“Why now?” Fifteenth Councillor Marden demanded. His thin, wrinkled, yellowed face with its sharply angled green and black tattoos covering his cheeks was designed for emitting peevish questions. He shot a bony forefinger out of the full sleeve of his lime-colored velvet robe and tapped it on the black obsidian oval table. The other councillors—there should have been forty in all, five from each of the Castaway Systems, but one contingent was yet missing—frowned. “What in their overbred minds makes the Imperium think we want to deal with them now? Any of them? It’s like a dead spouse coming back and expecting to move back into the house once you’ve remarried! The Imperium!”
“That’s lacking in taste, Vasily. And not really accurate in scope.” First Councillor Leese DeKarn, a plump-faced woman with silver-white curls and a pattern of light blue arabesques swirling over her cheekbones and nose, clad in Portent’s Star system’s official blue robes, cleared her throat and palmed a light relay in the tabletop.
Within an envelope of blue light a sincere, round face surmounted by curly, graying hair, manifested itself, speaking with hazel eyes fixed solemnly and kindly upon the viewer. It appeared that no matter where one was in the room the eyes followed one. DeKarn found it uncanny and a little disturbing. “What their ambassador, Madam Hiranna Ben,” she shrugged toward the image, “tells us is that His current Imperiality, Shojan XII, is sorry for the neglect of our safety during the past two hundred years. He wishes to reestablish ‘loving ties’ with the Castaway Cluster, his former principality. The uprisings and disturbances closer to the center of the territory that have overwhelmed their resources are now under control, and he is prepared to give us the defense and consideration that we were supposed to have had from him. The ambassador awaits our pleasure to bring our word back to the Imperium that we are amenable to the restoration of those loving ties.”
“Shojan?” asked Councillor Six, a tall young man with dark skin decorated with a mask of silver tattoos like lightning strokes. His sculpted hair was also decorated with silver. A member of the Carbon system contingent, he wore his brick-red robes with flair. He hated his given name and was always called Six, even in his private life. He frowned at the screen. “How long has he been on the throne?”
“About six years, according to the accompanying material,” said DeKarn, bringing up the appropriate file. “He is still in his twenties.”
“So young!” said Councillor Twenty-Three Bruke. He was the eldest of their number, a man with a very long nose and hollow cheeks, and small eyes nested in wrinkles. His brown and red tattoos almost disappeared in the cross-hatchings that time had etched upon his face. “I have seen so many Emperors and Empresses come and go. It is good of him to reach out to us. I am glad that we are not forgotten.”
Twenty-Ninth Councillor Zembke made an impatient gesture. His face was a rock-solid oblong, made more impressive by a broad nose like a set of stairs. Black lines tempered only with a touch of yellow masked his cheeks. His flint-hard black eyes surveyed the room. He raised his grand, deep voice. “Is anyone at all falling for such a lie? The Imperium didn’t quell those uprisings. What they couldn’t blow up they walked away from. Like us. It is finished. It was finished long ago. Everyone has said so.”
“Everyone?” Marden asked, with one raised brow.
Zembke gestured with a broad hand. “Everyone who has studied the situation. You’ve seen the dispatches. The Imperium is beset from every side but galactic north. The Trade Union has been attacking on at least a dozen fronts while its merchants waft in and out of the most poorly guarded space lanes with no one so much as demanding an electronic customs invoice. We’re just lucky we are so far away from galactic center no one wants to conquer us for our resources alone. It’s not financially worthwhile. You’ve all watched the digitavids . . .”
“You watch the digitavids?” shrilled Councillor Thirteen, a blunt-faced man with bulging blue eyes staring out of a mask of dark blue curlicues. “You know they are filled with mind-control rays. They’ll put you into a trance, and insert subliminal messages into your subconscious!”
“And how do you know that, Tross?” Zembke asked, narrowing his small piggish eyes around his somewhat bulbous nose.
Tross wavered. “Well, I saw this digitavid . . .”
“Order!” the first councillor insisted, bringing her jade gavel down on the tabletop. “What are we to do about the Imperium?”
“Question is,” Councillor Twenty-Seven, an attractive woman with milk chocolate-colored hair and caramel skin, mused, “what are they going to do about us? The Emperor has sent us a courteous message via an equally courteous envoy that is on her way here, asking us please can they come by and take over our government again. What if we say no? Are we going to be overrun with warships if we refuse them and choose to remain independent?”
“We are independent!” Zembke bellowed, bringing his hand down hard on the stone tabletop. It didn’t make a sound. Zembke clenched his fist. DeKarn could tell he hoped none of them could tell how much he had hurt it. In sympathy she curled her toes tightly inside her boots. “Do we need a history lesson here? It was they who abandoned us. I can date it, can’t you? On the fifth of the seventh month, two hundred and nine years ago, we on Carstairs Three sent for an Imperial Fleet contingent to capture and defeat the Trade Union buccaneers who had just accepted delivery of six months’ worth of refined heavy metals, then declined to transfer payment for it. They attempted to leave our system. As we scrambled enforcement vessels to follow them, they fired upon us, and not just to deter chase—to destroy!” His hand flicked over the controls before him, and the screens all around them showed recordings of the event taken by drone satellites in orbit around the disputatious planet. “There, see them! They stole from us!”
“Cosmic shoplifting!” crowed Councillor Six.
“No, stiffing the server,” chortled Eighteen, another youthful council member, her tattoos very modern in pink and orange. With humorous reproach, she turned to Twenty-Nine. “They walked out without paying. Your merchants were at fault, Zembke. They should have demanded payment in advance.” Behind him the screen lit up with the image of a diner striding out of an eatery with uniformed flunkies pursuing him. Zembke reddened. “You’ve brought this up, as Carstairs representatives have for twenty long decades. It was a minor infraction, scarcely worthy of calling in the fleet. They might have refused to come deal with it anyhow. Why didn’t your planetary defenses just blast the TU ships out of the skies, if they were using deadly force? The TU couldn’t have gone into ultra-drive within the confines of the system. You had plenty of time. It would have had the right result without putting another Imperial life in danger. Certainly without wailing ‘wolf!’ to the skies.”
“That’s hardly the point!”
“Which is?” Eighteen asked, bored.
Zembke snorted. “The point is that the Imperium didn’t come. Not then, not ever. They didn’t even reply to our urgent plea. It was as if no one existed at the end of the circuit. No subsequent message got so much as a ‘Sorry, but there is no one at home right now . . . ’ message. They turned their backs on us. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know what was happening. They couldn’t turn off the digital feeds. We got their news broadcasts. The core of the Imperium was under attack, and they pulled in all of their resources to protect it, and the rest of us could go throw ourselves into . . . into the black hole! It’s to the credit of the indomitable spirit—don’t laugh at me, you unpatriotic whelps!—that the Cluster has survived as well as it has.
“For two hundred years, in the face of natural disaster, invasion, pirates, famine and shortages, we have had no one to rely upon but ourselves. The Imperium didn’t have enough interest in us even to collect taxes, let alone send defense ships out to patrol our space lanes. The Imperium long ago pulled out of its death spiral, but until now they seem utterly to have forgotten about us. My grandfather used to tell me stories of the bad days, just after the Imperium turned its back on us. No one living is old enough to recall how at first our ancestors couldn’t believe that no one answered our pleas for aid. We waited too long to come to our own defense.”
“That’s not the Imperium’s fault,” Twenty-Two offered, calmingly.
“Of course it was their fault!” Councillor Marden barked. “Where were they?”
“They told us they weren’t coming,” Eighteen stated.
“When?” Zembke demanded. “When did they tell us?”
“They did,” Councillor DeKarn said, gently. “The missive is in the archives. They could not reach us in time, even if the Core Worlds had not been under attack, which they were.”
Twenty shrugged. “Our local governments chose not to believe them. That’s our fault.”
“Our planetary attorneys disagree with you,” Sixteen insisted. He looked like an attorney himself in his well-cut robes of subtly gleaming fabric, a double chin underscoring his healthy complexion, which was etched with wise quotes from antiquity in black and dark blue. “The Imperium was responsible under its own laws for our protection in exchange for suzerainty. They failed in that tacit contract.”
“Well, then,” Marden asked, “where are they?”
“They are here now,” Sixteen said. “Or, rather, they are coming. They seem to wish to take us again under their aegis. They offer support. Infrastructure. Updated systems. I say it is no more than we are owed by them.”
A lot of eye rolling followed this statement. DeKarn herself felt exasperated. “We can argue personal responsibility until the putative cows come home,” Zembke said. “And after we’ve burned a lot of oxygen, where do we end up? In the same place we started: around this table arguing about ancient history, which we have been doing for over a week now.”
“Those . . . who forget the past,” intoned Twenty-Three, as he tented his fingers on his chest, “are condemned to repeat it.”
“And those who forget they’ve said something before are condemned to repeat themselves,” Marden added, peevishly. “We’ve heard that. We’ve heard all of it. What are we going to do?”
“I suggest,” First Councillor DeKarn said, pulling them back to the present with difficulty, “that we listen to their envoy and see what it is they want. They may wish to set up diplomatic ties, not governmental ones.”
“I’ve heard the same dispatch you received, and I disagree with your interpretation,” Zembke snorted.
“So you have said, Councillor, for a week, now,” DeKarn said patiently.
Twenty-Seven waved a finger for attention. “We’re no longer subject to the Imperium. Why give them an opening?”
“Because they haul damned big guns, that’s why!” Councillor Ten sputtered. She crushed yet another spent nic-tube into the waste receptacle. Nervously, she extracted a fresh tube from the pouch at her belt, put it between her tattooed lips, and took a long sip of air from its end. “It would be a damned rout if they chose to run over us. We may be sovereign, but we don’t have a defensive force. We haven’t needed one much over the years, really. The Trade Union has pretty much just traded with us since that time . . . yes, Zembke, I realize your people are still smoking about it. I don’t like the idea of being so vulnerable.”
“How can we be sovereign?” Six asked, narrowing an eye at her. “Was there a referendum I haven’t heard about? We’re a loose association, that’s all.”
“No, we’re a confederation, aren’t we?” Twenty appealed to DeKarn, her dark red tattoos outlining large black eyes. She was young, attending a council for the first time.
“This is an advisory board only,” the First Councillor corrected her. “Since the earliest years after the Imperium abandoned us, no one has moved to form a confederation. No one was able to agree on terms for a general election. Many have held firm to their old allegiance to the Imperium. You can find the links in your briefing documents.” She palmed the tabletop. Behind her, the image of the “welcome” file logo sprang into being. Links shaped like each of the systems’ flags, scrolls for historical files, and the faces of past statesbeings flew out from the page, inviting a reader to open them and hear or read the contents. Timidly, Twenty started to reach for one.
“Do we have a government of our own, or don’t we?” Zembke asked, exasperated. He waved a hand, and the image of the documents winked out, leaving the walls blank. Twenty jumped back and put her hands on the tabletop. DeKarn was annoyed with him. “No. Of course not. That would require making a decision, something we are all allergic to.”
“Can we agree that we are an independent entity, separate and apart from the Imperium?” Marden asked.
“No!” said Councillor Twenty-Three. “We are not yet a complete conclave.”
Few paid attention to him. They were on the usual three sides of the argument.
“There has never been an agreement to separate!” snarled Councillor Fourteen. Her parchment-colored skin paled further.
Six snorted, ignoring her. “What of that? We’re going to sound pretty sad crying out our independence when they bombard our planets.”
“They’re not going to do that,” Councillor Twelve said. She was a placid woman in her middle years, with soft bronze hair. The delicate spiral tattoos on her face played up her large, toffee-colored eyes. “They want to open negotiations. That is a peaceful overture.”
“Maybe,” Seventeen said, a notorious pessimist, lowering his thick brows, “they plan to drive a wedge between us!”
Zembke made a gesture of impatience. “They can’t do that. We have withstood the years by mutual cooperation. We wouldn’t survive without one another. You of Dree have a wealth of planets with water rings. We in Carstairs have heavy metals and transuranics that you need. We trade with one another, protect one another’s backs, provide opportunities, keep the gene pool from becoming stagnant in any one system . . .”
“But that makes us neighbors, not siblings,” Seventeen insisted.
Sago Thanndur, Thirty-Second Councillor, whistled a little between his mandibles and shifted his bright blue carapace. He and his fellow insectoids came by their elaborate facial markings naturally. “Not genetically, perhaps. We are siblings in adversity.” His species had been the native of the seventh system, named something unpronounceable in their own language and called Cocomo by the humans who had moved in and commandeered the fourth planet from the sun, which had once been earmarked by the beetlelike aliens for settlement and expansion. It had taken over a thousand years for the native Cocomons to stop calling the humans “invaders” and accept them as co-inhabitants. They held four of the seats that represented their system to the Cluster council. He and his fellows occupied cuplike baskets held upright rather than the swiveling armchairs the humans sat in. In a show of solidarity, an example of what Sago spoke of, the sole human from Cocomo, Desne Eland, Councillor Thirty-Five, reclined crosslegged in one of the roomy baskets. He wore robes of bright blue to match his comrades’ shells. “That will have to do.”
“But, to carry your metaphor further, siblings are equals,” Thirteen said. “We are parentless. A group with no head.”
“Isn’t that the definition of a committee?” Six asked, with good humor.
“Then one of us should step forward,” Zembke began. DeKarn held herself still in anticipation. This could be the moment she had hoped for.
Five cleared his throat, and nodded jerkily toward his own contingent. “Boske has always led negotiations.”
“That’s just a matter of geography,” Zembke said, brushing aside the concept. “It’s closest to the Imperium, that’s all. We’re harkening back to a time that will never return. We are the Castaway Cluster. We’ve held together all these years. Can’t we agree, here and now, to formalize that arrangement, and be something more than just a loose association? We should hash out a governmental structure, and,” he added, feeling the time was ripe, “a leader! Someone we can stand behind, and who will be the face that we show to the Imperium. One face, one strong negotiator, who defends our rights.”
“I . . . I think I’d like having a leader,” Eland put in meekly.
“So would I,” Sago admitted. The rest of the Cocomons whistled agreement. “A nest-mother, as we of Cocomo have.”
“Someone has to speak for us to the Imperial agent,” Twenty-Three added in his quavering voice.
“Isn’t Boske still first among equals?” Twenty inquired, with a deferential nod toward DeKarn.
“Not necessarily,” DeKarn said.
“Surely we shouldn’t change this close to an Imperial visit,” Five agreed, tapping the breast of his pale blue robe.
“Augh!” cried Six, running his hands through his hair. “How does a committee accomplish anything? Throw in every interruption in the universe, and then dither until moot!”
“No!” Zembke stood up with his hands flat on the wide stone desk. Patriotic music flowed up around him out of speakers concealed in his seat, and a star map superimposed itself on the screens all around the room. DeKarn knew he’d waited for this moment for years, and had prepared his background material accordingly. She was in favor of granting him the leadership, though she knew Zembke was less popular than she. She would have proposed it herself long ago, but both the council as a whole and Zembke himself would have found it suspicious, as they did anything that smacked of unified government. Still, he was strong and of firm opinions. Even if the others disagreed with him, having to justify their opinions to him would make debate more productive.
Under normal circumstances, the council would not vote for a leader, but they were being pressed to it by the arrival of the envoy. This was a chance that could not be missed. DeKarn craved unity, and the strength of purpose that went with it. She sat straight, her eyes upon Zembke, encouraging him to go on.
He did, arms spread wide. “Why should we continue with the system that the Imperium left us? Boske was their choice for our spokesplanet. I propose that we of Carstairs speak for the rest of the Cluster. Our star is closest to the center. That makes it the prime location to use as a meeting point for all our peoples.” On the screen immediately over his head Carstairs stood out like a glowing orange beacon, and spokes sprang from the star toward the fainter images of the other seven. DeKarn almost applauded. “We will show them that we do not cling to their preferences. Choose a new center!” He flung his arms out as if to embrace the whole council.
“Geography!” Ten exclaimed, rising and fixing a fierce eye on Zembke, who matched her glare for glare. She crushed a half-empty nic tube on the table. The pale gas seeped out of it like an escaping soul. “You denounce it, then you try to make use of it? Come on, we all know that DeKarn is the best negotiator. She hasn’t got your bombast, but maybe her low blood pressure will keep us from getting wiped out by ship-mounted lasers!”
“Yes, DeKarn is a good speaker,” the tattooed woman put in, nervously.
“Thank you, Ten,” the First Councillor acknowledged. “But passion and authority are important, too. We must show a face to the Imperium that proves we have taken matters into our own hands.”
“If we can,” Vasily Marden said, skeptically.
“And that is what we are doing right now,” DeKarn said. Strike, as the old adage held it, while the iron was hot. She could send the poison chalice across the table to the man who wanted to drink from it. “Councillor Zembke has made some good points. I feel that strong leadership, one voice speaking for all of us, would be the best for the Cluster. We have been fragmented for too long. So much time has passed while we debate the correct structure, nomenclature, even the colors of a Cluster flag. It was all very well while we dealt largely with our own interests. Now that attention has been turned to us from the outside, it behooves us to define how we are seen, rather than let those who behold us make that definition. We should unite behind one strong figure, democratically chosen.”
“Well, you are very good,” said Five. DeKarn smiled at him.
“You are a member of my own party,” she said. “I hardly feel that you are a disinterested speaker.”
“Not at all,” Five demurred. “I have always admired you. I feel you would be an excellent leader. It is a shame that we must move uncomfortably swiftly, but this is, as you suggest, a crisis.”
“Don’t be too hasty,” DeKarn begged him. She was seeing Zembke’s opportunity slip away. Speak up! she thought at him. Instead, he glared at her. He believed she was trying to steal the leadership for herself. “Zembke has qualities that we would be wise to use.”
“I think DeKarn’s the best of all of us. Don’t you agree?” Twenty twittered, tugging at her neighbor’s wide sleeve.
Zembke felt rage swelling in him. No one would meet his eyes. They were all babbling. His carefully designed moment of triumph, ruined! “Silence! Listen to me!”
No one listened. They were all talking. “Carry on . . . wonder what the envoy will say? . . . Be nice to hear from the old worlds after all this . . . new fashions! . . . Change is so fast . . . What do you think they’re wearing? . . . Do we really need to decide on a leader? Can’t we all talk to the envoy?”
“Silence!” Zembke bellowed.
“Council!” DeKarn pounded her gavel. “Now, this is all very flattering, but it gets us no farther forward. All of you sit down. Now. This is a serious matter. I don’t want it to descend into trivia.” She turned a warning eye on Zembke. “Councillor Twenty-Nine. Make your case.”
Zembke looked at the others. Most of the group seemed cowed by his outburst, but the others looked bored. A few were genuinely upset, including Marden, whom he had counted on as an ally. This couldn’t be happening. He had resources. He had supporters. But he had lost the room. He took a deep breath.
“I apologize to the Council,” Zembke said hoarsely, sketching a small bow. He flicked a hand over a control. The star map behind him vanished, to be replaced by a pastoral scene. The others knew how rare such an unspoiled sight was on the Carstairs homeworld, which had been given largely over its history to mining and the smelting of minerals. Carstairsians were proud of surviving terrible conditions. He was making an open concession to peace. “I am only interested in our continued well-being. My view, as all of you know, is that would best be served in our continuing independence. I will not press for my point of view. But we do need a leader. One, and only one of us needs to speak for all to the Imperium. It would be an honor to serve in that capacity.”
“I don’t think so,” chittered Sago, rising to his delicate hind feet. “You boom too much. Councillor DeKarn, what about you?”
DeKarn cleared her throat. “I don’t believe that I . . .”
“Why not?” asked Ten.
“No!” Thirteen burst out.
The insectoid peered at the old man. “Why not? Twenty-Nine makes a good point. We should have a single speaker. She is well-spoken. Zembke is very loud, and loud does not necessarily carry a point.”
“I might agree with you, hive-brother,” Thirteen said, his wintry face creasing into a smile. “But we cannot nominate or choose Councillor DeKarn for another reason.”
“We are not yet the full council.” Marden waved a wrinkled hand toward the five empty seats at the end of the black table. “Until the contingent from Yolk gets here, we are all flapping our gums or, in your case, mandibles for no reason. Nothing can be done.”
The Cocomon tilted his head. “Ahhhh. I see. That is true.”
Zembke flopped back in his chair with a deep sigh. “Marden is right, dammit.”
“Language!” DeKarn rapped out. “But he is right.” She was disappointed. The leadership was still in her lap.
She pulled up a chart showing the space lanes that surrounded the Boske system and frowned at it worriedly. Among all the colored lights flitting through the darkness, there should have been a blip on it that indicated the ship carrying the missing envoys. A system search showed nothing with the diplomatic indicator.
“Where is the party from Yolk?”
At that moment, the building’s foundations began to shake beneath their feet.