“Meet us at the Rook Inn in Chess Street, Straumsburg, next Fritsday evening,” Anstruther said, as we stumbled out of the landing craft and into the brilliant sunshine of Oromgeld, spaceport for Taino, capital city of the Imperium and my home town. She looked at us anxiously, her eyes resting last on me. “Everyone, let’s try and make it?”
“I’ll be there,” I promised. She gave me a shy smile. The expression became her. I had come to feel protective of her over the last few months, almost as a protégé, though she would never successfully tell a joke in public. I despaired of ever drawing out that kind of talent in her. She had proved to be a demon jai-alai player. When I had organized a doubles event I had scooped her up as my partner. We had won, almost too easily. The poker tournament had not been as lucrative (Redius had taken the grand prize, fifty rations of beer supplied by me), but I believe that it forged more sturdily the bonds of friendship that had been growing among us.
Our trip back to the Core Worlds had been most enjoyable, if it were not for the ineffable sensation that I was not being of enough real use to the Red Fleet. True to his word, Podesta had never given me another assignment. Perhaps he was waiting to talk to my mother, a proposition that filled me with dread.
I stopped to draw in a deep breath of the rich, dry air. Even with the spicy flavor of burned ions from the shuttle’s drive, it tasted better to me than a good wine. The sky was a wonderful blue, equaled nowhere else in the universe for sheer magic and depth of color. Against it, the cream, rust and moss green of the rocky landscape of my home province stood out in sharp relief like an island upon the face of the sea. My heart filled with an overwhelming affection for every protruding rock, every spire. I wanted to grab all of my crewmates and point out each beautiful landmark, but I felt they would not appreciate my enthusiasm. Better to let them discover it for themselves.
“Going windskiing on the frost plains at the south pole,” Xinu said, “but I will try to rendezvous.”
“Staying in Straumsburg, so simplicity,” said Redius, flicking his tongue over his lipless mouth. “A pleasure.”
“What will you be doing?” I asked him.
“Collecting, I,” he said, cocking his head. “Pottery miniatures I enjoy. Activities, yours?”
“Seeing my relatives,” I said. “Inescapable, really.”
“Your mother?” asked Nesbitt, grinning.
“Sympathies,” said Redius, ducking his head. “Why not just find mate of your own, you?”
“Bite your tongue,” I chided him, as that appendage flickered to show amusement. “Safe journeying, and I shall see you in Straumsburg.”
“Hey,” Nesbitt said, his voice rough. He pressed a small object into my hand. “This is for you.”
I surveyed the small data crystal. “What is it?”
“A download of my best anecdotes. You earned it.”
A smile burst out of containment and spread itself across my face. “Nesbitt, you are a true friend, and the first drinks will be on me.” He grinned back almost as shyly as Anstruther had. I pocketed the crystal next to my camera gear. I would treasure it. I foresaw far fewer dreary family events, with the comic ammunition that I had amassed.
The container of our belongings disgorged itself from the rear third of the shuttle. Its heavy doors clanked and spread open. I whistled, and my three cases reared up from the revealed mass within. I beckoned. Obediently, the bags glided along on their antigravity pads until they were within a meter of the sensor I held. I checked over each one. They had been made of the finest Cartelian dou-hide, nearly indestructible but butter smooth to the touch, dyed my favorite ultramarine. The hardware was a brilliant silver alloy that couldn’t be scratched without a titanium drill, and contained the best security ware available. They had been opened once each since I had sealed them. I was glad to see that safety protocols were being maintained. This was the Imperium’s capital city, and I would not be the one who carried in the object that would endanger it.
Anstruther, her possessions as modest as her personality, shouldered a simple white bag and headed toward the public transportation station. My tablemates assumed their own baggage and followed her. I had the urge to join them, so we could talk again and again about our experiences together, but there were so many people I had not seen in months. We had apprehended pirates—pirates! It was us against them, and we won, we brave citizen-soldiers of the Imperium. I rehearsed in my mind exactly how I would retell the story to my friends. I couldn’t wait to see them.
“Are you ready to go, sir?” Parsons had appeared at my elbow with the silent grace of which only he and servobots with antigravity pads were capable. I glanced around.
“Yes, I am . . . wait!” I spotted another familiar face. “There’s Bek! Give me a moment, Parsons. Bek! You remember him, Parsons. He and I played tri-tennis several rest periods. He was a star in the games I organized two weeks ago. He’s got an amazing backhand.”
I waved my arm. At the foot of the landing craft, Third-class Specialist Bek was debarking, a small mulberry-colored case hanging from a strap on his shoulder. A couple of big human males in deliberately self-effacing uniforms and dark-visored helmets joined him. I didn’t recognize their shoulder markings. One man relieved him of the case but Bek didn’t seem to be grateful for the assistance. There must be some misunderstanding. I thought that perhaps I could straighten out the situation for him.
Before I could take a step in his direction, Parsons took my arm firmly.
“Don’t do that, sir,” he said.
I frowned. “Why not? He’s new here. I should tell him about a few choice clubs and the best tour to take of the Imperial Compound.”
Parsons’s face was impassive, but I thought I detected a modicum of sympathy. “Because he is going to the brig, sir.”
“Brig?” I was dumbfounded. “Bek? Why?”
“Because he is a spy, sir. You detected him yourself from the files in the records department. Do you not remember?”
“I did?” I peered back at the man, realizing that I did recognize him, and not just from our games together. In my mind I also saw his Infogrid picture. “He was the weapons maintainer-complainer,” I said automatically. “I was thinking of asking him to play in my team of the Kinago Cousins Invitational week after next. I never put the man together with the file containing those messages. He’s really a spy? You’re not mistaking him for someone else?”
Parsons raised an eyebrow, and I felt abashed even suggesting that he could make a mistake. “No, sir. He was transmitting top-secret information to drone buoys along the ship’s sublight path. They were redirected through several data portals to false accounts. Until you indicated a suspicion of his perfidy, no one had connected the source of the leak to the Wedjet. It was originally believed to be coming from a repair facility where the weapons systems were installed.”
“Well, I didn’t have a suspicion, precisely,” I said, watching with horror as the men in plain suits clamped Bek into a hovering secure-chair pod. They mounted zipcycles, and guided the pod with them off the landing field. In all the times I’d been arrested on minor charges, they had never locked me into a pod. Those were employed only for the most dangerous of suspects. “I did think he was being a trifle incautious. That was all.”
“Well, I will be dipped in batter and deep-fried with horseradish,” I said. I was horrified that anyone could have deliberately betrayed the Imperium. I mean, my cousin was emperor! “But why?”
“That is not yet known,” Parsons said. “You are certain that you did not make his acquaintance because of your observation of his messages?”
“Not on purpose,” I said, thoughtfully. “I took Lieutenant Wotun’s admonishments to heart, I promise you. I just saw that he was a strong player. I never meant to make use of the Infogrid files. I was curious.”
“Whether purposeful or not, your curiosity will have saved many lives,” Parsons said.
His reassurance did not do much to quiet the turmoil that began raging in my gut. When we captured the pirate crew I had enjoyed having been involved in a great game that resulted in the apprehension of known felons. Beyond the fear and danger, it had been a lark. The criminals we—truthfully, the spacebees who had performed the actual capture—had taken were strangers, and had behaved just like criminals in the videos did. That was satisfying. It felt right. This situation was horribly wrong, no matter how many ill-considered messages I read. A man whom I had sought out to befriend turned out to be a traitor. I would never have known to look at or listen to him. Villainy came in many guises. It struck me to the core. I had never had to consider anything in that light before. It overwhelmed the calculating functions of my cerebral cortex. It wasn’t a game. Parsons gave me an odd look, as close to sympathy as I had ever seen him offer me.
“You couldn’t have known, sir. He fooled a great many people. Be confident that you have prevented any further damage he could have done.”
“I appreciate the effort, Parsons,” I said, sadly, “but it honestly doesn’t help.”
In a contemplative stage, I walked away from the landing zone without looking back.
* * *
“I will leave you here, sir,” Parsons said at the high bronze gates to the family homestead after I had submitted my face and both my hands for scrutiny by the scanners for identification. The small, black-shelled skimmer we had flown from the spaceport hovered behind us.
“Aren’t you going to come in and greet the maternal unit?” I asked, shaking my right hand in pain. The phlebotomy needle in the right middle finger indentation was blunt and hurt more than it should have. The household computer was overloaded again. I would have to check on its program myself. No one else ever seemed to care if it mauled them. On the good side, the system would send verification of my return to all the computers in the Imperial Compound, and I wouldn’t have to go through full identification again, not until I had absented myself for a period of time. “I am sure she would like to congratulate you for bringing the prodigal son back in one piece. Come on. We have some of that great Aurencian wine, ’030, that brought the Emperor himself to his feet in admiration. I would be pleased to break out a bottle to celebrate our return. Mother would insist.”
“Please give my compliments to the First Space Lord, sir,” he said, with a minuscule dip of his head. “I shall be honored to see her somewhat later. I have other duties.”
“Oh, of course you do,” I said, feeling a trifle lost at his impending absence. For months he had never been farther than a mile or two from my side. “Mother will be devastated to miss you, but go ahead. I’ll make your excuses.”
“You are too kind, sir,” Parsons said dryly. “Besides, she will want to see you alone first.”
“That is what I am afraid of,” I admitted. “I had rather hoped you would be there to blunt her attack, at least at first.”
“I am sure she is glad you have returned safely, my lord. Please inform her I shall call upon her and Lord Rodrigo later on.”
He glided back to the small but elegant personal transport unit and vaulted into the seat with no appearance of effort. I was appalled at what toll full planetary gravity was taking on me after months in the limited pull on ship and station, but he seemed not to be affected by it at all. That was just one more thing about Parsons at which I had to wonder at my leisure. Another was what other duties he had that took precedence over seeing my mother. It would be undignified to run after him to ask, and a hero who had taken down a band of dangerous pirates did not worry at the heels of a man still more heroic who had saved that hero from certain death by laser glare of an angry admiral.
Besides, I had no time to do so. As soon as the ancient intelligence unit inside the wall had finished its lengthy grinding and chewing over of my identity, the gates swung wide to admit me. Beyond it stood a double file of men and women in dark blue uniform tunics and gold shoulder braid.
“Atten-shun!” a deep baritone voice barked. The uniformed officers pivoted so the two files were facing one another. “Preee-sent arms!”
With a mighty snick! the assembled drew swords from scabbards and held them high so that the tips of the blades crossed, forming an arcade of shining white steel against the pure blue of the sky.
From the high walls of the courtyard, a fanfare brayed out and rolled into a military march. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I strode forward through the arch, my back as straight as a laser beam. I knew every face, and loved them all. These were my cousins and friends, whom I had left behind to join the crew of the Wedjet. It had only been a few months since I had seen them, but to my surprise, they looked different. They weren’t the ones who had changed; I had. When I reached the end of the file, the voice, which I had recognized as belonging to my cousin Xanson Melies Kinago, barked out his final orders.
“At ease! Returning hero, greet!”
With practiced movement, the assembled sheathed their swords, and rushed to embrace me.
“You slug, we’ve been waiting here for hours!” Xanson laughed, beating me on the back. He was the tallest of the cousins, a centimeter or two taller than I, muscular and strong-chinned, with a lock of unruly dark brown hair that was almost always in his eyes. The grooming robots in basic training had to clip that lock every few days. It made him look raffish, a conceit that I know he enjoyed.
I embraced him back just as vigorously. “You know what it’s like, waiting for Customs to clear landing craft. Bureaucracy and more bureaucracy. It’s an art form, and not a felicitous one.”
“You should have pulled rank,” sniffed my cousin Erita Kinago Betain. She was a thin person with a protuberant, narrow, slightly reddened nose, well suited for sniffing.
“Ah, but I wasn’t alone on the shuttle,” I said.
She looked shocked. “You had to share a shuttle with commoners?”
“Fellow naval officers,” I corrected her.
“That’s what I said—commoners,” she sniffed. “Why you had an assignment out in the middle of nowhere with nobodies, I can’t guess. You should have come with us on the Tirasiani. We had a marvelous time, just marvelous!”
“The Tirisiani?” I asked.
“A new destroyer, named after Her late Majesty. Didn’t you read our files? It was commissioned just after you left. You would hardly have known we were on board a naval vessel! So different from the Academy. Not at all . . . utilitarian.” She used the word as if it tasted terrible. I laughed.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Xan said. “It wasn’t as though we had onerous duty. In and out through the system, around the Core Worlds. Twice, we made the jump to Leo’s Star.”
“The trip was dull,” Erita confided, “but we managed to keep busy.”
“I am sure you coped wonderfully,” I assured her politely. “Naval service suits you. You look well and fit.”
“But how dull, darling!” she said. “The muscles in my legs throw off the line of my trousers. I shall have to have them all altered.”
“And what is this?” demanded Scotlin Nalparadha Loche, a cousin on my mother’s side and one of my best friends since childhood. He had bright green eyes that glowed from a face the color of tawny port. His barrel chest went well with his broad shoulders and stocky legs. He poked at my chest.
“You mean my medal,” I said proudly.
“Yes—one medal! What’s the matter with your commander? Was he insane?”
I was taken aback. “No! Admiral Podesta was a great leader. Why would you suggest such a thing?”
Scot poked at his own chest. Equal time, I thought. “I have sixteen medals. Where are the rest of yours? Doesn’t he know you have rank to uphold?”
I had been so intent upon the faces of my relatives and comrades that I had scarcely looked below chin level. My gaze dropped, then so did my jaw.
Spread across the front of each of the blue tunics were rainbows of color. It would not be out of line to suggest that each of my peers wore scads of awards, commendations and recognitions of all types. Some boasted so many tiny pins that their uniform’s fabric stretched under the weight, suggesting that the display ought to be continued next tunic, or have a mobile framework scoot alongside them to take up the excess.
“What are all those?” I asked, astonished.
“Weekly attendance,” Scot ticked them off with a blunt forefinger, “grooming, courtesy, participation in training exercises, good behavior, oh, and service to the Imperium in guarding the Core Worlds.”
“Ah,” I said. I fear that I experienced unbecoming medal-envy. I would at least have qualified for grooming, if not any of the others. I feared my voice sounded weak as I forced out good wishes. “Congratulations, Scot. I am sure you earned every one.”
“I should think so! I sweated months for all that recognition, sucking up to His Grace Captain and Duke Ferdinand Muwaki Kinago for them. And what is that little pip for?”
“Well, ah,” I said, finding beginning the story more awkward than I thought it would be, “I captured a pirate vessel. I had help, of course, but I believe I can confidently say that the impetus came from me.”
The faces, screwed up in sympathy at my hesitation, blossomed into smiles of glee at my obvious prevarication. Xan guffawed.
“Oh, Thomas, go on!” If you’re not going to tell us what it’s for, then just say so!”
“Really!” I protested.
Xan scoffed. He had practiced scoffing for years, and could show scorn more readily and expertly than any of the rest of us. The right corner of his lip turned up. “Pirates? Pull the other one, and while you’re at it, spread marmalade on it!”
“He is telling the truth,” came a warm, rich voice. “And he can tell you all about it when I have had a chance to welcome my boy home.”
It no doubt shocked brash new recruits to the Naval Academy that the highest authority in the service belonged to a dainty, beautiful woman with big, warm eyes of the same blue-green that I myself possessed. Naturally, I had received them from her. Her hair was a far more attractive shade than mine, a caramel bronze that owed nothing to art. Her complexion was lighter than mine, allowing the pink in the apples of her cheeks to bloom like roses. It was an old fashioned simile, but hers was an old-fashioned beauty. She wore civilian clothing that resembled her uniform but much more flattering: a tailored dark blue blouse that blossomed into wide ruffles at the wrist, and close-fitting eggshell-white silk trousers that stopped just above the gold, high-heeled sandals tied around her tiny ankles. She smiled, and the long lashes in the corners of her eyes crinkled around the sea-blue irises.
“Mother!” I hurried to embrace her.
“Thomas.” She reached up to pull my face down to hers for a kiss. I felt as awkward as I had as a teenager when I had hit the growth spurt that took me from just under her height all the way to my present state of outlandish loftiness. As a matter of courtesy, she never mentioned it, as I refrained from mentioning her lack of stature. Physical, of course. The moment she stepped aboard a ship, she outranked even the Emperor. She let me go, and my spine sprang back into alignment. “You look pale. Didn’t you take vitamin-D light therapy?”
I felt the familiar sense of being under authority. “Yes, mother. I followed my usual regimen as always. Parsons saw to it.”
She glanced behind me. “I can always count on Parsons. And where is he?”
“An appointment, he said. He will make his devoirs to you later on.”
She smiled up at me. “I forget occasionally how very busy he is. Come along, then, and let’s have a talk.” Tucking her hand into my elbow, she turned to the others. “Why don’t you all run along to wherever you were going, and Thomas will join you?”
“Of course, Aunt Tariana,” the cousins murmured.
“Don’t take too long, Thomas,” Xan said. “I rented Starling Island for the night. The whole place is ours.”
“My favorite resort!” I was delighted to know they had missed me, as I had missed them.
“He will be with you shortly,” Mother promised. “Go on, all of you. Have a good time. I’ll send a credit to Luigi for a case of the ’027 from my private stock.”
Her generosity elicited an enormous cheer from the assembled cousins and assorted relatives. They scooted off, shouting compliments to my mother. I made to follow, but no hope. Her grip was as powerful as any mechanical vise. She towed me in the direction of the family quarters. “Not so fast, my dragonlet. You and I are going to have a little conversation. I have just received a rather long recording from Admiral Podesta.”
* * *
I assumed an expression of contrition, but I knew it wouldn’t do much to abate the coming tirade. I was accustomed to them as, I feared, my dear mother was to having to dispense them. There was no doubt material for a lengthy book there, describing how she had been able to raise a family of healthy, self-actualized individuals while at the same time occupying one of the most important offices in the Imperium, and all without acquiring more than a thread or two of silver in her soft-looking hair, but I was not the one to write it. Serious literature was not to my taste, nor to any of my siblings or relatives that I could name.
She directed us into the great room that had been the center of the family’s goings-on for centuries. The ceiling, a vast and colorful mosaic in tiles smaller than the end of my little finger, portrayed ancestors of the Kinago family as heroes and heroines, crossing space, conquering worlds and embracing—though not in an intimate fashion—members of the non-human races that we had encountered first, before any of the other ancient human families. The first Thomas Kinago was there, the great engineer, a rangy man with black hair and sallow skin but whose large dark eyes were reputed to have won him the love of no fewer than five lovely women. His second wife was our ancestress. His brother Niall had discovered and claimed the ore of the burned out star Cassoborix, source of the wealth of the sixty-third generation of space-going Kinagos. The gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals in the mosaic, and much of what was still in our safe room deep underneath the building, came from that strike. That wealth had allowed the Kinago family to pursue its own interests without fear of want and to purchase influence when necessary for millennia. My allowance, as those of my siblings and cousins, came from the Imperial treasury, so the Kinago fortune went largely untapped except in emergencies.
“Where’s Father?” I asked, stumbling in the wake of my maternal tugboat.
“In his workshop, dear,” she said. “You must go and see him when we’ve finished our talk.”
I made as if to veer off. “Shouldn’t I go see him now, while he still remembers that I’m home?”
“Not a chance, Thomas,” Mother said, hauling me firmly into the room. With a turn of the wrist, she spun me off in the direction of my uncle Laurence’s favorite chair. My heels struck the base of the carved wooden frame and I tottered backwards into the embrace of its cushions. Once in, I would have to slither down to the floor to get out. Mother knew that. I wondered just how much trouble I was in.
She settled into her own chair and drew her feet up to one side of the broad, brick-red cushion. If one did not look at her too closely, one might believe she was an ingénue. She signaled, and an antique polished mahogany-clad servbot rolled toward us on padded wheels from the corner. Mother poured priceless pale gold wine, almost certainly the ’044 from our own vineyards in the north, into an equally priceless antique crystal flute.
“Now, son,” she said, holding the goblet out to me. “Talk. Tell me everything. I especially want to hear all about the pirates. Omar was very correct and polite, and I will bet that none of the juicy details made it into the official report.”
I tasted the excellent wine, and took in a deep breath.
“Well, Mother, I was assigned quarters on Deck Four Forward. Not what I expected, with little room for my wardrobe and other belongings . . .”