“It has nothing to do with me!” Dr. Yuchiko protested, as the Boske contingent, some of whom had been pulled out of the mob and others dragged away from their long delayed dinner, and the other representatives who were outraged. The governor held up his hands as if to fend off physical blows. “All these people insisted on following him here from the Council Complex. They say they are his friends. No one was causing trouble. They are peaceful. I’ve never had such a cheerful assembly. The media arriving was inevitable under the circumstances.”
The assembly, though cheerful, comprised several thousand beings of every gender and race represented in the Cluster, not to mention several mechanicals. At its center, at the top of a plinth from which rose a golden stone obelisk, Captain Sgarthad was holding court. By his movements, he was laughing and joking with the people around his feet. No one came too close to him: DeKarn could see a few grim-faced humans and Uctu in dull purple shipsuits holding riot batons. The ones who appeared to wield the most authority were a human male with a prognathic jaw and military-cropped hair, a muscular female human with very short curls, and an older Uctu whose scales were distinctly flattened at the edges. They had sidearms out, a violation of Cluster law.
“The council asked you to keep media silence around the visitors,” Zembke said, though DeKarn and the others knew it was futile. Anyone with a viewpad could create an opinion report and find an outlet willing to broadcast it over home receivers, across the Grid, or both. Undoubtedly fan files and tribute files were popping up and being widely exchanged. “You will have to delete all references to either visitor. Planetwide. One is an official diplomatic visit that technically has not yet begun. The other is a . . . new item on the agenda. Until we have decided our public response, neither is to appear in electronic streams.”
“That will freeze the Grid for hours!” Dr. Yuchiko protested. “Think of the error messages! The lost revenue from advertising! Pthohannix relies upon that income.”
“If you had followed instructions we would not have error messages to cope with,” Vasily Marden said.
“I did exactly as you asked! But you did not send him in a closed vehicle. He gathered a crowd all by himself.”
“You ought to have taken him into custody.”
Dr. Yuchiko gave him a curious look. “I thought that he was a diplomatic visitor, Councillor. If he was to be treated like a prisoner, then I need to have a warrant listing charges.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Marden sputtered.
DeKarn decided to take matters into her own hands. “Councillor Zembke, Governor, please come with me.”
* * *
The Pthohannix spaceport should have been bustling, its gray, arching ceiling like the upturned hull of an ancient sailing ship echoing with voices. Instead, Colm found it eerily silent. Beings who shold have been unloading or running maintenance check on the dozens of small ships and shuttles stood in small groups around the viewscreens and vid-tanks embedded in the walls. Usually those scopes ran a combination of ads, news and public service announcements, but the sole image, seen at different angles and distances, was the visitor from the Trade Union. Captain Sgarthad stood in front of the governor’s mansion, smiling and waving, looking like he belonged there. Beside him stood a Wichu interviewer from My Opinion Here, a popular evening show that had gained as much as sixteen percent of the available audience, a huge percentage for a show when one considered the number of offerings across the Grid and the home broadcast spectrum.
“. . . Captain Sgarthad,” the Wichu was saying, her big eyes fixed adoringly on the human male. “What are your requirements from those of us here on Boske?”
The visitor looked intently at the lens, his eyes boring into those of every viewer across the world who was tuned into the Grid at that time. Colm studied the enormous face. He felt as if he trusted Sgarthad. “I am so glad you asked me. I am pleased by the way that you make me feel so welcome. I want all of you to stay here on the planet with me.”
“What do you mean by that, Captain?”
The eyes locked on Colm, drawing him close. “There is nothing more important than remaining on Boske. Do not lift ship. Every ship should land immediately, for your own safety.”
“Are we in danger, Captain?”
“You are all in terrible danger,” Sgarthad said. “You have hidden enemies, and your security is at stake.”
That declaration got the attention of the few remaining spacefarers, who broke off their conversations and nudged their fellows to turn toward the screens.
“From what? Who?” asked the Wichu female.
“I cannot reveal that to you yet. I must speak with your government first, and the council of the Cluster, which is meeting here at this time, to give them my warning and advice. Until then, no ships must lift from here or any other cluster world. Anyone of you who are flying should return to your planet of origin and remain there. Please go home where you will be safe.”
Colm scoffed. Now, why would I do that? he thought.
Sgarthad pointed at the video pickup hovering before him and the Wichu. Colm thought he saw a flash of amber light.
“You might ask why you should obey my will. It would be a favor to me.” And suddenly Colm felt as if he should do that favor for that good man. It would be a pleasure, the most natural thing in the world. After all, he was not preparing to leave the planet, or even the city itself. That ought to make Sgarthad happy. In fact, Colm thought, he should turn around and go back to his quarters. If there was danger, he should not be out in it. He had some puzzles to occupy him until the captain told him he could go out again. Colm started toward the entrance. Others were leaving, too. The visitor had persuaded them to do the right thing. They smiled at each other in satisfaction.
Colm caught a glimpse of himself in the silvered glass of the door. The wide-eyed stupidity of his expression automatically made him frown. Something in his mind snapped free.
What am I thinking? That must be the effect of the device that Councillor DeKarn thought Sgarthad possessed. It was that powerful that it could sway a being as normally cynical as he. The mission, he must concentrate upon the mission. He stepped to one side and reversed his path, returning to the heart of the terminal. He tried to tune out the smooth, warm voice, audible to him even through the machine rattles and roars and the tenor hum of the ventilation system. Under other circumstances, he would love to honor Sgarthad’s request. He wanted Sgarthad to be pleased with him.
But others had taken the visitor’s request as an order.
“Attention please,” a pleasant female voice said over the public address system and echoed from the personal combox or communicator of everyone within the building, “no one is to lift ship until further notice. All flights are hereby cancelled. Ground transport can be arranged at the ticket booths or via the Grid. Offworld transport will be rescheduled at a future time. Repeat . . .”
Instead of the collective “Awwww!” of disappointment followed by groans and profanity, Colm saw travelers pulling wheeled or antigrav bags behind them smile at one another. Pilots shrugged in resignation and went back to watching the viewscreens. Sgarthad was still talking, though Colm could no longer distinguish what he was saying, and probably neither could the others, but he felt an odd satisfaction in watching the man interact with those lucky people around him.
Colm shook himself fiercely. Sgarthad was a dangerous man! He must fulfill his errand, immediately.
Slipping through the surging countertide of passengers and personnel heading for the exit, he reached the pilots’ lounge. It stood at the side of the terminal beside the attached hostel. The walls of the big, utilitarian common room were painted yellow-green. Shelves and lockers were available to stow gear while crews were in port. A broad bar with a polished gray metal counter top occupied almost one whole wall. Notices on paper, plasheet or emitted from miniature infochips clung to the walls everywhere, offering berths on ships, asking for cargo loads, seeking jobs. No one was reading the flyers. The small-craft captains sat together around a large, cluttered table, drinks in hand. The crews of the big freighters who didn’t actually make landfall were nearer to the bar, considering themselves a cut above. All of them were intent upon the big screen on the wall opposite the bar. Colm surveyed the faces, dismissing stranger after stranger. To his relief, he saw a pilot he knew, Senthi Guaya, a human male about his age, also a competitive puzzler. Senthi wore a saffron-orange shipsuit. It must be his favorite. His competition clothes usually were the same color.
“Hey, down in front, fool!” spat a ruddy-faced female with grizzled hair in gray and scarlet. “You’re blocking the screen!”
“Sorry, madam,” Colm said, ducking below the bottom edge. He slid into the chair beside Senthi and nudged him hard in the ribs. “Hi, friend.”
Surprised, Senthi turned to glare, but the ire cleared swiftly from his long, dark face. “Colm! Do you believe this man?” He aimed a thumb toward the screen.
Colm took a moment to assess his friend’s expression. “I do,” he said. “A good man, don’t you think?”
“The best! He loves us. He cares. He wants us to be protected. Listen to him!”
Colm felt his face redden as the unbidden emotion swamped him again. “I know.” He pulled himself together. “Senthi, have you got a cargo flight at the moment?”
Senthi waved a hand. “No, man, of course not. Didn’t you hear Captain Sgarthad? All flights are cancelled. I can’t go.”
Colm recognized the signs of devotion. He felt them himself, but they must not interfere with his duty. Drastic measures were required. “Got a moment? Come with me, will you?”
He took Senthi’s arm in a subtle grip that made it less painful to stand and follow than to try and pull loose. Senthi kept looking over his shoulder at the screen with a longing that did not cease until the door of the pilots’ lounge slid shut behind them and cut off the view. Colm, too, felt a deep loss, but he had a job to do. For now he must forego the joy of becoming one of the thousands who found contentment in giving Sgarthad what he wanted. Later, he promised himself. Later he would go and join the happy throng on the mansion lawn.
“What’s the problem, Colm?” Senthi asked. “Haven’t seen you since the all-Boske crossword marathon.”
“Been busy,” Colm said with a grin. He glanced at the screen. Sgarthad’s clear eyes were fixed upon someone to the left of the video pickup. It seemed to lift the guilt slightly. “Listen, friend, I have a small parcel I have to get off this world immediately. It’s vital.”
Senthi clicked his tongue sympathetically. “Can’t do it, mate. Captain Sgarthad wants us to stay planetbound. The government’s behind him. You can just tell. Look, there’s the governor, and some other beings in official robes. They’re there to support him.”
Not from what Colm saw. DeKarn looked furious. Now people were reading their own interpretation into what they saw. He hoped Councillor DeKarn realized it, too. “Please. Let’s talk about theoretically when you can lift ship again. It’s worth . . . what’s your normal fee?”
Senthi eyed him. “Well, depends on where you’re going.”
Colm shrugged. “Say, Carstairs. Carstairs Five.”
“How big is the parcel?”
Senthi nodded. “Really small. Well, on a normal day it’d be about fifteen credits, for special transport and the trouble of taking care of a little item. I’d put it in my pressurized safe with my ship’s documents, all but the license, of course, and deliver it private before anything else going that way. I’ll guarantee it gets right to whoever you want.”
“What would it take to get you to make a run to deliver this alone?” Colm asked urgently.
“You’re gravity-bent, Colm.” Senthi laughed. “No one makes a run for a sixty-gram load.”
“How’s fifteen hundred?” Colm countered.
That got an openmouthed stare. “What’s that? That’s as much as you won in the Cluster-wide number grid contest last year.”
“It’s yours if you take the load. Lift ship right now, and I’ll pay you that much and more.”
He must look too desperate. Senthi’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What’s in it?”
Colm sighed. “Advertisments,” he said, sheepishly. “My employer sold thousands of ads for . . .” He thought fast. “. . . X-Percol sleep inhalers. New and improved. They work better than anything else on the market. Eight hours of sleep and no side effects. It’s worth millions to my employers to get this crystal to its destination.” It was true that ads for X-Percol contained those claims. Its approval was currently before the council. “Those ads have to run.”
Senthi’s straight black brows rose a centimeter. “Millions, you say?”
“Only if the ads run on time. It has to get there, Senthi,” Colm pleaded. “You’re the only person I know I can count on. You’ve got one of the fastest ships in the Cluster, right?”
“The fastest,” Senthi said with pride. “I beat Mitch Oll here from Dree by over four hours a couple of months ago. He’s still stinging.”
“Then you have to do it.”
“Well . . .”
The door to the lounge slid open again and a Cocomon in a pale blue shipsuit came out, jabbering into his combox. Senthi and Colm caught sight of the screen. Sgarthad was still holding forth. Senthi’s gaze was caught by his image like a fish on a hook. He put his hand in the door to keep it open. Colm felt the same longing. I love that guy, he thought. With an act of will, he grabbed Senthi’s shoulder and turned him so neither of them was facing the screen.
“Hey!” Senthi protested.
“How about my cargo?” Colm asked. “It’s got to go now. I will pay you on departure, but only if you head for your ship and lift off in the next quarter hour.”
“All right, man. I’ll do it,” Senthi said, businesslike once again. He strode toward the open hangar where the small ships received maintenance. Money had taken the place of the newfound devotion. “All right, mate. Sounds like a plan. Carstairs, you say?”
Colm waited until they were beside the independent one-being cargo ship, the Whipcrack. It had belonged to Senthi’s mother, a successful trader, in her twenties. She owned four much larger vessels currently. She let Senthi have the Whipcrack to make his way in the world. He and Colm had discussed all this over various game boards. Senthi palmed open the hatch and beckoned Colm aboard. He led him to a reinforced bulkhead behind the pilot’s compartment and opened a hatch in the wall. A case of document crystals was pushed to the back underneath a blast rifle and two high-powered sidearms. A few curios in transparent bags were scattered on the floor of the safe. He held out a hand for Colm’s parcel, and stowed it with the others. The safe door hissed shut as it pressurized. Senthi started a pre-flight check on his scopes. Colm carefully stood in front of the Grid monitor, blocking off the sight of Sgarthad, now conferring with members of the council and the governor, Dr. Yuchiko.
“Everything’s set,” Senthi said, grinning up at him. “Where on Carstairs am I taking that?”
“File a plan for Carstairs,” Colm said, “but once you’re out of Portent’s Star space, I want you to go here.” He leaned forward and grabbed the man’s combox out of his belt pouch, turned it over and wrote a series of coordinates on it with his stylus. “Take it to Dorie . . . there.” He wrote an address underneath. “It’s easy to find. She’ll get it to the right being on time.”
Senthi read it. He stared up at Colm, his big dark eyes wide with shock. He gestured at the screen, at Sgarthad, who was smiling at them.
“You’re crazy, man! I can’t do that. He’s ordered us to stay here. I can’t go!” Senthi pointed at the screen. “I’m staying! I love that man!”
“Me, too,” Colm admitted. “But you agreed.”
Senthi stood up. “Forget it. We’ll go to the governor’s mansion instead and tell Captain Sgarthad that we’re with him. Anything he wants. Come on.”
Colm almost agreed, then the common-sense fairy that had been trying to keep its equilibrium in the midst of all this, got disgusted and kicked his conscience in the backside. He fixed his eyes intently on the pilot. “No, you have to keep going. We have a deal. Your mother would be proud. And your dad.” Tino Guaya was a high official on Dree. As if thinking father-figure, they both looked at the screen. Turning away again was the hardest thing Colm had ever done. Senthi pushed him aside.
“No, I have to see him in person.”
He stumbled out of the pilot’s compartment and off the ship’s ramp. Colm kept hold of his arm.
“Senthi, I’m counting on you. Don’t flame out on me now.”
“It would disappoint him! I can’t do it! Let me go!”
To Colm’s annoyance, their argument attracted attention of a group around the nearest viewscreen. Several large beings in shipsuits moved to form a protective arc behind the two males.
“This being bothering ye, Senthi?” asked a bulky man with green tattoos over his ebony face.
Guaya’s eyes flicked wildly from face to face, always going back to the viewscreen. “He’s trying to make me leave Boske!”
“He can’t do that,” said a Cocomon in a green shipsuit. “Orders have been given.”
“I know!” Senthi exclaimed. “Captain Sgarthad wouldn’t like it!”
They all looked at the screen.
Colm deliberately placed himself in front of it, eliciting protests from the rest and his own conscience.
“I’ll double the fee,” Colm whispered to Senthi, as the four largest males jumped on him. The Cocomon pilot closed his mandibles around Colm’s wrist, its toothy projections jabbing his skin. A huge human male plumped down on his back, knocking the air out of his lungs. “Double!” he gasped. Senthi stared down at him, torn between self-interest and fascination.
“You promise?” Senthi said.
“I do,” Colm asserted, though every syllable used up precious oxygen. Blackness edged his vision and threatened to swamp it. The man sitting on him seemed to take on weight by the second. He held on to consciousness and Senthi’s gaze with all his will. It seemed like forever before Senthi spoke.
“Nay, he’s not bothering me.” Senthi gave an apologetic glance at the screen behind them. He offered a hand to Colm. “Let him up. He won’t cause any more trouble.”
The Cocomon rolled his big eyes up. “Are you sure?”
The other pilots rose reluctantly. The heavy man on Colm’s back was the last to rise. The crew drifted back to the viewscreen. Colm gasped in air and leaned against the Whipcrack.
“My mother has never had a fee like that,” Senthi said. “Double, you say?”
Colm glanced at the others. They had forgotten all about him.
“I did. Half now,” Colm said. He moved close so his face filled Senthi’s vision. “Dorie will give you the other half. Go now. Please hurry.”
“Won’t be a fast trip, you know. I might miss the City Race Contest. That’s weeks off, but you know what it’s like in between jumps.”
“There’s always next year. This is more than first prize, than all the prizes combined.”
Senthi gave him an embarrassed grin. “Well, suppose I can’t be greedy.”
He glanced over Colm’s shoulder at the screen, and his face went blank.
“Oh, no, not again,” Colm said. He pushed Senthi up the ramp into the ship.
“Hey, help! What are you doing?” Senthi demanded, then gave him a sheepish grin over his shoulder. “Oh, wait. Okay, man. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Captain Sgarthad would want you to take this trip for him.”
“He would? That’s what I hope.”
Colm helped him into the pilot’s couch and strapped him in. Senthi immediately began the preflight check.
“Captain’s log, fuel gauges full, all pressurization is on green and ready to go. Ultra-drive engines at ninety-eight-percent efficiency.” That was the best one could hope for in a vintage ship, Colm reflected. “Attention, tower, this is Whipcrack. T minus ten minutes and counting.”
“What? What?” came a sputtered cry from master control. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Carstairs, tower. As ordered, going home.” Senthi gave Colm a cocky grin. “All bills have been paid with ship’s license number . . .”
With Senthi busy, Colm slipped over to the unusued navigator’s station and logged into the ship’s computer. He used his council codes to override the video and audio input. He disconnected input from the tower. The protests cut off and were replaced by machine chatter and music.
“What do you say, tower?” Senthi demanded, listening hard, his hands crawling over the controls.
“Bzzz bzz bzz bzzzzz-whirrrr!”
“Curse it, that’s AI lingo! Did the Standard language circuit cut out again? I just replaced it!”
Colm shrugged in sympathy. On the main screentank, instead of the local news starring the Trade Union captain, the Grid was now locked onto a channel showing ancient digitavid dramas about a wealthy, extended family and the devoted electronic beings that served them. Once he was offworld Senthi would find the locked circuit and put it right, hopefully long after he had lifted ship and made his first ultra-drive jump.
“They said, ‘good to go,’ ” Colm said. He held out his personal communicator, showing the promised sum. He hit send, and the numbers vanished from the screen. A ping at Senthi’s waist said that it had been transferred to the pilot’s file. “Here’s the first half of your fee. I’d better get off or I’m going all the way with you.”
“Multi-chess tournament when I get back?” Senthi asked.
Colm grinned. “You’ve got it. Safe journey.”
He swung out of the hatch just as it slammed shut and sealed. The ship shot ten meters off the pad before the other spacers on the ground noticed that it was moving.
“Attention, please, Whipcrack! Return to your pad immediately. You are not cleared for Carstairs! Repeat, you are not cleared for Carstairs!”
Colm hoped fervently they wouldn’t resort to weaponry to bring Senthi down again, but he didn’t know how powerful Sgarthad’s secret hold was on the minds of his fellow beings. Away from the influence of the visitor’s image, people might return to their own senses. It was a piece of data he wished he had had time to record into the package, but there had not been time. He hoped the information he included was enough.
He had to get back to the councillor before she needed him again and noticed he was missing. No sense in building up a reputation as being infallible if one wasn’t there to reinforce it. In the meanwhile, he had to find out what he could about that hypnosis device and means to combat it. With a wistful glance over his shoulder, he headed for the public transportation hub. He had plenty of research to do.