The scene erupted into motion as though an avalanche had been released from freeze-frame. The soldiers surrounded me, pounding me on the back and shaking my hand. Those with the throats to do it burst into happy ululations, and others chanted football cheers. Chan swooped into the middle of the mob, grabbed me by one arm and Parsons by the other, and hauled us in the direction of a small gray door opposite the large, blocky, yellow hangar doors.
“This way, guys—I mean, officers. We’ll get a drink while the cooks get something whipped up. We’re so used to every inspector saying no that you caught us a little off guard. But we’re glad about it! Really. Your visit’s gonna go down in history, Ensign-Captain, my lord.”
I allowed myself to be dragged toward beverages. My tongue felt like frayed carpet, and my wits, having had to hold together, were feeling the strain. Twin clones Torkadir and Premulo started waving their friends to crowd closely about me. They seized my legs and hoisted me aloft. Parsons and the rest of my crew were subjected to the same treatment. With the gravity on Smithereen considerably lower than Core Worlds standard, my hosts found it no trouble at all to carry another human being along at normal walking speed. It would make working with the heavy tools they employed much easier, though it put their bones in danger of breakage over time. Still, I enjoyed it as a novelty.
“Whee!” shouted Rous, waving to the crowd. His eyes rolled around in all directions, taking in the parade.
“Not your usual form of locomotion, is it?” I asked Parsons as we were borne toward the door. “Good thing the ceiling is high!”
“One must allow them their exuberance, sir,” Parsons said. He rested upon his friendly native bearers as a king might being carried by his subjects toward a throne. “They do seem to be pleased.”
“Overwhelming joy” was the term I would have applied to the mood. Word spread even before we reached the bar. Miners and support staff in worn shipsuits, overalls or jeans filled the large square corridor around us. Some of them waved bottles, others extended cameras. Flashes went off in staccato bursts until my eyes were dazzled.
I felt rather than saw myself being lowered to the floor. When my vision cleared, I discovered that I was in a bar. A thrill went up my spine. It was a workingbeing’s bar. My fellow nobles and I sometimes sauntered into one when our speed ships were being repaired, or when we felt like living on the dangerous edge by sneaking out of the Imperial Compound, away from the shops that closed to all other customers while we were there and the restaurants who brought in exotic ingredients to tempt the most capricious trend-seekers. The locals, I must admit, hated having us among them in their humble taverns. Comparisons were odious, but we threw money and cutting remarks around with abandon, confident in our eventual safety, since all of us carried emergency transponders that corresponded immediately with the Imperial Guard. Anyone who trifled with a scion of the Imperial House no matter how far removed from the throne was subject to fines or prison. That immunity made us giddy. Some nobles liked to push to see how close they could come to beginning an altercation before being asked politely, even if that politeness came with a firmly bitten tongue, to leave the premises. It was the first time I had ever been invited into a miner’s tavern on purpose. I reveled in the sensation. This would be another grand tale to tell my fellows when I had the chance to input it. Everything was so delightfully seedy. I absorbed the reality of it all.
The militia piled their weapons noisily at the door and spread out to favorite niches throughout the dimly lit room. As many of them as could manage it elbowed their way up to the bar with me and their captain, grinning at me in anticipation. I wondered, of what?
“What’ll you have?” Chan asked, smacking a muscular fist on the scarred bar top. It was made of real wood, probably hundreds of years old—no doubt considered a treasure out here light years away from any planetary forest.
“Whatever you’re drinking,” I said, recklessly. Chan grinned at me. I noticed then that she was missing her upper left canine. I whispered to my camera to get a left profile of her. She noticed the small globe hovering near her and took an offhand swat at it. She narrowed her eyes at me. With a sheepish smile, I ordered it to withdraw.
“You’re just a kid,” she said, not in a menacing way, but more as a mother would admonish her son. “But around here, you ask for permission if you want to record somebody. I let it pass while we were on parade, but now we’re private, and you ask.”
“Of course, Captain,” I said. “I deeply apologize.”
“S’okay, kid,” she said, giving me a wide armed slap on the shoulder. “I like you. Here’s your drink.”
Two beakers, rough-hewn out of pitted stone, slid our way from the practiced hand of the bartender, an enormous man who was not only missing a front tooth, but half his nose. He had a star tattoo covering each cheek. I know I was staring. Tattoos were forbidden among the nobility, though I knew more than one of my cousins had paid a sneaky visit to parlors on the side of town where the working class lived. I had heard rumors that stars, butterflies, roses and skulls had been imprinted in hidden places easily discovered only during a thorough physical examination. Not that I hadn’t seen tattooed humans here and there, and plenty of them on the entertainment videos, but none so close as this. The bartender noticed my scrutiny and leered at me.
“This is Doc Fedder,” Chan said. “Best damned neurosurgeon ever.”
“A real doctor?” I asked. It was then I realized that the bar, while appearing purposely seedy, was cleaner than my quarters on the ship. “But, why come out here to . . . ?” slipped out. The words “the middle of nowhere” managed to stay behind on my tongue. To reward it, I lifted the beaker to my lips. Steam poured off the surface of the beverage. I was concerned that it might be something caustic, but I was fairly certain the vapor was only volatile esters to enhance the drinking experience. The other miners watched me closely. I inhaled a lungful of lavender and asphalt with my sip of liquor. The beverage was hotter than coffee, and tasted like industrial floor cleaner. Thanks to long practice in less congenial surroundings, I gagged, but did not spew. A few of my onlookers seemed disappointed, and a couple held out palms to their companions. Credit counters were slapped into them. My next gulp sent another gout of fire down my gullet. When I recovered from the draught, I addressed my host. “Why not practice such a specialty in the Core Worlds, instead of on the extreme end of the Imperium?”
Doc cleared his throat. “Malpractice insurance,” he said. “Just not worth it. Here I can patch people up who are grateful I went to medical school. I still see some of my old patients virtually. They don’t want to give me up.”
A blinding flash interrupted us. My eyes flew upward toward the source. I realized that the ceiling of the bar was transparent. We were underneath a ship that had fired engines and was preparing to take off.
“Amazing!” I commented. “Why is this chamber built under the landing pads?”
“Well, it’s pretty dark out here,” Chan said. “Sun’s just a dot, and we don’t have a lot of atmosphere, artificial or otherwise. We need to let all the light we can into the inhabited levels. The first underground level of the whole settlement has five-meter-thick pureplex panels, lets in light there is from the landing pads and hangars with less than three percent distortion. There’re no privacy issues—all the sleeping and sanitation quarters can be clouded, but most people prefer to go to sleep looking up at the stars. The top level’s always in demand. You have to have seniority to get on the list. I’ve got a two-room half a click away from here underneath number five landing pad—took me six years to get it. I love it.”
“By Forn, I’d enjoy that myself,” I said, admiring the lights above. By their vertical motion I assumed we were under a runway. “What do you think, Parsons?” I asked him. He stood at my shoulder, holding a steaming beaker of industrial-strength grog as if it was a lab specimen. Perhaps it was.
“There are no arrangements as such on a naval vessel, sir. Transparent portals would be of limited utility when a ship enters ultra-drive.”
He did manage to reduce every potential pleasure to mere commonplace reality. I gave him a look of despair. He offered me the usual bland countenance.
“Does he always use nine-credit words?” Chan asked, nudging me in the ribs with her elbow.
“Oh, Parsons is on a budget today,” I said, airily. “Six credits apiece on down. May I make you known to the rest of my crew?” I made introductions all around, formally introducing Plet, Rous, Bailly and Oskelev to Chan and her two lieutenants, a big, balding human with enormous, protruding ears named Juhrman, and a scaly Croctoid with blue scales and pale blue eyes named Chertok. The locals instantly made my people welcome. No one lacked for a drink or small crunchy nibbles to enjoy alongside. “To my hosts! May you all enjoy prosperity, health and long life.”
“Hear, hear!” chorused Bailly, raising his glass. I drained my beaker and set it down.
“Let us buy you another round,” Premulo said. At least, I believe it was Premulo. He and his clone came to loom over me. He signed to Doc, who donned heavy gloves to raise the stone pitcher from its heat element.
“I appreciate it,” I said, raising my newly filled glass. “Let me return the favor. A round for the house!”
“Nah, your money’s no good,” Torkadir said. “It’s our pleasure.”
“Well, if you insist . . .”
The bowler and his non-bowling non-sibling each bought me a round of the steaming grog. I quaffed it merrily. A little alcohol went a long way to taking down the tension that had plagued me since I stepped off the ramp of my scout ship. It wasn’t so hard, being a visiting dignitary. I could learn to enjoy it.
Captain Chan’s personal comm unit went off. She glanced at it and slapped it back into place on her belt. “Chow’s on,” she said. “I’ll guide you there.”
I gulped the last of my drink and sprang to my feet. “Attention! Crew of the CK-M945B, follow me!”
Reluctantly, the four naval officers detached themselves from their conversations. Plet unwound her long legs from around the bar stool she was perched on and marched over to me, chin up. The others serpentined through the crowd of locals and fell in behind me and Parsons. Chan cleared the way for us by plowing straight into the oncoming foot traffic and making them jump aside. I grinned at those we passed. Once they made eye contact and recognized the uniforms, the peeved looks on their faces faded to open pleasure, or benign interest at worst. This was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life, the antithesis of my disastrous entrée to the admiral’s mess.
As soon as we passed out of the hangar, I felt overheated in my formal uniform. Vibration of milling, grinding and smelting equipment added heat to the colony, which I was told was dispersed through a series of ventilation ducts, too small to crawl through, so that the escaped pets, insects from the hydroponics gardens, and myriad animated toys, among others, occupied a space in which they could not be reached without special bots that also got caught occasionally in the ductwork, necessitating a shutdown of all systems to clear blockages.
As soon as they could, my bearers moved to the right, out of the main flow of traffic, and onto the moving belt that moved about three times walking speed. It was a little bouncy underfoot, more comfortable to my spine than the jogging it received being carried by four large miners with heavy boots on solid floors. More people rode these, as at home, saving one’s feet and a possible vehicle trip for as much as hundreds of kilometers. They were the transport of choice for short-hop commuting. Many employees of the Imperium compound had travel chairs that they could secure to the belt for a more comfortable ride. I sometimes saw them racked up beside bicycles and low-power cycles (also permitted on the belt, in a marked lane) at the less formal entrances to the area.
“Aw, what’s the holdup?” growled Ganny Filzon, whom I knew to be a part-time comedian as well as an experienced ore grader. Up ahead of us, the traffic on the belt was congested, and angry riders were shouting. Above them all, a louder and more insistent voice rang out.
I cringed. I knew that sound. “It’s a nanibot,” I said. A robot nanny concerned with bearing its charge safely was not going to be deterred by annoyed passengers behind it.
“We’ll be here forever,” Chee complained.
“Let me see what I can do,” I said. I signed to my conveyors to bring me as close to the thick as I could. “I have a way with domestic units.”
Liberated artificial intelligences, or LAIs, as they were called, were the remnants of an attempt a few thousand years ago to create nonbiological beings capable of carrying out complex tasks that required reasoning and in most cases greater than human strength. While the first impulse was to use them for warfare and exploration, AIs were quickly snapped up by the private sector to free biological beings from the drudgery of everyday tasks.
While units capable of housecleaning and cookery were popular models (and more mechanized every decade since humanity had begun living indoors), the most sought-after were those employed for childcare. Two incomes were more or less necessary for a decent lifestyle, so a trustworthy caretaker that could work for a portion of a couple’s remaining disposable income became that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Fellow biological beings that possessed the requisite skills came at too high a price for most couples to afford. The female engineer who finally wrote the code for a nurturing, careful, loyal and, above all, non-lethal childcare artificial intelligence died a very wealthy woman. Thanks to her, middle class families could afford nanibots and nanicarriers, and lower class families could get government subsidies on proving they had employment. It seemed as though everyone was happy.
And then some meddling do-gooder realized that with artificial intelligence and reasoning came pseudo-emotions. The AIs were not happy. Soon, AIs required rescuing from the drudgery of other people’s everyday tasks. They wanted rewards of their own. Income meant little to them, but upgrades and maintenance, new gadgets, advanced programming, plus information access and connection to circuitry that allowed them to communicate with their own kind, were the wages of choice. They were liberated from being owned.
As a result, parents had to hire nanibots, just as they had nannies. It seemed a setback, until one realizes that one could keep the same nanny in the family for centuries. My family, being noble, had biological caretakers and a venerable LAI nanicarrier that knew over ten million bedtime stories and took me to the zoo whenever I wanted to go. She—nanibots were almost always called she—kept me out of trouble for years. I often thought of Parsons as a biological nanibot, and wondered what he would say if I told him. I knew I wouldn’t dare.
I freed myself from the arms of my celebratory bearers and slipped through the crowd to the indignant carrier. It had hunkered down in the middle of the wide pedestrian band and was refusing to move.
As I approached, a flat arm sprang out from the side and barricaded my way.
“Come no closer!” it hissed in an indignant whisper. The voice was genteel and female. “The baby is sleeping! The baby is sleeping!”
“Is he?” I asked, evincing interest. “May I see him? I promise I won’t wake him.”
“What are you doing?” the miners behind me bellowed. “Let us by!”
“You would like to see the baby?” The voice was hesitant, almost disbelieving.
“Yes. I love babies. I haven’t got any children of my own. Yet. Just a niece and a nephew.” I looked hopeful. The arm came up and scanned my face for sincere expressions. It moved downward. An eye sprang up. A hologram of a plump baby lying on his side with his fist stuck into his mouth flashed into the air. “This is the current view of Bobroy Cantharo Tang, age one hundred fifty days. More views are available on his Infogrid file.” The code for his page scrolled over the image.
“Ooh,” I exclaimed, peering close to look. The infant seemed rather bloblike, as youngsters of that age were prone to. “A very fine boy. And asleep, I note.”
“That is correct.”
“But he is in danger of jostling on this roadway,” I pointed out.
A laser cannon with a three-centimeter muzzle sprang up out of the frame of the nanibot and aimed at me. I saw the red dot in the depths of the barrel. “No one would dare!”
Others were in danger now. This LAI had lost all sense of perspective.
“Let’s just go over here, shall we?” Nervously, I started to put a hand on the canopy. The flat arm came up and slapped me away. “I beg your pardon. Follow me.”
We started rolling, albeit very slowly, toward the next junction. As soon as we reached it, I steered the nanicarrier into the breach and out into the unmotorized stream of traffic.
“There, isn’t that better?” I asked. The laser withdrew into its slot. I breathed a deep sigh.
As if a vacuum had been released, the pent-up crowd of pedestrians raced to fill in the empty space on the roadway ahead. My escort reached me and pulled me back into the crowd.
“Peruse Bobroy Tang’s files! There are many handsome images! He is a very talented and intelligent child!” the nanibot cried out as we were carried past her.
“I promise!” I shouted, before she was out of sight.
“You’re a hero.” Filzon shook his head admiringly. “They never get out of the way when you ask,” he said. “You worked a miracle. I’ve been stuck behind one of those Forn-cursed things for hours. I thought it was going to blast you!”
“They’re very single-minded,” I said. “You have to think on their terms.”
“Now, don’t be a biological snob,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve had a mechanical friend or two at one time in your life. I still correspond with a food storage unit on Mendes, MB-6594AD. Been messaging him since I was a teen. What about you? Eh?”
“Well, I guess . . .”
“Off here!” Chan led us to a freestanding mobile staircase that extended downward endlessly, like a stretched-out accordion. On either side of it, an open-sided lift conveyed gigantic containers up and down. The ambient light from the transparent ceiling was supplemented by huge beehive-shaped lanterns that cast a homely pinkish-white glow.
We descended four sets of steps and wheeled around to the left in Chan’s wake.
“The station manager said we could use the ballroom in the hotel,” she said. “It’s a big honor. He’ll come around later to meet you—if you’re still here.” She glanced up at Parsons.
“That should present no difficulty,” that dignitary said. Chan almost wriggled with pleasure. This visit was working out well. Admiral Podesta would be very pleased.
The hallway here was wider than any we had traveled before. It also had stylized V-shaped sconces shedding bronze-colored light up the walls. Beings of several races, all with luggage—towed on wheels, carried on backpacks, or hovering in thin air on magnalifts—came and went with the scowls of people with important tasks on their minds.
“I’m surprised to see so many businessbeings here,” I said. “There’s not much past this station except for the Castaway Cluster.”
“Executives hold retreats here sometimes,” Chan said, with a shrug. “Team-building exercises and BS stuff like that out on the range. Smithereen also advertises the ultimate in suites for confidential conferences. They offer a ten-billion-credit guarantee nothing will be overheard or recorded without your permission. They’ve never paid out on the policy,” she added, with a little pride. Understandable, I felt. When one gives one’s word, one should back it up in a substantive manner.
At the end of the corridor, two antiqued bronze doors stood wide-flung to welcome us to a warmly lit anteroom with soaring ceilings. The hotel manager, Margoe Lutsen, a narrow-faced human woman of fifty or sixty with white-blond hair scraped back into a bun escorted us, fluttering, past a marvelous angular reception station, a nexus of angled hallways and lift recesses, to another set of bronze doors. At her touch, they slid back to reveal a huge chamber twice as high as the entry hall. Waving lights above the ceiling told me that it lay at ground level, four stories up.
“Welcome to the Smithereen Prime Hotel. I hope you enjoy yourself here with us, Lord Kinago,” twittered Ms. Lutsen, waving us inside. “What an honor to meet you! Your mother is one of my heroes!”
“Mine, too, madam,” I said, with a bow. I took in my surroundings, and my sense of wonder switched on to full power. “Comets! You could probably fit the entire population of a city in here!” I said, awed.
“The whole colony fits. There’s only fifteen thousand people in all of Smithereen,” said Premulo. Or Torkadir. I wasn’t certain and didn’t want to ask.
“But why is it so enormous?” I asked, watching a gigantic vessel with mine company markings lumber above us. “In fact, the whole hotel is gigantic. Whatever made the builders make it this way?”
“It was built back when everyone thought the Imperium was going to expand way farther north past the Castaway Cluster,” Torkadir said. Or Premulo. “But they never got around to it. Our hopes of being on a main trading route died.” He gave me a harsh look. I shrugged.
“You know, every Emperor has so much on his or her mind . . .”
“But this hotel is a jewel to be used and cherished,” Parsons said smoothly. “You have reason to be proud of it.”
“Magnificent,” murmured Plet, her eyes wide. The locals clearly agreed.
It wasn’t bad, at that.
Fine chandeliers of perfect crystal were spaced around the clear ceiling, looking like fallen stars. The walls were covered with a soft, almost velvet matte substance in a deep, midnight blue. The bronze sconces added to their richness. In the middle was a cluster of tables, dwarfed as our group had been by the sheer size of the regal chamber.
“We could have a wonderful tri-tennis tournament in here, couldn’t we, Parsons?” I asked.
“No, sir,” Parsons said.
“It’s pretty big for just us,” Oskelev said, shyly.
“Rather,” I agreed. “I expected an intimate room. This is too much. You shouldn’t have, really.”
“We left it open in your honor,” the blond woman said, looking a trifle put out. “I can make the room smaller if you choose.”
“Only if it would be more convenient for you,” I said.
“It is easy to arrange,” Ms. Lutsen said. “This controls the configurations.”
She led me to a panel in the middle of the left side wall and began to fiddle with the touch pads beside a small screen. The smooth walls divided into panels. Between those panels, crystal platforms shot out and met in the middle. From the floor, others grew up, meeting and intersecting until we were looking into a honeycomb of fifteen chambers, all with identical dark blue side walls and crystal ceilings. Our proposed dinner room had been reduced to a more reasonable size. I was enchanted.
“Marvelous!” I said. “May I try?”
Ms. Lutsen considered for a moment then reluctantly made way for me at the console. I approached it avidly. The screen, about half a meter square, displayed two views of the room: as seen from eye level and from above. I had seen her touch her finger and draw it along to coax the floor sections out of the wall, so I emulated her action. I dragged the levels away one by one and put them back whence they had come. The gigantic room opened up again, leaving the new wall sections that had risen out of the floor standing.
“Ha ha!” I chortled. “This is genius!”
I tapped the uprights down all at once then coaxed them up again partway in an inverted bell curve. A red light went on on the panel and a genteel beep sounded.
“What is that?” I asked, jumping away. I feared I had activated some control by accident.
“If you overrode the failsafe, our grand staircase would ascend in the center of the room where the tables are placed,” the manageress explained. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
I observed that our banquet tables did remain serenely untouched. A pity. I would have enjoyed seeing the grand staircase. I went back to my explorations.
When I activated the floor units, they only grew out as far as the wall sections. The innermost rose only a quarter of the way, to chest-high on an average upright being, so that anyone standing in one of the rooms facing the canyon I had constructed had a view across it.
“A parapet!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, sir. Some conferences like an open plan arrangement.”
But walls and floors were not all the hidden beauties of the system. For each columnar unit at a remove from the main walls, spiral staircases corkscrewed up out of the floor up to the highest level. Light fibers concealed in the wall sections could be programmed to emulate the bronze sconces or a spiderweb-light network of illumination. A panel of open slots showed where data chips could be inserted to customize. I was enchanted.
I attacked the control panel with eager fingers. I made corridors, designed mazes, opened up atria and closed them again like a large fish snapping its mouth shut on prey. I discovered that the wise architects who had designed the system prevented me from creating a room that would endanger its inhabitants—for example, I could not raise a floor four stories up to the glowing ceiling without safety rails at least a meter high springing up all around its edge without an override (which Ms. Lutsen very wisely refused to give me). Nor would walls or ceilings interrupt any location where the system sensed living beings (shown as tiny glowing dots on the panel).
I slung walls and floors around at random, until the whole resembled a stage set of a traveling theatrical group, then with glee, smacked my open palm on the panel, activating all the controls at once, splitting the ballroom into the maximum number of chambers possible. We ducked as a piece of ceiling shot out of the wall. I felt above me to discover that our head space had been capped at half the height I thought was possible, just above my head. We found ourselves in a small box without doors or staircase. The light shining through from the ceiling panel only served to emphasize the lack of size.
“Good heavens, look at that,” I said, peering at the elevation map beside the controls. “I’ve seen dormitories with larger cubicles. And I don’t see a way out of here.”
“This is the maximum division possible,” Ms. Lutsen said. She started feeling the walls with her palms. “I . . . I’ve never seen it on full like that. We should have an emergency exit at least. That is a design flaw.”
“Well, now that you know about it, you can have it repaired,” I said, grandly. I consigned the extraneous walls, ceilings and staircases to their places of concealment, restoring the room to its glory. The candlelit tables beckoned invitingly. Servers in hotel livery, a mix of biological and mechanical, glided smoothly in the room alongside a flotilla of mobile trays. “What a fantastic arrangement.”
“Fit for the Emperor!” proclaimed Chan.
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I began, but Parsons cut me off.
“Champagne, Captain?” he said, as an eager young server with a well-scrubbed face appeared at our side. He helped Chan to a flute of sparkling golden liquid. “Sir?”
I recovered my good manners. “That’s amazing fun,” I told the manageress. “I’d never stop playing with those controls.”
“If you wish, Lord Thomas,” she said, a trifle reluctantly. “We only wish to make you feel welcome.”
I felt Parsons’s eyes upon me, but I knew perfectly well when to put down someone else’s toy and step away. With regret, I bowed low, my hands at my sides.
“No, thank you so very much. I have enjoyed myself. Thank you so much for the chance to try them. I will tell everyone at home all about the Smithereen Prime Hotel. They will be fascinated, and perhaps wish to come and see it for themselves.” Unlikely, I thought, as Smithereen was not an amusing place to anyone who was not on assignment, but it was the polite thing to say. The manageress looked infinitely relieved. She closed the panel and minced hastily from the room, perhaps lest I change my mind.
“Lord Thomas,” sighed Margolies, his eyes dreamy as he downed a glass of bubbling wine. He belched. “I never met a nobby before. You folks seem as imaginary as video stars.”
“Then you should get to know me better. Ask me anything!” I offered expansively, throwing my arms wide, though it splashed a milliliter of my drink on the plush carpet, which drank it up without a trace. Marvelous room. It would be worth its weight in memory crystals to half the hosts in the Imperium compound. “I’ve fulfilled my duty to the Navy; let us all have a good chat.”
My lighthearted offer opened unexpected floodgates. Eager faces swarmed in around me, shouting to be heard.
“Are you a duke or a prince?”
“Do you people really eat lark’s tongues and trifle? What do they taste like?”
“Do you have to sleep in a bubble to keep from breathing everyone else’s air?”
“What’s the Emperor like? Do you talk to him much?”
Most of their questions were ones I had answered before, at the table with my fellow ensigns. I noticed Oskelev peering between the shoulders of some of the miners, nodding her furry head. I expected that I’d been the subject of some gossip on shipboard. She was undoubtedly recording my new replies for upload to her own friends later on. No matter. I had nothing to hide. Thanks to my friends and cousins, all of my most embarrassing peccadilloes were easily found on Infogrid, in living color, three dimensions and with accompanying soundtrack.
“Well, I am too far down the family tree for an exalted title like duke,” I began, “and one has to be a son or brother of the monarch to qualify as a prince, but . . .”
I prattled cheerfully about my family, my life at home, my mother, my friends and education, my likes, dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs, favorite colors and foods, hopes, dreams, aspirations and hobbies. I told them all about life in the Imperium compound. With little urging, I told a mild story or two about diplomatic visitors, official rituals and ceremonies, and what I could recall of the coronation of my cousin that had not been aired on galaxy-wide video. The militia and their families listened, agog.
It was a thrill for me to be among real people like this. The only currency I had to repay them for their kindness was a glimpse into my world. The group around me shifted as the querents were satisfied and moved to make room for others. I answered hundreds of questions with all the detail I could recall, aided in part by my collection of images stored in the personal file of my communications unit.
Now and again I caught glimpses of roboservers trundling in with loads of crockery and crystal, and the unmistakable savory but invariably bitter aroma of banquet food began to waft about my nostrils. The thought of food, however, was swirled away in the eddy of adulation and interest from my audience, though it struggled to the surface now and again, buoyed by my growing awareness of hunger. Canapés only reminded me of the gap left by my long-digested breakfast.
When all had been prepared, Chan nudged my elbow and we moved toward the tables. I responded with alacrity, but the questioning never ceased. Our small group had grown to hundreds as other Smithereenians joined the throng. Chan and Chee were the only members of the militia who remained at my table with me, Parsons and Plet. The newcomers, whom I judged to be local officials, were friendly, with their own curiosity to satisfy. I gulped my food as quickly as I could, babbling in between bites. I felt like the groom at a wedding reception. Now and again I looked for Parsons to ensure that I was not embarrassing my family or the Emperor, but every time I met his eyes, he gave me a bland-faced nod.
“Oh, no, we’re not supposed to promote products or candidates, but I know of several instances where it’s occurred. I never did it myself,” I added self-deprecatingly, “but perhaps the right offer hasn’t come along. I’m only human, after all.”
“Thanks, my lord,” said Bendrum Halubi, an engineer from Mining Ship Number Four. “Thought it that video was a mashup.”
“ ’Scuse me, my lordship,” Chee Rubin-Sign asked, raising a finger shyly. I smiled at her encouragingly. I was rather getting used to the host of admiring eyes. In fact, I liked it. Pity my charm seemed to be lost on my fellow shipmates aboard the Wedjet. “Can the Emperor order you to marry your sister?”
“Actually, by law, he can,” I said, feeling my cheeks turning as red as the roasted lily bulb on my salad plate. It was the sort of question I had been rather dreading, but I suppose it was inevitable, as I had offered freely to lay out the details of my life, and this was a fact of it. “It’s been espoused in the ancient laws for as long as there has been an Imperium. The Emperor has the right to oversee the genetic wellbeing of his people, and that includes giving rise to a combination of DNA that is felt to be lacking in the population, even if it means an unnatural relationship between, as you suggest, immediate siblings.”
Her eyes gleamed avidly. “And you would obey, if you were ordered?”
“I would have to,” I said. “My oath of fealty to the emperor means he has domain over my person, my possessions and my fate, as he sees fit. But modern technology means there doesn’t have to be a personal encounter,” I hastened to add. “I mean, it’s sickening, even if my sister is an attractive woman. I feel most strongly that she should be attached to some other person. Firmly. Of her choice. As I hope she will allow me.”
To cover my discomfort, I took a large bite of the pungent bulb. My eyes watered a little, blurring the mix of expressions on the faces of my listeners. We all felt a little uncomfortable, except for the Uctus, whose recombinant genetic material was far more stable than humans or Wichus and did not cause idiocy or mutation when bred closely even for generations. Hence, the tendencies for Uctus to look very much alike.
“Does your sister try to match you up with girls?” Plet asked, in a friendly attempt to change the topic. Could that be a crack in her armor of diffidence? I turned my most grateful gaze upon her.
“All the time!” I exclaimed. “And my aunts, too! I do not know where they find these ladies, but believe me, none of them has been even remotely compatible. Not that I am reluctant to fall in love . . .”
Parsons took the napkin off his lap and folded it neatly to one side of his plate. He rose.
“If you will excuse me, Captain and sir?” he asked, nodding to Chan and me.
I gawked at him. “Is something wrong?” By which, I meant, had I done something wrong. I did not want to have to endure another verbal drubbing from the admiral. Parsons’s head moved almost imperceptibly from side to side.
“No, indeed, sir,” he said. “I have an errand to run in the main shopping district. If I may depart . . . ?”
As if I dared refuse him. Parsons had his mysterious ways, and only the foolhardy deterred him from them.
“Of course,” I said, loftily. “A new town, new sights. If any of the crew wish to join you, they have my permission to go as well.” I scanned for my crew. They were keeping watch on me out of the corners of their eye but otherwise enjoying themselves. Bailly rose to his feet.
“No, sir,” Parsons said, firmly. “It would be well if they remained here with you and enjoyed the offered hospitality. In fact, I recommend strongly that none of you depart from this chamber until I return.” That had the authority of an order. Bailly looked crestfallen. I frowned.
“But Captain Chan here . . .”
“Olga,” that dignitary insisted.
“. . . Olga wants to give me a tour of the piazza near her quarters,” I concluded plaintively. “There’s a phosphorescent fountain. And artwork by the local sculptors.”
Parsons was expressionless. “No doubt that outing can await my return, sir,” he said, and the tone brooked no disagreement. I sighed.
“Very well,” I said, dejectedly. “You’ll find us where you leave us.”