Back in her cabin Simla stripped off and snuggled under the covers of her bunk. Her slim body still burned slightly with Torzil's attentions and she found it difficult to sleep but Shap had taken a position by her door, with his arms folded and his red eyes blazing. It wouldn't be the first time she'd slept with a android in the room, but Shap was different and she felt guilty. Eventually she rolled onto her side and wrapped herself in her own arms.
"You tried to deceive me, mistress" Shap said but she tried to ignore him. "You are not sleeping," he insisted, "I can tell by your breathing."
She kept her eyes closed. "Yes, I tried to deceive you, Shap."
"We could have taken a flyer to Central City from the starport, but you insisted on taking this antiquated ship and making this dangerous voyage. You said it was to absorb local flavour before meeting with the President, but I suspect you wished for romantic experience. Which was it truly, mistress?"
"You make things difficult. I am programmed to protect you, yet you continuously put yourself in harm's way."
"Torzil wasn't going to harm me."
"I am sworn to protect your honour. The extra programming inserted by your father."
"Yes, damn him."
"You are on an important mission, mistress, you should not be distracted."
She turned and sat up. "Who is to say a Serdan Duke would not make a suitable mate for me?"
There seemed to be a note of regret in Shap's voice. "My programming, mistress."
"Damn your programming and damn you. I have rights, I am a human being."
"You are a Princess of Old Earth, mistress. A daughter of the Great Father. Your worth is above rubies."
She threw a pillow at his stoic face. "My worth is shit. I can take no man for husband or lover, because my
Great Father, Derkon, commands it."
"That is not true. You may take husband or lover, but only one that is worthy."
"One you decide is worthy!" she screeched.
"I am programmed with all suitable requirements."
"Apart from sheer goddam fun. A man I can enjoy and have fun with and romp with and love."
"We are all slaves to our programming, mistress." Shap answered sorrowfully.
She subsided, pulling the furs over her again. "I'm going to sleep now."
"Sleep well, mistress."
"Sending you to the bottom of an ocean was only the start, Shap. I'll elude you and get laid, you'll see. "
"You will try, mistress. Your father warned me you would."
"The old bastard!"
The following morning the storm had passed and the barque wallowed in the harbour of Central City. Simla ate a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs before bouncing on deck, ready for the day's trials. Torzil, his arm in a sling, was organising his retinue and their baggage, but the sight of Shap made him step back. He pointed accusingly with his uninjured arm and roared, "That thing should be dismantled! I am a Duke of Serdan and I shall have words with the authorities, trollop."
"Oh, piss off," Simla shouted back at him, the morning air having cooled her passions and decided her that he looked much less attractive in daylight.
"You heard the whore. She insults me. Ship's master, have you no care for your passengers?"
The grizzled old captain, smoking a pipe by the gangplank spat into the froth at the harbour wall. ".And do
Serdan Dukes not fight their own battles no more?" he snarled.
Torzil was affronted. He had two men-at-arms by his side and motioned them forward towards Simla. "Take the baggage, we'll have her before a magistrate. Her and her infernal machine."
The soldiers raised their energy rifles and pointed them towards Simla and Shap immediately stepped in front of her.
"Take her, I say," Torzil insisted.
The soldiers stepped forward hesitantly and Shap's metallic bulk became fluid as he rushed them and sent them sprawling with a sweep of his arm. Torzil retreated behind his serving wenches and squeaked, "Captain!
Captain! This is your responsibility. I'll have your ticket."
"Break his other arm," Simla ordered.
Shap swivelled his head to her. "He is no longer a threat, mistress."
"He never was." She threw her pack over her shoulder and made her way to the gangplank. "Thank you for an interesting trip, Captain."
The old salt made an exaggerated bow. "A pleasure, milady Simla."
Simla strode down the gangplank with Shap at her back and strolled off down the pier.
"Simla?" Torzil cried in wonder, "Princess Simla of Old Earth? And I took her for a street slut."
"Just shows you don't need no brains to be a Serdan Duke," the old Captain growled, refilling his pipe.
As they marched along the pier Shap couldn't resist reinforcing his point to his mistress, "You see now that he was not right for you."
"Yes, Shap, you were right, but I only wanted to have some fun with him , not marry him."
"The one you mate with must be the one and only, a potential husband. You are a daughter of the Great Father, a Princess of..."
"I know, I know, Shap, you don't need to rub it in. Torzil was a clot and I shouldn't have got hot for him, but despite all the Princess shit I still have anormal woman's share of hormones." But as she said it she wondered why she was explaining this to an android.
".And your use of the language is deteriorating the further we get from Old Earth," the machine reprimanded.
"Oh God, you're worse than a maiden aunt."
"Now, your maiden aunts were sluts, according to your father" Shap said loftily.
Simla stopped dead and turned to Shap. "Really?"
"He was in his cups one night and said many indiscreet things."
"He never did like Celi and Kara. Anything else you want to share? A confidence about me, perhaps?"
"It would be inappropriate, mistress."
A long, black, ground-car raced down the pier and pulled up beside them. The driver, in casual civilian clothes, got out and opened the rear door for them. He was a slim man, not much taller than Simla, with a trim haircut and an easy, warm, smile. He was handsome, but it was his movement that intrigued Simla, he had the fluidity of a cat.
He bowed to her and said, "Princess Simla? The President has sent me to collect you."
She pouted. "One ground-car? One driver? For a Princess from Old Earth?"
The driver bowed. "We were informed that you wished to keep your visit low-key. In any case, I am First Minister Alrick of Pendor."
She examined him closely. "What manner of world employs it's First Minister as a driver?"
"A loose world, ma'am, with few pretensions, and a First Minister who has no respect for rules and will do anything to get out of his office. But never fear, the area is surrounded by troops and a fleet of ground-cars awaits around the corner if we have need of them, as befits your status. Please enter and I shall drive you to the Presidential Palace. I haven't driven a ground-car for years, it's quite fun."
His manner was beguiling, so relaxed and unassuming.
"What's your first name, First Minister Alrick?"
"Well, Yaf, call me Simla, I don't like that Princess shit. This is Snap."
"Welcome to Pendor, Simla, we are honoured by your visit. Will Shap travel with us or shall I call a truck?"
"He's my guardian, he never leaves my side."
Yaf Alrick grinned. "Except when you send him deep sea diving." She started and he smiled at her discomfort. "Our security service has, of course, been monitoring you closely since you landed on Pendor."
She nodded, "What an efficient little world you run. You'll know about Duke Torzil's broken arm then. I hope there won't be charges."
"Serdan Dukes only come here to hunt our wild beasts. We tolerate them but they're not very civilised and we wouldn't have them at all if we didn't have such a taste for Serdan wine."
"Good," She threw her pack into the back of the ground-car and clambered in. Shap, not much bigger than his mistress, climbed in behind her, while Yaf took up the driver's position.
Reclining in the luxury of the cabin, Simla looked intently at the small curls of hair that fringed the nape of Yaf's neck and decided they looked cute. "What about this one then?" she whispered to Shap, "Would he be suitable for a Princess of Old Earth?"
Shap did not lower his voice. "He is a First Minister, an elected official and, therefore, unsuitable."
Yaf must have heard them for he twisted from his driver's seat in front of them. "Actually, First Ministers of Pendor train for years just for the right to stand for election. We're not aristocracy but our elections aren't simply a popularity contest."
"But you are not of noble blood, sir?"
Yaf turned back to his driving duties. "Pendor is a democratic meritocracy, friend android. There is no aristocracy here."
"Stop being such a snob, Shap," Simla complained, "every Terran on the Twelve Worlds can claim royal blood if we go far enough back."
"I was referring to the nobility that arose after the galactic spread, mistress."
"Nobility, hah. Industrialists and business magnates with a penchant for fancy titles, that's all they are, pompous little brigands. No, don't argue with me."
The mechanical man seemed to stiffen. "Temporarily or permanently?"
"Both. Hey, Yaf, am I dressed okay for a Presidential audience?"
The First Minister twisted again. "We know little of Old Earth fashion, Simla. If that's how Princesses are dressing this season, it'll do us."
Simla looked down at her red, leather, kilt which reached mid-thigh, her thick tights and suede boots. It wasn't the garb of a princess, but that of an explorer and that suited her.
She stared out of the window at the city and wondered how humans could cross countless light years to alien planets and yet still retain the feel of Old Earth in their surroundings. There was a furniture store, a pharmacy, a barbers, and there would be exactly the same on all the Twelve Worlds. The people, too, walking the streets, were very human, with all the cares and failings of the race. Simla was proud of them, they had achieved so much, and yet she was bringing news that might mean their destruction.
In the Presidential Palace Simla was hurriedly ushered to an audience room where the grey-haired and elderly President of Pendor awaited her. He bowed in the old manner and kissed her hand.
"The First Minister can stay or withdraw, as you wish," the President offered.
Simla took a seat on the divan and beckoned Yaf to join her. "Let him stay. This has much to do with him. Much to do with all Pendorans."
"How is the Great Father?" the President asked politely.
"Pops is fine. Been in post for forty years now and still winks at barmaids."
"As do I, young lady, though my wife disapproves."
The President sat opposite them and a flunkey brought coffee on a tray accompanied by pink confectioneries.
Simla felt the President's clever eyes assessing her.
"So," he said finally, "what brings a Princess of Old Earth halfway across the galaxy to our wild frontier? A
Grand Tour, perhaps? A search for a husband?"
Simla sipped daintily at her coffee. "Nothing so mundane, Lord President. I come by personal command of the Great Father."
"So the transmissions said. But no mention of your purpose. Is something amiss on Old Earth?"
She nodded gravely. "Amiss, aye, and not just with Old Earth. The very future of the Terran race may be threatened."
The president looked startled. "What? Is there plague then?"
Simla put down her cup. "In a way. A plague called the Riaz, an alien species."
The President frowned. "But we've encountered aliens before, the Bron, the Telfa. Primitive, medieval cultures. We leave them in their place and to their own devices."
"The Riaz are different. Intelligent, for a start, perhaps smarter than us. They have space-faring technology. Our probes to the Novi sector encountered them. From what we know they are humanoid, militaristic and expansionist. And they're coming our way."
Yaf slapped his knee. "Damn, it's just like a holo-fiction!"
"It's no fiction," Simla continued. "They destroyed our first probes but then used them to communicate with us. Their words were honeyed, welcoming, they'd met no other intelligent species either and were pleased to make our acquaintance. But then one of our probes escaped their attentions and sent us back information about their true nature. The Riaz are conquerors and killers."
There was a long silent pause as the import of her words sank in.
"Conquerors and killers?" Yaf seemed confused.
"There is no doubt about it," Simla said softly, "They regard themselves as the supreme beings of the universe and the only ones worthy of life."
"We shall stand, we are the sons of Old Earth," The President grunted.
"Scattered across the Twelve Worlds, with no armed forces save the militias of overbearing and self-centred princes? The Riaz are organised, their entire lives are devoted to military conquest; their weaponry far outstrips ours and they have armies by the million."
The President thumped his fist on the table. "We will come together. We shall build weapons, gather armies."
Yaf ignored his diatribe. "So, that is your mission, Simla, to canvass support for our defence? To rouse the descendant of Terra? Surely you could not have doubted that the sons of Old Earth would gather to protect their own."
"There are those who say that we Terrans have lost our drive," Simla replied. "No new planets colonised in 200 years, exploration at a standstill. Are we become moribund, Yaf? That is what the Great Father wished to know."
"The Terrans shall rise," the First Minister said emphatically.
"You think so? What the Great Father feared was that every World would care only for their own interests and defence, instead of bonding together for the common good. This is my second port of call. The first was Coosol. Their Prime Minister asked what drove the Riaz, what they lacked in resources. He was sure the Twelve Worlds could fill that need and satisfy them. We have more than enough, he said."
"Buy them off?"
"But the Riaz don't lack for anything, as far as we can judge, and who knows what drives them. All we know is that they conquer and enslave, a naked lust for power."
"Thank God we have eliminated that," The President mumbled.
Simla heard him and jumped to her feet. "And lost all we were with it. Not a major scientific discovery of any worth in 50 years, not a war fought in 20 ..."
The President held up a finger in disagreement. "Not true, there was the Namel incident!"
Simla grimaced. "A spat! Over the hand of a countess, and a fairly unattractive one at that. Three shots were fired and there were no casualties."
"The Coosol offered nothing then?" Yaf asked softly.
"Less than nothing. They would take the information I brought under advisement."
Yaf tugged at his ear and Simla noticed that he had a deep dimple in his chin. "We are primarily an agricultural world, Simla," he said, "and our army is mainly ceremonial, but our forests swarm with wild animals and we have many skilled hunters. I feel they will make excellent soldiers. We will not be found wanting."
She gave him a wry grin. "I thank you."
"But armies are one thing, and only Old Earth has ship yards to build a fleet."
"They are at work as we speak. Five thousand battle cruisers, one thousand attack destroyers, innumerable troop transports."
Yaf nodded grimly. "We will not desert our brothers and sisters. I place the entire resources of Pendor at the disposal of Old Earth. With your permission, of course, Mr President?"
The old statesman snuffled. "It must go before the Council naturally, but in principle I have no objection."
Simla nodded gratefully, it was the most she had expected. "And now I must on to Jaip."
The President and First Minister sprang to their feet, one much faster than the other, but it was the older one that spoke. "So soon? We have a reception arranged. It's not every day we have a Princess of Old Earth visit." Suddenly Simla felt weary. She ran a hand through her long black hair and sighed. "I was told not to waste time."
"There is no ship to Jaip till tomorrow evening," the First Minister said, consulting his wrist computer. "Why not rest a little, let us entertain you."
She stared through her eyelashes and nodded shyly. "Very well, but I must be on that ship tomorrow. The Riaz will not wait for my amusement."