“Jeanette, turn on your shield,” her father said, shutting the book and standing up.
Part of her bristled at not being part of the imminent fight, but she knew that she really should stop listening to that part of her. She nodded.
“We’ll keep you company,” said the crows Thyrsis and Antithyrsis, as they alit on her shoulders. She pressed the jewel on her necklace, and they were blind and deaf behind an impenetrable shield.
She must have been pouting a little, because the voice of Thyrsis ca me through her bracelets. “It’s time you realize this, little Jeanette: when the bad guys come through that door, and in most conflict situations, you’re the target of opportunity. They’re not going to attack the giant tiger in the mirror armor: they’re going to attack the cute little girl in the embroidered dress. And that can be dangerous.”
“Don’t say ‘conflict situations.’ It’s just ‘conflicts.’ Degradation of the language,” Antithyrsis said.
Outside the barrier, they had arranged themselves in a deliberate formation: Lord Elphinstone and O Tse flanking the door, the Queen back in the center, with Dr. Ransom and Senhor Capoeira Capybara on either side, with Lieutenant Quintus Octavian directly in front of her, resplendent in his uniform, formidable sidearm at the ready.
“I’m still not sure about this,” Ransom said.
“The door makes a small bottleneck---by design, no doubt,” said Silvertyger. “It’s better than them blasting the wall in. Remember, what they do know is that they sent their ghost and we exposed him--nothing more.”
“All right,” Ransom said. “But there are sounds out there of machines that were never meant for these ice tunnels.”
Lord Elphinstone reached down and opened the door.
This had the desired effect: heavily armed men stumbled forward, then paused. Their split-second of unpreparedness could have been fatal: however, nothing happened.
“Can I help you?” Said the Queen of Hearts, a bit of sarcasm in her voice.
The soldiers retreated, and a big clumsy robot wheezed in. It had a vid-screen in its chest, and the screen had the picture of a broad-faced, small-eyed, thick lipped man. Ransom wondered why such crude technology was being used. Misdirection?
“Hello,” a gravelly lo-fi voice said. “My name is Mad John Iqalummiaq, and I have a controlling interest in this port. I’m here to investigate the disappearance of one of my subordinates. He was last detected in this vicinity.”
“Oh, him,” drawled the Lieutenant, who did supercilious arrogance very well. “Vanished in a flash of light.”
“Hm. And how did that come about?” The robot asked.
“Hard to say. Maybe he didn’t like what we had to tell him.”
The clumsiness of the robot made it hard to tell whether Quintus was getting a rise out of Mad John. But a line of armed men came into the hidey-hole behind them.
“I also noticed that I don’t have a dock registration for any ship listed around the time you first showed up at the station. Now there are a number of ways to sneak aboard the station while not docking your ship--I’ve seen some good ones--but our regulations are rather sweeping in this part of space. Hiding your craft in Big Planet’s magnetic storm is a game we have mastered.”
The Queen of Hearts spoke for the first time. “If you’ll present us with the bill, I’ll se that it is paid in good order.”
“Actually, in order to present you with a bill, including penalties, I’ll need some information.”
She turned to the capybara. “Make up some numbers for him.”
That finally did it. “DAMN YOU, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE HERE?”
Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone growled “Do not raise your voice in the presence of Her Majesty,” and grabbed the clunky robot and lifted it high. The soldiers raised their weapons but didn’t fire.
The Lieutenant laughed. “Just as we thought! A paranoid little shit like you wouldn’t risk a datastream that your enemies could trace back to your own hidey-hole--so that’s you inside that heavily-armored robot, isn’t it, Mad John Gummibear? Lord Elphinstone?”
The giant tiger closed his paw, and the armor began to crack. Panels fell off and there was a storm of static out of the speakers. The soldiers shifted their stance and turned their heads to look at each other.
Then he set the robot-suit down. Dr. Ransom walked forward to him and said in his best ice-cold scientist voice, “We are here on an intelligence gathering mission connected with measures far beyond your comprehension. We are happy to pay you a shakedown fee to stay out of our way, and are willing to be quite generous. But let us be clear on its effect: you will stay out of our way.” He raised his hand, opened his palm, and displayed a large jewel.
In one face saving gesture, one of the soldiers stepped up and took the jewel. They filed out with the robot/suit walking slowly and irregularly.
The door closed. “Well, that was disappointing. A schoolyard bully. And not very bright.”
“I don’t know: I thought we played our roles very well,” said the Lieutenant.
“You have a great future as a martinet, Quintus Octavian,” said the capybara. “But it was disappointing in that he won’t know a thing about what we’re looking for: the path of our kind or the one hand raised high in the dark.”
Jeanette’s force field lifted, and she looked at the others with concern. “What? Didn’t we win?”
“It was scarcely worth it,” said Senhor Capoeira. “Although I did like Mad John Gummibear.”
“What?” Said Jeanette.
“Later,” said the capybara. “If your romance novel is to be believed, my dear, we’re going to have a very difficult time finding any old friends or archive material on The King of the Moon of the Moon. Any information will have to be bought dearly and/or by threat. A hard slog.”
“From what our ghost told us, though, there may be a source that has an interest in all these matters,” said Dr. Ransom. “The Kirk.”