Lesana straightened up, wiped her mouth with a tissue, and reflected that this was not an auspicious way to begin one's day. In fact, she thought, spitting, it was enough to make one downright murderous. And she knew exactly who the victim would be.
First, she thought, she ought to be sure. She brushed her teeth for the second time that morning, gargled for a while in a futile attempt to get rid of the taste in her mouth, and straightened her hair, then set off for the medic bay. A little while later, her anger revived by the sheet of paper crumpled in one fist, she went on to the computer halls.
The computer techs disappeared so fast as she went by that she wondered if there really was a storm cloud over her head, the way comic pictures showed. The thought of rain near the equipment would frighten any comptech more than the sight of their top commander in a temper; they were probably used to that. This time, they seemed to know it was personal.
She found Ulith in the room with the bank frame, surrounded by techs. Great; she'd interrupted a staff meeting. Well, skrak it. She plowed through the techs, grabbed him by the arm, and prepared to drag. He surprised her by not resisting; maybe he wasn't too dumb to realize something wasn't right, after all. He followed her docilely out of the room, only pausing to call a "Meeting closed" back to the techs, and out of the halls into an empty meeting room. Then he stopped. "Is it from Central?" he asked, closing the door.
Lesana looked stupidly at him. "What?"
"That print," Ulith said, indicating the paper in her hand. "Urgent news from Central?"
That should have made her madder, but strangely, it seemed to be having the opposite effect. Damn him for being observant. Damn him in general. "No. It's from the medic bay."
"Is somebody hurt?" The concern on his face was still melting her anger, and she couldn't make herself do anything about it. "Is Tama all right? Did something"
"Nobody's hurt," Lesana interrupted, trying to work her nerve back up. The problem with losing that angry fire was that it took her courage with it. "And everything's fine with Tama as far as I know."
The moths in her stomach threatened a repeat performance, but this time, she held on. "I'm pregnant."
The look on his face was exactly the sort of shock she would have loved to have seen about five minutes ago. Now, she almost felt sorry for him. When he got back to a point where he could talk, he asked, "Are you sure?"
That brought back a little of the anger. "Why do you think I went to the medics?" she asked, thrusting the paper in his face. He took it, flattened it, and read. Not that I wasn't sure enough after losing my breakfast for three days running, she thought. "They're guessing about three weeks ago. The actual beginning that is."
Ulith looked up, his eyes glazing in thought, then stared at her. "But that would mean"
"Exactly." She'd already done the math. Until a few days ago, she honestly hadn't thought it was possible the first time a couple slept together; and the unpredictability with which her weeks arrived made caution in timing nearly impossible anyway. "Makes me wonder what happened to the girl who told me that couldn't happen."
"Ha." Ulith set the paper down, looking off into the distance. "I wonder more what Central's going to say."
"Skrat." Lesana hadn't thought of that yet, and decided not to. "Probably the same thing they said about Tama."
"That's a special case, though," Ulith pointed out.
"And the leader of one of the Points isn't?" Lesana returned. "I mean, you're alive and everything, but you're not really involved in this right now."
"Who says?" he demanded. "Who says I can't get involved if I want to? It takes two to make a baby, Lesana, or didn't you know that?"
She hadn't expected this kind of reaction. "So you're involved. What exactly do you plan to do?"
"Be here," he said, his voice softer. "Stay around. No matter what you decide to do."
"What do you want to do?" she asked.
Ulith looked down. "If it were me," he said, "I'd keep it. But it's not."
"It's half you," said Lesana, looking down as well. "But I don't know what I want to do." She felt his arms around her shoulders, and returned the embrace. She had the feeling that she'd be happier for the support later. "I think I should talk to Tama."
"I think you're right."
"I can't tell you what to do," said Tama, as Lesana had known she would. "You know what I picked. Starak, so does everybody." It was true; at four moons in, she didn't really have a belly yet, but she was normally so slender that she'd had to start wearing hastily-acquired larger clothing sooner than most women. At least that won't happen to me, Lesana thought. Being sturdily built was apparently an advantage in this, even for those shorter than average.
"You had different reasons," said Lesana, hoping Tama wouldn't misinterpret that.
"That's not why I kept him and you know it," said Tama. She didn't really know the baby's sex, but she preferred anything to saying "it." "This is not a souvenir."
"I know," Lesana protested. "I just mean you had more things to think about." She was going to have to learn to watch herself even more closely, and soon.
"True," Tama agreed. "At least you know you can always try again."
"Which begs the question: would I?" When Tama didn't say anything, Lesana continued. "We weren't trying. You know that. I'm not the motherly type, you know that too. Starak, I don't even know how to be a mother. Beyond the obvious, that is."
"So you're wondering if you'd ever choose to have children on purpose if you chose not to have this one," Tama concluded, and Lesana wondered if her friend was reading her. Not being emPowered herself, she wouldn't be able to tell. "That's something else I can't answer."
"I don't think I can either," said Lesana. "I mean, I've never thought about it. Seriously, at least. Is that normal?"
"What, not thinking about having a family?" Tama leaned back in her chair. "It better be. I wasn't really."
"Yeah, but so many people do, think about it that is," Lesana said. "Even Irina wanted kids at our age."
"She still does," said Tama. "But she can't have them anymore, and Ranell won't."
Lesana hadn't heard that particular piece of information before. "They can have mine," she said.
Tama laughed. "Don't be so sure."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I've said the same thing, probably dozens of times," said Tama. "But I still find myself doing everything you're supposed to, and following all the silly superstitions just in case. I think that's how you know if you really care."
"Guess I'll find that out soon enough," said Lesana. By her own estimation, she already took pretty good care of herself, but improvements were always possible. Superstitions, though, were something she didn't know whether to take seriously. That was when she remembered. "Oh, Mora, I have to tell Central."
"Yes, you do," Tama concurred. "Either way."
"Yeah, but I don't want to tell them now."
"You can wait, can't you?"
"I probably could," Lesana thought aloud, "but the longer I wait the less they're going to like it. Especially with that reprimand." Five years of spotless service, they'd said, and the reprimand would disappear. Unfortunately, spotless meant following the rules to the letter, or having a damn good reason why you hadn't.
"Well, they probably won't make you summarize your financial position," Tama told her. "Or talk to one of their morale people." That was what Central had asked Tama to do when they'd heard she was pregnant. Lesana hoped they wouldn't ask the same of her, but she would be ready if they did.
"I think they'd be more worried about whether I can still do the job," said Lesana. "Which is stupid. If I'm fit to farm, I'm fit to run this place. And we both know how many babies are born in the fields."
"Right. But I think most of the reason they wanted all that stuff from me was because of Yaren. If he were alive, or if" Tama paused, pressing one hand to her mouth. "Damn it, I almost made it that time," she said shakily, with a bitter half-laugh. "Anyway, if I'dwe'd known before the whole thing happened, it would've been different, I think. This place was just so busy I didn't even notice I'd missed my week."
"Well, if they do ask, I'll inundate them like you did," said Lesana. "I'm mostly worried about telling the world." It was the worst of luck to announce to the world at large that you were going to have a baby until it began to show, but it didn't look like she was going to be able to escape that whether she was keeping it or not.
"Do what I did," Tama suggested. "Have Corran tell Central. It's part of his job too."
Lesana slapped her forehead. "Mora, how stupid can I get?" Of course the chief medic would have to report interesting medical happenings among the staff. "Thank you!" She realized, too late, that she was sounding concerned, and hoped Tama wouldn't comment.
"It does still feel like I was doing the announcing, though," said Tama. "I mean, the whole point of not telling is that nobody thinks you're bragging, and I'm certainly not running around saying, 'Look at me, I'm going to have the most beautiful and perfect baby ever conceived on this planet.'" She closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly. "I wouldn't even say that if I hadn't done all the stuff I did when I didn't know."
Lesana kept quiet. The "stuff" Tama had done was the reason nearly everyone in the installation seemed to be worried about her. In those first few critical weeks, when she either couldn't have known or hadn't noticed, she had overtaxed her Powers several times, once while using Power enhancement machinery whose effects on the unborn were a mystery; and she had made her first attempts at true magic. As if that weren't enough, she had also been through the nightmare of seeingin her own unique way, through her Powers, and as a result also feelingthe death of her lover and the baby's father, Yaren. It was a miracle that she hadn't already miscarried under those circumstances.
"But there's nothing I can really do about that now," Tama continued. "Except be twice as careful."
"You, on the other hand," said Tama, "don't have anything to worry about beyond those little bits of magic you've been doing."
"Which we have no way of knowing the effects of until we see," Lesana said. And which I'm going to stop, as of about an hour ago, just in case, she told herself.
Tama didn't comment. Her eyes might not be of any use to her, but she knew how to make them look through a person. She had had that talent as far back as Lesana could remember, and she'd known how to use it, too.
"I guess I just need time," said Lesana. "I don't need to make any decisions right now."
"That's a start," Tama agreed. "Just make sure you know when you decide. Most people make decisions pretty fast, they just take forever to realize it."
"Well, I haven't made one yet." Lesana wondered if her thoughts were saying something else. She hoped they would tell her if they decided without her.
After Lesana left, Tama stayed on the couch. She was flattered that Lesana had trusted her with this news, especially so soon. Of course, it might not be news in a few days; she honestly couldn't tell which way it was going to go. She wondered if someone looking at her mind the day she'd found out would have seen anything definite.
She had found out by falling down. Fainting was a better word; she was still embarrassed that she'd gotten through the machine demonstration only to keel over three days later on the way to her office. Don't you know you're supposed to slow down? the medic had asked when she came to, lying on one of the beds in the medic bay. I'll be fine, she had answered, struggling to sit up. It's just overexertion from the teaching. The medic had looked at her with puzzled concern. No, she'd said, I meant because you're pregnant. And that had come close to making her faint again.
She had been more worried that she would choose the right thing to do, for the wrong reasons, than that she would make the wrong choice. Keeping the baby as a reminder of Yaren, or getting rid of it because she was simply afraidthose were wrong, to her mind. She knew she could support a child as long as she had her current job and credit stipend, and with the bonus the League granted to families, she would have even less trouble. And she knew she would love whoever the baby turned out to be, so the choice had been clear, no matter who its father was.
The doubts came later, when she remembered who the baby's mother was. She had already thought about what might have gone wrong as a result of her questionable activitiesquestionable even in regard to her own healthand decided that if something were terribly wrong, she would have lost the baby. What began to worry her was the thought that she didn't know how Powers were inherited, or whether her blindness could be. Suppose this child couldn't see at all, with eyes or mind? What kind of future would he or she be able to have, and could she herself be strong enough to help it happen? And would you get the blame for it later? a voice in the back of her mind asked. Is that it? You would deny both of you a chance so you can be sure of what you regret?
She was sure, now, that this had been part of what Central had been hinting at when they asked her for the report. That, and the lingering prejudice, even after all she'd done, that she was in some way incapable. They wanted to see if she would break under the strain, as a test, to find out whether she could still do her job with another life competing for her attention and hormones playing havoc with her emotions. Still, she was glad she hadn't tried to read between their words, choosing instead to send them, on paperlots of itas detailed an account of her financial, medical, and job status as the installation could produce. Combined with the interview by one of Central's personal morale people, in which she had been pronounced completely normal, it had been enough.
Tama looked at her clock, the only uncovered one in the installation with its glass faceplate deliberately removed rather than missing or broken. It was nearly time for her appointment in the roller bay, but she didn't want to get up, and not just because she didn't like being heavier. She didn't know how this meeting would turn out, but she knew she had to go. She owed someone an explanation, and he was going to get it. Probably, she thought, standing, one look should be enough.
Roller bays all look the same, Vance thought. The bay at the Stronghold was more or less a smaller version of the one here at Moyann. This place felt almost too big. He was glad he and the team had been able to take one of the rollers with a side door, so he hadn't had to be half dragged out a top hatch in full view of everybody. That was one of the few things that still embarrassed him, at least in front of strangers.
Apparently, the techs had been notified that he would be accompanying the team of enhancement machine specialists on this trip, since there had been a ramp waiting for him when the roller door opened. It was a pleasant surprise not to have to use the collapsible one he'd brought, which always made him uncomfortable with its shakiness. He did wonder when the Moyann people had put theirs together, though; most of the other kinetic machine techs were either strong enough to walk under their own Power or only partially paralyzed, so there wouldn't have been an occasion. The rolling chair he used was easier to move than he was without it. He had learned the same walking technique as the rest of the Board's kinetic slaves, but the effort of simultaneously bracing his entire body upright and coordinating forward movement of his legs gave him headaches, and he wasn't strong enough to make it look anything other than jerky and unnatural. The Board researchers had thought he was stronger, a true candidate for full severing; they'd been wrong.
Vance scanned the bay, looking for anyone he knew. The last time he'd been here, he'd talked mostly to the techs and his fellow emPowered from the Stronghold, but he had also spoken with a few of Moyann's people. He was sure he was more recognizable than they were, but he didn't see any and no one seemed to see him. Then he caught sight of a face he knew, and started rolling toward it.
He didn't know what it was about Tama that had caught his attention the last time. It had started as pure fascination with the strength of her Power, but after meeting her, it had changed to something else. In the week after that meeting, he had seen her lose her lover to an alarmist's bullet, then bounce back to reveal her sight-Powerand its associated blindnessto the world. And he hadn't been able to give her any more help than a warning. He'd tried, later, to open correspondence with her, but she hadn't answered. The more he thought about it later, the more afraid he was that the letter had sounded different to her than it had to him. He would have to find some way to ask her, without being obvious, if she thought he had been trying to romance her. Then he got close enough to see her clearly, from head to feet, and for a moment all he could do was stare.
She looked different from the last time he'd seen her, and he found himself wishing that last time could have been less distant. She was more womanly now than girlish, if such a change could have happened in a few months, with more curves than angles. He noted the most striking of the curves with concern; he could only guess what her emotions on the subject must be. Then her mind-voice twinkled in his head
Yaren's? he thought, lowering his shields and forming the word carefully.
Vance tried to think of something else to say. She seemed to be on the defensive, though he didn't know why. You look good, he thought at last.
<Thank you. How exactly do you mean?>
She couldn't send emotions, but he still realized that it had been another wrong thing to say. He fumbled for the right words and didn't find them. I, you know, I meanit suits you.
Tama flicked her eyes heavenward and slouched to one side. <I swore the next time somebody told me that I'd scream.>
<How am I supposed to scream at someone who can honestly say I look good when I've got acne and somebody else's ugly clothes and I look like I've got a melon under my shirt?> she asked.
Vance couldn't help it. He laughed, not caring what she thought he was laughing at. "Not even half a melon," he said aloud.
"Right now." She came closer, looking much more at ease. "I thought you'd be by sooner."
"I thought you'd be by, period." He rolled up to meet her. "I was beginning to think my message hadn't gotten to you."
"Oh, I got that. The paper was beautiful, by the way. Thank you."
Then why didn't you write back, the back of his mind wondered. It had taken him hours to press those designs into the paper without tearing it, and three previous sheets had gone to feed the recycler. Aloud, he said, "You're welcome. What brings you down here, anyway?"
"You," Tama said. "I heard you were arriving and came to meet you."
"Thoughtful," said Vance. "My turn to say thank you."
She shrugged. "It was the least I could do after ignoring you so thoroughly. But, well, what with all the testing and training and finding out about the baby . . . "
"You were mired," he said. "I understand. Are you relatively un-mired right now?"
"For a while."
"Would you be open to going somewhere and talking?" he asked. "I think I remember where the cafeteria is."
Tama made a face. "Sorry. It's a little early for my stomach to get bombarded like that."
Of course. He searched for something to say "Uyah. I hope that stops soon."
"Me too. How long are you staying?"
"A few days, I think. Long enough to test the latest configuration our guys have come up with, find out how close it is to the piece of the machine they're trying to duplicate. I'd be looking for my temp quarters, but I don't know where they are. Probably on the first floor."
"You'd think, wouldn't you?" Tama smiled. "We do have lifts, though."
"Oh. That's good." He didn't much like them, but it was better than hauling himself up stairs. "Do you know who might know where you've put me?"
"Where in starak is she?" Lesana growled, hitting the sequence of buttons on the handheld again. Three-two-five-send. Static. She waited again for Tama to pick up, for as long as the set would keep trying. "I just talked to her, for Mora's sake."
"I heard Hanar say she was asking where that guy Vance's temp rooms were," said Beriali from the doorway.
Lesana dropped the handheld in surprise. "How long have you been there?" She hadn't said anything touchy in the last few minutes, but to know who she was trying to reach, he had to have been there for a whileand she hadn't noticed him at all. Silent observation was a desirable skill in any head of diplomatic relations, and this was all the proof she needed that Beriali was very good at it. Still, she'd better start paying attention to the world again soon, or people would start ransacking her office while she was wrapped up in conversation with herself.
"Just long enough to know it's Tama you're looking for," he said. "You looked busy, so I waited."
"Oh. Okay. Hate to think I kept you waiting forever." Lesana hoped she didn't look too nervous. "You wanted to talk about the Jarrinn project?"
"Yes." She waved him into the chair he was eyeing, and he began. "You know we just finished talks with the new factory owners in Shara. They want to expand, but the only place they really like is Jarrinn."
"Makes sense," said Lesana. "They could salvage a lot of equipment." Jarrinn had been a major pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing center before the riots. The majority of the supplies used in the actual bombings had come from there, before splinter groups had decided to blow it up too. The result had been tons of toxic compounds loosed on the soil, air, and water, a mess that the League had been working to clean upif it was even possiblesince its founding right after the Peacemaking. Recently, there had been reason to celebrate, in the form of perfectly healthy grass growing where it hadn't before, near the outskirts of the blasted areas. Tests had been showing lower and lower levels of contamination over the years, and the most recent results indicated that some parts of the city could be fit to work in, if not to live in, sometime in the next few years. If the League could take back Jarrinn, it would be a major victory. But if that were to happen, they would need the cooperation of the industries that had once been based there.
"The only problem is, if they move now, they'll still be endangering their workers, by which you know I mean our workers," Beriali continued. "We don't have the resources to send people in protected, but the corp people are saying we're not going to get their help on that if they don't get ours first."
"So who says we have to do this now?" Lesana wanted to know. "It was only some patches of grass, for Mora's sake."
"I know, but like I said, they want to expand," Beriali explained. "And they aren't in a position to do it now, but they need to start laying the foundations if they're going to be able to grow when they can afford it. The way they see it, it's our choice whether to get involved, but if we don't help raise their barn"
"They're not going to help us with ours," Lesana finished. "I assume you laid out the facts."
"And suggested several compromises," said Beriali. "We offered a salvage operationthey provide the protective gear and tell us what they want, we send the people, we help set up new facilities somewhere safe with what we get. They didn't want to pay for moving the equipment. I said if their people did the salvaging we'd pay for the moving, they said they didn't have enough people. I don't doubt all of it is true, but they're being incredibly bullheaded about wanting everything now."
"So round and round it goes," Lesana summed up. "The trades were simpler." The old post-riot system of trading labor for living necessities had been no such thing, and she knew it. Getting one's hands on something one's employer didn't directly produce had required mind-bending amounts of trading, both actual and hypothetical; and no one had been able to do much more than subsist when overtime and raises were paid at least partly in perishable goods. Of course, it had kept most corporate interests from interfering when the rebuilding efforts had first begun, since they couldn't provide incentive either when money consisted of potatoes and candles.
"I almost agree with you," said Beriali. "But truthfully. Do you have any ideas?"
"Aside from whacking them over the heads and dumping them in the nearest river?" Lesana buried her fingers in her hair. "Not yet. I'll think of something."
"I don't know, I kind of like the river plan," said Beriali. "But you do know we can't use it."
She had to ask. "Why not?"
"The water would wake them up."
Lesana had to laugh, even more so with the deadpan delivery he gave it. This kind of banter reminded her of Yaren, even from someone taller, bulkier, and older. "I'm leaning toward pushing the salvage, though, seriously," she said when she could speak. "They might be able to build on the outskirts, but I'll be damned if I let anyone, skrat-heads or not, stay in that toxpit for the long term till it's not a toxpit anymore."
"We're lucky it's on the coast," said Beriali. "The ocean can't absorb everything, but it's better at it than the underground rivers." No one liked it, but if there were few ways to clean up the land, and that was stationary, it was even less likely that something much larger and perpetually moving could be detoxed.
"And we're lucky the water sanitation is up to old standards now," Lesana added. "I can't imagine having to let my kids drink the stuff we used to get, if I had any of course. Kids, not the seven-years' water." She realized that she was babbling, to Beriali's mild interest, and stopped. She also realized that she'd managed to forget about being pregnant for the entire time they'd been talking, until that moment. If he'd noticed anything, he would probably ignore it like the diplomat he was.
"You did it, you're alive," he said. So had almost everyone else, but they weren't there at the moment.
"Yeah, because I was always somewhere I could make a fire and boil it." An idea came to her then, but she saved it for a later meeting. "Anyway, you said Tama was looking for Vance?"
"Yeah. Want me to ask where he's staying?"
"Please, if you're sure it's not too much trouble." She squashed suspicion of why he was offering as pure paranoia; there was no way he could know. "Thank you."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.