THE WRONG LANCE
@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The sound bellowed across the camp, echoing in the garden, rattling the steam pipes inside their confining metal belts, intruding, even, into the din and thunder of Rafin’s forge.
The kompani leapt to their feet as one, hearts pounding, breath caught. Not one among them had ever heard that alarm, yet all knew it for what it was.
Droi had been sitting beside her hearth, having just finished her first cup of tea. Kezzi, who had been sharing her tent in accordance with the luthia’s wisdom, had just gotten to her feet, and Malda with her. Kezzi was to go up into the City Above, and the gadje school, while the dog stayed with Droi and Maysl, her child within.
She froze, looking down at Droi, dark eyes wide.
“The ship!” she said.
“No,” Droi said, forcibly calm, and as if the distinction made the moment less significant. “Only news of the ship.”
She put the mug on the hearth stone, and struggled to get her feet fairly under her. Her belly defeated this effort, as had become its habit. Droi sighed, and held up her hands.
“Help me rise,” she said moderately, though it was hard for her to ask for aid.
Kezzi obeyed with alacrity, and in addition made certain to stand so that a steadying shoulder was within reach, should Droi’s feet be momentarily foolish.
In this moment, she was steady enough, though her blood remained chilled by the klaxon’s blare. It was quiet now, having destroyed the kompani’s peace, and already there were those of her brothers and sisters moving past her hearth on the way to the common fire.
To hear news of the ship.
“I’ll be late for school,” Kezzi said, keeping pace as Droi turned her face, as well, toward the gather-place.
School had become important to Kezzi, as had her brother in the City Above. It had come to Droi just lately, as she dozed and dreamed by her hearth, communing with Maysl–it had come to her that the kompani had developed many ties with the gadje here, on this world. There was Kezzi and her brother; Silain the luthia with the Lady and the Professor; Udari, Memit, Syaera, and Isart with the madman at the end of the road; Rys and his Brother Undertree, not to mention his mad oath to the Headwoman there. . .
Indeed, thought Droi, it had come to her a few nights ago that the common thread running through all these now-woven relationships–was Rys. Rys, who was himself an outsider, until he had stood before the fire and bound himself, soul and heart, to the kompani, accepting the Bedel as his brothers and sisters. Rys had also bound himself in brotherhood to Val Con yos’Phelium, Headman of the People of the Tree; Kezzi’s brother Syl Vor was of that folk, as were Lady Kareen and Professor Waitley.
The madman, Farmer Yulie Shaper, might as well be undertree, as near as his holding stood, and it had been Rys’ brother the headman who had brought news of the work to Memit, who had brought it to Silain the luthia, who had dreamed upon it. . .
. . .and now there were four gone from the kompani to the far end of the Port Road, to help Yulie Shaper take in his crops.
“Droi?” Kezzi said again. “I’ll be late for school. Syl Vor will worry, if I don’t send a message.”
The brother, yes. Yes, he would worry, being, by everything Droi had heard, a tender boy, who would, she made no doubt, grow into a man of heart.
“We must to the fire,” Droi said. “Your brother’s mother is a luthia, is she not?”
“So. She will advise him. This thing–is of the kompani. . .”
She shivered suddenly, black showing ragged at the edge of her vision.
“This,” she said, feeling the burn in her blood, “will alter the fate of the kompani. We must all of us be present, to witness.”
Her foot caught on an uneven stone, and she staggered. Kezzi thrust a shoulder beneath her questing hand, and, so steadied, they went on, in silence.
After all, Droi thought, Kezzi was Silain the luthia’s ‘prentice. She knew a foretelling when she heard one.
The common fire was lit, the Bedel grouped in a half-circle facing it. A hand rose in the air, which was Luma, Maysl’s hearth-mother, beckoning them.
They joined her, Kezzi and Luma helping Droi to the blanket, before sitting, one to a side, and Malda curled on Kezzi’s lap. They gave their attention to the fire, before which stood Alosha the headman, Silain the luthia, and Pulka, who listened along the byways of the stars.
The Bedel, so say the Bedel of themselves, speak with many voices, as heedless of their song as the birds. Yet, it was not so, this day. Those assembled sat quiet, tension roiling above their silence.
Up before the gather-fire, she saw Silain the luthia make a small gesture, and the air lightened somewhat. Droi drew an easier breath, sighed it out, and put her hand on her belly.
Maysl, she said inside her head, attend this well.
She felt her daughter’s attention sharpen, even as Alosha the headman took one step forward, and raised his hands.
“All of you heard the klaxon,” Alosha said. “We have received a message from the ship. Pulka will explain the nature of that message, and what is required of the kompani.”
He stepped back to Silain’s side; Pulka took one step forward.
He looked, Droi thought, tired, and very nearly grim. Pulka was not, by nature, a happy man, nor was he a stern one. A placid man, who liked his comforts; who could, occasionally, be nagged into brilliance. Very little in life was sharp enough to cut Pulka. The ship’s message though, which he would have been the first to read, had burned a tiny scar on his heart. Looking with luthia’s eyes, Droi could see it, still hot and hurtful.
“Sisters and brothers,” Pulka said; “we have this morning received a message from the ship. It is not a direct message, meant for this kompani alone, but an automated dispatch, which has been wide-cast to several kompanis such as ours, which have missed their pick-up date by a certain number of years.”
He paused, in anticipation, Droi knew, of the flood of questions which would normally engulf him at this point.
There was silence; not one voice was raised, no single one of the kompani rose to their feet to speak.
Pulka cleared his throat; glancing at Alosha the headman, who gave him a grave nod, and turned again to face those waiting, silent, and finished what he had to say.
“The ship requires an answer. If we fail to answer, it will assume that we have not heard; that we are, in fact, Lost, and the logs will reflect this as our kompani’s fate. The ship will not query again.”
Another pause, but the exclamations of horror, of outrage did not arise.
“A proper answer to the ship requires codes which I have dreamed. When that answer is returned, the ship will flag it for the captain, who will review it; and who will eventually send pick-up instructions and an estimated time of the ship’s arrival.”
At long last, one of the kompani raised herself to her feet, Jin, the luthia’s good right hand.
“How long,” she asked, “will it be, after a message is sent, for the ship to arrive here for us?”
Pulka showed empty palms.
“That, we cannot know. Such information will doubtless be given us, when the captain responds to our ack.”
“Thank you, brother.”
Jin sat down. Pulka waited for more questions.
Droi, sitting beside Kezzi and Luma, had many questions, though none that she would willingly shout out before all the kompani. She. . .the ship was so late, she had thought it would never come; that it had forgotten them. And yet, here was news; the ship had not forgotten; it remembered. And that–that altered everything.
From the far edge of the circle rose a tall, powerful figure–Rafin.
“Why did the ship not come,” he asked, “at the appointed time?”
Again, Pulka showed empty hands.
“That, too, we will doubtless be told, later. This automatic sending; it only seeks acknowledgment; it does not give reasons.”
“We are certain, then, that this is from the ship. Our ship?” Rafin pursued, which was, Droi thought, a good question, and one which had not been among the dozen others clamoring inside her head.
“I have confirmed that it is from the ship. It is on the correct band; it utilizes the correct codes; it matches all the necessary protocols. If you want to do so, come to me, and I will show you the message itself.”
“I will do that, brother,” said Rafin, and sat down again.
Pulka looked ’round.
“If any others are interested, come to me and I will show you the protocols, the bands, the codes, the match-ups. I have, also, the original dream from the communications technician who was set down with the kompani, if any wish to dream it.”
There was a small murmur ’round the circle at that, and here came another of the kompani to his feet. Apparently, thought Droi, her brothers and sisters were beginning to waken from their shock.
“How long,” asked that brother, and Pulka blinked.
“I–” he began.
“No, I’ll ask it proper,” said the brother. “How long do we have to dream on this? Before the ship needs its answer?”
And that, thought Droi, was the most interesting question at all. In story, in dreams, every kompani is eager to be taken up again into the bosom of the ship. It would seem that her brothers and sisters had not embraced these stories with all their hearts.
Alosha the headman stepped forward; Pulka dropped back one step, to stand next to the luthia.
“The ship needs its reply at once,” said Alosha. “There are technical reasons for this that Pulka is also able to explain. But, there is no call for a decision on this matter. The decision was made when this kompani was formed. We guaranteed to return to the ship with those things we had learned, and those things which we had found. That the ship is late makes no difference to our guarantee.”
He paused and looked around the circle, his gaze seeming to rest on each one of them in turn.
“We have heard the ship,” said Alosha the headman; “and we will answer the ship. We are here; we are ready for pick-up.”
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