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Child of Earth

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Child of Earth

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Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: Benbella Books, 2005

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Kaer's family has volunteered to emigrate through a world-gate to Linnea, a world known for horses as large as houses and dangerously mistrustful natives, in this new young adult novel from David Gerrold. Kaer and his mothers, fathers, siblings, and cousins embark on a training program in the Linnea dome designed to teach them to blend in with their new home's prior inhabitants in an environment free from the risk of discovery. The dome itself should be safe, but in a setting designed to be like Linnea in every conceivable way-from the long, harsh winters to the kacks, wolf-like creatures as tall as men-Kaer finds that even the simplest training exercises can be fraught with risk.


Chapter One

A very long time ago, in the time before time, an old woman left her village and went out into the ?elds. Why she left, no one knows. She took nothing with her but a knife and a song.

As she walked, she sang of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth. And the sun shone, and the rain fell, and the shoots of grass came up fresh in the ground. She walked for a very long time, and wherever she walked the grass came up at her feet, happy to grow in the sun and drink in the rain.

The old woman walked across the whole world, singing, and soon the grass grew everywhere, so tall and so thick that she couldn't walk anymore. At last she came to a place where the grass reached up to twice her height. She stopped and sang to the grass, "I will live here. I will sing of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth. I will sing every day." This made the grass very happy and the tallest and the strongest plants around her responded by bending low over her head to form an arch. Still singing, she reached up and wove the ends of the stalks together. When she had ?nished, she had the frame of a little round house. It looked like an upside-down basket.

Then, still singing of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth, she asked the grass to help her furnish her house. So the grass reached up and caught a great wind; it lay down as a carpet for her. The old woman walked out into the ?eld and cut the grass gently. She laid it out in the sun to dry, all the time singing her thanks. Every day she went out into the ?elds and cut down only as much grass as she needed, always laying it out to dry with reverence and care.

When the grass had dried, she began to weave it. She used every part of the grass, the stiff stems and the soft leaves. She began by weaving a roof and walls onto the frame of her house, careful to leave herself a door and three round windows. She put one window on the east side of the house so she could watch the sun rise in the morning, and she put one window on the west side of the house so she could watch the sun set in the evening--but she put the third window high up in the roof, so she could look up and see the stars at night. She made the door wide enough so she could always look out and see the endless sea of grass.

She wove an awning for each of the windows and another for the entrance as well, so she would have shade. She wove herself shutters and a door, so that in the winter she could close the house against the cold and wind. She dug a hole in the middle of the ?oor and lined it with rocks. She built a bed of dried grass and started a ?re to keep herself warm and to cook over as well.

But even after she had ?nished her house, she still had not ?nished her work. So she kept on singing of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth. And the grass, happy to help, lay down in the ?elds again so she could cut what she needed. She needed so very much--much more than you would think just to look at the little grass house. But the grass didn't mind. As long as she sang of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth, the new green shoots came up happily.

The old woman took the thick strong stems of the grass and tied them into bundles to make a chair and a table and a bed. She used the softer parts of the grass, the shoots and leaves, to make cushions and blankets and baskets and curtains and mats. She even wove herself a hat and a skirt and a jacket of grass.

And ?nally, at the end of the day, as the very last thing she did, she made herself dinner. She ate the roots of the grass, the fresh young shoots, and the tender stems. She ate every part of it that her old teeth could chew, and when she was done with the grass and had passed it through her bowel, she returned it as night soil to enrich the good dark earth.

Every evening, as the day turned orange in the west, she went out into the ?elds and thanked the grass for its bounty. She sang of the sun and the rain and the good dark earth.

And the sun shone, and the rain fell, and the shoots came up fresh in the good dark earth.

Chapter Two

When I was eight, Da showed up for a visit with pictures of a world where they had horses so big a whole family could all ride at the same time. They were bigger than elephants. Da said the world was called Linnea, but we kids called it Horse World. He also showed us pictures of some of the other worlds that you could get to through the gates, but none of them had horses and some of them looked pretty awful.

Horse World had a sea of grass all the way out to the end of the world. Da said it was called razor grass and it covered half the continent, all the way from the Rainbow Ridges in the east to the Desolation Mountains in the west, which were like a big wall that stretched from the far north almost all the way down to the equator. On the other side of the mountains were the broken lands and the long deserts, full of wild howlers and swarms of biting things, and then another mountain range that fell into the Ugly Sea.

But I didn't care about any of that, I liked the horses and I asked if we could go there. Da-Lorrin grinned at me--that big grin of his that made me want to marry him when I grew up; except we were already married, sort of, because of the family-contract; but I meant the old-fashioned kind of marriage, two people only--and said, "Maybe we could. But only if everybody else in the family agrees. Because if we go there, we'd have to stay."

I said that was okay with me, and he rumpled my hair affectionately and told me to go set the table for dinner.

So I asked Mom-Lu, "Da-Lorrin says we might go to Horse World. Will we really?"

She said, "It's not decided yet, honey. And if we do go, it won't be for a long time. First, we have to see how everyone in the family feels about it."

That meant a family meeting. Uh-oh. Most of the time, family meet-ings were just an excuse for a big party, and folks would phone in from all over, wherever they were. But sometimes there were important things to decide, like whether or not to start a new baby or offer someone a contract. And once even, before I was born, whether or not to divorce someone. Mom-Lu said she'd tell me about that when I was older. I didn't pay attention to a lot of the discussions, partly because most of them weren't very interesting, and partly because nobody listened to the kidlets anyway. Not until after you're thirteen do you get a real vote. But this time, because it was about the great-horses, I made sure to do all my chores and extra too, so I'd at least have merit points to spend.

The meeting didn't happen for two weeks. It took that long for every-one to arrange their separate schedules. There were more than twenty voting adults, and everyone had to attend, even though we were scattered across four continents. Mom-Lu had to coordinate all the time zones, and she spent a lot of time sending messages back and forth, because Cindy was in Paris and Parra was in Sydney. Cindy and Parra were clone-twins, except Cindy was a boy now. All the little-uns lived in New Paso with the moms, so most of them were put to bed at their normal times, but I cashed in my merit points and Mom-Lu agreed I could stay up past midnight for the conference, but only if I took a long nap in the afternoon.

According to Da, a contract family is a corporate entity, with every member holding an equal share of common stock but unequal shares of voting stock determined by age and seniority, parentage and reproductive status. Which meant that Mom-Trey, who came into the family after Mom-Lu, actually had more voting shares, because she'd borne three babies and Mom-Lu had only borne one. And Cindy and Parra, because they were purchased babies from before my time, had different shares because that was part of the terms of the adoption. So even though it's supposed to be equal, it isn't. Not in voting, and not in distribution of resources. And that always makes for arguments. Mom-Woo used to say, "That's why you should never marry a lawyer," which was her own little joke, because she was a lawyer and she was the one who negotiated the various member-contracts every time we married someone new.

Tonight's conference started out pleasant enough. Da-Lorrin had mailed out the prospectus way ahead of time so everybody could review it. I watched it every day, over and over, especially the parts with the horses, but after two or three days of that, Mom-Lu had had enough. Instead of shutting it off, though, she plugged into the Gate Authority Library and put the big display on a random-shuf?e recycle of scenery, but keyed to the time of day, so we could have a 24/7 window on Linnea. By the time of the meeting, the New Paso branch of the family were the experts on the great-horses. Especially me.

Horse World was the most interesting of all the parallel planets, be-cause it was the most Earthlike of all the worlds. And it was the only one with real human beings on it, although that had happened by accident. But it also had a lot of its own native life too, a lot of different plants and animals that looked like they could have come from Earth. But that was because of the way the world-gate had been calculated; they designed all the gates to open up to worlds as Earthlike as possible, but it didn't always work. Sometimes one little digit at the far end of one little equation was enough to throw the whole thing out of kilter. Even the same set of equations could open up on to two vastly different worlds; it was because of something called time-congruency, but it meant that nobody was really sure yet how to predict what any gate would open up onto, it was still a big gamble. But with Linnea, they got a nearly perfect planet.

Well, I thought it was perfect. But not everybody else did. The more the family talked, the more it became clear that not everybody wanted to go to Horse World and pretty soon, it turned into a big ?ght. Aunt Morra got very upset, arguing that she had invested ten-ten years into this contract and if the family moved out now, her investment would be thirty-devalued. "I'll have to start over. I'll never earn senior in another cluster. I'll lose my representation. And who's going to take care of me when I get old?"

On the wall display, Lorrin shook his head. He was in Denver this week. "You knew when you signed your contract that we had a long-term plan."

"But I thought we would be staying here! No one ever said--"

"Yes, we did," said Mom-Trey. "We said it over and over. And every time, you kept saying, 'No, no, we can't go. I don't want to go.' You've been saying it for ten-ten years. What did you think, Morra? That the decision was yours alone to make? That if you said no every time the subject was raised that the rest of us would change our minds? If you didn't want to go, you should have opted out before this."

"But I didn't think you were serious--" she wailed. She left the room in tears, leaving her place in the wall display blank.

Then Auncle Irm got angry at Mom-Trey, shouting over the channel. "Now look what you've done!"

"I told the truth," said Mom-Trey in that voice she always used when she was annoyed. "Perhaps if more of us had told the truth before this, we wouldn't have this problem now."

Mom-Woo sighed then. A dangerous sign. She said, "I feared this would happen. I hoped it wouldn't. So many families break up over this issue." But from where I was sitting I could see her laptop screen; she was already reviewing contracts.

"Well then, don't break up the family!" Irm snapped. "If we're really a family corporation founded on representative process, then let's respect the wishes of those who don't want to go."

"Why do we have to respect your wishes," said Cindy, interrupting. "Why can't you respect ours?"

"Hush, son," said Mom-Woo.

"You're splitting the family," accused Irm.

"The family is already split," Mom-Lu said quietly. And that seemed to end that part of the argument very uncomfortably. Then there was a long silence that ended only when Gampa Joan declared a recess to conference on a private channel.

That's when Mom-Woo and Mom-Lu abruptly decided it was time for all the kids to go to bed, meaning me, even though they'd promised I could stay up till the end of the meeting. But I didn't mind. This part was mosty boring. And listening to all the parents hollering at each other made my stomach hurt. Even though we turned the sound down on Irm.

The next day all three Moms gathered all the kids together and explained it to us. Part of the family might be going to another world, and part of the family didn't want to go. And the part of the family that didn't want to go was very angry at the part of the family that did.

"Are we divorcing?" Rinky asked. I remember it was Rinky because I was sitting on her lap. Rinky was old enough to be a parent, but had deferred puberty for a while. Probably because of the move-out.

Mom-Trey looked sad. "I don't know, honey. Irm and Bhetto have ?led for temporary partition of resources. If our application to emigrate is accepted, then the partition will be ?nalized. Except, if our resources are partitioned, then we might not have enough to pay for our train-ing, so we wouldn't be able to go after all." She looked very sad; I think she was more unhappy about the bitterness of the argument than the disruption of the plan to go to the new world. "But it might not hap-pen anyway. Our application could be turned down again. That's part of what the meeting was supposed to be about. To make a new long-range plan if we can't move out."

Mom-Lu explained that Da-Lorrin had ?led new papers with a contracting agency with a forty shared-placement rate. I didn't understand a lot of it, but the parents thought that this time it might really happen. "We passed both the ?rst and second reviews," said Mom-Lu, "and the next step will be the interviews. That's why Gampa thought it was time for the family to think about what we should do if the application goes forward--or if it's turned down again."

The reason I remember all this is because of the question I asked while I was sitting on Rinky's lap. "But if the family divorces, what's gonna happen to us?"

"That's what we're trying to ?gure out, sweetheart. I promise you, nothing bad will happen to the little-uns." Mom-Woo patted me on the knee, but that still didn't make it a satisfying answer.

Chapter Three

Nothing happened for a long while after that. There were more meetings about stuff I didn't understand. But except for the meetings, everything went on just like before. Mosty. Except the arguments were meaner. Us kids weren't supposed to know about the arguments, but we did any-way. Mom-Woo said not to worry, there were negotiations underway and maybe it would all work out. There might be a way to take care of everyone.

And then it all started to change. First, some people came from the bureau and talked to the parents about stuff. They did that a lot. And there were a lot of papers to sign. And then we all had to ?y to Houston so the doctors could take pictures of our insides. The trip was fun, but the doctor part was boring. But we stayed over an extra day and visited Mars Dome where people practice living before they go off to Mars. Gamma said we'd have to live in a dome too before we went through a gate, not like Mars or Luna Dome, but like whatever world we were going to.

One day, some people in suits came out to our farm to visit. We didn't grow much on our farm, mosty what we ate ourselves; but we made a lot of electricity to sell west. And a little water too. The people in suits looked at our evaporators, our windmills and our solar panels like they were inspectors from the buyers' co-op or something. But they were really just looking to see how well we managed everything. Big Jes, who managed all of the machinery and who always let me ride on his shoulders, said that you had to know how to take care of all kinds of stuff by yourself before they'd let you move out, because on Horse World you couldn't just pick up the phone and call for a service truck, because there weren't any. That was why it was so important for the visitors to see that our farm was well run and that we were self-suf?cient.

One of the visitors talked with the parents for a bit and then came out to play with us kids. Her name was Birdie and she had a puppet with her, a ?oppy blue wabbit that hopped around on the porch. It tried to climb up onto a chair, but it couldn't; it fell down on its butt and laughed and said, "Oh, dear. Faw down, go boom!" Then it ran around and asked all the kids to kiss its boo-boo, pointing to its waggling butt. Nobody wanted to do it. Everybody said ick and pointed to everybody else. "Ask Mikey. Mikey will do anything. Go see Shona. Go to Nona." But nobody would kiss it, so the wabbit sat down and began weeping into its paws. That made everybody sad, so sad we almost started crying ourselves. But then the wabbit sat up and announced it was ready to play again, and began doing clumsy somersaults until it tumbled itself into Birdie's purse, hiding itself and refusing to come out again, no matter how much we begged.

Later, Birdie sat and talked to each of the kids, one at a time. When it was my turn, she asked me what I knew about moving out. I explained how we would go through a world-gate to another place just like Earth, only different. Did I understand about parallel development, Birdie asked. I thought I did. I said that the two worlds started out mosty the same, but then turned out different. Like Cindy and Parra were cloned from the same egg, only Cindy decided to be a boy when he grew up and Parra didn't. Moving out would be like going to another Earth, but one with different animals and maybe even different people, if we went to Horse World.

Birdie told me that was exactly right. She said that there were a lot of different ways to explain how the worlds on the other side of the gates worked, but her favorite description was that they're not really different worlds at all; they're just different possibilities of the same reality, places where Schrödinger's cat had kittens. (Whatever that meant.)*

Then she showed me pictures of some of the worlds that were open for settlement and asked which ones I liked. I didn't even have to look. I told her I liked the one with the big horses best. She smiled and said she liked that one too, but there were a lot of other parts to any decision and we might not get to go to that world, if we got to go anywhere at all. We might have to go somewhere else, so I should ?nd something on each world to like. That was good advice.

She also asked me if I was good at keeping secrets. I had to think about that. I wasn't sure if I should say yes, because I was the one who accidentally sorta blurted out the surprise before Mom-Trey's birthday. But I'd never told anybody about sneaking into Rinky's room and trying on her bra either. That was something only I knew. So after a minute, I just said, "I think so."

Birdie said, "Keeping secrets is very important, especially if you go to a world like Linnea, the one with the horses. See, Kaer, the people on that world, they don't know about Earth, not yet. And we're not ready to tell them, because--well, because they're not ready yet. So you can't tell them where you're from, because they won't believe you, they might think you're crazy. So you have to pretend you're one of them, born on their world. On Linnea, they still believe in witches, so if you start talking about coming from Earth, they might lock you up. Or worse. I'm not saying this to scare you. I just want you to know how important the secret is. This isn't a secret for sharing. This is a secret for keeping."

I nodded and pretended to understand. I'd already ?gured out that if you nodded and pretended it made sense, grown-ups would drop the subject. But if you argued about it, whatever it was, they'd just keep talking until they won the argument. So mosty I nodded and pretended to understand. Except not this time. "If we don't like it, can we come back?"

Birdie looked as if I'd said one of those words that embarrass grown-ups. "You can, but the whole point is to stay and build a life on the new world. It's not a vacation, Kaer. We don't know enough about the people living over there and we want to learn. The best way to learn is to have families live with them and report back."

"But it's dangerous, isn't it?"

"Yes, it could be. And everyone in your family will have to be very careful, Kaer. But we're going to train you very well, all of you, so you won't make any mistakes. The training will take at least two or three years. And you won't go to the new world until everybody is sure you're ready. And this is the important thing: if at any time you decide you don't want to go, you don't have to."

I thought about it. "I'll be ten or eleven when we go."

"That's about right."

"Will there be other families there?"

Birdie nodded. "Absolutely. You won't be alone. We have scouts on Linnea now. Their job isn't just to plant cameras; they're also learning how to mingle with the people, so they can learn the language and the history and how to behave. And from time to time, they come back to teach us. We have a whole dome just for training, and only when we think it's safe will we start sending families over. We'll only send a few families at ?rst to see how they manage; and then later, if they do okay, we'll send more after them. But we'll spread them out so they can see things all over the world.

"If we sent your family to Linnea, you would be in the third wave of immigrants. We already have a few families over there, working as scouts, and more are already in training. Our very best rangers will help you and your family learn the language. When it's time for you to move out, you and your family will have had the best training possible."

"When do we ?nd out what world we're going to?"

"That takes a while to decide, sometimes as long as a year. Your fam-ily will have to keep looking at pictures from all the worlds for a while longer. You don't mind, do you?"

"Nuh-uh. But I still want to go to the world with the big horses."

"Would you like to see some of those horses in real life?"


"We have them at a special place in New Mexico. We brought some over and we've been learning how to breed them at the big ranch. We're going to arrange a visit for your family. When you come, I'll take you to see them. Maybe we can even go riding. Would you like that?"

"Oh, yes!" I was ready to leave, right then. "When can we go?" "How does next month sound?"

"I have school--!"

"It's all right. You can miss it," Birdie said.

"Really? Mom-Woo never lets me miss school."

"This time, I think she will."

Copyright © 2005 by David Gerrold


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