Friday, December 28, 2007

Shadow Puppets




Re: What are you doing to protect the children?

Dear Admiral Chamrajnagar,

I was given your idname by a mutual friend who once worked for you but now is a glorified dispatcher—I'm sure you know whom I mean. I realize that your primary responsibility now is not so much military as logistical, and your thoughts are turned to space rather than the political situation on Earth. After all, you decisively defeated the nationalist forces led by your predecessor in the League War, and that issue seems settled. The I.F. remains independent and for that we are all grateful.

What no one seems to understand is that peace on Earth is merely a temporary illusion. Not only is Russia's long-pent expansionism still a driving force, but also many other nations have aggressive designs on their neighbors. The forces of the Strategos are being disbanded, the Hegemony is rapidly losing all authority, and Earth is poised on the edge of cataclysm.

The most powerful resource of any nation in the wars to come will be the children trained in Battle, Tactical, and Command School. While it is perfectly appropriate for these children to serve their native countries in future wars, it is inevitable that at least some nations that lack such I.F.-certified geniuses or who believe that rivals have more-gifted commanders will inevitably takepreemptive action, either to secure that enemy resource for their own use or, in any event, to deny the enemy the use of that resource. In short, these children are in grave danger of being kidnapped or killed.

I recognize that you have a hands-off policy toward events on Earth, but it was the I.F. that identified these children and trained them, thus making them targets. Whatever happens to these children, the I.F. has ultimate responsibility. It would go a long way toward protecting them if you were to issue an order placing these children under Fleet protection, warning any nation or group attempting to harm or interfere with them that they would face swift and harsh military retribution. Far from regarding this as interference in Earthside affairs, most nations would welcome this action, and, for whatever it is worth, you would have my complete support in all public forums.

I hope you will act immediately. There is no time to waste.



Nothing looked right in Armenia when Petra Arkanian returned home. The mountains were dramatic, of course, but they had not really been part of her childhood experience. It was not until she got to Maralik that she began to see things that should mean something to her. Her father had met her in Yerevan while her mother remained at home with her eleven-year-old brother and the new baby—obviously conceived even before the population restrictions were relaxed when the war ended. They had no doubt watched Petra on television. Now, as the flivver took Petra and her father along the narrow streets, he began apologizing. "It won't seem much to you, Pet, after seeing the world."

"They didn't show us the world much, Papa. There were no windows in Battle School."

"I mean, the spaceport, and the capital, all the important people and wonderful buildings ..."

"I'm not disappointed, Papa." She had to lie in order to reassure him. It was as if he had given her Maralik as a gift, and now was unsure whether she liked it. She didn't know yet whether she would like it or not. She hadn't liked Battle School, but she got used to it. There was no getting used to Eros, but she had endured it. How could she dislike a place like this, with open sky and people wandering wherever they wanted?

Yet she was disappointed. For all her memories of Maralik were the memories of a five-year-old, looking up at tall buildings, across wide streets where large vehicles loomed and fled at alarming speeds. Now she was much older, beginning to come into her womanly height, and the cars were smaller, the streets downright narrow, and the buildings—designed to survive the next earthquake, as the old buildings had not—were squat. Not ugly—there was grace in them, given the eclectic styles that were somehow blended here, Turkish and Russian, Spanish and Riviera, and, most incredibly, Japanese. It was a marvel to see how they were still unified by the choice of colors, the closeness to the street, the almost uniform height as all strained against the legal maximums.

She knew of all this because she had read about it on Eros as she and the other children sat out the League War. She had seen pictures on the nets. But nothing had prepared her for the fact that she had left here as a five-year-old and now was returning at fourteen.

"What?" she said. For Father had spoken and she hadn't understood him.

"I asked if you wanted to stop for a candy before we went home, the way we used to."

Candy. How could she have forgotten the word for candy?

Easily, that's how. The only other Armenian in Battle School had been three years ahead of her and graduated to Tactical School, so they overlapped only for a few months. She had been seven when she got from Ground School to Battle School, and he was ten, leaving without ever having commanded an army. Was it any wonder that he didn't want to jabber in Armenian to a little kid from home? So in effect she had gone without speaking Armenian for nine years. And the Armenian she had spoken then was a five-year-old's language. It was so hard to speak it now, and harder still to understand it.

How could she tell Father that it would help her greatly if he would speak to her in Fleet Common—English, in effect? He spoke it, of course—he and Mother had made a point of speaking English at home when she was little, so she would not be handicapped linguistically if she was taken into Battle School. In fact, as she thought about it, that was part of her problem. How often had Father actually called candy by the Armenian word? Whenever he let her walk with him through town and they stopped for candy, he would make her ask for it in English, and call each piece by its English name. It was absurd, really—why would she need to know, in Battle School, the English names of Armenian candies?

"What are you laughing for?"

"I seem to have lost my taste for candy while I was in space, Father. Though for old times' sake, I hope you'll have time to walk through town with me again. You won't be as tall as you were the last time."

"No, nor will your hand be as small in mine." He laughed, too. "We've been robbed of years that would be precious now, to have in memory."

"Yes," said Petra. "But I was where I needed to be."

Or was I? I'm the one who broke first. I passed all the tests, until the test that mattered, and there I broke first. Ender comforted me by telling me he relied on me most and pushed me hardest, but he pushed us all and relied upon us all and I'm the one who broke. No one ever spoke of it; perhaps here on Earth not one living soul knew of it. But the others who had fought with her knew it. Until that moment when she fell asleep in the midst of combat, she had been one of the best. After that, though she never broke again, Ender also never trusted her again. The others watched over her, so that if she suddenly stopped commanding her ships, they could step in. She was sure that one of them had been designated, but never asked who. Dink? Bean? Bean, yes—whether Ender assigned him to do it or not, she knew Bean would be watching, ready to take over. She was not reliable. They did not trust her. She did not trust herself.

Yet she would keep that secret from her family, as she kept it in talking to the prime minister and the press, to the Armenian military and the schoolchildren who had been assembled to meet the great Armenian hero of the Formic War. Armenia needed a hero. She was the only candidate out of this war. They had shown her how the online textbooks already listed her among the ten greatest Armenians of all time. Her picture, her biography, and quotations from Colonel Graff, from Major Anderson, from Mazer Rackham.

And from Ender Wiggin. "It was Petra who first stood up for me at risk to herself. It was Petra who trained me when no one else would. I owe everything I accomplished to her. And in the final campaign, in battle after battle she was the commander I relied upon."

Ender could not have known how those words would hurt. No doubt he meant to reassure her that he did rely upon her. But because she knew the truth, his words sounded like pity to her. They sounded like a kindly lie.

And now she was home. Nowhere on Earth was she so much a stranger as here, because she ought to feel at home here, but she could not, for no one knew her here. They knew a bright little girl who was sent off amid tearful good-byes and brave words of love. They knew a hero who returned with the halo of victory around her every word and gesture. But they did not know and would never know the girl who broke under the strain and in the midst of battle simply ... fell asleep. While her ships were lost, while real men died, she slept because her body could stay awake no more. That girl would remain hidden from all eyes.

And from all eyes would be hidden also the girl who watched every move of the boys around her, evaluating their abilities, guessing at their intentions, determined to take any advantage she could get, refusing to bow to any of them. Here she was supposed to become a child again—an older one, but a child nonetheless. A dependent.

After nine years of fierce watchfulness, it would be restful to turn over her life to others, wouldn't it?

"Your mother wanted to come. But she was afraid to come." He chuckled as if this were amusing. "Do you understand?"

"No," said Petra.

"Not afraid of you," said Father. "Of her firstborn daughter she could never be afraid. But the cameras. The politicians. The crowds. She is a woman of the kitchen. Not a woman of the market. Do you understand?"

She understood the Armenian easily enough, if that's what he was asking, because he had caught on, he was speaking in simple language and separating his words a little so she would not get lost in the stream of conversation. She was grateful for this, but also embarrassed that it was so obvious she needed such help.

What she did not understand was a fear of crowds that could keep a mother from coming to meet her daughter after nine years.

Petra knew that it was not the crowds or the cameras that Mother was afraid of. It was Petra herself. The lost five-year-old who would never be five again, who had had her first period with the help of a Fleet nurse, whose mother had never bent over her homework with her, or taught her how to cook. No, wait. She had baked pies with her mother. She had helped roll out the dough. Thinking back, she could see that her mother had not actually let her do anything that mattered. But to Petra it had seemed that she was the one baking. That her mother trusted her.

That turned her thoughts to the way Ender had coddled her at the end, pretending to trust her as before but actually keeping control.

And because that was an unbearable thought, Petra looked out the window of the flivver. "Are we in the part of town where I used to play?"

"Not yet," said Father. "But nearly. Maralik is still not such a large town."

"It all seems new to me," said Petra.

"But it isn't. It never changes. Only the architecture. There are Armenians all over the world, but only because they were forced to leave to save their lives. By nature, Armenians stay at home. The hills are the womb, and we have no desire to be born." He chuckled at his joke.

Had he always chuckled like that? It sounded to Petra less like amusement than like nervousness. Mother was not the only one afraid of her.

At last the flivver reached home. And here at last she recognized where she was. It was small and shabby compared to what she had remembered, but in truth she had not even thought of the place in many years. It stopped haunting her dreams by the time she was ten. But now, coming home again, it all returned to her, the tears she had shed in those first weeks and months in Ground School, and again when she left Earth and went up to Battle School. This was what she had yearned for, and at last she was here again, she had it back ... and knew that she no longer needed it, no longer really wanted it. The nervous man in the car beside her was not the tall god who had led her through the streets of Maralik so proudly. And the woman waiting inside the house would not be the goddess from whom came warm food and a cool hand on her forehead when she was sick.

But she had nowhere else to go.

Her mother was standing at the window as Petra emerged from the flivver. Father palmed the scanner to accept the charges. Petra raised a hand and gave a small wave to her mother, a shy smile that quickly grew into a grin. Her mother smiled back and gave her own small wave in reply. Petra took her father's hand and walked with him to the house.

The door opened as they approached. It was Stefan, her brother. She would not have known him from her memories of a two-year-old, still creased with baby fat. And he, of course, did not know her at all. He beamed the way the children from the school group had beamed at her, thrilled to meet a celebrity but not really aware of her as a person. He was her brother, though, and so she hugged him and he hugged her back. "You're really Petra!" he said.

"You're really Stefan!" she answered. Then she turned to her mother. She was still standing at the window, looking out.


The woman turned, tears streaking her cheeks. "I'm so glad to see you, Petra," she said.

But she made no move to come to Petra, or even to reach out to her.

"But you're still looking for the little girl who left nine years ago," said Petra.

Mother burst into tears, and now she reached out her arms and Petra strode to her, to be enfolded in her embrace. "You're a woman now," said Mother. "I don't know you, but I love you."

"I love you too, Mother," said Petra. And was pleased to realize that it was true.

They had about an hour, the four of them—five, once the baby woke up. Petra shunted aside their questions—"Oh, everything about me has already been published or broadcast. It's you that I want to hear about"—and learned that her father was still editing textbooks and supervising translations, and her mother was still the shepherd of the neighborhood, watching out for everyone, bringing food when someone was sick, taking care of children while parents ran errands, and providing lunch for any child who showed up. "I remember once that Mother and I had lunch alone, just the two of us," Stefan joked. "We didn't know what to say, and there was so much food left over."

"It was already that way when I was little," Petra said. "I remember being so proud of how the other kids loved my mother. And so jealous of the way she loved them!"

"Never as much as I loved my own girl and boy," said Mother. "But I do love children, I admit it, every one of them is precious in the sight of God, every one of them is welcome in my house."

"Oh, I've known a few you wouldn't love," said Petra.

"Maybe," said Mother, not wishing to argue, but plainly not believing that there could be such a child.

The baby gurgled and Mother lifted her shirt to tuck the baby to her breast.

"Did I slurp so noisily?" asked Petra.

"Not really," said Mother.

"Oh, tell the truth," said Father. "She woke the neighbors."

"So I was a glutton."

"No, merely a barbarian," said Father. "No table manners."

Petra decided to ask the delicate question boldly and have done with it. "The baby was born only a month after the population restrictions were lifted."

Father and Mother looked at each other, Mother with a beatific expression, Father with a wince. "Yes, well, we missed you. We wanted another little girl."

"You would have lost your job," said Petra.

"Not right away," said Father.

"Armenian officials have always been a little slow about enforcing those laws," said Mother.

"But eventually, you could have lost everything."

"No," said Mother. "When you left, we lost half of everything. Children are everything. The rest is ... nothing."

Stefan laughed. "Except when I'm hungry. Food is something!"

"You're always hungry," said Father.

"Food is always something," said Stefan.

They laughed, but Petra could see that Stefan had had no illusions about what the birth of this child would have meant. "It's a good thing we won the war."

"Better than losing it," said Stefan.

"It's nice to have the baby and obey the law, too," said Mother.

"But you didn't get your little girl."

"No," said Father. "We got our David."

"We didn't need a little girl after all," said Mother. "We got you back."

Not really, thought Petra. And not for long. Four years, maybe fewer, and I'll be off to university. And you won't miss me by then, because you'll know that I'm not the little girl you love, just this bloody-handed veteran of a nasty military school that turned out to have real battles to fight.

After the first hour, neighbors and cousins and friends from Father's work began dropping by, and it was not until after midnight that Father had to announce that tomorrow was not a national holiday and he needed to have some sleep before work. It took yet another hour to shoo everyone out of the house, and by then all Petra wanted was to curl up in bed and hide from the world for at least a week.

But by the end of the next day, she knew she had to get out of the house. She didn't fit into the routines. Mother loved her, yes, but her life centered around the baby and the neighborhood, and while she kept trying to engage Petra in conversation, Petra could see that she was a distraction, that it would be a relief for Mother when Petra went to school during the day as Stefan did, returning only at the scheduled time. Petra understood, and that night announced that she wanted to register for school and begin class the next day.

"Actually," said Father, "the people from the I.F. said that you could probably go right on to university."

"I'm fourteen," said Petra. "And there are serious gaps in my education."

"She never even heard of Dog," said Stefan.

"What?" said Father. "What dog?"

"Dog," said Stefan. "The zip orchestra. You know."

"Very famous group," said Mother. "If you heard them, you'd take the car in for major repairs."

"Oh, that Dog," said Father. "I hardly think that's the education Petra was talking about."

"Actually, it is," said Petra.

"It's like she's from another planet," said Stefan. "Last night I realized she never heard of anybody."

"I am from another planet. Or, properly speaking, asteroid."

"Of course," said Mother. "You need to join your generation."

Petra smiled, but inwardly she winced. Her generation? She had no generation, except the few thousand kids who had once been in Battle School, and now were scattered over the surface of the Earth, trying to find out where they belonged in a world at peace.

School would not be easy, Petra soon discovered. There were no courses in military history and military strategy. The mathematics was pathetic compared to what she had mastered in Battle School, but with literature and grammar she was downright backward: Her knowledge of Armenian was indeed childish, and while she was fluent in the version of English spoken in Battle School—including the slang that the kids used there—she had little knowledge of the rules of grammar and no understanding at all of the mixed Armenian and English slang that the kids used with each other at school.

Everyone was very nice to her, of course—the most popular girls immediately took possession of her, and the teachers treated her like a celebrity. Petra allowed herself to be led around and shown everything, and studied the chatter of her new friends very carefully, so she could learn the slang and hear how school English and Armenian were nuanced. She knew that soon enough the popular girls would tire of her—especially when they realized how bluntly outspoken Petra was, a trait that she had no intention of changing. Petra was quite used to the fact that people who cared about the social hierarchy usually ended up hating her and, if they were wise, fearing her, since pretensions didn't last long in her presence. She would find her real friends over the next few weeks—if, in fact, there were any here who would value her for what she was. It didn't matter. All the friendships here, all the social concerns, seemed so trivial to her. There was nothing at stake here, except each student's own social life and academic future, and what did that matter? Petra's previous schooling had all been conducted in the shadow of war, with the fate of humanity riding on the outcome of her studies and the quality of her skills. Now, what did it matter? She would read Armenian literature because she wanted to learn Armenian, not because she thought it actually mattered what some expatriate like Saroyan thought about the lives of children in a long-lost era of a far-off country.

The only part of school that she truly loved was physical education. To have sky over her head as she ran, to have the track lie flat before her, to be able to run and run for the sheer joy of it and without a clock ticking out her allotted time for aerobic exercise—such a luxury. She could not compete, physically, with most of the other girls. It would take time for her body to reconstruct itself for high gravity, for despite the great pains that the I.F. went to to make sure that soldiers' bodies did not deteriorate too much during long months and years in space, nothing trained you for living on a planet's surface except living there. But Petra didn't care that she was one of the last to complete every race, that she couldn't leap even the lowest hurdle. It felt good simply to run freely, and her weakness gave her goals to meet. She would be competitive soon enough. That was one of the aspects of her innate personality that had taken her to Battle School in the first place—that she had no particular interest in competition because she always started from the assumption that, if it mattered, she would find a way to win.

And so she settled in to her new life. Within weeks she was fluent in Armenian and had mastered the local slang. As she had expected, the popular girls dropped her in about the same amount of time, and a few weeks later, the brainy girls had cooled toward her as well. It was among the rebels and misfits that she found her friends, and soon she had a circle of confidants and co-conspirators that she called her "jeesh," Battle School slang for close friends, a private army. Not that she was the commander or anything, but they were all loyal to each other and amused at the antics of the teachers and the other students, and when a school counselor called her in to tell her that the administration was growing concerned about the fact that Petra seemed to be associating with an antisocial element in school, she knew that she was truly at home in Maralik.

Then one day she came home from school to find the front door locked. She carried no house key—no one did in their neighborhood because no one locked up, or even, in good weather, closed their doors. She could hear the baby crying inside the house, so instead of making her mother come to the front door to let her in, she walked around back and came into the kitchen to find that her mother was tied to a chair, gagged, her eyes wide and frantic with fear.

Before Petra had time to react, a hypostick was slapped against her arm and, without ever seeing who had done it, she slipped into darkness.

Excerpted from

Shadow Puppets

by Orson Scott Card
Buy this book at Barnes & Noble

Friday, December 21, 2007

Seventh Son

Bloody Mary

Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head. Mama said she was too young for egging, but little Peggy showed her. Every day she felt in every brood box and brought in every egg, every single one, that’s what she did.
Every one, she said in her mind, over and over. I got to reach into every one.
Then little Peggy looked back into the northeast corner, the darkest place in the whole coop, and there sat Bloody Mary in her brood box, looking like the. devil’s own bad dream, hatefulness shining out of her nasty eyes, saying Come here little girl and give me nips. I want nips of finger and nips of thumb and if you come real close and try to take my egg I’ll get a nip of eye from you.
Most animals didn’t have much heartfire, but Bloody Mary’s was strong and made a poison smoke. Nobody else could see it, but little Peggy could. Bloody Mary dreamed of death for all folks, but most specially for a certain little girl five years old, and little Peggy had the marks on her fingers to prove it. At least one mark, anyway, andeven if Papa said he couldn’t see it, little Peggy remembered how she got it and nobody could blame her none if she sometimes forgot to reach under Bloody Mary who sat there like a bushwhacker waiting to kill the first folks that just tried to come by. Nobody’d get mad if she just sometimes forgot to look there.
I forgot. I looked in every brood box, every one, and if one got missed then I forgot forgot forgot.
Everybody knew Bloody Mary was a lowdown chicken and too mean to give any eggs that wasn’t rotten anyway.
I forgot.
She got the egg basket inside before Mama even had the fire het, and Mama was so pleased she let little Peggy put the eggs one by one into the cold water. Then Mama put the pot on the hook and swung it right on over the fire. Boiling eggs you didn’t have to wait for the fire to slack, you could do it smoke and all.
“Peg,” said Papa.
That was Mama’s name, but Papa didn’t say it in his Mama voice. He said it in his little-Peggy-you’re-in-dutch voice, and little Peggy knew she was completely found out, and so she turned right around and yelled what she’d been planning to say all along.
“I forgot, Papa!”
Mama turned and looked at little Peggy in surprise. Papa wasn’t surprised though. He just raised an eyebrow. He was holding his hand behind his back. Little Peggy knew there was an egg in that hand. Bloody Mary’s nasty egg.
“What did you forget, little Peggy?” asked Papa, talking soft.
Right that minute little Peggy reckoned she was the stupidest girl ever born on the face of the earth. Here she was denying before anybody accused her of anything.
But she wasn’t going to give up, not right off like that. She couldn’t stand to have them mad at her and she just wanted them to let her go away and live in England. So she put on her innocent face and said, “I don’t know, Papa.”
She figgered England was the best place to go live, cause England had a Lord Protector. From the look in Papa’s eye, a Lord Protector was pretty much what she needed just now.
“What did you forget?” Papa asked again.
“Just say it and be done, Horace,” said Mama. “If she’s done wrong then she’s done wrong.”
“I forgot one time, Papa,” said little Peggy. “She’s a mean old chicken and she hates me.”
Papa answered soft and slow. “One time,” he said.
Then he took his hand from behind him. Only it wasn’t no single egg he held, it was a whole basket. And that basket was filled with a clot of straw—most likely all the straw from Bloody Mary’s box—and that straw was mashed together and glued tight with dried-up raw egg and shell bite, mixed up with about three or four chewed-up baby chicken bodies.
“Did you have to bring that in the house before breakfast, Horace?” said Mama.
“I don’t know what makes me madder,” said Horace. “What she done wrong or her studying up to lie about it.”
“I didn’t study and I didn’t lie!” shouted little Peggy. Or anyways she meant to shout. What came out sounded espiciously like crying even though little Peggy had decided only yesterday that she was done with crying for the rest of her life.
“See?” said Mama. “She already feels bad.”
“She feels bad being caught,” said Horace. “You’re too slack on her, Peg. She’s got a lying spirit. I don’t want my daughter growing up wicked. I’d rather see her dead like her baby sisters before I see her grow up wicked.”
Little Peggy saw Mama’s heartfire flare up with memory, and in front of her eyes she could see a baby laid out pretty in a little box, and then another one only not so pretty cause it was the second baby Missy, the one what died of pox so nobody’d touch her but her own mama, who was still so feeble from the pox herself that she couldn’t do much. Little Peggy saw that scene, and she knew Papa had made a mistake to say what he said cause Mama’s face went cold even though her heartfire was hot.
“That’s the wickedest thing anybody ever said in my presence,” said Mama. Then she took up the basket of corruption from the table and carried it outside.
“Bloody Mary bites my hand,” said little Peggy.
“We’ll see what bites,” said Papa. “For leaving the eggs I give you one whack, because I reckon that lunatic hen looks fearsome to a frog-size girl like you. But for telling lies I give you ten whacks.”
Little Peggy cried in earnest at that news. Papa gave an honest count and full measure in everything, but most especially in whacks.
Papa took the hazel rod off the high shelf. He kept it up there ever since little Peggy put the old one in the fire and burnt it right up.
“I’d rather hear a thousand hard and bitter truths from you, Daughter, than one soft and easy lie,” said he, and then he bent over and laid on with the rod across her thighs. Whick whick whick, she counted every one, they stung her to the heart, each one of them, they were so full of anger. Worst of all she knew it was all unfair because his heartfire raged for a different cause altogether, and it always did. Papa’s hate for wickedness always came from his most secret memory. Little Peggy didn’t understand it all, because it was twisted up and confused and Papa didn’t remember it right well himself. All little Peggy ever saw plain was that it was a lady and it wasn’t Mama. Papa thought of that lady whenever something went wrong. When baby Missy died of nothing at all, and then the next baby also named Missy died of pox, and then the barn burnt down once, and a cow died, everything that went wrong made him think of that lady and he began to talk about how much he hated wickedness and at those times the hazel rod flew hard and sharp.
I’d rather hear a thousand hard and bitter truths, that’s what he said, but little Peggy knew that there was one truth he didn’t ever want to hear, and so she kept it to herself. She’d never shout it at him, even if it made him break the hazel rod, cause whenever she thought of saying aught about that lady, she kept picturing her father dead, and that was a thing she never hoped to see for real. Besides, the lady that haunted his heartfire, she didn’t have no clothes on, and little Peggy knew that she’d be whipped for sure if she talked about people being naked.
So she took the whacks and cried till she could taste that her nose was running. Papa left the room right away, and Mama came back to fix up breakfast for the blacksmith and the visitors and the hands, but neither one said boo to her, just as if they didn’t even notice. She cried even harder and louder for a minute, but it didn’t help. Finally she picked up her Bugy from the sewing basket and walked all stiff-legged out to Oldpappy’s cabin and woke him right up.
He listened to her story like he always did.
“I know about Bloody Mary,” he said, “and I told your papa fifty times if I told him once, wring that chicken’s neck and be done. She’s a crazy bird. Every week or so she gets crazy and breaks all her own eggs, even the ones ready to hatch. Kills her own chicks. It’s a lunatic what kills its own.”
“Papa like to killed me,” said little Peggy.
“I reckon if you can walk somewhat it ain’t so bad altogether.”
“I can’t walk much.”
“No, I can see you’re nigh crippled forever,” said Oldpappy. “But I tell you what, the way I see it your mama and your-papa’s mostly mad at each other. So why don’t you just disappear for a couple of hours?”
“I wish I could turn into a bird and fly.”
“Next best thing, though,” said Pappy, “is to have a secret place where nobody knows to look for you. Do you have a place like that? No, don’t tell me—it wrecks it if you tell even a single other person. You just go to that place for a while. As long as it’s a safe place, not out in the woods where a Red might take your pretty hair, and not a high place where you might fall off, and not a tiny place where you might get stuck.”
“It’s big and it’s low and it ain’t in the woods,” said little Peggy.
“Then you go there, Maggie.”
Little Peggy made the face she always made when Oldpappy called her that. And she held up Bugy and in Bugy’s squeaky high voice she said, “Her name is Peggy.”
“You go there, Piggy, if you like that better—”
Little Peggy slapped Bugy right across Oldpappy’s knee.
“Someday Bugy’ll do that once too often and have a rupture and die,” said Oldpappy.
But Bugy just danced right in his face and insisted, “Not piggy, Peggy”
“That’s right, Puggy, you go to that secret place and if anybody says, We got to go find that girl, I’ll say, I know where she is and she’ll come back when she’s good and ready.”
Little Peggy ran for the cabin door and then stopped and turned. “Oldpappy, you’re the nicest grown-up in the whole world.”
“Your papa has a different view of me, but that’s all tied up with another hazel rod that I laid hand on much too often. Now run along.”
She stopped again right before she closed the door. “You’re the only nice grown-up!” She shouted it real loud, halfway hoping that they could hear it clear inside the house. Then she was gone, right across the garden, out past the cow pasture, up the hill into the woods, and along the path to the spring house.

Copyright © 1987 by Orson Scott Card

Excerpted from

Seventh Son
by Orson Scott Card

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Friday, December 14, 2007

The Day After Tomorrow

Jack Hall stared into his microscope, trying not to let his freezing-cold hands shake the equipment. Outside, the antarctic wind shook the tiny mobile lab. He'd come far for these precious ice cores. The story they had to tell was urgent, maybe very urgent. And now at last he was looking back along the years, back past season after season, layer after layer of ice.

Back his eyes swept through time, past the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire, to the time before Egypt, when the ice got clean and pure and then -- not.

There it was, the layer he was looking for, the year hell had ridden the winds of the world. The ice was thick; the layer was complex, full of particles, irregular. To his expert eye, it told the story of a monster that had marched through planet Earth back then, a storm beyond the wildest limit of the imagination.

He'd read the fossil record, of course. He even knew the time of year the storm had taken place. It had happened in June. North polar temperatures were spiking to eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The fossil record revealed that a herd of mammoths had been placidly feeding on daisies not far from a blooming apple tree when, literally as they chewed their food, they had been frozen solid and the world around them transformed into a roaring arctic hell.

There was no ice in the arctic deep enough or pure enough to confirm the fossil record. But this -- this was the gold he needed. He looked up from his work and gazed out the frosted window of the lab. As far as he could see, there stretched the amazing, twisted, sweeping ice of the antarctic shelf, ice that had been attached to the continent forthousands of years. Overhead, the deep blue antarctic sky spoke eloquently of profound, absolute cold. He laughed a little to himself. The truth was that it wasn't as cold as it should be. Not nearly.

He saw his assistant Frank Wilson come down off the drill rig carrying an aluminum case he knew contained more ice cores. That was good. They needed those critical cores from the same depth, because Jack's case had to be airtight. Everybody from the White House on down was going to try to demolish it. They didn't want to hear what he had to say, he knew that. He was not a politician. His job was to reveal what had happened in the past. It was up to them to act.

He stood up, watching the rig more closely. The drill was still running. But Frank --

"Hey, Frank, what's going on?"

Frank began opening the cores, preparing them for a clean transfer to the Cat's storage locker. "Jason's running it."

Jason was a good kid, but he was also a grad student with next to no field experience. "Is that -- "

At that moment, there was a sort of shudder. It wasn't much, but it shouldn't have been there at all. What the hell was happening?

Then a screaming sound came from the drill. Jack could see that it was turning free. A distant shout echoed. "Oh, shit," Frank said as he burst out of the Cat, down the ladder, and began to sprint across the ice.

What sounded like a ragged, endless volley of rifle shots shattered the profound antarctic silence. Jack leaped up onto the drill rig.

"I didn't do anything," Jason screamed above the screaming of the drill and the explosive cracking sounds.

Behind them, Frank shut the drill down. As the bit whirred to silence, there was a crash just below the rig and what felt like an earthquake. Jack forced himself not to shout the furious curse that came to his lips. The damn ice had given way. This supposedly solid chunk of ice shelf had just -- a damn hole was under the rig the size of a car. He peered down into the blue ice.

Again the drill shifted, and Jason, in his terror, grabbed it. It swung toward the hole, grad student attached.

"Let go of the drill!"

The kid's face peered back, eyes huge, skin as pale as the death that was clawing at him.

Jack leaped forward, balancing on the edge of the rig itself, and gripped the kid's parka. As the drill fell away, he manhandled the scrabbling, terrified student up onto the stable part of the rig. But it didn't stay stable for long. An instant later, the three of them had to jump a four-foot gap just to get off the rig. It yawned below them, easily a couple of hundred feet deep, sudden death waiting inches from the least slip.

Now the rifle shots changed to deeper roars, crunching, and echoing booms. The whole damn shelf was disintegrating right under their feet. Jack watched as the rig started moving away from them, carrying Jack's ice cores with it. He lunged toward the edge.

Frank grabbed his shoulder. "Forget 'em, Jack. It's too late."

What was happening right here and now -- a whole ice shelf unexpectedly disintegrating around a group of skilled scientists -- told him that they were essential. He did what he had to do. He leaped across the widening crevasse to reach them.

"Jack, don't!"

Jack landed on the far side of the crevasse, stumbled, slipped, then regained his footing. He gathered cores as best he could. Some of them crumbled, but he could do nothing about that, not without proper carriers.

When he turned to jump back, he was shocked to see that the gap was widening fast. It was at least ten feet. And then he saw it, hundreds of feet below -- the dark, shadowy presence of the sea. He stared, almost hypnotized by the impossible, unbelievable sight. Nobody had tested the temperature of that water, but it must have been high, way too high, for years.

The ocean currents were already going haywire. What he was trying to warn the world about must already be well under way. He flung his cores to Frank. Even if it meant his life, those cores had to get back to the lab. If he couldn't publish the crucial paper, Frank could and he would.

Jack saw that he had exactly one chance to do this. He unsheathed his narrow, sharply pointed ice ax. He was a powerful man, he made damned sure of that, living and working as he did in some of the world's most dangerous places. He leaped, reaching with all his might, and felt the ax drive into the face of the cliff at Frank and Jason's feet. He dangled there, feeling the ax begin to slip.

Then Frank had him, and he was coming up over the edge.

"You're out of your mind."

"I knew you'd catch me."

Frank shook his head, then both men smiled.

"What the hell is happening?" Jason was not amused.

Frank dropped a fatherly hand down on his shoulder. "The whole goddamn shelf is breaking off, that's what's happening."

"We've got to get out of here!"

"That would be true."

The International Space Station smells like a whole lot of things, but not roses or clean sheets or new-mown grass. You get used to it, though. Slowly. Yuri Andropov would remind himself, when the toilet overheated or the air cleaner went down, that Mir was a whole lot worse. But he wasn't thinking about creature comforts now. He was a professional observer, and he was observing something quite interesting. Looking down at the gigantic storm below, he worked the station's cameras.

"You want to see storm," he said into his mike, "this is storm."

From the nearby space shuttle, which had just completed a docking maneuver with the space station, Commander Robert Parker said, "Most incredible sight, Yuri."

Far below them, a WP-3D Hurricane Hunter from NOAA's Pacific Squadron moved toward the storm, looking no bigger than a gnat against its towering clouds. Superficially, the plane looked like a C-130 cargo craft, but the fat instrument cowling on its belly and its huge, churning props told a different story. Those instruments fed no less that 250 separate weather readings a second to the plane's array of onboard computers, and what they were saying right now was getting some extremely serious attention from the meteorologists hunched over their stations inside the plane.

"Is this normal?" a nervous rookie scientist asked as the plane seemed to leap and flounder across the sky.

"Once we dive in, there's less bounce, more shake. Don't have any loose fillings, do you?"

Up front, Commander Michael Daniels stared steadily ahead. He was recording some powerful gusts across the plane's wings, and he was thirty miles from the storm's perimeter. He'd been doing this for fifteen years, and this was not a usual pattern, not at all.

"Get Goddard on the horn," he said to his first officer, his voice maintaining a calm he did not feel.

At NASA's Satellite Command Center at the Goddard Space Center, Janet Tokada was also reading data output from the plane. But she had even more information. Thanks to NASA's ultra-high-tech scatterometer instrument aboard Japan's Advanced Earth Observing satellite, she could measure wind speeds inside the storm, in areas the plane had not yet reached.

Commander Daniels's voice crackled in her ears. "Control, this is Recon One, do you read me?"

"This is NASA Goddard, go ahead."

"We may lose you in a few moments. Do you have updated stats for us?"

Janet glanced at her science officer. "Here's the TRMM data," he said, holding out a sheet. The estimated internal wind speeds leaped off the page at her.

"Recon One," she said quickly, "we advise that you turn around immediately."

She static.

"Recon One, do you read me?"

"What's the matter, Janet?" her science officer asked.

"This thing is off the charts. It could rip the wings right off that plane."

Commander Daniels continued to fly into the storm, and to listen to the static. The radio automatically searched frequencies, but they were over a thousand miles out in the south-central Pacific, over one of the most isolated areas on the planet, the vast stretch of empty water that spreads south of the Hawaiian Islands. "We've lost them," he said. "Tell the guys to release the dropsondes."

Measuring instruments dropped out of their containers as the plane entered the storm. This was the rookie's moment. It was his job to read and record their transmissions. He sat rigidly at his station, fighting the wild gyrations of the aircraft as he tried to call out his readings.

"Transmission is up and good. I am seeing wind speed at -- at -- one ninety. That is one ninety! Hold on. That is one ninety-five."

Up front, Commander Daniels heard the unbelievable, fantastic numbers but could not react, he was too busy keeping the airplane running. He gripped his controls, struggled to read his vibrating instruments. Beside him, his skilled copilot adjusted the bite of the props. They reduced airspeed, increasing the shake, rattle, and roll but diminishing the threat to the airframe.

"Two hundred," came the young voice from behind, "two ten, two twenty, two thirty!"

This was a typhoon with wind speeds equivalent to that of a tornado. It was fantastic, unbelievable. But it was also no place to turn an airplane, not one that was so close to its design limits, and probably past them when it came to crucial areas like wing roots. Commander Daniels flew on, largely because he dared do nothing else.

The wings fluttered so wildly that the sound of creaking metal rose over the surging roar of the props. Commander Daniels thought helplessly of his people. If the aircraft disintegrated, they were all dead. Chutes would be useless in this maelstrom.

"How far to the eye wall?" he asked his copilot, his calm, decisive voice betraying nothing of his inner feelings.

"Eight niner clicks."

Less than a minute. That would be a maybe.

When they burst through the wall of the eye, the silence was so deep that the rookie laughed with relief. "Wow, that was some ride!"

The others were silent. They all knew the same thing: this airplane had to make it out the other side or they were going to have a real bad day. "Let's hope this monster never makes land," one of them said quietly.

It was pitch-dark at noon on the Big Island, and Aaron was damned concerned. No, he was scared. Shitless. And he was doing something he would normally have considered a total waste of time. He was watching the news. This typhoon was, like, some kind of a sea monster. Hundred-and-ninety-mile-an-hour winds? What was that about?

He could hardly hear what the weather maven was saying, though, because ole Zack had surf-punk music blasting out of his monster Jensen loud enough to actually drown out the damn storm.

"It's gettin' gnarly out there, Zack. Maybe we oughta split."

Zack belched. They had done about umpteen quarts of beer last night.

"I'm serious, man. Everybody else is gone already."

Zack looked over at him. Zack's eyes were red. "Don't be such a wuss. How bad can it be if the damn TV still works?"

Bang. Then darkness. Silence. Then, as Aaron's ears adjusted to the absence of the Dirt Surfers, he heard the roar of the wind, and oh my god.

And then something else, which was -- damn, ripping? Plus, crashing noises, glass breaking.

"What the hell is that?" Zack said.

"It's the house getting torn apart, man."

This whole part of the island had been evacuated yesterday. But Zack had not believed, not in anything except what promised to be the most humongous surf in the whole history of the world. And Aaron had stayed with him, because he was that kind of guy, and plus Zack had said, "Do you believe?" and that had always done it for this surfer. Now he was feeling damn sick about it, oh, yes.

He peered out into the darkness and flying rain. No way was he going anywhere near the beach in this. Yeah, there would be surf all right, surf enough to grind you to pulp. Then he saw a door tumbling through the air as if some giant had tossed it. The next house over was right up at the end of the road. It would be taking the storm head-on. Then he saw a piece of a window, then a whole damn couch.

"Jesus Christ, Zack, that's our neighbor's house going past, is what that is!" They had to get the hell out of here, and right now. He went to the door, threw it open -- and had it just grabbed right out of his hands by a wind that was like a living thing...that knew they were there.

"Come on, man!"

This time Zack did not argue. Not even he was that insane.

They struggled down the stairs, heading for the carport. As they reached the ground, Aaron felt water come up into his shoes, then up to his calves. The whole place was flooded. He jumped into his ancient jeep and dragged the key out of his pocket. So scared he could barely function, he jammed it into the ignition.


Okay, do not piss in your pants, that would not be good, boy-o. Zack would not forget that, nosir! He turned the key again. But then he realized that Zack wasn't in the car. There was a noise; he turned around and saw that Zack was tying his damn board to the roof rack.

"What the hell are you doing? Forget the board, Zack!"

At that moment, there was a series of noises like firecrackers going off -- big firecrackers. The slats that closed the side of the carport tore away in rapid succession. Now the storm came roaring in, a creature with an evil voice, and it was calling their names.

As Zack jumped into the car, the house above them groaned and actually damn well lifted and blew right off into the darkness and the spray. Frantically, Aaron turned the key, and the starter ground and ground, and finally -- finally -- the engine fired. He pulled out into where the road used to be and started out toward the highway. Something black came bounding toward them, looking like a cardboard box being blown by the wind, except that it was no box, it was a huge steel dumpster coming down on them like death itself. It hit fifty feet in front of them, then rose up into the air, its lid clanging open and closed, open and closed. All they could do was watch as it came closer and closer. They heard it smash into the surfboard and rip it away.

Aaron hit the gas, the tires spun, screamed, then caught, and they shot off up a road that had become a wind-whipped river, praying to God that they'd reach the highway before the ocean did.

It was a sunny day in Arlington, Virginia, sunny and kind of hot, actually, as Sam Hall went up in the elevator to his dad's apartment. He had Laura and Brian with him because it was pretty cool to basically have this, like, entire apartment to yourself, which he did.

"Where's your dad?"

"Who knows? Halfway around the world somewhere, as usual. Last email I got was from McMurdo Sound."

"Does he know you come here when he's out of town?"

He knew Laura thought he was completely uncool. He knew that. Like, a professional wuss like him would never be allowed to come into his own dad's apartment unless he was under total supervision. Okay.

"Actually, yeah. I'm taking care of his plants for him."

And also actually, the African violets were not doing so hot.

"I see," Laura said touching one of them, "you've got quite the green thumb."

Uncool again, totally uncool. Sam got a damn glass of water from the kitchen and soaked them. Their dead bodies, that is.

"Uh, I think you're overwatering them," Brian said.

"You think?"

They were floating, actually, dead sticks in muddy goop. It was not pretty. "Uh, Sam, my boy, where are we supposed to sit?"

The living room was a trifle messy. Sam swept a pile of National Geographics off the sofa and cleared some space. If you wanted National Geographic, this was the place to come. His dad had every National Geographic that had ever been printed, and possibly a few more. They were interesting, though. Sam had been looking for pictures of Antarctica. He wanted to see where his dad was. Truth be told, his dad was incredibly cool. Not many fathers, like, dared the edge. Brian's dad worked somewhere deep in the Agriculture Department. He looked like a big fat loaf of bread in a suit.

"I think we should start with English lit," Laura said, "and then tackle art. We need to -- Sam?"

Sam had turned on The Simpsons, in part to actually watch the show, in part to display the incredibly cool gas-plasma TV that was hanging on the wall like some painting or something. It was like Dad to sort of automatically buy the coolest thing in the world and then forget he even had it. Dad was neat that way. There was something about knowing what the best stuff was and having it and also being uncaring about it that just made him -- well, fact was, Sam was a teenager who really liked his father. So call him crazy.

"Sam, you can't study and watch TV at the same time!"

"I'm multitasking, Laura, my dear. It's great mental exercise."

Brian muttered, "My dear..."

Laura said, "New York is in four days!"

"You make it sound like the real, actual Olympics. It's the Scholastic Decathlon."

"Decathlon sounds like the Olympics."

"It's a ridiculous name, Brian."

"My mom always calls it the Quiz Bowl," Brian said. "I hate that."

"What they ought to call it is glorified Trivial Pursuit," Sam muttered. It was a good episode. He wanted to watch this. Homer was going to save Marge from a destruction derby by drinking beer. Sort of.

"If it's so meaningless, why'd you join the team, Sam?"

"What can I say? Because it was there. Life is essentially meaningless."

"Existential philosophers for five hundred," Brian yelled. "Who is Jean-Paul Sartre?"

"Don't encourage him." Laura picked up the remote and muted the TV.

"Stop that."

"No. You want to watch TV or you want to get ready?"

Sam snatched the remote back and she fought him for it, which was kind of nice while it lasted. But it didn't last long.

"Do not turn on that sound."

Instead, he turned off the TV entirely. "It's off. See?"


Now she would find out the grim truth. "So quiz me."

He'd almost said "kiss." What would that have done? Nothing good, probably.

™ & © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpted from

The Day After Tomorrow

by Whitley Strieber
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Friday, December 7, 2007

Children of the Mind


“Mother. Father. Did I do it right?”

The last words of Han Qing-jao, from
The God Whispers of Han Qing-jao

Si Wang-mu stepped forward. The young man named Peter took her hand and led her into the starship. The door closed behind them.
Wang-mu sat down on one of the swiveling chairs inside the small metal-walled room. She looked around, expecting to see something strange and new. Except for the metal walls, it could have been any office on the world of Path. Clean, but not fastidiously so. Furnished, in a utilitarian way. She had seen holos of ships in flight: the smoothly streamlined fighters and shuttles that dipped into and out of the atmosphere; the vast rounded structures of the starships that accelerated as near to the speed of light as matter could get. On the one hand, the sharp power of a needle; on the other, the massive power of a sledgehammer. But here in this room, no power at all. Just a room.
Where was the pilot? There must be a pilot, for the young man who sat across the room from her, murmuring to his computer, could hardly be controlling a starship capable of the feat of traveling faster than light.
And yet that must have been precisely what he was doing, for there were no other doors that might lead to other rooms. The star-ship had looked small from the outside; this room obviously used all the space that it contained. There in the corner were the batteries that stored energy from the solar collectors on the top of the ship. In that chest, which seemed to be insulated like a refrigerator, there might be food and drink. So much for lifesupport. Where was the romance in starflight now, if this was all it took? A mere room.
With nothing else to watch, she watched the young man at the computer terminal. Peter Wiggin, he said his name was. The name of the ancient Hegemon, the one who first united all the human race under his control, back when people lived on only one world, all the nations and races and religions and philosophies crushed together elbow to elbow, with nowhere to go but into each other’s lands, for the sky was a ceiling then, and space was a vast chasm that could not be bridged. Peter Wiggin, the man who ruled the human race. This was not him, of course, and he had admitted as much. Andrew Wiggin sent him; Wang-mu remembered, from things that Master Han had told her, that Andrew Wiggin had somehow made him. Did this make the great Speaker of the Dead Peter’s father? Or was he somehow Ender’s brother, not just named for but actually embodying the Hegemon who had died three thousand years before?
Peter stopped murmuring, leaned back in his chair, and sighed. He rubbed his eyes, then stretched and groaned. It was a very indelicate thing to do in company. The sort of thing one might expect from a coarse fieldworker.
He seemed to sense her disapproval. Or perhaps he had forgotten her and now suddenly remembered that he had company. Without straightening himself in his chair, he turned his head and looked at her.
“Sorry,” he said. “I forgot I was not alone.”
Wang-mu longed to speak boldly to him, despite a lifetime retreating from bold speech. After all, he had spoken to her with offensive boldness, when his starship appeared like a fresh-sprouted mushroom on the lawn by the river and he emerged with a single vial of a disease that would cure her home world, Path, of its genetic illness. He had looked her in the eye not fifteen minutes ago and said, “Come with me and you’ll be part of changing history. Making history.” And despite her fear, she had said yes.
Had said yes, and now sat in a swivel chair watching him behave crudely, stretching like a tiger in front of her. Was that his beast-of-the-heart, the tiger? Wang-mu had read the Hegemon. She could believe that there was a tiger in that great and terrible man. But this one? This boy? Older than Wang-mu, but she was not too young to know immaturity when she saw it. He was going to change the course of history! Clean out the corruption in the Congress. Stop the Lusitania Fleet. Make all colony planets equal members of the Hundred Worlds. This boy who stretched like a jungle cat.
“I don’t have your approval,” he said. He sounded annoyed and amused, both at once. But then she might not be good at understanding the inflections of one such as this. Certainly it was hard to read the grimaces of such a round-eyed man. Both his face and his voice contained hidden languages that she could not understand.
“You must understand,” he said. “I’m not myself.”
Wang-mu spoke the common language well enough at least to understand the idiom. “You are unwell today?” But she knew even as she said it that he had not meant the expression idiomatically at all.
“I’m not myself,” he said again. “I’m not really Peter Wiggin.”
“I hope not,” said Wang-mu. “I read about his funeral in school.”
“I do look like him, though, don’t I?” He brought up a hologram into the air over his computer terminal. The hologram rotated to look at Wang-mu; Peter sat up and assumed the same pose, facing her.
“There is a resemblance,” she said.
“Of course, I’m younger,” said Peter. “Because Ender didn’t see me again after he left Earth when he was—what, five years old? A little runt, anyway. I was still a boy. That’s what he remembered, when he conjured me out of thin air.”
“Not air at all,” she said. “Out of nothing.”
“Not nothing, either,” he said. “Conjured me, all the same.” He smiled wickedly. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”
These words meant something to him, but not to her. In the world of Path she had been expected to be a servant and so was educated very little. Later, in the house of Han Fei-tzu, her abilities had been recognized, first by her former mistress, Han Qing-jao, and later by the master himself. From both she had acquired some bits of education, in a haphazard way. What teaching there had been was mostly technical, and the literature she learned was of the Middle Kingdom, or of Path itself. She could have quoted endlessly from the great poet Li Qing-jao, for whom her one-time mistress had been named. But of the poet he was quoting, she knew nothing.
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he said again. And then, changing his voice and manner a little, he answered himself. “Why so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?”
“Shakespeare?” she guessed.
He grinned at her. She thought of the way a cat smiles at the creature it is toying with. “That’s always the best guess when a European is doing the quoting,” he said.
“The quotation is funny,” she said. “A man brags that he can summon the dead. But the other man says that the trick is not calling, but rather getting them to come.”
He laughed. “What a way you have with humor.”
“This quotation means something to you, because Ender called you forth from the dead.”
He looked startled. “How did you know?”
She felt a thrill of fear. Was it possible? “I did not know, I was making a joke.”
“Well, it’s not true. Not literally. He didn’t raise the dead. Though he no doubt thinks he could, if the need arose.” Peter sighed. “I’m being nasty. The words just come to my mind. I don’t mean them. They just come.”
“It is possible to have words come to your mind, and still refrain from speaking them aloud.”
He rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t trained for servility, the way you were.”
So this was the attitude of one who came from a world of free people—to sneer at one who had been a servant through no fault of her own. “I was trained to keep unpleasant words to myself as a matter of courtesy,” she said. “But perhaps to you, that is just another form of servility.”
“As I said, Royal Mother of the West, nastiness comes unbidden to my mouth.”
“I am not the Royal Mother,” said Wang-mu. “The name was a cruel joke—”
“And only a very nasty person would mock you for it.” Peter grinned. “But I’m named for the Hegemon. I thought perhaps bearing ludicrously overwrought names was something we might have in common.”
She sat silently, entertaining the possibility that he might have been trying to make friends.
“I came into existence,” he said, “only a short while ago. A matter of weeks. I thought you should know that about me.”
She didn’t understand.
“You know how this starship works?” he said.
Now he was leaping from subject to subject. Testing her. Well, she had had enough of being tested. “Apparently one sits within it and is examined by rude strangers,” she said.
He smiled and nodded. “Give as good as you get. Ender told me you were nobody’s servant.”
“I was the true and faithful servant of Qing-jao. I hope Ender did not lie to you about that.”
He brushed away her literalism. “A mind of your own.” Again his eyes sized her up; again she felt utterly comprehended by his lingering glance, as she had felt when he first looked at her beside the river. “Wang-mu, I am not speaking metaphorically when I tell you I was only just made. Made, you understand, not born. And the way I was made has much to do with how this starship works. I don’t want to bore you by explaining things you already understand, but you must know what—not who—I am in order to understand why I need you with me. So I ask again—do you know how this starship works?”
She nodded. “I think so. Jane, the being who dwells in computers, she holds in her mind as perfect a picture as she can of the starship and all who are within it. The people also hold their own picture of themselves and who they are and so on. Then she moves everything from the real world to a place of nothingness, which takes no time at all, and then brings it back into reality in whatever place she chooses. Which also takes no time. So instead of starships taking years to get from world to world, it happens in an instant.”
Peter nodded. “Very good. Except what you have to understand is that during the time that the starship is Outside, it isn’t surrounded by nothingness. Instead it’s surrounded by uncountable numbers of aiúas.”
She turned away her face from him.
“You don’t understand aiúas?”
“To say that all people have always existed. That we are older than the oldest gods…”
“Well, sort of,” said Peter. “Only aiúas on the Outside, they can’t be said to exist, or at least not any kind of meaningful existence. They’re just…there. Not even that, because there’s no sense of location, no there where they might be. They just are. Until some intelligence calls them, names them, puts them into some kind of order, gives them shape and form.”
“The clay can become a bear,” she said, “but not as long as it rests cold and wet in the riverbank.”
“Exactly. So there was Ender Wiggin and several other people who, with luck, you’ll never need to meet, taking the first voyage Outside. They weren’t going anywhere, really. The point of that first voyage was to get Outside long enough that one of them, a rather talented genetic scientist, could create a new molecule, an extremely complex one, by the image she held of it in her mind. Or rather her image of the modifications she needed to make in an existing…well, you don’t have the biology for it. Anyway, she did what she was supposed to do, she created the new molecule, calloo callay, only the thing is, she wasn’t the only person doing any creating that day.”
“Ender’s mind created you?” asked Wang-mu.
“Inadvertently. I was, shall we say, a tragic accident. An unhappy side effect. Let’s just say that everybody there, everything there, was creating like crazy. The aiúas Outside are frantic to be made into something, you see. There were shadow starships being created all around us. All kinds of weak, faint, fragmented, fragile, ephemeral structures rising and falling in each instant. Only four had any solidity. One was that genetic molecule that Elanora Ribeira had come to create.”
“One was you?”
“The least interesting one, I fear. The least loved and valued. One of the people on the ship was a fellow named Miro, who through a tragic accident some years ago had been left somewhat crippled. Neurologically damaged. Thick of speech, clumsy with his hands, lame when he walked. He held within his mind the powerful, treasured image of himself as he used to be. So—with that perfect self-image, a vast number of aiúas assembled themselves into an exact copy, not of how he was, but of how he once was and longed to be again. Complete with all his memories—a perfect replication of him. So perfect that it had the same utter loathing for his crippled body that he himself had. So…the new, improved Miro—or rather the copy of the old, undamaged Miro—whatever—he stood there as the ultimate rebuke of the crippled one. And before their very eyes, that old rejected body crumbled away into nothing.”
Wang-mu gasped, imagining it. “He died!”
“No, that’s the point, don’t you see? He lived. It was Miro. His own aiúa—not the trillions of aiúas making up the atoms and molecules of his body, but the one that controlled them all, the one that was himself, his will-his aiúa simply moved to the new and perfect body. That was his true self. And the old one…”
“Had no use.”
“Had nothing to give it shape. You see, I think our bodies are held together by love. The love of the master aiúa for the glorious powerful body that obeys it, that gives the self all its experience of the world. Even Miro, even with all his self-loathing when he was crippled, even he must have loved whatever pathetic remnant of his body was left to him. Until the moment that he had a new one.”
“And then he moved.”
“Without even knowing that he had done so,” said Peter. “He followed his love.”
Wang-mu heard this fanciful tale and knew that it must be true, for she had overheard many a mention of aiúas in the conversations between Han Fei-tzu and Jane, and now with Peter Wiggin’s story, it made sense. It had to be true, if only because this starship really had appeared as if from nowhere on the bank of the river behind Han Fei-tzu’s house.
“But now you must wonder,” said Peter, “how I, unloved and unlovable as I know I am, came into existence.”
“You already said. Ender’s mind.”
“Miro’s most intensely held image was of his own younger, healthier, stronger self. But Ender, the images that mattered most in his mind were of his older sister Valentine and his older brother Peter. Not as they became, though, for his real older brother Peter was long dead, and Valentine—she has accompanied or followed Ender on all his hops through space, so she is still alive, but aged as he has aged. Mature. A real person. Yet on that starship, during that time Outside, he conjured up a copy of her youthful self. Young Valentine. Poor Old Valentine! She didn’t know she was so old until she saw this younger self, this perfect being, this angel that had dwelt in Ender’s twisted little mind from childhood on. I must say, she’s the most put-upon victim in all this little drama. To know that your brother carries around such an image of you, instead of loving you as you really are—well, one can see that Old Valentine—she hates it, but that’s how everyone thinks of her now, including, poor thing, herself—one can see that Old Valentine is really having her patience tried.”
“But if the original Valentine is still alive,” said Wang-mu, puzzled, “then who is the young Valentine? Who is she really? You can be Peter because he’s dead and no one is using his name, but…”
“Quite puzzling, isn’t it?” said Peter. “But my point is that whether he’s dead or not, I’m not Peter Wiggin. As I said before, I’m not myself.”
He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. The hologram above the terminal turned to look at him. He had not touched the controls.
“Jane is with us,” said Wang-mu.
“Jane is always with us,” said Peter. “Ender’s spy.”
The hologram spoke. “Ender doesn’t need a spy. He needs friends, if he can get them. Allies at least.”
Peter reached idly for the terminal and turned it off. The hologram disappeared.
This disturbed Wang-mu very much. Almost as if he had slapped a child. Or beaten a servant. “Jane is a very noble creature, to treat her with such disrespect.”
“Jane is a computer program with a bug in the id routines.”
He was in a dark mood, this boy who had come to take her into his starship and spirit her away from the world of Path. But dark as his mood might be, she understood now, with the hologram gone from the terminal, what she had seen. “It isn’t just because you’re so young and the holograms of Peter Wiggin the Hegemon are of a mature man,” said Wang-mu.
“What,” he said impatiently. “What isn’t what?”
“The physical difference between you and the Hegemon.”
“What is it, then?”
“He looks—satisfied.”
“He conquered the world,” said Peter.
“So when you have done the same, you will get that look of satisfaction?”
“I suppose so,” said Peter. “It’s what passes for a purpose in my life. It’s the mission Ender has sent me on.”
“Don’t lie to me,” said Wang-mu. “On the riverbank you spoke of the terrible things I did for the sake of my ambition. I admit it—I was ambitious, desperate to rise out of my terrible lowborn state. I know the taste of it, and the smell of it, and I smell it coming from you, like the smell of tar on a hot day, you stink of it.”
“Ambition? Has a stench?”
“I’m drunk with it myself.”
He grinned. Then he touched the jewel in his ear. “Remember, Jane is listening, and she tells Ender everything.”
Wang-mu fell silent, but not because she was embarrassed. She simply had nothing to say, and therefore said nothing.
“So I’m ambitious. Because that’s how Ender imagined me. Ambitious and nasty-minded and cruel.”
“But I thought you were not yourself,” she said.
His eyes blazed with defiance. “That’s right, I’m not.” He looked away. “Sorry, Gepetto, but I can’t be a real boy. I have no soul.”
She didn’t understand the name he said, but she understood the word soul. “All my childhood I was thought to be a servant by nature. To have no soul. Then one day they discovered that I have one. So far it has brought me no great happiness.”
“I’m not speaking of some religious idea. I’m speaking of the aiúa. I haven’t got one. Remember what happened to Miro’s broken-down body when his aiúa abandoned it.”
“But you don’t crumble, so you must have an aiúa after all.”
“I don’t have it, it has me. I continue to exist because the aiúa whose irresistible will called me into existence continues to imagine me. Continues to need me, to control me, to be my will.”
“Ender Wiggin?” she asked.
“My brother, my creator, my tormentor, my god, my very self.”
“And young Valentine? Her too?”
“Ah, but he loves her. He’s proud of her. He’s glad he made her. Me he loathes. Loathes, and yet it’s his will that I do and say every nasty thing. When I’m at my most despicable, remember that I do only what my brother makes me do.”
“Oh, to blame him for—”
“I’m not blaming, Wang-mu. I’m stating simple reality. His will is controlling three bodies now. Mine, my impossibly angelic sister’s, and of course his own very tired middle-aged body. Every aiúa in my body receives its order and place from his. I am, in all ways that matter, Ender Wiggin. Except that he has created me to be the vessel of every impulse in himself that he hates and fears. His ambition, yes, you smell his ambition when you smell mine. His aggression. His rage. His nastiness. His cruelty. His, not mine, because I am dead, and anyway I was never like this, never the way he saw me. This person before you is a travesty, a mockery! I’m a twisted memory. A despicable dream. A nightmare. I’m the creature hiding under the bed. He brought me out of chaos to be the terror of his childhood.”
“So don’t do it,” said Wang-mu. “If you don’t want to be those things, don’t do them.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. “If you’re so bright, why haven’t you understood a word I’ve said?”
She did understand, though. “What is your will, anyway? Nobody can see it. You don’t hear it thinking. You only know what your will is afterward, when you look back in your life and see what you’ve done.”
“That’s the most terrible trick he’s played on me,” said Peter softly, his eyes still closed. “I look back on my life and I see only the memories he has imagined for me. He was taken from our family when he was only five. What does he know of me or my life?”
“He wrote The Hegemon.”
“That book. Yes, based on Valentine’s memories, as she told them to him. And the public documents of my dazzling career. And of course tnsible communications between Ender and my own late self before I—he—died. I’m only a few weeks old, yet I know a quotation from Henry IV, Part I. Owen Glendower boasting to Hotspur. Henry Percy. How could I know that? When did I go to school? How long did I lie awake at night, reading old plays until I committed a thousand favorite lines to memory? Did Ender somehow conjure up the whole of his dead brother’s education? All his private thoughts? Ender only knew the real Peter Wiggin for five years. It’s not a real person’s memories I draw on. It’s the memories Ender thinks that I should have.”
“He thinks you should know Shakespeare, and so you do?” she asked doubtfully.
“If only Shakespeare were all he had given me. The great writers, the great philosophers. If only those were the only memories I had.”
She waited for him to list the troublesome memories. But he only shuddered and fell silent.
“So if you are really controlled by Ender, then…you are him. Then that is yourself. You are Andrew Wiggin. You have an aiúa.”
“I’m Andrew Wiggin’s nightmare,” said Peter. “I’m Andrew Wiggin’s self-loathing. I’m everything he hates and fears about himself. That’s the script I’ve been given. That’s what I have to do.”
He flexed his hand into a fist, then extended it partway, the fingers still bent. A claw. The tiger again. And for a moment, Wang-mu was afraid of him. Only a moment, though. He relaxed his hands. The moment passed. “What part does your script have in it for me?”
“I don’t know,” said Peter. “You’re very smart. Smarter than I am, I hope. Though of course I have such incredible vanity that I can’t really believe that anyone is actually smarter than I am. Which means that I’m all the more in need of good advice, since I can’t actually conceive of needing any.”
“You talk in circles.”
“That’s just part of my cruelty. To torment you with conversation. But maybe it’s supposed to go farther than that. Maybe I’m supposed to torture you and kill you the way I so clearly remember doing with squirrels. Maybe I’m supposed to stake your living body out in the woods, nailing your extremities to tree roots, and then open you up layer by layer to see at what point the flies begin to come and lay eggs in your exposed flesh.”
She recoiled at the image. “I have read the book. I know the Hegemon was not a monster!”
“It wasn’t the Speaker for the Dead who created me Outside. It was the frightened boy Ender. I’m not the Peter Wiggin he so wisely understood in that book. I’m the Peter Wiggin he had nightmares about. The one who flayed squirrels.”
“He saw you do that?” she asked.
“Not me,” he said testily. “And no, he never even saw him do it. Valentine told him later. She found the squirrel’s body in the woods near their childhood home in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the continent of North America back on Earth. But that image fit so tidily into his nightmares that he borrowed it and shared it with me. That’s the memory I live with. Intellectually, I can imagine that the real Peter Wiggin was probably not cruel at all. He was learning and studying. He didn’t have compassion for the squirrel because he didn’t sentimentalize it. It was simply an animal. No more important than a head of lettuce. To cut it up was probably as immoral an act as making a salad. But that’s not how Ender imagined it, and so that’s not how I remember it.”
“How do you remember it?”
“The way I remember all my supposed memories. From the outside. Watching myself in horrified fascination as I take a fiendish delight in cruelty. All my memories prior to the moment I came to life on Ender’s little voyage Outside, in all of them I see myself through someone else’s eyes. A very odd feeling, I assure you.”
“But now?”
“Now I don’t see myself at all,” he said. “Because I have no self. I am not myself.”
“But you remember. You have memories. Of this conversation, already you remember it. Looking at me. You must, surely.”
“Yes,” he said. “I remember you. And I remember being here and seeing you. But there isn’t any self behind my eyes. I feel tired and stupid even when I’m being my most clever and brilliant.”
He smiled a charming smile and now Wang-mu could see again the true difference between Peter and the hologram of the Hegemon. It was as he said: Even at his most self-deprecating, this Peter Wig-gin had eyes that flashed with inner rage. He was dangerous. You could see it looking at him. When he looked into your eyes, you could imagine him planning how and when you would die.
“I am not myself,” said Peter.
“You are saying this to control yourself,” said Wang-mu, guessing but also sure she was right. “This is your incantation, to stop yourself from doing what you desire.”
Peter sighed and leaned over, laying his head down on the terminal, his ear pressed against the cold plastic surface.
“What is it you desire?” she said, fearful of the answer.
“Go away,” he said.
“Where can I go? This great starship of yours has only one room.”
“Open the door and go outside,” he said.
“You mean to kill me? To eject me into space where I’ll freeze before I have time to suffocate?”
He sat up and looked at her in puzzlement. “Space?”
His confusion confused her. Where else would they be but in space? That’s where starships went, through space.
Except this one, of course.
As he saw understanding come to her, he laughed aloud. “Oh, yes, you’re the brilliant one, they’ve remade the entire world of Path to have your genius!”
She refused to be goaded.
“I thought there would be some sensation of movement. Or something. Have we traveled, then? Are we already there?”
“In the twinkling of an eye. We were Outside and then back Inside at another place, all so fast that only a computer could experience our voyage as having any duration at all. Jane did it before I finished talking to her. Before I said a word to you.”
“Then where are we? What’s outside the door?”
“We’re sitting in the woods somewhere on the planet Divine Wind. The air is breathable. You won’t freeze. It’s summer outside the door.”
She walked to the door and pulled down the handle, releasing the airtight seal. The door eased open. Sunlight streamed into the room.
“Divine Wind,” she said. “I read about it—it was founded as a Shinto world the way Path was supposed to be Taoist. The purity of ancient Japanese culture. But I think it’s not so very pure these days.”
“More to the point, it’s the world where Andrew and Jane and I felt—if one can speak of my having feelings apart from Ender’s own—the world where we might find the center of power in the worlds ruled by Congress. The true decision makers. The power behind the throne.”
“So you can subvert them and take over the human race?”
“So I can stop the Lusitania Fleet. Taking over the human race is a bit later on the agenda. The Lusitania Fleet is something of an emergency. We have only a few weeks to stop it before the fleet gets there and uses the Little Doctor, the M.D. Device, to blow Lusitania into its constituent elements. In the meantime, because Ender and everyone else expects me to fail, they’re building these little tin can starships as fast as possible and transporting as many Lusitanians as they can—humans, piggies, and buggers—to other habitable but as yet uninhabited planets. My dear sister Valentine—the young one—is off with Miro—in his fresh new body, the dear lad—searching out new worlds as fast as their little starship can carry them. Quite a project. All of them betting on my—on our—failure. Let’s disappoint them, shall we?”
“Disappoint them?”
“By succeeding. Let’s succeed. Let’s find the center of power among humankind, and let’s persuade them to stop the fleet before it needlessly destroys a world.”
Wang-mu looked at him doubtfully. Persuade them to stop the fleet? This nasty-minded, cruel-hearted boy? How could he persuade anyone of anything?
As if he could hear her thoughts, he answered her silent doubt. “You see why I invited you to come along with me. When Ender was inventing me, he forgot the fact that he never knew me during the time in my life when I was persuading people and gathering them together in shifting alliances and all that nonsense. So the Peter Wiggin he created is far too nasty, openly ambitious, and nakedly cruel to persuade a man with rectal itch to scratch his own butt.”
She looked away from him again.
“You see?” he said. “I offend you again and again. Look at me. Do you see my dilemma? The real Peter, the original one, he could have done the work I’ve been sent to do. He could have done it in his sleep. He’d already have a plan. He’d be able to win people over, soothe them, insinuate himself into their councils. That Peter Wiggin! He can charm the stings out of bees. But can I? I doubt it. For, you see, I’m not myself.”
He got up from his chair, roughly pushed his way past her, and stepped outside onto the meadow that surrounded the little metal cabin that had carried them from world to world. Wang-mu stood in the doorway, watching him as he wandered away from the ship; away, but not too far.
I know something of how he feels, she thought. I know something of having to submerge your will in someone else’s. To live for them, as if they were the star of the story of your life, and you merely a supporting player. I have been a slave. But at least in all that time I knew my own heart. I knew what I truly thought even as I did what they wanted, whatever it took to get what I wanted from them. Peter Wiggin, though, has no idea of what he really wants, because even his resentment of his lack of freedom isn’t his own, even that comes from Andrew Wiggin. Even his self-loathing is Andrew’s self-loathing, and…
And back and back, in circles, like the random path he was tracing through the meadow.
Wang-mu thought of her mistress—no, her former mistress—Qing-jao. She also traced strange patterns. It was what the gods forced her to do. No, that’s the old way of thinking. It’s what her obsessive-compulsive disorder caused her to do. To kneel on the floor and trace the grain of the wood in each board, trace a single line of it as far as it went across the floor, line after line. It never meant anything, and yet she had to do it because only by such meaningless mind-numbing obedience could she win a scrap of freedom from the impulses controlling her. It is Qing-jao who was always the slave, and never me. For the master that ruled her controlled her from inside her own mind. While I could always see my master outside me, so my inmost self was never touched.
Peter Wiggin knows that he is ruled by the unconscious fears and passions of a complicated man many lightyears away. But then, Qing-jao thought her obsessions came from the gods. What does it matter, to tell yourself that the thing controlling you comes from outside, if in fact you only experience it inside your own heart? Where can you run from it? How can you hide? Qing-jao must be free by now, freed by the carrier virus that Peter brought with him to Path and put into the hands of Han Fei-tzu. But Peter—what freedom can there be for him?
And yet he must still live as if he were free. He must still struggle for freedom even if the struggle itself is just one more symptom of his slavery. There is a part of him that yearns to be himself. No, not himself. A self.
So what is my part in all of this? Am I supposed to work a miracle, and give him an aiúa? That isn’t in my power.
And yet I do have power, she thought.
She must have power, or why else had he spoken to her so openly? A total stranger, and he had opened his heart to her at once. Why? Because she was in on the secrets, yes, but something else as well.
Ah, of course. He could speak freely to her because she had never known Andrew Wiggin. Maybe Peter was nothing but an aspect of Ender’s nature, all that Ender feared and loathed about himself. But she could never compare the two of them. Whatever Peter was, whoever controlled him, she was his confidante.
Which made her, once again, someone’s servant. She had been Qing-jao’s confidante, too.
She shuddered, as if to shake from her the sad comparison. No, she told herself. It is not the same thing. Because that young man wandering so aimlessly among the wildflowers has no power over me, except to tell me of his pain and hope for my understanding. Whatever I give to him I will give freely.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the frame of the door. I will give it freely, yes, she thought. But what am I planning to give him? Why, exactly what he wants—my loyalty, my devotion, my help in all his tasks. To submerge myself in him. And why am I already planning to do all this? Because however he might doubt himself, he has the power to win people to his cause.
She opened her eyes again and strode out into the hip-high grass toward him. He saw her and waited wordlessly as she approached. Bees buzzed around her; butterflies staggered drunkenly through the air, avoiding her somehow in their seemingly random flight. At the last moment she reached out and gathered a bee from a blossom into her hand, into her fist, but then quickly, before it could sting her, she lobbed it into Peter’s face.
Flustered, surprised, he batted away the infuriated bee, ducked under it, dodged, and finally ran a few steps before it lost track of him and buzzed its way out among the flowers again. Only then could he turn furiously to face her.
“What was that for!”
She giggled at him—she couldn’t help it. He had looked so funny.
“Oh, good, laugh. I can see you’re going to be fine company.”
“Be angry, I don’t care,” said Wang-mu. “I’ll just tell you this. Do you think that away off on Lusitania, Ender’s aiúa suddenly thought, ‘Ho, a bee!’ and made you brush at it and dodge it like a clown?”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, aren’t you clever. Well gosh, Miss Royal Mother of the West, you sure solved all my problems! I can see I must always have been a real boy! And these ruby shoes, why, they’ve had the power to take me back to Kansas all along!”
“What’s Kansas?” she asked, looking down at his shoes, which were not red.
“Just another memory of Ender’s that he kindly shared with me,” said Peter Wiggin.
He stood there, his hands in his pockets, regarding her.
She stood just as silently, her hands clasped in front of her, regarding him right back.
“So are you with me?” he finally asked.
“You must try not to be nasty with me,” she said.
“Take that up with Ender.”
“I don’t care whose aiúa controls you,” she said. “You still have your own thoughts, which are different from his—you feared the bee, and he didn’t even think of a bee right then, and you know it. So whatever part of you is in control or whoever the real ‘you’ happens to be, right there on the front of your head is the mouth that’s going to be speaking to me, and I’m telling you that if I’m going to work with you, you better be nice to me.”
“Does this mean no more bee fights?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s just as well. With my luck Ender no doubt gave me a body that goes into shock when I’m stung by a bee.”
“It can also be pretty hard on the bee,” she said.
He grinned at her. “I find myself liking you,” he said. “I really hate that.”
He strode off toward the starship. “Come on!” he called out to her. “Let’s see what information Jane can give us about this world we’re supposed to take by storm.”

Copyright © 1996 by Orson Scott Card

Excerpted from

Children of the Mind

by Orson Scott Card
Buy this book at Barnes & Noble

Saturday, December 1, 2007



< Today one of the brothers asked me: Is it a terrible prison, not to be able to move from the place where you’re standing? >

< I told him that I am now more free than he is. The inability to move frees me from the obligation to act. >
< You who speak languages, you are such liars. >
* * *
Han Fei-tzu sat in lotus position on the bare wooden floor beside his wife’s sickbed. Until a moment ago he might have been sleeping; he wasn’t sure. But now he was aware of the slight change in her breathing, a change as subtle as the wind from a butterfly’s passing.
Jiang-qing, for her part, must also have detected some change in him, for she had not spoken before and now she did speak. Her voice was very soft. But Han Fei-tzu could hear her clearly, for the house was silent. He had asked his friends and servants for stillness during the dusk of Jiang-qing’s life. Time enough for careless noise during the long night that was to come, when there would be no hushed words from her lips.
“Still not dead,” she said. She had greeted him with these words each time she woke during the past few days. At first the words had seemed whimsical or ironic to him, but now he knew that she spoke with disappointment. She longed for death now, not because she hadn’t loved life, but because death was now unavoidable, and what cannot be shunned must be embraced. That was the Path. Jiang-qing had never taken a step away from the Path in her life.
“Then the gods are kind to me,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“To you,” she breathed.“What do we contemplate?”
It was her way of asking him to share his private thoughts with her. When others asked his private thoughts, he felt spied upon. But Jiang-qing asked only so that she could also think the same thought; it was part of their having become a single soul.
“We are contemplating the nature of desire,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“Whose desire?” she asked. “And for what?”
My desire for your bones to heal and become strong, so that they don’t snap at the slightest pressure. So that you could stand again, or even raise an arm without your own muscles tearing away chunks of bone or causing the bone to break under the tension. So that I wouldn’t have to watch you wither away until now you weigh only eighteen kilograms. I never knew how perfectly happy we were until I learned that we could not stay together.
“My desire,” he answered. “For you.”
“‘You only covet what you do not have.’ Who said that?”
“You did,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Some say, ‘what you cannot have.’ Others say, ‘what you should not have.’ I say, ‘You can truly covet only what you will always hunger for.’”
“You have me forever.”
“I will lose you tonight. Or tomorrow. Or next week.”
“Let us contemplate the nature of desire,” said Jiang-qing. As before, she was using philosophy to pull him out of his brooding melancholy.
He resisted her, but only playfully. “You are a harsh ruler,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Like your ancestor-of-the-heart, you make no allowance for other people’s frailty.” Jiang-qing was named for a revolutionary leader of the ancient past, who had tried to lead the people onto a new Path but was overthrown by weak-hearted cowards. It was not right, thought Han Fei-tzu, for his wife to die before him: her ancestor-of-the-heart had outlived her husband. Besides, wives should live longer than husbands. Women were more complete inside themselves. They were also better at living in their children. They were never as solitary as a man alone.
Jiang-qing refused to let him return to brooding. “When a man’s wife is dead, what does he long for?”
Rebelliously, Han Fei-tzu gave her the most false answer to her question. “To lie with her,” he said.
“The desire of the body,” said Jiang-qing.
Since she was determined to have this conversation, Han Fei-tzu took up the catalogue for her. “The desire of the body is to act. It includes all touches, casual and intimate, and all customary movements. Thus he sees a movement out of the corner of his eye, and thinks he has seen his dead wife moving across the doorway, and he cannot be content until he has walked to the door and seen that it was not his wife. Thus he wakes up from a dream in which he heard her voice, and finds himself speaking his answer aloud as if she could hear him.”
“What else?” asked Jiang-qing.
“I’m tired of philosophy,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Maybe the Greeks found comfort in it, but not me.”
“The desire of the spirit,” said Jiang-qing, insisting.
“Because the spirit is of the earth, it is that part which makes new things out of old ones. The husband longs for all the unfinished things that he and his wife were making when she died, and all the unstarted dreams of what they would have made if she had lived. Thus a man grows angry at his children for being too much like him and not enough like his dead wife. Thus a man hates the house they lived in together, because either he does not change it, so that it is as dead as his wife, or because he does change it, so that it is no longer half of her making.”
“You don’t have to be angry at our little Qing-jao,” said Jiang-qing.
“Why?” asked Han Fei-tzu. “Will you stay, then, and help me teach her to be a woman? All I can teach her is to be what I am—cold and hard, sharp and strong, like obsidian. If she grows like that, while she looks so much like you, how can I help but be angry?”
“Because you can teach her everything that I am, too,” said Jiang-qing.
“If I had any part of you in me,” said Han Fei-tzu, “I would not have needed to marry you to become a complete person.” Now he teased her by using philosophy to turn the conversation away from pain. “That is the desire of the soul. Because the soul is made of light and dwells in air, it is that part which conceives and keeps ideas, especially the idea of the self. The husband longs for his whole self, which was made of the husband and wife together. Thus he never believes any of his own thoughts, because there is always a question in his mind to which his wife’s thoughts were the only possible answer. Thus the whole world seems dead to him because he cannot trust anything to keep its meaning before the onslaught of this unanswerable question.”
“Very deep,” said Jiang-qing.
“If I were Japanese I would commit seppuku, spilling my bowel into the jar of your ashes.”
“Very wet and messy,” she said.
He smiled. “Then I should be an ancient Hindu, and burn myself on your pyre.”
But she was through with joking. “Qing-jao,” she whispered. She was reminding him he could do nothing so flamboyant as to die with her. There was little Qing-jao to care for.
So Han Fei-tzu answered her seriously. “How can I teach her to be what you are?”
“All that is good in me,” said Jiang-qing, "comes from the Path. If you teach her to obey the gods, honor the ancestors, love the people, and serve the rulers, I will be in her as much as you are.”
“I would teach her the Path as part of myself,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“Not so,” said Jiang-qing. “The Path is not a natural part of you, my husband. Even with the gods speaking to you every day, you insist on believing in a world where everything can be explained by natural causes.”
“I obey the gods.” He thought, bitterly, that he had no choice; that even to delay obedience was torture.
“But you don’t know them. You don’t love their works.”
“The Path is to love the people. The gods we only obey.” How can I love gods who humiliate me and torment me at every opportunity?
“We love the people because they are creatures of the gods.”
“Don’t preach to me.”
She sighed.
Her sadness stung him like a spider. “I wish you would preach to me forever,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“You married me because you knew I loved the gods, and that love for them was completely missing from yourself. That was how I completed you.”
How could he argue with her, when he knew that even now he hated the gods for everything they had ever done to him, everything they had ever made him do, everything they had stolen from him in his life.
“Promise me,” said Jiang-qing.
He knew what these words meant. She felt death upon her; she was laying the burden of her life upon him. A burden he would gladly bear. It was losing her company on the Path that he had dreaded for so long.
“Promise that you will teach Qing-jao to love the gods and walk always on the Path. Promise that you will make her as much my daughter as yours.”
“Even if she never hears the voice of the gods?”
“The Path is for everyone, not just the godspoken.”
Perhaps, thought Han Fei-tzu, but it was much easier for the godspoken to follow the Path, because to them the price for straying from it was so terrible. The common people were free; they could leave the Path and not feel the pain of it for years. The godspoken couldn’t leave the Path for an hour.
“Promise me.”
I will. I promise.
But he couldn’t say the words out loud. He did not know why, but his reluctance was deep.
In the silence, as she waited for his vow, they heard the sound of running feet on the gravel outside the front door of the house. It could only be Qing-jao, home from the garden of Sun Cao-pi. Only Qing-jao was allowed to run and make noise during this time of hush. They waited, knowing that she would come straight to her mother’s room.
The door slid open almost noiselessly. Even Qing-jao had caught enough of the hush to walk softly when she was actually in the presence of her mother. Though she walked on tiptoe, she could hardly keep from dancing, almost galloping across the floor. But she did not fling her arms around her mother’s neck; she remembered that lesson even though the terrible bruise had faded from Jiang-qing’s face, where Qing-jao’s eager embrace had broken her jaw three months ago.
“I counted twenty-three white carp in the garden stream,” said Qing-jao.
“So many,” said Jiang-qing.
“I think they were showing themselves to me,” said Qing-jao. “So I could count them. None of them wanted to be left out.”
“Love you,” whispered Jiang-qing.
Han Fei-tzu heard a new sound in her breathy voice—a popping sound, like bubbles bursting with her words.
“Do you think that seeing so many carp means that I will be godspoken?” asked Qing-jao.
“I will ask the gods to speak to you,” said Jiang-qing.
Suddenly Jiang-qing’s breathing became quick and harsh. Han Fei-tzu immediately knelt and looked at his wife. Her eyes were wide and frightened. The moment had come.
Her lips moved. Promise me, she said, though her breath could make no sound but gasping.
“I promise,” said Han Fei-tzu.
Then her breathing stopped.
“What do the gods say when they talk to you?” asked Qing-jao.
“Your mother is very tired,” said Han Fei-tzu. “You should go out now.”
“But she didn’t answer me. What do the gods say?”
“They tell secrets,” said Han Fei-tzu. “No one who hears will repeat them.”
Qing-jao nodded wisely. She took a step back, as if to leave, but stopped. “May I kiss you, Mama?”
“Lightly on the cheek,” said Han Fei-tzu.
Qing-jao, being small for a four-year-old, did not have to bend very far at all to kiss her mother’s cheek. “I love you, Mama.”
“You’d better leave now, Qing-jao,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“But Mama didn’t say she loved me too.”
“She did. She said it before. Remember? But she’s very tired and weak. Go now.”
He put just enough sternness in his voice that Qing-jao left without further questions. Only when she was gone did Han Fei-tzu let himself feel anything but care for her. He knelt over Jiang-qing’s body and tried to imagine what was happening to her now. Her soul had flown and was now already in heaven. Her spirit would linger much longer; perhaps her spirit would dwell in this house, if it had truly been a place of happiness for her. Superstitious people believed that all spirits of the dead were dangerous, and put up signs and wards to fend them off. But those who followed the Path knew that the spirit of a good person was never harmful or destructive, for their goodness in life had come from the spirit’s love of making things. Jiang-qing’s spirit would be a blessing in the house for many years to come, if she chose to stay.
Yet even as he tried to imagine her soul and spirit, according to the teachings of the Path, there was a cold place in his heart that was certain that all that was left of Jiang-qing was this brittle, dried-up body. Tonight it would burn as quickly as paper, and then she would be gone except for the memories in his heart.
Jiang-qing was right. Without her to complete his soul, he was already doubting the gods. And the gods had noticed—they always did. At once he felt the unbearable pressure to do the ritual of cleansing, until he was rid of his unworthy thoughts. Even now they could not leave him unpunished. Even now, with his wife lying dead before him, the gods insisted that he do obeisance to them before he could shed a single tear of grief for her.
At first he meant to delay, to put off obedience. He had schooled himself to be able to postpone the ritual for as long as a whole day, while hiding all outward signs of his inner torment. He could do that now—but only by keeping his heart utterly cold. There was no point in that. Proper grief could come only when he had satisfied the gods. So, kneeling there, he began the ritual.
He was still twisting and gyrating with the ritual when a servant peered in. Though the servant said nothing, Han Fei-tzu heard the faint sliding of the door and knew what the servant would assume: Jiang-qing was dead, and Han Fei-tzu was so righteous that he was communing with the gods even before he announced her death to the household. No doubt some would even suppose that the gods had come to take Jiang-qing, since she was known for her extraordinary holiness. No one would guess that even as Han Fei-tzu worshiped, his heart was full of bitterness that the gods would dare demand this of him even now.
O Gods, he thought, if I knew that by cutting off an arm or cutting out my liver I could be rid of you forever, I would seize the knife and relish the pain and loss, all for the sake of freedom.
That thought, too, was unworthy, and required even more cleansing. It was hours before the gods at last released him, and by then he was too tired, too sick at heart to grieve. He got up and fetched the women to prepare Jiang-qing’s body for the burning.
At midnight he was the last to come to the pyre, carrying a sleepy Qing-jao in his arms. She clutched in her hands the three papers she had written for her mother in her childish scrawl. “Fish,” she had written, and “book” and “secrets.” These were the things that Qing-jao was giving to her mother to carry with her into heaven. Han Fei-tzu had tried to guess at the thoughts in Qing-jao’s mind as she wrote those words. Fish because of the carp in the garden stream today, no doubt. And book—that was easy enough to understand, because reading aloud was one of the last things Jiang-qing could do with her daughter. But why secrets? What secrets did Qing-jao have for her mother? He could not ask. One did not discuss the paper offerings to the dead.
Han Fei-tzu set Qing-jao on her feet; she had not been deeply asleep, and so she woke at once and stood there, blinking slowly. Han Fei-tzu whispered to her and she rolled her papers and tucked them into her mother’s sleeve. She didn’t seem to mind touching her mother’s cold flesh—she was too young to have learned to shudder at the touch of death.
Nor did Han Fei-tzu mind the touch of his wife’s flesh as he tucked his own three papers into her other sleeve. What was there to fear from death now, when it had already done its worst?
No one knew what was written on his papers, or they would have been horrified, for he had written, “My body,” “My spirit,” and “My soul.” Thus it was that he burned himself on Jiang-qing’s funeral pyre, and sent himself with her wherever it was she was going.
Then Jiang-qing’s secret maid, Mu-pao, laid the torch onto the sacred wood and the pyre burst into flames. The heat of the fire was painful, and Qing-jao hid herself behind her father, only peeking around him now and then to watch her mother leave on her endless journey. Han Fei-tzu, though, welcomed the dry heat that seared his skin and made brittle the silk of his robe. Her body had not been as dry as it seemed; long after the papers had crisped into ash and blown upward into the smoke of the fire, her body still sizzled, and the heavy incense burning all around the fire could not conceal from him the smell of burning flesh. That is what we’re burning here: meat, fish, carrion, nothing. Not my Jiang-qing. Only the costume she wore into this life. That which made that body into the woman that I loved is still alive, must still live. And for a moment he thought he could see, or hear, or somehow feel the passage of Jiang-qing.
Into the air, into the earth, into the fire. I am with you.

Copyright © 1991 by Orson Scott Card

Excerpted from


by Orson Scott Card
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