On the way down the mountain the next morning Brinkman raised the issue of what he called my "lightning bolts." I explained that when Kiri's father had genetically manipulated her during the first few weeks of her mother's pregnancy he had done likewise to me, implanting every cell in my body with a kind of submicroscopic battery.
I had first become vaguely aware of it several months before I met Kiri when four nonsense words--vren, bri, do, gred--started popping into my head at random intervals. Later, we discovered under rather dramatic circumstances that if I spoke those four words while holding a pendant that Tenako had created (and that had ultimately ended up in Kiri's possession), it somehow activated the ability to throw what for lack of a better phrase could be described as bolts of electrical energy.
"And apparently you no longer need to say the words or hold the pendant in order to do this?" Brinkman asked incredulously.
"Apparently not," I answered.
He digested that for a few minutes. "Remind me not to ever piss you off in traffic," he finally muttered.
Somewhat to my surprise he shifted the conversation to Senaria, and I soon confirmed that he had not been oblivious to her undeniable charms. I knew he had a formidable reputation for pursuing the opposite sex but I wasn't particularly disturbed; she was quite capable of taking care of herself and certainly didn't need a chaperone to protect her.
"Are she and that Rann fellow a pair?" he asked, once he knew that I wasn't going to play the protective father.
"Not as far as I know," I answered. "I think they're just good friends. At least they don't sleep together, unless they've been keeping it a closely guarded secret, and that's not Sen's style." I could practically see the wheels turning in his head, and suspected that we might be in for a bit of entertainment in the near future.
It was midday before the two of us arrived back at the house, there to be informed that the Futaba was all packed and ready to go. A few minutes later we were rising into the air, Brinkman admiring the huge crater in the front yard as the scenery receded below us. Since there were only four seats in the Futaba, Senaria graciously volunteered to go prepare dinner in the attached living quarters, and I sat with Rann in the rear two seats while Kiri explained to Brinkman why we weren't concerned about being picked up on Earth's radar. (The ship's walls were transparent to microwaves, and the metal portions of the ship were small enough that they were unlikely to be identified as anything other than static).
"This is just so incredible," said the awestruck Rann. Although he'd had some experience with space travel, most of it had been in the huge Deshtiran battleships from which one generally didn't get much of a view. The Futaba, on the other hand, with its utterly transparent crystal walls, would have been a tour director's dream. Kiri's antics didn't detract from the show either; while we didn't buzz the surface of the moon as we had on my first trip off Earth, that omission was more than rectified with close runs by both Jupiter and Saturn.
"This time they're not so far out of the way," she called back to us as she perpetrated a near-miss of Ganymede, Rann's eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. A moment later the universe had turned inside out as we dropped into hyperspace, with black stars dotting a blinding white universe, then things returned to normal except that the stars could now be seen slowly shifting against one another.
Eventually the four of us reluctantly headed back to the living quarters for dinner. Senaria had done herself proud concocting a tasty meal, and Brinkman and Rann competed enthusiastically in singing her praises (in spite of the absence of burgers). I had to smile; flattery was hardly the way to her heart, but they were both clearly oblivious to that minor fact. Before long she managed to slip away, but not without wolfing down a healthy portion herself. Food was no trivial matter for her, I knew. For a while I talked to Rann about his experiences with the Brizali, until he finally excused himself.
I left Kiri and Brinkman animatedly discussing some fine point of advanced quantum chromodynamics, and decided to go watch the stars for a bit. As I stepped through the gateway into the Futaba, the uneasy sensation of stepping out onto a narrow plank into the vast open universe was even more disconcerting than usual, since most of the lights had been doused. Up at the front, barely silhouetted against the surrounding stars, I made out Senaria's shaggy mop. "Mind if join you?" I said quietly, though easily audible across the length of the small craft. For a moment she hesitated, then her reluctant "Okay" came back in a considerably more subdued tone than usual.
I slid into the seat next to her and saw that she was staring out at the stars. Even the console indicators had been dimmed, but though her face was just visible in the starlight I could still see the faintly shining streaks on her cheeks. "Hi," I said gently. "Want to tell Uncle Will about it?"
At that she had to grin a little in spite of herself. "Uncle Will?" she half-snorted. "More like Big Brother, wouldn't you say?"
"So tell Big Brother about it," I said encouragingly. "Big Brother loves you. What's wrong?"
For a while she seemed to be unsuccessfully trying to put her thoughts into words. Several times she started to say something, then thought better of it and choked it off. "Damn," she finally exploded in frustration. "I can't believe how mixed up I am. What a mess." I saw a fresh streak glistening on one cheek, which she surreptitiously tried to wipe away without my noticing. Diplomatically I looked away for a moment; when I turned back it was gone.
"You know how excited I was about being part of your bodyguard," she said at last. "I thought, what could happen now; Deshtiris is free, everyone's safe; it sounded like such a lark. And then I screwed up and Kiri was almost killed. I was fast asleep, and didn't even know what had happened. Too busy contemplating my own navel. Hell of a bodyguard," she finished bitterly. I looked at her in surprise.
"It was hardly your fault," I said. "Even Kiri didn't bother to turn on the alarm. What would you have done? Stood guard all night at the window?" I suddenly understood that this was a side trip, not the real issue. I think she realized that I knew, because she abruptly turned and eyed me apprehensively. "It's all right, Sen," I said. "I know how you feel about her. Don't ever worry that I'm going to resent it somehow. I just wish things were easier for you, that's all." Changing the subject slightly, I added, "I take it Rann's not really your cup of tea."
She giggled slightly. "Rann's a sweet kid. He's utterly loyal, desperately straight-laced, even for a Deshtiran, rather cute, and has a very nice body. He's also capable of being incredibly tedious. I just wish he hadn't chosen me for his first crush; I really don't want to hurt his feelings." I had to smile; after the devastating critique she had just provided of the hapless youth, her prime concern was for his feelings? I suspected that I wouldn't want to be around if she ever did intentionally take aim at someone's ego, especially if they had it coming.
I tousled her hair for a moment and stood up. "Feel any better now?" I asked. She nodded morosely.
"Yeah. Thanks, Will," she said, adding an unconvincing smile, and I headed back to the living quarters, feeling a bit relieved to have four walls, a ceiling and a floor around me. I had no illusions about Senaria; underneath the buoyant persona she presented to the world I knew that she was one very troubled young woman, and that there weren't going to be any easy answers for her.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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