As living symbols of government, we frequently found ourselves faced with the task of presiding over this or that ceremonial occasion. One that we quite enjoyed was the official opening of the first consumer factory in twenty-five years to be devoted to fliers, as Deshtirans call the small flying vehicles commonly used for short-range transportation on both planets. The Brizali had long since converted such industries to the manufacture of war materiel, reserving all existing fliers for official use. Since the little machines are nearly indestructible if treated properly, they had found the existing inventory more than adequate for their needs.
Now, however, it was an urgent priority that the internal-combustion vehicles that the Brizali had been manufacturing instead for the past quarter-century be retired as quickly as possible. Thus this particular event was important indeed, and received wide coverage in the Deshtiran news media. Kiri and I, with Gelhinda at our side representing the Qozernan government, proudly cut the usual ribbon as the plant officially went online. Then Gelhinda presented Kiri with a huge oversized cheque for the purchase price of one of the vehicles as I announced that the plant would also earn Deshtiris a satisfying amount of foreign currency, something the planet desperately needed. After a few more speeches, the festivities drew to a close.
Well, almost. Formalities out of the way, Senaria quickly made her way through the crowd to where we stood and collared Gelhinda. "Mom? You bought a flier? That's great!" Gelhinda's vehicles were still garaged at the little house out on the Qozernan prairie, virtually unusable on Deshtiris because of the incompatible roadways.*
"Actually, daughter, Deshti has excellent transportation now," Gelhinda said. "I really don't need a flier." Senaria's face fell. I noticed that the mourning band across her eyes had at last almost completely faded into invisibility. "But you do," Gelhinda continued with a slight smile.
The disappointment on the girl's face was almost instantly replaced by incredulity. "Are you serious?" she breathed.
"Consider it a little thank-you for what you did," Gelhinda said. "Mothers can be grateful, too, you know. And I'm also grateful that you came back alive. Of course," she added, "you know it'll be a week or two before it comes off the line."
"A whole week??!!" Senaria howled in dismay.
Hardly a morning went by without meeting with Holan, our military liaison officer, to set up the various conferences and briefings the day would require. One afternoon, however, he arrived with a worried expression on his usually imperturbable features.
"I'm sorry to take up your time with this," he began. Kiri hooted at that.
"Since when?" she snickered. "Your interminable meetings take the place of sleep for us, remember?" I had to grin. This was hardly the first time the hapless Holan had been the target of one of her good-natured outbursts; she hated dreary meetings as much as I.
This time he looked uncomfortable, though. "This is a little different," he protested. "Normally this kind of thing would never get to your level, but Intelligence thought you should know about it."
"All right, Holan," I said wearily, "let's get to the point. What's this all about?"
Apparently there was an ex-Brizal administrative official who was insisting that he had to see the Emperor and Empress personally, claiming that he had information of an extremely sensitive nature. Naturally he hadn't been taken seriously at first, but a background check revealed that although he'd been at a relatively low administrative level he'd possessed a virtually unrestricted security clearance. When other aspects of his story consistently checked out, it was finally decided to present the situation to us.
"Of course we'll see him," I said, glancing at Kiri and getting an acquiescent nod. "What harm can it do? If nothing else he may prove to be an entertaining crank."
And so the next morning a very ordinary-looking middle-aged man, still in prison garb and looking rather apprehensive, was ushered into our little office. I closed the door behind us and offered him a seat. "Your Majesties," he said awkwardly, sitting down only after some hesitation.
"Tokar, suppose you tell us what this is about," I said. I rather expected some kind of crackpot tirade about the Virrin returning or a holy plague coming to punish us for our sins. The truth proved to be somewhat different.
"Have you ever heard of the Watchdog Organization?" he began timidly. We both shook our heads.
"Some kind of Brizal resistance operation?" I suggested, remembering Hitler's much-hyped Werewolf organization supposedly created to terrorize the occupying Allied troops after Germany's fall. (It had proven to be a myth.)
"This goes back long before the Brizali," he said. "It's probably the best-kept secret on both Deshtiris and Qozernon. Normally you both would have been briefed on it when you assumed power, but--"
I nodded. There had been no government to pass the torch; we had virtually started from scratch.
It seemed that about eighty years ago, when it first became apparent to the rulers of the Twin Planets that the inhabitants of Earth would soon crack the secrets of nuclear power, a momentous decision had been made. Before then it had been strict policy to leave Earth alone, at least officially; unofficially it had served as a kind of vast amusement park for centuries. Now, however, Earth would face a test unprecedented in its history: whether it could, with the keys to nuclear destruction ready at hand, learn its lessons quickly enough to survive.
To this end the Watchdog Organization had been created in an atmosphere of the utmost secrecy. A tiny group of volunteers agreed to end their lives on their home planets (in fact, their deaths were faked in the best spy thriller tradition) and start anew on Earth. There they slowly worked their way up into the highest levels of Earth's major political, business and intellectual establishments, loyally serving their newly adopted countries, waiting only for those moments when a frenzy of paranoia or war fever might trigger a cataclysm. Then they started pressing buttons, acting as voices of conciliation, and using the vast resources behind them if necessary to pass information from one side to another, until tempers cooled and the crisis had passed.
A few had faced denunciation as traitors for their counsel and been hounded from their positions in public life. At least three had been executed as spies in various nations, bidding farewell to the loved ones they had found in their new lives and going to their deaths without ever revealing who they really were or what they had been working for. If the existence of such an organization had ever become known on Earth, the inevitable political paranoia that would have been unleashed could have had catastrophic results.
"I understand that you yourself lived on Earth for thirty years, Emperor Wilorian," he said at one point. "I can tell you that on at least three occasions you were saved from a nuclear holocaust by the actions of these Watchdogs."
Kiri looked dubious. "You'll have to admit that this is a pretty melodramatic tale. And just how would we get in touch with this organization? No doubt through yourself?" That thought had occurred to me as well, that this might be a desperate attempt by an imaginative prisoner to gain his freedom. His response rather confirmed our fears.
"I was only a low-level clerk in the organization," he said. "The director and an assistant director held all the real secrets. Everything was kept in his safe; the staff that sifted the information were only given code names to work with."
"And where is this office?" Kiri demanded. "How do we find this director and staff?"
"The office was located in Tar Deshta," he said in a dull voice. "I was away that weekend." For several seconds you could have cut the silence with a knife.
"Well," I finally said. "I see." Kiri sank noticeably into her chair.
"Look," he burst out, "this isn't a fairy tale. You can send me back to prison; I don't care. I know you're not going to turn the organization over to an ex-Brizal. But contact the Qozernan president. Search the ruins of Tar Deshta for the safe before someone else finds it. You'll confirm that I'm telling the truth. I've got nothing personally to gain here."
"There are no ruins of Tar Deshta," Kiri said tonelessly. "None at all." Tokar looked stunned, staring at her in disbelief. "None at all," she said again, half to herself.
"I heard rumors," he stammered, "but--"
"So why are you telling us about this?" I interrupted skeptically. "Out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Because," he said reluctantly, "there's a problem."
"A problem," I echoed.
"Deshtiris and Qozernon used to coordinate their Watchdog activities. Even after the Brizali took over, the Watchdog leaders met regularly. Then, after about five years, Teyn unexpectedly put a stop to it. 'Security,' he said. He claimed he was afraid that somehow secrets might be passed on to the Qozernans via the Watchdogs. As a result, over time we lost track of who their people were and they lost track of ours. Now there are two sets of Watchdogs on Earth, and we don't know anything about what theirs have been up to for the past twenty-five years."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Kiri observed. "All we'd need to do is contact the Qozernan government."
"But that's not really the problem," Tokar continued. "When Teyn clamped down the lid, he tried to summon some of the Watchdogs home. The Brizal secret police had through some arcane process decided that they might be disloyal. A number of them bolted instead. They stopped communicating with us, and the remaining Watchdogs on Earth found that they had literally vanished. Presumably they created new identities and started over. Some may have started working with the Qozernans. So even if the remaining Watchdogs come back into the fold now, there are still going to be some unaccounted for." He paused. "That's all I can tell you."
Kiri and I huddled for a few minutes, speaking in whispers. Finally we turned back to our visitor. "Tokar, we'll contact the Qozernans as you suggest. After that, depending on the reception we encounter, we may want to speak with you again. Until then, we'll reserve judgment on your story."
"That's all I ask," he said gratefully. Summoning the guards who had escorted him here, we sent him back to his confinement. Kiri had already called up Valkar's office on the telecom. "Valkar," she said, "would you please arrange for Ambassador Gelhinda to see us as soon as possible?"
"Couldn't it wait until suppertime?" I asked curiously. Once the business of the day was over, the Amkors (along with Rann and sometimes other guests as well) were our routine supper companions.
"Until we know whether this is actually a hoax or not," she answered, "I think we ought to keep this as quiet as we can. If he's telling the truth, then he's not exaggerating about the possible repercussions."
That same afternoon an excited Senaria announced that the designer of our imperial outfits was back, and had assistants with lots of boxes accompanying him. We arranged to meet in one of the small suites in the back of the palace, where he eagerly unpacked his handiwork, assuring us all the while that we would be the talk of Deshtiris. This, as it turned out, was a mild understatement.
He proudly held up each outfit in turn. I saw a lot of brilliant colors, admittedly very pleasing to the eye, intermingled with metallic glints of gold, silver, and green. I also saw a lot of open air, and had a hard time visualizing just how these components were supposed to fit onto (much less cover) human bodies. I was, in a word, skeptical, remembering all too well the debacle over Nixon's "palace guard" uniforms. However, we did at least owe the guy a fair trial, I reflected, so we undressed and put on the garments following his careful instructions. Kiri turned to the mirror and promptly erupted.
"You've got to be kidding," she roared at the petrified fellow. I suspect that visions of an involuntary return to the locomotive plant flashed before his eyes at that moment. "I look like one of Manabe's manga§ princesses, for god's sake." I gulped. She did indeed. "Well?" she demanded, turning to face me.
It took me a few moments to get my vocal cords to work properly. "Actually, you look pretty good to me," I finally managed. To describe her outfit as a somewhat skimpy two-piece bathing suit would be akin to addressing a puma as "kitty." Her slender frame was barely covered in all the necessary places with scraps of brilliantly hued cloth, the whole held together with various decorative strings and metal loops. There was also a matching pair of the usual high boots, similarly embellished. I have to say that the results were breathtaking, or at least the sight left me pretty breathless.
Observing my reaction with wry amusement, she looked me over in turn. My outfit was only slightly more conservative, with a sleeveless shirt terminating well above the midriff and a pair of very short trousers (and of course another set of decorative boots). There were also arm and wrist bands of beautifully wrought gold-colored metal inlaid with silver traceries. The main emphasis this time was on color, which was again stunning. It was just as well, for although I was in relatively good shape (thanks to Kiri's clandestine training efforts back on Earth), I could hardly have gotten away with an outfit like hers.
"You don't look too bad yourself," she finally conceded. "I have to admit, it is comfortable." Considering that the temperature in the palace was usually somewhere in the mid-nineties on a typical afternoon, I wasn't about to argue. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the designer heave a sigh of relief as he nervously wiped a large sweat drop from the side of his head.
Lest it seem that we were likely to be chased out of Deshti by the local decency league, it should also be kept in mind that as a general rule most inhabitants of the Twin Planets wear as little as possible in any case, as fitness is valued and one rarely sees out-of-shape Qozernans or Deshtirans. In addition, the climate on Deshtiris could be quite miserable at times, thanks to the escalating greenhouse effect. Typical garb here consists of a sleeveless T-shirt and a short pair of pants very similar to cutoff jeans, plus the ubiquitous boots (which are soft and extremely comfortable, and allow considerable air circulation through the otherwise leather-like material). So it wasn't quite as though we were the First Family proposing to show up on the White House lawn in our underwear. Still, I thought, it would take some getting used to.
Calling our attention to more unopened boxes, our clothier next unpacked a pair of gorgeously decorated sword belts and scabbards, with the usual loop over one shoulder. As we put them on I noted with satisfaction that they helped somewhat to alleviate the "Day at Venice Beach" look of the outfits, and rather to our own embarrassment we quickly caught ourselves admiring the results in the room's only mirror.
"Now, what will you be using for swords?" he asked, obviously regaining his self-assurance by the moment.
"Thanks to Senaria, we both still have our own," Kiri answered, "and I can't think of a more appropriate pair for something like this." Recalling the mirror-like perfection of the blades, with just a trace of iridescence, and the hilts so finely inlaid with intricate designs in various metals as to be as smooth to the touch as glass, I agreed. They were a matched pair dating from our youth, and the ones we had taken with us on our near-disastrous expedition to Tar Deshta. Senaria had scooped them off the floor during our frantic flight from the impending fireball.
"Senaria will be green with envy," I remarked.
"Senaria would fall right out of this outfit," Kiri snorted. "But at least it'll give us incentive not to get fat." We changed back into our everyday clothes while reassuring the fellow of our satisfaction, and after listening for several more minutes to his ecstatic rhapsodizing over his own handiwork we arranged to have the agreed-upon sum (plus a bit extra) transferred from Kiri's account and sent him on his way with our compliments.
No sooner had he left than Gelhinda appeared, looking a bit worried at the sudden summons. "Anything wrong?" she asked curiously.
"Not exactly," I said, "but we'd better go somewhere private for this." And so a few minutes later we were back in our office as Kiri and I repeated what Tokar had told us.
Rather to our surprise Gelhinda nodded knowingly. "I heard occasional hints about it. Not from my husband; he was the soul of discretion where state secrets were concerned. But some of the other officials weren't always quite so careful. I take it you want to meet with someone from the Qozernan side?"
That was one of the things I loved about Gelhinda; you didn't have to spell things out for her to the last comma. We left the matter in her hands, and thought no more about it for the time being.
* Qozernan fliers use optical markings on the roadways to guide the vehicles; the Deshtiran ones rely on electronics as a result of years of road deterioration from the noisome rubber-tired internal combustion vehicles. The Deshtiran plants would be manufacturing both kinds in order to generate an export market. - Ed.
§ Manga: a Japanese graphic novel. Manabe Johji is a popular manga artist best known for his outer space adventures, usually featuring attractive and very scantily clad heroines. - Ed.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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