A Caricanus Story
Copyright 2009 by Sarah Scheele. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents
Don Tachimant hated his grandfather.
This was in a sense not at all surprising. Don was not exactly an affectionate person and gave the general impression of hating all human life. He had come to Galreon planet three years ago from an undisclosed location and become the leader of a gang of homeless youths in the Ando district. The unstable situation of Ando had created many broken homes and much poverty, and most of his recruits were runaways seeking a future. Don gave them this future, to a certain limited extent.
Although he made friends with no one, and rarely talked, he was a firm organizer with a natural gift for discipline. None of the youths felt any real love for him, but they had found that his advice was usually excellent. So they followed him, followed and asked no questions. “Follow and ask no questions” was Don’s motto, not only for them, but for himself.
So of course they did not ask him where he had come from. He was certainly not from Ando, and that did create a bit of a mystery because Ando was a very strange place for any person to choose as his home. It was the poorest and most disorganized of all the quarters of Galreon, and Galreon was a seedy and disreputable planet. It was in a remote area of the galaxy and was mostly inhabited by criminals hiding from the laws of the Milky Way Alliance. Therefore, it was reasonable to assume that whatever outward appearance indicated to the contrary, Don was running away from something.
It might seem remarkable that his friends—if you could call people friends who were scared of you and never talked in front of you—had never sought to know more about him. It was not through lack of curiosity. It was that one did not ask Don Tachimant questions like that. He kept a cold distance from everyone, as if resent-ing any effort to make an impression on him. For all it mattered to them, Don was just another luckless youth like themselves, fighting the galaxy for the right to live. And fight they did. Considering the young ages of its members, the gang managed to be very pesky throughout the district, vandalizing homes and stores and forcing people to pay tolls to pass through its area. Occasionally, Don led them to some greater project, such as the burn-ing of a government building.
This was a difficult life for anyone, and doubly peculiar for someone like himself, who had the bearing of a person born high in life. His manner was more regal than that of most people from Galreon, and he had the indescribable mark of a person used to expect deference. Don at no time demanded different treatment except in being obeyed, but they could see he had once lived in a much finer way than they could ever imagine living them-selves. His choice to live among them surprised them. It would have surprised them a good deal more if they had known how very near the top of galactic society he had been born. But, not being morons, they did not ask him.
For this reason not even those closest to Don knew he hated his grandfather. They didn’t even know he had a grandfather. And they certainly didn’t know his surname. It was not just any name, after all. It was the name of governors and statesmen and a long line of harsh heads of Jurant Military Academy. The Tachimants were one of the twenty great families in the Alliance, descendants of galactic kings, and when he had a Tachimant to deal with even the vice-regent became respectful. It was quite a name. And apparently Don didn’t like having it one bit.
Anyway, anyone who knew what Don was like would have been shocked to see him where he now was, in the office of the head of the galactic military. Don hated the government generally and had a personal dislike of this building, where he had been many times as a small child. But since Don never told anybody anything, no one knew him except himself and so he was the only one who was surprised. His expression showed no fear or anxiety if he felt any. He merely sat and looked at the Honorable Galei Haltyn with an uninterested gaze.
Lord Haltyn was a slenderly built individual of about sixty, with a mind like a steel trap. He had always reminded Don of his grandfather, in part because Don had so often visited this office with his grandfather. He had the two men bound up together in his mind. Therefore, it went without saying that since he held his grandfather in such aversion he disliked Lord Haltyn also. And he certainly looked it.
“Don Tachimant,” said the head of the military, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head as he said the name. “Or maybe I should say, my young lord—what are you doing here? I have been at some trouble looking for you for three years. This may not be much to me, but three years is a lifetime at your age. And here I find you in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in the most violent den of murderers in the whole Milky Way!” He got up and walked around, darting a shrewd glance at the un-responsive Don. “If I didn’t know you so well, I would be shocked to find you alive. And what is the grandson of my old friend, the Honorable André Tachimant, doing in a place like this?”
Don did not flinch, but he also did not answer. “You do not know me,” he said flatly. (Possibly because of so many years of unsupervised command over younger boys, Don had developed a bad habit of being downright rude to everyone he met.)
Lord Haltyn, who wasn’t an old politician for nothing, let this pass. “I must say I am very angry with you, young Tachimant,” he continued, in a reproachful, dictatorial tone. “You have made my life difficult these three years. It is not every boy your age who merits a chase across the galaxy. And I would never have found you at all if it weren’t that that gang of yours destroyed the newly built embassy on Galreon. It was in clearing through the rubble of that incident that I happened onto your trail again.” He looked cunning. “Quite an impressive operation for one so young. It has the Tachimant mark all over it.”
Don glared. “It does not,” he said.
“But you must have learned all those skills somewhere,” continued Lord Haltyn. “Jurant leaves a certain mark. It is engraved on you like a brand.”
Don bit his lip. “I am not sorry. If you want to kill me for burning the embassy, do it. I can guarantee you I might yell, but yells are all you’ll ever get out of me.”
Lord Haltyn looked out the window for a moment. “No, not at all, young Tachimant. There is something I want you to do. A special favor. A request.”
“If Grandfather sent you to find me because I ran away, you’re going to get nowhere,” said Don, momen-tarily dropping his stony monotone. “I will not go back to Jurant.” He had plenty of good reasons for saying this, the most prominent being that on his last day there his grandfather had tried to kill him. However, he did not share these reasons with Lord Haltyn. Don Tachimant never shared anything with anyone if he could help it.
“Ran away?” said Lord Haltyn innocently. “I thought you were expelled.”
Don raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t fool me. I’ve been coming up here since I was five. I know what you’re like,” he said, with that admirable bluntness which often distinguished him.
Lord Haltyn’s face grew hard. “If you really knew what was in my heart, little Tachimant, you would not think that I am looking for you at the command of your grandfather.”
“You are, though,” said Don.
“I am not,” said Lord Haltyn. “I want you to do something for me. It is for me and not for your grandfather. And it involves returning to the military school, under the control of your grandfather.” His voice lowered. “He does not know I am seeking you, and he does not know I have found you.”
Don looked thoughtful, considering, with a practical gaze beyond his years. It had a rather chilling effect. The young are like rapidly growing saplings, full of fire and emotion. A teenager with a withered soul is unnatural and gives mute witness to the society that created him. Don was unconscious that this could be his effect on anyone. Lord Haltyn, who was watching him closely, did notice the cynicism, the heart frozen before it was grown, and Don’s manner confirmed his suspicions about the older Tachimant.
Don looked up. “Why did you find me?” he asked sharply.
Lord Haltyn leaned close over the table. “I know you hate Jurant,” he said. He ignored the repelling look the boy gave him. “But you must see that you are not the only one.”
Don frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“For a long time, I have been mulling in my mind about the Jurant military school,” said Lord Haltyn in a careful voice, watching Don’s face all the time. “My acquaintance with your grandfather is very long-standing, and I have observed him for many years. He is an ambitious man. I do not say that that is wrong. But he does seem to me one in whom desire for advantage might easily outweigh what is ordinarily considered wrong. He might,” as Don’s face remained expressionless, “he might not hesitate to betray someone.”
Don looked startled for a moment, and his face was less stony. Then it hardened again. “What do you mean?” he asked. “He has no one to betray. No one loves him and he has no family.”
“There is you,” said Lord Haltyn, not without a sense of humor. He seemed to find it funny that the boy did not deign to answer. Then he opened the drawer and took out a folded board, which he opened before Don. “Do you see this, young man?” he asked.
“I do,” said Don. “It is a hologrid of the galaxy.”
“This is the military diagram, the latest and most up-to-date,” was the reply. “You have been hiding in that hole of a Galreon too long, or did you not hear that the Alliance is at war?”
Don shrugged. (This was a total shock to him, but of course he did not admit it for a moment.) “I heard something about it.”
“A general must always be informed, mustn’t he?” teased the lord of the armed forces. “But since you know that, I’m sure you also know that all the planets in the Rindon solar system have been rebellious for some time. They have finally tried to break out of the Alliance and form their own country centered on Rindon planet.”
Don blinked. “Rindon? But why? No one lives there.”
Lord Haltyn pointed to the detailed lines and pen-nants posted on the grid, and with flicks of his finger he moved them around to indicate changing fronts and planned territorial gains. Don tried not to show how interested he was, but he followed closely.
Lord Haltyn’s account of the war contained some complex politics of the kind generally attending attempts to break away from unwieldy powers like the Alliance. Apparently, about ten planets in the Rindon system had declared independence and started their own state. They had been waging a defensive battle for about a year, with excellent results. Although they had smaller fighters, and only two somewhat damaged space-landings, they had repelled three onslaughts of the Allied fighters. In the most recent engagement, a group of rebels had staged a surprise attack against the landing outside Alliance-controlled Rethra, which was the outermost of the Rindon planets. The Alliance forces had lost the landing and been forced to abandon Rethra when one of their fighters caught on fire. The fighter was still burning in space, preventing any movement towards the interior of the system.
“This is a bad situation for us,” said Lord Haltyn, adjusting the pennants to their final position, outside the outermost of the rebellious planets. “There is no reason we should be pushed away from the sunward side of Rethra. The loss of the fighter was an accident that can happen to anyone who loses guard for a second, but it should be impossible on paper for the enemy to have waged war this well with what they have. And now that we have been pushed beyond Rethra, we are approaching neutral territory, and the possibility of their attack into our space while we reorder is considerable.”
He looked amused. “And at such a critical time, when a simple smashing of some terrorists has turned into a possible loss of more planets, what am I, the head of the galactic military, doing? I am off at the other side of the galaxy, seeking a runaway schoolboy. For that is all you are, even though you are the grandson of André Tachimant.”
“That’s your problem,” said Don sourly. “I didn’t want to be found.”
“Young man, as I see it people who flagrantly burn embassies want to be arrested,” was the reply. “But no, you probably didn’t want to be found. Certainly not by your grandfather.”
“I am not afraid of him,” said Don hastily.
Lord Haltyn looked patient. “Oh, really? Young man, I know you are not that stupid. No one trusts André Tachimant.”
“I did not say I trusted him,” observed Don, who was one of those people who have a fondness for splitting hairs. “But you’re boring me. So you need help with this rebellion? I don’t know how my going back to Jurant will help you one bit. It would help my grandfather, sure, to make it look like I’m reconciled to him, but I’m not.”
“Oh, it would help me very much,” said Lord Haltyn. “You have grown up around war and fighting, young Tachimant. I remember you trotting up here with your father, before he was killed, playing with the lasers on the wall. And then going to school in Jurant—”
“What is your point?” asked Don rudely.
“I would advise you to remember that you are in custody here for attacking a government building and killing five security personnel,” commented the older man sternly. “And you will have the law dealt to you as an adult in this case if I choose. I ought to send you to mining camp as a punishment for your criminal acts. But I will not. My point in mentioning your upbringing was to observe that knowing war as well as you do, you should realize that in most wars the real fighting is not on the stage of conflict, but behind it, in setting up the action. Most campaigns have been won or lost before they ever started, or have turned irrevocably well before the end. And that is why I want you to return to Jurant.”
Don was silent for a long moment. He looked down at his hands, and except for an uncooperative tilt of the nose he wore no expression at all. Lord Haltyn quietly went back to arranging the holographic pennants, placing them to project the future lines as he hoped they would be. He seemed quite aware that Don mulled things over and did not answer quickly.
After a moment Don looked up. “What do you mean?” he asked.
On the surface this might seem a gloriously deflat-ing comment, but Lord Haltyn understood it. Don had at least agreed to listen, and this was something he rarely did.
“You see, this defensive stand by the Rindon solar system is a matter of great concern for Vice-Regent Alkin, and he has asked me to come to the root of it,” said Lord Haltyn. “He is of the opinion, based on my advice, that there is no possible way the enemy can have forced off our third campaign and burned our fighter unless they have”
“Something you don’t know about,” finished Don. “But I’m not going to get it for you.”
“So you know what it is?” queried Lord Haltyn.
“No,” said Don. “I don’t know anything. I’ve been on Galreon for three years, or have you forgotten?”
“Not at all,” concurred Lord Haltyn, a little sarcastically. “I have been thinking at length about the rebellion problem, and this is what I have concluded.” His voice grew serious. “For a long time I had no clue, because the traces were so tiny. But finally, through a routine test of a rebel prisoner, I observed something unique, the trace I needed to get me on the trail. A hint of something I did not know then, but that I should have recognized.”
Don was silent.
“For years I visited the Jurant Academy each spring,” he continued. “To watch the graduating class perform their compulsory combat exercises. I would watch them with your grandfather, and he would point out to me which were in his view the finest prospects. Many of the greatest generals now serving came from those classes. I remember them as boys, youths like yourself.” There was a pause while he looked directly into Don’s sullen eyes. “For the last three years I have not been there.”
Don gave a small stir. “Oh,” he said flatly.
Lord Haltyn released Don’s eyes and sat down. “Since the time that you left Jurant, its doors have been closed to all outsiders, even me. Lord André claims a need for security for his high-profile students. I think other-wise.”
“Well,” said Don, shrugging. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been back. It’s none of my business if other people don’t go there either.”
“I did not suspect anything, young Tachimant, until my agents captured you in relation to the embassy bombing. The video that they brought back from your fighting I found very, very interesting. Mesmerizing, in fact.”
Don bit his lip. “So?” he said after a moment. “I defended myself. I did nothing special. And if you’re going to arraign me for killing your guards, you shouldn’t have sent them in. I didn’t ask you to do that.”
Lord Haltyn reached out quick as lightning and pulled him back down to sit as he rose. Don’s body stiffened, his face flung back in alarm. Then he sat down slowly, as if dragged down by some invisible weight within himself. Lord Haltyn’s old face was stern, stiff, and hard as a flint.
“Because you fought exactly like that rebel I captured and tested,” he said in a tense voice. “Like him, you fatigued thirty-five percent less rapidly and could lift thirty-five percent more. You fought with multiple heavy weapons for a long time. You were clearly a Jurant product.”
Don looked down and clenched his hands together. He refused to speak.
“Now I have no wish to invade your—how would you call it?—your personal space. I know you have a strong sense of that,” added the other dryly.
“Then what do you want?” asked Don. “If you think my grandfather is experimenting on the academy students to make them stronger, he is not. Or at least, I know nothing about it. That’s not why I left. I fight like this because I have trained myself to be the strongest possible, so that I can rest easy, so I can know that whatever happens, no matter where I am, I can come out alive.”
Lord Haltyn looked as if these words reminded him of something he had heard long ago. “And why so paranoid?” he queried, with a sarcastic grin. “Is your life so important?”
Don did not want to discuss life with the head of the galactic military. “Life is where I am. When I die, I will go nowhere and be nothing. I must live,” he said firmly. “And I will live, no matter what. I will never die before it is my time. I will kill, not die. And supposing my grandfather is sending Jurant students, altered in some way, to the rebels—the best students even, like myself—I know nothing about it. I have nothing to do with it. And I am not interested in finding out.”
“But I am very interested in finding out,” said Lord Haltyn sweetly. “And I have arraigned you as a terrorist. I can order you shot. Or I can let you off as a minor, and send you to live in a most unpleasant work camp. If you refuse to help me, what will become of that life you value so much? It will be gone.”
There was a long pause. Then Don looked up with an exceptionally sour face. “What do you want me to do?”
Lord Haltyn gave a satisfied smile. “So you will help me.”
“I didn’t say that,” snapped Don. “I asked you what you want.”
“I want something only you can do. I want you to return to Jurant Military Academy,” said Lord Haltyn. He played with the pennants, moving and adjusting them, spinning the fate of planets with the tips of his fingers.
“If only it were as easy to win battles as it is to manipulate their patterns on this grid,” he said, a little sadly. “In and out, in and out they go at my command. Fighters in line, landings prepared, bombers lined up. And so Rethra falls, the operation storms into Rindon, and I am safe. But life is not like that. There are com-plications, and uncertainties, and never knowing what other people are doing. And for that reason I, commander of the Allied forces, must ask a schoolboy to save my back.”
“I don’t see how my going back to Jurant will do that,” said Don. “As a spy? You have lots of spies without bugging me to do it for you. And a few Jurant trainees won’t keep those rebels strong permanently, if they’re as weak as you say. You seem to me to be panicking.”
“There is something else,” said the older man, arresting Don’s attention. “Which is, I believe, at the root of both the rebellion and your grandfather’s traitorous involvement in it—the Kinari.”
For a moment Don’s face showed the life of surprise and interest, although both were rather scornful. “The Kinari?” he said incredulously. “Next you’ll be telling me you believe in ghosts.”
“I do if they are still alive,” said Lord Haltyn searingly. “And that is what the Kinari are—a legend that lives, a ghost that has come back to life. The galaxy that you grew up in is a new phenomenon. Prior to the last three centuries, many races lived without contact with each other. All were descended from humans, but as they expanded over the vast distances of the galaxy they lost contact and created societies with discordant levels of advancement. The world as we see it now is the result of centuries spent melding these different societies together into a culture centered on unity. We have been able to keep our races from engaging in war by making them all the same. But not everyone went along with this. The Kinari were one race that refused to subordinate them-selves to the galactic culture.
“For many years, so the fairy tales say, these great fighters lived on Rindon. The Kinari had a special super-power within them that made them seem like a magical species to their enemies. No one knows what this power was, but they were held tightly together by their wish to keep it even after it was forbidden. For two centuries, Rindon was a fortress ringed with space stations, where they preserved their culture. When the Alliance grew bigger, it fought several wars with them and about a century ago managed to defeat them. At that time we annexed the Rindon solar system and found Rindon planet itself deserted, with no trace of any magical beings anywhere.”
Don looked uncomfortable. “That’s because there never were any,” he said. “Maybe some people groups resisted the unification of the galaxy. Rindon has always been rebellious, sure. But you’re not saying the Kinari are actually real? With their ability to fly and bring people back to life? That’s dumb. As long as they’re descended from the humans, they must be human and no more.”
Lord Haltyn looked thoughtful. “I am beginning to wonder,” he said. He eyed Don. “And my belief is that your grandfather does believe in the Kinari.”
Don got up. “Now you’re just getting silly. He doesn’t at all.”
“I think that there are Kinari still living on Rindon, and that their power is fueling the rebellion,” Lord Haltyn called after him. “And more than that, that there is a Kinari—or more than one—in Jurant.”
Don could not hide his shock at the idea. Lord Haltyn smiled at Don’s face. “Knowing your grandfather, he probably wants to see if their power can be drained from them. But I need to know whether this is true—if the Kinari ever did exist and if they still live. The loss of Rethra means that we have been pushed out of the Rindon system altogether. It will be impossible to send anyone to Rindon planet until we regain a footing in the system, and that could be many months from now. I need to know what is happening immediately, and no one else can do this for me. My other spies could not pass off as academy students, and the incoming students would be too young to be of any use. You should have graduated last year.”
He smiled an experienced, wooden smile. “And I’m sure your grandfather would love to see you again.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong,” said Don. “My grandfather wouldn’t believe in a fairy tale like the Kinari. And I don’t think you do, either.” He smiled sarcastically. “I wish I could be there to see you trying to tell the vice-regent that we lost to a bunch of magical warriors.”
“Tachimant!” called Lord Haltyn, thumping the table in frustration as Don walked off.
“I’ll do it,” Don said over his shoulder. “It beats jail.”
Then he coolly exited the room. At least, Don clearly thought the exit was cool. To judge from the way he rubbed his hands patiently together, Galei Haltyn found it indicative of a severe attitude problem in his young spy. He shook his head, as if bewailing the fate that required him to bank the success or failure of his next campaign against rebellious Rindon on a boy who never did anything for anybody.
“He may not turn on me, though,” he mused, returning to the hologrid. “Don doesn’t believe in anything else enough to betray me for it. The worst that will happen is that he will simply bring nothing back. I hope so. I am counting on it.”
So saying, he touched the small pennants and they moved, forming lurking ripples on the sunward side of Rethra. Beyond was Rindon, like a chess king, insignificant and yet the most important piece on the grid, home of a mysterious fire that refused to die.
It was a cold, dull, and sleety day when Don Tachimant returned to Jurant, the kind of day when the sky seems to be made of lead. The weather was of that obnoxious kind that is too damp for most things and too dry for the others. Don, however, was used to this kind of weather. He had come to Jurant very early in his life.
Jurant was a three-year preparatory school for boys and girls who planned to be military commanders, and was filled with strong-bodied teenagers who had high GPAs. The routine was too rigorous for young children, so there had never been any there except Don and his sister, who had lived at Jurant for seven years after the death of their father. Chaldon planet, on which Jurant was based, had a southern hemisphere that was often cold and gray, and so Don’s life had consisted of continuous dismal days stuck with much older kids within the Jurant walls. Don did not look back on this time with fondness, but he was human, and dim, fuzzy memories stirred in him as he saw the familiar buildings again.
Ordinarily, Jurant was not a harsh place, or was not supposed to be, and most students spoke with pride of having gone there. Lord André Tachimant was a stern man, but he was also somewhat remote and interacted little with the student body except to make official pronouncements. As long as you had a tough, competitive attitude and a fondness for algebra quizzes, Jurant was not a bad place. But Don had seen a whole other side to that school, and that was why, in spite of being tough and loving math, he had run away.
Lord Haltyn did not wish to appear involved in Don’s reappearance, so he allowed Don to introduce him-self. This he did in his usual unceremonious fashion by walking into the Jurant complex, knocking aside two student guards who sought his identity, and marching upstairs in a direct manner. He knew where everything was, and popped into his grandfather’s office without telling him he was coming. Perhaps Don felt this lack of warning gave him security, since if you don’t tell people you are coming, they can’t refuse to see you. Maybe he felt he was too cool to be decently polite. Anyway, his grandfather received a horrible shock when he turned from a window and found his grandson standing directly behind him when he had assumed he was dead.
Lord André Tachimant was wealthy, powerful, greedy for more power, and personally unscrupulous. He did not mind having enemies, which was fortunate, since he had made a considerable number of them over the years. In short, he was not exactly popular. But anyone who has assumed some person was no longer alive—and then turned to see him—may enter into the feelings of André Tachimant at that moment. There are some things that even the worst of us will find shocking.
“Don? Is that you?” he queried in his old, husky voice, dropping the drapery and turning around. His face was covered with a thousand lines, as if he were already dead, but his eyes were bright.
“Yeah,” said Don curtly. “I’ve come back.”
“You what?” he asked, looking Don over as if he still could not believe he was there. “But—how did you not—”
“I escaped,” said Don, in a curiously emotionless voice, as if these events had happened to someone else. “I let you think I’d died so you’d leave me alone.”
This seemed to have an almost devastating effect on Lord Tachimant. He sat down slowly, in his long gray robe. “You . . . escaped?” he asked vaguely. “Then why have you returned? Why did you not stay dead, as you should?”
His eyes were very like Don’s, narrow and lifeless, except that the eyes of the boy were if anything harder because he did not perceive himself as having any guilt to weigh him down. As far as Don was concerned, he was always perfectly right, which was more than could be said for his grandfather.
“Because I want to come back,” said Don, in that unexplaining tone he sometimes got. “I want to graduate.”
“You have been out for three years. I don’t think you can do it,” said Lord André.
Don clenched his fists in utter confidence. “I can. You know that.” He walked towards the door. “I will go find my room.”
“Don, you—how could you not have died?” his grandfather called in bewilderment. “It is impossible. And now you will speak of it.”
“I speak to no one,” said Don sharply. He paused at the door. “I will never speak.” With that he slammed the door and went downstairs, leaving his grandfather for once positively stumped.
The stairs in Jurant were magnificent but made all footsteps sound hollow and clanking, especially when someone stomped. Don was stomping. He wished he did not have these feelings of turmoil and anxiety within him just at seeing his grandfather again. He tried to drown them, to drown all the memories and thoughts of being here before and especially of that terrible day when he knew he had to leave because he could no longer accept the values he was raised in. In spite of his efforts, a thought of his sister Julie rose automatically to his mind, Julie his baby sister, the person he had loved most in Jurant. And now Julie was—
In great annoyance he walked faster. “I must forget her, even if she was my sister,” he said. “I must be strong. There is no strength in feelings.”
So saying, he started down the hall of his old dorm. His feet moved automatically to the room that had once been his. Don, who was naturally a creature of habit, had lived so long in Jurant that he found his muscles remembering the movements he used to make. His room had been the last one on the right. He recalled how long it had taken to go down this hall when his legs were shorter.
When he opened the door, he found to his disgust that someone else now lived in his room. He was so locked into himself that he had never imagined that Lord André, after three years, might have given his room to somebody else. And a very untidy somebody else at that. This individual did not appear to be in the room, but he certainly had a lot of stuff, and he had left it lying around higgledy-piggledy. Don, who loathed disorder, was annoyed at the stray clothes and furniture tossed everywhere. He pushed all the things into a large plastic bag and threw it out the window. It was supposed to fall to the ground, but he did it carelessly, and the bag instead caught on an outside overhang and stuck there in exactly the sort of place it is impossible to reach. Don did not care. He sat down, made the lower bed just the way he liked it, and thought about his position.
“I don’t believe in any Kinari,” he said. “Probably those legends did originate in something. I remember studying that the Rindon solar system was always rebelling. But all that spiritual stuff is stupid, and flying and resurrection are flat impossible. What’s more likely is that Grandfather has finally got that enhancement drug to work—the one that killed Julie.” He winced as this thought crossed his mind. “He gave it to me, and it did have some effect. If I can find proof that he is using it, and sending those with it to help the rebels, then I can tell Haltyn that. That’s a realistic place to start. I’m certainly not going to try to find some elf-warrior running around in here.”
He was interrupted in his thoughts as the door opened and a short boy with unkempt brown hair rushed into the room. Don looked up. It was obvious from this dude’s expression that he was the owner of the stuff.
“What are you doing here?” shouted the boy. “Who are you?”
Don sized this boy up as not worth an answer, and ignored him. He returned to thinking about ways to discover whether Lord Tachimant was really in league with the Rindonian rebels.
The unkempt boy, clad in a loose navy undershirt and shorts, ran over and batted Don hard on the back. “Hello? Wake up, moron, I was talking to you! Where’s my stuff?”
Don shrugged away. “Out the window,” he com-mented indifferently.
The boy, who seemed of an excitable personality, rushed to the window and looked out. He turned around indignantly when he saw his bag perched on the crevice of a protruding arch. “What do you think you’re doing, tossing my stuff?” he protested. “Who are you? Hey, answer me!” he yelled. This expostulation was to no effect, since Don simply walked off, leaving his new roommate fuming mad.
Don did not discover anything that afternoon, but he did not expect to. He spent a quiet time in the library, doing nothing. It was virtually empty except for a girl in the short-skirted uniform of female cadets, who appeared to be as reclusive as Don himself. She read so quietly that he barely noticed her. She was not a pretty girl. Her face had a bizarre shape in the chin, sort of nebulous and bumpy, and she peered so close to the book she was clearly half-blind, but Don was not interested in girls anyway and paid her no mind. The most important thing for him was the commencement of combat training tomorrow. It was here that he planned to see if any of the students showed enhanced skills like his own as a result of that drug.
“I have them,” he thought bitterly. “Though it has negative effects on me too. My memory is funny some-times, and I feel sure something’s about to hit me. If anyone else shows that behavior, I’ll know. And I might take a look around too. If the Rindonians do have a whole army of such super-enhanced cadets, that might explain their strength.”
At suppertime he left the library, accidentally smashing the door into the face of the awkward girl, who was also trying to leave. He did not apologize; in fact, he barely noticed. He went downstairs to the mess hall in total silence, alone in a sea of crisp blue uniforms. The milling crowd of kids all looked the same—the boys in blue pants and gloves, the girls in short blue skirts and high blue boots, all with the regulation headset on their heads, containing the insignia of a big blue J. Don, who was shabbily dressed in a black T-shirt, turned a lot of heads, but he did not notice until he found himself poked in the line by the person behind. He turned and saw near him an insolent-looking blonde, posing cockily. His untidy roommate was behind her.
“Nice clothes. Did you burn your uniform?” queried the girl, who had a lot of shiny curled hair pulled into such spirals that the J insignia barely showed and a skirt that was if anything shorter than the others. She looked him over in a forward manner. “So, have you been working out?”
“No,” said Don flatly. “I’ve been on Galreon for three years.”
“That’s the guy who stole my room and trashed my stuff!” the boy exclaimed angrily. Don coolly finished filling his plate and walked away. The other two followed. “There he is, walking off. He never once apologized! And now my uniform’s stuck on the roof!”
“Wow,” said the blonde girl. She seemed to have a high opinion of herself and leaned on his chair, hand on hip, as if she were inspecting him. “Galreon, huh? So, are you, like, a gangster? What are you doing here?” She held out her hand, and shook his while he was trying to eat. “I’m Charis, by the way, Charis de Jinla. What class are you in?”
“Graduation,” said Don, who did not seem much interested in talking to her.
She sat down. “Cool,” she said. “Well, if you need a combat partner, I’m available. Tell me more about yourself. Are you of a ranking family?”
“I am,” said Don in a bored voice.
Charis looked momentarily impressed. Then her eyes glittered at the opportunity to make an important friend. “Wow, I’m just in awe. I suppose I should bow or something, like in the old days,” she said in a blasé tone. “My family doesn’t have rank, just a lot of money. I mean, we bought a rank status a few years ago, so technically we are rankers, but it’s sort of cheap compared to the real old families.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking to that guy!” the other boy complained indignantly. “That’s the guy who trashed my stuff!” he added, as if he didn’t believe she had gotten it the first time.
Charis seemed to take this indignation as a sign of jealousy and smiled with inward satisfaction. Charis’ motto in life was that everything could be hers if she worked hard enough and played her cards without con-cern for consequences. Life was a series of competitions, and she felt no qualms about approaching everything with a view to knocking someone else off the ladder. If asked, she would say she was simply a practical person, doing what everyone did. If other people wanted to keep their space, they would defend it, so if they lost it that wasn’t her fault. She saw a similarity between herself and Don, since neither cared about anything but gaining space, but Don did not see it that way.
“Oh, knock it off, Jack!” she said, tossing her head. “I can talk to the new guy if I want to.” She waved a hand and added snidely to Don. “He doesn’t have either money or rank, as you can see.”
“It’s not about him, it’s about my pajamas!” bellowed Jack in frustration. He was not naturally gifted with height or muscles; but he made up for it by having sizable feet, and he stomped them. “They’re on the roof! What am I supposed to sleep in?”
“That’ll teach you not to leave your stuff un-defended,” said Don scornfully. “You should keep your stuff secure so others cannot take it.”
“Wow, that’s so true,” said Charis. (She was that kind of girl who always situates herself into a guy’s conversations, sometimes even interrupting his comments to another person.) “So, what about being my combat partner? You look pretty tough, like you could take me on. Though I warn you, I’m very competitive,” flashing a look out of her green eyes. “I was with Sekana up to now, because she’s my roommate, and I had to drop her, she’s just a dud. No fun. I just flattened her, she’s so stupid, and she wouldn’t get up. She just lay there on the ground like she couldn’t move. Have you seen her? She can hardly walk.” Charis shook her head. “Don’t know how she got in here.”
Just as Charis looked up, the girl from the library approached. She was certainly unfortunate. Don observed that she not only had multifarious faults of face and manner but was knock-kneed as well. He did momentarily think it odd that she had entered Jurant, which had a strict physical fitness policy. Perhaps she was highly intelligent.
“This Sekana, is she strong?” he asked, just to make sure.
Charis laughed. “Are you kidding? No.”
Don, who had finished eating, got up briskly. “Then I have no interest in her,” he said bluntly. “Only the fighters as good as I am interest me here.”
Charis took this as a compliment to herself. Jack jumped up and tried to bar Don’s way. “Hey, you, we have to talk!” he said, sticking his pugnacious round face into Don’s. “You’ve got to get my clothes off the roof.”
“I don’t have to,” said Don.
“Oh, sure, so you have time to throw my stuff out the window, but you don’t have time to get it back! What’s your schedule anyway?” said Jack angrily.
He watched Don walk off and then turned around so fast he collided with Sekana, who was creeping up behind. He smashed her hip into the table and spilled her soup. Annoyed, he pushed her away and ran off after Don, while Sekana picked herself up amid Charis’ laughter.
After two weeks in Jurant, Don had learned nothing that would interest Lord Haltyn. He had not seen any students who exhibited enhanced behavior, and he knew this because he had soundly sailed through the combat routines. His interactions with Charis had not impressed him. She was clearly just a typical student, with no special fighting skills or academic marks, and her constant efforts to flirt with him had simply been a boring distraction, although not as boring as his new roommate Jack. He viewed Jack as young, and Jack seemed to resent it. He was continually trying to pick fights with Don, but since he invariably lost, Don found fighting him to be a waste of time—and said so.
Don had also not been able to go downstairs into the underground where the lab had once been. He knew he would have to wait for an opportunity.
Although he had found so far nothing to interest Lord Haltyn, he had become himself somewhat interested in Sekana, because he could not explain her existence in the school. Every day he found it more perplexing, and nobody else seemed to have an answer for it either. From Charis he had learned that Sekana, according to her own account, had not gone to a regular school before coming to Jurant and had not had any kind of special pre-entry training. The more he thought about this, the more interesting he found it.
Don knew the Jurant entrance system well. Ordinarily, kids would begin preparing for Jurant during junior high and would take some training courses administered by their school. Only a few schools consistently turned out recruits, most being unable to reach the level necessary. (He knew this because he had heard his grandfather discussing it with Lord Haltyn when he was nine years old.)
It seemed impossible that Sekana could have entered without such training. And besides, Don had never heard of not going to regular school. He was not sure it was even legal, and the only thing he could think of was that she must come from some extremely remote solar system.
Somehow, in spite of all these bizarre circumstances, knock-kneed Sekana had managed to get into Jurant and managed to stay there, though as far as Don could see she was lucky to pass any class at all. So, because he was personally curious, he began to observe her more attentively. Since she was a year behind him, their classes only coincided on one occasion, military history, and he was studying so much he was only able to notice her a little bit. What he saw was uninteresting. She made about the usual number of mistakes and got about the usual number of things right. She was in Charis’ com-bat class—which he did find unusual, since Charis was in the graduation class—but this was Charis’ problem, not hers.
However, Don was not one to let things go by if he once got interested in them, and the hint of a mystery somewhere in Sekana’s enrollment made him watch her constantly whenever she was visible. He soon found her to have some unusual habits. To begin with, she did not appear to have noticed the ranking clique in the school. The school was a mirror of the galaxy, and though there was supposedly equality for all, the reality was that the students from ranking families lorded over the others. They ran the school and made sure classmates from inferior families didn’t invade their turf.
Sekana appeared to be from a ranking family. At least, Don had heard her say this during a conversation with Josh Hayerson outside class. But she somehow refused to adhere to the ranking set, or to snub non-ranking students.
“You do know Jenny is nonrank, don’t you?” Josh was inquiring, in his lazy tone of voice. Josh was a typical kid, not overburdened with original ideas, and viewed the reigning system as a kind of divinity, never to be questioned.
Don was on the other side of the wall, organizing his notes, when he heard her answer. “I know,” she said.
“But you’re talking to her,” Josh continued dim-wittedly. (Apart from an athletic build, a ranking set of parents, and nice eyelashes, Josh was about as irrelevant as people get.) “You, like, asked her to eat with you in the mess hall.”
“Sure I did,” said Sekana, who sounded a little miffed. “There are only thirty ranking students here, and none of them will be my friends. Am I supposed to have no life at all just because of some snobby rule that I can’t talk to a nonranker?”
Don began to listen. He smiled a little at Josh’s confused tone of voice. Clearly he had not been expecting to do any actual thinking or communicating when he started this conversation. “I guess not. Maybe you should try harder with the rankers.”
Sekana gave a rather affected giggle. “Oh, come on, it’s not that important,” she said, with a tone that sounded like sautéed sugar. “What’s the big deal to you?”
“Nothing,” said Josh uneasily. He then ambled off. Now that he had found she was not typical and actually required talking, he was not interested in further inter-action. He went out with Charis and some friends, leaving Sekana examining her notes. Then she walked off, leaving Don leaning against the wall, looking thoughtful.
He kept his eyes open, and when he stumbled into awkward Jenny Torpan in the mess hall a week later, he barred the way to her seat and asked her whether she was friends with Sekana Retarno. Jenny was a tad scatterbrained by nature. Her parents were both rigidly organized people with careers in city management, and they had sent her to Jurant to learn to approach things in a structured manner. So far, Jenny had not acquired this skill. She had merely been thrust into a tight uniform that didn’t fit and been obligated to exercise in front of people. She was by now paranoid of making mistakes and lived in positive terror of the snooty ranking students. To be addressed by Don, who (rumor had it) was related to Vice-Regent Alkin himself, froze her tongue.
“Um . . . no . . . I mean yes . . . um . . . can’t talk to you . . . ,” she mumbled, and rushed off.
Don watched her scuttle to a corner seat and after a moment saw Sekana come over to her and say hello. Sekana tried to sit down, but Jenny, clearly much alarmed at this breaking of social rules, shooed her out of the seat and began busily eating by herself. Sekana sat down in a different chair near the window. She looked up as Don approached. With his typical politeness, he did not sit down but stood over her, frowning.
“Why can’t you leave Jenny alone?” he asked. “Once she’s associated with a ranker, all her equals won’t talk to her.”
Sekana looked down and played with her spoon. “I mean . . . of course you’re right. It’s just that she was saying she needed help with trig, and I offered to tutor her. That isn’t”—she looked up with a very odd expression, as though she almost wanted to burst out with something—“against the rules, is it?”
Don raised an eyebrow. “No,” he said. “But that doesn’t explain why you care. Lots of people have trouble with trig. That doesn’t mean that rankers help them.”
Sekana took a small sip of soup. “I . . . um . . . think all the people here look sort of alike,” she said with a vague shrug. “Don’t you? With their uniforms and everything. I don’t know how to tell the difference between a ranker and a nonranker.” She hung her head. “I’m just not used to it yet, I guess.”
“Well, you’d better get used to it,” said Don. “But don’t listen to me. Charis will tell you all about it.” Then he walked off to his solitary seat, where he ate in lonely grandeur. Sekana’s behavior unsettled him more than he liked to admit. It was a small thing in itself, but certainly unusual. And Sekana seemed to have a terrible habit of being weird.
Further observation revealed that when not blun-dering socially she spent much time in the library. Don looked up the books she had opened and found that they were all about the distant Rindon system. They were mostly works of fiction, children’s and teen books from authors he had never heard of, but there were a few pictorial atlases and a history of medieval Rindon. At any other time Don would not have cared, but with the war the way it was going it did seem an interesting choice of reading material.
“She’s probably just curious,” he said. “I mean, she has no friends and nothing to do but read. She has heard about the war with the Rindon system, of course. Maybe she just wants to learn more about Rindon.”
So thinking, he strolled out to the courtyard, which was the primary place where students mingled while waiting for classes. It was just outside the library and was surrounded by a high gate that shut out sight of everything, almost of the sky itself. There were about thirty students chatting to each other in their uniforms, a few walking, and Jenny, who was always late, running madly to class. The combat courts were lined up on the other side of the courtyard, and the barking drills of classes permeated the air.
“Back! Back! Engage! Engage-left!” shouted an instructor in the nearby court.
Don, looking in, saw a group of scrawny new boys and girls engaging in combat, although at their level of skill it was far from graceful and mostly consisted of blind punching of an unpleasant kind. Don did not like the combat drills, in part because he did not like having girls fight him. One of the little girls looked like a miniature Charis and was plowing and plugging away with all her might at a boy who was howling loudly. Shaking his head in disgust, Don turned to see Sekana sitting close in front of him, talking to Jack under some trees. Because he was behind, she did not see him at all. He began to listen, and got a jerk in his stomach when he realized they were talking about him.
“I think he doesn’t believe in anything,” Sekana was saying. “Like . . . he doesn’t believe in the things he used to, and he hasn’t found anything to replace them. That’s why he shuts everyone out. He hates everyone else for having something they believe in.”
Don was startled. He wanted to deny this, but realized a second later that it reflected his exact state of mind. It was true he didn’t believe in anything. He held the beliefs of progress and unity of the galactic culture to be worse than trash, and since Julie’s death he had come to believe in nothing but death. But he was shocked to hear Sekana say this, and wondered if she had been observing him too.
Anyway, Jack did not appear to get it. “Na, he’s just got attitude problems,” he said, scoffing. “Just mean and nasty, that’s what he is. He thinks he’s so smart. You know, he threw my clothes on the roof the first day he came here.”
“He what?” she asked, laughing. “You’re joking, right?”
“Why would I joke about my own stuff? I tell you, he took over our room like it was his, and pitched my stuff onto the roof!” Jack said in an ill-used tone.
Sekana laughed again. “So, how did you get it off?” she inquired. “Or is it still there?”
“It’s still there? What, are you dumb?” Jack said irately. “How am I supposed to sleep for five weeks without my pajamas? They’d be a soggy mess by now, I betcha! No, Ned and Rim and I climbed up there and got it off one night after curfew.”
“Oh, that must have been interesting,” said Sekana blandly. “You crawling around on the roof.”
Don smothered a smile. He could not believe he was really smiling, and he did not want any trace of it to show. He looked anxiously around, but the other students were all too absorbed in their own pursuits to notice his face. He continued listening.
“Well, it was pretty tough work. You’d have fallen off,” Jack boasted.
Sekana sighed. “I imagine so. I’m not very coordinated, I’m afraid.”
“How come you aren’t?” Jack asked. (Not a subtle kid, Jack, and not much into feelings.) “It’s sort of creepy looking how much you fall down. You’re going to flunk combat if you don’t get up when you’re hit. I mean, Charis hit you and hit you, and she was really lambasting into you, and you were just looking like you expected the whistle to blow. I can guarantee you they don’t blow the whistle until somebody’s down.” Jack was in Sekana’s level, so they shared many classes, and he had witnessed first hand the problem that he described.
Sekana looked small, and her voice was rather wimpy. “I know. But I . . . I don’t want to lambast into her. It might . . . have a bad result.”
“That’s stupid,” said Jack, without much pity. “You can’t be squeamish in class or you’ll flunk. And you’re a girl too. You can hit her as hard as you want and nobody’ll say anything. She’s got no advantage over you that way.”
Sekana looked impenetrable. “I am hitting her as hard as I want,” she said.
The bell rang and Jack ran off to his class, leaving Don looking at Sekana in some perplexity. He had often regretted having to fight girls, although he had never let this unpleasantness get in the way of lambasting them, as Jack put it. He knew that he had to do it. For Sekana to be squeamish about doing the same to a fellow girl struck him as very peculiar, and he came and sat down beside her.
“Hello,” she said.
Don did not say anything. This might seem strange, since he wished to engage in conversation, but the truth was he had been inarticulate so long he didn’t know how to open a conversation. Sekana looked down uncomfortably.
“Why are you here?” he asked bluntly.
Sekana started. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“What I said,” said Don. “Why are you here?”
Sekana pouted and played limply with her hands. “My . . . my parents felt it would be good for me to be here,” she replied vaguely.
“I don’t believe that,” said Don flatly.
Sekana looked up briefly, her watery eyes blinking, and then looked quickly down. “But it’s true,” she said. “I know it doesn’t make much sense to you. It can’t make sense. I know I look like an idiot here.” Her mouth was trembling. “You may think I don’t feel it when Charis uses class to whale into me, but I do.”
“Then why don’t you do the same to her?” Don queried, without sympathy but with a good deal of curiosity. “If you don’t behave like everyone else here, you won’t survive.” There was a change in his voice, a tightening and increasing of tone, that he did not notice. He had been thinking of Julie. In some strange way Sekana reminded him of Julie, and the memory was unpleasant.
Sekana did notice it. “What do you mean?” she asked, more seriously.
Don looked at her for a second, and then got up and walked away. “It’s none of your business,” he said. He walked to the library door and then looked back at her. There she was, sitting there and being inexplicable. Her hands were small and she was a bit crooked in one foot. He found her presence odder and odder. After a moment she became aware of his gaze and looked up tentatively at him. He instantly walked off towards the main vestibule of the school.
As he was walking, he was stopped short by the sight of his grandfather standing in an arch that led from the vestibule to the library. It was so positioned that his grandfather could see everything that went on in the courtyard, without being himself visible to anyone within it. It was only when Don actually left the courtyard that he was aware of his grandfather’s presence. Their eyes met. Don, who knew his grandfather very well, was sure he had been following the movements of his grandson and listening to his conversation with Sekana. Don walked up to him because he had to go through the arch, and looked at him without speaking.
“Good day, Don,” said Lord Tachimant in a friendly tone.
Don paused and looked at him almost unblink-ingly, with that eerie semi-dead look he often had. He was clearly not going to speak.
“Settling yourself back in?” asked his grandfather kindly. “I am glad to see you have recovered enough to make some friends.”
Don walked on without answering. In his heart he was troubled by the fact his grandfather was spying on him. It was not really surprising. Of course, Don did not like to have his movements watched, more than anyone else would, but he was used to it. It came with the territory of being related to Lord Tachimant in the way he was and leaving Jurant in the way he had done.
“If I were my grandson, I’d watch me too,” he said, with that sort of internal grammar that makes sense only to oneself. “After all, I did threaten to tell the authorities about the enhancement drug use that killed Julie. If I were Grandfather, I’d have done just what he did then—try to kill me and try to make it look like an accident. But because it had to look accidental, I was able to escape that burning room. And now I bet he’s not too happy to see me.”
As he thought about his situation, he was troubled by another concern that would not go away—the matter of Sekana. The more he thought of it, the more and more he linked her to his grandfather. “She’s so weak, so wimpy, she’s just as moldable as clay,” he said to himself. “She said something about her parents wanting her to be here, that it would be the best thing. How could anyone think being here was the best a parent could do? Who were her parents that they would send her here and Grandfather that he would accept her even though she flunks fitness requirements?”
The only thing Don could think, and it was not a pleasant thought, was that his grandfather had some new plan relating to enhancement drugs and wanted to use Sekana as a guinea pig. Don was not totally irrational on the subject of this experiment of the past. It had been a total failure with Julie, but it had partially worked with himself, and there was no reason to think an improved version would hurt Sekana. She might be fine. But still, Don disliked the idea of her being in the school. He knew something was fishy, so he decided to go look up her record. What he saw made him raise an eyebrow. At the same time an imperceptible chill went through him, although he thought it was only air passing through the drafty record room. (It was one of those rooms that contrive to be both tiny and cold.)
“Sekana Retarno. Age 16. Height 5΄10,” he read. He frowned. “That’s odd. I have seen her stand beside me in the commencement drill, and she only comes to my shoulder. What a strange misprint.” He read on. “Military Proficiency Selection—combat?” He put the paper down and looked out the window for a moment, musing. “How can that be? She gets knocked out every round, first round, so I don’t know how she’s not totally flunking. Here it says she has a C. Unless her other grades are worse—”
He returned to the paper and checked. Then he really did stare. “C. C. C. C. She gets a C in everything—a C exactly, never a B and never a D. Never even a C+. That is very strange.”
A thought crossed his mind. “Unless somebody planned out for her in advance. She always gets a C no matter what she does. That has my grandfather all over it. But why? That’s what doesn’t make sense. He wants this girl who can’t do anything, to be here and to get a C every time.”
He remembered his curiosity about where it was she could have lived without attending a government school, and began to search the record for her system of origin. To his surprise he could not find it. It was nowhere, not in any of the multifarious records of Sekana’s doings. Since this was a required piece of information, Don began searching for it in more detail, eventually opening drawers and accessing the encoded holofile. At last he found it, and when he did his mouth almost dropped open.
“Sekana Retarno,” he read. “Age: 16. Proficiency: Combat. System of Origin: Rindon.”
With that he turned off the hologrid and slipped out the door, still brooding. He set off towards his room with much to think of. Now he doubted his idea about her being a guinea pig, but he remained convinced that Sekana was in Jurant at the special command of his grandfather. All the clues he had picked up pointed to Rindon. This meant there was possibly something in Lord Haltyn’s suspicions that Lord Tachimant was involved with the rebels. But it seemed impossible that that girl could have anything to do with the war.
“How would taking what has to be the weakest person in the galaxy, and sticking her into Level Two combat, help him or anyone else? Grandfather is not usually dumb. If he were dumb, people would have found out about me and Julie, and Dad.” He turned down a hall. “I guess it’s not my business, since it’s probably not con-nected to the rebellion at all. But I am here to keep my eyes open, after all. One thing’s for sure—Haltyn is totally wrong about those Kinari being here. If there’s anyone who doesn’t have magical powers, it’s Sekana Retarno.”
He had gone up a flight of stairs without thinking, and paused in discontent as he found he had strayed into the girls’ dormitory by mistake, and into that one place in the whole building where he specifically did not want to go again. Julie had had a room here, and he associated this hall with her. When he looked up and saw Sekana standing outside the very door that had once been Julie’s, talking to someone inside, he felt resentful of her. Don strongly suppressed such feelings, but sometimes they disobeyed him. He glared as he watched Sekana speaking.
“Yes, I’ll be right back,” she said. With a preoccupied look she walked down the hall, clutching her books and smiling to herself. Her misshapen face looked prettier now there were no other girls near, but she was certainly very poorly formed, particularly in the face. The figure was not so bad, though slumpy and with a knack for wearing the uniform so it clung to her ungracefully. Don leaned against the door and did not move as she came up, so she bumped into him. She looked up and for a moment their eyes met. His were cold and appraising; hers were watery, and she lowered them quickly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, backing and trying to go around him. “Excuse me, I have to go.”
“To do what? You don’t have a class for an hour,” commented Don curtly.
If he hoped to intimidate her, or give her a hint she was being watched, he seemed to fail. She paused and looked a bit vague. “Well, I have to run an errand for my roommate. I’ll be right back. Please let me go,” she added apologetically.
“I’m not stopping you,” Don observed.
She giggled vaguely and seemed anxious to leave, almost as anxious as to please. Her manner was irritatingly naïve, obedient, a trifle giggly. “No, I suppose you’re not,” she said. “Well, I’ve got to go.”
“Who is your roommate? Charis? Why don’t you stand up for yourself?” Don queried in a bored, grating voice.
Sekana’s eyes were a funny color. He guessed they must be called gray, for lack of any other color, but they were so watery they looked almost like they were made of blue gel. She smiled shyly at him and clasped her books.
“Oh no, not anymore. I mean, she used to be,” she said, with a sort of inane giggle. “But she got a new roommate. I guess she didn’t like me. We’re sort of . . . going in different directions.” She again tried to go by him.
“You don’t ask me why I’m up here in your dorm,” he added coldly as he watched her walk off.
She half-turned and gave a small laugh. “Oh, I . . . I . . . I don’t really care.”
“I heard you talking about me,” he said bluntly. “Down in the courtyard.”
She paused and looked a little uncertain. “Oh, you did?” she asked blandly. “How interesting. I’m sorry if it made you mad, but that’s your fault for eavesdropping.”
“You were right, I don’t believe in anything,” he continued. “It’s not your business, though. Have you been spying on me?”
Sekana giggled nervously. “No. I mean, I was just talking. Just making conversation.” She again tried to go by him. “I really have to go.”
He barred her way, and she looked up with those peculiar gelatinous eyes. She certainly belonged to a strange ethnicity. Don wondered what it was. “What do you believe in?” he asked.
Sekana seemed to be considering this question very carefully. After a moment she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, looking into his face. It was a strange, personal look, and he somehow felt that they were completely alone together in a place without space or time. “I . . . I used to feel quite happy about things and to believe the future would be wonderful and I would go for-ward. I had a . . . quite a firm belief system. But now . . . now . . . I suppose it is still true, but it seems not to be close to me anymore. Like, I still believe it, I guess, but it’s far from who I am right now.”
Don looked into his own mind and remembered a time when he had felt similarly, when he had been about her age. He grabbed her wrist. “What did you think about life?” he asked.
Sekana was much weaker than he was but some-how extracted her hand. He didn’t know how it happened. Before he knew it, she had extricated herself completely and was moving hastily off. “You’d better go,” she said. “I mean, you can’t stay here or your grandfather will get mad.”
“Wait,” called Don in a sharp voice. “How did you know he was my grandfather?”
She paused and her uniformed back looked small. For a long moment she seemed frozen. Then she turned to him an innocent face. “Oh . . . uh . . . Charis told me. I didn’t know it was such a secret.” Then she ran off in her high boots, leaving Don in a rather sour frame of mind.
“Charis didn’t tell you that, because she doesn’t know. No one knows,” he said to himself. “My name is listed as Don Nadiman. So how did you know?”
He gave one look at the hall and the door of the room, which was still open, but he did not even consider searching there. Looking at official records he could justify to himself as business, but there was no way he could make going through a schoolmate’s stuff sound dignified.
Besides, nothing could make him go into that room. He hated to be near it. It was haunted by the memory of Julie, his helpless baby sister slowly dying. It was because of her that he had run away, because he could not help her and did not want to watch her die. It seemed so wrong and pushy for Sekana to be in Julie’s room now. It was as if by some strange metamorphosis she wanted to connect herself with Julie in his mind. Filled with cold irritation, he turned away and went down-stairs.
“I wish the Kinari were real,” he thought bitterly. “Because they could have kept Julie from dying. But nothing like that is ever real. That’s why people make up stories like the Kinari, imagining people who escaped and could help us. But they never come.”
The next day Sekana was not there.
Don had gone to sleep with his mind totally empty, as he had taught himself to do when his emotions started rising up to a pitch he felt was too high. He did not especially want to turn off the part of his mind that cared about things, and at his age it was not yet a perfect habit. But he was sure it was the only way to stay sane in a world with death and without answers. Thus, when he woke up he had decided to ignore Sekana from now on, because he now associated her with Julie, and because she had nothing to do with his mission anyway. Whatever Lord Tachimant was really doing that might affect the rebellion, Don was sure Sekana had nothing to do with it. She was not enhanced. In fact, she seemed sort of de-enhanced, below the ordinary level of growth and strength. She was not relevant.
Or at least that’s what he thought, until he placed himself in line for the morning inspection and found that Sekana was missing. He knew this instantly because she always stood in front of him, and he had grown used to her pale hair and pinched face near him. The morning inspection was quite an impressive event, with all five hundred students lined up according to grade in a vast gray room with no furnishings. It was also ordinarily the only time Don saw his grandfather during the day.
As long as he could remember, Lord André had stood up on a pedestaled box in the morning, watched formations, and left. As he watched his grandfather come out, he perceived a sense of connection to the past, his past, the binding up of his life into one unified experience centered on Jurant, on being enclosed by things he could not admire and could not control.
“This must have been why I was wasting my time with that Sekana girl,” he thought. “Because there was nobody like her here before, and she seemed different.”
Charis approached him from behind while he was thinking this. Since Charis was a person he rarely thought about, he did not notice her until she spoke.
“So, did you hear about Sekana?” she asked, giving a pert, comradely smile, hands on hips.
“Who?” Don asked.
“Sekana. You know, the girl who got flattened by Gus Ran,” she said. “I hear she’s been expelled. Breaking the rules or something.” It was obvious that she relished this piece of information very much and for some reason believed Don would find it as satisfying as she did. “Serves her right.”
“I’m sure you’re happy to hear that,” said Don frigidly, walking away. “I don’t care.” He pretended more indifference than he really felt, because he knew, as Charis did not, that expulsions from Jurant were rare. Lord André liked to hold on to all who came into his sphere, and usually punished instead of removing.
In particular, Don knew in his bones that something unusual had probably happened. Sekana was such a strange student, who seemed to him to have done nothing to merit either being there or being expelled, and he was sure this disappearance had something to do with his viewing of her record. Of course, that might be just an accident. But Don knew that Jurant was, and not in a good way, a place where accidents did not happen.
“And look,” Charis continued, following him out into the hall. Her air was very pleased, curiously so, as if she did not care at all that he was rudely ignoring her. They were alone in a hall, and it was a cold hall where people always felt alone anyway. “About my being your combat partner—I know you think I’m not good enough,” she said, as he turned and gave her a preoccupied stare. “But I doubt you’ll find anyone better.”
Don walked on, wondering in an incidental way about Sekana. “That may be true,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
Charis walked after him with a strange glint in her green eyes. “Hey, Don, you’re always so high and mighty,” she called in a slightly altered tone of voice, tense and paranoid. There was a ripple of exultation in it that Don remembered well from somewhere else, from a day in his past. It was a peculiar tone, and there were very few things that could cause it. “But I think I can guarantee you, if you take me on again I’ll be a lot more fun this time. It might be your last fight.”
She smiled with satisfaction as Don turned and she saw she had finally gotten a reaction out of one previously so impervious. She gave herself a great deal of personal credit, for she had touched a nerve that had in truth little to do with her.
“Really. You think you can beat me?” asked Don in a dangerous voice. In a flash he understood everything perfectly. “Then you must think you’ve got something special.”
Charis smiled. Her face would have been lovely if it hadn’t been so mean. “Yeah,” she said.
Don was very angry. “You idiot!” he exclaimed, pulling out his knife and preparing it while she pulled out hers. “You went down to that lab and took some of that enhancement drug, didn’t you?”
“So what if I did?” said Charis defiantly as they fought down the hall. She had certainly improved in coordination, leaping ability, and strength. “I didn’t know it existed at first. It was that dummy Sekana who told me about it in the first place.”
Don almost lost his balance at this surprise, but recovered quickly. “Sekana?” he asked angrily as their knives clashed. Charis pushed away. “Sekana knows about that place? How?”
“Then how do you know about it?” she asked pertly, sparring with him with great energy.
“That’s none of your business,” Don snapped. “But I know a whole lot more about it than you do. That drug doesn’t work. It’ll kill you.”
Charis looked smug. “No, it won’t,” she said as they fought.
To Don it was like a bizarre dream in which he was fighting himself, or his own past. Charis was like the fighters he had fought in his thoughts for ages, imitating his moves, also touched with this same experience but, unlike him, without worries about it.
“It will!” he insisted furiously. “I know what it does. I’ve had it in me for years. My grandfather put it in me and my sister to make us stronger, and it killed her. I was stronger than she was, and even I’ve got bad effects. Moron! Did my grandfather tell you to take it?”
“No,” Charis retorted. They were near the end of the hall now, and she was blocking him into the wall as they sparred. “The whole place was locked up. I made Sekana tell me about it when I asked where she was all the time. She was going to tell on me for getting the drug, so I let them think she did it, not me. That’s why she’s out now, I bet.”
Don was much interested in the accidental revelation that the mysterious Sekana had been doing something weird after all. He could not help feeling a little proud of himself for rightly seeing that there was something off about her. “What was she doing down there? How did she get down there?” he thought. “If it’s true the lab is closed.”
However, his primary goal was to defeat Charis in this duel. With a different personality, he might have simply liked to escape her onslaught, but Don was naturally competitive, and once he began he liked to crush his opponent soundly. The ensuing fight was one of the most difficult he had experienced in years. There had been other students who had taken this experimental strength-enhancer, but Don had not encountered one since he left Jurant. Apparently, they had all been sent into the rebellious Rindon region. Charis was full of energy, and though Don saw no point in killing her, he realized it was going to be hard not to.
At length he got lucky. Extremely fatigued himself, he caught her off guard, flipped her off balance, and knocked her head against the floor as she crashed to the ground. The headband split open as she landed unconscious, and she lay where she fell, her golden curls spilling out of the broken J.
Don took her knife and ran down the hall in search of his grandfather, while behind him the emergency siren on Charis’ guard bracelet went off. (All students were required to wear this bracelet as a precaution, and it sounded automatically except during supervised combat drills.)
Lord André heard Don’s footsteps and the sharp wail of the siren all the way up the stairs and turned around as he burst in. Don paused to regain his cool, and their eyes met.
“You seem fatigued,” said Lord Tachimant coolly.
Don stiffened and stood haughtily. “I am fine,” he said. “You told that girl to fight me, didn’t you?”
Lord Tachimant sat down. “I did not. Nor did I give her any access to the lab. It has been closed since the day you left and will remain closed. I myself have not been in it for three years. It is no longer necessary to me. But I permitted Charis to take the drug once she had found it, and did not punish her, so that you would find out.”
“Find out what?” asked Don slowly. He knitted his brows. “You mean, about that other girl going down there?”
“Sekana,” said Lord André, clasping his hands together as he uttered the word in a peculiar tone.
“So why should I know about her?” Don asked. “She’s so weak, she’s your new guinea pig, isn’t she? You’re testing it on her. That’s why she was going down there? I don’t care. At least,” he added bitterly, “it’s not your own family anymore.”
Lord André sounded a little sad. “Don, I did not do it to hurt any of you. My hope was for all of you that I could give you something that would make you strong enough to overcome anything. This life is all there is. I wanted you to make good in it. I did not want the drug to fail. And it was never forcible. You wanted to take it.”
“Sure,” said Don, angry with himself because his emotions were coming back. “But I don’t believe you.”
“You may do what you like,” said his grandfather, getting up. “But before you go, there is someone I want you to meet.”
Don’s eyes followed him as he gestured towards the side door, and Sekana emerged. She looked smaller than ever and wan, with blue circles so big her eyes seemed to have almost disappeared. She met Don’s stony face and looked down, blinking weepily. Her knees were trembling.
“Sit down, girl,” Lord Tachimant ordered sternly, pointing. Sekana scuttled meekly to her seat. “Sekana, I believe you know my grandson, Don,” he said, sarcastically formal.
“We’ve . . . met . . . briefly,” stammered the limp girl weakly, before looking down. Don looked at her without enthusiasm.
“So you’re the one who started it,” he said judgmentally. “You’ve been trying to get that enhancement.”
To his surprise, Sekana’s head shot up, and she looked at him with an expression of firmness he had never thought possible in her. “No, I haven’t,” she said, in a tone so regal it seemed nothing like her other one. “Not ever. I don’t need it.”
“Listen, if anyone needs it, it’s you,” he said bluntly. “You can neither see nor walk.”
“It’s better to not walk than to go places without caring where you end up,” she said. She looked directly at him, and her eyes did not look watery at all, but firm and violet colored. A minute later she had dropped her head and was back to her old self.
“Don, what she says is true,” said Lord André. “She doesn’t need it. This girl is a Kinari.”
Don stared. “A what?” He looked at Sekana in disbelief. “You can’t be serious!”
“But I do believe in the Kinari,” said Lord André. “And you should too. For a long time I did not believe in them either. But recently I have come to see that all of us in the Alliance have been so blind, though we claimed to be so observant. I now see that we have created a culture based on an illusory dream, a society where unity is achieved through crushing spiritual power. The Kinari have always stayed outside our world, and it has given them a tremendous power, power to face life, power like that I tried to give you and your sister. After I thought you had died, I abandoned that whole system, that way that killed your father, that killed your sister, and that killed the love between us.
“And then, about the time Rindon rebelled, I accidentally came into contact with a Kinari. It was breathtaking. Such power, such ability to overcome things, such magical gifts. I saw this individual make plants grow where he walked, create food out of nothing, create force fields of defense around him, all with such ease. I could not capture him, but I knew that here was the kind of life I wanted to give your father—and you. From that time on I was determined to get a Kinari here into Jurant.”
Don was for once silent, not because he was un-willing to speak, but because he was really unable. Sekana looked at him as if she would like to speak, but no words came out.
“I thought to myself, this potent ability is in their genes. Perhaps it could be drained or copied,” Lord André continued. “So I went against the galactic military and began to make friends with the Kinari. I sent gifts to the lord of Rethra and offered to place Kinari young people in my school. He refused, but he did allow me to Rindon to talk, and while there I kidnapped this Kinari girl.”
He shook his head scornfully. “Unfortunately, she is a weakling without powers. I have several times tried to persuade her to explain why she is without magical ability, but she is surprisingly obstinate. My only guess is that she has defective genes, so that the Kinari DNA is poorly passed into her.”
Don frowned slightly. He was quite familiar with his grandfather’s method of persuading people to do things. It surprised him to hear that someone as weak-looking as Sekana had any spine at all.
“So you’ve finally lost it, have you, Gramps?” he said coldly. He was always coldest when approaching the subject of the past. “You’re so guilty you’ve cracked up, and are believing fairy tales to try to solve your problems. But you can’t make the past go away. No ridiculous fantasy about a magical race is going to bring Julie back.”
Lord André’s eyes glittered. “You are mistaken, Don. The Kinari have always been a different ethnic group. They were split off without contact for longer than any other race, and they have many traits unique to themselves. And I know for a fact that, at some long-ago point, they developed an ability to raise their dead to life. This girl may not have it actively, but I’m sure it’s in her genes somewhere. Just think, Don—if I can get this latent power out of her, or duplicate it, Julie could be with you again. And everything I have done will no longer be important.” He took a glance at Don. “And you may tell that to my old friend Galei Haltyn.”
“It does not work like that,” said Sekana suddenly. She had stood up and was trying hard to stand proudly. “That is a power given to the Kinari. It’s something we have to choose to do. You can’t just take it from us.”
“Sit down, idiot,” said Lord André, pushing her down.
“Galei Haltyn?” Don added. “You mean, this whole thing is about him?”
“No. Only the part that concerns you,” was the reply. The look he gave Don was hard and cunning, not the way a grandfather ordinarily looks at a grandson. “I have been around a long time. I think I know Galei Haltyn pretty well. And he has become worried about me—hasn’t he?—because I seem to be aiding the rebellion. Well, you can tell him I am not a traitor. My interest in Rindon is personal, and if he wants to defeat that solar system, he would be wise to let me integrate their powers into our army. Otherwise, he will be defeated. And it would of course crush me to see him lose his job.”
He sat down. “You will tell him that from me, when you go back, won’t you? And then I hope you will return to see what I have prepared for you.”
“No,” said Don unexpectedly. “I won’t let you do it.”
Lord André frowned. “You always were exasperating.”
“Listen, I don’t care what happens in the war,” Don exclaimed, pointing to Sekana, who was slumped over, listening. “Or who wins. But there’s no way I’m going to let you try anything new. I don’t believe in any Kinari, and you don’t either. You’re just trying to find a way to get out of what you did. Bring Julie back to life? I don’t even want to think about it.” He pulled out his knife. “And I won’t let you try.”
Lord André’s face looked puzzled and also a little angry. “You should not try it. You have no way to stop me.”
Don looked back at him with a rather peculiar expression, while Sekana looked between them, from one to the other, her blurry eyes trying to focus on their confusing faces.
“I have what you gave me,” said Don, in a flash of quietness. Then quick as lightning he yanked Sekana out of the chair and ran out of the room. With his speed it was easy for him to get down the hall, but it was not so easy for Sekana, and she fell to her knees several times as he dragged her after him.
Sekana panted behind him. “Why are you doing this?” she asked anxiously. “If you don’t believe in the Kinari? Why don’t you just leave me?”
“Are you deaf?” Don grunted as he dragged her down the hall. He knew that the security fence would be up, and he was trying to decide whether he should use a tunnel that led out. It began in the lab, and he didn’t even know if it was unlocked anymore. “I don’t want Grandfather using you. Now, this is going to be very simple. Just don’t get in my way.”
“No, you don’t understand! Let go of me!” she cried, struggling against his strong fingers without success. “Let go!”
“Shut up!” said Don firmly, running with her downstairs. He could hear the student guards following behind, and paused as he came into a dark hall. Then several things happened at once. A door banged into his face, he felt Sekana’s fingers slipping away from his grip, and he suddenly found himself face to face with the absolute last person he wanted to see right then, his roommate Jack. Jack had his sword out and approached pugnaciously.
“Hey, Don, it’s time we had a fight,” he said eagerly. He stuck the sword into Don’s surprised face. “I’ve been practicing. Ready to get beaten?”
Coming as he did straight from a duel with Charis, Don was not in a good mood for any more students eager to fight him, and besides he didn’t want to fight Jack anytime. “I don’t have the time,” he said, with as much impatience as he ever showed. “I can’t waste it with you.”
Jack stamped his foot. “Listen, Mr. Ice Cube, I don’t know who you think you are, but you’ve been stomping on me for weeks, like you’re some kind of hotshot, and I have had it with you! Fight me! Show me some respect!”
“Excuse me,” said Don with infinite gravity and calm, considering that the guards were at his back. “But I am trying to escape my evil grandfather before he kills Sekana and tries to resurrect my dead sister. Did I mention that my grandfather has officially cracked up?” He pushed Jack so hard he tripped and fell backward. “Out of my way!”
“What is that?” shouted Jack, looking past Don with amazed eyes.
Don looked around and received a blinding impression as the heavy hall doors burst open amid a blaze of purple whirlwind. He briefly saw standing in the doorway what looked like a tall girl with lavender hair, holding a sword. The next instant, the girl was surrounded by guards, fighting them, and as the knife slashed them electricity shot out of it, turning the gashes into blue explosions. A blast of violet light set everyone spinning, and the girl was alongside Don, who looked for once in his life a trifle lost.
“Come on, Don!” she exclaimed. She paused as he stared. “Oh, right. I forgot you don’t believe in the Kinari.” Then she ran down the hall, leaping the stairs three at a time.
“Sekana?” Don thought in his spinning mind. He could not believe it. He could not even begin to imagine the possibilities that opened if the Kinari were real.
Jack climbed to his feet. “Hey, who’s she? Is she with you?” he asked, his tone implying his disbelief in this latter.
Don caught his wits and ran after Sekana before she disappeared. Jack followed and found himself entangled in some guards. After a blurry sequence of warding off attackers, he caught sight of Don and the purple-haired girl, and followed them to the great gate. They looked up at it.
“This is easy,” said Sekana.
Before Don could stop her, she leaped up into the air and vaulted onto the wall. To his great alarm, Jack was pulled after in a sort of magnetic flame and thumped soundly on the other side. Don turned to hear clanking as the well-known footsteps of his grandfather came down the hall. With a great effort he banged at the gate and kicked it, until his arm ached and his shoulder bled. Finally he burst through, exhausted.
“Thanks for dropping me,” Jack was saying.
“Well, you were flailing. It broke the flame,” responded the girl.
Don was not physically weak, but he was feeling some discomfort, and only the urgency of rising before his grandfather came upon him forced him to get up. He saw the girl standing over him as she held out her hand, and for a moment it seemed nobody else was there. He looked up into the face of a young girl, perhaps sixteen—a pearly-hued, heart-shaped face, with clear violet eyes. Her bearing was regal and free, her manner at once gentle and confident. When he looked closely, he could see that the face did look a little like Sekana’s, like the shadow of a memory.
“Don’t help me up. I do things myself,” he grunted shortly. “I can do everything myself.”
“Except flying,” observed the girl. It was then that he knew without any doubt that she was Sekana. In that tone was all the pent-up power she had hidden for so long.
“What is with your hair?” asked blunt Jack, shaking his head as he stumbled to his feet. “Did you dye it or something?”
“Jack, this is Sekana,” said Don, leaping to his feet. “Spare the shouts, some of us need to escape,” he added, as Jack’s mouth and the great gate opened at the same time. He and Sekana both ran away—now she was faster—and Jack, after a moment’s look of total con-fusion, followed because he had no idea why they were leaving or how Sekana had gotten like this, and he didn’t want to explain anything to Lord Tachimant.
The Jurant grounds extended about a mile outside the facility, and the three kids ran at top speed through a grating, a maze of air landings, and a long road lined with thick, impenetrable trees. Since the two boys were very fit and the girl was a Kinari, they found the running fairly easy. It was hardest on Jack, who was a perfectly ordinary boy and who also had no clue why it was so necessary to leave.
“Listen, who is that girl?” he asked, running alongside Don.
“It’s Sekana,” said Don. “At least, I think it is.”
Jack was, to speak bluntly, not a young man gifted with quick intellect. He was smart about things like knives and shoes, but he wouldn’t recognize a subtlety if it bit him on the nose, and even the obvious fact that she had almost totally changed her shape couldn’t click an idea into his head.
“Sekana?” he asked. “But that’s impossible! Sekana can’t even walk, let alone fly!”
Don was not relationally aware. He had tried hard not to be and had succeeded pretty well. However, he was aware that he found Jack annoying for no real reason except that his personality grated. He had an air of being an assertive amateur and unwilling to admit it, as well as a genius for asking loud questions when Don wanted to be alone. Don was mad at himself for having such a petty emotion, and madder than ever at Jack.
“Listen, maybe you should stop acting like a kid, and keep your eyes open instead of asking questions all the time,” he said icily.
“Listen, that’s not fair!” Jack retorted, bumping into Don as he stopped suddenly. “I may not be a big shot, but I’m not a moron either! Why have we stopped?”
Don, who really could be downright rude, did not bother to answer. He was standing with arms folded, looking ahead. They were at the opening of some sort of inhabited area, except that there seemed to be nobody in it. The trees had separated and were parted on either side of an arch. Sekana was disappearing into the parklike area up ahead. Don seemed to be overtaken by some sort of uneasiness, and with an uncomfortable look into the park he turned away.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Jack asked.
Don closed his eyes for a minute as if smothering some thought, and then looked up at the arch. “She doesn’t need us anyway. She can go back home,” he said, a bit sourly. “Since she can fly.”
“So where will I go?” asked Jack.
“Anywhere you like,” Don commented, walking past the arch and feeling like clobbering Jack on the head. “You might try the Portos Arch. There’s a nice little abyss there. You could just walk off into it. That is,” turning and looking at Jack with infinite scorn, “if you’re brave enough to go back to a school run by my grand-father.”
Jack stared. “Your what?”
Sekana had stopped and come back to the arch when she realized they were not following her. “Lord Tachimant is Don’s grandfather,” she said. “They’re enemies. That’s why he’s chasing us now.”
Jack seemed to take this information in stride, considering the suddenness with which it was given. “Your grandfather, huh? I guess I should have seen that one coming. You’re just like him. I don’t know why you’re enemies when you’re exactly the same!”
Don turned around in silent fury and glared. Jack gesticulated defiantly.
“Look, I don’t care what your problem is with him, you can just work it out by yourselves. But you must be an idiot, because there’s a magical girl here and you’re just walking off like you don’t care! As in, a girl who does magic! Do you not get it?”
“Not being a weakling, I’ve never wanted to be a wizard. Or hang out with people who use fantasies to hide from things,” Don retorted.
Jack seemed even more offended than usual by Don’s remarks. “Listen, rockhead, we both saw her fly over a wall! I’m not an expert—I just came to this school because I wanted to be the best fighter, and I had no idea how odd it was around here. But I’m pretty sure that if you see something with your own eyes, it’s not a fantasy.”
Don glanced at Sekana. She was on the other side of the gate, and her heart-shaped face through the grating looked for a second like Julie’s. Of course, Julie had not been tall, and she had not had purple hair, and she had not been the least bit magical. Otherwise, she might still be alive. Sekana looked nothing like Julie. She never had looked anything like her, and now that she was in what was apparently her true form, she looked less like her than ever. The Kinari were a well-favored race, and super-powered, and never under the control of their secularist grandfathers. And yet, when he saw her peering through that gate, where he had last seen Julie before she died, he again felt he had to associate Julie irrevocably with Sekana, as if they were the same person.
“I don’t do magic,” Sekana was saying to Jack as she came through the gate. “You don’t get it if you think that. Magic is people trying to make things happen that they’re not really allowed to do. What I do doesn’t change things in their natures, it just makes them stronger.”
“So if you’re really like this, what the heck were you doing running around looking ugly and letting yourself get killed? That was just plain dumb!” Jack blurted out. He was never one to mince words, Jack, or to think before he said something whether he knew the least bit about it.
Sekana looked a little ashamed. “I’d rather not talk much about it,” she said. “I was sent here as a punishment. My parents felt I was getting arrogant about being a Kinari, so they sent me here where my powers wouldn’t work, so I would learn to be humble. It was hard for me, really hard. When I was on Rindon, I could fly and make things appear, and I had freedom. Here, it was like being in a cage.” She played with her hands. “I learned a lot. About what it’s like to be you. To have your powers stripped from you, to be an empty, helpless shell, told what to do by other people, without hope. I was miserable in Jurant. I’m so glad I’m going home.”
Don blinked. Into his heart had been drifting a dawning idea that perhaps the Kinari were real, a people who lived outside this world that was all he had known. It was like touching something he had thought was just a rock, and instead it came to life. Now, with the words that Sekana was leaving, it seemed as if this whole other world was disappearing with her, leaving him just another human again. He felt stunned.
“Going home?” he stammered.
Sekana nodded. “Yeah. In the hall, when you were helping me escape, my powers came back. And I’m so glad, because now I’m out of there and I never have to go back. And,” a little more seriously, “I’m glad because I can thank you before I go.”
Don shrugged. “I don’t need you to thank me. Save your tricks for little kids,” he said.
“You don’t get it, do you?” said Sekana. “See, lots of people do believe in the Kinari, and they would have saved me so I could do something for them. But you didn’t believe I could do anything for you, and you still saved me. And now I want to thank you. Please come into the garden.”
Don turned his back. “I didn’t do it because of you,” he said. “And I’m not going in there.”
Sekana sounded a little vexed. “But my present is in the garden. I can’t give it to you unless you come in. And I’m sure my parents would like to thank you too.”
Jack grabbed Don’s hard elbow. “Are you nuts?” he asked. “Why won’t you go in?”
“It’s because his sister is buried here,” said Sekana.
Don turned around, finally startled out of his reserve. “How did you know that? Why can’t you stay out of my business? Did Grandfather tell you?”
“No. Not until I already knew a lot,” said Sekana. “When I got to my room, I found a book of hers still in it behind the wall, her diary. I had had a really miserable day and was feeling at my loneliest. I read it and found out about her. It was horrible, how she knew she was dying and how painful it was. She didn’t die angry, but she did die without hope. She . . . she . . . wrote a lot about you, and how she wished you would come back.”
Don clenched his fist. “I could not come back,” he said in an odd voice.
“And then I went down to see what had happened in that lab, and then Charis found out, and then your grandfather found out,” Sekana finished. “I’d never seen anything like this before. It was really humbling for me. I cried and cried, and I had never cried for anything but myself before. And then I got my powers back.”
“This is news to me. I didn’t even know you had a sister,” observed Jack. “You know, I probably should have just picked some other school.”
Don bit his lip. “If you think it’s so sad, well, life is sad. It’s worse if you try to pretend it’s not.”
Sekana frowned. “It hurt her a lot that you didn’t come back. She had to die alone because you weren’t able to face it. The least you could do would be to see her grave and put flowers on it.”
Don looked at the arch for a minute and felt guilty. “Okay,” he said.
The garden was quite dark because of the lowering, overcast sky and brooding trees that blocked out what little light there was. As they advanced, walking over a thick carpet of smooth leaves, Jack felt creepier and creepier. It was certainly the most extraordinary graveyard, in that everything in it seemed to be alive. Or at least, it seemed to be changing. One minute he looked at something and it was gray, and then out of the corner of his eye it seemed green. Don was too absorbed in painful feelings to think of these things, but Jack started feeling so uncomfortable he just stopped walking and sat down.
Don and Sekana paused at a gravestone covered with leaves. “Is this her grave?” she asked.
There was a long pause while Don leaned on the cold, hard stone and tried not to feel anything. He failed. The thought that Julie had been missing him, and had left the only life there was with no hope of seeing him again, made him ashamed of himself and he finally broke down. He did not care if Sekana was there; in fact, if she was there, she was strangely quiet. He was, and knew himself to be, alone, facing the death that permeated his whole world.
“Oh, Julie, I wish I could see you again,” he said to himself. “I would tell you I love you. But in the grave everyone is deaf.”
“I love you too, Don,” said Julie.
In that moment everything went still and Don’s head became very heavy. Lifting it was hard work, and it seemed as though it took forty-five minutes to get it up. And there he saw Julie, standing about three feet away from him. Between them was an open grave with steps leading up to where she was standing. She was dressed just the way he remembered, in that little blue dress that showed her skinny legs, with those blue bows shaped like butterflies in her short hair, although she was slightly older than when he last saw her. She looked about fourteen now. And she had the same smile, the same flush she had had long ago when they were little.
Don backed away. “Get away from me!”
“It’s me, Don. It’s me, Julie,” said Julie, coming forward. She sounded hurt. “I’m not a ghost.”
“Stop it!” said Don. “Go away!”
“Why won’t he see I’m alive?” Julie asked over his head, sounding puzzled.
Don turned and saw Sekana, who had been hiding behind the tree, coming out with an unmistakable grin of pride. He looked from her to Julie and back again. “You mean you—you—”
“Am a Kinari?” Sekana finished. “Yeah. I finally understand it. You asked me once what I believed about life. I couldn’t tell you then because I had to hide who I was. If I had told you I believed in resurrection, you would have been on to me. You were nearly on to me anyway. And besides, I wasn’t sure myself. I had been taught the Kinari beliefs, but I couldn’t get them to work for me. I couldn’t resurrect anything. I tried and tried and I couldn’t.”
Her voice was very emotional, and Don continued to listen to it, though he looked at Julie. It was like there were two parts to the story, and looking at Julie sitting there alive was necessary to make it complete. “Why couldn’t you?” he asked.
Sekana’s face was happy through its tears. “It was because I had never cared for anything but myself. I had never cried. That’s why my parents sent me here, so I would learn to cry. So I would learn to feel sorrow for other people. Only then would the Kinari power work. It is Kinari tears that water the ground so life can grow.”
Don looked at Julie, and Julie looked at him, and the next minute they were hugging each other as if they hadn’t met for a hundred years. Julie was definitely alive, and she felt warm and fuzzy. Don hugged her over and over, and he knew that he was alive too, that his heart which had been dead for three years was alive and beating.
“Why didn’t I see?” he said to Julie. “I thought in rejecting everything I was getting away from your death, but I was really killing myself too. Why did I think that?”
Julie snuggled up to him, just like they had done sitting in the Jurant courtyard as quite little children. It was such a nice feeling for him. He had forgotten how empty his arms had been without her.
“Well, I understand,” she said. “Sometimes, when I was dying, I would blame you for leaving me alone, but the last days I would lie in my bed and think that really you were the one who was alone now. Then I was glad to die, because in our world it is the ones who are still alive who feel pain. The dead feel nothing.”
Don looked at Sekana and remembered in a flash her words about the diary. Julie had died without anger, but she had died alone. “I don’t understand you Kinari,” he said bluntly. “The rest of us have been miserable for a long time, but our tears never raised anyone to life. How can you do it?”
Sekana smiled at him with that peculiar Kinari smile, and he knew that was the end of that. There is really no use trying to talk to magical people on the subject of magic. They just can’t explain it to you.
He looked up as Jack screamed and Sekana ran off. There were now two elegant and very tall figures in the garden, a man in armor and a woman with beautiful violet hair filled with jewels. They were obviously what had scared Jack, who was leaning against a tree, looking alarmed.
“Mom! Dad!” Sekana shouted, hugging them.
“Sekana, we missed you so much! Have you learned your lesson?” said the woman, stroking her cheek.
“Yes, I’ll be good now. I won’t run away or be proud again,” said Sekana. “And see what I did!” She led them towards Don, who was sitting on the grass with Julie beside him. The faces of Sekana’s parents were proud and pleased.
“This is the boy who saved me in the school,” Sekana was babbling. “And he was sad because his sister died, so I raised her to life to thank him.” She started as if suddenly remembering something. “Oh—I had flowers for you to put on her grave, but I forgot. So here, you can put this on her hair instead. I used to make all these daisy chains back home . . .”
She held out her empty hands. As Don looked, they rippled, and a beautiful wreath of daisies grew out of them. If he had not already seen Julie alive, he wouldn’t have believed this was even possible. One minute there was nothing there, and the next there was this lovely growing thing. He silently took the wreath and put it on Julie’s hair.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Jack broke in. They turned to look at him with total surprise, since they had completely forgotten about him.
“Oh, Mom, Dad, this is another boy from the school,” Sekana said politely. “I’m . . . uh . . . not really sure what he’s doing here. We were running away and then suddenly there he was with us . . .”
“Thank you, young man, for helping our daughter,” said the lady with the jewels in her hair. She took Don’s hand with an air of gracious dignity. “We have been watching over her, but we worried when we lost contact with her at the last. We had anticipated that her powers would return more quickly than they did.”
Don seemed to have finally found his voice. Perhaps because he hadn’t talked much for three years, his tone was a little choky and rusty. At least, that must have been the cause, since everyone knew Don did not have feelings and could not get choked up. “No, I want to thank her—really, to thank you,” he said. “Because I got Julie back. And I didn’t really do anything. I was thinking of myself when I ran off. I didn’t deserve for this to happen.”
“Yes, Sekana just wanted to show off,” laughed the regal man in armor, who seemed to be of a cheerful temperament. “She has a problem with that.”
“Now, Talron,” said the mother, in a tone of firm and serious reproof. She looked at Don and Julie, and an awkward silence fell rather suddenly over everyone. After the initial flush of introductions, everyone seemed to have suddenly remembered how foreign the others were and how unusual this meeting really was. Don was not sure how to talk to people he hadn’t believed in before, and Jack was too spooked by Julie’s unexplained presence to say anything.
Finally, Sekana’s mother came forward gently. Her face was very beautiful and magical, but in its serious-ness it reminded Don of his mother, who had not been in his thoughts for a long, long time. He had few memories of her because she had been killed in a shuttle disaster when he was four. His only real link to her had been a picture of her that hung in his father’s room at home. He had not been allowed to take that picture or any others with him when he moved to Jurant as a boy. He had realized, with the instinct of a small child, that his grand-father disliked his mother and was trying to erase her memory.
Now Don thought he understood why. Undoubtedly, if she was anything like Sekana’s mother, she had not agreed with Lord Tachimant on most things and had told him so. And it seemed to him, looking at Sekana’s mother, as if his own mother had returned to him again and the last piece of his puzzle had fallen into place.
“Do you have any family, young man?” she asked. She approached. She didn’t stroke his face or do anything embarrassing. Instead, her eyes were firm and under-standing.
Don clutched Julie’s shoulders. “This is my sister,” he said firmly. “She is all I need.”
Sekana’s mother frowned. “No parents? No father, no mother?” she asked slowly.
Don looked at Sekana, whose face was getting excited, and he felt a little excited himself. “Oh, Mom, let them come live with us!” she said eagerly. “He has nothing but this horrible old grandfather, the guy who locked me up! And you would love Rindon, Julie!” she added. (She always spoke to Julie as if they had known each other forever, because their souls had met when she was raising Julie to life.) “There are butterflies that sing, and rainbows, and knights in armor and—”
Don saw Julie looking hopefully at him, and he clutched her little warm hand. “I didn’t believe in the Kinari before,” he said. “But I do now. And I want to apologize. When I came here, I was sent by Lord Haltyn to find out more about the Kinari to help defeat your separatist movement. Now I know what I’m going to tell him. They are real, and what they’re fighting for is real, and it’s something he’ll probably never understand. And . . . I know you’ve got your magical powers intact and you don’t need me, but you’ve given me my life back and I’d like to fight for you. If that’s all right with you.”
Sekana’s father held out his hand and Don shook it. The next minute it was as if he and Julie had been part of their family forever. Sekana had appropriated Julie to herself and was running off towards the edge of the park, when Jack’s voice interrupted them. He sounded flustered and personally miffed.
“Hey! What am I supposed to do?” he asked, stamping his foot.
“Whatever you like,” said Don. (He had not yet improved in his attitude towards Jack.)
Jack waved his hand. “I tell you what I’m going to do! I’m going to go home and never come back here, ever! I should never have picked Jurant in the first place! Everyone here is weird.”
So it was settled.
A week later Galei Haltyn, sitting in his office awaiting intelligence from Don Tachimant, received in-stead the following letter:
To Galei Haltyn, Hon. Comm. G.M.
I really appreciate the interest you have taken in overcoming the rebels at all costs. This diligence is an exemplary and patriotic quality. However, I am sure you understand that I am under an obligation, on behalf of my students here in Jurant, to preserve the integrity of this institution. For this reason I have been forced to inform Vice-Regent Alkin of your illegal tactic of sending my own grandson, disguised as a student, into the Jurant training facility as a spy. I particularly mentioned that he caused one of my students to suffer a serious injury outside of normal combat drills, which has forced her to withdraw from the academy. This reunion with my grandson has been most disturbing for me, especially considering its effect on one of my most promising cadets. I am sure the vice-regent will take appropriate action.
With great regret, I remain your sincere friend and colleague,
André Tachimant, Hon. Tr. G.M.
So ended that little adventure. Whether Don ever found out about the letter is not known. If he ever knew, he probably didn’t care much. For him all the past was like a bad dream from which he had awakened, never to sleep again. After all, if your sister had been raised from the dead in front of your face, you probably wouldn’t look at things the same way either. There are some things that even the most hardened individual will have trouble getting over.
For readers of "Ryan and Essie." A companion story concerning the Kinari, Viltan's people. Don Tachimant ran away from his high-ranking family and their military academy years ago. Hiding on the distant planet of Galreon, he lived as a criminal until a failed embassy bombing put him back in the sight of the law. Lord Haltyn is an old friend--supposedly, at least--of Don's grandfather. And now Lord Haltyn thinks Don is the perfect tool to spy on old Tachimant. Don will have none of it. But when he does return to Jurant, he finds something no one could have predicted.