“We may have a problem,” said Tashel Ban.
Dinner was on the table, just bread and beans—we’ve been at Star’s Reach long enough that the tastier end of our supplies have started to run short. Still, everyone looked at him. Everyone but Eleen, I ought to say; she sat there, not looking at anyone or anything, the way she does when there’s trouble and she can’t do anything about it. Tashel Ban had papers in his hands and he was looking at Thu, and that meant a very particular kind of trouble.
Thu said nothing, and after a moment Tashel Ban went on. “We found another paper on Cetan science and technology, probably the last one that the people here had time to put together—it was written about three years before Star’s Reach was abandoned. Not much different from the last one, except that it refers to another paper, and we were able to find the other paper.
“You’ll remember that the Cetans have their own way of getting electricity from sunlight, unlike anything humans ever tried. That’s what the other paper is about. Some people here decided to try to figure how that worked from what they’d already learned about Cetan technology. They—” He shrugged. “The compounds the Cetans use aren’t stable in an oxygen atmosphere—they catch fire as soon as electricity starts flowing through them—but they were able to figure out the basis for the effect, and find compounds that will work here. So—” He looked straight at Thu. “We have a formula for a Cetan technology that could change the way we get energy here.”
Thu considered that for a moment. “Does it differ from the solar cells the old world made?”
“The principle’s the same. The details aren’t. The old solar cells, they were made using technologies we don’t have any more; I know people back in Nuwinga who’ve made solar cells of a sort, but it’s a slow expensive process. This technology isn’t slow and it probably won’t be too expensive, once some work gets done on sources for the chemicals.”
“Chemicals.” Thu repeated the word as though it wasn’t something you say around good people. “How toxic?”
“They’d have to be tested. Still, the result seems to be chemically stable, and it’s recyclable.” He used his hands to show a ball the size of someone’s head. “Imagine something that looks like glass, about this big around, with a wire going into the center of it and a net of fine wires all over the outside. Light shines on it and kicks electrons into motion, and they flow out the wire that goes to the center and back in through the net around the outside. The Cetan ones last for about thirty of our years, then have to be melted down and remade. Here, they hadn’t figured out how long they would last, but something like that’s probably a good guess.”
“How much power will come from it?”
“Depends on location and season. My best guess, from the figures in the paper, is that each of them will produce around a hundred watts under average conditions—say, five of them would equal your ordinary farmyard wind turbine.”
Thu just looked at him for a long moment, then: “You say they will not be too expensive. As expensive as a wind turbine?”
“Less than that,” Tashel Ban answered. “As a guess—and it’s no more than a guess—once these were being produced in fair numbers, you could probably buy a five or six hundred watt system for about as much as a wind turbine would cost you.”
Another long silent look from Thu, and then, unexpectedly, he laughed. He doesn’t laugh often, but when he does it’s a great rolling laugh that fills up whatever space he’s in. Tashel Ban looked baffled, probably wondering what the joke was, which was what I was wondering just then, too. The others watched and waited.
“You expect me,” Thu said then, “to invoke our bargain and settle our disagreement with knives, because farmers in Meriga will be able to choose between wind and sun to power a few light bulbs and a fan in the summer? No. My requirement—” He tapped a finger on the table, hard enough that it rang. “My requirement is that nothing we find here will give humanity the chance to do again what they did to the earth. Wind turbines have not done that. Solar water heaters have not done that. I see no reason to think that these solar cells will do that—and I do not grudge the farmers their light bulbs and cool air in the summer.”
There’s a kind of tension you get in a place where a fight’s about to start, and everyone knows it; and if the fight isn’t going to happen after all, and everyone knows it, the moment when the tension lets go lands like a punch in the stomach. I know I swayed, and I’m pretty sure most of the others did, too. Berry didn’t, though. He glanced at me, at Thu, and at Tashel Ban, and then said, “I wonder how hard would it be to figure out whether there’s anything later than that paper on the computer.”
Tashel Ban thought about that for a moment. “I could probably do it now. We’ve found enough files with dates that it should be possible to figure out the raw code, and search.”
“That might be a good idea,” said Berry then. “I’ve been thinking, and it seems to me that we have to do two things before we can let other people know about any of this.”
We were all looking at him then. “First,” he went on, “is finding out if the Cetans have sent us anything that might hurt Mam Gaia, or humanity, or Meriga or the other nations. Second is finding out why the people here—” He glanced sideways at Anna, who was watching him with no expression on her face at all. “—why they died. We could do both by finding what information they left that’s later than this.”
“True,” said Tashel Ban.
“There’s another factor,” Eleen said then. “The radio.”
“Also true,” said Tashel Ban, as though the two of them had talked about it before, which no doubt they had. He turned back to Thu. “Before we make a decision about making all this public, we also need to know what’s happening in Meriga. If war’s broken out—well, then things are going to be rather more difficult.” He gestured, palms up. “So I’d like to propose that we assemble the radio receiver. Just the receiver, to listen; we can leave the transmitter for later.”
That was another part of the agreement I mentioned a while back, the one I got Thu and Tashel Ban to settle on before we left Cansiddi. Tashel Ban brought his own radio gear with him when he came to join us in Sanloo, a transmitter and a receiver, both of them with the tubes taken out and packed in wool to keep them from breaking on the road. They stayed that way after we arrived, because we’d agreed that no word of what we found, if we found anything, was to go out until we all agreed on what to say.
Thu thought a moment, and then said, “That will be acceptable.” I glanced around at everyone else and asked, “Anyone disagree?” Nobody did, and so that’s what Tashel Ban is doing right now, muttering to himself as he makes sure the tubes are still good and figures out how to hook the radio up to one of the antennas outside. Anybody with two bits of common sense would be pretty much frantic to know what’s happened in Meriga while we’ve been gone, since the Presden was probably dying when we left and jennels were busy raising armies to fight each other, but what I’m thinking about instead is Thu - how we met, and how he almost killed me.
That happened not long after I got to Memfis. As soon as Berry and I got settled in at the ruinmen’s hall there, I went to the misters, explained to them what I was there for, asked about the records of past digs, and told them about the Walnut Ridge Telecommunications Facility and the contract dig I’d agreed to do with Jennel Cobey. They knew a fair amount of that already, of course, since ruinmen carry news with them when they travel, but they didn’t know all of it, and it’s one of the courtesies that you don’t dare skip when you’re planning a dig in someone else’s region. Of course I planned on bringing the Memfis misters and prentices into the dig, and paying them with Jennel Cobey’s money, and I let them know that; and I also mentioned, which they already knew, that I hadn’t managed a dig myself before, and would welcome the local guild’s help with that; and between the prospect of money up front and the chance to help find the way to Star’s Reach, they were pretty pleased with me, and gave me all the help I needed.
It turned out that the the ruin of Walnut Ridge Telecommunications Facility hadn’t been worked yet, either. Memfis was a big city in the old world, even bigger than it is now, when it’s the largest city in Meriga. Some of the ruins around it are buried deep in river mud and water, and won’t be at any risk of being touched by a ruinman’s shovel until Mam Gaia decides she wants a different climate again and the sea draws back a good long ways to the south, but there’s a lot of ruins less hard to get, and the guild’s only been working them since after the Third Civil War. It wasn’t too hard to figure out where the place was, and so all I had to do was get the money from Jennel Cobey, start hiring people and getting supplies together, and make a start on the dig.
I sent the jennel a letter right away and started making arrangements. That meant visiting the houses of each of the misters in the Memfis guild, first of all, and making deals over dinner and whiskey; after that was done and I knew how many misters and prentices I’d have to set up with food and tents and the like, it meant visiting the merchants that outfit ruinmen with the things they need, and making deals with them—usually with no dinner and whiskey in sight, since most of them will take a ruinman’s money but won’t stoop to eat or drink with him. So I went from place to place with somebody’s prentice to show me the way and Berry trotting alongside me to prove that I was enough of a mister to have a prentice of my own, and fairly often I got the feeling that somebody was watching me.
Someone was, and I found that out the hard way one night.
Berry and I went to visit a provision merchant that afternoon, and stayed late. The merchant’s name was Danna; she was short and round and pleasant, and got into the provisions trade because she had family in the ruinmen’s guild, so we got dinner and whiskey; I don’t doubt that she meant to show off the sort of provisions she could get us, too. By the time we settled on a deal, or as much of a deal as I could make before Jennel Cobey got my letter and replied, it was well after dark, and though I wasn’t quite tipsy I wasn’t far from it. We went down the steps onto the street and the door of the merchant’s closed behind us, leaving us in the next thing to perfect darkness, since the moon was down and we were outside the gates of Memfis. We had only a few blocks to walk to get back to the ruinmen’s hall, and there was nobody else in sight, so we started off without any particular worries.
Then a shadow came out of a deeper shadow to one side and blocked our way.
I stopped, not too sure of myself. The shadow stood there for a moment, looming over the two of us, and then said in a deep voice, “You have a dead man’s letter. I need it. If you give it to me now, you will not become a dead man yourself.”
What startled me then wasn’t that somebody would be willing to kill me to get my copy of the letter; I’d been waiting for that since Berry and I left Shanuga all those months ago. What startled me is that I had the letter with me, and this person knew it. Now it’s true that I’d taken it with me to a couple of other merchants by then, since news about the letter had gotten around and I could usually get a better deal on provisions if I let the merchant see and handle the copy I had. I didn’t think of that just then, though. I could have simply handed over the letter and gotten a new copy from Jennel Cobey, too, but I didn’t think of that just then, either. All I could think of was that somebody was trying to take my one hope of finding Star’s Reach away from me.
I pulled my pry bar out of my belt, and the shadow turned into a man and jumped at me.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anybody else move that fast. I was just barely able to jump out of his way, and flailed at him with the pry bar; that made him duck to one side, and probably kept me from getting spitted, because he had a knife in his hand—I could just about see it as he moved. I had more reach with the pry bar than he had with the knife, so I dodged past him, as fast as I could, and snapped the pry bar out at the back of his knee, one of those nasty little moves that leaves your enemy down on the pavement where you can kill him or just go away, your choice. It hit — I could feel the shock right up the bar — but I might as well have clobbered a rock; he spun around and came at me again, as though I hadn’t hit him at all.
There’s a kind of nightmare I’ve had now and again all my life, where I’m being attacked in total darkness by somebody I can’t see, and nothing I do makes any difference. This fight was like that. I think I landed three or four good hard hits with the pry bar, and none of it seemed to do a thing to the man who was trying to kill me. He just kept coming at me, and I kept jumping away and hitting at him. I knew that he would wear me down if the fight kept going much longer but I didn’t have a spare moment to think of anything else I could do.
Then he came at me again, and I was just that little bit too slow getting out of his way, and by the time I landed I could feel something wet spreading along my side. The pain flared a moment later: not a deep cut, but bad enough. He moved toward me, slowly, testing. I shifted my grip on the pry bar and got ready to stuff it down his throat.
Boots pounded on the cobblestones, then: dozens of them, fast. My attacker turned, stopped, and tried to run, but the moment of hesitation lost him his chance. Dark shapes blurred in a confused scuffle, and something rose and fell. I knew the shape at a glance: a ruinman’s shovel.
Light flared near my face, half blinding me: a lantern, and Berry holding it. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I hadn’t noticed where he was since the fight started, and guessed that he’d gone for help. “He’s hurt!" Berry shouted, and some others in ruinmen’s leathers came over, got me down on the street and started doing something with my side.
I couldn’t quite see my attacker, just a hand here and a foot there pinned down under a fair-sized mob of burly ruinmen. They’d brought shovels and picks, which only get brought out for fighting when it’s a matter for blood.
“Kill him?” someone asked, and I was dizzy enough that for a moment I wondered if he meant me.
“No.” One of the guild misters—I recognized him, or almost—shook his head. “He goes back to the hall. If he’s somebody’s hired knife, we’ll find out who, and then...”
He didn’t have to finish. It wouldn’t have done me any good if he had, though, because the street was starting to spin around me, and the lantern got very faint and far away, and so did everything else for a good long time.