“There are over six hundred Trade Union personnel around this hall,” Parsons intoned into my ear. “Half them are on patrol outside, and half inside. What is your position?”
“Almost there,” I said, tucked into my blue fabric bed like a well-protected nestling. “I shall meet you on stage in approximately one minute. Stand by.”
Nanibots are like very small tanks. Shielded and heavily armed, and now with a fixed front glide, Emby was unstoppable. He swerved around a guard post at the assisted access entrance to the Performance Central hall. The guards there, I observed on the screen on the padded interior, ran after him, shouting, into the red auditorium but they did not unlimber their weapons. They dared not fire upon a nanibot in public. The outcry against interlopers who would endanger a child would ruin the Trade Union’s chances of keeping their influence, no matter how charming or handsome their leader appeared to be, and no matter how well ensconced they seemed. Unity was not a done deal yet.
A capacity audience filled the seats and crowded the aisles in spite of the guards’ attempts to keep order. Around the room and across the base of the stage, enormous vertical rectangular screens showed what was going on on stage. Sgarthad, in his purple uniform, had already taken his position at the lectern in the center. At his right, looking diminished and frightened but straight-backed, was Councillor DeKarn. I spotted a coverall-clad figure in the wings that resembled Parsons.
“Is that you with the red tattoos?” I inquired.
“It is, sir.”
“Ah. Red becomes you.”
“Thank you, sir. Where are you now?”
“Emerging,” I said. Emby bumped up the ramp and onto the well-lit dais. The hatch flew open into the midst of the people milling around on stage. My cameras flying at my shoulders like guardian spirits, I popped out. “Good morning, all! Shall we begin?”
Huzzahs erupted from the audience. In spite of all the news reports from the night before, I still had fans among the population of Boske. The Trade Union uniforms rushing toward me were arrested in place. They looked to Sgarthad for guidance.
His lips were pressed together as if to prevent any of the words that must have been building up on his tongue from escaping. He gestured curtly at the guards, then to me. The guards withdrew, but kept their hands on the butts of their guns. All of Sgarthad’s movements were tense. He looked up over the heads of the audience toward the rear wall and nodded. I smiled to myself. He had something planned that would take me by surprise. I meant to offer my surprise in return.
We took our places at the podiums. I rued the loss of my red coat. I would have preferred to appear in more formal dress than shirt and trousers, but nothing my hosts of the previous evening had possessed had the punch of my wardrobe now besieged on the Pthohannix landing pad. Sgarthad in his colorful uniform and gold shoulder flashings outshone me and Councillor DeKarn by kilometers.
The stout governor of Pthohannix city-state marched to the edge of the stage. Yuchiko’s words were picked up by hidden microphones and broadcast at tremendous volume to the edges of the great chamber. Each successive wave of sound seemed to buffet the woman standing at the third podium, causing her to sway and tremble. My heart went out to her. It was brave of her to add her presence to this event, considering what Parsons had told me the previous evening of her recent experiences. I smiled at her. She met my eyes with confidence. I was full of admiration for Councillor DeKarn. She reminded me of my mother.
“. . . And so, gentlebeings of Pthohannix, greater Boske and the entire sector, I am privileged to announce a debate on the future of the Castaway Cluster! I welcome three well-known and eloquent speakers. At my left, welcome First Councillor Leese DeKarn! In the center, our esteemed friend, Captain Emile Sgarthad! And at my right,” Doctor Yuchiko’s eyebrows went down disapprovingly over his nose, “our recent visitor, who has represented himself as an envoy of His Majesty Shojan XII of the Imperium, Lord Thomas Kinago! You shall all be judges of your future!”
The entire audience burst into wild cheers and applause. I frowned a little at the faint damns of the governor’s introduction of me, but I wasn’t surprised. He was a fervent follower of my opponent.
“Lots have been drawn for the order of speeches,” the governor continued. He held up three ivory-colored markers. “Councillor DeKarn will go first.”
The silver-haired woman looked straight out to the crowd as the Boske flag climbed up the screens behind her to the stirring music of the system anthem. I noticed that in the front two rows, the remaining council members were seated, along with their minders. They looked nervous, resentful and curious. “Gentlebeings, you have paid me the honor of returning me six terms to the council. I would never ask you to vote for a decision that I and my colleagues of the council had not fully discussed as to the merits.” She opened her hand and swept it toward Sgarthad. “Therefore, after long conference in chamber, I must urge you to throw your support to the cause that best serves your interests . . .” Sgarthad turned his head this way and that, offering one flawless profile or the other, preening like a peacock.
Parsons’s voice broke in my ear. “Sir, I have news. The prisoners have been freed. All our personnel is on its way here from the ship. Will you inform Madam DeKarn that the ambassador and Councillor Zembke are well and safe?”
“Zembke? Very well.” I raised my hand. “May I make my compliments to the councillor?” Sgarthad turned to glare at me, but I went on as if they had given me permission. “I have news that she would appreciate hearing. Madam Ben and Councillor Zembke want you to know that they are safe.”
The councillor looked shocked for a fraction of a second, then her long training took force. Her back straightened, and her jaw took on a casing of iron. She was no longer the fearful rag doll that had stood there one moment before. “Thank you, Lord Thomas, although I would have preferred you not interrupt the flow of my narrative.”
I bowed my apology. The audience chuckled. Sgarthad was livid. He gestured furiously to the guards, who dashed off the stage. I was relieved as well. Parsons was a wonder worker. How had he managed to rescue our colleagues without ever leaving my sight?
Madam DeKarn addressed her public. “So I will continue. I believe that the interests of the Cluster will be served, as they have been for millennia, by continuing as a part of the Imperium!” Behind her, the image of fireworks erupting surrounded pictures of me in formal attire. It was my turn to preen. “Support Lord Thomas and the emperor! All true Boskians must agree!”
The other councillors bounded to their feet, shouting. Evidently this was not what they expected of Madam DeKarn.
Their ire could not compare to Sgarthad’s. He must not appear less than dignified, not with the entire cluster watching, but he gestured angrily at the governor. DeKarn’s microphone cut off, leaving her gesticulating silently. Yuchiko stepped forward. “Um. Thank you, Councillor. And second, er, Lord Thomas Kinago will speak.”
“Greetings, gentlebeings,” I said, to a polite smattering of applause and several boos. “I am grateful for the councillor’s kind words. It reminds me of a story that I heard from a good friend of mine, concerning a nobleman, a merchant and a politician. It seems that the politician . . .” I launched into a favorite joke, intending to soften them up for my speech as well as waste a little time. The audience looked confused at first, but gradually they relaxed to enjoy it. At the end of the first tale, more than a quarter of the audience laughed. With a smile of acknowledgement, I segued smoothly into one given me by Nesbitt.
I worried a good deal about him and the others. No matter that Parsons had assured me they were out of trouble, until I could see them, I was not content in their safety. They trusted me. I continued on with my tales and anecdotes, seeing the audience warming to me, their eyes intent, mouths smiling. They leaned forward as I built to the crescendo of my last and favorite. “. . . and the Gecko said, ‘Would you mind passing me the fire extinguisher?’ ” As one, the listeners threw themselves back in their seats, roaring with laughter. I grinned boyishly. I had them in the very palm of my hand. I was ready to begin my speech. Sgarthad also roared, but in fury.
“Stop fooling around!” he thundered. “You are finished.” He signed to the governor, who moved forward timidly.
“We will now hear from, er, our friend, Captain Sgarthad!”
The theater filled with wild demonstrations of joy and devotion. People danced and waved, chanting his name. Sgarthad leaned forward, making certain that all of the cameras and every eye were fixed upon him. I bided my time.
“Gentlebeings, the time is long past when you should look to a distant and uncaring Imperium for support. This is the first step on your path to the future! Have I not been a good friend to you? The Trade Union will give you more freedom than you have ever had before, greater prosperity, wider scope for your enterprise and creativity. I want that for you! Follow me! I am your guide and guardian.”
At every full stop, the audience cheered. Sgarthad continued, knowing that his fantastically good looks, charm and will would prevail, keeping the entire population of the Castaway Cluster under his spell.
I sent my cameras flying into the air. Their tiny size barely interrupted any of the spotlight that shone on my rival. The more light the better, I knew. My Optique was set to record every glorious moment that was to come. The Chey Snap . . . well, that was set, too.
“Is everyone on-line, Emby?” I murmured.
“Ready and waiting, Lord Thomas.”
“The Trade Union has sent me to give you this very good news,” Sgarthad said. “Believe in me.” I slid my hand surreptitiously into the front of my tunic, and touched the viewpad’s control. Suddenly, every feed in the sector was being channeled through my Chey Snap camera. On every screen across Boske, Sgarthad was wearing a pig’s nose. Instead of the loud cheers, a nervous titter ran through the crowd. “Don’t you want a better life? Don’t you want to stop feeling isolated?” His eyes turned into lizard’s eyes and rolled around to face in different directions. Someone in the audience began laughing.
The rough-looking male officer with short hair gestured furiously at Sgarthad to look at the monitor screentank. The captain gawked, and the scaly mandible that had taken the place of his lower jaw dropped open.
“Fix it,” he roared. The Trade Union man barked an order into his viewpad. The screens blanked for a moment.
“They are attempting to override, sir,” Parsons said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him manipulating switches and palm panels. “Emby, retake control.”
“Of course, Commander.” I trusted Emby and his many connections in the electronic engineering sector. The image came back, clearer than before. I added brilliant colors to the lizard’s scales. Sgarthad glared at me. “What are you doing to me?”
“Me?” I asked, innocently. I spread out my hands and appealed to the audience. “I am standing here with you. What could I possibly be doing to you?” The lizard eyes shrank back in Sgarthad’s head and his jaws grew forward into an ape’s muzzle. The audience reacted with laughter and revulsion.
“You interfering popinjay!” Sgarthad bellowed. “You dilettante! Get out of my sector!”
“Do I look like a dilettante?” I appealed to the audience. “It’s not his sector, is it?”
“No!” the crowd bellowed.
At the same time as I ruined Sgarthad’s good looks, I had made myself handsomer and more perfectly symmetrical. With a tweak of the Chey Snap’s morphing program, I shortened my neck, widened my shoulders, broadened my jaw just a little, squared my forehead, set my eyes a trifle deeper until I was as noble and wise-looking as Shojan. Maybe a little more so. I admired my reflection in the gigantic screens.
“Do you trust me?” I asked.
It was all too easy. They were behind me like a sheep following the bellwether.
“Then don’t allow yourself to be fooled by this pirate a moment longer!” I shouted. “Look at him!”
And the morph rolled his features together until Sgarthad looked as sinister as any villain who ever appeared in a digitavid. The audience reacted with shock. “I like that one, Emby. Send that image through the system. Substitute it for all the other images of Sgarthad.”
“Will do, Lord Thomas.” Did I hear an electronic chuckle?
Sgarthad knew his efforts had been ruined. He leaped for me and grabbed me by the throat. I clawed at his hands. His guards raced in to pinion my arms. Sgarthad squeezed my windpipe. I felt the veins at my temples distend. With a desperate twist I managed to free my bruised throat enough to speak.
“Help me!” I choked out. Thankfully, Emby had restored my audio pickup. My voice boomed overhead like a klaxon. “Citizens of the Cluster, help!”
Between the mauve-clad limbs of the Trade Unioners, I saw the honor guard of the Castaway Cluster who had stood at both sides of the stage clamber up and wade into the fray. They started pulling the invaders away and punching them. Sgarthad was pulled off me as the crowd surged. My arms were still pinned. I kicked out at my captors, taking one behind the knee and the other in a more delicate place. They both let go. I dropped into a martial-arts stance, facing off against a large man with a pitted complexion and shorn blond hair. He grinned ferally and started to move in on me.
“Down, sir!” Parsons commanded in my ear. I ducked A stun charge zipped over my shoulder and hit my would-be opponent in the throat. He fell like a stone. “Down, sir, and stay down! Protect the device.”
I folded myself up and threw both arms across my face to protect it as the battle raged over my head. I was kicked several times in the ribs and back, but I had to guard the viewpad that controlled the video mayhem I was wreaking on the Trade Union’s hopes throughout the Cluster. I could smell blood and my neck throbbed painfully.
The battle went on over my head. I heard shrieks and yells of anger as the citizens of Boske took their long-awaited revenge upon the invaders. Shots did ring out now. I heard both stun charges and bullets ringing, along with the crash of furniture and bellows of rage. I would have been glad to take out some of my frustration on the Trade Union personnel, but this part of the fight belonged to Parsons.
After an interminable interval, the unmistakable sound of fist on flesh and that of bodies striking the floor near me with some force presaged the rush of cool air down my neck.
“Get up, sir,” Parsons said. “It is over.” I uncovered my head to see him standing over me. Beside him was a slender young man, clean-shaven and clear-skinned, dressed in the midnight blue uniform of an Imperium midshipman. Beside him hovered my miniature tank, a.k.a. Emby. “Well done, sir.”
“It was a joint effort,” I said, patting Emby. “Many others participated in that success. We are all to be congratulated. But have you got him?”
Parsons stepped to one side to reveal Sgarthad in the hands of Nesbitt and Oskelev. When I came towards him, he struggled and snarled. I could almost picture the animal face still on him.
“You fool, you have destroyed the work of years,” he shouted. “Generations! The hopes of my family are ruined!”
“This is for my family,” I said, letting the ire I felt well until it spouted up like a fountain. “You’re nothing like Xan. He would be ashamed of you.” I cocked back my fist and smashed it into his face. I felt my knuckles crack, but so did the Trade Union captain’s perfect cheekbone. His face immediately began to swell up. He would never be so symmetrical again. I shook my wrist as the throbbing pain began. “Ouch.”
“I have a first-aid kit in the wings, sir,” said the young man.
“Thank you,” I said, a bit bemused. “And you . . . ?”
“He is part of our contingent, sir,” Parsons said. I frowned, glancing at him, but Parsons was infallible, and I always trusted his judgement.
“And what name have I known you by?” I inquired.
“Midshipman Frank,” the youth said.
“Frank?” I echoed, astonished. “Any, er, relation?”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“Well, well.” I glanced at Parsons. He shook his head. I was disappointed, but I understood. Explanations would have to wait.
A small, plump woman with graying brown hair bustled up onto the stage and embraced Councillor DeKarn. The two women hung on one another’s shoulders, talking and crying. I recognized the newcomer as Ambassador Ben. Behind her came Anstruther, walking with an almost cocky gait. As she reached the other two, the ambassador caught her by the wrist and pulled her over.
“My goodness, I have never been through anything so impressive!” she declared as Parsons and I came to join them. “This young officer opened my cell and set me free, stunned one guard running toward us, did a flip and kicked the other one in the head!”
“She’s very good at jai-alai,” I pointed out. “Stunning reflexes.” Anstruther blushed. “Well done, Ensign.”
“Thank you, sir.”
A man with a bulbous nose and piggy eyes strode majestically onto the stage, accompanied by Redius. The Uctu exchanged winks with me and nodded toward his charge. This must be the famous Councillor Zembke. The councillors who had sat in the first two rows of the auditorium hurried up onto the stage and surrounded the man, pounding him on the back and shouting for joy.
I turned to my staff and snapped off a crashing salute. They deserved it. They returned the gesture with sheepish grins. I could not have been more delighted to see them.
“Sir,” Plet’s voice said in my ear.
“Lieutenant! Are you all right?” I asked.
“I am fine, sir,” she said, with a touch of asperity. “I have secured the coding of the Marketmaker, with the help of Midshipman Frank. She is ours.”
“Not ours, Lieutenant,” I said, before Parsons could reply. “She is spoils of war for the Castaway Cluster, isn’t she?”
“Not all of it, sir,” Plet said. “There is a merchant vessel in the hold. It has been restored to its owner in the sick bay, a Captain Iltekinov. He and his crew have been released, sir.”
“Excellent!” I said.
Madam DeKarn detached herself from the mob of councillors and came over to kiss me on the cheek. “You brave young man,” she said, her eyes looking deep into mine. “You have saved us all. I could scarcely stand the paranoia and the mindless devotion another minute. I might have punched that man myself! Now we are back to our normal argumentative selves. It is so refreshing, I can hardly express it. You are a hero.”
I felt abashed at all the praise, as welcome as it was. “I am glad to have helped make a difference,” I said. “I know Parsons here is a bit displeased that I have not exactly obeyed the orders I was given.”
“It is no more than I would have expected of your father’s son,” Parsons stated.
I frowned. “You mean my mother,” I corrected him. “She is the hero of the family.”
“Your father was Rodrigo Park Kinago?” “Midshipman Frank” asked, his narrow face alight.
“Oh, he was a hero. A great man. He saved my family,” the young man said. “They were trapped aboard a transport vessel on the border between the Trade Union and the Imperium. We were caught in the Calsag Trading Company battle around Poctil twenty-five years ago. The life support chamber was blasted open to space. The ship was dying, sir. Your father had been on the other ship as an undercover infiltrator. My father almost shot him dead when he came aboard in enemy uniform. Major Kinago went into the life support chamber in about half a space suit and with almost no air. He had to rebuild the circuit boards almost by hand even as his oxygen ran out. I know it almost killed him, but he saved them. If he hadn’t, I would never have been born. He’s why I joined the Covert Service Operations. I’m proud to meet you.”
I stood stunned. My great-uncle had always implied that the accident that almost killed my father was a mission that had to be accomplished, but he had never told me exactly what it had been. I was deflated and elated at the same time, because the knowledge changed little. My father would go on pottering, and I would go on adoring him regardless, but my renewed respect for him would have filled the Infogrid and overspilled into other galaxies.
“I am proud to be my father’s son,” I said, feeling my throat tighten and sharp tears prick at my eyes. I swallowed. “And I will serve the Imperium in his name.”
Parsons nodded. “I am gratified to hear that, sir. There are other matters to which your talents may be set.” I preened. Because Parsons must leave no window unsoaped, he continued. “But it would be equally gratifying if once you can remain within the confines of the mission as it is stated.”
“But I do so well when I expand my brief!” I said. “Didn’t this work out better than just observing and reporting?” Parsons gave me a look that contained everything he might say to me. I sighed. But I had just received my reward. It outstripped any gift or honor I could be given. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my father about everything I had done. He would understand. And for the first time, so would I.
Madam DeKarn studied “Midshipman Frank” and let out a little cry.
“Colm, that is you! You come from the Imperium?”
The young man lowered his head, abashed. “Yes, madam.”
The councillor’s blue eyes rounded in horror. “Are you a . . . spy?”
“An observer, madam,” he said. “I’ve been in deep cover all these years. I never took any action against your interests or those of the Castaway Cluster, madam. It is just that the Imperium needs to know what is going on. They do care, madam.”
“It was his message that brought us here, Councillor,” Parsons explained. “He risked a great deal getting it to us.”
“Yes, madam,” Colm insisted. “I am glad you are safe. I tried to look out for you all these months, but I couldn’t let you out without raising suspicions.”
The councillor studied him intently. “You are the one who made sure I had news feeds?” she asked.
“Yes, madam,” Colm said.
“Then all is forgiven,” Madam DeKarn said, squeezing his hand. “Please be in the office early tomorrow. We have to begin the debates all over again, now that all our minds are clear, and I need data. Lord Thomas, you and your staff have all our gratitude. Now, I must go and knock some heads together.” She turned and waded back into the arm-waving, shouting mass of councillors.
“A formidable woman,” I said, filled with admiration.
“That she is,” Colm said, with a smile. “That is why I enjoy working for her.”