Naturally, I was wary when Kiri contacted me to ask if I'd like to meet Rann's new girlfriend and her mother; after all, it had been less than three months since my birthday. I smelled a rat, but I really couldn't resist seeing who it was that had actually managed to capture Rann's heart after so long, so I agreed.
Sure enough, when they arrived I found myself the recipient of the Interplanetary Order of the Plaque (my private and not very respectful name for it). But the Noriko was something else. I knew how much time Kiri must have spent on it; it had taken her years to build the Futaba, literally with her own two hands, and even though she'd probably had a hangar full of technicians working on this ship there was just too much secret technology involved for her to have entrusted much of the work to others. I later managed to worm out of Rann the information that "Project X," as it had apparently been dubbed, had occupied much of her time for the past four months.
But the real surprise was Rann's new mate Haley, or Hal as everyone called her. My first impression was of a short, rather plain girl with light brown hair and greyish green eyes set in an unassuming face. But that lasted only until she opened her mouth and gave me a well-deserved chewing out for my self-pity (guilty as charged, I admit) while everyone else gaped in astonishment. After that I took her a lot more seriously. I had the feeling that, like Kizuko, she'd tell you what she really thought, not what she thought you wanted to hear, and we hit it off almost immediately. Besides, Tora gave her his stamp of approval, and he had yet to go wrong in his evaluations of my acquaintances.
I couldn't help but be curious about how Rann, who I didn't exactly see as being one of the more socially adventurous of individuals, happened to acquire such an unlikely mate. I wasn't disappointed; Haley's tale of their chance encounter in the middle of the Mojave Desert was so outrageously implausible as to have all the smell of truth.
"Not only that, but we were nearly mugged in Los Angeles," she added proudly.
"You were what?" her mother broke in, and she reddened suddenly.
"Oops," she muttered.
"What's this about a mugging?" her mother persisted. Reluctantly she explained how she and Rann were nearly held up by an armed thug in a parking garage.
"You should have seen Rann," she said proudly. "Cool as a cucumber. He even tricked the low-life slug into turning on the Brinkman gadget for him. Then he punched his lights out." By now Rann was clearly contemplating a discreet getaway.
"You never told me about this, Hal," her mother remonstrated. "You said everything was fine when you got back."
"Well, it was, Mother," Haley asserted, obviously embarrassed. "It's not like I told you a lie or anything. Besides, your amethyst amulet protected us," she added placatingly. Mollified, her mother let it pass as Haley continued.
"We also stopped at Kiri's mountain house on the way in," she said, proudly lifting a leg. "That's where I got these boots." She anxiously turned to Rann, who'd almost succeeded in slipping out of the room. "Rann, you did ask Kiri about these, didn't you?"
"Of course he did," Kiri broke in with a grin. "They look good on you, too."
"But I was too late to see the crater," Haley added sadly.
The crater, I found myself thinking. Kiri's house above Fontana. I was sitting on a rock in the darkness, and looking down into a sea of lights swimming hazily far below, disappearing into the distance. Not again, I'd been thinking. Not now, of all times. My heart was pounding unexpectedly.
I suddenly became aware of Haley staring at me nervously. "Cute shirt," I said, seizing on the first thing I saw, and it seemed to safely re-anchor me in the real world. Groucho Marx. Earth movies. The moment passed as unexpectedly as it came, and within a few minutes the memory had faded. But the strange feeling lingered for some time afterwards.
I was delighted when she accepted my invitation to stay over while the others visited Lernesdi. But as luck would have it, we were soon interrupted by Alan, who just had to choose that time of all times to pay another visit. This one, however, proved to be rather different than the previous ones.
It started out blandly enough, with the usual surface generalities, but I could tell that there was something churning inside him. I didn't think I'd ever seen him fidget so much.
"Do you mind if we go outside?" he asked finally, glancing at Haley. I nodded, already feeling a bit apprehensive.
"Hal," I apologized, "will you excuse us for a few minutes?"
"Sure," she agreed amiably, and we stepped out onto the back lawn. It was a pleasant day, cooler than usual, with a thin high cloud cover keeping the sun under control.
"So?" I said, turning to him. "Has something gone wrong back on Deshtiris?"
"Are you--okay here?" he asked hesitantly. "Is everything all right with you?"
"Sure," I answered cheerfully. "Hal said you're doing lectures at the university in Lernesdi. How's it feel to be an interplanetary celebrity?"
"It feels fine," he said, oddly impatient. "But what about you?"
"What about me? I have my job, my cat, my friends visit me when they can, so I'm doing fine, too."
"Fine?" he repeated. "Is that it? Fine?"
"Yes, fine," I answered, feeling more than a little annoyed. "Did I say something wrong? I'm fine. Fine, fine, fine." Even as I said it I realized how juvenile it sounded. I was letting him get to me, and I didn't understand why.
"Look, Sen," he was saying, "we've seen each other how many times?--four?--since you left, and you know as well as I do that we've just been dancing over the surface. It's as if we're total strangers, reading from a script that's had all the dangerous stuff hacked out. We discuss meaningless topics and make polite conversation."
"Dangerous?" Something about the word made me uneasy. "I'm not sure what you expect from me, Alan. I'm not a science genius like you or Kiri, and I know it. If I'm boring company, then don't waste your time on me. I didn't invite you here, you know." I felt control of the conversation, of myself, slipping away.
"Stop trying to turn this into a contest," he snapped. The edge in his own voice warned me that I wasn't the only one losing control. "I'm not comparing you to anyone."
"I'm sorry," I said defensively. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"I just want to have a real conversation with you for once. It's as if you're always locked away in there somewhere and all I can see are the walls."
"I'm the same person I always was," I insisted. "And I still don't know what you mean by 'dangerous.' What are we supposed to be talking about, anyway?"
"Christ, Sen, can't you see I'm still in love with you?" he exploded, then froze, paling as he realized what he'd just said, and leaving me suddenly floundering for air.
"You said that once before," I finally managed. My own voice sounded strange in my ears, half-strangled almost, and I stopped, the rest of my rebuke left unspoken. Something was boiling up deep inside me, something I didn't understand and couldn't control.
"I know that, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I did to you and even sorrier about what it led to. I'll grovel and bang my forehead on the ground if you want, but I can't help how I feel." He trailed off, staring at the expression on my face.
"Why did you have to tell me that?" I half-whispered. "Dammit, Alan, don't do this." I looked away. "I'd rather not see you again," I said. "I can't deal with this. I just can't." He stood there in horrified silence as I unseeingly studied a distant hillside.
"I really didn't know I'd hurt you that much." His voice was almost inaudible, barely under control. "Please don't do that to me, Sen. I won't bring it up again. Whatever you want. Just don't tell me I can't see you again."
At that something inside me finally snapped. "Fine," I shouted hoarsely, "have it your way. It's your damn promise, not mine. See if you can actually keep it." I whirled away from him and stormed back towards the house. All I could think of was to run away and hide, and when I found myself sitting on my bed, heart pounding furiously, I realized that I didn't even remember getting there. For several seconds I stared helplessly at the faceless door, then threw myself down on the bed and surrendered to sobs that seemed to be pouring from some long-buried place in my soul.
I don't know how much later it was that I finally felt a little bit of sanity returning, and realized what a wretched host I'd been. One look at the bedraggled, red-eyed creature that stared back from the mirror was enough to warn me that some repair work might be in order before I subjected Haley to my distinguished presence, and so it was several minutes later that I took a deep breath, put on my best façade, and gingerly ventured back into the hallway.
Of course, the very first living thing I encountered was Tora, waiting patiently in front of my door. As I emerged he looked up at me and chirped uncertainly; he'd apparently been too nervous to return via the pet door I'd cut for him. I scooped him up and gave him a thorough rumpling, no doubt alarming him again somewhat (but not enough to prevent him from purring violently against my cheek).
I was still holding him when I stepped into the living room, where I found Haley puzzling her way though an EMRN training manual. With an effort I mustered an apology, and in spite of everything we ended up spending an enjoyable evening together. She turned out to be a very good (and very patient) listener, as I babbled along senselessly about my job for what turned out to be several hours.
And of course it was that night, of all nights, that I wound up having the first nightmare I'd had in almost two years. Dammit, Alan, I raged inwardly, this is all your fault. But of course I knew better.
He must have been more on my mind than I realized, because to my own surprise I asked Haley about him (she'd come dashing to my rescue, apparently as a result of the unholy shriek I'd let out when I woke up). The picture she painted, though, was a much different one than I expected. I eventually dozed off and slept through the remainder of the night without further incident.
I woke up the next morning in a fabulous mood, verging on the hyper. Great, I thought, now I'm turning manic-depressive. But nonetheless I went through my training routine with far more enthusiasm than I had in some time, and even talked Haley into learning the rudiments of sword handling skills, something apparently Rann hadn't managed to do. In addition to being ruthlessly outspoken (as I'd already discovered the previous day), she also turned out to be a lot of fun to have around. Perhaps it was the realization that Rann was finally in good hands that put me in such a good mood. Unlike the previous visits, when I'd secretly heaved a sigh of relief once I was again alone, I was sincerely sorry that day to see everyone depart for Deshtiris.
And yet it was her surprising description of Alan that kept coming to mind at the most unexpected times.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|