Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Ships of Earth: Homecoming: Volume 3, Page 2

Orson Scott Card

  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 connection,” 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 course—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?”

  “You 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.”

  Shedemei did not remind her that only a few days ago they had felt quite unsafe in their beds. Nor did she mention that Rasa had just proved Shedemei’s own point—when Rasa thought of home and safety, it was Basilica she had in mind. The ghost of their old life in the city was going to haunt them for a long time to come.

  Now it was Kokor’s turn to stop her beast and wait for Rasa to catch up. “You were bad, weren’t you, Mama?” she said. “Did nasty old Elemak have to come and tell you off?”

  Shedemei was disgusted at Kokor’s little-girl silliness—but then, Kokor usually disgusted her. Her attitude always seemed false and manipulative; to Shedemei the wonder of it was that these pathetically obvious ploys must work on people fairly often, or Kokor would have found new ones.

  Well, whoever Kokor’s little-girl act worked on, it wasn’t her own mother. Rasa simply fixed Koya with an icy stare and said, “Shedya and I were having a private conversation, my dear. I’m sorry if you misunderstood and thought we had invited you to join us.”

  It took just a moment for Kokor to understand; when she did, her face darkened for a moment—with anger? Then she gave a prim little smile to Shedemei and said, “Mother is perpetually disappointed that I didn’t turn out like you Shedya. But I’m afraid neither my brain nor my body had enough inner beauty.” Then, awkwardly, Kokor got her camel moving fester and soon she was ahead of them again.

  Shedemei knew that Kokor had meant to insult her by reminding her that the only kind of beauty she would ever have was the inner kind. But Shedemei had long since grown out of her adolescent jealousy of pulchritudinous girls.

  Rasa must have been thinking the same thoughts. “Odd, isn’t it, that physically plain people are perfectly able to see physical beauty in others, while people who are morally maimed are blind to goodness and decency. They honestly think it doesn’t exist.”

  “Oh, they know it exists, all right,” said Shedemei. “They just never know which people have it. Not that my feelings at this moment would prove me to be a moral beauty.”

  “Having thoughts of murder, were you?” said Rasa.

  “Oh, nothing so direct or final,” said Shedemei. “I was just wishing for her to develop truly awful saddle sores.”

  “And Elemak? Did you wish some uncomfortable curse on him?”

  “Not at all,” said Shedemei. “Perhaps, as you say, he didn’t need to try to frighten us into obedience. But I think he was right. After all, the Oversoul hasn’t had exactly a perfect record in keeping us out of danger. No, I harbor no resentment toward Elya.”

  “I wish I were as mature as you, then. I found myself resenting the way he spoke to me. So condescending. I know why, of course—he feels my status in the city is a threat to his authority out here, so he has to put me in my place. But he should realize that I’m wise enough to follow his leadership without his having to humiliate me first.”

  “It isn’t a question of what you need,” said Shedemei. “It never is. It’s a question of what he needs. He needs to feel superior to you. For that matter, so do I, you silly old woman.”

  For a moment Rasa looked at her in horror. Then, just as Shedemei was about to explain that she was joking—why didn’t anybody ever understand her humor?—Rasa grinned at her. “I’d rather be a silly old woman than a silly young one,” she said. “Silly old women don’t make such spectacular mistakes.”

  “Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Shedemei. “Coming on this expedition, for instance ...”

  “A mistake?”

  “For me it certainly is. My life is genetics, but the closest I’m going to come to it for the rest of my life is i
f I manage to reproduce my own genes.”

  “You sound so despairing. Having children isn’t all that awful. They aren’t all Kokor, and even she may grow up to be human someday.”

  “Yes, but you loved your husbands,” said Shedemei. “Whom will I end up with, Aunt Rasa? Your crippled son? Or Gaballufix’s librarian?”

  “I think Hushidh plans to marry Issib,” said Rasa. Her voice was cold, but Shedemei didn’t care.

  “Oh, I know how you’ve got us sorted out. But tell me, Aunt Rasa, if Nafai hadn’t happened to drag the librarian along with him when he was stealing the Index … would you have arranged to bring me?”

  Rasa’s face was positively stony. She didn’t answer for a long time.

  “Come now, Aunt Rasa. I’m not a fool, and I’d rather you not try to fool me.”

  “We needed your skills, Shedya. The Oversoul chose you, not me.”

  “You’re sure it wasn’t you, counting up males and females and making sure we came out even?”

  “The Oversoul sent you that dream.”

  “The sad thing is,” said Shedemei, “that except for you there’s not a one of us that’s a proven reproducer. For all you know, you’ve set up one of these men with a sterile wife. Or perhaps you’ve put one of us women with a sterile husband.”

  Rasa’s anger was beginning to turn from cold to hot now. “I told you, it wasn’t my choice … Luet had a vision, too, and—”

  “Are you going to set the example? Are you going to have more children, Aunt Rasa?”

  Rasa seemed completely nonplussed. “Me? At my age?”

  “You’ve still got a few good eggs in you. I know you haven’t reached menopause, because you’re flowing now.”

  Rasa looked at her in consternation. “Why don’t I just lie down under one of your microscopes?”

  “You’d never fit. I’d have to slice you razor thin.”

  “Sometimes I feel as if you already had.”

  “Rasa, you make us stop several times a day. I know you have better bladder control than that. We all know you’re shedding the tears of the moon.”