The ship's computer was talking, “Miss Cynthia, We'll take off with on a count of ten, nine, what the hades, zero!”
The unexpected and extraordinarily rapid takeoff kicked Cynthia back into her seat so hard that she blacked out. When she recovered from the shock she shouted at her ship's computer, “Chris! What the hell1 was that about?” Under normal circumstances Chris would take the machine up smoothly. There would be little more than a flutter in the bottom of her stomach, and maybe a small ripple in her martini. Indeed, it was the height of bad manners to accelerate off planet too rapidly and disturb the stratosphere. This time her martini was dripping off the wall behind her while fragments of the glass littered the floor.
“Sorry Ma'am. It was an emergency.”
“An emergency?” Chris had led her through the normal pre-takeoff drill. Fasten seatbelts, what to pull if there was an emergency, where the oxygen mask would drop from and, finally, how to use the seat cushion as a flotation device in the unlikely event that you were still in one piece after crashing into the ocean. He was known for his sense of humor. That was part of why he had been voted the most personable control program of 2342.
“Ma'am. If you feel up to it, would you look in the screens?” She didn't need to. The shock wave from the exploding planet behind them rocked the craft. “What happened?”
“They found me? What the fuck. How the hell did they do that?”
“I wouldn't know, Ma'am.”
“Did they just destroy an entire planet to try to take me out?”
“Damn. It's not as if I stole that many credits from them. It was just a pretty necklace.” She fingered the deep red stone that hung between her breasts.
“The Cataxi do not put a high value on Terran life. I did try to warn you, Ma'am. In their eyes you are barely worth a tenth credit.”
“Still Chris, it must be more than that. I expected that assassin in the bar. It's part of the normal give and take of interstellar commerce, but it's bad form to take out a planet. Do it too often and you can start a war.”
“Ma'am if you would, I am preparing for the jump.”
To say this was unusual was an understatement. Ships would cruise, sub-light, through the system. It gave the occupant’s time to say extended goodbyes and deal with any last minute formalities. Besides social reasons, performing a jump too close to a solar mass could distort the results and send the ship into uncharted space. Fortunately, most of space was empty, so as an emergency maneuver jumping blind was more or less safe. Safe, that is, if you emerged into normal space somewhere you could recognize.
“On the count of five, five, four, three, two, damn.”
The ship spun out of control as colors flashed through Cynthia's mind. She passed out again from the disorientation. Finally, the ship emerged into a small solar system.
Cynthia recovered consciousness. “Chris, where the hell are we now?”
Chris, for once, was silent. “Come on, computer, damn you. Where the fuck are we?”
“Ma'am. I'm checking. It may be a question of when we are as well as where we are.”
“I'm sorry but that Cataxi shot hit us just as we were jumping. That can do unusual things to jumps, as I'm sure you're aware. I'll have a damage report shortly.”
“You will have to wait while I recalibrate. I will be offline a short time while I reboot. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Cynthia had a few anxious minutes. If Chris did not reboot, she would be adrift, somewhere in the universe, in a dead ship. His blue screen of death would spell hers as well. Unless she was extraordinarily lucky, she'd be dead in a few days without her computer. If she were lucky the Cataxi might find her before she died. They'd make sure her death was quick. Not necessarily painless, but definitely quick.
Her anxiety was misplaced. Reliable as ever, Chris returned to life. “Ma'am, are you sitting down?”
“I'm not going to faint. What the hell is it?”
“We're home2, Sol, Earth.”
“Fuck. Earth? Why are the guidance screens empty? There are no beacons. Where the hell are the customs ships, the border guard?”
“I don't know. Sorry Ma'am. But that's where we are. A few days trip in normal space and then we can orbit the planet.”
“I suppose we could pay home a visit. I wonder if the warrants for my arrest in New York and London have expired by now.”
“Not to mention the ones from Perth, Tokyo, Beijing and Berlin. Unfortunately, we don't have a choice, Ma'am. The Cataxi shot took out the jump unit. Wherever we are, we're stuck. There are supplies and air for a few months, but that's all.”
“Damn. I suppose prison is better than starving to death. Let me know when you pick up the guidance beam. I'll be in the AR3 suite. I want to see if I can finally seduce Mr. Darcy. Take him away from that dreadful Elizabeth Bennett.”
“That Jane Austen game, again? Why don't you play something wholesome, like Battle for Mars or Kabul Shootout?”
“I like regency games. They're so relaxing.”
“If you say so. You know, you'd have better luck with Darcy if you played Elizabeth rather than one of the Bingley sisters.”
“What's the fun of that? They are supposed to get together. I much prefer a challenge.”
“Yes, I know Ma'am. Could I make a suggestion?”
“Could we please have an uneventful trip for a change? Maybe something less exciting than fleeing from the police halfway around the galaxy. You have more than enough credits to pay for repairing me at the spaceport.”
“I suppose so. Anyway wake me up if anything interesting happens.”
Nothing interesting happened, only if you count the lack of signals, indeed the lack of artificial radio emissions of any kind as uninteresting. Cynthia's game was interrupted a week later.
“Damn it Chris, I finally had my hands on his trouser buttons. What now?”
“I am truly sorry to disturb you Ma'am, but there are some facts which I must, however hesitantly, bring to your notice.”
“What is it?”
“I've identified the year. It's 1810. We are currently parked on the reverse side of the moon, as the natives possess telescopes that could see us in orbit. I presume you don't want them drawing untoward conclusions.”
“1810. Fucking A. No one down there could even begin to repair you, could they?”
“I have prepared a list of supplies that would enable my automatics to fix me.” Chris flashed them through Cynthia's AR unit where they hovered in front of her instead of Darcy's face.
“I can almost certainly find the iron and copper. Might have to be a little light fingered for that much gold, but have they even discovered selenium and titanium yet?”
Chris continued, “That is a problem, Ma'am. I suppose you could refine the ores.”
“Maybe. What were you thinking of?”
“Ma'am, since you are enamored of regency games, it seemed to me that. No I can't suggest this.”
“You'd like to deposit me in England while you fly off and refit somewhere?”
“Precisely Ma'am. I thought that Iceland would be a good location. It's isolated. Few people live there and it has intense volcanic activity. Most of the materials I need should be available locally. I could use a thermocouple for power and the heat would disguise me. It should only take a few weeks to finish with a partial refit. It would make me spaceworthy for an intrasystem flight. We can still use the com-link so you won't be alone.”
“I doubt even the Cataxi can trace me here.”
“Still, it is better to be prepared, Ma'am.”
Cynthia thought for a few minutes, then said, “All right, Chris. I'll do it. The only alternative I can think of is setting up a farm on Mars and that would be supremely boring.”
“Very good ma'am. I'll switch the AR to conditioning mode so that your English and manners are correct for the period. It will take about two weeks. In the meantime, I'll work up the vaccines you'll need.”
“Can you let me finish with Mr. Darcy first?”
“Sorry Ma'am, no. It might take you a month to tire of him. I neglected to tell you that the damage reports were incomplete. We don't have that much time to spare.”
“We're fucked, aren't we?”
“Get the hell on with it then.”
It took all of two weeks, but Chris finally woke Cynthia from the AR. She started to say, “What the fucking hell took you so long?”, but her conditioning cut in and she said, “What took so long?”
“I'm sorry Ma'am, but you had a large resistance to the training.”
“F-, Indeed. What is going on?”
“Ladies of quality did not swear in the 19th century.”
“Oh, dear, that's cut my vocabulary in half.”
“I must say, Ma'am, it is an improvement.”
Cynthia was speechless, not thoughtless, but speechless. Eventually she found words. “Chris, that isn't meant to be funny. Where do you think I should be dropped?”
“I checked the archives and then did a quick matter scan over southern England. There is a famous meteorite, 'Lord Wroxham's Stone'. High purity iron-iridium alloy. Just what I need. There is also a small Tahitian idol that is made of Black stone in his collection. Titanium ore. If you can lift a few guinea coins that will cover the gold.”
“I see, anything worthwhile for me?”
“There is a mention of family jewels. A tiara or necklace possibly both. Probably they have some value on the resale market.”
“In other words, a crib well worth cracking.” Cynthia paused, “Chris am I going to always use this darn slang?”
“I'll remove the conditioning once we're aloft again. Though I must add, Ma'am, that it is a marked improvement in both your diction and language.”
Cynthia ground her teeth. Chris merrily chirped along, “I've been having the most fun building your wardrobe.”
“Wardrobe?” While solo pilots could wear anything they wanted, or indeed nothing at all, Cynthia, like the majority, favored a light recyclable coverall. It kept the ship cleaner.
“You can't wear that. Not on this mission.”
“I thought, for just a quick snatch and grab.”
“It might take me several months to refit, and I don't trust my structural integrity. Can you fly?”
“I'm a dashed good pilot.”
“I mean with your arms.”
“I could wear a parachute.”
“There's no one who would fish you out of the ocean.”
“Oh. I see what you mean.”
“This also means that you're going to have to stop the anti-age hormones.”
“It's actually a good thing for you to go dry for a year or so. At 60 going on 16, you still can. Take a year off, enjoy human biology for a bit. Maybe fall in love, have some fun.”
“I suppose you're right, but I'm not sure about that falling in love thing. I don't want to have the sudden collapse that happened to Captain Black Jack Daniels. Remember, we found him drifting in his ship, barely able to move, and solely because he missed a shot.”
“I do feel I have to warn you that it will start your biological clock ticking again.”
“Oh cripes, Not that.”
“On the other hand Ma'am, maybe you will meet someone you like above half.”
“Chris, I know you're a romantic, but I've told you before. Out on the frontiers of the empire, there are very few humans. The closest looking aliens, the Gotha, aren't equipped either emotionally or physically for amatory activity with us, and you can't trust a Xylub in front of your eyes, let along behind your back. As for the Cataxi, let's just say Old One Eye Jones was a better alternative.”
“I suppose you're right.”
“Never met anyone who could stir a flutter in my maiden breast. I hope, Chris, you can remove this insipid slang. It is already driving me up the wall.”
“Yes, Ma'am, when the mission is over.”
“Good. Compared with their AR versions, all the real males I've met seem awfully flat.”
“There are many male humans on Earth. Some of them have to be acceptable. This Lord Wroxham is supposed to be a handsome fellow. There's no record of his marrying anyone.”
“He probably likes other men.”
“Maybe, but then maybe he never met the right woman.”
“Chris, stop the matchmaking. I'm not in the market to be leg-shackled. A man, any man would cramp my style.”
“I'm just warning you that the hormones inhibit your emotions, and you could be in for a shock when they wear off. You will feel more emotional than you are currently used to.”
“I understand that. Do you think I'm ignorant?”
“Just forgetful, Ma'am.”
Cynthia paused, digesting the alternatives in her thought. Finally, she said, “I suppose needs must. What have you put together for me?”
“First, give me your arm.” Cynthia put her arm into the medical unit and flinched as a whopping dose of serum was injected. “D-, F-, What the H-. I say, Chris. That stung. What all did you inject?”
“Vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, TB, chicken pox, typhoid, yellow fever, staph, strep, influenza, polio and the red gum. Among others.”
“The red gum?”
“Help you to keep your teeth.”
“I hesitate to ask, but what else do you need me to do?”
“Your head please.”
She placed her head in to its holder in the medical unit and felt a small amount of panic as the machine, unusually, clamped it in place. Then she shouted when the unit pierced her earlobes. “Chris! I hate pierced ears. Last time I had them, it took a whole year for my lobes to heal after the earrings were ripped out in a bar fight.”
“Yes, I remember. You will just have to stay out of bar fights on this trip.”
“Your earrings are the best place to conceal the main communications link. I knew if I asked you about it, you would say no.”
“Can't I just use a normal link?”
“I'll give you one of those too, but you'll probably lose it. Like last trip.”
“I didn't lose it. That d-. That assassin stole it. I blasted him and it into tiny little pieces. It left a beautiful red haze in the room, and improved its color scheme no end.”
“If you say so.”
“Why haven't you released me?”
“Follicular stimulation. Most women had very long hair. I'm afraid yours would look too much like a man's.”
“At least I can cut that off.”
“Please wait until you return.”
“Yes, I know.”
When the machine eventually released her, Cynthia put her hands to her ears. “Chris these earrings feel heavy, awkward. They bounce around when I move, and they hurt.”
He brought up a mirror for her, and said, “Take a look. I think you'll agree they are most becoming.”
She looked and then smiled at herself, “You're right, but this hair, what a bl- a mess.”
“Let me show you how to arrange it.” Instructions came up on the mirror and by following them with her hands, Cynthia reduced her mane to a manageable and fashionable arrangement. “I suppose they had lice and fleas.”
“Yes. You'll need to brush it carefully every day. Twice if you can.”
Cynthia took one last look at herself. With her hair arranged she didn't look half bad. “I suppose I'd best try on my gowns.”
“You'll have to take that coverall off. Ma'am.”
Cynthia felt surprisingly bashful. While Chris was conventionally a 'he', he was just a computer program and had seen it all before. They'd cruised the galaxy together for thirty years, causing mayhem while spreading the Terran sphere of influence and enriching themselves in the process. There wasn't much of her that he hadn't treated for some ailment or another. Even with real males at the academy, she'd never had a trouble during showers. Well, at least after they'd started on the anti-aging drug regime with its tendency to damp emotions. Still, she hesitated and said, “Is this the conditioning?”
“I think so. If you'd like I'll disable my visual.”
“No.” She took a deep breath, then she grabbed the suit at her neck and ripped. It came off cleanly, and she stuffed the remains into the recycling unit.
“All right. Show me how I dress.”
A few minutes later, properly corseted, covered with muslin, and adorned with a green Spencer, she examined herself in the mirror. The results took her breath away.
“I say Chris, you do have taste. I didn't think I could look like this. I almost look beautiful. Pity I didn't let you gown me in the AR. I'd have been in Darcy's pants in no time.”
“There's more to life than getting into a man's pants, Ma'am.”
“There's always stealing, murder and mayhem. Just the usual Saturday night at the docks.”
Chris's silence was deafening.
“I'm sorry Chris, I didn't mean to shock you, but you know me.”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
“Speaking of pants, you forgot something. It's windy down there.”
“It's supposed to be. You'll just have to be careful.”
“I will be. Trust me. I don't want to give any of the natives a show. It was hard enough getting undressed in front of you, old friend.”
“I thought, Ma'am, that you could leave the Cataxi gem here and wear this string of pearls. It goes with the earrings.”
“Why not both?”
“I'm not sure that gem is safe for you to wear all the time.”
“You scanned it, didn't you?”
“I did, and I didn't find anything. It's just that things don't add up in what I found. I'd feel better if you didn't wear it.”
“Tough. I like it.”
“As you wish, Ma'am. The rest of your kit, other than a couple of changes of gown is normal issue. The communicator and scanner are disguised as a diary pad. Open it correctly and I'll be there. I've added a discrete solar charger. It is configured to look like a ladies' fan.”
“Ma'am, I only thought you could get in trouble with it.”
Cynthia fought down the urge to scream at her ship. Finally, she said, “You know I never ever ever go planet-side without a blaster. Might as well be naked.”
“Yes Ma'am. I'll supply one. It will be suitably disguised, but it will be a small limited power one.”
“Since I think they're still using flintlocks that will be fine.”
What is the rest of the plan?
“I'll insert you near where Lord Wroxham will be driving in the morning. Then you can set up something like a wrecked carriage to attract his attention. I'll give you a letter of introduction, which he'll have difficulty refusing.”
“Clever. Is there a plan B?”
“You can always present yourself at his front door.”
“That's rather lame. Let's hope the first works.”
“It will. Now you will need some sleep before I drop you.”
Early morning local time, Chris silently glided the ship to a halt above a field of corn in Wiltshire. Cynthia clambered down carrying a large traveling bag. She waved and Chris silently retreated into hiding to await events. If all went well he would leave for a refit.
Cynthia sat beside the road and waited for Lord Wroxham. By mid-morning the sun was shining and the birds were chirping while the bees buzzed in the flowering hedge on the other side or the road. She found, that unlike the AR version, regency life was on the boring side. A brief buzzing in her left earing alerted her. It was Chris, “He's coming. Time to deploy the lure.” She tossed a small pebble to the side and pressed a button on her control box. The hologram of a broken carriage appeared beside her. It looked real enough, as long as you didn't try to sit in it. Chris continued, “Remember your cover story, and a few tears wouldn't hurt.”
“I'm almost bored to tears already.”
“I mean real tears.” A kindly wasp, diverted from its return to her nest by flying into Cynthia supplied a cause for tears.
A carriage, drawn by an elegant matched set of four horses, with a ducal crest on its side appeared, passed her, then stopped. The lure worked. She quietly told Chris, “Here goes.”
Lord Wroxham has a Visitor.
Lord James Wroxham, Duke of Tenby, was bored. He, his sister the honorable Alice Wroxham and his school friend the honorable Frederick Thomas Alverston were riding in his carriage along the road from Bath to one of his many country estates. Carling Hall was in Wiltshire. They planned to take a few weeks or maybe a month on a repairing lease in the country and then they would drive to Brighton to enjoy the summer social season. Alice had insisted on inviting his friend to come with them, and Mr. Alverston, being at loose ends agreed.
He exclaimed, “Nothing exciting ever happens.” Had he not been riding with his impressionable younger sister, he would have explained how, for his sixth consecutive season in London, the only females who were ever attracted to him were far more interested in his wealth than his person. It made them so boringly predictable and mind-bogglingly vapid and dull. At least the muslin company that supplied his baser needs were business-like about it. He found their fee-for-service basis eminently satisfactory, at least for the short term.
Frederick or Freddy as his friends called him, replied, “What do you mean. Aren't I good company?”
“Freddy, I know what you're going to say and do, almost before you do it.”
“If you say so. Didn't think I was that boring.” He peered out of the carriage window and spied a broken Barouche with a pretty young lady sitting in front of it. “I say, James old boy, here's something you wouldn't expect.” He thumped on the carriage and asked the postilions to halt.
“I'm sorry Freddy, but the number of females who have tried anything to attract my attention is beyond counting.”
“This one is dashed pretty. If you don't want to talk to her, I'll give her a shot.”
Alice was shocked and said, “Mr. Alverston! Please consider my feelings.”
“Your feelings, Miss Wroxham?” She collapsed into a confusion of blushing, which Freddy didn't seem to notice.
Lord Wroxham looked over the female outside. She was sitting by the road on her bag and looking up at his carriage. She seemed to be dressed in the correct fashion for a young chit. There was certainly nothing about her dress that indicated anything other than a young lady of taste and refinement stuck in a distressing situation. After giving her what he hoped would be a disquieting examination, he said, “What seems to be the trouble?”
“My carriage lost a wheel and my groom has gone off to find a wheel-right.”
“I see. Where are you bound?”
“I have a letter of introduction to Lord Wroxham. I was hoping to visit him at his country estate.”
Wroxham gave Freddy a significant glance, as if to say 'I told you so'.” He then asked the young female, “Do you know Lord Wroxham?”
“I'm sorry but I don't. My guardian recommended me to him, but I'm sorry to say I wouldn't know him from you.” She smiled at him. He noticed that she had an unusually pretty smile. He started to return it. Unfortunately, his experience had taught him that unusually pretty smiles were usually closely coupled with unusually avaricious hearts. So he wiped his smile off his face and frowned at her.
“We happen to be going that way. Would you desire a ride?”
“If you could,” Cynthia thought “That would be fucking fantastic.” Instead, she said, “I would most appreciate it. Could we leave a note at the next posting house for my groom?”
“Of course, but that won't be necessary. We'll be there shortly.”
Cynthia thought, “Of course arsehole, why did you think I set it up here?” but said, “That would be most satisfactory.” She touched her right earring and quietly muttered, “Chris, I am most displeased with this conditioning.” Her left earring replied, “Fuckin' A Ma'am.” Then it chuckled and continued, “I suppose you have made contact?”
“Yes.” Cynthia couldn't add the rest of her comment.
One of Lord Wroxham's footmen dismounted from the back of the carriage and took Cynthia's baggage to add to the load in the boot. She resisted at first, and then threw it to him. He staggered under the weight. “I'm sorry, I thought I packed light.” Lord Wroxham noticed this and opened the door for her. He said, “Please miss. I'm sorry that I didn't catch your name.”
“I'm not surprised that you didn't as I didn't tell you it. I'm Miss Cynthia.” She paused to remember her cover name, then added, “Miss Cynthia Morris.”
“Miss Morris, I'd be overjoyed to escort you to Lord Wroxham's estate.”
“Thank you.” She paused and studied his face, “Are you Lord Wroxham? Your portraits do not do you justice. I have a letter of introduction from my guardian to you. Unfortunately it is in my bag.”
“Dear Miss Morris. I have the misfortune to be him.”
“The misfortune to be one of the richest men in England?”
“It is. So many females try all sorts of tricks to be introduced to me. It gets exceedingly tedious. I do hope you're not one of them.”
“Me?” Cynthia thought, “Hell no, shithead. Not if you were the last man in England. There is no god damn fucking way I'm getting entangled with a native on this godforsaken backward fucking planet.” but said, “No my lord. Of course not. I was commended into your care by my guardian. I have plenty of wealth of my own.”
“If you say so.”
Freddy added, “I must say James, cracking up a perfectly good carriage to draw your attention would be a bit extreme.”
“Freddy, many of the attempts young ladies have used to draw my favor have been almost as brazen. But it is usually a turned ankle or something equally gentile and boring.”
Cynthia hoisted herself into the cab without waiting for the footman to assist her. She started to sit next to Lord Wroxham, but then her conditioning set in and she switched to sit next to his sister. She blushed, something she hadn't done in years, and said, “Thank you very much Lord Wroxham. I don't know what I'd do without your help.”
“Only five miles.”
Cynthia touched her right earring and after a moment replied, “If you'd rather I walk, I'll race you.”
“I think that would be best.” Lord Wroxham thumped on his carriage and told the postilions “Drive on!”
As they moved off, Cynthia smiled, then muttered, “We mustn't litter” and pushed something in her reticule. The broken carriage vanished, unnoticed, behind them. She reached out of the window and caught something that flew by.
The inside of the carriage was plush with silk covered pillows and soft seats. The covers were embroidered with the Wroxham crest. Cynthia looked at it in amazement. Her AR training had led her to believe that all carriages had Spartan hard wooden seats that would inevitably lead to an uncomfortable ride. Noticing Miss Morris's amazement, Alice said, “Miss Morris, have you ever been in such an elegant carriage as this?”
“Not in a carriage. Once I had a rescue mission, from a harem. The harem was almost as nice as your carriage. The trip paid well too. It was on.” She stopped, suddenly aware that she was going to tell them about the Xylub homeworld. She backtracked quickly, “I'm sorry, I'm rattling on about what I imagined the harem from a novel to be.”
Lord Wroxham stared at her and said, “Miss Morris, a rescue mission from a harem. You must have quite an imagination.” His smile belied his stern words. Despite her resolution to have nothing to do with a native, she automatically returned it. Indeed, she found it hard not to.
“My governess said I read too many novels for my own good. I begin to think she was right.”
Alice said, “Miss Morris, can I call you Cynthia? I love novels. Have you read Mrs. Radcliffe's latest, 'the Italian'?”
“I haven't had the pleasure.”
“We shall have to share it. I have it in my baggage, because I can't read in a carriage. Too much motion makes my head swim.”
“I should love to read it with you. However, if we're to start on it tonight I'll need to rest.” Cynthia snuggled into the cushions and propped her head on a bolster. Then she said, “It's been an exhausting day,” and promptly fell asleep to the swaying of the carriage in the warm early summer air.
Freddy remarked to his host, “This chit, at least, doesn't seem interested in you, James. Dashed funny way to make an impression, if you ask me.”
Lord Wroxham replied, “Freddy, I just hope she isn't the standing budge4 for some gang of cracksmen. She's dashed smoky.”
Alice said, “She said she had a letter of introduction to you. Is that a problem?”
“It's easy to buy a counterfeit. I'll have to look at it carefully.”
“How exciting! A criminal in our house. What are you going to do James?”
“I'll set one of the maids to keep a close eye on her, or failing that one of the footmen. She'll soon enough trip up if she's playing a game. In the meanwhile I'll check her letter of introduction. She might just be an overly imaginative young female.”
“That would be a shame, so commonplace.”
Cynthia opened an eye and said, “Whatever I am it is not commonplace.” Then she dozed off again.
The carriage turned off of the main road and down the country lane that led to the hall. The lane, while shaded and comforting, was not in as good condition as the main road. The postilions were forced to go slowly. The carriage creaked over the rough parts of the lane, and was once, briefly stuck in the mire. Freddy remarked to his host, “James, you need to get after that steward of yours. This lane is worse than last year.”
“It's just a shortcut. Mostly used by cows and farmers. I don't see why they need me to lay out my blunt.”
“If you say so, but what if you had a visit by a person of importance?”
“Then I'd direct them by the main road.”
Lord Wroxham's statement about cows was soon proved. The carriage stopped as one of his tenants moved his herd along the lane to be milked. While they sat there engulfed in a strong bovine aroma and endured the buffeting by the animals passing, Alice wondered if she should have brought her book inside after all. Cynthia woke with a start and jumped out of her seat when one of the animals loudly mooed in her ear. “What was that?”
Alice tilted her head in curiosity as she asked, “Don't you know?”
“Wait, yes, I do. It's a cow isn't it?”
“Yes, Miss Morris, it is a cow. They're common, even in London.”
“I didn't think they were so big.”
“Where did you say you were from?”
“I didn't say. I was just off in a lovely dream about flying around the moons of Beta Cygnus 8.”
“Beta Cygnus 8?”
“It's a planet, with beautiful moons, scenic mountains and verdant forests.”
“A planet like Herschel5?”
“Do you mean, Uranus? No it's much smaller and prettier. I was dreaming of my.” She stopped. “I've been letting my imagination run away with me again, haven't I? My guardian, Lord Petersborough, has repeatedly told me to stop. That's part of why he's sending me to visit you Lord Wroxham. He hopes that if I see more of the real world, maybe I'll be less fanciful.”
Lord Wroxham made a noncommittal noise in response, but stared at Cynthia as he thought, “I know Lord Petersborough and he doesn't have any wards. Certainly not any as young and pretty as this one, and if she has any money there is no way he would let her out of his sight. At least not until after he had secured the money for himself.”
The cows eventually passed the carriage and they quickly made their way to the hall. Inside the main gates the drive was well-kept. The postilions pushed their horses and the carriage sped to the front of the building in a stylish swirl of noise and dust. Alice held the strap, excited by the rapid ten mile an hour pace. She said, “Cynthia, isn't this exciting?”
“You know, I've never felt I was moving so quickly.” She caught herself before she added, “Even that jury-rigged ship I used to flee from the Xylub felt sturdier than this crate.”
They disembarked from the carriage, and leaving the servants to unload their luggage went inside. Lord Wroxham suggested that they refresh themselves and then have dinner. Cynthia found that she was in need of a visit to the head. She asked Hannah, the maid assigned to watch over her needs, about it and was surprised to find out about chamber pots. She realized, once it was patiently explained to her, that there was a sound reason for her lack of pants.
Dinner itself went surprisingly well. The AR conditioning taught Cynthia manners, and she handled the maze of glasses, forks and other cutlery as if she had been using them all of her life. The food itself could have been a problem, but for one who prided herself on eating Xylub delicacies without anti-nausea pills, regency cuisine held few fears. Indeed, it was excellent. That is until she asked, “This dish, what is it?”
“It is a ragout, of veal I believe.”
Cynthia swallowed and felt a little ill. She was eating real animals, real animals that were cooked in a sauce, and not synthetic textured protein that was also cooked in a sauce.
“Are you well, Miss Morris?”
She smiled. She'd eaten worse, only this was a shock because it was unexpected. At least it was already dead and well-cooked. “Yes, I'm fine. Could I have some more of the frites, please?”
“You should save some room for the trifle.”
“Sweet, pudding, dessert?”
After dinner, Alice took Cynthia to the withdrawing room for a comfortable cose. “We should leave Freddy and James to the port and snuff.”
“If you say so. What will we have?”
“Is tea suitable?”
Cynthia looked away from her, as though she were listening to a distant voice, then replied, “Of course, tea. What was I thinking of?”
Sitting in the corner of the room was a harp. It looked neglected. Cynthia stopped and stared at it. “Can I play that? I used to have a harp.”
“It was my mothers, I can't play it. You're welcome to try, if you're careful with it.”
“Oh please. I had to sell mine for fuel on.”
“It is a long story. I'll tell you sometime.”
“Another of your imaginings?”
“Yes, definitely yes.”
She sat behind the harp and began to try to play it. Not surprisingly, it was far out of tune. Alice said, “It hasn't been played in years. I can only play the piano. Would you like to hear me?”
“Yes, very much, but let me tune this first. We can play together. Can you play a 'C'?”
Alice hammered out a 'C' on the piano. Cynthia grimaced. It wasn't exactly a 'C', but being in tune with the other instrument was more important than being on the right scale. A few minutes later, Cynthia pronounced her work done. “It's not perfect, but it is playable.” Then she started to play. Alice sat and listened. When Cynthia stopped she gasped, “You're good. Most of what I hear when young women play their harps is just plink plonk plink plonk. That's why I chose the piano. How did you learn?”
“Can you play 'the Miller'?”
“I don't know it. Can you show me?”
Alice started on the piano and after listening, Cynthia joined in. Freddy and Lord Wroxham entered, having had their statutory glass of port. Freddy said, “My, what fair muses you two are. Euterpe and Erato themselves.”
Alice blushed. She had a tendre for Freddy and a compliment from him meant something to her. Lord Wroxham simply said, “I'm sorry that I have some business to attend to. I will return presently.” He bowed and left to go to his study.
While Cynthia and Alice were enthralling Freddy with their playing, Lord Wroxham was carefully examining Cynthia's letter of introduction. It was perfect, the seal matched one from an earlier letter, the handwriting, spelling and signature matched Lord Petersborough's. Indeed, had he the ability to analyze the ink and the paper he would have found those were perfect too. Chris had done his job well, down to the laid paper and oak-gall ink, but then he had lots of practice generating fake credentials. Still, as Lord Wroxham read the letter, something kept bothering him. “I know Lord Petersborough. He's an odd old crotchety bugger and this letter is so out of character for him.” He put it aside and was considering sending an express to London asking for confirmation, when there was a quiet knock on the study door. It was the maid who had been assigned the task of unpacking and freshening up Cynthia's clothes.
“Sir,” she began, “This.” She held out a small lady's diary. Her hand trembled as she said, “It talked to me when I picked it up.”
“Yes sir. I don't want to go into that room again. Who knows what devilry that Miss Morris is up to?”
“It's fine Hannah, I'm sure she's not a witch or anything strange like that. All the same, you did the right thing to bring the book to me.”
“You're not worried about her, Sir?”
“A little Hannah. There's something dashed smoky about Miss Morris.”
“Just the things she said on the ride here. They make me wonder if she's not up to some game.”
“She's not normal, Sir. I'm scared.”
“Just leave it here and get about your work. Thank you Hannah.”
She gingerly placed the diary on the table in front of him, curtsied and left. He walked over, hesitated, and then picked up the diary. It immediately asked him, “Has that silly woman left?”
“Yes. Reveal yourself, I'm not scared.”
“You're not? Then you're either brave or foolish. If not both. Are you Lord Wroxham?”
Lord Wroxham regretted that it being a warm afternoon, he hadn't had a fire kindled in his study. He fought down the urge to through the book out the window.
“Y-y-yes, I am.”
“Excellent. I was hoping to meet you. To do so this soon in our visit is a great stroke of luck. Lucky for both of us.”
“Who are you?”
“I'm called Chris. Would you very much mind opening the book's cover and looking at the pages.”
He opened the book, but instead of a blank page of paper, ready to be covered with the day's doing in a lady's neat handwriting, there was a dark sheet of glass.
“Does this help?” An image of a young man's face appeared on the glass. “It's not me, but maybe you'll feel better if you think you're talking to another person.”
“You're not a person?”
Chris paused for a moment. “Lord Wroxham, now that I've had a chance to look at you, I'd say you're exactly the person I imagined you to be. Perhaps even a bit more handsome than your reputation. You can ask me questions, but please understand that I can't answer all of them. It's not that I am trying to mislead you, but there are things that you simply won't understand even if I tell you the answer.”
“If you're not a person, what are you?”
“You see, there's one of those questions already. I'm an automaton, like that magical chess-playing Turk, only much closer to human.”
“There was a man inside of the magical Turk.”
“There's nothing more I can tell you that you could understand.”
“How do you talk? Where are you?”
“Calm down. Those are questions I'll answer in time. First I have one or two for you.”
“If you're not answering all of my questions then maybe I won't answer those.”
“I'm sure you will. They are about Cynthia.”
“How are you finding my mistress?”
“I'm her, wait, steward. That's the closest servant, I think. Either that or her guardian.”
“I'm not sure about this letter of introduction. It's not something that Lord Petersborough would write. Especially if she's really an heiress. I was about to send him an express.”
“I wouldn't bother. It's a fake letter.”
“One of my best quality fakes, but yes, it's absolutely fake. I made it.”
Lord Wroxham sat there, flabbergasted. “This cannot be happening. It must be something I ate. Maybe that veal was too old, or could it be one of the mushrooms?”
“It is happening, my Lord. I'll be quick so you can rejoin the others before your tea gets cold.”
“I've taken advantage of a little detour in our travels to arrange for Cynthia to take a repairing lease in the country. She likes to play historical games, especially one game that is set in the regency period.”
“Now, I suppose you'd call it modern England. She needs to take at least a few months, and even better a year or two off and spend some of her life with other humans.”
“Historical games? Other humans?”
“Normal people. You for instance.”
“What else is there besides humans?”
“Many things. If we're unlucky you'll get to meet some of them.”
“Oh. I'm a historical figure am I?”
“Yes and no. It's real to you now, but in the future it will have happened in our past.”
“Can you run that by me again?”
“No. Now I must warn you Cynthia has a little problem distinguishing between meum and teum. She's also rather handy with, what was that phrase? With her fives.”
“So she's a bloody sneak thief and a brawler to boot.”
“More of an adventuress, and a darned good one at that. In fact one of the best in the galaxy. The mention of ‘Cynthia the Invincible’ anywhere in border-space is guaranteed to cause a stir. It's been an honor to serve her. She thinks she's here to steal your stone. Don't let her take it. If someone's jewelry goes missing, the chances are that she has it.”
“Why should I let her stay here?”
“She's also great company. I have never been bored in the thirty years I've served her.”
“Thirty years? She looks sixteen.”
“Physically she is sixteen. She needs to grow up. I'm hoping that the meum and teum problem will resolve itself when she matures.”
“I don't understand.”
“Lord Wroxham, I don't expect you to understand me. Please trust me. You won't regret it.”
“Are you sure about that, because I'm not inclined to trust talking books. To be honest, I'm having trouble believing this is happening.”
“Yes, I'm certain you won't regret it. May I ask you a question?”
“Is there a reason you haven't married? You do like women, don't you?”
“Yes, I enjoy females. I'd like to enjoy some female companionship that I didn't have to pay for. It's just all the ones I meet in society are so boring, so predictable. They're all after my money. I could be an ugly hunchbacked cripple with one leg and two teeth and they'd still be fawning over me.”
“That's unfortunate. Cynthia, you will find, is highly unpredictable. I hope you will enjoy her company.”
“Then I won't be bored with her?”
“Angry, upset, frustrated, and maybe even in love, but not bored. Now I need to give you a warning.”
“In about a week she will get terribly ill. That's just the effects of the medicine she takes to stay young wearing off. You can send for the apothecary if you want, but talk to me about what to do.”
“All-right. You're not going to scare the maids again, are you?”
“Now that I have measured your print. I will only turn on for you or Cynthia.”
“Look at those ridges on your fingers. They're unique to you. I'll know when you pick up this device. One other thing.”
“Please don't tell Cynthia we've talked, and put this book back in her room.”
“It would be best, trust me.” Chris shut off. The dark glass became a sheet of paper again.
Lord Wroxham thought for a few minutes. Then he rang and asked that the maid Hannah come to his study.
“Hannah. I don't know what you heard, but I've been through this book from the front to the back and it is just a book. See.”
He opened it and flipped through the pages in front of her.
“It did talk to me, Sir.”
“I'm sure you heard something. But not this book. Books do not talk. Miss Morris is an unusual young lady, but one you will grow to like.”
“If you say so, Sir.” Hannah was clearly dubious about it.
“Would you take this book back and replace it?”
“Shall I carry it to the room for you?”
“I will, but only if you agree to try to be her maid.”
Hannah thought for a few moments, then replied, “Yes, Sir.”
Adapting to Country Life.
The daylight streaming into her room woke Cynthia. More accurately re-woke her after the dawn chorus of bird calls had so rudely woken her earlier in the morning. She sat up in bed and tried to remember what she should do. The chamber pot beckoned first, then she pulled a bell rope for her maid.
Hannah timidly knocked on her door.
Hannah carefully opened the door, unsure of what she'd find. Her imagination was filled with distressing visions of terrible creatures or obscure dark satanic rituals. To be fair, she had been borrowing Alice's copies of Mrs. Radcliffe's works and enjoyed intense Gothic romance novels every bit as much as her mistress. What she found was an impatient young woman who said, “Hannah, despite what you may have heard or seen, I'm neither a witch nor a dragon.”
“What I am is a hungry young woman, who needs her morning water and help with her hair and dressing. Like any other gentlewoman.”
“Yes, Ma'am. It was just last night when I was unpacking, I thought that day book of yours spoke to me.”
“Of course it didn't. I neglected to tell you that my bag has a device in it that makes a sound like speech. A bladder and reeds. It's there to scare thieves.” Cynthia didn't elaborate, and Hannah, grateful for a rational explanation, didn't demand further information.
An hour later, Cynthia appeared in the morning room, only to find that breakfast was a mid-morning affair and she had risen far too early in the morning. She asked Hannah if there was anything available to eat and ended up settled in the library with a cup of chocolate. The library was a large room with one imposing wall of bookshelves. Like most libraries in country estates it was more for show than for actual reading. The books were removed once or twice a year for dusting, then carefully returned to their places. So she started carefully searching for something she could stand to read. In the end she discarded 'Fordyce's Sermons for Young Women' in favor of a volume of Coleridge’s poetry.
Alice found her there, still immersed in it an hour later. A cup of cold chocolate sat, untasted, next to her. “Cynthia, I didn't know you liked poetry.”
“I didn't either.”
“Anyway, if you can break yourself away from Coleridge, we are assembling in the morning room for breakfast. I thought it might be fun to ride after we break our fast.”
“Go explore the local countryside, and get a little exercise.”
“Sounds like fun. I was wondering what you got up to for enjoyment.”
Breakfast sped by. Lord Wroxham quizzed Cynthia about riding.
“Do you ride much, Miss Morris?”
“Surely you can be more informative than that. Have you joined a hunt?”
“A hunt?” She paused, “Hunting things is one of my specialties.”
“I was talking about wearing the pink and riding to hounds.”
“No, my guardian won't let me.”
“Lord Peter's is an intrepid hunter.”
“That is as may be, but Lord Petersborough isn't. It's his gout, you see.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. Should I send condolences?”
“I wouldn't bother. He doesn't like to be pitied.”
“So where do you ride?”
“Petersborough Park. Nothing special, and just a dear old pony.”
Lord Wroxham found himself thinking, “I wish you wouldn't prevaricate. Petersborough wouldn't waste his ponies6 on a pony for you.”
There was a minor complication after breakfast because Cynthia had neglected to pack her riding habit. Alice offered to let her borrow an old one. Together they walked out to the stables where the grooms had placed sidesaddles on two mares.
Alice practically skipped in to the stable. Her season in London was enjoyable enough, but she missed her special horse. She patted her mare on the nose, and nuzzled it, then easily mounted her.
Cynthia stood there, in front of her horse with her jaw dropped in amazement. “You ride these? They're so big.”
“Of course. What else do you ride?”
“I don't know.” Well, actually she did, but neither spaceships, racing hover bikes, nor near-orbital scooters were available.
“Come on. Time is passing and I want to get out before it gets too sultry.”
Cynthia stood there with her hand on one earring. She stood there with her eyes flickering from side to side. After a minute, Alice asked, “Cynthia are you well?” Cynthia impatiently waved her hand in reply and returned to what she was doing.
Eventually, Cynthia moved. She gave Alice a tentative smile and said, “Sorry about that. I needed to steel myself.”
“If you're scared of them, we can read instead.”
“No.” Cynthia pulled her head erect and her shoulders back. “One thing I've learned in my travels, is that the fear of something is usually worse than the experience.” She smiled, and added, “Doesn't make it any easier.” Then she cautiously walked to the front of her horse, took the bridle from the groom and stroked the horse's nose. It whinnied and twitched. Cynthia jumped, but immediately returned to the horse's side. Alice was showing signs of her impatience to get going when Cynthia finally said, “That's enough. I'm ready.” Then she confidently stepped back to the saddle, put her foot in the stirrup and sprang up. She asked Alice and the groom, “Is this right?”
“Yes. It looks like you're mounted properly. Is it comfortable?”
The groom adjusted her saddle to move the upper stirrup, and then they rode out of the stables and into the fields beyond.
Alice rode quickly into the fields beyond the farm yard. She had steady hands and the joy of riding her favorite horse again filled her. She urged it on to canter down the road.
Cynthia called, “Alice! Wait.” She could just control her mount. The moment her mount saw Alice’s cantering in the distance, it shot off after it. Cynthia rocked back in her seat, and dropped the reins while she grabbed the saddle with both of her hands. Eventually her horse stopped, and started to graze. She touched her earring and said, “Chris, what am I going to do? This isn’t as easy as it looks.”
“Ma’am,” he replied, “What happened?”
“Ma’am,” he replied, “What happened?”
“The horse has a mind of its own.”
“Did you drop the reins?”
“Yes, da- da-, yes it took me both hands to hold on.”
“Don’t drop the reins next time. Can you reach them?”
Alice finally noticed that her companion was missing. She turned her mount and cantered back, calling for her friend. She found Cynthia disconsolately sitting on her mount, and trotted over. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t ride. I’m sorry Alice.”
Alice reached down and grabbed the reins for Cynthia. “Cynthia, let me show you how.” She handed them to her. “It’s not hard.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“It really isn’t. Do not drop the reins.”
“But I felt like I was falling off.” Alice rode over and pushed Cynthia so hard that she rocked in the saddle. “Did you fall off?”
“Now do you think you’d fall off if the horse moved?”
“Now let’s walk on.”
As the afternoon continued, and under Alice’s tuition, Cynthia’s confidence in the saddle grew. By the end of the day she could canter with some level of confidence. They rode back to the stables together.
As Alice and Cynthia returned from the stables to the hall, Alice asked her friend, “Did you enjoy it?”
“That was the most fun I've ever had going so slowly.”
“What do you mean slowly?”
“You really feel you're moving when the horse canters. The wind and the noise, it's exhilarating. I've done.” She stopped.
“You've done what?”
“Cynthia, it isn't just your imagination is it? I can't stay friends with you if you keep hiding things from me.”
“I'm not sure you can handle the truth.”
“Riding that mare was almost as much fun as the time I dodged rocks, rockets and blasts in my ship while the entire Cataxi navy followed me in hot pursuit. You only do that once or twice in a lifetime.”
“Imagining things again?”
“No. It happened. I told you I'd tell you the truth, but I expect you don't believe me.”
“Why only once in a lifetime?”
“Unless you're a better than half-decent pilot you will crash into a rock or they will manage to hit your ship with a blast. It was even a little closer for me than I'm wont to enjoy, but I'm not known as Cynthia the Invincible throughout border-space for nothing.”
“Cynthia, you really do read too many novels. I never thought I'd say this, because I hated it when my governess said it to me, but you really must rein in that imagination of yours. It will get you in trouble.”
“Alice, you asked me to tell you the truth. I did. When my ship is repaired, I'll take you to see Mars or Saturn. Which would you prefer?”
“Stop it. You're being silly.”
“You'll see, but I'll stop it for now.”
A few moments later, Alice shyly added, “If we can't see them both, I'd like to see Mars.”
“Consider it a promise. Did you know what's for dinner? I'm famished with all this exercise.”
“We'll have to get changed first. I think cook was planning a roast capon.”
“A big chicken.”
“Oh, a bird.”
“Yes, silly a bird. Either that or a meat pie. Depends on what she has.”
“Sounds, interesting.” Cynthia was still adjusting from the processed yeast protein of her ship to real food. She said, “I suppose you haven't heard of Marmite?”
Hannah met them as they walked up to their rooms. She bustled Alice off to get changed, and told Cynthia that she had already put her afternoon water in the room. “I'll be with you presently, but you can get started without me, I'm sure Miss.”
Cynthia was standing in her corset and chemise when Hannah knocked and entered. She had been washing the 'pits and smelly bits' with a cloth. She looked over and asked “Hannah, there isn't any chance of a real bath is there?”
“Miss, not with the kitchen preparing dinner. It will take them time to heat up the water, and the servants are too busy to carry it up here.”
“I thought it might not be possible.”
As she bustled about, Hannah said, “A bath, why-ever would you want one today. Surely you had one last week?”
“I did, but still it is nice to be thoroughly clean and refreshed after hard exercise.”
“Maybe,” and here she sniffed Cynthia, “But you're clean enough, especially after I put some of this lavender water on you.”
“As you wish.”
Hannah helped Cynthia finish dressing then quickly headed back to see to Alice's needs. Meanwhile, Cynthia sat and tried to brush out her hair. She touched her earring and said, “Chris, these people. Primitive is too advanced a word for them. Please do your best to finish repairing yourself quickly.”
“What is it, Ma'am?”
“No baths. Can you imagine riding animals? It is hard, sweaty exercise and then not having a bath?”
“It is what they are used to Ma'am. Did this happen in Jane Austen world?”
“I didn't think much of the accuracy of that game. Remember I warned you about it?”
There was a knock on the door, and Alice entered. “Who were you talking to?”
“Myself. Do you see anyone else?”
“No. Well, do up your hair. They're about to ring the gong for dinner.”
While Cynthia struggled to get her hair into some manageable form, Alice noticed her red stone on a necklace. “What a pretty gem. Where did you get it?”
“I, uh, found it somewhere.”
“Can I wear it?”
“It's sort of special. We'll see.”
Hannah followed Alice into Cynthia's room and professionally undid and then redid Cynthia's hair. While she was working on it she said to Alice, “Miss Wroxham, you have enough jewelry. You know that with your complexion you can only wear pearls and diamonds. Not these deeply colored stones.”
“But Hannah nothing, Miss. Unlike you, Miss Morris has the dark coloring to carry it off.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now get down to the drawing room.”
As they left the room, Cynthia whispered to Alice, “I'll let you try it some time.”
Alice replied, “These old servants, just because they've known you since you wore short clothes they think they can dictate what you do.”
The Capon, served with an elegant sauce, fresh vegetables and a meat pie was far more palatable than Cynthia expected. Either that or she was far hungrier than she realized. Lord Wroxham apologized to his guests for the simple meal. Cynthia said “I’ve not eaten so well in a long time. Can you let me upload the recipe?”
She shook her head and after a moment said, “I’m sorry, I mean could you convey my complements to your cook?”
“Certainly. Whatever did you mean by upload?”
“My mouth must have been on autopilot. I just said the first thing that came into my mind.”
“See. There I did it again. Must be the wine. I’m so imaginative that I make up nonsense words all the time.”
After dinner, when the two women would normally withdraw and let the men have their port and snuff, Alice had a request. “James, since we are so informal tonight, could Miss Morris and I stay with you?”
Freddy said, “I say, that’s an idea. I mean James, old boy, as much as I like you, the company of the fair.” He paused, about to use the word ‘sex’, then recovered with “these fair maidens is not to be sneezed at.”
“Elegant as always, Freddy?”
“I do have a point, don’t I?”
“Why not? Madison, could you bring out the port and the snuff. Four glasses please?” His butler bowed to the inevitable, but irregular wishes of his master. He produced the wine, the glasses, and the snuff jar.
1Translator's note. Most of the more colorful spacer expressions lose their meanings in translating from modern English and the various Xeno-dialects used in the original manuscript into late Middle English. I have endeavored to preserve the flavor of the language, but there really are no idiomatic late Middle English equivalents for many of the colorful alien expressions that have made their way into common usage. For example the Cataxi expression 'da'thu yrse' which translates roughly as 'may your carapace overgrow your eye slits' really has no idiomatic equivalent.
2Even spacers who were born, like Cynthia, on other planets referred to Earth as home. If they could, most managed a visit home sometime in their lives. Cynthia's visit had been eventful.
4 A standing budge is a scout for a thief. Cracksmen were house robbers in general.
5The name for Uranus at the time.
6A pony is slang for twenty-five pounds.