Things to know about the life of Zoe, on the Magellan.
First, John and Jane's master plan to keep the teenage boys from killing themselves or others worked like a charm, which meant I grudgingly had to admit to Dad he'd done something smart, which he enjoyed probably more than he should have. Each of the dodgeball teams became their own little group, counterpointing with the already-established groups of kids from former colonies. It might have been a problem if everyone just switched their tribe allegiance to their teams, because then we'd have just substituted one sort of group stupidity for another. But the kids still felt allegiance to their homeworld friends as well, at least one of whom was likely to be on an opposing dodgeball team. It kept everyone friendly, or at least kept some of the more aggressively stupid kids in check until everyone could get over the urge to pick fights.
Or so it was explained to me by Dad, who continued to be pleased with himself. "So you can see how we weave a subtle web of interpersonal connection," he said to me, as we watched one of the dodgeball games.
"Oh, Lord," Savitri, who was sitting with us, said. "The self-satisfaction here is going to make me gag."
"You're just jealous that you didn't think it up," Dad said to Savitri.
"I did think it up," Savitri said. "Part of it, anyway. I and Jane helped with this plan, as I'm sure you recall. You're just taking all the credit."
"These are despicable lies," Dad said.
"Ball," Savitri said, and we all ducked as a runaway ball ricocheted into the crowd.
Whoever thought it up, the dodgeball scheme had side benefits. After the second day of the tournament, the teams started having their own theme songs, as team members riffled through their music collections to find tunes that would get them riled up. And this was where we discovered a real cultural gap: Music that was popular on one world was completely unheard of on another. The kids from Khartoum were listening to chango-soca, the ones from Rus were deep into groundthump and so on. Yes, they all had good beats, and you could dance to them, but if you want to get someone wild-eyed and frothy, all you have to do is suggest that your favorite music was better than theirs. People were whipping out their PDAs and queuing up their songs to make their points.
And thus began the Great Magellan Music War: All of us networked our PDAs together and furiously started making playlists of our favorite music to show how our music was indisputably the best music ever. In a very short time I was exposed to not just chango-soca and groundthump but also kill-drill, drone, haploid, happy dance (ironically named, as it turned out), smear, nuevopop, tone, classic tone, Erie stomp, doowa capella, shaker and some really whacked-out stuff alleged to be waltz but critically missing three-quarter time or indeed any recognizable time signature at all as far as I could tell. I listened to it all with a fair mind, then told all their proponents I pitied them because they had never been exposed to Huckleberry Sound, and sent out a playlist of my own.
"So you make your music by strangling cats," Magdy said, as he listened to "Delhi Morning," one of my favorite songs, with me, Gretchen and Enzo.
"That's sitar, you monkey," I said.
"'Sitar' being the Huckleberry word for 'strangled cats,'" Magdy said.
I turned to Enzo. "Help me out here," I said.
"I'm going to have to go with the cat strangling theory," Enzo said.
I smacked him on the arm. "I thought you were my friend."
"I was," Enzo said. "But now I know how you treat your pets."
"Listen!" Magdy said. The sitar part had just risen out of the mix and was suspended, heartbreakingly, over the bridge of the song. "Annnd right there is when the cat died. Admit it, Zoe."
"Gretchen?" I looked over to my last, best friend, who would always defend me against Philistines.
Gretchen looked over to me. "That poor cat," she said, and then laughed. Then Magdy grabbed the PDA and pulled up some horrible shaker noise.
For the record, "Delhi Morning" does not sound like strangled cats. It really doesn't. They were all tone-deaf or something. Particularly Magdy.
Tone-deaf or not, however, the four of us were ending up spending a lot of time together. While Enzo and I were doing our slow, amused sizing up of each other, Gretchen and Magdy alternated between being interested in each other and trying to see just how low they could cut each other down verbally. Although you know how these things go. One probably led to the other and vice-versa. And I'm guessing hormones counted for a lot; both of them were good-looking examples of blossoming adolescence, which I think is the best way to put it. They both seemed willing to put up with a lot from each other in exchange for gawking and some light groping, which to be fair to Magdy was not entirely one-sided on his part, if Gretchen's reports were to be believed.
As for Enzo and me, well, this is how we were getting along:
"I made you something," I said, handing him my PDA.
"You made me a PDA," he said. "I always wanted one."
"Goof," I said. Of course he had a PDA; we all did. We would hardly be teens without them. "No, click on the movie file."
He did, and watched for a few moments. Then he cocked his head at me. "So, is the whole thing shots of me getting hit in the head with a dodgeball?" he asked.
"Of course not," I said. "Some of them are of you getting hit in other places." I took the PDA and ran my finger along the fast-forward strip on the video player. "See, look," I said, showing him the groin shot he took earlier in the day.
"Oh, great," he said.
"You're cute when you collapse in aching misery," I said.
"I'm glad you think so," he said, clearly not as enthused as I was.
"Let's watch it again," I said. "This time in slow motion."
"Let's not," Enzo said. "It's a painful memory. I had plans for those things one day."
I felt a blush coming on, and fought it back with sarcasm. "Poor Enzo," I said. "Poor squeaky-voiced Enzo."
"Your sympathy is overwhelming," he said. "I think you like watching me get abused. You could offer up some advice instead."
"Move faster," I said. "Try not to get hit so much."
"You're helpful," he said.
"There," I said, pressing the send button on the PDA. "It's in your queue now. So you can treasure it always."
"I hardly know what to say," he said.
"Did you get me anything?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact," Enzo said, and then pulled out his PDA, punched up something, and handed the PDA to me. On it was another poem. I read it.
"This is very sweet," I said. It was actually beautiful, but I didn't want to get mushy on him, not after just sharing video of him taking a hit to his nether regions.
"Yes, well," Enzo said, taking back the PDA. "I wrote it before I saw that video. Just remember that." He pressed his PDA screen. "There. In your queue now. So you can treasure it always."
"I will," I said, and would.
"Good," Enzo said. "Because I get a lot of abuse for those, you know."
"For the poems?" I said. Enzo nodded. "From whom?"
"From Magdy, of course," Enzo said. "He caught me writing that one to you and mocked the hell out of me for it."
"Magdy's idea of a poem is a dirty limerick," I said.
"He's not stupid," Enzo said.
"I didn't say he was stupid," I said. "Just vulgar."
"Well, he's my best friend," Enzo said. "What are you gonna do."
"I think it's sweet you stick up for him," I said. "But I have to tell you that if he mocks you out of writing poems for me, I'm going to have to kick his ass."
Enzo grinned. "You or your bodyguards?" he asked.
"Oh, I'd handle this one personally," I said. "Although I might get Gretchen to help."
"I think she would," Enzo said.
"There's no think involved here," I said.
"I guess I better keep writing you poems, then," Enzo said.
"Good," I said, and patted his cheek. "I'm glad we have these little conversations."
And Enzo was as good as his word; a couple of times a day I'd get a new poem. They were mostly sweet and funny, and only a little bit showing off, because he would send them in different poem formats: haiku and sonnets and sestinas and some forms I don't know what they're called but you could see that they were supposed to be something.
And naturally I would show them all to Gretchen, who tried very hard not to be impressed. "The scan's off on that one," she said, after she had read one I showed to her at one of the dodgeball games. Savitri had joined the two of us to watch. She was on her break. "I'd dump him for that."
"It's not off," I said. "And anyway he's not my boyfriend."
"A guy sends poems on the hour and you say he's not your boyfriend?" Gretchen asked.
"If he was her boyfriend, he wouldn't be sending poems anymore," Savitri said.
Gretchen smacked her forehead. "Of course," she said. "It all makes sense now."
"Give me that," I said, taking back my PDA. "Such cynicism."
"You're just saying that because you're getting sestinas," Savitri said.
"Which don't scan," Gretchen said.
"Quiet, both of you," I said, and turned the PDA around so it could record the game. Enzo's team was playing the Dragons in the quarter-final match for the league championship. "All your bitterness is distracting me from watching Enzo get slaughtered out there."
"Speaking of cynicism," Gretchen said.
There was a loud pock as the dodgeball smooshed Enzo's face into a not terribly appealing shape. He grabbed his face with both hands, cursed loudly, and dropped to his knees.
"There we go," I said.
"That poor boy," Savitri said.
"He'll live," Gretchen said, and then turned to me. "So you got that."
"It's going into the highlight reel for sure," I said.
"I've mentioned before that you don't deserve him," Gretchen said.
"Hey," I said. "He writes me poems, I document his physical ineptitude. That's how the relationship works."
"I thought you said he wasn't your boyfriend," Savitri said.
"He's not my boyfriend," I said, and saved the humiliating snippet into my "Enzo" file. "It doesn't mean we don't have a relationship." I put my PDA away and greeted Enzo as he came up, still holding his face.
"So you got that," he said to me. I turned and smiled at Gretchen and Savitri, as if to say, See. They both rolled their eyes.
In all, there was about a week between when the Magellan left Phoenix Station and when the Magellan was far enough away from any major gravity well that it could skip to Roanoke. Much of that time was spent watching dodgeball, listening to music, chatting with my new friends, and recording Enzo getting hit with balls. But in between all of that, I actually did spend a little bit of time learning about the world on which we would live the rest of our lives.
Some of it I already knew: Roanoke was a Class Six planet, which meant (and here I'm double-checking with the Colonial Union Department of Colonization Protocol Document, get it wherever PDAs have access to a network) that the planet was within fifteen percent of Earth standard gravity, atmosphere, temperature and rotation, but that the biosphere was not compatible with human biology - which is to say if you ate something there, it'd probably make you vomit your guts out if it didn't kill you outright.
(This made me mildly curious about how many classes of planet there were. Turns out there are eighteen, twelve of which are at least nominally humanly compatible. That said, if someone says you're on a colony ship headed to a Class Twelve planet, the best thing to do is to find an escape pod or volunteer to join the ship's crew, because you're not going to want to land on that world if you can avoid it. Unless you like weighing up to two and a half times your normal weight on a planet whose ammonia-choked atmosphere will hopefully smother you before you die of exposure. In which case, you know. Welcome home.)
What do you do on a Class Six planet, when you're a member of a seed colony? Well, Jane had it right when she said it on Huckleberry: You work. You only have so much food supply to go through before you have to add to it from what you've grown - but before you grow your food, you have to make over the soil so it can grow crops that can feed humans (and other species which started on Earth, like almost all our livestock) without choking to death on the incompatible nutrients in the ground. And you have to make sure that earlier-mentioned livestock (or pets, or toddlers, or inattentive adults who didn't pay attention during their training periods) don't graze or eat anything from the planet until you do a toxicology scan so see if it will kill them. The colonist materials we were given suggest this is more difficult than it sounds, because it's not like your livestock will listen to reason, and neither will a toddler or some adults.
So you've conditioned the soil and kept all your animals and dumb humans from gorging on the poisonous scenery: Now it's time to plant, plant, plant your crops like your life depended on it, because it does. To bring this point home, the colonist training material is filled with pictures of gaunt colonists who messed up their plantings and ended up a lot thinner (or worse) after their planet's winter. The Colonial Union won't bail you out - if you fail, you fail, sometimes at the cost of your own life.
You've planted and tilled and harvested, and then you do it again, and you keep doing it - and all the while you're also building infrastructure, because one of the major roles of a seed colony is to prepare the planet for the next, larger wave of colonists, who show up a couple of standard years later. I assume they land, look around at everything you've created, and say, "Well, colonizing doesn't look that hard." At which point you get to punch them.
And through this all, and in the back of your mind, is this little fact: Colonies are at their most vulnerable to attack when they're new. There's a reason humans colonize Class Six planets, where the biosystem might kill them, and even Class Twelve planets, where just about everything else will kill them too. It's because there are a lot of other intelligent races out there who have the same habitation needs as we have, and we all want as many planets as we can grab. And if someone else is already there, well. That's just something to work around.
I knew this very well. And so did John and Jane.
But it was something I wonder if other people - either my age or older - really understood; understood that Class Six planet or not, conditioned soil or not, planted crops or not, everything they've done and worked for doesn't matter much when a spacecraft shows up in your sky, and it's filled with creatures who've decided they want your planet, and you're in the way. Maybe it's not something you can understand until it happens.
Or maybe when it comes down to it people just don't think about it because there's nothing to do about it. We're not soldiers, we're colonists. Being a colonist means accepting the risk. And once you've accepted the risk, you might as well not think about it until you have to.
And during our week on the Magellan, we certainly didn't have to. We were having fun - almost too much fun, to be honest about it. I suspected we were getting an unrepresentative view of colony life. I mentioned this to Dad, while we watched the final game of the dodgeball tournament, in which the Dragons were raining rubbery red doom on the previously undefeated Slime Molds, the team Magdy was on. I was perfectly fine with this; Magdy had gotten insufferable about his team's winning streak. Humility would be a good thing for the boy.
"Of course this is unrepresentative," Dad said. "Do you think you're going to have time to be playing dodgeball when we get to Roanoke?"
"I don't just mean dodgeball," I said.
"I know," he said. "But I don't want you to worry about it. Let me tell you a story."
"Oh, goody," I said. "A story."
"So sarcastic," Dad said. "When I first left Earth and joined the Civil Defense Forces, we had a week like this. We were given our new bodies - those green ones, like General Rybicki still has - and we were given the order to have fun with them for an entire week."
"Sounds like a good way to encourage trouble," I said.
"Maybe it is," Dad said. "But mostly it did two things. The first was to get us comfortable with what our new bodies could do. The second was to give us some time to enjoy ourselves and make friends before we had to go to war. To give us a little calm before the storm."
"So you're giving us this week to have fun before you send us all to the salt mines," I said.
"Not to the salt mines, but certainly to the fields," Dad said, and motioned out to the kids still hustling about on the dodge-ball court. "I don't think it's entirely sunk into the heads of a lot of your new friends that when we land, they're going to be put to work. This is a seed colony. All hands needed."
"I guess it's a good thing I got a decent education before I left Huckleberry," I said.
"Oh, you'll still go to school," Dad said. "Trust me on that, Zoe. You'll just work, too. And so will all your friends."
"Monstrously unfair," I said. "Work and school."
"Don't expect a lot of sympathy from us," Dad said. "While you're sitting down and reading, we're going to be out there sweating and toiling."
"Who's this 'we'?" I said. "You're the colony leader. You'll be administrating."
"I farmed when I was ombudsman back in New Goa," Dad said.
I snorted. "You mean you paid for the seed grain and let Chaudhry Shujaat work the field for a cut."
"You're missing the point," Dad said. "My point is that once we get to Roanoke we'll all be busy. What's going to get us through it all are our friends. I know it worked that way for me in the CDF. You've made new friends this last week, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"Would you want to start your life on Roanoke without them?" Dad asked.
I thought of Gretchen and Enzo and even Magdy. "Definitely not," I said.
"Then this week did what it was supposed to do," Dad said. "We're on our way from being colonists from different worlds to being a single colony, and from being strangers to being friends. We're all going to need each other now. We're in a better position to work together. And that's the practical benefit to having a week of fun."
"Wow," I said. "I can see how you weaved a subtle web of interpersonal connection here."
"Well, you know," Dad said, with that look in his eye that said that yes, he did catch that snarky reference. "That's why I run things."
"Is that it?" I asked.
"It's what I tell myself, anyway," he said.
The Dragons made the last out against the Slime Molds and started celebrating. The crowd of colonists watching were cheering as well, and getting themselves into the mood for the really big event of the night: the skip to Roanoke, which would happen in just under a half hour.
Dad stood up. "This is my cue," he said. "I've got to get ready to do the award presentation to the Dragons. A shame. I was pulling for the Slime Molds. I love that name."
"Try to make it through the disappointment," I said.
"I'll try," he said. "You going to stay around for the skip?"
"Are you kidding?" I said. "Everyone's going to stay around for the skip. I wouldn't miss it for anything."
"Good," Dad said. "Always a good idea to confront change with your eyes open."
"You think it's really going to be that different?" I asked.
Dad kissed the top of my head and gave me a hug. "Sweetie, I know it's going to be that different. What I don't know is how much more different it's going to be after that."
"I guess we'll find out," I said.
"Yes, and in about twenty-five minutes," Dad said, and then pointed. "Look, there's your mom and Savitri. Let's ring in the new world together, shall we?"