It was a good thing that Kiri had gotten the rest she did, because as best as I could determine that was the last time she slept for three days straight. Once or twice I found her in the kitchen at odd hours, grabbing a snack, and always totally preoccupied. Regardless of the hour, if I walked by the door to her computer lab I saw her light shining under the door and could hear the quiet clicking of her keyboard. On the second day I took the bull by the horns and risked entering (after knocking very quietly).
"So what is it you're trying to do?" I asked, hoping to at least draw her into a conversation for a moment. To my surprise she actually answered my question, rubbing the fatigue from her eyes. "Their systems keep locking up unexpectedly. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it."
"So this is the corporate problem you're working on," I said. She nodded.
"You're probably wondering how I can be working on this with that other thing hanging over our heads. I can't say how, but something keeps telling me that what I need is here." I looked at her in perplexity. "I don't really understand it either," she said helplessly. "It's just a feeling." It sounded as if she were suffering from severe sleep deprivation, I thought to myself with some alarm.
"It doesn't appear to be a hardware problem as far as I can tell." For a moment this comment seemed to come from out of the blue, and then I realized she was again talking about the systems puzzle she had been hired to solve. I thought about it for a moment.
"So maybe it's a software problem?" I suggested. She shook her head. I could see she was losing patience with me pretty quickly. "I'd be able to do a dump if that were the case. This locks up everything."
Something rang a bell. I vaguely remembered hearing something like this on one of the computing newsgroups on the Internet a while back. "So how about an illegal instruction that the CPU can't handle?"
"That would always trigger an exception*," she snapped irritably. "Look, just let me work, okay?" and rudely turned back to her screen. I beat a hasty retreat out of the room, backing into someone who put their arms around my waist from behind and gave me a friendly squeeze. It was, of course, Senaria.
"Don't worry," she said softly into my ear. "She gets this way when she's really obsessed with a project. She was like this when she was finishing the Futaba. Once she's done she'll transform back into a normal human being." At this point I wasn't quite sure about the last part, but decided to let it pass.
Senaria herself seemed to be in a state verging on euphoria, something I attributed to the fact that she had only just now returned from yet another date with Lev the previous evening. I'm glad someone's life is still moving forward, I thought to myself rather petulantly.
That evening I found Gelhinda sitting in her study and shared my concerns with her. Somewhat to my surprise, she did not seem at all alarmed. "I've never seen her become irrational from lack of sleep, or from anything else for that matter. I think it's more likely that she's just seeing something we're not. When she's ready, she'll rest."
"You know, Will," she said quite seriously, "Kiri may seem to you to be the galaxy's most self-assured life form, but I've known her all her life and I've seen a much different person at times. Your parents took her in as though she were their own when her family self-destructed, and they were really the only parents she ever knew. I don't believe that she ever got over their deaths. Since then she's carried a lot of emotional baggage around with her, although she's usually pretty good at keeping it under wraps." I nodded, remembering that first day on the Futaba.
"Has she spoken much to you about your parents, Will?" she asked with an odd expression on her face.
"We talked a bit on the trip here," I said, "but she didn't really say much. I got the impression that she didn't want to discuss them. Can you tell me a little about them?" Gelhinda leaned back in her chair.
"My husband and
"Please don't tell Kiri I spoke to you about this," she went on. "It's one of her blind spots, I think. To her they could do no wrong. But they were as much responsible for the disaster on Deshtiris as Teyn was, in my view. My husband and I saw what was coming, and tried to warn them, but they just weren't listening."
"You have to understand that on Deshtiris, the monarchy was not a figurehead position the way it's become in most nations on Earth. Nor was it an autocracy, but it did have a vast amount of power. On Deshtiris the government was structured much like your United States government, with an elected lawmaking body, courts, and chief executive. However, above them were the Emperor and Empress, who could themselves issue laws as well as veto bills passed by the assembly. By longstanding tradition, this power was rarely used, but it was there."
"Unfortunately, your parents watched developments on Earth with fascination, and took them a bit too seriously. A few years before you were born the Second World War had run to its conclusion, and, badly misreading both your and our histories, they became enamored of the idea that pure democracy was the wave of the future and that monarchies were an outdated relic of the past. They resolved to never 'misuse' their position, as they saw it, and determined that they would remain figureheads only."
"We all saw what was happening to the country as the Brizali began gaining strength, and urged them to speak out. They assured us that 'the people' would never let it happen, that their innate common sense would reject such barbarism. They had no concept of the evil that can result when sufficient money is poured into the political engines. Even without issuing edicts of their own, by merely speaking out, they could have rallied popular opinion and stifled the horrible thing in its nest. But they felt that their role was to 'build a consensus,' not to press their own values on the nation. They never understood that it's the politicians' role to build consensus; that their role was to act as a conscience over and above the political maelstrom. By the time they realized their terrible error it was far too late. Too much of the political structure of the nation had been bought up with Brizal money."
"And now Kiri has to face that legacy," she finished, "and somehow feels that it's her responsibility to correct things. She's built up a wall between her and the rest of the world. I think she's afraid that she'll hurt someone else if she gets too close to them. Senaria learned that the hard way a few years ago when she told Kiri she loved her."
I glanced at her in surprise. "You knew about that?"
For a moment she seemed taken aback by the question. "She's my daughter. Of course she told me about it." Then something clicked, and she chuckled. "Oh, of course. I keep forgetting that your culture still has hissy fits over things like gender. No, it wasn't what she told Kiri that shocked me, it was what Kiri did. A few days afterwards she told us that she was going on an expedition to do some research and wouldn't be back for a 'little while.' Then she disappeared for over fifteen months. We received occasional hyperspace messages from her for the first three, and then they became too faint to come through. It was nine months later that we finally heard from her again as she came back into range. Senaria was an absolute basket case. I don't think she's ever quite forgiven her. Or gotten over her, either."
"Did Kiri ever tell you where she went? Or why?" I asked, rather stunned myself.
"No," Gelhinda answered thoughtfully. "My feeling is that she was just running away from an awkward situation in order to avoid hurting someone. Of course, the result was just the opposite. She did the same thing once to someone on Earth, a physicist if I remember correctly."
"On top of that, even though she'd never admit it, I think that deep down inside she still believes that people consider her something of a freak. She's never really forgiven her father for what he did to her. It's ironic, in a way, because when she was a child she was probably the closest thing Deshtiris ever had to an Earth-style celebrity. I remember how those wonderful eyes used to show up all the time on magazine covers and television news spots. She was probably the most beloved person on Deshtiris, partly because she never seemed to realize it. People adored her for her utterly unspoiled personality. Since then she's developed a hard edge to her character, but underneath she's still a very vulnerable little girl in a lot of ways."
"She's the most beautiful woman I've ever known," I said more to myself than to Gelhinda. We were both silent for a moment.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?" Gelhinda said unexpectedly. "And she's more or less keeping you at arm's length. That's not easy for anyone to deal with." Caught off guard, I nodded and looked away. "Give her time, Will. I'm sure she feels the same way about you. But you have to keep in mind that she's terrified of doing to someone else what her
She sipped her drink and eyed me meaningfully. "You might just have to bully her a bit, Will. Don't let her make all your decisions for you. It's your life too."
The next evening, for the first time, there was a news report about worsening relations with Deshtiris. Citizens were warned that they might receive important instructions within the next few days. There was no mention of an impending invasion.
And Kiri worked through the night again. But the next morning I found her asleep in her bed. To my amazement she slept through the entire day, and that night as well. She was still asleep when I returned to my own room, wondering what the next sunrise would bring.
* An exception is a signal a chip generates to notify the operating system that something terrible has happened, so that the system can decide how to handle it. One example is the infamous "Attempt to divide by zero" message DOS users used to receive just before losing all of their unsaved work. - Ed.
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