"Chief? You okay?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah." Ulith, his latest reverie effectively shattered, stopped looking into space and started paying attention to the computer screen in front of him. He had no idea how long he'd been supposedly staring at an error message before Haralin noticed, and he guessed he ought to fix the problem. Unfortunately, he cleared the message too quickly to see what it was about. Damn. Maybe he should have just taken the day as sick time; being there wasn't doing anyone a whole lot of good.
"Um, chief?" Haralin persisted.
"Mmmm?" It was a typo in the code he had just written, something he simply didn't do, and when he did, he caught it. This day was really not going well.
"Your shift ended ten minutes ago. Let me take over."
"Skrat. Let me fix this section." Ten minutes? It wasn't unusual for him to stay longer than that, but there was generally something to do besides blank out.
"I can do that," said Haralin. "You need to be somewhere else."
Ulith turned to look at her. "What for?"
"For everybody's greater good," she said, dragging over a chair from the nearest station. "You've been somewhere else all day and it shows. You think that's the first typo you've made today? I'm going to be spending the evening with the code checker to make sure nothing melts down in the next few days."
He couldn't find an answer, because there wasn't one. He could apologize till the sun turned blue and it wouldn't change anything. The code would still be riddled with errors, Lesana would still be pregnant, and both would still be his fault. "Sorry," he said anyway, because he was. "If I don't snap out of it by tomorrow I'll do the place a favor and stay home."
"Good idea," said Haralin, and leaned closer. "Is it anything I should know about?" she asked quietly.
"No," said Ulith. "It's just personal stuff."
"Oh. All right." Haralin started the checking program. "I just thought it might be stuff from Central because of Lesana and the meeting this morning."
"Hate to disappoint you," he said, standing. "You want me to get you some food or something?" Eating or drinking in the computer halls was ordinarily forbidden, but he felt responsible for her being there.
Haralin shook her head. "With the way this day's been going, I'll drop it straight in one of the machines." She pantomimed inserting something in a disk slot, and he couldn't help but laugh.
"Okay. Good luck."
Ulith didn't realize until he was halfway there that he was heading for Lesana's rooms instead of his own. It was a good idea, he decided; he had hoped to get a chance to talk with her earlier that day, but after the initial barge-in, she had made herself scarce. He wasn't sure what he would have said, but it would probably have been something along lines of apology. If he had known she had managed to remain so uneducated about things reproductive, the whole situation could have been avoided. It might be difficult to obtain pharmaceutical birth control, but simpler, more concrete methods were more widely available. They'd been using those with no apparent problems ever since, but it seemed not to have mattered.
If the situation hadn't seemed so painful for her, he could have been happy. They'd never discussed the subject of familythis early in the relationship, it had just never come upbut he knew, and had known for a long time, that he wanted one. Lesana, never having had a family that could have passed for normal before the riots, couldn't be expected to know what she wanted. That this had happened now seemed like someone's idea of a cruel joke, and he was almost expecting to be the victim. But either way, he knew he couldn't force his opinion on her any more than he could stop loving her if she decided not to go through with the pregnancy. As much as he felt ready, they owed it to any baby to both be ready, and to want it beyond question.
She was there when he got there, something he hadn't expected. It took her several knocks to answer the door, and he was about to leave when she appeared, a book in one hand and a pear in the other. "Hi."
"Oh, hi." Ulith looked for something greeting-like to say. "Um. You look busy."
"Yeah, I went to Myrithe's todaysorry, come inand I'm trying to get a head start on this magic lesson she's going to give me tomorrow." Lesana waved him toward a chair at her table and settled in the one opposite it. "I have food for you too, if you want it."
"Uh, sure." He didn't know what had caused the change in her attitude from that morning, but neither did he want to disrupt it. "I thought you were learning from Ranell."
"I am, mostly," she said. "She's the one who suggested I read up on this stuff." She turned the open book around and held it out so that he could see. Surprisingly, it wasn't magical, but technical; the page she was on dealt with a small group of intermediate industrial chemicals and the changes they caused in water and soil. "We're trying to find out if we can clean up Jarrinn."
"You mean with magic?" Ulith asked. It was a good idea, or would be if it worked.
"Yeah, a land purification spell." Lesana pulled the book back. "Ranell thinks it might help if we know what we're trying to modify the spell to deal with. Of course, she doesn't know the spell either, so this may be all for nothing."
"You're going to do magic." He didn't bother making it a question, since he knew the answer would be affirmative.
She didn't seem to have understood. "Lesana."
"I know." She looked up from the book, fixing him with a look he privately called the Gaze of Authority. "I know what you're getting at, and I'll find out if there might be problems. Don't worry, I'll be discreet. With luck I might not even have to ask anything. But it's such a simple spell I don't think anything can possibly go wrong. And one way or another, we are going to do this."
"Yes, but" He stopped, afraid of what he might say.
"I said, I'll find out," Lesana repeated. "If there are going to be problems, I'll just have to figure out if I want a baby or a spell."
"Promise me something." Her eyes told Ulith to go on. "If you know there will be problems, don't do the spell."
Lesana looked down. "I can't promise you that."
"Then end it first," he said, and she raised her head. "Not knowing if you want this baby is all right. But if you're going to just not make a decision, don't gamble with someone else's health while you wait for the answer to come. Because if it doesn't, if you just wait until you can't decide anymore, it'll be hard enough if nothing goes wrong." He paused, collecting his words and his resolve. "I don't want to see us locked into something we don't have the strength to finish."
She stared at him for a few seconds, blinking, and he wondered if he might have brought up something she hadn't considered. "Okay. If I'm sure that bad things will happen, I'll abort."
"And you'll tell me?" Ulith asked. "Whenever you decide. I'll go with you if you want." He hoped it wouldn't come to that, but if it did, she would need him whether she knew it or not.
Lesana nodded. "Okay."
"Thanks." It wasn't everything he wanted to say, but neither had she said what he wanted to hear. But he trusted her. Sooner or later, she would know what she wanted, and maybe then he'd be able to talk to her. He hoped it was sooner, but if he had learned one thing from working with her these last few years, it was patience. He only hoped she wouldn't need more time than she was giving herself.
The energy connecting Myrithe's fingertips to the earth winked out, and she folded her hands again in her lap. "Thus is it done," she said, and glanced at her students. "Who will try now?"
Lesana looked over at Ranell, who shrugged. Great; neither of them wanted to try. Lesana suspected that most of it was fear of failure in front of a living legend. She stifled a sigh and leaned forward. "I'll try it," she said.
At Myrithe's nod, Lesana began carefully sprinkling her handful of purified sand in a circle on the ground in front of her. It contrasted palely with the sunbaked gray-brown soil in Myrithe's corner of the ruins, more so with the damp earth of the nearby vegetable garden. As she drew, she willed herself into the state of calm necessary for magic. When the circle was complete, she felt the power waiting, a spark at the bottom of a deep well within her. Focusing on it made it fill the well, overflowing just as she touched two fingers to the earth at the center of the circle and spoke the release-Word that Myrithe had taught them. She didn't let a lot of power go, but just enough to connect her, too, to the earth. When she lifted her hand, she could see it, a faintly glimmering braid of energy, spun by the Word into the strands she would need for the working.
Lesana visualized the pattern of energy-strands that Myrithe had made, and the threads at her fingertips wove themselves flawlessly. She felt them change as they sank into the ground, felt them spread in an orb spider's web that seemed made of roots. As they grew, she felt an odd thrumming, not unpleasant, in the hand she held inches above the ground. Then the threads nearest the surface reached the bounds of the sand circle, contacting soil both foreign and pure, and abruptly flared bright, then disappeared.
"Well done," said Myrithe, as Lesana was shaking her hand to get rid of sudden pins and needles in her fingers. "Atya Diym?"
"Huh?" she said, looking up, afraid she'd missed one of the ritual phrases that Myrithe seemed to insist on using, and finding to her relief that nothing more was happening than Ranell beginning the spell on her own patch of ground. Now she remembered Myrithe referring to her as atya beforeatya Lesana, actually, and only in written correspondenceand remembered guessing that it was some kind of honorific for "student." Diym must be Ranell's last name, she decided; not having one of her own, she didn't often think of other people having them.
"That made my hand buzz," said Ranell, when she had finished the spell.
"Mine too," said Lesana, noticing Myrithe's look of surprise. "Is it supposed to do that?"
"It never does to me," said Myrithe, thinking. "But that does not . . . wait a moment." She spoke a Word and looked at them for a few moments, and Lesana was seized with fear that the other woman would see her as a blurry shape through the spell, the way she herself had seen Tama not long ago, and know what it meant. But Myrithe only smiled. "Of course. Both of you are attuned to the earth. I should have looked before we began, and then I could have shown you how to keep that from happening. Watch."
The difference in the pattern was minute, a twist of two of the strands before beginning. Myrithe's demonstration pattern didn't last after that, under the combined circumstances of already-purified ground and being cast by a non-earth person. They each took more sand and repeated the spell, this time with no tingling. "What are you attuned to?" asked Ranell when they were through.
"The water," she answered. "As, I suspect, is your friend Tama. It would help greatly if she were able to join us, but that will not be possible."
"Because it would hurt the baby?" asked Lesana, feeling her pulse quicken and getting irritated. She wished her body would stop acting as if it knew something she didn't.
"More because of her strength," said Myrithe. "Her ability is far smaller than that of any of the three of us, and the amount of energy we will be handling would be too much for her. If she had a greater capacity for the energy, and if she is truly water-attuned, the balance of natures would help us, but as it is, I would never ask her to put herself, and yes, the child, in danger that way."
"What kind of danger?" Lesana asked, hoping as Myrithe gazed at her that if she looked concerned, it would be taken as concern for Tama.
"The energy would overload her," Myrithe explained. "If she recovered, she would not be able to use magic again, and she would almost certainly lose the child as well."
Lesana found herself unable to speak, and barely able to hear Ranell's question. "Would we be in danger of overloading?"
"Not enough to worry about," said Myrithe. "As with Powers, a mage must far overstep her natural limits for harm to result. We three are close enough in those limits that the weakest of us will not be permanently harmed by the amount of energy the strongest can handle. We may even benefit from it."
"You mean raising our limits?" asked Ranell.
"Impossible," Myrithe said. "I mean that we may be purified as well, after a fashion. Once the energy has been shaped, the spell begins to travel backward along the threads. If we continue the working for long enough, and use enough energy, we may find ourselves free of infections, or splinters, or any number of other things."
"So it would return you to your natural state," Ranell summarized. "Like it does with the earth, or the other one does for water."
"It may," said Myrithe. "I can only remember it happening once, and not to me. The person in question was trying to cast when he had a head cold . . . "
Lesana only half heard the story. She laughed with the other two at the end, but her thoughts were hovering over what Ranell had said. Natural states were fine and good, but if it came to that, whose would win out, hers or the baby's? She couldn't bring herself to ask, even knowing that neither one would ever pass on the information, or think worse of her for not knowing which outcome she would prefer.
Lesana jumped forcefully enough to make her hair swing. "Yes, ara?" she responded automatically, realizing that she had no idea what she'd been asked.
"We are about to begin the lesson on combining," said Myrithe. "Are you feeling well enough to join us?"
"Oh. Right." She dragged enough of her attention away from her own situation to listen, and to respond when it was appropriate. This time, she couldn't forget.
"We began by casting the purification spell on normal ground," said Lesana, looking as if she hoped the council would believe her. "Then we practiced combining our abilities, and casting small spells together. After that, we started to experiment."
Ulith listened, wondering how much of his thoughts were worry and how much fascination. He had to assume that she'd either asked or just found out that there were likely to be no harmful side effects, but the idea of magic was unnerving in itself.
"First we poured a simple non-toxic dye on the ground, in a spot about five ticks in diameter." She slid a piece of paper toward the center of the table; stuck to it were three photoprints. "The one with the blue is right after we poured the dye. The one with the hand is during the spell, and the clear ground is after. It's still wet because the spell doesn't remove water."
"Whose hand is that?" asked Beriali, standing up to get a better look.
"Myrithe's," Lesana answered. "You'll notice the clear space in the middle of the patch. I took that picture a few seconds after she started the spell, and by the time the camera was ready to take another, it was done." The dye had been reduced to a ring Ulith estimated as being just under two ticks wide. "She said it took only a little more energy than a patch of ground the same size with no dye."
"Could that have been because she'd been casting already?" asked Corran, the chief medic. "Fatigue?"
"No," said Lesana. "Not that soon, anyway. The spells we were doing today were too small to cause fatigue. I'm willing to bet that under normal circumstances, Tama could have done everything we did today and not gotten tired."
"That depends on what else you did," said Tama with a grin.
"Well, I don't have any pictures for the next one, because it wasn't something you could see," said Lesana, pulling the paper back. "We wanted to find out if organic impurities were easier to remove, so since the dye was plant-based, we used window cleaner for this part. We couldn't see it vanishing, because it's not colored, but we could smell the difference. It was gone, everything but the water. But it took more effort for the same size patch."
"How can you be sure it was completely gone?" Beriali wanted to know.
"I brought back samples from every patch we tested," Lesana told him. "Corran?"
"Some of the medtechs are working on them," said the medic. "They should be done a little after we're through here. Some of the reagents are a little hard to come by in a medical lab, so we're having to make do with some substitutes. Only problem is, they take a little longer to get results."
"Anything so far?" Ulith asked.
"The last thing I heard before coming here was that the dyed ground wasn't showing traces of dye, and there wasn't any window cleaner in the dirt from that patch," said Corran. "They said they'd probably get through with one or two of the others while I was here."
"What were the others?" asked Tama. "I'm curious."
"One of them was roller fuel," said Lesana. "It didn't take very long to get rid of that, since it's organic. But when we used the fuel along with a solution of two dilute acids, it was harder than the window cleaner."
"So more different things mean you use more energy getting rid of them," said Tama. "It makes sense."
"How did you decide what compounds to test?" asked Corran.
"Ranell did that," Lesana answered. "She knows more about chemistry, but the labs at the Stronghold are apparently not available for personal projects, so we had to bring the samples here. We used the easiest chemicals to obtain from the database of raw materials, intermediate products, and final products for the industries that were based in Jarrinn."
"So you had a lot to pick from," Ulith realized. "Did you make sure none of the combinations would be dangerous?" She probably wouldn't appreciate his making this personal, but he had a right to ask.
Lesana stopped just short of glaring at him. "Ranell assured me that we wouldn't be creating a miniature toxic cloud," she said. "There's always the chance that she was wrong, but I'm choosing to trust her work."
"What were the other combinations?" Tama asked, flicking her eyes toward Ulith in a gesture he guessed was either comprehension or reproach.
"Here," said Lesana, and produced another sheet of paper. "Sorry I couldn't make copies, but I was too busy trying to decipher Ranell's shorthand."
Beriali laughed. "Oh Mora, the memories of chem lab."
Corran was pointing to a line of text near the bottom of the page. "This one looks like the most accurate depiction of the kinds of mixtures you're likely to find," he said. "Not too many different compounds in one area, but the ones that are there reacted with each other."
"At least it didn't take the longest," said Tama. "Probably because of the reactions reducing the number of substances." Ulith looked at her incredulously. When had she learned chemistry?
"That's what we thought," said Lesana. "That was why we did the last one specifically not to have any reactions. It was hardest, just like we thought. And just to make sure fatigue wasn't a factor, Myrithe did a patch of plain ground at the very last, and the time was only point-two seconds slower than the first trial."
"So, then we've been briefed," said Beriali. "What exactly are we voting on?"
"First, whether you're in favor of an attempt, or series of attempts, to use this procedure to clean up Jarrinn," said Lesana.
"And I assume second is whether we authorize it to be done immediately," said Ulith. He stared at Lesana until she stood and snapped the experiment report back into her hand.
"Right. First vote?" She stared back, challenging.
"I can't vote on this until I see the results of the tests," said Corran, looking a little nervous. "If it works, I'll authorize it."
"That sounds like the best plan," Tama agreed. "I think it can wait another few hours."
"Which would mean it would end up waiting until tomorrow," said Beriali. "Unless we have an emergency meeting, which I can tell you right now I'm not going to be able to make."
"Hot date?" Corran inquired.
"Always." It seemed to be a long-standing joke between the two of them, almost as firmly established as Beriali's romantic attachment to his fellow diplo Kestryn.
"All right then." Lesana didn't look disappointed, but determined. "You've all heard where the situation with the manufacturers stands. Are there any objections to holding the second part of the vote now?"
"It hardly seems necessary," said Tama. "If we have to meet once the results are in, it shouldn't hurt to have the entire vote then." General head-nodding spread through the room.
"Oh." Lesana seemed to deflate a little. "Okay. Is there any other business?"
"Not that I can think of," said Beriali. "After all, you called this meeting."
"Right. Then, meeting closed."
Ulith didn't leave with the others. As Tama was leaving, casting an unreadable look at both him and Lesana, he rose from his chair and closed the door after her, then turned to face Lesana. She was still on her feet, still looking as though she wanted a fight. "Needing a council vote to do what you want doesn't mean you get to herd us into letting you do it," he said.
"What else are we going to do?" she asked. "You heard Beriali. It's now or not."
"And why do we have to do this?" Ulith countered. "There are other League installations close to Jarrinn. They could handle the negotiations."
"They could," said Lesana. "But they'd get the same answer from the factories as we did, and they'd be in the same lock. No single League installation has the resources to do what the factories want, and even if we teamed up, the compensation they're offering isn't enough. And I don't know of any League group that will agree to a deal that isn't fair."
"So what you're saying is that since we have resources the other installations don't, we should use them. Fair enough." Ulith sat on the table. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Stop playing games," he said. "You said you learned spells. Did you ask first?"
"No," said Lesana. "Myrithe said something about not being able to ask Tama for help, and it turned out the only thing about the spell that was dangerous for her was that we'd be using too much energy for her to handle. And I didn't cast the combining spell."
Ulith didn't know whether to be relieved, and thought of a reason not to. "So if you do this spell, the three of you, is it possible that you might use too much energy to handle?"
"No. The spell takes so little that the only reason we're combining at all is to increase the area we can clean at one time."
"What about fatigue?" he persisted. He wanted to make sure she thought of everything. "If you wear yourself out"
"Then we end the spell," said Lesana. "Look, I know you don't want me to do this. But it's not as if I can ask anybody else to take my place."
"I know, I know." Ulith looked down. "I just . . . I worry about you, kacha."
"Kacha?" Lesana echoed, staring at him. "When did I get that important to you?"
Before all this, he thought. He hadn't meant to say it, but it was still true. "You've been my heart longer than you know," he answered. When he looked over at her, she was struggling for words.
"Iyou" she said, and put a hand to her forehead. "This is just so awful," she whispered.
Ulith was off the table almost before he knew it, taking her in his arms. "Yeah, it is," he said into her hair. He wondered if she would ever find out what he felt about it, then decided that was impossible. She might feel the same at some point, near in the future or far, but it would be different for her. The questions she had to wrestle with were deeper than his, rooted at the center of her being. She had always filled that place with the dreams and work of rebuilding; it was a wonder that anything else had been able to take hold. But now that they knew it could happen, maybe a different kind of rebuilding could be part of the future. Ulith knew what he wanted, and he knew what he needed; and for now, at least, he had both.
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.