The next day was more or less a weekend for me; I didn't have a lesson scheduled with Brinkman, and wasn't due in Rokun's office until late afternoon. I slept in for an extra hour, and had just lazily dragged myself out of bed and started heating some soup when I discovered a message from Rann waiting for me on the telecom. "I have a surprise for you this morning," his recorded visage announced enthusiastically, "so come by as soon as you're up."
Gulping down my soup as I dressed (no easy feat, that), I left my mother still sleeping off her celebration and wasted no time getting to his apartment, where I found him impatiently wondering what had taken me so long. From there he led me to a building near the very edge of the palace grounds, a ramshackle structure that looked more like an industrial warehouse than anything else.
"Hi, Grenn," he greeted the mechanic that met us at the door. "Is it ready to go?" Grenn nodded, giving us a friendly grin.
"Just be careful with this thing," he said. "There aren't a lot of them left, what with all the roads being recoded again," and led us to the back, stopping before a grimy, utilitarian-looking flier. It was considerably different than the public ones we'd used, being much heavier and boxier.
"Hop in," said Rann, motioning towards the far seat. He climbed in after me and fiddled for a few seconds with the controls, after which we slowly rose through an aperture in the roof. With a last wave to Grenn Rann steered us away from the building and across the city, carefully following one of the major avenues below.
"This is one of the last of the Brizal fliers," he explained. "Since it doesn't read the coded roadways I have to steer it manually, at least until we're out of the city and away from traffic. The other vehicles' collision-avoidance circuitry keeps them away from us, but you have to have a special dated permit to use one of these, since if there were two of them in the air at one time they could fly right into each other."
"So why are we taking something like this?" I asked, fascinated. "What will it do that the public vehicles won't?"
"This," he said with a grin as we passed the city limits and he steered us out over the barren plain that stretched away from the city as far as the eye could see. A curved transparent shield suddenly rose in front of us and extruded itself partway along either side, reminding me of one of the Futaba's transformations, and a moment later I felt myself forcefully pressed back into the seat as we accelerated and began climbing with breathtaking speed. I involuntarily let out a yelp.
"These vehicles can go a lot faster than the public ones can," Rann explained over the roar of the wind. "Only the emergency ones have this kind of acceleration now, and you can't sign one of those out on a lark. I had to get Kiri's okay for this."
It suddenly hit me that in spite of the aforementioned "roar of the wind" I didn't feel any wind. Gingerly I poked a finger outside the side of the craft, only to have it nearly blown off by the airstream. "Careful," Rann cautioned, "we're doing about a hundred eighty kilometers per hour now. The wind screen aerodynamically reshapes itself based on our current speed to create a still pocket of air inside. If it suddenly disappeared we'd probably both be blasted right out of our seats. So don't stick your head outside."
Now he tells me. "I thought the Brizali used internal combustion engines."
"They did for most civilian uses," he explained, "but this was a military vehicle for when they needed real speed." As he said it I felt myself abruptly forced backwards again as we accelerated even harder. I could see the wind screen subtly change shape as we did so, and was fascinated to note that if anything the wind noise decreased.
"Where are we going?" I demanded, reminding him that I did have to work that afternoon. "Just to poke around," he answered. "I thought you might like to see something besides Deshti for a change."
I looked out dubiously at the barren desert now far below. "I can't say there's much to look at down there," I observed.
I saw Rann's jaw muscles tense for a moment before he spoke. "That used to be a really beautiful plain," he said, "covered with wildflowers for most of the year. Now it's part of the Brizal legacy." He was quiet for a few minutes. "A lot of the changes have occurred in just the last ten years," he finally continued. "Recently enough that I can remember how some of it used to be. We had wonderful trees in my own home town. They were so green, and so cool, even in the summer, and I used to climb them all the time. When I was eight, we had to move away to one of those industrial centers, and it wasn't until after Kiri came back that I could go home again. When I did I found that the trees had all died and been torn out, and nothing was growing anywhere. What the heat didn't kill the acid rain did." His voice trailed off.
"But it's turning around now, isn't it?" I said hopefully.
"Sorry," he said, forcing a grin. "I didn't mean to get so depressing. We're out to have fun today. Yeah, it's turning around. You saw how nice that spot up in the mountains was that we visited a while back. That whole forest was on the verge of dying a few years ago from the acid rain, and it's recovering pretty quickly. Nature's not as fragile as it seems sometimes, but still we were lucky. Even with irrigation this plain won't come back until the average temperatures have dropped a few degrees, and that could be decades away."
"So you just wait?" I asked. "Is that all you can do?"
"What do you think of our sunrises and sunsets?" he asked cryptically.
"What kind of answer is that?" I retorted, mystified.
"Haven't you noticed anything different about them?" he persisted. Seeing my honest perplexity, he suddenly grinned. "You haven't seen a single one since you got here, have you? You can't really see the sunsets because of the mountains to the West, and you're never up in time to see the sunrise." Sheepishly I admitted it was true. I'd been so busy, with studying and everything, that I usually didn't get to sleep until late, and by the time I crawled out of bed the sun was well up over the plains to the east. "So what's so special about your sunrises and sunsets?" I asked, now full of curiosity.
"I'll show you this evening," he suggested. "We'll swing around to the west of the mountains behind Deshti so you'll get a good view."
"I have to work this afternoon, remember?" I reminded him petulantly. He mulled over that. "All right, I'll just have to drag you out of bed early some day this week. Then I'll tell you. But you have to see it first."
"Hey!" I protested, but he wouldn't say another word about it and eventually I gave up on the subject, although now being eaten alive with curiosity. Rann, you're getting to know me a little too well, I muttered silently.
After about a half hour we started to see signs of life below, first in the form of a light green scrub, and then more and more leafy vegetation until we were passing over actual farmlands. "It must be wetter here," I observed.
"We've been going almost due north, so things are getting cooler," he agreed. "You'll start to see some towns soon." Which we did, finally descending and stopping in one for lunch and a much-needed bathroom break. (I realized then just how spoiled the Futaba had left me.)
The locals regarded us with obvious suspicion as we landed, apparently recognizing the outline of one of the hated Brizal vehicles from a considerable distance, but their attitude changed remarkably when they spotted Rann's palace insignia on his T-shirt. After that they fell all over themselves making us at home and shyly asking what we did there, and how were the Emperor and Empress, and did we ever get to actually see them up close, until it was with real regret that we had to make our apologies and head out again. They wouldn't even let us pay for the lunch.
We'd been in the air again for another hour, and Rann had become unusually silent. "So," I finally said, "what's eating you? Still thinking about acid rain?" He shook his head.
"No," he said, "nothing like that."
"Well, what then?" I demanded. "You're not usually the moody type." He chewed his lip.
"Hal, you know how I feel about you, don't you?" he stammered. I regarded him suspiciously.
"Well, of course I do, silly," I said. "And you know I feel the same way. You should by now; after all, we've been sleeping together for the past three weeks," I added mischievously, knowing that would bring out at least a blush, which it did.
"Hal," he blurted out, "would you like to move in with me? I know my place isn't all that big, but neither of us has a lot of stuff, and--" He trailed off, seeing the unhappy look on my face.
"Rann," I said finally, "I can't, not right now. My mother's having a bad time, and I'm afraid she'd die of loneliness if I did. I'd love to, really. But give me time to get my mother settled first." He nodded, and we dropped the subject for the remainder of our excursion.
We ended up making a giant circle, swinging around the back of the massive mountain range to the west of Deshti and approaching the city from the south, arriving just a few minutes before my appointment with Rokun. Rann dropped me off on the front steps of the Institute and floated off to the hangar with a jaunty wave.
I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of yet another shouting match between Rokun and Wisela. I tactfully made myself invisible around a corner until she stalked off, flinging a final caustic taunt behind her, and after a decent interval presented myself to a freshly infuriated Rokun.
By this time I'd gotten a much better idea of just where the friction between the two originated. Rokun had rather grandiose visions, which he'd mentioned on several occasions, of major medical breakthroughs resulting from his work with the Virrin technology. What he couldn't seem to see, and what Wisela obviously did, were the implications. As a seasoned manipulator she could smell political dynamite from a long ways off and had no intention of being caught in the blast. Even Brinkman recognized that Rokun, for all his brilliance, was potentially a very loose cannon on deck.
In a way I might have almost felt sympathy for Wisela's position, if only she hadn't insisted on taking such evident pleasure in being spiteful. Of course, the fact that since our first encounter she'd declined to even take note of my existence, consistently treating me as though I weren't there, admittedly might have colored my opinion of her somewhat.
Later that evening, while Rann and I were relaxing on his balcony, I asked him about Brinkman. I'd been growing more and more intrigued by the contrast between the physicist's reputation (something which his friends had great fun with) and his actual personality. I told him what I'd seen the previous evening. "She practically invited herself to spend the night with him," I said, still surprised, "and he must have turned her down. She was really beautiful, too." Rann nodded.
"Alan's changed quite a bit in the past two years," he mused. "Apparently it had a lot to do with Senaria." I remembered the odd look I'd gotten from Brinkman when I'd first mentioned her name. "I think he was actually in love with her. Maybe he still is. In any case, ever since she first disappeared and then moved back to Qozernon he's pretty much avoided any close personal relationships. It's too bad; he's probably got another seventy or eighty years ahead of him, and underneath all the showing off he seems really lonely." Bingo, I thought.
"Tell me more about this Senaria," I asked. It seemed that everywhere I turned she popped up, one way or another.
"Ummm," Rann said thoughtfully. For a few moments he looked as though he were going to start a very long story, then thought better of it. "Let me go get something," he said instead, and disappeared inside for a few minutes. When he returned he had a bound volume in hand, which he handed to me.
"This is an unofficial version* of what happened several years ago, after the Brizali were kicked out. Part of it was written by Wilorian, but he asked Senaria to write the last part herself because she knew the most about what really happened. You've heard the basic story already, but not in this much detail, and not from her viewpoint. If you want me to I'll translate it as best as I can," he offered.
"Thanks," I said, handing the book back to him. My Deshtiran was coming along well but not that well, I thought, eyeing the thick volume warily. "If you can spare the time, then fire away. This isn't classified or anything, is it?" He grinned.
"Some of it is, but you just won't hear those parts. There are advantages to being the translator, you know. Besides, you do need to know what's going on with the people you're living with, right?" I agreed, and we went back inside, where I sat on the floor while he reclined on the couch and started translating.
When he finished, almost three hours later, I just kind of sat there shell-shocked. "And she's still on Qozernon?" I asked, dazed.
"Yeah," he said.
"Do you ever hear from her?" I pressed.
"Oh, sure, she stays in touch. But it's all pretty much surface talk; you know, how her job is going, that sort of thing. We're going to be visiting her next week," he added, brightening perceptibly. "Will and Kiri have a little surprise for her. Would you like to meet her?"
"I would," I said.
* A rather sensationalized version of this document, including several classified references to the ultra-secret Watchdog Organization, briefly appeared on Earth at one time under the title The Three Minds. Fortunately for all concerned it was not taken seriously and appears to have sunk without a trace. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|