The next morning Rann was at my door right on schedule. "Ready to start your studies?" he asked with a grin. "I've been instructed to make sure you find your way to Alan's office. This is a pretty big place."
"You bet I am," I said. "Instructed by who?"
"By Kiri. She told me I was on temporary leave until you're all settled in."
"On leave? From what?" I suddenly realized I had no idea what Rann actually did here, other than running secret missions on Earth and buying Japanese cartoons for Kiri. (I learned later never to call them "cartoons"; they were "anime." Whatever.)
By now we'd found our way back out to the huge central courtyard. Off to one side the Futaba still floated gracefully above the perfectly tended lawn. "Technically I'm head of her bodyguard," he said. I digested that as I followed him to a complex of buildings perhaps a quarter mile away.
"Sort of like the U.S. Secret Service?" I suggested, and got a snicker in response.
"Actually, the job covers just about anything Will or Kiri needs at the moment. Everything from looking decorative at official functions to running confidential errands."
The building before us, constructed of massive carved blocks of a bluish stone, had the same ancient but perfectly maintained look as the palace. "This is the Imperial Research Institute," Rann announced. "It's a descendent of the task force Alan set up to create the anti-gun thingy." He pointed across the courtyard at a perfectly round concrete patch several feet in diameter on the main palace wall, its bottom about a foot above the ground. "That's a hole one of his more successful experiments left. Fortunately there was no one in the way at the time." There was a guard at the door, but he didn't look too concerned as we entered, just nodding good-naturedly at Rann.
Inside were gorgeous marble floors bearing intricately inlaid patterns. After navigating several turns we climbed a large spiral staircase, this time of carved wood. "Just how old is this building, anyway?" I asked.
"Probably about nine hundred years," he said. "But by the time the Brizali fell the stonework was crumbling from the air pollution, all the wood had rotted away, and everything of value had long since been stolen. What you see now is the work of thousands of volunteers over the past few years, as well as donations of funds and materials. This staircase, for example, came from a town in the Southern Continent famous for its hardwood."
By this time we'd entered a corridor of offices, most of the doors open. Through one I saw Brinkman sitting behind a desk on which papers and notebooks nearly buried a small telecom screen. There were also assorted memorabilia scattered here and there on the shelves and a number of pictures on the wall. Most were ordinary black and white or color photographs, apparently from his years on Earth, but one that caught my attention was a small 3D image of a young woman with shaggy golden hair and striking light blue eyes.
Rann quickly made his excuses and left as Brinkman got down to business and explained how he would proceed. "This won't be like your typical high school class, Haley," he began in a patronizing tone. "Do you know what a seminar is?" I nodded politely; of course I knew what a seminar was, but after all as far as he knew I was still a typical American high school student and so I decided to play along (for now).
Needless to say, he didn't just sit down and start lecturing me on the intricacies of what amounted to thirtieth-century physics. Instead, I was provided with copies of his own class notes from his years of teaching, and after I'd worked my way through a few pages we'd go over whatever I didn't understand at the next lesson.
That session lasted only half an hour, and I walked out of his office with an armload of books, notebooks, and some kind of crystals about an inch square in plastic boxes, which he told me were data crystals and assured me that Rann would know what to do with them. Great, I thought, only my second day on a planet thirty-five light-years from Earth and already I have homework.
"Do you know how to find your way out?" he'd asked, and I'd rashly assured him that I did. Of course I immediately got lost after descending the spiral staircase, and just as I'd decided I was in the wrong corridor I nearly collided with a tall, fair-skinned woman wearing a distinctly unpleasant expression, which she reinforced verbally by snapping out something unintelligible at me.
"I'm sorry," I apologized, wondering what I'd done. "I don't know any Deshtiran yet."
"Oh," she said disdainfully in English, simultaneously wrinkling her nose as though she smelled something unpleasant. "You must be that Earth girl I heard about. Don't you know that this is a restricted area?" She gestured at a yellow sign with several bright orange characters that I'd passed when I entered the corridor. "That means 'Authorized personnel only.' Children aren't permitted here."
"I'm really very sorry," I said meekly, feeling my face redden. "I got lost. Which way is the main entrance?" She gestured vaguely in the direction I'd come and continued on past me without so much as a backwards glance. I turned around and after a few more moments of confusion recognized a familiar corridor and found my way to the exit.
I encountered Rann and my mother waiting for me by the front of the building. "Rann says his mother needs to talk to us," she informed me mysteriously, as he took some of the books and led us back across the central courtyard to another wing of the palace. Along the way I mentioned my encounter.
"I actually met a rude Deshtiran this morning," I said. "Tall, kind of pasty-looking, with short blond hair." Rann winced.
"That's Tosekor Wisela, the lab director," he said. "What exactly did you do to her?"
"I only nearly ran her down in a restricted area," I said lightly. "Nothing major," though I could feel my face reddening again at the memory. "Lab director, huh?"
"Brinkman's her boss," Rann reassured me, "so don't worry about it. He puts up with her because he has to. But everyone tries to stay out of her way."
We stopped at an open doorway with another sign in Deshtiran overhead. Inside were a number of people wearing light blue T-shirts. "This is the palace clinic," Rann explained. He exchanged a few comments with a young man at the front desk, who then spoke into his telecom and directed us down a hallway. "This way," Rann said, taking us down another corridor and into an office. Along the way I saw people getting what appeared to be medical treatments.
Waiting for us was a woman, in years perhaps a little older than Kiri, with one of those faces that are still youthful, yet lightly etched with creases more indicative of past hard times than of age. "Hal, Jennifer, this is my mother Veldra," Rann said as she rose to greet us with a smile. "She's head of the clinic here."
For a while we chatted lightly about our flight from Earth, about what we thought of Deshti, and about Rann (to his considerable embarrassment). Eventually she got down to the reason for our visit.
"You've probably noticed that people here appear young for their age. Did Rann tell you how our own ancestors originated on Earth, brought here by the Virrin?" My mother and I both nodded hesitantly.
"One of the things the Virrin did was to modify their captives genetically, so that we age more slowly. Once we reach fourteen our aging rate slows to perhaps a third of yours, and becomes even slower as time goes on. Rann, who to you appears seventeen, just turned twenty-two a month ago. Both the Empress Mikiria and Emperor Wilorian are almost fifty." I'd guessed their ages, even allowing for what Rann had told me previously, to be around forty. In Earth terms they looked twenty-five or so.
"Over the years," she continued, "we've had occasional immigrants like yourselves from Earth. Although we don't need to do anything to ourselves, we did find it unfortunate, and at times tragic, for some of our people to bring back mates and see them age far faster than themselves. For this reason we've explored ways to artificially replicate the effects that the Virrin created genetically. To a great extent we've succeeded, and with a few simple treatments we can put you onto the same aging schedule." She let that sink in for a few seconds.
"Does that mean I'd become younger?" I asked dubiously. I sure didn't want to go through puberty again. She smiled.
"We've had visitors that wished they could. No, it would just mean that from now on you'd age at the same rate we do. You'd always be a few years older in appearance than a native Deshtiran your age." I looked at Rann doubtfully, and he gave me an encouraging nod. It suddenly hit me that when he turned sixty he'd still physically be about thirty, and I'd be well into middle age.
"Count me in," I said.
"Jennifer?" Veldra said, turning to my mother.
"I guess there are worse things in life than being able to water-ski with my great-grandchildren," she said mischievously.
"Mother!" I exploded, and she laughed. "Listen, Hal, your father stole twenty years of my life from me. Who knew I'd get them back with interest?" A few minutes later we were in an examining room with an attendant, facing two small glasses holding a clear liquid.
"Drink them down, and don't try to stand up for a half-hour or so," Rann translated for us. The attendant wasn't kidding, either, as after about ten minutes I began to feel woozy. Rann kept a sharp eye on us in case we started slithering out of our chairs, but the feeling soon passed, leaving no unpleasant traces behind.
"You'll need to do this once a day for the next three days," Rann explained as we headed back across the courtyard. "After that the effects are pretty much permanent. By the way, are you two up for dinner with my parents tonight?"
"Sure!" we chorused enthusiastically. "Meanwhile," I added, "what are we doing for lunch? I'm starved!"
Over lunch I mentioned the 3D photograph I'd seen in Brinkman's office. "That's Senaria," Rann said.
Afterwards my mother drowsily wandered off to her room for a much-needed nap, and Rann offered to show me how to begin my Deshtiran language lessons, delivered via the ever-present telecoms found in every home. In our case, there was one in each bedroom and a large one (which Rann explained doubled as a home theater) in the central living room.
This was my first exposure to the ubiquitous Deshtiran controller. Much simpler than an English language QWERTY computer keyboard, it consists of a five-by-five character keypad, or twenty-five keys total. There are only about fifty symbols in current use for the various Deshtiran phonemes, plus a base-ten number system. Since each key can serve up to four different purposes depending on what other key is pressed with it, these controllers serve for virtually all applications and are found everywhere one goes, from telecoms to starships.
Rann showed me the proper combination for loading the language software, and settled himself comfortably in an easy chair on the other side of the room to watch the fun. Much to my surprise, a flesh-and-blood person (or so I thought) appeared in the telecom, in that disconcerting 3D that still gives me the uneasy sensation of seeing a person imprisoned in a box. He was a young man of perhaps twenty (Earth appearance), and rather cute, I thought.
"Hi," he said cheerfully in English. "So you want to learn Deshtiran, do you?" I nodded. "Why don't you tell me something about yourself first. For example, what's your name?"
"I'm Haley," I said. "But you can call me Hal. I don't understand, though. I thought this was supposed to be software." I glanced accusingly at Rann, sprawled smugly across his chair.
"I am software," my tutor said. "I'm a synthetic construct designed to make your learning more comfortable." I stared at him suspiciously; he looked pretty real to me.
"I can take a different shape, if you prefer," he said, and proceeded to consecutively morph into a young woman, a child of indeterminate gender, a very grouchy-looking old man, and then himself again. "I can even take on the appearance of someone you know, if you have a picture available."
Now that sounded like a challenge. "Wait a minute," I said, and disappeared into my bedroom. When I returned I had my wallet in hand and was digging out a picture of Halogen, my late cat. "What do I do with it?" I asked. "Is there a slot somewhere?"
The figure sighed. "Just hold it in front of the screen." He leaned forward (I swear he leaned out of the box) and peered closely at the picture, then looked up at me with a distinctly annoyed expression. I heard Rann stifle a snicker. For a moment I thought I'd offended my new teacher, then he winked. An instant later he'd morphed into a near-exact replica of Halogen. The shape of the head wasn't quite right, probably because he was extrapolating from a flat photograph, but it was still impressive.
"How's that?" teacher-as-cat asked brightly as Rann finally broke out laughing.
"Jim Henson couldn't have done better," I said in admiration. "So what's your name?"
"My default name is Brian, but you can change that if you like." He looked a little nervous as he said it; I think he'd taken my measure by then.
"Can I call you Halogen?" I asked hopefully. And from then on Halogen he was.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|