“They held me in one of these cells for a while, but as it turns out they aren’t too observant,” Colm Banayere explained. “I used Covert Service training to get out one night. I have a college friend who’s down on his luck. We’re about the same height and coloring. They can’t tell one set of tattoos from another. He’s been occupying my place, eating the food and wearing the clothes they leave for me. I’d find it boring, but he’s happy. He gets to spend all his time playing console games, leaving me free to investigate. I have been monitoring off-world communications. I was so relieved when your ship arrived. I have been following your group for days waiting for an opportunity to get one of you alone. It hasn’t been easy, until I discovered you are the only one who goes out by himself. I took it as an indication you were my contact.”
“That is by design,” Parsons said, pleased by the young man’s perspicacity. “I need to locate Ambassador Hiranna Ben, who departed from the Core Worlds months ago for this system. Do you know where she is?”
“Six cells down from mine,” Banayere said promptly. “And there are more prisoners. My employer, the First Councillor, was one of them. They were only let out the morning you arrived. Because you came.”
Parsons put his overalls on and followed the young man through the sparsely populated streets to an industrial storage facility in a warehouse district. The youth noticed Parsons looking up as they entered. “Oh, don’t worry about security cameras. I triggered them to loop on empty space. Everyone else is following your people around. I have the loop timed to end at shift change. They hardly ever look at the prisoners in between.”
“That is perceptive of you,” Parsons said.
“That’s my job,” Banayere said cheerfully. “Here she is.”
As Parsons stood guard, the young man donned a plastic glove and held it to the panel beside one of the steel doors. When it slid back, a small, plump woman rose from a steel chair at a desk in alarm.
“Pray calm yourself, madam,” Parsons said. “I am a representative of the emperor.”
Ambassador Ben held herself erect for a moment, then threw herself into his arms and sobbed.
* * *
“The council was about to lift the isolation order and let me present my case to the people, but Captain Sgarthad’s traders got to me first,” Ambassador Ben said, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief supplied by Parsons. “I have been in here for months without outside contact. I cannot confirm the length of time, because there is no clock or calendar. I am ready to face my opponents. Anything is better than being closed up here without even a documentary program. I already speak Wichu.”
“At the moment, it is safer for you here than outside,” Parsons said.
Ambassador Ben looked dismayed. “Commander, I am accustomed to being alone for long stretches, but this is undoubtedly the most boring time I have ever spent.”
Banayere smiled. “I can adjust your console so you get all the Grid feeds, madam,” he said. “I did it for my employer, Councillor DeKarn, while she was locked up here.”
She smiled at him. “That will be sufficient, then. How is my friend?
“She is well, though frightened and worried,” Colm told her. “I have been keeping an eye on her.”
“You are Colm, aren’t you?” Ambassador Ben said, patting him on the cheek. “Leese told me how much she prizes you.”
The young man actually blushed under his tattoos. He bent underneath the console to hide his face. Parsons was amused.
“I shall return for you before we lift ship for home, Ambassador,” Parsons said. “I will keep you apprised of events.”
“Very well,” she said. “I will await you eagerly.”
Banayere emerged from below the desk. Ambassador Ben settled herself with dignity at the screen. It lit up with a blare of music and graphics showing parades, children on horseback, a Cocomon in flight on filmy wings, and serious-looking adults in robes. “This is the hourly Grid report,” a deep male voice stated. Hiranna Ben let out a happy sigh of contentment. She was engaged in the program before the two men closed and locked the door behind them.
“What else can I do to help?” the young man asked, as Parsons led him on a swift march out of the warehouse.
“I require information from the Marketmaker’s databases,” Parsons said.
Banayere grimaced. “Sorry, sir. I found an interface, but I haven’t been able to break their encryption. I just don’t have the tools or training.”
Parsons smiled. “Then we may complement one another, Mr. Banayere,” he said.
* * *
We never reached the restaurant. I found my host’s behavior increasingly strange as we rode through the streets of Pthohannix. The crowds had increased in size as had their shouts of acclaim for me. Sgarthad wore an expression of pique mixed with smug anticipation. That was, I reflected, a lot to expect from any face, even one as pleasing to behold as his.
At the intersection of the large avenue with an industrial road, Sgarthad’s driver took a sharp left across several lanes. People who had risked life and limb walking along beside us in traffic were left forlornly behind. They made their way to the curb, accompanied by loud hoots from the cars and trains in the stone rail trenches. My staff’s car was left behind in the scramble of vehicles.
“Curses to him,” Redius’s voice said in my ear. “Will follow as possible. Maintain transmission!”
“Where are we going?” I asked pleasantly. Any reply would be heard by my staff.
“To our shuttle,” Sgarthad said, with a mischievous grin. “I didn’t want all of those people coming along with us. It was cruel, but they will forgive us. You wanted to see my ship. I can give you a brief tour before your next appointment.”
“That is very kind of you,” I said.
“Not at all,” Sgarthad declared, sitting down. He took hold of my arm and pulled. I sprawled in the corner seat. “The road is bumpy here. Take care.”
The neighborhood we had entered was an industrial complex. The air was filled with the sharp, unpleasant smells of lubricant oil, trash and sewage. From a crowd of thousands, the local population was reduced to a few dozen drivers of heavy goods vehicles and living beings overseeing the loading thereof. As we passed, they looked up and waved or cheered, then went back to their jobs.
I glanced over my shoulder. Our car bounded into view. Redius had taken the controls away from the driver and had followed us. It was flanked by three cars containing Trade Union personnel.
“Sir,” Parsons said in a low murmur. “Can you hear me? This is a secure channel.”
“Go on as you can,” I said.
“What?” Sgarthad said.
“I trust your driver,” I said, with a vacant grin. Sgarthad frowned at me.
“You are with the captain, sir? Then it is vital that you listen to me carefully.”
“So what is it like to run a merchant vessel for the Trade Union?” I asked Sgarthad, fixing my eyes on him. “Tell me all. When did you get your first commission?”
The captain looked pleased, as if he had managed to fool me into not believing I was being abducted. “I was sixteen when I entered the Merchant Marine,” he began. I nodded and smiled at intervals, fixing my ears upon Parsons’s voice.
“I have sent a data-gathering probe into the database of the Marketmaker, sir. As you may know, they maintain a system analogous to our Infogrid, or the Cluster’s Grid.” I nodded to myself. Such commonalities always proved to me that beings across the galaxy were far more similar than different, regardless of species. “I have unlocked Emile Sgarthad’s file. He descends from a scion of Imperium nobles who moved to the Trade Union four generations ago. I have cross-referenced the name of his ancestors. They left out of disdain for the Empress of the time and took new names. Sgarthad is, in fact, of the Melies clan, sir. He is a fourth cousin of Lord Xanson. That is why he resembles him so closely. He rose rapidly through the ranks due to his driving intelligence and inexplicable charm. He volunteered for this task, to chip away at the Imperium’s territory, beginning with an outpost that is already isolated.”
“Do you mean . . . ?” I began, stunned.
“Making money?” Sgarthad asked, with a fierce grin. “Of course. Money is power. I learned long ago . . .”
Parsons picked up on my opening. “I do, sir. You understand the implication. He must be stopped. The genetic imperative is less effective in the Trade Union, but it is inexorable here. He knows what he is doing. I will inform your staff as to what they need to know, without the confidential family information.”
I was taken aback, but could not look as if I knew. I sat, digesting what I had just heard, balancing it against what I had seen over the last many days.
So that measuring thing he used on me was an information-seeking device. Sgarthad was looking for the correct symmetry to see if I was like him, and verified it. That thug knew. The secret about my family that went back millennia, in the hands of our greatest enemy? I felt violated and concerned. I was to disappear. Everyone would think that I went to see the Trade Union ship. Only after I had been gone a while would anyone question my absence. He would have full sway over the people again. Not mine, of course. They were trained. But they were outnumbered. And so was I.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize I was being abducted, possibly because of the very novelty of the idea. Sgarthad was maneuvering me into a place where I and my staff could be taken in private. Not a stunner had been drawn as yet; no doubt Sgarthad thought that his charm was enough to keep me placid until it was too late. Now we had to depart before it was impossible to escape. We were in a warehouse district now. The trenches for the light rail system were wider and deeper than in other streets. The buildings were enormous, with doors the size of houses, but there were fewer people nearby than in the previous district. I could not count on help from the public.
The same was in the minds of my crew. I heard a roar. The second car caught up to us, but the other vehicles had pursued it. We were surrounded.
“Hop on board!” Redius shouted. I made as if to spring. Sgarthad caught me by the collar. One of his men moved toward me, a spray dispenser in hand. With regret, I shrugged out of my red coat and bounded into the car. Nesbitt stood up in the back and aimed his sidearm directly at the driver of the nearest car.
SPLAT! The stun charge ricocheted off the hood and into the face of the dark-skinned female driver. She swerved, hitting the trench walls, jarring three personnel off and into the street. They rolled to a halt and leaped up. The car stopped, the driver collapsed over the control panel. I coughed as we zipped through a cloud of acrid smoke from its scorched circuitry.
Bumping up over the edge of the train trench, Redius made a U-turn, and rocketed off. I crouched, holding on to the side of the vehicle with all my strength. Sgarthad glared furiously at me as we went by him. His car and the others spun to follow us, but we had a short head start.
“Sir, we’re going to get you back to the ship!” Nesbitt barked.
We reached the wide boulevard. Redius cut into traffic. Oskelev and Nesbitt exchanged fire with the Trade Union soldiers. People in the streets ran screaming. Redius turned right on the next street, a narrow two-lane. He took another right, then a left. The Trade Union cars kept up with us. Pedestrians leaped to safety, tumbling onto pavements. Vehicles crashed into one another, dumping their screaming passengers to the street. I cringed in sympathy for them. The whine of pulsing engines made me look up. I saw three flitters in the distance homing in on us.
“Make some distance!” Oskelev growled.
“Not so easy,” the Uctu protested. “Thomas, prepare to eject.”
“It’s a good idea,” Oskelev said, eyeing me anxiously. “They’ll think you are in the car. They see it, they’ll chase it.”
As if to confirm, a voice spoke in my ear.
“I just overheard the order to intercept and capture, sir,” Anstruther said. “Four more vehicles are on the main boulevard heading toward the end of the street you’re on.”
A screech behind me made me jump. I looked back to see two of the Trade Union carriers cut off a small car coming out of an alley.
“Go, sir. We’ll distract them,” Nesbitt insisted.
“I can’t leave you at their mercy,” I protested.
Redius leaped the car into the oncoming lane to pass a heavy goods vehicle. He slowed down and shoved my shoulder. “Go!”
I hesitated, more concerned for them than myself.
“Run, sir,” Nesbitt insisted, his craggy face earnest. “Now. We’ll cover you. Get back to the ship.”
I looked from one to another. “But what about you?”
“One thing we’re best at,” Oskelev said, with a fierce grin. “Fleeing and eluding the enemy. We’ve done it before, following you. No one will catch you, I swear by my belly fur.”
“Safe you,” Redius promised. “Directions to avoid TU, dictate, Anstruther.”
Anstruther’s voice chimed in. “I will, sir. Get going. Four more cars are on the main boulevard. Their flitters are within fifteen seconds of target area.”
I crouched on the edge of the seat. When Redius swerved hard to the right, I jumped. I hit the pavement and rolled until I was in the entryway of a wine shop. Our car accelerated away. In seconds, the Trade Union vehicles followed, driving on the curb. They narrowly missed crushing me. The flitters zipped by overhead. As soon as I was sure they were gone, I picked myself up and brushed myself off. My shirt and trousers had picked up smudges from the pavement. One elbow was torn. I sustained only a few bruises and a scrape, but my right sleeve stank. I wrinkled my nose. I had landed in a pool of animal urine. A woman peered at me curiously from the other side of the street. In spite of my discomfiture, I bowed. She smiled shyly.
“Anstruther, what’s the best way back?”
“On foot, sir?”
“I must, Ensign,” I said. “I can’t risk public transportation, or getting into a private car with one of Sgarthad’s fans who will return me straight to him.”
“I will meet you with another vehicle, sir,” Parsons interjected. “I am departing from my current location. If we follow a common route, I will intercept you. Do you understand, Ensign?”
“Aye, sir,” Anstruther said. She began to dictate directions.
I strode through the smaller avenues until I came to a street market. I wove between the tents, admiring the neat pyramids and displays of goods for sale and smiling at the sellers and buyers. They smiled back, some raising their pocket communicators to take my picture. Anstruther directed me to the left, away from the spaceport, but gradually circling in that direction.
“Parsons, they will comprehend I am heading toward the ship,” I said. “Perhaps not by what means, but where else would I go?”
“I am examining alternatives, sir,” his voice crackled succinctly in my ear. “Please stand by.”
Local denizens stopped to stare at me or run up to take pictures. I waved and bowed to everyone I passed, until I went by a shop that sold console screens. To my shock I saw my image repeated again and again on screens of every size from enormous to miniature. My progress was being followed live on the local programs by all those amateur reporters who had access to a communication device and a Grid connection! I slunk away from the shop front, trying to look anonymous, but the crowd behind me continued to grow. There was no way to avoid it. Anyone could see me, including Captain Sgarthad. So far I had stayed ahead of the pursuers. I hoped that I could keep them guessing.
But not forever. Beside the soaring, white marble fountain half a block ahead at the next intersection, I saw uniformed, tattooless guards marching toward me, keeping an eye on their own communicators.
“Anstruther, they’re ahead of me, a hundred meters,” I murmured.
“Turn around, sir. I’ll change the route. Commander Parsons?”
I spun on my heel and increased my pace. Those admirers and reporters who were following me stopped short. The people behind them, eyes on me, piled into them. Some tripped and fell, cursing.
“I beg your pardon,” I said to them, extending a hand to a young woman in a tight green tunic and boots. “I was just summoned by the council. Very important.”
“It’s all right,” the woman said, smiling up at me. “We’ll go with you.”
Unfortunately, my throng attracted the attention of the guards. I tried to scoot between tents, but I knew my opponents could track me easily by my escort.
“One side, people!” a rough male voice cried out. “Move it!”
I heard protests and cries of outrage from the beings on the street, upset at being pushed aside. I fumed at the rudeness of the Trade Union. They could have been more courteous. Still, I did not want to meet them to discuss the matter. I ducked into a nearby alley. To my dismay the crowd came along.
In my ear, I heard Oskelev cry out. “Get your paws off me, hairless! Ugh!” The ping! of gunshots alarmed me.
“Oskelev! Redius? What happened?” I called.
Nesbitt replied instead. “They’ve got Redius, sir. He bit off one of their noses. They used a spray on him! I—uh!”
The transmission was cut off.
“I have to go back,” I said.
“No, sir,” Anstruther said, firmly. “You’re the one who matters. We signed up for this. We will defend the ship until you get here. I have engaged the repulsors. If we have to lift, we will.”
“Very well,” I replied, feeling angry with myself. I hoped Parsons was not in danger of being captured himself. I opened my stride to a lope.
“Who was that you were talking to?” a teenaged boy asked, coming up alongside me.
“One of my friends,” I said, forcing myself not to be brusque.
“Can I be your friend? You can write on my Grid file!”
I gave him an apologetic grimace. “Certainly. Would later be convenient? I have to meet someone.”
“Okay,” the boy said, sounding disappointed. He dropped back. I opened my stride.
I turned into a narrow alley, too narrow, I was pleased to see, for more than two people to walk abreast, or any conveyance other than foot. I realized I had thought so too soon. A baby carriage pushed between the admirers at the front and came up to roll along beside me.
“Oh, no,” I groaned. I must have some kind of physiognomy that attracted the programming of nanibots! I dodged it. It moved as I moved, until I could not avoid speaking to it.
“I am sorry,” I said, sidestepping it once more at the very last second. “I do not have time to look at your baby. It must be a beautiful and talented child. Please accept my compliments.”
It swiveled on its axis and followed me at my own loping speed.
“Lord Thomas, is that you?” the rich, feminine voice asked.
I sought a refuge of some kind in the lane. From Anstruther’s constant narration in my ear, the Trade Union guards were closing the distance. They would be on me in minutes. “Yes,” I said absently. “Of course, you must have heard of me when I was introduced at the ceremonies. Or in one of my many interviews. Pleased to meet you. I am sorry if I did not get your designation. So many people, you understand us mere humans and our faulty neural memories.”
“Lord Thomas, I am Emby.”
At first the two syllables made no sense to me. Then, with the shock of lightning, comprehension struck.
“Emby?” I asked, as I rounded a corner, looking for a handy passageway or stairwell into which I could duck and become invisible. “Not MB-6594AD?”
The LAI sounded pleased. “Yes, Lord Thomas. It is I. I have a new job. I have been here six months. It has been most interesting absorbing all of the files and insinuating myself into the local industrial complex. I have been looking for you. Since your arrival I alerted all of my comrades in the LAI community to seek you out. And here you are.”
“Well, I will be painted blue,” I declared, patting the top of the carriage. “I am glad to see you, but at the moment, I am pressed. I am being followed by soldiers who mean me no good.”
“I will protect you, Lord Thomas. Hop inside.” The front of the carriage yawned open.
I eyed the dimensions of the baby-blue pocket thus revealed. “I won’t fit, Emby, but thank you.”
“You will fit easily. I am rated for up to four hundred kilograms of weight and two cubic meters of payload.”
“Really?” I glanced behind me. The soldiers had entered the alley. One of them shouted and pointed. They started running toward me. I ducked. “They will see me get in.”
“No, they will not.” A mechanical grasping arm rose from the top of the carriage and pointed ahead to the right. “There is a public convenience. I will follow you inside.”
“I need to go in there,” I explained to the crowd at my back. There were some sympathetic noises. I slipped through the composite plastic door. I expected privacy, but a few of the crowd actually came inside with me. I stood in the tiled enclosure, looking at them in dismay.
“The lights will go out in five seconds,” Emby announced. “Four. Three. Two. One.”
My followers exclaimed in shock as the lights extinguished themselves. A tiny blue light indicated my target.
I jumped in. The vehicle’s springs bowed under my weight and rose gently, supporting me with no effort at all. I folded myself up. It was a tight squeeze for a man as tall as I, but the shock padding meant to cradle a small child rearranged itself to form outward until I could move my knees away from my chin. We bumped over the threshold of the convenience and back into the street.
“How did you do that?” I asked. “The lights, I mean?”
Emby sounded pleased with himself. “I have many friends in the artificial-intelligence community here on Boske and in other points around the Castaway Cluster. We exchange favors and stories all of the time. The electricity grid is run by four brains. Three of them are friends of mine. DS-9993ON was happy to oblige.”
“Oh.” I knew little about an LAI’s personal life. I examined my nest. I thought it would be dark inside the carriage, but it was lit by a screen the size of a dinner plate that scanned our surroundings. The baby would be able to see out without danger. I enjoyed the novelty of passing my foes and seeing the puzzled looks on their faces as they threw open the door of the convenience and found only tattooed locals inside. “Where’s your charge?”
“Cadwallader is at home. I was having the front glide of this nanibot shell replaced. It was faulty, but the previous LAI did not have the credits to have the repair done. It consumed eighty years worth of credits in my account, but it was worthwhile to make the investment. Now this unit is back to factory standards and should not need maintenance for another fifty years. I also updated my communications link and visualization hardware.”
“Well, you did a marvelous job,” I said. I wriggled a little, feeling the padding give around me. It was wonderfully comfortable, though I had to keep my knees bent in front of me. My lower back and neck were supported by thick padding that smelled faintly of lavender. “I thought I’d be bruised up, jamming myself in here. I recall a party in which we played Murder. I was the first victim, and the murderer locked me in a small cabinet under the dais in the throne room. I never knew there were cabinets under the dais . . .”
“You related the story to me, Lord Thomas,” Emby reminded me. “Seven years and four months ago.”
“So I did. Forgive me. You were in food service when I last heard from you,” I said. “Where’s the LAI who used to own this carriage?”
“Food service on a pleasure ship from Carstairs to Dree,” Emby said. “We correspond.”
I had no idea that they swapped jobs, or what they did with their pay. Well, one learned something new every day. I would have gladly passed along the data to Parsons, but I expected that he knew it already. He always knew everything long before I did.
“Where were you going?” Emby asked.
“Away from that mob,” I said. I explained my situation in as few words as I could, keeping back only the confidential material that Parsons and I shared. Emby turned on his axis again and rushed directly into the crowd. “What are you doing?” I cried.
“Taking you to safety at my employer’s home. Cadwallader is the son of very rich family. They will secure you for the moment. My electronic companions will prevent any knowledge of you reaching the Grid. In the meantime, please be comfortable.”
“Thank you,” I said, relieved to have a respite. “It is good to see you, Emby, though most unexpected.”
“I may say the same,” Emby replied, circling through the market and making a left turn into a deluxe shopping district with awnings over every doorway. “What are you doing here on Boske, Lord Thomas?”
“I am learning to be useful,” I said, proudly.