Speaker for the Dead
Author's Definitive Edition
By Card, Orson Scott
Copyright © 1994
Card, Orson Scott
All right reserved.
Since we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves, it is presumptuous in the extreme to suppose we could ever look at sociable, tool-making creatures who arose from other evolutionary paths and see not beasts but brothers, not rivals but fellow pilgrims journeying to the shrine of intelligence.
Yet that is what I see, or yearn to see. The difference between raman and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.
—Demosthenes, Letter to the Framlings
Rooter was at once the most difficult and the most helpful of the pequeninos. He was always there whenever Pipo visited their clearing, and did his best to answer the questions Pipo was forbidden by law to come right out and ask. Pipo depended on him—too much, probably—yet though Rooter clowned and played like the irresponsible youngling that he was, he also watched, probed, tested. Pipo always had to beware of the traps that Rooter set for him.
A moment ago Rooter had been shimmying up trees, gripping the bark with only the horny pads on his ankles and inside his thighs. In his hands he carried two sticks—Father Sticks, they were called—which he beat against the tree in a compelling, arhythmic pattern as he climbed.
The noise brought Mandachuva out of the log house. He called to Rooter in the Males’ Language, and then in Portuguese. “P’ra baixo, bicho!” Several piggies nearby, hearing his Portuguese wordplay, expressed their appreciation by rubbing their thighs together sharply. It made a hissing noise, and Mandachuva took a little hop in the air in delight at their applause.
Rooter, in the meantime, bent over backward until it seemed certain he would fall. Then he flipped off with his hands, did a somersault in the air, and landed on his legs, hopping a few times but not stumbling.
“So now you’re an acrobat,” said Pipo.
Rooter swaggered over to him. It was his way of imitating humans. It was all the more effective as ridicule because his flattened upturned snout looked decidedly porcine. No wonder that offworlders called them “piggies.” The earliest visitors to this world had started calling them that in their first reports back in ’86, and by the time Lusitania Colony was founded in 1925, the name was indelible. The xenologers scattered among the Hundred Worlds wrote of them as “Lusitanian Aborigines,” though Pipo knew perfectly well that this was merely a matter of professional dignity; except in scholarly papers, xenologers no doubt called them piggies, too. As for Pipo, he usually called them pequeninos, and they seemed not to object, for now they called themselves “Little Ones.” Still, dignity or not, there was no denying it. At moments like this, Rooter looked like a hog on its hind legs.
“Acrobat,” Rooter said, trying out the new word. “What I did? You have a word for people who do that? So there are people who do that as their work?”
Pipo sighed silently, even as he froze his smile in place. The law strictly forbade him to share information about human society, lest it contaminate piggy culture. Yet Rooter played a constant game of squeezing the last drop of implication out of everything Pipo said. This time, though, Pipo had no one to blame but himself, letting out a silly remark that opened unnecessary windows onto human life. Now and then he got so comfortable among the pequeninos that he spoke naturally. Always a danger. I’m not good at this constant game of taking information while trying to give nothing in return. Libo, my close-mouthed son, already he’s better at discretion than I am, and he’s only been apprenticed to me—how long since he turned thirteen?—four months.
“I wish I had pads on my legs like yours,” said Pipo. “The bark on that tree would rip my skin to shreds.”
“That would cause us all to be ashamed.” Rooter held still in the expectant posture that Pipo thought of as their way of showing mild anxiety, or perhaps a nonverbal warning to other pequeninos to be cautious. It might also have been a sign of extreme fear, but as far as Pipo knew he had never seen a pequenino show extreme fear.
In any event, Pipo spoke quickly to calm him. “Don’t worry, I’m too old and soft to climb trees like that. I’ll leave it to you younglings.”
And it worked; Rooter’s body at once became mobile again. “I like to climb trees. I can see everything.” Rooter squatted in front of Pipo and leaned his face in close. “Will you bring the beast that runs over the grass without touching the ground? The others don’t believe me when I say I saw such a thing.”
Another trap. What, Pipo, xenologer, will you humiliate this individual of the community you’re studying? Or will you adhere to the rigid law set up by Starways Congress to govern this encounter? There were few precedents. The only other intelligent aliens that humankind had encountered were the buggers, three thousand years ago, and at the end of it the buggers were all dead. This time Starways Congress was making sure that if humanity erred, their errors would be in the opposite direction. Minimal information, minimal contact.
Rooter recognized Pipo’s hesitation, his careful silence.
“You never tell us anything,” said Rooter. “You watch us and study us, but you never let us past your fence and into your village to watch you and study you.”
Pipo answered as honestly as he could, but it was more important to be careful than to be honest. “If you learn so little and we learn so much, why is it that you speak both Stark and Portuguese while I’m still struggling with your language?”
“We’re smarter.” Then Rooter leaned back and spun around on his buttocks so his back was toward Pipo. “Go back behind your fence,” he said.
Pipo stood at once. Not too far away, Libo was with three pequeninos, trying to learn how they wove dried merdona vines into thatch. He saw Pipo and in a moment was with his father, ready to go. Pipo led him off without a word; since the pequeninos were so fluent in human languages, they never discussed what they had learned until they were inside the gate.
It took a half hour to get home, and it was raining heavily when they passed through the gate and walked along the face of the hill to the Zenador’s Station. Zenador? Pipo thought of the word as he looked at the small sign above the door. On it the word Xenologer was written in Stark. That is what I am, I suppose, thought Pipo, at least to the offworlders. But the Portuguese title Zenador was so much easier to say that on Lusitania hardly anyone said xenologer, even when speaking Stark. That is how languages change, thought Pipo. If it weren’t for the ansible, providing instantaneous communication among the Hundred Worlds, we could not possibly maintain a common language. Interstellar travel is far too rare and slow. Stark would splinter into ten thousand dialects within a century. It might be interesting to have the computers run a projection of linguistic changes on Lusitania, if Stark were allowed to decay and absorb Portuguese—or vice-versa.
“Father,” said Libo.
Only then did Pipo notice that he had stopped ten meters away from the station. Tangents. The best parts of my intellectual life are tangential, in areas outside my expertise. I suppose because within my area of expertise the regulations they have placed upon me make it impossible to know or understand anything. The science of xenology insists on more mysteries than Mother Church.
His handprint was enough to unlock the door. Pipo knew how the evening would unfold even as he stepped inside to begin. It would take several hours of work at the terminals for them both to report what they had done during today’s encounter. Pipo would then read over Libo’s notes, and Libo would read Pipo’s, and when they were satisfied, Pipo would write up a brief summary and then let the computers take it from there, filing the notes and also transmitting them instantly, by ansible, to the xenologers in the rest of the Hundred Worlds. More than a thousand scientists whose whole career is studying the one alien race we know, and except for what little the satellites can discover about this arboreal species, all the information my colleagues have is what Libo and I send them. This is definitely minimal intervention.
But when Pipo got inside the station, he saw at once that it would not be an evening of steady but relaxing work. Dona Cristã was there, dressed in her monastic robes. Was it one of the younger children, in trouble at school?
“No, no,” said Dona Cristã. “All your children are doing very well, except this one, who I think is far too young to be out of school and working here, even as an apprentice.”
Libo said nothing. A wise decision, thought Pipo. Dona Cristã was a brilliant and engaging, perhaps even beautiful, young woman, but she was first and foremost a monk of the order of the Filhos da Mente de Cristo, Children of the Mind of Christ, and she was not beautiful to behold when she was angry at ignorance and stupidity. It was amazing the number of quite intelligent people whose ignorance and stupidity had melted somewhat in the fire of her scorn. Silence, Libo, it’s a policy that will do you good.
“I’m not here about any child of yours at all,” said Dona Cristã. “I’m here about Novinha.”
Dona Cristã did not have to mention a last name; everybody knew Novinha. The terrible Descolada had ended only eight years before. The plague had threatened to wipe out the colony before it had a fair chance to get started; the cure was discovered by Novinha’s father and mother, Gusto and Cida, the two xenobiologists. It was a tragic irony that they found the cause of the disease and its treatment too late to save themselves. Theirs was the last Descolada funeral.
Pipo clearly remembered the little girl Novinha, standing there holding Mayor Bosquinha’s hand while Bishop Peregrino conducted the funeral mass himself. No—not holding the Mayor’s hand. The picture came back to his mind, and, with it, the way he felt. What does she make of this? he remembered asking himself. It’s the funeral of her parents, she’s the last survivor in her family; yet all around her she can sense the great rejoicing of the people of this colony. Young as she is, does she understand that our joy is the best tribute to her parents? They struggled and succeeded, finding our salvation in the waning days before they died; we are here to celebrate the great gift they gave us. But to you, Novinha, it’s the death of your parents, as your brothers died before. Five hundred dead, and more than a hundred masses for the dead here in this colony in the last six months, and all of them were held in an atmosphere of fear and grief and despair. Now, when your parents die, the fear and grief and despair are no less for you than ever before—but no one else shares your pain. It is the relief from pain that is foremost in our minds.
Watching her, trying to imagine her feelings, he succeeded only in rekindling his own grief at the death of his own Maria, seven years old, swept away in the wind of death that covered her body in cancerous growth and rampant funguses, the flesh swelling or decaying, a new limb, not arm or leg, growing out of her hip, while the flesh sloughed off her feet and head, baring the bones, her sweet and beautiful body destroyed before their eyes, while her bright mind was mercilessly alert, able to feel all that happened to her until she cried out to God to let her die. Pipo remembered that, and then remembered her requiem mass, shared with five other victims. As he sat, knelt, stood there with his wife and surviving children, he had felt the perfect unity of the people in the Cathedral. He knew that his pain was everybody’s pain, that through the loss of his eldest daughter he was bound to his community with the inseparable bonds of grief, and it was a comfort to him, it was something to cling to. That was how such a grief ought to be, a public mourning.
Little Novinha had nothing of that. Her pain was, if anything, worse than Pipo’s had been—at least Pipo had not been left without any family at all, and he was an adult, not a child terrified by suddenly losing the foundation of her life. In her grief she was not drawn more tightly into the community, but rather excluded from it. Today everyone was rejoicing, except her. Today everyone praised her parents; she alone yearned for them, would rather they had never found the cure for others if only they could have remained alive themselves.
Her isolation was so acute that Pipo could see it from where he sat. Novinha took her hand away from the Mayor as quickly as possible. Her tears dried up as the mass progressed; by the end she sat in silence, like a prisoner refusing to cooperate with her captors. Pipo’s heart broke for her. Yet he knew that even if he tried, he could not conceal his own gladness at the end of the Descolada, his rejoicing that none of his other children would be taken from him. She would see that; his effort to comfort her would be a mockery, would drive her further away.
After the mass she walked in bitter solitude amid the crowds of well-meaning people who cruelly told her that her parents were sure to be saints, sure to sit at the right hand of God. What kind of comfort is that for a child? Pipo whispered aloud to his wife, “She’ll never forgive us for today.”
“Forgive?” Conceição was not one of those wives who instantly understand her husband’s train of thought. “We didn’t kill her parents…”
“But we’re all rejoicing today, aren’t we? She’ll never forgive us for that.”
“Nonsense. She doesn’t understand anyway; she’s too young.”
She understands, Pipo thought. Didn’t Maria understand things when she was even younger than Novinha is now?
As the years passed—eight years now—he had seen her from time to time. She was his son Libo’s age, and until Libo’s thirteenth birthday that meant they were in many classes together. He heard her give occasional readings and speeches, along with other children. There was an elegance to her thought, an intensity to her examination of ideas, which appealed to him. At the same time, she seemed utterly cold, completely removed from everyone else. Pipo’s own boy, Libo, was shy, but even so he had several friends and had won the affection of his teachers. Novinha, though, had no friends at all, no one whose gaze she sought after a moment of triumph. There was no teacher who genuinely liked her, because she refused to reciprocate, to respond. “She is emotionally paralyzed,” Dona Cristã said once when Pipo asked about her. “There is no reaching her. She swears that she’s perfectly happy, and doesn’t see any need to change.”
Now Dona Cristã had come to the Zenador’s Station to talk to Pipo about Novinha. Why Pipo? He could guess only one reason for the principal of the school to come to him about this particular orphaned girl. “Am I to believe that in all the years you’ve had Novinha in your school, I’m the only person who asked about her?”
“Not the only person,” she said. “There was all kinds of interest in her a couple of years ago, when the Pope beatified her parents. Everybody asked then whether the daughter of Gusto and Cida, Os Venerados, had ever noticed any miraculous events associated with her parents, as so many other people had.”
“They actually asked her that?”
“There were rumors, and Bishop Peregrino had to investigate.” Dona Cristã got a bit tight-lipped when she spoke of the young spiritual leader of Lusitania Colony. But then, it was said that the hierarchy never got along well with the order of the Filhos da Mente de Cristo. “Her answer was instructive.”
“I can imagine.”
“She said, more or less, that if her parents were actually listening to prayers and had any influence in heaven to get them granted, then why wouldn’t they have answered her prayer, for them to return from the grave? That would be a useful miracle, she said, and there are precedents. If Os Venerados actually had the power to grant miracles, then it must mean they did not love her enough to answer her prayer. She preferred to believe that her parents still loved her, and simply did not have the power to act.”
“A born sophist,” said Pipo.
“A sophist and an expert in guilt: she told the Bishop that if the Pope declared her parents to be venerable, it would be the same as the Church saying that her parents hated her. The petition for canonization of her parents was proof that Lusitania despised her; if it was granted, it would be proof that the Church itself was despicable. Bishop Peregrino was livid.”
“I notice he sent in the petition anyway.”
“For the good of the community. And there were all those miracles.”
“Someone touches the shrine and a headache goes away and they cry ‘Milagre!—os santos me abençoaram!’” Miracle!—the saints have blessed me!
“You know that Holy Rome requires more substantial miracles than that. But it doesn’t matter. The Pope graciously allowed us to call our little town Milagre, and now I imagine that every time someone says that name, Novinha burns a little hotter with her secret rage.”
“Or colder. One never knows what temperature that sort of thing will take.”
“Anyway, Pipo, you aren’t the only one who ever asked about her. But you’re the only one who ever asked about her for her own sake, and not because of her Blessed parents.”
It was a sad thought, that except for the Filhos, who ran the schools of Lusitania, there had been no concern for the girl except the slender shards of attention Pipo had spared for her over the years.
“She has one friend,” said Libo.
Pipo had forgotten that his son was there—Libo was so quiet that he was easy to overlook. Dona Cristã also seemed startled. “Libo,” she said, “I think we were indiscreet, talking about one of your schoolmates like this.”
“I’m apprentice Zenador now,” Libo reminded her. It meant he wasn’t in school.
“Who is her friend?” asked Pipo.
“Marcos Ribeira,” Dona Cristã explained. “The tall boy—”
“Ah, yes, the one who’s built like a cabra.”
“He is strong,” said Dona Cristã. “But I’ve never noticed any friendship between them.”
“Once when Marcão was accused of something, and she happened to see it, she spoke for him.”
“You put a generous interpretation on it, Libo,” said Dona Cristã. “I think it is more accurate to say she spoke against the boys who actually did it and were trying to put the blame on him.”
“Marcão doesn’t see it that way,” said Libo. “I noticed a couple of times, the way he watches her. It isn’t much, but there is somebody who likes her.”
“Do you like her?” asked Pipo.
Libo paused for a moment in silence. Pipo knew what it meant. He was examining himself to find an answer. Not the answer that he thought would be most likely to bring him adult favor, and not the answer that would provoke their ire—the two kinds of deception that most children his age delighted in. He was examining himself to discover the truth.
“I think,” Libo said, “that I understood that she didn’t want to be liked. As if she were a visitor who expected to go back home any day.”
Dona Cristã nodded gravely. “Yes, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the way she seems. But now, Libo, we must end our indiscretion by asking you to leave us while we—”
He was gone before she finished her sentence, with a quick nod of his head, a half-smile that said, Yes, I understand, and a deftness of movement that made his exit more eloquent proof of his discretion than if he had argued to stay. By this Pipo knew that Libo was annoyed at being asked to leave; he had a knack for making adults feel vaguely immature by comparison to him.
“Pipo,” said the principal, “she has petitioned for an early examination as xenobiologist. To take her parents’ place.”
Pipo raised an eyebrow.
“She claims that she has been studying the field intensely since she was a little child. That she’s ready to begin the work right now, without apprenticeship.”
“She’s thirteen, isn’t she?”
“There are precedents. Many have taken such tests early. One even passed it younger than her. It was two thousand years ago, but it was allowed. Bishop Peregrino is against it, of course, but Mayor Bosquinha, bless her practical heart, has pointed out that Lusitania needs a xenobiologist quite badly—we need to be about the business of developing new strains of plant life so we can get some decent variety in our diet and much better harvests from Lusitanian soil. In her words, ‘I don’t care if it’s an infant, we need a xenobiologist.’”
“And you want me to supervise her examination?”
“If you would be so kind.”
“I’ll be glad to.”
“I told them you would.”
“I confess I have an ulterior motive.”
“I should have done more for the girl. I’d like to see if it isn’t too late to begin.”
Dona Cristã laughed a bit. “Oh, Pipo, I’d be glad for you to try. But do believe me, my dear friend, touching her heart is like bathing in ice.”
“I imagine. I imagine it feels like bathing in ice to the person touching her. But how does it feel to her? Cold as she is, it must surely burn like fire.”
“Such a poet,” said Dona Cristã. There was no irony in her voice; she meant it. “Do the piggies understand that we’ve sent our very best as our ambassador?”
“I try to tell them, but they’re skeptical.”
“I’ll send her to you tomorrow. I warn you—she’ll expect to take the examinations cold, and she’ll resist any attempt on your part to pre-examine her.”
Pipo smiled. “I’m far more worried about what will happen after she takes the test. If she fails, then she’ll have very bad problems. And if she passes, then my problems will begin.”
“Libo will be after me to let him examine early for Zenador. And if he did that, there’d be no reason for me not to go home, curl up, and die.”
“Such a romantic fool you are, Pipo. If there’s any man in Milagre who’s capable of accepting his thirteen-year-old son as a colleague, it’s you.”
After she left, Pipo and Libo worked together, as usual, recording the day’s events with the pequeninos. Pipo compared Libo’s work, his way of thinking, his insights, his attitudes, with those of the graduate students he had known in university before joining the Lusitania Colony. He might be small, and there might be a lot of theory and knowledge for him yet to learn, but he was already a true scientist in his method, and a humanist at heart. By the time the evening’s work was done and they walked home together by the light of Lusitania’s large and dazzling moon, Pipo had decided that Libo already deserved to be treated as a colleague, whether he took the examination or not. The tests couldn’t measure the things that really counted, anyway.
And whether she liked it or not, Pipo intended to find out if Novinha had the unmeasurable qualities of a scientist; if she didn’t, then he’d see to it she didn’t take the test, regardless of how many facts she had memorized.
* * *
Pipo meant to be difficult. Novinha knew how adults acted when they planned not to do things her way, but didn’t want a fight or even any nastiness. Of course, of course you can take the test. But there’s no reason to rush into it, let’s take some time, let me make sure you’ll be successful on the first attempt.
Novinha didn’t want to wait. Novinha was ready.
“I’ll jump through any hoops you want,” she said.
His face went cold. Their faces always did. That was all right, coldness was all right, she could freeze them to death. “I don’t want you to jump through hoops,” he said.
“The only thing I ask is that you line them up all in a row so I can jump through them quickly. I don’t want to be put off for days and days.”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “You’re in such a hurry.”
“I’m ready. The Starways Code allows me to challenge the test at any time. It’s between me and the Starways Congress, and I can’t find anywhere that it says a xenologer can try to second-guess the Interplanetary Examinations Board.”
“Then you haven’t read carefully.”
“The only thing I need to take the test before I’m sixteen is the authorization of my legal guardian. I don’t have a legal guardian.”
“On the contrary,” said Pipo. “Mayor Bosquinha was your legal guardian from the day of your parents’ death.”
“And she agreed I could take the test.”
“Provided you came to me.”
Novinha saw the intense look in his eyes. She didn’t know Pipo, so she thought it was the look she had seen in so many eyes, the desire to dominate, to rule her, the desire to cut through her determination and break her independence, the desire to make her submit.
From ice to fire in an instant. “What do you know about xenobiology! You only go out and talk to the piggies, you don’t even begin to understand the workings of genes! Who are you to judge me! Lusitania needs a xenobiologist, and they’ve been without one for eight years. And you want to make them wait even longer, just so you can be in control!”
To her surprise, he didn’t become flustered, didn’t retreat. Nor did he get angry in return. It was as if she hadn’t spoken.
“I see,” he said quietly. “It’s because of your great love of the people of Lusitania that you wish to become xenobiologist. Seeing the public need, you sacrificed and prepared yourself to enter early into a lifetime of altruistic service.”
It sounded absurd, hearing him say it like that. And it wasn’t at all what she felt. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“If it were true, it would be good enough.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“Your own words called you a liar. You spoke of how much they, the people of Lusitania, need you. But you live among us. You’ve lived among us all your life. Ready to sacrifice for us, and yet you don’t feel yourself to be part of this community.”
So he wasn’t like the adults who always believed lies as long as they made her seem to be the child they wanted her to be. “Why should I feel like part of the community? I’m not.”
He nodded gravely, as if considering her answer. “What community are you a part of?”
“The only other communities on Lusitania are the piggies, and you haven’t seen me out there with the tree-worshippers.”
“There are many other communities on Lusitania. For instance, you’re a student—there’s a community of students.”
“Not for me.”
“I know. You have no friends, you have no intimate associates, you go to mass but you never go to confession, you are so completely detached that as far as possible you don’t touch the life of this colony, you don’t touch the life of the human race at any point. From all the evidence, you live in complete isolation.”
Novinha wasn’t prepared for this. He was naming the underlying pain of her life, and she didn’t have a strategy devised to cope with it. “If I do, it isn’t my fault.”
“I know that. I know where it began, and I know whose fault it was that it continues to this day.”
“Mine. And everyone else’s. But mine most of all, because I knew what was happening to you and I did nothing at all. Until today.”
“And today you’re going to keep me from the one thing that matters to me in my life! Thanks so much for your compassion!”
Again he nodded solemnly, as if he were accepting and acknowledging her ironic gratitude. “In one sense, Novinha, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t your fault. Because the town of Milagre is a community, and whether it has treated you badly or not, it must still act as all communities do, to provide the greatest possible happiness for all its members.”
“Which means everybody on Lusitania except me—me and the piggies.”
“The xenobiologist is very important to a colony, especially one like this, surrounded by a fence that forever limits our growth. Our xenobiologist must find ways to grow more protein and carbohydrate per hectare, which means genetically altering the Earthborn corn and potatoes to make—”
“To make maximum use of the nutrients available in the Lusitanian environment. Do you think I’m planning to take the examination without knowing what my life’s work would be?”
“Your life’s work, to devote yourself to improving the lives of people you despise.”
Now Novinha saw the trap that he had laid for her. Too late; it had sprung. “So you think that a xenobiologist can’t do her work unless she loves the people who use the things she makes?”
“I don’t care whether you love us or not. What I have to know is what you really want. Why you’re so passionate to do this.”
“Basic psychology. My parents died in this work, and so I’m trying to step into their role.”
“Maybe,” said Pipo. “And maybe not. What I want to know, Novinha, what I must know before I’ll let you take the test, is what community you do belong to.”
“You said it yourself! I don’t belong to any.”
“Impossible. Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to and the ones she doesn’t belong to. I am this and this and this, but definitely not that and that and that. All your definitions are negative. I could make an infinite list of the things you are not. But a person who really believes she doesn’t belong to any community at all invariably kills herself, either by killing her body or by giving up her identity and going mad.”
“That’s me, insane to the root.”
“Not insane. Driven by a sense of purpose that is frightening. If you take this test you’ll pass it. But before I let you take it I have to know: Who will you become when you pass? What do you believe in, what are you part of, what do you care about, what do you love?”
“Nobody in this or any other world.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’ve never known a good man or woman in the world except my parents and they’re dead! And even they—nobody understands anything.”
“I’m part of anything, aren’t I? But nobody understands anybody, not even you, pretending to be so wise and compassionate but you’re only getting me to cry like this because you have the power to stop me from doing what I want to do—”
“And it isn’t xenobiology.”
“Yes it is! That’s part of it, anyway.”
“And what’s the rest of it?”
“What you are. What you do. Only you’re doing it all wrong, you’re doing it stupidly.”
“Xenobiologist and xenologer.”
“They made a stupid mistake when they created a new science to study the piggies. They were a bunch of tired old anthropologists who put on new hats and called themselves xenologers. But you can’t understand the piggies just by watching the way they behave! They came out of a different evolution! You have to understand their genes, what’s going on inside their cells. And the other animals’ cells, too, because they can’t be studied by themselves, nothing lives in isolation—”
Don’t lecture me, thought Pipo. Tell me what you feel. And to provoke her to be more emotional, he whispered, “Except you.”
It worked. From cold and contemptuous she became hot and defensive. “You’ll never understand them! But I will!”
“Why do you care about them? What are the piggies to you?”
“You’d never understand. You’re a good Catholic.” She said the word with contempt. “It’s a book that’s on the Index.”
Pipo’s face glowed with sudden understanding. “The Hive Queen and the Hegemon.”
“He lived three thousand years ago, whoever he was, the one who called himself the Speaker for the Dead. But he understood the buggers! We wiped them all out, the only other alien race we ever knew, we killed them all, but he understood.”
“And you want to write the story of the pequeninos the way the original Speaker wrote of the buggers.”
“The way you say it, you make it sound as easy as doing a scholarly paper. You don’t know what it was like to write the Hive Queen and the Hegemon. How much agony it was for him to—to imagine himself inside an alien mind—and come out of it filled with love for the great creature we destroyed. He lived at the same time as the worst human being who ever lived, Ender the Xenocide, who destroyed the buggers—and he did his best to undo what Ender did, the Speaker for the Dead tried to raise the dead—”
“But he couldn’t.”
“But he did! He made them live again—you’d know it if you had read the book! I don’t know about Jesus, I listen to Bishop Peregrino and I don’t think there’s any power in their priesthood to turn wafers into flesh or forgive a milligram of guilt. But the Speaker for the Dead brought the hive queen back to life.”
“Then where is she?”
“In here! In me!”
He nodded. “And someone else is in you. The Speaker for the Dead. That’s who you want to be.”
“It’s the only true story I ever heard,” she said. “The only one I care about. Is that what you wanted to hear? That I’m a heretic? And my whole life’s work is going to be adding another book to the Index of truths that good Catholics are forbidden to read.”
“What I wanted to hear,” said Pipo softly, “was the name of what you are instead of the name of all the things that you are not. What you are is the hive queen. What you are is the Speaker for the Dead. It’s a very small community, small in numbers, but a great-hearted one. So you chose not to be part of the bands of children who group together for the sole purpose of excluding others, and people look at you and say, poor girl, she’s so isolated, but you know a secret, you know who you really are. You are the one human being who is capable of understanding the alien mind, because you are the alien mind; you know what it is to be unhuman because there’s never been any human group that gave you credentials as a bona fide homo sapiens.”
“Now you say I’m not even human? You made me cry like a little girl because you wouldn’t let me take the test, you made me humiliate myself, and now you say I’m unhuman?”
“You can take the test.”
The words hung in the air.
“When?” she whispered.
“Tonight. Tomorrow. Begin when you like. I’ll stop my work to take you through the tests as quickly as you like.”
“Thank you! Thank you, I—”
“Become the Speaker for the Dead. I’ll help you all I can. The law forbids me to take anyone but my apprentice, my son Libo, out to meet the pequeninos. But we’ll open our notes to you. Everything we learn, we’ll show you. All our guesses and speculation. In return, you also show us all your work, what you find out about the genetic patterns of this world that might help us understand the pequeninos. And when we’ve learned enough, together, you can write your book, you can become the Speaker. But this time not the Speaker for the Dead. The pequeninos aren’t dead.”
In spite of herself, she smiled. “The Speaker for the Living.”
“I’ve read the Hive Queen and the Hegemon, too,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place for you to find your name.”
But she did not trust him yet, did not believe what he seemed to be promising. “I’ll want to come here often. All the time.”
“We lock it up when we go home to bed.”
“But all the rest of the time. You’ll get tired of me. You’ll tell me to go away. You’ll keep secrets from me. You’ll tell me to be quiet and not mention my ideas.”
“We’ve only just become friends, and already you think I’m such a liar and cheat, such an impatient oaf.”
“But you will, everyone does; they all wish I’d go away—”
Pipo shrugged. “So? Sometime or other everybody wishes everybody would go away. Sometimes I’ll wish you would go away. What I’m telling you now is that even at those times, even if I tell you to go away, you don’t have to go away.”
It was the most bafflingly perfect thing that anyone had ever said to her. “That’s crazy.”
“Only one thing. Promise me you’ll never try to go out to the pequeninos. Because I can never let you do that, and if somehow you do it anyway, Starways Congress would close down all our work here, forbid any contact with them. Do you promise me? Or everything—my work, your work—it will all be undone.”
“When will you take the test?”
“Now! Can I begin it now?”
He laughed gently, then reached out a hand and without looking touched the terminal. It came to life, the first genetic models appearing in the air above the terminal.
“You had the examination ready,” she said. “You were all set to go! You knew that you’d let me do it all along!”
He shook his head. “I hoped. I believed in you. I wanted to help you do what you dreamed of doing. As long as it was something good.”
She would not have been Novinha if she hadn’t found one more poisonous thing to say. “I see. You are the judge of dreams.”
Perhaps he didn’t know it was an insult. He only smiled and said, “Faith, hope, and love—these three. But the greatest of these is love.”
“You don’t love me,” she said.
“Ah,” he said. “I am the judge of dreams, and you are the judge of love. Well, I find you guilty of dreaming good dreams, and sentence you to a lifetime of working and suffering for the sake of your dreams. I only hope that someday you won’t declare me innocent of the crime of loving you.” He grew reflective for a moment. “I lost a daughter in the Descolada. Maria. She would have been only a few years older than you.”
“And I remind you of her?”
“I was thinking that she would have been nothing at all like you.”
She began the test. It took three days. She passed it, with a score a good deal higher than many a graduate student. In retrospect, however, she would not remember the test because it was the beginning of her career, the end of her childhood, the confirmation of her vocation for her life’s work. She would remember the test because it was the beginning of her time in Pipo’s Station, where Pipo and Libo and Novinha together formed the first community she belonged to since her parents were put into the earth.
It was not easy, especially at the beginning. Novinha did not instantly shed her habit of cold confrontation. Pipo understood it, was prepared to bend with her verbal blows. It was much more of a challenge for Libo. The Zenador’s Station had been a place where he and his father could be alone together. Now, without anyone asking his consent, a third person had been added, a cold and demanding person, who spoke to him as if he were a child, even though they were the same age. It galled him that she was a full-fledged xenobiologist, with all the adult status that that implied, when he was still an apprentice.
But he tried to bear it patiently. He was naturally calm, and quiet adhered to him. He was not prone to taking umbrage openly. But Pipo knew his son and saw him burn. After a while even Novinha, insensitive as she was, began to realize that she was provoking Libo more than any normal young man could possibly endure. But instead of easing up on him, she began to regard it as a challenge. How could she force some response from this unnaturally calm, gentle-spirited, beautiful boy?
“You mean you’ve been working all these years,” she said one day, “and you don’t even know how the piggies reproduce? How do you know they’re all males?”
Libo answered softly. “We explained male and female to them as they learned our languages. They chose to call themselves males. And referred to the other ones, the ones we’ve never seen, as females.”
“But for all you know, they reproduce by budding! Or mitosis!”
Her tone was contemptuous, and Libo did not answer quickly. Pipo imagined he could hear his son’s thoughts, carefully rephrasing his answer until it was gentle and safe. “I wish our work were more like physical anthropology,” he said. “Then we would be more prepared to apply your research into Lusitania’s subcellular life patterns to what we learn about the pequeninos.”
Novinha looked horrified. “You mean you don’t even take tissue samples?”
Libo blushed slightly, but his voice was still calm when he answered. The boy would have been like this under questioning by the Inquisition, Pipo thought. “It is foolish, I guess,” said Libo, “but we’re afraid the pequeninos would wonder why we took pieces of their bodies. If one of them took sick by chance afterward, would they think we caused the illness?”
“What if you took something they shed naturally? You can learn a lot from a hair.”
Libo nodded; Pipo, watching from his terminal on the other side of the room, recognized the gesture—Libo had learned it from his father. “Many primitive tribes of Earth believed that sheddings from their bodies contained some of their life and strength. What if the piggies thought we were doing magic against them?”
“Don’t you know their language? I thought some of them spoke Stark, too.” She made no effort to hide her disdain. “Can’t you explain what the samples are for?”
“You’re right,” he said quietly. “But if we explained what we’d use the tissue samples for, we might accidently teach them concepts of biological science a thousand years before they would naturally have reached that point. That’s why the law forbids us to explain things like that.”
Finally, Novinha was abashed. “I didn’t realize how tightly you were bound by the doctrine of minimal intervention.”
Pipo was glad to hear her retreat from her arrogance, but if anything, her humility was worse. The child was so isolated from human contact that she spoke like an excessively formal science book. Pipo wondered if it was already too late to teach her how to be a human being.
It wasn’t. Once she realized that they were excellent at their science, and that she knew almost nothing of it, she dropped her aggressive stance and went almost to the opposite extreme. For weeks she spoke to Pipo and Libo only rarely. Instead she studied their reports, trying to grasp the purpose behind what they were doing. Now and then she had a question, and asked; they answered politely and thoroughly.
Politeness gradually gave way to familiarity. Pipo and Libo began to converse openly in front of her, airing their speculations about why the pequeninos had developed some of their strange behaviors, what meaning lay behind some of their odd statements, why they remained so maddeningly impenetrable. And since the study of pequeninos was a very new branch of science, it didn’t take long for Novinha to be expert enough, even at second hand, to offer some hypotheses. “After all,” said Pipo, encouraging her, “we’re all blind together.”
Pipo had foreseen what happened next. Libo’s carefully cultivated patience had made him seem cold and reserved to others of his age, when Pipo could prevail on him even to attempt to socialize; Novinha’s isolation was more flamboyant but no more thorough. Now, however, their common interest in the pequeninos drew them close—who else could they talk to, when no one but Pipo could even understand their conversations?
They relaxed together, laughed themselves to tears over jokes that could not possibly amuse any other Luso. Just as the piggies seemed to name every tree in the forest, Libo playfully named all the furniture in the Zenador’s Station, and periodically announced that certain items were in a bad mood and shouldn’t be disturbed. “Don’t sit on Chair! It’s her time of the month again.” They had never seen a pequenino female, and the males always seemed to refer to them with almost religious reverence; Novinha wrote a series of mock reports on an imaginary pequenino woman called Reverend Mother, who was hilariously bitchy and demanding.
It was not all laughter. There were problems, worries, and once a time of real fear that they might have done exactly what the Starways Congress had tried so hard to prevent—make radical changes in pequenino society. It began with Rooter of course. Rooter, who persisted in asking challenging, impossible questions, like, “If you have no other city of humans, how can you go to war? There’s no honor for you in killing Little Ones.” Pipo babbled something about how humans would never kill pequeninos, Little Ones; but he knew that this wasn’t the question Rooter was really asking.
Pipo had known for years that the pequeninos knew the concept of war, but for days after that Libo and Novinha argued heatedly about whether Rooter’s question proved that the piggies regarded war as desirable or merely unavoidable. There were other bits of information from Rooter, some important, some not—and many whose importance was impossible to judge. In a way, Rooter himself was proof of the wisdom of the policy that forbade the xenologers to ask questions that would reveal human expectations, and therefore human practices. Rooter’s questions often gave them more answers than they got from his answers to their own questions.
The last information Rooter gave them, though, was not in a question. It was a guess, spoken to Libo privately, when Pipo was off with some of the others examining the way they built their log house. “I know I know,” said Rooter, “I know why Pipo is still alive. Your women are too stupid to know that he is wise.”
Libo struggled to make sense of this seeming non sequitur. What did Rooter think, that if human women were smarter, they would kill Pipo? The talk of killing was disturbing—this was obviously an important matter, and Libo did not know how to handle it alone. Yet he couldn’t call Pipo to help, since Rooter obviously wanted to discuss it where Pipo couldn’t hear.
When Libo didn’t answer, Rooter persisted. “Your women, they are weak and stupid. I told the others this, and they said I could ask you. Your women don’t see Pipo’s wisdom. Is this true?”
Rooter seemed very agitated; he was breathing heavily, and he kept pulling hairs from his arms, four and five at a time. Libo had to answer, somehow. “Most women don’t know him,” he said.
“Then how will they know if he should die?” asked Rooter. Then, suddenly, he went very still and spoke very loudly. “You are cabras!”
Only then did Pipo come into view, wondering what the shouting was about. He saw at once that Libo was desperately out of his depth. Yet Pipo had no notion what the conversation was even about—how could he help? All he knew was that Rooter was saying humans—or at least Pipo and Libo—were somehow like the large beasts that grazed in herds on the prairie. Pipo couldn’t even tell if Rooter was angry or happy.
“You are cabras! You decide!” He pointed at Libo and then at Pipo. “Your women don’t choose your honor, you do! Just like in battle, but all the time!”
Pipo had no idea what Rooter was talking about, but he could see that all the pequeninos were motionless as stumps, waiting for him—or Libo—to answer. It was plain Libo was too frightened by Rooter’s strange behavior to dare any response at all. In this case, Pipo could see no point but to tell the truth; it was, after all, a relatively obvious and trivial bit of information about human society. It was against the rules that the Starways Congress had established for him, but failing to answer would be even more damaging, and so Pipo went ahead.
“Women and men decide together, or they decide for themselves,” said Pipo. “One doesn’t decide for the other.”
It was apparently what all the piggies had been waiting for. “Cabras,” they said, over and over; they ran to Rooter, hooting and whistling. They picked him up and rushed him off into the woods. Pipo tried to follow, but two of the piggies stopped him and shook their heads. It was a human gesture they had learned long before, but it held stronger meaning for the pequeninos. It was absolutely forbidden for Pipo to follow. They were going to the women, and that was the one place the pequeninos had told them they could never go.
On the way home, Libo reported how the difficulty began. “Do you know what Rooter said? He said our women were weak and stupid.”
“That’s because he’s never met Mayor Bosquinha. Or your mother, for that matter.”
Libo laughed, because his mother, Conceição, ruled the archives as if it were an ancient estação in the wild mate—if you entered her domain, you were utterly subject to her law. As he laughed, he felt something slip away, some idea that was important—what were we talking about? The conversation went on; Libo had forgotten, and soon he even forgot that he had forgotten.
That night they heard the drumming sound that Pipo and Libo believed was part of some sort of celebration. It didn’t happen all that often, like beating on great drums with heavy sticks. Tonight, though, the celebration seemed to go on forever. Pipo and Libo speculated that perhaps the human example of sexual equality had somehow given the male pequeninos some hope of liberation. “I think this may qualify as a serious modification of pequenino behavior,” Pipo said gravely. “If we find that we’ve caused real change, I’m going to have to report it, and Congress will probably direct that human contact with pequeninos be cut off for a while. Years, perhaps.” It was a sobering thought—that doing their job faithfully might lead Starways Congress to forbid them to do their job at all.
In the morning Novinha walked with them to the gate in the high fence that separated the human city from the slopes leading up to the forest hills where the piggies lived. Because Pipo and Libo were still trying to reassure each other that neither of them could have done any differently, Novinha walked on ahead and got to the gate first. When the others arrived, she pointed to a patch of freshly cleared red earth only thirty meters or so up the hill from the gate. “That’s new,” she said. “And there’s something in it.”
Pipo opened the gate, and Libo, being younger, ran on ahead to investigate. He stopped at the edge of the cleared patch and went completely rigid, staring down at whatever lay there. Pipo, seeing him, also stopped, and Novinha, suddenly frightened for Libo, ignored the regulation and ran through the gate. Libo’s head rocked backward and he dropped to his knees; he clutched his tight-curled hair and cried out in terrible remorse.
Rooter lay spread-eagled in the cleared dirt. He had been eviscerated, and not carelessly: Each organ had been cleanly separated, and the strands and filaments of his limbs had also been pulled out and spread in a symmetrical pattern on the drying soil. Everything still had some connection to the body—nothing had been completely severed.
Libo’s agonized crying was almost hysterical. Novinha knelt by him and held him, rocked him, tried to soothe him. Pipo methodically took out his small camera and took pictures from every angle so the computer could analyze it in detail later.
“He was still alive when they did this,” Libo said, when he had calmed enough to speak. Even so, he had to say the words slowly, carefully, as if he were a foreigner just learning to speak. “There’s so much blood on the ground, spattered so far—his heart had to be beating when they opened him up.”
“We’ll discuss it later,” said Pipo.
Now the thing Libo had forgotten yesterday came back to him with cruel clarity. “It’s what Rooter said about the women. They decide when the men should die. He told me that, and I—” He stopped himself. Of course he did nothing. The law required him to do nothing. And at that moment he decided that he hated the law. If the law meant allowing this to be done to Rooter, then the law had no understanding. Rooter was a person. You don’t stand by and let this happen to a person just because you’re studying him.
“They didn’t dishonor him,” said Novinha. “If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s the love that they have for trees. See?” Out of the center of his chest cavity, which was otherwise empty now, a very small seedling sprouted. “They planted a tree to mark his burial spot.”
“Now we know why they name all their trees,” said Libo bitterly. “They planted them as grave markers for the piggies they tortured to death.”
“This is a very large forest,” Pipo said calmly. “Please confine your hypotheses to what is at least remotely possible.” They were calmed by his quiet, reasoned tone, his insistence that even now they behave as scientists.
“What should we do?” asked Novinha.
“We should get you back inside the perimeter immediately,” said Pipo. “It’s forbidden for you to come out here.”
“But I meant—with the body—what should we do?”
“Nothing,” said Pipo. “The pequeninos have done what pequeninos do, for whatever reason pequeninos do it.” He helped Libo to his feet.
Libo had trouble standing for a moment; he leaned on both of them for his first few steps. “What did I say?” he whispered. “I don’t even know what it is I said that killed him.”
“It wasn’t you,” said Pipo. “It was me.”
“What, do you think you own them?” demanded Novinha. “Do you think their world revolves around you? As you said, the piggies did it, for whatever reason they have. It’s plain enough this isn’t the first time—they were too deft at the vivisection for this to be the first time.”
Pipo took it with black humor. “We’re losing our wits, Libo. Novinha isn’t supposed to know anything about xenology.”
“You’re right,” said Libo. “Whatever may have triggered this, it’s something they’ve done before. A custom.” He was trying to sound calm.
“But that’s even worse, isn’t it?” said Novinha. “It’s their custom to gut each other alive.” She looked at the other trees of the forest that began at the top of the hill and wondered how many of them were rooted in blood.
Pipo sent his report on the ansible, and the computer didn’t give him any trouble about the priority level. He left it up to the oversight committee to decide whether contact with the piggies should be stopped. The committee could not identify any fatal error. “It is impossible to conceal the relationship between our sexes, since someday a woman may be xenologer,” said the report, “and we can find no point at which you did not act reasonably and prudently. Our tentative conclusion is that you were unwitting participants in some sort of power struggle, which was decided against Rooter, and that you should continue your contact with all reasonable prudence.”
It was complete vindication, but it still wasn’t easy to take. Libo had grown up knowing the piggies, or at least hearing about them from his father. He knew Rooter better than he knew any human being besides his family and Novinha. It took days for Libo to come back to the Zenador’s Station, weeks before he would go back out into the forest. The piggies gave no sign that anything had changed; if anything, they were more open and friendly than before. No one ever spoke of Rooter, least of all Pipo and Libo. There were changes on the human side, however. Pipo and Libo never got more than a few steps away from each other when they were among them.
The pain and remorse of that day drew Libo and Novinha to rely on each other even more, as though darkness bound them closer than light. The piggies now seemed dangerous and uncertain, just as human company had always been, and between Pipo and Libo there now hung the question of who was at fault, no matter how often each tried to reassure the other. So the only good and reliable thing in Libo’s life was Novinha, and in Novinha’s life, Libo.
Even though Libo had a mother and siblings, and Pipo and Libo always went home to them, Novinha and Libo behaved as if the Zenador’s Station were an island, with Pipo a loving but ever remote Prospero. Pipo wondered: Are the pequeninos like Ariel, leading the young lovers to happiness, or are they little Calibans, scarcely under control and chafing to do murder?
After a few months, Rooter’s death faded into memory, and their laughter returned, though perhaps it was not as carefree as before. By the time they were seventeen, Libo and Novinha were so sure of each other that they routinely talked of what they would do together five, ten, twenty years later. Pipo never bothered to ask them about their marriage plans. After all, he thought, they studied biology from morning to night. Eventually it would occur to them to explore stable and socially acceptable reproductive strategies. In the meantime, it was enough that they puzzled endlessly over when and how the pequeninos mated, considering that the males had no discernable reproductive organ. Their speculations on how the pequeninos combined genetic material invariably ended in jokes so lewd that it took all of Pipo’s self-control to pretend not to find them amusing.
So the Zenador’s Station for those few short years was a place of true companionship for two brilliant young people who otherwise would have been condemned to cold solitude. It did not occur to any of them that the idyll would end abruptly, and forever, and under circumstances that would send a tremor throughout the Hundred Worlds.
It was all so simple, so commonplace. Novinha was analyzing the genetic structure of the fly-infested reeds along the river, and realized that the same subcellular body that had caused the Descolada was present in the cells of the reed. She brought several other cell structures into the air over the computer terminal and rotated them. They all contained the Descolada agent.
She called to Pipo, who was running through transcriptions of yesterday’s visit to the pequeninos. The computer ran comparisons of every cell she had samples of. Regardless of cell function, regardless of the species it was taken from, every alien cell contained the Descolada body, and the computer declared them absolutely identical in chemical proportions.
Novinha expected Pipo to nod, tell her it looked interesting, maybe come up with a hypothesis. Instead he sat down and ran the same test over, asking her questions about how the computer comparison operated, and then what the Descolada body actually did.
“Mother and Father never figured out what triggered it, but the Descolada body releases this little protein—well, pseudo-protein, I suppose—and it attacks the genetic molecules, starting at one end and unzipping the two strands of the molecule right down the middle. That’s why they called it the descolador—it unglues the DNA in humans, too.”
“Show me what it does in alien cells.”
Novinha put the simulation in motion.
“No, not just the genetic molecule—the whole environment of the cell.”
“It’s just in the nucleus,” she said. She widened the field to include more variables. The computer took it more slowly, since it was considering millions of random arrangements of nuclear material every second. In the reed cell, as a genetic molecule came unglued, several large ambient proteins affixed themselves to the open strands. “In humans, the DNA tries to recombine, but random proteins insert themselves so that cell after cell goes crazy. Sometimes they go into mitosis, like cancer, and sometimes they die. What’s most important is that in humans the Descolada bodies themselves reproduce like crazy, passing from cell to cell. Of course, every alien creature already has them.”
But Pipo wasn’t interested in what she said. When the descolador had finished with the genetic molecules of the reed, he looked from one cell to another. “It’s not just significant, it’s the same,” he said. “It’s the same thing!”
Novinha didn’t see at once what he had noticed. What was the same as what? Nor did she have time to ask. Pipo was already out of the chair, grabbing his coat, heading for the door. It was drizzling outside. Pipo paused only to call out to her, “Tell Libo not to bother coming, just show him that simulation and see if he can figure it out before I get back. He’ll know—it’s the answer to the big one. The answer to everything.”
He laughed. “Don’t cheat. Libo will tell you, if you can’t see it.”
“Where are you going?”
“To ask the pequeninos if I’m right, of course! But I know I am, even if they lie about it. If I’m not back in an hour, I slipped in the rain and broke my leg.”
Libo did not get to see the simulations. The meeting of the planning committee went way over time in an argument about extending the cattle range, and after the meeting Libo still had to pick up the week’s groceries. By the time he got back, Pipo had been out for four hours, it was getting on toward dark, and the drizzle was turning to snow. They went out at once to look for him, afraid that it might take hours to find him in the woods.
They found him all too soon. His body was already cooling in the snow. The piggies hadn’t even planted a tree in him.
Copyright © 1986, 1991 by Orson Scott Card
Excerpted from Speaker for the Dead
by Card, Orson Scott
Copyright © 1994 by Card, Orson Scott.
Excerpted by permission.
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