Roby James

Commitment

The Starfire Saga. Book 2

A Question of Memories

Whatever it is that makes someone decide to risk everything is, I think, different for every person. But there is a moment of commitment, a particular moment in which the scales slip from wanting life more than anything else to wanting something that can only be gotten at the risk of life. That microsecond is the same for all of us, mo matter what it is we're striving after.

When someone in the Com began trying to kill us, we could have turned back; it never occurred to us. When the choice we had to make balanced on the pointed edge of possible suicide, we could have refused it; we chose to risk everything. Were we fools or heroes? Is it the same thing, really?


Once he knew I was keeping this journal, my Lord Jemeret said it was imperative for me to tell the story, or else in a hundred years or two hundred people will insist on making us more than we were. "We don't need to be larger than life," he said to me. "Life is large enough as it is."

The link between the story when I first found myself on Caryldon and the story that follows was, appropriately enough in my view, an eftel. I'd been so convinced that the wilderworld was self-contained, untouched. And yet, I'd lived the winter in a house which hid an eftel—the comlink operating in real-time between worlds. It was something that was part of the Com, not part of the Samothen.

Coney had told me that the Com had proscribed Caryldon, but that wasn't any kind of surprise. I'd known from the time I was a child, in training in the School for Talent on Werd, that wilderworlds were proscribed. We thought it was because the government used them as receptacles for the malcontents, the misfits, the ones who couldn't or wouldn't fit into the Com. We were only partly right.

"We are a very tolerant society, Ronica McBride," Jara Deland once said to me, "but only within bounds. Every tolerant society must have bounds, and we set them in places where they can preserve the essence of what we are."

I believe that saying they're wrong to people who can't hear you is about as useful as taking a bath in mud. So I didn't tell Jara that I thought she was a hypocrite. The Com was only infinitely tolerant of itself, in the variations it agreed to accept. Bring it a variation of values beyond the boundary, and the Com closed ranks to stamp it out.

Ah well. Perhaps we are all the same when it comes to that.

We had gone to Salthome, where the Marl lived, to have me declared High Lady of the Samothen, so we'd brought all the members of the Inner Council with us, chiefs of their tribes, and their designated co-Councillors. The starfire had come to us after the Council confirmed me not only to verify the confirmation, but to warn us that our responsibility went further than this world, and that we risked a great deal if we failed in it. I didn't think I understood the full scope of what the starfire was saying, but Jemeret seemed to. Some things became clearer before we left Salthome to return to our own village, Stronghome. Jemeret and I met again with Ashkalin, Lord of the Marl and the father of one of my two oldest childhood friends, Kray, whom I had killed almost three years earlier, in another life.

Most of Ashkalin's tribe had not gotten to their beds until dawn, and so when he appeared at the campsite we were sharing with Coney and Sandalari, he came alone. He was wrapped in a cloak against the damp chill of morning fog that lay like a curtain over the cove around which the houses of Salthome clustered. The sound of the sea seemed hushed and far away.

Jemeret either sensed or heard him before I did, and I awoke when I felt my lord stir. Ashkalin stood on the other side of the firepan, his cloak held tightly around his lean body, his dark brown eyes, so like Kray's had been before I took the life from them, fastened on the two of us. I felt Jemeret sit up, shaking off the last remnants of sleep. "My Lord Ashkalin," he said.

"My Lord Jemeret," said Ashkalin, then to me, "My Lady Ronica. I'd like a few moments to speak with you before you break camp."

I pushed off the blanket and got to my feet, feeling a little shaken and amazed that I had actually been able to sleep at all. The revelations of the day before, while dumbfounding, had been somehow a relief. After months of trying to remember what had happened to me before I arrived on Caryldon, the retrieved memory, while terrible, was somehow comforting, because even though it raised questions, it destroyed anomalies.

Jemeret swung easily to his feet behind me. We had slept fully dressed, so it took only a second for the three of us to move across the village square and back to the house in which Jemeret had triggered my repressed memory of Kray's killing and my own self-maiming. I wasn't certain, before I walked into it again, that I could. But after a single misstep at the door, a single tremor that ran down my spine to remind me of the upheaval, I found I could enter it as if it were any other place.

A tall, graceful woman with rich red-gold hair had built up the fire in the hearth and was stirring a hanging pot with a ladle. She looked up at us as we came in, smiling at Ashkalin, nodding respectfully to Jemeret and me.

Jemeret said, "How are you, Delazi? We missed you at Convalee."

"I had a tribe to run in my brother's absence," she said to him, a little tartness in her voice. "And considering we can't make our normal long-water runs this winter, it's a damned good thing I made sure we were stocked way over the waterline. You have your choice of good grog or bad shilfnin."

"Take the shilfnin," Ashkalin said. "The Honish know the Inner Council is here, and they've mobilized at the neck of the peninsula."

Jemeret swore, the first time I'd ever heard him do that. "We were so damned careful, crossing in," he said angrily.

Ashkalin nodded. "I'm sure you were. Krenigo sent one of his guards home last night. My guess is the man didn't go to Columbary." He eyed the anger on Jemeret's face and added, more softly, "We have no real evidence against him, you know."

Jemeret took a long breath. "I know. Delazi, we'll serve ourselves."

She glanced at Ashkalin, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "I recognize 'Get out' when I hear it," she said, bowed to Ashkalin, and left the room.

As soon as she was gone, Jemeret said, "I couldn't challenge Krenigo even if we had evidence. I won't provoke a war among the tribes just before I have to go offworld."

"And if you're not back by Convalee next summer?" the Lord of the Marl asked, ladling out mugs of shilfnin for us. I sipped mine, and Delazi had been right. It was awful.

Jemeret's eyes narrowed as if he were weighing all sorts of parameters somehow joined to Ashkalin's question. Then he said quietly, "You know the stakes I'm going to play for. We've talked about it long enough."

Ashkalin's reply seemed to me to be indirect. "Sabaran and I will allow no one to menace your tribe until your return. It would be dishonorable, like attacking the unarmed."

"As far as anyone's concerned, Ronica and I will have taken one of your ships and gone in search of the Isle of the Wise."

The Lord of the Marl nodded. "My own private vessel, the Starwing, is supposed to be meeting you at the Outside Cove."

"What's the Isle of the Wise?" I asked.

"It may be a legend," said Jemeret. "Or it may be real. It's said to be a repository of all the wisdom of the ancient ones, the masters of a civilization that existed here long ago. We've never been able to search for it before, because there was never time. Now that we have a High Lady, we should have the information in that repository, too. Legends say it will provide us with guidance for the future."

"Is this another legend the Starfire told your na-sire and Venacrona to create?" I asked him.

Ashkalin looked at me curiously.

Jemeret shook his head, not bothering to explain the basis for the question. "The legend of the Isle of the Wise is much older than the meteor shower that occurred just before the starfire appeared here."

Ashkalin seemed to debate asking, but didn't. It's interesting how people who understand something about secrets often don't ask questions they might otherwise pursue. It's as if the very recognition that you have a secret—and Ashkalin shared with Jemeret, Venacrona, Sabaran, and Sandalari the big secret of the existence of the Com—prepares you to accept that other people have secrets, too. Instead, the Lord of the Marl said, "My ships have looked for the Isle of the Wise on their long-water runs, but even then we don't seem to have gone far enough to find it. The ocean stretches much father than we can go when we're fishing. As far as I know, it's never been fully explored." He turned back to my lord. "And if you're not back in time for Convalee?"

"If we aren't at the Plain of Convalee in latesummer next year, then hold all of the normal activities except the Day of the Bell and agree to meet again two years later. But—" He paused. "We'll send you word if it doesn't look like we'll be here."

I wanted to say that we were sure to have returned by the second summer from now, but then it occurred to me that I had little right to be sure of very much. And, unlike Ashkalin seemed to, I didn't yet know what Jemeret meant by the stakes he would be playing for.

"So how are we going to get you back across the Honish lands when they've got an army waiting on the border?" Ashkalin asked.

"Can't we go around them, by ship?" I asked, looking from one of them to the other.

"We can't," said Jemeret, "but it may be better for us if Ginestra, Lyrafi, and Tatatin go that way. It's not just that the sea roads would delay us nearly a month, and I want to be offworld as soon as possible. It's that I feel we have to give the Honish a lesson, and if Krenigo—or some agent they placed with the Vylk—arranged for them to pick this spot and time, I'm for seeing they get it."

Ashkalin masked his surprise, but I was reading him fairly steadily, and I recognized its depths. "You will not convince me that you want a war with the Honish now any more than you want a war in the tribes of the Samoth."

"I said a lesson," Jemeret corrected him, "not a war."

The two men looked levelly at one another for a moment and then slowly smiled, as if sharing an understanding. Ashkalin asked, "You're truly going to try to shut down the machines?"

My body jerked as if I'd just received an overload, which, in a way, I had. Jemeret's gray eyes swivelled to me, even as he nodded to Ashkalin. "Oh yes," he said. "I'm tired of giving them our children and having them throw back the broken ones. When I couldn't save Zitten, the young man from the Resni who wanted the sting so much he took all those drugs about fifteen years ago, when I recognized that your son had paid with his life, when I saw what had happened to Ronica, I swore there had to be a way to break the Com's hold over us, and if I have to break it over everyone else to accomplish that, then that's what I have to try to do. They rely on the MIs for everything. They've given the machines too much of what belongs to us."

I stared at him. He sighed. "And then when the starfire told us that the Com isn't letting talent evolve the way it should, that the entire human race is in jeopardy because of that enforced restraint, I had even more reasons to want to act."

I was utterly flabbergasted. I'd known for some time that my Lord Jemeret was a confident man with great power, but I had never believed him to be reckless. Indeed, in the time I'd been on Caryldon, he'd been extremely cautious, almost conservative. But he'd just made several of the most foolhardy statements I'd ever heard, and I knew from the way he was watching me that he was waiting for my reaction.

I took a swallow of the really terrible shilfnin and asked slowly, "Did I understand you? You want to go up against the power of the Com? You want to shut off the MIs?"

He didn't answer directly, just watched me.

He was a powerful man, but the Com was—the Com. The MIs were—I didn't know I thought it until then—overwhelmingly powerful. And I knew the Com. It had raised me. It was two hundred fifty worlds, their resources and people, supported by a union of human and machine intelligences governing the far-flung empire with economic, technological, political and military persuasion. The unity of government and MIs was the greatest force imaginable, seemingly impregnable, its methods as subtle as the offer of scientific upgrading, longer life and greater wealth, or as gross as the Drenalion. All it asked was that the populations contributed as required and never created problems.

"It can't be done," I whispered.

"The starfire says it may be possible," Jemeret said to me calmly. "You were standing right beside me when they said it."

"Your wish was that the Com be—" I found I couldn't say it as if speaking it and making it real would bring the whole weight of the Com down on us.

Jemeret smiled at me. "Don't panic, love. We won't be doing anything until we have a course of action we can follow. And I don't have any notion of trying to destroy the government as such, if that's what you're worried about. I just want to rewrite a treaty. To do that, I only want to turn off the MIs." His smile widened; it almost reached his eyes. "Someone, sometime turned them on, you know."

He sounded as if he were explaining it to a child, as if the vulnerability of the MIs was a given, a concept I simply didn't grasp. I was fighting not to become angry, not to sting him in utter disregard for his point of view. I was convinced that the MIs were entirely invulnerable. They were so much larger than we were, so far-flung, so complete that it would be tantamount of suicide to threaten them.

I remembered an incident when I was only eleven, when a group of crazies from Selleran, of all places, under the influence of an insane leader little better than a witch doctor, got passage to Orokell, strapped themselves up with fullnite smuggled in from Teraton, marched up to the demographics center and ate the fusings to blow everything to bits. While the Drenalion sponged up the mess of people and circuitry, the engineers shifted the data and workings to extra capacity elsewhere in the system. The MIs never even said, "Ouch."

After that attack, the government ordered work to begin on a major program simulating judgment in humans when they were in danger. I didn't know if it had been completed and activated, but I thought it very likely.

Jemeret would be putting himself in mortal peril by his goal, which to me was infinitely foolish. And yet I couldn't say so. Most of my history with my Lord Jemeret was of me as student as surely as I had been Mortel John's student. And now that I had come to love the man who had braceleted me, I recognized that I couldn't just tell him how wrong he was, couldn't just say, "What you want isn't faintly within the realm of possibility. Don't be ridiculous. Give it up." I thought I owed Jemeret too much to argue with him. I thought he'd been wiser than I for too many months now. Even though his wisdom was Caryldon wisdom, I thought I should not—well, enough. I didn't say anything.

Ashkalin took a sip of the shilfnin, made a face, and poured his mugful into the cold fireplace. "Will you want any of the Marl going with you to the border?"

"I think not," said Jemeret. "Where I'll hope you and Sabaran come through is in convincing your tribes that an absent High Lady is a High Lady all the same."

The leader of the Marl nodded once, then looked at me. "When he wasn't sent back, I thought my son was doing well."

"He was doing well," I said. "He just had a blind spot when it came to me. If I'd known then what I've learned since—"

"But you didn't," said Jemeret smoothly. "Keep remembering that. The Com mishandles talent to the point of outright abuse; the greater the talent, the worse the abuse. It's got to stop."

I wasn't certain that I could accept this premise then. I didn't blame the Com for what I saw as my own flaw. I had thought that if I failed as a Class A, it must also be the failure of all those men who had trained me. But the killing—that had to be on my own head, because I did not know how to be moderate, because for me it was all or nothing. Jemeret insisted that it was the Com which had the ultimate responsibility for everything and, even though he had never lied to me—except once, for a few hours, about something I had to arrive at the truth of myself—I thought that his love for me made him unwilling to tie to me the wrong of which I was guilty, just as my love for him made me forbear to tell him he was crazy to think that he could take on the MIs.

No matter what had come before it, no matter what directly motivated it, I had killed Kray, and I thought I ought to have been able to avoid that. It made me angry that he had raped me, but I'd hurt myself worse than he had hurt me, and the only reason I was a "normal" person again was because Jemeret had committed himself to healing me.

I cleared my throat. "I understand the need to alter how the Com deals with Caryldon," I said carefully. "But they're very powerful, and I am under oath to them."

"I'm not," he said strongly, "and neither is Sandalari." He drank half his shilfnin off without grimacing. "And I'll remind you now—but probably not again—that you're under oath to me, too."

He was right. I had sworn submission to him when I formally became a Boru, joining my life to his as inevitably as any other member of his tribe, and then even more because we shared the same kind of power. Power, I thought, we were about to take to a Com that was nearly starved for it.

Some instinct made me say, "I don't think I'll tell them about the second oath. They might not like the conflict of interest that implies."

"You'd better come to terms with it yourself," Jemeret said quietly, then looked at Ashkalin. "If you want to come to the border with us, you're welcome to. Just don't bring too many guards. And if, while we're gone, Venacrona sends for you, get to Stronghome as fast as you can."

Ashkalin nodded. "I've never failed to respond to the code words," he said. "I want them to leave us alone as much as you do."

"What code words?" I asked.

"We have to try to keep the secret, even though this

absence—and whatever it causes to happen there—will stress it far more than anything else has," said Jemeret to the other man. "Whatever happens, things will probably change, one way or another, and we may not manage to come back here. We'll try to send word to Veen when we can."

It was the first time I ever heard him verbalize his realization that a return from the Com might not be possible. I knew how much that admission would have distressed him, and I knew then, if I had had any doubts, how determined he was to try to do what I considered undoable.

"What code words?" I repeated.

"Whenever we have to deal here with the world outside, we signal one another by saying, `The need is great,'" said Ashkalin, obviously deciding that one of them should answer me, and Jemeret showed no signs of being the one. "It means the survival of our way of life is endangered, and we had better be aware of it."

Jemeret set down his mug. "We've got to get started. I want to be across the Honish lands by tomorrow morning."

"What kind of plan do you have?" I asked him. "If there's an army at the border—"

He reached over and took my hand. "Don't worry about the Honish army. We'll get past it. This is just something that needs a scenario."

I squeezed his hand, still unused to his easy command of Com jargon, and without the slightest idea of what he might have in mind.

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

Excerpt Copyright © 2000 by Roby James




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