My voice had ground down to a dry croak by the time I reached the end of my narrative. If I had left out anything, it was not because I meant to. Mother was a bugbear for detail and an excellent listener, with a knack for asking a leading question that reminded one of other parts of the story. She also laughed at all the funny bits. I could always count on Mother to get the jokes. I adored her.
“You actually marched into the mess hall wearing admiral’s trousers, on your very first day of duty?” Mother asked in a severe tone, but there was an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes. “You unbelievable fool, why did you do that?”
I hunched my shoulders. In retrospect it was not a moment of which I was proud. “Well, Mother, I do outrank everyone with whom I served.”
She shook her head. “Not on a ship! Didn’t you listen to a thing they taught you in the Academy? To that which I’ve devoted my entire life to upholding? You shouldn’t really twist Omar Podesta’s tail. He never could take teasing, even from teenage. He has no sense of humor whatsoever.”
“I had noticed that,” I said feelingly.
She regarded me thoughtfully. “I can’t believe you didn’t spend the entire tour in the brig, let alone take a tour of a colony world.”
“He did say he should clap me in irons . . .”
Mother scoffed. “Omar Podesta never said ‘clap you in irons’!”
I ducked my head. “No, he didn’t. He considered making the brig my permanent quarters for the duration of my service, but he thought he owed it to you to give me a second chance.”
She nodded. “Good of him. I will remember that should he ever need a favor. And you took that second chance.” It was not a question.
“I believe I served well,” I protested.
My mother scowled at me. “In what Navy? Certainly not mine.” I started to reply, but she cut me off with an upraised forefinger. “You obey the senior officer and all officers senior to you. If you have any powers of observation at all, you also obey the senior noncoms and anyone who might have a lesson to teach you. And believe me, my otherwise talented and personable son, all of them do.”
I sighed. “Yes, Mother, I know.”
“And you did make a hamfisted mess of the situation on Smithereen.” She had enjoyed the story, nodding often, as though comparing my report with that of the admiral, but her expression said that she almost certainly agreed with his assessment over mine.
I was hurt. One would hope one’s own mother would take one’s side. “We captured the entire crew without a single death. Poor Premulo might probably never bowl another strike, but Doc said he thought with time he could fix him. I mean Torkadir.”
“You captured . . . ?”
“Oh, Mother, surely you’ll give me that!” I exclaimed. “I led them into the ballroom maze and kept them there. They did not escape. Their capture led to the pursuit and apprehension of most of the others in their band of thieves.”
The twinkle came back. “If you tell it like that, then you may certainly take credit.”
“Not just me, of course. Along with all the Smithereen militia, my cutter crew, the station manager, the Wedjet and Parsons,” I added hastily. “Only five of us received medals, but I sent enough money for the militia to have a party to celebrate.”
“That’s generous of you,” Mother said dryly.
I grinned. “Chan sent me a note to say that they held it in my honor, and toasted me with the local grog. It would take your head off. You might like it.”
“I’ve tasted it,” she said. I should not have been surprised. There probably was not an atmosphere in the Imperium that my mother had not breathed in her long career. “It did take my head off, and the flavor is one I would rather forget. Well, my interrogation is over, and I want to hear the fun parts. Did your remote guests have a good party?”
“Fantastic,” I said, a trifle ruefully. “I wish I had been there. They sent me pictures and videos. They’re so wild I can’t really put any of them on my Infogrid file, but I have a link. Would you like to see them?”
“Perhaps later. In the meanwhile, I do take it to heart that you have a party to attend, also thrown in your honor. Your cousins missed you.”
“And I them. Mother, why . . . ?”
“Why what, my dragonlet?” she asked.
As with Parsons, I had the uncomfortable sensation that she was reading my mind. I wanted to know why I’d been assigned to the Wedjet and not the Tirisiani, but I saw a warning light in those eyes and stopped.
She smiled. “I’m very happy you did well, and that you made friends.”
“I did,” I said. “Not as many as I would have hoped. Some people I just could not rub the right way no matter how many strokes I put into it, but I believe I have some firm friends with whom I will be proud to serve in the future. I look forward to completing my enlistment with the Wedjet,” I added. “I have many good friends whom I have come to like and trust. With one exception,” I added, thinking of Specialist Bek. His betrayal still stung.
“Ah. That.” Mother came over and put a delicate hand on my shoulder. I looked up into her eyes, which were filled with sympathy. “I have some bad news for you, my dragonlet,” she said. “Podesta doesn’t want you back. He included in his message to me an impassioned plea, calling upon our ancient friendship and any other favors I might ever conceivably have owed him, not to return you to his command.”
My ego was dashed to the floor, where it shattered into pieces. “What? But we were getting on so well. What about my idea for a new database? It will save millions of pentabytes of memory on the ship’s processors! I thought he would appreciate that!”
“Yes, yes,” Mother said, waving a hand. “But it is the Navy. Admiral Omar Podesta does not want you to do things your way, he wants you to do them the Navy way, by checking with him via the chain of command, beginning with the officer next above you. You didn’t even listen to Parsons, did you?”
“Most of the time,” I protested. Shame colored my cheeks.
“Some of the time,” I finally conceded.
Mother was adamant. “That is not the way it works, Thomas. The admiral of the Red Fleet should not have to sort out your monkey tricks. He has a corps of ships that answers to him, presenting him with more problems in one day than can be solved in a year.”
“But why put me on that vessel if I was not to serve there? All my friends here . . .”
“Yes, and they are waiting,” Mother interrupted me, pulling me to my feet. She polished the medal on my chest with the frill around her wrist. “We’ll talk more later. I have many appointments, and they’re all impatient for a moment of my time. Come join me for breakfast tomorrow, sweetheart. In the meantime, your father has missed you greatly. Go and say hello to him.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss me on the cheek. I returned the kiss and stood back to salute her.
“Very pretty,” said the First Space Lord, with a wry smile. “Someday you’ll mean it.”
* * *
The family compound was large enough to make use of personal vehicles, travelchairs or cargobots who were glad to carry a Kinago wherever he or she would care to wend among the various buildings and complexes within its walls. I refused offers from several ancient mechanical retainers who greeted me warmly on the tree-lined streets and lanes I took from the main house in the direction of Father’s workshop. It was not that I was putting off a visit to my father; I wanted the extra minutes to arrange my thoughts. Conversations with my father were agonizing. I never knew what he would comprehend from time to time, nor what he would retain from any previous visit. Now and again he would think I was someone else, or treat me as though I was still a small boy. How his mind reconciled the lanky body I operated at this stage of my life with the undersized sprog I had once been was a matter for the scientists or the doctors. I was neither. I was only his son.
Rodrigo Park Kinago had a handsome profile. It had been captured in portraits both in image capture and more traditional forms. Artists had been fascinated by the strong line of his jaw, the wavy, almost black hair that swept back from his noble, wide brow, the eyes of a dark sapphire blue that was envied for its purity and intensity, and strong yet gentle hands. When he concentrated on a single item, as he did now upon a lump of gray stone, turning it this way and that, it bestowed upon that item the aura of being the most interesting thing in all the Core Worlds. What could he see in such a simple, small thing? I watched him from the doorway of his workshop for a long while. I realized he had not noticed me, and probably would not.
I cleared my throat. The small sound almost rang in the still air of the workshop. The intense blue gaze moved away from its subject, and blurred. The eyes, now agate in clarity instead of jewel-like, found my face, sought my eyes, and attempted to focus. I swallowed.
“Father, it’s me. Thomas.”
“Thomas?” The gaze sharpened slightly, scanned my features, and rejected them. He shook his head. “What Thomas is that?”
The familiar anguish rose up in my throat. I loved him, but it was difficult to see him this way. “Your son, sir. I’m back.”
“My son?” A memory dawned. He smiled and rose with alacrity from the laboratory stool, holding out his arms. “My boy! And how are you?”
He embraced me with a strength that his wavery gaze belied, and pounded me on the back. I returned the hug. He let me go with one final powerful swipe to the scapula, and returned to his seat. “Sit down, Thomas, sit down! I was just examining an interesting specimen.” He held out the rock to me. I examined it, but could not detect anything unusual about it, but thought it best to humor him.
“Very interesting,” I said.
“Yes! I’m glad you can see,” Father said, giving me a swift smile. He scooped the stone from my hand and resumed his scrutiny of it with an old-fashioned quizzing glass the size of my hand. His smooth, antique, lacquered wooden worktable, while spotless, held a number of rather ordinary looking objects, like spools, balls, lumps of plastic, white ceramic cups holding colored liquids or collections of microcircuitry. “And how are you? You haven’t been around to see me lately. I listened to your messages, but you didn’t say why you were gone.”
My messages, like all my communications, were exhaustively thorough. Either he hadn’t really listened, or he couldn’t absorb them. I was used to that.
“I was on a naval ship, father. I have joined the service.”
An unusually lucid light brightened his eyes. “About time. I hope they use you well.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve been tossed off my ship.”
“I . . .” Best to be frank. “Mother tells me I was insubordinate.”
“Well, she would know,” Father said, serenely. He smiled. “That means you must have done something right.”
“I helped capture pirates, Father. I got a medal. See? It’s here.” I pointed to my chest. He leaned close to peer at the small decoration.
“Did you put them back in their box?” His eyes had gone hazy again. My heart sank.
“I suppose in a way I did,” I replied.
“Good, son, good.” My hopes that he would understand and rejoice with me were dashed. As usual. I could hardly be angry. He had been like this my entire life.
He bent to rearrange the tiny tools on his workbench. They looked to be precisely spaced from one another already, but he seemed to have determined that they should be arranged in order of width rather than length. He reached for an apple-sized ball. “Did you see the puzzle I built? A real conundrum. No one will be able to solve it for centuries.”
I examined the little sphere. A brilliant red jewel lay at the heart of a nest of round boxes of many different materials, visible through a keyhole-shaped opening. I tried spinning them to line up the keyholes, but as I got two in line, others would spin to hide the jewel.
Father pointed to the spinning openings as they appeared and reappeared. “You have to unlock the repulsors one at a time, in precisely the correct order, or the treasure is lost forever. Good, eh?”
“Very . . . complicated,” I agreed.
His brow furrowed. “Hmm. The third level is running forty milliseconds slow. Give me that, son.” He took the puzzle away from me and reached for a handful of tools. He slid the switch on one, giving rise to a loud buzzing. The spheres halted in place. Father leaned over the orb with a tool with a pair of tiny, sharp calipers on the end. He tinkered with the box, lost in his work once again.
I rose from my stool and headed toward the door, leaving him to his work. I knew he hadn’t forgotten I was there. He just seemed far more interested in it than in me. I was used to that. His voice halted me before I reached the threshold.
“Did you see your Uncle Laurence? He was just here.”
I spun. Uncle Laurence was home? “No, Father, I didn’t. I’d love to see him.”
Father raised his brilliant eyes from his puzzle. “Sorry, my boy. I’m afraid he’s gone, now. Back to Earth. Hmm.” He dropped his gaze once more.
I smiled. A fantasy my father and his brother shared was about Earth. They confided in me when I was only six that they knew the location of our mother world, and had sworn me to secrecy. Enchanted to be in on such a secret, I had believed them for five years, until my first astronomy professor informed me that no one was certain of Earth’s location or had been for over seven hundred years. I had been crestfallen, but over time I came to understand my paternal unit and his sibling had a dry sense of humor.
Uncle Laurence was a bit of a hermit. He had served with distinction in the same years as Father, but afterwards did not return to the Core Worlds to enjoy himself as did the rest of their peers. He either purchased a large estate or took on a sinecure—family details were a little sketchy—on a largely arboreal planet in a remote district off the usual trade routes, far from borders with the Trade Union, the Autocracy or any of the Imperium’s neighbors, which he occupied alone, without wife, children or friends. He wrote poetry, which he sent to favored relatives. I treasured his rather flowery images, as I did his infrequent visits home. Images of his forest fastness reminded me of fairy-tale castles, furnished with old-fashioned furniture and precious antique books. In my rebellious teens, I asked him often if I could come to stay for a while, but he assured me it was too primitive a setting for one accustomed to fine living and attentive service. I could hardly believe it when he told me he had only one LAI cargobot in his employ, and no personal valets at all of any species.
I did wonder for a moment what stimulus had made Father think he had had a conversation with his brother. I tried to put it from my mind. I had a party in my honor to enjoy. I returned to my suite to change. Still, images of him focused upon that nest of small spinning spheres troubled me deeply.