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Zoe's Tale: An Old Man's War Novelby John Scalzi
I lifted up my dads PDA and counted off the seconds with the two thousand other people in the room.
"Five! Four! Three! Two! One!"
And then there was no noise, because everyones attention—and I mean everyones—was glued to the monitors peppered around the Magellans common area. The screens, which had held starry skies in them, were blank and black, and everyone was holding their breath, waiting for what came next.
A world appeared, green and blue.
And we all went insane.
Because it was our world. It was Roanoke, our new home. We would be the first people to land there, the first people to settle there, the first people to live our lives there. And we celebrated seeing it for that first time, we two thousand settlers of Roanoke, all crammed into that common area, hugging and kissing and singing "Auld Lang Syne," because, well, what else do you sing when you come to a new world? A new world, new beginnings, a new year, a new life. New everything. I hugged my best friend Gretchen and we hollered into the microphone I had been using to count down the seconds, and hopped up and down like idiots.
When we stopped hopping, a whisper in my ear. "So beautiful," Enzo said.
I turned to look at him, at this gorgeous, beautiful boy who I was seriously considering making my boyfriend. He was a perfect combination: heart-flutteringly pretty and apparently entirely ignorant of the fact, because hed been spending the last week trying to charm me with his words, of all things. Words! Like he didnt get the teenage boy manual on how to be completely inarticulate around girls.
I appreciated the effort. And I appreciated the fact that when he whispered his words, he was looking at me and not the planet. I glanced over at my parents about six meters away, kissing to celebrate the arrival. That seemed like a good idea. I reached my hand behind Enzos head to draw him to me and planted one right on his lips. Our first kiss. New world, new life, new boyfriend.
What can I say. I was caught up in the moment.
Enzo didnt complain. " ‘O brave new world, that has such people in it, " he said, after I let him breathe again.
I smiled at him, my arms still around his neck. "Youve been saving that up," I said.
"Maybe," he admitted. "I wanted you to have a quality first kiss moment."
See. Most sixteen-year-old boys would have used a kiss as an excuse to dive straight for the boobs. He used it as an excuse for Shakespeare. A girl could do worse.
"Youre adorable," I said, kissed him again, then gave him a playful push and launched myself into my parents, breaking up their canoodling and demanding their attention. The two of them were our colonys leaders, and soon enough they would barely have time to breathe. It was best I get in some quality time while I could. We hugged and laughed and then Gretchen yanked me back toward her.
"Look what I have," she said, and thrust her PDA in my face. It showed a vidcap of me and Enzo kissing.
"You evil little thing," I said.
"Its amazing," Gretchen said. "It actually looks like youre trying to swallow his entire face."
"Stop it," I said.
"See? Look," Gretchen tapped a button, and the vidcap played in slow motion. "Right there. Youre mauling him. Like his lips were made of chocolate."
I was trying very hard not to laugh, because she was actually right about that. "Wench," I said. "Give me that." I snatched the PDA from her with one hand, erased the .le, and handed it back. "There. Thank you."
"Oh, no," Gretchen said, mildly, taking the PDA.
"Learned your lesson about violating the privacy of others?" I said.
"Oh, yes," Gretchen said.
"Good," I said. "Of course, you already forwarded it to everyone we know before you showed it to me, didnt you?"
"Maybe," Gretchen said, and put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide.
"Evil," I said, admiringly.
"Thank you," Gretchen said, and curtsied.
"Just remember I know where you live," I said.
"For the rest of our lives," Gretchen said, and then we did embarrassingly girly squeals and had another hug. Living the rest of your life with the same two thousand people ran the risk of being dead-bang boring, but not with Gretchen around.
We unhugged and then I looked around to see who else I wanted to celebrate with. Enzo was hovering in the background, but he was smart enough to know that Id get back to
him. I looked over and saw Savitri Guntupalli, my parents assistant, conferring with my dad very seriously about something. Savitri: She was smart and capable and could be wicked funny, but she was always working. I got between her and Dad and demanded a hug. Yes, I was all about the hugs. But, you know, look: You only get to see your new world for the first time once.
"Zoë," Dad said, "can I have my PDA back?"
I had taken Dads PDA because hed set the exact time the Magellan would skip from the Phoenix system to Roanoke, and used it to count off the last few minutes before the jump. I had my own PDA, of course; it was in my pocket. No doubt the vidcap of me smooching Enzo was waiting for me in my in-box, just like it was in the in-boxes of all our friends. I made a note to myself to plot revenge against Gretchen. Sweet, merciless revenge. Involving witnesses. And farm animals. But for now I gave Dad back his PDA, gave him a peck on his cheek, and found my way back to Enzo.
"So," Enzo said, and smiled. God, he was even charming when monosyllabic. The rational part of my brain was lecturing me about how infatuation makes everything seem better than it is; the irrational part (meaning, most of me) was telling the rational part to get well and truly stuffed.
"So," I said back, not nearly as charmingly, but Enzo didnt seem to notice.
"I was talking to Magdy," Enzo said.
"Uh-oh," I said.
"Magdys not so bad," Enzo said.
"Sure, for certain values of ‘not so bad, meaning ‘bad, " I said.
"And he said that he was talking to some of the Magellan crew," Enzo said, forging along (charmingly). "They told him about an observation lounge on the crew level thats usually empty. He says we could get a great view of the planet there."
I glanced over Enzos shoulder, where Magdy was talking animatedly to Gretchen (or at her, depending on ones point of view). "I dont think the planet is what hes hoping to view," I said.
Enzo glanced back. "Maybe not," he said. "Although to be fair to Magdy, certain people arent exactly trying hard not to be viewed."
I crooked an eyebrow at that; it was true enough, although I knew Gretchen was more into the flirting than anything else.
"And what about you?" I said. "What are you hoping to see?"
Enzo smiled and held up his hands, disarmingly. "Zoë," he said. "I just got to kiss you. I think I want to work on that a little more before moving on to anything else."
"Ooh, nicely said," I said. "Do these lines work on all the girls?"
"Youre the first girl Ive tried them on," Enzo said. "So youll have to let me know."
I actually blushed, and gave him a hug. "So far, so good," I said.
"Good," Enzo said. "Also, you know. Ive seen your bodyguards. I dont think I want them to use me for target practice."
"What?" I said, mock-shocked. "Youre not frightened of Hickory and Dickory, are you? Theyre not even here." Actually, Enzo has a perfectly good reason to be utterly terrified of Hickory and Dickory, who were already vaguely suspicious of him and would happily cycle him out an airlock if he did anything stupid with me. But there was no reason to let him know that yet. Good rule of thumb: When your relationship is minutes old, dont freak out the new squeeze.
And anyway, Hickory and Dickory were sitting out this celebration. They were aware they made most of the humans nervous.
"I was actually thinking of your parents," Enzo said. "Although they seem to be missing, too." Enzo motioned with his head to where John and Jane had been standing a few minutes before; now neither of them were there. I saw Savitri leaving the common area as well, as if she suddenly had someplace to be.
"I wonder where they went," I said, mostly to myself.
"Theyre the colony leaders," Enzo said. "Maybe now they have to start working."
"Maybe," I said. It was unusual for either John or Jane to disappear without telling me where they were going; it was just a common courtesy. I fought back the urge to message them on my PDA.
"So, the observation lounge," Enzo said, getting himself back to the topic at hand. "You want to check it out?"
"Its on the crew deck," I said. "You think we might get in trouble?"
"Maybe," Enzo said. "But what can they do? Make us walk the plank? At worst theyll just tell us to get lost. And until then well have a heck of a view."
"All right," I said. "But if Magdy turns into all tentacles, Im leaving. There are some things I dont need to see."
Enzo laughed. "Fair enough," he said, and I snuggled into him a little. This new boyfriend thing was turning out just fine.
We spent some more time celebrating with our friends and their families. Then, after things had settled down enough, we followed Magdy and Gretchen through the Magellan and toward the crew observation lounge. I thought sneaking into the crew area might be a problem; not only was it easy, but a crew member coming out of an entrance held it open for us.
"Security is not a huge issue here on the Magellan," Gretchen said, back to me and Enzo, then looked down at our clasped hands and smiled at me. She was evil, sure, but she was also happy for me.
The observation lounge was where it was advertised to be, but alas for Magdys nefarious plans, it was not empty as promised; four Magellan crew members sat at a table, intent in a conversation. I glanced over to Magdy, who looked like he had just swallowed a fork. I found this rather amusing myself. Poor, poor Magdy. Frustration became him.
"Look," Enzo said, and still holding my hand, guided me to a huge observation window. Roanoke filled the view, gorgeously green, fully illuminated with her sun behind us, more breathtaking in person than she was on the monitors. Seeing something with your own eyes makes a difference.
It was the most beautiful thing I think Id ever seen. Roanoke. Our world.
"Wrong place," I heard, barely, from the conversation at the table to the left of me.
I glanced over at the table. The four Magellan crew there were so engaged in their conversation and so closed in to each other that it looked like most of their bodies were actually on the table rather than in their seats. One of the crew was sitting with his back to me, but I could see the other three, two men and a woman. The expression on their faces was grim.
I have a habit of listening in to other peoples conversations. Its not a bad habit unless you get caught. The way not to get caught is to make sure it looks like your attention is somewhere else. I dropped my hand from Enzos and took a step toward the observation lounge window. This got me closer to the table while at the same time keeping Enzo from whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I kept myself visually intent on Roanoke.
"You dont just miss," one of the crew members was saying. "And the captain sure as hell doesnt. He could put the Magellan in orbit around a pebble if he wanted to."
The crew member with his back to me said something low, which I couldnt hear.
"Thats crap," said the first crew member. "How many ships have actually gone missing in the last twenty years? In the last fifty? No one gets lost anymore."
"What are you thinking?"
I jumped, which made Enzo jump. "Sorry," he said, as I turned to give him an exasperated look. I put a finger to my lips to shush him, and then motioned with my eyes at the table now behind me. Enzo glanced behind me and saw the table. What? he mouthed. I shook my head a tiny bit to tell him he shouldnt distract me anymore. He gave me a strange look. I took his hand again to let him know I wasnt upset with him, but then focused my attention back to the table.
"—calm. We dont know anything yet," said another voice, this one belonging (I think) to the woman. "Who else knows about this?"
Another mutter from the crew member facing away from me.
"Good. We need to keep it that way," she said. "Ill clamp down on things in my department if I hear anything, but it only works if we all do it."
"It wont stop the crew from talking," said someone else.
"No, but itll slow down the rumors, and thats good enough until we know whats really happened," the woman said.
Yet another mutter.
"Well, if its true, then we have bigger problems, dont we?" said the woman, and all the strain she was experiencing was suddenly clear in her voice. I shuddered a little; Enzo felt it through my hand and looked at me, concerned. I gave him a serious hug. It meant losing the rest of the conversational thread, but at the moment, its what I wanted. Priorities change.
There was the sound of chairs pushing back. I turned and the crew members—it was pretty clear they were actually officers—were already heading toward the door. I broke away from Enzo to get the attention of the one closest to me, the one who had had his back to me earlier. I tapped him on the shoulder; he turned and seemed very surprised to see me.
"Who are you?" he said.
"Has something happened to the Magellan?" I asked. The best way to learn stuff is not to get distracted, for example, by questions relating to ones identity.
The man actually scowled, which is something Id read about but had never actually seen someone do, until now. "You were listening to our conversation."
"Is the ship lost?" I asked. "Do we know where we are? Is something wrong with the ship?"
He took a step back, like the questions were actually hitting him. I should have taken a step forward and pressed him.
I didnt. He regained his footing and looked past me to Enzo and Gretchen and Magdy, who were all looking at us. Then he realized who we were, and straightened up. "You kids arent supposed to be here. Get out, or Ill have ships security throw you out. Get back to your families." He turned to go.
I reached toward him again. "Sir, wait," I said. He ignored me and walked out of the lounge.
"Whats going on?" Magdy asked me, from across the room. "I dont want to get in trouble because youve pissed off some random crew member."
I shot Magdy a look, and turned to look out the window again. Roanoke still hung there, blue and green. But suddenly not as beautiful. Suddenly unfamiliar. Suddenly threatening.
Enzo put his hand on my shoulder. "What is it, Zoë?" he said.
I kept staring out the window. "I think were lost," I said.
"Why?" Gretchen asked. She had come up beside me. "What were they talking about?"
"I couldnt hear it all," I said. "But it sounded like they were saying were not where were supposed to be." I pointed to the planet. "That this isnt Roanoke."
"Thats crazy," Magdy said.
"Of course its crazy," I said. "Doesnt mean it might not be true." I pulled out my PDA from my pocket and tried to connect with Dad. No answer. I tried connecting to Mom.
"Gretchen," I said. "Would you try calling your dad?" Gretchens dad was on the colonial council my parents headed up.
"Hes not answering," she said, after a minute.
"It doesnt mean anything bad," Enzo said. "We did just skip to a new planet. Maybe theyre busy with that."
"Maybe theyre still celebrating," Magdy said.
Gretchen smacked him upside the head. "You really are childish, Magdy," she said. Magdy rubbed the side of his head and shut up. This evening was not going anything like he had planned. Gretchen turned to me. "What do you think we should do?"
"I dont know," I said. "They were talking about keeping the crew from talking. It means some of them might know whats going on. It wont take long to get to the colonists."
"Its already gotten to the colonists," Enzo said. "Were colonists."
"We might want to tell someone," Gretchen said. "I think your parents and my dad need to know, at least."
I glanced down at her PDA. "I think they might know already," I said.
"We should make sure," she said. So we left the observation lounge and went looking for our parents.
We didnt find them; they were in a council meeting. I did find Hickory and Dickory, or rather, they found me.
"I think I should go," Enzo said, after theyd stared at him, unblinking, for a minute. It wasnt meant as intimidation; they dont blink at all. I gave him a peck on the cheek. He and Magdy left.
"Im going to listen around," Gretchen said. "See what people are saying."
"All right," I said. "Me too." I held up my PDA. "Let me know what you hear." She left.
I turned to Hickory and Dickory. "You two," I said. "You were in your room earlier."
"We came looking for you," Hickory said. It was the talker of the two. Dickory could talk, but it was always a surprise when it happened.
"Why?" I said. "I was perfectly safe before. Ive been perfectly safe since we left Phoenix Station. The Magellan is entirely threat-free. The only thing youve been good for this entire trip is scaring the crap out of Enzo. Why are you looking for me now?"
"Things have changed," Hickory said.
"What do you mean?" I asked, but then my PDA vibrated. It was Gretchen.
"That was fast," I said.
"I just ran into Mika," she said. "You wont believe what she said a crew member just told her brother."
The adult colonists may have been either clueless or tightlipped, but the Roanoke teenage rumor mill was in full swing. In the next hour, this is what we "learned":
That during the skip to Roanoke, the Magellan had wandered too close to a star and had been thrown out of the galaxy.
That there was a mutiny and the first officer had relieved Captain Zane of command because of incompetence.
That Captain Zane shot his own traitorous first officer right there on the bridge and said hed shoot anyone who tried to help him.
That the computer systems had failed just before the skip, and we didnt know where we were.
That aliens had attacked the ship and were floating out there, deciding whether to finish us off.
That Roanoke was poisonous to human life and if we landed there wed die.
That there was a core breach in the engine room, whatever that meant, and that the Magellan was this close to blowing up.
That ecoterrorists had hacked into the Magellans computer systems and sent us off in another direction so that we couldnt ruin another planet.
No, wait, it was wildcat colonists-turned-pirates who hacked in, and they were planning to steal our colony supplies because their own were running low.
No, wait, it was mutinous crew members who were going to steal our supplies and leave us stranded on the planet.
No, wait, it wasnt thieving crew, wildcat pirates or ecoterrorists, it was just some idiot programmer who messed up the code, and now we dont know where we are.
No, wait, nothings wrong, this is just the standard operating procedure. Theres not a thing wrong, now stop bothering the crew and let us work, damn it.
I want to be clear about something: We knew most of this was crap and nonsense. But what was underneath all the crap and nonsense was just as important: Confusion and unease had spread through the crew of the Magellan, and from them, to us. It moved fast. It told any number of lies—not to lie but to try to make sense of something. Something that happened. Something that shouldnt have happened.
Through all of this, nothing from Mom or Dad, or Gretchens dad, or any of the colony council, all the members of which had suddenly found themselves called into a meeting.
The common room, previously deserted after the new world celebrations, began to fill up again. This time people werent celebrating. They looked confused, and concerned and tense, and some of them were beginning to look angry.
"This isnt going to turn out well," Gretchen said to me when we reunited.
"How are you doing?" I said.
She shrugged. "Somethings happening, thats for sure. Everyones on edge. Its putting me on edge."
"Dont go crazy on me," I said. "Then there wont be anyone to hold me back when I lose it."
"Oh, well, for your sake then," Gretchen said, and rolled her eyes dramatically. "Well. At least now Im not having to fight off Magdy."
"I like how you can see the bright side of any situation," I said.
"Thanks," she said. "How are you?"
"Honestly?" I asked. She nodded. "Scared as hell."
"Thank God," she said. "Its not only me." She held up her thumb and finger and marked the tiny space between them.
"For the last half hour Ive been this close to peeing myself."
I took a step back. Gretchen laughed.
The ships intercom kicked on. "This is Captain Zane," a mans voice said. "This is a general message for passengers and crew. All crew will assemble in their respective department conference rooms in ten minutes, 2330 ship time. All passengers will assemble in the passenger common area in ten minutes, 2330 ship time. Passengers, this is a mandatory assembly. You will be addressed by your colony leaders." The intercom went dead.
"Come on," I said to Gretchen, and pointed to the platform where, earlier in the evening, she and I counted down the seconds until we were at our new world. "We should get a good place."
"Its going to get crowded in here," she said.
I pointed to Hickory and Dickory. "Theyll be with us. You know how everyone gives them all the space they want." Gretchen looked up at the two of them, and I realized that she wasnt terribly fond of them either.
Minutes later the council came streaming in from one of the common area side doors and made their way to the platform. Gretchen and I stood in the front, Hickory and Dickory behind us, and at least five feet on every side. Alien bodyguards create their own buffer zone.
A whisper in my ear. "Hey," Enzo said.
I looked over to him and smiled. "I wondered if you were going to be here," I said.
"Its an all-colonist meeting," he said.
"Not here, in general," I said. "Here."
"Oh," Enzo said. "I took a chance that your bodyguards wouldnt stab me."
"Im glad you did," I said. I took his hand.
On the platform, John Perry, the colony leader, my dad, came forward and picked up the microphone that still lay there from earlier in the evening. His eyes met mine as he reached down to pick it up.
Heres the thing to know about my dad. Hes smart, hes good at what he does, and almost all the time, his eyes look like hes about to start laughing. He finds most things funny. He makes most things funny.
When he looked at me as he picked up the microphone, his eyes were dark, and heavy, and as serious as I had ever seen them. When I saw them I was reminded, no matter how young he looked, how old he really was. For as much as he could make light of things, he was a man who had seen trouble more than once in his life.
And he was seeing it again. Now, with us. For all of us.
Everyone else would know it as soon as he opened his mouth to tell them, but right then was when I knew—when I saw the truth of our situation.
We were lost.
Excerpted from Zoes Tale by John Scalzi
Copyright@ 2008 by John Scalzi
Published in 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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