I woke up to an insistent knocking at the door. Kiri, who in spite of her hair-trigger temperament was entirely capable of sleeping through an earthquake at times, was still dead to the world. Trying not to wake her, I slipped out of bed and threw on my robe. Opening the door with a finger to my lips, I found Senaria and Rann waiting impatiently. Senaria had an expression on her face that I could only interpret as awestruck, while Rann was wearing a grin that practically split his face from ear to ear.
"There's something you two need to see," Senaria gulped. I turned to find Kiri watching us curiously. "We'll be along in a moment," I said, closing the door.
"What's going on?" she asked after performing a vast feline yawn. "Something wrong?"
"I don't know," I answered a bit nervously, "but I guess we'd better take a look." We hastily dressed and a few minutes later were led to a balcony window by the now silent pair. It was already relatively light, although the sun had not yet risen over the distant plains to the east. As I looked out across the palace grounds, I understood the reason for Senaria's and Rann's strange behavior.
"I haven't seen this many people in one place since The Ten Commandments," Senaria whispered. It was apropos; the courtyard was a sea of humanity, chattering, wandering around curiously, and looking up expectantly at the palace. De Mille himself couldn't have rustled up so many extras on such short notice. A distinct party atmosphere pervaded the air. Suddenly someone caught sight of us and a cheer started up, at first disorganized and then after a few seconds coalescing into an enthusiastic eruption. Kiri and I waved back for a few minutes as Senaria and Rann discreetly stepped out of view.
"I think your volunteers are here," I said softly to Kiri as the first rays of sunlight broke over the horizon.
It took us the better part of the day to get the immense crowds organized into work teams. The unfortunate officer responsible for feeding and housing the mob (and providing sanitary facilities) looked stricken at first, but in true military tradition performed a magnificent job of scaring up the necessary supplies and getting mess lines going. He also sent in an emergency message to headquarters requesting I don't know how many more shelters than originally planned. A deal was a deal, and somehow everything showed up, everybody got fed, and by the end of the day a forest of shelters had sprouted all over the grounds and things were quieting down.
Later that afternoon Senaria and Rann stopped by to tell me they were on their way to catch the shuttle to the railroad station. Wishing Rann good luck, I watched them worm their way through the crowds and disappear into the no longer quite so deserted streets. Senaria cheerily reappeared a few hours later, informing me that Rann's train had been only a half-hour late. "Those steam locomotives are just so cool," she enthused. "We haven't had anything like that on Qozernon in centuries. Are you really going to phase them out?"
"Afraid so," I confirmed sadly. "But it'll be a while yet."
As I watched her sprint on in to dinner, apparently without a care in the world, I felt a bit uneasy. She had accompanied us to Tar Deshta at her own insistence, and had shown no lack of courage through the ordeal. She, like myself, had suffered a dreadful loss; she had taken the place in the expedition of a man she had loved, a man ruthlessly murdered by Brizal assassins the night before we were to leave. Unlike mine, however, her loss had been terribly permanent.
Since then she had mostly seemed her usual self: energetic, profane, and cheerful to a fault. But to me there was something disturbingly false about her manner, and more than once I had seen her staring into space, her ice blue eyes frighteningly blank, when she thought no one was looking.
That same night the results of the planetwide referendum were announced. As we had expected, the vast majority of the populace had voted to return to their homes as soon as possible. Although that would undoubtedly make the job of reconstruction more complicated, it would also provide the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for a people whose endurance had been sorely tested for the past thirty years.
I remember how we fell asleep that night to the sounds of Deshtiran folk songs (many of them delightfully ribald) ringing softly through the vast palace grounds.
The next day work on restoring the palace started in earnest. The once-beautiful complex was now barely a shell of its former glory, having been stripped of its furnishings long ago by Brizal looting squads and the interiors badly vandalized. The biggest loss was unquestionably the magnificent stained-glass skylight that had once covered the great meeting hall. It was now only a broken-out skeleton of corroded metal frameworking, with a few scattered bits of brilliant color remaining. We had no idea what we were going to do about it, and had resolutely decided to put it out of mind for the time being. Meanwhile, there was an intimidating amount of work to be done.
By midmorning crews of volunteers were hard at work in the sweltering heat tearing out dead trees, clearing decades of accumulated debris from the many rooms of the palace, scrubbing acid-rain-induced corrosion from the elaborately carved stonework--well, that's only a fraction of what faced us. Nonetheless it was satisfying work, and besides we found ourselves enjoying the sun, hazy as it was. It was all I could do to restrain Kiri from hauling away stumps and buckets of trash, and I had to insist that she ease into the work gradually.
"So," I said jovially to her at dinner that evening, "that went pretty well, don't you think? Then what are you looking so glum about?" Earlier that afternoon she had apparently been having the time of her life. Now her eyes were distant and clouded. She seemed to be debating whether to say anything at all.
She finally made up her mind. "There's something I have to do, Will, and I really can't put it off any longer. I'm going back to Tar Deshta tomorrow." I dropped my fork, spilling a gob of stewed tomatoes across my plate. Gelhinda looked shocked, and Senaria actually stopped chewing for a moment.
"What?" I said dumbly after a few seconds' pause. Tar Deshta had vanished behind us in a massive fireball as we had fled the planet, Kiri barely conscious at the time. I had certainly never expected to return to that ill-fated site.
"I need to do this, Will," she continued earnestly. "I have to know just what I did. There are thousands of Deshtiran families that lost someone there. Not all of the Brizali were monsters, you know; most of them were only doing their jobs. I can't just look the other way and say it was all for the best. That's the easy way out."
I considered for a moment. "Kiri, you know you did the right thing. Do you really want to do this?" Senaria sat wide-eyed, taking it all in; I think she realized that this was no ordinary discussion.
Kiri thought long and hard as she formulated her words, staring sightlessly at her plate. "Should a pilot that drops a load of bombs on a civilian city be able to simply push a button from thirty thousand feet and fly away? Shouldn't they at least have to see the consequences of their acts? Maybe some of your Earth wars would have been less frightful if they had. It's one thing to follow orders, or to do something you know is right, but if you have to at least face the results of your decision to go ahead and push that button you're forced to really weigh both sides."
I understood what she was saying. Earth-style war had become more and more a giant monolithic killing machine during the last century, one with a mind and will of its own, and subject to less and less control by either side. One of the factors contributing to this was the escalating mechanization that allowed the individuals involved to avoid the consequences of their actions.
"So why should I grant myself an exception?" she concluded. "I guess I need to see for myself if it was really worth it. All right, I know it doesn't make a lot of sense to you. But I have to do this."
"Then I'm going with you," Senaria informed her gravely.
"And I," I added. "We all pushed that button, you know." And I reached out and took her hand for several moments.
It was Gelhinda who provided the last word. "You know, Kiri," she said, "for thirty years I've treated you as my own daughter, and no mother could be prouder of both her daughters than I am. But I don't think I've ever felt as honored to be your friend as I am right now." Kiri blushed, murmuring an embarrassed acknowledgment. But the stewed tomatoes definitely lost much of their taste for the remainder of the meal.
The next morning the three of us set out in the Futaba after clearing the visit with the military authorities. Other than searching the area for survivors, they advised us, nothing had been done to the site in any way. There were armed guards posted at intervals along the lone highway into the city, but otherwise it was utterly devoid of life, as we soon saw.
We were about two miles from the former Brizal administrative center, cruising along a few dozen feet above the ground, when we began to see the remains of wrecked Brizal motor vehicles along the road, apparently caught in the blast. At first they were relatively undamaged (and we suspected the occupants might well have walked away), but as we drew closer we saw more and more burned out shells of trucks and automobiles. After a certain point the vehicles were not so much shells as twisted blobs, as were the remains of the few buildings we encountered.
And bodies. On rereading the above paragraph I realize now just how much I tried to block them out of my mind. Human bodies can stand up to even less blast and heat than trucks and buildings. For a long time as we approached the city center the horrors just got worse and worse. I felt terribly for Kiri, who said nothing but gripped my hand ever more tightly, involuntarily digging in her fingernails until I thought my palm would bleed.
Then--nothing. It was as if the landscape had been scoured clean. Eventually even the remains of the road vanished, and we were looking down upon a featureless, blackened expanse. Ahead was the mountainside, on a shelf of which had been located the transformer station which would have been the cornerstone of Tenako's dream. Where the station (and most of the city) had been was instead a vast hemispherical cavity carved out of the mountain as if by a gargantuan malevolent ice cream scoop, its surfaces polished mirror-smooth.
None of us spoke as Kiri slowly piloted the Futaba over the vanished city. I had seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but pictures remain pictures and one can always close the book. I realized this was one book that would remain open for us for a very, very long time.
I glanced at her. She was staring intently at the sights below, her face an expressionless mask. Abruptly she noticed how hard she was squeezing my hand and released it with a murmured apology. Then to my surprise I realized we were settling slowly to the ground. A few minutes later we stepped out onto the glassy surface at a fairly level spot. The blast, while of an awesome magnitude, had not been a "nuclear event" and there was no residual radiation to be concerned about.
"This is roughly where we hid the Futaba," said Kiri softly, referring to a former deserted alley in the city's industrial area. Now there was nothing but a featureless expanse of glassy rock in all directions. Where a busy administrative city center had been, we heard nothing but the wind as it whistled lightly around us. Kiri sat down on the smooth surface, facing away from us, and remained hunched over for a long time. Neither Senaria nor I disturbed her, nor did either of us feel much like conversation. I noticed that Senaria was very pale herself, and she stood for a long time looking at the mountainside where the transformer had been.
Finally we all wordlessly re-embarked and headed home. This time I did the flying as the two stared silently at the landscape below. Only once did Kiri speak during the entire return trip. "Things must never be allowed to go this far again," she said in a soft voice, but with a core of steel. "No matter what it takes."
That evening, with Rann gone and Gelhinda occupied with a state dinner, it was just two of us at supper. Kiri ate very little, barely picking at her food. "Look, Kiri," I finally blurted out, "I realize we've been over this ground before, but you did what you had to do. Don't keep beating up on yourself."
"I know, Will," was her answer, "and you know as well as I that if I had to do it again I would. But that doesn't mean I'll ever be able to just dismiss it. 'Been there, done that.' I'll always wish there had been another way." I think for the first time since returning she finally became aware of her surroundings. "By the way, where's Senaria?" she said in surprise. "It's not like her to miss a meal."
"Why don't I go check on her," I suggested. "She also looked pretty upset this afternoon. Are you going to be okay?"
She gave me a strained smile. "At least I'm eating, aren't I?"
I found Senaria's door partly open and her room unoccupied. Feeling a bit concerned, I was heading back to the kitchen when, passing an open balcony to the inside courtyard, I happened to glance out and spotted a splash of blue high in one of the few surviving trees. Suppressing a smile, I made my way downstairs.
I looked up from the base of the tree and saw her sitting on a branch about thirty feet directly overhead. "Mind if I come up?" I called. I saw a startled white face staring down at me. "It's me, Emperor what's-his-name."
"Sure," I heard her say. A few minutes later I was sitting on the branch beside her.
"Aren't you a little old for tree climbing?" she said, trying to muster a grin.
"Aren't you?" I shot back. "Hey, what's with you? You know what they say about cats: call the vet if they won't eat for more than twenty-four hours. In your case it's probably closer to six." She threw a half-hearted punch at me in response, but even in the deepening twilight I could see that her face was as drained of color as I remembered it from the afternoon.
"Today must have been pretty rough for you, Sen," I said quietly.
"Nah," she lied. "How's Kiri doing?"
"Don't change the subject," I chided her. "Kiri's going to be fine. But what about you?"
For a while she sat on the branch, idly picking at twigs. "Come on," I said. "Don't take it out on the poor tree. It's been through enough already. Now talk to me." For an instant she glared at me with her customary fire, then it faded. I was rather shocked at the defeated look I saw in her eyes. Although she was capable of bullying the claws off a wolverine if she felt like it, I had long since discovered that behind her rambunctious exterior was one of the sweetest, kindest people I knew. She finally answered in a voice colored in multiple shades of pain.
"When I saw that mountainside again," she said hesitantly, "it all came pouring back. Kiri just--lying there, and then Zyanita." She shivered involuntarily. "I've never seen anything so horrible."
Zyanita had fallen victim to one of the hideous Liquidators, literally melting into a pool of orange-yellow liquid before our horrified eyes. She had barely had time to scream. "I didn't think you cared much for Zyanita," I said.
"She was a psychotic bitch," snarled Senaria unexpectedly. "She was a traitor and a coward who stabbed Kiri in the back. It's not her fault Kiri's still alive today. I know she was your sister, Will, but it's the truth, and I'm not sorry I said it."
"It's okay," I said. "She turned into something much different from the little girl I remember. I can't really say I miss her, but I do feel sorry for her." I stopped. "So where's this going, Sen? I know you're not mourning her."
She looked up at me, the anger in her eyes fading, replaced by a haunted look. "Will, I didn't see Lev die. Maybe it would have been better if I had, instead of just hearing about it secondhand. I didn't even get to say goodbye. This afternoon, when I remembered what happened to Zyanita, I saw Lev, too, in my mind. And now I keep seeing him. Screaming, melting..." She clenched her fists. "I want to cry, Will, I want to cry more than anything else in the world, and I can't. I just keep seeing it. Over and over and over."
I put an arm around her shoulders and held her tightly for a few minutes. "I wondered when this was finally going to hit you, Sen," I said softly. "I've been watching you bottle it up ever since we escaped from Tar Deshta. You have to give yourself time. I know you can get through it. And if you need to talk to someone, talk to me. Or Kiri. Or anyone you want to. Just don't try to hide from it, okay?"
We sat there silently for a while longer, watching the lights coming on in the palace. "How about coming on down to the kitchen and at least keeping us company for a little while?" I suggested. "Kiri was worried about you too, you know."
"Maybe I'll have a cinnamon roll," she muttered reluctantly.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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