Journey With The Annoying
By Arran Gimba
Edited by Stuart Sharp and Samantha Ondyak
Elaine Durowich, personal assistant to her Royal Highness Anastasia, Princess of the Greater Galactic Empire, tried not to sigh too loudly as her 18-year-old employer yelled for her. Being at the beck and call of royalty was kind of in the job description, after all.
On the whole, it was a good job, at least if Elaine was careful to ignore the official job title of “handmaiden.” She got a better wage than half the members of the Imperial Advisory Council, her own room in the palace, and access to some of the most powerful people in the Empire. What more could a girl ask for?
The occasional day off, possibly. Particularly when her Highness was in one of those moods where she needed something done every five minutes. It wasn’t that Anastasia was a bad kid, far from it. It was just that, for someone who was supposedly only a couple of years younger than Elaine, she could sometimes come across as having the self sufficiency of the average six year old.
Not that Elaine would actually know what to do with a day off, of course. Around the palace, she was famous for never taking a day off. Everyone else took his or her time every circuit of Homeworld II around its sun. Elaine, on the other hand, had long ago come to the conclusion that, if she did that, it would only mean more work when she got back, trying to reverse the chaos that had cropped up in her absence. Far better to be there in the first place.
Elaine hurried into the royal bedroom, and from there into the royal en-suite, where the shrieking seemed to be coming from. Elaine paused at the door, knowing that it was never a good idea to look too flustered, and stepped in.
Anastasia was there, wrapped in a towel and standing on the lavatory. The really annoying thing was that, even like that, even obviously terrified, she still looked better than Elaine did on her best day. She was blonde, athletic, and annoyingly, spectacularly gorgeous, with cheekbones that could have quite happily served as razor blades allied to a body that had had Elaine destroying paparazzi nano-drones on an almost daily basis.
Not that Elaine was bad looking herself. With her bob-cut dark hair and official suit, she thought she scrubbed up very nicely. It was just that it was obvious where any attention would be when the two of them were in the same room. Well, except for now, of course. Now, all the attention seemed to be on the candy-pink expanse of the royal bathtub.
“What is it, Ana?” Elaine demanded. “More cameras? Some sort of booby-trap from the separatists? A bomb?”
Elaine wasn’t entirely joking. The Empire wasn’t exactly the most peaceful of places to live these days. If it wasn’t rumblings of discontent from people who suspected that a nearly absolute monarchy wasn’t really the best way to run a couple of hundred planets, then it was the Emperor and the Empress trying to poison, blow up, or otherwise kill one another. It had not been a very good divorce, on the whole.
That was one reason Elaine was willing to cut Anastasia some slack. Well, that and the fact that she was her fabulously wealthy boss who could also probably have her executed if she wanted. The Princess had been shunted back and forth between her parents, which even at faster than light speeds had to hurt. When her mother had thrown the Emperor off the original Homeworld and changed the locks, Anastasia had gone with him to Homeworld II, but now she seemed to spend so much time travelling between them that Elaine occasionally wondered if it might not be simplest to clone her and have done with it.
Still, that wasn’t dealing with the immediate problem, was it?
“What is it, Ana?” Elaine repeated.
“A…a spider! Eek!”
Elaine sighed and leaned over the bath. There was indeed a spider in it. It was approximately a yard across, with complex blue and yellow patterns on its back.
“Can’t you trap it under a glass or something?” the Princess shrieked.
“Ana, this is the official Ambassador for the Web planet,” Elaine explained. “That would be an act of war.”
“But it’s…it’s horrid.”
“And that’s species-ist,” Elaine retorted. “Look, just wait outside for a moment. I’ll sort this out.” As the Princess hurried back into the bedroom, Elaine returned her attention to the creature in the bath. “I’m sorry, sir. I think you are in the wrong room.”
The small translator on the underside of the spider’s mandibles flickered into life. “But this is such a lovely plug-hole. Are you sure I cannot stay?”
“I think your quarters are just down the hall,” Elaine said. “And the Princess was hoping to take a bath. I’m sure you see the problem.”
“Ah yes,” the spider said. “The hot faucet. People are always turning the hot faucet on around my kind. We hope that, eventually, all worlds will see the foolishness of it.”
“But until then,” Elaine said, “there’s also the matter of how it might look.”
In fact, she could just imagine how some of the gossip magazines’ headlines would read: “Princess in Arachnid Suds Scandal” perhaps. They did love running that sort of thing when it came to Anastasia. And, for someone who was supposed to be a tyrannical ruler of the known galaxy, her father was surprisingly slow to clamp down on that sort of thing. Possibly he just suspected that, with Anastasia, it would require too much work.
“You are correct, of course,” the spider said, scuttling from the bath and along one wall. “If my web-mate heard about this…”
Not exactly what Elaine had been thinking of, but it would do. “As I said, your quarters are just down the hall.”
“Most kind.” The spider scurried out through the bedroom, and Elaine heard another small shriek from the Princess. Still, Elaine thought as she quickly scrubbed down the bath, knowing that Anastasia wouldn’t get in until she had, it could have been worse.
“There,” Elaine said, going out into the bedroom. “It’s fine now. You can take your bath.”
Of course, by that point, Anastasia had already decided to move on to something else, having changed into a casual outfit so that she could lounge about the room reading the latest news on her favorite holo-vid star, Brad Vector. Anastasia had had a major crush on him for a couple of months now, with posters of him making periodic appearances on the walls of the royal bedroom. If Elaine remembered rightly, he had sprung to fame largely for being the only person on his planet not to have been featured in a reality TV show. Frankly, Elaine couldn’t see what Anastasia saw in him. Well, beyond all the muscles, obviously.
“Do you think Daddy would mind,” Anastasia wondered aloud as she went gooey eyed over the latest pictures, “if I commanded Brad to come to the palace?”
Elaine rolled her eyes. “I think he’d hit the roof.”
“But I’m a princess. Aren’t I supposed to be looking for suitable young men?”
“Possibly not in the gossip pages.” Elaine looked over to the corner of the room, where a stack of brochures sat untouched and gathering dust. “If you want something to read, maybe you could have a look through those university brochures.”
“Oh, not you as well,” Anastasia whined. “Daddy has been bothering me to pick a college, too. Even Mummy broke off from plotting assassinations long enough to ask me about it the last time I was there.”
“Well, it is very important, Your Highness,” Elaine suggested as gently as she could. She had found in the course of her employment that the way to get through to Anastasia was to let her come round to things in her own time, without leaving them alone long enough for her to forget about them. Which meant, with some things, no more than about a minute. “After all, you do want to go somewhere that you’ll like, don’t you?”
Anastasia shrugged. She had a very expressive shrug sometimes. This one was, if Elaine was any judge, her “I agree, but I’m not going to actually say that because it will look like you’ve won” shrug.
“And you have to get your applications in soon, or you won’t be able to start on time,” Elaine continued. “They might not even let you in.”
“Of course they’ll let me in,” Anastasia said. “Everyone wants to say that they’ve taught a princess. Besides, Daddy will talk to them if they don’t.”
Of course, talking had a slightly different meaning when it was done from the bridge of a battle cruiser.
“And if there’s nowhere I like,” Anastasia went on, “Daddy will just build me a new school anyway.” She sighed. “I’m not even sure why everybody wants me to go to university anyway. I mean, I know what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life, and I already have the only real qualification. I think I make a pretty good princess as it is, don’t you, Elaine?”
The first rule of working with royalty: know exactly when to agree utterly. “Absolutely.” Elaine wasn’t exactly lying either. When it came to things like being in the public eye, waving, hosting extravagant parties, and general figurehead-ing, no one could touch Anastasia. “Though it might be said that learning a bit about galactic economics and politics would be helpful.”
“But I know all about economics,” Anastasia pointed out. “Daddy makes me pay off my credit card with my trust fund allowance every month. And I know all sorts of politicians.”
“Yes, Ana, but it might still be fun to leaf through a few of the brochures anyway. You know, just in case they have something that you really want to do.”
To Elaine’s mild surprise, the Princess actually did it, getting up and wandering over to the stack. She picked up the first of the brochures.
“University of Upper Urrt? Where’s that?”
“I think it’s on the planet Urrt, Ana. But I don’t think you’d want to go there,” Elaine added. “The atmosphere is pure ammonia.”
Anastasia nodded. “You’re right. It would be terrible for my hair.”
Elaine shrugged. “Also, you wouldn’t be able to breathe.”
“Oh, right. That too.”
“What about the University of Center Spiral?” Elaine suggested. “It has some really good programs.”
“Maybe,” Anastasia said. “What are the planet’s beaches like? And are there any decent malls?”
Elaine shook her head. “It’s all one giant space station floating around a black hole. I don’t think there are any beaches.”
“Well that’s out, then.”
They looked through a few more, and Elaine did her best to steer her royal boss towards some of the more academic options. After all, it wasn’t like the younger woman was actually stupid. She could even be quite bright when the situation demanded. It was just that the situation in question generally involved planning an explanation of what she had been doing the previous night, not sitting in the middle of a lecture.
Gradually, Elaine sensed Anastasia’s attention waning. Frankly, she had been surprised it had lasted as long as it had. Normally, she had all the concentration of a concussed butterfly. The twenty minutes spent on brochures probably counted as a serious commitment of time by those standards.
“You know what I really want to do?” Anastasia declared as she put down the latest one.
“Go out partying?” Elaine guessed.
“No. Well, yes, actually. Schedule some of that in for later. But I mean in general.”
“What’s that, Ana?”
“I want to go travelling.”
That one caught Elaine a little by surprise. “Travelling? Really? Well, I suppose we could always organize some sort of official series of state visits or something, but—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Anastasia said. “I want to go travelling the way real people do before they go to university. They go out with backpacks and things, and they see the worlds. Or at least, as many of them as they can get round to. I want to do that.”
The Princess nodded. “Duke Harlgan’s son, Henry, did it before he went back to study micro-cellular…stuff. It sounds like fun. The travelling, not the cells and things.”
Elaine wracked her brain for the relevant individual. One of her more important job skills was remembering the entire who’s who of several star systems. Though annoyingly, it was one thing that Anastasia always seemed to do better than she did. At least with the people who were nice to her.
“Is this the same Henry who accidentally wandered into a Gnarg pit and had to be rushed home to have his legs re-grown?”
“That’s him! Doesn’t it sound exciting?”
“Exciting” wasn’t the word Elaine would have chosen. More to the point, she couldn’t see their Imperial Majesties going along with the idea. Anastasia shuttling back and forth between home worlds was hard enough to contain. Anastasia out in the universe alone sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Still, the Princess looked like she was serious.
“You’d have to ask your parents,” Elaine said. “And I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you, Ana.”
“He’ll let me go. I know he will. Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the throne room to see Daddy, of course.”
“But isn’t he in with one of the visiting delegations?”
Ana shrugged. “I’m sure he won’t mind just a tiny interruption.”
Elaine, who was fairly sure that galactic emperors generally did mind that sort of thing, spent most of the ensuing trip along the travel tubes trying to dissuade Anastasia. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a coherent point when you are flying along at speeds somewhere between “really quite fast” and “Oh God we’re going to die!”
Pretty soon, they arrived at the great throne room of Homeworld II. It had, they said, been built specifically to be just a little bit bigger than the one on Homeworld I. Since that one was already large enough for a full collection of supplicants, ministers, planetary representatives, and those people who hold the trumpets with the flags on them, the resulting room was huge. It was magnificent. It was gigantic. It was, in fact, so big that when the heralds announced something down at one end of the room, it took a moment or two for the sound to reach the other.
Of course, it was also currently unused, having been more than a little scorched by one of the estranged Empress’s more recent attempts at marital dispute resolution. Instead, Ana led the way over to a rather smaller side room, outside of which a lone guard stood.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, the Emperor said he wasn’t to be disturbed by anyone. He’s in with the High Council.”
“Well, I’m not anyone, am I?” Anastasia pointed out with the sort of logic that only really applies to royalty. “I’m me.”
She pushed past, leaving the guard looking remarkably helpless for someone wearing fully-powered battle-armor and carrying a disruptor rifle. Elaine gave him an apologetic look and followed the Princess.
Inside, there was a round table of polished plastic. Various grey-suited figures sat round it discussing what were probably issues of vital concern to the Empire, though one of them seemed to be busy having a coughing fit. Elaine winced as Anastasia stepped straight past them all and headed for the figure at the far end of the room.
Maximilian the Twenty-Seventh didn’t look much like a ruler of the known galaxy, a despoiler of worlds, or even the supreme commander of the largest space fleet for a hundred systems around. Well, joint supreme commander, anyway, since the Empress had gotten half of it in the divorce. Instead, with his tufts of white hair, his truly awful taste in sweaters, and his slightly distracted expression, he always looked to Elaine more like the sort of man who ought to spend his time tinkering with things in sheds, trying to get them to work. And, very broadly speaking, he did. It was just that the things in question were generally planet sized starships.
“Anastasia, darling, you know you can’t just wander in when I’m in a meeting, dear.”
“Oh, who cares about some silly meeting?” Anastasia demanded.
A grey-skinned slaarg, its facial plaaga fronds groomed into something approximating a moustache, put a laser pen down irritably. Elaine recognized General George X’aath. He was kind of hard to miss.
“Once you’ve shot it a few times, does it matter if it was an enemy fleet to start with?”
“Since this meeting is to determine the security of the entire sector, young lady, I think you’ll find that it matters to everybody.”
Anastasia looked round at him. “Well, this will only take a minute. Daddy, I want to go travelling.”
“You know. Wandering around with nothing but a backpack, seeing the universe before I go to college. Everyone does it.”
Maximilian the Twenty-Seventh steepled his fingers. “I know what travelling is, darling. Though when I did it, it always seemed to be on the bridge of a heavy cruiser.”
“So I can go?” Anastasia asked.
“Well darling…there’s the situation with your mother, and the increased tensions around the galactic rim, and then there have been reports of would-be dissidents on several of the worlds, and—”
“But I don’t care about any of that!”
The Emperor shrugged. “Well, I do, dear. I’m sorry, but I think I am going to have to put my foot down on this one.”
“My answer is no, Anastasia. I’m sorry, but no.”
“I…I hate you.”
“I’m a galactic tyrant, darling. Everybody hates me. It’s rather the point.”
Since His Majesty has brought it up, this is probably a good point for a brief galactic history lesson. Centuries ago, or at least twenty-six Maximilians ago, the galaxy was run in the usual sort of fashion. Which is to say, generally quite badly. At least, so people tended to think. It was uncanny. No matter how many elections they held, and no matter how many promising candidates the peoples of the various worlds selected, they always seemed to find themselves complaining about the incumbents in the end.
One of the great turning points of history came when a young political science student named Maximilian Zane put forward the idea that perhaps this happened because people liked having something to complain about, and, if they were provided with a single central figure who would automatically be unpopular because of his or her position, then maybe everyone else could get on with making the worlds better places to be. It probably says a lot about the way politics on some of the worlds was going that, within ten years, almost every planet in the galaxy had agreed to the idea. And it probably says quite a lot about young Max Zane that he just happened to be standing in the room when the words “now, who shall we pick?” came up.
Over the ensuing centuries, the Galactic Emperors became a kind of repository for every bad feeling people had. Things weren’t going well on the farm? Blame the fundamentally unfair political system. Economy crashing? Complain at the highest level. Keep losing all your left socks? Time to write a stiffly worded letter to your absolute ruler.
We mention this here simply to make it clear that, for an emperor, being complained at, nagged, and occasionally threatened was entirely par for the course. As such, when Anastasia, on leaving the audience chamber, declared that she would do whatever it took to change her father’s mind, Elaine knew that the odds on it making any difference were only marginally longer than those of Anastasia’s attention lasting for more than a week.
Except, it seemed that Elaine had underestimated Anastasia’s determination more than a little. Normally, her attention would have been as brief as a hummingbird’s. On this point, however, it was like someone had swapped her for a different princess entirely. So much so that Elaine did some discrete DNA tests while no one was looking, just to make sure that one of the Empress’s more elaborate plots wasn’t in play. Not since the original Maximilian had looked around at all those planets so many centuries ago and said to himself, “Right, I’m having that,” had any member of the royal family been quite so set on something.
Not that it particularly helped. After all, so many of the classic tactics employed by teenagers across space simply don’t work when faced with a galactic tyrant. Even one who frequently forgot why he’d gone into rooms and then had to ask his advisors.
Anastasia’s attempt at the silent treatment, for example, didn’t get very far. Mostly, that was because, in a city sized palace, it was hard for Anastasia to make it clear to her father that she wasn’t talking to him because she was upset and not just because she couldn’t find him. As for complaining that it was totally unfair, well, that generally worked better when there was an expectation that things should be.
There were similarly obvious problems with demanding to know who died and put Anastasia’s father in charge of everything, and, as for simply nagging, Maximilian the Twenty-Seventh was presumably used to that sort of tactic by then, thanks to the aftermath of his marriage. He certainly didn’t seem ready to give in.
Unfortunately, neither did Anastasia. Over the next couple of weeks, Elaine got used to scheduling audiences with the Emperor and having to console Anastasia afterwards. She even found herself putting a few calls through to Empress Iliana on the original Homeworld, as Anastasia went for the fail-proof “but Mummy said I could” approach. Unfortunately, the subject of Anastasia travelling seemed to be the only thing in the known universe on which the Emperor and his former wife agreed, so that didn’t get very far either.
Eventually—right around the time when Anastasia started looking at experimental mind control rays on classified military servers, in fact—Elaine decided that she had to do something.
“Ana, are you sure it wouldn’t be better to just…you know, give up?”
“Give up?” Anastasia looked like Elaine had just suggested that she should go onto a reality TV show and eat something unpalatable. Though normally, of course, Elaine spent a good portion of her time talking the Princess out of that sort of thing. “But I don’t want to give up.”
Elaine shrugged. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to.”
Anastasia’s brow furrowed as she tried to wrap her mind around that one. “I don’t. I’m a princess.”
Technically, of course, quite a good argument. But not, Elaine felt, one that was likely to help.
“I think that’s part of the problem,” Elaine said. “Right now, you’re mostly just saying, ‘I’m the Princess and I want to go,’ and your father is saying, ‘I’m the Emperor, and you’re not.’ You aren’t really listening to one another.”
Anastasia sat back on her bed. “Why should I?”
Elaine sighed. “Because, maybe if you and your father really talked this through, you might find a way to make this work. You know, listening to his concerns might not be a bad thing. You could…I don’t know, suggest ways around the problems or something, rather than just telling him over and over what you want.”
“Ways around the problem?” Anastasia sounded like the idea was as novel as Hal’that beast flavored ice cream. Possibly more so, given some of the things the palace chefs were prepared to try at times.
“Look, I just think that—”
Anastasia stood up again so suddenly it was like someone had just run an electric current through the bed. “No, you’re right, Elaine.”
Elaine smiled, “I’m glad you think so.”
“I need to talk to Daddy. Explain things properly. I’m sure he’ll come to his senses.”
“That’s not quite what I—”
“And if he doesn’t, well, I can always go back to working on him other ways.”
Elaine thought about trying to explain things again, but she suspected that it wouldn’t do much good. “I’ll make you an appointment for an audience, shall I? You’ll only put him in a bad mood if you just walk in, and it will show that you mean business.”
Anastasia nodded. “Yes, do that. Thank you, Elaine. This is a really good idea.”
Elaine rang through to arrange it, and it turned out that the Emperor would see his daughter at once. Apparently, Maximilian the Twenty-Seventh wanted things sorted out as much as Anastasia did. Anastasia even made an effort with the way she was dressed for the talk, putting on an elegant white dress and having Elaine arrange her hair in the official formal style of royal women. The one that always made Elaine think of two currant buns stuck to the side of her head.
“Just make sure that you have the straightening irons ready when I get back,” Anastasia said. “I hate having my hair like this.”
Elaine followed her down to the Emperor’s rooms at the top of one of the higher towers, overlooking the rest of the city. Of course, since the city was widely reckoned by even Homeworld II’s own tourist board to have all the charm of a toxic dump, that wasn’t really saying much. There were a couple of guards at the doors.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” one of them said, blocking Elaine’s path as she tried to enter behind Anastasia. “His Majesty would like to speak to the Princess alone.”
Elaine bit her lip. She could just think of all the things that might go wrong if she wasn’t there. “But—”
“It’s fine, Elaine,” Anastasia said. “I wanted to speak to Daddy alone, too. You can wait outside.”
Elaine swallowed the urge to point out that, in that case, she needn’t have bothered going all that way with her in the first place. It wasn’t the sort of thing you did in front of the guards. “Yes, Your Highness.”
So she waited. And waited. After a while, Elaine tried to strike up a conversation with the guards. One was a vaguely reptilian Yalusian, a species dedicated to the causes of honor, duty, and macramé in equal measure (two of which prevented him from shirking his responsibilities by making small talk with Elaine). The other was a nice looking human named Dorian, who was only too happy to chat about life in the big city. He even gave Elaine his computer address, hinting that he’d like to hear from her at some point when he wasn’t wearing full power-armor—unless she was into that sort of thing.
At about that point, Anastasia came back out, looking serious.
“Come on, Elaine.”
But Anastasia seemed to be in too much of a hurry for that. In fact, Elaine had to run to catch up with her before she got back to the transport tubes.
“Anastasia, what’s wrong? Did your father say no again?”
Anastasia looked at Elaine for a long moment. Then, without warning, she broke into a broad grin and hugged Elaine fiercely. “Oh, Elaine! You’re brilliant! He said yes!”
Elaine could hardly believe it. Or breathe, for that matter. “He said yes?”
Anastasia nodded. “Come on. Let’s get back to my rooms and pack. Oh, and do something about this hair too, obviously. But mostly pack. What do you think you’ll need to take?”
That made Elaine pause. “Um…I’m coming on this trip?”
“Well of course. Where would I be without you?”
“Um…on a solo backpacking trip, maybe?”
Anastasia laughed at that. “Oh, you are silly sometimes, Elaine. Of course I’m not going to go off and just abandon you. You can come with me. It’ll be an adventure. And of course, I can’t really go on my own.”
Just for a moment, Elaine thought about saying no. If Anastasia wanted to go travelling, that was fine, but there was no mention of that sort of thing in Elaine’s contract. Anastasia could just go off backpacking like every other kid out there, while Elaine got on with other things. Like dates with good looking guards.
Except…Elaine had a pretty good idea of some of the ways that a solo-trek by Anastasia could end. Anastasia needed her. Or at least, the universe at large needed some sort of buffer between it and Anastasia. More than that, whatever her contract might say, Elaine knew in her heart of hearts that this was her job. After all, if she didn’t do it, who would?
Besides, a nice vacation might do her some good. You never knew. Reluctantly, looking back at where the armored guards still stood, Elaine nodded.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Anastasia exclaimed. “Now come on! We’re going to have so much fun!”
Either the definition of fun had changed a little since Elaine had last had some, or Anastasia’s predictive talents made the average TV weather presenter look like the Oracle of Delphi by comparison. Currently, Elaine found herself struggling along through Homeworld II’s main star-port, carrying a small hold containing her things, a rather larger hold containing Anastasia’s things, and a suitcase that could probably have served as a battering ram in the event of a sudden siege. Anastasia was carrying a handbag. Not even a very big handbag, at that.
She was also remarkably simply dressed, by her standards anyway. Ordinarily, the Princess’s wardrobe ran to the most elaborate creations of the great fashion houses: Dior, Givenchy, Xlargle. The sort of ensembles that their designers normally came up with in the expectation that no one could reasonably wear them outside of a state dinner. Which was usually fine, given that practically every dinner on Homeworld II counted as a state dinner.
Now though, Anastasia was wearing slacks, a T-shirt, and some shoes with such low heels that she didn’t even need anti-gravity patches on them to keep her from falling over.
“Explain to me again,” Elaine said, “why we just snuck out of the palace in the middle of the night.”
“Well, Daddy said that I could go, so long as I kept incognito. Apparently, if I go in secret…well, I forget the details.”
“Nobody will know it’s you, so nobody will try to kill you, kidnap you, take pictures of you, or generally harass you,” Elaine suggested.
“That was it. Anyway, we’re doing that. A nice quiet exit.”
That explained why they had spent a good half an hour tiptoeing through the palace—not the easiest of things to do when carrying the bags, either.
“Good,” Elaine said. “Just so long as everything is above board. When we were sneaking out, for a moment there Ana, I thought that…”
“That we were really sneaking out?” Anastasia laughed. “Through all that security?”
She had a point. Thanks to the current issues with the former Empress, people who went where they weren’t supposed to in the royal palace tended to set off enough alarms to fuel a medium sized rave. Then there were all the cameras, trackers, and automated guard stations. The only way someone could get in or out of the palace was if she had been allowed to do so. In fact, Elaine wouldn’t be surprised if there was actually a security team somewhere nearby, keeping a very discrete eye on the Princess. It was certainly what she would have done.
“So what next?” Elaine asked. “Do I need to book us some tickets?”
“Oh no,” Anastasia said. “That’s all done. We just have to find the ship. It’s called the…” she took a slip of plastic out of her bag “…Moonlight Flit. What an interesting name, don’t you think?”
“Sure. Shall we get on with this?”
Ordinarily, “we” meant Elaine, encouraged, and occasionally shouted at, by Anastasia. This time though, the Princess actually joined in the search, which was just as well. Elaine had naturally assumed that any craft the Princess deigned to use would be a luxury cruiser, or possibly the private space yacht of some rich young man, and was mostly checking them for nameplates. Whereas the real Moonlight Flit was…
“Ana, that thing’s a wreck.”
In fact, Elaine decided, “wreck” might be a little generous. The ship sitting in the launch bay was a fairly standard bumblebee shape, but Elaine got the feeling that it had only achieved its silhouette by default, as the three or four junkyard crafts used to weld it together had been vaguely that shape. The welding itself looked awful, with panels hanging loose and gaping holes through some parts of the fuselage.
“Um…” Anastasia said. “It does look a little less…sleek than I imagined.”
“She’s not as bad as she looks, ladies.”
The middle aged man who walked up wore a pilot’s jumpsuit under what looked a lot like a raincoat. He also had a patch over one eye.
“Harvey Langthrop at your service, ladies. Wherever you need to go, I’ll get you there.”
“Will your ship?” Elaine asked.
“Oh, she don’t look like much now, but she’s the best at what she does.”
Harvey Langthrop gave her a wicked grin, looked around briefly, and lowered his voice. “Smuggling, of course.”
Elaine took another look at the vessel. It was probably the single most disreputable looking ship in the galaxy. “And you don’t get stopped, looking like that?”
“Hardly ever. It’s camouflaged, you see.”
Elaine was about to ask what sort of camouflage involved looking about as much like a smuggler’s craft as it was humanly possible to do, but then she got it.
“You mean that the authorities assume that no one stupid enough to pilot a ship looking like that would ever actually be a smuggler?”
“Exactly.” Harvey Langthrop reached up and shifted his eye patch to the other eye. The one revealed was perfect. “Appearances matter in this business. Well, you’d know about that, I’d guess. You’d be Anastasia…Smith and Elaine…Smith? The ones who got in touch with me earlier?”
“We are,” Anastasia said.
“Well, you don’t look much like sisters,” Langthrop said. “So is it one bunk for the pair of you?”
“No.” Elaine said, without so much as a glance across at Anastasia. “Definitely not.”
The smuggler shrugged. “Spoil a man’s dreams, why don’t you? Now, obviously, being a law abiding visitor to this world, I’m obliged to ask you both for identification before we set off.”
“Identification?” Anastasia didn’t sound happy about that. “You never said anything about identification.”
“I assumed you would know that part,” Langthrop said. “It’s the law, after all. Proper passport control and all that. I put your names down on the exit lists, and I’m obliged to check ID to make sure you are who you say you are.”
Elaine looked at the smuggler. “Um…couldn’t we work something out? Maybe you could forget about it, just this once?”
“No, ma’am. Can’t do that. I’m afraid I have to see some ID before we take off.”
Harvey Langthrop paused just a moment before reaching into his raincoat and taking out two plastic data cards, holding them up, and throwing one to each of them. The one he handed Elaine had “Elaine Smith” embossed in the corner. Even as she held it, the plastic changed and shifted, acquiring a picture of her along with details of Elaine’s height and weight. Intelligent plastic, then. If not, Elaine thought, looking at the figure for the weight, particularly flattering plastic.
“And now I’ve seen them,” Langthrop said. “So you can both get aboard. We’ll be leaving in ten minutes. You’re all right with your own luggage, aren’t you?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but headed into the ship. Elaine hefted the luggage as best she could.
“What are you getting us into, Ana?”
“Oh, don’t be a spoilsport. It’s going to be an adventure!”
“That,” Elaine said with feeling, “is what I’m afraid of.”
Elaine spent her first hour or so on the Moonlight Flit trying to find somewhere to stow all the luggage. For a ship designed to transport cargo, it seemed to have a terminal shortage of locker space. For her part, Anastasia spent her time looking around the tiny cabin they had to share—which took a matter of seconds since there wasn’t much to look at—and staring out of a porthole at the receding shape of Homeworld II, which she kept up for rather longer than Elaine had expected.
“Do you think they’ll miss me while I’m gone?” Anastasia asked at one point.
Elaine tried to decide how best to answer that one. After all, Anastasia was the scandal prone daughter of a nominal tyrant. She decided on the diplomatic option. “Well, I suppose some people will. Which bed do you want?”
Anastasia pointed at one vaguely. She didn’t even bother complaining about the size of it.
“Ana, is something wrong?”
“No, no.” She sat down on the bed. “This is a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?”
Ah, there was the real Princess. “I suppose,” Elaine said, “it’s just the sort of thing you have to put up with when you’re travelling. I think it’s supposed to be a more authentic experience.”
At least, that was what travel books always seemed to say. Some of them gave the impression that, if you didn’t spend your nights sleeping in the dirt and dodging scorpions, then you were simply wasting your time. It was one of the reasons Elaine didn’t take many vacations. On the other hand, maybe the rugged travel experience was what Anastasia was looking for. Something to toughen her up.
The Princess lay back on her bunk. “So what now?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, do you think there will be any entertainment on this trip, or anything? There always is when I travel between Mummy and Daddy’s places.”
So much for that idea, then. “Generally though,” Elaine pointed out, “you do that sort of travelling on a galaxy-class city-ship. I don’t think smugglers usually run onboard malls.”
“They don’t? But that’s silly. How is anyone supposed to buy things?”
“I think they expect you to wait until you’ve landed again, Ana.”
“Oh.” Anastasia managed to convey a lot with that one sound. At this particular moment, the sound expressed her conviction that the universe was somehow back in the Stone Age. “Well, what are we supposed to do for fun, then?”
Ordinarily, Elaine would have had several dozen options worked out by that point. Having to think of things to do kind of came with the territory when you worked for a galactic princess. Right then though, not many sprang to mind.
“Well,” she suggested, “I suppose we could always plan our itinerary. You know, work out what planets you want to visit, how much time you want to spend on each one, and if there are any really big events you want to get to on the way. That sort of thing.”
Elaine fished a computer out of her hold all, looking for information. “Now, there’s The Two Word Travel Guide, but personally, I think that’s a bit of a stupid way to categorize planets. Then there’s Thirty Places to See Twenty Seconds before You Die, but I don’t think your father would want you touring anywhere that dangerous. I suppose there’s always the things put out by the tourist boards.”
“I guess.” Anastasia didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic, but she quickly brightened up. “Hey, why don’t we go and see who else is on this tub?”
Elaine thought of all the types that might feel an urgent desire to leave a system under the radar. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Ana. People might recognize you for one thing, and you’re supposed to be keeping a low profile.”
Of course, by the end of the sentence, she was talking to thin air since the Princess had already left the cabin in search of excitement. Elaine swore and set off after her.
She caught up with her employer in the central compartment of the ship, where an assortment of creatures sat around talking, playing cards, or, in the case of one of the Z’zk Eye People, merely staring at everything in turn. There was a slender, bearded human in a robe accompanied by an android whose metallic interior was only covered with skin over half of her face. There was a younger man in a top hat playing cards with a tough looking, four armed Altarian. And then there was Anastasia, talking to a couple of small, backpack wearing Etryls, their heavily wrinkled brown skin covered by Hawaiian shirts and little else.
“Oh, there you are, Elaine. Come and meet Snallak and Ethel.”
“It’s a very traditional Etryllian name,” one of the creatures said. “Pull my finger?”
It extended a long finger, which started to glow slightly. Elaine smiled tightly and touched the end of it. It was, after all, the proper greeting.
“What brings you out this far?” Elaine asked.
Anastasia jumped in. “Snallak and Ethel were just saying that they’ve been backpacking around the galaxy. Apparently, it’s very big on their planet. They end up all kinds of places.”
“We went to Homeworld II to see the palace,” Ethel said. “And we went to a state dinner that Princess Anastasia attended. You look just like her, dear.”
Elaine’s heart leapt to her mouth.
“Well, maybe not quite like her. She was a little taller, I think.”
“Taller?” Anastasia’s tone was slightly strangled.
“And possibly slightly prettier. No offence to you, dear, but…well, she is a princess.”
“Great,” Elaine said, gently steering Anastasia away from the pair. “Lovely meeting you both. They didn’t ask to borrow money, did they?” Elaine asked once they were clear of the two aliens.
“No, why would they?”
“Oh, Etryls are notorious for it. They’re forever trying to get people to pay for their long distance calls back home.”
“They really thought that I wasn’t as pretty as—”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Elaine said quickly. “After all, their idea of pretty mostly runs to baggy skin and a stomach an inch off the ground. Now, we should probably get back to the—”
“Would you girls care to join in a card game?” The question came from the man in the top hat. “Nice low stakes, nothing much to lose.”
“I bet there isn’t,” Elaine snapped back.
“Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport,” Anastasia said. “There’s nothing else to do. Besides, I’m good at cards.”
“Winning when you play Extravagantly Dysfunctional Families at Christmas isn’t the same thing as poker,” Elaine pointed out, more in hope than in the expectation that it would do any good.
“You don’t have to play if you don’t want,” Anastasia replied and sat down.
Elaine sighed and joined her. The four-armed Altarian looked up as she did so. “You aren’t an android, are you?”
“Yes, you. I’ve been hunting escaped androids over half the galaxy, but they’re tricky. They look just like the rest of us, these days. So are you one or not?”
“But that’s just what one of them would say, isn’t it?”
“Oh, leave it, Soren,” the man in the top hat said. “They aren’t androids. Like you said, there are no androids on this bucket. You’d soon smell them out if there were.”
Elaine couldn’t resist a quick glance back at the android with half her machine parts showing. The red lens of her machine eye winked off for a moment.
“Yeah, Gregor, I suppose you’re right. So, what are we playing?”
What they were playing turned out to be something a little more complicated than poker, involving rules that Elaine was sure Gregor the top hat wearer was making up almost on the spot. Certainly, they all seemed to be designed to give Gregor the advantage. Inside half an hour, Anastasia had lost a small fortune to him, or at least as much as she would normally spend on a party dress. Elaine coughed pointedly.
“Ana, come on. You’re losing your spending money for the trip.”
“But I can win it back,” the Princess insisted.
“Not before you’ve cost us an arm and a leg.”
“Actually,” Gregor said, “if you want to play for limb stakes, you’ll have to wait until I’ve got some proper ice packs handy, or—”
“You can shut up,” Elaine snapped. “Come on Ana.”
“Oh, all right. You can be just like Mummy, sometimes, you know.”
“What? When did I last resort to planetary bombardment just because someone forgot to send an anniversary card?”
Gregor grinned. “Maybe you’d like to wear my lucky hat for a bit,” he suggested to Anastasia.
“Ana,” Elaine snapped back, “we’re leaving.”
Gregor stood up, reaching out for Elaine. “If the girl doesn’t want to leave, maybe you shouldn’t try to make her.”
A hand clamped down on his wrist. It was delicate, feminine, and made entirely of metal. The android from the other side of the room smiled. “And maybe you shouldn’t deal off the bottom of the deck so much.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Were you just saying that, owing to that little misunderstanding, you were going to give the girls their money back?”
The card sharp nodded so quickly his top hat shifted a little. Elaine took advantage of his diverted attention to lead Anastasia over to where the bearded man stood. The android joined them.
“You should be careful,” she said. “The galaxy has a lot of dangers for girls like us. Hatters, for instance.”
“That was a Hatter?” Elaine asked.
Anastasia’s question was more direct. “What’s a Hatter?”
Elaine winced. “A parasite. It mimics headgear, and then, when you put it on, it feeds on brainwaves and takes over the host. If you’d put it on…”
“Oh, but it seemed so nice.”
Of course, Elaine thought, on you the thing would probably have starved.
“Thanks,” she said to the android instead of voicing that reflection.
“No problem. I’m Savannah.” She nodded to the bearded man. “And that’s Ricardo.”
“Elaine,” Elaine said, “and this is Ana.”
“Yes,” the bearded man said, “we know.”
“I’m sorry.” Elaine’s earlier worries returned with a vengeance. “You know who we are?”
“Well, obviously,” Savannah said. “Some of us read the gossip pages, you know.”
“Oh you do?” Anastasia sounded almost ecstatic. “Did you see the new pictures of Brad Vector? Isn’t he just wonderful?”
The android grinned. “He has his moments, but you have to remember that there are plenty of pictures of you there too.”
“Oh, they never get my good side.”
“Ana,” Elaine said. “You realize that you’ve just more or less told them who you are?”
“I have?” Anastasia froze for a moment. “Oh. Damn.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Savannah said. “After all, it’s not like anyone on these things wants to be noticed.”
“Yes,” Elaine put in, “I saw that. There are no androids on board, apparently.”
“Aha!” Ricardo exclaimed. “That was my doing. For am I not a master of the great universal forces? A mediator between man and the Infinite? A preacher of the highest religion?”
Elaine took in the robes once more, then the beard, then the small metal tube hanging from his belt. Oh, right. Obviously. He was one of the Followers of the Infinite. The most popular religion in the galaxy thanks to both its claims to develop spectacular mental powers and the One Teaching of their leader Aldis Lamp, obtained one early morning in his ashram. Quoted in full, the holy text runs: “What? What is it? What are you waking me up at this time of the morning for? Look, just go away and do what you damn well please. What am I supposed to be, your guru? Work it out for yourselves.” Proponents of this religious position often claimed that it was the sheer freedom implied by those teachings that let them acquire power over the universe. Critics tended to suggest that, since so many of the Followers interpreted that freedom as a license to take as many psychotropic drugs as possible, those claims were possibly a little questionable.
Ricardo reached down to the tube at his belt, opened it, and took out some unidentifiable substance.
“No, thanks,” Elaine said, adding, “And neither does Ana” as quickly as she could. Not quite quickly enough, as it turned out.
“Whee,” the Princess said. “I can see stars.”
“Stars? Oh Universe, it must be a hull breach.”
“Hull breach? Is that where all the pretty flowers are coming from?”
Elaine sighed and looked over to Savannah. “You take yours, and I’ll take mine?”
The android nodded, putting an arm around Ricardo and lifting him easily. Elaine had a slightly harder time with Anastasia but eventually succeeded in persuading her back to her bunk. Elaine left her there, snoring in a not very princess-like way, and went back to the hold. The android was already there waiting for her.
“Looks like yours is going to be almost as much trouble as mine,” Savannah said with a grin. “More, probably.”
“So how did the Altarian really not notice?” Elaine asked.
“Oh, I slipped a little something in his food. And Hatters tend to be pretty mad to start with. For some reason, ever since I hooked up with Ricardo, bounty hunters always seem to assume that I’m on the run from something.”
“You’re not then?” Elaine asked.
Savannah shrugged. “Not noticeably. Except occasionally when Ricardo forgets that not everyone shares his laissez faire attitude to the universe.” She smiled. “Getting together with him is the most fun I’ve had in years. Getting to see places. Trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. Occasionally running from the cops. Great fun.”
“If you say so.” Elaine tried her hardest to avoid the obvious comparison to her own situation. “Um…how did you hook up with him, anyway?”
The android sat back against a bulkhead. “Oh, you know how it is with these things.” She pulled out a hip flask. “Fancy a drink?”
“Does it have mind altering substances in?”
“Aside from alcohol? Nah, it’s not like they affect me much anyway, so what’s the point?”
They passed the flask back and forth for a bit.
“You’ll need to do something about your princess’s appearance if you don’t want people to recognize her,” Savannah said. “I could give her a haircut, if you’d like.”
“You’re an android stylist?”
Savannah shrugged. “Assassin-droid, technically, but it’s all blades and things, right?”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m retired. Well, sort of. I never really got going.”
“What do you mean?” Elaine asked. She tried to resist the urge to edge away from the android a little but didn’t entirely succeed.
“I was supposed to be sent into the past to take care of this…well, let’s not get into the details except to say that some idiot set the time-travel machine up with the switches the wrong way round. The next thing I know, I’m three hundred years in the future, the war’s over, and it’s obvious my lot didn’t do as well as they hoped. Well, what’s a girl to do after that?”
“Um…it’s never really come up.”
“You aren’t alone there. Well, I tried all the obvious things for someone with an android heart and a killer body. You know, sex-bot, impersonator, made for TV actress, that sort of thing. But I’d really rather just travel, and keeping Ricardo reasonably safe is a good way to do that. Do you mind some advice?”
“Um…” Elaine hesitated just for a second. “Is it about killing people?”
Savannah pushed herself to her feet. “No, though if you like, I can show you seventeen ways to kill a man with your bare hands. It goes up to twenty-three if you have some string handy.”
“Um…no, I’m good, thanks.”
“Then we’ll stick to the other sort. Have fun, Elaine.”
Elaine waited for the rest of it. After several seconds though, she joined the other woman in standing. “That’s it? Just, ‘have fun’?”
“Better than not having fun. But I suppose what I mean is that, if you aren’t careful, you end up as the serious one, always watching out for your companions, but never enjoying anything. You aren’t going to be able to keep your princess out of trouble completely, so why not have some fun on the way?”
Elaine thought about it for a bit. Then she thought about Anastasia with no one around to keep her out of trouble. Then she thought about the poor planets that Anastasia might be on at the time.
“That,” Elaine declared, “is about the single worst piece of advice I have ever…hang on, is the room spinning?”
“Except in the sense that the galaxy usually is due to gravity? No. I imagine it’s just what was in the flask.”
“But you said…”
The android grinned again. “I said it was just alcohol. I never said it wasn’t quite a lot of alcohol.”
“Oh, some people are no fun. Relax, we’ll get you where you should be, safe and sound.”
Elaine started to protest that she could get there fine on her own, but, unfortunately, her legs seemed to disagree. Savannah the android caught her easily.
“I don’t suppose that you particularly fancy going back to my cabin for some girl on android action?” the android asked.
“Not,” Elaine was just about sober enough to say before she passed out, “in a million years.”
Several hours later, Elaine was relieved to find herself waking in her own bed. Though possibly not as relieved as she might have been had Anastasia not already been awake, moving around the small cabin while singing happily to herself just loud enough to make Elaine’s head throb.
“Anastasia, would you stop that?”
“Oh, never mind. What are you doing, anyway?”
“Just what you said. Putting together a plan.”
Elaine groaned, partly from the state of her head and partly from the thought of what a plan cooked up by Anastasia without her input might entail.
“Maybe I should—”
“No, it’s not a problem,” Anastasia said. “It’s all done. That nice Savannah helped me with it. Oh, and she said to tell you to call her if you ever change your mind. What does she mean by that?”
Elaine shook her head. “It’s not important. So, does this mean you’ve decided where we’re going first?”
“To the beach, of course!”
Sand. Everywhere Elaine looked, nothing but sand. Well, sand and surf. All right, sand, and surf, and thousands of swimwear clad bodies. And occasional ice cream sellers. And volleyball nets. But mostly sand.
Anastasia lay on a beach towel, face partly hidden behind a pair of enormous sunglasses. Given the skimpiness of her bikini, it was about the only part that was. In deference to Elaine’s concerns about being noticed, she’d allowed Savannah the android to cut her hair much shorter and add a few highlights, but, somehow, Elaine doubted that any watchers would be looking at Anastasia’s face at the moment.
Elaine’s own costume had a little more substance to it, which left her feeling almost completely out of place on a beach where everyone seemed to be gorgeous and no one seemed to be wearing any more than he or she absolutely had to. It was like someone had deliberately set out to create a planet designed to make anyone remotely normal looking feel insecure about his or her appearance.
And that wasn’t too far from the truth. The inhabitants of SoCal1 had moved the orbit of their planet closer to their sun and broken up continents into countless archipelagos to increase the maximum number of sun-kissed beaches. Add to that the compulsory gene-enhancement for the indigenous population so that they could fulfill “gorgeous beach inhabitant” duties on a strict roster, and it was clear that making the rest of the universe feel good about itself wasn’t on the agenda.
“Are we actually going to do anything here?” Elaine asked.
Anastasia rolled over onto her front. “I am doing something. I’m sunbathing. You couldn’t call one of the duty beach-hunks over could you? I need more sun-block.”
Elaine waved to one good-looking young man, who hurried over to rub oil on the princess with the slightly bored look of someone who had rubbed suntan oil on several dozen beautiful women already that morning. While he did it, Elaine tried to settle back with an improving holo-book.
Not that it was easy. Some quirk of the move closer to the sun seemed to have done odd things to SoCal1’s atmosphere, so that it interfered with holo-book readers. You’d start out reading something on pre-galactic empire literature, and, if you weren’t very lucky, by the end of the paragraph, the file would end up corrupted into a cheap thriller. There was a rumor going around that more than one author had made millions purely on the back of this atmospheric anomaly, while Elaine knew that several publishing houses had research teams permanently stationed there to study the effect.
“You know, Ana,” Elaine said when Anastasia’s hunk wandered off, “this wasn’t what I thought you meant when you said you were going travelling.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Anastasia asked.
“Well, I just thought that you were planning on learning something while you were out here.”
“I am learning things. I’ve got a surfing lesson in an hour.”
Elaine shook her head, shutting down her holo-book. Since the last paragraph she’d read had featured the words “ticking bomb,” “last second,” and “snipped the red wire,” Elaine was fairly sure she could predict the ending. “That’s not what I meant. Shouldn’t you be trying to learn about the galaxy? Getting to know about the people you’ll rule one day?”
“But there are all sorts of people here,” Anastasia protested. “And we learned all about the sand hotel on the tour, and—”
“Please, Ana?” Elaine begged. “Just give me until your surfing lesson to look around this place with you?”
Anastasia shrugged, but she stood up.
“Where are we going?”
“I saw something down the beach earlier.”
“Not the nudist section? I don’t think Daddy would like it if he heard about that.”
Elaine sighed. It briefly occurred to her that the difference between that area’s dress code and what Anastasia was currently wearing amounted to about a dozen square inches of fabric at most. “No, Ana. The other direction. Come on.”
They walked together down the beach until they came to a section that was considerably noisier than the rest of the beach put together. The people there were shouting things over megaphones, chanting, yelling slogans, and generally making as much of a nuisance of themselves as they could. Elaine thought it would have been more productive if at least part of the people stopped shouting over one another long enough for someone else hear what the other half were protesting about.
The protesters looked fairly strange by the standards of the rest of the planet, and not just because each of them was wearing a lot more in the way of clothing than most of the inhabitants. They were…well, ordinary looking. Plain. Each one was slightly tubby around the edges, or weedy looking, or just generally less than absolutely perfect. After the obsessively sculpted physiques on display at the beach, it was almost shocking.
“Who are they?” Anastasia asked. Elaine just led them closer, until they could actually make out some of the protests.
“We already look fine!” one of the protesters yelled. “Leave us alone!”
“Who wants an endless summer?” another one demanded. “Move the orbit back!”
“Say no to the Man!” a third called out, presumably on the basis that there’s always someone who yells such things at times like this. “Say no to economic exploitation!”
Anastasia held back a little as Elaine moved closer still.
“I don’t like this, Elaine.”
“But Ana, this is what I’ve brought you here to see.”
The Princess looked around the crowd with the expression of a fish that had just been told it was going to be attending a career talk about options in the unicycling sector. “What? Why?”
“Because I think you’ll learn a lot from what they have to say. Come on.” Elaine clamped a hand around Anastasia’s arm so that she couldn’t very well do anything else.
They got almost all the way up to the crowd before a trio of placard holding protesters stepped out to meet them. One was a middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed dress, while the other two were dreadlock sporting young men. One had a goatee that really didn’t suit him.
“What are you doing here?” the woman demanded.
“We came to learn about the protest,” Elaine said.
“Not here. Here.”
“What? Oh, right,” the woman said. She leaned against her placard for a moment. The writing on it was quite small and hard to read. It seemed that she had a lot to complain about. “I mean, what are you doing here on the planet, exploiting our local industries like this? You…you…tourists.”
Elaine nodded. “That’s just it. I want my friend here to understand all the problems that are being caused by the relentless march of the planet’s tourist industry.”
The young man with the goatee jumped in. “So you came here as tourists to see why you shouldn’t come here as tourists?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean, we came here for the beaches.”
“Oh, so you are tourists.” The other young man had a placard featuring a picture of a particularly ugly looking toad. “Coming here, forcing us to change the planet’s orbit, destroying natural habitats for our indigenous species. What about the SoToad, that’s what I want to know.”
Anastasia looked up at the sign laughed. “You’re worried about that? But it’s…it’s ugly.”
“Ugly,” the woman with the tightly spaced placard said, “is a mere arbitrary social distinction. A term used to dispossess whole segments of the community by forcing them to view themselves in terms of culturally constructed bodily norms. I’ll thank you not to use it again.”
“But it is,” Anastasia insisted. “And anyway, it’s only a stupid toad.”
Elaine decided to try to mediate. “But Ana, the toad isn’t the point. The point is that the planet’s natural resources are being ignored just so SoCal1 can serve as some sort of tourist destination for everyone else.”
“The toad is the point,” the young man without the beard insisted. “That’s what this protest’s for.”
“No,” the one with the beard shot back, “it’s all about the exploitation of the working people by forcing them to…um…work.”
“You’re both wrong,” the woman said. “It’s about the way the people of this planet are being forced to see themselves.” She looked pointedly at Anastasia. “Not that I’d expect someone like you to understand. After all, you’ve given in to the idea that you have to conform to a traditional conception of beauty.”
Elaine couldn’t help noticing that she’d been left out of that one a little bit more than she would have liked.
“Thank you,” Anastasia said, “I think.”
“A pretty girl like you will never get it,” the woman went on, “so I think you’d better leave. Your friend is welcome to join our protest, of course.”
“It’s all right, Elaine,” Anastasia said. “We should go. I think the crowd is turning ugly.”
The woman in the colorful kaftan raised her placard like a club. “I told you not to say that word!”
Elaine pushed Anastasia to the side as the thing descended. So much for peaceful protest. She ducked a horizontal swing that came close enough for her to read some of the contents—something about the plight of the indigenous workers of the planet’s sand-mines—and pushed the woman back into the others there.
Of course, there’s a name for what you get when you take a protest and add just a touch of violence. That word is “riot.”
As the crowd of placard holders surged forward, Elaine grabbed Anastasia, turned, and got ready to run. Even as she did it though, she could see that she had left too late. And a second later, she could feel it. The two of them swept through the mob like crowd surfers, though, from the looks of it, things would be even more violent than a mosh-pit once they stopped.
And then, seemingly from nowhere, a second force showed up to hit the rioters with, if not the vigor of a battering ram, then at least the momentum of the crowd twenty seconds after the opening of the January sales. Wearing riot armor over their board shorts and bikinis, the figures grabbed protesters from the crowd one by one. It seemed that SoCal1’s police were there.
“Stop right there!” one of the armored beach hunks yelled. “You’re all under arrest for breaking the laws of attraction, having unacceptable hairstyles, and failing to perform your prescribed beach duty! Oh, and for rioting and stuff.”
The police presence was fine by Elaine, as the crowd melted away one by one. Anything that would keep her and Anastasia safe. Anastasia was already being pulled clear by officers obviously concerned for the wellbeing of a fellow beach-bunny. Then it was Elaine’s turn. She let out a sigh of relief as strong hands helped her from the crowd. But Elaine found herself slightly less relieved when those same hands forced her arms behind her back and cuffed her.
“Hang on, I’m not one of them!”
The officers holding her looked her up and down. “Tell it to the judge, honey. Or at least to your stylist.”
But the Princess was already off swapping hair tips with a riot officer, so, as they dragged Elaine to a waiting police van, there was no one to hear.
Three hours later, Elaine made her way along the beach to a small bar where Anastasia was currently sitting, enjoying something served in half a coconut. She didn’t even look up until Elaine sat down next to her.
“Elaine! There you are! I was wondering where you’d gotten to. Is that a new bikini?”
“Yes,” Elaine said, “it is. Ana, have you just been sitting here for the last few hours?”
“What?” the Princess looked shocked at the suggestion. “No, definitely not. I mean, I had my surfing lesson, for one thing, and then Penny…. Did you meet Penny? She was one of the riot officers. Well, her sister—”
“Would you like to know what I’ve been doing for the last few hours?” Elaine asked in as pointed a tone as she could manage.
“Well,” Elaine said, motioning for the bartender to bring her a drink. She needed one. Oh, how she needed one by that point. “I spent the first part of the time in a police van, and then some time in a police cell, and then I had to go up in front of a judge.”
“But why?” Anastasia asked. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. They thought I was one of the protestors.” Elaine’s drink arrived. She drank it and ordered another. “So I have just had to spend the most humiliating half hour of my life being prodded and assessed to see whether I’d be forced to have compulsory gene-therapy, while you’ve been off surfing.”
Anastasia shrugged, though it was a slightly more apologetic one than usual. “Still, at least you came through it okay, right? And you got a nice new bikini out of it.”
Elaine glared at her, resisting the urge to adjust the barely there thing she now wore. There wasn’t really enough of it to adjust. “That’s part of my sentence, Ana. While I’m here, I have to dress like this, and I had to sit through a big lecture on diet and exercise. I’m still not certain why they didn’t give me the whole treatment.”
“Don’t be silly,” Anastasia said. “Everyone knows they don’t do that to off-worlders.”
It wasn’t exactly the rousing vote of confidence in Elaine’s natural beauty that she’d been hoping for.
“Oh, and you’re far too pretty anyway,” Anastasia said, just one sentence too late.
Elaine sipped her second drink, though, frankly, it didn’t taste quite as good at that speed. “At least tell me that you learned something today.”
“Absolutely!” Anastasia sounded very definite about that one.
“That’s good, at least.”
Anastasia nodded. “I learnt how to stay up on my board all the way to the beach, and that sand gets everywhere when you’re not careful, and, from Penny’s sister, I learnt this great trick for dealing with dried out skin that you really have to…what?”
Let us leave the girls now and take a brief trip across the worlds to one that attracted almost as much traffic as the beach planet, even if most of it wasn’t quite so good looking. The blasted form of the planet Gnarr hung in space like it really wasn’t worth it, spinning lazily around a sun that had been doing quite well until the locals sold hydrogen-mining rights on it, and which was now little more than an ember.
Let us focus in a little now, on a settlement surrounded by spaceships from a hundred worlds. Despite the variations in their origins, the observant eye might note certain similarities between the ships. A tendency towards spikes on the prow, for instance. A distinct preference for black. Oh, and the fact that they all have enough assorted weapons to bring down a battle cruiser is a bit of a giveaway too.
Gnarr was, in other words, not a particularly nice address. In fact, it was famous for not being nice. For being somewhere that the less pleasant sections of society could have a nice quiet drink without any inconveniently lawful types getting in the way. Even on Gnarr, though, there were places people learned to avoid more than others.
It was into one of those that a tall, cloak covered figure stepped. That was fine. As the premiere bar for assassins, bounty hunters, slavers, and optometrists (owing to a slight mix up in the marketing some time ago), Joe’s Diner was used to tall, cloak covered figures. It was practically part of the dress code. Or would have been, had it not been the case that anyone trying to enforce a dress code would have been vaporized by the patrons.
The figure surveyed the room. There was a power-armored bounty hunter playing Snap with a clan of dog-headed mutant thief takers. There was a Cleudoian assassin-droid, lead pipes and candlesticks clutched in metal tentacles. All around, there sat some of the deadliest creatures in the galaxy. Oh, and a little girl with pigtails and a cream dress was sitting at the bar too, a teddy bear sitting on the surface of it. The cloaked figure nodded to himself.
“Buy you a milkshake, little girl?”
The girl looked up. “Are you trying to be funny? Yes, I’m still wearing the get up from my last job. What’s it to you?”
“Sorry.” The cloaked figure should probably have known better than to insult one of the Culkins, those perpetually childlike creatures who seemed to take the fact that they only came up to the rest of the galaxy’s collective waist as a personal insult. When it came to setting traps and causing mayhem, there were none better. “I have a job for you.”
“Give it to one of these other bums. Mr. Teddy and I are taking some time off.”
The cloaked figure put a hand on the creature’s shoulder and was surprised when he heard a growl. It didn’t come from the girl though, but from the stuffed toy.
“You don’t want to do that, buster,” the girl said.
“Please. I need the best. This is a very specific job, and I’m prepared to pay a great deal.”
The girl shrugged. “Define a great deal.”
The cloaked figure did. The bear growled something.
“Yes, I know,” the girl said. “I know that for that, you could buy your way back into the Great Picnic. But what about our time off? Oh, all right. All right, I said.” She looked up. “It looks like you’ve got yourself a deal, Mister. Now, who’s the target?”
The cloaked figure took out a data-chip. “Two targets. One primary and one secondary. The instructions are all here.”
The Culkin’s hand closed on the chip. She put it to the teddy bear’s mouth, where it disappeared. The bear growled something new.
“Interesting,” the Culkin said. “If Mr. Teddy is right, I might even be charging you what this is worth. Now, I think you said something about a milkshake?”
Elaine picked, and pushed, and occasionally elbowed her way towards the bar, doing her best to ignore the blare of the music and the sheer press of bodies around her. Of course, since almost everyone else within fifty feet was doing exactly the same, she didn’t make a great deal of progress.
This trip to the planet of Paartay had been Anastasia’s idea of course. Apparently, after SoCal1, she had decided that Elaine needed to let her hair down a little, and the galaxy’s favorite spot for a night (or day, depending on which side of the planet you landed) out was an obvious choice.
They’d been there before, of course. After all, Anastasia hadn’t acquired a semi-permanent spot in the tabloid pages by staying at home on a Friday night. Apparently though, Anastasia had decided that it might be fun to see what a trip would be like when they weren’t getting the VIP treatment. Oh, and when there weren’t any pesky guards preventing her from going to all the bits she wanted to, there being some parts of the planet where the party was very definitely adults only.
Or at least, no obvious guards. Elaine looked out over the surrounding nightclub, trying to guess which of the dancers might be there to protect them. It was impossible, of course. The Royal Guard knew their job better than that. It was enough to know that they had to be there somewhere, watching just closely enough to keep things from getting too far out of hand. Not that they’d done that great a job on SoCal1, but Elaine was prepared to give them that one. After all, Anastasia hadn’t been the one tangled up in a police cell, had she?
Though now, she was certainly tangled up with enough dance partners. It seemed that it would take more than a mere fake identity to keep Anastasia from being the center of attention. A cluster of men, women, and occasional things of indeterminate gender had formed around her just in the time that Elaine had been gone trying to get more drinks, and, already, Anastasia was dancing with a many tentacled Reussian.
“Would you like to dance?”
Elaine turned, ready to deliver her standard withering stare to get rid of the newcomer. After all, if she was off dancing with someone, there was no one to keep an eye on the Princess. Not that doing it from the bar seemed to be helping at the moment. Still, there was the principle of the thing to consider.
Elaine’s practiced glare fell short of materializing, however, when she got a good look at the man who had just asked. He was tall, dark haired, and, Elaine had to admit, so far out of her usual league in the looks department that she had to fight the urge to look over her shoulder to see if someone else was standing there. He had a chin you could have broken rocks on, a smile that was almost blinding, and just enough muscles under the dark pants and sweater he was wearing to be interesting. Though he was wearing sunglasses inside, so he obviously wasn’t perfect.
“But I’m here with my friend.”
The man turned to where Anastasia was still writhing in synch with the Reussian, one of his tentacles wrapped around her waist.
“She looks like she’s doing fine,” Martin said. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
That seemed like an odd way to put it, but Elaine managed to smile anyway. “I really shouldn’t.”
“You should,” Martin insisted. “You really should.”
“Is that meant to be some sort of threat?” Elaine demanded. She put her hands on her hips. “Only I have to tell you that it really isn’t about to get you anywhere, even if you are unutterably handsome.” It occurred to her that that probably wasn’t the best way to make a point. “Um…ignore that bit. And then go away, obviously.”
“Please,” the man said, “I’m trying to help you out here.”
“Help me out?” Elaine could hardly believe what she was hearing. “I mean yes, you’re good looking, but are you actually arrogant enough to believe that, by asking me to dance, you’re doing me some sort of—”
“Damn it, we’re too late. They’re coming!”
A high-pitched buzzing filled Elaine’s ears, even over the music. She looked round to see a couple of small, spherical drones flying towards her.
“What is it?” she demanded. “What are they?”
“Do you know anything about this place?” Martin asked.
“Well, I know all about the two celebrities—”
“Then you only know what they want you to know. What’s your name?”
Martin lifted his sunglasses momentarily, revealing deep brown eyes. “I don’t know if I can help you, Elaine. There are big things going down in the galaxy at the moment, and I can’t risk too much. But I’ll try.”
“Help me? What do you mean?”
Elaine got an answer to that quickly enough though. The drones reached her, orbiting her head like two tiny moons around a planet. They beeped and shone lights towards her eyes.
“Fun quotient at less than thirteen percent,” an electronic voice said. “Intoxication minimal. Energy production negligible. Prepare for removal to the kitchen.”
Kitchen? What kitchen? Elaine didn’t have time to put that thought into words though, because the floor beneath her feet chose that moment to disappear, pitching her down a sharply sloping tube. Above her, she saw Martin the sunglasses wearer peer down after her and mouth the words, “I’m sorry,” just before the hole closed up.
Elaine landed on her feet in the middle of a clear plastic surround barely wide enough for her to fit into. The room around it was full of machinery. Specifically, it was full of the sort of machinery almost certainly designed especially to upset anyone currently pinned in place in front of it.
More of the little spherical devices floated around her, and a couple of machine arms flexed. A series of metallic tentacles extruded themselves from the floor.
“Commencing subject health probe in three, two, one…”
“Hey, you can’t…mmph! Ow! Leave me alone, you…ouch!”
“Phase one complete; commencing subject implantation in three, two—”
White light filled the space in front of Elaine. When it faded, Martin was there, still wearing his sunglasses, but now holding a disruptor pistol.
“Sorry,” he said. “It took me a moment or two to find a tube going the right way, and then I had to blast myself out, obviously. Hold still.”
The pistol flared again, and the plastic around Elaine melted away.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
Martin shook his head. “I’ll explain in a minute. For the moment though, we need to deal with their ability to track you. Those mini probes use retinal scanning, so we’ll need to do something about that.”
“Like what?” Elaine considered the possibilities. There was pattered retinal scarring, designed to change the data, or there was the option of a complete eye transplant, or there was—
Martin pulled out a second pair of sunglasses.
—or there was that, of course. “They can’t be very good scanners,” Elaine said as she slipped hers on.
“They aren’t, thankfully. Now, we need to get clear of this room. Come on.”
Martin led the way, and Elaine followed. “Will you at least tell me what’s going on?”
“As soon as we’re somewhere a bit safer.”
Elaine shook her head and grabbed his arm. “No. Now.”
“So much for gratitude.”
“There’s gratitude,” Elaine pointed out, “and then there’s following a complete stranger around just because he says so. For all I know, this is some sort of elaborate trick.”
Martin looked around suspiciously, but, when nothing seemed to happen, he leaned back against the way. “Are you always this mistrustful?”
Elaine shrugged. “Someone has to be. I’ve got my friend to look out for, remember?” A thought came to her. “Oh God, is she—”
“She’ll be fine,” Martin assured her. “From the looks of it, she’s not the sort who would ever be pulled down here.”
“There’s a sort?”
“Sure there is. Think about it. Where do you end up at parties?”
Elaine thought about it. Generally, she ended up about two feet from the Princess, trying to keep her out of trouble. That probably wasn’t the answer Martin was looking for though. Instead, Elaine thought back to those few parties she’d been to without Anastasia.
“Exactly.” Martin started to walk away, but Elaine kept a solid grip on his arm.
“Hang on, you can’t just say ‘exactly’ in a knowing tone of voice and expect it to explain anything.”
“I can’t? Oh, right…um…well, this planet…it’s alive.”
The way he said it, Elaine suspected that she was supposed to gasp with astonishment. Frankly, she couldn’t be bothered. “So are we talking a class six mega-life form, or a class seven?”
“A class seven,” Martin replied, sounding slightly disappointed. “Which as you know needs a—”
“—a constant supply of emotional energy to survive.” Elaine shuddered. “So all this partying is just a way for the creature to feed?”
Martin nodded. “Exactly.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“Sorry. Anyway, anyone at the party not producing enough joy and happiness gets sucked down here to…well, it’s easier if I show you.”
This time, Elaine let him lead the way. Two or three turnings took them through a blast door and into a space that could only be called a cavern because Elaine couldn’t think of any words to imply somewhere bigger. It was huge and lined with steel, and it was full. Full with people trudging between vats and ovens. Full with people scrubbing at stains in blocks of carpet. Full with those little drones, darting between people and occasionally letting off small electric shocks to get them to work faster. A couple buzzed up to Elaine and Martin, attempted to scan them, and then buzzed away again when their glasses got in the way.
“You know what parties are like,” Martin said. “Absolutely ecstatic in the middle, but a total nightmare when you’re getting ready for them or cleaning up after. So those people who won’t enjoy themselves enough to feed the planet topside…”
“…come down here to do all the bloody miserable jobs instead, so that the planet can feed on their unhappiness,” Elaine finished for him. “That’s horrible. No, it’s worse than horrible. It’s slavery.”
“It is,” Martin agreed. “The machines implant the newcomers with chips that give them control over the miserable partygoers, and then they work them until they drop, before wiping their memories and abandoning them in the spaceport. Everyone assumes that they just had too good a time.”
Elaine shuddered. “And you know about all this because…”
“I’m trying to do something about it,” Martin said. “Well, me and some friends. Soon, as part of our bigger plans, this whole place is going to be free. Just as soon as we can sort out a few details.”
Elaine looked down at the heaving mass of humanity. One poor woman was attempting to clean a facsimile of a bathroom that was…well, exactly as you might expect to find it after a party. “What sort of details?”
“Well, in theory, we have a way to deal with the planet. We’ve already set up feedback loops to amplify the emotions it’s receiving.”
“So you could overload it?”
“Terminal indigestion. The trouble is, the partying topside never quite seems to hit the right levels.”
Elaine thought for a moment. “Can you get me back topside?”
“Then I think I can find a way to do it.”
Martin nodded. “Of course, it would mean the death of a sentient creature.”
Elaine looked down at the unhappy workers once more. A robot drone had just told one that there would be another three million guests for dinner. “Good.”
The climb back to the surface turned out to be easy, just a matter of following a few maintenance tubes. Finding Anastasia was slightly harder, since the words, “I’m looking for my friend,” never seem to have much effect at parties. Half an hour’s searching, however, eventually allowed them to locate her in a private room in the company of the Reussian, a human male by the name of Antonio, and a couple of Miringi acrobats. Elaine disengaged a couple of tentacles and pulled Anastasia from the middle of it all.
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Elaine Durowich hasn’t taken a day off for as long as anyone can remember. After dealing with an overindulged princess, a political cout-de-tat, a band of formerly nonviolent rebels, a childlike assassin and her teddy bear, a horse-headed mafia lackey, and a universe full of quirky aliens, no one needs a vacation more than Elaine. The problem is, she is on vacation. The story follows Elaine and her employer, Imperial Princess Anastasia, as they journey across the cosmos for one last hurrah before Anastasia ships off to college. Gimba packs his novel with delightful characters, a comic series of events, and witty satire that is sure to please readers of all ages.