"So you're determined to go," said Kiri the next morning. It wasn't so much a question as a statement. I nodded. "Well, I won't stop you, and I have a feeling I'll need all the help I can get." She dug into a drawer and pulled out a leather object. Tossing it to me, she said, "Put this on. You'd better get some practice wearing it." It turned out to be a plain black sword belt, with an additional loop that went up over the opposite shoulder. "Standard Brizal issue," she added.
The sheath for the sword was empty, a situation quickly rectified as she opened a cupboard in the back of her closet and carefully handed me a gleaming blade, hilt first. "Can I trust you not to slice open your thigh with this the first time you draw it?"
Ignoring the utterly unwarranted gibe, I examined the weapon with admiration. It was the same length and weight as the practice sword I had been using, but the surfaces were of a mirror-like perfection, with just a trace of iridescence. The hilt was inlaid with intricate designs in various metals, so perfectly worked that it was as smooth to the touch as glass. "I had hoped you'd never have to use this," she said sadly. "It belonged to you on Deshtiris."
Unlike the practice blade, the point and first few inches were razor sharp. Below that one could safely run a finger along the edge without danger. "I always thought swords were sharp along their entire length," I commented in some surprise.
Kiri snorted contemptuously. "The idea is to disable your opponents, not hack them apart. Besides, that would drastically increase the risk to the wielder. You might want to practice drawing it, by the way. Also walking around with it; I'd hate to see you do yourself a serious injury," she added with a slight snicker. I had to admit she was right; it does take a bit of practice to ambulate safely with two and a half feet of steel flapping from your belt.
"Shouldn't I train with this a bit?" I asked. She shook her head vigorously.
"It's never a good idea to practice with a real blade. You'll inevitably pull back your thrusts, and that's the last habit you want to be saddled with if you wind up in a real fight. The idea of the practice blades is to let you safely get accustomed to hitting your opponent full strength and not hold back." I nodded, ruefully recalling many painful bruises earned learning that particular lesson. "If something does go wrong," she added, "just let your instincts take over. You've still got your reflexes from your early training even if you don't remember it."
The day was a strained one at best. The previous evening, after our other guests had left, a near-hysterical Senaria had cornered Kiri in the hallway demanding to know what the hell she thought she was doing, and finished by insisting on going along. Kiri had deftly steered her to her room, where I had heard raised voices punctuated by long silences for at least a good hour. When Kiri finally reappeared, she had wearily collapsed onto the couch, her eyelids puffy and red.
"Can't she understand that this isn't her fight?" she said bitterly, more to herself than to me. "I just can't take responsibility for her too. It's bad enough that you're going along. She's still practically a child." I could see that she was wound up like a spring, and set about massaging some of the tension from her shoulders, receiving a grateful glance in return.
"I tried to explain to her that with this new thing between her and Lev, she'd just be a distraction to him too," she went on. "We don't know what kind of split-second decisions we're going to have to make. She could get him killed, dammit." I suddenly realized just how hard it must have been for her to agree to my own participation.
She stopped for a moment, looking around to make sure the girl was out of earshot. "Lev asked me privately before the meeting to please not let her go, although he didn't tell me then he was coming along. I know he's in love with her, and it must have been terribly hard for him to volunteer for this. He'd be a nervous wreck with her along. So would I," she added almost inaudibly. "But will she ever forgive me?"
That was last night. Since then we had seen no sign of Senaria, and I thought it better that I not try to seek her out. I suspected that she'd emerge soon enough, and that we hadn't heard the last of her pleas.
The rest of the day was as hectic as the night before a summer vacation excursion. Kiri spent part of the time on the telecom with Lev, making final arrangements for him and Zyanita to meet us at the house the next morning. Kiri also spent about an hour in the Futaba's cockpit, entering information into one of the panels. "Transformation data for the vehicle we'll be using on Deshtiris," she said briefly, motioning toward a wireframe image of a truck of some kind floating in midair before her. She had just finished when we heard a hesitant knock at the door.
It was Senaria. "I think you'd better see this," she said unsteadily. The frozen look on her face sent chills up my spine. She led us to the television room, where she keyed something into the remote and for a moment the words "Replay time index 5:13-5:17" appeared on screen, shortly replaced by an announcer apparently standing in the middle of a crime scene. I quickly recognized it as the dusty interior of Jinhos' study. The room looked undisturbed except for what appeared to be a crumpled pile of wet laundry in the middle of the floor. For a moment I was too puzzled by the grotesque sight to notice anything else, and then the announcer's voice intruded into my consciousness.
"The victims have been identified as Neng Jinhos, a long-time Deshtiran refugee, and three of his household staff," he was saying. "Government sources have confirmed the killings as the work of the Deshtiran assassination creatures popularly known as Liquidators," and the scene switched to a close up of the soggy clothing, "but declined to comment on the political implications. It has been over twelve years since the last such attack, and several prominent figures have already issued a call for a strong formal
At that point Kiri switched off the set and turned away for a moment. It took me a few minutes to find my voice, my stomach churning. I remembered the dripping police uniforms worn by our attackers back on Earth. "You mean, that
"Looks like you got to him just in time," Senaria said finally. The bizarre horror of the televised scenes had left me without much of an appetite for supper. "At least in the end he tried to make up for what he did," I commented, "even if only in a small way. I guess we were lucky."
Kiri stared unblinkingly at the darkened screen for an uncomfortably long time. "I wonder," she said finally, more to herself than to me.
Dinner culminated in an uncomfortable scene when Kiri flatly turned down Senaria's renewed request to come along, and was climaxed by Senaria stomping off to her room followed a moment later by the bang of her door. We saw no more of her for the rest of the evening. Gelhinda also excused herself early, leaving just the two of us to finish dinner. Neither of us said much to each other that evening, other than the endless routine of going over supplies checklists and gathering materials from various storerooms and cabinets. When sleep finally came it was the end product of total fatigue.
The next morning found Kiri and me sitting in the living room, covering some last minute details as we waited for Lev and Zyanita. Senaria was again nowhere to be seen. Kiri and I were just reviewing for one last time the list of supplies we needed to bring when the doorbell rang and I got up to answer it. It was Zyanita, with a strange expression on her face.
"Zee? Isn't Lev with you?" asked Kiri from behind me in some surprise. For a moment Zyanita looked unsure of what to say, then took a deep breath. "I only found out this morning when I went to pick him up," she said. "Lev was assassinated last night. Like Jinhos," she added meaningfully. "It was apparently kept out of the news."
Stunned, I stepped back and let her into the room. Kiri had turned deathly pale. Some sixth sense caused me to turn around, and I saw Senaria standing in the doorway, a stricken expression on her face. Before I could say anything she abruptly turned and ran down the hallway and up the stairs. I automatically waited for the bang of her door but heard nothing.
"Will," said Kiri softly. "Look after her. Please." I nodded agreement and headed upstairs, to find her door closed. I gently knocked and waited patiently. After a very long time I heard a muffled "Come in."
I expected to find her lying on her bed, face down in her pillow, but she was sitting upright in a chair staring out the window. She said nothing as I entered and sat on the bed behind her. "Sen, I'm really sorry," I said. She nodded, saying nothing. "I know he meant a lot to you."
"Everything has just gone crazy," she finally said softly, her back still to me. Abruptly she spun around to face me, her face glistening. "You know, Will, I've only loved two people in my entire life," she said, "and Masakor Lev was one of them." She started to say something else and stopped, turning back to the window.
"I know, Sen," I said slowly, "and Romikor Mikiria was the other." She stared at me with wide red-rimmed eyes.
"How did you know that?" she whispered.
"She told me," I said. "I think you know that in her own way she loves you back just as much." For a moment several emotions seemed to flit simultaneously across the girl's face, and to my surprise it was anger that won out.
"So now she's going back to that horrible place to get herself killed as well," she burst out furiously. "And I'm supposed to stay here and wait for the obituary notice, just as docile as can be. Shit! Doesn't she understand? I'd rather die on Deshtiris if it comes to that. At least I'd be doing something. Can't she just understand that?" she repeated desperately.
"And if you go Gelhi's going to be left behind waiting for you, isn't she?" I said carefully. It took a moment for her to digest the point. "Don't get me wrong, Sen," I went on. "I'm not saying you should or shouldn't do this. Just don't make the right decision for the wrong reason." Don't let her make all your decisions for you. It's your life too. "And whatever decision you do make, fight for it if you have to. Kiri's not a machine, you know." She looked at me in puzzlement for a moment, and then buried her head in my shoulder, sobbing her heart out as I held her tightly for several minutes.
"I have to get back," I said. "Do what you have to do. I won't take sides." I found my way back to the living room, where the two women were trying to put the pieces of our shattered expedition back together. Kiri was making a valiant effort to act as though all was business as usual, although I could see that she was under a tremendous strain. Zyanita appeared to be her usual bloodless self. "Will," said the latter, "we've got to decide if we're still going to attempt this."
I stared at her in amazement. "Do we have a choice?" I exploded. "Nothing has really changed, has it? Sure, we're one person short, but Krigghin Teyn's not going to cancel his invasion because of that." Kiri shot me a grateful glance. It was apparent that Zyanita had been urging aborting the trip. "Besides," I said, "the plans I've heard so far don't require any specific number of people. It's not like it's a ballet, for god's sake."
"And," said a determined voice from the doorway, "you've still got four people." It was Senaria, a resolute look on her face. "I'm going too, Kiri." Kiri started from her chair, but hadn't gotten further than opening her mouth before Senaria ran over her like a locomotive. "Goddammit, Kiri, there are two of us here that love you, and neither one of us is going to let you do this by yourself. You're so used to doing things on your own that you've forgotten that some of the rest of us have a stake in this as well. You're not doing us any favors with your martyr act, and as far as I'm concerned you can shove it up your ass. Now, when are we leaving?"
Kiri just stared at her, still openmouthed, not saying a word. I found myself suppressing a cheer, almost forgetting the grim circumstances that had prompted this. For a few seconds the whole scene could have been a staged tableau as no one moved a muscle, nervously waiting for an explosion.
It never came. Kiri finally just shook her head helplessly. "I guess everyone's got their reasons," she commented in a calm voice, looking directly at me as she said it, "and they're all unassailable as usual. Well, all three of you know the risks. Suit yourselves. Sen, it's up to you to break the news to your mother. And," she added simply, this time with just a hint of a catch in her voice, "thanks."
"Well, if you're really determined to go, then count me in," said Zyanita. "And here," she continued, pulling out a data crystal from her shirt pocket, "are the maps I promised to get, courtesy of the usual confidential source." She was as good as her word, for when the files were loaded into Kiri's computer they proved to be detailed maps of not only the city of Tar Deshta but of the mysterious plant itself.
"This," Zyanita said, tracing out a highlighted crooked line across one part of the map, "is the passageway Jinhos was talking about. If we can get to it, we may be able to get directly to the control room." In a few minutes Kiri had printed out hard copy onto some oversize sheets of waterproof paper and added it to the pile of materials we had amassed.
Without further ado we set to work loading the supplies into the Futaba's living quarters. I won't go into the scene that ensued when Gelhinda returned home except to say that between Senaria's decision, Lev's death, and Kiri's urgent request that she stay incognito with relatives in Lernesdi for the next few days, it was one very miserable Gelhinda that Senaria drove to the station later that morning. When I asked Kiri if Gelhinda could really be a target, her response was that at this point anything was possible.
Senaria returned a half-hour later, her eyes redder than before, and I felt secretly grateful to have missed what had evidently been yet another painful scene. By that time the ship was ready. Soon we were securely strapped into our seats as Kiri pointed the Futaba's nose almost straight up and accelerated us through the atmosphere, though without the breathtaking force I remembered from my first flight. "You were pulling about two G's then," Kiri explained. "No need for that kind of haste now."
It was a distinctly dispirited party that lifted off the planet's surface that morning. Under normal circumstances I would have been thrilled to find myself once again heading into space, but now I felt instead a premonition of imminent doom hanging over us all. I tried to shake it off and looked around at the other passengers, only to see Zyanita's face, pale as a ghost, her eyes closed.
"I think you're the only friend I have who's never taken a ride in the Futaba," Kiri said to her comfortingly. "It must be a bit unsettling for you." Zyanita nodded. "I'll be all right," she said through clenched teeth.
Something tugged at the back of my mind, as though I were faintly reminded of something. For a few moments I worried the idea, trying to tease it to the front of my consciousness, and then it was gone.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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