labingi: (Ghanior)
[personal profile] labingi
Chapters 1-5 on AO3

Chapter 5

I awoke to clamor, floundering in the water. A moment later, I woke truly on dry sand, woke to agony, throbbing, nauseous, his mind gasping, I did it, but where?, and a need to hide till the lightning in the brain stopped and sight was possible. And fear from us all, and cries and chatter.

A handlight clicked on--Chi'anové's. I groped for mine. So did Glin, and then three lights shown on the man crumpled by the embers of our fire.

I recall Tanez next to him, Tanez's voice, sharp, "It's Ghanior. He's a friend."

Ghanior? 'Ghanior Lastri'nom? The Director of the Walking Program. One of the First Walkers, the first generation. He had Walked to us--or been slammed, a thin, middle-aged man in a blue-black sy'gad's uniform, the second highest rank in the Ash'tor; he had come in Ash'tor's name.

I had never known a Walker to experience such pain from Walking. But it didn't worry him; it was normal for him. Fighting it down, he held his head while conferring with Tanez in a language I recognized as Perditan, Tanez's father's native language. Lastri'nom's too. Everybody knew he'd been a childhood friend of Tanez's father. I didn't understand the language enough to follow more than the yearning and relief behind their words.

"Give him some space," said Tanez to the rest of us.

I backed off, watching, beside Chi'anové.

"Lastri'nom," he whispered to me.

"Yes."

Glin hovered closer in; she'd met Lastri'nom before. She wasn't sure if Tanez words applied to her or not.

I followed a rattle of fear to Nyra, standing at the edge of the rough circle of our light, hugging herself.

"So this is how ye come here," she said in low voice. "Ye said as much, but I never understood."

"It isn't how I came here," I told her. "I came in a ship."

"It isn't fair." Nyra was in turmoil, almost physically ill.

"Walking?" I said, not following.

"It isn't fair to the other animals. A hunter could appear before any animal and kill it ere it had a chance to flee. Or even if hunting weren't the aim, imagine in the terror of a flock of pheasants, say, if one appeared in their midst. Like our terror when he came."

I would never have thought of Walking in this way. Her concerns were so trivial, and yet, was it that deep cultural conservatism--that meticulous caution with living beings--that had let the Kiri Empire endure so long with such little tempest?

Unsure how to pacify her, I said, "I think that man has Walked here to help us."

"It is a very high tech, isn't it?"

"Yes. It's very new."

"I'm sure it's disallowed on Kiri worlds."

Yet oddly, it wasn't in the Onáda System, the Kiri capital, where Tanez was born. Or perhaps it wasn't odd. How could it be disallowed on a high traffic world when no one could really control where Walkers Walked? Easier to pretend it wasn't a problem. "Most tech we brought here is disallowed. I believe you know that, Nyra? But we didn't come to break your law. We are lost here. We will leave when we can; that's why you help us."

It wasn't entirely why. Chi'anové flashed in her mind and also home and an old longing. "Forgive me," said Nyra. "I must debate with the sea awhile." She got up and paced lightly away on the stones.

***

I rejoined the others by our rekindled fire, where they sat talking with 'Ghanior Lastri'nom; the pain in his head had dulled a little.

"This is my partner," Chi'anové introduced me, "'Eblia Te'Zhano Yoq, A'dib Fourth Block Attaché."

Something in Chi'anové's introduction made Lastri'nom look twice. I couldn't think what it was but made sure my mind was locked.

"God be with you, Ad Yoq," he greeted me.

"God be with you, Sy'gad Lastri'nom. I'm honored."

"I was just explaining the situation as we understand it." He spoke to me in Ash'torian, perhaps because he had already shared this with Glin and Tanez. "Nine days ago, some hundred and fifty Walkers, almost half the total population, were slammed--or so we conjecture--within two hours of each other. About twenty-five have managed to contact us by com; none have been able to Walk without being slammed again. All were stranded on far-flung planets, but not as remote as this. None found so far have been injured beyond some scrapes from a rough landing. We have sent out seventeen Walkers to Walk to the missing ones. As far as I know, I'm the first not to be slammed back to origin. I don't know why. I experienced no interference."

"May I ask what image you Walked to, Sy'gad?"

"To Tanez... Shadowdell." The surname came as an afterthought.

"May I ask if others like me have gone missing? What I mean is companions to Walkers?"

"Eight." His gaze took my measure, face orange and black between the fire and the night. At that moment, I realized several things: he knew Chi'anové and I were Eye-men. Of course, he did. Chi'anové was a talented Walker. While he might be obscure in public life, his status as an intelligence agent would surely be known to the Director of the Walking Program. Further, he had assessed me as a quantity to be reckoned with. Whether he guessed I was an HT I don't know, but with only eight non-Walkers abducted, the eight must represent a force of importance, so he reasoned.

Tanez broke my train of thought. "And my father hasn't returned from Jana since he entered in?"

"He hasn't," said Lastri'nom. "But Elleen is watching him. If he's in danger, she'll pull him out." Though his tone was calming, it struck me he had no affection for Tanez, as if some old, unspoken feud lay between them.

But what did he mean Elleen was watching? Elleen Upfall was another First Walker, and that was all I knew of her. Tanez had said (thought) something like this to Glin back at Nyra's house. It hadn't made sense to me then either, but I'd blamed my scattered mind.

"May I ask if this means he is immune to slamming?" I asked. "Or Elleen Upfall is? This, in itself, would seem significant."

The Walkers--all but Chi'anové--found my question naive. "He hasn't attempted to Walk," said Lastri'nom. "His body is stationary at his home on Onáda. His mind is in Jana; this is a particular strength of his. Elleen hasn't attempted to Walk either. She's not in Jana, but she is maintaining a telepathic awareness of his well-being. This is skill they've developed over many years; it isn't standard practice."

"May I ask if we know anything of what he has learned in Jana?"

That they considered a more intelligent question, though they already knew the answer. "We don't. Elleen says he's not in distress. That's as much as she can read from outside."

Chi'anové was not satisfied by any of this explanation, but he was not going to challenge him about Shadowdell yet. "Sy'gad Lastri'nom," he said instead, "since you were not slammed back to origin, I might wonder if you could Walk back to Perdita?"

Lastri'nom suppressed a pulse of fear. "I'll try, Ad Chi'anové. But I'll sleep first. It's best I be rested." He was having some trouble holding his head up so violently did Walking tax him.

***

Our Journey: Day 4

Just past dawn the next morning, Lastri'nom tried to Walk. I had never seen someone slammed before. It's like watching a vid with a few frames removed, creating a jump too fast for the eye to follow. He was there; then he was there again, falling on his backside. The pain, which had never entirely left him, blossomed fresh. He sat on the ground, head pressed to his knees. Glin gave him a blocker patch, which dulled the sharper twinges. As he explained to me later, he had some brain damage associated with Walking, and blockers strong enough to mask the pain carried a risk of neural side effects for him.

When he'd rested an hour or so, we set off, unwilling to slow our progress on the chance Lastri'nom might save us. He walked with us in a daze, just beginning to come to grips with being trapped here.

At the midday meal, for the first time, he ate. "Our time brief," he intoned as he set food to his lips. And it shamed me--and even Chi'anové slightly--that we'd both ceased to practice such pieties. I followed Lastri'nom's example, and Chi'anové followed me, though mostly for fear of offending a Sy'gad.

Lastri'nom tried Walking again that afternoon with the same result. And so he joined us, his escape now the same as ours: the communications relays at the tech center.

***

He'd come better provisioned than I'd expect from a Walker, prudent planning given this crisis. He had ration bars, a thermal blanket, a heavy coat, a large water condenser (large in case its condenser apparatus malfunctioned). In fact, Nyra pronounced him too heavily provisioned; he'd be slowed by the condenser strapped on his pack.

"We'll barter it off," she said, "for goodly water skin."

Chi'anové and Lastri'nom both objected to a day lost diverting to the nearest town in the name of faster progress. I, too, resented the delay for Chi'anové's sake though, for now, he still seemed well enough: a little warm, and his hands itched. But it was a discipline of mind for her: one didn't take the wrong tools on a journey.

To Nyra, the condenser was just a big jug. But Tanez, who understood its water conservation function, bridled at bartering high tech to Kiris. It surprised me to find beneath the cosmopolitan man a provincial Kiri boy. He knew the Nyrírlans wouldn't spread the tech (they couldn't replicate it--and water wasn't scarce). He knew it wouldn't poison the land (it used no noxious substances). Rather, the idea scratched a taboo: high tech should not be dispersed. It just shouldn't. He felt about it as I would feel about blaspheming God, even unbelieving.

In the end, Lastri'nom, with harried precision, stripped out the condenser hub, and we buried it, leaving a harmless container lined with recondensing processors no one would ever use or see.

We found the town ("city") on a plateau of open pine. Unlike Southfield-city, its buildings where obvious boxes--the few people out working stopped and stared, apprehension palpable. Nyra called out our requests for barter without attempting to approach. After some long-distance haggling, we traded jug and coat for a water skin. Leaving our items in a central space, we stepped back while the townspeople claimed them and left the water skin in its place. Nyra handed the skin to Lastri'nom, restating several times that it was new.

"New is nothing," he said in broken Keshnul.

"I know," she replied. "But it's the custom."

"It's the plague," I guessed; we'd already told him of it. "They don't trade items that might be contaminated."

Lastri'nom rubbed a hand across his face. "We could have spared all this," he said in Ash'torian. Efficiency, for him, was a matter of principle, and he worked vigorously to make up for the lag, demanding instruction in food gathering and cooking. He also knocked the sand out of everybody's blankets.

***

Our Journey: Day 5

The next morning, I walked beside Chi'anové and contrived a conversation at some distance from the others.

"I wonder if your health continues well," I said.

"I wonder you can't tell." Chi'anové, even more than most Ash'torians, is jealous of the sanctity of his thoughts. Strange that he'd work well with a hypertelepath, knowing that I saw into him. I'd maintained our friendship by discretion, but in this place, of necessity, it slipped.

In that moment, it made me angry that he--like so many others--should view my talent as my fault. "I wonder you invite me to look when you could tell me."

He gave me a glance. "I'll let you know what you need to know."

We walked the coast plateau in silence for a little. "I wonder what you make of Sy'gad Lastri'nom's information."

"Try carrying it in your hands, 'Eblia."

I'd been shifting my pack from shoulder to shoulder all morning. At his suggestion, I unslung it and gripped it by its central loop. "It's both heavy and unwieldy."

"The weak link is Sheseson Shadowdell," he said, almost whispering though our companions were far enough ahead we couldn't hear their footfalls. "Lastri'nom says Shadowdell's in Jana, being monitored by Elleen Upfall; he has not been slammed. Why, I wonder?"

"Lastri'nom said he hadn't tried to Walk."

"But if his mind is in Jana, a force like this would push it back. Why wouldn't it, I wonder? Surely, it wouldn't want him looking. And Upfall doesn't even feel he's in distress. So this force isn't even bothering him. Because he is too powerful for this slamming force? Maybe. But more powerful than several Walkers almost as skilled as he is, taken on at least two at time, in the case of Shadowdell--Tanez--and Soval?"

"And it's not because he entered Jana after the initial attack," I said. "Lastri'nom entered later and he, too, was slammed."

"So why, I wonder, in all the worlds would this force want someone observing in Jana?"

He had an answer, but he wanted to see me reach it. The answer lay in his own question. "It wants him observing." Elementary Eye-man-think. If a course of action does not make sense, turn it till it does.

"It wants the most powerful Walker in existence observing--the one who should be its greatest enemy."

"Therefore, he's its friend."

Chi'anové nodded up ahead. "And Lastri'nom? He is also Sheseson Shadowdell's friend."

I shook my head. "He's almost incapable of insincerity. If his friend is in this, then he's not that near a friend."

"Still... prudence."

"I agree." We wouldn't mention our guesses yet.

***

At lunch, I ate away from the others on a high, flat rock jutting out into the ocean. I needed mind-space: from Tanez, whose father I distrusted, from Lastri'nom, that father's friend, and from Glin, too, who'd sensed my anger at her. Her worry left me guilty and embarrassed. If I had my choice of unwelcome interruptions, I would have chosen Lastri'nom of the three, the least emotionally fraught. And he, indeed, was the one who wandered over. (Perhaps this is how God answers prayers?)

"Ad Yoq." He sat beside me with a ration bar in hand. I remembered that I'd packed some too. I should share them with Chi'anové for his health.

"Sy'gad Lastri'nom." I made sure my mind was locked.

"I wonder if your name signals an affiliation with the Clan of Yor?"

The question came unexpected and brightening. So this was what he'd noticed when Chi'anové introduced me. "Yes. It's a contraction of 'Yor-oq.'" From Yor.

"It's a venerable Clan." The intensity of his feeling made me want to stare. I didn't. It echoed my own pride. I've always counted the story of Yor among the great tales, but it's natural for me to be partial to my Clan. I wondered at the source of such devotion in a foreigner. Yor--the word signifies submission to God--is a narrative of abnegation, of crime and consequence, restitution and responsibility. What in such a tale spoke to him?

"Might you have a favorite version?"

He gave this serious consideration. "I've studied many and appreciate their differences. I have a fondness for the core Tale from the Maecharn-han. But I suppose for sheer depth and beauty, I am most drawn to To'neq's opera."

"I love it too."

We ate a while in silence, his mood increasingly pensive and close to his past. "I have never been sure," he said, "if I am 'Sylseq or 'Medhebaq." The brother who did wrong at first or the one who did wrong at last.

"Nor I," I said.

He laughed.

On Nyrírla, I glided, insubstantial, through strange lands. I hadn't realized my own exile till our talk returned me to my Clan. Here we are, I thought, lost in foreign sands, like the brothers in their long chase. In this journey, perhaps I'm made more Yor than I have ever been. Perhaps this is how God answers prayers?

'Ghanior Y'See'voya Lastri'nom is nothing like his picture. I'd never been assigned to a case that directly involved him, so let God say how I came across his likeness. But seeing him in person, I realized how totally that image had traced itself on my mind. Staring out of the frame, he'd worn with ease a startling beauty, the kind that one expects to find in a worlds renowned prostitute: a strong, lean face and inky eyes, features improbably well proportioned.

Actually, all of that's still true. Words fail to express the transformation. He's older. He looks older than he should at sixty. He looks human. The marks of living have drawn a face no longer improbable.

***

The Tale of Yor is an exploration of high right-behavior.

The elder brother should be first to shine in battle. But 'Sylseq, the younger, snuck away to war while 'Medhebaq slept, and robbed his brother of everything: wealth, glory, the woman he should have married. And 'Medhebaq Yor forgave him, and thus robbed him of the only thing that matters finally: 'Sylseq's right to be brought to justice. And so 'Sylseq killed himself and, thus, in seeking to bring himself to justice brought himself to shame. So who wronged whom more?

Wrong question.

Who have I robbed and who forgiven? I could conjure names ('Hasha, my father), but I suspect the answer is that I've never looked closely enough to know.

Dáromur wrote 'Sylseq in the final address to his brother:

[Did I] Bereave you of the beating heart
That used to teach you that for everything
There is a time?


Do not forgive unless it is the time of forgiveness. So what did 'Sylseq truly steal? Was it 'Medhebaq's ability to comprehend the needs of the souls of others, that most difficult and indispensable of the great God, Tra'hae's, requirements?

To see into minds is not to comprehend souls. I know I do the one and not the other. Lastri'nom is my kin in this. Perhaps we're all thieves and forgivers.

***

"She's looking at me as if I had their damn plague," said Chi'anové on the road that afternoon.

Nyra wasn't looking at him at all; she strode far in front, keeping her eyes off his eyes.

"It isn't you; she's just unnerved by Walking. She finds it un-Kiri."

He gave me an acid look. "I am un-Kiri, and I am Walking too." Incongruous words as he stumped under his pack. "But I'm not poison; I don't like being misjudged."

"Chi'anové, you revel in being misjudged." The words flared in him like dry grass on the embers, a sudden blaze that crunches up the coals to leave a fast-fading heat. Chi'anové did like to be misjudged; at least, he liked to thwart assumptions. HT or not, I myself knew little of him. I knew he was found parentless on A'dib, and his genes marked him Sama, a colonized people. And though he was raised Ash'torian, he was often mistaken for a rebel, a savage. Let them be mistaken, he'd think. He liked to be misjudged.

But the ache in his heart now had the hue of my own sorrows: of loss, of loneliness. I hazarded a guess. "I wonder if you're wondering when you'll see Meegam again?"

I'd only heard her name once aloud, when we were under house arrest in a planetary coup. He'd been worried he'd be killed before he could Walk--or dared he Walk and expose his cover? "If I die," he'd said, "Meegam will never know why I never came back to Jana." Meegam is a Jana dweller; she has no existence in real space.

Now, predictably, he retorted, "I cannot see how that's your business."

"No," I agreed. "It's my cousinhood." We use this expression to justify transgressing professional lines. It means, I reach out to you as a fellow being, in godly concern, seeking nothing for myself. It was even almost true.

I have seen Meegam in Chi'anové's thoughts: a woman of indeterminate age with a round face, light brown hair, blue eyes--fuzzy, like a dream. She looks Sama, if she looks anything. The "ee" spelling Chi'anové pictures for her name is Sama. The "-am" might signify an Ash'torian woman, but I think Chi'anové made it up, or made what sense he could out of something other. She lives in a meadow by a woodland. She has a son, who always looks about ten and has no name I know and is not, in any sense, Chi'anové's son, though Chi'anové is well disposed toward him. Meegam's face beams like a soft sun on Chi'anové. When they meet, she holds him, and they make love in the way he has not been able to in real space since his early teens. I have the impression that they talk as well, without words, as one can in dreams so that when the conversation is over, one has a clear sense of it without any content. She is always the same when he finds her. He does not always find her.

All of which sounds like a fantasy. But it could also indicate two beings who see each other rarely and, thus, always show their best face. Chi'anové is as invariably tender to Meegam as she is to him; is he her fantasy? The truth is we don't know enough about Jana to say what he's meeting when he meets her. We know Walkers can erect fantasies there but usually not of a long duration. We know there are once-humans who now dwell only in Jana. Long ago, a jae disaster destroyed the Sama Empire and ended their war with the Kiris; we call this the War's End. There's a theory that the War's End transported some Samas into Jana. Perhaps Meegam was once one of them. Perhaps she is some being native to Jana. Perhaps she is a mix of these. She makes Chi'anové feel loved.

He thought about my cousinhood, how he wanted it and didn't. "Thanks," he said finally.

***

That evening, we sat glum around our campfire. After a time, Nyra melted away into the darkness; she had small use for low spirits. I rubbed at my sore shoulders.

"I feel my mother in this," said Tanez, addressing us in Vunizh.

Anxiety stabbed Glin--and it struck me that much of the worry I'd sensed in her was for Tanez, not me. Of course, it was for him. Of course, he saw her fears and took her hand, but absently, not looking at her.

"How do you mean?" asked Lastri'nom. Tanez's mother was dead, he was thinking, so how could she be involved?

Tanez's mind seemed the crescent of the misted moon above: a pale fragment, pulling shadows from the blackness. (My homeworld has no moons.) "She--My mother was a Reader," he explained for Chi'anové and me. "Do you know that expression?"

We shook our heads.

He smiled; his mother made him sad. "Practically, it means she was an artist. But among the Kiris, who are quite a literal people, there are some they call Symbol Readers, people who naturally see past the concrete into great sweeps of meaning. She saw the truth of Walking, more than anyone. More than my father. The moment she met him, she began to dream of death. She sang of long exile, and her sand paintings told of worlds laid waste. She marked her trees with bones in rags; I remember from my first thoughts she would sing the last whale song."

So he spoke, drifting into his mother's idiom. Then, he caught himself. "The Jetháti called her a boon to their lecture circuits on Onáda." The Jethatí are the Kiri priests who preach tech limitation. "They thought she was reminding the community of the past, of the devastation of Daughter-world, and so on. I remember one Jetháta said to her once, 'We're always worried they'll forget. After that--' some work she'd just put on '--they'll never forget.' But my mother was looking to the future."

Lastri'nom said, "And she linked this devastation to Sheseson because he was a Walker."

"Yes."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. She never said so directly. She talked in images. But there's no question in my mind."

"Why?" said Chi'anové in his uncomfortable Vunizh. "How does to be a Walker lead to Daughter-like devastation?" His mind was sealed up like an oyster to hide his doubts about Sheseson. I hoped--I was almost certain--no one saw them except me.

"She was a Kiri," said Lastri'nom. "Kiris reject high technology, and it doesn't come much higher than Jana tech."

"That's true," I said, "but are you saying she rejected Jana tech out of hand, a flesh-burn reaction, or did she follow a particular train of thought?"

Tanez laughed. "My mother's thoughts didn't come in trains. They came like sunrise. She simply knew."

"Knew what, Tanez?" said Lastri'nom. "If we're going to look to her help in mapping this, we need to some landmark to pin."

He shook his head.

Glin said, "He doesn't speak that language--that analytical language--any more than she did, Ghanior. He can tell you what he knows. He can't teach you how to comprehend it."

Tanez squeezed her arm. "No, I'm not that… monolingual." He almost said, "dumb"; he was angry at himself. "But it--you're asking what the dangers are? Ecological destabilization due to sloppy travel protocols, disease, theft, political unrest due to spying, war. You know all of that, Ghanior. You're asking me how many drops of water it takes to cause a mudslide. I don’t know the answer to that, but I believe my mother recognized a house on a cliff when she saw one."

"May I ask why you became a Walker?" I said, "If you agree with your mother that the practice will be so destructive?"

"Because I'm my father's son? Because I believe it's too late to turn the tide? My mother foresaw that. As much as she foretold death, she never asked my father to stop. I honestly believe it was never a point of contention, as if waging that war were as pointless as trying to stop the stars from burning out."

"'Knowledge once created cannot be destroyed,'" I murmured the ancient dictum of the Irreversibility of Knowledge.

Lastri'nom glanced at me, annoyed, then said to Tanez, "We're speaking long-term then? In terms of historical epoch rather than immediate crisis?"

It took Tanez a few moments to feel out an answer. "It could be both. But I think what my mother saw--what I feel--is more long-term, yes, or…"

"Or?" said Lastri'nom.

"No, I don't know what I'm thinking." This was partly a lie.

Lastri'nom, I think, suspected that but let it rest.

"So all this is nothing to our present situation," said Chi'anové.

"It is," said Glin. "It's a reminder that many people are deeply afraid of Jana and Walkers. That almost certainly describes those who did this to us."

"Except they who did this to us are Walkers or work with Walkers. Only these things explain why they have this power. So this can't be out of fear of Walking per se."

Tanez's cackle embodied perfectly the sudden crackling in his mind. "Walking and fear of Walking are not mutually exclusive, Soul of Chi'anové. If your life till now has let you believe otherwise, you are absolutely a lucky man."

Chi'anové got to his feet. "If you'll excuse me, I'm not feeling well." It seemed a casual dismissal, but it was the truth.

"That makes two of us," said Tanez and retreated in the opposite direction. The dark swallowed them like actors departing a stage.

***

The three of us remaining sat a while by the fire. I occupied myself with feeding it sticks. How different it was to construct an open fire as opposed to the hearth in my fathers' house. I seemed to be erecting a little, flaming yurt.

"Glin," Lastri'nom's voice intruded, "how well do you know Laran?" Laran West-of-Now, architect of Leddra's Jana Program. My ears pricked up. We doubted Sheseson Shadowdell; he doubted Laran West-of-Now? It all led us back to First Walkers.

Glin shrugged. "Pretty well. I was one of her first students."

"Had you seen her recently, before the Event?"

"The last time I saw her was… at the graduation ceremony, about four months ago."

"Did she seem her usual self?"

Glin peered at him. In the firelight, her angular face was stark, his young again in the forgiving red. "What are you driving at, Ghanior?"

He hesitated. "She wouldn't see me after the Event. She accepted my com but said she couldn't get away from her work on Rha-Lutran."

"Makes sense."

"Yes, that's what I thought. After the Event, she had a thousand administrative pressures. But she's also one of the First Walkers, and in a crisis of this size, we need to work together. But she refused to even com in to the emergency meeting on Perdita."

Glin hugged her knees, enclosed inside and out. "Aren't you singling her out a bit? Of the four First Walkers, it sounds like you were the only one at that meeting."

"No, Elleen was there; she commed in. Shes is in Jana. Laran should have been there."

"Are you accusing her?"

Ah, Leddie directness. All their serious conversations are like watching the last act of a suspense drama.

"No, of course not." And he wasn't exactly, but the hesitation stemmed more from lack of evidence than lack of credulity. "I'm saying she may know more than she let on. If she attended that meeting, even by remote, she'd be in close AV contact with Elleen and me and others who know her well. If she had something to hide, she'd be in a poor place to hide it."

"That's… a stretch."

"Asoiya and Mei were also absent." After a moment of grasping, I recalled that these were West-of-Now's children. "She told me they were grounded by order from Rha-Lutran, but she is the head of the Jana Department, so if she didn't ground them herself, who had the authority? The President of Leddra? The Confederal Congress? Who would make such a move over her head in the middle of an emergency? If someone did, why wasn't she raving about it? If she did it herself, why was she making it sound like an order from high?"

"Maybe she didn't want to fight with you about her reasons."

"Again, yes, I agree. But why? What did she think I'd disagree with?"

Glin rubbed tired eyes. "Administration is convoluted. Maybe she was just too busy to have it out with you."

The circularity of their arguments frustrated them both. Lastri'nom's kept reducing to "She refused to meet us so she could hide information," Glin's to "You don't have enough information to make that claim." Emotionally, they were at an impasse.

When he made no reply, Glin said, "I'm going to check on Tanez."

***

Lastri'nom and I remained in the circle of the fire. I listened for our companions and could feel them some ways away, softly, Chi'anové most clearly since I knew him, ambling, hoping the open air would cool him; Glin and Tanez together. Nyra was a distant flicker.

As Lastri'nom stared into the fire, I felt I'd drawn the low tile to have to keep him company. He was so far my social superior I scarcely knew how to say hello. I couldn't remember a time when his name wasn't in the news. Yet he and I had discussed Yor together today...

He stirred. "May I ask if you know the story of Imasrase, Ad Yoq?" His return to Ash'torian felt like the stars of home.

Since Jana was an area of specialization in my work, I had studied this story. "She was the first person known to be transported into Jana. She--"

He waved a hand. "Pardon. I meant, might you know the upshot?"

"She was--you--the First Walkers found her in Jana, but she requested not to have further contact with real space--if I recall correctly."

"Everyone longed to deny it." Except myself, he thought. "Our Jana Program on Perdita had been created to find her. Our principal scientist was her mother; she'd built decades of research on the hope of reunion with her child. Then, Imasrase said, 'Leave me alone. I'm done with the human world.' The politicians had a splitting headache trying to figure out how to sell it."

"Yet the reality about Imasrase had to be faced. I might wonder if you're saying that so, too, your suspicions concerning Administrator West-of-Now cannot be dismissed?"

"You'd wonder right, Ad Yoq." There was something endearing in his attempts to arouse my suspicions of West-of-Now--I, an Eyeman, trained to suspect anyone.

"Then, if we consider that Administrator West-of-Now may be complicit in this event, may I ask if that supposition suggests particular conclusions?"

"Well, it would explain why we weren't hurt. It's difficult to imagine Laran conspiring to harm her friends and associates." (The same reasoning could work for Sheseson.) He hesitated, hovering over the thought, It's hard to imagine her hurting anyone. But then doubt came into his mind, and he elected not to say it.

"Might you have any insights as to a motive?" I asked.

"How many motives could there be for this act, I wonder. Power over Walkers? Vengeance? Disapproval? Laran already has power, and I wouldn't call her power hungry. She is a Walker; I don't know why she'd turn against us." Again the doubt surfaced. "Though, as Tanez illustrates, a Walker can disapprove of Walking."

"May I ask, Sy'gad Lastri'nom, if you were raised with Administrator West-of-Now?"

He smiled. "I was; therefore, you wish to know why I'd lean on Soval's judgments."

"That I understand. You hadn't seen Administrator West-of-Now in some time, so you sought insights from someone who had. But, it's true, I might wonder if you have your own view as to whether she's capable of this."

"No," he said softly. "No, I don't really know Laran." He paused on a precipice and decided not to leap.

"I'm sorry I can't be of more assistance." After an awkward silence, I added, "I should see if Chi'anové is feeling any better."

"Immersion in water might diffuse some of the jae contamination." So he knew of Chi'anové's condition too; of course, he did.

***

I mentioned as much to Chi'anové.

"I'm not ill enough," he said, "to fling myself into the ocean."

"He doubts Laran West-of-Now."

Chi'anové took off his gloves, and balancing them on knee dipped his hands into the lapping tide. After some moment's indecision, I took off my boots and stepped into the fingers of the water. It froze me, then warmed me, rubbing my ankles like a living thing. I recapped Lastri'nom's talk with Glin.

"And your view, I wonder," he said.

"Both of them raised valid points; I don't know. This return to the First Walkers, it could mean nothing more than that they're prominent, and in a large-scale crisis that smacks of conspiracy, it's natural to suspect prominent people."

"Yes," he said, "and it's natural for a reason."

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