Read an Excerpt
By Bonnie Milani
Promontory PressCopyright © 2013 Bonnie Milani
All rights reserved.
The Protector's shuttle dropped into atmosphere above the North American mainland. It raced its sonic boom west across the steel blue waters of the Pacific until the green ridges of the Hawaiian Islands rose from the horizon like broken dragon teeth. Within the quiet luxury of the Protector's private cabin, Jezekiah Van Buren leaned forward for a better view. Even this far out, he recognized the misty outlines of Maui and Kauai to the north of the island chain. To the south, he made out the Big Island, Hawaii itself. And Oahu, dead ahead, its outline etched in his heart.
Home. After three years of living the myth out on the galactic rim, he'd almost convinced himself that Home World was all a fantasy. Now, the beauty of the reality surprised him. Though not half as much as the thrill he felt just in being here. The shuttle banked north, following the island chain to the space port up on Niihau. Jezekiah twisted in his seat to keep Oahu in sight as long as possible. Foolish to welcome the sight of home. There was nothing for him on Earth: no hope, no freedom – just Mother's duty and Letticia's hatred. He did not want to be here. Yet his body felt the islands' call and his soul sang with joy. Sensors woven into the fabric of the seat picked up the telltale changes in his body's chem signals that betrayed his eagerness and fed them to ShipMind. The shuttle upped screen magnification instantly. Squinting, he glimpsed the sunlit sparkle on Pearl Harbor before it vanished behind the gray-green coast.
"You sure your sister ain't going to knife me, Milord?" The worried voice of the pretty boy wearing Jezekiah's clothes broke his reverie.
Milord. The very title sounded like a death knell. He'd managed to forget, these past couple of years, that he was condemned to be the future Lord High Protector of Earth. Jezekiah rose, put on a smile to disguise the loathing in the thought. "Quite. Unless you open your mouth and let her hear that accent." Simple cosmetics let the crewman fake the fiery red hair and impossibly blue eyes of the Great Family Van Buren, but the sweat sheening his skin was real fear. Admirable bravery, nonetheless, for a Sprite. SpriteType was gene coded for beauty, not courage. He pulled the boy's collar straighter, smoothed the silken drape of his double's blouse to show the flame-orchid crest emblazoned on it to better effect. No point telling the boy now that little sister Letticia was not really the reason they were trading places. "Just do the smile and nod. That's all anybody's expecting."
Which was as well, since their disguises consisted of nothing more than hair dye and contact lenses. He could have had the ship's surgeon do a thorough job, of course, But that would have made the switch official. Made it part of the ship's records, got it posted to NetMind. Odds were too great Letticia would be monitoring ship's records, looking for any hint he was planning something exotic. He had no desire to gift dear little Letticia a heads up on this switch. He was too eager to reach the Manor alive.
Jezekiah circled his stand-in, checking for any glaring flaws. The resemblance wouldn't pass more than a casual glance: the boy was a bit younger than his own twenty-three years, a bit narrower in the shoulders. Still, the lad bore himself well, and had a SpriteType's instinctive flair. He swept his jittering doppelganger a formal salaam. "You are perfection personified, Milord."
"Yuh-huh. Scuttlebutt's putting odds on blood, it is. 'T'ain't bettin' in my favor, neither, they ain't."
"The bet's on my blood, not yours."
"Yuh-huh. Less'n your sister gets eager." Pretty Boy's eyes searched his, seeking reassurance. "So why's she want to kill you anyway?"
It was a better question than the boy should be asking. The engineered characteristics that went into the SpriteType gene pack were designed to produce happy-go-lucky personalities in exquisitely beautiful bodies, not deep thinkers. But Type coding only guaranteed looks and talents, not luck. A Sprite who'd been forced to live by his wits the way this one had learned to think about things like surviving the night. He knew how that felt. Rather too well. But those were not memories he could afford at the moment. Or ever, if he had a choice.
"Wish I knew," was all he said. It was the simple, wholehearted truth. Letticia didn't want the Ring. Never had. Nor was she supposed to know anything about her part in the treaty he had worked out. Of course, with Letticia 'wasn't supposed to' didn't mean much. He pretended his sudden shudder was due to the cool air. Still, Kip Marsden would have alerted him had Letticia pried into his node too far; even Lush – no, better learn to think of his baby sister as Letticia – had never outwitted Kip. Yet. So Letticia shouldn't have any reason to want to kill him. Yet she had most certainly spent a goodly part of the past few months trying. That was one of the main reasons he was coming home in such a hurry – he wanted this treaty ratified before that damned assassin of hers got lucky. The other reason was on Den Lupus, preparing his alternatives. If this treaty failed, Strongarm would take the Van Buren Commonwealth down with it.
He couldn't afford to worry that possibility right now. Jezekiah straightened the Sprite's shoulders, tugged the trousers to a sharper crease. "Doesn't matter for you, in any case. You will be under the protection of the Protector's own Sec chief. No one is going to risk attacking you." He hoped.
He stood back, considered the effect. Not bad at all, for a joy toy who'd been gracing a petty officer's bed this morning. It would do for distance work, and Kip Marsden would make sure the KnowNet cams kept their distance. Past that – Mother was clued. And on Earth that was all that mattered.
Which bent the odds of making it to the Manor alive in his favor. Assuming, of course, that Letticia hadn't got clever while he'd been gone. Assuming that she hadn't clued her assassin to anticipate precisely such a diversion. He forced the odds on that out of mind. Still, if the last few attempts were any indication, her hired killer would get quite close enough to recognize the substitution. Ideally, just not in time to find Jezekiah in the crew line.
Jezekiah dropped back onto the shuttle's seat. The tendril of ShipMind woven into the soft leather read his measure, molded the cushions to him. He'd lost the habit of luxury these past two years; now, he allowed himself a moment simply to luxuriate in its enveloping comfort. He'd lost his edge in the Family games, too, though. That was the real worry. The little voice at the back of his mind recognized the bitter tinge in the thought. He hadn't lost his edge, it murmured. He'd blunted it, deliberately and with enthusiasm. The thought of what Mother would say if he were fool enough to share that particular truth made him grin.
"'T'ain't funny from my end, it ain't." Pretty Boy jammed hands on hips and scowled. "I still got time to back out of this, I do."
Not really, Jezekiah thought, but there was no point in telling the boy so. Maybe he should drug the poor sot after all. Would not do at all if the fellow ran screaming for shelter when he met Letticia's hatred at face range. He decided against it. Mother was clued; terror and Kip Marsden would handle the rest.
"Sorry." He put his working smile on, watched the lad relax at its false re-assurance. "I was just thinking what a lucky sot you are. You will be my personal guest, remember. You get to sleep VIP, eat VIP, even screw VIP if you want. It struck me funny that you should worry."
There, that put the dreamy look back in the lad's eyes. He really was a lucky sot; his dreams were simple. Jezekiah felt a sudden pulse in the energy field encircling his Ring finger and tamped the jealousy down. He'd need to find gloves. Thick ones: the energy field that was the Heir's Ring lit its yellow diamond shell from within. The result wrapped a cold, golden star around his finger. In a crewman's line, it would stand out like a system buoy. Or an assassin's beacon, in this case.
So, then. One more item on the to-do list. For these last few minutes, though, he was still free. If he played his hand right, he'd be back off Earth in a week. Without the Ring this time. Without the threat of the Protectorship hanging over his head. Free, once and for all and forever.
He upped the screens' magnification again, shifted focus to Oahu. The tiny colored flecks he'd seen before bloomed into sails where windsurfers rode the breakers. Beyond them, Diamond Head's blunt cone loomed over the curve of white sand that was Waikiki. The familiar blackened skeletons of ancient towers broke the jungle along the shoreline, a long, dark thread binding the Manor to his Family's history.
"Scrat me," said an awestruck whisper at his shoulder. "Those Home World stories really are true, they are." Pretty Boy had peered out with him, sham dignity forgotten. "Always thought the legends were sawyered, I did." The boy's lips and eyes formed matching o's of wonder. Decidedly not an acceptable Van Buren expression.
"Some of them are. But not Hawaii. There's no need to lie about Hawaii." Which tidbit was itself a lie. Still ... no point ruining the lad's fantasy. He'd make a fine bit of free PR once he was back out on the rim. And Makers knew – he corrected the Lupan expression – God knew 'free' was all Earth could afford these days.
The shuttle banked lightly, angling toward the great public port on tiny Niihau. Docking at three minutes, Milord, ShipMind announced. After two years holding his own on the rim, the title jarred. The reception party is assembled.
The muscles between his own shoulder blades tightened with the words. Jezekiah rose, shook his crewman's coverall loose. He touched knuckles to forehead, crewman style, pinched color into the lad's cheek. "Smile. You're on."
He felt the old, cold calculations settle in behind his eyes. His pulse steadied, the old half-smile formed of itself. So, then. He was home.
* * *
Earlier Van Buren Protectors had carved Earth's deep space port out of Niihau's broken volcano. Port facilities were carved into the inside curve of the mountain itself, creating a stone pueblo that overlooked the magnificent bay. Shambling along in the sweating crew line, Jezekiah risked a casual check back at the shuttle. Mother's personal ship nestled on the Protector's private landing pad, sleek and slim as a baroque pearl against the sapphire sea. Beyond it, a TransitLine cruise ship was freshly docked at the tip of the curve. The line of disembarking tourists snagged where it snaked behind the glittering dignitaries swarming Mother's dock. Fathers from the full dozen worlds of the Van Buren Commonwealth worlds lifted children onto their shoulders to catch a live-eye glimpse of a Van Buren prince. The children, less concerned with princes than pleasure, squealed in delight and played catch-as-catch-can with the KnowNet cams whisking past.
Nice touch, that cruise ship. Gave him a flood of tourists to blend into. Had to be Mother's work: it would take Van Buren level clearance to permit a hoi polloi liner to dock while one of the Family was on the field. Odd though, for Mother – she hadn't allowed the rank and file within weapon range since the Tong rebellion.
"Aw, damn me, they lied, they did!" The woman ahead of Jezekiah wobbled to a stop. She had the massive build and albino complexion of the deep space mining clans. Explanation enough for her troubles. In a pinch, a ship-bred miner could survive a good fifteen minutes in full vacuum. In weather they were defenseless. Already her skin was reddening in the Hawaiian sun.
And yet ... there was wonder in her eyes. Glancing down the queue Jezekiah saw that wonder reflected in a hundred faces. He'd seen it in a thousand tourist vids, some of them his own propaganda. The difference was that this time he felt it himself. This time he, too, felt every cell in his body thrill to the feel of Earth. He felt the pull, the sense that this place was right, that this was where he belonged. Genetic manipulation had adapted humanity to survive the physical demands of other worlds. But even the most radically engineered Types, even polymorphic LupanType, were still fundamentally human. Earth was home world, and every cell in every body on that dock knew it.
The wonder still shone in the miner's eyes when her knees gave out. She dropped straight, nearly taking Jezekiah with her.
"Where you popper?" Jezekiah asked, using crew pidgin. Clansmen normally packed small, pop-up umbrellas to protect their skins from planetside suns. The umbrellas also prevented ship bred miners from attacks of psychotic agoraphobia at the sight of open sky, but no one with a sense of self-preservation reminded them of that.
"No thought t'need it. It's Paradise they said." She breathed deep, nearly choked on air wet and heavy with the scents of ocean salt and metal tang. "It's lie, they did."
"No lie. Just summer." Jezekiah looked up as an airborne Sec cam buzzed the line. It slowed as it reached him, and he felt his skin tingle as it ran bioscan check on him.
"No screens, either – scrat that thing!" The miner woman swung her duffle bag wide off her shoulder, making the Sec cam bounce in its wake.
"Good shot." The cam zoomed off, apparently satisfied. Still, he'd been spotted, no question. So, then. He could expect to find Kip Marsden waiting for him the other side of customs. Which couldn't be soon enough. Damn, it was hot out here. "Need hand?" he asked as the miner doubled over her duffle, wheezing.
"It's no groundhog dainty can be carryin' me." Her words were stronger than her voice.
"Lender, only," Jezekiah said. He offered her his free arm, bracing himself so the weight she put on it wouldn't stagger him. Truth was, it felt good to simply be himself, do simple, honest work. Good to be able to speak from his heart, for himself. Likely the last time he'd dare such honesty, he thought, and his little voice chided him for the resentment.
Besides, he'd forgotten himself just how sticky hot Hawaii's weather really was. The crew's customs line snaked along the unshielded section of the dock, leaving the off-world hands to either exult or fry in the Hawaiian sun while they inched toward the bureaucrats manning the crew customs booths..
A hundred feet or so ahead a trio of towering pylons flanked Niihau Port's customs terminal. Open scanner booths filled the space between the pylons' stone bases. Tourist scans, those. Their section of the dock was weather shielded. Paying visitors were sheltered from the unpleasant inconvenience of real weather. Mother wasn't about to disappoint the chow line. For once, Jezekiah caught himself resenting the fact.
"Damme, worse'n scrattin' Streiker, it is." The miner wheezed, leaned on him hard.
"T'ain't, either." Jezekiah drew breath to chuckle at the defensiveness in his tone, wound up choking on a gush of hot, wet air instead. "Chance, at least, on Home World."
"Fuh. Maybe." On Streiker, parents careless enough to birth a natural were sterilized. The baby itself was simply thrown out onto the blue Streikern ice.
She eyed him speculatively, suddenly curious. "You Home World local, I bet. Maker, maybe, I bet."
"Half true." Alone of all the worlds of the Commonwealth, only Earth still produced true, genetically unmodified human beings. Only on Earth, on Home World, could one still find completely natural humans, those astonishingly unpredictable people untouched by genetic engineering whose looks and talents and traits were determined by luck rather than a pre-packaged Type code. Only Home World still housed Makers. Made for improbable FunNet romances on the rim and unenviable living conditions on Earth. Among the Lupans, Makers ranked one step below God Himself.
"Got hard body check coming, you do, yeah?" The miner's voice called Jezekiah's attention back to the line.
"Yeah." Dark memories tried to well up. He shoved them down. Not in time.
Excerpted from Home World by Bonnie Milani. Copyright © 2013 Bonnie Milani. Excerpted by permission of Promontory Press.
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