It had been a pleasant visit, but it was getting late. Father was loved by all, and if he gave everyone the same personal attention, it was clear why people liked him. He certainly had to do some difficult things, like choose which of his descendants would be ripped out of the community and sold off.
James walked the darkened passages. He glanced into some of the cells as he walked. Most were dark opaque caves where some cousin slept. One had a couple, still making noises. That was one of the things that bothered him. From all he knew, sex shouldn’t take all that long, but he often saw or heard evidence that some people took a lot longer at it.
I’m just not ready yet.
He thought back to his visit with Father. “You will get all your questions answered, then. Understand.”
He shouldn’t think about that now. He visualized waves rippling across the bath and tried to follow them all the way across in his imagination.
There was a figure waiting in the darkness, just outside his cell.
Oh no, not tonight.
As he approached, he made out the face and hair.
She smiled. “It’s been a while, James. Can I come in for a minute?”
He nodded. “Sure.” He went in and tapped the light on.
In the glow of the light bar, he got a better look. His birth-mother looked like she’d just gotten out of bed. But she looked healthy and active -- and not much older then Cynthia.
She chuckled. “Yes, Mother called after I’d gone to bed, but when she calls, you listen.”
“Mother called? Why?”
Alice bar Hank shrugged. “She just said we should have a talk. She didn’t say why.”
He waved at the bed. “Sit there. It’s a lot more comfortable than the stool.”
She looked around his cell, and focussed on the partially erased family tree chart. “You erased the ones that left.”
“Um. Yes, I was just trying to see if there was a pattern to who was chosen.”
She nodded. “You got a chance to visit with Hank before he left.”
“A little. We worked together.”
“How did he look? I hadn’t seen him in a while.”
James thought back. “He smiled a lot. In good shape.”
She nodded, probably looking at his memories. “He’ll make a good leader.”
They were silent for a moment.
“When you walked up, you were upset that I was standing outside your cell. Why was that?”
“Oh, that was before I knew it was you. I was relieved when I recognized you.”
“You were expecting some girl?”
He nodded, looking over at the chalk marks. “Yes.”
Alice probed gently. “Some girl that would want to spend the night?”
He took a big breath. “Yes. It’s about that time. I’m of age. It’s my duty.”
“But you aren’t ready yet.”
He nodded, staring at the floor.
Alice waited. Then she said, “You know. A lot of people have the same problem.”
He looked up at her.
She nodded. “Sex feels good, and we have instincts that drive us to it. Add to that the duty to the U’tanse to increase our numbers, and sex has become a duty that everyone accepts.
“But not every day, and not every time someone asks.”
She leaned back against the wall. “Father and Mother, neither of them had sex until they were fully matured adults. Mother had this same talk with me. Their world was different. Men and women paired up, often for life, and they only had a few children. We’re the strange ones, if we’re still human.”
Alice looked at him and smiled. “They worry about that -- Mother and Father do. How many generations of forced breeding does it take before genetic drift makes the U’tanse no longer human? That was a question when we designed you. Could we even have children that were not telepathic any more?”
“So... I wasn’t a mistake?”
“No. You weren’t a random.” She shook her head and shuddered. “There’s been only one random child. My birth mother Lillian and Oscar risked it. I was only about four at the time, but I still remember when she died, barely a week old. Death is rare among us. It was pretty traumatic for everyone.”
Abe remembered the marker when he’d memorized all the names and dates from the official family tree in the Library. Siren had been her name.
Alice nodded as she confirmed his thoughts. “But we’re still human, with human instincts, even if we’ve tinkered with some of the mental skills. And people mature at different rates. I wasn’t quite ready either, when I came of age. Mother told me to set a broom by the entrance to my cell.”
“Yes. If we had doors, we could close them to signal our need to be alone. We don’t, so it’s a simple signal that everyone knows -- a desire to be alone, ignore my thoughts and don’t come in. Prop a broom in the doorway and no one will come to you for sex. In my case, I had that stupid broom propped up there for five months. Until I was ready.”
James nodded. “Thanks. I didn’t know.”
“And that’s our fault. It’s hard for us to remember that you can’t hear all the incessant chatter. In a way, you’re lucky. It’s endless. Even now, I can feel all the dreams around us. You, at least, can lay down, pull a pillow over your head and block us all out.”
He smiled faintly. He wasn’t quite ready to be grateful for being deaf.
He found the little broom and set it against the entrance.
She nodded. “So, I should leave.” She stood.
“I didn’t mean you.”
Alice put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s late, and you’re tired. We can talk again sometime.”
He watched as she walked down the darkened passageway, then adjusted the broom so he wouldn’t trip over it, and yet where it would be visible. No telling how long he’d need to leave it there.
After the second corridor, James knew it was a dream. He looked at every cell he passed and there was a broom, just like his. Inside, his cousins were all frozen solid and motionless. He wanted to go shake them and wake them from their spell, but the broom barricaded the entrance.
But then, one of them fell over, and all the brooms vanished. People all came to the entrances and suddenly, he realized he was naked, without even a tunic. They stared.
He wanted to get back to his cell and dress, but someone important had told him to show up without delay. He had to keep going.
Luckily, it was considered impolite to make fun of someone else’s dreams, although James thought he saw people looking at him as he walked to his appointment in the morning. But it could just be his imagination.
Hanna bar Hank was his tutor. She quizzed him about what ineda techniques he knew, and then described more. Some were obviously rooted in Cerik history, like which animals to eat immediately after slaughtering and which to let cool. Still, Hanna wanted him to at least be familiar with every known technique for blocking his thoughts. She quizzed him, but with his perfect memory, it wasn’t as if he were going to forget.
“Then come with me. Let’s walk. Every time I get through, I’ll let you know.”
It was like that for days. Every morning he was quizzed and coached, and then they went for a walk. It took him nearly a week before he realized what she was doing. They toured the enclosed gardens where corn and beans and rice were grown -- all plants from the human home world that had ridden as bags of seeds in the trucks. Some had survived the vacuum, but others hadn’t.
They revisited June and her animals and she was happy to have him move more feed bags for her. Another day Hanna and he toured the air-moving machines that filtered the nitrates from the outside air and made it breathable in the Home.
But when she had to dig him out of the guts of a derelict Delense land transporter, she chuckled. “Well, it seems we’ve found your calling.”
“What?” He set down the threaded power coupler, making sure it was back in its proper place.
“It seems you have a talent for Delense machines.”
“Oh. I was just trying to figure out how everything works.”
She nodded. “I’ll recommend you get a better tutor tomorrow. One that can do a better job at giving you the answers you need.”
He frowned. “I thought you were my tutor.”
“For the ineda exercises. With your memory, all that remains is continual practice.”
He realized he’d let his chants lapse when she called him out of the machine. It had gotten so that he could keep his surface thoughts tied up in the exercises for hours on end, without much effort. “Sorry.”
“You’re doing well. Just keep them up, or I’ll have to track you down and give you a refresher.”