Naturally I turned out to be the one who hardly slept that night. Apart from the trip itself, there was the added bonus of meeting the legendary Senaria, who in spite of her unexpected appearances in conversation remained for me a shadowy and mysterious figure. I have to admit I felt a certain amount of insecurity as well; after all, this was the person Rann had been so in love with, and I couldn't help but feel I'd be subjected to close inspection, however subtle. I'd introduced the Earth custom of shirt-swapping to Rann, and decided that this would be a good occasion to wear his Groucho T-shirt.
There was no sign of him when my mother and I stopped by his room. Assuming he was already at the Futaba, we headed on down to the courtyard, where we found Will, Kiri and Gelhinda waiting. As we boarded, I looked around in dismay.
"Where's Rann? Isn't he coming along?" I demanded. Kiri grinned mysteriously.
"He'll be there, but he's gone separately. He has a special errand to run. It involves 'Project X,' " she added, her eyes gleaming.
"Project X, huh?" I grumbled. "I keep hearing it mentioned, but no one will tell me what it is. And couldn't you have come up with a better name?"
"Somebody got up on the wrong side of bed this morning, didn't she?" my mother observed tartly.
"You'll find out tomorrow," Will assured me. I could see they were enjoying this, and sulkily decided to pretend indifference.
Since there were only four seats in the Futaba, Gelhinda volunteered to go back to the living quarters and put together the afternoon's meal. This puzzled my mother considerably, as she well remembered the ritual of strapping herself into the flight seats and the ensuing forces she'd been subjected to. "She'll be in a different universe, and won't feel the takeoff at all," I tried to explain, but I could tell she was still baffled and somewhat concerned for Gelhinda.
"Trust me, I'll be fine, Jennie," Gelhinda assured her, and waltzed back to the rear of the craft, disappearing through the steel door. A few moments later we were on our way.
Although I'd been up in the Futaba before, it was nevertheless a thrill to feel myself pressed back into the seat by the acceleration as we shot into the sky, and even more to see the planet suddenly drop away behind us without the slightest sense of movement when Kiri engaged the aninertial drive. And that shift to hyperspeed--well, it still gives me the shivers. No, I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.
The trip itself took the same amount of time as our flight from Earth. I'd long since learned that the three planets were roughly equidistant, a factor that had been crucial to Tenako's aborted plan to set up his inexhaustible energy field. It also meant we had almost twenty-four hours to kill on the way, which we easily filled between meals, chitchat, and Kiri's seemingly inexhaustible supply of movies (and a fully equipped theater to watch them in). That was when I had my first exposure to the Japanese animation she and Will were so fond of. Needless to say I was startled to see Rann's now infamous gesture--the pulled-down eyelid, crossed eyes, and stuck-out tongue--appear on at least three different occasions, at which point Will explained that it was a gesture familiar to any Japanese child.
"So you're the ones who infected Rann with it," I pronounced. "Served you right, then."
We all had a good night's sleep, although I missed Rann's warmth next to me, and after a light breakfast the next morning we dropped out of hyperspace to see a brilliant greenish-blue ball hanging in space ahead of us. Unlike Deshtiris, there was no trace of grey surrounding the planet except for the crisp cloud patterns scattered here and there across its surface. It looked startlingly like Earth, as a matter of fact, and I heard my mother catch her breath as it swam into view.
All five of us were forward in the Futaba watching the show, Will standing in the aisleway. I was sitting up front with Kiri, who explained that since we'd be coasting down there was no need to strap ourselves in, while Gelhinda gave my mother a running commentary on the planet's major landmarks.
We took quite a while to land, dropping in a long slow spiral to the planet's surface. Kiri remarked that it was as much to give us a chance to see the landscape as to keep air friction down, and it must have been a good three-quarters of an hour before we were finally skimming low over a rolling golden-brown landscape broken only by an occasional cluster of dwellings and a winding road now and then.
"Just so you know, it's about two in the afternoon here, everyone," Will announced.* By then we were only a few dozen feet above the ground, slowing to a stop as we pulled up to a large two-story house with a separate garage and a well-kept lawn, the latter shining a brilliant green in the sunlight. An odd-looking vehicle that looked like a milk carton lying on its side was parked over the lawn a few dozen feet away. Standing in front of the house watching us was a tall, athletically built young woman with a tousled mass of golden blond hair, dressed in short pants and an open windbreaker.
We let Gelhinda out first, who wasted no time dashing over to her daughter and giving her a fond hug as the rest of us disembarked. The air was cool and just a bit crisp, though the bright sun kept us from feeling chilled in our T-shirts as we joined the two. I noticed Kiri was carrying a small duffel.
"It's good to see you again," Senaria said quietly to the royal couple. The voice was unexpected: it was soft and carried a lot of warmth, something that seemed slightly at odds with the powerful but well-proportioned build of its owner. But not with the face, which had far more vitality than any static 3D photo could impart. Only a thin and almost invisible scar broke its symmetry, running from just below one eye to the corner of her mouth. I wondered where she'd gotten it, and what the occasion had been that she'd felt it worth preserving.
She turned to me, and I felt two penetrating blue eyes gazing at me in considerable interest. "You must be Haley," she said. "I'm glad I could meet you," and to my surprise she sounded like she meant it. "Looks like Rann is taking good care of you," she added with a slight smile.
"You bet," I confirmed, feeling suddenly tongue-tied. I was relieved when Gelhinda interrupted us to introduce my mother. We were just about to go inside when Rann finally arrived in a modest two-person flier, pulling up about thirty feet from the Futaba. I absently noticed the word "Noriko" stenciled on both sides of the little vehicle.
"Well, we're all here," he announced cheerfully as he trotted up to join us. "Hi, Sen."
"Hello, Rann," she said. "Glad you could make it."
He grinned. "I wouldn't miss this for anything." He seemed exceptionally buoyant about something, as were Will and Gelhinda. Kiri cleared her throat.
"Sen," she said, "We're also here on official business. We knew you wouldn't accept the idea of a public ceremony, and so Will and I have been delegated by both the Deshtiran and Qozernan governments to give you this." She pulled a small rectangular object wrapped in expensive-looking fabric from her duffel and handed it to the clearly dismayed young woman. "Go ahead, unwrap it," she said helpfully. A moment later Senaria was holding up a glistening object (I guess you'd call it a "plaque," more or less) and reading the inscription skeptically:
Presented with gratitude to Amkor Senaria, to whom
"Yeah," she said bitterly, setting the plaque face down on the porch railing. "I screwed up, broke someone's heart, nearly tore my leg off, and ended up getting several people killed."
"That's not fair," I burst out. She looked at me in surprise. From what I'd heard of her I expected a fierce glare in return, but the ice blue eyes fixed on me were more startled than angry and, I thought, even a little bit grateful. "You know that's not what it really added up to," I rattled on. "Getting stressed out and making some bad choices doesn't make you a criminal, and it was hardly your fault you got shot down. You're not being fair to yourself and you know it."
Rann grinned. "Looks like you have a new defender," he said to Senaria.
This was Kiri's big surprise? I thought, rather peeved by this time. A plaque? Reluctantly Senaria turned it back over and leaned it upright against one of the posts. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I don't mean to be ungrateful."
"Like it or not, Sen, you are a national§ hero after all," Kiri said wearily. "Besides, it's not just the plaque." She turned to Will.
"They--and we--thought you ought to have something more in keeping with what you did," he announced with a broad grin. "Therefore--we proudly present 'Project X!' "
With a theatrical flourish the two turned to Rann's little flier, Kiri addressing it in a ringing voice. "Noriko transform: starship!"
I'd already seen the Futaba do it a dozen times by now, but it still sent chills down my spine to see the diminutive surface craft Rann had arrived in suddenly enlarge and repour itself into an almost exact replica of the Futaba. I turned to Senaria to see her staring open-mouthed and distinctly drained of color. For a moment she gasped for words. Kiri put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Yes, it's yours, Sen," she said quietly. "Courtesy of two grateful planets. And that includes me, too."
Senaria tried to speak again, clearly about to protest, but Kiri didn't give her the opportunity. "This ship isn't a gift, Sen," she informed her, her voice suddenly stern. "You paid in full for this, with your own blood and pain. Unless the currency was counterfeit, this is a legitimate transaction and you have no business rejecting it." I watched, hardly breathing, as Senaria warily digested this for a long minute.
"No," she said at last, "it was real, all right." Slowly the tall young woman approached the ship, gently running her hands over the glass-smooth hull. "Noriko: portal," she said hesitantly, and was almost instantly rewarded by the familiar opening and ramp near the front. She turned back to us. "You even programmed in my voiceprints already?"
Kiri nodded. "It's ready to go. Of course, you can rename it if you want. I had to call it something for configuration purposes."
Senaria entered the ship, where we saw her poking around at the controls. Then she turned and walked to the back of the ship, opening the doorway in the back. Like the Futaba, there was no corresponding doorway on the outside of the ship. It was as though she simply stepped out of existence.
"Come on," Will said. "The surprises aren't over yet." We followed him through the Noriko and its rear doorway into its living quarters, where I received another surprise. Instead of the football-field-long hallway of the Futaba with doors branching off to each side, I felt as though I were stepping into the living room of a comfortable home, complete with stairs going both up and down to other stories. We found Senaria a few rooms back, admiring a fully furnished kitchen complete with well-stocked shelves.
She turned to us, now with a broad smile lighting up her features. "Lunch, anyone?" she suggested.
* A Qozernan day is almost twenty-five Earth hours long and the Deshtiran one closer to twenty-three and a half, and the hours are also of slightly different lengths. It's possible to keep track of the time on both planets using complex calculations, but far easier to just check one's watch--most watches have a dual-planet function built in. - Ed.
§ The actual Deshtiran word used here is difficult to translate. There is no native word for "national" as we think of it, since there are no nations per se on Deshtiris or Qozernon. Perhaps a better, if clumsier-sounding, translation would be "hero of the interplanetary community." - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|