Over the last month Carrington had seen and heard more strange things than he had in his entire life up until that point. The meeting between Stephen Mond and Naomi Bertolini was the strangest yet. Wrinkles lined Mond’s face and graying hair was taking over his head; he sat uncomfortably in his wheelchair and his prosthetic arms lay awkwardly on the table in front of him. He avoided eye contact with most of the people in the room. So far the only other people he’d directly acknowledged were the guards who’d brought him in.
Naomi sat ramrod straight in her chair. Her lips were pressed together in a firm line, creating a tightness around her eyes and mouth, but otherwise her youth was evident all across her face. Yet she bore herself with more maturity. She kept her attention on Mond most of the time but she found a moment to whisper something as an aside to Teng. She was tense, he thought, but otherwise her mood was unreadable.
After a lot of bickering back and forth Carrington had decided it wasn’t fair to let too many people dogpile Mond and sent everyone but the two guards, Naomi and Teng out of the meeting room. He took a chair beside the Director, trying to put himself in the mindset of a lawyer. That got dark very quickly so he stopped and switched to trying to think of Mond as a friend, or at least someone he didn’t hate. That was a bit more achievable. “Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, Director Mond,” he began. “I’ve asked you here today at the request of one of our other guests who’s expressed an interest in meeting you. Director, this is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Mrs. Bertolini, allow me to introduce Director Steven Mond of Earth’s Unified Government.”
“Good afternoon, Director,” Naomi said, offering him her hand.
Mond hesitated for a second before accepting it, studying her face carefully as she grasped his prosthetic. “Hello, Miss Bertolini. How are you feeling today?”
“I must admit I feel a little unsettled to be speaking to you, Director Mond,” Naomi said, studying his prosthetic with a clinical eye. “Are you well? You look like you had an accident recently and a pretty nasty one at that.”
“I made the mistake of handling a dangerous piece of hardware while I was… unstable. This is the consequence of that.” He gently pulled his mechanical limb back and put both his hands in his lap, out of sight under the table.
“I hope you have a speedy recovery.”
Once again Mond looked down at the table, refusing to meet her eyes. “Thank you, Miss Bertolini. I was more fortunate than the other man involved so I consider myself lucky.”
“The oyarsa was undoubtedly-” Naomi caught herself and blushed, the first crack in her armor so far. “You have been blessed by Maleldil, the most high, no doubt.”
Mond managed a wan smile, some of his usual self-confidence managing to reassert itself. “I do doubt, actually. On Earth there are no higher rulers than the sapiens ourselves.”
Naomi nodded once. “Yes, we have heard that the oyarsa of Earth has become bent and turned its back on its people and its purpose. You have our condolences.”
“I’m not familiar with the word ‘oyarsa,’” Mond said. “Does it refer to a god of some sort? Or perhaps one of his angels, since your Maleldil is most high he would logically fill the role of diety.”
Carrington cleared his throat, causing both of them to jump. Apparently they’d gotten so fixed on each other they’d forgotten he was there, which spoke to their interest in each other or his own lack of presence, he couldn’t tell which. Once he was sure they were both paying attention to him he said, “To save some time hashing this issue out, the Malacandrans have a unique vocabulary for some common concepts from Earth history. An oyarsa is the rough equivalent of a guardian angel and they believe every planet has one. Malacandra is the name they give both Mars and its guardian, Thulcandra is their name for Earth and it’s guardian. My understanding is that Maleldil is, in fact, their name for a monotheistic god.”
Naomi nodded. “That’s a fair summary of how I would define the words, as well.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” Mond said. “And with the pleasantries out of the way, may I ask what the agenda for today is?”
“I’m afraid I’m the wrong one to ask.” Carrington gestured to Naomi and said, “We offered the Eldest an opportunity to visit the Homeworld but due to circumstances we already discussed our visit has been postponed. When she arrived this morning she asked to speak to you so here we are.”
There was a moment of strained silence as the Director and the Eldest stared each other down across the table. “May I ask you something, Miss Bertolini?”
“Of course, Director, so long as I can ask something as well.”
Carrington caught a smile tugging at the corners of Mond’s lips before he hid it again. “How did someone your age manage to become the Eldest of Mars?”
“When a Malacandran reaches seven thousand, three hundred and five days old they must pass out of the colony dome and into Silence.” Naomi recited the facts in a half chanting tone of voice. Her eyes were distant and her expression blank, like she was recalling facts she had committed to memory long ago. “Since the dome was too small to support a constantly growing population the oyarsa was given charge of the excess. We lost all our people with the knowledge to expand the colony when Thulcandra struck us centuries ago. So we had nothing else to fall back on. We could only hold fast to what little we had left, hope that seventy three cents of days would be enough to leave a legacy for the future and trust that the oyarsa would bring us through Silence into fellowship once again.”
All trace of amusement was gone from Mond’s face. “Miss Bertolini, that’s a wonderful sentiment and many have clung to it in the past. But surely you realize at this point that people don’t come back from the dead.”
“Director,” Carrington murmured. “While the word Silence can mean death in the broad sense, when the original Borealis settlers scraped together the few books and files UNIGOV left in their possession and sorted out how to go forward they gave it a double meaning. If a Malacandran lives their full seventy three cents they don’t technically leave the dome. It turns out there’s a Vault under Borealis City, too. So when people on Mars grow old enough to count as adults they go to that Vault and they’re put into Shutdown – into Silence – so they can wait until the dome is expanded enough to accommodate them.”
Naomi’s chin tilted up a few degrees in pride. “I am seventy three hundred and twenty four days old, Director Mond, and one of the first to come out of Silence and back into the fellowship of my peers.”
“I see.” Mond’s mouth was open just a sliver, his shoulders rising and falling with shallow, rapid breaths and his eyes staring wildly at nothing. “There were still people on Mars after all. When the colony was put into Shutdown the people retrieved didn’t match the official roster and we never did discover what happened to all of them. Most of you were children without medical systems, yes?”
“Yes…” Naomi leaned forward to get a better look at Mond’s face, clearly concerned. “Are you unwell, Director?”
“None of the colonists who were brought out of Shutdown would tell where the missing children were,” Mond said, ignoring her. “The missing had to be left in the dome and the colony abandoned. Even though it was inhumane – even though it was unsapiens to do such a thing we had to leave them behind. And now here you are. Every outward thought we meant to leave behind, on our doorsteps once again.”
Something profound was happening between the two planetary leaders and Carrington didn’t want to interrupt it, whatever it was. At the same time he was aware of an odd tension in the air and it put him on edge. When Naomi got up and walked around the table to Mond he almost made her go back to her seat just to be safe. But there was a pleading written on her face, a crease of her brow and a light in her eyes, that convinced him she just wanted to make her case to the other man and he decided he could let her go a little longer.
“Director Mond,” she said, cocking one hip up onto the table and reaching forward to rest a hand on his shoulder, “I’ve passed through Silence not once but twice now. First Volk and others brought me back to my family. Then they brought me here, to meet you and the Admiral, to discuss how we can break the Silence with the Triad Worlds and with Thulcandra – with Earth. Both Volk and the Admiral tell me you’ll resist changing your ways. I want to know if that’s true. Are the people of Malacandra really so abhorrent to you that you will not speak to us even now?”
“No, no, no,” Mond whispered, “I can’t. You don’t understand.”
“How can I?” For the first time Naomi’s youth slipped out of her control as her voice turned wheedling, almost whiny. “How can I understand if you won’t bother to explain?”
“We can’t go,” Mond went on, his voice rising steadily with no sign he even heard Naomi’s question. “We must stay. We cannot speak, we can only listen, we cannot assume we must always learn from what is. That is the sapiens way.”
Exasperated at hearing the same general sentiment time and again, Carrington demanded, “But what does it accomplish, Director? What can possibly be the point?”
“To know ourselves!” Mond practically exploded out of his chair, arms waving frantically. “Don’t you see? The martian way is to flail about wildly, going everywhere, taking everything and yelling all the while without a care for what they are doing or who it hurts. They know everything about the world around them but not one thing about themselves. Sapiens are driven in the opposite direction. We make the foundation of our society ourselves and without self realization nothing in sapiens society society can function!”
“Why can’t you know yourself and us as well?” Naomi asked, clearly taken aback by Mond’s sudden vehemence.
“Because you question and you analyze and you change,” Mond snapped. “How can we be ourselves if we are constantly under attack by outsiders who make demands of us, who doubt us, who require change of us? If a martian society is always on our doorstep we will be forever changing! There will be no secure foundation for sapiens.”
Carrington managed to bring his gaping mouth back under control. “Director, the Malacandrans based their society on a book intended as fiction published over four hundred years ago but they manage to get by. You base your society on a book you deliberately rewrite whenever it suits you. If you’re telling me sapiens are struggling to find a secure foundation to build on let me suggest that you start by not rewriting it whenever is convenient to you.”
With a chopping motion that nearly upended his chair Mond dismissed the admiral. “No, no, no. We rewrite Schrodinger’s book because there are constantly new martians among us, polluting our tranquility and forcing us to start the process of self-discovery anew. We just need to be left alone. If you martians would only oblige us maybe we wouldn’t have to go to such extremes but as it is we must do what we can!”
“I see.” Carrington would have expected anger or accusation from Naomi but to his surprise her voice held nothing but regret. “Mr. Mond, I don’t know much about sapiens or self realization. I do know that when your world is constantly shrinking, when being alone is the one thing you aspire to, you’ll get there eventually. I didn’t care much for my time in Silence, Director, I pray the sapiens will enjoy it more. Thank you for meeting me today.”
With that Malacandra’s Eldest waved across the table, collecting Teng, then walked out of the room, leaving Carrington and Mond with the guards. Mond stared at her as she left then shook his head. “What was that all about?”
“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out, Director, once you’re left alone like you asked. Guards? Please take Mr. Mond back to his room.”