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The tracks all lead out in Herb's direction, following the rover ruts down into the canyons.
"Whoa, nellie, now that ain't gonna do," I told the Ol' Big Balloon. The gusts on the flats were no joke, and going over the wind was more of a trip than I'd charged her up for.
But following the kids down into the canyons was something we'd had experience with. Before all these settlers showed up, and it was just my family and the geo-survey team out on the Chocolate Flats. No rules back then except don't get yourself out of a scrape you can't get yourself out of with items on hand. And I gained a lot of experience in this very ship scouting out every nook and cranny of the flats. Even out as far as where Herb made his homestead.
There were a lot of reasons everybody tried to talk Herb out of it. The distance, number one, and the energy it would take to keep him looped in as part of the group. Everybody's got to work as a group, or we won't survive. And more times that not, not even then. But Herb staked his claim and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Herb new the risks.
Well, maybe not all of them. The ones based on data, sure. But I'd seen things out there that the data just couldn't capture.
You've gotta do somethin' about those wild kids, @Capt. Frank Clarence! Them in their souped-up 'rovers, kickin' up the chocolate dust like there's no tomorrow! They got no respect for honest settlers tryin' a make it here on the crack flats, them knockin' over fences and chewin' up the 'rec fields with their racin' and slidin' and the howlin'.
And what's with that howlin, @Capt. Frank Clarence? Whenever those kids really get goin' and they're spinnin' their wheels makin' chocolate dust devils that's when it starts. Most unnerving thing you ever heard. Comes from a distance, like. But then fills the air like it's a tornado and a locomotive all in one.
Ol' Herb must get the worst of it. All the chocolate dirt tracks lead out towards Herb's place. Ain't he callin' in about it? Though I suppose Herb does keep to himself. If there's somethin' out here outta scare those kids it's Herb I reckon.
You get those kids off the flats and back at home where they belong, @Capt. Frank Clarence. Ain't that your job? We don't pay our percent to the company just so you can deliver mail! What this place needs is a bit a law and order, way I see it.
The High Chocolate Flats are incorrectly named. It was an easy thing to call a big blank spot on a map, and from a great distance it does look mighty flat.
But from a few thousand feet, it's not that flat. Chocolate ridges, cracks and cliffs abound. Still plenty of flat between them. Enough for Insta-stations and experimental bio-rec fields and long thin rover ruts through the chocolate dust.
And there seemed to be a bit more dust than usual up ahead.
"So, Mr. Bloomspice. When did you last see your daughter?"
Elder Bloomspice looks out across the Chocolate Flats, chewing on a piece of prickly stick.
"Well can't rightly say I see her most days. Could've been last week. Could've been last month. We keep busy out here improving this broken land. With honest hard work!"
Elder Bloomspice looks at me accusingly.
"You called to report your daughter missing."
Elder Bloomspice spits out a splinter. "PFWAH! That'd be my son Natty made the call. He's a sensitive type. Maybe too sensitive to survive out here, truth be told. Not like my Henrietta."
"May speak to your son? Natty?"
"Well you could if'n he hadn't taken off on his 'rover after her. Left right after he called you. Couple hours ago now. West. Out toward Herbert's direction."
I look out over the Chocolate Flats. To the west. Same direction Elder's been looking.
"Well, I better get going if I want the light."
"You do that, Cap. And thank you for the pigworms."
"Awww, Hettie, why'd you gotta go an do that again?"
Hettie thinks she can get away with stealin' chewcumbers from Farmer Herb. She done it once and thought she was the Queen of the Chocolate Mountains and I told her she was lucky but what if Farmer Herb knowed it was her and he came and told pa, huh? What then? But when a season passed an nothin' happened and she gets all high in her britches again and sneaks off in the rover after dark, headin' back across the badlands.
It ain't safe goin' out like that alone even if you ain't fixin' to steal from a devil.
Arrived to find the Fernanke homestead abandoned. Sure, it took a little while to get the paperwork approved for their replacement pigworms, but not that long. Took a look around the place and the reclamators were online and working just fine. Water tested good. Plenty of Heat-me-ups in the larder. Even a case of chewcumbers in the cellar. Doesn't look like they packed anything. In fact, the place looks like they just stepped out for a minute.
'Cept there ain't no place to step out to, out here in High Chocolate Flats.
Guess I need to see if any of the other settlers need a fresh batch of pigworms. I'm sure not planning on feeding them myself.
Dear @Capt. Frank Clarence,
Thank you for your continued prompt and dedicated attention. My family and I have settled in to the Insta-station provided as per our agreement with the Settlement Corp, and after some days have been able to reactivate the privy and the bio-reclamation station so our basic needs are now stabilized.
In that time, however, our allotment of pigworms has been entirely depleted. There was no way to sustain them without adequate bio-reclamation.
As our Insta-station was not fully operational upon our arrival, we feel this voids our obligation (and indeed our ability) to breed the pigworms, and under point 3.14 of the Settler's Agreement, we feel we are owed replacement of our initial pigworm allotment.
Can you make this happen for us?
Also, we feel the need to report the strange howling in the area to the west of our plot, which, according to our Settler's Directory belongs to one Herbert Alamak. The howling has persisted for some days and is keeping the children up at night through what is already a difficult time.
The dry chocolate dessert is an unforgiving mistress, as these settlers know all too well.
When they arrive they're full of bravado, filling the hold with their cheery optimism as we ferry them out to their homesteads.
Then we see them on our supply runs, wearing down, little by little. They put more into their work than they get out of it, trying to grow some kind of life here. But there's a negative ROI. Diminishing returns from the get go.
Eventually, a day comes when we drop out of the dusty brown skies to deliver the mail, and there's no home home. Oh, sometimes we find them, in their dwellings or an outbuilding. Murder suicides. More often than not they just take a walk, out towards the horizon, and never return.
Then there's Herb. Nobody knows how he survives, or thrives, but somehow he keeps on truckin. He's an inspiration to us all, they say. Or at least the inspiration that keeps more settlers coming. Everybody thinks they're gonna be the next Herb.
Trouble is, they're not.
Nobody's like Herb.
"Here. Try one of these chewcumbers. They're new, and they have a really high chance of being able to grow in this chocolate soil. Go ahead! Crawnch it! Awwww, see? It's got special enzymes that convert that chocolate into pure crawnch. And water. They take a lot of water to grow. We'll probably need to ship in the water from Cynia Station or god knows where to grow enough to become a significant food source. And by then, who knows? Maybe our descendants will have already adapted to this new chocolate-based biology. Oh, hey, want some sweetsalts for that chewcumber? That makes them extra good. Here, try it."
I think the piece I'm most proud of is the mudskipper. It just came to me, surfacing out of the chocolate depths of my unconscious. It's in a perfectly smooth field of milk chocolate, climbing up onto the dark chocolate shore. Hopefully this heat won't melt it for a couple of days, before the judges get here. They were very kind to let me create the piece here, in situ, in my chocolate garden. I just feel more inspired in my own space. You don't need a whole ranch like me--plenty of people maintain their own chocolate gardens, after the flood. Even indoors. And anybody can do great work, so long as it's meaningful to them. I guess the folks who ran this ranch just didn't see the beauty after the chocolate moved in, but me, I'd never seen anything so beautiful. This much chocolate, just waiting to be sculpted. Would you like to try a piece? Here it is.