DeKarn was not completely immune from the charms of the visitor, but she began to feel nervous at his sheer ubiquity. Not only was Captain Sgarthad in the council chambers and on the digitavid programming every day, he made appearances in circles of power. He had insinuated himself among the group of prominent businessbeings who frequented the deluxe bar at the top of the local hotel. At first she thought it was innocent. After all, he came from a culture of traders. Then petitions began to circulate. DeKarn obtained one from a trusted source who was also outraged that the Trade Union captain seemed to be the moment’s darling. DeKarn could not believe it until she had listened to the prologue several times. The petition sought to hold a special election, against all laws of Boske or any of the other Castaway Cluster systems, to name Emile Sgarthad governor on behalf of the Trade Union, “the better,” the narrator, a distinguished-looking Cocomon businessfemale DeKarn had met personally, “to facilitate our entry into the greater galactic community.” There were over six thousand image prints of signatories attached to the document already. DeKarn searched out some names, and was shocked to see that Councillor Four, a member of her own contingent, was one of those who endorsed it. Four, a busy mother of three and a businesswoman, refused to discuss it.
“All my reasoning is there,” she said, peevishly. “We want prosperity and protection, and this arrangement offers both of them!”
DeKarn railed at her for a time in Portent’s Star’s private conference room, but Four was obdurate. She had a right to bring the petition. All the council could do was vote it up or down. DeKarn was frustrated.
Zembke had also seen the petition, and denounced it in open session.
“The only thing that is saving the Cluster from being taken over on the spot by you foolish, smitten folk is that the proposal is illegal!” he boomed.
“Then we move that it become possible in law,” Ruh Pinckney argued, puffing up his many chins.
“Seconded,” agreed Ferat Urrmenoc.
“Preliminary vote,” DeKarn said wearily. “In favor?”
A dismaying number of lights went on. Every day, more of the councillors were being swayed to the Trade Union’s cause. It was getting difficult even to table a proposal in favor of either independence or the Imperium. Lucky for common sense, everything in government moved so very slowly that the process would eventually bore people and take their eyes off the leadership argument.
Why was no one protesting the matter but the few of them? Something very fishy and uncomfortable had pervaded Cluster civilization. Until the arrival of the stranger, it had been a place where one could—and did—express views freely, gaining pings of approval from those who read or viewed the opinion. Recently, any naysayers who went public, on the Grid or the vids, seemed to appear only once or twice before recanting their articles or vanishing from view. It was alarming for supporters of free speech.
DeKarn tried to commune with the Cocomon contingent. They should not be affected by mind-changing methods, either chemical or hypnotic, but they seemed to find the visitor more than reasonable.
“See it from our perspective,” Thanndur said, when she finally arranged a private conference. “The Trade Union has paid more attention to the Cluster over the last two hundred years than has the Imperium. When shortages pressed us, the TU came forward with supplies—though prices were exorbitant—but supplies were there. Everything they offer is reasonable, save perhaps for the governorship. That is to be debated. We await instructions from Cocomo. We have not committed wholly to the Trade Union, though opinion is pointing in that direction. Captain Sgarthad’s pleas over the Grid have done much to sway our system to his point of view.”
“But what about independence?” DeKarn pleaded.
“Neither that nor adherence to the Imperium are at the forefront at the moment. I will give you our decision when we make it. We are not delaying unnecessarily. We would like to return home before it is time for the yearly swarm. Reproduction must not wait too long.”
DeKarn departed, unsatisfied. The Cocomons’ logic was inescapable. Though the Trade Union had been the aggressor during the wars two centuries ago, it had become a friend during the dark years and in the following decades while the Cluster rebuilt itself. Cocomo remained annoyingly neutral, continuing to demand argument from all three sides, while poised to fall into the Sgarthad camp. Her blood pressure spiked enough to set off her health chip, implanted into her body below her heart. Her communicator buzzed with yet another call from the Boske-wide physician program, prescribing meditation and a course of pressure-lowering medicine. She ignored it. Meditation could do nothing to abate the source of her stress.
The Grid had opened up once again, though heavily salted with Trade Union propaganda. The local council began to get reports from outer Boske about how delighted it was with the new Trade Union representative, and professed itself happy to follow him. No one seemed to think it strange that he was all but taking over.
They had to have help. Against her better judgment, she knew that the only source of aid large enough to dislodge the growing menace was the Imperium. It would jeopardize their standing as an independent entity, but that could all be worked out later.
She made an appointment to meet with Hiranna Ben. The ambassador had been more than patient through the previous weeks, regarding the actions of her rival as hijinks. Except for finding him fanciable, she seemed to be untouched by Sgarthad’s appeal.
DeKarn begged off from the now-habitual lunch, and slipped into a hired flitter for the short trip to the governor’s mansion. At her request to Dr. Yuchiko, the service door in the side of the mansion was left unlocked for her. The flitter scooted away into traffic between high rises. Unobserved by anyone except the odd electronic employee, DeKarn made her way to the ambassador’s quarters.
They were empty.
“Ambassador Ben?” she called softly. No one answered.
She peeked into nearby chambers, then widened her search to the gardens, the library, and the other common rooms of the official residence that had been designated as still out of the public eye.
“No, I do not know where she is,” Dr. Yuchiko said, troubled. “Did you call her ship?”
“I did,” DeKarn said, now feeling frantic. “They have not seen her since she debarked. Her communicator does not answer. Had she said anything about going out?”
“Not in so many words,” Dr. Yuchiko said, “but Captain Sgarthad said that since he is free to move about, he said that it would be logical to allow her the same liberty. I saw no reason to refuse.”
DeKarn stared at him. “Neither one of them is at liberty, governor! You knew that.”
Yuchiko paused and blinked. “Yes, I did. I am so sorry. But I did pass along the suggestion to the ambassador. I think perhaps she must have taken me up on it. I will let you know when she returns.”
DeKarn put in another call to Ben, pitching her voice to a reasonable tone, and asking for some of her time when the ambassador should choose. She was not convinced that the ambassador had gone out on her own. What if she had disappeared, like the pundits who published on the Grid? She forced herself to be patient until past dinner that evening. Hiranna Ben had not returned to either her ship or the mansion. As far as DeKarn was concerned, she was missing. The blame had to lie at the feet of Sgarthad, but she would be a fool to accuse him when she had no grounds, and no one to back her up. She needed outside assistance.
Whom could she trust to send a message to the Emperor?
Her communicator buzzed again. Colm’s earnest face and emphatic tattoos looked up at her from the pad’s screen. “Councillor, I have some information for you. May I see you?”
“You can send it to me . . .” she began, but the pleading look in his eyes made her hesitate. “Yes. Meet me at the Pthohannix Rose Gardens. I am going there now.”
He looked relieved. “Yes, madam. I will be there.”
Among the fragrant blossoms and lush foliage, the pair of them in official garments attracted many looks from passersby. Colm gave her his combox.
“I don’t dare transmit this, for fear of having it detected, madam,” he said. “Please.”
DeKarn opened the file in privacy mode, which flattened out any three-dimensional images that might pop up. It showed lists of names, numbers and coordinates.
“Ships, Councillor,” Colm said. “Trade Union ships, lots of them. They have been appearing out of ultra-drive in every system in the Cluster. Notifications that should have come to you and the rest of the council were erased or suppressed. I have copies of them here, but I cannot keep them on an active pad for long. I have already had to purge a hundred and eight worm programs in the last three days. You can count on all of this information going to . . . our subject. I still haven’t been able to find chemical trace or a device used to compel, er, cooperation, but it’s got to be a sound pulse or a visual pattern of some kind. Sgarthad has become a phenomenon across the Cluster without ever having been to the other worlds. No one protests following the instructions he has sent, not even on Carstairs, and you know what they’re like.”
“So, it is a coup,” DeKarn said. She felt oddly content, now that her suspicions had been confirmed. “Colm, can I trust you?”
He grinned. “I hope so, madam.”
“Can you get a message to the Imperium?”
Colm’s long face became serious. “We are virtually cut off, madam. No ships have been allowed to go out of system for weeks. No transmissions are being received from the Infogrid, and there has been no confirmation that they are receiving any from our Grid. I believe that the Trade Union has disabled our two repeater satellites on either side of the black hole.” The anomaly prevented direct transmission, so the Cluster had no line-of-sight to the Core Worlds. “I can only guess, but if I wanted to cut us off from civilization, that would be my first stop, and I will bet that it was theirs.”
“Then, how can we do it?”
“A messenger,” Colm said, resolutely. “We have learned so much since . . . since Sgarthad arrived here. The Imperium can have no idea what is going on. You are right, madam. We have no choice. I’ll have to go myself. I will go to the repeater station first. If I can transmit from there, I will, but otherwise, I will make my way to the nearest settlement and ask for help.”
DeKarn felt a wrench. She hated to lose her most astute employee, but this was a matter of freedom for the whole Cluster. “Very well,” she said. “Go safely. And may sunstorms rain down upon the emperor if he refuses to help this time! It will be the end, one way or the other, of the Castaway Cluster being the farthest outpost of the Imperium.”
He slipped away through a bower of hanging blossoms with scarcely a rustle. DeKarn paused to enjoy the sunlight. She had a good deal of work to do. She entered a code on her communicator.
“Rengin?” she said, when the councillor’s face appeared on the small screen. “I am sorry I missed this afternoon’s session.”
“Nothing happened,” he said, wryly. “Councillor Zembke stood in for you. I hope you are not ill?”
“No, just delayed.”
“I am glad to hear it. How may I serve?”
“Please put me on the agenda for tomorrow. I need twenty . . . no, thirty minutes for a speech. First thing, before we reopen the debate on the . . . governorship.”
Rengin’s left eyebrow perked up. “May I ask the subject?”
“Leave it open, if you will,” DeKarn said. “I must go now. I have some research to do before tomorrow morning.”
She squared her shoulders and marched toward the nearest light rail station. She had done with pretending to follow Sgarthad and turn a blind eye to the abuses going on all over the Cluster. The next morning, she would condemn Sgarthad, bring out into the open all the proof she had been amassing, and, it was to be hoped, wake up her fellows before it was too late—if it fact it was not already.
* * *
Sleep almost overpowered DeKarn before she climbed into bed. The speech was a good one, full of logic and bullet points, with plenty of visual proof she had been able to glean from opinion pieces posted from all eight systems, showing the Trade Union takeover from the beginning to the present. She hid backup copies in every secure storage point she could find, including in spare capacity in the household management system. As soon as she was certain she had created enough redundancy against accident, fire or sabotage, she collapsed into bed. The morning would see whether words and pictures could manage to stir her fellows, or if they and the Cluster were lost to the overwhelming charm of a handsome intruder. They must understand at least the suspicious disappearance of the Imperium ambassador. She pulled the light coverlet up to the nape of her neck, and fell asleep listening to the gentle hum of the household system.
She was awakened by a noise. The family feline was too elderly and lazy to roam the house when there was no chance of a late meal, and the AIs had finished their daily chores before sunset.
DeKarn rolled over.
“Manager?” she called. “What . . . ?”
A spray in the face made her cough. To her horror, her throat emitted no sounds. She still tried to cry out. Strong hands seized her by the arms. She arched her back and kicked out, fighting against the hold. More hands grabbed her legs and pinned them down. She thrashed. A brilliant green light bloomed in her face. Before she closed her eyes against the glare, she saw the crosshatching lines that swept from her forehead downward. “What is that?” she tried to say.
“Emile was right, she’s a resister,” a male voice said.
“Take her,” said a female voice. She recognized it as Sgarthad’s second officer, the short-haired human female. DeKarn fought against the hands. Another spray struck her in the face. Her body sagged. She could breathe, but none of her limbs moved. She could not even roll her eyes. Fully conscious but helpless, she felt herself lifted off the bed and carried out into the night. Why didn’t the household manager react? The familiar purple lights were off. They had disabled it!
A dark-colored transport waited at the edge of the street. She tried to flail her arms and kick. Nothing but the top of her thumb moved. She waved it, hoping futilely that it would be noticed.
It wasn’t. The beings carried her deposited her gently in the rear of the vehicle. The door slid closed almost silently. Darkness surrounded her.
She started to count the number of turns the vehicle took, but found it impossible to concentrate. Another touch of spray played upon her face. How many different drugs do these people possess? she thought indignantly as her mind drifted into dreams.
When she awoke, sour yellow light thrust a blade under her eyelids. She lifted them, grateful that her muscles were working once more.
A cone of feeble yellow light clung to the upper part of a doorjamb. She snapped her fingers, and the illumination doubled its output. She saw she was in a very small room. She lay upon a pallet. Though it had been covered with quality padding almost four centimeters deep, she discovered the pallet was made of thick metal. Across from her head, not quite within arm’s reach, was a metal chair, its swivel pedestal planted into a slot in the floor. It was tucked into the kneehole of a desk. Beside the desk was a very basic personal cleansing station: commode, sonic cleaner, sink and wall-set mirror, all of the same heavy, burnished metal. This was a cell!
With difficulty, DeKarn forced herself to stand. Her knees buckled. She staggered to the door and placed her hand on the plate. No movement, not even a sound. It had been deactivated. She felt for the emergency release hatch. It had been caulked closed with a solid bead of smooth material. DeKarn could not even scratch it away.
Frantically, she searched her surroundings. Apart from the towel and liquids dispenser next to the cleansing station and a basic entertainment console—which she discovered, to her dismay, was not hooked up to the greater Grid—the room was empty of any item that could be used to free herself.
Her communication pad was missing, naturally, as she did not sleep with it. Her hand kept going to where it should have been at her hip. It felt as if someone had removed one of her eyes. She had never been without it for any length of time in her life. She activated the console again. It had no mail program, not even in the root registry.
“Help!” she cried. Her voice emerged in a thin whisper. It was coming back! “Help!” She planted her ear against the door, listening for footsteps. “Someone help me!” Her voice rose to a thin cry like a baby’s.
A grinding sound made her jump backwards. A noise! A noise in the door!
She pounded on the impenetrable panel, waiting desperately to see who was on the other side.
“Let me out! Help me!” she cried. “You can’t leave me here to starve.”
Apparently, that was not the intent of her captors. A hatch in the middle panel of the door slid upward and spat two objects into her hands. She held them up to the feeble light: a large bottle of water and a package of survival bars.
* * *
The entertainment console had plenty of content. DeKarn had worn her fingers raw over the course of three days attempting to undo the seal on the emergency hatch. Her voice was hoarse and ragged from screaming. Neither action had any effect. Fresh meals and clean clothes arrived at intervals, but no one and nothing spoke to her or communicated with her in any way. She was weary of trying, and tired of being frightened. Anything that took her mind off her situation would help. She browsed through the console’s drive, while letting her subconscious formulate an escape.
Sgarthad was behind this. She knew he or his minions had been spying on her for a long while. They had learned everything, including how to penetrate her household defenses. She should have asked for personal protection, but the constabulary would have asked why. None of them saw the visitor as a threat. Obviously. How she wished she had made a preemptive strike and put him in a prison cell. With a lock. Didn’t anyone notice she was missing?
Over and over again, she feared for Colm. Had he been intercepted? She dared to think of him on a tiny spaceship streaking outward past the first jump point, out of Sgarthad’s reach. Only that gave her enough hope to continue. By now, her enemy had found the speech she had written. Her perfidy—how could she think of it as that?—would be known. She had handed Sgarthad exactly the proof he needed that she opposed him.
She must not continue to berate herself. Calm, she thought. Calm.
How to Speak Wichu caught her eye. She opened the file. It contained lessons on both Youngspeak and Adultspeak. She decided to try Youngspeak.
“Welcome to Galactic-Talk!” an earnest young human male said. “You are about to embark upon a fascinating linguistic journey! Youngspeak Wichu is a changeable and malleable language. New words and phrases, including imports from human, Cocomon and Uctu, are picked up by the curious youngsters and spread in days throughout a colony. Over time, those parts of speech take on Wichu characteristics . . .”
There were few Wichus in the Cluster. If she was ever released, she would undoubtedy be forced to leave government. Perhaps she would take up teaching on a faraway edge of the Cluster. Providing that she was allowed to live. But being in the cell left her with hope. They had not killed her, only imprisoned her.
She was afraid of what the stress might do to her blood pressure. That was it! Everyone in the Cluster was implanted with a med-scan chip that kept track of their vital signs. She opened her robe and examined her solar plexus. No sign of surgery. It must still be in her body. She dragged in a breath and held it as long as she could, until she could feel her ears start to pop. That always brought her blood pressure up dangerously. She waited, then did it again and again. She was on the edge of passing out, but kept trying. No response. No one came looking for her. Her communicator was probably buzzing like a beehive, but the chip didn’t send her location to the central computer along with her symptoms. Curse the privacy laws!
Over the course of the weeks that followed, she became fairly proficient at Wichu, even garnering praise from her prerecorded teacher. She listened to music programs, viewed countless digitavids, acquired new interests, but she remained desperate for news of the world outside her steel cage. No information came through the console system, nor any kind of access to the Grid. DeKarn tried over and over again to activate the communications portion of the console, but it never worked. The opening screen obligingly opened and presented itself to accept a message, but it did not work. Sometimes she cried from the frustration.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night in her seventh week of captivity, the console turned itself on with a blare of sound that frightened her right out of the metal bunk. She approached the square of light with the greatest of caution.
“Prosperity in the greater Pthohannix sector increased by point-zero-three percent over the last sixday. The rise can be attributed to a gain in intrasector trading . . .”
News! DeKarn was thrilled. She kicked back the chair and plunged into the newfound bounty with delight. Opinion programs, business programs, documentaries, exposes and talk programs galore filled channels that had heretofore been inaccessible to her. A database, by no means as extensive as the kind to which she was accustomed, gave her an index of current Grid shows and clips dating back almost two months. No decision had been made by the council, which surprised her not at all. The contingent from Dree made a presentation describing their deliberations. It was as boring as a history recording. She read the subtext notes and went on to the next item.
To her despair, no one had noticed that she was missing. A single mention in the gossip lines stated only that she had left a recording for the council saying she had gone on sabbatical, and would be back once she had resolved “personal problems.” They had forged a message from her! When she got a hold of Sgarthad, she would make him sorry he had ever brought his pretty face to Boske!
DeKarn watched all that she could, never sleeping until she collapsed with weariness, and rising with alacrity to view and listen and read. Whatever glitch had prevented her from having this resource before had cleared. And a good thing, too. The Trade Union was becoming more open in its move to insinutate itself into Cluster culture. Sgarthad gave daily speeches, full of the nothing of goodfellow politics, just enough, she realized, to keep his face in the public view as much as he could.
“Trade will increase exponentially once the Cluster has formed a permanent bond with the Trade Union,” he said. “Be certain to notify your city-state and planetary representatives . . .”
Shockingly, the screen went blank. DeKarn pounded upon the console with both hands.
“Come back!” she cried. She struck all the keys and controls, trying to resurrect the report. “Don’t stop!” Nothing seemed to work. She pounded a fist on the keyboard.
“Welcome to Galactic-Talk! You are about to embark upon a fascinating . . . !
DeKarn muted the sound, just in time to hear footsteps. The hatch in the door opened. A bundle came through, and the one she had left, containing food wrappers, empty water bottles and soiled clothes, was extracted. She never saw the hand that made the delivery. The hatch slid closed, and footsteps receded into silence.
Just as abruptly as it had gone, the program returned. DeKarn flew to the console.
She remained glued to it as long as she possibly could. The Trade Union’s presence became less of a phenomenon to the opinion press, and more natural every day. Sgarthad’s face was everywhere on Boske. Several more councillors posted “sabbatical” letters. She was not surprised to see they came from Zembke, Marden, her friend Barba Linden, among others.
She began to receive feeds from other worlds, too, days or weeks behind, showing more Trade Union ships arriving, their crews greeted by parades and ceremonies of welcome. There was no news whatsoever from the Imperium. They were cut off. She was so frustrated that her hands shook. Sgarthad had succeeded in making the Castaway Cluster an outpost of the Trade Union, in all but name. That, too, could not be long in coming.
A brightly dressed, toothy announcer appeared on the screen and beamed at her.
“This show was brought to you by Nom-Num Snacks!” he exclaimed. “This foodstuff is Sgarthad-approved! Enjoy!”
DeKarn found that as unpalatable as the food bars on her tray. Oh, how she hoped Colm had made it off-world!