“Thomas Innes Loche Kinago, you look absolutely smashing. Fantastic! Elegant! And, very, very military.”
I strode back and forth in front of the lighted mirror set into my cabin’s mahogany closet door with my chest stuck out and my toes turned at just the right angle. I do not believe I felt inordinately proud of my new uniform. I admired the set of the smart, deep blue tunic, the lavish, jeweled gold braid on sleeves, shoulders and lapels, and the shiny black of the boots and cap, the latter of which so handsomely set off the shiny chestnut brown of my freshly barbered hair. An especial point of gloating was to be found in the satin stripe down the outside of each buff-colored pant leg. Those were white. I had never been allowed to indulge myself like that in military school, not with the pure silk white stripe, and not with all that gold braid adorning sleeves and shoulders. Besides my pleb insignia, I had been restricted to a single loop of gold to identify my personal rank as a cousin of the Imperial house. Now that I had been assigned to command my own cutter, I had a certain amount of leeway. But what fun was leeway if one didn’t push at its edges?
I touched the gold badge at my breast: Kinago, T.I., which of course stood for Thomas Innes—military protocol limited me to only two initials, which I felt was terribly unfair considering the dignity of my ancestry, particularly the omission of my mother’s surname which would properly be placed before my father’s—and polished off a small smudge at its inner edge with the tip of my sleeve, then took a pace or two back to get a better view of the whole.
Most admirable, I thought. The deep blue of the tunic emphasized the pale, slightly greenish blue of my eyes set in a long, smooth face tinted the tanned complexion of the Loches I had inherited from the noble forebears in my mother’s maternal line. The eyes came from the Innes clan, the straight but interesting nose with the slightly flared nostrils a vestige of the Melarides family, my father’s maternal ancestors. Ah, the parents would undoubtedly be proud of their second son attired in such well-tailored finery. My distressingly above average height provided perhaps one small sore point; most of my cousins were shorter than I was, and often made me feel like a scarecrow, particularly when I was younger and not as physically coordinated as I had grown to be. Still, the fine, long fingers and noble jaw were as good as anyone could hope for. I didn’t have to see my gene map to know I represented the best of our ancestral DNA. Yes, a fine specimen, I had to admit, and dressed to set off my assets in the best light possible. Fully human. I was proud of my reflection.
A gentle “Hem!” from behind me retrieved me from my reverie.
“So it’s not true they always send the fool of the family to sea,” I said to my aide-de-camp Parsons. “No, indeed. Or in this case, to space.”
That worthy, possessed of a long, oval face even more epicene than my own, taller by a hand’s breadth, brushed-back hair the black of unoccupied space, clad in a more somber, inky, midnight-blue uniform with self-effacing and totally irreproachably polished boots, cleared his throat, and almost, but not quite, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
“No, my lord.”
I caught his look of doubt and nodded wisely. “Oh, you aren’t thinking of my great-uncle Sidor again, are you?”
“No, my lord,” Parsons said, in definite tones. “I promise you, I’m not thinking of your great-uncle Sidor.”
“Good,” I said, happily surveying the satin stripe down the side of my trouser leg. Shimmering like a snowbank. Very handsome. And striking. “Because that sort of decadent behavior really is best forgotten, you know. I mean, running off to a desert planet like that, in the middle of the Imperial birthday celebration . . .”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Parsons interrupted me. “Would you like to go down to mess now, sir? Your lady mother did say not to be late, particularly your first day. After all, naval protocol . . .”
“To the black holes with naval protocol! And,” I dropped my voice, as if First Space Lord Admiral Tariana Kinago Loche might be within hearing range which, heaven knew she could be, what with modern technology, “. . . and with my lady mother, too. Who’s in command of this vessel anyhow? Her or me?”
“Technically neither, sir,” Parsons said, palming the door plate. “This is Admiral Podesta’s flagship, the I.S. Wedjet. Your cutter is aboard this one.”
“Yes, well, a technicality,” I said, giving myself another look, and my admiration knew no bounds. I was the best product of tailoring and breeding that I had ever seen. “I outrank him where it counts, don’t I? Eh? He’s of good family, but not in the line of descent at all. Is he?”
Parsons didn’t reply. He could not deny it, and I knew it. I might be a lowly brevet lieutenant, field-promoted from my commission rank of ensign so I could command the cutter in question on a mission that yet of which I knew nothing, but Parsons had confirmed for me that not one of the officers in command of either the dreadnought or its many small craft in the launch bays were a cousin of the Imperial house or any kind of court noble close to my own lofty birth. Parsons himself held the naval rank of commander, but here he was serving as my personal attache. Let the average Steve, Josephine or Sergei try to top that! Ah, the glorious traditions of the Space Navy!
“I am sure you enjoy the distinction,” Parsons intoned. “Would it perhaps not be more tactful to avoid rubbing the difference between your stations in the lord admiral’s face in his own mess hall? After all, sir, courtesy is the force that has held the Imperium together for many millennia, and your deck rank is that of ensign.”
“I shall be the picture of civility,” I promised him. A thought struck me suddenly, and I glanced over my shoulder to meet his eyes directly. “By the way, why am I the only one like me on board?”
“May I say, without fear of contradiction, that you are the only one like you in the universe. Sir.”
I cocked my head, trying to figure out if the statement was an insult or a compliment, and had to light upon compliment. Parsons was not given to blatant mud-throwing. I pressed my point. “You know what I mean, Parsons. I went all the way through Academy with dozens—no, hundreds—of my distant cousins and friends of friends. People I’ve known since I could crawl. Class of ’049. When we all got our orders on graduation day and compared notes I very nearly dropped my teeth out of my head. They’re all on the same three or four ships doing escort duty around the Core Worlds. I’m the only one assigned out here on the perimeter. What am I doing out here by myself?”
No clue could be gleaned from my aide’s face. It was as unreadable as the bulkhead just behind him. “Your specific assignment will be given to you in good time, sir. Are any of your classmates in incipient command of a cutter?”
“Well, no,” I acknowledged, pleased all over again as the warm feeling the thought engendered washed over me. Not that I had seen the vessel in question yet, but it did exist, Parsons had confirmed for me, and was safely aboard the Wedjet, awaiting that mysterious assignment. The shuttle that had conveyed me aboard from the surface of the Imperium’s capital world of Keinolt had come aboard in one of the other landing bays of the vast destroyer. The Wedjet itself was thousands of meters long, shaped like an angel, wings slightly spread, nose of the navigation section forward pointed purposefully toward deep space, its long, slender underside gleaming white from reflected light from the planet’s atmosphere. It was so lovely one had to recall deliberately that it was also deadly. The 836 weapons emplacements, I recalled from lessons in the Academy, were well concealed behind panels and in the curves of her hull. My barely adequate quarters were situated where one of the angel’s knees might have been. “But it might get a little lonely, won’t it?”
“There are over two thousand people on this ship, comprising sixteen races and sub-races, sir,” Parsons said impatiently. “Loneliness would seem to be the least of your worries.”
“I know,” I tried to explain, searching for words to describe my feelings of puzzlement and loneliness, “but it’s not the same. I mean, those people at the Academy were my peers. Nobility. The upper crust. The noted, even the notorious. Except for traveling, going shopping or to parties, or speaking to the staff in the Imperial Compound, I hardly ever really cross paths with anyone to whom I’m not distantly related at the very least.”
“Think of it as a new experience, sir.” The door slid open, and my ADC urged me away from the mirror by getting in the way of my view. I attempted, without success, to see over his shoulder. It was no use. He used his superior height and maneuverability to thwart me no matter which way I shifted. With a snort of annoyance I finally gave up and tried to stare him down. Parsons’s long face wore no expression. I, as usual, blinked first. “Shall we go?” he asked.
“Wait a millisecond,” I said urgently, though I knew I was delaying the evil moment just a little longer. “I want to take a picture of us on my first day of active service.” I reached into a hidden pocket I had had the Imperial tailoring service sew into my tunic seam and let go of a little gold globe, which floated out in front of Parsons’s impassive face. The Baltion Clic 4.0 was one of many cameras I had with me, part of my newfound passion for photography and image capture. I threw an arm around the adjutant’s shoulder and grinned at the ball. It twirled, blinking faster and faster. “Here it goes! Say ‘cheese’!”
“Yes, sir,” Parsons said, with the same expression he had worn all along, as red-tinged light bloomed out of the globe in a blinding flare. The muscles in my eyes contracted painfully to protect my retinas, but I had recorded the glorious event. While I blinked away the glare Parsons put a firm hand in my back and urged me towards the door. “The admiral is waiting.”
I snatched the ball out of the air just before the doors closed behind us.
* * *
“Are you certain that I shouldn’t make a grand entrance?” I asked, as we strode the grand corridor that led to the officers’ wardroom, knowing that my voice hovered near a whine. I could not help feeling petulant.
“Absolutely not, sir,” Parsons stated firmly, not slowing up at all. I had to increase my pace to keep from being outdistanced by the man. “It would give the wrong impression. You must by all means hold to the structure of ship’s command. To do otherwise is to undermine the authority of her rightful commander.”
“But it’s me,” I stressed. “They don’t often get someone from the loftiest social circles, do they?”
Parsons was unmoved. “Naval protocol does not permit exceptions, my lord. Even the Emperor himself would wait to be piped aboard.”
Privately, I doubted it. I had lived in the Imperial Compound near the palace and played in it since I was a child, and I couldn’t recall a single instance when I didn’t look up and suddenly see my elevated cousin looking down over my shoulder with the greatest expression of disapproval, and not a knock or a genteel clearing of the throat to have been heard at any time preceding the discovery. Shojan had a positive knack for appearing where he was less than expected. In fact, the Imperial staff kept alarm beepers—discreet, of course; some as small as a millimeter across—to avoid having one’s regal master turn up when one was indisposed or slacking off one’s duties. Such things, sadly, were not available to mere relatives without a worthwhile profession to use as an excuse. He had once caught me and several of my close cousins when we were in the room next to the private wine cellars . . . but I digress.
The memory of that setting threw my current location into a comparison less favorable than perhaps it deserved. After all, it was a warship. The grandeur of the walnut-colored paneling had to take second place to durability and fireproofing, rendering it hopelessly artificial-looking. The carpets, while woven in an intricate and handsome pattern, needed to withstand the passage of thousands of feet a week. Some of the private rooms in the royal residence and compound had never been trodden by more than the current regnant, his or her personal secretary and the cleaning staff. Silk there was a possibility; here, synthetics were the rule. I tried hard not to feel snobbish as I reached for the control.
The door of the wardroom slid open and emitted its little chime. With Parsons an undoubtedly chilly presence a pace behind my shoulder, I strode in without making the grand entrance that I’d dearly hoped to make, just to announce in a little way that I was aboard and eager to be of service. Sometimes it pained me that Parsons did not appreciate my sense of drama. The rest of the ship’s complement ought to be a little awed, perhaps even slightly agog.
Maybe they were agog anyhow. Certainly eyes opened widely as I made my way into the handsome chamber. My spanking-new boots made a disconcerting clicking noise upon the shining composite floors. I tried not to count the number of steps, but it was difficult to ignore, since I was now making the only sounds in the room. Diners of many races in crisply pressed uniforms around the wide round tables set down their forks momentarily to watch me make my progress through the chamber. I flicked off my hat and tucked it underneath my left arm. After a month or so it seemed, I arrived at the board, an elegant blackwood three-pedestal table set with priceless antique crystal and china that appeared to hover just over the surface of a gleaming white damask tablecloth. I halted. Hoisting my back into its stiffest upright position, I saluted crisply to the spare man at the center of the table, and offered containing just slightly less starch to each of the four other captains seated behind it on either side of him. Admiral Podesta’s hawklike eyes traveled down from mine, over my uniformed chest, a slight dogleg to the left, to the side of my trousers, and back up again. When the eyes reached mine once more, I offered him a grave smile and a second salute to honor his flag rank. The thin black brows on his egg-shaped head rose a sound centimeter toward his fluffy, thin gray hair, and his eyes narrowed as if in deep thought.
“Ensign Kinago reporting, Admiral,” I announced.
“Dinner begins at twenty-hundred, Ensign,” the flag officer snapped out, then returned to his soup without another glance. Parsons sighed just loudly enough for me to hear him.
“I apologize, Admiral,” I said at once. Podesta didn’t even look up. I hovered for a moment, wondering if I ought to enlarge upon my regrets. My Naval Academy training stressed courtesy, but never had the commandant of the college refused to maintain eye contact with me. I wavered.
“Sit down now and stay out of trouble, sir,” Parsons muttered. He removed himself from his position at my shoulder and placed himself silently at a central table in between others who bore the same shoulder and wrist badges as he did.
Stay out of trouble? I mused. I wasn’t in trouble. A trifle late, perhaps. But the entire room sat gawking at me. Couldn’t go on interrupting everyone else’s dinner. I smiled blandly around. Strangers didn’t deter me. I had always felt that unknown persons were just friends that one hadn’t met yet. My philosophy had served me well my first twenty-three years, and I saw no reason to doubt it now.
“Right, see you later,” I told Parsons. Conscious of the number of eyes on me, I marched smoothly toward the only empty chair in the big room, at the table farthest from the door through which I had just entered. I put a hand on its back and smiled at my tablemates. Each of them wore an ensign’s bar on his, her or its collar. “Evening, all.”
“H’lo,” a few of them muttered.
The ensign nearest me was an Uctu, the correct name for the race whose section of the galaxy ran a third of the way along the Imperium’s border. Humanity, upon beholding their nearest nonhuman neighbors, promptly named them “Geckos,” after the reptile of Old Earth that they most resembled. There had been a movement to rename them “Dragons,” as being more complimentary to a fellow spacegoing race, but it failed. Herpetologists pointed out that Uctu had large, slightly sticky pads at the tips of their flexible fingers, and their blunt, round-eyed faces failed to look fierce even when provoked. Geckos they remained. Unlike some of their neighbors the Uctu evolved under nearly identical gravitational and atmospheric conditions so they battled with the Imperium and the Trade Union, the largest of the Human-occupied systems. Over thousands of years that border had shifted up and back, until there were both Uctu and Human systems under the dominion of each. The Geckos had been fairly quiet for the last few decades, so this Uctu must have been born on Imperium soil. He was quite young, I reflected, still having the luminous turquoise spots on the rough skin above his eyes, and the reddish scales that ran from the crown of his head and disappeared down the back into his uniform collar had soft edges instead of points. The tab at his breast pocket said redius, k. I smiled at him.
“Pok no Ya inho?” I inquired. It was the polite way to greet one of his kind. They were keen multi-media viewers. The current style of digitavids were invented by an Uctu scientist. I had kept up for several seasons with the Ya! show, an ongoing search for the most talented dancers. Uctus loved dance.
The Uctu showed a brief flash of his sharp, flat teeth. “A fan you?”
“Avid,” I assured him, sitting down. “Lord Thomas I . . . Kinago. Ensign.”
“Kolchut Redius. Did you not tremble in boots yours?” the Uctu whispered.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you were late,” a human female ensign with tilted golden eyes and black hair informed me from across the table. She shifted her slim shoulders in her uniform as if she had only just learned how to wear clothes and wasn’t at all comfortable with the exercise. Her name was Anstruther, P. “The old man’s a stickler for punctuality. You’ll pull extra duty.”
“Not if I can help it,” I said, leaning forward, then automatically immediately back to allow the removal of a bowl of soup by a thin hand in a white sleeve. The moment I realized the china basin was moving away, I reached for it, but in vain. The servers cleared the table swiftly to make way for the next course. I was ravenous. A lightly cooked yak wouldn’t have been too small a meal to bring me. Instead, I concentrated on my tablemates. They would be my companions for the duration of my enlistment aboard this vessel, and I was eager to befriend them.
“What makes you special?” Xinu asked. He had coffee-dark skin and shiny black hair. The cost to tailor his uniform to wide shoulders down to impressively narrow hips had been well spent. His teeth, brilliant white, had a small blue jewel in the center of each.
“I’m just me,” I said modestly.
Xinu pretended to stick his finger down his throat. “False modesty makes me tired,” he said. “Admiral Podesta has been known to kick people out when they’re fifteen seconds late, and you sashayed in after ten minutes. Why aren’t you back in your cabin eating survival rations?”
I shrugged disarmingly. “I suppose I owe it all to my mother. She’s an admiral, too. Professional courtesy, I suppose,” I added, glancing back in alarm at Podesta, who was eating a green salad from a pale blue china bowl with quick, stabbing bites of a gleaming silver fork.
“He’s never heard of it,” said the dark-furred Wichu beside Redius. His name was Perkev. He showed his rows of pointed teeth. “You will see. I nearly starved after making a noise during inspection. I cannot eat the preekech that you humans consider palatable.”
Like anyone who adored languages, I had a working knowledge of all the curses and swear words used in the many cultures and systems of the Imperium. It was an inspired choice of epithets for the survival rations, whose unassuming acronym had been reapplied by my peers and me to other, less savory terms when we had had to taste the bars in question. The aromas coming from the serving hatches were appealing. I compared it with my memory of survival rations, and peered once again at Podesta. Was he that much of a stickler for rules? Why had I not heard about that during our transfer to the Wedjet?
Ah, but I must have heard it, but not retained the fact for future use. Where had this sense of dread anticipation been while I was admiring my new uniform in the mirror? I had thought that after spending more than half my life running into the Emperor casually in the hallways of the Imperium Compound I would consider any lower form of authority pussycatish in comparison, but frankly, what my tablemates were saying made a large, cold lump appear in my stomach. I swallowed deeply, feeling my throat constrict. “I’ve got some bridge-rebuilding to do, I see.”
“You won’t get the chance,” the Uctu said, the blue spots on his forehead glowing slightly. “I’ve never known to change his opinion, Podesta.”
My heart sank. “My mother,” I said, “is going to flay me.” I supposed that the admiral would write to her about the white stripe on my trousers, too. Why hadn’t I listened to Parsons?
“Wait . . . Kinago?” Xinu asked, curiously. “Tariana Kinago Loche is your mother?”
“Er, yes,” I admitted. I had already begun to compose the explanation I would have to make to Mother in my head. Words came glibly to mind, but she could just turn off the audio portion of my missive, so my eloquence would mean little. A pang of conscience told me she would not believe it. If I added a suitably pitiable expression and an austere background with a suggestion of the dungeon about it, perhaps I could elicit her maternal sympathy on my behalf. I gave another quick peek at Podesta and tried to guess his age. He might have been a contemporary of hers. They may even have been at Academy together. I gulped unhappily and added two or three more abject apologies to my mental text. “That’s her.”
“The First Space Lord?” Redius asked, dropping his jaw in interest. I nodded, feeling more miserable by the moment.
“Your mother is a hero!” Anstruther exclaimed, raising her hands in ecstasy. Her champagne-colored eyes sparkled. “I’ve viewed everything there is to see about her. The battle of Marquardt’s Pass, the siege of Colvarin’s Department Store system, the border defense against the Geckos . . . sorry, Kolchut.” The golden-eyed female ducked her head abjectly.
“No offense taken,” the Uctu said. “Born in the Imperium. My parents fled the Autocracy.”
“You, a noble of the Imperial House, are only an ensign?” Xinu asked.
“Well, everyone’s got to start somewhere,” I pointed out modestly. “I graduated from the Academy only two weeks ago.” I decided not to mention the brevet lieutenancy.
“Do we call you ‘your lordship’?” Anstruther asked, with a dreamy expression on her face.
“Only on formal occasions,” I explained hastily. “We’re fellow officers now, equals in the Space Navy in service to the Imperium.” Maybe I could mitigate Mother’s coming outpouring of fury by mentioning her many fans on board. I had my camera with me. A few video testimonials should go down well. But Mother had this very uncomfortable way of finding the needle of truth secreted in the proverbial haystack of obfuscation. That attention to minute detail was, in fact, one of the reasons she had become a hero.
“Your sire must be something special to have won her hand,” Perkev said.
“No doubt,” I said, feeling a twinge of conscience.
I thought of my father with concern.
Rodrigo Park Kinago must have been a handsome man at one time. I resembled him somewhat: he was tall, his long face with handsome bones and light eyes in a warmly tinted skin that attracted surprised glances by those who had not noticed him at once upon entering a room he occupied. Clearly, something had happened in the past to affect his mind. He seemed uninjured on the surface, if more gray and drawn-looking than a man of his middle years might expect to in these days of rejuvenation treatments and general longevity. I loved him, but I hated to talk about him. “Poor, brave Rodrigo” was almost always how my relatives referred to him. Not just “Rodrigo,” but “Poor, brave Rodrigo,” and pretty much always with the sad smile that one saves for such occasions as a good friend who had shot off his own foot accidentally, who had been widowed, or who had suffered some other inescapable and overwhelming misfortune not of his own making. My curiosity on the subject overwhelmed me. The closest I’d ever come to hearing what had actually happened to my father fell from the lips of my great-uncle Perleas during one of his weekly drunks when my great-aunt Sforzina wasn’t around.
“It was in the last war against the pirates, nephew,” Uncle Perleas had begun, sipping the fermented coca liqueur that he favored. He paused, thoughtfully. “No, Rodrigo really couldn’t have done anything else than exactly what he did. And certainly not after that.” I’d moved closer, agog. Uncle Perleas took an intake of breath, and was about to exhale details when, at that agonizing point, my aunt had come in and confiscated Uncle’s bottle and gave him a look that would have stopped the onset of winter, let alone an old man telling stories. I didn’t hear any more of the story that day, and when I tried to ask him about it at another suitably unguarded time, Perleas denied absolutely that he’d ever said anything. I certainly couldn’t ask my mother. She got very angry when I tried, with all of my eight-year-old tact, to inquire whether there wasn’t something odd about my paternal unit. I never tried again. My resultant grounding and deprivation of all privileges for a week was enough to deter my siblings from ever asking, either.
My father didn’t provide me with any more clues. He pottered around in our rooms and the workshop assigned to him in the Craftworkers’ Courtyard, a vast expanse of cobbled paving dotted with small enclosures and chambers purpose-built for a variety of hand- and machine-oriented construction at one edge of the Imperial Compound, a vast city-within-the-capital-city of Taino. His specialty seemed to be coming up with alternatives for archaic substances or devices that had largely slipped out of usage altogether. I had never heard of “sealing wax” before he showed it to me. With most personal and official documents electronically transmitted these days, the utility of his fresh formulation seemed limited, but making it made him happy. I loved him, and in my small-child’s way, I wanted him to be happy. It worried me that I didn’t know why he was not like the fathers of my cousins or friends. Naturally, I wanted to be different than he was, so as not to be spoken of with pity.
Father seemed content to remain within the ambit of those small spaces in the workshop, whereas I, my brother and sister couldn’t wait to slip the bounds of earth and go for illicit rides on borrowed suborbital skimmers or over the walls to parties thrown at exclusive clubs in town. No, Father had come to terms with his condition, and enjoyed a sunny if doddery disposition. I rarely considered his strangeness in latter days unless forced by conversational circumstance. As now.
“He is very special,” I assured my new shipmates.
“Was that your C.O. who came in with you?” asked Nesbitt, M., an ensign on the other side of Xinu. He had thick, dark brown brows over a long, jowly, red-complected face. In mass, he would have made two of me, though his bulk was arranged to form a mega-human a good twenty centimeters taller and twenty wider at the shoulders than I.
I frowned. “Parsons? No, he’s my aide-de-camp.”
If the stares I had received from my tablemates had been admiring on behalf of my mother, they switched to envy or puzzlement. “Why is he with you?” Anstruther began.
“Well, he’s been around since I was a boy,” I explained. “Always has been. Always kind to me. I was forever asking him questions, you know. He was like my personal information outlet. I hung on his every word. Parsons knows everything. You should ask him something; you’ll be amazed at the depths of his knowledge and erudition, though I admit the delivery lacks a bit in terms of excitement. An hour with him is worth a month at school. I just admire the fact that he is so calm all the time. That calm demeanor goes all the way to the core. I’ve attempted to interfere with the coolness, but no efforts of mine have ever been sufficient to break it. He has eternal patience, and he can do anything. When I was a scrub he played games with me, taught me the first rudiments of sword-fighting, including some fantastically dirty tricks I’ve never seen anywhere else, and he’s a better 3D jai-alai player than I am, which modesty prevents me from saying is very impressive indeed . . .”
Anstruther waved a hand. “No, I mean why do you have an aide-de-camp? You’re an ensign. You’ll be doing the same scutwork we are, fetching and carrying for lieutenants and upward.”
“Well, there are things that I need him to do I can’t do for myself,” I said. It sounded reasonable to me, though not to my new acquaintances.
“Why are you able to get special privileges?” a black-browed man asked in a growl. His name plate read Sarpenio. “Is it because you’re a noble?” He gave the word the same connotation as “baby-eater.” I gave him a modest smile.
“Part of my responsibilities,” I said, mysteriously. “I can say no more at this time.”
“I never served with one of you before,” Xinu said. “Do you get to bring servants wherever you go?”
“ ‘Servant’ is an outdated class,” Redius stated, his tongue flicking.
“Well, actually it’s not. There are thousands of servants in the Imperial Palace,” I explained. “It’s a job, like any other. Servants can quit if they want to, and most of the time they do. I recall one time when His Imperial Majesty had ordered a huge banquet to honor the Oligarchs of the Trade Union, and the cooks walked out just a day be—”
“Is that commander a servant, then?” Redius asked. “Is he a bondsman, sworn to you in some blood oath, or does he owe your family a debt?”
“Debt? Of course not!” I said. “He’s an old family friend. I can’t think of a time when he was not around the family home or somewhere in the Imperium Compound. One of my earliest memories is toddling around in one of his gardens, no doubt bent upon some infant mayhem. He intercepted me before I reached the rhododendrons, and took me to play some less harmful game. When I was five he started teaching me swordplay, which every gentle needs to know. I respect him greatly. He’s rather good in crises. They seem to melt away whenever he gets near one. Something about his calm exterior demands attention, you know, even if many of the things he says at the time don’t sound all that interesting. I recall once that he sat me down to explain to me the difference between diplomacy and tact—”
“Then he outranks you,” Xinu pointed out, interrupting the flow of my story, which was just as well, because once I began to recall the details, they were embarrassing to the Imperial family as well as to yours truly.
“In the service,” I reminded him. Sarpenio, the black-browed man glowered even more. I sensed an animosity there toward persons of high birth. I thought I had better make use of some of the Kinago charm as well as the Loche aegis. I gave him a warm smile. He shook his head as if to clear it.
“But you’re in the service, aren’t you?” Nesbitt asked.
“With all my heart,” I agreed, planting my hand over my chest wherein reposed that organ.
“Who died and made you . . . ?”
“Why do you need . . . ?”
“What is he . . . ?”
Anstruther flung up her hands to halt the spate of simultaneous and no doubt similar questions from our tablemates. “Why does an ordinary ensign,” she enunciated carefully, “have an aide-de-camp?”
“It’s most likely because I’ve got a sealed assignment,” I said sheepishly, ducking my head a trifle. “And that’s all I know about it. My scout ship is in the hangar. I haven’t even seen it yet.”
The faces of my tablemates lit up.
“You have a scout ship? What kind?” asked a male human my age with white-blond hair. His tag read parvinder, m.
I felt foolish admitting the truth. “As I said, its details are a complete mystery to me. I have been informed I will see it in time.”
“That sounds weird,” Anstruther said, though she regarded me almost shyly. “Shouldn’t you be familiarizing yourself with it? Every craft has its kinks.”
“I am sure I will be soon. I can’t imagine the Navy being so careless as to keep me from practicing before my mission,” I said. “We take pride in its reputation for thoroughness as well as courage.”
“We—you make it sound like you’re the Emperor himself!”
“Well,” I began modestly, “five times removed, but I can still call him cousin.”
“Do you know him? Have you seen him?” Nesbitt asked, curious in spite of himself. I felt there was still an opening to impress there.
“Often,” I said. “His Imperial Highness takes frequent constitutionals in the gardens of the compound. He finds them relaxing in between dealing with affairs of state. He hasn’t been Emperor that long, you may recall. His grandmother, Tirasiani VIII, passed into eternity less than five years ago.”
“Eternity be kind to her,” Xinu said, bobbing his head.
“As we all hope,” I said, acknowledging his courtesy. “Her grandfather was Emperor Irsan I, my great-great-grandfather. You can look up the family tree on my Infogrid file.”
Parvinder pressed me for more. “What’s he look like? I mean, His Imperial Highness. Do you call him Shojan?”
“Oh, well, that’s not the name he grew up with, you know,” I said. “It’s his throne name. He was named Vasco at birth. But, no, I didn’t call him Shojan, either; as he was in the direct line of succession, and was one of the chosen candidates for the throne from youth, he’s always been a Highness even to the family. He looks younger in person than his official portraits. In fact, he is only five years older than I am, a year younger than my oldest brother. Very handsome. Even the bronze statues don’t do him justice.”
“I’ve seen him in the digitavids,” Nesbitt said. “My sister has recorded every appearance he ever made. She’s crazy about him, quotes his speeches, and everything.”
The wry look on his face seemed to call for a light deprecating response, so I employed my special laugh. I had cultivated this laugh for approximately the last month. With limited facility for amusement within the confines of the barracks where I and the rest of the noble cohort had stayed during our basic naval training, we fell back upon the earliest of amusements: storytelling, music and poetry, making rude noises and playing tricks on one another. My laugh was a cross between a gurgle and a snort, with a glottal stop at the bottom of each explosion of breath. I had to admit it was a masterpiece.
At the sound, heads turned, and not only at my own table. I reflected too late that my voice had a carrying quality. During basic training, it had been a useful means to share my talent with the greater number of my fellow nobles. Guiltily, I glanced toward Parsons, but that dignitary did not flinch or wince. I hoped the absence of a reaction indicated that he hadn’t heard me. Faint hope, I knew; Parsons seemed to have ears as well as eyes in the back of his head.
I turned back to my fellows to see whether they had taken offense, or whether they appreciated art. Even Nesbitt shared a grin with me. Success!
“My sister embarrasses me, too,” I confessed.
“How many of you are there?” Redius asked.
“Three,” I said. “I’m the middle child. A brother and a sister.”
“A good family,” Anstruther said, enviously. Due to concerns about overpopulation in humans, large families, over two children, were uncommon. “I’ve got a sister.”
“Three twins,” said Perkev. “I am of the eldest pair.” Wichus were not prone to the same societal pressures as humans. But they bred less frequently.
“I’m an only,” Xinu said, with a grin.
The others offered their own family details. I listened carefully, making note of all. I was pleased with myself. I had managed to earn the admiration of my tablemates—well, most of them—and discovered much common ground among common folk. It made the three months’ work in boot camp worthwhile. I had often doubted my own commitment to it at the time, though I had joined the Space Navy for several reasons, a few of them so intensely personal that I rarely admitted them even to myself as being a bad risk for gossiping about them at idle moments. Certainly, none of those private thoughts had ever made it to my personal file on Infogrid.
A pause fell inevitably into the midst of our conversation. In the lull, I realized that there was a delay in the service of the salad course. I realized how very hungry I was. I had certainly overanticipated the moment of my arrival upon my first assigned ship, running over scenarios in my mind, and had undoubtedly picked at my lunch. In fact, I could not recall what I had eaten earlier in the day. This was on the end of the worst, having earned the disapproval of the commanding officer, instead of the gratitude and joy of many of the captains and admirals of my imagining that I had come to join them. Still, it looked as if this was going to be pleasurable, even an adventure.
I looked up in pleased anticipation as the waitstaff—no roboservers in the Admiral’s Mess—began to serve the table next to us from platters of savory delicacies. A broad-faced Blut server in a waist-length white jacket and black kilt glided toward us, guiding a floating tray of covered dishes. I was pleased to see him there; Bluts were placid beings, unsuited for the front line, but they wished to serve their Imperium as the rest of us did. They excelled as support staff. He met my eyes and nodded. Our dinner was coming next.
“Shouldn’t you be served first when the food comes?” Anstruther asked, with a shy glance my way.
“No, indeed,” I insisted. “I’m the most junior among you. I’ll be last. That is the correct protocol in the Navy.” I sat back, conscious of my courtesy and gallantry.
When to my dismay, the flat-faced server arrived, he moved smoothly to my side. I began to protest that he should serve those more senior to me first, but instead, he reached around me from near my right elbow and began to pick up my cutlery!
“Don’t take those!” I protested. “I haven’t dined yet!”
In the vicinity of my other elbow, I heard a gentle “Hem!” as if someone had cleared his, her or its throat. I turned to behold a smaller, slighter and more impatient version of Parsons, smooth-faced, black-haired, complete down to the commander’s insignia at collar and sleeve. His name was Oin.
“Admiral’s compliments, sir, but he’d like to see you in his study at once.”
“Uh-oh,” Xinu groaned.
I shifted my gaze in the direction of Parsons’s table. The glum look I spotted on my aide-de-camp’s face was uncalled for; the “old man” probably wanted to welcome the scion of a noble house to the fleet. I had scraped greetings to him from my mother, and this was as good a time as any to present them. I perceived that the admiral’s place at the table had been cleared. No doubt he had an intimate repast prepared for just the two of us, to make welcome the son of an old friend.
“Back in a while!” I said to the others.
Anstruther shook her head. “You’ll be swabbing out the food processors,” she promised.
* * *
I followed the small-framed commander into a narrow vac-lift that whooshed us upward with enough force to pull the planes of my face downward toward my neck. We came to an abrupt halt a few seconds later. My cheeks bobbed up and down before assuming their correct place. I straightened my collar and strode in the wake of my guide.
Plain white enameled doorways offered themselves to either side of this new, plain white enameled corridor. Curiosity made me want to know what was behind them, but I didn’t ask. I was rehearsing to myself the exact phrasing that my mother had used when asking me to remember her to the admiral.
A half-step behind the commander, I nearly walked onto his heels when he stopped a third of the way from the end of the hall and turned sharp right. He held his wrist insignia in the eye of a sensor concealed in the doorframe. Red, blue and green lights sparkled, and the door slid open. Directly in front of me, at a maroon-red antique wooden desk, Podesta sat bolt upright with his hands folded together. The commander peeled discreetly away and retreated from the chamber, leaving us alone.
I saluted brightly, hoping the energy would transmit itself to the admiral’s downturned mouth and lift it. “Ensign-Lieutenant Kinago, Admiral!” I announced. “May I say how glad and honored I am to be aboard? My mother holds you in high esteem. She sends her regards to you, and wishes you good health and success.”
The mention of my mother, rather than cheering him up, seemed to attach an anchor to the corners of Podesta’s mouth and drag them lower. He looked pale against the mostly black starmap of the Imperium that filled the entire wall of the office behind his large desk. He rose from the austerely padded chair and walked around his desk to meet me eye to eye. We were of a height, I was surprised to note. That meant he would have been a good deal taller than my maternal unit.
“Tell me something frankly, Ensign,” the admiral said.
I was eager to be of service. I straightened further, and my bones cracked in response.
The gaunt visage confronted me until our noses were almost touching. I presented the most open of countenances for his perusal. “Is Tariana angry with me? Did she set you up to throw a deliberate insult in my face?”
“Why, no,” I replied, rather rocked back on the heels by the question. “She holds you in the very greatest of esteem. She told me that I ought to be proud to be assigned to your fleet for my very first assignment. And so I am!”
“Then, it must have been your own concept,” the admiral retorted, the shaggy eyebrows ascending miraculously up the broad brow. A trifle of color tinged the pale cheeks. “To flaunt your birth rank, which has no place here. To make your own hours, instead of adhering to ship’s time. And that uniform! Did you have a problem coloring within the lines when you were in infant school, boy?”
“I was rather neat, if you ask me,” I said, after a moment’s perusal of my memory. “My father’s influence, I believe. He’s very tidy in the art department, though his choice of subject is inexplicable, in my opinion—”
“You young fool!” His query had apparently been a launching point for a line of thought, not a literal question, to judge by the rapidly increasing rubicundity of his complexion. “Give me one good reason why you shouldn’t spend the rest of your voyage in the bilge, scrubbing it with a nail brush?”
“Waste of my talents?” I suggested with hope. I’d done a bit of that in the Academy, to the detriment of my uniform and my sense of smell.
“Do you have any talents?”
My mouth moved to say, “Quite a few,” but I judged that the reply would provoke a further angry outburst. I doubted he wanted a summing up of my successes at three-dimensional jai-alai or my crack ability of solving crossword puzzles, or my newfound brilliance at image capture and manipulation. My nerves quivererd. This is not how I anticipated meeting the admiral. I moved hastily onto another tack.
“I apologize sincerely, sir,” I said, as meekly as I could. “It occurs to me that I suffered a severe lapse in judgment . . .”
The indicator of the admiral’s visage went over the line from scarlet into infrared. “A lapse in judgment? Is that what you call that insult? Your duty is to obey the laws and rules of the Navy, and to be aware of your position in it. And that position, you should recall with some clarity—since you just left the Academy, and I’ve heard that they make you smart there, don’t they?—is ensign. That means that you are at the very bottom of the ranks of officers, which puts you below not only all other officers, but the noncommissioned ranks as well, who actually work for a living, and the enlisted personnel, who at least know why they are here because they volunteered to be! We are at war out here, Ensign. The defense of the Imperium relies upon our efforts. I should not have to tell you, the son of your mother and, yes, your father.”
Figuratively speaking, my ears pricked up. My father? I couldn’t imagine what he meant, but now, with Podesta looking as if steam might pour out of the top of his head, was not the time to ask. I concentrated on standing absolutely at attention, eyes front and ears open, hoping for further enlightenment. None was forthcoming. I sensed he wished a reply from me. Nervously, I summoned one up from the sincerity of my heart.
“Of course I wish to serve the Imperium, sir. How may I do that? I am at your orders, sir.”
The kettle had gone off the boil, so to speak. Eyebrows and choler lowered, and Podesta withdrew from his fearsome posture. He returned to the chair behind his desk and sank into it. I did not relax. “You had best remember that, Ensign. Now, get out of here. Report to Lieutenant Wotun. Her office number is noted in your viewpad. At all other times than roll call, you will be in your quarters. I do not expect to see you at all except at mealtimes, during which I intend not to have to take any notice of you. Don’t lower my expectations any more than you already have.”
“Aye, sir! I will be a model of propriety hereafter, sir!” Relieved, I saluted with all the style I could muster. But Admiral Podesta had swiveled his seat away from me to consult a viewtank. I spun on my heel and marched out of his office, feeling as if my tail was between my legs.
* * *
“He’s an idiot, Commander,” Podesta declared, as the hall door slid shut behind the lanky recruit and an interior hatch slid open onto the adjacent chamber that served the admiral as a private sitting room. “I don’t know why you’re bothering with him. Tariana must be so disappointed. He’s just like all of the others.”
“Not so, sir,” Parsons demurred gently, stepping in. “We have been watching him since he was a boy. He has the required potential. All of the tests show it.”
The admiral sighed and ran a hand over his thinning hair. “Nature knows we need such things, but you’re starting with rough material, you know.”
Parsons offered a slight smile. “Not as bad as you may think on first meeting, sir. He has certain skills, well-honed. Natural talents, more than you would expect, though untrained. The attitude can be adjusted over time.”
“Nature! I hope we have time!” Podesta exclaimed.
“We’ll do our best, Admiral,” Parsons said, his face returning to smooth inscrutability. “That’s all we may do.”