"Whoa, are you all right?" someone exclaimed as the room swayed around me. I felt Rann's strong arms around my shoulders and found myself sitting on one of the padded benches around the table. "I'll be okay," I gasped, taking some deep breaths. "A little overwhelmed, I guess."
"Did I do something wrong?" an older voice said plaintively, and I recognized it as definitely Brinkman's; I'd heard it often enough on PBS.
"I'm sorry," I apologized. "It's just that, well, you've sort of been one of my heroes for a long time." I felt myself redden with embarrassment. Slow down, Hal, you're making a fool of yourself.
"This is Haley, Alan," Kiri informed him. "She's the American girl Rann brought back." I hesitantly glanced up to see him peering curiously down into my face. To be sure, the fair hair was thinning now, and nearly all grey, and the hairline had receded considerably, but it was him, all right.
"You actually know who I am?" he said in sincere surprise. "And you're a high school student from the United States?" The face, I realized, was a kindly one. His features showed his age, somewhere in his late fifties, and currently exhibited the famous sardonic grin I'd seen so many times in print and video, but in person his eyes betrayed him. They were lonely eyes, I thought suddenly.
"Now Alan, don't frighten the poor girl," I heard yet another voice say. I soon matched it up with its owner, a middle-aged woman standing in the doorway. "She's probably aware of your reputation, and is even now wondering if she should flee while her virtue is still intact." Everyone roared at that; even Brinkman joined in.
"Hal, this is Gelhinda," Rann informed me, "the Qozernan Ambassador."
"You're Senaria's mother, aren't you?" I said, receiving an unexpectedly sharp look from Brinkman.
"Well, Rann," laughed Gelhinda, "sounds like you've been giving her a cram course. Is there anyone here she doesn't already know?" She sighed. "Alas, apparently I am fated to be known forevermore as 'Senaria's mother.' "
"Oh, no," I broke out in embarrassment. "I didn't mean to--"
She cut me off with a warm smile. "Stuff it, child. I can't tell you how proud I am to be that girl's mother. I just wish she were here with us," she added, trailing off. There was an awkward silence.
"Well," said Kiri, seizing the moment, "if the rest of you aren't going to eat, at least I am." And with that we all sat down and started passing plates back and forth.
Having already provided Rann's meals for several weeks, I wasn't at all surprised to find a strictly meatless menu. Since my mother had been a vegetarian for as long as I could remember, much to my father's disgust, I had no problem adapting (though I certainly can't pretend that I don't have some hogs and cattle on my own conscience). I was surprised to find that most of the dishes were pretty familiar, though there were a few items that I hadn't encountered before. "Everything here on Deshtiris originally came from Earth," Will explained. "The things you don't recognize are mostly African in origin."
"Oh, listen to him," Kiri snorted. "I remember his first few weeks on Qozernon, when he was afraid to ask what anything was for fear it would turn out to be boiled space leech or worse. He was actually disappointed to find that there wasn't really any 'alien' food on either planet."
"Haley," Gelhinda asked, "where is your mother? I was looking forward to meeting her too."
"She wasn't feeling well," I explained. "I think she's sort of overwhelmed by everything. This wasn't exactly something she planned in advance."
"I'll go check in on her," Gelhinda suggested. "Perhaps I can change her mind." I nodded gratefully as she disappeared, and turned to Brinkman.
"Rann told me how you visited Deshtiris and then returned to Earth to teach again for a while," I said. "So why did you decide to come back here?" I wasn't quite prepared for the diatribe I got in response, as he bitterly decried grade inflation, budget cuts, and the decline in capable students.
"Well, your timing sure sucked," I said, starting to feel more at ease. "I was still hoping to take you up on your offer. Then bang!--you'd been supposedly abducted by aliens."
"My offer?" said Brinkman, puzzled. Suddenly embarrassed again, I pulled out my wallet from a rear pocket and carefully unfolded the treasured letter. "Of course, that was a long time ago," I said apologetically as I handed it to him.
For several seconds he scanned the painstakingly preserved relic, and then recognition dawned. "You're Haley Larkin!" he exclaimed. "The one that did that paper for the high school contest."
"You mean you two really do know each other?" Will asked in disbelief. I nodded, still stunned myself.
"It's just as well you're here," Brinkman said derisively. "We don't have universities in America any more, you know. We have life support systems for athletic programs. Or worse."
"Is that why you left Earth for good?" I persisted.
"The simulated gladiatorial combats I could tolerate," he said in disgust. "At least they usually brought money into the university. But last year we had our physics budget cut by two hundred thousand dollars," he went on, his voice rising. "And just why, you ask?" (I hadn't.) "So that the school could set up a Department of Enhanced Consciousness Studies, that's why. A psychic research institute! The New Science for the New Millennium." By now he was in the throes of total indignation. I glanced around nervously, to see the others stifling grins. I suspected that watching Brinkman build up steam was a favorite form of entertainment for them.
"You know where Earth is headed, don't you?" he clattered on. "A new Dark Ages. A world where the average person believes in psychic phenomena, flying saucers, and the supernatural." I suddenly found myself secretly grateful that my mother wasn't present. I had a feeling that sparks would have been flying by now.
"Actually, Alan, they already do," Kiri said with a grin. I had to admit she had a point; the few times I'd watched cable television it seemed as if half the advertisements were for psychic hotlines.
Speaking of psychic phenomena, flying saucers, and the supernatural, Gelhinda chose that moment to make a reappearance with my mother in tow, now looking considerably more at ease. "Your mother is a delightful person, Haley," Gelhinda advised me. "It would have been a crime for her to miss this." She then introduced her to those present as if she'd known her all her life. No wonder she's an ambassador, I thought admiringly.
"This is the Alan Brinkman you told me about?" my mother asked me when the two were introduced.
"That's him, Mom," I said.
"That's wonderful. Perhaps you can study with him after all," she suggested brightly. I looked at Brinkman. "Ummm," I said cautiously.
"Well, Alan?" Kiri asked. "After all, you did invite her to your workshop."
"Well, yes, of course, I did," he answered, thoroughly flustered. "It's just that--"
"I'm really sorry," I interrupted. "I didn't mean to put you on the spot. But if there is some way--"
"Well, why not?" my mother broke in indignantly. Mother, you're not helping here, I thought.
Brinkman took a deep breath. "You would need to demonstrate at least a certain minimum level of knowledge. Otherwise you might have to do some remedial studies first. Would you mind taking an undergraduate physics exam? That would at least give me some idea of your overall background."
"Whatever you want," I agreed enthusiastically. "The sooner the better."
As we dug into our meal, I quickly discovered that Will (I had a very hard time picturing him as "Emperor Wilorian") possessed a dry sense of humor that never wounded, but could bring a laugh without him ever cracking a smile. Kiri, on the other hand, was one of the most uninhibited people I've encountered, howling with laughter one moment and perfectly serious the next. (She also, as I discovered later, had a definite penchant for practical jokes of an extreme sort.)
Gelhinda and my mother hit it off immediately. Although both were apparently about the same age, I knew that Gelhinda, or "Gelhi" (pronounced "jelly") as she was called by her friends, must be considerably older; in fact I discovered later that she was almost eighty-four. There was no trace of stuffiness in her demeanor, though. The two were soon deep in conversation, Gelhinda listening with polite fascination as my mother regaled her with the latest information on astral projection and dream interpretations.
Meanwhile Brinkman was in fine form, tossing out nuggets of obscure knowledge and lording it over all present. "For example," he pontificated, "how many citizens of Earth know that one of the greatest inventions of all time was created in the year 876 A.D.?"
"And just what was so important that was invented in 876?" Will asked skeptically.
"Nothing," I broke in. All eyes turned to me. I saw embarrassment on Rann's face, and made a mental note to give him hell for it later. The others appeared puzzled, all except for Brinkman, who looked as though he'd been run over by a truck.
"And just where was nothing invented?" he finally managed.
"India," I responded confidently. Kiri started to laugh under her breath. Will was also beginning to catch on. Only Rann still appeared mystified. "I must be missing something," he said at last. I glared at him.
"The zero," explained Brinkman, with obvious awe in his voice. "The first recorded use of it on Earth was in India, in 876 A.D. Now how the hell did you know that?" I smiled demurely.
"I think you just passed your entrance exam," chuckled Kiri. "Right, Alan?"
"We'll start tomorrow," he agreed resignedly.
"Well, I don't know," I said, much to everyone's surprise. Brinkman gave me a quizzical look. "My dad said you're a big time lech," I informed him. "So, are you?" For a moment he looked startled, then laughed.
"It was probably true when he said it," he answered candidly. "But I generally behave myself these days." He grinned, but something in his eyes made me sorry I'd said it.
"It would be a real honor to study with you," I assured him. Brinkman seemed satisfied, if slightly disgruntled at the way the decision had been made for him, and we made arrangements to meet in his office the next morning.
"So," I asked later that evening, "does everyone on Deshtiris speak perfect English?"
Kiri grinned. "For me, living in Southern California on and off for thirty years helped. Will, too, you know. In fact, he grew up there." I stared at them in disbelief. I'd been to Kiri's house above Fontana, to be sure, but this was a bit much.
"And I learned a lot of my idioms and pronunciation from watching television," Gelhinda chimed in.
"Television?" I echoed dully.
"We get all of your networks and satellite channels here," Will informed me with a grimace.
The conversation took on a more serious character as he told the story of how he and Kiri as teenagers had fled the Brizal uprising with only minutes to spare, leaving Deshtiris in a makeshift starship. They'd sought refuge on Qozernon with the former Qozernan ambassador to Deshtiris and his wife Gelhinda. Less than two weeks later a Brizal assassin had almost succeeded in murdering Will as he slept. Desperate measures were considered, and taken.
With his consent, Kiri had erased Will's memories (not knowing if they could ever be retrieved) and hid him on Earth with a trusted retainer. For the next thirty years he'd grown up as an American, believing his parents had been killed in an automobile accident, while without his knowledge Kiri kept a watchful eye over him. She'd finally identified herself and brought him back to Qozernon, thinking it was at last safe for him to return, just as the long-incubated plans of Tenako, Kiri's father, had exploded into a near war between the two planets. The rest I had, of course, heard from Rann.
By this time my mother was nearly in tears at the pathos of it all. Gelhinda also appeared noticeably moved. Even Kiri seemed reflective as Will finished his tale.
"Bravo," exclaimed Brinkman, applauding loudly, and rather shattering the mood. "It gets better with every retelling." Both Rann and my mother glared at him.
"Hey," protested Will, "it was my fifteen minutes of fame. So cut me some slack, okay?"
"What, being Emperor isn't enough?" observed Kiri dryly. And so it went, until finally everyone said goodnight and drifted off in their various directions. Rann escorted my mother back to our apartment, and then I accompanied him out onto his own balcony to talk for a while.
I was still walking on air at the thought of studying with Brinkman, and thoroughly nervous to boot. "Congratulations," Rann said. "You really think a lot of Alan, don't you?"
"He's been a sort of role model for me for years," I admitted. "I always saw him as a voice of reason against superstition. I'd heard rumors about his personal life, but I didn't really care much. He seems pretty nice in person, though."
"There's more to him than meets the eye," Rann agreed.
We were both silent for a while, lost in our own thoughts. It all still seemed so unreal to me, and having just eaten dinner with the Emperor and Empress of Deshtiris hadn't exactly helped. I wondered if I should bring up the question that had been nagging at the back of my mind all evening; since our departure, in fact. I looked over at Rann, admiring his profile again, seeing his eyes glinting slightly in the fading light.
"Rann--" I began.
"Never mind," I said as casually as I could, deciding it was a question that could wait. "Nothing, really."
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|