We had left the ruined city far behind as we wound down off the elevated plateau, and before us the road stretched out across a vast treeless plain. Along the highway were the decayed remnants of lodgings, eateries, and other accoutrements of a formerly busy travel artery, all now empty and windowless. Eventually they thinned out to nearly nothing as the road continued across what was rapidly becoming an arid desert, with only a form of dry yellow plant life giving color to the rocky ground. Ahead, at a crossroads with another evidently better-traveled road, we saw what appeared to be an actual operating diner of sorts, and we all agreed that a brief stop for some refreshments would not only be appropriate but a good chance to practice our unfamiliar roles.
We pulled up in front of what could only be charitably described as a "greasy spoon," apparently sustained by the traffic on the other road (since ours seemed quite deserted). We parked the truck, and with a few last admonitions from Kiri we sauntered inside and found a table near one wall.
The proprietor was identical to every other proprietor of every other such eatery I had ever been inside; I assume there's something about the job that causes severe genetic alterations. In our case, the owner's surliness genes were clearly well-developed. We managed to order something resembling food and heaved a sigh of relief as he left us a bowl of greasy chips and shuffled off to the kitchen. For a few moments we were left to ourselves, exchanging rude comments about the genealogy of our host, when there was a minor commotion and three authentic Brizal guards made a noisy entrance. The party consisted of two men and one woman, one of the men bearing the insignia of a sergeant.
The latter, seeing us, swaggered over and was presumably about to demand identification when he spotted Kiri's insignia. While I wouldn't exactly say he paled, he definitely deflated somewhat. "Sorry, sir," he mumbled, "I didn't see you there."
"Don't let me interfere with the performance of your duties, sergeant," she snapped back with a distinctly arrogant edge. "I imagine you need to see our identification?" Yanking out an ID card from a side pocket, she shoved it into his face. "Perhaps this will do." Glancing at it, he muttered an apology and slunk back to his table.
Several times I saw him looking daggers at us as we munched stale chips, but he was always careful not to look at Kiri. I got the definite impression that the Brizal secret police were not at all popular within their own organization. After a few minutes he left the table and disappeared into a side corridor. "Probably calling in my ID number for a check," Kiri said softly, as the proprietor brought out bowls of soup having a thoroughly unappetizing appearance and set them before us.
"I think I need to use the, uh, facilities," said Zyanita. I noticed that she looked distinctly unwell. I wondered if it was illness or fright; she was certainly pale.
"Watch your step, Zee," Kiri admonished her. "If anyone asks you anything, just refer them to me." Nodding, Zyanita wobbled off to the other corridor where the Deshtiran equivalent of our international restroom symbol hung.
"I hope she's all right," Senaria said after a few minutes, but the issue suddenly took a back seat as the sergeant returned and quickly whispered something to the other two. "Uh oh," Kiri murmured, and her premonitions proved accurate as a moment later the two stood up and all three drew their swords and faced us menacingly.
"Qozernan spies! You're all under arrest," snapped the sergeant, a satisfied sneer lighting up his face. "Put your arms out and stand up."
He wasn't quite prepared for the literalness with which Kiri took his suggestion. Without warning she made an astonishing leap a good six feet straight up, grabbing the light fixture hanging above us, and planted a powerful two-legged kick directly in the sergeant's face. As he flew backwards, I took her cue and with a quick motion overturned the table onto the other two, drenching them with the repulsive hot soup. Our actions bought just enough time for Kiri, Senaria and me to draw our own weapons. I got a glimpse of Zyanita standing frozen in the corridor with a horrified look on her face. "Zee, get the hell out of here! Go start the truck!" yelled Kiri and a moment later the three were upon us.
Let me tell you, there is a considerable difference between fencing in a garage with dull practice blades and facing a real swordsman with a razor-sharp weapon, and a good swordsman at that. For a moment I felt sheer panic, then instinct and drill took over and I was no longer thinking but instead parrying and thrusting as if I had been doing this all my life. After a few moments of general free-for-all Kiri wound up dueling the woman, Senaria the sergeant, and I the remaining officer. Once I saw the horrified proprietor pick up his telecom and an instant later with a quick side-swipe Kiri had sliced right through the cable, disabling the instrument.
Then three things happened simultaneously. Senaria gave her opponent a good whack upside the head with the flat of her sword and he staggered to the floor, stunned; I tripped over something underfoot and fell backwards and a moment later saw my own opponent standing directly over me about to run me through the chest; and then Kiri's blade slid through his throat and out the back of his neck. For just a moment he stood with a surprised look on his face as Kiri yanked out her blade, then he slumped to the floor with a horrible gurgling sound, blood pouring from his mouth.
The Brizal woman, momentarily aghast at these developments, backed away and Kiri took the opportunity to shout, "Run for it! Let's get the hell out of here." We dashed out to the truck and climbed aboard, pulling out onto the highway as the remaining two, the leader still half-stunned from Senaria's blow (not to mention Kiri's kick), clambered into their own truck and pulled out after us.
"Futaba display: console!" Kiri barked and the familiar control stand appeared in midair between the two front seats. "Jamming their telecom," she explained in clipped tones, as she quickly keyed in some commands.
Without firearms, we had no immediate way to shake off our pursuers, and I knew that we couldn't let them alert the authorities or our project would become near-hopeless. Kiri obviously realized the same thing, and a moment later shouted over the windstream, "Fasten your seat belts, everyone. Your lives are going to depend on it in a few seconds. Everyone set?" As soon as she heard three affirmative voices, she touched something on the control stand and I suddenly realized we were lifting off the road in a steep climb.
Senaria laughed gleefully. "Just because we look like a truck doesn't mean we can't fly, right, Kiri?"
The next thing I knew we were doing a full 360-degree loop and for a moment I was hanging in my seat belt looking straight down at the ground several hundred feet below. The other vehicle was now directly below us, and as we finished our loop we were gliding down behind the Brizali and coming up on them fast. "Hang on, everyone, hands inside," shouted Kiri and an instant later we were directly alongside the other truck. There was a momentary glimpse of two horrified faces, then Kiri turned the Futaba hard against the other vehicle and it flew out of control into the desert, rolling several times and hurling its occupants out onto the rocky soil, while we bobbed wildly for a moment ourselves before Kiri regained control.
"That had to hurt," mused Senaria as we set back down onto the highway and became for all intents and purposes an ordinary Brizal truck again. Kiri was shaking, her face ashen.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
She shook her head and said nothing for a few minutes. "Back
"It wasn't your fault," I said. "And you saved my life."
She shook her head again. "I've always tried to disable an opponent. Having to kill someone
Senaria, apparently trying to cheer her up, suggested that the two in the truck might have gotten off with a bad bruising. Somehow I doubted it, but I kept my mouth shut. "Piss on them," Kiri snorted unexpectedly, beginning to return a bit to her usual self. "Maybe it'll teach them to use seat belts next time. Will! You're bleeding!" Surprised, I looked down, and realized my shirt was soaked with blood, with more fresh blood slowly dripping off my right hand.
For a moment there was general panic, and then I found that the bleeding was from a cut across my right shoulder, but that most of the blood on my shirt was from the unfortunate Brizal I had been battling. The cut proved to be shallow, and I hadn't even felt it until now, I realized. Senaria had it skillfully bandaged up within a few minutes. "Well," Zyanita sighed, "so much for that uniform."
"Now," Kiri said after we'd gone a few more miles and there was no sign of other pursuit, "we've got to make some changes. The owner of that greasy spoon is going to fix his telecom sooner or later, and even if he doesn't he's somehow going to have to report what happened. After all, he's got a dead Brizal on his floor to explain." Telling Senaria to take the wheel, she had the other two of us clamber into the rear of the truck with her, where at the back I saw the familiar gateway to the Futaba's living quarters.
There she had Zyanita put on her own uniform and insignia, while she donned an informal outfit of tank top, cutoffs and a relatively plain (for her) pair of boots. She also removed the tie from her hair, which promptly resumed its normal chaotic appearance. Surveying Zyanita, something still didn't seem quite right, and then it came to her. "Zee, you'll have to take off those earrings," she said. "They're a dead giveaway. Against regulations." I wondered if they had served to tip off our recent opponents. Zyanita grudgingly removed them and stowed them away in a drawer.
"Will, I'm not sure what to do with you," Kiri commented in exasperation, surveying the mess I had made of my uniform. "I really wasn't planning on this." Rummaging around in the room (the same one I had stayed in during our trip from Earth, I realized) she unearthed a pair of my jeans and a T-shirt and suggested I change into them. Fortunately the T-shirt hid the bandage, which might have attracted undue attention. "If we're stopped we'll have to hope they buy the idea of a few stray workers being taken in for interrogation. I think we can leave Sen as she is."
Soon we were clambering back into the front of the vehicle with our new personas, Senaria remaining at the wheel as Kiri intently worked at the Futaba's control console updating our cover stories. Finally she expressed satisfaction with the results and took the wheel once again.
About a half hour had elapsed when we topped a small rise and looked out across a broad valley, through the center of which ran an evidently important divided highway. Even from several miles away the heavy traffic was visible, including a considerable number of trucks. "That's the route to Tar Deshta," said Kiri. "It's now or never," and we headed down the long shallow slope to the interchange, first crossing over a rail line and under a high tension power line paralleling the freeway.
A few minutes later we heard sounds above and looked up to see several aircraft, the first I had seen on Deshtiris, with orange flashing lights on each end. They vaguely resembled transport helicopters but without the rotors, making only a low humming sound as they moved rapidly in the direction we had come. "Brizal police," Kiri observed. "I guess our proprietor finally fixed his telecom. That was too close for comfort."
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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