Simtlack’s sector representative had
found her on Earth in a place called Hong Kong. She
sounded entirely appropriate. Simtlack had made a study of Earth since he had
acquired Chiang as his assistant. He admired Queen Victoria. She
had longevity —unusual in an Earth ruler. She also had self-discipline and a
very strong sense of right and wrong. Just the things his son most needed to
learn. This young lady came from the England of Victoria. But because she was
in Hong Kong,
Simtlack deduced she was intrepid. Young women of Victoria’s
time did not often travel so widely. She was also alone and penniless, and
therefore desperate. But she was attempting to find work, and therefore
unbeaten. Simtlack’s tentacles wove thoughtfully. Yes, she sounded quite
smooth. He directed the Captain to set course for Earth, then oozed his way out
of the communications center. The slimer had to clean up after him.
The young woman mincing along the dusty
track that passed for a street in the Hong Kong of
1884 did not look like an adventurer. From her dirt-covered button shoes to the
parasol tipped over her head, she looked like what she was: a Victorian lady.
But in one gloved hand she clutched a newspaper with three advertisements
circled, and in her heart she clutched an unladylike determination.
She entered the doorway of the business
that had placed the third of the advertisements she had noted in the paper.
Less than five minutes later she emerged, the proprietor’s laughter following
her into the street. “No woman’ll clerk for this business this day, lassy — or
next year or next century!”
“Bloody fool,” she muttered to herself.
At least he hadn’t suggested that she apply to a saloon as her previous
prospect had done. But to suggest that she could only be a governess! Did she
truly look such a milksop as that? Pausing to consider her reflection in a shop
window, she supposed that she did indeed. Her perfectly piled chestnut hair and
her carefully tended hands indicated that she should be sitting in her mother’s
parlor. Her mother, however, was long gone. She dismissed her unlamented mother
from her thoughts. Perhaps her need for a life beyond the norm showed in her
mouth — her wide, easily laughing mouth which she had inherited from her father.
Her very much lamented father … She hastily dismissed this thought also as
tears threatened. What was she to do now?
She was startled from her dilemma by
garbled speaking nearby. Looking around, she saw a Chinese gentleman dressed in
a red silk robe who appeared to be addressing her. “I am so sorry, I am afraid
I have no Chinese.”
The gentleman was fiddling with a strange
pendant which hung around his neck. She was shocked when a clear voice speaking
unaccented English snapped, “This cursed thing! May the gods piss on it!”
Susannah took a hasty step back and
debated whether to run. The gentleman straightened up, then bowed. “Excuse me,
I have a proposition for you.”
Susannah looked around. No one else
seemed to have noticed the strange behavior of the odd little man. She knew she
ought to walk briskly and firmly away (she could hear her mother’s voice
telling her so), but she was intrigued.
“You are Miss Susannah Maureen Chambers
McKay, aren’t you?”
“How do you know my name?”
“I represent someone who wishes to hire
“Hire me? What can you mean?”
“You are looking for a job, aren’t you?
Almost out of money? No way to get back to England?”
Susannah gasped. This was too
frightening. “Excuse me!” She tried to push past him, but he didn’t move, and
she found that she couldn’t push him aside. He was much stronger than he
looked. At any rate, the curiosity which her mother had considered her most
reprehensible trait drained her resolution.
The Chinese gentleman continued: “My
employers are willing to pay you 10,000 fenigs a year, and, of course, include
room and board. After one year they would deliver you to the destination of
your choice. In return, you will instruct Intlack, the Eldest, in the customs
and culture of the British Empire.”
The small man seemed to relax a bit. “That’s what they want, although I did my
best to talk them out of it. The job isn’t an easy one, but you certainly won’t
be bored. You could say it will be an adventure, should you choose to accept.”
The word caught her. The whole situation
was unreal, but … Adventure. “What are fenigs?”
When he explained that “the major portion
of a fenig is gold” because “they like the shine,” Susannah’s fears washed away
in a tide of greed. “I’m sure they could be exchanged in England, if
that’s what you have in mind,” he assured her.
A fenig must be some Chinese coin she had
never heard of, she thought with wonder — 10,000 pieces of gold! She would be
set for life — and never have to listen to the laughter of a shopkeeper again.
“Who is Intlack?”
“The son of the house. He’s about twelve,
the way you’d reckon it.”
“Where do they live?”
“On a ship. We’ll be traveling a lot.”
Susannah smiled. She loved to travel.
Living on board ship with her father had been the happiest years of her life.
This must be a very rich Chinese family! No doubt they had made their fortune
in opium. Her father had said that many had. She looked at the tall ships
docked in the harbor, weighing her options. They were pitifully few. The man shuffled
uncomfortably. “Look, you’re not seriously considering this are you? I thought
you’d turn right around and run away from me. I was counting on it, actually.
You can’t conceive of — these are aliens, you understand? They’re from out of
understand,” murmured Susannah, although she had barely heard him. Her mind was
full of adventure. Governess to a Chinese child. An alien indeed, but what a
challenge! Living on a Chinese ship, worlds away from the English parlor she
had hated. Perhaps the first European ever to experience the private life of a
Chinese family — and the opportunity to teach them the civilized ways of England. No
businessman in Hong Kong was
going to hire her. She had clerked for her father, but no other man was going
to give a woman such a job. She would have to hire herself out to an English
family as a nanny or a governess — or do this. She looked down at the Chinese
“When do we leave?”
“Are you serious?”
“You’re out of your head.” He handed her
a contract. “You sign this, we leave
“Now. My employers don’t waste time.”
Susannah began reading through the
contract, while the Chinese man tapped his foot impatiently. Susannah glanced
down at him. “Sir, what is your name?”
“Well, Chiang, what is a Shill?”
“It’s what they call themselves.”
“Hmm.” It must be another Chinese word
I’ve never heard of, Susannah thought. What a great deal I have to learn!
Growing impatient with the foreign terminology, she skimmed the rest of the
contract. She found the reference to the 10,000 fenigs and the guarantee to
deliver her to her destination of choice after one year. “Very well,” she said,
tilting her chin up with what her father had called her “make full sail face.”
Chiang handed her a writing implement and
she signed her name.
Chiang spoke into the pendant hanging
from his neck. “Beam us up, Snotty!” Hong Kong
disappeared from Susannah’s sight.
Susannah flapped her hands wildly, off
balance and terrified. Where was she?
This ship, if it was a ship, was unlike any she
had ever sailed upon. She stood on a platform in a small, brilliantly colored
room. The process by which she had gotten there had been an indescribable
experience, which she was trying not to remember. Apparently alarmed by her
white face, Chiang put a hand to her elbow. Susannah wondered if she should
allow a Chinese man to assist her in this way. She was not accustomed to
dealing with brown-skinned people on an equal basis. She had no time to
consider the problem, for a large purple creature stood at the desk in front of
her, waving something in front of its huge, grotesque face and making loud
honking noises. Susannah gasped, “Is it speaking to me?”
“No, he’s sneezing. He’s allergic to us —
he’s allergic to all humans.” He smiled at her. He seemed to be enjoying her
bewilderment, his brown eyes sparkling. “I told you this would be different
from anything you’ve ever experienced. Shall I take you back to Hong Kong?” He
leaned toward her as though tempted to sweep her off her feet and carry her
back himself. She suspected that he could do it, too, in spite of his small
stature. She straightened her spine.
“Certainly not.” Her mother had always
said that a lady should never show shock (“Unless, of course, my dear, it
concerns something of a — well, something to do with, that is — of a sexual
nature — and then it would be far more appropriate simply to faint.”) Susannah
felt a little bit like fainting now, but then the sense of humor that her
mother had always described as “unfortunate” began to stir. What would her
mother consider appropriate behavior when confronted with an allergic alien?
Susannah smiled graciously at the snorting creature.
Chiang, however, looked disappointed.
“Well, I’ll take you to your room, then.” He led her out through a turquoise
curtain. “You can spend some time getting adjusted. Tonight at dinner you’ll
meet the Family.”
She took two deep breaths and followed
him into a corridor hung with more of the brilliantly colored drapery. This was
certainly nothing like her father’s ship. If only fate could have allowed them
to make this voyage together, how much he would have enjoyed this! She blinked
back the tears. When she was alone, she would allow herself to cry a little.
She had not had much opportunity to grieve. Finding a means to eat had seemed
Chiang noticed her blinking as they
walked down the corridor which swirled with color. “It’s a little overpowering
at first, isn’t it? With the Family, color is stature, the brighter the better.
And the Family, you must understand, is very important. Here we are.” He pushed
aside a magenta curtain and ushered her into a room. She sighed with relief to
find that the draperies here were muted pastels. “As you can see, you’re being
put in your place right off.”
“It is reminiscent of the Arabian
Nights!” Susannah fondled a soft curtain. “It is fortunate that I have been put
in my place; I do not believe I would rest at all with colors as brilliant as
those we saw in the corridor!”
Chiang was fiddling with a curtain at the
side of the room. He pulled out a small bundle and gave it a snap. She stared
in astonishment as it inflated immediately into a softly padded bed. “When you
want to deflate it, just squeeze it at either end.” Susannah felt the bed. It
was soft and springy and felt as though it was filled with something more than
air. “Feathers,” said Chiang. “Believe it or not. They discovered goosedown
mattresses on Earth.”
She turned sharply at that. “So — please
be frank. Where are we, Mr.Chiang?” She faced him squarely, noting that he had
the compact, muscular look of many of the Chinese she had seen. Was he Chinese?
“Just Chiang, please.” His brown eyes
contemplated her curiously. “I’m not sure. Probably past Venus by now. Want me
to ask them to turn around?”
“Venus? The planet?”
“Yes.” He smiled, obviously expecting her
to have the vapors or some such. She turned away from those probing eyes. “You
did inform me that we would be traveling ‘out of this world.’. I — I surmise
that I did not entirely conceive…”
“There was really no way for you to
comprehend it. I knew this was a mistake. I tried to tell them.”
Susannah didn’t hear him. Something had
just occurred to her. “Are my employers — Chinese?”
He stared at her in surprise. “No!” He
sighed and swung his arms in frustration. “I thought I had made that clear. I
told them you were from the wrong culture for this. No exposure to alien life.
Not even a conception of other worlds.”
She heard that. “What do you mean? Are
you suggesting that I have had no exposure to alien life? Just what words would
you use to portray the difference between the Chinese way of life and that of an
English woman? Can you not conceive that after growing up with my mother in
London, Hong Kong was like another world to me?”
He snorted. “Honey, you don’t know what
alien is. I told them, ‘If she doesn’t go into shock, she’ll go stark, raving
crazy.’ But they didn’t listen.”
His tone annoyed her. “Are you not
Chinese? From Earth?”
Chiang paused. “Well, yes. A long time
ago. But please don’t tell anyone. I tell everyone I’m Maurean. Earth is
considered the backwoods of the universe — it doesn’t even have a Universal
Representative! I’d appreciate it if you kept my origins to yourself. If you
want to be respected, you’ll adopt a new homeland, too.”
Slowly Susannah sat down on the low bed,
then jumped up in shocked surprise.
“Does it live?”
“Not exactly, no,” he said absently. “Go
ahead and sit on it. It won’t hurt you.”
But will I hurt it? she wondered. She sat
down gingerly. The bed again began a soothing purr. Trying to relax, she
watched curiously as Chiang fiddled with his small box. “Would it be rude to inquire
the purpose of that?”
“No.” He looked down at her with a frown.
“I’m the only human on this ship besides you, Susannah.” She knew she ought to
reprimand him sharply for using her name without permission, but it seemed a
little inconsequential at the moment. “You can ask me anything you want to.
Nothing is too rude. But you should only ask me, okay? You have no way of
knowing what’s rude to any of the other creatures on board. Some of the others
— oh, this is ridiculous. You don’t belong here. This --” he shook the box, “is
a communicator, a translator, and several other things. And right now I’m going
to communicate to the Captain and to the Family that they must take you back.
They had no business bringing you out here.”
She leaped to her feet again. “You’ll do
no such thing!” She grabbed his hand away from the communicator. “Who are you
to make such a decision for me? To what should I return? I should go back to
become a governess to a spoiled little English child? Knowing all the time that
I could have been — been flying through space having extraordinary adventures
instead? I will not!” She tried to soften her tone. “Please, Chiang.” She
realized she was still holding his hand and blushed, dropping it. “This will
not be an easy adjustment, but it will certainly be an interesting one! Please.
You did it!”
“Well, I, yes, I did, but — you don’t --”
He sighed. “Most women wouldn’t even have come. Why did you?”
“Well, I needed the money. I believe you
know that my mother died in England.” He nodded. She suspected that he did not
like looking up at her, so she sat down on the bed again. “And my father
brought me to Hong Kong on his ship.” She smiled. “It was his fond wish that I
meet a likely gentleman and marry, and so be secure. But, alas — Well, to tell
you the truth, I was not a bit saddened when no likely gentleman appeared — a
few unlikely gentlemen, but I soon sent them packing! I am afraid I have a very
unladylike appreciation for travel and adventure.”
“So I’m learning.”
“Yes, well. The fact is that when my
father died, I found to my dismay that the ship was not his ship at all, but
belonged to the bank. He was not, I fear, much of a
business man. I had to get a job. I must admit
being a governess was the last thing I wanted to do. But in my straitened
circumstances options were few.” She sighed. “It seemed that no one would hire
me to do anything else.”
“You must have relatives somewhere.”
“Oh, yes, certainly.” She tried to cross
her ankles, but the bed was too low to do it comfortably. “In England. It would
have been six months before they even heard of my predicament and could send
for me. In the meantime, I had to eat.”
“But why this job?” Chiang demanded with
“Because it paid more.” She smiled. “I
knew that if I took this job, I’d eventually be able to go back to England in
style, instead of as a — an orphaned old spinster, or a governess, forever
dependent on others for my survival. And then, I must admit, my father was a
gambler, and I may have inherited a propensity for the same.” She smiled,
remembering. “He lost it all in the end, but he did have a mighty fine time. My
mother always disapproved of him. He was a charming rogue, and I believe he may
have misled her when he courted her. She did her best to instruct me in the art
of being a lady. Which most certainly was not easy for either of us! And she
attempted to instill in me a caution which I obviously lack!” She laughed.
“Father taught me that to live, one must take risks!” She tossed her head back,
and a few pins slipped out of her hair. Cascades of brown waves threatened to
descend unchecked. “Oh, fiddle! Is there a looking glass available?” The ship
seemed slightly damp; like a London fog, it was making her hair curl.
“Behind this curtain.” Chiang showed her
how to hook the curtain back, displaying a blank screen. “Tap it once--” he
demonstrated, “and you have a mirror. Tap it more times and you get other stuff
— but I don’t think you’re ready for that yet. And behind this curtain is your
“For your ‘personal needs.’ The toilet.
The facilities. The water closet. Only there’s no water. You’ll figure it out.”
“Oh,” she said faintly, hoping he was
right. What would Mother say to this?
“They keep everything behind curtains,”
he continued. “Except their thoughts.” He glanced at her sideways, causing her
to become aware of his slanted eyes. Her father had called the Chinese
inscrutable, she recalled. She stopped fiddling with her hair to frown at him
suspiciously. Whatever could his comment indicate?
“I’ll go see if dinner is ready,” he said
“What did you mean?” she demanded.
“Mean by what?”
“Do not play the innocent with me. You
said, ‘Except their thoughts.’ I am not an imbecile. What did you mean?”
“No, you’re certainly no imbecile. Our
employers are telepaths. They don’t speak aloud,” he continued, seeing she
didn’t understand. “They can read minds. But they’re very discreet. They only
read surface thoughts — for conversation, you know. They won’t look any deeper
— unless they ‘hear ‘ something that might be dangerous to them. So think
peaceful thoughts and the rest of your brain will be your own.”
Susannah sagged a bit. “Oh, my goodness …
I — I may have been hasty in saying nothing would dissuade me from remaining
aboard! Could you describe the Shill, please?”
“They like colors and jewelry. They don’t
like violence or disagreements of any kind. Except between the Regisax.” At her
questioning look he explained, “The Regisax are the ones who handle the
machinery on board. Their species has done this for the Shill for generations.
I guess the Shill can handle the hot tempers and narrow mindedness of the
Regisax because they’re so used to it. The only thing a Regisax cares about is
his pride and his machinery. If the one you met — whom I call Snotty, because
he’s allergic to me — to us, I mean — if he could read my mind, he would have
torn my skull open with one finger claw long ago. The Family could not run this
ship without them. The culture of the Shill is about fifty times older than
ours — that is, than that of the Chinese, which is older than you English will
admit — and they live about five times longer than the average human. Their
children take about forty of our years to mature. Your charge is only
“But — what do they look like?”
“Oh!” He grinned. “They look like snails,
my dear. Like great, BIG snails.”