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.
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