She didn't know a lot. Most of what she did know was history, about the city-destroying riots that had happened long ago, during which she had been born. She had learned to steal and hide, and later to work, read, and write, but not until recently how to think critically, be friendly, or love. She could grow food but not cook it, and repair machinery but not operate it; she could think through any problem given enough time, but the times tables beyond six were still a divine mystery. She knew that her parents had cared for her, but she always tried not to think about the day they went to get food and never came back.
The rest of what she knew was what she saw, not with her eyes but with some other sense somewhere above her heart. Using it was as natural as breathing, with a feeling like a lifting out of whatever was in her, and bringing it up to her head. She used it when she met someone new, to feel what they were like beyond the range of her other senses, and usually managed to keep it from being noticed.
Her world was dark and noisy. People ran in and out, speaking to her, their voices triggering the other-sense that had no name, and she felt them and saw them in her mind, hearing their thoughts, when she chose to, as clearly as she heard their voices. And the thoughts she heard, she remembered. Most of them were trivial, but the important things she filed away for safe keeping. She remembered so much that her childhood friend Lesana had remembered her and brought her to the rebuilding committee meeting two years ago. When Lesana and the other two members of the head committee of the Moyann Hotel Installation had found out what else she could do with her mind, she had quickly become indispensable, and she had been there ever since. Sometimes it seemed only a few days; other times it felt as if she had been there forever.
Then there were times, like now, when she felt both ways. The entire head committee had been awake for days on end, or, at the very least, felt like it. They were trying to deal with the one problem they had never encountered before: resistance.
"It's stupid," Lesana said for the third time. "We're trying to help them."
"Maybe they don't want help," Ulith answered for the third time. "Maybe they just want to live without anything special."
"They didn't call it special," Lesana argued. "It waswhat was it?"
"Evil, or something," yawned Ulith, downing the last of his cold varala. He grimaced as his chair squeaked in protest at being scooted back, but went resolutely to the machine for a fresh cup. "Tama, do you remember?"
Tama smiled, both at the sounds of Ulith's varala addiction and at the repeated conversation. "I remember you two having this discussion twice earlier."
"Twice?" echoed Lesana, stunned. "I must need sleep more than I thought."
Tama heard Ulith's varala mug land on the table and faced the sound, moving her eyes in an approximation of focus, as she had learned to do long ago. "They called it evil, yes," she clarified, "but one of the more educated ones told someone in the diplomacy committee that technology was a destroyer of self."
"And have you told us this three times now?" asked Lesana.
"No." Tama fought the urge to smile. "This is the first time you asked me."
"Now there's something I don't believe," said Ulith. "We always ask you."
"I think you must have been in a trance," Tama suggested, "or you thought it was a dream."
Lesana shook her head, then winced and pressed a hand to her forehead. "Good Mora, I have to stop doing that."
"She's right, though," said Ulith. "This is anything but a dream."
"A nightmare," Lesana agreed.
"So now helping people is a nightmare?" Tama inquired.
"When you've been at it this long," muttered Ulith.
"And nobody knows how to help themselves," Lesana added. "And the ones who do are too scared to do it, or they don't want to have all their conveniences back, or they think they're" she seemed to twist the word "evil."
"Yeah." Ulith looked almost as irritated as Lesana. "How in the world could anything be evil just because it has a lot of wires and microcircuits andand stuff?"
"If you were from some back-city area that never saw anything like it before, I imagine you might think it was the work of evil spirits, or whatever they believe in now," said Tama. "They still think the rioters were embodiments of evil out to destroy everything. After twenty years, no less."
"That's right," said Lesana, remembering. "Your parents thought that, didn't they?"
Tama nodded. "They were afraid that someone would take me away and eat me, I think."
"Looks like the subject is getting boring," Ulith remarked, carefully sipping his steaming drink.
"Why?" Tama and Lesana spoke in unison.
He pointed. "Look."
Tama looked, and felt fatigue coming from Ulith and Lesana, fatigue so strong that it obscured their thoughts. As for the fourth presence at the table, she was getting the curiously null feeling that meant unconsciousness.
In short, Yaren had fallen asleep.
Lesana giggled, uncharacteristically. "I wonder what he's dreaming about."
Ulith spoke through a smirk. "Tama, probably."
Tama started, having just completed a look at Yaren's dream and found its subject to be exactly that. "Somebody had better wake him up before I join him."
"We all need rest," Lesana agreed, standing up and pushing in her chair. "I hate to wake him up, though."
Ulith had no such reservations. Putting his mug down, he shook Yaren by the shoulder, interrupting the first good snore yet to escape. Yaren jumped, blinked, and immediately sat up straight, looking slightly guilty.
"We woke you up to go to sleep," said Lesana, apparently by way of apology. "We just need your input on what to do about the resistance first. That's all."
"Just stop helping them," said Yaren. "That's what they want." He yawned.
"Glad you agree with us," said Ulith dryly. "Do you think we ought to talk to them?"
"So they don't stop us from helping people who want it?" Yaren looked thoughtful. "Do we have the people?"
"Um, Yaren," said Lesana, caught between pity and laughter, "you're the diplo."
"Oh." Yaren, looking properly chagrined, thought for a moment. "I think we do. How would we get them there?"
"We have to send a big roller out there to bring the crew back. We may as well send a diplo force too. The big ones have enough room," Tama suggested.
"So if it's that easy, why did it take us so long to decide?" Yaren wanted to know.
"Because you kept putting it off till we were too tired to think straight," Lesana informed him. "Now go, all of you. I'll take the orders to the diplos and the roller driver in the morning."
"Are you sure it isn't already morning?" groaned Yaren.
"Go!" Lesana commanded. "And I don't want to see any of you awake for at least ten hours. Oh, and meeting closed."
Tama stood up, feeling for the door and finding Yaren in her path. "If you keep standing there I might walk into you and not notice."
He bowed deeply and opened the door for her, following her out into the hall. He made sure that Lesana and Ulith had gone out the far door of the meeting room before closing his door behind him.
"They left?" Tama asked him.
"They left," he affirmed.
"Good. Oh, Mora, I have a headache." She leaned against the wall, one hand to her brow. Yaren moved closer behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders.
"It would be easier if you'd just tell them," he said softly. "They might"
Tama spun around. "They might decide I was a liar and a cripple, and if they decided to keep me here all of them would try to help me all the time. I saw it happen to one of my friends. After the building fell" She paused, swallowing hard, and pushed on relentlessly. "She had no legs. They acted as if she had no brain, no will" She made a dismissory gesture with one hand. "I refuse to let them pity me."
She felt Yaren's hand on her shoulder again. "Will you let me help you to your room?"
Something within her sagged, and she slumped back against the wall. "I will let you walk me to my room," she said, slightly stressing the change.
Yaren smiled, knowing that she probably wouldn't be looking for it and wouldn't see it. Putting one arm around her shoulders, he walked with her down the hall.
A few paces away from the door, Tama reached for his free hand and caught it. "Sorry I was overreacting. I do that when"
"When you get tired, yes, I know," Yaren finished. "You never told me that story before. About your friend."
"The subject never came up. I keep it from coming up whenever I can."
He nodded knowingly. "You have lots of stories like that, I bet."
"I have so many stories I doubt I could ever tell you all of them."
"Was that a should-I-believe-her 'Hmmm,' or an I-want-to-hear-all-of-them 'Hmmm?'" asked Tama.
"It was a we're-almost-to-your-room 'Hmmm,'" answered Yaren. "Although the others have distinct possibilities."
"So when should I plan to tell you all my stories?"
"Some other time. Here we are." He opened the door and nearly switched on the light before remembering that it was unnecessary.
"You always do that," said Tama, leaning against the doorframe.
"Try to turn the light on."
Yaren rolled his eyes. "Pardon me, your highness. Just trying to keep in practice for appearances' sake."
"I should never have told you," said Tama.
"And then where would you be?" he demanded. "You'd have had some kind of a breakdown or something and then they'd all have known sooner or later, me probably even sooner anyway. Thatsenseof yours is strange. They'd either have ignored you to death or smothered you like you said."
"It is strange," she acknowledged. "But I doubt I could live without it."
"Live like you do, you mean."
"Of course. Being here, being part of the assistance, things like that."
"And naturally you know everything about people."
Tama smiled, a sight Yaren had seen too little of lately. "Naturally. And I know you should go to bed. Now."
He tried to look injured, not knowing whether she would catch it. "Fine, then, I'll go. Good night."
It was Tama's turn to look injured. "Without a kiss?" she asked petulantly, looking him not-quite-perfectly in the eyes.
Yaren sighed. "All right," he agreed. "But let the record show, you asked for it."
When the kiss ended, Tama took a tiny step back into her room. "Good night. Sleep well."
"See you tomorrow." Yaren smiled and turned to go down the corridor.
Tama was silent as she listened to his retreating footsteps. Then she went into her room, closed the door, and did not bother with changing to her bedclothes before counting steps to the bed, collapsing upon it, and falling almost instantly asleep.
The next morning, or at least quite some time later, she awoke to find someone in her room, sitting on the end of her bed. Looking deeper, she recognized the person. "Lesana. Good morning."
Lesana's voice was grim. "I wish it were."
Tama sat up, instantly awake. "What happened?" she demanded, looking even as she asked the question.
"The diplo force was hijacked," Lesana informed her. "They hadn't even gotten to the resistance headquarters. Whoever did it, they took all the money and supplies and killed the whole force. Kestryn barely got back alive to tell us."
Tama had not looked quickly enough, so the last came as a surprise to her. She had had some trouble picking out a pre-echo of her friend's words, and had been forced to scan for recent concerns. That sort of mental disturbance rarely happened to anyone, and even more rarely to Lesana. "There is more. Finish it."
Lesana did not answer for some time. When she did, her voice was heavy with grief. "Laric was in that group."
Tama paled. Now she understood. Laric was, or had been, Lesana's best friend in the world for almost half their lives, and her lover for a brief period that hadn't worked out. He had also been one of Tama's friends and her only student in the mental arts, but still not nearly so close as he had been to Lesanaor, she remembered, to Yaren.
"Whoever did this will pay," Lesana continued tonelessly.
Taking a quick peek, Tama grasped her friend's hand. "They will pay," she agreed, recoiling at the shockwave of pain and fury sliding into her from just that touch.
"I'm sending a fight squad to the area. They have orders to destroy all the buildings and bring the resisters back with them."
"You sent another big roller? We only have one more." Tama was less concerned with the rollers than with the state of Lesana's mind.
"I sent two small ones." Lesana's voice was still dull and lifeless. "One a while ago with the force and a full portable weapons array, one just now with a skeleton crew to bring back whoever's left alive."
"Lesana!" Tama tried to project sense into her friend's mind, but there was too much interference for her small talent in that area to be of use. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
"No, I wasn't!" snapped Lesana. "I don't want to think anymore. I've been thinking too much throughout this whole thing. That's why we haven't gone anywhere. We have to act, and that's what I did."
Mind racing, Tama tried to think of a way to get through. "Would you be doing this if Laric was alive?"
"How would you feel if it was Yaren who died?" Lesana shot back.
Tama tried desperately not to think about that, or the damage she suddenly knew she would have to do in order to get through. "Worse than you. But my point is not who died. Because of you, more people are going to die for even less reason than Laric. And killing them is not going to bring him back."
She felt Lesana collapse, as if a string holding her up had been cut. "It's too late," Lesana said dully. "The force is there by now. I can't recall them. I can't stop it."
"Then forget it," Tama told her, not knowing what else to say. "Forget it all and find out what happened after everything is over."
Even to Tama's other-sight, the face that Lesana lifted was haggard and filled with a terrible light. "How many people will be feeling like me before the day is over?"
The feeling of held-back tears came to Tama without her looking for it. "Just let it play out. Let it all go."
Lesana considered. "I think I'm about to cry now," she said, the effort of speaking calmly distorting her voice to a squeak. "Please don't tell them."
"Believe me," Tama assured her, gathering her friend into her arms as the sobs began, "no one will care."
After Lesana left, it was a while longer before Tama left her room, and when she did, everyone she met in the halls asked her had she heard? and she answered them with a nod, or, less often, a spoken Yes. One of the people she met was Ulith, and she stopped him and asked the time.
"I should've known you'd ask," he grinned, still feeling somber behind it. "It's thirteen by the sun, one by the shadow. And if I were you I'd eat before I got called into council."
"Is Lesana calling council again so soon?" she asked, amazed both at the time she had spent in conference lately and at the seemingly superhuman powers of recovery Lesana possessed.
"She expects to hear from the force she sent any time now," he explained. Undercurrents of concern, oddly colored, swirled through his thoughts. "We were told to be ready. I'm more worried about whether she is. You had heard about that, hadn't you?"
Tama grimaced, not just at the inevitable question. "I think I was the first to hear. And remind me to thank her for being so thorough next time I see her. Is the cafeteria any good today?"
"Varala's good," said Ulith laconically. "I don't pay much attention to the rest."
"So I see," remarked Tama dryly, having felt out the full mug in his hand. "Do you at least know whose turn it is to cook?"
"It was supposed to be one of those diplos that got killed, the one that used to make those hot sandwiches, I think," said Ulith. "And in any case, I have a roller overhaul to supervise, and you have a date with the cafeteria."
"I should go," Tama realized, and went.
"See you later," Ulith called after her.
She found Yaren in the far corner of the cafeteria, and sat down across from him. He barely noticed her. She cleared her throat loudly, and he jumped so that he nearly knocked over his glass of water. He felt insubstantial, half there, and he sounded it as well when he asked, distractedly, "Have you"
"Yes, I heard," Tama interrupted, not wanting to be rude but getting a bit tired of the new standard greeting. She realized almost instantly how big a mistake that was, and, deciding she couldn't do much else of use, waited.
It was a while before Yaren said, "Laric was my friend."
The hurt in his voice stabbed Tama as deeply as the dullness from whence it came. Again she waited.
"I know I have no right to get upset," Yaren continued. "I mean, Lesana'swascloser to him than I could ever hopeor wantto be, and she's alive and functioning. You taught him how to use that mindreading thinghe saw everything about you, Tama, and you saw everything about him, and you're all right. But I was just his friend, and I'm" He floundered, trying to finish his sentence.
"You are as upset as you have every right to be," Tama finished it for him. "How close you are, or were, makes no difference. Sometimes nobody knows why people react the way they do. But he was your friend, and not just any friend. He was your best friend."
"My best friend," Yaren echoed blankly.
Tama felt she had to say something. "He was my friend too."
And that, surprisingly, was enough. She watched Yaren focus himself inward for a brief, intense moment, and then turn every bit of that focus outward. There was still the same pain underneath, but she could feel a part of his thoughts turning towards it, nibbling off infinitesimal amounts to deal with one at a time. And he reached for her hand, and only let it go to surreptitiously wipe his eyes.
"Azmid! You're not coming in clear!" Lesana shouted into her handheld. "Have you found the resisters?"
There was a burst of static that made Tama wince. The things had never worked very well, especially over long distances, but even with the help the government had finally been able to give them after so long, they were all there was.
"Azmid! Turn up the interference!" Lesana yelled. "The interference!"
"I hear," crackled a voice from the set. "It's not Azmid. This is Haralin."
"Haralin!" Lesana exclaimed. "What happened to Azmid? Where's the fight squad?"
There was a pause. Then Haralin spoke again, static nearly obscuring her voice. "They destroyed the wrong target," she said.
Lesana blinked at the set. "Repeat?"
"I said, they got the wrong target."
"I don't know. We just found them coming back, with no force, no resisters, no record of any fighting at all in the equipment logs, no apparent malfunctions. They told us they'd succeeded and wanted to know why we were there."
Lesana had passed the handheld to Ulith. Now he spoke into it. "You said they had no equipment failures?"
"Yes, sir. That's exactly what I said. Everything normal. No malfunctions."
"Put Karstel on."
A moment later, a different female voice came through the set. "Karstel here."
"There were no equipment problems?" Ulith reiterated.
"No, sir, there weren't. Everything is in perfect working order on the roller."
"That's impossible," Ulith said flatly, standing up. "Double-check every wire. I want to know who did what to that roller, and how."
"We're ahead of you, chief," said Karstel. "We've got that roller as far down to its guts as we can on the road here and there's absolutely nothing wrong."
Inspiration seized Tama. "Let me have that," she demanded, reaching and feeling for the set. Once she had it, she spoke into what she knew was the sender end. "Let me talk to Beriali." Strictly speaking, he was part of Yaren's department, not hers, but he was the only one she knew would understand what she had thought of.
There was a scuffle, and a burst of noise. "Beriali here."
"Tama. Have you talked to the roller crew since you found them?"
"Beyond that they fulfilled their mission?" asked Beriali. "No. That's all they'd say. Why?"
"None of them has said anything about the details of the mission? Nothing at all?"
"Nothing." Beriali seemed puzzled. "We called as soon as we got off the road and started looking at things. We ran into them about an hour ago and nobody's really been talking to them. But you know, that was worrying me too."
"Talk to them," Tama instructed. "Find out what they know. It may not be the machines, it may be the people."
"You think somebody messed with them?" A note of fear crept into Beriali's voice. "Like got into their heads?"
"Maybe," said Tama, trying not to let her distress at Beriali's attitude come through. "We need to find out." She handed the set back to Lesana.
"Got that, everyone?" asked Lesana.
"Yeah," said Beriali, presumably for all three. "Got it. We're off."
"Off too," replied Lesana, switching the handset to standby mode. "Good call, Tama."
"Only doing my job."
"I thought your job was to comfort them when they got back," said Ulith, smirking.
"Why wait when I can help before they have time to brood it any deeper?" Tama asked.
He sipped his everpresent varala instead of answering.
Yaren spoke for the first time in the meeting. "What made you think the people might have been tampered with? Do we even know if it's possible, at the distance they must have been at?"
Tama shrugged. "Even if the machines are working, they serve no purpose if the people working them are impaired somehow. If they thought they were doing what they were instructed to do, the equipment could have been working the whole time and no one would be the wiserif that were the only place we looked. As for how it might have happened, your guess is as good as mine."
"I'd hate to think it was one of ours," said Ulith. "Then again, I'd hate to think theirs, whoever they are, could get to us at that distance. Or know we were coming."
A few tense moments later, the handheld let out a high-pitched whine. Lesana picked it up, switching it on with a practiced gesture. "Base. Who's this?"
"Beriali. I just talked to the leader of the squad. He has no idea how they got turned around without ever capturing anybody or looking to see if any of the first crew was alive somehow. The funny thing is, when I kept asking, he remembered attacking the empty building they got to, but not why. He keeps saying he feels like it was all a dream."
"You're talking about Azmid?"
"Yes. He wants to talk to you."
"Put him on." Lesana looked at her small council, tension warring with curiosity on her face.
"Azmid here. Lesana, we all think that somebody put us up to this. The demolition fair we ended up putting on, that is. One minute we were halfway to the resistance, the next we were on a different road going somewhere else and thinking we'd done what we were supposed to do. Turns out somewhere in the middle we smashed an old building to bits and then headed back. If we hadn't met the other roller we'd have been back now reporting victory. And it took them a starak of a lot of asking to jog our memory on that much."
Lesana was silent for a moment. Then she asked, "How bad did you hit the building?"
"Pounded it to powder," Azmid said.
"That's all. Put the roller back together and come back. Off."
Lesana let the set clatter as it hit the table. She stared at it for a moment, then stood and spoke.
"Well, my friends," she began, as if addressing the full lower council, "it seems we have something here that no one knows enough about to be useful. And," she added with a sick look, "until we figure it out, a lot more sleepless nights."
The other three were too weary to groan.
Tama hated running. Whenever she had to sprint down the halls, it meant keeping a lookout for anything in her way, constantly, for as long as she was running. It reminded her of the way she had operated when she was very young, before she had learned how best to use her other senses. She was still unsure whether pity or simple self-awareness had driven her to learn to look as if she were like everyone else. At any rate, she disliked depending on any one sense, and her sight was her least favorite crutch.
As she ran toward the roller bay, she wondered what it was that required her immediate presence. They never got so insistent about simple debriefings, so it had to be more than that. She dodged a few medics and went through the door to the bay.
Ulith met her as soon as she came through. "I was afraid you'd never get here," he said.
"So was I," Tama retorted. "What is this?"
"We hate to say it, especially for the second time in what's probably technically a day, but we don't know," he admitted. "The rollers came in and one of themwell, look for yourself."
Tama followed him to the roller, resting her sight and navigating by his footsteps. When she heard him stop, she stopped as well. "What is it?"
"I can't tell you, I don't know either," said Yaren's voice, startling her. She flicked out her sight to confirm that he was really there, then smiled at him and shut it off.
"This piece looked fine till we hooked it up to a tester," said a womanHaralin, Tama remembered. "Now when we turn it on, look"
There was a click, and an audible gasp from Yaren, who said, "What the starak is that?"
Tama looked, but saw nothing in the testing machinery before her that seemed amiss. Then, with a sinking feeling, she realized what had to be going on.
There was something printed on the tester screen, something other than the numerical readouts she knew were supposed to be there. She could not read print on screens, because she could not see colors. Handwriting, signs, printed booksall had slight differences in shape because of the way they were printed, and that she could feel. Computer-screen letters showed up level and blank.
She flicked her eyes toward Yaren, trying to catch his notice. When that didn't work, she hissed at him, as tiny a sound as she could risk anyone else hearing. Finally, in desperation, she mustered her mental strength and spoke into his mind. <What does it say?> she asked in what was probably a whisper compared to other people's abilities, and saw him jump in surprise.
He was still quiet for a time. "Somebody wants us," he said when he finally spoke.
Tama waited for him to give her the rest, as he always did.
Yaren snickered. "We're a word, I guess. Yarentama."
She stood still. Was that what was on the screen? It had to be. But their namesa word? "In what language?"
"Nothing alive and close to ours," Yaren assured her. She trusted him; in addition to being a diplo, he was also something approaching a polyglot. "I've never heard it before."
Yarentama. "Well, I think we have no choice but to think of it as a message, but it seems pointless to worry about where it came from. As for the language, the people who sent the message must know something about it, if they might not speak it. And," she said, "either this is a cry for help, or" She gulped, and she and Yaren spoke together.
"They want us."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.