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Festina said that was normal.

We landed on the edge of the Hollen Marsh, within spitting distance of where my evac module had splashed down weeks earlier. Night was falling on this part of the planet — a soft summery dusk, filled with the rich smells of humus and growing vegetables.

The Mandasars were with us, of course; but they made a big show of hurrying off to their home "to give the humes some privacy." Counselor and the rest still devoutly believed a human man and woman would nuzzle up to each other the instant they were left alone… and as soon as the Mandasars reached their domes, they settled down to watch in eager anticipation.

"Um," said Festina with a smile. "Are you ready for this, Your Majesty?"

"I thought Explorers called each other by name, not title."

"King Edward the First," she suggested. "Supreme Monarch of Celestia."

"Don’t say things like that!" I shuddered. "The government is scared enough of me as it is."

"Scared is good," Festina replied. "They deserve it."

For the past two days, our ship had sat in orbit while Festina argued with Celestian officials about whether I should be allowed to land. They had the idea I might be some fanatic rebel leader, who intended to organize ten million Mandasars into crazed revolt. They had a point: word was starting to leak out, what Sam and my dad had done, so it wasn’t too surprising folks would mistrust someone from the same family.

But Celestia didn’t have much choice. Any day now, a whole passle of journalists in the Technocracy (and the Divian Spread, and the Fasskister Union, and heaven knows where else) were going to receive a communique from High Queen Innocence I of Troyen, giving precise details of the heinous acts committed by a Technocracy admiral against the Mandasar people. As of that moment, Mandasars would become a Big Important Cause at breakfast tables and in boardrooms throughout the galaxy.

Festina told Celestia it was very, very important for their government to come down on the right side of the issue. Take all those factories, for example — the ones that cheerfully used Mandasar workers kidnapped by recruiters. Real soon now, the people who owned those factories would find it colossally unpopular for them to have brainwashed Mandasars on the assembly line. They’d be facing boycotts, protests, and much worse, disquieted stockholders who found themselves unwelcome at the usual cocktail parties. Would these rich owners take the blame themselves? No. They’d point their fingers at the Celestian government, and say, "Hey, you told us those lobsters were happy!"

Also: how would it look if Celestia refused to allow the official ambassador from Troyen — namely, me — to land on the planet and try to set things right? That was a solid-gold guarantee that ten million Mandasars would whip themselves into crazed revolt. It was also a guarantee the irresponsible rich who usually vacationed on Celestia would give the planet a miss this year; they didn’t mind if Celestia was the home of sleazeball profiteers, but heaven forbid it should ever be considered unenlightened, or worse, unfashionable.

So in the end, the Celestian government gave in: promised to close down recruitment operations, help rehabilitate brainwashed Mandasars by bringing them back into mixed-caste hives, and recognize me as a sort of a kind of a spokesman for all Mandasars on the planet. Not a king — they didn’t want that, and neither did I — but it was okay me being a guy who asked Mandasars what they thought, then passed the word to everybody else.

"Well," Festina said, looking at the purple twilight rather than me, "if you’re all right here, I should head back to Jacaranda. The Celestian authorities are supposedly fixing the recruiter problem even as we speak, but someone has to keep an eye on them."

"Shouldn’t I help you?" I asked.

"Nah," she told me, "watchdogging planetary governments is my job. You just look after your own people."

She’d said the same things up in the ship — couldn’t stay long, work to do, no need for me to help. Yet she’d still come to see me safely down on Celestia.

Maybe she just didn’t want to say good-bye with Prope watching. Festina longed to nail the captain with a few good punches for marooning us on Troyen; but since Prope had been following my orders, decking her wouldn’t be fair. Instead, Festina gave Prope the cold shoulder and spent all her time with me. That probably hurt Prope way more than a simple whack in the jaw — the captain was always staring at us venomously, as if it pierced her to the heart that I’d chosen Festina over her.

Prope obviously believed Festina and I were up to something steamy. But we weren’t: we just talked. About the responsibilities of power, and the ways of power, and the limitations of power. A crash course in galactic politics, and a whole lot of reminders not to see people as children who needed Daddy’s help.

I think hive-queens have a gene that makes them go all condescending about their subjects. Now I had that gene too… but Festina did her best to help me get over it. Never once did we talk of judo mats. Never once, in all our trip back from Troyen, did we touch each other.

I’d been afraid my pheromones would start acting up and make her go all crazy against her will.

I don’t know what Festina was afraid of.

"Okay," she murmured in the Celestian twilight. "Time to go." She stepped toward me, and just for a moment, she looked straight up into my eyes. Then she rose on tiptoe and kissed me on the cheek.

I couldn’t help remembering that woman back on Willow, the one pretending to be Lieutenant Admiral Ramos. It made me kind of wistful that the real Festina wasn’t the one who kissed me on the lips.

But that was just me, being stupid.


Why the League of Peoples?

I’ve seen too many science fiction universes where humans are important.

If life is common in our universe, a lot of alien species must be way ahead of human technology. After all, plenty of star systems are billions of years older than ours; if planets in those systems had evolution working on a similar time-scale to Earth, they could have produced intelligent species whose technology is a billion years better than ours.

That’s one heck of a headstart.

So I imagined a universe in which humans are hopelessly outclassed by thousands of alien species, some of whom had FTL travel back when our ancestors were hamster-like things trying not to get stepped on by dinosaurs. However, I didn’t want humans in my stories to be downtrodden slaves of bug-eyed monsters with superior technology; it seemed more likely that highly advanced aliens just wouldn’t care about humans. They definitely wouldn’t want to govern us — we humans don’t want to govern earthworms, do we?

Therefore, all my books have started with the League of Peoples: an alliance of super-powerful aliens who are happy to let us humans (and other such primitive species) do whatever we like… provided we don’t cause trouble. Specifically, the League doesn’t want homicidal creatures leaving their home star systems and traveling elsewhere — that’s like letting a disease spread. If you do have murder in mind and you try interstellar travel, the League infallibly executes you the second you "cross the line" from one star system to the next.

This ever-present threat has influenced much of the action in my first three novels, but oddly enough, the League never directly killed anyone in those books. That all changes in the fourth book, Hunted. The League executes almost everybody on a navy starship, and the single human survivor has to find out why.