"How do you like it here?" Jane asked me, as we were washing the dishes after dinner. "On Huckleberry, I mean."
"This is not the first time I've been asked that today," I said, taking the plate she handed me and drying it.
This got a slightly raised eyebrow from Mom. "General Rybicki asked you the question," she said.
"Yup," I said.
"And what did you tell him?" Jane asked.
"I told him I liked it just fine," I said. I put the dried plate into the cupboard and waited for the next one.
Jane was holding on to it. "But do you?" she asked.
I sighed, only slightly dramatically. "Okay, I give up," I said. "What's going on? Both you and Dad were like zombies at dinner tonight. I know you missed it, because you were wrapped up in your own heads, but I spent most of dinner trying to get either of you to talk more than a grunt. Babar was a better conversationalist than either of you."
"I'm sorry, Zoe," Jane said.
"You're forgiven," I said. "But I still want to know what's going on." I motioned to Jane's hand, to remind her I was still waiting on that plate.
She handed it over. "General Rybicki has asked your father and me to be the leaders of a new colony."
It was my turn to hold on to the plate. "A new colony."
"Yes," Jane said.
"As in, 'on another planet' new colony," I said.
"Yes," said Jane.
"Wow," I said.
"Yes," Jane said. She knew how to get mileage out of a single word.
"Why did he ask you?" I asked, and resumed drying. "No offense, Mom. But you're a constable in a tiny little village. And Dad's an ombudsman. It's kind of a leap."
"None taken," Jane said. "We had the same question. General Rybicki said that the military experience we had would cross over. John was a major and I was a lieutenant. And whatever other experience we need Rybicki believes we can pick up quickly, before we set foot on the new colony. As for why us, it's because this isn't a normal colony. The colonists aren't from Earth, they're from ten of the oldest planets in the Colonial Union. A colony of colonists. The first of its kind."
"And none of the planets contributing colonists want another planet to have a leadership role," I ventured.
Jane smiled. "That's right," she said. "We're the compromise candidates. The least objectionable solution."
"Got it," I said. "It's nice to be sort of wanted." We continued washing dishes in silence for a few minutes.
"You didn't answer my question," Jane said, eventually. "Do you like it here? Do you want to stay on Huckleberry?"
"I get a vote?" I asked.
"Of course you do," Jane said. "If we take this, it would mean leaving Huckleberry for at least a few standard years while we got the colony up and running. But realistically it would mean leaving here for good. It would mean all of us leaving here for good."
"If," I said, a little surprised. "You didn't say yes."
"It's not the sort of decision you make in the middle of a sorghum field," Jane said, and looked at me directly. "It's not something we can just say yes to. It's a complicated decision. We've been looking over the information all afternoon, seeing what the Colonial Union's plans are for the colony. And then we have to think about our lives here. Mine, John's and yours."
I grinned. "I have a life here?" I asked. This was meant as a joke.
Jane squashed it. "Be serious, Zoe," she said. The grin left my face. "We've been here for half of your life now. You have friends. You know this place. You have a future here, if you want it. You can have a life here. It's not something to be lightly tossed aside." She plunged her hands into the sink, searching under the soap suds for another dish.
I looked at Jane; there was something in her voice. This wasn't just about me. "You have a life here," I said.
"I do," Jane said. "I like it here. I like our neighbors and our friends. I like being the constable. Our life here suits me." She handed me the casserole dish she'd just cleaned. "Before we came here I spent all my life in the Special Forces. On ships. This is the first world I've actually lived on. It's important to me."
"Then why is this a question?" I said. "If you don't want to go, then we shouldn't do it."
"I didn't say I wouldn't go," Jane said. "I said I have a life here. It's not the same thing. There are good reasons to do it. And it's not just my decision to make."
I dried and put away the casserole dish. "What does Dad want?" I asked.
"He hasn't told me yet," Mom said.
"You know what that means," I said. "Dad's not subtle when there's something he doesn't want to do. If he's taking his time to think about it, he probably wants to do it."
"I know," Mom said. She was rinsing off the flatware. "He's trying to find a way to tell me what he wants. It might help him if he knew what we wanted first."
"Okay," I said.
"This is why I asked you if you liked it here," Jane said, again.
I thought about it as I dried the kitchen counter. "I like it here," I said, finally. "But I don't know if I want to have a life here."
"Why not?" Jane asked.
"There's not much here here, is there?" I said. I waved toward the general direction of New Goa. "The selection of life choices here is limited. There's farmer, farmer, store owner, and farmer. Maybe a government position like you and Dad."
"If we go to this new colony your choices are going to be the same," Jane said. "First wave colonist life isn't very romantic, Zoe. The focus is on survival, and preparing the new colony for the second wave of colonists. That means farmers and laborers. Outside of a few specialized roles that will already be filled, there's not much call for anything else."
"Yes, but at least it would be somewhere new," I said. "There we'd be building a new world. Here we're just maintaining an old one. Be honest, Mom. It's kind of slow around these parts. A big day for you is when someone gets into a fistfight. The highlight of Dad's day is settling a dispute over a goat."
"There are worse things," Jane said.
"I'm not asking for open warfare," I said. Another joke.
And once again, another stomping from Mom. "It'll be a brand-new colony world," she said. "They're the ones most at risk for attack, because they have the fewest people and the least amount of defense from the CDF. You know that as well as anyone."
I blinked, actually surprised. I did know it as well as anyone. When I was very young - before I was adopted by Jane and John - the planet I lived on (or above, since I was on a space station) was attacked. Omagh. Jane almost never brought it up, because she knew what it did to me to think about it. "You think that's what's going to happen here?" I asked.
Jane must have sensed what was going on in my head. "No, I don't," she said. "This is an unusual colony. It's a test colony in some ways. There will be political pressure for this colony to succeed. That means more and better defenses, among other things. I think we'll be better defended than most colonies starting out."
"That's good to know," I said.
"But an attack could still happen," Jane said. "John and I fought together at Coral. It was one of the first planets humans settled, and it was still attacked. No colony is totally safe. There are other dangers, too. Colonies can get wiped out by local viruses or predators. Bad weather can kill crops. The colonists themselves could be unprepared. Colonizing - real colonizing, not what we're doing here on Huckleberry - is hard, constant work. Some of the colonists could fail at it and take the rest of the colony with them. There could be bad leaders making bad decisions."
"I don't think we'd have to worry about that last one," I said. I was trying to lighten the mood.
Jane didn't take the bait. "I'm telling you this isn't without risk," she said. "It's there. A lot of it. And if we do this, we go in with our eyes open to that risk."
This was Mom all over. Her sense of humor wasn't as deprived as Hickory's and Dickory's - I can actually make her laugh. But it doesn't stop her from being one of the most serious people I've ever met in my life. When she wants to get your attention about something she thinks is important, she's going to get it.
It's a good quality to have, but right at the moment it was making me seriously uncomfortable. That was her plan, no doubt.
"Mom, I know," I said. "I know it has risks. I know that a lot of things could go wrong. I know it wouldn't be easy." I waited.
"But," Jane said, giving me the prompt she knew I was waiting for.
"But if you and Dad were leading it, I think it'd be worth the risk," I said. "Because I trust you. You wouldn't take the job if you didn't think you could handle it. And I know you wouldn't put me at risk unnecessarily. If you two decided to do it, I would want to go. I would definitely want to go."
I was suddenly aware that while I was speaking, my hand had drifted to my chest, and was lightly touching the small pendant there: a jade elephant, given to me by Jane. I moved my hand from it, a little embarrassed.
"And no matter what, starting a new colony wouldn't be boring," I said, to finish up, a little lamely.
Mom smiled, unplugged the sink and dried her hands. Then she took a step over to me and kissed the top of my head; I was short enough, and she was tall enough, that it was a natural thing for her. "I'll let your dad stew on it for a few more hours," she said. "And then I'll let him know where we stand."
"Thanks, Mom," I said.
"And sorry about dinner," she said. "Your dad gets wrapped up in himself sometimes, and I get wrapped up in noticing he's wrapped up in himself."
"I know," I said. "You should just smack him and tell him to snap out of it."
"I'll put that on the list for future reference," Jane said. She gave me another quick peck and then stepped away. "Now go do your homework. We haven't left the planet yet." She walked out of the kitchen.