Ginber 28, 000165
Darnell's sigh made Hardi duck her head to hide a tired smile.
"Listen, darling," he said, rubbing his hands briskly over his bald head, "just explain to me why they can't train us."
"They don't have to justify it," Hardi said slowly, letting a bit of condescension slip in. "It's their planet."
Darnell narrowed his eyes at her tone, but he kept his voice calm as he asked, "Is it purely monetary? Do we need to pay our way?"
Hardi stretched her back in the conference room chair. They'd been at it for almost two hours, and she needed to go to the bathroom. "It's partly money," she admitted. "You know this is a poor planet, Mr. Mariatu." Darnell nodded.
"But as I said," she continued, "they also just don't want an influx of off-worlders. Look what happened when you came along—now they're dependent on foreign water." The guard Ma Posh had posted to keep an eye on Hardi smiled a little.
Darnell closed his eyes briefly. "I've already apologized for that, Ms. Rhodes," he said tiredly.
"And yet, here we are, getting pretty damned thirsty." Hardi held her hands out in an expansive shrug, tamping down on her temper.
The "receiving building" that the conference room was in was made of the same adobe-like brick as the other permanent buildings in the village, but the interior walls were stained a bright yellow. Hardi and Robert's rooms were in the same building, and Hardi had a low-grade headache from the constant yellow.
"We can't just run around with this clairvoyance untamed," Darnell insisted... again. "We can't keep our jobs like this."
Hardi sighed. If she'd been feeling twice her age a couple of days ago, today she was three times it. "We're just going around and around. Let's take a break and get some rest. We aren't going to solve anything right now." He'd sworn that they weren't going to suddenly go on the "vacation" they had threatened.
"Actually," Darnell said as Hardi's hand moved toward the comm, "I don't think we're going to solve anything over a comm. I want to meet in person."
Hardi hesitated, then said slowly, "I'll... talk it over with the folks here."
"Hardi!" hissed Robert through the doorway. He crooked a finger hurriedly. "Get off the line." The guard waved him into silence.
Darnell suddenly looked much less tired and much more curious. "Anything I should know about, Ms. Rhodes?"
"Nothing," she said, glancing up at Robert, who made throat-slashing signs. "I'll call later about the meeting," she said distractedly, and before Darnell could protest again, she ended the call.
"The Feds are looking for us," Robert said as she stood and came around the table. "Ma Posh is moving us underground."
"Are they here?" Hardi glanced around as she headed toward their rooms. The guard followed silently, not objecting.
Robert redirected her toward the side entrance to the building. "They're flying by at the moment, but she thinks they'll visit. We're going to her basement."
Hardi swore. "My call probably tipped them off. They can't help but pick that up."
Robert stopped at the exterior door and said, "Even if we don't see or hear the Feds, be cool as we walk."
Hardi nodded. "No sunglasses this time?" she joked weakly. Going back to the capital would do worse than stop their progress. She would be brought up on charges, since they thought she was contaminated by the bioagent.
The smile Robert managed was only slightly strained. "I knew you liked them. Unfortunately," he said with a dramatic sigh, "the natives don't wear sunglasses."
He opened the exterior door slowly, letting in the oppressive heat but allowing them listen for aircraft. When all was quiet, they strolled casually across the center quad, staying on succulent-lined paths. They headed for the smallest, most understated building in the village: Ma Posh's home and office. The guard took up a position beside the door, but didn't follow them in.
Robert had just gotten the door closed behind him when they heard the whoosh of a Fed aircraft. Hardi blinked to hurry the adjustment of her eyes. Ma Posh's office was cool and dark, with dim blue bulb lights in the corners that gave the earthen-walled room a purple tint.
Robert's hand on her back made Hardi jump, and he whispered, "To the back and down the stairs."
"We probably don't need to whisper," Hardi whispered back, maneuvering around the plush chairs and couches in the little front room. "Have you been here before?" she asked.
"A couple of times," he said with a one-shouldered shrug.
She glanced at him, but didn't press and took the shallow stairs carefully. Tripping and rolling down the stairs would probably set off Robert's paranoia. The stairs were smoothed earth and silent all the way down to the first subfloor, which was as small as the room above ground. The walls here were decorated with rich drapes that soaked up the light provided by more little blue lights. A large square table—a couple of meters per side—dominated the room, and the blue lights sat in a circle on the table.
"Down one more," Robert said softly.
"This is creepy," Hardi whispered, but she kept moving until she got to the next room, a library. She breathed out slowly at the sight of walls covered floor to ceiling with books. Paper books. "These can't all be about clairvoyance," she mused.
"They are not," said Ma Posh, head tilting out from behind a shelf. Hardi blinked at the peek-a-boo act. "This one is," she said as she waved the book in her hand, "but not many of these are, except indirectly."
Hardi stepped into the room fully, staring up at the shelves. "Are some of these about your god, Sekhmet?" she asked. Robert moved around her and plopped into one of the chairs filling the center of the room.
Ma Posh tsked at Hardi. "I won't talk religion with you until you are fully under my care, off-worlder. Are the attackers gone yet?"
She asked that every time she saw Hardi. "No, they're still there," Hardi replied.
"You know," Ma Posh said predictably, "you aren't being very useful."
"Darnell Mariatu wants to meet in person," Hardi said. "He thinks we'll get more ground covered that way."
"Absolutely not," Ma Posh said with a quick shake of her head. "I don't believe I'll let you out of our sight just yet," she mused.
"He might be willing to come here," Hardi added.
Ma Posh ducked back into the corner as she said, "No, I don't think he'll be coming here, either. You're a computer person—deal with him over the comms."
Hardi browsed the shelves without responding, picked up a book titled, "Sink Deeply Into Life," and put it right back. She sank into a chair near Robert's instead, and leaned back with closed eyes.
She woke to see Robert's face very, very close. She gasped, which he mirrored exaggeratedly before he put a finger over her lips and said, "Shh. They're upstairs."
Hardi listened, and heard a man's voice say, "Normally one of your elders lives in these little houses. Where is she?" Hardi couldn't hear the reply, but she spotted Ma Posh in the corner of the library, calmly reading.
Hardi pushed herself up, wincing as her spine straightened out from being curled in the soft seat. "How many?" she breathed very quietly to Robert.
He held up four fingers. Hardi's eyes widened.
"You wouldn't have one of these buildings if you didn't have someone to live in it," the man upstairs insisted. Again, Hardi couldn't hear the Ungian's reply, but after a moment, the Fed said, "If there's no one living here, the fugitives could be hiding out. Let us take a look around, please."
Hardi held her breath as the voice got closer. "Hugh and Platt, take this floor," the man said. "Len..."
Ma Posh was silently beckoning Hardi and Robert toward a corner of the room, where a bookshelf was tilted open like a door. Hardi slipped through behind Robert into a dark, cramped closet as Ma Posh closed the door. Ma Posh produced a blue bulb from her pocket and turned it on with a tap.
"This is just a library," came an Ungian's muffled voice.
"Someone's been here recently," remarked the Fed.
"It's an open library," bluffed the Ungian. "We come here to learn and relax, especially children in school."
Hardi held her breath as a different voice right in front of the bookshelf said, "Nothing in this corner, Mark. I think we're clear."
"Yeah, let's go," Mark said. "We've got other places to search." Further away, Hardi heard him say, "Hugh, Platt, we're clear down here." He was moving up the stairs. "Let's go."
Hardi breathed out slowly, rolling her shoulders to relax them. They waited a few more minutes in silence before Ma Posh opened the bookshelf door again.
"Well," Ma Posh said cheerfully. "That was exhilarating." She and Robert shared grins.
Hardi just settled back into her vacated chair. After a moment, she asked, "If Mariatu comes alone, unarmed, what's the harm?"
Ma Posh eyed Hardi. "The harm is that proximity can set off uncontrolled visions," she said. "A... feedback loop, I think you would call it. I can't afford for you to be rendered useless. Even more useless," she added.
"I wish I'd known that before setting off across the desert after Mariatu," Hardi muttered, closing her eyes. "Why aren't I having visions around you?"
"I have control," Ma Posh said primly.
"So... having all those people on that ship is making it worse for them?" Robert asked.
"It is making it worse for all of us," she said. "We are best served by widely-spread seers—Witches." She made a little sound of frustration. "What types of people have you seen through the eyes of?" she asked Hardi.
"Dying ones," Hardi said shortly, eyes still closed.
"There was the one sad woman," Robert reminded her. "The woman with the dead brother, was it?"
"Oh, yeah. Her." Hardi frowned a little at the memory. "I think we could say something in her died during the vision."
"Not one pleasant sight, then?" Ma Posh asked in surprise. "No one that saw you back?"
Hardi repressed a shudder. "Mariatu saw me when I saw him the second time. Everyone else was pretty busy at the times I peeked in."
"Hmm. Well, all of those people you saw were seers, or potential seers," Ma Posh said matter-of-factly.
"Ahh..." Robert said softly.
Hardi sat up. "But... all of them?" She looked hard at Robert. "Don't pretend that clears anything up for you," she said to him.
He winked at her. "I took a look at your Dr. Ettler's notes on clairvoyance and telepathy. Everything's very inconclusive, which adds credence to my theory all along that this is a big crock of shit. I wonder if that tidbit might tie some things together, though."
"Jon mentioned that researchers who looked into this stuff ended up disappearing..." Hardi looked at Ma Posh. "You know anything about that?"
Ma Posh shrugged innocently. "Ask your Mr. Mariatu."
"I will," Hardi said. She huffed a little laugh. "All of them were seers."
"Potential seers," Ma Posh emphasized.
"So, wait," Robert said with a growing grin. "If Hardi's been a potential seer, doesn't that mean that some of you could have been spying on her?"
"Yes," said Ma Posh, watching Hardi. "We could have been seeing her. Someone quite possibly did."
Hardi was mulling that one over when an Ungian teen came running down the stairs and panted, "They're gone, Ma Posh."
"Oh, good," she said, standing slowly. "Was anyone bothered or hurt?"
"No," he said, "everyone's fine, and they even left water."
Robert stretched and smoothed down his brown and yellow plaid shirt. "Excellent. I'm running out of clean shirts, but now I can do some laundry."
Ma Posh gave him a look. He subsided with a tired shrug.
With a grunt, Hardi levered herself out of the seat and headed for the stairs. "I'll go make myself 'useful,' then."
Robert dropped his book into a chair carelessly and trailed along behind her.
"Um." The boy hesitated. "They did leave some bad news."
Hardi kept thudding up the stairs. "What?" she asked grumpily.
His voice was quiet as he said, "Jutte village and Hamberg succumbed to the bioagent last night."