The sun was not yet visible at the horizon when Shyam Calder arrived at the vacant command tent. He dropped into his usual folding chair and leaned both elbows on the table. There was some movement from the base, mainly around the mess hall, but the birds were the only really lively creatures at that hour.
He was still in that posture, eyes shut in prayer, when Dr. Rao arrived at the command tent. She lingered nearby until Shyam opened his eyes. Then she said, “Good morning, Shy. Have you been up long?”
She studied his face for a while. “How near is it, and should I call Everard now?”
Shyam turned to look southward. “No, I can’t be sure yet. It’s too far away. This close to a big town, it might not be anything but natural death, old age and illnesses and all that.”
Dr. Rao continued to study him a little longer. “Tell me if anything changes.”
Before half an hour had passed, two men approached from the direction of the administration wing. Father Everard was listening, as he did so often, as the other man talked. The other was Ambrose Nazarian, a sergeant assigned to Mother Coralie’s staff. He was lively, as always.
So was Rusza Tate, who appeared in the distance, running. This was enough to distract Nazarian from his conversation with Father Everard. He turned to look back along the path. “You!” he barked. “Rusza Tate! Stop right there!” He strode back to where Rusza had halted in obedience to the command. “What are you applying your mechanical energy to?”
“Nothing, sir.” Rusza looked confused.
“Not possible,” Nazarian retorted. “You’re using it. I can sense it. If you’re using it, you have to be applying it to something.”
Dr. Rao hurried to join them. “He applies it to himself,” she explained, “but he doesn’t always realize that he’s doing so.”
“Himself!” Nazarian wheeled around to face Dr. Rao. “You said he couldn’t control it. How can he be applying it to himself?”
“That’s one of the questions we wanted to ask you, Ambrose. We don’t know how. I always had been told it was impossible at his stage, but he does it. I’ve watched him do it.”
Nazarian covered his face with both hands. Then, impatiently, he rubbed his hands over his bristly black hair and growled. To Rusza he said, “For now, we won’t worry about how you’re doing it, just stop doing it. It’s too dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Rusza echoed. “I’m getting better at keeping it from going out of control.”
“Never mind going into cycle, Tate. You could injure yourself seriously, applying mechanical energy to your own body recklessly. The only thing more dangerous is if you applied it to someone else.”
“Was that dangerous?”
“Very.” Nazarian stopped moving. In a deliberate, hushed voice, he asked. “Did you just say was? You’ve done it?”
“It only happened once, accidentally. I was trying to disperse energy into–”
“Who was it?” Nazarian demanded.
“Moor, Maccani Moor, one of my group-mates.”
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing,” Rusza said hastily. “He just told me to stop because it made him feel fidgety.”
Ambrose Nazarian buried his face in his hands again.
Father Everard said, “What might have happened, Ambrose?”
The solder drew a deep breath. Raising his head, he stared hard at Rusza. “When you apply mechanical energy to a living body, you are messing with the body’s muscles. Do it wrong, and you can cause dysfunctions ranging from cramps to cardiac arrest.”
Rusza’s eyes widened. “So I might’ve killed him.”
“Yes. That’s why you never apply mechanical energy to a living body unless you know what you’re doing and you have no other option. I can only guess you’ve experimented on yourself long enough that you’ve worked out how to safely apply it to you own body– but it’s still a bad idea to do as casually as you did just now.”
“How do I stop? I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Dr. Rao said, “It has been a challenge just bringing him to the point where he can stand still. That’s why we called for your help. Mechanical energy is so rare…” Her voice trailed off.
“I get what you’re after now. Tate, go sit down. Shut your eyes. I’m gonna walk around you. All I want you to do is track my movements. If the energy starts seeping into you, shut it down.”
“How?” Rusza sounded frustrated.
“It’s different for different people. Part of it depends on how you imagine the energy. When you think of it, when you try to persuade it, what do you see it as?”
“Like electricity,” Rusza reported.
“Never heard that one before.”
“Well, I can see electricity.” Rusza held out his hand and let sparks dance between his fingers. “And Miss Fulke in biology said muscles move because of electricity. So I always thought it was just like electricity, but a little different.”
“You’re a duo-sympathist,” Nazarian mused.
“Quad,” Father Everard corrected him. “Thermal, radiant, mechanical, and E-M.”
“You don’t ask for easy favors, Father. It isn’t like electricity, Tate. Don’t treat it like electricity. By the end of the hour, I want you to have a separate image of mechanical energy, totally separate from any other kind of energy. Understood?”
“Yessir,” said Rusza.
“Because it’s totally different from any other kind of energy.”
“Now sit.” Ambrose Nazarian barely waited for Rusza’s full weight to come to rest on the folding chair. “Eyes shut.” He folded his arms and stood still. “Am I moving?”
Nazarian waved his left hand.
“Mm, you just moved,” Rusza said.
“Which hand? Don’t turn your head. You don’t need to see.”
Rusza hesitated. “Could you do it again, sir?”
“It’s… left? Now it’s right,” Rusza said as Nazarian waved his right hand.
“Accurate at three feet,” the sergeant noted. He took a long step back.
“You backed up,” said Rusza.
“Correct. Which hand this time?”
Rusza sat perfectly still. “You aren’t moving your hands.”
“Correct.” Ambrose Nazarian shot a glance at Father Everard, who waved his hand.
Rusza’s head jerked around. “Somebody else moved.”
Nazaruan kept testing him in that way, until he concluded, “Passive principle accurate within ten feet, drops off totally at fifteen feet. I’d put you at eighty percent active principle.”
“What’s your percentage, Ambrose?” Father Everard asked.
“Eighty-five percent active. Now, Tate, how are you imagining mechanical energy after that?”
Rusza was slow to admit, “I don’t know, sir.”
“Don’t stand, don’t straighten your knee,” said Nazarian, “just lift your foot off the ground a little. Now hold like that. Flex your foot. Hold. Flex. Hold. What are you feeling?”
“Kind of silly, sir?”
“Your energy. What’s different between hold and flex?”
“It’s kind of itchy,” Rusza noted. “But not itchy, exactly…”
“But like an itch,” said Nazarian, “like if you don’t keep moving, it’ll drive you crazy.”
“That’s exactly it!”
“That’s mechanical energy working on your own body. It isn’t like other energy types because you can’t deplete by using it up. You’ll never use it up. You only make it worse by using it. Put your foot down and hold it still. Now what do you feel?”
Rusza waited a few moments. “The itchiness, it’s gone. Is that why Dr. Rao is making me do minimum effective motion and sitting still?”
“That’s the only way to disperse mechanical energy,” Nazarian affirmed. “The more you move, the longer you go without stopping, the worse the itch gets. You can end up affecting your own heart, give yourself arrhythmia, even cause your own cardiac arrest. The heart’s a muscle too, you know.”
Rusza nodded fervently.
“You need somewhere to put your mechanical energy,” Nazarian continued. “That’s why you use it on inanimate objects, to save yourself from unnecessary movement.” He grabbed a pencil and set it on the table in front of Rusza. “Mechanical energy is different from other energies. It’s only available for you to persuade where there’s already movement.” He flicked the pencil with his fingertip. The pencil rolled across the table. “But once it’s there, you can take it away…” The pencil came to an abrupt halt. “Give it back…” The pencil started rolling again. “Redirect it…” The pencil stopped and then started rolling the opposite direction. “Or transfer it.” The pencil stopped next to another pencil, which started to roll.
“Whoa,” Rusza said. “That’s amazing.”
“Try it.” Nazarian flicked the first pencil toward Rusza. “Take its energy.”
Rusza frowned in concentration. The pencil stopped.
“Give it back now.”
The pencil suddenly flew off the table, forcing Dr. Rao and Shyam Calder to dodge.
“That was more than the pencil’s energy,” Nazarian said dryly. “Come over here.” He led Rusza to the open lawn. Crouching down, he touched a single blade of grass. “Wind’s blowing. That means there’s more mechanical energy around, makes it harder to separate out one thing’s energy from everything else’s. Focus on this one blade of grass, nothing else, until you can measure how much energy it has in the wind.”
The boy lay on his stomach and stared at the blade of grass. The rest of the group followed him into the sunshine. Shyam sniffed as a stronger gust of wind touched his face.
Father Everard was beside him in a moment. “Sensing something?”
Shyam nodded. “Since early this morning. It isn’t close.”
“But it’s close enough. We’ll hear something soon, no doubt.” Father Everard turned his eyes toward the approach of the other students.
They were lively again that morning. When they saw Rusza lying in the grass, they were more than ready to tease him about taking a nap during training.
“I’m working hard here,” he grumbled.
Father Everard herded the students away so Rusza could concentrate. Nazarian said, “By the time their physical training is done, you need to be able to take, give, and redirect mechanical energy from this whole patch of grass.” He indicated with a gesture a patch of about one square foot in area.
Shyam wandered away, meandering southward on the training field. He felt Dr. Rao just behind him. “The breeze feels wrong,” he told her. “It’s gaining strength.”
“I’ll go check with the communications office,” the doctor replied. She left Shyam to himself.
The base grew livelier as more people started their day. It was a little livelier than normal when Dr. Rao returned to the training field and went directly to Father Everard to speak quietly in his ear. He in turn waved Shyam over. “Missing persons report just came in,” he told Shyam. “Go to the general’s office and show her where it’s coming from.”
Dr. Rao walked with Shyam to follow this order. They found General Murren with her command staff in the conference room. Dr. Rao spoke first. “General, Father Everard sent you Shy to help set the search area.”
General Murren gave Shyam a keen look. “You know something about this case?”
“Not about the case, General,” Shyam replied, “but I know the Decay is near here.”
“So it has seeded already,” General Murren muttered. “Just our luck. What do you know, Calder?”
“The Decay creates a void where nothing can live. It’s as if someone burned a hole in that map.” Shyam studied the map on the wall. “My sympathy is made to sense things like that.” He pointed to a section of the map south of the base. “You’ll want to focus your search in this area, ma’am.”
“Thank the Only One, it isn’t on the harbor cliffs,” she said. “Thanks, Sergeant Major Calder.”
“Glad to be able to help, ma’am.”
Shyam and Dr. Rao returned to the training field to find the morning laps completed and Lieutenant Jock putting the students through their strength training exercises. Father Everard came to meet Shyam. “All settled?”
Dr. Rao asked, “Are you planning to have the students join the search?”
“It would be a learning opportunity,” Father Everard admitted, “but Sanna worries me. I want to put her with Cora, but I don’t want to make it obvious that she’s being shielded. I plan to send you with her, Doc, but that leaves me with Rusza and his sympathy unsupervised.”
“Send him with Coralie too. Send Gretta, and trade Ietta for either Bertie or Ambrose. Then you can claim an all-male squad.”
“Bertie, then,” Father Everard said. “He can work with Tarbengar, show him how to scout in these circumstances. Ambrose can help with Rusza, and Matija can oversee Rusza’s sympathy. I definitely want you to focus your attention on Sanna. It’s impossible to say how she might respond.”
Dr. Rao agreed somberly.
When Jock had finished with the students, Father Everard addressed them. “The mess hall will have portable breakfast packs for us today. The Leeward base has received a request for cooperation from the Beeches base in East Territory. It’s a missing persons case involving a child. The suspect is a known extremist. The abduction happened day before yesterday. They believe the suspect headed north toward us. There is some evidence that the suspect has already begun to seed the Decay somewhere to the south of our position. We will join with the Leeward squads in a foot search in the indicated area. It is assumed at this point that the suspect is dead. We will still regard this as a search and rescue unless we receive confirmation that the abduction victim is also deceased.”
Lieutenant Jock clapped his hands once. “All students to the dorms to suit up. Meet in front of the mess hall in five.”
The students hurried to obey. Rusza Tate got up from the ground. “I almost had it,” he said. “Almost.” Then he too hastened to retrieve his field gear.
When Shyam reached the mess hall, he found Mother Coralie’s personnel carrier already idling there. Her driver, Kellerine Maynard, spoke to Shyam through the open door. “Mother says ride with us. Then you can focus on the search.”
“Thank you.” Shyam settled himself in the place behind the driver’s seat. The students filed aboard, followed by the other soldiers assigned to Mother’s and Father’s staffs. Father Everard and Mother Coralie took the seat across the aisle from Shyam.
They drove just twenty minutes into the countryside before Shyam pointed toward a thickly wooded area to the southeast. “In there somewhere.”
So Kellerine Maynard pulled over, and the carrier unloaded. Another carrier behind them disgorged two Leeward squads, who immediately started setting up a command center and a medical tent. Father Everard gave out instructions to the students. “Allen and Waeber, you’ll stay here at the command center. Taivas, Warhite, and Tate, you’ll go with Mother’s staff. Tate, Ambrose is in charge of you for this assignment. Tarbengar, Cooper, Moor, and Locke, you’re with me. Tarbengar, Bertie Hart from Mother’s staff is coming with us to give you direction on scouting as an animal sympathist.”
“Look at Tate,” Cooper said to Moor. “Like a kid in a candy shop, all because he gets to go with the girls.”
Father Everard went to confer with the Leeward squad leaders for a few minutes. Then another personnel carrier pulled up and dropped off Company G. Aug called out, “You weren’t going to leave us out of this, were you, Father?”
“It isn’t your territory,” said Father Everard, “so it needn’t be your responsibility. I welcome your presence, though.” He beckoned Shyam nearer. “Which is the most likely direction?”
Shyam pointed toward the southeast.
“Divination?” Aug asked in bemusement.
“Death sympathy,” Shyam replied simply.
In the meantime, Father Everard began assigning squads to sections of the terrain. Company G was assigned the farthest southeast section. Father’s squad took the next westward section, while Mother’s squad received the next westward section after that, and the two Leeward squads the two westernmost sections. They spread out along the perimeter of the woods in pairs and advanced in a ragged line. Shyam’s search partner was Maccani Moor.
“Sergeant Major,” the young man said as they ducked between branches, “why did Father leave Allen and Waeber at the command center? I think I know, but I’d like it confirmed. He… he’s pretty sure there won’t be a rescue, isn’t he?”
Shyam made an affirmative noise. “It’s too early for them, being soul sympathists, to see it firsthand and take the impact of everyone’s first reaction. Most soul sympathists are kept off the front lines for that reason.”
Moor was silent for a while. He pushed through a screen of pine boughs and peered under a fallen trunk. “Dark places, right?”
“Always. In this kind of terrain, look for holes in the ground, usually under deadfall or a root cavern. Big, old trees,” he clarified, “with recently withered leaves or branches.”
“Shy!” Father Everard called out. “What do you sense?”
Shyam stood still for a few seconds. The wind whispered through the mixed stand of red pine and young aspen. As he attended to it, the wind shifted slightly south-southwesterly. Shyam’s eyes opened wide. “It’s ahead,” he shouted. “Straight ahead.”
“Ahead and eastward,” Shyam replied. “It’s fast-growing!”
“Squad, hang back,” Father Everard commanded. “Shy, Bertie, scout a path for us. Squad leaders, did you catch that?” he said into his microphone. “Fast-growing. It’s covering more ground than we anticipated. Be ready for contact.”
Shyam moved forward, ahead of his search partner. Bertie Hart came forward as well, falcon on his shoulder and jaguar at his side. He had Tarbengar in tow, complete with bear cub. The falcon screeched an alarm call and flew up into the trees. “Getting close,” Bertie said aloud. “Gii, what do you smell? Where is it hiding?”
The jaguar paced forward and halted, pawing at the thick carpet of pine needles and dead aspen leaves.
“It’s here,” Shyam muttered to himself. “Underground? Where did it go under? Where’s the entrance?”
“It’s here, Father,” Shyam responded. “We’re practically on top of it, but we aren’t at the core. There has to be an opening, a cave, a hole–”
To the east, a narrow beam of condensed sunlight shot into the sky. Father Everard said, “Which is it: Edmund or Aug’s squad? Right, we’re on our way.”
The student members of the squad did not need to be told to follow. They ran after Father Everard in a line, crashing through the undergrowth and pushing through branches until their squad joined up with Company G’s two squads. One of the lieutenants was sending up the signal beam from the palm of her hand. Edmund came to speak with them. “The cave is under that willow. Used to be a stream bed, probably, but it’s dry now. I have Bish scoping it out now.” He glanced at Shyam. “Maybe Sergeant Major Calder can help?”
They walked a wide loop around to where several Company G members knelt behind a fallen tree. One of them was operating a remote-controlled reconnaissance drone. This one said without turning his head, “It’s aggressive. It won’t come into the light, but it goes for anything that comes near the cave mouth. Still no sign of the bodies.”
“Let my scout take a look, Private,” said Father Everard.
The young man tipped backward at the discovery that Father was speaking to him. “Y-Yes, sir.” He handed his monocular lens to Shyam.
It took less than a minute for Shyam to declare with certainty, “The core isn’t here.” Handing the lens back to its owner, Shyam lifted his eyes to Father Everard’s face. “There’s another entrance.”
“Cora,” Father Everard said, “Cora, Shy has determined that the core must be in your section. Be careful. We’re on our way.”
“How does he do that?” said Aug.
“Human thought sympathy, Captain,” Shyam answered.
They left Aug Yeardley and his squad to block the Decay from advancing farther west. The rest scrambled through the woods toward a sudden, dense beam of light that stabbed the sky to the east. “Cora, talk to me,” Father Everard said. “What’s happening?” He listened as he ran, gaining speed despite the obstacles. “No, leave them, don’t try to go after them. We’re nearly there.”
A heavy wave of cold air rolled through the woods. Then a sound like shattering glass rang out from close ahead of them. They broke through into a clearing.
Mother Coralie seized Father Everard by the arm. He nodded. “Sanna Taivas,” he called out in a voice clear and tense, “are you unharmed?”
For a long, anxious moment, there was no response. Then Rusza’s voice came up from a dip in the ground. “It’s all right, more or less.”
“Is the source immobilized?”
“Really, really immobilized, sir. Frozen solid.” A pause followed. “But we were too late.”
Father Everard gave Shyam a look that ordered him to follow as Father Everard advanced with caution toward the depression. The first thing visible was Rusza Tate’s red hair. The boy was facing a deeper crevice and held one hand uplifted to send the beacon beam to the sky and the other hand thrust forward to shoot another beam of compressed sunlight into the crevice. Private Taivas knelt on the ground amid amber shards of frozen Decay. She was hunched over a small, limp body. Her breath was visible in the bitter cold that surrounded her. She was saying, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… too late again…”
Inside the crevice, a solid mass of amber-hued Decay, indicative of human seeding, almost filled the natural cavern formed by tree roots. The ground had crumbled away beneath the huge dead willow. Rusza’s light revealed a face just under the amber surface, a face nearly eaten away as if by acid. Empty eye sockets stared out at them. A pair of skeletal hands protruded from the broken section, flesh already stripped from bone and the bone itself deeply pitted.
Father Everard pulled on his gloves. Shyam did likewise. “Sanna Taivas,” Father Everard said sharply, “Can you hear me?”
Her whole body shuddered, but she drew her shoulders back. “Yes, sir.”
“How did you get him out? Did you touch the Decay?”
“No, sir. I froze it and then hit it with a rock.” Her voice was congested with tears.
“Is your sympathy under control?”
“Then get out of here. Rusza, help her up.”
Shyam knelt by the body next to the girl. “Leave him to me, Private.” He took out his field kit and selected a large brush to clear away the frozen fragments of Decay from the body. The child’s clothes were stiff with frozen Decay, so Shyam peeled each layer away carefully. He took a thin, opaque plastic sheet from his kit, shook it open with a snap, and wrapped the body in it. When he looked around, the two students were out of sight and only Father Everard and Captain Haigh were near. “This child has been dead for hours,” Shyam told them, “much longer than the woman. He was dead before she seeded.”
“How can you tell?” said the captain.
Shyam pointed to the corrosion that marked the exposed skin. “The Decay only went this deep. If he had been alive at that point, there would hardly be anything left of him, just like her. Living things get devoured, dead things get dissolved. Devouring goes fast, dissolving goes slow.”
“We get cases like this sometimes, but I’ve never been the one dealing with the deaths,” said Captain Haigh in a contemplative voice. “I don’t know, is it easier to tell a mother her child was murdered by a kidnapper, or that her child was devoured by the Decay? It can’t be anything but hard either way.”
“Neither is easy,” Shyam agreed. He scooped up the plastic-swathed body in his arms and got up. “But it must be done. Father, may I… ask a favor?”
“Anything,” was Father Everard’s immediate response.
“Send me Private Taivas to help me prepare this child for burial.”
Father Everard gazed at him for a long time before he said, “Consider it done. I trust you, Shy.”
It was a somber group that returned to the command center. Aug Yeardley and the rest of Company G had stayed behind to show the Leeward squads how best to dispose of an underground source of the Decay. Only the squads accompanying Father Everard and Mother Coralie came straight back to the tents. Shyam carried his burden to the personnel carrier without a detour. The driver opened the door for him but said nothing, seeing all that she needed to see.
Everyone who filed past him onto the carrier glanced at what he carried at least once, except for Sanna Taivas. She walked past him, with Dr. Rao’s hands on her shoulders, and dropped into the seat just beyond him. At the end of the silent ride back to base, she said, “Father Locke said I’m to help you. What can I do?”
“Follow me.” When he met Dr. Rao’s gaze, Shyam gently shook his head. He led the young private to an entrance of the army spa that few used. It led to the basement, to the morgue. The doctor in charge there knew Shyam well enough to nod a greeting and go about her own business, leaving him to direct Sanna toward the work area he usually used. “First we wash the body,” he began. “He came in contact with the Decay, and we can’t afford to let any contamination transfer to his parents. They’ll be vulnerable enough as it is.” He laid his burden on one of the ceramic-topped tables. These tables were slanted a little forward, to allow water to drain into a channel leading to a sealed reservoir. Shyam unwrapped the plastic sheet and put it into the hazardous waste bin. Exchanging his field gloves for a pair of surgical gloves, he added the former to the same bin and directed Sanna to do the same.
As they worked, Shyam said, “Under normal circumstances, I would never have a student assist me. It is a hard thing, what we’re doing now. But I heard a man from your village tell how you helped the survivors to bury their dead. It helped him, you know, and he hasn’t forgotten your kindness. So I wanted to ask you a question. How old were you when you first put on the armband?”
“Fifteen,” she said softly.
“Who was hurt?”
“My parents, my sisters, my uncle Axel, three cousins, a village elder, six neighbors, and my joy Soren.”
Shyam nodded his comprehension. “Severely?”
“Soren almost died. My father lost an eye, my mother her whole hand, uncle Axel some toes, and the rest lost ears or fingers.” She said it in a monotone, as if reading off a report of someone else’s experience.
“That’s hard. I was eight when my sympathy went out of control. First manifestation. I killed both my parents.” He listened to her silence as he worked. “I have an older sister. She still doesn’t want to come near me. She’s polite when she must see me, but I’ll never meet her husband or children. She made that clear from the first. She wants me nowhere near her family. It can’t be helped.”
“I’m sorry,” Sanna murmured.
“That compassion is a good thing. This child, for example– do you see Soren when you look at him?”
Sanna nodded, unable to answer aloud.
“To you, other people’s family is precious like your own. Not many people have the room for those emotions. Not many people are willing to mourn another’s loss. They are costly, these feelings,” Shyam added. “But also priceless. That’s why I chose to take this role. You may not know this, but I’m trained as a medic. I never treat living people because of my sympathy. Instead, I prepare the dead to return them to their families in the least painful way possible. I put them right, as much as I can. This child… there was no way we could have saved him. He was dead before we received word of his abduction. I want you to understand that.”
Sanna nodded again.
“Your village… you couldn’t save them either. Not because you came too late, but because the infestation was already there before you started traveling back toward them. It wasn’t your fault. That man from your village… I had the feeling, when I heard him speak, that your presence in the days after the incident, it saved him in a way. I suspect the other survivors are much the same. This is what we can do for those who remain. This is how we help.”
An orderly entered with a set of simple clothes. Sanna took them, thanked the orderly, and brought them to Shyam.
“Before we dress him, there’s one last step.” He carried the body to a different table and spent some time debriding the corrosion on the child’s neck, arms, and hands. Then he spread fragrant ointment on the wounds and wrapped them in bandages. “It’s impossible to heal the wounds of the dead,” he commented to Sanna, “but to the living who remain, these marks of care can make a difference.” Then they clothed the child’s body and swaddled him in a clean white blanket. “He’s ready now. As for us, you and I need to disinfect ourselves. We both came in contact with the Decay. The women’s shower room is that door over there. Towels and clean scrubs are in the cabinet just beyond the shower. Leave your uniform and all your underclothes in the white hamper for deep-cleaning.”
Shyam went to the men’s shower room, stripped down, and went through all three stages of the disinfecting shower. After he had dried and dressed in clean scrubs, he exited into the hallway and found Father Everard waiting there. “Sir?”
“Shy, we had word that the family is en route. Should be here in less than an hour.”
Shyam nodded his acknowledgement. “Thank you, sir.”
“How is she?”
“Hurting, no way around it, but steady.”
“Why did you ask for her?”
“Because of what Daava Jainin told us on the boat. She was kind, and he remembered it. You’re thinking of putting her on Mother’s staff, aren’t you?”
Father Everard gave him a sharp look. “How did you know that?”
“I’ve seen the signs before. She can do it. That staff needs someone experienced in loss and grieving. It’s one of the few parts lacking on Mother’s staff. None of them really knows how to grieve with another’s loss. She’ll fill that gap. But in this case, she needed to face the truth.”
“That boy isn’t Soren. He didn’t die because she came too late to save him. It wasn’t her fault.”
They stood together for a while, but Sanna was slow in making an appearance, so Father Everard departed to see to his own business. Shyam waited until Sanna emerged. “Do you feel a little better now?” he asked her.
“A little,” she said, “thank you, Sergeant Major. I need to go to the meditation rooms now.”
“I was headed that way myself. Let’s go together. And I don’t want you to call me by rank, Sanna Taivas. We two are of the same fellowship because of this.” He tapped his armband. “Consider me as an uncle, or a much older brother. When you struggle with your regrets and losses, come talk with me.”
She summoned up a ghost of a smile. “So you will be my Uncle Shyam, then?”
“Yes, if it’s all right with you.”
“It feels like I’m rebuilding what I lost,” she said. “My neighbors in the village were all ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt,’ ‘nana’ and ‘papa’. I’ve missed that.”
Shyam smiled. “And I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a niece. Now let’s go pray.”