"Of course, transportation was a shambles, what with the war having swallowed up so much of the planet's resources, but we found an unused Brizal vehicle in a lot, and when we told the guard on duty why we wanted it he told us with a wink to take our truck and get out of his sight. We scrounged our way to Deshti like that, with people giving us gasoline out of scarce stocks when we explained where we were going, and managed to show up on the second morning after our departure."
"For the next few weeks I worked harder than I ever had for the Brizali. I ended up with the group rebuilding the palace's communications systems, doing everything from drawing up schematics to crawling through ceilings stringing cables, and I think it was one of the happiest times of my life. Several times we were joined by the Emperor or Empress or both, who seemed endlessly fascinated with everything going on."
"They reminded me of little children watching their first tree house being built," Rokun added with a soft chuckle. I suddenly realized that I'd never heard him speak so long at a stretch, or seen him smile. I think he'd forgotten my presence by then, and I was careful not to say or do anything that might bring him back to the present.
"They didn't just stand around and supervise, either," he reflected. "I remember Empress Mikiria emerging from a crawl space, her hair practically black and gripping a cable in her teeth, blinking dust out of those beautiful green eyes and looking for all the world like she had just found buried treasure. But then this was not just their home to be, but a symbol of everything they--and we--had lost for so many years."
"A few days after I arrived someone pointed out a girl with a dark band painted over her eyes and said that it was a very old Qozernan custom, now rarely seen, done to honor a lost loved one. That was Senaria. A few weeks later she joined our group for a time, explaining that she was helping out wherever she could. I was amazed at her enthusiasm, especially considering that she was Qozernan, not Deshtiran, but someone told me that she had grown up with Mikiria as her adopted older sister during the Princess' long years of exile and practically worshipped her."
"She was a hard worker, somewhat soft-spoken but enthusiastic, and seemed to revel in anything involving strength. Oh, but she was dazzling--her smile, her personality, her optimism. But I could also see the pain in her eyes when she thought no one was looking, and it was apparent that her loss, whatever it had been, had hit her very hard."
"Did you ever talk to her?" I asked cautiously, trying not to break the spell he seemed under. He shook his head gravely.
"Oh, no," he demurred, "I could never have invaded her private grief like that." Maybe, I thought skeptically, but more likely he was just too shy to speak to her. "And then one day she moved off to another group. After that I would see her sometimes from a distance--there were times when she seemed to be everywhere at once--but our paths never managed to cross again. After a few months the restoration project was nearly done, and I had received a teaching offer at one of the universities that was rebuilding, so I bid Deshti farewell."
"It came as a terrible shock when I heard a few months later that she was missing and presumed dead in a flier accident somewhere in the South. It affected me very badly; I didn't meet my classes for a week after that and could not seem to get her out of my mind. I had just managed to get back into the routine of teaching again, something which I was proving much less suited to than I had expected, when the news came of the raid on Tenako's base and her rescue, complete with footage of her being led dazed and bloody onto the Empress' ship for the trip home. I finally got up my courage and decided to see if I could at least speak to her once. But when I tried to reach her at the palace I learned that she had returned to Qozernon."
His voice had been gradually trailing off, and was now nearly inaudible. There was a long silence, and I carefully focused my attention on an obscure scientific paper in front of me.
"I think I have said too much, haven't I?" he suddenly stammered, obviously embarrassed.
"It was very informative," I said blandly. "After all, you've been an eyewitness to some major historical events. I appreciate your sharing it."
"No, no," he persisted. Poor Rokun, I thought, he's one of those people who insist on celebrating their own embarrassment. "I mean what I said about Senaria. It could be misunderstood, and you're very close to some of her people. Oh dear," he added miserably, "I don't even quite remember just what I've said."
"It's only between us," I reassured him. "Don't worry about it. Now, is this the article you asked me to translate for you?"
So Rokun had been in love with Senaria, I mused on my way back to the palace. How people could go through life feeling things like that and never saying anything was a mystery to me. Of course I didn't mention anything about it to Rann or the others; it was Rokun's own business and no-one else's, and it didn't concern them.
I was woken up at an ungodly hour the following morning by Rann, gently shaking me. It was still nearly dark out, with just the beginnings of light in the east, and I would have dearly loved another few hours' sleep, but he was insistent. Reluctantly I dressed and allowed myself to be led up various stairs and passageways, eventually entering a narrow circular stairwell that went up and up until my legs were aching. This had better be good, Rann, I thought ominously.
We finally reached a landing of sorts with low walls and railings on all sides and a magnificent view. I realized then that we were in one of the many ancient towers that decorated the palace, and which were mostly unused these days.
The palace was located near enough to the west side of the city to be considerably higher in elevation than most of the buildings between us and the vast plains to the east, and with our additional height our view was almost unobstructed. Apparently this was to be the recently-promised sunrise. Rann looked at his watch.
"It should start in just a few minutes," he said cryptically, and I stared out at the lightening horizon, wondering what I should look at. It turned out I was looking in the wrong place, as Rann nudged me and pointed upwards.
At first I saw just a few gently glowing traceries hanging in the sky above, dark grey gossamer streamers against the darker sky, but then they began acquiring color, gradually turning every pastel shade imaginable and spreading across the sky, soft blues and greens overhead, shifting to yellows and oranges and reds as they reached the horizon, which was now much lighter. For the next half hour the show was breathtaking, like a dawn aurora borealis, continually shifting and brightening and intensifying until you felt the horizon aching to release the sun from its captivity.
Then just the faintest edge of the sun broke over the horizon and the sky exploded into brilliant light. First a blinding yellow streak spread from both sides of the emerging sun along the horizon far to either side, then it was as if a magnificent curtain of light swung upwards into the sky, lifting us with it, setting everything aflame.
I felt Rann's arm on my shoulder and realized I'd been afraid to breathe for--well, I don't really know how long. There were no words that seemed adequate at the time, and so we just stood there and watched until the sun had risen completely over the horizon and the sky had begun to return to normal, with only hints of fading green here and there as a reminder of what had just been.
"This is payback for that wonderful sunset you treated me to in Utah," he said with a soft smile.
"Thank you, Rann," I whispered, putting my arms around him and kissing him. We ended up staying there longer--um, actually quite a while longer--than he'd planned.
During the long descent back, Rann trying his best to appear nonchalant, he explained what it was we'd just seen. "For the past two years we've been using some of the old Brizal battleships to discharge special crystals into the upper atmosphere," he said. "I don't know all that much about chemistry, but supposedly they're transparent and extremely flat and thin, and reflect a lot of the sun's rays back into space. All of our astronomical research is done from satellites, so they don't cause a problem there. And--what's the matter with you?"
"I got a splinter in my butt," I complained.
He rolled his eyes. "Serves you right. Don't you have any self-control?"
"Don't I-- Excuuuse me!?"
"Anyway," he continued, ignoring me, "the crystals are a form of sugar compound, so they'll eventually break down into water and carbon dioxide."
"And so you're trying to balance the greenhouse effect by reducing the sunlight," I finished for him, still ruefully rubbing my backside.
"It's a pretty tricky operation," he admitted. "If we go just a little too far in the wrong direction we could trigger an ice age. But it's supposed to save several decades in restoring Deshti's original climate, letting the planet start to cool while we scrub all the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, including what the crystals themselves introduce."
"But because of them you'll have to wait until we get to Qozernon to see what a real night sky is like," he added, reminding me that our trip was the next day.
We had just reached the bottom of the stairwell when a question occurred to me. "Rann, what's a 'Liquidator'?" I asked innocently. To my astonishment he froze in his tracks and turned very pale. It was as if something from our nightmares had acquired tangible form, Rokun had said, and I suddenly felt cold.
"They were creatures Tenako created using the Virrin's genetic technology," he said finally. "They had a third eye in the center of their forehead that radiated light, and a set of sound-producing organs on either side of their heads. With those, they could destabilize organic matter." He stopped for a moment. "They could literally liquefy a person in a few seconds. The Brizali used them as enforcers and assassins." I just stared at him in shock; it was hard to believe that a society as civilized as this one could have unleashed such a hideous thing.
"Senaria had a lover killed that way," he added. "That was why she insisted on going along to Tar Deshta, even knowing how dangerous it was."
"How horrible," I breathed.
"They're gone now," Rann said, trying to ease the sudden shadow my question had cast. "They all died when the power stations were destroyed. Besides, the technology they relied on was what Alan used to create his anti-firearms device, so at least some good came out of it." Nonetheless I sorely regretted having brought up the subject, and it took a good part of the morning to shake off the chill it had cast as I prepared for our trip.
As it happened, Will and Kiri extended an invitation to my mother as well. They'd also be attending to some errands in Lernesdi, Qozernon's capital, so there'd be sightseeing for us too. All in all it sounded like tremendous fun, and as far as my mother was concerned the matter was settled when she learned that Gelhinda would also be going. Ever since my mother's planetary debut as an exotic instrumentalist she and Gelhinda had been thick as thieves, with the ambassador spending what appeared to be virtually all of her free time with her, listening to her practice the flute for hours at a stretch as well as helping with her language lessons and her astronomy.
I was delighted to see the friendship flourish, especially as our first month on Deshtiris had been so hard for her. Now she had a career, a friend, and a future, and I no longer felt nearly so heavy a responsibility. It was with a relatively light heart that I began packing.
Rann and I agreed that I'd stay at my mother's that night. We both wanted to get a good night's sleep this time, and besides I expected her to be pretty nervous. I found, though, that she was more excited about her astronomy studies, practically bubbling over with her latest discoveries.
"I learned the most fascinating things today, Hal," she enthused as we prepared for bed. "Did you know that Deshtiris and Qozernon aren't the only planets the Virrin modified?"
"Is that so?" I said, without a lot of real interest. I was glad to see my mother engrossed in a new hobby, but I have to say that neither astronomy nor ancient history particularly sets my own pulse a-poundin'.
"There are actually three other planets, in a whole separate star system," she continued. Mercifully my apathy didn't seem to register with her. "It's about halfway to Qozernon," she added.
"So what's so special about these three planets?" I asked, more out of politeness than anything else.
"Well, apparently the Virrin were only part way through traffing--terrafing--"
"Terraforming?" I suggested.
"That," she confirmed gratefully. "Anyway, all three of them have Earth-type atmospheres, even though the conditions there prove that they couldn't have developed that way on their own. One of them was almost complete when the Virrin left, they think, with lots of water and lakes and plant life, but no animals. The second one has the atmosphere and water but no life. And the third is just a dead ball of rock, with no water or life at all, just the Earth-like atmosphere. Isn't that fascinating? It's like looking through a time window or whatever you call it." I nodded in agreement. Her face clouded. "They use the first one as a prison planet, you know."
"A prison planet?" Now that sounded interesting.
"There's no technology there, no way to ever leave. They don't have a death penalty, so they put the worst hard-core criminals there and leave them on their own." I remembered from Rann's narrative that Kiri had told Jack Lucie he'd be sent to a prison planet. Was this it?
My mother's voice dropped. "They sterilize them first. How horrible," she said darkly.
"Oh, I don't know," I said, my cold-blooded streak emerging. "After all, it wouldn't be fair for children to be born into such a place, would it? And these must be pretty awful people to end up there, I'd guess."
"The worst," she confirmed. "Gelhinda told me that only those who have committed really terrible crimes and are unwilling to be mind-adjusted get sent there. I suppose it's more humane than a prison, though." Her voice trailed off.
"Maybe not," I suggested, my mind lighting up at the possibilities. "It's probably a dog-eat-dog existence, with the strongest coming out on top. Sort of a savage throwback to our primitive ancestors. Pretty appropriate, if you ask me. So what about the other two worlds?"
She thought a moment, evidently having some difficulty remembering the less unsavory parts. "I think they're doing some weather experiments on the second one, the one with the water but no life. Nobody pays a lot of attention to the third planet, since there's nothing much of interest there."
"Do these planets have names?" I asked idly.
"You would have to ask that." She glared at me. "Let me think. They were--ummm--Aastya, Lamuna, and--darn, what was that third one again?" Her eyes brightened. "I remember. It's Rouaas. I remember because it sounded so exotic. Yes, that was it. Rouaas."
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|