Matcher Rules

matcherrulescoverfront2

CHAPTER 1

The fountain filled the rotunda with the sound of rushing water. Liquid gushed from the top of the 30-foot high sculpture, splashing down over the abstract metal shapes, streaming into the pool at the base and rippling out to the stonewall surrounding the pool. Officers in gray Compact uniforms and civilian functionaries in expensively tailored black detoured around it under the rotunda’s dome, heading for the doors around the walls, and their offices and meetings. The closer one was to the fountain, the more the sound of the hurrying footsteps blurred and blended with the waters.

Jerzy had ten minutes to kill until his appointment. He sat on the coping at the fountain’s rim, and stared at the splashing water. After his last assignment, he could have requested more leave, or applied for a desk job, and he knew what his doctors had recommended. Instead, he’d opted for a return to active service, and had convinced them he was able. He hoped. Although he hadn’t actually seen the report they’d filed; it was ominous that he was to report in person instead of picking up his orders from the comm.

The water was pleasant to watch, and it was as far as possible from the dust and heat of the planet Stiles. He tilted his head back and gazed up at the rotunda high above. It was almost as if he was in the open air. He had a sincere appreciation for long lines of sight.

Jerzy knew he was being watched, although monitored was probably a more accurate word, and he had a good idea why. He’d been a problem in the overcrowded, cramped, hospital and he hadn’t been much better in the military convalescent home. At least, not until he’d finessed the locks so he could sneak out and sleep in the garden at night. They’d attributed his improvement to a different drug therapy and he hadn’t bothered to correct them.

Rising to keep his appointment, Jerzy saw the name plaque on the sculpture: The Rule of Law. He grimaced. Well, it was a nice thought.

Jerzy stood at attention in the colonel’s office, focused on the window looking out on the street, and then dropped his eyes to the man reading his file. The colonel clicked to another screen, and without glancing up, said, “Sit down.”

“I prefer to stand, sir.”

“Nothing in your file says you are an idiot, Captain, and I’d hate to have the file be wrong. That was an order. Sit down.” Jerzy sat.

“The medics have cleared you for return to active duty, within certain limitations.”

“Limitations, sir? The doctor didn’t say…”

“No stressful situations.” The colonel met Jerzy’s eyes. Neither man looked away. Jerzy kept his face expressionless. “You only fooled them up to a point.”

Jerzy decided there was no safe response to that.

“So I’m seconding you to Research for a colonial study.”

Jerzy surprised himself by laughing. True, it wasn’t much of a laugh, but then it wasn’t much of a joke. “A study?”

“This planet’s peaceful. In fact, that’s the research. They report few violent crimes, almost no civil violations, and they haven’t for years. Research has queried, and gotten the same answers. It’s a stubborn statistical anomaly and they’ve requested someone to look into it.”

Jerzy considered. He might be three weeks out of the booby hatch, hospital, call it what you would, shaky, and prone to flashbacks of coffin lids slamming, but his sense of smell was still functioning. This had a strong whiff of rat. They were dumping him.

He might as well have written it over his head in letters of fire. The colonel said sternly, “You are ordered, Captain Jerzy, to proceed immediately to the planet Novi and investigate the situation—thoroughly. You will treat this assignment as serious. You will file a report with Research upon completion, your physical and mental condition will be assessed, and you may be re-assigned to active duty, should you still wish it. You will travel as a civilian investigator, although you retain your Scout rank. Details are in your packet. Do you have any questions?

“No sir.”

#

The colonel and his adjutant watched through the window as Jerzy crossed the street. The colonel sighed, “With travel time, he’ll be out over a year. Maybe he can recover, although the doctors don’t seem very hopeful. Shame. One of the best men—I really had hopes for him.”

“He made it through more assignments than most, sir.”

“Yes. He’s lucky to be alive. What a shambles that was. Pity we can’t tell him we cashiered the idiot who delayed the intelligence information about General Boule’s amusements.”

“He should have been shot.” The adjutant had worked for the colonel for years. “And it wasn’t even a large bribe, as these things go.”

“A dismissal for corruption draws less attention than an execution, and General Boule is now the President of Stiles. We can’t push too hard from the outside.”

“How long can Boule last, sir?”

“Not more than a year, in my view. Maybe less than that.” The colonel turned away from the window and reseated himself behind his desk, “But too late to do Captain Jerzy much good. I’ll take my next appointment now, Jimmy.”

#

“The Solo’s dead.” Amber and Stella, studying in the hammock on the porch, heard their mother’s partner Martin as he leapt up the stairs, crossed the porch and banged into the house. The girls untangled and ran after him.

“Who told you?” Sarah asked, looking up from a stack of clinic records.

“It’s all over Danner, someone heard it on the comm. Where’s Edward?”

“Upstairs. Call him and we can have lunch now,” Sarah looked at the twins, “Since we’re all here. Girls, please clear your papers from the table.”

The main floor of the house was simply living area and kitchen. The living area was one large, cluttered, well-used room, with the evidence of five people’s interests out in plain sight. The books were everywhere, with Edward’s history collection threatening to overwhelm Sarah’s medical journals. Martin’s viticulture materials were fighting a losing battle in one corner. Stella’s old loom and Amber’s guitar were dusty and shoved in another corner, due to be moved to the attic when someone had time. Upstairs, the adults’ three bedrooms were clustered together, with the twins’ over the porch.

“How old was this Solo?’ Stella’s face retained some childlike chubbiness; her sun-streaked brown hair was straight and her expression serious. She looked like her mother, while Amber looked like Edward, taller and blond.

“Around 65, I think.” Edward passed the bread. “He only lasted about four years, you two were still in school. Don’t you remember falling into the creek at the celebration?”

Stella loved Edward, but she wished he wouldn’t bring up that particular occasion. Amber poked her under the table.

“You’re the one who dared me to swing across!” Getting pulled from the creek, dripping and humiliated in her best outfit, wasn’t her favorite memory. She’d forgotten it had been the celebration for the new Solo, remembering the party but not the reason.

“I knew you wouldn’t make it, you are so gullible—”

“Stop it, both of you. You have your comprehensive exams next week, you’re supposed to be adults,” Sarah looked at Martin. “Who do you think they’ll choose?”

“Hard to say, since all the meetings are closed. We think the Bari faction’s on top right now. They seem to have a lock on all the resource allocation decisions and transport — the medical supplies flow very well in their districts, the rest of us get the leftovers. Max Bari controls five out of twelve councilors, and if he can swing a few more, he can pick the candidate. The other group we’re sure of are the four in the Jonn faction. Alivia Jonn says frog: they hop. The last three are floaters, playing both sides depending on what’s up for a vote.

“If you had to pick one, though, who would you say?”

“Probably Tom Forr.”

“But isn’t he doddering?”

“Bari might see that as an advantage.”

Sarah looked back at Martin. “How bad would it be, if Forr was chosen?”

Martin and Edward exchanged glances. Martin shrugged, and Edward answered, “Status quo, I’d say. Maybe a little worse.”

“Why would it be worse?” Amber asked.

Martin answered, “Resources are supposed to be spread evenly among the twelve districts. We only have so much, as a colony. If one group gets too much power, the rest of us suffer.”

Edward said, pedantically, “Colonial economics are quite simple. We grow our own food and export certain cash crops. Export credits support development and expansion, if we are careful. If, for whatever reason, the export brings in less credit than we anticipated or if a food crop fails, then we tighten our belts. All our belts. Not only the belts in districts unaligned with Bari Transport.”

“But what does this have to do with the Solo? The Solo sets up the affinity groups. He has nothing to do with credits or exports,” Stella was fighting off waves of boredom. Edward never forgot he was a teacher, and sometimes it was too much.

“Let’s say the Elders Council prefers to control everything around them, and the Solo is not immune. Affinity groups are made up of people.”

This time, Amber kicked her, and Stella obediently shut up. After they cleared away the remains of lunch and washed the dishes Amber stated they’d been studying all morning and were going to walk into the settlement. Sarah raised her eyebrows in skepticism, but Martin said, “Good idea. Take a break and we’ll give you a practice quiz tonight.”

Once they were out of earshot, Stella said, “Thanks so much. Politics all during lunch and now we’re stuck with a quiz tonight. I wish Edward could answer a question with a simple yes or no. He always has to make a lesson out of it. Why do you want to go into Danner, anyway?”

“Oh, there might be somebody interesting around,” Amber said, airily. “It’s not my fault you spent the morning reading a novel. I spent it studying.”

“Prig.”

“Daydreamer.”

“Fatty.”

“Potato-face.”

Their house was about a half mile from the village, down the lane beyond the path to the old Solo tower. The lane was shady, with trees arching overhead. The fields on either side were vineyards, Martin’s contribution to the wine export trade. The village had started, as had all the first wave settlements, as a deliberate attempt to spread Novi colony’s population out from the first landing site. Stella knew from her planetary history that multiple population nodes gave a planet a higher survival percentage, especially when paired with redundant transportation and communication systems. She had obediently memorized this for her comprehensive exam, but she privately thought the planners could have skipped some steps without any harm. A big city would have been so much more exciting than a village.

Here they were, coming into the Danner Commons Square and it looked (she’d seen pictures) like every other settlement center. The lane had broadened into a street lined with small shops and ended at the square. Three other streets led from the square, around it were the community hall and the council offices, the administrative offices for the district, the village baths where the water was really hot, not warm as at their house, and the old Commons building which was now acting as an elder hostel and an inn, with the elementary school on the top floor.

The square was more crowded than normal, with most people clustered by the community center. Amber and Stella skimmed through the people, looking for any of their friends who’d escaped from advanced study courses or apprenticeship tasks. They caught some sentences as they pressed past:

“…Get one that lasts a few years this time…”

“Bari wants all his buddies in Quints running freight and you can’t tell me he’s not calling the tune…”

“…Used to light up the whole valley, and lately barely sparks at all, so…”

“Retros should be banned, it’s not respectful, talking that way, there ought to be a law…”

Stella moaned, “This is boring, it’s only gossip about the Solo selection, and who cares about that? Look, there’s Alexi and Nicole.” Two of their age-mates from school were cutting through the crowd.

“Where are you going?”

“Berry-picking up the hill to the Solo tower. Want to come? Nicole has some wine.” Alexi grinned at her.

They borrowed a few pails from the commons and picked up some friends and their friends, and in the end seven of them walked up the lane, kicking up the dust with their feet and wandering to either side in search of a really good berry spot. The hill got steeper and the lane became a rocky path, but eventually they came out on the crest of the hill. Stella flopped down on the grass.

From here she could see Martin’s grapevines spreading up over the nearby hill in neat rows. The roof of their house was visible, the solar panels shining in the autumn sun. The lane below was hidden under the trees, but she could see most of the village, with the wind banner flying from the roof of the old Commons. A bird soared below, then tilted its wings and swept away out of sight. Novi was temperate, its seasons gentle.

“Hey, everyone, I’m opening the wine.” Nicole plopped down next to her and yanked the cork. After Amber, Nicole was her closest friend. Her Quint family house was like a second home; they’d stayed with the Harids while their house was being built. Like most affinities, the Harids had all taken the same last name and there were Harid connections all over the village. The mayor was Duo partnered with a Harid but had kept the name for obvious reasons. Berry picking being less attractive than wine, everyone converged on Nicole.

“Whoops, only one cup. Well, we’ll share.” Nicole passed the cup to Stella, who sipped and passed it to Amber. Next to Amber was Jules Ambrose, who Stella didn’t know at all, and then Nicole’s brother Alexi. “Alexi, don’t be selfish. Pass it on, don’t hog it.”

“I’m still growing; I need more sustenance.” Jules shoved him and Alexi managed to slide off the log without spilling the cup. “Careful, careful. We only have one bottle.” Stella suddenly noticed that Jules, out of all of them, wasn’t wearing a Matcher band. Surely he was old enough?

With seven of them, the wine didn’t go far. Stella only had the one swallow, but she didn’t care. The berries were slightly bitter since it was late in the season, but she was comfortable and warm in the sun. Looking out over the valley, half-listening to the talk, she drifted off into a daydream of her future. When she was in an affinity…

“Why do they call it a tower? It’s not a tower,” someone said.

Stella looked behind her. True, it wasn’t a tower as in a fairy tale, more of a small square stone building. It was two stories high and was set on the crown of the hill. “Because of the roof things? What are they, battlements or something?” The roof was flat and surrounded by a chest high wall, pierced by embrasures. Stella could see the top of a water tank and some solar panels above the wall.

“Can we get up there?” Jules stood.

“It’s locked,” said Nicole. “My Aunt Min has the key. She comes here once a month, to clean. We tried to sneak in behind her once, but she got all huffy and said it was a sacred trust. We had to clean the Commons dining room as a punishment. She said if we wanted to clean so badly we could practice there.”

“If it’s the Solo’s tower, why doesn’t the Solo live there?” Jules was still eyeing the building.

“I think the original one did, about a hundred fifty years ago. Edward told me,” said Stella. “They’ve lived in First since then.”

“Maybe we can see in the windows.” Jules climbed up the rise toward the building.

“Too far off the ground,” said Alexi. “Try standing on my shoulders.”

Alexi went after Jules, and the other boys and Amber joined them. Stella and Nicole sat on the grass and watched them trying to climb on each other, bracing themselves against the house wall. The problem was Jules was the biggest and heaviest, but he wanted to be the one to look in, and the other boys couldn’t push him up far enough.

“Why aren’t there any windows on the ground floor?” asked Stella suddenly. “That’s a funny way to build a house.”

Nicole shrugged. “Defense?”

“Defense against what? There are no enemies here.”

“Ask your father. He’s a historian. Isn’t he writing a history of the settlements?”

Stella grimaced. “If I show any interest he’ll go on for hours. You have no idea. Oh, look, Jules made it up to one of the windows.”

As they watched, Jules hooked his fingers on the window ledge and pulled himself up. His feet left Alexi’s shoulders and he strained to get his head level with the glass. Then he lost his grip and, Alexi having moved away to watch, fell to the ground with a thump. Alexi pulled him to his feet and they moved away from the tower, Jules shaking his head.

Nicole said quietly, so only Stella heard, “The main floor is a library or a living area, lots of books and chairs. The light comes from light wells down from the top floor, and through those slits you can barely see, concealed in the stone work.”

Stella looked sharply at her. She was grinning.

“So, your Aunt Min did let you in.”

“She let me stand in the doorway once, when we came up here without the boys.”

“What’s upstairs?”

“Bedroom, I think. I really wasn’t allowed in. Don’t tell the boys, or anyone.”

“Never.” Stella laughed, and they picked up the wine bottle and started for the path, the others walking ahead. Stella looked at the tower door as they passed. It was heavy, planked wood, with a plain door handle. The keyhole was set into the circular metal plate above the handle. Something looked familiar. She stopped.

“What?” said Nicole.

Stella walked up to the door and peered at the metal. She looked down at the band on her left arm. “It’s the same.”

“The same as what? The Matcher bands?” Nicole looked puzzled.

“I suppose it makes sense. After all, it’s the Solo’s tower.” Stella hesitated, and then touched the plate gingerly. It felt like the band on her arm, perhaps a little cooler. She turned away and they started down after the others. Amber was out in front, talking to Jules.

“How is your final apprenticeship working out?” Nicole asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Stella kicked at a stone, and watched it roll down the path.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, I like it, and it’s interesting, but it’s such a, I don’t know, unexciting specialty.”

“You mean it’s not glamorous.” The last year of their required schooling was an apprenticeship year, combined with study for the comprehensive exams. Students rotated through a selection of general specialties, narrowing down to one before the exams. Exam passage was the door to adult status, although some specialties required advanced study. Amber was planning to be a doctor, like their mother, and was working in the clinic, Nicole was studying agriculture and land use planning, but Stella hadn’t wanted to decide and was doing General Administration in the Transport Office. GA was a catchall category and was one step above Labor Pool.

“Somehow, I don’t think I’m destined for glamour. No, I wish I really, really wanted to do something; that I was ambitious or passionate about one thing, instead of being vaguely interesting in lots of different things. Like you are, or Amber.” She looked at her friend. “I can remember you lecturing me about the use of sustainable resources when we were ten. You were so involved, so committed. I’d like to feel like that about something.”

“Things might be a lot clearer after the affinity match.” Nicole said shrewdly.

Stella didn’t respond. She was embarrassed about idealizing the match, but she couldn’t stop herself. As long as she could remember, she’d dreamed of the ideal affinity group:  loving and accepting, somehow defining her. She’d have the perfect life. All she had to do was wait.

“It’s a long way to the Match,” she sighed, looking at the band with the white Candidate mark on her arm. “Over nine months.” Nicole, Amber, Stella, Alexi and two more from their age cohort had all gotten Candidate status within two weeks of each other, just after the previous annual affinity Match. It had been a good party; since about half the settlement either was related, worked with, or was friends with at least one of their families. The Match looked a lot further away now, somehow.

They’d reached the bottom of the hill. Stella and Amber turned up the lane toward home, and the others headed back down toward the village.

“I’m starving, I hope dinner’s early.” Amber said.

“How can you be hungry after a bucket of brill berries?”

“It wasn’t a bucket, and besides, the boys ate most of them. We should have saved some for pie.”

“Not if you bake it, the last pie OW!” A flung stone caught Stella on the side of the head. Amber turned to look at her, and another stone whizzed by, missing her by inches.

“Stop it! That’s not funny, you hurt her!” Amber was screaming at a group of boys Stella hadn’t seen until then. The leader, a lout of about 12, had his hand drawn back to throw again. Stella could feel blood pouring down her neck and she was sick and dizzy.

The leader called, “Give your mother the message!”

“Go away! Leave us alone!” Amber yelled.

“Tell your bitch mother she can’t tell us what to do!”

Somehow, Stella was on her knees, her head down and the blood dripping into the dust of the lane. Amber was shielding her with her body and screaming at the boys — there must have been three or four — Stella could hear their voices yelling abuse.

“What’s going on here? What’s all the racket?”

Stella looked up and saw Martin coming towards her. He saw the blood and started to run. The boys flung their final stones and took off over the rise away from the village.

“Girls, what happened? Stella, how badly are you hurt?”

Amber was explaining, her voice squeaky with fright, she talked over Stella’s head, and then Martin simply picked Stella up and carried her toward the village, blood and all. Amber trotted alongside, white and fearful.

“Amber, I’m taking her to the clinic. Run back to the house and tell your mother to meet us there.”

Amber raced off.

“They were yelling about Mom.” Stella babbled, lightheaded.

“That’s fine, honey, we’re almost there.” Stella could tell he wasn’t listening and it was important that everyone know what had happened. She felt irritated, why wasn’t anyone listening, and suddenly she was lying on the examining table in the clinic, her mother was there, and her head hurt like crazy. She closed her eyes.

#

“You had six stitches, that stone was like a knife.”

Stella was in bed at the clinic; Amber was holding her hand. She felt the bandages on the right side of her head. “Oh no, did they shave my head?”

“Yes, a little patch, but I think your hair will cover it. You should have a nice bruise for a couple of days.” Amber looked her over professionally.

“Where is everyone?”

“At the Council office, filing a complaint. You have to stay here for at least a day, and they won’t let you sleep much, because they’ll have to check you for concussion every hour or so.”

“Great. Can you get me something for the headache?”

“We don’t want to mask your symptoms.”

“Amber, I’m your sister and my head is killing me. You’re not a doctor yet.”

Amber grinned at her and passed over a glass of water and two small white pills. “Mom left these.”

“Thank you.” Stella lay back and closed her eyes. “What is going on? Who were those boys, and why us? We were only walking home!”

Amber said, “The leader was an Ambrose, I think he’s Jules’s younger brother.”

“What affinity is Jules from, anyway? What kind of name is ‘Ambrose’?”

Amber hesitated. “His family isn’t an affinity.”

“What do you mean? Everyone’s family is an affinity.” Stella felt as if Amber was denying gravity or basic arithmetic. Her headache wasn’t getting better.

“Jules says his parents are married, as they did on Old Earth. They don’t believe in affinities or going to the Matcher. There’s a lot of them in the south settlements.”

“Too bad they didn’t stay there. So one of them was his brother? Who are the other boys?”

“Brothers also,” Amber sounded embarrassed, but Stella was too shocked to notice.

“But that’s…four! Four children from a Duo? Okay, not a Duo, a pair. Oh, that’s disgusting.” Population dynamics were basic, elementary lessons taught to every child. The planetary population was small but stable, growing at a controlled rate as their economy permitted. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor because they didn’t have to import food at ruinous galactic prices. They exported wine, coffee and the silk/cotton-like fabric called silton for credits to purchase medical supplies and other items not yet manufactured in the colony, and grew enough food to feed themselves. Each One Replace One was the mantra, so Duos usually had two children, Triads two or three, and so on. Four children was a bizarre number from a Duo pairing. And last names were traditionally chosen by affinity groups to reflect their numbers: most Duos had two letter names. Stella supposed that since they weren’t a Duo, they could call themselves whatever they wanted, but still…

“Actually, there’re five children. Jules has a little sister.” Amber was embarrassed.

“Oh my god. This gets worse and worse. I thought Jules was a little strange—he didn’t seem to know much about the Solos. No wonder. And what was all that about Mom? They seemed really vicious.”

“I don’t know. I told Mom and Martin and they looked angry but they didn’t tell me why.”

Stella shifted on her pillows, trying for a comfortable place for her head. She failed. “Hey, how do you know all this about Jules? We only met him today.”

“Umm. I met him in Edward’s office last week. He’s tutoring him for the comprehensive, since his school in the south wasn’t very good. They haven’t been here long.”

“So that’s why you wanted to go into the village. Of all the boys to pick, some weirdo with a bizarre family!”

“But good looking.” Amber smirked, and Stella laughed. Then she winced.

After she was released from the clinic, Stella had to testify before the village council. She hated speaking before groups of people, and this was worse because the Ambroses were there. Their looks were hostile. She spoke as clearly as she could about getting injured, and the blood, and seeing the boys throwing the stones. The boys were in the front row, with their parents, Bell and Georg Ambrose, glaring behind them. She repeated the boy’s calls about her mother, and saw the looks pass between the council members, although no one explained.

The mayor asked if any of the boys wanted to speak in their defense, and prodded by his two parents, the leader stood.

“We were playing. We didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

The mayor’s voice was very dry and calm. “By throwing stones?”

“We were aiming at the tree. They ran in front of us.”

Stella opened her mouth, and Martin put a hand on her arm.

The mayor spoke again. “And the comments about their mother? Were you playing then?”

“We didn’t mean anything. We were just kidding.”

Georg Ambrose stood up. “Madame Mayor, can I speak?” The mayor nodded.

“We’re all agreed this is a very serious offense, but I think it truly was some childish teasing that got out of line. My son is very sorry to have hurt anyone, but the young lady will be fine. Luckily, she wasn’t seriously hurt. We,” he indicated the boys’ mother, “have agreed to punish our sons for their actions, and we hope the council, and the girl’s…parents, will accept this.

Stella wondered if she’d imagined the pause in his voice. Then she looked at her mother and decided she hadn’t. Martin and Edward looked like stone; her mother looked furious. The mayor and her council put their heads together, whispering. Then the mayor banged the gavel and spoke formally.

“As you have said, this is a very serious offense. As the boys are minors, under sixteen, their parents are responsible for them. The council fines the family two hundred credits, half to be paid into the general fund and half to the parents of the injured girl. You will also reimburse the clinic for her care. Further, each boy involved will be under a curfew and must be home by sunset for the next six months, and each will attend a historical tutorial on colony social and economic practices and complete this tutorial to the satisfaction of their instructors.” The mayor turned to Edward. “Professor Sem, I believe your group has developed such a tutorial?”

“They have, Madame Mayor.” Edward said, blandly.

She turned back to the families. “The council will review the situation at the end of the six months, and reserves the right to extend any measures, should the boys misbehave in any way. This hearing is adjourned.”

“I don’t think that was justice,” said Amber, as they left the council meeting room. “Stella was hurt, she could have been badly hurt, and they just pay a fine? And take a tutorial?”

“Those boys are underage,” Sarah said. “Maybe the tutorial will make them think, and they must know the council decision could have been worse. The entire family could be asked to leave Danner. So the council showed mercy.”

“Yes,” said Martin. “The decision was merciful, but I’m with Amber. I’m not sure we achieved justice and I think any mercy will be taken as weakness. What side are you on, Stella? You’re the injured party. Justice or mercy?”

Stella thought and then said, firmly, “Mercy. As long as I don’t have to deal with any of that family again, I’m satisfied.”

As they walked slowly out of the village a voice called, “Amber? Can I talk to you?” and Stella saw it was Jules Ambrose. He was standing by the last shop, and he looked miserable. Amber hesitated, and then walked over to him. Stella couldn’t hear what he said; Amber shook her head and gestured toward her parents. Finally she grabbed him by the arm and towed him over.

“Jules wants to say something to you.” Amber looked embarrassed but determined; Jules looked even unhappier.

“Mr. Sem, Dr. Sem, Professor Sem, Stella, I, I, I wanted to apologize for my little brothers…and for my father. My brothers shouldn’t have done that, throwing stones. You could, you both could have been really hurt. I’m so sorry.”

Sarah took pity on him. “Thank you for your apology, Jules. It wasn’t your fault, and you aren’t responsible for their actions.” Jules hung his head and mumbled.

Edward said, “Stella wasn’t badly hurt.” Stella opened her mouth indignantly, and Edward made a ‘not now’ gesture. “I’ve missed you in the tutoring sessions and I hope you’ll start attending again. Thank you for the apology. Stella?”

“Thank you Jules,” said Stella reluctantly. They continued walking home; Jules stayed in the lane and watched them. Amber kept looking back.

After they reached the house, Sarah started a pot of coffee, and tidied up the main room. The doorbell rang. Susanna the mayor and her Duo partner Dave Harid came in. Sarah offered coffee and cookies. No one seemed surprised. Stella and Amber rolled their eyes at each other.

Everyone grabbed coffee and sat down. The mayor leaned back on the couch and sighed. “Well, that was ugly. Sarah, when I talked you into sitting on the population committee I had no idea I was letting you in for this.”

“I suppose we should be thankful it was nothing worse.” Sarah was sitting next to Edward. He put his arm around her.

Stella knew she was missing something. “What does the pop committee have to do with my getting stones thrown at me?”

“The Ambroses put in an application for another child. We turned it down, of course, and right now I’m the committee chair.”

“Another—that’s six! They’re joking!”

“They tried a strange justification on historical grounds, based on some twisted history from Old Earth. They’re part of a group, a political movement. This is their third or fourth settlement, and they’ve run into trouble with all those births. The last one was unapproved and the woman had to be compelled to accept an implant. She wanted it removed. The movement calls itself Retro Humana. I found the whole application to be bizarre. So I asked Edward if he’d heard anything.”

Edward said, “There have always been people who don’t go to the Matcher and who don’t go into affinity groups. Not many up here in the north, but there are pockets down south. Well, it’s not a law and it’s never been an issue. But now they seem to be organizing. They’ve been saying the affinity groups are some sort of alien plot by the Matcher aimed at corrupting humanity, and that we should all return to what they are calling ‘natural human pairings’. Duos only. They’ve been doing what we can only call proselytizing in the south and they seem to be getting active in First. Unrestricted breeding seems to be one of their tenets.”

“But why would the Matcher want to corrupt humanity?” Sarah sounded honestly puzzled.

The mayor looked at her. “We don’t know what the Matcher wants or why the Matcher does what it does. We perceive it as benevolent, because the affinity groups feel right to us.”

“And because the Solo, who is the only person in communication with the Matcher, tells us so,” Edward said. There was a silence.

“First has been having some problems related to the Retros. There hasn’t been much on the comm about it but I picked up some rumors when I was there last month, and I asked Susanna to send out a query to the other settlements,” Martin said.

The mayor said, “There’s been a general, gradual increase in violence all through the settlements, at least the ones who responded to my query. Fights, arsons, some conflicts within work units, and some attacks on women. Rapes.”

“Rape!” Stella was horrified. “I thought that was historical, back on Earth and the home planets! Not here!”

“Well, it’s here now. It wasn’t reported on the news, but it’s generally known, at least among the administrators.

“The victims, or the people who report the conflicts are from affinities other than Duos, with most coming from the Quints. I suppose, if you believe that humans shouldn’t be in affinity groups, the Quints would be natural targets.”

Stella was trying to make sense out of this. “So they want the Matcher to set up Duos only? Can it do that?”

Edward answered. “They don’t want us to go to the Matcher at all.”

“But that’s sick. We need the Matcher. How else would we know who our affinities are?”

The mayor spoke. “They want to abolish the affinity groups. But human society on Novi is based on the affinity groups. They want to change our whole world.”