"Are we there yet?" asked Tama, grinning.
Yaren groaned. "I can't believe you never had siblings."
"But are we?"
"Almost," said Yaren, reading the sensor screen. "We have a little ways to go. A very little ways. In fact, we're almost" He broke off, tapping keys and muttering.
"Looks like they're coming out to meet us," he said.
Tama stood up, forgot how little vertical space was in the roller, and hit her head on the ceiling. "Whatuyah! Kamora, I hate these things! Where are the people? Are they out in the streets or something?"
"We're not about to run over them, if that's what you mean," Yaren told her. "They're all just standing on the sidewalks."
"Standing? Not moving? No rocks being thrown?"
"I don't hear any banging, do you?"
Tama tried to pace and discovered it wasn't much use when she was half slouched over. "It sounds like they knew we were coming, but how?"
"The map machine, probably," said Yaren as the roller made a sharp left, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. "Looks like we're here. Some kind of garage, I think."
"I guess we get out now," said Tama, removing the keys and pocketing them. "Do we take the box?"
"It's probably a good idea, to show them who we are." Yaren stepped onto the block under the hatch, folded down the short ladder attached to the ceiling, and opened the hatch. "Could you get it?"
"Sure." Tama opened it briefly to check that the contents were still there, then tucked it under her arm. "Are you nervous?"
Yaren, one foot on the block and the other on the ladder, stopped. "Strangely enough, yes," he admitted. "I haven't been nervous on a diplo mission in years." As if realizing how ungainly his position was, he finished levering himself up onto the ladder and climbed out, waiting for Tama to hand him the box before disappearing. Tama, for her part, felt carefully for the side ladder and descended slowly, and waited until she stood next to Yaren before daring to look around.
There was a person standing in front of them, facing them. By the shape, it was a woman, tall and angular, hands on hips. Tama didn't try to read her thoughts, but her aura of cool confidence was unmistakable. It was probably not a good idea to try reading her, Tama thought, and decided not to do it.
"You're from the rebuilding team," the woman said, her voice casually neutral. There was no hint of careful modulation that would imply nervousness.
"Yes." Yaren shifted his stance just a little. "I believe we were sent for."
"We didn't ask for any help."
"I didn't mean that way," Yaren explained. "We've been finding messages that seem to be directed to us, originating from this place. We came here to see what you want."
The woman almost frowned. "What kind of messages?"
"Code hidden in our computer parts" Yaren began, but the woman held up a hand.
"I know you can talk," she said. "Let her answer."
Tama tried not to appear surprised, though learning to mask emotions without being able to use a mirror had been one of the most difficult parts of her training. "As he said, our computers have been blinking messages at us, presumably caused by some kind of virus, and recently we found a package in one of our vehicles with our two names on it."
The frown became genuine. "We sent nothing to anyone in particular. What was in the package?"
"A necklace with a large stone on it, and two strips of cloth tied to the chain."
"And what was written on the package?"
"A word, Yarentama."
The confusion in the woman's expression was almost a relief after her emotionlessness. "I thought you said your names were on it. What are your names?"
"Yaren," he said quickly, before the other woman could tell him not to.
"And my name is Tama," Tama added.
She had expected the stranger to be surprised, but the reaction she got was more than she could have imagined. The woman's eyes appeared to open as far as they would go, and her mouth just about as far. Gradually, she calmed down, and the first thing she said seemed directed at no one in particular. "Good Mora," she said, sounding slightly disgusted, "but that was literal."
"Literal?" Tama echoed.
"In a second. I see you have my things with you. Can I have them back?" The stranger's tone had changed completely, from distrusting formality to near jocular familiarity.
"Your things?" Tama couldn't help feeling like a repeater bird, but she truly didn't know what the things in question could be until she remembered the box. She reached around Yaren's back to swipe it out from beneath his arm, then proffered it to the woman, who took it while Yaren was still confused.
"Yarentama," the stranger muttered, opening the box and donning the necklace. "Who'd have thought . . . cry for help . . . " As she concentrated on undoing the knot binding the fabric strips to the chain, her words became unintelligible. Tama took a quick look at Yaren's mind and felt better; he was as unsettled by all this as she was.
"There!" The stranger looked up, grinning with incredibly straight teeth. She had tied the cloth around her neck with an elaborate knot at the base of her throat. "Now I don't feel naked."
Tama found herself smiling as well. "If we may ask, what are we doing here?"
"And what's your name?" Yaren put in.
"Irina," said the woman. "And about what you're doing here, I'm not sure myself, considering I didn't specifically ask you to come here. But if you'll follow me, maybe somebody can figure something out."
Tama barely had time to feel for where the womanIrina, she reminded herselfhad gone before they were led around a corner. Several more corners passed in a similar fashion, then a flight of stairs at a grueling pace. Another b'sherat burrow later, they entered a cramped, sparsely furnished office. Irina settled down behind the wide wooden desk. "Have a seat," she said, waving at a pair of slipshod chairs, and her guests did.
"Your office?" Yaren guessed, looking around.
"I hope so," said Irina, making a mock-concerned face. "This is the very center of the building. Least likely to be destroyed by any kind of bomb, and it's raska hard to get to."
"About why we are here," said Tama. "We have instructions to request that if you are responsible for the attacks on League personnel, you cease immediately or face retribution." Yaren jabbed an elbow into her ribs, and she realized that she'd stolen his line. Well, he could just live with it.
"Attacks?" asked Irina. "You were the ones who were going to attack us, weren't you?"
"We did send a force," said Yaren, "but they never got here. We were hoping you could clarify what happened."
"Ah, yes. That." Irina settled back in her chair. "I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what happened, since it wasn't under my supervision. Another division of our organization, at the site your people visited last time, came up with the suggestion, and they were the ones who misdirected your people. We figured it was better than them trying to take on a force about twenty times as big as they were. I'm sorry if it caused any problems. But I get the feeling that isn't what you're talking about."
"That wasn't the first force we sent," said Yaren. "While our repair crews were still here, we sent a small diplomatic mission to talk with your people about possible other help we could give. It never got here either, I know. Only this one was because they were all killed on the way." His voice stayed steady, but he looked down throughout the final sentence.
Irina was radiating shock and outrage so strongly that Tama was afraid to try to read her, but when she spoke, her words were different than Tama expected. "That was a diplomatic force?" she asked. "My people told me it was a raiding party, or something like that, and only after it was stopped."
"They had it wrong," Yaren said. "Do you know who's responsible? The League's central division may want to speak with him or her."
"That'd be Revell," said Irina. "I can tell him you want to talk to him, but he's busy right now and I need him to be doing what he's doing, so you can't take him back with you."
"When we contact the central division, you and he may not have a choice," Tama said. "They may want to begin investigating as soon as possible, and if they find anything . . . " She let her words trail off.
"I understand, but I think they won't find anything," Irina told her. "Revell has been with us since the beginning, and I do mean the very beginning. He wouldn't have done anything without reason."
"The very beginning?" It was Yaren's turn to echo.
"The riots." Irina leaned back in her chair. "Which, it looks like, were at about the beginning of your lives."
Tama could almost feel herself shrinking, her hair gathering itself into a grubby ponytail. "I hope our ages have no effect on whether you take us seriously."
"If they do, it's not your fault," Irina assured her. "I was shooting police at your age, but it seems like once you get to be my age, everybody your age is just out of diapers. Sorry if I put you off."
"Not a problem," said Yaren. "Now, what was that about being literal?"
Irina snickered. "Do you know what Yarentama means? Besides you two, that is." When they shook their heads no, she said, "It's old Bianxeni, means 'need-nothing.' Though I doubt your parents deliberately chose your names for their meaning, especially considering neither of you looks Bianxeni. Much."
"Mine did, I think," said Tama, something suddenly making sense in her mind. She had never told anyone about this particular memory, but it seemed she would have to now.
"You mean they named you Nothing on purpose?" said Yaren incredulously.
"That, and they looked more Bianxeni than I do, or at least my father did," Tama said. "And they both spoke the language. They were history scholars," she elaborated on seeing blank looks. "They were also very superstitious, and they heard some horrible stories about the rioters that they believed. I was born a month or so before the riots reached the place they lived before, and my mother and I were in no condition to run ahead of the gangs. So they decided to run through."
"There were a lot of people who did that," said Irina. "It was one of the reasons we never went back to a place we'd already been. We weren't out to kill people, but they just put themselves in our way."
"My parents had heard that some gangs killed people and stole babies. So they put me in a bag with some clothes on top and made me be quiet somehow, and started out. Every time someone talked to them, they only spoke Bianxeni, and when someone who spoke that asked them what was in the bag besides the clothes, they said tama, tama, and looked scared. Sometimes one of them would look at them for a while and make them more scared, but every time, they let them pass. And when they were through, and found a place to call a house, they named me Tama as a reminder."
There was a silence. Then Yaren said, "Much better than getting your dead uncle's nickname."
"What was his full name?"
"Ah. Kjechorii," said Irina, nodding. "I've got some of that myself. Don't speak the language, though. Interesting how it came out meaning something."
"So what's so special about need-nothing?" Yaren asked.
Irina, who had been leaning forward during Tama's story, leaned back again. "Yarentama. It wasstarak, still isthe motto of a group called the Simplists. We were the ones who actually started the riots, and it was our password. We still use it to identify one another, make sure we're who we're supposed to be. I thought when Revell told me your diplo mission was raiders that you might be a remnant group waking up and smashing the tech, so I had the roller dragged back here, found where to send it back, and sent my stuff along to try to bring you here to talk about stopping. What took you so long, by the way?"
"Someone put a virus in the roller that got misdirected," said Tama. "It makes everything shut down and say Yarentama, and our techs are having a hard time getting rid of it."
"Good Mora, I have got to have a talk with that man," said Irina, running a hand over her hair. "He let somebody deploy countermeasures on you. This has to be the worst case of mistaken identity since . . . well, since a long time ago. Makes me wish you knew what Yarentama meant the first time you saw it. Simplist people don't like to let strangers in on it, for privacy's sake, not that all the secrecy is really necessary anymore now that we succeeded."
"Succeeded?" Yaren spluttered, rising from his seat. "You call bombing us out of civilization and starting a seven-year civil war in the streets success?"
"Would you rather have what we have, and have it built on honest principles and freedom, or be part of the biggest and most advanced empire in the world, and have it built on slavery?" Irina asked him. "And have her" she indicated Tama "be one of the slaves?"
"Now wait just a"
"Don't tell me you don't know that people with extra mental abilities, Powers, were forced into government service under the old regime?" She pronounced "Powers" with an audible capital. "And don't you dare try to tell me you don't know Tama here has them."
"How about you tell us how you know?" Tama countered, as Yaren sat back down.
"The same way the government bastards eventually did, by having someone read her through a machine. That map display you so kindly brought back to us? It's remotely connected to our main system, which we do have but I'd prefer if you didn't spread around, and that's connected to one of the old machines we salvaged after the riots and fixed up. When a volunteer," and she emphasized the word, "with any Power hooks herself into it, she can tell if anyone using any of a certain number of rigged terminals has one too."
"But I never used the terminal," Tama protested.
"I know. And our volunteer felt you anyway. That's got to be some Power you're carrying around."
Tama didn't answer. She had never thought seriously about her strength, but now she remembered teaching Laric, and how what came to her without extra effort had often taken true exertion for him. The idea that she might be strong enough to trip machinery she couldn't even operate was more than a little frightening.
"Anyway, there's one more thing I need to show you, and then you can leave," said Irina, reaching into a drawer of the desk. "About the time of the Peacemaking, I came into possession of two books that I've only really begun to understand in the last few months. This," she said, placing a slim, ragged volume on the desk to their right, "is a book of prophecy. And this," a book many years newer and about three times thicker, "is the best interpretation known to the modern world."
"You can't be serious," Yaren chuckled. "You mean you believe in that stuff?" Tama, not ready to take a stance on what was the right level of skepticism, decided to let him go on.
"It was a Power," Irina informed him. "Documented, researched, recorded, and if you want, I can show you that some of what's in this book has happened."
"Go ahead." Yaren leaned back in his own chair, lacing his fingers and smirking.
Irina glared at him for a moment, then opened the smaller book at a frayed marker. "'Blue stone and golden, and not seen, hangs with red tied yellow leader of the arrow,'" she read. "'Need is nothing, nothing is needed by need, and need by nothing. Edges meet, arrow and nothing strike and part, nothing and need.'"
Throughout the recitation with its confusing color references, Yaren had begun to look more and more uncomfortable. By the end, he was staring at the other woman. "Let me see that."
Irina handed the book over. "Left-hand side, about halfway down. I didn't know what the whole nothing-and-need business was till I met you two today, but it makes a skrak of a lot more sense now. Especially if you're seeing each other, which I suspect you are."
"All right, let's say I believe this," said Yaren, sounding shaken. "What's the arrow?"
"Something that took me a while to figure out as well," said Irina. "The arrow is an organization within the Simplists, called the Dealay. That means 'arrow,' but in Kjechorii, not Bianxeni. I was a district leader before the riots, even though I never actually contacted anyone in it. Had to stay off the computers, you know."
Tama didn't know, but she nodded anyway.
"I only ever met two other people in it," Irina continued, "and one of them ended up being my girlfriend for a while. But that part definitely refers to me."
"And the part about the blue stone and golden?" Tama asked.
Irina's expression was more confused than Tama had yet seen it. "It's this," she said slowly, holding up the stone at the end of her necklace. "I sent it to you, I've had it on since you brought it back. I thought you'd know."
Tama looked at Yaren, sharing just a tendril of her anxiety with him. It was irrational, she knew; Irina already knew she wasn't normal, and she'd just made her own stewpot with that comment. It was going to have to be time to add another person to her list. She felt Yaren take her hand, felt his support behind her as she gathered her resolve. "I do not see colors," she said hesitantly.
"You're colorblind?" asked Irina.
She considered leaving it at that, but she didn't want to lie. "Not exactly. I guess it must be one of those Powers you were talking about. I can feel the shapes of things around me, when I want, but there are no colors."
"And you do this with what, your eyes?" asked Irina, enthralled.
"No," Tama said. "With something else. It feels above my heart somewhere, only there because I think it is. It lifts out . . . " She stopped as she realized that Irina was only looking at her and not really listening.
"So aside from this Power, you're completely blind," Irina said.
Tama, feeling the darkness more acutely than she had in a long time, nodded.
Irina sat for a moment, thinking, then reached into another drawer and pulled something out. "So, can you see every side of the objects you sense, or just the side you're on?"
"Every surface without something else blocking it," said Tama, relieved to be back on that subject.
"Can you tell what I'm holding?" Irina asked.
Tama reached out and inspected the object. "Wood. Splintery wood about the size of your hand. And on the side facing you, something else rough . . . paint? Yes, paint . . . the brushstrokes look like a portrait, probably of a woman. One of your fingers is a little in the way."
"Wow," said Irina. "That's incredible."
"Is she right?" asked Yaren.
"See for yourself," said Irina, flipping it around, and Yaren gasped. "My friend Ralis painted this during the riots, I don't know exactly when. Starak, I didn't know he could paint."
"Tama," said Yaren, sounding strangled, "she looks just like you."
"I know," Irina told him. "That's why I chose this. It's my friend Darica."
"How old was she at the time?" Yaren asked.
Irina shrugged. "She never said. Nobody ever asked either. I think Ralis was afraid to know." She chuckled to herself, unwilling to share the joke. Tama thought she knew what it was anyway.
"Could we be related?" asked Tama. "Some kind of cousin or something?"
"I don't know." Irina put the picture away. "We'll never know now."
"How do you"
"She's dead," said Irina. "The police shot her in the riots. She wasn't even really a rioter. She just didn't want us to kill her, so she joined. Funny what people thought about us." She looked distracted for a moment, then stood and pounced so quickly on the prophecy book in Yaren's hands that he and Tama both jumped back. Irina searched furiously through the book for the better part of a minute, muttering to herself, and Tama felt Yaren squeezing her hand as convulsively as she was clutching his. At last Irina found what she was looking for, and read it aloud in a barely audible voice. "'The choice-burdened shall see through a web of water,'" she said, and closed the book again. "I thought it was a waterfall before and so did the other author, but now it sounds like your Power for seeing, Tama. If you could get a sheet of water droplets fine enough to settle over everything and define the shapes, that is." Her voice took on a more sober tone. "Whatever that choice is, kid, I don't envy you."
There was another long silence, which Yaren broke. "Anything else?" he asked in a tone that tried to be light and failed miserably.
"Not that I can think of," said Irina. "But take the books." She stacked them atop one another and held them out to Tama, who took them. "I think you'll need them more than I will, sooner or later and probably sooner. Let me see if anyone's around to show you out, unless you want to stay longer?" Seeing no objections, she swept past them to the door, stuck her head out, and looked around. "Hey, Toravon," she called. "Could you take some people out of here for me? Thanks." She went back to the vicinity of the desk. "It's been nice talking to you. Feel free to come back if you have anything else you want to talk about."
"Actually, we've been asked to retrieve our crew," said Yaren. "The one we sent a week or so ago and you didn't want around."
"Oh, you mean the people who would have found out exactly how big our computer system is?" Irina asked, as Toravon showed up at the door. "Sure, take them. They refused to let us take them back, and Mora knows we offered plenty of times. They're afraid we'll just kill them and dump them somewhere, probably. It's been a pain in the ass trying to keep them from finding anything out without locking them up and having them bring some kind of charges against us. So take them. I'll have them sent to the garage your vehicle is in. And I'll probably talk to you later," she said, sitting down. "Have fun."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.