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"SSS." The sensor overwatch AI filtered a possible message out of the interstellar background and passed it through to the controller of Station SSS-900.

"Hissing again, are we?" Simeon muttered absently at the subprogram, and turned his attention back to the simulacrum.

* * *

Napoleon had just pushed the British north of Nottingham. Wounded, exhausted soldiers sprawled across the fields where the defeated army camped, as the rain drained down, gray skies darkening over trampled muddy fields. Away across the rolling landscape fires still flickered, where dead men lay gaping around smashed cannon. The women were out with lanterns, looking for their husbands and sons.

A dispatch rider came clattering up to Wellesley's tent with news of the Jacobin uprisings in Birmingham and Manchester, and a landing of the Irish rebels. The big beak-nosed man stood in the open flap of the tent as the dripping militiaman saluted clumsily and handed over the dispatches, blinking in the driving rain.

"The devil with it," he muttered, turning to the map-table within and unfolding the heavy wax-sealed papers. "It's too bad. If we'd won that last battle . . . if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Still, it was a damned near-run thing—a very near thing."

He looked up. "You are to inform His Majesty that he and the royal family must take ship for India immediately. These—" he extended the reports from his folding desk "—are for Viceroy Arnold in Calcutta."

* * *

I concede, the computer said.

"Of course," Simeon answered smugly.

He switched his primary visual focus from simulation back to the lounge and looked down at the big holotable. An excellent model for use in war-gaming, the map of England was scattered with unit symbols. Finer and finer detail could be obtained by magnifying individual sectors—right down to the animate models of soldiers and horses. Or tanks and artillery, for some of the other games. He focused: on a horse tiredly nipping at its neighbor on the picket line, on the stubbled gap-toothed face of a sentry yawning.


"What is that?" Simeon asked.

The answer floated up into his awareness from the peripherals; tightbeam signal, modulated subspace waves, picked up by one of the passive buoys out on the fringes of the system. A subroutine had flagged it as possibly interesting.

Hmmm, he thought. Odd. It might just be the last fading noise from a leaking mini-singularity about to go pop. The things tended to cluster in this area, which was full of third-generation stars and black holes, though this one tasted like a signal. The problem with that was that there was nothing much out that way; nothing listed as inhabited for better than two hundred lights. Certainly no traffic into the sphere of Space Station Simeon-900-X's operations. He would have to see if anything more came of it. Presumably if someone was calling, they would try again.

Idly, he ran a checklist of station functions. Life-support was nominal, of course; any variation of that was red-flagged. One hundred seventy-two craft of various sorts from the liner Altair to barge-tugs were currently docked. Twenty-seven megatons of various mineral powders were in transit, in storage, or undergoing processing in SSS-900-X's attendant fabrication modules. Two new tugs were under construction in the yard. A civic election was underway, with Anita de Chong-Markowitz leading for council-rep in station sector three, the entertainment decks. Death in the Twenty-First was still billing as most popular holo of the month. Simeon sneered mentally, with a wistful overtone. Historical dramas were impossible for a serious scholar to watch because the manufacturers would not do their research.

It was not necessary to investigate much more in detail. With the connectors, shellperson Simeon was SSS-900-X. Little awareness remained of the stunted body inside its titanium shell in the central column of the lounge. He was the station, and any weakness or failure was, like pain, intense and personal. As far as his kinesthetic sense was concerned, he was a metal tube a kilometer long, with two huge globes attached on either end.

The Altair was in. Simeon had docked the incoming ship with his usual efficiency but without his usual close scrutiny. He deliberately turned his attention away from disembarking passengers, refusing to study their faces, especially the faces of the women.

Radon's replacement as Simeon's brawn was on this ship, and all he knew was her work record and her name. Channa Hap. Probably from Hawking Alpha Proxima Station, Hap being a common surname for those bom in that ancient and wealthy community. He wasn't entirely sure. He'd fought Radon's retirement too hard to have much personal interest in his replacement. All right, I was sulking, he told himself. Time to get with the program. He'd established a subroutine to trash the applications of replacements. That hadn't been personal, merely a ploy.

He hadn't wanted her, but they were stuck with each other now.

Liners docked at the north polar aspect of the two linked globes that made up the station. The tube was a kilometer long and half that wide, more than enough for the replenishment feeds and a debarkation lounge fancy enough to satisfy the station's collective vanity: twenty meters on a side and fifteen high, lined with murals, walled and floored with exotic space-mined stone, with information kiosks and everything else a visitor needed to feel at home.

"I'm Channa Hap," a woman said to one of the kiosks. "I need directions to Control Central."

So that's her. Long high-cheekboned face, medium-length curling dark hair.

"You are expected, Ms. Hap," the terminal said. It had a mellow, commanding voice synthed from several of Simeon's favorite actors, some of whom dated back to the twenty-fourth century. "Do you wish transportation?"

"If there's no hurry, I'll walk. Might as well get used to the new home."

"This way, please."

She nodded. Simeon froze the visual and studied her; tall, athletic. Dressed plainly in a coverall, but she had presence. Nice figure, too, if you liked subtle curves and rolling muscle. A fox. 

* * *

In an amazingly short time the door-chime signaled a request for admittance. Feeling as nervous as he had when meeting his first brawn, Simeon said, "Come," and the door swished open.

Channa entered. He closed in on the viewer to what he thought of as normal conversational distance. That was an advantage sometimes, since softshells couldn't get to their psychologically comfortable distance with you. She had delicate, clear-cut features and earnest dark eyes, and the curly black hair was swept back from her face in a disciplined no-nonsense fashion. A vid-show heroine. Perfect! he thought. I'll get things off on the right foot. He switched on a screen with his own "face"—the way he'd imagined it, ruggedly handsome with a tan, a Heidelberg dueling scar, level gray eyes, close-cropped blond hair and a Centauri Jets fan cap—and spoke aloud:


The dark eyes widened slightly, "Excuse me?"

He laughed, "That's ancient Earth slang for 'sexy lady.' "

"I see."

The words were so clipped Simeon could almost hear them ping on the deck as they fell through a short silence.

Ah, geesh, he thought, this is going really well. "Um, I meant it as a compliment." Why didn't they send me a male brawn? he asked himself, conveniently forgetting his request form. Male bonding he knew about.

"Yes, of course," she said coolly. "It's just not a type of compliment that I'm particularly fond of receiving."

She's got a nice voice, Simeon thought uneasily. Pity she seems to be a bitch. "What sort of compliments do you accept?" he asked in a tone of forced jocularity which wasn't easy to manage through a digital speaker.

"I accept those that deal with my quick learning ability, and my efficiency, or that acknowledge I'm doing a good job," she said, moving further into the room and taking a seat before his column. Until she had finished speaking, she did not look directly at him.

"The sort of compliment you'd give a servo-mechanism, if you gave servo-mechanisms compliments," he said.

"Exactly." She smiled sweetly and folded her hands.

"You've an interesting attitude, Ms. Hap," he said, laying a little stress on the ancient honorific. If she wants to get formal, I'll show her formal. "Most of the women I've worked with didn't object to an occasional compliment on their appearance."

She raised her brows slightly and cocked her head. "Perhaps if they objected you simply dismissed it as being part of an 'attitude.' "

I could cry, if I could cry, Simeon thought. He'd gotten lonely these last weeks without Tell Radon. He'd begun to anticipate the fun he'd been going to have with a new brawn. Someone to talk to. . . . How could they have matched him with this . . . ice princess? They knew he was easy going, sure, but he'd given them a very good idea of what he was looking for in a brawn. Exact specifications, which Channa Hap hadn't met, fully. Was someone in Central taking advantage of his good nature, somehow hoping he could straighten her out, or maybe loosen her up?

"I find your attitude rather interesting," she murmured, narrowing her eyes. "Have you checked your hormone levels recently?"

"That's a rather personal remark. . . ." Maybe they just want me to blast her out an airlock when nobody's looking. 

" 'Sexy lady' isn't?" She smiled and raised a sardonic brow.

"That was a compliment, intended to put you at ease. Have you checked your own hormone levels lately?"

There was silence.

After a moment she sat forward and looked at him levelly. "Look, even though it hardly seems worth the trouble of officially submitting my orders to you, on a practical level we may as well just admit that, for the time being, we're stuck with each other. You need a brawn and I'm here. I'm well trained, experienced and hard working. We don't have to love each other to work together."

"True, but it gets a little cold trying to maintain your distance with someone you see every day. It would be a lot easier if we could be friends. Look, why don't we just erase what just happened and start over? Whaddaya say?"

She pursed her lips, then smiled. "I'm game. But let's start slow, and we'll avoid the personal remarks for the time being, okay?" She cocked her head at him and raised an eyebrow. "You start."

"Hello, you must be Channa Hap. Welcome to the SSS-900-C."

"Thank you. I hope I'm not interrupting."

"Nah, I always have time for a pret . . . colleague." He detected a slight narrowing of her eyes. "My, you sure are efficient looking."

"Well, and so are you, you're so steely and all."

"Funny, I was just about to say the same thing about you."

She stood up. "This isn't going to work."

"My fault. I shouldn't have said that. Look, you must be tired from all the travel you've been doing. Why don't you settle in, look around, relax a little—things might look different."

"This has nothing to do with my being tired or your hormones. . . ."

"What is this fixation you have with my hormones?"

"Shut-up-and-listen-to-me." Channa was giving him a look that he could almost feel. She paused and held up her hands, sitting down again. "Just listen," she said earnestly. "I think that it would be best if we put our cards on the table. I haven't studied your files in full yet," she admitted with a tired smile. "I just couldn't make myself do it. But I do know quite a bit about you." She leaned back and crossed her long legs. "I know that you have a fair amount of influence and a lot of contacts at Central Admin. And I know that you called on just about all of them in the matter of your brawn replacement." She gave him a severe look. "You made yourself famous on just about every level."

He was a little lost here. He had kicked up quite a fuss when they forcibly retired Tell Radon, but what did it have to do with her?

"In case you're wondering why I'm bringing this up," she continued.

Geeeze, Simeon thought, that's eerie! She can't possibly read my mind. Can she? 

"It may interest you to know that I have my own contacts at Admin. And they've told me that you came up with a list of qualifications that were extremely hard to fill. In fact, I was the only candidate who did fit them, with the glaring exception of the age qualification. I hear that I'm four years too young for this post."

"Well, you see . . ."

"Excuse me, I'm not finished. I was also told that you went over my service records looking for black marks, and that when you couldn't find them, you went looking for shadows that you could pretend were black marks. . . ."

"Hey! I don't know who you were talking to."

"Bear with me a few moments longer," Channa said, holding up one finger. "Then you can have your say. I'm not going anywhere." She looked at his image on the screen for a moment with narrowed eyes, and when he remained silent she nodded. "I've been told that all you need do to ruin the day of almost any Admin executive is to mention my name. The feeling you appear to have left behind you as the smoke cleared on this was that where there's smoke, there's fire. And that if you, well-known and respected brain that you are, would object so strenuously to my assignment to the SSS-900, despite the fact that I fit all but one of your many qualifications, then there must indeed be something seriously wrong with me."

"Oh." He honestly hadn't thought about that. He'd been so intent on saving Tell from forced retirement that no other considerations had seemed important. Channa Hap as a person had never entered into his thoughts.

Channa continued speaking, "I told myself that it probably wasn't personal."

God, it's weird the way she can pick up on my thoughts like that!  

"I told myself to keep an open mind. If you had only greeted me as a fellow professional, then I think I could have let the whole mess be forgotten. But the first words out of your speakers show that either you can't discern the difference between a compliment and a lip-smacking, smarmy, personal remark, or your campaign to get rid of me continues."

"Now wait a minute!" Simeon said. She opened her mouth to speak and he overrode her. "It's my turn. Okay, you said I'd get a turn and I'm taking it." She raised her brows and gave him an open-handed gesture, giving him the floor. "I don't know who your informant is, but they've got it all wrong. I'm going to assume that you know the system well enough to realize that whoever came up for consideration was going to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb. A space station the size of a small city requires versatility. I'm going to assume that you're mature enough to know that twenty-six is very young for this posting. Tell was thirty-eight when we came here, and that's the general age I was looking for. I don't think, given the importance of the SSS-900, that I'm being unreasonable. But, I suppose that to someone uninformed, the in-depth investigation could look like a campaign to discredit you. That was honestly not my intention, nor is it my intention now. If my greeting was a little too familiar, I apologize, but I had no way of knowing what dark suspicions you were harboring. I'm really very open, Ms. Hap."

She smiled amiably and nodded. "Mmhm. This entire charming explanation of yours is predicated on the assumption that my informant is someone's secretary." She shook her head sadly. "No."

Gulp, maybe I did go a little far. . . . "Um . . ."

"You can rest easy," she assured him. "I'm very good at what I do. As you well know, I have an almost perfect record. . . ."

Actually, you do have a perfect record, Simeon thought miserably.

" . . . so, whether we actually get along or not, the station won't suffer. And I promise you that I'm not going to just up and disappear on you once you've gotten used to me. Because I have it on good authority that, after what you've done to my career and reputation, I'd have to bribe and sleep my way into a secondary assignment on the meanest asteroid-mining outpost at the farthest reaches of the explored galaxy." She rose and said, "I'd like to look at my quarters now."

"Yeah . . . just," Simeon slid the door to the brawn's quarters open, "just settle in. We'll work this out, Ms. Hap—you'll see. I'm not as bad as you seem to think I am. I'll check out your allegations and see if I can make things right. Okay?"

She looked from the open door to Simeon and back again. She sighed as she walked to the door. "No, I think it would be better if you just left things alone for a while."

"Ms. Hap," Simeon called. She turned. "When a new brawn comes aboard, station protocol recommends a little informal gathering of the department heads. I've arranged one for this evening at 20:00. That is, if that's all right with you?"

She nodded and smiled. "I think that's a great idea." The door to her room slid shut behind her.


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