HELEN SAT IN her armchair, hands gentle on the lyre, calm face gazing past me. Sam grinned, and Aaron raised his mocking eyebrow. Jason knelt in his quiet reserve, those remarkable eyes lowered. My own strained face stared back at me from the picture on the hearth.
I swore under my breath and threw the feather-duster onto a chair, yanked up my clinging skirts, and stalked back and forth across the empty parlor. The picture brought me up short again. I took it reluctantly in my hands, fingering the odd, stiffened paper of the 2-D.
The family circle. Emblem of the peace and stability of the Poindros Way. The picture should have been a perfect part of the Plan, preserving its moment of the eternal family unit. But something about it made me uneasy. Maybe because it pinned down that one moment so exactly, to stay that way until the paper frayed and tattered. It wasn’t like the sense-cubes of high-tech planets, imparting their brief experiences in a single glimpse and then self-erasing for reuse. This picture couldn’t change. It wouldn’t show the time to come, my absence when I left Poindros again. It didn’t show the before-time with Joshua, gone now to another family, or Isaac, taken by death. Or even farther back, Isaac and Sam’s first wife, Hearth-Matron here before Helen, whose name I didn’t even know. The family remained through the endless cycles of matrons and patera and sons and daughters, always the same.
But in a few years, that picture would show us just how surely we had changed. Maybe other things changed, too. But that was a Taboo notion. Could the picture really be contraplan? I gripped it tighter, staring into the flat surface as if those frozen faces would give me an answer. We weren’t supposed to think about the questions they stirred.
I sighed and set the thing back on the hearth. If I wasn’t careful with my questions, I’d rack up more of the violation points Aaron was itching to pin on me. My eyes slid from his dark gaze to Helen’s patient smile to my own defiant stare. She didn’t deserve that look from me. Maybe I could make something for her, something to place there on the hearth to soften what that picture said.
Yes. I’d have to order supplies. I turned eagerly, striding from the room. I groped for the oil lamp at the top of the cellar stairs, fumbling in my pocket for matches. Shadows fluttered up from the flame as I hurried down. The consoles weren’t used all that often on Poindros, so most of them were out of the way, like ours, in the cellar.
I descended into dim coolness where the light picked out a detail here and there among a jumble of castoff or forgotten possessions—a chair with one leg missing, a frayed songbook on its seat; a straw-stuffed puppet from the harvest festival; a dusty, cracked vase; a coil of climbing line that still looked good, except for one frayed spot that needed splicing; and the draping of an old rug making a vague animal bulk out of a pile of boxes far back in the dark.
Down the hall, I set the lamp on the floor and groped for the button to the cyber cubicle. The door slid open with a whoosh as electric light flared inside. It was the only room that had it, of course.
I stepped into the sleek, res-walled chamber, feeling the change in the filtered air, and it was like walking into another world. For the first time, it seemed odd to step from the rough-plastered cellar into the cyber cubicle, and I wondered why more Poindrans didn’t wonder why the cubicles and tower control rooms used electric light while their homes had only oil lamps, why they had electric stoves but had to heat bath water in pots, why . . . I shook my head.
I pulled over the battered metal stool that had somewhere along the line replaced the sleek plasmeld chair that belonged in the cubicle. I sat down before the bulky cabinet with its lighted indicators and pressed the activator button. As long as I was down here, I might as well send CI and Officer Hodge an OK signal, since Aaron hadn’t yet caught me out in anything serious. I started to reach for my IDisc, then remembered that the persona would still be cued to my voiceprint.
A green light flared. “Good morning! How nice to have company! And what can I do for you today?” The speaker exuded her irritating presence, an overweight village matron bending close to breathe her mothery tones over me.
“First, I’d like to—”
“Why, it’s Ruth! I’m so happy to hear your voice again, my dear!” The voice interrupted with nicely calculated, mild excitement. “Let the fields clap their hands! May the hills be joyful together! May I add my welcome to that of the family?”
I took a deep breath, remembering the heavy psych-slanting of the Poindran personae. “Oh. Sure. Thanks, Matron.”
“I have a message for you. my dear, from your brother.”
“That’s all right, Helen already passed it along.” Joshua couldn’t get free to visit, which was understandable since the season was well under way and they were underhanded at his farm, but I’d see him at the binding ceremony for his wife’s upcoming third marriage.
“I do hope you’re settling in happily, Ruth. You know, you really ought to put on a little weight, but I’m sure Helen is taking good care of you. She’s such a wonderful Hearth-Matron! If you have any little troubles readjusting, now you be sure to talk to her all about them, won’t you?”
“Oh, sure. Everything’s fine.” I rolled my eyes before I remembered that she’d be scanning me. “I’ve got a job for you.”
“Oh, splendid! How may I help you?”
“I want you to contact my credit accounts on Casino—YBA-42E8—and transfer fifty credits from business to personal. Account key: Saint-seducing Gold. Got it?”
“This is a little complicated, dear, since I have to contact central records . . . there we go.” She sighed. “You know, Ruth, you really ought to have your credits transferred to a Poindran registration, now that you’re back home.”
I swallowed, then answered hastily, “Oh, oh, sure. It’s just that I . . . I’m waiting for some credits I’m owed there to clear, then I’ll have everything transferred back.”
She sounded doubtful. “Well, this is a little unusual, my dear, but it’s not strictly a violation . . .”
“Good. I want you to do something else for me. Contact a licensed courier on Sethar—EKL-3A79—and transfer contingent credits from my personal account to his or hers. Let’s see, a hundred-fifty should do it, and there will be a bonus if the courier can light a fire under Anah . . .”
I smiled, remembering the cranky old woman, her skinny legs bare as she crouched in the dirt, her brown, toothless face crinkling in disdain of my first blundering attacks on the practice-wood. “You, young-soft-pale-offworld-one, must use only the Tohr-wood”—the wood without soul—“until you learn to give it life. Then, perhaps, your fingers will not kill the many creatures of the Lianarr.”
Of the Lianarr—the woods of the Sethar sculptors, those imbued with life that skilled hands could awaken—I had longed to work with a piece of the miro. Finally, even Anah had allowed that I’d mastered the trance-states, and she’d given the first small piece into my hands, where I’d felt it stir and pulse, like blood shot through with dazzling sun. The fire-lizard Ni-Pohn awoke through that feverish night in my hands, darting his quick tongue. Beside the ashes stirring in the next morning’s breeze off the river, Anah had laughed, like dry twigs snapping, and said it was a good totem for me.
“A fire?” The Matron’s querulous voice cut across my thoughts. “Beneath a human? Is that part of the instructions to be relayed? I’ll have to check Sethar’s customs, my dear, but are you sure that wouldn’t be a violation?”
“Okay, Matron. No fires, just a bonus for quick work.”
“Now remember, dear, these impure word usages really aren’t proper. Perhaps we’d better have a standard-speech refresher one of these days.”
I sighed. “Tell the courier to contact Elder Anah of the Tribe of Dehbarroth . . .” My hand raised involuntarily to the raised ridge of my scar, and I jerked it back into my lap. I closed my eyes. Maybe this was a mistake.
I could feel the finished carving in my hands again, the ebbing of the trance-state as I’d opened my eyes, blinked, and found a set of dark eyes in a face as dark fixed on mine. It was Jared I’d first seen as I awoke. When his face with its jagged scar across the forehead had warmed in a slow smile, and he’d put aside his spear to reach down a hand to me, I’d known that I would be accepted in the tribe, after all. It was Jared who had been my first real friend, my teacher in the hunt, had been—
“Ruth, is something wrong? I read indications of distress. If you’re ill, you should ask Helen for an elixir.”
I shook my head. “No, no. I’m fine, really.” I blew out a long breath. “Let’s see. I want the courier to deliver a message. Why don’t you give me the vid screen? How about half-centimeter characters on a twelve-wide scrolling field, white letters on green?” I wiped a beading of sweat from my forehead.
“I could help you compose an appropriate message, with my culture-tapes, Ruth. It would be much easier.”
“No, that’s all right. How about that screen?”
“Very well.” She sounded put out. but the screen slid up from the console top.
“Okay, first line: ‘The voice of the fire-lizard has’—wait, erase ‘has’—‘speaks in the heart of . . .’”
By the time I’d completed the long, roundabout appeal to Anah, the console-Matron was responding in an offended tone that warned me I wasn’t behaving like a proper Poindran. “Very well, I will convey your instructions, but I really can’t approve of your sending for this offworld wood.”
“Look, it’s not contraplan. If you’ve checked your Rules, you know Sethar’s even lower-tech than Poindros.”
“Very well.” Her voice was curt, disapproving, exactly like Elder Katherine berating me for rough-housing during play time at the village school. “Will that be all?”
“I guess so . . . No, wait.” The green energized light blinked into a pulsing holding pattern. “No, I didn’t mean go on hold. I just wanted to ask you something else. What do you know about these cameras? Why haven’t I seen one before?” Sam’s gadget still didn’t seem right to me, not on Poindros. Maybe not anywhere.
“Camera? I don’t understand, Ruth. I have no such word in my data-loops. I’m afraid I must register a violation for you if you are introducing contraplan concepts.”
“No, no, wait! Maybe I got the word wrong. It’s nothing wild, really, just a box that paints a sort of picture for you if you stand in front of it.”
“Checking.” Her voice was curt. “Verified. No such construct exists within the Poindran worldplan.” She sounded upset now. “Ruth, I must inform you that possession of a contraplan mechanism constitutes a serious violation.”
“No, Matron, you don’t understand!” I took a deep breath. “I don’t have one, I just heard about it, and I thought it was allowed here. I—I guess I’m still a little confused, resettling and all, you know.” I held my breath. I didn’t want to get Sam in trouble, though how the contraption had gotten circulated openly beyond the Spaceport black-marketeers I had no idea.
“Ruth, I am sorry, but I’m afraid I must register a three-point conversational violation. Your confusion indicates a readjustment problem. I’d suggest you have a talk with Helen about it. She’ll help you.”
I let out my breath. “Yes, that’s a good idea, Matron. I’ll do that.”
“Excellent.” She was playing soothing mood music now, just barely audible. “You go on now. Talk to Helen, and you’ll feel much better.”
“Thank you, Matron. Oh, before I go, could you tell me my status now on violation points? I’m really trying to improve myself, and I’d like to say my penitence at the next gathering.” I bit my lip and started to roll my eyes again, then stopped in time.
“Very well, dear. Your current status is seventeen points. That’s not too bad, Ruth, though it could certainly be better.”
“Yes, I know. The family’s trying to help, too. They checked on my status for me before I came home, didn’t they?”
Her voice sounded puzzled. “I have no record of such a request, my dear. Are you sure you’re not mistaken?”
“But they said they did. You’re sure no one asked you?”
She sounded amused now, the music swelling a little louder. “Now don’t tease me, dear. You know I have a little trouble understanding humor. You know I can’t be mistaken. You go on, now, talk to Helen. She’ll advise you about achieving the proper attitudes of a Hearth-Mistress. It might help to remember these words:
Fevered is the daughter who cannot look
Upon her mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of her life’s Book,
And robs her fair name of its maidenhood.
“I am glad you’re trying, my dear. Good faring.”
“Good faring, Matron.” I reached out slowly to deactivate the console, and the green light faded into the blinking ambers and blues of the automatic monitoring functions linked to the tower controls. I stared until the colors blurred and ran together.
It didn’t make sense.
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