The following morning I was awakened for the first time in ages by a furious pounding on the door and Kiri's cheery breakfast call. I wasted no time getting myself dressed and downstairs and found her and the others already digging in.
"Gelhinda, check your accounts," Kiri declared ebulliently. "You should find a fat new credit there. I sent in the fix before I crashed and this morning had a message back that everything was working and payment had been transferred."
"So you finally solved the problem, then?" Gelhinda asked, looking more relieved than anything.
"More than one," Kiri replied cryptically. She looked exceptionally pleased with herself, I thought.
"So how much did you get?" demanded Senaria. Kiri named a figure.
"How much is that in real money?" I couldn't resist asking.
She thought a moment. "I think it would be about eighty-six thousand U.S.," she decided. "Since there's no official exchange rate it's a little bit hard to say, exactly." I whistled. "By the way," she added, "thanks for the tip. You were right; it was an illegal instruction." Her eyes gleamed as she said it, as if relishing a private joke.
After breakfast she asked if I felt like going on an excursion. Since I was starting to feel a severe touch of cabin fever after several weeks of interplanetary television, I hastily agreed. So it was that a few hours later we were standing on a railroad station platform, watching a sleek passenger train roll in on, of all things, flanged wheels on steel rails. Some technology is just too efficient to pass up, I thought to myself. I'd always enjoyed trains, and much regretted the American tendency to cram passengers into flying sardine cans and call it "travel."
It turned out that Qozernan trains are designed more along European lines than American, with individual compartments that open directly onto the platform. We were fortunate enough to get one to ourselves, and were soon cruising through the gently rolling landscape at an estimated three hundred miles per hour or so on glass-smooth roadbed. Kiri had put in her contacts and restored her hair back to its sandy-colored camouflage for the first time since our arrival on Qozernon, and we looked for all the world like a pair of college students out on a weekend date.
"So where are we going?" I asked, as usual not really expecting an answer.
To my astonishment, I got one. "We're going to visit a very old and very rich man, someone who makes me feel dirty every time I even think about him."
Seeing my surprise at the evident bitterness in her tone, she continued, "His name is Neng Jinhos. He used to be CEO of the largest pharmaceutical firm on Deshtiris during the decade before the Brizal takeover. When they suddenly threw him out and nationalized the company, he saw which way the wind was blowing and fled to Qozernon. He'd squirreled away fat sums in various locations in the meantime, and lucky for him part of it was here. He's now living in a large mansion on the edge of Lernesdi, surrounded by bodyguards. Apparently there have been several assassination attempts."
"If he's so reclusive, how did you get him to agree to see you? Just who did you impersonate?" I demanded.
She laughed. "You're getting to know me a bit too well. Actually, I told him Romikor Mikiria and a friend wanted to see him, and that we'd be arriving under assumed names. I had to hack around his computer firewall to get the message to him, but I got an email back this morning with just one word: 'Agreed.' I think his conscience is probably bothering him. So here we are."
As we glided along through the gradually urbanizing countryside, she filled me in on the details. The company had been making simple pharmaceuticals and an honest profit. About ten years before the Brizal takeover, it began marketing a series of remarkable medicines, capable of reversing a number of previously terminal conditions. In a shocking repudiation of the accepted practices of the time, the company (whose name was of course Deshtiran but which I will loosely render here as "SamariCorp") did not patent its products or publish its research, instead claiming "trade secrets."
Although this created a considerable amount of bad publicity (for up to that time the healing arts had not yet begun the sickening slide from a profession into an industry), it was nothing compared to SamariCorp's voracious marketing practices, which were truly new to the Deshtiran health profession. Price gouging, special licensing fees, and a barrage of harassment lawsuits against competitors made their ugly appearance.
However, when pushed to the wall people will generally choose life over money, and SamariCorp prospered mightily in spite of becoming the most hated corporation on the planet. Ironically, Kiri explained, her researches had revealed that SamariCorp, and the example it had set for the rest of the industry (which soon jumped enthusiastically into the same wallow), had during the next decade been a major factor in the rise of the Brizali and their charismatic leader, Krigghin Teyn. Teyn had made the obscenity of health care as corporate profit center a keystone of his propaganda, and even some who were horrified at the Brizali's blatant disregard for individual rights had held their noses and supported them as a result.
We disembarked at a small, well-kept suburban station on the outskirts of Lernesdi, and took a public transport to the gates of a high-walled property. A guard with a sword and portable telecom at his belt at first tried to turn us away, and snorted when Kiri informed him that we had an appointment. Finally he took our names (the assumed ones, of course) and phoned to someone inside. A few moments later he grudgingly opened the gate and admitted us. "I'm not sure why you're so special," he muttered grumpily. "The old guy hasn't seen any visitors for the past two months."
Surprisingly, considering the obvious wealth inherent in a property of this size and location, the landscaping was clearly going to seed, and the mansion which loomed through the untrimmed trees had a distinctly run-down appearance. "He's afraid to let anyone in to maintain the place," mused Kiri under her breath. At the front door we were met by an elderly butleress and ushered into an ornate but dusty study. Along the way I noticed another armed guard sitting in a darkened alcove within easy reach of the front door. Sitting with his back to the shuttered window of the study was a very old man, the first such I had seen on Qozernon, with white hair and a shriveled, crafty face.
He looked suspiciously at Kiri. "I received your email, but I know what Romikor Mikiria looked like, and to me you don't look anything like her. How do I know you're who you say you are?" In response she reached into her eyes and removed her contacts, placing them in a small case she had taken from a pocket of her jacket. Jinhos' own eyes widened, and even his sinister, wizened face seemed to soften for a moment.
"Those eyes," he said reflectively. "Those were probably the most beautiful eyes on the planet. You know, if it were anyone else I would have told them to go to hell. But seeing you again... It's like turning back the clock for an old man." There was a distant look in his yellowing eyes. I felt Kiri shiver slightly.
"Jinhos," she said, trying to keep the ice out of her voice, "something happened on Deshtiris thirty years ago and I have to find out why. There's nothing I can do to force the truth from you, but I think you were as horrified as I about what happened to our world. I don't know if I can do anything about it now or not, but I'm going to try and I think you know something that might help." Jinhos
He closed his eyes. For a few moments I thought he had fallen asleep, then he began to speak. I realized he didn't want to look Kiri in the eyes as he told his tale. "When I took over SamariCorp, it was a small, modestly profitable company," he began. "I was ambitious, I was already ninety-five years old, and I wanted more. We didn't have the research talent or the facilities to come up with breakthroughs. We were coasting along with twenty-year-old drugs that were gradually being superseded by our competitors, with their larger staffs and laboratories."
"And then your father came to me one day and made an astonish-ing proposition."
"When was this?" Kiri broke in.
"It was about five years after you were born," answered Jinhos, mildly annoyed at the interruption. "He said he had access to some medical research information that could make our company, and
"Naturally I was skeptical. It sounded like a sting of some kind, but at that meeting he handed me some data
"I asked what he wanted. I expected to be hit for a fat payoff up front. Instead, he simply said that once the product was approved, went into production, and hit the market he wanted half the profits. Under the table, of course." He opened his eyes and found Kiri's green orbs staring coldly into his, and winced. "Well, what would you have done?" he whined. "It was an incredible opportunity. It wasn't our concern where the data came from. And if it turned out to be bogus, we'd be out the relatively minor expenses of engineering development, rather than the astronomical research and regulatory costs usually involved."
"I wanted to know why he was willing to trust us. 'If this is going to be as profitable as I think,' I said, 'we're going to be talking about a lot of money indeed.' His answer startled me. He said that this was only the tip of the iceberg, and that if we tried to cheat him we'd be throwing away future wealth that we couldn't even imagine."
"A total of seventeen billion yled over ten years," Kiri said coldly (about thirty-three billion U.S. dollars, I mentally calculated). Jinhos looked at her in mingled astonishment and fear. "I've gone through SamariCorp's records already, Jinhos. I knew the money was missing. What I didn't know was where it went and how you got the technology." She stopped and stared intently at him for several moments. "Jinhos," she said finally, her voice hard, "I need to know what my father did with that money."
"I don't know," he said nervously. "It was like pouring it into a black hole. I had a number of agents keeping an eye on Tenako. I thought I'd see signs of the money somewhere, like highly paid research staff disappearing from positions in other companies, or large amounts of equipment being bought up. I couldn't afford to have him do something stupid and get caught. But the money
"Jinhos," she said softly, "you are as responsible for what happened on Deshtiris as anyone alive. If I were a vengeful person I'd probably relish cutting your throat right now." He flinched at the words. "But to be perfectly frank, I think you're already living in Hell and you know it better than I. Thanks for taking the time to see us." Somehow the courtesy at the end of her speech made the rest all the more chilling. We got up to leave.
"You're going to Deshtiris, aren't you?" he said. Kiri nodded silently. I suddenly felt cold. "I don't know if this will be of any use to you," he continued. "There are several underground passageways from the plant headquarters to some of the outbuildings. I had them put in after the plant was first built, in case of an emergency evacuation. I don't think they're on any plans. I don't know if anyone ever told the Brizali about them."
"Which outbuilding would be easiest to reach?" asked Kiri.
"Building 23. The entrance was from the basement, hidden in the back of a custodian's closet. Room number 156, I think."
"Thanks," she said. We left without further words.
In the train on the way back Kiri sat lost in thought, while I found myself musing over the odd parallels between what had happened on Deshtiris and what was going on in my own former adopted country. In Jinhos' case he had obviously made a very good business deal, and had not hesitated to profit from it at the expense of the public. But the connection between that and our concerns eluded me.
"But what did he do with the money?" Kiri suddenly mused out loud.
"Didn't he give it to Tenako?" I answered, a bit puzzled.
Kiri looked at me, slightly annoyed as usual at my denseness. "Of course Jinhos did. But what did Tenako do with it?"
"It must have amounted to huge sums," I noted. "But how could he have spent it without anyone noticing?"
"He didn't have a private lab of his own; he couldn't have hidden an establishment of a size sufficient to swallow up funds like that," she said mostly to herself. "And he'd have had no way to use it once the Brizali took over." She stopped in evident frustration. "Everything involving him always ends up at a blank wall there. He hasn't even been seen since then. But I keep having this nagging feeling that somehow there was a connection, and that the connection still exists."
I had a sudden thought. It didn't make a lot of sense, but right now not a lot did. "Could he have been passing the money along to the Brizali when they were gaining strength?" I suggested. "You said yourself that no one could figure out where their financing was coming from."
Kiri shook her head. "The possibility had occurred to me. But no matter how hard I try I can't think of any rational motivation for it. The Brizali nationalized SamariCorp along with the rest of the health industry. That would have cut off his source of funding, whatever he was doing with it."
"It's the only place the money could have gone, and yet it made no sense for him to do it," she summed up. "Something essential is missing." For a long time she was silent, lost in her thoughts. I watched the farmlands fly by and wondered what was going to happen to this peaceful idyllic world, so similar to Earth and yet so different.
It was growing dark outside the compartment, and we had about two hours left before our station, when I was jolted out of my reverie. "Will," Kiri said in a low voice, "a long time ago you promised to wait for me, and I promised to let you know when I had things sorted out. You've been as good as your word, and it's time for me to keep mine." Something in the way she said it made my throat tighten. "I said I would always be here for you as a friend. I know this isn't what you want to hear, but I think you'd be better off if we left it that way."
I was stunned. For a moment I wondered if I'd heard her correctly. "I should never have taken you away from Earth," she continued hesitantly. "I had no idea things were so critical here." There was something artificial in the way she said it, as if she were reading lines from an unfamiliar play.
"You're not making sense to me," I said hoarsely. "What does that have to do with the way you feel? This is your decision to make, and I'll accept it whatever it is, but I think I have a right to understand why."
She looked taken aback, as if a fellow actor had started ad libbing unexpectedly. "I've found out things since we returned that I didn't expect," she said. "I didn't know matters had gotten this dangerous. There's going to be a war, Will, maybe in just a few days, and the only possible way to stop it is for me to do some very foolhardy things. This isn't your war. It's not even your world any more. You didn't know what you were getting yourself into when you left Earth, and I wouldn't have brought you here if I had known what I know now." I stared at her incredulously. I could feel my heart thrashing wildly. "It's not fair to you," she finished lamely.
"Fair?" I finally exploded. "We're not talking about the rules of some kind of game here, Kiri. I'm sorry, but I'm going to be unfair as hell to you right now. I'm going to ask you the question you're avoiding answering. I don't want to know if it's fair, or if you should or shouldn't have done something. I only want to know one thing: whether or not you love me." She flinched visibly at the words. "Because if you don't, I'll drop the subject and never mention it again. But if you do, all the rest of this is just bullshit." For a few seconds the lights of a small town passed by the window, illuminating Kiri's frozen expression with a series of eerie flashes. There was a momentary clatter as we banged over a crossing with another line.
"I know you do love me," I continued, the words seemingly pouring out on their own. "Everything you do, everything you say tells me you do. But you won't tell yourself. What are you afraid of, Kiri? It's not like you to hide from the truth; the truth is what you live for."
We had left the town behind. Her low voice seemed one with the near darkness of the compartment. "Because in a few days I'm going to have to leave here, and you, for Deshtiris. I don't know if I'll ever come back. I pulled you out of a comfortable life, and you put it all aside without complaint and came along to another world you don't even remember. I'm going to have to leave you here. And now you want me to tell you something that could haunt you for the rest of your life, the way what I did thirty years ago has haunted me. I can't do that to you, Will. It's not fair to you. Please don't ask me to."
I ran my fingers lightly over her face, wiping away tears. "Whatever you do or don't do, Kiri, understand that what I'm about to say won't be changed by that. When you leave for Deshtiris, I'm going with you. Wherever you go, I'm going with you." She started to speak and I abruptly cut her off, the words coming in a desperate rush. "If you try to leave without me I'll track you to the farthest star, to the edge of the galaxy if I have to. I love you, Kiri, and you're not going to leave me behind now just because of something you had to do thirty years ago."
Kiri turned her head away as I continued; I could hear the anger rising in my voice and made no effort to restrain it. "You've let yourself become a prisoner of your past, and all you see is that past and the dark future you've so painstakingly built on it. This is the present, and it's just as real, just as important. We may have two hundred years left together, or two days. Whatever it is, you don't have a right to throw it away. And dammit, don't try to protect me. This is my life too, and you are my life." At that point I abruptly ran out of words and shut up, staring unseeingly out the window.
For a long time the only sound was the soft metallic hiss of the wheels on the rails, and an occasional quiet clatter as we flew over a switch or crossing. Then I felt her hand in mine and turned back to face her. Her eyes were shining in the dim light.
"I do love you, Will," she said in wonderment. "I always have, I think. My first memory as a young girl is of you, and I think that in some kind of childish way I loved you even then. And after that first evening together on Earth, I knew I loved the other you, even with your different past and different memories. You're the only person I've ever really loved, and I think that's what frightens me so much. I can't face the thought of losing you again. But I guess I can't shut you out, no matter how hard I try, can I?"
Slowly she pulled me to her and gave me a gentle kiss. Then she reached into her eyes and pulled out her contacts, tossing them into the trash receptacle. For a few moments her magnificent green eyes stared into my own.
"I love both of you. Is that okay with you?" she said finally. It took me a moment to digest this typically astonishing statement, and then I took her in my arms and silently gave her my answer as the lights of another small town flashed by the window. And this time there was no one applying any emergency brakes.
As it happened, we damn near missed our stop that evening, and it was a distinctly disheveled-looking pair that Senaria met on the station platform. Fortunately we were the only ones disembarking there. I hope I never lose the memory of those emerald orbs flaming fiercely in the dark compartment each time the glare of a passing street lamp flashed by the window.
"Oh, wow," marveled Senaria as she looked us over. "You two finally, um, cool..." and then she decided to leave well enough alone and poured us into the back seat of the vehicle without further words. I don't even remember the ride home.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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