"You okay?" P'nyssa asked, looking at me quizzically over the bar separating the kitchen from the living room.
"Tired," I replied. "I ate too much, you know what that does to me."
"Why don't you take a nap then?"
"If I do that, I won't be able to sleep later. And I need to maintain a day schedule for a while."
P'nyssa nodded, coming around the corner with two glasses filled with iced tea. I accepted the one she held out to me. "What's that?" she asked, indicating my book.
"A history of llerkin, in llerkindi. I've gotten the spoken down, mostly, but written llerkindi isn't quite that easy. This way I'm forced to do two things at once." I sighed. "I thought Aaden wasn't any good at languages. Have you seen the books he's got? There's more llerkindi botany in the library now than I think there is Terran!"
She nodded and leaned over to kiss me. "I love your cheeks," she said.
"I know, you tell me that all the time."
"And are you upset by my telling you?" She smiled.
"No," I said easily, "I love hearing it. Love you."
"Love you too," she said.
We laughed softly, only to be interrupted by the Castle AI. "Ken, Ambassador Agima is calling."
I raised my eyebrows, giving P'nyssa my mock-exasperation look. "Duty calls," I said. She nodded. "In here, Dave."
The image resolved in front of me, the deliberate slight flicker in the image an idiosyncrasy I had asked for to tell me that this was just an image. Sometimes our imaging technology almost seems too good. "Good evening, Agima. What can I do?"
"Vatare' Shardik," he said in a voice that immediately made me feel wary. Something was wrong. "I have received a message from the Princess Anlestin. She is accompanying the warship Metyslenki, enroute to Pendor. I do not know why she is coming, and I am concerned. She has asked for a private meeting with 'Vatare Ilye Pendoro Shardik.' The wording of the message is most formal."
"What do you think it might mean?"
"I have no guesses. Princess Anlestin is, as you well know, someting of a--" he sought for the right word-- "A free spirit. Formality of this type does not become her easily."
I smiled, remembering my last encounter with the lovely Anlestin. "I am aware of that, Agima. When will she be arriving?"
"Within the week."
After Agima's image had left, I turned to P'nyssa and said, "Okay, you two, ideas? Suggestions? Thoughts?"
Dave answered first. "There is little data to go on. If we're going to discuss this from the point of view of in-house knowledge, let's discuss that you have a unique relationship with Anlestin. You are the first alien she ever slept with."
"Her request's to meet with you," P'nyssa said.
"Right, so this has to do with something personal. Something between her and me?"
"Have you written her since the Treaty?"
"Of course. At least three or four times. They were always friendly letters, and I always got friendly letters in return."
"So that's not it," P'nyssa said. She threw up her mittens in frustration. "I don't know."
"I'm equally in the dark, Ken."
"Great. Me too. I guess we wait."
"I guess so," Dave and P'nyssa said in tandem. I looked at P'nyssa, then we both turned slowly to stare at the ceiling. Then the three of us broke out in laughter.
Four days later, I wasn't laughing quite so easily. When the Metyslenki has set into orbit, I had joined Joshua at the Arc to welcome them in-system and to personally greet the Princess. The response had been cold and formal, an acknowledgment of permission to transit in- system from the Captain of the vessel. When I had requested a communique' with the Princess, I had been rebuffed.
Later that day, I had received an invitation to meet the Princess, aboard her vessel, alone. The strange part of the invitation read "in person."
In a shuttle of llerkin manufacture we coasted from the P.S.F. Parma to the Metyslenki. I sat in the chair on the right, tapping my fingers in nervous boredom; on my left Shen, a llerki on Agima's staff and someone I counted on as reliable and trustworthy, tended to the controls. "Any idea, Shen?"
"No, but sorry, Ken." I smiled. He was getting the hang of Quen just a little slowly. "Orders have come from Agima to me to be formal. When we reach the ship, I must behave myself." I nodded, getting the general drift.
"You have to act like a soldier," I said in llerkin.
"Yeah," he replied, using a colloquial llerkin "Yes." "You won't need that," he said, indicating the biocybe unit I was carrying. "Agima told me that they've tuned the atmosphere to make it more suitable to you, since we have no trouble breathing your air. Two trillis, Ken." About three and a half minutes. I put the biocybe pack in a pocket, just in case he was wrong. He easily coasted the ship into the docking bay and set about routine shut-down as the doors closed behind us.
"This way," he said. "Good day, Vatare'." I nodded and left the shuttle, bending down under a door that was too short even for llerki. Taking a deep breath, I found the air acceptable. Outside, I was met by an 'honor guard' of six armed soldiers in light battlegear and two llerki I had never met before. The one on my right I recognized as The Captain, but lacked a name for him. The other I knew not at all, although she was an older llerki. "Vatare'," she said with some formality, "I am Ipsi, The Princess Anlestin's personal secretary. Will you join us?"
"Before I do," I said, looking at the Captain, "it is your vessel. Permission to come aboard?"
He smiled, finally. For the reptilian llerki, he looked like a handsome and self-assured mel, but he also looked slightly uncomfortable. "Granted, Vatare'."
"Then I will join you, Ipsi." She shook her head slightly, which in llerki is our equivalent of a nod, and turned, walking away. I followed. The Captain took up behind me, the honor guard behind him in two rows.
The Mestylenki looked like a very comfortable ship; the halls were spacious and, if not the padded leather interiors of Pendorian vessels, they were at least paneled and painted in comfortable natural tones.
The two of them led me down to an elevator, and together we took it to another level. The honor guard did not follow, but I was not at all surprised to find another one waiting for us when we exited. I thought furiously as to what could require that I be accompanied by six armed llerki at all times.
"Through there," Ipsi said, indicating a door. It was not labeled. "Alone."
I nodded and said, "Thank you for your hospitality, Captain." He shook his head in response. I turned to the door and walked in; the two halves parted as I did so, then closed behind me with a snap.
Inside was a living room, done in a comfortable dark green, a color not unlike the Princess herself, who stood behind a large desk set in one corner of the room. "Stay where you are," she said. A cold fear began working its way up my neck. That was not the Anni I had met four years ago. The thought rammed its way into my consciousness again, Something is wrong.
She ignored me for the most part, examining the data screen in front of her. She smiled for a moment, then said "Good." She looked up at me, walked around the desk to stand in front of me, just at arm's length. "This time, it is you." With that she hit me.
Not just slapped me, but hit me, hard across the face with a closed fist. I shook my head with disbelief, staring at her, rubbing my jaw with my hand. "What was that for?" I said.
"You prag, how dare you insult me by sending that abomination under the guise of a peace treaty to violate me."
I stared at her for a few seconds, not sure what to say. Not sure what she meant, either "I... I don't know what you're talking about, Anni."
"Do not dare call me that," she said. "I do not know you, and you do not know me. You will address me as 'Your Highness.'" I stared at her, uncomprehending. She continued. "On Hermoc the 40th, do you deny that you sent an android with your appearance to llerki to attend the dinner given in honor of the Peace of Fahn to be signed Remmar first?"
"A what? Princess, that was me."
"With the exchange writ recently, we have been allowed to review some of your current technologies. According to your own documentation, the basis of your respiratory function does not perform on llerkin. You would asphyxiate if you came to my world, Shardik. Do you deny, therefore, that what was on llerki was a machine of some sort, sent as your proxy?"
I sighed. "No, I do not deny it. That was an android."
She smiled, a chilling sort of smile. "I cannot make war on Pendor, Shardik, for I know who would lose. But I can kill you."
"Wait a second!" I said quickly. "Don't you want to hear the other part?"
"What other part, Shardik? What is there to discuss?"
"Okay, Back on Remmar 1st, that wasn't this body, but that was me!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Anni, if you've read our tech-level reviews, then you also know that one of our major science is biocybernetics. Maybe that wasn't this body in your bedroom at the Skypalace, but that was this mind, this soul, talking to you."
"Are you trying to tell me that your technology allows you to move minds from one body to another?"
"Yes. In certain cases. But that wasn't what was happening that night."
"Explain it to me," she said.
"I can, if I need to, shunt all input from my senses to a storage buffer and substitute any other set of sensory input I want. I admit, that night and the next day this body that stands in front of you was held in a sensory-deprivation facility aboard the Eldarfaroth. But that was so that I could freely get input from the android on the ground. Anni, as far as I know, I was on llerkin. That was me down there with you." I decided to press my luck. "You do remember, don't you? In the Skypalace? I said you were cute. You remember my touching you, tasting you? Remember how hot you said I felt, how warm my skin was? Come here, touch me. You'll find it the same."
"I do not trust you." She bit slightly at her lower lip.
"Dammit, Anni, I'm seven hundred years old. I've had plenty of time to learn a martial art or two. Do you think if I really wanted to kill you there's anything to stop me?"
She looked at me, emotions warring on her face for supremacy. Finally she walked towards me and put her hand on my cheek, right where she had slugged me just minutes ago. "It feels the same."
I smiled, my jaw aching only slightly. "I can prove it. If you are willing to trust me."
"How can I? I am still angry that you did not tell me the truth."
"What would the point be? From your point of view, either was a lie. That was me on llerki that day, talking to your mother. I remember you telling me about Maerts. I remember you slipping the note into my pocket. Tell me, was that a common style, or did Aaraon arrange for that?"
She smiled slightly and said, "I asked Aaraon for your dimensions and had the clothes delivered to the embassy."
"My dimensions. They fit me well enough, didn't they?"
She thought about that for a second. "Very well, I will accompany you."
"Anni, I put myself into your hands by coming here. Trust me in return." I paused for a second. "Please?"
That bite of the lip came back, and finally she said, "Shardik, there is one difference between us. If I were to kill you, I would die as well in the ensuing war. If you were to kill me, all llerkin would have to show for it is another humiliating defeat by the Pendor Fleet and the loss of a Princess. There is something riling in the knowledge that nothing but a peculiar concept of peace keeps Pendor from making a servant of llerkin."
"That and our wealth."
She sighed. "I will go with you."
"You don't have to."
"Yes, I do." She turned to the desk and said, "Captain, you may dismiss the honor guard. And prepare a shuttle. I will be returning with Vatare' Shardik to the Starship Facility."
There was a pause, and then the Captain said, "Yes, Your Highness."
We boarded the shuttle together, she first. Ipsi was more than a little distressed, but Anlestin raised her voice and Ipsi relented.
"Shen!" I said as I boarded.
"Greetings, Vatare'. Good to see you again."
"You too," I said with earnest. "I trust you recognize The Princess Anlestin?"
He shook his head, bowed down on both knees and said "It is an honor, Your Highness."
She shook her head and said, "Please stand. I cannot abide the formality."
"Shen, we will need cargo door sixteen on Parma. Can you find that?"
"Like the back of my paw," he said in Quen.
"Back of your hand, Shen. Hand. You don't have paws."
"What's the difference, then?" he asked. I proceeded to explain the conceptual differences between hands, Hands, paws and mittens. He shook his head finally. "So Centaurs, Humans and Satryls have hands, Dolphins and Pamthreats have 'Hands,' Tindals have mittens, and everybody else has paws."
"But I've met Satryl's with fur on their hands," he pointed out.
"They're still called hands."
He sighed, bobbing his head. "I'll never figure this out."
He frowned at that. "And AI's just have whatever happens to be lying around."
He shook his head in frustration.
I finally had a good chance to look at Anni. Not that she had changed much in four years. Her skin was made of very fine dark-green scaling, almost microscopically fine over the bridge of her nose and under her eyes, which were wide with vertically-slitted irises of a coppery-blue color. On the sides of her hairless head two tall, narrow triangles ending in sharp points were her ears. Her hands had three fingers and a single, opposable thumb, and I smiled when I realized that she, like me, had the annoying habit of tapping her fingers when she was bored. She was still thin, although I wondered if she would gain the same weight her mother had; the Queen Stevves was quite overweight. llerki have no visible mammae.
Shen interrupted my musing. "Cargo door sixteen, dead ahead."
"Take us in easy and put us next to the door by the far right."
"No problem," he replied, setting the shuttle down just where I had indicated.
"Princess, if you will follow me," I said.
"Yes," she replies, rising from her chair. We walked down a corridor and into a SDisk control room. I asked that she step on the platform, and she agreed. "You've never ridden one of these before, have you?" I asked.
"No," she said. "But I am familiar with what they do."
"Good. Josh, I need to contact Halloran Eldar."
Josh, local AI and Commander of Parma and The Arc, replied "That's an unusual request. Okay, you have him."
"Good evening, Ken. What is it you want?"
We blinked, and were standing at the end of a long hallway. Brieanna's home hadn't changed much in the past six centuries. Designed with typical Pendorian thoroughness and typical Terran idealism, it smelled of old wood and leather and a light tracing of dust. The hallway was carpeted in dark brown. Light came in from the large window at our backs and from small incandescent bulbs set in ornamental holders made of copper and glass. As I walked down the hallway the floor echoed. "Drac?" I said aloud.
"Good evening, Kennet," the house computer said. I turned around and motioned for Anni to follow me.
"Telephone, Drac. For... " I tried to remember the AI's name, found it. "Roberta Majors Masters Reedhon."
"Hello?" said a pleasant but professional female voice.
"Roberta? It's Ken."
"Ken!" she replied, the professionalism replaced with an easy familiarity. "Why aren't I getting any visual?"
"I'm at Castle Hidden, sweetheart."
"Ah, that explains it. What can I do you for?"
"That's it. Why, do you need Richard?"
"No, that's okay. What I really need is an aspect shifter that can interface with a new design by induction. Can do?"
"Not one of your designs, I take it."
"I'll ask Will." There was a long pause, and Roberta said, "Can do. Four hours."
"I'll call back." There was an audible click as the line disconnected and Drac announced "Call terminated."
I turned to Anni, who was running her fingers along the banister of the stairs leading up to the second floor. I watched her for a second and said, "I like doing that too."
"Doing what?" she asked.
"Touching. Learning the textures of things. Like you."
She closed her eyes briefly, then said, "It is so hard to accept."
"Come with me," I said, leading her to the front door. The well-maintained lock slid out of it's slot easily and the door opened. After the short, brick platform immediately outside, the small grassy meadow that was all of Brieanna's home lay before us. To the left were the garage and the stables, looking as rainwashed and ancient as always. I knew if I looked there would be two horses in the stables. I could smell them from here.
"Where are we?"
"I don't know. This place is called Castle Hidden, and only two people are allowed to come here. Myself and Brieanna Flanders."
Anni smiled and said, "I have read that story."
"Yes, that one is publicly available, isn't it? What did you think of it?"
"I am not sure what to think. I know that the human in those stories and you are supposed to be the same person, but those stories are always five centuries out of date. You could have changed in those centuries."
I nodded. "Come on. I'll show you what our tech can do." I threw the garage doors wide open. "There it is," I said. "The Powered Armor that almost killed me."
She walked in ahead of me. "Is it safe to touch?"
"Should be," I said. "Power's off."
She ran her hands over the ceramic armoring carefully. "We have nothing like this on llerkin."
"More important than that," I said, reaching in for the hidden key access and pressing the 'open' latch, "you don't have this." The chest panel fell open and I reached in, grabbing the remote control. I flicked a few switches on the battery back-up, and closed the hatch again.
"What is that?"
"You'll see," I said. "Come outside with me." I walked over to a tree with line-of-sight on the garage and sat down. I put the remote in my lap, put the old b/r headband over my temples and hit the 'on' switch. The world righted itself again and I was staring at the ceiling of the garage, painfully aware that I was still down.
My body had changed. I thought to myself and my fusion-powered heart began humming again. I felt electricity course through my myomer sheaths, each tiny link tightening against the next, preparing for action. My senses expanded, and I decided it was time to stand. With one quick motion I was on my feet, looking out of the garage. From where I stood I could see Anni and my human form. She stood next to me, and I could hear her speaking. "Why are you silent? Your suit has started to move!" She did not sound happy.
From my electronic throat I said "Because that's not me anymore, Anni."
She turned, her eyes wide. "Ken?" she said. Somewhere in the back of my head a small celebration ensued. She had called me 'Ken.'
"Yup, it's me. I'm in the armor now."
"It's that easy?" she said.
"Not exactly." I walked over to her easily, feeling the soft soil give way underneath my 1.09 mTon steps. "You see, we can't move souls, only senses and orders. I feel through these fingers," and I flexed my fingers, capable of rending a building in two, "and I hear through these ears. But there is my brain, and my mind, and if I were to close these fingers around that skull, I would die. You could shoot this armor all you wanted and I would never be harmed. But," I said, reaching into my insides and pulling out the .45 I kept stored in there for my human form to carry, "if you were to point this at that body and pull the trigger, it would be all over. There is no AI here to stop you, nobody watching you but me." I held the pistol out to her.
She shook her head. "I no longer want to kill you."
The ears on the armor flexed upwards, my somatic equivalent of a smile in armor. I sat down on the ground, and with a single command I turned the armor off. I was myself again, just another human with too much hardware coursing along his bones. I took off the command tiara and looked up at her. "So?" I said.
She smiled and said, "Okay, I believe you. Why do you have people inside your armor when it is so much safer that way?"
"Because the armor's pretty indestructible anyway. Although it has yet to be tested, Pendorian PA can theoretically survive ground zero from tactical nuclear shells. And the link between me and the armor is not capable of being jammed."
"There were no radio signals being transmitted to or from either you or Aaraon that night. The Palace security would have found them. How do you communicate?"
"Encoded gamma-ray transmissions rendered into gravitic signal patterns by artificial singularities."
"I am not a scientist," she said, smiling.
"It's call gradio. Basically, we use gravity waves. It takes a radio wave to generate one, and we use gamma rays because the high frequencies allow for encoding, tagging, and throughput."
"That I understand." I smiled. "And anyone using a gravitic weapon, such as the Shriaa-"
"Would screw up our commands, right. Not to mention having direct access to the brains of our soldiers. Not a happy thought."
"No," she said, smiling. "You said there was no AI here? Who was that you spoke to at first?"
"Drac?" She nodded. "Drac is an SI, a simulated intellegence. He isn't capable of independent thought; he only follows orders."
"Is not that unusual? I thought one of the definitions of a Castle was that it housed an AI."
I shrugged. "Depends. This is just Castle Hidden. Come, there is one more experiment I want to show you. A story that isn't available to you yet. But, since we've got two or three hours before it's ready, would you like to have dinner?"
"Why not? Brieanna keeps a good larder, I think. And I tend to be a reasonable cook."
She shook her head. It took me a second to remember that that meant 'yes.' "Okay," I said.
It took me a while, and Anni stood a corner, sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing as I set about cooking, listening to everything from Phillip Glass to Paulos Madhsenger to Nosinik, the last being a llerkin composer I had positively fallen in mad infatuation with. Sometimes I would sing along, especially when the Riffkin arrangement of Hendrix's Purple Haze for violin came over the speakers. She found that particularly funny, even if she didn't speak English.
"Why are you laughing?" I asked.
"I am sorry," she said, "but you seem so easy."
"Yes. I wonder what allows you to be so silly when you know you are being watched."
I shrugged. "After a while you have to accept what you are, Princess. I'm just being me."
Anni found the lasagna "interesting," the salad palatable "but a funny color," and neither wine nor soda was too her liking, so we drank water.
"Telephone," Drac announced.
"I'll take it."
"Ken, I've put the hardware you asked for on the SDisk, so if you'll clear it, it'll be at the Castle," Roberta said.
"Drac, clear path along present t-line for cargo."
"Cargo transit," Drac announced. "In the hallway."
"Thanks, Drac," I said. "Anni, could you wait here?"
She said yes, and I excused myself to go and find the hardware in question. There it was, a small box about the size of a loaf of bread, two Brace headbands dangling over one end. I returned to the kitchen.
"What is that?" she asked.
"Brace hardware. Come outside with me," I said, cocking my head in the general direction of the doors. She rose gracefully. "Anni," I said, "I don't know if you believe me fully yet, but I still think you're very beautiful."
She smiled and said, "Thanks."
"My Gods," I said with a laugh, "You used an informal."
"I am trying," she said, laughing along.
We walked outside, into the night air with the grass under our toes. The armor sat where I had left it, in the grass, looking for all the world like an oversized lost child picking at flowers. I sat down next to it. "Sit down," I said, "please."
She nodded, sitting down about a meter away from me. I handed her a Brace headband and said, "Look out that way," pointing to the building. She turned and I crawled through the grass, putting the customized headband over headband between her ears and down onto her skull. My fingers caressed the soft skin of her head gently. "What?" she asked.
"Shh..." I said. "Just a second." I hit the 'establish' button on the interface and about three seconds later it read "READY." I put the other headband over my head and said, "Are you ready?"
"For what?" she asked, nervously.
"For this," I said, hitting the 'go' button. The world spun about again. I felt someone at my back twitch, spasm, and fall over. I tried to turn around and found my body arguing with me about it. But I persevered, and turn around to look at Anni, now in my body, looking up at me. I was sure that if she had had control and understanding of my facial muscles, the look would have been fear. "Anni," I said in her voice, "easy."
"What?" she asked. I was thankful that Dick had long ago managed to improve the interim control routines.
"Take it slow and easy. You're in me, now. And I'm in you. Take it easy. I don't want you breaking something."
The eyes cast back and forth for a few seconds, and then she said, "Put me back."
"Okay," I said, reaching out carefully with her thin and delicate hand to hit the switch down to 'off.' Immediately, I was back. Looking up at her, I could see her shivering.
"That... That was..."
"Frightening. The ease with which you did that. How do you control it all?"
"Nobody tries to. People who abuse it tend to end up with one of these through their heads," I said, picking up the .45 where it had fallen in the grass and pulling back the slide, releasing a bullet.
She shivered again. I eased over to her and put my hands on her shoulders. The feel of the light cloth she wore felt rough and ungentle in my hands. "Anni," I said.
"What?" she asked, looking at me.
"Enough demonstrations. I've frightened you, and that's not what I meant to do. I wanted to take you with me and have fun, not scare you."
She nodded. As I got up and offered a hand to help her to her feet, she said, "Wait." I didn't say anything for a moment, so she continued. "When you came to llerkin, I wanted you, although I still do not know why." I sat back down on the grass. "Now I find myself torn between knowing just how easy it is for you and your kind to control us, or destroy us." She smiled wanly. "It is not unlike, not unlike knowing that there are Gods, very close, and very powerful."
"Anni," I sighed. "I'm not a god, nobody on Pendor is."
"Compared to me you are. You all live forever, you live in whatever form you choose, your universe is whatever you make it. Pendorians raise mountains and divert rivers with their hands. And while you reserve the power to yourself, you rend stars and make life. What am I compared to that?"
"Alive," I said. "And therefore, important." I sighed for a second and said, "Anni, the fact that in my heart I happen to like you makes a lot of difference."
She looked up at me and said, "What?"
"I'm just a Human being, Anni. Someday, your people will share the power of Pendor. All it takes is a little patience and a lot of science. In the meantime, we're just equal." I reached out to touch her face.
She touched the back of my hand gently with her fingertips. "I still want you," she said.
"Excuse me?" I replied, taken aback.
"There are two Ken Shardiks," she started. "There is Vatare Ilye Pendoro, the one who made Pendor. And there is Ken, who smiles and delights in seducing young Princesses."
"Can I change hats?" I said. She looked at me, confused, and I explained the expression.
She smiled and nodded. "I wanted to know I was wrong. I wanted a reason to not hate you for what I now know you were at the Treaty."
"I'm sorry if knowing the truth makes you more frightened."
She shook her head and said, "There was a melHuman in my bedroom one night, a handsome and dashing melHuman."
"Come on," I said, standing up again, "This was a mistake, taking you to Castle Hidden." She looked at me and accepted my hand. I helped her to her feet. I made a sweeping gesture with one hand and said, "This place once helped me remember that the ability to do everything doesn't mean everything's been done. Now it only reminds me of the time and the task before, and I don't need to be reminded." I walked over to the front of the armor and opened the chestplate. Replacing the round I had cycled out of the .45, I took careful aim and fired seven rounds into the controls of the Shirow, destroying as completely as I could the armor's computer, radio, and fusion plant. Then I dropped the pistol onto the grass. As we walked away, I looked back. I had left the chestplate open, to the wind, the rain, and the snow.