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Trunk and Disorderly
by Charles Stross

Charles Stross has been in rehab since 2004, recovering from the bad attack of singularitis that led to the Acceler-ando outbreak. His doctors report that he is much improved since the excision of his dot-com gland, and may eventually be capable of writing normal SF again, under suitably controlled circumstances, although he is unlikely ever to return to his previous proto-Ballardian normality. The following story was discovered cunningly encoded in a scarf he was crocheting at the clinic; we believe it may cast some light on his illness.
 

 

1. In Which Laura Departs and Fiona Makes a Request

“I want you to know, darling, that I’m leaving you for another sex robot—and she’s twice the man you’ll ever be,” Laura explained as she flounced over to the front door, wafting an alluring aroma of mineral oil behind her.

Our arguments always began like that: this one was following the script perfectly. I followed her into the hall, unsure precisely what cue I’d missed this time. “Laura—”

She stopped abruptly, a faint whine coming from her ornately sculpted left knee. “I’m leaving,” she told me, deliberately pitching her voice in a modish mechanical monotone. “You can’t stop me. You’re not paying my maintenance. I’m a free woman, and I don’t have to put up with your moods!”

The hell of it is, she was right. I’d been neglecting her lately, being overly preoccupied with my next autocremation attempt. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said. “But can we talk about this later? You don’t have to walk out right this instant—”

“There’s nothing to talk about.” She jerked into motion again, reaching for the door handle. “You’ve been ignoring me for months, darling: I’m sick of trying to get through to you! You said last time that you’d try not to be so distant, but look how that turned out.” She sighed and froze the pose for a moment, the personification of glittering mechanistic melodrama. “You didn’t mean it. I’m sick of waiting for you, Ralph! If you really loved me you’d face up to the fact that you’re an obsessive-compulsive, and get your wetware fixed so that you could pay me the attention I deserve. Until then, I’m out of here!”

The door opened. She spun on one chromed stiletto heel, and swept out of my life in a swish of antique Givenchy and ozone.

“Dash it all, not again!” I leaned my forehead against the wall. “Why now, of all times?” Picking a fight then leaving me right before a drop was one of her least endearing habits. This was the fifth time. She usually came back right afterward, when she was loose and lubed from witnessing me scrawl my butchness across the sky, but it never failed to make me feel like an absolute bounder at the time; it’s a low blow to strike a cove right before he tries to drill a hole in the desert at mach twenty-five, what? But you can’t take femmes for granted, whether they be squish or clankie, and her accusation wasn’t, I am bound to admit, entirely baseless.

I wandered into the parlor and stood between the gently rusting ancestral space suits, overcome by an unpleasant sense of aimless tension. I couldn’t decide whether I should go back to the simulator and practice my thermal curves again—balancing on a swaying meter-wide slab of ablative foam in the variable dynamic forces of atmospheric re-entry, a searing blow-torch flare of hot plasma surging past, bare centimeters beyond my helmet—or get steaming drunk. And I hate dilemmas; there’s something terribly non-U about having to actually think about things.

You can never get in too much practice before a freestyle competition, and I had seen enough clowns drill a scorched hole in the desert that I was under no illusions about my own invincibility, especially as this race was being held under mortal jeopardy rules. On the other hand, Laura’s walk-out had left me feeling unhinged and unbalanced, and I’m never able to concentrate effectively in that state. Maybe a long, hot bath and a bottle of sake would get me over it so I could practice later; but tonight was the pre-drop competitors’ dinner. The club prefers members to get their crashing and burning done before the race—something to do with minimizing our third-party insurance premium, I gather—so it’s fried snacks all round, then a serving of rare sirloin, and barely a drop of the old firewater all night. So I was perched on the horns of an acute dilemma —to tipple or topple as it were—when the room phone cleared its throat obtrusively.

“Ralph? Ralphie? Are you all right?”

I didn’t need the screen to tell me it was Fiona, my half-sister. Typical of her to call at a time like this. “Yes,” I said wearily.

“You don’t sound it!” she said brightly. Fi thinks that negative emotions are an indicator of felonious intent.

“Laura just walked out on me again and I’ve got a drop coming up tomorrow,” I moaned.

“Oh Ralphie, stop angsting! She’ll be back in a week when she’s run the script. You worry too much about her, she can look after herself. I was calling to ask, are you going to be around next week? I’ve been invited to a party Geraldine Ho is throwing for the downhill cross-country skiing season on Olympus Mons, but my house-sitter phoned in pregnant unexpectedly and my herpetologist is having another sex change so I was just hoping you’d be able to look after Jeremy for me while I’m gone, just for a couple of days or maybe a week or two—”

Jeremy was Fiona’s pet dwarf mammoth, an orange-brown knee-high bundle of hairy malevolence. Last time I’d looked after Jeremy he puked in my bed—under the duvet—while Laura and I were hosting a formal orgy for the Tsarevitch of Ceres, who was traveling incognito to the inner system because of some boring edict by the Orthodox Patriarch condemning the fleshpits of Venus. Then there’s the time Jeremy got at the port, then went on the rampage and ate Cousin Branwyn’s favorite skirt when we took him to Landsdown Palace for a weekend with Fuffy Morgan, even though we’d locked him in one of the old guard towers with a supply of whatever it is that dwarf mammoths are supposed to eat. You really can’t take him anywhere—he’s a revolting beast. Not to mention an alcoholic one.

“Must I?” I asked.

“Don’t whine!” Fi said brightly. “Nobody will ever take you seriously if you whine, Ralphie. Anyway, you owe me a favor. Several favors, actually. If I hadn’t covered up for you that time when Boris Oblomov and you got drunk and took Uncle Featherstonehaugh’s yacht out for a spin around the moon without checking the anti-matter reserve in the starboard gravity polarizer. . . .”

“Yes, Fi,” I said wearily, when she finally let me get a word in edge-ways: “I surrender. I’ll take Jeremy. But I don’t promise I’ll be able to look after him if I die on the drop. You realize it’s under mortal jeopardy rules? And I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to protect him from Laura if she shows up again running that bestiality mod your idiot pal Larry thought it would be a good idea to install on her when she was high on pink noise that time—”

“That’s enough about Larry,” Fi said in a voice dripping liquid helium. “You know I’m not walking out with him any more. You’ll look after Jeremy for two weeks and that’s enough for me. He’s been a little sulky lately but I’m sure you’d know all about that. I’ll make certain he’s backed up first, then I’ll drop him off on my way to São Paolo skyport, right?”

“What ho,” I said dispiritedly, and put the phone down. Then I snapped my fingers for a chair, sat down, and held my head in my hands for a while. My sister was making a backup of her mammoth’s twisted little psyche to ensure Jeremy stayed available for future torments: nevertheless she wouldn’t forgive me if I killed the brute. Femmes! U or non-U, they’re equally demanding. The chair whimpered unhappily as it massaged my tensed-up spine and shoulders, but there was no escaping the fact that I was stressed-out. Tomorrow was clearly going to be one of those days, and I hadn’t even scheduled the traditional post-drop drink with the boys yet. . . .

2. The New Butler Calls

I was lying on the bottom of the swimming pool in the conservatory at the back of Chateau Pookie, breathing alcohol-infused air through a hose and feeling sorry for myself, when the new butler found me. At least, I think that’s what I was doing. I was pretty far-gone, conflicted between the need to practice my hypersonic p-waggling before the drop and the urge to drink Laura’s absence out of my system. All I remember is a vague rippling blue curtain of sunlight on scrolled ironwork—the ceiling—and then a huge stark shadow looming over me, talking in the voice of polite authority.

“Good afternoon, Sir. According to the diary, Sir is supposed to be receiving his sister’s mammoth in the front parlor in approximately twenty minutes. Would Sir care to be sober for the occasion? And what suit should Sir like to wear?”

This was about four more sirs than I could take lying down. “Nnngk gurgle,” I said, sitting up unsteadily. The breather tube wasn’t designed for speech. Choking, I spat it out. “M’gosh and please excuse me, but who the hell are you?”

“Alison Feng.” She bowed stiffly, from the waist. “The agency sent me, to replace your last, ah, man.” She was dressed in the stark black and white of a butler, and she did indeed have the voice—some very expensive training, not to mention discreet laryngeal engineering, went into producing that accent of polite condescension, the steering graces that could direct even the richest and most irritable employer in directions less conducive to their social embarrassment. But—

“You’re my new butler?” I managed to choke out.

“I believe so.” One chiseled eyebrow signaled her skepticism.

“Oh, oh jolly good, then, that squishie.” A thought, marinating in my sozzled subconscious, floated to the surface. “You, um, know why my last butler quit?”

“No, sir.” Her expression didn’t change. “In my experience it is best to approach one’s prospective employers with an open mind.”

“It was my sister’s mammoth’s fault,” I managed to say before a fit of coughing overcame me. “Listen, just take the bloody thing and see it’s locked in the number three guest dungeon, the one that’s fitted out for clankie doms. It can try’n destroy anything it bally likes in there, it won’t get very far an’ we can fix it later. Hic. Glue the door shut, or weld it or something—one of her boyfriends trained the thing to pick locks with its trunk. Got a sober-up?”

“Of course, sir.” She snapped her fingers, and blow me if there wasn’t one of those devilish red capsules balanced between her white-gloved digits.

“Ugh.” I took it and dry-swallowed, then hiccupped. “Fiona’s animal tamer’ll probably drop the monster off in the porch but I’d better get up’n’case sis shows.” I hiccupped again, acid indigestion clenching my stomach. “Urgh. Wossa invitation list for tonight?”

“Everything is perfectly under control,” my new butler said, a trifle patronizingly. “Now if Sir would care to step inside the dryer while I lay out his suit—”

I surrendered to the inevitable. After all, once you’ve accepted delivery of a dwarf mammoth on behalf of your sister nothing worse can happen to you all day, can it?

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Fiona’s chauffeuse did indeed deposit Jeremy, but on a schedule of her own choosing. She must have already been on the way as Fi was nattering on the blower. While Miss Feng was introducing herself, she was sneakily decanting the putrid proboscidean into the ornamental porch via her limousine’s airlock. She accomplished this with stealth and panache, and made a successful retreat, but not before she completed my sister’s act of domestic sabotage by removing the frilly pink restraining rope that was all that kept Jeremy from venting his spleen on everything within reach. Which he commenced to do all over great-uncle Arnold’s snooker table, which I was only looking after while he was out-system on business. It was the triumphant squeaking that clued me in that we had problems—normally Jeremy manages to achieve a preternaturally silent approach while he sneaks up on one with mischief in what passes for his mind—as I headed toward the stairs to my dressing room.

“Help me,” I said, gesturing at the porch, from which a duet for Hell’s piccolo and bull in a china shop was emanating.

The butler immediately rose in my estimation by producing a bolas. “Would this serve?” she asked.

“Yes. Only he’s a bit short for a mammoth—”

Too late. Miss Feng’s throw was targeted perfectly, and it would have succeeded if Jeremy had been built to the scale of a typical pachyderm. Alas, the whirling balls flew across the room and tangled in the chandelier while Jeremy, trumpeting and honking angrily, raised his tusks and charged at my kneecaps. “Oh dear,” said the new butler.

I blinked and began to move. I was too slow, the sober-up still fighting the residual effects of the alcohol in my blood. Jeremy veered toward me, tusks raised menacingly to threaten the old family jewels. I began to turn, and was just raising my arms to fend off the monster (who appeared dead-set on editing the family tree to the benefit of Fiona’s line) when Miss Feng leaned sideways and in one elegant gesture ripped the ancient lace curtains right off the rail and swiped them across my assailant’s tusks.

The next minute remains, mercifully, a confused blur. Somehow my butler and I mammoth-handled the kicking and struggling—not to mention squealing and secreting—Jeremy up the rear staircase and into the second best guest suite’s dungeon. Miss Feng braced herself against the door while I rushed dizzily to the parlor and returned with a tube of InstaSteel Bulkhead Bond, with which we reinforced the stout oak partition. Finally my stomach rebelled, quite outraged by the combination of sober-up and adrenaline, at which point Miss Feng diffidently suggested I proceed to the master bathroom and freshen up while she dealt with the porch, the pachyderm, and my suit in descending order of priorities.

By the time I’d cleaned up, Miss Feng had laid a freshly manufactured suit for me on the dresser. “I took the liberty of arranging for a limousine to your club, sir,” she said, almost apologetically. “It is approaching eighteen o’clock: one wouldn’t want to be late.”

“Eighteen—” I blinked. “Oh dear, that’s dashed awkward.”

“Indeed.” She watched me cautiously. “Ah, about the agency—”

I waved my hand dismissively. “If you can handle Jeremy I see no reason why you couldn’t also handle great-uncle Arnold when he gets back from Proxima Tau Herpes or wherever he’s gone. Not to mention the Dread Aunts, bless ’em. Assuming, that is, you want the job—”

Miss Feng inclined her head. “Certainly one is prepared to assume the role for the duration of the probationary period.” Sotto voce she added, almost too quietly for me to catch: “although continuing thereafter presupposed that one or both of us survives the experience. . . .”

“Well, I’m glad that’s sorted.” I sniffed. “I’d better trot! If you could see the snooker table goes for repair and look to the curtains, I’ll be off, what-what?”

“Indeed sir.” She nodded as if about to say something else, thought better of it, and then held the door open for me. “Good night, sir.”

 

3. The Dangerous Drop Club

I spent the evening at the Dangerous Drop Club, tackling a rather different variety of dangerous drop from the one I’d be confronting on the morrow. I knew perfectly well at the time that this was stupid (not to mention rash to the point of inviting the attention of the Dread Aunts, those intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic), but I confess I was so rattled by the combination of Laura’s departure, my new butler’s arrival, and the presence of the horrible beast in room two that for the life of me I simply couldn’t bring myself to engage in any activity more constructive than killing my own brain cells.

Boris Kaminski was present of course, boasting in a low-key manner about how he was going to win the race and buying everyone who mattered —the other competitors, in other words—as many drinks as they would accept. That was his prerogative, for, as the ancients would put it, there’s no prize for second place; he wasn’t the only one attempting to seduce his comrades into suicide through self-indulgence. “We fly tomorrow, chaps, and some of us might not be coming back! Crack open the vaults and sample the finest vintages. Otherwise you may never know. . . .” Boris always gets a bit like that before a drop, morbidly maudlin in a gloating kind of way. Besides, it’s a good excuse for draining the cellars, and Boris’s credit is good for it—“Kaminski” is not his real name but the name he uses when he wants to be a fabulously rich playboy with none of the headaches and anxieties that go with his rank. This evening he was attired in an outrageous outfit modeled on something Tsar Putin the First might have worn when presiding over an acid rave in the barbaric dark ages before the re-enlightenment. He’d probably found it in the back of his big brother’s wardrobe.

“We know you only want to get us drunk so you can take unfair advantage of us,” joshed Tolly Forsyth, raising his glass of Chateau !Kung, “but I say let’s drink a toast to you! Feet cold and bottoms down.”

“Glug glug,” buzzed Toadsworth, raising a glass with his telescoping sink-plunger thingie. Glasses were ceremoniously drained. (At least, that’s what I think he said—his English is rather sadly deficient, and one of the rules of the club is: no neural prostheses past the door. Which makes it a bit dashed hard when you’re dealing with fellows who can’t tell a fuck from a frappé I can tell you, like some high-bandwidth clankie heirs, but that’s what you get for missing out on a proper classical education, undead languages and all, say I.) Goblets were ceremonially drained in a libation to the forthcoming toast race.

“It’s perfectly all right to get me drunk,” said Marmaduke Bott, his monocle flashing with the ruby fire of antique stock-market ticker displays: “I’m sure I won’t win, anyway! I’m sitting this one out in the bleachers.”

“Drink is good,” agreed Edgestar Wolfblack, injecting some kind of hideously fulminating fluorocarbon lubricant into one of his six knees. Most of us in the club are squishies, but Toadsworth and Edgestar are both clankies. However, while the Toadster’s knobbly conical exterior conceals what’s left of his old squisher body, tucked decently away inside his eye-turret, Edgestar has gone the whole hog and uploaded himself into a ceramic exoskeleton with eight or nine highly specialized limbs. He looks like the bastard offspring of a multi-tool and a mangabot. “Carbon is the new—” his massively armored eyebrows furrowed—“black?” He’s a nice enough chappie and he went to the right school, but he was definitely at the back of the queue the day they were handing the cortical upgrades out.

“Another wee dram for me,” I requested, holding out my snifter for a passing bee-bot to vomit the nectar into. “I got a new butler today,” I confided. “Nearly blew it, though. Sis dumped her pet mammoth on me again and the butler had to clean up before I’d even had time to fool her into swearing the oath of allegiance.”

“How totally horrible,” Abdul said in a tone that prompted me to glance at him sharply. He smirked. “And how is dear Fiona doing this week? It’s ages since she last came to visit.”

“She said something about the Olympic skiing season, I think. And then she’s got a few ships to launch. Nothing very important aside from that, just the après ski salon circuit.” I yawned, trying desperately to look unimpressed. Abdul is perhaps the only member of the club who genuinely out-ranks Boris. Boris is constrained to use a nom de guerre because of his position as heir to the throne of all the Russias—at least, all the Russias that lie between Mars and Jupiter—but Abdul doesn’t even bother trying to disguise himself. He’s the younger brother of his Excellency the Most Spectacularly Important Emir of Mars, and when you’ve got that much clout you get to do whatever you want. Especially if it involves trying to modify the landscape at mach twenty rather than assassinating your elder siblings, the traditional sport of kings. Abdul is quite possibly certifiably insane, having graduated to orbital freestyle re-entry surfing by way of technical diving on Europa and naturist glacier climbing on Pluto—and he doesn’t even have my unfortunate neuroendocrine disorder as an excuse—but he’s a fundamentally sound chappie at heart.

“Hah. Well, we’ll just have to invite her along to the party afterward, won’t we?” He chuckled.

“Par-ty?” Toadsworth beeped up.

“Of course. It’ll be my hundredth drop, and I’m having a party.” Abdul smirked some more—he had a very knowing smirk—and sipped his eighty-year Inverteuchtie. “Everyone who survives is invited! Bottoms up, chaps?”

“Bottoms up,” I echoed, raising my glass. “Tally ho!”

 

 

4. The Sport of Kings

The day of the drop dawned bright and cold—at least it was bright and cold when I went out on the balcony beside the carport to suit up for my ride.

Somewhat to my surprise, Miss Feng was already up and waiting for me with a hot flask of coffee, a prophylactic sober-up, and a good-luck cigar. “Is this competition entirely safe, Sir?” she enquired as I chugged my espresso.

“Oh, absolutely not,” I reassured her: “but I’ll feel much better afterward! Nothing like realizing you’re millimeters away from flaming meteoritic death to get the old blood pumping, what?”

“One couldn’t say.” Miss Feng looked doubtful as she accepted the empty flask. “One’s normal response to incendiary situations that get the blood pumping is a wound dressing and an ambulance. Or to keep the employer from walking into the death trap in the first place. Ahem. I assume Sir intends to survive the experience?”

“That’s the idea.” I grinned like an idiot, feeling the familiar pulse of excitement. It takes a lot to drive off the black dog of depression, but dodging the bullet tends to send it to the kennels for a while. “By the way, if Laura calls could you tell her I’m dying heroically to defend her virtue or something? I’ll see her after—oh, that reminds me! Abdul al-Matsumoto has invited us—all the survivors, I mean—to a weekend party at his place on Mars. So if you could see that the gig is ready to leave after my drop as soon as I’ve dressed for dinner, and I don’t suppose you could make sure there’s a supply of food for the little monster, could you? If we leave him locked in the garret dungeon he can’t get into trouble, not beyond eating the curtains—”

Miss Feng cleared her throat and looked at me reproachfully. “Sir did promise his sister to look after the beast in person, didn’t he?”

I stared at her, somewhat taken aback. “Dash it all, are you implying. . . ?”

Miss Feng handed me my pre-emptive victory cigar. She continued, in a thoughtful tone of voice: “Has Sir considered that it might be in his best interests—should he value the good opinion of his sister—to bring Jeremy along? After all, Lady Fiona’s on Mars, too, even if she’s preoccupied with the après ski circuit. If by some mischance she were to visit the Emir’s palace and find Sir sans Jeremy it might be more than trivially embarrassing.”

“Dash it, you’re right. I suppose I’ll have to pack the bloody pachyderm, won’t I? What a bore. Will he fit in the trunk?”

Miss Feng sighed, very quietly. “I believe that may be a remote theoretical possibility. I shall endeavor to find out while Sir is enjoying himself not dying.”

“Try beer,” I called as I picked up my surfboard and climbed aboard the orbital delivery jitney. “Jeremy loves beer!” Miss Feng bowed as the door closed. I hope she doesn’t give him too much, I thought. Then the gravity squirrelizer chittered to itself angrily, decided it was on the wrong planet, and tried to rectify the situation in its own inimitable way. I lay back and waited for orbit. I wasn’t entirely certain of the wisdom of my proposed course of action—there are few predicaments as grim as facing a mammoth with a hangover across the breakfast table—but Miss Feng seemed like a competent sort, and I supposed I’d just have to trust her judgment. So I took a deep breath, waited another sixty seconds (until the alarm chimed), then opened the door and stepped off the running board over three hundred kilometers of hostile vacuum.

The drop went smoothly—as I suppose you guessed, or I wouldn’t be here to bend your ear with the story, what? The adrenaline rush of standing astride a ten centimeter thick surfboard as it bumps and vibrates furiously in the hypersonic air-flow, trying to throw you off into the blast-furnace tornado winds of re-entry, is absolutely indescribable. So is the sight of the circular horizon flattening and growing, coming up to batter at your feet with angry fists of plasma. Ah, what rhapsody! What delight! I haven’t got a poetic bone in my body, but when you tap into Toadsworth outside of the club-house’s suppressor field that’s the kind of narcotic drivel he’ll feed you. I think he’s a jolly good poet, for an obsessive-compulsive clankie with a staircase phobia and knobbly protrusions; but, at any rate, a more accurate description of competitive orbital re-entry diving I haven’t heard from anyone recently.

A drop doesn’t take long. The dangerous stage lasts maybe twenty minutes from start to finish, and only the last five minutes is hot. Then you slow to sub-sonic velocity and let go of your smoldering surfboard, and pray to your ancestors that your parachute is folded smartly, because it would be mortifying to have to be rescued by the referee’s skiff. Especially if they don’t get to you until after you complete your informal enquiry into lithobraking, eh?

There was a high overcast as I came hurtling in across Utah, and I think I might have accidentally zigged instead of zagging a little too firmly as I tried to see past a wall of cloud ahead and below me, because when my fireball finally dissipated I found myself skidding across the sky about fifty kilometers off course. This would be embarrassing enough on its own, but then my helmet helpfully highlighted three other competitors—Abdul among them!—who were much closer to the target zone. I will confess I muttered an unsportingly rude word at that juncture, but the game’s the thing and it isn’t over ’til it’s over.

In the end I touched down a mere thirty-three thousand meters off-base, and a couple of minutes later the referees ruled I was third on target. Perry O’Peary—who had been leading me—managed to make himself the toast of the match before he reached the tropopause by way of a dodgy ring seal on his left knee. Dashed bad play, that, but at least he died with his boots on—even if they were glowing red-hot and welded to his ankles.

I caught a lift the rest of the way to the drop base from one of the referee skiffs. As I tromped across the dusty desert floor in my smoldering armor, feeling fully alive for the first time in weeks, I found the party already in full swing. Abdul’s entourage, all wearing traditional kimonos and burnooses, had brought along a modified camel that widdled champagne in copious quantities. He held up a huge platinum pitcher: “Drinks are on me!” he yodeled as Tolly Forsyth and some rum cove of a Grand Vizier—Toshiro Ibn Cut-Throat, I think—hoisted him atop their shoulders and danced a victory mazurka.

“Jolly good show, old son!” I called, ditching my helmet and gloves gratefully and pouring a beaker of bubbly over my steaming head. “Bottoms up!”

“B’m’s up undeed!” Abdul sprayed camel flux everywhere in salute. He was well into the spirit of things, I could tell; indeed, the spirit of things was well into him.

Ibn Cut-Throat’s kid brother sidled up behind me. “If Ralphie-sama would care to accompany me to His Majesty’s Brother’s pleasure barge, we will be departing for Mars as soon as the rest of the guests arrive,” he intimated.

“Rest of the guests? Capital, capital!” I glanced round in search of my clankie doxy, but there was no sign of Laura. Which was dashed strange, for she’d normally be all over me by this point in the proceedings: my nearly being turned off in front of an audience usually turned her on like a knife-switch. “Who else is coming?”

“Lots of people.” Ibn Cut-Throat Junior looked furtive: “it’s a very big party, as befits the prince’s birthday. Did you know it was his birthday. . . ? It’s a theme party, of course, in honor of the adoptive ancestors of his ancient line, the house of Saud.”

Abdul al-Matsumoto is as much an authentic prince of Araby as I am a scion of the MacGregor, but that’s the price we all pay for being descended from the nouveau riche who survived the Great Downsizing hundreds of years ago. Our ancestors bought the newly vacated titles of nobility, and consequently we descendants are forced to learn the bally traditions that go with them. I spent years enduring lessons in dwarf-tossing and caber-dancing, not to mention damaging my hearing learning to play the electric bagpipes, but Abdul has it worse: he’s required by law to go around everywhere with a tea-towel on his head and to refrain from drinking fermented grape juice unless it’s been cycled through the kidneys of a re-engineered dromedary. This aristocracy lark has its down side, you mark my words.

“A theme party,” I mused, removing my face from my cup: “that sounds like fun. But I was planning on taking my gig. Is that okey-dokey, as they say? Is there room in the imperial marina?”

“Of course,” said the vizier, leering slightly as a shapely femme wearing a belly-dancer’s costume sashayed past. I noticed with distaste his hairless face and the pair of wizened testicles on a leather cord around his neck: some people think too much testosterone makes a cove stupid, but there’s such a thing as going too far, what? “Just remember, it’s a fancy-dress party. The theme is the thousand nights and one night, in honor of and for the selection of His Excellency’s newest concuboid. His Excellency says you should feel free to bring a guest or two if you like. If you need an outfit—”

“I’m sure my household wardrobe will be able to see to my needs,” I said, perhaps a trifle too sharply. “See you there!”

Ibn Cut-Throat bowed and scraped furiously as he backed away from me. Something odd’s going on here, I realized, but before I could put my finger on it there was a whoosh and I saw the familiar sight of my gig—well, actually it’s Uncle Featherstonehaugh’s, but as he’s not due back for six years I don’t think that matters too much—descending to a perfect three-point landing.

I walked over to it slowly, lost in thought, only to meet Miss Feng marching down the ramp. “I didn’t know you could fly,” I said.

“My usual employer requires a full pilot’s qualification, Sir. Military unrestricted license with interstellar wings and combat certification.” She cleared her throat: “Among other skills.” She took in my appearance, from scorched ablative boots to champagne hairstyle: “I’ve taken the liberty of laying out Sir’s smoking jacket in the master stateroom. Can I suggest a quick shower might refresh the parts that Sir’s friends’ high spirits have already reached?”

“You may suggest anything you like, Miss Feng, I have complete confidence in your professional discretion. I should warn you I have a guest tagging along, but he won’t be any trouble. If you show him to the lounge while I change, we shall be able to depart promptly. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from Laura?”

She shook her head minutely. “Not so much as a peep, Sir.” She stepped aside. “So, I’m to set course for Mars as soon as the guest is aboard? Very good, Sir. I shall be on the bridge if you need me.”

It appeared that Miss Feng was not only an accomplished butler, but a dashed fine pilot as well. Would miracles never cease?…

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"Trunk and Disorderly" by Charles Stross, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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