I sat in the captain’s seat aboard the CK-M945B, which I had named at last. I listened with pleasure as Anstruther communicated with the tower at Pthohannix Spaceport, getting our takeoff instructions. My cameras hovered in the air, capturing the event. Putting together a narrative for the pleasure of my cousins and the friends who read my Infogrid file required showing the end of the mission as well as the events leading up to it.
“This is the Imperium ship Rodrigo, departing Boske at fourteen-hundred hours, requesting permission to lift.”
The female voice coming out of the speaker reeled off a spate of settings. Anstruther and Oskelev locked them in.
“Got it, Pthohannix tower. Thanks!”
“Go safely, Rodrigo,” the tower said. “We’ll miss you guys. Come back again.”
I had every reason to feel smug. During the four hours following my tour de force, the rest of the Trade Union soldiers had been taken prisoner. Once their leader had been revealed as the monster he truly was, it broke the trance that the Boskians had lived under for months. They were so angry that my staff and I had to rescue TU personnel who, unable to make their shuttles lift to the mothership (another favor from one of Emby’s friends), had scattered all over the city looking for shelter. Deprived of their transportation and major weaponry, they surrendered to the local constabulary or militia and were clapped for safety in a storage facility where the six “resister” councillors and other targeted personnel had been imprisoned for months. Once the trials were over, they were expected to make their way back to the Trade Union in the host of smaller ships that had been in the Marketmaker’s landing bays and the three vessels I had photographed over Smithereen.
Parsons had more news for me. It seemed that Sgarthad was not the only descendant of nobility in the Cluster. Madam DeKarn and the rest of the “resisters” had at least one command gene, if not two. That was why they had been impervious to Sgarthad’s charms. Madam DeKarn, lovely woman, was now at least open to rejoining the Imperium and would use her considerable influence to make something happen soon. It wasn’t precisely the answer that the emperor was hoping for, but it was better news than might have been. But we had an ally in her office.
“Sir,” Oskelev said, “got a message coming in from Midship—I mean, Mr. Banayere.”
I smiled. “Please, let me hear it.”
The eager face, now covered by a network of red and gold lines and dashes, appeared in the screentank. “Lord Thomas, Commander Parsons and everyone, just wanted to say goodbye. Lieutenant Plet, thanks for the pentaflops of data! Madam DeKarn wants to come up to date on the Imperium, and she can use a lot of this as ammunition. They’ll make a decision. Or they won’t.” He grinned engagingly. “It might take two hundred years more. Thanks again!”
“Not another two centuries!” I protested. The sky outside turned from blue to black as we left atmosphere. The stars lengthened into streaks.
Parsons almost shrugged. “It is no longer our concern, sir, now that the Trade Union has been ejected.”
“The Imperium has to keep a better eye on the Cluster,” I said, “or someone else might come in and try to take over. Lacking a line-of-sight connection to the Core Worlds nearly caused a catastrophe.”
“They will need a new and permanent liaison with the Imperium,” Parsons said. “Someone who will live here openly and embrace the culture of this place.”
“Tattoos and all,” I said, idly. I sat up as lightning struck my imagination. Two birds with one stone! “Parsons, may I speak to you for one moment? Privately?”
“Of course, sir.” Parsons followed me out and into the day room, which was vacant at that moment. He activated his viewpad, and ran the security program he had used in my mother’s office. He nodded to me.
“I have the very candidate for the position of liaison,” I said, very cautiously. “I believe that my cousin Scotlin is seeking to . . . become useful, as I have. I think if he was approached for the job that he would be on it like a dog on a biscuit. I would miss him, of course, but now that the way’s been opened, friendly relations with the Cluster, one could conceivably make the trip once in a while. It’s not an unpleasant place. A little dull, but do you know, Scot likes things dull. And it’ll fulfill the dreams of the hoteliers in Smithereen who always hoped for more tourist trade,” I added. I realized I was babbling, but Parsons was such a mind-reader I feared he would pick up the truth from my thoughts.
“He and his family, sir?”
Curse the man, he did it anyhow! My jaw escaped its hinges and dropped to the ground. “How . . . how did you know?” I stammered.
He gestured to the hovering dots overhead. “I saw the images on your Callusion Optique camera.”
I looked at the cameras as if shocked they could betray me. “No! How? I erased the images! I overwrote them.”
“Nothing effaces entirely from storage units, sir,” he said.
I felt my face grow hot. “I shall have to keep that fact in mind for the future,” I said, annoyed.
“Allow me to demonstrate. Will you hand me your viewpad, sir?”
He held out his hand. I slapped the device into it. With it, he activated the Optique. The small sphere sailed into the air between us, orange lines breaking out over its surface. Images, faint as ghosts, shot out of it and danced on the tabletop: the fairylike Tina twirling, Scot’s face so happy as I had never before seen him. His wife, Jerna, with her sweet face and gravid body.
“Well, I will be braided with ribbons,” I said. “I feel terrible. I never meant to betray him.”
“You did not, sir. The reclamation programs are exclusive to the Covert Service Operation.”
I was still concerned with Scot. “But can it be managed? I mean, without . . . drastic measures?”
“Perhaps the children will enjoy getting tattoos,” Parsons suggested.
I goggled again. That would solve the problem! Parsons could fix anything. “Perhaps they will,” I agreed, as more of my deleted pictures appeared.
Then came one more image: the handsome face of the emperor, my cousin, Shojan XII, wine caught in his throat, expelling red particles.
“My spit-take!” I cried. “I thought that was lost forever because of that felon! Oh, Parsons, I could kiss you!”
I blinked. Then I shot a guilty glance at Parsons. “You knew about this, too.”
“Of course, sir.”
I sighed. “Very well.” I hovered my finger over the viewpad, prepared to erase. Parsons moved the device out of reach. The image vanished. He handed the small rectangle back to me.
“It will be our secret, sir.”
“Really?” I asked, clutching the viewpad to me.
“No one, even His Majesty, will argue that you deserve a small reward for successfully undertaking this observation mission. As long as you maintain security on the image. As you have.”
“It will be under lock, key and guard dogs, Parsons, I promise!” I sighed with happiness. My mother would be pleased. Ambassador Ben was safe, negotiating away like a trooper, and we could once again fill in our Infogrid files. I felt righteous.
“Parsons, my colleagues are still uncertain how altering the face of Captain Sgarthad broke his hold upon the Trade Union.”
“It is quite simple, my lord. You made a fool of him in public. It broke the glamour. He was found to have in his possession a device that ensnared their minds.”
“A device, eh?”
“Yes, sir,” Parsons said, rising to his feet. “A device. The citizens of Boske were ashamed and angry that they had fallen in with his plans so easily. They also learned that they were not alone and could resist him with impunity. That is all.”
“Ah,” I said, laying a finger alongside my nose as my uncle Perleas had done. “That is all. Of course.”
“Have you an abrasion on your nose, sir?” Parsons asked, solicitiously.
“No! It’s a gesture of conspiracy. To a fellow conspirator.”
“I do not conspire, sir.” Parsons looked so offended that I was appalled at myself.
“I apologize, Parsons. No offense was intended.”
“I trust not, sir.” His face returned to its normal granite-like exterior.
“So all is forgiven?” I asked.
“What is forgiven, sir?”
“Ah,” I said, with a smile. “I will not mention it again. I trust you have already sent a suitably opaque report to the emperor and Mr. Frank, telling how we went out on an observation mission and ended up pulling a coup on a usurper. You must tell me all about how we did it.”
Parsons smiled down on me grandly. “No, sir. That will be up to you. I trust your own imagination and audacity to fill in the details, sir.”
“I shall enjoy it,” I said. “You know how I love to tell a good story.” I rose and led the way back to the bridge.