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That was an ultrasimplified version of the Fasskister language, one they used on products they shipped to other races. I said, "That proves Sam had some side deals going with the Fasskisters."

"We already knew that," Festina told me. "Your sister must have had her black ship running regular shuttles between here and the Fasskister orbital. Remember how that Fasskister took one look at you and announced you were definitely not nice? He was confusing you with Clone Boy back on the parapet… who no doubt acts like an utter bastard, no matter where he goes."

"Christ," Tobit muttered, "have we drawn up a diagram, who’s been conspiring with whom?"

"Everybody with everybody else," Festina answered, "and everybody against everybody else. Secret alliances, secret betrayals, secret quid pro quo. Sam probably told the Fasskisters she was working to kill all the Mandasar queens, and they were happy to help her… especially since she and her precious Daddy had cash to pay for whatever was needed. Given how Fasskisters feel about monarchy, they’ll probably be pissed when they hear Sam was using them as pawns to make herself queen."

"With luck, they’ll never know," said a new voice. My own. Only it came from the clear-chested man up on the parapet.

He and Dade were standing side by side, both holding stun-pistols.



Festina dived through the hole in the glass cube’s roof I a split second before the stun-pistols fired. Soft, soft whirring sounds… but Plebon and Zeeleepull crumpled, followed by the other Mandasars. Even Kaisho slumped in her hoverchair. As for Festina, the rope Tobit had climbed down was still dangling in place; she grabbed it as she fell and swung wildly as she braked herself to a stop. When she let go at the bottom, the gloves of her tightsuit gave off tiny wisps of smoke from rope burn.

"God damn it," she growled as she jumped down beside me, "I’m getting really pissed at people sneaking up behind my back."

Tobit was looking out the side of the cube, to where Dade and my father-son-twin stood on the parapet. "You fucking little weasel!" Tobit yelled at Dade. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?" "Helping me," Clear Chest answered. "Who do you think arranged for Dade to be assigned to Jacaranda? If Vincence could plant a spy on my Willow, I could plant one on his ship too."

"Shit," Festina muttered. "And I told Dade to guard the clone: a job I thought he couldn’t screw up."

By now she had her own stunner out of its holster. She couldn’t shoot out through the glass, and the others couldn’t shoot in; but there was always that big opening in the cube’s roof. If Dade and my father shot down through the hole, they could stun us like fish in a barrel — provided Festina didn’t stun them first.

Things were shaping up into another standoff… except that Dad and Dade had a whole bunch of hostages: the Mandasars, Plebon, and Kaisho. Those of us in the cube didn’t have any matching leverage.

And Dad knew it.

He lifted his foot and rested it on Plebon’s unconscious face. "Come on out," Dad yelled at us. "Or I’ll prove this bastard can look even worse than he does."

I tried not to picture the damage my father could do, stepping forward with all his weight: his heel breaking what little jaw Plebon had, then crushing up into the roof of the Explorer’s mouth, teeth snapping off and driving up into the brain…

"Don’t you dare!" Festina called in an angry voice. "Hurting that man would be a blatantly non-sentient act—"

"So what?" Dad snapped back. "I am non-sentient, Ramos. Haven’t you figured that out yet? I’m not just the man you see here. I’m also the man who tried to kill you on Celestia. And the one who sent the entire crew of Willow to their deaths."

"Knowingly?" Festina asked.

"Hell yes, knowingly," Dad answered. "Samantha was having a bitch of a time with Queen Temperance. The way Temperance had fortified the palace, it might have taken months to capture the place by siege. So I sent Willow to remove Temperance from the picture. Offer her free passage to Celestia."

"But Temperance didn’t want it," I said. "Did she, Dad?"

He looked at me in surprise. "How did you know?"

"Because queens aren’t stupid," I told him. "She knew exactly what would happen if she headed for Celestia — the League would kill her as soon as she crossed the line. So what was Willow’s second offer, Dad? Something to do with the Fasskister orbital?"

My father did a double take. "Either you’re amazingly well informed," Dad said, "or you’ve developed an idiot savant gift for lucky guesses. Yes," he said, nodding, "something to do with the orbital. Only it was the queen’s own idea. She sent those goody-goody Explorers out of the room, then offered Willow’s captain a deal. Temperance wanted to meet with the Fasskisters… supposedly to make peace with them, in the hopes they’d start helping her instead of Samantha."

Um. On the orbital, the Fasskister never mentioned that last part to us… but then, if he thought I was actually my father, he might want to keep the queen’s proposition a secret.

"Of course," Dad went on, "what Temperance really wanted was to infect the orbital with those damned Balrog spores… but Willow’s captain didn’t know that. His orders were to get Temperance off the planet any way he could, so he just went along. Unfortunately, the queen got to the orbital, stayed barely an hour, then demanded to be taken back to Troyen. Once she’d escaped from the siege at Unshummin, Temperance wanted to go home, get dropped somewhere far from Samantha’s army, and start building her own forces again."

"Which," Festina said, "was definitely not something you and Sam wanted."

"Definitely not," Dad agreed. "Willow’s captain took the queen back aboard, then locked the hold door on her, and headed for Celestia anyway."

I thought about how Temperance had tried to bash through the wall of the hold. Battering herself bloody, knowing that when Willow crossed the line, the League would execute her for all the people she’d killed during the war. As for the crew who’d basically kidnapped her and dragged her into space against her will… it was pretty clear why the League killed them too. They weren’t such nice people.

But there was still one thing I didn’t understand. I asked, "Why, Dad? Why really? If this was just about making supergrandchildren, you could have done that without bloodshed. Sam didn’t kill Verity till after I’d finished my transformation; at that point, you’d run through your test case, you had all the data… so why murder the queen? And why set up the recruiters, when Celestia has nothing to do with either Troyen or the Technocracy? You could have got your dynasty of superkids without destroying a single life."

Dad took a long time to answer. When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft I almost couldn’t hear him through the glass. "Jetsam," he said, using his cruel old nickname for me, "have you ever really seen the Mandasars in action?"

"What do you mean?"

"I came to Troyen a century ago," he told me, "and even then it was clear Mandasars were special. Stronger than humans… more rationally organized… smarter. Your average gentle scores twenty percent higher than a corresponding Homo sapiens, on all nine intelligence scales. And that was just in peacetime. In war… Christ Almighty, compared to Troyen, the Technocracy is so pathetically weak, I sometimes want to puke. We’re lazy and venal, like Imperial Rome at its most decadent; but the League of Peoples make sure that barbarians never come banging on our gates. That’s a crime against evolution. Mandasar society is the most efficient war machine I’ve ever seen, and it’s a travesty they can’t run right over us."