I hardly need add that our premature return to Deshtiris created a sensation among those in the know. Foremost among them were Valkar (for in spite of the obvious fact that we were providing him with a legitimate excuse to say "I told you so," we certainly weren't going to keep him in the dark), Holan, and Gelhinda. We had of course contacted them well before our arrival and filled them in on events. Military intelligence was brought in via Holan, and we spent several hours with them regurgitating everything we could possibly remember about the encounter. We also provided them with copies of the relevant records from Kiri's alarm system (although by the time it had been turned on there hadn't really been much left to record).
The rest of the palace staff, as well as the news media, were simply told that we had returned early due to some unexpected difficulties. The last thing we wanted was for a rumor to start spreading that Krigghin Teyn was alive, well, and causing mayhem. There were still some thirty thousand Brizali unaccounted for, and although many of them had undoubtedly perished at Tar Deshta there were no doubt others who had gone underground or assumed false identities, and we didn't care to give them any unnecessary ideas.
Gelhinda had some news of her own: a representative of the Qozernan Watchdog organization would be arriving in a few days. Her visit was carefully camouflaged as a continuation of the intricate trade negotiations still ongoing after all these months. (I'd give you her name, but then I'd have to kill you.)
We also had our unexpected guest to provide for. On the trip back we had warned him that both Kiri and I were often tied up for most of the day with all of the administrivia incident to being All-Powerful Rulers. There was also the language barrier, for although quite a few Qozernans speak excellent English (partly due to the considerable amount of pirated Earth television available on that planet), the years of Brizal rule had virtually eliminated the language requirements in the Deshtiran school systems. Rather to our surprise, Senaria volunteered to take on the task of teaching him the Deshtiran language, something Brinkman objected to not at all.
"He's a lot of fun to talk to," she told us enthusiastically later that afternoon, "and it gives me a chance to practice my English. I was hoping to do that on this trip and things didn't quite work out that way." Soon the sight of the two of them sitting together under a tree laughing and talking became a regular fixture on the palace grounds. I also thought I detected the first signs of a real turn for the better in Senaria's psyche, as the cheerfulness no longer seemed so forced, the good moods no longer skating quite so treacherously on the surface.
Before long she was taking him around the surrounding countryside in her new flier. At first Rann accompanied them on many of these outings, but I got the definite impression that he was feeling a bit unwanted (although I doubt that Senaria would have ever intentionally made him so), and eventually he was discreetly finding other things to do and looking thoroughly glum about it.
I could see why Senaria found the older man to be entertaining company. He had a razor-sharp mind (he was, in fact, the only person I'd ever seen best Kiri in a battle of puns), and a knack for seeing the absurdity in situations that we take for granted. The result was an endless series of entertaining observations on everything around him. In short, he simply didn't "act his age." This proved to be not altogether a good thing, as events would shortly demonstrate.
"You know, Alan," Kiri said not long after his arrival, "we can't turn the clock back for you like we did for Will, because his aging was basically a fraud to start with, but we can at least slow the process down. With a few treatments and plenty of exercise you could easily live to a hundred and ten, you know." Not surprisingly he enthusiastically agreed, and for several days made regular visits to the temporary palace clinic run by military staff. (This had actually been set up as a result of Kiri's original injury, and since we had no doctors of our own we had asked that they remain for the time being.)
It was on our third day back that Valkar discreetly advised us that we had a morning appointment with the "Qozernan trade negotiator." Rather to our surprise, the older woman that was presently ushered into our office looked around in evident disapproval. "Please forgive me," she apologized, "but I really have to insist on the strictest security. What steps have you taken against possible bugging of this office?" We were caught unawares by the question, and had to admit that it really hadn't occurred to us. For a moment an impasse loomed, as we tried to think of any room in the palace that could be considered "secure," then Kiri's face brightened.
"Why don't we use the Futaba?" she suggested. "Its living quarters are probably the most secure spot in the universe. In fact, they're not even in this universe," she added gaily. I knew what she meant, but our guest was obviously nonplused. Kiri explained on our way out to the courtyard. "Even if someone did manage to bug them, there's no way they could get the information into our time-space continuum without modifying the Futaba itself. And there are only four people alive that have access to it."
Whether this technobabble would have normally convinced our rather dour visitor I don't know, but it would have been hard for anyone to resist when Kiri called out "Futaba: portal" and the glistening tube of clear crystal obligingly formed an entrance complete with accompanying ramp. After briefly giving the Qozernan a tour of the control console, she led us through the rear doorway to the attached living quarters. As we strode through the opening, resembling an ordinary metal door, it was hard to imagine that we were literally stepping from one universe to another. Soon we were settled in comfortable antique chairs in the main lounge as Kiri poured cold drinks for the three of us.
"I realize you've both probably heard this until you're thoroughly sick of it," our guest began, "but that was an incredible feat you pulled off. We really thought our number was up when Teyn launched that fleet. We couldn't believe our ears when the news came through that the Deshtiran fleet was asking to negotiate. And then when we found out it was you, and we heard about the risks you had taken..."
"We did what we had to," I said. "All of us."
"And how is Senaria holding up?" she asked unexpectedly. Seeing our surprise, she added, "Our organization worked very closely with Lev's. He spoke of her rather often, always with a great deal of affection. In fact, I personally suspect that he was on the verge of proposing to her when--" She let the thought trail off. "It must have been terrible for her," she finished.
"It was," Kiri said simply. "But she's a tough kid. She'll get through it all right."
"Well," our guest resumed, her manner suddenly brisk, "I assume you've had little or no information about the Watchdogs from the Brizali." I told her about the clerk. "I'm glad to hear that they at least kept something going on their end," she grumbled. "We've heard almost nothing about their activities for years. That's extremely disturbing news about the ones they lost track of. I think we can account for most of them; quite a few came over to us when they realized they were being recalled to imprisonment or worse. Let's see what you've got," she added, pulling up a list of names on her portable computer.
"I'm afraid we don't have any names," I said ruefully. "All of the records were apparently destroyed with Tar Deshta. The clerk only had access to code names."
At that she looked quite a bit more concerned. "Then we really have no idea how many are unaccounted for. All we have are the ones who came to us."
"Obviously that worries you a lot," Kiri said. "Why?"
"There are three possibilities for each missing Watchdog," she answered, ticking them off methodically. "They could be dead--people do die in traffic accidents, muggings, that sort of thing. They could have just decided to abandon their roles and try live out normal lives on Earth, since they couldn't go home again. Or they could have gone renegade."
I looked at her in surprise. "Renegade? What exactly would a renegade Watchdog do?"
"Anything it wants to," she responded ominously.
Ignoring the startled looks directed at her, she went on. "They have access to Qozernan and Deshtiran technology, which on Earth means the possibility of virtually unlimited wealth and power. Witness Kiri's little bank transactions, for example." Kiri turned beet red as our visitor chuckled. "We make a point of tracking the activities of Twin Planets visitors to Earth. After all, you were a private citizen back then, and we had to make sure you weren't up to any mischief. As far as we were concerned, you put the money to good use so we didn't see any reason to make an issue of it."
"I had no idea," Kiri mumbled.
"Of course," our visitor added, twisting the knife ever so gently, "that little thermonuclear device you set off in San Bernardino County was a bit more difficult to hush up. You nearly caused an international incident, you know."
"I think you should hear about an odd experience we had on Earth a few days ago," I said (hastily changing the subject in the process), and told her about the assassination attempt. "We assumed the Brizali were behind it, especially with Teyn's ex-bodyguard involved. But what you're telling us opens up some other disturbing possibilities."
She nodded grimly. "The green lasers you describe are exactly the kind of thing we've feared from a possible renegade. He--or she, or they--could be working on their own, or they could be in cahoots with Brizal fugitives. It's even possible the Brizali are working with them not realizing they're ex-Watchdogs. It gets really messy at this point, and I'd like to suggest that clearing this up be a high priority for both our organizations."
"Except that at the moment we have no organization," I said. "Most of ours was apparently vaporized at Tar Deshta, and what's left is made up of low-level clerks. It seems as if we'll be starting from scratch." For a good hour we discussed the mechanics of reconstruction, including the extremely tight security essential to its functioning.
"There's one other thing you ought to know about," she said as she rose to leave. "This may or may not have anything to do with Watchdogs or the Brizali, but our people have reported some extremely disturbing developments in the United States. Have you ever heard of John Lucie?" We both shook our heads; the name wasn't even faintly familiar.
"He's exactly the kind of troublemaker that the Watchdogs were created to keep an eye on. He holds a high position with one of the largest U.S. defense contractors, and during the past eight years or so he's been methodically putting together an unholy coalition of disaffected military officers--you know, the kind that think civilians aren't capable of governing themselves, and want to see military discipline imposed everywhere--along with firearm worshippers, extreme right-wing religious cults, and race fanatics of all varieties. Somehow it's escaped the attention of the media and the federal investigative agencies, and we suspect that's no accident. We're not quite sure what they're working towards, but we have a strong suspicion that the agency doing the so-called 'research' on the green lasers is under their umbrella. Whatever's going on, it's starting to move pretty fast. And with two million pounds of plutonium stockpiled on Earth by our latest estimate, things could get really ugly."
After she left, we both sat lost in thought for several minutes. "A renegade Watchdog," I finally mused aloud.
"Yes, that's exactly right," Kiri affirmed. "A renegade Watchdog. And, when you factor in the technology that Tenako had at his fingertips, one with very large and very sharp teeth."
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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