Zoe's Tale (Chapter Fourteen)

"No, you're still too low," I said to Gretchen. "It's making you flat. You need to be a note higher or something. Like this." I sang the part I wanted her to sing.

"I am singing that," Gretchen said.

"No, you're singing lower than that," I said.

"Then you're singing the wrong note," Gretchen said. "Because I'm singing the note you're singing. Go ahead, sing it."

I cleared my throat, and sang the note I wanted her to sing. She matched it perfectly. I stopped singing and listened to Gretchen. She was flat.

"Well, nuts," I said.

"I told you," Gretchen said.

"If I could pull up the song for you, you could hear the note and sing it," I said.

"If you could pull up the song, we wouldn't be trying to sing it at all," Gretchen said. "We'd just listen to it, like civilized human beings."

"Good point," I said.

"There's nothing good about it," Gretchen said. "I swear to you, Zoe. I knew coming to a colony world was going to be hard. I was ready for that. But if I knew they were going to take my PDA, I might have just stayed back on Erie. Go ahead, call me shallow."

"Shallow," I said.

"Now tell me I'm wrong," Gretchen said. "I dare you."

I didn't tell her she was wrong. I knew how she felt. Yes, it was shallow to admit that you missed your PDA. But when you'd spent your whole life able to call up everything you wanted to amuse you on a PDA – music, shows, books and friends – when you had to part with it, it made you miserable. Really miserable. Like "trapped on a desert island with nothing but coconuts to bang together" miserable. Because there was nothing to replace it with. Yes, the Colonial Mennonites had brought their own small library of printed books, but most of that consisted of Bibles and agricultural manuals and a few "classics," of which Huckleberry Finn was one of the more recent volumes. As for popular music and entertainments, well, they didn't much truck with that.

You could tell a few of the Colonial Mennonite teens thought it was funny to watch the rest of us go through entertainment withdrawal. Didn't seem very Christian of them, I have to say. On the other hand, they weren't the ones whose lives had been drastically altered by landing on Roanoke. If I were in their shoes and watching a whole bunch of other people whining and moaning about how horrible it was that their toys were taken away, I might feel a little smug, too.

We did what people do in situations where they go without: We adjusted. I hadn't read a book since we landed on Roanoke, but was on the waiting list for a bound copy of The Wizard of Oz. There were no recorded shows or entertainments but Shakespeare never fails; there was a reader's theater performance of Twelfth Night planned for a week from Sunday. It promised to be fairly gruesome – I'd heard some of the read-throughs – but Enzo was reading the part of Sebastian, and he was doing well enough, and truth be told it would be the first time I would have ever experienced a Shakespeare play – or any play other than a school pageant – live. And it's not like there would be anything else to do anyway.

And as for music, well, this is what happened: Within a couple days of landing a few of the colonists hauled out guitars and accordions and hand drums and other such instruments and started trying to play together. Which went horribly, because nobody knew anyone else's music. It was like what happened on the Magellan. So they started teaching each other their songs, and then people showed up to sing them, and then people showed up to listen. And thus it was, at the very tail end of space, when no one was looking, the colony of Roanoke reinvented the "hootenanny." Which is what Dad called it. I told him it was a stupid name for it, and he said he agreed, but said that the other word for it – "wingding" – was worse. I couldn't argue with that.

The Roanoke Hootenanners (as they were now calling themselves) took requests – but only if the person requesting sang the song. And if the musicians didn't know the song, you'd have to sing it at least a couple of times until they could figure out how to fake it. This led to an interesting development: singers started doing a cappella versions of their favorite songs, first by themselves and increasingly in groups, which might or might not be accompanied by the Hootenanners. It was becoming a point of pride for people to show up with their favorite songs already arranged, so everyone else in the audience didn't have to suffer through a set of dry runs before it was all listenable.

It was safe to say that some of these arrangements were more arranged than others, to put it politely, and some folks sang with the same vocal control as a cat in a shower. But now, a couple of months after the hootenannies had begun, people were beginning to get the hang of it. And people had begun coming to the hoots with new songs, arranged a cappella. One of the most popular songs at the recent hoots was "Let Me Drive the Tractor" – the tale of a colonist being taught to drive a manual tractor by a Mennonite, who, because they were the only ones who knew how to operate noncomputerized farm machinery, had been put in charge of planting crops and teaching the rest of us how to use their equipment. The song ends with the tractor going into a ditch. It was based on a true story. The Mennonites thought the song was pretty funny, even though it came at the cost of a wrecked tractor.

Songs about tractors were a long way from what any of us had been listening to before, but then, we were a long way from where any of us were before, in any sense, so maybe that fit. And to get all sociological about it, maybe what it meant was that twenty or fifty standard years down the line, whenever the Colonial Union decided to let us get in contact with the rest of the human race, Roanoke would have its own distinct musical form. Maybe they'll call it Roanokapella. Or Hootenoke. Or something.

But at this particular moment, all I was trying to do was to get the right note for Gretchen to sing so she and I could go to the next hoot with a halfway decent version of "Delhi Morning" for the Hootenanners to pick up on. And I was failing miserably. This is what it feels like when you realize that, despite a song being your favorite of maybe all time, you don't actually know every little nook and cranny of it. And since my copy of the song was on my PDA, which I could no longer use or even had anymore, there was no way to correct this problem.

Unless. "I have an idea," I said to Gretchen.

"Does it involve you learning to sing on key?" Gretchen asked.

"Even better," I said.

Ten minutes later we were on the other side of Croatoan, standing in front of the village's information center – the one place on the entire planet that you'd still find a functioning piece of electronics, because the inside was designed to completely block any radio or other signals of any sort. The technology to do this, sadly, was rare enough that we only had enough of it for a converted cargo container. The good news was, they were making more. The bad news was, they were only making enough for a medical bay. Sometimes life stinks. Gretchen and I walked into the receiving area, which was pitch black because of the signal-cloaking material; you had to close the outer door to the information center before you could open the inner door. So for about a second and a half it was like being swallowed by grim, black, featureless death. Not something I'd recommend.

And then we opened the inner door and found a geek inside. He looked at the both of us, a little surprised, and then got that no look.

"The answer is no," he said, confirming the look.

"Aw, Mr. Bennett," I said. "You don't even know what we're going to ask."

"Well, let's see," said Jerry Bennett. "Two teenage girls – daughters of the colony leaders, incidentally – just happen to walk into the only place in the colony where one could play with a PDA. Hmmm. Are they here to beg to play with a PDA? Or are they here because they enjoy the company of a chunky, middle-aged man? This is not a hard question, Miss Perry."

"We just want to listen to one song," I said. "We'll be out of your hair in just a minute."

Bennett sighed. "You know, at least a couple times a day someone just like you gets the bright idea to come in here and ask if I could just let them borrow a PDA to watch a movie, or listen to some music or read a book. And, oh, it'll just take a minute. I won't even notice they're there. And if I say yes, then other people will come in asking for the same time. Eventually I'll spend so much time helping people with their PDAs that I won't have time to do the work your parents, Miss Perry, have assigned me to do. So you tell me: What should I do?"

"Get a lock?" said Gretchen.

Bennett glanced over to Gretchen, sourly. "Very amusing," he said.

"What are you doing for my parents?" I asked.

"Your parents are having me slowly and painstakingly locate and print every single Colonial Union administration memo and file, so they can refer to them without having to come in here and bother me," Bennett said. "In one sense I appreciate that, but in a more immediate sense I've been doing it for the last three days and I'm likely to be doing it for another four. And since the printer I have to work with jams on a regular basis, it does actually require someone to pay attention to it. And that's me. So there you have it, Miss Perry: Four years of technical education and twenty years of professional work have allowed me to become a printer monkey at the very ass end of space. Truly, my life's goal has been achieved."

I shrugged. "So let us do it," I said.

"I beg your pardon," Bennett said.

"If all you're doing is making sure the printer doesn't jam, that's something we could do for you," I said. "We'll work for you for a couple of hours, and in exchange you let us use a couple of PDAs while we're here. And then you can do whatever else you need to do."

"Or just go have lunch," Gretchen said. "Surprise your wife."

Bennett was silent for a minute, considering. "Offering to actually help me," he said. "No one's tried that tactic before. Very sneaky."

"We try," I said.

"And it is lunchtime," Bennett said. "And it is just printing."

"It is," I agreed.

"I suppose if you mess things up horribly it won't be too bad for me," Bennett said. "Your parents won't punish me for your incompetence."

"Nepotism working for you," I said.

"Not that there will be a problem," Gretchen said.

"No," I agreed. "We're excellent printer monkeys."

"All right," Bennett said, and reached across his worktable to grab his PDA. "You can use my PDA. You know how to use this?"

I gave him a look.

"Sorry. Okay." He punched up a queue of files on the display. "These are files that need to go through today. The printer is there" – he motioned to the far end of the worktable – "and the paper is in that bin. Feed it into the printer, stack the finished documents next to the printer. If it jams, and it will, several times, just yank out the paper and let it autofeed a new one. It'll automatically reprint the last page it was working on. While you're doing that you can sync up to the Entertainment archive. I downloaded all those files into one place."

"You downloaded everyone's files?" I asked, and felt ever so slightly violated.

"Relax," Bennett said. "Only public files are accessible. As long as you encrypted your private files before you turned in your PDA, like you were told to, your secrets are safe. Now, once you access a music file the speakers will kick on. Don't turn them up too high or you won't be able to hear the printer jam."

"You have speakers already set up?" Gretchen asked.

"Yes, Miss Trujillo," Bennett said. "Believe it or not, even chunky middle-aged men like to listen to music."

"I know that," Gretchen said. "My dad loves his."

"And on that ego-deflating note, I'll be off," Bennett said. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. Please don't destroy the place. And if anyone comes in asking if they can borrow a PDA, tell them the answer is no, and no exceptions." He set off.

"I hope he was being ironic there," I said.

"Don't care," Gretchen said, and grabbed for the PDA. "Give me that."

"Hey," I said, holding it away from her. "First things first." I set up the printer, queued the files, and then accessed "Delhi Morning." The opening strains flowed out of the speakers and I soaked them in. I swear I almost cried.

"It's amazing how badly you remembered this song," Gretchen said, about halfway though.

"Shhhhh," I said. "Here's that part."

She saw the expression on my face and kept quiet until the song was done.

Two hours is not enough time with a PDA if you haven't had access to one in months. And that's all I'm going to say about that. But it was enough time that both Gretchen and I came out of the information center feeling just like we'd spent hours soaking in a nice hot bath – which, come to think of it, was something that we hadn't done for months either.

"We should keep this to ourselves," Gretchen said.

"Yes," I said. "Don't want people to bug Mr. Bennett."

"No, I just like having something over everyone else," Gretchen said.

"There aren't a lot of people who can carry off petty," I said. "Yet somehow you do."

Gretchen nodded. "Thank you, madam. And now I need to get back home. I promised Dad I'd weed the vegetable garden before it got dark."

"Have fun rooting in the dirt," I said.

"Thanks," Gretchen said. "If you were feeling nice, you could always offer to help me."

"I'm working on my evil," I said.

"Be that way," Gretchen said.

"But let's get together after dinner tonight to practice," I said. "Now that we know how to sing that part."

"Sounds good," Gretchen said. "Or will, hopefully." She waved and headed off toward home. I looked around and decided today would be a good day for a walk.

And it was. The sun was up, the day was bright, particularly after a couple of hours in the light-swallowing information center, and Roanoke was deep into spring – which was really pretty, even if it turned out that all the native blooms smelled like rotten meat dipped in sewer sauce (that description courtesy of Magdy, who could string together a phrase now and then). But after a couple of months, you stop noticing the smell, or at least accept there's nothing you can do about it. When the whole planet smells, you just have to deal with it.

But what really made it a good day for a walk was how much our world has changed in just a couple of months. John and Jane let us all out of Croatoan not too long after Enzo, Gretchen, Magdy and I had our midnight jog, and the colonists had begun to move into the countryside, building homes and farms, helping and learning from the Mennonites who were in charge of our first crops, which were already now growing in the fields. They were genetically engineered to be fast-growing; we'd be having our first harvest in the not too far future. It looked like we were going to survive after all. I walked past these new houses and fields, waving to folks as I went.

Eventually I walked past the last homestead and over a small rise. On the other side of it, nothing but grass and scrub and the forest in a line to the side. This rise was destined to be part of another farm, and more farms and pastures would cut up this little valley even further. It's funny how even just a couple thousand humans could start to change a landscape. But at the moment there was no other person in it but me; it was my private spot, for as long as it lasted. Mine and mine alone. Well, and on a couple of occasions, mine and Enzo's.

I laid back, looked up at the clouds in the sky, and smiled to myself. Maybe we were in hiding at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, but right now, at this moment, things were pretty good. You can be happy anywhere, if you have the right point of view. And the ability to ignore the smell of an entire planet.

"Zoe," said a voice behind me.

I jerked up and then saw Hickory and Dickory. They had just come over the rise.

"Don't do that," I said, and got up.

"We wish to speak to you," Hickory said.

"You could do that at home," I said.

"Here is better," Hickory said. "We have concerns."

"Concerns about what?" I said, and rose to look at them. Something wasn't quite right about either of them, and it took me a minute to figure out what it was. "Why aren't you wearing your consciousness modules?" I asked.

"We are concerned about the increasing risks you are taking with your safety," Hickory said, answering the first but not the second of my questions. "And with your safety in a general sense."

"You mean, being here?" I said. "Relax, Hickory. It's broad daylight, and the Hentosz farm is just over the hill. Nothing bad is going to happen to me."

"There are predators here," Hickory said.

"There are yotes," I said, naming the dog-sized carnivores that we'd found lurking around Croatoan. "I can handle a yote."

"They move in packs," Hickory said.

"Not during the day," I said.

"You do not only come here in the day," Hickory said. "Nor do you always come alone."

I reddened a bit at that, and thought about getting angry with Hickory. But it wasn't wearing its consciousness. Getting angry with it wouldn't do anything. "I thought I told the two of you not to follow me when I want to have some private time," I said, as evenly as I could.

"We do not follow you," Hickory said. "But neither are we stupid. We know where you go and with whom. Your lack of care is putting you at risk, and you do not always allow us to accompany you anymore. We cannot protect you as we would prefer to, and are expected to."

"We have been here for months, guys." I said. "There hasn't been a single attack on anyone by anything."

"You would have been attacked that night in the woods had Dickory and I not come to find you," Hickory said. "Those were not yotes in the trees that night. Yotes cannot climb or move through trees."

"And you'll notice I'm nowhere near the forest," I said, and waved in the direction of the tree line. "And whatever was in there doesn't seem to come out here, because we'd have seen them by now if they did. We've been over this before, Hickory."

"It is not only the predators here that concern us," Hickory said.

"I'm not following you," I said.

"This colony is being searched for," Hickory said.

"If you saw the video, you'll remember that this Conclave group blasted that colony from the sky," I said. "If the Conclave finds us, I don't think even you are going to be able to do much to protect me."

"It is not the Conclave we are concerned about," Hickory said.

"You're the only ones, then," I said.

"The Conclave is not the only one who will seek this colony," Hickory said. "Others will search for it, to win favor from the Conclave, or to thwart it, or to take the colony for its own. They will not blast this colony from the sky. They will take it in the standard fashion. Invasion and slaughter."

"What is with the two of you today?" I said. I was trying to lighten the mood.

I failed. "And then there is the matter of who you are," Hickory said.

"What does that mean?" I said.

"You should know well," Hickory said. "You are not merely the daughter of the colony leaders. You are also important to us. To the Obin. That fact is not unknown, Zoe. You have been used as a bargaining chip your entire life. We Obin used you to bargain with your father to build us consciousness. You are a treaty condition between the Obin and the Colonial Union. We have no doubt that any who would attack this colony would try to take you in order to bargain with the Obin. Even the Conclave could be tempted to do this. Or they would kill you to wound us. To kill a symbol of ourselves."

"That's crazy," I said.

"It has happened before," Hickory said.

"What?" I said.

"When you lived on Huckleberry, there were no fewer than six attempts to capture or kill you," Hickory said. "The last just a few days before you left Huckleberry."

"And you never told me this?" I asked.

"It was decided by both your government and ours that neither you nor your parents needed to know," Hickory said. "You were a child, and your parents wished to give you as unremarkable a life as possible. The Obin wished to be able to provide them that. None of these attempts came close to success. We stopped each long before you would have been in danger. And in each case the Obin government expressed its displeasure with the races who made such attempts on your well-being."

I shuddered at that. The Obin were not people to make enemies of.

"We would not have told you at all – and we have violated our standing orders not to do so – were we not in our current situation," Hickory said. "We are cut off from the systems we had in place to keep you safe. And you are becoming increasingly independent in your actions and resentful of our presence in your life."

Those last words hit me like a slap. "I'm not resentful," I said. "I just want my own time. I'm sorry if that hurts you."

"We are not hurt," Hickory said. "We have responsibilities. How we fulfill those responsibilities must adapt to circumstance. We are making an adaptation now."

"I don't know what you mean," I said.

"It is time for you to learn how to defend yourself," Hickory said. "You want to be more independent from us, and we do not have all the resources we once had to keep you safe. We have always intended to teach you to fight. Now, for both of those reasons, it is necessary to begin that training."

"What do you mean, teach me to fight?" I asked.

"We will teach you to defend yourself physically," Hickory said. "To disarm an opponent. To use weapons. To immobilize your enemy. To kill your enemy if necessary."

"You want to teach me how to kill other people," I said.

"It is necessary," Hickory said.

"I'm not sure John and Jane would approve of that," I said.

"Major Perry and Lieutenant Sagan both know how to kill," Hickory said. "Both, in their military service, have killed others when it was necessary for their survival."

"But it doesn't mean that they want me to know," I said. "And also, I don't know that I want to know. You say you need to adapt how you fulfill your responsibilities. Fine. Figure out how to adapt them. But I'm not going to learn how to kill something else so you can feel like you're doing a better job doing something I'm not even sure I want you to do anymore."

"You do not wish us to defend you," Hickory said. "Or learn to defend yourself."

"I don't know!" I said. I yelled it in exasperation. "Okay? I hate having my face pushed into all of this. That I'm some special thing that needs to be defended. Well, you know what? Everyone here needs to be defended, Hickory. We're all in danger. Any minute hundreds of ships could show up over our heads and kill us all. I'm sick of it. I try to forget about it a little every now and then. That's what I was doing out here before the two of you showed up to crap over it all. So thank you very much for that."

Hickory and Dickory said nothing to that. If they had been wearing their consciousness, they'd probably be all twitchy and overloaded at that last outburst. But they were just standing there, impassive.

I counted to five and tried to get myself back under control. "Look," I said, in what I hoped was a more reasonable tone of voice. "Give me a couple of days to think about this, all right? You've dropped a lot on me all at once. Let me work it through in my head."

They still said nothing.

"Fine," I said. "I'm heading back." I brushed past Hickory.

And found myself on the ground.

I rolled and looked up at Hickory, confused. "What the hell?" I said, and made to stand up.

Dickory, who had moved behind me, roughly pushed me back into the grass and dirt.

I scrambled backward from the two of them. "Stop it," I said.

They drew their combat knives, and came toward me.

I grunted out a scream and bolted upright, running at full speed toward the top of the hill, toward the Hentosz farm. But Obin can run faster than humans. Dickory flanked me, got in front of me, and drew back its knife. I backpedaled, falling backward as I did. Dickory lunged. I screamed and rolled again and sprinted back down the side of the hill I came up.

Hickory was waiting for me and moving to intercept me. I tried to fake going left but it was having none of it, and grabbed for me, getting a grip on my left forearm. I hit at it with my right fist. Hickory deflected it easily, and then in a quick reversal slapped me sharply on the temple, releasing me as it did so. I staggered back, stunned. Hickory looped a leg around one of mine and jerked upward, lifting me completely off the ground. I fell backward and landed on my head. A white blast of pain flooded my skull, and all I could do was lie there, dazed.

There was heavy pressure on my chest. Hickory was kneeling on me, immobilizing me. I clawed desperately at it, but it held its head away from me on its long neck and ignored everything else. I shouted for help as loudly as I could, knowing no one could hear me, and yelling anyway.

I looked over and saw Dickory, standing to the side. "Please," I said. Dickory said nothing. And could feel nothing. Now I knew why the two of them came to see me without their consciousness.

I grabbed at Hickory's leg, on my chest, and tried to push it off. It pushed it in harder, offered another disorienting slap with one hand, and with the other raised it and then plunged it toward my head in one terrible and fluid move. I screamed.

"You are unharmed," Hickory said, at some point. "You may get up."

I stayed on the ground, not moving, eyes turned toward Hickory's knife, buried in the ground so close to my head that I couldn't actually focus on it. Then I propped myself up on my elbows, turned away from the knife, and threw up.

Hickory waited until I was done. "We offer no apology for this," it said. "And will accept whatever consequences for it that you may choose. Know only this: You were not physically harmed. You are unlikely even to bruise. We made sure of this. For all of that you were at our mercy in seconds. Others who will come for you will not show you such consideration. They will not hold back. They will not stop. They will have no concern for you. They will not show you mercy. They will seek to kill you. And they will succeed. We knew you would not believe us if we only told you this. We had to show you."

I rose to my feet, barely able to stay upright, and staggered back from the two of them as best I could. "God damn you," I said. "God damn you both. You stay away from me from now on." I headed back to Croatoan. As soon as my legs could do it, I started running.

"Hey," Gretchen said, coming into the information center and sealing the inside door behind her. "Mr. Bennett said I could find you here."

"Yeah," I said. "I asked him if I could be his printer monkey a little more today."

"Couldn't keep away from the music?" Gretchen said, trying to make a little joke.

I shook my head and showed her what I was looking at.

"These are classified files, Zoe," she said. "CDF intelligence reports. You're going to get in trouble if anyone ever finds out. And Bennett definitely won't let you back in here."

"I don't care," I said, and my voice cracked enough that Gretchen looked at me in alarm. "I have to know how bad it is. I have to know who's out there and what they want from us. From me. Look." I took the PDA and pulled a file on General Gau, the leader of the Conclave, the one who ordered the destruction of the colony on the video file. "This general is going to kill us all if he finds us, and we know next to nothing about him. What makes someone do this? Killing innocent people? What happened in his life that gets him to a place where wiping out entire planets seems like a good idea? Don't you think we should know? And we don't. We've got statistics on his military service and that's it." I tossed the PDA back on the table, carelessly, alarming Gretchen. "I want to know why this general wants me to die. Why he wants us all to die. Don't you?" I put my hand on my forehead and slumped a little against the worktable.

"Okay," Gretchen said, after a minute. "I think you need to tell me what happened to you today. Because this is not how you were when I left you this afternoon."

I glanced over at Gretchen, stifled a laugh, and then broke down and started crying. Gretchen came over to give me a hug, and after a good long while, I told her everything. And I do mean everything.

She was quiet after I had unloaded. "Tell me what you're thinking," I said.

"If I tell you, you're going to hate me," she said.

"Don't be silly," I said. "I'm not going to hate you."

"I think they're right," she said. "Hickory and Dickory."

"I hate you," I said.

She pushed me lightly. "Stop that," she said. "I don't mean they were right to attack you. That was just over the line. But, and don't take this the wrong way, you're not an ordinary girl."

"That's not true," I said. "Do you see me acting any different than anyone else? Ever? Do I hold myself out as someone special? Have you ever once heard me talk about any of this to people?"

"They know anyway," Gretchen said.

"I know that," I said. "But it doesn't come from me. I work at being normal."

"Okay, you're a perfectly normal girl," Gretchen said.

"Thank you," I said.

"A perfectly normal girl who's had six attempted assassinations," Gretchen said.

"But that's not me," I said, poking myself in the chest. "It's about me. About someone else's idea of who I am. And that doesn't matter to me."

"It would matter to you if you were dead," Gretchen said, and then held her hand up before I could respond. "And it would matter to your parents. It would matter to me. I'm pretty sure it would matter to Enzo. And it seems like it would matter a whole lot to a couple billion aliens. Think about that. Someone even thinks about coming after you, they bomb a planet."

"I don't want to think about it," I said.

"I know," Gretchen said. "But I don't think you have a choice anymore. No matter what you do, you're still who you are, whether you want to be or not. You can't change it. You've got to work with it."

"Thanks for that uplifting message," I said.

"I'm trying to help," Gretchen said.

I sighed. "I know, Gretchen. I'm sorry. I don't mean to bite your head off. I'm just getting tired of having my life be about other people's choices for me."

"This makes you different than any of the rest of us how, exactly?" Gretchen asked.

"My point," I said. "I'm a perfectly normal girl. Thank you for finally noticing."

"Perfectly normal," Gretchen agreed. "Except for being Queen of the Obin."

"Hate you," I said.

Gretchen grinned.

"Miss Trujillo said that you wanted to see us," Hickory said. Dickory and Gretchen, who had gotten the two Obin for me, stood to its side. We were standing on the hill where my bodyguards had attacked me a few days earlier.

"Before I say anything else, you should know I am still incredibly angry at you," I said. "I don't know that I will ever forgive you for attacking me, even if I understand why you did it, and why you thought you had to. I want to make sure you know that. And I want to make sure you feel it." I pointed to Hickory's consciousness collar, secure around its neck.

"We feel it," Hickory said, its voice quivering. "We feel it enough that we debated whether we could turn our consciousness back on. The memory is almost too painful to bear."

I nodded. I wanted to say good, but I knew it was the wrong thing to say, and that I would regret saying it. Didn't mean I couldn't think it, though, for the moment, anyway.

"I'm not going to ask you to apologize," I said. "I know you won't. But I want your word you will never do something like that again," I said.

"You have our word," Hickory said.

"Thank you," I said. I didn't expect they would do something like that again. That sort of thing works once if it works at all. But that wasn't the point. What I wanted was to feel like I could trust the two of them again. I wasn't there yet.

"Will you train?" Hickory asked.

"Yes," I said. "But I have two conditions." Hickory waited. "The first is that Gretchen trains with me."

"We had not prepared to train anyone other than you," Hickory said.

"I don't care," I said. "Gretchen is my best friend. I'm not going to learn how to save myself and not share that with her. And besides, I don't know if you've noticed, but the two of you aren't exactly human shaped. I think it will help to practice with another human as well as with you. But this is nonnegotiable. If you won't train Gretchen, I won't train. This is my choice. This is my condition."

Hickory turned to Gretchen. "Will you train?"

"Only if Zoe does," she said. "She's my best friend, after all."

Hickory looked over to me. "She has your sense of humor," it said.

"I hadn't noticed," I said.

Hickory turned back to Gretchen. "It will be very difficult," it said.

"I know," Gretchen said. "Count me in anyway."

"What is the other condition?" Hickory asked me.

"I'm doing this for the two of you," I said. "This learning to fight. I don't want it for myself. I don't think I need it. But you think I need it, and you've never asked me to do something you didn't know was important. So I'll do it. But now you have to do something for me. Something I want."

"What is it that you want?" Hickory asked.

"I want you to learn how to sing," I said, and gestured to Gretchen. "You teach us to fight, we teach you to sing. For the hootenannies."

"Sing," Hickory said.

"Yes, sing," I said. "People are still frightened of the two of you. And no offense, but you're not brimming with personality. But if we can get the four of us to do a song or two at the hootenannies, it could go a long way to making people comfortable with you."

"We have never sung," Hickory said.

"Well, you never wrote stories before either," I said. "And you wrote one of those. It's just like that. Except with singing. And then people wouldn't wonder why Gretchen and I are off with the two of you. Come on, Hickory, it'll be fun."

Hickory looked doubtful, and a funny thought came to me: Maybe Hickory is shy. Which seemed almost ridiculous; someone about to teach another person sixteen different ways to kill getting stage fright singing.

"I would like to sing," Dickory said. We all turned to Dickory in amazement.

"It speaks!" Gretchen said.

Hickory clicked something to Dickory in their native tongue; Dickory clicked back. Hickory responded, and Dickory replied, it seemed a bit forcefully. And then, God help me, Hickory actually sighed.

"We will sing," Hickory said.

"Excellent," I said.

"We will begin training tomorrow," Hickory said.

"Okay," I said. "But let's start singing practice today. Now."

"Now?" Hickory said.

"Sure," I said. "We're all here. And Gretchen and I have just the song for you."