Councillor DeKarn sat in the reception room of the Imperium ambassador’s suite in the south wing of the governor’s mansion with her hands folded in her lap, exhausted. With some difficulty they had managed to herd the Trade Union party off the statue and into the north wing of the mansion. The visitor had been overwhelmingly polite and full of regrets.
“I can’t help it if people want to speak with me,” Sgarthad had said, bowing over DeKarn’s hand and smiling at her. That face. That astonishingly appealing face. She liked him in spite of his audacity—or perhaps because of it. His eyes spoke to her. They said, You and I are beings of the world. How we could enjoy one another’s company if only we were alone! She doubted that he meant anything of the sort. It was the effect of whatever method he had used to seduce the entire Yolk council and not a few of the other members. However, she was not going to allow anyone to derail the authority of the Castaway Cluster. Though she had few of the other councillors behind her, she forced Governor Yuchiko to take Sgarthad into custody. They followed to ensure that he would be comfortable but no longer in the public eye, until the council had figured out what it wanted to do. Once that had been accomplished, it would know how to treat both the Trade Union and the Imperium.
His people, thankfully, did not seem to cast that same spell over the crowd. Once he was out of sight, though the stern-faced staff that had surrounded him on his impromptu platform was still outside, smiles disappeared from the faces of the citizens of Pthohannix, and they dispersed without any further prompting. So if he was carrying a device or a chemical compound that caused the crowd to fall in love with him, it was specific to him. That meant they only had to keep him away from the public.
However, he was gone, but not forgotten. Not three minutes elapsed between the time Sgarthad was escorted into the luxurious quarters and the first message from the first “fan group” erupted on her personal communicator and those of her fellow councillors. She soon had to turn off the quiet pinging that indicated messages arriving because they continued on and on. Her last glimpse at the small screen showed that over fourteen thousand notes were awaiting her attention. Typically, they were not deeply thoughtful missives. The message line on the fifth one read, “Free the handsome guy!” When she had a moment, DeKarn needed to choose a macro from the hundred thousand available in her communication pad to go through her mail and weed out the knee-jerk letters from those who only enlisted in a grassroots campaign for any cause that seemed to be against basic liberties. Closing her Grid address to incoming mail was out of the question as an administrator, not to mention against the law.
The device vibrated against her hip as she rose to offer a hand to the woman who approached her. Ambassador Hiranna Ben was short of stature, plumpish, and silver-haired. For the third time that day DeKarn had to cope with the small shock of seeing a face devoid of any decoration, save for a touch of color definition at eyes and lips.
“Thank you for seeing me, Ambassador,” DeKarn said.
“Councillor, it is my pleasure,” Ben replied, taking her hand warmly in both of her small palms. She patted it. “Now, my mission here is no secret. I will not ask you and your colleagues to rush, not when it took me such a long time to travel here, but if you have an inkling as to the timeline we are looking at before I may have an answer I can take back to his majesty, it would take a good deal of suspense out of my wait.”
So nicely put, DeKarn thought, with regret. “Ambassador, I regret to say that this body has never reached a trivial conclusion in a short time. Important ones stretch out into spans of time that try the patience of even the greatest pragmatist. I wish that I could be more optimistic, but due to circumstances we could not foresee—”
“Yes, I saw him. Quite a dish. He could almost be a digitavid star, couldn’t he? He reminds me a little of one of my ex-lovers, though they were never so good-looking.”
DeKarn laughed ruefully. “That is almost exactly what I thought when I saw him! He is only one of the obstacles. One of our contingents arrived late, escorted by Captain Sgarthad, as it happens, as their vessel was damaged in transit from their system to this. Portent’s Star is the closest of the eight Castaways to the black hole, and anomalies are not uncommon. But I will be unusually frank: this discussion has gone on since . . .” her voice trailed off, as she tried to think of a courteous way to say since the Imperium abandoned us, but Hiranna Ben just nodded sweetly.
“I know. Take your time. If deliberations go on past my expected life span, I will send for a replacement. His Majesty is patient, as you have been. It is most gracious of you to consider his offer at all in light of the Imperium’s . . . long silence. But this is an outward-reaching monarch. He seeks to bring concerns long neglected to the fore. You would like him. He is rare even among those who have ascended the throne.”
“You are most kind,” DeKarn said.
“Will you visit me once in a while to tell me . . . what you are permitted to tell me of your discussions?” Ben asked.
“I would be happy to.”
“And if you have nothing to tell me, I would love to have you visit, so I can learn more about your culture. Some differences are immediately evident, and intriguing.”
DeKarn smiled and rose. “That would be my pleasure. I apologize that you will be so isolated.”
“I am used to long periods of solitude,” Ben said, placidly. “I travel alone very well, as you see. There are a pair of AIs on my ship that I must communicate with to let them know of the delay, but you can monitor that transmission.”
DeKarn was embarrassed. “I am sure that you can send that message.”
Ben showed her the console on the ornate, spindly legged table under the window. “Ah, no, as you see.”
The message window, which ought to have been light green for voice and visuals, was a dark fuchsia, indicating that the function was locked. Ben stood with her back pointedly to the console while DeKarn entered her council code. The screen turned green. Ben spoke a brief message, and received a reply instantly of fweeps, bongs and static. The screen turned pink again at once.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now, don’t let me keep you. It was good of you to visit.”
“You are too kind,” DeKarn said. “I will see you again soon.”
But it was weeks before they met again.
* * *
“Ah, there you are, First Councillor!” Ruh Pinckney exclaimed as DeKarn entered the long hall leading to the council chamber. “We did not have a chance to offer proper greetings to you when we arrived yesterday.” He beckoned Urrmenoc, the Wichu, forward. Her arms were full of packages. “We bear gifts to our siblings of Portent’s Star. I believe you wear a seven shoe?”
“You are much too kind,” DeKarn said, struggling to hold the boxes as they were thrust at her. “It is far more than my colleagues and I deserve.”
“Oh, these are all for you,” Pinckney said, beaming. “The rest of the councillors have already been given their tokens.”
DeKarn turned to find a place to put the boxes, and found a many-shelved mechanical waiting with claw-hands outthrust to accept them. It arranged all the parcels according to size along with dozens of other brightly wrapped packages, then glided discreetly away toward a niche in the wall too low for humans or Cocomons to walk through comfortably. “Thank you, all of you, siblings of Yolk. I see that it is the appointed hour. Shall we begin today’s session?”
“Yes, indeed,” Pinckney said. He offered her an arm. “It would be my honor to escort you.”
Vasily Marden was on his feet almost before the image of the floating gavel crashed down upon the table with a satisfying though prerecorded bang!
“Point of order, First Councillor,” he said. “I move that since circumstances have forced our hand, that we keep both the envoy from the Trade Union and the Imperium’s ambassador in full media isolation until this body has decided the question of loyalty.”
“I must protest!” exclaimed Tam Quelph, rising indignantly. “As I and my colleagues protest the inhospitable behavior we displayed toward our rescuer yesterday! How dare you sweep him into a cell before the very eyes of the entire Cluster?”
“An eight-room suite is hardly a cell,” Barba Linden said dryly, with a humorous glance toward DeKarn. “Even you have to admit he excites talk.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Urrmenoc asked.
“Because it would be wrong for him to prejudice the public toward his offer without giving equal time to both other possibilities we are debating,” Zembke said. “This is not a referendum. We have been entrusted with the final authority to decide with whom we will ally, or not. Pending full discussion and resolution, neither of them should be seen on any Grid programs or other media. They can emerge when our decision is made.” The Yolkovians protested as one, and huge pictures of the Trade Union captain appeared behind them. Impatiently, DeKarn hit the override control, and cleared every screen in the room.
“He is a distraction, my friends. We must have clear minds for this discussion. Will anyone move for a vote?”
“I do,” Linden said, raising her hand.
“Seconded,” Marden said, his face sour.
“In favor?” DeKarn asked. Eight lights went on at once. Slowly and in some cases reluctantly others followed, until thirty votes had been cast. “Against?” she asked, though it was pro forma. The remaining ten, all of Yolk plus a few of those who had clearly fallen in love with Sgarthad, voted no. “It is carried. Now, can we go on from the point at which we left off yesterday? Councillor Rengin, will you read from the minutes?”
Rengin rose to his feet. “Honored fellow members of the council . . .”
DeKarn settled herself into a comfortable position. When Rengin began with a deep intake of breath, it was going to be a long speech. She propped her chin on her fist and commanded her eyelids to stay up.
* * *
“. . . Therefore, I move that we halt for lunch,” Councillor Bruke said, the last of nine councillors to speak. He sank heavily into his chair. DeKarn shook herself thankfully.
“Seconded?” she asked the council. Several members illuminated their voting lights. “So moved.” She slammed her gavel down on the desk.
“Did it really have to take ten minutes to propose that?” Six asked, with a lift of one elegant eyebrow.
The eldest councillor smiled patiently at him. “One wants things done in the proper form, my lad.”
DeKarn palm-locked the console and rose. Nothing had yet been decided, but that was unsurprising. She estimated the minimum of two sixdays and maximum of . . . infinity. It was possible that her colleagues would never agree to anything, not even raising Zembke to the position of speaker to the envoys. The interim votes on affiliation had been slightly toward independence. She had to convince herself she was not already tired of all of them. A quiet yogurt in a corner of the council lunchroom was all she wanted. Five started automatically to follow her, but she waved him off. The doors to the chamber opened out onto the anteroom. A figure rose majestically to its feet from a chair facing the entry.
“My friends!” Sgarthad exclaimed, coming toward them with his arms outstretched. “You must all join me for lunch! I have a delightful repast prepared!”
DeKarn regarded him with shock. She rounded upon the Yolkovian contingent. “What is he doing out again?”
“We called for his release,” Pinckney said, firmly. He moved to shake the visitor’s hand. “What a delight to see you again, Captain! I trust you passed a comfortable night?”
“Sumptuous,” Sgarthad said, expansively. “Such fine quarters. I’ll never be content in a way-station merchants’ hotel again.” Councillors crowding around him laughed when he laughed. “Come, friends! Don’t let the food get cold!”
He led the way. The majority of the council fell into line, beaming, obviously delighted to be in his presence. They were enthralled by him. DeKarn thought of summoning Colm to see what he had learned, but decided to do so in private. They must figure out the source of his hold on people. It was becoming . . . annoying.
The weeks that followed were no less annoying. Though Ambassador Ben placidly stayed unseen in her quarters, Sgarthad continued to slip out of his so-called secure suite whenever he felt like it. He made appearances on all the major opinion shows. He and his crew were viewed seeing the local sights, and asked what they thought of the city-state. They were followed everywhere they went by thousands of fascinated beings. Merchandise with his image was brought out on the Grid and in the shops dotted through Pthohannix and gradually spread to the other population centers. So much for maintaining anonymity pending a council decision. Protests erupted, some of them violent, when the governor was forced to send out politely apologetic agents to bring Sgarthad back to the mansion. Keeping him bottled up was futile, though she persisted in invoking the council ruling. He was dangerous; she sensed that, as did some of her fellows.
Yuchiko never complained about Sgarthad or his fellow Trade Unionists, but he did bring an official protest to the council about the grounding of interplanetary travel filed by a number of cargo companies.
“They are worried about their finances,” he said.
“This is ridiculous!” Zembke erupted. “We didn’t order a closure! It must have come from the Imperium.”
But Rengin and others could prove that no new missives had arrived from the Core Worlds since before the ambassador had arrived. In fact, no information was being sent over the local Grid or through its interface with the Imperium’s Infogrid.
In an effort to speed up the council’s decision, DeKarn herself proposed that both envoys be allowed to speak before them. Over the course of time, more and more of the members had begun to fall under the Trade Union captain’s glamour. She was outvoted overwhelmingly. In fact, she began to avoid calling for votes on alliance. Colm Banayere had not come through with any information on the cause of the general fascination—too small a word, she knew—and until she had it, she was afraid that that vote would be swayed by artificial means. Only a few of them, Zembke, Marden, Linden, Six and herself, seemed to be immune—or, at least, less enchanted by the visitor.
She had also been unable to interview the crew of the Little Darling. Though Sgarthad promised her and any member of the council unfettered access to the survivors, it was always inconvenient or technically difficult to allow them on board the Marketmaker to see them. It seemed that the crew of the small ship had disappeared into the bowels of the TU ship and was never seen again. Another mission for Colm, once he was finished with his present research.
Captain Sgarthad also made it a point to appear at the council chambers at least once a day, most often when the committee had broken for lunch. From the private dining room, the event expanded to a local hotel restaurant, then a banquet center, all the better for members of the public who could not get enough of this visiting celebrity to drop by and pose for images taken by giggling friends.
She and the holdouts joined the party as seldom as they could without drawing attention to themselves. Sgarthad’s influence was growing, not only in the council but among members of the public. Somehow a whisper had gotten started that he might become a permanent resident of Boske. The Grid filled up with speculations, passionate pleas, even bribes; offers of homes, vacation residences, loans or outright gifts of personal vehicles, and many offers that were so openly indelicate that DeKarn blushed as she deleted them.
Worse yet, Sgarthad was aware that he had failed to win her approval. She didn’t like him. She did not understand why he was so popular. Zembke was openly scornful of Sgarthad’s attempts to persuade them over to his point of view. He knew a few of the councillors were against him, or at least holding the line on what position of authority he could occupy.
As far as the general public was concerned, over eighty percent were ready to name him dictator for life. Subtle mentions began to appear in the opinion press that the council should grant him a position. Over the following weeks, the suggestions grew stronger, with advice to get in touch with one’s representatives at state and planetary level and tell them what to do. Once Boske ennobled him, reaching out to the other Castaway systems was the next logical step. Though with communications cut off, all but what was allowed by the Trade Union captain, no doubt a whisper campaign or something more direct had already begun.
Even Colm had joined the Sgarthad faction. Of all her employees, she thought he was the least likely to go in for hero worship, but there was that face on Colm’s office screen when it was idle. All the others had at least one image of the captain on their personal communicators. They giggled together until she approached one of them, then the giddy expression vanished into one of disapproval. DeKarn began to feel isolated. Who could she trust now?
She became aware of eyes on her as she went about her business outside of the council chamber. Her popularity polls fell. Angry pundits published articles and interviews demanding that she be recalled from office, or at least opposed when the next election came along.