Early in the morning, the students lined up one last time in front of the Leeward base mess hall. General Murren and an assortment of her officers had gathered to see them off. To Rusza’s surprise, Dr. Zuma came with a duffle bag in hand. She dropped her bag in the pile that Aunt Coralie’s porter was loading into the luggage compartment of one personnel carrier.
“Tate,” called Uncle Everard, “over here.”
Knowing that Uncle Everard only called him by surname when he was in his official mode, Rusza pivoted and hurried toward his father’s best friend without a word.
“You will ride with Mother Locke as a prisoner escort,” said Uncle Everard.
“Everard,” said Aunt Coralie. She seemed to Rusza more than a little agitated.
“He is a disciplinary case, Cora. Policy requires at least two prisoner escorts to remain near the one in custody whenever there has been a proven willingness to use his sympathy against others deliberately and with malice. Had anyone been injured by the misuse of his sympathy, policy would require four prisoner escorts and five-point physical restraints. I’m already stretching a point, letting you take him in your carrier, unrestrained, with two marginally qualified escorts.”
Rusza stood back from the dispute, hesitant to draw attention to himself when his elders were quarrelling. Dr. Zuma appeared at his elbow suddenly. She gave him a wry nothing-we-can-do sort of smile before she interjected, “Father Everard, I understand your concerns, but Turstin has not shown himself to be violent during his detention here. He has a rotten attitude, but from my perspective he appears to be mostly mouth.”
“That is the only reason I am allowing this,” Uncle Everard retorted. He almost looked angry, Rusza noted. “Tate, how much have you learned from Taivas about subduing your opponent?”
“Some, sir,” Rusza answered promptly, “enough to take down Moor a few times, but never enough to get anywhere with Sanna herself.”
Somehow, this answer arrested Uncle Everard in his anger. “I wouldn’t expect that of you. I wouldn’t expect that of anyone who hadn’t undergone the same physical training she has. Your responsibility for this trip is to prevent Wishart Turstin from using his sympathy against anyone. You have both the types of energy he can use, so he can’t use them against you.”
“Yessir,” said Rusza. “It’s my turn. I’m more able to fight someone like him than most.”
Again, Uncle Everard seemed to pull further back into his usual calm self after hearing what Rusza had to say. He even coughed gently. “Yes. This is more responsibility than you are used to carrying. I am trusting you, Rusza.”
“Yessir. I’ll do what I can.”
Dr. Zuma patted his back. “As will I. I have already tested my sympathy on Turstin. I’m well able to cow him when his attitude gets out of hand. Rusza, let’s go escort him to the carrier.” She led Rusza away from the gathering.
“Dr. Zuma,” said Rusza, “why did Un– Father Locke think what I said was funny?”
She laughed softly. “I believe it was less what you said than it was the fact that Sanna said it first. You quoted her like you would quote one of the statutes. You really take to heart the things she says to you, don’t you, Rusza? Most young men would be at least a little annoyed to be criticized so openly.”
“Criticized? She was just saying what she thought. She does that.”
“Many people do that,” agreed Dr. Zuma, “but you’re so ready to accept it when it’s Sanna.”
“She tells me the truth about myself. Most people don’t bother.”
“She takes you seriously.”
Rusza considered that for a few seconds. “Yeah. She does. I don’t get taken seriously too often.”
They arrived at the detention room to find Wishart Turstin slouching between two military policemen. His bag lay on the floor two paces in front of him. “We will take charge of him from here,” said Dr. Zuma to the MPs. “Private Turstin, grab your bag.”
Rusza was surprised to see Turstin obey. The southerner walked between them without a word. He gave his bag to the porter just as silently. By the time they returned to the loading area, the students and Uncle Everard’s staff were already aboard their carrier. Aunt Coralie and her staff were still waiting. Lieutenant Perdita, Aunt Coralie’s best friend, said to Dr. Zuma, “You board first, Doctor. Go straight to the back.” Then, to Wishart Turstin, “You next.” She turned to Rusza third. “You, behind him.”
Rusza didn’t give this any thought until he noticed that the four combat soldiers boarded after him, and only then did any of the noncombatants board the carrier. They all stayed at the front, leaving a clear margin between them and the combat soldiers, who sat together as a buffer in the middle.
Turstin studied the faces at the front of the carrier. “Where is she?” he demanded.
“Who?” Rusza asked out of reflex.
“Lily Allen.” Turstin looked at him as if Rusza was stupid.
“She’s on Father Locke’s personnel carrier,” said Dr. Zuma, “where Rusza ought to be also. Do you understand why he is here instead of there?”
“Why should I?”
“Because you’re the reason,” said Sergeant Ambrose Nazarian. “He’s here to make sure you don’t try using your sympathy against anybody during transport.”
“Nobody’s talking to you,” snapped Turstin, “so shut up.”
“Say that again,” said Sergeant Ambrose cooly, “and you’ll spend the rest of the drive to Cavern gagged… and I’ll enjoy doing it, you foul-mouthed thug.”
“Seriously,” Rusza exclaimed, “why are you rotten to people the second you meet them, Turstin? It never ends well for you. You were rude to Sanna Taivas, and what did it get you? Body-slammed on the ground. You were rotten to Lily, and what did that get you? A kick in the head that laid you out cold for twenty-three minutes, and a concussion that lasted almost a week. It never ends well, you being rotten to people. Why do you do it?”
“Who’s Sa- what was the name you said?”
“Sanna Taivas. The one who body-slammed you and kicked you in the head,” said Rusza for clarification. “Of all the people you could’ve picked, you had to pick her.”
“What’s so great about her?” Turstin said. “Hardly remember her, me, but I remember she didn’t look like much.”
“You be careful what you say about her,” Rusza warned, “or I’ll be the one pinning you down while Sergeant Ambrose gags you.”
“What is she, your girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend? No, not at all. But she’s my hero. Never met anybody like her. She’s strong, and she’s tough. I’ve seen her take a punch in the mouth without missing a stride, and then take down the man who punched her.” Rusza paused in thought. Then he said, “But she’s kind too. She has a little cousin she calls her joy, and she’s like a mom to him, because both his parents are dead. She’s been through some awful things and lost almost her whole family, but she still has it in her to look out for other people. She looks out for me,” he added, “because I’m the kind to do or to talk before I think, and it gets me in trouble.”
“Talk, talk, talk,” said Turstin, “but she sounds like just another interfering woman. And she isn’t even pretty to make up for it.”
“Sanna doesn’t need to be pretty,” Rusza insisted. “She’s amazing enough without that. You’re just too immature to appreciate it.”
“Ouch,” said Sergeant Ambrose with a grin. “I never thought I’d hear Rusza Tate call someone else immature.”
Rusza’s face went red. “I know I am,” he said, “but at least I know it, and I’m doing my best to fix it.”
“Thanks to Sanna,” Dr. Zuma said.
“Totally,” Rusza agreed. “Before I got to know Sanna, I never knew what the world was like, outside my little life in school and at home. The more I hear about what she went through, the more I see how nothing I thought was important really is.”
Dr. Zuma said to Turstin, “Has anyone told you where we’re going?”
“North Territory,” he said grudgingly, “Cavern.”
“That’s where you’re going,” she replied. “We’re stopping there to drop you off at your new appointment, but then we’re moving on. We’re going to visit a place called Sky-wind. It was Sanna Taivas’ home village, until it was destroyed by the Decay three years ago. Only twenty-seven people survived, not counting Sanna, because they didn’t have anyone with a sympathy that could fight the Decay. The village is a cemetery now.”
Rusza was ready to react to whatever nasty remark Turstin made in response, but Turstin said nothing.
“That incident inspired Sanna to train for a position on a specialist disposal company, so the same need not happen to other villages. If she knew your story, she would not readily forgive you.”
“You talk like you know,” said Turstin in a thick, resentful voice.
“I’ve read your file. Did you know that the fastest and surest way to ensure that Company G would never accept you was to insult women and abuse your strength toward those weaker than yourself? Especially when that involves threatening not to protect civilians from the Decay unless they gave you whatever you wanted. There was no way that a company dedicated to eradicating the Decay would forgive an attitude like that.”
Rusza hurriedly dug in his pack and pulled out the book Uncle Everard had loaned him, so as not to eavesdrop on what had suddenly turned into a counseling session. The book was a biography of a renowned soldier, a noted strategist and ambassador who had lived more than a hundred years ago. History though it was, the book was also an exciting, gripping adventure story. Rusza soon forgot everyone around him as he sank deep into the story of campaigns past.
Then he came across a word he couldn’t remember having seen before. He looked up from his book. Dr. Zuma and Turstin were no longer conversing, so Rusza asked the doctor, “Do you know what this means, Dr. Zuma?” He pointed at the unfamiliar word.
She took a glance and said, “Guile. That means something like trickery or sneakiness.”
Rusza frowned. “That… isn’t that a bad thing, then? Like lying.”
“Well, it can be negative, if it’s used against the innocent or defenseless,” she agreed, “but if I understand the context in that case, it is more like being wise to others’ deception. Did you know that Father Locke is known and respected for his guile? He’s a difficult man to fool, because he’s so aware of the different ways people try to lie and cheat. Is that a bad thing?”
“Not when you put it that way,” Rusza admitted. “It makes sense. Thanks.” He went back to reading.
The next interruption came when Turstin jogged Rusza’s elbow hard. Rusza looked up sharply. “What?”
“I’ve been trying to get your attention for hours now,” said Turstin. “What’s in that book that’s so interesting that you can’t hear a man talking right in your ear?”
Rusza held up the book so that Turstin could see the title on the spine. “It’s really good. There was this guy named Domigius Lincoln, about a hundred and twenty years ago, who led a disposal company through what’s now South Territory. He’s mostly responsible for the territory being there today. Amazing fighter, amazing strategist. There’s a village named after him and everything.”
“Domigius? That’s just up the road from Hacche Mead,” said Turstin.
“You know it? You should read this too. You can look on over my shoulder if you want.”
Turstin turned dark red and snarled, “You making fun of me?”
“Why would I make fun of you?” said Rusza, startled. “I just figured, if he’s buried near your hometown, you might find him interesting. That’s all.”
“Rusza,” said Dr. Zuma softly, “it wasn’t the subject matter he meant. Turstin, tell him.”
Turstin blurted out, “I can’t read,” but his face when he said it was more resentful than ever.
“Oh. Well, if you can’t, then you can’t. Want me to read it out to you? I’m no great reader myself, but I can probably manage, if Dr. Zuma helps me pronounce some of the words.”
Turstin gazed at him as if at some alien creature. Then, awkward to the last, he subsided into his seat. “If you want,” he muttered.
So Rusza started back at the start of the chapter, reading aloud. He managed four pages before he hit another word he didn’t recognize. He held out the book and pointed.
Dr. Zuma looked for a moment. “Redolent. It means it reminds you of something like it. In this context, it looks like he’s saying the scent of the flowers reminded Lincoln of the Decay.”
“Nasty flowers,” said Rusza with a shudder.
“Actually, to someone who has inhaled the Decay’s mists, the Decay smells sweet,” Dr. Zuma noted. “That’s part of what makes it so dangerous to the unwary. That, and the psychological effects it exerts.”
“Really?” Rusza turned his attention back to the book with greater interest. “Is that why he’s so… I’m not sure how to say it… he’s so decided about destroying the Decay?”
“Yes. It takes many like that, when they’re saved from the Decay: they hate it afterwards as fiercely as they were drawn to it before.”
The chapter ended in suspense, so Rusza turned the page and kept reading it out. He got hung up again, this time on the word “venal.” Dr. Zuma admitted that it wasn’t a word she was familiar with, but that it probably meant something like “corrupt.” When they started asking around, no one else knew for sure, though everyone agreed that “corrupt” would fit the context. Aunt Coralie said, “You’ll have to ask Everard at the next pit stop. He’ll know.”
Rusza had gone back to reading the book out for Turstin, covering two more chapters uninterrupted, when a large diamond-shaped head covered in scales thrust itself out from under the seat between him and Turstin. Rusza jumped up and away, shouting in his alarm. The personnel carrier swerved slightly, knocking him just off-balance enough that he sat hard on Sergeant Ambrose.
Turstin had his feet pulled up on the seat in alarm, and Dr. Zuma held a hand to her chest as she said, “That was sudden!”
Ambrose pushed Rusza onto a vacant seat. He was laughing uproariously as he got up, bent down, and pulled the boa constrictor out from under Turstin’s seat. “Bertie! Bertie, wake up,” he laughed, “and do something about Rick!”
The driver had pulled over onto the shoulder. By this point, Turstin was yelling, “Get that thing away from me!” Rusza got himself under control and said, “Turstin, let’s step outside.” He himself shied away when the boa constrictor’s scaly side brushed against his arm, but he held it together until he had dragged Turstin out of the personnel carrier and onto the verge.
Uncle Everard’s personnel carrier had pulled over behind them, and Uncle Everard was already out the door. “What’s wrong?”
“Huge snake,” Rusza said. “Massive snake, loose on the bus.” He shuddered and exclaimed in disgust.
Laughter was pouring out the open door of the carrier behind them. Turstin stated, “I won’t ride with an animal like that, I won’t.” He was still trembling, but quickly growing angry in place of his fear.
Uncle Everard stood in silent contemplation of the pair for several seconds. Then, mildly, he called up through the open door, “Cora, I’m transferring him to my carrier. Dr. Zuma, if you would…” He led Rusza and Turstin to the second personnel carrier and all the way to the back, which was enclosed by sturdy coated mesh as a cell for transporting prisoners. Having shut Turstin in, Uncle Everard turned to confer with Dr. Zuma for a few seconds. “Rusza,” he said afterward, “you’re relieved of escort duties until our next stop.”
“Rusza,” said Dr. Zuma suddenly, “may I borrow your book?”
“Sure, Dr. Zuma.” Rusza still had it gripped tightly in his hand. He noticed that the page he had been reading was slightly ripped from the upheaval caused by the snake. “Sorry, Uncle Everard, I didn’t mean to tear it. Oh, and what does this word mean?” He flipped through the pages to point to the unknown word.
“Venal,” said Uncle Everard. “It means especially weak to bribery, someone who can be bought off.”
“We were close,” said Dr. Zuma as she accepted the book from Rusza. “We guessed it meant some kind of corruption.”
Rusza happily accepted the lifting of his new responsibilities. He strode back toward the front of the carrier and drooped down in the open seat between Sanna and Fiola. “Hello again!” he declared.
Soren, whose seat he had taken, jumped from Sanna’s lap to Rusza’s. “Rusza Tate!” The child clung around Rusza’s neck.
“There’s my play buddy!” Rusza grabbed Soren by the ankles and suddenly held the child upside-down in the air. “Curl up!” When the child obeyed, Rusza swung him so he would land seated on his lap. “You’re getting good at that,” Rusza praised.
“What happened?” asked Sanna. “Father Locke was worried.”
So Rusza told them about the scare he had gotten from the boa constrictor.
“That’s Rick,” said Crystallin. She was seated at Fiola’s other side. “I didn’t know you were scared of snakes, Rusza.”
“Only huge ones,” he retorted. “I didn’t know it either until just now.”
“Was Bertie still wearing his pants?” Crystallin asked. “That’s actually more startling than when Rick gets loose on the carrier. Suddenly Bertie walks by, not wearing a stitch, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.”
“You don’t know where you dare look,” added Fiola, blushing.
“No, I didn’t get to see that,” Rusza admitted, “though I still don’t think it could be more alarming than having a giant snake head rear up at you from under the seat. You’re very quiet, Lily Allen.”
Lily was shrinking back in her seat. When Rusza spoke to her, she said, “Lean forward a little more, Rusza. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Why?”
“He’s looking at me. I can’t stand him looking at me. It’s gross,” she complained.
Sanna turned sideways in her seat, facing Rusza. “Is that better?”
“Much,” Rusza said.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she replied mildly.
Lily giggled and took the refuge offered behind Sanna’s back. “Thanks. You’re still my hero, Sanna.”