Okay, a lot of interesting things are starting to happen now. Facing the scorpion constructs from her last cliffhanger, Nita gets an uncertain premonition, that kneeling down in front of the lead scorpion will either result in safety or a quick death. She impulsively gambles on it – and the scorpions pass all three of them by.
Moving on, Nita, Carmela, and S’reee find themselves in a sort of a Martian library archive, where Carmela quickly develops a partial knack for reading their writing and begins to decipher the story. S’reee suggests to Nita that Carmela may have ‘the steganographic gift’, an intuitive knack for learning languages without a teacher or textbook, and that this might explain how she learned the Speech. (The name of that gift also led me to the fascinating Wikipedia article on Steganography.)
There’s also apparently a wizardry in the archive, helping with the translation, and latching onto Carmela as the person easiest to communicate with.
The story that they learn, briefly, is one of a planet between Mars and Jupiter, one where civilization descended into horrible thousands-of-years-long wars, with wizards on both sides helping in the fighting rather than working towards peace with the enemy. Eventually, a rogue planet was discovered, on a close enough approach course to doom this planet, so both sides try to evacuate only their own people, and then fresh hostilities break out when they realize that each was trying to leave the other in the dark. Near the end of the story, Nita and Bobo feed power into the archive wizardry, and they get some visual effects, but the wizardry breaks down permanently just after they get to the point where a few cities are evacuated.
Carmela wants to run back to Earth, (using her world-gating remote control,) to pick up a notebook and resume translating with what she can remember of the alien language, though it’ll be harder going without the help of the archive wizardry. Nita agrees with that, reluctantly, after Carmela promises to keep the alien hot-curler around for protection, and the remote control ready to zap her back to Earth in a hurry. Carmela agrees to give S’reee a lift back to Earth, and Nita decides to try catching up with the guys at this point – they’re not blocked anymore, but Bobo tells her that ‘conditions are peculiar.’
So, first I’d like to share another section that I wasn’t really happy about – the bit with Nita’s ambiguous premonitions, which were particularly confusing:
Nita stopped, blinked, suddenly blind in the darkness. Or not blind. As if it was happening to someone else, she saw herself hesitantly step forward, go down on one knee, look into the head scorpion’s cold, dark eyes. And the scorpion just looked back at her, and then after a moment walked around her, passed her by.
But the image flickered. Once again she walked up to the scorpion, went down on one knee. And the claws flashed out–
Nita shook her head. The tide of scorpions was scurrying closer. I have to do something! But there was nothing to choose between the two moments she’d glimpsed, no way to tell how to make one happen or keep the other from happening–
Except that one of them turned out okay, she thought. I’ve got at least two chances that I’ve seen. If I just stand here, something different is going to happen that I won’t have had time to see–
She stepped forward.
“Neets?!” Carmela whispered in shock. Behind Nita, S’reee started to surge forward. With her free hand, Nita waved her back, went down on one knee as the foremost scorpion came up to meet her. It stopped. Stared up into her eyes–
The strangest sensation followed, like little tickly feet walking around on the surface of her brain. Nita shivered one big shiver all over, but didn’t move otherwise.
There are two things that bothered me when I was first reading this:
- It says that there was nothing to choose between the two moments that Nita had seen, but the second description does not mention her making eye contact with the scorpion. Was it possible that this could be the difference?
- ‘Two chances that I’ve seen’ – Nita may have seen two things, but I wouldn’t really have called the second a chance, except possibly in the random sense. She’d have more of a chance standing her ground with the wand than leaving herself vulnerable if the scorpion wanted to claw her.
Now, on the other hand, the first of those particularly could be argued away in terms of Nita having to think very quickly, and her reliability as a narrator suffering slightly because of that. Even the wording of ‘two chances’ might be related to that.
As I was typing out the passage, something else occurred to me about that double premonition. If by kneeling, Nita was offering the archive wizardry a chance to probe her brain, then possibly her oracular gift, still nascent, might not have been able to accurately predict if Nita would pass the test or not. It could tell her that she might be unharmed or might be struck down, but not be certain of which.
I also notice that there are a lot of paragraphs that end in mid-sentence with m-dashes, and that Carmela actually gets to use double punctuation when she’s shocked.