It was on my twenty-third birthday, eight months after I'd first arrived back on Qozernon, that I finally yielded to my mother's entreaties not to shut everyone out of my life. It seemed like a good time; I was getting a great deal of satisfaction from my work as a PET, I wasn't having nightmares, and my stomach no longer knotted up every time I found a message from Deshtiris waiting on my telecom. It was a relatively small party, too, held at the house, with just my mother, Kiri, Will, and Alan, whom I'd reluctantly agreed to include.
Rann had sent his regrets. At least he was honest, not coming up with some excuse about being "otherwise engaged."
It wasn't just my birthday we were celebrating. I'd finished the required six months of weekend training, and was now qualified to start the next level of training as an ERT (Emergency Response Technician). Unlike PET training, this would involve spending up to a week at a time at advanced exercises, including working with simulations of burning buildings, railroad derailments, and other dangerous situations. I could hardly wait.
It was a pleasant enough get-together. Will described what it was like to go rock-climbing with Kiri, something they'd also done as children before the Brizal uprising. (Apparently rock-climbing with Kiri could be a rather hair-raising experience. What a surprise.) My mother filled us in on the latest diplomatic scandal, this time involving the Deshtiran ambassador on Qozernon and a certain high official's daughter. I even spoke to Alan for a while, who told me of the research institute Kiri was in the process of setting up. Everyone carefully stuck to the most superficial of topics and no one said anything startling.
Afterwards I realized we'd all been dancing on eggs. But at least it was a start. I did manage to find out that Kiri was having Rann work on his English, and that she had some special projects in mind for him.
For the next six months I was busier than ever. My schedule was similar to before, with four days a week on duty, two for training, and two off, but every third week was spent in emergency training exercises. At times it was a challenge to make sure Tora was properly fed and otherwise taken care of, but somehow I always managed to find someone where I was staying who would agree to see to his needs. I felt guilty leaving the little cat alone for as long as two days at a stretch, but from all reports he simply spent the intervening time sleeping.
We had another party when I completed my ERT training, just four months after the first one. I felt more relaxed this time, and even Rann showed up.
"It's good to see you again, Sen," he said uncomfortably. "I'm sorry about not coming last time, but--"
"It's okay," I interrupted. "I'm just glad you could make it." We made some surface conversation about my job, and he even tried speaking English with me until we both broke out laughing.
"I guess I've got a little ways to go," he admitted.
"You're doing great," I assured him. "You only started a few months ago, remember? So what's Kiri up to, anyway? I can't believe she just wants to nurture your intellectual development." He grinned mysteriously.
"She said she needs someone to run confidential errands for her on Earth now and then," he whispered conspiratorially. "Something to do with--" and now he whispered directly into my ear, "--the Watchdogs."*
"Wow," I said, wide-eyed. "That's big-time." He looked proud as a peacock, and I knew him well enough to understand that it wasn't the importance of the job that inflated him but the knowledge that his beloved Empress trusted him that much. As a matter of fact, it impressed the hell out of me too. For the first time since I'd come home I found myself feeling just a little left out. Maybe that's a good sign, I thought.
But when everyone had finally gone, I realized that the conversation had been almost as shallow as the first time. It wasn't really their fault; in a way they were respecting my privacy by avoiding subjects that they felt I'd rather not touch. That left the ball in my court, though, and I wasn't quite ready to lob it back.
Privacy is regarded with far more respect on Qozernon than on Earth, where it's given a certain amount of lip service and otherwise ignored. The "right to privacy" constitutes one of the fundamental principles of Qozernan law and is deeply embedded in the entire legal system. On a planet where everyone is in effect interconnected all the time, where all of the essential information about one resides in computer records stored in a planetwide net, and where one can get almost anywhere within a few hours, it's the mechanism that preserves sanity in what really amounts to a very small world.
A key element of this planetwide net is the telecom found in every home, sometimes in every room. Far more than a "television," it's also the equivalent of Earth's telephone, Web browser, and personal computer all rolled into one. From it one can call a friend on another planet, access one's tax records, watch Dallas, download and print out books (or write a novel if you prefer), or view a news program that aired twenty-three years ago.
Because of this, certain things are simply not done. The affront to civilization which on Earth masquerades under the euphemism "salesmanship" is regarded with extreme distaste at best, and such advertisements as exist are very low key and non-intrusive. There are regular news programs devoted to new products, more akin to magazines that review products than to advertisements, and one can also do a search if something specific is needed, but indiscriminately shoving products into the citizenry's collective face is considered unthinkable. There's no equivalent of Earth's "telemarketing" here; anyone who attempted it would quickly find themselves facing felony charges.
This stricture also applies to visiting someone without advance warning. Some years ago I'd stayed with Kiri for a few days in her home near downtown Fontana (the same one she'd later brought an unsuspecting Will to when she'd made up her mind to take him back home), and I'd been horrified at the endless parade of religious advocates, junk peddlers, and even children hawking candy.
Which was why I was surprised a few months later when the front door signal sounded. As a rule, people just don't drop in unannounced for a visit, not even close friends; it's considered rude at best. I'd long since shut off Kiri's intruder alarm, which now seemed somehow like a relic from a very bad dream.
I didn't check out my unannounced visitor through a peephole (Qozernan doors don't have them) but simply opened the door, to find a burly fellow with a hangdog look on his face that was so apologetic it was downright amusing. I guessed his age to be in the mid-fifties; in Earth terms he'd have looked about thirty. "Hi," I said. "I'm Senaria. So what do you want?"
He looked away for a moment. "You probably don't remember me," he began in obvious embarrassment.
"You're right," I responded truthfully. "And you are--?"
"The name's Kizuko," he said. "You, uh, whipped my ass once back on Deshtiris about a year ago." From that I finally recognized him. "When you stayed at Tenako's base," he added helpfully. I broke out laughing.
"When I was a prisoner wearing a restraint collar, you mean," I retorted, but somehow the whole thing seemed so utterly unlikely as to be actually funny.
He'd seen me sword training in the compound's gym, and after making some obnoxious remarks had quickly found himself maneuvered by his companions into a duel with me. He'd lost. Badly. To my surprise he'd also been quite good-natured about it, and although I'd only seen him a few times between then and the liberation of the compound he'd ultimately left me with a distinctly favorable impression.
I discovered later when testifying for the Deshtiran investigators that he'd been among the few Brizali who'd resisted Jack Lucie and his psychopathic goons, and had nearly paid for it with his life. He'd been left for dead after ending up on the wrong end of a burst of machine gun fire, and was only later discovered to be still breathing. Since then I hadn't heard anything further of him, or of the other Brizali taken into custody.
"Come on in," I said. "I don't know why, but it's nice to see you again." The puzzled look on his slightly bovine face indicated that he wasn't quite sure if he'd been insulted or not, but he accepted the invitation gladly and made himself comfortable while I prepared a few snacks.
"I'm sure sorry to show up uninvited like this," he said while I poured some juice. "It's just that, uh, I didn't know what you'd say if I called first, and I really wanted to see you." I stifled a snicker at that. His logic was unassailable, if not very, well, logical.
"It's all right," I said, sitting down across from him and handing him a glass. "So why did you need to see me?"
I could tell he was working very hard trying to come up with the right words. Apparently this was not an easy project for him, and his first few attempts ended in a morass of 'uhs' and 'ers.' Finally he managed a passably coherent sentence. "I wanted to say thanks," he stammered. "You know, I spent the past year rebuildin' railroad tracks. If it hadn't been for you, I might be doin' it for another ten years. They said it was your testimony that kept me and a bunch of the other guys out of the major criminal category."
"And you came all this way to say that?" I said in amazement.
"Yeah," he said. "I thought it would be pretty cheap to just send you a card or something. You're a good kid, and a lot of us guards thought you were pretty special back then."
"I'll bet you did," I snorted, and he reddened.
"I don't mean like that," he backpedaled, "although some of us--I mean, some of the guards--anyways--" I sat back and eyed him with a wicked grin as he dug himself in deeper. "Hey, nobody ever bothered you, did they?" he protested.
"Just Jack Lucie," I said with a shudder. Seeing the look on Kizuko's face, I reassured him. "He grabbed me once. That was as far as he got." As if on cue, Tora trotted drowsily into the room. "My pet tiger nearly disemboweled him before he did anything else."
"That little thing?" Kizuko said incredulously. "You gotta be kiddin'!" Tora looked up at him and yawned, revealing two rows of fine gleaming teeth. "Don't you threaten me, you little wuss," Kizuko growled at him, and in response Tora jumped up onto his lap and settled down for a comfortable nap. Kizuko looked at me helplessly. I shrugged my shoulders.
"I'm only his life support system," I said. "Looks like you're going to be here for a while."
Much to my surprise, the afternoon went quickly. Somehow the events of a year ago didn't seem quite so painful any more, although I wasn't quite sure why. I asked him how he'd ended up working for Tenako. He was old enough not to have grown up under the Brizali, and didn't seem quite the type, certainly not the sort of sadistic thug that Teyn had preferred to surround himself with.
"I don't think I ever woulda joined 'em on my own," he said thoughtfully. "But in school I hadda teacher I really liked, even though I never did too good, and I guess he thought I was an okay guy too, even if I didn't have a lotta smarts. Then he disappeared and we all thought the Brizali had done him in. Well, one day he showed up, healthy and all, and came up to me and said, 'Kiz, I'm working with someone that's going to do the most wonderful things, and I'd like you to work for me.' Well, I trusted him and said, 'Okay, sure.' "
"It turned out that he wanted me to work at this secret base, the one you, uh, 'visited,' and he needed someone he could trust to do everyday sorta stuff. Well, that's what I do best, the everyday sorta stuff, I mean, and I'd been there ever since. I was kinda sick when he told me I'd have to join up with the Brizali, but he promised me that it wasn't like that in this place, and mostly he was right. It was only near the end that the prisoners started showin' up, and I think that was Teyn's doin', 'cause he thought he was gonna use it as a hideout if things went smash."
"It didn't take long to find out Tenako was the real brains of the outfit. He never did bother much about keepin' secrets from his staff. 'Course they did warn us about keepin' our mouths shut outside the compound, but inside everyone knew Teyn was just a figgerhead. After a while my prof shared the real secret, the plainer field or whatever it's called, and just how great it was goin' to be for everyone, and I was as excited as everyone else. We all felt like we was doin' somethin' really altavistic."
"I think that's 'altruistic,' " I suggested politely.
"Whatever. Hey, you wanna hear this or not? Anyways, one day Teyn shows up lookin' like a zombie or somethin', and a few hours later we gets told to go to the meetin' room. And Teyn comes in lookin' like a completely different person, same face and all, but different somehow. And he tells us that he's really Tenako, that Teyn got a brain transplant or somethin' because the real Tenako got whacked and this is his stored memories reloaded into Teyn. Well, it sounded really nuts, but all the smart guys around me believed it, so I figgered it must be true."
"It was," I said sadly. "Trust me, it was."
He stopped for a moment and looked at me shrewdly. "So the stories was true, then. You really did care for him. I heard rumors and all--" He stumbled to a halt, seeing the apparent pain on my face. "Sorry if I stirred somethin' up I shouldn'ta," he mumbled awkwardly.
"It's all right. It was a long time ago. Go on."
"Well, that's really about it. You know the rest, anyways. A few of us tried to stop Lucie's guys when they started shovin' people around with firearms, and the last thing I remembered was one o' them thugs pointin' his little toy at me and laughin'. I woke up in a prison hospital. After that..." He shrugged. "I heard the Emperor and Empress got those guys back pretty good. Dumped them in a desert back on Earth or somethin' like that."
I nodded. Although the Twin Planets have no death penalties, I'd taken a savage delight in hearing that at least thirty of the returned ringleaders had been convicted in the United States of treason and executed. Those thirty thugs won't ever terrorize innocent people again; if that's not a deterrent, I don't know what is. The others had landed prison sentences varying between one and forty years.
"Jeez, look at the time," he exclaimed suddenly. Tora stretched and sedately jumped down from his lap. "I'm gonna miss my train if I don't get goin'."
"Kizuko, it was really nice to see you again," I said sincerely. "How about stopping back if you get a chance?"
"Hey, you really mean it?" he said in amazement. "You don't mind?"
"Really," I assured him. "Just let me know you're coming first, okay?"
* The Watchdog Organization. When it became apparent early in the twentieth century that Earth was on the verge of developing nuclear technology, the decision was made to plant operatives in key positions in all the major Earth governments. More than one nuclear confrontation was defused by these agents, unbeknownst not only to Earth but also to the general publics of Qozernon and Deshtiris. The Watchdog Organization is probably the best-kept secret on the Twin Planets. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|