Simon & Schuster, 1996
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||First Contact|
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For forty years, Colony 3245.12 has been Ofelia's home. On this planet far away in space and time from the world of her youth, she has lived and loved, weathered the death of her husband, raised her one surviving child, lovingly tended her garden, and grown placidly old. And it is here that she fully expects to finish out her days--until the shifting corporate fortunes of the Sims Bancorp Company dictates that Colony 3245.12 is to be disbanded, its residents shipped off, deep in cryo-sleep, to somewhere new and strange and not of their choosing. But while her fellow colonists grudgingly anticipate a difficult readjustment on some distant world, Ofelia savors the promise of a golden opportunity. Not starting over in the hurly-burly of a new community... but closing out her life in blissful solitude, in the place she has no intention of leaving. A population of one.
With everything she needs to sustain her, and her independent spirit to buoy her, Ofelia actually does start life over--for the first time on her own terms: free of the demands, the judgments, and the petty tyrannies of others. But when a reconnaissance ship returns to her idyllic domain, and its crew is mysteriously slaughtered, Ofelia realizes she is not the sole inhabitant of her paradise after all. And, when the inevitable time of first contact finally arrives, she will find her life changed yet again–in ways she could never have imagined....
Sims Bancorp Colony File #3245.12
Between her toes the damp earth felt cool, but already sweat crept between the roots of her hair. It would be hotter today than yesterday, and by noon the lovely spice-scented red flowers of the dayvine would have furled their fragile cups, and drooped on the vine. Ofelia pushed the mulch deeper against the stems of the tomatoes with her foot. She liked the heat. If her daughter-in-law Rosara weren't within sight, she would take off her hat and let the sweat evaporate. But Rosara worried about cancer from the sun, and Rosara was sure it wasn't decent for an old woman to be outside with nothing on her head but thinning gray hair.
Not that it was so thin. Ofelia touched her temples, as if to tuck an errant strand in place, but really to confirm the thick strands of the braid she wore. Still thick, and her legs still strong, and her hands, though knotted with age and work, still capable. She eyed her daughter-in-law, at the far end of the garden. Scrawny, hair the color of scorched paper, eyes of mud. Thought she was beautiful, with her narrow waist and her pale hands, but Ofelia knew better. She had always known better, but Barto would not listen to a mother's wisdom, and now he had Rosara of the narrow body-like a snake, Ofelia had said once only-and no children.
She minded that less than the others thought. She could have welcomed a daughter-in-law independent enough to refuse children. No, it was Rosara's determination to enforce on her mother-in-law all the petty rules intended to preserve the virtue of virgins . . . that she could not tolerate.
"We should have planted more beans," Rosara called. She had said that at planting, knowing that Ofelia could not use all the beans she normally grew. She wanted Ofelia to grow beans to sell, as well as beans to eat.
"We have enough," Ofelia said.
"If the crop does not fail," Rosara said.
"If the crop fails, a bigger crop would be a bigger failure," Ofelia said. Rosara snorted, but did not contradict. Perhaps she was finally learning that it did no good to argue. Ofelia hoped so. Ofelia went on working on the tomatoes, pushing the mulch here and there, tying up straggling ends of the vines. Rosara claimed the tomato vines made her skin itch; she stayed away from them. Ofelia hunkered down to hide a smile as she thought of this, enjoying the strong green tomato smell.
She dozed off, there among the tomatoes, rousing only when the slanting afternoon light probed between the rows. Light in her eyes had always waked her; she was still sure she had not slept at all in the cryo tanks because the lights stayed on all the time. Humberto had said that was ridiculous, that no one was awake in cryo, that was the point. Ofelia had not argued, but she was sure she remembered the light, always stabbing through her eyelids.
Now, lying drowsy on the crumbly mulch between the rows of tomatoes, she thought how peaceful it looked, that little green jungle. Silent, too, for once; Rosara must have gone back inside without noticing she was asleep. Or perhaps the bitch didn't care. Ofelia rolled the insult on her tongue, silently, savoring it. Bitch. Slut. She didn't know many such words, which gave the few in her vocabulary extra richness, all the anger that some people spread over many words on many occasions.
Bartolomeo's voice in the street cut across her reverie, and she sat up as fast as she could, hissing at the pain in her hip and knees.
"Rosara! Rosara, come out!" He sounded excited or angry or both. He often did. Most of the time it was nothing, but he would never admit it, even afterward. Of all her children, Barto was the one Ofelia had liked least, even in infancy; he had been a greedy nurser, yanking on her nipples as if she could never be enough for him. He had grown from greedy infancy to demanding childhood, the son whom nothing satisfied; he had quarreled incessantly with the other children, demanding fairness which always meant his benefit. In manhood he was the same, the traits she had liked least in Humberto magnified ten times. But he was her only living child, and she understood him.
"What?" Rosara sounded snappish; either she had been napping (something Barto and Ofelia both disapproved of) or working on her computer.
"It's the Company-they've lost the franchise."
A shriek from Rosara. It might mean that for once Barto was upset about something worth the trouble, or it might mean that she had just found a pimple on her chin. With Rosara, it might be either, or anything in between. Ofelia struggled to her knees, then, with a hand on a tomato stake, to her feet. Her vision grayed slightly and she waited for it to come back. Age. Everyone said it was age, and it would get worse. She didn't think it was that bad, except when people wanted her to hurry, and she couldn't. "Mama!" Barto, bursting out the kitchen door into the garden. Ofelia was glad to be upright and obviously working; it gave her a tiny bit of moral leverage.
"Yes?" She had spotted a fat caterpillar, and when he loomed over her she had it fast in the loop. "See?"
"Yes, mama. That's nice. Listen, it's important-"
"A good crop this year," Ofelia said.
"Mama!" He leaned over, pushing his face into hers. He looked more like Humberto than anyone else, yet Humberto had had gentle eyes.
"I'm listening," she said, putting out her hand to the tomato stake again.
"The Company's lost the franchise," he said, as if that meant something.
"The Company's lost the franchise," Ofelia repeated, to prove she'd been listening. He often accused her of not listening.
"You know what that means," he said impatiently, but then went on to tell her. "It means we have to leave. They're yanking the colony." Rosara had come out of the house behind him; Ofelia could see the patches of red on her cheeks.
"They can't do that! It's our home-!"
"Don't be stupid, Rosara!" Barto spat onto the tomato plants, as if they were her body; Ofelia flinched, and he glared at her. "Or you, mama. Of course they can make us leave; we're their employees."
Employees who never got paid, Ofelia said to herself. Employees with no retirement, no medical benefits except what they produced for each other. Employees who were supposed to support themselves and produce a surplus. Not that they had produced the regular shipments of tropical woods that they'd been assigned . . . it had been years since they'd had enough adults to continue logging.
"But I worked so hard!" Rosara wailed. For once Ofelia agreed with her; she felt the same way. She looked sideways at the tomato plants, avoiding Barto's glare, focusing on the fringed margin of the leaves, the tiny hairs bristling from the stems. The first flower buds hung like little chandeliers, still folded tight, ready to open in the light, take fire, and-
"Listen to me," Barto insisted. His hand came between Ofelia and the tomatoes, caught her chin and forced her face around. "You still have a vote in the council, mama. You have to come to the meeting. You have to vote with us. We have a chance to choose where we're sent."
A meeting. She hated meetings. She noticed he didn't tell Rosara, but then he knew Rosara would come anyway, and vote however he told her.
"A vote is a vote," he told her now, louder, as if she were deaf. "Even yours." He released her chin. "Go inside now; get ready." Ofelia edged past him, her bare toes safely distant from his hard-soled boots. "And wear shoes!" he yelled after her. Behind her, his voice and Rosara's were lower without being softer, harsh mutterings she could not quite hear.
She had bathed, washed her hair, and put on the best clothes she had left. The dress hung loosely now, the waist dipping where she had nothing left above to fill the bodice, the hem lifting behind to accommodate the stoop in her back. On her feet, the shoes she had not worn for months cramped her toes and rubbed her heels. She would have blisters from this meeting, and what good would that do? She had leaned her head on the kitchen door and heard Barto tell Rosara that on another world his mother would surely be forced to dress decently again. He meant wear shoes, and a dark dress like this, all the time.
She sat quietly on the bench beside Rosara, and listened to the sounds of grief and anger that filled the room. Only a few saw this as opportunity-a few men, a few women, about half the younglings. The rest saw only wasted years, loss, misery. They had worked so hard, and for what? How could they start over, face the same hard work again? Here at least they had houses already built, gardens already planted.
Carl and Gervaise interrupted the complaints and presented the alternatives to vote on, though they never said how they'd learned about them. Ofelia did not believe the Company would give them a choice; she was sure the vote would come to nothing. Still, when Barto reached across Rosara to prod her ribs and hiss at her, she stood when he did, voting for Neubreit rather than Olcrano. The others voted for Neubreit, almost two thirds of them, and only the most stubborn, like Walter and Sara, insisted they would not go there.
Only at the end of the meeting, when she stood up and turned around, did she notice the Company rep, standing at the door. He had the sleek, youthful look of a shipman, someone whose skin never saw starlight but through a hatch. No sun had baked him; no winter had frozen him; no rains had...
Copyright © 1996 by Elizabeth Moon
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