The night still clung to the morning air when Ann woke. She sat up with a start. Some noise had broken her rest – a car alarm, or a dog barking. All was silent now, though. She rose to her feet with a sigh and padded over to the window. As she drew back the curtains, weak sunlight trickled in: the light of dawn. Far in the distance, the sun was rising, turning the surrounding sky into a haze of fiery gold. Though she was still tired, she knew she couldn't go back to sleep now. Instead she pulled a robe over her nightgown and walked softly out of the room.
Seated with a bowl of cereal, she felt herself shaking off the sleep, growing more alert. The food was reviving her a little bit.
Behind her, in the hall, she heard a floorboard creak. She swiveled her chair around, and saw her mother emerge from her room. She stopped in surprise as she saw Ann.
"Ann?" she asked, stifling a yawn. "What are you doing up so early?"
Ann shrugged. "I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. Do you want some cereal?"
"Thanks." She took a bowl and started filling it. The sunlight was stronger now, and it filled the kitchen as it shone through the many windows. They ate in silence for a moment before her mother spoke again. "We should probably start packing today," she commented. "I should, anyway. Have you started yet?"
"A little. Not too much, though." She'd attempted to pack yesterday, but without much success; there was too much to take. "When's Nathan going to be here?"
"He should be here later today… probably around noon." Nathan was her uncle. He came so often, however, that he seemed more like a father to her.
Several hours later, Ann heard the crunch of tires on gravel, and the familiar coughing and sputtering of his engine. A second later, there came a slam from downstairs – the door closing. She hurried down the stairs.
Pausing half-way down, she saw him deep in conversation with her mother. They both looked worried. They broke off, though, as soon as they saw her standing there. Nathan smiled and gave her a hug.
"I swear, Andromeda, you must have grown an inch since I last saw you!" He'd always called Ann by her full name. She smiled. "Or maybe you've shrunk," she said. "It's good to see you again."
Her mother laughed, then said, "Come on, Nathan, I've got lunch ready." They passed into the kitchen. Ann pulled his suitcase into the guest bedroom and then followed. When she reached the kitchen they were talking about politics – a favorite past-time of theirs. She sat down and started on her lunch, only half-listening to the discussion.
"…don't see why. What have they ever done to infuriate them like this?"
"Their moral values are just different, Sasha… They – it's complicated. Their religion doesn't help, either."
"You mean – the Talistar? Yes, that makes sense." She sighed deeply. After a moment, Nathan said, "So Ann, you're probably relieved it's vacation, right?"
Ann laughed. "Very. After all, junior year's supposed to be the hardest. The amount of work lived up to its reputation." They talked of other things, until finally Ann went upstairs to finish her packing.
The rest of the day was filled with runs to the store, purchasing last-second items they'd forgotten. By the time that dinner came, their suitcases were nearly packed, only a few things lying out. Ann carefully sipped her soup, trying to drink it quickly despite its heat. She glanced towards the suitcases lying scattered near the door; Nathan's was the only one ready to go, with only a few hours left before they needed to be at the airport. She gritted her teeth and quickly finished her scalding soup.
An hour later, they were ready to go. Ann dragged her suitcase out to join the rest waiting in the car. It had started to rain; she looked out the car window, watching the light droplets swim. The moon was just starting to rise, dimly illuminating the storm clouds surrounding it. As Ann watched, a dark shape crossed in front of the moon – a shape with wings, moving fast. An airplane. They were at the airport.
Ann, having never been in an airplane, hardly knew what to expect. She watched the ever-changing list of flights with fascination. And there was theirs near the bottom of the list: flight 207, to the Lo'an Islands at 11:03. Her mother was watching it too. "Gate 14," her mother murmured. "Come on, we haven't much time.
Fortunately, Ann had a window seat. She gazed out at the ran-streaked runway; it was truly raining now, and every now and then a jagged streak of lightning would flash across the sky, followed by the distant rumble of thunder. Aside from those moments, however, all was dark except for the moon.
Then the moon started to move. With a jolt of surprise and pleasure, Ann realized that it was the plane that was moving. It gained speed, racing across the glassy pavement-
And then they were in the air, leaving the world behind. She pressed her nose to the window, watching the buildings and roads shrink, like the dollhouses she'd played with for so long. She glanced away and met Nathan's gaze, who was watching her with a smile.
"It's sure something," he said.
She nodded. "How long's the flight?"
"About three hours or so."
But long before those three hours had elapsed, the plane started to tilt downwards. At first Ann thought it was her imagination, probably triggered by the jolting and turbulence. But a glance at her mother's face quickly displaced that idea. In the meantime, the shaking had grown worse, and the plane was definitely tilting now. The murmur of the passengers were filling the cabin: an ominous sound to Ann.
"What's going on?
Before anyone could answer, the pilot's voice came over the intercom.
"Everyone please fasten your seat belts and put up your tray tables. We're experiencing some turbulence."
Despite the pilot's nonchalant tone, Ann knew something was truly wrong. The stewardesses were huddled together, debating in hushed tones. The muttering of the passengers were growing louder, and Nathan and her mother were exchanging ashen glances.
Then the real turbulence began. The plane rocked back and forth like a leaf in a hurricane, losing altitude. All pretense of safety was gone. Voices were crying out; drinks went flying, luggage was skidding across the floor; the pilot's voice came of the intercom once more. He no longer sounded cool and unconcerned. "Please remain seated, everyone. Try to get into as tight a position as possible – use anything as a cushion."
Ann felt the panic coming, bit it down. She looked around for cushioning, anything.
"Ann, take this!" Her mother had opened her carry-on bag and pulled out a pillow.
"But – what about you-?"
"Never mind that now, Ann." She managed a smile. "I'll be fine."
Nathan, too, was rummaging through his bag. "Here's a jacket," he said.
Ann didn't understand, and the confusion added to her fear. Why wouldn't they keep anything for themselves? "I'll be fine." Shestarted handing them back. "I've got stuff in my bag, honestly – "
"Andromeda," Nathan said, his face grave. "You don't understand – you can't – but just take them."
Something in his voice held back her protests. She bit her lip against the tears, and started gathering her things.
Then she glanced out the window.
The smooth surface of the water was almost upon them.
"If – if we don't all make it through this," Nathan began in a shaky voice, "then–"
He never finished. There was a thunderous crash – screams rang out – Ann buried her head against the noise and felt her body jerk brutally forward. She was saved from injury by the cushions, but was bruised battered. Finally all was silent and still.
She timidly raised her head, afraid to open her eyes, afraid of what she might see.
The cabin was littered with trash and luggage. One of the snack carts had overturned and was lying in the walkway, still dripping soda. Several people were moaning – some were ominously silent.
But where were Nathan and her mom?
Ann leaped to her feet, feeling sick. Had they been thrown? She hadn't even properly said good-bye… But a single look at the window stopped her from searching from them. It was fast filling up with water – the plane was sinking. She had to get off now, or never.
Many people were congregated near the emergency exit. One of them got the door open; another rushed through. Ann struggled through, fighting her way towards the exit.
"The water was cold, rough; it took her breath. She treaded water, gasping, and staring around her. Pieces of the plane lay scattered, fires smoldering before they were extinguished by the swells of water. She caught hold of a floating piece of m3etal, and tried to clamber on. From her perch she watched the door to the sinking plane, hoping every time someone emerged that it would be them – but her hopes slowly sunk with the plane. Soon it was completely submerged. She watched the spot where it had been for a long time. Maybe they'd come out before her, Ann told herself. They got out – they have to have gotten out.
She fell asleep to those words running over and over through her head.
Ann woke only a few hours later. The storm had caught up with the plane, and the rain fell like thunder upon the ocean. She couldn't see anyone. Had she drifted away from the group?
Or… was she the only one left?
She pushed the thought away, but the sick feeling was back again. It was fear. She looked around desperately, scanning the horizon. The ocean tossed around her – there was nothing, as far as the eye could see. Nothing –
Ann sat up quickly. There, at the edge of the horizon, was a small, dark shape. She jumped off her make-shift raft and started swimming. It hadn't ever come easily to her, but now she swam like she never had, focusing only on bringing that distant object nearer.
It took hours. By the time she could see it clearly, the moon was setting, an orb of yellow cheese sitting on the horizon. At the opposite end, a faint light was starting to glow. Through the darkness, Ann could tell that her guess had been correct: it was an island.
Another hour's swimming brought her to it.
She struggled to shore, breathing in deep lungs full of the cold sea air. Dawn had come; the light of morning cast a yellow glare around her harsh surroundings.
The beach stretched for perhaps 500 yards inland before becoming a jumble of broken rock and shale. Rising from it was – of all things unexpected – a wall. An ivory stone wall, half-demolished, but still recognizable as part of an ancient fortress. A narrow flight of stairs ran up its side to the battlements on top.
She should explore. She should look around this new place she'd discovered.
Instead, she slept.
The sky had mostly cleared when she awoke. A few stray clouds dotted the bright blue sky.
Looking up at the sky, it took Ann a moment to remember where she was, how she'd gotten there. Then the plane crash came back to her, everything came back. She forced herself to get up, to dust herself off. Again the broken ruins confronted her. This time she examined them, especially the staircase. It seemed safe enough; it was broken, like everything else, but it was more whole than the rest. She took a cautious step. It seemed to hold her weight. She continued up the staircase.
She was standing on just one ruin of many. Walls like this, but smaller, crisscrossed in front of her; the hollowed-out remnants of buildings stood empty.
Looking up, however, was stranger. The whole place was in a sort of valley between two rocky mountain ranges; coming out from the sides of the walls, forming pathways between balconies, were stone walkways. Some went all the way across. Others stopped partway, having broken in half. The rubble and debris of these broken ones lay scattered across the valley.
The air was still. The silence was complete, except for the sound of the crashing waves.
Then there was a click.
Her head shot up in surprise, looking for the source. High above her, on one of the broken causeways, was a figure. He seemed to be holding…
Her heart skipped a beat.
It was a gun.
Before she could react, a resounding crack split the air; a cloud of birds flew up into the air, squawking angrily; Ann heard the sound of a bullet whizzing through the air next to her ear. But it had missed.
For right as it was fired, another man had come charging along the platform and rammed him with his shoulder, causing the shot to go wide. The sniper was knocked off. Ann watched in shock as he fell through the air. He landed on the wall, not far from her. She couldn't help it – her cry of horror echoed throughout the valley, bouncing off the rock walls and broken buildings, startling the birds once more.
Then a hand roughly grasped her shoulder. She whipped around and took a step backwards – it was the one who'd knocked the sniper off.
"You have put your foot in it now," he said angrily. "What did you scream for? They'll all know you're here now."
"I – I just – I've never seen anyone killed –"
His face softened somewhat. "I'm sorry you had to see that." His voice, too, wasn't as rough. "But it was necessary. I can't explain just yet, you're still in danger. Hurry, you need to get out of here."
Ann hesitated for a split second. The vision of the dead man was still foremost in her mind. But he had just saved her life; that counted for something. She nodded.
They walked along the wall, stepping around the sniper. Ann averted her eyes.
At the far end of the wall, where it reached the mountain, there was a gateway. A tunnel led inside the mountain. Once inside, he led her through a maze of tunnels and staircases. She soon stopped attempting to keep track of the twists and turns. Her watch had long since stopped working, so in the darkness of the underground passageways she had no way of knowing how much time passed. Finally a light appeared. It grew larger, until Ann could see that it was the mouth of the cave.
She was in one of the largest of the dilapidated buildings. Bright sunlight streamed through the roughly-cut windows, turning the dust that floated through the air into brilliantly gold specks o flight. On the wall nearest her were hung dozens of weapons: shotguns, pistols, antique sabers; there was even a jewel-adorned dagger, shining silver with gold inlay. Another wall was lined with bookshelves; stacked uncertainly on these were musty, faded, leather-bound volumes.
What attracted her attention most, however, were the people. They were grouped around make-shift tables, talking over what seemed to be plans in low murmurs. The hushed sound of their discussion blended into the background. Watching them, Ann saw a few of them glance up at her. Her guide led her towards the nearest gap. They fell silent as he approached. He nodded his head in greeting.
"I found her on the outer wall," he said. He seemed to be addressing one person in particular: the most senior of them, at least 60. His eyes were dark and alert; his hair was clearly once the same color, but was now steely grey. "They were trying to take her out."
The older one was watching her now. His gaze was intense, thoughtful; she met it, wondering what he was thinking. His eyes flickered to her guide, then back to her again. "You're Andromeda?"
The room was quiet now. She stared at him in surprise. "I-" she stammered, "I – yes, yes I am." That wasn't possible. Ann had never seen this person before, had never heard of this place. But before she could ask, he had continued.
"You're very welcome here. Sorry for the brusqueness of your transportation; the haste was unavoidable."
"Why? What's going on?"
"I can't fully answer that now… I'll try to do my best with limited information. There's another group of people here. They're trying to – well, they're working on something very dangerous."
"Dangerous? What do you mean?"
"It could potentially kill thousands – if it works. More, if it doesn't."
"Why haven't I heard about this?"
He smiled faintly. "Well, you can see why they'd want to keep it secret, can't you?"
Yes, she could. "So what are you doing about it?"
He hesitated for a second. "Well, we've sent a few spies, who are telling us their plans. Others are attempting to sabotage these.
"But what are you doing here? How did you get here?"
"It was a plane crash…" Ann began. It was painful to relieve the memory; it awakened thoughts she'd been trying to suppress. When her tale was finished, she said, in a slightly cracked voice, "Is there – do you have any way to contact the mainland?"
"No," he said. "I'm sorry, Andromeda, but we don't. You see, calls can be overheard and tracked. But don't worry, we'll get you back to your home as soon as possible."
Ann nodded mutely. She was growing tired again, and wondered whether they had any sleeping quarters.
He apparently picked up this thought, for he said, "There are rooms through that doorway, I'm sure there's a spare."
"Thank you," she said.
The room was like the rest of the place: half demolished, sparsely furnished. Bit was comfortable enough, though – better than the beach, at any rate. But despite her tiredness, it took a long time for sleep to come. She lay on her back, staring up at the invisible ceiling, her head full.
The sunlight of late morning was filtering through the dust when Ann awoke. Her watch, waterlogged, had broken, but it seemed to be about 10:00. She rose, dressed, and went back into the main room.
The people were still there. Clustered around the plans, their debates were louder this time, more intense. They grew quiet as the entered the room, though. Rather self-conscious, she nodded in greeting to them. One detached herself from the group and made her way over to where Ann stood.
"I'm Nimue," she said. Her voice was slightly accented; she seemed to be of a different nationality. "You're Andromeda, right?"
"Er – yes. Tell me, how do you know my name?"
She shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, that's classified information. Don't worry about it. Anyway, I was told to escort you to breakfast. Are you hungry?"
As a matter of fact, Ann was; the soup she'd had seemed very far away now. "Where is it?"
"Just this way." She jerked her head towards the maze of tunnels. Ann followed. Only a faint ray of light shone through the darkness of the tunnels. They walked for a moment in silence. After a minute, Ann said hesitantly, "I don't know how much you can tell me – the man last night didn't really tell me much, but – what do you know about what's going on?"
Ann could not see her face through the darkness. For a minute there was nothing but silence from her companion. Finally:
"Well, I don't think an over-view will hurt. How much do you know about the Talistar?"
Ann tried to think back. "It's the religion of the Namayans. Enforced by law."
Nimue seemed please. "Yes, that's right. What do you know of their beliefs?"
There was something in the way she said "their". Suddenly Ann got it. "You're Namayan, aren't you? But you're not part of the Talistar anymore?"
She nodded; Ann could just barely see it. "Not anymore." Her voice was full of suppressed emotion. "No, I was sick of their stupid, megalomaniac beliefs. 'Chosen People' – as if. The Talistar are barbarians. They would never be chosen by anyone." She struggled to remain calm, won. "At any rate… they're the ones who are doing this. I can't say exactly what they're doing. But they are working on something, something that will serve two purposes: avenge a slight, and fulfill something that has been said. But that is all I can say."
Ann thought for a moment, digesting this information. "Thank you."
"I'm glad to have been of assistance."
A light appeared in the distance. "That's the room up ahead."
Breakfast consisted of cereal and toast, sparingly rationed – "It's hard to get supplies," Nimue said. She didn't mind, though. As she ate, Ann was aware that the others in the room were watching her. Apparently visitors weren't very common. It made her uncomfortable, though; she'd never liked being stared at. She leaned closer to Nimue. "Do you think there's any way I could get out of this place? Look around the island?"
Her forehead creased. For a moment she didn't answer, staring intently at her cereal, obviously thinking. Finally she said, "Well, I don't suppose it could hurt… as long as we stay away from their territories, we should be safe enough. I should bring back-up guards, though, just in case." She scanned the room, searching the faces of the others. "Kayla, perhaps. Justin, too." Rising to her feet, she added, "I'll go get them. Stay here." In a moment, she was back, accompanied by a tall, red-haired woman and a blonde man. "This is Justin, and this is Kayla. They'll come with us." She glanced at the two. "And this is Andromeda."
Ann dropped her gaze, unwilling to meet their curious stairs. She noticed that they both had guns.
The air outside the buildings was comparatively fresh and clean. Again she was taken aback at the number of structures, and at the sight of the over-head walkways. They walked along the roofs of low buildings, talking. The ocean tossed behind them, waves cresting white and crashing against the rocks.
The buildings fascinated Ann. Most were empty, but a few showed signs of civilizations long past: a broken piece of potter, a smooth glass bead. She knelt in the sand, holding them delicately between her thumb and forefinger. Her escorts were never far behind; they didn't talk as often as Nimue, but she was always aware of their presence. They troubled her; not much, but a little, simply because they disturbed the order of things. She was only a stranger – she didn't know anything of value – why were they so concerned for her safety?
There was a click behind her. She turned around, startled. Kayla had removed the safety catch from her gun, and was gazing intently at the other side of the valley.
"What is it?"
"Thought I saw movement."
Justin and Nimue looked around. "Where"
"On the wall."
Nimue immediately took control of the situation. "Kayla, you come with me. We need to find them. Justin, you take Andromeda back. You both know the stakes. Go."
They split silently. Justin wordlessly guided her back towards the nearest tunnel. Ann glanced nervously around; the air seemed tense, expectant. They were nearly there.
Suddenly chaos erupted. The sound of gunfire rang through the stillness; she dropped to her knees behind a low rock wall. Justin was shouting something – she strained to hear over the thunderous noise.
"Get to the tunnel!" he shouted again. She broke cover and scrambled towards the opening like a rabbit scared out of its hole. The gunfire stopped for a moment, and she was inside.
She hurried further, trying to put some distance between the place and her. The only sound was her footsteps echoing off the rough-hewn walls, accompanied by her heavy breathing. She slowed to a walk; slowly her pulse started to return to normal.
But then, from somewhere off to the side –
Her heart skipped a beat, then started racing again. She took a step backwards.
"It's okay, I won't hurt you."
A light flared as someone lit a match, then a lantern sputtered to life. The darkness lifted to reveal a man standing in a side corridor. Ann hesitated for a moment, trying to decide whether or not to run. He apparently divined this, for he said quickly, "Hear me out, all right? I'm sorry we had to scare you like that. It was necessary."
What was it about gunfire that required it always be accompanied by that word?
"I couldn't have spoken to you unless I separated you from the guards. That's all it was, truly – we were just trying to get the four of you to scatter. We weren't aiming for you."
Ann narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What did you want to talk to me for?"
"We think we can help you."
"Us – the Talistar. We're trying to –"
"They told me what you're doing. You're working on a weapon, that will kill thousands. And why should I believe anything you say? Your people tried to snipe me."
He sighed. "That was a mistake. I know you won't believe that, but it's true. We didn't realize you were a civilian. As for the former charge – well, that's what they'd tell you, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"We're at war, Andromeda. They wouldn't want you to go to our side, so –"
"Why would I matter?"
"Every person matters in battle. As I was saying, they wouldn't want tyou to join us, so they'd keep you in the dark as far as their real motives were concerned. You see, this is a religious war – their belief contrasts with ours, and so we're fighting over it."
"Who started it?"
"Well, obviously we say they did, while they say we did. But the fact remains that first blood was theirs."
He added, "You saw their willingness to kill, yourself."
Despite herself, Ann felt her guard loosen a little. It sounded sincere; there was nothing he'd said that contradicted what she already knew. Most agreed with it. He continued to speak.
"Andromeda, we don't care whether you help us or not – we'd like you to, but that's not why I'm here. They're not going to take you back home. They're going to turn you to their side. We don't want that, but you don't either, not really, you don't want to be sucked into this. If you agree, then I'll get you out of here, and you can stay safe out our place until we can arrange transportation off the island. How does that sound?"
Ann bit her lip. It was obvious he was keeping something from her – but then, hadn't Nimue and her group concealed things, as well? They'd barely told her anything – they had, as the man had said, kept her in the dark… Could she really trust them?
"And – and you promise to take me back home? As soon as possible?"
"As soon as possible," he affirmed.
She hesitated just a fraction of a second longer. "Then I agree."
He smiled broadly. "Wonderful! We must hurry, then; they'll figure out where you are in a minute, and we shouldn't be here."
He motioned for her to follow him and set off through the network of tunnels. "We're not too far away," he said over his shoulder. "Just a few more minutes…"
The tunnel ended. It was still and silent outside; Ann wondered how far they'd come. They were standing on the sandy valley floor. Theu buildings were thick here, with narrow alleyways between their low, broken stone walls. None looked especially promising as headquarters.
"Just a second, you'll see." He led her a little way through the maze of dusty pathways, stopping at last a little ways away, in front of a building like any other. She followed him inside with some perplexity – it was too small to be of much use.
But then he dropped to his knees in the corner of the room. She watched as he pulled out an oddly shaped piece of metal. He pressed it into a small pothole in the dusty floor that she hadn't noticed before, of the same shape; he twisted, and there was as mall click. Something had unlatched. He moved to a different spot, and for a moment his fingers wandered over the floor, searching for something; apparently he found it, for they tightened, gripping some ledge.
It was a trap door. Beneath it a staircase wound downwards, spiraling into the darkness. He motioned for her to climb down. "After you," he said courteously.
Below her, points of light shone like stairs. As she followed the stairs deeper, they grew larger, until finally she could see what the nearest one was. A fluorescent light bulb flared above a door; it was harsh on her eyes. She waited for the man to arrive.
"Is this it?"
"Yes." He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlatched the door.
The room inside was austere and efficient. Its floors were a simple black and white checkerboard pattern; the steel walls shone bright silver. A few tables and chairs were scattered throughout the room, and at the other end was a door.
"Wait here for a moment," he said. "I'll go get them." He exited through the second door. Ann waited silently, looking around the strange room nervously. The minutes ticked past with unbearable slowness. Finally, he returned, with a group of perhaps five others. She cast a curious gaze over the group; their clothes were strange, foreign. They hung loose, they colors muted. One thing in particular caught her attention: they all wore the same type of bracelet. It consisted of two dark pieces of twine, looped around by a single white strand. The base colors varied, Ann noticed.
A woman stepped forward. Her bracelet was black. She extended a hand warmly. "Andromeda. We're so glad to have you here. My name is Anya. I'm the leader of our establishment here."
Ann shook her hand. She continued. "Has Taren filled you in on what's going on yet?" She nodded towards the man who had escorted Ann.
"More or less. I know the general idea, but not many details."
"Well, we don't want to overwhelm you with those immediately, since there're rather a lot." Anya's manners were easy and pleasing; they were quickly dispelling Ann's fears. "For now, may I introduce my heads of staff?" She gestured towards the group of people standing behind her.
One by one they came and shook her hand while Anya introduced them: the heads of defense, supplies, and technology. Finally there was only one man left: the eldest of them all, his papery skin lined with deep lines. His eyes were bright, shining light blue. As he shook her hand, Anya announced, "This, Andromeda, is Aliman. He's our religious leader."
"Hello, Andromeda," he said quietly.
She nodded back. His gaze unnerved her – it was clear and piercing. She dropped hers. Instead, she noticed something peculiar about his wristband: while all the others had dark colors, his was plain white.
"Now that you've met everyone," Anya continued, "would you like to have something to eat? You arrived in the middle of dinner."
Ann accepted gratefully. She was escorted further down the staircase to another room, similar to the first. It was filled with crowds of people all wearing the same strange, loose clothing and the bracelets.
Supplies appeared to easier to get here, for dinner was satisfyingly filling. She wolfed down her potato eagerly. Afterwards she was led to a room. She flopped down on the bed in utter exhaustion; the stress and confusion of the day was finally getting to her. As she drifted near dreams, she wondered dimly what Nimue and the others were thinking. Were they looking for her, perhaps? Finally sleep took her.
She awoke to the utter black of underground. Fumbling in the darkness, she felt her way towards the light switch. She quickly dressed and left the room.
Outside, the staircase was crowded. Dozens of footsteps echoed above and below her; she was jostled to the side as the people passed.
She stopped one. "Excuse me," she asked. "What's going on? Why's it so crowded?"
He looked at her curiously. When he answered, his voice was thickly accented.
"Group C just got off duty. We are all on our break now, and most of us are going to breakfast."
"Can I come with you? I haven't eaten yet, either."
He nodded. "It's several more floors down."
As she ate, Ann watched the others at her table. What they were saying was completely incomprehensible; she hadn't ever learned anything of the Namayan language. She did notice, however, that all of them were wearing the strange bracelets. The colors varied, but the most common by far was a deep purple. They must reflect rank, she mused. Black being the highest, since that's what Anya had worn last night, and purple being the lowest.
Just as she was finishing her eggs, the loudspeaker above her let out a loud beeping noise. Every few seconds it repeated it. The room fell quiet. She leaned towards the nearest person. "What's that mean?"
His voice came back in a whisper. "It's an alert. Enemy scouts are searching near here. We're not to go outside until the alarm stops."
Searching. For me, Ann realized. They're searching for me. Apparently others realized this, too, for there was a small ripple of heads turning her way. She felt her face grow hot, and concentrated on her food.
The alarm continued for a long while. She quickly finished her breakfast and left the room, seeking an escape from the attention.
The staircase was deserted now. She wandered vaguely downwards. The doors she passed were all closed tightly, with only faint lights showing from underneath. She wondered how many there were; not to mention what they all contained.
As she neared the bottom, she caught sight of a light, far larger than the small ones marking doors. It resolved itself into a doorway. Ann hesitated for a moment, then stepped through.
The softly lit room was unlike the others she had seen in the underground headquarters. The plain but efficient tile that had been so common was missing here; int its place was a wall-to-wall rug, snow white with pale gold embroidery. The two colors were echoed throughout the room, even in the wallpaper. Bookshelves lined one of the walls; benches were pushed up against the others. She took a step towards the bookshelves.
Then, to her surprise, someone rose from one of the chairs littered throughout the room.
"Andromeda?" It was Aliman, the religious leader.
"Oh – hello," she said, trying not to sound too surprised.
"I didn't know you were interested in the Talistar," he mentioned. Again his piercing blue gaze seemed to go straight through her.
"Didn't you know? This is our – I think in your language you call it a church."
"Oh. I – hadn't realized that. I was just sort of looking around."
"I see." He paused for a moment. "Don't think I'm trying to convert you, but do you know much about the Talistar?"
"No, not much."
Aliman nodded thoughtfully. "It occurred to me that it might be strange for you – living among a group of people completely devoted to a religion you know nothing about."
This time Ann nodded. "It is," she said.
"Well, if you'd ever like to know about it, don't hesitate to ask." He smiled. "It's my job, really."
She thought for a moment. It would be nice to be able to make her own decisions about this war. Rather hesitantly, she said, "Well, if you don't mind… would you be able to give me just a brief overview of it?"
"Of course! It would be my pleasure." He sat back down in his chair, and motioned for her to sit.
"As you probably know," he began after a moment," Namaya broke off and became its own country several centuries ago. This rift was caused by the Talistar. More specifically, it was cause my a woman named Aliana. For the past few years, she had been causing a great disturbance; she claimed to have seen, in the patterns of the moon and stars, a vision. A vision telling her that the religion founded by her would, after many years, rise and rule. That we had been chosen by Malnu."
"Malnu being your god?"
"Yes. Malnu, actually, also means the moon in our language. We believe that the moon is Malnu's mark on our lives, while the stars are ours: When we die, we join him in the night sky."
He lapsed into thoughtful silence. After a minute he continued.
"Eventually the government decided things had gone too far. Aliana was put to death. This proved too much for her followers. They rebelled and split off from Andaria, forming their own nation and become Namayans.
In the pause that followed, the alarm stopped.
"They were looking for you," he said. It wasn't a question.
"They probably are worried that you'll tell us where their base is. You can't, can you?"
She shook her head. "No. Somewhere through the tunnels, though."
"We were sure that was it," Aliman said with a sigh, "but we've never been able to find it."
Another minute or two passed in silence. His piercing eyes watched her appraisingly. He seemed to be considering something; apparently he came to a decision, for he said thoughtfully, "Would you like to see something we're working on?"
Her curiosity piqued, Ann answered, "All right! What is it?"
"I'll show you. Come on…" He led her back up the staircase. About half-way from the bottom, he stopped outside a door. He fumbled in his pockets for a moment, and pulled out a small silver key. The door swung open.
The room was stark and plain, clearly kept immaculately clean. What attracted Ann's attention, however, was the machinery. Complicated-looking ones that she couldn't even begin to guess the purpose of lined the walls; on bright silver desks rested smaller ones. A man sat at a desk, carefully pouring something into a test tube. He looked up as they entered, rose to his feet, and bowed to Aliman. Casting a curious look at Ann, he quickly left the room.
"What is this place?" An asked, as the door swung shut behind them.
Aliman settled himself in the chair the man had just abandoned, looking idly at the now-full vial. "Well, it takes a small amount of explanation. You've wondered, I'm sure, how we chose this island as the grounds for our battle?"
She had. It had occurred to her almost as soon as she came here, how strange it was that they would fight here, in the middle of nowhere. She nodded.
"It really started with them. They came here first. They told you we were working on a weapon, I believe? Yes. Well, that's what they're doing – they just reversed who was making, and who it would be used on. You're aware of our current political problems?"
"They decided to declare war on us. So they came here, started developing a weapon –"
"And you heard about it?"
"Exactly. We came to stop it. And that –" He gestured around the room. "–is what this is for. We've got a few spies there, who've been telling us about their plans. We're trying to develop a chemical that will neutralize their weapon.
Ann stood in silence for a moment, thinking. Then she said slowly, "You said you had spies. Do you mean – Nimue? She's a Namayan I met there, and –"
"Nimue?" His voice sounded derisive. "We know Nimue. She's definitely not our spy.
"Though, of course, we can't tell you who the spies are. We learned our lesson after Nimue turned traitor. It's just a matter of security. I'm sure you understand."
Ann bit back her curiosity. Instead she walked slowly around the perimeter of the room, gazing thoughtfully at all of the machines. She was a fairly good technician, and an excellent scientist, but could only recognize a few. Her inspection hadn't told her anything about what they were making.
"What do these machines do?" she asked. "What kind of a chemical do you need?"
He smiled slightly. "Well, I obviously can't explain the uses of all these, there's too many. But as for the chemical we're looking for – the one key to their weapon is one I expect you've never heard of." He rattled off a long name. "So we've gotten some ourselves, and have been doing tests on it."
He held up the vial the man had been working on. It was filled with a clear liquid that shimmered in the harsh light of the room. "This is what they're using. Highly combustible. When it burns, it generates a surprising amount of energy and heat.
"Here," he added, rummaging around in the desk drawer for a moment and withdrawing a piece of paper, "this is the chemical formula." He chuckled at the astonished look on her face. "Long, isn't it? No wonder we've had so much trouble neutralizing it."
Ann pocketed the paper, still watching the strange chemical. It was almost transfixing, the way the reflected lights danced off its surface.
"Now, I've probably given you enough to think about, haven't I?" He stood up with a sigh and unlocked the door once more. He held it open for her. "It was nice speaking to you, Andromeda; stop by again sometime." He closed the door behind her; it locked with a loud click.
Ann wandered upstairs, lost in thought. Halfway to her room a bell rang; several doors flew open, and people started pouring out. Dinner, she realized. She hadn't known it had been that long. The tide of the crowd swept her upwards to the lunchroom. She chewed her food thoughtfully, her mind still in the laboratory.
There was always the possibility that Aliman had lied. But – why would he? What reason could he possibly have for concealing the truth? No, she concluded, it was true. In which case… really what, they were doing was trying to stop the war. They'd come to stop the weapon – once they had, then it would be resolved, wouldn't it?
She pulled the slip of paper out of her pocket. Before she'd merely glanced at it; now she studied it. Science was her best subject, and she'd taken many classes on it. However, none had prepared her for this kind of a task. But still… it was confusing, but not that confusing. If it was out of her depth, it wasn't very far.
She quickly finished her food, dropping the tray in a bucket of soapy water. Once back in her room, she studied the formula for longer, until she was sure she could do it, given enough time. Finally, her eyes tired, she dropped onto her bed, still thinking about the day.
The next morning she rose and dressed quickly. She retraced her steps down the stairway until she reached the doorway.
The room looked just as it had the day before. And there, sitting in the same chair, was Aliman.
"Andromeda! What a pleasant surprise. Good morning."
"Good morning," she replied. "I've – been thinking about what I saw yesterday."
"Naturally," he said with a small smile.
"Yes. Well, I've been thinking that – would it be okay if I – if I helped?"
He didn't say anything, clearly thinking. His face was inscrutable.
"I really think I could help," she pressed on eagerly. "I'm very good at science, and I don't think this is too far out of my depth." Ann stopped, watching for a reaction.
Slowly he said, "Well, I don't know… I'd have to ask Anya, of course. Not everyone knows about it; there would be security problems. But I think you probably could, Andromeda." He smiled. "Thank you – it's very kind of you to offer. And it would be good for you to have something to do while we're waiting for your transportation."
Transportation; since the day before, Ann had almost forgotten that she was going to leave soon. "How long do you think it will be?" she asked.
"It's taking a while," he sighed. "We've got to always be on the watch for attack. Also, they've got outposts covering most of the beaches – they're pretty much they're territory."
Ann nodded. Aliman looked through his desk for a moment, then withdrew a plain folder and a piece of paper. On it was a list of names.
"These are the people involved in the project. Don't talk to anyone else about it – only the ones on this list." He handed it to her. "And I'll ask Anya about it; I know she'll say yes, but it's best to be sure."
Ann smiled. "When can I come and help?" she asked.
He consulted a chart. "Well, you could come any time you'd like, but once I've got permission, I'll put you officially on the afternoon shift, at 1:00. Does that sound all right?"
"Yeah, that would be fine," she answered eagerly.
"Well, then, I'll go ask Anya. Thank you again, Andromeda – we really appreciate your help. I'll have someone tell you whether you have permission to help or not."
He left, leaving Ann to her thoughts. She hadn't expected it to be that simple; his easy acquiescence surprised her. It would probably be a while before she heard from the messenger; she walked rather tentatively over to the bookshelves, unsure of whether she was allowed to, and examined the titles. Most seemed to be theological; several, she noticed, were about other religions. After a moment's thought, she pulled out a few of them, tucked them under arm, and retreated back to her room.
She flicked through the books, reading passages about various beliefs. The Talistar was indeed more complex than she'd realized; most of it she found interesting and intriguing. It was a completely different culture. The more she read about it, however, the more she came to like it.
A knock at the door interrupted her reading. She glanced up and called, "Come in."
The door opened, and a woman entered. She regarded Ann rather warily. "You are Andromeda?" Ann nodded. "I bring a message from Aliman. He says that you have been cleared, and are on the afternoon shift. Here's your key."
"Thank you." She hesitated a moment. Apparently the woman could tell what she was thinking, for she said, "Don't worry, I know about the project; my name is Illys."
Ann quickly scanned the list Aliman had given her. There, near the bottom, was Illys name. She looked back up at her.
"I'm pleased to meet you," she said. "Perhaps I'll se you there."
The woman nodded. "Yes…" She paused. There was silence. Then she said hesitantly, "Tell me… are the rumors they say true?"
Ann frowned. "I don't know what you mean."
Illys' eyes widened. "You mean you haven't heard?"
"No." Ann was starting to get confused. "What haven't I heard? What's going on?"
She opened her mouth to respond, but at that moment the door burst open.
"Illys!" A man stood in the doorway. He spoke in rapid Namayan to Illys, who turned back to Ann and said, "I'm needed upstairs. I hope I'll see you again." Both quickly departed, leaving Ann once more to her very confused thoughts.
When the clock showed it was nearly 1:00, she treaded her way back up the now-crowded stairs. Stopping outside of the locked door once more, she pulled from her pocket the key Illys had given her. It was small and silver, and fit the keyhole. She twisted, and slipped inside the room.
The room was busier now. Several people looked up as she entered; she could feel their eyes on her as she scanned the room. Illys didn't seem to be there.
A man stepped forward. "We're glad to have you helping us. My name's Indar, and I'm the overseer." She shook his hand. "Of course, you're not one of our ordinary workers, and you're free to pretty much help out wherever you'd like. However, we need a person in that group over there – that would be the best place for you to start. They'll tell you about the machinery."
Ann thanked him and strode over to where he had pointed. A small group sat there, clustered around a table. They watched as she approached.
She cleared her throat a little and said, "Er – hello. I've just started on the project, my name's Andromeda."
One smiled. "Thank you for offering to help." He introduced the others at the table, and lastly himself. "How much do you know about what we're doing already?"
"I don't know anything about what you in particular are doing, but I have a general idea of what we're aiming to accomplish."
"I see. Well, we're testing it now to see how it responds to a variety of substances. Right now we're working mostly with carbon based ones…"
Ann listened attentively as he continued, forming opinions about the way they were working. It didn't seem to be very methodical, from what he was saying. She decided to bring that up. Once he'd finished briefing her, she mentioned, "How did you decide to experiment with carbon based chemicals?"
He smiled in an embarrassed sort of way. "Well, we haven't actually got much of a method right now. We're underemployed, and we just had a shift of management, so it's a little chaotic. It wasn't completely random, though; we've had a team analyzing the information, and carbon's one of their best guesses."
Ann nodded, and moved over to an empty chair. There were many different chemicals to try; she selected one and carefully poured it into a container. As he'd instructed, she then added the strange one Aliman had shown her.
On the table rested several containers. A few were I use; she pulled one of the empty ones over towards her and placed the mixture inside. She briefly searched for the switch on the side, and pressed it.
A match was ignited and dropped into the vial. She watched through the clear lid as the liquid erupted into brilliant flames. It smoldered briefly for a minute before dying down.
Carefully, she removed a small monitor from the inside of the compartment. It was a force detector, and would monitor the amount of energy generated by the reaction. It read – the same amount generated by the original chemical by itself. The chemical she'd added had had no effect whatsoever.
Disappointed but not altogether surprised, she emptied the vial and cleaned it out. Then she started the process over again, with a different chemical.
By the end of a half an hour, Ann had accomplished virtually nothing. Several of the solutions had produced slightly lowered results, and these she had carefully recorded, but they were almost negligible differences. Still, maybe the data would help the analysts.
She kept at it for another hour or so with the same results, before quitting for the day. Bidding good-bye to her new acquaintances, she left for dinner. Since the shifts hadn't switched yet, the room was almost deserted; only a few others were there. Most of them seemed to have the higher wrist-bands – apparently the leaders had more flexible hours. She finished quickly and followed the staircase back down to her room.
For a while she sat on her bed, thinking. Her first time of helping out hadn't worked like she'd expected it too; somehow she'd expected to be more… well, more important, she said to herself. She'd been a hand, really – her job could have been replaced by a machine. Still thinking, she retrieved one of the books she'd borrowed, and began to flick through, paying only half of her attention to the text on the page. Maybe next time she'd be more important. Maybe that was one of the few jobs like that, and the next one she got would be more interesting…
She glanced back down at the page and, briefly interested, read a few paragraphs about the long standing rivalry between Andaria and Namaya. Quickly, though, her attention wandered back to her earlier train of thought. She could ask Aliman, she supposed. Or maybe…
Suddenly something that the man in her group had said floated back to her. "Analysts", he'd mentioned. They were the ones who'd decided on carbon as the best type of chemical for them to try first. That would be much more like what she'd envisioned; she'd actually be helping, and it would be a task that not everyone could do. Of course, it could turn out that she was being far too confident in her abilities, and she wouldn't be able to help at all. But science had never been her enemy. Far more than any other subject, it had always been the clearest. And anyway, she'd always wanted to be a chemist. Perhaps not this early, true, but she'd always known her work would someday be in the scientific field.
So she resolved that the next day, she would request to be put on the analysts' team. And if it was beyond her – well, she could still help out with the testing.
The next day after lunch, Ann made her way back down the staircase to the laboratory. It was filled with the same people, she saw. She quickly identified Indar among the crowd, and requested to speak to him.
"Sure. Just a moment…" He finished speaking to another man, handed him a slip of paper, and turned back to Ann. "What can I do for you, Andromeda?"
"Yesterday, as you know, I was working with a testing team," she started. "Well, I heard someone mention an analysts' team, and I thought that might be interesting. Do you think that I may be able to switch?" She paused, attempting to gauge his reaction. He gazed at her dubiously.
"It's quite challenging," he said slowly. "You need to have a certain – er, aptitude for science, and not many people here have that…"
"I'm a good scientist," she assured him. "Couldn't I just try it?"
Still frowning a little, he said, "I could ask Anya, I suppose. Could you want a moment?"
He turned and moved to his desk. On it was a telephone – the first one Ann had seen here, she realized. Perhaps they were more expensive here, away from easy sources of energy and telephone wires. He spoke into it in an undertone for a minute or so; Ann watched his expressions shift. It quickly switched to surprise, and confusion; then after he said something into the receiver, it changed to humble submission. Ann could imagine the conversation well.
He came back a moment later.
"Ann says that you can join," he said. The surprise still lingered on his face; Ann could tell that he didn't approve of this.
"Thank you," she replied, acting as if she hadn't noticed his skepticism. "When can I start helping?"
"Your new shift will be tomorrow right before lunch, so you can start tomorrow."
She repeated her thanks and bid farewell. She was half-way to her room when she remembered she'd finished the books; there was nothing waiting there for to read. So instead she retraced her steps back to the bottom of the staircase. So instead she retraced her steps back to the bottom of the staircase. Pausing on the threshold, she gave the room a swift glance to see if Aliman was still there. It was empty.
The books lining the shelves were mostly Namayan. Browsing through the few books there, she found several more that seemed interesting. Again, they were concerned mainly with theology; however, on her way out, she noticed a history book lying under the table, and picked it up as well. Well armed for now, she left for her room.
The rest of the day she spent reading the new books. The more she read of Namaya and the Talistar, the more she came to sympathize with them, and to wish for them to win the battle. It would truly be a loss if the weapon was used on Namaya, and they and their religion were extinguished.
She went to bed that night with a new resolve to find the chemical that they needed.
The next morning at breakfast, she found that the others still watched her. In fact, she thought, as she watched the whisperers out of the corner of her eye, they seemed even more interested. She'd assumed that the surprised would wear off, and that then they would ignore her; on the contrary, it seemed to grow every hour.
She remembered what Illys had said. Rumors. What rumors? Was that what caused them to whisper and stare as she passed? If so, why had only Illys confronted her about them?
To these questions she could find no answers. For now she would have to wait.
She cleaned off her tray, ignoring the watchers, and hurried back to her room for more reading. When it was nearly time for her to start her new work with the analyzers, she set her book down and quickly made her way back to the room.
It was much emptier now; only a handful of people were with her. They all had folders and papers in front of them, which they were poring over intently. She gave their wrist bands a quick glance: theirs were the forest green color she'd found to indicate higher status. Did they have status because they were analyzers, or were they on the team because they had respect?
She walked over to where most of them were. "My name's Andromeda," she said. "I was given permission to help out. What can I do?"
A woman came up and quickly briefed her on what they were doing. Based on the information given to them by the testers, they were trying to predict which chemicals would be the most likely to neutralize the one in the weapon.
As she spoke, Ann listened not only to what she was saying, but to how she was saying it. There was no hint of skepticism in her voice, unlike Indar; and in her face – in fact, in the faces of all of these people – there was no trace of doubt or insincerity. And, the most welcome change, in Ann's view, they didn't watch her with such avid curiosity as the others had. They were interested, but not obviously so.
She sat down at a desk and pulled a folder towards here. Out of curiosity she glanced at the date of the earliest paper; it was a date some two years previous. Then she flipped through the experiment logs, studying charts showing the tiny fluctuations produced when different chemicals were added. There weren't any obvious patterns – there wouldn't be, or they'd have found it already. She considered the data for a long while, occasionally making experiments herself, before one of the others came over to her. He waited silently for her to finish what she was doing before speaking. Ann was grateful for the respect.
"Every hour we discuss our findings," he said. "Will you join us?"
Ann assented and followed him over to the largest table, where the group was assembling. One by one they quickly explained the highlights of what they'd been working on, and any significant discoveries they'd found. None had anything of great importance; just small changes, nothing out of the ordinary. Once everyone who wanted to had spoken, they discussed the information and its merits. Ann listened mainly, not venturing forth many comments, as they debate back and forth on how best to continue. But every now and then she would interpose a comment. Most of the time this was thought over for a moment and then agreed on – and most of the time it helped.
Once the results had been shared and their meanings discussed, they once more resumed their earlier work of analyzing the raw data. An hour later they held council again.
For several hours this went on, until a b ell rang from somewhere – the signal for lunch. The others began packing up immediately, and Ann followed them out the door. The last are carefully locked it.
As she ate, Ann reflected again on how her first session had gone. It certainly compared favorably to her other task: this had meaning. It forced her to think.
And – they respected her here. She'd expected them to be rather patronizing; to act as if she was just on the team to keep her from getting into trouble elsewhere. But no, they seemed to regard her as an equal. It was wonderfully gratifying.
So it was decided: the analysts' team was the place for her. She finished her dinner and the spent the rest of the evening absorbed in her books.
Her days were now chiefly occupied with those two things: analyzing the information and reading about the culture she was defending. Every day she joined her new associates in the room, and read once she got back. It may not have been as varied as their old life back home, but that was to be expected. Besides, it was considerably more interesting and unusual.
And during the sessions of working, Ann, encouraged by the respect of the others, gradually spoke out more and more, offering advice of observations that almost inevitably led to an advance in their work. She definitely wasn't out of her depth; indeed, she excelled at it.
About a week into her new project, a new person arrived at the facility. Apparently this didn't happen often, for it caused a buzz of excited discussion to travel thought the place like wildfire, all the way down the staircase. It wasn't as much of a disturbance as Ann's arrival had caused, but it certainly was an event.
Watching her, Ann quickly learned that the new woman's name was Ista. She was Namayan, like everyone else here; however, she spoke better than most, as Ann found on the few occasions she happened to speak to her. She seemed exceptionally intelligent; Ann guessed she'd been brought here to work on the project rather than just operating guard.
For the next few days she watched carefully to see if anyone new was on the project.
Three days after Ista's arrival, when Ann arrived in the laboratory, several of the others were there before her, talking in a small group. She could immediately tell they weren't discussing chemicals and machines. She wandered over to where they were and listened for a moment. It was as she had guessed: someone had joined. After a little while they noticed her standing there.
"Andromeda," one said. "Did you hear the news yet?"
"Just now. When did it happen?"
"This morning. About twenty minutes ago a runner told me Ista would be coming to help."
Ann glanced around the room – unnecessarily, really, seeing as they were obviously wouldn't be talking about it in Ista's presence – and saw that they newcomer wasn't there. "And when will she be coming?"
"Any time now." Ann couldn't help but wonder whether her own arrival had caused this much stir. Seeing as she was a foreigner, it had probably caused more. "She just got through screening an hour ago."
"Screening?–" Ann began to ask, but her question was cut short by the door swinging open. Ac rowd of people entered. She quickly scanned the group and found Ista towards the back.
The usual words of greeting and thanks were expressed, and someone quickly summarized for Ista what they were doing – basic procedure, and any leads. The stir caused by the entry was suppressed, and work as usual resumed.
Ann's attention was fixed partly on her work, and partly on listening to what was going on. It seemed to be similar to her own introduction. Soon, though, the conversation died down, and everyone was working on their own subprojects. It would be an hour till everyone's first chance to assess the abilities of the newcomer.
She bent over her work, concentrating on the tables, charts, and lists before her. Soon, though – only a few minutes later – she could sense someone watching her. That wouldn't be unusual anywhere else in the building; but here, the others had gotten used to her presence. She raised her head and quickly scanned the room. Her eyes met Ista's for a fraction of a second – but then the other lowered her eyes. Ann watched her for a moment longer before looking back at her folder.
Rumors… once again the word floated to the front of her mind. What had Illys meant? And why hadn't anyone asked her? If they'd even reached Ista, after only three days…
Again she could find no answer. Whatever these rumors were, she wouldn't be able to guess them this way.
By the time they met to discuss the hour's events, Ann had forced her mind away from puzzling over what Illys had said and back to the work at hand. She now shared the results with the others.
Nothing new was accomplished. But the group's curiosity was sated; all were now forming opinions of Ista's value. Ann, though, after three discussions, still was unsure. She seemed to be surprisingly persuasive, and an excellent debater. But she came to conclusions that to Ann seemed impossible; she inferred things on what seemed to Ann shaky foundations. Several times Ann had tried to point out these things, but she was nowhere near as loquacious as Ista, and the others had sided against her.
She'd have to be careful to listen to what Ista said, rather than how she said it. It would be easy to be carried away in the flow of powerful words.
Her days were still progressing in much the same way – reading and working. Sometimes she wondered why arrangements for her transportation off the island were taking so long. But for the most part, she was content.
This routine was interrupted very infrequently for the following days. Ista's arrival caused no further disturbances, except for Ann's misgivings about the paths she was advising them to take. The strangest interruption, when it came, had nothing to do with her, or the the project.
As Ann was walking into the kitchen after working, she caught sight of a familiar face among the sea of strange ones, and immediately set a course over to her. It was Illys.
Illys gave a start of surprise when she was Ann coming. Ann smiled. "Hello again," she said.
"Hello," Illys responded quickly. There was something the matter with her, Ann could tell immediately.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, quickly once more. "How have you been?"
"I've been doing well." Now was the time to ask what she'd been wanting to for the past week.
"Illys, do you recall when you came to tell me I'd been admitted to the project?" The woman nodded slowly. "You mentioned rumors then. What rumors were you talking about?"
Illys was silent. Ann waited for a moment, then said, "Illys? What rumors are there about me?"
Again there was a long pause. She was about to try again when Illys started to speak.
"I – don't remember…"
"What?" she said in disbelief. "You just said you did – it's obvious you remember, just from how you're acting. Why can't you tell me? I swear I won't be upset…"
Illys' eyes darted up for a brief moment before looking back down at the table. She took a deep breath and, avoiding Ann's, said, "I can't talk to you."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not supposed to talk to you anymore. Please, just leave, before someone – I'll get in so much trouble –" She broke off, looking deeply troubled. "Please don't ask."
Ann bit her lip in frustration and rose to her feet again. "I guess I should go, then." Then, against her better judgment, she added, "Can you at least tell me why? Who's –"
"No! Just go."
Ann sighed and moved to a different table.
What, what was going on? What had happened to Illys – who didn't want them to talk? She racked her mind furiously, demanding an answer, but none came. This was a mystery more confusing than the rumors.
It must be the rumors, she decided. It was when Illys had first mentioned them that she'd been called away – and Ann had no doubt that that wasn't a coincidence. Somehow they'd found out that Illys was on the verge of revealing what the rumors were about, and so they'd sent the messenger to stop her.
…Which made the rumors even more intriguing, to Ann's eye. They weren't about just anything, not if Illys was in such trouble over it.
Why was she being kept in the dark?
She brooded over this the next day, wondering and watching for assign explaining it. At the work station she was quieter than usual, enclosed in her own thoughts rather than her work. She was also a little more irritable; she couldn't help wondering how many of the others were actively concealing information from her, after they had pledged open honesty. Ista's annoying blindness to the obvious frustrated her more than ever – and most irritating of all was that everyone went a long with it. If something wasn't done soon, they would be pulled off track by Ista's misinformation. Ann resolved to speak to her about it.
As everyone was cleaning up and filing out, Ann made her way over to where Ista was sitting, still putting way the files and folders.
"Ista?" she asked. "Could I have a word?"
She turned around. "Now isn't really the best time… I'm pretty busy at the moment. Is it urgent?"
"It's important, but it won't take very long." The other considered for a moment and then acquiesced. Ann waited until the last person had left before continuing.
"It's just this," Ann said. "I'm worried we're not going in the right direction. That – no offense meant – your ideas are leading us astray." Ista's face was unreadable. "Like you idea today, the one of –"
She was interrupted by a deep sigh from Ista. She paused, perplexed.
"I was going to wait longer," Ista began slowly, "but you caught on faster than I expected."
Ann listened silently.
"I know I'm reaching the wrong conclusions," she continued. "I – please hear me out, please – I don't really work for Anya. I'm with the others."
Ann was struck dumb for a moment. Finally she managed to stutter,
"You mean – with Nimue, and with – you're not really –"
Ista quickly broke in. "Yes, I'm with them. Andromeda, you've got to believe me when I say this: you're on the wrong side. We told you the truth, Andromeda; everything they said was a lie. We told you they were working on a weapon, and they are! You are!"
Ann stared. "The neutralizer, you mean? You can't be… you've got to be joking…"
"They need it in their weapon! I don't know how I can make you believe this,
"No! I've been lied to enough, and I just want to go home! Why won't you all just let me leave, I don't need to be part of this –"
Ista rose to her feet and took her by the shoulders, trying to calm her. "I'm not lying to you, Ann. I swear to you, on my honor, I'm not.
"But I can't explain why you're needed, Andromeda. I know it's frustrating,
"Can you at least tell me why I can't know?"
Ista cursed and turned away, her forhead in her hands. After a moment she replied, "No. I'm sorry, but I can't. It would be the same as telling you why you're needed."
Ann's voice was quaking with anger as she responded. "I don't see any reason – any reason – why I shouldn't just turn you in to Anya. I've decided who to help, and I -"
Ista paled. "Then I should go. But please remember this, don't ignore or disregard this – if you change your mind, then find your way outside tonight at 8:00, and we'll help you escape." Without another word she dashed out the door before Ann could stop her.
Ann stood there for a moment, staring at the closed door, deeply shaken. She carefully lowered herself into one of the vacant chairs. Where was Ista now, she wondered. Had she escaped yet? There was a chance she hadn't; she should raise the alarm, before it was too late. But something kept her in her seat.
She was nowhere near as confident as her words had made her out to be. The newly-discovered secrets had unsettled her, especially when viewed in this light. Before, she would have been able to make excuses for them; now she wasn't so sure. If they were lying about the weapon, if they were the ones to blame, then these secrets were much more ominous.
She desperately wished Ista had never revealed herself, and the she could just carry on as she had before. And even more than that, she wanted to go home; to go home and find Nathan and her mother there waiting for her. Why did the plane have to crash? Why couldn't she jut be on the Lo'an Islands?
She sat motionless for a minute, her face buried in her hands. Finally she rose, and made her way over to the door. There she paused for a moment, collecting herself; she would keep her face calm and her expression blank. The doubts Ista had planted in her mind would stay hidden from the others.
If at dinner that night she was unusually grave and pensive, no one commented on it. She was left to her thoughts, for no one sat next to her today – they were, as she gathered from the conversations she overhead, all busy discussion Ista's betrayal.
She finished as quickly as she could, in no mood for society, and dumped her tray in the sink. Eager for the solitude and silence of her room, she hurried back down the staircase. But about to enter her room, a sound forced her to pause: the sound of an angry voice, muffled by the door. She looked around her, trying to figure out which door it was coming from. It seemed to be a little below her; she climbed down the staircase to the door.
The voice was speaking in , and the voice sounded familiar. Every now and then it would pause, and someone would answer in a quiet voice. Someone was clearly in grave trouble.
"-this was your duty – specifically yours – to prevent. You failed. Dou you understand, Kalin, how close you came to ruining it all? How did she get through?"
The response was barely more than sub vocal; Ann strained her ears to hear.
"We are trying to ascertain how it was done, ma'am, but we haven't-"
"I don't want to hear that you don't know, I want answers!" There was a pause, in which no one spoke. Then, in a controlled tone, "Has Security answered back yet?"
"No. Those tapes are very strictly guarded, and so they need approval."
"Tell them I gave you permission. We need to find out whether they talked –"
"Several witnesses say they were the last to leave, and that they took a while."
"All right, then. We need to find out for certain what they talked about – though I can easily guess – and, most importantly, what Andromeda's response was if she told her the truth."
Ann stood stock-still, staring at the door. The last sentence rang in her head, even as the voice began to speak again.
"Finally – though know this isn't your field – do you have any idea how far we've been set back by Ista?"
"From what I can gather, as much as a week. Some documents were destroyed."
There was a silence, and then the second voice continued cautiously, "…I know I shouldn't ask, but – why does it matter if she leaves? I mean, she's an excellent asset, and helps to speed up the work, but…"
"Classified, Kalin. You'll find out after we're done, I'm sure, but for now you'll have to be content, and know it's a good reason."
There were footsteps, and Ann hurtled out of the way just in time before the door swung open. From and upper level she watched as Anya, looking ill-tempered, strode out. A man followed her – Ann didn't recognize him. She hurried silently back up the stairs to her room.
She sat down on her bed for a moment, then sprang back to her feet, pacing the floor. The truth, Anya had said – Ista had told her the truth, and Ann was wrong, and she'd been helping them build a weapon this whole time – how could she have been so stupid?
But maybe all wasn't lost. She sat back down again. 8:00, Ista had said. If she could get out by 8:00, then perhaps she could heal the damage she had caused. She checked the clock - 7:10. That left her an hour.
The security guards switched frequently, Ann knew. The next would be at 7:30; that was when she should plan her escape. There was nothing for her to bring, nothing she didn't have in her head.
However, perhaps she could help before she even left. Something to slow down the progress of the Namayans.
She quickly took the keys to the lab off the rack by the door. There wouldn't be anyone in there now, and so no one would question why she was destroying important documents. She hurried back up the stairs.
Once safely inside, she locked the door and turned towards the shelves. The most recent papers would do the most damage; she pulled these out of their neatly organized folders. For a moment she hesitated next to the paper shredder; visions of her fellow analyzers floated unbidden if front of her. But she shoved them away and quickly fed the records through the shredder.
The next shift would be coming soon, and she'd need to be far away by the time they realized anything was wrong, so after only a few folders she left. On her way out a thought struck her – they had mentioned something about tapes. She scanned the room quickly. Sure enough, a small security camera smiled at her from the corner. She gave it a quick stare before leaving.
The time was then 7:25, and she was left with five minutes to reach the top of the stairs.
Trying to look natural in case anyone saw her, she made her way upwards. The stairs were almost deserted; she saw only a few people. Almost to the top, she was beginning to think she'd make it easily when, to her consternation, a door above her flew open, and none other than Aliman stepped out. She flattened herself against the wall, trying to think of an alibi – but if they'd seen the tape, and seen her sabotaging their plans, then surely Aliman would be informed.
But she couldn't see anyway around that. So, thinking fast, she began to retrace her steps downstairs, slowly. When Aliman overtook her, she could claim to be going to her room – and hope he hadn't seen the tape.
He caught up quickly. "Hello, Andromeda," he said pleasantly. His manner set her fears at rest. "What are you doing? I haven't seen you recently."
"Going to my room." Ann fought to keep her voice level, and forced a smile.
"Well, Anya wanted to see me about something, so I'd better go. It was nice to see you again."
He continued on. Ann kept at her slow pace towards her room until he was well out of sight, then hurried back upstairs.
She was just in time. The security guards had left, and their replacements hadn't arrived yet. Casting a quick glance around her, she pried open the door, and took the final steps of the ladder.
Ann found herself in the run-down stone building once more. No one was outside, and she hurried through the doorway.
The light of actual day, even in the evening, half blinded her after being inside for nearly two weeks. The sun was sinking, and the shadows were long.
Ista would be here in a half hour. In the meantime, she had to find somewhere to hide. Her first impulse, the nearest buildings, she dismissed immediately. That was where they would look first, once they realized she was gone. Instead, she wove through the buildings, her course set on the sloped wall of the valley. From there she could see everything, and there were rocky outcrops rising like teeth out of the face that she could hide behind.
She reached her position quickly; it was near to the opening of the staircase, only about 200 meters. Now, for the next half hour, Ann could only wait, and hope that Ista would be true to her word.
The minutes ticked by as slowly as hours. Ann wished she still had were watch; was it 8:00 yet? The sun dipped down below the horizon.
Below her, something stirred. She strained her eyes, trying to see through the darkness.
It looked to be a small group of people – only three of four, slowly making their way towards the staircase. She couldn't recognize any of them, ore tell if they were Namayan, but she was sure who it was. She sprang from the promontory rock, running towards where they were. One of them saw her; she saw him motion to another, and they altered their course towards her. It took only a minute for her to reach them.
There turned out to be five of them. At their head was Ista: the only Namayan in the group. She motioned for Ann to be silent. Ann nodded and fell into step as they quickly crossed to the other side of the valley. Nothing else was stirring, and their own figures blended into the darkness surrounding them.
Ahead of them was a tunnel, like the others Ann had seen on the island. She followed them into it.
It was pitch black, but her five companions knew they way well, for they didn't hesitated as they wound their way through the labyrinth. Finally they reached the end.
Once more Ann had been led to the first building. She looked again at the wall of weapons, the books – and again the people. For she had been expected, it seemed. The room was filled with people.
As she entered, the atmosphere in the room loosened visibly: some undercurrent of tension passed out of it, and a babble of relieved talk broke out.
One of her escorts crossed over to a table to inform the man sitting there of her arrival, but there was no need. He had risen to his feet and was coming over himself. Ann recognized him; he was the one she'd spoken to last time, the oldest one. It had only been a fortnight since they'd last spoken, but already it seemed his face had acquired more lines.
He was clearly exhausted, but he smiled warmly as he approached and shook her hand.
"On behalf of all of us, thank you for coming back," he said. His manner was much more openly welcoming this time. He spoke briefly to Ista and the others, then turned back to her. "Are you all right? Is there anything you need?"
"No, I'm fine, thank you," she responded. If she'd had any doubts about being important, they were removed by the warmth of her reception. It didn't seem like he was going to tell her why, though. "I – I really am sorry for all the damage I've caused. I hope it won't be permanent…"
A shadow crossed his face for a moment, but was dispelled quickly. "I'm sure we can find a way to fix it, Andromeda, don't worry. Are you still willing to help?"
"Yes," she answered eagerly, "yes, I am." She paused, waiting for him to continue, but he did not. He glanced at Ista, and apparently some wordless communication took place, for he turned quickly back to Ann, saying, "I'm sorry to dismiss you so quickly, but we need to discuss a few things…" He indicated the others. "Would you mind excusing us?"
"Not at all," she responded, privately wondering what it could be about, that she could not hear it.
She nodded. "Should I go to my old room?"
"Yes, I think it's still empty."
She bid good-bye and left, carefully resisting the temptation to stay nearby and listen. They would tell her soon enough, whatever it was. And if they didn't – well, they probably had their reasons.
She found the room exactly as it had been, except for the absence of the light streaming in through the rough window. Instead, she saw as she crossed to it, the stars were shining bright, more of them than she'd ever seen; here, far from cars and factories, there seemed more stars than space. She got into bed, the moonlight slanting across her face, already near sleep. For better or for worse, she had picked her side – but somehow, something told her that she had chosen well. With this assurance, she slept well.
Things were busy the next morning. People were hurrying through the building, holding hasty discussions in corridors and hallways. Her arrival appeared to have triggered something – a decision, perhaps. But, she thought, as walking through the hallway she came upon one of these impromptu conferences, they all seemed more optimistic. Something appeared to have given them fresh hope. Her arrival, again? Or had something happened she wasn't aware of yet?
A few hours into the day, she was sent for. A woman came up to her and, smiling gin greeting, said, "Andromeda? Julian wanted me to tell you he'd like to see you."
"Oh, he's the one you were talking to last night."
"Where can I find him?" Ann asked.
The woman quickly recited the directions to his office. "It's the one with the blue sign on it," she added. "You can't miss it."
After a few minutes of navigation through the hallways, Ann found –suddenly, it seemed- the room. On its door was painted, as the woman had said, a dark blue symbol. It looked familiar, but she couldn't recall its meaning.
She knocked. It swung open quickly. In the doorway stood the man she'd spoken to earlier: the older one, who appeared to be the leader. He nodded in greeting. "Please, come in."
She stepped inside. The room, like the others, had very little furniture or decoration. Though it was clearly orderly, it had a good deal of clutter: papers stacked in corners, carefully labeled and marked; shelves full of folders filled to the point of overflowing. Several chairs were scattered around a large desk.
He motioned towards them. "Please, take a seat."
While she did so, he seated himself behind the desk.
"Again," he began, "I'd like to thank you for returning."
"I hope I didn't do too much damage while I was helping them."
"I'm sure it can be fixed," he said. Now that the formalities were finished, he leaned forward a little. "I wish I could tell you everything that's going on, Andromeda, but there are a few things that I can't. Aside from those, I'll be completely open and honest with you, but – there are a few things that must remain secret. Can you accept that and still help us?"
Ann nodded. Even if they were keeping a few secrets, at least they were telling her in advance; it was an improvement over her previous situation.
"Good. Now that that's cleared up, I'd like to tell you as much as I can about what's going to happen." Ann straightened up a little. (?)At last she'd know what was going on.(?) "Your arrival has changed several things," he continued. "Unfortunately, those things are what must remain secret, but it should suffice to say that things have been turned very much in our favor. Therefore, now that we have the upper hand, we'd like to move forward at last. This is also a good time to attack because of how close they are to their goal. With your misguided help, they're dangerous close to completing the weapon. If we don't act soon, it will be too late."
"And who do they intend to use the weapon on?"
"Well, we think their first target will be Andaria. You see –" He hesitated. "Well, how much do you know about the history of the Talistar?"
"I learned about it while I was with them."
"Then you understand why that would be their first target. Also, the two cultures have grown very different despite the proximity of the two nations. They're almost completely incompatible; tiny arguments explode into much bigger ones – you may have heard about the border dispute in the newspaper."
Ann thought she vaguely recalled it. "But what do you mean by 'first target'? Surely destroying Andaria would be enough for them?"
He smiled bitterly. "You're forgetting their major belief," he said. "They bleive they are the chosen people."
Ann sat quite still as the implications of this sunk in. "You mean… they're trying to take control of the – of the –"
"-the world, yes," he finished. "They envision a world with a single government, a single country – and the Talistar as the only religion."
"Then why haven't you told anyone?" she demanded. "This is something the world has to know about. Together we could do something, but just you and the others here –"
"There are two reasons we didn't tell anyone," he interrupted calmly. "One I can't tell you. The other, however, is, this: the weapon is they are working on could, at this moment, be fired. The only thing that keeps them from doing so is that they can't control it very well. That's what they need the neutralizer for. But if we told the other countires about this, and got together a coalition, then there's a good chance they'd be scared into firing it anyway. And the results of an uncontrolled weapon of that power –" He broke off. "We can't risk it. So we gathered together a small force, it's members handpicked by its leaders for their dedication, bravery, and their ability to keep a secret."
Ann opened her mouth to reply when she was cut short by a harsh buzzer sounding. Julian's face showed his surprise.
"What's it mean?" she asked.
"A visitor," he replied, sounding faintly uncertain.
"Is that a band thing?"
"No; just strange. I didn't arrange for anyone to be brought…" He rose to his feet. "Excuse me. I should go see who it is." He quickly crossed to the door and left.
The room was silent. Ann expected him to return soon, but the minutes ticked by without Julian's returning footsteps. She wondered who it could be.
As she was waiting, the air conditioning tunred on. In the corner of the room, where the breeze was strongest, a few papers fluttered to the floor. She left her seat and started to collect them. She glanced them over, trying to put them back in order, and couldn't help noticing what they were about.
They seemed to be a record of different prophecies made in the past ten years. There were many of them; forged prophecies were common now. Fake seers found it all to easy to make money off of unsuspecting, naïve people in search of a miracle. Real seers were rare.
Her curiosity piqued, she rose to her feet. They seemed to have come from the top of the cabinet. She quickly saw the folder they belonged to. Its cover was marked with the word "Prophecies", and it was by far the largest one in the room. She opned the cover and ran her finger down the table of contents.
The papers that had fallen out – the ones concerning the past decade – were merely a few drops of water in the ocean. There were hundreds of them, all neatly in chronological order. They seemed to go back as far as 200 A.D., according to the table of contents. She flipped through a few of the pages, all of them filled with propehecies. A few of the names of the more famous seers jumped out at her. So there were some real predictions here.
She replaced the papers in the proper spot and was about to look at them more closely when she heard footsteps coming. She cast a guilty look at the door –she probably shouldn't have read the contents of the folder- and took her seat again.
Now she could hear the voices; apparently Julian had brought the visitors with him. None of the words were intelligible yet at his distance. She listened for a moment.
And then –with a rush of relief and joy and disbelief- she recognized the voices. She tore into the hall, barely daring to believe her ears –
And there were Nathan and her mother, standing next to Julian. Her mother's face was flushed, and as her eyes met Ann's she burst into tears of relief. Ann threw her arms around them both; her throat was choked and she was unable to speak.
Nathan was the first to speak. "We – we thought you were dead." His voice was constricted. "We thought you'd…"
She let go of them. "I did, too… I – where – how did you get out?"
Her mother took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. "We were both thrown from our seats in the crash. When we got back to our seats you were gone – you must have been at the exit already. And then we must have just missed each other in the confusion at the door."
"But how'd you get here? How'd you find this place?"
Nathan, Julian, and her mother exchanged glances. "It's a bit complicated…" her mother began. Julian interrupted with, "Why don't we all go to my office and sit down? I can have some food sent; you're probably hungry, Sasha, Nathan."
Nathan nodded. "Thanks." Ann glanced between the three of them. It was clear they'd met before; they seemed perfectly at ease.
They all moved back to the room with the blue sign. They seated themselves, and Julian spoke into an intercom. "Could we have some extra food down here? Thanks."
He turned back to the others. "It should be here in just a moment."
Ann wanted answers. "Will someone tell me what's going on?"
Again the three exchanged sidelong glances. "Well, as Sasha said, it's sort of complicated; it goes pretty far back. You see, your mother, Nathan, and I were the original leaders of the resistance movement.
"What?" Ann was temporarily dumb-struck, but quickly recovered. "You mean… you knew about this all along? Why didn't you tell –"
"It's true, Ann," her mother broke in. "We're sorry we didn't tell you, but there just wasn't any real need to; and we didn't want you getting sucked in."
"It seems too late for that now, though," Nathan said with a small smile.
"Yes," Ann agreed instantly. She wouldn't back out now.
"But anyway," Julian continued, "as I was saying, it was the three of us. We started before you were born; about 20 years ago. Once they decided to adopt you, however, they were forced to leave the command to me for a while. We kept in touch, though."
"So when they moved the head quarters to this island," Nathan said, "we knew about it."
"But how did you know I was here?"
There was a pause. "We didn't really," her mother said. "But when we found out how near the crash had been to the island we thought – maybe there was chance one of the patrols had picked you up."
"And if they hadn't – well, we needed to tell Julian that we could resume work."
There was another pause. Julian broke it by saying, "I was glad to be able to tell them you were safe." Then, with a smile, "Your timing in coming back was perfect. If you'd returned even a day later, I'd have had to tell them you were still helping our enemies."
Just then there was a knock at the door, and a man entered, bearing a tray laden with food. Julian took it from you. "Thank you," he said, passing plates to the other three. The man left. For a few minutes all was silent except for the sound of silverware clinking. Then Ann's mother set her fork down and, looking at the others seriously, said, "So what are we planning to do now?"
Ann, too, set her cup down and listened. Julian leaned back in his chair, gazing pensively at the ceiling. After a moment he answered, "I've been thinking about that… the trouble is, we'd want to disable the weapon first, in case they felt we were enough of a threat to use it on us.
"Now, the trouble with that is the location of the weapon. Ann, while you were there, did you go into the room at the bottom of the staircase?"
"Yes… the gold and white one, with the books?"
"I believe so. Did it have another door in it?"
"Then I think that's it. Based on the information Ista and Nimue gave us, we've come to the conclusion that that's the room with the weapon."
Nathan leaned forwards with a low whistle. "The bottom room? This will be tricky…"
"Yes. You've seen the diagrams of the headquarters – you understand the difficulty."
Ann, who had never learned very much strategy, was still confused. "Why? What's the problem?"
"Well, if it's on the bottom," her mother quickly explained, "then we have that much further to go; we'll have to travel all the way down the stairs, with enemies above, below, and around us. And there will be more of them by far than of us."
Ann was silent for a moment, but couldn't see a way around this; there were always at least a few people on the stairs. "So what have you thought of so far?" she asked Julian finally.
"Not much," he admitted. "But the obvious thing to do is create a diversion. Split into two groups, and have tone try to lure as many Namayans away as possible."
Thinking back to her time with the Namayans and what she'd observed of their defenses, Ann said, "That could only account for 10 of them at most."
"Right. So we couldn't rely on that alone." He looked at the other two. "The only way I can see of getting at it is going down during one of the major shifts – that would keep many of them out of our way – and as secretly as possible."
"So a diversion, then a second group going down unnoticed?" Nathan asked, clarifying.
Her mother was already thinking ahead. "Once we're down there, we'll need to ensure we won't be interrupted. Julian, how many people have you got now?"
"Around thirty or so. I could bring in some more, though; I've got ten reserves in Kandon."
"So forty. Ten would probably be needed to create an authentic diversion, leaving us thirty again… and about the same number of doors. Once down there, we could send most of our people to guard them, and make sure no one gets on the stairway."
Julian paused for a moment, clearly thinking through the implications of this plan. "I don't see anything that could go wrong with that," he said.
"How are we going to get in?" Ann asked.
"Ista kept her key," he replied. "It should still work."
Over the next week, the three met to discuss tactics frequently, usually with Ann next to them, mainly listening but every now and then offering a comment. The ten reserves were brought in, as carefully and secretly as possible. Throughout the building there was an air of excitement; clearly these people, after waiting so long, were eager to do something at last.
But this wasn't what made Ann the most excited and happy. It was that her mother and uncle were at last – against all odds – reunited with her. She was with them almost constantly; the only times they left her side were the few classified meetings, and at night.
The others, too, were often with her. They seemed curious about their enemies; frequently Ann was asked about her time there. Ista, too, was plagued by these questions. After a few days, though, the surge of curiosity faded, to both of their relief.
At the beginning of the second week, when almost all of the preparations were ready, Ann, Nathan, and her mother were eating dinner, when Nimue came over to their table. She smiled at them, and said, "Julian just called another meeting at 7:00. He'd like you three to be there a little early."
Ann's mother swallowed her food and said, "Thanks, Nimue. It's wonderful to see you again."
"And I you two. And to see that… well, that everything seems to have worked out well."
Nathan nodded. "Yes… us too." He glanced up at the clock on the wall. "Well, we'd better go; we shouldn't keep Julian waiting."
"Oh – he'll be in the conference room this time, not his study."
"All right," he replied. "Good seeing you, Nimue."
"Ann had never been in the conference room before, but with the help of someone passing by they found it all right. It was a cavernous room, by far the longest one she'd seen in the building. A lengthy table ran down the center of it. Towards the middle of the table, Julian was sitting, poring over a sheet of paper in front of him. Folders littered the surrounding space. Hearing the door open, he looked over at them. He rose to his feet, stacked the folders into a single pile, and strode over towards where they stood. "Sorry to interrupt your dinner. I just need to go over a few things before everyone else gets here."
"That's fine," Ann's mother said. "Have you got the lists?"
"Yes," he replied, handing them the paper he'd been looking over when they'd arrived. "All subject to your approval, of course…"
She examined it carefully, Nathan and Ann reading over her shoulder. Next to Ann, Nathan inhaled sharply in surprise. "Ista? You didn't tell me Nimue had managed to persuade her!"
Ann's mother, too, was looking up at Julian in surprise. "How did she manage it?"
"She was just as persistent and persuasive as possible… eventually Ista caved in and joined us."
"What happened?" Ann asked curiously.
"Nimue joined us in the very beginning," Nathan said. "She was one of the first members. Her sister, though –"
"Ista and Nimue are sisters? I never knew that."
"Yes. As I was saying, Ista was still siding with the Talistar. When we lift, Nimue was trying to persuade her to come." He looked up at Julian. "When did she switch sides?"
"Several years later," he said. "She didn't tell anyone, though, so she was able to get inside their base."
There was a pause as they looked at the list again. It was divided into three categories: diversion, guard, and dismantle. There were twenty or so names listed under guard, while diversion and dismantle only had around ten each. Ann's own name was listed among the dismantlers, along with the rest of her family, Julian, Ista, Nimue, and a man she didn't know named Karth.
"It seems all right to me…." Her mother said slowly. "Who is Karth?"
"Our best lock-breaker. We'll need his help to get through to the weapon; the door will probably be locked."
"I think this should work, too," Nathan said. "Is that all you needed to discuss?"
"No… however, I'm afraid you'll have to leave us for this next conversation, Andromeda. Would you mind stepping outside?"
Ann nodded and left, closing the door behind her.
At least, she reflected as she stood in the hallway outside, now that Nathan and her mother were here, she knew that she had chosen the right side. And so it didn't really matter that she couldn't be told a few things. But it didn't stop her from being curious. She thought once more about the folder she'd seen, the one with the many prophecies. What was Julian doing with it? Looking for one that would help him decide what to do? But it seemed highly unlikely that there would be a prophecy about this… usually, they referred to great global changes, not just small wars…
Though, she amended, if the Namayans win, that would definitely be a great change.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a noise from the room she had just left. Apparently the three inside had moved nearer to the exit, for now Ann could just barely hear the sound of their voices through the closed door. For a moment she was torn – this clearly wasn't something she was supposed to hear, but curiosity was burning painfully inside her. She struggled with herself for a moment more, then moved closer to the door, listening intently.
Just barely audible, Ann could hear her mother's voice.
"– of course we don't want to believe it, Julian, but we have to consider the possibility. If she has already played her role –"
"If she has, then we're lost. But we have to keep going, on th4e chance that she'll help us still."
"I'm just saying that we need to have a back-up plan, to be prepared for that. We should hope that it's not too late, of course, but we can't rely on it."
There was a small pause before Julian spoke again. "Yes, you're right, of course. It's just – if it is too late…"
Now Nathan's voice joined the conversation. "Even if it is, maybe all isn't completely lost. It doesn't say it'll be forever – we can keep the resistance going eand eventually overthrow them."
Ann heard Julian sigh. "Yes… but let's hope that she can still help us.
"The others should be arriving soon for the final briefing. Is there anything else we need to discuss before they get here?"
The other two murmured something in reply, clearly negative.
"All right, then. Let's go get Andromeda."
Ann hastily moved away from the door and arranged her face into what she hoped was a casually innocent expression. Second s later, the door swung open and Nathan, Julian, and her mother appeared framed in the doorway.
"Thanks for waiting, Ann," her mother said. "We're all done, you can come back in now."
Ann followed her in, her conscience squirming slightly at her mother's thanks. They all took seats near the center of the table.
"The rest of the group should be arriving in just a couple of minutes," Julian told her. The three of them talked quietly among themselves while they waited, but Ann had no inclination to join in. She was still busy going over what she had over-heard.
A role to play… she ran the words through her mind again. If the "she" they had referred to had indeed been he – and Ann was certain that it was – then they, for some reason, were sure she would have a role in deciding the outcome. But why? Why would she have more of a role than anyone else? If anyone would be important, it would be the leaders of the battle… but no, they were certain it was her.
And Nathan, what was it he'd said? "It doesn't say it'll be forever". What did that mean? It? What was it?
She felt so close to the answer… it seemed like she had all of the tools there, allw of the pieces of the puzzle, and all she needed to do was put them together… but she couldn't for the life of her figure out how.
The door swung open once more, and she looked up to see man coming through into the room, closely followed by several others. He nodded in greeting to those already there, and took a seat.
Soon the room was full; every seat at the table was taken, and the room was filled with the buzzing of excited murmuring. Ever face Ann could see looked either apprehensive or curious.
As soon as the last person had sat down, Julian cleared his throat. The room fell silent almost immediately.
"As you know," he began, "we're about to begin our attack on the Namayans. We've finalized the date: it will be the day after tomorrow.
"Now, if you'll direct your attention over here," he said, rising to his feet and crossing over to the wall behind him. Upon it was a large blueprint of what Ann recognized as the Namayan headquarters. Each door leading off the main staircase was numbered, and most had asterisks next to them. Julian continued. "This is a map of their headquarters. The room with the weapon –" he pointed at the bottom of the map "–is right here. According to the plan we've devised, a group of ten will cause a diversion a little ways away from their headquarters. Then, the rest of us will enter their base, hopefully undetected, at least at first. A group of seven will go down to the bottom room, while everyone else will guard the doors." He turned again to the map. "As you can see, many of the doors are marked with asterisk. These are the ones that we'll be guarding. Those in charge of the doors, your task is simply to ensure at all costs that no one enters the staircase. Try to avoid using your guns if possible – we don't want to alert all of them to our presence – but you may shoot if necessary.
"Are there any questions?"
There was silence. Af few people shook their heads.
"Good. Now, I'm going to read the list of who's in which group. I'll leave the paper here afterwards, in case anyone needs to see it.
"The diversion: Cassandra Dorac, Fenor Malto, Liam Tor…"
Ann allowed her attention to wander somewhat as he read steadily through the list: after all, there were nearly forty people. Once he had finished, he said, "If anyone has any objections to where they were placed, please see me after the meeting. Diversion group, there will be a meeting tomorrow at 11:00 to discuss the finer points of your task; Guard, yours will be at 3:00. I think that's it for this meeting. Thank you, everyone."
He once again resumed his seat and started dropping his folders back into a large binder. The scraping of chairs being pushed back filled the room, and in twos and threes the others left. A few people made their way up the table to where the four of them sat. As Nathan and her mother prepared to leave, Ann, waiting for them, could hear what the others were saying to Julian. A taller man – Ann wasn't sure what nationality – was saying, rather quietly, "Sir… several of us have been wondering –" He shot a sidelong glance at her. "What will be her role? I mean – she hasn't already fulfilled –?"
He fell abruptly silent at the look on Julian's face.
"We can talk about this later, Hariah," Julian said, very quietly, but with unmistakable finality.
"Come on, Ann, let's go," her mother said. Somewhat reluctantly, she followed the two of them out.
As they hurried back through the corridors, Ann still thinking about whatever it was that Julian didn't want her to hear, the others began to talk about the preparations needed for the day after tomorrow. After a moment or two, Nathan turned towards Ann. His expression was serious. "You're still sure you want to do this?" he asked.
"I'm sure," she responded.
"And you're not nervous?"
"No." Well, perhaps that wasn't quite true. Ann had been thinking about the upcoming attack a lot recently, and not without some apprehension. "…actually, maybe a little. But not much."
Her mother looked at her anxiously. "We'll make sure nothing happens to you, Ann," she said. "You'll be with us the whole time – we'll keep you safe."
But however nervous Ann was, it was far outweighed by her desire to see the Namayans' weapon destroyed – and her curiosity about the mysteries of both places.
Further reflections along this line led her back to Julian's office, and the collection of prophecies. Before, when she'd thought about it, she'd tried to reason tings out herself. Now, though, a thought struck her. Perhaps Nathan and her mother would know something about it?
When the conversation lulled, she quickly interposed her question. "The day you came," she mentioned, "when I was in Julian's office – I noticed a folder of his. It was filled with records of prophecies." She looked up at them. "Why is he so interested in prophecies? Do either of you know? There were so many of them…"
For the briefest of moments Ann thought she saw them half-glance at each other; but the next second they were both looking at Ann, and she decided she'd imagined it.
Her mother shrugged. "I don't know… prophecies? I don't remember him ever mentioning them."
"He's probably looking for something that will help him," Nathan said thoughtfully. "A prophecy relating to the battle."
It sounded plausible; and Ann probably would have accepted it without question, if she hadn't known the other two so well. While they were clearly trying to act nonchalant, Ann could detect the emotion concealed deep in their familiar features. Something she had said had struck a nerve, and she could read something close to panic in her mother's face.
She didn't press the matter, thought, and let the subject drop when her mother quickly changed it.