I left Anna’s body to the wind and the dust and went back down into Star’s Reach when I figured something close to an hour had passed. I wasn’t the first one to come back to the main room, though that was only because Thu was sitting in his usual chair at the table, where he’d probably been the whole time. He nodded to me; I nodded back, walked over to the table, and stood there waiting, because I couldn’t think of anything else. Everything I’d done and tried to do during the five years since I found the dead man’s letter down below the Shanuga ruins came down to one decision we were going to have to make right then and there. That two of the people I liked best might have to go into the circle with knives to settle the thing didn’t help at all.
A door opened and closed down the hall, and Berry came in next, with the kind of brittle calm on his face you see when people are ready for a fight they don’t want but know they can’t get out of. He nodded to me and Thu, took his seat at the table, folded his hands and waited. About the time he settled into place, another door opened and closed, and Eleen came in; her eyes were red, as though she’d been crying, but she greeted everybody by name, went to her place at the table across from Berry’s and sat.
A good long minute went by, and then boots sounded on the stairway down to the rest of Star’s Reach. Tashel Ban came up them, his face grim. He didn’t say anything to anyone, just walked over to his chair, pulled it out, plopped down into it and sat there with his chin propped on his hands and his eyes staring at nothing in particular.
I sat down then, and looked from face to face, remembering all the roads we’d walked together in one way or another, and also remembering the others who walked part of them with us and weren’t there for one reason or another.
“The way I see it,” I said then, “we’ve got three decisions to make. The first is what to do about Star’s Reach, the second is what to do about the messages from the Cetans, and the third is what to do about this last message.”
“What to do about Star’s Reach?” This from Tashel Ban. “I don’t see much that we can do about that.”
“Turn it over to the ruinmen to break apart for scrap,” said Thu at once. “Find some way to preserve it in its current condition, so the conversation with the Cetans can continue. Abandon it, claim that we found nothing, and leave it for someone else to find.”
“More or less,” I said. “There’s also Anna’s choice, I suppose, but I don’t see much point in that.”
That got a moment of silence, then: “No,” Tashel Ban said. “I don’t see a point to the last of your three choices, either, and which of the first two we choose depends on what we decide about the Cetans and the others. That’s the real question, as I see it: do we tell the priestesses and the Merigan government what we’ve found about the Cetans and the others, or do we destroy the computer up here, erase the data from the mainframes down below, and hand the site over to the ruinmen?”
“How hard would it be to do that?” I asked.
“The second choice? Stripping the data from the mainframes would be slow—my guess is that that’s why the people who were here before us didn’t do it. Destroying the computers up here? As long as it would take to toss each one of them down the stairwell.”
Eleen drew in a sharp breath and closed her eyes, but said nothing.
“Does anyone disagree that those are our choices?” I asked then. Nobody did, and after a moment I nodded. “Then I want to hear what everyone thinks we should do. Tashel Ban, maybe you can go first.”
“If I must.” He didn’t say anything for a while. Finally: “When I offered to come with you here, Trey, I had hopes: not Anna’s hopes, but closer to them than I like to think. I hoped that if we could get here, find messages from some other world, and figure out how to read them, that might teach us how to live on this planet without damaging it, and still have some of the things they had in the old world. Not all of them, not even most of them, and not in our lifetimes—but some of them, someday.
“Maybe we will, even so, but there’s nothing here that helps with that, and much that speaks against it. Do you remember what the message from Delta Pavonis IV said, about how they can’t teach us anything we aren’t ready to learn? That’s something I had learned already from the Cetan messages. Even something as simple as their way of turning sunlight into electricity—and that’s a very simple thing, something we could have figured out long ago if we happened to be looking in the right place—even that took most of a hundred years of work by people here at Star’s Reach to understand, because Cetans don’t think like us or build things the way we do. Maybe some of the other aliens out there think a little more like human beings, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
“I still think it’s worth saving what we’ve found, and sharing it. Those solar spheres the people here worked out from the Cetan formula would be worth having, and we might be able to figure out a few more tricks like that, given enough time. But—” He leaned back, and let his hands fall into his lap. “If the rest of you think that it’s too dangerous, for whatever reason, I’m not going to fight for it. I’ve read messages from aliens, and seen a little of what they and their worlds look like. Maybe that’s enough.”
The room was silent again for a while, and then Thu laughed his soft, deep laugh.
“This is a rich irony,” he said. “Shall I speak next?” I nodded, and he went on. “You will all no doubt remember our arguments in Sanloo, where Tashel Ban spoke of the hope he has just described, and I spoke of my fear of what human beings might do with any equivalent of the old world’s technologies. He says that what we have found here has betrayed his hopes. Equally, it has betrayed my fears.
“He has reminded us of one part of the message from Delta Pavonis. I will remind you of another part, the part that spoke of making the usual mistakes and suffering the usual consequences. If so many species have done to their own worlds what we did to ours, and struggled back from the results of that folly the way we are doing, then who can pretend that it was merely bad luck that brought the old world down in flames? Who can ever claim again that we can repeat the same stupidities and avoid the same results? And especially—” He tapped the table with one finger. “—especially when some of those others, such as the Cetans, suffered much more than we did.
“I distrust the technologies that can be found here at Star’s Reach, and what human beings might do with those in the future. I know that some message from another species might someday teach human beings something far less harmless than the solar spheres you have mentioned. I know, for that matter, that it is possible that the message from Delta Pavonis is filled with lies, and the beings who sent it intend some harm by it. Even so, if the rest of you decide that it will be best to share what we have found with the priestesses, the government of Meriga, and the world, I will not demand that the matter be settled in the circle.”
Something like a knot came undone inside me then. “Eleen?” I asked.
“I don’t want the knowledge to be destroyed,” she said simply. “If everything we’ve gotten from the Cetans has to be printed out, bundled up, sent to Melumi and locked in a vault for a thousand years, I won’t object, but I don’t want it destroyed. Maybe it’s just because I was trained as a scholar, but the thought of seeing all that knowledge lost is not something I can face. If the rest of you decide that that’s what has to be done—” She closed her eyes. “I don’t know what I’d do.” Opening them again: “But there are places such things could be kept safely for a very long time, if that’s what it comes to.”
“Do you think they need to go someplace like that?” I asked her.
“No,” she said at once. “No, I think it would be better if everyone in Meriga knew about the Cetans and what happened to them, and about the others—the ones from Delta Pavonis, and all the rest. I think—I think it would be better if we could keep on communicating with the Cetans, and take up the others on their offer, but I know the rest of you may not agree with that. I’ll yield on that if I have to, but I want to see the knowledge preserved.”
“Berry?” I asked.
He looked up from the table. “I’m thinking about what will happen when word gets out. Whatever we decide, once people learn where Star’s Reach is, they’re going to start heading this way. Some of them will just want to see it, the way people want to see Melumi or Troy, but some of them may have other plans, and the men and guns to put those plans into action.”
“We came rather too close to something like that already,” said Tashel Ban, “with Jennel Cobey.”
“I was thinking of that,” said Berry. “So whatever decision we make, we need to keep that in mind, and do something to make our decision more than empty wind.”
“That said,” I asked him then, “what do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t want to see the messages from the Cetans destroyed. I’m not at all sure I want to see everything handed out all anyhow to the world. If my—my mother was still alive, I’d say we should contact the government and the priestesses and let them deal with it, but right now? Until a new presden gets chosen, it would be up to Congrus to decide, and I don’t even want to think about the kind of mess they’d make of it. So I don’t know.”
Another silence came and went. “Trey,” Eleen asked then, “what do you think?”
I looked from face to face. “I think,” I said then, “that we’re asking questions that are too big for five people to answer. I’ve got my own preferences—I’d like it if more people found out about the Cetans and the others, I’d like to see those solar spheres turning sunlight into electricity all over the place; I’d like to have people keep talking with the Cetans, and take the others up on their offer to talk—but are those the right choices? I don’t have any idea. If there are answers here at Star’s Reach, it’s going to take a lot of people a lot of time and work to figure them out. That’s more than we can do.
“I think that what we need is to get more people here. We need ruinmen, scholars, and priestesses, to start with, because they’re used to ruins and things left over from the old world, but sooner or later there need to be people who are trained to do the work that needs doing here, and can keep it going for a good long time.”
Eleen was staring at me by then. “What you’re suggesting,” she said, “is that there should be a guild.”
I hadn’t thought of the word, but the moment she said it I knew it was the right one. “Yes,” I said. “Not like the group that was here in the time of Anna’s parents, closed off from the rest of Meriga, but something like the ruinmen, the radiomen, the scholars—” Plummer’s guild of rememberers, I wanted to say, but didn’t. “A guild that can work with the priestesses and the government to make sure that what happens here doesn’t do anything wrong or illegal, and still keep the conversations going with the Cetans and the others.”
“You’ll need scholars,” she said, “and I don’t know how many of those you can get to leave Melumi.”
That’s when I figured out the last part of it. “We’ll just ask the ones that aren’t at Melumi any more.” I could see their faces: Mam Kelsey at the Shanuga camp, the cook at the Wanrij roadhouse, Lu the harlot, all the others I’d met along the way. “The failed scholars. How many of them get turned away from Melumi every year?”
“Anything up to a dozen,” she said. I don’t think she was seeing the same faces I was, but she was lookng past me then, at something I couldn’t see.
“That might work,” said Tashel Ban. Then: “It would take money, quite a bit of it.”
“There’s a lot of metal here that isn’t needed any more and could be sold for scrap,” I told him. “That’ll be enough to make a good start. After that—well, how much do you think the chemists would pay to know how to make those solar spheres?”
Tashel Ban whistled. “A very pretty figure.”
“I bet plenty of people would pay a couple of marks to have a picture from Tau Ceti II to hang on the wall, too,” I said. “The money won’t be a problem.”
“As Berry has said,” said Thu then, “your guild will need to be armed, especially at first.”
“That’s why the first thing I think we should do is get a bunch of ruinmen out here,” I said. “Not to strip the place—Berry and I have finder’s rights on it, and they’ll honor that—but to make sure that nobody else will try to take it. People don’t often mess with us.”
“I well remember,” Thu said, with a slight smile.
“Time might be an issue there,” said Eleen. “One of you would have to go back to Cansiddi, talk with the guild there, get enough ruinmen together—”
I shook my head. “I left notes on how to get here at the Cansiddi guild hall, in case we didn’t come back. They’re sealed and locked away, but all it would take is one radio message from me to get them to open it. And if I know ruinmen at all, once word got around that I’d gone west from Cansiddi into the desert, dozens of young misters with no other call on their time would have headed for Cansiddi on the off chance that they might be able to get in on the dig.”
They were all looking at me by then, Berry with the first slight smile I’d seen on his face since we heard that his mother was dead, Eleen still staring at something none of us could see, Tashel Ban giving me his owlish look, Thu unreadable as always.
“It would be a gamble,” Thu said finally.
“If you’ve got a better idea,” I told him, “I’d be happy to hear it.”
He allowed a smile, said nothing. I glanced at the others. Berry was nodding agreement; Eleen had stopped looking past me at whatever it was, and had begun to smile; Tashel Ban frowned, and then said, “It’s a gamble, no question. Shall we cast the bones?”