I had devised a mantra for myself from the luckiest words in my guidebooks’ varied lexicons. To the uninitiated, it would sound nonsensical, but I admit it gave me comfort. “Nin ran ya om.”
The wounded ship hunkered before me like a pet dog that was all too aware that it had soiled the carpet. Its nose was dented, revealing the edges of several of its protective ceramic panels. Debris of all kinds, including shards of shielding, tools, drinks containers, and scraps of cartons lay in eddies on the floor. The protective black iris that contained the bay’s atmosphere had a number of vanes missing, but an even darker substance, the station’s emergency sealant, had flowed into place and formed a temporary wall. Fans pumped warm air into the chamber, but I could still see my breath.
I halted a dozen meters from the nose of the ship. I stopped saying the mantra aloud. It ran through my mind, almost subduing the consciousness of fear that threatened to overwhelm me. I had done daring and life-threatening things in the past, but they had almost always been my own idea. This was a serious matter. I did not want to die, no matter how worthy the cause.
“Hello?” I called. My voice trembled. How dare it! I cleared my throat forcefully and essayed once again. “Hello the ship!”
A loud squawk of static made me jump.
“Who are you?” blared a tenor voice.
I straightened my back and held my chin up.
“I am Lord Thomas Kinago, cousin to the Emperor and his ambassador to the Autocracy. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
“It’s a noble!” exclaimed a female voice, at a distance from the audio pickup.
“Maybe a trick,” said a clipped voice that I judged to be Uctu. “More authorities!”
“I am not an officer of the law,” I said. “I only wish to speak with you.”
A pause, while the several voices conferred, not very coherently. I began to discern what Parsons had said about their being vulnerable at that moment.
The tenor returned to the microphone. “How do we know you’re really a noble? Do you have a birthmark or something you can show us?”
I glared at the ship.
“My dear sir, if I had a birthmark, it would surely be in a place that I would not display in public, particularly not to someone with whom I was unacquainted! Look me up on the Infogrid. Compare my face with the photographs. Thomas Innes Loche Kinago, plus several dozen middle names.”
“That’s a good idea,” the woman said.
Yes, it was, I mused, as I waited. I wanted them to take as close a look at me as possible. I disported myself in several different poses for the video pickup, all intended to show myself in the best possible light. I smiled, frowned, scowled and laughed, to give them the most expressions with which to compare me with the official record.
“Really is a lord!” the Uctu exclaimed. The conversation within the ship became more frenzied.
“He’s going to take us back and execute us!” said a deep, raspy voice. “Shoot him!”
“No, don’t,” the tenor said. I could tell that his resolve was wavering. “I kind of like him.”
“You know,” I said, wanting them to focus upon me, “this reminds me of a story I heard at the latest party thrown by my cousin. It seems that a gang of Solinians wanted to climb up a cliff, but the only rope they had with them was a quarter of the length they needed to reach the top. One of them had a grand idea….”
I launched into a tale I knew well, one that had had my cousins in stitches over the ridiculously intricate banquet food commonly served at official functions in the Imperium compound. Gradually, the number of voices participating in the argument aboard the Moskowitz dwindled from several down to just a few. All the time, I moved so I was within sight of the various video pickups, all too aware that each was adjacent to weapons emplacements. Though the latter were purely for defense against pirates and seldom up to military standards, a shot from one of the five-centimeter nozzles would render me as dead as any laser cannon aboard the Rodrigo.
“…And the second Solinian said, ‘Well, it got us up here, didn’t it?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ the first one grumbled, ‘but how are we going to get down again?’” I paused, with my arms out to accept applause. From the ship a few appreciative chuckles issued. I had the crew captivated, or so I hoped. If I was ever to make my parental units proud, this was the moment. “Do come out,” I coaxed. “I know many more stories that you will enjoy, but I find it difficult to connect with an audience I can’t see.”
“No!” shouted the deep voice. I heard a bang from within. My instincts told me to drop. Just in time, I flattened myself upon the deck. Intense heat passed close enough over my back to make my hair crackle. I sprang again to my feet and faced the ship.
“Now, that was not very nice,” I chided the crew.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! He didn’t mean to do that! It was an accident,” the female voice wailed. I assumed a paternal smile, though the corners of my lips quivered with nerves. I opened my arms, and rendered my voice as soothing as I could make it.
“Listen to me. Look at me. I represent the Emperor, the head of state. He cares about each and every one of you. Please. Come out. I promise it will be all right. Come out now.”
I had once been told that I had a ‘command nose.’ I pointed that feature at the nearest video pickup, and waited.
The hatch undogged with a couple of loud clanks and dropped noisily to the deck. Even before it had opened fully, five beings raced down the ramp and threw themselves at my feet. They all wore faded, dark-blue shipsuits, grav boots and weapons belts furnished with at least a slugthrower and a laser pistol apiece. My eyes watered. The smell of liquor was overwhelmingly strong.
The tall human male with shoulder-length caramel-colored hair was the owner of the tenor voice.
“Don’t let them hurt us, your nobleness! I swear we’ll pay back every credit! We have bills to pay. I’ll turn myself in later. Don’t do anything to my friends! They’re innocent!”
The female voice belonged to a small, curvaceous female with braids of black hair coiled against the back of her head.
“Don’t listen to him, sir. We all did it.”
“Speak yourselves,” said one of the two Uctus on the ground. He lifted his big dark eyes to me. “Apologetic!”
“I see,” I said. “But exactly what is it that you did?”
“Uh, well,” the blond man looked at the others. They stared back, their eyes glassy.
“Our manifests aren’t going to match our cargo count,” the baritone said at last, without lifting his head from the floor.
“Ah!” I said, gazing down at five prone backs. “You would not, by any chance, be transporting spirits, would you?”
“Why did you run away?”
The tenor looked up at me, his eyes huge and filled with hope and burst capillaries. “Well, we thought if we ditched the rest of the load, no one would be able to claim how much was on board, your lordship.”
“What was it?”
I had to catch my breath before it expelled words that would cause the already alcohol laden air to ignite with the fury I suddenly felt.
“You… jettisoned how much… of that fine, rare liquor?”
“Um, about a thousand bottles.”
“A thousand?” I believe my voice squeaked.
“Give or take forty or fifty,” the baritone said. “We drank those. It was really good. I mean, so good that we just couldn’t stop. There was one bottle with a leaky cork. I mean, what could we do? No store would accept it at the other end. That’s where it started. Then we tried another one. It was even better!”
“Deeelicious,” the second Uctu added, with a musical lilt.
“We got carried away,” the woman said. “We didn’t know how much it would mess up our reaction times.”
A sense of moral outrage overwhelmed me. I tried to find inner reason, but it retreated against the mental image of a thousand bottles of Nyikitu floating in the void, never to grace the tables of those awaiting its arrival.
“I must say that I am appalled at your behavior,” I said.
“Well, we took over control of the ship instead of letting the autopilot take us in,” man admitted. “That was stupid.”
“No, I mean destroying a thousand bottles of one of the most desirable liquids in the galaxy,” I said. “That was absolutely outrageous! Criminal! You ought to be clapped in irons!”
“Now, just a minute, your nobility,” the baritone said, rising to his knees. His swarthy brows drew down over his bloodshot eyes. “That’s no way to talk to us. Not over a few little bottles of booze.”
“Lieutenant!” Plet’s voice snapped urgently in my ear. I had completely forgotten about her. “They are in precarious mental state!”
“I am not upset because you have been drinking Nyikitu,” I said to the man. “Everyone wants to drink Nyikitu. It is that you have destroyed it! It is as though you have desecrated precious works of art! The book should be heaved at you! If anyone the Imperium court was to hear about this, your lives would not be worth a devalued credit!”
“No!” the two Uctus cried. “Mercy!”
“Please try to find some equilibrium, sir,” came Parsons’s smooth voice. “The effect you evoke is not foolproof. If you outstrip it, the response will be one that is appropriate to an ordinary emotional reaction.”
I glared at the man. I was pleased to see him cower before me, but I took Parsons’s point. The deep-seated tendency of ordinary human beings to obey one of my class was not infinite. I was treading upon dangerous territory. Not only that, I was exceeding the stated purpose of my presence there. But I had to let them know the devastating nature of their crime.
“Do you realize that you have deprived the Emperor of his favorite tipple? Do you know what he might say?”
The rough face became one of a chidden child. He clapped his hands together as though praying.
“Oh, have pity, your lordship! We were stupid!”
“And drunk,” pointed out the tenor, rising to his knees in turn. He pulled the others up.
“Uh-huh,” the baritone agreed. “Reeeally drunk. What can we do to make it up to you, your nobility? Could we, er, offer you something? To, er, appease your anger?”
If the destruction of the brandy lit my temper to a roaring flame, this caused an emotional volcano to erupt, but I did my best to keep the lava in the caldera. I am afraid my tone was unnaturally heated.
“I would no more accept a bribe than I would renounce my name! How dare you question my honor or that of my noble family? There is nothing that you can offer me…”
“We need information from them, sir,” Parsons said suddenly. My diatribe deflated like a leaky bladder.
“…That I, that… Except information,” I said, emphatically. “If you give me the information you have, it will assuage some of your guilt. What is it?”
The five looked at one another in bemusement.
“We’ll tell you anything we know, your nobleness,” the woman said. “What information do you want?”
“Yeah! We know lots of stuff,” the tenor said. “Ask us anything!” The others nodded eager agreement.
“Well…?” I inquired of the disembodied Parsons.
“Ask them about adulteration of the liquid matrix for the food dispensers, my lord.”
“What?” I asked, knowing that the people at my feet would realize I was speaking to someone besides them. I trusted that it would not break the spell my presence created. “How does this connect to swindled brandy?”
“Ask them,” Plet said. “The crew of the Moskowitz was here in the weeks before the crews in custody left for the Autocracy. Anstruther found an anomaly in the station delivery manifests, and Nesbitt confirmed with employees that the Moskowitz was the vehicle that conveyed the questionable material here. They made a delivery of food matrix that was kilotons heavier than it should have been. Do they know what was in it?”
I fixed the crew with a steely eye. This sounded as though it had impacted the Coppers’ safety and freedom. I would not retreat without the answer. I repeated what Plet had said.
“What was in the tanks?” I concluded.
“Well, food,” the baritone said, looking very confused. “You know. The sludge that they put into the synthesizer machines.”
My stomach turned. “I do know. I have had my share of unfortunate experience with those dispensers. But is that all that was in those tanks?”
“Yeah, sir, I swear! I went with the servicebot when it put the stuff into the machines. We need proof of delivery to get paid by the shipper. I took pictures. You want to see them?”
“Did you know it was adulterated?” I asked. “Did you see or hear anything unusual in the tanks? Machine parts? Power supplies?”
They all shook their heads.
“No, your nobility,” the tenor insisted. “It was just ordinary sludge. I saw it myself. Smelled like, well,” he looked at friends for help, “oatmeal. A little tinny. But that’s normal, if you never saw the inners of those machines.”
“I try not to,” I said, dryly. “I find it difficult enough to use them.”
“You and me both, your nobility,” the man agreed heartily.
“Where did they get the mix?” Plet asked.
I conveyed the question.
“From jobbers,” the second Uctu said.
“The ship’s name?”
“Barony. Run by crew from Outwards.”
I knew it well. It was the fourth planet from a small yellow dwarf star. I could follow the line of questioning on my own from there.
“Do you know where they obtained the, er, sludge? The name of the distributor, the warehouse?”
The tenor shrugged.
“You’d have to ask the crew on Barony. They work for Bertu Corporation. I should’ve known there was something weird going on. They paid above the usual fee to get it into the machines here. I don’t know why. Just here. That’s all. We needed the money. Even more now because we’re gonna owe damages. And, uh…”
I saw hesitation, so I pressed them. The Kinago charm worked on their psyches so well that I felt ashamed to insist.
“They told us to disable the disposer units in each of the landing bays and the corridors,” he added sheepishly. “I’ve got no idea why. I mean, did they think that would make people eat more if they couldn’t throw out their leftovers?”
“How bizarre,” I said.
“It sounded kind of hinky to us, too, but money’s money.”
“What was special about this preparation?” I asked.
As one being, the crew shrugged. Being forced to think had sobered them up very quickly.
“Nothing as far as we could tell,” the tenor said. “I mean, once we thought about the extra money, we all ate some of the food it to see if we could tell the difference. It tasted just like the usual stuff. Maybe it had some kind of flavor enhancer to make people feel hungrier? We don’t really have a clue. It sounds strange, but it’s not the first time a company did something out of the ordinary to increase its market share. You ought to hear some of the things we’ve seen.”
“I would love to, but perhaps another time,” I said. “Is that all?” I asked the people in my ear as well as the ones before me. The five on the floor nodded.
“That is all,” Parsons affirmed. “Now, take them into custody, if you will, sir.”
“Naturally,” I said. I turned to my prisoners. “Will you surrender now?”
“To you?” the baritone said, with a look of trust that made me ashamed to the bottom of my soul. “We’ll surrender to you. Not the authorities.”
“I suppose that would be all right,” I said. “Very well, I accept your surrender. By the authority vested in me on behalf of Shojan XII, Emperor of the Imperium and all its protectorates. Er, please give me all your weapons.”
There arose such a clattering my ears suffered from the echoes for hours afterwards. They produced slugthrowers, laser pistols, knives, even a long sword that one of the Uctus drew upward from the neck of his shipsuit, the presence of which I had not at all suspected. From boot tops, sleeve cuffs and collars, throwing stars, tiny but evil-looking knives and palm-sized injectors joined the heap. A couple of meter-long wires tightly wound around thin, rigid handles appeared from the coils of the tenor’s hair. I looked at him in surprise.
“Look, you gotta be able to defend yourself against boarders,” he said.
I gathered up the weapons. All of them were substandard models except for one antique slugthrower that probably dated all the way back to lost Earth.
“Thank you, my friends,” I said. The doors behind me parted to admit several members of station security.
“Do you have to put manacles on us or something?” the woman asked. She flirted her eyelashes at me.
“Must I?” I asked.
“You could,” she said, looking hopeful.
I cringed. I had had enough for the day of predatory females.
“Do you promise not to try and flee?” I asked.
“Then we can do without the manacles.”
The woman’s shoulders drooped. The security staff poured in and took each of the Moskowitz’s crew by the upper arm. Two of them took the dozens of weapons from my arms and stowed them in a heavy carryall. I felt as though I needed to say a few more words.
“Well, that’s fine,” I said. “My cousin the emperor would be very proud of you for operating a business and giving employment to so many of your fellow citizens. Please go forth and try to do better in the future. And resist temptation, even if it be Nyikitu brandy. I thank you, on the Emperor’s behalf.”
“You’re wonderful, your nobility!” the tenor said.
With many longing looks over their shoulders, the crew was taken away. I was left on my own in the landing bay with the damaged trading ship. That had not been as hard as I had feared. After all, I had dealt with angry innkeepers, various levels of law enforcement and innumerable personnel at the shops, stores and other emporia that my cousins and I frequented.
“Come out, my lord,” Parsons said, gently. “It is over.”
I turned to depart from the landing bay, and my eyes fell upon a section of the wall immediately adjacent to the exit door. The gray panels had been shaped into a dished crater not unlike that of the caldera of an extinct volcano. What an odd place for an art installation, I thought, until I realized what I was seeing.
My knees wobbled and nearly deposited me on the deck. That was the impact point of the laser blast that had gone over my head. I could have been killed! What a fool I had been! What if everything I had been told about my heritage had been wrong? What if all those times the restraint shown to my cousins and me by annoyed tavern owners and shop clerks was mere deference to the office of the Emperor? What if I had failed? Would I be lying dead in a pathetic heap on the deck?
No, more likely, considering the number of laser pistols and disruptors of which I had divested the crew, what was left of me would be floating around as a collection of disassociated molecules. Little comfort, but less lingering in pain.
Somewhere, I found enough moral fiber to stiffen my legs. Disaster had not fallen. I had succeeded at what Parsons had asked me to do. I had done it. I touched my lucky circuit. Perhaps I had to reconsider whether such things did actually precipitate good fortune. My confidence increased with every step I took. I recovered enough to walk out into the corridor to rejoin my friends.