Use of Weapons | Chapter 11 of 40

Author: Iain M. Banks | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 40899 Views | Add a Review

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Three

Sma suspected a lot of ship crews were crazy. For that matter, she suspected a fair few of the ships themselves weren't totally together in the sanity department, either. There were only twenty people on the very fast picket Xenophobe, and Sma had noticed that - as a general rule - the smaller the crew, the weirder the behaviour. So she was already prepared for the ship's staff being pretty off the wall even before the module entered the ship's hangar.

'Ah-choo!' the young crewman sneezed, covering his nose with one hand while extending the other to Sma as she stepped from the module. Sma jerked her hand back, looking at the young man's red nose and streaming eyes. 'Ais Disgarb, Ms Sma,' the fellow said, blinking and sniffing, and looking hurt, 'Belcome aboard.'

Sma put her hand out again cautiously. The crewman's hand was extremely hot. 'Thank you,' Sma said.

'Skaffen-Amtiskaw,' the drone said from behind her.

'Heddo,' the young man waved at the drone. He took a small piece of cloth from one sleeve and dabbed at his leaky eyes and nose.

'Are you entirely all right?' Sma said.

'Dot really,' he said. 'God a cold. Blease,' he indicated to one side, 'cob with be.'

'A cold,' Sma nodded, falling into step alongside the fellow; he was dressed in a jellaba, as though he'd just got out of bed.

'Yes,' the young man said, leading the way through the Xenophobe's collection of smallcraft, satellites and assorted paraphernalia towards the rear of the hangar. He sneezed again, sniffed. 'Sobthig ob a fad on the shib ad the bow-bid.' (Here Sma, immediately behind the man as they walked between two closely parked modules, turned quickly back to look at Skaffen-Amtiskaw and mouthed the word. 'What?' at it, but the machine wobbled, shrugging. ME NEITHER it printed on its aura field, in letters of grey on a rosy background.) 'Be all tought it'd be abusing to relax our ibude systebs and cadge colds,' the young crewman explained, showing her and the drone into an elevator at one end of the hangar.

'All of you?' Sma said, as the door closed and the elevator rolled and rose. 'The whole crew?'

'Yes, dough dot all ad the sabe tibe. The peebil who've recobered say id's very pleasid abter it's ober.'

'Yes,' Sma said, glancing at the drone, which was keeping a standard pattern of formal blue on its aura field, apart from one large red dot on its side that probably only she could see; it was pulsing rapidly. When she noticed it she almost started laughing herself. She cleared her throat. 'Yes, I suppose it would be.'

The young man sneezed mightily.

'Due for a spot of R-and-R soon, are we?' Skaffen-Amtiskaw asked him. Sma nudged the machine with her elbow.

The young crewman looked puzzledly at the machine. 'Jusd bidished sub, adjilly.'

He glanced away to the elevator door as it started to open, Skaffen-Amtiskaw and Sma exchanged looks; Sma crossed her eyes.

They stepped into a wide social area, floored and walled with some dark red wood, polished to the point of gleaming; it supported a variety of richly upholstered couches and chairs, and a few low tables. The ceiling wasn't particularly high, but very attractive, composed of great flutes of gathered-up material rippling in from the walls and hung with many little lanterns. From the light level, it looked to be early morning, ship time. A group of people round one of the tables broke up and came towards her.

'Biz Sba,' the young crewman said indicating Sma, his voice seeming to get thicker all the time. The other people - about fifty-fifty men and women - smiled, introduced themselves. She nodded, exchanged a few words; the drone said hello.

One of the people in the group held a little bundle of brown and yellow fur, cradled against one shoulder rather as one might hold a baby. 'Here.' the man said, presenting the tiny furry creature to Sma. She took it reluctantly. It was warm, had four limbs arranged conventionally, smelled attractive and wasn't any sort of animal she'd ever seen before; it had large ears on a large head, and as she held it, it opened its huge eyes and looked at her. 'That's the ship,' the man who'd handed her the animal said.

'Hello,' the tiny being squeaked.

Sma looked it up and down. 'You're the Xenophobe?'

'Its representative. The bit you can talk to. You can call me Xeny.' It smiled; it had little round teeth. 'I know most ships just use a drone, but,' it glanced at Skaffen-Amtiskaw, 'they can be a bit boring, don't you think?'

Sma smiled, and sensed Skaffen-Amtiskaw's aura flicker out of the corner of her eye. 'Well, sometimes,' she agreed.

'Oh yes,' the little creature said, nodding. 'I'm much cuter.' It wriggled in her hands, looking happy. 'If you like,' it giggled, 'I'll show you to your cabin, yes?'

'Yes; good idea,' nodded Sma, and put the thing over her shoulder. The crewpeople called out to say they'd see her later as she, the ship's bizarre remote drone and Skaffen-Amtiskaw headed for the accommodation section.

'Ooh, you're nice and warm,' the little brown and yellow creature mumbled sleepily, snuggling into Sma's neck as they headed down a deeply carpeted corridor for Sma's quarters. It stirred and she found herself patting its back. 'Left here,' it said, at a junction, then, That's us just breaking orbit now, by the way.'

'Good,' Sma said.

'Can I cuddle up with you when you sleep?'

Sma stopped, detached the creature from her shoulder with one hand and stared it in the face. 'What?'

'Just for chumminess' sake,' the little thing said, yawning wide and blinking. 'I'm not being rude; it's a good bonding procedure.'

Sma was aware of Skaffen-Amtiskaw glowing red just behind her. She brought the yellow and brown device closer to her face. 'Listen, Xenophobe -'

'Xeny.'

'Xeny; you are a million-tonne starship; a Torturer class Rapid Offensive Unit. Even -'

'But I'm demilitarised!'

'Even without your principal armament, I bet you could waste planets if you wanted to -'

'Aw, come on; any silly GCU can do that!'

'So what is all this shit for?' She shook the furry little remote drone, quite hard. Its teeth chattered.

'It's for a laugh!' it cried. 'Sma; don't you appreciate a joke?'

'I don't know. Do you appreciate being drop-kicked back to the accommodation area?'

'Ooo! What's your problem, lady? Have you got something against small furry animals, or what? Look, Ms Sma; I know very well I'm a ship, and I do everything I'm asked to do - including taking you to this frankly rather fuzzily specified destination - and do it very efficiently, too. If there was the slightest sniff of any real action, and I had to start acting like a warship, this construct in your hands would go lifeless and limp immediately, and I'd battle as ferociously and decisively as I've been trained to. Meanwhile, like my human colleagues, I amuse myself harmlessly. If you really hate my current appearance, all right; I'll change it; I'll be an ordinary drone, or just a disembodied voice, or talk to you through Skaffen-Amtiskaw here, or through your personal terminal. The last thing I want to do is offend a guest.'

Sma pursed her lips. She patted the thing on its head, and sighed. 'Fair enough.'

'I can keep this shape?'

'By all means.'

'Oh goody!' It squirmed with pleasure, then opened its big eyes wide and looked hopefully at her. 'Cuddle?'

'Cuddle.' Sma cuddled it, patted its back.

She turned to see Skaffen-Amtiskaw lying dramatically on its back in mid-air, its aura field flashing the lurid orange that was used to signal Sick Drone in Extreme Distress.


Sma nodded goodbye to the little brown and yellow animal as it waddled away down the corridor which led back to the social area (it waved back with one chubby little paw), then closed the cabin door and made sure the room's internal monitoring was off.

She turned to Skaffen-Amtiskaw. 'How long are we on this ship for?'

'Thirty days?' Skaffen-Amtiskaw suggested.

Sma gritted her teeth and looked round the fairly cosy-looking but - compared to the echoing spaces of the old power station mansion - rather small cabin. 'Thirty days with a crew of viral masochists and a ship that thinks it's a cuddly toy.' She shook her head, sat into the bed field. 'Subjectively, drone, this could be a long trip.' She collapsed back into the bed, muttering.

Skaffen-Amtiskaw decided right now would probably still not be the best time to tell the woman about Zakalwe being missing.

'I'll just go and take a look round, if you don't mind,' it said, drifting towards the door over the neat line of bags that was Sma's luggage.

'Yeah, on you go,' Sma waved one arm lazily, then shucked off the jacket and let it fall to the deck.

The drone had almost made it to the door when Sma sat bolt upright, a frown on her face, and said, 'Wait a minute; what did the ship mean about "... rather fuzzily specified destination"? Doesn't it know where the hell we're going?'

Oh-oh, thought the drone.

It spun in the air. 'Ah,' it said.

Sma's eyes narrowed. 'We are just going to get Zakalwe, aren't we?'

'Yes. Of course.'

'We're not doing anything else?'

'Absolutely not. We find Zakalwe; we brief him; we take him to Voerenhutz. Simple as that. We might be asked to hang around for a bit, overseeing, but that isn't definite yet.'

'Yes, yes, I expected that, but... where exactly is Zakalwe?'

'Where exactly?' The drone said. 'Well, I mean; you know, that's...'

'All right,' Sma said, exasperated, 'approximately, then.'

'No problem,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw said, backing off towards the door.

'No problem?' Sma said, puzzled.

'Yes; no problem. We know that. Where he is.'

'Good,' Sma nodded. 'Well?'

'Well what?'

'Well,' Sma said loudly, 'where is he?'

'Crastalier.'

'Cras...?'

'Crastalier. That's where we're heading.'

Sma shook her head, yawned. 'Never heard of it.' She flopped back in the bed field, stretching. 'Crastalier.' Her yawn deepened; she put a hand to her mouth. 'You only had to say that the first time, goddamit.'

'Sorry,' the drone said.

'Mmm. Never mind.' Sma put out one hand, waved it through the bedside beam that controlled the cabin lights, so that they dimmed. She yawned again. 'Think I'll catch some sleep. Take my boots off, will you?'

Gently but quickly, the drone slipped Sma's boots off, gathered her jacket and hung it in a walk-in cupboard, swept the bags in there too, then - as Sma turned over in the bed field, eyes fluttering closed - the drone slipped out of the room.

It hovered in the air outside, looking at its reflection in the polished wood on the far side of the corridor.

'That,' it said to itself, 'was close.' Then it went for a wander.


Sma had arrived on the Xenophobe just after breakfast, by ship time. When she awoke, it was early afternoon. She was completing her toilet, while the drone sorted her clothes into type and colour order and hung or folded them in the cupboard, when the door chimed. Sma wandered out of the little bathroom area, wearing a pair of shorts, her mouth full of toothpaste. She tried saying Open, but the toothpaste apparently stopped the room monitor from recognising the word. She walked over and pressed the door-open instead.

Sma eye's flicked wide; she yelped, spluttered, jumped back from the door, a scream gathering in her throat.

The instant after her eyes had widened, before the signal to jump back from the door had travelled all the way to her leg muscles, there was an impression of almost invisibly sudden movement in the cabin, belatedly followed by a bang and a sizzling sound.

There, stationed between her and the door, were all three of the drone's knife missiles, hovering roughly level with her eyes, sternum and groin; she was looking at them through a haze of field the machine had also thrown in front of her. Then it clicked off.

The knife missiles swung lazily away through the air and clicked back into Skaffen-Amtiskaw's casing. 'Don't do that to me,' the machine muttered, returning to sorting out Sma's socks.

Sma wiped her mouth and stared at the three-metre tall, brown and yellow coloured furry monster cowering in the corridor outside the door.

'Ship... Xeny, what the hell are you doing?'

'I'm sorry,' the huge creature said, its voice only a little deeper than when it had been baby-sized. 'I thought if you didn't relate to a small furry animal, perhaps a bigger version...'

'Shee-it.' Sma said, shaking her head. 'Come in,' she called, heading back for the bathroom area. 'Or did you just want to show me how much you've grown?' She rinsed out the paste and spat.

Xeny squeezed through the door, stooped, and sidled into a corner. 'Sorry about that, Skaffen-Amtiskaw.'

'No problem,' the other machine replied.

'Ah, no, Ms Sma,' Xeny called. 'I actually wanted to talk to you about...'

Skaffen-Amtiskaw went still, just for a second. There was, in fact, a fairly lengthy, detailed and slightly heated exchange between the drone and the ship's Mind during that time, but Sma was only aware of Xeny pausing as it spoke.

'... about having a fancy-dress party, this evening, in your honour,' the ship improvised.

Sma smiled from the bathroom area, 'That's a lovely idea, ship. Thank you, Xeny. Yes; why not?'

'Good; I just thought I'd check with you, first. Any ideas about costumes?'

Sma laughed. 'Yeah; I'll go as you; make me one of those suits you're wearing.'

'Ha. Yes. Good idea. Actually, that might be rather a common choice, but we'll make it two people can't go as the same thing. Right. I'll talk to you later.' Xeny lumbered from the room and the door slid shut. Sma appeared out from the bathroom area, slightly surprised at this sudden departure, but just shrugged.

'Short but eventful visit,' she observed, rummaging through the socks Skaffen-Amtiskaw had just carefully arranged in chromatic order. 'That machine's weird.'

'What do you expect?' Skaffen-Amtiskaw said. 'It's a star-ship.'

- You might (the ship Mind communicated to Skaffen-Amtiskaw) have told me you were keeping the size of our target destination from her.

- I am hoping (the drone replied) that our people already out there will find the guy we're looking for and give us an exact position, in which case Sma will never need to know there was ever any problem.

- Indeed, but why not just be honest with her in the first place?

- Ha! You don't know Sma!

- Oh. Do I take it she's temperamental?

- What do you expect? She's a human!


The ship prepared a feast, and put as many human-brain-chemistry-altering chemicals into the various dishes and drinks as was normally regarded proper without attaching a specific sanity warning to each bowl, plate, jug or glass. It told the crew about the party, and rearranged the social area, setting up a variety of mirrors and reverser fields (with a total guest list of only twenty-two - not including itself - making the place look suitably crowded was one of the major obstacles it faced in trying to encourage the feel of a serious, thorough-going whoopee).

Sma breakfasted, was shown round the ship - though there was little to see; the ship was almost all engine - and spent most of the rest of the day reviewing her knowledge of the Voerenhutz cluster's history and politics.

The ship sent formal invitations to each of the crew, and specified a strict rule of No Shop Talk. It hoped that this, plus the narcotic wealth of the consumables, would keep everybody off the subject of where exactly they were heading for. It had toyed with the idea of just telling people there was a problem here and asking them not to talk about it, but suspected there were at least two of the crew who would take such a proscription as a challenge to their integrity requiring them to raise the issue at the first possible opportunity. It was on occasions like this that the Xenophobe tended to consider changing its status to that of an unstaffed ship, but it knew it would miss the humans if it did decide to ask them to leave; they were fun to have around, usually.

The ship played loud music, showed exciting screen holos, and set up a fabulous surrounding holo landscape of lush green and blue, filled with floating bushes and hovering trees where strange, eight-winged birds capered and beyond which a glowing white layer of mist plied by tall, feathery cloudships extended to neck-stretchingly tall cliffs of pastel-shaded rock, set about with further small clouds, draped with blue and sparkling gold waterfalls, and topped by fabulous cities of spires and slender bridges. Ship-slaved soligrams of famous historical figures wandered about the party, adding to the illusion of numbers, and were only too happy to engage the disguised revellers in conversation. More treats and surprises were promised for later.

Sma went as Xeny, Skaffen-Amtiskaw as a model of the Xenophobe, and the ship itself produced yet another remote drone; an aquatic one, still brown and yellow, but looking like a rather fat and large-eyed fish, and floating in a field-held metre-diameter sphere of water which drifted through the party-space like some odd balloon.

'Ais Disgarve, who you've met before,' the ship drone said, voice sounding rather bubbly as it introduced Sma to the young man who'd greeted her in the hangar the day before. 'And Jetart Hrine.'

Sma smiled, nodded at Disgarve - making a mental note to stop thinking of him as Disgarb - and the young woman at his side.

'Hello again. How do you do?'

'Heddo,' said Disgarve, dressed as some sort of ancient cold-climate explorer, all swathed in furs.

'Hi,' Jetart Hrine said. She was quite short and round, very young looking, and her skin was so black it was almost blue. She wore some ancient - and surprisingly brightly coloured - military uniform, and sported a smooth-bore projectile rifle slung over one shoulder. She sipped from a glass and said. 'I know there's no shop talk, Ms Sma, but frankly Ais and I have been wondering why our dest -'

'Aah!' the ship drone said, its water sphere suddenly collapsing. Water crashed all around the feet of Sma, Hrine and Disgarve, all of whom jumped back a little. The fish-drone fell to the red wood deck and flapped around. 'Water!' it croaked. Sma picked it up by the tail.

'What happened?' she asked it.

'Field malfunction. Water! Quickly!'

Sma looked at Disgarve and Hrine, both of whom seemed rather bemused. Skaffen-Amtiskaw, in its starship disguise, wound quickly through the party-goers towards them. 'Water!' the ship drone repeated, wriggling.

A frown gathered on Sma's brow, inside the brown and yellow suit. She looked at the woman dressed as a soldier. 'What were you about to say, Ms Hrine?'

'I was - oof!'

A one-in-five-hundred-and-twelfth scale model of the very fast picket Xenophobe thumped into the woman, making her stagger backwards, dropping her glass.

'Hey!' Disgarve said, pushing the offending Skaffen-Amtiskaw away. Hrine looked annoyed, and rubbed her shoulder.

'Sorry; clumsy me!' Skaffen-Amtiskaw said, loudly.

'Water! Water!' yelped the ship drone, struggling in Sma's furry paw.

'Shut up!' Sma told it. She went close to Jetart Hrine, putting her own body between the woman and Skaffen-Amtiskaw. 'Ms Hrine; complete your question, would you?'

'I just wanted to know why...'

The floor shook, the entire landscape around them trembled; light flashed from high above, and as they looked up, they saw the fabulous gleaming cities of the cliff tops far above disappear in vast blooms of light, which slowly faded, leaving falling clouds of debris, crashing towers and disintegrating bridges. The mighty cliffs split asunder and kilometres-high tsunami of seething lava and boiling grey-black clouds of smoke and ash burst out, exploding over the quivering landscape below, where the cloudships were sinking and the eight-winged birds were spinning so fast their wings were coming off, sending them spinning into the blue-green shrubbery in squawking explosions of feathers and leaves.

Jetart Hrine stared in disbelief. Sma grabbed the woman's collar with one paw and shook her. 'It's trying to distract you!' she yelled. She turned to the fish-drone in her other paw. 'Cut it out!' she screamed at it. She shook the woman again, while Disgarve tried to pry her paw away from the woman. Sma shook his hand off. 'What were you trying to say?'

'Why don't we know where we're going?' Hrine shouted into Sma's face, over the noise of the earth splitting open in a gout of flame. A huge black shape reared from the chasm, red-eyed.

'We're going to Crastalier!' Sma yelled. A vast silver human baby appeared in the sky, shining, beatific and be-rayed, spun about with glowing figures.

'So what?' Hrine bellowed, as lightning zapped from mega-baby to earth-beast and thunder assaulted the ears. 'Crastalier's an Open Cluster; there must be half a million stars in it!'

Sma froze.

The holos went back to the way they had been before the cataclysms. The music resumed, but it was quieter now, and very soothing. The ship's crew stood around, looking mystified. There was much shrugging.

The piscine ship-drone and Skaffen-Amtiskaw exchanged looks. The ship drone, still held in Sma's paw, suddenly became the holo of a fish skeleton. Skaffen-Amtiskaw projected the model of the Xenophobe tumbling disintegrating and trailing smoke to the deck. They both flashed back to their previous disguises as Sma turned slowly and looked at them both.

'An... Open... Cluster?' she said, and took off the brown and yellow head of the fancy-dress suit.

Sma's mouth was in the shape of a smile. It was not an expression Skaffen-Amtiskaw had learned to view with anything other than extreme trepidation.

- Oh shit.

- I think we are in the presence of one annoyed human female, Skaffen-Amtiskaw.

- You don't say. Any ideas?

- None whatsoever. You can field this; my fish-like ass is out of here.

- Ship! You can't do this to me!

- Can and am. This is your prototype. Talk to me later. Bye.

The fish-drone went limp in Sma's paw. She let it drop to the water-slicked floor.

The drone dispensed with the warship disguise; it floated in front of her, fields on clear. It dipped its front a little, held it there. 'Sma,' it said quietly. 'I'm sorry. I didn't lie but I did deceive.'

'My cabin,' Sma said calmly, after a brief pause. 'Excuse us,' she said to Disgarve and Hrine, and walked away, followed by the drone.


She floated on the bed in the lotus position, naked but for the shorts, the Xeny suit discarded on the floor. She was glanding calm and she looked more sad than furious. Skaffen-Amtiskaw - expecting a fight - was feeling awful, faced with such measured disappointment.

'I thought if I told you, you wouldn't come.'

'Drone; this is my job.'

'I know, but you were so reluctant to leave...'

'After three years, with no warning, what do you expect? But how long did I actually hold out? Even knowing about the stand-in? Come on, drone; you told me what the situation was and I accepted. There was no need to keep quiet about Zakalwe giving us the slip.'

'I'm sorry,' the drone said, very quietly. 'This is inadequate, I know, but I really am sorry. Please say you might be able to forgive me one day.'

'Oh, don't take the contrition bit too far. Just tell me things in future.'

'All right.'

Sma let her head drop for a moment, then brought it back up. 'You can start by telling me how Zakalwe got away. What did we have trailing him?'

'A knife missile.'

'A knife missile?' Sma looked suitably amazed. She rubbed her chin with one hand.

'Quite a late model, too,' the drone said. 'Nanoguns, mono-filament warps, effector; point seven value brain.'

'And Zakalwe got away from this beast?' Sma was almost laughing.

'Not just away; he wasted it.'

'Shee-it,' Sma breathed. 'I didn't think Zakalwe was that smart. Was he smart, or just incredibly lucky? What happened? How did he do it?'

'Well, it's very secret,' the drone said. 'So please don't tell anybody at all.'

'My honour,' Sma said ironically, palm on chest.

'Well,' the drone said, making a sighing noise. 'It took him a year to set up but, on the place where we dropped him - after his last job for us - the local humanoids shared their planet with large sea-going mammals of about equivalent intelligence; quite a viable symbiotic relationship, with much cross-cultural contact. Zakalwe - using the exchange we'd given him as payment for his work - bought a company which made medical and signalling lasers. His trap involved a hospital facility the humanoids were setting up on the coast of an ocean to treat these sea-going mammals. One of the pieces of medical equipment being tested was a very large Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Scanner.'

'A what?'

'Fourth most primitive way of looking inside your average water-based living being.'

'Go on.'

The process involves the use of extremely strong magnetic fields. Zakalwe was supposedly testing a laser attached to the machine - on a holiday, when there was nobody else around - when he somehow got the knife missile to enter the scanning machine, and then turned on the power.'

'I thought knife missiles weren't magnetic.'

'They're not, but there was just enough metal in it to set up crippling eddy currents if it tried to move too fast.'

'But it could still move.'

'Not fast enough to get out of the way of the laser Zakalwe had set up at one end of the scanner. It was only supposed to illuminate, to help produce holos of the mammals, but Zakalwe had in fact installed a military strength device; it grilled the knife missile.'

'Wow.' Sma nodded, staring down at the floor. 'The man never ceases to amaze.' She looked at the drone. 'Zakalwe must have wanted away from us awful bad.'

'It looks that way,' agreed the drone.

'So maybe there's no way he'll want to work for us again. Maybe he never wants even to hear from us again.'

'I'm afraid that must be a possibility.'

'Even if we can find him.'

'Quite.'

'And all we know is that he's somewhere in an Open Cluster called Crastalier?' Sma's voice sounded tinged with disbelief.

'It's a bit more focused than that,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw said. 'There are maybe ten or twelve systems he could be in by now, if he left immediately after stiffing the knife missile, and took the fastest ships available. Thankfully, the tech level in the meta-civilisation isn't that high.' The drone hesitated, then said. 'To be honest, we might have been able to catch up with him, if we'd gone in fast and strong immediately... But I think the controlling Minds were so impressed with Zakalwe's trick they thought he deserved to get away. We kept a very general watch on the volume, but it's only in the last ten days the search has become serious. We're bringing in ships and people from wherever we can now; I'm sure we'll find him.'

'Ten or twelve systems, drone?' Sma said shaking her head.

'Twenty-plus planets; maybe three hundred sizeable space habitats... not including ships, of course.'

Sma closed her eyes. Her head shook. 'I don't believe this.'

Skaffen-Amtiskaw thought the better of saying anything.

The woman's eyes opened. 'Want to pass on a suggestion or two?'

'Certainly.'

'Forget the habitats. And forget any planets that aren't fairly Standard; check out... deserts, temperate zones; forests but not jungles... and no cities.' She shrugged, rubbed her mouth with her hand. 'If he's still trying hard to stay hidden, we'll never find him. If he only wanted to get away to live his own life without being watched, we have a chance. Oh, and look for wars, of course. Especially wars that aren't too big... and interesting wars, know what I mean?'

'Right. Transmitted.' Normally the drone would have poured scorn on this bit of amateur psychological sleuthing, but this time it decided to bite its metaphorical tongue, and relayed Sma's remarks to the unresponding ship for transmission to the search fleet ahead of them.

Sma took a deep breath, shoulders rising and falling. 'Party still going on?'

'Yes,' Skaffen-Amtiskaw said, surprised.

Sma jumped off the bed and stepped into the Xeny suit. 'Well; let's not be party poopers.'

She fastened the suit, scooped up the brown and yellow head and walked for the door.

'Sma,' the drone said, following. 'I thought you'd be mad.'

'Maybe I will be, once the calm wears off,' she admitted, opening the door and putting the suit head on. 'But just right now, I really can't be bothered.'

They went down the corridor. She looked back at the clear-fielded machine behind her; 'Come on, drone; it's meant to be fancy dress. But try something a little more imaginative than a warship this time.'

'Hmm,' the machine said. 'Any suggestions?'

'I don't know,' Sma sighed, 'What would suit you? I mean, what is the perfect role-model for a cowardly lying patronising hypocritical bastard with no trust in or respect for another person?'

There was silence from behind as they approached the noise and light of the party. So she turned round and, instead of the drone, saw a classically proportioned, handsome, but somehow anonymous-looking young man following her down the corridor, his gaze just moving up from her behind to her eyes.

Sma laughed. 'Yes; very good.' She walked a few more steps. 'On second thoughts, I think I preferred the warship.'


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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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