She turned out to be quite a good cook, even if it was sandwiches and salad, and we managed to stuff ourselves pretty well in spite of having eaten only an hour or so earlier (which fact we tactfully kept to ourselves). After lunch there was no question but that Senaria should take the Noriko for a test drive, but first Will and Rann disappeared into the Futaba and emerged carrying an object somewhere between a door frame and an archway, vaguely resembling one of those security detectors stores make you walk through to see if you're stealing anything.
"Your spare gateway," Kiri explained as they lugged it into the house. "Where do you want it, Sen?"
Senaria, who was still somewhat in shock even after our lunch, tried half-heartedly to think and gave it up. "Just leave it in the living room for now, I guess," she finally decided.
Once the two returned Senaria took us up for a ride, which she did quite skillfully, flying us out to Qozernon's only moon (a diminutive chunk of rock nothing at all like Earth's magnificent satellite, and barely visible from the planet). She was clearly an experienced pilot, bringing us right into some of the nooks and crannies of the rugged little planetoid, which was hardly round enough to even call a sphere.
When we returned she invited us into her house, where we were greeted by a cat unlike any I'd seen before. Larger than an adult house cat, he was mostly yellow, leaning towards orange. There was a white splotch on his head as well as the beginnings of black stripes, which changed to spots towards the back. He didn't seem alarmed to see us, jumping up onto a table and eyeing us intently.
"Hi, Tora," Rann said affectionately and stretched out a hand, which promptly got licked.
"That means 'tiger,' doesn't it?" I asked. (That and manekineko were the sum total of my acquaintance with the Japanese language.)
"Close enough," Senaria agreed. Tora wasted no time jumping into my lap once we'd seated ourselves in the living room, and spent the next hour purring vigorously as Rann and I took turns petting him into a stupor.
I may not be the most perceptive of persons, but it didn't take me long to realize that there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to stick to safe, conventional topics. In spite of the obvious affection which Senaria and the members of our party held for each other the conversation never got much below the surface. I remembered the story Rann had translated for me, and found myself shivering in spite of the warmth of the house. Just how deep had the wounds gone, I wondered.
I saw the "spare gateway," as Kiri had called it, still sitting in the living room. "Why do you need a spare gateway?" I asked.
"It's one reason I'm still alive today," Kiri said quite seriously. "It connects to a second gateway in the back of the living quarters, so that if something happened to the ship and the occupant had to take refuge in the living quarters they wouldn't be stranded there for eternity. Almost happened to me once," she added offhandedly.
"Couldn't you have one of these on Deshtiris and the other here?" I asked. "Wouldn't that make it unnecessary to spend a day getting here?" Will shook his head.
"It certainly would. It'd also make it possible for an invasion force in either direction to just walk through from one planet to the other, removing the time buffer that saved our butts a few years ago. If this had been available to the Brizali this planet would be a Brizal protectorate today."
"Maybe someday," Kiri added. "But I'm still paranoid about where I put these things for the time being."
Eventually I wound up deep in conversation with Senaria, who wanted to know how Rann and I had met, as well as all the details I could remember of his stay on Earth. I knew that she herself had been to Earth several times, though not since she'd returned to Qozernon, so I told her about our visit to Kiri's house above Fontana. "But I was too late to see the crater," I added.
"The crater," she repeated absently. There was a long pause. I looked at her in surprise, and realized that her eyes seemed to be somewhere far away. "Senaria?" I prompted her hesitantly. She abruptly became aware that I was staring at her, and looked flustered. "Cute shirt," she said.
It was my turn to be confused, until I realized she was referring to the Groucho quote I was wearing. "Actually, it's Rann's," I explained. "I borrowed it for the trip." I was more than a little astonished to discover that she not only knew who the Marx Brothers were, but had seen most of the movies.
"I watch more Earth television than I should," she admitted ruefully. She'd also, I discovered, seen the news broadcast of our sensational departure. "Funniest thing I'd seen in months," she said with a grin. "I'll bet Valkar was spitting nails."
I'd met Valkar a few days after our arrival. He was the palace major-domo, and, yes, I told Senaria, Rann had carefully avoided him for the next three weeks.
"We do need to be going, Sen," Kiri said finally. "We've got some things to do in Lernesdi, and we'll be staying there tonight. But we'll be back tomorrow morning, unless you object."
"Of course not," Senaria said. "You know you're always welcome here."
"Oh, by the way," Kiri said very casually, "Alan would've liked to have accompanied us, but he's already on Qozernon doing some lectures. He said he might stop by if he got the chance." She seemed to be watching Senaria warily as she said it. I saw just a flicker of an indeterminate emotion pass across our host's face.
"That's fine," she answered evenly. "If he shows up I won't chase him away. I assume he'll call first?" She turned to me. "I'm sorry you can't stay a little longer. It was just getting interesting."
I looked at Kiri hopefully, but she and Will were already standing up. I turned back to Senaria. "I wish I could," I said apologetically.
"Why don't you stay here tonight?" she suggested unexpectedly. "The others could pick you up when they return tomorrow morning." She turned to Rann with a slight grin. "That's of course if Rann can part with you for a night." She was immediately rewarded with the usual shade of pink.
"Hal, don't you want to see Lernesdi?" my mother protested. "It's the capital, you know."
"I can see it another time," I said. "It's not going anywhere. I'd rather stay, if it's all right with everyone." Rann looked at me suspiciously, probably suspecting (correctly, as it happened) that Senaria and I would end up swapping stories about him, but made no objection, and my mother was spending more time with Gelhinda than with me in any event these days, so it was agreed. A short while later Senaria and I gave them all a parting wave from the front porch as they floated off down the road, packed into a large flier of Gelhinda's that they'd commandeered from the adjacent garage.
"Well, now you're alone with the ogre," Senaria said. "So am I as bad as everyone says?"
"Certainly not," I said, and then blushed. "I mean," I stammered, "they don't say you're an ogre, or anything like that. They just wish you were happy. I meant what I said earlier," I added. "About being fair to yourself."
"Thanks," she said, unexpectedly putting on a perfect Texas drawl. "Ah do need a good whack upside the haid once in a while, ya know."
"Where did you learn to do that?" I asked in surprise (or maybe horror), referring to the accent, of course.
"Watching Dallas," she said with a grin. "Aren't you sorry you asked?"
She seemed to unbend with me a lot more than she had with the group as a whole, asking a lot of questions about Rann, and how the two of us were doing together. I wondered if I were going to inadvertently hurt her feelings somehow, but then decided that I wasn't going to go for subtlety, which I'm not exactly good at in any case, and so I just told her the facts as best as I could. She seemed pleased, both with the fact that Rann was obviously happy with the current state of affairs, and also with my directness. I got the distinct feeling that people had been handling her with kid gloves for quite a while and that she was getting tired of it.
"Are you seeing anybody now?" I finally asked.
"No," she said. I decided not to press the issue.
It was about an hour after the others left that Brinkman called to tell Senaria he'd be coming by in a half hour, if it was okay with her. He arrived right on schedule, and it didn't take long for me to sense the tension in the air. I thought he looked a bit dismayed to see me there, nor had I misread him as it turned out. Senaria finally asked if I'd mind if they left me alone for a little while. Of course I agreed, and they stepped out into the back yard, well out of earshot.
I wasn't prepared for what happened next. It was just about fifteen minutes later that Senaria unexpectedly came storming into the house, her face red, and practically ran up the stairs to her room, slamming the door behind her. Shortly thereafter a thoroughly ashen Brinkman followed, appearing for all the world as though he'd been ordered to commit suicide. He looked at me helplessly, the question obvious on his face.
"She went to her room," I stammered, and he sat down, or rather practically collapsed, onto one of the couches, staring dejectedly at the floor. I finally tiptoed up the stairs to her room and listened for a moment. I couldn't hear anything, except for what might have been an occasional muffled sob, and so I made a silent retreat back to the living room. Brinkman glanced up at me hopefully as I returned. I shook my head.
"I think you probably should go," I suggested, not really knowing what to do. I don't think I'd ever seen a man look so utterly defeated, but I had no idea what else to tell him. He nodded slowly and soon left.
I made myself comfortable and looked through some of the reading material in the room, which from what I could tell dealt primarily with emergency medicine. The light was fading outside when she reappeared, a silent ghost in the living room doorway, holding Tora in her arms. I hadn't even heard her come down the stairs.
"I'm terribly sorry," she said quietly. "I guess I'm not much of a host, to leave you like this for so long." Her eyes were rimmed with red, but she appeared calm, and was clearly embarrassed.
"Don't worry about it," I reassured her. "It gave me a chance to look at some of your training materials. This is what you do for a living, isn't it?" I'd actually forgotten about her occupation until I saw the books, though Rann had mentioned it several times.
"It's a pretty interesting job," she said as she sat down opposite me. For the next few hours she shared stories of her emergency duties, explaining that she was called a PET, or Planetary Emergency Technician, which I gathered was similar to paramedics back in the States. She was clearly very much taken with her work, and although her tales varied from the hilarious to the horrific I soon realized that the one thread running through them all was her concern for the people she was helping.
"You must see some awful things," I ventured at one point, after a particularly gruesome tale.
"I can handle blood and guts," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm not sure why, but it's never bothered me. It's the sadness that wears you down--the child gone forever, the lover gone forever, the parent gone forever. I know how it feels, all too well. But maybe that's why I can help them survive that awful first realization of loss." By now her eyes were somewhere far away, and seemed to have faded somehow. She shook her head, as if to throw off the unexpected mood.
"Let's get you set up for the night," she said in a businesslike tone. "It's getting late."
She gave me the spare bedroom on the first floor, and after making sure I knew where to find the essentials (such as the bathroom), she bid me good night and disappeared up the stairs, Tora close on her heels.
For a long time I lay awake, my mind spinning in random ellipses. Of Senaria I found myself an instant admirer. I could easily see how Rann would have fallen in love with her, for there was a warmth to her, not at all far below the surface, and a vulnerability as well. I remembered that Rann had told me her father had died suddenly when she was just ten, and thought about how shattering that must have been. My own parents' divorce had occurred several years later in my own life, following several years of deteriorating relations, and it had left me confused and resentful for a long time.
I found myself absently wondering how my father was doing back on Earth. Was he worried about us? Did he miss us? Was he angry? Hurt? He'd seen the two of us literally "abducted by aliens," and for all he knew we could have been captured for food. And on that ludicrous note I finally drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened by a horrifying shriek. For a few seconds I remained sitting bolt upright in bed, the sound still echoing in my ears. Then I grabbed the first heavy object I could find (a large book) and ran frantically up the stairs, passing Tora fleeing in the other direction, his tail inflated to several times normal size. I pounded on the door, then threw it open, half-expecting to see an intruder crouching over the bed or climbing out the window.
Senaria was sitting up, her eyes wide and staring, her mouth still half-open. "Senaria!" I cried, and at first got no response. "Senaria?" I said again, and slowly she became aware of her surroundings. Her hair was sodden and her face deathly pale.
"I-- I--" she stammered, then seemed to regain some control over herself. "It was just a bad dream," she managed, but I could see that she was shivering uncontrollably. I didn't know what else to do, and she looked terrible, so I sat down on the side of the bed and put my arms around her and held her until she calmed down somewhat. She felt ice cold to the touch.
"I'll be fine," she said finally, but made no effort to push me away. "It was just a nightmare. I used to have them a lot, but it's been a while."
"Can I get you something?" I suggested. "Maybe a glass of juice?" She nodded shakily, and I disengaged myself and went down to the kitchen and poured a glass of apple cider. Tora warily accompanied me back up the stairs, having evidently decided that the coast was clear again. Senaria gratefully gulped down the juice, I suspect as much because the tart taste was reassuringly real as out of actual thirst.
I could see that she didn't want to try going to back to sleep yet, so I stayed with her for a little while, making small talk. To my surprise, she brought up Brinkman on her own; after the afternoon's events I wouldn't have dared raise the subject.
"What's he like these days?" she asked. "You know, today is only the fourth time I've seen him since I came home. Is he still chasing after anything with two legs and tits?"
"Oh, no," I remonstrated. "He's nothing like that. At least not since I've been there. In fact, he seems to avoid relationships entirely." I told her what I'd seen at his soirée. "He pretty much keeps to himself," I added, "except for his work and family. The rest of his acquaintances seem to be purely social."
"Family?" she said in surprise.
"You know, Kiri, Will, your mother," I said. "They're our family too, now," I said proudly.
"Kiri'll make someone a great mother someday," she observed unexpectedly. "I just don't think she realizes it yet."
We talked about Brinkman a while longer, and I even extracted a half-hearted smile from her with my description of Kiri's playful attempt to have him beheaded. She finally sent me back to bed, assuring me that she'd be okay now. I left her with Tora curled up by her side, her blue eyes still half open in the dim light as I closed the door behind me. I settled myself back into bed, for a while nervously alert for further screams, but all remained quiet this time and when I opened my eyes again it was morning.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|