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There were three routes Mahala could follow home from school. One led toward the lake at the center of Oberg's west dome. The second led past the rows of flat-roofed houses nearest her grandmother's, while the third route took her past the park area and community greenhouses to the road that circled the dome.
The third was her favorite. Traffic along the road was sparse, only an occasional cart of cargo with a few workers on board, or else one of the two passenger carts that continuously circled the west dome in opposite directions, stopping to pick up people or let them off along the way. Standing by the road, Mahala would peer down the long gray stretch of track until she spied a square vehicle on treads in the distance, appearing on the road's long curve, the heads of the passengers poking above the sides of the roofless cart. Her schoolmates often raced after the carts, shouting at the passengers, who waved back at the children from their seats. She would follow the cart and its passengers at a distance until she came to the glass-walled structures of the community greenhouses. Her grandfather, Sef Talis, who was taking his turn on duty there, usually left work at about the time she went home from school.
Mahala felt safer walking home with Sef. If she was with her grandfather, her schoolmate Ragnar Einarsson would not leap out at her from behind a shrub or other hiding place, then chase her all the way home. During her first days at school, she had gone home along the pathway that led past the lake, but a few days ago, from the slope of a gentle hill overlooking the mirrorlike surface of the water, she had seen Ragnar near one of the docks. A few people were usually fishing from the docks; she liked to sit near them as the golden surface of the lake faded into greenish-blue and then a darker blue as the wide disk of haloed bright light in the dome far overhead faded.
The lake had become a source of wonder for her, now that she was learning even more about her home. Streams of water, collected from the poisonous acidic rain falling steadily outside Oberg's domes, were cleansed to feed the streams of the settlement. People had made this lake and stocked it with fish, had made topsoil to cover the regolith and had seeded the land, had built the protective domes and their disks of light that glowed from a height of over a kilometer above the land, had even made the rain that fell outside the domes on the dark and barren surface of Venus. Once, she had felt awe while sitting by the lake and listening to the trilling of birds and thinking about what people had made here. Now her awe had become fear—of Ragnar, of others, of the secrets others kept from her, of the dark and dangerous world that lay outside the domes of Oberg.
The other children her age never seemed afraid. They pestered the teacher with questions, huddled together in groups, and were at ease with one another. Their world seemed unlike the one she had learned about from the screen and the teaching images that answered her questions. Other five-year-olds lived in a world of rules, games, and secrets that Mahala had failed to master even after being in school for twenty days. Sometimes she wished that she could learn at home; the screen images might tutor her as well as the teachers did.
But her grandmother would never allow that. "You're a Cytherian," Risa would say. "You're part of this community, making a new world, you can't just be off by yourself. You can't be a child for long. You have to learn how to get along with people, how to work with them—that's part of what school is for."
Mahala often chafed against her grandmother's rules. "Don't wander around alone in the main dome" was one rule. "Don't talk to people you don't know, especially new arrivals" was another. Mahala had worn her tracer, the bracelet that could alert her household to her whereabouts, longer than most of the other children. She had begged Risa not to force her to wear one to school, where her schoolmates were sure to make fun of her if she did.
Mahala came to the edge of the road and looked around for her grandfather. The glass walls of the three community greenhouses were just up the road, and past them she glimpsed the lighted cave of the entrance to the tunnel that led under the ground and into Oberg's main dome. Oberg seemed huge to her, its west dome a world in itself. When she walked to school, the disk of light far above would brighten until the darkness shrank to a black band just above the wall at the bottom of the dome. The flat green land, with only a few small hills, was a garden of trees and flowerbeds over which the prefabricated blocks of dwellings had been scattered and the facets of small greenhouses glittered like jewels, where the air was always warm and smelled of grass and leaves and growing things. Mahala never felt enclosed unless she was near the black wall mat encircled the dome or inside one of the tunnels that connected the four domes of Oberg.
Her teacher Karin Mugabe had spoken of how the Cytherians would live outside the domes one day, when the world outside had changed enough for people to be able to survive there. Kolya Burian, one of Risa's housemates, sometimes walked with Mahala to the edge of the dome and then lifted her up in his strong arms so that she could see over the wall. Outside the transparent ceramic material of the dome, misted over by droplets of acid rain, a hazy glow marked the domes of the al-Khwarizmi settlement; when lightning flashed, it was possible to see the rocky shelf on which that settlement had been built. Most of this region of the Maxwell Mountains, the high cliffs that jutted up from the Ishtar plateau, was hidden in blackness, because Venus lay in the shade of the Parasol, the vast orbital umbrella that hid it from the sun. No solar light would fall upon this planet again until Venus had cooled.
A few people stood by the road, waiting for a cart. As Mahala walked toward them, her grandfather emerged from a greenhouse door.
"Sef!" she called out. The tall broad-shouldered man halted, then hurried toward her. A dark-haired woman followed him out of the greenhouse. Mahala had not seen her before and wondered who she was. The woman's long black hair was pulled back from her golden-skinned face; she gazed at Mahala, then turned away.
"Mahala—I thought you might have taken another way home," Sef said as he approached. Mahala shook her head. "You don't have to meet me after work every time."
"Don't you want to walk home with me?"
"Of course I do." Sef smiled, but his eyes searched the space behind her. "I was only saying you could walk home by yourself if you like." He took her hand and led her toward the road. Usually Sef lingered to talk with his friends, but this time he only nodded at them as he passed.
The strange dark-haired woman was leaning against a tree near the road, arms folded across her chest. She glanced at Sef, but did not speak. Mahala felt her grandfather's large hand tighten around hers; he strode past the woman in silence.
"Who is she?" Mahala asked. He did not reply. "She's awfully pretty. Is she a new settler?"
"No." Sef was silent for a bit. "She used to live here a few years ago—she just moved back to Oberg."
"Then why didn't you say anything to her?"
"Because I wish she hadn't come back, and she knows I feel that way. It doesn't matter, Mahala. Sometimes we have to work with people we'd rather avoid."
She struggled to keep up with her grandfather's long strides. At last he slowed and loosened his grip around her hand.
"Why don't you want her here?" Mahala said.
"She's very troubled," Sef replied. "Some hard things happened to her when she was only a girl. She'd be better off in another settlement, away from old memories—that's my feeling, anyway. Your grandmother did what she could to advise her family, but they didn't want our help."
People were always asking Risa for advice; Mahala wondered why the woman's family had refused it. Risa was important, a member of the Oberg Council that was elected by residents of the settlement, someone respected even by Administrators and Linkers.
"What happened to her?" Mahala asked.
"I've said enough, child. That's all you have to know. We don't have much to do with her, and it would be best if you didn't, either. Just stay away from her."
This was so unlike her grandfather that Mahala did not know what to say. He rarely took a dislike to anyone.
They were nearing the tunnel entrance. Their house, a rectangular flat-roofed one-story building, was near the path that led from the entrance. Through the trees set back from the road, Mahala saw the panes of her grandmother's small greenhouse.
Sef stopped and knelt next to her. "Come on," he said, "I'll give you a ride."
She climbed onto his broad shoulders, content.
Risa sat on a cushion in the common room, at the low table where her household gathered for meals, going over the household accounts on a small screen. At least Mahala assumed that was what her grandmother was doing. Risa, on her days off from work, usually visited other households on Council business or to find out if anyone had problems or complaints, then came home to do chores there. If she wasn't in the greenhouse or repairing something in the house, she had to be doing something practical, such as the accounts. Risa was not the sort to sit around reading or playing screen games.
"Are you the only one home?" Sef asked as he lifted Mahala from his shoulders.
Risa looked up and nodded. "Paul's delivering a baby. Barika mentioned this morning that she and Kristof might stop at his family's house on the way home."
Mahala wondered if that meant they would eat later, when her grandparents' other housemates got here. Risa would not wait for Paul, who might not get home until long after last light, but she would certainly delay the meal for the others. "Kolya went to the lake," Risa continued, "but I'm not counting on his catching any fish for dinner." She frowned at her screen. Mahala could see part of it now, enough to know that her grandmother was not doing the accounts. The screen was covered with letters, not numbers, and the tiny image of a face was in one corner.
Risa had to be looking at someone's public record. Before Mahala could get a better look at the face, her grandmother had blanked the screen. Risa had not even greeted her or asked about school; she was still gazing up at Sef, as if waiting for him to speak.
"I'm almost done with my project," Mahala blurted out.
Risa turned toward her. "What project, dear?" she asked.
Mahala sat down on a cushion near her grandmother. "Karin gave us a project."
"Then you must tell me all about it," her grandmother said.
Sef seated himself on one of the cushions near them. He still had a worried look on his face, with his eyebrows drawn together and his mouth set in a straight line.
"Well" Mahala began, "Karin was telling us about how people came here to Venus from all over Earth. Then she said that we should know about our heritage, where we come from, because you should know about yourself and other people and respect their ways, so you can get along with them better."
Risa sniffed and said, "That's all very well, but I sometimes think a lot of old ways are best forgotten."
"Anyway, Karin told us her people come from both the Arctic Nomarchy and the Southeast African Nomarchy, and we're supposed to do reports about our own people and where they're from."
Risa was frowning even more. "Exactly what are you supposed to do?"
"I told you—find out things and do a report. Call up a map of Earth and show the places our people came from, and then tell something about those places." Mahala and her schoolmates already knew how to ask the cyberminds questions through their screens. She could call up an image of a person who would explain a subject to her, but often preferred wearing the band around her head that linked her directly to the minds. With the band, she could take a mind-tour and feel as though she was in the places where her people had lived on Earth. "I found out a lot about my people already, so I'll give my report day after tomorrow."
Her grandmother's hand was suddenly around her wrist, gripping it hard. "Exactly what did you find out, Mahala?"
"Risa." Mahala tried to pull away. "It was just public records. What's the matter?"
"I'm sorry." Risa let go. "I'm just tired. Why don't you go to the kitchen and get us some juice, and then you'll tell us all about your report."
Mahala had the feeling that Risa did not really want to hear about the report. She got up, went into the kitchen, and rummaged in the cooler, listening to the low murmur of the voices in the common room. Her grandparents were speaking softly, as if they had a secret. Mahala poured juice, climbed onto a stepstool and stretched to put the empty glass bottle up on the countertop, arranged the cups on a tray, then crept toward the doorway.
"... didn't say anything," Sef muttered. "She just stared at me and walked away. Then I saw her again, on the way home with Mahala. I could feel her staring at us. Mahala started asking who she was. I said she was somebody who'd had some hardship and that it would be better to stay away from her."
They were talking about that woman, the pretty one Sef had called troubled. Mahala held her breath, trying to hear more.
"You're a Councilor," Sef said. "Isn't there anything you can do?"
"She has a right to live here. I would have thought she wouldn't want to be in Oberg, but—" Risa sighed. "I pity her. She has every reason to keep her distance from us, so I doubt—"
"Mahala may ask more questions."
"Yes, she will. And I don't know how much to tell her."
Everyone seemed to have secrets from her. Mahala lingered near the doorway. They would wonder what was taking her so long. She hurried out, set the tray on the low table near her grandparents, then sat down again.
"So how about this project of yours?" Sef asked.
"Well," Mahala replied, "I started with your names first, even if I do know about you already, and there's a lot about great-grandmother Iris in the historical records."
"Yes, there is," Risa said, as if happy to admit to something.
"I'll have lots of places to show on my map." Mahala gulped down some juice. "I mean, your people came from China and the North American Plains, and my mother's father was born in Damascus, and the records say my father had parents from Nueva Hispania but that one of his grandparents was from Central Africa. And Sef s from the Pacific Federation." She had included Sef in the project, even though he was not her biological grandfather. "I come from people who lived all over Earth!"
"That doesn't make you any better than anyone else." It was like her grandmother to say that. Risa usually had harsh words for people who, as she put it, got above themselves.
"It'd be easier if they came from just one or two places." Mahala finished her juice. "I wouldn't have so much to put in my report."
"Learning about your heritage—what nonsense." Risa gestured with her cup. "You're a Cytherian—that's what matters. That Karin ought to be spending more time on practical subjects."
"Risa." Sef leaned toward his bondmate. "The teacher's only doing her job. There's no harm in—"
"Time enough to learn about the past when she's older. Right now, she'd be better off learning things of more use to the Project."
Risa had said such things before, but did not usually sound this upset. Mahala set down her cup. "Is that why you put a block on my parents' public records?" she asked, feeling that it was time to ask.
Risa lifted her brows. "What?"
"I found out when I was doing my report. I wanted to ask about them, and the screen said the minds couldn't tell me because you put a block on their records."
"I'm your guardian," Risa said. "I have the right. Sef and I thought it best that you—"
"You already have enough information for this report, don't you?"
The birthdates and deathdates of her mother and father, the origins of their parents and other forebears, the fact that Mahala's mother had once been the Guide and leader of Ishtar's believers here—the screen had readily yielded all of that. Mahala had often called up images of her parents and knew some of the important facts about her mother's life. But this time, she had asked other questions, and the minds had refused to answer. Risa Liangharad, they had told her, had put a block on answering certain questions.
Excerpted from Child of Venus by Pamela Sargent. Copyright © 2001 Pamela Sargent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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