Authors: Pamela Sargent
The night air was clear and cool. In the hour before dawn, the village of Lincoln was silent. Julia walked along the town's narrow main road; her granddaughter Iris clung to her hand. A dark wall of houses lined the road on either side. Julia moved slowly so that the little girl could keep up with her.
Julia had been born in Lincoln. The small town, one of hundreds in the Plains Communes of North America, took pride in its illustrious name; in the centuries before the Mukhtars of Earth's Nomarchies had brought peace to the world, a great Plains city, now a ruin, had borne the name of Lincoln.
The road began to curve upward as the two left the houses behind; it came to an end near the bottom of a small hill. Julia and Iris climbed the slope and stopped at the top of the hill, where the little girl could see a field of grain stretching to the northern horizon. Julia gazed at the sea of wheat silently for a moment before turning east, then sat down and covered the child with a fold of her warm cloak.
"There's your star," Julia said as Iris nestled under her arm. "That one there—the one shining steadily. I saw it the moment you were born."
Iris stirred restlessly. "Wenda told me," she murmured. "She said women born under that star have many lovers because it was named for love." The girl recited the words, not really sure exactly what they meant.
"All women have lovers," Julia said, "and any respectable woman has several. That's not what it means. Wenda believes a lot of foolish things." Her arm tightened around Iris. "You mustn't say that to Wenda, though. You'd hurt her feelings, and most of Lincoln would rather give her credit for wisdom."
Iris looked up at her grandmother. She had just begun to notice that Julia's voice often sounded hard and mocking; sometimes she seemed to mean the opposite of what she was saying. "What does it mean, then?"
"First of all, it's not a star—it's a planet. It's a world, like Earth, and it's being tinkered with so that people can live on it someday. Maybe your children will live there instead of here—that might be what it means. Maybe you'll become something different."
Iris was puzzled. She had known that the star was a planet, though she had only a vague idea of what a planet was. Planets, like Earth, circled the sun, but, unlike the Associated Habitats, they had not been built by people. What did Julia mean by saying that Iris's children might live on Venus? The boys would wander the Plains and the girls would stay in Lincoln and farm, as her family had always done.
Iris's mother, Angharad, was proud of her lineage; her people had been part of the Plains Communes even before the Plains became one of Earth's Nomarchies. Angharad could recite lists of ancestors, among them Indians and old farm families; a few had migrated to the Native American Nomarchy, but most had remained on the Plains. This lineage was preserved not only in Angharad's memory but also in the memory banks of the cyberminds that served Lincoln. Anyone could call up an ancestral list and listen to the musical chanting of names, and Angharad's list was more illustrious than many.
"Bet you don't know that it isn't really the light of Venus you're seeing," Julia said. "They had to build a giant shield in space near that world to protect it from the sun and let it cool, so what you're actually seeing is the shield's reflected light. Wenda probably didn't think of that when she decided what that sign meant for you. There's more to life than Lincoln, you know. I left this town once."
"But you came back."
"Yes." Julia's voice sounded hard once more.
"You never talk about it," Iris said. "Nobody's ever even told me where you went."
Julia shrugged under her cloak. "There's no reason anyone should have mentioned it to you, but it isn't a secret. I went to live in the Atlantic Federation. They needed workers to repair a few of the sea walls."
Iris's mouth dropped open. "Really?" She shivered a bit, thrilled by the revelation.
"I worked on the dikes near New York. A few of us even took a trip into the city once, a boat tour."
"Oh, Julia." Iris imagined a boat with sails gliding among the nearly submerged towers of the old city. The girl had seen images of New York with the aid of the band that could link her to the cyberminds, and that had been almost like being there, but Julia had seen the sight with her own eyes.
"It wasn't a fancy tour. Manhattan in the morning, lunch at the cafe on top of the World Trade Center, a lot of gab from the guide, and a little diving for anyone willing to risk getting hit by another boat."
"Oh, Julia," Iris said again.
"I worked on dikes for over a year. Some of my friends went on down the coast afterward, but the rest of us weren't needed, so I came back home." The woman paused, as if wondering how much more to tell the child. "You see, they had enough workers on the dikes, and they knew my mother had a farm here, and that I could be more useful here than there. I had to come back."
Iris frowned. "They forced you?"
Julia chuckled mirthlessly. "The Nomarchies never force anyone, you know that, and especially not here. We're a free people—we always have been. I had a choice—come back here or risk being sent to a strange place where my skills might be needed. I guess I was afraid of where I might end up, and my mother was begging me to come back and continue our line." Julia drew up her legs. "The Nomarchies and the Mukhtars always give you a choice. The cyberminds can teach you anything you want to know, and if you don't take advantage of it, that's your decision. You can do anything you want as long as there's a demand for it. You can live anywhere you want, as long as you have work in that place. Why, you can even have as many children as you want, if you're prepared to ignore the Counselor telling you and all your neighbors that only one or two are needed, and don't mind people thinking you're being obstinate or selfish." Her low voice was hoarse; her fingers dug into Iris's shoulder.
Julia bit her lip. She was saying too much, saying bitter words that an eight-year-old child should not hear, yet she wanted Iris to hear them.
Julia glanced at her right wrist, gazing at the identity bracelet she no longer needed but still wore even though she was unlikely to leave Lincoln again. Turning her head, she looked south, past the town's sloping roofs, at the clearing where the floater cradle stood. The airship bringing her home had docked there; her mother Gwen had been there to greet it. Gwen's grasping hands had made her think of the clamps and tethers holding the helium-filled dirigible in its egg-shaped cradle. Even now, she did not care to watch when a floater, freed from its bonds, left Lincoln for the world beyond. Her own bonds still bound her.
She loosened her grip on her granddaughter's shoulder. You might still have a chance, she thought. You might find a way to bring greater glory to our line instead of losing yourself in dreams of the past, as my daughter does. If people could change a world, then they could change themselves.
Iris was feeling uneasy. She already knew, without a warning from her grandmother, that this was not a conversation to share with Angharad or anyone else. "I can do what I want, can't I?"
"Of course you can." Julia sounded as though she did not mean it. "But you'd better be sure of what you want first, and of how to get it. By the time I found out, it was too late."
Iris gazed at the distant morning star. She had never doubted the pattern of her life before; now Julia was saying that some terrible disappointment awaited her. She looked up at her grandmother's round face, which was nearly hidden by her hood; two tiny lines, the only sign of age, were already etched on either side of Julia's broad mouth. Julia was older than the grandmothers of Iris's friends; she had been nearly thirty when Angharad, her only child, had been born. Was that why Julia was unhappy? Had she waited too long to give birth? Had she wanted other children and been told by the Counselor that Lincoln had enough young ones?
Every Plainswoman valued her line; most bore at least one child before the age of twenty. Because most people could expect to live for more than a century, seven or eight generations of women might live in the same house or town, thus preserving the continuity of their line. The past lived on in the oldest; the future was reflected in the youngest, who could see what she would become. A line was a living bond in a household.
But Julia's line was not like others. Only three generations of her line were alive in Lincoln, and their grasp of the past and future was more tenuous. Julia's mother Gwen had died early, never reaching her seventh decade, and Julia's grandmother had died soon after that—of grief, according to Wenda.
Iris, feeling the weight of her own responsibility to her line, was suddenly afraid. "What should I do?" the child wailed, as she thought of the distant misery that might await her.
"Iris, Iris." Julia hugged her, then let her arm drop away. "What do you want?"
The girl was silent for a moment, wondering how much she dared to admit. But Julia would understand. Maybe her grandmother had already guessed why she had been awake so early. Iris had sensed the woman's restlessness before, had heard Julia creeping down the stairs in the night or caught a glimpse of her at dawn on the hill. Perhaps Julia had heard her too. Her grandmother hadn't seemed surprised to find her awake so early that morning.
"You won't tell anyone?" Iris said. "You won't tell Angharad, will you?"
"I won't say a word."
Iris believed her. Julia did not gossip with any of the townsfolk or even with the women of their household. "I want to find out things," Iris burst out. "Sometimes I wait until everyone's asleep, and then I turn on my screen or put on my band. First, I just wanted to see places. I swam around New York—it was just like being there."
Julia shook her head. "Better than being there, child. A mind-tour always shows you the nicest spots. Well, you needn't hide that. Everybody takes mind-tours—keeps us happy to stay put the rest of the time."
"Not just that, Grandmother. I wanted to see where it all was—how far New York is from Lincoln, how far Tashkent is from Islamabad. The cybers showed me maps, just with pictures at first, until I learned how to read the names."
Julia clutched her wrist. "You read the names?"
"You promised you wouldn't tell."
"And I'll keep my promise."
"I learned the names, and then the cybers showed me stories about some of the places. I saw pictures with the band and then a voice told me I could look at words on my screen and now I can look at the words and make up my own pictures in my head."
Julia let go of Iris's arm. The woman's eyes were wide; Iris couldn't tell if she was upset or pleased. "Go on."
"I wanted to find out more things, about what New York was like before the flooding—things like that. Sometimes, when I think a question, I see a woman and she tells me where to find the answer and gives me codes to call it up and if I can answer her questions afterward, she gives me more to read." Iris turned toward the town. Light shone through a few of the windows; Lincoln was beginning to wake up.
"Now she's teaching me about numbers too," Iris continued in a lower voice. "She says they're another language, like words. She told me I can learn whatever I want. It's true, isn't it?"
"Of course it's true. She's a teaching image. Iris—you're supposed to learn from her."
"My friends don't. I told Laiza about her and she told me she never saw anything like that. I made her promise not to tell or I'd tell everyone her secrets."
"Of course they don't know about her. I was just like your friends, playing games and using my band for mind-adventures. All I needed to know was how to run the farm equipment, and you don't need reading for that." Julia sighed. "Listen to me. Do what that image tells you to do. The more you learn, the more chances—" She paused. "I wish I had learned more. By the time I tried, it was too late. I can't read anything except my name and a few others and enough figures to keep track of the time."