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"The best of times, assuredly," Lord Dunsmore agreed. He was always eager to agree with anyone whose opinion was worth noting, and in this instance, he could have found no reason not to agree had he pondered the matter for hours. His host, although only a regional manager for GalaxCo, was related to the Mainwaring family by marriage and therefore had to be considered knowledgeable and, to a carefully measured degree, influential. "By any standard," Lord Dunsmore said, "clearly, the Empire is at high tide."
"But Herbert, dearest," his wife protested, "surely a high tide implies the coming of a low tide. You seem to suggest that the Empire's fortunes shall soon be on the wane."
"Not necessarily, Lady Dunsmore," their young host, Richard DuMont, quickly responded. "Here on Mynjhino, we have three moons, you know. One high tide may be quickly followed by another, which may be even higher. Rather a complex business, I fear."
The lad was clever, Lord Dunsmore decided, although perhaps a bit presumptuous to contradict his wife in such a bold fashion. Contradicting his wife was a prerogative Lord Dunsmore embraced for himself, and it was one of his more satisfying pastimes. "It was, in any event," he pointed out, "merely a figure of speech. What I meant, of course"he looked toward Lady Dunsmore with a peremptory glare"was that the state of the Empire is satisfactory in nearly every respect. Young Charles is growing into his office in a most splendid fashion, and peace and prosperity are the order of the day. I confess, I had my doubts after that dreadful business three years agoI suppose we all did, what?but one can hardly gainsay his performance since then."
"Oh, indeed, Lord Dunsmore, indeed!" young DuMont responded, raising a glass of wine. DuMont nodded toward one of the waiters to summon another bottle. "However," DuMont continued, "I, for one, never had any doubts about the qualities of our new Emperor. You see, I knew him briefly when we were in school together, and just after. Did I mention that already?"
"Five times, at least, dear," his wife, Rosalyn, reminded him. She was quite attractive in a rather obvious way. A bit of a tart, it seemed to Lord Dunsmore, with her High Imperial pretensions. Her skimpy attire was nearly transparent, which seemed a bit much merely for Tuesday afternoon tennis and drinks at their club. Still, she presented distinct possibilities for this evening. He was not likely to find better on this isolated rathole of a planet.
The waiter arrived with a fresh bottle of wine, preceded by an unpleasant waft of pungency. The creature was about five feet tall and covered head to foot in short, rather greasy yellowish-brown fur. Naked, it seemed. It had long, sharply pointed ears jutting outward from its skull at a forty-five-degree angle, and large, liquid brown eyes set wide above a short, blunt snout. It looked like an animated teddy bear or a tall koala, perhaps, and was not unpleasant to behold. But it stank. Lord Dunsmore turned his head away in search of fresher air while the creature did its duty. He stared out from their table on the veranda across the tennis courts and toward the lush green of the plantations in the distance. When the wine was poured and the creature was gone, Lord Dunsmore looked back at his host.
"It's a wonder to me that you can stand the stench."
"One gets used to it, in time, my lord," DuMont replied. "But I do apologize for it."
"Oh, no need for you to apologize, Richard, dear," Lady Dunsmore responded with just the right touch of airy condescension.
"Still," said Lord Dunsmore, "one would think that at a private club such as this, one might find some relief from the locals. Can no humans be found to provide services? Or failing that, robots?"
"Robots might be preferable," DuMont conceded, "but importing them would be a problem. No local construction facilities, of course, and our concession agreement is rather restrictive in that area. We aren't to put the little fellows out of work, if we can avoid it. And as for humans, well, my lord, good luck in finding one to serve you your dinner. They are all out in the hills on the Western Continent looking for gems and ores, or overseeing the plantations here on the Eastern Continent. There are fortunes to be made on a world such as thisor at any rate, there is always the hope of a fortune. No one comes this far at such an expense just to be a menial."
"I suppose." Lord Dunsmore reluctantly nodded. "Still, one would think . . ."
"There are only ten thousand of us here, my lord," Rosalyn DuMont pointed out.
"Yes," her husband agreed, "there's always a shortage of human labor on worlds like Mynjhino. Spirit knows, GalaxCo has its problems finding adequate staff out here. We're 862 light-years from home, and we must compete with hundreds of nearer, better-established colonies. And you are aware that Imperial policy is to make use of local labor, where it exists."
"Imperial policy? Dexta policy, you mean!" Lord Dunsmore sniffed. "Damned bureaucrats. If I have any complaint at all with our new Emperor, it is with his constant truckling to that knave Mingus and his grim, gray army."
"Oh, they aren't all that bad, dear," Lady Dunsmore objected. "We know some perfectly fine people at Dexta. And as for the Emperor, well, one mustn't forget that his wifeor I should say, ex-wifeis at Dexta. At a rather low level, I gather, but perhaps she still has some influence over him."
"I knew her, as well," DuMont couldn't keep himself from mentioning. "Perfectly stunning woman, and smart as a whip."
"If she was so stunning and smart as all that," Lord Dunsmore said with a trace of contempt, "I rather fancy she'd still be his wife instead of some drone in the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs."
"Oh, but it was she who dropped him," Lady Dunsmore reminded her husband. "Of course, that was five or six years ago, before he had any prospect of ascension."
"And as for being a drone"DuMont laughed"well, Glory was anything but that. I even took a run at her myself, back in school, but that was before she met Charles. And before I met Rosalyn, of course," he added, with a quick, reassuring glance at his wife. Rosalyn returned his smile mechanically.
Lord Dunsmore was becoming annoyed at being contradicted so frequently. Young DuMont forgot himself, and even if his tart of a wife was a Mainwaring, he might do well to keep in mind that Dunsmore was a nonvoting Board member of GalaxCo. That was the only reason he would even consider coming to this drab little world, or being hosted by such unctuously common young functionaries. Spirit be praised, he only had to spend a week here, making the obligatory tours of the plantations and processing facilities. His eyes roved to the flimsy togs and pert young body of Rosalyn DuMont, and he made up his mind that he would bed the bitch before the week was up. It would be small enough compensation for such a tedious sojourn.
"What say to some more tennis?" Lady Dunsmore asked.
"Boys against girls, this time!" cried Rosalyn enthusiastically.
Her suggestion was greeted with a long moment of frosty silence by the Dunsmores. Lords and Ladies were seldom referred to as "boys and girls," certainly not by commoners, no matter how rich or well connected. Lord Dunsmore's face registered his disapproval. A slow consciousness of her blunder began to dawn on Rosalyn, and her features fell into a grimace of embarrassment and horror. Lord Dunsmore said nothing as his wife let the girl suffer a few seconds longer than was really necessary.
"Women against men, my dear," she said, breaking the tension while doing little to make Rosalyn feel any better. "A battle of the sexes, then," she added, eyeing Richard.
Lord Dunsmore didn't really want to play any more tennis, but he supposed that it would be preferable to sitting here and being insulted. "Very well," he said to Richard, ignoring his desolated young tart for the moment. "Have thatcreaturefetch our rackets, if you would."
Richard raised his arm, snapped his fingers in the direction of one of the Myn servants and called, "Rackets!"
The nearest of the Myn servants seemed not to notice. It stood rooted in place, its head tilted upward toward the heavens.
DuMont sighed in frustration. "You see what we have to contend with here, my lord," he said to Lord Dunsmore. "The Myn are so damned dreamy and distracted, forever communing with their departed elders instead of keeping their pathetic little minds on the task at hand. It's hardly a wonder that the Home Office is dissatisfied with production in the plantations."
"Indeed," said Lord Dunsmore.
"I hope you'll make a point of mentioning it to them when you return home, my lord. If one hasn't actually seen the Myn, it's difficult to understand how truly impossible it is to get anything done in this place!"
"So it would seem," said Lord Dunsmore, gazing at the immobile Myn. "Can't you get its attention somehow? Perhaps a good swift kick?"
"It would hardly help, my lord," said DuMont. "Ah, one of them, at least, seems to have gotten the message." He nodded toward another of the Myn approaching their table. But Lord Dunsmore noted that it appeared to have picked up the wrong case. It didn't even look like a case for a tennis racket.
It wasn't. The Myn stopped ten feet away from the humans, opened the case, and stood there in front of them holding what appeared to be an automatic rifle of some sort. It looked to Lord Dunsmore like something he had once seen in a museum in Edinburgh. Curious, thought Lord Dunsmore, that such an antiquated device should turn up here.
It was the last thing Lord Dunsmore ever thought.
When the robotic courier from Mynjhino burst back into normal space just inside the orbit of the asteroid belt and slightly below the plane of the ecliptic, Gloria VanDeen, Level XIII Dexta bureaucrat and Coordinating Supervisor for Division Beta-5, Sector 8, was staring at her computer console and trying to concentrate on the next Quarterly Resource Allocation report. The Dexta offices on the five worlds of Beta-5, one of which was Mynjhino, had already made their needs known to the five System Coordinators at HQ, and they had dutifully reported their desires to Gloria, whose task it was to sort the wheat from the bureaucratic chaff.
As usual, everyone had asked for much more than they needed in the faint hope of getting what they actually required. Pecos, a prosperous planet with a growing population, had requested authorization for eight additional Rated Staff and thirty Unrated Staff positions. Gloria skimmed the too-lengthy justification offered for the increase and arbitrarily cut the numbers to four and sixteen. By the time the QRA wended its way upward through Sector and Quadrant, Pecos would be lucky to wind up with two and eightwhich was probably about what they actually needed. And as for the small, dismal mining colony on Gregson's Planet, just why, she wondered, did anyone there think they would get approval for a new node on their Orbital Station?
Gloria sighed, leaned back in her chair, and rubbed her eyes. The QRA was one of the more tedious scraps of bureaucratic effluvia that regularly came her way. But, she reminded herselfnot for the first timethat she knew the job was tedious when she took it. This was routine, meat-and-potatoes stuff, and normally she cut right through it, but today she was having trouble staying focused. Her mind was elsewhere.
Specifically, it was in Rio. And the Emperor's Levee. For Spirit's sake, what could Charles have been thinking?
"His Imperial Highness, Charles V, is pleased to request the honor of your company . . ." Gloria shook her head slowly in lingering disbelief at the invitation. People had been known to kill for an invitation to a Levee, or, failing to get one, to kill themselves. Gloria's reaction to the invitation was not quite so extreme; she merely dreaded it.
They hadn't seen each other since she walked out on him, what seemed a lifetime ago. What did his Imperial Smugness want? And why now? And why did he think she would come?
And yet . . . Gloria felt some indefinable tug in her gut when she thought of Charles. It hadn't been all bad, and there were times when . . .
No, she told herself, it would definitely not do to think about that. Not at all. What she really needed to think about was the truly pressing issue of how many new cargo docks were actually necessary for the Gregson Orbital Station. Gloria returned to the QRA with a will.
Meanwhile, the courier from Mynjhino oriented itself, then squirted out a high-intensity signal crammed with information, directed at the nearest Repeater. An hour later, having received confirmation of receipt, it used the last of its fuel to bend its trajectory away from the Sun and off toward interstellar space. Assured now that it posed no further threat to traffic in the inner solar system, the courier obligingly blew itself up, and its debris continued onward and outward at 92 percent of the speed of light.
Traveling at the speed of light, the courier's original signal, amplified by the Repeater, soon arrived at the receiving antennas of Central, a vast complex of such antennas hovering at a stable Lagrangian point in orbit above Earth. There, the signal was rerouted and beamed to another orbital complex and down to the waiting antennas of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs, stationed in a stunted meadow in northern New Jersey. A final change of direction allowed the information to complete the last twenty miles of its 5,000-trillion-mile journey, and it arrived at Dexta's offices in midtown Manhattan, where it was routed to the desk console of Level XIV System Coordinator Zoe
Zachary, announcing its presence there with a loud, annoying electronic trill.
Zoe Zachary was currently busy elsewhere, in the women's restroom, but outside her office, Level XV staffer Gordon Chesbro heard the trill through the open door. Hidden by the low walls of his cubicle, Chesbro didn't hesitate, and, with a few deft but officially forbidden keystrokes, quickly violated at least three of Dexta's sacred IntRegs and transferred a copy of the message to his own console. The pudgy young man munched on a candy bar as he read the message, becoming the first person on Earth to learn of the deaths of Lord and Lady Dunsmore, along with fourteen other humans, which had occurred three days earlier on the distant world of Mynjhino.
Mynjhino was Chesbro's bailiwick, and no one in Dexta knew more about that planet and its inhabitants than he didnot even his boss, Zoe Zachary, whose responsibility they were. Zoe had other things on her mind much of the time, but Chesbro had no other function in Dextaand barely any other function in lifethan to absorb, process, and understand all that could be known about that rather odd planet, more than three-quarters of the way to the frontiers of the Empire. He could honestly say that he was not completely surprised by the news, although some of the details included in the report gave him pause.