Meghan sat at the dressing table in her silk tented, white on white bedroom brushing her waist length curls and reading the scroll running across a side mirror.

'Miss Meghan Bracken-Hampton -'

"Note." the scroll stopped and her words appeared in red as she said; "Eliminate the Hampton. I am not a Hampton I am a Bracken. Resume."

'Miss Meghan Bracken will be the richest debutant making her bow this season. This lovely young Cinderella, born on an outer world and orphaned by the war before being adopted into the fabulously wealthy Hampton dynasty, already possesses a fortune of 20 million, 12.5 in trusts and HE stock, and a further seven or eight from endorsements and her personal line of clothing and cosmetics. She is expected to receive at least 80 million more from her adopted father now she has come of age. -'

"Note. Are all these numbers necessary? This is a puff piece not a financial report. Resume."

'Meghan will make her debut in the exclusive surroundings of the floating colony on Bellerophon. The Wade Hamptons' estate of 'Little Rock' has been her home for many years and she will have the pleasure of being surrounded by family and friends with only minimal intrusions from the outside 'Verse.'

'Such as this article." Meghan said dryly. 'No, don't make a note of that. Resume."

'Little Rock is one of the most unique homes in the colony -'

"Note. 'Most unique' is a tautology." she said acidly. "Something is 'unique' or it is not. Little Rock is unique. Resume."

'- beautifully striated genuine stone has been molded into naturalistic tunnels and caverns creating a delightfully light and airy troglodyte home in which the indoors melts almost imperceptibly into outdoors.'

'Megan shares one of the three residences on the estate with her two sisters; Alistair and Seanna. The multi-leveled 20,000 square foot home has fifteen bedrooms, twelve baths and includes amenities like a thousand book library, a multi-linked holo-suite, a sauna and an Olympic quality gymnasium in addition to the usual formal rooms, parlors, dens, recreation rooms and living rooms.

"Note. Numbers again. Are all these statistics really necessary? Resume."

'Her private apartment is one of the loveliest, most feminine rooms in the 'Verse; rich white Sihnon silk swaths the stone walls and ceiling, luminous with the light from draped windows and shafts. The floor is covered by a snowy sweep of deep velvet carpeting. The furnishings are of ivorywood shimmering with pearl inlays. The single bed and its bedside table are enclosed by a tent of gauzy white silk net, creating a room within a room. Fresh flower arrangements on almost every surface, a few cushions and throws add their notes of color to the overall effect of virginal whiteness.'

"Note: Research the possible market for a line in furniture and textiles." said Meghan. "Resume."

'On her way home from Londinium, where she is a student in the Humanities at Oxbridge University, Meghan stopped over on Sihnon where she went on a shopping spree under the guidance of her sister Alistair and professional stylist Kellie London. Already a fashion icon with her soft, feminine signature look, Meghan -'

"Skip to the social paragraphs. I've already seen this bit." the scroll blurred as it ran rapidly down then cleared.

'A regular social whirl has been scheduled for the new debutante, sponsored as she is by her adopted grandmother and aunt, Baroness Jolie Hampton and Paige Hampton Countess of Duryea, queens of Bellerophon and Londinium society. -'

"Note." Meghan sighed. "For the millionth time; that should be Jolie Hampton the Baroness Sexburgh and the Countess Duryea nee Paige Hampton. There is a right way and a wrong way to use titles. I prefer the right way if you please. And so do Jolie and Paige."

'Every hostess in the colony is eager to honor the latest Hampton princess with a tea or a reception or a dance.'

"God help me." Meghan said with feeling. "No, don't make a note of that either." She was, unfortunately, introverted by nature but a society hostess and power broker a'la Gran and Aunt Paige was necessary to their future plans and Alistair was far to forthright and short fused for the job. At least Meghan would eventually be able to share the burden with Seanna, who was already showing signs of becoming a talented social manager. Once she was established Meghan could be as exclusive as she liked but in the meantime it was necessary to meet and mix. It wouldn't be so bad here on Bellerophon where everybody had 'arrived' but the Londinium season with its annual hordes of aggressive climbers was going to be a hellish ordeal.

She quickly scanned the last paragraphs, consisting of speculative comparisons to Alistair's debut three years ago. "Fine, fine. Approved. Send." the scroll vanished as the text went winging back to the publicity office with her addendums.

Seanna Bracken studied her reflection in the full length mirror Unlike her sisters she didn't take after their mother; Meghan was the image of Mama with her dimpled oval face, brown curls, big blue eyes and delicate mouth. Alistair had the same coloring but was taller with a hint of Daddy's angularity in her chiseled features. Seanna on the other hand was all her father with the same strong cheekbones and chin, straight blond hair and steely gray-blue eyes. Not pretty, not pretty at all and she didn't care a wit - she was proud to look like Sam Bracken.

The dramatic asymmetrical clothes she preferred suited her long, rangy body and angular features but tended to overpower smaller, prettier girls. She was always trying to discourage her friends from imitating her style, without success. Like Meghan her look was fashionable, the cortex was full of images of girls wearing her clothing line most of them looking badly in it. Oh well it was their look out.

Tonight she was wearing a metal weave half-jacket over a navy sheath trimmed with glittery pink ribbon. Slits showed her legs above the knee high leather boots and her bare arm jingled with bangles. Her asymmetrical haircut was all swept to one side with a knot of metallic ribbon over the left ear. Seanna nodded satisfied. Jolie wouldn't like it of course, she just couldn't get it through her head that pretty, feminine clothes like Meghan's would look just awful on Seanna's very different figure.

Differences over dress aside Seanna liked her adopted grandmother and Jolie liked her recognizing a kindred soul. They both had a bit of the shark in them, more than a bit if Seanna was honest about it. Meghan was too inclined to empathize with others and Alistair had to be angry for her ruthless streak to surface. Seanna was the only one of the three who could go for the jugular, coolly, surgically, and without remorse - if sometimes a touch of regret. An unattractive trait perhaps but necessary for survival in a cutthroat 'Verse.

Jolie was just the same. She'd walked over bodies to build the Hampton empire and establish her children in their various niches. Paige was a society hostess and power broker like her Ma, Jolie's acknowledged heir. Introverted Wade managed the family's multi-various business enterprises and younger son Derrick had been groomed for political power. He'd been well launched for the secretary-generalship before the Unification movement had come along and relegated him to the political wilderness. But he still had his senatorship and his party so a comeback wasn't entirely beyond the reach of possibility. Mirielle, the baby and butterfly of the family, had gone into the entertainment field. Her beauty had made her a star and her money a mover and shaker among the dream-merchants who fed the Core-dwellers thirst for fantasy to brighten their safe, predictable lives.

Seanna liked most of her adopted relatives, the Disgusting Object being the sole exception - but not even his Ma liked him. she was looking forward to seeing Sissy and Mel; the Hampton Muskeeteers reunited except for their D'Artagnan - and Janni would be arriving any day now.

Hampton Court, Jolie's estate which she shared with Derrick and his family, was completely different from Little Rock. One of the biggest of the estates it consisted of a sprawling red-brick complex modeled on an Ancient Earth-That-Was palace of the same name set in formal gardens, carefully pruned orchards and wooded parkland with a broad, artificial river running through it.

Jolie met them on the water terrace overlooking the river, short of stature and on the plump side but with the most marvelous Snow-White coloring; alabaster skin, raven hair and rather chilly grey-blue eyes which narrowed at the sight of the Wade Hamptons. "Where's Briony?"

"Good question." Dianne answered biting off every word. "Off somewhere with Kirk, no clue where."

"Before Unification days?" Jolie's eyebrows and voice rose.

Dianne frowned, half wanting to defend her chick, half wanting to join Jolie in a gripe and grumble over Briony's misbehavior.

Aunt Oona, Derrick's golden haired and deceptively childlike wife, stepped quickly into the breech. "Perhaps they'll have an announcement for us when they come back."

That got startled looks of reassessment from the two other women. Both Jolie and Dianne agreed it was high time Briony picked herself a husband though for rather different reasons:

Jolie's aristocratic ethic required a 'good' marriage for the breeding of heirs, while Dianne's frontier mores made settling down and creating a family a duty of adulthood.

"It would be an excellent match." Jolie murmured, reflecting on Kirk's family and financial standing.

"They've been lovers long enough to be sure." said Dianne, equally thoughtfully.

Everybody else sighed, relieved a clash between Mother and Daughter in law had been successfully averted. Family get togethers were much more pleasant without Jolie and Dianne sniping at each other.

Melanie Hampton, Derrick and Oona's only daughter, was a leggy gamin with her father's raven hair and her mother's pretty face. She was also one of the few other girls who looked good in Seanna's style; she was wearing a long, transparent coat over a bare-midriff, one legged pantsuit in purple, fuschia and green. Her hair, longer than Seanna's, was streaked with vermilion and gathered into a side tail. Her lips were tinted muscat grape color and gold sequins outlined her eyes. The cousins gave each other the once over, approved, and started exchanging the latest gossip at a great rate.

Her brothers, Pat and Terry, as always gravitated to Meghan competing for her attention. Jolie, Dianne and Oona accepted cocktails from a footman in the red and white Hampton livery and put their heads together, talking weddings. Alistair wryly hoped Bree was planning to come back engaged or there'd be hell to pay, then headed for Uncle Derrick feeding the carp in an ornamental pool.

"I want to talk to you." she said bluntly. "It's important, political important not social important."

He looked a little sad, a little resigned. "I'm afraid I don't count for much in New Westminster these days."

"This might change that." Alistair took his arm, steering him away from the others and the hovering servants. Unlike Little Rock you couldn't move on Hampton Court without falling over footmen, butlers and housekeepers every other step.

"Regan Tam is one of my professors at the Law Acad, you may have heard of her."

He nodded. "Of course, the Tam-Thurley decision."

"That's her. She's got a daughter, River, not just ordinarily brilliant but a super-genius. When the kid was fourteen they were sent a prospectus from a school specializing in such children. A government funded school on Columbia."

Derrick blinked. "What?"

"Exactly. They'd never heard of the place either but River got all excited over it, wanted to go so they sent her. They haven't seen her since. There were letters of course, regular reports from faculty. Everything seemed fine so they didn't listen to River's brother Simon when he started saying something was wrong. Finally he got her out, kidnapped her."

"Good God!"

"That's not the problem. When Regan and her husband went to investigate in person they found evidence that the kids were being manipulated neuro-psychologically, experimented on."

Derrick sat down abruptly on a convenient bench. "You say she's got proof of this?"

Alistair nodded. "Captured interviews with some of River's friends and the results of their medical exams."

"I'll need to see it."

"I know. They'll be staying with friends at Andromeda Beach over Unification days. I'll invite them to lunch or something." her eyes narrowed a little. "You never heard anything about a program like this?"

"Not on kids." he took a deep breath. "Adults, service men and women who'd given informed consent. Even so the casualty rate was unacceptably high. We closed it down. I thought we'd closed it down." politician or no Derrick was a decent man - not to mention one of the few Core-dwellers who believed in Freedom over Security - suspicious as she was of all things government Alistair didn't doubt the genuiness of his distress for an instant. "I've got to talk to the Tams."

"You will." she promised.