Prologue and Chapter 1
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 you.”
“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 this world!”
“I 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 man.
“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 more crucial.
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 persistent disapproval.
“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 tube.”
“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 casually.
“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 twenty-five.”
“But — what do they look like?”
“Oh!” He grinned. “They look like snails, my dear. Like great, BIG snails.”