Author: G. J. Poirier

”Is that your dependent?” The woman with the too-close eyes leaned in, her breath hitting Elma like a wall of rancid fog.

Elma suppressed a gag and nodded.

“Yes. The one with the red cap.” She shifted down the bench a few inches.

“Mine isn’t working out,” she confided. “Her submission score is really low and she keeps asking questions.”

Elma nodded vaguely.

“I spoke to the Gatherer and they said she could have one more chance. Between you and me, I don’t think she should get more chances. I’ve been very clear. Once she turned seven cycles, there were no more questions. Do you know what she did?” The woman furrowed her brow, her black eyes boring into the side of Elma’s face.

Elma gave her a short head shake, thinking of the notice she’d received through the Voice Machine in her pod last week. *The Gatherer has accused you of the crime of Reticence. The Unifier has corroborated this charge. You have been placed on Enhanced Observation*. She had to think of Talya. The next Nurturer wouldn’t be like Elma.

Elma glanced at the girl in question, a spritely child with close-cropped black hair who was standing atop a slide pretending to look through a telescope. She turned back to the woman. The woman’s mouth smiled, but her eyes remained unchanged.

“When it was reflection time, she scribbled all over the inside of her pod. The little monster had taken a *permanent* marker out of my carry-sack! I suspended her morning intake for three days after that.”

The woman smiled smugly.

“When I told the Gatherer about that they said I had acted *accordantly*.” She smiled nervously. “I didn’t know what that meant so I studied my Acts of Solidarity. Accordantly means that I ‘acted without self-interest and in the true spirit of the Community of Deliverance.’” She concluded with a note of smug satisfaction.

A shrill tone signalled the end of Play. Elma stood and walked over to the little girl with the red cap, who was whispering conspiratorially with the black-haired girl under grey plastic turtle.

“Ok, Talya. Time to go.” Talya looked up, briefly considered arguing, then scuttled out from under the turtle.

Elma crouched down near the girl in the black hair, who sat defiantly in the turtle-fort and said, “Hi sweetie, you keep asking questions, ok?”

The black-haired girls eyes widened, and she nodded slowly.

“I was just like you when I was a little girl. Do one thing for me though?”

“Ok,” the black-haired girl whispered. Elma imagined the battle going on inside the child, between natural curiosity and the methodical crushing of that curiosity into conditioned obedience. With effort, Elma held back tears.

“You keep those questions inside your head for now. Do what your Nurturer says no matter what. One day it will be time for all those questions to come out. But not today, or tomorrow, or next cycle. Can you do that for me?”

The black-haired girl smiled and nodded, eager to respond to Elma’s simple act of trust.

The pig-eyed woman clumped heavily over, crouching on her formidable haunches beside Elma. “You get yourself out of there before you earn yourself another three days of half-intakes.” She looked over her shoulder at Elma, her jaw set, flat eyes now in accordance with the drooping scowl of her thin lips.

Elma walked over to where Talya stood patiently and took her hand.

“Come, let’s go home.”