Dr. Chinara Zuma stood beside Mother Locke under the shade of the mess hall walkway, waiting for their first sight of the truck they knew must arrive soon. Father Locke had gone to the on-base meditation rooms to retrieve Shyam Calder and Sanna Taivas. “Are you all right with this?” Dr. Zuma asked. “I can greet them alone, if the strain is too much.”
“No.” Despite her uneasiness, Mother Locke spoke without wavering. “It is part of my duties.”
Then the rumble of an engine drew their attention toward the front gates. The truck was of a common type in the military. Two soldiers occupied the front two seats. When the truck stopped, only the front passenger side door opened. A woman of Dr. Zuma’s age climbed out. Her expression was grim as she went to Mother Locke first. “Mother.” She saluted.
“Captain Mariel Hidromiel of East Territory Company 074, Dr. Chinara Zuma of Northeast Territory command staff.”
The captain saluted Dr. Zuma as well. “I’m escorting Poulan and Dina Pradta.” She glanced over her shoulder at the truck. “I don’t want to rush them, not in their circumstances.”
Dr. Zuma nodded. She went to the truck door nearest her and opened it. “Hello. I’m Chinara. Can I get you anything to eat or drink after your long ride?”
The couple were holding hands. The father, Poulan, was staring straight ahead without seeing anything. The mother, Dina, turned her eyes to Dr. Zuma. “I can’t swallow any food, not now.”
“Of course. Then let’s go to the conference room prepared for us. Mother Locke and I are here to answer some of your questions.”
The couple climbed stiffly out of the truck. They said nothing, but they let Dr. Zuma guide them. Once in the conference room, they sat without a word.
Mother Locke sat opposite them, while Dr. Zuma lingered on her feet behind the couple. “I am very, very sorry to have to have this conversation with you. First, I’d like to know how much you have been told already.” Mother Locke glanced at Captain Hidromiel.
But it was Poulan Pradta who spoke suddenly. “We know Orrin is dead.”
“I see. Anything more than that?” Mother looked from face to face. Her own expression firmed into resolve. “Then I want to ask you how much you want to know.”
“Did he suffer?” The bereaved father trembled as he spoke.
“It appears he didn’t. I saw his face when he was found. He looked peaceful.”
“His face,” repeated Dina Pradta. “What about… the rest? She was an extremist. Was he…? Did the Decay…?”
“His body was left intact,” Mother Locke assured her. “There was some slight marking, but he wasn’t devoured.”
Dina Pradta’s exhale was almost a sob. “Thanks be. Can I see him?”
“If you wish. Dr. Zuma and I will walk you to where he is.” Mother rose from her chair. “It isn’t far.”
They left the main building. The day had warmed to a comfortable, sunny afternoon. There was a light breeze tousling the trees and ruffling the lawn beside their path around the spa building. At the basement entrance, Poulan stopped short. “I can’t.”
Dr. Zuma stepped forward. “I’ll escort Dina, Mother Locke, if you’d stay here with Poulan.”
“Thank you, Dr. Zuma.” Mother Locke seemed almost as relieved as the bereaved father.
Inside, the hallway was half-lit, making the open doorway of the morgue that much more noticeable. Dr. Zuma walked ahead to see the two people she sensed within.
Sanna waited just inside the doorway. For once, she wasn’t in uniform but wore instead a pair of light green surgical scrubs. She gave Dr. Zuma a quick, confirmatory nod as soon as their gazes crossed, but her attention seemed reserved entirely for the grieving mother. Dr. Zuma said, “Dina, this is Private Sanna Taivas. She’s the one who retrieved your son from the Decay. Sanna, this is Dina Pradta.”
Sanna bowed deeply at the waist. “I’m sorry we couldn’t reach him in time, Mrs. Pradta. I’m so very sorry.”
Dina Pradta went to her at once and pulled her upright by the hands. They gazed at each other for a few seconds. “Bless you,” Dina said hoarsely. “Bless you for your efforts and your caring.” She hesitated. “Do you have children of your own?”
Pain flashed across Sanna’s face. “No. I can’t, because of my sympathy.”
Dina’s grip tightened visibly. She sniffled. “Where is Orrin?”
Sanna led her to a table, where the blanket-wrapped body of the child lay. “So his name is Orrin,” she said.
“You didn’t know?”
“I didn’t stop to ask,” Sanna admitted. “I only knew a child was missing and in danger. Everything else could wait until I found him. What was he like?”
Dina gave a shuddering laugh. “We called him ‘Orrinry,’ because he could be such an ornery boy. Tell him to stand still, and he’d sit. Tell him to sit, and he’d stand on the chair. He and Poulan were always knocking heads together, too alike to live peaceably together. I always have to… had to stand between them.” She was crying freely by then. Her right hand reached out to trace the texture of the blanket. “Thank you for looking after him. We’ll take him home now.”
“You plan to drive back today?” Dr. Zuma asked softly.
Dina nodded, wiping her tears with a small handkerchief. “We brought…” Her voice failed, so she cleared her throat and tried again. “We brought the coffin. In the back of the truck. If we go soon, we can get back to Beeches before dark. We have two daughters at home, waiting for us. I don’t want to leave them alone…”
Sanna scooped the child up in her arms. “I’ll bring him for you.”
Dr. Zuma had only a few seconds to make eye contact with Sergeant Major Calder, who lingered unnoticed at the far end of the morgue. He gave her a reassuring nod, so she left with the other two.
As soon as Poulan saw them emerge, he doubled over in acute grief with his hands braced on his knees. Mother Locke rested a hand on his back, tears streaming down her cheeks. Through his sobs, the father’s words were barely discernible: “A nurse… brought him to me just… just like that, the day he… the day he was born. I held him… in my arms and he… he cried…”
Dina ran to her husband and hugged his head to her shoulder, murmuring to him softly.
Sanna walked straight and tall, carrying the child Orrin after his parents to the truck. Their procession drew the attention of everyone they passed. The soldiers all stopped to salute, and the civilians bowed their heads. When they reached the truck, Captain Hidromiel opened the back hatch and removed the lid from the small coffin so that Sanna could lay the child down inside it. They replaced the lid and strapped the coffin down securely.
Dr. Zuma rested a hand on each parent and voiced a brief prayer for their safe return to their home. Then she told them, “You are in our hearts. We will not forget you.”
As the truck pulled away toward the gates, Sanna said, “I would like some time in the meditation room before we meet, Dr. Zuma. Is that all right with you?”
“It’s fine.” Dr. Zuma and Mother Locke followed after her more slowly.
“How is she?” Mother Locke asked.
“Remarkably well. Whatever Sergeant Major Calder said or did had a beneficial effect on her soul. She’s sad, of course, but not distressed. She’s quite peaceful, actually.”
“Shy is hard to get to know, but I know Everard thinks highly of him.”
“For good reason, it appears.”
In the main meditation room, they found Father Everard, his staff, and his students all kneeling in silence. Sanna had taken her place in the back already. Crystallin Locke came out of nowhere, it seemed, and hugged her mother. “I’m glad you’re all right, Mom.”
Standing with her arm around her daughter made Mother Locke relax at last. She didn’t respond to Crystallin directly, but she whispered, “Looking at all these together like this makes me feel a little better. I was so afraid when Sanna and Rusza took off like that, straight down into the attack range.”
“Talking of Rusza…” Crystallin pointed.
The young man in question was fidgeting where he knelt, looking up frequently from his prayers and craning his neck around until he located Sanna. Then he stood up and circled around the perimeter to resume a kneeling posture in the space next to her.
“He’s been like that the whole time,” Crystallin said softly. “Really, he should just marry Sanna. She’s good for him.”
“Oh, my,” said Mother Locke, “look at that!”
Rusza, after a few more fidgety moments, had reached out a hand and rested it atop Sanna’s head.
“Just like Grandpa Gar,” Crystallin observed.
Sanna had flinched, startled out of her intense concentration by the unexpected contact. Then she began to quake.
“This has all been so hard for her,” Mother Locke sighed.
Rusza withdrew his hand, stood, and headed for the exit. Dr. Zuma intercepted him. “Would you talk with me awhile, Rusza Tate?”
He glanced back over his shoulder before nodding.
Dr. Zuma led him out into the bright afternoon, to the shade of a monumental old willow at the corner of the quad formed by the spa, the meditation hall, and the administration building. “Let’s sit here,” she suggested. “You have a lot going on inside you, and I might be able to help. Where do you want to start?”
Rusza breathed a heavy sigh. “I’m really useless, aren’t I?”
“Why do you think that?”
“I couldn’t do anything,” the boy replied.
“Tell me what happened.”
Rusza flopped onto his back and folded his hands behind his head. “It started with a smell– a really gross smell– and Sanna Taivas knew what it was. She started walking faster, pulling ahead, and all I could do was go after her so she didn’t go alone. Then she jumped down into the hole. She froze the Decay and grabbed a big rock and smashed it against it and pulled out that kid from the pieces. She was totally devastated. I tried to say something, but she couldn’t even hear my voice. All I could do was answer for her when everybody else was asking questions like, Are you all right and What’s going on? And I couldn’t say she was really all right, because she wasn’t. Even I could see she wasn’t. She was broken up about that poor kid. And just now, back there, when I tried to pray over her, it didn’t make her feel any better. I’m supposed to be an adult now. I finished school, I started my four years, but what use am I? I don’t even know how to use half my sympathy.”
Dr. Zuma studied him. “You’re frustrated.”
“I am,” he agreed. “How can I not be? What have I been wasting my time doing? Playing around, when there’s so much bad in the world that needs to be stopped.”
“You’re impatient too. I need to correct one thing you’ve said. When you were praying over Sanna…”
Rusza glanced at her. “You were watching?”
Dr. Zuma nodded. “First, you startled her so much that she jumped. She isn’t used to people touching her. It actually alarms her when anyone touches her. Second, you misread her reaction. Did you think she was more upset?”
“She started shaking,” Rusza said.
“Yes. She was laughing. You made her laugh.”
“Laughing!” Rusza stared at Dr. Zuma.
“Laughing,” she repeated. “You cheered her up. Not many can do that, especially at such a time. I think you helped her more than you know.”
Rusza pushed himself up onto his elbows.
“What do you think an adult is, Rusza Tate? What makes you an adult? It isn’t age, because many people get older and still behave childishly. It isn’t ability, because many fairly incompetent people still are regarded as adults. What does make an adult, then? I believe that adulthood is largely the willingness to accept responsibility and hardship for the sake of others. That’s partly what you admire in Sanna, isn’t it? You and I haven’t talked much, but I’ve been observing you a little. You look up to her because she stands firm in what she knows is right and takes responsibility for the people around her.”
Rusza was thoughtful for a few seconds. Then he said, “Human soul sympathy is pretty amazing.”
“I have had time to develop it,” Dr. Zuma replied. “You need to take time for those things. Anything worthwhile takes time.”
“That’s hard,” he admitted.
“Especially when you are impatient,” Dr. Zuma agreed. “With your sympathy, you have more to learn and more skills to master than most.”
Suddenly Rusza sat fully upright.
Dr. Zuma followed his gaze and saw Sanna walking toward them. As soon as she was near enough, Sanna said, “I am sorry for putting you in such a dangerous situation, Rusza Tate… but thank you for staying with me. Your presence was… reassuring.”
Rusza’s expression lit up with surprised pleasure. “Reassuring? Me?”
“Yes, so thank you again.”
He got up and made a bit of a production out of dusting the grass from his legs. “I’ll get out of the way and let you talk to Dr. Zuma.” With that, he strode away with a buoyant step.
“You’ve embarrassed him,” said Dr. Zuma, “but you’ve also encouraged him.” She turned her attention from the retreating back of the student to Sanna’s face. “Sanna? Toward him, you’re…?”
She met Dr. Zuma’s gaze with serious eyes. “Don’t tell him, please.”
Sanna considered the question in her usual thorough way. “Several reasons,” she answered after a time, “but the most… the most compelling reason is probably pride. I won’t be one of many.”