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Orson Scott Card


  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card



  The master computer of the planet Harmony was full of hope at last. The chosen human beings had been drawn together and removed from the city of Basilica. Now they were embarked on the first of two journeys. This one would take them through the desert, through the Valley of Fires, to the southern tip of the island once called Vusadka, to a place where no human being had set foot for forty million years. The second journey would be from that place across a thousand light-years to the home planet of the human species, Earth, abandoned forty million years ago and ready now for human beings to return.

  Not just any human beings. These human beings. The ones born, after a million generations of guided evolution, with the strongest ability to communicate with the master computer, mind to mind, memory to memory. However, in encouraging people with this power to mate and therefore enhance it in their offspring, the master computer had not made any attempt to choose only the nicest or most obedient, or even the most intelligent or skillful. That was not within the purview of the computer's program. People could be more difficult or less difficult, more or less dangerous, more or less useful, but the master computer had not been programmed to show preference for decency or wit.

  The master computer had been set in place by the first settlers on the planet Harmony for one purpose only—to preserve the human species by restraining it from the technologies that allowed wars and empires to spread so far that they could destroy a planets ability to sustain human life, as had occurred on Earth. As long as men could fight only with hand weapons and could travel only on horseback, the world could endure, while the humans on it would remain free to be as good or evil as they chose.

  Since that original programming, however, the master computer's hold on humanity had weakened. Some people were able to communicate with the master computer more clearly than anyone had ever imagined would be possible. Others, however, had only the weakest of connections. The result was that new weapons and new methods of transportation were beginning to enter the world, and while it might yet be thousands or tens of thousands of years before the end, the end would still come. And the master computer of Harmony had no idea of how to reverse the process.

  This made it urgent enough for the master computer to attempt to return to Earth, where the Keeper of Earth could introduce new programming. But in recent months the master computer and some of its human allies discovered that the Keeper of Earth was already, somehow, introducing change. Different people had dreamed clear and powerful dreams of creatures that had never existed on Harmony, and the master computer itself discovered subtle alterations in its own programming. It should have been impossible for the Keeper of Earth to influence events so far away… and yet that entity which had dispatched the original refugee ships forty million years before was the only imaginable source of these changes.

  How or why the Keeper of Earth was doing this, the master computer of the planet Harmony could not begin to guess. It only knew that forty million years had not been kind to its own systems, and it needed replenishment. It only knew that whatever the Keeper of Earth asked for, the master computer of Harmony would try to supply. It asked now for a group of human beings to recolonize the Earth.

  So the master computer chose sixteen people from the population of Basilica. Many were kin to each other; all had unusual ability to communicate with the master computer. However, they were not all terribly bright, and not all were particularly trustworthy or kind. Many of them had strong dislikes or resentments toward others, and while some of them were committed to the master computer's cause, some were just as committed to thwarting it. The whole enterprise might fail at any time, if the darker impulses of the humans could not be curbed. Civilization was always fragile, even when strong social forces inhibited individual passions; now, cut off from the larger world, would they be able to forge a new, smaller, harmonious society? Or would the expedition be destroyed from the beginning?

  The master computer had to plan and act as if the expedition would survive, would succeed. In a certain place the master computer triggered a sequence of events. Machinery that had long been silent began to hum. Robots that had long been in stasis were awakened and set to work, searching for machines that needed repair. They had waited a long, long time, and even in a stasis field they could not last forever.

  It would take several years to determine just how much work would be needed, and how it should or even could be done. But there was no hurry. If the journey took time, then perhaps the people could use that time to make peace with each other. There was no hurry; or rather, no hurry that would be detectable to human beings. To the master computer, accomplishing a task within ten years was a breathless pace, while to humans it could seem unbearably long. For though the master computer could detect the passage of milliseconds, it had memories of forty million years of life on Harmony so far, and on that scale, compared to the normal human lifespan, ten years was as brief a span of time as five minutes. The master computer would use those years well and productively, and hoped the people could manage to do the same. If they were wise, it would be a time in which they could create their families, bear and begin to raise many children, and develop into a community worthy to return to the Keeper of Earth. However, that would be no easy achievement, and at the moment all the master computer could really hope for was to keep them all alive.


  Shedemei was a scientist, not a desert traveler. She had no great need for city comforts—she was as content sleeping on a floor or table as on a bed—but she resented having been dragged away from her laboratory, from her work, from all that gave her life meaning. She had never agreed to join this half-mad expedition. Yet here she was, atop a camel in the dry heat of the desert wind, rocking back and forth as she watched the backside of the camel in front of her sway in another rhythm. It made her faintly sick, the heat and the motion. It gave her a headache.

  Several times she almost turned back. She could find the way well enough; all she had to do was get close enough to Basilica and her computer would link up with the city and show her the rest of the way home. Alone, she'd make much better time—perhaps she could even be back before nightfall. And they would surely let her into the city—she wasn't kin by blood or marriage to anyone else in this group. The only reason she had been exiled with them was because she had arranged for the dryboxes full of seeds and embryos that would reestablish some semblance of the old flora and fauna on Earth. She had done a favor for her old teacher, that's all—they could hardly force her into exile for that.

  Yet that cargo was the reason she did not turn back. Who else would understand how to revive the myriad species carried on these camels? Who else would know which ones needed to go first, to establish themselves before later species came that would have to feed on them?

  It's not fair, thought Shedemei for the thousandth time. I'm the only one in this party who can begin to do this task—but for me, it's not a challenge at all. It's not science, it's agriculture. I'm here, not because the task the Oversoul has chosen me for is so demanding, but because all the others are so deeply ignorant of it.

  "You look angry and miserable."

  Shedemei turned to see that it was Rasa who had brought her camel up beside Shedemei's on the wide stony path. Rasa, her teacher—almost her mother. But not really her mother, not by blood, not by right.

  "Yes," said Shedemei.

  "At me?" asked Rasa.

  "Partly you," said Shedemei. "You maneuvered us all into this. I have no connection with any of these people, except through you."

  "We all have the same c
onnection," said Rasa. "The Oversoul sent you a dream, didn't she?"

  "I didn't ask for it."

  "Which of us did?" said Rasa. "No, I do understand what you mean, Shedya. The others all made choices that got them into this. Nafai and Luet and Hushidh and I have come willingly ... more or less. And Elemak and Meb, not to mention my daughters, bless their nasty little hearts, are here because they made some stupid and vile decisions. The others are here because they have marriage contracts, though for some of them it's merely compounding the original mistake to come along.

  But you, Shedemei, all that brings you here is your dream. And your loyalty to me."

  The Oversoul had sent her a dream of floating through the air, scattering seeds and watching them grow, turning a desert land into forest and meadow, filled with greenery, abounding with animals. Shedemei looked around at the bleak desert landscape, seeing the few thorny plants that clung to life here and there, knowing that a few lizards lived on the few insects that found water enough to survive. "This is not my dream," said Shedemei.

  "But you came," said Rasa. "Partly for the dream, and partly out of love for me."

  "There's no hope of succeeding, you know," said Shedemei. "These aren't colonizers here. Only Elemak has the skill to survive."

  "He's the one who's most experienced in desert travel. Nyef and Meb are doing well enough, for their part. And the rest of us will learn."

  Shedemei fell silent, not wanting to argue.

  "I hate it when you back away from a quarrel like that," said Rasa.

  "I don't like conflict," said Shedemei.

  "But you always back off at exactly the moment when you're about to tell the other person exactly what she needs to hear."

  "I don't know what other people need to hear."

  "Say what you had on your mind a moment ago," said Rasa. "Tell me why you think our expedition is doomed to failure."

  "Basilica," said Shedemei.

  "We've left the city. It can't possibly harm us now."

  "Basilica will harm us in a thousand ways. It will always be our memory of a gentle, easier life. We'll always be torn with longing to go back."

  "It's not homesickness that worries you, though, surely," said Rasa.

  "We carry half the city with us," said Shedemei. "All the diseases of the city, but none of its strengths. We have the custom of leisure, but none of the wealth and property that made it possible. We have become used to indulging too many of our appetites, which can never be indulged in a tiny colony like ours will be."

  "People have left the city and gone colonizing before."

  "Those who want to adapt will adapt, I know," said Shedemei. "But how many want to? How many have the will to set aside their own desires, to sacrifice for the good of us all? I don't even have that degree of commitment. I'm more furious with every kilometer we move farther away from my work."

  "Well, then, we're fortunate," said Rasa. "Nobody else here had any work worth mentioning. And those who did have lost everything so they couldn't go back anyway."

  "Meb's work is waiting for him there," said Shedemei.

  Rasa looked baffled for a moment. "I'm not aware that Meb had any work, unless you mean his sad little career as an actor."

  "I meant his lifelong project of coupling with every female in Basilica who wasn't actually blood kin of his, or unspeakably ugly, or dead."

  "Oh," said Rasa, smiling wanly. "That work."

  "And he's not the only one," said Shedemei.

  "Oh, I know," said Rasa. "You're too kind to say it, but my own daughters are no doubt longing to take up where they left off on their own versions of that project."

  "I don't mean to offend you," said Shedemei.

  "I'm not offended. I know my daughters far too well. They have too much of their father in them for me not to know what to expect from them. But tell me, Shedya, which of these men do you honestly expect them to find attractive?"

  "After a few weeks or a few days, all the men will start looking good to them."

  Rasa laughed lightly. "I daresay you're right, my dear. But all the men in our little party are married and you can bet that their wives will be looking out to make sure no one intrudes in their territory."

  Shedemei shook her head. "Rasa, you're making a false assumption. Just because you have chosen to stay married to the same man, renewing him year after year since—well, since you gave birth to Nafai—that doesn't mean that any of the other women here are going to feel that possessive and protective of their husbands."

  "You think not?" said Rasa. "My darling daughter Kokor almost killed her sister Sevet because she was sleeping with Kokor's husband Obring."

  "So… Obring won't try to sleep with Sevet again. That doesn't stop him from trying for Luet, for instance."

  "Luet!" said Rasa. "She's a wonderful girl, Shedya, but she's not beautiful in the way that a man like Obring looks for, and she's also very young, and she's plainly in love with Nafai, and most important of all, she's the waterseer of Basilica and Obring would be scared to death to approach her."

  Shedemei shook her head. Didn't Rasa see that all these arguments would fade to unimportance with the passage of time? Didn't she understand that people like Obring and Meb, Kokor and Sevet lived for the hunt, and cared very little who the quarry might be?

  "And if you think Obring might try for Eiadh, I'd laugh out loud," said Rasa. "Oh, yes, he might wish, but Eiadh is a girl who loves and admires only strength in a man, and that is one virtue that Obring will never have. No, I think Obring will be quite faithful to Kokor."

  "Rasa, my dear teacher and friend," said Shedemei, "before this month is out Obring will even have tried to seduce me."

  Rasa looked at Shedemei with a startlement she could not conceal. "Oh, now," she said. "You're not his –"

  "His type is whatever woman hasn't told him no recently," said Shedemei. "And I warn you—if there's one thing our group is too small to endure, it's sexual tension. If we were like baboons, and our females were only sexually attractive a few times between pregnancies, we could have the kind of improvised short-term matings that baboons have. We could endure the periodic conflicts between males because they would end very quickly and we'd have peace the rest of the year. But we're human, unfortunately, and we bond differently. Our children need stability and peace. And there are too few of us to take a few murders here and there in stride."

  "Murders," said Rasa. "Shedemei, what's got into you?"

  "Nafai has already killed one man," said Shedemei. "And he's probably the nicest of this group, except perhaps Vas."

  "The Oversoul told him to."

  "Yes, so Nafai's the one man in this group who obeys the Oversoul. The others are even more likely to obey their god."

  "Which is?"

  "It dangles between their legs," said Shedemei.

  "You biologists have such a cynical view of human beings," said Rasa. "You'd think we were the lowest of animals."

  "Oh, not the lowest. Our males don't try to eat their young."

  "And our females don't devour their mates," said Rasa.

  "Though some have tried."

  They both laughed. They had been talking fairly quietly, and their camels were well separated from the others, but their laughter bridged the distance, and others turned to look at them.

  "Don't mind us!" called Rasa. "We weren't laughing at you!"

  But Elemak did mind them. He had been riding near the front of the caravan. Now he turned his animal and came back along the line until he reached them. His face was coldly angry.

  "Try to have a little self-control, Lady Rasa," said Elemak.

  "What," said Rasa, "my laughter was too loud?"

  "Your laughter—and then your little jest. All at top volume. A woman's voice can be carried on this breeze for miles. This desert isn't thickly populated, but if anybody does hear you, you can find yourself raped, robbed, and killed in a remarkably short time."

  Shedemei knew that Elemak was right, of cours
e—he was the one who had led caravans through the desert. But she hated the condescension in his tone, the sarcasm. No man had a right to speak to Lady Rasa that way.

  Yet Rasa herself seemed oblivious to the insult implied by Elya's attitude. "A group as large as ours?" asked Rasa innocently. "I thought robbers would stay away."

  "They pray for groups like ours," said Elemak. "More women than men. Traveling slowly. Heavily burdened. Talking carelessly aloud. Two women drifting back and separating from the rest of the group."

  Only then did Shedemei realize how vulnerable she and Rasa had been. It frightened her. She wasn't used to thinking this way—thinking about how to avoid getting attacked. In Basilica she had always been safe. Women had always been safe in Basilica.

  "And you might take another look at the men of our caravan," said Elemak. "Which of them do you expect can fight for you and save you from a band of even three or four robbers, let alone a dozen?"

  "Two can," said Rasa.

  Elemak regarded her steadily for a moment or two. "Here in the open, where they'd have to show themselves for some distance, I suppose I could. But I'd rather not have to. So keep up and shut up. Please."

  The please at the end did little to ameliorate the sternness of his tone, but that did not keep Shedemei from deciding wholeheartedly to obey him. She did not have Rasa's confidence that Elemak could single-handedly protect them from even small numbers of marauders.

  Elemak glanced briefly at Shedemei, but his expression carried no meaning that she could interpret. Then he wheeled his camel and it lurched on ahead toward the front of the little caravan.

  "It'll be interesting to see whether it's your husband or Elemak who rules once we reach Wetchik's camp," said Shedemei.

  "Pay no attention to Elya's bluster," said Rasa. "It will be my husband who rules."

  "I wouldn't be too sure. Elemak takes to authority quite naturally."

  "Oh, he likes the feel of it," said Rasa. "But he doesn't know how to maintain it except through fear. Doesn't he realize that the Oversoul is protecting this expedition? If any marauders so much as think of passing this way, the Oversoul will make them forget the idea. We're as safe as if we were home in bed."