Author : Rick Tobin

“I wonder about the strawberry jelly, Gran Papa.” Madeleine’s brother Corso kicked at her feet beneath the sterile stainless steel table but instead struck a metal leg. He groaned softly as to hide his actions from the family figurehead. His black shock of hair, growing on just his left side, poked about as he jerked his head, glaring at his inquisitive sister. He wondered if this would be another moment when her prodding about the luxury of their life would further endanger their status in the House of Sulus.

“My dear, red-haired wunderkind, what is it this time? The texture of the fruit or why it is sweet when the fruit we raise on this vast space station is so bitter, or even without flavor? What is it now? Are not the wonders of your surroundings enough?” Chancellor Kaleb, patriarch of the Sulus Dynasty, leaned toward his beloved grandchild. His bushy eyebrows and throws of white hair were a spectacle of grandeur in the Empire, though the centuries of aging revealed themselves in the crevasses meandering through his high checks and noble, square chin. Madeleine was the rare being aboard the gigantic vessel who dared look deep into his massive black eyes.

“No, Gran Papa. Every day I behold the glorious royal sea above us, circling the rim of our majestic castle, knowing it protects us from the dangers of space. I see our floating forests and grassy knolls in the midlands, all above the roasting fire of the hybrid fusion engine—our sun…not theirs, out there, as we circle safety behind the protection of Jupiter.” She pointed to the outer hull stretching tens of miles above. “It is the source of this delicacy in front of us I ponder about, that we spread upon our fresh pastries each morning. Is it true that only the old Earth can make such a thing? I hear the people left there are our slaves merely to make this delight.”

A frown rolled across the Chancellor’s forehead. Corso drew back. His parents had warned them both that this visit could mean their propulsion upward in society, or a sentence to one of the prison colonies. Kaleb leaned back in his regal, high-backed chair. “No question about the outside Empire is out of order, but you have heard only partial truths. You must have been sneaking near the worker’s quarters. You shouldn’t. They know how to serve, but little more. In truth, the remains of Earth are the only place in the system where we have been able to raise strawberries. All other attempts have failed in one way or another. You know how bitter our apples and cherries are, no matter our care. Those who survived the destruction remained on Earth to tend these most valuable commodities. They cannot be seen as slaves, for without our trade, and the desire for this fruit, they would starve on that devastated rock. This delight is their gift for the beloved in the Empire, and they survive by our grace, nothing more.”

“But didn’t we come from Earth, originally? Aren’t we part of them?” Corso gasped, as did the Chancellor.

“Never, my little fury, ever speak of that again, or even suggest it.” His harsh tones shocked Madeleine into a withdrawn silence, unlike her nature. She continued with their breakfast quietly, carefully choosing not to ask about the Martian meat pies.

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