The transport flew relatively low, about 100 meters up. Everyone inside watched the ground going by in the holoscreen up front. They followed the road.
After consulting with the Captain, Curly kept their speed at a reasonable 100 kilometers per hour. This would allow them to enjoy the scenery, and it might actually conserve some energy, he decided.
That led to a discussion about whether increased speed would more rapidly draw down the little craft’s power supply. Curly said it would, although Nguyen felt it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. They argued the matter for a while after Nguyen moved up front to express his views.
“Energy use is energy use. It’s not like an internal combustion engine, where if you speed up, the engine is working harder and thus burning more fuel.”
“No, you’re wrong,” Curly said. “I know for a fact if we attain escape velocity and go up into orbit, we’ll use more energy. There are things like air resistance to factor in.”
And so they argued back and forth, but since no engineers were on board to settle the matter, they eventually agreed to disagree and let it drop.
They were in for about a six hour flight to Winthrop. The mood of the crew seemed mixed. Some were for staying, like Kilmeade. Others looked forward to going somewhere more civilized. No one had any idea how advanced the city of Winthrop could be, but surely it was better than Wallisville. Or, so they told themselves.
For her part, Benson stayed out of the conversations. She yearned for access to the quantum matrix, where she could enjoy movies, games, and immersive holos. She had no idea she would miss it so much. In her heart of hearts, she hoped that Winthrop had a connection. Surely they had a connection! If they did, she could jump back on and free up hours of boredom.
But, she already knew they did not. If they did, they would have neural net connectors and would not be developing their own telegraph systems. And also, Carver had told her they did not have a connection installed before the war started. No one had communicated off world in three years.
Still, she thought, she could dream. And wish. And hope.
She drifted off to sleep as the little craft sailed through the sky above the road.
When they flew over the town of Dennison, their passage was noted by a horseman two kilometers out. He watched as the craft passed overhead and kept going, heading to Winthrop. He turned his horse around and galloped back into town. Like Wallisville, the streets were dusty and unpaved. He stopped at a new building on the periphery. It had a fresh sign that read, “Telegraph Office.”
He walked inside and the clerk looked up from his desk, smiling to see a customer.
“I need to send a message to Winthrop, ASAP. Straight to Seldom. Two words. ‘They’re coming.’”
The sun was on the downhill side of the day when the road below them widened, and became a solid gravel path that looked like it was cared for and well attended. Traffic picked up, too. The sailors could see wagons, coaches, and carriages as well as single riders and even the stray pedestrian. Everyone looked up as the transport flew by, some waving at them.
In the holoscreen at the front of the ship, they finally caught their first glimpse of the city of Winthrop.
And it is a city, Benson thought. A sprawling, dirty, quickly built and still growing city, set on the shores of a large inland lake that provided water, and no doubt fishing for the residents. Maybe transportation, too.
In the distance she saw . . . smoke.
“Is something on fire?” she said.
Thick columns of black smoke drifted into the sky.
Curly said, “I’m not sure. We can go take a look.”
He turned the nose of the craft toward the smoke. Now they flew over houses, laid out on a grid pattern. There were communities down there, Benson thought, clusters of stores and parks.
To their right, they spotted a series of tall buildings made from stone.
“Do they have electricity?” Nguyen said. “You can’t have skyscrapers without elevators.”
“Those aren’t skyscrapers,” Curly said. “They’re six, eight stories tops.”
“Still . . . I would think they’d need . . . hey, look! A traffic light!”
Curly glanced where Nguyen pointed and angled the transport that way. They floated above a busy intersection at two major thoroughfares. Strung up in the middle were old-fashioned traffic lights, flashing red, green and yellow. The horse riders and carriages obeyed the lights. Everyone down below looked up at them. The lane with the green light stood still rather than moving, everyone staring at the transport.
Kilmeade said, “I guess that answers the question about whether they have electricity or not.”
Curly said, “Yeah, I see the power lines, now. They’re everywhere.”
Benson said, “Let’s go back toward the smoke.”
Curly dutifully pointed the nose of the transport toward the smoke and they skimmed above the rooftops.
Within moments they could see the smoke came from chimneys. Tall, blackened chimneys belched thick, black smoke.
Kilmeade said, “What, are they burning coal or something?”
Nguyen nodded. “Must be. And, there’s not emissions controls on the smokestacks. It’s raw coal smoke.”
“They haven’t had time to develop that,” Curly said. “They’re just burning straight coal for electricity.”
The crew stared at the smoke stacks for a long moment. Nobody smiled.
Benson said, “They’re polluting a raw planet.”
Anger stirred behind the words.
She set it side, tamping it down and keeping it bottled up. This was part of the reason she was here, she thought. These people had too much freedom. Something needed to be done.
“Okay, I’ve seen enough. Curly, turn around and find their Administration Building. Surely we can figure out which one it is from up here.”
Curly nodded and pointed the transport back toward the tall stone buildings.
He said, “I bet it’s downtown. Let’s go look.”
As they approached, they could see a group of men and a woman standing on the rooftop of a thick ten story structure.
Nguyen said, “It looks like those people are waiting for us.”
“There’s space for us to land on the rooftop, Captain. I can take us down there if you like,” Curly said.
Benson said, “Sounds good. We can at least talk and find out where the Admin Building is, if nothing else. Maybe that’s it, and they’re the welcoming committee.”
Curly maneuvered them over the building and gently dropped down, the rails bumping on the rooftop. He opened the door, and everyone stepped out.
Five people watched them, expressionless, arms behind their backs. In their center, a woman of African descent with short hair stood tall and skinny. The others, Benson noted, were male. One was of Asian descent, the rest European.
“I think this is the leader,” she said in a low voice to Kilmeade.
She approached the group while the rest of the crew spread out behind her.
Benson smiled. She said, “I am Captain May Benson, Star League Navy.”
The woman’s back straightened a bit. Benson reckoned her age to be mid-30s.
She said, “I am Selinda Seldom, Governor of Halcyon. I regret to inform you, you are all under arrest.”