"Well, that would seem to settle it," Lev observed as we retraced our steps to the living room. "We're looking at Romikor Tenako's fingerprints here."
Kiri shook her head. "That's what I thought at first. And we've taken for granted all these years that what was done to me was Tenako's work. But I've looked more closely at the research done on my 'enhancements' since then, as well as the work my father did previously. Brilliant, yes. But over the past few days I've realized that not even he had the necessary foundation to have done what he did. Forty-six years after the fact, our most advanced researchers in the field of genetic engineering still can't figure out just how it was done."
"And done to you too, Will. Apparently every cell in your body contains a microscopic battery of some kind. How it was done, how it would work, and how some kind of 'key' could trigger it is still a mystery. No, there's something else here, and I can't help but think that understanding it is going to become a life and death issue for Qozernon."
"Perhaps sooner than you think," said Lev quietly. "That's why Zee and I are here today. There are some things you need to know. Most importantly, we have strong reason to believe that Teyn's fleet will be sailing for Qozernon within the next week or two."
Stunned silence followed this bombshell. Gelhinda finally broke the silence. "And what have we been doing all this time? Anything?"
Lev shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"So the bottom line
"This is suicide," fumed Gelhinda. "And when you say ships, do I assume you mean ordinary merchant ships? I don't suppose we can hope that our ever-budget-conscious government has been secretly building up a military arm of its own?"
Lev shook his head. "This is the best we can do. Qozernon is in big trouble. Really big trouble."
Silence again settled over the group. Kiri especially appeared lost in thought. Finally she spoke very softly, almost to herself. "Meeting them head on won't work. We have to find out why they're doing this. Somewhere there's a key, and I have to find it."
Zyanita shrugged. "Well, you do it your way and we'll pursue ours. But all your pretty charts and diagrams aren't going to stop that fleet," she added coldly. And on that unpleasant note the meeting broke up.
I escorted our guests to the door and saw them off, after glimpsing the now-customary mini-drama featuring Senaria and Lev. When I returned to the living room I found Kiri stretched out on her back on the couch, snoring softly. As I gently picked her up in my arms, she stirred slightly and mumbled something that sounded vaguely like "Washuu dune?"
"I'm putting you to bed," I answered, and carried her up to her room without further protest. A few minutes later she was fast asleep in her own bed.
I had hoped that she might be more like herself after a good night's sleep, but the next morning she seemed as preoccupied as ever, absently picking at breakfast. I finally got a reaction from her when I mentioned my bizarre conversation with Zyanita, receiving an exasperated shrug in response. "Leave it to her to try stab me in the back. Well, don't worry about it; it's hardly the first time. She has a lot of problems of her own and I'm used to it. Besides, she's spent the better part of her life learning every corner and byway of Deshtiris and is just too valuable to us. Do me a favor and forget about it."
The next few days were hell. I saw almost nothing of her, and when I did I was as likely to get my head bitten off as anything. On top of that was the menace from Deshtiris. The thought of this remarkable family being in danger from Brizal assassins hung over me like an unshakable black cloud. Senaria appeared to be as frustrated as I, and several times I caught her pacing around like a caged animal. Much to my surprise, there was no mention of any of this on Qozernan television.
"I guess there's not a lot of point in alarming people," she suggested as I searched unsuccessfully for any real news in the available programming. "After all, we know and a lot of good it's doing us."
"What's this Krigghin Teyn like?" I asked. "I've heard his name enough times, but I don't even know what he looks like."
In response, Senaria took the remote and punched in a series of commands. I saw the words "Krigghin Teyn" and "documentary" flash across the screen, along with some file numbers and other characters, and then I found myself viewing an ordinary-looking man, seemingly in his early forties, with short brown hair and an earnest expression. At the bottom of the screen a caption appeared: "Krigghin Teyn: Portrait of a Savior."
"It's a Brizal propaganda film," Senaria warned me. "Required viewing in the Deshtiran schools. But it'll give you the general idea." It opened with Teyn shaking hands with what I presumed were intended to be "the common people," visiting hospitals, and similar such stuff, while the narrator introduced him in a worshipful tone as the man who had saved Deshtiris from chaos and corporate greed. Then Teyn himself began to speak, and I realized that he had the most hypnotic eyes I had ever seen. Even on a video (albeit a 3D video, of course, like most non-Earth television) the effect was almost frightening, as banal platitudes suddenly acquired deep meaning and I caught myself actually admiring the sincerity of the man.
"Enough," I said, taking a deep breath. Senaria grinned.
"Did the same thing to me the first time I saw it. He knows how to work an audience, all right. From all reports, though, he's really not terribly bright, and the general assumption is that he has some kind of council behind him that actually makes the decisions. They must be good, because the planet's a model of organization, even if it is an ecological disaster area. Nobody knows who they are, though."
She also explained that "Brizal," the name the party was generally known by, was a nickname derived from "BRZ," the initials of the party's real name in Deshtiran. For some time afterward I found myself haunted by the image of Teyn, remembering those intense eyes and the warm, trusting feelings they engendered. If Teyn wasn't running Deshtiris, who was? I wondered.
"That's enough of the Brizali," announced Gelhinda behind us. We turned in surprise to see her standing in the doorway, a mock-serious glare on her face. "You're going to end up with nervous breakdowns if you keep this up. We all need a rest from Krigghin Teyn and his goons, and I've decided to do something about it." She stepped aside to reveal Lev standing behind her, obviously amused at her performance.
"Lev?" Senaria stammered. "What are you doing here?"
"His boss told him the same thing I'm telling you," Gelhinda responded for him. "To get out of the office for a day. Right now it's all up to the politicians anyway. So, we're going on a picnic," she concluded grandly.
As we packed up the necessities, Gelhinda made one last attempt to drag Kiri away from her work. She shortly returned from the field of battle, evidently vanquished. "Sorry, Will," she said with mock solemnity. "My mission was a failure. I guess you'll have to put up with me as your date for this trip." She didn't look terribly sorry about it, either, so I chivalrously took her picnic basket as we walked arm in arm from the house.
Not much later we were on our way in, of all things, the Futaba. "I thought the Futaba wasn't for pleasure trips," I said to Senaria in surprise as she lifted us just above the atmosphere and headed southeast. "Not for an hours' drive," she answered with a grin, obviously delighted to be able to show off her piloting skills for Lev again. "But we're going to the other side of the planet, and for that this is more practical."
Before our departure, Gelhinda had informed us that since she had taken care of the guest list and packed the lunches it was up to Senaria to decide on our destination. For a moment the girl had looked nonplused, then her eyes had lit up with a distinctly ominous gleam. Other than telling us to wear light clothing, she had firmly refused to let anything further slip out. A true stepsister to Kiri, I thought grimly.
Once out of the atmosphere it took only a few minutes to semicircumnavigate the globe, and soon we were descending onto what appeared to be a savanna, with broad grassy plains alternating with scattered clusters of trees, eventually landing in a small clearing within one of the larger clumps. During the descent I had seen no sign of roads anywhere in the area we were entering, although there were occasional glimmers of water here and there. Senaria had been carefully examining a screen similar to the one Kiri had consulted back in the ill-fated house in the desert mountains, and eventually emitted a satisfied chuckle as a small cluster of blue squares appeared on the screen.
"Leave the lunches on the ship for now," she instructed us as she settled a few feet above the thick yellow grass and had the Futaba extrude a nifty ladder from the portal. Cautioning us not to make more noise than necessary, she led us out of the clearing along what looked like a game path into the surrounding trees.
For several minutes we followed the path, the sounds of bird life all around. The heat, while not ferocious, was considerable, but the air was refreshingly dry. I saw the gleam of sunlight on grass ahead, and a moment later we emerged onto a broad open plain.
That was when I found myself walking directly into what looked like a pretty realistic herd (or whatever you call it) of lions. I will admit that I may not have entirely covered myself with glory during the moments that followed.
"Lions," I half stammered, half whispered. "Lions. They're lions."
"Of course they're lions," Senaria snorted, making no great effort to keep her voice down. "That's why we're here." Lev and Gelhinda were grinning broadly; driven insane by fear, I charitably assumed. Senaria strode into the group, moving as fluidly as the lions themselves and speaking to them in soft purring tones. One of them looked up, yawned in boredom, and then put its head back down as she gently scratched behind its neck.
"Are you all right, Will?" asked Gelhinda calmly. She claimed later that I was standing there with my mouth opening and closing like a fish trying to breathe air; I deny it; that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
By this time Lev had joined Senaria, the girl showing him where the creatures (admittedly magnificent) liked best to be scratched. Gelhinda urged me to do likewise. "Didn't Kiri tell you about the wildlife here?" she asked curiously.
"Just that it all originally came from Earth," I managed, my heart rate finally beginning to relax into the three digit range.
"Leave it to her to skip the important part," she sighed. Patiently she explained that the Virrin had genetically implanted a complete indifference to humans in every species of fauna transplanted from Earth. Normally it was perfectly safe to approach any animal on the planet, although under extreme circumstances (such as a sudden loud noise or a threat to their young) this could be unexpectedly overridden.
"Just watch out for cubs," she cautioned me. "If one comes up to you, freeze until it leaves. Otherwise you're quite safe." I should add that this indifference to humans in no way affected their behavior towards other species; Qozernan lions remain the most fearsome predators on the planet.
Well, I did manage to overcome my skepticism and ended up sitting on the grass comfortably leaning against one of the gorgeous beasts and feeling its purring vibrating through my body like an immense motor. It was actually with some reluctance that we returned to the ship to fetch our lunches and fly elsewhere for our meal, Senaria explaining that if we had tried to eat around the lions we would have been compelled to share our food, which would have been a severe violation of environmental regulations. Besides, we would have been lucky if anything had remained for ourselves.
Gelhinda and I ended up on a small bluff overlooking a broad river and watched a gorgeous sunset. Senaria and Lev had drifted off somewhere on their own, and returned only as dusk was settling, looking rather a bit tousled. Gelhinda gave me a knowing wink as we headed back to the Futaba.
When we finally returned to the house, I discovered Kiri in her computer room slumped over the keyboard, fast asleep. On the screen in front of her was a small warning box reading "System Error: Stuck Key," accompanied by an irritating repetitive beeping. Judging from the system time displayed on the error message, she had been out for at least two hours. Once again I lifted her in my arms and carried her off to her bed, this time receiving only an unintelligible mumble in response.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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