"Not again," I groaned to myself as I reread the report on the screen before me. This was the third Earth firearm to turn up during a routine search of the remaining missing Brizali's quarters. That might seem trivial, but firearms are regarded with extreme contempt by both Deshtirans and Qozernans; the very idea of weapons capable of injuring or killing from a distance is considered detestable. The development of laser-based firearms by the Brizali had been one of their final breaches of acceptable behavior, and even they had done so only near the end, during preparations for the invasion of Qozernon. They had also distributed such weapons only to those guarding extremely sensitive installations, and only after careful training.
But even they hadn't brought in explosive-based firearms from Earth, at least as far as we knew, and these were definitely "guns" of Earth manufacture. I shook my head. Kiri's not going to like this, I thought grimly as I moved on to the next report.
It was shortly before noon that I decided to take a much-needed break, and looked out from the balcony to see Rann and Senaria heading towards the Futaba for the daily flying lesson. They were just about to enter the ship when Brinkman appeared from somewhere below me and approached them with a hearty greeting. I couldn't quite hear the conversation, but I got the definite impression that he was trying to invite himself along.
It had been several days since the infamous "cosmetics" incident, and while Brinkman had made several more attempts to patch things up with Senaria she had continued to treat him with glacial civility. Therefore, it was rather to my surprise that I saw her gesture for him to follow them aboard. She also turned away from the older man for a moment and gave Rann a distinct wink. As she climbed in ahead of the two I noticed that she strapped herself into the pilot's seat instead of the co-pilot's. A moment later they had lifted off gracefully as she gently turned the nose skyward.
There was nothing remotely gentle about what followed. For several seconds they shot straight up, until they were practically out of sight. Then they were diving directly towards the ground, pulling out at the last moment into a giant 360-degree loop. That was milder than any of the acrobatics to follow, as the Futaba dove, swooped, and at one point came barreling through the palace complex and on towards the city center several miles away, rotating around its long axis as it did so. By now a considerable crowd had gathered, faces turned skywards.
I suddenly felt a hand gripping mine, and turned to see Kiri watching, her face white. "Who the hell is piloting that?" she managed in a strangled whisper.
"Sen," I answered. "She has Rann and Alan with her."
"Alan?" she repeated, clearly appalled. I nodded. "So that's it," she muttered, anger now mingled with the fear in her voice. For several more minutes we watched as the Futaba threaded its way through the skyscrapers, at one point literally spiraling up the outside of one of the tallest until it disappeared into the clouds. For almost a minute there was no sign of it, and I think neither Kiri nor I exhaled during the interval.
Then a tiny dot appeared almost directly above us, nearly invisible against the scattered clouds, and a moment later the Futaba had pulled out of a steep dive, missed one of the palace towers by a dozen feet, looped back, and slowed to a halt perhaps a hundred feet directly above the courtyard. Slowly it settled back to its usual place, coming to a gentle stop as though nothing untoward had occurred. Soon the usual doorway and ramp appeared, and after a long pause we saw Brinkman come staggering out, looking--well, let's just say his digestive system obviously hadn't taken well to the ride.
Rann disembarked a few seconds later, also looking slightly green but clearly not as badly affected as the unfortunate physicist. Finally came Senaria, with a thoroughly satisfied look on her face. Closing the portal behind her, she disappeared into the palace as I watched, to reappear shortly with a bucket and a mop, re-entering the ship with the same triumphant smirk. I suddenly realized Kiri was gone, and wasn't surprised to see her emerge below me, also headed for the Futaba.
I was anticipating major fireworks, but to my surprise she ignored Senaria entirely, instead sitting down at the console and busily performing some operation for several seconds. Only as she left did she turn to the now apprehensive girl. I distinctly heard her say, "We'll discuss this later, of course," as she stalked back into the palace.
It was several minutes after that when Senaria, the jaunty spring in her step now quite absent, stepped down the ramp with the bucket and mop and closed the portal behind her. Something seemed to occur to her, as if she'd left something inside, and she turned around. "Futaba: portal," I heard her say. There was no response from the ship. She momentarily froze, then unsuccessfully tried the command again. For a long time she stood there staring at the ship, then suddenly aimed a frustrated kick at the glistening crystal hull, with predictable results. It was a white-faced and dejected Senaria who picked up the mop and bucket again and slowly limped back to the palace.
Later that afternoon I was walking down the hallway that led past her room when I heard raised voices inside, one of them Kiri's. "What were you thinking of?" I heard her bark. "I'd expect something idiotic like this from a teen-ager, but I've respected you and treated you as an adult. I just can't believe you'd do something this stupid." I didn't quite make out Senaria's reply, as I kept on walking, but whatever she said was in a low, expressionless voice.
Meanwhile, I had my own share of the fallout to deal with, as an apologetic official from the city's traffic police stopped by and explained that she'd been asked to look into the affair. Kiri's ship was of course quite well known, and naturally they weren't about to give the Empress of Deshtiris a traffic ticket, but it had been a pretty public show and I didn't even want to think about how many regulations Senaria had probably managed to violate. I apologized profusely, assuring her that it was all a misunderstanding and offering to pay the appropriate fines, but she wouldn't hear of it. I think she just wanted reassurances that it wasn't going to be a regular event in the future, and those I could quite sincerely provide.
Ironically, since Senaria hadn't been driving a vehicle in the accepted sense of the term, her conduct didn't result in the suspension of her driver's license. Upon such technicalities does the operation of the law founder. At the time that seemed fortuitous.
Neither woman appeared for dinner that evening, nor did Brinkman. Gelhinda was there, however, and looked pretty well wrung out herself. "None of us are quite as adult as we'd like to consider ourselves," she commented at one point. "I don't know exactly what set Senaria off, although I think I have a good idea. I just hope Kiri hasn't gone too far with her."
"She was furious," I agreed.
"She was terrified," Gelhinda corrected me. "I don't think it was just fear of what Senaria might have done to herself or her passengers, either. For her to try something this stupid and risky she must be in real agony inside. And she won't talk to me about it. Says it's something she has to work out herself."
"Well," I said dubiously, "I hope this afternoon's exhibition isn't a sample of how she plans to go about it."
When I finally saw Kiri later in the evening I didn't ask about her encounter with Senaria that afternoon, and she made no move to bring up the subject. In fact, she didn't bring up much of anything, being almost totally withdrawn into her shell. I'd seen her like this before, and knew better than to attempt to pry her out. All in all, it was a day I hoped would soon be forgotten.
I wasn't really surprised the next morning when Rann asked if he could talk to me alone for a few minutes. "I'm really sorry about what happened yesterday," he began.
"What did you have to do with it?" I asked skeptically. Rann was one of those saintly beings who invariably try to take the blame for their fellow humans' shortcomings, but I seriously doubted that any of yesterday's fiasco had been at his instigation.
He looked sheepish. "Well," he admitted, "when Alan asked if he could come along, Sen winked at me and I figured she was going to give him a bit of a ride. But I never dreamed she'd do something crazy like that. It's like she just lost control and turned into someone else. For a few minutes I really thought she was going to deliberately fly us into a building or something." He stopped and chewed nervously on the tip of his bushy black ponytail. "She changes, somehow. I thought I knew her, but lately her mind just seems to be someplace else a lot of the time. Sometimes she treats me like a friend, and other times like she's uncomfortable just being around me. And I really care an awful lot about her." His almond-brown eyes looked perilously close to overflowing as he looked away in embarrassment.
I took a deep breath. "You know what she went through at Tar Deshta, don't you, Rann? And before?"
"Yeah," he said slowly. "She's never talked about it, but Gelhinda told me. I guess it doesn't just go away, does it?"
"It does, after a fashion," I said. "You don't forget about it, but you learn to live with it."
"I suppose every time she sees me I remind her of what happened," he went on sadly. I nodded, a bit surprised at his perceptiveness.
"Some tragedies leave reminders for us everywhere we go. Some of them are in our heads and we can't just look away. Instead we learn to see past them, if we're fortunate enough and determined enough."
"Do you love her, Rann?" I suddenly asked him point blank. It floored him totally, leaving him speechless. I just sat and waited patiently.
"Yeah, I guess I do," he finally mumbled. "I've never really been in love with someone before, so I don't know for sure."
"Have you told her that?" I pressed him. He thought about it for a while.
"No, I suppose I haven't. But she has to know by now."
"Sometimes a person wants to hear it, Rann," I said. "If you aren't willing to say something, they think you don't really care that much. It's kind of a dumb test, I know, but people are like that." Seeing his face brighten, I added, "You have to be prepared for her to tell you the truth about how she feels, and it might not be what you want to hear." I remembered her all-too-candid comments on our way back from Fontana. "That's the price you pay for bringing it out into the open. If you can't deal with that, then you might be better off to leave things alone."
I think he looked more confused than ever when he finally left, but that's how life is. If you think you understand it, then you're definitely heading for a fall. At least, that's the Will Barton theory on the subject.
Things unexpectedly came to a climax in the living room later that evening after supper. Brinkman and I were sitting in the easy chairs, me reading the newspaper and Brinkman watching a noisy television program (although of course he still understood only a fraction of the Deshtiran dialogue). Rann and Senaria were sitting together on the couch, having a quiet conversation on the other side of the room. Rann seemed unusually ill at ease.
Abruptly the dialogue on the telecom hit a silent spot at exactly the wrong moment, just as Rann was saying to Senaria in a tone no doubt intended to be inaudible to us, "So, er, would you like to stay with me tonight, then?" Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brinkman's jaw hit the floor. His Deshtiran might be underdeveloped, but this kind of conversation was second nature to him in any language.
Senaria didn't seem fazed at all, just a little saddened. "I'm sorry Rann, but I really don't think that's a good idea. This just isn't the right time." The telecom, choosing that moment to return to obstreperous life, drowned out the rest.
This was not quite the bald-faced proposition it might have been considered on Earth (at least in "polite society," if such a thing exists). Qozernans are much more relaxed about these matters, and such an invitation between unattached persons is recognized as the compliment it implies. Of course, the requestor is expected to accept the answer in good grace, whatever it might be, and one does not generally press the issue. Deshtiris, which used to share this particular perspective, has grown considerably more puritanical after thirty years of totalitarian oppression, and I could guess the nerve it had taken for Rann to risk making the offer. Admittedly it hadn't been quite what I'd had in mind when he'd spoken with me earlier, but then I suppose the direct approach does have its advantages.
Brinkman, however, seemed to be developing a real knack for cultural snafus, especially where Senaria was involved, and when I saw him open his mouth I instinctively flinched. "Well, Rann," he said jovially in primitive but regrettably intelligible Deshtiran, and no doubt intending it as a joke, "maybe next time you should try getting her plastered first."
Both Rann and Senaria turned to stare at him, Rann's face quickly turning a humiliated crimson. At that point I just wanted to dive into the nearest foxhole. Senaria did have a previous (and somewhat deserved) reputation for being considerably less than discriminating when heavily tanked, but on the Twin Planets getting someone drunk to obtain consent is viewed as little better than rape. Besides, these days it was pretty unusual for her to actually drink much.
For just a moment I thought I saw hurt reflected in her ice blue eyes, almost instantly replaced by quiet fury. When she finally spoke, it was in English, and overlaid with her best Texas accent. "Mistah Brinkman," she drawled frostily while staring him right in the eye, "ah may not be an astrophysics genius, but ah can assure you that mah medical trainin' is sufficient for me to ahdentify an asshole when ah see one." And with those words she seized an astonished Rann and gave him a sensational (and thoroughly cinematic) kiss, then grabbed him by the hand and dragged him out of the room without so much as a backwards glance.
I surveyed the ruined, burned-out hulk that had been Brinkman, and sighed. Normally Senaria was the sweetest person alive, I reflected, but when she did resolve to demolish an adversary she was capable of bringing a truly awesome level of firepower to bear. "I guess you ticked her off a bit," I remarked sympathetically. It was several seconds before he spoke.
"What a woman," was all he finally said. He's got it bad, I thought ruefully.
I stayed up very late that night reading. It was well into the wee hours of the morning before I finally padded down the silent hallway to our own quarters. Along the way I passed Senaria's room and found her door open; from the light coming in through the doorway I could easily see that her bed hadn't been slept in. I hope she knows what she's doing, I mused. Shrugging my shoulders, I continued on to my own room.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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