Jenna Starborn

Jenna Starborn

by Sharon Shinn


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Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mindand a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn's life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastonewhose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780441009008
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/02/2002
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sharon Shinn is a journalist who works for a trade magazine. Her first novel, The Shapechanger's Wife, was selected by  Locus as the best first fantasy novel of 1995. She has won the William C. Crawford Award for Outstanding New Fantasy Writer, and was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has lived in the Midwest most of her life.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

You would think that if someone commissioned your conception, paid for your gestation, and claimed you immediately after your harvesting, she would love you with her whole heart; but you would be wrong. Aunt Rentley had had me created to fill a void in her existence, which was unexpectedly filled by others. I was quickly made not only redundant but unwelcome, and yet there I was, in her house, under her feet, a constant reminder of how much she had paid to purchase something she no longer wanted.

This was never clearer than on Jerret's ninth birthday, an event celebrated with as much flourish as my aunt could muster. The cooks spent a week baking special dishes for the delectation of the hundred guests. The housemaids cleaned every room in the fifty-room mansion down to the curtains, walls, and floorboards; the gardeners replanted the entire front lawn with a hybrid rose imported from Karian and doomed to die within a month in our unfavorable climate. The walls of the mansion were themselves recharged so they hummed with energy and delighted you with the faintest static shock if you ran your hand too rapidly over the simulated brick. Cold and sunless it might be outside, but inside existed an environment of warmth, light, cheer, and goodwill.

For those welcome in the house, of course.

During all this frenzied activity, I kept to myself as much as possible, for there was nowhere I was particularly wanted. As Aunt Rentley's ward, I was not exactly a servant, so there was no work for me to perform in the kitchen or laundry room; and yet neither Aunt Rentley nor Jerret wanted me to join in their family councils as they planned their guest list and considered activities for the celebration. I was used to being ignored by my aunt and her son, but during these planning stages, I was positively reviled. My briefest appearance caused her to shriek with impatience and order me from the room, stupid girl, did I not see how busy she was with important preparations? Jerret, a born bully, would leap to his feet and point a chubby finger toward the door, bawling at me to get out get out get out, he did not want me ruining his party with my sallow face and witch's eyes.

He stopped at verbal abuse if his mother or one of the servants could hear, but if I happened to cross his path when no one else was near, he would fall upon me in physical rage. I was a year older than he was, but he was by far bigger, and more than once he cornered me against some doorway or banister and threw punches into my stomach and raised bruises on my shins. This afternoon, he had wrestled me to the ground and twisted his hand in the collar of my shirt so that I could scarcely breathe. I truly thought I would lose consciousness or suffocate, but then I heard footsteps down the hall.

It was Betista, coming around the corner with her arms piled high with fresh linens. "Master Jerret!" she exclaimed, and suddenly I was free, supine on the cold floor, too faint to immediately raise my head. Through a strange dullness in my ears I heard Jerret scramble to his feet and make his sullen defense.

"It was her fault. She hit me," he growled.

Betista ignored him, dropping to her knees to investigate my condition. I heard the sounds of Jerret's footsteps fleeing down the hall.

"Jenna!" Betista exclaimed. "Jenna, dear girl, are you badly hurt? Do I need to send you to the PhysiChamber?"

I had recovered enough now to push myself to a sitting position. She was still staring down at me, clasping her hands under her full chin, her gray eyes sick with worry. I attempted a smile. "I'll be fine. I feel sick to my stomach, but that will pass."

"Let me take you to the kitchen," she said briskly, hauling her bulk to her feet and reaching out a hand to help me up. "I'll make you some tea."

But the thought of swallowing anything hurt my bruised throat. "No, thank you very much," I said formally. Ignoring her outstretched hand, I pushed myself to my feet. "I'll just go to my room now."

Betista looked undecided. She was the housekeeper, a woman of some influence in the household, and she was the closest to an ally I had ever had. Yet, as she would never overtly defy my aunt Rentley, and she could not protect me from Jerret, there was very little she could do to materially improve my lot. Except not hate me.

"I think you should come sit quietly by me for a while," she said. "I should keep an eye on you. You look pale and a little strange."

"I always look strange," I said, with an attempt at humor.

Betista bristled. "Now, that's not true! You're a lovely girl-a little thin, maybe, and dark, though some consider a dark complexion to be fashionable-you shouldn't listen to what your aunt says, you know she's partial to Master Jerret-"

I let it go; I was not about to discuss my physical merits with the housekeeper here in the hallway when all I wanted to do was go to my room and lie down. "In any case, I'll be fine," I said.

Betista gathered up her linens, which she had dropped helter-skelter on the floor when she came to my aid. I sensed a certain indecision in her manner. "Now, what happened this afternoon," she said slowly, uncertainly. "You're not going to tell on Master Jerret-"

"No," I said tiredly.

"Because she can't help it, he's her son and she loves him. When you tell tales on him, she doesn't believe you."

"I know."

"So it does no good to be reporting stories to your aunt," she finished up in a rush.

I had made my way somewhat shakily to the head of the stairwell; it was the servants' staircase, but it would take me by an indirect route to my own chamber. Over my shoulder, I said curtly, "She's not my aunt," and I began the long climb up to my room.

In point of fact, she was not my aunt; she had intended to be my mother. That was when she was childless, of course, before the doctors had made the miracle of Jerret possible. So she had commissioned me, and I had been grown in the generation tanks of Baldus, and she had come every day to watch my fetus shape itself and uncurl. She had laid her hand on the glass tanks, trying through the impermeable substance to touch my clenched fingers, and she had counted the minutes and the days until I was ready for harvesting.

When did it go wrong for her? When did I lose my hold on her heart? Was there something repulsive in my small, squalling body-was there a timbre in my midnight wail that sent tremors through her sensitive bones? I like to think neither of these things are true; I like to think that any child she had brought home from the gen tanks would have, eventually, seemed to her something foreign and hateful. She is not a happy woman around synthetics; she cannot stand the sight of the cyborgs that labor in the mines, indifferent to the planet's cold and its poisons alike. I like to think that it was the method of my creation, and not the soul inside my body, that made her despise me.

Or perhaps it had nothing to do with me or my conception: Perhaps she was so limited in her love that she had none to spare for me once she could produce her own son. It had been an accepted thing, since some early childhood trauma, that she would be unable to conceive; and among her contemporaries, to bear a child naturally was considered the highest accomplishment a woman could attain. But something happened only two months after she brought me home. The doctors perfected the artificial womb, and her fortune was easily large enough to purchase one, and suddenly she was carrying within her own body that most precious commodity, another life; and there was no room for me in her thoughts, in her house, in her heart.

Naturally, this left me in a most precarious position. Since she had paid for me, she was responsible for me; I was not easily disposed of. And yet, since she had never formally adopted me, I was not legally her daughter. In fact, I had no legal status at all. I simply was.

The technical term for my condition was half-citizen, and there were many like me, on Baldus and throughout the interstellar system. We were created from many circumstances. Some, like me, were rejected gen-tank babies. Some were legitimately conceived sons and daughters whose parents had decided, for some reason or another, not to acknowledge them. Some were orphans, with no family to care for them and no institution willing to pay for their upkeep and training in a profession that would allow them to earn enough to buy their own citizenship.

Citizenship existed at five grades, from the fifth and lowest rung to the first and highest. Fifth- and fourth-level citizens were accorded such status only on their home worlds; third- and second-class citizens were accepted in more regional districts of federated planets; and first-grade citizens were honored everywhere throughout the Allegiant Planetary Council Worlds.

Citizenship grades had been instituted in the first greedy, brutal days of interstellar exploration. The fractured governments of the planet Earth being unable to sustain any cohesive space-going program, the real advances in technology and colonization had been, at the beginning, financed by extraordinarily wealthy private entrepreneurs who were not willing to share their prizes with the masses back home. As one of the great early merchant princes put it, "Imperialism is incompatible with democracy." Those first families in space risked much, gained everything, and passed on to future generations wealth so fabulous it could hardly be reckoned-and the same disinclination to share their fortunes. As the Allegiance was formed between newly settled planets, social systems grew more codified, and the chance of breaking from a preordained caste grew more and more remote.

There were only three ways to become a citizen of any rank: Be born (or adopted) to the status, marry into it, or buy it. I had been unlucky on the first count. Even at the age of ten, I could see that the other options did not look promising for me, either. I knew I was contemplating a lifetime of half-citizenship.

But it would not be so bleak as all that. Half-cits were allowed to work, and keep their wages (though they generally were employed in menial jobs and taxed at exorbitant rates). They could marry. They could not vote and they could not own extensive property and they were strongly discouraged from reproducing (though these days you heard fewer stories of half-cit children being whisked away from their mothers' arms and disappearing into some unmentionable hell). But they could be productive members of a vast and far-flung society, and I had hopes of one day finding my entrie into that universe. I believed I could gain some useful skills, and find worthwhile employment and support myself in some not wholly distasteful enterprise; and it was this goal that gave me the strength to go on during my darkest days under Aunt Rentley's roof. I was not valued here, but someday, somewhere, in the smallest of positions, someone would value me, and on that slim hope I fed even when I could take in no other sustenance.

That night, dinner was torture. My awkward position in the household made it impossible for me to dine with the servants, so I always took my meals with Aunt Rentley and Jerret. Usually they ignored me, which was easy to do, as the table was long and narrow, and we sat as far from one another as we could. I always ate as quickly and as quietly as possible, though Aunt Rentley invariably remarked on my slurping or chewing sounds, and I excused myself from the table as soon as I was able.

This night, though I ate my soup as noiselessly as I could, my gestures or my appearance or my very presence irritated Aunt Rentley almost at once.

"Sweet Lord Yerni, girl, can't you manage to swallow your food with a little less commotion?" Aunt Rentley exclaimed. "I declare, my son and I can hardly hear each other speak for all the racket you're making."

"I'm sorry," I said, though I did not feel at all sorry; I felt maligned. "I can eat with Betista if you'd rather."

"Eat with Betista! Of course you could not! Eat with the servants, what will you be saying next . . ." Her voice trailed off. Down the length of the table I could feel her eyes examining me. "What in the world have you done to yourself? You've dirt all around your neck."

I took another spoonful of my soup, this time sucking it up with the noisiest inhalation I could manage. "It's not dirt," I said.

"Stop that! Eat like a lady," Aunt Rentley said sharply. "If it's not dirt, then what is it?"

I knew better-and Betista had warned me-but I could not help myself. I was angry, and my face hurt, and my muscles still ached with that remembered brutality. So I said, calmly as you please, "A bruise. Jerret choked me in the hall."

"I did not!" Jerret squealed just as Aunt Rentley uttered a sharp exclamation of disbelief.

"Wicked girl!" she cried. "To lie about your betters in such a way!"

I shrugged. "I'm not lying. He pushed me, and he choked me, and he wanted me to be hurt."

"Lying! She's lying!"

Aunt Rentley was on her feet, pointing a trembling finger at me. "You will go to your room, miss, and you will meditate on your sins, and you will not be allowed back at this table-no, nor shall you have any dinner or any breakfast or any food at all-until you apologize to Jerret."

I pushed my chair back and stood up. This was not the first time I had been banished from the table and told I would skip a meal or two, but this time it looked like starvation to me, for I would not apologize to Jerret if it meant my very death. "I feel sorry for you," I remarked. "To be so blind that you love someone so cruel."

She actually gasped. "Sorry for me! You-you-lying, terrible creature, it is yourself you should feel sorry for, for your evil ways will lead you to damnation and hellfire-"

"I'm not the one with evil ways," I said, still in the calm, certain voice that I knew roused her to fury, and yet I could not stop myself. She was wrong; I was right; and though I knew enough of the world to realize that that guaranteed me nothing, still I could not bear to back down from a stance I knew was proper. "Your son is the liar, and your son is the unkind one, and he is the one who would face damnation and hellfire, if there were such things awaiting us after death, which there are not-"

I had not thought she could grow angrier or more red-faced, but at this heresy she did both, stamping her foot this time in earnest. "Godless child!" she shrieked, for she worshiped most devotedly at the Church of the Five Saviors. "To insult me-and my son-and then to scoff at the Lords themselves-"

Jerret had lost interest in our argument a few strophes ago, for he was now spooning up food with great concentration, but at this he said, "Stupid PanEquist. Now you really will die and go to hell."

"Go! Before I call one of the servants in to throw you in your chamber!" Aunt Rentley panted. "To your room! And you will not come out, or speak to a soul, until I grant you permission! Now out! Out!"

I laid my fork on the table with great deliberation, stood quite slowly, and nodded my head most gravely in her direction. "I am glad to go," I said, and headed with dignity out the door.

Soon enough I was back in my room, a small, ill-lit chamber on the third floor, a level below the servants but nowhere near the family suites. A few guest bedrooms could be found on this story, though they had never been used in my experience, and a schoolroom, some storage rooms, and an infinite number of closets. There were days mine were the only feet to patter down the corridor-weeks, even. I could be banished here and completely forgotten, and my bones might not be found till a new tenant moved in and began exploring.

I climbed to the middle of my bed and sat, looking around at the forbidding gray walls. This had always been a haven to me, a place where neither Jerret nor Aunt Rentley would bother to come to torment me. But to stay here till I starved . . . even my stubborn soul quailed at that. Surely Betista would not let such a fate befall me. Surely even Aunt Rentley would at some point remember my existence.

I sat for a few moments unmoving, my heart heavy and my thoughts bleak, then I shook my head and looked around me for distractions. Books were my constant solace, for Jerret monopolized the StellarNet computer screen that offered us entertainment and a view on the events of the Allegiance, but he was not much of a reader. Neither was Aunt Rentley, and the only reason the house held any books at all was that the former tenant had left behind an entire library of very rare volumes, and Aunt Rentley had been too selfish to sell them. She knew that people she respected placed a high value on actual books, and so she liked to have them about her, but I was the true beneficiary. I would creep down to the library, steal a volume from its overloaded shelves, and spirit it up to my room to be read at leisure. I had devoured many of the classics of Baldus and the Allegiance, and I considered all the great authors of the day my personal friends.

But when I opened the drawer on my nightstand, the item that I first encountered was not a novel but a treatise on the PanEquist philosophy, which I had been studying for some weeks. Betista had given it to me, whispering an admonition to keep it hidden from my aunt, and we had talked it over with great animation when we had a few moments alone in the kitchen. I had heard of the PanEquists, of course, for on those rare occasions when I did get a chance to browse over the StellarNet, they were often to be found on the news sites. But until I had read this tract, I had had no clear idea what their beliefs were and how they viewed the world.

Though I had no real need to refresh my memory, I perused the pamphlet again, starting at the beginning and reading with great pleasure the articles of belief. "Whereas the Goddess is an infinite Goddess, a Goddess of all places, all planets, all peoples; whereas the Goddess created every creature, from the simplest invisible microbe to the most complex member of mankind; whereas the Goddess created not only the animals of the universe, but the trees, the rocks, the soil, and the water; we believe that the Goddess loves each of these things equally, that there is no difference between one being and another, one atom or another; that all things are the same and all things are equal. Thus I am no more important to the Goddess than the spider on the wall or the exploding fire of the nearest star; we are one, and we are the same in the eyes of the Goddess."

Yes-exactly-in so many words were put down the feelings I had had since childhood but not known how to articulate. Aunt Rentley believed I was inferior because of the manner of my creation; the government believed I was invisible because of my undesirable legal status; Jerret believed I was insignificant because he could hurt me, and torment me, and buy things I would never be able to own. But I was the equal to all of them in the Goddess's eyes. I was fully human, fully alive, fully integrated into the source and flow of the universe. I belonged here; my breath and my molecules and the blood in my body were revered by the great spirit of the universe. It was the PanEquists who saw the truth, and so I was one of them, heart and soul, in secret, and in exultation.

I was in my room five days before anyone remembered my existence. The first two days I was hungry, and I prowled the room looking for forgotten cakes and crackers that I might have left carelessly behind on some more provident day. I had plenty of water, for I had my own small bathroom where I could refresh myself daily, so thirst was not a problem; and hunger was only a problem for a while. By the third day, I was listless but not unhappy. My stomach no longer roared and pleaded for food-indeed, I was indifferent to the very thought of eating. By the fourth day, I cared even less about the missed meals. I was feeling light, wispy, fanciful, and odd, but not hungry. I spent a good deal of time sitting at my single window, watching the foreign roses shiver in the hostile breezes, and wondering which of us would die first.

I also watched the cars pulling up the long, graded drive, for this was the day of Jerret's party, and every notable member of Aunt Rentley's acquaintance was arriving to celebrate. I had a deep interest in things mechanical, and so I watched with interest as each new model arrived. There was the Stratten Aircar, a marvel when it had been introduced, but considered inefficient and cumbersome now; there was the sleeker, more powerful Killiam version, which could circle the planet without the need for maintenance or refueling. I pressed my face against the glass to get a better look at the Organdie Elite and the Vandeventer II, and for one of the few times in my life I was envious of others.

Sounds and scents of the party drifted up to my level as the hours went by. I heard laughter, music, shrieks of merriment from the children who had been invited, the lower rumble of adult voices in both serious and comical conversation. There were to be games played on the south lawns, but my window faced north, so I could not even watch these activities. And once the sunlight faded, there was nothing to see out my window at all, not even the comings and goings of the great aeromobiles. I sighed, and returned to my bed. I lay there, sniffing with disembodied pleasure the faint smells of the grand banquet being laid out below. I could imagine the fruits, meats, vegetables, pastries, and other fine dishes being sampled and exclaimed over, but I was so far removed from hunger that I did not care that I had no chance to sample them.

The banquet-indeed, the party-seemed to go on well into the night. I lay dreamily on my bed, envisioning the lazy good nature of the guests as they reached the midnight hour of reveling. They would be smiling through their yawns, and patting their full stomachs, and crying out to one another, "By Lord Yerni's bones! It must be time for us to be going!" And yet they would stay for one more slice of cake, another moment's gossip, a final good-bye to the hostess who had presented such an elegant affair. Even when I sensed the house beginning to empty, saw the headlights of the aircars traveling across the ceiling of my room, I could not summon the energy to rise to my feet and cross to the window again. I lay on the bed, imagining the slow exodus, and smiled to myself at the grand sight it must be.

I was still smiling the next morning when they found me, and I was still too weak to rise to my feet, and eventually all the bustle and riot that surrounded me grew too great for my brain to sort out, and so I closed my eyes and slept.

I had not been to a hospital before, and so I was fascinated with the machinery. There was equipment in my room, attached to me; there was equipment down every hallway, connected by cords to other patients or plugged into unfamiliar sockets on the walls. Everything beeped, hummed, flashed, and monitored with such a lovely, brilliant array of signals that I could not stop watching and trying to understand. My night nurse, a cyborg, caught my interest early on, and explained the functions of various machines. She even taught me how to study my own readouts and determine my progress.

Which was unfathomably slow. I had not expected to waken in a hospital in any case; most household illnesses were diagnosed in the PhysiChamber, a closet-size computer-controlled room where all the functions of the body could be scanned and analyzed. In point of fact, I had rarely had occasion to be tucked inside this room, since I was seldom sick and what few ailments I had succumbed to had never been deemed serious. Jerret and Aunt Rentley, on the other hand, used it on an almost weekly basis to check the state of their health.

But a hospital-that bespoke a real state of emergency. I could not believe a few days without food had reduced me to such a state. Which I observed to the cyborg.

"Is that what the trigger was?" she asked in her pleasant, neutral voice. She was nearly eighty percent machine, from what I could tell; her face was attractive but not particularly expressive, and her touch was preternaturally gentle. Obviously I was in a half-cit ward; no cyborg would be allowed to nurse a full citizen. "Starvation?"

"Does five days make starvation?" I wanted to know.

She adjusted one of the dials while I watched. "Not for a healthy adult, but for a malnourished child, that's a dangerous period of time to pass without eating."

"I had water," I offered.

She nodded. "That's why you're still alive."

"I've gone hungry before," I said.

She nodded again. "Many times. And been physically mistreated. The doctors are asking your aunt about these abuses. There is also a legal representative present."

My eyes opened wide at this. I could not imagine my aunt reacting kindly to any inquiries about her treatment of me. "I am only a half-cit," I said.

"That status only prevents you from attaining certain property- oriented goals," she said, still in that precise, unemotional voice. "It does not allow others to harm or neglect you."

"You're a cyborg, aren't you?" I asked. Such creatures had not come my way often, at least not to talk to. Aunt Rentley had a force of maybe eight who maintained the grounds and worked her scant arable fields, but they were never allowed inside the house and I had never had a real conversation with one of them. They were considered lower than the half-cits, and many people were actually afraid of them. Certainly my aunt was.

The nurse nodded. Her hair was more perfectly coiffed than any human's hair would be; her skin had a flawless, elastic look to it that made it appear melted over her bones. If she had bones. Perhaps it was a metal framework beneath the layer of supposed flesh.

"Cyborg, but human enough to be happy," she said, smiling. It was a slow, strange smile, a little dreamy, a little sad, as if thoughts circled through her brain that could not show on her artificial face. Then she patted the pillow upon which my head was resting. "Now it is time for you to sleep. Your aunt will be here in the morning."

Obediently, I lay back on my pillows as if to rest. "And the doctors? Will I be seeing them? I must have been asleep every time they have been here before, for I have never seen them."

She touched my cheek with that soft, kind hand. Again her expression seemed strange, as if her eyes and lips could not convey the emotion that coursed through her. "Oh, yes, the doctors will be here with your aunt," she said. "I think you will be interested in all they have to say."

In fact, the room seemed crowded the next morning when everyone even remotely interested in my well-being gathered around my bed: my aunt, two doctors, a representative from the Social Services Agency, and a tall man I vaguely recognized from his past visits to my aunt's house, whom I believed to be her lawyer. And me.

One of the doctors, a wiry young black-haired woman, seemed furious. "Basic physical records show this child has been systematically mistreated for the whole course of her existence," she said in a cold voice that would have made me shiver had it been directed at me. "There are evidences of broken bones that were not properly set, common childhood diseases that were not treated, recent internal damage to the stomach which I can only suppose was inflicted by some kind of blow, historical malnourishment that has contributed to slow growth and possible deformities that I cannot identify yet-would you like me to go on?"

My aunt was furious as well. "I have treated this girl as if she was my own daughter-I have fed her, clothed her, educated her, watched over her-"

"With the result that she is stunted, bruised, starved, and-"

"I believe we all understand your position," the lawyer intervened. "Mrs. Rentley is very sorry to have caused you distress over the girl's condition. In the future we will-"

"In the future, Jenna should be out of Mrs. Rentley's care," the doctor said shortly.

"And who will care for her, pray, if not me?" my aunt said sharply. "She is not a criminal or a wayward girl, so none of those institutions will take her in. She has cost me no end of trouble and expense, it is true, but I have done my best by her and stand prepared to continue to do so. But not if people say nasty things to me and accuse me of things I have not done-"

"Oh, you have done them-"

"Indeed, doctor, perhaps your tone-"

"There are places she can go," a new voice interceded smoothly, and everyone in the room turned to face the woman from the SSA. She was sleek, compact, and manicured; even her face seemed lacquered on, though she was clearly completely human. Something about her voice made me dislike her instinctively, though I could not have said why. "There are institutions that will take her in."

The black-haired doctor turned on the social agent with as much contempt as she had shown for my aunt. "And be treated no better, would be my guess."

The agent shrugged with a small economical motion. "These places are schools, training facilities that will enable her to learn a career that will in turn enable her to live a full and productive life. They survive on government funds, it is true, so they are not luxurious places to live, but they are adequate, and they have advantages."

"What sort of advantages?" asked the second doctor, a heavyset young man who had not spoken until this point.

"They will feed her. They will clothe her. They will prevent her from being a drain on society by making her a useful professional instead of a petty criminal or a charity case. Or a homicide case, which in her present circumstances she is likely to become."

There was a moment's silence while everyone in the room assimilated that final statement. The doctors looked thoughtful; my aunt grew positively pink with rage.

"Are you actually suggesting-you filthy-minded woman, I will have my lawyer charge you with slander this very instant-"

"A very injudicious comment to have made, particularly before credible witnesses," the lawyer said gravely to the social worker.

The SSA woman turned her hard, uncaring gaze on the lawyer. "I have seen hundreds of cases just like this one result in death," she said. "Hundreds. If you sue me for slander, I will sue you on Jenna's behalf for child endangerment, and the headlines that your client's friends will read will destroy her more surely than any careless remark of mine."

There was another short silence, during which everyone in the room seemed to take a figurative step backward. Even I, listless and unconsulted in my white bed, pressed my head deeper into my pillow and tried to avoid snagging that cool, indifferent gaze.

"What do we need to do," the heavyset doctor asked, "to register Jenna for one of these schools?"

"Determine which school would be most suitable, obtain Mrs. Rentley's consent, obtain Jenna's consent, and send her off."

"What if there is no opening?" the lawyer asked.

The agent smiled faintly. "There are always openings."

There was the sound of soft crying from my aunt's direction. "So she is to be taken away from me, and no one cares what my feelings are," she wailed. The lawyer patted her insincerely on the shoulder. "And no one believes me when I say I have done my best by this child-"

"Because you haven't," the dark doctor said briefly, and then she sat carefully on the edge of my bed. "Hello, Jenna," she said, smiling at me. "You must have heard us all discussing your future just now."

I smiled back. I liked her. "You want to send me away to school somewhere," I said.

"Yes, that's it. We think you might be happier there than at your aunt's house. What do you think?"

I took a deep breath. "I would love to go away to school!" I exclaimed in a rush. "I would love to learn-so many things!-engineering and mathematics and religion and philosophy. Oh, there is so much I do not know. . . ."

The doctor smiled at me again. "What sorts of things do you like best? You mentioned science and math-those are the things I like too."

"Yes, anything with motors or energy or components-my aunt was always angry when I went down to view the generators, but I loved to watch them, I love to think about them spinning and spinning and creating a sort of fire out of nothing but motion-"

"There is a fine tech school on Lora," the agent interposed at this moment. "She could get training there and be equipped to work on any of the space stations in the Allegiance."

"Lora! That's pretty far away," the doctor said, turning her head to survey the agent.

Who gave again that concise, disdainful shrug. "And do you think she would be coming back here for any reason?" she asked softly.

"Now, now," the lawyer said, turning away from my sniffling aunt to rejoin the conversation. "Jenna has strong ties of affection to Mrs. Rentley. I am sure her aunt will be a part of Jenna's life no matter how far from this planet she roams."

Aunt Rentley wiped her cheeks and turned to me with a tremulous smile. "Yes, I'm sure that's true, isn't it, Jenna?"

I met her eyes for the first time since she had entered the room, for the first time since she had banished me from the table for five days of hunger. "No," I said. "I won't care if I go away to Lora and never see you again. Send me away to school, please," I said to the doctor, looking away from my aunt, who cried out and staggered against the wall. "I am ready to begin a new life."

Reprinted from Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn by permission of Ace, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Sharon Shinn. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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