You never realize what’s special about a time until it’s almost over. Berry and I spent today getting the last of the rooms ready for the ruinmen from Cansiddi, talking and joking as we worked, and right as we were finishing it sank in that in a few more days it won’t just be the five of us here any more. It was Berry’s turn to cook, so he went off to the kitchen, and once he was gone I went to the room with the alien-books and sat there for a while, remembering the months we’ve been here and everything that’s happened, and I didn’t leave until Eleen came looking for me to tell me that dinner was ready.
After dinner we all went to the radio room to find out if there was any more news about Berry. It’s been most of a week now since the Circle elder and the Sisnaddi ruinman added their bit to the talk about the succession, and I’m sure we haven’t been the only ones listening one evening after another to find out if the electors has anything to say. Until tonight, they didn’t, but tonight the announcer started off the news broadcast saying that Jennel Risher Macallun had made a statement.
That had all of us listening, because Risher’s not just an elector, he’s also as important a jennel as you’ll find in Meriga. His family owns a mother of a lot of land in Inyana, and he’s been with the army since before he inherited the jennelship; when we lost at Durrem, in the war with the coastal allegiancies, it was Jennel Risher who pulled what was left of the Merigan army together and got it back safe across the border in the teeth of everything the Jinyans and Cairlines could throw at him. I never heard anyone name him as a possible candidate for the presdency, so it’s a safe bet that he didn’t want it for himself, but no one was ever going to get it without Jennel Risher having a say in the matter.
The radio crackled and spat, and started talking in the sort of growling voice you get when you’ve spent years downing way too much of the cheap whiskey that soldiers drink. “The electors have been talking about this Sharl sunna Sheren,” the voice said. “Informally, you understand. We were as surprised as everyone else. I won’t say all of us are pleased by some of the details, but the law is what it is, and the college agreed to meet him in Sanloo on the twentieth of Febry to consider his claim.”
The announcer went on to say something else, but I don’t remember a word of it. I was looking at Berry. The rest of us had pulled chairs over to the radio, but he stayed on his feet, and he was still standing there, staring at the radio with an expression on his face that I’ve never seen there before or since, strange and quiet and very far away. Looking at him, I knew down in my belly that he was going to become presden, and I knew that he knew it too; and I had the oddest feeling just then, as though I was in two places at once, there in the cramped little radio room and somewhere else, reading about the scene in the radio room in a history book a long time from now.
I think Tashel Ban felt the same thing. He got up and left the room without saying a word, while the radio chattered on about something else I don’t remember; I heard him rummaging around in his room close by, then the clink and clatter of glasses down in the kitchen, and then came back with a bottle of Genda whiskey and glasses for everyone, and poured us all a good solid drink. Nobody said anything. He raised his glass to Berry; Berry raised his in answer; we all did the same, and then drank it down.
“Some of the details,” Eleen said then, sourly. “I suppose that means that the jennels are grumbling because they have to talk to a tween.”
“Or a ruinman,” I said, grinning. “At least he’s not a lumberman. Can you imagine how they’d carry on if that was how things had turned out?”
That chased the strange look off Berry’s face, and he laughed and aimed a swat at me, which I ducked. All of us laughed, and for a moment it was just the five of us again, instead of four of us and the next presden of Meriga and a mother of a lot of people reading about it all in some history book that hasn’t even been written yet. Tashel Ban offered everyone another drink, I took him up on it, and so did Berry, and then the announcer finished saying whatever it was that he was saying, and we went off to our rooms and I sat at my desk and thought about jennels.
Most ruinmen never get to meet one, and even though things turned out the way they did, I’m not sorry that I knew Jennel Cobey. That’s partly because, well, because most ruinmen never get to meet one, but it’s also because Cobey Taggart was one of the most likeable people I’ve ever known. He never forgot for a moment that he came from an old proud Tucki family, but he didn’t go around expecting everyone else to remember that all the time, the way some jennels and cunnels do. When he talked with me, it felt like I had every bit of his attention for that moment, and it didn’t matter that I was a ruinman with dirt on my leathers and he might just become the next presden.
That was true all through the time I knew him, but it was even more true while we were traveling out here to Star’s Reach. On that trip he wasn’t surrounded by soldiers and servants, the way he usually was. He had his man Banyon with him, but that was all, and the two of them ate the same food and sat at the same campfire as the rest of us, and kept watch at night over the horses and the camp when their turns came; and we talked about everything and nothing, not just as travelers do but as friends. That’s the way it was, all along the journey from Cansiddi west to here. It was a special time, too, though there again I didn’t recognize that until we were almost to Star’s Reach, where it ended. I wonder to this day if it was a special time for him, or if he had any idea how it was about to end.
That happened after we were past the two fences and in sight of the low blunt concrete shapes of the antenna housings, and found the door half buried in the sand. There were high thin clouds overhead and gray sandy desert all around us, and if we’d gone walking into the antenna housings for another couple of kloms we would have found the door to the living quarters where we’re staying now and spared ourselves some searching, though of course we didn’t know that yet. We got to work right away with shovels and cleared the sand away from the door, and I went to work on it with some of my tools, and finally hauled the thing open despite the shriek of the hinges. .
Inside was darkness, and a smell I more than half expected and recognized at once, the lightning-smell you get when there’s a mother of a lot of electricity flowing very close by. As my eyes got used to the dim light inside, I could see the thin lines of metal crossing the floor, full of current.
“Trapped,” I said.
“Can you turn it off?” Jennel Cobey asked, looking past me into Star’s Reach.
“If it’s a standard trap, yes.”
“Do it,” he said, in a different voice. I turned away from the door, startled, and only then saw that he had drawn his gun. Back behind him, Banyon had another gun out, and moved away from the door to cover everyone else in the group.
“I’m sorry to say there’s been a change of plans,” Jennel Cobey said then, to all of us. “Don’t move or say anything, and there won’t be any trouble. Otherwise—well, Banyon and I will both start shooting, and the rest of my people will be here in a few minutes once they hear the shots. Yes, there’s been a party following us the whole way. All of you—” He motioned to everyone but Banyon and me. “Get over there, away from the door. Trey, you’ll disarm the trap now.”
“I’ll need my tools,” I told him. My mind was spinning, but I had enough wit to guess that he wouldn’t shoot me dead for saying that.
“Of course. I’ll follow you.” He did, too, as I went to the horse that had my gear in its pack, got the things I needed, and went back to the door. I could feel the gun pointed at me the whole way.
While I did that I was trying to think, trying to figure out why he was doing what he was, and what he was going to do next, and a thought I didn’t like at all was settling in somewhere in my belly, cold and heavy as old metal. If he wanted a contract dig, he didn’t need the guns; he didn’t need them if he meant to do anything the laws allowed, and if he planned on doing something else, it was pretty clear what his next step would have to be, once he’d gotten me to open the door to Star’s Reach.
There was a metal panel in the concrete wall next to the door, with some buttons on it and some slots in the metal, mostly choked with dust. I popped the panel off with the pry bar, found the wiring behind it, and took a good long time figuring out which wires to snip. “There,” I said. “That should do it.”
He gave me a long steady look, and motioned toward the door. “Go in.”
I went to the door and stepped inside, into the darkness and the lightning-scented air.
“Keep going,” Jennel Cobey said.
I shrugged, and started walking. There was a door at the far end of the room; I could just barely see it in the faint light. I got maybe halfway to it when Cobey called out, “Stop there.” He stepped through the door, considered me, and said, “I’m sorry, Trey,” as he took another step and raised the gun.
His first step had been lucky. The second one wasn’t.
As his foot touched the floor, the electricity discharged with a crack and a blinding flash. I hunched down where I stood, hoping I could dodge the bullet, but I needn’t have bothered; the shock threw him forward, and though the gun went off, the bullet didn’t go anywhere near me. For just a moment as he fell, I could see his face, pale and contorted with an expression I didn’t recognize at first, and then he landed hard, full length on the floor, with something like a dozen of the wires beneath him. The current surged again with a series of flashes and bangs, and his body jerked and twisted and started to smoke.
“So am I,” I answered him, though I knew by then that only his ghost could have heard me.
Then I walked the rest of the way across the trapped floor, the way I’d done in the hidden place in the Shanuga ruins, to the switch and the little red light beside the door on the other side of the room. As I walked, I heard another shot, outside, and then silence. I didn’t let myself think about what that might mean; all that mattered was stepping in the right places and getting to the door and the switch.
I got there and flipped the switch, the light went from red to green, and Cobey’s corpse went limp. Just then, Thu’s deep voice echoed in the empty room. “Trey? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I called back. Anyone else, I might have wondered if Banyon had a gun against somebody’s head, but nothing on Mam Gaia’s round belly can make Thu say something he doesn’t want to say.
“Banyon’s dead,” he called out. “The rest of us are unhurt.”
A wave of panic I hadn’t let myself feel broke and flowed back to wherever fears go when you don’t need them. I crossed the floor, going around what was left of Jennel Cobey, and got to the door.
For a moment, while my eyes got used to the sunlight, I couldn’t see anything. The very first thing I saw was Banyon; he was sprawled across the ground with his neck at a funny angle and one side of his head caved in. He still had his gun in his hand, but I gathered he hadn’t had time for more than one shot before he died, and that didn’t hit anything but sand.
“When the trap went off,” Thu said, “he was startled, and turned toward the door. Not a wise thing to do in the presence of enemies.”
“I don’t believe,” said Tashel Ban, “that he thought you could react that quickly, and jump that far, that fast. I certainly didn’t.”
Thu shrugged. “It seemed like the appropriate thing to do.” Then, to me: “You will need to get more training for Berry. A blind man could have told that he was about to rush Banyon.”
I turned to Berry. “I figured I could distract him so that Thu or Tashel Ban could kill him,” he told me.
“You would have gotten yourself reborn,” I said.
“It would have been worth it,” Berry said. His face was pale and he was still breathing big ragged breaths, but I didn’t doubt for a moment that he meant it.
Then I turned toward Eleen. She was pale and trembling; scholars don’t see violence very often, and she hadn’t been a failed scholar long enough for that to change. She didn’t say a word; she came to me, put her arms around me and stayed there for a good long moment, shaking like a leaf in a wind. I held her; after a moment, Berry came and put his arms around us both, and I shifted one arm and gave him a squeeze to let him know he was welcome; Thu and Tashel Ban stood close; only Anna remained off by herself, silent as usual, watching us all out of the corners of her eyes.
“We need to get inside,” said Tashel Ban after a little while. “If he had people following him—”
That was all the reminder any of us needed. We were all pretty shaky, except for Thu, but we got the packs off the horses and hauled them inside. Tashel Ban, who’s good with horses, muttered something in their ears and then slapped them across the hindquarters, and they went galloping off eastward, back the way we’d come.
“What should be done with that?” Thu asked, with a bend of the head toward what was left of Cobey.
“Outside,” Tashel Ban said. Then: “Pour some oil over both of them and light them on fire. If Cobey’s people find a sealed door with two smoking corpses outside, they’ll be less likely to try to get in.”
So that’s what we did. Thu and I used shovels to haul what was left of the jennel out into the open air. Once both of the bodies were burning, I got the door back in working order, locked it, went to the far side of the room and turned the switch so the light went red again. The others had already found a stair and a room two floors down that could be lived in, and stored our gear and supplies there; I went down and sat with them and waited for what seemed like half of forever, listening for anything that might mean that Cobey’s people had found a way in. We don’t know what happened when they arrived, but when Thu and I went back up the stairs after night closed in, and I turned off the current in the floor so he could slip outside and see what he could, there were two fresh graves in the sand, bootprints and hoofprints all over the place, and nothing else.
Until that happened, though, I sat in a metal chair that didn’t look as though anybody had used it since the old world ended and stared at nothing in particular. The thing that kept coming back to me was the expression on Cobey’s face as he fell, when he understood the trick I played on him, and realized he was about to die. For what felt like a couple of hours, and might well have been, I couldn’t think of what it was that showed in his face, and then all at once I knew that it was plain surprise and disbelief. I think it never occurred to him that he might lose.