The next morning was my second lesson with Brinkman. As I deposited my load of papers and books on the floor, there being no such thing as clear space on his desk, I saw him eyeing me skeptically. I supposed that he was expecting me to make a fool of myself at this point, and considering the nature of the materials I'd been fighting my way through during the past two days I could understand that.
It'd by no means been light going. I'd had to really dig into some of the books I'd brought from Earth, and found myself sorely missing my computer. There was a lot of material that was simply over my head, but I suspected that one of his intentions had been to see if I recognized that fact. He probably expected me to waltz in and ask him to explain what I'd read a page at a time.
So I think it came as a bit of a shock when I pulled out a long list of detailed questions I'd compiled and cross-referenced against his notes and let fly (I guess it runs in the family). His first reaction was to ask some pointed questions of his own, to see if I actually understood what I was asking. When he realized that I did, I saw a grin start to steal across his features, and it wasn't the sardonic one either.
After that we got down to serious business, and I began meeting with him several times a week. For some reason he seemed pretty pleased with my progress, although I had to say that a lot of what I was studying seemed utterly outlandish to someone just emerging from a background of classical and quantum physics.
Among other things I learned about the drives used in the fliers and starships of the two planets. Even during the excitement of our gala departure from Earth I'd been puzzled at the apparent contradictions. Although we'd been subjected to all the G-forces of a rocket launch during our flight through the atmosphere, once in space Rann had simply entered a command and we'd suddenly seen the Earth drop away from us at an incredible rate, and without the slightest feeling of motion on our part. It was as if the Earth were a gaily colored bowling ball which we'd just tossed off a bridge. And then there'd been the twenty-three-plus hours of travel at almost thirteen thousand times the speed of light, which of course was a known impossibility.
I found that there were indeed three different drives. The one used in terrestrial fliers, and also by starships when maneuvering around in the atmosphere, relies on the accumulated gravitational force of the nearest large body (generally a planet) to pull itself forward or, alternatively, push itself away in the case of a trip into space. This only became possible once the relationship of gravity to the other universal forces of nature was established, a theoretical construct still in its infancy back on Earth. This is sometimes called an "inertial" drive, since all the forces of momentum and inertia are felt by the drive and by anything or anyone propelled by it.
The second drive, known as the "aninertial" drive, functions on a totally different principle. Working with the fundamentally quantum nature of matter, it causes the vehicle to simply relocate itself to a new point in space instantaneously. Since two particles of matter can't occupy exactly the same space at the same time, this would normally cause a horrendous explosion as the conflicting matter was instantly converted into energy. For this reason the amount of each relocation is of the nature of a millionth of an inch or so.
Of course, even a millionth of an inch of overlap with existing matter would release sufficient energy to incinerate the craft, even in the near-vacuum of space. Therefore the drive also projects a short-range repulsive field, just powerful enough to keep any unwanted matter several millionths of an inch away from the craft in the direction of travel. With a high enough rate of relocations the speed attained can be incredible, up to thirty thousand miles per second, and with no sensation of movement at all to the passengers.
About the faster-than-light drive I'll only say that I still don't understand it, its theory of operation being buried under hundreds of pages of mathematical descriptions. Brinkman admitted that he still didn't fully understand it either, though he claimed Kiri did. Considering that she'd managed to create a ship (the Futaba) capable of speeds several times faster than any other ever built, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. About all I could glean at this infant stage of my studies was that somehow the ship and everything in it had its mass reduced to less than zero, which enabled it to bypass the relativistic barrier. And that's the total extent of my comprehension.
If it sounds like I was having the time of my life, I was. Between my physics studies and Deshtiran language software tutor, I suppose I could easily have watched the days slide by, leaving poor Rann sitting forlornly on the sidelines. I had my own agenda there, however, and was determined not to let that happen. To be sure, after the first week he resumed his regular duties, but I forced myself to put away the books and shut off the telecom once supper time rolled around, reserving my evenings and weekends for him.
Dinners in any case were relatively quiet for several days, as Gelhinda was tied up with a biplanetary economic conference and Kiri's whereabouts appeared to be some sort of secret (although I caught a few cryptic references to a "Project X"). Brinkman missed several meals working late; apparently it wasn't unusual for him to linger in his office until the wee hours of the morning.
So it was no great problem for Rann and me to skip supper one evening and go exploring in Deshti. I found it to be a fascinating mix of modern, old, and abandoned. A tremendous quantity of resources had gone into rebuilding the city, which had been depopulated for years by the Brizali to provide labor for their industrial centers. Many of its residents had since returned, lured by promises of government aid in rebuilding the countless shops, factories and residences that had fallen into ruin in the interim. Now and then one would encounter an abandoned building, though, and there were still entire districts which remained dark and deserted for the present.
A few days later I asked Rann if there was any way I could use the computer files I'd brought from Earth. "We'd have no trouble reading your data," he decided. "The problem would be running your programs, since they're pretty much hardware-dependent. But I know someone I can ask," he added brightly, and I left it in his hands.
Dinner that evening was a particularly memorable one. This time the whole gang was again present, with riotous results.
"I've had better days," Kiri was griping as Rann and I arrived. "On top of everything else, my last appointment today was with yet another delegation complaining about being exposed to all the 'sin' on Qozernan television."
"Isn't that the third one this month?" Gelhinda sighed.
"Fourth," Kiri corrected her. "Of course, the only 'sin' they seem concerned about is sex, which is certainly there. But considering that you have to do a keyword search to call it up, it's not exactly as if it's being waved in their faces." I'd already discovered that with literally thousands of channels available, one doesn't "channel surf" (unless you're really bored). Instead, you search by keywords that interest you, like surfing the Web.
"They didn't seem to have any complaints about the senseless violence in the Earth programs being broadcast," Gelhinda sniffed.
"I suppose they want you to start censoring again," Rann said, and she nodded.
"There are still a lot of people who seriously believe things were better under the Brizali. Usually younger people, who didn't get caught up in the relocations and forced labor, and who grew up under the regime. This has all been a severe culture shock to them. Their parents, on the other hand, are only too glad to see things restored to the way they used to be."
"Ironic that it's the younger ones finding sex so hard to deal with," Gelhinda remarked. "After all, when you really think about it it's just another natural bodily function."
Brinkman cleared his throat noisily.
"We are conceived amid secretions and born as an excretion," he pronounced. Clearly it was intended as the unveiling of a profound bit of philosophy, a pithy and incisive summation of the discussion so far. And we did indeed stare at him in something approaching awe for several seconds, before the entire table dissolved into hysterical laughter. Only Brinkman failed to join in, instead regarding us with a comical mixture of dismay and injured dignity. "Did I say something wrong?" he finally asked with some asperity.
"That was disgusting," Will observed.
"Alan," Kiri sighed, "as a philosopher you are truly a brilliant physicist. Let's leave it at that, shall we?"
At that point I think the others prudently concluded that the entire subject was now deader than dead, and the conversation hastily turned to other topics. When my mother's newfound interest in astronomy came up, it turned out that Gelhinda also had an interest in that area, and they were soon off in conversation. My mother was fascinated to discover that although we were trillions of miles from Earth many of the constellations were still recognizable. "We're not actually that far from Earth, at least not on a cosmic scale," Gelhinda explained. "After all, most of the stars are tens or even thousands of times further away."
At the same time Brinkman was bemoaning the trials and tribulations of running the Imperial Research Institute. "I'm a physicist, not an administrator," he grumbled. "Getting people to do what I think they should do isn't exactly one of my strengths, you know. If it weren't for the damage that Wisela would probably cause if I weren't there, I think I'd just resign and go back to lecturing full time."
"But look what you've accomplished, Alan," Will argued. "You've got six different teams all working together smoothly now."
"Hmph," Brinkman snorted. "Smoothly except for that political snitch. I'd love an excuse to fire her ass. I wish I had your power to make things happen," he added, turning wistfully to Kiri. "All you have to do is issue a command, and poof! It happens."
"Really?" she said slyly. " 'Poof'?" I'm not sure why, but I suddenly had a very bad feeling about this.
"Poof," he confirmed.
"Guards!" Kiri bellowed unexpectedly at the top of her lungs. More quickly than I could have imagined, two palace guards dashed in from somewhere out in the hallway, swords drawn. "Lop off this man's head!" she ordered with a peremptory gesture at Brinkman.
For a moment we all sat in stunned silence, then one of the guards cleared his throat. "Uh, Your Majesty, you know I can't do that," he ventured nervously.
"Why not?" inquired Kiri innocently.
"Well, uh, he has to have a trial and all, doesn't he? We can arrest him, if you like, if you'll tell me the charge." He looked hesitantly at Kiri.
"Never mind," she said sweetly. "You can go. Sorry to bother you," and she grinned toothily at a now-ashen Brinkman. Thoroughly mystified, the guards saluted and left.
I had to admit it seemed a pretty heartless stunt, but I was to find it was rather typical of Kiri's and Will's practical jokes. Even Brinkman admitted afterwards that he should have known better, but I suppose it would be pretty disconcerting to hear someone being ordered to shorten you by a head, so I couldn't blame him much.
"Seriously though, Alan--" Kiri resumed.
"Just how serious do you intend to get?" he interjected shakily.
"Sorry about that," she said (and she didn't sound very apologetic, either). "But you should realize that if I'd taken his sword from him and chopped your head off myself, neither he nor anyone else on the planet could have done anything about it, either then or afterwards."
"I beg to differ," Will said earnestly.
"All right, Will, you're the one exception," she admitted. "The authorities couldn't touch me for it, though. But I'd still pay such a high price for it, in lost respect and credibility, that there'd be no point in my retaining the throne. The most important part of the Emperor's and Empress' power is our moral authority. Without that we're just despots, and would probably be quickly removed from office."
"Thank god for that," murmured Brinkman.
Ignoring him, she went on. "Alan, you know that I was opposed to keeping the Virrin equipment intact. I saw what Tenako had made of it, and I didn't--and still don't--think we're ready for it. But the best scientific minds on the planet felt otherwise, and I didn't believe that my gut instincts justified overruling them on the issue. I might think that it presents a future danger, but unless I can convince people of that, imposing an autocratic decision would have done more harm than good."
"You wanted to destroy it?" I asked in surprise.
"I did," she said quietly. "Does that shock you?"
"Part of it was my own damn fault," she added, a bitter edge to her voice. "I thought the truth about Tar Deshta and the Virrin planar field should be hidden. I thought we were the only people that still knew about it, and that we could keep it secret. That was a mistake. Once we raided Tenako's compound, we found that it was impossible to bottle it up any longer. There were just too many people in the know: his researchers, assistants, even his most trusted military support staff. When it all came boiling out, it looked to the public like a cover-up, and that cost us a lot of credibility. So when the decision had to be made to preserve or destroy the advanced technology he'd resurrected, we couldn't afford to press the issue."
"It wasn't a total loss, Kiri," Will reminded her softly.
"Yeah," she said, sudden sadness in her voice. "I was able to trade it all for one file."
"One file?" I said, puzzled.
"They agreed to erase one file," she repeated, half to herself. "His."
"Tenako's," Will said to me in an undertone. I must have looked as stupid as I felt. I felt a warning nudge from Rann, and decided not to press the issue.
Dinner was just about to break up when Brinkman informed us that he had an announcement to make. "I'm going to be having a soirée at my suite in a few days, and of course you're all invited. Although after this evening I'm not sure if I really should," he added petulantly. Kiri and Will didn't seem at all offended by the remark, and I suspected they were pretty used to this sort of thing from him. As for me, I was marveling that anyone in this day and age still used the word soirée.
"What day is that?" Gelhinda asked, pulling an appointment calendar keypad from her pocket and flipping it open. Brinkman named a day on the Deshtiran calendar.
"That's the eighth of September, isn't it?" I asked. Just the day before I'd spent an hour with Halogen learning the Deshtiran calendar, and couldn't resist showing off. I saw my mother prick up her ears. Brinkman momentarily performed some mental calculations before agreeing.
"That's your seventeenth birthday, Hal," my mother reminded me.
"Excellent," Brinkman exclaimed. "Then that can be the motif for this particular evening."
"Don't run off yet, Hal," Kiri said to me as we were about to leave. "I want to show you something. You and Rann meet me at the Futaba in ten minutes. And bring along the data disks you brought from Earth." When we arrived at the Futaba, my precious box of CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs in hand, she led us into the living quarters to a room filled with computer equipment. Most of it was obviously Deshtiran, but there were also some relatively familiar devices, including a DVD-ROM drive, a US-style keyboard and a mouse.
"This is the equipment I use when I want to meddle with Earth's computer systems," she explained. "Rann said that you needed to work with your data and programs. Our systems can emulate most of Earth's popular computer configurations. This is what you type into the keypad to tell it to simulate a PC." She scribbled a string of characters on a scrap of paper and instructed me to key them into a Deshtiran keypad. A half-second later a familiar graphical interface appeared on one of the monitors.
"You can use the equipment in this room to load your data into your Deshtiran computer account After that you won't need your discs any longer because your data will all be online." She rummaged around in a cupboard for a minute, finally pulling out another keyboard and mouse, and a small box, which she handed to me.
"With this," she said, indicating the box, "you can use the telecom in your room in the same way you did with your own system. Just route the cable through this first, then plug the mouse and keyboard into it as well. Use the keystrokes I gave you to temporarily reconfigure your telecom. Don't worry about fouling anything up; the commands set you up in your own virtual software space, so that you can't modify any of the other configurations. And since it's all simulated in software, you can easily restore the defaults if things go really wrong. Any questions?" She turned to see me--well, Rann said later I looked like a fish drowning in air, mouth opening and closing without producing anything audible.
"Thank you," I finally croaked. She excused herself, leaving me staring blankly at the equipment.
"Think you can use this?" Rann said curiously.
"We'll find out," I said, still dazed. I inserted my DVD-ROM with the backup of my own computer and began copying files. I quickly discovered two things: the virtual computer she'd configured had most of the programs currently popular on Earth already installed, and this machine was fast. The graphical user interface I was used to normally ran at a snail's pace (in fact it traditionally got slower with each update), but not here. I worked well into the early morning hours installing my own software and testing it out, and found that it all ran perfectly and far faster than it ever had at home.
Rann had long since fallen asleep on a couch in the Futaba's living room when I finally finished. By the time we staggered back to our rooms it was well after three.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|