Prologue

1 The Planets of the Swilli System

In the darkest depths of space, remote beyond thinking and almost, but not quite, unfortunately, beyond space travel, there is a rather miserable star which an astronomer who was in a great hurry the day he discovered it named Swilli. This star is orbited by at least six habitable planets which circle their sun at roughly the same distance, only in entirely different planes. Nobody paid much attention to this system since it was, as we have noticed above, remote. Nobody, that is, until Kameldeergard. Kameldeergard had a telescope, you see, and one day decided to point it away from all the other stars in the direction of a particularly dark region, partly as an act of defiance and partly to see what could be glimpsed. What Kameldeergard found was the star Swilli and noticed also the highly unusual orbit of each planet. When Kameldeergard brought this up around coffee and doughnuts at a local astronomical convention, it was ignored. Undeterred, Kameldeergard took it to another local convention, this time an astrological one. They were intrigued. The 106th president of the Galactic Astrological Science Organization (GASO), Madame Grizzly, made Kameldeergard an honorary member and soon the adventurous young stargazer was on a star ship headed for the darkest depths of space to investigate this new system and find out what possible implications it might have for the future of their kind. At least, that is what they told Kameldeergard and all the excited staff they assembled as supporting staff and assistance crew and facilities managers.

Everybody cheered as the star ship was launched. They waved at Kameldeergard and the crew who were waving back from the portholes. Then the members of GASO went back inside for some refreshments before deciding what else to do with the embarrassing surplus in GASO’s budget.

The star ship Swilli-or-Bust journeyed though the nice regions of space and eventually reached the more remote, taking altogether 203 years to reach its destination. The descendants of the original crew looked in amazement at the lone and rather depressingly dim star with the half-dozen planets they and the generations before them had left everything to explore.

“So it is surrounded by more habitable planets than any other sun in known space, is that the big draw?” Said a grandson of the great Kameldeergard who was rather too lippy and rather more sarcastic than most people thought good for him.

“This is the object of our pilgrimage, Constatius.” One elder chided him mildly. “Whole generations have sacrificed otherwise productive lives in order to bring you here to enjoy this sight. Just think of all the adventures which await us. Who knows what we will find on those planets.

Constantius thought of several lippy rejoinders but kept them to himself. He counted the planets. Then he started counting the rivets around the frame of the porthole. He looked out at the uncountable darkness of the space surrounding the planet and sighed.

When the Kameldeergardians, as they called themselves, landed on the most promising planet, they called it Kameldeergard in honor of their leader. It was not an entirely unsuitable place to live. When Constantius and several other youths of his generation who also had Latin names became dissatisfied at the rather easy and unhurried ways of the older Kamedeergardians, they rebelled and used the star ship to hop over to the next planet to colonize it in a more organized and thorough fashion. They called their planet Accounticon. They throve. There arose several factions among the Accounticoni all of which left to settle the remaining planets in the system Swilli.

Two of those will bear further mention. The most dangerous faction that ever arose in the wars of Accounticon were known as the Golfers. They settled, finally, on the planet Golf where they took the game of golf to new and very dangerous levels. The other faction was one of the smaller and more insignificant bands, whose reasons for dissenting were not altogether clear, even to themselves. They were convinced that the great counting houses of Accountanticon, whose symbol was the Golden Abacus, were misled, somehow.

“Misled in what way?” The Great Accountant asked them. “Do you have any concrete examples? Can you show us the figures on which you base your gloomy prognosis?”

“You’ll come to a bad end,” was the surly reply.

The Counting Council finally got so exasperated they donated a ship to this bad tempered faction and told him to blast off. So the malcontents left to inhabit the least promising of all the planets, which they called Fundamentarlia.

2 The Return of Kameldeergard

On the long journey, so full of the increasing sense of remoteness and complicated games of parcheesi, whole generations died and their bodies were sent into outer space, leaving a trail of frozen corpses following, as the laws of motion teach us, the ship that had abandoned them. For the bodies were simply pushed out of the airlock in the back of the ship, after a little ceremony that Kameldeergard made up, of course, but they cannot have been pushed away hard enough to actually move in the opposite direction from the speeding ship. When they were pushed they were just reduced to a lower speed than the ship, but they still followed the same trajectory. They had to.

However, one of the original inhabitants was never thus ejected. Kameldeergard, that persistent pursuer of distant objects, had not left without including a good telescope. So it was that about twenty years into the journey, after having given the people a rather simple routine to follow when pushing a corpse out of an airlock and having devised the rather complicated improvements to the game of parcheesi, which was the only game any of them thought to bring along besides checkers, which nobody could complicate, or wanted to, and after having spent a whole day gazing at the same object through the telescope, Kameldeergard folded up the same telescope, put it inside the compact carrying case, snapped it shut, went to one of the escape pods and waving at those who were on hand said, “I’ll return shortly.” Then Kameldeergard closed the airlock and the pod was seen moving in an arc away from the ship.

The fact that Kameldeergard failed to return in the remaining 183 years of the voyage never daunted any of the rest of them. A legend and lore arose from the things that people say when they are playing complicated games of parcheesi. “One day Kameldeergard would return,” they said, “in a puff of violet smoke, wearing sandals and carrying the telescope which was more than a telescope.” They got a person who had some experience making bumper stickers and buttons to make them all buttons with a telescope logo on them. The telescopes were red except that the very last part of the narrow end was white. They also made a very large bumper sticker for their ship, “Kameldeergard Will Return Shortly” it proclaimed, mostly to the sinister trail of corpses following for light years, but also to a befuddled green octopus who happened to materialize in the vicinity of the ship as the result of an experiment with food coloring and an energy-matter converter. The Kameldeergardians only lost three people putting on the bumper sticker and where, on the whole, rather pleased. They high-fived each other and said, “Kameldeergard will return shortly, yeah!”

Even after they landed on Kameldeergard and had settled in, they still made bumper stickers and buttons. When the wars started there were some of them (those on Golf and Fundamentarlia) who said it was all bunk and got different slogans and logos for their buttons and bumper stickers, abandoned this hope. But the old Kameldeergardians and the Accounticoni fervently kept up the hope for the return of Kameldeergard and went so far as to have the motto, “Kameldeergard Will Return Shortly” made a part of the flag and the planet’s coat of arms and stamped on all the coins.

Those who hope for the return of Kameldeergard shortly still are fond of wearing buttons with red telescoped on them, or of having bumper stickers that say “Kameldeergard Will Return Shortly.” Sometimes, when they are feeling playful, they like to put it on the sign of their hotel room also. This last practice was recently banned, for some people who had stayed by the door waiting for Kameldeergard to show up, refused to leave even after it was explained.

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