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Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus

Orson Scott Card

  Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus

  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card

  Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus


  Some people called it "the time of undoing"; some, wishing to be more positive, spoke of it as "the replanting" or "the restoring" or even "the resurrection" of the Earth. All these names were accurate. Something had been done, and now it was being undone. Much had died or been broken or killed, and now it was coming back to life.

  This was the work of the world in those days: Nutrients were put back in the soil of the great rain forests of the world, so the trees could grow tall again. Grazing was banished from the edges of the great deserts of Africa and Asia, and grass was planted so that steppe and then savanna could slowly reconquer territory they had lost to the stone and sand. Though the weather stations high in orbit could not change the climate, they tweaked the winds often enough that no spot on Earth would suffer drought or flood, or lack for sunlight. In great preserves the surviving animals learned how to live again in the wild. All the nations of the world had an equal claim on food, and no one feared hunger anymore. Good teachers came to every child, and every man and woman had a decent chance to become whatever his or her talents and passions and desires led them to become.

  It should have been a happy time, with humanity pressing forward into a future in which the world would be healed, in which a comfortable life could be lived without the shame of knowing that it came at someone else's expense. And for many -- perhaps most -- it was. But many others could not turn their faces from the shadows of the past. Too many creatures were missing, never to be restored. Too many people, too many nations now lay buried in the soil of the past. Once the world had teemed with seven billion human lives. Now a tenth that number tended the gardens of Earth. The survivors could not easily forget the century of war and plague, of drought and flood and famine, of desperate fury leading to despair. Every step of every living man and woman trod on someone's grave, or so it seemed.

  So it was not only forests and grasslands that were brought back to life. People also sought to bring back the lost memories, the stories, the intertwining paths that men and women had followed that led them to their times of glory and their times of shame. They built machines that let them see into the past, at first the great sweeping changes across the centuries, and then, as the machinery was refined, the faces and the voices of the dead.

  They knew, of course, that they could not record it all. There were not enough alive to witness all the actions of the dead. But by sampling here and there, by following this question to its answer, that nation to its end, the men and women of Pastwatch could tell stories to their fellow citizens, true fables that explained why nations rose and fell; why men and women envied, raged, and loved; why children laughed in sunlight and trembled in the dark of night.

  Pastwatch remembered so many forgotten stories, replicated so many lost or broken works of art, recovered so many customs, fashions, jokes, and games, so many religions and philosophies, that sometimes it seemed that there was no need to think up anything again. All of history was available, it seemed, and yet Pastwatch had barely scratched the surface of the past, and most watchers looked forward to a limitless future of rummaging through time.

  Chapter 1 -- The Governor

  There was only one time when Columbus despaired of making his voyage. It was the night of August 23rd, in the port of Las Palmas on Grand Canary Island.

  After so many years of struggle, his three caravels had finally set sail from Palos, only to run into trouble almost at once. After so many priests and gentlemen in the courts of Spain and Portugal had smiled at him and then tried to destroy him behind his back, Columbus found it hard to believe that it wasn't sabotage when the rudder of the Pinta came loose and nearly broke. After all, Quintero, the owner of the Pinta, was so nervous about having his little ship go out on such a voyage that he had signed on as a common seaman, just to keep an eye on his property. And Pinzўn told him privately that he had seen a group of men gathered at the stern of the Pinta just as they were setting sail. Pinzўn fixed the rudder himself, at sea, but the next day it broke again. Pinzўn was furious, but he vowed to Columbus that the Pinta would meet him at Las Palmas within days.

  So confident was Columbus of Pinzўn's ability and commitment to the voyage that he gave no more thought to the Pinta. He sailed with the Santa Maria and the Niha to the island of Gomera, where Beatrice de Bobadilla was governor. It was a meeting he had long looked forward to, a chance to celebrate his triumph over the court of Spain with one who had made it plain she longed for his success. But Lady Beatrice was not at home. And as he waited, day after day, he had to endure two intolerable things.

  The first consisted of having to listen politely to the petty gentlemen of Beatrice's little court, who kept telling him the most appalling lies about how on certain bright days, from the island of Ferro, westernmost of the Canaries, one could see a faint image of a blue island on the western horizon-- as if plenty of ships had not already sailed that far west! But Columbus had grown skilled at smiling and nodding at the most outrageous stupidity. One did not survive at court without that particular skill, and Columbus had weathered not only the wandering courts of Ferdinand and Isabella, but also the more settled and deeply arrogant court of John of Portugal. And after waiting decades to win the ships and men and supplies and, above all, the permission to make this voyage, he could endure a few more days of conversation with stupid gentlemen. Though he sometimes had to grind his teeth not to point out how utterly useless they must be in the eyes of God and everyone else, if they could find nothing better to do with their lives than wait about in the court of the governor of Gomera when she was not even at home. No doubt they amused Beatrice -- she had shown a keen appreciation of the worthlessness of most men of the knightly class when she conversed with Columbus at the royal court at Santa Fe. No doubt she skewered them constantly with ironic barbs which they did not realize were ironic.

  More intolerable by far was the silence from Las Palmas. He had left men there with instructions to tell him as soon as Pinzўn managed to bring the Pinta into port. But no word came, day after day, as the stupidity of the courtiers became more insufferable, until finally he refused to tolerate either of the intolerables a moment longer. Bidding a grateful adios to the gentlemen of Gomera, he set sail for Las Palmas himself, only to find when he arrived on the 23rd of August that the Pinta was still not there.

  The worst possibilities immediately came to mind. The saboteurs were so grimly determined not to complete the voyage that there had been a mutiny, or they had somehow persuaded Pinzўn to turn around and sail for Spain. Or they were adrift in the currents of the Atlantic, getting swept to some unnameable destination. Or pirates had taken them -- or the Portuguese, who might have thought they were part of some foolish Spanish effort to poach on their private preserve along the coasts of Africa. Or Pinzўn, who clearly thought himself better suited to lead the expedition than Columbus himself -- though he would never have been able to win royal sponsorship for such an expedition, having neither the education, the manners, nor the patience that it had required -- might have had the foolish notion of sailing on ahead, reaching the Indies before Columbus.

  All of these were possible, and from one moment to the next each seemed likely. Columbus withdrew from human company that night and threw himself to his knees -- not for the first time, but never before with such anger at the Almighty. "I have done all you set for me to do," he said, "I have pushed and pleaded, and never once have you given me the slightest enc
ouragement, even in the darkest times. Yet my trust never failed, and at last I got the expedition on the exact terms that were required. We set sail. My plan was good. The season was right. The crew is skilled even if they think themselves better sailors than their commander. All I needed now, all that I needed, after everything I've endured till now, was for something to go right."

  Was this too bold a thing for him to say to the Lord? Probably. But Columbus had spoken boldly to powerful men before, and so the words spilled easily from his heart to flow from his tongue. God could strike him down for it if he wanted -- Columbus had put himself in God's hands years before, and he was weary.

  "Was that too much for you, most gracious Lord? Did you have to take away my third ship? My best sailor? Did you even have to deprive me of the kindness of Lady Beatrice? It is obvious that I have not found favor in your eyes, O Lord, and therefore I urge you to find somebody else. Strike me dead if you want, it could hardly be worse than killing me by inches, which seems to be your plan at this moment. I'll tell you what. I will stay in your service for one more day. Send me the Pinta or show me what else you want me to do, but I swear by your most holy and terrible name, I will not sail on such a voyage with fewer than three ships, well equipped and fully crewed. I've become an old man in your service, and as of tomorrow night, I intend to resign and live on whatever pension you see fit to provide me with." Then he crossed himself. "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen."

  Having finished this most impious and offensive prayer, Columbus could not sleep until at last, no less angry than before, he flung himself out of bed and knelt again.

  "Nevertheless thy will not mine be done!" he said furiously. Then he climbed back into bed and promptly fell asleep.

  The next morning the Pinta limped into port. Columbus took it as the final confirmation that God really was still interested in the success of this voyage. Very well, thought Columbus. You didn't strike me dead for my disrespect, Lord; instead you sent me the Pinta. Therefore I will prove to you that I am still your loyal servant.

  He did it by working half the citizens of Las Palmas, or so it seemed, into a frenzy. The port had plenty of carpenters and caulkers, smiths and cordwainers and sailmakers, and it seemed that all of them were pressed into service on the Pinta. Pinzўn was fall of defiant apologies -- they had been adrift for nearly two weeks before he was finally able, by brilliant seamanship, to bring the Pinta into exactly the port he had promised. Columbus was still suspicious, but didn't show it. Whatever the truth was, Pinzўn was here now, and so was the Pinta, complete with a rather sullen Quintero. That was good enough for Columbus.

  And as long as he had the attention of the shipworkers of Las Palmas, he finally bullied Juan Nino, the owner of the Nina, into changing from his triangular sails to the same square rigging as the other caravels, so they'd all be catching the same winds and, God willing, sailing together to the court of the great Khan of China.

  It took only a week to have all three ships in better shape than they had been in upon leaving Palos, and this time there were no unfortunate failures of vital equipment. If there had been saboteurs before, they were no doubt sobered by the fact that both Columbus and Pinzўn seemed determined to sail on at all costs -- not to mention the fact that now if the expedition failed, they might end up stranded on the Canary Islands, with little prospect of returning anytime soon to Palos.

  And so gracious was God in answering Columbus's impudent prayer that when at last he sailed into Gomera for the final resupply of his ships, the banner of the governor was flying above the battlements of the castle of San Sebastidn.

  Any fears he might have had that Beatrice de Bobadilla no longer held him in high esteem were removed at once. When he was announced, she immediately dismissed all the other gentlemen who had so condescended to Columbus the week before. "Cristobal, my brother, my friend!" she cried. When he had kissed her hand she led him from the court to a garden, where they sat in the shade of a tree and he told her of all that had transpired since they last met at Santa Fe.

  She listened, rapt, asking intelligent questions and laughing at his tales of the hideous interference the king had visited upon Columbus almost as soon as he had signed the capitulations. "Instead of paying for three caravels, he dredged up some ancient offense that the city of Palos had committed -- smuggling, no doubt--"

  "The primary industry of Palos for many years, I'm told," said Beatrice.

  "And as their punishment, he required them to pay a fine of exactly two caravels."

  "I'm surprised he didn't make them pay for all three," said Beatrice. "He's a hard loaf, dear old Ferdinand. But he did pay for a war without going bankrupt. And he has just expelled the Jews, so it isn't as if he has anybody to borrow from."

  "The irony is that seven years ago, the Duke of Sidonia would have bought me three caravels from Palos out of his own treasury, if the crown had not refused him permission."

  "Dear old Enrique -- he's always had far more money than the crown, and he just can't understand why that doesn't make him more powerful than they are."

  "Anyway, you can imagine how glad they were to see me in Palos. And then, to make sure both cheeks were well slapped, he issued a proclamation that any man who agreed to join my expedition would win a suspension of any civil and criminal actions pending against him."

  "Oh, no."

  "Oh, yes. You can imagine what that did to the real sailors of Palos. They weren't going to sail with a bunch of criminals and debtors -- or run the risk of people thinking that they had needed such a pardon."

  "His Majesty no doubt imagined that it would take such an incentive to persuade anyone to sail with you on your mad adventure."

  "Yes, well, his 'help' nearly killed the expedition from the start."

  "So -- how many felons and paupers are there in your crew?"

  "None, or at least none that we know of. Thank God for Martin Pinzўn."

  "Oh, yes, a man of legend."

  "You know of him?"

  "All the sailors' lore comes to the Canaries. We live by the sea."

  "He caught the vision of the thing. But once he noised it about that he was going, we started to get recruits. And it was his friends who ended up risking their caravels on the voyage."

  "Not free of charge, of course."

  "They hope to be rich, at least by their standards."

  "As you hope to be rich by yours."

  "No, my lady. I hope to be rich by your standards."

  She laughed and touched his arm. "Cristobal, how good it is to see you again. How glad I am that God chose you to be his champion in this war agamst the Ocean Sea and the court of Spain."

  Her remark was light, but it touched on a matter quite tender: She was the only one who knew that he had undertaken his voyage at the command of God. The priests of Salamanca thought him a fool, but if he had ever breathed a word of his belief in God's having spoken to him, they would have branded him a heretic and that would have brought an end to more than Columbus's plan for an expedition to the Indies. He had not meant to tell her, either; he had not meant to tell anyone, had not even told his brother Bartholomew, nor his wife Felipa before she died, nor even Father Perez at La Rdbida. Yet after only an hour in the company of Lady Beatrice, he had told her. Not all, of course. But that God had chosen him, had commanded him to make this voyage, he told her that much.

  Why had he told her? Perhaps because he knew implicitly that he could trust her with his life. Or perhaps because she looked at him with such piercing intelligence that he knew that no other explanation than the truth would convince her. Even so, he had not told her the half of it, for even she would have thought him mad.

  And she did not think him mad, or if she did, she must have some special love of madmen. A love that continued even now, to a degree beyond his hopes. "Stay the night with me, my Cristobal," she said.

  "My lady," he answered, unsure if he had heard aright.

  "You lived with a common woman
named Beatrice in Cordoba. She had your child. You can't pretend to be living a monkish life."

  "I seem doomed to fall under the spell of ladies named Beatrice. And none of them has been, by any stretch of the imagination, a common woman."

  Lady Beatrice laughed lightly. "You managed to compliment your old lover and one who would be your new one, both at once. No wonder you were able to win your way past the priests and scholars. I daresay Queen Isabella fell in love with your red hair and the fire in your eyes, just as I did."

  "More grey in the hair than red, I fear."

  "Hardly any," she answered.

  "My lady," he said, "it was your friendship I prayed for when I came to Gomera. I did not dare to dream of more."

  "Are you beginning a long and gracefully convoluted speech that will, in the end, decline my carnal invitation?"

  "Ah, Lady Beatrice, not decline, but perhaps postpone?"

  She reached out, leaned forward, touched his cheek. "You're not a very handsome man, you know, Cristobal."

  "That has always been my opinion as well," he answered.

  "And yet one can't take one's eyes from you. Nor can one purge one's thoughts of you when you're gone. I'm a widow, and you're a widower. God saw fit to remove our spouses from the torments of this world. Must we also be tormented by unfulfilled desires?"

  "My lady, the scandal. If I stayed the night--"

  "Oh, is that all? Then leave before midnight. I'll let you over the parapet by a silken rope."

  "God has answered my prayers," he said to her.

  "As well he should, since you were on his mission."

  "I dare not sin and lose his favor now."

  "I knew I should have seduced you back in Santa Fe."

  "And there's this, my lady. When I return, successful, from this great enterprise, then I'll not be a commoner, whose only touch of gentility is by his marriage into a not-quite-noble family of Madeira. I'll be Viceroy. I'll be Admiral of the Ocean Sea." He grinned. "You see, I took your advice and got it all in writing in advance."