I arrived at the Oromgeld Spaceport on a bright, sunny morning with all of my luggage organized, packed and locked to my personal satisfaction. My cameras hovered around me like guardian angels. I wore a brilliant terracotta-colored tunic in the newest fashion, with the clever hem cut to echo the line of the mountains that surrounded Taino. Now that I was traveling as a gentlebeing, I was entitled to bring with me or wear anything I liked. As much as I had enjoyed my uniforms, I much preferred this state of being. Conscious of eyes upon me, I strutted along the pathway toward the open air terminal from which I would board my shuttle.
True to Admiral Podesta’s avowal, Parsons and I were not shipping out with him on the Wedjet, but aboard another member of the Red Fleet, the Shahmat. She was heading out toward galactic north, approximately the opposite direction of its flagship, and would launch us on our way beyond Smithereen. I was sad at the thought I might never see any of my shipmates again. We could have had jolly times—during their off-shifts, of course—until my scout launched on its mission to “points unknown.” Unknown, that was, but to all but my mother, Parsons, myself, the mysterious Mr. Frank, whom I had not yet met, the captain of the Shahmat, and the Emperor. It gave the rest of the government plausible deniability, that useful phrase, should the mission take a turn for the worst. I was prepared to die for my emperor, but deep down I hoped it would not come to that. My cousins chided me as being too active. I felt their criticism deeply. I would have sworn that none of them could match me for applied idleness in the past.
My preparation for the trip did nothing to disabuse them. In advance of my upcoming mission, I spent several days flitting around Taino, taking pictures of all the finest sights, and went to some trouble to obtain a few fresh images of the Emperor, to show to my putative hosts in the Castaway Cluster. The chances were that they had never been here, and that any images they had were several years old. Shojan was very patient about the picture session. I jumped around like a droplet on a hot pan to take as many exposures as I could to get the most flattering images. His secretary went over my files to make certain that I had not made a fool of our sovereign, and was actually impressed by one image in particular. In it, Shojan looked so absolutely regal, I nearly bowed to the picture myself. The secretary was pleased to inform me it was going in the royal archives with my byline. I was proud. All those images, with that one enhanced, were duplicated in storage so I would not lose them.
I had prepared, studied and anticipated all that it was possible to do with so little advance information on what we would find at our destination. My nerves jangled so much I was surprised they were not actually audible. I was keenly aware of the trust that had been placed in me by my mother and Parsons. I would play my part of envoy with all that was in me, to reward that trust. It was a great pity I had no one else with whom I could share the proud moment.
“Hey, Thomas!” shouted a male voice as I passed into open air terminal number four. I looked up to see hands pointing at me.
To my astonishment and everlasting delight, I saw familiar faces behind those hands. Redius, Anstruther, Nesbitt, Oskelev and Plet stood together in the center of a ring of bags I had seen two weeks before.
All but Plet descended on me for back slapping and playful elbowing.
“What are you doing here?” Oskelev asked, exchanging furry cheek presses with me. She beamed, showing her sharp teeth.
“I’ve . . . I have to go . . . off-system,” I said, wiping a few stray hairs from my face. “It’s a bit classified. But that’s not important. What about you? Is the Wedjet still here?” I quailed a little at the thought of running into Admiral Podesta again. “I thought it left a week ago.”
“It’s gone,” Nesbitt confirmed, looking concerned. “We got orders to remain on Taino. No one gave us a clue. We were just pulled off our regular assignments and told to stay ashore. I mean, I wasn’t going to say no to an extra week of leave. We were told to come here today to await pending instructions.” He eyed me, a half-formed expression of hope on his big, rough face. “I don’t suppose you have the same ones.”
A tiny kernel of joy deep inside me suddenly burst and put forth a shoot of hope. “I would venture to believe that I do.”
“Yay!” Redius caroled, the spots above his eyes growing brighter. “Opportunity for enjoyment!”
Anstruther looked concerned. “But where are we going? What’s the mission?”
I hesitated. “It’s rather important. I think I can say that without fear of reprisal. But I don’t dare say more at the moment.” That didn’t satisfy them; it would not have appeased me, either.
“Bailly grkked off, I predict,” Oskelev said, smugly. “You here, he not.”
“Well, this is an ideal situation for the rest of us,” I said happily. Then I noticed the look of reserve on Plet’s face. “Oh, Lieutenant, I apologize. I am so sorry.”
A thin eyebrow ascended. “For what, sir?
“Well, getting assigned to work with me again. It was Parsons’s doing, not mine.”
The other eyebrow joined the first. “No, sir. It was mine. I volunteered.”
I did a double-take. “You what?”
“I volunteered, sir. Oskelev was given a special assignment, the highest level of confidentiality. She came to me to ask if I could find out any details for her; I could not. Bailly was also requested, but he has Chinook flu. Seeing as those two were on the Smithereen mission I had a hunch that you might be involved. I asked Admiral Podesta to go in Bailly’s place.”
A triple-take, as my sense of reality was shaken. “You? You relied upon intuition?”
She gave me a perturbed frown. “I also took into account the rumors flying around the crew’s Infogrid groups. You are the subject of much speculation and gossip all over the Wedjet. I pieced together enough information to make an educated guess. My application was accepted, as you see.”
“Really?” Suddenly the day looked brighter. “I thought you’d never want to work with me again.”
Her expression really did nothing to disabuse me, though she said, “You are inexperienced, sir, but in time I think you’ll make an excellent officer.”
“Well, perhaps if you work with me,” I suggested, attempting to look humble. Inwardly, I was elated.
“I consider it to be my duty.”
“It’s a deal, then,” I said. “My mother would be so pleased if I came home with the bearing of an officer.”
Anstruther beamed at me. “Do you know where we’re going, Thomas?”
I hesitated. “I . . . don’t know what I may say until I am sure you are coming with me,” I said, cautiously. They looked crestfallen. I foresaw that my new sense of responsibility was going to interfere greatly with casual, friendly exchanges. The new Thomas saw countless pitfalls in his former mode of conversation. There was so much I now knew that must never pass my lips under any circumstances. But, oh, how glad I was to see my friends! I hoped that I would not be disappointed. “Parsons will be here soon. I am sure he can answer all your questions.”
As if he had been waiting for his cue, that dignified person shimmered out of the blazing sun and coalesced in our midst. I greeted him heartily and reacquainted him with our fellow crewbeings. Not that Parsons ever forgot a name or a face. He offered them cool, courteous nods, then turned back to me. He hesitated, and I realized he was staring at my new tunic.
“What is it, sir?”
“It’s the newest trend,” I said, spreading out the fabric of my upper garment to show off the elaborate embroidery. “Very expensive and exclusive—geographic replicas. I thought it would be a tribute to our hosts . . . you know where. Do you like it?”
“There are no words to describe my reaction to it, sir,” Parsons said. I thought I detected a millisecond of emotion . . . was it envy? “May I suggest we discuss this later? The transport is due to arrive very soon.”
I was aware of the hopeful faces around me, and knew that my own bore the same stamp. I edged closer and lowered my voice to an undertone.
“Parsons, they are coming with us?”
“Of course, sir,” he said. “I believe you had already surmised as much. In light of your assignment, it would look odd if you did not have a staff attending you.”
Redius, whose Uctu hearing was far superior to that of mere humans or Wichus, cheered. The others discerned the reason, and set up their own clamor. I beamed.
“We’re going aboard the Shahmat,” I said. “I, uh, tried to look up the crew on Infogrid, but my access has been restricted. Have any of you met Captain Calhoun?”
A flurry of head-shaking met my query. “No, sir,” Plet added. “I only know she’s good and smart. Her crew would be willing to follow her into a black hole.”
“Splendid!” I exclaimed. “Because there’s one not far . . .” Parsons’s eye froze my tongue, and I subsided before the words “from where we are going,” made it the rest of the way out of my mouth. I rearranged the syllables. “I look forward to meeting her.”
Parsons himself saved me from further complications. He tilted his head upward, as if hearing a sound audible to no one else, even Redius, and indicated a thin silver streak arcing toward us.
“I believe that is our transport.”
In a choking halo of brick red dust, the military shuttle landed. We kept well back under the canopy, covering our faces against the clouds. Under the auspice of an Uctu crewmember, mechanical loaders with padded graspers scooped up our baggage. As soon as it was all loaded, a human crewbeing with the insignia of a spacer first class chivvied us on board. As I bid a loving farewell to my world of birth, we made an uncomplicated transit to the Shahmat.
I peered into the viewtank between the pilots’ stations as we ascended. The ship above seemed in every way to be a clone of the Wedjet. I should have no difficulty at all finding my way around. A further delight awaited me: I found my dear little scout ship, the CK-M945B, tucked into protective brackets in the shuttle bay. I thought it had gone out of orbit with the Wedjet. I felt as if it was my birthday and homecoming all over again. I examined my vessel from end to end and found it, well, ship-shape. It had been cared for as if it was a jewel. I thanked the crew and gave the cutter a pat, promising it a proper visit later on. I was so pleased to be there I even forgave the Navy the faux wood of my quarters—the cabin was much larger this trip as a visiting dignitary than as a newly minted ensign.
“What do you think, Parsons?” I asked, pointing out the beauties of my new cabin. “A fit setting for my new life?”
“The captain awaits you in her office, my lord.” He tilted a hand to indicate the rest of my team outside in the corridor. I was the last to be ready. “Decorum is expected of you. And promptness.”
“Ah. Of course,” I said, straightening my tunic in the mirror. I noticed a modicum of concern in my own eyes. I worried that I had wandered into the lair of as punctilious a leader as the admiral. Parsons, as usual, looked imperturbable. I decided to follow his example, and set my face accordingly. I straightened my shoulders and fell in with my team. Only Plet seemed as tense as I was.
The door slid open to reveal a bronze-skinned woman with a round chin and almond-shaped, grass-green eyes and red hair in countless tight little braids seated behind a weathered teakwood desk. I thought Captain Calhoun was a fairly young officer to have ascended to the rank of Imperium Destroyer commander, which undoubtedly meant that she was tough as a boarding school biscuit.
I need not have been concerned. She smiled at me behind the teakwood desk.
“Captain Phoebe Brubaker Zaheed Calhoun, I present Lord Thomas Innes Loche Kinago,” Parsons stated. I moved forward. She stood up and extended her hand. I grasped it.
As I was once again the ranking member of the party, I thanked her for permission to come aboard.
“I am also empowered to offer the formal thanks and compliments of the First Space Lord for cross-departmental cooperation,” I added.
“Thank you, Specialist Lord Thomas,” Calhoun said, meeting my eyes with an emerald-hard gaze. “That will be your correct rank on this vessel. It is the equivalent of a lieutenant first class. Let me assure you we will do everything we can to make your transit as pleasant and event-free as possible.”
“I appreciate that, Captain. We will endeavor to, er, pass as unobtrusively as possible.”
The glint in her eyes told me she knew all about my service aboard the Wedjet.
“I will appreciate that. And how is your mother?”
“She is very well, thank you,” I said.
“She’s a wonderful officer,” Calhoun said, the gaze softening to gelatin. “I worked in her office as an aide all during my tenure at the Academy.”
“You were?” I asked. I studied her closely. I knew a case of hero-worship when I saw one. “Do you know Admiral Draco?”
“He’s my uncle,” Calhoun said.
“Really?” I asked, astonished. It was then I noticed the curl to her eyebrows, a feminine analog of the twisting, fibrous forest that grew on Draco’s forehead, and observed the twinkle in the eyes beneath. I felt my shoulders relax so much my tunic sagged. Captain Calhoun was cut from an entirely different material from the crusty Admiral Podesta. This was going to be a very different trip from my first venture aboard a naval vessel. “Do you by any chance . . . play tri-tennis?”
“Rather well, Lord Thomas,” she said, smiling broadly. “After dinner in Court Three?”
“Challenge accepted, Captain,” I said, snapping off a salute.
* * *
I shamelessly enjoyed my weeks aboard the Shahmat. While my crew and I were seconded to various departments (alas, no matter how I begged, I was placed in Stores instead of Records) during our transit, we had a shift per day to get acquainted with the host crew. They were curious and friendly. I experienced pangs for my lost opportunities on the Wedjet, but I could not deny that our mission was much more interesting than the day-to-day activities aboard a roving warship. The Shahmat had not seen action in over a year, when it had evacuated the population of a small colony from an unstable landmass—the only continent of any size on the planet. Beside the captain, I played tri-tennis against numerous opponents. I gave as good as I got, though I did not end up in the top three. To my delight and consternation, the shy Anstruther finished second in the shipwide tournament.
Calhoun also most responsibly saw to it that we had time to train as a group. I did not know how much she knew of our covert aims, though she had to know the ostensible reason we were flying to the Castaway Cluster. A small chamber off the officers’ mess was assigned as our meeting room.
I spent a good deal of time in the meeting room alone, studying classified files placed in my viewpad by Parsons. He had given me so much homework I was taken aback. I swore when I tossed my mortarboard in the air on my way out of The Imperial University that I would never study anything in which I was not passionately interested, but he insisted that I read all the code-sealed reports that he had on the mutated genes and understand their historical implications. My brain felt as if it was mutating under the pressure, swelling up into a bubble that would burst at the knowledge being pumped into it that I could not share with anyone but him. Moreover, he was annoyingly unavailable for conferences on the subject. If I had had a teddy bear, I would have confided in it instead.
I also had readings, video and audio files galore to study regarding our destination. I had never thought much about the Castaway Cluster, beyond noting it as a trivia question as to the farthest point at galactic north to which the Imperium currently reached. It turned out, from fervent application, that it was not an interesting place in any way except geographically. And that, I could see with my new appreciation for strategy and tactics, must not be underestimated.
All my staff was prepared to aid me in my mission to make friends again with the Cluster. We had all had to adjust our Infogrid entries to ensure that we did not introduce clues as to our whereabouts at the time. That would come later.
“Are we to know where we’re going and what we’re doing?” Plet had asked, in our first meeting in camera.
“As you share the peril,” Parsons said, standing before us like a lecturer, “you must be briefed.” I felt hot, wondering if he was going to reveal the subject of our conversation, but I should have trusted his inscrutability and sense of the dramatic. He played the file of my pictures upon the screen in our break room. “Lord Thomas was part of the team that gathered the information that has made this mission not only necessary but possible.”
“Pictures?” Redius said, his tongue darting between his teeth. “Always pictures! Of what this time? Smudges? All these we saw after inspection became firefight.”
I felt my cheeks warm. “They’re not smudges, as it so happens. They’re ships. Are they not, Parsons?”
“We are getting out of order,” he said austerely. “I ask your patience.” If he had been a storyteller, he would have added, “. . . and all will be revealed,” but with Parsons the quelling look was enough. We subsided into our couches like guilty schoolchildren. All but Plet. I believe that, like Parsons, she had been born with an extra gene for virtuous behavior. Parsons never so much as glanced at her. I was almost jealous. “I must impress upon you the importance of secrecy. Not a single reference must be recorded in personal diaries, noted in viewpads, and above all not put on the Infogrid. It is not too late to remove yourself from this team if you cannot maintain the separation.” He paused, as though waiting for a response.
“Never!” Nesbitt rumbled. “Are you kidding? I mean, sir? I mean, I know what confidential means.” We all nodded like barometer birds.
Parsons returned to the images. “Lord Thomas captured the images of three Trade Union ships in Imperium space not far from Smithereen. Their departure arc could take them in several directions, but His Majesty fears that they were on the way toward the Cluster.”
The others (all but Plet) let out excited gasps.
“Have you had any independent confirmation of this suspicion?” she asked.
Parsons looked pleased. Then I was jealous. Plet looked smug. Parsons touched his viewpad and the image changed to a portrait of a woman about my father’s age. Silvering brown hair, attractive eyes, round cheeks but a well-defined jaw, just slightly starting to pouch at the jowls. To my newly observant gaze, she was not a member of the noble house, but a being deserving of respect for her grave and wise bearing.
“This is Ambassador Hiranna Ben, envoy of his majesty to the Castaway Cluster. She left Taino several months ago to meet with the full council of eight systems. She has not been heard from since she passed behind the black hole that blocks the view of those stars from the greater Imperium.”
“Could she have fallen into it?” Nesbitt asked.
“No distress call was received. If she fell into the event horizon, there is no hope, of course. The final message in her Infogrid file indicates her arrival at the periphery. Even if we do not believe she survives, it is Lord Thomas’s mission, and yours, to complete the assignment she undertook.”
“And what?” Redius asked, beating Plet by a microsecond. She looked perturbed. His tongue flickered in and out. If he had been human, not Uctu, I would have said he was sticking it out at her, but he couldn’t have been so disrespectful. He glanced mischieviously at me. I smothered a grin. Perhaps not.
“Lord Thomas?” Parsons turned to me.
I was eager to air my lessons. “Well, to put it in a few words, we’ve ignored them a good long time, and they’re returning the favor. In fact, they’ve cut off all links to us. No ships have come this way in ages. His Majesty wants to bring them back into the fold. I’m not a trained diplomat . . .”
The next fleering sound came from Nesbitt. I tried to emulate Parsons’s quelling glance, but that brought laughter from my fellows. Ah, well, one must have to be born with it.
“. . . but I do observe reasonably well. We’re going to observe. And, see if we can find the missing ambassador.” I glanced at Parsons. He hadn’t naysaid me.
“One more thing you must know, my lord and crewbeings. The Cluster has had a visitor. A Captain Emile Sgarthad appears to be carrying technology that could throw off the balance of power. He is from the Trade Union. According to information received, he is using it to gain influence in the halls of power and public opinion. And that brings us to the ships observed by Lord Thomas.” I bowed. Parsons brought up my images, magnified hundreds of times until the insigne on the fins could be read. As they saw the Trade Union logos, the others gasped, or whistled, or grunted, depending upon one’s species. “We must act on the assumption that those ships spotted in Smithereen space were on their way to the Cluster. Though it has been neglected, it is Imperium territory.”
“So, we’re supposed to figure out how to throw out the Trade Union and take back the Cluster for the Imperium?” Nesbitt asked, lowering his dark brows fiercely.
“No, Ensign,” Parsons said severely. “We are there only to observe, under the guise of a courtesy mission from an Imperial embassy, and return with our information; that is our task, no more.”
But all eyes turned to me.
“That’s all,” I promised them. “That is our entire commission.”
“What about Smithereen?” Oskelev asked.
“That was an accident!” I protested.
“Uh-uh,” said Nesbitt. “So what else is going on?”
A long, slow smile spread out over my face. What faith they had in me! I was gratified. “If I did have more that I couldn’t tell you, what would I say?”
“That’s all,” Nesbitt repeated.
“Exactly,” I said.
The look of glee at a shared conspiracy was one with which I was intimately familiar. The genetic magnetism that would have caused them to follow my every whim may not be operational in service personnel, but everybody loved to be part of a secret, even if they did not have all the details.
“So, what do you want us to do?” Oskelev asked.
“Play exactly the parts you would normally,” I said. “Parsons is my aide-de-camp, I am honored to state. Plet, you are his assistant, in charge of research. Nesbitt, fire control and weapons, which I fervently hope you will never need to use. Oskelev, helm. Anstruther, communications. Redius, life support.”
“Not so useful planetside,” he pointed out.
“True.” I grinned at him. “You can be my public relations agent. Tell people good things about me, how I am related to the Emperor, that I’m good company. If we need to counteract a friendly visitor, I am the perfect person to do it. Make sure you use a lot of pictures of me. I can give you all you need.”
“Life mine is complete, then,” Redius said, with a good-natured grimace.
“And if that doesn’t work, I’m counting on your marksmanship.”
“Ahh,” Redius said, flicking his tongue. “Much more my talents.”
We went on studying and preparing. I basked in the friendship of my colleagues. I even enjoyed Plet’s open disapproval, because it was genuine. I promised myself that I would be the best leader, and give them little need to rescue me again. We returned to our duties. We all had a lot to think about.