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Authors: Kristine Smith

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BOOK: Code of Conduct
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“—it has been too long.”

The recorded audience exploded into applause as the ambassador raised his right hand above his head in a subservient greeting. The red stone in his ring of station flashed reflected daylight like a small warning light. As the clapping died, Tse
cha bowed his head and continued his speech in High Vynshàrau.

Jani positioned herself so that the crowd blocked the subtitles. She watched Tsecha's posture and gestures, the sweep and flourish of the highly choreographed language, and intuited meaning the way a musician discerned note, tone, and tempo. It had taken her seven years to develop the skill; pride and respect for the language prevented her from playing ignorant and covering it up. The Haárin had noticed her ability soon after she'd arrived in NorthPort. Whenever their trade council experienced a communications breakdown with the Whalen's Planet Merchants' Association, they always contacted Cory Sato to help resolve it, a fact that only helped worsen her relationship with her bosses.

Jani flinched as the woman next to her pointed to the news-screen. “It's so beautiful! That language. Those gestures. Like a kind of dancing!”

A man in a dockworker's coverall shook his head firmly. “Don't trust them. None of them, not even the ones we got here.” He gestured in the direction of the Haárin enclave. “Sneaky bastards. Don't see none of 'em here, do you? No, they gotta shut themselves away all private.”

“Tsecha's the Pathen Haárin's religious as well as secular leader,” the woman said. “They're required to gather together in their meeting hall to listen to him. Then afterwards, they'll pray.”

Jani nodded in agreement. Genta had, in fact, committed a serious breach of order by not attending the program. But even the most humanish-behaving idomeni felt that acting one way while believing another was disorderly; Genta's cultural conditioning prevented him from hiding his displeasure with his ambassador. Likewise, his council's action against him would be very public, and very swift.
If his delivery contracts are canceled, the MA will explode
. And she would be dragged in to ladle oil over the whitecaps, sure as hell—

“Them and their prayers.” The dockworker glared at Tsecha's image. “Everything's a damned prayer. Even their damned meals. Say it's their religion, but whoever heard of a religion where it's a sin to eat in public? With friends. Like normal.”

The woman frowned at him. “Eating's different for them. They store food very carefully and keep records of where it comes from. They call their meals
sacraments
and their cooks
priests
. They eat by themselves and pray the whole time. Very ceremonial. Very precise.” She nodded knowingly. “That's how they honor their gods.”

“The Haárin honor money more than gods,” another man said. “You can buy some of their blessed sacrament if you really want it.” He grimaced. “Don't know why you would, though. They season their food like to blow the top of your head off. Even the sweet stuff.”

“Sacraments.” The dockworker snorted. “Bunch of creeps. Talk like they got marbles in their mouths, look at you like you're dirt.” He walked away, his expression stony. “Didn't need any damned ambassadors for almost twenty years. Why now?”

Interesting question, sir—I've pondered it myself the past few weeks
. Jani cast a last look toward the screen, taking note of the ministers sharing the stage with Tsecha. Every face wore a broad smile. Well, those expressions would be wiped out soon enough when they realized what they'd let themselves in for. At least this time she'd be far enough away to avoid shrapnel. For once in her screwed-up life, she'd stationed herself, as her mainline Service buddies used to say, well back of the front.

The rain had turned to mist. Time to head back to the Association tracking station she called home. Jani hurried in the direction of the lot where her skimmer sat charging, picking up her pace even though her back had begun to ache. Her bosses would soon be screaming for the official morning docking numbers. She couldn't afford to piss them off any more.

A shout sounded from behind. The pound of running feet. Jani's heart raced. Her breath caught in her throat. Then chill calm washed over her, like an old friend resting a hand on her shoulder. She reached into the inner pocket of her duffel. Her hand closed around the grip of her old Service shooter. She turned, only to see the desk clerk from the hostel racing toward her.

“Jeez, Cory, wake up!” The young man slowed to a gasping halt. “I need—to talk to you.”

Jani withdrew her empty hand from the duffel and tried to smile.

“Boy, you look wrecked.” The clerk's voice dropped to a whisper. “You get those old farts you work for through that audit ok?”

“As always,” Jani replied.

“You know”—he leaned closer—“there's a doe here from SouthPort Consolidated. Jammin' blonde. She's looking for doc techs. Pass her exam, she's offering Registry-level jobs.”

“So?”

The clerk rolled his eyes. “
You
, dummy! You're the talk of the Merchants', my manager says. All the paper you vet is so clean, it squeaks. Six months on the job, not one observation from Guv Hall. My manager calls it a miracle.”

My bosses call it something else
. Jani's smile faded. The word “verifier” hadn't been said aloud at this morning's meeting, but the mute accusation had hung heavy in the air.
Government spy. They think I'm a government spy
.

If they only knew.

Jani glanced down the street, where the crowd still gathered in front of the communications shop. “I'll think about it.”

The clerk sighed. “Yeah, well, don't think too long. She's checking out tonight.” He shook his head. “Registry-level jobs. Just think. Exterior Ministry on Amsun. Maybe even Earth!” He punched Jani's arm. “Registry—that's the top of the tree!”

I know all about the Registry, child—my name resides in a very prominent place in that epic tome
. “Thanks for the word,” Jani said. “I'll give it all due consideration.” She left the clerk to argue with her retreating back and ducked into the alley she always used to reach the charge lot. Then her stomach grumbled, and she tried to recall what waited at home in her cooler.
Cold air—damn, I need to buy food
. And all the decent shops were in the opposite direction.

Jani hurried out of the alley, slid to a stop, and scurried back into the shelter of a doorway. The desk clerk was talking to an attractive blonde. His new contact from SouthPort Con
solidated, Jani assumed. Try as she might, she couldn't recall ever seeing that company name on any shipping logs that had passed through her hands.

Jani studied the woman's neat hair and stylish clothes, both several GateWays removed from the best SouthPort had to offer. She watched as the desk clerk nodded, then pointed in the direction of the alley.

She backed down the passageway, her sore back protesting every stride. When she reached the other end, she looked up and down the street, ducking into the shadows as a passenger skimmer drifted by. She listened, until she heard only faraway street sounds and knew for certain that she was alone. Then she ran.

Scrub and sand blurred past as Jani concentrated on the approaching tracking station. The squat building sat like an overturned bowl in the middle of the plain, its safety beacon shining gamely through the fog.

The steadying hand on her shoulder returned as the calmness reasserted itself. A survival checklist formed in her mind. What she had to do, how quickly, and how thoroughly. She hadn't always been that organized. The Service had literally drilled it into her head. Augmentation. The implants in her brain that had, at least officially, made her a soldier. Jani resented augie when she didn't need it, but gripped it like a life preserver now. As she neared the station, it kept her focused, compelled her to watch the shallow recesses in the dome, the dark shadows where someone could hide.

She circled the small dome twice before she edged the skimmer into its charge slot. Shooter at the ready, she carded through the station's two sets of doors and scanned the cell-like single room. Finding nothing out of place, she set the weapon on standby and tucked it into the belt of her coverall. Working with speed born of habit and dispassion born of chemistry, she packed her few clothes into her small duffel. Then she stripped the bed and bath area, feeding the flimsy sheets and towels into the trashzap. The volume of material overwhelmed the unit's filter; the odor of burnt cloth filled the room.

Jani rummaged through one of the side compartments of her duffel and carefully withdrew the small Naxin bomb. Af
ter the protein digester did its work, no trace of her presence, no hair, skin cell, or fingerprint, would remain. A second bomb nestled in her bag. She would use it on the skimmer after she reached the shuttleport.

Jani checked her timepiece. Shuttles to the NorthPort docks departed every half hour, but with the slowdown, there was no guarantee they'd follow their normal schedule. She sat on the narrow bed, bomb in hand. If this all turned out to be nothing, there would be hell to pay. Naxin lingered like bad memories—the station would require a thorough decontamination. Expensive decontamination.
In other words, kiss this job good-bye
.

But who knew? Maybe the desk clerk's friend with the Registry job would come to her aid. Jani smiled sadly. Who could guess the offer of a Registry job would hold enough attraction to make her drop her carefully maintained guard?

Someone who knew her well.

And who knows you that well, Captain Kilian
?

She broke the seal on the protein bomb, set it on the mattress, and hurried toward the door. Within seconds, the device's outer housing would split, releasing a steady yellow stream of digestive mist.

Just as the door swept open, the station's proximity alarm activated. “Skimmer approaching from north-northwest,” the tinny voice entoned. “Speed sixty-five kilometers per hour. Single occupant. Estimated time of arrival two minutes.”

Jani looked back at the bed. The protein bomb emitted a sound like cracking ice, releasing the first puffs of corrosive fog. Too late to hurl it out the door. A few good pulls of Naxin would turn her lungs to soup.

She let the station's inner door close behind her, backed against the narrow entryway wall, and forced the outer door to remain closed by pushing with her left foot against its raised metal frame. Then she reached up and shattered the casing of the overhead light with the grip of her shooter, plunging the small space into darkness. In the meantime, the barest whiff of Naxin had worked its way through the gaps in the inner door seal. Jani closed her eyes against the stinging mist and stifled a cough.

The alarm spoke again. “Approach is made.”

She activated her shooter. After her visitor made a few attempts to force the door, she'd pull her foot away. Allow the door to open. Then wait for that first tentative step forward into the dark.

Oblique line of fire—aim for the head.

Jani heard the crunch of footsteps, a plastic click as someone inserted a card into the reader, silence as the jammed door forced the reader to deny access. Again, the click of the card. Once more, nothing.

“Damn her!”

That voice
. Jani tensed as the outer door shook under the force of banging knocks.

“Jani! It's Evan! Please let me in!” A pause. “I'm alone.” Softer. “Please.”

Her calm cracked like the bomb housing.
Oh God! Not him!
She tightened her grip on her weapon.
They wouldn't let him come here alone
. Evan. Van Reuter. The Commonwealth Interior Minister. No security officer worth a damn would have allowed him to wander unescorted on any colony. His face had been plastered on the cover of every newssheet for weeks—even the most info-starved transport jockey would recognize him.

“Jani? Jani?” The banging resumed, louder, more insistent. The air in the tiny space shook with the noise. “
I know you're in there! Talk to me!

More Naxin had seeped into the enclosure, choking Jani's breath away as she tried to inhale. Her eyes burned. The skin of her face felt hot. She pulled her foot away from the door. It slid open, but she remained back in the shadows, letting the cold air pour over her.

At first, nothing. Then Evan van Reuter stepped forward. Almost twenty years had passed since Jani had seen that tall, slim form, that tilt of the head. Not as much of a stomach-clench as with the Haárin. Not quite. “Should I curtsy, Excellency?” she asked as she stepped out of the doorway, forcing him to backpedal.

“Jani?” He stared at her, broad brow furrowed in confusion. “Is that you?” Then his gaze fell on her shooter. Thin lips tensed in a tight line. Dark, hooded eyes narrowed. Jani could hear his thoughts as though he spoke them out loud.
After so long, he was unsure of her. She almost felt flattered.

“It's really me, Evan.” She disengaged the power pack and shoved her inactivated weapon into her duffel.

Evan thrust his hands into the pockets of his Interior field coat. The hem of the heavy black garment flapped around his knees as the wind howled. “I need to talk to you. It's important. But it's freezing out here! Can't we go inside?”

Jani shook her head. She felt the augmentation leach away, leaving vague edginess in its place. She held up her right hand and watched it shake. “Can't. Bombed it.”

“Well, at least we can get out of this damned wind!” Evan grabbed her arm and pulled her after him behind the small building. There, a sleek black sedan hovered shadowlike beside her battered single-seater.

He yanked open the sedan's gullwing and pushed Jani into the passenger seat. The heavy door closed over her with a solid
thunk
. Black trueleather cushions, soft as butter, sensed her chill and grew warm.

Evan got in beside her and pulled his door closed. “God, how can you live here!” He dug under his seat, came up first with a large thermoflask, then two polished metal cups.

He thrust one of the cups into Jani's hand and filled it. The weighty aromas of chocolate and fresh coffee flooded the cabin. Despite her nerves, her mouth watered—she hadn't tasted truebean in years. She drained her cup with childlike greed.

“Jani? For cry—you want more?” Evan held out the thermoflask, then hesitated. “What's wrong with your face? It's all red.”

She felt her cheek. Despite exposure to cold wind and rain, the skin felt dry and hot. “Naxin exposure. It's like sunburn. I'll be fine.”

“I have to get you to a doctor—”

“I'll be
fine
.”

Evan retreated slowly. “And to think I thought this would be the easy part, after what I went through to find you.” He set his cup in a niche in the dash and dug through his coat pockets. “I had nothing to go on. Your file's been buried. All I had was your canceled lieutenant's ID, the one you gave
me after your promotion to captain. I had copies made, sent out to my people.”

“Like your blonde from SouthPort Consolidated?” Jani slumped in her seat and felt the ergoworks vibrate in their efforts to support her properly. “Why that hostel? Why the hell did I have to run into
that
hostel?”

“I had people all over NorthPort,” Evan said as he searched. “SouthPort, too. The docks. I had no intention of letting you slip away.” He pulled a tiny slipcase from the inside pocket of his coat. “My blonde came back and told me they had found a likely suspect. You, of course. Only problem was, you didn't look like the holo. But she did say the Haárin liked you, you were damned good at your job, and the people you worked for couldn't figure you out. That sounded familiar.” He removed a card from the slipcase and handed it to Jani. “The crash changed things, I guess.”

Jani avoided looking at the ID at first, then grim fascination got the better of her. She took the card from Evan and stared at the image that smirked back.

Her hair had been longer then. A stick-straight, collar-grazing pageboy, rather than the scalp-hugging cap of waves she now bore, framed a rounder, less angular face. Fringed bangs accentuated thicker eyebrows, an upward-curving nose.

Jani ran a finger along her current arched bridge. Her coloring hadn't changed, though. Hair thick and black, then as now. Skin still light brown. Eyes…still green.

Well, they are—I just don't show them to company
. The black color filming she'd applied the previous day felt scratchy in the dry air of the skimmer cabin. She restrained the urge to rub her eyes and refocused on her image. Yellow lieutenant's bars imprinted with tiny silver
D
s shone from the sides of her steel blue banded collar. Sideline yellow. Sideline Service. Not the real thing, her mainline buddies had stressed to her repeatedly. Real lieutenants,
mainline
lieutenants, had red bars. She was a documents examiner. Ineligible for command school. Banned from combat training. Not a real soldier.

Let us sing a song of real soldiers
. Jani tossed the ID back in Evan's lap. “Too little-girly, don't you think?”

Evan grabbed the card before it slid to the floor, polishing
the places where his fingers had smudged the surface. “I always liked it,” he muttered defensively as he tucked it gently back into the slipcase and returned it to his pocket.

A few fidgety moments passed. Jani toyed with her empty cup. “I didn't see you on the welcoming committee.” She shrugged at Evan's puzzled frown. “That thing for Tsecha. They broadcast the holoVee show here today, but it happened over six weeks ago. Takes about that long to get here from Earth.”

“Jani—”

“Even sooner, when you can clear the nav paths by invoking ministerial privilege. What are you doing here?”

Evan tapped a thumb against the skimmer's steering wheel. He'd worked off his coat, revealing the dress-down Interior uniform of loose-fitting black tunic tucked into dark grey trousers. His profile, backlit by the skimmer cabin's subdued lighting, now resembled his late father's in a way Jani would never have thought possible years before.
From Acton to Evan—the van Reuter hawk lives
. Closely clipped dark brown hair accentuated his cheekbone, the curve of his long jaw, the line of his neck.
What I used to do to that neck
.

Correction, what the girl in the ID used to do to that neck.

Evan sipped his coffee. “The reason I didn't attend the welcoming ceremony for the ambassador,” he said quietly, “is because the PM requested I stay away.”

“That makes no sense. You knew Tsecha when we were stationed in Rauta Shèràa. You're the only minister who can claim that. Doesn't Cao realize how valuable that experience is?”

Evan smiled grimly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'll add you to my list of supporters. There's plenty of room—it's shrinking as we speak.” He watched the storm rage outside. “How much have you heard out here about my wife's death?”

“We heard what we were told,” Jani said. Every aspect picked over in sickening detail. Tsecha's welcoming was the first program she had watched in the four months since. “Lyssa died at the spa on Chira.”

“An accident?”

“With mitigating circumstances. Hints she'd been ill.” Jani
hesitated. “Later, there were rumors she'd been drinking, doping. She tried to hop the road skimmer she was driving over a narrow gorge. Road skimmers don't hop. She lost control, flipped into a rock formation.” She remembered the OC-Net cut-in, the crumpled skimmer, and the reporter running his hands over the rocks in question with the bright-eyed wonder of someone who had never seen a person die.

“Any—” Evan's voice cracked. He pulled the thermoflask from beneath the seat and refilled both their cups. “Any speculation that I could have been involved?”

Jani studied the side of Evan's face. Only the way his jaw muscle worked indicated the tension he otherwise managed to hide. “No. Why would there be?”

“There have been rumors, damning enough for the Cabinet to initiate a Court of Inquiry. That's why Cao asked me to stay away. Because things are so touchy. Our relations with the idomeni. Earth's relations with the colonies. Our colonies butting heads with the idomeni colonies. Does the term ‘vicious circle' mean anything to you?” Evan's hand moved to his throat. “Cao's trying to use it like a noose around my neck. She and her old school friend, Exterior Minister Ulanova. I don't agree with the way they do business. They want me gone.”

“You once told me the occasional purge is a fact of political life.”

“I don't possess the edge I used to, Jan. My wife is dead. Our children died years ago. I stink of death. It drives people away. People I thought I could count on.” The rain had intensified, sluicing down the windows as though they sat beneath a waterfall. “The knives are out for me this time. I can't fight alone.”

Jani watched the rain. The statement that Evan was only forty-two, that he'd live to fight another day, remarry and father his own Cabinet if he so desired, didn't seem appropriate. Death altered that scenario. It raised imposing questions. Questions of coping, closure, setting the record straight.
And I know all about that, don't I
?

BOOK: Code of Conduct
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