"Mother, I'm coming home. In about two weeks." I'd have preferred to tell her in person, but the 3D telecom image would have to do as she'd been tied up on Deshtiris for the past few weeks with diplomatic duties. She smiled warmly at me.
"So they're letting you out at last," she said. "How are you feeling these days?"
"Almost like new," I assured her. "I can walk again; I'm still a bit clumsy, but I'm told that if I work hard at it I'll be back to my old self in another six months or so."
"So would you like some of us to get the house ready for you? What day will you be there?" I took a deep breath.
"I'm coming home, Mother," I said again, and paused a moment before continuing. "To Deshtiris. Where you are, where my friends are. Where my life is." She looked at me with an odd expression for several seconds, blinking, before she spoke.
"Welcome back, daughter," she said finally. "You've been gone a long time. We've missed you."
Apparently the word spread like wildfire, because within a few hours I was getting calls from everyone on Deshtiris I'd ever known, offering help with the move if I needed it and telling me how much they looked forward to seeing me again.
The main thing I needed was someone to pilot the Noriko back, which was still hovering patiently over the front lawn of the house. I couldn't have flown it myself due to the fuzzy spells which occasionally recurred, though far less often. Alan, of course, had never piloted a starship in his life. (In fact, he confessed later, it had taken considerable willpower on his part to even set foot in the Futaba again after the ride I'd given him a few years ago. He'd found himself fighting off the cold shakes when he'd boarded it for the trip back to Earth that had ultimately ended in the destruction of the Lucie revolt, although he'd never before admitted that to anyone.)
It was finally agreed that Will would bring Rann to Qozernon on the Futaba, leaving him behind to pilot the Noriko and taking the Noriko's spare gateway back to Deshtiris on the return trip. Kiri suggested that I simply step through the Noriko's living quarters and the spare gateway to Deshti, saving myself the one-day flight, but I refused.
"That's too easy," I said. "I want to feel like I'm really coming home. Stepping through two doorways just doesn't work for me. Does that make any sense?" She nodded agreement, her eyes bright. "Besides," I added mysteriously, "I have something I need to do on the return trip."
Two weeks had passed since I'd spoken with Alan in that little hospital lounge. In the intervening time we'd explored every corner of each others' psyches, trying to figure out where we were going from here. Alan had offered to move to Qozernon, where he could support himself by lecturing at the major research institutes, but I'd rejected that out of hand. "Your life is on Deshtiris, Alan," I said. "And the people I care about are there as well."
"But I thought you loved your work with the EMRN," he protested.
"I do," I said. "It's the most satisfying work I've ever done and I wouldn't consider leaving it. But Deshtiris also has its equivalent, and I don't see any reason why I couldn't work for them once I've recovered a little more." So Deshtiris it was.
There was one other thing: I asked Alan not to say anything to the others about our relationship. I'm not sure why; perhaps it was a sense of mischief reasserting itself, but I decided I wanted to save the announcement for just the right time, and he reluctantly agreed.
I did make an exception, and that was Kizuko. He appeared delighted at the news, although I thought I detected just a trace of regret as well. I've always had the nagging feeling that our earlier decision to break off our brief affair wasn't the one he really preferred. But beneath his rough exterior he was far too much the gentleman (to use an old-fashioned word) to ever let anything slip out.
I got quite a send-off from the hospital staff when the day of my release finally came. You make a lot of friends in three months, especially when they're people you see every day, sometimes several times a day. An amazing number of my co-workers in the EMRN were there as well; I'd sent in my resignation with regrets, and they wanted to make sure I knew I'd be missed. I was admittedly disappointed that none of the "palace gang," as I'd come to think of them, were able to make it, pleading other engagements, and it was just Alan and I that finally set off in a borrowed public vehicle for the train station and the ride to Nedro. Once there, we hunted up another vehicle for the brief drive to my mother's house a few dozen miles away.
Alan was about to punch in our destination when I told him I wanted to make a stop in town first, and told him what it was. "Are you sure about this?" he said, his eyes widening. "I am," I said. "Unless you have an objection, of course." He didn't.
When we reached the house late that afternoon, the Noriko was floating above the lawn and the lights were on in the living room. There we found Rann and Haley--well, let's just say being very friendly. Greeting them with a grin as they disentangled themselves in considerable embarrassment, I announced that we were back and ready to go once things were packed.
"Packed?" Rann asked, still blushing furiously.
"Pack what?" Haley added innocently. I looked around. It only took a second to realize that everything I'd brought with me from Deshtiris, as well as the few things I'd accumulated in the meantime, were gone.
"Everything's ready to go," Rann informed us proudly. "You didn't think we were going to have you lugging heavy boxes around in your condition, did you?"
"My condition?" I roared. "What do you think I am, pregnant?"
Asking them to excuse me for a few minutes, I roamed alone through the now near-empty house. Although I'd grown up there, and I'd lived there again for the past two-plus years, I realized that I didn't have any sensation of leaving home. Home was ahead, thirty-five light-years away.
I found what I was looking for, an inconspicuous little white box sitting on a shelf. I'd had a feeling they'd miss it, inconspicuous as it was. Returning to the living room, I slipped it into one of the duffels Alan and I had brought back from the hospital, and we closed up the house and headed out to the Noriko, still waiting patiently on the lawn. A few minutes later we'd strapped ourselves in and Rann had pointed the ship's nose skyward. Then Qozernon was dropping away behind us, and I felt as though a great weight had dropped away with it as well.
"We're on our way," Rann announced cheerfully, once the Noriko's faster-than-light drive had been engaged. "Anyone for some relaxation in the living quarters?"
"I could go for that," chimed in Haley. "How about you two?"
Actually, now that we were underway I was feeling a bit of a letdown. I'd been looking forward to this day for weeks, and to be perfectly honest I felt rather disappointed that only Rann and Haley had been able to join us. I stared moodily through the crystal at the shifting stars, feeling a wave of the old self-pity washing over me. Don't be such a child, Senaria, I scolded myself.
"Sure," I said brightly (probably too brightly), and stood up. All three were smiling, and it seemed as if they were laughing inwardly at my discomfiture. I fought off a flicker of resentment. I must be really tired, I thought to myself, following them to the back of the ship and through the door to the living quarters.
To my bewilderment, it was dark as we entered what should have been the living room. What happened to the lights, I wondered. And then the room was illuminated with a blaze of light.
I don't know how many throats it pealed from, but to my half-blinded eyes it appeared that there were at least several dozen people there, all cheering or blowing on noisemakers, crowding around me, clapping me on the shoulders, hugging me, kissing me. Someone led me to a sofa where I sat down heavily, trying to take it in, only gradually making sense of it all. A recording of Deshtiran pop music started up in the background, and out of nowhere my mother appeared with a huge glass of some frosted drink, which I downed in several enormous gulps, then broke out coughing.
"You're supposed to drink that stuff, not inhale it," came Veldra's voice from somewhere.
"Hey, kiddo, you all right?" I looked up to see Kizuko peering down at me affectionately. "Hi, Kiz," I wheezed, trying to get my voice back. "What was in that, anyway?"
"Don't ask," Will broke in. "It's Kiri's own special concoction."
"Wow," I said, already feeling slightly lightheaded. A moment later Kiri herself appeared. "Hope we didn't startle you too much," she said with a grin.
"You practically scared the pants off me," I said.
"I'd pay money to see that," interjected Kizuko with a mock leer.
"You already have, remember?" I glared back. "Hey, Kiz," I added, forestalling his hasty retreat. "Thanks. For what you said earlier." He looked puzzled. "Tell you later," I added, and he shook his head, still mystified.
I found my mother sitting with Jennifer, and both looked up as I approached. I remembered Haley's mother only vaguely; apart from the party where I'd been presented with the Noriko she'd visited me once in the hospital before my memory had begun to work properly again. "I'm glad to see you're better," she said warmly. "I owe you so much for what you did."
"Jus' doin' mah job, ma'am," I said in Texan English, trying to make light of it. I hoped I wasn't going to spend the evening being thanked by everyone; it's a much drearier form of entertainment than it sounds. "How's the flute going?" I had a dim memory of Haley saying something about her mother playing the flute, and hoped I wasn't too far off base.
"It's okay," she said modestly.
"She's got a regular concert career going," my mother interrupted. "She's doing two performances this week alone, and getting more offers than she can accept."
"I just can't believe it," Jennifer added. "I never thought I'd be playing again at all. And now this."
By this time most of the others had drifted over, and the conversation turned to Rouaas. "I'm still amazed that I managed to survive for half a day until you got there," I said. "If I'd been my own patient I wouldn't have given myself more than a few hours at most." I saw least a dozen pairs of eyes directed at me in astonishment.
"Half a day?" interjected Kiri.
"You never told her what Haley did?" Will demanded, looking accusingly at Alan.
"I guess I forgot," he admitted shamefacedly.
"Hal?" I said, turning to her. "All right, spill your guts. Now." She cringed in embarrassment.
"All I did was call Kiri's ship on the Noriko's telecom once I lifted off and found I couldn't make the ship change course. I told them what had happened, and Kiri showed me over the telecom how to override your security lockout."
"Your very simple security lockout," Kiri added smugly. "We had her head straight for us at top speed, we all transferred to the Noriko, and then raced back to look for you. Along the way Rann slipped into your mother's house via your spare gateway and summoned the PETs, so that by the time we found you we had an entire team on board. After they did what they could for you on the spot, they took you back through the Noriko's spare gateway and rushed you straight to the hospital. I've never seen them move so fast, by the way."
"Haley's maneuver saved a good five hours of precious time," Will observed. "The doctors said those hours made all the difference."
"Saved your life," Rann added proudly, looking at a now fiercely blushing Haley.
"I guess I owe you one," I said to her softly. "Thanks."
"Owe me one!?" she exploded. "You're the one that saved me, remember?"
I grinned. "As for you, Rann, that's now two I owe you," I said to him.
"What's the second one for?" he asked in surprise. I hadn't forgotten the first one either; he'd taken a nasty sword thrust during the fight with Jack Lucie's goons.
"For filching this little gem from Earth," I said, only adding to Haley's discomfiture. "You two make a perfect couple. Every time I see you together I see more and more of you in each other." Rann looked uncomfortable and started to say something, but his voice came out as an embarrassing squawk. "Clear your throat and try again," I instructed him to general merriment.
"Ahem," he said, triggering a fresh outburst of chuckles from those present. He looked around nervously, avoiding my eyes. "Well, uh, that is, you see--"
"We got married the day before yesterday," broke in Haley impatiently. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"Yesss!" I exclaimed. "That's great! Congratulations to both of you!" Rann looked startled by my exuberance, while my mother stifled a small smile. I raised my glass enthusiastically, sloshing some of the contents down my arm. "A toast," I announced, looking around. "To--"
"Hold it," Kiri interrupted, now grinning broadly. "Before you make that toast, we have some more news. You see, it was a very special event." I wondered at that. Marriage ceremonies, rare as they were, were normally informal affairs in an official's office without guests present. If they so chose, the newlyweds might throw a party sometime afterwards.
"Special?" I said uneasily.
"It was a double wedding," said Will, turning to Gelhinda, who put an arm around Jennifer's shoulder as Haley beamed.
"It seemed like a good time for both of our new citizens to 'git hitched,' " my mother said. "Sen, meet your new stepmother."
"Mother!?" I gasped in astonishment as it sank in.
"It was so cool," Haley bubbled. "A mother/daughter double wedding. I just love this world." I felt my head spinning.
It wasn't that same-gender relationships are unusual here (they're not), and she had of course known of my own feelings for Kiri for years. I wasn't shocked, really, just startled out of my wits. She was, after all, my mother, and she'd been alone for so long.
"Did you really?" I finally managed. "After all these years?" To my embarassment I felt my eyes brimming over, and ended up wiping them with my shirt bottom. Slowly I stood up and walked over to the two and sat down between them, putting my arms around both. There I remained while the next few minutes were consumed in endless toasts to the four newlyweds.
Kiri lifted her glass. "To Senaria," she proclaimed, triggering a fresh hubbub. I slowly rose to my feet and held up my hand, not taking part in the toast, and kept it there until everyone finally took notice and the room grew quiet. I wondered how people would react, but I knew it was time. During my convalescence I'd had a lot of time to think. I had in fact thought about it from every imaginable angle, and I'd made my decision.
"My name," I said gravely to the now silent room, "is Senara."
I saw startled faces all around me. Then I held my breath as Kiri slowly stood up.
I'd used the name Senaria since childhood. I'd first taken it in hero worship of the slender, resolute woman standing before me, and retained it out of love. Hurting her was the very last thing I ever wanted to do, and for a moment I thought my heart would stop, wondering if she'd understand.
She stared into my eyes for a few seconds, and then a slow smile spread across her face. "I'm very glad to meet you at last, Senara," she said quietly. And then we were in each others' arms, exchanging great squashing bear hugs as the room again rocked with cheers.
Later that evening I took Kiri aside and told her I needed a small favor. As I explained what I wanted she looked surprised, then concerned. "Are you sure you're up to this, Sen?"
"I have to do this, Kiri. It's the last piece of unfinished business I need to take care of before I can get on with my life."
"I'll make the arrangements," she said quietly. "When do you want to do it?" I said I'd prefer that it be before the rest of the visitors awoke, to keep it from turning into a public event.
As I turned to rejoin the festivities, I found Haley at my elbow. "Hi, little sister," I grinned, rumpling her hair. She looked at me in surprise, then her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
"Wow," she said, delight spreading all over her face, "that's right." Then her expression became serious again. "Can I talk to you privately for a moment?" she asked hesitantly.
"Sure," I agreed, and we discreetly slipped off to the kitchen.
"Rokun told me he visited you in the hospital," she said. "He seemed really relieved. He said you were awfully nice to him." I nodded, remembering the conversation all too well. "I know how hard that must have been for you," she added.
"I'm not really the vengeful type," I said. "Besides, what the Virrin mind did wasn't his fault."
"Well, actually it was. But that's not what I'm talking about. I mean about his having been reloaded and everything." Sharp girl, I thought to myself.
"I thought you ought to know that I've gone back to work for him," she said. Seeing my surprise, she continued. "I really felt sorry for him, the reloaded Rokun, that is. This Rokun suddenly woke up and found that he'd done all these horrible things that he didn't even remember. I felt he needed all the help he could get. Thanks for not treating him like a pariah, Sen--Senara." I chewed on that as we returned to the living room.
By now it was clear that some of our guests were on the verge of nodding off. "Listen, everyone," I announced, "I just wanted to tell all of you once more how happy you've made me." I grinned inwardly as I prepared my little bombshell. "I'm really looking forward to settling in back on Deshtiris."
"Your old rooms are all ready for you," Kiri said eagerly, falling into the trap.
"Thanks, but I won't need them," I said. "I have living arrangements already. With Alan." I took him by one arm and raised him to his feet. "And now, if you all will excuse us, it's time for me to haul him off to my cave for the night." As everyone watched in astonishment I took him by the hand and dragged him towards the doorway, a silly grin on his face. There was a stunned silence, broken by a distinctly concerned Kiri.
"Sen?" she said anxiously, all too clearly remembering Alan's and my disastrous fling back on Deshtiris two years ago.
I paused, savoring the moment. "It's okay," I finally announced merrily. "It's our honeymoon, too!"
I pulled an unprotesting Alan up the stairs with me to our bedroom, accompanied by the almost rhythmic thumping of multiple jaws hitting the floor behind us.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|