There would be no ceremony this time, and no more important people out in the open than necessary. Tama wasn't about to give the shooters any more planning time than she had to, or easy access to the machine or anyone they might be able to use. To that end, the platform was gone, and so were the towers. Instead, guards ringed the area where people would be, and Irina's group sat at the back of the audience, ready to alert her if something went wrong. Their line of sight to her was rapidly becoming cluttered as the representatives filed in and found seats in the cluster of chairs facing her own, but with luck they would be able to sense any recurrence of what she had felt last time.
The audience was smaller, too. Only twenty-two of the Points had shown up at all, and of those delegations, the largest from any single place was five. Tama reminded herself that these were the people who wanted to learn the truth, who were willing to brave the uncertain situation to find out. It still wasn't terribly comforting.
Tama sat in her chair on the still-trampled grass, facing down the aisle through the nearly-full rows of seats. She had decided to wait until they were all there to begin, so that she wouldn't have to start over or repeat herself. There wasn't much to repeat at any rate, but she wasn't sure she'd have the nerve to do it if the need arose. Already she was having second thoughts, and inner visions of flying sparks and fleeing people. Then the last person sat down, and she fought her indecision to stand up and begin.
"Thank you all for returning," she said, looking out over the heads of the delegates to check on the volunteers. Chann was shielded as usual, but nothing strange was coming from any of them. "My name is Tama. I'm the head of the installation's morale-monitoring forces, and as such, I realize how difficult it must have been for all of you to return after the last time. It has been difficult for me as well. But we have all realized that no matter what our fears or feelings, the cause to which we have dedicated ourselves must come first. We must place the need for this country, this continent to be rebuilt above our desire for secrecy, and we must build it this time on truth instead of fear. To this end, the demonstration that was supposed to have taken place at the last meeting will go on, and I will conduct it myself."
"You have a Power?" someone in the audience yelped as she was picking up the equipment.
"Actually, I have several," she said, slipping on the headdress and raising her voice to be sure she was heard over the sudden rush of whispers. "I can sense both thoughts and emotions, and if I try really hard I can project thoughts. But that's not what I want to show you." She put on the glove and fastened the straps, making sure the equipment wouldn't fall off, and then tapped the button. The menu of choices sprang into her mind, and she chose first to use the device at capacity, then to split her abilities to target many other minds. She had used it before and knew it would work, but she had never yet had this large a target group nor yet used so much power. "Are you ready?"
The audience made noises of general assent, some of them muttering that that was what they were here for, wasn't it? Tama readied her demonstration and braced herself. "Would you close your eyes, please?" There was more muttering, and only half of them did it. "This isn't to keep you from seeing what I'm doing," she explained. "It will help, believe me." About half of the remainder obeyed. Telling herself they'd been warned, she targeted all their minds at once, and supplemented their vision with her own.
The result wasn't immediate, but it was by no means slow. Almost everyone made noises of surprise, and some of the ones who had closed their eyes tried to open them. They, like the skeptics who had held out, soon found themselves disoriented. A few came close to screaming, and more than a few looked nauseated. Tama felt sorry for them, but she forced herself not to let go. "This is how I see," she said, the words carrying the heat of anxiety and the strain of holding the contact. "It's very different from the way the rest of you do it."
"No skrak," gasped someone. "This is weird."
"No more weird than not being able to see at all," said Tama. "Or at least that's what I think."
"You said you had to try hard to project thoughts," said a woman Tama recognized as being from the nearest government library station. "How are you doing this to all of us?"
"That's what the machine is for," Tama said, and let them go. "I don't know of anybody in this world who could have done anything, however small, to all of you at once. It takes this type of device to make that possible. I myself could never have done this if there were as many people here as there were the first time." She tried, mostly successfully, to squash the thoughts of the first time that cropped up. "I hope that, after this, you can believe me and everyone else who says that these devices are not necessarily bad."
"After what you did to us?" demanded a man who still looked as if his stomach were rebelling.
"She asked you to close your eyes," the man next to him said. "You should have listened."
Tama turned a giggle into a smile and went on. "What I want to know now is, do you believe me?"
"You're not leaving us a starak of a lot of choice," said the librarian.
"You could always believe it was a hallucination," Tama suggested. "I hear that some sorts can make you see things in altered ways."
The crowd was silent. Tama thought they were waiting for her until someone said, "Then I believe it must be like what you and your friends live in."
Immediately, fearing the worst, Tama looked out through the machine. Someone was standing in the aisle at the back of the crowd, just in front of the knot of volunteers. Obviously, he didn't know the full extent of her sight, since he was attempting to hide a weapon behind his back. She wondered for a moment how he had gotten it past the volunteers, then noticed that only one of them was conscious, and that he held what appeared to be a stunstick. He was sitting in a normal chair, which confirmed his identity. "You must be Revell," she said, trying to make her tone light. "I've heard so much about you. Did you run all the way here when you heard what was going to happen?"
"Stop being cute and unlink," he said. "I don't want to hurt you. I just want you to give the machine back and leave us alone."
"'Us' the Stronghold, or 'us' your particular group?" asked Tama, tapping through menus toward the ability to link into the network.
"Clever," he said, pulling out the gun to predictable audience screams. "Just giving it to me would be fine."
"You have to know you can't win," she said, and sent her command along the cable linking the machine to the installation's network.
Like magic, the monitors of all the linked computers began to blink Yarentama.
"Are you sure?" asked Revell. "Last I heard, you don't do kinetics. The only way you're going to stop a bullet is by taking it."
Yaren falling from the platform. Screams, nothingness, pain. Tama pushed it away as hard as she could. "So, Chann," she said, hoping her voice didn't sound too scared, "how long have you been part of the wrong side?"
"There is no wrong side," he said. "There's our side and yours. You said yourself people fear us. As long as that's true, they can put us back where we were."
"Is your fear so much better?" asked Tama, extending all her Powers as far as she could, through the machine. The guards had their weapons trained on the pair, but they wanted neither to shoot one of their own nor to take the risk of hitting a bystander. Revell was an energy-bright spot of determination, Chann a swirl of guilt, anger, and certainty. She thought she knew how she could stop them, but she wasn't sure she could stop both at once. She hoped Chann hadn't hidden a more potent weapon.
"No." She sent her Power into Revell's mind and readied her defense, waiting until there was something for her to use.
A thought, the desire to pull the trigger, surfaced like a bubble of lightning, and Tama pounced. With all the speed and strength the machine could give, she projected onto it the thought of holding completely still, and then braced herself for whatever impact would come. After a few moments of nothing happening, she dared to look out. Revell was standing still, nearly quivering with rage she could have felt without mechanical help. Chann and the guards shared a state of confusion.
"Somebodyget the gun," she said, concentrating. "And the other one."
That was enough to break the guards' motionlessness, but Chann had a different idea. With a yell, he vaulted his chair to grab the gun. Before he could reach it, though, the audience member nearest him jumped up and clumsily tackled him. Two more followed, pinning him to the ground between the chairs, as the guards reached Revell. Once the weapon was gone, Tama let go, leaning against the machine. She saw, dimly in spite of the extra energy, a group of people rushing out into the courtyard, and let herself smile at the thought that she hadn't needed them after all.
Lesana appeared next to her. "Are you all right?" she asked, seeing how heavily Tama was leaning on the machine.
"I'm scared to turn it off," Tama said to the ground. Her pulse was still too fast for her to be able to judge how much of what was keeping her up was adrenaline, how much was the machine, and how much was what she had left. "Could you get me a chair?"
By the time Lesana got back with the chair, Ulith and Irina had made it through the crowd. Irina, with a barely conscious but buzzing mad Ranell clinging to her, kept asking "What did you do?" and Ulith kept trying to turn off the machine. Tama managed to fend them off, but she was grateful for the chair when it arrived. As soon as she pushed the switch and the extra energy drained out of her, she was even more grateful. Ranell looked suddenly sympathetic, and Tama heard <Go eat something, it helps.>
<Thank you,> she returned tenuously, then said aloud to Irina, "All I did was stop him. I waited for him to think of firing so I knew where he thought of it, and then I just thought at that spot to hold still."
Irina's face took on a look of childish glee. "The point of conversion!" she exclaimed, barely keeping herself for Ranell's sake from jumping up and down. "'Between loss and the point of conversion there is nothing holding back the end.' It's perfect!"
"I'm glad," said Tama, feeling less steady by the moment. "Good Mora, he almost . . . "
"Let's get you out of here," said Ulith, reaching down to put an arm around her shoulder as Lesana did the same on her other side. "Think you can make it?"
Tama made a noise she hoped sounded positive, and struggled to her feet. She didn't try to look at what was going on around her, but she could hear the Points people who were still there moving out of the way as the party limped past. The path they followed seemed familiar, but she was too busy concentrating on staying upright to think of where they were going, other than that it wasn't to her own rooms. When they reached a doorway and had to squeeze through, Tama noticed that only she and her supporters entered the room. "Where did" she began.
"They went to get you something to eat," said Lesana. "Though from the look of you it's probably not going to get eaten for a few hours at least, but Ranell wouldn't shut up."
Tama felt the proximity of an object near her knees and reached down to find it was a bed. Detaching herself from Ulith and Lesana, she fell onto it. "She can try," she mumbled into the covers. They felt familiar.
"I'll tell her to leave it if you're asleep, then," said Lesana. "I don't have to tell you what an important thing you did, but I'm going to anyway. Just as soon as you feel ready to stand up."
"Sure," Tama said, only half caring. She waited for them to leave before shifting into a more traditional lengthwise position on the bed and burrowing into one of the pillows. In a moment, she realized that not only did the covers feel familiar, but they smelled it too. Suddenly alert, Tama retraced the path she had been dragged along and knew that she was right. Knowing they wouldn't be able to get her to her own rooms still conscious, they had taken her to Yaren's rooms.
I did it, she thought weakly to whatever or whoever might be watching her. I hope you saw me. She clutched the pillow to herself more tightly, to hold a cloud as she fell asleep.
Tama awoke feeling much less refreshed than she had hoped. She didn't bother checking the clock; it was glassed over and inaccessible to her, like most of the clocks in the installation. She did notice the cafeteria tray on the bedside table, though, and attacked the food gratefully while trying to remember the dream she'd had. It had all gone hazy just as she woke up, something she never enjoyed. Maybe it would come back to her later.
She felt better after eating; Ranell had been right about that. It made her wonder if she would have fallen asleep at all had she taken the advice sooner. She took the tray and empty dishes over to the customary place near the door and stayed there, looking at the room. Somehow it didn't feel as empty as she had feared, probably because nothing had been moved out yet. She wondered why that hadn't been done, and realized that everyone might be waiting for her to be ready. If they were waiting for that, she decided, they shouldn't.
Tama heard the door open and looked to see who it was. It wasn't anyone she recognized, but something about the woman in the doorway was familiar. "Hello?"
"Hi," said the stranger. Her voice sounded about eighteen, a little younger than the age Tama had put to her shape. "You must be Tama, they told me you were in here. I'm glad I didn't wake you up."
"No, I did that just before you got here," said Tama, trying to think of where she might have met this person before.
"Oh good." Relief mixed with a sad kind of sympathy flooded off the other woman. "I'm sorry, you must be wondering what I'm doing here. I'm Jani. I'm"
"His sister," said Tama, feeling suddenly hollow. Are we there yet? asked her mind, as she noticed the similarities between Jani and her brother: the texture of the hair, the build, the ears.
"Right." Jani came all the way into the room and closed the door. "We missed everything, didn't we." Her eyes were on the floor.
"Yes, you did," Tama admitted. "I thought they'd have sent a roller for you."
"They did. But Ma has joint problems and she couldn't get into it. They had to send out another kind of car, and what with the roads not being connected up too well, we didn't make it."
"But why didn't you come anyway?" asked Tama. "You would have been welcome."
"The drivers told us there was classified stuff going on here," said Jani, looking angry now. "We had to wait in a rooming house until today."
"They what?" Tama demanded. "Who was that? They had no right to do that to you." There was no denying it was classified stuff that had been going on, but if Central didn't trust the installation to be able to keep it quiet, what else didn't they trust them on?
"I don't know," Jani answered, shaking her head. "It was like they didn't care, and we were all just waiting and all we wanted was to" She broke off in a sob, pressing a hand to her mouth, and a few seconds later threw both arms around Tama, who hugged back only partly out of reflex. "I'm just glad we're here," she whispered.
Tama waited for a few moments before asking, "Where's everyone else?"
"They went to the grave," said Jani into her shoulder. "But it's not going anywhere. I wanted to meet you." She pulled back, still feeling shaky. "He talked about you all the time, when we got letters from him," she said. "I kept asking if I could come visit and meet you and he kept saying no."
"Well, we are busy most of the time," Tama explained. "He was probably afraid he wouldn't be able to spend any time with you."
"He shouldn't have been," said Jani. "He knowsknewwe'd make time. Mora, it's hard to get tenses straight."
Jani began to wander around the room. "Yow. His closet's a mess."
"I know. I used to wonder how he ever found anything in there." Tama's own closet was meticulously arranged by color, just in case she was ever asked to wear or not to wear a certain shade. The rest of her color problem was solved by wearing only neutral colors below the waist; it might be boring, but at least it kept her from attracting disapproving stares.
"It's the only thing though, really. That's a mess, I mean," Jani continued, gazing out the window. Abruptly, she turned to look at Tama. "I have to know something."
"Ask." She hoped she could answer. The uncertainty Jani was radiating made her nervous.
"Was it . . . quick?" she asked, her voice shaking with the effort of trying not to plead.
Something she could answer, if not painlessly. "Yes. It was very quick."
"You're sure?" Jani persisted. "You're not just saying that?"
"I was there." Tama let herself remember this time, to make sure she hadn't forgotten. "It was very quick."
"Good," said Jani, staring at the floor again. "I'd hate to think if it wasn't."
Tama had already thought about that. "Me too."
"Well, you may be centrally located, but that doesn't make you easy to get to," said the head of the Oldtech Department, settling into a chair. The conference room had had another table squeezed in to accommodate not only him but also the protocol delegate accompanying him, the second director of the League, and his technology specialist. Irina, Ranell, and one of their techs were already seated, as was the head committee of the installation. The chairs were uncomfortably close together, and too close to the walls for Tama's taste. She hoped there wouldn't be an emergency that required anyone to leave quickly.
"Just imagine if this were all still varala plantations," said Irina.
"Give us time," said Lesana, giving Irina a dirty look. "We don't have a road repair crew yet."
"Neither does most anybody," the second director responded. "It's our next priority. After this meeting, of course."
"Which should get started," said the department head. "First off, do we all know each other? No? Well, feel free to call me Arram. This" he indicated the protocol specialist "is Jarret."
Jarret inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment.
"Tobrin," said the second director.
"Hani." His tech.
The introductions continued around the table. Tama had met most of those present, if only in passing. She felt sorry for the League people, who had the most new names to remember.
"Now, what exactly happened this morning?" Arram asked. "I got the order to get down here fast, but I don't think I've heard the full story."
"We decided that since the demonstration we had originally planned didn't work out, we should try again," said Lesana. "Tama used the machine this time and got through the demonstrating part, but there'd been a leak about what was going to happen and someone brought in a gun. She stopped him and we arrested him." She had carefully not mentioned that the would-be shooter was one of Irina's, Tama noticed. Irina noticed too, judging by the gratitude Tama could feel coming from her.
"First question," said Jarret. "How did the gun get in if there were guards?"
"Our leak was one of the guards, sort of," said Irina, radiating the combination of regret, reluctance, and resignation that usually accompanied admissions of guilt. "He's one of my Power people who've used the device and were helping guard. He cleared the shooter to come in and then stunned my other three Power people. Ranell here can attest to that."
"How did you stop him?" asked Hani, her expression incredulous. She hadn't known about Tama's Powers until the debriefing.
"I basically told his mind to make him to stand still," Tama explained.
"That's not something I've heard is possible," said Arram.
"And yet here she sits," said Ulith quietly.
"We will, of course, be taking both suspects back with us," Jarret interjected. "I trust you've questioned them to your satisfaction?"
"To our capacity to get anything useful is more like it," said Lesana. "The emPowered one, Chann, tried to make a deal by naming other people in the Stronghold who favored his faction. We called over there and they're in custody now too."
"Chann wasn't happy at all," added Ranell, looking smug.
"Well, despite the fact that it seems to have turned out all right," Arram began, "none of this should have happened in the first place. If we at Central had heard about you people trying this demonstration again, it wouldn't have. But on the other hand, it seems to have accomplished something. Everyone I've talked to who was at that assembly this morning said the same thing: that device cannot possibly be evil. For that matter, half of them think Tama ought to get some kind of medal."
Tama tried to keep from blushing, which of course made it worse. She hadn't counted on becoming a local hero, but if it helped, she could live with it.
"You've put us in a very difficult spot," Arram continued. "If we congratulate you, we're condoning breaking the rules. If we reprimand you, it's like saying we really didn't want the demo in the first place, which is some nasty hypocrisy for my department. You violated the chain of command, but if nobody ever did that there'd be no innovation and nobody would ever take initiative. So the official Points position on this is no position. We're not making any announcements or judgments. The report won't say anything about it being sponsored by us or by the League."
"Thank you," said Lesana.
"However, since we can't let this completely slide by," Arram told her, "you will have an official reprimand placed in your record. But," he said as IrinaIrina? Tama thoughtstarted to object, "like all reprimands, five years of spotless service will erase everything about it but the note that it used to be there. This is the first time you've gone against regulations, Lesana. No one is going to base their opinion of you on just one line in your record."
Lesana nodded, looking partly relieved. "I'll clear it."
"We're certain of that," said Jarret. Just to be sure, Tama checked and found that he truly was certain of it. Lesana would be happy to hear that later, even if she wasn't happy about having to report magical dabbling now instead of later.
"Now, the reason all of you are here," said Arram. "There is a device sitting in a roller bay downstairs that requires our immediate attention. Now that we know it works, and that it doesn't appear to cause chaos by itself, we need to decide what to do about it."
"What?" Irina barely kept herself from standing. "I thought we were just going to take it home."
"My department says otherwise." Arram steepled his fingers, peering at her over them. "You chose not to reveal to us that you had this device; we had to hear it from twenty-five." It took Tama a moment to realize that he was referring to her installation by number. "We still don't know how long you've had it, and now one of your own has taken it upon himself to keep it from being used by anyone else. The department isn't sure this is something you over at eighteen should have."
"But it's ours," Ranell protested. "We're finding everyone who's on the keeping-it-a-secret side, I swear."
"We know the most about it of anyone around," added the Stronghold tech, a man about Irina's age, named Elden. "We're the only ones qualified to have it."
"But what I'm trying to get at is, you shouldn't have been the only ones," said Arram. "You were obligated to share this information with the Points when you joined or when you found it, and you didn't. It's only because of ownership that the department didn't rule in favor of taking possession of it immediately." He paused to pour himself a glass of water from a pitcher on the table. "What they did decide was that it should come to a vote. That's why each of the Points involved was asked to send a representative for their technological branch and one for any emPowered personnel they might have in addition to their leaders. We want to get opinions from all sides. And that includes the League, since twenty-five is a member of that organization also. Everyone's vote will count equally." Tama looked around and realized that with the number of people there, it could be a tie. She wondered if anyone else had thought of that.
"That's against protocol," Irina said to Arram. And to Jarret, "And you know it."
"Nobody here has proven immune to that lately," he answered. "Except the League." Tobrin tried not to look proud.
"So what are our options?" asked Lesana. "You've read my report."
"Yes, we have," said Jarret. "And it was a good point you made about our likely decision regarding custody of the device. It's for that reason that we've decided to leave it in the hands of the Points themselves. The vote today is to decide which one."
"I'm assuming it's just between the two here," said Lesana.
"Yes, because the two here have at least some experience with this type of tech," Arram confirmed. "Everyone should learn, but right now it's the safest in hands that have handled it a bit."
"Then there shouldn't need to be a vote," said Ulith. "What we ought to do is move it back and forth depending on who needs it. Share." Elden and Hani nodded thoughtfully.
"What we ought to do," said Irina, glaring at Ulith, "is give it back to its rightful owners."
"Who are unpredictable and divided in purpose," Lesana returned. "We all know what can happen with it in the wrong hands. I don't want to have to witness it, ever."
"And you wouldn't!" Ranell really did stand up, then realized it and sat back down. "We never did anything with it to hurt anyone. Even Chann didn't use it to do anything harmful. You have no basis for accusing us."
"I'm not. I'm just trying to understand why you think it would do more good with you."
"Because we know more about it," said Irina.
"It's not as if you couldn't teach anyone," Hani put in. "I know I'd like to find out how it works."
"Go for it," said Tobrin. "Find out if it does anything we can actually use."
"Faster searches?" Hani inquired, brandishing a copy of Haralin's report. "Kinetic enhancement for beam lifting? The possible ability to use the system if you're not able to use it traditionally? I don't think it's useless."
"You know what we should do," Ulith mused, "we should figure out how to copy it and each have one."
"Good luck," said Elden. "Nobody can get inside it anymore."
"Except Vance," Tama reminded him. "Or any other kinetic. They could help."
"In any case, I vote to share it," said Ulith. "Anyone else?"
"I like that idea," said Hani. "I'll vote for it."
Tobrin crossed his arms. "Those eighteen-people aren't in the League. I say give it to Moyann."
"Me too," said Lesana.
"Well, I want it back," Irina countered.
"I second that," said Ranell, and looked expectantly at Elden.
"Actually," said the Stronghold tech, looking ready to duck, "I'd prefer to share it. I don't know if we'd ever be able to duplicate it completely, but with two Points working on it, we'd have a better chance."
"I agree with that," said Arram, relieved to have been able to speak again. "But I don't see how it would hurt the effort to have the device stay in one location. And given the track records of the Points involved, I'm going to have to cast my vote for twenty-five in spite of the demonstration incidents and the usual rights of ownership." He glanced at his companion.
"Normally I would agree," said Jarret, looking around the table. "But in light of the recent flagrant disregard for policy displayed by twenty-five, my vote has to go to eighteen."
Irina looked up from a notepad she'd been writing on. "That's three for us, three for them, and three to share. There's ten of us. Who's left?"
Tama tried to disappear. As everyone slowly realized who the holdout was, she considered abstaining, but remembered that if she did that, Central would have to decide. It was much better to leave it in the hands of the Points. She gathered her words and her breath. "Me."
"So?" Lesana was staring at her as intently as everyone else. Nine people, and six of them would be let down.
"I wish I could vote to share it," Tama began, "but that would just take too much effort. And who knows when someone will keep it a day too long and get in trouble? So, failing that, I wish I could vote for giving it back to the Stronghold, but from our dealings with them so far, I can't. I want to learn about this device, and even though they know the most about it, so far they as a group have been happier to stay that way than to teach others. They didn't tell us they were one of the Points when this whole thing started, and that's something that could have kept it from starting." She felt a curious surge of emotions from Irina, but kept going. "So I have to vote for keeping it here at Moyann until another one is found or duplicated. Then we should each get one and keep teaching other Points and League members about them. This is about communication, and I think this will inspire the most of that."
No one spoke for a few moments. Tama braced for the worst. She was afraid it would come when Irina started to speak, but she only said, "I hate to say it, but she's right. We've all been hiding so long we've forgotten how not to. And now it's come to this."
"You're not just going to let them" Ranell began.
"Yes, I am," said Irina, placing a hand over hers on the table. "I'm the one who kept us hidden all this time. I'm the one who was so sure about her own people that she didn't get to know what they really wanted. And I'm not the one who paid the price." She looked at Lesana. "I don't know what it'll mean, but I'm sorry."
Lesana, biting her lip, nodded. "Thank you."
Irina turned toward Tama next. "And I'm sorry," she repeated, her emotions backing up her words.
The longer you keep a secret, the harder it gets, and the worse the eventual toll becomes. She hadn't thought that someone else might be self-blaming the way she had been. "Thank you," she said, surprised that she could say it without shaking.
There was another silence.
"I guess that's all then?" asked Arram quietly.
His answer came when people began to leave.
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.