This morning I woke up in a cold sweat, and as soon as I was washed and dressed, while Thu and Berry got breakfast made and Eleen and Tashel Ban printed out papers for the ruinmen, I read back over the story I’ve written in this notebook. I realized, somewhere in the middle of the night, that some of what I’d written down were things I’d promised Plummer I wouldn’t tell anyone, and flipping through the pages first thing, I found myself reading what I’d written about the talk we had in the field in Madsen, with the river on one side of us and the big tent of the Baraboo Sirk on the other.
I had no idea what to do. If I hadn’t promised Eleen to leave the notebook with her, I could just have taken it with me when I left, but I didn’t want to break my promise to Eleen any more than I wanted to break my promise to Plummer—well, and in the latter case there were the Swords to think about, and the very calm way he’d talked about throats getting cut. So I was paging through the notebook, trying to figure out if I could tear out just the pages that mattered or something, and then breakfast was ready. I stuffed the notebook in one of the drawers of the old metal desk and left it at that.
All through breakfast I was thinking about that. Though I wondered now and then whether anyone else would ever read the notebook, I couldn’t ever quite make the thought look real; we were in Star’s Reach, and the rest of Meriga and everything else seemed very far away. Now that the rest of Meriga was about to come knocking on our door, I wondered how on Mam Gaia’s round belly I could have been such an idiot, but the morning didn’t have any answers for me.
About the time we got things cleaned up, Thu came down the stair from outside to announce that he could see a dust cloud off to the east. We’d decided the day before what to do, so as soon as the last copies of the papers were printed out, Berry and I went down the stair and set out for the old east entrance where the trapped room was, while the others went to the big room with the printers and notebooks down below the living quarters, and started getting things set up for the newcomers.
It was a strange journey, going along the big corridor on fourth level through the middle of Star’s Reach. Berry didn’t say much, and I said less. Pretty soon I was going to be walking back to Cansiddi all alone with a pack on my back, and a while later, he would be riding to Sanloo with Thu and a guard of young ruinmen, and nothing anyone could ever do would bring back the time we’d spent wandering around Meriga or digging up the jungle outside of Wanrij or trying to figure out what was hidden here at Star’s Reach. So we walked together, the way we’d walked down that first road north from Shanuga, and got to the trapped room a lot sooner than I wanted to.
I turned off the trap, we both waited the couple of heartbeats it takes for the charge to go away, and then we crossed the floor where Jennel Cobey died, unlocked the door at the far end of it, and walked out into the sand and the pale sunlight of my last day at Star’s Reach.
The dust cloud looked a lot bigger, but it was still just a dust cloud, with no sign yet of the people who were making it. We walked up out of the hollow and went to the closest antenna housing; it was flat on top and low enough that you could clinb up and sit, and that’s what we did. The wind blew by, spraying sand against my back and whipping around us on its way toward the Suri River and the settled lands.
“You know what I’m thinking about?” Berry asked all of a sudden.
“Nope. Tell me,” I said.
“The way I talked you into picking me as your prentice, back in Shanuga. You have no idea how glad I am that it worked.”
“Maybe not,” I told him. “But I know how glad I am.”
He grinned and put an arm around me, and I put one around him, and we sat there and waited until the first dark shapes of people and horses came into sight in the distance. One hundred forty-three misters and senior prentices make a mother of a lot of dust, and when they’d loaded horses with enough food and gear to keep going through the rains and out the other side, it’s a mother with babies; I was glad that the wind was blowing toward them and not toward us.
Not too long after that, they were close enough to see us. We got off the antenna housing, stood there and waved, they waved back, and a little later one of them broke from the front of the column and came running forward. It was Conn; he came up to us, panting, gave Berry a mock-serious bow, and then threw his arms around me. “Here we are!” he said. “Everything’s fine?”
“Ready and waiting,” I told him, and he laughed. “Star’s Reach,” he said. “I slapped myself this morning, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all this.”
Then the others came up, and damn if one of them wasn’t Orin, the mister who’d offered me a chance to join the Memfis guild. He hadn’t forgotten, either, and after he’d given me a big backslapping hug, he said, “Well, Sir and Mister Trey, you seem to have done pretty good for yourself after all.”
I laughed and said, “Put it down to plain pigheaded stubbornness.”
There was dust and shouting and horses whinnying and jostling all around us. Berry was talking to Conn, and then all of a sudden he heard something off in the middle of the noise that jerked him around as though somebody had a string tied to his nose. A moment later he was running through the crowd of ruinmen and horses. Orin turned to look, blinked, and after a moment said, “Is that who I think it is?”
I just nodded. Orin’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “Of all things.”
Then Berry was back, and somebody else was with him. It took me a moment to recognize the other person as Sam, Cob’s prentice from the empty nuke in Tucki. It took me longer still to notice that Sam had a bundle wrapped in cloth cradled in one arm. While I was figuring all this out, Berry walked straight up to Conn and said, in an outraged voice, “You didn’t tell me!”
“Sam made us promise,” Conn said. Berry glared at him and walked right past him to me. “Trey,” he said, “you remember Sam, don’t you?”
“Of course.” To Sam: “Glad to see you here. I hope Cob’s all right?”
“More or less,” said Sam. “He fell off a ladder and I had to get him to the guild hall at Luwul—it was pretty bad. I don’t think he’ll work again. So I came west. Is this really Star’s Reach?”
The last part of that more or less slipped by me, because I’d finally figured out what the bundle was that Sam was carrying. I looked at Berry, who was beaming, and then back at the bundle, and Sam noticed and pulled back the cloth a little. Yes, it was a baby, with a little lick of red hair on its forehead just to tell you whose grandchild it was.
Orin was staring past me by then. He turned to face Berry. “Yours?”
“So you’ve already got yourself an heir.”
You could just about watch Berry the ruinman turn into Sharl sunna Sheren the presden’s heir as the question sank in. “Yes.”
“Well, damn. A lot of people are going to be happy if we won’t have to go through the same nonsense again. Any chance you can get yourself a couple more, just to be sure?”
Sam turned bright red, but managed to say, “We’ll do our best.”
Everybody laughed at that. “Trey,” Berry said to me, “we’d settled that if this happened, we’d name him after you—if you don’t mind.”
I’m not exactly sure what words I used to tell him I didn’t mind at all, because I had my arms around both of them and my face was wet. Still, we got that sorted out, and Berry went off with Sam and the baby, and that left me to get the ruinmen, the four failed scholars they’d brought, and all the horses and gear and everything inside. The horses didn’t like the smell of the trapped room at all, but there was a big room close to the eastern door that made a pretty good stable; and once they were settled and a few of the prentices got talked into staying to take care of them, the rest of us went on into Star’s Reach.
If I needed a reminder of how huge and dark and impressive Star’s Reach looked when we first arrived here, that would have done it. As we went down the stair to fourth level and down the big central corridor to the room below our living quarters, everyone but me was staring this way and that, talking only in low voices and not much even then. I got them to the room with the printers and binders; Tashel Ban was there and so was Eleen; with their help I got everyone up the stair to the living quarters, and we spent the next hour or so getting everyone settled into the rooms we’d cleared for them. Some of the prentices got working on a meal, and then the failed scholars gathered in the common room to talk with Eleen, while the rest of us went back down the stairs to the room below.
We’d hauled all the desks and low dividing walls out of the way and brought in chairs for everyone, so the ruinmen sat down and Tashel Ban stood in front and started talking. He’d figured out a way to get pictures from the computer up onto a big white screen, so I got to see it all again, and watched Conn and the others get told in a couple of hours everything we’d learned over the course of months. I heard some pretty hot language, but toward the end I don’t think anyone said a word; they were all staring with round eyes as Tashel Ban talked about the message from Delta Pavonis IV.
Then it was over; Tashel Ban had the briefing documents he’d printed out all stacked on a table, and made sure all the misters got a copy of everything, and then we all went back up the stairs for lunch. I spent the meal and a good while after it talking with some of the senior misters about how much metal there was that could be salvaged and sold, and what had to be left; I had my finder’s rights to sell off, and that’s a complicated thing when the money to pay for it will be coming in a bunch at a time for years. Meanwhile some of the prentices who’d heard Tashel Ban got sent to take care of the horses and wash the dishes, and the ones who hadn’t went back down the stair so that Tashel Ban could say the whole thing over again for them.
By the time we’d finished sorting out the metal, the money, and the rest of it, I was ready to go hide in my room or something. Until the ruinmen arrived, I hadn’t noticed just how used I’d gotten to the quiet of a big empty site with only five people in it; now that it was as loud and busy as a ruinmen’s camp always is, well, let’s just say I didn’t have much trouble telling the difference. When I got up from the table, though, Orin said, “One other thing. A few of us need to talk to you about something private.”
I could see from his face that he meant really, really private. “Sure,” I said. “Down below, maybe?”
The “few of us” amounted to Orin and two other misters, one from western Tucki and the other from Sanloo, I forget their names. We went down the stair and crossed the room behind the silent, staring prentices, then ducked out into the empty parts of Star’s Reach. Two levels down another stair and down a corridor was a meeting room, or something like one, with chairs in it and a big black table and a white board up on the wall with marks on it none of us had been able to read.
We sat down. I thought I could guess what this was about, and I wasn’t wrong. “We need to know what happened to Jennel Cobey Taggart,” Orin said.
I nodded. “I’m wondering how much you already know.”
Orin looked at the other two, who nodded, and then turned back to me. “Here’s what happened. About two months ago, the ruinmen’s hall in Luwul got contacted by the Taggart family. They knew he’d gotten himself reborn, and they knew that old technology had something to do with it; they wouldn’t say a lot else, but they wanted to know if we’d heard anything about him messing with the kind of thing, well, that you don’t mess with.”
I took that in. “Nobody in the Luwul guild knew anything about that,” Orin went on, “but they did some checking around, and contacted ruinmen in other cities. That’s when I got involved. We decided we needed to find out what happened to the jennel, and why the family was being so tight-lipped about it all. We called in quite a few favors with the other guilds, and—well, I won’t go into it.
“We found out.” He leaned forward. “He’d been dabbling in the worst sort of old world technology. One of his servants tipped off the family. He had plans for an airplane, one that could carry guns and bombs. He had some other things—I’m not even going to go into them, they’re that bad. He was—” I could see the bump on Orin’s throat go up and down. “He was planning on using those if the electors didn’t give him the presdency and it came to civil war. And he was planning on starting that here, where it could be done out of sight of anybody, and where there’s an old airfield close by. He knew that; he had some maps of this facility in his private papers.”
I closed my mouth after a moment.
“So we need to know what happened to him,” Orin said. “The Taggarts want to know—and so do the priestesses. This is not a small thing.”
I nodded, drew in a breath, and told them what happened. When I was done, Orin looked at the mister from Tucki, who nodded and said, “That matches what we got from the family.”
Orin turned to me and said, “That was a good piece of work. Still—” He leaned forward again. “The family’s trying to keep things quiet, for obvious reasons. The priestesses are willing to let them, so long as it doesn’t become a public scandal—then they’d have to call in the government, and there would be trials and a mother of a lot of very ugly things aired for everyone to see.”
“What Orin is trying to say,” said the mister from Sanloo, “is that some very important people would be glad if nobody ever hears what happened—and it would probably be a good idea for you to make yourself good and scarce for a while. Maybe a long while.”
We talked a while longer before we went upstairs, but I don’t remember more of it than a stray word here and there. I was trying to fit my mind around what I’d just heard. It all made sense in the worst possible way. I could imagine Cobey Taggart watching the plan come together, and realizing that if he just let me keep on blundering ahead, he could get rid of two dangers, Sheren’s heir and Thu, and take over a place where he could build his airplanes without anyone knowing about it. When they came buzzing out of the western sky to fire bullets and drop bombs on his rivals, who could be sure that they hadn’t been waiting at Star’s Reach? All I had to do was find out where Star’s Reach was, and if I’d failed, he could have brought out his maps, handed them to me, and claimed that his people had found them in some unlikely place. All he had to do to fool me and make it work was to take a few risks, and he’d succeeded so often I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he might fail.
It was when we were going back up the stairs to the living quarters that I realized that that was when the old world ended. Not that long ago, I thought like everyone else that it ended four and a half centuries ago; then, for a while, I wondered if it had ever quite ended at all; and after I watched the Spire fall, if I really did see that, I thought I might have witnessed the old world’s end right there on the Lannic shore. All three times, I was wrong, because the old world ended in the trapped room by the east entrance of Star’s Reach, when Cobey Taggart took his last step and his boot came down on metal. He couldn’t have brought the old world back, not really, but he could have tried, and if he’d gotten far enough, he might have brought one last round of Mam Gaia’s fury down on all our heads.
Instead, he got himself born again, and it’ll be Berry who comes out of Star’s Reach to become presden by right, not by force. I don’t think I’ll ever rest easy thinking about how little it would have taken to make things go the other way.
So that’s what I was thinking when we got back to the living quarters. Orin and the other two misters thanked me and went off to make sure their prentices were settled in, everyone else was somewhere or other besides the common room, and I stood there for a moment wondering what to do.
A moment later, footsteps whispered on the stair to the surface. I turned just as Thu came down them. He stopped, motioned to me to come over, and very quietly said, “A friend of yours is waiting above.”
I stared at him for a moment, and all at once realized who it had to be. He put his finger to his lips; I managed a nod somehow; he stepped out of the way, and I went up the stair and out the door into the afternoon sunlight, trying to fit my thoughts around something even bigger than what I’d just learned about Jennel Cobey’s plans.