The klaxon erupting practically in the small of my back made me scatter my cards all over the poker table in the cosy day room. My shipmates would have laughed if they, too, had not been startled into revealing their hands. A shame, because I had two pair, with the possibility of a full house.
I tapped my viewpad. “Bridge, what is the alert?”
“We have exited our third ultra-drive hop,” Plet’s calm voice said, over graphics showing the engines stepping down from faster-than-light to sublight. “We are nine thousand kilometers within the radiation belt marking the heliopause of Portent’s Star. And we are about to be boarded by one or more of the five armed ships coming towards us at half-ultra.”
“Battlestations!” I cried. My fellow players dropped their cards and made for their assigned sites. With my longer legs I outdistanced them all as we ran toward the bridge of the scout.
“No, sir,” Parsons’s voice, calmer than Plet’s, issue forth both from the small speaker and his own dignified throat, as I stumbled into the command center. He glanced back at me as calmly as if I had arrived at an amble. “The ships approaching us bear the official insignia of the Associated Government of the Castaway Cluster.”
“Stand down!” I bellowed, perhaps unnecessarily. The bridge was no larger than the day room, and everyone on the small crew had already reached it but Nesbitt, who had gone to his station at Fire Control in the stern. The blossoming red lights turned off, though the crew remained at the ready. I slid into my impact seat and eyed the images in the scopes. “Then why didn’t they just ask to come on board?” I asked.
“Shall we hail the lead ship and discover their purpose, sir?”
“Yes, well, of course!” I said. “Why not? We’ve come all this way. Plet . . .”
My exec already had her hand spread over the touch control, feeling delicately as a safe cracker for the correct frequencies.
“Ready for you, sir,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Attention, ships who are approaching us at speed, I am Lord Thomas Kinago, envoy of His Majesty Shojan XII, on a diplomatic mission. I request you identify yourself.”
A rough voice crackled over the audio channel, and an equally rough-visaged face appeared in the screen. “Lieutenant Vell. No one had intel that you were coming. Suggest you turn around and return to your point of origin. Otherwise your presence will be considered an aggressive act.”
“I say, that’s inhospitable,” I said, indignantly. “Not even an offer of a drink and a light meal before we go? When I have come all this way to show you my diplomacy? My mother would . . .” I halted myself. I know what my mother would do. She would take me by the ear and remind me why I was there and how I should be behaving. I had to be the grease that lubricated the turbines. The stern visage on the screen didn’t look as though he was in the mood for a few of my best stories with a risqué punchline and a self-deprecating joke. No, I thought, as I straightened my shoulders. This was the key point, the crux, the reason my mother had permitted me to go along with Parsons to the Castaway Cluster. I addressed myself to our interlocutor.
“As I mentioned before, I am Lord Thomas Kinago, sent on behalf of His most illustrious Majesty, the Emperor Shojan XII, to extend the hand of friendship to the government of the diverse planets and systems of the Castaway Cluster, a principality of the Imperium.” I gave him my best smile. He glared at me. I kept the wattage high, even opening my eyes slightly wider, which I had been told by a success counselor was a subtle signal to the person to whom you are talking that you find them appealing, though Lt. Vell was anything but appealing.
“While he realizes that he has already sent an official ambassador, one with the sash and everything, to this locale, he is rather concerned that she has not reported back in what he considers a timely fashion.” Again, I was self-deprecating and a little embarrassed, as if I was suggesting to them that they had perhaps mislaid our ambassador, and could they point us to her? “Lieutenant, I am forwarding my credentials to you. I request politely that you send them on to the governing council. I await their pleasure. In the meantime, I would consider it an act of friendship if you would stand down your weapons. Look at the size of us. We are not much of a threat, especially at this distance.”
Did I note a slight softening of the harsh expression? Was he responding to my wiles?
It seemed not. Lt. Vell smacked his hand down on his console, cutting off our communication.
“Not unexpected,” Parsons said.
We had several hours’ wait while Lt. Vell forwarded my files to his superior officers and asked for instructions. I occupied the time by experimenting with my cameras.
The Chey Snap 8 was a mere dot hovering in the air. Nothing could outdo my precious Optique for function and versatility, but the Snap had a function that I could not stop playing with: it came with superior image-altering software beyond anything that I had ever seen. I took pictures of myself and added tiger stripes, lizard eyes that faced in opposite directions and a low-slung canine jaw to my image. I rendered myself into a Wichu, a Gecko, then daringly a Solinian. Even more daringly, I took a candid image of Parsons in profile while he stood over the screentank, reading data on our greeting committee. He would not have been pleased, even though I rendered him as a very wise owl with iron gray feathers and wide, knowing eyes. What a marvelous toy, I thought fondly. I erased that last picture from my viewpad before he could spot it, and took the other images to show my shipmates. They liked them as much as I did. My team. My friends. I planned to enjoy myself thoroughly, mission or no.
Suddenly, after a meal and a rest period during which no one ate or slept, the screen came to life again.
“All right,” Vell said. “Follow us in, but no antics. The Cluster doesn’t take kindly to antics.”
“A pity,” I said. I do excel at antics. “But if you insist.”
* * *
It took more than three shifts to cut the billion or so kilometers by quarter-ultra and sub-ultra into orbit around Boske. From space, the planet looked like most worlds inhabited by humans and other oxygen-breathers who required one gee to remain healthy on a long-term basis. Blue oceans; white ice caps; green and brown continents; and cities masses of gold pinpoints on the nightside, expanses of gray on the dayside.
“What’s missing?” Oskelev said, from telemetry.
I peered at the screen, went over readouts. “Nothing. It looks entirely normal.”
“No traffic,” the Wichu said. “We’re practically the only thing up here—us and our friends. And that.” She pointed to an enormous vessel hovering in stationary orbit. We all gawked as we went past. The markings were Trade Union, and the prow read, Marketmaker, in Standard and the Trade Union’s angular alphabet.
“Right you,” said Redius. “No own space trade?”
“Up until six months ago, there was intermittent trade between the Cluster and other confederations,” Plet said, reciting it as if she was reading out of an encyclopedia. “Domestic trade, that is to say between one Cluster system and another, well established and prosperous, level three on the development scale.”
The screen lit up again with the homely mien of our guide.
“Descend to these coordinates. No games, or we’ll shoot you out of the air.”
“Now, how may I refuse an invitation like that?” I asked. “Oskelev?”
“On it,” she said, spreading her furry hands across the console.
I steeled myself, trying to be as prepared as possible for the upcoming ordeal. I would be the very best
“Where are you going, sir?” Parsons asked.
“To change,” I said. “I want to look my best on behalf of the emperor. He is trusting me to represent him and the government of the Imperium.”
“May I ask how you will represent him?”
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “My new Taino tunic will be perfect. You will see how it will impress them with my devotion to my home city, the seat of the emperor himself.”
“May I suggest something more . . . generally formal? Your dark blue suit, and a white tunic?”
“No!” I said, perhaps a little more forcefully than necessary. The crew exchanged glances among themselves. “That is so dull, Parsons, that I should be disowned by my relatives. Besides, as you point out, I am not an ambassador, merely an observer. A friendly presence. They will enjoy my sense of fashion. After all, as you know, they have not been close to the Imperium in some decades.”
“They will see why, sir.”
“What?” I asked.
Parsons merely looked at me. “I cannot dissuade you?”
“Of course not,” I said severely. “I will be back before we land.”
* * *
The unfamiliar screech caused DeKarn to fling herself out of her chair and into the far corner. She huddled there in terror, clutching the folds of her blue robe around her. A gap had appeared in the wall of her cell, showing a wide wedge of hallway. The door was open!
A Wichu in the uniform of the Cluster Security Service strode into the room and took her by the arm.
“Good, yer dressed. Come on. You got a meeting.”
“What?” DeKarn demanded. Suddenly she recognized him as one of Sgarthad’s cronies. “Let me go!” Her voice was a little rusty. The Wichu didn’t pay any attention to her protests. He towed her out and down the corridor.
For the first time she saw the surroundings that had been her prison for the past months. The long, dimly lit hallway had steel doors every ten meters, but only every third one was open. The small rooms within smelled of bleach and long habitation. Had there been other prisoners? She stumbled. Her legs were unused to long, swift walks. The guard pulled her upright and kept going without looking at her. She clawed at him, trying to get him to let go. Her nails were too short to penetrate through the thick fur. She shrieked her frustration and helplessness. He ignored that, too.
The Wichu urged DeKarn through a low door and out into a pale blue, enameled passageway with numbers painted on the walls at intervals. At the cross-corridor ahead, a small group of humans stood, surrounded by more uniformed guards.
She let out a little cry of recognition: Zembke, Six, Marden and Nineteen, all looking pale and tottery, clung to one another. Her fellow resisters, or so she surmised. All of them were clad in the colors of their constituency. She had thought it strange that the clothes shoved through her door that morning were her official council robes. What was going on?
“Leese!” Nineteen embraced DeKarn. Her eyes looked wild. She muttered to herself in Youngspeak. As terrible as she felt for Barba, DeKarn almost smiled. Her fellow captives must have had access to the same console programs as she.
“All right, she’s the last of you,” said the burly man who had been at Sgarthad’s side since their arrival on Boske. DeKarn was outraged. Still plain-faced, they were now dressed in Cluster uniforms. She had not seen that, or remarked upon it, in the news feeds. The lines between one stellar confederation and another had become even more blurred. He focused on DeKarn. “The rest of you heard it. Now, you. Pay attention. Your families will suffer if you don’t cooperate with us.”
“Cooperate?” DeKarn echoed. “Why? What is happening?”
“Another visitor has arrived from the Imperium. You will do what we command, do you understand?”
“Cooperate with you?” Zembke roared. “Never! How dare you lock us up with no contact with the outside world for months? What have you done? Why have we been kept incommunicado?”
A bald man with the protruberant jaw stepped forward and sprayed Zembke in the face.
“Sad. Too bad Councillor Zembke was called home before he could meet the envoy from His Imperial Majesty,” the burly man said.
Zembke clutched his throat. His mouth moved and his face turned red. DeKarn could tell that he was trying to shout. A small part of her wished that once this terrible situation was at an end she had that spray. Council meetings would be so much more serene! But she felt sorry for Zembke, too, and she was furious at the audacity of the Trade Union invaders. How dare they interfere! How dare they kidnap her and her fellows? But she said nothing aloud. Diplomacy had taught her to be silent until she knew where she stood. At the moment she saw no advantage in taking a stand.
She realized that she must be the only one who had had current events programs, the only one who knew what had been happening while they were incarcerated. And that one short message. It must be an opportunity. But what? And who had given it to her?
A small Uctu female came forward with a jet syringe and put it to Marden’s upper arm. Before he could flinch away, it emitted a loud hiss. When the councillors tried to keep away from her, the large males held them still until all of them had been injected.
“The electronic devices in your flesh will monitor not only everything you say, but your heartbeat and respiratory rate. If you get too excited, it will release knockout drops. Treason is punishable by unconsciousness. At first. Too many incidents, and, well . . .”
DeKarn kept herself calm. “And, well, what, sir?” she asked, chin high.
“Your families will not be the only ones held to make sure of your good behavior,” the big man said, peering into their faces one by one. The heartless cruelty of his expression terrified her. “The good councillor here—” He aimed an elbow at Zembke, who was still working his jaw. “—and the ambassador from Keinolt will be waitin’ here to find out how well you act on our wishes. If this visitor is warned in any way—an Infogrid message, a piece of paper slipped to his hand, anonymous call—the councillor and the ambassador will experience terrible pain.”
“You brute!” Nineteen snarled. Her large eyes were wide with disdain. “Do not dare lay a hand on them!”
“Oh, don’t blame me,” he said, with a grin. “It be your fault if they suffer. Just remember that. Check your personal comms for cues from the cap’n. Follow what he say, and no improvisin’. Unnerstand that?”
“We understand it,” DeKarn said, coldly. She made a subtle gesture toward the others. They saw it and their faces went still. All of them were old hands at negotiation and all but Nineteen were adept at keeping their emotions under wraps. Normally they used those skills against one another. This time, it was a matter for the Castaway Cluster to band together against a common enemy.
The guards bundled the silently protesting Zembke back into the cells. The door slid shut on him. He had time to turn a beseeching face toward DeKarn. She knew what he feared. She had to find a way to ensure the safety of his family. She would do that, no matter what happened to her. In the meantime, she had to follow her instructions. The guards restored her pocket screen to her. A message scroll in the center of the window immediately blinked for attention.
She tilted it against her body so she could just see it. A green message window opened. In it, a flicker became an image. Colm! It was gone again in a split second, but she was certain it was he. She hoped that the TU people had not seen it. By their faces, they had not.
Colm! Bless him. He was there somewhere, very close by. She felt comforted. Was it he who had sent the message? Help was coming. Where from? In what form? Had he made it to the Imperium and back again? Was this envoy the help?
Everyone’s communicators buzzed. Another green-flagged message opened. It was Sgarthad. He smiled unctuously.
“It is my pleasure to invite you all to the spaceport to meet a distinguished visitor. I know you will all be on your best behavior. He should experience only the serenity that has been the hallmark of this splendid world for the last four months. Please be here in twenty minutes.”
Marden looked up from his screen, outraged.
“We will not!”
“You want to go back in your cell?” the burly man asked, bored. “Don’t you want a chance to have a decent meal?”
“What choice do we have?” Nineteen asked, her eyes flashing.
“None,” the man said. Their anger amused him.
“Wait a moment,” DeKarn said, coming to look the chief guard in the eyes. “I want to see the ambassador. I know you must have her imprisoned here, too. I want to make certain she is well.”
“What you want don’t matter. Move it. We’re gonna be late.” He gestured to the guards, who each took one of the councillors by the arm and shoved them toward the door. DeKarn marched grimly forward.