Authors: Jody Lynn Nye
Tags: #Fiction, #science fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure, #Space Opera
Fortunes of the Imperium
Jody Lynn Nye
Lieutenant Lord Thomas Kinago sets out from the Imperium homeworld for the Autocracy of the Uctu, a galactic region with a geckolike overlord known, eponymously, as the Autocrat. Thomas is ostensibly on a pleasure cruise with his cousin Jil to enjoy the pleasures of the Gecko culture. (Jil is herself fleeing a spot of trouble in the Central Worlds after she rebuffed the unwanted amorous interest of a local crime boss)
In fact, Thomas is on a mission for the mysterious Mr. Frank, the head of the secret service, to discover how prohibited goods, including a small fighter ship, are being smuggled into the Autocracy. His crew’s overt assignment is to find out why legitimate shippers are being detained at checkpoints, sometimes for months, without explanation. As usual, Thomas’s reputation for sudden enthusiasm and goodhearted mayhem precede him. It is all his trusted aid Parsons can do to keep his leader on course.
Thomas’s newest interest is superstitions, and he is driving everyone to distraction by telling fortunes, and even inventing a new method or two. Yet while the Autocrat, a new and fairly young Uctu female, finds Thomas a curious diplomat, she also rather likes him—much to Parsons’s relief. It seems Thomas needs free passage within the Uctu home system before he can investigate the illegal contraband trade. What’s more, the smuggling ring is quite determined to cancel Thomas’s visit before he can cancel them. As usual, it’s up to Parsons to find a way to lead his hapless master to victory—or at least keep him from getting himself killed by a very determined enemy.
BAEN BOOKS BY JODY LYNN NYE
View from the Imperium
Fortunes of the Imperium
The Grand Tour
School of Light
Walking in Dreamland
The Ship Errant
Don’t Forget Your Spacesuit, Dear
(with Robert Asprin)
With Ann McCaffrey
The Ship who Saved the World
The Death of Sleep
The Ship Who Won
(also with Elizabeth Moon)
FORTUNES OF THE IMPERIUM
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Jody Lynn Nye.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Cover art by David Mattingly
First printing, September 2014
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nye, Jody Lynn, 1957- author.
Fortunes of the imperium / by Jody Lynn Nye.
ISBN 978-1-4767-3672-3 (paperback)
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Electronic Version by Baen Books
Standing at the vending machine wall with her eight-year-old son, looking at the selections available, M’Kenna Copper felt hopeless frustration. She leaned her forehead against the blue glass. Pepper Papardelle. Nougatine Pie. Rare T-bone Steak with Potatoes Duchesse. Wild-caught Filet of Salmon. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. No matter what they called each of the entrees and snacks, none of it was really what it said on the label. All of the food was made up from a vat of nutritious glop inside the wall. Flavorings were added as the pre-measured quantity hit the mixing tray, and texture came from cooking, or whipping, or frying, depending on what the customer ordered. Nothing tasted natural, and it certainly wasn’t high quality, not out here on the edge of the Imperium where only spacers and traders passed through, and usually stayed only for the least amount of time possible until their documents were checked through for the Uctu Autocracy.
M’Kenna sighed. That was the problem. Their family-run trader, the
, had been held up there on Way Station 46, for no good reason anyone could give them, for over three months. The distributor awaiting the goods they were carrying had sent them dozens of cranky messages, escalating in irritation and threats of cancellation with every further delay. Her husband, Rafe, had argued back, as patiently as he could, that he couldn’t make the government move any faster.
The Coppers weren’t alone in their misery. Four other trading ships had been mired even longer than they had. In spite of warnings the five of them put out over the Infogrid, seven more had arrived and become stuck in the bureaucratic spider web since then. Worse yet, none of the ships heading back from the Autocracy into the Imperium were held up. They pulled into the airlocks for a brief inspection of their manifests, and zoom, they were on their way. No one had any reasons for why there was a one-way bottleneck. Rafe and all the other captains had sent appeals to the Core Worlds, all of which were answered by prerecorded vids of a pleasant-looking Human woman who reminded them that the Autocracy was sovereign space and its laws had to be obeyed. M’Kenna and the other traders were eager to obey the laws, if only they had the chance!
And she was so sick of the food on the space station she could have cried. So were her four youngsters. But they had to eat. She chose an entrée at random on the projected display and started to tap in the code.
“No, Mama,” Lerin said, grabbing her wrist and dragging it down to his level. “No, no, no, no. I hate tofu chili! No!”
M’Kenna held herself back from snapping at him. They were all on edge. She was the adult. She had to hold on to her temper. Their troubles weren’t his fault. She knelt down beside him and stroked his thick black braids.
“Lerin, you have to eat something. The others all chose already. They’re back in the ship, eating. You can’t starve.”
He folded his arms and stuck his chin out in defiance.
starve. When are we getting to Partwe? I like the food there.”
She sighed again.
His nose and ears showed red under his walnut-brown complexion that was just the same shade as hers. He broke away from her caresses and threw his hands in the air.
“You always say soon! It’s never soon! I want to get out of here!”
“So do I, honey,” M’Kenna said. In desperation, she decided to try bribery. “Look, we’ll go for one of the premium meals today. It comes with a game download. They have Asteroid Tag. I know you wanted to try that.”
“All right,” Lerin said, his eyebrows rising in anticipation. Disaster was delayed, at least for the moment. He picked the fanciest sandwich on the list, mock-chick baked in round puff bread with cherry mustard globules and crisp cheese stars. He tapped the image. They both watched the animation of a happy-faced robot chef putting together the ingredients. He tossed them a cheery salute with his long spoon. His image disappeared, replaced by a scannable code. Lerin held up his blue-framed tablet. A shrill tootle from both the vending machine and pad indicated the download was completed. The screen on his small device lit up and music blared from the audio output.
“Great!” he said, jabbing at the controls with his thumbs. The hatch on the front of the vending machine slid open to reveal the sandwich, cut into half-spheres, on a stiff, recycled-fiber plate.
“No playing until you eat your lunch!” M’Kenna ordered, reaching for the pad, but it was no use. Lerin eluded her grasp and ran into the ship.
“Hey, I got Asteroid Tag!” he shouted.
“Lerin, your sandwich!”
M’Kenna groaned. This happened at least every other time she had bought one of the kids a premium meal. She had pleaded with the station authorities to delay the games from opening for at least twenty minutes so kids would eat half of their meal. They argued that it was unfair to make adults wait. In the official release, the authorities suggested that parents ought to install controls on their children’s tablets. M’Kenna and her husband had done that a dozen times, and each time the children had unprogrammed them. Until people started having dumber kids, it wasn’t going to work.
No sense in wasting food. She layered the crunchy cheese stars in on top of the mock-chick and took a bite. The premium meals did taste a little better than the cheaper choices. The tart cherry mustard livened the bland mock-chick flavor considerably. Until the food touched her tongue, she hadn’t realized that she was hungry, too. She finished one half in six bites, and licked the mustard off her fingers.
The overhead speaker in the corridor blared out its pseudo-trumpet call, demanding attention. M’Kenna looked up.
“Crew of the
, report to the port manager’s office.”
At last! She grabbed for her own pad and signaled to her husband Rafe.
“Honey, did you hear that?” she asked, as soon as his narrow, oblong face appeared on the small screen.
“Yes! Can you go? I’m changing Dorna.”
“No problem,” she said. She put the pad back in her hip pouch. No longer hungry, she glanced around for a disposer to take the rest of the sandwich. The only hatch in the vending wall flashed the message “Out of Order” in insistent blue letters. She couldn’t just drop the food. Video pickups were everywhere, and the penalties for littering on the station were ridiculously high. She dashed up the ramp into their ship and tossed the plate into the disposer just inside the double airlock doors. She wheeled on her heel and hurried off to see the port manager.
“And you are . . . ?” the Liberated Artificial Intelligence in the doorframe inquired, though M’Kenna knew it had already identified her biometric information via the bulbous lenses and sensors just below eye level.
“M’Kenna Copper, navigator/owner, ship
, tail number Beta Ni Gimel 5466G.”
“Welcome, Navigator/Owner Copper. Enter. You are ninth in line to see the port manager.”
She groaned. Another wait! But when the door zipped open, the waiting room was empty. The receptionist, a Croctoid with gleaming teeth and scales, waved her toward the door to the inner sanctum.
“Good midday, M’Kenna,” said Rothem. “Join the group. The meeting will begin when three more arrive.”
“Three!” she exclaimed. “What’s going on?”
If the Croctoid had had shoulders, he would have shrugged them. Instead, he blinked his small eyes rapidly. “A meeting.”
This time Rothem showed all his teeth. There were lots of them.
“It’s hopeful, for a change.”
M’Kenna slid into the small office. In spite of the importance of the port manager’s function, his chambers were no larger than those of a planetbound clerk. Such were the strictures of an atmosphere-preservative environment. Almost every trader that had been trapped on Way Station 46 was present, so whatever was going on concerned all of them.
Tall though she was, she couldn’t see over the furry shoulders of the three-man, or rather, three-Wichu crew from the
Sword Snacks IV
, one of the ships from a large-scale specialty foods importer. They had been grousing to anyone who would listen that their cargo was no more than a week from spoiling. M’Kenna was only marginally sympathetic; she and Rafe had carried fresh food into the Autocracy once—only once. The import licenses were the least of their problems. The smell of the refrigerated food was what drove the Coppers crazy. The fruit the lizard-like Uctu preferred was the stinkiest growth native to the Imperium. By the end of the trip, M’Kenna had been ready to jump ship and go live in a biological desert.
She tapped the Wichu captain on the shoulder.
“Nuro, what’s going on?”
The Wichu turned huge, round purple eyes to her. He showed his upper gums. That meant he was happy.
“They’re talking about letting us leave!”
“They are? What was the holdup?”
“Shut up,” Nuro said, suddenly. The Wichu had a crude manner of speaking, even to their friends. “Big Mouth is talking.”
That was everyone’s nickname for Port Manager Denzies FitzGreen. M’Kenna strained to hear.
“. . . So, the
arrived this morning at 0530,” FitzGreen said. He was a big, red-faced man with a wisp of white hair stretched unconvincingly from side to side over his head. “They’re clearing customs. As soon as they’ve finished with the Ag inspection, the Autocracy has said all of you can leave with it.”
M’Kenna felt outrage rising in her gut. The
was their fiercest competitor on the Uctu run! She pitched her voice to carry over the massed voices in the low-ceilinged room.
“Yes, ma’am,” FitzGreen said. He moved until he could make eye contact with her in between the shoulders of the others in the room. “You can untie as soon as they’re ready to pull out.”
“Why do they get special treatment?” M’Kenna demanded. “Why do they get priority?”
FitzGreen shook his head. “I’m sorry, I have no idea. The Uctu inspectors sent an advance copy of the
’s manifests to Nacer. They got word just a few minutes ago. You all leave together, ASAP. Look, do you want to get out of here, or not?”
M’Kenna joined the unhappy muttering of the crowd.
FitzGreen took that as assent. He smiled and flicked a hand at them.
“Good. I was getting tired of seeing your ugly faces anyhow. Go pay your tabs, clock in with Flight Control, and get off my station!”
“But what about preflight?” Derward Rissul asked. “I’ve got to recharge my atmospherics, and there’s a couple of circuits in my main cabin portals need replacing!”
FitzGreen put on a sympathetic expression that fooled no one.
“Well, Rissul, no one lifts unless all of you do, so ask your fellow pilots what they think of further delays. All of you have had weeks . . .”
“Months!” an annoyed voice rang out from the other side of the room over the collective moans.
“. . . Well, yes, months, in some cases,” FitzGreen said. “You should have taken care of that when you had the chance. Can it wait to your next transshipment point?”
“It had better,” Nuro bellowed. “I’m not waiting one microsecond longer than I have to. As soon as
clears, I am leaving! Anyone who delays me is getting rammed.”
No one got rammed. In fact, every one of the thirteen ships exited Way Station 46 in record time.
The passage through the frontier and the jump that followed seemed to take only minutes instead of the hours that the chronometer said it did. M’Kenna kept her eyes on the tank display as soon as they broke into real-space.
“Well, thank all deities, there it is,” M’Kenna crowed.
Rafe Copper bent his long back to look at what his wife and navigator was so happy about. His odd-colored eyes offered an unspoken question.
“Edge of Partwe system,” M’Kenna said, slapping her hands on the console. “I thought we’d never make it.”
The blue-white beacon, the size of a small moon, flashed its lights in a sequence that she and Rafe knew so well. Their trading ship, the
, had made the journey over forty times since they had teamed up and married. Almost invisible from this distance was Partwe’s sun, more orange in color than that circled by the Core Worlds or most of the Human-inhabited systems, but plenty warm to sustain life. Partwe 3, otherwise known as Nacer, the second planet out from the star, was one of the most lucrative of trade worlds in the Autocracy. The system lay between the closest Imperium outpost and the Autocracy’s home system, Dilawe. Partwe 3 was home to innumerable distributors and small businesses who acted as middlemen for the traders who poured over the frontier every year.