There was a knock at the door. "Kiri? Will? We're almost there," came Senaria's soft voice. "All right Sen," Kiri acknowledged. "We'll be with you in a moment." In spite of the urgency of our mission, I found myself regretting not hearing the rest of the story. I was haunted by a feeling that I was running out of time.
Once again we reviewed every scrap of information we had. Finally, it was time to change into our Brizal uniforms. I was surprised to find that they essentially consisted of short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and boots, all black. "You're going to find that Deshtiris is miserably hot almost everywhere," Zyanita explained. "The Brizali have poured so much junk into the atmosphere that they've triggered a serious greenhouse effect."
There were various insignia of rank on the sleeves of the shirts, but otherwise few markings except for the ugly Brizal emblem: a red equilateral triangle in a white circle, with a small yellow star in the center. Seeing me fingering the symbol, Zyanita filled me in on its origin. "Krigghin Teyn himself claimed to have designed it. I read his explanation of what it meant a long time ago, but it was just a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo about the party, the people, and the
Zyanita had provided the information necessary to create the uniforms. Gelhinda had made some reluctant last minute alterations to enable Lev's uniform to fit Senaria, and needless to say the shirt was a bit tight, something Senaria didn't seem to object to. Zyanita explained that Kiri's insignia was that of a secret police captain, an entity that even most Brizali would prefer not to approach too closely. Zyanita and Senaria wore patches for lower ranks in the same organization, while mine was for a sort of all-purpose support staff.
Kiri also handed each of us a small plastic card with our picture, name, and an encoded computer ID symbol. "I've created detailed histories for all of us, in case they run a check," she said grimly. "But if we're actually brought in for interrogation, there's no way you'll be able to slide by if they start testing your cover story, so we'll just have to be careful."
"You've got to do something about that hair," Zyanita insisted. Kiri had already dyed it into its usual sandy-colored disguise, and now she tied it back tightly, giving her face a surprisingly angular and harsh appearance, not at all eased by the pale blue contact lenses. Zyanita expressed her approval of the results and for the next half hour briefed us again on some of the various customs and practices we needed to be aware of, until we dropped out of light speed and Deshtiris began expanding in front of us.
Even from this distance it was apparent that something was different about this planet. Instead of a brilliant blue-green ball hanging in the stars, what we saw before us was a pale greenish-grey globe with barely visible hints of cloud patterns. It was just possible to make out the continents against the ocean expanses. As we drew closer, we could see a brownish ring surrounding the planet at the very base of the atmosphere. Kiri was shaking her head slowly as she steered us into a shallow approach.
We entered the atmosphere at a much slower speed than we had when approaching Qozernon. "To avoid visible shock waves," Kiri explained. Slowly we descended. After a while the inky blackness around us was replaced by a dark blue, gradually changing to a pale greenish-blue, while Deshtiris' sun acquired a reddish hue as it approached the horizon behind us We would be arriving just ahead of it, I calculated. I could finally make out clouds below, at first almost indistinguishable from the haze.
"Don't they have radar or something?" I asked. "Surely they'll know we're here."
"The Futaba's crystalline shell is transparent to microwaves," Kiri answered, "and the equipment inside is small enough that their sensors won't see anything other than a few bits of metallic junk falling out of the sky. Also, the Futaba's low-speed drive uses a slightly different principle than the standard ones and shouldn't be recognizable as such. I doubt if their filtering systems would even pass the information on to the operators."
We dropped into a thick cloud mass, and for several minutes were surrounded by pure white nothingness. Then suddenly we emerged from the bottom and the landscape of Deshtiris was spread out before us in the early morning light, although still with a mile of hazy air in between. "Deshti," said Kiri morosely.
I suppose I had been subconsciously expecting a small walled fortress à la Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps capped with exotic turrets and parapets. What I saw instead was a gigantic modern industrial city, with freeways, parks, factories, and, off in the distance, a massive range of skyscrapers, all set on a flat shelf of land which dropped off behind us into a vast brown treeless plain. On the other side of the city a breathtaking mountain range arose, the peaks hidden in the clouds.
But there was no sign of life anywhere. The freeways and streets below were devoid of movement, factory chimneys were smoke-free, many of the latter partially crumbled away. Several times we passed over what had obviously been major rail yards, now with rails and rolling stock long gone.
Here and there we noticed small pockets of habitation, where vacant lots had been plowed into fields and a few tiny figures could be seen moving about. Nowhere was there any evidence of vehicle traffic.
"All of the able-bodied population was moved long ago to the Brizali's new industrial centers," Kiri explained in a melancholy tone. "You're looking at what used to be a city of over twenty-six million people." We continued over the center of the city, where some of the skyscrapers actually rose above us into the clouds, many of the windows now broken out. On the far side of the city center was what appeared to be a huge park, with a number of scattered buildings connected by sidewalks and a few discreet access roads, the whole surrounded by a giant traffic circle. Near the center was an immense building complex with an oddly mottled roof on one end.
"That's the imperial palace of Deshti, where I grew up." Resolutely shaking off the sadness that seemed to be enveloping her, Kiri added, "We'll be driving there after we find a place to land."
"Are you sure we can't be seen from here?" asked Zyanita nervously. "We're really not very high up at all."
"The Futaba is virtually invisible from this altitude," Kiri reassured her. "With our transparent sides and the silver end, it would be like spotting a soap bubble from a few hundred yards away. Even if someone saw us they'd probably write us off as a bird." Slowly we passed beyond the ruined city and into the far mountain range. Soon we were descending into a forested area, directly onto the remains of a paved road that led from the mountains down into the city.
Before we disembarked, we strapped on our swords. "Remember," Kiri said, "these are a last resort. If we have to use them things are going to get one hell of a lot more complicated. Don't pick any fights," and she looked meaningfully at Senaria, receiving a half-hearted glare in return.
As I stepped out of the Futaba I was conscious of a distinct chemical smell in the air, mingling with the pine scent around me. For a moment I was reminded of a smoggy day in Fontana. I was brought back to the present by Kiri's clipped instructions for us to stand well back from the ship. "Futaba transform: truck," she commanded, and we watched as our glass bullet repoured itself in its remarkable liquid way into the shape of a rubber-tired vehicle, apparently half jeep, half truck, all according to the data Kiri had previously entered. "This is a typical Brizal utility vehicle," she explained. "We shouldn't be too conspicuous in this. I've created phony records for the license number, so as long as we're not stopped we shouldn't attract any attention."
"And if we are stopped?" asked Zyanita.
"Then we hope I didn't screw up our computer identities," said Kiri casually. "Remember, I'm a secret police captain. Most people, including other Brizali, don't want to mess with someone like that if they can avoid it. If I have to I'll try intimidation. If that doesn't
"This is amazing," I said. "The Futaba can actually reform itself into an internal combustion vehicle. Where does the fuel come from?"
Kiri's eyes flashed in momentary amusement. "It's really more of a simulation," she said. "It looks, sounds and smells like a truck, but it's all still made up of amorphous diamond. If by some miracle you could cut open the engine block or gasoline tank, you'd find the electronics modules that are normally under the walkway. Even the tires are rock hard; they just continually reshape themselves as the axle rotates so that they appear to be flexible. I had to beef up the suspension so we wouldn't get shaken apart on these decrepit roads. Let's hope no one tries to kick the tires," she added.
It took us about an hour to reach our first destination, which as Kiri had said was the palace grounds. Along the way we saw very few living souls. Occasionally we would spot an elderly figure in a doorway or sitting on a crumbling porch. Several times we passed over what apparently used to be major rail lines, judging from the number of tracks and the remains of overhead electrification. Now only rotting ties were left.
The drive through Deshti proved to be one of the most depressing experiences of my life. If somewhat more exotic in appearance than Lernesdi (Deshtiris had after all achieved civilization several hundred years earlier), it still bore a strong kinship to the large Earth cities of my own experience, although even in decay I saw none of the squalor that so mars our own. The streets were not potholed (that requires traffic, after all), just crumbling from age. Everything metal was covered with a thick layer of powdery corrosion, and some lamp posts had literally rotted through and collapsed across the streets. They were so fragile that we simply drove over them, leaving tire tracks of crumbled white dust.
Ahead I saw a stand of trees, some still retaining sickly yellowish leaves, and others long dead. I realized that we had reached the palace grounds. The remains of an arched gateway stood over a driveway entrance, and Kiri steered us into the once-parklike grounds. "Why are you doing this, Kiri?" asked Zyanita softly.
"I have to see it once more," Kiri said, her voice tightly under control.
"She hasn't been back here
At one time there had evidently been various fences and guard posts to direct the public to appropriate areas, now long rusted or rotted away. Kiri navigated along the maze of drives with the ease of long familiarity, and we eventually found ourselves before an immense building with an ornately carved facade. In spite of the severe deterioration, I recognized it as the imperial palace in the photograph from my youth. The huge main doors, apparently once made of massive wooden timbers, were now a flimsy tangle of rusted iron bands and shreds of rotted lumber, long since pushed aside by other visitors.
"I'll wait in the Futaba if you don't mind," Zyanita said. I could tell that she disapproved of this unproductive indulgence in sentimentality.
"Hit the horn if you need to signal us," Kiri answered curtly. "It also works." The remaining three of us gingerly trod through the massive doorway, Senaria wide-eyed with fascination. The only sounds were our footsteps and the occasional cries of wild birds.
I expected to find deep gloom within, but instead stepped into a gigantic open room, easily the size of a football field, lit with mottled patches of hazy sunlight and scattered shreds of intense color. Looking up I saw the remains of a skylight which at one time had apparently covered the entire chamber. I realized that this was the odd-looking roof I had seen from the Futaba earlier.
"This used to be the great hall," Kiri said sadly, almost to herself. "The celebrations, the receptions, the ceremonies that I remember
I looked around. The room had evidently been thoroughly gutted; the walls were bare, and there were marks on the floor where various unknown objects had once stood. Only the remains of some stone benches were still in place along the walls, shrouded in relative gloom. "There's someone there," Senaria said, nudging Kiri and pointing at a shadowy sitting figure silently watching us.
"It's okay," she answered as we continued toward the center of the chamber, decades of accumulated debris crunching softly underfoot and echoing faintly in the vast space.
Kiri stopped and looked up at the shattered skylight, from which most of the stained glass had long since crumbled or been broken out. I knew that in her mind's eye she was seeing it the way she had seen it as a child, a stunning creation in brilliant colors that she had once proudly shown me in an old book. As she stood silently in a patch of hazy sunlight, I saw a tear slowly roll down one cheek.
"You're not like any Brizali I've ever seen," said a cracked voice behind us. Startled, we whirled around to see the oldest women I had encountered anywhere on Qozernon or Deshtiris staring at us intently. It was the figure who had been sitting quietly in the shadows along the walls. "I don't think you are Brizali," she continued matter-of-factly. "Who are you?"
Kiri stared at her dully for several seconds before she finally spoke. "My name," she said slowly, "is Mikiria."
The old woman seemed undisturbed at this revelation and nodded. "Yes. The eyes and the hair are different, but the
"I come here and sit," said the old woman. "I remember what it was like."
"So do I," said Kiri. Somehow it seemed as if she were speaking from across a great gulf.
"You're here to fix things," said the woman matter-of-factly. Kiri nodded silently. For several minutes there was silence, broken only by the sound of the birds outside. "When?" asked the old woman at last, looking around meaningfully at the remains of the vast room.
"Soon, I hope," said Kiri. "Soon."
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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