Roby James

Commencement

The Starfire Saga. Book 1

I. A Place Like the Past

I want to write it as it happened—the processes and the progresses that brought me to where I am, the ways I changed and the ways I stayed the same. I want to tell it as if it were a story, even though of all the things I thought my life would be, "story" is not a word I would have chosen. And yet, Jasin Lebec once told me we all write stories with our lives. It's just that we're not aware that's what we're doing, so we never read them as a whole creation. I promise to read this when I've done writing it. It will help build the foundation I can go on from.

I didn't even begin the journal until after we arrived at Stronghome, and life keeps moving forward, even as I write about the things that have happened—are happening—happened before I got to this world. So I may never catch up with where I am. Somehow that's almost fitting.

The first thing I remember is hearing the fire. The crackle seemed to penetrate the darkness in my mind, and then on my closed eyelids I saw the pattern of moving light. I felt the pain simultaneously. It had been years since I'd felt anything more than a minor cramp, and for a moment or two the shock of the pain's intensity made it impossible for me to think clearly.

I fought to master the gather and take a deep breath, and as I felt I could, the reflexes snapped into place and the pain began to lessen. The capacity for logical thought returned slowly. When I had gathered enough to hold the pain back into a dull, aching throb, I concentrated my awareness behind my breastbone and spread it outward, gathering more as I did so. My assessment showed that I had one cracked and two broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm, assorted abrasions, contusions, and scrapes, and a badly gashed ankle. I was bleeding from numerous cuts in addition to the ankle, but those didn't worry me. Without trying to open my eyes yet, I began instantly to seal off the bleeders in the ankle. The protective edge of my gathering had now shut down all the pain receptors from the injured areas, allowing me the luxury of comfort as I slowly knit the cells on both sides of the ankle cut—first deep inside, then closer and closer to the surface.

As soon as that was nearly healed, I went to work on the ribs, carefully joining cell to cell, almost unconsciously blessing my luck that there were no bone spurs at any of the breaks. I got the shoulder and the arm repaired next, and was tiring fast when I heard the voices approaching.

"There's the fireball!"

"Over here, look over here!"

Footsteps came closer, and then, "It's a woman, and she's alive!" It was very near and filled with amazement, but for the moment I didn't want to pay attention to it. I was marshalling my strength to prepare to open my eyes. I couldn't remember having been in anything that could have crashed, not floater, nor groundcar, nor lander. The last thing I could remember was running up the long flight of steps to the entrance of Government House, on my way to Mortel John, Kray, and Coney, who stood at the top of the steps, waiting for me. And now the surface under my heels, hips, and shoulders was rough, uneven, softly padded with some kind of what felt like vegetation. Clearly, I was no longer in the paved environs of Government House.

"Don't try to move her. Get Dogul, and hurry!"

The crackling sounds of the fire almost drowned out the words. I risked opening my eyes. It was dark out, and the light I had seen through my eyelids came from a huge fireball, several meters away to my left. Whatever I had crashed in would soon be only cinders, ash, and twisted, blackened metal. Several people ran through my line of sight, between me and the flames, dark shadows on the face of the inferno. I hadn't yet tried to move my head, because it would take more energy, and I was stretched too thin between repairing the injuries and holding back the pain.

The fireball flared up suddenly, and then seemed to subside, leaving a softer, darker night. I realized that, incomprehensibly, some of the people were carrying torches, and then, gathering a little more and turning my head slightly, I saw that there were trees in my field of vision, too—huge, old, thick-boled trees that towered up into the darkness.

This wasn't a world I knew. This had to be a natural area, but one which was unbelievably ancient, and the cities had to be some distance away. I ran quickly through a catalog of the worlds on which I had been, and I didn't know any with natural areas as old as this one was.

"Here, Dogul, she's over here."

I pulled in my senses to face this person called Dogul—and again I was surprised, as the torchlight revealed a woman of great age, but not age as it came in the Com, with dignity, ease, and grace. This was an aging of wrinkles on leatherlike skin, eyes meshed in a net of deep lines between a headbanded cowl and veil and a chinband.

"Are you aware?" she asked. Her voice was raspy, brisk, not unkind, but not deeply concerned. I nodded, just perceptibly, unwilling to risk speaking just yet. "I'm surprised—" she started to say, then broke off in mid-speech. "The torch," she said instead.

Bright light suddenly intruded on me, and I had to close my eyes. So much of my energy was gone now that I did not even want to try irising my pupils down faster than normal.

I heard Dogul say, "Get a litter. Bring it here as soon as you can. You, Vulin, get up to the Stonehouse and tell the Meltress—not the Melster, mind you—the Meltress that I beg an audience. Go!"

She bent over me again, and I felt her hands gently exploring my body and my limbs. The torchlight dimmed a little, and I opened my eyes again, blinking a few times. Dogul's exploration had reached my ankle. I heard a sudden intake of breath, and she straightened for a moment, then leaned close to my face.

"Listen to me," she said in a low voice. "It is dangerous to practice Samish arts here. You may not know, but this is Honish land. If you value your life, do no more, and be thankful one such as I found you."

She straightened and turned away before I could react, but that was probably just as well, because I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I understood most of the words she'd spoken, but the sense of her warning eluded me. Because I was exhausted in addition to valuing my life, I stopped any further attempt to gather, ceased repairing my cuts and bruises, and used my remaining strength to keep the pain receptors closed. In my mind I catalogued the planets I'd been to in my slightly more than 20 standard years. I needed a logical train of thought to believe I was still in control, and I fastened onto needing to know where I was. There was Steressor, where I had been born and certified as a talent; Werd, where I had been trained, tested, and graded as the first Class A of my generation; Koldor, where the higher-level Com training was undertaken and completed; and Orokell, seat of the Com. Those were the civilized worlds, not one of which had a natural area with trees in it that looked to be hundreds of years old, and not one of which supported wrinkled women in archaic headgear. Then there was the nameless test-world where I had done my Tenday, but I knew it to be all desert, not forested, not peopled with anachronisms.

Where was I? How had I gotten here? How could the Com have misplaced a just-graduated Class-A talent? I was too valuable for this.

Trying to think logically—and the growing stress of not reaching a conclusion—drained me even further. Some of the control over my pain slipped, and I began to ache. A soft groan escaped me involuntarily, and Dogul leaned back over me. "Better to be silent," she said.

If I had not been in pain and exhausted, I would probably have laughed. There was something so ludicrous about the strangeness of all this, something bizarre, out of mesh with all objective reality. I even irrationally supposed that I could be dreaming some kind of Arthurian legend.

"Here comes the litter, Dogul."

"Slide it down here beside her. I want to move her as little as possible."

I felt a genuine stab of fear at the idea of being moved. Somehow in my bewilderment, reality had crystallized around the firmness and solidity of the ground beneath me, as once in classes it had centered on my prowess in training. I was too tired to fight both pain and fear.

Several pairs of hands moved me quickly, a little roughly, onto the litter. All my control, exerted hard, didn't keep enough of the pain at bay, and I cried out against my will for the first time since childhood. I felt abruptly shamed by it. A Class-A talent should never have been taken unaware by a simple thing like physical pain.

As the litter lifted and Dogul threw a rough cloth over me, exhaustion took over, all the rest of my control slipped, and the world grayed out. I was not really unconscious, just withdrawn and subdued, protected, away from the confusion. Nothing from the outside disturbed me for an indeterminate time, and then the light brightened, and a soft, low-pitched woman's voice intruded. "What is all this about, Dogul?"

I brought myself back to some measure of awareness. The litter had halted, but had not been set down. A torch was closer. As I heard Dogul say, "Meltress, please come and see," I opened my eyes. Dogul was bowing to a thin woman of unknown age, wearing a fine but shapeless robe and a much more delicate version of the cowl and veil. She looked at me for a long moment, then looked at Dogul, and seemed to be calculating something.

At last she asked, "She came with the great fireburn we saw from the walls?"

"She was with it when we found her, Lady Meltress," Dogul answered. "I thought you would want to see. The stars have truly blessed you."

The thin woman looked back at me again, and the corners of her lips lifted in what I was hard-put to call a smile. "You have done well, Dogul," she said. "You will be rewarded. See that her hurts are attended." Then she was gone from my field of vision.

When Dogul bent over me again, she was smiling. "Now we'll take you to rest, pretty one," she said with satisfaction. I let myself drift back into the grayness. Until I rested, I would be good for nothing. My reserves were low, and I had to deep. I fell asleep and had deeped before the litter stopped moving.


I awoke suddenly, as always emerging from deeping into sleeping first, then fully aware in an instant. The remembered pain kept me from moving quickly, but as I turned my head, I saw a young woman in a clean but worn robe rise from a stool and go to the door. The door was made of wood, banded with some sort of hammered metal. The walls around the low bed on which I lay were of mortared stone.

The young woman slipped out the door, leaving behind some sort of rough cloth she'd been sewing. I knew what hand sewing was, in a historical sense, but I'd never before seen anyone do it. Suddenly, there was a logic to the trees, the wrinkles, the clothes, the room, and the sewing. "This is a wilderworld!" I said aloud. What in the name of sentience was I doing on a wilderworld? They were proscribed. And if I had crashed here, would anyone know I was here? Could anyone come and get me from a wilderworld even if they knew it? The latter thought I quelled quickly as I sat up, damping away the remaining aches and pains. I was the Class A. The Com would move whole worlds to get me back.

I wanted to get up, but first I had to test out my injuries. I had been able to heal nothing fully before I ran out of time and energy. Under the coarse, loose shift I'd been dressed in, my ribs had been tightly bandaged—the cracked one I had not been able to repair at all had obviously been diagnosed. So my breathing was a little restricted. My bad arm was discolored from elbow to shoulder, but I had gotten the break knitted and the shoulder back in place well enough so that most of the surrounding muscles were not badly damaged. The various cuts, scrapes, and abrasions had some sort of salve on them. Nothing was serious—I had taken care of the worst ones myself.

The door opened, and Dogul came in, followed by the young woman, who was carrying a tray with a bowl and a mug on it.

"How do you feel?" Dogul asked.

"All right," I said cautiously. "Where am I?"

The young woman put the tray down on my knees. The bowl contained what looked like a thick vegetable broth; the mug, a thick, yellowish, milky liquid. Dogul answered, "You are in the Stonehouse of the Melster Lewannee and his Meltress. They have kindly agreed to see to your healing."

"I can see to my own healing," I said. "Where is this stone house?"

Dogul gestured sharply to the young woman to leave the room, and she did so, closing the heavy door behind her. When it had closed, the old woman demanded, her face twisted with anger, "Are you mad to speak that way in front of a servingmaid? If it becomes known that you are Samish, you will be put to the ax, and then where will our plans be? We need only two more days, the Meltress and me!"

Common sense told me that I would learn more if I didn't alienate her, and logic said that I needed to learn. What she had said had little meaning for me. "Samish" was a word I had heard her say before, but still didn't understand. "Our plans" meant nothing. "The ax" also meant little, but it sounded ominous in context. One of the things Mortel John had labored long and hard to teach me was diplomacy. I decided to see if I could practice it.

"I'm sorry if I spoke without thinking," I said, trying to sound sincere, "but I'm very confused about how I got here and what's going to happen to me."

Dogul accepted the apology and gestured to me to eat. I needed strength, so I did, even though the soup was unappetizingly coarse and the ivory liquid was warm and over-rich. While I ate, Dogul told me that she was keeper of the servingmaids for the Lady Meltress Lewannee. "Now what is your name, and where do you come from?" she asked.

I thought quickly about status and advantages, and then I said, "I am the Lady Ronica McBride, and I come from a big house very far away. It's called Government House."

Dogul's eyes grew wide enough to add to her wrinkles, then narrowed down, and she stared at me for a time. I finished eating and waited her out. Then she made a sound I could only interpret as disgust, and twisted the side of her mouth down. "It'll do you no good to put on airs now," she said. "You're not with the stars, and you're only a filthy Sammat. We'll call you Ronca—that's a good enough name for a servingmaid."

Anger and pride rose up in me at once. How dare she! "I am no one's servingmaid!" I said hotly.

She as good as sneered. "You'll be that, or you'll be dead," she said. "My Lady Meltress owes a debt that she's going to use you to pay. That's what you're worth to us, and what happens to you after we've sold you is no concern of mine."

She was smug, and standing above me, and I was angry. In a second, I had gathered and tried to sting her, to hurt her and make her regret her words.

Nothing happened.

The gathering occurred normally, instantaneously, but the sting was not there. I could not project. It was as if I had not even made the attempt. I was shocked into complete silence, my mouth open, my skin suddenly cold. It was horrible.

Dogul stared at me.

I took a shuddering breath, fought for calm, and reached inside me to look for the sting where it had always been, no longer concerned with anger or hurting. The reflexes were there, the paths along which I gathered were there, and my reserves were full, but the sting was totally absent. It was as if that part of me had been amputated. Something seemed to break inside me, and I hurled the tray away from me and swung my legs over the side of the bed, crying, "Bring me a mirror! Bring me a mirror now!" When she didn't move for a moment, I shouted, "What are you waiting for? Hurry! A mirror!"

Dogul debated only for a second. Perhaps, it occurred to me much later, I had no value to her if I was raving. She went to the door and gave an order to have a mirror brought.

I gathered to exert control on my diaphragm muscles and my pounding heart, for in a few minutes, I would have been over-oxygenated. But I couldn't stop the trembling.

The ability to project is the sign of Class-A talent. Mortel John—one of the overwhelming majority of people who did not have that ability, but perhaps the only one who could train it—called it "stinging." Gathering is the Class-C sign. We generally believe that everyone has it to some degree, in muscular strength, in the immune system, in physical ability, in what was once called biofeedback. But those with higher-level, more complexly controllable gathering abilities are very rare—perhaps one or two to a world. Pathfinding is the sign of a Class B, and it is rarer still—perhaps one true talent to a hundred worlds. Pathfinding takes the ability to gather and applies it to inanimate things, to get them to open themselves, to show how they operate, to allow their usage in other than "normal" ways. One true Class B can operate a star cruiser entirely alone, using the cruiser itself as crew.

As the Class A, I possessed all of the signs—gathering, pathfinding, and stinging. I had been told that at the age of two I was in control of a pack of children, some as old as ten, and that that was the way the government of Steressor had identified me for Com testing. My kind of talent was so rare that more than one Class A in a generation was considered unheard of—I was, Jasin Lebec told me, the only Class A to be identified as stable in fifty years. Therefore, I was of the highest possible value to the Com, the confederation of MIs, and all civilized, Com-member worlds.

The Drenalion, the Com's army, came and took me away from what I can only assume were relieved parents—a young Class A is a tyrant by nature. My parents, I had been told, were colonists in the Steressor city of North Gate, and I had had a normal brother and sister of whom I had no memory. The Drenalion brought me to the school for extraordinary talents on Werd.

There, Mortel John was my teacher for the next eighteen years—mine, Coney's, and Kray's. We were the three talents, all of an age, given into his keeping. Coney was several months younger than I, thin and blond and overly wise, as early as age four—and especially after age fourteen, when he was my friend. Kray was several months older, wiry and taller even before we hit puberty. We were together all through my memories, the three of us and Mortel John, my only family.

I mistreated them all at first, according to Mortel John. I was wild with the power of uncontrolled ability, a despot at four, an unrulable, selfish baby. I have been told about the first time I didn't get my own way, not what I demanded—it certainly doesn't matter now, and it was probably insignificant then. Only a rare child, like Coney was, takes a stand on anything of significance. Mortel John said no to me, and I tried to compel him by projecting to make him give me what I wanted. Then he set his full strength against me and resisted. I could not have been more than a baby, and he refused to bend, holding out against the potent force of my stinging. His reserves were much greater than mine then, and he told me long afterward that he had also taken a very rare drug to make him even less vulnerable. He stood against me, stolid and unyielding, until I was exhausted from battering on the rock of his will. I threw a tantrum, and when it was done, he carried me to my room. The next day, he began training me in earnest. After that humiliating loss, I never stung him again. But from that day until the one when I awoke in the strange bed in the tiny room on this wilderworld, I had never been without my Class-A sign, my weapon, my sting. When I reached for the sting to touch Dogul, and it was gone, I couldn't be sure that I was myself any longer.

Published by Hawk Books
May 28, 2000
www.hawkpub.com

Excerpt Copyright © 2000 by Roby James




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