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Page 9

"Oh, look," Gretchen said. "Teenage boys, about to do something stupid."

"Shut up," I said. "That couldn't possibly happen." But I looked anyway.

Sure enough, across the Magellan's common area, two clots of teenage males were staring each other down with that look of we're so gonna fight about something lame. They were all getting ready for a snarl, except for one of them, who gave every appearance of trying to talk some sense into one guy who looked particularly itchin' to fight.

"There's one who appears to have a brain," I said.

"One out of eight," Gretchen said. "Not a really excellent percentage. And if he really had a brain he'd probably be getting out of the way."

"This is true," I said. "Never send a teenage boy to do a teenage girl's job."

Gretchen grinned over to me. "We have that mind-meld thing going, don't we?"

"I think you know the answer to that," I said.

"You want to plan it out or just improvise?" Gretchen asked.

"By the time we plan it out, someone's going to be missing teeth," I said.

"Good point," Gretchen said, and then got up and started moving toward the boys.

Twenty seconds later the boys were startled to find Gretchen in the middle of them. "You're making me lose a bet," she said, to the one who looked the most aggressive.

The dude stared for a moment, trying to wrap whatever was passing for his brain around this sudden and unexpected appearance. "What?" he said.

"I said, you're making me lose a bet," Gretchen repeated, and then jerked a thumb over toward me. "I had a bet with Zoe here that no one would start a fight on the Magellan before we actually left dock, because no one would be stupid enough to do something that would get their entire family kicked off the ship."

"Kicked off the ship two hours before departure, even," I said.

"Right," Gretchen said. "Because what sort of moron would you have to be to do that?"

"A teenage boy moron," I suggested.

"Apparently," Gretchen said. "See - what's your name?"

"What?" the guy said again.

"Your name," Gretchen said. "What your mother and father will call you, angrily, once you've gotten them kicked off the ship."

The guy looked around at his friends. "Magdy," he said, and then opened his mouth as if to say something.

"Well, see, Magdy, I have faith in humanity, even the teenage male part of it," Gretchen said, plowing through whatever it was that our Magdy might have had to say. "I believed that not even teenage boys would be dumb enough to give Captain Zane an excuse to kick a bunch of them off the ship while he still could. Once we're under way, the worst he could do is put you in the brig. But right now he could have the crew drop you and your family at the loading bay. Then you could watch the rest of us wave good-bye. Surely, I said, no one could be that incredibly dense. But my friend Zoe disagreed. What did you say, Zoe?"

"I said that teenage boys can't think beyond or without their newly dropped testicles," I said, staring at the boy who had been trying to talk sense into his pal. "Also, they smell funny."

The boy grinned. He knew what we were up to. I didn't grin back; I didn't want to mess with Gretchen's play.

"And I was so convinced that I was right and she was wrong that I actually made a bet," Gretchen said. "I bet every single dessert I'd get here on the Magellan that no one would be that stupid. That's a serious bet."

"She loves her dessert," I said.

"It's true, I do," Gretchen said.

"She's a dessert fiend," I said.

"And now you are going to make me lose all my desserts," Gretchen said, poking Magdy in the chest. "This is not acceptable."

There was a snerk from the boy Magdy had been facing off with. Gretchen wheeled on him; the boy actually flinched backward. "I don't know why you think this is funny," Gretchen said. "Your family would have been thrown off the ship just like his."

"He started it," the boy said.

Gretchen blinked, dramatically. "'He started it'? Zoe, tell me I heard that wrong."

"You didn't," I said. "He really said it."

"It doesn't seem possible that anyone over the age of five would be using that as a rationale for anything," Gretchen said, examining the boy critically.

"Where's your faith in humanity now?" I asked.

"I'm losing it," Gretchen said.

"Along with all your desserts," I said.

"Let me guess," Gretchen said, and waved generally at the clot of boys in front of her. "You're all from the same planet." She turned and looked at the other boy clot. "And you're all from another planet." The boys shifted uncomfortably; she had gotten their number. "And so the first thing you do is you start picking fights because of where you used to live."

"Because that's the smart thing to do with people you're going to spend the rest of your life living with," I said.

"I don't remember that being in the new colonist orientation material," Gretchen said.

"Funny about that," I said.

"Indeed," Gretchen said, and stopped talking.

There was silence for several seconds.

"Well?" Gretchen said.

"What?" Magdy said. It was his favorite word.

"Are you going to fight now or what?" Gretchen said. "If I'm going to lose my bet, now's as good a time as any."

"She's right," I said. "It's almost lunchtime. Dessert is calling."

"So either get on with it or break it up," Gretchen said. She stepped back.

The boys, suddenly aware that whatever it was they were fighting about had been effectively reduced to whether or not some girl would get a cupcake, dispersed, each clot headed pointedly in a separate direction from the other. The sane boy glanced back at me as he walked off with his friends.

"That was fun," Gretchen said.

"Yeah, until they all decide to do it again," I said. "We can't use the dessert humiliation trick every time. And there are colonists from ten separate worlds. That's a hundred different possible idiotic teenage boy fight situations."

"Well, the colonists from Kyoto are Colonial Mennonites," Gretchen said. "They're pacifists. So it's only eighty-one possible idiotic teenage boy fight combinations."

"And yet still only two of us," I said. "I don't like the odds. And how did you know about the Kyoto folks, anyway?"

"When my father was still thinking he'd be running the colony, he made me read the reports on all the colonists and their original planets," Gretchen said. "He said I was going to be his aide-de-camp. Because, you know, that's really what I would have wanted to do with my time."

"Comes in handy, though," I said.

Gretchen pulled out her PDA, which was buzzing, and looked at the screen. "Speaking of which," she said, and showed me the screen. "Looks like Dad's calling."

"Go be aide de camp-y," I said.

Gretchen rolled her eyes. "Thanks. Want to get together for the departure? And then we can go have lunch. You'll have lost the bet by then. I'll get your dessert."

"Touch my dessert and you will die in horrible ways," I said. Gretchen laughed and left.

I pulled out my own PDA to see if there were messages from John or Jane; there was one from Jane telling me that Hickory and Dickory were looking for me about something. Well, they knew I was onboard, and they also knew how to reach me by PDA; it's not like I went anywhere without it. I thought about giving them a call but I figured they would find me sooner or later. I put the PDA away and looked up to find the sane boy standing in front of me.

"Hi," he said.

"Uh," I said, a testament to my smoothness.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sneak up on you like that," he said.

"It's okay," I said, only a little flustered.

He stuck out his hand. "Enzo," he said. "And you're Zoe, I guess."

"I am," I said, taking his hand and shaking it.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," he said, and then seemed to realize he was back where he started. I smiled.

And then there was about, oh, 47 million seconds of awkward silence. It was only actually a second or two, but as Einstein could tell you, some events have a way of stretching out.

"Thanks for that," Enzo said, finally. "For stopping the fight, I mean."

"You're welcome," I said. "I'm glad you didn't mind we stepped in on what you were doing."

"Well, I wasn't doing a great job of it anyway," Enzo said. "Once Magdy gets himself worked up, it's hard to get him to back down."

"What was that all about anyway?" I asked.

"It's kind of stupid," Enzo said.

"That I know," I said, and then wondered if Enzo would take it the wrong way. He smiled. Score one for Enzo. "I mean what caused it."

"Magdy's pretty sarcastic, and he's also pretty loud," Enzo said. "He made some snide remark about what those other guys were wearing as they passed by. One of them got upset and they got into it."

"So you guys nearly had a brawl over fashion," I said.

"I told you it was stupid," Enzo said. "But you know how it is. You get worked up, it's kind of hard to think rationally."

"But you were thinking rationally," I said.

"That's my job," Enzo said. "Magdy gets us into trouble, I get us out of it."

"So you've known each other for a while," I said.

"He's been my best friend since we were little," Enzo said. "He's really not a jerk, honest. He just sometimes doesn't think about what he's doing."

"You look out for him," I said.

"It goes both ways," Enzo said. "I'm not much of a fighter. A lot of kids we knew would have taken advantage of that fact if they didn't know Magdy would have punched them in the head."

"Why aren't you much of a fighter?" I asked.

"I think you have to like to fight a little," Enzo said. Then he seemed to realize this was challenging his own masculinity a bit, and this would get him kicked out of the teenage male club. "Don't get me wrong. I can defend myself just fine without Magdy around. We're just a good team."

"You're the brains of the outfit," I suggested.

"That's possible," he allowed, and then seemed to figure out that I'd gotten him to make a whole bunch of statements about himself without getting to find out anything about me. "What about you and your friend? Who is the brains of that outfit?"

"I think Gretchen and I both hold our own pretty well in the brains department," I said.

"That's a little scary," Enzo said.

"It's not a bad thing to be a little intimidating," I said.

"Well, you have that down," Enzo said, with just the right amount of offhandedness. I tried very hard not to blush. "So, listen, Zoe - " Enzo began, and then looked over my shoulder. I saw his eyes get very wide.

"Let me guess," I said, to Enzo. "There are two very scary-looking aliens standing directly behind me."

"How did you know?" Enzo said, after a minute.

"Because what you're doing now is the usual response," I said. I glanced back at Hickory and Dickory. "Give me a minute," I said to them. They took a step back.

"You know them?" Enzo said.

"They're sort of my bodyguards," I said.

"You need bodyguards?" Enzo asked.

"It's a little complicated," I said.

"Now I know why you and your friend can both work on being the brains of the outfit," Enzo said.

"Don't worry," I said, and turned to Hickory and Dickory. "Guys, this is my new friend Enzo. Say hello."

"Hello," they said, in their deadly monotone.

"Uh," Enzo said.

"They're perfectly harmless unless they think you're a threat to me," I said.

"What happens then?" Enzo asked.

"I'm not really sure," I said. "But I think it would involve you being turned into a large number of very small cubes."

Enzo looked at me for a minute. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said. "But I'm a little afraid of you right now."

I smiled at this. "Don't be," I said, and I took his hand, which seemed to surprise him. "I want us to be friends."

There was an interesting play across Enzo's face: pleasure at the fact I'd taken his hand, and apprehension that if he showed too much pleasure at the fact, he'd be summarily cubed. It was very cute. He was very cute.

As if on cue, Hickory audibly shifted its weight.

I sighed. "I need to talk to Hickory and Dickory," I said, to Enzo. "Will you excuse me?"

"Sure," Enzo said, and took his hand out of mine.

"Will I see you later?" I asked.

"I hope so," Enzo said, and then got that look that said his brain was telling him he was being too enthusiastic. Shut up, stupid brain. Enthusiasm is a good thing. He backed off and went away. I watched him go a little.

Then I turned to Hickory and Dickory. "This had better be good," I said.

"Who was that?" Hickory asked.

"That was Enzo," I said. "Which I already told you. He's a boy. A cute one, too."

"Does he have impure intentions?" Hickory asked.

"What?" I said, slightly incredulous. "'Impure intentions'? Are you serious? No. I've only known him for about twenty minutes. Even for a teenage boy, that would be a pretty quick ramp-up."

"This is not what we have heard," Hickory said.

"From whom?" I asked.

"From Major Perry," Hickory said. "He said that he was once a teenage boy himself."

"Oh, God," I said. "Thank you so very much for the mental image of Dad as a teenage sack of hormones. That's the sort of image that takes therapy to get rid of."

"You have asked us to intercede for you with teenage boys before," Hickory said.

"That was a special case," I said. And it had been. Just before we left Huckleberry my parents had gone off on a planetary survey of Roanoke and I was given tacit permission to have a good-bye party for my friends, and Anil Rameesh had taken it upon himself to sneak into my bedroom and get naked, and upon discovery, to inform me that he was giving me his virginity as a good-bye gift. Well, he didn't put it that way; he was trying to avoid mentioning the whole "virginity" aspect of it at all.

Regardless, this was a gift I really didn't want, even though it was already unwrapped. I told Hickory and Dickory to escort him out; Anil responded by screaming, jumping out my window and down off the roof, and then running all the way home naked. Which was a sight. I had his clothes delivered home the next day.

Poor Anil. He wasn't a bad person. Just deluded and hopeful.

"I will let you know if Enzo presents any problems," I said. "Until then, you leave him alone."

"As you wish," Hickory said. I could tell it was not entirely pleased about this.

"What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" I asked.

"We have news for you from the Obin government," Hickory said. "An invitation."

"An invitation for what?" I asked.

"An invitation to visit our homeworld, and to tour our planets and colonies," Hickory said. "You are now old enough to travel unaccompanied, and while all Obin have known of you since you were young, thanks to our recordings, there is a great desire among all Obin to meet you in person. Our government asks you if you will not accede to this request."

"When?" I asked.

"Immediately," Hickory said.

I looked at them both. "You're asking me this now?" I said. "We're less than two hours from departing to Roanoke."

"We have only just now received the invitation," Hickory said. "As soon as it was sent to us, we came to find you."

"It couldn't wait?" I asked.

"Our government wished to ask you before your journey to Roanoke began," Hickory said. "Once you had established yourself on Roanoke, you might be hesitant to leave for such a significant amount of time."

"How much time?" I asked.

"We have sent a proposed itinerary to your PDA," Hickory said.

"I'm asking you," I said.

"The entire tour would take thirteen of your standard months," Hickory said. "Although if you were amenable, it could be extended."

"So, to recap," I said. "You want me to decide in the next two hours whether or not to leave my family and friends for at least a year, maybe longer, to tour the Obin worlds by myself."

"Yes," Hickory said. "Although of course Dickory and I would accompany you."

"No other humans, though," I said.

"We could find some if you wanted," Hickory said.

"Would you?" I said. "That would be swell."

"Very well," Hickory said.

"I'm being sarcastic, Hickory," I said, irritated. "The answer is no. I mean, really, Hickory. You're asking me to make a life-changing decision on two hours' notice. That's completely ridiculous."

"We understand that the timing of this request is not optimal," Hickory said.

"I don't think you do," I said. "I think you know it's short notice, but I don't think you understand that it's offensive."

Hickory shrank back slightly. "We did not mean to offend," it said.

I was about to snap something off but I stopped and started counting in my head, because somewhere in there the rational part of my brain was letting me know I was heading into over-reaction territory. Hickory and Dickory's invitation was last-minute, but biting their heads off for it didn't make much sense. Something about the request was just rubbing me the wrong way.

It took me a minute to figure out why. Hickory and Dickory were asking me to leave behind everyone I knew, and everyone I had just met, for a year of being alone. I had already done that, long ago, when the Obin had taken me from Covell, in the time I had to wait before my father could find a way to reclaim me. It was a different time and with different circumstances, but I remember the loneliness and need for human contact. I loved Hickory and Dickory; they were family. But they couldn't offer me what I needed and could get from human contact.

And besides, I just said good-bye to a whole village of people I knew, and before that had said good-bye to family and friends, usually forever, a whole lot more than most people my age. Right now I had just found Gretchen, and Enzo was certainly looking interesting. I didn't want to say good-bye to them even before I properly got to know them.

I looked at Hickory and Dickory, who despite everything they knew about me couldn't have understood why what they were asking me would affect me like this. It's not their fault, said the rational part of my brain. And it was right. Which was why it was the rational part of my brain. I didn't always like that part, but it was usually on point for stuff like this.

"I'm sorry, Hickory," I said, finally. "I didn't mean to yell at you. Please accept my apology."

"Of course," Hickory said. It unshrunk itself.

"But even if I wanted to go, two hours is not nearly enough time to think this through," I said. "Have you spoken to John or Jane about this?"

"We felt it best to come to you," Hickory said. "Your desire to go would have influenced their decision to let you go."

I smiled. "Not as much as I think you think it would," I said. "You may think I'm old enough to spend a year off touring the Obin worlds, but I guarantee you Dad will have a different opinion about that. It took both Jane and Savitri a couple of days to convince him to let me have that good-bye party while they were away. You think he'd say 'yes' to having me go away for a year when there's a two-hour time limit attached? That's optimistic."

"It is very important to our government," Dickory said. Which was surprising. Dickory almost never spoke about anything, other than to make one of its monochromatic greetings. The fact Dickory felt compelled to pipe up spoke volumes in itself.

"I understand that," I said. "But it's still too sudden. I can't make a decision like this now. I just can't. Please tell your government I'm honored by the invitation, and that I want to make a tour of the Obin worlds one day. I really do. But I can't do it like this. And I want to go to Roanoke."

Hickory and Dickory were silent for a moment. "Perhaps if Major Perry and Lieutenant Sagan were to hear our invitation and agree, you might be persuaded," Hickory said.

Rankle, rankle. "What is that supposed to mean?" I asked. "First you say you wanted me to say yes because then they might agree, and now you want to work it the other way? You asked me, Hickory. My answer is no. If you think asking my parents is going to get me to change my mind, then you don't understand human teenagers, and you certainly don't understand me. Even if they said yes, which, believe me, they won't, since the first thing they will do is ask me what I think of the idea. And I'll tell them what I told you. And that I told you."

Another moment of silence. I watched the two of them very closely, looking for the trembles or twitches that sometimes followed when they were emotionally wrung out. The two of them were rock steady. "Very well," Hickory said. "We will inform our government of your decision."

"Tell them that I will consider it some other time. Maybe in a year," I said. Maybe by that time I could convince Gretchen to go with me. And Enzo. As long as we were daydreaming here.

"We will tell them," Hickory said, and then it and Dickory did a little head bow and departed.

I looked around. Some of the people in the common area were watching Hickory and Dickory leave; the others were looking at me with strange expressions. I guess they'd never seen a girl with her own pet aliens before.

I sighed. I pulled out my PDA to contact Gretchen but then stopped before I accessed her address. Because as much as I didn't want to be alone in the larger sense, at that moment, I needed a time out. Something was going on, and I needed to figure what it was. Because whatever it was, it was making me nervous.

I put the PDA back in my pocket, thought about what Hickory and Dickory just said to me, and worried.

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