We finally dragged ourselves to bed; we had, after all, been up almost around the clock. By the time we began congregating again for the "morning" meal we were only a few hours from Deshtiris. Naturally, one of the first things we did was to bring up the television news from Earth.
Most stations had by now reached the instant replay stage, endlessly recycling the same information again and again. For a change this was useful, as it enabled us to catch up on events. The big news, of course, was the sudden collapse of the rebellion after the mysterious failure of their advanced weaponry. Many of the insurrectionists had been rounded up, although a sizable percentage were unaccounted for, including Lucie.
"Damn," Kiri growled. "I don't like the thought of him still being at large. I might have known he'd slip out of the net."
"He's probably the most-wanted man on the planet now," I reassured her. "Where can he hide?"
"Where, indeed?" she said moodily as we dug into a hearty breakfast, our eyes glued to the telecom screen.
Because of the crisis, the remarkable near-catastrophe of a huge meteorite impact in western Virginia had almost escaped notice for the time being, although there were a few whimsical interviews with assorted crackpots who claimed that friendly aliens from outer space had obviously intervened for reasons of their own. Most of the reputable scientists interviewed had pooh-poohed any connection between the devastating impact, which had apparently occurred in an uninhabited part of the state, and the almost simultaneous failure of the rebel weaponry. One savant confidently assured listeners that it could well have been "ionized plasma" in the wake of the celestial intruder that had knocked out the lasers' control systems.
A second fireball had been reported in a desolate region of southern Arizona, and the general assumption was that it had resulted from another meteor strike. Oddly, there were no astronomical confirmations of a visible streak before the impact, although several eyewitnesses came forward and eagerly asserted that they had witnessed the descending object.
By this time we were laughing so hard that we almost missed the brief mention of a mysterious communications blackout that had taken place on Earth about six hours before our arrival on Deshtiris. During that time all radio-based systems, including microwave transmissions, satellite communications, and radar, had simply ceased functioning. About a half-hour later everything had begun working again as though nothing had happened. Coming in the wake of such extraordinary events, it received relatively minor coverage, and we too took little notice of it as we spiraled down through the murky Deshtiran atmosphere towards Deshti and home.
Needless to say, when we arrived the Earth revolt was in the midst of seven-day-wonder status, and it was all we heard about for some time. Kiri modestly declined to let us describe her part in the ultimate fiasco (to Rann's extreme disappointment), insisting that it could all be told someday when things calmed down a bit. She and I also made the necessary arrangements to assign Brinkman the laboratory facilities and assistants he needed to pursue his project. And then we settled back into the usual palace routine of meetings, correspondence, and paperwork.
It was five days after we landed that our own communications blackout occurred. Our first intimation of trouble was when our telecom screens went blank in the middle of a videoconference. After a few minutes of exasperated fiddling Kiri called the communications desk, only to find that while internal networks were working there were no outside links at all. Initially we assumed an equipment malfunction, but I could see that Kiri was more than a little aggravated. Finally she exploded, raging at the inability of the technicians to locate the problem.
"I'm going to check on this myself," she snapped, and promptly stormed off to the communications center. About an hour later she returned, with an unsettled look on her face.
"We've been deliberately locked out of our own comm systems," she said grimly. "It's a virus using a form of data encryption that could take weeks to crack."
"Lucie?" I suggested, suddenly feeling queasy.
"Not judging from what I saw on Earth," she said, but this time there was no sneer in her voice. "Whoever did this is good. Really, really good. I don't know of anyone on three planets that could have done this. At least, not now."
"Well, is there an alternative to all this high-tech stuff? Do you still have any radios, for example?"
She shook her head, then her expression brightened. "But I think we could improvise some pretty quickly. It's relatively simple technology." In a few minutes she was all energy as she hurled instructions through the still-working palace communications system.
Within an hour or so we had a number of high-powered radios cobbled together and an antenna strung from one of the palace's highest towers. Now the difficulty was to get the others distributed to the right people. At that point Rann stepped in. "I can fly the Futaba, remember? Why don't I deliver them?" And so a few minutes later he was on his way to visit the main military bases on Deshtiris. Within another fifteen minutes we were receiving the first frantic calls over our makeshift equipment.
Ironically, it was at just about the time we established communications with the last of the major bases when suddenly, without warning, the regular grid began working normally again as if nothing had ever happened. Our first thought was that we might have had a revolt of our own in the interim, but a quick check with the other commands revealed nothing out of the ordinary except for the blackout itself. Throwing up her hands, Kiri headed for her own equipment this time, only to return with an utterly baffled look on her face.
"Apparently the virus had a built-in time limit. It's now gone without a trace and everything's working perfectly. Even our tracking satellite links are back. It's just a good thing we didn't have any ships trying to land at the time."
"Could it have left some kind of time bomb behind?" I asked.
"There's no trace of anything suspicious, anywhere. It's completely gone, and nothing's been damaged. That's what scares me. A lot."
I shook my head in utter perplexity. "Weird," I mused. "The whole planet loses communications for six hours. Then everything's back on as if nothing happened."
"Six hours," Kiri echoed. "A complete tracking blackout, just like on Earth a few days ago, except this time six hours. Why not six minutes, or six seconds, or six days, for that matter." She paled. "Six days," she repeated. "The Earth revolt collapsed six days ago."
I suddenly felt cold. "How long does it take a battleship to get from Earth to Deshtiris?" I asked, but I already knew the answer.
She nodded. "And for six hours we had no way of tracking incoming vessels."
"I don't suppose we could have tracked them further out?" I suggested dubiously.
"No. Not while they're in hyperspace. Only another military vessel in hyperspace could do that." A quick check with Holan revealed that there were none at present in space.
"So," I said, "just maybe an unknown number of vessels with an unknown number of troops landed on Deshtiris sometime in the last six hours at an unknown location."
"That's a lot of unknowns," Kiri sighed hopelessly.
In the meantime Brinkman had been practically working around the clock on modifying the Liquidator technology. For the first time since I'd known him he seemed to have found a mission in life, as he buried himself in the records left by Tenako and began experimenting with various combinations and frequencies of sound and light. Actually, I should say he had assistants experimenting for him, as he made no bones about being all thumbs in a laboratory. His own time was spent carrying out to the last decimal point endless complex mathematical formulae that would have baffled most humans, regardless of their planet of origin, then passing along suggested settings to the lab assistants for trial.
On at least one occasion the results melted a hole through the solid stone wall of the building; fortunately no one had been standing on the other side (to this day the building in question bears a neat circular concrete patch about four feet in diameter). I should add that Kiri and I were both jubilant about this near disaster, as it demonstrated conclusively that he was at least on the right track.
"It's partly a question of data processing," he explained at one point. "The Liquidators had to modify an extremely wide range of organic compounds to do their dirty work, and only an organic computer could handle the necessary parallel computations with sufficient speed. Hence the need for genetic engineering. But to affect just one substance is easily within our reach."
And then one day he barged into our office without asking, sending Valkar into paroxysms of indignation. "It's done," he declared. "It works, and it's ready."
"How soon can you build a prototype?" I inquired eagerly. He held up a small box with what looked like a glorified light bulb on top.
At that moment we were interrupted by Valkar, who hurriedly ushered in another unexpected visitor. This time it was Holan, announcing that he had important information about Senaria's disappearance. "Empress," he blurted out without even being addressed, a remarkable lapse for the normally protocol-conscious Deshtiran. "We have determined the cause of the explosion of Senaria's flier."
In one hand he held up a twisted piece of metal, which bore a mirror-like streak ending in a small hole; in the other was a small shapeless piece of lead. He gestured with the smaller fragment. "We have identified this as the remains of a high-powered rifle bullet," he said. As Kiri half-rose to her feet in astonishment, he continued, "It is apparently of Earth origin. It entered the magnetic bottle and caused a runaway plasma reaction."
For a few moments stunned silence reigned. I looked at Kiri, now standing erect, her stance suggestive of an avenging angel. The implacable expression on her face boded ill for whoever was behind this, I knew. Even Holan stepped back involuntarily.
"Thank you, Holan," she said at last. "You and your staff have done exceptional work, and you have our gratitude. Now I need you to do something else." Holan looked at her expectantly.
"Contact the military commanders for the southern continent. We have some new orders to issue."
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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