"No, you are not going to see this 'them,' and that is as final as it gets," said Lesana, leaning toward Tama and Yaren across her desk. "They've killed our people, they're holding our crew hostage, they've confused our forces. What will they do to you?"
"I don't think that's the issue here," said Yaren. "If they wanted to kill us they'd have done it."
"They have to have had a reason for what they did to the roller," Tama added. "I just want to find out what it is."
"If they have a reason, we'll find out without risking both of you. For all we know, in their language, 'Yarentama' means 'leave us the starak alone.'" Lesana folded her arms. "You're not going."
Tama and Yaren exchanged expressions. This was not quite the reaction they had expected.
"If you have anything to say," Lesana continued, "I advise you to say it later. You can go now." She sat back down, purposefully ignoring her co-workers. Yaren and Tama looked at each other again, then left.
"Why do I feel like a laddel?" asked Tama when they were some distance down the hall.
"A laddel. A big dumb beast that stares and is scared of its shadow."
Yaren laughed. "We'll get her to let us go. Wait a while. She'll see our point."
Tama nodded, then sighed. "And in the meantime, more waiting." She felt out, to see if Yaren was as underwhelmed as she was by the idea, and found something entirely different.
"I know how we can keep from getting bored," he said slyly.
Tama let herself grin. "I think that would do it very nicely."
"You two sure took your time," Ulith remarked as Yaren and Tama skidded into the computer halls.
"Not in getting here," Tama panted.
Ulith processed their disheveled appearance and decided not to comment yet. "When that screen came up saying Yarentama, I knew I'd heard it somewhere before. So I ran it through the bank frame."
"And did you find anything?" Yaren asked, following him down the hall to the room that housed the bank frame.
"If I hadn't, I wouldn't have interrupted you two in the middle of something important," Ulith grinned.
Yaren rolled his eyes. "If you must know, we hadn't even gotten to the middle."
"Oh, thank you. I'll sleep better tonight knowing that." Ulith stopped by a monitor, checked its display, and moved on. "I made prints for you both so that you can hold on to it. Here." He reached into a printer basket and extracted two pieces of paper, handing them each one.
Tama immediately switched to her most sensitive sight and scanned the paper. There was nothing on it, and soon she became aware of Ulith's laughter.
"My printers aren't that bad," he joked, gently taking the paper from her and turning it over. "It's on the other side."
Tama ignored the flush creeping into her cheeks and scanned again. It seemed that Yarentama had been the battle cry of a group of rioters near the center of Vioda, who had begun the whole thing and then mostly left it to their hangers-on. No one else, as yet, knew what it meant, or if it had a meaning at all.
"So they only ever said it in Vioda," mused Yaren.
"Right, that's why you two never heard it," Ulith agreed. "Then again, you were either too young or not even born yet when it happened, so you wouldn't remember it at all. I was only ten. I'm surprised I remembered."
"Strange things bring back memories," said Tama. "And this also means that whoever these people are, they must be connected with those original rioters."
"Or they might be the original rioters," added Yaren.
"Or they think we are," said Ulith, "and they're trying to get us to respond."
"But they could have said any of that straight out," said Tama. "It might be a code word, but one would think they might have something more private. And why else would they say Yarentama unless" She broke off, knowing the end of that sentence.
"They want you. Right. Well, unless I get more input, they're not going to get you," Ulith stated. "I'm not going to deliver two of my friends into the waiting arms of some old rioters with big plans. You want a roller, you buy it. I'm not signing you out for one till I know what's going on."
Tama looked at Yaren, whose distaste was plain. "That takes care of that."
"I don't know how!" Lesana yelled into the handheld. "Just do it, now! Off!" She slammed the set down onto the table and sagged against a chair, nearly sitting on its back. "Ulith," she declared, "is a saint."
"More Yarentama?" queried Yaren.
Lesana groaned. "Mora, yes. It never ends. Get one thing up and running, and something else shuts down and starts blinking Yarentama at you. We're being haunted."
"By what?" Tama couldn't resist asking. "Ghosts?"
"The ghosts of the rioters," intoned Yaren, "whose grisly remains . . . " He was at a loss. "Whatever," he finished listlessly.
Tama giggled, and even Lesana cracked a smile. "If I believed in ghosts, I'd be inclined to agree with you. But they don't exist. And they certainly can't get into machines."
"I bet Ulith's ghost could," Yaren snickered.
"Ulith is not dead!"
"If you don't quit that both of you will be," growled Lesana, hand over her eyes. "What can we do about this?"
Tama felt just good enough to try her luck. "We can go see these people," she said, feeling out as she spoke, and picked up an explosion.
"I told you we weren't doing that!" yelled Lesana. "And I already said that's final! What is it with you two that you can't get that through your heads?"
"How else do you want to try to figure out what this is all about?" Tama retorted.
"You said the two of us couldn't go," said Yaren suddenly. "What if I went by myself?"
Tama gasped. "Then I say no!"
As Lesana was opening her mouth, the handheld crackled. "Lesana. Pick up."
Lesana pounced on it. "Lesana here. What's new?"
"The big roller's back," said Ulith.
"I told you already, I don't know!" said Haralin, sounding dangerously harassed. "It just came rolling in all by itself, nobody in it, all clean and fixed up, and absolutely nothing wrong. I just don't know."
"We're taking it to bits, of course," called Ulith, poking his head out the top of the roller.
Haralin ignored him. "If we find anything, we'll let you know."
"Do the big rollers have the same kind of part in them that made the tester sayyou knowthe first time?" asked Tama.
"It's probably not going to matter now that we've got this mess on our hands, but yes, they do," Haralin informed her. "Those are the first things we checked. They're all clean."
There was a sizzling, electrical noise from inside the roller, followed by a stream of eyebrow-curling curses.
"He's not having much luck, I take it," said Yaren.
Haralin laughed. "That's just him. He says stuff like that when things go right."
"Tell me about it." Lesana rolled her eyes.
"Probably spilled his varala," Yaren said under his breath.
The roller clanked a little, and the sound of heavy things hitting the floor came across the roller bay. The noises were followed closely by a bellow of "What the starak is that?"
The entire bay waited, listening as there were some shuffling sounds, then silence. Then Ulith yelled again, and this time there was no mistaking his intent. "Tama! Yaren! Get in here!"
They nearly scrambled over each other and Lesana in their haste. Tama let Yaren go first, so he could move anything nasty out of her way. Once he was up the outer ladder and into the hatch, she hurried up and dropped in.
Ulith was dragging a piece of wire-trailing equipment out of a wall. "I was looking for those other bits when I found this. Somebody put it in the wall behind some processors. I don't know what happened to the stuff that used to be where it is, but it looks like the roller's doing fine without it, which is a little weird. But look what this machine does." He punched a button on the side of the device facing them, and things must have been happening on the screen of the machine, but Tama couldn't see it. "It's wired into our communication lines. Every time we call somewhere, boom! this thing sends a little present along the lines and there's Yarentama blinking at you. And the virus looks to be" He fiddled with the keys a bit and peered at the screen, lips moving silently. "Yup. It replicates itself and sends it on. Every place we've contacted from a terminal that had the virus, boom! Yarentama. Probably the only reason the handhelds and the like don't have it is they don't have any way of saying"
"We know, we know," said Yaren. "And how exactly did you figure this out so fast? Magic?"
"Luck," Ulith admitted. "The first key I hit brought up the code. I think it's supposed to be edited right on this console, with some kind of condensed key set" He broke off, realizing that he was the only one who knew or cared what he was saying. "But that's what it was."
Yaren knelt by the machine, pointing to one corner of the screen. "What's that?"
Ulith shrugged. "I don't know. It didn't change when I hit the buttons. Some kind of graphic."
"It's a map!" exclaimed Yaren. "It's a map of Mananda! See the big street there, that splits in three? And that dot? That's us."
"Son of a bitch," said Ulith softly. "Navigator device. I'm willing to bet you, that thing brought the roller back. Though how they knew where we were is anybody's guess."
"We're not exactly a small installation," Yaren reminded him. "Or a quiet one. And our address might have been on the supply packages."
Tama was looking at the machine, noting its size and appearance. "It looks too small to be able to do that."
"Too small, skrat, it looks too unprofessional," said Ulith. "Like it was welded with a campfire. I think if I kicked it it'd fall apart." As if to prove his point, he backhanded the machine, landing a glancing blow near the top.
With a metallic crack, the top panel of the machine sprang open.
Tama let out a little shriek and looked at what was under it. Ulith went her one better and lifted out a flat metal box. He inspected it, shook it, listened to the clanking inside. "I don't think a bomb would clatter like that," he said, "but it's a good thing we're inside the roller anyway. This thing will block a blast from inside too" He opened the box.
Nothing exploded, but Ulith seemed not to notice. He studied the contents of the box for a few moments, then passed it to Yaren. "I think this is for you two," he said. "Whatever it is."
Tama didn't need to move closer to look, but she did it both to keep up appearances and to be closer to Yaren. In the box was a necklace with a large stone suspended from it. Tied around the chain were two neat strips of cloth, twisted together into a bow. And on the lid, inside, was stamped "Yarentama."
Tama slipped through the door to Lesana's office, with Yaren a few steps behind. "You wanted to see us?"
"Not as if I had a choice, really." Lesana stood facing the back wall of the room, staring at the hand-drawn map of the city that hung there, seeming to look for answers on the paper. "You'll have to go now, I guess. And that means I have to tell you you can."
"I don't think they'll let us rest till we do," said Yaren.
"Maybe nothing bad will happen if we just talk to them," Tama suggested. "They might leave the rest of you alone. We have to try."
"But that doesn't mean I have to like it," said Lesana, turning around. "Damn it, you two are more than just two of the best, you're the best we've got. And probably two of the best friends I've got." She sighed. "You'll take the medium-size roller Ulith's fixed up with the map machine. He says it should take you back to where it came from, though it's anybody's guess whether it will. Bring back the crew if you can, or at least as many as you have room for. You have authorization to negotiate on behalf of the League and the Thirty Points." She paused, realizing the weight of the formalities she was going through. "Go in good faith and good fortune. And for Mora's sake and your own, be careful."
And then, to Tama's surprise, she came out from behind the desk and caught both of them up in a bone-crushing hug.
"And come back, or I'll find a way to kill you," Lesana said into their ears.
"We'll come back," Yaren assured her. "No need to worry about that."
Abruptly, Lesana let them go. "I have to worry," she said, "or you won't come back."
"Not if we never leave in the first place," Tama teased.
"Fine, then," said Lesana, smiling in spite of herself. "Go on before I stop you."
"See you later," Tama called over her shoulder as they left, wishing she completely believed it.
Ulith met them at the door to the roller bay, a set of keys in his hand. "I fixed the new roller for you. You know, the one with the weird wheels? It's running, it's stocked, it's sitting over there, and you'd better leave before I stop you."
"You'll have to compete with Lesana for that honor," Yaren told him.
"I think both of us would rather come back than stay there in any case," Tama added.
"I just hope no one makes the decision for you," said Ulith grimly. "The roller's over by the doors."
Yaren looked. "Would that be the one with the techies swarming all over it?" he inquired.
"Are they still at it?" Ulith peered over at the rollers in the general direction. "You'd think I asked them to cook you a six-course meal." His voice rose to the rafters. "Hey! Get off that roller! Yeah, you! Off, now!"
The technicians scattered only when Ulith began to move toward them. They had certainly done a good job with the roller, Tama thought, inspecting its surface. It was smooth all over with the texture of new paint, and the myriad small thrown-rock dents it had acquired on its first mission had been hammered out.
"You should get where you're going in a couple of hours," said Ulith, lounging against the ladder, "but there's food and water for two for a week if you hit trouble. I put that box in there too, the one with the necklace." He paused, stood up straight. "She's all yours."
"Thank you," said Tama, and climbed up the ladder. "Shall we call you?" she asked, pausing before beginning her descent into the roller.
"Not with that thing loose in the comm systems," Ulith told her. "We got this one clean, but it'd be easy to catch it again. Wait till you're back in handheld range."
Yaren was at the top of the ladder now. "See you later," he said, and waited.
Ulith smiled, not a grin this time. "You too," he answered, and walked off.
With an unnecessary thud, Yaren dropped into the roller beside Tama. "Let's do this."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.