"Well, you still nearly gave me a heart attack," I grumbled as we started up Cajon Pass.
"At your age?" he bantered. I glared at him.
"So where did you learn that slick maneuver, anyway?" I asked, letting it pass. "High-tech gizmo or no, you still laid him out pretty neatly. Not that he didn't deserve it."
"In the military," he explained. "Self-defense, what you'd call martial arts, all standard stuff."
I shook my head. "I really can't quite see you as twenty-one. You still look sixteen to me. My eyes keep telling me you ought to be in high school, like me." I stopped, leaving a pause big enough to drop a truck into. Rann looked at me quizzically.
"Rann," I said, "up until now I've believed most of the things you've told me, but I have to confess I've thought that maybe you were putting me on about some of them. I'm sorry about that. I just want you to know that from now on I'm taking whatever you tell me at face value."
"I wouldn't lie to you," he said. "Everything I've told you is the absolute truth."
"So," I said, "absolute trust between us. Right?" He nodded solemnly.
"All right, then," I continued mischievously. "Just what was this mysterious errand you were running that nearly got us mugged?"
At that he looked extremely uncomfortable. "I said I'd never lie to you," he stuttered. "But that doesn't mean there aren't things I can't tell you. I wish I could. I'm really sorry, Hal. It's just that I'm sworn to secrecy, and--"
Rather than allow his apologies to continue for the rest of the drive back to Las Vegas, I used the opportunity as an excuse to take his hand again and gave it a squeeze. "It's all right, Rann," I said with a satisfied grin. "I just wanted to see how far I could go. You don't have to tell me anything you're uncomfortable about. But don't think I'm going to give up trying to worm it out of you," I added wickedly. I didn't let go of his hand, either.
By now we'd descended the eastern slope of Cajon Pass and were about to cross the railroad tracks and the Mojave River (usually a misnomer, by the way; normally there's little or no water in it). Seeing the tracks reminded me of something he'd mentioned on our way into Los Angeles.
"Senaria," I said. There was something in the way he'd referred to her that told me she was more than just an acquaintance. "Tell me about her." I don't know why, but in all this time it hadn't occurred to me that he might have a mate back home.
"Senaria," he said, choosing his words carefully, "was part of the family Kiri lived with. A really good person. She and I were the official Imperial Bodyguard for several months. But after the Lucie thing she decided to go back home to Qozernon. She lives there by herself now." Somehow he sounded as though his mind had drifted far away.
I swallowed. "Are you still in love with her?" I said, trying to sound as casual as I could. If my intention was to startle him, it certainly worked.
"Ehhh!?" he choked. I think it was the first time I'd ever heard someone inhale their own tongue.
"It's a simple question," I said. "No big deal, but I'd like to know. Call me nosy if you want." I unexpectedly felt my heart pounding again.
"I was," he said uncomfortably. "I suppose I still am, but more like good friends love each other. She was hung up on someone else, but he got killed. I don't think she's gotten over it."
"Sorry," I said, forcing myself to pay attention to my driving. "I didn't mean to dig up something painful."
"It's okay," he answered. "That was then," and I wondered just what that meant.
"So what really happened?" I asked. "I mean, with Jack Lucie?" Rann looked hesitant. "He nearly destroyed my country," I insisted. "I'd really like to know. If you're willing, of course."
"It's a long story," he said reluctantly.
"We've still got two hours to home," I said as calmly as I could. It had finally sunk in that I might be the only person on Earth to learn the truth about one of the most shattering events in twentieth-century American history.
Well, after some fumbling around choosing the best place to begin, he told me the basics. About how Lucie had been trapped on Earth when the Brizali took over, and decided to make use of his knowledge and connections to acquire what he craved most: power. About how the scientific genius behind the Brizali, Romikor Tenako, had thought to make use of him for his own purposes and had ended up being used instead.
"Was he any relation to the Empress Mikiria?" I broke in. I think you said her family name was Romikor, didn't you?"
"Her father." After the freeing of Deshtiris a small group of Brizal scientists, including Tenako, had escaped capture and holed up in a secret base well hidden in the Deshtiran southern continent. There they'd awaited Lucie's takeover of Earth, from where they could eventually recapture Deshtiris. Tenako had provided Lucie with advanced technology, such as the green lasers, that would render his relatively small forces invincible.
"Wait a minute," I said. "I thought you told me the night we first met that this Tenako was killed when your Empress Mikiria blew up his power station or whatever."
"He was," Rann said. "But one of the Virrin devices he'd reconstructed earlier let him download his mind to a file and reload it later into another body. The Tenako I'm talking about was a reloaded copy of the original."
"Dammit, Rann, my head is starting to ache," I complained. "This all sounds like science fiction, you know."
He grinned. "I warned you it was a long story." I sighed wearily.
"Go on. But first, what's a 'Virrin'? You used that word at dinner the other day, too."
The Virrin, he explained, were the alien race that had kidnapped humans from Earth and settled them on Qozernon and Deshtiris, which had been lifeless balls of rock until the Virrin terraformed them. They'd disappeared thousands of years ago, and it was assumed they'd taken all their technology with them. Tenako had found and identified a data crystal they'd accidentally left behind, and this had provided him with the information he needed to pursue a mad dream of setting an interstellar force field that would have produced inexhaustible energy for mankind. Or so he thought; it turned out the dangers were far worse than the benefits.
"So where does Senaria fit into all this," I demanded impatiently.
"It was more like she fell into it," he said. "Literally." Apparently she'd had some kind of disagreement with Alan Brinkman and left without warning on an unannounced vacation. She'd flown south to explore some of the vast forests in the less well-explored parts of the planet, and had been shot down by several of Lucie's paramilitary goons stationed at Tenako's secret base. There she'd been held captive, but at the same time had somehow managed to awaken the previously buried personality of the cloned body into which Tenako's mind had been loaded, ultimately persuading him to sabotage Lucie's revolt on Earth at the last possible moment.
"Hold it," I said, a chill running up my spine. "Let me guess. He dropped two asteroids on Virginia and Arizona."
"Pretty close," he agreed. "Actually, Kiri dropped the one on Virginia. He just provided the coordinates. The other plant blew up by itself."
"Omigod," I said as it sank in. "Omigod." After the fact estimates had attributed approximately the energy of the original Hiroshima bomb to the impact. A civilization with the power to send objects like that into a collision course with an enemy planet didn't even need advanced weaponry, I realized. And that would have been a tiny boulder in comparison to a typical asteroid.
"Good aim," I finally said, still shaken. "So then what happened?"
The revolt had immediately collapsed, Rann explained, as the advanced weapons of the rebels had relied on energy from the two power stations destroyed. Lucie had managed to evacuate the remainder of his forces on four Deshtiran battleships and headed straight for the secret base on Deshtiris. There he'd killed Tenako and taken control, as well as hostages.
One of the hostages had been Rann's own mother; she'd been kidnapped by the Brizali and forced to work as a camp doctor. But by far the most valuable hostage proved to be Senaria, already identified as a close friend of the Emperor and Empress. Lucie hadn't counted on the depth of Tenako's turnaround, however; before his murder by Lucie he'd managed to send the location of the base to the Emperor and Empress and they'd pulled off a nick-of-time rescue, just as Lucie was preparing to begin killing the hostages.
"And Lucie?" I asked, not quite so impatient now.
"Senaria lured him into the room where the mind-transfer machine was located and downloaded about thirty separate files into his mind. Turned it into pure static. No higher neural organization left at all. After a few months his body finally died." There was an awkward pause, and a distinct chill in the air in spite of the Mojave Desert rolling by on the other side of the car windows.
"Served him right," I finally said, a little more aggressively than I felt. I shivered involuntarily.
"Let's talk about something less grim," Rann suggested brightly. Seeing an opening, I proceeded to make the most of it.
"All right then, tell me all about sex on your planet," I asked offhandedly, and was rewarded by seeing him turn beet-red. "Oh, please," I protested. "If you're really twenty-one, you can't tell me you don't know anything about sex yet. Or is it some kind of taboo on Deshtiris?"
"Well, no," he stammered. "I just wasn't expecting a question like that from you. After all, you're--"
"An innocent little girl who isn't supposed to talk about such things?" I snorted. "I'm a scientist, remember? I can approach topics like that analytically, without emotional distractions." Yeah, right, I thought, feeling my fingers tingle again at the memory. "So tell me about your customs."
"Well," he said, thoroughly embarrassed, "of course we have sex. But we don't build in a lot of weird distractions like you do, like decorating ourselves or performing strange mating rituals."
"Decorating?" I asked curiously. "You mean, like cosmetics and stuff?" To my surprise he blushed again. It took a bit of prying, but I finally got him to explain that on Deshtiris cosmetics are categorized along with sex toys as something not generally discussed in public. I suddenly remembered his reaction to Kimberly and Brittany, and nearly broke out laughing. "So do you have marriages?" I managed, not without difficulty.
He was obviously relieved at the change of topic. "Sure we do. We don't make a big public production out of it, though. You just go to an official and sign a standard marriage declaration, which is recorded in the computer archives and accessible to anyone. But it's actually pretty special. People don't normally do that unless they're really certain that they intend to stay together for a long time."
"Tell me, Rann," I said, "is everyone on your planet that embarrassed by sex? To hear you talk you'd think it was a shameful secret."
He pondered that for a few minutes. "Well, yes and no," he said finally. "If I were from Qozernon I'd probably have no problem talking about any of this with you, including, er, positions, and--" He stopped again for a moment, his tongue tangling up in the words. "But on Deshtiris we've lived under the Brizali for the past thirty years, and the official government line was always 'love and marriage,' 'love and marriage,' and anything else was immoral and illegal."
"Not that love and marriage are bad, of course," I interjected.
"No, of course not. But I guess it wasn't always that way, and things were a lot freer before. The Brizali went on the principle that people are easier to keep under control if you also keep their hormones under control as well; that sex is subversive and tends to disrupt the order of a tightly organized society. At least that's Kiri's theory on why they did it."
"So is that how it still is?" I asked. "After all, it's been several years now since the Brizali took a hike."
"Things are loosening up a lot," he said. "But people don't change overnight. We have access to Qozernan television now, for example, which is a lot less, er, restrained than our own. Some people are offended by it, and there are even groups that want to censor it or cut off access. But the Emperor and Empress have insisted that we reestablish free communications between the two worlds like we had before, and those with a problem will just have to get over it."
When we pulled into the driveway I saw my mother waiting in the doorway. I wondered if she'd been watching for us all evening. It gave me a warm feeling, somehow. "Let's not mention the thing at the parking garage, okay?" I said in an undertone to Rann. "No sense worrying her." He nodded agreement.
"So, how was the trip?" she asked, as we lugged our loot up the front walkway.
"It was great," I enthused, showing her my new boots, and giving her the jade comb. Once we'd put our stuff away, I poured us all some glasses of juice and we sat down in the living room to relax as I filled her in on Little Tokyo and all the neat stores we'd seen there.
Remembering the locket, I pulled it off over my head and handed it back to her. "Worked fine," I assured her.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|