The streets of Solanti were silent and dark. The moons had not yet risen, and we could not risk a light until we were out of the city center. Ryonel seemed to know where he was going though, for which I was glad. Although I had semi-memorized the Marchempor’s map, I couldn’t tell where I was in the pitch black.
Every now and then Ryonel would pause and reach back to take my arm briefly as though he were afraid I’d get lost or something would happen to me. I suppose knowing only helpless children his whole life had over-developed his protection instinct. But it wasn’t offensive or annoying, and in the darkness he couldn’t see me smile at his gesture.
“Someday, if we come back here, and have the time, I’ve got to show you some of the ancient halls,” he said in a low voice.
We paused at the bottom of an enormous stone staircase that led up to a towering building I recognized from the map. There must have been three times as many steps as I had climbed in my race to beat Bartroles back to my room earlier in the day. My legs ached just looking at the impressive climb. The building itself was reminiscent of old drawings of the tower of Babel.
“The people call these buildings “temples”,” Ryonel said softly, “and they say they were used for worship of the gods. But I think they are energy-gathering devices. You can’t see it in the dark, but at the very top there are antennas with mercury-filled balls at each pinnacle. And the columns inside the building have steel cores and are placed at intervals like the inside of a capacitor.”
“That’s wild,” I said, trying to see through the dark. “Where would the energy be directed?”
“Well, there was the sky rail. And probably other types of machinery and conveyances.” Ryonel began to walk again.
“And maybe weapons of mass destruction,” I added, remembering my own planet.
“We’re almost there,” Ryonel whispered, and then laughed, “No need to whisper anymore, I guess.”
“Does anyone live out here?” I asked, looking at the large buildings on both sides of the cobblestone street. Grass and vines had grown up wherever they could, dressing the city in an abandoned apocalyptic aspect.
“No.” Ryonel said. “There just aren’t that many still living. Look at this. . .”
The city street seemed to dead-end into a miniature jungle with a stone street wrapping around it.
“Must have been a park,” Ryonel guessed. “There are some amazing statues in there. . . but, it’s too dark to really appreciate them right now. This is the Archive Building.”
He took my arm again and I let him turn me around to face a lovely old building that I would never have guessed to be the Archives. It just. . . well, in comparison to many of the other buildings, the Archive Hall was quite small. It looked like a very old stone church you might have found in Europe somewhere.
Ryonel took his ball-lantern out and shook it. It’s light illuminated the inscription above the doors which read, “Seek Wisdom and Find Understanding.”
The doors beneath the inscription were stone as well and rotated like the ones at Coral Castle. Ryonel continued to hold onto my arm, and pushed one heavy door open, leading me after himself.
“Have you ever been in here before?” I whispered as we walked into the pitch black interior.
“Yes,” Ryonel whispered back. “With my mother. She loved to read. We came here often. This is the library. . .”
I was startled when lights began to glow, brighter and brighter until the great room was fully lit. Ryonel chuckled low in his throat at my surprise, and I turned to see a rope in his hand. When he pulled it, he moved a series of light globes which were hung at various intervals across the high and ornately carved ceiling. They, being shaken, lit the room.
The room was a breathtaking work of wonder. It was the sort of place one might easily describe as “holy” because of the amount of creativity and beauty that surrounded us. There were statues in animated motion set upon a backdrop of detailed carvings of life in many different settings. The vaulted ceilings were painted with scenes that would have taken days to fully absorb.
Within the room were walls within walls - like library shelves. In elaborately carved niches on the walls were tiny holographic spheres. The labels, or titles must have been inscribed on the “shelves” but had long since worn away. Along the perimeter of the room lay the jumbled ruins of ancient furniture, no doubt places to sit and read.
“How does it work?” I asked Ryonel. He picked up a hologram and placed it on a tiny stone dais at the end of one wall. It was about the size of a large marble, and transparent. Once it was mounted, he tapped it twice with his index finger. Suddenly, above and around the hologram appeared text and images of what appeared to be a cookbook.
I laughed in wonder as Ryonel used just the motion of his hand to “turn” pages and scan rapidly through the data. He turned and grinned at me through his mask, and I caught a sudden overflow of memory from him being here with his mother at a young age. There were so many happy memories here. Then my eyes refocused and I saw Ryonel was looking back at me with a question in his expression.
“What?” I asked.
“Watch out for all the wisdom on the floor,” he said. I looked down and saw that there were many holograms on the floor, left there by careless hands throughout the centuries.
“I used to collect them and keep them to read,” he said. “Then when I got older I started putting them back. Someday, if people remember the value of knowledge — someday they’ll be glad to find this place.”
“It’s incredible. And the building is so lovely. A masterpiece of art.”
“Do you remember where the Archive Crown is?” Ryonel asked.
I turned around slowly, looking with my eyes and my memory at the same time, trying to see the ink-stained finger pointing at the brochure. Then I began to walk to the left of the library room. There was a doorway, through which another chain-rope lit the way, illuminating another room of holograms and statues of the Ancients.
“Look up,” Ryonel whispered in my ear. The ceiling was painted with a fantastic depiction of the Ancients fighting the monsters of the dark wood with lightning-emanating weapons, sailing the ocean in great ships, and standing on levitating craft that flew through the sky.
“It’s through here. . .” I said and turned around again, slowly. There, at the far side of the room was another wall of holograms.
“Those are histories,” Ryonel said. “I haven’t read them yet.”
I approached the wall and looked right and left. There was no doorway where it should be. If there was a secret room on the other side, I didn’t know how to find it.
“There should be a door here to another room,” I told Ryonel. “Do you see any way through this wall?”
He began to tap and search the wall, looking between shelves, and moving old furniture in his quest. I reached out and took down a hologram and put it on the nearest stone dais and tapped it twice. “1- 210 years of our Freedom” the title read. I put it back without flipping through the data. What, exactly, was I looking for?
I stepped back and looked right where the door should be. Faint inscriptions, titles of the histories on the shelves, could still be seen here.
“390 to 7–3 years of our Progr_—” one read. “—12 to 1–29 yea— of —Dominion,” another was inscribed. A third caught my eye, up on the highest shelf.
“1783 — 18— years of our Rising —,” it read. I gasped in surprise. It was the year Bartroles had said beneath The Bell. This year. He must have been wrong about the date. These were histories of Nedan.
I reached up and took the hologram down. To my surprise, it was several times larger than any of the others, about the size of a golf ball. I felt a surge of excitement and put it on the tiny pedestal, tapping it twice. The hologram appeared. I passed my hand over to “turn” the pages. Nothing. It was blank. 1783 — had not been written. Why was it even there?
With a frown I lifted the hologram and felt momentarily tempted to throw it on the floor. It was worthless, wasn’t it?
“I can’t find a door,” Ryonel said from where he knelt on the floor, looking for cracks beneath the wall.
I tiptoed and put the large hologram back on it’s shelf. No sooner was it back on it’s own little pedestal when a portion of the wall itself began to move inward.
“By the —!” Ryonel exclaimed and leaped to his feet. “What did you do?”
I pointed at the hologram. “I don’t know. I just put it back,” I said, when the door ceased to move, partially open.
Using a lower shelf to pull himself up, Ryonel examined the hologram and it’s pedestal.
“It’s a tiny trigger,” he told me and laughed, “Oh, the weight of knowledge!”
The door was “rusty” with years of dust. But Ryon and I were able to move it manually the rest of the way. At last, we stepped through and into a room no one had been inside of for centuries.
It was only about twenty four feet across, and perfectly round. The ceiling arched into a pinnacle overhead, and around the walls were statues of human beings, all standing facing the center of the round room. There was nothing similar about one statue to another. In fact, if I had to guess I would say they were carved to depict the diversity of humanity. There were old and young, men, women, and children, soldiers and scholars, beggars and kings, side by side by side, all looking intently toward the center of the room. Their expressions were earnest, but joyful.
And there, at the center, beneath the domed ceiling, was a great stone table and chair. On the table, displayed on a simple T-shaped stand, hung the Archive Crown. It was shaped like a capped crown, and in the center of the cap, a small globe was held suspended by cupped silver hands. The silver was tarnished with age, but I could imagine it’s original shine and beauty.
I sat down on the chair, feeling the cold stone through the fabric of my pants. How long had it been since anyone had sat there? Who had been the last person to wear the crown? I lifted it slowly, turned it around in my hands, and then lowered it down onto my head.
“Anything?” Ryonel asked, as I glanced up at him. I looked up at the domed ceiling and around at the statues, searching for some sort of direction. How was it supposed to work?
“No…” I shook my head.
A blinding flash of color and sound overwhelmed my senses. It was like being hit with a tidal wave.
I saw the history of Nedan, but it was jumbled and out of order. I saw gardeners and hunters, sailors and midwives doing their jobs, but I did not understand their work. I saw inventions of weapons and machinery, and saw the things they could do, but did not understand how they were made, nor could I grasp the context in which they would be used. I heard voices making speeches and quoting poetry. Others were teaching mathematics and science. Most amazing of all was the music swirling and crashing around me in an overwhelming cacophony of sound. It felt like a seizure more than anything else. I couldn’t contain it. It was too much. The flashing of images and sounds came faster and faster and then swirled into a painful clamor for organization and space.
The crown was pulled off of my head by Ryonel, and before I could see, I felt his hands on either side of my head, holding it gently.
“I shouldn’t have let you do that. I should have tried it first. I’m sorry, Lani. I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
I realized my blurred vision was tears. I sat in the stone chair, tears streaming down my face; not in grief, but from the enormous burden of knowledge.
“The human mind wasn’t made for that,” I said, and my tongue felt swollen and clumsy. “At least not all at once. There must be some way to control it.”
“We’ll work on that later,” Ryonel said emphatically, standing up. He held our masks in one hand and the Archive Crown in the other. “Can you stand? Or walk?” He asked. “It’s getting close to morning now.”
The moons of Nedan were shining brightly as we made our way back to the heart of Solanti. Ryonel asked many questions about what I had seen, and made an effort to illicit a response from me. I could tell he was worried, and I tried to assure him I was okay. But I felt like my brain had been melted and I needed time for it to congeal again.
We stopped under my building, in the Hall of the Gods. The Lady of Life and her twins looked down at us, smiling. The bearded warrior, Courage, wrestling the giant lizard, grimaced with a perfectly poetic expression of effort, hope, and pain. I tried to memorize their faces, mostly to check on my own brain function.
“Are you going to be able to do this?” Ryonel asked, looking at me anxiously. “Maybe I could hide you somewhere for a day, and give you time to recover. . .”
“I’m okay,” I said for the tenth time, and looked him straight in the eyes so he could see I was focusing on him. “Really, I’m okay — see? It was a lot to process, that’s all.”
He hesitated, and then nodded. “All right. Well, it’s time. If we’re going to do this now. . . you’ve got to go right up and get the kids and meet us at the Starport.”
“Are you going to get Leon now?”
“Yeah. I’m going to get him and meet you there.” He spoke slowly as though I were a child.
“Okay. I’m ready. I’ll be there.”
“You’re okay.” Ryonel said, as though to himself.
As the Vaer door closed and I stood in the dark silence of early morning, I found myself already missing Ryonel. I tried to think why. Was it the thin expectation of not ever meeting another potential life-mate in the universe? What if there were a lot of other guys the right age around - would I prefer Ryonel? I was pretty sure I would. Not because I was desperate to be with someone, quite the contrary, I didn’t feel ready for that yet.
No, it was just Ryonel, the semi-crazy hermit, all alone on that Starport, trying to rebuild the wall, trying to put together a spacecraft, trying to save anyone who was willing to be saved, hoping against hope there was more out there than the death he had been born into. . . I liked that guy. That one guy. And I was glad he was going with us into the unknown future.
I remembered his hands supporting my wobbling head after the Archive Crown experience, I remembered him carrying Naero at a run through the Dark Woods, and then ripping off his own mask to put on Naero when the bell rang. I remembered his honest delight to discover Madia had taught the children how to read and his quick offer to take them all with us, to feed them the food he had gathered and stored. Yeah. Ryonel was the man.
The Vaer passed floor after floor and stopped at 43. I was mentally running through the steps of what I needed to do when the door opened and I looked up, startled. Standing there, holding a ball lantern in his left hand and the vajra in his right, was Marchempor Bartroles, flanked by two of his twelve-fifty year old soldiers. His face was twisted with a rage that had been building into a fury.
“I suspected you were unfaithful!” He hissed, spit flying from his mouth. “Leon is not your brother. He will be found and executed as soon as the sun rises and you - you will watch.”
“Then I will never marry you,” I said coldly, not even trying to come up with an alternative story.
“It does not matter,” he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It is already recorded that Marchempor Bartroles Seventes of the Greater Alomine was married to Eleanor Ascent of Earth on this day. What you say does not matter. What is recorded in the Archives is what matters.”
“You can’t even read—much less write,” I said scornfully. Who recorded it? Six year old Danteres?”
“And you have subverted my son,” the Marchempor added dramatically. “For this, you shall be offered to the gods. They will be pleased to receive a Marchempress as a sacrifice.”
Beyond Bartroles and his child-guards I saw the pale face of Madia watching from the distant stairwell. She looked terrified, and at a loss.
“Go!” I cried, but looked at Bartroles, so he would think I was refusing him. “It is time to go now! I cannot go with you! Leave me!”
Madia understood and vanished from sight.
Bartroles’ henchmen grabbed me by either arm and hung on like my arms were vines. I lunged to one side and slammed one of them against the wall. He let go, and I used my free arm to punch the boy on the other arm. But before I could fully free myself, I was clobbered over the head with something heavy and fell into darkness.
A rhythmic knocking of something metal against my skull brought me back to consciousness. I was being carried by the arms, with my feet dragging behind, by the two soldier boys. With every step my head collided with a sword hilt one of the soldiers was wearing around his waist. They grunted and groaned with effort, as they were both smaller and slighter than me. I could hear Bartroles walking ahead of us, his vajra tapping the stones with every step.
I tried to stay limp, give my brain time to recover and think through the situation. In spite of my best efforts I cringed when my shoulder was wrenched painfully backward as one of my captors changed his hold for a better grip.
“She’s awake,” he said worriedly.
“Give me the pharmicea,” The Marchempor directed. “And hold her head back.”
Immediately I began to fight and discovered too late that my ankles had been tied. I fell flat on my face. The two boys turned me over, sat on my arms, and Bartroles attempted to pour a wineskin of nasty smelling brew down my throat. I spit and spewed and fought like mad. I like to believe most of it ended up in the Marchempor’s face, but the truth is that nearly half of it must have made it down my throat. I immediately felt dizzy, light-headed and incapable of standing on my own two feet.
The boys continued to carry-drag me to the edge of the city toward the field of calla lilies. It was during this journey, while under the influence of Bartroles’ evil brew, that I had a flash-back from the Archive Crown.
I had seen the silver vajra being made. The inner ceramic core was wrapped with copper wire, first one direction, and then another. The inside was built like a capacitor, and the end was a super-conductor. The fine silver case was carefully crafted for beauty. Then, I saw a demonstration. A young man took off his shoes, grounded his bare feet in the dirt and held the scepter toward the sky. A stream of electricity appeared at the end, cracking and popping.
Then, my sadly abused brain remembered the mural on the ceiling of the Archives and the depiction of ancient warriors fighting wild beasts with lightening rods. The Marchempor’s vajra was a weapon. And not just a head-cracking weapon.
I wasn’t capable of much thought, but I could hold one self-directive in my mind at a time. I told myself to take off my boots, and began to surreptitiously work at the heels, trying to push them down and off of my feet without alerting my captors. I moaned and struggled feebly with my arms and upper body and this unwitting action kept the motion of my feet from being under scrutiny.
But the boots did not come off. My heels came free and the boots slid down, but I forgot why I wanted them off anyway. I didn’t want to lose my boots. Did I? I moaned, lamenting the confusion I felt. Where was Madia? Had Leon hurt his head?
We reached the field of lilies and the soldier boys dropped me with a sigh of relief.
What was it I was going to do? I couldn’t remember. Something about lilies and the bell making the pollen come up and everybody coughing and dying. No, that wasn’t it. What was it I was supposed to remember? Something about lightening and killing lizards. No, that wasn’t quite right either.
Bartroles was standing over me, talking. Monologuing about his greatness and power. The end of his vajra was near my face.
That was it. Something about that vajra. No, my boots. Yeah. My boots and the vajra. One last kick and the boots came off with the rope that had tied my ankles together. I struggled to my knees and rolled my head, trying desperately to clear it. What was I going to do?
The dirt against the palms of my hands was comforting. It reminded me of Earth and home. I dug my toes and fingers in deep and savored the feeling. Maybe Nedan was Earth’s sister. Maybe she would adopt me and let me be her child now that my own mother was dead. Nedan felt a lot like home. But where was Leon? He needed a home too.
“She might be able to get away,” one of the soldier boys commented, watching me crawl in the dirt.
“Leave us!” Bartroles ordered the boys and I saw them turn and run away with familiar fear.
Run! I thought. You should have run before now. It’s almost too late.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bartroles lift his vajra to strike me on the head again. And in a flash, my physical reflexes made up for my lack of brain. I rolled over on my back, caught the butt end of the vajra and took it away from him.
The Marchempor of Alomine staggered back, wide-eyed and afraid. If he had made any attempt to knock me over, he certainly could have. But he backed away, and I staggered to my feet, watching the lily field tilt and whirl all around me.
There was a faint tickling in my bare feet; a buzzing sensation that reminded me of something. The mural. The lightening rod weapon. I was holding it. I held it up to the sky like the man in the mural had done. To my reeling, aching mind, the lightening cracking and popping from the tip of the scepter made perfect sense. It was supposed to do that.
“Just think,” I said in a thickly slurred voice, “how pleased the gods will be— to be given the last Marchempor of Alomine. . .”
Then I staggered, lost my balance and fell forward. Lightening struck nearby as my body hit the ground. My fall sounded loud in my ears, like thunder. The dirt felt and smelled so good, I curled up and went to sleep. The last thing I remember was the smell. The burning odor of smoke. Then the bell began to toll.
“Lani. . .”
Will I ever wake up on my own without someone harassing me into opening my eyes?
“Lani, Lani. . .”
I just wanted to sleep. Didn’t people get that? Just for once. Until I had slept all I could sleep and was completely rested. Then, I would let the elevator door open and kick the Marchempor right between his faded, dark eyes before he hit me on the head again. I ducked, avoiding the vajra as it fell toward my head, and the sharp pain of that motion brought me fully to my senses.
“Hey,” a voice said softly; a voice I knew as well as my own. It was Leon. He looked happy, if a little worried. “You got hit pretty hard,” he said. “You probably have a concussion.”
“The children!” I started to sit up. The pain in my head made me lay back down again.
“They’re fine. They all made it. Plus some of the older kids who were friends of Madia. All told we’ve got nearly fifty people onboard in the cargo hold.”
“We’re on The Aero?” I asked, looking around in confusion. “Why don’t I remember coming onboard? What happened?
Leon was kneeling on the cabin deck of the Aero, next to the crew bench where I lay. A dried stream of blood stuck to the side of my right cheekbone. I fingered it, trying to remember. . .
“He hit me with that thing,” I said slowly.
“We found you in the calla field. Near a statue of Bartroles, dressed in his own robes. It looked. . . it looked so real, but not well done like the other statues. It looked kind of rotten or burned. . . He must have knocked you out and offered you to an idol of himself. Weirdest thing I ever saw.” My brother scratched his prickly jaw in an attitude of wonder.
“The calla field was burning,” he went on, “but —thank God— the breeze was blowing away from you. I set the ship down in the field and we ran out to get you. Ryonel was the one who carried you on board.”
Leon paused, and looked at me intently, adding, “Speaking of which, you better talk to him before he has a nervous breakdown.”
“Ryonel? Why, is he okay?” I asked, trying to sit up again.
“Oh - ho!” Leon said with a broad grin. “You have it too.”
“Shut up.” I said, but smiled through my grimace.
Leon laughed. “Wait a sec, I’ll get him. He’s learning to pilot his own ship.”
As he stood up to leave, I captured Leon’s hand and he squeezed mine in return. “We’re going to be okay, Sis,” he said, looking down at me. “I wouldn’t have believed it a few days ago. But I think we’re gonna make it after all.”
After Leon had gone I noticed the Archive Crown rocking gently with the motion of The Aero on the floor next to me. I held it up to look at it in the bright lighting of the cabin. For the first time I saw an inscription engraved in small letters. I blinked to clear eyes cloudy with a headache and read aloud,
“We, the Elders, do joyfully bequeath The Gift of Knowledge to the Children of Nedan.”
The Gift. The gift for which the bell was rung. The forgotten or withheld, unvalued or misused gift to the now-dying children of Nedan. Truth had been replaced with worship of their fears and superstitions. The familiarity of that circumstance was so painful, I gasped. The inhabitants of Nedan had been down the same fatal path the children of Earth had taken.
I put the crown back on the floor and closed my eyes. The children of Nedan. The crown was made for children. For those whose minds were not made up. Without a doubt, I knew that the Elders had not meant for The Gift to be locked away for a privileged few.
It was eery, the way history repeated itself. Like a song, like a refrain sung by different voices, but the same words again, and again, as if no one dared make any changes. I felt new to these circumstances—as new as a baby. But the circumstances were not new.
I felt a hand smoothing my hair back and opened my eyes to see Ryonel looking at me with his intense, half-crazy, all-caring gaze.
“You’ve figured it out,” I said as a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. His brows puckered in concern and he bent over me as though to shield me from danger, or possibly, incoherence.
“Don’t worry, Lani,” he said, “I’ll keep you safe. We’re almost there, and then you can rest and eat, and we’ll—“
“We’ll start over,” I finished.