You never know where you’re going to find the thing that matters. That’s one bit of wisdom I learned on the long road from Shanuga to Star’s Reach, and if it hadn’t gotten through my skull already, this morning would have pounded it in nicely.
Anna and I were about to put breakfast on the table, Thu and Berry were talking politics, something about the Presden’s illness, over in the corner, and Eleen and Tashel Ban were bent over something they found in the computer yesterday. It was just an ordinary morning at Star’s Reach, and then Tashel Ban let out a bit of hot language I don’t think I’ve ever heard him use before. Thu and Berry looked up from their conversation; I set down the plate I was carrying; Eleen stared at him; only Anna kept on with what she was doing, spooning soup into bowls as though no one had said a thing.
“Well,” Tashel Ban said after a bit. “I think you’re all going to want to look at this.”
“This” was something the people at Star’s Reach before us had mostly translated out of the code they and the Cetans worked out to talk to each other. Close to half the words had little curves around them (like this), which I already knew meant that nobody was sure if that was the right word or not, and here and there were little curves with a line of dots between them like this (.....), which meant that nobody had the least idea what word ought to go there. It was a mess to read, no question, but it seemed to be telling a story about someone going someplace on a boat. The place the boat was going, it said, was a place where a long time ago (.....) to the third planet.
Right after that was one of the little stars they used in the old world to mark where somebody wanted to put a note, and the note was down at the bottom of the page. What it said was this: ref. to precollapse space travel—see briefing paper 223.
It took a moment for that to sink in, and then I said a bit of language even hotter than the one Tashel Ban used. We were all staring at the thing by then; even Anna came over, read the paper over my shoulder, and nodded, as though she expected it.
“How easy will it be to find that briefing paper?” This was from Thu.
“I’m about to find out,” said Tashel Ban, and started to get up, but I said, “After breakfast, I hope.” He gave me one of his owlish looks and nodded, and so we all sat down and had one of the fastest meals I’ve ever eaten. As soon as he was done with his soup, Tashel Ban was on his way to the computer, and Eleen and Berry were right there with him, while Thu and Anna and I did the dishes.
They found it before noon, and Tashel Ban managed to get the printer to behave and give us each a copy. It’s sitting on the desk next to me right now, answering a question so big I don’t think any of us dared to ask it before now.
“They did the same thing we did.” That’s what Tashel Ban said, as the printer grunted and whirred behind him. “They figured out how to use the concentrated energy sources on their planet, and used them up so fast and so carelessly that they ran out of energy and messed up their climate around the same time. They had droughts, the way we did, but much worse. There was no rain at all on their islands for something like ten thousand of our years.”
Berry caught what that meant a moment before I did. “Without rain—”
“Exactly,” said Tashel Ban. “The Cetans’ intelligent phase can’t stay together for more than a few hours. So that was the end of their old world, and even when the droughts started to break, there would be a century or two when some of the islands would get regular rains, and then the rains would go away and whatever got started on those islands went away too.
“That went on for another few thousand of our years. Finally the rains lasted long enough on one set of islands that the Cetans there figured out how to build catchment basins and cisterns, and finally solar stills that would make artificial rain right through the drought periods. So their culture survived, and they built boats and spread the skills they had from island to island right around their world. That was something like six thousand years ago.”
“What sort of space travel did they manage beforehand?” Thu asked.
“About as much as we did,” Tashel Ban told him. “Some satellites, some probes out to other worlds, and a few trips that put a couple of Cetans on the surface of Tau Ceti III for a day or two and got them back alive. That much they’ve been able to figure out from the old records, now that they can read them again. That took a long time—the way their old world ended, the languages were completely lost, and all they had for thousands of years was ruins and records that nobody could understand.”
I thought about that this evening as the three of us who know how to work on the computer kept after the last things the people at Star’s Reach had learned, and the three of us who don’t cleaned up after dinner and got a pot of beans soaking and some sourdough rising for the next day’s meals. When people talk about the end of the old world—our old world—they talk about how hard it was, how many people died and how much got lost. I don’t remember anybody saying “You know, it could have been a lot worse,” but it was a mother of a lot worse for the Cetans than it was for us. I imagined what it might have been like if there wasn’t a living person in Meriga for ten thousand years, and then a trickle of people coming in from somewhere else who didn’t know a thing about where all the ruins came from.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to write about when I sat down here at the desk tonight. I wanted to write about what happened after we finished up the dig at Wanrij and went back to Memfis for the rains, and I spent a couple of months drinking myself stupid and tumbling into bed with pretty Memfis women. That’s what all the other ruinmen were doing, of course, but I had a better reason for it than they did, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. They knew that as soon as the rains ended, they’d be back to work on some other dig. I knew that as soon as the rains ended, I’d have to face up to the fact that my search for Star’s Reach had run up against a blank wall and there was no way forward.
Then, about the time the rains started slackening off, a couple of the senior misters of the Memfis guild came looking for me. It was late afternoon, about an hour before the music started up at the big covered market down the street, and the rain was drumming against the one little window of my room in the guild hall. I welcomed them and found them a couple of chairs, and we chatted about nothing much for a few minutes before they got to the point of their visit.
“That was a well run dig you did up at Wanrij,” one of them told me; his name was Orin, a gruff gray-haired mister from the hill country down by the Meycan border. “Nice and orderly, and everyone got paid on time. Doesn’t always happen the first time somebody runs a site.”
I thanked him, and wondered where the conversation was going to go. The other mister, who was lean and bald and had little bright eyes like a sparrow, answered that question soon enough. “We’ve talked to the misters, and if you’re minded to stay here in Memfis—of course you might have other plans—if you’re so minded, anyway, we’d be willing to see you have a place in the guild here.”
I’m not sure how I kept my mouth from falling open. That sort of thing happens sometimes, when a mister from one town gets involved in a dig somewhere else and everyone gets along well, but I hadn’t even thought about the chance that it might happen to me. I managed to stammer out something like a thank you, and then remembered that I had to get things settled with Jennel Cobey and tried to say something about that; I was pretty much babbling nonsense, or at least that’s the way I remember it, but the two misters were as professional as you can get. They let me know that I had plenty of time to sort things out and make up my mind, said a few more things I don’t remember at all, and left.
I told Berry that evening before we went down to the market. His eyes got big and then narrowed a bit; he was weighing the thought of staying in Memfis against the hope we’d had of finding Star’s Reach, I knew, the same way I was. We partied that night, and the next, and the next, and with every day that passed I got more perplexed and more upset about it all. I knew that staying in Memfis was the only choice that made any kind of sense at all, but something in that choice just didn’t sit well with me.
One evening about a week later, we were alone in the room, taking care of some of the last work on the Wanrij dig—bills that still had to be paid, money from metal sales that had to be accounted for and paid out, all the little things that keep misters busy the last few weeks of the rains. As we got to the end of the paper, Berry sat back and looked at me. “Sir and Mister?”
I think I mentioned a while back that he never used my title except when it was something really important. I set down the bill I was reading and nodded for him to go on.
“What do you think now about finding Star’s Reach?”
“I wish I knew,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I think...” He got silent for a long moment, then: “I wonder if maybe we’ve done as much as anybody could have done.”
I gave him a look, and didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say, because everything else seemed to be saying that he was right, except for that little cold feeling in the pit of my stomach that said he was wrong.
The rains end in Memfis a week or two after they’ve gone away everywhere further north, and so as soon as the rains slacken off in Memfis, the riverboats come down the Misipi to dock at the Memfis levee. That was how a letter from Jennel Cobey got to the Memfis guild hall when the last scant rain was falling long before the roads were dry enough for traveling. I’d been worrying about what that letter would say, because I’d spent a lot of the jennel’s money and come up with nothing. Still, that just showed how much I still had to learn about the man. What the letter said was this:
To Mister Trey sunna Gwen, at the Memphis Ruinmen’s Hall, my greetings. The money’s not an issue; I’m sorry to hear that nothing concerning Star’s Reach turned up after all, but it was always a gamble. Have you considered searching the archives at Cincinnati? If you’re minded to keep looking, that might be the best of the remaining options.
—Jennel Cobey Taggart
I thought about that for the rest of the day, and it kept coming to mind that evening while I danced and drank and tried to pretend to myself that I didn’t have to make a choice by the time the sun came out for good. One more pretty Memfis woman put it out of my head for a little while, but after we’d finished what we were doing and fallen asleep in her bed, I started dreaming, and there it was again.
It was another of my Deesee dreams, with the wide streets and the silvery sky up above that was the surface of the sea. I found my way to the Spire, the way I usually did, and there was the man in the old world clothing, the one we found long dead in the Shanuga ruins, standing there waiting for me. I hurried up the grassy slope toward him, and then I saw his face, tense, almost pleading, waiting for me to do or say something.
Then I knew what he wanted, and I must have cried out, because all of a sudden I was awake, light was coming in through the window next to me, and the woman I was with was bending over me, soft and sweet and brown, asking if I was all right. I lied and said yes, and kissed her, and things pretty much went from there, but all the while I knew what the dead man wanted from me and what I had to do.
When I told Orin, the Memfis mister, I made it sound as though Jennel Cobey had asked me to go to Sisnaddi and the archives there. He nodded, frowned, and said, “I can’t promise that there’ll still be a place for you when you’re done, you know.” I told him I knew that, and I did, but it didn’t keep me from feeling like the number one fool on Mam Gaia when he went his way and I went mine.
A little later that day I told Berry. I expected him to argue, but he didn’t. He gave me a look I didn’t expect at all, wary and guarded. “Trey, I can’t go to Sisnaddi,” he said. Before I could say anything: “I can’t tell you why, but if I go there, it’s worth my life. Probably yours too.”
I looked at him for a good long moment, and then said, “Do you want to stay in Memfis?”
“Well—” He paused, then: “I was thinking about Cob’s site in Tucki, the empty nuke.”
That sounded like a good idea to me. “That ought to work. I could get you a message fast if anything turns up in the archives.”
“And I can save up some money for wherever we go next. It’s too easy to spend money here.”
“True enough,” I said, and we agreed that he’d go to Tucki as soon as the roads were open, and I’d head for Sisnaddi as soon after as the last of the paperwork for the Wanrij dig was finished. It didn’t occur to me that Berry might have his own reason for wanting to go back to Tucki, but then I had plenty of other things on my mind just then.
As soon as the roads were open, Berry went with a crew of metal traders who had places to go in Tucki; most of the Memfis ruinmen headed out to digs of their own; all around me, Memfis got busy making money; and I sat in my little room in the Memfis guild hall with nothing to do but wait for the last bills to come in, feeling more and more like a fool with every day that passed. The music and the dancing were over and the pretty Memfis women had other things to do with their time, and a dream, a jennel’s good wishes, and a letter from a dead man were the only things I had to show for more than three years of my life.
I got the last of the bills paid on the last day of Oggis, and left the Memfis guildhall the next morning. It was a bright clear day, with salt air sweeping in from the Gulf of Meyco and high billowing clouds drifting here and there. I said my goodbyes at the guildhall, walked past the big covered market, and kept on going. Just the part of Memfis outside the gate where the ruinmen live is as big as all of Shanuga, but I knew where to go and where not to go, and so nobody gave me trouble on the way. By noon I was walking past the little farms that keep the city markets in greens and garden truck.
Off to the left, riverboats were churning up the water; off to the right everything was green and growing; all in all, it was as nice a day as you could ask for, but for all I cared just then it might as well have been some day in the drought years with dust falling from the sky onto bare gray dirt. I missed Berry, and I missed the friends I’d made among the Memfis ruinmen, but I was glad to be alone, so that nobody else had to put up with my mood.
I didn’t know then that by the time I got to Sisnaddi I’d already have been told where I could find the way to Star’s Reach, though it took me another year and another round of failed hopes to work up the nerve to go there. If somebody had told me that a harlot in a little Ilanoy town would tell me where to look, I’d have laughed myself into hiccups. Still, you never know where you’re going to find the thing that matters, and that’s how it turned out.