“It entirely breaks protocol for a delegation to arrive in a non-Cluster ship!” said Councillor Fourteen, slamming the connection with a slap of her hand on the obsidian table. The pewter curls of her hair seemed more tightly wound than usual. “I move we do not seat the representatives from Yolk in punishment. They can go off-world—or even out-system!—and return in the right kind of vessel.”
“Are you insane?” Five asked. “This isn’t a party-game penalty.”
“No, it’s more serious! A violation of Cluster law! I say they should begin again!”
“That would not be appropriate or practical,” DeKarn said, quelling them both as she might have separated two of her grandchildren. She clutched her elbows inside the voluminous sleeves of her light blue robe, the very thing those sleeves were best for. The others did not need to see how nervous she was. “It would waste time and effort, and we have more pressing concerns. That TU ship did not notify us by beacon or direct message that it was coming. I am far more troubled that it just appeared among us like a fungus sprouting.”
“A damned big fungus!” Marden said.
“Wouldn’t the screens have shown a ship that big coming into orbit around Boske?” Zembke demanded.
“The screens would, but what if the operators are in league with the TU?” worried Seventeen, lowering his thick eyebrows. The Cocomons buzzed with concern, the patterns on their faces seeming to move like clouds.
“What would the Trade Union have to offer our liberated artificial-intelligence operatives that we do not ourselves?” Tross demanded.
“They are more in touch with cutting-edge technology than we are,” Five said, with a toss of his coiffed head. “We’re damned far out of the center of things. They might have programs or components that the LAIs find useful.”
“You suggest that our own employees are capable of treason?”
“No, self-interest,” Five said, with a sly smile. “It’s worth exploring.”
“Curse all self-aware mechanicals!” Seventeen snarled. His thick eyebrows drew down. “Why we let them exist is beyond me.”
“You can’t stop them,” Twenty said, meekly. “They have a right to exist.”
“Not if they interfere with our lives!” DeKarn sighed. He was a born pessimist. There was no arguing with him.
“The ship!” Zembke reminded them, causing a blare of color to erupt behind him. “Why is it here?”
A voice answered them from the door of the chamber. “Why? As a gesture of friendship, of course!”
DeKarn drew herself up to her full height and surrounded herself with a nimbus of white light. “Who dares speak in council who is not a member of this body?”
“Why, I do.” A silhouette outlined by the stark light of the corridor grew larger and larger as it approached the council. Once underneath the spotlights of the chamber, the figure’s head of silvering black hair drew glints. The male human to whom it belonged was strongly built and well-proportioned—almost ideally so, DeKarn thought, with approval, though she objected to his easy assumption of welcome. She was not familiar with the uniform. The shipsuit was a dull purple, with boots, cuffs, collar and shoulder flashings of an autumn gold. The combination of colors should have looked clownish, but was instead almost regal. His face was clear of all markings, tattoos or clan insignia. He reached DeKarn’s seat and made a deep bow, sketching an arc in the air with his right hand. “Emile Sgarthad, Captain of the Trade Union ship, Marketmaker. I offer respect to the council.”
“What are you doing here?” Zembke asked.
“And by whom am I being addressed?” the man asked, rising and presenting a bland countenance to the fulminating councillor. His eyes were blue with a tiny hint of green, and the brows above them straight, as was the nose that jutted at a sharp perpendicular downward from their line. He was as handsome in face as he was in form and bearing. DeKarn felt her cheeks grow warm under her tattoos. He reminded her of a lover she had had when she was young. It was not the same man, of course, but he had the same insouciance.
“This council speaks as one voice,” intoned Zembke dangerously, and a trifle prematurely. “You dare not question our authority.”
The big man cocked one knee and stood at his ease. “I only ask so I might give you all your right names,” he said. “It was a friendly question.”
His nerve was as bare as his face. DeKarn admired it alongside her impatience at his interruption of their meeting.”
“Then let me ask a friendly question,” DeKarn said. The man regarded her with a pleasant expression. “What are you doing here?”
Sgarthad turned to beckon toward the doorway. Almost timidly, four humans and a Wichu, all in bright yellow council robes, filed in: the missing councillors from Yolk. DeKarn’s heart leaped with relief. “Just seeing my new friends safely to their destination. I found them in distress and went to their rescue.”
DeKarn could have sworn that she saw the Wichu blink in a puzzled fashion, but all five of the newcomers nodded their heads.
“Our ship fell under attack in the heliopause,” said the first man, round-bellied with dark skin and elaborate dark-green and yellow tattoos. DeKarn knew him as Ruh Pinckney. “The trade ship carrying us fell into trouble among the asteroid belt. The Marketmaker was close by and was able to take us on board. We are grateful to Captain Sgarthad, and ask you receive him as a friend.”
“Trouble?” asked Tross, his brows rising. “What has become of Captain Iltekinov?”
“He is recovering in my sick bay,” Sgarthad said, gravely. “He and his crew were taken ill. I hope they will be around and about soon.”
“Have you brought disease among us?” asked Twelve sternly.
“Not at all,” Sgarthad said, turning his charming smile upon her. “My chief medical officer said it was undoubtedly something in the crew rations—they would not have served it to their guests, of course.”
“No,” Pinckney insisted. “We’re all well. We wish to take our places. We have been monitoring your negotiations, and wish to register our disapproval.”
“On what point?” demanded Fourteen, the skin tightening over her sharp cheekbones.
“Several.” Pinckney drew a glittering memory crystal out of his sleeve and looked around for a port in which to shove it.
“You are not seated yet,” Zembke reminded them. “All points will be taken in order as has always been done. You must be recognized first.”
“Very well,” said the middle-aged woman with bleached-white hair at his side, Tam Quelph. She shot a quick smile around the room. She beckoned to her delegation. They all offered a bow to Sgarthad and made for the empty seats at the narrow end of the table. Immediately, the screens behind them lit up with images of the Yolk system, their system flag, and an image of their planetary administrator, an able and admirable man but so ugly that DeKarn’s eyes automatically turned back to Sgarthad as an antidote. He smiled broadly at her. She looked away hastily. The Yolk system anthem played. Automatically, she clapped a hand on the table to turn down the volume.
The rest of the councillors returned to their seats. DeKarn activated the Boske symbols in the screens around her colleagues, as did her fellows of the other systems. They were at last complete in number.
“As a member of the host delegation, I welcome the representatives from Yolk,” she said formally, nodding to them. “Eleven, will you read into the record the minutes of the meeting of the last full council of three years ago?”
“Yes, First Councillor,” Eleven said. Dob Rengin was a slim, quick-moving man with a long, bony face and bright blue eyes. His white and red tattoos looked as haphazard if he had put them on himself in hasty strokes and crossbars. He stretched both hands over the tabletop.
“Just a moment,” quavered the Twenty-Third Councillor, raising a shaking hand toward Sgarthad. “Why is he still here?”
“Yes,” Zembke said, narrowing an eye at the visitor. “This meeting is closed to anyone not of the council.”
“Do you speak for the entire group?” Sgarthad asked him.
“Yes, he does,” DeKarn said, cutting off the others before they could protest one way or another, “provisionally, pending discussion. Our discourse is not for your ears or any other outsider.”
“But we want him to stay,” Pinckney said urgently. “He is a valued friend.”
“Thirty-Sixth Councillor, it is against the rules,” DeKarn said. The entire Yolkovian contingent looked distressed. Their gratitude was understandable, but reluctance to have him out of their sight was puzzling. They had had a trying experience making their way to the council. DeKarn hated to add to their misery. “Very well, let us put the question to a vote.”
“I protest!” shouted Fourteen, pointing a nic-tube at Sgarthad. “This is a disruption of protocol! There are thousands of questions on the agenda before ‘whether an outsider should sit in the closed session?’ ”
“Do you wish him to sit here and listen while we debate those matters of precedence?” DeKarn asked.
“And no one has yet asked me to sit down,” Sgarthad added plaintively.
DeKarn ignored him. “All those in favor of allowing Captain Sgarthad to remain in this meeting, raise your hands.” As she expected, the lights above the heads of the Yolkovians went on immediately. To her surprise, however, so did those of Twenty, Thirteen and Twenty-Seven. “Those opposed?” Those eight lights went out, and the remaining thirty-two went on, including her own. She turned to Sgarthad and was met by that commanding, sea-blue stare. It was hard to get the words out, but she forced them. “I am sorry, Captain. Please leave the room.”
“I will wait in the antechamber,” he said, not seeming at all put out. “Thank you, my friends! I shall see you soon.”
The eyes of the Yolk contingent tracked him until the door sliding down separated him from their view. DeKarn found their behavior curious and unsettling.
“With your permission, may I enter the minutes now?” asked Rengin.
“Go ahead!” Zembke snapped. His gaze had also tracked the visitor, and his expression said he resented it.
Rengin spread out his hands. Small images that each depicted a subject on the previous schedule appeared hovering over the wide black table and fed themselves into an open folder. The folder immediately multiplied itself fortyfold. The copies flew to every councillor and sank into the receiver eye in front of each. DeKarn flipped a hand to bring up the table of contents and briefly perused it. She did not tap any of the files; to activate one was to listen to all of the carping and detail-splitting that had accompanied it. She preferred to think of the results that had come from those negotiations, a much more pleasant consideration. Once in a while they got something done. Sometimes it was even a worthwhile accomplishment.
“Any objections to the minutes as they have been entered?” she asked, scanning the group. “No? Any old business?” Twenty-Three’s top light went on briefly. Everyone turned to glare at him. DeKarn cringed. Was he going to protest translation of those minutes into the Cocomon language again? He glared back, but the light went out. “Very well. Let us move on to the items on the agenda. Many of them have already been discussed as to their merits and tentatively settled . . .”
“By you! You are several weeks ahead of us!” Pinckney protested, jabbing a finger at the tabletop.
“You were late!” Tross said. “We began our deliberations on the appointed day.”
“We could not be here! You know how difficult it is to time space-travel. The black hole has been emitting unusual quantities of quasars. We had to detour for safety. We have been monitoring your negotiations. Yolk does not necessarily stipulate that we consider any of them settled!”
“You are welcome, of course, to open matters to the floor for debate,” Marden said. “But as I see it, most of the items are old arguments brought around again. Only two matters stand out in importance.”
“Two?” demanded Thanndur, his mandibles clacking. “I have sixteen vital themes bookmarked!” Around his three-digited claw-hand, several small icons danced.
“Two need to be pushed up the list, or the others are largely moot,” Marden said. “With your permission, First Councillor?”
“Of course,” DeKarn said, and turned to the Carstairs contingent. “Twenty-Nine?”
Zembke made an impatient gesture. “Very well, go ahead!”
Marden nodded. “The two matters are interconnected. The first is the pending arrival of the Imperium’s envoy. How will we greet her? We need to discuss our response. Are we a part of the Imperium or not? It has gone undecided for two centuries, and that is long enough!” Muttering began, not all of it low-pitched. “I apologize for being too direct, but what are we? A loose collection of systems, with no central government? A mini-confederation of our own? We are, after all, self-sustaining, producing most of what we consume, yet . . .”
“The details are a secondary matter,” DeKarn interrupted him.
Marden’s spine elongated slightly, elevating his saturnine face. “Very well! I will leave that to the debates! But it is urgent to decide now that we are independent!”
Desne Eland raised a hand. “But we are not independent. We have always been a part of the Imperium.”
“Are we?” Zembke asked, rounding on the Cocomon representative with the light of battle gleaming in his eye. The human and his insectoid counterparts recoiled, chittering to one another fretfully.
“I am not going to let you make us live through ancient history again,” said Ten with a sigh. “We are who we are. This sector was founded by the Imperium . . .”
“On the backs of our Cocomon brothers and sisters!” said Seventeen.
Thanndur chittered. “We were glad to become part of a larger whole. The swarm survives. It prospers!” His companions, Eland included, trilled agreement. “Do not use us as your excuse for an argument.” Seventeen looked put out.
“I say that we tell the Imperium that we will go our own way from now on,” Marden bellowed, amplifying his voice with the help of the hidden console.
“There is no call to be this hasty over such an important matter!” said Councillor Tross.
Marden rounded on him. “There is every reason to be hasty! The woman is on her way here. Her ship is making its final hop into Portent’s Star’s space. She will be here in days. Are we a government, or are we a social club that meets every few years to eat expensive food and complain about our separate constituencies?”
“We can be both,” Councillor Six said, mischief on his face.
“But what is your point?” asked DeKarn patiently, although she had already deduced it as, undoubtedly, had everyone else at the table, but the rules required him to state his case.
Marden rose and settled his robes around his shoulders. He raised an upturned hand in an orator’s pose. “We are now pressed to make a decision that we have refused to make. Do we humbly submit to the Imperium and resume our place as a unit of an enormous and faceless entity—”
“Hardly faceless,” said Twelve, gently. “Shojan is the scion of the house that gave us birth, that urged us forward into civilization, who fostered the hope that we would conquer the reaches of space and go ever onward . . .”
“Oh, stow your longwindedness!” snarled Fourteen, slamming her hand down and flattening the spent nic-tubes in front of her. “Very well, I’ll be the one to halt this cascade of unnecessary verbiage. I propose a preliminary vote, First Councillor. Are we of the Castaway Cluster part of the Imperium, or are we an independent entity?”
“Councillors?” asked DeKarn. “Will anyone second?”
“I will second,” said Five.
“The matter is proposed and seconded,” DeKarn said, dreading what she was about to say, but protocol was protocol. She took a deep breath. “Everyone will be limited to forty minutes of opening statements, followed by question and answer from the full council. Following that will be the preliminary vote. Debate is open.”
Not waiting to be called on, everyone broke into their own tirade. All of them shouted to be heard over all the others.
Marden stood up and began to wave his arms. Behind him, colors of distress filled his screens and sirens wailed. When the others stopped talking and put their hands over their ears, he bellowed at them. “We don’t have time for this! Vote now! Then we’ll debate the outcome.”
“No! That’s not the way things are done!” said Bruke, severely.
“I agree with Councillor Marden,” DeKarn said, breaking protocol herself. “We do have very little time. We can’t hold off the ambassador, so we will have to decide before she gets here.”
“Why can’t we?” asked Sixteen. “It is not uncommon in legal matters to prevent a witness from hearing the testimony of others.”
“Because she is a diplomat. All of our deliberations ought to have been accomplished before this. I quite agree with Councillor Fifteen.” Marden gave her a grudging nod. “If the question is asked, we owe an answer.”
“We can easily send her away without an answer,” said Fourteen, angrily. “We’ve been without answers long enough. Let them see what it tastes like, for a change.”
“And what will that accomplish?” Eland asked. “They deserve our candor. It is not unreasonable that in two centuries we would have made up our mind what we are. Our ancestors were beings of decisive action. They reached out from a small, isolated planet and founded great empires! If they had become bogged down like this, there would never have been science enough to lift them out of atmosphere, let alone the will to make it happen. But I would go back to the discussion we were having before the arrival of our friends from Yolk. In advance of the arrival of the representative from the Core Worlds, let us choose someone who will speak with the force of all of us behind that one being.”
Thank goodness! DeKarn almost smiled. Someone else had said it without having to be prompted.
“No,” Marden said firmly. “We need to decide what it is we will say before we choose a spokesbeing. The debate was opened on the subject. We have two choices before us. Let us choose one. Will we decide once and for all that we are a part of the Imperium, or are we independent?”
“A-ha!” said Pinckney, light blossoming around him as the screens erupted with starbursts. “Then there is a third choice that needs to be added to that item of the emergency agenda. That is our friend Sgarthad. He represents the Trade Union. It has sent him to ask the Castaway Cluster to join their vast and prosperous confederation. The Board of Directors have offered us open trade routes, decrease or surcease of tariffs for export of our goods, and protective services, including a patrol fleet between us and potential enemies. It’s a fantastic deal, one that we ought to take advantage of.”
“Bah!” Seventeen said, brushing off the desk with a sweep of his hand. He lowered his thin brows over his bony nose. “To trade historical ties for those greedy hucksters? Not while I breathe.”
“How could you fall for such a sales pitch?” asked Tross. “When have they ever offered something for nothing?”
“We have plenty to offer them,” Quelph said, her brown eyes meeting the Thirteenth Councillor’s bulging blue ones with sincere conviction. “Our crafts are more than worth their interest.”
“Handiworks! They have plenty of factories. All they need is one example of each item, and, in about a week, you’re shut out of the market. So, what will we offer them next month?”
The Wichu representative wrinkled her nose. “Not just exports. They want to know more about our culture. He says knowledge of others helps improve their own lifestyle. Gotta like that.”
“Very tactful,” Five said, with a glance toward DeKarn. The First Councillor kept a noncommittal expression on her face.
“Very well, I believe that the contingent from Yolk has a valid amendment to the subject that is already upon the table,” she said. “Those in favor of discussing the three possibilities of adhering to the Trade Union or the Imperium or remaining independent, signify now.”
In fairness, she had to illuminate her own voting light. The Yolkovians immediately joined her. Other lights went on more slowly, but in greater numbers than she thought would arise. She had to put the increase down to the solemn regard of the eyes looking at them from the screens at the narrow end of the oval table.
Impulsively, she thought she might vote against allowing the measure just because he seemed to be asking for it, and she permitted no one to coerce her, not even with charm. Still, when she weighed the matter in her own scales of right and wrong, whether or not that handsome face was present she knew she would choose the same option.
“Opposed?” Naturally, Zembke, Tross, Marden and Ten voted no. She passed her hand over the recording light.
“The matter is carried.
“In the matter of independence versus the Imperium versus the Trade Union, the vote will commence. I will abstain from this first vote. You may also abstain, but only this time. We must know where we stand.” DeKarn thought it was unlikely that any of them would.
“Independence?” Zembke’s hand flew to his controls, and his voting light went on, nearly obscured by the image of the Cluster that exploded on his screen. Others followed, including, to DeKarn’s surprise, two of the Cocomons. “Thirteen.
“For the Imperium.” The entire party from Dree voted as a bloc. The rest of the Cocomons added their numbers. “Also thirteen.
“For the Trade Union.” Before she had finished speaking, Yolk’s lights bloomed, as did the remaining members. No absentions. “Also thirteen. No clear majority. Very well. Who will speak first on this matter? Remember, you have only forty minutes apiece.”
“More than enough time,” Zembke said, rising. “My dear friends, you are forgetting matters of the last two hundred years!” Many of those at the table groaned. They certainly hadn’t forgotten the multitude of speeches he had made over the last thirty years on the topic. “We stand alone as we have stood for centuries! Let us make that decision so it is in place before the arrival of the Imperium’s envoy . . .”
A faint chime sounded. Dob Rengin looked up from his screen, and passed his hand swiftly to the right. The icon “landed” in DeKarn’s viewscreen and skidded to the halt in the center.
“I am afraid there won’t be time to make the decision final, unless we vote finally right now,” she said. “The ambassador is here.”
She passed a fingertip over the newly arrived file.
Hiranna Ben had the pleasantly harried look of a campus counselor. The eyes, a pale hazel with thin but sharp lines at the corners and underneath, looked both compassionate and shrewd. Generous lips had acquired confining brackets from which they dared not escape. Her warm complexion was set off by very short silver hair gelled to a peak. This was a woman, DeKarn thought sympathetically, who was too nice for her job and had had to learn to behave otherwise lest she, to make use of an ancient phrase, give away the store.
“Gentlebeings,” came the warm, rich, lilting voice. “I give you greetings from his majesty, the Emperor Shojan XII, to his most honored subjects . . .”
“Bah!” Zembke erupted.
“Hush!” Councillor Twelve said. “Let her speak.”
“. . . pleased to say I will be among you soon. My pilot informs me that we will be over Pthohannix within twenty-five hours. I am aware that the full council is in session. I request a meeting with all of you as soon as can be arranged. I have brought many delicacies from the Core Worlds, and I invite each of you and your significant others to a feast at the,” Ambassador Ben glanced down, as if consulting notes, “the Boske Ruritania, to get to know you.” She raised her eyes to meet the video pickup. “I await your convenience, and remain your humble servant . . .”
“. . . Hiranna Ben.”
The light dimmed and the face disappeared. DeKarn sat back and saw the dismay in her own soul reflected in the faces of the rest of the council.
“Well, my colleagues, the moment is upon us. Shall I call for another vote?”