Ulith was passing out prints to Lesana and Irina when Tama walked in. "Thanks for coming," he said, handing her one too. It was right-side-up, she noticed as she took a seat. It was also several pages long. As she began leafing through it, she saw that there were four people in the room, which was jarring until she realized that the fourth was Irina. There were five chairs, though.
"Central sure does a good job of being thorough," said Lesana, making a face. "This is ridiculous."
"It's the official response to what they're calling 'the incident,'" Irina explained for Tama's benefit.
"So I see." It seemed to consist mostly of absolution for both Points and lists of requirements to take care of the details. "They spend an awful lot of time saying it was nobody's fault."
"Which is really their way of saying it was," said Irina. "They just don't want to admit it was their own fault for insisting on the demonstration in the first place."
And my fault for not participating, Tama added silently, focusing on the empty chair.
"They're not happy that the shooter's dead," Irina went on. "They said we, meaning my we, should have been more objective and locked him up for questioning."
"Never mind that we don't have any place to do that," Ulith said.
"We probably could have locked him in a roller," Irina suggested.
Ulith didn't try to hide that he was offended. "I don't want anybody with technological deathwishes anywhere near the rollers," he said. "Last time your people got near one we spent a week cleaning out our systems."
"That was a misunderstanding and you know it," Irina returned.
"Next order of business," Lesana said loudly. The other two didn't register surprise, but Tama could feel them building new heads of steam. "What are we doing with the device?"
"Central isn't getting it," said Irina. "And until I know what's going on back at the Stronghold, I don't want it going there either."
"Good idea." Ulith didn't say anything else, but the silence spoke for him.
"Actually, yes," Tama said, surprising herself. The others at the table turned to her, and she continued. "The morning of the . . . incident, if everyone is calling it that, Vance spoke with me. He said Revell might do something, but it would probably be technical, so it would be his job to find it."
"That would have been my guess too, before things went to starak," said Irina. "And then they did. He found you?"
"In the cafeteria." A whisper of the taste of berries came back unbidden. "He said there were others we needed to worry about, but not who."
"Well, this is news," Irina said, lacing her fingers together. "He never talks to anybody, and now he goes looking for you and tells you to watch out?"
Tama didn't answer. All of a sudden it didn't make sense to her either.
"So we keep the machine here and keep Revell there," Lesana summed up. "Easy enough. Now all we have to do is get everybody who was there to make a written report, have someone transfer the log from the machine into readable form"
"What good will that do them?" asked Tama. "Nobody even used it."
"Since when does Central care about the simple truth?" asked Lesana. "They want to make sure they didn't miss anything, so they exhaust all the angles. If you ask me, they should have been there so they could just have seen it how we saw it. Even though we didn't see anything."
"Well, the head of the Points was there," offered Ulith.
"It's not the head who's asking for this, it's the Investigations Office," Irina told him.
As Lesana began again to separate the other two, an idea began to form in Tama's head. Before arguing could rip it apart, she slipped out of the meeting unseen. It might not work, but she was beginning to believe that even another failure was better than doing nothing.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" asked Ulith.
"Positive," Tama told him. The two building maintenance workers on the scaffolding above them looked down almost nervously. Ulith didn't blame them; judging by the last time they'd probably seen her, they might be afraid she'd either knock their perch over or try to jump off it.
"Fine, then." Ulith waved at the workers to go back to work. "We're still not having any guard towers, you hear me?"
"No argument," Tama answered. "But we have to try this again. Otherwise the whole continent will start killing itself off one by one."
"That come from your books?"
"That, and some other books," said Tama. "These Powers are hard-wired into us. They can be suppressed, but not gotten rid of, or at least not without a lot more bloodshed than we can afford. There may not be a way to let everyone know, but it needs to start somewhere that this stuff is benign."
Ulith knew she was right, but until further notice he had to assume she was also a little crazed. "Can't you wait another week or so?"
"I could," she said. "But by the time we pulled it all together again, everyone would have started to forget. And some people would have had enough time to start thinking really negatively about the whole thing, in rational ways instead of just reacting. Central could even have time to start making policies against this kind of demonstration, or order the tech seized or destroyed instead of just requesting to have it given to them."
"Plus it would give whoever's doing the shooting more time to plan," Ulith realized.
"So what you want to do is organize another meeting of the Points, or at least as many of them as you can get to come back, and use the thing yourself," he summed up. It wasn't as bad an idea as he'd originally thought. It still wasn't good, but it would accomplish several things: proving that someone with Powers could work earnestly for good; having someone test the machinery who had never before used it in earnest; and showing the bastards who'd attacked last time that they hadn't won. "Who else have you talked to?"
"Nobody," Tama admitted. "I was hoping you might talk to Lesana for me while I go after Beriali."
Ulith considered. "What exactly do you want me to ask her?"
"Not ask. Tell."
"She's crazy," said Lesana.
"You said that already."
"Well, it's the truth!" Lesana spread her arms for emphasis and knocked over a stack of witness reports. "Skrat. I am not going to pick that up now. But look at it! Written accounts from every single person that was in the courtyard, except for Tama, not that Central's going to demand one from her now they know what the situation was. I haven't even gone through them yet and she wants to make all of us go through that starak again."
"You don't know it'll turn out the same," Ulith reminded her. "She wants Irina's Power people to help stand guard."
"What good is that going to do? I don't think even Vance can stop a bullet."
"She says she felt something really nasty last time, just before . . . and she thinks if they're all helping out, and she manages not to see something going on, if one of them picks up on that feeling, she'd have one last chance to get out of the way," Ulith explained.
"They should have picked up on it last time, then," said Lesana. "The two who can, anyway."
"She asked about that. Neither one of them was receiving at the moment. It was just dumb luck that she was."
Lesana sat for a few seconds, looking torn. "You do know I'll have to get clearance from Central," she said at length.
"And they'll probably say no."
"Not quite. They'll say to let it cool off for a while, ask again that the device be turned over to their oldtech people, and do a demo themselves in about five years, once they figure out how to work it."
"But it's easy to" Ulith stopped when he realized what she meant.
"And the real starak of it will be that the Stronghold will get the credit, but they'll never get to see it again," Lesana continued, seeming to figure it out as she went. "Unless Council decides to requisition help from Irina's Powers division, and Mora help us all if anyone sees what that looks like."
"Dear Mora and all the host," Ulith breathed. "They'd be starting it all over again."
"Which is exactly why I've just decided this crazy scheme is fine with me." Lesana dropped to the floor to pick up the papers. "We can't let there be a chance of anything any closer to the old regime than we have already. Oh, thanks," she said as Ulith knelt beside her. "But she's going to have guards, more than last time. And just as a precaution, we're not telling any of the Strongholders but Irina and the volunteers."
"And Central?" inquired Ulith, tapping a sheaf of papers straight.
Ranell listened as Tama recounted her plan, looking as if she wanted to believe it but couldn't. At the end of the tale, she asked, "Do you have permission?"
"With luck, Ulith is getting that right now," she said. "And anyway, do I need permission just to learn how to use it?"
"Probably, if you want to be official," said Ranell. "But not as far as I'm concerned. You saw me putting the equipment on before, right?"
"Right," Tama confirmed. "Does anything need to be changed for a different person to use it?"
"Only the tightness of the straps," Ranell told her as they went toward it. "It's mainly a feedback and analysis loop for the energy Powers put out, plus the connections to the network. It's not hard to use, just hard to get used to using and then not using."
Tama put on the headgear and picked up the glove. "Can I put it on the other hand?" she asked.
"Oh, sure," said Ranell. "I'm just left-handed. Use your right if that's what you usually do."
Her hand trembled a little as the wires closed around it, and she told herself sternly that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Not in using the machine, anyway. "Does it have a training program or something?"
"No, but if I'd thought I'd be teaching you I'd have brought another harness and put it in dual mode." Ranell clicked the connector into place on the console. "Ready?"
Tama nodded, and Ranell pushed the switch. A low buzz seemed to arise in Tama's ears, and a thought that felt flat and metallic popped into her head: USE A) AMPLIFICATION B) NETWORKING C) TOTAL
<Pick A,> Ranell sent. <Tap with your thumb.>
Tama did, and another selection rambled through: USE A) CAPACITY B) OPTIMUM C) TWO D) THREE E) TAP FOR MULTIPLE
<C this time, middle finger.>
As Tama obeyed, she heard people entering the roller bay. Instinctively, she flicked out her sight to confirm their identities, and got much more detail than she bargained for. With the amount of effort she was using and the distance she was from them, she could usually discern general facial features. With the enhancement, she thought she could tell exactly how many hours it had been since Ulith had shaved. "Yow."
Ulith turned to goggle at her first, followed quickly by Lesana. "I guess I should have expected it, but you don't look right in that," he said.
"I have to learn it," said Tama, deliberately not looking at anything. It was disturbing to get that much detail without wanting or trying to.
"Don't worry about her," said Ranell. "We're starting slow."
Tama took the lack of response from the group, coupled with Ranell not saying anything more, as her cue to try again. She did, much more cautiously. It wasn't much different at first from seeing the way she usually did. People's faces seemed a little clearer, words on signs easier to read. Tama picked a person at random and looked closer. She could see each individual hair on her target's head without effort, and nearly all of them at once. And something she had never noticed before: skin was covered with tiny pits and fissures, every one of them different. Fascinated, she looked deeper, and the skin she was examining became first a rugged, canyon-crossed landscape, then a plain made of tiny plates. She tried to look even deeper and suddenly felt the strain of overexertion. Startled, she snapped the Power back and nearly threw herself across the room and her brain even farther.
Ranell put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right? What happened?"
Tama, still dazed, misjudged how much of her Power she flicked out; trying to make sure Ranell didn't want to disconnect her immediately, she ended up starting a mid-level read. The images she received before ending the contact were jumbled as always, and only halfway made sense. A room lined with candles, and symbols drawn in water on a flat rock floor around a naked, unmoving form. A semicircle of people taller than she was, advancing as she backed away. A thoroughly slept-in bed, with Irina on the other side. A small, wickedly sharp knife clattering to the ground
The extra power drained out of her abruptly, and she worked for a moment to gather her sight. Ranell was leaning over the machine, facing her, wearing an expression of concern. "Tama! What's wrong?"
It didn't register that the other woman didn't realize what had really happened. "Iit wasI didn't mean to," Tama choked out. "Oh Mora, I had no idea"
"What? What did you do?" Ranell asked, and Tama had regained enough of her other senses to know that her confusion was genuine. "You didn't try to go too far with it, did you?"
"No," said Tama, not bothering to focus on her. "I didn't try to."
Ranell started loosening the straps keeping the glove apparatus from shifting. "Sometimes when I was learning, I'd try something the machine was offering without knowing what it would do," she said. "It usually ended up draining me. Do you still feel like you don't have any energy?"
"No, not anymore," said Tama, removing the headband herself. She really did feel mostly normal again, except for the guilt. "But I think I read you while I was still confused."
Ranell paused a moment in setting the equipment on the machine. "What did you see?" she asked carefully, glancing over at the other group. They were still talking, occasionally glancing over but seeming to assume the lesson was going normally.
Tama didn't yet trust herself to send the images back. "A naked woman lying on the floor, and a lot of candles. And Irina. And some things I think were from when you were a kid."
"Damn," said Ranell, crossing her arms. "I should have shielded. But we can't go back now. If you ask me, Irina should have let me tell you all what was going on with that once you found out we were a Point, but she's the boss. Do you want to know? She'll probably say it's all right."
"Do I want to know what?" asked Tama, realizing how curious she was. "About the things I saw? Yes. About what in starak is going on with you people keeping secrets from us all the time? Definitely."
"Then I'll get clearance from her," Ranell said, looking a little chagrined. "I can't ask out in the open, so it might take a little while, but I'll tell you, or she will, when we can talk. All three of you, if you want. But I can't say anything until then. Sorry."
<Not even a little? One word?> Tama sent.
Ranell flashed her a mischievous grin. <Magic.>
"Of course we were going to share this with someone," said Irina, glaring down the table. "Just not until we knew more about it. Magic isn't something you want just anybody knowing you're doing."
"Translation: don't tell Central," said Ulith. "You know we can't oblige."
"Yes, but we don't have to tell them right now," Lesana compromised. "We can keep this meeting behind closed doors and make a full report when we're all ready."
Tama didn't say so, but she was surprised that Lesana had suddenly decided to bend the rules. She wondered what had brought that on, and resolved to ask next time she had a chance.
"So." Lesana folded her arms on the table. "Last I heard, magic hasn't been done since the Darkness and nobody's been complaining. What prompted you to look it up?"
"It was sort of an accident," Ranell said. "I was organizing a new load of books about a year ago and a piece of paper fell out. I couldn't read it, so I took it to one of our translation specialists and he said it was in old Melasharan but he couldn't read it either. We worked on it for a few days in our spare time and eventually found out it was part of the directions for a spell. Of course we had no idea what it was for, but it said that five other pages had been scattered to keep it from being found and used frivolously."
"And it took you the rest of the year to find the other five?" asked Ulith.
"No," said Irina. "It only took a few months. We put out a call on the Points service for materials in old Melasharan, saying we were doing a translation and compilation. You might remember it."
"I remember getting it," Lesana confirmed. "But you said to send the materials to Central, not to your place."
"Did we send anything?" Lesana continued.
Tama remembered being delegated to go through their collection and pick things out. She and Yaren had spent an enjoyable afternoon picking over the older volumes and deciding what might be the most useful. She let the memory play for a few moments before answering. "We sent three novels, a cookbook, a set of journals from historical figures, and a big book of letters all bound together that only had a few pages in the right language. We had more, but we called Central and they said these were they only ones that hadn't been offered already."
"Oh, you're the ones who sent the letters?" Ranell looked pleased. "We found one of the pages in there. Somebody had sent it to a friend thinking it was a missing page from a religious text. The rest of it we found in collections that had old languages in them but came from the emergence period, which fits with Myrithe's story, but"
"Myrithe?" Ulith interrupted. "You mean the one who told futures in ancient Kadith or the one who frightened people into moving all the way back out from underground?"
"Both, actually, but I'm getting ahead of myself," said Ranell. "So we put the pages together, and it turns out that except for the warning about it being a spell with the parts scattered for our protection, it was double-encrypted. Each page sounded like it could be a spell all by itself, but if you read it that way you'd end up with either nothing at all or a really bad headache, or worse. On top of that it was in a really nasty code, and the instructions for the cipher were in another book altogether and it took us two months to find that and another week to decipher the spell."
"And after all that you still wanted to try to cast it?" asked Tama. "Sounds like someone went to a lot of trouble to keep you from doing it."
"The thing was, nowhere did it say what the spell did," Ranell said. "There was a lot of mention of 'the peak,' and that it would bring that back, whatever it was. So we tried to find out what the phrase might refer to and couldn't do it."
"Until I thought to refer to a certain pair of books, that is," Irina put in, grinning at Tama. "There's a phrase in there. 'Return of the peak from greatness, the second flicker of flames too bright.' We looked up 'the peak' in the interpretation and found out it was supposed to be a person. And from the 'return' part, it seemed like this person was supposed to have been dead before."
"Myrithe?" Ulith asked.
"Whoever was the most shining example of skill in Powers and in magic so far in history," Ranell told him. "That's what the spell does, brings them back. And last time it was cast, they got her."
"And so did we," added Irina.
There was a silence. Tama thought of the image she had gotten from Ranell and realized that it must be from the casting. "So you actually did the spell."
"Not me," said Irina. "'Nell did the actual casting since I'm not magically inclined. She did find a way for me to help, though, by being an energy reserve so she'd have enough strength to finish. We were both drained for a day anyway. I was still pretty tired when you showed up at the doorstep."
"Question," said Lesana. "This is bringing back the dead. Doesn't that count as dark magic?"
"That's one of the reasons we waited as long as we did to try it," said Ranell. "That and I had to learn some smaller spells first. But no, it's not dark. There was no blood involved, nothing about killing or even death. Everything we used had to be pure. It took forever to distill enough water and make enough candles out of pure wax."
"Also, remember that when Myrithe lived for the first time she was killed," said Ulith. "And we don't know what happened to her the second time, just that she and the other woman disappeared. So if the 'peak' was someone who'd died of old age, who knows how they'd reappear? They might not be in a body, or if they were it might not be theirs."
Tama tried not to show surprise at his explanation. He knew obscure things sometimes, whether from learning about them before the riots or from his meanderings around the infonet. "That was the person I saw on the floor then."
"Yes." No one had to ask what she meant.
"I don't know whether I believe you or not," said Lesana. "Can we meet her?"
"That's up to her," said Ranell. "But we'll ask."
"And of course I have to ask, what are you doing with regards to reviving magic in general?" Lesana continued.
"Learning," Ranell answered. "And teaching. You could learn, if you wanted, probably even more than me."
Lesana let out a startled laugh. "You can't mean that."
"I do. And I'm not sure, but I think Tama might be able to do some small things too."
It was Tama's turn to goggle. She checked to see whether Ranell was telling the truth and found that she was. "I don't know what to say."
"You could start by asking nicely for lessons," Ulith suggested, and Lesana swatted at him.
"Not until this is all over," said Tama. "The current this, that is." The idea scared her, but at least there was less of a chance than with the current plan that she'd be sorry she had tried.
"Of course." Irina glanced at the clock. "Speaking of which, I think our time's almost up. We'll ask Myrithe about visiting here. And if you want to learn something, just ask."
"We will," Lesana confirmed as the Strongholders left. To the others, she said, "Well, I don't know about you, but I thought that was weird."
"That's a good word for it," Ulith agreed.
"So, up next is a rundown on what's being done for the demo, part two?"
"Right," he said. "Haralin should be getting here in a few minutes with some of the latest test results. I'd have brought them, but I had to come here before they were done printing."
"Is everything working?" asked Tama. One of the last things she wanted was for a network glitch to make everything impossible.
"At last count, yes," said Ulith. "I think you'll"
There was a timid knock at the door, which, Tama saw, hadn't been closed. "Come in," she said, waving Haralin toward a seat.
"Oh good, you brought prints," said Ulith, trying to make her more at ease. "What's happening?"
"Well, the network can handle the device being hooked up to it," Haralin began, handing the other three packets of paper that looked like small books. "It didn't like it much at first, but we had one of the volunteers change the home address setting on the device to one of ours and it stopped complaining. If you look on page five about the middle, you can see where it changed."
"Good, that's much better," said Ulith, studying the packet. Tama looked at Lesana and found that she was just as lost. "So the interface is working?"
"All the tests came out right." Haralin flipped some more pages. "We had one of them isolate a terminal and find a file and she did it so fast we almost didn't catch it, but the computer did. It's on page eleven if you want to see. But yes, the full network capabilities should be accessible."
"What about power? Is it needing any more?"
"It seems to depend on how strong the person using it is, which I don't understand," said Haralin. "The volunteers said it multiplies their strength, but that should be a function of the processor, not the power supply."
"It should, but who cares so long as it works?" Ulith was leafing through the back of the packet. "Oh, you printed out the daily network stats too?"
"I thought it might be useful," she said. "Nothing out of the ordinary really. We're getting heavy traffic on the Points mail system, probably from people saying either they'll come or they can't. One of the volunteers sent a message to the Stronghold, but not through the device. Somebody did a huge search for information about the old Bianxeni writing system. Oh, and somebody tried to hack into personal files and managed not to link him or herself to a name."
"Whose files?" asked Lesana.
"Tama's," said Haralin. Seeing the expressions facing her, she added quickly, "They didn't get anything. I don't even know what they were after."
"There isn't much to go after," said Tama. "I don't use the system much."
"Right, about all she has in there is Points mail," Ulith said. Tama put on an expression of surprise, and he protested, "I have to see how much people are storing. I don't look at it."
"Well, so long as nothing happened," Tama conceded. She had never imagined being glad she didn't use the system often. "Still, I wish we knew what they wanted."
"Something they didn't find," said Lesana. "Now what's going on with the emergency precautions?"
"The volunteers are all willing to help," Ulith reported. "It's tricky, though, since the two who'd be able to pick anything up can't send anything out. I've issued miniature comm sets to them and Ranell so they can tell her if something happens. But ultimately, Tama will be the one who'll have to alert us, because she'll be the only one who'll have time."
"And while I'm actually conducting the demo, I don't know how much I'll be able to do," Tama added. "Like Haralin said, our power supply is fine for plain network access or an amplification of someone's primary Power. But what I'll be doing involves more than one, and heavy use of projection, which we all know I'm not good at."
"Even with practice?" asked Lesana.
"Practice has nothing to do with it. It's strength only, and I'm not strong enough to use the level I need and keep a highly attuned watch for trouble. So we'll be depending almost entirely on the volunteersand the guards, of coursefor between ten and thirty seconds."
"But not likely that an entire second 'incident'" Ulith rolled his eyes over the word "could transpire in just that time without Tama noticing."
"And I'm going to try to keep it as short as possible," Tama promised. "Practicing is increasing my tolerance, but I don't know how much more practice my volunteers can take." Haralin, one of the volunteers, grimaced.
Lesana sighed. "I guess we'll have to take what we can get. Now, let's go through the whole schedule again?"
Tama knew her own part of the proceedings well enough to risk tuning out the litany of specifications. Two days were left, more like one and a half now. Plenty of time to get up enough nerve to do what she should have done in the first place. Or plenty of time to lose what nerve she had now.
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.