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Roots and Forbidden Fruit

by Jayge Carr

Illustration by Janet Aulisio Dannheiser

He had had the stars, and wandering; now he only wanted to sink his roots into his chosen section of enduring earth.

The virgin soil parted beneath Sergei’s plow like a magnetic Stiktite closure unseaming. The weary neo-horses plodded on as he guided them in the precise furrows.

Once, in another life, he had berthed shuttles, piloted starships, commanded men with the same fiercely determined competence.

At the edge of the field he saw Elder Mihael Werner, standing with arms crossed over his chest and wooden-soled boots firmly planted, as ominous and inflexible as the angel with the flaming sword from the ancient writings that had whiled away so many of the long starry hours.

Sergei cursed under his breath. One at a time, he wiped his suddenly sweaty hands on his coarse linsey-woolsey breeches.

The light was dimming into a spectacular sunset, it was time to quit anyway. At the end of the furrow, he headed for the crude barn, greeting the Elder who fell into step beside him.

“The Creator’s peace be on you, too, Goodman Andersen,” Mihael Werner replied heavily, thus setting off an alarm in Sergei’s head. Normally, Werner called him “Friend Andersen” or even “Friend Sergei.” When he was especially pleased he even remembered that they were related by marriage, and Sergei became “Cousin Sergei.” The only worse sign than the formal “Goodman” was if he became again “Captain Andersen.”

It was Captain Andersen business nonetheless.

Sergei sleeved sweat off his forehead with an arm that weighed heavier than neutron-star-core despite the less than T-standard gravity. But the pain, the tiredness, was good. It cut him off, day by day, from that rootless constant wandering that had once been his life. It was the price, part of the price, and he paid it gladly, day by day, over and over. “I’ve spoken to the crew, as you asked me to. Several times. But I’m no longer the captain here, my ship is an orbiting hulk. If the crew had worked together before, developed an esprit de corps, I’d have more influence. But you know how hard you had to recruit, one from a ship here, another from a service there. The voyage was long, but the crew rotated their duties. Many of them slept almost as much as you passengers did. I’ve some authority, and I’ve used it. But there are other officers, even some who were once captains, or close to it, and when crew have a choice, they go with those views they like better. Whose orders, or suggestions, or whatever, they agree with.”

“I understand.” The elder nodded. (It was a title, not a literal description. Physiologically, he was roughly Sergei’s age, some fifty or so T-standard years. Here it was early middle age; on a high-tech world, the bare beginning of prime manhood.) “And I believe you’ve tried your hardest, and not just because you married my cousin, either.” He grinned suddenly, the thick hair surrounding his mouth parting to reveal large white teeth. “There are those among us who forget that Goodman Rossetti was once a planetary chief executive.”

“He was? But he’s not even on the Council.”

“No, he isn’t.” The elder nodded again, his hands busy helping with the unharnessing of the neohorses. Already, with his flowing beard and hair, his homespun clothing and handmade shoes, he looked like an illustration out of a textbook: Neolithic Man. Sergei, in contrast, was permanently depilatoried, all over; he was well aware that his smooth gleaming skull and forever beardless chin were just one more mark of his difference.

Sergei had long since dismissed Goodman Rossetti as a self-important little strutter; he returned to the important problem. “Surely you must have anticipated the crew’s reaction? You knew they could never go back. The relativistic passage of time on the long voyage has cut them—cut us all—off from whatever there was to go back to.”

“Well, lad.” Sergei had put on the yoke holding the four water buckets, the elder had adjusted it fractionally on his shoulders. “We did and we didn’t, so to speak. They signed the agreement, after all.”

“I did, for them,” Sergei reminded. “They only signed standard length-of-voyage contracts.” He was thankful to get out of the small barn, with its closeness and acrid tang of human and animal sweat, overlaid with the riper richness of dung, and the pungent hay. But having real roots made the stenches, made anything, worthwhile.

“Humph.” Elder Werner snorted. “Howsoever, we didn’t anticipate their setting up a machine colony on our very doorsteps. We thought we would gently and lovingly bring them to our beliefs. Instead…”

“As we’ve all seen,” Sergei said dryly, nodding. “You underestimated their ingenuity at adapting the ship’s equipment to use down here. You assumed that without technology they’d be forced to come to you to learn the old ways to survive. You thought—”

“No, you wrong us there, Friend Andersen. We knew that there would be some usage, though we expected a sense of honor would minimize it. We hoped, since we are many and they few, that over a period of time some of them would recognize their errors, that we would grow and they would dwindle; that as their machines failed them, we would be here, ready, to show them the true path.”

Sergei sighed, as he picked his way, head down, over the muddy, trodden track to the small brook. “Your time scale’s off, that’s all, Elder Werner. Think in terms of generations, instead of the months we’ve been here, and you’ll probably be right.” He knelt, unhooked the buckets, began to fill them one by one from the clear running water.

“Yet in all those months—” the elder knelt beside him on the slippery rocks, filled a bucket and hooked it back on the yoke, “—you are the only one of the crew to join us, wholeheartedly. The only one, and you were with us from the beginning.” His eyes met Sergei’s and flicked away. He muttered softly, and Sergei heard, though he was unsure if the elder meant him to or not. “There are always the foolish, foolish youngsters.”

Sergei stood, his shoulders weighed down by the filled buckets. “Ah. Now you want to know why I did it, because you hope it will help you with the others.”

The elder nodded.

Sergei chewed his lip, and plodded back up the path, picking his way gingerly, balancing the weight, trying to think how he could explain to this groundling the why.

With four hands instead of two the evening chores went quickly, but didn’t bring him any closer to the words he needed. Finally he tried to explain, haltingly, what it was like to see many worlds and many times, to a man who had known, up to his single voyage, only one world and one time. How it felt, as your life marched—or staggered—on, realizing how little truly endured. The way always-moving-on and never-a-real-roots-down-home grated and galled, a deeper and deeper unhealing psychic wound. A wound (Sergei kept this part to himself) that, finally, led to the conclusion that no price was too high to pay for its healing.

“But there’s more than the rootlessness.” Sergei flung the traces up onto their hook so fiercely that the hard leather creaked in protest. “Alienation. Contempt. Rejection by the planet dwellers.” To watch a dozen worlds slowly diverging, each in its different but mechanized path, each lived on by humans slowly adapting to the physical realities of their worlds, those adaptations—those changes—plain to the star-traveling visitor. Each world convinced it and it alone was the norm, the gradual alterations of centuries invisible to eyes that would not see. It was the starfliers who stayed the same, and by so doing became more and more different, who had “changed” into aliens, become pariahs, outcasts.

Grooming the neohorses with long, patient strokes, their warm sides smooth under his fingers, their whuffles of contentment a soft counterpoint to his words, he tried to explain the growing hate and fear more and more of the planet-bred were developing for the star-travelers (here, again he didn’t say it, repeated in miniature in this conflict between the colonists and the crew) and its effects on himself and the others. Nor did he explain—he and many others had tried, and the non-technology-oriented never understood—one of the other main causes of that hate and fear, the gift of relativistic time. A starfarer could spend a year of his own physiological time traveling at high speeds from world to world, and return, seemingly unaged, to find fifty years had passed on the slow-spinning worlds, and those he knew aged or dead.

Nor did he mention the basis of truth in the accusations of mutant: the starfarers, exposed to radiation on their long voyages, did produce a high proportion of deviates, higher still if starfarer bred to starfarer. (And, to world-bound eyes, worse than the outright cripples and deformed, were the tiny minority who enjoyed improvements, blessed with extra gifts of mind or body.) Instead he spoke of reactions to hate and fear, and the careless actions or deliberate cruelties of some who knew that decades if not centuries must pass before they returned to a particular world.

“Action and reaction,” Sergei finished, kneeling to splash the last bit of warm water in one of the buckets onto his own face and shoulders. “Beware the stranger. But even your brother becomes a stranger, if you have changed and he has not. Anger breeds anger, distrust distrust. Fear becomes fury, prejudice viol ...