Gretana reminded herself of that fact as she performed the unavoidable morning chore of actually facing the mirror in her sleeproom and arranging her hair.
She finished pinning her hair into place, then put on a white one-piece suit which was decorated at the collar and cuffs with tablets of green-veined gold imported from the tenth planet. The garment was one of her favourites and when she surveyed the overall effect, having first adopted her mirror-watching attitude and drawn herself up to her full height, she judged it quite passable. No man would give her a second glance, of course, but other women should appreciate the effort she had made.
She left the sleeproom and tuned the windows of the circular main lounge to a degree of transparency which admitted the full force of the morning light. The bright panorama which sprang into being clamoured at her senses. She paused momentarily to look at the view which might have been contrived as a sampler of contrasting geographical features. To her left the opposite slope of the valley, powdered with many shades of green, shelved down in a series of chalk-rimmed steps to the Karvinso River which opened to form a triple-fingered delta before disgorging into the salty waters of Karlth Bay. The cliffs forming the northern rim of the bay grew steeper as they receded into the distance, gradually merging with a mountain range which provided a hazy blue backdrop for a chain of hump-backed islands.
It was high summer on Mollan and even at that early hour the sky had a purple tint which presaged a day of continuous sunshine and warmth. Gretana gazed at the familiar scene for some time, eyes intent, wondering what was different or missing, and was on the point of turning away when there came a sudden insight into her own mood and its causes. Everything beyond her window was exactly as it had always been—the lack was in herself. There had been no pleasurable response.
Early morning had always been the best part of the day, a tranquil period—before there had been too many reminders of her problems—in which she felt uplifted by the mere sight of the white and pastel-coloured buildings of the city, random scatterings of flower petals, glimmering all through the middle distance, on the triangular islands of the delta and along the valley sides. She had been able to feel at one with family, community and race, reassured that all the centuries lying ahead of her would be good and meaningful. This morning, however, she had felt…nothing.
She went into the kitchen and prepared a breakfast of vegetable protein and fruit, the former in the shape of a savoury cake garnished with herbs. From the rear of the house she could glimpse among the trees the other dwellings of the Iltha family, including one which was being built for eventual occupation by her, as yet unborn, nephew or niece. Her father and mother were doing the work themselves, using a stalagmite technique in which mineral-laden water was directed along narrow channels to accrete very strong walls over a period of several centuries. By changing the mineral content of the water once or twice as decade it was possible to produce a structural material which was a beautifully striated as a gemstone, but the principal attraction of such a house was that it was extremely durable—some had been known to last a full Mollanian lifespan.
Annoyed at her apparent inability to keep her thoughts on a positive level, Gretana disposed of the remains of the breakfast, cleaned her teeth and decided to leave the house even though she was perhaps an hour earlier than usual for work. She went outside and looked all about her, breathing deeply. The air was warmer than she had expected, heavy with the smell of foliage and freshly cut grass. Trying to choose between going directly to the hostel or taking some time in the coolness of the mountains, she approached the nearest of the white-flowered shrubs in her garden and made a bird-like whistling sound. The flowers, deceived as always, chirped and twittered back at her.
Gretana made a sudden decision to visit the mountains.
Walking quickly to the path, which itself was a tributary to one of the larger paths winding through the Iltha estate, she turned right in the direction of the minor node used for local travel. In less than a minute she was within sight of the circular paved area, focal point of many paths, which marked the position of the node. Physical indicators of that kind were not necessary for recognition purposes—Mollanians could easily skry junctures in influence lines—but for aesthetic reasons it was the custom to have an elaborately tiled plaza at much-used nodal points.
It was early in the day for anyone to be up and about, and she was surprised on actually reaching the node to see two small boys standing near the mosaic star marking its centre. She recognised them both. One was Stedran tye Lthanne from the neighbouring family and the other was Clath tye Liv from a newer estate further up the hill. They smiled as she drew near and Gretana smiled in return.
“Fair seasons, boys,” she said. “What brings you out so early? Can’t you sleep?”
“We like being out early,” Stedran replied. He was standing with his hands behind his back and the face he turned up to hers was absurdly perfect.
“So do I.” The sheer beauty of the boy was painful to Gretana, a reminder of all that was denied to her. “It’s the best time.”
Gripped by a sudden yearning to be alone on the cold high slopes of Mount Reckann, she advanced to the middle of the circular mosaic. She cleared her mind of all extraneous thoughts and images, and began to conjure on a mental screen the elements of her destination’s spatial address. As the mountain was on the planet of Mollan, actually on the same continent as Gretana’s home city of Karlth, the key equation was a relatively uncomplicated one—a modified quartic—and she was able to assemble it in a fraction of a second. At that point it was not sufficiently precise to effect a spatial transfer. Gretana raised her right hand and began to trace a curve in the air, a three-dimensional mnemonic containing the numeric coefficients of the transfer equation, and she began to feel a subtle and indescribable loosening—the sensation that always accompanied Mollanian internodal travel.
Her eyes were partially closed with the effort of concentration, but she was still in visual contact with her surroundings. All at once she became aware that Stedran was watching her intently, and that his smile had become a broad grin. He had brought an object from behind his back and was running his fingers over it. Gretana realised, too late, that it was a variable mathematical model of the type used in teaching children the techniques of internodal travel. The very presence of the model in her vicinity, plus the fact that it was acting as an enormously powerful amplifier for Stedran’s thoughts, shattered her fragile mental imagery. She tried to withdraw from the transfer mode, to blank out her mind, but there was no time. The instantaneous leap took place.
Gretana cried aloud with shock as she found herself standing knee-deep in cold water.
Loose sand was shifting beneath her feet, making her struggle to retain her balance while taking stock of her surroundings. She was in the sea, about forty paces from the water’s edge. Scimitars of white beach curved away on each side, both surmounted by near-identical headlands upon which were perched domed belvederes built of pink stone. Gretana gasped as a swelling wave surged around her from behind, chilling the backs of her thighs, forcing her to take a step forward.
“The little monster!” She gave a shaky laugh which was inspired by a blend of anger and admiration for the expert way in which the child had shunted her to a destination of his own choosing. In all probability he had done so in full awareness that the target node was at that moment in tidal shallows. She shook her fist at the empty air, then came the realisation that Stedran’s prank had misfired.
Had the deserted bay been unfamiliar to Gretana she would have been forced to wade ashore and either arrange cursive transportation back to Karlth or obtain information about a suitable nodal point in the area which would enable her to transfer home. Either way a considerable time would have elapsed, but the boy could not have anticipated Gretana’s knowing exactly where she was. Mollan had no moon and, as was the case with any planet where only the weak solar tides reigned, broad sandy beaches were comparatively rare. That had provided the first clue to her location, and the twin headlands with their distinctive gazebos had confirmed that she was in Ulver Bay, some six hundred miles to the north of Karlth. She had been there many times as a child and, furthermore, could remember the precise reciprocal address of the node upon which she had been standing a few seconds earlier. The mischievous youngsters, Stedran and Clath, had no way of knowing it, but they were due for a surprise.
Gretana cupped her left hand and scooped up some sea water. She then gathered her thoughts, half-closed her eyes and sculpted a unique quartic curvature in the air.
The transfer occurred.
So rapid had her recovery been that Stedran was still facing the circular mosaic when Gretana materialised at its central point. She darted forward with a mock-ferocious snarl and sent droplets of cold water spraying into his face. The reaction was not what she had expected. Stedran, his mouth contorted with fear, dropped his model—causing it to collapse into the neutral configuration—and at the same time sprang backwards so violently that he fell. Clath fled immediately, leaving his friend scrabbling frantically on the pavement. The white-rimmed terror in Stedran’s eyes as he stared up at her swamped Gretana with remorse. She knelt and tried to help him to his feet, but he beat her hands away with a ferocity that took her by surprise.
“It’s all right, Stedran,” she said, trying to soothe him. “I was only…”
“Don’t touch me!” He whimpered like a small animal, rolling away from her as he got to his feet.
Gretana shook her head and smiled a reassurance. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You better not try!” The boy seemed to feel safer standing and as he recovered from shock his panic turned to anger. Watching the change take place in him, Gretana felt a cool premonition about what was coming next and did her best to forestall it by picking up the fallen model and offering it at arm’s length.
“Here’s your trainer, Stedran,” she said in a soft voice, despising herself for wheedling but unable to do otherwise. “Don’t you want it?”
“Not after you touched it.” Stedran’s eyes widened with gratification as he saw the effect of his words. Still backing away from her he funnelled his hands around his mouth.
“Ugly,” he shouted. “Ugly, ugly, UGLY!”
Gretana turned, throwing the model aside, and ran. She kept on running, plunging down the hillside through widening avenues, even when the sound of the boy’s repetitive chant was lost behind her, even when salted froth had begun to gather in the back of her mouth. Now you’re being stupid! The inner voice was angry, but coldly clinical. You have a long time to go, Gretana ty Iltha. Are you planning to fly away like a scissor-wing each time some brat says aloud what everybody else is thinking? If that’s the case, you’re going to cover a lot of ground, Gretana ty Iltha. Better wear lightweight shoes in future. And an exercise mask…
She came to a foot-slapping halt, suddenly aware of being near a populated area surrounding a fairly major node which had spatial links with several other cities. Some vehicular traffic was on the move in a freight arterial a short distance ahead of her, and many roofs of dwellings and commerical buildings were “visible among the surrounding banks of white-flowered foliage. She could not see any people in the immediate vicinity, but it was possible that others had already observed her actions and had been amused or intrigued by them—it was rare for anyone to run without donning an exercise mask to protect the face in the event of a fall. Glancing selfconsciously from side to side, Gretana began walking in the direction of the hostel. The violent exercise had shed all the sea water from her clothing, but it would take some time before her breathing and complexion returned to normal, and she had no wish to arrive at work looking flustered. She decided to complete the whole journey at a gentle stroll, thinking cool and untroubled thoughts, regaining her composure.
Lucent Ideal, Twelfth Rubric: Charm lies in the animation of the features, beauty in their immobility.
In spite of her resolve and attempted concentration on the Twelfth Rubric, she found herself reliving the pointless incident and wishing she had handled it differently, thus avoiding the pain and humiliation that was throbbing behind her eyes. There was no question as to why Stedran had wanted to hurt her—she had startled him, robbed him of his dignity—but how had he known what to say? A child barely out of his first decade could not have studied the Twenty Rubrics, a fact which seemed to indicate that there was nothing arbitrary about them. There had to be an ideal configuration of the features which was as right and universal as the sphericity of the planets, and any serious deviation from it was an affront to nature. Gretana unconsciously drew in her upper lip as she tried to remember the first occasion on which she had looked at herself in a mirror and had known…
Doctor Kallid was already waiting in the spacious atrium when Gretana entered. He was a blue-eyed man with ice-smooth blond hair and a casual mode of dress which belied his position of authority in the hostel. Gretana knew him to be entering his ninth century, but—largely because of his unfailing enthusiasm for his work—she tended to think of him as being only slightly older than herself.
“Fair seasons, Doctor,” she greeted him. “Am I late?”
“According to yesterday’s schedule, no—according to today’s, a little.” Kallid made no move towards the inner geriatric wards, which Gretana had been expecting to tour for the first time as part of her training. “Your programme has been altered, I’m afraid.”
“I wasn’t notified.”
“Neither was I,” Kallid said, showing some annoyance. “We’re desperately short of staff here, and Vekrynn knows it, but he puts his own requirements first—and it isn’t fair to you.”
“I still don’t…” Gretana paused, frowning. “Vekrynn? I know of only one man with that name.”
Kallid nodded, his face now carefully impassive. “It’s the same one—Vekrynn tye Orltha, doyen of the Warden class.”
“But what possible interest could Warden Vekrynn have in me?”
“It appears that he is short of staff, too. Very short.” The doctor spoke in a casual manner which made the content of his words all the more shocking. “I think he wants you to go to Earth.”