For a long time I felt as if I were lightly floating on a soft feather bed. Only gradually did I begin to feel a world of pain, first in the form of a splitting headache, soon enhanced with aches that seemed to originate in every cubic inch of my body. Then I became aware of a foul taste in my mouth and a sensation of choking. Opening my eyes with an effort and seeing only a fuzzy brownish darkness, I experienced a moment of panic before I realized that I was lying face down on the forest floor. I spent the next few minutes spitting out dead leaves.
Awareness of where I was and what had happened finally began to surface. It felt as if every bone in my body was broken, and it was with considerable trepidation that I cautiously tried wiggling a finger. Meeting with a reasonable degree of success, I carefully ran tests on a few other parts, and, finding them all apparently somewhat intact, attempted to sit up.
That proved to be a mistake. I was not at all prepared for the deluge of pain this innocent endeavor triggered, and to my dismay I only succeeded in rolling over. I finally managed to prop myself up on both elbows, the better to survey the damage. From this position I saw my sword, buried almost to the hilt in the soft forest soil, a few feet from where my head had been. Other debris from my flier was scattered around the general vicinity.
The effort brought on a wave of dizziness, and I realized why when I saw the broad pool of half-congealed blood on the leaves where my right thigh had lain a moment ago. The bleeding from the ugly gash responsible appeared to have slowed somewhat, but I knew I would have to get medical help soon or I would be in serious trouble. The rest of my body was covered with a broad assortment of smaller cuts, abrasions, and bruises. So that's what they call "breaking a fall," I thought ruefully; it felt like I'd broken everything else instead. I painfully eased myself back onto the leaves and closed my eyes for just a moment.
When I opened them again, the forest canopy above me had changed oddly. It was brown now, and divided by a series of regular parallel ridges. I stared at it for some time before I realized that I was looking at a wooden plank ceiling. I must have passed out, I thought, and tried to sit up again.
"Please don't move," said a quiet female voice. "You need to rest for a while." A face appeared above me, a sad-faced woman of about Kiri's age, and dressed in the customary blue T-shirt of a medical doctor.
"Where am I?" I asked, more out of convention than anything else, as I lay back down. I felt the pain of strained and bruised muscles ease a bit as I relaxed again. "How did I get here? I was just lying in the forest a moment ago--"
"That was three days ago," she said in some amusement. "You've been asleep ever since. You know, it takes a lot out of you to repair that many cuts and bruises. You're lucky you didn't break your back or your neck." I turned my head slightly and saw an IV attached to one arm. "You also lost a lot of blood," she went on matter-of-factly. "You put a gash in your right leg that would have bled you to death if we hadn't found you in time."
"And you are--?" I asked.
"My name is Veldra," she said. "I'm the head doctor here."
"And where is 'here?' " I asked, returning to my original line of inquiry, this time with sincere interest.
"Don't worry, it'll all be explained to you, Senara," she said evasively. "The Boss said he wanted to see you once you were feeling better."
"Actually, I'm usually called Senaria," I said in surprise. "How did you know my name? And who is The Boss?"
The look on her face told me I wasn't going to get anywhere this time either. "You'll meet him soon enough," she said, a bit sadly I thought. "And as for your identity, we found your ID in the wreckage when we picked you up."
It was about then that I became conscious of the collar around my neck. It was loose enough that I hadn't noticed it before. "What's this?" I asked, fingering it nervously, but with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I knew the answer even before Veldra replied.
"It's a restraint collar," she said apologetically, confirming my worst fears. "Don't try to leave the infirmary. Do you know how they work?" I nodded grimly. "I'm sorry," she added. "I'm just the doctor here. I hate them as much as you," and I suddenly realized to my horror that she also wore one, almost hidden by her shirt.
A restraint collar is made of the same amorphous diamond as the Futaba, and like the Futaba can change its shape and size by manipulating the subatomic field that gives it its remarkable strength. Sealed inside the crystal is a small receiver which keeps track of the location of the wearer. If you stray outside the permissible area defined in its current programming, it begins to shrink. Stray too far, and you choke to death. Originally introduced as a "humane" form of house arrest, they have since been banned on both Qozernon and Deshtiris, especially after a widely publicized incident in which a prisoner fell from a boat during a routine transport and was swept away. His head--well, it was never found.
So now I knew. I was a prisoner. But of whom?
That question was answered a few hours later. I was half dozing when I heard another voice ask Veldra for a report on my condition. Curious, I opened my eyes. What I saw was a hard-faced man in the too-familiar uniform of the Brizal secret police. It can't get worse than this, I thought to myself. It can't possibly get worse. Boy, was I ever wrong.
In any case, it was several days before I could move around unassisted with the use of a crutch. Until then even making my way to the toilet required the assistance of Veldra or one of the assistant physicians (I think you call them "nurses" on Earth, but here they're treated with the esteem they deserve and given the more respectful title accordingly). She hadn't been joking; I was practically covered from head to toe with the adhesive air-permeable bandages commonly used on the Twin Planets, which biodegrade and fall off after a set amount of time. The sole exception was the gash on my thigh, which was more solidly bandaged for the time being.
Once I could move a little on my own I was given some standard issue clothing: sleeveless shirt, shorts, underclothing and boots. "What happened to my own?" I demanded.
"Let me put it this way, Senaria," Veldra explained patiently. "Your clothing took most of the brunt of your fall through that tree." I winced, realizing that as shredded as I was my clothes must have been in tatters by the time I hit the ground.
During this time I was able to get to know her a little better. Like many of the other support staff she was indeed a prisoner. She explained that, as was typical under the Brizali, she'd been awakened in the middle of the night, given a few minutes to dress and throw together some essentials, and accompany her captors. They'd taken her here, and here she'd been ever since. Like Rann's mother, I thought grimly. I wondered how many others had vanished without a trace, leaving their families to live in the worst kind of uncertainty.
I soon realized that she was a very lonely woman, and missed her family terribly. I was amazed to learn that neither she nor any of the other prisoners were aware of what had happened over the past six months, and so I at least had the satisfaction of brightening her day with word of the planet's recent liberation. No one here had ordered me to keep anything to myself, so I freely filled her and the others in on recent events, assuring her that they couldn't very well keep us here forever. At least, I hoped not.
"We all wondered about the change that occurred," she mused, referring to that momentous day six months earlier. "Until then, things here had been very quiet, with just a relatively small research staff on hand and occasional visits by The Boss. Then suddenly we were deluged by several hundred Brizali of all ranks and departments, and most of them looked pretty shaken up. We were told only that there had been a re-evaluation of this compound's purpose and warned not to ask questions. So they were actually refugees, then," she finished with a certain amount of satisfaction. "Not that it does us any good at the moment, though."
It was about a week later that I was informed I would be departing the infirmary and given a room of my own. Before we left, a woman I hadn't seen previously, also wearing the insignia of the Brizal secret police, examined my collar. "This will be re-programmed to give you access anywhere within this building," she said coldly. "The prisoners' quarters are on the other side. Don't attempt to leave the building." As she spoke, she drew a stylus over a small handheld device that displayed a map of the complex, outlining one of the buildings. I was surprised to see that there were many more buildings in addition to the one I occupied. Finished, she then pressed a small button. "Follow me," she said and turned to leave without further ado.
"Senaria," Veldra called after me, "you need to return in two days for me to recheck that gash on your thigh." I nodded, appreciative of her reassuring smile and wondering what new adventure lay ahead as I limped from the room, a crutch under one arm.
This was my first opportunity to see what lay outside the area in which I had been confined, and I examined my surroundings with interest as we proceeded. There were several large wards similar to the one I'd been in. I also received glimpses of what appeared to be well-furnished medical labs and some advanced diagnostic equipment normally found only in larger hospitals. The equipment made an odd contrast to the construction of the building itself, which was quite cheaply and flimsily built. I could kick a foot through any of the doors, I thought, and then remembered the collar.
In the center of the building was a large mess hall, which we passed through without stopping. It was apparently between mealtimes, as the room was nearly deserted except for a few people dressed in the light Brizal uniforms and a number of other, more casually dressed individuals. I saw one or two restraint collars among the latter. "This is where you'll take your meals," my guide said. "Mealtimes are announced over the room telecoms. Don't be late or you'll go hungry." In spite of the paucity of uniforms, it gave the definite impression of a military installation. The effect was not lessened by the barracks-style washrooms and showers we passed moments later.
A few more minutes took us to a side corridor lined with doors on either side. It resembled nothing quite so much as a cheaply built college dormitory. Opening one of the doors, she ushered me into a small room about twelve feet square, containing a bed, a dresser with a telecom sitting on top, a mirror, two chairs, and a small closet. "You'll find some clothes there that will fit you," she said, motioning towards the closet. "The telecom will only allow you to connect to the main switchboard, so don't plan on calling home. The set will activate automatically for various announcements coming through from time to time, and I suggest you pay attention to them unless you like unpleasant surprises. If you have any questions call the switchboard." With those words she left, closing the door behind her.
For a few minutes I surveyed the room that was apparently going to be my prison for the time being. Then, fighting off the urge to throw myself on the bed and wallow in self-pity for a while, I activated the telecom and contacted the main switchboard. "Is there anything to read around here?" I asked the bored operator that answered.
A little later I returned to my room, this time with a pile of ancient Brizal newsmagazines, a history of Deshtiris (something I wished now I'd learned a lot more about in school when I had the chance), and a few novels. Incidentally, several hundred years of computer use on the Twin Planets have demonstrated conclusively that there's still no random-access information retrieval device quite so satisfying or efficient as a book. Feeling a little less blue, I resolutely set to work to pass the endless hours.
That evening I answered the mess call and had no sooner loaded up my tray (with difficulty; it's not easy juggling a tray and a crutch at the same time) and taken a seat than I found myself surrounded by other prisoners. Apparently word of my arrival had created something of a sensation, especially since Veldra had discreetly passed along news of the Brizal overthrow. Although I'd met a few of the medical staff during my stay in the infirmary, most of the faces were new to me. All, of course, wore the unobtrusive restraint collars.
"Are you really a friend of Princess Mikiria?" said an awestruck young man in his thirties, one of the maintenance staff. I nodded, my mouth full of soybean burger.
"Part of her bodyguard," explained Veldra.
"Actually," I said after a major swallow, "she'd lived with our family on Qozernon for the past thirty years." I explained how Kiri had stashed Will on Earth when they first fled Deshtiris and only retrieved him recently.
Of course, the next thing they wanted to hear about was our near-disastrous expedition to Tar Deshta. There had been rumors about some kind of terrible catastrophe that had befallen the Brizali, but very little had leaked into the compound. I gave a carefully worded description of what had happened; I didn't know just how much our captors wanted discussed, and besides Will and Kiri had cautioned me when we first returned to the palace not to mention Tenako or the Virrin's planar field. It nonetheless made for quite a dramatic story, especially the part about Kiri's sensational return from the dead.
I had just about reached the part where we escaped in the Futaba when there was a minor commotion at the other end of the mess hall and I saw several coarse-looking men come swaggering in. They were dressed oddly, wearing tan and green mottled shirts and trousers, and sported extremely short haircuts that made their ears look more like handles than integral parts of their anatomy. Their heads reminded me of nothing quite so much as eggs, topped off with a thin coating of mold. They appeared to be about Kiri's age, but I noted to my surprise that they were speaking English. "Earthmen," Veldra whispered in my ear, and then I realized they would be in their early twenties.
One of them pointed in my direction, and moments later they were loudly exchanging coarse jests and gesturing at me. My face reddening, I started to struggle to my feet when I felt Veldra's hand on my shoulder. "Senaria, your leg. You're in no shape for a dust-up," she said softly. I'm not sure if I would have taken her advice, as they were heading in our direction, but to my surprise a Brizal officer at an intervening table abruptly rose in their path. "Off limits," I heard her say sharply. One of the thugs started to argue loudly, only to be pulled back by his companions with some whispered comments.
"No more of your crap," the Brizal snapped. "Or have you forgotten what happened to your trigger-happy friends?" At that they gave her sullen looks and quieted down noticeably. A few minutes later they had secured their meals and were sitting off by themselves. I noticed them directing ugly glances in our direction every once in a while.
"What are Earthmen doing here?" I asked in surprise when things had calmed down a little. I noticed the others seemed shaken by the near-confrontation; a definite chill had settled over the table.
"We're not sure," Veldra said. "They started showing up about five months ago." After the Brizal overthrow, I noted with interest. What did the Brizal want with Earth? And did it have something to do with the attack in Fontana? "They've brought firearms with them, too," added one of the others. "I don't like the looks of it."
"Their leader is worse," Veldra said. "Someone named Jack Lucie. I don't think I've ever seen any Brizal that gave me the creeps the way he does."
"Is he here?" I asked. I suddenly realized that more might be happening on Earth than we had suspected.
Veldra shook her head. "We haven't seen him for several weeks. And that's just fine with me." And on that note the conversation gradually shifted to other topics.
I managed to kill a day in this manner, locking away my real thoughts somewhere in the back of my mind. It was the evening of the second day, when I had returned to my room and unsuccessfully tried to bury myself in a novel, when they finally boiled out, overwhelming me like a searing flow of lava. I don't think I'd ever felt so alone in my life, as I sank into an utterly bleak state of depression.
Up until yesterday I'd been continually surrounded by people: Veldra, the assistant physicians, the other patients. Now I saw only the four walls of the room around me, and it hit me with full force. I was in the hands of the Brizali, and they knew perfectly well who I was. I had no idea what kind of treatment to expect, but somehow I didn't think it would be anything to look forward to.
Why were they here? Obviously this place had been established as a fallback position in case of disaster, a disaster which had indeed hit them square on. And I was one of the people they had to thank for it. They could have easily left me in the forest, I knew, and I would have bled to death within another few hours at most, long before any search parties located me. When my body was found, my death would have been safely written off to natural causes.
Instead they had brought me here, given me excellent medical care, and a room of my own. Somehow I fitted into their plans. I guess the realization of that fact was what frightened me most.
If it was information they wanted, they'd get it sooner or later. They didn't have to resort to anything so crude as torture; there are plenty of chemically-based ways to trick the brain into spilling everything it knows, ways which have long since been outlawed on both planets, but which the Brizali would hardly fail to use. But I had no illusions about spilling secrets; I didn't really know any of any importance.
The word that kept floating to the surface was far more frightening: blackmail. My life against--what? What would Kiri agree to if my life were on the line? Under the present circumstances I would have liked to have thought nothing at all, but I knew her too well for that; Kiri's loyalty to her friends was unshakeable, and also her weakest spot.
Sightlessly I stared at the bare wall; at that moment I would have sold my soul to have turned the clock back two weeks and just started all over again. "Senaria, you stupid jerk," I whispered softly to myself.
It was about then that the telecom suddenly came to life. "Amkor Senara?" inquired the switchboard operator, looking around, then seeing me he nodded. "Please stay in your room. You are to have a visitor shortly. The Boss himself wants to ask you some questions." The screen went blank.
So I was finally going to meet The Boss. I was a bit surprised; I would have assumed that some lesser functionary would be assigned to routine questioning. Well, at least I'd finally discover just who was behind this whole strange operation, I thought dejectedly.
And then there was a knock at the door, and of course it was Krigghin Teyn who stepped into the room.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
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