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THE BARN SAT AT THE EDGE OF A LEVEL meadow, facing the broad, rich fields, its back to the hill, house, and landing pad. It was a long, wide building with huge doors at either end and a roof pitched and curved at seeming random; during the day its roof and walls of flexible solar panels darkened as they soaked in the light, and throughout the night it glowed in the reflection of a million stars. Within, a series of lofts and balconies rose above the cavernous main floor, connected by swaying rope ladders over which, on other days, the three Kennerin children scampered and swung in pursuit of their intricate, carefully plotted games. Mish Kennerin had seen them as tiny, luminous figures darting through the dim reaches of the barn, so far from her that the sound of their voices and the padding of their feet muted with distance, becoming small, almost subliminal whisperings in the still air. At those times Mish paused, almost breathless, her usual resentment of the huge building replaced by a confusion of loss, a sense that the structure breathed a dark magic which was slowly and certainly taking her children from her. Uneasy and baffled, she would blink in the dimness before turning away, often forgetting why and for what she had come, and stand leaning at the monstrous doors, caught halfway between the darkness and the light.
Even now the barn seemed to absorb the crowd of refugees, accepting them into a segregated corner and reserving its distances for darkness and quiet. Mish stood at the edge of a third-level balcony, her arms full of blankets, and looked down at the bright corner of light. What seemed chaos was in reality an almost shapeless order. The refugees lined up forthe stew and bread which Quilla and Jes ladled from the steaming caldron or popped from large, cloth-covered baskets; the few bowls and plates were emptied and handed to those still in line. Children ran shouting through the crowd, adults called out over their bobbing heads, babies wailed. It seemed to Mish that the barn floor below her boiled with an excess of emotion, a tide of relief. She remembered her own landing on Terra so many years and lightyears before, stumbling from the crowded belly of the ship into a winter of inspectors and hard-faced guards, herded through examinations and searches, separated without explanation into the group of workers allotted to the Altacostas, the group to the Karlovs, the group to the Kennerins. But the contrast did not lighten her mood, nor quell her foreboding. There were too many of them, too many arms and legs and mouths and feet--so many fresh and unknown souls that she shivered before moving down the swaying rope ladder, blankets piled on her shoulders, a small frown between her brows.
They had reeled from the shuttles onto alien ground, more than two hundred of them, plucked by Jason Kennerin from a world gone sour, a world soon to die. Carrying their few remaining belongings clutched to their bodies, bringing memories of persecution and snow. Their world was dying, their leaders had abdicated to the realms of insanity; this much Mish knew, had known when Jason left on Captain Hetch's silver shuttle, gone to rescue those he could, gone to make one family's small gesture of help. They had expected no more than fifty people, sixty at the very most; one shuttle's worth of refugees, one winter's surplus of food and clothing, no more--only fifty new faces, new bodies, new minds. Enough to handle, enough to understand. After twelve years alone on Aerie, just Mish and Jason, Laur and the three children, and the calm, marsupial native kasirene, Mish's memories of other humans had blurred, until the crowds of her childhood took on Kennerin faces, and although she fought against the impression as false, as dangerous, she had not been able to shake it. The refugees would not be brown, Mongol-eyed, thin people. They would be--what? Strangers. Immigrants. Aliens. And so they were, more than four times as many as she had expected, short and fat and thin and dark and light, hair of many shades, faces in all shapes and sizes, eyes of colors she had forgotten existed. For twelve years, Jason had been the only tall one in the universe; now these strangers towered over her, tired, dirty, broken, gaunt. Yet she remembered where they had come from, could guess at what they had been through, and she forced herself to retreat from fear, to remember their humanity despite their numbers, or colors, or scents. The rope ladder shifted beneath her feet; she waited until it steadied, then continued down.
She dropped the blankets into a corner where some few of the refugees were already curled in the dense, sweet hay, and she nodded to them in strained friendliness before hurrying along the edge of the crowd toward the head of the food line. The voices melted into a continuous, painful cacophony against which she had little defense. She hunched her shoulders, slipped through standing and sitting groups, and stopped as she saw the front of the line. Jes and Quilla ladled stew and offered bread, their heads down and their eyes fastened on the work of their hands. They seemed to Mish rooted automatons--the luminous, enchanted creatures of the lofts transformed by the pull and press of the mob. A fierce, protective tenderness rose in her, and she pushed her way to them, her own uneasiness for the moment forgotten.
Jes looked up and tried to smile. His blue eyes were rimmed with darkness and looked huge in his weary face.
"I don't think there's going to be enough," Quilla muttered without glancing at her mother. "We're almost out of stew, and the bread's about gone." She lifted her head, her face expressionless and damp.
"We'll manage," Mish said. "There aren't too many left in line. Where's Laur?"
"She said the stench was too much for her, and their accents are barbarous," Jes said. "She went back to the house."
"Damn," Mish said. This was no time for the fierce old woman to haul out her genteel upbringing and delicate sensibilities, but there was no help for it. Mish scanned the barn, looking for her youngest child. "We'll set up showers tomorrow; she really shouldn't have left. Where's Hart?"
"Probably home with Laur," Jes said. Mish put her arm around him as he swayed.
"You go on home, Jessie. I'll take care of this."
Jes looked at her with gratitude and ran, not through the crowd to the nearest door, but into the darkness of the unused portion of the barn. Mish watched him, wishing that she, too, were taking the long, quiet way home. Quilla continued to ladle stew, her face once again turned away from the people. Quilla had been two when Jason and Mish left Terra. Jes and Hart were born on Aerie, and had never seen humans other than the family and Laur; Quilla probably could not remember the crowds of her birth-world.
And I forgot to worry about that, Mish thought. No help for this, either. She touched her daughter's cheek, in love and apology.
"Can you last it out a bit more?"
"I guess so. I'm tired."
"I know. I'll take care of this. Can you go up to the storage loft and see if there are any more blankets, anything we can use down here?"
Quilla managed a smile. "Sure. The third loft? Is anyone up there?"
"No. Bring the stuff down by the door. People should be able to find it there."
Quilla gave her mother the ladle and slipped away, going as her brother had into the far emptiness of the barn, and Mish knew that her daughter would follow a maze of ropes and balconies, finding solace in the quiet darkness. Mish ladled stew until the caldron was empty, then raised her head. A gaunt, determined man stood before her and thrust a bowl at her face.
"I want some more," he said. "That crap you gave me wasn't enough."
"There'll be more food tomorrow. The stew's gone."
"I want more now. I'm still hungry."
A hand appeared on the man's shoulder. "We're all still hungry, Gren, but we'll last. Calm down."
Mish looked at the speaker: a gray-eyed young man with a flute tucked under his belt, pale yellow hair matted and dirty around his face, torn clothing, bare feet. As alien as possible, yet he smiled at her and took Gren by the arm, and Mish felt a tide of amity and of relief.
"Come on, kiter," the young man said. "You've had a bowl."
"He's had two," a child said. "I saw him. He's already had two."
Gren jerked away, flung his bowl on the ground, and stalked into the crowd. The man picked up the bowl.
"I'm sorry Gren was nasty. He lost his family on NewHome, and it's made him worse than usual."
"It's all right." She took the bowl and held it, then dropped it into the empty caldron. "I'm Mish Kennerin," she said, not knowing what else to say.
"I know. I'm Tabor Grif." He smiled at her until she smiled back and her shoulders relaxed.
"I guess we're all a bit tense. We weren't expecting quite so many of you."
Tabor shrugged and frowned and touched his flute. "Your husband's a remarkable man. We were going to die there, in the camps. Many of us already had." He gestured at the barn, the people, the caldron, at Mish. "It's hard to believe we're here. That we're alive. That we've eaten. That they won't come after us again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that."
Mish touched his arm. "It was very bad?"
"Ask Jason." He smiled again. "But here we are. Can I collect the empty bowls and put them in the pot? Would that help?"
"Yes." Mish realized that her hand was still on his arm. She stepped back quickly, smiled, watched him turn and begin searching through the crowd. She moved away from the caldron. Fewer people were about and the noise abated as the refugees crept into the piles of hay, settled themselves and their belongings, and slept. Mish walked slowly, looking for Jason.
She found him directing the placement of more hay in the sleeping areas, and she stood silent, watching the shift of his muscles under his light suit. Save for the brief embrace at the landing field, they had barely seen or spoken to each other during the long evening. He reached forward to grab a bale from the pile, turned with it, put it down, raised an arm, called something; the barn blurred until he moved in her vision against a backdrop of running darks and lights, and when he glanced at her she gave him a look of such intensity that he turned from the work and walked to the barn door. Together and in silence they crossed the fields, until the sounds from the barn were muted with distance. Mish lay in the unmown grasses, suddenly urgent, and pulled him to her.
In the warmth after lovemaking, Mish's unease returned. She collected their scattered clothing and pulled it around them, and Jason settled his head on her breast and sighed. His eyes closed, but before she could collect her thoughts into rationality, he moved still closer and touched her cheek with his fingers.
"I couldn't leave them," he murmured. "They were in a camp, near the port, so many of them, and bodies thrown outside the fence like garbage. We had to fight our way out. I thought the Council would be glad to let me take them, but ... Captain Hetch let them all on; he didn't turn anyone back. Oh, Mish, there were so many bodies on NewHome."
His voice carried pain and fatigue. She hugged him. "It's all right, Jase. They're safe now."
"I don't even know who they are. I just grabbed people, behind me, running, grabbing people, pushing, and people falling down in the snow, sick or killed or old, I tried, Mish, but there were so many bodies." He shivered against her.
"Don't they know about their primary?"
"Maybe. They're all crazy there. They don't care. Trying to make a killing before the killing." He laughed. "Too busy persecuting people, killing people until their sun kills them. Soon, Hetch said. Maybe not soon enough. Their souls are rotted." Jason put his hand over his eyes, and Mish kissed his fingers. "So many bodies, Mish. So many bodies, and so much snow."
He fell asleep, curled as close to her as possible. She held him and listened to the remote noises from the barn. Two crescent moons floated overhead, and behind them the innumerable stars of The Spiral glowed against a backdrop of black velvet. She wondered what the stars looked like from NewHome, seen through the cold air of a winter camp. So many bodies on NewHome: dark, like hers; light, like Tabor Grif. Old men. Children. What Hetch had told her of the purges made no sense--politics, parties, religious convictions, philosophies. The sun moving toward nova and the climate of NewHome entering chaos--those were the real villains. Five years of drought and three of famine, and if the government of NewHome had any sense, they would have evacuated in the third year, when the primary shift became certain. But there was no vengeance to be had on a star, on an atmosphere, on meteorological conditions, on blight. And no profit, either. Scapegoats were needed, instant symbols of The Enemy, symbols which could be broken and killed--unlike the long dryness, unlike the dying sun. Symbols which could be looted, could be sacked. Old women. Children. Snow. The National Confederation of Great Barrier reaching across boundaries to smite the foe. No wonder the Council had not wanted Jason to take the people. The Council wanted revenge, and there is no satisfaction in revenge enacted on absent parties.
A small, six-legged lizard ran up Mish's arm, stopped, chattered at her, and sprang into the grass. One moon slipped below the horizon, and the other sat directly overhead, so that the stars of The Spiral seemed to radiate from it. Mish turned her head, nestling her cheek in Jason's hair, and he moved in her arms. She closed her eyes. Tomorrow they could talk about Gren, and Laur, and the food, and they would make plans to deal with so many people, so many needs, so much uncertainty. Tomorrow. She relaxed and tried to push the worry from her mind, but it pursued her into sleep and colored her fitful dreams.