Restorations is a novelette by Michael David presented in 3 parts.
This Posting is Chapter One, A Game of Turkame
A time neared, a day when the temple would fill with voices, with high tones and low, and with chimes that Michelle knew to be words. The Day of the Joining approached, when those who gathered would sing prayers in an alien tongue. By the thousands they would come, warriors and the wizened old alike, civil officials trimmed in gold, commoners in gray, and prelates in robes of white. They would fill the temple like a flood.
These things Michelle White had come to anticipate, for her name was a curse to many. To others, it remained something more, a possibility of sorts. For those reasons, on the world of Guillarin, in the quiet evenings of her soul, Michelle found no place to rest. Here, in that world’s most ancient city, her sleep brought little more than restless dreams.
On this morning, rising early to set about her work, it occurred to Michelle that nothing in the temple recognized her fears. Nothing in the vaulting darkness above acknowledged the urgency of her foreboding. And of the energy of the thousands milling in the streets and markets of the city, a city as old as Jerusalem, not a sound, not a shout, not the turn of a cartwheel upon stone seeped within the dark solitude of the temple. The millennia old frescoes about her stood resolute within their fortress walls.
Here all was calm, and from the floor to the barrel-vaulted heights, nothing in the temple acknowledged the coming event. Nevertheless, on the Day of the Joining, the entire Guillarin world would press within to see her handiwork. The gateways and the windows would open, and along with a flood of sunlight they would come, Guillarin from all over their world, arriving to see the newly restored frescoes of Alecord.
About the temple, a dozen gateways, great doors of wood and iron, stood fast against the city. Today, as they had for centuries, these doors stood closed and barred, and through them the weightiest noise in the streets became no more than the rush of a distant sea.
With quiet intensity, Michelle supervised the realigning of the equipment. Her legs ached as she moved from sensor to sensor, kneeling to adjust each unit and wishing for more help, especially for humans familiar with the gear. So far, the enthusiasm of her alien crew had not made up for their lack of training.
“You,” she said to a Guillarin, “shutter that window.” Michelle pointed to a slit in the stonework, high above the doors, where a ray of light was falling across one of the receiver arrays. Off went the Guillarin, and, to Michelle’s relief, she found she had but one last dial to adjust before setting her little army of automatons in motion.
On a scaffolding twenty meters above the floor, employing rays of invisible light and driven by silent, electronic brains, the robotic, photogrammetric survey of the last third of the temple began.
So far only test areas of the frescoes had been cleaned, first with distilled, deionized water, then with one or more applications of the bicarbonates of sodium and ammonium,- according to the time-honored human formula. Applicators filled with the AB-57c and controlled by microprocessors allowed a known layer of debris to be removed. Even in alien hands the results were effective, if shocking.
Having known what to expect, Michelle only smiled.
“‘It was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment,'” she said, quoting a contemporary of the Guillarin artist whose final work graced the surrounding walls.
“Now”, she continued to herself, “we’re seeing it again, as it was meant to be seen.”
That in itself should have encouraged more support from the native crews, especially on Guillarin where art and religion, art and politics, art and philosophy wove so completely, one reality into the next, that no separate words existed to distinguish them. And here before all rose the greatest and most influential of masterworks, its secrets awaiting the careful efforts at restoration now under way, a restoration some Guillarin saw as revelation and others considered blasphemy.
The tension slowed progress. The controversy caught at the heart of Guillarin good will, and day-by-day Michelle counted fewer natives where more should have been hired to meet the schedule. Where was her foreman today, her native liaison?
Where was Cowain?
For generation after generation, dark hues and brooding shadows defined the frescoes of Alecord, the images of two great religions made somber by time, smoke, and dust.
This morning Michelle had five Guillarin technicians on the survey and a computer equipped with automatic rovers and eighty petabytes of memory learning every crack, sag, and hollow in the surface of the plaster. Already they had found more than a single layer in the frescoes and evidence of more hands at work than those of the great prophet and painter, Lucresa.
Michelle’s patron was pleased with the results. But whether that should soothe her or be the worst of her concerns, Michelle remained uncertain. In the city, she had heard, the squares and fountains came alive each day with dissenting voices, with the cries of Rejan ministers and the offended sensibilities of the Atoni priests. It was too much to think about, and the nervousness that came so easily with lack of sleep only worsened the situation. Michelle tried to focus.
“With ultraviolet light,” she said to the Guillarin behind her, “we can identify touch-ups, even understand more about whatever conservation efforts were made in the last thousand years. The written records are spotty.” As she clambered down the scaffolding, the female alien jumped past her before she reached the final meter.
At five foot seven, Ulecker stood eye to eye with Michelle, a graceful, young native she had come to rely on almost as much as Cowain. Together they headed for a single table in the emptiness. It was a plane of polished stone, and upon it rested several dozen books and manuals, papers spilling out onto the floor, a gaming board of Guillarin design, and -more important to Michelle than the rest- a canister of fresh coffee.
“I heard you quoting the Journal of Alecord earlier, Miss White,” said the Guillarin. “Have you read the other translations I gave you as well?”
“Bits and pieces,” Michelle admitted, somewhat distracted as she watched her robots crawl like careful spiders across the walls. “This Lucresa of yours was no celebrity. The Atoni convicted him of heresy in his youth, but the Rejan minister who saved him from execution practically enslaved him.”
“Oh, yes,” said Ulecker. “Great work often comes from suffering. Sometimes of the body, sometimes of the soul. For some it is the risk of-”
“Has anyone called from Retiga?” Michelle asked, interrupting as she poured herself a cup of coffee. “From the spaceport or the embassy? To repair the digital processor.”
“Any deliveries? Parts for the spectrometer?”
“Held up at Retiga, Miss White. Customs due.”
Michelle rubbed at her eyes, sore from lack of sleep. How, she asked herself, was she supposed to operate without supplies or support? Even if her patron was pleased, she could only do so much with the rest of the population conspiring against her. She said as much aloud.
“I could go to Retiga,” Ulecker offered. “I know a scholar there, the one who provided the translations for you. She might help, and… You know, I’ve never seen a human ship.”
More than the others, Michelle knew, Ulecker had fallen in love with human culture, perhaps with Michelle herself. She was eager to please, and Michelle hoped for a straight answer when she asked, “I haven’t seen Cowain today. Did he send a message?”
“No, I’m afraid not, Miss White.”
“Doesn’t he know how much is at stake here? We won’t be ready for the ceremonies if he doesn’t show up to work,” she finished. Brushing a wisp of brown hair from her eyes, Michelle held her cup out to accept a refill of coffee proffered by Ulecker. Her stomach burned with anxiety. “Where is he?”
She tried to read the Ulecker’s expression. Twenty-six years of academic and restoration work, of wandering from Eledar to Carrafee, from the dense jungles of Tula to the ribbed-glass worlds of the orbital cities should have prepared her to read any expression; so she believed. Yet when the Guillarin smiled, they did so with lips of fired glass, each movement and breath obscured by a flesh fine as porcelain, as revealing as stone.
To Michelle their expressions came like a message sculpted for another age. And yet however alien the Guillarin proved as a species, they were beautiful and enigmatic a thousand times beyond it. Michelle watched an eyebrow raise, watched that line like gold painted round a china cup curve upward on Ulecker’s brow while she sipped coffee from a plastic mug.
“Your move,” said Ulecker. Her voice held a certain artistry, a music of clicks and chimes which she employed while managing somehow to keep her English beyond reproach. The Guillarin salted her coffee and stopped, waiting, so it seemed to Michelle, for the human to turn her attention to the gaming board. And if Ulecker had heard her question, she gave not the slightest hint of it.
“Ulecker, I am not accepting silence as an answer,” Michelle said bluntly. Looking down to the board, she fingered one of the pieces, a marbled pillar that worked as the equivalent of a king in chess, and realizing she had committed herself, moved it back across the gilded hexagons.
“You must never retreat in turkame,” said Ulecker. “Now I will cut you off in three rounds.”
“Never retreat,” Michelle repeated. She sighed, wondering whether Ulecker could detect her fears, her hesitancy. “That being the case, then tell me, where is Cowain?”
Outside the temple of Alecord, a low, sloping pyramid of stairs led down into a city of the same name. The sun was at midday and so brilliant Michelle imagined its rays passing through her, effortlessly penetrating the crowds that drifted through the markets like noisy ghosts, rushing through the many guards before the temple, rays unchecked by all but the temple’s immensely thick walls.
It was hot. Sweat began to trickle down her back as she approached the streets. Here before her, in their masses, the Guillarin lost some of their charm, baked as they were in the grit of the desert and of the bricks and of what dust passing animals and carts kicked up as they moved through the unpaved streets.
Never before had Michelle been so alone.
Beyond a handful of flat-roofed houses, through a triumphal arch, she spied a satellite dish. Similar receivers waited on many buildings, signs of a technical culture as distinct from the old city as the bright bottles of flavored water in the local shops seemed set apart from the earthenware watering pots now falling out of favor and out of use.
Even more technically advanced places awaited the traveler on Guillarin, cities where steel and light and imported motor vehicles reigned. But the temple of Alecord rose in its majesty nowhere else. It was here, and to this spot Michelle had been drawn, three hundred miles from the spaceport of Retiga and the nearest human contact.
Today, as she left the temple, two of the guards escorted her down the stairs and into the crowd. Shouts surrounded them at first, oaths in an alien tongue, but the guards pushed back those who came too close. Then, after pulling up her hood, Michelle found it easy to mix with the rush and to disappear into the traffic.
Even following Ulecker’s instructions, it took more than a single inquiry and over five hours of searching, of Michelle’s wandering the back streets of Alecord, gold in hand, to find an answer. Cowain had been her source of labor and supplies. He was the native administrator who knew English and Italian and more than two of his own world’s tongues, who had studied at Scialoja on Earth and without whom Michelle had little chance of completing her task.
The tavern toward which her contacts steered her was a place of many corners and of dark, low voices. Here the patrons hid from the sun while the dust settled from their clothes, and the local drinks, Ulecker had warned her, were toxic to humans.
“You resigned?” Michelle asked, standing at last over Cowain’s table. “How could you do that to me?”
He sat alone. Before him rested a tankard of ale, half drained, and beside that what looked like leaves in dried butter. Traditional Guillarin fare. It reminded Michelle of how long it had been since she last enjoyed a decent, human meal.
“The ceremony will be here in less than a month. So many of our workers have quit because of the protests, and how am I supposed to find more qualified Guillarin on my own?” Cowain remained motionless on the bench, as still as the bricks and the furniture, muscles like corded glass showing through his robes.
“Michelle White,” he said. “I know you now.” He took a drink in silence and did not openly object when Michelle took the seat opposite his. Alone together, they sat isolated in the darkness of the booth. His words chilled her. What could he know? Michelle tried to be more congenial.
“Yesterday we suspended pigment samples in a polyester resin,” she said, as though they had sat down together to talk shop. “When we took cross sections and magnified them, we were able to distinguish, absolutely, between the dirt accumulated over centuries and the original paint.”
Cowain remained silent.
It would be, Michelle realized, like a game of turkame: move and counter move while never revealing one’s true concerns, unveiling the real strategy. Never retreat. Michelle lowered her voice as if engaging in some confidence with Cowain. “It’s astounding really. I’ve seen bristles from the master’s brush, evidence of outlines applied and abandoned, wedges in the plaster where Lucresa must have been testing the applied mix. You know he had to start over when mildew attacked his first attempts. Too much water in the intonaco.”
Seeing that she had begun, unconsciously, to drum her fingers on the table, Michelle relaxed them, allowing her right hand to fall near Cowain’s own.
“It’s not the colors, is it Cowain?”
For generation after generation, dark hues and brooding shadows defined the frescoes of Alecord, the images of two great religions made somber by time, smoke, and dust.
It was said that in the frescoes of Lucresa and nowhere else the religions “were combined into one, alloyed through impressions of grandeur part real and part based on long-held tradition.” At least the Journal of Alecord put it so, and more than one other ancient tome proffered similar sentiments.
But put more truthfully, Michelle thought, many Guillarins were confusing grime with mystery. The brilliant, almost dashing colors she had revealed were unsettling to some. Cowain said nothing, and Michelle felt all of her years crashing down around her, her heart picking up the pace as it moved toward desperation.
“Be honest, Cowain. Did I offend you? X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry,- are we doing something that offends Guillarin sensibilities?” Growing impatient, she pressed on, “Did you think Lucresa did it all? That he had no assistants, that over the last two thousand years some frescoes had not been retouched, even reworked by other hands?”
Eyes with the sheen of polished blue stones widened. Cowain drew one more draught of ale through his sculpted lips and began at last to speak. “You are dangerous,” he said, his eyes blazing. “I can’t believe it, but you are. I tell you…” He swayed drunkenly in his seat. “You cannot do this thing you have been employed to do!”
“Well, that’s direct.” Michelle watched goose bumps form on her arms. For the first time it occurred to her that she might be in danger; her mind raced. “If you think I’m playing dumb, I’ll understand. But I really don’t know…” Then it occurred to her!
“Tribal wars,” she said. “Lucresa brought the Reja and the Atoni together; the frescoes of Alecord have been symbolic of that for over two millennia. Somehow, you’re afraid my work will bring back those rivalries!”
Michelle continued, rummaging through what she understood of the Guillarin aloud and hoping to strike a nerve. To her surprise Cowain endured it, his eyes never leaving hers.
Step by step, she matched bits of alien history against what she had found in the temple, conjuring in her mind the images projected by the digital analyzer,- what the computer had shown as the second level below the grime and the meddling of late first century artists.
One picture of the Guillarin with swords raised, mounted on their beasts of war, some in chariots, others drawing catapults onto the field of battle came to the forefront of Michelle’s thoughts. The theme was secondary. But something about the swords and chariots struck a familiar chord, the glint of their manufacture rushing through Michelle’s thoughts alongside images from other parts of the temple, of dams, bridges, and ancient canals.
“The balance is off,” she said. “Cowain, the balance between technical and mystical images is off. The restoration favors the Atoni love of implements and machines.”
“Eldriq is Atoni,” said Cowain, referring to Michelle’s patron. With one hand, in a blinding instant, he summoned from the darkness beneath the table a jeweled knife as deadly as any Michelle had ever seen, plunging the point of it into the wood, its impact spilling food from the plate onto the table.
The rest he left to hang in the air, as if the most obvious move in turkame had been made, leaving her without hope and checkmated.
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