The great ship Gabriel 57 landed just before noon, on the planet Tango, just outside the only mapped settlement, a small town covered in fine dirt, with most of its buildings buried into the ground to protect its inhabitants from the unrelenting thirty-five hours of searing daylight. The town's mayor, Susan Korea, a short and muscular woman with dark, sun-scorched skin rode out on horseback to great the occupants of the ship and arrived in a cloud of dust. The ship did not immediately spill its contents, so Susan popped open a silver umbrella that was broad enough to protect her horse as well as herself, and held it with a gnarled and sun-chapped hand. She stared sullenly at the gleaming white exterior of the ship, her mouth a wrinkled slit. There were no markings to identify the ship, but it had been expected for three days.
The horse whinnied, and the sound was muffled in its moisture recycling mask.
"Now, now, girl," said Susan. "They'll be out soon enough."
After a few more minutes, the hatch slid apart. Inside there was darkness--it was in fact lit reasonably well, but compared to the brightness of Tango it was aphotic. A figure, a tall woman, emerged, dressed from head to toe in white, and wearing white sunglasses with a single horizontal slit for each eye. She jumped down the three feet to the ground and promptly fell forward onto her hands and knees.
"Greetings!" shouted Susan, cracking a small smile. "That'll be the mass of the planet beneath your feet!"
Susan watched the woman struggle to stand, then stagger forward, clearly appalled by the orange dirt that streaked her white gowns and sullied her hands. Two more women, similarly dressed, appeared in the hatch and carefully began to crawl down. Susan folded up her umbrella and placed it back in its holster on the flank of her horse. She dismounted and walked easily to the women.
"Been expecting you!" she said. "We don't get many visitors." She thrust her hand out towards the first woman. The woman looked down at Susan's hand but did not shake it.
"Thank you for hosting us for the month of Ramadan," said the woman, collecting the loose ends of her skirts and bowing low. Susan let her hand fall to her side.
"Sure, fine!" said Susan. "Whatever. You said you were on a trip to Earth! I'm curious about that. Oh and how many have you got with you? How many of you are there? We have plenty of water in the ground, but we might have to ration it. It won't be an inconvenience, I promise."
"There are sixty of us," said the woman, bowing again. Several more identically dressed women appeared, followed by more who carried white luggage.
"Oh," said Susan, looking suddenly worried. "That's quite a lot."
"May I ask your name?" said the woman. The horse leaned its muzzle in her direction and she recoiled in horror.
"Oh, she's friendly! Won't bite. Can't bite as a matter of fact, not with the mask on. Oh, my name is Susan. Susan Korea, actually, but most of the people here are Koreas. We talked about introducing new surnames and just using 'Korea' as a middle name for those that have it as a surname now, but no one can agree on any specific scheme. Korea is a place back on Earth where some of our ancestors are from so that's why we have that surname to begin with. When the settlers first came out here they got rid of their original surnames and used the place names of where they were from so their descendants wouldn't forget Earth. Who could forget Earth though! It's in all the curriculum from the feed from--"
"Susan!" blurted the woman, "It's extremely hot. May we progress to shelter?"
"Yeah, sure! I guess you didn't bring horses with you, so you'll have to walk. Follow me!"
Susan turned and led the horse back towards the town.
"Wait, how far away is your settlement?" asked the woman.
"Oh, just there!" said Susan, pointing towards the horizon.
"What? Where? I don't see anything! You should have told us to land closer!"
"No, no, we live underground. It's cooler there. It's where the water is. It's only a few hundred meters."
"Oh," said the woman. She signaled for the rest of the women behind her to follow.
"I see you're all women. Why is that?" asked Susan.
"We are from a planet that has banned the Y chromosome."
"What? Why?" asked Susan, her brow furrowing.
"It was determined that men created war, so we eliminated men. Well, we didn't kill them off, but stopped producing males, and let the old ones die out."
Susan stopped and turned to look at the woman, then looked at the long column of women behind her.
"I've never heard such a thing!" She chuckled to herself, then continued walking. "So, do you have...marriage?"
"Yes of course!" said the woman, horrified.
"Oh, that's nice then! We welcome all sorts. I didn't mean to be rude, I was just curious. I'm married myself. I have a husband though. His name is Jeff. He's also a Korea, but from a different branch of the family. He's a great guy. Very calm. Good with engines and anything that requires grease to operate. He fixes the pumps in the mines when they go down. He's a great person to have around."
"I would be lost without my wives," said the woman.
Susan stopped again.
"Wives?" she asked.
"Yes," said the woman. She turned and gestured towards the row of wilting women behind her.
"You have fifty-nine wives?" asked Susan, her face impassive.
"No, of course not!" said the woman, laughing lightly.
"Oh," said Susan.
"This is my whole family. I have twenty wives, and thirty-nine daughters."
"The daughters have the cases..."
"Yes," said the woman. Susan nodded.
"Well, like I said, we welcome all sorts."
They continued on in relative silence for a few moments.
"You have not asked my name," said the woman.
"Oh, didn't I? I'm sorry. Where are my manners! What is your name?"
"My name is Isa. Like the wise prophet from Earth."
"It's nice to meet you Isa," said Susan, smiling. She desperately wanted to ask her if she knew the names of all her wives and children but stopped herself. Instead she asked, "Did it work?"
"Did what work?" asked Isa.
"Did getting rid of men get rid of war on your planet?"
Isa was silent for a long moment, watching her feet step in front of each other in turn.
"There have been conflicts," she said. "We don't speak of it much."
"One of the early philosophers of Tango had a maxim that said that if you take something out of an ecosystem, the ecosystem will eventually replace it with something else. He wasn't a Korea, but a good man nonetheless. I've often wondered if war is just a part of being human."
"Does your planet have wars?"
"No. I mean we might in the future, but I don't think this planet has enough resources to fight over. We have to work together to exist on this planet. It's not a bad life really. See, that's why I don't think that men are the root of war. Oh, I hope I haven't offended you or your beliefs!"
"I take no offense. I'm sure we are as strange to you as you are to us."
Susan laughed heartily.
"You find us strange?"
"Yes! You have a curious beast you lead around, you have only one spouse, and you live under the ground, without any war! Now I don't mean to offend."
Susan laughed again, and this time Isa joined her.
"This curious beast is named Margaret." Susan patted her horse on the neck. "She's a horse! I thought you knew what horses were."
"Oh, so that's a horse!" said Isa, marvelling at the animal. "And you ride them? It's not just a pet or a food animal?"
"Conditions may be harsh here, but Margaret will never be a eaten by us. She is my friend. Aren't you sweetie? Yes you are." She rubbed her cheek against the mare's.
"Oh," said Isa reflectively. "Why do you call your planet 'Tango'?"
"The first settlers ran a naming contest for the children. 'Tango' got the most votes."
"You would give your children the sacred task of naming a planet?"
"I guess the first settlers thought it would be fun for them."
"But children are vessels to be taught. They should not have a say in such reverent matters."
"That bothers you?" asked Susan.
"Yes, of course it does," said Isa. "But as I said, I don't want to offend your beliefs."
"I have two sons. Whenever we have an important decision to make as a family, Jeff, myself, and our boys each get one vote. It's their life too, so why shouldn't they have a say?"
Isa looked back at the line of women following her.
"If I did that, I would be outnumbered every time!" she said. Both women laughed heartily.
"Ah, we are here," said Susan. They stood in front of a gentle ramp that sloped into the ground. Susan lead her horse onto it, and the horses hooves clanked against metal.
"Are we to go where the beast goes?" asked Isa.
"Yep," said Susan. "This is the communal barracks for the settlement. There's a few levels of storage, then the stables. I'll drop Margaret off with the stable keeper, then we can go down a few more levels to my living quarters. We've already talked to the other folk, and they will provide beds for all your family. I'm sorry we can't offer accommodation like on your ship. Actually why don't you just stay there?"
"We need to be planetside for Ramadan."
"What is that?" asked Susan.
"During Ramadan we must fast during the daylight, and to fast during the daylight, there must be daylight. Therefore, we must be planetside."
"Our days are very long."
"We are aware. But Tango was the closest planet on our route. We'd like to get to Earth within the next five years. We must make the pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj. Mecca is the birthplace of our greatest prophet, peace be upon him, and it orients all Muslims throughout the settled planets in the direction of their prayer. When we go to the Hajj, we circle the Kaaba seven times, which marks very center of Mecca. The pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all Muslims who are able to travel."
"Oh," said Susan, slightly confused. "So you travel several hundred light years in a very expensive ship to walk around a place a few times?"
Isa wrinkled her nose and her eyes widened.
"That's not what's important about it! It's a spiritual commitment! It shows and confirms our faith," she said indignantly.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just...a little strange. But I envy you. You have an excuse to travel to Earth. If I went, I would visit the Pacific ocean. I would watch and listen to the waves, and wade in. I can't swim, having grown up here, but if I went to Earth I would take lessons and learn how. Now that I think about it, there's probably not much difference between swimming in an ocean just because you can and just because it's there, and making some circles in the dirt."
"No," said Isa cautiously. Then her demeanor softened. "Perhaps not."
They were quiet again, and Susan handed off Margaret. The procession continued down the spiral ramp into dingy artificial lighting.
"This is my home," said Susan, stopping in front of a sliding glass door. "I'm not sure I can fit all of you in here, but you're welcome to try. You can drop off all your luggage here though, and we'll sort out who goes where later on."
Susan slid open the doors and walked in. She was greeted by a loping wolfhound followed by a groggy teenage boy wearing only shorts. The women in the procession averted their eyes.
"Hi mom," said the boy. He waved lazily at the women.
"Can you cover him?" asked Isa.
"The dog?" asked Susan, confused.
"No," whispered Isa, pointing surreptitiously at the boy.
"But its midday. Even down here, it's too hot for clothes."
"Don't worry, I'm leaving," said the boy.
"Where are you off to?" asked Susan.
"Mom, do you have to monitor my every movement?"
"Yes. Where are you going?"
"I have an extra shift at the greenhouse," he said with a sigh. "Can I go now?"
"Sure," said Susan. "But be back for dinner."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, pushing past the line of women. They in turn flinched as he passed.
"What am I saying? He eats his weight in food everyday! Teenage boys!" Susan chortled, then noticed the blank faces of the women. "Oh."
The women filed in, and packed the living room with white luggage. The were all able to fit in the residence with room to spare, but they looked uncomfortable and exhausted.
"Thank you for inviting us in," said Isa. "I have a few urgent matters to discuss before the day wears on too much longer."
"The day wears very slowly," said Susan.
"Yes, but...well, we need to pray."
"Oh, okay. Do you need me to leave the room, or something?"
"No you're fine. We can't have males in the same room, which is normally not a problem--"
"Jeff won't be back for a few more hours, and my other son is probably in one of the storage areas with his girlfriend, so there will be no males to disturb you."
"That will be fine. We need to wash first. Can you give us basins of water? Or maybe a...bucket?"
"Wha--you don't carry UV sticks?"
Susan walked into the kitchen and returned with a silver cylindrical wand and a towel. Down the side of the wand was a pale blue strip, and on the opposite side was a button set flush to the tube.
"This!" said Susan, clicking on the wand. The strip glowed faintly. She ran the light up and down her bare arm. "It kills all the bad germs in a few seconds. Then you use the towel to get rid of dirt and grit."
Isa stared blankly at her. Susan repeated the action.
"We need water to wash correctly," said Isa.
"You use water to wash?" asked Susan incredulously.
"Of course," said Isa. She scrunched her chin to her throat. "Don't you?"
"Only our teeth at night," said Susan.
Isa stepped back a pace.
"But you don't look very dirty. You don't smell."
"No!" said Susan, taking offense. "We are clean people! We use this and this!" She held up the wand and towel. "It's very effective."
Isa tentatively reached out towards the towel, and Susan shoved it towards her. Isa took it and inspected it.
"You press the button on the corner to release the dirt and grim," said Susan, pointing to a small dark patch.
Isa pressed it and the towel went suddenly stiff, crackling with electricity. Isa jumped, and the towel threw off a small cloud of dust that wandered lazily to the floor. The towel slowly went limp.
"It's completely clean now. Try it," said Susan, making a scrubbing motion on her forearm. Isa slowly wiped the towel on her hands, and her mouth dropped open.
"What a strange sensation!" she exclaimed. She wiped more vigorously. "It's a little tingly! And I feel clean at least. What a marvellous invention."
"The fabric is called CatTongue, which I try not to think about when I'm using it. It's from Earth. I'm surprised you haven't come across it before."
"I'm sure there are lots of things I've never encountered before," said Isa, passing the towel to her nearest wife. "Our planet is populous and thriving, but most of our culture shuns Earth's decadence."
"And yet you are going there on a pilgrimage."
"It is the decadence we abhor, not the planet. Earth is the mother and the cradle of our species, and the home of our prophets. She will always be sacred. Now, I'm sorry to persist, but we must have water for washing."
"Ah," said Susan.
"Our religion requires it," Isa persisted.
"But water is so scarce! We recycle as much as we can, but if all of you washed with water we will be out for several hours until what you've used has been processed. We will not be able to offer you water to drink. You talk of hating decadence, but using water like you suggest is the very definition of decadence--oh I don't mean you offense, really I don't!" Susan looked upset, then her face relaxed. "What if you used just a few drops? You could clean up with the towel and the sticks, then sprinkle on the water and call it done."
Isa looked towards her wives and daughters. Several wives silently bowed their consent, but the daughters just looked bored and fidgety.
"Don't they ever talk for themselves?" asked Susan, immediately regretting it.
"Yes, in the privacy of our household or on the ship. I assure you it can get quite loud. In public though, only the head of household may speak to others, and that is me." Isa smiled gently.
"Interesting," said Susan with slight disdain, glancing amongst the anonymous faces that surrounded her.
"We have considered your compromise and accept it. This is your house and you are mistress over this domain, and we shall respect that." Isa bowed low.
"Okay," said Susan, exhaling audibly. "Thank you! Thank you."
"I have one other urgent request to ask of you," said Isa.
"Oh, what is that?"
"We always pray towards Mecca, towards Earth. Well, Sol is really as precise as we can be. On our planet, Sol is in the direction of polar north, so we know to always face north. On the ship, we face towards the bow because it points in the direction of Sol. On your planet however, Sol lays horizontal with the stellar plane of elliptic, which means that the direction to it changes throughout the day as...Tango rotates. We don't have up-to-date information on the ship about this particular settlement."
"Oh, so you want to know where Sol is," said Susan. Isa nodded and smiled. "Well that's easy enough to figure out I think. My son has a stellarium application he downloaded for a school project. It's synchronized with Tango so you can chart the constellations and such..." Susan wended her way to the far wall and tapped it, turning on an embedded interactive panel. She tapped several more times to access the stellarium app. "Here's Tango, and...here's Sol over here..." She drew a vector between the two, then zoomed in on Tango. The location of the settlement blinked green. "Oh..."
"Oh..." echoed Isa. A few of the wives could be heard to audibly sigh.
Susan burst out into laughter, then immediately put a hand over her mouth to stifle it. She pointed her other hand down to the ground.
"I'm sorry," she blurted, "but I think you're all going to have to stand on your heads to pray! Sol is beneath our feet right now!"
Isa looked at her impassively as Susan turned an interesting shade of red. Isa slowly started to smile, the started to laugh herself, and then the wives and daughters joined in.
"Perhaps," said Isa after recovering her breath, "it would be best to be a bit flexible with that rule in this case. I'm getting too old for gymnastics!"
"Oh no!" said Susan with evident glee. She slapped Isa on the shoulder. "That would have been something to see! The sixty of you on your heads!"
"We'll have to disappoint you," said Isa smiling. She held out her hand.
Susan looked down, surprised. She took Isa's hand and shook it warmly.
"Thank you, sincerely, for your hospitality Susan."
"It's our pleasure," said Susan. "It's always great out here to find friends you didn't know you ever had."