This afternoon I was sitting in what’s become our common room here at Star’s Reach, the big room with the computers where the people who were here before us lay down to die. The table we use for meals made a good place to spread out papers, and I was sitting at one end reading back through some of the things Tashel Ban and Eleen printed out earlier, mostly papers about the Cetans; Berry was at the other end, writing out the rules of how to say things in the language we and the Cetans worked out to communicate with each other, so someone else can do that once he goes to Sanloo and the meeting with the college of electors; Eleen and Tashel Ban were working at the computer, getting it to print out something else that the Cetans sent us.
Everything’s ready for the ruinmen who are coming. I don’t think any of us were sure that we could get it all done before they arrived, but yesterday toward dinner Berry and I went over everything one last time, and couldn’t find anything else that needed doing. In the evening, after dinner, we all sat around the table until late, talking as friends will, about the times we’ve spent together and the long road here. There won’t be many more times like that, I know.
This morning we were all pretty much at loose ends, since there was nothing else to do but wait for the ruinmen to show up. I went back to the room with the bookshelf and unpacked all the stories I’d boxed up, and put them back in their places on the shelf. I considered doing the same thing with the alien-books, but didn’t; whenever I look at them I think of the bodies we found lying here with dried poison on their lips, and Anna falling over with a knife in her chest. I think I’m going to try to talk Eleen into having those sent to Melumi, where the scholars can keep them safe and people aren’t going to talk themselves into believing them.
So I unpacked the stories and read bits from a couple of them I’d already read, and by then it was time for lunch. After that, as I said, I was sitting at the table reading about the Cetans when Thu came down the the hall from the stair to the surface. “Riders,” he said. “Not many, but more than one, coming from the east. I saw the dust they raised. We have maybe half an hour before they arrive.”
That had all of us on our feet at once. The one thing we still had to worry about, and all of us knew it, was some jennel or cunnel sending soldiers to find Sharl sunna Sheren before he could get to Sanloo.
“If they find the door here, we could be in trouble,” I said, meaning the door Thu had just used to go outside.
“Exactly,” said Thu. “My advice? You three—” His nod took in everyone but him and me. “—take what can’t be spared, and bar yourselves in a safe room in one of the deep levels. Trey, you and I will go to the east entrance and see who comes. Yes, there are ways to spy on the door.”
“What about the room where we first stayed?” Eleen said. “It’s close to the entrance, but those doors were solid and easily locked, and there’s been enough going up and down the stairs that there won’t be any sign in the dust that anyone else could follow.”
That seemed like a good idea to all of us, so Tashel Ban pulled a couple of things out of his radio gear to keep it from working, Berry and Eleen packed up the papers from the Cetans into a couple of boxes, and we all hurried down the stair and through the belly of Star’s Reach to the eastern end, where we’d first come in all those weeks and months ago. Once we had the other three safe in a room where they wouldn’t be found and couldn’t be gotten to, and we’d settled on a signal we could to let them know that it was safe to come out, Thu and I went up the stair to the rooms just behind the eastern entrance. I could smell the lightning-smell in the air from the trap long before I got close to the room where Jennel Cobey died.
We didn’t go there, though. Thu led me off to one side, down a narrow corridor, and into an even narrower room. There was a metal fitting on the far wall at eye level; Thu motioned to me to look into it, and when I did, I found myself looking through a narrow slit at the area outside the door.
“I found this more than a month ago,” said Thu in a low voice. “There are two of them by each of the original entrances—there were machines here at first to watch the doors, but those must have been stripped for parts after the old world ended.”
Outside was the same sandy desert I remembered, with the hollow descending toward the door. After a moment I caught sight of the dust cloud Thu mentioned, close by, and after another moment what looked like two tiny dark shapes just this side of the dust.
I stepped back, let Thu look. “Two of them,” he said after a moment. “That might be a good sign. Anyone planning violence would have sent more.”
“Might be a scouting party,” I said.
“True.” He watched for a while longer, then moved away and let me look again. The two dark shapes had become men on horseback. I watched them pass the first fence and then the second, and then, riding more slowly, come toward Star’s Reach. By the time they reined in by the second fence, I knew that they didn’t look like soldiers; by the time they dismounted and separated, one of them holding the horses’ reins and the other walking toward us, I realized they were wearing what looked like ruinmen’s leathers, but it wasn’t until the one who came forward got within sight of the hollow in front of the door that I broke into a big grin and stepped back from the slit.
“We’re safe,” I said to Thu. “Ruinmen—I know one of them.”
We left the little room, and while he went down the stairs to let the others know, I turned off the switch in the trapped room, crossed the floor, and unlocked and opened the door. “Conn!” I shouted. “Right over here.”
He turned—he’d been looking at the antenna housings, kloms and kloms of them reaching west toward the afternoon sun—let out a whoop, pelted over and threw his arms around me, then drew back a bit. “And damn if you aren’t waiting here. Trey, you rascal! Did you know we were coming?”
“We saw the dust cloud most of an hour ago.”
I could see a hundred questions in his eyes. “Yes, it’s Star’s Reach,” I told him. “There are messages from aliens. Pictures of aliens. All kinds of things.”
His eyes and his mouth both went round, and he let out a piece of hot language that just about blistered the air. He turned, then. “Dannel! Get over here.”
The other rider turned out to be another young ruinman, one I didn’t recognize. He was already on his way, leading the horses, who didn’t like the look of the hollow or the antenna housings and were lettng him know that. “What I want to know,” I said to Conn, “is what you were doing in Cansiddi.”
The astonishment on Conn’s face went somewhere else. “I made mister a year after you did,” he said, “and by then they’d closed the guild. Not enough metal to keep new misters in work, they said, and of course they’re right. So I went to Cago and worked there for a few years, met Dannel there, and when word got to us from Cansiddi that there might be something big in the desert west of town, we up and headed this way.”
Dannel got the horses calmed down enough to finish walking over. “And when the guild misters opened your message, well, we weren’t first in line, but close. You’re Trey? Pleased to meet you. The misters and everybody are about a day and a half further back—we offered to ride ahead and make sure you and everyone else here knew—”
His voice trailed off, and I realized about then that he was looking past me at the door to Star’s Reach. Conn was staring the same direction, too, and if a bright yellow Cetan had come walking out to offer them each a drink of gasoline, I don’t think they would have looked any less surprised.
I looked back that way, and of course it wasn’t a Cetan. “Hello, Conn,” Berry said. He had just come out through the door.
Conn closed his mouth, swallowed, and said, “So that was you—Sharl sunna Sheren?”
It’s a funny thing, but the people you spend the most time with are the ones who can change the most without you noticing. The moment I saw Conn through the slit in the wall, I saw how much change five years had done to him, but it wasn’t until I looked back over my shoulder and saw Berry there that it finally sank in how much he’d changed during the same five years. He’d always looked like his mother, though it took me a good long time to realize that, but now it wasn’t something you might notice if you took the time to think about it; it was something you’d notice at once if you passed him in the street. Certainly Conn and Dannel both noticed it at a glance.
I don’t even remember what Berry said in answer. “Damn,” said Conn, and a moment later: “Well, damn.” Then: “If I’d had any idea who you were, I woudn’t have had the guts to thrash you that time you got careless up in the tower we were stripping.”
“I’m glad you didn’t know, then,” said Berry. “That probably kept me from getting reborn later on.”
“True enough,” said Conn. Dannel, who had been watching the whole time with his mouth open, shook his head and said, “There’s a lot of people who are going to want to see you in Sanloo.”
“I know,” Berry said, a little grimly.
Dannel shook his head again, sharply. “No, I mean it. We were in Cansiddi when the radio broadcast what you said, and the next day that’s all anybody was talking about. Not just ruinmen—we were out buying food and gear during the day, and the people you’d least expect were talking about it, asking every ruinman they met if we knew you, that sort of thing. And talking about going to Sanloo, to see you—and to make sure that nobody tried anything stupid.”
“It was something,” said Conn. “When’s the last time you heard a barmaid say she was going to walk to Sanloo for something like that? Two of ‘em told me that, and both of ‘em said that anybody who gave you any trouble was going to get his whatnots cut off. You should have seen their faces; I honestly think they’d do it themselves, with the dullest knife they could find.”
“The thing you said about civil war,” said Dannel. “A lot of people were talking about that before then, but they were saying, well, what can you do? Now they’ve got another choice, and I wouldn’t want to be the jennel who tries to take it away from them.”
I looked at Berry, and he looked at me, and then at them. “That’s good to hear,” he said. “Still, I’m going to need to talk to some of the younger misters and senior prentices about the trip to Sanloo. I wouldn’t put it past some jennels to send some soldiers looking for me.”
“Easy,” said Conn. “We can get more people from Cansiddi if they’re needed, too. And more guns.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Berry. “Do you think those horses of yours want some water?”
They did, of course—we were standing in the middle of a desert, after all—and so I went and got a couple of pans of water for the horses and a bottle for the two of them, while Conn and Dannel peppered Berry with questions, some of them about himself and some of them about Star’s Reach; we talked a little more while the horses drank, and then it was time for them to head back to the rest of the ruinmen and let them know that we were ready for them. “We’ll be back with everyone day after tomorrow,” Conn said, swinging up into the saddle. “And I want to see those pictures of aliens.”
“I’ll have ‘em waiting,” I promised.
He laughed, and the two of them rode off. Berry and I looked at each other again. “Well,” he said. “That’s not something I expected.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say in response that didn’t sound stupid, so I simply clapped him on the shoulder, and we turned and went back into Star’s Reach.
It wasn’t until we were going back through the trapped room, with the lightning-smell lingering in the air and the black marks on the floor where Jennel Cobey died, that it struck me all at once: one way or another, the next presden was always going to come riding east out of Star’s Reach. That was part of Plummer’s one big story; the only question was whether the presden was going to be Cobey Taggart or Sharl sunna Sheren, the jennel from the rich old Tucki family or the ruinman who happened to be a presden’s secret child, someone who was probably going to start the Fourth Civil War or someone who might manage to stop it before it could get going.
One way or another, I had to be around to make that happen. If Cobey had been a little smarter than I was, the day that we first got here, my part in it would have ended with me bleeding to death from a bullet hole, and Berry’s story would have never have gotten past might-have-beens. Instead, it was Cobey’s story that never went any further, and I had to stay around so I could talk Berry into announcing himself as a candidate. Once that happened, my part in his story might as well have been over, and when he goes riding off toward Sanloo with a guard of young ruinmen around him, my part is over for good. I’ve learned and done a mother of a lot of things over the last five years, and I’m sure there are other things I can learn and do that I haven’t tried yet, but a farmer’s child from the Tenisi hills isn’t going to be suited to anything they do in a presden’s court.