The next sunrise arrived with me as a full and alert witness. Usually I saw dawn from the other side, having been awake all night in the company of like-minded individuals enjoying the best things in life. That night my only companion was a sense of discontentment and unfamiliar isolation. Through the window at the foot of my bed I saw the sky change through a series of rich colors, from star-spangled black, ink, purple, indigo, blue and that sudden flash of green that as a child I thought was a myth, before the pale sapphire of day became predominant and I lost interest. The canyon that housed the Imperium compound and the oldest sections of Taino faced north, so the sun itself did not become visible over its sheer walls until long after the day began.
I had come up with no fulfilling occupation to take the place of the naval service that had been taken away from me. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go but the frivolous pursuits that I had enjoyed all of my life, never guessing that they might be all I would do. The navy had given me a taste of another life, one of purpose.
I had heard the complaint over and over again that we of the Imperial House lacked purpose, but I had never understood why that made the common folk so angry. Could it be that they were sorry for us, that we did not understand what they knew?
I was still left without an occupation. I put Scot’s commitment to his young and illicit family down partly to wanting to matter somehow. He had solved the problem in his way. I must solve my own.
I made up my mind to go to my mother and see if there was any way I could get assigned to another ship. There were four other fleets. I just couldn’t go on being a useless and charming ornament. I’d had a taste of service, and against all my training and heritage, I liked it. I had never felt so alive, not even running the rim at the controls of a wild racing skimmer, as I had leading a ragtag troop on an ad hoc mission. I had had a purpose, even if I had given it to myself, to capture a crew of hijackers and thieves.
I dressed with uncommon care, choosing as my mother had the other day, a costume that echoed the official uniform of the Imperium Navy, deep blue tunic over pale trousers, and a black demi-boot polished to a diamond shine. I was entitled to wear a flashing that indicated the medal I had earned, but decided to forgo it. I admired myself in the mirror. Perfect, I thought.
The Optique hovered to life as I tucked my pocket secretary into its accustomed pouch on my sleeve. I beckoned to the camera. It bobbled alongside, an encouraging companion that I am certain agreed I was entitled to a second chance.
I had the argument all fixed in my head. “Mother, it’s your Navy,” I would say. “I offer my deepest apologies for any misperceptions on either my part or that of Admiral Podesta as to my place within it. I am sure that you can find a way to put me back into it. I will do my best to fit in—in my own way, naturally—but I feel a need to serve. No, I am not joking. Give me another chance, and you will not regret it. Even Admiral Podesta will someday come to regret having dismissed me out of hand.”
The last I doubted would ever come true, but it sounded so noble that I hardly could leave it out of my speech. I repeated phrases to myself in varying degrees of passion, from low-pitched in a face grave with concern, to wildly dramatic, complete with appropriate hand gestures and pacing. I caught a glimpse of myself in mirrors I passed and in the miniature screen in the side of the Optique, which paced me a meter or so away. I thought that if Mother did agree, I wanted that moment recorded for history, so I could replay it as a triumph from time to time.
Mother’s office in the Admiralty lay opposite Army Headquarters at the foot of the bluff on which the Imperium compound stood. I accepted a ride from a cargo transport that had just delivered supplies to the Kinago family kitchens. I would have walked, but I wanted my footgear to retain its shine. I considered the clear sky an omen.
“Good morning, Lord Thomas!” chirruped the officer on duty at the reception desk in the huge, yellow marble hall. I smiled at her.
“Good morning, Lieutenant . . . Wasson,” I said, sending the Optique close enough that it could read the name plate on her desk. My smile was sincere, even if my memory was enhanced by technology. “You are looking especially well today.”
“Thank you, your lordship,” she said, with a shy smile. She looked like a model, without sufficient IQ to answer the complex communications system before her, but I knew the vetting that went into the choice of every employee in the building. She was trained in several martial arts, as well as being expert in operating the defense system that was concealed all the enormous room. She was the first line of defense in this nerve center that defended the entire Imperium in space. I assumed a friendly grin and made myself look as harmless as possible. “The First Space Lord has meetings today, sir.”
“My mother is not expecting me, but I will just slip in and wait until she has time to see me.”
“Very well, sir,” Lt. Wasson said. “I will send a message to Admiral Draco, to be delivered when she has a break.” She waved me into the gunmetal blue security booth. Lights ran down on every side of me, making certain I was carrying no banned substances into the building.
As a familiar face, I was similarly waved on by all the levels of security approaching my mother’s office suite—after I passed through scans and checkpoints, of course. Both LAI and biological clerks worked in the Admiralty, all ranks up to and including admirals who had retired from or were on leave from active duty in the five fleets that served the Imperium. All the way there, I rehearsed my argument. Mother mustn’t say no.
The door of the suite opened to admit me after a brief body scan. In the anteroom, its walls covered with brilliantly rendered scenes from space battles the Imperium had fought over the last few millennia and portraits of the ships and captains whohad won them, her private secretary, Admiral Leven Draco, hunched over a console. He was a superb officer who had served Mother as aide-de-camp, commander to her captain, captain to her admiral, and accepted a promotion to admiral on his retirement from active duty only if it meant he would not be separated from my mother’s service. He was a stout man with huge, wiry graying eyebrows, a tuft of hair in the middle of a bald head that was surrounded by a tonsure of wiry iron-gray hair. His jowly face, pouched eyes and authoritative beak of a nose often caused him to be mistaken, by those who did not know the dainty woman at his side at official events, as the First Space Lord. He smiled at me. I considered him an unrelated relative.
“Uncle Lev,” I said, shaking hands with him. The rest of his many assistants looked up from their stations to offer me grins and nods. They were almost all high-ranking naval officers retired from active duty. This was a plum assignment, considered well worth fighting for. Draco hand-picked his staff for trustworthiness and competence. They were the best of the best. I could never qualify as one of my own mother’s office staff. “May I see the First Space Lord? I’ll wait.”
The jowls lifted and creased in a pleased smile. “How are you, my boy? I heard you were back. Your mother’s in one last meeting, then you may go in. There are refreshments in the anteroom.”
“Shall I bring you anything?” I asked.
“No need,” he said, lifting his customary oversized coffee cup. The others shook their heads. “Go on.”
I settled myself in the anteroom. It was meant to look intimate and comfortable, but its enormous size, proportionate to the other grand chambers in the Admiralty, made me feel as if I was a very small boy in his father’s study. The walls were paneled in priceless tropical wood, and decorated with historically important banners and ensigns under sheets of crystal. My mother’s portrait, as the current holder of the office, hung over a crystal case full of memorabilia from her career, models of the ships she had commanded, medals, holos from her ship’s logs, and so on. The leatherlike furniture, huge and overstuffed, wore an air of timeless importance that had cowed many a young officer. I sank into a chair with huge, rolled sides that could not be called arms, as they were level with my head, and I am a tall man. I could not see out of it, but it had excellent acoustics, as I had discovered as a small child. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, sometimes I could hear what was going on in Mother’s office. The door was ajar a finger’s breadth. She was speaking with a man, very likely human, by the resonance and baritone pitch.
I realized with a start that I knew that voice very well indeed. Her visitor was Parsons. I had the most awful feeling that he had come to report upon my deployment aboard the Wedjet. I was a little put out, having come to regard him as my personal aide. I knew it had been a temporary measure, though why he needed to oversee my naval service I did not know. Sadly, I knew that he would not spare my feelings when he declaimed the rolls of my sins. I wondered what particular item on the list had Mother’s attention. I did not want him to scuttle my hoped-for second chance. I had to know what he was saying, so I could counter his arguments when my turn came to speak. Though I knew my effort would be futile; Parsons was as clearheaded as they came and as incorruptible as honor itself. Mother would always be wise to take his assessment of a situation over mine. I would be reduced to pleading. Not that I was unused to abasing myself to apologize to some figure of authority, but I had never felt the stakes to be so high. My future was in the balance. I wriggled out of the enveloping chair and crept, spine bent and on silent foot, toward the door.
A slight creak from the office sent me haring back to the seat. If Parsons was departing from my mother’s company, the last image I wanted to provide them was of me kneeling with my ear pressed to the door. But I had to hear their exchange. Abandoning all scruples, I disabled the Optique’s exterior lights and sent the little sphere to hover in the crack at the top of the door.
Through its link with my pocket secretary, I watched it scan the room and focus upon the two figures in the center. My mother, in full uniform, looking trim and majestic, was seated behind her desk. Parsons, spine straight as truth, stood beside her. They were both looking at a three-dimensional image that played upon the desk top. I could not discern the image, save that it appeared to be a spacescape. At least I was not the immediate subject of conversation. I felt deep relief.
“. . . remarkable clarity of the images leaves no doubt as to identity and trajectory, and confirms the information on the crystal,” Parsons was saying, as the Optique’s sensitive microphone filtered it back to me. I winced at the fractionally time-delayed echo, as I could also hear the voices myself. I put a finger in my ear and listened closely to the speaker. “There is no reason for those ships to have been in that place at that time. No flight plan was filed, no distress calls noted from that area. It is definitely an intrusion.”
Ah. It must be something about the pirate fleet. I smiled. I had shined in that event. I had nothing to worry about, then.
“It is still spotty,” Mother said. “I wish there had been more definite data.”
Spotty? How could it be spotty? They had captured the main ship, which led them to the rest. Case closed, or so I would have thought.
It seemed that Parsons agreed. I could almost hear the shrug, not that Parsons would perform a gesture as casual as a shrug. “Mr. Frank is satisfied. We must interpret as best we can. The sender was clearly in great peril. It is not the information we were waiting for, but must be investigated as to whether to bring greater Imperium resources than your fleets to bear.”
Imperium resources? Greater than the Navy? I strained to hear more.
“I fear you are right,” Mother said. “We need further information. That must be your task.” His task. I realized I did not truly know what Parsons did when he was not accompanying me on diplomatic missions. What hidden depths had he beyond the ones of which I already knew? And who was Mr. Frank? I had never met anyone of that name.
“Yes, madam. It is my task.” His voice had a point to it. There was a distinct pause.
“Come in, Thomas,” Mother said, without raising her voice. “You are involved in this.”
“I am?” I squeaked, my voice completely forgetting that I had exited adolescence years before.
The door swung open, and both of them stood in its frame, looking at me. I scrambled to my feet. Mother beckoned me in. I loped behind them, awkward as a newborn colt. Parsons closed the door behind us with a boom like the doomsday knell. Guilt rode me like an albatross.
She and Parsons were alone, no other Space Lords, no LAI, no aides, no other officers. That in itself was uncanny, for as a superior minister to the Imperium, she was always surrounded by advisors and others poised to take her orders. This must be serious indeed. But why include me in such a conference?
Mother’s office was as quietly elegant as herself. Every element she had incorporated into the venerable chamber of the First Space Lord complemented the historical trappings already there, but somehow made one think. The walls of ruddy wood were covered with pictures, holographs and actual paintings of previous holders of the office, many Loches and Kinagos among them, plus framed medals, images of worlds conquered or saved and a handsome portrait of the emperor himself. In it, Shojan was smiling. The pose was a personal favor to my mother, whom he liked and admired. As who would not? I put on a confident and easy smile.
“Good morning, Mother,” I said. “Good morning, Parsons. I . . . er . . . am I disturbing you?”
“Not at all, my dragonlet,” Mother said, briskly. “You have come at an opportune time. I was reviewing images you took while you were on Smithereen. As you might have seen from your spying.” She glanced at Parsons, and I realized that he had detected the Optique, undoubtedly by means of his ability to look through walls and read the minds of men. Guiltily, I beckoned the small camera to hover at my shoulder. If a nonsentient device could look abashed, my Optique did.
“Oh, well, I didn’t mean . . . it’s not really spying . . . I mean, I just wanted to know . . . to make certain I wouldn’t be intruding,” I stammered. “I know how busy you are . . . I’m always happy to help in any way, if I can.”
“You can help,” Mother said. “I would appreciate it if you would.” She waved a hand toward the image. “Tell me about this.” I examined it closely. The spacescape looked familiar. The circumstances of its capture came rolling back to me in a wave. I rocked back on my heels, happy to provide the memory.
“It is one of the shots I took in the landing bay while I was reviewing the Smithereen militia,” I said. “You must go back to about three earlier in the sequence, where I am marching down in between the two files of soldiers. You can’t see any of us in this picture. They array themselves for disappointment, Mother. You should really look into allowing a trifle more time for visiting diplomats to interact with the volunteers. They are so grateful, you would be astonished . . .”
“Focus, my boy,” Mother said, reining me in. “This isn’t the time for tangents. This is the one we are interested in, it and the two that followed, at the angle you took them. What made you choose this image to preserve?”
“The meteors. I considered them to be an omen, you see,” I said, a trifle sheepishly. I knew Parsons didn’t believe in esoterica. My mother considered superstitions to be childish, but she indulged me. “A meteor shower, on the occasion of my first outing as an officer of the Imperium Navy? It was like a galactic benison upon my head. I wanted to record it.”
“A meteor shower would rain downward, my lord,” Parsons said. “But as such it would not be possible for such an effect to be visible on Smithereen Prime at all because the atmosphere is too thin at ground level, let alone at that altitude, to burn up space debris that falls into its gravitational field.”
“I knew that,” I said at once. “It occurred to me later on, but it was still such a vivid image, three bright streaks in the sky. And it is, as you see. I suppose in light of the subsequent events I lost interest as to what it really was.”
“So you took these on a whim?” Mother asked, getting back to the point. “It was pure chance?”
“I suppose so,” I said. They seemed a bit downcast about it. “Why? If they weren’t meteors, what were they?”
For answer, Mother beckoned at the display. The three scratches of light grew and took on detail until I could readily discern that they were contrails. The ships that produced them, upon their takeoff from a mass not far from Smithereen Prime, were tiny pinpoints that increased in size until they were identifiable by both type and hull marking.
“Trade Union,” I exclaimed.
Of all the interstellar consortia and federations that humanity and its fellow spacefarers had founded over the last ten or so millennia, the Trade Union was the one with which the Imperium had had the most difficult relationship. Founded from a loose association of merchants, traders and, yes, pirates, the TU lay side by side with the Imperium, its explorers vying with our explorers for viable planets, natural resources, and trade routes. The last battle, begun thirty years ago, had had a treaty signed to end it six years later, but it was more or less still going on. Small sallies against one consortium’s bases or another, the destruction of border beacons, poaching on rich mining fields such as that of Smithereen, were all typical. Needless to say, the incursions went both ways, but in defense of the Imperium, our forces usually struck back. They seldom began a fight.
“What are they doing there?”
“They are certainly trespassing,” Mother said. “We can’t confirm where they went after they left Smithereen. Their energy trails were wiped out by that ion storm that the Red Fleet sought to avoid. It rather looks as if those three ships flew directly into it. Such a tactic suggests that secrecy was more important than their lives.”
“Where did they go?”
“We are afraid that they were bound for the Castaway Cluster. It is a group of eight small stars deeper toward the heart of the galaxy.” She nodded. “I see you have heard of it.”
“Well, not until recently. My friends on Smithereen said that they were expecting a lot of business as ships plied the space lanes in between the Core Worlds and the Cluster, but they were disappointed in their hopes. They built a good deal of infrastructure in expectation of that business.”
“The hotel that you wrecked, for example?” Mother asked. I opened my mouth to protest, but she waved a hand. I subsided. If I wanted to find out what the two of them had been murmuring about, it was best to let her petty quips pass. I nodded. “Smithereen is about five ultra-drive hops from the Cluster. To have detected the TU ships at all was remarkable. It may be the most important thing you did.”
“Thank you,” I said modestly, though I was delighted. “It was an accident.”
“An accident that came about by being aware of your surroundings,” Parsons said. “You could easily have missed the event, but you did not. Well done.”
I wriggled all over like a puppy. “I say, Parsons, too much praise and I’ll be spoiled for life.”
I was met by a blank look. “I fear it is far too late for that, sir.”
Ah, well, Parsons will be Parsons. “You said, er, when I was not in the room that you were hoping for greater confirmation on the presence of the ships in Smithereen space. If you need to confirm to anyone that they were taken because of my observation, please do. I will back up your assertion with all my heart.”
Mother shook her head. “We are the only people who require confirmation, my dragonlet, and I concur with Parsons that something caught your attention and you captured it, for whatever reason. It was a lucky shot, but you have been of great help to the Imperium.”
I could tell that my eyes lit up by the alarmed look on my maternal unit’s face. But I persisted, because I saw an opening for my suit to be reinstated. “Then may I put my case? It is why I have come this morning.” Mother’s eyebrow went up. Parsons, as always, was expressionless. I pressed on. “I have had a while to think about my situation. I truly enjoyed my time of service. You have told me all of my life that I am descended from countless men and women who put their lives on the lines to protect the Imperium. I am prepared to do that, Mother. I do not make this offer lightly. I could be of great use to the Navy. I felt that I fit in well—with one notable exception, I admit,” I added, to forestall the obvious protest. “The camaraderie of my shipmates was a refreshing revelation to me. I felt myself to be a part of the crew. We formed a bond that would have seen us through any number of difficult missions. I felt needed. That was a rare moment in my life. I am willing to go back. I offer myself as an eager recruit. Please, Mother. Give me another chance. Admiral Podesta has said he would prefer that I not return to the Red Fleet. There was a personality mismatch between us, and I admit that it was my doing that got us off on the wrong foot. I would never do that again. But you have four other fleets, Mother. Surely there is another ship in one of them that would take me. Your own, cherished second son. One little, unremarkable cruiser? One exploration vessel? One scout ship that would benefit from the sincere toil that I would put in aboard her?”
She looked at Parsons. “Well, well. Shall I follow the old maxim, and send the fool of the family to sea?” She did not wait for an answer, as her statement sounded rhetorical, as well as a bit insulting. She turned back to me. “No. I’m sorry, my boy. That was a most eloquent statement, and I have no doubt heartfelt, but it just would not work.”
I was crestfallen. I had been so certain that she would agree! “But I could be an asset!”
She exchanged, yet again, another of those enigmatic glances with Parsons. “And so you shall, Thomas, if you really want to.”
Her obduracy was softening. I knew it would! “I do. I had no notion what it felt like until now to do something that mattered.”
“Then you can be part of the team that investigates the very anomaly that you recorded.”
“Shall I be an ensign again, or will I have to begin again in the ranks?”
“It is not a Navy mission at all,” Parsons said.
“Then, who? I heard a name bandied about, Mr. Frank. Who is he?”
“You will not mention Mr. Frank outside of this office,” Parsons said. “He is the chief officer of the Imperium’s Covert Service Operation.”
“Really?” I asked. “I have heard rumors, but none of us really knows anything more.”
“That is because it is a secret, my lord. You should not know of us unless you run afoul of the service. Ideally, even then it should look as if another agency is involved.”
My ears perked up. “Us? You are a member? How long? What else have you done?”
“That is need-to-know only, my lord.”
I felt a thrill race down my back. “Tell me more,” I urged them. “Do you have to swear me to secrecy? Take a blood oath?”
“Do you require one, my lady?” Parsons asked. “I can obtain a razor and a carafe.”
I made a face at him. “Ha ha,” I laughed hollowly, my face drawn into disapproving lines, then I shot a suspicious glance at my mother. “He is making a joke at my expense, isn’t he? There is no blood oath?”
“We’ll waive it,” my mother said, flicking a hand. “For now. I will go on your word, son. It has always been good, when it is given.”
I blushed at that, knowing how many times she had not asked for my word, and I had considered myself free to disobey the house rules. But when offered, it was always kept. I straightened my back and looked directly into her eyes. “I pledge my word of honor that I will not reveal to anyone anything you tell me is confidential, not even if my life is threatened.”
“That will do,” Mother said, with a smile. She returned to her chair and clasped her hands upon her desk. Parsons took his place beside her, a pose he had taken many times over my life. He looked natural there, a paragon and a protector of one of my most precious people. I was rather proud of the alliteration, and thought of declaiming it, but the moment was too serious. I had just been offered a purpose, and wished to give no reason for it to be withdrawn. “Sit down, Thomas. It will take some time to explain what we want of you. Do you want a drink?”
“No, thank you, Mother.” My nerves were coping with a surge of adrenaline the likes of which I had not experienced since the pirate captain fired a round past my ear. I beckoned to a chair at the side of the room. It rolled out to me, as eager to be of service as I was. I perched on the edge of its seat.
“There has been no communication from the Castaway Cluster for some months now,” Mother said. “Emperor Shojan wants to reestablish relations so that we can expand into the space beyond it. Up until now it has been less than a priority.”
“For which I read not profitable,” I said with a narrowed and summing eye.
“A pithy but not entirely inaccurate statement, my lord,” Parsons said. I wriggled like a puppy to get another fact right. He gave me a bland look that reminded me I was in a serious briefing, but it was hard to remain neutral of face in a secret conference that was of vital interest to the Imperium. I did my best. I echoed Parsons’s expression. He gave me a look that could have been approval or disdain, and continued. “There have been few reasons in recent decades to exploit the star cluster. Its distance, coupled with the presence of the black hole between the last outpost of the active Imperium and the Cluster—”
“Smithereen,” I said, smug in my knowledge.
Parsons ignored my interruption. “—precludes most casual contact. It has few unique resources. It has remained at the periphery of the Imperium’s attention. Many other matters have taken priority until now. But the Costadetev Federation beyond it is stretching toward our boundaries along the same axis as the Castaway Cluster. The star field beyond, which has been a fallow province until now, is becoming a frontier. Those systems have traditionally been considered part of the Imperium, but never settled. The Emperor wants to lay claim directly. The Trade Union is also rushing to claim that sector.”
“But we already own it,” I protested.
“Possession has traditionally been physical, not nominal. The planets in those systems are gas giants or small, distant, barren rocks, all uninhabitable, therefore they have never been settled. To confirm the Imperium’s rights, we would have to place a settlement in orbit around a planet if not on one, and show viable trade routes. In order to do that, we need to reestablish our hold over the Cluster, because it will be our administration arm in that area. Those eight stars have been self-governing for a long time, but have up until recently acknowledged their ties to the Imperium.”
“What changed?” I asked, leaning forward, my elbows on my knees. I felt as if I was listening to a story. It was as good as any of the three-dees my friends and I watched, full of suspense and intrigue, with the fate of worlds at stake. “What is happening?”
Parsons would have been a failure as a scriptwriter. “We are not certain,” he said flatly. “An envoy was sent, but she has not been heard from since arriving in the Cluster. Communication has been cut off for some months now. No messages or updates in Infogrid files, though the latter has always been sporadic despite Imperium rules. No trade or commerce has been recorded between the Castaway Cluster and the Core Worlds, or anywhere else that can be discerned since that time.”
“Pirates? Natural disaster? Did the black hole eat up the entire group?”
Mother swatted down my flight of fancy with a firm hand. “Telemetry from my ships indicates that the stars are all still there, Thomas, and I would appreciate it if you would lock up your overactive imagination. This is important.”
I subsided. “I apologize, Mother. What is it that you want me to do? I’ll help in any way I can.”
She smiled. “I knew you would. Commander, this is your department, not mine.”
I turned my full attention to that noble being, putting as much eagerness and good will into my gaze as possible. Parsons seemed unimpressed, but he always did.
“We need to provide an envoy, my lord, ostensibly to make friendly overtures on behalf of the Emperor, but to investigate what is the cause of the Cluster’s silence. It had been dwindling for some time, but there were always trade routes, some messages, culture and other offerings coming from the eight systems, but lately nothing at all has come from any of them. This suggests a concerted effort by the cluster, but for reasons we do not know. At present his majesty suspects that they have been wooed away from the Imperium by the Trade Union or Costadetev, which supports a large population of insectoids and reptilian races. The Castaway Cluster contains a smaller proportion of humans than many sectors, though it should not matter with Imperium-born beings. But it is a delicate matter, to march in and accuse an entire system of treason. Therefore, the matter has to be investigated with the utmost tact. It is a matter of Imperium security that the truth be known, so that the correct action can be taken to keep the Castaway Cluster in the fold—or rather, to restore it to the bosom of the Imperium. The matter of Cluster independence is moot, because the Imperium can easily overpower it and take over again, but that would not address the reason that it has lost touch in the first place. It simply should not have been neglected. Emperor Shojan will see that it is not in future, but until then, he needs information. It will be your duty to help obtain it.”
Excited and pleased, I was almost bouncing at the thought of such a mission.
“Ah! I get to perform espionage?” I was thrilled beyond words. “Shall I be assigned spy tools and devices? I have just bought a new camera that I think will be a great asset to covert intelligence.” I reached into my sleeve for the control to my pocket secretary and activated it. A minute dot of brass as small as a housefly lifted up from my tunic front, where it had been masquerading as a decorative stud. I sent the tiny camera to hover before Parsons’s nose. “It is the Chey Snap 8. The very newest on the market. It is so small that no one will spot it, but it takes marvelous pictures.”
Mother shook her head. “Very nice, dear, but no.”
Parsons reached into a gray pocket on his very gray uniform and produced a gray and featureless device. Instantly, the Chey and the Optique fell to the floor. Protesting, I dove for them.
“You didn’t have to do that!”
As I gathered up my abused property, Parsons continued. “Your job would be as the envoy. I would be the espionage agent. As I was on Smithereen.”
I looked up, my hands full of cameras. “What? On Smithereen Admiral Podesta sent me to review the volunteer troops. I understood that it was a compliment to this particular militia that he was sending me, a member of the royal house.”
“You were the cover for the real mission, my darling,” Mother said, her expression one of pity. I scrambled to my feet. Neither camera would respond to my commands. Parsons restored his device to its place of concealment. I stuck my cameras in my pocket.
“I? Mine was the mission: to inspect the troops and press the flesh.”
“Do you know how seldom that happens?”
“Yes, on the average of once every three years. Chan told me. She’d make a good officer, Mother, really,” I added, thinking of how cool a head the volunteer captain had displayed, and how readily she had obeyed my commands. “One would think that she performed complex and dangerous maneuvers like that every day. You should snap her up.”
“She earns about fifteen times what a low-ranking officer does, darling. It wouldn’t be worth her while to start over again at OTC.” I was taken aback. I hadn’t thought about money. “But I am glad she served well for you. I hate to disabuse you of your impression, but the review itself was an unimportant assignment so that Parsons would have the freedom to make a connection that was necessary to the safety of the Imperium.”
“Indeed,” I said, fixing them both with a cold eye. “Unimportant? And when was I going to be informed of this subterfuge?”
“I would have thought never, darling,” my mother said. “In a perfect situation, he would have completed his assignment and returned to retrieve you without a hitch. As it turned out, you had disappeared, caused a riot, and, yes, perpetrated a daring capture—nearly. Though he did manage to complete his assignment, and against all expectations you came here this morning to offer your services to the Imperium. That is why we are having the discussion now at all.”
I was crushed.
“That ‘nearly’ strikes me like a death blow to the heart, Mother.”
She raised her brows again. “I told you I agreed with Omar Podesta. It was not your assignment. Though you handled yourself as I would expect a son of mine to do. You were courageous and resourceful, both qualities that would be of use to us in this matter.”
I was mollified by a generous ladling on of complimentary adjectives. The more I thought about it, the knowledge of espionage going on right under my nose tickled me. I was still cross that I hadn’t known it, but it would hardly have been undercover if I had. “Really, Mother, this doesn’t sound as much fun as I was hoping. Why can’t I be the spy?”
“Because you have a more important role to play,” Parsons said. “It will be your task to distract attention from me and my investigations. It is vital that I not be detected and stopped until I have the information the Emperor requires.”
“Decoy,” I said, bitterly. “I shall make a marvelous target while you have all the fun.”
“Your talents in one direction far outstrip mine, my lord.”
“What? In photography? In a moment you will show me a long list of galleries that feature your work. I already know that you can outfence me and outfly me.”
Parsons looked imperturbable. “No, my lord. It is more fundamental than that. I cannot do what you do, and that necessitates that you be the one to act as envoy, not I.” He shot a look at my mother. She hesitated a long while, then nodded. I turned a puzzled glance to each of them in turn.
Mother eyed me seriously. “Do you know truly what it means to be a member of the ruling class of the Imperium?”
“Responsibility,” I said promptly. “Since one of us might be called upon to become Emperor, we must understand our relationship to the citizens of the Imperium. I hope I have remembered all the lessons that you have pounded into me—intellectually, of course. You would never think that my lady mother would manhandle me physically, would you, Parsons?”
“Never, sir,” he said blandly.
“I am afraid that there is more to it than that,” Mother said.
“Well, fealty, honor, support . . .” From the subtle head-shakes I saw that my further essays into the thesaurus were getting me nowhere. “I give up, Mother.”
She looked deeply into my eyes, the blue-green a sea of worries. “Thomas, if anything, this is more secret than what we have already told you. And if you tell another soul, I will see to it that you are seconded to an outdated exploration vessel in the remotest reaches of the outer spiral arm for a ten-year mission in search of Old Earth.”
“I say, that might be amusing,” I said. “Uncle Laurence always says he knows where it is.” But their faces were even more serious than they had been before. The blood chilled in my body. The words came out rather more slowly than they had before, but they came. “My word to you, Mother.”
Parsons removed another discreet gray object and set it on a circuit of the room. It lit upon the pocket containing my cameras. Numbers filled the air, followed by a repeat of the conversation that I had used it to record. My face burned with shame.
“Cheeky,” Mother said. “Anything else?” she asked Parsons.
“No, madam,” he said.
She let out a long exhalation of breath. “Very well. Sit down, Thomas.”