"You know, Alan, you do puzzle me," I was saying.
Two months had gone by since the presentation of the Noriko. It had provided me with a freedom I hadn't enjoyed since flying the Futaba, and in fact I often spent my off-duty days exploring. I'd even brought Kizuko to Earth briefly, leaving the Noriko at Kiri's house above Fontana and driving her Mishima SUV to Utah, where I took him through Arches and Canyonlands. While at Kiri's house I found myself drawn to the overlook over the Los Angeles Basin, but somehow in the pale winter daylight it seemed unfamiliar and uninteresting.
During those two months I'd heard that Haley had moved in with Rann, and that her mother had been meeting with considerable success in her concert career. I'd also celebrated, if that's the right word, the start of my third year back on Qozernon and of my career with the EMRN. But what I really found coming to mind again and again was Haley's description of Alan, although I didn't understand why. "He's nothing like that," she'd protested. Why did the words so unexpectedly lift my spirits? A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, England's Churchill had once said. He'd been referring to the Soviet Union, but he could have just as well have been describing the sorry state of my own self-comprehension.
So when Alan called and asked if he could see me again, I agreed somewhat more readily than I expected. After breaking the connection I found that the date coincided with another of Kizuko's visits, but when I approached him about it he was adamant that I go ahead. "Besides," he said mysteriously, "It oughta be interestin'. I can tell this guy's somethin' else."
I didn't warn Alan that Kizuko would be there, hoping for a bit of fun, and sure enough Alan was visibly alarmed when I introduced him and told Alan he was staying for a few days. "Take it easy," Kizuko reassured him, seeing his startled expression, "Sen and me is just good friends," spoiling my hopes for manufacturing some real confusion out of the situation. Eventually we left the burly Deshtiran sweating in the training area and went inside to talk.
"I thought I knew you once, and I turned out to be wrong," I continued. "Then I thought I'd seen through you, and understood what you really were, but everything I hear about you now contradicts that too. I have to admit that you're a total mystery to me."
"Just what are you hearing that puzzles you so much, Sen?" he asked curiously. "And from whom?"
"I'd rather not say from whom," I answered cautiously, reminding myself that Haley studied with him, and that there was no point in creating trouble for her. "But people tell me that you keep to yourself, that you devote yourself to your work, and that you even turn down invitations from beautiful women. And you keep coming back here, although I've let you know in no uncertain terms that I don't want a relationship, with you or anyone else."
"Anyone else," he repeated thoughtfully. I suddenly realized I'd handed him the keys to the vault. Time to change the subject, I decided.
"Why did you really come back from Earth, Alan? I don't believe that hogwash about budget cuts and psychic research institutes. You've dealt with that all your life. Something happened. What was it? I'd like to know."
Why, I wondered. Why am I asking this? Something within me was moving me along, taking me somewhere, and I had no idea what or where. Like a twig on a torrent.
"You really want to know?" he asked, and I nodded in spite of myself. "I promised you last time that I'd never bring up a certain subject again," he said uneasily. "Temporary amnesty?" I nodded again.
"Just this once," I added. A twig on a torrent, I thought again. What's ahead? Rocks? Rapids?
"I returned to Earth the month after you left for Qozernon," he began. "Part of it, I suppose, was that I had obligations: students to advise, seminars to meet. But I knew that wasn't really it. They'd have found someone else easily enough."
"But I was also ashamed. I knew I'd hurt you. I read it again in your face when I saw you after the rescue. And what was worse was that I knew myself too well. I knew that three months earlier I wouldn't have cared. Three months earlier I could have just walked away, indifferent to the pain I'd caused. That was who I was then, and I knew it."
"If it hadn't been for what you did, we'd all be saluting Jack Lucie now," I interrupted. "Those of us that hadn't been shot. It was for the best, Alan. You have to know that."
"It didn't have to be you playing the hero," he insisted. "It could have been someone else."
" 'Could haves' aren't really the issue here, are they? I still want to know, Alan. Why did you really leave Deshtiris?"
He took a deep breath. "Because I knew that I'd really lost you. That after what I'd done to you I didn't deserve to be your friend, or--anything else. That there was no way you could ever respect me."
"But you came back," I said softly.
"I spent the next three months trying to fall back into my old routine," he resumed, "trying to absorb myself in the trivialities of faculty politics, the minutiae of teaching. Attempting to convince arrogant graduate students that the ultimate secrets of the universe weren't really on the verge of revelation. I even tried in desperation to resurrect the 'old' Brinkman, lurking in campus hangouts at night and flirting with brainless young things, trolling for a companion for the night. But after a few minutes it was your face I was seeing in front of me, not theirs, and I'd end up making my excuses and going home."
"I woke up one night in March around three a.m., staring into the darkness, fighting off the blackest thoughts I'd ever faced. The 'hour of the wolf,' it's called. I ended up getting into my car and driving up to Kiri's mountain house in the dark. I remember how black it was; no stars, no moon, just the headlights on the dirt road. I finally reached the house, and everything was so dark and dead. I knew I couldn't get in, but that wasn't what I'd come for. I walked over to the bluff and sat down on that big rock where I'd remembered you sitting that night, and looked down at the lights, shimmering in the distance. I stayed there for a long time, a very long time."
"I was still there when the grey morning light came up, frozen to the core, but I'd made up my mind. I was going to come back here, and I was going to do my damnedest to make up to you for what I'd done, and I wasn't going to give up this time. No matter what it took." He turned to me, and gave me that inimitable grin, but there was no life in it. Then it faded, and he stared off through the window at the distant rolling hills.
Cataract, I thought. A twig on a torrent. And a bottomless abyss.
For a while neither of us said anything. I was the one that finally broke the silence.
"Thank you for being honest with me, Alan," I said. "I've misjudged you, and I'm sincerely sorry for that." I stood up. "If you want to keep seeing me, I won't fight you any longer." I turned to him, feeling only sadness. "You should find yourself someone else to put on a pedestal, Alan. You deserve better. I can't be the person you want me to be." He just sat there, staring off into the distance.
"Maybe you should go now, Alan," I suggested gently. "I do have another guest, you know." He rose to his feet.
"You're right," he said. "I'm sorry. This is painful for you, and I have things waiting for me back on Deshtiris. But I have to tell you this, Sen, and I mean it: You're not going to disappear from my life. I won't let you, no matter how hard you try."
"It's your funeral," I said as lightly as I could. It was with a profound sense of relief that I saw him off.
I felt sorry for Kizuko that evening, as in spite of my best efforts to put on a cheerful face I was probably about as pleasant to be around as the Black Death. He made no mention of the day's events, reinforcing my perception that under the uncouth exterior was an exceptionally sensitive human being.
Even Tora seemed affected by my generally dark mood, only eating about half of his usual meal. "Sorry, friend," I apologized to him. "You're just too well attuned to me for your own good."
It wasn't until the next morning, as Kizuko was packing up for the trip back to Deshtiris, that he brought up Alan's visit. "You looked like a ghost when I came back in," he observed. "I didn't say nothin' then 'cause I could see you was upset. You know, there are times when I feel like your father, and other times when I wish I could just make you forget it all like we used to."
"Let's not bring that up now," I said curtly.
"Look, I know things didn't work out right for us that time," he added, unruffled as always by my ill temper.
"I'm sorry," I muttered. "It was a mistake to start with. I was lonely and really messed up."
"It's okay. I've told you that before. Besides, I like you a lot more as a friend. It ain't your fault; your heart just weren't in it."
"I don't have a heart, Kiz," I snapped. "You know that."
"Yeah, you've told me often enough," he retorted. "I know it ain't true, too," he said, a little more quietly. I looked at him in surprise. "You still got a heart in there, whether you admit it or not, and it's still his after all this time."
"His? Whose?" I said stupidly
"Who d'ya think?" he shot back.
Bullseye, I thought, and reddened. "Where did you get that idea?" I snarled; at least, it was supposed to be a snarl, but the words didn't quite come out the way I wanted them to.
"You talk in your sleep," he responded with a grin. "At least, you did back then."
"I ought to slug you one," I muttered helplessly. "Jeez."
"Look, Sen," he said more seriously. "I don't think anythin's changed. You don't hafta do this to yourself. Why don'tcha just tell him how you feel?"
He looked at me. "You know whatcher problem is, kiddo?"
"No, Kizzo," I said sarcastically, my voice finally starting to obey its lord and master again. "What is my problem? Wait, first let me try a guess. You're going to say that I live in the past too much. Is that it?" Was it? I wondered.
When he answered his voice was soft, and it hit me dead center and broke me into little pieces. "No, kid, you don't live in the past. And you don't live in the present, which is where all the rest of us is. You're tryin' to live in the future, and it don't exist yet. You're always afraid to start anythin' 'cause you look too far ahead and see that no matter whatcha do now, it's goin' to end someday, and you can't face that. And since the future ain't happened yet, there's nothin' left for you." He stood up. "I'd better get goin' before I miss the train."
I tried to speak as he unexpectedly gave me a horrific bear hug, but only a strangled gulp emerged. He tousled my hair for a moment. "You're an awfully good kid, Sen. Take care of yourself." For a long time I stared at the spot where his vehicle had disappeared over the horizon before I finally shook myself free and stumbled back into the house.
That afternoon I answered an emergency call reporting a child choking. It took only six minutes to reach the scene in my emergency vehicle, and for once I was the first to arrive. As I descended I saw two adults hovering over a prone figure on the grass. Even before I reached them I could see that the person lying on the ground was a young boy, apparently unconscious. Asking them to please stand off to one side, I knelt down and saw to my horror the unmistakable contour of a restraint collar around the boy's neck, buried so deep in the flesh it was almost hidden.
Restraint collars are vicious devices, and something I'd had a rather personal acquaintance with. They're made of the same amorphous diamond as the Futaba's hull, in this case formed into a collar that fits around a human neck. At one time used as a form of "house arrest," they were programmed to contract as the wearer moved further and further outside of a predefined area. Several horrible incidents led to their being banned long ago on both planets. Revived temporarily on Deshtiris by the Brizali, they'd made their last known appearance at Romikor Tenako's secret base well after the freeing of the planet by Kiri and Will. I'd worn one for several weeks, along with the other Brizal prisoners, during my confinement.
Although possession of such a collar is strictly illegal, they are after all virtually indestructible, and one will still occasionally surface in an attic or monastery.* If accompanied by the control unit it will sooner or later find its way onto the neck of a curious victim, not infrequently resulting in a call to the nearest EMRN unit. Thus the necessary deactivation codes have been long since added to the standard PET protective suit. With shaking fingers I keyed the combination into the little box fastened to my thigh, and the collar expanded, retracted into a half circle and dropped into the grass below.
It took only a few seconds to assess the situation. I felt sick as I saw that the boy's face was not the swollen purple of a simple choking, but a dull grey. That told me that the collar had not just choked off the veins to the boy's head, but the arteries as well, including the deeply buried carotid artery. There was no pulse, no respiration, and most ominously no sign of eye reflexes. I removed a small device from one of my many pockets and placed it on the boy's forehead as several other PETs arrived at the scene. The total lack of any flickering from the several indicators on its surface told me everything I needed to know, that there was no remaining brain activity at all.
As the other PETs began the obligatory resuscitation efforts, I found the control box for the collar off to one side, smashed. I could reconstruct the scene all too well. The boy appeared to be about twelve, a favorite age for acting out adventures, captures, daring escapes. He would have accidentally keyed in a deadly code. In my mind I could see the parents spotting their son collapsed on the grass, frantically trying every combination they could think of on the controller to no avail, finally futilely smashing the device in desperation. I wondered how long they'd fought with it before calling for help. It would have taken at least fifteen minutes without blood flow to have caused the irreversible damage my sensor had reported. I felt rage boiling up inside and strode over to where the parents stood off to one side, their faces white. The father started to say something and I ruthlessly cut him off.
"How did he get these?" I demanded coldly, holding up the collar and the control box.
"It's a family heirloom," the father stammered. "My grandfather passed it along to us from his days as a prison guard."
"Don't you know it's illegal to possess these?" I snapped. The mother looked shocked at my evident insensitivity.
"It was so old we didn't think it would still be in working order," the father began defensively. "What about our--"
"Your little boy's dead," I said brutally, spinning on my heel. Even as the words emerged from my mouth I couldn't believe I'd spoken them, but all I could feel was fury; fury at the incredible arrogance and stupidity of parents who'd leave such a thing lying around, an illegal device, and with no purpose whatsoever except to maim or kill. I called the police and then helped the other PETs with the necessary follow-up until they arrived, made my report, and left as soon as I could. On the way home I absently wondered if I'd get demoted or fired for what I'd said, but at this point I didn't care. I was angry with the parents, I was angry with the world, and I was angry with myself, and I had no idea who I was or where I was going any more.
As it happened, I received a call from the district supervisor later that evening. "The parents complained to the magistrate about your behavior," he said. "Don't worry about it. He told them that what you said barely scratched the surface of what they deserved. They're being charged with criminal neglect as well as possession of an illegal device."
"Thanks," I said absently.
"The other PETs were pretty shocked," he went on, "but when they realized what had happened they were as sick about it as you. It happens. Just try not to kill someone one of these days," he advised me with a sad grin. "There are going to be times when you'll want to."
"I did," I said. "Today. It wasn't a good feeling, either."
He offered to put me on the off-duty roster for a few days, and I agreed. Normally I wouldn't have, but I was worried about Tora. That evening he'd barely touched his food. "It's off to the vet with you tomorrow," I told him as I picked him up. He seemed lighter, too, somehow, and bonier. "Please don't get sick on me now," I whispered to him as he revved up his engines and began rumbling happily.
* Although neither Qozernans nor Deshtirans would be considered a particularly religious people by Earth standards, there remains a tiny cult on Qozernon that worships the Virrin as gods, and maintains several monasteries for this purpose. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|