Chapter Twelve

It took no more than three days in the presence of Elfride Margarete Butre for Hugh Arai to figure out how the woman had managed to keep her clan together for half a century, in the face of tremendous adversity. Not just intact, either, but reasonably healthy and well-educated — so long as you were prepared to allow that “well-educated” was a broad enough phrase to include very uneven knowledge, eccentric methods of training, and wildly imbalanced fields of study.

Ganny El’s clan were probably the best practical mechanics Hugh had ever encountered, for instance, but their grasp of the underlying theory of some of the machines they kept running was often fuzzy and sometimes bizarre. The first time Hugh had seen one of Butre’s many grand-nephews sprinkle what he called an “encouragement libation” over a machine he was about to repair, Hugh had been startled. But, some hours later, after the mechanic finished with the ensuing work, the machine came back to life and ran as smoothly as you could ask for. And however superstitious the notion of an “encouragement libation” might be, Hugh hadn’t missed the underlying practicality. The “libation” was actually some homemade alcoholic brew that hadn’t turned out too well. Unfit for human consumption, even by the Butre clan’s none-too-finicky standards, the fluid had been set aside for the “encouragement” of cranky machinery.

Hugh had asked the nephew — Andrew Artlett was his name — whether the “encouragement” was because the machine viewed the rotgut liquor as a treat or because it was an implied threat of still worse liquids should the machine remain recalcitrant. Artlett’s snorted reply had been: “How the hell am I supposed to know what a machine thinks? It’s just a lot of metal and plastic and such, you know. No brains at all. But the libation works, it surely does.”

Ganny Butre would have made a pretty good empress, Hugh thought, if one given to some odd quirks. She’d have made a pretty good tyrant, for that matter, except she had an affectionate streak about a kilometer wide.

There wasn’t any sigh of that affection right now, though.

“– still don’t see why you” — here came a word Hugh didn’t know, but it didn’t sound affectionate at all — “can’t just go on your way and leave us alone. It’s not like we asked you to come here. What happened to respect for property rights?”

“Parmley Station hasn’t really been your property for a long time, Ganny,” Hugh said mildly, “and you know it as well as I do. If we just leave, it won’t be more than six or eight months — a year, tops — before another gang of slavers has set up shop here and you have to accommodate them. Whether you like it or not.”

Butre glared at him. It was an impressive glare, too, for all that it came from a woman not much more than a hundred and forty centimeters tall. What made the glare all the more impressive was that, somehow, Butre managed to convey the sense that she was a tough old biddy despite — going simply by her physical appearance — looking like a woman no older than her late thirties or very early (and well preserved) forties.

That was the effect of prolong, of course. First generation prolong, that was, which stopped the physical aging cycle at a considerably later stage than the more recent therapies. Hugh knew that Butre’s own family had been quite wealthy to begin with and her husband Richard Parmley had made his first fortune as a young man. So, even with the expense involved in those early days of the treatment, they’d been able to afford prolong for themselves and their immediate offspring.

But after her husband’s last financial debacle — it had been the third or fourth in his career, Hugh wasn’t sure which — and the long isolation of Butre’s clan here on Parmley Station . . .

For all that it was generally a blessing, prolong could sometimes produce real tragedies. And Hugh knew he was looking at one, right here — with quite possibly a still greater tragedy in the making.

Ganny El, the matriarch of the clan, would live for centuries. So would the two dozen or so relatives on the station who were her siblings, cousins or children, and who’d gotten the treatments before the clan fell on hard times. But the next generation in the clan, people of an age with Ganny’s great-nephew Andrew Artlett — there were at least three dozen of them — were simply going to be a lost generation, as far as prolong was concerned. Even if the clan could suddenly afford the treatments, they were already too old. Their parents — even their grandparents — faced the horror that they’d outlive their own offspring.

And the same fate would fall on the next generation, if the clan’s fortunes didn’t improve. And they had to improve drastically, and most of all, quickly. People like Sarah Armstrong and Michael Alsobrook were already into their twenties, and twenty-five years of age was generally considered the outside limit for starting prolong treatments.

If there was no real sign of Butre’s age in her face, there was in her eyes. Those weren’t the eyes of a young woman, for sure. They were colored a green so dark they were almost black, and when Ganny was in a temper they looked more like agates or pieces of obsidian than human eyes.

Hugh had gotten to know her fairly well over the past several days, though, and he didn’t think Butre was really in a temper today. She was just putting on a act. A very well-done performance, true — she’d have made as good an actress as an empress — but still a performance. There was a practical streak in the woman that was even wider than affection, and a lot harder than any mineral. If Butre hadn’t been able to accept reality for what it was, her clan never would have survived at all. As it was, at least within the limits given, you could even say they’d prospered.

A very scruffy sort of prosperity, granted, and one that couldn’t afford anything like prolong. But the absence of prolong had been the standard condition of the human race throughout its existence until very recently. All Hugh had to do was look at the little mob of enthusiastic and self-confident great-great-nephews and nieces who were always in attendance on Ganny to recognize that these were hardly people who’d been beaten down by hardships. Some of them, like Brice Miller and his friends, carried that self-confidence into outright brashness.

“– so fine,” she concluded the little tirade she’d been on. “I can see that you’re not giving me any choice. You” — here came another word in a language Hugh didn’t know. It sounded like a different language altogether than the one from which she’d extracted a curse just a couple of minutes earlier. Ganny was an accomplished linguist, among her other skills. Hugh was a good linguist himself, but Butre was in a different league altogether.

“You’re always welcome to cuss me in a language I know, Ganny,” said Hugh. “I’m really not thin-skinned.”

“No kidding. You’re a troll.”

She went back to glaring, but now at some of her great-great-grandchildren. “There’s no way I’m letting anyone else except me dicker with the Ballroom. If the murderous bastards are going to kill anyone, they can kill an old woman. And her most problematic offspring.”

Her little forefinger started jabbing at the crowd. “Andrew, you’re coming. So are you, Sarah and Michael.”

The finger moved on to point to a pleasant-looking young woman named Oddny Ann Rødne. She was the offspring of a marriage between one of the Butre clan’s women and an ex-slave who’d been freed in the first battle between the clan and the slavers, decades earlier. “Oddny, I’ll need a sane female to keep me from going batty myself. Stop pouting, Sarah, you’re already batty and you brag about it. And . . . ”

The finger moved on and settled on a tightly clustered trio. “You three, for sure, or there won’t be a station left when I get back.”

Hugh did his best not to wince. Brice Miller, Ed Hartman and James Lewis were not people he’d have chosen to include on a chancy mission to negotiate with the galaxy’s most notorious assassins. Less than a day after making their acquaintance, Marti Garner had bestowed upon them the monicker of “the three teenagers of the Apocalypse.” Nor would Hugh have included Andrew Artlett, whom Marti had singled out as the missing fourth disaster.

Apparently, Butre was confident enough that she’d been able to cut a deal with the Ballroom that she was more concerned with removing the most rambunctious members of her clan from whatever havoc they could wreak in her absence, than she was about how Jeremy X would react to them. Although . . .