A Promise Kept

Section 6

There were more representatives in the courtyard than Tama had expected. According to Beriali, who had sent the official invitations, it was because nearly everyone in the Thirty Points was curious about oldtech and wanted to see it in action. They had had to lug out all the chairs from storage, which was doubly good because it freed up rooms for people to stay in if they needed to. Some of them were broken, which meant that they were reserved for people assigned to this installation. Tama, having seen quite a few of the chairs in question, elected to stand. She had been offered a seat at the front, but declined. Irina's people, who would be sitting there as well, made her a little nervous.

The League had been invited as well, since the installation was a member of both organizations. Their representatives were fewer, and felt less interested. After all, they were mainly concerned with rebuilding, not with tech that had no use in that capacity. She wondered if they'd seen Vance picking up the machine earlier.

Half an hour had gone by since the beginning of the convocation, and nothing had really happened. There had been introductory speeches from the head of the Thirty Points, the head of the Informatics Council, and the head of the Oldtech Regulation Department. All of them had sounded very similar. Irina was speaking now, covering the same ground yet again but doing it more quickly.

"When the country first learned at what price our cities had been advancing in technology," she said, "some of us had known for decades. We were the ones who made it known, in the only way we saw available to us. We knew what we were destroying, but we saw no other choice. After it was over, some of us tried to hide the truth. Others tried to bring it to light. I have tried to make my organization one that does the latter, and to that end I have searched with my people for remnants of what we destroyed. The device you see behind me is the only working one of its kind that we ever found."

"Good thing," muttered a guard standing near Tama. She immediately looked at his mind, to see if he had any intention of doing anything untoward, and found it biased but clean. Still, she kept her senses open as Irina continued, describing what the device did and how her volunteers had learned to use it and repair it. That ought to put a mind-bend on the OTC people, she thought.

Then it was Yaren's turn. She was tempted to recite his speech along with him, but decided that if he saw her doing it, he would be too thrown to continue. She listened instead, wishing she had known that everyone would be looking at the same bits of information from just slightly different standpoints. She would have told him to start with something totally unrelated, just to break the tedium.

At last he got to the point of explaining the demonstration. "All of us here are learners, but some of what we have learned is to be skeptical. This may be, as I have said, a machine intended to enhance Powers; or it may be, as many suspect, a device that twists the mind toward corruption and evil. We have a chance to see what the truth is, out here in the open. So that you will believe what you see, I will not be the one to decide what is shown here: you will. Anyone who has a suggestion, please voice it. And to assure you that no one has been planted, all of you who care to may vote for your preferred idea. So long as it can be done, the one that wins is what one of our volunteers will do."

The crowd went silent, then erupted in local conversations. "Read everyone's mind at once," called someone. It was followed with a shout of "Hold us all immobile!" Then the suggestions came thick and fast. Picking up everyone in the audience. Reading the future. Guessing people's infonet passwords. Making them all dance. Tama stopped paying attention; she didn't know how Yaren was handling all this input. She heard the majority of the ideas rejected out of hand, and listened as the choices were winnowed down to three. She had already had her proof; she didn't need to know what the vote was.

"All right then!" Yaren sounded much too cheerful. "Will a volunteer please step up here?" There was another widespread murmur, probably anticipating things to come. Tama noticed mainly that Yaren hadn't named the volunteer, and felt out to see who it was. If, as she suspected, the crowd had chosen something kinetic, Vance wouldn't be happy about it. Not happy at all.

The picture wavered and caught itself, threatening to blink out. Myrithe stared past it for a moment, concentrating harder. She had been forbidden to attend this gathering, but, as Irina said, damned if she was going to miss it. The machine had just been activated; someone had come up out of the audience and was preparing to attach herself to it. That surge of power must have been what made the image flicker, Myrithe thought. She had never used this type of scrying to look in on technology in action before, and she didn't know what effects the electricity might have on her magic. It was taking more energy than it should have already, and she had the feeling that without having secretly made a powersink of that stone necklace of Irina's, she would have been unable to look in at all. The soundless plane of bright spring outdoors, hovering just above the small table in the middle of the dark room, kept moving.

Tama felt a flash of wrongness spreading out from a corner of her mind, quick but nearly disorienting. Nausea rolled over her, making her clutch at the back of a nearby chair for support while it ran its course. By the time she had a handle on her mind and body, she had pinpointed the source of the horror she had sensed, and was able to look out to place it. It was one person, nearby, high in the air—on a guard tower. She could almost see what he was holding, long and thin, and pointed at the machine. But in the next instant, something came between them—

"Yaren!" she screamed, pointing toward the tower, but it was too late. She had one image of his face, a picture of confusion, before he fell from the platform. Then the sound of a weapon discharge registered, followed by a collection of screams. She realized, as she began to push through the crowd, that her own was among them. Choking it off, she fought her way forward, struggling against the flow of people going hysterically in the opposite direction.

Lesana had reached him first. That much was obvious from the way she knelt possessively beside him, alternately muttering and barking orders between breathing into his mouth. Ulith was attempting chest compressions, but the people pressing in on all sides were making it necessary for him to shove some of them away. Neither one seemed to notice her. For a moment, she felt as if she had stepped into some other world, the world of a nightmare not her own, and was powerless to change anything or to get out, or even to move. But not to see

Tama reached out a tendril of thought, brushing each of her friends in turn. Frustration dominated Lesana's mind, and Ulith's too, barely overpowering the fear they were not even trying to fight. But when she turned her mind toward Yaren, there was nothing there. There was not even the null feeling of unconsciousness or the faint trace she had learned to recognize as a backlash of shock and fear. There was simply nothing. Something shuddered inside her, but she pushed it away, strengthening the bond with what should be there in her quest to find something, anything to hold on to. It was not until her sight began to flicker that she realized how much energy she was putting into her desperate search, and the shock of that alone made her lose her concentration. What had been a tendril felt more like a wrecking crane as it retracted, snapping back with a force that threw the ground first at her knees and then at her hands, sending her gasping for air. When she recovered her wits enough to look out again, the tableau in front of her was the only thing she noticed. Ulith and Lesana were still working, exuding as much determination now as frustration. She wanted to shout at them that it was no use, that they were too late, that Yaren was . . . dead.

The wrecking crane returned, smashing something within her to shards. She grappled with the pain, tears stinging her eyes, unable to dislodge the scene before her from her mind. And then something overtook her completely, heart and mind, and she screamed her loss as long and loud as her voice would let her, then collapsed, wailing, in a heap. She was conscious of voices babbling gibberish, of hands trying first to coax her and then to haul her to her feet, and then of nothing at all.

She came to as suddenly as she had gone out, and in the same wrecked emotional state. It took her several moments to realize that she was no longer on hard ground, nor even outside; and it took a bit longer to realize that she was in her own room. She didn't wonder how she had gotten there; she remembered well enough that people had picked her up, and surmised that they must have brought her here. Then the full weight of the situation came crashing down on her, and she huddled into a ball, fighting tears.

A hand landed on her shoulder. "I'm not going to ask if you're all right, because I know perfectly well you're not," said Lesana quietly. "I don't need to tell you what happened. I do need to tell you that it was the fall, not the shot, but one of Irina's guards caught the one who did it and killed him, and nobody objected because he was one of theirs. And that we're going to have a full burial in three days, if you think you'll be able to go. And I want to know if you want me to stay."

Tama, sniffling, shook her head. All she wanted was to be alone, to digest her own grief at her own pace, the way she helped other people do and knew too well how to manage. The hand left her shoulder, and Lesana sighed. "Okay. You know better than I do what the right thing for you is. But call if you need me. Please." Her footsteps headed for the door.

The hidden barb struck seconds later. No one left in the organization knew about her sight. First Laric had been killed; now Yaren had met the same fate. And just like that, everyone she could confide in was gone. For the first time in two years, she was on her own again. She had wanted to be independent, she thought, whimpering, and she had gotten her wish.

"Are you sure you want me to leave?" asked Lesana from the door. Tama, hit with a new reason for mourning, answered with a sob. It was too bad, she thought as she remembered their situations being reversed, that Lesana would never know, this time, the real reason for her tears.

For a time she couldn't count, Tama threw herself into sleep. When she got up, she felt more numb than anything. She completely neglected her other-sight, feeling her way around walls to get to doors and bumping into objects. She cursed her gift, denouncing that it was even a gift, for all the good it had done. It had been powerless to save the one thing that she needed most. Her life was worth nothing if she could not save another.

For what she counted as a day she was largely immobile, feeling mired in syrup, body and soul. When she had the presence of mind to be hungry, she made her way to the cafeteria for food, choked it down at a table alone, and returned to her room. She slept often, dreaming of sizzling energy shooting from enraged eyes, seeing Yaren's astonished face as he fell. When she thought of him, she cried, so she stopped thinking of him. Mostly she thought of how nearly everyone else she had ever counseled had needed to work constantly on distracting projects to deal with death, and how they only reached this state after days, weeks, sometimes months of repression. A detached part of her mused that her speedier reaction must have been precipitated by the immediacy of the whole thing, her touching him and finding nothing. And it was when she thought of the nothingness that she thought of the books.

It was a while before she worked up the courage to open one of them, and it was chance that the book was the slim volume of prophecy. She had put a marker in it after the part about the demonstration on the platform, and with shaking fingers she turned to the page. The passage after the one in question was about shining ones and gray birds, something that she knew dealt with the past. Irritated at the writer for not being coherent, she opened the analysis and searched the concordance, found the number of the page she needed and hunted down the passage. "Standing a purpose, complete with nothing, merging with nothingness. They shall stand, need shall show itself, nothing shall see."

Tama's fogged mind grasped only one thing. "Merging with nothingness" had to mean dying. It was there, written in whatever color it was: Yaren's death sentence. If he had known, and asked for more help from the Stronghold, it might not have happened. But if, as it said, he was complete with nothing—

She knew, now. The line was "They shall stand," not "Need shall stand." It was a wonderful turn of phrase, really: read separately, the sentences spelled death; read in parallel, they meant success. Had she stood with him, stopped hiding for the sake of hiding, he would be alive. She felt, and tried to ignore, the fresh flow of tears, looking down in sudden desperation at the pages of the battered book of prophecy. It was too late to change what she had failed to do, but maybe there was some clue about how she could go on.

"And together does not lie destiny for all, as some shall even be lost to the next times," she read in a whisper. "The sensed and senseless shall not know what seeks to their aid, that they need what they destroy. Nothing shall turn their eyes to the truth unseen."

The truth unseen. What Yaren had never had a chance to show them. What he had given his life for. And now it was her job to let them know. It had always been her job, whether he lived or died. If only she had been able to get past the fear of being revealed—

Someone knocked at the door, and she flicked out her sight to find the door still closed. "What?" she called, hoping whoever it was wouldn't come in.

"Tama?" called an unfamiliar voice. "If I didn't just wake you up, Lesana wants to talk to you. She said soon."

"Fine," she said, concentrating on just making the person go away. She was rewarded with departing footsteps, a sound she'd heard a lot lately. For a moment she wondered if people were deliberately avoiding her, and started wondering why. But she couldn't think about that now. Jabbing at her eyes with her sleeve, she gathered up the books, closing her notes inside, and went to Lesana's rooms.

Tama entered with as much apprehension as she ever had. Lesana and Ulith were sitting and talking quietly enough for her to be unable to hear, which was a feat in itself. They looked up at her footsteps, falling silent. She couldn't stand that. "What happened that you needed to talk to me?"

Lesana stood, clearing her throat. "We've been concerned about you since yesterday," she said. "Frankly, we've been worried sick. You look horrible, you're totally silent, and you're scaring away everybody who wants to try to help you."

"I would rather not be helped," she said. "Nobody but me knows how."

"Probably because you never taught them," Ulith suggested, standing next to Lesana. "Not that it was a bad thing, but you should have had at least a backup—"

Lesana silenced him with a hand on his shoulder. "We're not here to discuss therapy methods right now," she told him, then addressed herself again to Tama. "We're here to discuss how we can help you. And I think I know how we can start."

Tama looked for a chair, then resolved to stand. If Lesana could be strong, so could she.

"People all over the compound are worried," said Ulith. "You've been running into them and acting like you didn't know they were there. Of course, that could just be because you're not looking up. It's not good to stare at your shoes."

"I would rather look down than have people see me looking like this," she said deliberately, "especially if I look as awful as you say." Something in her didn't like this line of conversation. Lesana picked it up relentlessly.

"That'd be fine if it was just people you were running into, but it's not. We saw you in the cafeteria last night and it actually scared us. We thought you'd break something, either yourself or the furniture."

"I was tired," she said, trying with all her might not to let the words snap. "I was angry, and sad, and tired, and I forgot to pay attention to where I was going."

"You were running into chairs, Tama," Ulith said gently. "That's more than tired."

"How would you feel if it was one of you that was killed?" she snapped, not caring how it came out anymore, and remembering with horrible accuracy another conversation, too close in memory. From the look of Lesana's mind, she remembered it too.

"Look, this isn't working," Lesana said, reluctance heavy in her words. "What we wanted to tell you is that we know. About how you see, I mean. And aside from caring about you, we don't care."

Tama felt her jaw drop. She fought to disbelieve that the subject had come up, while Lesana kept going.

"Most of the others haven't the slightest, but they aren't around you as much as we are. If you spend as much time around someone as we have around you, you're going to get to know them."

Tama could only think of one thing to ask. "Did Laric tell you? or Yaren?"

"No," Ulith reassured her. "Not outright. Lesana figured it out first and asked Laric to confirm it, and then I asked Yaren about it, what, a few months later? It wasn't long ago really, about a month before that one roller got mashed, when I found out."

"We knew we should have told you," Lesana went on, " but there really isn't a good way to do it."

"Yeah," Ulith agreed. "There's no polite way to tell somebody, 'You know, I noticed there's something weird about the way you look at people and I thought you might be blind and use some weird telepathy for seeing, so I asked your closest confidante and he told on you.'"

Trust Ulith to make her smile, Tama thought. "I guess not."

Lesana's tone softened. "We wish it hadn't taken this to let you know. But we thought we needed to tell you. In case you needed anyone to talk to who you could tell everything you needed to."

"Actually, I think this is a good thing," Tama admitted. "It always helps to have people you can talk to when—" Her voice gave out, and she swallowed hard, changing the subject. "How long has it been . . . ?" She couldn't finish the sentence.

"Not long. The burial is tomorrow. Did you plan to go?"

"I was trying to decide if I should."

"We'll understand whatever you decide," Ulith told her. "Whatever you feel comfortable with."

"He would have asked me to go," Tama said, feeling dread gather itself up along with her resolve. "I should at least try."

"I understand that too," said Lesana, and Tama knew without looking that she must.

Tama lay curled on her bed, the prophecy books in front of her. They were closed, as were her eyes. It was a habit she had acquired when first learning to blend in, closing her eyes when deep in thought. She remembered the night she and Yaren had lain there together, with the books and each other; it didn't make her cry now. Deliberately, feeling for the edge of what she could think safely, she thought of the feeling of his body curled against hers, one arm reaching over to turn the pages. It brought back something else.

Not enough chairs in the building. Not enough in storage, or enough room in all the rollers to have carried them. There was space, on the land down the street, but it would have taken too long, been too artificial. Here there was closure.

The air, cool and fresh in defiance of the gathering it blew through. Knots of people, standing, talking. The entire compound, milling out in its center. People she'd never seen before—the second director of the League, acting gruff inside and out; the head of the Thirty Points, looking as if she wanted to apologize to everyone in attendance, separately and at length. And people she had seen. Members of the other Points, who had been here just days earlier. Irina's guards. Irina's volunteers. Irina.

She flashed the memory forward, to the words. —cannot begin to express—do our best to prevent—wish—too late—

"'Life begins; only the flesh comes to an end.'" Lesana first, the shortest line and the most important.

"'All faithful shall find their love in the After, returned as it has been given, and multiplied by faith.'" Her own voice, as distant as it had sounded to her then.

"'Who would seek favor, must seek to aid. A life lived for others is a life lived with eternity in the heart, for it is that which can be taken with you when the flesh is no more.'" Ulith, sounding as though he knew the lines too well.

"'For we are formed of the stuff between the moments and will return to that place. Precious is the living, and the joy; fragile is the balance of all that is. We are shaped by the world that is reshaped by our labors, and we move through our destiny to last, with the stars, forever.'" Irina.

Speeches and testimonials, all of them nearly the same. Good deeds, a good person, too full of life. She didn't trust herself to speak. Neither did the other three.

A short walk, the four of them and a few more. A long hole, a round stone. She watched the sky instead, casting as far as she could. Clouds were far away, but large. These were at all different distances, all moving in the wind, all in different directions. She tied tethers of thought to as many as she could and felt them dance.

The head of the Thirty Points recited an invocation, the second director droned something else, and then damp earth was being pressed into her hand. She had to say something. "You will be out there, with those dancing clouds," she said. "Every time I look for you." The handful of soil crumbled through her fingers. As she heard it fall, she thought she felt lightning.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5
Section 6 | Section 7 | Section 8 | Section 9

Copyright 2001 by Katherine Foreman.

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