Earth unaware, p.1
Earth Unaware, p.1Part #1 of The First Formic War series by Orson Scott Card
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To Eric Smith, for silly accents, grisly deaths, and spontaneous musicals. On stage you are a thousand characters, but off it, the most constant of friends.
16. Weigh Station Four
24. Data Cube
By Orson Scott Card from Tom Doherty Associates
Victor didn't go to the airlock to see Alejandra leave the family forever, to marry into the Italian clan. He didn't trust himself to say good-bye to his best friend, not without revealing how close he had come to disgracing the family by falling in love with someone in his own asteroid-mining ship.
The Italians were a four-ship operation, and their lead ship, a behemoth of a digger named Vesuvio, had been attached to El Cavador for a week, as the families traded goods and information. Victor liked the Italians. The men sang; the women laughed often; and the food was like nothing he had ever eaten, with colorful spices and creamy sauces and oddly shaped pasta noodles. Victor's own invention, an HVAC booster that could increase the central heating temperature on the Italians' ships by as much as eleven degrees, had been an immediate hit with the Italians. "Now we will all wear one sweater instead of three!" one of the Italian miners had said, to huge laughter and thunderous applause. The Italians had been so smitten with Victor's booster, in fact, that it had brought in more trade goods and prestige than anything else the family had offered. So when Concepcion called Victor in to talk to him just before the Italians decoupled, he assumed she was going to commend him.
"Close the door, Victor," said Concepcion.
Victor did so.
The captain's office was a small space adjacent to the helm. Concepcion rarely closed herself in here, preferring instead to be out with the crew, matching or surpassing them in the amount of labor they put in each day. She was in her early seventies, but she had the energy and command of someone half her age.
"Alejandra is going with the Italians, Victor."
Victor blinked, sure that he had misheard.
"She's leaving from the airlock in ten minutes. We debated whether it was wise to even tell you beforehand and allow you two to say good-bye to each other, thinking perhaps that it might be easier for you to find out afterward. But I don't think I could ever forgive myself for that, and I doubt you'd forgive me either."
Victor's first thought was that Concepcion was telling him this because Alejandra, whom he called Janda for short, was his dearest friend. They were close. He would obviously be devastated by her departure. But a half second later he understood what was really happening. Janda was sixteen, two years too young to marry. The Italians couldn't be zogging her. The family was sending her away. And the captain of the ship was telling Victor in private mere minutes before it happened. They were accusing him. They were sending her off because of him.
"But we haven't done anything wrong," said Victor.
"You two are second cousins, Victor. We would never be able to trade with the other families if we suddenly developed a reputation for dogging."
Dogging, from "endogamy": marrying inside the clan, inbreeding. The word was like a slap. "Dogging? But I would never in a million years marry Alejandra. How could you even suggest that we would do such a thing?" It was vile to even think it; to the belter families, it was on the wrong side of the incest taboo.
Concepcion said, "You and Alejandra have been the closest of friends since your nursery years, Victor. Inseparable. I've watched you. We've all watched you. In large gatherings, you always seek each other out. You talk to each other constantly. Sometimes you don't even need to talk. It's as if you know precisely what the other is thinking and you need share only a passing glance between you to communicate it all."
"She's my friend. You're going to exile her because we communicate well with each other?"
"Your friendship isn't unique, Victor. I know of several dozen such friendships on this ship. And they are all between a husband and his wife."
"You're sending Alejandra away on the basis that she and I have a romantic relationship. When we don't."
"It is an innocent relationship, Victor. Everyone knows that."
"'Everyone'? Who do you mean exactly? Has there been a Family Meeting about us?"
"Only a Council. I would never make this decision on my own, Victor."
Not much of a relief. The Council consisted of all the adults over forty. "So my parents agree to this?"
"And Alejandra's parents as well. This was a difficult decision for all of us, Victor. But it was unanimous."
Victor pictured the scene: All of the adults gathered together, aunts and uncles and grandparents, people he knew and loved and respected, people whose opinion he valued, people who had always looked upon him fondly and whose respect he had always hoped to maintain. All of them had sat together and discussed him and Janda, discussed a sex life that Victor didn't even have! It was revolting. And Mother and Father had been there. How embarrassing for them. How could Victor ever face these people again? They would never be able to look at him without thinking of that meeting, without remembering the accusation and shame.
"No one is suggesting that you two have done anything improper, Victor. But that's why we're acting now, before your feelings further blossom and you realize you're in love."
Another slap. "Love?"
"I know this is difficult, Victor."
Difficult? No, unfair would be a better word. Completely unfair and unfounded. Not to mention humiliating. They were sending away his closest friend, perhaps his only true friend, all because they thought something would happen between them? As if he and Janda were animals in heat driven by unbridled carnal impulses. Was it too much to imagine that a teenage boy and a teenage girl could simply be friends? Did adults think so little of adolescents that they assumed that any relationship between sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds of the opposite sex had to be motivated by sex? It was infuriating and insulting. Here he was making an adult-sized contribution in the trade with the Italians, bringing in the largest share of income for the family, and they didn't think him mature enough to act properly with his second cousin. Janda wasn't in love with him, and he wasn't in love with her. Why would anyone think otherwise? What had initiated this? Had someone on the Council seen something between them and misinterpreted it as a sign of love?
And then Victor remembered. There was that time when Janda had looked at him strangely, and he had dismissed it as pure imagination. And she had touched his arm a little longer than normal once.
They were right, he realized.
He hadn't seen it, and they had. He really was on the brink of falling in love with Janda. And she had fallen in love with him, or at least her feelings were moving in that direction.
Everything swelled up inside him at once: anger at being accused; shame at learning that all the older adults on the ship had talked about him behind his back, believing he was moving toward disgraceful behavior; disgust with himself at realizing that perhaps they may have been right; grief at losing the person who meant the most to him in his life. Why couldn't Concepcion simply have told him her suspicions before now? Why couldn't she and the Council have said, "Victor, you really need to watch yourself. It looks like you and Alejandra are getting a little close." They didn't have to send Janda away. Didn't they know that he and Janda were mature enough to act appropriately once the family's fears were voiced? Of course they would comply. Of course he and Janda wanted to adhere to the exogamous code. Victor would never want to do anything to dishonor her or the family. He and Janda hadn't even realized that their relationship might be headed toward perilous waters. Now that they knew, things would be different.
But arguing would only make him look like a child. And besides, he would be arguing to keep Janda here, close to him. Wasn't that proof that the family was right? No, Alejandra had to go. It was cruel, yes, but not as cruel as keeping her here in front of him every day. That would be torture. Now that their love--or pre-love or whatever it was--had been so flagrantly pointed out to them, how could he and Janda think of anything else whenever they saw each other? And they would see each other. All the time, every day. At meals, passing in the hall, at exercise. It would be unavoidable. And out of their duty to honor one another and the family, they would become distant and cold to each another. They would overcompensate. They would refrain from any look, any conversation, any touch between them. Yet even as they tried in vain to avoid each other, they would be thinking about the need to avoid each other. They would consume each other's thoughts, even more so than before. It would be dreadful.
Victor immediately knew that Alejandra would understand this as well. She would be devastated to learn that she was leaving her family, but she would see the wisdom of it as well, just as Victor did. It was one of the many reasons why he respected her so much. Janda could always see the big picture. If a decision had to be made, she would consider every ramification: Who would be affected and when and for how long? And if the decision affected her, she would always consider it dispassionately, with an almost scientific eye, never letting her emotions override any wisdom, always putting the needs of the family above her own. Now, standing here in Concepcion's office, Victor realized that perhaps it wasn't respect that he felt for her. It was something else. Something greater.
He looked at Concepcion. "I would suggest that I go with the Italians instead of Alejandra, but that wouldn't work. The Italians would wonder why we were giving up our best mechanic." He knew it sounded vain, but they both knew it was true.
Concepcion didn't argue. "Alejandra is bright and talented and hardworking, but she has yet to choose a specialty. They can adapt her to what they need. You, however, are already specialized. What would they do with their own mechanic? It would put you in competition at once. No, they would not accept the situation, and we could not do without you. But it was generous, if pointless, for you to consider it."
Victor nodded. It was now a matter of clearing up a few questions. "Alejandra is only sixteen, two years too young to marry. I'm assuming the Italians agree to wait until the appropriate time to formally introduce her to potential suitors from their family. They understand that they can't possibly be zogging her now."
"Our arrangement with the Italians is very clear. Alejandra will be bunking with a family with a daughter her age and no sons. I have met the daughter myself and found her most agreeable and kind. I suspect that she and Alejandra will get along very well. And yes, the Italians understand that Alejandra is not to be considered a prospect for marriage until she comes of age. When that time comes, she is not to be coerced into a relationship or choice. She will move at her own pace. The decision of who and when to marry is entirely her own. Knowing Alejandra, I suspect she will have her pick of bachelors."
Of course Janda would have her pick, Victor thought. Any suitor with an eye for beauty--both physical and in every other respect--would immediately see the life of happiness that awaited him with Janda at his side. Victor had known that for years. Anyone who spent five minutes with Janda would know she would one day make an attractive bride. Everything that men hoped for in a companion was there: a brilliant mind, a kind disposition, an unbreakable devotion to family. And until this moment, Victor hadn't considered this opinion of her anything other than intelligent observation. Now, however, he could detect another sentiment buried within it. Envy. Envy for the man lucky enough to have her. It was funny, really. The feelings he had harbored all along for Alejandra were like emotions filed away in a mismarked folder. They had always been there. He had just given them a different name. Now the truth of them was glaringly obvious. A long friendship had slowly evolved into something else. It hadn't fully developed and resulted in any action, but its course was set. It was as if the boundary between friendship and love was so thin and imperceptible that one could cross it without even knowing it was there.
"The Italians can never know the real reason why Alejandra is leaving," said Victor. "They can't know that she was moving toward an unacceptable relationship. That would forever taint her and drive off potential suitors. You must have told them some invented reason. Families don't just send off their sixteen-year-old daughters."
"The Italians believe that Alejandra is going early so that she may have time to adapt to being away from her family and thus avoid the homesickness that plagues so many zogged brides," said Concepcion. "Such emotions, however natural, can put a strain on a young marriage, and we have explained to the Italians our desire to avoid it."
It was a smart cover story. Homesickness happened. Victor had seen it. Sooman, a bride that had come to El Cavador a few years ago to marry Victor's uncle Lonzo, had spent the first weeks of their marriage crying her eyes out in her room, bemoaning the loss of her Korean family. She had come willingly--no zogging is a forced marriage--but homesickness had crept in, and her constant weeping had really gotten to Victor. It made him feel like an accomplice in a kidnapping or rape. But what could be done? There could be no divorce or annulment. Her family was already millions of klicks away. Eventually she had come around, but the whole experience had been a burden for everyone.
"What assurance do we have that the Italians will abide by these conditions?" Victor asked.
"Alejandra isn't going alone. Faron is going with her."
Again, this was wise. Faron had come to the family late in his teens, when the family rescued him and his mother from a derelict mining ship after pirates had stripped it and left them to die. The mother did not live long, and Faron, though he was hardworking and grateful, had never fully become part of the family.
"Faron is a good miner, Victor. He's been waiting for an opportunity to get on with a bigger clan. He wants to be piloting his own digger someday. He won't accomplish that here. This is Faron's choice. He'll watch over Alejandra and see to it that her needs are met, not as a guardian, but as a protector and counselor. If any suitor tries to approach Alejandra too soon, Faron will remind him of his place."
Victor had no doubt of that. Faron was big and well muscled. He would defend Janda as his own sister should the occasion ever require it, which it probably never would. The Italians weren't stupid enough to threaten their own reputation and alienate themselves from other families. Zogging was crucial to mixing up the gene pool. Every family upheld the practice as sacrosanct. To marry well was to preserve the family and build the clan. True, there were b
"It's an ideal situation," said Concepcion. "It works out well for everyone. Now if you hurry, you can catch her at the airlock. I'm sure she would like to say good-bye."
Victor was surprised. "But I can't possibly see her off."
"But you are the person she will most want to say good-bye to."
"Which is exactly why I can't go," said Victor. "The Italians will be there. They might catch some sign of special emotion at our parting. Alejandra and I never noticed that we were conveying any emotions to each other at all, yet apparently we were or you never would have felt the need to hold a Council. So we might reveal something that we don't detect but that everyone else does. And the Italians are sharp and suspicious. They made me take the HVAC booster apart three times before they would believe that it works. No, as much as I would love to say good-bye to Alejandra, it would only put her at risk. They can never suspect that there was ever anything between us. I appreciate you coming to me beforehand and trusting me enough to give me the opportunity, but you must understand why I respectfully decline."
Concepcion smiled sadly. "Your reasoning is clear, Victor, but I also know the pain behind it. And the pain your decision will bring to Alejandra." She sighed, crossed her arms, and examined him a moment. "You don't disappoint me, Victor. You're the man I always hoped you would grow to be. Now I just hope that you will forgive us for what we have done to you and your dear friend."
"There is nothing to forgive, Concepcion. I'm the one who needs forgiveness. I have lost us Alejandra two years early. I've taken her from her parents and family. That wasn't my intent, but that doesn't change the fact that it's happened."
What he didn't say were his others reasons for not going to the airlock. He simply couldn't face Janda, for one. Not because of his shame, though he felt plenty of that. It was more the finality of the event. He couldn't look at her knowing that it would likely be the last time he would ever see her again. He couldn't bear that; he didn't trust his emotions enough. He might do something foolish, like cry or stammer or turn red as a beacon light. And he didn't want the weak side of him to be her final impression of him. Nor was he willing to steel his jaw and square his shoulders and see her off with a cold, stately handshake, as the Council would expect. That would be an affront to their friendship. It would imply--to him, at least--that their relationship had meant nothing to him after all, that it could be ended as dispassionately as two acquaintances parting ways. He couldn't allow that. He wouldn't let their final moment be an exercise in pretense and awkwardness.
Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes