The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, with no more unscheduled stops and no more surprise messages from Rann's boss. The three of us spent our time relaxing in the living quarters or sitting in the Futaba itself, watching the stars in their slow dance. After a few hours Rann saw that we were starting to nod off in mid-sentence, and led us to a comfortably furnished bedroom where my mother and I were able to get the first sleep we'd had in well over twenty-four hours.
As we were dropping off to sleep, I heard my mother's voice in the near-dark. "Hal?"
"We've always been honest with each other, haven't we?" I'd heard that before; it usually prefaced a confession of some sort.
"Of course we have," I said, and waited.
"Are you frightened?"
"A little bit," I admitted. "Things all happened so fast. Are you?"
"Terrified, I guess. The last time I felt this nervous was the night before I married your father. We're making such a huge leap."
"This'll turn out better," I reassured her. "I don't really know any more than you do what's ahead, but I trust Rann."
"Thanks for not leaving me behind."
"I won't ever desert you," I said. "Not as long as you need me."
"Hal, honey, please don't say that." She hesitated for a moment. "Sooner or later you may have to choose between Rann and me. If you do, I want you to choose Rann. You have your own life to live."
"We'll worry about that if it happens," I said uncomfortably. "Now, let's get to sleep."
"I mean it," she insisted.
"Goodnight, Hal." But it was a while before I did fall asleep, haunted by some private qualms of my own.
When we finally got up (almost ten hours later, by my watch), we found Rann fast asleep on the living room couch, where he'd apparently dropped off after we'd gone to bed. I debated shaking him awake, but thought better of it. I wondered when he'd last slept.
My mother and I were sitting in the Futaba, enjoying the view, when he came stumbling in. "Hi, everyone," he greeted us groggily. "We should be arriving in about two hours, so if anyone's up for breakfast this would be a good time for it." By now we were too excited again to eat more than a light meal, though, and were soon back in the Futaba to watch the show.
Right on schedule we dropped out of light speed to see a planet looming dead ahead. It was similar to Earth, but noticeably greyer. As we circled it, spiraling downward all the while, I realized that the grey was a polluted haze, not clouds.
"It used to be worse," Rann said. "A lot has settled out during the past two years, since we stopped burning hydrocarbons. But it'll still take a while to clear, and in the meantime we're barely keeping a runaway greenhouse effect from taking hold. Parts of the equatorial region are uninhabitable because of the heat. At least the acid rain's pretty much stopped."
By now mountains, plains and oceans were silently unrolling beneath us. Eventually we'd descended to within a mile or so above the ground, slowed to the speed of an ordinary jetliner, and were passing over an immense barren plain crisscrossed by several highways. "Look over there," Rann said, and I caught my breath.
Ahead rose a steep mountain range, with snow-capped peaks extending high into the late afternoon sky. Just before it a vast shelf jutted out from the foothills, and sprawled across its surface was the most incredible city I'd ever seen, stretching for miles in every direction, with skyscrapers reaching into the scattered low clouds.
"Welcome to your new home," Rann informed us proudly. "That's Deshti, capital city of Deshtiris."
My mother and I watched fascinated as we passed over suburb after suburb, descending all the while. We could see tiny vehicles everywhere on the intricate network of streets, and then I suddenly realized that they were flying, often well above the ground. Soon we were only a few hundred feet above the buildings, moving much more slowly, and now and then one of the little vehicles would pass us nearly alongside, the occupants staring in surprise. Apparently the Futaba was not exactly your everyday transport vehicle, even here.
My mother gasped and pointed at something ahead. I turned to find myself dazzled by a barrage of brilliant colors from the top of a large, low building ahead. As we drew closer I saw that its roof consisted of an immense crystalline structure of some kind, and that the intensely vivid hues were being reflected from the innumerable facets that comprised it, shimmering and glinting in every color of the rainbow.
"Rann, what is it?" I breathed. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, like a living gem.
"That's the skylight over the palace's great meeting hall," he said, "made of the same material as the Futaba's hull. It was a gift from Qozernon when Will and Kiri started rebuilding the palace."
The palace itself was like something out of a fairy tale, with towers and turrets, massive arched doorways, intricately carved balconies--and yet it took less than a minute to soar over it all as we finally arrived at our destination and settled down onto a large grassy quadrangle in its center. I realized to my dismay that the many balconies on the surrounding buildings were crowded with spectators, and felt myself blushing furiously as we came to a stop a foot above the lawn and the Futaba's portal melted open. (I learned later that this was the Futaba's traditional parking spot.)
When we emerged from the ship the first thing I noticed was the heat, not as scorching as Nevada's but considerably more humid, and reflected in the very light clothing worn by the small party that met us at the bottom of the ramp: cutoffs, light T-shirts with insignia on the shoulders, and the ubiquitous boots. We were apologetically informed that the Emperor and Empress regretted not being present as they were tied up in a meeting.
Rann turned us over to this group, explaining that he had to report in, and set out across the lawn toward one of the buildings with a cheerful wave. I felt like we were checking into one of those thousand-dollar-a-night resort hotels as our hosts bowed slightly and motioned for us to accompany them.
My mother seemed a little out of it so I took her hand and led her along as we proceeded through one of the massive entrances, up a flight of stairs, and down several corridors. We finally stopped before a simple wooden door, which our hosts opened for us. I noticed that there was no sign of a lock.
Our new home turned out to be a comfortable suite about the size of a modest two-bedroom house, complete with a small kitchen. The attendants carefully set down our boxes in the middle of the room, then departed as unobtrusively as they'd arrived.
"Well, Mom, it looks like we're here," I said, looking around, and suggested that she lie down for a while and take a nap. We found the two bedrooms to be furnished with large luxurious beds, and after a brief discussion as to who got which I left her sprawled out across hers, already fast asleep.
I spent the next five minutes rearranging boxes where I thought they'd be most appropriate. Then I tried one of the other doors, and found myself out on a small balcony overlooking the courtyard. The sun was low in the sky, about to drop behind the mountains to the west, and the grass below had taken on that deliciously warm greenish-yellow glow that comes from sunlight shining through the blades rather than reflecting off them. It seemed unreal, somehow, and I finally went back indoors.
For a while I just sat on the bed, trying to sort it all out as I stared at my belongings neatly stacked on the floor. Several times I went to the balcony and looked out into the courtyard to reassure myself that it wasn't all just a crazy dream. The sight of the Futaba hovering motionless a foot above the carefully trimmed lawn was oddly reassuring. I opened one of the boxes and carefully pulled out the manekineko, setting it on a shelf. Somehow it made all the difference.
There was a knock at the door, and I opened it to find Rann waiting. "Hi, Hal," he said softly, seeing the cautionary finger I put to my lips. "Is everything all right?"
"It is now," I said, enveloping him in a hug and feeling his warmth against me. We stood that way for a long time, until he gently disentangled himself.
"How about some supper?" he suggested. "You must be starving." A menacing growl from my stomach brought me back to reality, as I abruptly remembered that we hadn't eaten a full meal for at least a day and a half.
"Supper would be good," I agreed.
"I'll be back in about ten minutes," he promised.
I went to my mother's room, to find her awake and sitting cross-legged on the bed. She seemed distinctly unsettled, staring into space. "Mom," I announced, "we've been invited to supper."
"I'm really not feeling well right now, Hal," she said unsteadily. "I think this has been a bit much for me. I'd rather just stay here for a while and rest."
"I'll stay with you," I offered.
"No, don't you dare," she protested, some of her old spark showing through. "You go ahead and have a nice time. I think some unpacking will do me good."
"Well, you ought to eat. How about if I bring back something?"
"That would be very sweet of you, Hal," she said gratefully. "I'll be all right. Just give me a little time to breathe."
A few minutes later Rann returned, and I explained the situation to him. "It sounds like a touch of future shock," he agreed. "Don't worry. She'll be fine."
I wondered what kind of meals one got in a palace as we strolled down a flight of ornate stairs and through what was apparently another residential wing. Our destination, however, proved to be much different than I expected when we entered a cozy, well-equipped kitchen with a small dining area in one corner. It reminded me in fact of one of those fifties kitchenette booths with a curved table bent into a right angle.
I saw someone energetically slicing vegetables on one of the counter tops, and gaped in astonishment. Although she was facing away from us, there was no mistaking that shaggy mane of crimson hair. As she turned to greet us, her brilliant green eyes flashed warmly in approval. "Welcome to your new home," she said with a grin.
"Empress?" I gasped. I wondered if I was supposed to bow or curtsey or something.
"Call me Kiri," she instructed me firmly. "You're family now, you know. I don't take Rann's choices lightly; he's shown good judgment too many times in the past." I gulped.
Just then the young man I'd seen on the Futaba's telecom sauntered in. "This is Will," Kiri said helpfully. "Will, Haley." Then, in a stage whisper, she added, "Just so you don't get caught by surprise, his official title is 'Emperor Nendor Wilorian.' "
"But don't call me that if you expect me to pass you dessert tonight," he threatened. By now thoroughly flustered, I could only nod stupidly. Things weren't helped much when a third figure strode in, and I realized I was looking at Alan Brinkman in the flesh.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|