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Naan of Iron

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EDMUND: I was contracted to them both; all three/Now marry in an instant

BEATRICE: Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
DON PEDRO: Will you have me, lady?
BEATRICE: No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days; your grace is too costly to wear every day.


The first time Jenna had sex with Blake was in the holding cells, before the London took off. It seemed only common sense to find the biggest, toughest prisoner and sidle under his protection. In her first assay, Gan candidly explained that as for quo, he couldn’t do much to defend her—or even himself. And as for quid, he explained (turning his head to hide his blushes) that violence wasn’t the only thing that gave him a blinding headache.

Jenna therefore moved on. She didn’t believe for a minute that Blake was a child molester (although she thought it might have some significance that the fabrication involved boys and not girls).

It was not easy to find privacy, even for hurried encounters. To her surprise, she felt comfortable enough to cry in his arms, and felt much better afterwards. She thought that he felt better as well, being able to give her some solace.

Then the attempted mutiny occurred, and the reasonable expectation that Blake was going to get her killed caused his stock with Jenna to tumble. Avon’s complete unwillingness to die quietly cheered her up a little, although she didn’t think it was really Blake he was angry at.

The first time that Jenna had sex with Avon was in the Wardrobe Room, the day after she first told him about this interesting (and puzzling) feature of what later proved to be the System’s fleet design. Jenna went in to put her petal-trimmed purple top into the sanitizer, and found Avon half-in and half-out of a beige silk shirt, trying to button up the fly of a pair of metallic cobalt blue leather trousers that left little scope for concealed carry.

She was surprised to see him in less than fully buttoned up to the neck. If anything, his drab technician’s outfit had seemed bolted on. Obviously he was attempting to change his image. His eyes looked different, too. Jenna realized that they were actually ordinary brown, they only looked pitch-black when Blake was close by. She filed the datum away, as something she could use.

“You’ve got to lie down to fasten those,” Jenna said. Avon knitted his brows, then complied. Jenna walked over to him and swung one boot over his struggling body. She knelt. “Need a hand with that?”

His hands dropped away from the trousers, and hovered in the vicinity of Jenna’s hips, unwilling either to trespass or to ask a stupid question. “That’s not helping,” Avon said.

Jenna quickly discovered that there was a competition that Avon was doomed to lose, but she didn’t object to his efforts to enhance his Artistic Impression scores.

The first time that Jenna fell in love she realized that she was entirely understood and entirely accepted and she had a home and a family. She had always thought of herself as heterosexual, and for a second she was discomfited by her destined lifemate being female. Then she decided that it was simply a silly matter of assigned nomenclature.

All the others, she realized, were mere forerunners, the simpler, less mature versions that she had to go through to find the real thing.

Soon, the ecstatic moment was elbowed away by a longer anxiety. Individually or between the pair of them, Blake and Avon were certain to find a way to frell this up for her. She couldn’t stand to let them.

She was on the flight deck, of course; at that stage, she usually was. She looked down, and saw that in either hand, she was gripping a trigger attached to a hose cable. The cable snaked around just as she twisted and pulled it. She grinned. {{That could work}} she thought.

“A ship like this!” Jenna said. “We could go anywhere!”

“Why don’t we find someplace safe and just stay there?” Avon asked. “We can use this—this *leviathan*-- as a getaway car if we look like getting caught.”

Jenna looked at him, amused. Probably the first time he’d ever been on a spaceship was when the one-way ticket was booked for him, and he didn’t seem to like it much.

“Nonsense! We’ll head back to Cygnus Alpha,” Blake said. “I need a crew!”

Jenna and Avon exchanged a glance. Cygnus Alpha didn’t make the short list, or even the interminable list, of places they ever wanted to go, and bucket list seemed all too applicable. “Blake, we went to a lot of trouble not to go there,” Jenna said.

“And why do you need a crew? Or rather, why is it your decision to make?”

“Yes, Avon, all right, I suppose I’m the leader, and you might say that I’m in charge,” Blake said. “I was the one who led the uprising on the London, after all.”

“And look how well that went!” Avon said. “I don’t object to going to Cygnus Alpha as such. You—all right, we—dropped the other prisoners right in it, so it’s only fair that we give them another chance. I don’t mind its being your suggestion, even a blind hog finds an acorn from time to time. But otherwise, I can’t see why you have any greater claim to leadership than either of us. As far as the Federation is concerned—not to mention whomever they stole it from—your claim to this ship is quite as bad as Jenna’s. Or mine.”

“Yes, but,” Jenna said, sweeping her hand to indicate the vastness of the ship. “Avon, you can’t deny that having a few more people around makes sense. I’d like to be able to get a night’s sleep knowing that someone else is in the pilot’s chair, for one thing.”

Food wasn’t the problem, there seemed to be enough for centuries, and they could buy food or trade for it or, for that matter, steal it or hijack shipments. There was cabin space for hundreds of people, but Jenna didn’t want it to turn as official and regimented as that level of staffing would demand. Jenna thought that twelve people would be just right. That would be enough to keep track of, divisible into two teams of six, or three teams of four, or four teams of three.

“To get back to your question, Avon, I need a crew because I’m going to destroy the Federation, of course.”

“I had hoped that the more florid aspects of the delusion would resolve in conditions of lesser stress.”

“That’s a bit ambitious for a first step, Roj,” Jenna said.

“At the very least, we’re agreed to go to Cygnus Alpha and free the prisoners. Then they’ll join us here.”

“The Federation are rather good at what they do,” Avon said. “Torture, murder, assassination, imprisonment. If you think you can beat them at their own game, why do you think that your most suitable comrades would be a load of semi-skilled criminals?”

“Semi-skilled?” Blake said, beginning to feel he’d been transported to an end-of-pier show. Nevertheless, he wanted to direct Avon’s cynicism in an outbound rather than inbound direction.

“They got caught, didn’t they?”

“They might be very good criminals,” Jenna said. “That won’t stop you from getting shopped, if someone can’t take the pain any more. Or if they want the money. Or out of sheer deviltry.”

“Precisely my point. And as little desire as I have to be trapped here with a conventicle of ideologues, at least they might be less inclined to drop us right in it.”

Blake was going to point out, in the interest of accuracy, that it wasn’t unusual for splinter groups to try to resolve their ideological differences through a few well-aimed words to Central Security, but thought better of it.

“Anyway, Avon, *you* got caught,” Jenna said. “Unless you want to argue that you were just an amateur punching above your weight.”

The first time the three of them had sex could be called the shakedown cruise for something Avon had built.

For the first few days onboard, they spent most of their time huddled on the flight deck, intimidated by the vastness and oddness of the ship and, not admitting it, but comforted by each others’ company. There was a small table in the galley that would have accommodated them (but it wouldn’t fit even the crew that Jenna envisioned, much less the division that could be crammed into all the potential barracks space). But they still found themselves heating up packaged meals from the huge freezer unit and bringing them to the flight deck (where they had already re-situated the tea urn).

Jenna noticed that it was difficult for Avon just to sit still, which Jenna thought was promising for getting rid of tasks that could not be performed by auto-repair. Lack of definable occupation was not a problem for Blake, who had the fate of the Universe to settle. Jenna herself could simply appreciate the moment of hurtling among the stars in this magnificent vessel. In fact she could appreciate the moment even sitting on a park bench on a wide-place-in-space planet, halfway through a cup of lukewarm tea, glad that nothing bad was happening at the moment.

Jenna realized that, although her guardian angel and her demon tempter were far too large to sit there, each could place a hand on her shoulder. Or any other paired anatomic feature. Jenna vowed to steer a middle course, taking her own counsel rather than theirs.

She thought that Avon was far more closely connected to the way things really were than Blake was. Sometimes she was afraid that somewhere, in the course of a scheme, they’d encounter the hare that wanted its brain back. But Jenna couldn’t help hoping that Blake could manage to tug the Universe closer to his preferred version. Sometimes she planned to adopt Blake’s idealism starting at the age of 84 or so, an eminence she thought she was far more likely to reach on Avon’s path than on Blake’s.

Then Avon started going walkabout with a clipboard, drawing maps. He must have found the materials and some tools somewhere, because he built a very, very large bed, whose head and foot could be dialed to any angle. The firmness of the mattress, in three vertical strips, could also be adjusted. The sheets and blankets were marred by a high place in the center: there hadn’t been any fabric in the Wardrobe Room wide enough, so he had had to fuse two pieces together. He also dyed the sheets ecru, with leftover tea, and added indigo ikat designs to the nondescript grey blankets with a drum of what he was fairly certain was vegetable dye.

“I do like to see you being helpful around the house, Avon,” Blake said, grinning and shucking off his tunic and shirt. “Come on, Jenna, let’s give this thing a test drive.”

“Your shoulders look tense,” Avon said. “Why don’t you lie down, and I’ll give you a massage.”

“Good idea!” Blake said. “We all rely on those shoulders, don’t we? Jenna, you’re just like Atlas, except much prettier.”

“All right,” Jenna said, climbing out of her boots and velveteen trousers.

“I can’t very well work on your back with your blouse on,” Avon said. So Jenna took off the rest of her clothes, and lay down on top of Blake, who was much comfier than even the good-quality mattress below them. She busied herself snogging Blake, and Avon busied himself legitimately massaging her shoulders and neck, moving down to her back. After awhile, she noted that only one of Avon’s hands was on her back, and it was definitely getting less of his attention than the hand on the big pole sticking up between her legs. So she put her hands on Blake’s shoulders and slid upward, which cued Avon to lean forward, and eventually someone took his clothes off.

A few hours later, Jenna and Blake told Avon that whatever else he did in that bed, he certainly wasn’t going to sleep there, because when he was told off for thrashing around waking everyone else up he took to just lying there radiating alertness and martyrdom.

Jenna found Blake a very comforting person to sleep with. His solid body radiated warmth. After saying “Goodnight, my dear” and kissing her hair, Blake composed himself, lying flat in the middle of the bed. Jenna wreathed herself around him and listened to his heart beat.

To show *them* Avon picked out a cabin clear at the other end of the corridor and eventually modded the bed to hell and back. He added a reading light in the headboard and a music player, which he never used because he was quite indifferent to music--but the other bed didn’t have one--and a massage setting, which got a lot of use.


The rate of uptake from Cygnus Alpha was not promising, but the original triumvirate (although they never said it out loud) appreciated both Vila’s ability to liven things up and Gan’s ability to smooth things over.

The next recruit was an unexpected benefit of the raid on the transceiver complex on Saurian Major. Shortly after she arrived, Jenna set out to teach her basic maneuvers—a speedy task because Cally already had some experience with light flyers, and Auron education was science- and technical-oriented.

{{I’m not sorry I’m here}} Cally sent {{I’m glad! But I hope it is not uncomfortable for you.}}

“I am used to people talking to me from *outside* my head,” Jenna said. “But I suppose it’s just habit. Blake’s thrilled, of course, Gan and Vila aren’t exactly the strongest on revolutionary fervor, so that was our first try at recruiting some more rebels.”

{{Not that}} Cally cleared her throat, and started again. “I mean having another female here. I believe that Terran females experience feelings of rivalry toward one another.”

“They’d—men, that is—would like you to think that!” Jenna said. “My people have a saying: ‘too many dicks on the dance floor.’”

Cally knitted her brow, then parsed it and smiled.


“Are you sure you can trust him?” Jenna asked. “I haven’t heard much about him, but what I did wasn’t flattering.”

“I can trust him to hate the Federation,” Blake said. “After they killed his wife and blinded him.”

“And stuck him at the back of beyond with no hope of leaving,” Avon said.

“*One* hope,” Blake said.

“A weapons designer sounds awfully useful!” Gan said. “If he could design a weapon that could be mass-produced easily, from limited resources, and especially if it could pass security screening…well, a company of troopers might think twice if the last time ‘round they expected to mow down an unarmed demonstration!”

“Turning a simple punch-up into a firefight, with one side unused to arms and firing wildly,” Avon said. “Yes, that always goes well.”

Vila’s eyes shone, thinking of some mates whose bank robbery careers would be enhanced by greater availability of firearms.

“Of course there are risks!” Cally said. “But I second Gan’s point. There must be many planets where the critical factor in rebellion is the availability of weapons. An organized resistance movement might be able to progress past house-to-house fighting to a credible pitched battle if they had artillery.”

“Ah, the criterion for being a sovereign nation,” Avon said. “Being able to kill people with impunity.”

“I can’t think of any state that won its freedom with nice cups of tea and plates of biscuits,” Cally said. “Blake? Feel free to join in any time.”

“As I was the one who proposed the Sarren mission, I should think it goes without saying that I’m favor of it!”

Jenna nodded. “It would take Avon to propose a plan and then passionately denounce its stupidity if it looked like Blake agreeing. Still, I think that the idea is a good one, and I’ve an idea how we can accomplish it fairly easily.” She turned toward Vila. “And safely. Zen? How long is it to Thompson’s Ditch, at Standard by Four?”

“Twenty-seven hours,” Zen said.

Jenna turned back to her colleagues. “It’s more or less on the way to Sarren,” she said. “Gan, please join me in the Wardrobe Room, we’ll get you kitted out.”

Vila was the first to break. “Jenna, I know you want us to ask you, and we don’t want to give you the satisfaction, but I’ve got to know…why are we going to Thompson’s Ditch?”

“That’s easy!” Jenna said. “So I can steal a couple of horses!” Gratified by the startled looks, she backed down a little. “Only if I must, of course. I’ll probably buy them. We can afford it.”

Chel strained his ears, hearing hoofbeats. A woman on a glorious palomino stallion rode up. Chel feasted his eyes on the glossy coat, perfect lines, and shining mane and tail, and appraised the value of the embossed bridle and saddle, enriched with silver.

The woman sat astride her horse, wearing a sage-green brocade silk robe, open over long, loose layers of fine linen. The silver-trimmed squash-blossom belt around her waist also held a sheath from which the jewel-studded pommel of a curved dagger protruded.

A decent deferential distance behind her, a mountain of a man sat on a roan mare that, if the palomino had not been in the picture, Chel would have considered fine enough. The man’s saddle and caparisons were made of sound leather, but nothing more. His coat was striped in faded indigo and tan, and the robes beneath were light wool. His height, already towering, was fortified by the sugar-loaf of gauze that rose over the puffy folds of his turmeric-dyed turban.

“He doesn’t speak Standard,” she said, gesturing toward her lips, “And don’t worry, he won’t tell our secrets—his tongue has been cut out.” Gan produced some blood-curdling grunts in confirmation. “But there’s nothing wrong with his eyes or his ears, and he’s pledged in fealty to me and he can smell treachery a mile away. That scimitar is sharp enough to cut a silk thread, by the way.”

“Madame, you do me grave insult to suggest that you need protection from me,” Chel said.

“Yet you ride in advance of a troop of five men,” Jenna said.

“They are my liegemen and my kinsmen,” he said. “I fear no man—I fear nothing—but it is my privilege as a ruler to be attended.”

“I am Jenna, daughter of Katherine, of the Amagon Tent of the Sapphire Phoenix,” Jenna said, wondering idly if she had once heard of some sort of ancient Big Potato called Katherine of Amagon. “I am a free trader. I have come here seeking the profits that come when the fruits of one world are exchanged for those of another.” She clapped her hands. “Ibn-al Khurr! Show the Lord Chel what is in the coffers!”

Gan fetched out some even horrider grunts. Jenna patted the air—see that your clowns say no more than is set down for them!—as he unpacked the saddlebags on his and Jenna’s horses.

“The artisans on other worlds are very clever,” Jenna said, opening a tackle box to show a mass of gears, screws, bolts, and other waste ironmongery. Another box contained screwdrivers, wrenches, and hand drills—just a few cubic meters of old rubbish that she had Avon dig out of the workrooms. “If you wish these things, I shall trade them for the goods of your world.”

Chel’s eyes glittered as he ran his hands through these treasures. “I would not buy these trifles, but that you have made a difficult journey to sell them.”

Jenna backpedaled furiously, trying to divert him from the subject of exactly where they had come from, and how. “I would be sad to return home without trading any goods. If you fetch us two other mounts, you may have these horses as part of the deal,” Jenna said. “They are modest, but I see they are pleasing to your eyes, so I will make you a gift to celebrate our brotherhood. The horses you give us need not be noble, but they must be sound in wind, and not lame!”

“Is this how you speak of brotherhood? My honor would forbid giving you horses that are not deserving of my generosity.”

It took an hour for two of the men riding with Chel to go back to the village, pack up some Federation coins and some of their own coins, a pouch of saffron, a barrel of molasses, a cask of arrack, and a carved box of jewelry and loose stones. To beguile the time, Jenna produced a tiny backgammon set, a large flask of Vila’s best scotch, and two tin cups from her remaining saddlebag. Gan gave them a thermos of ice water, and withdrew to the shade of the tree a dozen meters away but still in view of the other tree. Jenna almost wished that it was a legitimate trading mission, she knew she could sell Chel all the thermoses she could get her hands on at very fancy price.

When Chel’s men returned, Jenna asked Gan, “Are these horses acceptable?” in Amagon. As pre-arranged, he shrugged.

Chel’s bodyguards returned to the village, leaving the collateral at Chel’s feet. Jenna thought that the substitute horses they brought were inferior to the first pair, but she didn’t actually care and thought that they had killed enough time.

Jenna and Gan rode toward the beach. As soon as they were out of sight in the first bend of the road, she told Gan, “Well done! Why don’t you teleport back, and I’ll lead this horse along with mine.” Reminding herself that she didn’t need to economize (and they certainly couldn’t fit a couple of horses into what would already be a very crowded shuttle), she said, “Or, for that matter, I can let that horse wander off now; that’s what I’ll do with mine when I reach the Mellanbys’ ship anyway.”

“I suppose I should stay, help with loading up.”

“They’d better be nearly finished by now! And they’ve got dollies and dolly-track. We gave the Mellanbys plenty of notice so everything should have been packed.”

“Well, call me back if you need me,” Gan said, thinking longingly of a hot bath.

Jenna arrived chez Mellanby. Blake hugged her. “You look glorious!”

Avon nodded, only temporarily speechless. “Although you do smell like a horse.”

“I told Gan to call Vila for teleport. Everything all right here?”

“Right as rain,” Hal Mellanby said. “Hey, thank you for walking point on this. I already thanked the other guys for doing this for us.”

Blake patted Mellanby’s shoulder. “Then it’s time to leave. Time to head off to a better future.”

Hal Mellanby was in no shape to look back if he’d wanted to. Dayna craned her neck for The Last of Sarren. “If I never see this horrible place again, it’ll be too soon,” Lauren said.

“Funny, that’s just what Gan said about horses,” Jenna said, putting the shuttle on Autopilot and pouring herself a gold-trimmed glass of mint tea from the Amagon tea set she brought along in a bit of Method banditry.

“Dr. Mellanby? Hal?” Cally said, tapping on his cabin door, glad that neither Lauren nor Dayna was in the corridor.

He opened the door half-way. “Cally? Is that you? Umm, is anything wrong?”

{{Just the opposite. May I come in?}}

“Sure,” he said, opening the door wider.

“T’ja dallgrah zin osta!” Cally said, when she collided with the desk chair, which was rather closer to the door than the one in her own cabin. This means “You came out of your mother’s belly!” On Auron, them’s fightin’ words.

“Sorry! I’ll go get the lights…”

“It’s all right,” Cally said. “My eyes are adjusting. There are strips of small, low-wattage lights set into the floor and the lower part of the walls.” She sat down on the bed. “I’m sitting on your bed, Hal.”

“Oh. Hi. So, what brings you here tonight?”

{{Mon dieu! Are you not man enough to know?}} Her loneliness and need for physical comfort radiated toward him.

“How about the Big Guy?”

“He has a rather full dance card,” Cally said. “At any rate, it would be unprofessional. I’m his subordinate. You and I are equals.” {{I’m sorry. I’ll just leave. If you could just move over a little so I can get out—preferably avoiding the desk chair this time…}}

Instead, Mellanby moved closer to her. “Please don’t go. I’m happy. Just surprised, is all.”

“Tell me what you look like,” he said, and then, “Ah, naah, girl, that’s not right. That is not correct. Skinny and awkward? No, you are supple. I can feel that! Lithe as a willow tree. Deliciously slender. Now, I agree that Jenna seems like some kind of a woman but…there’s not just one kind, is there? Lots of kinds of beautiful ladies.” He could tell that she was embarrassed to ask for what she wanted. “Best thing about telepaths?” he said. “I can feel what you’re feeling. So, I can listen up and do just what it takes to give you a glad time.”

EPISODE 1.04 MISSION TO SILMARENO PART ONE (special Third Solstice double episode)

Cally looked at her wristchron. The dial ticked precisely to 1500 hours.

“Right!” Lauren said. “I’m off!” She never went to strategy meetings, Dayna often skipped them. They were meat and drink for Cally, Hal, and Blake. Gan rather enjoyed them, and was always flattered to have his opinion asked. Jenna, like Vila, didn’t enjoy the meetings but felt had to monitor what was likely to happen to them, although they tended to opt for a sleep shift around that time. Jenna caught up by fast-forwarding through Zen’s recordings. Vila got the highlights from Avon, who said that the meetings were the best free entertainment on offer, the comedy routines were pure gold.

“Blake, you were saying that we could use a base. I’m not fully certain of that—our mobility offers many advantages—but certainly the idea merits exploration,” Cally said. “Whether or not Silmareno is suitable as a base, there’s a lot of work to be done there.” Before Avon could say “Where?” she said “The Federation know it as “Horizon.”

She pressed the button on her hand-held commset, and the first slide went up on the main screen. “Nominally, the Monopasium-239 miners are free laborers, but for all practical purposes, they are enslaved.”

“The worst of both worlds, really,” Avon said. “If the mine owners actually had to pay money for their laborers, they might not throw away their lives the way they do. They’d have an investment to protect.”

“I’m touched,” Vila said.

Avon shrugged. “I don’t like waste. I don’t like stupidity. In fact, it’s only a grade-five tinpot world like this where people would be condemned to chip away at a rock face all day instead of proper deployment of machinery.”

Cally clicked for the next slide, showing the number of people employed in the mines over time. Or rather, it was the number over time; the individual miners didn’t last long and had to be replaced. The third slide, copied from a mining company Tarialsite, was a graphic showing the dozens of worlds to which Monopasium-239 was exported; the fourth was a similarly-sourced graphic showing products containing M-239.

“So we would have a dual objective,” Cally said. “If we can organize the miners, they can threaten to strike for better working conditions. If their demands are granted, well and good! We’ve helped them, and had far more impact than answering the odd distress call now and then. But if not, and they go out, then we benefit by the disruption of the Federation’s supply of conflict minerals.”

“I can’t see the Federation letting that go with just a slap on the wrist,” Gan said.

“According to our intelligence, they only contact Silmareno once a year—and they’ve just been and gone!” Cally said. “We lay careful foundations, of course. We instruct them about democracy…”

Avon muttered something about “ungracious pastors,” “primrose paths of dalliance,” “pot” and “kettle.”

“…Using the union as an example of concrete benefits to themselves that they can easily comprehend. “

“Why don’t we just blow up the mines?” Vila said. “That’d stop the Federation from getting at the stuff, and serve the bosses right to lose their money, the way they treated everyone.”

“The mines are dangerously radioactive even as they are,” Jenna said. “In effect, you’d be turning the whole planet into an atomic bomb. And look what that did to Earth!”

“Right, forget I said anything, let’s go back to Plan A…”

“No, you’re on to something there,” Blake said. “Not the mines, but in the Penultimate World War, sometimes they bombed the railroad tracks leading to death camps. Bombing the camps themselves would have destroyed too many innocent victims, so they disrupted the transport instead. We’ll look into that. Well done, Vila!”

“If the Federation seek to suppress the people’s movement, Hal…that is, Dr. Mellanby” (Cally blushed a little; Vila whistled a declining scale) “and his daughters can help with that. Dr. Mellanby, you have the floor.” Cally sat down.

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…” Hal began. “Uhh, Dayna’s come up with a really clean, simple, five-piece design for a non-metallic needle gun, and we already had a sweet bazooka that can be assembled in under twenty minutes. If we can borrow some of the lathes and CADCAM devices from the ship…”

“Over my…that is, absolutely not,” Avon said, assuming that that could be arranged if he finished the phrase. “The ship’s equipment stays on the ship. Ask Jenna—I’m sure it’s the one thing she’d be sure to back me up on.”

“Thought you were going to say that. Well, we can machine the components here, pack ‘em and set up a non-automated assembly line in pretty much any barn or warehouse, long as we can lock up at the end of the shift, and it’s obscure enough to keep out of the way of the cops and security.”

“Where’s Vila?” Blake asked, leaning over the teleport console.

Jenna looked at the board. “He’s checked out for downplanet. He hasn’t called in, and the distress indicator on his bracelet is silent.” (It took Avon a while to hack the bracelets for this purpose, but he made it a high priority.) “I don’t think he’d miss dinner, though.”

Just on cue, Vila shimmered into the teleport bay. He was not alone. A small thin woman came along with him, holding his hand. Jenna found it impossible to estimate her age. She was tiny enough to be a child, but her face was leathery. The crow’s feet around her eyes could indicate a predilection for hilarity, or simply lack of access to moisturizer. Her hair was chopped short and sprayed fuchsia and chartreuse, so it might or mightn’t have been gray.

“This is Aamla,” Vila said. “I brought her over for dinner.”

Blake cleared his throat. “Welcome, Aamla,” he said, reserving decision. “Jenna, would you be kind enough to show her where to stow her bracelet—the one Vila *must have given her*--and where to wash up?”

When they were out of earshot, Blake put his hands on his hips and said, “Well?”

“I was at the Thieves’ Guild post, having a jar, you know?”

“I wasn’t aware you were an official member.”

“I’m not, you see, but they have this back entrance with a time lock linked to a container of mustard gas. If you can get in, they’ll let you in. I’m too modest to say, but Aamla’ll tell you I’m standing joint first, three minutes thirteen seconds. They have a lovely absinthe on tap. Artisinal. Me and Aamla played some billiards, got to talking, I bought her a meal because she could use one, and then I thought…” (redacting references to the knee-trembler in the alley) “we’ve got plenty of room here, and the sort of thing we do, we can always use another thief. And besides, even if she never steals a thing, she’ll come in handy for Local Knowledge.”

Vila was particularly grateful to meet a compatible woman who was not in any way related to Dr. Mellanby. A few days after his family’s rescue, Hal took Vila aside for a chat. He draped an arm over Vila’s shoulder, and gave him a history lesson about popular media. He said that in his case, it would be particularly risky to trigger a shovel talk, because a poor blind man could be pretty inaccurate with a shovel. Since then, Vila tried never to be in the same room as Lauren or Dayna without the buffer of an appropriate adult.

Cally put the large china platter down on the table. The salad, breadrolls, mashed purple taro, pickles, and lablab beans in pistachio-nut oil were already there. Cally carved the roast, trying to remember who was rostered to cook lunch the next day.

{{Avon}} she sent, {{Better thaw out a packet of something from the freezer, I don’t think there’ll be a lot of leftovers.}} Avon nodded. He’d been planning to make cannelloni. He revised it downward to croquettes with the leftover taro. There was always a lot of that left over, no one could figure out why anyone kept cooking it. Probably because there were so many packets in the freezer that there was a tendency to seize it instead of looking for the black-sprouting cabbage (a guaranteed hit) all the way in the back.

Aamla soldiered through three plates of roast hazelgoose and four apple dumplings. With a contented belch, she volunteered to do the washing-up. Dayna (who could manage only one plateful and a drumstick) went with her to show her how to load the dishwasher and to ask her advice about nail art.

“She’s nice, isn’t she?” Vila asked.

The table fell silent, until Gan ventured, “Yes. Yes she is, Vila. I’m glad you’ve found a friend.”

“She’s poor, Blake, she’s hungry, and she’s got nowhere to go,” Vila said. “We’re in favor of the downtrodden, aren’t we?”

“Oughtn’t she to be living opulently on her ill-gotten gains?” Avon asked.

“That’s you Tories all over,” Vila said. “Think that the only reason anyone’s not rich is that they’re work-shy.”

“There are security problems to consider,” Blake said.

“Vila, even the comparatively modest price on *your* extremely modest head would be a fortune to her.”

“Avon! We can’t go around killing innocent criminals just because they’ve seen us.”

“No one said…” Cally began.

“What d’you think? That nobody except fancy Alphas ever feels like a bit of how’s your father? Or wants someone to cuddle up with at night when they’re scared?”

Gan sighed. “Why shouldn’t we let her stay? I daresay it might be a risk, but we do nothing but take risks. And that’s a sound point about local knowledge.”

“Been talking behind my back?” Aamla said cheerfully.

“Yes. From what Vila has told us, you would like to stay here, at least for a while. And I don’t know what Vila has told you. We’re rebels against the Federation,” Blake said. “What your people call ‘resisters.’ You may have heard that rebellion is a genetically induced mental illness, but that’s a Federation canard.”

“Good!” Aamla said. “I’ve got no use for those bastards. Nor anybody ‘round here anyway, except for the king kissing their arses.”

A few days later, after finishing a split shift between machining gun parts and chopping cooraibo root and shredding fabuke leaves for curry, Gan reflected that it wasn’t what he was used to, but it all seemed to be working out reasonably well.

From his station at the teleport console, Avon wondered what would happen if he were alone. If Blake and Cally were off organizing, and Vila wandered off or got himself into trouble, and Jenna was…what? She had already turned down the option of sprinting off in the Liberator and leaving Blake to his fate.

Lauren and Dayna sprinted down the corridor for some obscure purpose, giggling. Jenna’s voice came over the CommLink. “Avon? How are you getting on with those scenarios for automating the monopasium mines?”

“One trait you share with Blake,” Avon said, “Is your complete inability to devise a feasible work schedule.”{{With this mob around, I’m very likely to die, but probably not silent and certainly not alone.}}

Aamla came over, her apron tie-dyed with splattered spices, her hair frosted with stray flour. “Hoi!” she said. “I ran the dough wrappers through the thingummy you built. It won’t do! The wrappers are far too thin, they’d fall apart in the oil!”

“It’s got six settings,” Avon said. “Just make them thicker, if that’s your problem.”

“And the cutter makes them too large, but. We don’t want to give away all our profits!”


“Aamla,” she said. “Just the one name, like Cally.”

“Aamla, I admire your dedication, but the fact is we’re only pretending to run a food stall, not actually doing it.”

“Well, that’s the way to get caught, isn’t it? You’ve got to put your back into it.” And, because he admired craftsmanship, he got up and followed her into the kitchen and recalibrated the blades.

“Coming up,” Vila said. Thumps and yowls emanated from the box in his arms.

Avon, intrigued, left the teleport bay and followed Vila to the flight deck. “Went to the cat house,” Vila said. “No, wait, that sounds wrong. If it was dogs, it would be the pound. Aamla’ll be that pleased, she was just saying we could use some, they’d go over a treat.”

Cally swept out, majestically. Whatever she Sent him, Vila flinched, and she was gone before he could explain. Vila injudiciously put down the box for a minute. “I’m telling you, them pussycats is *quick,*” he said.

Five minutes later, Lauren and Dayna skipped onto the Flight Deck, each carrying a kitten curled in her palm. “Aren’t they adorable?” Lauren said.

“We called my one Blake and that one Jenna!” Dayna said. “’Cause they were the first ones here! And Blake’s a nice stripey orange moggie and Jenna’s the fancy kind.” (She meant “Siamese.”)

“What happened to the other one?” Vila asked. “The black one? Looks diabolical and nearly snaps your fingers off?”

“Well, we didn’t want to leave Avon with the other two just yet, till he gets used to them and stops hissing and spitting,” Lauren said.

“Some hope,” Vila said.

“I think that other one’s a girl anyway,” Dayna said.

“Aamla thought we could use some pets round here,” Vila explained now that there was a chance of somebody listening. “Liven the place up a bit, and there’s acres and acres for the sand box.”

Aamla pushed open the tambour, took a long breath, and said, “Open for business!” Vila lit the flame under the tea urn, dumped a packet of tea into the brewing basket, and filled up the urn with water. Aamla got the griddle going and took the cover off the uppermost crate. The crates were filled with food prepared in the Liberator’s kitchen, ready for reheating: trays of filled breads, pots of rice, spiced stews, and flatbreads to scoop them up with.

Trading anxious glances with Vila, Aamla took the first order off the griddle and wrapped the pastry in a Freedom Party leaflet. “You’re our first customer!” she said. “So it’s on the house!”

The miner said, “Ta!” but wished that he’d known that, in that case he would have ordered one of the blue ones described as having bacon inside. (They did, but not extensively.) He picked up the squeeze bottle of hoopberry sauce, then did a double-take. “It’s not wrapped in newspaper!” he accused.

“No, it’s…well, take it home and read it, you’ll see…”

“They don’t taste the same without.”

Vila carefully extracted the sports page from his newspaper. “The customer is always right,” he said, tearing a square of newsprint, swathing the pastry in it and then rolling the parcel into the leaflet.

“I wish we could do it the other way around, less likely we’d get caught handing out the leaflets,” Vila said. “Still, needs must when the devil drives.” He poured himself another cup of tea and started a stack of neat squares of the rest of the newspaper. “Nothing in the rag but a lot of government propaganda anyway,” he said. “And I don’t know what sport they’re playing so the scores don’t mean much.”

Because it was a long walk from his room to the teahouse, the regulars were surprised to see Jhaveer turning up three days in a row. Jhaveer walked with a pronounced limp, so he wasn’t much of a one for hikes or nature walks. He was also known to be saving his money for some inscrutable purpose. They were glad to see him, because Jhaveer could read and write, and many of the miners couldn’t.

They were uneducated but not stupid, so nothing of significance was discussed while they sat in the teahouse, or when they began the walk back to the miner’s living quarters and passed the last of what they thought might be the working surveillance cameras.

A thin cold rain started to fall, and the miners huddled in their light jackets. “What’s this, then?” Berroin said, unfolding one of the leaflets. (It had a big grease spot and some dried cilantro in one corner.)

“It’s from Roj Blake,” Jhaveer said. “He’s a rebel. The Federation sent him into exile for life, but he escaped. He’s got a spaceship, called the Liberator. He says we should form a union, and he’ll help us do it.”

“I’ve heard of him,” Ketbuk said. “From Earth, innit? When was the last time a sodding Terry did anything worth a pot of piss?”

“Yeah, Blake,” said Onrah the Pickaxe. “He’s got a nerve showing his face here, after what he did to those kids.”

“All right, I wouldn’t try to marry off my sister to him,” Jhaveer said. “But he says he can help us. Who else even tried?”

“What do you mean, help?” Dolaif asked.

“Show us what to do, to have a union, how to have meetings without getting caught, how to make decisions about what to do next. If just one man asks for more money, or better working conditions, of course he’ll get the sack. If they don’t make that unnecessary by beating him to death. Look, it’s like loading up an ore cart and sending it down the rails. There’s a tipping point, where it’ll go over and unload if it’s heavy enough. If it’s too light, it’ll just stop there. If every man stands with the union, it won’t make the bosses any better off if they kill us all. They’ll still want to work the mines, but there’ll be no one to do it with.”

“Yeah, but we’ll still be dead. Or shipped off to Ursa Prime.”

Jhaveer laughed. “The bosses went too far with that one,” they said. “Send us to Ursa Prime, and…we’ll be slaving away in mines that’ll kill us…a lot slower than the ones that are killing us now. And when you make a man’s life more miserable than anyone can stand, then a quick bullet comes to seem like mercy.”

“Not to me it don’t,” Onrah the Pickaxe said. “It’s still my life for as long as I’ve got it and I don’t want it thrown away on your Mr. Blake’s say-so. Anyway, why would he want to help us?”

“The more people live in freedom, the best pleased he’ll be. And it’ll be one in the eye for the Federation.”

“Jhaveer, you’re a good bloke, but you’d be mad to have anything to do with this,” Ketbuk said. “I’ll be off home now, and I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you talking like this. For your own good, you’d best stop this nonsense. If I hear any more of it, I might have to report it.”

Onrah the Pickaxe threw Jhaveer a dirty look and walked off with Ketbuk, leaving Jhaveer and three others.

“At least I’d like to hear more,” Dolaif said. “Maybe get a bit drunk on ideas, that’s cheaper than getting drunk on gutknife. But isn’t it mad to think that a bunch of raggedy-arse miners can do anything except get ourselves jailed or worse?”

“That’s the other thing,” Jhaveer said. “He says that we should try peaceful means first—but if that fails, he can get us guns. Lots of guns. And the Liberator, it’s a fighting ship, with a band of fighters who can train us.”

Cally swung the mace at the padded dummy, grimaced, and put it down. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she said. “The archery range—the whole Ancient Weapons area—seems to be rather a female preserve!” The area had been furnished at Dayna’s request. Lauren and Cally were regulars; Jenna sometimes shot a few quivers of arrows from a longbow. Aamla was charmed with the possibilities inherent in shooting back and blowing things up, but she couldn’t be bothered with anything less modern than a clipgun.

Avon looked up from loading a crossbow. “Apart from the paucity of diversions, I like to take the measure of anything someone could use to kill me with.” He was not a natural, but had, by dint of practice, already become a pretty good shot with everything previously in the Liberator’s arsenal.

“The Ancient Chinese said that when you save a man’s life, he becomes your responsibility,” Blake said. “Permanently.”

“That must have reduced the bill for life savers’ medals,” Avon said. Jenna gave a sharp tug to one of the pillows Avon was hogging and whistled the tone that raised the cabin’s thermostat. Blake pulled her over to the middle of the bed. He snuggled up to her (Cally had recently given a presentation about sustainable energy), echoed immediately by Avon, who also pulled up the duvet.

“You know very well what I mean. We can’t just swan in, call the miners out, close down the pits, and bugger off again.”

“I don’t see why not. Unless you’re planning to buy up all these planets you want to subvert. Or set up your own rival empire. You needn’t call it leaving them to it when you can dignify it with the name of multi-lateral self-determination. The vegetation ‘round here looks lively enough—they can go off and be farmers. Or they can build proper hydroponic farms and growth vats. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for the number of primitive worlds, we’ve learned enough to industrialize them and give their people a chance to earn a decent living.”

“And a chance for a few plutocrats to garner all the wealth,” Blake said. “Still, you may have something in terms of industrialization. We’ve enough room here for a laboratory and proving ground for Hal and Dayna to do their research, but we’re not really equipped for large-scale production. We could kill…”

“Lots of hapless conscripts and innocent civilians?” Avon suggested.

“…I was going to say, two birds with one stone,” Blake continued, unruffled. Jenna rather admired both Avon’s ability to get his head out of Blake’s lap and immediately resume slagging him off, and Blake’s status as a big enough man not to insist on being sucked *up* to. “One incentive for King Ro to offer us, or at least tolerate, our base here would be to set up a proper factory for Mellanby. Full-scale production, not just unskilled assembly the way it is now. He’d be the envy of all the local oligarchs who don’t have their own ensuite munitions plants. There’d be plenty of good jobs for the miners put out of work at the pit, and of course they’d be better off working in a factory where they aren’t exposed to killing levels of radiation.”

“Whatever our mission is, I’m sure we can find someone better suited to it than Wiggles and Giggles,” Jenna said.

“What? Dayna’s a nice old-fashioned girl. What’s that cologne she wears—nitroglycerine and rosewater? No, I agree. I won’t mind seeing the last of them either,” Avon said. “Still, I suppose we got them as a job lot with Mellanby. And we may be seeing them again, if King Ro seizes the factory and conscripts all the production for his own purposes.”

“What I’ve heard about that young Jhaveer sounds promising,” Blake said. “Perhaps he’d like to join us.”


“Is this going to work?” Jhaveer said.

“Of course,” Avon said. “It’s a simple download link.” He checked the battery pack again, knowing that Dayna had checked it three times when she loaded it. A little girl—the miners didn’t go in for detailed records, but Avon thought she was about ten—watched him closely, peppering him with questions.

When it was time, Avon bent down to the battery pack, to hide his grin when Blake’s image formed against the rough plaster wall, When the transmission began, Avon decided that it hadn’t been necessary to bump up the bass, Blake sounded authoritative yet warmly approachable.

“I’m Roj Blake,” the transmission said. “I’m nearby in my ship, the Liberator. Our mission is to help oppressed people everywhere. If you’ve heard of me, you probably know that I was arrested, and charged with a dreadful crime. I am innocent of that. It was all Federation lies to discredit me. But what you may not know is that I was arrested before, and on charges of which I am guilty. That first time, I was charged with rebellion. With sedition. With leading the Freedom Party. That is all true.

And I was punished for that. The Federation erased my memory. Wiped my mind. I didn’t even know until much later that they had murdered my family. The lesson I learned from that—is that however great the Federation’s power, it is not absolute. I came back to my mind. To my struggle. I came back to fight, and you can too.

We’ve come to Silmareno to show you how to organize a union, for better terms and a better life. If you are brave and resolute and trust one another and stand together, you can win through peacefully. But if peaceful methods fail, the Liberator stands ready to fight for you, and to train and arm your fighters.”

“Well, Jhaveer, you’re in charge, of course,” Onrah the Pickaxe’s wife Dolabeh said. “You’ll get the medal or the first bullet, for sure.” As yet no other contenders had emerged for these honors, so Jhaveer’s leadership position was set, at least for the time being.

Gan had furnished a list of vacant sheds, empty barns, and failed shops, and a few taverns whose no-questions-asked rented rooms were large enough for a cell meeting; Avon passed it along to Mekuti, who seemed like the fussy type who would evolve into the recording secretary.

“Wait here,” Avon said. “I’ll loop in some innocuous footage so the security cameras won’t pick you up.” He didn’t have to do it a second time; the girl, Baxi, memorized the routine and took over from then on. She ran the projector for the transmissions from the Liberator, too.

Dayna looked up from the griddle, where she had just laid out a cartonful of spinach pakoras to heat up. “Well, she sticks out like a sore thumb,” she said, pointing her chin in the direction of the well-dressed woman who had just paid for four kaskas’ worth of food (enough to fill two large sacks) with a ten-kaska gold coin. Fortunately, it was late in the food cart’s opening hours, so there was enough change.

Aamla gave the tea urn the gentle backhand that it needed to start brewing. “She seems a lot more interested in the wrappers than in the food,” she said. In fact, the woman had carried the sacks a few meters, then encountered a group of beggars (never a difficult thing to do in the Federation). She stripped off the brochures and gave away the food.

This was repeated four days in a row; the woman must have discovered that the brochures were printed on three different colors of paper, with a new leaflet published every two days. Cally was responsible for the text, Gan for getting them printed out and delivered to the food stall, although it was evident that he couldn’t work shifts inside, because he took up more than the available amount of space between the griddle and the counter.

The leaflets included a few simple riddles that, when decoded, told the reader to whistle a few bars of a popular song, “Distant Star,” at the beginning of the shift. (It wasn’t a new popular song, so everyone knew it but they probably wouldn’t choose it at random. If it weren’t for the role of music as a significant part of Silmarene life, it would be unlikely that anyone would ever be cheerful enough to whistle.)

Then a union agent would approach the whistler and give directions and a time of rendezvous. If followed, the directions led to nowhere very much, where the security team--Lauren or Dayna and a couple of members of the innermost rebel cell stood, armed with machine guns and swathed in body armor—stood ready to conduct them to the meeting.

The attractiveness of the cause was greatly enhanced by the new recruits’ ability to swan around with machine guns in front of good-looking young women, and by the chance to earn good wages assembling weapons in the pop-up factories. And watching the Liberator crewmembers teleport away after a meeting just never got old.

After two meetings and swearing a blood oath, (Cally, who had studied Sentientology at University, wrote up an age-old Silmarene ritual) a new recruit got a good-luck charm. Lauren bought a carton of the charms from the Night Market. Avon designed a flat foil reader that, stuck on the back of the charm, could be used to read the address of the next meeting from the bar code on the latest leaflet.

As it happened, Cally was working at the food stall when the elegant woman—who had switched to Primitive costume and was more conspicuous than ever--waited until closing time. The second-shift miners had picked up their suppers and headed home or to the teahouse. The woman went over to the window and whispered imperiously, “Who is in charge here?”

“Well,” Cally said. “That’s not really relevant. But perhaps you might say that I am.” Aamla stood behind Cally (to the extent even two small women could in that tight space) and reached her hand back to the pistol underneath the counter that held the tea urn.

“I am Jipriya, lady-in-waiting to the Lady Selma,” the visitor heralded. “She has long been sympathetic with the cause of the people—she was expelled from the Federation Training Complex for disobedience—and she seeks a meeting with your Generalissimo Blake.”

Aamla grinned, hearing what Cally had to say about what Blake would say to *that.*

“I will convey your message,” Cally said. “But I am sure you can understand, we must be cautious. The cause of freedom has many enemies.”

“But surely your risk is slight. I have heard that you have a ship, a noble—and very fast—ship that will take you away if there is danger. My lady risks everything by speaking to you.”

“Greetings and benisons, Cally the Auron,” Selma said. “Thank you for bringing your lord commander to this meeting. You’re Blake, aren’t you?” Selma said. “Roj Blake. Your first name is Roj.” Blake nodded, not sure what caused the emphasis on his first name. Perhaps it was something like feng shui, that she thought the name was particularly auspicious. Or particularly inauspicious, and she’d try to eliminate his demonic presence. He didn’t think she was much of a threat, a breeze could blow her away and the teapot hadn’t been out of his sight if she was trying to poison it.

“See!” she said, unrolling a scroll. “It’s the official proclamation of the royal wedding.”

“Congratulations!” Blake said. She grimaced. “A political marriage, of course. It has far more to do with my uncle’s lineage and the number of troops my great-aunt can muster than any personal feeling between us.”

“Still and all, throughout history many ambitious women have found political marriages a way to accomplish things, undertake roles, and exert influence that would otherwise have been denied to them,” Blake said.

“There are many steps that a queen may take in her own right. The welfare of the people is often deemed to be beneath male notice, so she may find herself acclaimed as virtuous and charitable for actions that would be deemed seditious in others,” Cally said encouragingly.

“Not, I think, if the king is strong,” Selma said. “Perhaps in the case of a weakling, a puppet king.”

“Then it all depends on who’s pulling the strings!” Blake said.

“That would be a marionette, I think. For a puppet, it depends on whose hand is up his arse!”

Blake blinked. It was not what either of them had expected to hear. Cally laughed first.

They returned to the Liberator, thoughtful, saying little. Cally went to Hal’s cabin to talk over this new development. Blake went to find Avon, who was in the Library, sketching a new production die for the molding machine.

Blake unrolled the scroll and pointed to the clay seal at the bottom. “Done by the Order of Ro. If there were a very, very tiny letter J beneath the period, it wouldn’t even be inaccurate. You see, the clay must have been rolled by a simple intaglio—a ring, or a stamp.”

“Do I have to do everything around here?” Avon said.

“Certainly not,” Blake said, starting to roll the scroll up again. “I’ll take it to Dayna. In fact, she might argue that she’s in charge of fabrication, it’s her department anyway.” He counted backward from five. Avon glared at him and grabbed the scroll. Reminding himself not to laugh, Blake said, “I’m glad, I’m sure you’ll do a much better job.”

“This is very short notice,” the Kommissar said, reading the scroll. “There will be no time to arrange a full Federation presence as required by a royal wedding, or even to have the wedding clothes prepared by an atelier in the first rank of fashion.” (He meant, “the workrooms are all busy filling Servalan’s orders, and they can’t delay or skimp on those.”)

“Nooo!” Selma said. “Oh, if only we’d thought of that. Still, our native artisans are well underway with the tasks of making the wedding clothes, the carpets, the altars, the canopies, and the torches.”

Ro looked over to the shadows at the side of the throne room, near the tapestry. There was a slim, curly-haired woman standing there. Ro assumed she must be a new lady-in-waiting added to Selma’s train in her role as royal fiancée.

A thought drifted through his head. {{I haven’t thought about him in years}} Ro thought. “Paura!” he said. “If only my dear friend Paura were here to celebrate this happy day with us! Kommissar, where is he deployed now? You told me that he succeeded brilliantly at his training course, he must have achieved a posting of the very highest echelon.”

“He did very well,” the Kommissar said. “Nearly as well as you! But you have always been my favorite pupil, of course.” Ro beamed and touched the pendant around his neck: his graduation medal from the Central Educational Complex.

“Dear Paura,” Selma said, with peculiar emphasis. “That good man! But he cannot join us. He is dead.”

“No! Certainly not!” Ro said. “I would have heard…” but a voice chimed through his thoughts. {{He is dead. The Federation condemned him to exile. He died during the transport, and his body was yielded up to the emptiness of space.}} He struggled to compose his features; he did not want the Kommissar to transmit a bad report about him.

{{He killed your father}} said the odd, silvery voice. {{Your father was a strong king. The Federation wouldn’t have that. He would not have allowed the enslavement of his people to fill the Federation’s pockets. So the Kommissar condemned him. But he did not trust a hired assassin, or even a soldier, to take his life. The Kommissar did it himself. With his own hands.}}

Selma looked down, so no one could see her eyes. She was glad that she was a Selmarine and not an Auron; her thoughts, at least, were her own, and no one could hear her until she chose to speak. She had heard it said that no man’s grief at his father’s death can ever be pure, because he can never stand on his own two feet and be truly a man as long as his father lives. How much truer that was in a palace, where no prince could be a king unless his father abdicated—which seldom happened—or died. A king’s life could be ended as abruptly as a miner’s.

Selma hoped that Ro would not just dismiss the new knowledge that chimed in his brain. Like Hamlet, he was receiving information without citations in proper academic form. The scattered data, if they could be gathered up like iron filings in a magnet, pointed toward revenge. But, unlike Hamlet, Ro was given the throne by murder, not deprived of it.

Selma didn’t think that Ro truly enjoyed being king. There were too many options, too many decisions to be made. Ro wanted to be everyone’s friend, but resolving even the pettiest land dispute would give the king one friend and one enemy. To be the friend of the Federation was to be the enemy of his people. And now there were means to stand with the people, against the Federation. Selma hoped they would be enough, but could not be sure.

Gan researched the uniforms of the ro(yal) guard, and Aamla cut up a couple of outfits from the Wardrobe Room and tailored them to fit Lauren. Dayna made the insignia and campaign patches, and awarded the entirely imaginary Lieutenant Stobb a couple of medals (but went on calling her sister “Slobby” and “Stabby” long after Lauren was thoroughly sick of the joke).

Lieutenant Stobb delivered the Proclamation, closing down the mine so the miners could celebrate the royal wedding, to the manager. She also gave him an invitation to one of the chic-est windows overlooking the procession. Stobb informed the manager that all production was to be shut down, and everyone except for the day shift gate watchmen got the day off.

The royal wedding was a glorious pageant. Four choirs, of a hundred voices each, sang at the wedding. It was proposed that the streets should run with claret, until someone pointed out the state of the streets and barrels of claret were set up at convenient locations instead. The next couture collection for five planets around featured soaring headdresses and feathered cloaks.

There was a bit of a problem marring the joy of the day. The three watchmen on duty at the mine were forced out of the gatehouse by clouds of gas emanating from what turned out to be stink bombs. By the time they returned with gas masks, firefighters, and police, quite a large segment of the railroad track used to load ore had disappeared.

In its first official act, the newly formed railway workers’ union demanded—and got—treble time for expediting the repairs.

On a more minor note, there were murmurs of a potential diplomatic incident when the Kommissar, who was scheduled to give the bride away, failed to appear at the wedding, which was already delayed a few minutes by the groom arriving some minutes after his entourage.

Although Selma had never heard of Napoleon, she emulated him by informing the priest that the Kommissar didn’t own her in the first place so he couldn’t give her away.

It was eventually discovered (although well before after an expanse of time sufficient to nose him in the lobby) that the Kommissar, face-down on the checkered marble floor with a dart in his neck, must have been dead when the wedding ceremony began. So it really wasn’t his fault that he didn’t turn up.

The Federation didn’t make much out of it. A little investigation showed the Kommissar’s ties to a treacherous cabal within the inner circle of Space Command that conspired against Servalan. The proof was the electronic trail of payments from the cabal to the Kommissar’s secret bank account. (When fabricating the entries, Avon took the precaution of trousering the actual contents of the Kommissar’s secret bank account. To keep the funds out of the wrong hands, of course.)

“Perhaps,” King Ro said to his queen on their wedding night, “There is something to be said for being a savage.”

“I shall not ask for a further explanation of what you mean by that,” Selma said. “But, in some senses, I do not disagree.”


In the private quarters of the Autumn Palace, Selma stood up, a chased silver pot in each hand. She raised her arms and poured tea from one pot, hot spiced milk from the other. Not a drop was spilled. When the two streams mingled in the small porcelain bowls, the tea turned a brilliant pink. “There is so little privacy here,” she said. “So much ceremony! It is a pleasure to meet with you here, and talk, just as two friends.”

Cally inclined her head, acknowledging the favor that was being shown to her. “Thank you, your majesty.”

“It is I who must thank you,” Selma said. “Your crew has done so much. Silmareno will be a very different place henceforth! As for the mechanization of the mines, it is not our tradition—but we’ve seen the facts and figures! I am certain we will move forward into the thirty-first century.”

“I hope, your majesty, that Silmareno’s wise rule will include consideration of the long history of modernization and industrialization. So much has been learned about how to create progress consistent with preserving the health of the planet.”

Selma waved a hand vaguely. “Oh, yes, I am certain that our scientists will give attention to all that! But, on a happier note, there will be a great ball in ten days, after the typhoon season ends. I wish I could invite Roj Blake, but I can’t promise that it would be very safe for him.”

Cally took a sip, managed not to grimace, and put down the bowl. “He and I share some reservations about monarchical systems,” she said. (What she meant was that she thought Blake, too, would like to see the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but she did not think it would be a useful conversational tidbit.) “Would it be possible to send an invitation for our captain, Jenna Stannis? She has dual citizenship with Amagon—actually, she may be the only one of us with a valid passport!—and she would enjoy the ball very much. And she is accustomed to high society, and is very lovely, so she would be an asset to any formal event.”

“But she must have an escort. If there is no one suitable from your ship, one of the Regal Guards can be assigned.”

“I don’t think Avon would be suitable in the least,” Cally said.

“Judging from what you’re thinking, he seems rather attractive,” Selma said, her lips curving upward.

“Unreliable people often are! He probably wouldn’t pick anyone’s pocket or try to hack account information while he was at the party, but really, you can’t trust him for five minutes not to insult someone who, at the very least, would challenge him to a duel. Or start an interplanetary war. And if you gave him a medal, he’d pretend to hate it, and say that he pawned it or threw it away. But if he lived to be a hundred and eleven, you’d find that he said in his will that the wanted to be buried with it.”

“Ah, I see that I shall have to order Colonel Veduina to escort Captain Jennastannis. To the party, mind you, I am not matchmaking. He is very happily married, and he and his wife have eight children!”

“Our crewmember, Olag Gan, would be most suitable. And I wish you would invite him, your Highness. He doesn’t often get any treats.”

“I shall see that it is done,” Selma said.

When the invitations arrived, Blake reflexively ran his finger over the bottom, searching for the clay seal. He discovered that, like all official documents, it was now signed with a bar code and a retinal scan. (As Scots jurors proverbially said, not guilty but don’t do it again.)

Although Avon was not happy about being left off the guest list, he was able to put aside his jealousy long enough to program the 3-D printer to roll out yards of silk jacquard, with a design of brown hexagons trimmed with gold bars. Gan wore his as a sash diagonally across his gold-buttoned red velvet coat. Aamla, who turned out to be as dab a hand with a sewing machine as she was with a griddle, made Jenna a cape with a huge round collar and a train. There was already a Fortuny-pleated column dress in the Wardrobe Room, of sea-green chiffon, so she wore that.

Jenna rostered a couple of night watches with Avon, where she placated him by giving him all the gossip about the ball.

By then, it was fairly obvious that the mission was complete. King Ro provided a royal warrant, a tract of land, and much of the capital (the Treasure Room provided the rest), for the Mellanbys to build a full-scale arms factory. He was a little sorry to leave Cally, but he and his daughters looked forward to their new project and their new, above-sea-level home.

Much to Vila’s chagrin, he found a note on the blanket of his bed: “Sorry, Vila, you’re a diamond geezer, but I want to go home and I want to be with Lauren, I’m mad about her.” Vila checked to see if Aamla had taken a souvenir—say, his stash of contraband hidden in a seam in the wall paneling in his cabin—and was at least reassured to see that honor among thieves sometimes exists.

Aamla did take a pair of boots from the Wardrobe Room that she had always particularly admired, and the whole box of Chel’s saffron.

Gan didn’t even like saffron, but he thought it was rude of Aamla to whisk away the whole supply. After all, she hadn’t been the one sticking her neck out to get it. Cally patted Vila on the back and said that she hadn’t suspected a thing, and she was sure Hal hadn’t either; Lauren was a dark horse of a different color.


Zen put Hal Mellanby’s monthly report from the Imperial Armory up on the main screen. Vila showily walked off the Flight Deck.

“Hal! You’re not wearing the image amplifier!” Cally said, noting that his eyes were clear and focused.

“Thirty-ten vision,” he said proudly. “Got a cyber-surgeon to do this procedure he invented. Bio-similar cloned implant. Weird old dude, but he fixed up my optic nerve better than it ever was before. Hey, maybe you could get him to take out Gan’s Limiter? The doc travels around a lot, but maybe I can hook you up for the next time you make planetfall near where he’s going to be.”

“We’re rather busy,” Blake said frostily. “And we can’t risk a crew member on untested procedures. Now, if you could give us that report?”

“Just wanted to help, is all. Well, we had to shut down for three days for Pilgrimage, but at least this year Candlesticks isn’t until a month later. So we’re kinda behind on that needlegun order for Avalon.”

“And, with my usual prescience, I assume that when you check in next month, then Sarkoff’s drones will also be back-ordered,” Avon said. “Because of Candlesticks. And then it’ll be harvest season, or hangovers after the Selma’s Birthday celebration or…”

“It was you—not just the Liberator crew, but you specifically—who put the kibosh on it when I wanted to put on a third shift.”

“Of course! Because of the union contracts—whose existence I can’t very well complain about—if you put on a third shift, you’ll never be able to get rid of it. You’re better off paying the occasional delay penalty than saddling us with a permanent third shift, at premium rates.”

“So *I’m* paying the delay penalty, but all of a sudden it’s “us” for putting on a dogwatch?”

“Is there any *good* news, Hal?” Cally said diplomatically.

“Sure! As I was going to say when I was so rudely interrupted, Dayna designed a compressible flash-bang, metal-free, squashes down to about the size of a marble…And there’s this little girl, she thinks Dayna hangs the moon, she was always around in the workshop, getting underfoot. First we had her pushing the cart around for tiffin, but she had this idea for re-using the glycerine from the kitchen in the explosives shed…”

“There’s a message,” Gan said. “From Avalon. Didn’t you say that you know her, Jenna?”

ANNOUNCER: Tune in next time for more thrilling space adventures of Jenna’s Dozen…the show where they’re ALL pilot episodes!