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Chapter Nineteen

Winding Down

Kain's apartment was crowded and cluttered. The single ceiling lamp in the living room was dim and Kain refused to open the curtains. Considering that his apartment was on the second floor and the inside was readily viewable from the street, that was a sensible precaution. He and his guests did not wish to be seen together.

"How much longer do you think we'll have to wait for them?" asked Rudo.

Kain looked around at the assembled group of Rolf, Rudo, and Cass. The large hunter had taken a seat in a well worn armchair Kain had bought at a yard sale, and Rolf and Cass draped themselves over the smaller of Kain's two sofas. His already small living room was even further cramped by the amount of electrical equipment he had to set up. He would have held the meeting in the room he fondly called his workshop, except that there was no place to sit and no place to move in any chairs.

"Hugh called about an hour ago and said they were leaving," replied Kain. "I know the telepipe drops people off on the other side of town, but unless Lore is still in critical condition it shouldn't take them that long."

"When you called yesterday I could hardly believer the three of you had actually gone there," murmured Cass. She played with the straw of the drink Kain had offered her. "For a while I wasn't sure you'd return, especially since Lore didn't know how long you'd take. I'm glad I worried for nothing."

"Have you looked through the data yet?" asked Rolf, directing his attention at Kain.

The wrecker shook his head. "Not really. I skimmed over some of it to make sure it actually transferred, but that's about it. If it hadn't that would have been it. Mother Brain's data is truly history now. The bits and pieces we have here and those she wasn't able to delete on Mota are all we have."

Kain looked longingly at his portable, which was now connected via a thick black cable to a monitor well over a meter wide. "It's a shame to think that all that was left to her could fit on a single portable computer. We have lost so much."

"Much of it was never ours to begin with," said a thin voice.

The four in the living room turned to see the doorway to Kain's apartment was open. He had left it unlocked. Hugh helped Lore step through the doorway and the historian leaned heavily on him as though the words she had spoke proved too great an effort for her. She additionally supported herself with the use of a single crutch. After she took a few steps into the living room Amy appeared in the doorway.

Kain shrugged. "It is ours now," he said in reply to Lore. "We have to use what we can. We don't know another life."

Lore eased into to an empty space on the sofa. "We once did and we will again whether we want to or not." She shook her head wearily and again spoke in her weak, hoarse voice. "But that is food for political debate against the Council. I've spoken enough now for a person in my condition. Amy will chide me if I speak much more."

The red-haired doctor nodded in firm agreement as she shut Kain's door behind her. "Lore came to me with three fractured ribs and a punctured lung. I did what I could, which is amazing enough, but she's not to be active for a few more days. She's also very lucky that no other organs were damaged."

Amy turned her gaze to Hugh as she came forward. The biologist had his right arm in a sling. "As for him," she said, "he strained his arm muscles so badly I had to restrain them."

"At least it's not the arm I need for writing," Hugh said quietly, though there was no meekness in his voice. He turned to Kain. "Amy insisted on coming, that's why we're late. I couldn't talk her out of it."

Kain nodded. "Ah. I had wondered. But we're all here now. Shall we get started?"

"Please do," said Rolf.

"Then gather 'round everyone. My computer's been sifting through files since we got back last night. It ought to have some information ready for use now."

Indeed it did. Most of the files were incomprehensible, having been written in another language entirely, but the computer began to filter those out, throwing up numbers to screen to display the percentage of data gone through. Others files were composed of programming forms Kain could only begin to understand. He reluctantly asked the computer to filter out those as well. Much to group's dismay, the filtered files accounted for the bulk of the downloaded information.

For a moment silence filled the air. Then Cass murmured, "It's full of junk."

"Obviously Earthmen did not type in Palman," said Rudo.

"The codes though..." Amy cast a hopeful glance at Kain. "Won't they be useful?"

Kain fumed. "With time, yes. Right now I can only barely get the gist of the few files I've seen. It would appear that the Earthmen taught us some of the programming language to keep us from being completely helpless when using their equipment. but at the same time they're hidden a lot as well." Kain tapped a portion of the screen with his fingertip. It currently displayed one of the less complicated sets of coding, one that Kain felt he might eventually understand. "I've never seen that library function before, but as you can see, it shows up an awful lot. It's something Mother Brain had and used. With time and a lot of people helping me I bet I can crack all this, but the way it look right now isn't encouraging."

Lore shifted position, placing her crutch in front of her as she used it to lean forward. "But you said that you had looked at some of these files beforehand. Obviously they are not all like this if you still saw fit to hold this meeting."

Kain nodded. "You're right. They're not. Look." Kain tapped a command into his computer and a new display window opened. It was a word processing file, and it was written in Palman. The words were simple and the syntax awkwardly structured, but there was no mistaking the runic script of the Palman language.

"It looks like a child wrote it," said Kain, echoing his friends' thoughts, "but I say it was an Earthmen learning Palman for the first time. The file is dated in two time sets. One is August 5 AW845, the other was in a dating system called A.D."

"A.D.?" murmured Lore. She shook her head, indicating the term was unfamiliar to her.

"I didn't read all of it, but the document goes on to describe the building of Noah. And the AW date places it right around the time Mother Brain showed up."

"So this was written just when they discovered Algo," said Amy.

Kain nodded again. "Apparently. From the complex sentences the writer is trying to express it would appear that an adult typed this, and likely early on in their stay. I can't see any reason this file would've been kept here if not for historical value."

"What does it say?" asked Cass.

"Well, it seems to be a child's primer of sorts, though certainly not written by a child, as you can tell if you try reading it. It's too strict and condescending for that. The text speaks of a great man named Noah, who built a boat to save his people from destruction at the hands of a massive flood. Those on the boat were the only ones in their whole world to survive. In honor of Noah's accomplishment and in light of their own dying planet, the Earthmen named their ship Noah, because like Noah's boat their ship would hold the only survivors of their race.

"The document speaks of Noah as though he lived in ancient days. I'd wager they regarded him much in the way we regarded Alis. I also find it surprising, even ironic, that they have chosen to write his name in the same way as the Noah who fought alongside her."

Kain paused a moment to let his friends digest that information. Then he continued.

"There are more files of this sort; cryptic bits of information here and there that reveal some aspect of Earthman culture. They probably felt it easier to learn a new language by studying topics close to home. There is also what I believe to be a Palman to Earthman dictionary among the files I've found. There are plenty of documents here in the native Earthman language, and if we could manage translating them they may shed some light on how Mother Brain and the other systems worked. I imagine they would have kept a copy of the system documentation within Mother Brain herself if at all possible."

Rolf inclined his head after another pause. "You're probably right. Hopefully that information is among the files you downloaded."

"But if you're going to go through all that, you're going to need help," said Cass in her quiet voice. "Where are you going to get that? We can't tell the Council about this, and they're the only ones with the resources."

Kain folded his arms across his chest, looking around the room then at the floor. "I've given it some thought. Truthfully, I think we're going to have to tell someone some time. Not any time soon of course, but Cass is right that I'm going to need help. I have soon ideas right now, but I won't say them just in case I happen to be wrong. If there's useful information in there," --he gestured at his computer-- "then we have no right to keep it to ourselves." Kain grimaced. "Of course the Council has no right to keep it either. They'd all want to plug it into Daughter."

"Are you right to keep it from them though?" asked Amy. She glanced at each person in the room. "I'm sure none of us want a Mother Brain part two, but we cannot see the future, and perhaps Daughter could be beneficial."

"There is no way to know," Rudo agreed, "so the only fair way to decide anything is to hear the voice of the people. The question is: If the people pressure, will the Council listen? The Council has been very closed to the changes in people's attitudes. They rule as though they had simply taken Mother Brain's place, but that is not the case."

"There is something else as well," said Cass. A note of remembered urgency sounded in her voice. "Not about the Council's ignorance, but about you three." She looked at Hugh, Kain, and Lore. "You see, though I've forged some documents to show that each of you had been to the library at various intervals during your absence in case the Council needed proof of your being around, they have been suspicious about why none of you had shown up at the Command Center during the ten days you've been gone. I admit the absence is not unusual for Lore, or even for Hugh of late, but Kain had been there almost every day. I think they suspect you three to have been the ones to steal the ship, especially since Hugh had been distraught over loosing command."

Lore shook her head. "But why would they think we'd steal the ship? It's foolhardy, dangerous, and for the most part we've been agreeing with their plans."

Cass shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly. "I don't know. But I get the impression that they do. And you did do it."

"But we are on Motavia, and the ship is not. If we stole the ship we wouldn't be here," Hugh stated simply.

Rolf raised an eyebrow. "The ship isn't?"

Kain coughed. "We... um... lost it over Dezo. Noah shot us down. We had to return in a shuttle the space pirate Tyler was kind enough to give us. That shuttle is currently being hidden on Uzo Island. We found a mountain cave large enough to store it and I stayed to camouflage the size of the opening with some of the wide palm branches we saw there while Hugh and Lore went to Amy."

"Hm, I had wondered where you were planning to land."

"Things would have been stickier if we had returned in the actual ship we had taken," said Lore. "If the Council ever found it they could have real reason to suspect us, especially if we ever release the information we have. It actually was a stroke of luck Noah shot us down and Tyler was able to give us a new ship. The model is the same as all the worldships' shuttles, so there is no rational reason to believe we were the ones who landed it."

"However, there is the possibility we were detected on our way in, but I believe it was slight," added Kain. "I wanted to have a wide window in between our surveillance satellites, but at the same time Lore needed medical attention as soon as possible. The result was something of a compromise." He then spoke more confidently. "But I believe that even if they tracked us upon our entrance to Motavian space, once we entered the inner atmosphere they would have lost us. Our satellites can't penetrate the rock of Uzo's mountains, and in any case the shuttle should have been too small for them to follow."

"In order words," said Hugh, "we're likely safe from any prosecution."

Kain nodded. "Precisely."

* * * * *

Amy came up beside Hugh as he leaned against the wall outside Kain's apartment building. The others were still inside, either debating or waiting to leave at staggered intervals to avoid suspicion. She looked at him but he did not change his gaze from where he looked off in the distance. She turned her head down and away, then leaned against the wall beside him.

"You're different," she said. "You haven't said much since your return, but your movements, your actions--they speak of resolve and change." She glanced towards him and away again when he did not move. "I no longer see a broken child, uncertain of life, but a man forged in fire, who has learned to deal with the pain."

"The pain is never gone," Hugh said softly, lowering his eyes. "I no longer expect it to be. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I still feel the echoes of their hearts. Everything you said about me earlier was right. Now I can only hope to live my life with both eyes open and a mind ready to understand."

Amy murmured softly: "Noah--a man who saved the Earthmen in ancient days. Noah--an esper who saved the Palmans in ancient days. And Noah--the ship on which lives were gambled and lost." She pushed herself away from the wall and turned towards him. "But in one case, a life was returned."

Hugh closed his eyes, opened them again, and turned to her. "Yes, I think it was." He looked out into the distance again. "Those words you said, they remind me of something Lore would say."

Amy shook her head slowly. "I may not be a historian, but..." She drifted off, leaving the rest of her words unsaid.

"The Council's Noah mission leaves in two weeks," said Hugh, still gazing at the far away thing only he could see. "Good luck."

"Thanks." Amy followed his look and beheld a pair of distant treetops. "I'll see you later then."

"I'll count on it."

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