Vren. Bri. Doh. Gred.
We were sitting at breakfast the next morning, Kiri and Gelhinda discussing the morning news while Senaria wolfed a cinnamon roll only slightly smaller than Massachusetts, when the odd words popped into my head again for the first time in several weeks. "Kiri," I broke in, "since you've been solving so many of my life's mysteries lately, maybe you know something about this one. I keep remembering these strange words, 'Vren,' 'Bri,'
To my astonishment Kiri shouted "Stop!" and literally jumped out of her chair and shoved a hand over my mouth while Gelhinda and Senaria looked on in amazement. "Mmmph!" I remonstrated, and she reluctantly removed her hand. She did her best to look nonchalant, but I could tell she was in a fine state; her face was flushed and her eyes gleaming with excitement.
"Tell you what," said Kiri with obviously feigned casualness, "let's go discuss this outside," and led me by the hand out the back door. The yard was a very large one, with a well-equipped training area reminiscent of Kiri's garage in Fontana extending down one side and a few ancient trees along the back border.
"Now suppose you say that again," she said, "all of it this time."
"Vren, Bri, Doh, Gred," I said obediently. Kiri and Gelhinda looked at me expectantly while Senaria watched the proceedings, wide-eyed with fascination at Kiri's latest stage show.
"Feel anything strange?" said Kiri finally.
"Only that I think you seem to be even crazier than usual," I retorted.
"Point to that tree," she said, jabbing at one of the distant trees with her forefinger, "and think of a lightning bolt." I did so, and of course nothing whatsoever happened. "I guess not," she said in disappointment.
"Kiri, please don't hurt the trees," protested Gelhinda. "They're very old."
"Will someone please tell me what the BLOODY HELL is going on here!" I finally exploded.
"Kiri!" exclaimed Gelhinda. "You mean you never told him?"
"Told me what!?" I crackled.
Kiri shook her head in response to Gelhinda's question. "No, Gelhi. I thought he'd had enough shocks for a few days."
"Shock me," I snapped.
"Sorry if I pissed you off," Kiri offered unapologetically. "Let's go back inside." We returned to the kitchen table, tempers cooling somewhat.
"I told you that my father genetically altered me during my mother's first few weeks of pregnancy," Kiri began. "What I didn't tell you is that I found out much later that he apparently altered you as well." I felt my stomach knotting up at the words, wondering what was coming. "His position as court physician enabled him to do it without anyone being the wiser. In my case it was obvious right from birth because of my hair and eyes, but originally there was no clue that you had been tampered with too. It was a good thing for him, because the penalty for using the heir to the throne as a guinea pig would have been extreme to say the least."
"Ten years ago I secretly returned to Deshtiris to gather what information I could." I saw Gelhinda pale visibly at the memory. "I brought back computer files of many of my father's research records. As I decoded them I found that they were incomplete; apparently large parts of them had later been deleted or moved to some other storage system. But there were partial records of his work on you and me."
"Everything I found referring to myself corresponded with what the doctors and researchers had already determined in endless years of tests," she said, a distinct weariness in her voice. "But apparently he had also enhanced you with some kind of power that was vaguely described as the ability to project electric charges. The records stated that this ability would remain dormant until activated by some sort of 'keys,' but nowhere were these keys described. Obviously these were only brief summaries of the actual records, which were presumably stored elsewhere. Of course you weren't available to do tests on, which was probably just as well for you." She shuddered, and I pictured her having endured a purgatory of endless pokings and sample-takings.
"Kiri and I both had the same thought when you mentioned that a phrase had begun to recur to you," added Gelhinda, "that perhaps the words you remembered were the keys referred to. But it doesn't look like that's the case."
"Great," I said ruefully, "so apparently I'm some kind of Zeus but with no way to switch on my lightning bolts. Just my luck."
"Count your blessings," answered Kiri solemnly. "Not all gifts are what they seem."
After breakfast Kiri excused herself, explaining that she needed to work again for a few hours. Reminding her that Zyanita and Masakor Lev would be arriving that evening, Gelhinda extracted a promise that she'd be out of her den by early afternoon at the latest. "I know how she can be once she starts on a project," Gelhinda explained to me with a wink.
With Kiri buried again in her work, I found myself wandering around aimlessly. Sad to say, I ended up in the television room surfing channels and munching corn chips. (I should explain that channel surfing on Qozernon is a bit different than on Earth. Between native Qozernan programming and pirated Earth broadcasts, plus some propaganda courtesy of Deshtiris, there are several thousand available channels. One "surfs" by entering various keywords, or creating a detailed profile of one's interests, and then browsing through the resulting lists. It reminded me more of Earth's Web search engines than channel surfing.)
Of course, with several thousand available channels, there was nothing interesting on. My fruitless search for relevance was ended by a mocking voice behind me. "You're going to get fat and shapeless if you keep that up, you know." It was Senaria.
Looking at her, I thought to myself that she was by no stretch of the imagination fat and certainly not shapeless. In fact, she had the build of an aerobics instructor, though usually wearing even less clothing. "So how do you do it?" I asked, remembering Dallas.
In response she adopted one of the fencing stances I'd learned with Kiri. "I train when I'm not vegetating," she answered with a grin. "I've heard you've gotten pretty good again. Feel like testing yourself against a new opponent?" It sounded like a lot more fun than talk shows or soap operas, so a few minutes later we were noisily clashing blades in the training area out back.
She was good. In fact, she was very good, and I found myself wondering just how much Kiri had been pulling back during our practice sessions. Senaria answered my question without my asking it. "Ever manage to beat Kiri?" she said.
I shook my head. "I'm getting closer, though." She laughed.
"I somehow doubt it. I used to think the same thing, until I found that the better I got the harder an opponent she becomes. You do know she's genetically enhanced, of course."
"And your point is?" I said, almost catching her on the arm.
"Agility and strength are two of her enhancements," she answered without missing a beat. "I've seen her jump a good eight feet straight up. She's the perfect trainer, unless you have a male ego problem about being beaten by a woman," and she served me a painful poke in the chest. "You're dead, by the way." I dropped my sword point and wiped the sweat from my eyes.
"You're not bad yourself," I said admiringly.
"Yeah, well, that's as good as I get, though. Me you can probably beat. Eventually," she added as she lunged furiously and nearly caught me off guard. I got a lot of exercise that afternoon.
I also found that Senaria was not quite the lazy brat she had at first seemed. She was currently home because she was job-hunting, and therefore between classes. If that doesn't appear to make sense, it didn't to me either until she explained it. "I know how on Earth you have this rigid system of grades and degrees, but it doesn't work like that here. We get a general education through the public schools until we're about twenty. Then we start looking for a first job. Whoever hires us knows that at the same time we'll be taking classes in the area we're working in, so in effect the employer doesn't have to train us, but does have to pay us while we're still learning the job."
"More like the apprenticeship system we still have in some fields," I suggested. "But that means you finished school a couple years ago, right?"
She looked sheepish. "Well, I've tried a few jobs but haven't really found one I like yet. I did work a little with vehicle electronics repair but it wasn't very challenging. Then I spent a few months trying to learn medicine, but that was a disaster." She sighed.
"Too bloody?" I suggested.
"Hell, no," she snorted. "I'm not sure why, but I don't have a problem with that. No, too much paperwork. You spend more time filling out forms than fixing people. I might go back and try emergency work," she mused, while still maintaining an effective wall of steel around herself.
"So you really just haven't decided what you want to be when you grow up," I gibed.
"Nope," she shot back. "Have you?"
"Touché," I admitted, and a moment later it became especially apropos as she gave me another painful jab, this time in the side. "Right in the guts," she said. "That would have hurt." I assured her earnestly that it did.
"When Kiri asked me to come with her," I said, more to myself than to Senaria, "I made her promise that there'd be something useful for me to do here. So far she hasn't said anything further about it."
Senaria snorted. "If I know Kiri, she's probably got plans to make you Emperor of the Universe or something like that. And you'd better watch out, because if anyone can do it she can."
As it happened, I almost lost track of the time. "You really ought to get cleaned up before Lev gets here," said a derisive voice unexpectedly. It was Kiri, her chin propped on the fence as she watched us. Senaria blushed noticeably, but nonetheless made a quick excuse and vanished into the house. "Sorry to abandon you like that," said Kiri with a grin, "but it looks like you've been having a good time anyway."
"Sure," I said. "Why didn't you tell me you were holding back in my training?"
"Why discourage you?" she said nonchalantly, but I thought I saw a cloud pass momentarily over her eyes and I hastily steered the conversation elsewhere, kicking myself mentally.
"Tell me about this fellow Masakor Lev," I said as we headed back to the house.
She explained that Lev worked for the Qozernan security forces, and had primary responsibility for gathering information regarding developments on Deshtiris. He had also long since taken on Zyanita as his second in command. The two had worked as a team (purely professionally, she added) for the past fourteen years or so. Lev, about fifty-five Earth years old, was previously married, now divorced.
"Sen's had google eyes for him for the past year and a half," she added. "I know he's noticed it but he's never really said anything. He does seem to like her a lot. I suspect he'd make something of it except that he's excessively wary of personal relationships that might complicate his job. Poor Sen," she finished as we reached the house. "She's got a case all right."
I had just showered and dressed when I heard our guests arriving, and hurried downstairs. Lev turned out to be a tallish well-built fellow, in appearance in his late thirties, with light brown hair, grey eyes and an efficient, no-nonsense manner. Senaria made what she no doubt considered a discreet effort to remain in sight, casually engaging him in conversation whenever she could, and I soon saw that the gruff exterior ill-concealed a sensitive, considerate personality. Kiri was right; there was definitely a warm spot in his heart for our slightly ditzy golden girl.
Zyanita, on the other hand, made little effort to conceal her impatience, more than once in her deceptively quiet way reminding Senaria that we had "important business" to discuss. I found her and the Amkors to be an interesting contrast. I had noticed that neither Kiri nor they ever used any kind of makeup or wore jewelry (except for an unobtrusive gold chain barely visible around Kiri's neck), but Zyanita was never without a pair of small but elegant earrings. In addition, her relatively short black hair was always carefully trimmed, while I had often kidded Kiri about the fact that her mane could look windblown on a dead calm day, something Senaria tried rather unsuccessfully to imitate.
Dinner was pretty much reserved for pleasantries and casual conversation. At one point I found myself again enthusiastically describing our flight from Earth. "I realize that you all take space travel for granted, but I'm just a poor Earthling who'd never even left the lower atmosphere before," I added apologetically.
"And he's an aerospace engineer, too," Kiri gibed.
"Hey, I just built 'em, I never got to ride 'em," I retorted. "Besides, nothing I ever helped design had the view the Futaba does."
Lev grinned. "You might be disappointed to see what most of our craft are like. Kiri's ship is pretty unique, even for us. I hope one of these days I get a chance to ride it."
"You've never been up in the Futaba?" Kiri said in surprise, and I suddenly noted a mischievous glint in her eyes. I wondered what she had in mind. Lev shook his head, a bit sadly I thought.
"Tell you what," Kiri said. "I'm going to be tied up for the next week or two on that troubleshooting contract I landed, but Senaria knows how to fly it. Of course," she added, glancing at the startled girl, "that's if she's willing to take you up." I saw Gelhinda smothering a grin, while Senaria was clearly at a loss for words.
"I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble, Senaria," Lev said apologetically. At this point she realized that if she was going to say anything she'd better say it soon, and managed to gulp out, "It's really no trouble. Honest. I'd be delighted." She had by now turned distinctly pink under her tan, which Lev tactfully ignored.
"Well," Zyanita sniffed, "I'm perfectly happy having solid walls around me when I leave the ground."
Kiri looked taken aback. "That's right," she said, "you've never ridden in the Futaba either, have you?"
"No, and that's how I'd just as soon keep things," was her typically brusque response.
When we got down to business after the meal I was surprised to find that both Senaria and Gelhinda made themselves comfortable as well. Lev quickly clarified things for me in his forthright manner.
"Will," I said. "If you don't mind."
"Will, Kiri has told me all about you. I trust her judgment implicitly, and therefore I must trust you too. You need to understand that you're going to hear things this evening that officially I'm not telling you or anyone else here. I've worked with Kiri and the Amkors for many years and they've all been an invaluable help to me, and I haven't hesitated to help them as well when I could. But always keep in mind that if things blow up unexpectedly I was never here, and neither was Zee. Those are the ground rules." I nodded. Zyanita shifted impatiently.
"So what have I missed?" said Kiri. "I get the impression it's not good news. Teyn rattling his saber again?" Lev nodded.
"It's worse than that. You know how hard it's been to get information out of Deshtiris for the past twenty years. The computer links you set up for us a decade ago were invaluable, enabling us to tap into some of their data traffic, but even that's heavily secured. We finally managed to crack one of the major military codes, and from what we've decrypted we've determined that Deshtiris has been building up a fleet of starships for the past four years that we knew nothing about."
"Starships?" Kiri said incredulously. "Not freighters? You mean military ships?" Lev nodded. "But what would they do with those?" she exclaimed. "They already have our trade; they've buffaloed the government into signing agreements that give them all the advantages. Surely they don't mean
"These are military ships, with a troop capacity of five hundred per ship," Lev went on woodenly. "And if our projections from the data traffic are correct, there are at least eight thousand ships."
The room fell silent. It was Gelhinda who finally put into words what we were all thinking. "Eight thousand ships? I don't mean to be condescending, of course, but that's simply impossible. That would take a major part of the planet's resources. And what would invading Qozernon accomplish? It would cost them more than they'd get out of us in ordinary trade."
"You're right, it doesn't make sense," Lev answered. "But unless the whole thing is a deliberate deception, and an incredibly sophisticated one, those are the numbers we come up with again and again."
"Could they be planning to invade Earth rather than Qozernon?" Senaria ventured. "How do we know we're the target?"
Zyanita broke in this time. "Because it would be an incredibly stupid thing to do. Earth is bristling with weaponry, including missiles with fusion warheads, and even with the green lasers Deshtiris is churning out they'd be risking huge casualties. Qozernon, on the other hand, is virtually unarmed. Besides, even four million troops is a relatively small army compared to what the Earth governments could muster."
"Four million troops," Gelhinda said softly. "How can they support an army of four million troops?" No one spoke.
Zyanita finally broke the silence. "As you know, I maintain contacts with the Deshtiran refugee community here on Qozernon. Recently they've asked me to look into some unexplained deaths. After examining the police reports and interviewing witnesses, I've come to the conclusion that Deshtiris has begun an organized campaign of assassinations. So far at least twenty-five deaths appear to be involved, all of them persons with information potentially dangerous to Deshtiris."
At that an outraged babble broke out. "That's insane!" exclaimed Gelhinda. "They haven't interfered directly with Qozernon in at least twelve years. The last time they tried, it almost caused a major trade disruption, and their economy is so screwed up that they couldn't survive that and they know it."
"Unless," Kiri said slowly, "they don't need to worry about that any more. For example, if an invasion is imminent."
Zyanita nodded. "That's my interpretation."
"I think," said Lev gravely, "that you should all be very careful from now on. The Brizali know who and where you are. Up until now they've left you alone because they couldn't risk an incident here. Apparently hotter heads are prevailing. Your little mishap on Earth," and he glanced at Kiri and me, "is almost certainly related to all this." I felt a cold shiver. This comfortable little homestead on the plains suddenly felt much less safe than it had an hour earlier.
"Damn," Kiri said softly.
The party broke up shortly thereafter. I noticed that Senaria managed to sneak several minutes with Lev out on the front porch, bringing their conversation to a quick conclusion as Zyanita approached. I thought she looked a bit downcast when she returned to the house.
"Gelhi," Kiri was saying as the two disappeared down the highway, "from now on I want that intruder alarm on twenty-five hours a day," ignoring her protests about the resulting inconvenience for visitors. We were all noticeably preoccupied as we headed for our beds that evening, and I awoke the next morning with vague memories of unsettling nightmares and a splitting headache.
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