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Hidden Empire

Orson Scott Card

  eVersion 2.0 - click for scan notes


  Orson Scott Card


  This is a dangerous planet. Only a politician would try to tell you otherwise. And I'm not talking about wars—we're America, we win our wars. There are earthquakes, storms, volcanoes. Plagues can appear out of nowhere and slaughter millions of people. Blights can wipe out our crops. A meteor the size of a bus could hit the earth and send us back to the Stone Age. An extraordinary solar flare could destroy our electronics or heat our atmosphere so much our crops all die and we starve.

  And whom do we put in charge of helping us prepare to cope with such disasters? People whose only talent is for getting elected, and whose entire future consists of the run-up to the next election. It's not their fault—anybody who doesn't think and act that way won't win. It's the fundamental problem with democracy. No long-range thinking. So we're just sitting ducks, waiting for the next disaster.

  If you want to know what destroyed the Roman Empire, it was two plagues, a century apart, that killed about thirty percent of the population each time. That's why there weren't enough soldiers to keep the legions at full strength. That's why the emperors had to invite in the barbarian tribes to farm the abandoned land and fill the abandoned cities.

  Only now we're talking about the whole world. Whom do we invite in to settle the empty land when it's the whole world that's been depopulated?

  Chinma was the fourth son of the third wife of the aging chief of his small tribe in the Kwara state of Nigeria. There was no shortage of other sons, most of them adult, and nothing much was expected of Chinma. People constantly told him to shut up, even his mother, even when he wasn't saying anything.

  He got the idea at quite a young age that his very presence was annoying to everyone.

  The easiest way to avoid getting cuffed or shoved or slapped or yelled at was to disappear. And the easiest way to disappear was to go up. People didn't look up very much. He could go up into the trees and keep company with the monkeys. They yelled at him, too, and threw things at him, but they were more afraid of him than he was of them, so it was actually fun.

  That's why by the time he was twelve years old Chinma could climb any tree to the smallest branches that could bear his weight, and catch monkeys by enticing them with fruit while holding very, very still and looking in another direction until they were close enough for Chinma to make his grab.

  All of this was useless to everyone until the happy day when Ire, the second son of the first wife, came back to the village from the big city, Ilorin, with news. "They're paying money for white-face monkeys, especially if you can get the whole family."

  Ire sat there in the yard in front of the big house, telling Father and the important brothers how much money, and who was paying, and how he found out about it, and then they started arguing about how they could go about catching the monkeys.

  Meanwhile, Chinma ran to a good white-face monkey tree, climbed it, caught the papa monkey, scampered back down, and brought the monkey to Ire.

  All the men fell silent.

  "What's your name?" asked Father.

  "Monkey-catcher," said Ire. And that became Chinma's new name.

  Father was against paying Chinma anything for the monkeys he caught. "We've been feeding him for all these years, it's about time he started earning his way." But Ire said it was business, and in business you pay everybody something, so they'll work harder.

  So now Chinma was important and had money, a hundred naira for every monkey, five hundred for the papa monkeys, two thousand if he brought in a whole family. He almost always got the families—once he got the papa monkey, it was pretty easy to get the babies, and once he had the babies, he could use them as bait to get the mamas.

  Ire bought cages for the monkeys and it didn't take many weeks before all the white-face monkeys in their neighborhood were gone or hiding.

  So they got in the family truck and began to range far out into the country. Father and Ire had bribed all the right people, so there was no trouble with police—or the roaming gangs of thugs and brigands who, as often as not, were the police out of uniform, or their brothers-in-law. It seemed like a safe way to make money—and it all depended on Chinma's knack for climbing trees, winning the trust of monkeys, and bringing them down in good condition, every member of the family.

  Ire said that somewhere far away—South Africa or Great Britain or America—scientists were studying the white-face monkey because its cries seemed to be like language. "Not our language," said Father, and everyone laughed. Only it wasn't really all that funny, since only about three thousand people spoke their language, Ayere, and all of them lived right there in Kwara state.

  They knew that other tribes had lost their language, for to survive in Nigeria you had to know at least one of the major languages—Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa—and if you had any hope of becoming educated, you had to learn English as well. How many languages could one head hold?

  "They ought to take us to America and study our language," said Ire.

  "With our luck," said Father, "they'd take us to Liberia."

  But the truth was they were very lucky. This white-face monkey trade was bringing in cash, which there had never been very much of in their village of Oyi. "Our oil well," Father called it. But he meant the monkeys—not Chinma, even though Chinma caught every single monkey they sold.

  When he mentioned this thought to Mother, she slapped his shoulder, twice, and very sternly told him, "And who drives the truck? And who found out that these monkeys were worth something? And who fed you all your life till now? You think you're so important."

  He apologized. But he was important, and he knew it. Nobody told him to shut up now, nobody in the family forgot his name. He was Monkey-catcher, and when the family was making money, he was right there, up a tree, catching it and bringing it down to them.

  Until one day, in a remote stand of trees, not even large enough to call it a woods, surrounded by grassland on all sides, Chinma climbed a tree and found a troop of white-face monkeys that had no timidity at all. They did not scamper away from him. He did not have to coax them. They just sat there, waiting for him. The papa monkey hissed and showed his teeth. He snapped at Chinma, too. But he did not run away.

  Chinma avoided the teeth and carried him down the tree. "He's a biter," said Chinma to Ire.

  "So am I," said Ire, and laughed. Whereupon the papa monkey twisted around in Ire's hand and bit him savagely on the thumb. Ire shouted and dropped the monkey, but Chinma immediately caught it again—it was easy, because the monkey ran away so slowly.

  "Are you all right?" Chinma asked Ire.

  "Just put it in the cage," said Ire testily, and he resumed sucking on the wound. "Get the rest of the family."

  As Chinma brought down each of the babies, it was one of the other brothers, not Ire, who put them in the cages. Ire sat in the cab of the truck sucking on his wound and keeping up a low murmur of cursing.

  There were only two females—it was not a large troop, because it shared the stand of trees with an aggressive troop of red-bellied guenon monkeys. Chinma only recognized them because his family had brought him books about monkeys after he became valuable to them. These guenons were very rare, especially such a large group, and most people thought the only ones still alive were in the West Africa Biodiversity Hot Spot. It was very important that these monkeys were here.

  Chinma decided not to tell the brothers about them. They would want to catch them and sell them, too, and Chinma knew it would take a lot more bribes because these monkeys were so endangered.

  Instead, Chinma would tell a scientist about them, so they could get protected. Of course, that would mean going in to Ilorin, where they turned in
the white-faces, which they had never let him do. But he had never asked, either. Maybe he was valuable enough now that they would let him.

  Up a tree, he went for the largest female. Like the papa monkey, she didn't try to move away. As Chinma inched closer, she seemed to snarl and he expected her to try to bite. But she didn't. Instead, just as he got hold of her by the back and neck, she sneezed in his face.

  Sneezed or gave him a raspberry—he wasn't sure which—but it amounted to the same thing. Monkey spit and snot all over his face. And he couldn't even wipe it off, because he needed one hand to hold her and the other hand to help him climb. And by the time he got down the tree, the stuff had dried on his face.

  "This one spits," he said. "Or sneezes."

  And this time he was listened to—they held the she-monkey away from them as they took her to the cages in the back of the truck.

  When all the white-face monkeys were in the back of the truck, Ire slid over on the front seat. "I'm not driving," he said.

  "I will!" said Ade, who was the firstborn son of Chinma's mother.

  "I don't care," said Ire.

  Ade was stunned. Ire never let a son of one of the other mothers drive the truck. But when Ade climbed into the cab and turned the key to start the truck, Ire just looked out the window.

  "Don't go home," said Ire. "We're going straight to Ilorin."

  "Why?" asked Ade.

  "Shut up," said Ire. But then Ire looked at Chinma, who stood outside the window of the driver's side. "How do you like this? I need a doctor. Your stupid monkey poisoned me."

  "I told you he bites," said Chinma.

  "You didn't tell me it was poisoned!" said Ire fiercely. "You're not getting paid for any of these monkeys."

  Ade shook his head at Chinma, as if to say, Don't argue with him.

  And Chinma realized that if they were going straight to Ilorin, they couldn't drop him off at home and so he wouldn't even have to argue in order to get taken there. He swung himself up into the back of the truck with the monkeys, and cooed and talked to them all the way there.

  They were the unhappiest, least excited, most tired monkeys Chinma had ever seen. Ire was right. There was something wrong with them.

  In Ilorin, Ire insisted they go to the clinic first, even before taking the monkeys to the scientists. He got out of the truck and staggered toward the clinic and Ade drove the truck off, as Ire had ordered. But Chinma was worried. What if the clinic didn't have the right medicines? Most of the medicine that got into Nigeria was intercepted by high officials and sold on the black market, so clinics rarely had a good supply of anything.

  They drove on down Highway A123 from the clinic and turned at a big traffic circle. They crossed the railroad tracks and then turned right again on a narrow paved road with warehouses and small factories. It was one of the warehouses where Ade brought them and stopped the truck.

  To Chinma's disappointment, there were no scientists here, just a couple of Nigerian men without shirts. Scientists always wore shirts. Chinma's brothers off-loaded the cages—they were still too big and heavy for Chinma to carry them—and took them inside the warehouse. Chinma stopped and looked around. There were lots of animal cages here, though most of them were empty.

  The brothers started to carry empty cages back out to the truck.

  "What are you looking at?" one of the warehouse men asked Chinma inYoruba.

  "I wanted to see a scientist," said Chinma, in English because he didn't know theYoruba word for "scientist."

  The man laughed at him. "You think they come here? It's stinky here."

  Chinma was disappointed, but then he thought: I can tell one of the doctors at the clinic.

  That was why he was the first one off the back of the truck when they got to the clinic again—he didn't want to give anybody a chance to tell him to wait out in the parking lot. He ran inside and went right up to the lady in a white dress who sat behind a table in the waiting room.

  "I want to talk to a doctor," he said in English.

  "What's your problem?" she asked.

  "No problem, I have to tell something."

  She pointed to the other people in the waiting room. "These people all have problems. They need the doctor. If you don't have a problem, then go away, little boy."

  That was all right. People were always saying no, and if you waited long enough sometimes you got a chance to do it anyway. Meanwhile, he had other business.

  "How is my brother Ire?" asked Chinma.

  "Your brother?" asked the lady.

  "We leave him here. An hour ago," said Chinma. "Then we take the monkeys and come back."

  "Did your brother have a bite on his hand?" asked the lady.

  "Monkey bite," said Chinma.

  She stood right up and grabbed him by the wrist. "Come with me!"

  One of the men waiting in a chair against the wall started to protest that he had been waiting much longer.

  "Sit down or go home," said the lady. And then they were through the door into the treatment room.

  Chinma could see five beds, and all of them had somebody lying or sitting on them. Ire was not any of them. Then he realized that a curtained-off area must have another bed in it. The lady went there and pulled him inside the curtain.

  Ire was on the bed. His eyes were wide open and he was breathing very thickly and heavily, his chest heaving. The doctor was on a cellphone, talking to somebody. He waved the lady away.

  "This is his brother," said the lady, ignoring the doctor's wave. "It's a monkey bite."

  "Monkey bite," said the doctor into the phone. "Wait. Listen while I question the brother." Then the doctor turned to Chinma. "What is this man's name?"

  "My brother Ire. He works here. In Ilorin. At the factory, an accountant."

  "Where did he get this bite?"

  "Long way down the highway," said Chinma. "Long dirt road. Trees … alone … " He didn't have enough English to describe the large but isolated stand of trees where the monkeys had been.

  "We need to get someone out there to find the monkey that bit him," said the doctor. "Can you lead us there?"

  Chinma shrugged. "My brother Ade lead you. Why?"

  "It's a scientific matter that you wouldn't understand," said the doctor.

  "Why go to the trees? The monkeys—"

  "Quiet, little boy, I'm on the telephone," said the doctor. Then he went back to talking medical language that Chinma mostly didn't understand. After a while he flipped the phone shut.

  He told the lady in white to give Ire an injection. "We've got to get his blood pressure down or … "

  Then the lady pointed to the corner of Ire's eye. Blood was seeping out between the eyeball and the place where the eyelids joined, and dripping down his cheekbone toward his ear.

  "Oh Lord in heaven," said the doctor. "Give him the injection."

  "Not me," she said, backing away.

  "It's not—what you think," said the doctor.

  "It's close enough that you're thinking the same thing," said the lady in white.

  The doctor took back the syringe and jammed it into Ire's upper arm and pushed the plunger. Then he handed it to the nurse. "We can't use this again," he said.

  "Of course not," she said.

  The doctor went outside the curtain and Chinma followed. "All of you!" the doctor said. The other patients looked at him. "You must get up and leave this building right now."

  "But I need … " an old lady began to say.

  "Leave this building," he said. His voice carried a lot of authority. But Chinma could also hear that he was afraid. Maybe the others could tell that, too, because they didn't argue. He made them go out the back way, so they wouldn't pass near to the curtained bed where Ire lay.

  That was when Chinma knew that Ire was dying.

  "So the monkey was poison like Ire said," Chinma said.

  "What?" asked the doctor. "Listen, boy. Some other doctors are going to be here very soon, and I need you to take them out to where you
found the monkey. Do you know what kind?"

  "White-face monkey. The papa monkey bit—"

  "Just answer my questions, boy, there's no time for nonsense! You mean a putty-face monkey?"

  "Yes," said Chinma.

  "And you say your other brother can drive them there?"

  "Yes, but—"

  "Then let's go get that brother."

  Chinma headed for the back door, but the doctor grabbed him. "The front way," he said. "I need to clear the waiting room."

  As they walked toward the door to the waiting room, Chinma saw the nurse lady finish rinsing out the syringe and put it with a stack of other syringes to dry. She must have forgotten that they weren't supposed to use it again. Or maybe it was a different syringe and she had thrown Ire's away.

  "Ire will die?" asked Chinma.

  "Shut up," said the doctor. "Do you want to start a panic?"

  I think sending all the patients out of the clinic through the back door is more likely to start a panic than anything I might say.

  But Chinma kept his mouth shut and the doctor opened the door to the waiting room. "We're closed now," he said. "Go home."

  "But I'm very sick," said the man who had complained before.

  A mother with a three-year-old pointed to the whimpering child's broken arm.

  "Do your best, do your best," said the doctor. "It's for your own good. This clinic is not a safe place for anyone right now."

  As they left, the smell of medicines finally got to Chinma and he sneezed on the sick man, who glared at him. "Sorry," said Chinma, and he ducked to avoid the inevitable cuffing.

  When the people were gone, Chinma led the doctor out into the parking lot. Ade strode up to them. "Where were you?" he demanded in Ayere. "I went in but there was nobody at the table and a sick man told me to get out or he'd infect me."

  The doctor gripped Ade by the upper arm. "I need you to take me and a couple of other doctors out to where your brother got bitten."

  "Why?" asked Ade.

  "If you want your brother to live, you'll do it," said the doctor.

  "I'll do it," said Ade, "but it's stupid. What does the place have to do with it?"