We slept in the next morning. Or, at least Rann did; I woke up somewhere around five-thirty and never did get back to sleep. I didn't knock on his door, as we wouldn't have to reach the landing point until late that afternoon, and it was only a three-hour drive. So it was somewhere around eight that he finally emerged, bleary-eyed as usual, from his room.
"Come on, lazybones," I said lightly, trying not to show the gloom I felt. "The day's half-gone already."
"It is?" he said in some alarm, glancing around for a clock, then saw to his relief that it was still early morning. "I didn't miss breakfast, did I?" he asked plaintively.
Indeed he hadn't, as it turned out that my mother had laid out a massive feast, with just about every species of fruit, vegetable, and greens known to humankind well-represented. "So this is what you were up to while we were away yesterday," I accused her, receiving a huge smile in return.
"No sense in your going away hungry, Rann," she explained. It made sense, too; eating a large meal just before a long drive is not a terribly bright thing to do, and this way we'd have some time to recuperate before heading out. We wasted no further time digging into the lavish spread in front of us.
I could see that my mother had something on her mind during the meal, and I had a suspicion of what it was. In fact, Rann and I had already discussed the issue during our drive back the previous evening.
"Would you like to come along today, Mom?" I finally asked her point blank.
"Hal," she ventured, "are you sure it would be all right? I mean, I won't get Rann into trouble with his Empress, will I?"
"Not any more than he already is," I observed wickedly.
"Of course it would be all right," Rann broke in before I could say anything further. "Besides, you don't want Hal to drive the whole way back by herself, do you?" I had to admit I was grateful. It wasn't the drive home I was worried about, either; I suspected the trip down was going to be pretty gloomy and my mother would be a welcome third party.
"Thanks, Mom," I said. "We'd love to have you along."
We spent the rest of the morning packing up the car. I made sure we had a cooler full of ice cold drinks, as well as several gallon jugs of water. You don't take chances out in the desert when you're far from well-traveled roads.
I also packed a sun canopy my mother had bought me when I first started camping out, but which I'd never used. It was basically a cloth roof on four metal posts: nothing fancy, but it would at least keep us out of the direct sun, provided the wind didn't blow. Both Rann and I were relatively accustomed to the desert heat, but I knew my mother was going to find it uncomfortable at best.
We had his few things packed up and loaded into the car in plenty of time, and whiled away the rest of the midday loafing around the pool. Finally, at about half-past two we headed out and were soon on our way south via Interstate 15. Rann insisted on sitting in the back so my mother could have a front seat, and I can't say I was really sorry. For most of the way down they exchanged pleasantries about the scenery (which, when you get right down to it, is rather dull compared to Utah). I realized later I'd hardly said a word the entire way.
Eventually we turned north off the freeway and began threading our way along various back roads which gradually degraded from paved to gravel to dirt, the terrain becoming ever more desolate. The car grew quiet as we approached our destination. Finally I saw the giant boulder ahead, still looking as out of place as ever, and pulled the car to a stop.
"Well, there it is," I said sadly. "Looks like your ship is still in one piece." I heard Rann open the back door and climb out, and turned to see my mother crying.
"Mother?" I asked in astonishment.
"I don't understand this," she blubbered. "Why would you go to all this trouble to play a cruel practical joke on me? You could have just told me the truth."
"The truth?" I echoed, stunned. "I did tell you the truth."
"Hal, it's a big rock," she mumbled through her tears. I walked around to her side of the car and gently pulled her out as Rann reached the Futaba. I heard his voice faintly as he voiced a command. "It's a very special rock," I said.
"Hal--?" she began, and stopped. There was an expression on her face I'll never forget. I turned to see the ship repouring itself into the well-remembered glass bullet. "It's real, Mom," I said softly.
Rann and I quickly set up the portable canopy, and for the next half-hour we waited in the modest shade it provided, sipping cold soft drinks. I hardly need to tell you that this part of the Mojave Desert, not at all far from Death Valley, is hot. Really hot. As I'd expected, my mother was soon showing signs of discomfort, and I wet down a hand towel with ice water and gave it to her to dampen herself with from time to time. Rann and I took turns watching for our visitors, but for the most part the three of us just sat there, lost in our own thoughts, as we waited for the mysterious Empress From the Skies.
"There they are," Rann said at last, pointing skyward, and I saw a tiny gleaming speck almost directly above. No soap bubble this time, it resembled more a shiny metal globe, eventually resolving itself into a much larger version of the Futaba, but made of opaque metal with a transparent strip along each side. As it settled down a few dozen feet from us, I saw faces peering out. Then a door opened near the front (unlike the Futaba's liquid motions this one simply slid to one side) and another strip of metal emerged from under the door to form a ramp. I suddenly realized just how unusual the Futaba must be, even on its own world.
Several reasonably ordinary-looking men and women stepped out, wincing at the heat, and gave us a friendly salute. They were dressed similarly to Rann on his arrival, wearing dark T-shirts bearing a small decorative emblem, jeans of various lengths, and the standard Deshtiran boots. They glanced around, and then all stepped to one side and looked expectantly at the doorway.
A moment later the most astonishing person I'd ever seen came striding down the ramp, scattering instructions in all directions like a human sparkler. I suppose I was subconsciously expecting an Amazon warrior from Planet E-Cup (you know, the kind with an unrealistically high center of gravity, like the ones the movies always seem to feature), but she actually had a pretty nice build, on the slender side, and she wasn't much taller than me. She was dressed like the others, except for a plain sleeveless shirt.
"Holan, keep an eye on the sensors for anyone approaching," she directed at someone inside the ship. "Hi, Rann. You silly booby, you sounded positively terrified in your messages. Relax, this really isn't your fault. You must be Haley," she added, turning to me. I stared with awe into her huge emerald green eyes. Her hair was an incredible deep crimson, and looked like it could take out any reckless brush that tried to attack it. I must have been tongue-tied for longer than I thought, because she broke into a grin and chuckled. "What's the matter, girl, never seen an alien from outer space before?"
"No," I gulped, "I mean, yes, of course, there's Rann, but--" I decided to start over again and took a deep breath. "It's just that I didn't expect you to be so beautiful," I finally managed. She laughed, a friendly, warm laugh. I decided that I liked this Empress. I could tell from the look in his eyes that Rann absolutely worshipped her.
By then she'd opened the Futaba's doorway and soon we could see her inside the craft, raising some kind of floor panel and poking around the innards along the bottom. A few minutes later she came stumbling out, sweat dripping down her face and into her eyes. "Damn, it's hot in there," she grumbled to Rann. "You weren't kidding about all the interior systems failing. It's a perfect simulation of Hell: a greenhouse in the middle of the Mojave Desert."
To my astonishment she stripped off her shirt without the slightest self-consciousness and, after tying a sweat band around her forehead and grabbing a box of what I supposed were tools, re-entered the ship. I suddenly remembered that I had a battery-powered electric fan in the trunk of my car, and went to fetch it. One of the people that had accompanied her stepped politely into my path when I headed for the Futaba's ramp, but when I turned on the fan and aimed it at his face he grinned and motioned for me to go on in.
She was down on her knees, trying to loosen some kind of green thing with yellow spines sticking out of it from its socket, and looked up in surprise as I approached. "Maybe this will help," I said as I pointed the fan at her.
"Oh, that feels wonderful," she sighed as she wiped another rivulet of sweat out of her eyes. "But turn it on yourself now and then too. I don't want to be responsible for you passing out in here."
"Are you really the Empress of a planet?" I ventured, not so much because I didn't believe there could be such a thing but because she seemed way too nice for the role.
"Afraid so," she said as the high tech sea urchin finally came loose and she set it aside. "I was sort of drafted," she added wryly.
"Rann told me how you and your husband overthrew those Nazis or whatever they were," I said, still awestruck.
"Did he now?" she answered, by this time poking around in the board underneath the socket with some kind of electronic fork. "He has a lot to answer for, that Rann," but she looked up and grinned as she said it.
"He's not going to get in trouble for this, is he?" I said in alarm. "It was my fault I was there where he landed."
"No, I'd say he's handled himself pretty well, actually," she replied approvingly. "You like him a lot, don't you?"
I found myself tongue-tied again, and she gave me another grin. "He's a fine young man," she said. "I suppose he managed to conveniently omit the fact that he saved our lives during that whole action/adventure tale he fed you."
"Really?" I managed. "Mmm-hmm," she said. She finished popping the green thing back into place and I suddenly heard a series of soft beeps from the front of the ship, as the various control consoles came to life. She lowered the floor panel back into place, accompanied by the soft click of several invisible latches, and stood up.
"Now it's going to take a few minutes for this thing to cool down. I suggest we get our butts out of here before we both pass out. And thanks for the fan."
For a few minutes we all stood in the shade of her shuttle, as she shot off another series of instructions to the young man she'd called Holan. It was, however, only about five minutes later when she decided that the Futaba's cooling system should have finished its work and suggested everyone relax in something she called its "living quarters." I looked at Rann quizzically, remembering his earlier comment about having left his clothes there.
There were, of course, no "living quarters" anywhere to be seen in the transparent Futaba--not even a bathroom. At least those were my thoughts as we filed through the now deliciously cool ship and Kiri turned the handle on the door at the rear. This time it opened, and a moment later I was staring into an incredibly long corridor with doorways branching off to either side for as far as the eye could see. I rubbed my eyes and glanced at my mother, who looked just as mystified as me.
"Make yourselves comfortable," Kiri said airily, gesturing towards one of the doorways off to the left as she continued down the hallway. I found myself in a large luxuriously furnished living room, complete with sofas, easy chairs, and an astonishing collection of antique furniture and fine paintings. "Where the heck are we?" I whispered to Rann, receiving a smug grin in return.
"Welcome to another universe," he said mischievously, and that was all I could get out of him.
A few minutes later Kiri returned, carrying a large tray loaded with cold drinks of all kinds. Once everyone had gotten their share and were gratefully sipping (or guzzling) the icy liquids, I cornered her and asked her the same question I'd asked Rann.
"Well," she said, "it's hard to explain. If you can imagine an artificial bubble in another coexisting universe, you're at least partly on the way." I shook my head. "I don't blame you," she agreed. "Like a lot of physics, the theory of the whole thing is expressed in mathematics, not descriptive language, so it all seems somewhat mysterious. Let's just say the doorway you walked through is actually a gateway into this alternate bubble. There's one on the Futaba and one in here, and they're mathematically interlinked through quantum simultaneity. That's why you don't see it from outside the ship, since it's not even in your time-space continuum. All clear?"
I nodded dubiously. "Sort of," I said. "But I have to admit it sounds like technobabble to me. So how is it that this 'bubble' in another universe obeys our laws of physics?"
"Because I told it to when I created it," she said, slightly surprised. "Any other questions?"
"Yes," I said hesitantly. "Where did you get those wonderful eyes?"
She hesitated. "They were a gift." I saw just a flicker of sadness in them for a moment. "An unintentional one."
"I'm really sorry," I stammered, too late remembering what Rann had said about genetic enhancements. "I didn't mean to pry into something painful." The sadness was gone now, replaced by the warmth I'd seen before. "They're really beautiful eyes," I added.
"Glad you like them," she grinned. "Especially since they're the only ones I've got." She excused herself, saying that she was needed up front.
"How is it that everyone here speaks English?" my mother asked in a stage whisper.
"For a long time English was practically a required language on the Twin Planets," one of the Deshtirans, a young woman who appeared to be about twenty, replied. "You were expected to learn at least two Earth languages in addition to Deshtiran. Unfortunately the Brizali put a stop to that on Deshtiris, at least, and as a result an entire generation has grown up knowing only Deshtiran. We're trying to rectify that, but it will take a while."
Just then Kiri reappeared, once again all business. "Holan tells me a military plane with sensing apparatus is heading in this direction, and it'll be in range to detect our shuttle in about eight minutes. I'm afraid we'll have to be going. Rann, you don't have to worry; they won't detect the amorphous diamond the Futaba's made of, so take your time. Just don't hang around if you see anyone approaching. I'd hate to see you and the Futaba show up on the evening news. Haley, Jennifer, it was a pleasure meeting you." We stood up politely but had barely opened our mouths to respond in kind before she'd disappeared.
Rann headed towards the front of the ship as we followed, and we'd barely stepped outside when the last person disappeared into the Empress' shuttle and the door began to close. Seconds later the craft was silently lifting off the ground. I saw several people at the windows give us friendly waves, and then they rose straight up and disappeared into the sky.
My mother was standing off to one side staring skyward, tears streaking her face. I suddenly realized how incredible this must seem, how much like a childhood dream come true. I left her to her moment, not wanting to break the spell for her.
"Well," Rann said with obvious reluctance, "I've got to go."
"I'm going to miss you so much, Rann," I blurted out. He seemed to be thinking hard, trying to make up his mind about something.
"You could come with me," he finally said.
"Rann, I'd give almost anything to do that," I said, feeling my own tears starting up, much to my annoyance. "But isn't there some kind of law against it?"
"Well," he said slowly, "we're not supposed to bring anyone back with us unless we're willing to take on the responsibility of taking care of them. You know, making sure they learn the language, customs, see that they have a way to live, all that." He paused meaningfully. "But I'd be willing to do that. For the rest of my life, in fact." I stared at him, feeling the blood rush to my face. For several seconds I felt as though a door to a much different universe had opened in front of me. I was utterly incapable of speech, and wondered if I'd heard him correctly.
It didn't matter, though. "Rann, I just can't," I managed at last. "My mother needs me too much. You know she's kind of scatterbrained, and except for me she's all alone. I just couldn't do that to her. Besides, I'm only sixteen," I added unconvincingly.
He gave me a goodbye kiss. "I mean it, Hal," he said. "If you ever change your mind..."
"I'll stay in touch," I said, the tears by now doing their own thing without any prompting.
"Goodbye, Jennifer," he said, turning to my mother. "Thanks so much for your hospitality. You've been wonderful to me." In response, she gave him an unexpected peck on the cheek.
"Goodbye, Rann," I whispered as he stepped into the Futaba. He gave me a wordless wave as the Futaba's portal closed and vanished, and then the ship was silently rising into the air. A moment later it had turned its nose skyward and was vanishing like its companion into the cloudless blue sky, once more just a soap bubble, and then it was gone.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|