“Margolies, sir, Sergeant, Campbell Q.,” said the first individual in response to my query for his name. The truth be told, I already knew it. I had matched his image to the file I had read aboard the Wedjet and reviewed that morning before our hatch was unsealed.
The review was being conducted in the huge bubble that was the hangar for mining equipment on the largest asteroid—a planetoid, really—in the Smithereen sector of the belt. A gas giant had exploded at one time in prehistory, possibly when it was attempting to ignite into a second sun in the system, leaving a field of debris especially rich in transuranics. The field of the Imperium’s influence narrowed to a few dozen light years beyond it, with the Uctus on one side and the Trade Union on the other, each wishing it had claimed this sector first. Hence its commercial and strategic importance.
Smithereen Prime had eight hangars, all busy. Enormous cranes carried containers of unprocessed ore from the mining ships, and processed ore to ships departing from the system. I had noted from my reading that this was a popular transshipment point for settlements in the galactic north of the Imperium as well as to the core worlds. We made a tiny group in the midst of the vast enclosed space of number five hangar, beside our scout ship, which was the most minute of the ships currently present. I felt even smaller compared with what I could see above me. Beyond the slight blue glow of the settlement’s forcefield, I saw stars given a hint of a twinkle by the minuscule though toxic atmosphere that Smithereen Prime attracted.
I gasped with wonder as I saw a scatter of faint white dots soaring upward. Could that be a meteor shower, outbound from atmosphere? Hastily, I deployed my small camera to take pictures of it. I heard the rasp of the tiny globe’s shutter (a recorded sound-effect; cameras were programmed to make a noise because it had been proved by successful marketers that humans need a somatic, aural or visual signal to accept that a machine has activated.) as it focused in upon the quadrant I designated. Meteor showers were considered lucky by my ancestral house. Pleased with the omen as well as the unexpected sight, I ordered the camera to return to hover just above and behind my right shoulder, taking snaps of each of the soldiers as I greeted them.
The militia, consisting of fifty or so beings of all races, genders and ages above majority, had arranged itself in two long rows, beginning at the bottom of my ship’s ramp, no doubt so I could go stride and back with an eye toward departing as soon as was possible. I sensed that the Smithereenians had gotten used to a dilatory visit over the years, and found that notion deplorable. My crew had debarked behind me and stood at attention, awaiting my pleasure. I had beaten Bailly three games out of four at handball, and looked forward to trouncing him similarly on the way home. The defeats hadn’t lessened his enthusiasm at all. Plet had beaten me six to five. She remained implacably formal, though I believe we had reached a state of mutual respect. All the Kinago charm was wasted upon her.
I was turned out to the very best possible of the combined efforts of Parsons and myself. I wore my ancestor’s sword and my great-grandfather’s sidearm, both polished to blinding gleams, and every thread of my uniform was in pristine order. I positively glowed beside the objects of my scrutiny who, if they had uniforms, wore hand-me-downs that had passed through a considerable number of hands since leaving the factory. Not a few of the volunteer soldiers shuffled embarrassed feet and tucked in belt ends and snapped closed flapping pockets before I reached them. The pulse rifles and combination pistols at their sides were as mismatched and scarred. The two armored suits standing hollow but at attention beside their operators had to have come from a BidWay auction. But in truth, I saw no flaws worth remarking; they were my first militia, and I was proud to be there with them.
“Margolies,” I said, returning the salute of the large-jawed man in the dark green coveralls. “How is your wife? I believe the two of you just had a son? Three and a half kilos?”
Margolies grinned, the corners of his jaw lifting the round and slightly weathered apples of his cheeks. “Yes, that’s right. They’re both doing fine, sir. Boy’s a bruiser like me. Wife didn’t mind birthing him the old way.”
“You should be proud, Sergeant,” I said, marched on to the next soldier in line. The captain of the militia, a meaty human female named Olga Chan, preceded me by one decorous pace. Parsons was starboard off my elbow and ten degrees aft, the perfect placement as an aide-de-camp. I kept my hands behind my back in the manner of sea captains of ancient Earth, which, alas, allowed the sword of my ancestors to bang rhythmically against my leg. I made a mental note to consult Parsons later on how to prevent that. I noticed his sword was not beating a tattoo on him. I alternately sweated and shivered in the hangar, as the heating coils in the floor and around the landing hatches fought their neverending battle against the cold of space. I hoped that the volunteers could not see the beads of sweat that I feared were gathering upon my brow.
I halted before a slim woman with dark, curly hair and liquid, caramel-brown eyes. “Hamadi? Quite an achievement to take top honors in your correspondence school degree, on top of your job and family. Half my peers didn’t manage an ordinary degree, even when they showed up to class. And not one late paper, in spite of the time delay in transmission. Well done! Will you be moving back toward the Imperium Core Worlds to practice?”
“No, sir,” the slim woman said, her cheeks flushing maroon with pleasure. “I want to practice law before the industrial tribunal here.”
“Well done, well done,” I said, swaggering down the file.
“Ahem,” came the inevitable voice of enforced humility. Parsons, after the fashion of Caesar’s chariot slaves, reminding me that I was mortal. I slowed my step and tried to regain the sense that I was not there for my own aggrandizement, but for the sake of the Imperium in general and Admiral Podesta in particular. Still, I felt high as a communications satellite. My peers at home would be doing nothing like this. Poor creatures! They would have to be resigned to their tours of duty in luxurious conditions among the same people that they always saw, amid sights that had to be growing intolerably familiar as the months passed. I, understandably, felt smug, but I kept it to myself.
With a touch of imposed humility, I continued along my review. “Hek-et-rahm, is it?”
“Yes, sir!” exclaimed a beefy Wichu with a foreshortened nose and taupe fur.
I wrinkled my brow. “Of the grocery store chain Hek-et-rahms? Sixty-two systems and growing, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” The Wichu looked as pleased as his fellows had that I knew something about him. The pupils of his large eyes spread to fill more of the purple iris. “I source minerals for the corporation, sir.”
“That’s good business, soldier,” I acknowledged. Funny how often the reception of imparting knowledge depended on context. If I’d spouted off all these facts about one of my peer group, I’d be accused of oneupsmanship. Here, I was seen as taking an interest. I liked this situation rather better.
I sensed that as I progressed, the volunteer soldiers were listening closely to what I said. I caught cheeky grins on the faces and heard whispers behind my back. My internal ridicule alarm sounded. I thought they disapproved, but by the pass along the second row, I realized they were listening with pleasure and speculating on whether I would make a mistake. Well, I will show you how they do things on the Imperium home world, I thought, rising to the challenge in the name of all the Kinagos and Loches.
“Torkadir,” I said, smiling into the bearded face. The man was tall, thirty-ish, and had a long nose and a carnation pink complexion.
“No, sir,” he snapped out, his eyes staring into space.
“How’s your bowling average holding up? I should think it was difficult to maintain a good throw in low gravity.”
“I don’t bowl, sir.”
“You don’t?” I cudgeled my memory, but even under torture it insisted that bowling had been front and center on this fellow’s profile. “Of course you do. You’re captain of the top league here.”
“No, sir, and it’s not Torkadir. It’s Premulo.”
A roar of laughter erupted from the group. Another bearded man three down the file whom I had not yet inspected leaned forward and wiggled his fingers at me. “I’m Torkadir, sir.”
I looked from one to the other. They were absolutely identical, down to the little curl of hair at the termination of each beard. “Has . . . er, has one of you had genetic reassignment, if you don’t mind my asking?”
That brought on another company-wide fit of the giggles.
“No, sir,” Premulo said. “We’re clones. Neither of our parents could have children of their own. Who’d have thought that we’d both end up mining for a living, but you know what they say about nature and nurture. I grew a beard, see, as soon’s I heard that the Navy was sending an envoy. Thought we’d have a little fun.”
“Well, you have gotten me,” I said. I made a note to sort through the pictures my camera was taking to remove those unbecoming frames showing me panicking before I put them into my Infogrid file for my friends’ delectation. I had been had, fair and square. I knew I should have cracked their files with my security code! Genetic information of that sort would have been noted in the need-to-know section. I glanced up at Parsons, who was as expressionless as usual. At least I could count upon him not to ridicule me. “Caught straight in a black hole’s event horizon.”
Captain Chan reached out and slapped me on the back. “It’s okay, sir. No one else can tell them apart, anyhow.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “It’s my first inspection.”
“Well, you’re doing a fine job. Never been so thoroughly reviewed before.”
Chastened, I finished my assignment. Now that I was part of the joke, the soldiers grinned with me as I brought out my little bits of information and encouragement for each. When I complimented the last one, Chee Rubin-Sign, on having produced a cooking video that was on the top five hundred list of media sales, Chan raised a hand.
“Let’s give a hand to the ensign-captain! Three cheers!”
“Kinago! Kinago! Kinago!” roared from fifty throats. I felt my own tighten with gratitude. The soldiers of the Smithereen militia stood tall and proud. How good it was to hear my name acclaimed like that! I hauled my own spine into full upright and locked position and turned to my host.
“Thank you,” I said, surprised to hear my voice go husky. “It has been a pleasure. Thank you for your service to the Imperium, the Emperor and to Admiral Podesta.” I started to turn toward the lowered ramp of my ship.
“Uh, won’t you stay and have a meal with us, sir?” Chan asked. I could tell the invitation was a customary question, offered to their very occasional visiting dignitaries. I could also tell the invitations were never accepted, as I, too, had to refuse. I heaved a sigh. At least I had spread a little happiness here on Smithereen.
I gazed into Chan’s hopeful face, which fell before I opened my mouth. She had heard it before, and could undoubtedly have recited my regrets or a version thereof along with me. Still, I had to voice them.
“I am terribly sorry, Captain, but my orders were only to inspect and review. I wish that . . .”
“Of course, the Ensign-Captain Lord Thomas Kinago and his crew will join you for a repast,” Parsons interrupted me. “It would be his pleasure.”
“It would?” I asked. Then my wits reassembled themselves. “Indeed, it would! On behalf of Admiral Podesta and the Imperium, it would be a privilege. My crew and I look forward to getting to know you all over a morsel and a small libation.”
This was not at all what the Smithereenians were expecting. Delight dawned upon them with all the lightening gradations of color of the real thing. They started to break ranks, when the captain blew a whistle.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Chan demanded of her troops. She assumed parade ground rest with her hands behind her back and stared at me. The others swiftly followed suit. I gawked at them.
“Dismiss them, sir,” Parsons whispered in my ear.
“Oh! Of course, what a fool I am. Dismiss!” I announced.