A thousand years after the Earth was destroyed they invaded the MOTU homespace. The defenses were in depth, the tech ten billion years old. The Warlord Ian MacDonald, who'd dreamed since he was a boy of avenging humanity's birthplace, fell in that desperate battle. The space firebases died when the MOTUs seized human command-and-control. But such was Ian MacDonald's magnificent battle plan that nothing could stay mankind's wrath.
The Monterey rode through storms of MOTU missiles, her defensive missile strikes taking out any that got her scent despite her ECMs and decoys. Her shields hazed over whenever one got through and impacted. And when the shields weren't enough, reactive armor neutralized the warheads hitting her.
Through it all, he escorted the Fac in. The remaining MOTU defenses could not stop that planet smasher of an asteroid from accelerating to relativistic speed, its kinetic energy increasing with every moment. Nothing could save the killers of Earth.
Not in this universe.
The main MOTU planet split apart. Brilliant detonations as antimatter bombs gave birth to flowers of destruction.
For Los Angeles....
The grim litany of the dead cities and places of Earth rang out to the stars.
As their ancestors had promised a thousand years earlier, vengeance was delivered.
Tired, weary, he scanned the holographic displays. Looked for a place to rest, to forget. A woman to love, to have his children and raise the next generation of Star Kings: They had not yet found all the killers of Earth.
As the MOTU planets seethed behind it, the Monterey accelerated faster and faster toward a distant place. Perhaps there he could forget this battle and all who had died.
Tired, soul dead, he closed his eyes as his ship smeared toward the clump of galaxies, so far away they were but as a few grains of luminous dust in the displays.
A time to kill had passed.
Now, a time to love and procreate....
* * *
When he awoke, a blue-green planet centered itself in the long- range holodisplays. It was so peaceful, restful. Tears came to his eyes, so like the Earth....
He did not approach stealthed, so they sensed him. He responded to their query: Star King David Williams of the Star King Ship Monterey....
Even in the basement workroom she heard the noise. She rushed upstairs to the main room. Without thinking, she opened the door to see what the clamor was.
Her stepsisters were jumping about and holding one another in excitement. They were as usual wearing new dresses and hairdos. She, as always, wore her lab coat and coveralls. The focus of their excitement was the holodisplay in the middle of the room.
Her breath caught in her throat. Stars surrounded a black jewel which did not glitter or reflect light in any way. A stealth-teched ship of the Star Kings.
"Isn't it wonderful, Cee," Slosis, her oldest stepsister said, "a Star King is coming!"
"Cee—," her stepmother called before she could answer, "have you finished troubleshooting those Iberix computers?"
Conscious now everyone was looking at her and knowing how drab she looked in her labcoat and hastily-combed dry hair compared to them, she answered softly, "Almost." She was going to explain about the sophisticated A.I. viruses which had taken hold—
"Almost?! I promised the client they would be restored by tomorrow. Get back to work!"
"Yes, Ma'am," she said. She closed the big door and sighed— and rushed back to the workroom. There, she pushed aside a table of components and storage media, revealing a holoset. A Star King was coming Slosis had said. No wonder her stepfamily was excited.
She checked the workroom door to make sure they hadn't followed her; she wasn't supposed to have a holoset. It was a frivolous thing. Okay, for them to waste their time, but not her. The family depended on her expertise with computers. And there was always more than enough for her to do since her stepmother undercut everyone else. But not watching holoshows for hours was okay with her—what she really liked to do was play with multi- dimensional math equations.
She turned on the holoset. An announcer appeared merged in with the image of the Star King vessel. "Star Kings are to many species God-like beings with tremendous powers. We know them to be a race of nomadic warrior-scientists, descendants of the handful of their species which escaped the burning of their home world: the Earth.
"Though the Earth was destroyed approximately one thousand years ago, these Star Kings have never forgotten the oath of their ancestors—to, no matter the cost, no matter how long it took, avenge it.
"Recently, near the edge of the universe, a great battle took place—the Star Kings at last marshaling their forces and attacking some of those beings responsible. Preliminary reports indicate it was a brutal battle—with many Death Calls, far more than we have ever heard before.
"In the aftermath of that terrible conflict Star King David Williams of the Monterey is coming here to rest. There is some speculation that since he is single, perhaps if one of our young girls catches his eye.... It has happened. The Warlord Ian MacDonald, who unfortunately fell in the battle, was married to an alien girl named Karea. Even now she carries two of his children and is master of his starship the Harlem."
She killed the holoset. Her eyes glittered as she settled down to finish repairing the computers. A Star King ... coming here.... No, they were not Gods, but so close. It was said their computers were the most advanced ever created, sentient beyond compre hension—though Star Kings denied it.
And Star Kings were unbelievably handsome and bio- and genetically engineered to be more than ordinary men could be. But that did not interest her. They were all geniuses and they went everywhere in the universe, exploring, discovering, forever voyag ing. That's what she would like to do....
She let her arms fall to her sides and slumped despondently. Sometimes dreaming was wonderful, and sometimes it was painful. Now was one of those painful times. She would never meet a Star King and never interest one enough to marry her. Forget any of that—she would like to just speak with such a being. She sighed again, longer, louder, sadly, and turned back to the worktable, accessed the Iberix network. Back to work....
* * *
"Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahh!"
Cee whirled away from the workbench thinking someone had broken into the house and attacked her stepsisters. They burst into the workroom, so excited they danced and jumped around even more than when she'd gone up to the mainroom several days ago. They threw their arms in the air and yelled. The youngest, Worm su, pulled her own hair and let out a bloodcurdling yell.
"What is it?" Cee asked.
Mermsa, the middle one, the calmest, rushed to her. "The Star King is coming—"
"I know," Cee said.
Mermsa held up four thin plastic cards. On each, a black S superimposed over a black K sat in a circle of scintillating red. The sign of the Gods, of the Star Kings.
"—and he's giving a party and we're invited!" She fanned the cards and she and her sisters jumped and screamed for joy again. "We're going on the Monterey!"
"They say they live like the greatest kings in existence," Slosis the eldest said.
"Anything they want, they can have," Mermsa the middle added.
"They can go anywhere instantly," Wormsu the youngest said.
"They live for hundreds and hundreds of years," Slosis said.
Cee's eyes were fastened on the four plastic cards. A ship of the Star Kings.... Not gods—but close enough. Beings who trav eled the universe, who fought strange species billions of years old, who had never faltered despite so many adversities in their quest to avenge the Earth. Magnificent and yet tragic.
"We're going on the Monterey?" she whispered, almost not quite believing.
Suddenly her stepsisters quieted. Mermsa brought the plastic cards down from where she had held them up high. All three look ed at Cee. She looked back at them, apprehension suddenly clutch ing at her heart.
Slosis shook her head sadly. "We're going—and Momma. We don't have a pass for you."
Cee moaned, but kept it to herself. Why her? Why was she always the one who worked while they played? The one who had no time to shop for new dresses or makeup or hairdos or attend body sculpture facilities?
"Besides," said Mermsa, putting a hand above a jutting hip, "Star Kings like beautiful, sexy, exciting women—not drudges." Mermsa, as did her stepsisters, wore a tight fitting sheath with low neckline which revealed deep-plunging cleavage. Jewelry on face, neck, ears, wrists and waist finished their outfits. Next to them, in her lab coat and coveralls, hair barely combed, and bereft of any ornaments, Cee knew they were right. She would interest no Star King. Sometimes it was so hurtful to dream. She squeezed back her tears; she would not let them see her cry.
"I—I'm glad you shared your good news with me," she said, trying to smile, despite her breaking heart.
"We did not come here for that," Slosis said, setting her straight, hefting her breasts into place out of habit more than need.
"Oh, you know your way around the net so much better than we do. We need you to search out something for us. We want to be the sexiest, most beautiful women at the party. We want to be irresistible so he will pick one of us."
"Just like the Warlord picked Karea," Wormsu the youngest said.
"And that one will invite the others along!" Mermsa the middle said. "We'll all be Star Kings!" She hugged her two sisters as they nodded at that. Somehow, Cee had a feeling she would not be included.
She sighed. "Okay, just let me finish up what I'm working on, then I'll help you."
"And something for Momma," Wormsu said. "Very sexy—in case he likes older women."
"Though she's just our chaperone," Slosis said. "Star Kings are said to be sexual maniacs—they can't get enough!"
The three stepsisters chorused, "Ohhhh!" and jumped up and down.
"They have these humongous orgies!" Mermsa said.
"Yes!" the girls said, jumping again.
"And they have—" she whispered first to Slosis on her right and then to Wormsu on her left.
The three screamed in unison and jumped, their abundant breasts jiggling happily.
"You must find us stuff that will make him choose one of us," Slosis said.
"Okay," Cee said resignedly, "I just need an hour or two to finish up. Then I can help you."
"Thank you, Cee!" they chorused and noisily left. "We'll be back. Hurry up!"
She sighed as the door closed behind them leaving her in abrupt silence. Not only wasn't she going, but they would keep her busy helping them, so she wouldn't even be able to console herself with multidimensional math equations. Oh, Momma, Daddy, why did you have to die and leave me with them? She went back to her workbench.
Her stepmother and stepsisters were more than happy with what she'd come up with. Personally, she thought they looked like hookers or holo-porn tryouts but they hadn't asked her. They'd gone back up to the livingroom to wait for the warp up to the Monterey. At least she had time for one multidimensional math problem before she had to look at the next virus infected network. She accessed the scheduling list. As always, it was full. She sighed; at this rate, she'd be fixing computers for the next hundred years.
She called up her holoboard and began to write the elements of her toughest multidimensional math problem to date. The first part was easy. The second took a little thought. The third made her stretch her brain a bit. The fourth—she settled in for a little think ing, checking the clock to see how much time she had before she had to get back to work.
"Hmmmm, multidimensional math," a woman said behind her. "Thirty-eight dimensions. That's a lot for a girl—or anyone—to keep in her head."
Cee whirled around—immersed in the problem, she hadn't heard anyone come in.
The woman was dark like her, slim of form and elegantly beautiful.
"I didn't hear you come in," she said.
"I didn't ... come in." She wore a tight reflective black body suit. It was beautiful without being revealing or obscene. "I came, I am here, but I did not 'come in.' I am your fairy godmother."
"There is no such thing. Who are you?"
The woman sighed. "Okay, I am not really your fairy god mother, but I am playing the part, so humor me and call me your fairy godmother."
"Why should I humor you? I have work to do."
The woman held up something. Cee's eyes widened. It was a plastic card—and on it the sign of the Star Kings—same as on the ones her stepmother and stepsisters had.
Cee did not move. For a moment, she dared hope that card was for her. She said nothing lest her hope be crushed.
"It's only a temporary pass—expires at midnight," the woman said.
Cee stared at the card the way a starving dog stares at a bone someone is holding out. The woman motioned for her to take it.
"Is it—is it for me?" she finally got up the courage to ask.
"Why else would I be standing here holding it out to you?"
Cee took it, enclosed it in her hands and held it to her breasts against the rough material of her labcoat. She closed her eyes. She would go onto the Monterey, she would see a Star King, if not actually meet him. This was all a dream. No, the card was still in her hand. She opened her eyes—the woman was still there, face so serene, eyes so white in the dark of her face.
"But how— Who are you?"
"I already told you—you chose not to believe me. Now why are you wasting time on stupid questions? You should be getting ready."
"But—oh, I have nothing to wear! My hair—" She raised her hands to her head. "It's a total mess."
"You're in luck—I have some experience with such things." She snapped her fingers. A holomirror appeared. Cee shook her head sadly at what she saw there: a shapeless nothing in a grey labcoat with a thatch of dry-looking hair which stuck out every which way. No lipstick. Her shoulders slumped. She felt herself on the verge of crying.
"Now, now ... all that can be fixed."
"How?" Cee asked; time was moving along. The guests— including her stepfamily—would already have warped up onto the Monterey. It would take her hours to make herself and her hair up and she had no clothes suitable to such an event.
"I can expedite things. Undress while I show you a collection of dresses and accessories."
True to her word, the woman in black did just that. The styles were many and varied, the only common denominator being they were conservative.
Cee mentioned that.
"So you want something revealing, risque."
"No, it is not my style, but I just thought I'd mention it."
"Good. There will be many women there tonight, most—if not all—trying to catch David Williams' attention by showing as much tempting flesh as possible. In a room of naked—or near naked—women, it is the one wearing clothes that catches the eye."
Cee nodded. "That's good to hear—I would die if I appeared in public with nothing on."
"Remember, Star Kings are many and varied in their behavior. You should do what you're comfortable with."
In the end she chose a simple long line white dress which contrasted beautifully with the darkness of her skin. A simple silver necklace 'borrowed' from her sisters adorned her throat. The woman in black pointed a finger at Cee's head. Her scalp began to itch. Alarmed, she raised her hands, but was afraid to touch herself.
"Something's crawling in my hair!" she screamed.
"Just nanos," the lady in black said. "You must take more care with your hair."
"You know the technology—small machines programmed for specific tasks—in this case, the hairstyle you picked out."
Suddenly the crawling sensation stopped. Cee turned to the holomirror. Her mouth fell open. Surely that was not her—a young girl, slim, beautiful, her hair piled atop her head like a crown. She started to cry.
"Please," the lady in black said, "you'll ruin your makeup and make your eyes puffy. How will that look when you meet David Williams?"
Cee nodded, snuffed and wiped her eyes, using a handkerchief which had appeared out of nowhere before her. She took a deep breath. "I can't really believe I'm going. I know—I'm crazy. I'm imagining you and the dress and the hair and—" She blew her nose.
"And the last thing—" the lady in black said. She blinked and a pair of golden slippers appeared before her. Cee stepped into them. They slid on easily and then tightened like soft warm loving hands about her feet. She felt as if she were walking on air. "Micromachines," the dark lady explained.
She knew that concept too: artificially intelligent clothing—but only the rich could afford them. Who was this lady? But for now, Cee didn't care. She whirled about in front of the holomirror. Even if she did not go onto the Monterey, she would remember this day forever. She had never thought she could look so beautiful.
"Are you ready?"
Cee stopped turning. She stood stock still. "I'm scared," she admitted.
"Good—your adrenaline level will be high. You will be in combat mode. Good luck!" She snapped her fingers.
"My god!" Cee breathed. The room was like a great cathedral. Gold-gilded designs covered the ceiling. Chandeliers big as build ings floated in the air, both reflecting and giving off light. On the walls holopictures of sea- and spacescapes of wondrous and exotic beauty drew her eyes. Surf raged against rocks, asteroids hurtled through space. Gigantic mountains soared toward the sky. A purple-hued sunset there, a serene moon hanging in blackest space here.
At the far end of the room, the centerpiece, a blue-green planet shrouded in white clouds was backdrop for a man—David Williams. But for now, it was the planet that commanded her attention. That, she knew, was the Earth, the planet of Star Kings, burned into a charred ruin a thousand years ago. No wonder the thought of vengeance had been their focal point until the MOTU home space became ever-expanding vapor.
And now, suddenly, she was aware of the people about her—and her sisters and mother, though they had not as yet caught sight of her; they were too busy trying to attract David Williams' attention.
The Star King's eyes looked over the crowd. She tried to see them as he did. Her stepsister Slosis, always proud of her body— she certainly spent enough time in the body sculpture facilities—wore a net body suit, so that every square-inch of her well- curved, bronzed body was on display. She virtually writhed in place, proud of her attributes and certain David Williams would notice and pick her. Others looked on enviously. She was total perfection. Who could resist her?
Mermsa wore a sheer body-hugging dress through which her nipples and pubic hair showed darkly. And Wormsu wore, well, it was clear she had visited the body sculpture clinic before coming: she had doubled her breast and thigh sizes. What would have been a cute little light brown dress on her before, now looked inadequate and altogether she appeared grotesque. Cee knew some men were turned on by such appearances and clearly Wormsu had gambled on that to give her an advantage if the Star King was such a man. And her stepmother ... Cee could only shake her head; her combination gown and thong did not work at all.
Looking about the floor, she saw many had gone to similar extremes to present themselves in what they considered an irresistible manner. And she could see it was not wasted on David Williams for his eyes lingered on one body after another.
Cee sighed, shrugged and moved toward the holopictures. They were so lifelike, so detailed. What would it be like to actually see such wonders?
She glanced back a while later. David Williams was busy mingling with politicians and big shots. After that, there was music—from Earth—and many danced as best they could to it. And then there was music of her planet and her people. Men asked her to dance, but she turned them down. They went away disappointed. She didn't care; she wanted to take advantage of every moment onboard the Monterey. Just to be on a Star King ship, just to see a Star King, was enough to make her content.
Finally she came to a smaller holopicture of a dark man with dreads. The black S superimposed over a black K in a circle of scintillating red stood over his heart. His war cloak flared out behind him as if in a wind. He was handsome, his jaw set, his eyes determined.
"He died in the MOTU homespace in the final minutes of battle," a voice said. "The MOTUs targeted the Harlem—his ship. We could not fight our way through to him in time."
Not breathing, she turned slowly, conscious so many eyes were upon her. David Williams stood at her side, having come up on her without her being aware.
He too was dark like the man in the picture. He too wore his hair in dreads. And he too wore a cloak like the one in the holopic ture. It quivered and momentarily soared out behind him like the wings of a great bird.
Fascinated, she asked, "Is it alive?"
The term echoed in her mind. She had heard it recently, but she was so overwhelmed by his presence she could not think. She had wanted to meet and talk with him and now here he was.
Her pulse was beating so fast. She struggled to breathe. A Star King. But more than a Star King. She had seen handsome men before—none had moved her. She couldn't stop looking at him. She can't get enough of looking at him. She seemed to hover over the deck as she stood next to him.
His eyes burned into hers so she had to force herself to look back at the holopicture. She said the first thing that came to her. "He was the one they called the Warlord?"
He nodded. So sadly it seemed to her. "Yes, he led us into the MOTU homespace."
"I—I understand many of your people died there."
Again he nodded, seemingly even more sadly. "More died than lived. We left a generation there. But it had to be done. The Earth had to be avenged."
Sensing she needed to change the subject, she said, "He is the one who married the alien girl?"
"Karea? Yes. They were very much in love. His death was very difficult for her."
"And he set his computer—Hokey Joke Jack—free?"
Now David Williams smiled. "It is hard to stand against a TEMS—they have minds of their own."
"TEMS—that is what you call your highest level computers?"
"Do you have one?"
"Yes—" He turned and pointed across the room.
Cee's eyes widened as the woman in reflective black waved to her.
"She calls herself Cleopatra. I don't know what I would do without her. She takes care of me and the ship. Always seems to know what I need before I even know I need it. She hasn't mentioned freedom yet. Doesn't seem to have any inclination in that direction. I dread when that day comes, but I shall let her go. One cannot keep a sentient being chained when it wants to be free. It is a lesson we have learned the hard way. And as a people who were once enslaved, we are sensitive to such things."
"In the old United States of America. The Warlord and I, we are descended of African Americans." He sighed and looked down at Cee. "I'm glad somebody decided to dress sensibly."
She couldn't help smiling. "Don't you like half-naked women?"
He smiled back. "When you are a Star King, all you have to do is set down on a planet like this and every nubile woman who can, comes running—many times without clothes. Our technology is such that our women are beautiful and shapely and, as a result, often inclined to display what science has given them. Thus the belief of many cultures and societies that we are a bunch of degenerates looking for the nearest orgy.
"Anyway, while we value beauty and sensuousness, many of us look for other things in a woman."
"Curiosity, intelligence, humility and personality. Beauty doesn't hurt, of course. Uh oh!" he said.
"Some of your politicians are heading this way," he said with out turning around. "They are the same no matter where one goes: boring. Here—"
In the same moment of a heartbeat, they were in the ballroom and in the new room.
It was lined with shelves and on the shelves were books. She could not read the language but recognized them. She stepped to a shelf and ran a finger along the spines, feeling the pleasure of the bindings upon her skin. "Are these from the Earth?" she asked.
"No. Recreations. They're not necessary—everything is in the databanks but I find them comforting. This is my study—I come here to think."
She moved to a large window along one side of the room and looked down on her planet. "Wow!" she said, for the first time realizing how far she had come between heartbeats.
He came to stand beside her. "It is good to hear you say that."
She looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"I have seen so many planets through that window. When I heard you say 'Wow!' it reminded me what a magnificent sight it is, reminded me of so many things I take for granted."
"Like this starship?"
"Yes, like this starship. I live on it alone—with Cleopatra and other computers and that is a fact many would find inconceivable. Yet, I think nothing of it."
"Isn't it lonely?"
"Would you be lonely on it?"
"No!" she said. "There is so much to see and do. I mean, I've seen only the ballroom and the holopictures and this room, but I'm sure there is much more. I understand the Monterey is bigger than a city. It would take me forever just to read the books in this room. I'm sure you have labs and experiments. I would study your drive system, your weapons, your power plant. It is antimatter—isn't it?"
"And your computers. The way you warp space and—." She shook her head. "I can't even begin to imagine all the wonders you have onboard. Your biological advancements alone...." She just stopped, unable to express herself anymore, overwhelmed by how much there must be to learn and study on this one ship.
He laughed, delighted at the look on her face.
"And you must have the history of your people—on Earth and for the thousand years the MOTUs chased them. And records of all the species and cultures you've encountered."
He nodded. "Yes, there is all that."
"I could never get lonely with so much to see and learn and do."
He sighed. "Sometimes it is not enough."
She half-shrugged as if to say she found that hard to believe and did not want to contradict him.
"Only a handful of us escaped the burning of the Earth. A very small handful. One of our primary injunctions was to multiply. It is hard to multiply by oneself."
"Oh," she said.
"A Star King ship—like the Monterey—is designed to be filled with children. It has Life Banks—carrying the genes of the human race—and artificial wombs. It is not a task to be undertaken alone or lightly."
She nodded; she could certainly agree with that. "I'm sure you will find a woman," she said. A Star King woman.
"I'm sure I will."
"What time is it?" she asked suddenly, realizing she had no watch.
A holo of a clock of her people appeared. "Almost twelve," he said. It winked back out of existence.
"I must go," she said, remembering the warning. Cleopatra's warning. Cleopatra the TEMS. Sentient computer.
"Can it not wait—I'm enjoying your company. I've never enjoyed being with someone so much."
"Then let me get you a souvenir of your visit. It will only take a moment." He disappeared. One moment there, the next, not. She shook her head. Not Gods. But like Gods.
She looked around at the room—and noticed what she had not before: A whiteboard. With all the tech Star Kings possessed, he had a whiteboard in a corner. Her eyes widened as she saw what was on it. She walked quickly to it. A multidimensional math problem. Complex, yes. And he had solved it ... in a roundabout way. Her hand moved toward the eraser on the ledge.
No! she told herself. Mustn't touch. I mustn't disturb his work. He's a Star King and I am ... a girl of a species uplifted from the stone age only a hundred years ago.
She looked around. He hadn't come back yet. He said a souvenir. What kind of souvenir? There was such an easier way to solve the equation. She turned away, looked at the holopictures of exotic landscapes and creatures. Just a little erasing and she could fix the equation for him. Leave it alone! It must almost be twelve—she had to go. He could come back at any moment. She turned. What time was it? She walked to the board, sighed. She picked up the eraser. A few strokes. She put it down. Picked up the marking pen and wrote quickly. She'd barely put the marker back when some one appeared next to her.
She spun around. Cleopatra.
"I hope you enjoyed your visit."
Suddenly the computers and workbenches of her workroom surrounded Cee. Her hair fell down about her along with a haze of dust which she assumed were the nanos from her hair—dead now. And she was as naked as many of the ladies in the Monterey's ballroom as her gown fell away from her. The dust and grit of nanos and micromachines faded away.
"All good things come to an end," Cleopatra said. She winked —and disappeared.
"I can't believe you purged my study and the ballroom," David said. He paced back and forth in the same study.
"I was concerned for your health—you know how diabolical some alien viruses are," Cleopatra said.
"Nonsense—you've never been concerned about that be fore—and our tech can handle anything."
"You never know."
"You didn't want me to get a sample of her DNA."
The TEMS' image sighed.
"I must find her."
"Why? Because she's charming, smart, curious, delightful, beautiful and humble. I liked talking with her. I want to see her again."
"Then find her."
"She's not on the official list of invitees—I've already screened that." He looked at the holographic projection of the TEMS. "Which means she had help. Inside help."
"Oh—and why would any computer onboard want to help her?"
"Not any computer—the only sentient computer onboard."
"Me? Why would I want to help some alien girl attend one of your boring gatherings? Like watching a bunch of trees growing."
"One of your plots—God knows, you're always plotting some thing or other, always out to help some poor creature you think can use your help. Well, now you can help me find her."
"That's easy enough. You noticed she changed your equation?"
"Yes—a rather lean, elegant solution. I told you she was smart. She's just the type of woman I need."
"Oh, are we thinking in terms other than mere attraction."
"Yes, damn it—you know I like intelligent women. She is perfect. And she liked me! The telemetries made that plain—she was a pressure cooker of hormones."
"Then announce you are looking for the woman who altered your whiteboard. She will come forward."
"You think so. She didn't seem like the type to want a lot of attention."
"If you want to find her, make the effort."
"Oh, Cee!" her stepsisters cried as they burst through into the workroom where she was hunting down a mutant A.I. virus which had infected a number of networks and was proving efficient at camouflaging itself. She turned to look at them.
"Oh!" they said, their eyes going wide, startled by the change in her appearance. She had oiled her hair and braided it so it went down the back of her head and neck the way the TEMS Cleopatra had worn its. Beneath her labcoat they could see a black form- fitting bodysuit. A touch of red rested on her lips and her oiled dark skin glowed with a happiness they had never seen in her before.
Since meeting David Williams, she had decided to take some care with her appearance. It was a strange feeling to know she looked good even though there was no one to appreciate it. And since she had met him, her thoughts had been so light and airy. Almost as if she were high.
"Yes?" she asked.
"Have you heard?" Slosis demanded.
"The Star King is looking for a girl," Wormsu said.
"They say he fell in love with her at the party!" Mermsa ex plained.
"But you don't know which one," Cee ventured.
"No one does," Slosis said. "It was someone there—very beautiful."
"Favored you a little," Wormsu said, squinting, "the way you look now."
"But Cee wasn't there," Slosis said, "so we don't know who it could possibly be. And even if she had been there, it could never be her. He said she was charming and delightful and beautiful."
They all nodded.
"So, now that you've told me, I know," Cee said.
"And he's coming here!" Wormsu said.
"We communicated that we could handle his problem," Slosis informed her.
"He didn't say what it was, but I'm sure one of us can solve it."
Cee knew she was of course not included in that 'one of us.' "I wish you luck," she told them.
"Thank you!" Wormsu said. Still excited, the three hurried out.
After they were gone, she stood and thought. A problem. The whiteboard. And Cleopatra was his TEMS. Why? What game was going on here? She had enjoyed—no, more than that—his company. He was handsome and smart, a bit tragic, charming, and she was more than a little attracted to him. But she hated games. And he would be happiest with a woman of his own kind. Let him and his TEMS play whatever it was they were playing—she would not participate.
The news traveled about her world as one by one David Williams visited house after house looking for the girl who had captured his heart.
* * *
The public was not allowed to see the whiteboard he carried with him—lest someone figure out the answer beforehand. Not that it mattered to him; he was looking for a specific girl, not a solution to a problem.
And finally, there was only one house left.
"This must it," he said nervously. And certainly the media agreed with him, for they surrounded the residence as if laying siege to it.
The mother and her three daughters came out, each in a tight clinging gown of a different color. They found it hard to look away from him. But as each did and looked at the whiteboard, her face crumpled; they did not know what to make of the strange writing there.
"Does anyone else live here?" David asked.
"No one," the Mother said. "If you are looking for a companion, any or all of my daughters will do. They are all pretty and shapely."
David smiled, though his heart ached. He wanted to say, some times it is not enough to be pretty and shapely, but saw no reason to hurt feelings. One often had no control over what one was and if pretty and shapely were all one possessed, then it had to be enough. And to note the lack of anything else, could only hurt.
"There is Cee," Wormsu said.
The mother looked at her youngest sharply and then back at David. "Yes, there is Cee—a poor unfortunate orphan we took in. But she did not attend the ball and she really is not very attractive. A stick of a girl—and all she does is repair computers."
"And solves mutlidimensional equations when she takes a break," Wormsu added.
"Multidimensional equations?" David asked.
"And her name?"
David Williams looked at the house. "Would you ask her to come out and solve this problem?"
A curtain drew back.
She peeked out the window at all the people there. The front of the house was in the holoset—as it must be in all the sets in the city and beyond. Not long ago she would have been mortified. Right now, she was angry. She did not want to play games. She stormed down the stairs and out the front door and strode to where he stood with the whiteboard. Scowling at him, she snatched up the marker and wrote the answer. She slammed the marker back into its holder. "Satisfied?!" she asked scowling.
"The whiteboard helps me think," he said. "Often one finds other ways of solving an equation if one pauses along the way."
She just looked at him.
"I apologize for the circus. I only wanted to find you. I thought this would be the quickest way."
"And why did you want to find me?" she asked, though she knew the answer.
He led her away from the crowd. He brought out a flower. "To give you this. I promised you a gift. But I could not decide be tween a red or blue or white or yellow one. I finally decided on the red rose, but you were gone."
She took the flower slowly, gently, brought it to her nose, smelled it. "From the Earth?"
"Yes," he nodded. "Like Star Kings, from the Earth. Cee, we have known each other only a short time, but I feel as if I've known you forever. Enough to know I want you to be with me, to explore the universe and the multiverse with me, to be at my side while I hunt the rest of the killers of Earth." He looked at her with warm eyes and smiled. "That's an offer I know you can't refuse."
"Forgive me, I am sometimes awkward with words. I love you and though you have not said it aloud, I know you love me."
"If I have not said so, how do you know?"
"Some things do not need saying and one does not need to hear them to know. But if I mistrusted my own senses, you were onboard the Monterey. Your telemetries confirmed what my heart told me. But perhaps my heart and they are wrong."
She shook her head. "No," she said softly, "they are not wrong."
The crowd and the house and her stepfamily disappeared. She and David Williams stood on a mirrored black plain. Overhead diamond-like stars crowded the sky to overflowing.
On the Observation Deck of the Monterey, Cee said, "Yes, I will marry you." Not for the great starship he commanded or the tech that drove her or the archives of the Earth and the Universe, but because she loved him.
And so—except for rogue TEMS which sought to exterminate all non-electronic life, surviving warrior-MOTUs who wanted to avenge the destruction of the homespace, resurrected ten-billion- years-old Krahzee programmed to hunt and destroy Star Kings, Civilization—whose goal was to strip Star Kings of their ships and force them to settle on planets like other races, young-gun species which wanted to prove they were the greatest warriors in existence, older dying universes and beings of the multiverse which wanted to control the younger one of the Star Kings, the great Exodus led by the Warlord Iana 'Troublemaker' MacDonald, niece of the first Warlord, to find the others responsible for Earth's destruction, and that final Armageddon of a battle at the end of time—Cee and David Williams lived happily ever after.