The following morning I arrived on time for my speech with Parsons, Oskelev and Nesbitt in tow to the low, brown stone building that housed the Castaway Cluster council. I was surprised how humble it looked after the other centers of planetary and system government that had been pointed out to me on my tour from the spaceport. Plet and Anstruther had remained on our ship engaged upon research, but we all remained linked through the scalp implants. They would hear and see everything that I did. I felt quite well-protected.
The First Councillor swept down on me and tucked her arm into mine. Her minder stuck as close to her as Nesbitt and Oskelev did to me, both of them with weapons displayed in their belts. Parsons, in midnight blue, trailed behind us, exuding calm. Redius waited with our transport outside, making certain no alterations were made to the vehicle in our absence.
“I look forward to your speech,” DeKarn said, in a quiet voice. “It will be broadcast through the Grid and the local media. I hope you are willing to give interviews to the local opinion reporters. They will want to ask you questions. Have you sent out copies of your text ahead of time?”
“I rather prefer it to be a surprise,” I said. “Is it . . . customary?”
She smiled. “No, but it saves time of transcription, that’s all. Afterwards, there will be a rebuttal from a few of our members. By the way, you will be speaking in Performance Central, our city-state’s main auditorium. This way.”
I nearly whistled as she led me into a red-walled concert hall that must have housed at least two thousand beings. The stage below looked like a dinner tray. It was surrounded by a troop of soldiers in dark green jackets, tan trousers and brown boots who at this distance looked like toys. Other brightly colored miniature figures moved to and fro in the lights. Mine were not the only cameras floating around. As I appeared, dozens of small spheres came to hover around me like satellites. Their owners turned keen faces in my direction. I smiled and waved at all of them. “I thought I would be addressing only the forty councillors and the governor.”
The First Councillor shook her head. “Word spread last night. The clamor for seats was so great we had to move you from our chamber to this space. Fortunately it was available today. You don’t mind, do you?” she asked anxiously.
“Not at all,” I promised her. The more people who heard the emperor’s message, the better.
“I don’t like this,” Nesbitt said, low enough that I heard it only through bone conduction. “How can I cover this whole space?”
“We only need to cover him,” Oskelev pointed out. “Who’s going to shoot at him? Those guys? I bet they only meet once a year for target practice.” She aimed an elbow toward the troop of soldiers. Close by, I could see how young they were. They saw me looking, and threw their shoulders back and assumed serious expressions.
“I’d bet on the two of you over that entire squad,” I said, proudly. “Or either of you.”
“C’mon, Thomas!” Nesbitt said, his face as red as the walls. “I mean, my lord.”
“Good morning!” boomed a deep voice. Captain Sgarthad bore down on us like a benevolent thundercloud. His uniform seemed more golden than before, glowing in the exaggerated light. At my side, Councillor DeKarn cringed. I decided to meet fire with fire.
“Good morning!” I replied. “Here to view the spectacle?”
Sgarthad seemed surprised. “Why, I’m part of it, my dear fellow. I am an interested party. You’ll make your speech, and one of the councillors and I will give our responses.”
“Oh, really?” I asked, rising to the challenge.
“Yes,” Councillor DeKarn said hastily. “It is customary.”
“Ah,” I said, bowing to her. I did not want her to be any more alarmed than she was. “Then let us proceed.”
The yellow-complected councillor stepped forward. The tall, narrow screens behind him lit up with sunbursts and a flag of the third system in the Cluster hoisted itself in its midst. “I am Councillor Vasily Marden from the New Rome system. It is my privilege to bring to you today a guest from the Imperium, Lord Thomas Kinago.” Uproarious applause met this announcement. I stepped forward, buoyed on waves of good will.
Marden stood down to a podium on the left of the stage. Sgarthad moved to occupy the one on the right. It was not my imagination: the spotlight on him was more powerful than that on me. Well, we will see who gets more attention, I vowed.
“Gentlebeings, I greet you,” I began. “I am proud to stand before you today . . .” My speech was based upon several that were in the archives of the diplomatic service. I admit that I had borrowed freely of phrases that I felt reached directly into the hearts of listeners more eloquently than any I could spin myself. I hoped that no one in the audience had had access to the same files.
“I have heard some of you say that the Imperium has neglected you over the last two centuries. It’s been rather hard to keep an eye on you, I must say, what with your large, dark neighbor the black hole impeding the view, but I assure you that such is not the aim of our emperor—your emperor, Shojan XII.”
I touched my viewpad. The audience gasped. The first picture of Shojan filled those screens behind me. His noble, calm eyes surveyed the onlookers. He was the very epitome of masculine beauty and gravitas. Even though he was my cousin, I found him impressive. I glanced at my neighbor. Shojan compared over-favorably against Sgarthad, whose chiseled cheekbones were suffused with angry red. I could almost see the thunderstorm gathering upon Sgarthad’s brow like an ancient mythical god.
“As Shojan began his reign, six years ago,” and here I changed to the official coronation portrait, “he vowed to pay heed to the needs of all parts of his new realm. He deployed his ambassador to your starry shores, but alas, she has not been able to make his case to you in person. I hope in coming days, I will be able to answer any questions you have, and I hope you will answer mine. I am here as an observer, but also as a loving subject of His Imperiality.” I flicked my control again and again. I told a few of my favorite stories about Shojan, a few intended to show his humanity, others to point out his wisdom and compassion, and coupled every tale with a fresh image. Each new picture elicited open cries of astonishment and pleasure. Parsons, at the far left edge of the stage, nodded in approval. “I know that once you feel secure that he intends to follow up on this promise of protection and acceptance, that you will reaffirm your ties and join us of the Core Worlds and the rest of the sectors as parts of the Imperium under his most noble aegis.” To couple with that declaration, I intended to show my very favorite picture of Shojan, the one I had taken just before I left home.
I flicked the control. The lights went out.
Loud declarations of surprise erupted from the audience. I clutched my viewpad and gawked into darkness. What had happened? Had I done that?
“Oof!” I exclaimed into a mouthful of fur as the breath was squeezed out of me.
“Quiet,” Oskelev said, against my chest. “Nesbitt, you there?”
“Ready,” the other ensign growled, pressed against my back. “You okay, Thomas?”
“I am all right,” I said. “What happened?”
“Great void, the power!” cried Councillor Marden. I heard a good deal of bustling and swearing. Very shortly, the lights came on again.
My friends stood facing outward with sidearms drawn. They had literally become my bodyguards, bracketing me with their own torsos. Parsons had moved in the pitch dark to stand over us. I had never felt so well-protected.
“I apologize for the interruption,” Councillor Marden said, bustling up to us. “Are you well, sir?”
“I am.” I straightened my tunic and cleared my throat. My friends moved back to their positions, but they kept the weapons out and obvious. “To continue,” I said, returning to the podium and beaming at the bemused audience. “His Majesty might be young, but you can see that he is already possessed of wisdom and bearing . . .”
I thumbed my viewpad screen, but nothing happened. I glanced down at the small screen. The file was there, but it was empty. I flipped through my database, thinking that in the scrimmage in the dark I had jostled the control. I couldn’t find the picture. The contents of the file were not in the deleted section, nor in the archives, nor in the active roster. I went through all of my other files, thinking I had shifted the images of Shojan there, but no. All of them had gone.
The audience became restive, but I was determined to find at least one other image to show. I searched all the folders and albums for at least one. I had a candid taken at a family event in the spring just before I left for the Academy. It was gone as well.
I had a terrible, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Holding the viewpad close to my eyes so no one else could see, I even looked into the tiny, very secret niche storage in which I had hidden the spit-take of Shojan. It, too, had disappeared. I was devastated to the very fiber of my being. That opportunity would never come again. I was heartsick at the loss. I glanced at Parsons. His visage bore no hint of guilt, but why would he sabotage my files at any time, let alone this one, in which the emperor would be embarrassed by proxy?
The most likely party was at my left. Sgarthad’s brilliant blue eyes glinted at me.
“Lord Thomas? Is that the extent of your remarks?”
“Er, no,” I said. I cleared my throat, straightened my tunic and threw my shoulders back. “And so, gentlebeings, I ask you to give heed to, er, my noble cousin’s plea to you . . .” I glanced down at the viewpad for my next line. At least the speech had not been lost.
With the smooth flow of my presentation interrupted by the loss I found it difficult to carry on, but carry on I did. I knew from the half-hearted applause of the audience that it had not gone well.
“Independence, my friends! We of the Castaway Cluster have had a long time to consider the question . . .” Vasily Marden began his oration, but his style of speech was so turgid that I found my thoughts drifting off after my lost pictures. A sharp whistle in my ear brought me back to the present.
“Look down!” Redius’s voice hissed.
I glanced at my viewpad. He had sent me an image of myself with a stupidly blank look on my face. I plastered on a friendly and learned expression and forced myself to pay attention. At last, the councillor retired to modest applause.
Even before he stepped forward, the room had risen in acclaim.
“Sgarthad! Sgarthad! Sgarthad!”
The Trade Union captain came forward, arms raised.
“Gentlebeings!” he called. “We have heard the other speakers! Have you changed your mind about the direction you want to go in the future?”
Myriad throats roared as one.
“Let me remind you once again of the reason that I am among you. The Trade Union offers you status as a full partner, not a subject state, as the Imperium does. We won’t let you remain isolated, either, like those of your government who favor independence!”
The event had changed to a pep rally, as one would experience at a sports match. The young people clustered at the foot of the stage were the cheerleaders, exhorting their fellows to cheers every time Sgarthad spoke.
I had failed. The people had liked me, but Sgarthad had had more time with them. He had had plenty of time to convince them of his confederation’s point of view. He had more natural charisma than Marden and was less hesitant before an audience than I. The comparison with those of us who had gone before Sgarthad was overwhelming. He was cheerful and personable. Without the emperor, all I had to offer them was the status quo, and it had little new to excite the listener.
Sgarthad finished his pep talk and was immediately mobbed by fans and supporters. I moped over to Parsons. My guards trailed behind me.
“That was deliberate sabotage,” I said. “It could not be accidental.”
“It is not, sir,” Parsons said. “That is a barrier that the next wave of envoys from the Imperium will face, once we send back the observations we are making.”
“That doesn’t seem like enough,” I said.
“It is your brief, my lord,” Parsons said firmly. “Do not forget that.”
“I can do more,” I replied, just as firmly.
I was not alone for long, as I had feared. A sea of eager faces swarmed toward me, led by Councillor DeKarn and her bodyguard.
“These are some of the opinion press,” she said, smiling as she gestured toward them. “They have expressed a wish to interview you, my lord. I told them you would make a fascinating subject. Will that be satisfactory?”
“Why, yes, of course,” I said.
“Will you excuse me, sir?” Parsons asked.
In spite of my woes, I felt a thrill of excitement. I kept my face neutral as I said, “of course, Commander.”
Parsons slipped away so gracefully that even knowing he was departing I believe that the hosts and their watchful guards did not see in which direction he went. I felt pride, and determined that I would do my part for the honor of the Imperium, as he would do his. I was not going to take my defeat lying down. I would make myself charming and indispensable to my hosts. I planned to use the gift of ages to sway these folks to the Imperium’s cause. I could not be less than me. Otherwise, why would my mother and Parsons have caused me to come here?
“Who has the first question?” I asked.
The reporters, all species, ages and sizes, bore down upon me, shouting questions and sending them to my viewpad. I pointed toward a tall woman with a basketweave pattern in yellow on her narrow face.
“Lord Thomas, is it true that the Emperor . . . ?”
I basked in the attention. As each person made his or her inquiry, I made firm eye contact, until I was certain that I had charmed them to the best of my ability.
At her direction, I escorted the councillor through the halls and into the museum next door. Our parade of questioners followed us, just kept from making bodily contact with me by the combined efforts of Oskelev and Nesbitt. “You will understand so much more of our history,” she assured me.
“It would be my pleasure,” I said.
The reporters followed us through the halls and into the museum next door. I paused frequently near the dusty cases and exhibits to answer more questions and pose for pictures. I made many witty remarks. It was a much more satisfactory encounter than the unhappy scene in the hall.
My questioners, most of them young, were literate, curious and enthusiastic about getting the story. I must admit their facial tattoos and designs distracted me. I found myself enunciating more clearly than I needed to, as if the tattoos would interfere with their ability to comprehend standard language. In fact, their pronunciation was clear as air, if a trifle old-fashioned.
“I see, sir,” one earnest teenager decorated in multicolored animal patterns said, “but at no time until recently was a direct message from your government received.”
“Yes, well,” I was a little tired of answering that question. “I can only speak for the emperor who sent me. He wants to correct the wrongs of the past . . .”
“They’re following us,” Oskelev whispered, as my teenaged inquisitor made way for another reporter.
“Well, I certainly hope so,” I said, waving and smiling at the visitors who crowded into the museum through the front entrance and joined my throng. “We are here to be seen.”
“No, those bare-faced ones. Check your pad. They’re in red.”
“It means nothing until they attempt to interfere with our progress,” I muttered. I turned ot the crowd and picked out an insectoid reporter with chrysanthemums etched on both cheeks. “My good . . . Cocomon! I believe that you were the next one with a question.”
“I would like to pose for an image with you,” the blue insectoid replied, his mandibles clattering with excitement.
“Gladly,” I exclaimed, holding out an arm. He or she—I was not yet adept at recognizing the genders—came to stand beside me and the bit of wreckage.
My hostess’s own pocket secretary buzzed, and she consulted it. Her cheeks under the blue skin art reddened, but she put it away without replying.
“Should you reply?” I asked. “If you please.”
“Oh, no,” the First Councillor said, with a brave smile. “It is nothing important.”
She continued to encourage me to speak to various people who approached or buzzed me on my viewpad. One of her fellow officials, Councillor Six, a tall young man almost as au courant to fashion as I was, sidled through the crowd to join us, chivvied by his guard. Six bent his head to consult with her. They exchanged a flurry of words, the only phrase of which I could hear was “not encouraging him.” Madam DeKarn withdrew, her cheeks pink.
“It is kind of you to be concerned,” she told Six.
“I am not concerned only for him, but for you,” he whispered hotly.
I was no fool. I had figured out the large Trade Union personnel were handlers, not guards. This place was under siege. I knew the affection for Sgarthad was in a large part feigned, but they were too afraid to admit it. I was in a position to give them an alternative to love, even if I no longer had my pictures of the emperor. After all, I had history on my side, not fear. I was well-protected, and I could take care of myself. My position in the royal family caused people to underestimate me. That worked to my advantage. I would not, however, endanger anyone else in my pursuit of information.
I bowed to the councillor. “Thank you so much for guiding me today,” I said. “Perhaps you would like to retire? I can go on by myself. I know how to return to my ship.”
“Oh, no,” Madam DeKarn said. She squeezed the tall man’s wrist. “I will be careful,” she said. Looking doubtful, the younger councillor retired. I could tell that he and his minder were unsatisfied.
We moved from one gallery to another. The cloud of small cameras increased in size, as did the crowd around us. The docents stationed in each room looked worried at the mass of beings migrating through as though we were a herd of gnus. I smiled at each to put them at their ease. They returned the expression faintly. Thus far, my questioners had shown respect and patience with me and one another. Madam DeKarn guided me toward a glass-sided pressure lift.
“The next level up has displays of our most famous exports,” she said.
“I can’t wait to see them,” I assured her courteously.
“Hey, watch out!”
A couple of large louts in coveralls pushed by me, almost sending me flying into a diorama. Nesbitt caught me before I struck it.
“I am,” I assured him. I frowned. My assailants had seen me clearly, but they behaved poorly nonetheless. Not even the habitués of the wharf pubs in Taino ever took direct physical action. I realized with a start that they lacked tattoos. More Trade Union staff. I set my jaw. They would not distract me from my errand.
The councillor seemed to be more frightened than ever, but she kept going as gamely as if we were off for a picnic. She beckoned a stout, tawny-skinned woman forward.
“Lord Thomas,” she said, “please allow me to introduce Srikai Mseda, a frequent broadcaster on the main Grid news feed.”
Mseda marched toward me, hand out, with an ambitious and purposeful gait. “Lord Thomas, this is a pleasure.”
I beamed. “Thank you. What would you like to know?”
“You’re not just here as an observer, are you?” she asked. “I mean, the emperor has plenty of diplomats. Why send a cousin?”
A good question. I bowed to her. “To let you know he is serious about hearing your concerns,” I said. “Forgive me if I repeat myself. I am sure I have said the same thing in the last two or three hours?”
Mseda checked her personal communications unit. “Three times. Why should we believe it now?”
“Well, how many official visitors have you had from the Imperium?”
“Counting you, one,” Mseda said. “There was a rumor of another visitor, but we never saw her. Do you have any comment on that, Councillor?”
I had the feeling DeKarn was waiting for such a question. The silver-haired woman steeled her spine, but favored Mseda with a warm smile. “The Imperium ambassa—”
In between syllables, Madam DeKarn’s eyes rolled up, and she collapsed. Mseda and I caught her as she was falling and set her on the ground. I clutched Madam DeKarn’s hand, feeling for a pulse.
“Call for emergency medical transport!” Nesbitt bellowed. Mseda tapped the center of her device’s screen, which lit up red for emergency.
Oskelev dropped to her knees at DeKarn’s other side. “I have first-responder training,” she said. She listened to the councillor’s chest and lifted her eyelids. “She ought to be okay in a minute, folks,” she said.
DeKarn’s eyes fluttered open. She looked up at me and grabbed my arm. Mseda leaned over her, viewpad at the ready.
“Give the lady her dignity,” I said sweetly.
Looking chagrined, the reporter put the device into her belt pouch. DeKarn murmured something. I leaned close to hear.
“Don’t let them,” Madam DeKarn whispered.
“Let them what?” I whispered back.
The councillor’s coarse-faced guard tried to push me back, but Nesbitt elbowed him. “Back off, friend.”
Oskelev opened the first aid parcel hanging from the harness at her hip and ran the small white medical scanner over her.
“She’s got something in her body,” the Wichu said. “Two somethings.”
“Health chip,” Mseda said. “We all have them.”
The Wichu fingerspelled something over the screen of her viewpad. I glanced at mine to see what she had said. She’s been drugged. I nodded. The second device might have been implanted by the intruders.
By then, several of the untattooed guards had surrounded us. I had no doubt that they were the “them” to whom Madam DeKarn referred. I determined not to allow them to take her from me. I had witnesses. I would make use of them.
“Can you stand?” I asked the councillor. She nodded. I assisted her to her feet. “Please allow me to take you home. Redius,” I said aloud, knowing he was monitoring me. “Closest entrance to my position.”
“There in moments,” the Uctu declared.
I smiled at my audience. “Will you excuse us? A medical emergency. This lady needs to return to her home.”
The crowd murmured in the affirmative. I put my arm around the councillor’s waist. I felt her trembling.
A green light suddenly struck me in the face. Crosshatching ran down from brow to chin.
“What is that?” I demanded, holding up my free hand against the hot glare.
“Back!” The lights hit Nesbitt. He thrust his gun toward the crowd, which recoiled. Oskelev leaped for the being holding the device, a thirty-year-old human in gray coveralls. He spun and ran. The Wichu went in pursuit, shouldering aside onlookers. Soon, she returned.
“I lost him, sir,” she said. She held up her viewpad. “Got a picture, though. I’ll know him next time. Lieutenant, do you want to cross-reference with the population records?”
“Scanning now,” Plet’s voice said in my ear. “Trade Union, sir.”
“By Forn, could they be any more obvious?” I protested.
Oskelev and Nesbitt helped me escort Madam DeKarn toward the doorway. Sgarthad loomed suddenly before us. His expression was one I could not easily read. He studied me curiously as if he had not seen me before and did not like what he beheld.
“Hello, Captain,” I said cheerfully, maneuvering to pass him. “The First Councillor has been taken ill. Will you excuse us?”
His expression changed instantly from fierce speculation to solicitousness. The stage had lost a fine artiste when he had chosen to go into commerce.
“I am so sorry to hear that!” he boomed. He beckoned to Madam DeKarn’s minder, who bustled up to join us. “Wikely, make sure the emperor’s envoy finds his way to the lady’s home.”
There was no way to avoid the additional company. Redius sat beside the local driver of our borrowed transport through the busy streets. Behind and above our vehicle, numerous private cars and air-vehicles trailed, their occupants still looking for the story.
“I hate this,” Nesbitt said, riding backwards to keep an eye on them. “At least the traffic robots keep them from driving up beside us.” As we passed into the residential district, the air vehicles were forced to turn back unless they had permits for the area. Fortunately, none of them seemed to.
I kept our guest’s mind occupied all the way to her quarters, telling her amusing anecdotes and jokes, chosen from the mental chapters of Stories I Would Feel Safe Telling My Aunts. After a few kilometers of constantly glancing behind her and at her guard, she began to relax, and even rewarded me with a soft chuckle. I could tell that in better times she would be an excellent audience. As we rounded the corner past a busy multi-story complex with shops in the ground floor level, she pointed to the third in a long row of tall, narrow detached residences.
“There, if you please.”
I hopped out of the skimmer before her guard could alight, and held out my arm to her. She stepped cautiously onto the pavement. Wikely crowded up behind us, no doubt seeking to overhear any confidences we might pass between us, but neither of us spoke.
The high, semi-opaque panel door slid open hollowly. Madam DeKarn passed inside. I glanced past her. The chambers seemed oddly dusty for such a fastidious woman. An elderly, fluffy white cat trotted up and rubbed against her legs. She stooped to pick it up and buried her face in its fur.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice thick. “I will be all right now.”
“Are you certain?” I asked, concerned. “I can leave Oskelev with you to make sure you don’t have a . . . relapse.”
“Oh, yes,” she assured me. She fixed her eyes on my face in a significant fashion. “Spending this afternoon with you has done me a world of good.” She passed inside. Wikely marched in after her and shut the door firmly in my face. I was thoughtful on the way back to our ship.
“Have you found anything about the Trade Union’s motives?” I asked Lt. Plet the moment we were safely back inside the CK-M945B (Redius was right—I did have to give the ship a proper name).
Plet slid her hand along the control on the side of her console. “I tapped into the minutes of the council chamber and saw the captain’s arrival. If it’s a hostile takeover, it’s the friendliest usurpation I ever saw, but it is still inexplicable. After that meeting, no official reading of the minutes has been done, and that’s odd for this group. They talk. They don’t get anything done, but they talk. You should see the dull material that is recorded and referenced over and over again.”
“We are only here to observe, Lieutenant,” I said, stiffly. “That is something we have observed. Make a copy for the emperor.”
“I have, sir.”
“And a discreet backup or two.”
Plet looked long-suffering. “Already done, sir.”
“By Forn,” I said, agog with admiration. “it’s like having a younger version of Parsons at hand. You will go far.”
“Thank you, sir.” She sounded pleased. A slight crease in the smooth brow denoted the puzzlement beneath, as she must wonder how far and in what direction I thought. I smiled. As I was ascending to a higher plane, there must also be supplementary replacements for such unique assets as Parsons. I would do a service to the espionage wing of the government to put them onto the existence of a mind like Plet’s, if Parsons had not done so already. Though she did not have his imagination, her powers of analysis and her efficiency were to be treasured. And Anstruther, too. I beamed at my companions.
“Thank you all,” I said. “I am privileged to have such accomplished friends.”
“We’re proud, too, sir,” Anstruther said, blushing.
“What was that light that hit Thomas, Lieutenant?” Oskelev asked, getting back to business.
“It was a kind of topographical measuring device,” Plet replied. “The purpose at present can only be surmised.”
“Do they think you’re some kind of impostor?”
“Him?” Nesbitt asked. “Why?”
“My Infogrid file is an open book,” I protested. “I am afraid it might be more sinister than that.”
“Like what?” Anstruther asked.
“I abhor melodrama, but several scenarios suggest themselves,” I said, hating the possibilities, but I ticked them off on my fingers. “Am I to disappear, and messages be sent back home saying that I loved the Cluster too much to leave? Will transmissions of me stating that I abandon the notion of reunification with the Imperium and embrace the concept of the Trade Union taking over in the Cluster be broadcast across their Grid and our Infogrid?”
The young ensign was aghast. “Well, we’d say that wasn’t true.”
I gave her a sympathetic look.
“Means he, we will not be around to contradict, either,” Redius said. She looked shocked. “Refer to Commander Parsons, when returns.”
“I say step up security,” Nesbitt said. “No more going out in crowds, Thomas. No telling if those cameras bouncing around in your face are bombs or lasers.”
“No,” I declared. “If Councillor DeKarn was brave enough to risk her life to put me before the people to give them an honest choice, I could not be less courageous in promoting the interests of my emperor. But I will not involve her further. It appears that the charismatic captain already sent her more than one warning. My brief is to observe, so observe I shall. I will go out alone—under protection, naturally—and continue.”
The others burst out with their protests, but I was adamant. To my delight, Parsons agreed with me on his return.
“Lord Thomas is entirely in the spirit of his assignment,” he assured my reluctant staff. “He should continue, if he can.” As he outranked them all, his word was law.
For the next sixday, I brought my case directly to the people of Boske. I answered questions freely for whomever asked them. I might have been a hopeful candidate, for the number of pictures I posed for, babies kissed, speeches given and stores opened. I started to recognize some of my querents by sight and addressed them by name without prompting from Plet or my viewpad. Such retention, well-honed at a thousand family banquets, brought acclaim from reporters and beings on the street in the myriad Grid articles and opinion pieces. I made Anstruther collect all she could find of my appearances for my scrapbook. (I suspected she was keeping a copy for herself as well. I didn’t protest. A success for me was a success for us all.)
I also listened closely to my new acquaintances. I saw how they behaved when I asked questions in return, especially about my rival for their attentions. My assessment had been correct: they adored Sgarthad, but were uncomfortable about the Trade Union making itself so at home in the Cluster, having all their spacecraft grounded and communications truncated.
“If it hadn’t been his idea,” more than one person told me, “I’d never say yes. But since it’s him. . . .”
In spite of the growing friendliness of the people, Nesbitt, Oskelev and Redius carried their arms more openly. The crowds grew by the day, making my bodyguards nervous. As I was there to be seen, as I had told Oskelev, I made it a point to venture out whenever I could. I found people waiting for me when I emerged in the morning. I was followed, but not only by reporters and well-wishers. The Trade Union made it clear that I was there only by their sufferance. I steeled myself for worse. But what could be worse than losing my spit-take?
* * *
The people of Pthohannix grew used to my presence, even welcoming it. I bent myself to winning them over as many at a time as I could. After several days of increasing public approval, I was greeted upon my debarkation from our ship with cheers. I waved to the audience, and took a bow. Knowing that their reaction came from a combination of genetic imperative and novelty, I did not take it seriously, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it. I accepted invitations from anyone who asked me except the Castaway Cluster council. I refused to draw more fire upon those whom I knew to be openly unhappy with the status quo. Let Sgarthad and his minions take pot shots at me, not at my hosts. They obviously risked much to have me do what I do.
Leaving those out, I did not lack for face time with my public. Invitations poured in. I accepted them cheerfully, and fulfilled my obligations as any good guest might. My staff was welcomed almost as much as I. Parsons accompanied us to these events once in a while, but he disappeared more and more frequently. He assured us that his investigations were bearing fruit, which he would share when it became appropriate. The less I knew about it, the less it would be in my mind as I was out in the public. Only Plet and perhaps Anstruther had any idea where he was going on those days.
For all my reputation at home, I was not reckless. I stayed only in very public locations, made certain I had an exit handy, and that I was never alone while out. In spite of the incipient danger, I began to enjoy myself.
“You are nuts,” Oskelev said. “You’re acting like it was a play.”
“It is a drama,” I said. “I am not even the main player, but I will not be bumped offstage early. Not without seeing from which direction the blow falls.”
“What about it, Commander?” Oskelev asked Parsons. “Make him take watch out for himself. He’s playing a dangerous game.”
Parsons regarded me benevolently. “He is doing precisely as the emperor would wish.”
I was grateful to him. I had misgivings and fears, but I knew I was doing the right thing.