copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 4

“All right, girls and boys, everyone sit down and put on your dataspex. This morning we’re going to continue factoring simple equations.” Rita walks up and down the rows, handing each child an individually-tailored pill. Trish Clyborn raises her hand.

“Ms. Cuervo, I’ve been getting an awful headache from factoring.”

“Okay, Trish.” Rita scribbles on a datapad and hands it to the girl. “I’ll excuse you from today’s lesson. Take this to the pharm office and tell them about your trouble. Then you can come back and read quietly for the remainder of the math period.”

“Thank you.”

“The rest of you, take your pills and make sure your spex are tuned to channel six.” She sits behind her desk and punches up the lesson. “Everybody ready? Good, here we go.”

While the kids are lost in the instruction trance, Rita finishes her notes on the upcoming Civics test. By the time the computer signals the end of math period, Rita is ready to spend Social Studies period talking about the upcoming assembly.

“Next period we’re going to hear from a delegate to the Terran Council. Now, who can tell me why the Council is meeting here in Denver?”

The children, still tranquil from the pills, blink uselessly for a few moments—then Danny Motlow tentatively raises a hand. “Every six months, the Terran Council meets for a week in a different city in the world. At the end of the week, they go back to New York.”

She picks out a girl in the back of the room. “Jenna, why does the Council move around like that?”

Jenna Geekson, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, glances down at her desk and taps her datapad. “Uh…it’s because…I mean, I think that…uh…they…” Triumphantly, she looks up. “They want to give every citizen of the world the opportunity to see the Council in person.”

Rita cocks her head but gives the girl a tolerant smile. “I guess I’ll let that pass, Jenna. But next time, do your reading before you come to class, okay?” Jenna’s expression of relief is so obvious that the rest of the class can’t help laughing.

Jon Graham in the front row raises his hand. “Teacher, if the Terran Council didn’t move around like they do, then little kids like us wouldn’t ever have the chance to talk to them.”

Rita nods. “Very good, Jon.”

“Teacher,” says red-haired Pru Barnard, “I did all of my readings.” Pru Barnard always does all of her readings. “I don’t understand something. When we did our government charts last month, the Terran Council wasn’t anywhere on them.”

“That’s right, Pru.”

“Then what do they do?”

With Daisy transmitting every word to the Church AIs, Rita has no choice but to spout the party line. “Children, the Terran Council provides a place for delegates from all over the world to discuss and debate, but it doesn’t have any real power to enforce its decisions.”

She taps on her keypad, and the wallscreen displays a teaching tool familiar to all the students: a timeline of world events. She zooms in on the Cold War period. “Remember what we learned about the ineffectiveness of the old United Nations in the second half of the Twentieth century?”

The children nod in the certain agreement of induced memory, and Rita continues, “Well, the Terran Council grew out of the United Nations, and inherited some of the UN’s limitations.” She moves the timeline forward to 2042. “Here, let’s review the transition period….”

It seems only a few minutes before Daisy reminds Rita of the upcoming assembly. Rita gathers the children into the semblance of a line, then leads them to the multipurpose room. Rita seats her charges on the floor facing the small stage, which is set with a podium and little else. Soon after, the other classes arrive.

Bringing several classes together is like mixing vinegar and baking soda; it takes more than a few minutes to get the kids settled. Thus, Rita misses Principal Shamari’s arrival on stage and the first part of his introduction.

“—very pleased to welcome Jannet Hoister, Council Delegate from New Athens, Mars.”

The children give polite applause; Rita nods and steps back to stand with the other teachers.

The woman who takes the podium is tall, slender, and to Rita’s eyes, altogether exotic. Her smooth skin is the color of coffee with too little creamer; her long, straight black hair glistens with irridescent highlights. She seems to be in her early twenties, although her almond eyes look much older. She wears shades of black and grey, loose many-pocketed trousers and a baggy shirt, a flowing overcoat that reaches to mid-calf, heavily-padded shoes with multiple buckles. Her one ornament, worn on her left breast, is a gold pin in the shape of an uneven starburst.

Daisy sounds an alert in Rita’s ear. “This individual has no trustworthiness level. This individual has no Guardian Angel. This individual should be considered potentially dangerous.”

Glancing at the other teachers, Rita sees that they have all heard the same warnings from their Angels.

Of course Jannet Hoister has neither Guardian Angel nor trustworthiness level. She is a citizen of Mars, not subject the the laws of the United Nations of North America, nor the Rules of Universal Worship.

The realization hits Rita almost like a physical blow. This unusual-looking young woman from Mars is a sudden, unexpected reminder of a time Rita throught forever gone—a time when youth and exuberance were everywhere, when difference was accepted and nonconformity celebrated, when people made up their own minds about whom to trust. A time before the map was pocked with impact events, before the weather turned bad. Before rationing, before Guardian Angels…before the Church.

Jannet Hoister steps back, spreads her arms slightly, and gives a shallow bow. “Habari za asubuhi, visichana na wachanga,” she says, then adds with a grin, “That’s how we say ‘Good morning, girls and boys,’ in Kiswahili.” She frowns, then moves from behind the podium and sits crosslegged on the edge of the stage. “There, that’s better. I hate having that enormous thing between us.” She gestures to the podium, and the children all titter.

“Now, girls and boys, I’m here to talk to you about the Terran Council meeting. What would you like to know?”

The students are silent, until Principal Shamari says, “You may ask Delegate Hoister questions.”

A boy in the front hesitantly raises his hand. Jannet Hoister nods, then says, “Yes?”

The boy looks down. “Are you really a Martian?”

Hoister smiles. “I was born on Mars, and I grew up there, so I guess you could call me a Martian. But some people want to use that word only for creatures that can live unprotected on Mars. Especially if we ever find evidence that there were intelligent nonhuman Martians.” She shrugs. “Most of us just prefer ‘People from Mars.’” She picks out another hand in the audience. “Yes?”

“What’s it like on Mars?”

“Whoa, that’s a big question. It would take a long time to tell you all about Mars. I’ll just tell you two things to whet your appetites. First, gravity on Mars is only one-third of what it is here. So if you weigh thirty kilos here, you’d only weigh ten on Mars.”

Whispers fill the room, as the kids each calculate their own weight on Mars.

“Second,” Hoister continues, “Our year is twice as long as yours. So even though I’m twenty years old on Earth, at home I’m only ten.” She surveys the class. “How many of you are ten? Raise your hands.”

A smattering of fifth-graders raise their hands. “Some of you might be older than me.” There are widespread giggles. “Of course, if you come to Mars, you’ll only be five—so I guess I’m still older.”

A fourth-grade girls stands up. “How did you get to be a Delegate?”

“You mean, since I’m only ten?” Laughter. “That’s a good question. The Terran Council seat is actually my mother’s. Most of the time, it’s filled by her deputy, but he’s back home right now. So I’m taking his place for this session.”

David Boyd, Rita’s problem child, raises his hand. “What religion are you?”

Jannet Hoister cocks her head. “You know, that’s one that I didn’t expect.” She leans forward, hands on her knees, and continues in a conspiratorial tone, “Since we’re all friends here, I’ll be glad to tell you. But you should know that where I come from, and in a lot of other parts of the world, that’s a fairly personal question. So when you travel outside your country, don’t go asking just anyone that question.” With a smile, she straightens up. “I guess the most popular religion on Mars is Chrislam. Me, personally, I’m a non-theist.”

The children stare, not comprehending.

“Oh, I guess you don’t know that term. Do you know ‘atheist?’”

Trish Clyborne says, “Isn’t that like Humanist?”

Hoister nods. “Okay, I guess that’s close enough. Can you live with that? Good. Who’s next?”

Now the questions come one on top of another—Do you like being a delegate? What do you do when you’re not sitting on the Council? Why is someone from Mars on the Terran Council?—and Jannet Hoister skips from one answer to the next adroitly and gleefully. Her casual manner and blithe irreverance charms the children…and Rita as well.

In spite of herself, Rita cannot keep her eyes off this Jannet Hoister. Rita’s romantic interests run to both women and men; one reason she chose Wicca as her official religion. With the life of a schoolteacher providing scant free time and little disposable income, she hasn’t dated much during the last few years—but when she has, more often than not it’s been with a female companion.

The other teachers watch Jannet Hoister with carefully-cultivated looks of boredom and slight disdain. All things being equal, it’s the safest expression to wear. Hoister is potentially dangerous, a little too free in thought and speech, a little too much the loose cannon. Oh, the children must be allowed to hear a variety of points-of-view, in the name of education—but for adults, it is better to appear uninterested, unconcerned, untouched by anything possibly subversive.

Except that this time, Rita can’t bear to put on that indifferent mask. Jannet Hoister reminds her of herself, fifteen years ago, reminds her of that Congressional intern who really believed it possible to change the world, believed that she could do it. And she can’t keep her face from reflecting that belief, that passion.

And Jannet Hoister notices her, notices Rita’s look of interest. Their eyes meet, and Jannet Hoister smiles, gives Rita a little nod as if to say, Sister, I see you, and I know that we share something. Rita turns her eyes away, and feels herself blushing. Too soon, the period is over, and the students rush to the cafeteria for lunch. Jannet Hoister stands by herself; Rita approaches the stage and offers her hand. “Thank you, I know the children really enjoyed your presentation.”

“Thank you for saying so. I have to confess that I’m not used to speaking before schoolkids.”

“If you don’t tell, no one will ever know. I’m Rita Cuervo. I teach fourth grade.”

Jannet nods toward the Principal and two other teachers, who are herding the last of the students out the door. “I take it that I’m not exactly religiously correct?”

“Don’t mind them. They’re conditioned to avoid anything unusual or new.”

“And you’re not?” Jannet raises an eyebrow.

Rita grins. “I’m Wiccan. We’re allowed to be weird. Besides, it’s refreshing to speak to someone who doesn’t echo the same old party line.”

“Well, listen. A bunch of us junior delgates are having a get-together downtown tonight. You’re welcome, if you want. We have a ballroom at the Time-Warner-Sheraton-Hilton. If you come, dress for dancing.”

“I have an important meeting after school. Maybe I can come by after that.”

“We’ll be there most of the night. No obligation, but I think you’d enjoy it.” Jannet nods in the direction of the Principal, who is frowning. “I think grumpy-face isn’t very happy with you. Sorry.”

“Oh, it’s not your fault. I imagine he wants to go to this meeting even less than I do. But I’d better go take care of my charges.”

“And Grumpy probably wants me out of his school. Can’t be telling the little darlings too much about the world outside, I guess.” Jannet presses Rita’s shoulder. “It was great meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you, too. Thanks.” Rita follows her class toward the cafeteria. She pauses at the door to look back, but Jannet Hoister is already gone.



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