"Trouble?" asked Yaren, sliding into a seat across from Ulith.
"No," said Lesana. "Surprises."
"You could say that." Lesana turned toward Yaren and Tama. "Did you know your rioters are one of the Thirty Points?"
"You can't be serious," said Yaren.
"You've found the mysterious Number Eighteen," Lesana informed him. "Secretive as all starak, and older than us by seven."
"And the first fifteen are the government library stations," Tama realized. "They must have joined at the very beginning."
"Exactly. So technically, they answer to the Informatics Council same as us, but we answer to them. Luckily, they don't seem to want to hold us to that."
"That's good," said Yaren.
"What's not so good is that the Council does want to hold them to part of the Points agreement," Lesana went on.
"The Oldtech Clause," Ulith broke in, startling them. Even more startling, Lesana let him. "They say it's in the interest of information, to start spreading the truth instead of superstition, but you know they have a personal grudge too. They couldn't stick it to them before, so they're doing it twenty years later."
"Wait a second," said Tama. "Irina and the rest have to have had that oldtech for years. Why is the Council only just now invoking the OTC?"
Lesana looked at her hands and mumbled something. Tama, trying to sense how she felt, was caught by an unexpected wave of sympathy from Ulith and wondered what it was for.
"I said, because I messed up," said Lesana. "You know I have to make weekly reports to the Council. This last week . . . well, I . . . sort of gave them all the details. And I shouldn't have. But frankly, I'm more concerned with what Irina's going to think about it. It's her device, after all."
"What are they saying to do with it?" asked Yaren. "Besides share it with the rest of us, that is, of course. Is it really that bad?"
"First of all," said Lesana, "they want Irina to turn the device over to us, because we're the most central of the points and it would be easier to get to than the Strongholdthat's what Irina and the rest call that placeif anyone wanted to use it. Then they want a demonstration, with people from all thirty-eight of the points watching." The number in the title of the Informatics Restoration Network only changed at multiples of ten, which made for a lot of interesting looks when someone first heard how many Points there currently were.
"And I suppose they want me to demonstrate the thing," said Tama, wishing with her toes clenched that Lesana would say no.
"I may have told them almost everything, but I didn't tell them that," Lesana said. "And they're leaving the choice of demonstrator up to us and Irina. But they want something big, something everyone can believe couldn't be done without the machine. Just so long as it doesn't hurt anybody."
"That goes without saying." Tama unclenched her toes and forced herself to breathe. "Though the thought of blowing up some selected heads all at once suddenly appealed to me."
"You too, hm?" Ulith put in. "They want me to work with the person who's using it, which is probably going to be one of Irina's unless we uncover a prodigy in the next week or so. I'm supposed to monitor what it's doing in response to the person hooked up to it but I'm not allowed to open it up, attach anything to it except the person, or even repair it if it goes broken."
"The anti-modification section of the OTC," Yaren thought aloud.
"Exactly. What in starak do they expect me to be able to do?"
"And what do they want the rest of us to do?" added Tama, riding out another wave of sympathy, this time from Lesana. She thought she was starting to realize what was going on, and wondered if she and Yaren had been like this at first.
"You, they don't have anything for at the moment," said Lesana. "Yaren, though, they want to head up the whole thing."
"Me?" Yaren nearly squeaked. "But I'm a horrible public speaker."
"I told them that," said Lesana. "They don't seem to care."
"Well, that's a stupidwait a minute"
"You're either going to lead the convocation or plan it, and your second's supposed to do what's left over. And I really hate to say this, but they said that if you try to wiggle out of doing something, they're going to replace you."
"What?!" Yaren and Tama exclaimed simultaneously.
"You're great at delegation, we all know that," Lesana continued. "Your department probably has the best organization of any of them and it makes it much easier on you. But what they're seeing is lack of initiative."
Yaren snorted. "They're seeing that diplos don't get commendations for sitting in committees."
"Would they really transfer . . . " Tama trailed off.
"Probably not," Ulith told her. "They don't usually transfer younger people. They'd probably just bring in someone new and make you their second."
"And he'd be how old, twenty-five?" Yaren retorted.
"Watch it," said Ulith, glaring over the top of his mug. He wasn't the oldest in the installation, but people older than him were hard to find. The riots had taken a heavy toll on the segment of the population just a few years older, making for a hasty childhood for the rest and a depleted number of middle-aged workforcers. A large portion of the rank and file of the Rebuilding League and the Thirty Points was made up of true children of the riots, born around or after the time of the outbreak and inculcated with an activist streak.
"Right, fine, whatever," said Yaren. "This stinks. They shouldn't be able to do this if we're not military, and we're not. We never were."
"We're just working for what passes for a government, that's all," Lesana told him. "It comes down to, do you want your job, or do you want someone else to grow into it?"
"After all this time I've spent growing into the damn thing?" he growled. "But I refuse to write out invitations. They want a speech, I'll give them a speech."
Tama found herself hoping it would stay on topic.
"Well, the invitations are away," Yaren announced, walking without fanfare into Tama's room. "It'll probably take a while to get everyone together, though. It's not a small country."
"Yes, you can come in, and I hope everyone decides they can make it," Tama said from her sprawl on the bed. "Did you know that there used to be illustrations in this book? They fell out or got torn out or something between then and now."
"Sorry." Yaren came over to see what she was looking at. "What were they, pictures of the author and family?"
"Some of them, I think. The others were pictures the girl doing the talking drew during the time, or as good of reproductions as the publishers could get when the first edition came out. The other book refers to one of them, says it was" Tama checked with the other book "a bird flying over a city. I wonder why all the bird imagery?"
"The mind of the world thinks in weird terms," said Yaren.
"Right, you probably didn't read that section," he said. "In the stuff I was reading, it explains why everything in the prophecy book is mixed up. According to old dogma, the Power that girl was using was actually a kind of reading, but the mind she was reading is the mind of the world."
"Old dogma?" Tama echoed. "Whose and how old?"
"It didn't say. I think it was just something that was noted in old texts, before people realized not everything was sentient. Or maybe," he amended before she could speak, "when they still knew it was. It looks like it was cross-cultural from what the author knew. Everybody just accepted the word of the people doing the prophesying, and that was what all of them said it was like. Reading a mind with so much information that you couldn't get it all, and what you did get was so deeply encoded for the thinker's personal access preferences that it was damned near impossible to figure out."
"That has to be interesting," mused Tama. "It almost makes me wish I could do it, just to see how it feels."
"From what you've told me, you get enough noise when you read that you might even be used to the clutter," said Yaren.
"True." Other people's thoughts, the words-and-pictures kind, were always overlaid with a band of noise, and the shapes had blurry edges. Emotions, though, came in totally clear nearly all the time. She attributed it to different ways of thinking, the different mental wiring between her brain and theirs and the inability to compensate fully. "Speaking of doing things beyond your normal limits, did you find out when Irina was planning to bring the machine over?"
"In a few days," he answered. "She's going to bring some of her volunteers too, so you won't have to do anything with it you don't want to. And some of her techs, so Ulith can say his people didn't touch it."
"Mmmm, deniability," said Tama, rolling onto her back and feeling Yaren smile. "I suppose she wants to bring a platoon of guards too?"
"She wants to, but there's not enough room here for half as many as she wants. I told her she could have them on three sides of the courtyard, just not behind the stage. They're here to be reassuring, not decorative."
"Right. And I bet she was happy?"
Yaren rolled his eyes. "Thrilled."
"Let her be," said Tama. "The Points put you in charge and she has to respect that. Was there anything else you wanted to know when you barged in here?"
"Well, actually," Yaren admitted, sounding and feeling slightly embarrassed, "I was going to ask if you had any ideas on how to do the speech."
"Not since last time you asked me," she told him. "You should relax a little."
"Mind if I do that in here?"
"Not at all." Tama rolled over again to make room.
The machine was as blocky and blobby as the first Yarentama terminal had been, but about ten times larger. It was the size of a large desk and roughly the shape of a boulder, what with the layers of metal plates that had been welded on over the years to cover the dented and loosening ones and try to hide the tag-ends of wires poking fuzzily out. One section on top was uncovered, revealing a control array with plenty of lights and plugs.
"We've never been attacked with intent to take it," one of Irina's techs was saying, "but we hope that if we were, whoever was looking wouldn't know what he was looking at and would take something else."
"If he could carry it," said Ulith. "That thing better not have damaged my roller." It hadn't, and he knew itthe techs had done their usual inspection, times three, as soon as the machine was unloaded.
"That's another bonus," said the tech.
"So, we're going to take the thing, put Yaren and some former rioters on stage with it, and tell people that's what they've been calling the devil for years?" Ulith knocked back the last of his varala. "Lovely. Who's calling the undertaker?"
"Relax," Yaren told him. "Irina's guards are going to patrol the whole thing. It'll be fine." He squatted beside the machine, looking at the frayed wires, the dented cover plates. "I'm just worried they won't believe us. This thing isn't exactly demonic."
"Glad someone agrees with me," said one of the volunteers Irina had brought along, a woman about Ulith's age, named Ranell. She was the one who had sensed Tama through the terminal in the roller, and she kept having to try not to stare whenever the other woman was around.
"So how do you use it?" Tama asked, looking at a bundle of wires and cloth straps sitting next to the device.
"Well, if we could hook it up to power, I could show you," said Ranell.
"Give me a minute," Ulith protested. "I have to find the right adaptor."
Ranell began to unwind the straps and wires. "This is really only half the harness they used to use," she explained, showing them places where pieces had been cut out. "The other bits were for contact drugs and electric hobbles."
"Uyah," said Yaren, making a face.
"Really though, most of the drugs were stamina enhancers," Ranell went on. "They added the addictive part to the mix later, when their workers started getting fed up. And the hobbles started out as muscle stimulants, so they wouldn't waste away or lose circulation from sitting in the same position for their entire shift."
"I still think she gives them too much credit," said another volunteer, coming in with food in his hand. "The only reason they cared was that they didn't have enough kinetics to go around if any got burned out or escaped."
"And I still think they could have done much worse," Ranell countered, slipping on an arcing ear-to-ear headband that trailed wires over her hair. "Dear darling Chann here sometimes forgets that they never figured out how to breed kinetics reliably for themselves."
"It's not as if they didn't try," said Chann, ripping a bite out of his sandwich.
Ranell fastened another strap around her head, overlapping the tips of the headband with an array of small plates. "Sure," she said, distracted. "Could you hook in the wires, please?"
Tama watched, fascinated, as the other volunteer attached a specific wire to each plate on the strap and then pulled all the trailing ends into a bundle. "We don't usually have to do all this just to link in," he explained upon seeing her expression of interest. "We thought it would be safer to disconnect everything to travel."
"Got it!" came Ulith's triumphant voice from one of the walls. "The power is on!"
"Great," said Ranell, flexing her left hand in a backless glove that seemed made of tiny wires. "You got it hooked?"
Chann clicked the connector at the end of the last wire into a long flat box attached to a strap running from Ranell's left shoulder to the glove. "You're wired," he said, stepping back. "Plug it."
Ranell took hold of a thick cord that also came from the box on her upper arm, and snapped its connector firmly into a plug on the machine. "I'm just going to use the amplification for now, since it's not hooked into any networks," she said. "It won't turn on until I switch it, which is good since I forgot to show you what I do Power-wise."
"Good thinking, 'Nell," said Chann acidly. "What do you plan to"
Tama cast out immediately, looking for the danger that had made someone shout, and saw everyone near the machine doing the same. Everyone except Ranell, who was smirking. "You project," she deduced.
"Mm-hmm. Only words or pictures, and I'm not very good at reading them or anything else. Also, if techno-man over there" she pointed at Ulith "will corroborate me here, he's about at the edge of my range."
"That did sound kind of far away," he admitted. "Weirdly."
"Now for the real demo," said Ranell, and tapped a button near the plug on the machine. "Watch that group over there." She pointed to a gathering of techs on the other side of the bay. A moment later, the group scattered, looking frantically around them for danger. When they realized nothing was there, they began to argue, loudly, about who might have played the practical joke.
Tama turned back to Ranell, who was grinning even more widely. "And that's what this thing does."
"That was kind of mean," said Yaren. "Are you sure it doesn't bring that out in you?"
"How the starak am I supposed to know?" demanded Ranell. "I don't have a happy-smiley Power to begin with. Plus we're all poor judges of our own character. But I can tell you for certain that Chann was this bitter and touchy before he ever even saw one of these devices."
"I love you too, 'Nell."
"Right, fine." She tapped the power button again and started taking off the harness.
"So what are you going to do for the Points assembly?" asked Tama.
"I think the best thing is to let the audience decide," said Yaren. "They know better than we do what will convince them."
"The only problem is that we know better than they do what's actually possible," said Chann. "'Nell does projection. I do reading only, words and pictures only. The other two that are here, Teris and Vance, do empathic reading and kinetics respectively. He's one of the ones the original group rescued, one of the few that survived the withdrawal. But the only reason he uses the machine these days is to fix it and I don't blame him. Only kinetics people can access the inside anymore. He won't do a demo, so you'll have three of us to work with."
"That's two more than I expected," said Yaren with a smile. "You'll have to tell me what you're capable of, so I can field requests."
"By the way," said Ranell, laying the sensing equipment on a nearby chair and turning to Tama, "what do you do?"
"Empathics, mainly," she answered, trying to look innocent. "And words, sometimes together. But only reading. I stink at projection."
Ranell nodded. "It works like that, sometimes. Be glad you were born now."
Tama awoke two hours before her alarm. Yaren, who had decided to stay over again after subjecting her to infinite-seeming speech revisions, was monopolizing the covers. At least he wasn't snoring, she thought, and tried to go back to sleep. After fifteen fruitless minutes, he did start to snore. Rather than wake him and risk passing on her insomnia, she decided to just get up.
She remembered just as she was about to get into the shower that the water ration for personal use had been shortened. With all the extra people that were staying in the compound already, and more to arrive soon, it was a good move, but she was going to have a hard time feeling like herself without a proper hot shower. She made do with a sinkful of lukewarm soapy water and a good scrubbing with a washcloth, then threw on the outfit she'd laid out the night before and tried to stop shivering. After a savage combing and fastening-back of her hair, she headed down to the cafeteria.
Almost no one was there, owing to the early hour. Tama went to the self-service refrigerators for some fruit and noticed that one set of double doors leading out to the courtyard had been propped open. Munching a handful of sour-skinned raga berries, she wandered over to the threshold and looked out. The platform the construction crew had set up the day before was still there, with a comical-looking solid block of something supporting the very middle, where the device would rest in a few hours, and smaller support legs spiderwebbing the rest of the underside. The surface was equipped with a clutch of chairs and a podium on her left, near the front of the stage. Twin guard towers, an afterthought by one of Irina's crew, stood on what looked like metal stilts at opposite corners of the courtyard. Examining them more closely, Tama noticed that their legs were made of the ladders from rollers that had been deemed scrapworthy for one reason or another. No wonder we only have those two, she thought, smiling. Our roller drivers are too careful.
The blocky support and the towers were what had jogged her memory the night before, driving her to look in the books. She had looked at the layout in the courtyard and immediately retreated for some study. What she had found was a passage about truth unseen, and movement of the immovable "onto the block," under the "eye of guardians climbing above." The climbing part made even more sense now. She hadn't gotten to read anything about it in the interpretation before Yaren started bouncing his speech off her. Maybe she could go back and get the books to pass the time here until they needed her.
Tama felt movement in the room behind her. She didn't bother to try to find out what it was, beyond that it was coming toward her. About a step away, it stopped. "Couldn't sleep?" asked a voice.
"I had help," she said.
"Does he snore?"
"Sometimes." She focused in on the person. He appeared to be sitting in a wheeled chair, hands neatly folded in his lap. And although he had a shield up, she could tell from the emotions he was sending out that he wasn't surprised that she wasn't surprised. "You must be Vance."
"And you're Tama."
"Yes." She turned around, not wanting to give herself away on the off chance he didn't know about her sight. "How much do you know about me?"
"Besides what you look like? Ranell sent me that, by the way. I asked her to. Aside from that, all I know is that you're the resident Power-in hiding around here, and you're hiding a big one."
"The people around here are superstitious," she said. "I prefer hiding to someone else having my hide."
"Then you're going to have to stop recognizing shielded people while staring out into the dark," said Vance.
Tama froze, and searched for others in the cafeteria. As she realized no one else was there anymore, she also realized that Vance was laughing. "Why was that so funny?"
"You can't see your face, can you?" he asked.
"That's a shame," he said. "The look you just had was incredible. I was betting at first that you were just scanning the room empathically, but you nearly knocked me off my wheels calling me by name. Don't worry. I'm the last person you need to be paranoid about."
"Is there a first?" asked Tama, leaning against the doorframe and wondering if this was the real point of the conversation.
"Actually, there are several. Revell is one, but I think you know that."
"Irina did mention him, yes," she said. "Is this a warning?"
"If you want it to be." Vance tilted his head to one side, but his body didn't move. "Have you tried the machine?"
"No. What would it do for me, do you know?"
"I've never seen anyone with a sight Power before, let alone seen them linked in," he said. "I don't know."
Curiosity drove Tama to ask something she wasn't sure if she would regret. "What does it do for you?"
"Makes me able to do more than this," said Vance, and she felt an energy spike from him as she saw his chair roll back and forth a little. "At the setting we use, with the energy we have available, I can lift the machine. That's why they brought me. That, and I can fix it from the inside."
"Can you teleport?"
"Little things. They wouldn't have done the severing if I couldn't at all. I just didn't turn out to be strong enough to justify the full procedure. They weren't happy." From the feel of him, he wasn't happy about it either, but it was overlaid with a sort of resignation, charged with something Tama couldn't identify.
"So. Revell." Tama shifted her weight, suddenly conscious that she was standing. "Do you think he poses any danger to the demonstration?"
"As I said, I fix the machine. Whatever position he's risen to since I first met him, he was a tech then and he's still a tech at heart. If he's going to do something, I'm going to be the one to find it and take care of it. Besides, we're his people, emPowered or no. He has too much loyalty to hurt any of us. Or any of you," he added as she started to protest. "You're one of the Points. You may have just found that out about us, but we knew about you all along."
"Good luck then," said Tama, not knowing what else to say.
"Thanks." Vance backed up a little, studying her. "Are you amenable to a little advice?"
"Depends on the advice."
"Most people who are in the know about the riots know the most obvious lesson is that you can't keep people down forever," he said. "That's a really good thing to have hammered into your headif you're a tyrant. But if you want to know what I think, and I'm going to tell you anyway, the lesson for the rest of the world is that the longer you keep a secret, the harder it gets, and the worse the eventual toll becomes."
"You want me to come out and tell people about my Powers," she said, feeling justified in looking at his thoughts to confirm it. They didn't.
"Not if you don't want to," said Vance. "But you might want to think about whether you're hiding just to hide." He rolled backward a little, then pivoted the chair to leave. "See you at the gathering. And by the way, the sun's rising."
As she watched him go, Tama had an idea of what the emotion was that she had felt from him. She wasn't sure, but she thought it was pride.
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.