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"I didn't expect to see you here." Even when she was trying to sound friendly, Emeroma knew she didn't. It sounded like an accusation to her own ears.
If it sounded like an accusation to Denel, the petite young woman gave no sign of it. She tipped her head in formal greeting. "Citizen," she said warmly. "I appreciated the invitation."
Emeroma wanted to like her, but there was something off-putting about the woman. The student was smart and diligent, but too cautious and unwilling to take chances. She was so painfully bland. It was similar to the way she kept thinking Denel ought to be pretty, but she never quite was.
They were standing close together at the entrance to the dinner hall, as the recess between courses came to an end and the diners crowded back into the new hall to enjoy another several dishes.
Emeroma always found these periods awkward, having to speak to someone formally, knowing that all the other Scientists were shamelessly eavesdropping. It was trying to have to find meaningless, benign topics that could tide them over for the few moments before they were seated again. "How is your husband?"
There was a tiny pause before Denel answered. "Jerumal is doing well. He's been tapped for Science Leader, and mentoring under Dramanar."
"I heard." She managed, again, to sound completely cold, though she hadn't meant to, and Denel fell silent. "I'm glad you could make it," Emeroma added, sincerely, if still somewhat surprised. There hadn't been word one from Affamarg regarding Denel in the Sciences, though there had been plenty about her husband. The invitation to this dinner had been a courtesy, because Denel had worked closely on the plans for it, but Emeroma had expected that Denel, like too many women in the upper forms of Science, had chosen family over future and wouldn't have an interest.
"Will you be here long?" Emeroma wondered if she'd had a tour yet - the buildings for the library had been built since Denel had moved to Affamarg, and the museum of culture preservation and the shell for the cableworks and city central services. None of the mechanics were in place yet - the Machine and Plumbing Guilds had been delayed on the last city on their schedule, and the foundries were behind in production of the parts. All of the buildings but the Construction Guild housing were empty shells, still, that part completed ahead of schedule and waiting patiently for all of their inner workings.
"I leave on tonight's train," Denel said with regret. Whether that regret was real or polite, Emeroma could not guess.
The crowd before them eased, and the flow of people separated them. Emeroma made polite conversational noises as they drifted apart.
She tried to keep from scowling as she wound her way through the press of Scientists to her own seat of honor. She had struggled to make it as far as she had through the Sciences. There were only a handful of women of her age in these ranks, though since the gender reforms, there were many, many younger ones. It always confused her when one of them dropped out. Didn't they realize how amazing it was that they could be there and study these subjects? It always made her feel old to consider it, and remember exactly how different things were now.
Unfortunately, the second segment of the meal came with speeches. Dry, eye-glazing speeches about the building selection and the significance of the decor, and all the political yapping about allotments and progress. Emeroma tried to look grateful when they acknowledged her efforts with praise, and not to look bored the rest of the time.
By the time that the remains of the final dish were getting cool, even an earth-shattering crash was a welcome distraction. Tableware jumped and glasses sang as they shimmied against silverware. One of the paintings slipped off of the wall and smashed its frame on the hard floor, shattering glass and splinters. Scientists and Guildsmen staggered backwards to their feet, ready to flee if the earthquake continued, but it didn't roll as an earthquake should, and was done almost as soon as it started.
A door at the end of the hall flung open and a panting labor apprentice skidded in without any semblance of decor. "The north tower!" he panted, and pointed as if they could see it through the solid wall. "The north tower just collapsed!"
The sense of danger had passed, but the excitement remained, and the guests chattered and speculated with interest as they left their last course and flowed for the door to see for themselves.
Emeroma remained standing in her place to let the others crowd out of the room, frowning in concern at the fallen painting, which rested on the floor across the table from her. She flipped through the plans for the north tower in her mind, reviewing the calculations for the structure. It was the tallest tower in the new city - the plans had been checked by two departments and stamped by three individuals. It was essentially the same design as towers in Faraar and Tifanaro, which had both survived several violent earthquakes; it was unlikely to be a design flaw.
Which meant the most likely cause was a construction flaw. Emeroma drew in a breath, gathered her black robes, and prepared to do battle.
# # #
The tower was in pieces on the ground all around the north end of the building: some of them embedded deeply into the fresh soil, some of them crushing the carved stone garden railing. A fragmented tree made the air smell like sap and more of the pieces had tumbled off the ledge this building rested on to the construction site below. Looking up, squinting against the sun, Denel could see where massive pieces of concrete had crashed against the side of the building, marring the perfect white face. It looked like the very top had been sheared off at a slant. The top of what remained cut a bright edge against the darkening sky.
The blocks from the very top had fallen in whole pieces with crisp cut edges, but the bottom blocks of the fallen portion looked weathered, with soft edges, and crumbled at a nudge of Denel's foot. She bent down and picked up a piece, rolling it in her fingers curiously.
"We didn't use bad mix formulas," the lead construction guild Senior insisted. "I swear we didn't." He was sweating, though the evening was cool and there was a chilly breeze that hinted at an oncoming storm. He was clutching at a writing board and looking desperately through the crowd of Scientists that were gathering, kicking at the shattered concrete and gazing up at the standing remains of the tower as they murmured theories to each other.
Denel had an irrational urge to pat him reassuringly, and might have said something kind if there hadn't been too many other Scientists milling around. She wouldn't be the one making judgments here, anyway. That would be for Emeroma to do.
As if summoned by the thought, the Science Leader finally appeared: tall, gray and angry.
If the Senior had looked nervous before, it was nothing to the patina of terror he wore now.
"C-citizen..." he stuttered.
"I'll see the mix formulas for myself," Emeroma said tightly. "You'll bring me the certification for them, and show me the samples you reserved from the pours of this entire building. I want to see the waybills from the material delivery, and the notes from the overseer, as well as the water content records of the mixers.
"I wouldn't want to be that Senior for all the licenses in the Empire," Oranaan said in Denel's ear, causing her to startle in alarm. She had seen him at the dinner - he'd waved cheerfully from down the table at one point, then ignored her at the recess to flirt with a pretty Assistant.
"Not for silk or sugar," Denel agreed soberly.
Most of the Scientists had retreated for the warm interiors again; those that remained clustered around Emeroma, who was snapping instructions and unfurling a set of plans that she must have had fetched from her office.
Oranaan picked up his own piece of the stone, and crushed it experimentally in his hand. It crumbled into pea-sized pieces.
"It looks like they built with faulty mix," Denel said mildly. It seemed obvious, after she'd said it aloud, and she wondered if she sounded as stupid as she felt. It had been a year since she had cracked a reference book, and the dazzling company of the prestigious group of Scientists - particularly the now-well-known Oranaan - made her feel like a simple-minded nobody. Had it already been four years since they were all ambitious students scrambling together for the grades to go on to masters? Oranaan had made it to Science Master. Jerumal had made it to Science Master. She alone was still in Indigo robes. To be fair, it often took five or six years between the forms, and she had borne a son in that time. It still felt like a hollow excuse.
Oranaan made a skeptical sound, squatting next to one of the solid blocks without a care for his dark purple robes. "There's no seam here. It's the same pour as this is."
Denel sunk down onto her ankles beside him, carefully holding her own robes out of the mud. "Some bad materials got in?" She chewed on her lip, knowing it was unlikely. "That wouldn't have gotten past inspections," she refuted herself.
"How's Affamarg and married life as a mother?" Oranaan asked, with his usual habit of switching topics in the middle of a conversation. He continued to roll the bits of rock around in his hand.
"I like it," Denel said evasively. She had already found that most people who asked about her marriage and her child weren't really interested in her answers. They were Scientists; they didn't care that Amanel had mastered a handful of words and could totter around on his own feet. They cared that she hadn't written any papers, and hadn't worked on any projects.
"It's almost like it's older," Oranaan said, and it took Denel a moment to realize he wasn't talking about marriage or little boys, but referring to the concrete parts in his hands.
"Like it was in a time bubble. It looks like concrete from hundreds and hundreds of years ago."
Denel looked up at what remained of the tower. "That tower didn't have any time crystal lights on it," she said skeptically. "And even if it did, how would the field get from out on the cantilevers all the way to the tower base? And even if it could, they would have been slowing fields!"
"Maybe it was anomalies!" Oranaan had already leapt to a new theory. "There've been stories about unexplained things that shear off tree-tops and destroy Purist towns on the Rim."
"Those are just stories," Denel said firmly. "And what could do this to concrete?"
Oranaan looked at her with bright interest in his hazel eyes. "We don't know how time crystals are formed," he said with animation. "And we know that they don't have to obey the rules of gravity before we mine them - they aren't even visible until they've been mined!"
"You think there's a time mine here?" Denel shivered at the idea and couldn't help but glance up. Time mines were miserable places, dangerous and unpredictable. More miners died in the mines than survived. "We'd have noticed by now, don't you think?"
The Science Master ran fingers through his tousled brown curls, making them stand up on end. He tended to do that when he was thinking hard. "Maybe they move around?" he guessed. "We're not that far from a mine, here."
Denel shook her head firmly. "I think that's crazy."
"Why'd you get married?"
"Why...? What?" Denel blinked at the blinding change of topic.
"Why'd you give up Science and get married?"
"I didn't give up Science," Denel protested. "I've kept up my Master-study license."
Oranaan made a rude noise with his lips, standing and looking out across the devastated garden. "So you filled out some forms. Why don't you still do Science?"
"I have a son," Denel said defensively, standing as well. "And a husband," she added. "I'm busy..."
"Jerumal has a son," Oranaan needled. "And a wife. And he's halfway towards Science Leader!"
Denel struggled to find an answer to that, hating the conflict it stirred under her breastbone.
"Do those trees look like they've been topped?"
"What trees?" For once, the lightning change of topic was a welcome relief, not merely a nuisance.
Oranaan pointed to a distant row of decorative trees that had been planted on a ridge above them. Some of them might have ended in blunt tips, but it was getting dark, and they were far away. "They weren't like that, were they?"
"I can't tell," Denel said, frustrated. She was starting to feel chilled, and wasn't sure it was all from the autumn wind.
"Aren't they sort of in line with the fracture point on the tower?" Oranaan swiveled his head between the two, drawing a line in the air between them.
Denel made a skeptical noise. "Not quite," she guessed.
Oranaan didn't seem to hear her; he was muttering to himself again and holding a thumb out at armslength, trying to approximate distances and heights. "I need my sketchbook," he said finally, and disappeared around the corner of the building without so much as a polite phrase, literally running towards the finished housing area.
"Oranaan!!" Emeroma chose that moment to look around for him, having shaken the last of the other Scientists loose on their tasks, and demanded of Denel, "Where did that fool go?"
Denel shook her head and turned her hands over in gesture of helplessness. "He said he needed his sketchbook. Something about trees and time crystals and anomalies."
Emeroma's scowl deepened, and Denel was suddenly very grateful that her train back to Affamarg would be leaving later that night; she did not want to be here in the days to follow this disaster.
"How very like him," Emeroma said bitingly. "Haring off on some tangent when that genius brain of his is most needed."
Denel smothered a wry laugh. "That is how he is." She used the formal word, ithai, for "is", giving the phrase some irony, because there was nothing formal about Oranaan.
Emeroma gave her a hard look, as if suspecting Denel of making a joke at her expense. "You'll be happy you aren't staying until tomorrow, I imagine."
Though she had just thought the same thing, Denel still felt stung by the accusation in Emeroma's voice.
"I have to get back," she said as evenly as she could.
"Your son, yes."
Denel wished should could read the Science Leader better; there was some undercurrent to the woman's voice that confused her. Did Emeroma ever wish that she'd chosen a different life? Did she regret her lonely path to the top? The possibility gave Denel a deep moment of pause. How did you ever know when the choices you were making were right?
She realized too late that she hadn't said anything aloud in reply when Emeroma turned away from her and put her hands on the garden rail. She didn't sag or betray exhaustion in any line of her straight body, but Denel still thought she saw it there.
"Citizen," she said gently, as she turned to leave the woman in peace and catch her train, "congratulations."
Emeroma's look of suspicion was deserved; it wasn't Denel's place to judge anything that the Science Leader did. But Denel still felt compelled to speak her mind. "The city. It's beautiful. It's the most beautiful city the Empire has ever seen, and you made it happen."
Emeroma's face softened a tiny fraction. She didn't offer any thanks for Denel's judgment, or deny her part in its building. She only agreed, "It is."