I RODE HOME in front of thirteen railcar loads of firewood. Some omen. And I’d given my Casino luck-charm to a departing Poindran.
There wasn’t much to do on the long, boring ride except make those “observations” prescribed by the insufferable CI cyberserf, though I didn’t see much point to it. My homeworld was exactly the same as it had always been. But of course he couldn’t have meant that kind of difference. The Plan of the sacred Founders assured unaltering perfection, their cybers guarding us within each world’s eternal Way.
Poindros still rolled in its calm cycles of repeating seasons. Railcars still rolled across its flat continents, delivering wood from cultivated timber stands throughout the settlements. Poindrans still actually burned it, though not for cooking and warmth like the Setharian nomads. The Poindros worldplan prescribed the milder discomforts of partial electrification.
The hearths provided something else. Splitting wood and tending a fire would have been a ridiculous waste of time inside Casino, but somehow on Poindros it wasn’t. High-tech simi-flames couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing.
I groaned. Here I was, touting that damnable, laborious Poindran Way already. But the traditional nightly gathering around the hearth was one reason I’d delayed catching a railcar. I figured as long as I was wallowing in nostalgia, I might as well come home in the dark to the warming glow of that firelit circle. It might soften some sharp edges.
Another reason was that I was scared stiff.
I hadn’t, after all, let them know I was coming. I’d figured I would just knock around as a tourist in the enclave for a while, getting my ground legs and taking in the spectacular scenery of the Penitent’s Crack. The Cracks were the only reason tourists from the high-tech hub worlds would bother with a rim dirt ball like Poindros.
I remembered from a childhood excursion the steep, multicolored canyon walls, the weird, twisted shapes of stone scoured by sand and ceaseless wind, the steaming rock pools of mud and mineral water that seeped from a pressure cooker far below the surface to soak away what ailed you. The Cracks made for interesting places to visit, but without the cybers keeping tabs on the seismic quirks of Poindros, the whole surface would have been as unstable as its jagged seams. The cybernetic tower-rods that evened out Poindros’s constant tremor to a smooth hum also kept the earthquakes from raising much of a ruckus.
Anyway, Officer Hodge had nipped my little detour in the bud. No more procrastination. No, just plain old cowardice.
I hadn’t kept in touch during those ten years, beyond a cyberfax now and then to let them know I was alive. Occasionally a forwarded and battered paper letter from Mother had found me. So I knew she’d recently married again, and my twin brother Joshua had also married and moved to a farm farther inland.
I leaned back against the faded, scratchy upholstery with its smell of dust. The cars clanked and creaked along the single rail at a crawl compared to what a flitter could do. But there were no sleek flitters for Poindros. Not even a bird was allowed to break free of the dirt. Only when you climbed one of the soaring windtowers, claimed the immense sweep of its wings for your own, could you almost touch that deep bowl of hot blue sky and taste the freedom of the wind . . .
But that was Taboo. I turned to look through the streaked glass, though I couldn’t see the grain fields stretching without break through the night. Only my face hung white and tense against the dimly reflected seat.
It was the face of a stranger, oddly demure in the Poindran fashion. My hair, somehow tamed by the changeroom attendant and pulled back into a plain knot, blended into the darkness beyond the window. My face floated in the night like a pale ghost mocking, the long scar burning a darker trail down one cheek. Without cosmetics, it looked ridiculously young. And almost as defiant as that sixteen-year-old face must have looked, facing away from home.
It wouldn’t do. I tried to superimpose the bored mask of the Cypher Fives player on those features, but it kept slipping.
Damn! My gaze dropped to the high neckline of the dress, which managed to discreetly advertise the gentle swell of my breasts and make my waist look even narrower above the full folds of the long skirt. At least the gangling height of that skinny young girl had filled out to a closer miss of the full-figured Poindran ideal.
I turned from the window, arranging my skirts in the old reflex gestures. I fingered the heavy, glossy fabric, a dark green that in daylight would almost match my eyes. It was really too fine for the farm, but I was sure Helen would have an old dress or two I could borrow.
Helen. Dressed like this, I almost began to look like her daughter, except that, instead of my dark auburn, her hair was fiery red. Like everything about her, it was richer, more vibrant, eclipsing without effort or design whoever dared stand in the shadow of her beauty.
But she would have changed, too. Maybe that was what the cyberserf had meant. I shrugged impatiently and pressed my face against the window, just as the signal light for our village swept by outside.
The cars clanked to a patient stop when I pulled the stiff cord. The only other passenger, a balding man in faded blue, glanced up as I inserted my IDisc into the exit gate. I returned his sleepy nod, relieved that I didn’t look as foreign as I felt.
The cars creaked away, and I followed the rail through the hiss of dark grain until I could see the low light of the house beyond its ring of trees rustling in the wind. My heart was beating fast. I took a deep breath and climbed to the front porch, left my shoes with my bags, and tiptoed to the winking eye of the uncurtained window.
Firelight from the hearth, the family circle, and the Way—I was grateful for even the fragile shield of the glass. The window winked again and I peered through at the figures gathered in the rising and falling tide of light from the hearth. Flickering firelight gleamed from the focus of that circle, where my eyes were drawn to the reflection of flames sliding up the polished wood of the lyre she held.
Her hands were still lovely, long-fingered and trembling over the strings, the chords rippling at her touch, and I could hear it softly, there on the dark porch. Her voice stirred through the harp-song, quiet beyond the glass, but clear, and warm as ripened grain weaving in the wind of the swelling chords.
It was one of her own. A new one. The song ended, and I released the skirt clutched tightly between my fingers. I looked up from her hands.
She could still make me catch a quick breath. And it had nothing to do with the kindness of firelight. A touch of gray in the bright hair would be more apparent in daylight, as would the new hints of lines about the eyes and mouth, and she was slightly heavier. But as she sat back in the huge chair, cradling the lyre, her face a deep pool with the light playing over it, the changes seemed irrelevant. Her beauty was only richer, that aura of femininity more pervasive than ever.
So bowed am I before thy mystery . . . Helen.
Beside Mother and to her right, Sam sprawled in a smaller armchair, feet up on a stool and pipe in hand. Beneath the cap of gray hair, his weather-beaten face looked the same and wore the same mellow smile. His eyes were closed and his chin rested on his chest, above the comfortable mound of his belly.
On Mother’s left, with his back to me in the shadows, a young man sat on the braided rug, his arm and bent head resting on the padded armrest of her chair. That would be Joshua home for a visit.
Across from him, apart and back from the light, a tall man sat straight in a wooden chair, knees apart, feet planted squarely. His arms and shoulders, bare in the sleeveless underwear beneath his overalls, were sun-brown and muscled, strong hands gripping rather than resting on his knees. Black, curling hair on his head and chest showed just a sprinkling of gray. Even his stillness was tense as a coiled spring, betrayed only by the dark eyes devouring Mother’s face. Aaron.
I stepped back from the window and turned the knob of the door. The hall was dimly lit by the opening into the front parlor. I remembered that no one used front doors except for bindings or a gathering to scatter ashes. To hell with it. Celebrate the prodigal’s return.
Mother’s voice. “Who is it?” The scrape of chairs. Sam, blinking and rubbing his chin, met me at the firelight’s edge.
He let out a comically surprised little snort. “What? Well, by the Founder, it’s Ruth! Honey, you . . . I . . .” Turning to the others, he declared, “I knew she’d come!” He engulfed me in a warm squeeze, bristly cheek against mine, then held me back so I could see his faded blue eyes, lower now than mine.
“Ah, girl, it’s good to see you home! How’d you get out of the enclave so fast? We didn’t even know you were on your way.” Another hug. “Helen, look! I knew she’d grow up beautiful! And tall, by the stars!”
Mother’s voice behind him, catching, rushing over an eager, throaty laugh. “I will look, Sam, if you’ll only let me!” She took both my hands and turned my reluctant face toward the fire. I wasn’t sure I could meet her eyes.
I could hear her take in a quick breath as she lifted a pale hand to touch my scarred cheek. Then she said, softly, so that only we could hear, “Oh, Ruth, I’ve missed you so. Why did you stay away so long?” I looked into green eyes as bright as mine with unshed tears, and then we were clasping each other tightly.
The crash of an overturned chair startled us.
I jerked back to see Aaron standing stiff, face gone blank and pale beneath the deep tan. The dark eyes pinned me as the almost-forgotten shock of his angers ran through me. “The mark of Cain. Changer . . .”
Probably no one but me heard his faint whisper. The fixed glare I remembered too well pinned me in my old fear of his sudden launches into righteousness. It condemned me of all the sins I had and hadn’t committed against the Rules. I was once again that naked young girl—caught in the innocent abandonment of a spring dawn, when I had thrown off my clothes and decked my hair with wildflowers to dance and twirl in the warm wind, opening my startled eyes to see Aaron planted before me in the field, his eyes darting the flames of Hell as his voice shook and thundered. “Jezrial! Spawn of the sin of Eve! Whore!”
I bit my lip and met his eyes, realizing all at once that they weren’t even seeing me. And I wasn’t that young girl.
I was surprised by the easy smile that came to my lips. “Hello, Aaron.”
He blinked, and the color flooded back into his face. He slowly picked up and righted the chair. “How did you get here? You should be in the enclave.” He gave me an oddly wary look.
“Hardly killing the fatted calf, Aaron! Aren’t you going to welcome me home?”
Helen hurried forward, her confused look quickly erased by a calm smile. She touched Aaron’s arm. “Aaron, dear, aren’t you happy to see Ruth home at last?” She turned back to me, her smile becoming indulgent. “You couldn’t resist surprising us, could you, sweetheart? I’m so happy you’ve decided to resettle. This is where you belong.”
I swallowed. I couldn’t explain my unrestricted clearance to them. They thought I was back to stay.
And Aaron was clearly less than thrilled about it. Of course, he was the one who’d inquired into my violation point status.
His gaze flickered from me to Helen, hesitancy sitting strangely on his features. They smoothed then into a mocking smile. “So you’ve found the way again, little Ruth? ‘And there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over a hundred upright men.’ We welcome a repentant heart.”
On impulse, I stuck out my hand to him. “Thank you, Aaron.”
He stood looking at my hand for a moment while I held it out stubbornly and stiffly, the gesture twisted into a challenge. The edge of his mouth twitched downward as he reached for my hand. Instead of shaking it, he turned it palm down and kissed the top with a show of formal courtesy.
I managed not to snatch my hand back. Helen slipped her arm around my waist and guided me to the figure who had risen quietly in the shadow cast by firelight. I was surprised to see how lanky Joshua’s boyish stockiness had grown. She pulled him gently into the light and he raised his head in a quick, shy motion.
It wasn’t Joshua. For a startled moment, our eyes met. It could only have been a second, but it was frozen somehow, and I almost thought I saw recognition in his eyes. He looked quickly away to Helen.
If he was comparing me to her, he was probably as shocked as I was. But there was no reason for my surprise. I should have realized she’d choose a younger husband.
Mother took my hand. “Ruth, this is Jason. Jason, Ruth.”
He was about my age. But it was normal for a matron to take a young husband. It had simply caught me off balance. In the confusion with the cybers and the self-absorption that was no doubt part of their psych-profile on me, I hadn’t stopped to wonder about her new marriage.
Helen offered my hand to him. “In a way it was you who brought us together, Ruth. Jason was working as an enclave host when I first went to inquire about a visit for you.” She smiled. “I’m sure you two will become as dear to each other as you are to me.”
His hand was large and callused in my grip. As we murmured rote phrases, he raised his eyes only as far as my nose, so I couldn’t be sure of the color of the eyes I’d met in that oddly intent first glimpse.
Mother urged me to sit on the cushioned stool in front of her armchair, seating herself in a graceful flutter of skirts, and I cast another look at the quiet Jason. He was somehow monotone, the sort of young man you would pass on the street and not notice. Maybe that was a good quality for a mediating host.
He had resettled on the rug, but his lanky height had an awkward look even in sitting, and the big hands, despite their work-toughened strength, contributed to the gangly image. He kept his face turned down in apparent contemplation of the rug. His hair—thick, straight, and shaggy—was a neutral brown, sun-streaked lighter to blend into the sun-dark skin. The brief glimpse of his face had left me only an impression of broad cheekbones and the indefinably colored eyes that somehow matched his overall tawniness. I wondered what had attracted Helen to him. She could have her pick of men.
She and Sam reclaimed my attention. Their questions were too eager, Sam’s laughter too hearty, but I pretended not to see the puzzled tilt of Sam’s head, the banked coals of Aaron’s glare, and the warm vivacity that masked the concern in Helen’s eyes. They told me more than I wanted to know.
I listened to my brittle voice produce an amusing story of the travels that had taken me a roundabout course from the humid tedium of a year on an orbiting hydroponics station to the perpetual glittering night inside Casino. I didn’t tell them I designed gambling games. No need to get Aaron started on “the wages of sin.”
I couldn’t answer the questions they really wanted to ask. “I’d love to hear you sing, Mother. It’s been a long time.”
“Your lyre is still upstairs, waiting for you. I suppose it’s silly, but I felt sorry for it when you left.” Her eyes managed to convey at once gentle reproach, quick forgiveness, and the shared feminine secret of our music. I felt myself stiffening against the response she could trigger as easily as plucking the strings of her instrument.
She turned to reach for the lyre Sam was holding out, her hands pale against the dark wood. The lotus-leaves which heal the wounds of Death lie in thy hand . . . No, Mother.
She began softly, an old ballad, one she knew I loved. Her voice was the balm she meant it to be. Still stiffened in resistance, I closed my eyes, but suddenly weariness flowed over me with the gentle notes, and I stopped fighting. Her voice melted the song into warm waves. They rose and fell against me, then crested to carry me into the final passage of the ballad. I opened my eyes and she was no longer Helen, no longer Mother, but purely the lovely instrument of the song.
My voice was lower than hers, and huskier, without her rich resonance. But it formed a pleasant enough alto harmony in the falling chorus.
I didn’t care if my face mirrored her serene smile, that she was charming me as she did the men. She leaned forward in a smooth movement to place her lyre in my hands. It was pleasant to hold, the balance fitting naturally into my shoulder. The wood was warm where she’d touched it, but cool beneath, and solid. Light gleamed from the strings as my fingers sought a chord, drew it forth from the sinking flames. It moved out into the room, reverberating . . .
My palms closed abruptly on the strings, killing the sound.
I handed her the instrument, keeping my voice light. “It’s been too long. I’m afraid I’ve lost it.”
She accepted it, content for the night. “What nonsense! You’ll never lose that gifted touch, Ruth.” Her fingers barely brushed my shoulder as I turned away to watch the fire.
Sam heaved himself out of his chair with a grunt and placed a stick on the fire. He returned to pat my head. “You’ll play another night, hon. We’re wearing you out on your first night back.”
I grinned up at him. “I’ll never get tired of gazing at those handsome features, Sam.”
He made a horrible face and puffed out his chest, holding up his belly with both hands. “I can well believe it, Mistress.” We laughed, almost without effort.
“Sam, you old fool.” Mother only called him that when she was especially happy. She went on about some dresses that “would just fit you now.” Sam was fiddling with something on the hearth and whistling nervously.
Mother laughed softly. “I think Sam’s trying to ask if he can make a picture.”
“What?” I drew a blank. “You mean a sense-cube?” Jason raised his head to give me an odd look just as Helen said, “A sense-cube? What—?” She colored and dropped her gaze.
Aaron leaned forward in his straight chair. “You see? She hasn’t learned.” He turned to me. “It’s best said now. We abide by the Rules here, Ruth. Don’t try to bring your offworld sins to us.”
He turned back to her. “There’ll be no changers in this household! Maybe Ruth’s repented her waywardness, and if the guardians give her leave it’s not for me to question. But the Book tells it plain, Helen. ‘The righteous shall be like the eyes of the Founder.’ I won’t let any changers defile the Plan, spread their sickness like Ruth touched our family before. And now Sam with that sinful contraption of his, and even young David courting sin with his talk of spacers—”
“Aaron!” Helen’s voice was still low, but with something beneath the velvet that stopped him. “This changer talk is only lack of charity and foolishness. The guardians protect the Plan for us, and all they ask is that we help each other along the way. Now, don’t ruin Sam’s pleasure in his toy. And I won’t have you saying such things about David. He’s a sweet, loving boy.”
Jason’s quiet voice defused the tension. “You’ll like David, Ruth. He’s very bright.”
“David?” I was still puzzled by Aaron’s reference to “changers.”
Jason’s eyes remained lowered in reserve. “Joshua’s son, now he’s married to Marda. Helen brought him for a treat—he was so excited to see the Crack—when she came to the enclave.”
“Aaron?” Helen waited calmly. She didn’t need to remind him that she was Hearth-Matron here.
He spoke grudgingly. “No offense meant, Ruth.”
Right. “None taken, Aaron. I’m sorry, Mother.”
She smiled, smoothly covering my lapse in mentioning the contraplan sense-cube. “Let Sam show you his toy, Ruth. He just had to have one when we saw them at the regional fair. Then we’ll all get some sleep. You look tired, dear, and—” She bit her lip and turned quickly. “Go ahead, Sam.”
He was eager. “It’ll only take a centa, Ruth.” He held out a flat object, handling it carefully with his battered, gnarled fingers. “Here, look.”
It was a thick paper, stiffened by a thicker edge. On it was an odd, 2-D representation of Helen, like looking at her reflection in a mirror, but static and drained of color, with only tones of dark and light left. It was strange, but somehow appealing.
Sam was fiddling with knobs on a bulky, boxlike contraption that rested on the mantel. “Of course it’s not real woman-art, but I get a kick out of it. The camera does most of the work, after I set it up with this film stuff.”
I stared at the mechanical box, vaguely uneasy. I’d never heard of such a thing, and I wouldn’t have hesitated to say, like Aaron, that it was contraplan. But if it was being sold openly, it couldn’t be. I looked back at the 2-D, the “picture” that was so different from the cybernetically reproduced movement of a sense-cube. It was disturbing. It was like Mother and yet unlike her—capturing and emphasizing one moment, one mood. Her face was serious and she looked stiff, and yet when I thought about it, I could see the fluid gestures into and out of that frozen moment. I was stupidly afraid of what moment of myself might be trapped on that paper.
Sam puttered about the room, finally persuading Aaron to join the rest of us, grouped around Mother’s chair. There was a buzz, a long, stiff wait, and it was done. Sam withdrew the flat result from the box and rested it against the wall on the mantel.
“When it dries, it’ll be finished.” He sounded pleased.
“I believe it’s time to retire.” Mother’s voice was the cue for one more ritual.
Sam, the eldest. He gave Mother a hearty smack on the cheek and wrapped me again into his rough-shirted warmth. “Welcome home, daughter, back where you belong.”
I squeezed him. “Dear Pateros.” My father’s eyes shone as he left the room.
Aaron took Mother’s shoulder and turned her slightly toward him before bending down to kiss her lips. He took my hand and stiffly spoke the prescribed words. “Welcome home, daughter.”
“Thank you, Aaron.” Mother stirred, but I would not call him father.
As he left, Jason took Mother’s hand and gave her a brief kiss. Again he avoided my eyes. “Welcome home, daughter.”
I took his hand and gave it a matter-of-fact squeeze. “Thank you, Jason.”
Mother gave me a quick, surprisingly amused smile, then her face became serious. She folded her arms around my shoulders and gave me a firm hug. She drew back and touched my hair. “It’s true, you know. You have grown beautiful.”
I jerked my head impatiently. “You don’t have to say that, Mother.”
She sighed. “Why don’t you get your things, Ruth, and I’ll go on up and prepare your bed.” She turned in the doorway, smiling. “Welcome home, daughter.”
Tears threatened to spill, but she was gone. It was hopeless. I’d almost forgotten that devastating smile of hers. And it was so terribly genuine.
My hands remembered the trick of lighting the oil lamp, and I fit the glass cover over it, turning to go fetch my bag. I paused, then walked back to the hearth. The picture was nearly dry.
The firelit family circle. Helen was the still center, her hands gentle on the lyre, her eyes gazing into a point below and beyond me as I held the picture. Her halo of braided hair gathered a rich light, and her lips were barely parted in the start of a smile.
Aaron stood with his shoulders back, his head turned obliquely, looking down and to his left, at Mother—or at me? One eyebrow was raised slightly, the edge of his mouth twisting, though that was probably my imagination.
Sam’s face, lower than Aaron’s behind Mother’s chair, happy, eyes narrowed with laughter beneath shaggy eyebrows.
Jason knelt in a stillness that seemed to be his habit. His hand rested on the arm of the chair, his head turned toward Mother and me, his eyes lowered. His broad cheekbone had caught an interesting angle of shadow, but his face was calmly expressionless.
Finally myself, sitting among the soft folds of my skirt, leaning dutifully against my mother’s knee, my head sleek and neat with the hair drawn back. And my face, pale and tense, staring straight into the camera, the eyes shouting defiance.
I set the thing down and went to get my bags.
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