Scot Noel is a Pennsylvania writer who
has been published in L. Ron Hubbard's
Writers of the Future anthology and in Tomorrow as well as numerous small press
magazines. He has also written novellas, interaction text, and rule books
for DreamForge Intertainment Inc., a computer game developer.
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder.
If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments,
please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All materials copyright 1996-2001 by their respective
creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be
posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
by Scot Noel
A time neared, a day when the temple would fill with voices, with high tones and low, and with chimes that Michelle knew to be words. The Day of the Joining approached, when those who gathered would sing prayers in an alien tongue. By the thousands they would come, warriors and the wizened old alike, civil officials trimmed in gold, commoners in gray, and prelates in robes of white. They would fill the temple like a flood.
These things Michelle White had come to anticipate, for her name was a curse to many. To others, it remained something more, a possibility of sorts. For those reasons, on the world of Guillarin, in the quiet evenings of her soul, Michelle found no place to rest. Here, in that world's most ancient city, her sleep brought little more than restless dreams.
On this morning, rising early to set about her work, it occurred to Michelle that nothing in the temple recognized her fears. Nothing in the vaulting darkness above acknowledged the urgency of her foreboding. And of the energy of the thousands milling in the streets and markets of the city, a city as old as Jerusalem, not a sound, not a shout, not the turn of a cartwheel upon stone seeped within the dark solitude of the temple. The millennia old frescoes about her stood resolute within their fortress walls.
Here all was calm, and from the floor to the barrel vaulted heights, nothing in the temple acknowledged the coming event. Nevertheless, on the Day of the Joining, the entire Guillarin world would press within to see her handiwork. The gateways and the windows would open, and along with a flood of sunlight they would come, Guillarin from all over their world, arriving to see the newly restored frescoes of Alecord.
About the temple, a dozen gateways, great doors of wood and iron, stood fast against the city. Today, as they had for centuries, these doors stood closed and barred, and through them the weightiest noise in the streets became no more than the rush of a distant sea.
With quiet intensity, Michelle supervised the realigning of the equipment. Her legs ached as she moved from sensor to sensor, kneeling to adjust each unit and wishing for more help, especially for humans familiar with the gear. So far the enthusiasm of her alien crew had not made up for their lack of training.
"You," she said to a Guillarin, "shutter that window." Michelle pointed to a slit in the stonework, high above the doors, where a ray of light was falling across one of the receiver arrays. Off went the Guillarin, and, to Michelle's relief, she found she had but one last dial to adjust before setting her little army of automatons in motion. On a scaffolding twenty meters above the floor, employing rays of invisible light and driven by silent, electronic brains, the robotic, photogrammetric survey of the last third of the temple began.
So far only test areas of the frescoes had been cleaned, first with distilled, deionized water, then with one or more applications of the bicarbonates of sodium and ammonium,-- according to the time-honored human formula. Applicators filled with the AB-57c and controlled by microprocessors allowed a known layer of debris to be removed. Even in alien hands the results were effective, if shocking.
Having known what to expect, Michelle only smiled.
"'It was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment,'" she said, quoting a contemporary of the Guillarin artist whose final work graced the surrounding walls. "Now", she continued to herself, "we're seeing it again, as it was meant to be seen." That in itself should have encouraged more support from the native crews, especially on Guillarin where art and religion, art and politics, art and philosophy wove so completely, one reality into the next, that no separate words existed to distinguish them. And here before all rose the greatest and most influential of masterworks, its secrets awaiting the careful efforts at restoration now under way, a restoration some Guillarin saw as revelation and others considered blasphemy.
The tension slowed progress. The controversy caught at the heart of Guillarin good will, and day-by-day Michelle counted fewer natives where more should have been hired to meet the schedule. Where was her foreman today, her native liaison? Where was Cowain?
This morning Michelle had five Guillarin technicians on the survey and a computer equipped with automatic rovers and eighty billion megabytes of memory learning every crack, sag, and hollow in the surface of the plaster. Already they had found more than a single layer in the frescoes and evidence of more hands at work than those of the great prophet and painter, Lucresa.
Michelle's patron was pleased with the results. But whether that should soothe her or be the worst of her concerns, Michelle remained uncertain. In the city, she had heard, the squares and fountains came alive each day with dissenting voices, with the cries of Rejan mullahs and the offended sensibilities of the Atoni priests. It was too much to think about, and the nervousness that came so easily with lack of sleep only worsened the situation. Michelle tried to focus.
"With ultraviolet light," she said to the Guillarin behind her, "we can identify touch-ups, even understand more about whatever conservation efforts were made in the last thousand years. The written records are spotty." As she clambered down the scaffolding, the alien jumped past her before she reached the final meter. At five foot seven, Ulecker stood three inches taller than Michelle, a graceful, young native she had come to rely on almost as much as Cowain. Together they headed for a single table in the emptiness. It was a plane of polished stone, and upon it rested several dozen books and manuals, papers spilling out onto the floor, a gaming board of Guillarin design, and --more important to Michelle than the rest-- a canister of fresh coffee.
"I heard you quoting the Journal of Alecord earlier, Miss White," said the Guillarin. "Have you read the other translations I gave you as well?"
"Bits and pieces," Michelle admitted, somewhat distracted as she watched her robots crawl like careful spiders across the walls. "This Lucresa of yours was no celebrity. The Atoni convicted him of heresy in his youth, but the Rejan mullah who saved him from execution practically enslaved him."
"Oh, yes," said Ulecker. "No, great work often comes from suffering. Sometimes of the body, sometimes of the soul. For some it is the risk of--"
"Has anyone called from Retiga?" Michelle asked, interrupting as she poured herself a cup of coffee. "From the spaceport or the embassy? To repair the digital processor."
"Any deliveries? Parts for the spectrometer?"
"Held up at Retiga, customs due."
Michelle rubbed at her eyes, sore from lack of sleep. How, she asked herself, was she supposed to operate without supplies or support? Even if her patron was pleased, she could only do so much with the rest of the population conspiring against her. She said as much aloud.
"I could go to Retiga," Ulecker offered. "I know a scholar there, the one who provided the translations for you. She might help, and. . . I've never seen a human ship."
More than the others, Michelle knew, Ulecker had fallen in love with human culture, perhaps with Michelle herself. He was eager to please, and Michelle hoped for a straight answer when she asked, "I haven't seen Cowain today. Did he send a message?"
"No, I'm afraid not, Miss White."
"Doesn't he know how much is at stake here? We won't be ready for the ceremonies if he doesn't show up to work," she finished. Brushing a wisp of brown hair from her eyes, Michelle held her cup out to accept a refill of coffee proffered by Ulecker. Her stomach burned with anxiety. "Where is he?"
She tried to read the Ulecker's expression. Twenty-six years of academic and restoration work, of wandering from Eledar to Carrafee, from the dense jungles of Tula to the ribbed-glass worlds of the orbital cities should have prepared her to read any expression; so she believed. Yet when the Guillarin smiled, they did so with lips of fired glass, each movement and breath obscured by a flesh fine as porcelain, as revealing as stone.
To Michelle their expressions came like a message sculpted for another age. And yet however alien the Guillarin proved as a species, they were beautiful and enigmatic a thousand times beyond it. Michelle watched an eyebrow raise, watched that line like gold painted round a china cup curve upward on Ulecker's brow while he sipped coffee from a plastic mug.
"Your move," said Ulecker. His voice held a certain artistry, a music of clicks and chimes which he employed while managing somehow to keep his English beyond reproach. The Guillarin salted his coffee and stopped, waiting, so it seemed to Michelle, for her to turn her attention to the game board. And if he had heard her question, he gave not the slightest hint of it.
"Ulecker, I am not accepting silence as an answer," she said bluntly. Looking down to the board, Michelle fingered one of the pieces, a marbled pillar that worked as the equivalent of a king in chess, and realizing she had committed herself, moved it back across the gilded hexagons.
"You must never retreat in turkame," said Ulecker. "Now I will cut you off in three rounds."
"Never retreat," Michelle repeated. She sighed, wondering whether Ulecker could detect her fears, her hesitancy. "That being the case, then tell me, where is Cowain?"
Outside the temple of Alecord, a low, sloping pyramid of stairs led down into a city of the same name. The sun was at midday and so brilliant Michelle imagined its rays passing through her, effortlessly penetrating the crowds that drifted through the markets like noisy ghosts, rushing through the many guards before the temple, rays unchecked by all but the temple's immensely thick walls. It was hot. Sweat began to trickle down her back as she approached the streets. Here before her, in their masses, the Guillarin lost some of their charm, baked as they were in the grit of the desert and of the bricks and of what dust passing animals and carts kicked up as they moved through the unpaved streets.
Never before had Michelle been so alone.
Beyond a handful of flat-roofed houses, through a triumphal arch, she spied a satellite dish. Similar receivers waited on many buildings, signs of a technical culture as distinct from the old city as the bright bottles of flavored water in the local shops seemed set apart from the earthenware watering pots now falling out of favor and out of use. More technically advanced places awaited the traveler on Guillarin, cities where steel and light and imported motor vehicles reigned. But the temple of Alecord rose in its barrel vaulted majesty nowhere else. It was here, and to this spot Michelle had been drawn, three hundred miles from the spaceport of Retiga and the nearest human contact.
Today, as she left the temple, two of the guards escorted her down the stairs and into the crowd. Shouts surrounded them at first, oaths in an alien tongue, but the guards pushed back those who came too close. Then, after pulling up her hood, Michelle found it easy to mix with the rush and to disappear into the traffic.
Even following Ulecker's instructions, it took more than a single inquiry and over five hours of searching, of Michelle's wandering the back streets of Alecord, gold in hand, to find an answer. Cowain had been her source of labor and supplies. He was the native administrator who knew English and Italian and more than two of his own world's tongues, who had studied at Scialoja on Earth and without whom Michelle had little chance of completing her task. The tavern toward which her contacts steered her was a place of many corners and of dark, low voices. Here the patrons hid from the sun while the dust settled from their clothes, and the local drinks, Ulecker had warned her, were toxic to humans.
"You resigned?" Michelle asked, standing at last over Cowain's table. "How could you do that to me?"
He sat alone. Before him rested a tankard of ale, half drained, and beside that what looked like leaves in dried butter. Traditional Guillarin fare. It reminded Michelle of how long it had been since she last enjoyed a decent, human meal.
"The ceremony will be here in less than a month. So many of our workers have quit because of the protests, and how am I supposed to find more qualified Guillarin on my own?"
Cowain remained motionless on the bench, as still as the bricks and the furniture, muscles like corded glass showing through his robes.
"Michelle White," he said. "I know you now." He took a drink in silence and did not openly object when Michelle took the seat opposite his. Alone together, they sat isolated in the darkness of the booth. His words chilled her. What could he know? Michelle tried to be more congenial.
"Yesterday we suspended pigment samples in a polyester resin," she said, as though they had sat down together to talk shop. "When we took cross sections and magnified them, we were able to distinguish, absolutely, between the dirt accumulated over centuries and the original paint."
Cowain remained silent. It would be, Michelle realized, like a game of turkame: move and counter move while never revealing one's true concerns, unveiling the real strategy. Never retreat. Michelle lowered her voice as if engaging in some confidence with Cowain. "It's astounding really. I've seen bristle's from the master's brush, evidence of outlines applied and abandoned, wedges in the plaster where Lucresa must have been testing the applied mix. You know he had to start over when mildew attacked his first attempts. Too much water in the intonaco."
Seeing that she had begun, unconsciously, to drum her fingers on the table, she relaxed them, allowing her right hand to fall near Cowain's own.
"It's not the colors, is it Cowain?" For generation after generation, dark hues and brooding shadows defined the frescoes of Alecord, the images of two great religions made somber by time, smoke, and dust. It was said that in the frescoes of Lucresa and nowhere else the religions "were combined into one, alloyed through impressions of grandeur part real and part based on long-held tradition." At least the Journal of Alecord put it so, and more than one other ancient tome proffered similar sentiments.
But put more truthfully, Michelle thought, many Guillarins were confusing grime with mystery. The brilliant, almost dashing colors she had revealed were unsettling to some. Cowain said nothing, and Michelle felt all of her years crashing down around her, her heart picking up the pace as it moved toward desperation.
"Be honest, Cowain. Did I offend you? X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy, gas chromotography, mass spectrometry,-- are we doing something that offends Guillarin sensibilities?" Growing impatient, she pressed on, "Did you think Lucresa did it all? That he had no assistants, that over the last two thousand years some frescoes had not been retouched, even reworked by other hands?"
Eyes with the sheen of polished blue stones widened. Cowain drew one more draught of ale through his sculpted lips and began at last to speak. "You are dangerous," he said, his eyes blazing. "I can't believe it, but you are. I tell you. . ." He swayed drunkenly in his seat. "You cannot do this thing you have been employed to do!"
"Well, that's direct." Michelle watched goose bumps form on her arms. For the first time it occurred to her that she might be in danger; her mind raced. "If you think I'm playing dumb, I'll understand. But I really don't know . . ." Then it occurred to her!
"Tribal wars," she said. "Lucresa brought the Reja and the Atoni together; the frescoes of Alecord have been symbolic of that for over two millennia. Somehow, you're afraid my work will bring back those rivalries . . ."
Michelle continued, rummaging through what she understood of the Guillarin aloud and hoping to strike a nerve. To her surprise Cowain endured it, his eyes never leaving hers. Step by step, she matched bits of alien history against what she had found in the temple, conjuring in her mind the images projected by the digital analyzer,-- what the computer had shown as the second level below the grime and the meddling of late first century artists. One picture of the Guillarin with swords raised, mounted on their beasts of war, some in chariots, others drawing catapults onto the field of battle came to the forefront of Michelle's thoughts. The theme was secondary. But something about the swords and chariots struck a familiar chord, the glint of their manufacture rushing through Michelle's thoughts alongside images from other parts of the temple, of dams, bridges, and ancient canals.
"The balance is off," she said. "Cowain, the balance between technical and mystical images is off. The restoration favors the Atoni love of implements and machines."
"Eldriq is Atoni," said Cowain, referring to Michelle's patron. With one hand, in a blinding instant, he summoned from the darkness beneath the table a jeweled knife as deadly as any Michelle had ever seen, plunging the point of it into the wood, its impact spilling food from the plate onto the table. The rest he left to hang in the air, as if the most obvious move in turkame had been made, leaving her without hope and checkmated.
By the time Michelle made it back to the temple the sun had fallen just below the horizon. A reddish glow filled the sky. She tried to ask one of the guards whether he was of the Atoni or Rejan tradition, but he would not answer her. The Guillarin stood staring, straight ahead to where the sun had vanished below the desert, the point of his lance aglow in the reddened light. She fared no better questioning the men to his left or those to his right.
Inside the temple everything was still.
Everyone had gone. Spotlights set about the interior highlighted small, circular shields of drama, of magnificent frescoes painted to achieve more than the painter's fame. She walked the length of the building, slowly considering her surroundings. According to the books Ulecker had given Michelle, it had taken more than three decades to produce what she saw.
Guillarin tradition had Lucresa painting throughout his waning years, plagued by lack of sleep and proper food. In those days a council had gathered to review the unfolding masterpiece. After the death of Lucresa's enslaver, patron after patron emerged to supply the needs of the project and encourage its completion. Some came from one tradition, some from the other, but none would allow Lucresa the genius, Lucresa the heretic, to retire from his great work.
The pattern was familiar. It proved as traditional as Lucresa's style, painting only while the plaster was wet and adding nothing after it was dry, beginning by spreading a thin layer of wet plaster over a much rougher, dry layer. He had transferred the outlines of the images to the walls by applying a paper outline to the plaster and tracing it with a stylus.
And his work had changed the Guillarin world, showing the Atoni and the Reja that they could live together, that their traditions could coexist. Or so the legend went, but more and more Michelle had become convinced the legend was wrong. Something in the translations she had read pointed to it, but it lay nestled deep within the lines, more in the absence of words than in the careful phrases laid out by the writers for the ages to come.
What was the truth? Perhaps her restoration work would reveal it, or perhaps it had been lost forever in the restless turning of the millennia, as time itself had erased, reformed, and recolored the once vibrant frescoes of Alecord.
Trying to put the mystery out of her mind, Michelle replaced it in the balance with hard work, putting in several more hours with her computers and leaving only when she could no longer read the controls. Her quarters were within easy walking distance, and two of the guards outside escorted her silently home. After her confrontation with Cowain, the rooms her patron had provided for her seemed a remarkably vulnerable place. The inn lay at the heart of Alecord, and the guards, so evident at the temple, stayed with her here only long enough to see her safely inside. Yet Michelle remained aware of the Guillarin resolve to maintain an evening calm. It was the one tradition which allowed her to enjoy a place free from assault and from protesting, angry voices. But, Michelle wondered, could she count on Cowain to observe the ancient ways?
Her supper was waiting. Though placed in richly decorated bowls, it proved all but inedible, as usual. An order of more palatable fare had been held up in Retiga for days, along with the spare parts for her spectrometer, all part of the sometimes silent, sometimes vocal protest against the work taking place in the temple. Tonight Michelle found herself forced to nibble at what looked like dried porridge but tasted far worse. Candles lit the room, giving a medieval flavor to the paintings and to the ironwork frame of her bed. She took out the translated histories of Alecord and began to read.
A quiet knock came to the door. It was Ulecker. From somewhere he had acquired a basket of terrestrial fruits and cheeses, including a small canned ham. Michelle smiled, uncertain for a moment whether to let him in, whether at this point to trust anything Guillarin. But the food!
"It is a beautiful room," said Ulecker. There came the voice of a singer drifting down to them from the triumphal arch, the singer of the midnight calm. Sighing, Michelle knew the songs would continue for hours, making it difficult for her to find sleep, but the joy of the food overtook all other miseries and brought a smile to her face and eyes.
"It must have cost you a week's salary," she said. "Come in."
"I'll have more men sent over this morning," Eldriq assured her. In the office of her patron, Michelle sat in a chair of polished red leather replete with golden armrests. She seemed lost in its vastness. Her heart sank at the opulence surrounding her, yet it was not the tapestry, nor the great clocks, nor the ornate woodwork upon which she focused but upon the richly attired guards stationed at every turn. Four stood in this room, and their weapons were not traditional Guillarin; they were Earth made automatic rifles.
"That's not it," Michelle responded. She watched Eldriq stand before a bright window, sipping coffee. "I think Cowain knows about the scandal on Tula. It's best if you avoid the publicity; I'm afraid. . . I'm afraid I should resign."
"Nonsense, no one else could complete the restoration in time. We debated this for months before your arrival. There will be no other humans allowed in the temple. You will proceed."
"The accusations," Michelle paused. Her lips refused to form the words. "I'm certain we can come to a reasonable settlement."
Though Eldriq remained quietly engaged, looking out of his window as though something on the horizon merited his attention, a new irritation began to invade his features. It was, Michelle decided, the way he worried the lace curtains between his fingers.
"I'll need enough to get off world," she continued, "with my equipment, of course, and enough to keep me--"
"Miss White!" Eldriq interrupted. "Is there no subtlety at all to your race?" He turned toward her, a svelte copy of Michelangelo's David cast in porcelain, but still one of the largest Guillarin Michelle had ever seen. "We know all about you. Ah,-- at least I do. Guillarin is not so poor that it cannot wield influence beyond its borders, cannot gain information."
He laughed gently, finishing his coffee before he continued. "Until now I didn't realize how naive. . . But you probably thought the return of your license and credentials the result of your own efforts. Come now, are forgers and liars so easily forgiven, even on human worlds?"
"I am neither a forger nor a liar, sir!" Though she raised her voice, the words came in a tremulous string, weakened all the more by her inability to look Eldriq directly in the eye.
"No, not a forger," Eldriq agreed, "but for the rest. . . You are a liar, I'm afraid. We know the forgeries sold by your old employer, Dauphin Dominae, can more correctly be attributed to a man with whom which you were in love."
"I was not convicted, and neither was John."
"Convicted of a crime, in the end no. Your essential defense became incompetence, for which you forfeited a career. All this for a man who abandoned you in the end. If you were not such a fool, I would not be so certain of my own plans."
Eldriq returned to his desk, activating a computer screen imbedded in its surface.
"Tell me, truly, on Tula you had no hopes of rehabilitating yourself, of returning to honest work, did you? How many years could be left to you,-- to make your fortune, Miss White?"
Michelle felt her cheeks redden. She wanted to cry. The balance of her strength went to a single goal, maintaining her composure. She had nothing left with which to answer. Finally she said, "I think Cowain threatened to kill me. He showed me a knife."
"My personal assistant, Creytel, will be with you from now on," Eldriq answered. He typed something into the computer, then considered the results. "I apologize for Cowain. He was necessary to appease certain Rejans on the council. But I had wanted Creytel for you from the beginning, and it should not be difficult under the circumstances to have him confirmed to the post.
"As for Cowain, I've only this moment made his life worth a certain sum to many interested professionals. A shame. Now, Miss White, you had better return to the temple."
"What, wha. . ," Michelle stuttered. She rose from the chair to take as defiant a posture as she could before Eldriq. "Accepting the fact that I do not possess Guillarin subtlety, what is it that you want of me?"
"Why nothing," Eldriq answered. "I know little of the arts and almost nothing concerning restoration." Turning in his chair, he faced the window, looking out across the mud brick expanse of the city as if he were seeing some vision of its future. "But I ask myself questions. What if Lucresa's original work extolled the virtues of progress, vividly demonstrated its advantages? Later men may have found it necessary to bury this knowledge below fresh coats of paint. To avoid conflict, riots, and tribal arguments,-- you understand."
"You don't know that to be the case," Michelle answered.
"It seems to be the case," said Eldriq. "It has seemed to be the case ever since you began your work. When your reports came and I told you how pleased I as with your results, what did you perceive by my enthusiasm? Why do you think the emotions in the city run so high?"
"Every day that I work, I uncover more and more evidence of ancient attempts to re-engineer the frescoes. The balance could be exactly the opposite when I am done."
"That would be very foolish," Eldriq said, his words falling into flat clicks with no attempt at chimes or musical intonations. It was a threat. "How were we to know such revelations awaited us," he went on as though he had heard not a single word of Michelle's that might interfere with his plan. "Why, there have been centuries when the temple was open only to the elect, when its message may have been tampered with. A shame. But once the truth is known, we will be the stronger for it. A leader will emerge to move the Guillarin forward."
"Your culture," Michelle said, "is based on respect, on tolerance between the mystical and technical traditions."
"Tell me nothing of my culture," Eldriq snapped.
"You will start a war."
"Perhaps. And what will the Rejan fight us with, their spells and dances? Knives?" Even through its returning musical expression, Michelle could hear the bitterness in Eldriq's voice. "Times have changed. Riots are controllable. Soon the Guillarin must put aside provincial nonsense and take their place among the star faring peoples. Starships and economies, you may have noticed, are not built through mutual tolerance."
Within a month, half the temple's interior had been restored to a level dating back fifteen hundred years. Carbon and candle wax, lamp oils and desert grit were stripped away in a process that removed one square centimeter of dirt at a time. Michelle had a dozen trained Guillarin working with hand held applicator-scrubbers, complementing with gentle, sentient artistry the precision of her computer driven machines.
An important visitor to the temple, one of Alecord's Council, shouted in Guillarin, pinning Michelle in one corner of the scaffolding while Ulecker and Creytel came to her rescue. Ulecker gentled the angry visitor away while Creytel stammered apologies, waving his hands through the air as if that in itself might calm the situation. It seemed to have the opposite effect.
"He says Lucresa did not work purely a fresco," Ulecker explained. "You're accused of destroying agents added to the work after the paint had dried, in particular a certain varnish."
"Who is this?" Michelle asked, brushing past.
"Mr. Asoli," explained Creytel, pacing excitedly in a circle about the three of them, "is on Alecord's ruling council and also the Director of the Institute for--"
"I get the idea," Michelle interrupted. "Tell Mr. Asoli the records of his own countrymen show the varnish he refers to went on three hundred years after Lucresa was already in his grave."
Ulecker began to translate, hurriedly, looking from Michelle to the visitor. "The formula was an animal glue," Michelle continued, "and it was used to brighten the colors. Trouble is, later on the effect reverses and. . . Oh, how can I explain this to a fanatic! Tell him he can believe whatever he wants, but he's got to leave me alone so I can finish this work!"
"But, Miss White! Oh, Mr. Asoli, so glad you don't speak English!"
Michelle stomped away, leaving the aliens to sort it out among themselves. The bald threats of Eldriq and the whispers in the streets had left her no emotional energy for diplomacy. How, in simple stages, she had placed herself in these outrageous circumstances amazed her. She found her heart beating as if each step were the last footfall of a marathon, her stomach burning like fire.
All Michelle had hoped to do in taking on the Guillarin commission was to clear her reputation, to restore the frescoes of Alecord as well and honestly as any professional could hope to do. These were goals enough to offer sleepless nights. Now, Michelle knew, more than her reputation hung in the balance. She headed for the coffee.
"You seem disturbed," Ulecker said. He came up behind her, his slender fingers kneading into the back of her shoulders. Michelle tilted her head back and sighed. "You can't stay here in the evenings, alone," Ulecker continued. "It's making you crazy."
"Did you clear things up with Mr. Asoli?" she asked.
"There's no clearing things up with some people," Ulecker replied. "Tension in the streets is increasing. People are beginning to move in waves, curious, drawing closer every day.
When the ceremony occurs the waves will crest and they will fill this place in an instant."
Michelle poured coffee for them both. "I can't do it. I can't finish this in a few weeks."
Reaching forward, Ulecker moved one of the pieces on the turkame board. "I notice you have been comparing gas chromatographs from various sections of the frescoes?"
"Isn't that what you do when you want to see how closely a chemical applied to a work mimics the effect of aging? Chemical aging. I mean to say, are you looking for forgeries?"
"I'm not certain," Michelle said honestly. "Ulecker, there are places where the frescoes have been changed over the years. Some of the intent may have been restoration. Some--"
"I would not stay here alone, Ms. White," Ulecker interrupted. The guards know someone has been trying to get past them. Perhaps many someones."
"Cowain," Michelle said. "I believe he's trying to kill me."
"Perhaps. He is Rejan, and the project has drifted into the hands of the Atoni."
"This doesn't bother you?"
Sipping at his coffee, Ulecker replied, "Why should it? I am Atoni. I enjoy things human. Coffee, wrist watches, computers. The books, I love the smell of your books. It is as if ideas themselves have a scent."
"But there's another scent in the air now," Michelle ventured. "It's the scent of a storm about to break."
"This will not do!" Eldriq shouted. His voice echoed in the shadows of the temple. Above him the lights burned at peak intensity, illuminating the frescoes from twenty meters up to their full one hundred meter reach. "Out, all of you!" he continued, repeating the command in both English and Guillarin. "Creytel, get them out of here."
At first there was silence, then from shadows and side rooms, sliding down ladders out of the scaffolding above, workers hurried to the center of the temple. They were clearly cowed by Eldriq's presence, by his guards, but they looked to Ulecker for their lead.
For his part, Ulecker looked to Michelle. He appeared confused, then Creytel stepped between them and began pushing Ulecker bodily away, toward the doors. Michelle nodded to her crew.
"It will be all right," she said. With a turn of his head, Ulecker signaled the men to follow him in retreat. Eldriq's guards held open the massive gates while Michelle's confused and mumbling crew filed out.
Standing by the stone table on which Michelle's plans and computer disks lay spread, Eldriq turned to her and began his tirade before the first of Michelle's workers had left the temple.
"Where is the legend of the Alkashani bridge," he asked, "the world's first suspension bridge? I've seen it since I was a child! Right there!" He pointed a straight white finger toward one of the upper lunettes, a flat, semicircular panel below a temple window. Today the fresco showed a small river, minus its famous bridge. Two Guillarin figures, previously unseen, strolled side by side, watching small, silvered fish leap from the stream beside them.
"The bridge was a recent addition," Michelle admitted. "It was one of the first things we cleaned away."
"And where are the troops with the arquebus in Lucresa's "Conquest of the--"
"Suspension bridges and guns did not exist on Guillarin two thousand years ago," Michelle interrupted. She tried to hold Eldriq's gaze and not to back down. "Even a child should know as much."
"Children know nothing," Eldriq insisted. "Adults know nothing; you're talking of matters over which philosophers and historians might bicker. You have taken well-known Atoni symbols out of the temple! Are you that impenetrable, that willing to face my anger?"
Michelle could see Eldriq clench and unclench his hands. The muscles of his forearms spasmed within their sleeves. "You said you know nothing of art, nothing of restoration," Michelle said. She tried not to stammer, to hold her voice steady and even. "I agree. The frescoes have many layers, first grime, then paint, then more dust and grime, then varnish, then paint. Artists have been repainting this artifact for two thousand years, all to their own designs, or," she added sarcastically, "to the designs of their patrons."
"I am the patron now. And you have completed half the work I commissioned. Less than half. Seeing this, I wish you had not begun! Do you think it was easy to bring the council into compliance with this attempt? Miss White, why do you think I've protected you from the mob, given you free reign for so long . . ." He motioned one of his guards over to the table. With a subtle twist of his fingers, Eldriq had the man unsling his automatic rifle and hold it to the ready. It was a bald threat, and it did not fail to impress Michelle.
"I am trying," Michelle assured him. Eldriq glanced to the table, then, seeing the turkame board, he reached out to first touch and then toy with the marbled king. "This piece is in a losing position. Yours?" He took the piece, enveloping it in his hand. "Let its absence remind you that a handful of days remain before the anniversary ceremonies. Whatever game you play, you cannot win."
As though an idea occurred to him, Eldriq straightened and turned suddenly away. "I will return with the full Council of Alecord," he said, "on the day before the ceremonies. They will be made aware of your failure beforehand. And When they come upon this, this desecration, it will be Eldriq who leads them in their outrage. Yes. Perhaps you are part of some plot, a human conspiracy against the religious heritage of the Guillarin. . . One way or another they will rally behind me.
"Yes, a good move!" He laughed. "An excellent recovery."
"What will happen to me?" Michelle asked.
"That, Miss White, will be up to the mob."
On her way home that night, the crowds had seemed more roused, and more hostile than ever. The low murmur of their dissatisfaction continued even as the signer of the midnight calm began his intonations.
That night Michelle awoke in a cold sweat. Once again she had been unable to contact the spaceport at Retiga, though she had tried for hours, with the Guillarin at the hotel office smiling, apologizing and never seeming to grow impatient or weary with her requests. Nevertheless, it became clear that Eldriq did not want her to leave, did not want her to successfully make contact with her own kind.
Outside, the singer of the midnight calm droned on.
In dreams just before her startled waking, images of a dozen medieval works appeared to Michelle, at times becoming one collage of jumbled colors. "The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross" and "The Payment of the Tithe" came to the forefront of her tortured thoughts. What were they trying to tell her? Closing her eyes, Michelle fought to bring the information to light.
"The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross", completed in 1494 by Vittore Carpaccio,-- she remembered it as depicting members of the Tornabuoni family, incorporating them into its holy story. Many of the rest portrayed realistic images of men, men who had names and frailties and places in their communities, creatures upon whose faces were revealed the scattered fragments of their souls.
She listened to the singer. Only a few of the Guillarin's words came clear to her through the night air, down from his station on the triumphal arch. What had Lucresa's intention been, she asked herself, back in those days when the Reja and the Atoni were at each other's throats?
How had he brought them together? By balancing the ideals of both tribes and convincing them that they could coexist? It did not seem a reasonable answer. In the darkness Michelle lay in the cold of her own sweat, unable to understand. What was the solution; what had Lucresa accomplished "such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment?"
In the morning, although afraid and after much thought in which Michelle decided first upon one course of action only to reconsider and choose another, she put her own question to Ulecker.
"How much," Michelle whispered to her Guillarin friend, "how much of a risk would you take for me?" For a moment it seemed as if the directness of the question had startled Ulecker and that he would not answer, then Michelle felt his hand against her cheek. However cool the flesh of the Guillarin appeared, the heat of Ulecker's touch felt soothing. His eyes remained an impenetrable blue upon blue, revealing nothing until he was ready to speak.
"I am ready," he said, "to bring Lucresa's work to light, to restore the life and the truth of it." He drew her to him. His hands closed reassuringly about her shoulders. "Tell us what to do."
"How much AB-57c do we have left?"
"Twenty or thirty liters."
"Bring all the applicators here to me. I'll reset them. And we'll have to watch Creytel." As evening came on, the atmosphere in the temple began to change. After months of quiet work, of painstaking progress, the crew began to bustle. Barrels of solvent were rolled into the center of the temple, after which applicators were filled from a portable spout and Michelle's crew moved up into the scaffolding, taking positions no more than a meter apart along the walls.
"No, no," Michelle said as she came up behind them. "Like this." She took an applicator, setting the cross-shaped device to high and placing it against the fresco. She made a wide sweep. It covered a three foot swath in one move. She repositioned the applicator halfway down the first swath and reversed direction. "I want everything done by morning. We'll work all night."
"Come on," Ulecker urged them. "Let's go, let's go!"
"Where'd you learn that sort of English?" Michelle asked. "From me?" She smiled.
It did not take long for Creytel to notice the increased pace. He had stopped at the table for coffee, but when he looked toward the walls his composure was lost.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, shouting up at them from the floor. "You're destroying the frescoes!" His hand shook, spilling coffee from the cup; he began to pace.
"Nonsense!" Michelle shouted back. "This is the final stage. We're done testing. It's in my contract," she lied.
"But, but I can see. . . That one, he's wiping away Lucresa's triumphal arch!"
"Lucresa painted no triumphal arch, nor dams, nor bridges, no mystics bent in prayer. There are no visions and no machines on these walls."
"The guar,-- the guards," Creytel stammered. "They'll stop you. I'll call the guards."
"You'd better get Eldriq," Michelle answered. "You know his orders were that no one disturb us."
"Yes," Ulecker added. "You'd better get Eldriq."
Dropping his cup, Creytel turned and ran from the temple, his hands flailing through the air. Behind him rang out the crystal chimes of Guillarin laughter.
"Now," Michelle said. "We need to get down there and close that door; make sure all the doors are fastened from the inside. If the guards ask why, tell them we have to keep out the desert air for a while."
Like each of the dozen gates around the temple, the one left open for the restoration team boasted two wooden doors sheathed in bands of iron. They rose to twelve feet above the floor and it required two men each to push them into place. This done, the Guillarins returned to the scaffolding and picked up their applicators.
"How are you so certain about what is and is not on these walls?" Ulecker asked Michelle.
"In the end," she answered, "your histories don't say what happened to Lucresa. No one knows. Nothing is said of him after he finished, as if a wall of silence fell over the event."
"It was done," Ulecker said, "what is there to tell after it is done?"
"I don't believe we know what was done," Michelle answered. "You've read the histories. Lucresa was treated as a slave, held in thrall by patrons from both sides. Did he really try to bring them together, or was he trying to satisfy them both to keep himself alive. Or did he do neither, and let the devil take them . . .."
"But we know--"
"We know what a dozen anonymous painters and a thousand years have done. By tomorrow we'll know the truth."
Slowly the temple brightened as the grime and somber images of a thousand years were wiped away, leaving behind bright, harmonious colors.
Michelle moved along the scaffolding behind her crew, and though the technique was working, she felt her spine chill at more than a single point. History was being destroyed, some of Lucresa's original work marred by the brutal sweeps of the applicators. Two thousand years of history was being stripped to the bone.
There was no time to record it, not a moment to spare.
Through the night her crew returned to the chemical barrels again and again, until the smell of the mixture permeated their clothing and the temple and they began to swoon with its presence heavy on the air.
"Ulecker," Michelle said. "Take half the crew, get to the top of the scaffolding. Start opening the windows."
"Right away." In taking a step, Ulecker stopped and turned. He watched as Michelle wiped a trickle of sweat from her forehead. "You know, you may yet become a master at turkame."
"How do you mean?"
"Working at night, when even Eldriq will risk no violence. But he will be at the gate in the morning. Are you ready for morning?"
At first Michelle could not remember falling asleep, only sitting with her back to the frescoes, closing her eyes; they should not have let her sleep, and still Michelle mentally thanked whoever had thrown a bit of tarpaulin over her against the chill of the desert night. Light was already filling the temple, coming through the open windows that curved like Guillarin lance points above the doors.
As she began to move, Michelle heard the crew as they continued to work, scraping at the frescoes, their voices coming from hundreds of feet away. Something stopped her from rising.
"We used to do battle in the night," someone whispered. Michelle felt the flat of a knife touch her neck. It was cold. "But however calm the night, the sun always rises. The singer is done."
"Cowain," Michelle said. She felt his arm tighten across her chest. "Cowain, wait. . ." A pounding began at the main door. An automatic weapon was fired into the air, followed by shouts, demands to be let in.
"Eldriq wants me dead," Michelle said, "more than you. Go, let him in." The blade turned, its edge harsh against Michelle's throat.
"If he wants you, let him climb to those slits above the doors," Cowain said. She felt his breathing as he came close against her, more ragged and uneasy than she had ever known in a Guillarin.
"Let him run from assassins, hide in alleys--"
"Cowain, stop!" Michelle ordered. The light increased. A noise like the hit of a battering ram came to the door, followed by a roar, the sound of many voices raised in anger. "How long. . . have you been here? Did you look?"
"You have no right, alien. You have no right."
"Look at the frescoes!" Michelle screamed. Cowain swung around before her, his weight crushing her, his hand turning the jeweled knife until its point cut the skin beneath Michelle's chin. But, as he did this, Cowain's head turned, his eyes glancing away from her until he became silhouetted in the rising light. Stillness. Then sounds Michelle did not recognize filled the darkness, words unknown, Guillarin words,-- coming from Cowain. They seemed part shock, part astonishment, oaths followed as quickly by a breath of quiet awe. The point of the knife dropped away, and Michelle took the opportunity to break free from him and rise.
From the opposite end of the scaffolding, Ulecker was running toward them.
"What do we do?" he asked. He did not seem to notice Cowain as he repeated the question, glancing back toward the door where the pounding had increased and waves of dust rose from the ancient beams. Below them the rest of the crew gathered, looking up.
"Do what they say," Michelle ordered. "Open the doors, but not that gate. Start on the opposite side! Everyone, four to a gate, open three at once and wave the people in!" This they did. And as Ulecker had predicted in the days before, the tension in the streets was at a critical mass, with all eyes fixed on the temple. The crowds moved, and up into the temple came the sound of their steps, their breaths, and their words,-- a thunderous noise.
The people rushed up the low, sloping steps of the pyramid, ignoring warning shots from Eldriq's guards. Priests and mullahs urged them on, first hundreds, then thousands of Guillarin to each pair of guards. The gates filled with the curious, shoulder to shoulder, pushing in across the floor with their eyes looking upward toward the walls and the ceiling, their voices rising and echoing in the cavernous place. Some of those entering stopped to help Michelle's crew, flinging open every gate, door, and side entrance until the temple was filled with light from both above and below.
Finally Michelle spied Eldriq and Creytel forcing their way past the others, guards making a path for them into the crowd. The Councilmen of Alecord came on behind them, their white robes standing out against the dark, gray garb of the majority. They were looking for her, Michelle believed, and she almost called out to them. But something was happening. As the floor filled with bodies, the shuffle of feet and the excitement of alien voices began to diminish. Second by second, the rush subsided; the Guillarins held their tongues.
Above them, all the conventions of the temple had been dissolved, wiped away in the work of a single night. Gone were the sharply chiseled profiles, the merchants and the moneychangers, the mystics and astrologers, no longer seen in their carefully staged scenes of professional life. Gone were the moral overtones of right and might. Gone,-- the visions of heaven, the symbols of geometry, the armies, the mysticism, science, faith, and industry of the Reja and of the Atoni. In their place Michelle had revealed the unexpected. A child looks up confidently at his father, who has eyes only for the boy. A soldier warms himself by a fire, and the warmth is everything. Intimate space, of family rooms and kitchens, of glens and long gone streams, dominated the vision waiting in the space above the crowd. And the colors. Here were vibrant colors, hues brought alive by something,-- an unknown, an additive whose secret was known only to Lucresa and so remarkable in its effect that it startled Michelle and the Guillarin alike.
Looking down from the frescoes, the figures all but came alive. The ancient technique caused the pupils of their eyes to shine; it gave luster to their bodies, a luminous presence breathing life into each figure and inhabiting them as the soul inhabits the body.
All traces of social affectation had been erased in the night. They were swept away, revealing more intimate design s than pose or costume might show. For here, Lucresa had exalted the singular in each image, the love, the innocence, or the lack thereof. Singers, soldiers, fathers, and spies --those who build and those who destroy-- all looked down upon the crowd with their souls exposed, brought forward, brought past professions which now hung but loosely about them like tattered garments soon to be cast aside.
And then, unseen for perhaps a thousand years, lay revealed the self-portrait of the master. It dominated nothing, but waited in one quiet corner of the work, all but alone. Mirrored in calm water, kneeling before his own reflection in a pond, Lucresa reached out to make contact with his image, the slightest of ripples spreading away from his touch. Anxiously, without modesty, he seemed to consider the reality of his own worn body. And the ripples spread beyond Lucresa, reaching out in their subtle shades through all the frescoes of the temple.
In every visible form he had revealed the invisible, joining them as they themselves were joined,-- in life, spirit, cruelty, frailty, and humor. And in this betrayal, by this unconscionable baring of the truth, it seemed in the frail pose he had chosen for himself, Lucresa knew his own condemnation was at hand.
Below them Eldriq shouted, ordering his men forward. But the crowd would not move. It could not. Thousands more were crowding in along the walls. They were shoulder to shoulder, pressed tight until the crush became impossible, until those nearest the scaffolding began to climb.
Suddenly, from near one of the gates someone began to chant,-- to sing. They were words of peace, rhythms that Michelle recognized from the song of the midnight calm. Others joined in, Ulecker leading them, and Michelle saw at once that Cowain had started the chorus.
Though she knew the songs could not save her, she smiled. Lucresa's work was beautiful, and more intricate than anyone had dreamed. It showed the Guillarin as they were, both beautiful and hateful, the gods and devils of their own reality.
Michelle looked to Eldriq. The Councilmen at his side were conferring with him, more than one of them having joined in the singing, the others mimicking his grim countenance as he looked toward Michelle. And as she caught and held Eldriq's gaze, her patron looking up at her with the cold eyes of a statue, from within his robes Eldriq withdrew a small object.
Michelle struggled over the distance to see what he was doing, wondering if he had drawn a weapon, but then realizing he could have ordered his men to shoot at any time. It was a turkame piece he held, the marbled king Eldriq had taken during his last visit to the temple.
Though his lips moved, Michelle could not hear what he was saying over the voices of the others. Soon he ceased his attempts to call to her, only holding that piece above the heads of the crowd, laughing as he turned this way and that, trapped within a crush of bodies, held by a living wave that had begun to move of its own accord, pushing toward one set of gates while a new rush of the curious poured in through another.
Whatever would happen to her now, she had made her choice. In half a life time she had found no solace in buckling under to fears and lies, and at last would rather face the danger of the truth, especially if it were to do justice to a greater truth.
Michelle looked back to the self-portrait of Lucresa. There, before all, he knelt in recognition of his own frailties and those of his people. But in the mystery of his expression, so alien, so Guillarin, Michelle could not be certain if he was about to laugh or to cry.