Her very earliest memories were of doctors: poking her, pressing objects against her that stung as they emitted unpleasant hissing noises, waving odd devices over her. It never seemed to end; long after she had fled to Qozernon years later she still received politely worded requests from well-intentioned researchers begging for the privilege of inflicting this or that newly devised scourge upon her. Even now she shuddered involuntarily at the sight of the medical practitioner's standard light blue t-shirt.
As she became self-aware, as she discovered what mirrors were and how different she was from other children her age, the continual attention on the part of the well-intentioned scientists only served to exaggerate even more in her own mind her feelings of being different, feelings that over the years since had been submerged but never quite eradicated. Although the children sharing the palace with her were always courteous and considerate (she was, after all, the adopted daughter of the Emperor and Empress as she later learned), there were inevitably the occasional cutting comments in the heat of a childish argument, comments that cut far deeper than her playmates might have realized.
But on the other hand there was Wilorian, her ever-present friend; even back then he was called Will by nearly everyone. Almost exactly the same age (he had been born two weeks after her), he was her playmate, companion in mischief, and eventually confidant. How well she remembered chasing each other up and down and through the labyrinthine stairwells and passageways of the ancient palace, itself the very heart of Deshti, at that time the capital city of Deshtiris.
There were comfortable dinners in a little private dining room reserved for the royal family, and vast state dinners in the great hall. Of the latter she well remembered the elaborate costumes they had been required to wear, with a perfectly unbelievable amount of glistening metallic trim, but more than that was the memory of the incredible skylight above, covering a ceiling the size of a football field, and bathing those below with colors so intense you could almost taste them.
A favorite target of mischief had been the palace major domo, a gifted martinet by the name of Elikan Valkar. He was very old, even for a Deshtiran; no one seemed to be quite certain just how old. It was his responsibility to keep the palace running smoothly, and to head off the inevitable breaches of protocol that can so inflame those who consider themselves important, and he did a masterful job of it. For a long time he terrified her and Wilorian, though as she grew older she began to realize that there was a subtle but well-developed sense of humor lurking beneath the forbidding exterior.
And that was fortunate, because for reasons she never did quite fathom he became the butt of Wilorian's very best practical jokes, some of them rather good ones, too. Although Valkar stormed and raged at them when these pranks reached their inevitable climaxes, he never went to the point of complaining to the Emperor or Empress, and it certainly wasn't out of fear of the latter. She wondered what had happened to him; there had been no word of him in the accessible Deshtiran records for years, but neither had there been any report of execution or other decease. One more link with the past left dangling, she reflected sadly.
After a few years they were joined by Zyanita, three years their junior, who soon adopted the familiar role of the "younger tagalong brat." In those days she was as high-spirited and mischievous as the rest of them, or sometimes even more so as she attempted to outdo them in one prank or another. The sight of the three was a common one on the palace grounds, as they prowled about looking for a new focus for their attentions.
As far as Mikiria was concerned, the thoughtful, loving couple that people respectfully addressed as "Emperor" and "Empress" were her mother and father, and she was four before they carefully explained to her one evening that she was something called "adopted." They had known that sooner or later she would glean the information from her peers, or from the news programs or magazines that she had learned to read at an unusually early age.
Assuring her that in their eyes (and those of the rest of the planet) she was as much their child as Zyanita or Wilorian, they explained that her real parents were no longer able to take care of her, and that they had done so because she was so important to them. Only in later years did she gradually learn the darker story behind those words.
One thing from that evening stuck vividly in her memory. Her mother had handed her a small iridescent pendant on a gold chain, and gently placed it around her neck. "Your real mother asked that you be given this some day, to remember her by. Wear it always, Mikiria." She had been shown a photograph of a gentle, almost ethereal looking woman, with eyes that seemed to bore into her own from the 3D image. Even then she realized that somehow they were her own eyes, if not so large or quite so green.
As she grew older, and the hurt of discovering how different she was began to ease, her life had become a golden paradise. She found that the studies which gave the other children such difficulties were appallingly easy for her, and there was soon no question that she had inherited her father's remarkable intellectual powers. (For some reason which defied explanation, only chemistry resisted her dogged attempts; it somehow just didn't mesh with the way her mind operated, she supposed.) Since Deshtiran schools are not built upon grades and tests, she didn't suffer the jealousies and snubs that such success would have inevitably cost her on Earth. Before long she was experimenting with equipment provided by her teachers, and not long after it was found that she was actually coming up with useful improvements.
To her surprise, she found herself several times the subject of media interviews and reports, although she had no idea just how original some of her ideas had been (nor of just how much the public was taken with this singular child). The attention spurred her to start seriously immersing herself in the fundamentals of hyperspace propulsion. Even so, she was stunned when a paper she had written proved to identify the cause of several previously unexplained disasters, involving the disappearance of several ships. (It was later to lead to her discovery of the principle of the "gateways," with their controlled access to what she had whimsically described as "alternate universes.") From then on, Deshti's science researchers were happy to indulge her with whatever equipment or materials she might request, within reason.
Wilorian, while sharing her passion for space travel, could not hope to keep up with the depths of theory into which she was now digging. However, he understood and left her alone when she was in the throes of another project. Besides, it was becoming obvious that she also had remarkable athletic abilities and strength, which made her a boon companion for him. They spent much of their time together in swordplay and other athletics (though not team sports, of course, which are regarded on both planets as distastefully barbaric forms of commercial entertainment).
It was for them a thrilling moment when, on their sixteenth birthdays, they were formally presented with two gorgeous swords of their own, hand-crafted relics belonging to the royal family and dating back no-one was quite sure how far. There was no question of their actually using them, of course; one does not employ real blades for practice or even formal competitions. Nonetheless they had a fascinating history associated with them, a history which was by no means concluded.
She never knew if it was her increasing closeness to Wilorian or something else, but it was at about this time that Zyanita, normally by nature a cheerful and fun-loving child, began to display occasional flashes of moodiness. Where before she had idolized them, and would have accompanied them everywhere they went if they had permitted it, now she sometimes grew aloof and haughty. Perhaps it was when she discovered that Mikiria was not "really" a princess but an adopted one, or perhaps it was seeing Mikiria's face on television and magazine covers. It was when she was eleven that she had first informed Mikiria that she was just a "commoner" and had no business putting on royal airs.
Mikiria, stunned, had protested that she was doing nothing of the sort, and that it wasn't her fault how people treated her. Wilorian had also given her a piece of his mind, in the direct way that only siblings can, but from then on Zyanita seemed frequently preoccupied with finding ways to assert her "royal prerogatives" and chip away at her adopted sister.
It was one evening when Mikiria was commiserating over some new snub with Darita, who among other duties acted as tutor to Zyanita, that the elderly retainer had exploded in astonishment. "Don't you know that she's collected every article and video clip in existence about you? She even enlisted one of the telecom reporters to provide her with some unreleased clips that never made it onto the news. She idolizes you, silly child. But don't tell her I told you, though," she added prudently.
After that Mikiria made it a point to answer Zyanita's barbs with nonsensical ones of her own, treating it as a kind of game that left Zyanita thoroughly confused and effectively took the sting out of the exchanges. Eventually the uncalled-for sniping quietly faded away. Wilorian, of course, was most bewildered of all and never did quite grasp what had been going on.
Making up somewhat for Zyanita's petty intrigues was Mikiria's growing friendship with the Amkors, at that time the ambassadorial family from Qozernon. By now she had become a striking girl of fourteen, with a merry face and a razor sharp mind, and they found her to be delightful company and whenever possible invited her and Wilorian to their social events. Amkor Kurinton, the ambassador, she remembered as a dignified, imposing figure in his public appearances, but in private a fount of more funny stories than she could remember hearing in her lifetime.
It was his wife Gelhinda, however, that to her became almost a third mother. It was with her that she shared her hurt over some of the petty insults and indignities inflicted by Zyanita and her small circle of like-minded friends, hurts that she would never have dreamed of passing along to her adopted parents.
It was at about this time that she became vaguely aware of a kind of cloud hanging over the royal couple. Far more occupied with her increasingly fascinating scientific studies than with the tedium of daily politics, she was almost unaware of the rise of the force that came to be known as the Brizali. What she did notice were the increasingly distracted silences at the dinner table, silences which she cheerfully filled with excited reports of her latest projects.
One of those projects was the building of her own starship. Although this might sound like an immense endeavor, it should be kept in mind that the technology for faster-than-light travel had been common knowledge for hundreds of years, and the necessary apparatus had long since shrunk to the scale of a good-sized television set. Utilizing a standard hollow hull, available relatively cheaply for the equivalent of a few thousand dollars and about the size of a large motor home, she had added her own version of the hyperspace propulsion engine to produce a ship that she expected would easily exceed currently available speeds.
Ground tests had checked out perfectly, and it was with tremendous impatience that she and Wilorian had finished adding the necessary amenities to the interior, such as control consoles and seats. (It was Wilorian who pointed out the need for bathroom facilities as well, and fortunately he had taken it upon himself to hunt up and install the necessary hardware, a task she found hopelessly mundane.)
She still vividly remembered the day of the first test flight, seeing the ground drop away from them as they cautiously took the ship into the upper atmosphere. She was all too eager to take the ship to light speed, and once again it was Wilorian who had insisted that they first make sure it could handle such basics as takeoff and landing without losing atmosphere. By the time they landed she was a bundle of nerves, desperate to try out her new hyperspace engine. He, on the other hand, had calmly shown her a checklist of things that hadn't worked properly, and told her that when they were fixed they could go for a real flight.
They stepped out of the ship to find that their comfortable, cheerful world was gone forever.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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