I found Kiri already hard at work at her computer. Apologizing, she explained that after the previous evening's revelations she really had to get this project out of the way in case she was needed for more important things. Eventually I ended up sword training with Senaria, although she seemed considerably less ebullient than usual.
"So when are you taking Lev for his ride in the Futaba?" I asked jovially, hoping to cheer her up.
"Who knows?" she said dejectedly. Seeing my surprise, she added, "He said he'd let me know when he had time. You know how it works, don't call me, I'll call you."
"You're probably just misreading him," I reassured her. "He is pretty busy, you know." She nodded, clearly unconvinced.
As it happens I was right for once, as a few minutes later she was called away to the telecom and returned now on the opposite end of what was developing into an impressive mood swing. I managed to extract from her that she was indeed taking Lev up in the Futaba the next afternoon. After that her mind was clearly elsewhere, as I actually managed to disarm her once and she looked positively stunned as her sword went clattering off against the fence.
"Try that again when I'm concentrating," she protested.
"You are concentrating," I said with a grin, "just not on this."
When Kiri appeared for supper that evening she also seemed utterly distracted, and all through the meal I got the impression that she was unaware of her immediate surroundings. Gelhinda was clearly annoyed, and seeing the perfect opportunity, finally spoke her mind in her usual forthright manner.
"Kiri, you can't worry a problem to death. Leave it alone for a while. It'll solve itself, and in the meantime you can at least enjoy what you're eating. You're driving us all crazy these days, you know."
"I am enjoying what I'm eating," Kiri mumbled absently, a loaded butter knife in one hand, her enormous green eyes staring fixedly at something apparently in another dimension.
"Then why are you so carefully buttering your napkin?" demanded Gelhinda triumphantly. Even Kiri had to join in the laughter that followed, once she had ascertained to her dismay that Gelhinda was indeed speaking the truth.
"All right, Gelhi, you win," she conceded gallantly. After that she seemed to free her mind from whatever had been occupying it so totally, and we spent the rest of the meal in a much more relaxed atmosphere. In fact, to my surprise she made no effort to return to her work after the meal, and we ended up watching two hours of of Urusei Yatsura* before we finally staggered off to our respective bedrooms.
The next morning after breakfast Senaria became a seething mass of energy as she scuttled around the kitchen for several hours creating various delightful smells, and presumably the dishes that accompanied them. I say presumably because when I inevitably went to investigate I was sternly warned off with the admonition that if I ate or even so much as touched anything I'd be sautéed alive in a bathtub of boiling butter.§ Assured that it was for the evening's supper, and that I was indeed invited, I decided to let prudence be the better part of valor and executed a tactical withdrawal.
When Lev arrived that afternoon he was greeted by a remarkably tongue-tied Senaria. Promising to meet her at the Futaba in a few minutes, he quietly asked me if Kiri was home, and while Senaria was loading the ship I took him up to Kiri's computer lab. There they spoke together in hushed tones for several minutes, and as I left I thought that they both looked rather grim.
A few minutes later Lev, again wearing his most cheerful face, bid me a good afternoon and strode out to the Futaba. Soon the ship was lifting off and disappearing like a tiny soap bubble into the vivid blue sky. I had a feeling that Lev was in for quite a ride, as I suspected that Senaria would be doing her best to show off her piloting skills, and grinned in spite of myself.
It was about four hours later that I heard voices out on the front lawn, and looked out the window to confirm that the Futaba had returned. A moment later the front door was flung open and Senaria loudly announced to everyone within range, "All right, everybody, we're back! Supper's in twenty minutes and if you're late you starve. That includes you, Kiri." Clearly she was in an excellent mood, as was Lev.
"Well," said Gelhinda, emerging from her study, "did you scare the pants off poor Lev here with your flying? Or did I use the wrong expression?" she added wickedly, seeing Senaria again turning pink beneath her tan. Lev, chivalrously pretending not to notice, assured her that he had had a wonderful time, and hoped it wouldn't be the last. I saw Senaria's eyes light up.
By that time even Kiri had crawled out from her cyber-cave and made an appearance, her large green eyes hideously bloodshot (not an attractive combination, by the way) with fatigue. "So how many interplanetary speeding tickets did the Galaxy Police give her?" she gibed as Senaria fled to the kitchen to finish supper preparations.
"Galaxy Police?" said Lev, puzzled for a moment, then laughed. "No, actually she's a very good pilot. But I imagine that in a pinch she could do some pretty hair-raising things if she had to."
"Dinner is served," bellowed Senaria from the kitchen.
The evening meal was as delicious as the morning's cooking odors had promised, and thoroughly entertaining as well. I found to my amusement that it was now Lev who was attempting to steal surreptitious glances at Senaria, and doing a glaringly conspicuous job of it for a secret agent. As for Senaria herself, she was in fine fettle, cracking jokes (rare for her) and laughing at everyone else's (also rare for her). It was with great regret that we all finally pushed our chairs away from the table and tried to stand up, with varying degrees of success. I know at least that my own center of gravity had dropped a good foot or more within the past hour.
After supper Lev asked to speak privately with Gelhinda for a bit, and they disappeared into her study. Some ten minutes later I was passing by the closed door on my way to the first floor bathroom, and heard Gelhinda speaking, her raised voice clear through the thin wood. "That's all the more reason for you to do something about it now." She didn't sound angry, only insistent. "Neither of you is going to live forever, you know." Not wanting to eavesdrop, of course, I continued on my way and heard nothing further.
When I returned to the living room, Kiri and Senaria were deep in discussion. Dinner seemed to have revived Kiri considerably; even her eyes appeared a little less bloodshot than earlier. "Did you encounter any problems with the hyperspace transition?" she was asking.
"Er, not that I noticed," answered Senaria vaguely.
"Would you have noticed if there were?" I insinuated, prompting an indignant rejoinder (and another blush).
"So when will you need the Futaba again?" Kiri asked with a grin.
"Soon, I hope," Senaria murmured dreamily, just as Lev and Gelhinda returned. Senaria gave her mother a piercing look, but Gelhinda's face might as well have been a stone slab for all the information she could glean from it. But she gave me a sly wink when no one else was looking.
As it happened, by the time he left Lev had made a date for the day after next for another flight with the elated girl. We all headed for bed that night in a considerably improved frame of mind.
"I think you need to learn to fly the Futaba," Kiri said to me the next morning after breakfast. It was certainly the last thing I would have expected; I had in fact been rather startled when she had suggested to Lev that Senaria take him for a ride. Prior to that I had assumed that it was Kiri's exclusive pride and joy and that to touch the control stand would be death to any interloper. She laughed. "Both Senaria and Gelhinda know how to fly it. In fact, I had Senaria do the piloting on one of my visits to Earth."
"You've taken Senaria to visit Earth?" I said in some surprise.
"Of course. I told you it was a popular place. You haven't heard her speak English, have you? She's picked up one nasty Texas accent from watching too much Dallas, in fact."
Actually, I thought to myself, she'd probably fit right in. "So where'd you go?" I asked curiously.
"Let's see, Canyonlands," she ticked off, "the Yucatan, London, and of course we checked up on you. That was about three years ago, I think. Unfortunately some poor schmuck tried to put the make on her in London and wouldn't take no for an answer until she beat the crap out of him, so we had to make a quick getaway. She still considers that the best part of the trip," she added with a sigh.
That day I flew a starship for the first time. Under Kiri's expert tutelage I turned the ship nose up, took us through the atmosphere and a few thousand miles into space, then returned to the planet in a long, slow glide like the one we'd used during our landing a few days previously. It was, and still is, one of the high points of my life, and it and our visit to the plains overlook seem now like a sunlit oasis before the onrushing darkness.
The Futaba turned out to be much easier to fly than I had expected. The trick was to make sure your destination was entered in advance and let the ship do most of the thinking. Fancy maneuvers like the ones we had used on Earth were another story, however, and required considerable facility with the control stand.
"Why don't you just use voice commands, like you do for the transformations?" I asked in some puzzlement.
"I see you've fallen for all the hype about voice recognition," she snorted. "We went through that phase about two centuries ago. We found out the hard way that when people get flustered, they're a lot more likely to speak than to type without thinking first. That resulted in some truly spectacular disasters, including a fusion reactor that blew up when the operator crashed the backup computer with a series of completely contradictory and illogical commands."
"Imagine for a moment that you had been piloting the Futaba with voice commands and trying to get away from those Brizali back on Earth. 'Futaba: up. No, don't point the nose up, rise. Faster, that's too slow. Now forward. Wait, look out for those cliffs! Down! I mean slow down! Go up! Not rise, nose up! Now full speed. No, that's too much acceleration! I can't breathe!
"I get the picture," I gasped.
"Anyway," she finished a bit more calmly, "we use voice recognition for just two things: cases where you don't want to have controls exposed where anyone can reach them, and security situations where your voiceprint is the key. Otherwise it's rather pointless."
Once again that afternoon Kiri disappeared into her computer lab, not even emerging for supper this time. I saw no further sign of her until breakfast the next morning, and then she looked distinctly the worse for wear. However, she insisted that we continue our flight lessons, and proved to be as patient and thorough an instructor as she was in swordsmanship. When we returned to the Amkors shortly before noon she soon vanished again, and as I had been doing for some time now I sought out Senaria for lessons of a noisier and more painful variety.
Not surprisingly, she was practically boiling over with excitement, for she had a date later that afternoon with Lev for another flight in the Futaba. I had to grin a bit in spite of myself as I mentally pictured her asking Kiri for the keys to the family car. Except that this family car happened to be a starship.
"Kiri's really got her nose into it this time," she commented at one point. "Working all night, isn't she?" I nodded. "She asked me to take care of your flight lessons tomorrow," she added casually. "Is that okay with you?"
"Of course," I said, admittedly surprised. "She has a high opinion of your flying skills. But what on earth is she doing, anyway? Is this still that job assignment she received?"
Senaria shook her head. "That's anybody's guess. She can get really close-mouthed when she wants to, and it's no use trying to pry it out of her. Don't worry; she'll fill us in when she's ready. She always does."
In spite of Senaria's reassurances, I found myself falling prey to an unease I hadn't felt since that fateful goodnight kiss had gone so awry. For several days I saw very little of her, and when I did she seemed distant, though not outright cold. Telling myself to be patient, I spent the days with Senaria honing my sword arm and flying the Futaba, but not even the thrill of taking it into hyperspeed for the first time could alleviate the gloom I felt gathering within me.
Things weren't helped much when Zyanita came to visit one morning; Lev would be returning that evening to give us another update on the crisis. It was obvious that she read the situation, though her take on it rather startled me.
"Don't you understand that Kiri's just using you?" she said coldly. "She's had her eye on the Deshtiran throne for as long as I can remember. You're handy to have around right now, but don't count on her once she has what she wants." I held my tongue, realizing that the words I wanted to let fly would not exactly fall under the category of "cutting her some slack." But I became considerably more cautious around her after that.
When Lev arrived later that afternoon I went to fetch Kiri from her computer lab. Utterly preoccupied, she barely acknowledged my existence and waved me off. She finally appeared about twenty minutes later, and said very little during supper. It seemed as if her mind was rolling a problem back and forth, unsuccessfully trying to find an opening. We had retired to the living room and Lev had just begun to give a report on the latest developments when she unexpectedly broke in.
"It's just wrong," she exploded. "It's all wrong."
"Well, of course it is," I said, surprised. "Isn't that the whole point?"
Ignoring me, she went on. "The technology use is all wrong. It doesn't make sense." More perplexed than ever, I discreetly kept my mouth shut this time.
"Explain," said Lev.
"Let's go to my computer lab," she suggested. "I want to show you something."
We followed her upstairs into her room filled with the computer equipment I had previously seen on the Futaba. As she loaded a file, she spoke rapidly. "The idea came to me as a result of a computer strategy game I stumbled across on Earth. It was pretty primitive, but the concept was brilliant, in that instead of just blowing things up you had to build a civilization by choosing and developing various technologies. It occurred to me that the technology we're seeing on Deshtiris doesn't seem to be developing in any rational way."
She brought up a complex chart onto the monitor. It vaguely reminded me of a tree lying on its side, with the trunk on the left and branching ever more elaborately towards the right. "This is a rough diagram of how technology developed on both Qozernon and Deshtiris up until about fifty years ago. You can see that each new advance was the result of either an elaboration of existing knowledge, or the result of two existing technologies being combined in an unexpected way. That's how technology normally develops. Now look at this." She entered a command and an entirely different chart appeared. "This is Deshtiris over the past fifty years," she said.
Even to my twentieth century Earth eyes it looked different. "Things just pop out of nowhere," I said.
"Exactly," she replied triumphantly. "Take the laser rifles, for example. We've been able to determine how they work, but we had to develop a whole new basis of crystal theory to explain it, and we still don't quite understand the electronics of the control mechanisms. Normally there would have been years or decades of progress in crystal theory, and of the necessary electronics, before the laser rifle technology would have been mature enough to develop a theoretical model, much less create an actual working model." We all nodded agreement.
"And your point is?" said Lev.
"They all appeared at once. All together. Out of the blue." Pointing to a number of branches that seemed to have no attachment to anything else, she went on, "This happened with all of these innovations. They didn't develop from existing knowledge. They just suddenly appeared fully grown, complete with all necessary supporting technology."
She stopped and paused meaningfully. "It's as if they were ordered from a catalog." Fascinated, none of us spoke. "And then there are the holes. In spite of having technology like this, they're still using rubber tired vehicles, running on synthetic petroleum. They're generating electricity from fission. And their starships are decades behind the Futaba in sophistication. It's like a crazy quilt. It just doesn't make sense."
"Couldn't there be one mind behind all this?" I said finally. "After all, genius does sometimes make unexpected leaps of intuition. You've said yourself that your father was brilliant, and that he hasn't been heard from since the Brizal takeover. Could he be the source of these innovations?"
Kiri nodded. "That occurred to me. Especially considering that this all started about fifty years ago. Forty-six, to be precise."
"Then--" I started, and she finished the sentence for me. "The first piece of orphan technology to appear in this entire insane tapestry was me."
* Also known in English as Those Obnoxious Aliens. - Ed.
§ Margarine, actually, as animals are neither harvested nor exploited for by-products on the Twin Planets. However, Wilorian has consistently used the word "butter," and for clarity I've left his text unaltered. - Ed.
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