Chapter Thirteen

THE OLD WOMAN clutched the small book to her chest as she sat on the floor of the dimly lit shelter, her back to a crate marked CIVIL DEFENSE. The stained, ragged cloth cover of the book she was holding flapped to and fro as the woman rocked back and forth while mumbling something unintelligible, her eyes tightly closed. Data had long since analyzed what she was saying. It was a prayer.

The four of them—Data, Ro, a young man and the old woman—were seated in the middle of the small underground shelter, surrounded by crates and barrels. “She's beginning to get on my nerves,” the man suddenly said.

“Excuse me, Tarrajel?” Ro asked.

“I said—oh, never mind,” he said, sighing and waving a hand. “That was rude of me, Fessalahka,” he said to Ro. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. The old lady can't help it. It's just that some of the old folks still buy into all the crap the monks used to sell, and I'm tired of hearing about it.” The young man shifted his weight and frowned more deeply. “I wonder when we'll be able to get out of here? This has been a pretty long alert. I wonder when they're coming?”

“This may be merely a drill,” Data said.

“I hope you're right, Porratorat,” Tarrajel told him.

“He might be,” Ro said. “We haven't heard any explosions or anything.”

“That doesn't necessarily mean much,” Tarrajel said. “The Krann could be vaporizing the other side of the world. We'd never know.”

“Perhaps we could leave the shelter,” Data said. “I would like to go outside and look around. Perhaps we could learn something.”

Tarrajel snorted. “The only thing you'd learn, my friend, is that being out on the street during an alert is a shoot-on-sight offense, like everything else is these days. Say, I saw somebody raising an illegal banner over the avenue just before I came down here. Did they catch anybody?”

“I do not know,” Data replied. “The banner was cut down, but I did not see the authorities apprehend anyone.”

“Well, that's good,” Tarrajel said, settling back. “I don't have any use for the old religion, but I don't want to see anybody wind up in the hands of the police, either—not for putting up a sign, anyway. There are better reasons to go to jail.”

The old woman stopped mumbling and opened her rheumy eyes. She wagged a finger at Tarrajel. “Prepare!” she said urgently. “The agents of vengeance are coming, and there can be no escape!”

“Prepare how?” Ro asked politely. “Please tell me.”

The old woman looked at her suspiciously. “You're no Follower,” she said. “Few of you young people are.”

“No, I'm not a Follower,” Ro said, putting on her most sincere look. “But I bear Followers no ill will, and I really want to know how to prepare for what's to come. The banner we've been talking about warned us to prepare. I'd like to know what that means.” The ensign took the old woman's hand. “What's your name, mother?”

The old woman smiled timidly. Ro saw that she didn't have very many teeth, and the few she had were not in good shape. “Ilsewidna,” she answered. “I work here. I work for the landlord. I clean up inside the building.”

“Hello, Ilsewidna,” Ro said. “I am Fessalahka, and this is my spouse, Porratorat.”

“How do you do?” Data said politely.

“Do you already know the heretic in here with us?” Ilsewidna said sourly.

“My name is Tarrajel,” the young man said. “I practice law. I have an office in the building. I see Ilsewidna just about every day. Hello again, mother.”

“Don't you call me that,” Ilsewidna grated. She refused to look at him. “You're always calling me that, and you're no son of mine.” She held up her book and shook it approximately in Tarrajel's direction. “You mock the truth,” she said, nodding vigorously. “You mock it with your disbelief, even when the truth is all around you, even when it is about to strike you dead. Well, it's all in here, every bit of it, no matter what the government says, or how many of us they imprison and torture.”

“As you say, Ilsewidna,” Tarrajel said mildly. “The truth is yours.”

Ilsewidna moved closer to Ro. “Daughter,” she began, “have you ever been given the truth? Was your mother a Follower? Or your grandmother, perhaps?”

Ro shook her head. “I'm afraid not, mother. I've never even heard of this book before.”

“How terrible for you,” Ilsewidna clucked. “What a wicked world this has become.” She held the book up. “When I was a little girl, we had to read from the book for two hours each night after our work shifts were over. Oh, we could read, all right, no matter what stories the government tells you. We could read and write, and there was plenty to eat. Me and my brothers and sisters would sit by the firelight as one of us read the verses aloud. My mother would tell us what they meant if we didn't understand them. Life wasn't near as terrible as Kerajem and his crowd would like you to think.”

“I'm sure it wasn't,” Ro prompted. “What does the book say, mother?”

“It's truth,” Ilsewidna said again. “That's all it is, and that's all it has to be.”

Tarrajel cleared his throat. “Uh, Fessalahka, if I might try to explain—?”

Ilsewidna frowned as Ro shifted to face the young man. “Yes?”

“Actually, Ilsewidna is right,” Tarrajel said. “The book is truth, or at least it's truth of a sort. It's truth as viewed through a distorting glass of time and tradition, but it's truth nevertheless—unfortunately for us.”

“Truth,” Ilsewidna insisted. “Truth!”

Tarrajel waved a hand. “Yes, Ilsewidna. It's truthful enough. The book—The Holy Book of the Exile—tells in very obscure and confusing language the story of how, thousands of years ago, our people enslaved and abused an innocent race, which eventually rebelled against our rule and forced us to leave our native world.”

“That would be the Krann,” Data observed.

“So it seems,” Tarrajel said. “Historical events are not stated in straightforward terms in the Book of Exile, but the ancient writings can be interpreted to foretell the Krann invasion. I'm not surprised you and your spouse haven't heard of the book, Porratorat. Few people our age have, and fewer still have read it. The Book of Exile has been suppressed since the revolution.”

“I have read it,” Data said. “An acquaintance of ours recently gave me a copy.”

“How unusual, Porratorat,” Tarrajel said. “Well, what did you think of it?”

“I believe the ancient writings in the book can be interpreted in any number of ways,” Data told him matter-of-factly. “They can certainly be interpreted in a manner that predicts the present crisis.”

“How did you come to know of the book, Tarrajel?” Ro asked.

The young man grinned. “I was a history student before I went into law, and I decided that I needed to read the Book of Exile to understand my chosen subject more fully. I've always believed in doing as many illegal things as possible, and I don't believe in the government's right to tell me what I can and cannot read. I've studied the Book of Exile very closely—as an historical text, of course, not a religious one. As religion, it's pretty thin stew.”

“Truth!”

“Yes, Ilsewidna,” Tarrajel said. “As I've said, it is truth—but only of a sort.” He addressed Data and Ro again. “The book is apparently based on our earliest written records, the ones we brought with us from our homeworld. Those records, of course, were all lost during the dark centuries that followed our arrival here. We think the book was written from oral histories that were developed during that time. That made the text subject to corruption.”

“The 'dark centuries'?” Ro asked. “Um, I'm sorry, Tarrajel. I was never very good at history.”

“Not much to remember, in this case,” Tarrajel said. “When we arrived here, the civilization that had been maintained throughout the long journey from the homeworld aboard the asteroid ships broke apart quickly. People spread out all over the planet. It took centuries for our people to draw together again and start building a planetary civilization. The Book of Exile dates from the beginning of that era.”

“You said the book represented truth, Tarrajel,” Data said. “Why did you say that?”

“The book has been proven correct in one very important way,” the young man said. “The most important thing that's in the book, the thing that concerns all of us now, is its promise that one day, should we not repent our sins against the enslaved race, that race would find us and annihilate us.”

“And we did not repent and it has found us and we are all going to die!” cried Ilsewidna. She pointed a finger at Tarrajel. “The monks were keeping the beast at bay with their holy sacrifices, but your radical friends in the government killed or imprisoned all of them.”

“Now, Ilsewidna—” Tarrajel began.

The old woman ignored him. “The radicals destroyed the church,” she continued bitterly. “They pulled down all our institutions and replaced them with lies and more lies. They changed the holy way we lived, where adults and children worked together, worked hard, to build a holy world full of hope and free from fear. They destroyed truth and created a false paradise that drew the ultimate evil of the Krann to us like a magnet draws iron. And now we're all going to die in flame and fire and horror, just as the holy book promises.”

“The Krann will not necessarily attack, Ilsewidna,” Data said. “There is still reason to hope for a peaceful solution.”

“No,” Ilsewidna said dully, clutching the book to her. “No, there's no hope left. The Krann are here, and they're bringing war and death to us all, and it'll be the price for our sins. We didn't obey the law, and so we'll die. It's in the book.” Ilsewidna's eyes filled with tears. “I have three grandchildren,” she said thickly. “Don't they have a right to grow up? Don't they? They haven't hurt nobody. They never enslaved no one, they never did nothing wrong. They're good little kiddies, mindful of their manners and always nice to their grandma. I taught them their prayers, too, even when their mother didn't want me to and their father hit me and threatened to call the police on me, to put me in jail. They're so little. So little . . .” Her voice trailed off.

“Ilsewidna is only one of millions,” Tarrajel said. “You've seen them around recently, no doubt. The Followers see our doom at the hands of the Krann as assured, and even deserved. It's been hushed up, but some Followers have been caught engaging in acts of sabotage against the defense effort. They believe they're helping to fulfill the promise of the Book of Exile. That's why the interpretation of the prophecy is so important. If enough people believe it and act upon it, it will hamper any effort we may make to defend ourselves against the Krann.”

“The prophecy of doom thus becomes a self-fulfilling one,” Data observed.

“But how can a book written by primitive people be so correct about what's happening to us right now?” Ro wondered. “That's not possible, is it?”

Tarrajel closed his eyes and leaned back against one of the crates. “I wouldn't have thought so myself,” Tarrajel said sadly. “Given the horrible crimes our people committed so long ago, though, prophesying the vengeance of the Krann might be pretty much like predicting tomorrow's sunrise. You'd have a high probability of being right.”

“The Krann are going to kill us,” the old woman mumbled. “They're going to kill us with fire and flame.”

“I know, mother,” Tarrajel said quietly. He closed his eyes. The shelter was silent then, except for the soft crying of Ilsewidna and the sympathetic, hollow sound from somewhere of dripping water.

Suddenly, distantly, there was a quick series of thuds. The four of them could feel the vibration as they sat on the thick concrete floor.

Ro took a chance and tapped her communicator. “Ro to Enterprise,” she called. There was no response.

“What are you doing, Fessalahka?” Tarrajel asked Ro.

The ensign ignored him. “Please try yours, sir,” she asked Data.

The android activated his own communicator. “Data to Enterprise,” he said. Nothing.

“I am not getting any response,” he told Ro after a moment. “I do not believe the signal is getting through. Perhaps it is being blocked somehow, or the ship may no longer be in range.”

“Or it may have been destroyed,” Ro frowned.

“That possibility exists.”

“What are you two talking about—?” Tarrajel demanded.

The building they were in suddenly rocked back and forth like flotsam caught in heavy surf, and things went flying. A terrible noise came an instant later and remained. The rolling went on for some time.

“Judgment!” Ilsewidna screamed. “Judgment has come at last!”

Ro looked at Data. “I'd like to use the tricorder now, Commander. Permission to operate openly at this point?”

“Permission granted. Your scalp is bleeding, Ensign. Are you in any pain?”

“Not so you'd notice.” Ro took out her tricorder and, in plain view of Tarrajel and Ilsewidna, began scanning over their heads. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “It was nuclear, all right. Wasn't a very big blast, though, since we're still around to talk about it. Ground zero was six point three kilometers east of here.”

“I believe there is—was—an airport at that location,” Data said.

“More bad news,” Ro continued. “The building above us is on fire and is threatening to collapse. We can't stay here, sir.”

“Agreed,” Data said. “We will leave at once.”

“I'm not leaving,” Tarrajel said flatly. “It's not safe out there.”

“Maybe you didn't hear me,” Ro said. “It's not too safe down here, either.”

Tarrajel shook his head firmly. “They're still bombing us, Fessalahka—or whatever your real name is.” He put the palm of his hand flat on the concrete floor. “You can even feel it.”

“You'll bake like bread, stupid,” Ro told him. “The building is on fire! You and us and the old woman will have a chance of living through this mess if we all leave here right now.” She studied her tricorder again. “We're upwind from the airport, so unless there's another nuclear strike near here—”

“How do you know?” Tarrajel snorted. “Who are you people, anyway?”

“Little visitors from heaven,” Ro returned sarcastically. “What'd you think?”

“I knew it!” Ilsewidna shouted. “I was not forgotten, even at the last. All praise to the monks!”

“Fine, mother,” Ro said distractedly. “Commander, I say we head for Government House.”

“Would that not be a priority target for the Krann?” Data asked.

“Not necessarily, sir. The strike at the airport was a tactical hit. If the Krann were going to attack the entire city, they'd have done so by now. I think they'll refrain from hitting the political headquarters too hard, if only so there's someone left among the Lethantan leadership to surrender to them when all this is over. I wouldn't give you two strips of latinum for the rest of the planet, though.”

“I see.” Data tapped his communicator again. There was no response. “Very well. We shall go to Government House.”

“You can't get out of here,” Tarrajel said. “The blast door up on street level won't roll back until the all clear is sounded—and if they catch you on the street during an alert, they'll shoot you.”

“They'll have to catch us first,” Ro said. “The door won't be a problem. How do you open the door down here, anyway?”

“That red crank right there to the left of the hatch, child,” Ilsewidna told her. “See it?”

“Yes. Thank you, mother. Are you two coming along or not?”

“No,” Tarrajel said. 'I'll take my chances here. Whatever else you two are, you're also crazy.”

“I'll stay and take care of him, daughter,” Ilsewidna said. “After all, nothing bad's going to happen to me.”

“I hope you're right, Mother,” Ro told her. Almost embarrassed, she bent and quickly kissed Ilsewidna on the top of her head. “Mother Ilsewidna, you take care of yourself.”

“You, too, child,” the old woman said. “Take care of that husband of yours, too. He's a quiet one, but he's as smart as all get-out. You watch out that someone else don't grab him.”

“Oh, don't worry,” Ro said, hiding a smile. “I won't let that happen.”

“Good for you.” Ilsewidna looked into Ro's eyes and raised a hand to stroke her cheek. “I had a one like you once,” she said. “Gone these many years now. Just up and disappeared one day. Lively, smart, and pretty as a sunrise. Then she was gone. Ran off, I guess, but I don't know why. I don't think she's dead, but she never wrote me, not even once.” Her eyes filled, and then she blinked rapidly. “Well, you take care, daughter,” she finished, patting Ro's cheek.

“Stay safe, mother. We'll leave the upstairs door open for you, just in case you change your mind.” Ro spun the crank, and the shelter door smoothly rolled aside.

“Thanks, dear,” the old woman chirped, “but everything will be fine now. You'll see.”

Ro did not look at her again. “Commander?” she called. “I'm ready. Meet you topside.” She left the shelter and headed up the stairs.

“Very well,” Data replied. He turned to the other two. “I wish you both luck,” he said. “However, your luck will be enhanced if you do not remain here too long.”

Tarrajel remained stubbornly silent. “Thanks, son,” Ilsewidna said, “but we'll be fine. Get along, now. You go take care of your wife.”

“Ah. Yes. Yes, so I shall. Good-bye.” Data left the shelter and, hurrying up the dark stairs, met Ro at the top landing. Smoke was beginning to fall the place.

“Do you want to do the honors, sir?” Ro asked.

Data nodded, drew his phaser, and fired at the blast door. It crumpled and fell with a loud crash into the street. They stepped over it and looked around.

“Wait a moment,” Data said, holding up a hand. A second later, from below, they heard the downstairs shelter door roll back into place. “Very well,” he said. “Let us leave.”

Data and Ro looked up and down the boulevard as they hurried away from the building. The street was strewn with the wreckage of buildings and cars. Despite the strict civil defense regulations, not everyone had bothered to go to a shelter; there were bodies everywhere. They could see other people, still alive, hurrying through the fire and smoke and wreckage along the boulevard. They were heading no one knew where—to homes that perhaps no longer existed.

The fighting was still going on. In the distance there were dozens of bright flashes as conventional weapons were brought to bear on the civilian population of the capital. Through the smoke and haze that now hung over the city, Data and Ro could see Government House, still intact, sticking up like a black finger of defiance against a blood-red sky.

Ro studied her tricorder again. “The Krann must be attacking from orbit, sir,” she reported as they continued down the boulevard. “The only aircraft overhead are not bombing the city—therefore, I assume they're friendly.”

“Reasonable, Ensign.” Data looked around. “I think we had better hurry to Government House—” He was interrupted by a tearing, grinding sound behind them. The two Enterprise officers whirled around just in time to see the building in which they had taken shelter shudder and collapse, crushing and burying whoever and whatever was inside.

Ro's scan for life signs was negative.

They moved on.