Three small girls raced across a broad green carpet of grass. Their bounding leaps carried them quickly over the lawn and up a hillside sprinkled with buttercups and columbines. They gave no thought to the low gravity; they had been born in this artificial farm colony and knew no other world.
Songs of warblers and thrushes rose from the birches and elms at the base of the hill, where a wooded glen served the sisters as enchanted forest, fairy wood, or beast-filled jungle, whatever their imaginations required.
From the hilltop the children could see their large white stone house with its colonnaded portico and near it the blue-tiled roofs of the barn and silos. Past those, yellow-green rows of tall corn and alternating rows of low, darker green sweet potato vines stretched upward around the curve of their spherical world. Looking like toys in the distance, machines moved up and down the rows, watering, weeding, pruning, under the control of a central computer.
Above them, high and dim in the distance like the mouth of some gigantic monster, a great dark circle marked the access port. The distance was too great to allow them to see, still farther above, the opposite side of the sphere, where a tiny village housed the small number of agricultural and maintenance workers needed for the mostly automated operation of the farm.
In another direction lay a short landing strip waiting for their father’s floater, now berthed inside the airlock ready for his return from a trip offworld. Past the landing strip sat the neat cottage of Jess Sanda, their father’s pilot, and behind cottage and field terraced vineyards rose until their emerald green faded into sage.
After surveying this domain, theirs by dint of their parents’ proprietorship, they turned to play. By authority of her seven years, the oldest sister selected the game. "We’ll play hide-and-seek," she decreed.
The youngest danced around her sisters on tiptoe. "Let me be it. I want to be it! Please, DeeDee."
"You’re too little!" The middle sister focused a defiant gaze on the eldest. "Tell her she’s too little, DeeDee. I should be it!"
"You’re only a year older, Chi."
"But I know how to hunt better. Meri gives up too fast. Let me, DeeDee."
India’s face twisted in thought; her serious gaze fastened on each sister in turn. Meri danced around, crying out, "Me, please, DeeDee! Me!" China stood still, her great brown eyes solemn, like an owl’s.
With the wisdom of Solomon, India announced, "You can both be it. I’ll hide and you both try to find me."
"I’ll find you, DeeDee. I will!" Meri hopped up and down, reddish-brown curls escaping from her blue hair ribbon to bounce around her shoulders.
"But you mustn’t peek, Meri. You either, Chi."
"I never peek!"
"Okay. Close your eyes and count to a hundred. Chi, you count. Meri gets mixed up."
Eyes squeezed shut, China counted in a loud voice. Meri clasped both hands over her eyes. India raced down the hill to a rock formation at the point where the slope leveled off and the woods began. Yesterday, playing alone, she’d bounced a ball into a crevice, crept around a bush to retrieve her ball, and discovered a small hollow-a magical cavern to the imaginative seven-year-old.
China counted faster and faster until with a shout she reached one hundred. Both she and Meri flew into motion. They darted about like swallows, swooping down behind large rocks, flitting from shrub to bush to tree, filling the woods with their laughter.
India wriggled into the hollow and lay snugly curled while the cries of her sisters receded into the wood. The hollow was warm and dark, and India grew drowsy. She slept.
Meri searched for her sister in several implausible places and a few likely ones. A brilliant blue butterfly fluttered by, and the delighted child chased after it, forgetting the game.
China pursued the search systematically, looking for places where she herself would hide, only to discover her sister had not thought as she would. In a shaded brook a brown snake slithered through the shallow water toward a frog basking on a flat rock. China dropped down and, still as a stone, watched the snake approach its prey. Too late the unwary frog saw a flicker of movement in the water. As it leaped, the snake struck, and in a series of slow, ugly convulsions, engulfed its frantic victim. China watched entranced until the hum of a floater drew her attention upward. She spotted the squat, broad-winged vehicle descending from the airlock, its motor engaged rather than gliding to its landing. Her father was back from his offworld journey, and he must be in a hurry.
Snake, frog, and search for India forgotten, China ran from the woods shouting, "Daddy! Daddy! Meri, DeeDee, Daddy’s home!"
Seeing Meri sprinting across the grass already halfway to the house, she called, "Wait for me! Wait!"
Her sister ran on, and China pounded after her as fast as her short, plump legs could carry her.
The floater settled onto the landing strip. Her father emerged, followed by silver-jacketed Jess Sanda, his pilot and friend. Her mother ran out from the house. While Jess unloaded carryalls and a large trunk, her father and mother embraced and walked arm-in-arm toward the house. Meri met them as they ascended the steps.
"Daddy, you’re home! Daddy, you’re home!"
Riccard Terrano lifted his smallest daughter into his arms and kissed her. China reached them, and he lifted her, too, and carried both daughters into the house.
"Daddy, what did you bring us?"
"Did you bring toys, Daddy? Where are they?"
Their father laughed and set the girls down. "Yes, I’ve brought you something. Not toys, though. Something better. A grand surprise!"
He was smiling, but their mother’s face was grave. She turned away.
Their father looked around. "Where’s India?"
China clapped her hand to her mouth. "Oh, Daddy! DeeDee’s still hiding. We never found her!"
India awoke to the nose-wrinkling smell of damp ground. She tried to stretch; there was no room. Her cramped muscles ached, and she did not at first remember where she was. Frightened by the eerie quiet, she wondered if she was dead. She’d had a puppy once that died, and her father had buried it in the shade of an oak, and she’d made a little cairn of rocks over it. For a panicky moment, she thought she’d been entombed like the puppy.
Then she remembered the game of hide-and-seek. Her sisters had not found her. She did not know where they were. If they were lost, it was her fault.
She crept from the cave and blinked her eyes in the sudden light. India had no idea how long she had slept. Frightened at not seeing her sisters nearby, she went into the woods to hunt for them.
She spied a footprint in the soft mud of the creek bank, found a blue hair-ribbon caught on a bush.
She called out, but no one answered.
She ran blindly, hot tears scorching her cheeks, sure some awful fate had befallen her younger sisters.
She raced through the woods, emerging on the far side.
A stranger stopped her headlong dash, grabbing her shoulders with his big hands. "Whoa, little girl! What’s your hurry? Something wrong?"
She squinted through her tears at a tall man with a long face and large ears that stuck straight out. He was no one she recognized, though she was familiar with the workers in Montparaiso.
"Who are you?" she asked, regarding him with suspicion.
"A friend of your father’s," he answered, reassuring her with a smile.
"I can’t find my sisters," she said. "And I’m s’posed to be taking care of them."
"How did you lose them?" the stranger asked.
She answered without hesitation; in her short life she knew all adults as friends and protectors. "We were playing hideâ€‘and-seek and I hid and they didn’t find me. Now I can’t find them."
"Your sisters probably got tired of the game and ran off to join your brother."
She looked at him in surprise. "We don’t have a brother." Her tone expressed indignation at his foolish mistake.
"Oh, no brother, hmm? How many sisters do you have?"
"Don’t you know?" She gave an impatient toss of her head. "You said you were my Daddy’s friend."
"I guess I forgot," the big man apologized with a sheepish smile. "Let’s see; your name is... ?"
"DeeDee. Well, India, really, but everybody calls me DeeDee. My sisters are China and Meri-that’s for America."
"I see. And you’re the oldest?"
She nodded. "I’m seven, China’s five, Meri’s only four."
"Ah. And what of your brother?"
"I told you already I don’t have any brother!"
"Sorry, I forgot. Silly me!" He laughed, his upper lip curled high over his gum so all his teeth showed.
She put her hands on her hips. "Well, are you going to help me find my sisters?"
"Sure. Let’s look for your sisters." He reached for her hand.
"DeeDee! DeeDee! Where are you?"
Her father’s voice! And China echoed the call, "DeeDee, where are you?"
She jerked her hand away from the stranger. "My Daddy’s home! He’s calling me!"
She wheeled around and ran toward her father’s voice. The stranger passed from India’s mind, replaced by her excitement at her father’s return.