"Now tell me about this 'Empress' business," Brinkman said as we drove through downtown Fontana looking for a decent place to eat. "And I thought you didn't want to be seen in public with your real hair color. What's next? No contacts?"
She laughed as we pulled into a parking space in front of a small restaurant that she'd grown fond of during previous visits. "The hair's pretty innocuous these days," she observed, "but somehow I don't think Earth is ready yet for my eyes."
It was a pleasant little place, apparently one of the original businesses located on what used to be Route 66, but extensively remodeled. We found ourselves a booth near the back, with no one sitting nearby, and as we waited for our orders Kiri briefly filled in our guest on some of the events that we'd recently lived through. When she finished he appeared suitably impressed. "Emperor and Empress," he marveled, shaking his head.
I should explain that Brinkman was the one and only "native" Kiri had confided in during her frequent visits to Earth over the past thirty years. In fact, she'd taken his famous advanced physics seminar several times (once every few years), though she'd had to be a bit more circumspect after letting herself get carried away with an indiscreet teacher-student romance which had nearly gotten him sacked. He'd even been up in the Futaba, a privilege no other Earth-born human had experienced.
"Personally, I don't understand why you two have to share power with a civilian government," growled Senaria, who in the meantime had been quietly translating for Rann. I felt a bit sorry for him, as most of our conversation was now taking place in English, a language he didn't know much of yet. "Isn't there some Earth saying about the best ruler being a benevolent despot?" she went on. "I mean, look what happened last time." I noticed with some interest that even though she was speaking English, her Texas accent almost disappeared when she wasn't thinking about it.
Brinkman laughed. "Tom Edison. Unfortunately, that's only part of the quote." He was about to continue when Kiri interrupted him.
" 'The best government in the world is that of a benevolent despot of great mental capacity,' " she said, and paused dramatically for a moment before continuing. " 'Of which Emperor Wilhelm of Germany is a type.' Date of quote, 1911," she finished with a chuckle.
"Ouch," admitted Senaria reluctantly. Brinkman shook his head.
"You know, Kiri, you always did scare me a bit. That memory of yours is frightening at times." The waitress set down our orders in front of us, Brinkman having a burger and the rest of us vegetable dishes of various sorts. Neither Deshtirans nor Qozernans eat meat, considering all animals to be sentient beings not to be harvested as food. Even the omnipresent high boots worn by virtually all inhabitants of the Twin Planets are made of a synthetic leather substitute, which in any case has properties far superior to real leather.
"I've got a tantalizing tidbit for you now," Brinkman resumed between bites. "I was speaking to a colleague who's doing some research on the side for GGGTech--you know, the big defense contractor--and he mentioned a classified project you might find interesting. Something about 'laser rifles,' " he added, watching her expression closely. Anyone who knew her less well than I might have missed the momentary gleam that flashed across her eyes. Brinkman didn't.
"Laser rifles," she said casually. "Sounds about as practical as the atomic locomotive the Army tried to develop after the Second World War. So what's so special about that?"
The physicist paused. "That's what I thought at first. But there's one odd thing about this particular project. Most lasers are at their top efficiency in the red wavelengths; in fact the other colors are pretty much reserved for feeble things like CD players and the like. But these are supposed to use green lasers." Kiri turned distinctly pale. For a moment all conversation ceased, even Senaria and Rann picking up the sudden change in atmosphere.
"Why don't you come up to the house with us this evening," she said at last, her voice a masterpiece of synthetic equanimity. "I think we should talk about this somewhere less public. Is that okay with you, Will?" I nodded agreement. The rest of our meal was accompanied by small talk amidst a distinctly uneasy atmosphere, as Brinkman did his best to strike up a conversation with Senaria, to Rann's evident discomfiture.
For several hours that evening we sat outside on the bluff in front of the house, enjoying the cool clean air all the more after the dry, smoggy heat below. We were at least two miles from the nearest paved road, and the lights of the Los Angeles Basin twinkled blearily far below like distant stars seen through water. Rann had dispiritedly wandered off to bed after repeated attempts to make conversation with Senaria had been met with monosyllables, and she was now perched on a rock a few yards to one side, moodily staring into the valley through half-closed eyes.
"So what's this all about, Kiri?" Brinkman was saying. "I thought it was your planet's policy not to interfere with Earth at all."
"Let's get real here," she retorted. "You're mixing us up with Star Trek®. We don't have a 'prime directive,' if that's what you're thinking. But we do generally stay out of Earth's affairs, if only because we'd probably make things worse if we started actively messing around here." For obvious reasons she didn't mention the Watchdogs.
"Well," I said, "someone is apparently passing along this technology. The question is, why?"
"And why to the U.S. Government in particular?" added Kiri. For a while we argued the various possibilities, but the end result was we all eventually agreed that without more information we were just spinning our wheels. Before long Senaria and then Brinkman had drifted back to the house.
"It's quite a view, isn't it?" I said to a remarkably subdued Kiri. For a long time she didn't answer but just sat hunched there on the ground, arms wrapped around bent knees.
"All those millions of people down there," she finally murmured. "They live out their lives with so many threats hanging over their heads, but they just keep going. I wonder whether it would make any difference if they knew."
"If they knew?" I said skeptically. "About what? The laser rifles? They've lived knowing they could vanish in a flash of nuclear hell all these years, and it hasn't really made any difference. People are like that, I suppose."
"This is different," she said thoughtfully. "There's something--someone--behind this. I wish I had an idea what they were thinking. There has to be a reason for handing over advanced technology like that. It just doesn't make sense unless someone has a plan. And that scares the hell out of me." She put her head down, closed eyes pressed tightly against her knees, and sat there silently as if trying to shut out the world. I put an arm around her shoulders and held her for a while before we headed back.
Inside I found Brinkman sullenly watching television. "That Senaria's certainly an antisocial creature, isn't she?" he grumbled. I soon extracted the sorry story: it seems he had followed the girl back to the house only to have her make apologies and head straight for bed. Smothering a grin, I decided she had the right idea and decided to turn in myself.
The house was silent as I finished in the bathroom. Everyone had gone to bed except for Kiri, who was still sitting in the living room rereading one of the reports Brinkman had brought along. I decided to take one last look at the view and quietly stepped out onto the balcony of our second floor bedroom. Beneath me I saw the eerie outline of the living room window painted in light on the front lawn, Kiri's silhouette in the center. The city lights still twinkled far below, and once my eye caught an odd glimmer in a place where I didn't remember seeing a clear view into the valley.
For a few seconds I wondered if it were a vehicle on one of the distant mountain roads, and then I saw it again and realized it was on the lawn a few feet from where the surrounding brush began. A moment later it moved slightly closer to the house and for just an instant was caught in a stray beam from the light over the garage door.
It was the barrel of a rifle, and it was pointed directly at the living room window.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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