In a universe where corporate scions hold aristocratic titles and wield absolute power, a young princess embarks on a mission of mercy to find a new home for the refugees created by her father's many wars. To her dismay, an invitation to an isolated planetoid that could serve as the perfect home for the poor exiles turns out to be a ploy by the infamous Baron Von Schmidt to add yet another outrage to his repertoire. What starts as an exclusive party in her honor is soon revealed to be something far more sinister: a depraved auction where the item on sale is her royal highness and the bidders are a who's who of the galaxy's worst scoundrels!
With only enemies in sight and no way to call for help, the young princess has no choice but to rescue herself. This will not be easy.
Her foes include a Chinese space pirate, a young Russian duelist, a high-tech samurai, a Venusian Mafiosi, two expert French poisoners recently returned from the horror vacui, a floating Swiss banker of unimaginable wealth, and a British gentleman who also happens to be a pterodactyl.
Her arsenal consists of vague memories from classes she mostly slept through, a pile of gadgets for which she's never read the user manual, and a ferret.
"This is a science fiction comedy of manners, in which a kidnapped idealistic young space princess will be auctioned off to the most nefarious warmongers and criminals in the galaxy... unless she can turn the tables. Tongue in cheek, a Terry Pratchett-esque satire in a Douglas Adams setting."– Amazon Review
"This is such a fantastic, twisted, story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing what is going to happen next."– Amazon Review
Von Schmidt and the Princess
"Give me one man from among ten thousand if he is the best."
"Being the best is no great feat in this age of poverty. Being the worst―now there's a challenge worthy of a gentleman!"
—Von Schmidt, private conversation
He was a man of short stature which barely contained his bloated German ego. Though he had the trappings of civilization, his eyes held the demented glee of madness.
"My dear lady, how good of you to come to my humble abode on such a magnificently decorated yacht with such a marvelous assortment of the oldest, most obsolete weaponry and armor! Truly, I am humbled and belittled by your sudden visit, though also a little puzzled by your lack of retinue …" His tone lacked the reverence his words suggested. This sentiment was accentuated by a steep, somewhat ironic bow that was accompanied by a wolfish grin. Surely, a man of his excellent erudition could not have failed to learn that "dear lady" was not the correct style to address this, or any other, terrestrial princess.
The Princess in question was a small and elegant young woman, the marital unavailability of whom had led many young men into suicide or debauchery, which in the higher echelons of society amounted to much the same effect. Accenting her arrival as an official rather than social call, she was dressed in the spacesuit of the Old Brigade. Of course, it was impeccably tailored for her slim figure and made of the finest materials to showcase her father's wealth and influence and to conceal a small arsenal that included as many smart weapons as one could carry on one's person without appearing impolite. Her expression was impatient and all the lovelier for it.
"Don't be coy, Von Schmidt, there's positively nothing humble about you or your abode. You own an entire terraformed planetoid on the edge of the horror vacui with some of the most advanced technological and genetic engineering I've seen in my life and that's my estimation from just a cursory glance."
The man maintained his smile, though perhaps it would have been more precise to say his mouth maintained it, for there was no smile left in his eyes. Indeed, unless one was a guru from one of the distant meditation asteroids, one would have had small hopes of deciphering his expression. "This is true, but these days, one can own a planetoid for the mere price of a rocket fare. It is the creation of sustainable artificial gravity through careful application of the Jodorowsky principle that marks one above the common rabble. But come now, dear lady, can a man truly call himself happy if he cannot sit on his balcony, drinking La Eau de Mars '25 and watch a nuclear mushroom illuminate his lonely evening?"
"So I take it you admit that you live on this fully terraformed planet on your own?"
"Intellectually speaking," Von Schmidt lamented, "but please, no more talk about this humble German eccentric. I'm sure the brochures have done a remarkable job at relaying my unorthodox pursuits. Pray tell, what earned me the honor of your exquisite presence, my dear lady? Your transmission was quite vague, I'm sorry to say, offering nothing but the time of your arrival and your lack of human company. Also, may I add, all the rumors of your beauty have been understatements made by spirits devoid of poetry. You are, zakh phirini al kalgwa'ani, as they say in the Old Country." Needless to say, they did not say this in the Old Country. Indeed, they did not say this in any human country at all.
"Von Schmidt, it is exactly your planetoid, namely, a fully terraformed world that has only thirteen registered denizens, one of whom is obviously a literary allusion, while nearby planetoids are brimming with refugees from the chornoi wars, that concern me … and my royal father." The Princess silently cursed herself for the rhetorical misstep of taking so long to mention her father. For a clever man, which Von Schmidt undoubtedly was, this would be a powerful clue that this errand of mercy was a private endeavor rather than an official visit.
Like many great errands of mercy undertaken by young women of wealth and influence in the storied past, the main driving force behind this journey, if one didn't take into account the yacht's nuclear reactor, was spite. One of a magnitude which had generated almost as much power as a nuclear reactor but was somewhat less predictable. It started when the Princess suggested to her father that it was neither just nor sensible to expect the chornoi, who until recently were not even aware humanity existed, to pay exuberant fees for using radiation coming from the Sun, of which her family owned a considerable portion and which her species owned entirely.
"Not only is it our prerogative, it is in fact our moral duty," her royal father countered. "The sun is our property and has been for generations. Any entity wishing to exploit this resource, human or otherwise, must either pay royalties or acquire shares."
"Or start killing humans. Of course, since our citizens live billions of kilometers away from the Oort cloud, the target of this outrage are explorers and philosophers braving the horror vacui, including sweet Jessica!"
Her father shrugged. "In which case there will be a considerable economic boost due to increase in military production. In either case, the value of our shares will rise, and the wealth of our subjects will increase. As a royal family, our duty lies with our subjects and shareholders, not with eccentrics who chose to abandon old Terra and journey into the void, a role best left to the dedicated professionals of the Old Brigade."
It was at this point that the Princess had decided to embark on a self-prescribed mission of mercy. She was neither dedicated, nor professional, but she was a colonel in the Old Brigade, even if the only use of the commission she'd made so far was as an excuse to look dashing in comfortable uniform, while avoiding her family's traditionally horrid and horridly traditional crown of feathers.
Von Schmidt shrugged and walked to a large window that offered a panoramic view of a significant portion of his trans-Neptunian fief. "The pristine view becomes this small planet, don't you find?"
The Princess had to admit that the view was surprisingly picturesque, in a stark contrast to the crass and bombastic taste of most contemporary aristocrats. Instead of gaudy genetic abominations that served no further purpose than to remind nature who was the master, Von Schmidt elected to paint his world with verdant colors accentuated by spots of crimson blossoms and azure lakes. Colossal cliffs jutted from the magnificent forest like the claws of a great beast slowly tearing its way to cosmic freedom. The silhouettes of pterodactyls and elegant drones lazily crossed a backdrop of two small indigo suns and the ephemeral forms of two irregularly shaped moons. Massive forms, beasts or engines, roamed between the trees, their forms hidden by the impenetrable canopy. It was hard to believe this primordial landscape was younger than the Princess and that the illumination came from orbital projectors and not from the sun, which was so distant that had it the power to shine through the artificial sky it would have been indistinguishable from any other star.
"I would have extended an invitation to the poor fellows, but I thought that nuclear explosions would perhaps have a detrimental effect on their humors. The last memory of many ex-patriots from their respective old countries is a nuclear mushroom, I imagine."
The Princess's nostrils flared for a moment. "Von Schmidt, this is no laughing matter! Refugees are quite literally stacked one on top of each other, while you're sipping 7,000-Comet-a-bottle wine and detonating nuclear devices of a magnitude forbidden under planetary self-defense laws, destroying potential farms and residences in the process simply for the sake of entertainment!" As soon as the words left her mouth, it had occurred to the Princess that she hadn't seen any atomic scars on the planet, suggesting that perhaps this particular rumor was somewhat exaggerated by the brochures. However, Von Schmidt didn't bother to deny it.
"Not entertainment, my dear lady, enlightenment. As Herr Freundicher teaches in die Sterneisenfaust, 'The enlightenment of one man is more important than the lives of a million simpletons.' But come, my dear lady, let us not be late to the banquet in your honor!"
"Do you think me so barbarous as to host the scion of one of the greatest superpowers of Terra, a lady who literally owns the sun, and not entertain her with the company of esteemed and fascinating guests?"
The Princess jumped in her suit as Von Schmidt laid a hand on her shoulder and led her away from the magnificent balcony. Few men would have lived for more than a heartbeat after such audacity, and yet, this scoundrel had extended her no more respect than he would an unwanted, but pleasantly distracting, salesperson.
"This was supposed to be a private, a secret …" The Princess protested feebly. Noting Von Schmidt's utter disregard of her disquiet, she didn't bother finishing her protestation and allowed the infamous German to lead her towards what appeared to be a smooth, featureless wall.
"Secrets do not become gentlemen and ladies of our rank. Our escapades are nothing without the adoration or condemnation of our lessers. Anyone outside this room, of course, being our lesser."
The wall swirled into a prismatic vortex that sang in a voice that was doubtlessly only heard before by Odysseus, who put the lives of himself and his intrepid crew on the line just for a chance to hear a snippet of the alluring song. Of course, had he been so lucky as to be born in the age of the Second Aristocracy, all the effort needed to hear the siren's song would have been a light tap on the nearest flat surface.
Feeling she had given up on her noble quest too easily, the Princess attempted to once again reason with Von Schmidt. She thought of a clever argument, but never got to offer it for the German's consideration.
As if reading her thought, Von Schmidt spoke in an officious voice. "Please report to your royal father, should the issue ever arise, that I have a nuclear arsenal to rival that of any crowned heads of Terra as well as a pledge of friendship from the Sun Tzu fleet. Now, my dear lady, since your mission has been as much a fabulous failure as your father's invasion of the chornoi ubersail, may I suggest drinking and partying the disappointment away?"
"I am stuck here until my ship refuels, but don't expect me to partake in your decadent entertainments, Von Schmidt. Rest assured, my father will not be pleased with your threats and insolence." Almost as much as he would not be pleased with her threats and insolence.
"That is most lamentable. Let me introduce you to some of my finest friends."
The two passed through the swirling portal and found themselves on an observation deck overlooking a banquet hall of white marble and red cloth. A handful of lavishly dressed guests were carousing below, served by remarkably similar footmen in formal attires and heavy magnetic boots.
In the center of the room there was a large marble fountain depicting a ragged man in crude hides cutting the throat of a beautiful nude boy, red wine gushing from the wound to form a large pool around the brutal scene. The pool's barrier was a grotesquely humanized snake that studied the murder with detached amusement.
Adjacent to the snake's head stood two androgynously attractive and absolutely identical people who were helping themselves to the wine with long spoons wrought in the shape of cobras with human faces. One twin caught the Princess's gaze and reacted by making the briefest of bows and murmuring something polite that sounded more feline than human. Von Schmidt returned the bow while the Princess merely nodded.
"These are the Marseille siblings, Jean et Jean. Famous for narrowly avoiding wars and other disasters in any locale they visit, usually by a margin of only a few days," Von Schmidt said. "Now, this young man about to plunge headfirst into the wine pool is their current lover, according to the tabloids. Count Ivanov claims to be a free adventurer touring the Kuiper Belt with his lovely French companions, but in reality, he must be a Russian spy. Though to be honest, who isn't a Russian spy these days?"
"So everyone is working for the Russians now?" the Princess asked disparagingly.
"Of course not! Someone must provide intelligence for the Japanese. For example, this short, impeccably dressed gentleman of the oriental persuasion is the honorable Tanaka Shin, a 17% samurai and the second-most dangerous person outward of Neptune."
Hearing the man's title, the Princess became even more alarmed about this surprise party supposedly thrown in her honor by a cadre of ominous strangers. In corporate Bushido, the percentage preceding a samurai's title indicated how many shares the samurai held in his master's company. Accumulated over generations through ruthless machinations and even more ruthless marriages, men whose shares were in the double digits were a fearsome breed indeed, as skilled in murder as they were in mass murder. In the rare instance one left his master's palace, blood and mischief were sure to follow, for what other reason could a samurai possibly have to ever leave his home?
However, showing weakness in the face of intimidation, explicit or implied, was not her family's way. Brainless bravado was her family's way. However, with all due respect to her ancestors, royal, corporate, and mythological, the Princess did not intend to practice that either, seeing how death from old age was something of a rarity among her ancestors, royal, corporate, and mythological. Still, she was what she was and so, scoffing, she said, "I imagine you believe yourself to be the most dangerous man in the galaxy?"
"Heavens no, my dear lady! A man with a smartblade can merely extort a bank. A man with a bank can extort a planet. The most dangerous man alive would be that great, round gentleman over there, the one who just walked through my head footman. This is Herr Graff Von Ludendorf, officially a Swiss banker. Unofficially, the holder of more colonies than the Queen of England. He has made so many enemies back on Terra, not to mention the recent Sinii awakening movement, that he never leaves his trans-Neptunian Palace of Pleasure anymore. Instead, he transmits his hologram to parties and board meetings. Why, you must see him at masquerades, he's absolutely the rage, if I may say so myself!"
The apparition hovered nearby and took a deep bow. "Mein fraulein, zis is un honor!"
"Von Graff." The Princess returned the courtesy coldly to yet another person who purposefully failed to address her in the correct style. "I don't have the time for a proper conversation at the moment, but I do hope that someday, we'll be able to have a meeting of a more … substantial nature."
The ghostly banker puffed and hovered away indignantly. Von Schmidt clapped his hands with pleasure. "My dear lady, I see you're a better speaker than most of the crowned airheads of Terra! Would you like to see more of my guests?"
"I don't feel I have much of a choice in the matter, though I must confess that the crowd here is well known to me from palatial news. By rights, they should be exploring the horror vacui without the benefit of a spacesuit, not enjoying this infamous banquet."
"Right ho! That sounds like the most marvelous sort of fun!" exclaimed a bestial voice from behind the Princess.
The Princess spun around to see an eight-foot-tall man covered in green scales. He had the head, wings, and claws of a pterodactyl, but the horrible fashion sense of an Englishman. The infamous Professor Herbert York, rumored to be uplifted from a genetically engineered egg, of course needs no further introduction, as his dastardly career is well known to any reader of intelligence and class. Indeed, it was once said that the sun never sets on the British Empire because it too wishes to assist in the apprehension of this interplanetary criminal mastermind.
"How do you do!" he said in perfect Corporate English, though his affectation of enthusiasm was somewhat marred by his otherworldly inflection and monstrous bearing.
The Princess wrinkled her nose and turned away. She was surrounded by the sort of people one hopes to go through life without ever seeing outside of sensational newscasts or feverish dreams. While the guests she'd met so far had at least some tenuous claims to aristocracy, the same could not be said about the last and least of the guests—a venerable Chinese woman in a gown of seemingly living butterflies and an obese Italian man smoking a thick cigar while framed by two belles, one albino and one Afro-Terrestrial, their doped expressions testifying to the ill effects of opium.
Von Schmidt followed her gaze and proceeded with his round of uncalled for introductions.
"This delightful lady, very well pickled for her age, which puts many of the rocks outside to shame, is the infamous pirate Chang Shih Feng, an admiral in the Fleet of the Thousand Butterflies. Her dress consists of a thousand ersatz butterflies with wings as sharp as razors. With a single word she can reduce a roomful of unshielded people into bloody ribbons or upgrade her dress into the latest scream in orbital fashion.
"Across the room, with two gorgeous women by his somewhat less gorgeous sides, is her sworn enemy, Don Vincenzo Calzoni. It is said that for all her flagrancy, Madam Chang has a soft spot for defenseless young maidens and would castrate anyone who would dare to take advantage of a young woman of any creed. Calzoni, on the other hand, has made quite a fortune by taking advantage of such young women, as well as boys, beasts, and various artifices unsuitable for civilized discourse due to being subjects of deviant intercourse.
"I hope you are flattered that two sworn enemies are willing to peacefully share a room just to bask in your royal presence, especially since both of them command private armies to match those of numerous smaller Terrestrial states, though, it must be said, not even a minor threat to your father's fleet, or even the Old Brigade."
"Overjoyed," the Princess said with the expression of a person informed that their upcoming execution will be performed by a panel of award-winning executioners and that each artifice of murder will be lovingly handcrafted by a troop of celebrated Dutch artisans. "You could have saved a considerable amount of time by simply saying 'a pirate and a pimp.'"
Von Schmidt clapped once, raising quite a few eyebrows, and laughed heartily. "This is true, oh yes, quite true! I will save time then—a scoundrel, a villain, a thief, a charlatan, an assassin, a radical, a libertine … well, that would be me of course, and a princess! My dear lady, if you feel yourself so much above this choice extract of the villains of the system, should we get to the matter at hand?"
"What matter?" the Princess asked suspiciously.
Von Schmidt turned away from her and spoke as loudly as one could without actually shouting. "Ladies, gentlemen. I'm so glad that most of you could make it. May I offer a moment of silence for our friends who did not survive the arduous journey?"
"No need! They already very silent!" Madam Chang interjected. Several people laughed uneasily.
"I admit-a to a-nothing!" Calzoni said and laughed, alone.
"Must we suffer this vulgarity for long, dear Jean?" Jean asked Jean in a sensual voice that sounded as if it was leading to a yawn, but never quite got there.
"It is a sad truth that the possession of some rare jewels is worth suffering the company of apes," Jean replied to Jean in an identical voice.
"Apes are apes, though they speak with a rummy French accent." Professor York misquoted the old poet and addressed Von Schmidt directly. "If one doesn't care to spend the entire afternoon wiping blood and brain matter off the walls, one is dashed well advised to start with the proceedings already!"
"Indeed, my dear professor, let us waste no more time on banter and get to the auction." Von Schmidt announced to his guests.
"What's for sale?" the Princess asked uneasily.
"Why, you are, of course," Von Schmidt answered cheerfully.