after Benjamin’s first birthday, I told Frank about a concert I thought we’d all enjoy.  It was a holographic presentation of a symphony orchestra and was recorded on Earth.  Frank immediately volunteered to baby-sit for Benjamin and Jeremy, but I wanted him to go with us and the older children and I was able to convince him that Benjamin was old enough to join Jeremy at the community nursery.

The concert took place on a lovely summer evening.  The sky was clear and the humidity low — just perfect for an outdoor concert.  We had an early dinner and then started out.  Tom took a detour to drop off the Jeremy and Benjamin and then joined the rest of us at the concert site.

Tom got there shortly before the concert started.  The children were between us and Frank was at my right.  The children had been chattering with their friends, but they settle down as soon as the concert began.

The first piece was a suite taken from the soundtrack of a late twenty-first century holo-drama.  The music was light and upbeat and everyone enjoyed it.

The second piece was something entirely different and much, much older.  It was the fifth symphony of a composer who lived way back in the nineteenth century.  The music grabbed me and held my attention from the first notes. 

I was so engrossed in the music that I almost didn’t hear Frank gasp.  I turned to look at him.  His face was white and he was shaking.

“That’s it,” he said.  “That’s what it sounded like.”

I touched  his arm gently.  “Like what sounded like?”

“The hunting horns of Hades.  That’s what they sounded like.”

The astonishment must have shown on my face.  Until that moment, I’d always thought it was just some tall tale, but now I had no doubt.  Whatever it was had drained all color from his face, had made him look terrified.

He was shaking so that I knew I had to get him out of there, much as I hated to leave the concert.  I would have to find another way to hear the rest of the symphony.

I turned to Kevin at my left.  “Tell your father that Frank isn’t feeling well and I have to take him home.”

The walk to the concert had been relaxed with the kids laughing and having a good time and the thirty minutes had gone by quickly.  Now, the walk home seemed interminable.  Frank was shaky and distracted with a faraway look in his eyes and for the first time he seemed to be old.

We finally got home and Frank sat down on the couch.  I went to the cupboard, got out the “medicinal” whiskey, poured some and went over and sat next to Frank.

“Here, take this.  It’ll do you some good.”

“Thanks, Annie.”  Frank drank it down. 

When he seemed a little calmer I said:  “Maybe it’ll help if you tell someone about it.  Tell me what it means Frank.  You have to get it out of your system.”

“I think you’re right Annie.  Just give me a few more minutes to pull myself together.  And another sip of that whiskey might help.”

I poured him some more.  It drank, then put his head back and closed his eyes for a few moments.  When he opened his eyes, he was once more in control of himself and ready to begin.

“I was about thirty T-years old.  I’d been on several good, solid expeditions and was making my way up the organization.  On this expedition, I was the pilot of one of the two shuttles.

“We were the second expedition to this planet.  After this expedition, I was scheduled to take the course that would qualify me for teams that had the potential of making first contact.  And the initial expedition did make first contact.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

He paused and reached for his drink, but then seemed to change his mind.  “Annie, maybe some water would be a good idea.”

I brought him a glass of water and he took a sip before continuing.

“The first expedition landed on a wide plain surrounded by jungle-like growth.  The overall temperature of the planet is somewhat greater than Earth normal, but still technically habitable.  They landed in local high summer.  The temperature went up to 40 degrees Celsius everyday and the humidity was over 90 percent.  And then there were the tiny flying creatures that filled the air and were like Terran gnats.  So they gave the planet the nickname ‘Hades.’

“First contact was remarkably easy.  The natives have the general humanoid body structure that we’ve seen so often.  But their scale-like skin and the webs between their fingers and toes indicate an amphibian origin.  The Hadians, as the expedition dubbed them, lived in the jungle near the landing site.

“The Hadians seemed fairly primitive, though intelligent.  From the little the expedition saw of their settlements, they were still  in the hunter-gatherer stage.  The important thing is that they appeared to be non-aggressive.  They never threatened the members of the expedition.

“The first expedition stayed just long enough to make a preliminary survey or the area and learn enough words for rudimentary communication.  They found no large animals in the area.  They found a few lizard-like creatures that they warned future explorers to keep away from, but on the whole, it looked like the second expedition would have things pretty easy.”

Frank paused and shook his head.

“Just shows how easily you can be fooled.  We landed in a light mood, ready for an easy expedition.  We landed in the same spot.  And why not?  Flat, open ground for the shuttles.  Friendly natives.  No real dangers.

“We set up camp and established communications with the mother ship.  And then we waited.  And it was a pleasant wait.  It was the beginning of spring.  The afternoon temperature was between 24 and 27 degrees and the humidity wasn’t very high.  And there were none of the tiny insect-like creatures that had so bedeviled our predecessors.

“Three days after we landed a small group of natives arrived.  They didn’t seem quite the same as the first expedition described them.  Oh, they looked the same, but they didn’t act the same.  They weren’t aggressive and they didn’t threaten us. 

“Now, I know you can’t judge another species’ body language by our own.  But it was obvious that they were very agitated.  They spoke so fast that it was hard to catch their words and we knew so few of their words.  But the one that we did understand was “go.”  And their hand motions couldn’t mean anything else.

“It was clear that they wanted us to leave, but we had no idea why.  Maybe they were a different group than the one that they first expedition had made contact with.  Maybe this group didn’t like strangers.  But they didn’t try to harm us.  We talked it over.  We didn’t want to leave.  We liked it where we were and saw reason to leave.

“Ed Carter, our leader and best linguist, tried to talk to the natives.  But it was no use.  He couldn’t calm them down enough for us to understand them.  Over and over again they told us to go.  This went on for a while with neither side making any progress.  Finally, one of the natives said something to the others in a loud, seemingly authoritative voice.  Then they simply turned around and melted into the jungle.

“We were sorry to see them go and bewildered about what had happened.  But we settled down and tried to get on with our work.  We explored the plain and a little way into the jungle.  We found most of the species that the first expedition had described and a few that they hadn’t. 

“The work was going well, except for the part related to the natives.  We were supposed to learn more about them and their way of life and expand our ability to communicate with them. 

“It’s not that we didn’t try.  We would follow the paths in the jungle until we came to a settlement.  When we got there, the natives would greet us politely.  But then they would ignore us, treat us like we weren’t there.  It was as if we weren’t worth spending any time or effort on. 

“We tried many times.  We took different paths to find different settlements.  But it was always the same.  They wouldn’t have anything to do with us.  So we finally gave up.

“The spring progressed.  We continued to gather our samples — flora and fauna and minerals.  In the evenings we sat together, enjoying the pleasant air.  We talked about our problems with the natives, trying to figure out what was wrong, trying to find an idea, any idea, about what we could do to make them cooperate with us.  They’d rejected our offers of gifts. 

“Well, rejected isn’t quite the right word.  They just ignored them.  We’d left some knives at a settlement, just put them on the ground when they wouldn’t take them from us.  When we returned a few days later, they were just lying there where we had left them.  It was like they were saying that anything we gave them was worthless.

“Aside from our inability to make any headway with the natives, everything seemed to be going well.  Oh, we had the usual mishaps, but nothing major.  There was just one unusual occurrence.  One afternoon, Margo came back with her hand bleeding.  She said that it was really weird.  She’d approached a lizard-like creature that she’d had no trouble picking up for examination the previous day.  All of a sudden it sprang at her and bit her hand.”

He stopped and sipped some water.  He seemed reluctant to go on. 

“Please Frank, please go on,” I said to him, gently.

“It was mid-afternoon and I was doing routine maintenance on the shuttle when I first heard it.  At first, I couldn’t place the sound.  Then I realized that it was some kind of a horn.  We’d never heard anything like it before — not a horn nor any other kind of musical instrument.  We didn’t even know that they had musical instruments.  Hell, we hardly knew anything about them.

“It was a few mournful notes played over and over again. And it got louder and louder, as if more horns kept joining in. It wasn’t long before it started to get on my nerves. 

“It continued during our dinner.  No one ate as much as usual.  The incessant sound of the horns had knotted our stomachs.

“After dinner we tried to figure it out.  As music, it was pretty pathetic.  The same short phrase, only a few notes, over and over and over again.  No variation in pitch, no variation of intensity.  And no other instrument joined in.  Other primitive people had drums and sometimes some kind of flutes.  But not them — only the horns.

“We dismissed the idea that they were sending some kind of message to another group.  We’d heard other native people using drums for communication.  This was nothing like that.  There was no way that there was information in notes of the horn.  If the notes were saying something, why would they have to repeat it endlessly?

“We finally decided that it must be part of some primitive ceremony.  But we wished it would come to an end.  Oh, how we wished they would stop.  We were all tired from a day’s work and were ready for sleep.  But how could we sleep with that going on? 

“Finally, we gave up and went to our huts.  I tried to read for a while, but it was impossible.  Loud as the horns had been before, they seemed to be even louder.  I tried to settle down but couldn’t.  I started to pace but the hut was too tiny.  I thought that walking about a bit would do some good so I went back outside.

“And then I heard another sound.  At first I was relieved to hear anything other than those damned horns.  It sounded like distant thunder — but the sky was clear.  And then it got louder, as if the thunder was getting closer.  

“Then the earth started to shake.  I thought it might be an earthquake, but we had tested for faults and found none.

“Then I saw them in the distance.  At first I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I just saw a dark mass.  And then I realized what it was.  An enormous herd of huge animals stampeding.  And we were right in their path.

“’Evacuate, evacuate,’ I yelled.  I went immediately to my shuttle and performed an emergency start-up.  Within ten minutes, everyone assigned to my shuttle except Margo and Sam had made it.  I was getting more and more nervous as I heard the herd getting closer and closer.  Finally Margo entered the shuttle.

“’Where’s Sam?’ I asked her.  ‘I don’t know,’ she answered.  ‘But if you wait any longer we’ll all be killed.’

“’Are they that close?” I asked her.

“’Yes, yes.  You have to go, Frank.  You have no choice,’ Margo told me.

“I trusted her, I knew she wasn’t one to panic.  So although it hurt like hell I did what I had to do.

“We waited in the mother-ship boat bay until it was obvious that the other shuttle would never show up.  Bill was a good pilot, but he must have waited too long.

“It was a dismal trip home.  We mourned our compatriots.  Oh, you always knew that an expedition could go wrong, that teammates could be killed.  But not so many and not because of your own stupid bull-headedness.

“Oh yes, we knew it was our own fault.  The natives had tried to warn us, hadn’t they?  They told us over and over to go, but we refused to listen.  So they just gave up on us.

“Primitive natives, we thought.  What did they know?  But they knew plenty.  They understood their planet, as least the part where they lived.  Nothing bad happened to the first expedition —  they were just hot and uncomfortable.  And while we were there it was so pleasant that we didn’t think Hades a proper name.  So we didn’t think anything bad could happen to us.

“How wrong we were.  We should have seen the signs.  The change in the animal behavior …  And when we checked our records, we saw that the animal population was increasing.

“The natives might have been primitive but they were far from stupid.  Of course, it was obvious in hindsight.  Yeah, hindsight is wonderful, isn’t it?  The herd made an annual migration across the plain.  And the natives had learned to use their horns —  their hunting horns —  to stampede them and get a portion of them to run headlong over a cliff about a kilometer from our camp.  Then they had more than enough meat and hides to last them.”

Frank gulped down the last of his whiskey then stood up.  “I’m really tired now, Annie.  Thanks for listening to me.”  And then he went up to bed.

I  just sat there and thought about Frank’s story.  Tom and the children entering the house broke my reverie.  Tom put the sleeping Benjamin to bed and I told the children that Frank was just suffering from a little stomach upset and was all right now.  The three older children told me how much they’d enjoyed the concert and that they were sorry Frank and I missed so much of it.  When we were in bed, I told Tom an abbreviated version of Frank’s tale.

To an outsider, it would’ve appeared that nothing changed in our lives after that.  But I noticed subtle differences in Frank.  For one thing, the stories that he told the children took a more serious and even a cautionary turn.

One evening, when the two youngest had been put to bed and the older children were doing the schoolwork, Frank said to Tom and me:  “I don’t know if you’ve realized it, but Kevin’s getting serious about wanting to go to the Explorer’s Academy.”

“Oh, he’s been wanting to do that as long as I can remember,” I said. “Of course, you must have realized that I told the kids stories about you long before you came here.”

“How do you feel about me encouraging him to apply?” Frank asked.

“Do you think he’ll be good at it?” Tom asked Frank.

“Oh, yes … definitely.  He’s taken the right courses and done well in them and he’s shown leadership qualities on our field trips.  I really think he has what it takes.”

“Then by all means encourage him,” I answered and Tom nodded his head in agreement.

Frank was spending more time away from home.  He’d become the advisor for a second explorer’s club, this one for younger children. He was also giving lectures in the evening for adults.  And then there were his lady friends …

One evening at dinner, a few months after Benjamin’s second birthday, Frank said:  “I have something to tell all of you.  There’s a passenger ship in orbit.  It leaves in five days.  And I’m going to be on it.”

There was stunned silence.  Then Jeremy piped up:  “Don’t you love us anymore?”

“Of course, I do Jeremy.  I love all of you very much.  But it’s time for me to go.  There are still things I want to see.”

“Will we ever see you again?” Beth asked.

“I’ll be back.  I don’t know exactly when, but I will.”

“I understand,” Kevin said.  “When the urge to explore comes over you, you have to follow it.”

We all went with Frank to the spaceport where he’d get the shuttle to the ship waiting in orbit.  I could see Jeremy holding back his tears.  Benjamin, of course, didn’t understand what was happening, but he seemed to pick up on everyone’s mood and was very cranky.

When Frank hugged me goodbye, he said:  “I meant it when I said that I’d be back.”

“I know you did Frank.  Take care of yourself.”

The house seemed empty after Frank left, but slowly the hole that his absence left in our lives closed.  The older explorers club continued on their own and Kevin and some of the other members mentored the younger club.

A little over a T-year after Frank left, Kevin left for the Explorers Academy. 

“The nest is starting to empty,” I said to Tom when we were in bed that night,.

He laughed.  “With five kids, it’ll be a while before it’s empty.  Of course, we could make it longer by having another …”

“Yes,” I said.  “I think I can handle one more.  And won’t that be a nice surprise for Frank when he comes back.”

Now, the dinner conversation was mainly speculation about how Kevin was doing at the academy.  Finally we received his first message.  There was one part we all particularly liked. 

Kevin’s message said:  “The hallways in the academic building have pictures of past explorers.  We were walking to class one day when one of my classmates stopped and said:  ‘Hey Kevin, look at this picture of Frank Butler.  You really look a lot like him.’ I took a good look at the picture.  ‘You’re right,’ I said.  ‘Isn’t that strange.’  Maybe some day I’ll tell them the truth.  But not until right before graduation.  Being the grandson of Frank Butler is awfully hard to live up to.  And besides, I wouldn’t want any special treatment because of him.”

Less than a T-year after Kevin left, I gave birth to Kate.  “That’s it,” I said to Tom.  “Three boys and three girls.  A perfect family.”

Life seemed more hectic, but fuller, now that we once again had five children in the house.  But we still missed Frank.  Too often, Jeremy would ask when Frank was coming back and Benjamin would echo him, as he did everything that Jeremy said.  I’d reply: “He’ll be back when he’s ready.”

Kate was about three T-years old when I received a message from the colony of Treetops, I colony that I had never heard of.  My first thought was that my mother had moved.

The message turned out to be from a petite, dark haired woman — a woman I had never seen before. She introduced herself as Josiane Kashiwazaki, the governor of Treetops.  She was sorry to report that my father had died there.  The date of death was about half a T-year ago.  The route from one obscure colony to another is a circuitous one.  She said that the only consolation she had to offer me was that he had died a hero’s death, saving the life of a young boy.

Frank had joined a group of people from the capital who were touring one of their large ranches.  The planet was lucky enough to have a native animal very close to a North American bison, which were edible. Because of the three horns that the males had, they were given the name trison.  Usually, she said, the trison were quite docile, although formidable looking.  Then she told the story:

“One of the ranchers was leading a male trison from one enclosure to another.  A young boy, about seven T-years old, saw something, we’re not sure what, and ran towards it, his path crossing that of the trison.  The trison handler said that the beast suddenly became agitated, broke away from him and ran towards the boy, his head lowered in an attacking position.

“The boy heard the trison coming towards him.  He stumbled and fell.  By this time, Frank was running towards the boy.  The beast was getting very close — too close for Frank to have time to pick him up and get him out of the way.  So he threw himself on top of the boy, covering the boy’s body with his own.

“Several ranchers tried to divert and catch the trison, but it gored Frank before they could get to him.  When they got to him, he was unconscious and bleeding badly.  They got him to a hospital as soon as possible.  When he regained consciousness, his first words were to ask how the boy was.  He was assured that the boy was fine, that he had saved his life. But he was told that is own injuries were grave. Then he said something no one understood. He said:  ‘As long as Benjamin is okay, I’m happy.’  The boy’s name was Claude Mooney.

“The doctors did their best, but he was very deeply gored.  He died the next day.  I want you to know that all of us in this colony consider him a hero and will never forget his bravery.”

I sat there, stunned.  Kate would never know her grandfather.  We’d never see him again.  But my sadness was mitigated by my pride in him.  And it was a fitting ending to his life.  Then I realized that the message was continuing.  A backed it up to listen to the rest.

“Of course, they killed the trison and did an autopsy.  They found that the animal had entered a state of heightened aggressiveness and sexual activity, similar to musth in Earth’s elephants.  They hadn’t expected that to happen for at least another T-month.  It’s also thought that the boy’s bright yellow jacket may have been a contributing factor.”

I sat there for a while longer, just thinking about Frank, thinking about what had happened.  But then I realized that the first thing I had to do was compose a message to Kevin and send it off before the ship which had brought the bad news left orbit. 

I told the family when gathered before dinner, emphasizing Frank’s heroism.  We drew comfort from each other, although Kate had never met her grandfather and didn’t understand what was happening and Benjamin only had vague memories.

The next morning I contacted the community center to arrange for space for a memorial gathering.  Then I composed an obituary with an announcement of a memorial in two days and broadcast it colony-wide.  But I received so many responses that I knew that the community center would be too small.  Luckily, it was early spring, so I sent out another announcement moving the ceremony outdoors.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up.  I gave the first talk, telling about growing up with Frank as my father and giving some of the highlights of his career.  Then Tom spoke and then Beth and Leah and Jeremy.  Then I asked if anyone else had anything to say.  One by one, members of the community stood up and spoke of how Frank had touched their lives. 

Later, Andy Matlock, a genial lawyer, came over to me and handed me an envelope.  “Annie, Frank gave this to me right before he left and said to give it to you if he died before returning.”

I was rather exhausted when we got home and had to take care of a cranky Kate.  Beth and Tom threw together a cold dinner.  I didn’t get around to opening the envelope until later in the evening.

Inside was a short note and a memory chip.  “Annie,” the note read.  “I’ve been spending a little time writing up notes of my adventures.  You may do with it what you like.  Keep it to yourself or share it with whomever you think might be interested.”

I started looking over the notes the next day.  Some of the stories were familiar to me, some weren’t.  All were written in a dispassionate, professional manner.  And he’d included the story of the hunting horns of Hades.  I knew that I didn’t want to just keep this to myself, that when I had the time, I’d combine this with my personal memories and write Frank’s biography.

It wasn’t long after this that we once again went to the spaceport: this time to see Beth off to university on Earth.  Tom and I were both pleased that she had chosen to go to our alma mater and hoped that her experiences would be as good as ours had been.

The next two years passed uneventfully.  I was kept busy with the family and with teaching and in my few spare hours had begun work on the biography.  Then one evening, at dinner, Tom made a momentous announcement:  “I’ve been tapped to be the governor of a new colony.  And Annie, you’re going to be the head of education and set up the school system.  Now you can put into practice all those ideas you’re always talking about.”

We were all excited and began talking at once.  Tom and I had been here for more than twenty T-years and had developed deep roots and the children had all been born here.  But let’s face it, the children and I had the blood of explorers in our veins.

Then I noticed that Leah looked pensive.  “When do we have to leave?” she asked Tom.

“In about three T-months,” Tom answered.

“You know that I’d like to see the new colony as much as any of you.  But I only have a little more than a year to go in school here.  It’ll take time to get to the new colony.  And please don’t take offense Annie, but the new school system isn’t even set up.”

“What would you like to do?” I asked her.

“I’m sixteen.  You can declare me an adult and I can finish my education here.  Then I can join Beth at the university.”

Tom and I looked at each other and then both nodded agreement.  “That’ll be fine.  I’m sure you can find a friend to stay with,” I told her.

We had a lot to do before leaving.  We’d accumulated a lot in more than twenty years and couldn’t take much with us.  And we had many, many good friends to say goodbye to, too many of whom wanted to throw us farewell parties.

At the last of these parties, Tom told the gathering that he had an important announcement.  “I’m happy to tell you that my first act of governor has been approved.  The new colony will be named Butler.”