The next morning I woke up before her. She was lying on her back, one arm draped off the side of the bed. The sun was already shining through the window, and I found myself just staring at her profile, admiring the slightly upturned nose and the shaggy mane of crimson hair. Though she certainly wouldn't be considered "glamorous" by conventional standards, to me they added up to a beauty far superior to any other I had seen. She stirred slightly, and lazily half-opened her eyes, adding a brilliant splash of green to the mixture. "Mmmmmmm," she said, stretching, and rolled over on her side facing me and draped an arm over my neck. "Is it morning already?"
"Lazy lout," I chided her. "It's already after ten."
"And how long ago did you wake up?" she retorted suspiciously. I admitted to about ten minutes or so, receiving a satisfied snort in return as she closed her eyes again. Running my fingers through her hair, I noticed once more the pendant hanging from a small gold chain around her neck. I had seen the chain before, but not the pendant, a small semicircle of iridescent metal, until last night. Gently I slipped my fingers between her throat and the chain and raised the pendant for a closer look.
"It's from my mother," mumbled Kiri sleepily, without opening her eyes again. "In fact, it's the only thing I have from her." The surface of the pendant had an oddly intricate appearance, reminding me of a computer chip.
"I thought you never knew your mother," I said, hoping it wasn't a sore subject.
"Your mother gave it to me when I was four," she answered. "She said my mother had given it to her with the request that she pass it along to me someday. I've worn it ever since." Unexpectedly her eyes were open, boring into mine. "Will, promise me something," she said, and there was no trace of sleep in her voice. (I never ceased to marvel at how quickly her mood could change without warning.) "If anything ever happens to me, I want you to take this. Promise me that."
"What brought that on?" I asked, suddenly feeling uneasy.
"Nothing," she replied carelessly, then ran a hand over my face. "What am I saying? Like hell, 'Nothing.' Will, I just don't know what's going to happen in the next few days. I feel like we're living on an active volcano right now. Just promise me, please?"
Surprised, I agreed. "I am going with you, you know," I reminded her. She nodded.
"But that's not today," she added, pulling my lips to hers. It was near noon when we made it to "breakfast," much to Gelhinda's and Senaria's amusement.
I noticed that Kiri waited until the meal was over before privately breaking the news of our impending expedition to Gelhinda, who made no attempt to conceal her horror. "You're not going back to that awful place again, Kiri?" she said earnestly. "You haven't forgotten the close call you had last time? Things are much worse now." While Kiri tried unsuccessfully to reassure her I wondered just what close call that had been.
Later that afternoon Lev and Zyanita arrived, demanding a report on the previous day's outing. "So what's the importance of a tunnel between the old SamariCorp headquarters and an outbuilding?" I asked. "I thought the plant was nationalized years ago." It was the usual six of us in the living room, Gelhinda and Senaria having also joined us.
"SamariCorp wasn't just nationalized," Kiri explained. "For some reason the Brizali turned it into their main administrative center. It's now virtually a small city, renamed Tar Deshta." I shivered. Literally translated, Tar Deshta meant Heart of Deshtiris. Somehow it seemed appropriate. "The old plant headquarters building now has some kind of special importance, more than just a central office complex, but I don't know what that is. I do know that it's exceptionally well-guarded. Something tells me that it's going to be our final destination." It was just as well that I didn't know then how truly she spoke. I saw a startled expression cross Senaria's face, and realized that Gelhinda hadn't yet told her what we were considering.
Kiri added, with sudden vehemence, "Emergency evacuation, my ass! He had that put in as an escape route in case he ever had to make a sudden disappearance. Otherwise he'd hardly have hidden an entrance away in a closet. My guess is that he was cooking the books long before he ever got tangled up with my father. He may well have accepted the deal as much out of desperation as greed, if he was afraid the accountants were going to catch up with him."
"Unfortunately, there's nothing we can legally do about him," said Lev. "He hasn't broken any Qozernan laws. But at least we have a little more information to go on."
"Well, it looks like he made a deal with the devil," said Gelhinda. "I almost feel sorry for him. But only almost."
There was a long silence, finally broken by Lev. "I understand you're considering going to Deshtiris. I think you should know that we have reason to believe that their fleet will be launching within the next three or four days. Our forces, such as they are, are on full alert. If you are going to do something, you're going to have to do it soon." Kiri nodded as he continued. "You know that the Qozernan government doesn't recognize your activities; in fact we've made a point of turning a blind eye towards them as long as nothing blows up in our faces. However, I think we have a right to know what you're considering."
Another pause ensued, if anything even more uncomfortable than the first. Senaria had turned deathly pale, her eyes fixed unblinkingly on Kiri's face. Gelhinda stared uncomfortably at the floor.
"Your ships will crumple like tin cans in front of the Deshtiran battleships," Kiri observed sadly. "Their weapons are light-years beyond ours. But I think there is a way," she added, and we all listened intently.
"Everything I've learned about Deshtiris in the last decade indicates that they've poured all their resources into a handful of top-secret plants scattered over the planet's surface. Virtually all of their available energy is directed into those plants, to the point that they're using synthetic petroleum for transportation and other everyday needs and ignoring the ecological disaster that's developing as a result."
"I can't absolutely prove it," she went on, "but I'm certain that these plants are the energy sources for their weapons. Think of them as transformers, converting the electricity being fed into them from all of their fusion plants into some kind of hyperspace energy that their weapons can utilize, even when light-years from home. These plants are controlled by a computer system centralized in Tar Deshta, specifically in the old converted SamariCorp plant in the center of the city. Thanks to something Will mentioned, I now think I can disable that system, but only if I can get access to a terminal in the control center. The system is too well protected from outside attacks for me to hack in from here."
"The control center?" Lev interrupted in astonishment. "You're out of your mind. Tar Deshta is the most well-guarded installation on Deshtiris. We've lost several of our best operatives just trying to get someone into place there." So far nothing I was hearing was easing the knot in my own stomach, either. Kiri smiled grimly and continued.
"But now we have the last piece," she said. "Jinhos' passageway. It may be a long shot, but I think we can get into the city at least, and if we can reach that outbuilding we're as good as there." Lev shook his head skeptically. "It's an awful risk you're taking."
"Well, what's the alternative?" she snapped in evident frustration. "Letting our merchant fleet get pulverized playing soldier? You might as well surrender now for all the chance they've got. They couldn't even ram the Deshtiran fleet before being vaporized. At least this plan has a faint chance of success, and I have to try it. Don't tell me that you're going to forbid it, because unless you place me under arrest and lock me up I'm going."
"And I," I said, somewhat to my own surprise. Senaria was about to speak up, but caught a warning shake of the head from Kiri and closed her mouth in evident dismay.
Lev shook his head. "I knew you would, and I didn't expect you to change your mind. That's why before we got here Zee and I agreed that we would be going with you." Kiri and I both stared in astonishment. "You're going to need help with this, and the two of us probably know more about Deshtiris than anyone else on Qozernon, yourself excepted."
Kiri looked for a moment as though she were going to object, then thought better of it. "So be it," she said finally. "Agreed. I suggest we make arrangements tomorrow and leave the following morning." Everyone nodded silently. A few minutes later the gathering broke up in a somber mood.
"I believe I can get us maps through some of my contacts in the refugee community," Zyanita offered on the way out. "I know several people that used to work at SamariCorp and brought files out with them."
"That would be great, Zee," said Kiri gratefully. "I knew I could count on you." An unusual woman indeed, I thought to myself, reflecting that not everyone is necessarily what they seem.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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