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The First One's Free

THE FIRST ONE’S FREE

A Novella

By TS Hottle

 

 

 

 

PSST! HEY, YOU! YEAH, THE ONE READING THIS.

LIKE FREE STUFF? HOW ABOUT A COMPACT UNIVERSE STORY ABSOLUTELY FREE?

 

 

“HEADSPACE” IS THE TALE OF RAFE, WHO VIOLATES HUMANITY’S LONG-STANDING TABOO AGAINST “SMART” ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. TERRORISTS COULD USE THIS TO BRING DOWN THE COMPACT. THE GOVERNMENT CAN USE THIS AS A WEAPON. RAFE USES IT TO IMPRESS A GIRL.

 

“HEADSPACE” CAN BE YOURS FOR FREE. ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS SUBSCRIBE TO THE COMPACT UNIVERSE NEWSLETTER. SIGN UP HERE AT http://eepurl.com/bn4Gm9

 

SIGN UP TODAY AND FIND OUT THE LATEST NEWS OF THE COMPACT UNIVERSE!

 

 

 

 

For TJ and Shoes, Mitch and Jim, Fig and Ripley, for all the imaginary crew that used to inhabit our heads, this book can be dedicated to one person and one person only…

 

To my former Bay Area partner in crime, now tearing it up in the Windy City…

 

To Kitty. This is what we should have been writing all along.

 

 

©2015 Thomas Hottle

©2016 Shakespir

 

All rights reserved.

 

Episode 1: The Tuber

1

 

It’s hard to riot in the rain, but life on Essenar afforded no other choice. It always rained on Essenar. Someone somewhere thought it would make the perfect penal colony. And it might have, if floods had not destroyed the two largest food processing centers on the planet.

For Lattus Kai, the riots proved a nightmare. When they reached the capital, he found himself suiting up in his flabby-looking armor and grabbing the sword he took out only for friendly matches and ceremonial functions. Not that there had been much ceremony on this forsaken rock.

“You can’t go out there,” said Tishla, Kai’s indentured companion. Her white hair cascaded across her shoulders and seemed to shimmer, even in the armory’s dim lighting. “They’ll kill you.”

Kai touched small polymer strips on various parts of his armor, causing it to shrink to his body and harden. It now resembled a man-shaped shell. “In the event of my death, my dear, your contract of indenture passes to you, along with the funding to manage it. You’ll be your own master, then a wealthy Free Woman.”

Unable to punch Kai through the armor, she gave him a hard shove instead. “I’m not worried about me, you idiot. I’m worried about you.”

Around him, his personal guards all reached for their swords but stopped at drawing them. One went for his shock pistol instead. Kai could only smile back at her before triggering his helmet to expand over his head. “One should never worry about whether one’s master is going to die, especially a woman like you. You deserve your freedom, Tish.”

“I deserve you.” She patted the side of his helmet, a move which did not provoke the guards this time. “Be safe.” She kissed him before the visor descended over his face.

 

*****

 

Kai and his personal guards plunged into the melee outside the palace gates. With all the mud and water damage, their boots had trouble gaining traction over the broken pavement. A company of Realm troops held the attacking crowd at bay while several soldiers moved tracked vehicles into place, large dish-like objects mounted high atop their roofs. The dishes looked relatively harmless, like the old-fashioned space antennae once used to listen to faint, distant signals. Kai, however, knew differently.

Palak, the captain of the Governor’s Guard, rushed over to Kai and saluted. A dark orange bruise marred the otherwise gray skin around his left eye. “No need for you to come out, Sire. Someone gave them projectile weapons.” He gave a sly glance at the nearest tracker and its dish. “You know the old saying.”

Kai remembered it from his time in the Realm’s service. “Woe to the man who brings a gun to a knife fight.”

Both men laughed.

It did not surprise Kai that Palak already sported a bruise from the melee. The old warrior was never one to run from a fight. To this day, he still shaved his head to sport the scars around his smooth gray scalp as badges of honor.

Kai touched the side of his own helmet to retract it back into the armor. “Fire two bolts over their heads first. Just to get their attention. I want to talk to them.”

“And if they won’t listen, Sire?”

“Then we incinerate the ones in the back and cut down anyone left who won’t surrender. Do it.”

The captain crossed his hands over his chest and bowed to Kai. Turning back to the line of where the trackers, he shouted orders for two of the crews to fire.

A pair of the mounted dishes began glowing blue, then red. Both shot bright red beams over the heads of the rioters, one striking a storage shack on a rocky hill overlooking the outer grounds of the Governor’s Palace and turning into an incinerated pile of rubble. The crowd quieted and looked up at the weapons.

“Bring me a thunder phone,” said Kai as he strode toward another tracker. He climbed atop it with the weapon operator. Someone handed up a small box. It resembled an ancient handheld computer, but half of it was taken up by an odd-looking grid Kai knew to be the microphone. His father once told him they originally called these devices the Voice of God, back when such imagery was common.

As Kai looked out over the mob of hungry people he would likely have to kill in a few moments, he didn’t see evidence of any god. He thumbed the thunder phone and held it up to his mouth.

“People, I am Lattus Kai, your Governor. I personally appeal to you to lay down your arms. You will not be harmed if you do. You cannot, and will not, be held responsible for the starvation that has brought this upon us all.”

“What do you mean all?” a woman shouted back, her coppery orange hair streaked with white. “We know you import real food from the Throneworld and the other colonies.”

That sent a ripple of shouting throughout the crowd.

Kai put up his hand. “People, please. It is true the Realm supplies its governors well. It is also true the Realm does not fully understand the plight of its people on the newer colonies.”

“I’ll say,” said a man from a different part of the crowd. “We can’t eat anything native without it being processed.”

“Bring us food,” another person shouted, followed by more demands for food. Eventually, this crescendoed into a chant of “Food! Food! Food!”

“I understand your anger,” said Kai. “But if I were to release my stores, only a dozen or so of you will be fed. For a day. I promise you, we are working very hard to get the food plants back online as soon as possible. In the meantime, I will…”

The bullet clanged off the dish behind him, a piece of shrapnel from it slicing his cheek. As Kai clambered down from his perch, he caught Palak’s eye and nodded. All three dishes aimed downward and fired three beams into the back of the crowd. Several dozen people screamed, flared brightly, and collapsed into heaps of ash. The rain quickly dissolved the remains into greasy runoff.

“For the last time,” the captain said over his own thunder phone, “stand down or we will shoot to kill. Those of you closest to the gate will meet our swords.”

“Come on, Sire,” said Palak. “Let’s get your helmet back on. You’ve already lost them.”

Kai barely had time to comply before the crowd charged the gates. The dish weapons began firing indiscriminately, but they did nothing to stop the bullets from firing in return. Kai and his guards plunged into the fray, swords drawn. They went for the gun hands of those carrying small hand weapons. Most of the rioters wore no armor at all, only a few attired in some primitive protection in an attempt to foil Realm and Palace Guard swords. The result was many arms severed almost to the elbow.

And still, Kai noted as he gutted an attacker, they kept coming. They had no choice. Death by violence would be quicker and less painful than death by slow starvation. With no food, they had to fight.

A fight that held no honor for Kai. He and his people sported nanite-laced polymer armor that covered them from head to toe. The most the bullets could do was make loud cracks as they impacted. The rioters never stood a chance, not between the titanium blades of the guards and the mounted energy weapons. They soon began to surrender.

“Put them in Valkay Prison,” said Kai to the guard captain. “Let them at least have penal rations.”

“Sire,” said his personal chief. “One prisoner is insistent that he talk to you. He says he’ll surrender only to the Governor himself.”

“Everyone here would like to talk to the Governor. Do you think I really have the time?”

“You may for this one, Sire. He’s an alien.”

 

2

 

His hair was almost black, not the usual yellow, white, or light brown. His only facial hair was a thin black mustache, no beard. He had the palest skin Kai had ever seen on a primate, almost white, though with a hint of brown, tinges of pink suggesting red blood beneath. Some of Kai’s people were albino. This one’s skin was nearly as pale as those. And those eyes. Most primates had white corneas, but the pale blue irises of this alien were somewhat frightening. Even more unsettling was his nose, a tiny little bulb between his eyes and his upper lip. Kai looked at it and absently ran a finger across his own flat nose.

“He’s Tianese,” said Tishla. She and Kai watched the alien from a small room off the Palace’s holding facility. On a small screen, the alien sat passively with his hands folded, occasionally studying his surroundings. For someone who had just survived a slaughter, he seemed unusually calm. “Primate like us, five fingers, standard anatomical layout. Though where they keep their genitals bothers me.”

That made Kai laugh. “Well, among primate species, we are the odd ones.”

“It’s still gross.”

“How did he get here? And why would an alien, any alien, want to visit a world populated by transported criminals and their families? The Realm has plenty of established worlds. Even the Throneworld is open to foreigners.”

“Oh, I think he chose us for a reason.” Tishla reached into the folds of her gown and produced an ugly object, long, brown, and lumpy. It had a rough surface with little plant-like buds growing out of it. “You know the story of Jod and the Giant?”

Every child knew the tale. Jod traded the family sloret, the only source of meat and milk they had, for a root a mysterious man promised would feed them for a year. Enraged, Jod’s father skinned the root and fed everyone but Jod with it. The skins, tossed into the ground outside, had grown over night into a lush garden filled with every imaginable fruit and vegetable, enough to feed the entire village.

The part of the story that the older children loved best was when a giant came looking for his stolen root and threatened to (or actually did in some tellings) eat the villagers one by one until he got it back. By the time children reached their teens, the part where Jod slew the giant with a slingshot was always their favorite. Almost all tellings ended with Jod becoming lord of the village.

“Are you saying this is a magic root?” asked Kai.

“Well, it is a root,” said Tishla, “but what do you know about the Tianese?”

“They’re kind of like Orags, only taller, less hairy, and with tiny little noses.” Kai absently touched his nose again. “How do they breathe?”

She held up the root. “If he’s selling you the magic root, then the Tianese would be your giant. We could be bringing the Compact down on us.”

“The Compact?”

“I’m not surprised you aren’t familiar with the term. Since we don’t interact with the Tianese much, most people have never heard of it. The Tianese get their name from one of their most populous worlds, but it’s not likely their homeworld. The Compact is a loose confederacy of worlds populated by their species.”

Kai frowned. “Why should we care about a ‘loose confederacy’? It’s not like the Realm, tightly controlled, heavily armed.” He looked to the ceiling as though gazing into space. “Except here, of course.”

“They’re spread out and fairly independent of each other, but don’t underestimate the Compact. The Laputans did, and it turned out to be their giant, too.”

The Laputans, another primate species, had started wars with just about every species known to the Realm. Even the Realm itself had gone to war against them. It seemed to be the Laputans’ preferred method of first contact.

“Did they lose?” asked Kai.

“The Compact sure didn’t. Funny species, these Tianese, or whatever they really are. They’ve been a space-faring civilization for a few centuries now, yet they still use projectile weapons and keep their artificial intelligence primitive. And yet, they still they managed to throw the Laputans out of their space.”

Kai turned and gestured for two guards to come into the little alcove. “You two, accompany her.” He handed Tishla the ugly root. “You question him. You know more about this… Compact than the rest of us.”

 

*****

 

“It is the answer to your problems,” said the alien, who gave his name as “Marq.” The name sounded archaic in the Realm’s Mother Tongue, but Kai had heard it before. He sat watching the feed as Tishla questioned him.

“How so?” asked Tishla. “Is this the magic root of our children’s tales?”

Kai admired his concubine’s manner as he watched her on the screen. Her gown, her long white hair, and her regal posture gave her an authority no indentured servant should ever have, but Marq probably knew nothing of that. For all he could tell, she was the real authority here on Essenar. The true power behind the throne. Sometimes, Kai wondered that himself.

Marq laughed his strange little laugh. “We have a similar tale about magic seeds. Does yours include a giant? Do giants actually exist among your species?”

“They did, once,” said Tishla. “But we’ve weeded out that genetic anomaly. Where do you come from?”

“Juno.”

“And where is that?”

“Juno isn’t so much a where, as a what. Juno is my employer.”

Tread carefully, love, Kai silently thought. He’s a cagey one.

“And did your employer teach you our Tongue? Your language is very fluent, but your accent does nothing to hide your alien origins.”

Marq looked down at his hands, perhaps the least alien aspect of his appearance: Five fingers with the opposable thumbs most primates had evolved. Well, that the Realm knew about, anyway. “I’m sure you’ll agree mastering a native accent, particularly so far from your Throneworld, would do little to mask my origins. Besides, my tongue doesn’t perform all the same functions as those of your species. Curious how random evolution makes them so similar, yet so very different, isn’t it? But you don’t have me locked in a little room to talk about that, do you? You want to know who I am and what I want. How did I get here? What’s that ugly little root I brought? And why do I want to talk to your governor?”

Tishla looked flustered, a reaction Kai had not seen since they were childhood playmates. “Well, yes.”

“I came,” he said, “aboard a projection drive ship. That is why there is no hypergate record of my arrival.” He reached up his sleeve and produced a slip of paper. Kai could not remember the last time he had actually seen paper, and suspected Tishla could not either.

“The ship is parked in your asteroid belt,” Marq continued. “It is a converted ore freighter, which allows me to run it by myself. By the way, I don’t recommend that, even with your technology. Anyway, it has a small launch that allowed me to come planetside. There is a record of that at your main spaceport. Or was, anyway. I was told to land in a quarantine section when your latest riots broke out. Tell me. Is your spaceport operational again?”

That put a little steel in Tishla’s spine. “Assuming we do not simply kill you for spying, we will provide you passage to Ramcat in Laputan space. I assume your people do business with the Laputans these days?”

Marq’s strange little smile widened to reveal little, white teeth. “Much to the Laptuans’ chagrin. So, you do want the ship?”

“It’s not a matter of whether you give it to us or not, Mr. Marq…”

“Just Marq.”

“We’re taking it.”

“Then I suppose you’ll need me to upload the security code.” He leaned back with his hands folded across his chest, looking very much like a gambler who held the winning hand and doesn’t care who knows it. “As for the root, it’s a gift, courtesy of Juno.”

“Why would I want an ugly little root?”

“Your people are carnivorous, more so than mine. Like us, you can create protein substitutes. But your people still require fiber and starch to sustain themselves in times of food shortage, which I’m sure you’ll agree includes now.” He picked up the tuber. “I could give you seeds, but had I successfully gone through your entry protocols, they simply would have been confiscated and destroyed as a potential contaminant. This, on the other hand, is a sample.” He pointed to a bud on the surface of the root. “These are what my people call ‘tubers,’ and on our ancestral world, they have eliminated famine time and again. Once we mastered genetic manipulation, we were even able to make them grow in the polar regions. My employer specializes in this kind of work. However, we are much newer to the industry than the older food engineering entities, some of which date back to before my people’s last global war.”

Tishla took the tuber from Marq again and examined it. “And these buds?”

“If you skin the tuber,” said Marq, “and simply toss them in a field somewhere, the buds will grow into perfect clones of the original plant. From there, you can take seeds and modify the genes as you see fit. You have flowering plants on this world? Small creatures that will help pollinate them?”

Did they? Kai asked himself, knowing Tishla would be wondering the same thing. It’s all our immunologists can do to keep ahead of the parasites.

“Just so you know,” said Tishla, “my master is not Jod. We’re not going to believe this is just going to blossom into the lush garden of our creation myths. Not without some evidence first.”

“To follow your metaphor,” said Marq, “the giant in question is Juno. And Juno is the one giving you the gift. Freely. We would actually consider it a favor if you took this tuber for your own purposes. We only ask that you let us see the results of your work.”

“And why would you do something like that?”

“You are familiar with the concept of the free market?” When Tishla nodded, he said, “Such markets are not so free when more established entities rig the market for their own purposes. Juno is simply looking for new ways to compete.”

Kai wondered why he did not completely believe that. He could see from Tishla’s expression she wasn’t buying it either.

 

3

 

It took a day to find Marq’s ship. Kai noted with amusement that the asteroid where it lay anchored looked very much like one of the tubers.

He had debated about sending someone to look, perhaps sending Tishla herself and a team of Palace Guards, but ultimately decided to go himself. He could trust his premier not to stage a coup, but he could not trust his guards not to kidnap Tishla for themselves.

They guided their jump ship toward the asteroid and found Marq’s ship on the far side. Kai admired Tishla as she worked the controls. Even her flight suit could not hide the lines of her body. Though she was focused on the controls, a stern expression on her face as she studied the alien craft for a means of docking, a smile started to form on her lips.

“Do I make your tongue swell?” she said playfully.

To Kai’s surprise, it was swelling a little. “Sometimes, I wish I could keep you beyond your term of indenture.”

“You know what to do, Lattus.” The smile had now fully formed. “You know what I want.”

“And if I could give it to you, I would.” He leaned back. “But you and I both know the Oligarchy will never allow me to marry a servant, even when she’s become a Free Woman.” He reached over and stroked her arm. “There is no shame in being the mistress of a High Born.”

“There’s no legal standing in it, either.” Her smile had vanished. “I’m going to use the collapsible collar to dock with the ship. If that code he gave us is genuine, we’ll be inside in under five minutes. Watch the thrusters for me please.” The smile returned. “I mean, may I ask Your Excellency to watch the thrusters, Master?”

“Yes, dear.”

A wide cup-like structure blossomed on the launch’s underside as Tishla positioned it over the docking port on Marq’s craft. The thrusters fired wildly from multiple sides of the launch in a pattern only known to the guidance system.

“Two hundred drekas and closing,” said Kai as the launch drew closer. “One-fifty… One hundred drekas.”

“Slowing to ten drekas per second,” said Tishla, her tone now nearly mechanical. “Slowing to five.”

The thrusters beneath the craft now fired almost steadily as those topside made short bursts to push the two craft together. The cup on the underside touched the alien craft’s surface and sealed itself against it, enclosing the docking port.

Without asking, Tishla grabbed a shock pistol and a dagger. “Stay here.”

Kai would never get used to his concubine barking orders, but then, she had not agreed to be indentured to have a life of servitude. When Tishla broke protocol, Kai’s people knew to pay attention. So did Kai. “If the ship is empty…?”

“That’s just it. We don’t know that it’s empty beyond a bunch of alien roots in the hold. For all we know, Marq was hired by a rival.” She pressed her lips thin. “Kill you, and they can claim Essenar for themselves, for whatever bizarre purpose they would want to.”

“And you,” said Kai. “They could claim you.”

“Oh, no, Kai. They wouldn’t claim me. I’d be executed for allowing you to walk into a trap.”

They would, too. Part of the terms of indenture, at least to High Borns, was to defend one’s master with one’s own life. Failure was punishable by death.

“And if they didn’t execute me,” she continued, “I’d simply kill myself. I’m not a prize.”

“You are to me.”

She unstrapped from her seat and kissed him. “That’s different. We agreed to this arrangement. Most indentureds have no choice. It’s either servitude or a life of ignorance and poverty. Now, my Master, allow your servant to check the ship.” Tishla never could call Kai “Master” without an undercurrent of sarcasm in her voice.

“Yes, dear.”

 

*****

 

Marq’s ship came to life as Tishla slid through the docking ring. Once again, Kai found himself monitoring her from afar. He seemed to do that a lot since Marq had arrived on Essenar. This time, he sent a mini-drone to follow her, allowing him to both see and communicate with her.

Kroy, it smells in here,” she said once she cleared the alien ship’s airlock. “These Tianese smell like wet bird.”

“Why didn’t we smell Marq?” asked Kai.

You didn’t smell him. Sire.” She turned back to the drone long enough to flash Kai a playful grin. “I had to sit across the table from him.”

“Sorry.”

“Hey, that’s what I signed on for. Be your companion, resident brain, and alien sniffer.”

The corridors of Marq’s ship were narrower than those of Kai’s people. They also had a more utilitarian look to them, conduits and control surfaces along the wall. Not a single item to indicate family affiliation. The drone picked up some writing on the wall that the translator rendered as “Property of Dasarius Interstellar.” Was Marq the property of Dasarius Interstellar or the ship? Did his race even engage in that type of servitude? Primates, as a whole, were all over the map on that topic. Most space-faring races did little beyond contracts of indenture or apprenticeships. Some, Kai knew, engaged in chattel slavery, though not many. It was too lopsided an arrangement to be of any use once a race mastered higher technology. Rumor had it the Tianese did not even have a formal caste system, let alone any system of servitude worth mentioning. Those apes, Kai mused, must live in total chaos.

Tishla stumbled and had to steady herself a moment. “I’m all right. The air in here has more nitrogen than we’re used to. I just need a moment to adjust.”

And it smells like wet bird, Kai thought. “Do you need a breather?”

“No, papa,” she said, an edge creeping into her voice. “And I didn’t forget my rain shoes, either.”

She looked down at the glove on her left hand, reading a map that Kai had displayed on the launch’s console as well. “If I’m reading this right, the hold is this way.” She walked past the drone and toward a darkened section of corridor. As she approached, lights flickered on ahead of her. “Well, nice to be welcomed.”

After a few moments, she found her way to a bulkhead that opened when she spoke the alien word panra. The bulkhead split and separated into the walls. The lights inside came on with loud clangs, indicating a primitive type of electrical circuit. Just the thought of it made Kai nervous. How did these people get around space without blowing themselves up or getting shocked?

Tishla stopped at the entrance. “I’ve found the hold.” After that, she just stood and stared.

“Tishla?”

Still she stared, saying nothing, her back to the drone and, subsequently, Kai.

“Tish? What’s wrong?”

“If that alien isn’t lying about the roots,” she said, “there’s enough here to feed the capital and its environs. We can grow enough from the skins to feed the rest within three turns.”

If. That’s why he purchased Tishla’s indenture contract. It paid for the education that would allow her to determine whether the alien was telling the truth.

“That’s good,” said Kai. “Because if he is lying, I will cut him down myself in Capital Square.”

 

4

 

“It’s starch,” said Marq as he and Kai walked through the square. “All primate species, at least those we know about, need starch. Most need protein as well, but in famine conditions, starch will do as a temporary fix. I noticed no livestock on this world. Did you not import them?”

Around them, workers (many of them rioters only a few days before) labored to clean up the square. Never a spectacular place to begin with, it had been reduced to a scarred moonscape of shattered glass, scorched walls, and broken masonry. Patches of red appeared on the pavement in places. Kai wondered if Marq knew it was blood.

“Today is a rare day on Essenar,” said Kai. “It’s not raining. The only places it does not constantly rain on this world are the deserts, the polar caps, and out to sea. It’s too damp to grow the grains and grasses needed to feed livestock, or we would have planted them decades ago.”

“So places like the deserts and sea and ice caps, I take it, can only be populated by normal citizens with the resources to adapt there.” He looked around. “Our ancestral homeworld once had an entire continent set aside for criminals. Seems like a waste, really. If you despise someone enough to kick them out of your homeland, why not dump them on an island somewhere and let the criminal nature solve the problem on its own?”

“Welcome to the island,” said Kai. “Worlds more hospitable are reserved for, as you term them, ‘citizens,’ though our society is not so egalitarian.” He watched as a man and his daughter boarded up the window of a shop on the far side of the square. The man did not own the shop, but had been one of those who burned it. What might that man have been capable of, Kai wondered, if the weather on Essenar had permitted normal food production? With a large enough population, farming could be automated to allow cities to grow. “We need more than these wonder roots you’ve given us, Marq. We need grains that will grow here. Can you do that for us?”

Marq laughed that strange alien laugh of his. “Governor, this load of tubers was lost through an error in logistics by my employers. I learned your world had a problem and saw an opportunity to show you what Juno can do for you. But my people have a saying, one that dates back to before we left our ancestral world.”

“And what’s that?”

“‘Only the first one’s free.’ The tubers in their present form can feed you. For that, I am deeply pleased. You know how to grow more from the skins, and I will explain to you how to pollinate the flowers so you can harvest seeds. All I require in return is the data from your results of your efforts, which will be of great benefit to Juno, and passage to Laputan space so I may return to my people. If you are successful, I wish to do business with you. Grain might be a good place to start.”

In a nearby alleyway, a woman used a hard rake to push rubble out into the street for collection. Kai recognized her as the owner of the shop where the man and his daughter had boarded the window. The alleyway ran between two shops some distance from the woman’s, the owners of both killed in the riots. Kai may even have put one of them to the sword.

“As you can see,” said Kai, “business is not the main focus of my people. These people were exiled here, ostensibly to give them a chance to build a new society. But we still have our wealthy classes, warriors of rank, legal experts, clergy, and so on, who tend to hoard resources needed elsewhere. And there is no profit motive to explain it. The market does not dictate their position.”

“Heredity does,” said Marq. “I’m familiar with the concept. Tell me, though, Governor. Aren’t you one of the wealthy class?”

“Wealth has its own burdens. The difference between a good man and an evil one often lies in whether he recognizes that.”

“It’s often the hungry man who changes things. What might these people do given a chance to feed themselves and build something more than a few scattered settlements?” Marq asked, echoing Kai’s earlier thought.

Kai watched the woman gather up what she had swept in the alley and dump it in a canister that once served as a fuel tank. Her shop, like the two flanking the alley, existed only because someone of the Merchant Caste granted them a franchise to sell imported wares. They were a captive market. “I suppose they would throw off the caste system or force their way into the various castes. As of this moment, they have no place in our society. In some ways, neither do I.”

“And why is that?”

Kai looked around the square. It should have been teeming with people enjoying the fruits of Essenar. Instead, they simply moved around what little the established worlds would send them. “My people, for all their vaunted nobility, are warriors. I, however, did not so much conquer Essenar as take it off the hands of another family. It’s not really an admirable way to acquire property in our society.”

That made Marq smile is strange little smile. Which unsettled Kai.

 

5

 

The slim black missile made a screeching noise as it scraped against the side of its hole. Around it, workers shouted at the crane operator to stop. The missile, really a ship-mounted torpedo left in a cave for storage, swayed precariously on the cables lifting it. Large rocks surrounded the opening in the ground where it had lain hidden for decades.

Douglas Best put a wet handkerchief over his face as the hot wind blew a cloud of dust up the mountain, momentarily obscuring the missile from his sight. The crew foreman, clad in a white desert suit and facemask, rushed over to him.

“I’m sorry, Minister,” he said to Best. “You may want to leave. We think we punctured the fuel tank lifting it out.”

Best would have sighed, but sighing would have meant a mouthful of sand. “How many more of these things do we have?”

“Including this one?” said the foreman. “Seven. If this one blows, you’ll have to chase that warhead all over the Mother’s creation to find it.” He smiled through his mask. “At least it’s not armed.”

Best took little comfort in that.

The crane lifted again, and the missile made a groaning noise that turned Best’s insides to jelly. He decided to heed the foreman’s advice and walked back to the awaiting tracker. Luxhomme was waiting inside.

“You could have been out there supervising,” said Best. “Has this outfit ever handled weapons of mass destruction?”

Luxhomme, a gaunt man with a pencil-thin mustache, smiled that strange little smile of his. “I am supervising. It was you, Minister, who insisted on coming to the site in person. By the way, until the crops begin to take, you might want to carry a facemask with you next time you come. 978-0765309402d is not the most forgiving planet.”

Best marveled that Luxhomme had memorized the planet’s name, a catalog designation from a forgotten survey some forty years earlier. It sounded almost musical with the lilt in his voice. He had told Best he was Etruscan, but the accent suggested someplace else. Metis maybe?

“You heard what my colleagues have named the star, haven’t you?” said Best.

“I believe an imam serving in your legislature proposed the name ‘Hell’ as a joke,” said Luxhomme. “Funny thing about legislative pranks. They sometimes get passed into law.”

“Tell me about it.”

Luxhomme rapped on the glass partition between himself and the driver. “Take us back to the inn.” To Best, he said. “So here we are on a desert planet orbiting a star about to be called Hell. Maybe they’ll call the planet ‘Perdition.’”

“That’d be original,” said Best. The Compact, the loose confederation of human worlds and their colonies, had no fewer than two dozen planets called “Perdition,” mostly airless rocks or volcanic hells sharing a system with some more hospitable and better named world. “Let’s go all the way back to our roots. We’ll call the satellite ‘Moon’ and, just to keep it consistent, this place ‘Planet.’”

Best watched the landscape change as the tracker jostled down the side of the mountain, the broad expanse of desert plain opening up before them. In the distance, Best could make out dark patches in the sand, perfect squares of gray interrupting the relentless tan of this world. “Mars won’t supply us bots to tend the farms,” he finally said. “They want too much money.”

“Strange how a socialist world wants money when they supposedly have no use for it,” said Luxhomme.

“Socialism costs money,” said Best. “Even where money ‘doesn’t exist.’” He leaned back into his seat and closed his eyes. He really did not want to talk to Luxhomme. The man made his skin crawl. Best only suffered him because it was Luxhomme that had proposed the plan to convert old military reserves into colonies. 978-0765309402d had been just such a planet. Best’s native world of Jefivah had no colonies of its own. The conversion of the military depots had provided a way to get three of them for free.

Well, not free. Behind them, a company contracted by Luxhomme’s JunoCorp struggled to keep an antiquated missile from spewing chemical fuel all over the mountain peak he and Best now descended. In the distance, the dark patches indicated where desert kelp, an invention of JunoCorp itself, grew in seemingly impossible conditions. Above, a ship hired by Luxhomme’s employers waited in orbit to take the nukes off-world.

That last part bothered Best. “I still don’t entirely understand. Why wouldn’t the Navy just establish a presence here? It’d be cheaper, and the military could keep control of the weapons without going to the expense of hauling them across interstellar space.”

Luxhomme gave his thin little smile. “Oh, come now, Mr. Best. We’ve been over this before. The Polygamy Wars. Since then, no colony may keep weapons of mass destruction, only the core worlds.”
“Jefivah is a core world,” said Best. “Humanity’s oldest interstellar settlement.”

“With a low population and factional tensions that keep it from becoming… How shall I put this?”

“A real world?”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”

But you’re thinking it, thought Best. He’d heard the jokes. Even Earth people made fun of the planet. “The Appalachia of the Stars” they called it. How low was your standing with Earthers made fun of your world?

The tracker descended the mountainside into the settlement below. The town still consisted largely of “tuna can” landers and quickly extruded buildings. However, one building in particular caught Best’s eye, a white structure of concrete and imported wood. It had to be imported. Best had seen the surveys of this planet. Not a single tree existed here, not even near the poles. However, it wasn’t really the building itself that caught Best’s eye.

Out front, a headless statue rose thirty feet into the air. Ceramic and painted, it depicted a curvaceous woman struggling to keep her white dress from billowing up in some phantom wind. A crane stood just to the left of the statue and was hoisting the head into place, that of a blonde with the most orgasmic look on her face.

“What are they doing here?” said Best.

“We have to have colonists to run this place Best,” said Luxhomme. “You have a religious faction you want to keep happy if you want peace on Jefivah. So I recruited some Marilynists to be the vanguard settlers. All you have to do is sign off on making this planet their own, and you’ll be their hero.”

Great. Luxhomme had just made Best a hero in the tackiest religion in the Compact.

 

Episode 2: The Marilynists

 

6

 

The humorless men in their dark suits showed up at Best’s office on Jefivah six months after he witnessed the missiles’ removal. They made no appointment, nor did any of Best’s staff announce them. They simply strode into his office as if they owned the place.

“Agent Rostov,” said the first one, a light-skinned Euro like Best. “Compact Security. This is a Major Liu of Naval Intelligence.”

“How did you get in here?” asked Best. “And who is that behind you?” He pointed to a short, mousy woman standing behind Rostov and Liu making little effort to be seen. “Interstellar Revenue? Where’s my refund?”

“We’ll be asking the questions,” said Liu, a stocky Asian whose accent betrayed an Earth upbringing. “Where are our warheads, Minister?”

“I’m sorry?” said Best. “What warheads?”

Rostov leaned on his fists over Best’s desk. “The last seven warheads you had removed from the planet now known as Marilyn so that full colonization could proceed.”

“Oh,” said Best. “Forgot all about them. JunoCorp, the company that’s customizing grain for our new colonies, contracted a firm to transport them to…” Best had assumed the warheads had gone to Tian, humanity’s largest world and the real hub of the Compact. “I assumed Naval Command took custody of them.”

“We did not,” said Liu, an edge creeping into his voice. He circled the desk so that, despite his short stature, he towered over the sitting Best. “In fact, the Zeus Arsenal has no record of any warheads scheduled to be transported from Marilyn, much less any receipt of them.”

“They tend to notice things like that,” said Rostov. “It’s their job.”

“What we do know is that there was some sort of mishap with the last torpedo to be extracted from the planet then called 978-0765309402d.” Liu leaned in, crowding Best. “And now that world has been renamed ‘Marilyn’, in honor of the goddess of a Jefivan cult.”

“You knew the Marilynists are on Compact Security’s watch list,” said Rostov. “And now you’re giving them an entire colony.”

Best laughed. “Can you think of a better way to get rid of a nuisance faction?”

“I can’t think of a better way to give a terrorist group a base away from the supervision of their world’s constituent authority,” said Liu. “And with those warheads missing, I have to question whether they even left Marilyn.”

Best stood, forcing Liu to back away. “Gentlemen, JunoCorp arranged to disarm Marilyn. And Gallifrey, which makes a much better colony in my opinion.” Turning to Liu, he realized he could now look down on the man in black for a change. “The Navy never responded to our requests for the disarmament of the three worlds we accepted. Not until our delegates to the Compact demanded it during a Security Council meeting. Mr. Luxhomme, JunoCorp’s agent, arranged for a private company to transport the weapons. Please tell me you received all the other warheads we shipped you.”

“We did,” said Rostov.

“Then I suggest you ask the shipping company about the remaining seven,” said Best.

Rostov turned to the woman who had entered with him and Liu. “We did, Minister. This is Magna Piori of Dasarius Interstellar.”

The mousy woman finally stepped forward and offered her hand. She looked like an accountant, which made her livelier than Rostov and Liu in Best’s mind. “I’m the asset loss investigator for Dasarius’s colonial operations. Mr. Best, your last warheads were scheduled to leave… You really called the planet ‘Marilyn’?”

Best smiled. “The colonists did. We wanted to call it ‘Sahara,’ but we don’t live there, do we?”

“Sounds like someone’s aunt,” said Piori. “Anyway, we sent the ship Etrusca Explorer to transport the warheads to a location to be determined later. Tian we assume, from what you told us.”

“Great,” said Best. “So question the captain and find out what he did with his cargo.”

“They can’t, Best,” said Rostov.

Not “Minister.” Just “Best.” Best felt his guts begin to turn.

“We can’t find the Etrusca Explorer,” said Piori. “It’s missing.”

Best went numb as Liu cuffed him and Rostov explained his rights under the Compact.

 

*****

 

Marq returned Essenar only to find himself arrested as soon as he stepped off the Laputan transport. Kai went to the landing field personally to apprehend him. The guards had to use native rope to bind him as Marq’s hands could easily squeeze through the metal bindings Kai’s people normally used. It gave Kai some pleasure to notice the rope immediately gave his guest a rash where it touched his skin.

“I feed your people,” said Marq, “for free, I might add, and this is the thanks I get?”

“No.” Kai punched him in the face, his own hand clad a ceremonial gauntlet from his military uniform. He noted Marq bled crimson like Kai’s people, a slightly different shade but red blood just the same. “That is the thanks you get.”

The guards crammed Marq into the back of Kai’s personal transport, surrounded on all sides by one-man rides that floated inches above the ground. Kai slipped in beside Marq and said, “Through the town square.”

The driver turned, the eye shield on his helmet doing little to hide his dismay. “Sire?”

Kai waved forward. “Go on. Have the escorts run their sirens and fire warning shots ahead of themselves so the crowds disperse.”

The driver turned and set the transport moving.

“Your original shipment did feed this settlement,” said Kai. “The first harvest we got from the skins fed most of the other settlements. Then we tried to pollinate the plants themselves.” He reached beneath his great coat and produced something wrapped in cloth. When Kai unrolled it, something dark and mushy went splat in Marq’s lap. “This is our latest crop. We have riots, Mr. Marq.”

“Just Marq,” said the alien. “I never gave you my match-ro-nimik.”

That last word did not match the mother tongue. “Your what?”

“It’s a type of family name. Your people have family names, do you not? At least the High Borns and your indentured servants.”

“I know what a surname is. And don’t change the subject. Within one season, my people became dependent on your magic root. When the fungus that infests the soil here turned our last crop into mush, the riots started again.”

The transport and its escorts pushed into the main settlement, the riders firing heat beams into the air. Had Kai and Marq been outside, they would have heard the air sizzle and crack from the energy. As it was, they still heard the people screaming in terror through the sealed windows.

The square, the same Kai and Marq had watched people pull together and rebuild, now burned. The statue of the Sovereign lay in pieces on the ground below its pedestal. Several shops smoldered, and people swiped at each other with whatever blunt instruments they could lay their hands on. The fine drizzle that passed for dry weather these last two turns did little to staunch the fires or discourage the rioters from killing each other.

“I’ve lost this planet because of you,” said Kai. “Tell me why I shouldn’t have you executed.”

Marq smiled that strange little smile of his, and it occurred to Kai that he had seen that smile before. As a child, Kai had known the son of another High Born, one who always seemed to have one scheme or another, who could manipulate the other children and quite a few adults into doing his bidding. He never really lied to anyone, but he omitted quite a bit. When he did, he had a smile that resembled Marq’s.

“I believe that would greatly disappoint General Lanar.”

The name made Kai’s blood run cold. “Excuse me?”

“He never told you? He’s meeting me here to look over your crops. He may have a solution to your food supply problem, one involving…”

“Grain?” said Kai. “Tell me it’s grain.”

 

*****

 

 

The riots began the moment Best’s suspension became news. They began slowly, Marilynists all over Jefivah gathering outside their temples to sing hymns to the Blessed Diva, praying for Best’s release. In the capital Tyson, however, the prayer vigils turned to marches within half an hour. The marches then converged on the primitive jail that, after centuries, still served as Tyson’s central holding facility. They began throwing rocks at police and any civilian employees stepping out of the building. There were shouts, barricades, eventually stun gas.

Things came to a head when police shot two protestors. The First Minister might have called out the Planetary Guard for Tyson, only Marilynists made up the bulk of troops in the Federal Province, which meant that the two-thirds of the soldiers activated to pacify the rioters would be rioters themselves.

That was when the Grand Dimaj stepped in.

Among Marilynists, male priests represented the one true love of the Blessed Mother’s life and derived their title, Dimaj, from his name. The female priests represented the Blessed Mother herself and derived their title, Normaj, from her temporal birth name. So when a thin, gaunt man in a white robe carrying a pocket amplifier called for his faithful to calm down and stop attacking the police, they listened.

So did the police. After all, troops from other regions had been called out, and those troops, be they Abrahamists, atheists or the more common “don’t-give-a-shitters,” tended to be overwhelmingly secular in most matters. For both sides, listening to the strange man in the long white robe would end better than black-armored Planetary Guards stomping Tyson into submission.

The Dimaj managed to calm the crowd and asked the authorities to see Minister Best in his cell. After all, the man was a prophet of the Blessed Mother, whether he knew it or not.

Best watched warily as the Dimaj approached the archaic jail cell where he was being held – a three-sided alcove measuring no more than three by four meters, with a metal toilet and two thin bunks, all walled off by plexiglass. The Dimaj frowned when he ran a hand over the plexiglass. Modern cells used force fields and afforded inmates some degree of privacy.

“No wonder our world is a backwater,” he said without preamble as he was escorted to the clear walls of Best’s cell. “They treat child molesters better on other worlds.”

“Child molesters,” said Best, not bothering to rise from the bottom bunk where he lay, “are considered mentally deficient and assigned nano-therapy to cure their urges.” He sat up and glared at the Dimaj. “And isn’t it a bit hypocritical that a man whose duties include relieving young Marilynists of their virginity is talking about child molesters in prison?”

“The young faithful are of legal age when they make love to the Blessed Mother through me and my brother and sister acolytes. It is a rite of passage in our faith.”

Best lay back down and closed his eyes. “Yeah, well, the sooner you lead your faithful to their new colony, the sooner Jefivah can modernize.”

“If you mean that dust ball 402d,” said the Dimaj, referring to the planet now called Marilyn by its shortened catalog name, “bear in mind that your government picked out two more temperate worlds as colonies. Giving us the least desirable planet of the three is hardly incentive to leave.”

“At least we didn’t name them after an ancient actress some cult employs as a sexbot.”

“No, you named one after the home of a time travelling crackpot and another after a literary prank.”

“Gallifrey and Baritaria,” said Best. “The last one was my idea.”

“Why?”

“Because, You Horniness… I mean, Your Holiness. Over the course of my career, I’ve come to believe that Jefivah was originally settled as a prank. Even Earth is more forward-thinking and modern than this mudhole, and Jefivah has more resources.”

The Dimaj smiled. “If the general populace would only accept the love of the Blessed Mother, we would be unified, and this world would take its place among the other founding worlds of the Compact.”

“Well, until then, I’m going to simply plead guilty and ask for exile to someplace like Metis or Belsham. Maybe I can get a teaching position.”

“No one wants to learn law and government from an exiled hick.” The Dimaj stepped closer to the partition. “Besides, Minister Best, your arraignment and trial have been postponed.”

Best sat up. “I beg your pardon?”

“You are being given a reprieve of sorts,” said the Dimaj. “As you are a prophet of our faith, the First Minister has agreed to release you into my custody.”

Best jumped to his feet and came up to the partition. “I’m not a Marilynist. I’m secular. And how does taking your faith help me?”

“It doesn’t. And I don’t expect you to accept the Blessed Mother. But because it was your initiative that allowed the new colony Marilyn to come into existence, my people see you as a prophet.”

“What exactly does that mean, anyway?”

“Well, since we are a relatively new faith, anything you want. I suggest you take advantage of it while you can.” The Dimaj favored Best with a thin smile. “But among other things, it means you are the best man, no pun intended, to search for the one person who threatens to shut down our new world and strand us among you on this Mother-forsaken rock.”

“And who would that be?”

“I believe you know him as ‘Luxhomme’?”

 

7

 

 

“The Council gave you this world,” said Laral, “to build an army for the Realm. Did we make a mistake?”

They sat in the palace’s main dining hall. Naturally, General Laral Jorl had brought a sumptuous feast with him, along with a team of indentured chefs. All of whom, no doubt, would have their own kitchens and teams of indentured staff below them when their terms came to an end. Though protocol demanded that Warriors show deference to the local governors (even on a backwater like Essenar), Laral took the head of the table. The smarmy general even came dressed in ceremonial armor like any other member of the Warrior Caste. They would wear that archaic metal armor in an electrical storm, so long as it put their rank and caste on display.

Kai suppressed a laugh at the thought. “You did. You gave me this world to build an army out of criminals. The place is a soup kettle.”

Laral scoffed, stroking his reddish beard. “What criminals? Thieving merchants, cub buggerers, and the odd serf rebel who has no clue what he’s rebelling against. These aren’t criminals. They’re nuisances. Even Marq’s degenerate society deals with their like.”

Marq sat off to one side. His posture, standing with his head down, suggested one of respect. The eyes, those alien blue eyes, told of amusement with a hint of predatory waiting. Marq had an agenda, all right. But did Laral know that?

“My point,” said Kai, “is that an army needs food, the kind of food we can grow here. Rations are fine when you send them into combat. They’re eventually coming back. When they are home, especially if we are to train them here, they need food that is produced locally. Lots of it. The best we can do is grow these tubers this alien brought to us. Only…” He tossed the one Tishla had given him in her lab just before the meeting. It landed not with a solid thud but with a sickening splat. The tuber was a greenish mush. “This planet fights every attempt we make to grow food. Did anyone bother to see if this world was good for anything except robotic mining?”

Laral stretched and laced his fingers behind his head, looking more like a father amused by his boy’s insistence of monsters in the cellar than a High Born of the Warrior Cast and a member of Council. “Kai, believe it or not, I’m not unsympathetic. The fact is, your friend Marq here has made a compelling case to me. Seems his people have a problem with… What did you call them again?”

“Rogue colonies, Your Eminence,” said Marq, bowing his head as he gave Laral the wrong honorific. Only relatives of the Sovereign’s family were called “Eminence.” At best, Laral was “Sire,” maybe “Excellency” if his rank were more than honorary.

“Rogue colonies,” Laral continued. “Three in all. One of them was this desert world called Baah Zun.”

Kai knew the name must be something slightly different. It would be an incredible coincidence if the Tianese had named their world for his people’s mythical land of the ancient gods. “What of it?”

“As you know Kai, my nephew, your cousin, has a passion for terraforming. He can take one of those thin-aired rocks and have the atmosphere breathable and the temperatures tolerable within five to seven revolutions. Marq here needed a test bed for some crops his employer specifically designed for such projects. Since the people were there illegally…”

“It was a mutually beneficial arrangement,” said Marq. “My people are rid of a nuisance and can bring their military closer to our core worlds. Your people gained a little breathing room.”

“Tell him the best part,” said Laral.

“There are two more rogue colonies we’d like pacified, both more conducive to the grains you desire for livestock and for your people. Less rain on both of them. One, in fact, is experiencing something of a greenhouse phase at the moment. The flatland farms on these colonies tend to burn a lot of hydrocarbons.”

“If you can take them, Kai,” said Laral, “they’re yours. We’ll sell Essenar to the Laputans. Let their Mining Guild squeeze this mudhole dry.”

Kai had seen the aftermath of a Laputan mining operation on a planetary scale once. It had rendered what was a jungle world into a hellish desert with a toxic atmosphere within a decade. Speaking of terraforming… “So what’s in it for you?”

“I’ll get to that. First, let me show you how we’re going to do this.”

 

*****

 

The cylinder, about the size of a two-story building, sat in a vacant lot outside the capital. Two rows of cradles ringed the interior, a dozen cradles to each ring. In each cradle sat a primitive looking vehicle with a large motor and some sort of dish device that folded down between the seats. The vehicles had rubber-wrapped wheels, like the personal cars of the Ethanol Era, and seating for five.

“What is this?” asked Kai as he and Laral stood inside the cylinder.

“An incursion capsule,” said Laral. “We mount a life pod float in the center.” He pointed to the space in the middle of the cylinder. “Suspend it by its own force field, and drop this thing from orbit. The crew land. They unpack the battle wagons you see ringing the interior, and fan out to kill or run off the unsuspecting settlers.”

Kai examined one of the battle wagons at the bottom. The motor looked large with a lot of pipes and exhaust tubing running in and out of it. Beneath it sat a smooth, round oblong tank. No solar panels of any kind, except on the dish device. He tapped the dish. “Heat ray?”

“Absolutely,” said Laral. “Our best intelligence says the Tianese don’t like energy weapons much. It’s not a tactical strategy or any failures in the technology. They simply prefer hurling blunt objects at their targets. Their favorite is to send a large mass of lead or gold at something. They hit a lot of spaceships that way, but they like hurling them at cities better.”

“Kind of primitive, isn’t it?”

“Ask the Laputans. When they tried to seize one of the Tianese established colonies, their Compact military simply rained giant metal bullets down on the invaders’ positions. Works better than any fusion device, and the worst of the fallout is gone in days. And in case you’re wondering, they not only have fusion weapons, but they have them with clean triggers. But these are rogue colonies, so you’ll have no problems with their military.”

“I need a military.”

Laral put his arm across Kai’s shoulders. “Your problem, Kai, is that you’re too proud to come to the Warrior Caste for anything. Yes, there is a price for our services. That’s just good business. But you don’t even wait to hear the price before you reject it out of hand. Had you come to me before you accepted the gift of Essenar, this planet would either be a lush paradise for you to rule over, unmolested by Confabs and the Council, or it would be a wealth-making machine. You could wring this planet of every last resource and leave the husk a very wealthy man.”

“Name your price.”

“The two planets you will be taking are ready for planting,” said Laral. “All I ask is that you set aside ten percent of your harvests to feed my troops. I will even recruit and send colonists once you’ve secured each planet.”

“Sounds fair. But there’s more, isn’t there? The Warrior Caste always wants more than a tithe. I suppose our friend Marq wants exclusive genetic customization rights for anything we need to adjust for our new worlds.”

“That’s a given. You knew that the moment he handed you the magic root.”

That Kai did. But knowing Laral as he did, there had to be more. “But you want something else.”

“I do. For starters, there is a city in the northern plains of the second planet. I will send a contingent of real troops to seize and neutralize it. They have assets there that I wish to use. It will benefit you as well.”

“And the other thing?”

Laral laughed. “Perceptive cub, aren’t you? Very well. I’ll give you a choice on the last part of the agreement. You can sign over Essenar itself once your claim to the other two worlds is secured. And I assure you the moment our colony transports arrive, it will be secured.”

“Or?”

“Or you can sell Tishla to me for the remainder of her term of indenture. I, of course, plan to exercise my right to renew it.” Laral closed his eyes. Kai could tell by the way he worked his jaw that his tongue was swelling. “I find that woman intoxicating. I must possess her.”

Kai had long ago decided he would kill Tishla rather than let any man take her away before attaining her status as a Free Woman. When Tishla first learned of this plan, she was enraged at Kai. Later, she told him exactly how he was to kill her if it came to it. By the time she agreed to her own murder, Kai decided he too would forfeit his life. Killing an indentured servant in cold blood invited beheading.

Right now, he considered a third option. He would kill Laral. It was much easier for one High Born to murder another and get away with it, particularly if the victim was of the Warrior Caste.

For now, Essenar remained on the table. As long as it did, Laral could live and Kai could keep his head. And Tishla could look forward to her freedom.

Finally, he said to Laral, “I’ll consider it.”

 

8

 

Tishla looked startled as Kai entered her chamber. Wearing only her underdress, she lacked any of the adornments her indenture contract required in Kai’s presence. “You startled me.” As if realizing her state of undress, she knelt. “I apologize for my appearance, my Mast-…”

Kai put up his hand. “First of all, I came to you, not the other way around. Second, you haven’t called me ‘Master’, except as a joke, since your third turn in my service. Why start back up now?”

“You look angry.”

“Come here.” He motioned her to him. “Come here.” When she crossed the room to him, he took her in his arms. “Do you want to stay with me?”

“I want to be your wife, if that’s possible.”

Her body pressed tightly against his, causing his tongue to swell a little. He fought the arousal so he could speak. “Would you be upset if I invoked the option on you for another five revolutions?”

She bit his neck. “What’s going on, Kai? Normally, I’m the one that asks you about my future. And since when does a Master ask a concubine permission to invoke his or her option?”

He kissed the top of her hair. “I paid for your contract so you could get your honors in genetics. If I wanted a playmate, I’d have signed a common whore instead.”

“What’s wrong, Kai? Why ask me these things now?”

Kai pulled away and turned his back. “Laral is going to back my taking of Marq’s two rogue colonies. We arm the most violent offenders among us and launch them in incursion capsules against both worlds.”

“What are the terms?” Her tone suggested she already knew.

“Ten percent tribute from all crops plus I let him have a city on the second world. Apparently, the rogue colonists have managed to put together quite a manufacturing center there.”

“Uh-huh. Laral does nothing by the book, and that’s a textbook Warrior Caste arrangement if I ever saw one. What’s the real price?”

Kai swallowed. “I trade Essenar for the two new worlds…”

“That sounds suspiciously fair,” she said. “Or?”

Kai turned and said, “Or he wants you. He wants your indenture contract. And he plans to exercise the option to extend your bondage.”

“You know how I feel about that. I’d rather die than serve a new master. Not when I’m this close.”

Kai put his hands on each of her arms. “To freedom?”

She kissed him in a way that drew his tongue into her mouth. “And to you.” Taking his hand, she gently bent a finger straight and pressed it into her navel. “I belong to you.”

She moaned as Kai worked his finger into her navel through her underdress.

“No,” he said. “I belong to you.”

“Kneel with me.” The underdress slid down her body and puddled at her feet. “Kneel with me now. Show me how you really feel.”

He scooped her up, lowered her to the floor, and slipped his swollen tongue deep into her navel…

 

*****

 

Hours later, as the hidden sun set on the capital, Kai and Tishla lay naked in her chamber. It was almost unheard of for a High Born to enter his or her spouse’s chamber, let alone that of an indentured companion. Yet Kai did not care. From the moment he met her, he knew Tishla had been born far below her station. And yet, it would take something extraordinary to bring her into the ranks of the High Born castes. She would need to render some incredible service to the Realm. It was not unheard of, but it usually involved death. Kai did not want to elevate her posthumously.

“I have a confession to make,” she said. She waited until Kai turned and looked at her before continuing. “I’ve been shirking my duties as a concubine.”

That made Kai laugh. “Really? If that was shirking, I don’t think I have the stamina to handle you being dedicated to the job.”

“I’ve been taking fertility suppressants.”

“What a coincidence. I keep forgetting to have those locked up. Seems some of the guards don’t want to wear shrouds or take injections when they kneel with their women.” He rolled on his side and traced his finger along the curve of Tishla’s hip. “But denying a master the opportunity for a child is a serious offense. You’re a wise woman, Tishla. I seek your counsel in resolving this matter.”

She took his hand and guided it back down to her navel. “Well, my Master…”

“Don’t call me that,” he said. “Even in the others’ presence.”

“We must follow protocol, my love.”

“Nonetheless, it offends me. You’re better than that.”

“As you wish. Now, to your dilemma.” She took his hand again and manipulated one of his fingers into her navel. It made her moan. “Your concubine has taken anti-fertility drugs in violation of her contract. You must punish her.”

“Perhaps I should forcefully kneel with her multiple times a day.”

“How would she stand all that pleasure?” She smiled and began working his finger around her in navel. “Yes, I believe you should use her several times a day. I can assure you that will teach her a lesson. But for her crime. We must…” Her breath caught again as his finger went sunk in. “Oh, that tickles good.”

Kai took over, working his finger in deeper. “You were saying about her crime?”

“I might get careless and… Oooh, yes, curl it around like that… Might leave my pills out on the basin.” She cried out, her breathing getting more rapid.

“And maybe it’s time I had your chamber inspected.” As she became unable to speak, he said, “so when the crime is discovered, I will have to punish you again.”

Tishla could only respond with an incoherent “Unnh!

Kai began working his finger faster and faster, the tip rubbing all four pressure spots. He could feel his tongue swelling again. “And so, in order to have the child you promised me, I would have to extend your contract.”

Yes!” Her whole body shuddered and went limp. She gasped as he pulled her finger out. “If that is what you want… Me and a child… Do it.”

“And when the child is born?”

Tishla took a moment to relax her body. “Oh, I have a headache from that. What do you want of me, Kai? If I gave you a son…”

“A child. Anything I make inside you is my child, son or daughter. What I’m asking is… Would you consent to marriage if a child binds us together?”

“Yes.”

She kissed him and had to feel his tongue becoming stiffer. “I think you need to practice making a child some more, my Master… My husband.”

Kai crouched over her, now unable to speak, and plunged his tongue inside her navel.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Kai descended for his breakfast only to find Laral seated at the head of his table. A servant had just served the general a plate of eggs and meat, imported from more developed worlds, and a tuber cut up and fried as a side.

“That’s my breakfast,” said Kai. “And I’ll take my seat now.”

Laral looked up at him the way a father stares down an impudent child. “What did you just say? I am a member of Council, Kai. You’d better…”

“You are Warrior Caste,” said Kai. “You are also a guest here. That means you ask permission to eat my food – which I import for myself and my staff – and you do not sit where the head of the household and the Governor of the colony sits. Your caste tends to forget these things.” He looked over to the servant. “Once the general has made himself comfortable in his new seat, have the kitchen make him whatever he wants.”

The general rose and moved two places down the table. “I beg your forgiveness, Governor.” His voice lacked any trace of sincerity. “A warrior sometimes forgets who serves whom.” Laral sank into his new seat barely making eye contact with Kai.

Kai took his seat and began digging into the breakfast Laral had ordered for himself. “That’s quite all right, General. A man of your accomplishments and stature has a right to expect preferential treatment.” When the servant returned with a beverage for Laral, Kai said, “Summon Palak. Tell him I require a witness.”

The general finally smiled. “Will the lovely Tishla be joining us as well?”

“The lovely Tishla was up all night with her duties.” Kai shoved a forkful of tuber into his mouth and again regretted not importing any salt with the last shipment of provisions. “I bonded her for her mind as well as her beauty, you know. Which is why I’ve summoned Palak. I will need Tishla’s brilliant mind to shape those two new planets you will be helping me secure.”

Laral had started to raise his cup to his lips and stopped. “Need her?”

“Oh, yes, General,” said Kai. “I slept on your proposal last night. I accept on condition you make a vow in front of another member of the Warrior Caste.”

The captain of Kai’s palace guard entered, dressed in black with no visible armor this morning. “Sire, you wished to see me?”

“Ah, Palak. The General has a business proposal I’d like to accept.” He looked to the ceiling. “House, record.”

“Begin recording,” a dull female voice said, sounding about as real as the stuffed birds Kai knew Laral kept in his own home on Blutoch.

“General Laral Jorl,” said Kai, “the terms you outlined yesterday are as follows: You agree to militarily support the taking of two rogue colonies at the coordinates given us by the Tianese known as Marq. You will provide transportation, weapons, and incursion capsules for my colonists to neutralize the squatters and agree to send colonists recruited to take over and develop both worlds. Is this correct?”

Laral looked like a trapped meezu. He bowed his head.

“General,” said Kai, “this is an audio-only recording. Please signify that this is your offer with a yes or a no.”

“Yes.”

The answer made Kai giddy, particularly because Laral looked nauseated saying it. “And your terms offered were as follows: We acquire for you a city near the second planet’s northern pole to secure its manufacturing capacity. We agree to give you ten percent of our harvests as payment for your support.” Kai struggled not to sound like he was gloating with his next statement. “And once my new worlds are officially secured, you agree to take possession of Essenar as compensation.”

“Have you not considered selling Tishla’s indenture contract?” asked Laral.

“I did. And I reject that option. Therefore, I offer you an entire world, one you have the resources to mine that I do not have. Are we agreed, General?”

Laral stared down at the plate of hot food just placed before him. “I could not change your mind.”

“General, Tishla’s indenture ends in one more revolution. In the interest of producing a child, I may extend it. If she successfully conceives, she will become my wife and be elevated to High Born. If she fails, her talents and her brilliance assure that she will always have a place with me as a Free Woman. Therefore, I must reluctantly offer you Essenar instead.”

“Sentimental cub,” Laral muttered under his breath. “Very well. Governor Lattus Kai, I humbly beg you to accept the terms we have just outlined. Upon securing the two rogue colonies brought to our attention by the Tianese Marq, I, Laral Jorl, your servant, will accept possession of Essenar.”

Kai had one more item to add before asking for Palak’s assent as witness. “Then upon confirmation of possession in Confab, General, Essenar will become yours. Palak, please give your name and make a statement of witness to this deal.”

Palak’s eyes shifted between Kai and Laral. His look told Kai he wanted to be anywhere but the Governor’s private dining room. “I, Orial Palak, Captain of the Governor’s Palace Guard on Essenar, member of the Warrior Caste, and son of Orial Rufeed, do hereby attest that this recording was made freely by both parties and the terms were attested to. On my life, I swear this to be true.”

“House,” said Kai, “end recording. Congratulations, General Laral. You just purchased a mudhole.” He grabbed a piece of meat and chewed off an end. “Subject to Confab, of course.”

 

 

 

Episode 3: The Caliphate

 

9

 

 

Best spent the last half of the trip throwing up into his flight bag. Traveling to and from the hypergates did not bother him. Most of the time, he had no clue the spacecraft was even moving. That brief interval when the ship would enter a wormhole, however…

The human mind was not designed to deal with more than four directions. In fact, time was, for all the physicists’ talk of it being intertwined with three-dimensional space, simply why everything didn’t happen at once. Inside wormholes, however, a ship moved in directions the human brain lacked the wiring to perceive. For a small number of people, this meant sudden, often violent nausea. If a world’s hypergates were not calibrated properly, the number of affected people grew.

Jefivah’s hypergates dated back two centuries. Often times, the planet had to wait months to find a contractor to recalibrate their network, the knowledge required for technology that old becoming rarer and rarer.

“Are you all right?” asked the Dimaj when Best’s vomiting had turned to dry heaves.

Best looked up at the Dimaj and nodded, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Now that the ship was in transit to The Caliphate, his nausea was starting to subside. “Glad we didn’t take a projection drive ship,” he said, referring to the class of vessels that could create their own wormholes. He had taken half a dozen of those ships in his lifetime. After his first trip on one, he made it a point to be sedated the entire flight.

“Are you sure it’s safe for you to be in your… priestly garb here?” he asked.

The Dimaj sat impassively in his seat, his eyes fixed on the human flight attendant, a Nordic female who looked very much like his goddess. “We will stay in the Secular Quarter of Rashidun. I may not be one of the People of the Book, but in that part of the city, it doesn’t matter.”

Best leaned back in his seat to wait for the ill effects of the wormhole transit to subside. “That’s good. Last thing I need is to get thrown in jail for ordering a ham sandwich.”

“Almost all ham is vat grown these days,” said the Dimaj. “Therefore, Jews and Muslims can eat it.”

Best sat up and looked over at his benefactor. “It was a joke.”

“I never joke about faith. Or even someone’s lack of it.”

Everyone jokes about yours, thought Best. Before he could say anything else, the captain came over the ship’s speakers and announced that reentry would begin in five minutes.

 

*****

 

“Governor,” said a voice over the speakers, “we are about to make the jump.”

“Acknowledged,” said Kai. He swallowed a couple of small white pills and turned out the lights in his quarters. He would ride out the jump lying down in the dark.

A pair of arms slipped around him. “My poor Kai. Still can’t handle interstellar travel.” Tishla blew in his ear.

“A small price to pay,” said Kai. “We only have to do this one more time.”

“Two. Don’t forget you have to confirm this deal at Confab.”

That, Kai mused, was worse than riding a wormhole. “I hope we’re not making a mistake.”

Tishla nuzzled his neck. “You aren’t. Hanar will make us wealthy. Make you wealthy.”

“It will be your wealth, too. I’ll see to it.” He lay back and closed his eyes, bracing himself for the projection drive’s inevitable warping of space and time around him. “That’s assuming Laral’s plan for conscripts to take out the Tianese works.”

“We have the element of surprise, my love. And they are renegades. Unless some big commercial or planetary interest is arming them, they’re probably hiding from their precious Compact.”

“It’s their precious Compact that worries me. What if they see this as a threat?”

“Engaging projection drive,” said the voice from the ship’s command center, “in three… two… one…”

Tishla rolled on top of Kai to face him and covered his mouth with hers. She pulled his tongue into her mouth. Kai forgot about the wormhole. And the Compact.

 

*****

 

JunoCorp had its headquarters on the 110th floor of the Burj Rashidun, a gaudy, monstrous replica of the Burj Khalifa that once towered over Dubai on old Earth. Actually, the building stood roughly five hundred meters taller than the original. Best expected a spectacular view of Rashidun, capital of The Caliphate, and the surrounding plains.

JunoCorp’s offices were tucked into a corner of the building that allowed an impressive, but not breathtaking, view of the city’s so-called Recycling Quarter and a dull conglomeration of suburbs to the southeast of town. Best could get that standing on a mountainside outside of Tyson on Jefivah.

He and the Dimaj barely had time to take in the view as they were escorted to the center of the floor. Instead of an executive suite, the concierge drone led them to a large room dominated by a swimming pool. Best wondered how so much water could be contained on the one hundred and tenth floor of a building. Even with smart structures, nano-polymer framing, and wind compensators, a pool would have been something to keep below the fiftieth floor.

Or were skyscrapers yet another technology where Jefivah was a century or two behind the rest of the Compact?

“I suppose it seems odd,” said an older gentleman named Pope as he watched his guests survey the room. Unlike the Dimaj and Best, Pope seemed to be perpetually frozen at thirty, the lines in his skin evidence more of repeated rejuvenation than actual age itself. For all Best knew, Pope was in his nineties. If so, it was a good thing Pope took rejuvenation. The man swam the pool completely nude. “An Etruscan company headquartered on The Caliphate.”

“The thought occurred to us,” said the Dimaj, “but it’s not relevant to our visit.” He sat at the edge of the water with his robe up around his knees, feet kicking idly in the water.

Pope stopped to tread water and studied his two guests over. “They don’t rejuve on… Gee… Gee… Gee…”

“Jefivah,” finished Best. “Not often. It’s expensive.”

“It’s only a week’s pay for the working poor,” said Pope. “And our taxes pay for the destitute to have it done. Cheaper than paying for elder medical care. Besides, who wants to spend the final fifty or sixty years of their life wearing diapers or rolling around on a hover scooter? It’s one of the reasons we domiciled here. The taxes and Medicomp tribute are the lowest in the Compact.”

“Mr. Pope. Could we please talk about Luxhomme?” asked Best. “I’d like to track him down.”

Pope lay back and started doing the back stroke, providing a view that was much more than Best wanted to see. “Ah, yes. Luxhomme. Ambitious man, that one. Claims to be Etruscan, but we know better. Uses one of two legal aliases to pass himself off as Etruscan – one Neo-Latin, the other Byzantinian. The fact is, the man’s from Metis. Seems to be ashamed of it.”

“May I?” asked the Dimaj, eyeing the water now.

“Please,” said Pope, pushing off the end of the pool and back toward Best.

The Dimaj stood, threw off his robe, and, to Best’s horror, revealed himself to be completely nude underneath. Best remained where he was, standing back from the water’s edge, arms folded. The Dimaj plunged in and began treading water.

“Mr. Luxhomme is somewhat responsible for our people getting a new homeland,” said the Dimaj.

“His people,” said Best. “The rest of us are glad to be rid of them.”

“Maybe your people can come up with a name for your homeworld that isn’t leftover from an old stellar catalog,” said Pope, now idly floating around the pool on his back, much to Best’s chagrin.

“It’s worked for us for three centuries,” said Best. “Anyway, you said this Luxhomme is from Metis. Does he live there? Or here on The Caliphate?”

Pope gave what sounded like a practiced chuckle. “Oh, he seldom comes to The Caliphate. Only long enough to meet with management and have his review. Seems a former Vizir’s daughter took a shine to our Mr. Luxhomme and found herself… How shall I put this…?”

“Luxhomme knocked her up?” said the Dimaj, now also on his back, which made Best squirm even more.

“So the former Vizir believes. As modern as the culture here is, there are certain things devout Muslims still won’t do.” Pope sank to an upright position and began treading water, much to Best’s relief. “Which makes booze here expensive as hell.”

Mister Pope,” said Best. “I am trying to locate seven weapons of mass destruction that Luxhomme arranged to have removed from one of our new colonies.”

“Is that the one your people named ‘Marilyn’?”

“The same,” said the Dimaj, his reaction to the mention of the name making Best turn away from the pool.

“Luxhomme contracted with a company called Dasarius Interstellar to move the weapons,” said Best. “The ship never arrived at any naval facility.”

“And how do you know that, Mr. Best?” asked Pope.

Best made a conscious effort to study the patterns in the painted cinder block walls he now faced. “Because the Navy and Compact Security told me.”

“And how do they know?” said Pope. “Look, we don’t live in the Blue Water Age anymore. All communication is through hypergates. All transportation is via hypergate. When the Secretary General of the Compact was assassinated ten years ago, some worlds didn’t even know about it for six months. How do you know the Dasarius ship didn’t dock at some secluded place that seldom communicates with the rest of the Compact?”

“Because even Dasarius doesn’t know where their ship is.” Best turned around to face Pope now, tired of the CEO’s nude gymnastics in the pool and desperate for the interview to end. “Look, I am a minister of a full-fledged constituent authority within the Compact. I and my bizarre little friend here…”

“Well,” said the Dimaj, still on his back and kicking his way across the pool, “not ‘little.’”

“…need to find Luxhomme, or the Navy will shut down the colony on Marilyn, and his people will have to come back to Jefivah where they’ll face the same cultural isolation they’ve experienced since the founding of their religion.”

“And this is my concern because…?”

“Marilyn has a series of moisture farms,” said Best, “built by the Jefivan government to water desert farms there, farms currently growing several varieties of potatoes supplied by JunoCorp. Jefivah has also contracted to buy customized grain for Marilyn, Gallifrey, and Barataria from Juno.”

“I see.” The CEO tread water silently, his focus somewhere other than on Best.

“And,” the Dimaj added, “may I remind you that Jefivah has the option of contracting with another crop customizer, maybe one based on Earth or Tian that’s signed the GMO Ethics Pact of 2048?”

“Those contracts are worth trillions,” said Best. “And as agricultural minister, I’ll see to it that those three colonies don’t have to wait six months to be kept in the loop. We’ll borrow the money and resources to upgrade their hypergate networks.”

Pope began backstroking away from Best. “I suppose you’ll also expect us to answer for Barsoom going silent.”

“Barsoom?” asked Best.

“A Martian colony,” said the Dimaj. “Mars invested an enormous amount of resources into terraforming it. It went silent a couple of weeks ago. Did you not hear about this, Douglas?”

“I was busy,” said Best. “Trying to keep your colony from getting shut down.”

The Dimaj grunted and went back to splashing away in his corner of the pool.

“The fact is no one knows why it went silent,” said Pope, treading water once more. “In fact, Compact Security asked us what we knew.”

“And what do you know?” asked Best.

“We know that every probe sent to that star system has also gone silent. No hyperdrones, no return flights. Someone clearly does not want us to find out what happened.”

“Have you asked Luxhomme?”

“I was hoping the two of you could. He’s been out of contact since leaving for Laputan space.”

Best shoved his hands in his pocket. “So he’s your problem, too.”

“Very much so.” He swam up to the edge of the pool and shouted, “Sarai.”

A modestly dressed woman in traditional Muslim garb emerged from an opening Best had not seen when he entered the pool room. Despite the chador and full body dress that exposed only her face and hands, she seemed oblivious to Pope’s nudity. “Sir?”

“Please get Mr. Best and his friend everything in Luxhomme’s personnel file.”

“Thank you,” said Best.

“And arrange for better lodging in the Secular Quarter. It won’t do for a minister or a religious leader to stay in a roach motel.”

 

10

 

“They had a hypergate,” said the captain of the vessel, an older woman named Berraa. “But the lead ships destroyed it. We’re working on the orbital station now.”

Tishla caught Kai’s eye and shook her head. She would not discuss what it was that bothered her in front of Berraa or her crew, but Kai knew it would be bad. “And on the surface?”

“By taking out the hypergate, we’ve cut off their communication with the other Tianese worlds,” said Berraa. “Once the orbital station is destroyed, the surface will be ours for the taking.”

Kai watched as the blue-green sphere grew on the wall-sized screen. It looked much like the world where Kai and Tishla had been raised. He turned to her. “How’s it feel knowing you’ll be queen here?”

“More like princess consort, Sire.”

The word “Sire” drew dirty looks from various crewmembers. Kai only smiled. Turning back to Berraa, he said, “Have you and your crew staked their claims yet?”

“We prefer to wait until…” Berraa stopped when the wall screen flared white. On the surface, a tiny sun erupted along the coast of the continent where Marq’s rogue colony lay. “Sire, that’s the main settlement.”

“Captain,” a crewmember shouted, “laser fusion device has detonated in the colony’s main settlement.”

“I did not authorize the use of fusion weapons,” said Kai. “I did not know we had any. Captain, contact the lead cruiser. Ask them if General Laral author-“

“This is General Laral,” said a familiar voice over the command center speakers. “Governor Kai, did you procure a fusion device I did not know about?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” said Kai. “I was prepared to give the order to seize that settlement.”

Tishla walked over to Kai and whispered, “Ask him about Marq.”

“General,” said Kai, “did our friend mention anything about fusion weapons? I thought these rogue colonies weren’t supposed to have them.”

“We had no intelligence to indicate any were here,” said Laral, “but whether by accident or design, this colony’s last defensive capabilities were just vaporized.”

“Begin the invasion,” said Kai. “Let’s seize the land while the survivors are confused.” He motioned to have the signal cut. To Berraa, he said, “If that’s laser fusion, that means the blast site won’t be hot when the fireball dissipates. As soon as it clears, I want to visit the site.”

“Sire,” said Berraa, “there will be nothing but death and ruin there.”

“If the Governor wishes to see death and ruin,” said Tishla, “then take him to see it.”

Berraa met Kai’s gaze with a look that said, She’s no concubine, is she?

Kai gave her a look back that brooked no discussion on the matter.

 

*****

 

“You were absolutely no help back there,” said Best as they rode the elevator to their suite at the Hilton in Rashidun’s Secular Quarter. “You seemed more fascinated by the pool than concerned with finding Luxhomme.”

The Dimaj wore that maddening expression of serenity still. “You had things well in hand. You are a minister, after all.”

“A minister suspended from his post. I could have done just as well coming here by myself and presenting my credentials to the Vizir’s office. I might not have had to take in Walter Pope in all his rejuvenated glory.”

“Why don’t we have many rejuvenation clinics on Jefivah, Douglas? It seems to me my people would be the first in line.”

“Your people usually protest anything modern. And yet the woman you worship as a goddess would probably have loved the idea.”

“We must preserve our faith, Douglas. You’re a proph-”

The elevator doors parted to reveal a couple waiting with two small children just as Best shouted “I am not a prophet.” He looked out at the family now staring bewildered at him and the strange robed figure next to him. “Sorry. Trying to settle a bet.”

“I do not gamble,” said the Dimaj.

“We’ll take the next one,” said the mother. The doors snapped shut.

As the lift began moving again, the Dimaj said, “Speaking of presenting my credentials, this world’s Grand Normaj lives near here. I must present my own. Care to join me?”

“You’re kidding,” said Best. “Right?”

“Hardly. I’m sure she would enjoy welcoming our newest prophet.”

“I’m not a prophet.”

“Too bad. You look like you could use some time with a Normaj, even a high-ranking one such as my friend.” A thought seemed to strike the Dimaj. “You don’t prefer men, do you? I mean, you have a wife back on Jefivah.”

When the doors opened again, Best said, “I’m going to settle into our suite, pour myself a stiff drink, and get some dinner. Alone. You go have fun with your Lord High Whore or whatever she’s called.”

As the Dimaj glided off the elevator, he said, “Your loss. See you after dinner.”

 

*****

 

The incursion capsules plowed into the earth as the ships provided by Laral fired them at the remaining farms. As predicted, the conscripted troops found a small population of confused colonists. Laral’s battle wagons, powered by oil-fueled engines that made a tremendous racket, chased them off their farms, the heat weapons mounted on the backs of the wagons exterminating a vast number of them.

Kai had no interest in any of it. It was a fairly new colony with only one large settlement. A day after the invasion, he stood in the charred remains. Rain had come through overnight and brought most of the fallout back to the ground. In some ways, Kai was disappointed. He had, after all, wanted to trade a rainy world for a drier one. However, some rain had to fall, or this planet would not have tempted Tianese renegades to violate their Compact.

The blackened rubble still smoldered despite the rain. While Kai and Tishla did not need radiation suits, Captain Berraa insisted they take breathing gear just the same. Even the previous night’s rain could not have purged all the soot and dust from the air.

“Did we do this?” asked Tishla, her voice slightly muffled behind the breathing mask. “I thought Ninth Charter forbade the use of such weapons against civilians.”

“Our civilians,” said Kai. “These were aliens illegally squatting on this planet.”

“Kai? Can I ask you something?”

“What’s that?”

“If that other world has an entire city on it, complete with factories, how can it be a rogue colony?”

“Maybe the Compact doesn’t know it exists.”

“Marq does. And he’s Tianese.”

Kai wandered into an intersection blasted flat by the fusion weapon. Ahead, with all the buildings knocked over, he could see that the center of town had become a sheet of blackened glass. His foot hit something as he walked through the intersection. Looking down, he could see it was a Tianese skull. It could just as easily have been one of Kai’s own people.

The resemblance made him shake.

 

*****

 

The food was actually quite good and convinced Best he might not be wasting his time after all. He even helped himself to a second glass of the local wine, surprised that they even made wine on the predominantly Muslim world. The server, a human rather than one of those short, wheeled contraptions that infested all the restaurants on Jefivah, explained that not everyone on The Caliphate was a Muslim. In fact, Islam was viewed as a mostly urban religion here.

“We’re not some backward factionalized place like Jefivah,” she said. “Where did you say you were from, sir?”

Best had not said but mumbled, “Mars.”

That made the server grin. “That is so cool. I always wanted to visit that place. Tell me, is it true there’s enough breathable air now to go outside without a tank?”

He did not know. Hell, he knew even less about Mars than he did Earth. Most people knew nothing about their ancestral homeworlds. Earth and Mars were no longer relevant. Well, neither was Jefivah, but most people ignored humanity’s first interstellar outpost anyway. “Not when I left. Anyway, it’s still too cold to breathe outside without searing your lungs. We’re getting there.”

That little tidbit of trivia made the server’s night, but the conversation made Best realize it might be time for a change. True, he was a cabinet member in the government of a founding world of the Compact. However, he was the cabinet member of a world that could barely feed itself, had a hodge-podge political system, and whose third largest religion was a cult to an actress who died centuries before the colony was founded. He paid his bill and left, mentally composing his resignation letter as he walked back to the hotel.

 

*****

 

They tackled Best halfway back to his suite. Someone shoved his jacket over his head. Then the beating began.

“You worship a whore,” one of them shouted.

“You’re ignorant,” said another.

“Go back to your mudhole, dust muncher,” said a third.

All the while, the blows, some from fists, some from feet, punished Best. By the end of the beating, his unseen attackers chanted, “Whore! Whore! Whore! Whore!”

When it ended, they ran off, their laughter echoing off the walls of some nearby alley.

Best, stiffened and bruised and possibly sporting two broken ribs, freed himself from his now-torn jacket and found a police drone standing over him. Naturally, with Best’s luck, it began to rain.

“Citizen,” the drone said in Caliphate-accented Humanic, “stay where you are. Help has been summoned.”

The drone’s voice likely came from a bored police officer sitting in a control room miles away, sipping coffee and keeping one eye on the local football match. Before Best passed out, he idly wondered why Jefivah did not have any form of football – soccer or gridiron – like other worlds. They already had the hooligans and bleacher crowds…

The night, lit up by street lamps and the glow of the city, faded to pitch black and went silent.

 

11

 

The colony transports, large saucer like craft with sophisticated antigrav lifters, soon arrived at Hanar. Kai’s troops and Berraa’s crew were given first choice for land claims. Kai himself took only enough to put together a crude capital, the one the Tianese had built now a black wound on the coastline.

Kai chose Palak to administer the planet for him. “You’re a better man than most High Borns in the Warrior Caste. And you know the Realm is just giving us more criminals for transportation.”

“Have to start somewhere, Sire,” said Palak. “We interrogated one of the survivors. We can’t eat their grain, but it’s close enough to ours that we know it will grow here, too.” He reached into his pocket and produced a familiar-looking root. “And apparently, these things grow like weeds here. Famine is not going to be a problem for you.”

“Or you,” said Kai. “Play your cards right, and you can call yourself ‘Governor’ here soon enough.”

Palak bowed his head. “Thank you, Sire.”

Kai looked past Palak at where a shuttle had landed in the distance. A Tianese man strode down the ramp with Laral. “Our friend is back.”

Palak turned to see Marq approach with Laral a few steps behind, following him like a lost pet. “I do not trust that man. And his companion is a monster.”

“Who’s the monster? Laral? Or Marq?”

Palak turned back to Kai. “You know? I think they’re interchangeable.”

 

******

 

It took two hours to fuse Best’s broken ribs and laser down his bruises. The police talked to him while he received treatment at the hospital, informing him there was a small enclave of Jefivans in this part of the Secular Quarter, many of them resentful of the Marilynists. The local temple, really a storefront operation, had been vandalized several times over the past three months. How, he asked, did they know he as a Marilynist even though he wasn’t? One of the officers fiddled with her wrist chip and held out her palm. The nanotat displayed a news video of Best and the Dimaj getting off the orbital shuttle, the reporter announcing them as the Grand Dimaj of the Goddess Marilyn and the faith’s newest prophet.

Best wanted to find a rock to crawl under. Instead, the second officer who questioned him drove him back to the hotel. He desperately wanted a shower, only the senior nurse had warned that the nanoseals on his cuts required twelve hours to set before he could get them wet.

Stumbling from fatigue, he made his way across the suite and into his room. Without turning on the lights, he stripped down and crawled into bed. A pair of arms slipped around him.

He screamed. “Lights.”

The lights came up to reveal a naked clone of the Marilynists’ ancient goddess, curvy and blonde with pouty lips. Upon closer examination, Best could see evidence of rejuvenation and of cosmetic reconstruction. This woman took her religion seriously.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The clone of Marilyn smiled. “The Grand Dimaj suggested I initiate you into our faith as our new prophet. I am the High Normaj of The Caliphate.”

Best slid out of the bed pulling the comforter around him. Unfortunately, it also pulled the comforter off the Normaj, revealing her in all her milky white glory. “I’m married.”

“Marilyn” smiled. “In our faith, that does not matter. All those who prefer women sleep with a Normaj upon their indoctrination. Unless you prefer…”

“I am not your prophet.”

The Normaj pouted. “The Grand Dimaj said you were a little uptight. Don’t worry. If it makes you feel better, I’ll pretend to be your wife.”

Best scooped up his clothes and marched into the bathroom. Before he could finish dressing, the Dimaj appeared. “After your ordeal, I thought you could use some relaxation. She is quite good, actually. I indoctrinated her myself. I even trained her when I taught seminary.”

Best spun on him. “If you wanted to help, you could have answered my call. You could have picked me up at the hospital. You could have… I don’t know, maybe talked to the goddamned police?”

“Douglas,” he said, “you’re upset. I understand.”

“Upset? Because I got mugged for belonging to that joke of a religion of yours? Because I spent the afternoon watching a very rich man swim very nude while you sat around admiring his pool?” He grabbed the Dimaj’s robe in his fists. “Maybe I’m upset because the man who sold us a bunch of potatoes so your people could have a home of their own lost seven weapons of mass destruction and left me holding the bag.” He shoved the Dimaj backwards. “I’m leaving tomorrow for Metis.”

“Douglas,” said the Dimaj, his voice a little shaky now, “you’re still in my custody.”

“Really?” said Best. “Try to enforce it here. Do you think these people give a damn about our little backwater world?”

He marched back out into his room where he grabbed his suitcase. The Normaj watched him as he stuffed his belongings into the bag, but said nothing.

“Where are you going now, Douglas?” asked the Dimaj.

“My own room,” said Best. “Hopefully my credit isn’t shot. Yet.” He slammed the door on his way out the door.

 

*****

 

The prisoner squirmed in his bindings. At least Kai thought it was a he. These Tianese kept their genitals elsewhere, and neither Kai nor his interrogation team felt like looking for them.

“Has anyone extrapolated their language yet?” Kai asked the lead interrogator, a grizzled old enlistee from the Warrior Caste who clearly didn’t care much for Kai or Laral. Never mind that he served both at the moment. His name was Rork, and Kai never did learn if that was his family or personal name.

“It took some time,” said Rork. “Most of what he said translates as ‘Please don’t kill me. Let me go.’ Have you considered asking the General’s little alien friend? He’s of the same species.”

“He only speaks the Mother Tongue in our presence. Anyway, I don’t trust that man. As alien as they are, I trust our friend here more. Pity we’ll have to kill him.”

“Do we not do that to our own renegades?”

The similarities between primate species overwhelmed the differences. Kai could recognize fear on the alien’s face. He had seen Zaras, truly the most ape-like of the known sentient primates, bare their teeth and knew whether they were smiling or threatening. Laputans, for all their bluster, cried easily. The Qorori, those pale nocturnal beings with six fingers instead of the usual five, had a reputation for the most sensual expressions of ecstasy among all the known primate races. Something else unsettled Kai. Like these hairless apes called the Tianese, the Qorori kept their genitals elsewhere. Actually, Kai realized his own people were the odd ones. Being born into this skin, however, instead of the paler, darker-haired Tianese, made the rest of the primate universe utterly alien to him.

“Can you translate for me and make it sound reasonable?”

Rork smiled, revealing several missing teeth. Most had been taken out in combat, and a man like Rork would leave the gaps as trophies. “I’ve done this before. Once I pick up a few words and speak them back at him, he gets really talkative. I probably know half their idioms now, at least the common ones.”

“Translate for me.” To the alien, he said, “I am Kai, Governor of this world. One of your people tells me you are squatting on this planet.”

Rork translated for the alien. The alien responded back in a language that sounded like gargling. Through Rork, he said, “We are here legally. This world is a Compact world, chartered by Metis.”

“Who is Metis?”

“Metis is a…” Rork struggled with the word the alien used. “He calls it a ‘kunstichewentasorty.’ The word does not extrapolate well.”

“So it’s a group?” said Kai. “Like Juno?”

“I know of no Juno,” the alien said via Rork. “Metis is the homeworld of most of the settlers here.”

“But not yours.”

“I am from Belsham.”

Kai turned to Rork. “We are recording this. Right? So far, we know only of Tian and Etrusca in this Compact. And Juno is a commercial entity.”

“If that little alien is to be believed.”

Kai began to think Marq may not be Tianese after all. He may even be a Gray in disguise. The Grays were nasty little creatures, considered the most alien of alien primates, prone to terrorizing pre-spacefaring races for sport. The Warrior Caste, Kai knew, made sport of them in return. Maybe Marq was their way of getting even with both the Tianese and Kai’s people. “Juno claims they own this planet and gave it to us to develop.”

“Who are you?” said the alien, again translated by Rork.

“We are the Gelt.”

“I’ve never heard of you.”

“We barely know who you are.” Kai knelt next to the alien and said, “Tell me, do your people have slavery? Even indentured servitude?”

The alien’s expression went from frightened to angry. “We are not savages. The only slaves we have are convicted identity thieves and stowaways. And their terms are limited by our Declaration of Rights.”

“And what happens if one of your kind comes into possession of an alien slave, indentured or otherwise?”

“What else? They’d have to free the person.”

“And this is the law on all of your worlds?”

“On pain of expulsion from the Compact. We have had civil wars over it, sometimes between factions on the same kunstichewentasorty.”

“That’s a planet. Right?”

“Usually. Sometimes a whole star system. Three or four are merely continents.”

Planet would do for Kai’s purposes. “One more question. Did your people destroy your own main settlement?”

“We thought you did.”

“We did not.” Kai rose and said to Rork, “Find whatever you can in their food stores, give him and his family the best possible meal you can make from that. Make them comfortable.”

“Sire?”

“Have your cook lace the food with sleep potion. Tishla will give you the proper dosages. Make sure there’s enough to stop their hearts after they lose consciousness.”

Rork gave Kai a knowing smile. “General Laral will not like that.”

“General Laral will soon be Governor of Essenar. He can deal with whatever aliens he finds there however he sees fit. I am Governor of this world, and it is my decision.”

Rork gave Kai a formal salute, fists crossing his chest, bowing. Kai doubted he ever gave Laral that kind of respect.

“And Rork.”

“Yes?”

“Bring their bodies to my lander so we may burn them properly.”

“They’re not Gelt, Sire.”

“No. But I want their people to know we are not savages either. We will ceremonially burn them. Tishla will record the ritual and take it to the Tianese.”

“You think Laral is starting a war.”

“I think Marq is playing us against his own people for his own ends.”

 

 

*****

 

 

Tishla could not understand it. Sent to a Tianese world so soon after they had slaughtered thousands of those creatures? It was the blast. Kai had been nervous since the blast. They still did not know who detonated the fusion device.

“Go with that alien to his homeworld,” said Kai. “Stay there until I call for you. You’ll know what to do when you get there.”

She hoped so. Leaving Kai behind at the mercy of Laral Jorl, the most devious man she had ever met, scared her. What would become of an unclaimed indentured in alien space?

Worse, he sent her to Metis via Ramcat. With Marq, no less. When Kai delivered her to the awaiting transport, Marq standing there with his stupid little smile waiting for her, she felt real fear, wondering if she would ever see Kai again. Now she found herself waiting for hypergate transit to this…

Metis?

What was Metis? Marq had told her it was named for an ancient Tianese goddess of wisdom. When Tishla pressed him for details, Marq added that the king of that particular tribe’s gods feared that Metis would bear a son who would overthrow him. So he swallowed her, only to end up giving birth to her daughter.

“Your people are sick,” she said when Marq finished the tale of Zeus, Metis, and Athena.

Marq laughed, and it sounded off now that Tishla could hear other Tianese around them. “You have to understand. The tribe that originally created the Metis myth was a matriarchal society. Metis was their goddess. When the Sea Peoples…”

“The what?”

“A warrior tribe that overran that part of our homeworld before the historical record there truly began. Anyway, they were patriarchal and worshipped a thunder god named Zeus. When the cult of Metis would not die off, the conquering people made up a story that Zeus had married Metis. As the story goes, someone told Zeus that his son by Metis would overthrow him. So when Metis got pregnant, he tricked her into becoming tiny and swallowed her. Only she gave birth anyway, and a new goddess of wisdom, Athena, sprang from his head.”

Tishla wondered if the story lost something in translation. It sounded ridiculous and just a bit horrifying. “Who are you people? Do you solve all your wars with cannibalism?”

“It’s just a primitive myth.”

“That you named an entire planet after.”

Baah-Zun. Isn’t that from your creation myth?”

That was all the quarrel she would have with him. When Kai ordered Tishla to accompany Marq to his homeworld, she knew not to argue. Though he would not explain why, she did not argue. Most of the time, she could push him as though she were the master and he the indentured. Still, if Kai asserted himself, Tishla submitted. That was the deal.

The trip started normally enough. She and Marq took one of Kai’s personal transports to Ramcat, a Laputan world. As the Realm and the Compact remained largely oblivious to one another’s existence, only on Ramcat could they move from one culture to the other without having to go through first contact protocols.

At least, that was the plan.

As the Laputan transport entered the wormhole that would carry them to Compact space, Tishla watched with pleasure as Marq became mildly ill from the distortion effects of the hypergate. She herself found the experience unpleasant, but she did not suffer the same problems dealing with the gates’ interdimensional oddities as others did, be they Gelt or alien.

Exiting the wormhole, she heard the captain announce in several languages that they were now in Compact space. The ship would free fall to parking orbit over Metis within the next hour or so.

As soon as the announcement ended, Marq reached into his pocket and produced a small blue crystal. Tishla recognized it immediately.

“That belongs to Kai,” she said. “That’s the…”

“Deed to your person? Well, now it belongs…”

An alarm sounded as a large ship appeared outside, stopping his response. Another voice cut in over the intercom and chattered something in Marq’s native tongue, a language Tishla had not quite extrapolated yet. The captain came back on and, in several languages, apologized for the inconvenience. The Compact Navy needed to do a routine inspection of the ship.

Minutes later, four primates clad in polymer suits with their faces obscured approached from the docking module and surrounded her and Marq. One of them raised a device and pointed it at her. Pain coursed through her body for a moment as the world turned bright blue.

Then black.

 

*****

 

They had Tishla naked and stretched out on a table. She could not understand the gargling noise that passed for these creatures’ language. Sedated as she was, she could not listen closely enough to extrapolate what they were saying. The room was cold. She wanted to shiver, but she could not move at all except to breathe.

The beings hovering over her wore blue robes and covered their faces. What little she could see of their skin looked as pale as Marq’s, though one of the beings had much darker skin. It still had that brownish tinge Tishla had not really noticed before in the little alien. They ran their hands over her, poked her skin, and drew blood. One of the beings ran its finger down her belly and pressed it into her navel. It seemed surprised when its finger went inside.

Do they know they’re raping me? Did they? She sensed no malice from these creatures, but they had laid her out like an animal. She felt little different from a horniq she once watched her father butcher or the urdongs she dissected as a medical student. As they sliced tiny pieces of skin from her and drew blood and other fluids, she began to wonder if they would simply cut her to pieces and put her in jars of preservative solution.

Unable to move or speak, she resigned herself to her fate. She was a lab specimen. It made it no less horrifying as one of the beings plunged a cold metal probe deep into her navel. The feeling of something invading her body in such a manner made her want to scream, and she couldn’t.

 

Episode 4: Metis

 

12

 

The sudden flare of bright light woke Best from his drug-induced sleep. He looked up to see two figures standing in the doorway of his recovery cubicle. His arm blocked them from view as he shielded his eyes from the glare. “What is it? I paid for six hours. I’m still groggy.”

“Mr. Best?” said a man’s voice. It had a lilt not unlike Luxhomme’s, but he spoke in more of a monotone. It was an odd combination. “Metisian Homeworld Security. We need to speak with you.”

Best reached up and fumbled for the cubicle’s dimmer inside light. Sitting up, he realized his visitors would see him clad only in a T shirt and boxers. “You couldn’t have just waited until I checked into my hotel?”

“We’re not even sure we can allow you to leave the spaceport,” said the other visitor, a similarly accented woman in a jacket and skirt cut so severe it looked like the creases could sever limbs.

The light revealed the first agent to be a man who fairly bulged from his suit. Best suspected he spent most of his off-hours in a gym. “Minister, why did you not send the government advanced notice of your arrival?”

“What?”

“You’re a minister in the government of a core world,” said the woman. “You must present your credentials to the Executive or one of her representatives.”

Best rubbed his eyes and tried to make sense of what they were saying to him. “I’m here on personal business.”

“Uh huh,” said the man. “And would this ‘personal business’ have to do with one of our Citizens? An Etruscan resident named ‘Luxhomme’?”

“So he is Metisian,” said Best. “Yes, but I’m here of my own accord.”

“And apparently charged with planetary and Compact-level crimes,” said the woman. “Technically under arrest on Jefivah.”

“Your sheet reached us before you left The Caliphate.”

Best stretched. He would not get anymore rest here. “I’ll check in with the Compact Home Office on my way to the hotel.”

“See that you do,” said the woman. “And please bear in mind that Mr. Luxhomme is a Citizen here. You are a guest.”

Gee, thought Best, no kidding.

 

 

*****

 

Tishla awoke intact for the most part. They had placed some sort of quantum tag several places on her body. She still had no clothes, but they had put her into a thin garment that opened in the back. A couple of tubes stuck into her arm, and a plastic clip hung from her forefinger.

It was as though the Grays had abducted her and dumped her in an alien hospital, perhaps a Laputan facility. And yet she could not understand a word of what was said around her. That bothered her. Normally, denizens of the Realm could extrapolate a language within minutes of listening to a speaker.

One of the Orag-looking beings entered. Similar to Marq, it had pale skin with a brownish tinge to it. Or maybe beige. Tishla wasn’t sure. It appeared to be female, its ample breasts curving the front of its light blue garments. As it… She… worked the tubes and examined the instruments, she started chattering in that same gargling language as the beings who probed Tishla. This one, however, spoke in an almost musical tone, not quite like Marq’s manner of speaking. Tishla gleaned that this tone was emotional whereas Marq’s tones were a function of his native accent.

That was enough to enable Tishla’s mind to start calculating the language. She couldn’t pick up words yet, but the combination of how Marq spoke the Mother Tongue and the attendant’s chatter formed the building blocks she would need to learn their language.

The creature continued to prattle, went over to the wall, and pressed her fingers against it. She drew her fingers apart diagonally and said something in a tone Tishla recognized as a question. Since Tishla did not know the aliens’ gestures, she tried nodding as she had seen Marq do. The female stepped away from it to reveal a data feed or video broadcast of some sort.

Again, Tishla nodded. The creature smiled, like Marq did, only without the oily overtones. Marq’s smile reminded Tishla of the reptilian predators that prowled her homeworld in the warmer months. This person reminded her more of a mother. Tishla found herself left alone for a while with the gurgling wall display. Soon, occasional words began to make sense. It made her feel more comfortable with her surroundings, as comfortable as one could be in a hospital.

With the display constantly on, Tishla was quickly able to calculate the aliens’ language. She learned that another world called Etrusca, which she’d heard of, hosted something called the “Interstellar Games” and that another world, Tian, currently led in medals. That made Tishla laugh. The Realm did not give athletes medals. They gave them food, homes, and concubines, but medals went only to Warriors and those who served the Realm in a high capacity.

The beings narrating the news feeds talked of a world called Jefivah, where food riots raged after factional clashes had flared and wrecked food production. Jefivah looked a lot like Essenar, only better developed and not as rainy. One shot of a city there included a garish statue of a scantily-clad Tianese woman in a white dress that stood some three floors high. According to the narrator, this was the goddess of a local cult that, surprisingly, had some power on Jefivah. From the narrator’s tone, she guessed that most Tianese found it as ridiculous as she did.

Another world, whose name did not really translate, announced some significant technological breakthrough. Tishla didn’t understand enough Tianese to make out what they said, but she did glean that the world called itself Thukalifate, had its own religion-based power group, but existed largely in this “Compact’s” mainstream.

The attendant reappeared about an hour after she set up the video feed and began looking over Tishla’s tubes and instruments.

“Hello,” said Tishla in their language. She knew it sounded almost machine-like, but she was unpracticed. For all she knew, she may just have proposed marriage. “My name is Tishla. Where am I?”

The attendant looked at her, wide-eyed, then turned and ran out into the hall. “Hey, that alien woman’s talking. Get the spuks from Compact Security up here.”

 

*****

 

“Do you have a name?”

The Tianese male in the dark suit spoke in such a mechanical manner, Tishla wondered if he was an android. The Realm had banned such devices centuries ago, mainly to keep idle serfs from revolting. This Compact may not have.

“My name is Tishla,” she said.

“Is that a family name or a personal one?”

“Just Tishla.” She decided to withhold revealing her status as a concubine. For starters, primates tended to act strangely about other primate species’ sexual mores. Besides, one race’s concubine might be another’s whore.

“And how do you understand and speak our language? Were you educated by one of our people?”

“The only person of your species I know at all is the one called ‘Marq’, though something tells me that’s not his actual name. As for your language, my people can listen to and extrapolate most languages we are exposed to in a very short time. It’s a survival mechanism that evolved during our stone ages.” Let’s see if that makes any sense to him.

“Interesting.” The man traced his finger across his palm. “Just Marq? Did he not mention his surname, Katergarus?”

So they have nano-tattoos as well, she thought. “Katergarus. That’s not a Humanic word, is it?”

The man nodded and traced his palm again. “You came to us from Laputan space, but clearly you are not Laputan. What are you?”

“I come from a region of space known as the Realm.” The Tianese word for the Realm felt strange coming from her mouth. Despite awareness of aliens, she had only known the Realm since birth. To refer to her home using a strange word from another language unsettled her more than this alien’s presence in the room.

“The Realm,” he repeated. “What is that?”

“What is the Compact?” She thought the male would smile for a moment. “Where am I, anyway?”

“You are on a world known as Metis. More specifically, you are at the Homeworld Security Quarantine Center at Sophiopolis, the capital. What is your business here?”

She considered what words she had extrapolated of their language and what concepts would match them. “My employer sent me to accompany a Tianese man named Marq, who deals in genetically modified foods.”

“So you are a geneticist?”

That was more than she wanted to reveal, but revealed it was. “I am a student of genetics. My employer pays for my education. Where is Marq? Was he also quarantined?”

“Your friend had to spend some time in quarantine, and asked to answer a few uncomfortable questions about trying to bring an unregistered alien species through passenger channels to a Compact world. He’ll be paying a few fines, maybe end up on a watch list if our section chief is in a bad mood.” The male dropped a pendant on the table between them. She recognized the jewel as her Master’s Key, the device that commanded the nanites in her bloodstream. Essentially, it was a slave collar. It was also dark. “He had this on him. We don’t know what it is.”

Tishla’s heart sank. Kai sold her to Marq? Or gave her to him? As she struggled to hide the flash of anger that surged through her, she suddenly realized what Kai had done. Under the Realm’s laws of indenture, if a person who was property was given over to a person from a place that banned such practices, the deed to one’s person became null and void upon entry into the new owner’s space of origin.

And the Compact apparently had no forms of indenture or slavery. If the Master’s Key knew this…

She tried to find a delicate way to explain. “I am in my employer’s custody for a contracted length of time. That device acts as the physical proof of contract between us. It’s clearly no longer functional.” Because it’s illegal for Marq to own me, isn’t it? The idea that Marq had owned her, that, until they entered Compact space, he literally could have done anything he wanted with her, made Tishla ill.

“Does it require contact with a central node somewhere to function?” asked the male.

“No,” she said. “If it’s deactivated, the self-contained unit has become aware of a condition that nullifies the contract.”

“Such as…?” He clearly knew Tishla’s status as property, however voluntary and temporary that might be.

“Through our dealings with Marq,” she said, “we have become aware that your Compact has banned certain forms of employment the Realm considers normal. Our laws stipulate that such contracts become void whenever the contracted person enters space where such arrangements are illegal.”

“And were you to return to your Realm at this moment?”

These beings did not have a word for Free Woman. “I become what you would call a ‘citizen,’ though the concept is somewhat different in our culture.”

“I see,” said the male. “And why was Marq on your homeworld?”

“He brought us a…”

The male tossed a poe-tay-toe, the odd word Tishla had learned for the tubers Marq had brought to Essenar. “One of these?”

“Yes. He said it could cure our famine problems.”

“Marq also visited a colony of this world called Gilead, shortly before we lost contact with it. Do you know why?”

Tishla shook her head, hoping the gesture meant the same thing to these beings. “I don’t know.”

“What about Barsoom?”

Marq had called the first world her people had taken Baah Zun, but that name came from Realm mythology. For now, in the interest of staying out of a Tianese prison or worse, she simply said, “I don’t know what those are.”

“You paused when I said ‘Barsoom.’ Why?”

“In our language, that name is part of our creation myth.”

“I see.” The male stood and pushed his hands into his pockets. “Tishla, I need your help. Would you know anything about a world called ‘Barsoom,’ even in your people’s language?”

Tishla knew nothing of Gilead. Or did she? Barsoom, or rather Baah Zun, was the name Marq used for the terraforming colony he handed to Laral’s troops. What if Gilead was Hanar? Or worse, Cyal, the second colony Kai was to secure? Cyal had cities. It had an industrial base. It could not be a renegade world. No primate species she knew of could ever pull off such a feat without the parent race assisting or intervening. Kai, my love, what have we done?

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I can’t help you. I have to decide how to find employment now that I no longer have a …” She almost said Master, since that was Kai’s legal status. “…job.” That’s what these beings called it, and they did those jobs in exchange for money. “Is this Barsoom a colony of Metis?”

“Mars,” said the male, “and they are one of the most powerful members of the Compact. If someone has tried to conquer their colony, they just brought the entire military might of the human race down on their heads.”

Tishla now understood why Kai had handed her contract over to Marq and sent her to… Was this now to be called hew-maan space? “I need to get back to my people.”

“Why?”

“Because I believe my former employer is in danger.” And my Master… my husband… Needs me at his side.

 

*****

 

Her next visitor did not seem so formal. A darker-skinned Tianese than the agent, this one had a more musical tone to her speech. Tishla found it amusing how fast she had learned to distinguish between male and female. This one was constantly grinning at her, an expression completely unlike Marq’s smile. When he first arrived on Essenar, Tishla thought maybe the Tianese man was trying to mimic the Realm’s native gestures and facial ticks. But the longer she watched them, the more she realized how like her own people they were.

“Good morning,” the female said. “I’m Dr. Moren. I’m one of the people who gave you the Gray treatment upon your arrival.”

That made Tishla laugh. “So you know of the Grays, too.”

“Oh, our people are righteously angry at them,” said Dr. Moren. “Much of what we did to you as a precaution, they did to our people as a joke.”

Tishla did not need to hear more to know what the doctor was referring to abduction, invasive experiments that served no purpose, and tracking devices. When the Realm learned that these bug-eyed things didn’t even invent the technology they used, the Warrior Caste made it a point to slaughter any Grays they encountered and send the corpses back the way they came. She wondered what these humans did to them. “They’re rather pathetic once you learn who and what they are.”

“We have to remind our mereens that using sex toys on them really is a war crime, even in peace time.” She held out her left hand, palm up, and began dragging her finger across it deliberately. “So you can extrapolate languages quickly. That’s a rare talent among primates. Are you unique in this? Or does your species naturally have this ability?”

“We’re born with it. It’s a survival mechanism that evolved during our early Stone Age.” That was more than Tishla wanted to say, but somehow, she felt completely at ease with this woman. “The person who was here before said I was on Metis.”

“Welcome to the Compact,” said the doctor. “Thirty worlds and their colonies that like to pretend they’re a single entity. Well, as long as the Laputans think we are.”

“We are aware of the Laputans.”

“We know. That’s why you ended up on the wrong end of a stun wand and a guest of a hazmat crew. That liner you boarded was actually one of ours.” She swiped on her palm some more before looking up again. “Female. Correct?”

“Yes,” said Tishla. “As are you.”

The doctor looked down at her rather large breasts and reddened in the face a little. “Ever wonder why that particular sexual dimorphism is so common among primate aliens? Anyway, that’s not how we deduced it. I suppose you remember when we… probed you.”

Tishla knew her face colored, only in her case, it was anger. “Yes.”

“That was a scope. We found an orifice and wanted to see where it went. You were supposed to be unconscious, but we’re a little unsure on the sedatives in a first contact situation. We didn’t know what would poison you.”

“So you found my womb,” she said. “See anything else interesting?”

“Yes. Did you know you were pregnant?”

Now it makes sense, Tishla thought. If Kai sent his concubine away to a place where her indenture would be nullified, and she carried his child, then…

“I must get back to my people,” she said. “I cannot give birth on an alien world. My ma- My mate has to be present.” My mate is probably dead.

“In due time. You’re of a species unknown to us.” She did not add that said species was also breeding and likely to give birth on this world, but she didn’t have to. “It’s as much for your protection as it is ours.”

“I’m a geneticist by training. I understand. But you do not realize what may happen if I give birth on an alien world outside the Realm.”

“Rest easy,” said Dr. Moren. “I assume you’re not about to give birth in a month. Or are you? Zaras have really short gestation periods.”

Tishla did some quick calculations. Kai last slipped his tongue inside of her eight days before she left Hanar, the first world Marq had arranged for him to take. She had been at the height of her fertile period. “Not for another six turns. What I think you call months. I don’t know if the time periods are the same.”

“Well, then, let us make sure Metis is safe for you.” Moren did not add that they needed to know Tishla was safe for Metis. She did not need to.

“In that case,” said Tishla, “may I see Marq? I have questions for him.”

“So does Homeworld Security. And the Compact. And probably our Navy. In any event, I need you to get some rest. You’re carrying twins.”

Twins? Oh, Kai, what have you done to us? Are you still alive?

 

*****

 

They allowed her exercise once they determined what her needs would be. Mostly, she walked around the grounds of what turned out to be a hospital. Once she had been debriefed by the security types, they put her in the alien ward. For some reason, the doctors thought she would feel more at home among primates who were not hew-maan, or human, as she had learned to speak the word.

That did not turn out to be the case. There were a couple of Laputans in the ward, the “golden giants” of Realm poetry. They towered over Tishla and the humans by at least a yored. Tishla’s people, and most humans she had seen, stood only three yoreds high. The Laputans were familiar, but not quite enough to put Tishla at ease. Nor did the three Zaras on the floor. Ape-like beings, right down to the body fur and the non-opposable thumbs, they actually unsettled her as they tried chatting with her in the human’s gargling tongue.

Nor did the presence of an Orag female do much for her. Orags, she had learned, were a transplanted species of human. Shorter, squatter, and with noses that more resembled those of Tishla’s people. Alas, she was the only Gelt in the alien ward.

And on Metis, which made her a novelty of sorts.

Nonetheless, they let her walk the inner courtyard of the hospital, out of sight of the common citizens (or Citizens, as she understood the term), but always under the watchful eye of a group called Compact Security.

On the fourth day of her captivity, a woman in a dark suit similar to the Homeworld Security agent’s walked with her on her early morning stroll. She introduced herself as Athena Jovann and gave her title as Assistant Compact Attorney for Metis. Tishla took this to mean her new visitor belonged to the human equivalent of the Legal Caste.

“First of all,” she said as they began their walk, “let me apologize for your confinement and the rough treatment upon your arrival. You’re of an unknown species and here for unknown reasons. Do you understand our need for caution?”

“It’s better than the Laputans’ first contact protocol,” said Tishla.

Athena chuckled. “Yes, declaring war on a race whose strengths and culture you don’t understand is generally a bad idea. I take it your Realm has fought with them?”

“I think everyone has fought with them.”

Athena laughed again. “True enough. Okay, to the point. Why are you here?”

How could she explain this in terms that this woman would understand without giving away too much about the Realm? “My race is called the Gelt. Beyond Marq, I am fairly certain your people and mine have never interacted until now. On my world, I am in the custody of an employer who in turn pays for my education in genetics. Because of certain… What’s the word I’m looking for? Do people in leadership positions among your race play games and engage in rivalries that have nothing to do with those they lead?”

“That’s called ‘politics.’ Go on.”

“Because of certain politics on the world where I live, my employer sent me with Marq to this place. In the process, he voided my obligations to him. I need to get back to him. Or to the world he governs.”

“If you give us the coordinates, we can arrange transport on a diplomatic vessel. Perhaps this can begin a relationship between our races.”

Under normal circumstances, Tishla would make counterproposals, using her position as Kai’s concubine to negotiate at least a gubernatorial reception for a new alien race. However, she had no idea if these Metisians were the rule or the exception. They certainly did not behave like Marq had.

“I think,” she said, “it would be best if I returned via Laputan space. Fewer complications. Plus, I am not in a position to determine if contact between our species is feasible at this time.”

Athena stopped, which caused Tishla to stop with her. “We can arrange that, but that will take some time. In the meantime, I will arrange accommodations for you, something a little more private than a hospital. ”

 

13

 

Two rooms and a water closet were all that made up what the humans called “an apartment.” Once Tishla extrapolated and understood the word, she decided it was a let-down. To her, “apartment,” or its Realm equivalent, meant the spacious suite of rooms she had even in Kai’s primitive dwellings on Essenar and Hanar. This place was a slum.

Well, by her standards, it was a slum. It probably did very well for the humans, particularly considering their culture. She noticed that even the leaders, at least on Metis, tended to work all the time. When they did not, they spent most of their free time away from their homes. At least in Sophiopolis. She had not seen any families since her arrival.

Two weeks after the humans moved her to the apartment, Athena Jovann arrived bearing a large wooden box and some fresh bread. By now, Tishla had a menu of local foods she could eat. She had started with potatoes, and by the time she tired of the starchy tubers, they had figured out what proteins and plant life she could safely consume.

“I just dropped by to bring you this. We found it in the hold of your ship,” said Athena, placing the box on a table that dominated one side of the apartment. “And some bread made from the local grain. I figured you might want to eat something besides vegetables.”

Tishla ignored the food and opened the box. Inside lay the useless control crystal, a small holo disc that had not yet been activated, and… “Wow.”

“That’s a big dagger,” said Athena.

“My mate, despite not being a warrior, has combat experience.”

“Well, I also wanted to tell you that we’ve lifted your restrictions. You can now move about the city freely.”

“Thank you,” said Tishla, “but where would I go?”

“I would stick to the entertainment district. Yes, people will see your gray skin and wide nose and know you are an alien, but aliens are more common there. Stay away from the countryside or the outskirts of the city. Unless you’re white or brown with a bulb of a nose like ours…” Athena wrinkled her nose and smiled. “…you’re apt to be subjected to stares, maybe hostility.”

“Violence?”

“I can’t promise you it won’t happen, but you reduce the risk by sticking close to the city center.”

“What about data? I’m not that all fascinated by my own people’s sport, and yours is starting to lose its novelty for me.” And in what culture did people make a living playing children’s games or engaging in light combat for fun?

“We’ve opened those up. You should now be able to watch any news feed and go to any site to you choose.”

That you’ve told me about.

Athena relaxed her rigid pose. “That said, I’d like to invite you to dinner this evening. I’ll send an ubur around to pick you up.”

“‘Ubur’?”

“It’s a type of personal drone, a driverless car that you can hire to take you anywhere or to have things delivered. Do you have anything like that on your world?”

“I’ve spent the last five rev- ” She stopped herself. They said years, which translated as an archaic term in the Realm. “The last five years on two primitive colonies. The only drone vehicles we used were for moving supplies around.”

“I see. Well, welcome to Metis, Tishla. This time for real. Can I have you picked up at 1700?”

The number told Tishla this was when afternoon became evening here. “That would be fine.”

 

*****

 

As soon as Athena left, Tishla thumbed the holo disc. It projected Kai’s image into the middle of the room. She could almost reach out and touch him. Almost.

“Hey, Buckteeth,” he said, calling her by the childhood name he gave her when they were partners in crime rather than lovers or Master and servant. “How’s our child? I’m sure you know by now. I couldn’t risk telling you while you were on Hanar. You might not have gone with Marq otherwise.”

She felt anger well up within her when she remembered that, for a brief time, Marq actually owned her.

“The child is partly why I sent you away with him,” Kai’s image continued. “As his possession, he would have to forfeit your indenture upon returning to his own space. The control crystal knows this. Congratulations, Tishla. You’re a Free Woman. You also carry my heir within you, which makes you my heir as well. And now, my love, I need you to return. If I am dead by the time you see this, I need you to take my place. My brother will help you stake your claim to Hanar and to my estate. And if I’m alive… Well, Tish, I need you. You see, I may have purchased you, but it’s you who owns me. You always have.”

Tishla swallowed, trying to blink tears back from her eyes. “Oh, Kai…”

“If you have this,” he continued, “then you also have my dagger. I’ve learned through my sources that the last man I cut with it is at the Laputan consulate on Metis. Find him. Show him the dagger. He will know you are with me and will help you.” He smiled that goofy smile of his. “Yes, I know. Men are strange. Try to kill each other once, friends for life. Which makes him a friend of yours.”

She looked at the dagger. A little dried blood still marred the shimmering blade. She wondered what Kai had done to draw that blood and yet make his victim his friend.

“Get back as quickly as you can,” said Kai. “Stake your claim if I’m gone. Summon the Soveriegn if Laral fights you. Do it for me. Do it for our child.” He paused. “Do it for yourself, Tishla. It’s time you took your rightful place in the Realm.”

He faded from view. Tishla sank to her knees and wept. She had no way of knowing for certain, but inside, she knew. Kai was dead. Why else would he depend on a former enemy to get her back to the Realm? And yet he still held sway over her. He always would. She would not have it any other way. But Kai was gone. And two men had taken him from her. Laral would have to wait until she returned to Hanar to get the justice Kai deserved. The human Marq, on the other hand…

She applied her newly opened search engine to the one burning question that had obsessed her since she awoke in that hospital room over a turn before. “Please find me the residence of a human who calls himself Marq Katergarus.”

It amused her that Marq had taken on an alias in another human language that translated as “trickster.” Okay, trickster, let’s see how clever you really are.

 

14

 

Marq Katergarus proved to be rather easy to find once she attained her freedom. Approaching him, however, proved to be difficult. Unfortunately, Tishla was the only citizen of the Realm on the planet. Everywhere she went, she drew stares, the gray woman with shimmering white hair and the broad nose. To these people, she might as well have been a Gray.

So she hunted for Marq in the darkness, wearing the hooded jacket Athena had kindly loaned her. It took some time to trace him, but not long. In fact, it turned out he had hidden in plain sight.

The apartment building was a boring structure made of what humans called “cinder block.” It had almost no security, and Tishla knew why. People with heavy security have something to secure. She and Kai had lived among enough criminals to understand that security often attracted thieves. If it’s valuable enough to protect, they would reason, it is valuable enough to steal.

It might have been a risk. Anyone can break into a place secured with nothing more than locks, but Tishla knew Marq would not take such chances. Human technology was such that he could provide hidden safeguards on his home-away-from-home without tipping off the authorities or anyone else looking for him.

Actually, she didn’t care if he knew she was there. She wanted him to know. She wanted him to see her. So instead of trying to enter his apartment, she took up station in an alcove down the hall and waited for him to enter or leave. No doubt the police had followed her. Good. If she accomplished what she set out to do, they could have him.

In the long coat Athena had provided, she had placed the contents of the box Kai had sent along – the now-useless pendant that once controlled the nanites in her blood, the holo disc, a locket Kai had engraved with a marriage pledge, and the dagger. That dagger meant a lot to Kai, and now it was Tishla’s. She vowed to honor it and use it with purpose.

Marq appeared after an hour, slipping inside as though unobserved, or at least, not particularly concerned if he was. She fell in step behind him, head down, not really caring if he turned around and saw her. On Marq’s floor, she hung back a short distance, feigning interest in another door. As Marq palmed the bio-lock to his apartment, she charged. Pushing him inside, she put Kai’s dagger to his throat.

“Hello, Master.” The second word came out as a sneer. “It’s your concubine, come to shave you.”

A thin trickle of blood ran down his neck.

“I can explain,” said Marq, sounding as calm as a man could just before having his throat slit. “I did not know they would keep you so long. I would have told you about my deal with Kai, but there was never the opportunity. I…”

Tishla pressed the flat of the knife a little harder against his flesh.

Now Marq’s breathing quickened a bit as the calm faded to fear. “You know the penalty for killing one’s Master, don’t you?”

“You know our penalty for theft, don’t you?” Her tone mocked Marq’s. “By Realm law, I became a Free Woman the moment you brought me into Compact space. You deliberately took me to your people, who don’t have slavery.”

“Well, not like…”

She tilted the blade once more so the edge now pressed into the skin. “If you purchase another sentient being, particularly another primate, they automatically become free the moment they step into Compact space. Realm law says that if a master takes anyone indentured to him or her to such a place, they forfeit the contract, and the servant becomes a Free Person.”

“There’s still the matter of the nano-leash swimming in your bloodstream,” said Marq. “Kill me, and no one can turn those lethal bugs off for you.”

She made another tiny little cut in his skin, enough to draw blood once more. “Ask me if I care? Did you think Kai would not send me with a serrmin like you into free space without some sort of message?”

“Think about our child, Tishla. You were my property until we reached Metis. That makes the child…” He screamed as the knife moved again.

“So you knew before I did?” said Tishla.

“Kai said he knew already. Said the nanites in your blood informed him as soon as you conceived. But he was afraid for you.”

“Then you know the child is mine.” This slug did not need to know she was having twins. “As its mother, I am its heir and guardian. Now, then, tell me the real reason you came to Essenar with a poe-tay-toe. I’m most interested. I understand that little tuber started a few wars in your ancient history.”

 

15

 

Best waited outside the apartment block, a gray cinderblock building that recalled an earlier age, one where Jefivah was seen as a wonder instead of an armpit. He sat on a park bench seemingly engrossed in whatever he had displayed in the palm of his hand. Never mind that the wrist chip connected to the nanotat in his palm was not synched up with Metis’s local internet. To anyone looking, he was just another commuter waiting on a trambot to take him home.

The gray woman caught his eye. Had he not been watching the building so closely, he might not have given her a second look. However, her almost human-like appearance caught his attention. At first, he thought there was something a little off, like the woman had simply had an odd skintone. Metisian women had taken to ingesting nanites that repigmented the skin, though ashen gray was not a common shade that he’d noticed since his arrival.

No, at closer inspection, this one was definitely not human. She had a flatter nose, and her hair was snow white, not quite the platinum blonde of humans. Her posture also suggested she was not Homo sapiens. At first, Best thought she might be an Orag, a transplanted species of human that went extinct on Earth millennia before recorded history began. Only Orags resembled Euros in skintone. They were also shorter, and one sometimes had to look twice to realize (assuming the accent did not give it away) that the person in question did not trace his or her ancestry to Earth during recorded history.

She was not one of the so-called “Grays” either. Humans had come across the short, bug-eyed creatures not long after they perfected wormhole travel at will. Their discovery had shed light on some of the legends that grew out of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead of fostering peace and understanding, however, the newly-spacefaring humans began capturing and torturing the Grays. The diminutive aliens now had a particular fear of any sort of medical probe.

This woman was not one of them. For starters, her eyes, if oddly shaped, appeared to be the same size as humans. She was yet another primate species, but one Best had never seen before.

He watched as she disappeared inside the building, thinking it best that he stay where he was until she emerged again. If his conversation with Luxhomme went the way he anticipated, it probably wasn’t a good idea to have a strange alien woman around to witness it. Not before Best could summon the police and explain himself.

Waiting was something Best did not do well. He bored easily, often finding himself trying to read his palm tat despite its uselessness. Staring at a door where only one person had entered during the entirety of his vigil made things harder. If he wasn’t doing something, he generally needed to be asleep or watching a feed or engaged in conversation. The wait for Luxhomme to come or go only underscored just how restless Best’s mind had become in middle age.

“So much for retiring someplace warm and quiet,” he muttered under his breath.

A man screamed inside the building while Best pondered his options. The strange woman he had seen suddenly burst out the front door and found herself instantly chased by a police drone. Best ran across the street, dodging a taxidrone and two delivery bots before running into the building. He could hear a man moaning in pain from at least two flights up the stairway. Best skipped the lift, taking the stairs two at a time. Following the sound, he stopped on the third floor and spotted a door that that lay wide open.

Inside, he found a very wounded Luxhomme lying on his couch, bloody and curled in the fetal position. Before Best could approach him, a deep, synthesized voice said, “Freeze. Officers are en route.”

Best stood, put up his hands, and said, “This man needs medical attention.”

The police drone scanned Best and said, “Best, Douglas, Citizen of Jefivah, you are under arrest for escaping lawful custody. An officer will take you to the nearest police facility for processing.”

He looked down at Luxhomme, who, despite obvious pain, smiled at him. “Well, hello, Dougie. How are things on Marilyn?”

Best looked up at the drone. “Do I have an assault charge listed along with the charges from Jefivah?”

“Negative,” said the drone. “All charges against you are off-world pending extradition.”

“You might want to add assault.”

“Why do you say that, Citizen?”

“Because…”

He punched Luxhomme in the mouth.

 

16

 

The humans, naturally, frowned on aliens assaulting their citizens on their own turf. Or, as Tishla had come to interpret the phrase, their Citizens. She was not a Citizen. She might have been Free, or even “free” in the language they called Humanic, but that did not mean the same thing in the Compact as it did in the Realm. The humans did not care if Tishla stood to inherit dominion over two planets or Kai’s share of his family’s wealth. They were not interested in her abilities as a geneticist nor did they care that her species could extrapolate complex languages in a matter of hours. Tishla had attacked a Citizen, changing her from an unknown quantity to a direct threat to at least one human life.

So Tishla had to go. Instead of letting the police get rid of her, she hailed a taxidrone and hoped no one figured out who attacked Marq until after she reached her destination.

“Laputan Consulate. Quickly.”

The drone happily chirped its compliance and moved into traffic.

She kept the contents of the wooden box Kai had sent along, however. It had contained everything: His personal dagger, the message explaining his plan to free her, and the now-worthless deed to her person transferring her indenture to Marq Katergarus of…

Even with all the worlds of the Compact she now knew of, she still did not know where that strange little man hailed from. Nor, it seemed, did the authorities on Metis. They knew only that he was human, and all humans were presumed to be Citizens until proven otherwise.

The tall golden woman looked down from the reception desk at the Laputan Consulate. “May I help you?” Her Humanic sounded rough, unpracticed. Never mind that she probably had spent revolutions on this planet to Tishla’s one and a half turns.

“My name is…” She thought about it. She was Free, but dare she take Kai’s family name? The twins inside her kicked, reminding her she still had duties to her beloved, living or dead. “Lattus Tishla. I am a Free Woman of the Realm. I request asylum among your people and passage to Ramcat, where I may return home.”

The golden woman looked down at her. “A Gelt. I never thought I’d see a Gelt on an Idimic world.”

Tishla permitted herself a little smile at the Laputan word for “human.” It had to do with their creation myth. “A human defrauded me. I exercised my rights under Gelt law. Unfortunately, that conflicts with Compact law in such matters.”

“Oh,” said the Laputan woman. “You’re her. Lucky you didn’t kill him. They’d pack you off to their homeworld and take their sweet time figuring out how to try you. Wait right here.”

Tishla watched her disappear through a doorway. She was a giantess by both human and Gelt standards. Then again, she was likely average for a Laputan.

The man who emerged was also a giant. Craggy-faced, he kept his coarse black hair tied back in a tail the way Laputan military did, even when their service had ended. “So you’re Lattus Kai’s concubine.”

“Former,” Tishla corrected as she noticed the scar running down his cheek. “He sent me to the Compact, which means my servitude has ended. However, I carry his offspring, which makes me his heir.”

The man shook his head, looking down at the ground. “I’ll never understand the Realm’s silly laws. And we’re a monarchy, just like you.”

Not like us, thought Tishla. We don’t see war as a reasonable means of first contact.

“I am Delda Rallis,” said the man. “Kai calls me Rall, which means you may call me Rall.” He pointed at his scar. “You probably noticed this. That whelp gave me this in a border skirmish when he was still a…” His eyes did a rolling motion as he paused. “Well, the humans call it a ‘squire,’ but I’ll be damned if I can make heads or tails of your feudal system. Why don’t you just sell titles like us or do away with them like the humans?” He looked past her at the window. “Well, these humans. A few of them pine for hereditary in-breds ruling them, but thank Unseen not here.”

Tishla reached up and traced the scar down Rall’s face. “So this is the wound he gave you.” She took out the dagger, still secured in its sheath. “Then you recognize this.”

Rall’s somewhat amenable expression vanished. “A man sends me a fine weapon like that, especially a Gelt, it means he’s sending a message.” He picked up the dagger and admired its sheath, ornately carved ivory from a large reptile predator that prowled the forests of the Throneworld. He slid the dagger out and stared at it. “And if Kai is sending this very one to me, then he’s calling in a favor. Which means he’s worried he’s about to die.”

Tishla started to speak, but her throat tightened, cutting off her voice.

Rall nodded solemnly. “Then again, lovely thing like you, he probably wanted to Free you since it’d be easier than to have you stay willingly. Tell me, are you the real brains behind his estate?”

That made her relax in this strange alien’s presence. “He confides in me. I agreed to be purchased in exchange for my honors in genetics. I help him govern his colony.” She omitted the second world Laral and Marq promised to secure for him. For all she knew, the people there probably fought back.

“Oh, dear Presence, he’s gotten into planet wrangling. Bet he’s at war with one of those Warrior Caste idiots, too.” He motioned for her to follow him. “Come on. Let’s see if I can find out what’s happened to him. Then we’ll see about getting you home. I may even take you myself.”

“Don’t you have duties here?”

“What duties? Selling humans round trip packages to Laputan space? Tell me, have you ever been to the Guardianship outside of Ramcat’s orbital city?”

 

*****

 

The authorities came looking for her a few hours later. Delda Rallis stalled them as his staff tried to bundle her into a taxi to the spaceport. She could overhear what the police were saying as they rushed her out the door.

“We cannot find Marq Katergarus,” said a female officer, one who sounded like she could roll a few Warrior Caste types in a fair fight. “And we know the Gelt woman came here.”

“This consulate is sovereign territory,” said Rallis. The door closed behind her before she heard whatever else was said.

The taxi smelled of various human body odors, none of which Tishla found pleasant. Already battling evening sickness from her pregnancy, she feared she might vomit if she had to stay in the cab too long. Rall’s assistant, whom Tishla soon learned was called Chosay, piled in with her. “Spaceport. Diplomatic entrance. Drive.”

Tishla noticed an intense light scanning both her and Chosay’s faces. “Gelt detected. This passenger is a fugitive.”

“This passenger is under protection of the Laputan Guardianship. Now move it, or your owners will be guilty of a felony under Compact law.”

The taxi sat there as its primitive AI turned that little fact over in its quantum-rigged mind. Then it pulled out into traffic.

“It can’t report you,” said Chosay. “You’re under a diplomatic umbrella, at least until someone intervenes.”

“Intervenes?”

“If they think you killed that man…”

“I cut him, but just enough to scare him. On a Gelt world, he’d not only be dead, but I’d be able to present his scalp as evidence if I were tried.” She looked around. “Do you know what happened to Marq Katergarus?”

“We do. After you attacked him, the police had some questions for him.”

Tishla’s blood ran cold at the mention of the planet. “Why?”

“Have you heard of another entity called ‘Juno’?”

“No.”

Chosay looked at her strangely. “Me, either, but apparently, they want to talk to him really badly.”

Tishla wondered what exactly it was Marq had tricked Kai and Laral into. “Do you know anything about ‘potatoes’?”

Chosay laughed. “Yes. We fought a war with the humans over them. Why?”

 

*****

 

For the second time in a week, Best found himself sitting in a jail cell. This time, a pair of women from Metisian Homeworld Security questioned him. Jail was bad enough. The officers’ lilting accents alone set him on edge. But the voice of one of the officers, becoming shrill when she lost her temper, set his teeth to grinding.

“So you be slippin’ your leash, Mister Best? Is that what you’re sayin’? Hmm?” The dark-skinned woman interrogating him had given her name simply as Andra. When Best mentioned his role as Jefivah’s Minister of Agriculture, it only served to set her off even more. “According to our information, ye’re supposed to be in the custody of a man who answers to the title ‘Grand Dimaj.’ Where is this Grand Dimaj? Hmm?”

“The Caliphate,” said Best, who found the sterile white interrogation room stifling. The bright overhead lights didn’t help, either. He suspected they contributed to Andra’s foul mood. But not as much as they did his headache. “When I left him, he was performing a religious rite.” By screwing a human sex doll who resembles his goddess, he added silently.

“And you don’t respect a man’s right to his own faith? Hmm?”

“Andra,” said the other woman, who had introduced herself as Agent Jovann. “Allow me.”

“Athena, I don’t think…”

Jovann put a hand on Andra’s shoulder. “Give me a minute. Okay? I don’t think you’re getting anywhere badgering Mr. Best. He’s not even our suspect.”

“He’s someone’s suspect,” she said and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Jovann looked severe in her tight black suit, her gray-tinged hair kept so short as to almost be mannish. Best could see, however, the hair had been tinted gray intentionally. Her skin looked too smooth to have been through more than one rejuvenation treatment, if any. Actually, he didn’t know if Metisians even indulged in rejuve.

She sat down on the table near Best, draping a leg over it. Had she worn a skirt, Best might have found himself staring at the leg. But Jovann wore a black pantsuit instead. It made Best feel like a schoolboy who’d been caught pumping cartoons onto the desks of his classmates.

“Andra has a problem with authority. Especially when it’s been abused.” Her accent, though similar to Andra’s, was more monotone. Best had heard Luxhomme speak that way sometimes, which only confirmed his suspicion that Luxhomme’s Etruscan residency was a sham.

“I haven’t abused my authority,” said Best.

Jovann looked down at her right palm, which told Best she was a lefty. “Really? Says here you were suspended after allowing seven weapons of mass destruction to disappear from naval custody and charged with negligence. It also says you were in the custody of a ‘Grand Dimaj,’ whatever that is, and that you failed to present your credentials, suspended as they are, to the governments of either The Caliphate or Metis. And the Compact Home Office here has no record of your promised visit. You might have shown up here legally as a Citizen, Mr. Best.”

“Why do you think I’m here, Agent Jovann?” said Best.

Jovann fingered the nanotat on her palm. Behind her, a square appeared on the wall that displayed a photo of Luxhomme. “You are looking for this man, whom we know as Marcus Leitman. That’s his birth name, or at least we think it is.”

“You don’t know? He was born here.”

Jovann smiled coldly. “He says he was born here. Humanity is so fragmented that someone can be born on a world and there be no record of it. Families leave for other worlds. Some even leave the Compact. For all we know, he could have lived among the Zaras in the trees, and we’d have no way of knowing.”

“And what did that… that…”

“The gray woman? What did she want? She likely wanted to kill Leitman. Or Luxhomme. Or whatever he called himself to her. She did beat the hell out of him.”

“Why?”

“I can’t say much about it but the woman was enslaved on her homeworld. Apparently, her master sent her to Metis knowing that, once a person sets foot on a Compact world, human or alien, they are freed. Seems her people recognize that as liberation under their laws. From what we could gather, Leitman failed to mention the transfer of ownership, and she didn’t take the omission well”

“What will happen to him?”

“Nothing. He broke no laws. He made no claim on her to our government or any other human authority. As far as those on Metis are concerned, he’s done nothing wrong. Nothing we can prove, anyway. He did, however, book passage on the next liner to Jefivah.” She looked down at the ornate watch on her left wrist. “Which departed forty-five minutes ago. They should be at a hypergate by now.”

Lovely. Luxhomme or Leitman or whatever his name was had fled to Best’s homeworld while Best himself sat in this cramped little room being interrogated.

“And what becomes of me?” he asked.

“That’s up to your government,” said Jovann. She stood up and looked down at Best with arms folded. “I do know your First Minister is rather upset with you for leaving The Caliphate without the Grand Dimaj. Apparently, the Marilynists have been rioting since you disappeared.”

 

 

Episode 5: The Reckoning

 

17

 

“Well, well, well,” said Lattus Brac as he stepped out of the boarding tube. They were on Ramcat, or rather Araneeya, Ramcat’s giant orbital city. “If it isn’t my new concubine.” The pudgy Gelt sniffed the air. “And you’re pregnant. Lovely. I always wanted a son.”

“So Kai really is dead?” asked Tishla.

“Afraid so. Laral challenged him over the new world, Cyal.” He shook his head. “Kai had a brilliant mind. His sword work… He had a brilliant mind.” Brac strode over to her and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Guess that makes you my property. At least until your indenture contract… What?” he said, noticing the look on Tishla’s face.

“The nanites are still in my blood,” she said. “Go on. Activate them. Put that virtual slave collar on me.”

“Well, if you insist.” Brac held up his forearm, turned his palm in toward himself and fingered a small bump on his wrist. The nano-tattoo embedded in his palm gave him a message. “Deed nullified. Target person is Free due to transfer of deed to a citizen of a nullifying authority.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The Compact, Brac. They have banned slavery, even our benign version of it.” She patted him on the cheek. “And as the mother of Kai’s child, I am Kai’s heir. Which makes you subordinate to me.” She pinched the cheek she had just patted. “But don’t worry, my new little brother. Daintier things than me have felled mightier trees than Laral Jorl. Tell me, do we still have possession of Hanar?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, that makes me their queen. Are there any Tianese left alive?”

“Some. Why do you care? We’ll have them wiped out by the end of the turn.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I want them alive. And I want them allied with us. And I want the best swordsman in the Realm you can find.”

Brac stepped back and looked at Tishla, already bewildered to find himself subject to the whims of a former concubine. “But why?”

Tishla withdrew Kai’s dagger from the coat Athena had given her. “Because, my new little brother, I am going to open Laral Jorl’s throat and cut out his testicles. Then I’m going to cut his heart from his chest and eat it while it’s still beating.”

 

*****

 

“They fired you?”

Best’s assistant Alyssa, a dark-skinned woman from one of the more traditionalist districts of Jefivah, stood in the doorway, her hand up to her mouth.

“I resigned,” said Best as he packed up his desk. “I cited personal matters and gave up my seat in the House.” He smiled. “At least I get to keep my pension and don’t have to move until my seat comes up for election again.”

“But why?”

Best let out his breath in one big huff, his shoulders sagging as he did so. “The First Minister wanted to sack me, but it wouldn’t do to have a disgruntled ex-minister in the House where he can make trouble for her government. Besides, you’ve seen the talking heads on the local news feeds. They call me the ‘senior delegate for the Marilynists’ now.”

“That’s not fair, Doug. You’ve worked hard for this government.”

“And for what? We’re still the laughingstock of the Compact.”

“We have three colonies now, thanks to you.”

“Only one of which lost a cache of weapons we were supposed to turn over to the Compact. We’re lucky they didn’t shut Marilyn down.” He managed a weak grin. “The First Minister did offer me governorship of Marilyn after the next election.”

Alyssa’s eyes lit up. “Will you take it?”

“Have you been to Marilyn?”

She hadn’t, but Best had complained about its desert climate enough that she understood. “Point taken.”

“I have an interview with Ron Paul University in a week,” said Best. “A teaching position. Interstellar politics.”

Alyssa feigned a shiver. “That’s on Belsham, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Libertarian world. I’d be afraid to eat any meat there.”

“You’re a vegetarian.”

“It’s always nice to have the option.” Her left hand twitched. She looked at her palm, her eyes widening as they scanned the message. “Well, you may not get the government dispatches anymore, but I do.”

“What is it?”

“They found the Etrusca Explorer.”

 

*****

 

A large Wilson-class cruiser, the Dag Hammerskjold, towed the much smaller Etrusca Explorer through its own projected wormhole. The bulk of two ships would never have made it through a hypergate, especially any of Jefivah’s outmoded ones. Best watched from the orbital port center as the Hammerskjold, glittering with lights from within and bristling with weapons, pulled the darkened freighter behind it, a large gash in its hull.

“We found it orbiting a planet on the Yedevan fringe,” said Commander Liu, back and still clad in his black suit. He sounded just as warm and personable as he had the first time Best met him. “We still don’t understand. They were supposed to head straight to Tian, then the yards above Zeus once the Navy cleared them.”

“What do we know about the Yedevans?” asked Best.

“Nothing,” said Liu, “except they don’t tolerate trespassers. And we only know that from the Laputans.”

Another officer, this one in the dress uniform of a Navy captain, stood to Best’s left, watching the two ships approach. Outside, two small tugs pushed up against the Etrusca Explorer. The Hammerskjold released the Explorer from its tow beam and shifted away from the port center, moving out of sight. Even with the tugs pushing it into position to dock, the freighter appeared dead.

“What happened to the crew?” asked Best. “Never mind the cargo. Where’s the crew?”

The captain, an odd whimsical look on his face, made a slurping sound.

Best started to reply when the glare on Major Liu’s face stopped him.

“Really, Captain, is that necessary?”

The captain shrugged. “Do we actually know anything about the Yedevans? The only time the Laputans talked about them was during the war, and then only the prisoners would talk about them. Now, they pretend the Yedevans don’t exist. We don’t even know if they’re primates.”

“Most of the intelligent alien species we interact with are primates,” said Best. “Even the reptiles look like us. Sort of.”

“True, but no one’s seen a Yedevan, have they?” The captain pointed to the crippled freighter outside. “When we or the Zaras or the Laputans come across a primate intelligence, we all basically see strange-looking people who talk funny.”

“Except the Grays,” said Liu. It was the closest Best had ever seen him come to cracking a smile.

“The Grays are freaks by anyone’s standards,” said the captain. “But if the Yedevans aren’t primates, they might not see the crew as people.”

“What would they be then?” asked Best.

“Protein,” said the captain. “Delicious, exotic protein.”

Best thought he would be sick.

Liu did allow himself the trace of a smile as he turned to Best. “At least you get a degree of vindication, Mr. Best.”

Best wanted to clock the intelligence agent but thought better of it. “Commander, I am out of a job. I’ll soon be out of a home. And twenty years of public service, when I could have left this world a decade ago for something more fulfilling, has been flushed down the toilet. How in the hell is that supposed to make me feel vindicated?”

“Well, you can always cash in on your new status as a Marilynist prophet.”

Best threw a lazy punch that connected with Liu’s jaw and sent him sprawling. The captain went over and knelt beside Liu, who lay stunned on the deck.

“Must have just waxed the floor,” said the captain with a wink. “Come on. Let’s go check out the ship.”

“What about him?”

“They have aspirin and ice on Jefivah, don’t they?”

 

*****

 

Alyssa’s fears proved to be unfounded. Best could definitely eat the food on Belsham. He wondered how much weight he would gain from all the luncheons and banquets he’d been invited to in his week on the planet. Even Belsham’s government came calling, though he couldn’t serve as an elected official (and frankly, hoped he never would again.) Belsham had two colonies of its own, but found Jefivah’s program of taking old military outposts off the Compact’s hands intriguing.

“But,” the president’s chief of staff cautioned, “we’d make those asses in the Compact military pick up their own damn weapons.” She was the perfect combination of charm and fury, Best mused, to be the right hand of a strong executive. “So what do you say? Our cabinet departments work out of much nicer digs.”

“Doesn’t that go against your small government philosophy?” asked Best, whom, after a lifetime on Jefivah, still couldn’t say just what his native world’s unifying political philosophy was.

The chief gave him a thousand-watt smile. “A small government means we can take better care of it. That’s why Belsham is thriving and Walton is an abandoned colony.” Walton had originally been Belsham’s mother planet, but like all radically political worlds, it fell into chaos that made Jefivah look like a utopia.

“Besides,” the chief added, “I can promise you won’t see a single statue memorializing a World War Era actress. Except maybe at a theater.”

“You make a tempting offer,” said Best with a laugh. “I’ll have to consider it. But keep in mind, I’ve already accepted the teaching position at Paul U.”

“Good,” said the chief. “Those egg heads could use an outsider like you to shake things up.”

Best left the Executive Residence in good spirits. The capital, Friedman, had a decent climate, clean streets, and cheap but comfortable homes available. The teaching gig, which Best originally thought of as being put out to pasture, started to sound exciting. Initially, he would talk about his experiences of working in a highly factionalized government with limited resources and marginal influence in the Compact. The humanities department also suggested he teach Earth history. The offer from the president coupled with his academic duties would more than wash the bad taste of Jefivah out of his mouth. Once he settled here, he hoped he‘d never have cause to go back to that cesspool again.

All that ceased to matter when he spotted Luxhomme, aka Marq Katergarus, aka Marcus Leitman, strolling out of a deli not three blocks from grounds of the Executive Residence.

 

*****

 

Luxhomme opened his eyes only to see Best and several police officers in riot gear surrounding his bed. The girl lying next to him also woke up and screamed when she saw the weapons all trained on the bed.

“Hello, Luxxy,” said Best. “Or Marq. Or Marcus. Whoever you are. Do you know how much trouble you are in?”

The girl screamed again, and one of the officers grabbed a robe off the chair. Tossing it to her, he said, “Here. Put this on and go wait in the living room.”

“And don’t try to run away,” said another officer, a female. “We know where you live.”

Best crouched down beside Luxhomme’s bed as the girl scrambled out of it. “It took a couple of hyperpackets to Jefivah, but I’ve been delegated an agent of the First Minister since, technically, my Citizenship still resides there. So, on behalf of the government of Jefivah, Mr. Luxhomme, alias Marq Katergarus, alias Marcus Leitman, I’m placing you under arrest for mishandling Compact property and interfering with the lawful functioning of a constituent authority.”

Luxhomme pulled his sheet up around him. “You can’t do that. I have rights. Where’s your warrant?”

The female officer lowered her weapon, took a small device off her belt and turned to point it at the wall behind her. Luxhomme’s warrant appeared, duly signed by judges on Jefivah and Belsham with a writ of extradition attached. “I know the Belsham judge,” she said. “I can tell you exactly what he’ll say at your extradition hearing.”

“‘Where is your counsel?’” Luxhomme tried with a greasy laugh.

The warrant disappeared, and the officer turned back to face Luxhomme. “No. He’ll say, ‘Not our problem’ before having you put on the next liner to Jefivah.”

Best mimicked Luxhomme’s strange little smile. “Oh, and the Marilynists are suing you and JunoCorp. I’ve been authorized to serve you notice.”

 

******

 

“I know you’re angry, Best. And I understand.”

Best faced Luxhomme with cold, flat eyes. He could just shove the man out of the nearest airlock and call it an escape attempt gone wrong. Either his conscience or the video surveillance on board the liner kept him from doing it. He wasn’t sure which. “You ruined my career, started a wave of rioting on Jefivah, almost got all three of our colonies shut down, and the crew of the Etrusca Explorer killed.”

“Oh, how do you know they died? They could have run off with the Yedevans. It happens.”

“The investigator from the Navy thinks they were eaten.”

Luxhomme’s eyebrows arched. “Well, that’s a new one on me. I’ve heard of them eating Grays, but everyone mistreats the Grays. The little buggers…”

“I don’t care about the Grays. I care about how you’re going to fix the mess you made.”

I made?”

Surveillance or no, Best bunched Luxhomme’s shirt into his fists and shoved him against the bulkhead. “You chartered a civilian vessel to take those weapons to Tian so they could hand them off to the Navy. And you have been damned hard to find since I left Marilyn. Even your own company seems to have no clue where you are. How do you keep your job?”

Luxhomme smiled. “I bring them money, which seems to be a rare talent within our organization.”

“Walter Pope did not seem to be hurting for currency and resources.”

“Pope is living off a bet Juno’s parent company is making.”

“Which is?”

“I’m not permitted to discuss that.” The strange little smile returned. “Unless you have a court order.”

Best released him. “Doesn’t matter. When we get to Jefivah, you’ll most likely end up in prison. And once you are convicted, I understand that the Metisians are going to try you. Apparently, they think your shenanigans cost them one of their colonies.” He started to walk away, then stopped and turned. “Say, Luxhomme. Why did that alien woman beat the hell out of you? Did you get her pregnant?”

As Luxhomme smoothed out his shirt, he said, “Douglas, every middle school student knows that humans and aliens cannot cross-breed without a little genetic trickery.”

“Well, Homeworld Security mentioned she was technically your slave until the moment you two stepped on Metisian soil.”

“I may have neglected to mention holding her title of indenture until the last minute.”

Best tilted his head back slightly as he regarded Luxhomme. “I see. Well, enjoy your time in Hell, Mr. Luxhomme. I’ve got to go sedate myself for the jump.”

He reached the doorway to Luxhomme’s locked quarters when Luxhomme called out. “I’ll tell them everything.”

Best stopped and turned, standing in the doorway. “I’m listening.”

“I’ll testify as to what I did and why.”

“At your trial?”

“No.” The smile had disappeared. Luxhomme’s eyes were wide now, his posture more slack. “I’ll go to Earth.”

Best thought he had kept himself impassive, but the hint of that smile on Luxhomme’s face told him otherwise.

“Yes,” said Luxhomme. “I’m willing to stand before the Compact Security Council in Hong Kong.”

Best turned and left without saying another word. How could he? Luxhomme had left him speechless.

 

18

 

Quantonesia sat in the middle of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, like a fragment of the city had broken off and floated out to sea. A jumbled mass of skyscrapers covered the artificial island from end to end, leaving Best to wonder how one actually got onto it.

He had come to Earth separately from Luxhomme, who left Jefivah in Compact Security’s custody. It let him ride out the hypergate transit completely sedated with an entire day to recover in his hotel room. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong he found made him depressed.

Best had learned as a schoolboy that Earth was an overpopulated, smoggy shell of its former self, barely able to feed its population and racked with plagues on a regular basis. Instead, he found a city that, while more crowded than any place Best had ever seen, had clean streets and residents who roamed freely without the aid of facemasks or breathers. Though hardly a paradise, it shattered Best’s illusions that Jefivah might be better off than Earth. He always said that Jefivah lagged behind Earth, but never truly believed it. Now, here was a shining city in a pristine harbor, standing in complete opposition to every justification Best had for staying so long on his native world.

He took the ferry out to Quantonesia, nearly awestruck as he stepped from the boat. The mass of glittering towers could never exist on Jefivah. The capital had barely managed to raise more than a dozen thirty-story buildings. Best quickly lost count of how many towers existed within this five-square-kilometer patch in the middle of Victoria Harbor.

The Compact Security Council operated out of the fiftieth through fifty-fifth floors of the Compact Tower, home to the General Assembly, General Secretary, and the Supreme Court of the Compact. There had been some question as to why the Compact would put its legislature, executive center, and highest court in a single building. Aside from the obvious continuity of government facilities, a general from the Marines had answered the question by pointing out that Earth had not faced any real threats since the war with Mars. And the Compact existed precisely to prevent human worlds from going to war with each other.

The hearing had already begun by the time Best arrived. Yet when he walked in, Luxhomme wasn’t sitting at a table getting interrogated by the Council delegates seated on the dais beneath the giant sunburst symbol of the Compact as expected. No, Luxhomme paced around in front of the dais addressing not the Security Council, but those in the gallery.

“No, ladies and gentlemen,” said Luxhomme, “the fault does not lie with the government of Jefivah or with my employer or even with me. It lies with the Defense Commission of this Compact. They caused this terrible tragedy by failing to remove those weapons from the worlds now known as Barataria, Gallifrey, and Marilyn. They failed the colonists. They failed the people of Jefivah. And tragically, they failed the crew of the Etrusca Explorer.”

The delegate from Mars, one of the “old guard” permanent members of the Council, stood up and jabbed a finger at Luxhomme. “Now just a minute. We generously told our struggling worlds they could colonize the old military reserves for free. All they had to do…”

“All they had to do,” said Luxhomme, whirling on the Martian delegate, “was place into civilian hands weapons we would not entrust to our own planetary forces. Instead of having the military do its duty and remove these dangerous weapons from new civilian worlds, they forced Jefivah to have to contract elsewhere for their removal, lest the military and the Office of Colonial Development shut down their colonies. Jefivah needs food. It needs space to relieve the factional problems that have plagued it since its founding.”

“And JunoCorp needs the backing of a core world to compete with the major genetic customization firms,” said the Martian delegate, his arm shaking more from 1G gravity than rage, though Best was hard-pressed to tell the difference. “Tell it true, Mr. Luxhomme. This is about money.”

“Trade,” said Luxhomme, “is how we are able to move resources, Mr. Roosa. Maybe money does not allegedly exist on Mars, but it is how the majority of Compact members get anything accomplished. Tell me, Mr. Roosa, do you not chair the General Assembly’s Defense Appropriations Committee?”

“Yes,” said Roosa.

Best had to smile at the turn of events. Luxhomme had just successfully made Delegate Roosa the scapegoat for seven missing weapons of mass destruction and for the deaths of the Etrusca Explorer crew. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, Best found First Minister Myra Gillorn sitting behind him.

“I didn’t think you could salvage this situation,” she whispered as Luxhomme began brow-beating the Martian delegate. “If you haven’t taken that teaching position, I’d like to have you come back.”

“I was an elected delegate, Myrna,” said Best. “Don’t you think we should hold an election?”

“The First Minister’s chief of staff is not elected.” She smiled. “Nor do they have to endure approval hearings in the House of Delegates.”

They both turned their attention back to the dais as a new voice chimed in on the exchange between Luxhomme and Roosa.

“I think,” said Xiao Li, the delegate from Tian, “we can agree there were procedural failures in this tragedy. The military does, indeed, have the best protocols for handling such weapons and did not provide the personnel and equipment to do so. Dasarius Interstellar is most likely not equipped to transport such cargo, and using a projection drive ship likely increased the odds that the Etrusca Explorer would get lost with those weapons.”

Luxhomme appeared ready to take back control of the hearing once more when Xiao continued. “I think we can all take comfort that the ship was discovered outside Compact space with no trace of human intervention. While I, for one, will mourn the loss of the crew, the likelihood that those weapons will be used against human worlds is minimal. Madame Chairperson, I move that we shift the focus of our investigation to one of prevention. Let’s allow the Jefivans to grow their new colonies and take their rightful place among the other founding worlds of this Compact.”

To Best’s surprise, Malakar, the Earth delegate, stood up and seconded the motion.

“All those in favor of the motion put forth by the distinguished gentleman from Tian,” said the Chairwoman, “say aye.”

Most of the Council’s twenty delegates said “aye.”

“Opposed?”

Only Roosa said “Nay.” The remaining delegates kept silent.

“Motion carries,” said the Chairwoman. “Delegate Roosa, your committee is hereby tasked with looking into preventive measures for the transport of non-conventional weaponry from military reserves.” She banged the gavel, which surprised Best. Hardly any legislatures used gavels anymore. Some did not even meet in person. “Mr. Luxhomme, thank you for bringing this to our attention. Next, we will discuss a petition by the Assembly Delegate from Metis concerning their colony on Gilead…”

As Best filed out with the other Jefivan presence, the First Minister punched him lightly in the arm. “Welcome back, Doug.”

 

*****

 

Laral Jorl paced the deck watching the blackness of space for…

Well, he expected seven large colony transports, all smooth saucer-like craft, to emerge from projected wormholes. So far, that had not happened. He gazed at the back of his hand, where the live tattoo mocked him with his homeworld’s time. The transports should have arrived over two hours earlier.

“My Lord,” called out one of the technicians, “wormhole opening thirty degrees starboard, eighteen degrees nadir.”

Naturally, the wormhole would be blurred on the display. Almost no primate species Laral knew of could look directly into a wormhole without becoming ill. The Gelt, he lamented, were particularly susceptible to that phenomenon. Even the Warrior Caste had to trust in technology when it was there and look away or shut their eyes like a cub when it wasn’t. The wormhole (or rather, the blurred mask of it) disappeared, leaving behind…

A yacht? The craft that appeared had markings of the Realm but was no larger than an orbital transport. Beanstalks, which moved people and cargo between orbit and the ground on some worlds, had bigger lift compartments.

“Where are the colonists?” asked Laral.

“Message coming through,” said the technician. “It is Lady Shorees from Council.”

The name made Laral smile. Shorees had once commanded this very vessel for him. A cone of light appeared at the center of the command deck, Shorees’s slender figure materializing within. “General.”

Laral crossed his arms across his chest and bowed. “My Lady, it is…”

“Council summons you to return to Hanar,” Shorees continued, not even acknowledging his greeting. The hologram flickered. “An heir of the Lattus family has contested your challenge against Lattus Kai. You must answer.”

“But we are about to…”

“Your transports are being held at Essenar until this dispute is resolved,” Shorees continued. “The transport now docking with your vessel is automated. You have one hour to board before it undocks and returns to Hanar.” Shorees’s arm disappeared as she reached for something out of view of her recorder. When it reappeared, it held a scepter every Gelt knew from childhood. “The Sovereign Himself has ordered this. If the transport returns empty or fails to return at all, you will forfeit possession of Essenar, of Hanar, and, quite possibly, your original holdings.” The hologram disappeared.

Blood thudded in Laral’s ears. His temples pounded. “Evart!”

The short, pudgy man whose gray skin showed the purple lines typical of heavy drinkers appeared at his side. “My Lord?”

“I have been summoned by Council. Leave Master Visni in command of the fleet. You go to the surface and take command of our… troops.”

“Shall I setup in the northern city?”

The last thing Laral wanted was Evart using the drones in the northernmost city for target practice.

“I want you in the plains,” said Laral. “Try to keep these dregs from tearing up the place once there are no more Tianese to shoot at. I will be returning to Hanar to resolve an important matter for the Sovereign.”

Evart’s expression brightened at the word “Sovereign.” “Does this mean…”

“It means that Cyal had better be pacified when I return. Otherwise, I will pacify you.” He turned and marched off the command deck.

 

19

 

The heat rose from the tarmac as Laral stepped off the shuttle. The air hit him in the face like a wet blanket. Essenar might have been a rainy, mud-clogged acidic hell, but no one had warned him of Hanar’s oppressive summers, at least where the Tianese had settled.

No honor guard met him. No music played. His own civilian governor made no appearance. Instead, two law enforcers and a short little man in the gray robes of the Legal Caste awaited him.

“General Jorl Laral,” said the little man. “You are required to surrender your sword to these enforcers until further notice.” He glanced at one of the law enforcers. “Take him. Place him under house arrest until Council and the heir arrives.”

“Has anyone pointed out that Lattus Brac already took his share of his family’s inheritance?” asked Laral. “That he forfeited his share of Kai’s estate?”

“I think you know less about your situation than you think, General.” He reached in and withdrew Laral’s sword from its sheath. “Blooded. I take it the most recent blood is that of Lattus Kai? Or did you find someone else who got in your way while at Cyal?”

The enforcers bound him and led him away.

It took him a few moments to realize the enforcers were human.

 

*****

 

They kept him in a slum. Four rooms, a water closet, and no servants. He would have to cook his own food, such as it was.

“These people live like animals,” he said as his guard escorted him inside. “Disgusting apes.”

The guard said nothing. Why would he? He clearly didn’t speak the Mother Tongue. “So they feed you well, ape man?” he said in his unpracticed Tianese. “Where’s your leash?”

The guard thrust his fist into Laral’s face. Then he spat at him. “Butcher.”

It took a second to realize that the alien was not speaking the Mother Tongue, but that degenerate language Laral had extrapolated from several prisoners. It sounded different coming from an angry person. “How…?”

The alien kicked Laral between the legs. He acted surprised that Laral remained standing. “Oh. Right. That’s not where you keep your balls.” He punched Laral in the throat.

For the next ten minutes, Laral felt like he was suffocating.

 

*****

 

Brac finally appeared around sundown. He looked around the shabby settler’s dwelling that now served as Laral’s prison. “Still taking all the prime property for yourself, I see.”

“You realize this challenge will result in your death,” said Laral. “You’ve never been able to handle a sword without hurting yourself.”

Brac moved into the dwelling’s tiny kitchen, not even a room unto itself and helped himself to some Tianese fruit. “Have you tried one of these? The Tianese call them ‘oranges.’ They’re delicious, if a bit acidic.”

Laral grabbed him by the arm. “What is it you want, Brac? You’re lazy, indifferent. To you, High Born status is a burden. Why are you doing this?”

Brac set the orange aside, its juice now leaking out onto the counter, and removed Laral’s hand from his arm. “First of all, don’t touch me. Those humans guarding the door to your house? They know stamping out their colony was your idea. They’ve even forgiven Kai now that they know his heir.”

“How did you achieve this? You’ve never shown the slightest inclination toward leadership.”

That made Brac laugh. “You underestimate me, General. I guess you get to keep your rank. Anyway, you forget. I can talk a High Born daughter out of her dress and into letting me kneel with her all night long.” He flicked his tongue at Laral, an obscene gesture in Gelt culture. “This tongue has tasted the daughters of everyone from the poor dirt farmer praying his creeper weed will cover his field to one of the Sovereign’s nieces.” He stopped as if suddenly lost in thought. “Oh, I forgot to mention, the Sovereign will be presiding over your retrial. Guess you wish you showed my brother more respect now, don’t you?”

“You will not win this challenge, Brac,” said Laral. “You’ll be dead, and I’ll have your estate, your brother’s, and your parents’.”

The smile Brac gave him in return chilled Laral in a way nothing else could, except the words that followed. “I never said I was the heir, Jorl. In fact, that’s what I came by to tell you.” He grabbed the half-eaten fruit and headed out. “Hey, thanks for the orange. I’m hoping we can make a treaty with the humans. I want more of these.” He looked at it. “If not, I hear Metis is pretty nice. They apparently grow these there in vertical farms.” He patted Laral on the shoulder. “Be nice to the humans. Maybe they won’t punch you in the throat again.”

What were hew-maans[_?_]

 

*****

 

“Here’s your knife, butcher.”

The hew-maan taunting Laral sported a weapon of some sort, bluish-black metal with a mechanical trigger and a long tube. Stripped of his armor, Laral decided not to push back against it, puny as it was.

The hew-maan shoved a short sword, nearly a child’s weapon, at him. It was a child’s weapon. Laral recognized his own personal crest on the sheath. “What is this?”

“Hell if I know, butcher,” said the hew-maan. “I only know your own people are mad at you, and some nice lady is giving us our farms back.”

Lady? What lady? Did Brac find a female Warrior to defend his challenge? But then Brac had said he wasn’t the heir in question. Then who…?

Laral dare not let the thought tickling his brain form.

 

*****

 

 

Kai’s challenge had taken place in the square of Hanar’s makeshift main settlement. Not this time. For this challenge, two hew-maans and two Gelt Warriors escorted Laral to one of the saucer-like colony transports that hovered over the plains just outside of what was once the main settlement. What usually served as the transport’s processing center had been cleared into an arena. Thousands of Gelt and a smaller number of hew-maans filled the temporary seats ringing the room. The Gelt stamped their feet and chanted. They did not sound as triumphant as they had a few weeks earlier.

A long makeshift dais had been setup at the far end of the room. Upon it sat Council, nine members on each side with the Sovereign sitting dead center. Laral tried to mask his contempt for the Sovereign. He remembered him when he had a name, when Laral’s own sister cared for the young Heir Apparent, when that little boy cried and sniveled because the bigger kids beat on him. How could such a soft man lead such a hard people?

“Laral,” He said. “You have drawn Council here for a second Confab. This time, you have drawn the Presence Itself.”

“The Presence Itself,” a royal affectation dating back millennia, always annoyed Laral. The Sovereign seemed to relish it.

Under a holo projector’s cone of light, an image of the Tianese man known as Marq appeared.

“Tell me,” said the Sovereign, “who is this man?”

“He is Marq Katergarus,” said Laral neutrally. “He is from Juno.”

“Juno is not a world,” said the Sovereign Consort. She did not sit with her husband, or rather Her Husband, because she herself represented the Scholar Caste on Council. “Juno is merely an entity, of what kind no one here is entirely sure.”

“Tell me, General,” said Fulsaad, leader of the Medical Caste, “do you know what happens to an indentured servant when his or her Master takes that servant into space where the authority does not recognize our system of servitude?”

“Why should I care?” asked Laral.

“We remind thee that thou art the defendant,” said the Sovereign in the Archaic Tongue. “Thou wilt answer questions as put to thee.”

The woman translating what was said for the hew-maans sounded strange babbling in their language. It almost distracted Laral from the moment at hand.

“I have never had to concern myself with that issue,” said Laral. “I do not permit my indentureds to leave Realm space.”

“And yet,” said Brac, emerging from an entrance near the dais and strolling toward Laral, “you said before this very Council that you considered my brother’s concubine your property.”

“Wherever she is,” said Laral, “she belongs to me. And she is my property.”

“Even if Kai placed her in custody of the human Katergarus?” asked Fulsaad. “And sent her to Metis as Katergarus’s possession?”

Brac wore that smirk of his, the one that told the worlds that he was rich and drunken and idle and no one could do a damned thing about it. “The humans do not recognize indenture. Slavery, they call it. They’re quite self-righteous about it, actually. I understand even those who find a way around the ban get a bit pious about it.”

As the translation finished for the humans, the crowd on that side of the room broke into laughter.

“Prove this,” said Laral. “Show me the deed.”

Another cone of light appeared from the holographic array above, almost lighting up Laral as well. In front of his face hung the image of a document outlining Tishla’s agreement to submit to become Kai’s property in exchange for her education, the chain of ownership that led to the hew-maan Marq, and an electronically-added addendum nullifying the deed as Marq Katergarus took her to a planet called Metis.

“Are we sure this deed was nullified before my challenge?”

“I am more than sure.” This voice was female. And familiar.

Tishla, dressed almost like a female Warrior but stopping just shy of usurping the garb of the Warrior Caste, emerged from the entrance opposite where Brac had entered. She carried a sword.

Lattus Kai’s sword.

“I am Lattus Tishla. I agreed to become Lattus Kai’s concubine and bear him a child in exchange for my honors in genetics.” She turned to the dais, crossed her left arm across her chest, and bowed to the Sovereign. “Our Master, if it pleases Thee, the conditions for my Freedom and my obligation to Master Kai have both been met. By giving me to…” She pointed at the hologram of Marq Katergarus. “… That and sending me with him to the entity known as the Compact, I have been Freed. However, before this happened, Kai knelt with me every day.” She smiled. “Several times a day he tasted me when my fertility peaked. As a result, he sent me away pregnant. I carry his twins.”

For the first time since he was a squire undergoing his first trials to become a Warrior, Laral Jorl felt real fear. “How do we know the hew-maan Katergarus did not get her pregnant?”

The translator had barely finished repeating Laral’s words when the hew-maans groaned. One even shouted, “Seriously? They don’t teach biology on your planet?” That, in turn, caused a ripple of laughter from the Gelt side of the room.

Unfortunately, it also brought a couple of laughs from the dais.

The Sovereign rapped on the table before him. “Silence.” He repeated this in the hew-maan language. “General Laral, as you can see, there have been some changes on Hanar in your brief time at Cyal. The surviving humans here have been integrated into this world. You are not only in the custody of the House of Lattus but of these aliens themselves. Who told you this world was not a legal colony under our laws or the humans’?”

Laral pointed to Katergarus’s hologram. “That one. He assured us that…”

“Both you and Lattus Kai have been exceedingly stupid. Kai I can understand. He was given a water-logged acidic bath for his first possession, and the Lattus family does not have the expertise nor the inclination to create a mining colony. However, you, General, knew better. You took the word of an alien whose species we were barely aware of only three turns ago, and instigated a military operation. Hence, if Lady Tishla, the true heir to the House of Lattus, is willing, We will place this planet under her protection. You will cede ten thousand troops of her choosing to serve as this protectorate’s defense…”

“Protectorate? Those people were conquered. We should have exterminated the-…” He stopped when the translator said the hew-maan word for “exterminated.” Were it not for the Warriors ringing the room between the crowds and Laral, Tishla, and Brac, the hew-maans might have charged him.

“Lady Tishla,” said the Sovereign. “The choice is yours. You may continue your challenge against General Laral, or you may agree to cede Hanar and Cyal to him.”

“I press my challenge, my Sovereign.”

“You expect me to carve up this child, this pregnant child, with a boy’s knife?” asked Laral. “I’d win my challenge only to become a pariah.”

“Maybe you should quit lusting after your friends’ concubines,” said Brac.

“Silence,” said the Sovereign. “General, your challenge against Lattus Kai has been lawfully contested by his heir.”

She is property!

“Not under the laws of indenture. Now, accept Lady Tishla’s challenge, or forfeit all your holdings.”

Laral felt himself deflate, his shoulders and head sagging. “I accept the challenge.” He looked up and glared at Tishla. “It will be a pleasure to butcher you, little girl.”

“Lady Tishla,” said Hereesh, an admiral who once served as Laral’s squire, “the laws of the Warrior Caste do not allow General Laral to do battle with a pregnant woman. Do you have a champion to stand in your place?”

“I have selected,” said Tishla, “and he has consented. I choose Laral Umish.”

“My oldest son?” Laral hated everyone in the room.

 

*****

 

Laral returned to the dwelling where they had held him to find it dark. The place disgusted him, a hew-maan dwelling. He refused to say, even silently, the name of the Tianese properly. He could still smell their stench everywhere in the “house.”

What a joke, calling this a house. It barely qualified as a peasant’s shack. And yet these hew-maans had clung to them so fiercely, Brac and Tishla gave some of them back. What was that little whore up to?

A knock came, and a hew-maan guard entered, escorted by a Gelt enforcer. “This,” the hew-maan said, not even bothering to attempt the Mother Tongue, “came for you on the last transport.” He held up a small device and rubbed his thumb across the surface of it. The back of Laral’s hand tingled indicating a new message received by the chip in his wrist. “Whoever sent the message also sent you a package.”

Laral gazed at the hew-maan, bile rising in his throat. After I refute the claim, I’m going to make sure an accident happens to you vermin on your “safe passage” to Metis, the Sovereign be damned.

The Gelt enforcer handed him a small box. The enforcer crossed his fists over his chest and bowed. “Sire.”

Not even “My Lord.” Laral decided he would kidnap Tishla when all this died down and put her to her proper use. In the meantime, Laral returned the salute, not even making eye contact with the hew-maan. “Dismissed.”

When the guards left, Laral fingered the back of his hand, expected the nano-tattoo to render a text or a video message there. Instead, the lights darkened in the house’s main room as a cone of light appeared from the holo projector. The image of Umish appeared within.

“Father,” he said. “By now you know I have agreed to stand in Lady Tishla’s place. I have sent this message to tell you why.”

Looking into Umish’s face was like looking a mirror of his younger self. Like Umish, Laral once shaved off all his hair. He also had sported the facial tattoos of the Sovereign’s Elite. Having them removed upon attaining his Third Degree in the Warrior Caste had been a rite of passage. Would Umish survive long enough to undergo the process?

“I have seen the original agreement you made with Lattus Kai,” said Umish. “You agreed to accept Essenar as payment for the worlds now known as Hanar and Cyal. The contracts were binding, and breaking them is a Blood Crime.”

They were not. Umish had a lot to learn about the real rules between Castes. If he survived tomorrow…

“You have brought shame upon the family and the Caste,” said Umish, now snarling like a young Warrior hunting his prey. “To allow you to live without answering for it is to allow our shame to continue. So, father, before The Sovereign, before Council, either I will kill you in honorable combat, or I will deny you an heir.”

Tishla would pay for killing Laral’s son, using his very own hand as the weapon.

“There is, however, an alternative, father. You will find it in the package I’ve sent along. Until we meet in combat, farewell.” Umish did not even salute before the hologram faded.

Laral opened the package sent along with the hologram. Inside lay a shock pistol, a common sidearm among some of the Realm’s lesser troops. It was an odd weapon, even for the Gelt. One shot would be nonlethal, but successive shots in short order became more powerful. On Gelt Warriors, three or four shots would rupture most of the internal organs. Unless…

Suicide stories among conscripts and peasant troops frequently featured someone putting a cold shock pistol into one’s mouth and firing. The contained energy, even at nonlethal levels, would cause the brain to swell up and explode the skull. Laral had never seen it, but he knew some of the stories were true.

A slip of the fibrous paper the hew-maans favored lay at the bottom of the box. Someone had written a note in a clumsy attempt at the written version of the Mother Tongue.

Laral,

I cannot imagine what you must be going through. Tomorrow, you will either be dead or a pariah, having murdered your own son over a silly pregnant girl. I can’t imagine how you will face your Sovereign if you survive. So I got you something that might help.

When I brought you the original tuber, I said only the first one was free. That’s just good business among my people. However, there are exceptions. Please accept this gift. I heard this was your favorite model.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Marq Katergarus

Laral examined the shock pistol. It had a full charge.

They found his headless body the next morning.

 

*****

 

Douglas Best, chief of staff to the First Minister of Jefivah, watched as the parade marched through Capitol Square. Most of the participants were Marilynists. Most of the floats had Blessed Mother themes. A few protestors had taken up station here and there along the route, various Abrahamists complaining about the Marilynists’ use of the title “Blessed Mother” for their goddess, a few atheists complaining about religion in general. Unlike the riots that followed the Compact’s threat to shut down the new colonies, these protests resembled outdoor parties for sporting events.

Best wished he could enjoy the parade with the same detachment he had watching Settlers’ Day parades and welcomes for various notables. Unfortunately, each Marilynist group in the parade turned and saluted him as “the Prophet.” He tolerated the title, but he would never accept it.

“I heard you turned down the governorship of Marilyn,” said the Grand Dimaj, standing up on the platform with Best as a guest of the First Minister. “You could have been set for life.”

“To govern a desert,” said Best, “for a faith I don’t believe in? I don’t think so. Besides, your method of baptism requires me to cheat on my wife.”

“Too bad,” said the Grand Dimaj. “Because those people down there believe in you.”

Best grinned. “Most of them are going to Marilyn. Let them create myths about me. It’s what they really want anyway.”

“Your loss.”

“But not yours.”

The Grand Dimaj simply stared back at Best with arched brows.

“I know you asked for the governorship of Marilyn,” said Best. “I can’t say that I approve. It’ll make Marilyn a virtual theocracy. But these are your people. They won’t listen to a secular governor, not even me.”

“You’re too cynical, Douglas.” The Dimaj moved away.

Best hoped it was the last time he would have to speak to the charlatan. He doubted it was.

As the parade ended, Best’s palm tingled. He looked down to see a secured text message from Jefivah’s militia commander. He leaned in toward Myrna Gillorn and said, “There’s a projection drive ship trying to land at the spaceport. It’s from Amargosa The captain demands contact with the government. Apparently, something has happened there.”

“That’s a Mars colony, isn’t it?” asked Myrna.

“Last I heard.”

“Go. Be my representative. Find out what’s going on. I’ll send a hyperpacket to Mars as soon as I have your report.”

Best nodded to one of the body guards and started his way off the platform.

 

*****

 

Black marks from energy blasts had pockmarked the ship at some point before arriving at Jefivah. Miraculously, the two projectors at either end of the ship appeared intact. They had to be. The ship could not have generated its own wormhole otherwise.

Best arrived just as it landed. Some of its thrusters were firing sporadically, causing the ship to wobble as it descended to the tarmac. Soldiers and medics swarmed the vessel as it came to rest, while ground crews rushed emergency debarkation gear into place.

Those who came off the ship, escorted by medics or one or two soldiers, had a glazed, faraway look in their eyes. Best noticed the entire aft of the ship had been blackened despite the trailing projector dish remaining intact and metallic white. He guessed that the energy that kept the wormhole from collapsing behind the ship blew off any carbonization. But what, he wondered, would blacken so much of a ship’s hull like that?

Only one person coming off the vessel did not have that distant look in his eyes. He was doing his best to look as stunned as his counterparts, but Best recognized that infuriating smile despite the wearer’s best efforts to hide it. Luxhomme’s mouth did display it, but those eyes of his did. What did you do? Best asked silently.

Luxhomme looked around the terminal as a soldier escorted him inside. He feigned surprise – or maybe he truly was surprised – when he spotted Best. “Douglas.”

He rushed over to Best only to be stopped by one of the First Minister’s body guards assigned to her chief of staff.

“It’s okay,” said Best. “I want to talk to him anyway.”

“Alone,” said Luxhomme. “Trust me. You want to talk to me alone.”

Best whispered something to the soldier before dismissing him. When the agent asked if Best was sure, he said, “Stay right outside. If this takes longer than five minutes, both of you come inside.” He grabbed Luxhomme by the arm and led him to a room off the boarding gate. Once they were alone, he said, “What happened on Amargosa?”

Luxhomme’s stupid smile still lurked in his eyes. “Last night… I guess it was night here, too. Anyway, Amargosa’s hypergate exploded.”

“Hypergates don’t explode,” said Best. “Especially primitive ones like colonial gates.”

“Well, this one did,” said Luxhomme. “And since Amargosa has only the one gate, it’s been effectively cut off from the rest of humanity.”

Best realized the same thing had happened to the Metisian colony of Gilead a few weeks earlier, weeks during which Luxhomme had managed to get Mars’s delegate to the Compact General Assembly recalled. “What were you doing on a Mars colony?”

“Discussing with the governor the possibility of allowing JunoCorp to improve its crop yields. The loss of Gilead has already put a big dent in the Compact’s food supply.”

Best frowned. Earth and some of the older core worlds, even Jefivah, had vertical farms in the cities and kelp ranges in some of their oceans to stave off a famine. Even so, it still left the more pressing question unanswered. “Why is your ship blasted all to hell?”

“Alien race,” said Luxhomme. “Primates like us. Gray-skinned, though not like the Grays. More like us, maybe taller, or so I’ve heard. They started prowling the countryside and burning farms. They dropped a nuke on Lansdorp, the capital. My guess is they were throwing sand in the colony’s eyes so they couldn’t fight back.”

Just like with Gilead, or some had speculated anyway. Two colonies in one month. Had war come to the Compact? And would the core worlds realize it before it was too late?

Of course they couldn’t fight back, thought Best. When Jefivah, a full member of the Compact, had to beg and plead for military resources, there was no way even the colonies of the wealthier worlds would be protected. It was simple. Colonists did not vote, which made them disposable in the face of an alien threat. “This wouldn’t have been a laser fusion device, would it?”

Luxhomme shrugged, once again betraying the falseness of the gesture with his eyes. “Douglas, how would I know? I barely got off that planet alive. If the ship I was on wasn’t hardened for deep space, the mushroom cloud would have destroyed it.”

“I see.”

Luxhomme clapped him on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Douglas. There’s a silver lining in this tragedy.”

“Oh?”

“With two major food-producing colonies out of commission, the Compact will have to turn to newer colonies. Such as Marilyn.”

Best suddenly felt cold. “You know this because Juno is handling the crop customizations for Marilyn, Gallifrey, and Baritaria.”

“I know that any prosperity on Marilyn will be attributed to the prophet who made the Marilynists’ new homeworld possible.” Now Luxhomme let that stupid little smile of his bloom. “How’s it feel to be a hero, Douglas?”

Best did not bother to explain to his body guards why he had punched Luxhomme in the jaw.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

First off, I must thank the incredibly talented Stacy Robinson for editing this novella and helping me find logical points to divide it into chapters. Stacy wasn’t used to working in science fiction, but she is now Tishla’s biggest fan and the reason a Tishla novella is in the works.

 

I also must thank Jennette Marie Powell for advice on creating the covers. I could pay for editing or cover art, but not both. Jen, who’s been a solid friend for more years than either of us will admit, gave me great guidance. So while the first episode cover wasn’t spectacular, she got me moving in the direction for the covers that followed. And Jen is responsible for the great covers that adorn all but two of the Jim Winter novels and collections and the brains behind the concept I used for Gypsy’s Kiss. Thank you, Jen. You are, as our friend Athena says, amaze-balls!

 

THANK YOU FOR READING THE FIRST ONE’S FREE!

 

The First One’s Free is the debut of The Compact Universe Series created by TS Hottle. You can find out more about this series by following his blog at http://tshottle.com

 

You can also sign up for his newsletter at http://eepurl.com/bn4Gm9

 

LIKE IT? REVIEW IT AT http://tshottle.com/tfof_full

 

 

[G
IMME SHELTER]

 

Gimme Shelter is second novella of The Compact Universe and moves the action to Amargosa, an agrarian colony that finds itself on the frontlines of a war the Compact is unaware it’s fighting.

 

Meet JT Austin, the spoiled teenage son of a CEO and an admiral. When JT’s parents decide to send him to military school, he decides to run away to Tian, humanity’s cultural homeworld. Instead, he winds up stranded on Amargosa under the suspicion of a local constable and in the sights of his lovely daughter.

 

Meet Lucius Kray, himself a constable. Kray misses his glory days in the Compact’s Polygamy Wars and believes they’ll happen again. When Marcus Leitman appears making one of his infamous deals, Kray can’t say no. Leitman offers to arm Kray’s volunteers and more if only Kray will look the other way as his people plant an unlicensed GMO.

 

Get Gimme Shelter at http://tshottle.com/gimme_shelter

 

HEADSPACE

 

“Headspace” is a Compact Universe short story. Rafe is a grad student about to break one of humanity’s oldest taboos: Making his artificial intelligence smart. Terrorists want his work. The government wants to weaponize it. Rafe just wants to impress a girl.

 

“Headspace” is free and available only to subscribers of the Compact Universe Newsletter. Sign up today to get “Headspace” and be the first to know about new Compact Universe stories and to have a chance at free review copies. The Compact Universe Newsletter is at http://eepurl.com/bn4Gm9

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

TS Hottle is a software developer from Cincinnati who wanted to write Star Trek episodes growing up. Since they wouldn’t let him, he decided to make up his own. He lives suburban Reading, Ohio.

 

Find out more about TS at http://www.tshottle.com where you can also learn more about the Compact Universe series and read about whatever he thinks people will listen to him talk about.

 

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The First One's Free

Meet Kai… Governor of a prison planet, he’s got a major food problem. The ecology is poisonous to his people, and the food processing plants are destroyed. Then along comes a strange alien named Marq, who says an ugly little root can solve all his problems. Meet Douglas Best… Best may have solved his people’s food problem. He’s found three planets his backwater world can use as colonies. And all he has to do is remove the nuclear weapons the Compact has stashed there. When seven of them go missing, though, his only hope of avoiding prison is a cult devoted to their goddess, an ancient sex symbol named Marilyn Monroe. Meet Tishla… Kai’s childhood friend, concubine, and closest confidant. Tishla becomes a pawn in a game where her people may have been conned into a war with the alien Marq’s species. The First One’s Free is the first chapter of The Compact Universe, an epic look at humanity’s future.

  • Author: TS Hottle
  • Published: 2016-01-27 03:20:10
  • Words: 37175
The First One's Free The First One's Free