The ship hurtles through space. Deep within its core, it carries the seed of humankind. Launched by the people of a dying Earth over a century ago, its mission is to find a habitable world for the childrenfifteen-year-old Zoheret and her shipmateswhom it has created from its genetic banks.
To Zoheret and her shipmates, Ship has been mother, father, and loving teacher, preparing them for their biggest challenge: to survive on their own, on an uninhabited planet, without Ship's protection. Now that day is almost upon them...but are they ready to leave Ship? Ship devises a test. And suddenly, instincts that have been latent for over a hundred years take over. Zoheret watches as friends become strangersand enemies. Can Zoheret and her companions overcome the biggest obstacle to the survival of the human racethemselves?
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By Pamela Sargent
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1983 Pamela Sargent
All rights reserved.
Zoheret rolled slowly down the corridor, flexing her knees as she skated. The wide, brightly lit hall curved ahead of her; the lights above flickered past as she speeded up, careful not to skate too rapidly. The gleaming white wall to her right became a blur of bright colors as she passed a mural. Several of her friends had painted the picture; Zoheret's own face, topped by thick, black hair, peered out from among the green leaves of a bush. Other faces nestled among trees and flowers. She frowned. Someone had blackened her painted white teeth, and the mural was marred by a long, red streak.
She could go on and skate toward Ship's center, or turn and roll toward the corridor's end, meeting the tubeway that could whisk her through Ship or up to another level. Beyond the corridors were empty caverns and rocky passageways enclosed by a thick layer of rock; outside the rock and its shielding was the black space through which Ship rushed, distant stars distorted by its speed. Zoheret had seen what was beyond only through Ship's screens or in its observatory.
Her earliest memory was of Ship's voice soothing her, though she could not recall why she had needed consolation. Ship had always been there, around her, watching and tending her.
She slowed down when she saw a boy limping through the corridor. "Anoki," she called out. He turned and she skated up to his side. "Where are you going?"
"I'll go with you. Feeling better?"
"I'm all right."
"You look better." She skated ahead, then waited for him to catch up. Hearing the sound of other approaching skaters, she moved quickly toward the wall and peered down the corridor. Anoki was still in the middle of the hall; he began to limp toward her. Two skaters, now visible, sped around the curve, knees bent, heads down. Zoheret recognized Manuel and Ho. The skates were supposed to speed their progress through Ship, but some had made skating a game.
"Slow down!" she shouted at them. The two boys lifted their heads. Manuel frowned, and swerved slightly; Ho seemed to speed up. He was heading straight for Anoki. Anoki stumbled to one side and Ho brushed him with an arm as he passed, knocking the other boy down.
"Don't go so fast," Zoheret said as they passed her.
Manuel grinned, showing even white teeth. "Sorry," he said, whipping by. He and Ho disappeared around the curve ahead; she heard them laugh.
She hurried to Anoki. As he climbed to his feet, he waved her hand away. "I'm all right." His straight black hair was hanging over his eyes; he brushed it back.
"They know they shouldn't skate so quickly."
"I'm all right. It doesn't matter." Anoki's brown eyes were without expression; his mouth twisted into his familiar bitter smile. They moved down the corridor, Zoheret rolling slowly so that Anoki could keep up with her. "They can't be expected to look out for me. Almost anyone else could have gotten out of the way."
"You're doing much better," she said. "You don't need crutches anymore, and —"
"Yes, I'm doing better. I'm still not well."
"But you can do a lot more now."
"Don't tell me what I can do. You wouldn't know anything about it. You're healthy. Ship helped me, but it could have been more careful at the beginning."
"Ship can make mistakes, too."
"I know. It's easy for you to say, Zoheret. You're not one of the mistakes."
She had no answer to that.
"You and Lillka were the only ones who came to see me when I was healing," Anoki went on. "And Willem."
"That isn't true. Almost everybody did."
"Once or twice. And I'll bet it was only because Ship told them to."
They approached the library. The door slid open and they entered the large room. Zoheret would not admit it to Anoki, but she understood why he had not had many visitors while he had been in the infirmary. He often seemed bored or contemptuous. His disability also frightened others, reminding them of their own vulnerability; Zoheret had felt that fear herself. It could have happened to any of them. It might have happened to her.
Screens and chairs were clustered around the room; booths lined the walls. The library's microcircuits held millions of books; Ship could provide a printed copy, a slide of the book to be read with a reader, or could show an illustrated book on one of the screens. A cube as high as the ceiling and almost as wide as the room jutted out from the far wall. Inside the cube, holograms from Earth, the world they had never seen, could be shown.
Lillka was curled up in one chair, a reader on her lap. She looked up from the flat rectangle as Zoheret and Anoki came near, then went back to her reading. Lillka lived in the library; she would have spent all her time there if Ship had let her. She had grown shortsighted from all her reading, and Ship's surgical lasers had already made adjustments in her eyes.
"What are you reading?" Anoki asked her.
"Just a story."
"You shouldn't read for so long. Have Ship tell you a story, or show you one."
"It isn't the same."
Zoheret skated toward the cube. "Ship?"
"Zoheret. Hello." Ship's voice was an alto. "You did not eat your lunch yet." The voice dipped, and became a tenor. "You should."
"I'm not hungry."
"You won't get extra food at supper," the tenor voice warned her.
"I know. Show me my parents again."
"Certainly." Ship was speaking in its alto once more. A woman appeared inside the cube; she had long, dark-brown hair and olive skin. The image was so real that Zoheret felt as though she were looking through a window. Behind the woman, Zoheret saw a barren, brown landscape and, on the horizon, the glitter of tall, shiny spires. The woman disappeared, and a black-haired man took her place. His bearded face smiled at her uneasily as he sat in his laboratory, his fingers around a microscope. The image changed. On one side of the cube, the woman stood before a small group of people, while on the other the man, now clothed in a long, white robe, sat in a garden; a hooded falcon clutched a perch near him. The images were still, frozen in time. Zoheret wondered how long the two had been dead.
The woman's name was Geula Aaron; the man was Hussein Taraki. It was from their genetic material that Ship had made Zoheret. Ship had told her that the two had worked on the Project together, but it did not know whether the two had known each other well. It had also told Zoheret that Geula had been a chemical engineer and that Hussein had been a medical researcher and poet.
Zoheret stared at the images, searching the faces. She had asked about them at first only out of curiosity. She had wanted to know something about the people who had built Ship, who had wanted to send something of themselves into space, to another world. Ship had explained enough to her for her to know that they were dead, that they had been dead long before Zoheret had been born. Ship had been traveling through space for over a century.
Zoheret had not thought much about her parents until recently. She was fifteen years old, as Ship reckoned time; on the day she had turned fifteen, she had found herself gazing at the images and asking herself if it had bothered them, knowing that a child of theirs whom they would never see, would never know, would be traveling to another world. It was silly to think of it that way, she knew; she had not been alive then, and they would have had to worry about someone who did not exist.
"You look like her," Anoki said as he came to her side. "But you have his nose."
"I know. My nose is too big."
"It is kind of beaky. It looks all right on you, though. It wouldn't on somebody else."
Zoheret smiled, knowing that this was as close as Anoki would come to a compliment. "Do you want to see your parents?"
"No." He said it quickly. "I've seen them before. What's the point? They would have been disappointed if they had known how I turned out." He frowned. "Maybe it was on purpose. Maybe I was supposed to be like this."
"You can't believe that."
"Why not? Maybe it's part of the Project, seeing whether someone like me, or like Willem, can survive."
"But Ship —"
"There's a lot Ship doesn't know. I'll bet there's a lot Ship hasn't told, either."
"I convey everything I can," Ship said in its alto. "And I know quite a lot — more than you do, I might add. Do you wish to continue viewing, Zoheret?"
"No." The images faded. Ship always showed the same holograms; Geula standing in a desert outside a city or with her friends, Hussein in his laboratory or garden. They never spoke; she had never heard their voices. They could have left a message, she thought. They could have recorded something for me to hear.
"Do you want to see something else?" Ship asked.
Zoheret shook her head.
"I must say," Ship went on, "that I do think you look at those holos much too often. They would not have wanted that, I'm certain. To know that some part of themselves will live on elsewhere was their desire. They would have wanted you not to look back, but to look forward. You must become yourself."
"I am myself. What else could I be?"
"That isn't what I meant. I meant that all of you here are a new human society, unhobbled by the past. The weight of history will not hold you back. You will be starting a history of your own, and in times to come, your descendants will tell legends and myths about you. You will live as human beings were meant to live. You will have a glorious destiny." Ship's voice rose a bit as it spoke.
Zoheret felt irritated. She had heard these comments of Ship's before. When she had been small, they had thrilled her, provoking formless daydreams of adventure in which she was the central figure, battling alien creatures or commanding her friends. She now knew that the glorious destiny Ship spoke of was going to be hard work.
She skated back to Lillka and sat at her side. Anoki gripped the arms of a chair, slowly lowering himself. "I'll bet you know as much as Ship does about Earth," Zoheret said to the other girl.
"Not quite as much. A lot, though. Don't forget, Ship never saw Earth. It only has what was programmed into it."
It was true. Ship's mind had been assembled on the asteroid that had become Ship's body. All of them had been born and raised on Ship, but Ship had been traveling through space for years before that, alone, moving at close to the speed of light while time slowed for Ship and centuries passed on Earth. Ship was moving toward a planetary system with a habitable world. When it reached that world, it would be time for all of the young people to leave Ship and to settle there.
Zoheret had longed for that time. No longer would Ship constantly watch them and tell them what to do; they would decide things for themselves. Now, as that time drew closer, she worried.
"It's funny," Lillka continued. "Ship knows so much. But things are missing. You don't notice that at first, but if you read enough, you begin to see it."
"What, for instance?" Zoheret asked. Ship had taught them much about Earth, beginning with its geological history and ending with the Project, with a lot in between. They had been given reading assignments and holo viewings; they had listened to Earth's music and seen Earth's art. Sometimes Ship simply told them stories. The point of it all was simple; all of Earth's history had led to the Project designed to fulfill the destiny of their species — to settle on other worlds and create new and varied cultures. Zoheret had wondered why, if they were to build their own society, they had to know so much about Earth's. "What's missing?" she went on.
Lillka shrugged. "The wars."
"Ship told us about those."
"Not really. It told us when they happened and how many people died and how they were fought and how they ended. It even told us the causes. Everybody thought that wars were horrible, but they kept having them. And then they stopped, because their weapons became too powerful and there was too much to lose. That doesn't make sense. It seems to me they would only stop if they didn't have any weapons."
"You're wrong," Zoheret said. "They stopped because they could have killed everyone, and no one would have won. That sounds like a good reason to me."
"War would have been suicide," Ship said. Its soft but resonant voice filled the room. "There is nothing worth sacrificing one's entire species."
Lillka shook her head. "But they still had the weapons. Why did they keep them if they weren't going to use them? I'd get rid of them."
"I wouldn't," Anoki muttered. "Engineers learned a lot building weapons that they could use for other things. You might not like it, but it's true."
"The weapons are totems," Ship said. "Humankind keeps them as reminders of its past savagery, so that no one forgets. The weapons are guardians, forever holding the powerful in check, as a king on a chessboard is limited by the position of the opponent's pieces. If someone held a gun to your head, you would do as he told you. The weapons are held to the head of all the world, and the world behaves. No one has an advantage; no one can win. By now, knowing that they will fight with them no more, they have most likely dismantled the weapons." Ship shifted into its tenor voice. "You, Lillka, should pay more attention to your lessons and my exposition."
"What if they didn't dismantle them?" A flush spread over Lillka's pale, broad face.
"I don't know why you're so upset about it," Anoki said. "Ship's probably right. Anyway, it has nothing to do with us."
"But it does." Lillka's gray eyes gazed past Zoheret. "What if the people working on the Project thought there was going to be another war? Maybe they sent Ship out because they wanted some people to survive. Maybe we're the only human beings left."
"They didn't program anything about another war," Ship said loudly. "They were past that point. There were no ideological, economic, or social reasons for a war. It would have been suicide. They were well aware of that, and loved their lives too much to risk it."
"Maybe they fooled themselves," Lillka argued. "Maybe they thought they could survive one. I don't know. You tell us about Earth and how wonderful it is with its science and its art. But a lot of the science was used in wars, and a lot of the art depicts war. And they never gave up their war games and their little battles. It's as if people were made to fight." She glanced from Zoheret to Anoki. "Don't you see? It's as if it's an instinct. We have the same instincts. It means we're like them. It means we'll be just as violent."
"My, my," Ship said. "You're confusing possibility with necessity, Lillka. Because human beings have fought in the past doesn't mean they'll do so in the future."
"Of course they might. And so might you. But it is not inevitable. The people of Earth, it's true, are a species that tends to seek danger and challenges, that has thrived on struggle and adversity. But the universe itself provides enough of those things. People came to realize that they could channel their aggressive instincts into other activities. There were the planets near Earth to explore, and enough danger in that to challenge anyone. The Project itself involved danger. People died building me. Nature often allows a person only one mistake. You'll find enough to keep you occupied on your new home, believe me. You won't have time for pointless and costly battles."
Lillka leaned back in her chair. "Maybe." She pulled at a strand of her short blond hair.
"Every quality," Ship murmured, "can be either a good or an evil thing. It depends on how it is directed. You are conscious, thinking beings, and you have a choice. You have a rich heritage, as well as the chance to begin anew. Concentrating only on the bad will give you a distorted picture, and will cripple you in the end."
Anoki started. "I'm already crippled," he said bitterly.
"I was speaking figuratively. And you can walk around without your crutches now. Besides, you have compensated, Anoki. You have strong arms and shoulders."
"Great. I'm so glad. You could have been more careful when I was born."
"You were expelled from your womb too soon — you know that. Your limbs were damaged. But it's not a genetic defect. You won't pass it on." Ship's alto voice was soothing.
"So you fixed me, and you could have done more if I'd wanted to take a chance on new limbs. But you can't do a thing for Willem."
Excerpted from Earthseed by Pamela Sargent. Copyright © 1983 Pamela Sargent. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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