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About the Author
His short fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in Omni magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Science Fiction Age, Nature, the Bertrand Russell Society News, and many other publications. “Heathen God” was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1972.
Brute Orbits (1998), an uncompromising novel about the future of the penal system, was honored with the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and Stranger Suns (1991) was a New York Times Notable Book.
Read an Excerpt
Jupiter ballooned into view on the south wall of the cafeteria. The voyaging eye of the 3-D motion mural sailed by the giant planet, rotated gracefully to peer at a few major moons, then fixed its gaze on the long way to Saturn.
Chico Fernandez's tour loop of sunspace made the basement level of Bronx Science/De Witt Clinton Commons into something like the brightly lit observation deck of a giant spaceship, but no one paid much attention. After you've rushed out from Mercury to Pluto a few times, the endless round trip begins to bore most people, despite the whip turns, long looks, and sudden speedups near the planets.
I looked at my empty bubble of nonfat milk, wondering if I wanted another, maybe with apple pie. There wouldn't be much time for me to talk to Morey Green-Wolfe before our two o'clock physics class. He was late, as usual, and I felt irritated.
Home screens had been scrambled from May 15 to June 17, so classes would meet in person. High school students were usually brought together in January, May, and June, but graduating seniors could get away with only a month of staying together. Screen attendance made people shy, some educators claimed, but I had my doubts. It was true that there were sponges who liked to stay home and plunder the world's libraries at their own dizzy pace, but I knew of too many people who had met over the screen hooks to believe that becoming friends in that way was all that hard to do, or very harmful. Some people preferred to start out over the net. They would meet sooner or later, or not at all, but the system made it easier for shy people to get to know each other in the first place,without much chance of things going wrong. It was more like having an old-fashioned pen pal, except that the notes and letters were sent differently and more quickly. Still, I guess some of the hard cases among shy people needed to be thrown together. I knew there were adults who owned 3-D holos and who rarely met in the flesh. But those people were usually up to a century old or more, and wanted to cultivate their privacy. They had lived into our time from the last century, and their bodies had been renewed at least twice through organ clones and cell regeneration, so they were a special case.
I stood up from my seat at the end of the long table and spotted Morey's broad shoulders near the north exit. He pushed through the outgoing crowd and came across the room, adjusting his collarless tweed jacket and brushing back his dark brown hair.
"Sorry, Joe," he said loudly as he slipped in across from me and shook his head. "Old Lyons and super gravity. He doesn't seem to know--" He gave me a blank look as I sat down. "What's wrong?"
"You're late and I wanted to talk."
He glanced at the wall timer. "Sorry. You have your acceptance letter?" He bit his lower lip. "Look, I said I'm going. It's all set. Your parents still edgy about it? You know they can't stop you." He was looking right at me. "What is it -- you don't want me for a roommate?"
"It's not that. I've been wondering."
He examined me with his steel-blue eyes. I looked down at the table, feeling foolish. "I guess I'm worried about going off-planet to college."
He sighed. "It's the best school we could get into, one of the best anywhere."
"It's the idea of actually going away from everything, outside the atmosphere..."
"Nothing to worry about." He seemed a bit surprised. "You know what it's like out there. Space won't bite you."
"Knowing is one thing, feeling another."
He shook his head. "No. You're spooking yourself. You're just apprehensive about leaving home."
"Maybe that's it." I felt silly, especially after all the convincing I had gone through with my parents. A part of me was uneasy while the rest of me was looking forward to the change. It was hard to admit that I wanted to get away from my parents. "We're late," I said.
"Forget it -- we've got the grades." He looked around. "I'll be glad to leave this place."
"It's not so bad," I said feebly.
A tray crashed to the floor. Morey gave me a bored look as the cheers started. "Screening is better than this."
"You've got to keep up your social development."
"With this herd? I'd probably go into shock if they didn't cheer!"
I knew how he felt, but the noise had calmed me down. As I glanced around at the faces, I realized that most of the students didn't seem to demand much from themselves. They were looking forward to the moment when they could freeze their educations and be ready for job slots with guaranteed vacations. I said I wanted a scientific career, but Morey seemed to want one more than I did. Sure, I liked physics and astronomy, but I could probably live without making some giant discovery. Morey wanted to explain the whole universe.
"What else is there worth trying for?" he liked to ask. "We know a lot, but it's still a mystery." I felt like an outcast for not quite being able to see what he meant.
"Feeling better?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess."
Morey laughed. "Old Lyons is five years behind in astrophysics, maybe ten." It might just as well have been a hundred, I thought.
"Might as well check our math presentation," I said, taking out my flatscreen and thumbing up the problems. The display insisted on presenting a flicker of random numbers, so I wiped it with a pass of my hand and looked up.
Marisa Granville was standing behind Morey with two of her friends. Willow was in my English class; Corazon was a new girl from Jamaica.
"So you're going," Marisa said, staring at me with her green eyes.
Morey swung his chair around. "What's so unusual? People have been leaving the planet for almost a century."
Marisa took a deep breath. Corazon shrugged; Willow smiled. I squinted at Morey, to warn him off; the conversation was going to be about something else, and I didn't want him in it.
"You think you're better than the rest of us," Marisa said. "Earth isn't good enough for you."
Corazon frowned. Marisa had not come to say good-bye, as I had hoped. She was still angry about my leaving.
"You obviously think it's glamorous," Morey said. I tensed, wishing that he would shut up.
Marisa was looking at me as if Morey were invisible. "I don't really care," she said. Willow smiled nervously, reminding me of the times she'd acted as go-between when Marisa and I'd had fights.
"Don't you know anything?" Morey asked, and I felt sorry for Marisa. Morey's critical tone was enough to freeze the oxygen in the air on a summer day. He knew how to ask questions in a way that destroyed the possibility of any answer, much less a reply that would interest him.
"Spacers think they're special," Marisa shot back. "Why do you want to go among people who think we're only bugs crawling around on the outside of a mud ball?"
I knew it was all just talk that she'd picked up, that she was trying to get around to something else, but Morey just wouldn't let go, so maybe he deserved it.
"The mud's in your head," he replied. "Earth can't do without the power and resources that the Sunspace colonies provide. Maybe you need a dose of memory fix."
He was right, of course. I thought of the miners on Mercury. They were having a tough time getting what they needed from Earth, even though they gave Earth all the metals it needed. But this was not the time to discuss Earth's political problems.
"Joe, can I talk to you alone?" Marisa asked. Willow led Corazon away.
Morey finally caught on. "Uh, I'm going to get something to drink." He got up and left. Marisa slipped into his seat.
"You're not like him," she said softly. "So why are you going?"
"I want to be a physicist. It's the best school for it."
She didn't seem to believe me. I had wanted her to tell me that we were still friends, even if we had to go our separate ways. But she seemed to think that I was making a big mistake of some kind. She had never liked anything I was interested in, and she still didn't like Morey.
"It's not you," she said.
"What does that mean?"
"You don't understand, do you?"
"So tell me. You're not very clear about it." All I could see was that she didn't want me to go.
"You're too wrapped up in yourself to listen."
She was making me angry. "Look, I can be what I want."
She gave me a hopeless look as she stood up. "Well, I hope you'll both be very happy out there." She turned and bumped into Morey, then walked away.
Morey sat down. "Thanks," I said. "You really helped."
"It's all in knowing how to read weak minds," he announced stiffly, as if he were a million years old.
"Marisa's mind isn't weak. She just wants different things, that's all." I was suddenly impatient to leave. One more week and it would all be over.
"Sorry," Morey said. "You should have seen the look I got. She still cares about you, I bet."
It wasn't fair of Marisa to stir me up again. I hadn't seen her in three months and thought it was all over, but I could see why she had done it. This had been her last chance to get me to see myself her way. I felt guilty and relieved at the same time. I didn't care; I couldn't care -- I was leaving.
"She didn't have to put down Sunspacers," I said, remembering the recent news stories about how many miners had died over the years in the quakes on Mercury.
"Just a handy needle to stick you with," Morey said. "I doubt she knows much about the politics. Earth's dependence on off-planet power and industry is making a lot of politicos hysterical, and they pass the feeling on to the populace. They hate the idea that a new civilization is growing out there and Earth is no longer everything."
"She was talking about other stuff."
"I know, that's what I meant. Where is she going?"
"Hawaii, I think."
He shrugged. "It's not known for anything besides some history."
"I don't think she got in anywhere else."
"What's she going to do?"
"Art, I think. Who cares?"
"She's not too happy with herself, so she came over to pick on you."
"Yeah, I know." She still wanted me to be someone else, and for a moment she had made me feel that I didn't know myself at all. I didn't like the feeling.
"How are your parents?"
"They seem to be getting along." Morey was beginning to irritate me. "Time to go home." I stood up and clipped my flatscreen to my belt. "See you tomorrow." There was no way I would be able to concentrate on two o'clock physics.
A plate clattered somewhere as I made for the exit, and the cheering started up again.
As it got closer to graduation, I began to suspect that Mom and Dad would not be back in time. They hadn't been home during the last week of school. Dad had taken a leave from his job at the Institute and followed Mom to Brasilia after their last fight, on the day their marriage contract had come up for renewal. This bothered me in ways I didn't want to examine, so I tried to push it away.
I went to the exam terminals for five days of tests and got my A's, but there was little fun in it, even when I got the scholarship. I would have had to get double A's, if there were such a thing, to impress my parents or advisers. I knew one thing, though -- I had to work much harder than Morey.
On the night before graduation, I was eating dinner alone again. There had been no calls or messages. I didn't even know if invitations had gone out to relatives. The only good thing about it all was that it kept me from thinking too much about Marisa. Cruel as it may sound, I had wanted her to fade away in my mind, but her talk with me in the cafeteria had made getting over her harder.
I got up and walked over to the window in the living room. The lights of Manhattan were blurry in my eyes. Maybe my parents would be back late tonight, I thought as I began to pace. I stopped after a moment and looked at the empty chairs around the triangular table in the dining area. The old-fashioned three-bulb chandelier seemed to be hanging at an angle. I hadn't eaten much of the tuna and crisp bread I had prepared. The split of white wine was unopened.
I looked out the picture window again, and saw myself in the dark glass. Suddenly, I was surprised by the fact of being me. Dad had once told me that the sensation would fade as I grew up, but I still didn't see how that could happen. I was separate from other people, locked up in my own skull, unable to enter their heads any more than they could invade mine. So how could Marisa know me better than I did? But maybe she knew enough; after all, I knew Mom and Dad, and cared about them, even if I didn't know everything.
The person staring back at me from the night seemed thin for five eight. His muscular arms were pale in the sleeveless blue shirt. He stooped a bit, and some of his light-brown hair fell over his right eye. His lower half faded away into the city rights.
--Why should I bother going to graduation?
--You were looking forward to it.
--No big thing. College is more important.
--Morey will expect you.
--He doesn't need me to graduate.
--But he's your best friend.
Maybe that was the only reason I was going off-planet to school. That and to get away from my parents. I was sick of them not getting along. So I would have to work a bit harder than Morey -- so what? I would see a new way of life, human beings building new worlds among the stars. If it meant studying physics for a career, then I would do so. I was looking forward to being on my own, to not having to worry about anyone else for a while. I needed a big change, and this was going to be it.
I stepped closer to the window, feeling a bit lost; the floating figure disappeared.
Copyright © 1996 by George Zebrowski