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Aunt Lorenza's Bookcase

Virtualized by Synergy Educational Process Associates

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May 12, 2357

[Aunt Lorenza's Bookcase]

Lorenza

The sun was lowering and the day was moving on towards the Widow Towada's favorite time. "Blue time," she called it: when the sun had slipped below the horizon's edge but before the onset of full night, when the world took on a delightful cobalt shade. She always had felt that OSI had been very clever, very clever indeed, to appropriate just that shade of blue. It was the color of the soul.

She moved about the kitchen, making herself some tea, thinking to herself that maybe she would sit on the porch and knit. In a society in which everyone was expected to buy everything they needed pre-fabricated, it was a scandal and an outrage to make something with one's hands, and Lorenza loved to scandalize the neighbors. Although my neighbors have become woefully jaded lately, she thought. Perhaps they have had been exposed to too much Lorenza. Her hands were bony but graceful, and she still had enough dexterity to knit though she was beginning to need a cane to move around, especially outside, or when she got tired.

The light had just deepened into that perfect between-the-worlds shade when there was a knock at the door. She turned on an extra light for the guest or guests — probably a bored neighbor, maybe hoping to spice things up a little for everyone else with the latest outrage from the widow. "Just a moment!" She retrieved a hand-made shawl, arranged it around herself in a properly theatrical drape, got herself ready to perform the part of village eccentric, and flung opened the door with a flourish.

And stood there, shocked, at the unexpected sight of a tall man — a handsome man — a young(er, at least) man, a man dressed like an vicar of the Faith (oh dear, have they come for me at last?), and then abruptly realized who it was.

"Maximillian!" She cried out, her dawning horror transformed in an instant to joy.

"Good evening, Aunt Lorenza," he said formally. "May we come in?" He gave a quick glance around and she recovered enough from her shock to think, Laws above, he is being furtive. He's not here to arrest me. She abruptly keyed in on his grammar. We?

She opened the door wide and stepped back to make way. "Come in, come in. Please." She watched with keen interest as he came inside and turned, allowing his companion to enter. And bless my soul, it is a woman.

The woman was middling tall and very arresting in appearance: the dark skin, the white hair, those astonishing eyes, and the completely confident and commanding way that she moved. But more than anything else, Lorenza noted her keen and genuine curiosity in the house, the way that she took in everything with a seeker's interest. Her gaze seemed to linger the longest on the hand-made items, and with appreciation rather than the uncomprehending disapproval of her neighbors. Lorenza was impressed. This is someone I might like to know. Then she blinked.

As a younger woman, Lorenza frequently saw what she described as auras. Hallucinations, the sawbones all had said — but for Lorenza, she learned that what she saw was an accurate predictor of both the person's personality and potential. The ability had faded as she got older — or was it the people who became duller? — but occasionally she drew on the memory to act out readings for the others in the community. As with everything else she did, most accepted it as an entertaining diversion, and the ones who genuinely feared her would probably have done so no matter what she did.

But now, and with shocking abruptness, Lorenza's sight was filled with coruscating light and color. Her nephew's companion was outlined in a blazing white-purple light that Lorenza associated with the flickering of ultraviolet she sometimes saw at the outer edge of rainbows when they were especially bright. And there was a strange density about this woman — as if Lorenza were seeing six or seven of her piled up in exactly the same place. A band of light reached out and enveloped her nephew, and his aura was odd, too — a riotous tumult of colors she had never in life beheld in him before. Lorenza blinked and the vision suddenly vanished, leaving a disturbingly normal view of two apparently ordinary people. Oh no, not ordinary, neither of them.

The woman's gaze had settled. Lorenza glanced in that direction and saw that she was looking at a framed picture of the Hope hanging on the wall by her kitchen window. It was not a Chairman-Rockwell-Raises-a-Glass monstrosity, but an antique from the heady days of the colony's establishment. Something changed in her guest's face that Lorenza could not readily identify: some kind of stillness born of focus. It means something to her, Lorenza thought. Something powerful, which was surprising, as so few of the young folk in the colony even knew what the Hope was, any more.

"Aunt Lorenza," Max said opening a hand in his companion's direction. "This is Alex Hawthorne, Captain of the ship Unreliable, of which I am now a member of the crew. Captain Hawthorne, this is Lorenza DeSoto de Towada, my mother's sister."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Madam Towada," said Alex in a deep but pleasant voice. She sounded grave, but Lorenza thought she detected a twinkle in those pale eyes.

"Likewise, Captain Hawthorne," Lorenza replied. How is it that my vicar nephew has become crew on a tramp freighter? Because it couldn't be anything else. And I do not for an instant believe that is your real name. "I have just made tea. I grow it in my garden. Would you both care for some?"

The woman's brows went up, but the expression on her face was of pleasure — she really does appreciate the hand-made, the home-grown. Lorenza's estimation of her ticked up a notch. Alex and Max glanced at each other in confirmation, and then Max said, "Yes please, Aunt Lorenza," and Alex said, "thank you, Ma'am."

Max followed her into the kitchen to help. "Thank you, dear heart, " Lorenza said to her nephew, marveling at how mature he looked. Has it really been that long? It has. And he has clearly experienced much. She noted a discontinuity in the slope of his nose that indicated it had been broken at some point, and the broadness of shoulder that was a far cry from the lankiness of his boyhood. He looks as if he has been shattered and remade — more than once.

"Maximillian, I have not seen you in...how long?" Lorenza asked him as she poured out the tea and arranged the cups on a tray. "Since before you left for seminary. Before I came here, certainly. Before your parents passed on, the Divine bless their souls."

"Yes," he said wistfully. "It has been a long time. The old Hammersmith factory in Hieropolis still had records on file, and we found your retirement records there."

"Oh?" Lorenza was intrigued. "How was my old workplace?"

"Abandoned," her nephew said. "Overrun with monstrous felines."

"Oh ho," Lorenza said. "I see you ran into the local fauna. Thundercats. Magnificent, aren't they? I know an executive who keeps a pair as pets."

Max looked astonished. "It's possible to domesticate them?"

"'Domesticate' is not the word I'd use," Lorenza chuckled. "I'm given to understand they're like the cats of Earth: they won't suffer a contract, but they might — under the right circumstances — agree to a Memorandum of Understanding."

Delight danced in the eyes of Max's companion and lit up her face. I like her.

"Hammersmith seemed very upset to lose you," the woman said, her expression still bemused.

"Oh, my, yes, weren't they just," Lorenza allowed Maximillian to carry the tray back into the living area. She lowered herself, cane in her hands, into her favorite armchair, observing the two of them as she did so. They settled apart; he on the settee with the tray on the low table between himself and his aunt, Alex in a separate chair. They were so carefully apart that Lorenza was immediately and gleefully suspicious. The Captain's posture was relaxed but controlled, Lorenza noted. Anticipatory. The very model of potential energy. A soldier.

"They ever so regretted the retirement clause in my contract," Lorenza continued breezily. "And have continued to regret it every year I have remained alive. At first, they would regularly send someone to try to rectify that mistake — usually when someone new took over who apparently didn't expect that the designer of their weapons would know how to use them. It's been quite a long time since the last one, though." She frowned and tapped her fingers against one another on the handle of her cane in disapproval. "They're slacking."

"The executive you mentioned," Alex said. "Is this the person trying to...complete your retirement?"

Lorenza shook her head. "Oh, bless me, no. Jules leads Research & Development. He's far too intelligent to do that. No, it's some flunky in Personnel Resources, trying to improve the bottom line, I imagine."

Alex shifted in her chair. "Madame Towada," she said, as Lorenza hooked the cane over the armrest of her chair and leaned over to pass out teacups. "If I may. I see many things in your home that are clearly hand-made. And I've never actually met a retiree. Is self-reliance common in retirees?"

Lorenza let out a little laugh. "Oh, goodness no, not in the least. And retirement itself is unusual, in and of itself. I take it your contract doesn't have a retirement clause?"

"I'm not under contract," the woman replied. "I'm a freelancer."

Of course you are. Lorenza gazed at her thoughtfully. "I'd think that a company like UDL would be very glad to hire you."

"I'm keeping my options open at the moment. It leaves more room for creativity, I think. Like yours. Creativity seems so rare in the employees of Halcyon's corporations."

Lorenza waved a hand. "Well, most people — those not styled 'dissidents', of course — work until they die, and don't have the time for creativity."

"But you?"

"I've always been interested in the making of things," Lorenza said. "It does so appall the corporate salespeople. Hammersmith only tolerated it because they thought it would make me a good engineer for them, and so it did — I was more effective because I knew not just the how of what I was doing, but also the why, and all that tinkering I did paid off for them. I was compensated well for my engineering creativity, and was able to set something aside." A thought struck her. "You know, when he was a little boy, I taught Max a little about dyes and the dyeing of fiber, about the chemistry of it. It got him interested in science, it did, and for a while there, I thought Isadora would never forgive me. I was the one who made her boy dream of being a Church scientist, you see."

"I remember that," Max murmered. "It came in handy from time to time, in Edgewater." He caught Alex's curious look. "It was hard to requisition new clothing in such an isolated place. Sometime I had to do my own repairs. And there is never enough ink."

However did you make the dyes? Lorenza wanted to ask, but it was not the time. "Corporations have never been good at recognizing, much less encouraging, creativity in their workers," she continued. "I was lucky. My creativity and Hammersmith's design needs overlapped." She laced her fingers together by way of illustration. "Most people, even if they do have some form of retirement in their contracts, aren't able to save, or invest, any bits, and so don't have any leisure time for learning or hobbies."

Alex leaned forward in her chair. "Saving bits is unusual," she said. But it was a question.

"Very unusual. Reliance on corporations is...hm...baked into the colony, don't you think? Succeeding generations are born into their parents' contracts, and the corporations ensure that workers can't be self-sufficient, and price the goods that they need at such a rate that the workers are always in debt just by living. It's impossible for workers to earn their freedom for themselves, or for their children, in the end. I myself was talented enough, and canny enough, to build some security into my contract." Lorenza a took another sip of tea. "I suppose that another path is to reject it altogether, as you appear to have done."

Alex hesitated. "Yes," she said eventually. What a very interesting hesitation, Lorenza thought. There is more to her than simple dissent. She glanced at her nephew. And you, boy, you know all about it, don't you?

But Alex had another question. "What do your neighbors think of your retirement? Do they understand? They are not...dissidents, are they?"

"They are not. I have somewhat of a reputation as a witch, which I encourage for their entertainment and mine. That I make things — most of my neighbors can't fathom this, you see. It's deliciously scandalous to them. And as I have second sight, I read their auras, which further horrifies and delights them."

"Second sight?" Alex's eyes narrowed in skepticism, but her expression was not dismissive, either.

"Yes. For example, when you came in...your aura is extraordinary, did you know that?" Lorenza said to her. "It blazes like the heart of the sun, if the sun were a door, a gateway between worlds. Such power — I pity anyone who gets in between you and your goal. You're connected by that light to my nephew — and you," she turned her attention to Max. "What has happened to you? You're a riot of color."

Max blinked once or twice, overcome with surprise. "I — I have —" He closed his mouth on whatever it was he was going to say. "This kind of thing can't have gone over well with the Church," he observed at length.

Lorenza gave another dismissive wave with her hand. "I think you know by now that I've never really held closely with the Church. They respect my armament and so, for the most part, leave me alone. As for me, I respected your parents' faith because it gave them happiness. But it was not for me."

"Yes," said Max. "I understand."

Yes, I think you do, oddly enough.

Lorenza steepled her fingers and regarded her nephew over their peak. "You must tell me where you have been, my boy. All we really knew is that you had been reassigned, and then no word from you. OSI assured us you were safe, and of course your parents believed that with all of their hearts, but the Church never could explain why you could not visit or be visited, or even come to their funeral, in the end."

"I was on Tartarus," Max said simply.

"The prison planet?"

"The same."

Lorenza was surprised. "I remember that you had such passion for the Faith," she said. "I always assumed you would rise high. Why ever would the Church send you there?"

Max considered his teacup, turning it in his hands. "In seminary, I never could quite feel the teachings. I lacked the certainty I saw in my parents' faith. I thought it was because I was missing some piece of information. So I kept asking questions."

"I begin to see the problem," Lorenza said.

"Yes," he sounded rueful. "The Church teaches that for the strong, the ends justify the means...but they don't particularly appreciate it when your ends challenge their means. When I said that even if the Philosophist way was completely wrong, that there might be some hidden truths there that could lead to the Equation, well...my superiors decided I needed some time for reflection."

"In a conveniently far-away and isolated place."

"Indeed."

"Did none of our messages reach you?" Lorenza asked.

"They did," Max said. "Did none of mine reach you?"

Lorenza frowned. "We received no messages from you at all."

Max paled. "I sent several, eventually." Such a guilty look on his face. "I didn't at first, though. I was angry. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't accept what I was doing. But after a time, I at least wanted my parents know that I'd been reassigned. And I thought after some time had passed, my parents would have been...more disposed to listen." He turned to Alex. "What you — that is, my parents and I had a disagreement when I left for seminary," he explained. "They were opposed. My mother in particular. She thought I was abandoning my part in the Plan, which she thought was to remain with her and Father, as a laborer."

Lorenza watched Alex carefully, and noted that the woman did not seem to be particularly surprised by this explanation. As if she already knew it. Lorenza had also noted the hitch in Max's speech. She did already know it.

But Alex frowned deeply and said, "they censored your messages. To your parents," in a low and angry tone, as if the Church had done her personal insult.

Lorenza's eyebrows quirked. "Maximillian," she said. "Why are you here?"

He set down his cup and took a deep breath, let it out. "Aunt Lorenza...even after Tartarus, I couldn't stop pursuing the truth of the Equation. But what I found was that the Philosophist way is closer to the truth — the capital-T-truth, I should say — than OSI ever taught. Perhaps at one point the Scientician way was close to True, but it has become corrupted and has lost the way, especially here in Halcyon, by the Board, which uses it as a tool to control the people. The real Truth is...a middle way."

Lorenza raised an eyebrow. Well, that explains his aura. Only apostasy from that hideous Church could cause that kind of joyous color. "Oh? What led you to this new capital-T-truth?" Or who? She was looking at Alex, who tilted her head in response and carefully returned Lorenza's regard. She sees that I am not at all shocked by his shocking blasphemy, and is herself not shocked. By either of us.

"We found a hermit whose book of proto-Philosophist teachings the Captain here acquired for me," said Max. 'It was a banned book," he added.

"Of course it was," said Lorenza.

"But the book was in French, which I cannot read. So we went to the hermit on Scylla. She...induced in us a vision that taught us those essential truths more directly."

"You discovered them yourself," murmured Alex.

"And yet you shared the vision with me," he replied, looking at her. His expression, Lorenza saw, was gentle.

"That I did," she replied. "We saw Madam DeSoto," Alex said to Lorenza.

"The vision of her we saw..." said Max. "She was trying to tell me that becoming a part of the machinery of the Church was not the way. And she said that I had abandoned her and Father. In favor of a happiness that I thought the Church could bring me, when happiness was to be found where I already was. With them." He looked down at his hands, and Lorenza was struck by the profound sadness in his eyes. "She was right."

For a moment, Alex looked as if she would argue him. But she looked anxiously at Lorenza instead. Help him, she seemed to be asking, without words.

Lorenza pursed her lips, thoughtful, and then set her own cup down on its saucer with a tink. The sound made Max look up at her from that faraway place in which his pain had been festering...for years, she suspected. "Maximillian," she said firmly. "It is true that your parents were hurt when you left. It is true that your parents felt that you were leaving your place, and they were worried that you would be hurt in the end, because you were not where you were meant to be. They loved you so much that the thought you might be hurt was terrifying to them. But you must know that in the end, even though they did not know where you were, they knew that you had succeeded in becoming a vicar of the Faith. They came to think that they might have been wrong. They were both tremendously proud of you."

Max leaned back and let out his breath again. His eyes glittered. "Thank you, Aunt Lorenza," he said simply.

Lorenza nodded. She saw his relief and, just as deeply, Alex's. The woman — so odd, so compelling — quietly cradled her teacup in her hands and watched the uncoiling of that old, old pain from around Max's heart. As Lorenza watched her watch him, the last bit of the puzzle clicking into place.

So many little clues. She allowed a decent amount of time to pass in quiet reflection — when Max finally met Alex's gaze and smiled, she leaned back and smiled broadly herself. "I think there is more between the two of you than Captain and crew, isn't there?" She said. "Much more, I think. Your auras are bound together." Her eyes twinkled with mischief and she raised her cup. "When can I expect a grand-nibling?" She asked over the rim, the picture of innocence.

Max's face turned a gratifying shade of red. Alex only looked impressed, Lorenza thought. She laughed. "It also doesn't hurt that the two of you are wearing matching rings," she pointed out. "What is your relationship?" She asked the younger woman. "If you're not under contract, you couldn't be married...?"

"No, Madame Towada," Alex said, gravely amused. She lifted her hand and regarded the traitorous band on her finger. "Perhaps one day, when marriage in Halcyon isn't mainly a contract between corporations for their indentured servants." She looked at Max with a tender expression that made Lorenza smile.

"Well, then, you must call me Aunt Lorenza also," Lorenza said to her. Now that the jig was up, Alex rose and settled down next to Max on the settee. His regular color had mostly returned—mostly—and he took her hand in his.

"Who are you, really?" Aunt Lorenza asked Alex.

Hawthorne still had a deeply thoughtful expression on her face, and she made her decision with such...well, decisiveness...that Lorenza could physically feel it, like the pressure wave from a rifle shot. "I look around your house and I see another seeker," Hawthorne said, slowly. "I think that in another life, you and I might have been sisters, Aunt Lorenza." She looked at Max, eyebrows raised and he nodded slightly in response. "It will be well," he said to her.

She looked back at Lorenza. "Aunt Lorenza, my name is Æthelflæd Grace Fiori. I was originally meant to come to Halcyon under contract with Synergy Educational Process Associates, with a Memorandum of Understanding with UDL."

"The UDL part I understand. You clearly have combat training. But 'Synergy Educational Process Associates'?" Lorenza tilted her head. "I've never heard of this corporation." Æthelflæd? What a name to give a child!

Alex — No, Æthelflæd — shook her head. "You wouldn't have. Our group was to be the first wave to establish SEPA's presence in the colony. I was supposed to be a bodyguard to a high-ranking executive. But our colony ship was...delayed."

Lorenza narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean, delayed?"

"The ship went off-course," Æthelflæd said. "She arrived too late for us to be revived safely."

"No colony ship ever arrived late," Lorenza said. "Every colony ship arrived as expected save one. That was Hope," she nodded at her framed picture. "And she was lost."

"No, Aunt Lorenza," Æthelflæd said. "Not lost. Hope arrived, only thirty-five years late, and because the board didn't know what to do, it parked her on the edge of the system and left her there on minimal power. Left us there in hibernation. My corporate family and me and the rest of the colonists, all of us. But Dr. Phineas Welles revived me. I and my crew —" she gestured towards Max. "We intend to help Dr. Welles revive the rest of the colonists, and all of us rescue the colony from the Board."

Lorenza was rocked to the core. The Hope? Not lost? "Phineas Welles, the terrorist?" She asked faintly.

"They only name him so because he took action where the Board feared to," said Maximillian. "The Board hid the Hope for another thirty-five years because it didn't want to admit failure. It's been driving the colony into the grave ever since. It is all wrong, Aunt Lorenza, it's all fundamentally corrupt. The Board. The corporations. OSI. Halcyon is not what it was meant to be."

I have known that for most of my life. "But I thought this was part of the Plan?" Lorenza asked.

"There is no Plan," said Max. "The Equation does not predict or control. It merely evolves."

"There are Stories," said Æthelflæd. "But those are created by the paths we take through the many-fold results of the Equation. We, we living and breathing people, we make those Stories, and the Story of Halcyon is one of greed and slavery. We aim to steer it onto a better path."

Lorenza regarded Æthelflæd. It is all so patently unbelievable that I absolutely believe it. Besides— "You are named for the Saxon warrior Queen of Mercia," she observed. She thought of the enormity of light she had seen pouring out of this woman with her second sight. "I think...I think that if anyone can do it, you can."

Æthelflæd looked truly and deeply taken aback. "If I've come to learn anything at all, it's that history is a forbidden thing here in Halcyon. How did you know that?"

Lorenza got up and retrieved her cane, then walked steadily over to her picture of the Hope. Through the kitchen window, she could see that true night had fallen. She carefully closed the curtains against her neighbors, then nudged the picture away from the wall with a knuckle. She bore down on a spot there in the faux wood. A soft click announced the release of a latch and both the picture and its section of the wall swung out a little on hidden hinges.

Lorenza slowly shuffled backwards, pulling the hidden door open, and revealed a floor-to-ceiling set of bookcases tucked away within the wall, filled to bursting with books. She smiled at the surprised look on her guests' faces. Max's apparent astonishment only grew as he stepped forward and began scanning titles.

"Most of these are on OSI's list of banned literature!" He announced in a deeply shocked voice, and Æthelflæd's face lit up in what Lorenza could only described as pure, unadulterated, subversive delight. "Aunt Lorenza, you are a treasure!" Æthelflæd breathed.

"A society's soul is adorned by the quality of its literature," Lorenza said modestly. "I have only been keeping these in hiding. I think of them as the colony's dowry, precious jewels I've been holding for her children should they be worthy of her. Lately I had been afraid that they would stay locked away forever. But I am thinking, now, that there might be — shall we say it — Hope for a real future?"

Æthelflæd gently took Lorenza's cane and handed it off to Max, who took it blindly: he was still boggling at the bookshelf and its contents. Then she took the older woman's hands firmly in her own. "Aunt Lorenza," Her voice was intense with purpose, so much so that Lorenza felt a chill pass through her body. This is destiny speaking to me, she marveled; it seemed that the woman was holding her up by that grip alone. "I charge you, Lorenza Towada, to keep yourself and these books safe from harm. To survive to oversee the copying of these books so that they may be distributed throughout the colony that is to come, when my colleagues of the Hope are awakened."

Lorenza felt as if an enormous heaviness settled upon her shoulders, so intense was this charge, and worried that her aging bones might crack from the weight of it. But she nodded anyway. "I will, Æthelflæd Grace Fiori." She hesitated, then added, "but do be quick about it, if you please — I am an old woman, after all." They smiled at each other, and the moment of purpose passed and they let go of each other's hands. Passed within, Lorenza thought. It will always be there, until it's done. She retrieved her cane from her nephew and leaned on it, needing it more than ever.

"You should go," she told them. "Go do the things that need to be done, and destiny speed you. But do me a favor, please. Maximillian, give your lady a kiss for me. Your parents only wanted your happiness with their whole hearts, my boy, and it will do my own heart good to see you happy in their stead."

She had to admit that it also did her heart good to see him blush again with embarrassment, but he did as she asked, Æthelflæd only too happy to help.

It made Lorenza's heart skip a beat just to see it. In all his life, Lorenza had only ever seen Maximillian as a seeker after happiness. Even as a little boy, happiness was always something that was always just out of reach. It was always tomorrow or somewhere else in the future: a promise to be found at the end of a never-ending search, the reward after endless hard work, or the result of any of the many holy procrastinations promoted by the Faith. But now, as he and Æthelflæd looked at each other, she could see that he had finally found it.

"Very good," Lorenza said, satisfied. "Off with you now. Go make the future." She hesitated. "And let me know if I can help in any other way."

Æthelflæd looked at her thoughtfully, her hands wrapped up in Max's. "Well," she said slowly. "You said that you know the Director of Research and Development at Hammersmith...?"

 

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