“A good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends.”
Henry IV, Part 1, William Shakespeare
“Henry? What are you doing?”
The King was gazing into the darkness outside the small window. The deep blackness was dotted with stars, but Henry was not contemplating the vastness of the universe. He was in fact engaged in a lively electronic discussion with someone. Not that most people would have been able to tell: he was as still as ever: his long back upright, his hands clasped loosely at the base of his spine, his noble brow only slightly furrowed. But the person asking the question knew him better than any other.
“Nothing, my darling Cate. Simply thinking.”
His queen raised a sceptical eyebrow. She put down the tablet she had been using to browse for gifts for the coming festive season. “If you are wondering what to give me for Christmas, I have plenty of suggestions for you, love.”
Henry turned around and smiled at his beloved, who was looking up at him from the sofa, a falsely innocent expression on her beautiful olive-skinned face. “Oh, you need not concern yourself with that, my dearest. I have that fully under control.”
“Oh yes? Then what are you up to?” He started to speak but Cate continued. “Because you areup to something, aren’t you?” Her tone brooked no denial, so rather than lie, her husband merely shrugged.
“Would you care for a coffee, or perhaps a glass of wine, my darling?”
“Changing the subject, eh? Well, it won’t work, I’ll get to the bottom of it, eventually, you know that, Harry-boy.”
Henry drew himself up to his full height and strode to the kitchen with as much dignity as he could muster. Try as he might, he could never fool Cate, so silence with a just soupçon of affront was the best he could manage. She was, of course, correct. He had been conversing with Oakley. The young scallywag was not someone with whom he regularly consorted, but needs must. While not given to revenge, Henry was determined that he would gain some small satisfaction in the coming weeks, and Oakley was just the accomplice for such a task.
Loki was rummaging around in a large pink box across the room from his partner, who was staring into space listlessly. He held up a pale hand in which he grasped a bottle of glittering red nail varnish. “How about this one, my darling? Suitably festive?”
Hannah let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Loki stood up and walked around the daybed to perch beside her hip. He stroked her hair as she stared at the ceiling. “I know this is rather tedious for you, my dear, but it’s only for a short while.” A soft harrumph came from close by. “Now, come, let me paint your delicious toes.” Elegant fingers caressed her calf and despite her low mood, a shudder of desire rippled over her.
“Alright, alright. At least it will pass the time.”
Hannah had known even before she became pregnant that, given her age, it was unlikely she would have an uncomplicated gestation. In fact, all had gone pretty smoothly until the last few weeks, when her blood pressure and routine urine analyses had alarmed the team caring for her. Ideally, Miriam would have liked to admit her to the antenatal unit for monitoring, but Hannah had refused. She insisted that with Loki looking after her, she would be as safe at home. She almost regretted that when it became obvious that her partner took his responsibilities as a substitute nurse very seriously. She was prescribed bed rest to treat her pre-eclampsia, and so Hannah found herself confined to their apartment for all but the occasional evening with friends (when Loki insisted she was pushed by him in a wheelchair, with great ceremony, to and from their apartments). She had access to all the resources that OB4’sonline systems could provide, plenty of entertainment and information, but it wasn’t long before she came down with a severe case of cabin fever. This was exacerbated by the terrible instruction that her friend the Medical Director had solemnly pronounced to them both: no excitement.
A stream of visitors eased her discomfort somewhat. Amanda brought Daisy to see her ‘auntie’, and Hannah was delighted to watch the baby’s little curly blonde head as she cruised around the room, clutching onto the furniture before resorting to a bum-shuffle form of propulsion when she ran out of hand-holds. Julie and Edward came by often with Phoebe, who adored Loki and completely monopolised him while there. Julie was sparkling with the unmistakable glow of early pregnancy. Miriam’s idea seemed to have worked, judging by the look of Edward; he walked taller, held himself with more gravity and what seemed like real pride.
These days, Hannah had to keep reminding herself that the men of OB4 were androids. All of them, active Companions included, had evolved, matured, become even more human. Even haughty King Henry V, that most inflexible of the ‘originals’, had softened in the crucible of fatherhood and marriage. It always amused her to watch the interactions between him and Loki. Henry had never quite forgiven the Trickster for the humiliation of the prank he and Oakley orchestrated before the birth of his first child. They had never been friends, and most likely never would be, despite the closeness of their respective partners. Loki was too devious for the upright Plantagenet; Henry was too straight-laced for the God of Lies. And the King still harboured a lingering resentment about another, long-ago event.
Cate, being Hannah’s best friend, visited her most days. Her daughters Nell and Kitty - who came too, when school and other activities allowed - were almost incandescent with excitement about the new baby. Hannah and Loki were so special to the girls, and Cate’s own anticipation of her dearest friend’s joy was feeding the frenzy somewhat. When they were there, the two youngsters chattered incessantly about baby clothes, fussed over the latest scan pictures, giggled about the games they could play with her once she was born, and quizzed Loki about the name she was given the moment she was conceived.
Frigga Lokisdottir. There had never been any doubt that would be it. There had - briefly - been some question as to whether she would ever be made, but that turned out to be just a short blip in the passionate love affair between her parents. Not that Loki was her actual, biologicalfather, of course; no child had been conceived naturally for generations, not since the men of Earth made themselves extinct. But even with sophisticated gene editing, it was never certain which characteristics would be expressed in the new offspring; would little Frigga have Loki’s black hair and blue eyes? Or her mother’s green eyes and dark blonde hair? She would be bright, that was beyond question, but would she be tall and rangy or curvy, love jazz or hate it, want to read or prefer often just to watch movies? That aspect of the adventure of procreation had not been lost, for all the technological interference.
These were the matters Hannah mused on in the long hours she was condemned to rest, feet up at all times, maintaining her health and hence that of her daughter, now just a matter of weeks, days almost from joining the population of Orbital Base 4. That forthcoming event was another source of tension; despite Hannah’s best hopes, Miriam had confirmed a week ago that her condition meant she would have to have a surgical delivery. It was just the latest in a series of disappointments.
“I know things are not turning out exactly as you had hoped they would, my darling.” Hannah looked up from her folded hands to see Loki’s beautiful face. He was deploying the deadliest weapon in his armoury: the wistful smile. His eyes were sad, but they brightened as he went on. “But you are suffering all this for our daughter, and won’t that priceless treasure be worth it? Even the caesarean?”
She reached forward to grasp his free hand as he put the nail polish down. “I know, I know. You’re quite right, of course. It’s just so bloody boring, and… I just wish I wasn’t going to start motherhood with an abdominal wound.”
He smiled more broadly. “But at least, you won’t be…” His eyes flicked up and down.
Hannah slapped at him playfully. “Oh stop it!” She leaned back into the pillows, which felt clammy and creased from being used all day. He was right; for all its disadvantages, at least she wouldn’t be stretched down there. At her age, she needed all the help she could get…
It was the nearest to winter that OB4 ever saw: the apple trees were bare; a cool wind blew across the grass and rattled the old-fashioned shutters on the cider mill. The park was largely deserted; the children were back in school, and the chill was less than welcoming to the casual stroller. Henry was walking, marching really, in his accustomed way. It was what he did when he needed to think. He would have preferred a fast gallop, but all the horses were long gone. His pale face was stern, the brows knit together. His slim body, clad in his favourite leather jerkin and breeches, was a red streak against the winter-green grass. He was grappling with his conscience, something he did more often these days. In his youth, he had been a little wild, he conceded, and japes of even the cruellest kind were not beyond him. But now he was a father, a husband and a king, and such tricks were far in his past. And yet…
“Hey, Harry! How’s it going?”
Henry grimaced as Oakley’s voice reached him. Only a handful of people were around them, but all heads naturally turned at the sound of shouting. The last thing the King wanted was to be seen talking to this young ruffian, reformed or otherwise. He heard the thumping of feet on grass as the curly-headed Oakley ran to catch up with him. Several of the women who were passing watched them with greater or lesser degrees of hunger; these two of the first three Companionsto arrive on the station were widely considered to be among the most attractive, not least because they were unavailable. The King, starkly handsome with his red hair and neat beard; his younger fellow, angel-faced, curly-headed and bronzed from a long-ago Italian summer. The women sighed and moved on; at least Oakley had once been attainable for a short time, and he was a teacher now so it was possible to get near to him. Henry had refused to participate in the initial programme, remaining totally faithful to his Cate; these days he was still searching for a purpose in this strange new world. He was mysterious, aloof.
“So, yer madge, had any ideas for stitching up Lokes yet?”
Oakley, never short on braggadocio, was even more confident since fatherhood and training for a profession. Henry rolled his eyes but did not rise to the bait. He had never totally forgiven Loki for what happened between the Norse demi-god and Cate, even though that was before Henry was reactivated and laid eyes on his Queen. The stunt Loki pulled on the eve of Eleanor’s birth had only compounded his dislike. The same was true of his rigidity when it came to Thomas Oakley. The King had put away childish things when he acceded to the throne, and disapproved of Oakley’s demeanour. These days he was more amenable than he had once been, thanks to years of marriage to Cate and the necessary adaptations of fatherhood, but Oakley reminded him too much of his own younger days. Nevertheless, if he was to have his desired revenge he had to engage with the disrespectful youth and reawaken, however reluctantly and briefly, his former wild self.
“I have not. He is so artful, so devious, it will be difficult to outwit him.”
“True. Tricky to trick the Trickster, eh?” Oakley sniggered and nudged Henry hard in the ribs, a breach of protocol that made the King grind his teeth. The royal person should not be touched, let alone… “Well, I’ve had a couple of thoughts that might help.” Oakley grinned, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “Fancy a stroll through the bamboo?”
The coffee shop was mostly empty, as it usually was at this time. It was early afternoon, post the lunchtime rush but before the after-school influx. Miriam had ordered the drinks already and was lowering her weary bones into one of the more comfortable easy chairs. She smiled at the irony - she of all people should have known how wiped-out she would feel during the first trimester, but she steadfastly refused to lighten her workload. Still, she did allow herself a few more breaks these days. A familiar voice from the doorway to the Main Concourse made her look up: Julie and Amanda were scanning the space. She raised a hand and they headed over. Kisses were exchanged and the arrivals stowed their shopping bags as Miriam spoke.
“Mary said she’d try to drop in, but there’s some kind of a kerfuffle going on downstairs somewhere. Janet should be here any-”
“Janet!” Julie was waving to the Head of Science who wove her way through the sea of mostly empty tables to join them.
“I can’t stay long, ladies. I’ve got a mountain of work and I want to leave on time tonight.”
Amanda smirked. “I bet you do.”
Janet blushed but had to smile. “Oh shut up. Like you’re any different.”
Miriam called the meeting to order. “Cate sends her apologies but it’s her afternoon for library duty at the school. She has sent me some notes though.”
Amanda huffed. “Good thing, since this is all her idea.”
“Well,” Miriam interjected, “hers and mine. I’m worried about Hannah. She’s getting really depressed, stuck at home and being pretty much confined to bed.”
All the women around the table nodded. “Is Loki in on this?”
Miriam smiled. “Yes, Julie, of course. He always knows what’s happening, almost before anyone else. Even, you know, after what…”
“A leopard never changes his spots.” Everyone looked up to see Mary, the OB4 Head of Security standing there. She greeted her friends and took the vacant seat next to Amanda. “Once a snooper, always a snooper. Although he does seem to be confining himself to general traffic and keeping out of those areas tagged ‘confidential’... at least, for now.”
“Right,” Miriam began again, “so we need to set a date, and then talk about how we do this.”
“Well, we can bring the food - Ed is already talking about a menu. He’s rather excited, you know how he loves a party.”
Miriam frowned a little. “We have to bear in mind that Hannah mustn’t get over-excited. I’ve had to ban all hanky-panky as it is.” A collective gasp went up around the table. Horrified glances were exchanged. Miriam raised an apologetic hand. “I know, but her BP was so high, and we can’t put little Frigga at risk.”
“Of course not,” said Julie, “but…” She pulled a face.
Janet looked at the others. A year ago, she would have been amused by the collective reaction, but now she was inside this very exclusive club. The idea of no sexual contact with Caius, for weeks or months…“It’s funny how soon what was once seen as impossible becomes a basic human right.”
The others laughed and the slight gloom lifted. Mary eyed the group; she was the only one not in a long-term relationship with a Companion. She was happy as she was, living alone with her daughters, Flora and Faith, doing her job and spending time with friends. If she felt horny, she booked a date at Companionship,usually with Sir Thomas or Stacker, depending on her mood. She had visited Adam in his gothic cave once or twice, but she found him a bit intense. Sir Thomas Sharpe was serious, but he had a light streak and a ready smile. Adam, with his melancholy personality was too much like hard work. She saw enough of misery in her career - even in a generally happy place like OB4.
“Well,” Julie piped up, “I can certainly see why you and Cate think a baby shower might be in order. But would she like that? You know how private and low-key Hannah is.” Amanda and Mary looked at each other and burst out laughing. It took a moment for the others to cotton on. Eventually even Julie was smiling as she acknowledged her inadvertent pun. “OK, OK, but seriously…”
Miriam leaned forward and out her hand on Julie’s forearm. “I’ve been talking to Loki, and of course Cate has too, and she has tested the water with Hannah herself, without giving anything away, that is...and yes, it seems that a shower would be welcome. As long as it is small and tastefully done.”
Mary snorted. “So no loud music or porn? Not sure I’ll bother, then…”
Talk soon turned to the details. Julie was put in charge of catering, Amanda and Janet agreed to coordinate the decorations. Those would have to be something that could be smuggled in and put up very rapidly, it was decided. As Hannah could not leave the apartment, Loki would be tasked with getting her out of the living room long enough for the surprise to be put in place. A date and time was agreed before Janet had to leave and Mary had to get back to her duties: Sunday afternoon, ten days hence, nine days before the baby’s due date.
The bamboo plantation was a good place for a private conversation. The thickly planted vegetation muffled voices, and the many twists and turns along the narrow paths made for a dozen secluded spots to plot in. As he and Oakley made their way deep into the maze-like centre, Henry felt a tickle of excitement - he thought of merry days and nights spent soaked in sack at the Boar’s Head; of the streets of East Cheap; and of the scurrilous old Sir John, who had loved him so but whom he had to set aside. And he thought of his old friend Poins, and the tricks that they had played together on Jack Falstaff. Those had been easy; it is a simple matter to rob the greedy, and no real challenge to outwit the drunkard. Loki was a horse of a very different colour.
After a few minutes, they came upon a bench in the crook of a bend and Oakley sat down. “Obviously Loki’s not going to fall for the old ‘booze-up in a cider mill’ routine.” Henry gritted his teeth as he bent to sit as well; Oakley smirked. “Not that I’m saying you were gullible, your majesty, just that the Lokester isn't going to let us pull the same trick. Now, the thing is, he’s a terrible snob. Worse than you, in some ways. I mean, he thinks he’s more than just a Prince, he’s a fucking god, according to him, anyway, so-”
“What do you mean, worse than me?”
Oakley looked steadily at the King. “Seriously? You don't think that swanning around not doing anything all day and insisting on being treated like a king doesn't make you at least a bit snooty?”
Henry stood up, outraged. “I AM a king!” He felt the anger boiling in his gut and took several deep breaths. Oakley had touched a nerve, and Henry turned to glare down at him, his fists clenched by his sides. The younger man looked serenely back. He wasn’t too worried: if it came to a fight, they were evenly matched.
“And youdo fuck all around here, unlike the rest of us.” Which was Oakley’s typically subtle way of reminding Henry that every other Companion contributed to the economy of the station in some way. The actives offered their services at Companionship, Edward ran the nursery with Julie, Magnus and Jonathan were members of the OB4 security team, James worked for the Administration, Freddie gave a few hours a week to the Engineering Section, helping with designs and tech assimilation; Caius Martius had opened his little jewellery studio and Oakley was almost fully-trained as a primary teacher. Even Loki the demi-god helped out at the nursery and told stories at one of the schools.
The King made himself calm down. Much as it pained him to admit it, the infuriating youth was correct. He straightened his back, unclenched his hands and returned to his seat. He weighed his words carefully before speaking. “I have been pondering that very matter, as it happens. I am in search of an occupation which will suit my abilities. I do not wish to be a mere passenger.”
Oakley leaned forward to look into his face. “Interesting. Any ideas? What’ya good at? Apart from looking down on the peasants, that is.”
“I do NOT look down on my subjects!” He moderated his tone. “I do not.”
“So it’s just me, then.” Oakley leaned back, his face set in an expression of disappointment which didn't fool Henry for a moment.
“No, I just find that you are…”
“No, it’s just your behaviour, it’s so-”
Oakley sighed. “Well, Henry mate, you’re gonna have to get in touch with your inner delinquent if we’re gonna get Loki. So, as I was saying, he’s a snob, at heart. He definitely thinks we’re allbeneath him, you included. So it has to be something that appeals to his vanity. His massive, overblown ego.”
Henry stood up again suddenly. But this time he was smiling, his white teeth flashing in the comparative gloom of the winter afternoon in the shady plantation. Because two ideas had come to him simultaneously: how they might catch Loki out, and how he himself could at last become a useful member of the community.