Halogen turned out to be an excellent teacher, or at least a replica of an excellent teacher. We started in on basic vocabulary and pronunciation, but he had a knack for varying the topic just when I started to get tired (analysis of facial and vocal cues, I suppose), and before I knew it three hours had gone by. Rann had long since left.
"Halogen, can we quit for today?" I finally asked, my eyes crossing.
"Certainly," said my reincarnated cat. "Do you know how to use the controller yet?" I said I thought so. "Good. Just restart the software when you're ready and we'll pick up where we left off." The screen went dark.
I thought back over what we'd covered. I'd learned that the Deshtiran language is actually remarkably straightforward; in fact it's generally believed to have been created by the Virrin for their human charges as a universal language. The fifty phonemes used to form all words are those easiest for the human vocal apparatus to pronounce. It also has a logic and simplicity that naturally evolving languages lack.*
That afternoon Rann set up computer accounts for my mother and me, something which all Deshtirans are required to have. These accounts are in effect a single central version of the many separate accounts people on Earth currently suffer with (such as charge cards, Social Security accounts, and phone cards). Supposedly they're well-encrypted enough that there's little or no danger of someone breaking in and misusing the information. For the time being our status was "visitor," though Rann said that once we'd been here for a few months we could apply for citizenship and shouldn't encounter any problems getting it.
We had a very pleasant dinner that evening with the Parkors, including Rann's father, whom we hadn't met previously. A precision metal craftsman, he'd been put to work by the Brizali building trucks for many years, and was clearly very happy to be back at his real trade.
I spent the next morning studying the pile of physics files and papers Brinkman had handed me, taking notes and jotting down questions. By the time I felt I'd done enough to justify going back the following day, it was near noon. After wolfing a brief lunch I settled myself in front of the telecom for another language lesson and entered the necessary combination into the keypad. For just a moment the young man appeared on my screen, then morphed into Halogen.
"Good afternoon, Hal," he said. "Would you like to review, or pick up where we left off?" At first I was startled, then realized that "he" could see me just as well as I could see him. It was still pretty eerie, though.
We'd worked for about two hours, I think, when my concentration was suddenly shattered by a metallic clatter coming through the open balcony door. "Excuse me for a second," I said to a noticeably annoyed Halogen, and ran out to see what was going on.
Below me were two figures, stripped to the waist in the heat, wildly clashing swords. Around them a considerable crowd had gathered, though keeping a respectful distance. A number of other residents were watching from their balconies. For a moment I thought some kind of fight had broken out, and then to my astonishment recognized the two as Rann and Kiri.
I've seen the usual Errol Flynn classics, as well as swordsmanship of a highly variable quality in performances of Shakespeare plays, but I'd never seen anything like this. The two seemed to weave a net of steel between them, punctuated by unexpected leaps, rolling dives to the ground, and other startling acrobatics. There was a continual din as they fended off each other's blows, accompanied by cheers and applause from the spectators.
At first I was panic-stricken, expecting a fatally hemorrhaging Rann to be carried off on a stretcher at any second, then remembered that he'd said only practice blades were used for this kind of match. I relaxed and started watching with interest.
Actually, interest is probably an inadequate word, as Bad Haley made an unexpected reappearance and I found myself admiring Rann's lightly-clad physique with something considerably stronger than artistic appreciation, something that sent my pulse rate soaring and left me feeling strange all over. Before long I was seeing more than just the match in front of me as some pretty startling images began coming to mind, images which I didn't seem to be able to fight off (or want to).
(Meanwhile, Good Haley remained somewhere off in a back corner watching with detached amusement, and making sarcastic comments about my hormone levels. This must be what your father meant about there being nothing less appetizing than a teenager in heat, she informed me. Thanks a lot for all your support, Good Haley. Not.)
The bout must have continued for at least a half hour, and before long both combatants were glistening with sweat in the brilliant sunlight. I had to admit that, little as I knew about fencing, Rann appeared to be acquitting himself quite well, and I felt a considerable bit of pride as the contest continued. It was, however, his sword that went flying as he suddenly found Kiri's at his throat. A cheer, mixed with catcalls, went up from the audience, and then the crowd began to disperse back into the palace as Rann and Kiri slapped each other on the back and headed for the nearest entranceway.
I suddenly remembered poor Halogen, and ran back into the apartment. There I found the telecom screen dark, except for the words
(PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE)
I was starting to feel a little more under control, so I decided to ambush Rann and stationed myself outside his door until he returned, shirt in hand, and still dripping with sweat.
"What was that all about?" I asked in mock dismay, which quickly turned into the real thing as I found my heart starting to pound again at the tantalizing sight of him standing right there in front of me. "I thought you were going to get yourself killed. Or is this one of Kiri's 'confidential errands?' "
"I'm her favorite opponent," he said proudly. "We usually have a training session during the early afternoon if she's free."
"Why?" I asked, now desperately trying to sound rational, and failing miserably. "Because you lose to her?" He stared at me, then realized I was joking.
"Nobody beats Kiri," he said quite seriously. "Or at least hardly ever. But I guess I come closest of any of them. I've actually managed to win a few bouts now and then, but it's not easy. Look," he said, changing the subject, "you've been cooping yourself up for the last two days with your studies. Why don't we go poke around the city after I clean up?"
For one precarious moment I found myself on the verge of proposing that I share the shower with him. Fortunately my tongue completely refused to obey, and I stood there instead just staring at him stupidly. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Your face is turning all red."
I finally managed to stammer something about going someplace where we'd be by ourselves, and his face brightened. "I know just the place," he said. "How about if I stop by your room and pick you up in a half hour?" I nodded hastily, terrified of what I might blurt out next, and beat a hasty retreat. For the next thirty minutes I oscillated between profound embarrassment at what I'd almost said and profound regret that I hadn't said it. By the time Rann returned my hormones were finally dropping to relatively civilized levels and I could muster up something vaguely resembling normal conversation.
Rather than borrow the Futaba, which wasn't really suitable for short trips, Rann summoned one of the public vehicles that are always available for loan and we flew up over the city towards the mountains overlooking Deshti. Eventually we left the city behind, skimming the pine forests covering the slopes and climbing all the while, until we settled onto a rocky outcropping overlooking the city far below.
It was well enough into the afternoon to put us in the shade of the magnificent pines behind us, and the air was delightfully cool compared to the city. Now and then a bit of sun would break through the trees behind us. In spite of my distracted state of mind I'd managed to put together a small picnic lunch, and we stretched out on the rock slab and lazily dug into pita bread sandwiches and fruits.
I stole a furtive glance at Rann. This is your home, and I'm the unexpected visitor now, I found myself thinking. I felt again the uncertainty that had been nagging at me since our flight from Earth. For a while I shoved it to the back of my mind as we finished our lunches, sharing small talk and admiring the view.
Even from here Deshti was impressive. We were only a little ways below the cloud layer, and once in a while an unusually low cloud would envelop us, temporarily plunging us into a white fog and then drifting away. And yet there were skyscrapers in Deshti whose upper stories disappeared into those same clouds. Occasionally there'd be a flash of brilliant color from the palace grounds as the ever-changing skylight caught a ray of sun and deflected it in our direction.
We'd finished eating and were sitting side by side, our legs dangling over the precipice. Feeling much more hesitant than I had earlier that afternoon, I started to put an arm around his shoulders. But I suddenly pulled myself back, once again full of doubts. He looked at me in surprise.
"Rann," I said hesitantly, "I sent you a plea for help, and you answered it. But you said something else, before you left Earth the first time. It's not fair for me to hold you to it, but I have to know where I stand here." I mentally replayed the words and winced at their incoherence. It sounded like something from a bad romance novel, I realized, and decided to start over. Rann stared at me, puzzled. "What I mean, is--"
"I said I'd be willing to take care of you for the rest of my life," he interrupted me. "Is that what you mean?" I nodded hesitantly. I felt his arms around me and instinctively closed my eyes as I ended up on the receiving end of a kiss that put to shame the one we'd exchanged above Cedar City.
"Did that answer your question?" he said softly into my ear. After the verbal mess I'd inflicted on him a few moments earlier I decided that the merciful thing to do was to answer in kind, and I did.
"Well," he said at last, disengaging himself, "are you still worried?"
"Mmmm," I said, eyes glazed over.
"Everything okay now?" he teased.
"Everything okay," I managed, still trying to focus my eyes.
"I love you, Hal," he said, suddenly serious. "You do know that, don't you?" I nodded slowly.
"I'm sorry, Rann," I said sheepishly. "I was being stupid. It's just that, well, everything is so upside down now. I was so scared. I don't ever want this to end," and suddenly I was crying and feeling his arms around me and giggling all at the same time, and then he kissed me again and I felt so safe and so sheltered that it didn't seem like anything could ever spoil it. Not ever ever.
We stayed there and watched the shadows deepen and the city lights come on and the stars come out before we finally headed home.
* Ironically, there is an actual Qozernan language, which is almost entirely unused. This language, which dates from the time before the two planets had any contact with each other, has roots that show a definite kinship with an ancient proto-Indo-European language dating to before 2000 B.C., and is probably the only remnant of any language originally spoken by the Virrin's captives. It almost completely fell out of use once space travel became practical and Qozernon temporarily became an economic colony of Deshtiris. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|