By the time we were back in the common room, it was evening. Thu and Berry got to work on dinner, Eleen and Tashel Ban went back to trying to coax the computer into giving up another paper on the Cetans, and I sat back down at the table and tried to read the papers I’d been reading when Thu came to warn us about the riders. It was the long paper full of brackets and dots, the one that seemed to be talking about a sea voyage to a place a little like Star’s Reach, and first told us that the Cetans traveled to other planets in their system the way we did in ours, back before the old world ended.
I hadn’t read it since Tashel Ban first printed copies for all of us and handed them around, and any other time I’m sure I would have been lost in it within a page or two, but just then it might as well have been left untranslated for all I got out of it. I kept on trying to read it, though, since the alternative was to talk about the decisions we’d have to make before the ruinmen arrived. I didn’t want to do that yet, and I don’t think anyone else did either.
So I stared at the pages until it was time for dinner, we all sat and ate as though it was just one more evening at Star’s Reach, and Tashel Ban and I washed up the dishes afterwards; we all gathered in the radio room to listen to the broadcast from Sanloo—there was nothing about Berry this time, just bits of news that didn’t seem to mean much—and then went our ways. I sat up reading for a while, and once Eleen was asleep I wrote about Conn and Dannel and went to bed.
The next morning we’d all pretty much run out of other things to do, and were close to running out of time as well. After the breakfast dishes were cleared away, everyone stood around the common room, not quite getting to anything else, waiting for someone to say something. Finally I went to the table, sat down in my chair, and said, “Well.”
That was all it took, of course. The others came over and took their seats. I looked at each of them and tried to think of something to say.
Thu, Mam Gaia bless him, made that unnecessary. “Tomorrow,” he said, “or shortly thereafter, we will each have to decide where we will be going. Those of us who will be going, that is.”
“I plan on staying here for another week,” Berry said at once. “That ought to be enough time to arrange to leave safely and get to Sanloo.”
Thu nodded. “If you wish,” he said, “I would welcome the opportunity to go with you.”
Berry’s eyebrows went up. “That would be—very welcome.” He opened his mouth as if he meant to say something else, and stopped.
Thu laughed his deep laugh. “You are too polite to ask why. It is really quite simple, though. My work here is done, or nearly so, and Sanloo is convenient. And there is the small matter of your safety, which—” He shrugged. “—for wholly personal reasons, is important to me.”
“Thank you,” Berry said, meaning it.
“My work here,” Tashel Ban said then, “is far from done, and I don’t expect to leave for a good many years, if ever. We’ve only succeeded in getting maybe a tenth of the communications from the Cetans out of the computer, and there’s the matter of resuming contact with them—and beginning contact with the others, if it’s decided that that should happen. It occurs to me that the Merigan government should probably make that decision.”
He said it with a perfectly bland face, but Berry grinned and said, “If everything goes well, I think that can be arranged.”
“If everything goes well,” Eleen asked, “what will you do?”
“Ask Congrus to charter the guild that Trey proposed,” Berry said at once. “Once that’s done, nobody can challenge its right to be here and take care of communications with the Cetans and the others. After that, have the guild start sending messages to the Cetans right away, send a ‘yes’ to Delta Pavonis IV, and see about getting the Cetan solar power technology to the guilds that can start putting it to work.”
Eleen blinked. “I gather you’ve been making plans.”
“It seemed like a good idea,” said Berry.
“In any case,” said Tashel Ban, “my future is settled for the time being.”
“And mine,” Eleen said then. “The guild will need plenty of trained scholars, and it’s not as though there are many other places a scholar can find work.”
That left me, and I drew in a breath and said what I had to say. “I won’t be staying. I don’t know yet where I’ll go, but I expect to leave within a few days.”
They were all looking at me then, and I made myself go on. “Partly it’s because my work’s done. I’m not a scholar or a radioman, and I don’t plan on becoming either—and once the extra metal here is hauled off, there won’t be much for ruinmen to do. Mostly, though, it’s Jennel Cobey.”
“It would surprise me,” said Thu, “if there was no trouble over that.”
“Trouble for me,” I said, “I can handle. I don’t want it to become trouble for the rest of you, for the guild we’ve talked about, or for Star’s Reach—and the Taggart family is important enough to make a lot of trouble for everyone, unless we all agree that I’m the one who killed him, and leave it at that.”
Nobody said anything for a while. “There’s got to be a better option,” said Berry. “I’m not willing to have you forced to run for your life—not when it’s because you saved ours. If you can lie low here for a while, and everything goes well, I can protect you from the Taggarts once I’m inaugurated.”
“Maybe,” said Tashel Ban. “It depends on politics—which of the important families support you, how your allies and enemies sort themselves out in Congrus. They or one of their allies might also decide to take the risk of killing him, and pay whatever price they have to pay.”
I raised my hands. “It’s not worth risking. I’ve got some ideas in mind for what to do, but you don’t need to know those. As far as you know, I just up and vanished as soon as the ruinmen got here, and nobody saw which way I went.”
Berry didn’t like it, I could see that on his face, but he said nothing more. I happened just then to look at Eleen, just as she looked at Tashel Ban; she didn’t say anything, either, but the look told me something I’d been wondering about for a while.
We ended up talking about other things, mostly the guild that would be set up here at Star’s Reach and what Berry could and couldn’t do to help it along is he becomes Presden, and before long it was time to cook another meal; we kept on talking straight through cooking the meal and eating it and washing up afterwards, too. We had a lot to talk about, no question, but there was more to it than that. Tomorrow the ruinmen will be here, and once that happens, this time we’ve spent together will be over for good. We’ll all remember it until we get reborn, whenever that happens, but it’s like the time I was together with Tam, or the two years I spent digging in the Arksa jungle through the dry season and partying in Memfis through the rains: when it’s over, it’s over, and there’ll be plenty of good times again later on but it won’t ever be the same.
We ended up talking straight through until dinner. Afterwards we all went to the radio room to listen to the broadcast from Sanloo, which didn’t have anything much to say but took the usual time to say it anyway. After that, we went our own ways, or mostly.
I started for the room where the alien-books were, and got about halfway there when Berry called my name from behind. I turned, and he walked up and took hold of my wrists and looked at me with the kind of look you usually see when somebody’s getting born or getting reborn, take your pick.
“Trey,” he said, “if there’s ever anything you need—anything at all—get word to me and you’ll have it. Understood?”
I nodded and thanked him, and he managed a smile, let go of me, and turned and went back toward his room. I knew when I thanked him that I wasn’t ever going to take him up on that offer, no matter what, and I think he knew it, too, but he had to make the offer and I had to accept it, because we’re ruinmen, and because we’re friends.
So I went the rest of the way to the room with the alien-books, and stood there for a while. I’d had some thought or other about reading a bit from one or another of the stories, but when it came down to it I wasn’t in the mood for that, or much of anything else. After a while I left, and went back to the room I’ve been sharing with Eleen. I didn’t expect to find her there, but there she was, sitting on the bed and looking miserable.
“Trey,” she said, “I told you back in Sisnaddi that I’d go anywhere with you. I meant that, and it still stands. I’ll go with you when you leave, if you’ll have me.”
I blinked, sat down on the bed next to her, and said, “No you won’t. You belong here at Star’s Reach.”
“Trey,” she said again, and then started crying. I’m not going to try to write out how the conversation went from there, because she cried for a good long while, and when one person’s crying and the other’s trying to calm her down, the words that get said don’t make a lot of sense when they’re written out on paper; after that, I kissed her, and she kissed me back, and things more or less went from there, which doesn’t make things any easier to write down; but what it amounted to is that she tried to convince me that she wanted to go with me when we both knew that the one thing on Mam Gaia’s round belly she wanted more than anything else was to stay at Star’s Reach and spend the rest of her life studying the messages from the Cetans and the other aliens, and I had to find some way to get her to do the thing she wanted to do without making her feel that I didn’t want her, and of course it didn’t help that it was starting to sink in that I probably wouldn’t ever see her again, and that wasn’t an easy thing.
Still, it wasn’t as though I had a choice. Though I hadn’t whispered a word of it to any of them, of course, I’d already figured out what I’m going to do as soon as I shoulder my bag and head back east toward the settled country along the Suri River. I’m going to get rid of my ruinman’s leathers as quick as I can and get some ordinary clothes, then head as fast as country roads will take me to the Hiyo valley, and find Plummer or get found by him, I don’t care which. That’s not just because I need to drop out of sight for a while, though of course that’s part of it.
I don’t know if anyone who’s not a ruinman will understand the rest of it. A lot of what ruinmen do is dangerous, more of it is boring, and nearly all of it is hard work, as hard as anything anybody does in Meriga nowadays, but even when we’re breaking concrete to get at the metal inside or doing some other chore that isn’t exactly a bubbling mug of fun, there’s always the hope that next day or the next season might just bring something wonderful. That’s not always the easiest thing to believe, especially since so many ruins have gotten stripped clean and it’s getting harder for new misters to find anything that will earn them a living, but the hope’s there, and it’s a lot of what keeps ruinmen going.
When we left Jennel Cobey and his man Banyon burning on the sand and came down the stairs into Star’s Reach, though, I found the thing that every ruinman in Meriga used to dream of finding, the biggest and richest ruin of them all. If I’m lucky and a building doesn’t pancake on top of me or something, I could work as a ruinman for twenty or thirty or forty more years, but there’s nothing I could find, not even if I found every one of the lost cities of the dead lands, that would be worth mentioning in the same breath as what’s around me right now. That’s why, or a good bit of why, I plan on taking Plummer up on his offer, and whatever’s on the other side of the door he opened for me that night in Madsen, it’s a path I know I have to walk alone.
So Eleen and I talked, when we weren’t doing other things, and somewhere in the middle of it all she agreed that she was going to stay and I wasn’t, though I was a little preoccupied at the time and don’t remember exactly when that got settled. Finally, though, we were lying there in bed; I was on my back and she had her head on my shoulder and the rest of her about half draped over me, and after a bit she started crying again, very quietly, and I lay there and stroked her head and felt the empty aching space that was going to be part of my life once I started walking again.
That’s when I decided that we really did love each other. It’s a funny thing, for we both spent a lot of time wondering about that, and talked about it now and then; and I knew, from the look she’d given Tashel Ban earlier when I’d said I planned on leaving, that the two of them would probably end up in bed together not too long after I was gone, if they hadn’t done it already. Still, love is like that; as Plummer said, human beings don’t have to make sense; and when love sits on one side of the balance and everything else you ever wanted is on the other, love doesn’t necessarily come out ahead.
She cried for a long while, then lay there quietly with me for a longer one, and then all of a sudden propped herself up on one arm and said, “There’s one thing more we need to settle. The Cetan paper you were reading this morning—do you remember it?”
The change of subject left me blinking for a moment, but then I got my head clear enough to answer. “The story about the sea voyage?”
“Yes. It’s their account of how they first got to the place where spaceships used to take off, before their old world ended. They sent that to the people here maybe twenty years before the message from the others came through, and they wanted the people here to send them something like that from our world. There’s some discussion of that in the records we’ve found, but the people here hadn’t settled anything when communication stopped.”
I nodded. “And?”
“Tashel Ban and I were talking about that the other day, and we both remembered that there’s a story right here very much along the lines of the one the Cetans sent us. So we wanted to know if you’d be willing to leave the notebook you’ve written here, so we can translate your story into the language we use to talk to the Cetans, and send it to them.”
I have no idea how much time passed before I realized my mouth was open, and closed it. A moment later I said, “Can you do that? Translate it?”
“Yes. Berry showed me how he put together his message, and we’ve also got computer programs that are set up to handle the translation, so it shouldn’t even be that difficult.”
I stared at her for another long while, thinking of blobby yellow Cetans sitting in pools of gasoline rain, reading all the things I’ve written since we came to Star’s Reach. I know that it’ll be whatever they use instead of computer printouts, and in their language of magnetic fields, but damn if I didn’t keep on seeing them turning the pages of my notebook, looking at the ink and the paper.
“If you think they’ll be able to make any sense of it,” I told her finally, “yes, you can have the notebook.”
She thanked me, and I kissed her, and before long we were going at it again, long and slow and gentle this time, because we both knew that this was pretty much certain to be our last time together. Afterwards, we lay close, and when I was sure she had gone to sleep I got up, went to my desk, turned on the little light there, and sat there staring at my notebook for a good long time before opening it and starting to write. I’ve thought more than once about what it would be like if someone from the Neeonjin country were to come here and read this, but if they can translate it and send it, it’s going to be read by someone further off than any of Mam Gaia’s children have ever gone or will ever go.