The First Casualty

by Lurky McLurklurk [Reviews - 2]

  • All Ages
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Humor

Author's Notes:
Written for shinyjenni in the tardis_gen ficathon.

Benny clambered into the shuttle with her bag slung over her shoulder. She gestured to the short blue woman following her to sit in the other chair, and started playing with the controls in a vain attempt to impress her slightly.

Benny had asked Fosma if being short and blue was the current fashion amongst the People, but apparently her travelling companion just liked it that way. "Thank you so much for agreeing to this, Professor Summerfield!" she said as she sat down. She let out a slightly undignified squeal of excitement.

Benny groaned inwardly as she timed pressing a random button to coincide with the autopilot beginning liftoff from the Collection.

To tell the truth, Benny was already beginning to regret the whole thing. At first, when a journalist from the People had asked to write a profile of her, she'd been flattered. Particularly when Fosma had said that millions of people on the Worldsphere were interested in her exploits. In a moment of weakness, she'd agreed.

But once she'd come to her senses (with the aid of quarter of a bottle of vodka and Jason's reminder of quite how large the Worldsphere's population really was) and went to find Fosma to pull out, she'd had one of those disturbing encounters with Brax. The sort of encounter where he accidentally-on-purpose found her and had a conversation with her that stopped her from actually saying anything she'd been planning to say in the first place, because he already knew what she was going to say, but was about to inform her why she happened to be wrong, in this particular case.

Fosma, Brax had said, was almost certainly a spy for "one of the less culturally solipsistic People factions". Benny had tried to explain that Interest Groups weren't really factions, but Brax had just looked at her a bit sadly, as though she was a student who'd just revealed she wasn't quite as bright as he'd thought. Or perhaps, he'd gone on, as if to soften the blow, she was some sort of rogue from the People with her own agenda. Whatever she was really up to, Brax reasoned, it would be a good idea for them to know about it. Since she'd revealed her hand enough to show that she had some interest in Benny, it fell to Benny to go along with things and find out what she could.

So now here she was, but Fosma's increasingly annoying "journalist" cover hadn't even slightly slipped once. Indeed, as soon as they were in flight, she said, "So, Professor Summerfield--"

Benny cut her off. "Please, call me Benny." Being fawned over like that could get annoying quickly.

"Really? Wow, thank you. Wow." Someone had clearly overemphasised the significance of first name terms to Fosma at some point. "OK, then, Benny, would you say that the travel was the most enjoyable part of your job?"

"Have you travelled much outside the Worldsphere?"

"Not until I came to the Braxiatel Collection," Fosma said. "I was dropped off by the Size Isn't Everything, operating in this galaxy under the terms of the revised Accords."

"I see," Benny said. She stretched back in her seat. "Space travel, at least for us less exalted species, is much like war -- long stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional moment of sheer terror." She noticed that Fosma was scribbling away rapidly in her notepad. If only her students did that when she went into lecture mode. "It takes a long time to get anywhere really interesting, even using fancy things like hyperspace conduits, and it's mostly dull. We, however, at the polite but firm insistence of the Hanadax Heterocracy, are using a shortcut. A spacewyrm. Not," Benny said, really warming to the idea of a captive audience that was actually paying attention, "to be confused with a timewyrm, of course."

Fosma nodded. "Of course."

"A spacewyrm is a multi-dimensional being whose body intersects with our space-time continuum at its two ends. The Hanadax have worked out how to breed them and tame them sufficiently that they'll at least eat things put in their way. Since we're indigestible, though, we just pass straight through, coming out at the other end far faster than if we'd used conventional means. Rather than a wormhole, the worm itself."

"So instead of long and dull, it's ... how would you describe it? Disgusting, I suppose."

"Oh, no, it's still long and dull. It's just disgusting as well." Benny sniffed. "Disgusting's probably an understatement though. I believe some sources have described the experience as 'paralysingly traumatic'."

"So ... travel not the most enjoyable part of the job?"

"No," Benny said.

Fosma looked down into her notepad and made a short note. "OK, never mind that for now. Let's go for some basic biographical facts. How old are you, Benny?"

"I think I've changed my mind."

"You mean, travel is the most enjoyable part of your job?"

"No, about you calling me Benny."

"Fine," Fosma said. "'Professor Summerfield' it is. No problem at all. So, Professor Summerfield, how old are you?"

Benny looked over her shoulder at the Collection as it fell further and further away behind them, along with any hope of decent company for the next three days.

"There are some cultures where it's rude to ask a lady that question," she said.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I--"

"But in my case it's more that the answer is rather too long and boring to be worth bothering with."

Fosma's face fell. "Right, well, then, what about your early life? I've heard that members of primitive cultures place undue weight on their relationships with their progenitors. What can you tell me about your father?"

Benny coughed. "You know," she said, "I'm still not sure I understand this whole 'People journalist' thing. I thought you all had fancy data networks that you could wire straight into your head if you wanted and you could all publish to it."

"Oh, of course we all do. But the Antique Journalism Interest Group is based around the idea that that's really nowhere near as much fun!" Fosma was positively beaming.

It all made sense to Benny in that moment. It was all just a hobby. Like Adrian and his weird Killoran music. Or Jason and being rubbish at everything. At least it provided a decent cover for a Person who needed to get out into the universe for surreptitious purposes, she supposed. "Hence the notepad and pen?" she asked, when she realised she'd been quiet for a while.

"Exactly," Fosma said. "We even have our own printing press!"

"How very marvellous for you," Benny said.

"I'm what's called a cub reporter," Fosma went on. "I send my stories to my editor, who in turn reports to the Editor-in-Chief. It's all rather thrilling, having a hierarchy."

"I'm sure."

"I mean, like you say, anyone can publish things to the network, but my work will probably be rejected, so it'll never be seen by anyone except me and my editor. In fact, nothing I've written has seen print yet!" There was an awkward pause. "But of course I'm sure a profile of you, Professor Summerfield, will be of such wide interest that it's bound to get me my first break."


"I have to confess that I don't really understand the nature of our-- your mission, though. We're-- You're hoping to save the Xax'xiv system from a civil war, is that right?"

Benny spent a moment resenting Fosma's perfect pronunciation. "That's right."

"By going to Tilores?" Fosma said dubiously.

"Ye-es," Benny said in the voice she used for telling Peter that using his building blocks to erect a barrier keeping Uncle Jason in the wardrobe wasn't really on, even if he had fallen asleep in there by mistake.

"But Tilores is on the other side of the sector! It's--"

"--the ancient burial planet of the Xax'xiv Empire," Benny finished triumphantly. "The Xax'xivians once ruled huge swathes of space; the current dispute is about who is the true inheritor of the ancient power of Yortien. Well, it's really about money and power and Xax'xivian's inxax'xivianity to Xax'xivian, the usual. But they're all claiming it's about being the true inheritor, so if we can get this artefact ..."

"Yortien's Homunculus?"

"That's the one," Benny said. "The Homunculus supposedly contains the ancient power, blah blah blah, and the Hanadax think they can use it to persuade the Xax'xivians to listen to them telling them that fighting is bad."

"Where do the Hanadax fit in?" Fosma asked.

"Local busybodies, basically. Newly emerged on the galactic scene and keen to make an impression with how nice and helpful and fluffy they are. Though everyone's convinced by the fluffiness -- they're giant balls of fur, you see." Benny yawned. "They see it as their job to stop the Xax'xivians from killing each other. Which is fair enough, I suppose. People killing people is generally bad."

"And so they're going to--"

"Fosma, have you ever by any chance met the Grel?"

"Not that I'm aware of. Would that be an entity, or--"

"A species, they're a species. But I think you'd get on with them like a house on fire," Benny said, briefly entertaining the notion of a house on fire with Fosma in it.

Benny saw Fosma flip to the back of her book and meticulously write "GREL" at the end of a long list entitled "Potential Stories".

"Anyway," Fosma said, "the Hanadax--"

"We're here," Benny said, nodding out of the window. Looming above them was the head of the Hanadax's spacewyrm. It was mottled brown and grey, with a gaping toothless maw leading onto its fleshy interior dimensions.

"That's ..." Fosma said.

"Yes," Benny said. "You should be thankful we're coming at it from this direction. The sight of the back of the head is ... well, non-Euclidean."

They flew into the spacewyrm's mouth.

* * *

As a seasoned space-time traveller, Benny would have described the fifteen hours that followed as "deeply uncomfortable", though she could definitely see where the "paralysingly traumatic" people were coming from. For Fosma, though, the entire trip seemed to be wondrous, yet another exciting window opened onto the exciting universe of exciting excitement. She was probably releasing all sort of drugs into her bloodstream, Benny thought enviously.

Finally, though, they flew down through Tilores's atmosphere and set the shuttle down outside the tomb. Benny led the way out of the shuttle. "Don't say 'This is so exciting!'" she warned Fosma as she emerged. "And don't ask me how it feels to set foot on the ancient soil of an alien world steeped in history either."

Fosma's mouth flapped open and closed a couple of times, and then she managed to say, "So what's in this tomb? Apart from the Homunculus."

"Ah, well, that's actually quite interesting. The Xax'xivians have believed since ancient times in burying guardians with the honoured dead to protect them from ... well, people like us. Which is a very common meme in cultures right across the universe, and can almost always be blamed on the bloody Osirians interfering."

Fosma flipped to the back of her pad and Benny saw her write "Osirian involvement in prehistory -- People as well???"

"Anyway, the Xax'xivians kept it going much longer than most and by the time of Yortien, they'd moved on from enchanted golems for the guardians to fully functional giant robots." She smiled as she headed towards the entrance.

After a moment, Benny noticed that Fosma didn't seem to be following. She turned round with a sigh. "What is it?"

"Fully functional giant robots?" Fosma said.

"What's the problem? You People people like robots!"

"We like robots who are People! Not so much with the mindless killer drones." She paused to consider. "They won't still be operational, though, surely?"

"They're self-repairing."

Fosma shuddered. "That's awful. To doom a potentially intelligent creature to an eternity of non-sentience ..."

"I wouldn't feel too bad for them. Did you notice the glass valley on the far side of the continent as we came in?"

"I thought that was a giant river," Fosma said.

"A few thousand years ago, in one of the tombs there a robot's self-repair mechanisms mutated past their inbuilt limitations, became a proper von Neumann machine. It had reprocessed the entire valley into itself before it was nuked. Don't ask me who did it."

"You're not worried at all, are you?" Fosma said.

Benny wondered if the profile was going to go on about her bravery. That might be a bit nauseating. "Of course I'm bloody worried," she said. "But my life has worked out in such a way that I seem to be in constant danger whatever I do, so I may as well do what I'm good at." Fosma got out her pad again. "Don't you dare write that down as though it's my philosophy of life or something." The pad snapped shut again. "Come on."

The entrance chambers were large, gloomy and foreboding. Benny and Fosma made their way through to a passageway that was small, gloomy and foreboding. By the time they'd made it through the maze that the passageway led to, they were bent over almost double.

"I haven't seen any giant robots yet," Fosma said as they rounded a corner. "And the biggest robot that could fit in here wouldn't qualify as 'giant' at all, to my way of thinking."

"The tomb goes hundreds of metres into the rock face," Benny replied. "We've barely scratched the surface."

They rounded a corner and the narrow passage suddenly opened out into a giant chamber. They had emerged onto a narrow ledge half way up the wall, and Benny had to pull Fosma back from the edge. "There you are," Benny said, "giant robots. Happy now?"

"Not really," Fosma said. "It all looks rather dangerous."

"Yes, well, that is pretty much the point. Protect the ancient treasure and all that."

They looked at each other, then back at the canyon through which the tomb's mechanical guardians stalked, clanking limbs repeating the same pattern over and over. Benny hoped that Fosma wouldn't ask how they were going to get across.

"So, how do we get across?"

"You haven't got a handy harpoon gun by any chance? Or an abseiling rope?"

"Just my pen," Fosma said cheerily, clicking the end a couple of times.

"Yes, thanks." Benny went back to staring at the robots. "They don't seem to have noticed us yet," she said. "But the way they're walking--"

"They'll spot us if we move," Fosma said.

"Actually, I think they've spotted us already." Benny nodded towards where the nearest robot was turning with a series of whirrs and hisses.

"What sort of ... er, weaponry do they have?" Fosma asked.

"Apart from the part where they could swat us aside like a bug with arms the size of buses?" Benny said. She nodded to the large red disc on the front of the approaching robot, which was glowing with a steadily increasing vehemence. "I have a distinct feeling that's some sort of laser."

"It could be a pulsed photon synchrotron," Fosma said. "Or an upshifted maser or ..."

"It's some sort of energy weapon, and I think we should be away from it."

The other robot had come to stand next to the first one, and its red disc was also beginning to glow. They heard a series of booming stomps as more robots approached from the dark caverns at either end of the chamber.

Benny and Fosma nipped back into the maze and slumped down against the wall. They were bathed in crimson light reflected by the walls.

"What do we do?" Fosma asked, beginning to sound a little worried.

"I was rather hoping you might have some ideas."

"Why would I? You're the expert on tomb robbing."

"Archaeological investigation, thank you," Benny said huffily. "But as it happens, Fosma-if-that-is-your-real-name, Brax was under the impression you're a spy for the People. So I've sort of been working on the assumption that your pen houses an AI ten times more intelligent than the two of us put together with some sort of advanced offensive weaponry and fires an intricately focused laser beam at the paper to keep up the pretense of having ink in it mainly because it finds it amusing, and that was a little joke you did just then when I asked about harpoon guns and rope. The point being, if you are, this is the part where we overcome our mutual distrust, put our cards on the table and you use your hyperweaponry to get us out of a tight spot."

Fosma looked nonplussed. "I told you, I'm a member of the Antique Journalism Interest Group. If I was accompanied by anyone else, or had any sort of military technology--" and she gave an all-too-authentic shudder at the phrase "--I would of course have declared it to the Collection authorities on arrival." She unscrewed her pen to show Benny a resolutely unaggressive -- one might almost be tempted to say pacifistic -- ink cartridge.

Benny felt her back beginning to warm as the wall behind her came ever closer to being vaporised from the steady onslaught. "OK, time for Plan B."

"What's Plan B?"

"Well, it's usually 'Run!' but in this case, it'll have to be 'Jump!'"

"Jump?" Fosma said. "Jump where? We can't jump over the canyon. It's far too far."

"On top of its head!" Benny replied, trying to sound more confident than she felt. "All its weapons face forward. Then we climb down its back and down to the bottom of the canyon. Or maybe climb across a whole series of robots. I'm not sure."

"That's mad."

"So mad it just might work?" Benny said hopefully.

"Mostly I think it's just mad," Fosma said.

"Pity," Benny said. "So mad it just might work tends to be my stock in trade. We may as well go for it anyway." She took a deep breath. "Follow me exactly and don't do anything stupid."

"Given the plan you've just proposed, I think those two instructions are mutually exclusive," Fosma said.

"A little cognitive dissonance isn't going to kill you," Benny said. "Whereas these laser beams just might. Come on!"

Without further ado, she darted round the rock wall, keeping as far to the side as she could, and leapt from the ledge onto the robot's arm, and then scrambled up to its head. She glanced behind to see Fosma struggling to climb up from the shoulder, and reached down to yank her up. As she did so, the other robots swung their lasers across to target them. They narrowly missed Fosma as she scrambled up to Benny's position, hitting the robot instead. As it collapsed to the floor under its counterparts' onslaught, Benny and Fosma scrambled down its spine, their arms waving madly to maintain their balance as the robot swayed drunkenly as it fell.

"Over here!" Benny said, pointing at a gap in the rock wall that was too small for the robots to fit through.

This didn't deter them, though, and the surviving robots began to pile on top of each other as they attempted to close in on their prey. Benny looked behind her until she was confident that they were all blocking each other's way.

"Not quite what I intended, but it worked," Benny said, dusting herself down. "Are you OK?"

Fosma took a few deep breaths. "If I was going to make a habit of this, I'd will several phenotypic alterations."

"Right," Benny said. "The main chamber must be this way."

"Must it?"

"Well, it's either that or a dead-end leading to a death trap for unwary graverobbers. I much prefer to stay optimistic about these things."

With a final heavy exhalation, Fosma followed. Benny saw that her somewhat desperate hope had paid off, when they emerged into a cavern larger by far than any they had seen so far, and blessedly free of robotic guardians. An overly melodramatic ray of light from an unseen source illuminated a six-inch-high statue that was dwarfed by the huge dais it was standing on top of.

"That's the Yortien Homunculus?" Fosma asked.

"Seems so," Benny said. "I have to say, it's smaller than I expected."

Benny took a step towards the dais, and the floor began to shake. She stepped back warily, but the seeming earthquake didn't subside. In front of them, and in a circle all around the dais, the rock was cracking apart. Benny took several steps further back to avoid the boulders falling from the heads and shoulders of the ring of giant robots that were emerging from beneath the floor, five times the size of the ones they'd just encountered.

The robots all turned to look at Benny and Fosma.

"Oh, Goddess," Benny said.

"There's a false wall over there," Fosma said, as though she'd hardly noticed what had just happened.

"You what?"

"I have limited infrared vision," Fosma said happily, "and that bit of rock there is much warmer than it should be. I think it's concealing something. In fact, I don't think it's rock at all, I think it's the holographic projection of a rock face." She picked up one of the smaller stones that had just been dislodged by the emerging robots and threw it at the area she was talking about. It rebounded with a metallic clang.

"It's probably concealing another crukking giant robot," Benny pointed out. She shrugged her shoulders. "Still, it's worth a go."

As the robots began their ponderous weapons-charging sequence, Benny and Fosma ran to the wall and began feeling for some sort of entrance. Benny quickly found what felt like a door handle, and reached through the false rock to open it. She steeled herself to walk through the illusion and walked through the door.

On the other side was a control room, of the variety that had as many blinking lights as a particularly naff Christmas tree and plenty of chunky switches and levers. Bulky monitors running along the top of each wall provided cycling views of the different chambers of the tomb, the giant robots patrolling them standing inert. One side of the room was empty save for a small plinth, on which stood a small statue identical to the one outside. In front of the main control area was a chair with a man sat in it, who was presumably in charge of the giant robots.

Benny made a pantomime of tiptoeing past his position. "Hello, man behind the curtain!" She waved at him. "How about I pay no attention to you, and you pay no attention to me while I grab this little statue here? I assume this is the real thing and the one on display out there is an oh-so-cunning fake."

The man got up; looking closer, Benny was surprised to see that he was quite scruffy, not at all the diabolical mastermind sort you'd expect to find behind the controls of a complicated death trap. "I don't think that would be a good idea," he said wearily.

Benny looked closer at the man's unkempt hair and bleary eyes. "You were asleep, weren't you!" she said gleefully. "That's why the robots didn't respond to our presence at first."

"Well, I'm awake now," he said, stifling a yawn, "and I can't let you take the statue." He moved to interpose himself between it and Benny. "I should have just left them running Anji's patrol pattern, she spent so long working it out in the first place," he mumbled to himself. "You only got past when I tried to warn you off," he said more loudly. "It was for your own good, you know."

"I'm sure you were very well-intentioned," Benny said. "But what can I say? I'm my own woman, and I go where I please. Including ... over ... here," she said, trying unsuccessfully to dodge past him.

"Who are you, anyway?" the man asked.

"She's Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield of the Braxiatel Collection, renowned archaeologist and bon viveur," Fosma interjected.

"Ignore her," Benny said. "She's just my stalker."

"My name's Fosma, I'm a journalist writing a profile of Professor Summerfield," Fosma said.

"OK," said the man. "My name's Fitz." An exasperated look passed across his face briefly. "Why am I talking to you? You need to turn around and go."

"Not without the statue," Benny said, darting right.

"Yes without the statue," Fitz said, taking a quick sidestep.

"This is a very unsatisfactory sort of stalemate," Benny said. "It seems to be based more on politeness and a desire to avoid entering each other's personal space than the traditional threats and moustache-twirling."

"I'm not very good at threats," Fitz admitted. "I wasn't trying to kill you with the lasers and stuff, just get you to turn around."

"Which I didn't," Benny pointed out, "so you should realise that I'm not going to do it now. You see, I need that statue to prevent a terrible conflict."

"What?" Fitz said. "No, no, no, the whole point of me being here is to prevent the statue being taken and causing a terrible conflict."

"The Xax'xiv system is about to plunge into civil war over the inheritance of Yortien," Benny said, as quickly as possible to avoid taking the statement too seriously.

"But the inheritance of Yortien is death and destruction! He was a brutal dictator who tried to cheat death by possessing that statue thingy. If you take it to the Xax'xivians it'll possess one of them and start his reign of terror all over again. Or something like that, anyway."

"Oh come on," Fosma said. "Possession? Really?"

"That bit's fairly plausible," Benny said. "But we've got all sorts of experts back where I come from, we can check for residual energy patterns and stuff."

"You won't detect Yortien," Fitz said, "he used ... other methods."

"Oh come on, you don't believe in magic, surely?" Benny said.

Fitz's eyes took on a faraway look. Benny waved her fingers in front of his face and said, "It wasn't supposed to be a trick question."

"We're quite expert enough ourselves, thank you," Fitz said. "I mean, not me personally--"

"Obviously not you personally," Benny said. "You fell asleep."

"We knew someone was coming to the tomb at some point but we weren't sure exactly when. We've been camped out here for the best part of a week. We were taking it in shifts, you see." Fitz sighed. "Oh, when he finds out I've fluffed it up he's going to ..."

"What? Hang, draw and quarter you? Have your guts for garters?"

"He'll ... be disappointed," Fitz mumbled.

"Ah," Benny said, envisaging some sort of Mafia boss who left his threats implicit. "I see. Anyway, the trouble is I promised some interfering furballs I'd get the statue, so ..."

"I really can't let you do that. The untold misery Yortien would cause if released ..."

"You sound like you were there," Benny said. "But his reign was tens of thousands of years ago and you're not that old."

"Oh, thanks," Fitz said.

"Wait a second, wait a second," Benny said. "Interfering without really knowing all the facts. Insanely overcomplicated schemes. And you with the anachronistic knowledge. This person who's going to be disappointed at you, he actually is just going to be disappointed, isn't he? But it'll be completely crushing nonetheless. Because it's the Doctor!"

"What do you know about the Doctor?" Fitz said, startled into giving the game away completely.

"Oh, it is him!" Benny smiled. "Is he still the dishy one with the curls and the ..." Benny waved her fingers in front of her face to vaguely gesture at a pair of particularly kissable lips.

Fitz looked shocked. "Look, I really think you'd better go."

"I really think I'd better stay," Benny countered. "We could catch up, talk about old times, maybe re-enact them ..."

"Look, you can have the statue," Fitz said quickly. He practically stumbled backwards to grab it, then thrust it at her. "You caught me napping. My fault, entirely. Just ... go, quickly, before he comes back."

"Now you're just being weird," Benny said. "What's going on?"

"Look, I ..." Fitz slumped. "The Doctor isn't-- I mean he can't-- It just wouldn't be a good idea. For him to see you. A lot's happened since ... well, whenever it is you knew him."

"I'm sure he's still the Doctor I remember, whatever ..."

"Your memory's not the problem," Fitz said, almost under his breath. "Seriously, take the statue, I don't mind," he went on. "It's entirely up to you if you want to be subjugated by a reborn Yortien. But please go. I'll deactivate the robots and everything."

"Well, I would hope so!" Benny said. "But I'm not going, so it doesn't matter."

"It does seem to me," Fosma said, "that we have achieved our main goal. So why wouldn't we go?"

"I agree with your friend," Fitz said. "Achieving your main goal is good. You should be go home and celebrate your achievement. You could celebrate it with a drink; I know I'm going to need one after all this. Or you could have a little ceremony. With medals. Or a certificate! I'll make you a certificate of achievement for achieving your main goal."

Fosma looked to Benny as though she might quite like a certificate, so Benny glared at her. "What's this all about, Fitz? Is the Doctor all right?"

"He ... he's good, yeah. He has less baggage now."

Benny went to take the statue from Fitz, but he looked so forlorn that she ended up giving him a hug. "Look after him," she said. "As best you can."

Fitz smiled sadly at her as she broke away, but then a puzzled look crossed his face. "Wait a minute, are you saying the Doctor's impossible to look after, or that I look useless to you?"

"Oh, the first one," Benny assured him. "Definitely the first one."

* * *

Fosma was strangely quiet on the way home. She kept flipping through her notepad, reading back the stuff she'd written during their adventure, scribbling things and then crossing them out again.

Strangely quiet was good, though, so Benny resisted the urge to ask her what was wrong. But when they'd got off the shuttle and she still wasn't talking, she finally cracked. "Is everything all right?" she said, adjusting her bag on her shoulder to compensate for the weight of the Homunculus.

"I'm sorry, Professor Summerfield, I've been trying and trying, but I just can't see how I can make this work." Fosma flipped back through her notebook despairingly. "My editor's never going to publish a piece about how you're a grumpy misanthrope who saved the Xax'xiv system, unless you doomed it instead, by means of a relatively short conversation that doesn't make even the slightest bit of sense." She gave Benny an accusing look. "Not even to you, I suspect. I ... I'd have to change my story completely to have even a hope of getting it into print."

"That," said Benny, "is the best idea you've had yet." With the hand that wasn't holding the statue, she reached into a back pocket and threw the small plastic-wrapped packet she found there to Fosma, who caught it instinctively. "Here, you'll be needing some of these. Well, probably more than some."

"Professor Summerfield! Professor Summerfield!" she heard Fosma call as she walked away. "What's a 'Post-It'?"