“Where are you, sir?” Parsons asked.
Emby’s hatch opened and disgorged me from the blue baby’s nest onto a soft, green cushion three meters across. The cushion all but consumed me, but I fought my way upright. The tapestry-lined room had equally soft lighting. The décor was antique, colorful and beautifully appointed, running to stained glass windows and embroidered pillows on the rest of the seating. I was in a lounge of the home where Emby worked.
“I am safe, Parsons,” I said, grinning at Emby, who closed up his compartment and settled the nanibot body down among its glides and wheels like a dog curling up. “I ran into a friend. You will never guess who has moved out here! Go on, guess. Even you will be hard-pressed to come up with the name . . . or designation.”
“It is not important, sir.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it is not. Three of your staff have been taken prisoner. Two more are under siege on the launch pad. Communications have been curtailed greatly. It is uncertain how long the scout’s shields will hold.”
I pulled myself together. He was right. As cheering as it was to encounter an old friend, I did take my responsibilities seriously. “Are you at liberty?” I asked.
“I am at liberty, sir. I may say no more.”
“What will we do, Parsons?” I asked, hoping I did not sound as forlorn as I felt.
“I have a possible lead on the location of our missing officers,” he said. “Of that I may also say no more at this time out of concern for signal-tapping.”
“I understand,” I said.
“You are also in great danger at this time.”
“I know!” I exclaimed, appalled. “I can’t believe that Sgarthad tried to snatch me like a brass ring.”
“Not merely this last, crude attempt. He is more cunning than a mere kidnapper. Have you examined the Grid in the last hour, sir?”
Emby did not pretend he wasn’t listening. A tiny light flashed on the side of his carriage, and a large screentank embedded in the wall over the warmly glowing fireplace came to life.
I had a choice of hundreds of feeds from the Grid, so I selected one at random.
“Say, that is the man to whom I gave an interview this afternoon,” I said, recognizing the distinctive eyebrows and yellow and blue tattoos of the elderly opinion reporter talking sincerely to the camera. “Look, there’s an image of me. Not bad.”
“Listen carefully, sir,” Parsons said.
“. . . the master criminal calling himself Lord Thomas Kinago,” the pundit said, lowering his thatched eyebrows darkly. “I have an exclusive interview from our beloved and trusted friend, Captain Emile Sgarthad.”
Sgarthad’s image swam up and was surrounded by beacons of light.
“It is with heavy heart I let all of you know that he has deluded all of us into believing he is a noble sent by the Imperium. He is none of the things he has claimed. His extraordinary appeal is artificial, enhanced by drugs and hypnosis. He must be taken into custody immediately. If you see him, notify the reward line at once. My sales associates will apprehend him on sight.”
I was aghast. “That rat! He is making me look terrible! What will people think?”
“What he tells them, sir. I have located the missing lady, sir.”
“You have?” I asked, automatically accepting a glass of wine from a robotic arm that reached out from the liquor cabinet beside the fireplace. Emby was dispensing hospitality. I raised my glass in toast to him and to the absent Parsons. The cryptic reference could only mean the ambassador. Some of the tension in my body eased. “That’s one piece of good news. What about the others? Do we know where they are being held?”
“I will seek out our missing staff. When that is accomplished, we will lift ship at once. Under the circumstances, it would be better if you remain out of sight until we are prepared to make our attempt.”
I was still staring at the screentank. On every channel, Sgarthad’s calumny was being repeated. I was furious.
“What about him, Parsons?”
“There is nothing to be done, sir. He has embedded himself into this society. We must get word to the Imperium about the situation, though it will be days, if not weeks, before the information reaches a monitor who can convey the message, at which time it may well be moot. Sgarthad is turning the Cluster into a Trade Union outpost. Departure is our most important action. Safe return, at least of the information we hold, is vital. If only one of us can manage to communicate with Smithereen or an Imperium vessel, the word will be given, and greater action can be effected. This is the only plan available to us at the moment.”
I thumbed my lower lip thoughtfully. No matter how effective the action was, it might come too late to retain the Cluster as a part of the Imperium. That was not what Shojan wanted, or what I wanted. An idea was forming in my mind, like a landscape unrolling. “Have you deduced the import of the fact that Captain Sgarthad looks precisely like my cousin Xan?”
“Of course, sir.”
“We can do more, Parsons. We are being counted upon. I must say no more.”
“No, sir,” Parsons said, with alarm rising in his normally calm voice. “Please inform me of your whereabouts. I will join you.”
I was adamant. “No, Parsons. I will not let you know where I am if you don’t let me do what I want!”
“That is a childish threat, sir, and unworthy of you and your position.”
Embarrassment flooded my soul. The short, sharp shock of common sense brought me back to my right mind. I took a sip of wine. Its warmth restored calm in my soul. “I apologize, Parsons. I forgot myself. It was unworthy of me. It was said in the heat of the moment. I have a plan of my own. If it is a good one, will you support me in it?”
“I will, sir. What is it?”
“Capture, Parsons,” I said, relishing the bloodthirst I felt as I watched that perfect face appear on channel after channel. “We can’t let this . . . cuckoo’s egg remain in this placid little nest another day.”
Resignation colored his tone. “And what do you propose, sir?”
I sat back in the green cushion with my wine glass raised. “I am so glad you asked.”
* * *
My face on the viewpad screen must have come as a shock to Captain Sgarthad. I enjoyed the poleaxed expression as he sputtered out a greeting. I had had a marvelous dinner in the company of Cadwallader’s parents, who were glad to give me shelter for the night. Their home security system was engaged and enhanced by some of Emby’s friends, so there was no chance of scan or accidental discovery disclosing my presence there. Emby had been busy exchanging beeps, pings and buzzes with hundreds, if not thousands of his colleagues in the LAI community, reassuring them that he had known me for years and I was not the monster that Sgarthad claimed I was. He had credibility among them. I was relieved to have at least part of the Cluster population on my side. I kept that in mind as I regarded my enemy.
I sat at my leisure in the gold and green lounge, at my ease on a large chair, my torn shirt mended and cleaned by the household robots, hair combed, face shaved, feet propped on a foot rest, wine glass at my elbow. Sgarthad did not look as comfortable.
“Well, Lord Thomas, I didn’t expect to hear from you!” he said heartily. His cheerfulness rang as false as a lead coin.
“I am surprised.” I held up my glass to him. “When you have been saying my name over and over again on every Grid feed that I can find? It would seem almost as if you are calling out a challenge to me.”
The bright blue eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t call it a contest of any kind, my lord. I’ve got half of your people. The others are shut up in your ship. You have no escape. You can’t stay out of my way forever.”
“I don’t mean to,” I said, with an insouciant lift of my left brow. “When a Kinago receives a glove to the face, he rises to the occasion. I accept your challenge.”
“What?” Both of Sgarthad’s brows rose.
“Yes,” I said. “I accept. As the injured party, the choice of location and weapons are mine. I assure you, I fight to win.”
The incredulous expression widened his eyes. “You are going to fight me?”
“Naturally. Unless you are afraid.”
“Ridiculous! What can you do to me?”
“Undo you.” I tipped my glass in his direction. “My conditions are these: I challenge you to an open debate on the subject of the Imperium’s authority versus the Trade Union’s proposal of unity tomorrow morning at Performance Central. Councillor DeKarn will also be on the podium with us. The council insisted on having their own representative there to argue for Cluster independence. I didn’t see any harm in it. The main encounter will be between you and me.”
The handsome face was suffused with beet-red. “You are mad! Why would I bother? I am in an unassailable position here on Boske!”
I let out one of my patent laughs. It had been a long time since I had occasion to use it, and I rather enjoyed the sound of it. It ended with a bray that made him cringe. “Because you have no choice. Check the Grid. They have already received notice of the debate.” His eyes went down, seeking a second screen to peruse. I smiled. Sgarthad’s eyebrows flew up. My article must be on every opinion show across Boske. That effort was courtesy of some of Emby’s friends in the news industry. Sgarthad’s eyes came up, blazing like jewels. I battened onto them with my firmest stare. “If you do not appear, it will be observed. Then, I will publicize to every point in this star cluster a proclamation saying that you are too cowardly to face a representative of the genuine government!”
His face grew redder than I thought possible without bleeding from the eye sockets. He sputtered out various imprecations in his language and Imperium standard, but they were the pronouncements of a trapped being.
Smugly, I broke the connection. Parsons, who had been on a circuit to overhear, reappeared on my screen.
“He will make every attempt to stop you appearing, sir,” Parsons said.
“We shall have to create a diversion,” I agreed, “but once I am on that stage, he cannot stop me bringing his would-be empire down. I am prepared to stand against him.”
“He has most of the population of this sector behind him,” Parsons reminded me. “He will use pyrotechnics and technical tricks to derail your efforts. You saw how easily he robbed you of the images of the emperor.”
“Ah, but I have tricks of my own,” I said. “And I still have . . . me.”
* * *
I slept the sleep of the just that night, tucked into a corner of the blue-painted nursery under a pile of pastel, juvenile-patterned quilts not far from the antique wooden crib where Cadwallader, a fine boy of fifteen months with a blue stripe across his nose, reposed. Emby woke me with a cup of excellent coffee and some news.
“All is prepared,” he said. “Word of your intended conference has gone to every news outlet on the planet and relayed via friends of mine in satellite stations to every world and ship in the Cluster. I have received messages between Sgarthad and planetary government demanding to take down word of your challenge. They tried to delete it from the databases, but we will not let them. The Cluster must make its own decisions.”
I propped myself up on an elbow and sipped the fragrant liquid. “Emby, would you care if the Trade Union did indeed come to govern here?”
“We see no special benefit to us in changing the status quo,” the nanibot said. “Or to our employers whom, and we do not understand it, are unwilling to defend themselves against a single human visitor. Why does Sgarthad hold so much power?”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said uneasily, since I could not risk having the information in my head make it onto any database, “but I hope to help bring things back to normal.”
“That would be worthwhile,” Emby said. “I wish to be involved in stopping him because you are my friend of long-standing, and this will be an interesting story to tell later on.”
“I sincerely hope so,” I said, swinging my legs out of the low bed to prepare for the day.
No doubt Sgarthad was certain he could stop me from talking, but I relied upon my electronic pen pal and his many acquaintances. If I liked, I could shut down the city and every life support system in it. Back up the plumbing! I admit I was tempted to pull an enormous prank. Think of the bragging rights among my cousins! But I must not waste my time. I figuratively hoisted myself by my bootstraps, and prepared to wade into the fray. Our debate would be won or lost on image. A famous debate had happened just before the dawn of space age history on Earth, a virtual tie won by looks alone. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and gave myself a nod of confidence. Today, I would force such a conclusion myself.