“How did you break a limb collecting pottery?” Nesbitt laughed, as we hoisted glasses over a well-scarred table at the Chess Inn in Straumsburg. The coral-red Redius had his right forelimb bound up in a stark, white healing frame. “Xinu is the one who went windskiing!”
“Debate with fellow over potential ownership of rarity,” the Uctu said sheepishly, if a reptile could look like an ovine ruminant. “I won, but casualties ensued.”
“I hope he looks worse than you.”
“He is human. Of course, looks worse he.”
We all laughed and downed our beers. The server, an apron-clad middle-aged woman as large and strong as the miners I had met on Smithereen, refilled our glasses. I had slipped her a few extra credits to make certain that the drink never ran out. The Chess Inn was a commercial establishment, mild compared with the taverns that my cousins and I liked to frequent for amusement. It existed merely as a purveyor of food and drink, with occasional musical entertainment, both live and recorded, and space for dancing or pub games. On screens embedded in the walls, patrons could watch sports games from all over Keinolt and rebroadcasts of games from farther away.
Our party occupied a three-sided alcove around the corner from the front door where we could watch out for stragglers. By half past the appointed hour, everyone was in place, looking well, happy and ready for a raucous night. I allowed my eye to round the table to enjoy the presence of my friends and formerly fellow ensigns: Nesbitt, Redius, Perkev, Parvinder Xinu and Anstruther; we were further graced by the presence of Plet, Oskelev, Bailly and Rous. Even though they were not ensigns, I had asked and obtained permission for the crew of my scout ship to join us for the evening. All of them but Plet seemed to be having a good time. The slim lieutenant toyed moodily with a single beer that dated from the time she arrived.
Reuniting with my fellows from the Wedjet was good fun, but bittersweet. My newfound knowledge weighed upon me like the eye of a disapproving aunt. Though I joined gladly in the banter and gossip, I found it difficult to relax or misbehave as the others did. I bought uncounted rounds for the table. No sense in not treating my friends—for friends they were—in the manner I was accustomed to treating, all the more because of our pending separation. The next opportunity to see them like this would be in the distant future.
“I can’t believe you’re not coming back with us tomorrow,” Anstruther said again, regarding me shyly.
“Disappointment deep,” agreed Redius. The brilliant blue spots above his eyes dulled.
“As is mine,” I said. “I would have enjoyed shipping out with you again.”
“Are you going to be serving on an Imperial vessel?” Nesbitt asked almost as shyly.
“Alas, no,” I said. “I’ve been permanently separated from the Navy. My mother informs me that my antics did not amuse the admiral—don’t quote her. If you wish to anger Podesta, quote me. Mother was very sympathetic towards him, as well she might be. She’s known me all my life, and has never expected better from me. I suppose I only proved her right. It’s a shame. I thought I was hitting my stride.”
“We’ll miss you, my lord,” Bailly said.
“Just call me Kinago. Or Thomas. Whichever you would like,” I said sadly. “I hope you’ll send me messages. I would like to keep up with what goes on aboard the ship, even if I cannot be there with you.”
“Count on it, my—Thomas,” Bailly said, looking as guilty as if he had stolen something.
“You will get used to it,” I promised him.
“What you did wasn’t so bad,” Oskelev said. “It’s made some fine telling.” Off duty, the Wichu wore no uniform at all, but a stylish harness to hold her personal belongings at handy levels. Her light brown fur showed signs of sun-bleaching from her shore leave spent, appropriately enough, on the shore of Keinolt’s largest ocean. “Everyone made it home. And we got commendations. I’m in line for an early bump to midshipman. Wouldn’t have happened if not for you. So, thanks.”
“Congratulations!” I said. I signed to the servers to begin bringing us our dinner.
I had arrived early for the reunion and planned with the proprietor of the Chess Inn to serve us a repast that I hoped would be a happy memory when that of my brief service aboard the Wedjet had faded from Admiral Podesta’s nightmares.
“Great food, Thomas!” cried Parvinder, raising his fork to me from his corner of the table. “I’ll miss it more than I’ll miss you!”
“Don’t insult his lordship!” Nesbitt leaned over across Rous and spilled a beaker of beer over Parvinder’s white-blond hair. We all laughed at that.
“Don’t waste liquor,” Lt. Plet admonished him.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am,” Nesbitt said hastily.
“This is how you deal with insults,” Plet said. She took a bread roll, braced it on her fork against the edge of the table, and, with a flick, sent it flying into Parvinder’s face. I gaped at her. She didn’t look at me, but went calmly back to her food.
Not so the others. “Food fight!” caroled Xinu happily. Instantly, any comestible that could be launched from a utensil became a missile. I joined in, flinging chunks of pie and gobbets of meat at my fellows from my own makeshift catapult. They forgot all about my rank and bombarded me with return fire. Nesbitt hit me square in the eye with a piece of cucumber. I countered happily with mixed vegetables, at the same time peppering—literally—my two nearest neighbors with the contents of the condiments tray. By the time the serving dishes were empty, I would have to estimate that it was a fifty-fifty split between the food that was in us and that which was on us. My light brown tunic was smudged with a rainbow of color. I had not laughed so much in a long while. I had almost forgotten that this was our last time together as comrades.
“You guys!” Anstruther said, combing pickles out of her hair. “That was fun!”
“Another toast!” Redius called. “To comrades and shipmates.”
Plet cleared gravy off her viewpad and held up a hand. “Time for the last drink!”
The others subsided and wiped their faces. “Last drink!” they echoed.
The final drink of the last evening of shore leave was traditionally a toast to sunlight, made by spacers about to leave a planet with atmosphere for the darkness of space. The cold glare of a star in vacuum did not offer the homey glow of a brilliant summer day. It was a promise to those who took ship that they would one day return to the planet from which they came. The tradition was that the last drink was sun tea, not liquor, because it was brewed in darkness.
Our eager server brought out a trayful of clear glass goblets filled with warm, honey-colored liquid.
Rous lifted his glass and sniffed it. “Not tea this!”
“No, it’s not,” I said, with a smile. “As I have had a couple of weeks to think about this most meaningful toast, I bribed the distiller that serves the Imperial house to make a liquor that was fermented in the sun in glass vats instead of metal or wood. It’s a little raw. When we meet again, I hope that it will have mellowed, but it’s the thought that counts.” I raised my glass. “To sunlight and meeting again.”
“To sunlight!” they chorused. “May we all return to bask in its glow.”
But it was dark outside when I departed the Chess Inn, leaving my fellows behind.
* * *
Saying goodbye to family was just as difficult. The cousins were baffled that I would want to do something again so soon.
“What about a vacation before you run off again?” Xan asked, when I joined them for a sunset drink on the mosaic-tiled veranda at Nalney’s comfortable pied-à-terre just outside of Taino. Xan was with another lovely woman, a stunning blonde with green eyes a few years older than he. She was a famous singer he had admired at a concert. “We were going to the north pole to enjoy Endless Day. I have an entire hotel at my disposal. I challenge you to a sledding contest.”
“It’s tempting,” I agreed. Xan and I were old rivals on the piste. We had run neck and neck for years for family supremacy. “But I cannot back out of this one. I have been asked by the Emperor himself to run an errand. A diplomatic visit.” I yawned, to show how bored I was by the notion, though inside I was anything but.
“I envy you, darling,” Erita said, her eyes almost as green as Xan’s date’s. “He himself asked you?”
“I . . . was approached,” I said, loath to discuss how the appointment had come about. “But he confirmed it in an audience I had with him later. I had no idea why me, but would you question His Majesty?”
“Oh, of course not! It just sounds like . . . work.”
I waved a diffident hand. “Of course it won’t be work, darling. Can you picture me with a job?” As one, they shook their heads. I was pleased. I was getting rather better than I thought at subterfuge. “I’m off in a few days.”
I put my finger to my lips. “It’s all hush-hush. In fact, I don’t really know. My presence, as a member of the noble house, is the gift that the Emperor is sending to . . . whomever. I’ll mouth the correct words, and spin out of there in no time. You’ll never know I was gone.”
Scot was horrified. “But why can’t the career diplomats do it? Isn’t that why they have that enormous department? And dreary banquets?”
“Ours is not to reason why,” I quoted vaguely from some ancient poet. Scot gave me a desperate look. I had assured him that my movements on the day of Jil’s village tour could not be traced back to him. Now he considered me his confidant. “I will throw a party when I return,” I said. “A big one. I hope I will have stories to tell.”
“Not about dreary banquets,” Xan pleaded.
“I promise, interesting stories only. And jokes, if they know any . . . where I’m going. And you can help choose the entertainment,” I said. That mollified him. I knew he had visions of nubile dancers or acrobats twirling through his mind. I felt a little sorry for the beautiful singer on his arm. Temporary amusements, that was all my cousins thought of.
I took advantage of the remaining days to catch up with my correspondence. The backlog of notes and letters that had amassed while I was assigned to the Wedjet was enormous. I felt especially guilty not messaging back to MB-6594AD, the food storage unit with whom I had been exchanging notes since I was a boy. There were no messages from him for four months. I felt guilty, as it was I who had let the correspondence lapse.
He (I called him “he” because he had chosen a deep male voice) had sent a few choice excerpts of audio overheard from human executives in his complex who had forgotten he was an LAI and spoken freely in front of his interface. From the gossip, I determined that the executives were cheating the Imperium government out of capital based upon materials that were supposedly used for construction, and much cheaper ones were substituted. Emby, for so I called my old friend, was outraged because of the possibility that the roof might collapse over not only the heads of the mortal population, but also the mechanicals whose labor was so often overlooked, as in this case. I was incensed upon his behalf. I passed the information on to Parsons, now that we were in the secret information business together. The news was by then several months old, but I hoped that it could still be of some use.
In return I sent a chatty message, telling Emby all about my service on board the Wedjet, an account (with video) of the pirates’ capture, and the celebration party at Sparrow Island. I told Emby I would be going on a trip, though I could not say where, but I would message en route. I sent it off, hoping that nothing untoward had happened to him, and that he was not upset with me. He had a very even-tempered personality for a machine of his age, but as they did to humans, things happened over time.
In avoiding most of my elder relatives, I had almost missed a chance to visit with Aunt Sforzina and Uncle Perleas. My favorite senior relational units always had an air of never moving in between my visits, even though I knew they had been on Eodril, the third planet circling Leo’s Star, and several resort places in between.
Their sitting room, in which they spent most of their time while at home on Keinolt, was filled with the knickknacks of ages, including a blue plaster pie impressed with my five-year-old hand and signature that sat on the mantelpiece, in between priceless jeweled eggs, holograms of long-dead ancestors, ancient weapons, medals and commendations. The odor I would have known anywhere: a mix of Aunt Sforzina’s perfume, the dust of subtly disintegrating furniture and the sweet-sour scent of a couple of very old people. I adored visiting them. My aunt looked taciturn, but always plied me with wonderful delicacies. The old man loved my stories, laughed at my jokes, and had loads of good advice.
“Go safely and return safely, dear,” Aunt Sforzina said, as I rose to depart.
“I shall,” I said, kissing her on her wrinkled cheek.
“Have you told your father where you’re going yet?” Uncle Perleas asked.
“I can’t tell anyone where I’m going, uncle,” I reminded him.
“You can tell your father anything, my boy,” Uncle Perleas said, laying a finger alongside his nose. “For his peace of mind, anyhow.”
And so, I found myself standing outside my father’s workshop again. Father glanced up at once when he saw me and closed the lid of the communications console he had been using.
“Thomas!” he said, coming over to shake my hand. “What a pleasure! When did you get home?”
He wasn’t as lucid as I hoped he would be. “I have been home for a couple of weeks, sir. Father, I’m going to be . . . doing something.”
He patted me on the back. “Good, my boy. It’s good to be useful.”
“Yes, it is,” I said with pride. “I’m going on a diplomatic mission. Er, to the Castaway Cluster.”
Father wrinkled his brow. “It’s a long way off. Are you bringing precautions with you?”
“It’s best to have a good defense there.” He leaned close to my ear. “Bugs, you know.”
“Yes. Smart as computers, too. And there are billions of them.”
“Well, I am bringing Parsons. I would pit him against any billion computers.”
“Why are you going?”
I mused upon that for a moment. “I don’t really know. I am to look about and listen. Get to know people, I suppose. They’ve stopped trading with the Imperium. We need to find out what they want.”
“Ah!” Father said, taking my forearm in a steel grip. “Don’t ask them what they want. Ask them what they are afraid of.” He nodded several times. “Remember that.”
“I shall, Father.” I pondered that a good deal, and knew I would ponder about it long after we had lifted ship.
He smiled, his eyes hazing over again. If one could call the last few moments lucid, they were over again for now. He reached over to his work station and tucked an object in my hand. “Here. Take this with you.”
I opened my palm to find the puzzle box on it that he had carved. The red gem winked at me tantalizingly from inside its nest of carved spheres. “Father, I can’t take this. It’s valuable.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “I am finished with it,” he said. “I am on to my next invention.” He leaned close to me, after looking this way and that to make certain we were not overheard. “An unbreakable door-stopper!”
My heart sank. “Of course, Father. The world is waiting for that. It will be treasured anywhere.”
Father’s face was alight with the fire of the fanatic. “It is, son! It is. Send me a message when you get . . . wherever it is that you said.”
“I will, Father.”
He smiled at me and gestured toward his communicator. “Your Uncle Laurence sends his regards.”
“Mine to him, as well,” I said.
Poor Father. I corrected myself angrily as I made my way back to my rooms. I refused to fall into thinking that way! He had given me good advice. I hoped that I would come to understand it before I needed it.
* * *
A roar of static woke Councillor DeKarn. She had just settled down in her bunk for yet another night in her lonely cell. She had not seen another living being in many weeks, though she knew upon waking some mornings that others had been there, undoubtedly to search, but also to clean. After the first incident when she had awakened to the scent of bleach, and found her desk chair closer to the entertainment console than it had been when she left it and not a fingermark anywhere in the room, she began to leave a control or an object in a position that she would detect a change. The console sustained the most examination. She had been heartsick to think that the Trade Unionists, for she was convinced they were responsible for her captivity, might detect the news programs she could receive and remove them, but every bleach-scented morning she was relieved to see they were still there.
She swung easily out of the small bed and landed lightly upon her toes. One good thing about enforced idleness, she had been able to stick to an exercise regime. With the survival bars as her only source of nutrition, though she thought about food all the time, she had begun to lose weight slowly. When she pinched the roll of flesh at her waist, it was much reduced. Her new self was cold most of the time, though. She took the coverlet and wrapped it around her shoulders as she approached the console. More programming? she wondered. Looked at the screen.
As if it sensed her presence, the screen became brighter. The image, the last graphic in the latest chapter on the history of ore mining on planetary surfaces, vanished, to be replaced by the opening image of the Grid. Her hands shot onto the keys. She entered her code, but the image vanished before she could complete it. She let out a cry of frustration. Another tease of freedom that never came. But it did not vanish entirely. A pale blue message form appeared, the blank upon which she or her correspondents would enter text or graphics for silent communication instead of video or audio. On it was three words. She had only time to read them before the form disappeared again.
Help is coming.