I saw the rifle, I saw a vague blur where the owner would be, and I saw Kiri's silhouette on the grass. And then several things happened virtually simultaneously, seemingly of their own volition.
"Kiri!!!" I heard myself scream. "Hit the floor! Now!"
The rifle barrel suddenly tilted, now pointing directly at me. Without willing it, without even thinking, I threw out my arm in the direction of the nearly invisible assailant. I saw a bright flash at the barrel of the gun, and at almost the same moment a blinding bolt of energy flew from my hand at the dark blur on the grass.
An instant later a massive gout of yellow-orange flame exploded outward in all directions from the same location. There was a deafening bang, followed a moment later by receding echoes from the surrounding mountains mixed with a faint tinkle of shattering glass somewhere behind me. Then silence, broken only by a faint sizzling sound from the lawn.
But that lasted only for a few seconds, as the house erupted in a chaos of banging doors and shouts. I clattered down the stairs, nearly running into Senaria emerging blearily from her first floor bedroom wearing only a pair of shorts. Kiri was just picking herself off the floor (thank god! I thought to myself), and a moment later Rann and Brinkman appeared at the top of the stairs.
Kiri wasted no time assessing the situation. Opening a wall panel, she uncovered a small screen that provided a view of the front lawn, and as she manipulated the controls a number of dim yellow squares appeared where I had seen the assailant. I recognized the screen as being the same type used at the other mountain house where we had narrowly escaped an ambush by Brizal assassination creatures.
"A Liquidator?" I asked, fearing the answer even as I spoke.
"No," she answered briefly, "those would show up as red. This was human. Looks like you scattered it all over the landscape, too." She scanned the surrounding area in all directions, with negative results. "That was the only one," she said, turning to us.
"What happened to the alarm?" Senaria demanded, now wide-awake. "Why didn't we get a warning?"
Kiri looked sheepish. "I never turned it on. I didn't think there was any need to. Sen, please go put something on," she added, noticing Rann and Brinkman averting their eyes (with reluctance, I'm sure) from the half-clothed young woman.
"Will, was that one of your energy bolts?" Kiri asked, looking at me in perplexity, and then her eyes widened. "And--what the hell is this? You're bleeding all over your pajamas." I looked down at my shoulder and saw a red stain seeping down the right front of my pajama tops. Only then did I become aware of a searing pain in the vicinity of my right collarbone.
"Let me see that," she demanded, ripping apart the fabric at the shoulder. "Only a graze," she sighed in relief. "Sen, bring your medical kit too," she shouted. I remembered the tinkling of broken glass behind me, and felt my knees go just a bit wobbly. Churchill may have found it "exhilarating to be shot at without result," but it wasn't my idea of a good time. A few moments later Senaria reappeared, this time sporting a T-shirt and with a small case in one hand.
"He was aiming at you through the window," I said to Kiri. "With a rifle." I gritted my teeth as Senaria wiped down the wound with an antiseptic cloth and covered it with an adhesive patch, inducing a substantial stinging that left my eyes watering for several minutes.
"I'm really sorry, Will," she said softly into my ear, and I noticed that she looked very pale beneath her habitual tan. Her six months studying medicine had come in handy more than once, I decided, even if she hadn't quite gotten some of the basics down.
"You know," I babbled on, "I didn't even have time to do the incantation thing, or--hey, I'm not wearing the pendant either." I had given it back to Kiri as a safety precaution, or so we thought. "Does that mean I could do this at any time?"
Kiri shook her head. "I really don't know. Let's hope you don't get mad at some innocent dolt and blow him up unexpectedly. All right, everyone," she announced in a loud voice, "let's see what's out there." I shivered involuntarily as we stepped out of the house, electric torches in hand.
It didn't take long to find what was left of our assailant. "Oh, gross," grumbled Senaria, surveying the carnage. My bolt had hit him squarely in the rib cage, exploding it. Brinkman made a gagging noise and turned away, and Rann also looked a bit green (although it may have been the torchlight).
The lower part of the body, from about the waist down, was still more or less in one piece, and Kiri quickly searched it unsuccessfully for a wallet or other identification. "Dammit," she said, wiping her hands on the grass. "Who the hell was this?"
"Um, Will..." I heard Senaria say, and something in her voice made my skin crawl. "Over here." Watching carefully where we stepped, we relocated to where she had caught something in the beam of her torch. It was the head, which had rolled about fifteen feet from the rest of the body, and the face was still relatively intact, now bearing a permanently surprised expression.
"You knew him?" Kiri asked, obviously puzzled.
"We both did," I said, my stomach knotting up as the ineradicable memory of an underground passageway and a lifeless body face down in a pool of blood rose up once again before me. "I don't think I'd forget that face. This was the leader of Krigghin Teyn's bodyguard." The charismatic Teyn had been presumed dead at Tar Deshta along with Tenako. His bodyguard had been notorious for encompassing some of the worst thugs on the planet.
"This is not good," Senaria said softly.
Brinkman coughed discreetly. "I know I'm just a guest here, but I'm afraid I don't quite follow what's going on."
"If this guy survived Tar Deshta," Kiri answered, "then it's very likely that Teyn did too."
"If so," I said, "he's almost certainly behind this. And that means he's likely to try again. Kiri, I don't think we ought to hang around here for long. There's no telling what they might do next."
Kiri nodded. "I'm more worried about what might be going on back home in our absence. 'While the cat's away...' " she finished, and the cliché seemed all the more appropriate as her eyes caught the porch light just right and shone bright green for a brief instant.
"Er, excuse me," said Brinkman nervously, "but shouldn't we be calling the police about now? After all, I believe that you have the remains of a dead body on your front lawn."
Kiri gave a humorless bark of a laugh. "Oh, yeah, I'd love to see their faces when we explain that Will here blew him up with his fingers." Brinkman looked distressed. "It's okay, Alan. Look, this guy isn't even from Earth, and neither are we. The local police wouldn't know what to do with this, and I don't relish the thought of our group, including not incidentally the Emperor and Empress of Deshtiris, being locked up in the Fontana police station for questioning. We'll have to take care of this in our own way."
"Now," she continued, "everyone move over to the porch. I'm going out back to bring up the Futaba." We did as she instructed, Brinkman muttering something about condoning a felony, and a few moments later the Futaba rose from behind the house where it had been parked and stopped about forty feet above the debris on the lawn. An opening appeared in the side, but instead of the usual ramp we saw a transparent level plank, about four feet long, extrude itself from under the doorway. A moment later Kiri stepped out holding something that looked ominously like a crude bazooka, with one end resting on her shoulder. Rann gasped in recognition.
"Alan, you wanted to know more about the laser rifles," she said, her voice clearly audible through the night air. "Here's your chance to see what they can do. I've set it on a broad spread instead of the usual tight beam." She aimed it down at the ghastly mess, and an instant later we were temporarily blinded by a brilliant green burst from the weapon, followed by a huge white fireball on the lawn. A blast of heat struck us, as though we had stood too closely to a raging bonfire. A thunderous noise, somewhere between a bang and a whoosh, echoed from the mountainsides as we blinked away afterimages for the next several minutes.
Of the body on the lawn, or for that matter of several hundred square feet of the lawn itself, there was no trace. Instead there was a smoking circular crater perhaps a foot deep at the center and at least thirty feet in diameter, every trace of organic matter having been burned away. "Jesus," Brinkman whispered. "And this is the demon toy that's being given to our planet?"
"More like a Pandora's box," I said quietly. "How'd you like to see kids doing drive-by shootings with those things?"
A few minutes later Kiri rejoined us, having parked the Futaba. "Well," she said to Brinkman, "think the police will find anything?"
"They may cite you for having an illegal barbecue," he said, still evidently shaken, "but I think I'd be more worried about who else is out there."
"Alan," she said more seriously, "I'm really sorry to have dragged you into this. It obviously wasn't on the agenda for this trip. On the bright side, I'm sure it was only me that he was after. If he'd wanted to kill all of us he could have easily done it with a few sticks of dynamite. You might want to be a bit careful from now on, though, especially since you're privy to that scuttlebutt about the lasers."
"It's okay," he said dryly. "Don't forget I was the one who approached you. But I do have to admit it's been an interesting evening."
We debated leaving that very night, but Kiri pointed out that with the alarm on we'd receive plenty of advance warning if anyone else showed up, and that we might be in more danger of an ambush taking the narrow mountain road in the dark. I offered to drive Brinkman back the next morning to UFont, as the inmates refer to it, while the rest of the gang packed up our belongings.
Brinkman cleared his throat. "I know that I'm probably not supposed to ask this; in fact I presume that I'm not supposed to even know that you exist. But, uh, I don't really have a lot to do here right now, and I wonder if--" He paused a moment in embarrassment. Kiri looked at him expectantly.
"You want to come along, is that what you're trying to say, Alan?" I had to grin; she definitely hadn't lost her ability to simulate a first-rate mind-reader when she wanted to.
"Actually, yes," he admitted. "You know there's not much to keep me here; you're the only decent student I've had in years. The children I get these days put more work into computing what they think their grade should be than doing the equations we're supposed to be exploring. Besides, I've spent my whole life looking at the universe from what amounts to the bottom of a well. I wouldn't mind a better view." Kiri nodded and turned to me inquiringly.
"If you're asking if I mind," I said, somewhat nonplused, "it's fine with me. Are you sure there isn't some interstellar law against it?" She again emitted that bark of a laugh I'd heard from her earlier.
"We make the laws, remember?" she retorted. More soberly, she added, "Actually, no, it generally isn't done, but there's no concrete rule against it. A few visitors have even brought back mates from Earth. Besides, if he did decide to tell the world about his adventures, he'd end up lumped into the same category as the Roswell crowd, right, Alan?" He reddened slightly; after all, for years he had carried on a personal crusade against the irrational craze for alien conspiracy theories. But then he'd met the real thing, so I suppose one can hardly blame him.
"Don't you have classes or something to teach, though?" I asked. By this time I was starting to feel a little sorry for California University/Fontana. Once Deshtiris was through with it there'd be no one left working there at this rate.
"Not really," he assured me. "I'm on sabbatical until the end of the winter semester, so I don't have to be back until January. Someone will give me a ride home then, I trust?" he added hesitantly, prompting general mirth. It was decided that I would take him into town the following morning to settle up his affairs, and we'd leave as soon as the two of us returned.
Eventually we all managed to clean ourselves up and find our way back to bed, after Kiri reset the alarm to warn us if anyone so much as sneezed in the direction of the house. Closing the bedroom door behind us, I started in surprise as Kiri threw her arms around me and held me tightly. I could feel her body shaking. I thought she was crying, but when she turned her face up to me her eyes were dry.
"Will, what is happening here?" she whispered. "I really thought it was all over. Why now? Why us?"
"We'll deal with it," I said calmly. "If we can't, no one can." That night I held her and gently stroked her soft crimson mane for what seemed forever until she finally fell into a deep sleep. I wish I could say as much for myself, waking up the next morning with a nagging headache and the vague memory of hideous dreams. It wasn't the first time, I thought ruefully.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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