The next morning I was awakened by a horrendous pounding on my bedroom door, followed by Kiri's cheery bellow. "Breakfast in ten minutes," she announced. I looked around blearily at the fresh new set of unfamiliar surroundings, as memories of the previous evening's festivities slowly returned. Rather to my surprise I didn't have a detectable hangover, although I certainly felt foggier than usual. The room was a comfortable one, with plenty of light coming through ample windows, but without the familiar Earth antiques of the Futaba's living quarters.
Sadly, I had no memory of how I had gotten here from the living room. You're pathetic, I thought, and on your first night here, but as I recalled some of the other participants' behavior I didn't feel too guilty.
Someone (I assumed Kiri) had laid out another fresh set of clothes, and I found these to be less formal than those of the preceding day, being basically the equivalent of a light sleeveless T-shirt and cutoff jeans partly slit up the sides. (I was to discover that the planet's inhabitants take considerable pride in their bodies and don't as a general rule try to hide them much. I saw very few out-of-shape Qozernans.) I was especially beginning to like the boots, as the soft leather-like material apparently allowed air to circulate even while protecting my feet. Thus attired, I gingerly ventured out into the hallway in search of breakfast.
I found Kiri sitting at the kitchen table by herself, sipping tea. "I see you got through the night safely," she said with a grin. "Sen got you spooked a bit? You didn't actually have to lock your door, you know; she may get horny when she's plastered but she's really not a rapist." I thought about that. I did have to unlock the door on my way out, I remembered, and reddened.
"Wait a minute," I said indignantly after a moment's thought, "so you tried my door last night?"
"Trust me," she laughed, "I've lived here long enough that if I'd wanted in that ancient lock wouldn't have stopped me. I think she likes you," she added wickedly. I thought of Senaria's arms wrapped around my neck and had to agree. "I was half-expecting you two to head for a bedroom the way things were going."
"It wasn't my fault," I protested. "You know quite well that you're the only one I'll drag off to my cave, and only when you give the word. Besides, it's bad enough getting tanked at a new host's home the first night, but seducing her daughter--or vice-versa--would probably have gotten mama after me with a meat ax or broadsword or whatever the weapon of choice is around here."
Kiri grinned again. "She would more likely have sent you two off with her blessings. You're not on Earth anymore, you know; sex customs here are a bit different."
"And you?" I said.
"I'd have twisted your head off," she responded cheerfully. "I said sex customs were different here. Human nature isn't."
She sighed. "I envy you, you know. One of my 'enhancements' is a much higher tolerance for alcohol. I wouldn't mind being able to dump my inhibitions once in a while the way all of you can. I'd probably kill myself with ethanol poisoning before I'd succeed in getting drunk." I shuddered inwardly; somehow I didn't think the universe could survive an uninhibited Kiri.
"Sen's really a very sweet girl when she's sober, which is almost all the time, so don't go treating her like a vamp. I'd trust her with my life," she added seriously. "She's also much brighter than she might have seemed last night. She's just--let's say unfocused. All thrust and no vector. And watches way too much television." I wondered silently if Qozernan TV was any better than the U.S. product. "You've probably noticed that she tries to ape me a bit. A few years ago she had a terrible crush on me, which took her a while to get over."
"A crush?" I echoed.
"Well, a bit more," Kiri answered thoughtfully. "She told me she was in love with me and wanted to sleep with me. I didn't have a problem with her feeling that way, but I do prefer men, so she was really unhappy for a while. Now she's got a new unrequited thing for an older man, a government agent Zee--that's Zyanita--works with, so she's been kind of unfortunate in her choices. I hope she comes up with someone practical one of these days," she mused.
"Where is everybody, anyway?" I asked, unsuccessfully trying to digest all this.
"Oh, Gelhi and Sen went into town--a little village nearby called Nedro--to do some shopping, and Zee's gone back to the capital. Want to go for a ride?"
"First I want some breakfast," I said. "What's to eat around here?"
A little later we stepped outdoors. The night before I had been a bit surprised at Kiri's decision to set down in the middle of the front lawn, envisioning severe damage to the landscaping, but in the morning sun I saw that the ship actually hovered several inches above the ground. Off to one side was a garage, but with no driveway. "Aren't we taking the Futaba?" I asked as we headed for the garage.
Kiri snorted. "A state of the art starship to take a scenic drive? Hardly."
The garage door opened at a voice command to reveal a small four-seater vehicle with an open top, also floating a few inches above the ground. It had no wheels. More to my surprise, the vehicle had no steering wheel. "Hasn't the fatality rate on your highways taught you anything?" she grinned. "Driving's a little too critical to be left to humans." Once we were seated, she keyed in a few commands and the vehicle gently glided toward a smooth, two-lane road that wound over the rolling terrain. As we reached the pavement the vehicle turned to point straight along the highway and a moment later was accelerating to somewhere around fifty miles per hour.
As we sped along Kiri explained that the highways on Qozernon aren't actually built to handle traffic but are simply place markers. The real highway as seen by the vehicle was a pair of regularly dashed yellow and green lines on either edge of the roadway. Optical sensors in the vehicle used the lines to determine speed and position. Other information was also coded into the length of the lines and gaps (somewhat like a barcode, if I understood it correctly), and once one entered a destination into the vehicle's computer it took over the job of steering, maintaining speed, etc. One could, however, choose the general speed desired, within reasonable limits.
"I would have thought that some kind of radio guided system would be more efficient," I commented. Somehow a pair of painted lines seemed awfully primitive.
"Actually, no," she explained. "Radio's too susceptible to interference. And these lines are infrared reflective, so they're just as easy for the car's optical sensors to see at night as in daylight." Collision avoidance was handled electronically, however, with a type of radar keeping track of oncoming traffic and mutually negotiating non-conflicting courses for the vehicles involved. If the electronics on a vehicle failed, it had the same effect as a flat tire would on Earth: the vehicle was disabled. "It beats having a renegade car on the road," she added.
"If too many vehicles come into range, everyone slows down so that you don't wind up in a situation with too many variables for the built-in computers to manage. It doesn't happen very often, though." I thought about how Earth's road warriors would enjoy a system like this and had to suppress a snicker.
Once a much slower vehicle appeared in front of us, and our own simply rose an additional fifteen feet or so into the air and passed directly over it. I glanced down at the occupant and discovered that apparently there are some constants that can be relied upon everywhere in the universe. "He was wearing a hat," I marveled.
"Huh?" Kiri grunted uncomprehendingly.
"Thirty-five light-years from Earth and it even works here," I appended, not very helpfully. She just shook her head; there were times when she apparently concluded that she was better off not knowing what I was talking about.
We had been traveling for about ten minutes, and I had been so fascinated by the mechanics of our locomotion, that it only now occurred to me to ask where we were going. "I want to show you one of the glories of this planet," she answered, and of course wouldn't give me anything further. "Just wait and see. It'll be worth it, I promise." By now I was getting more or less used to her little ways and dropped the subject, somewhat to her surprise.
"So what else would you like to know?" Kiri said, adding grandly, "Ask and it shall be revealed."
"Sister," I said.
"Oh, Zyanita." Kiri knitted her brow for a moment. "That's another sad story. You've noticed by now that there are a lot of them. Yes, she's your younger sister by three years. When the palace fell, and we knew we had to get out, we went looking for her after finding your parents..." and she hesitated for a moment. "There was no sign of her, and very little time. I had to make a choice, and I did. For all I knew she had been killed as well. You were hysterical at leaving her behind, and I had to, er, render you unconscious to get us out of there in time." She reddened slightly. I instinctively rubbed my jaw, and tried to imagine her belting me one. I decided it was a thought better left undisturbed.
"About six years later Masakor Lev, the government agent I mentioned earlier, told me that a woman in a group of recent refugees was claiming to be the Princess Zyanita and asked me to confirm her identity. It was her, all right, and I was horrified when she unleashed a string of abuse at me for leaving her to the mercies of those animals. She said a number of things that still hurt after all these years, partly because I'd said some of them about myself in many a dark moment. I had always wondered if I could have done more that day. Anyway, after a number of painful soul-scrapings the two of us managed to work things out well enough that she at least tolerates me now. But she carries a lot of baggage; spending six years hiding from the Brizali would do that to anyone, especially a thirteen-year-old girl."
"I hadn't warned her about bringing you back. I guess I probably should have," she continued. "It was obviously quite a shock for her. But your presence on Earth was a secret I hadn't ever told anyone except Gelhinda and her husband, and it's just as well considering that somehow the Brizali still tried to ambush us there." She seemed lost in thought for a few minutes as we continued along the highway. "They even knew where the Futaba was hidden. How?"
Returning to the original subject, she asked if I had noticed Zyanita's somewhat unusual manner of dress. I recalled she had been wearing long pants and a long-sleeved jacket reminiscent of a Mao jacket, topped off with a small-brimmed coffee-can-style cap. I had to admit I was reminded a bit of pictures I'd seen of Nazi SA men. "Of course you wouldn't know," she answered, "but that's a pretty unfair judgment. She dresses the way she does to hide the scars on her arms and legs from those six years under the Brizali. So I cut her a lot of slack."
By now we had climbed noticeably as we wound through the rolling hills. The road we were on did not appear to be a major thoroughfare, and carried very little traffic. I found out why when we rounded a summit to see the highway end abruptly in a small parking area. Just beyond, the ground dropped away into a vast bowl, bordered on the far horizon by a snow-capped mountain range. I could hardly take my eyes from the sight as Kiri parked the vehicle (there was only one other in the lot) and led me to the edge.
It was an ocean of color such as I had never seen, except possibly in the oil paintings of a few nineteenth-century American landscape artists. Even they couldn't have done it justice: as far as the eye could see, patches of every imaginable shade of color blended and merged into hues that one had forgotten the human eye was capable of distinguishing. "These are all from Earth," Kiri said softly. "By all accounts this is what your Great Plains looked like before being plowed into wheat fields a century ago."
"You can't be serious," I protested. "Surely there's never been anything like this on Earth."
"You should read your own explorers' accounts," she answered, her eyes fixed on the magnificent sight. " 'We looked out and saw a sea of green, sprinkled with yellow, red, lilac and white,' " she quoted. " 'None of us had ever seen the prairie before and behold, the half had not been told us. As you cannot know what the ocean is without having seen it, neither in imagination can you picture the prairie.' George Monro Grant on the Canadian Great Plains," she finished. "Others have described your own West in much the same words."
The occupants of the other vehicle, a couple with a young girl, suddenly appeared over the rim from below, having apparently taken one of the many hiking paths available. On seeing Kiri they momentarily stopped in surprise, then waved a timid greeting. "That's Mikiria, isn't it? Hello, Princess Mikiria," the girl chirped eagerly. I was reminded of fans unexpectedly encountering a movie star. Kiri smiled back at them and gave them a friendly wave.
"Friends of yours?" I asked.
"Never saw them before," she answered, "but I sometimes think everyone on this planet knows me. I seem to retain a popularity of sorts. Happens all the time."
"I take it then that you don't worry about disguising yourself here," I ventured. She explained that since she was so easily recognized she did don her contacts and tone down her hair in situations where it could cause someone embarrassment--"or danger," she added, without elaborating--but that she didn't usually find it necessary.
One advantage of the optically guided vehicle we were using was that it could travel down an extremely steep slope and remain level, and so we spent several hours following a scenic drive off the edge of the overlook and down into the plain itself. The vast bowl had been formed several hundred thousand years ago by a large asteroid, well before the Virrin had arrived and brought life with them. Now it was maintained as a planetary park by the Qozernan government.
We spent an idyllic afternoon working our way through the spectacular sea of flora, stopping at one point to devour a picnic lunch Gelhinda had thoughtfully left for us. Having lived in the Los Angeles Basin for so many years, I think it was the absolute quiet that I found to be most miraculous of all. No jets or distant freeway roar eroded the tranquility of the scene. It was all too soon that we finally turned homeward.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
George Monro Grant quote ("We looked out and saw a sea of green") from Manitoba
and the great North-west by John Macoun. © 1882 World Publishing Co.,