Excerpt: Children of the Fleet by Orson Scott Card

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Ender Wiggin won the Third Formic war, ending the alien threat to Earth. Afterwards, all the terraformed Formic worlds were open to settlement by humans, and the International Fleet became the arm of the Ministry of Colonization, run by Hirum Graff. MinCol now runs Fleet School on the old Battle School station, and still recruits very smart kids to train as leaders of colony ships, and colonies.

Dabeet Ochoa is a very smart kid. Top of his class in every school. But he doesn’t think he has a chance at Fleet School, because he has no connections to the Fleet. That he knows of. At least until the day that Colonel Graff arrives at his school for an interview.

Children of the Fleet will become available October 10th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

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Student Name: Dabeet Ochoa

Assignment: Fable in Your Own Words

The nun Geppetto came from a family of woodworkers and was among the best of them before her religious vocation took her to a place where she never expected to have a knife and block of wood in her hands again. But the boss nun wanted to present a pageant at Christmas time, and when Sister Geppetto tentatively suggested that a puppet show might allow the nuns to perform without personally wearing costumes on a stage, the boss nun assigned her to carve all the puppets.

Sister Geppetto had a year before the next Christmas, but she had to allow time for even the clumsiest nuns to learn to operate the puppets, so she spent every waking moment in woodcarving. The boss nun relieved her from all other duties and admired her rapid progress.

All the puppets were carved, put together, painted, and strung to the control units by August, and while other nuns worked on the script, the voices, and learning to operate the puppets, Sister Geppetto carved the last of the puppets—the one that would be used the very least in the pageant, and yet the one that was most important. The Baby Jesus.

All the Baby Jesus had to do was get lowered in and lie in the manger. Three strings would be enough to ensure that he didn’t get skewampus as he was lowered. But this seemed irreverent to Sister Geppetto, to treat the God of Heaven as if he were a mere prop in someone else’s story, instead of what he was: The Story Itself.

So she made articulated arms and legs, and designed a different control unit so that the limbs could all waggle like an infant’s, without raising the baby from the manger.

The boss nun praised it as quite clever and immediately placed this wiggly baby puppet in the show. Then she thanked Sister Geppetto, and officially reassigned her to working in the garden through the harvest season, so that the nuns working on the pageant could be free to master their parts.

However, Sister Geppetto was not satisfied. It was wrong to make the Baby Jesus into a prop with wiggly limbs; she might have done the same with a puppet octopus or beetle.

No, Baby Jesus had to be able to grow up into a toddler. The limbs that waggled in the manger needed to be able to rotate into place for crawling and then walking. This required so much ingenuity that through all her gardening work, Sister Geppetto thought of nothing but ways to create joints that could do such different tasks, and then at night tried out each idea to see how well it worked.

In mid-November, when she had solved all the mechanical problems and was assembling the working baby-to-toddler version of Baby Jesus, the thought came to her: I chose to be a nun, which means to have no children; and yet I have this child, and he will grow from infant into boychild as if he were alive. I have incarnated a being in the image of God.

This thought turned into a prayer: O Holy Mother, Our Lady of Hope and Love, grant this image of Thy Good Son the gift of speech, even if only I can hear his voice. I wish to know from his own lips if this offering is acceptable to Him. Forgive me if I sin in saying this prayer, and forgive me for making this puppet secretly when I was commanded to be done with woodcarving and work in the garden instead.

At once she heard the voice of the Baby Jesus, though the lips of the puppet did not move. “Attach my strings, O mother of mine,” said the baby. “How can I dance my joy if you do not raise me up?”

Dabeet Ochoa was halfway through fifth grade, which was just right for a ten-year-old, when he decided it was time to stop living in his mother’s dream world. It’s not that she cocooned him—he had friends to talk to, in person and on the nets. He got along well with all his teachers. He rarely made errors on examinations. He was well-informed about events in the wider world.

But now that the third and final Formic War was over, and the world was getting back to something like normal, Dabeet realized that all his mother’s lies were going to be put to the test, and he didn’t want his life to come crashing down along with her delusions.

The problem was that with the end of the war, the families of the International Fleet were being reunited. Many of those who had served in the IF were coming back down to Earth or Luna, where their spouses and children awaited them. Many others were staying with the Fleet, and their families were being ferried up into space, to join them in space stations, warships, cargo ships, asteroid stations, and the moons of various farflung planets.

Somewhere among those soldiers and officers was Dabeet Ochoa’s father—presumably a man of Indian ancestry, though Mother had never been quite clear on why Dabeet had an Indian first name. Dabeet had not dared to ask whether his father would return to Earth or bring them up into space. Why did he hesitate? He finally admitted to himself that he was like an American child who was almost completely certain about Santa Claus, but dared not ask for fear the answer would lead to the end of the annual largesse of Christmas.

Is my father, the brave officer of the Fleet, a myth my mother made up, to console me for being fatherless? Or was he invented to impress the neighbors, so they wouldn’t think of Mother as a common tramp who fell for some idiotic lies and got pregnant?

Dabeet suspected it was the latter, because she had never regaled him with stories of his father until she was insinuating herself into their Hispanic neighborhood in Elkhart, Indiana. Dabeet first learned about his father from remarks like, “He’s with the Fleet, of course.” The way she said it, everyone knew she meant the International Fleet—spaceships, not wet-bottom ocean ships. Her “of course” meant that they could not possibly imagine she would have had a child with someone who was not a valued participant in the war to save the human race.

Best of all, no one could question the absence of a father who might be deep in the reaches of the Kuiper Belt, years of travel away from Earth. But a year ago, someone’s pointed remark about the war being over triggered a revelation that took Dabeet—and no one else—by surprise. “Yes, the war is over,” said Mother, “but the Fleet has its own laws, and no court on Earth—not even the courts of the Hegemony—has any jurisdiction over him.”

“Why would the courts be involved?” Dabeet was glad that a nosy neighbor woman asked the question, so he didn’t have to trigger a spate of crying by asking her himself.

“Because if an officer of the Fleet has a spouse up there, then that’s the only marriage that IF law will recognize.”

Gasps. Moans of how unfair it was. “And you are not that spouse! Nuestra señora, tan atroz! Maria Rafaella, you poor thing. And your baby, legally fatherless! Better that your man had died in the war and left you a widow than this scandalous treatment!”

At this point, Mother burst into tears. “I was so young, and he was so glorious, an officer already, he gave his word, but now he denies that he would have carnal knowledge of a fifteen-year-old, because that’s how old I was, how old I had to be, when dear little Dabeet formed within my body. My family disowned me, so the whole fortune of the Ochoas of Barrio Campina in Ciudad Bolivar is beyond my reach forever.”

It was Dabeet’s firm and immediate conviction that if there were any Ochoas in Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela, either they had no fortune or they were no relation to Mother. For all he knew, her name was Moreno and she came from Saltillo, Mexico. When she spoke Spanish, it was without a trace of any South American accent Dabeet had ever heard, and her face and body revealed far too much Aztec or Carib or Guajiro ancestry for her to claim to have much of the blood of Spain. And the great wealthy families of Latin America guarded their bloodlines too carefully to produce a daughter who looked as Amerindian as Mother.

Her claim to be Venezuelan probably sprang from a wish to associate herself with the great Venezuelan war hero Victor Delgado—though “El Victor” never lived in Venezuela, having been spaceborn in a free mining family in the Kuiper Belt.

This much was undeniable: Mother had given him half his DNA, and that meant she was half responsible for the wits he was born with. And those wits had earned him the test scores Mother always bragged about. “It wasn’t I who brought little Dabeet to America, it was Dabeet who brought me! Test scores! Achievements! At the age of five he was so brilliant that the US Immigration and Naturalization Department brought us in under the Genius Exception instead of one of the South American quotas.”

This always made Hispanics ooh and aah, though by now Dabeet knew perfectly well that they were all thinking, “Little bastard,” or, “So you’re saying my kids are stupid?”

And since Dabeet was a little bastard, and Mother was saying their children were stupid, Dabeet thought that it was not unfair of them to feel that way. Though, to their credit, few of them said it aloud, or even allowed it to show on their faces until they were away from Mother.

Instead they nodded politely, listening with varying degrees of patience as the serious brag began. “If the war hadn’t ended when it did, my Dabeet would have been one of those children taken up to Battle School. For all we know, he might have been The One instead of Ender Wiggin.”

Everyone, especially Dabeet, knew this idea was ridiculous, so they smiled indulgently at a mother’s pride and went on to talk about something else, like the way all the children in Battle School were coming back to their home countries on Earth, and such terrible things went on in Battle School that it was good that it had been shut down, and it’s better for the children of Earth to be educated on Earth.

“But Dabeet is not a child of Earth,” said Mother, every time. “Dabeet is a child of the Fleet. As much as anyone else, he is a child of the Fleet and my son will receive his benefits, no matter how much the Great Seducer of Underage Venezuelan Girls tries to avoid confirming his rights.”

Now, at age ten, Dabeet had realized a fact so obvious that only courtesy could have kept any of the neighbors from stating the obvious: Regardless of whether Maria Rafaella had any legal standing as the spouse of some IF officer, DNA did not lie. If Dabeet’s DNA had been tested against his purported father’s DNA, then the Fleet’s lawyers would immediately have stepped in to enforce Dabeet’s rights as a child of the Fleet.

They had not, which might mean any of several things. Perhaps Mother had not known the officer’s name, in which case the IF would not know to whom they should compare Dabeet’s DNA. Or perhaps Dabeet’s father had died in some explosion so spectacular that not even a fragment of his body had remained.

Or perhaps Mother had slept with a Fleet officer, but he was not the only man, and when she had Dabeet’s DNA tested, she learned that the most motile sperm had no connection with the Fleet.

Or, most likely, Mother had never made any formal claim and had never offered Dabeet’s DNA for testing. Their silence was understandable because they did not know that he existed.

And now that Battle School was being refitted as Fleet School, accepting only children who were part of an off-Earth family, why would she refrain from the obvious step of submitting his DNA so he would qualify?

Because it was all a lie. Perhaps Mother knew perfectly well who Dabeet’s father was, and what Latin American hamlet or city he was hiding in. She kept claiming he was with the Fleet because now she was stuck with the lie.

Sooner or later, though, the lies and concealment would catch up with her—and Dabeet would pay the price. There were kids at school who already muttered “muchopadre”—many-fathers.

Why should Dabeet be trapped in Mother’s fantasy world when it all came crashing down?

Maybe trapping him was the point. His intelligence could not be denied, and if he were to be certified as a child of the Fleet, he would surely be taken to Fleet School.

Where no parents were allowed.

Maybe every word that Mother said was true, maybe his DNA had been tested and he was certified, and Mother simply would not apply to install him in Fleet School, and would actively fight any attempt to take him away from her control.

Getting out from under Mother’s control was Dabeet’s main reason for wanting to go into space.

It was time to get answers and make decisions of his own.

So Dabeet found the file containing his genome in the Elkhart School District’s database, copied it, and then began attaching it to all kinds of applications.

Using the school computers along with information he pried from Mother’s smartphone, Dabeet applied, in his mother’s name, for Fleetchild status for her only child—himself. He found a site intended for offworlders that administered the admissions test for Fleet School, took the test, and submitted the results along with his mother’s application for him to be admitted.

He also submitted his test results to a dozen different boarding schools on Earth and Luna, always pretending to be his mother, always giving the best information he could find about her finances to make sure he qualified for need-based scholarships. He needed a full ride, not just tuition.

Then, having done all that was within his power and much that officially was not, Dabeet went about his days with confidence that he was only a sojourner in this place. Soon he would be plucked out of Elkhart, Indiana, and sent to a school on Luna, or in Russia, Brazil, Italy, Kikuyu, New Zealand, or Japan.

He did not allow himself to wonder what he would do if none of these places offered him a full scholarship, or if his forgery was discovered and Mother were able to intervene to block him. All that was in his power was to give himself more opportunities and choices. It was up to Mother to decide, once he was admitted somewhere, to either let him go or launch an all-out, lifelong war between the two of them.

For he would never forgive her if she did not let him go.

No one could have guessed that he harbored such thoughts. He was always polite and instantly obedient to his mother. He never allowed himself to show embarrassment or doubt when she discoursed about his father and his heritage.

Having examined his appearance impartially in mirrors and in photographs, he decided that his father might very well be from India or Southeast Asia, and so he studied videos of Malays, Tamils, and Bengalis so he could master the cultural markers of males of low status in such lands: a beaming, toothy smile upon meeting, downcast eyes when speaking, hand half-concealing his mouth when disagreeing with an adult.

“I don’t like the way you hide yourself from people who are stupid compared to you,” said Mother once. And another time, “When did you learn to bow your head like that? These people are not lords in some medieval time.” And more than once, “When you cover your mouth like that, no one can hear you, and yet your words are the most important ones they’ll hear all day.”

And, most telling, her constant mantra: “You are superior in mind and heart to everyone you meet. Hold yourself with pride, instead of apologizing with your bows and mumbles.”

She noticed what he was doing, but had no understanding of why. If some cruel fate decided to keep him in Elkhart, he was determined that none of the Anglos or Asians that controlled American education and business would have any cause to fear his keen intelligence. “He is not here to take my place and rule over me,” they would assure themselves. Thus they would admit him into positions from which he could take their places and rule over them.

Meanwhile, he fulfilled all his assignments and took all his tests, performing as a model student at the Charles G. Conn School for the Gifted. In fact, he overperformed.

If the test had six essay questions—at Conn, true-false and multiple-choice tests were forbidden—then Dabeet answered all six with well-reasoned and well-supported essays. Then he would pose two more questions that were much better than the ones the teacher had come up with, and answer those as well.

When the assignment was to retell one of Aesop’s fables in his own words, he wrote a perfectly competent retelling of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” followed by a refutation of the principle that “slow and steady wins the race,” using counterexamples from history. And finally he wrote his own fable based loosely on the Italian tale of Geppetto and his wooden puppet.

If his teachers felt themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that he turned in, they made no complaint. They did not even comment positively. They simply accepted what he gave them, and then graded everything, including comments on the extra material, showing that they read and appreciated it. But, guided by rules designed to minimize competitiveness and bullying, the teachers never singled him out for praise in a way that might lead other students to resent or envy him.

This did not matter to Dabeet. He did not need their words to tell him that his program of making himself hopelessly overqualified for Conn was working. Every teacher—even ones he had never met—greeted him by name in the halls. Visiting dignitaries who spoke to no students individually were nevertheless brought to his classroom, where Dabeet could always see that they had been told which seat was his, for they counted across and down until their eyes rested on him. Whereupon he did his best look-down-modestly, then locked his eyes attentively on the teacher until the visitor went away.

Even when the rumor flew through the school that the great Hyrum Graff was visiting, the man who had been put on trial for his supposed crimes in the way he educated Ender Wiggin in Battle School, Dabeet meant to change his routine not a whit.

Sure enough, the stout man rumored to be Graff himself was brought into the classroom, ostensibly because it was a “typical example” of a Conn classroom; but instead of counting across and down the rows, Graff’s eyes went immediately to Dabeet.

It was too late to pretend that he had not seen that he was seen. So Dabeet flashed the Graffish man his best Indo-Malay smile, and only then ducked his head modestly and then focused again on the teacher.

Even as he did these things, Dabeet thought: This is a not a man who needs to see me as unthreatening. This is a man who needs to see me as the most dangerous creature in the state of Indiana. I should have met his gaze, smiled, and then frozen the smile and stared at him unblinking, the smile unwavering, until he left.

I did as I did, he told himself. Let Graff—if it was Graff—make of it whatever he wants.

Copyright © 2017 by Orson Scott Card

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