The Pretender

The Pretender

Postby Miki Yamuri » Tue May 07, 2024 8:40 pm

The Pretender

by Miki Yamuri and LilJennie

Edward woke up when the rays of dawn streamed through his window and shone on his face. The bright sun was rising over the Infantus horizon into the vivid orange of the planet’s morning sky. He looked at the bars around him and decided he’d better wet his diaper, again, as he usually did in the morning, because soon …

“Good morning, Eddie!” said Felicia, the Nanabot who took care of the nursery where he lived, along with several other young adult Infantus citizens. She came up to his crib and lowered the side, saying, “Let’s check your diaper … yes indeedy, you’re a wet baby, aren’t you? We’ll just get that off you and get you into the tub.” She left his pacifier in and started undressing him, removing the footed sleeper that zipped up the back, making it difficult for him to remove it himself. Then she took off the onesie that kept his diaper from sagging, leaving him naked except for the diaper and carrying nothing but the pacifier in his mouth.

She picked him up with android strength and carried him to the bathroom, where she removed his diaper and put it in the diaper pail, then put him in a tub of warm bubbly water that was all ready for him. After scrubbing him carefully all over, she then washed his hair and rinsed it out, then drained the tub, lifted him out, and dried him off, then set him down on a new diaper on top of the changing table, sprinkled baby powder precisely where it needed to be, and fastened the diaper onto him. Then she carried him back out into the nursery, put a clean red and blue onesie on him, along with a yellow and white bib, and took him to the dining room for breakfast. She buckled him into his high chair, set his tray in front of him, and said, “There you are, Eddie -- all ready for breakfast!” Then she departed, ready to wake up another baby.

As another Nanabot named Christie fed him baby oatmeal, Edward sighed and wondered whether he’d get a chance today. There was just … so little opportunity for him to be himself, his real self. Before he’d moved out of his parents’ nursery, he’d thought that when he did move out, he’d be able to find a way to … well … be more independent. But as it was, he couldn’t afford to have a home of his own, so he was just another baby, taken care of by Nanabots in a shared nursery, instead of being taken care of by the family Nanabot alongside his parents.

Edward dreamed of being an adult on a planet where there were no adults. He imagined growing up on a planet where no one grew up. He wanted something that he didn’t know the words for and saw no one around him doing. But somehow, as he ignored the latest cartoon adventures of Florence the Floppit on the video screens, he knew that he wanted it nevertheless.

After his breakfast, Christie wiped his face off with a large warm washcloth and removed his bib, then dressed him in a Freddie Floppit themed outfit including a shirt, overalls, socks, and chunky baby shoes. His thick diaper made him toddle as he took a few unsteady steps around the room until the third Nanabot, Polly, lifted him into a soft pink floating cloud, buckled him in, and sent him off out the door to work. His pacifier had left his mouth for a few moments during his bath when Felicia had washed his face, and it had been out while Christie had fed him breakfast, and each time they had cleaned it, but now it was back in his mouth, and as he passed by other floating cloud strollers on the walkways, he saw every other baby had his or her pacifier in his or her mouth as usual, sucking happily. But Edward was not sucking happily on his; it just sat there in his mouth, because he felt no need to have it there.

He’d tried to go without it, but Nanabots everywhere just kept putting it back in. Once he’d tried throwing it on the ground, but they just cleaned it before returning it. He’d destroyed one by dropping it into machinery, but the next Nanabot had just given him a new one. Everyone assumed he wanted it there, and he had no reason to doubt that everyone else, without their pacifiers, would grow upset and even burst into a crying fit. But Edward really didn’t need it.

When he arrived at his workplace, another Nanabot lifted him out of his cloud stroller, carried him inside while checking his diaper, and deposited him in a playpen where he disconsolately played with a controller for a toy robot. Well, he knew it wasn’t just a toy robot. He knew that there was a real robot too, down in the iridium mines, and he and a number of others were collaborating on controlling the mining bot with the help of a sophisticated computer that combined their seemingly random thought processes into a cogent series of instructions, making it seem to them like play. In reality, though, they were participating in the efficient extraction of a metal that was essential to industry and technology.

But Edward didn’t want to play. He wanted to really control the robot and make it mine the iridium himself. Instead, all he got to do was make a toy robot roll around the playpen on its wheels and turn its head around. There were many who found this fascinating. But for Edward it was boring.

“Break time!” said the company’s Nanabot, picking Edward up and carrying him to the playroom where he could talk to his coworkers. The Nanabot checked his diaper and found it still dry. “Hmm,” she said, “you must be dehydrated.” So she plucked his pacifier out and replaced it with a bottle of electrolyte formula. Edward sighed. Just because he had a bladder capacity while everyone else just emptied theirs into their diapers at the slightest provocation, the Nanabots assumed he wasn’t getting enough fluids. Well, now he’d be finding his bladder completely full very soon, and several times more today besides. There would be no other course of action but to wet his diaper.

By the time he was done with his bottle and the Nanabot set him down in the playroom, the others were already busy playing. Christina and Annie were playing with the dollhouse, and Tanya and Johnny were playing with stick-together blocks.

“Eddie!” said Annie. “Come over here and play the Daddy! Christina’s being the Mommy and I’m being the baby but you’re so good at it that we saved Daddy for you!”

Edward crawled over and picked up the Daddy doll. These dollhouses were a relic of some sort of earlier time, when Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t have been treated like babies. Mommy and Daddy had a car, and they drove places to get things done. Oh, what Edward wouldn’t have given for that kind of life.

“What’s wrong, Eddie?” asked Christina. “You don’t seem happy. In fact, it seems like a long time since I saw you smile.”

“I … don’t know,” Edward said. “Do you ever … never mind.”

“Do I ever what?” Christina asked.

“Ever … wish you weren’t a baby,” Edward finished.

“Wish I weren’t a baby?” asked Christina. “But I love being a baby! What a strange question!” It was responses like these that convinced Edward that nobody could understand. He might as well just never tell anyone.

When he got home that night, he had a rare chance. No one else had returned, so after being fed supper by Christie, he sneaked to the playroom and opened the toy chest, putting on the grownup clothes that he had managed to find. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. This was one of the few times when he looked at himself and felt right, wearing a shirt with buttons and a collar with its built-in thin tie -- this seemed to be the fashion among men in the rest of the nearby galaxy. His gray slacks bulged with his thick diaper under them, but still, it was quite a different look from the onesies that he was usually wearing at all times at home or the overalls he was sent to work in. But he had to take the clothes off and hide them away before anyone else came home, or else …

“Oh! I’m sorry, Eddie!” said Candy, one of his apartment-mates. “I didn’t know anyone was in here. I wanted to wash my dolly’s hands before I fed her supper. Wow, look at you! All dressed up for pretend and make-believe!” Candy was wearing a pink dress with a lot of bows all over it; Edward knew she loved things with lots of bows. Her doll was wearing a different outfit, but it also had lots of bows. “You should play make-believe with us later! You can be the businessman from another planet!”

This idea didn’t make Edward happy. He didn’t want to play make-believe. He wanted to be an adult. The thought of pretending to be one made him feel farther from the reality he wanted than ever. He left the bathroom without saying anything to Candy and changed out of his clothes, hiding them away again at the bottom of his personal toy box.

“I’m sorry, Eddie,” said Candy after she returned from the bathroom carrying her doll. “I didn’t mean to make you sad. Are you still sad? I want you to know that I care.” She looked at him worriedly.

But all Edward could do was say, “It’s OK, Candy,” and smile weakly. It wasn’t anything he could really explain, because he knew nobody would understand. He knew it because nobody ever did.

The next morning, the cloud stroller didn’t take Edward to his usual playpen work space, but instead took him into a large play area that looked like many babies could play here at once. The many scattered toys and all the game boards scattered through the room brought no fascination to him whatsoever, but they suggested that there had recently been a lot of people here and there hadn’t been a chance for the Nanabots to clean up yet.

Edward sat on the soft cloud stroller and waited, not knowing what to do. He was starting to feel worried that he’d been forgotten. Had he been brought to the wrong place? Did Nanabots ever make mistakes? He didn’t think so -- they were all connected to a central computer that was meant to detect when they needed repairs.

Suddenly, there was a bright flash of blue-white light before his eyes, and a very lovely young woman in an almost opaque gown trimmed in gold appeared. Her long dark hair covered her shoulders and she bent down slightly and put her hands on her knees. The oddest thing was that she didn’t seem to be wearing babyish clothes or a diaper. She had no pacifier or toy bracelets or necklaces. Her hair wasn’t in pigtails, sausage curls or any of the other “cute” styles that were in fashion for baby girls on Infantus right now.

The woman said, “Hello Eddie,” almost cooing, in a soft voice that sent massively wonderful chills all through Edward’s body. She patted his thickly diapered behind after she had gracefully whisked him from the cloud stroller and set him on his wobbly feet. “I think you and I should have a talk about … things.”

Edward felt a tingle of fear run thought him to the point that he actually wet his diaper. He replied, “Wh … wha … what do we need to talk about, Ma’am?”

The woman knelt to her knees, then sat back on her legs as she folded her hands in her lap, “It has come to my attention … that I need a special baby to do a special job for me.”

Edward was absolutely mortified as it slowly began to dawn on him who this beautiful young woman was, “Umm … sure. Ennythin’ ta helps.” He found it impossible not to start sucking his thumb, even though this wasn’t something he usually did or wanted to do. He’d heard her influence had this effect.

The young woman smiled as she cooed, “I’ve noticed that you are unhappy being a baby, Snuggle Bug, but it makes me sad when my people aren’t happy. So I have an idea. How would you like to fulfill your fondest wish but still do important things for Infantus at the same time? It turns out that we need an ambassador to one of the nearby worlds. I choose you.”

Edward’s eyes widened in surprise as he took his thumb from his mouth to say, “What kinda job? Am most too little ta do much.” Part of this was the usual pretending he’d always had to do, and part of it was the strong influence of this woman’s presence, making him act babyishly just by being near.

The woman stood and said, “You may have guessed, but I’m Persephone.”

“The goddess of infants and babies?” Edward asked. “Ruler of Infantus?”

She made a graceful flourish with her hand, saying, “This entire planet belongs to me, and all that dwell upon it … including you, Sugar. Since you have inclinations to becoming an adult … so be it.” She waved her hand, and Edward felt totally different suddenly.

His legs didn’t feel wobbly anymore. He didn’t feel like sucking his thumb. “What --?”

“I’ve removed my influence from you,” she said. “You’re not one of my babies -- and you never have been, I now realize. I’m sorry that you’ve been unhappy for so long, and I wish you hadn’t had to hide it.”

“Are people like me that rare?” Edward asked.

“On Infantus? I … don’t know,” she said. “But I’m going to make an effort to find out. For now, though, what I said was true. We need to open up diplomatic relations with the planet Troclus in the nearby Praesepe system. As I’m sure you know from watching the current-events broadcasts, most of the rest of the galaxy doesn’t do things the way we do them here. There are a few here and there who would be babies again if they could, and they come here for vacations. The princesses of Deneb even comes to visit sometimes. We even allow some to immigrate. But Troclus is just like most other planets -- nearly all of the adults are, well, adults.”

“Why do we suddenly need an ambassador now?” asked Edward.

She smiled and said, “You are a smart one. It suggests I made a good choice. The truth is that we’re depleting our iridium resources. It’s an essential component for the electronics and servos in our Nanabots. And for all the reuse and recycling we do, there’s still some degradation and loss, and with growth there’s always a need for more Nanabots.”

“Troclus is rich in iridium?” guessed Edward.

“Yes, it is,” Persephone replied. “And to keep Infantus growing while maintaining all of its people in the way of life that they’ve grown accustomed to, we need that iridium. We’ll trade for it, of course, but first we need to open diplomatic relations -- and I know what the rest of the universe says about Infantus. We’re the baby planet. They won’t take us seriously. They’ll think they can overcharge us. We need you to show them that Infantus is actually a big grown-up world that can take its place in the economic fabric of the galaxy. We’ve been fairly isolated for some time to some degree, but now we need to reach out.”

“I … I won’t let Infantus down,” said Edward. His feelings were confused, unsure whether he was allowed to be happy. “But … it’s really OK to be an adult?”

“It is,” said Persephone with a wistful smile. “I’m here for all the little boys and girls who want to stay children forever, but it’s OK to grow up too. It’s just not my area of expertise.”

Edward tingled to his soul when Persephone kissed him lightly on his forehead and patted his now undiapered bottom. She stood up and smiled one more time before a bright white/blue flash left Edward standing all alone in the huge room.

Several Nanabots arrived shortly after that and began to tidy up the place. Edward was more than surprised when not a single one of them even bothered to check him. Before this, almost every Nanabot in the room would have checked him at least once. Edward also discovered that the pink cloud stroller wouldn’t allow him to get back into it. It purred and cuddled and did other things, almost like a soft pink kitten, but it wouldn’t allow him to ride in it.

Edward sighed. At long last he had his wish to be an adult, but there were some drawbacks. He walked to the door and exited. The rooms along the hallway all had many infants of all ages, Nanabots, and many different kinds of cloud strollers in them. No one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary as Willam passed, which seemed kind of strange to him too. Did they think he was a Nanabot? Or just perhaps a visitor from another world? Such visits did happen, and pretty frequently, though they usually stayed in the tourist centers for the most part.

Edward finally entered his office playroom … only to find it wasn’t a playroom any longer. A huge circular desk made of the finest woods and polished metal rested near a large window overlooking the garden compound below. Several lounge pits were arranged around the huge room, and there was a massive stock of reading materials stored on crystals in their racks against another wall.

Built into the desktop was one of the finest computer systems in the universe, not to mention other useful items to do the job Persephone had just given him. Edward sat in the reclining chair and leaned back. He laughed to himself as he realized he had finally gotten to … grow up.

The comm unit on his desk began to buzz irritatingly, and not with the usual nursery rhyme tunes he was accustomed to. This made sense; this office would probably be used to entertain visitors and dignitaries from other planets.

Edward pushed the answer button, “Yes? This is Edward.”

An angry voice on the other end replied harshly, “Are you the idiot in diapers I’m supposed to deal with?”

Edward felt anger flare as he replied, “Excuse me? I’m sorry, but, anyone who has the gall to call another and talk that way isn’t going to be making too many deals. Good day.” Edward broke the connection.

He actually felt a tingle of satisfaction as he sat back in the comfortable chair. The comm unit began that irritating buzz once again. Edward looked at it for a minute, wondering if perhaps he could change the sound to something at least a bit more soothing, before he finally answered, “Yes? This is Edward.”

This time, the same voice spoke, but in a different tone. “I’m very sorry. I didn’t realize that planet actually had adults on it.”

Edward smiled. He would finally get to say something he had only dreamed about. “I’m not sure who you are, but you need to realize that although this may be the planet of infants, there are still those of us here who are adults. After all, someone has to care for the babies. I … happen to be one of them. Just who are you, by the way?”

There was silence on the other end before the voice replied in humble tones, “My name’s Raalkor. Viktor Raalkor. I’m the head iridium miner ramrod for the mining consortium of Troclus. First, I want to apologise for the way I spoke. Talking to the infants all the time is quite frustrating.”

Edward replied in an oily tone, “As long as you conduct yourself properly while dealing with me from now on … I think I can work with you.” Edward opened the notebook labeled Iridium Proposal and read the first paragraph, “I’m authorized to offer in trade a two by one swap. One Selena Fruit crate for two weights of iridium.”

“Selena Fruit?” asked Raalkor. There was a pause. Edward suspected that he was looking up what Selena Fruit was. “Oh! Are you sure? There’s not much call for it on Troclus, although it is quite rare.”

Edward wasn’t sure what to do at this point, but that was when he noticed there was someone else in his office. She was blonde and wore a very short skirtall. Edward thought she might be wearing training panties, but now was not the time. She walked up to his desk carrying a message tablet and held it out in an adorable way. It said, “We don’t sell Selena Fruit offworld. Troclus could be first.”

Edward’s eyes lit up when he read this, and he smiled at the young woman, who smiled back brightly but stayed quiet. “Well, Mr. Raalkor, as I’m sure you know, Selena Fruit grows only on Infantus, has an antiaging component that is in extremely high demand, and isn’t sold anywhere but here. Have you thought for a moment about becoming its sole supplier other than Infantus itself?”

There was a pause on the other end. Perhaps Raalkor was also conferring with others. Then he replied, “Well, Edward, I must say you present a very tempting bargain. Is there any chance we could speak next week, so I can have a chance to consider? Wait, I know … I was told you’d just been appointed ambassador -- when do you plan on traveling here to Troclus?”

Edward wasn’t sure, until the young woman held up her tablet again, which said, “The embassy is being built but isn’t done yet -- scheduled to be next week -- 5 days of work estimated.” He smiled at her again.

“As it turns out,” said Edward, “the embassy on Troclus is slated to be finished in 5 days. I’ll be there for its grand opening ceremony, and then we’ll be open for business. You can be my first appointment.” He looked at the calendar and gave a date and time.

“Well, that sounds doable … yes, I’ll put that in my schedule. Looking forward to it. But for now, good day to you.”

“Good day to you, too,” said Edward. The connection was closed.

“Oh, that was so well done!” said the woman in his office with a bubbly giggle as she bounced adorably up and down on her toes and clapped her hands. “You are super good at this already!”

“Aww, thank you,” Edward said, “and you are such a good little girl for helping me out so much!” He was risking offending her in the case that she wasn’t as little as she seemed to be, but nearly every woman on Infantus was a little girl or younger, just as almost every man on the planet was a little boy or younger, and there was the way she dressed and acted, so it wasn’t much of a risk.

Her eyes widened and she blushed and giggled more. “Oh! Thank you Mr. Edward! I’m Sally and I’m here to help you get settled in! I can look stuff up for you and I know stuff too, and I can get messages to Persephone if you need. I’m sometimes big but mostly not.” As if to illustrate, she immediately put her thumb in her mouth after saying this.

“I’m guessing you’re not coming with me to Troclus,” he said.

She shook her head. “Uh-uh,” she said, her thumb still in her mouth. “Me stay wight here. But you gonna study up, and you gonna have people helpin’ you. Me help you find ‘em. No worry.”

Edward couldn’t help but smile. Sally was the perfect mix of child and adult. She performed her duties as efficiently as any adult ever could, then again she was the perfect Babydoll.

Edward took a deep breath and exhaled it. He hadn’t thought about having to travel on a star liner, much less hyper sleep on a longer journey. While reading through the proposal, he came to a place where he realized how valuable Selena Fruit was. He couldn’t believe it. The two worlds were discussing exchanging commodities whose value calculated out to be astronomical even in small amounts.

Sally had wandered over to a place in a corner and had flopped. She was apparently in baby mode as Edward watched her stack blocks and play with the busy baby center hung on the wall there.

“It’s going to be OK, right Sally?” he asked her.

“Uh huh!” she agreed, grinning and nodding until her pigtails flew. “You know they’re gonna think we’re all Babydolls! An’ that’s a toy you can play wif!”

Raalkor sat in his chair with a look of total astonishment. One of the other people at the table asked, “So? What’s the deal here?”

Raalkor smirked as he replied, “I think, we are about to become one of the wealthiest planets in the solar system.”

There was a round of loud murmuring voices before a skinny man with thick glasses asked, “How are we going to be rich? Iridium sells for high credits, but there are other more expensive commodities.”

Raalkor replied as he leaned closer to the skinny man, “Right, there are … how about a guaranteed stream of 42 kilolots of Selena Fruit per annum? How much do you think that would bring to our planet if we put that on the market?”

The other men’s mouths fell open in shock just as the door opened behind them, “Hey, guys!” said another man, barging in on the meeting. “Seems we’re getting a new ambassador. One of those babies from Infantus.” He alone laughed as the other men stared at him.

“Think that’s some kinda joke, Larkorian?” said Raalkor. “Those babies could make us very rich, unless we mess it up and they take their contract to some other planet. If that happens, we get a big fat nothing. Look, the guy I talked to didn’t act or sound like a baby at all. They got adults there, and that’s who we’re gonna be dealing with, just like any other planet. I don’t care if he’s the ambassador from the Lizard Cat planet and he’s the only human there. We make the deal.” He thumped his index finger on the table to emphasize his point.

“I … err … uh …” said Larkorian, red-faced and uncomfortable. “Right, uh, I just wanted to make sure you guys knew … about … um, I think that’s my comm, I’m expecting a call from my wife. Sorry to interrupt …” He closed the door and left.

The men looked at each other with very worried expressions. They all knew the attitudes of most about the population of Infantus. It was pretty much the same as Larkorian, and they knew that kind of thinking would lose them the most lucrative contract they ever landed. They also remembered the incident many many years past with the 6th Fleet. No one ever totally believed the official story … the picture all had seen appeared to bear another sort of truth.

Almost a week had passed. Edward had managed, with the adorable Sally’s aid, to gather together his Embassy Team, comprehensive data about Infantus and Troclus’ plans for the negotiations -- everything needed to set up an Embassy. Most of the office supplies they would need would be available on Troclus, but there were certain things that Infantus citizens needed that wouldn’t necessarily be easy to find there, so they stocked up on those too.

Edward knew of the large Starliners. He’d seen many come and go from the Garden Infantus Space Port, but he’d never flown on one himself. So he was a bit apprehensive as he slowly walked down the Tunnel leading into this ship’s main airlock. Edward began to think those thoughts many who have never flown on one … think.

He looked nervously around at the multitudes of flashing lights on the many control panels along the wall. It was about that time he felt someone take his hand gently in theirs. He looked down at the cutest Babydoll he could imagine, who looked back with bright sparkly blue eyes.

She had on a very short and cute soft pink Fairy Princess dress and lacy bloomer panties that showed from beneath the short hem of her dress. She also wore matching booties that appeared to be woven out of the cocoon fibers from one of the rarest moths in the universe … an Omicron Glow Moth. Her long sausage curls made into ponytails clinched the perfection of her Babydoll look.

She giggled and said in an adorable voice, “Hi, my names Miri, an’ Imma your personal Babydoll assistant. Miss Sally assigneded me to you ‘cuz she say you needed it.” She put the thumb of her free hand in her mouth and looked at Edward.

Edward’s heart couldn’t help melting, and he felt his worries evaporate. Somehow the thought that this girl he’d just met was going to be coming along helped him forget those apprehensions. After all, didn’t people fly on these big starliners all the time?

“Hi, Miri,” he said. “I’m Edward … but it’s OK if you call me Eddie if that’s hard to say. Did you ever fly on one of these big ships before?”

Miri nodded, her thumb still in her mouth. “Unh hunh,” she said. “Wotsa times. It fun. But kinna weird some.”

Edward felt even better. Sally obviously knew what she was doing, assigning Miri to the team. Maybe the oh-so-grown-up Troclus negotiators wouldn’t be impressed by her … but there was no reason for her to meet with them, since that was his job. Being an adult brought responsibility with it, after all, and if he wanted to be one, he had to accept that. But he also knew that he was fighting for the freedom of the people of Infantus to continue to be just as little as they wanted to be … people like Miri. Or so he assumed.

“Miri, are you happy being a little girl?” he asked her as they boarded the lift to carry them to the team’s suite of staterooms.

“Huh?” Miri asked, tilting her head confusedly, as if this were a strange question for her. “Why me be a Babydoll if no liked it? Me be somefin’ else if wanted to be.”

“Don’t worry,” said Edward, “just making sure. It’s just … after many years of pretending to be a Baby, I realized that being an Adult is what I really wanted to be … but I’d have decided much earlier if I’d known it was a choice that was available to me. Does that make any sense?”

Miri nodded, and several of the others in the lift nodded too. “Lots peoples wanna be Babies,” said Miri.

“And you’re far from the only one on Infantus who wants to be an Adult,” said a very pretty woman in a sharp-looking business suit. “I sympathize, though. I realize that Infantus doesn’t really advertise that being an Adult is an option.”

“Ms. Persephone said that was something she was going to look into,” said Edward, nodding.

“You -- met wif Ms. ‘Sephone?” asked Miri, looking awed. Several of the others stared and Oooooed in a melodious way.

“Err -- yes,” Edward said. “I think … my case got her attention. And I don’t know what she’s going to do about it, but I think she’ll make things right. Meanwhile, we’re going to do our part to make a better future for Infantus -- our people are counting on us. And we can do it! Right?”

Everyone was smiling. He’d inspired them. “Right!” they all said.

Right about then, the lift doors opened, and they saw that it was their floor. “OK, all Adults help anyone who needs help to find their room, and let’s get ready for the flight,” Edward said, looking at Miri’s ticket. “Miri, I can see they put you right next to me, which is good!” As she smiled at him, her thumb still in her mouth adorably, he felt strongly that he wanted to make sure she was happy and doing OK. Perhaps this was part of being an Infantus Adult too. They walked to her door, and she reached out and touched its shiny golden surface. It slid open immediately upon registering her DNA.

It was a lovely room, the wall screens showing a bright nursery-print pattern with pastel cartoon animals. There was a playpen and a crib and a changing table, and from a chair in the corner a Nanabot stood up, looked at Miri, and smiled. “Good day, Miri, and hello, Mr. Edward,” she said, looking at them. “Miri, my name is Maggie, and I’m here to be your Nana for the trip. I am fully programmed for all Infantus protocols, and your Babydoll status is on record. Mr. Edward, please do not worry -- she’s in good hands. Thank you for flying Transgalactic Spaceways.”

Miri shyly went up to the Nanabot and hugged her. “Nana,” she said dreamily.

“There, there, Sweetheart,” said Maggie, putting her arms around Miri. “I’m sure we’ll be good friends for this trip. Now, do you need a change? Would you like a bottle?”

Edward smiled. “I’ll be right next door,” he said, “and I’ll see you soon, OK, Miri?”

“OK, Eddie,” said Miri, waving to him, and Edward went next door to his room, which opened to his touch, and inside was not a nursery but a room with beautiful mahogany and gold tones, and the wall screens showed a lush green forest scene.

His luggage was already here, and he checked the schedule. He hadn’t thought at all about being apprehensive about space travel since he’d met Miri. If such a darling, adorable Babydoll wasn’t worried, then there was no need for him to be.

It wasn’t long after Edward unpacked and stored his belongings before an announcement came over the PA, “Attention all passengers. We have just finished boarding and loading all cargo. Please report to the cryogenics chamber in your room. An attendant will be by shortly to aid you in attaching the devices. Suspension time should be almost instantaneous for you, and when you are removed we will be in orbit. Thank you and pleasant dreams.”

Edward raised an eyebrow as a panel across the stateroom opened and a large silver based clear tube with many types of advanced devices and control panels attached slid out. Its top slid up allowing a light white mist to escape. Hanging within the tube once the mist cleared were many strange tentacle looking wires and tubes. The sharp needle looking probes on the ends sent a tingle of trepidation through Edward.

The door chimed, and Edward didn’t know what to do for a moment, until a soft computer voice said, “The attendant has arrived to assist you with the cryosuspension preparations. Please invite the attendant in to proceed.”

“Oh,” said Edward. “Yes. Please come in.” The door opened, and a uniformed android walked in.

“Mr. Edward, my name is Thaddeus, and I’m here to assist you with the cryosleep chamber.”

“Yes, thank you,” said Edward. “This is my first trip. What should I do?”

“First, you will need to remove all your clothing,” said Thaddeus. “We have special underwear we will provide if you wish. I’m afraid the process proves detrimental to most clothing, so something disposable is preferable.” He held up a sealed packet.

“I see,” Edward said, taking the packet and going behind a screen to change his clothes. When he was done, he emerged to find that Thaddeus had turned his back anyway. “I’m ready -- what’s next?”

“Now you merely have to stand within the cryosuspension tube,” Thaddeus said. “Everything else is automatic and completely painless. You will feel as if you are falling asleep. When you awaken, we will be in orbit around our destination world, which will be Troclus in this case. I will ensure your clothing is properly stowed in this drawer.” He opened a drawer in one of the dressers, which was currently empty, then closed it again.

“I just stand right over here?” Edward asked, backing up against the cold padded cushion at the rear of the open tube. He noticed that there were painted footprints on the base to indicate where he was to step.

“That is correct,” Thaddeus said. “Transgalactic Spaceways will do everything we can to ensure that you have a pleasant …” Edward didn’t hear the rest, because he had suddenly fallen asleep.

Edward had the sensation of cold. He felt groggy as he opened his eyes and sort of stumbled from the chamber. Thaddeus was there with a towel, and some ointment he began rubbing into the many red spots all over Edwards arms, back, and neck.

Thaddeus said, “That flask of blue liquid on the night stand. You should try and drink all of it as soon as possible. It restores you back and clears the cryogroggieness from your system.”

Edward looked around. He realized he couldn’t move very fast. Any sudden motion caused his head to spin. Next thing he knew, a bitter, yet sweet liquid was entering his mouth. He coughed and sputtered the first swallow. Just that little bit made him feel so much better. He took the flask from Thaddious and drank the rest himself. He shivered as the bitter sweetness of it went down.

When Edward’s eyes finally came into focus and the grogginess left him, Thaddious was smiling at him as he did his normal awakening exam.

Thaddious said, “That just about does it. All your vitals check out properly and your system balanced as it was supposed to. If you have any other problems, let us know in sick bay. Now, I have to tend to the other passengers.” With this, Thaddious left.

Edward walked over to the chest and opened a drawer. All his clothing were there neatly folded … including some really cute pullups in just his size. Edward smiled as he took the big boys undies instead and began getting dressed.

He saw his briefcase nudged into its storage compartment. He knew he would have to study about his job requirements more before actual dirtfall. Next thing on his agenda … to check on Miri and see how she was doing. He left his room and went next door. To his surprise, the door opened to his DNA same as Miri’s … he entered just in time to see Maggie, the Nanabot, standing Miri on her wobbly feet after changing and dressing her in a cute Snuggle Bug romper.

“Eddieyyy!” Miri said enthusiastically as soon as she saw him. She tried to rush over and hug him, but it proved too difficult for her at this moment. Maggie caught her before she fell and held her hand so she could walk more steadily over.

“Hi, Miri,” said Edward, hugging her back. “Did you have a good nap?”

“Uh huh!” she said, smiling up at him and nodding. “I had a dream I was flying through space! And … we did fly through space so it was real!”

“It’s true, Miri,” said Maggie. “We are now currently in orbit around Troclus, making final preparations for docking with the elevator station.”

“All ready to help make a treaty?” Edward asked Miri.

“Uh huh!” she said, nodding again. “We’re gonna make the bestest trade thingie!” Edward smiled. She was incredibly adorable. He suspected that the Troclus negotiators wouldn’t know, that despite her childlike demeanor, she really understood all of the fine points of the economics and politics of the situation. Using this to their advantage would have to be part of his strategy.

“We sure didn’t get a lot of time to enjoy our beautiful rooms,” said Edward.

“Yeah …” said Miri. “If we was goin’ onna cruise it’d be diff’rent. But this is for business stuff.”

“Maybe we can go on a cruise some other time.”

“Oooo …” said Miri, her eyes lighting up. “I would like that soooo much, can we can we pweeease?”

Edward smiled, enchanted. “I hope so, someday. But I guess we’re going to Troclus today.”

The PA system chimed, and the computer voice said, “Attention, all passengers, your attention please. We are now docking with the elevator station. Please proceed to the nearest elevator for transport to the surface of Planet Troclus. Thank you for flying Transgalactic Spaceways.”

Edward took Miri’s hand and walked her slowly towards the space elevator ingress point. When they arrived, a small crowd of Adults, Babydolls, and other Infantus citizens of all sexes had gathered. Several personal Nanabots were there insuring the little ones were cared for properly. Edward smiled as he pushed his travel card into the receptacle. A few seconds later, the door irised open revealing a large comfortable elevator. Everyone gathered inside, knowing the ship’s steward androids were taking care of their luggage and other necessary items separately.

When the door closed, Edward felt nearly total weightlessness as the elevator rapidly dropped towards the planet’s surface. The view out the ports surrounding the elevator was spectacular as the orange-yellow planet below began to resolve into recognizable objects … including the disembarkation station.

Once the elevator had ceased all motion and they had adjusted to the slightly higher gravity, they all moved out the door. Several men and women awaited their arrival with large pasteboard signs with “Infantus Embassy Personnel” written on them in large black letters.

Of course, as soon as the women of Troclus saw the adorable Babydolls and other little girls, they all gathered around them making wonderful cooing noises of acceptance. On the other hand, Edward could tell the men had other ideas. He was going to make sure they minded their manners. And he couldn’t help noticing the disdainful glances that the male littles of Infantus got from most of the people of Troclus, both men and women. He’d heard that this was how his people were treated abroad, but this was the first time he’d seen it up close.

“Hey, Sweetie, how’d you like to come over to my playpen?” asked a man, looking at Miri, who was unable to avoid being so targeted even when surrounded by bodyguards.

“I do not understand,” said Edward to this man. “Apparently there is no such thing as good manners on the planet Troclus? How distasteful.”

“Huh, and I suppose you’re gonna teach me -- what?” the man began, but some uniformed security people moved in between.

“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to move along,” said the security guards. “This is a no loitering area.”

“Hey, I was just --”

“Sir, this is a diplomatic party, and we cannot allow you to harass them,” said the guards. “If you cause an interplanetary incident, you can and will be arrested.” Turning to Edward, they said, “We’re sorry, Sir, our agency tries very hard to prevent this sort of thing. I hope you won’t let it reflect poorly on Troclus.”

“I am impressed with how quickly you stepped in,” Edward said. “Let us hope this isn’t a frequent occurrence.”

“That is our hope as well,” the guards said and continued to stand between the Infantus party and their unwanted audience until the team members had all climbed into their hoverlimos.

The trip out was fast and uneventful. The limos landed in a very beautiful garden of Lumin Flowers, a species from Infantus that they had found would grow on some other worlds. All the broad petals were fully extended absorbing sunlight. All night they would glow many different colors, making this side of the Infantus embassy very bright and awash in many colors of the rainbow, both day and night.

A living Steward accompanied by several living Nanas were standing in perfect order as the large party approached the main entrance to the multi-domed structure.

An impeccably tailored man stepped forward and bowed stiffly at the waist, “Welcome to Troclus, Ambassador. My name is Barnaby and I am the head Steward.” he turned with a graceful flourish of his hand, “And these fine ladies are the Nana force assigned to care for all of the adorable little Babydolls.”

The ladies, all dressed in black trimmed in white lace, curtsied gracefully as they smiled warmly.

Edward turned and said, Glad to meet all of you. If you could aid us in settling in and putting all this gear away, that would be most …”

Edward didn’t get to finish his statement. As he turned to indicate all the luggage and other items, a large group of men and women all dressed in maids or stewards formal attire had arrived and taken it all in charge and began loading on a gravity cart and taking it inside.

“They’re good,” said Edward.

“Ah, you must be the new Ambassador,” said a young man dressed in a business suit -- but a brightly-colored one in reds and blues. “I’m Pauly, and I’m from Infantus -- yes, I’m mostly an Adult, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have some fun here and there. But it’s been my team’s job to get things set up for, well, whoever Ms. Persephone chose to be the Ambassador, and I guess that’s you! Welcome to Troclus.” He extended his hand.

“Well, thank you, Pauly --” Edward said, starting to shake his hand, but Pauly led him in an elaborate series of handshake gestures that Edward actually remembered as being popular among the older Toddlers and younger Kids of Infantus -- both the chronological ones and the older ones. Before long Pauly had Edward giggling like he was a Baby again. “Ha ha, OK, yes, our job is serious, but there’s no rule against having some fun sometimes. Well done, and it’s good to meet you! Are all the staff here from Infantus?”

“No, no, some are, but most of them are local hires. We’ve tried to choose people who have positive opinions of Infantus, at the very least, and some were quite enthusiastic about working here. Some have visited for vacations, and others want to someday. And some are just very curious.” Pauly winked. “I think there are a few Infantus people on every planet.”

Edward had a good feeling about all of this until he saw the large sample crate of Selena Fruit. A kilolot crate of that was worth more money than Edward had ever seen in his life. He looked nervously around. He could tell great precautions had been taken to insure the Compound’s security and safety. The massive Dk cannons on each corner of the wall around the entrance seemed formidable enough, but Edward still felt uneasy.

When Pauly had led the group into the foyer, all had to stop for a bit and take in the sheer opulence of the finely polished woods and tasteful furniture arrangements. When they came around a corner, Edward was greeted with a magnificent portrait of a huge star looking image that appeared to have a humanoid figure with its arms outstretched in the middle.

Pauly saw Edward looking it over and said, “That’s an image from long ago. It was taken by a news ship in high orbit the day the 6th Fleet was destroyed by a massive discharge.”

Edward replied as they moved on, “The legend I heard said that was someone who did it.”

Pauly laughed. “Maybe it was. Sorta kinda looks like it.” He then opened a large set of double doors.

Edward couldn’t believe what his eyes saw. It was one of the most elaborate playrooms he had ever seen for the little ones. All the Babydolls, Toddlers and older Kids squealed with delight as they broke away from the Nanas and rushed inside. Each chose the thing that most interested them before plopping on the padded floor and started to play. The Babies whined but could only play if their Nanas took them over to play.

“I’m glad we have this facility for Infantians away from home,” said Edward. He saw Miri playing on a swing set and felt joy in his heart, because she looked so happy and was getting to be who she was. He realized he was happy too, because he was also getting to be who he was. “Is the meeting all prepared?”

“Oh! Yes,” said Pauly, holding out an electronic tablet. “It’s set for tomorrow morning. We have all the information you requested. The tech people are getting your tablet all set up -- they’re all from Infantus, so there’s no chance of data espionage, as you requested.”

“Good,” Edward said. “I don’t want to be suspicious of our hosts, but it’s better not to tempt fate. Oh -- what’s the local time currently?” He felt tired and wasn’t sure whether it was because of the cryosleep or the time difference between worlds.

“Good point,” Pauly said. “We’ve all had space lag. It’s only mid-afternoon here in Troclian City, and it has a 26-hour day, so pretty close to Infantus. Still, it couldn’t hurt to get an early night after supper, to help everyone’s internal clocks reset.”

“I’m used to early nights,” Edward said with a grin. “Pass the word on that everyone who just arrived should get plenty of rest. The Nanas should put the little ones to bed right after supper. The Adults -- well, they should put themselves to bed then too.”

“Exactly what I was thinking -- anyway, there’s still the afternoon,” Pauly said.“We had a tour of the city arranged. Want to go?”

“Definitely,” said Edward. “And see if anyone else wants to go.”

As it turned out, many of the others wanted to, both littles and bigs. They all got into a waiting hoverbus outside the front door of the embassy. Edward was happy to see that Miri had decided to go. She sat next to him in the front seat on the bus’s upper tier.

It wasn’t long after the tour began, that Miri took hold of Edward’s hand. She said in a soft shy voice, “Can … can we … “ she blushed adorably pink and looked down before she blurted out, “can we be friends?”

Edward smiled as he hugged her softly so not to hurt her, “Sure, I thought we already were though.”

Miri smiled then did something not toddler, but very Babydoll and hugged Edward’s neck and kissed his cheek. Edward first felt an infantile shyness tingle pleasantly all through him. He looked at Miri for an instant with different eyes.

Miri said, “Baby promise to be tha bestus evers.” as she nodded and seated herself back into the custom made baby seat imported from Infantus just for Littles like her.

Edward was now dealing with a whole new set of thoughts. He managed to push them from his mind as the Hydrogen Forest opened up and revealed the Fire Falls. The slowly falling, oatmeal thick lava made a very beautiful, although very uncomfortably warm, site he nor many of the others on the bus had ever witnessed before.

The Crystal Spires sparkled in a myriad of rainbow colors in the early afternoon sun. One of the Nano/Gen research facilities stood off carved into the side of mountain, looking more like some advanced colony than a research place.

The Dancing Fountains brought much wonder to the Littles and Toddlers, and Infants alike as they wove their multicolored dancing water jets to several wonderful and extremely popular tunes.

They all got out of the bus to look at a wonderfully beautiful lake. To the delight of all, many strange looking critters in the water gathered around and began making a soothingly pleasant melody with their calls and counter calls. Birdlike creatures in the trees around were also trilling musically.

“Sooooooo pwettyyyyyy,” said Miri and leaned up against Edward.

“Atresca Lake is a Planetary Park,” said the tour guide, “designated for preservation as one of Troclus’ natural wonders. The Water Crooners and Harptail Spirebirds are always singing at this time of year.”

Different members of their group were pointing, listening, and taking pictures. Some asked the tour guide questions. But Edward and Miri just looked around and marveled at the beautiful lake and the wooded area around it, so close to the planet’s capital city.

Soon it was time to move on. Miri fell asleep on Edward’s shoulder as he made some notes on his tablet about what he was seeing and what he might do at the meeting in the morning. They stopped at the Troclus Museum of History, where the tour guide spoke about a few of the important events of the planet’s past and invited them to visit the museum to learn more. The tour pointed out cultural sites like the City Library, Museum of Art and the Symphony Hall, and industrial sites such as the tall headquarters buildings of Troclus’ largest corporations. There was the magnificent architecture of the Planetary Courthouse, the Planetary Senate’s chambers, and the Presidential Mansion and Offices.

“That’s where our meeting is tomorrow,” said Edward, pointing at the combined sumptuous residence and office building. “Lots of official meetings happen there.”

“Yupyup,” said Miri tiredly, “we gonna helps you out super good, just you waits n see!”

Finally, the tour bus returned to the new Embassy. Edward smiled as he carried the sleeping Miri across his shoulder. She was small, but still weighed a bit more than Edward would have thought.

A nearby Nana came up to Edward and asked softly, “Do you need me to carry your wife? I know sometimes they get heavy after a while even as small as they are.”

Willam’s eye grew large as he quickly replied, “W … we aren’t married. She’s my assistant. Thank you, that would be helpful. My arms are getting a bit tired from the long walk.”

The woman took Miri from Edward’s arms. She handled Miri as if she were the Toddler Babydoll she looked like. Edward shook his head. It must be some kind of trait for all Nanas to be very strong. Even the Android ones seemed to be stronger than any kind of appearances would show. Of course, Edward himself wasn’t that physically strong, having been raised as a Baby until just the previous week.

They Managed to get to their rooms within the Consulate. Edward didn’t even undress as he flopped on the bed and fell into an exhausted sleep. To his total surprise, he opened his eyes as the rays of early morning sun were just peeking through the photosynth window.

He was just drying off after a refreshing shower when his alarm chimed to wake him up. Good -- he’d gotten a head start on the day. He wondered what was for breakfast as he got dressed -- he noticed that there was a selection of diapers, training pants, and adult underwear available. He chose the adult underwear -- his potty training had been going very well since Persephone had given him her full support as an Adult. Or perhaps she’d removed whatever influence she had that worked against potty training. Either way, though, he hadn’t been having any problems.

“Oh! Ambassador! You’re up early,” said one of the kitchen staff as he found his way to the dining room. There were a few others there -- some of them needed high chairs and were being fed by Nanas, while others were Adults or older Kids and were eating at the table. There was a wide selection, so he opted for a sweet and spicy oatmeal-like cereal while he read the day’s news from both Infantus and Troclus on his tablet, as well as the galactic market reports.

Soon Miri came down to breakfast, all cleaned and dressed, looking a bit older than he knew she was in a pretty dress that looked rather professional but still had some lace and frills. Her Nana put a large bib on her to protect her clothes and lifted her into a high chair, at which point she saw Edward and waved wildly at him, making it difficult for the Nana to fasten the tray in front of her.

“Well, good morning, Miri,” said Edward. “I hope you slept well and had good dreams!”

Miri giggled and clapped her hands as she nodded’ “Had mostus wunnerful dweamsa you.” Then covered her mouth with both hands as her cheeks turned red and eyes grew large.

Edward smiled as he got up from his chair and walked over to Miri and kissed her gently on her nose. Miri, of course, squealed in delight as she hugged his neck and kissed his cheek.

Edward said, “We need to get the shipping agreement hammered out. If we can’t deliver, we can’t carry back the iridium.”

Miri began to fidget in her seat, “I gotsa goo manifest. Can show you.”

Edward patted the very adorably pretty Miri on her head as he replied, “After breakfast. Would you like me to feed you?”

Miri’s eyes grew large as saucers as she squealed once more, “YES!!!!!!!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!” and began to clap her hands in delight once again.

Edward grinned happily and picked up the bowl that the amused staff had brought for Miri. The wonderful aroma of fresh oatmeal, lots of melted butter, with a smattering of strawberry jam mixed in filled the air.

Edward took one of the ‘baby spoons’ provided and scooped up a large portion, then began to put it in Miri’s mouth. The transformation was instant as Miri became a very happy little baby playing with her food.

Edward almost wet his trousers laughing as Miri splattered and smeared and made as big a mess as any happy baby could. Edward found it totally amazing he had actually managed to get more into Miri than the huge mess would imply.

As soon as the bowl was … relatively empty, and Miri was slapping her hands in the large mess on the tray in front of her, a Nana arrived silently and began to clean Miri’s hands and face.

Edward couldn’t help himself as he began to laugh at the adorable antics Miri put on as the Nana cleaned her and the rest of the mess up professionally and gently.

Luckily Miri hadn’t gotten any on her clothes -- that’s what the bib was for. She was perfectly presentable once cleaned up, although very cute. “Looks like it’s time to go,” said Edward. “We’ll want to be there early.”

“Uh huh,” said Miri, nodding. “Make a good first ‘pression.”

“Oh, great, you’re all ready to go!” said Pauly, entering the dining room just then. “Let’s all meet in the foyer, then we’ll board the limos to take us to the Executive Mansion, where the meeting will be.”

“I was going to ask,” said Edward, “Is the mining consortium of Troclus a government entity? Or is it private?”

“The consortium represents several mining companies that negotiate as a unit,” said Pauly. “But because they do, any deals they make are also regulated as a unit. It’s the way Troclus law works. They could operate independently and be free to make deals with other worlds’ governments independently. That’s how the energy industry does it. But it’s their choice. So that means there are government regulators involved. Might make it interesting, because what we’re offering isn’t a mining product.”

As they gathered in the foyer, Pauly continued to explain things he’d learned about the laws of Troclus that might affect their negotiations, although Edward had read most of this already. But Pauly seemed to take a delight in the little strange-seeming details and how they got to be that way -- he played with the law in a sort of adult way.

Soon they were all in the hover-limousines and heading for the Executive Mansion, traveling through parts of Troclian City that they had seen the previous day on their tour.

The photosynth windows had been tuned to allow those within the limo to see out, but polarized the light in such a way, those looking in could see nothing. Also another unique feature of the window, was the triple paned design that absorbed impacts and in many cases a healing effect to the damaged area. To the babydolls within the large back passenger area, it afforded the perfect panoramic view possible under the circumstance and the highest protection.

As the vehicle passed through the streets, it was immediately obvious this city catered mostly to adults. Only Baby items seen in the shop windows, were for those infants born to the Troclian City population.

The Hover-limo arrived at the large and ornately architected Executive Mansion. Many well dressed but heavily armed Troopers were there. Two of the officers had short words with the Limo operator, where he showed them papers and an ID.

Both officers stood erect and snapped a sharp salute, before quickly waving them through.

Edward turned to Pauly and commented, “Man, the security around here is tight as the elastic in new pullups.”

Pauly laughed as he pointed to several emplacements designed into the building in such a way, they were hidden in plain sight, “It’s a whole lot tighter than that. This would perhaps be one of the safest places in an uprising or invasion. At least for a time.”

There were only a few people in the meeting room when Edward and the others arrived. The guards who had escorted them there took up positions outside in the hallway. Pauly said, “They have a standard projection system, so the presentation can be controlled normally.”

“Excellent,” Edward said, taking out a pen-shaped crystal. He found the engaging site on the table, touched the pen to it, and was rewarded with a tone and the appearance of a corporate logo in holographic 3-D above the center of the table. Soon the title of the presentation appeared there instead, rotating in space so all could see.

About that time, the door into this conference room hissed open. In Walked none other that the Regent of the Planet, Alexand B. Hornslaaks, followed closely by the Lead Mining Consortium Ramrod Viktor Raalkor and several of his board members.

Edward said with a smile, “Greetings from Infantus. It brings me great pleasure to be here to bring one of the many beneficial agrarian products of Infantus to you. I know the … interesting health benefits will amaze you too.”

Viktor’s eyes grew slightly large for and instant in surprise as he recognized the Ambassador. Victor held out his large and calloused hand, “Glad to finally meet you, Ambassador… I must say, you don’t look like who I thought you might. I don’t mean any disrespect,” He pointed to Miri and several of the other Little aides that had accompanied Edward. “It’s just what all here have been told for so long. I do so hope we can find much closer relations in the future.”

Edward shook his hand firmly. “Mr. Raalkor, it’s nothing that we of Infantus don’t encounter anywhere we go,” he said. “Adult Infantians are still adults -- our society simply encourages people to be in touch with their inner children and to allow that aspect of their personalities to be expressed freely. It’s merely a matter of how much of that one wishes to engage in.”

“Ah, I see,” said Raalkor. “Well, I suppose there’s room in the Galaxy for everyone. I can see that you have a presentation ready. Shall we see it?” He looked at the Regent.

“By all means,” said Regent Hornslaaks. Everyone sat down, and Edward began.

The presentation was simply about Selena Fruit, studies showing its health benefits and lack of detrimental health effects, and how currently the only way to obtain it was to travel to Infantus and consume it there -- it was not exported, and visitors weren’t even allowed to take any home. Even so, it was quite expensive even when bought on Infantus, which was for some undiscovered reason the only world where it could grow.

“If your government signs this exclusive trade agreement,” the recorded voice concluded, “you would be the sole exporter of this unique and valuable commodity. You could set your own price, and buyers have been clamoring for the opportunity for decades. We urge that you don’t pass up this chance -- or some other world could snap it up from right under your nose.”

“Well, it seems as if you’re offering us quite an opportunity,” said the Regent. “But what’s the catch?”

“Excuse me, Regent?” asked Edward.

“What’s the catch? It seems as if we stand to make lots of money from this deal. What do you get? You don’t seem to even want an exclusive on our iridium -- you just want a certain amount per year.”

“There’s no catch, your Excellency,” Edward said. “That’s our deal. We ship an amount of Selena Fruit, you ship an amount of iridium -- the precise quantities are to be negotiated, but here’s our initial offer -- and that continues until someone wishes to alter the arrangement, and as you can see, renegotiation can happen by either side according to the terms laid out in section 3.”

“There is one small matter, Ambassador,” said Raalkor. “We’re a mining consortium. We don’t deal in agricultural produce -- just minerals. In fact, we’re prohibited from engaging in business in other industries by our consortium charter.”

The regent replied in a smooth tone, “I don’t see there’s a problem. You will be mining Iridium and selling it to me. I would therefore become your customer. In turn, the shipment you supply to me will be paid for by the returns of the sale of the agricultural product by our government interplanetary commodities commission as always. Therefore, you, will not be engaging in agricultures in any way… just me.” he smiled as he squinted toward the Ramrod.

From a small device near the reagent’s chair popped many pages of printed and photographic material. The Regent picked it up and handed it to Raalkor, “Take this back to your board. I expect to have all that signed and accepted by tomorrow afternoon.“ He turned and looked at Edward, “We have a few wrinkles in our laws to iron out, but tell your Agri Minister to begin harvesting and packing. One of our shipping Container vessels will arrive at their space port within the month. Is that acceptable?”

With this, the regent signed the many page tentative agreement to receive 42 kilolots of Selena Fruit per quarter for a shipment of 84 kilolots of Iridium per quarter personally. The mining consortium in turn, through Raalkor, agreed to sell that amount more of Iridium to the regent under an already existing agreement.

Edward couldn’t believe how easy this particular deal had been. He also didn’t realize the strength of the rejuvenation and healing properties of Selena Fruit or how high the demand for it was until this meeting.

Except that when he looked behind him, Miri was beckoning to him urgently.

He went up to her and got close. She whispered in his ear. “Umm, Eddie? I no likes that Regent guy. He gonna makes alla money and the mining guys gonna make … not much.”

“Well, he’s the Regent,” Edward whispered back. “He has a lot of power. What do you think we should do?”

“I been readin’ their laws,” Miri whispered. “They gots lotsa changes ta make if they wannit to be legal ‘n stuff. Right now … what he wanna do is way way illegal. But … tha agricultural consortium could get the fruits right now ‘n just pays the mining consortium for ‘em. An’ it all legal already.”

“The way it is, it leaves the agricultural consortium out in the cold,” whispered Edward. “This could be a huge boon for their industry, but the Regent wants to grab the money instead.”

“Yup pretty much,” whispered Miri. “But … not gonna get nowhere if ya just say that. It gonna make it look like you think he’s a crook. Even if he is, you no wanna make it look like you thinks that.”

“What should we do?” Edward whispered.

“Um, I dunno,” Miri whispered. “But … I knows their Senate is outta session so nothing gonna change till next week. Say you not gonna sign nuffin’ ‘til all the legal stuffs is fixed. Then we can all go back an’ talk about what ta do.”

“OK,” whispered Edward, then returned to the table. “Well, it sounds as if you’ve got a lot of legislative wrangling to deal with in order to make that all work,” he told the Troclus officials. “There’s no real hurry for us to sign the agreement, then -- but you know where we are, and we’ll be in touch. Keep us informed about how you’re doing with your Senate, and once it’s worked out, let’s set up another meeting.”

“But --” the Regent began.

“Well, he’s right, your Excellency,” said Raalkor. “There’s no real agreement to sign yet -- not until everything we want to do here is legal. You’ll have to present your case to the Senate and introduce some legislation -- it might even require an amendment to the Constitution. We’ll have to see how it goes.” The Regent’s lawyers and advisors nodded.

“I … I suppose so,” said the Regent, sounding disappointed. “Well. Thank you for this opportunity, Ambassador, and as you say, we’ll be in touch.”

Edward took Miri by her hand as the rest of his entourage gathered up all the papers, notepads, and briefcases. Edward didn’t think about it, but he stooped and picked Miri up and carried her like the Baby she looked like. Miri of course was totally taken and wrapped her arms around Edward’s neck and gave him a sweet kiss on his cheek.

Miri said in a cute giggly voice, “You feed mes then carrys me jus like … umm likes …” Her cheeks turn a bright pinkish red as her eyes grew large.

Edward laughed as he patted Miri’s thickly diapered and poofy bottom, “It’s ok, Miri. Remember? We friends n stuff.”

Miri put her thumb in her moth and laid across Edward’s shoulder without answering. Edward began to have strange emotions he hadn’t experienced before. He was going to have to discuss this with … another Grown up. Meanwhile, his arms were not used to this and were getting tired.

By the time they had reached the room at the Embassy, Edward’s arms were almost dead and felt numb. Another Nana, who had not yet been on duty before, arrived next to Edward and cooed softly, “Ohh, Ambassador, your wife is so adorably cute. You want me to tend to her while you freshen up for Supper?”

Edward was taken by surprise. This was the second time someone had mistaken Miri for his wife. He said quickly, “She’s not my wife. She’s my assistant, and she was too slow to keep up, so I carried her. And, yes, I would like you to tend to her and get her ready for supper, if you would.”

As the Nana took Miri from Edward’s arms, she asked, “ As you wish, Sir. Would you mind if I dressed her in that cute little Spring Fairy outfit? It’s a soft pastel blue with ruffles.”

Edward replied before quickly walking into his room, “Sure, that would be awesome, thanks.”

He changed into a more casual outfit consisting of loose-fitting blue pants and a white shirt with ruffles down the chest and around the wrist cuffs -- very Adult-looking, in Infantus fashion. Then he sat down and tried to relax. Had he done all right at the meeting? What would happen? He wished he could get some kind of reassurance that things would be all right -- but he guessed that was part of being an Adult. It was his job to make sure things would be all right. And if they weren’t, it would be his fault …

He relaxed anyway, taking deep breaths and listening to nothing but the extremely quiet whisper of the air circulation system, until his tablet chimed. When he checked, it showed a message stating that dinner was ready.

Edward went downstairs toward the dining room, but before he got there he saw a stunning vision in blue. Her name was Miri, and she was perhaps the most adorable Babydoll he had ever seen. Her outfit was a very short, blue fairy princess dress with poofy sleeves and periwinkle lace around the Peter Pan collar. Her cute little powderpuff panties were covered in lacey ruffles. She was once again wearing those booties woven from the Omicron Moth cocoon fibers.

Nana handed her over to Edward. Miri took that opportunity to hug his neck. Just by sheer accident, Edward turned his head towards Miri to give her a kiss on her cheek … at the same time Miri was going to do the same to Edward. Their lips met, they both felt a huge and extremely exciting surge of electricity run through them before they broke the lingering kiss.

Miri blushed deeply red as Edward’s face held an open mouthed look of surprise. For an instant, Edward was speechless. He had never kissed a girl on the lips before … except maybe a Nana and that didn’t count.

Edward cleared his throat then said in a husky tone, “Well, now … I think that just made my day. I’ve never kissed a girl before … that was nice.”

Miri grinned shyly as she replied, “Am sowwy. Was a accident. No meana do that -- was supposeta be on your cheek.”

Edward smiled as he patted her hinney softly, “It’s OK, really. Now, I think it’s time to feed my precious assistant.”

Miri giggled as she hugged Edward’s neck.

Edward carried Miri to the dining room and put her carefully in the high chair, then locked the tray down before finding a chair and pulling it up in front of her. One of the Nanas came to them and placed a small divider plate on the tray. It held a large portion of spaghetti, string beans, and a steaming potato with melted butter.

She reached for the food with her fingers, of course. It was part of the dance that was feeding one of Infantus’s Babydolls. She knew he would stop her, she knew a Nana would tie a bib around her neck to protect her pretty dress, she knew he would take a spoon and feed her. He knew she would try to get the spaghetti sauce on her face and even in her hair, he knew she would want the potato even though it was too hot, and he knew she wouldn’t want to eat her vegetables.

“Come on, Miri,” he said. “Space transport vessel 61-R Niner requesting permission to dock with Miri Station. Heeeere comes the transport ship,” he said as he brought the spoonful of string beans closer to her mouth. “Open docking bay doors. There’s people who need this precious cargo …” Then he suddenly tickled her tummy and popped the spoonful into her mouth while she giggled.

“It’s some kind of unwritten Infantus rule,” said Edward to the Nana. “The Babydolls resist eating vegetables, even the ones that actually like them.”

“Well, it’s adorable,” said the Nana, “after a fashion. Just like when my little daughter was a baby. It’s just … quite different.”

“It’s harmless, though I can see how it might seem strange to outsiders,” Edward said and tried to get Miri to eat another bite. He could see that the potatoes were steaming less, so perhaps they would soon be cool enough for her to eat without burning her mouth.

Edward realized he was enjoying feeding Miri more than he would have liked to admit. Something deep within him started to grow and he didn’t quite know how to deal with it. These emotions were rather alien to him.

He managed to put them to the side so they didn’t bother him too much, and cleaned Miri’s hands and face before lifting her from the high chair, then placing her on her wobbly feet. Edward knew she had on a very thick crawly diaper that would make her toddle slowly.

Edward took her by her hand and led her from the dining room into the huge and specially created playroom built just for the Babydolls from Infantus. When they entered, many of the Babydoll staff along with the crawlies and lap babies were already there having the time of their life playing with the many different types of plushies, play sets, doll houses, and squeaky honkie cars.

He sat with Miri and helped her scribble in a coloring book. He had never had this much fun doing nothing more than making random lines on a coloring book page. Then again, he was never with a Babydoll as pretty nor one he had these kinds of feeling for.

It was about that time Paulie rushed into the playroom, “Will! OMG! I’m glad I found you. There’s been an assassination. The Regent has been killed. He was going to deny the change in the rules governing the sale and distribution of Agriculturals by a mining consortium and keep most of the profits to himself. Apparently the Vice-Regent will come to power by morning. We have to see what his declaration will be.”

This totally flabbergasted Edward as he sat in stunned silence. He had never heard of someone just being killed that way before. He realized just how sheltered his life had been on Infantus.

“We have to … make some kind of statement, don’t we?” he said. “This is my first time being an Ambassador. Infantus should say something.”

“Yes, Infantus should,” said Pauly, “but that’s usually something the government back home would send to us to issue.”

“Do they know?”

Pauly nodded. “We’ve already sent the news back home, and they said they would prepare a statement for us.”

“Oh. Good,” said Pauly. He may not have liked Regent Hornslaaks very much, but to find out that someone he’d just met was now dead, and by violence, was a lot to take in. “Let me know when it arrives.”

“Definitely!” Pauly paused. “Did … you get anything to eat?” he asked. “I noticed you were very interested in feeding Miri, and of course she’s adorable, but you need to eat.”

“Oh! It’s true,” said Edward, “I got kind of caught up in the moment. Is there still anything left?”

“Yes, your plate is still on the table,” Pauly said, “or it was last time I looked. Things are probably getting cold, but I can ask someone to warm it up for you in the molecular fluxer.”

“Thanks, Pauly,” said Edward. He went over to Miri and said, “Miri, I’ve got to go have some supper myself, but I’ll just be in the dining room. Will you be OK playing in here?”

“Uh-huh!” she said, having fun on the swingset. “Are you … gonna come back?”

“I promise,” he said.

Raalkor entered the office and looked over the huge round table around which the other members of the Mining Consortium sat. A tingle of apprehension ran along his spine as he thought that one of those well-dressed individuals could have been the one who had the Regent executed.

Raalkor sat in the Ramrod chair, picked up the gavel and brought the very important meeting to order, “Gentlemen, It is with great sorrow we meet under these circumstances.” He paused for a minute while the buzz of voices filled the room. “The new Regent’s Legal Department has announced that they will interpret our charter in our favor. They won’t dispute our receiving recompense for our product by the legal resale of an exchange item, be it organic or inorganic.”

One of the other well dressed men spoke up. “What about the law that states we cannot participate in businesses other than those pertaining to mining and its other facets?”

Raalkor smiled. “The way I understood the wording the new Regent used, a mining operation has to feed its employees. Therefore, purchasing agricultural items for resale becomes a necessity.”

“Well, that’s true,” said another one of the Consortium members, “but that’s pretty flimsy, isn’t it? Selling food to our employees at a company store is one thing, but we’re talking about exporting a valuable commodity offworld. It’s going to be challenged in court by someone, I guarantee it -- all this does is prevent that from being the government.”

Another member nodded. “I’ll bet you dollars to dolomite that the Agricultural Consortium will sue, saying we’re violating our charter -- and the courts will probably agree, no matter how the Regent’s lawyers interpret it. They can’t tell the courts what to do.”

“What if we made a deal with the Agricultural Consortium?” asked another member. “Cut them in on the profits, in exchange for not suing?”

“Or,” said Raalkor, “we just take that one step further and avoid the problem completely -- the AC pays us for the right to pick up and resell the Selena Fruit. There’s nothing in our charter that says we can’t accept payment in cash from anyone we want to make a deal with. We won’t be the ones exporting fruit. We’ll just be making money. Sure, the AC will set their prices for the rest of the galaxy to buy Selena Fruit -- so we’ll just get our economists to do their homework, come up with some profit projections, and arrive at a price to offer the AC.”

“I like it,” said one member. “There’s no way for anyone to mount a serious challenge to that in court. Besides, I’m not equipped for storing and shipping fruit, and I doubt anyone else here is. That kind of infrastructure is right up the Ag Consortium’s alley.”

There seemed to be general agreement about this plan, and with a few minor amendments, they soon had a proposal written up to send to the lawyers. There were no dissenting votes. They all stood to make quite a bit of money in the end -- the only question was the price the economists would propose based on their market research.

But Raalkor knew that there was someone, somewhere, possibly in this room, who knew just how much money was involved here and had killed to ensure that at least some of it made it into his pockets. Would they be content to share it with the rest of the Consortium? He wondered about that.

“... shares in the sorrow of the people of Troclus at the untimely death of its duly elected Regent …” read Edward. “So we just send this out to the various press agencies of the planet and they do whatever?”

“Yep,” said Pauly. “Some’ll print it verbatim. Others’ll just say we expressed our sorrow and summarize it. Others’ll ignore it. It’s up to them. Only so much we can do.” He shrugged. “But it’s important that we be seen doing it. It’s politics. Bleah.”

Edward scratched his head, “Polly Ticks? Sounds like a baby joke to me.”

Pauly laughed, “That’s the best description of it I’ve ever heard. Bunch of toddlers stuck in a room all fussing.” He laughed.

Edward shook his head, “I’ve never heard of a bunch of fussing toddlers killing someone over money.”

Paulie stopped laughing as his face took on a somber expression, “It’s a bigger political incident than you know. Most of the government and its security forces are up in arms over it.”

Edward replied, “The Regent would’ve made a killing with the deal he was trying to make. It looks like someone else wanted a bigger slice of the pie.”

“If you’re wondering who could’ve done it,” said Pauly, “look at this.” He handed Edward a small tablet and said, “Read this over. It shows that the Mining Consortium had been short-changed on several deals of that sort in the past.”

Edward read the data for a few minutes. “So … either someone in the Mining Consortium didn’t think the Regent’s deal was good enough for them … or someone in the Ag Consortium was angry about being cut out of the deal altogether.”

“Yep,” Pauly said, “but in none of those past deals would the Ag Consortium have made anything either -- and nobody was ever murdered over it.”

“Doesn’t really prove anything,” said Edward. “The other deals weren’t about agricultural products. They wouldn’t have been involved in any case.”

Pauly shrugged. “True, but it seems more likely to me that it was someone in Mining, not someone in Ag.”

“Well, not really our problem,” said Edward. “So it looks like the new Regent’s trying to interpret Mining’s charter to say they can sell agricultural products?”

“Yes, but there’s no way that will stand up if challenged,” said Pauly, “and it’ll be challenged, all righty. Too much money for it not to be. But they can do it all legally by just cutting a licensing-marketing deal with the Ag Consortium, and that’s probably what they’ll do. Here’s the thing, though -- whenever they do deals like this, they keep underbidding. Someone else makes huge profits, and they make a fraction of that. I don’t know how it’s happening.”

Edward sat at his desk reading over the piles of papers that had accumulated on his desk over the whole deal. He found a copy of the original deal the past Regent had made with the mining Consortium. He couldn’t believe the amount of money that went directly to the Regent from each shipment. No wonder the Regent had thought he could get away with the Infantus deal -- he’d gotten away with almost the same thing in the past, though for nowhere near as much money.

So not only were the Mining Companies not getting any real profits off of rare mineral production, the Ag Consortium also had gotten the raw end of all the planetary deals. But he suspected that someone had been getting paid by the old Regent to make it all happen.

Edward narrowed his eyes. He was still unsure that someone in the Mining Consortium was making money hand over fist, but it was looking more and more like it all the time. And it seemed likely as well that that same individual was also a calculated killer. This wasn’t good.

On a dark side of a very expensive looking house, a figure shrouded in a black hooded robe came to the house’s entry. A small light came on as a voice asked, “Yes? May I be of some service sir?”

A strangely accented voice replied with a slither mixed heavily within, “Yessssss. Thhelltthhhh emmm that hhhiitthhheeee be hea.”

“An unlocking sound was heard and the door slid back, “You are welcome. Go to the end of the hall and make a right. Master is in the drawing room.”

With an odd undulating motion, the mysterious figure moved through the hall and entered the indicated room. The lights were dim. A man sat at a lavishly-appointed but high-tech desk. “Ah, good evening,” he said. “So good of you to come.”

“You ssssspoke of annn arranggggementttt,” hissed the cloaked figure.

“I did,” the man said. He set two data chips on the desk before him. “I need a shipment attacked and its cargo stolen. I understand that your … organization has a reputation for doing such things and am prepared to pay well. In addition, you will find that cargo extremely valuable on the black market. If you accept, on the chips before you are the number of an untraceable bank account containing the first third of your payment, and a decryption key that you can use to decipher further information I will send you.”

“Sssssssselenaaaa Fruittttt,” said the hooded figure.

“Very perceptive,” said the man, “but this is Troclus, and the first shipment in history made galactic news. Now, once I have the details about the second shipment’s route and defenses, I will send them to you using that key, along with the account containing the second third of your payment. The final third I will send once I have confirmation that the cargo has been stolen.”

“Ssssseemssssss … ttttooo goodddd tttoooo beeee ttttrueee,” the mysterious figure remarked.

“I can always hire someone else, if you don’t accept,” said the man. “I have my reasons for wanting this to happen -- profits, specifically. There is only one stipulation.”


“If you could avoid unnecessary killing, that would be ideal,” said the man. “These will be my own countrymen aboard this transport ship -- not from my Consortium, of course, but still. Some deaths may be unavoidable, but I would prefer that you disable the transport ship rather than destroy it, and kill only those who resist. Leave its life support operational, along with enough power to send a distress call -- but anything else you want to do is up to you.”

“Mmmminnimmmallll llllethhhhallllityyyy,” the cloaked figure said. “Ssssstrannnnge rrrrequesssstttt. Butttt I acccccepttttt.” It picked up the data chips in a scaly, clawed hand and read them with a device. “Paymennntttt issssss ssssssufffficcccciennnntttt.”

“Excellent,” said the man. “Expect encrypted messages from me originating from the same source. The shipment’s route has yet to be arranged.”

“Aaaa pleasssssurrrrre doinnnnng busssssinnnnnesssss withhhhhh yyyyouuuu,” the figure said. It turned and left. The man behind the desk smiled and tented his fingers.

“Allow me to get the door for you, Sir,” said the butler, holding the door open for the black cloaked figure, who left without a further word and disappeared into the night.

“Very well,” said Raalkor, “I hereby conclude this meeting of the Security Committee.” He banged his traditional osmium gavel on its titanium plate, producing its satisfying ring. The timing and route of the second Selena Fruit shipment’s transport had been decided, and the only people who knew the details were in that room. Of course, the room had been swept for transmitters, and every member, including himself, was now covertly being followed and monitored to see with whom they met or communicated. They all knew about this; it was part of the job. It wasn’t the first time anyone had transported a valuable cargo, either mineral or agricultural, and the members of the Mining and Agricultural Consortiums who were on this committee knew that secrecy was the first order of business.

Nothing had gone wrong with the first Selena Fruit shipment. Whether that had been due to secrecy or pure luck was unknown. But it had arrived on Troclus, and the Ag Consortium had sold the fruit to its many buyers and distributors.

“Here’s the list of everyone who ultimately bought Selena Fruit from the first shipment, Sir,” said an assistant, handing Raalkor a data chip.

“Hey, thanks, Rellia,” he said. “Let’s have a look.” He read it on his tablet. “People from all over the galaxy -- including here,” he said. “But nobody in either Consortium. I wouldn’t expect them to do their dirty work themselves. Any sign of anyone bribing the watchers?”

“Too early to tell, Sir,” said Rellia. “But we’ll be getting the report soon, I’m sure.”

“We’ll see,” said Raalkor.

“Just call me X,” said the man at the desk into his encrypted communication device. “It makes things simpler if you don’t know who I am.”

“Indeed,” said the scrambled voice on the other end. “What I don’t know I can’t reveal, and if your identity is somehow revealed, they didn’t find out from me.”

“Quite. Have you received the package?”

“Affirmative. Destination?”

“Memory Sigma Prime,” said X. “A laboratory facility called Excelsior Research. They’re expecting it. And in case it needs saying, don’t open the package. We don’t want to contaminate the sample.”

“Of course not,” said the courier. “Your payment has been validated, so it will be there posthaste, hand delivered.”

“Thank you,” said X. “Your discretion in this delicate matter is appreciated.”

“Naturally,” the courier said. “All part of the service we provide.”

The connection was closed. X once again leaned back and tented his fingers before his face. “Soon,” he said. “Soon nobody will need to buy Selena Fruit ever again -- because I’ll have the sole rights to produce its secret life-extending ingredients. Ahhh. I can almost taste the sweet profits already.” He took a deep, satisfied breath.

On the loading docks at the Infantus Agricultural Spaceport, located in a small and lush garden valley, many adorably dressed individuals finished programming the latest shipment. It was loaded with many thousands of pounds of the rarest fruit in the universe and one of the most prized.

For this reason it was also very dangerous to transport. But none of the Toddlers and Young Adults working in and around the loading bay worried over this. They all knew who owned this entire planet and what she was capable of doing. Here, Persephone wasn’t a fairytale or bedtime story … she was real.

In the launch control center, the mix of adults and Toddlers and Littles went about their very specific tasks. Very shortly, The NR engines of the huge transport ignited, and it rapidly left the Spaceport with the second shipment destined for the ship’s home planet Troclus in the nearby Praesepe system.

Sitting on the bridge of an obviously advanced warship was a figure in a black hooded cloak. He barked orders in his hissing, slithering tongue.

The first Officer came to him and popped a smart salute, “Sir all preparations have been made and the contact ships are in their prearranged locations.”

The individual in black removed the hood to his cloak as he replied in his hissing/snarling voice, “Verry goooddd, Sssslllitthhh.”

The first officer shivered. He knew his captain was one of those feared warriors of the Renni-Tu … but this was the actual first time the captain had ever removed his hood and showed the vicious-looking reptilian/feline/humanoid features of his species.

“Nnnow … sssset coursssse forrrrr the ambusssssh pointttt,” said the captain.

“Course … already laid in and ready on your mark, Sir,” said the first officer. “The fighters are fueled and ready for launch. Timing is on tactical,” he added, pointing to a series of clocks that appeared on the main screen, counting down.

“Very, very good, Sssslittthhhhhhh,” said the captain, keeping an eye on the timers.”

“How good it is to see you, Mr. Raalkor,” said Edward, “and how … unusual it is for you to visit the Infantus Embassy.” He and Miri were walking with Raalkor to one of the diplomatic conference rooms, which were designed to be very comfortable for both Troclians and Infantians alike. Miri took a seat on a brightly-colored soft chair that was shaped to look like she was riding a big toy horse, while Edward and Raalkor sat down in comfortable ergonomic office chairs.

“Unusual it may be,” said Raalkor, “but there’s a good reason. Take a look at these.” He handed Edward a data chip.

“Miri should see it too,” said Edward. He pressed a button and said, “Privacy mode.” The doors closed and locked, and a quiet hiss could be heard as white noise generators came on -- that noise would be all that listening devices would pick up. Then Edward touched the data chip to a spot in the center of the conference table, and charts and graphs appeared holographically in the air above the table.

“Of course,” said Raalkor. “I’ve learned not to underestimate Infantians, no matter what age they prefer to be. Anyway, as you can see, we’ve traced buyers of the first shipment of Selena Fruit down to their ultimate owners. Some changed hands multiple times -- as if some of them don’t want anyone knowing who bought them in the end. Now at some point every one of them just vanishes -- as one might expect.”

“Well, they are fruit,” said Edward.

“Most probly got eated,” said Miri.

“Most,” said Raalkor. “But all? Note this one here, which ended up in the hands of a laboratory on Universitas, sent there by one Judith Yokor of the planet Pharos.”

“A laboratory?” Edward asked. “Interesting. You don’t suppose they’re trying to …”

“Figure out what makesa fruit tick,” Miri interjected.

“Exactly,” Raalkor said. “Either they want to find a way to grow more, or they want to find its active ingredients so they can synthesize them and sell them without the fruit. This would cut Infantus out of the profit stream entirely.”

“And the Mining and Ag Consortiums of Troclus too,” Edward added. “I should notify my government of this.” He made a note and sent it off.

Raalkor nodded. “You should,” he said, “but that’s not all. It’s possible that the second shipment’s secrecy has been compromised.”

“Compromised? As in, someone knows its route?”

Miri asked, “They gonna steal the fruits?”

“It’s possible,” said Raalkor. “There is an indication that one of the agents we hire to tail members of the Security Committee, the only people who know the route, has been paid off.”

“You have agents tailing the agents?” asked Edward.

“You do the job for as long as I have, you get kinda paranoid,” said Raalkor. “That’s why they put me in charge of the Security Committee for this term.”

“I assume you’ve already told the police or military,” Edward said.

“The evidence is too flimsy,” Raalkor said. “We got video of an agent touching a data chip to his tablet and we got an encrypted data stream going out at the same time. The destination is a known provider of anonymous accounts -- they don’t even keep records of who’s who.”

“Well, change the route and timing immediately!” exclaimed Edward, standing up. “Those people’s lives could be in danger!”

“I tried. Nobody will listen to me. Not before there’s more evidence.” Raalkor sighed. “I’m just afraid that evidence is gonna be dead ship security officers. Maybe the whole crew. But the real reason I’m here is --”

Miri interrupted. “You think it somebody in your own Consortium.”

“Yeah.” Raalkor gripped the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. “You’ve been looking at it too.”

“We looked at the history,” Edward said. “Someone was making lots of money from the old Regent. Someone had him killed -- when he stopped playing ball, maybe. Someone has no scruples and wants to make a killing. Make fruit substitute pills, maybe patent them so no one else can make them, steal a shipment or two of fruit so the pills are the only choice, and it’s a one-way ticket to Planet Cash.”

“Who bought the fruit on this planet?” asked Miri.

“There were a few, very wealthy, people on Troclus who ended up with Selena Fruit,” said Raalkor. He pointed at one of the charts before them, which enlarged. “In the Mining Consortium? Only one. He’s rich, but so is every Consortium member. Name’s Thad Gueral.”

“But there’s no evidence connecting him to anything, I’m guessing?” asked Edward.

“Not yet,” said Raalkor. “Publicly accusing someone like that, with no evidence, is gonna do more harm than good. I’m not poor myself, but he’s got friends. I could find myself out of a job if I went around doing stuff like that. They’d just put one of his friends in my job, and I’d retire to private life, which is sounding attractive right now, I’m not gonna lie. If they didn’t have me killed, that is -- we’ve got someone here who isn’t afraid to do that.”

“No evidence that he’s got accounts on that secret data provider, or that he’s sent the fruit to a lab?” asked Edward.

“Not at all,” Raalkor said. “Yet, as I said. I’ve got people, and they’re digging and watching. But nothing yet.”

Edward’s tablet chimed. There was a pink icon on the screen, and his eyes widened. He tapped it and read the message, which was in white on a strawberry pink background. Miri saw it, and her eyes went wide too.

“What is it?” Raalkor asked.

“Reply from home -- already,” said Edward, sounding a bit awed. “From the very top, in fact. There isn’t much we can do about the transport ship at this point, but those laboratories … well, they’re going to fail. Let’s just say that there are no known analysis techniques that can succeed in this case.”

“Interesting,” said Raalkor. “Well, if you’re right, then at least there’s one part of Gueral’s plan that won’t work. And he probably doesn’t know about it yet.”

“Also, Infantus is going to send a rescue ship …” Edward went on.

The trip from Infantus to Troclus appeared to be quick from the Crew and passenger’s point of view, However, there were my hundreds of light years between the two systems that contained the planets.

The Navigator sat up right suddenly, almost spilling his hot cup of virtcoff. He adjusted his side scanners to their highest resolution and what he saw brought serious chills of fear up his spine.

Out of the inky blackness of interstellar space, moving at an NP speed unheard of on Troclus, it came. Huge, menacing, armed to the teeth with many types of siege weapons none of the Dredge bridge crew had ever seen before. It had graceful swooping arched looking wings with strange pods above and below each root area. The craft looked very nasty, and what’s more, it was unmarked, with no insignia or call numbers. That meant pirates.

Suddenly, the Nav board’s tactical display lit up. There were almost a dozen of those ships and one much larger still that was obviously designed to swallow a long haul transport like the Dredge.

The emergency collison alarms started to go off just before a major explosion amidships. By this time, the captain had returned to the bridge. He was just in time to watch the 3 picket cruisers escorting them become seriously disabled … or maybe even worse.

It wasn’t long before there was the sound of fighting in the hallways, and just moments after that the bridge doors were forced open. Striding onto the bridge was a black-cloaked figure, flanked by armed henchmen. “Kkkillll annnyonnnnne who ressssisssstsssss,” said the figure’s sibilant voice. To the captain the figure said, “Yyyyourrrr carrrrgo issss nnnow mmminnnnne. Do nnnotttt ressssisssstttt annnnd you mmmmay yyyet livvvve.”

The captain was considering thoughts of secretly fighting back, perhaps undermining this pirate captain’s authority, until the figure lowered its hood to reveal the scaly visage of a Renni-Tu. The Lizard Cats were not known for diplomacy. They were known for tearing out the throats of those they disagreed with.

“Anything you say, Sir,” he said. “Just … don’t kill any more of my crew. Please.”

“Pllleasssssurrrre doinnnng bussssinessssss witttthhhh you,” said the pirate lord. “Tttttellll thhhhe mennn to prrrrocccceeed.” One of his henchmen barked orders into a comm tablet, and the pirates got to work stealing everything of value, including the ship’s fuel rods and food supplies, but especially including the cargo.

After a tense few hours, the pirate captain was told that the looting was complete, so he gave the order to withdraw. “Consssssiderrrrr yourrrrssssselvvvesssss llllucky,” he said. “Ffffewwww whhhhoommmmm I hhhhavvveee boarrrdeddd sssssurvvvivvve.” And he turned and was gone.

The bridge’s dim emergency lights revealed the navigator looking at numerical readouts on his console; there wasn’t enough power for the main screen. “Sir,” he said quietly, “they’re gone. Jumped out.”

“Distress signal? Did they take those?” asked the captain.

“No, Sir,” the navigator replied. “Distress signal activated.” They were self-powered so as to function even if the ship were completely disabled. But how long until someone got their signal?

It was a tense few hours more before they heard the pinging sound of the console reporting a ship in the vicinity. “Rescue?” the captain asked.

“Possibly,” the navigator said, “though all I’ve got is the numbers … the computer says it’s registered to … Infantus, Sir.”

The captain breathed a sigh of relief. “Don’t know why they’re in the neighborhood, but at least they’re friendly. Hail?”

The communication officer had been wounded during the forced entry but had a patched-up arm. “Putting them through, Sir.”

“This is the medical cruiser Innocence out from Infantus,” said the small and cute voice of what must have been an Infantian. “We received your distress signal. Are you in need of assistance?”

“Are we ever glad to see you, Innocence,” the captain said. “We’ll do whatever we can to ready the docking ports, but we have barely enough power for life support.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll help you out!” said the Infantian. “I’m Captain Kelly. We’re moving into position for rescue now.”

In a place beyond places, in a garden beyond human description, a very beautiful young woman sat on a dais made of some sort of sparkling crystal. She stared into a pool of mercurial liquid at images that danced across its surface.

A dark frown crossed her youthful face as she observed the attack of the Transport. The image rippled and then changed, It depicted a very large and muscular lizard-like humanoid.

Persephone sat back as she contemplated her next move. She hadn’t liked in anyway the reports she had just received. She leaned back and said, to herself since no other could be seen around her, “So, this is how the mortals think they are going to discover the secret of eternal youth, is it? Well, I think I have some surprises for your employer, my dear Captain.”

Edward was meeting with Pauly and Miri in a conference room in the Infantian Embassy. “So Infantus has to provide another shipment of Selena Fruit, according to the contract,” Edward said.

Pauly nodded. “Yes, but not if that one is also lost,” he said, pointing to the appropriate clause in the agreement. “Still, if it is, we want to keep good faith, even if it’s not in the contract in black and white. We’ll probably still have to keep sending shipments until one gets through, just out of diplomatic self-interest. It could get expensive.”

“Nobody wonderin’ how come our rescue ship comed so soon?” asked Miri.

“Not that I’ve heard,” Pauly said. “Too many people are still grateful that most of the transport’s crew was saved.”

“I imagine that’s why we chose to send a medical ship,” said Edward. “I’m sure our military ships can hold their own, but when most people think of space navies, they don’t think about Infantus. And … that’s probably for the best, actually.”

Pauly nodded. “Nonthreatening is definitely the image we want. Eccentric, perhaps, but not frighteningly so.”

“Is we heared any about who attack the transport?” Miri asked.

“Not much,” Edward replied. “The transport crew’s still in treatment.” They all knew about Infantian medical science. The mind and body healed much more quickly when regression techniques were applied, but in the meantime none of the crew members were able to speak or understand coherent words.

“Well, when they’re able, we’d obviously like to know who attacked them,” Pauly said. “They said something about pirates and Renni-Tu before they went into treatment, though. I cross-referenced those. There’s talk about a Renni-Tu pirate captain with a particularly nasty reputation.”

“But … would he work for Gueral?” asked Edward.

“Any pirate would do some piracy for hire if it paid well enough,” said Pauly. “And considering Gueral probably would have let them keep the cargo to sell on the black market, in addition to whatever bounty he was paying … I’d think that would be ‘well enough.’ When the crew’s conscious again, we can ask for more details.”

Miri suggested, “Fruit onna black market gonna make a big splash inna puddle.”

“That’s very true, Miri,” said Edward. “Maybe we can trace it that way. But meanwhile, maybe we can find a way to connect Gueral to this pirate captain.”

The captain, dressed in his black hooded cloak, walked through the huge cargo hold of this warship. A fanged snarling smile crossed his face as he looked over the many stasis crates full of one of the most prized fruits in the universe. He opened one of the inspection ports in the side of one of the crates and removed one of the fruit. It looked so much like a Nectarrian Pear, the captain had to taste it.

He took a large bite and began to chew. At first, the fruit tasted bitter. Then the captain realized it had to be peeled before eating it. A very sharp claw extended from one of his knuckles that he immediately began to peel the rind. Within, was a very juicy flesh, pink with purple veins.

He took another bite. This time it wasnt peel, it was all fruit. It was juicy, soft, yet firm. The flavor was magnificent. Not too sweet,not too tart … the captain gaped as his eyes grew large. A powerful tingling wave washed all through him. The captain looked at his hands. He had to be almost 100 years younger. All the long years of battle and other damage scars had vanished as the hair of youth grew in right before his eyes.

He felt magnificent! He hadn’t felt this full of energy since his adolescence. The things he could have done back then if only he’d had the wealth and power … and now he did! This was a fantastic opportunity to conquer even more of … more of … what had he been thinking of? Oh that’s right -- he could conquer even more of the universe in this 3-D game … or …

Yes, that was it. He could finally figure out what these things were at the ends of his feet. They were kind of pointy but also rounded. He looked like an adolescent Renni-Tu, but he was on the floor of the cargo hold playing with his toes like a whelpling. But he didn’t think about that. His mind was shot through with the pleasures and imagination of youth. There were no toys to play with, but … there was whatever this was he was wearing. He covered himself with it like a tent, and giggling in an eerie, feral way, he crawled across the floor pretending to be a Shadow Monster.

A few hours later, he woke up. One of his crew was shaking his shoulder. “Sir? Sir? Are you awake?”

“Nnnnnggggssssthhhh … whatttt? Dozzzzed offfff … I ssssssupposssse thisssss fruitttt hasssss ssssssome sssssoporific qualitiesssss … but … why isssss my cloak overrrr therrrrre?” He stood up, reached to pick up his cloak, and … realized he still felt very much full of energy and vigor.

“Are, uh, you all right, Sir?” his crewman asked. “You look … different.”

“Fffffine, Crrrrensssshaw,” he said. “Neverrrr been betterrrrrr.”

In a relative stopped position next to a badly damage agri-hauler ship, a massive Super Dreadnaught hung in the inky blackness as it scanned for any sign that might give some indication as to where the vessel or vessels that had assaulted the cargo ship had gone.

The captain was frustrated. It was obvious whoever had done this, had used one of those new fangled FTL drives. His particular ship was due for a refit to have the upgraded sensors installed that would track one of them.

A young lieutenant came to the captain’s chair and said, “Captain, sorry to interrupt. Long range scans have found a very faint trace of Anti quark gluon residues at these coordinates.”

The captain viewed the data on the lieutenant’s padd for a minute before he asked, “How did you manage to detect something this faint at that extreme distance?”

The lieutenant replied proudly, “We managed to reroute the scan wave through the berrion intermix chamber. The results hyper charged the scanwave in such a way the track glowed on the board. Not much, but our scanner analysis team is a sharp bunch and they noticed an anomaly. The more they studied it, the more they realized this is the trail left behind by one of those new NR FTL drives.”

The captain smiled as he snapped, “Helm, to these coordinates as fast as we can get there.”

The helmsperson adjusted dials and typed in commands on his control board, “Laid in and engaged.”

Dampening fields lowered around the bridge personnel as everyone’s perception began to blur … and then they had arrived. “Inkspot Nebula, Sir,” said the helm officer. “Great place to avoid detection, if you’re the kind of person who needs to do that.”

The screen showed many voluminous clouds of black dust all around them, but more than that, the area was opaque in many other frequency ranges, including infrared and ultraviolet. But it didn’t block radio much, nor X-rays, and there were other means of detection such as subspace resonance that a little interstellar dust had no effect on. “Are we picking up anything?” asked the captain.

“Scanning,” said the engineer. “Getting a ship signature on heading 331 alpha plus 27, range 7.4.”

“Does the NR trail lead in that direction?”

“Affirmative, Sir,” the helm officer said.

“Ready all weapons, and fighters prepare to launch. Report in when prepared. We move on my mark.”

Reports came in from around the superdreadnought. “This is Alpha Wing, ready.” “This is Delta Wing, ready.” “Gamma wing, all units ready.” “Battery 3, ready.” “Beta Wing here, ready to go, Sir.” This continued until all combat units had reported in.

“Now, I want scans of that ship to the best degree we can manage,” said the captain. “I don’t want to blow up some innocent survey ship. Anything with legitimate looking markings, hold back. Otherwise, strike to disable. We want as many alive for questioning as we can manage, especially that captain. We need to know who ordered that strike. Understood? Good. Engage.”

“Almost have a visual …” Engineering said. “Almost there …” On the main screen the ship finally swam into view, nasty looking and unmarked. Pirates loved customizing their ships to have extra spikes and points that had no function whatsoever other than to instill fear in their victims, and they didn’t mark their ships -- no point, as computers would instantly recognize them as fake.

“Pirate,” the captain said. “All fighter wings, launch and strafe their launch bays and weapon emplacements. Guns, target engines.” This was redundant, really, as this plan had been made hours ago, but reminders didn’t hurt. The pirate ship’s launch bays were immediately targeted, and any pirate fighters that did manage to launch were engaged and under fire before they knew it.

Form the sides and beneath the gracefully curving wings of the Pirate craft, many ports irised open. The Pirate ship opened fire on the fighter craft attacking its launch bays. The rapidity the weapons fired coupled with the amazing accuracy and devastating yield on contact, caused the fighters to turn back. It was apparent this ship wasn’t going to be an easy target as it too began to defend itself.

The commander of the large fleet looked on with open mouthed astonishment at the radical way the Pirate ship had been armed. Massive energy bolts lashed out from the now obvious planetary strike cannons. Huge glowing clouds of super hot plasma began erupting all along the line of battle as the Pirate ship’s engines engaged.

A massive NR portal opened and engulfed the Pirate ship, it vanished in a very bright purple flash leaving behind in its wake many disabled fighter craft, several destroyers amid debris fields, and a completely awestruck fleet.

“I … what … what happened?” asked the captain. “What went wrong?”

“Sir, analysis indicates …” the tactical officer said, looking at the computer, “that it is possible but uncommon for a vessel of that size to have all the capabilities it just displayed. Generating a likely schematic of its internal layout based on battle data.”

“Good,” said the captain. “Send rescue crews for all disabled fighters. Any enemy survivors should be taken into custody for questioning. No lethal force -- we need information.” He took a deep breath. “The specs of standard-issue Troclian navy starships are publicly available,” he mused. “Too many memoirs of former officers out there on holovid. The specs of a unique custom-built pirate cruiser, not so much. I think it’s time for a refit … of the top-secret variety.”

“Sir, we’re getting an incoming message,” said the communications officer.

“Troclus Command?”

“No, Sir, it’s from … planet Infantus. It just says … ‘We can help you with that.’”

“So this is what we’ve got, Mr. Raalkor,” said Edward.

On his tablet, Raalkor read through the folder of data Edward had just provided him. “Yes … interesting … you saw that too, huh? … nothing so far disagrees with anything we’ve got … Renni-Tu pirate captain, eh? … Right …” He was silent then for a few minutes as he continued reading. Then he put the tablet down and looked up. “Well, I suppose it’s probably all right for me to tell you that the attempt to apprehend the pirates failed.”

“We … already know that, actually,” Edward said.

“You do? How?” Raalkor asked.

“I’m … well, I was going to tell you that I’m not at liberty to say, but the fact is that I’m not sure,” said Edward. “We got word from back home. I don’t know how they found out already. We’ve got our ways, I suppose, though I’m not certain how they work.”

“Well … fair enough, I suppose,” said Raalkor. “Yes, I’m sure Troclus has spies, but it’s not as if I know what they’re up to. I’m not a diplomat, though.”

“Not for the Troclian government, but for the Consortium,” said Edward.

“I suppose. Here are a few things we’ve found out that weren’t in your data,” said Raalkor, handing Edward a data chip, which he scanned into a reader. Holding the transparent plate of nanoprinted flexglass in front of him, Edward scrolled through the text, images, and holos.

“You found a possible courier,” said Edward. “Gueral sent something to Memory Sigma Prime.”

“Probably,” Raalkor said. “And we don’t know what was in that package. We have sketchy evidence, but no proof, and it’s not as if it’s illegal for him to buy Selena Fruit or to send it wherever he wants after he’s bought it.”

“And sensors show a visitor landed at his estate … directly from space,” Edward said.

“Yes, he’s got a private landing strip,” said Raalkor. “But there’s no record of any authorized landing or takeoff registered with Planetary Traffic Control. This is a flagrant violation of airspace regulations. But all we have is a blip on some weather detectors, no visual evidence. It was the dead of night. They flew with no lights and avoided all the regular detectors for spacecraft.”

“Could’ve been a pirate representative,” Edward surmised. “Or … anything, really.”

“Well,” said Raalkor, “from the little data we do have, their trajectory was exactly what it would’ve had to be in order to avoid the spacecraft detectors. And they would’ve had to slow down from orbital velocity just so, in order to follow the right approach path -- and reverse it exactly to return to space. That pilot was crazy good and knew exactly what to do.”

“It’s not conclusive, in other words,” said Edward, “just suggestive.”

“Exactly.” Raalkor didn’t look overjoyed.

“I have some good news, though it’s not something we can announce publicly,” said Edward. “The Troclian Navy is going to get some … help. From … very good sources. Somebody’s pulling some strings back home. They really want those pirates captured.”

“What?” asked Raalkor. “From where?”

“Someone … who knows a lot about warfare,” Edward said enigmatically.

A massive NR anomaly formed. From within its powerful warpage of reality emerged a huge, gracefully designed, and massively armed unmarked ship. It moved through planier normal space at a remarkable portion of relativistic speed and it dove into the heart of a nearby nebula.

The Renni-Tu owned and controlled this portion of space and the Pirate captain was sure he could find safe haven here. No sooner than the ship fully exited the NR gate, than another sort of ambush happened.

No one on board the Pirate vessel had ever seen these kinds of teardrop shaped fighters. They were not only more nimble than anything the Renni-Tu Pirate had ever seen, all the weapons fire seemed to hit the bulbous front of the teardrop craft and did no damage. It swallowed everything he could throw at it.

The pirates launched their own fighters from the fighter bays that weren’t already damaged beyond usefulness, but these adversaries now focused on the fighters, assailing them with ruthless determination and stopping only when they were melted to slag or at least dead in space. And that was when the Troclian Super Dreadnought emerged from NR space right behind the squadron of teardrop-shaped horrors.

At least this was a known quantity. The huge ship was larger than the pirates’ cruiser, but the cruiser had a lot of tricks, and the pirates knew what sort of weapons and power limits to expect from a Troclian vessel. Except then the Super Dreadnought started launching some sort of drifting devices that glowed with a cold blue light and quickly moved to surround the pirate cruiser like a frozen swarm of bees. And its guns started emitting pulses of quickly shifting energy, flashing from red to violet and disappearing into invisible ultraviolet again as hull contact alarms rang out from all over the ship.

Meanwhile, the teardrop-shaped fighters harried every pirate gun emplacement and launch bay. There was nothing in the data banks about such fighters except for some very old legends about a planet of death that no one had approached and lived. Frequency-sweep beams, especially of this intensity, were so power expensive that even a Troclian Super Dreadnought shouldn’t be able to keep up this rate of fire for long, but there it was, doing just that. Neither the pirate captain nor his crew had any idea how this was happening, but they were losing.

The teardrop ships seemed to be totally immune to any and all weapons fire as they danced, swung, and pirouetted around all the fighters the pirate Dreadnaught had managed to launch. The mysterious teardrop craft destroyed many of the pirate fighters, only to turn and fire their weapons against the main ship seemingly in the same graceful manner.

The Renni-Tu captain felt the very first tingle of real concern he had ever had. Something was wrong about all this. He knew that a Troclian Super Dreadnought was powerful, but he also knew there had to be some new power source behind it.

He didn’t have time to ponder this as many hull breach alarms went off. An emergency klaxxon began sounding as the computer’s voice announce, “Hull breach on all decks. Unknown forces invading vessel. Internal defenses activating.”

The Captain knew, now was time to show those puny humanoids what it meant to be a Renni-Tu warrior. He stood and removed his cloak. All the bridge crew gasped in shock. None, but the first mate, had truly known what he was, they had only suspected. Actually seeing one of the most feared warriors in the cosmos was their captain was shocking.

The natural armored scales glistened for an instant before he seemingly turned transparent and vanished from sight. It was true, the Renni-Tu had chameleon properties.

“Sir, they’ve launched an escape pod,” said the tactical officer.

“Move to capture,” Captain Aleet said immediately.

“Wait … Sir, the pod is uninhabited. No life signs. No bombs or weapons either.”

“Belay that,” the captain corrected himself. “Probably a trick.”

“Boarding parties have cleared 20% of the ship’s habitable volume, Sir.”

“Keep me updated, Lieutenant Ghamaal,” said the captain.

The engineering officer said, “Enemy engines … 12 hours away from functioning, I estimate. Enemy guns 4 hours from functioning at best. Enemy fighter bays 8 hours from repair at best.”

“Thank you, Ms. Olara,” said Captain Aleet. “Is there any sign of a repair effort?”

“Negative,” said Ghamaal. “All scans indicate they’re preparing to repel our boarding parties.”

“Sir, fighter squadrons are reporting that ship-to-ship operations have ended,” said the communications officer.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Yurii,” said the captain. “Thank them for their assistance -- I had no idea the Infantians had such powerful allies.” He paused. “I only wish I knew where they came from,” he added to himself quietly.

Specialist Olara said, “Their help and the extra fusion reactors we installed really turned the tide. There’s no room for extra crew or supplies, but we definitely achieved our goal of refitting for excessive firepower.”

“Seems to have worked,” said the captain. “Send out crews to capture any survivors for questioning. How are the boarding parties doing?”

“40% of the ship’s habitable volume has been searched and cleared, Sir,” said Ghamaal, looking at the tactical readouts. The Infantians’ allies are apparently remarkable at hand-to-hand combat as well.”

Whoever they were, the Infantians’ allies were large and muscular, both males and females. They wore black uniforms with dark purple and blood-red highlights and wielded large energy sidearms and some form of shield weapon. When pirates emerged from a hatch to attack, these fighters would simply raise their shield arms, flickering with blue, to block the blaster shots that they somehow anticipated were coming, and at the same time fire back with astonishing speed and accuracy, rushing forward as they did so and knocking aside the fallen bodies with those energy shields. They worked as a team with obviously practiced efficiency. The Troclian security forces were astonished at this display of confident, experienced skill. They whispered to each other that they wouldn’t want to be on these soldiers’ bad side.

Without any warning, a section of the hall seemed to come alive with a loud nasty growl. Something that appeared to be part of the paneling jumped into the middle of the advancing warriors. All those who were there saw was the flash and sparkle of some kind of claws as the slashed through several of the Large Energy shields amid showers of sparks and fury.

Four of the warriors in black seemingly fell apart in a shower of gore and fire. The leader of the group shouted, “It’s him! Orders are to take him alive if possible. If not, then take his essence and we will use the soulstone to return him for trial.”

As the soldiers with rapid trained grace and efficiency changed their formation, they also brought to bear a different type of weapon. Even thus, the lone, seemingly invisible warrior was as fierce and deadly as the ones he attacked with great efficiency until the mercenaries in black finished their new formation.

A massive retaliatory strike from some sort of rods each held in their hands, formed a sparkling crystal of some sort around the shimmering image of the Renni-Tu captain, with his razor-sharp claws only thing clearly visible.

“Nnnnnnoooooo,” his rasping voice said. “Yyyyyouuu cannnnn’tttt …” He then fell silent, seemingly unable to move, with eight of the strange weapons pointed at him and a transparent crystal forming around him. When the white light from the weapons ceased, the pirate captain was encased in a single large crystal, clear as glass, but with edges glowing with a white light.

One of the Troclian fighters quickly set up a grav sled and slid it under the crystal, towing it away, as the black-clad mercenaries covered the withdrawal. “Objective acquired,” said one Troclian marine to their ship. “Returning to ship.”

Edward was speaking to Raalkor, this time in a secure room in the Mining Consortium’s office building. “So, the pirate captain hasn’t revealed anything yet?” he asked.

“No!” said Raalkor with obvious frustration. “I just know Guiral hired him. I can feel it in my bones. But I have no proof.”

“I … have an idea,” Edward said. “It’s an expensive idea. But again, we can help.”

“Anything,” said Raalkor, “I’ll try anything at this point.”

“The Selena Fruit,” Edward said. “For a time after it’s initially ingested, it causes a mental regression. You’ll have to ask him quickly, or he’ll temporarily forget being hired at all. But briefly he’ll be basically free of inhibition. Record what he says. Have pictures of Guiral’s estate to show him.”

“If it’ll work … but that stuff’s expensive.” Raalkor’s forehead wrinkled with concern.

“That’s why I’ve brought one,” Edward said. He opened his briefcase and took out a flat package. “Pre-sliced, in a refrigerated container.” He set the flat metallic box on the table in front of Raalkor. “It’s a suggestion from back home. They seem to think it likely that he’s had this before. He may be susceptible to its … sensations.”

“Hey, it’s worth a try,” Raalkor said. “If it doesn’t work … we’re no worse off than we are now.”

The Renni-Tu sat in the energy cell and fumed. He couldn’t believe there had been a warrior more mighty than he. His many burns and tended to wounds proved that. The door slid open and the Captain jumped immediately in a very cat-like graceful attack with all his claws out, to no avail.

What he ran into was nothing like he had ever encountered before. It surrounded and sort of absorbed him. He knew the flavor of the thing forced into his mouth. Immediately he began to feel the fruit begin regressing him. The sensations were indescribable, just as before, and part of him resisted while another part of him longed for them.

In the midst of this he saw … a great mansion, by night. “Have you ever been here?” asked a voice.

“I wwwillllll tttelllll yyyyouuuu nnnnothhhhinggggg!” he tried to say, but he heard his voice babble out, “Thhhatttt … thhhatttt’sssss thhhhe pllllacccce wherrrrre I wwwwennnnnttt tttto mmmeettttt thhhhe mmmmannnn.”

“What did the man tell you he wanted you to do?” asked the voice.

His fading will told himself to stop, to stay quiet, but he said, “Tttttooooo atttackkkk thhhhe shhhhhip annnnd sssssteallll itssssss carrrrrgoooo … thhhhhe niccccce frrrrruittttsssss … butttt ttttryyyy nnnnotttt tooooo killlll …”

“You’re sure it was this house?” asked the voice again.

“Thhhhatttt housssssse … ssssooooo hhhharrrrrd tooo llllannnnnd … avvvvvoid thhhhe sssssenssssorsssss …”

“Thank you,” said the voice. “Enjoy your fruit.”

The Renni-Tu pirate was enjoying it. It was difficult to tell, but if they could have read his thoughts, he was happily reliving his early childhood now, far from the fearsome pirate he had become.

In a very wealthy part of town in a remote corner of the park, many hover cars of police arrived with all their lights flashing and surrounded one of the large estate houses.

One of the officers pulled some kind of device from a pouch on his side and wrapped it around his neck. He held it to his throat with thumb and forefinger. His voice boomed loudly, “This is the City Enforcers. Surrender peacefully. We know you’re in there, and we have a warrant for your apprehension for conspiracy, theft, and piracy.”

Within the large estate house, Thaddeus Gueral fretted. His security cameras told the story. His entire house had been completely surrounded. His only choices were to engage the house defense systems, which would result in the deaths of several Enforcers and a death sentence for him if he was caught … or surrender, which amounted to his spending several lifetimes in stasis lockdown. Neither sounded appealing at the moment.

Fortunately he didn’t have to make the choice. There was a flash … and suddenly he found himself in another room of his house, sitting in a comfortable chair. In another chair across the room, there was a woman asking him, “Thaddeus Gueral, how are you feeling? Do you feel well enough to talk?”

Confused, he asked, “Who’s asking? And what happened?”

“I’m Jilea Harrad, an attorney from Poolian and Roush, the law firm you pay to represent you,” she said. “As for what happened, apparently they used a whole-house stasis field to get everyone in the house, then narrowed it down to just you. New technology, I suppose. There’s still a question about its legality, and we’ll evaluate whether to use that question in your defense.”

“I’m … not under arrest?” he asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Harrad. “Of course you are. You’re under house arrest. The tracking device has already been implanted. Wherever you go, you’ll have an Enforcers escort, and all your communications will be monitored. Your home’s security system has been deactivated, of course, since the premises are under constant guard by the City Enforcers. We wouldn’t want your systems to pose a threat to any of their lives. We really don’t -- my firm worked hard to get you house arrest instead of jail. Any attempt to evade house arrest is going to make it easier for them to put you in the Detention Center, and it’ll make defending you a lot harder when your case goes to court ...”

“So it turns out Space Traffic Control really doesn’t like it when people evade their sensors,” said Raalkor, talking to Edward, Pauly, and Miri in the Infantian Embassy. “After a few sneak drone bombings a couple centuries ago on the planet Harwell, most worlds made their laws about such things really harsh.”

“Gueral could’ve just traveled off-planet to arrange this,” said Pauly. “I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I -- why he did it this way is anyone’s guess,” Raalkor said with a shrug. “Maybe he didn’t want anyone to even suspect he was having shady dealings with anyone off-world.”

“Meanwhile, the next shipment of Selena Fruit has gotten here without a hitch,” said Edward. “All because we captured that pirate captain -- and it was Miri’s idea to use the fruit on him.”

“I good girl?” Miri asked, blushing.

“Very good,” Edward said, hugging her with a smile. “It looks like Infantus is going to be getting a constant supply of the iridium it needs for industry.” He left out “the Nanabot industry,” because he’d been instructed not to mention that detail unless it specifically came up. “And I think working closely with Troclus on this matter has helped cement the diplomatic relationship between our two worlds.”

After the meeting, Edward felt it as Miri wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. He began to feel a real upwelling within his heart over this Babydoll. She was smart, very bright, very pretty, and one of the most adorable creatures he had ever met. Edward knew Infantian Babydolls married and had families. He had memories of his family before he moved out and into the comunal nursery complex before he got this job.

Edward said softly, “Miri … I … ummm … I mean … umm.”

Miri giggled as she took Edward’s hand, “Sok Eddie. Sometimesa baby no can say what they wanna say.’

Edward replied, “But, I’m not a baby anymore.”

Miri giggled adorably before she kissed Edward on his cheek, “Nopes … but ur notta dult neviers.” Then she bounded off through the office door in a toddling skipping way.

Edward just didn’t know what to do. If these emotions grew any stronger they would start to become a real distraction. A red light came on on his desk as an annoying buzzer began to sound temporarily taking his mind off of that issue.

A voice over the comm on his desk said, “Hurry, Ambassador, the new shipment has arrived and you are required to be at the docks as the containers are offloaded.”

Miri arrived back in the office just in time to take Edward’s hand as both of them left to the grav-car storage.

“Me so happy see you Eddie,” said Miri with a smile. “We go look at the space boats?”

“Yes we will,” said Edward with a smile. “And … I’m very happy to see you too, Miri.” He blushed.

They talked about the adorable things that Infantians talk about on the way to the docks -- who would win the upcoming World Cuteness Pageant in the various divisions, which team looked likely to take the Distracted Puffball Cup, the most popular holovids on Infantus and which planets they came from, and so forth. Viewing the shipment was really just a formality -- the data was all there on the tablets; they just needed witnesses to make sure that the cargo was really there when they opened the containers.

On the way back to the embassy, they were again alone together in the back of the hoverlimousine. “Miri,” said Edward, “I’m … there’s no other way to say it.” He blushed brightly as he admitted, “I’m deeply in love with you.”

“Oh Eddie!” she said, jumping up and putting both arms around him. “Me love you so much! It so hard not to kiss you all over your face alla time!”

Edward laughed with joy. “We … can’t go on like this, though,” he said. “There’s only one way I can think of to fix it. Miri … will you marry me?”

Miri’s eyes grew big with surprise as she gaped, “Does you means it? For really real?”

Willam nodded his head as he replied softly, “I do.” then smiled.

Miri screeched for joy as she wrapped her arms around his neck and they kissed a real kiss for the first time. The limo driver saw what was happening in the back and pressed the privacy button on the dash. The panes in the back polarized in such a way, they could see out, but no one could see in.

When they arrived back at the embassy, things were in a total uproar. Edward and Miri were immediately taken in charge by Embassy security and taken to a safe room where they could be guarded.

Edward asked the lead guard, “What’s going on? Why are we being held this way?”

The guard replied, “You aren’t being held, sir, you and all your staff are being protected.”

Edwards face took on an expression of total surprise, “Protected from whom?”

The guard looked Edward over for an instant before he replied, “It is known and been broadcast over the newswaves that you were instrumental in capturing a pirate captain who turned out to be a Renni-Tu.” The man handed Edward a tablet, “It appears more than one Renni-Tu was part of the crew, only they weren’t on that ship that was captured.”

Edward read what was contained in the file stored on the tablet. His mouth fell open in shock as he read the threat … that came directly form several of the most feared warriors .. and they were rogue ones at that.

Edward said with authority, “I need a comm channel open to Infantus immediately. “

The guard asked, “Why the homeworld?”

Edward replied, “I have a contact I need to speak with as soon as I possibly can.”

The guard motioned one of the others by the door and sent him to bring in a comm unit so Edward could make his call.

“I scareded,” said Miri. “Renni-Tu are … scary.”

“They’re among the most ferocious fighters in the known galaxy,” said Edward, nodding. “And they’re masters of stealth, too. But the thing is, most of them are warriors of honor. The ones that take to piracy are outcasts among their people. The honorable ones make their presence known before they attack, because striking from stealth is dishonorable. Their chameleon-like blending ability, though, means that the other ones can even be in the same room with you and you wouldn’t know it.”

“I know,” Miri said. “Scaryyyy …” She looked around nervously.

Their guard said, “Don’t worry, kid, I don’t think there are any of them in here.”

“How long are we going to be here, anyway?” Edward asked.

The guard replied, “The rest of the team is sweeping the embassy with instruments. They’ll find anything with a heartbeat. All entrances and exits are sealed. What’s more, we’re not even sure they’re targeting you. As far as the media knows, the Troclus Space Navy are the ones who captured that pirate captain. Anyone who looks deeper into the story will see that the Mining Consortium had an interest in it, and there were some mysterious mercenaries who helped out. I guess some might read into it and see that Infantus benefited from the capture, and that’s why we’re here as a precaution, but I doubt any renegade Renni-Tu would be here.”

The guard’s comm tapped, and a voice from it said, “We’re done. All clear.”

“See?” said the guard. “They didn’t find anything. So let’s carefully move to somewhere more comfortable. Any suggestions?”

“Well, how about the dining area?” Edward asked. “I’m kind of hungry.”

“Me too,” said Miri.

“OK, let’s head that way,” he said. “Escorting the Ambassador and his companion to the dining area,” he said into his shoulder comm.

They turned a corner and found themselves face-to-face with a very real Renni-Tu. Its golden armor gleamed, and its golden eyes looked at them steadily.

“What the --?” shouted the guard, reaching for his weapon.

“Don’t,” said Edward. “The ones you can see aren’t the problem.”

The guard drew his gun anyway. Faster than the eye could see, the Renni-Tu knocked it out of his grasp and sent it spinning across the floor, then returned to its former combat-ready pose.

“H-hey!” said the guard. “Y-you -- it --”

“Knocked away your gun and didn’t harm you,” Edward said. “That’s proof that he’s not interested in hurting us. If he were, we’d all be dead now.”

Long tense minutes passed as the humans and the Renni-Tu warrior eyed each other menacingly. Finally the warrior relaxed and stood to his full height and retracted his fearsome claws.

It turned to Edward and bowed formally before it said softly in is saurian accent, “Weee seeend grreeeeettinnggsssssss. Weeee offfff the Renni-Tu have ssssssent a meeessssage to yooouuu. Our ssssearchh and capttuurrree team hasss good newss for youuu.” He handed over a small comm padd to Edward.

Edward tentatively took the padd and read over the data it contained. His eyes grew large as his mouth fell open in surprise.

Edward said with incredulity obvious in his voice, “You mean to tell me that all of the renegades have been captured?”

The warrior seemed to snarl as it showed a great many fangs and razor sharp teeth, “Weee of the Warrior Caste caaaannnottt havvveee one offff ourrr ownnnn asss a loossseee cannonnn. Weee have handdled the probbleem.”

With this, the warrior’s scales seemingly caught fire for a second before he faded from view and blended perfectly into his surroundings and was gone.

The Troclian guard stared at the spot where the Renni-Tu warrior had been for a moment with eyes as wide as saucers. Then he wordlessly went over and picked up his fallen sidearm and put it back in its holster. “I, uh, do you still want to go to th-the dining room?” he barely managed to ask.

“Yes, let’s go,” said Edward. “Are you OK, Miri?”

“Miri jus fine long as am wif you,” she said, looking back at Edward with a twinkle in her eyes.

They proceeded to the dining room, where a Nana helped Edward get Miri into a high chair and assisted in feeding her as Edward got a bite to eat as well. Another Nana offered the guard a high chair, but he politely declined and took an adult seat.

The security remained in a heightened state for about a week longer before Pauly suggested it was time to relax it to normal levels.There were still guards, but extra security details assigned to specific high-level staff members were called off. It seemed the Renni-Tu were as good as their word, and the non-Renni-Tu pirates didn’t seem inclined to pursue revenge. Most likely some other pirate had risen to fill the power vacuum, Edward and Raalkor surmised.

“So I thought I heard that you’ve set a wedding date?” asked Raalkor. They were relaxing in a lounge in the Embassy after a meeting.

“Yes, in four months’ time,” said Edward. “We’re planning to have the wedding back home on Infantus -- Miri wants a traditional Infantian wedding. But you’ll be invited, of course. We haven’t sent out invitations yet. Ever been to Infantus?”

“No, I haven’t,” said Raalkor. “I’m … intrigued by the thought of visiting. It must be an unusual place -- I mean, from the point of view of a typical person of Troclus. I’m sure it’s perfectly ordinary for natives.”

“It’s all in how you look at it,” Edward replied, sipping his drink. “Frankly, I wasn’t liking my life, on my own home planet, up until shortly before I was appointed Ambassador.”

“Really?” asked Raalkor, and Edward finally explained to him how he had been treated like a baby, as so many others were, until those in authority finally realized that he wasn’t one.

“You? A baby?” Raalkor marveled. “I … can’t picture it. Now that I’ve gotten to know you.”

“It wasn’t really who I was, not inside,” said Edward. “I’ve kept informed, and there are measures being taken to prevent that from happening in the future -- every citizen will get regular psych evaluations starting from an early age to determine whether they have any dysphoria with their envisioned role in Infantus society. We want babies who truly want to be babies, and if people want to have a young child role instead, or even a pre-teen or teenage role, we want them to have that. And, of course, some are adults. Not to mention those who aren’t comfortable with their gender roles -- we want everyone to be in a role they’re happy in. But all are valued.”

Time passed as it has a habit of doing and the wedding day for Edward and Miri had finally arrived. Miri was a precious as she could be in her Princess wedding dress and veil. Edward looked as handsome as any dressed in the Tuxedo that had been provided by none other that Persephone herself.

There were many Delegates from the Renni-Tu commonwealth, the Troclian ruling council, and of course the Infantian Ruling Council. When the fanfare had come to an end, and Edward and Miri were center stage holding hands and smiling brightly at each other, a blue/white flash lit up the entire decorated area. Persephone had arrived dressed in her finest goddess outfit, spun by the hands of many magical beings.

She raised her arms and said with a joyous tone, “Welcome all. We are gathered here on this fine day to join these two in matrimony …”

~~ Another Wonderful Beginning to Another Story ~~
Miki Yamuri
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Joined: Mon Jun 23, 2014 3:06 pm

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