I raised another question that had been nagging at me during the whole tale. "Who were those creatures that appeared at your house this evening?" I asked. "The one at the front door looked human, but the others--" and I shivered. "What would they have done with us?"
"They'd have turned us into twin puddles of tangerine syrup," she answered. Somehow the flippancy rendered it even more horrifying. "The one at the front door was a Brizal squad commander of particularly evil reputation. The others were creatures that have begun appearing on Deshtiris only within the past fifteen years. One rumor has it that they are creations of my father, Tenako. The eye in the forehead has the power to emit a certain wavelength of light. On either side of the eye are small organs which apparently emit ultrasonic sound waves. In some way we don't understand, the combination of the two instantly liquefies organic matter. They can reduce a living, breathing human being to a pool of yellow-orange slime in a second or two."
She shuddered involuntarily. "We call them Liquidators; you can consider it a bit of black humor. Usually they aren't seen outside of Deshtiris, although a few have been discovered on Qozernon, probably on some kind of assassination mission, and killed."
"What I don't understand," she said almost to herself, "is how they knew how to find me. Only a few people on Qozernon knew where I was." A sudden look of worry appeared on her face, and she jumped up and strode back through the doorway to the cockpit. A few touches on the controls brought up a screen that seemed suspended in midair in front of her, and moments later a face appeared on the screen. It was the face of a middle-aged woman, and one which I found myself instinctively liking without quite knowing why.
"Gelhi," demanded Kiri (she pronounced it "jelly," by the way), "is everything all right back there? We got off Earth just ahead of a pack of Liquidators."
Gelhi (I found out later that her real name was Gelhinda) looked suitably alarmed. "We're all fine here. Senara's here with me and I was just on the telecom with Zee. Are you all right? And is he with you?" From the way she said it, I guessed she must be referring to me. Kiri reassured her and gave a brief summary of our hasty departure, and promised we'd be there for supper the next evening before she broke the connection. Obviously relieved, she returned to the living quarters with me in tow. On the way she stopped in the kitchen area and poured a pair of mild drinks from a well-furnished bar.
"By the way," I said as we sat back down, "would you please explain where this flying hotel came from? I know this wasn't attached to the Futaba when we took off."
"Actually," she said, "this," and she gestured vaguely at the walls around us, "never goes anywhere. It exists in a separate space/time continuum parallel to ours, accessible via an artificially generated defect in--," then, seeing my utterly blank look, she stopped. "Oh, hell," she said in a resigned tone. "Let's just say it's located in subspace. There's really no such thing as subspace, but the term will do just fine. Consider it a technobabble placebo if you want. Anyway, the door from the Futaba isn't an opening, it's a gateway. No matter where the ship is, walking through that gateway will put you into the living quarters. That way I don't have to worry about finding room to park it when I land."
"I don't think you noticed," she went on, "but when we were unloading our stuff from the SUV to the Futaba, I was actually carrying it through the back and into these living quarters. Our stuff is safely stashed in one of these rooms, so we didn't really lose anything except our sandwiches. Next question?" she finished grandly.
I shook my head and gulped the rest of my drink. "I think I've probably had about all I can handle for one day."
I hesitated for a moment. "I still can't believe that you're the green-eyed girl I've wondered about all those years," I said finally. "I feel as if I've been watching the pieces of my life fall together for the past hour. It's like an incredible dream." I suddenly remembered the one I'd had a few weeks ago, and felt a chill go down my spine again.
"More than you even now realize, Will," Kiri said slowly. She rummaged again in the drawer that had produced the eerie photograph and pulled out another, an ordinary black and white print, the kind that you paste into a photo album. She handed it to me. "Remember her?" she asked, a bit sadly.
For several seconds I stared uncomprehendingly at the picture. "It's Aunt Mickey," I heard myself say even as the truth sank it. When I finally dared look up it was my turn to be unashamedly crying. "You," I finally managed, fighting vocal cords that seemed to have ceased taking orders from my brain. "It was you..."
"It was me, Will," she said very quietly. "Please forgive me. She was so important to you, and I didn't understand. It's so hard to know, sometimes." I remembered again that night when I saw Kiri through her living room window, crying.
"It's okay," I said finally. "She's one of my happiest memories, you know. Besides, it looks like she's back," and I managed to summon up a feeble grin.
The black and white photograph still in my hand set off another train of associations, jolting me out of my emotional wallow. I again took up the 3D photograph from my youth from a nearby table and stared closely at it, suddenly mystified. "Kiri, if these are my parents," I asked, pointing at the couple in question, "then just whose pictures have I had on my dresser for the past thirty years? These people don't look anything like them." The photographs had been there for as long as I could remember. Kiri's face turned a distinct shade of pink, and I experienced a sudden sinking feeling.
"Ummm, well, I was really hoping you weren't going to ask that," she said reluctantly. Seeing that I wasn't going to let her off the hook, she finally admitted the awful truth. "I picked them out of a dumpster."
"A dumpster," I said.
"Behind a photographer's studio," she said.
"A photographer's studio," I said.
"As to who they were," she finished, "your guess is as good as mine."
"You're kidding," I said. "You are. Aren't you?"
"Oh, I almost forgot," Kiri ventured, deftly changing the subject while doing her best to sound casual, but warily watching my reaction. "Before I left you on Earth I treated you with a special drug that altered your metabolism, so that you'd appear to age at the same speed as other humans. You know, skin losing elasticity, failure to process fats properly, hair greying, that sort of thing. The difference is that in your case it's totally reversible. I've been slowly giving you a little of the antidote over time, so if you've noticed you're feeling better lately that's part of the reason why. Of course, getting you off your lazy ass and making you exercise didn't hurt either," she added rather snidely.
I suppose I should have been annoyed at being used as a laboratory rat without my consent, but then how many middle-aged men are going to complain on being told they've been secretly drenched in the Fountain of Youth? "If you like, I can give you the necessary dose to finish the process this evening while you sleep," she added cautiously.
"What the hell," I said after a few femtoseconds of considered meditation, "let's go for the whole enchilada," and so she gave me a small vial of clear tasteless liquid to drink and advised me to get to sleep as soon as I could, as the process could be a bit uncomfortable during waking hours.
I quickly felt myself becoming drowsy and was soon settled into one of the several bedrooms scattered along the immense living quarters of the ship. As Kiri finished tucking me in like a little child I remember asking, "If Deshtirans and Qozernans are humans from Earth, why do they--I mean we--" (this would take some getting used to, I thought vaguely) "--live so much longer?"
"Something the Virrin did to us that we still don't understand," she answered, and gave me a prolonged goodnight kiss. "See you in the morning."
"A dumpster," I mumbled to myself as I drifted off. "A photographer's dumpster. Why not? I'm not surprised. Should I be surprised? No, of course not..."
That night I didn't wake up once, but I did have a strange dream about dozens of glowing cats' eyes surrounding me in the dark. Oddly, there was nothing frightening about the dream. Somehow they were the friendliest green eyes I had ever seen, and I felt safe with them around. Once it seemed that a bright light lit them all up, and I saw that they really were cats, and that they all had crimson-red fur with violet highlights.
The next morning I looked into a mirror and found a young man in his mid twenties with a cheery, open face staring back at me. Only the grey streak in the middle of my forehead remained. So this is Prince Wilorian, I thought to myself.
I found a set of clothes laid out for me on the dresser. In addition to some ordinary socks and underwear, they consisted of a fairly conventional set of light blue trousers, not quite like blue jeans but pretty similar, a black sleeveless shirt with some decorative green trim, and a pair of soft colorful leather-like boots that came halfway up my calves. The fit proved to be perfect, even the boots. What the heck, I decided, if I'm going to be a character out of a bad science fiction novel I might as well dress like one. Lost heir to the throne of Planet Deshtiris? Somebody needs to do some serious rewriting, I thought skeptically.
I found my way to the entrance to the living quarters, or gateway as Kiri had described it, and opened the door. In spite of my experiences yesterday I still recoiled at the feeling of stepping onto a narrow plank jutting out into the vastness of space, an effect not eased by the continuous gentle movement of the stars. After taking a moment to fight off an attack of incipient dizziness, I inhaled deeply and headed gingerly to the front. A wild shock of deep red hair was visible over the back of one of the front seats, and as I called out a cheery good morning Kiri turned to face me with a tired grin.
Try as I might I couldn't help but be startled once again by the pair of oversized emerald eyes that greeted me, but for once I was apparently the bigger surprise, as she gasped and rose to her feet, then slowly looked me over from head to toe. "My god, Will," she said finally and then stopped, unable to continue.
"I think you need a hug," I said, and gave her a good squashing until she started giggling uncontrollably.
"Sorry," she finally gasped, "I guess we've both been getting a lot of shocks lately. Hey, you look pretty good in that outfit," she added. "Don't worry about your hair; it'll grow in black again over time."
"Actually, I'll sort of miss the grey streak," I said.
She was silent for a few moments. "You know, you really are the spitting image of Prince Wilorian."
"I am Prince Wilorian, even if I don't remember it, right?" I countered. "It'll take me some getting used to too, you know. It's like seeing myself twenty years ago, and that's a bit creepy."
I took a close look at her eyes and saw that the whites were noticeably bloodshot. "Kiri," I demanded, "did you sleep at all last night?"
Sheepishly she shook her head. "I tried," she admitted, "but ended up back here watching the stars. You can't begin to imagine--"
"Try me," I interrupted, "but first why don't you get some rest? How soon do you need to start piloting this thing again, anyway?"
"About six hours from now," she responded reluctantly, and so I quickly hustled her off to her own sleeping quarters and saw her safely tucked in despite her protests. "I'm really not that sleepy," she mumbled, and thirty seconds later she was dead to the universe.
I spent the next few hours wandering around the living quarters, poking into this and that room. In addition to four bedrooms and an equal number of bathrooms, there was the small kitchen, the lounge, a room full of what I took to be computer equipment, various storerooms, and what looked like (why not?) a small movie theater. There were many more rooms, but I quit exploring at that point. I got the definite impression that she was used to spending a lot of time here.
Shaking my head, I found my way back to the cockpit and ended up following her example and watching the stars as they slowly slid by. Once the entire starfield shifted slightly and something large seemed to flash by, but so quickly that I had no way of telling what it might have been. A gas giant? Comet? Galaxy? "The Futaba automatically avoids large obstacles," said a cheery voice behind me. "We could go right through an asteroid and never know it because we have negative mass when we're traveling faster than light, but if we got too close to a major gravitational field it could still tear us and the ship apart."
I looked up to find that a much refreshed Kiri had silently slipped in behind me. She slid into her seat and poked around the controls for a few minutes, then looked up in satisfaction. "Right on course," she said. "Another three hours or so."
I ran my fingers over the crystalline walls of the remarkable craft. "I was afraid that whatever they were shooting at us last night was going to crack this stuff," I said. "What is it, anyway?"
She laughed. "We could hit a meteor head on at sub-light speed and it wouldn't crack this. We'd be reduced to jelly by the sudden deceleration, but the walls would hold. It's amorphous diamond, reinforced by a subatomic strong field, the same field that reforms the shape of the ship on command. State of the art, by the way," she added proudly. "This ship is the only one of its kind."
We continued in this vein as the hours passed, then a soft alarm sounded and a moment later the universe around us again turned inside out for a moment and deposited us back in conventional space, with stationary stars. "Almost there," Kiri said with evident relief. "I once spent fifteen months in space alone. Never again," she added vehemently. Ahead I saw an actual sun, for the first time since we'd left Earth. "Bashti," she said.
Soon I felt a sensation of real motion again as the stars began rotating around us in unison, and before long a bluish-green globe was beginning to grow in our vision. Kiri took us in on a course that entered the upper atmosphere at a very shallow angle, and slowly we descended as we circled the planet. The only sign of our speed was a peculiar flickering glow around the front of the ship's rounded nose. Shock waves, she explained. That part at least I understood. I suddenly realized that a degree in aerospace engineering probably wasn't going to be worth an awful lot here.
Qozernon proved to look very much like Earth from space, and the impression was reinforced as we approached the surface. Mountains, deserts, mottled greenish areas of forests and fields, and of course lots of water were all in evidence. Eventually we were skimming a few hundred feet over a rolling, treeless plain that reminded me of nothing quite so much as Nebraska. It was close to sunset, and the gentle hills were already half shrouded in dusk, the lit sides glowing a deep yellow-green in the reddening sunlight. Our speed slowed gracefully to a near crawl as the lights of a small group of buildings appeared in the distance, and moments later Kiri was gently settling the ship down on the front lawn of a sprawling two-story dwelling.
Three people were running out to greet us. One I recognized as the older woman Kiri had spoken to from the Futaba. The second was a tall golden-haired girl, apparently in her late teens; a third who I couldn't quite see in the failing light was following further back. As the Futaba created a doorway for us and extruded a ramp to the ground, Kiri adjusted a few last controls on the ship and the panels went dark. Our reception committee was already crowding up the ramp.
"Oh, Kiri, I'm so glad you're back safely," bubbled the woman whom Kiri had called Gelhi. "I was terribly worried when you told me what happened."
"I hope you put the precautions into effect that I asked you to," Kiri said as she stepped through the opening.
"I did," answered the woman, "but we haven't seen anyone strange in the area since--"
Just then I stepped through the doorway and everyone fell silent. Kiri made an extravagant flourish. "May I present Prince Wilorian of the House of Nendor," she announced grandly. From the looks of amazement on everyone's faces, it was obvious that she had just pulled off one of her little "surprises."
A very effective one, too, because the third person, who had quietly come up behind the others, stared at me as though she had seen a ghost, turned a deathly pale shade visible even in the dim light, and slid to the ground in a dead faint.
"Will," said Kiri ironically, "meet your little sister, the Princess Zyanita."
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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