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Author: Orson Scott Card
Publisher: Tor, 1995
Series: Homecoming: Book 5
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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(44 reads / 14 ratings)


High above the earth orbits the starship Basilica. On board the huge vessel is a sleeping woman. Of those who made the journey, Shedemai alone has survived the hundred of years since the Children of Wetchik returned to Earth.

She now wears the Cloak of the Starmaster, and the Oversoul wakes her sometimes to watch over her descendants on the planet below. The population has grown rapidly--there are cities and nations now, whole peoples descended from the who followed Nafai or Elemak.

But in all the long years of watching and searching, the Oversoul has not found the thing it sought. It has not found the Keeper of the Earth, the central intelligence that also can repair the Oversoul's damaged programming.



Akma was born in a rich man's house. He remembered little from that time. One memory was of his father, Akmaro, carrying him up a high tower, and then handing him to another man there, who dangled him over the parapet until he screamed in fear. The man who held him laughed until Father reached out and took Akma from him and held him close. Later Mother told Akma that the man who tormented him on the tower was the king in the land of Nafai, a man named Nuak. "He was a very bad man," said Mother, "but the people didn't seem to mind as long as he was a good king. But when the Elemaki came and conquered the land of Nafai, the people of Nuak hated him so much they burned him to death." Ever after she told him that story, Akma's memory changed, and when he dreamed of the laughing man holding him over the edge of the tower, he pictured the man covered with flames until the whole tower was burning, and instead of Father reaching out to rescue his little boy, Akmaro jumped down, falling and falling and falling, and Akma didn't know what to do, to stay on the tower and burn, or jump into the abyss after his father. From that dream he awoke screaming in terror.

Another memory was of his Father rushing into the house in the middle of the day, as Mother supervised two digger women in preparing a feast for that night. The look on Akmaro's face was terrible, and though he whispered to her and Akma had no idea what he was saying, he knew that it was very bad and it made Akma afraid. Father rushed from the house right away, and Mother at once had the diggers stop their work on the feast and start gathering supplies for a journey. Only a few minutes later, four human men with swords came to the door and demanded to see the traitor Akmaro. Mother pretended that Father was in the back of the house and tried to block them from coming in. The biggest man knocked her down and held a sword across her throat while the others ran to search the house for Akmaro. Little Akma was outraged and ran at the man who was threatening Mother. The man laughed at him when Akma cut himself on one of the stones of his sword, but Mother didn't laugh. She said, "Why are you laughing? This little boy had the courage to attack a man with a sword, while you only have enough courage to attack an unarmed woman." The man was angry then, but when the others returned without finding Father, they all went away.

There was food, too. Akma was sure there had once been plenty of food, well-prepared by digger slaves. But now, in his hunger, he couldn't remember it. He couldn't remember ever being full. Here in the maize fields under the hot sun he couldn't remember a time without thirst, without a weary ache in his arms, in his back, in his legs, and throbbing behind his eyes. He wanted to cry, but he knew that this would shame his family. He wanted to scream at the digger taskmaster that he needed to drink and rest and eat and it was stupid for him to keep them working without food because it would wear out more people like old Tiwiak who dropped dead yesterday, dead just like that, keeled over into the maize and never so much as breathed out a good-bye to his wife and even then she kept still, said nothing as she knelt weeping silently over his body, but the taskmaster beat her anyway for stopping work, and it was her own husband.

Akma hated nothing in the world the way he hated diggers. His parents had been wrong to keep diggers as servants back in the land of Nafai. The diggers should all have been killed before they ever came near to a real person. Father could talk all he wanted about how the diggers were only getting even for the long, cruel overlordship of Nuak. He could whisper late in the night about how the Keeper of Earth didn't want earth people and sky people and middle people to be enemies. Akma knew the truth. There would be no safety in the world until all the diggers were dead.

When the diggers came, Father refused to let any of his people fight. "You didn't follow me into the wilderness in order to become killers, did you?" he asked them. "The Keeper wants no killing of his children."

The only protest that Akma heard was Mother's whisper: "Her children." As if it mattered whether the Keeper had a plow or a pot between its legs. All that Akma knew was that the Keeper was a poor excuse for a god if it couldn't keep its worshippers from being enslaved by filthy bestial stupid cruel diggers.

But Akma said nothing about these thoughts, because the one time he did, Father grew silent and wouldn't speak to him for the rest of the night. That was unbearable. The silence during the days was bad enough. To have Father shut him out at night was the worst thing in the world. So Akma kept his hate for the diggers to himself, as well as his contempt for the Keeper, and at night he spoke in the barest whisper to his mother and father, and drank in their whispered words as if they were pure cold water from a mountain stream.

And then one day a new boy appeared in the village. He wasn't thin and sunbrowned like all the others, and his clothing was fine, bright-colored, and un-patched. His hair was clean and long, and the wind caught and tossed it when he stood on the brow of the low hill in the midst of the commons. After all that Father and Mother had said about the Keeper of Earth, Akma was still unprepared for this vision of a god, and he stopped working just to behold the sight.

The taskmaster shouted at Akma, but he didn't hear. All sound had been swallowed up in this vision, all sensation except sight. Only when the shadow of the taskmaster loomed over him, his arm upraised to strike him with the length of the prod, did Akma notice, and then he flinched and cowered and, almost by reflex, cried out to the boy who had the image of god on his face, "Don't let him hit me!"

"Hold!" cried the boy. His voice rang out confident and strong as he strode down the hill, and, incredibly, the taskmaster immediately obeyed him.

Father was far from Akma, but Mother was near enough to whisper to Akma's little sister Luet, and Luet took a few steps closer to Akma so she could call softly to him. "He's the son of Father's enemy," she said.

Akma heard her, and immediately became wary. But the beauty of the older boy did not diminish as he approached.

"What did she say to you?" asked the boy, his voice kind, his face smiling.

"That your father is my father's enemy."

"Ah, yes. But not by my father's choice," he said.

That gave Akma pause. No one had ever bothered to explain to the seven-year-old boy how his father had come to have so many enemies. It had never occurred to Akma that it might be his father's fault. But he was suspicious: How could he believe the son of his father's enemy? And yet . . . "You stopped the taskmaster from hitting me," said Akma.

The boy looked at the taskmaster, whose face was inscrutable. "From now on," he said, "you are not to punish this one or his sister without my consent. My father says."

The taskmaster bowed his head. But Akma thought he didn't look happy about taking orders like this from a human boy.

"My father is Pabulog," said the boy, "and my name is Didul."

"I'm Akma. My father is Akmaro."

"Ro-Akma? Akma the teacher?" Didul smiled. "What does ro have to teach, that he didn't learn from og?"

Akma wasn't sure what og meant.

Didul seemed to know why he was confused. "Og is the daykeeper, the chief of the priests. After the ak, the king, no one is wiser than og."

"King just means you have the power to kill anybody you don't like, unless they have an army, like the Elemaki." Akma had heard his father say this many times.

"And yet now my father rules over the Elemaki of this land," said Didul. "While Nuak is dead. They burned him up, you know."

"Did you see it?" asked Akma.

"Walk with me. You're done with work for today." Didul looked at the taskmaster. The digger, drawn up to his full height, was barely the same size as Didul; when Didul grew to manhood, he would tower over the digger like a mountain over a hill. But in the case of Didul and the taskmaster, height had nothing to do with their silent confrontation. The digger wilted under his gaze.

Akma was in awe. As Didul took his hand and led him away, Akma asked him, "How do you do it?"

"Do what?" asked Didul.

"Make the taskmaster look so . . ."

"So useless?" asked Didul. "So helpless and stupid and low?"

Did the humans who were friends of the diggers hate them, too?

"It's simple," said Didul. "He knows that if he doesn't obey me, I'll tell my father and he'll lose his easy job here and go back to working on fortifications and tunnels, or going out on raids. And if he ever raised a hand against me, then of course my father would have him torn apart."

It gave Akma great satisfaction to imagine the taskmaster--all the taskmasters--being torn apart.

"I saw them burn Nuak, yes. He was king, of course, so he led our soldiers in war. But he'd gotten old and soft and stupid and fearful. Everybody knew it. Father tried to compensate for it, but og can only do so much when ak is weak. One of the great soldiers, Teonig, vowed to kill him so a real king could be put in his place--probably his second son, Ilihi--but you don't know any of these people, do you? You must have been--what, three years old? How old are you now?"


"Three, then, when your father committed treason and ran away like a coward into the wilderness and started plotting and conspiring against the pure human Nafari, trying to get humans and diggers and skymeat to live together as equals."

Akma said nothing. That was what his father taught. But he had never thought of it as treason against the purely human kingdom where Akma had been born.

"So what did you know? I bet you don't even remember being in court, do you? But you were there. I saw you, holding your father's hand. He presented you to the king."

Copyright © 1995 by Orson Scott Card


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