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"Good point," Tobit said. "Get ready to pound the crap out of anyone who doesn’t look like our kind of people."

Ten seconds later, a Sperm-tail stabbed from the sky. It happened almost too fast to see — one moment there was nothing, and the next there was a fluttering milky tube, stretching up into the clouds. Its end lay draped across the little anchor box, like a glittery white sock laid over a footstool. Festina and Tobit lifted their fists into fighting stance and positioned themselves around the tube. I joined them, all the while hoping I wouldn’t have to hit anyone. There’d been plenty enough fighting already.

Behind me palace guards were shouting, wondering if they should be worried about the Sperm-tail. A few came our way; others hollered, "Stay at your posts and let Teelu handle it. He’ll call if he needs help."

Let Teelu handle it. Not a healthy attitude, leaving responsibility to someone else. When I became king for real… if I became king for real… if and when I became whatever Queen Innocence thought was best, I’d sure try to get everybody thinking more independently.

A figure shot out of the Sperm-tail — a human wearing a white tightsuit. I waited to see if Festina and Tobit would start punching and kicking; but they only stared for a moment, then Festina leapt forward and threw her arms around the newcomer’s neck. "Ullis!" Festina shouted. "What the hell are you doing here?" She turned to me, a huge smile on her face. "Edward, this is an old, old friend of mine. Ullis Naar."

"Hi," I said… not quite sure if Ullis was a man or a woman. All I could see were a pair of blue eyes blinking behind the tightsuit’s visor.

"You’re Edward York?" Ullis asked. A woman’s voice. "Son of Admiral Alexander York?"

"Um. Yes." I wished people would stop harping on that.

"Then I’m supposed to render you all possible assistance in whatever you’re doing. We have Jacaranda, Tamarack, Bay, and Mountain Ash here in orbit. What are your orders?"

Tobit and Festina looked at me. I looked at them, then at Ullis Naar. "Um," I said, wracking my brain for something to say. A tiny inspiration hit me. "How about starting with a status report?"

"Certainly," she replied. "My ship Tamarack arrived on the outskirts of this system four hours ago. By then, the other three ships were already at their assigned stations. Together, we swooped in on Troyen, where we found Willow and the former Cottonwood in orbit. Willow was in no condition to do anything; Cottonwood gave us a bit of a run, but eventually we caught it with tractors."

She glanced at Festina and gave a rueful chuckle. "The Vac-heads are annoyingly proud of themselves right now. Talking about ‘textbook operations’ and slapping each other on the back. Meanwhile, we Explorers were the ones who had to board the captured vessel. Lucky for us, there were no warriors — just a skeleton crew of gentles, who surrendered without a fight." Ullis lowered her voice. "Poor kids were scared out of their wits: all teenagers, and naive as they come. Scarcely knew Troyen was having a war. Only thing they cared about was their ship… you know the way some kids get, when they can talk for hours about optimizing waste recyclers, but have no idea what day it is."

Tobit grunted. "Sister Samantha probably chose them for that very quality… then kept ’em isolated from the nasty realities of war, so they wouldn’t have blood on their hands. If you’ve got a starship, you want the crew to be sentient, so they won’t die the moment they cross the line. Those kids were likely raised in some sheltered environment where Sam made sure they never had a homicidal thought. And where they lived and breathed spaceships."

"Probably raised on Cottonwood itself," Festina agreed. "Plenty of room up there, and no interference from the war."

I thought about that. "Didn’t Sam use the Cottonwood for making Laughing Larries?"

Tobit shrugged. "Those were built by your clone. The kids wouldn’t have to know what the Larries were — the clone could say they were something harmless… surveillance monitors or weather sensors, something so boring the kids wouldn’t ask questions."

"I would dearly love to know what you’re talking about," Ullis said, "but first, I should see if there’s anything we need to do." She turned to me. "Do you have any orders for us?"

"Um." I whispered to Festina, "Do I have any orders for them?"

"Just get her to explain what’s going on," Festina whispered back. "These ships couldn’t be here now unless they set out for Troyen a week ago." She stopped and turned to Ullis. "Did you say you’re following Alexander York’s orders?"


"And those orders said you’d find Cottonwood and Willow here?"

"That’s right. Jacaranda was supposed to drop off your landing party, then pretend to leave the system. It rendezvoused with the rest of us, and we all came zipping back to catch Cottonwood by surprise."

Festina frowned. "Why would Admiral York want the navy to capture Samantha’s pet starship?"

"Oh," I said. "Um."

I remembered that night ten days ago, when I’d found myself sitting in front of Captain Prope’s terminal. That’s when I noticed someone had used the authorization codes Samantha gave me… and I was beginning to guess what the Smart half of my brain had done.

Issuing orders to Prope. Diverting three other ships to Troyen. Doing it all with my father’s codes… and doing it pretty well, I guess, since it’d come off without a hitch.

Good for me. Or at least for Smart Me. He must have understood what was going on long before I did — that Sam was evil, that she’d made me a king, and she intended to start the last battle as soon as we landed on Troyen — so he’d used my dad’s codes to make sure she wouldn’t get away with it. He’d secretly called in four cruisers to capture Willow and the black ship; not only did that wipe out Sam’s "fleet," it also provided hard evidence that my sister had pirated two navy vessels. The High Council would hit the roof about that… then Sam could forget any perks or concessions she wanted to beg from the Admiralty. She wouldn’t get a cent to rebuild Troyen. Quite possibly, the Technocracy would have imposed all kinds of economic sanctions, and backed them up with a heavy navy blockade. But Smart Me had done more than call in those four ships: he’d arranged with Prope to trap our whole party down on the surface. Why? I guess because he didn’t want us to have the option of running away. Smart Me was no Balrog — he sure couldn’t foresee how we’d save Innocence, or stop Sam and my dad — but he must have had the colossal arrogance to believe he’d set things right somehow. All he had to do was show up, take charge, confront his enemies… and he’d come out on top.

In other words, my brainy half had the same kind of ego as every Mandasar queen since the dawn of time. Like it or not, I was one of them.

If you want the honest truth, that scared me. I didn’t want to become all clever and cunning and cruel. But what was I going to do? Push my smart bits away and keep them choked off somewhere? I’d done that twenty years ago when I’d decided I’d rather be stupid than admit the truth about Sam; and how did that help anybody?

Time to stop hiding. Stupid or smart, it was time for me to be who I was — what I was. And if some parts of me were kind of terrifying… I wasn’t so different from anyone else.

Twelve days later, I rode a Sperm-tail from Jacaranda down to Celestia. No strange flashbacks or conversations with other sides of myself. Just a whole lot of flip-flops in my stomach as I twisted and turned and corkscrewed.