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Authors: Kristine Smith

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“I'll try to keep the orgies to a minimum, sir,” Jani replied quietly.

“That's not what I meant.”

“I know exactly what Your Excellency meant. I think I should take this opportunity to remind Your Excellency that, considering certain situations in which I have found myself in the past, if I had been the type to think with my pussy, I'd have been dead years ago.”

“Ja—” Evan stopped himself. He rose slowly. “Risa. How vividly put. My apologies. I should know better.”

“I think with my head,” Jani continued. “If
it
sees the way clear, that is of course a different story.”

Evan gaped. He seemed to have trouble deciding what to do with his hands, finally shoving them into his pants pockets. The move caused his tunic to bunch unministerially over his hips. “Dinner,” he finally said. “My private dining room. One hour after breakaway. We will have company.” He eyed Jani's coverall, an overlarge, chalk brown item she'd liberated from the Whalen transport's lost lambs bin. “We should dress.”

“Yes, sir.” Jani returned Evan's cool smile and followed him to the door. “Label the forks, so I know which one to use when,” she added as he stepped into the hall. The door closed before he could reply, but not before he had shown he hadn't lost his capacity to redden alarmingly.

Jani knocked against the door with her forehead.
Too late to bolt now
. The
Arapaho
was in prebreakaway lockdown—she'd have to trip a hazard alarm.
I've done that before
. But not on a Cabinet-class ship. They had Service crews aboard to put out their fires. She'd be up to her ass in steel blue before the klaxons stopped screaming.

I'm jumping ship at Padishah
. She made a circuit of her cabin sitting room, a posh retreat in pale yellow and cream, scanning the shelves and cabinets for anything she could hock. She was examining the contents of an étagère with a pawnbroker's eye when she heard the door open.

“Ma'am.” Her steward stood in the entry holding a bottle-filled tray. “Do you require any assistance before dinner?”

Jani straightened. “No. Thank you.”

“I thought you might like something to drink.”

“Fine.” She nodded, larcenous hands locked behind her back.

“A jeune marie?”

“Fine.”
What the hell's a “young mary
”?

The young man filled a small glass to the brim with a garnet-colored liquid and handed it to Jani. She raised the drink to her lips, hoping to get rid of him by downing it quickly, when the odor of berries filled her nose.

“Do you like it, ma'am?” His voice held stewardly anxiety. “It's new. From Serra.”

“A ‘jeune marie' is a kind of berry, isn't it?”

“Yes, ma'am. Is everything—”

“Everything's fine. Please go now. I need to get ready.” She fought down a yell as he took his time gathering up his tray and waited for the door to close before sinking into the nearest chair. Her stomach burned. Her hand trembled, causing a stream of red beadlets to slosh over the glass's rim onto the carpet. She hurried to the bathroom, poured the reeking liqueur into the sink, and flushed it down until she could smell only water.

Evan's on his own—I'm jumping ship at Padishah
. He didn't need her to get him through his crisis—he was far from vanquished politically. Or personally, for that matter. He had certainly dealt with his own deaths better than she had with hers.

Coping? You're kidding.

Closure? No, her wounds had gaped for eighteen years.

You'd have to execute one hell of an inside-out to set Knevçet Shèràa straight, Kilian
. She wasn't that limber anymore.

Jani sat on the edge of the bathtub and unclasped her boots.
But Evan thinks I deserve a second chance
. Of course, since he felt his career was in jeopardy, he'd say anything to get her to help. Just as he'd withhold anything he thought might scare her away.
He thinks in terms of distance to goal and whether goal had been achieved or lost
. Always the pragmatist. Even as a young Consulate deputy, his first time away from home, with every opportunity to go off track, he always kept his eye on the ball.

So? Maybe Evan didn't mean what he'd said about second chances. It didn't follow that it wasn't true. All her records were in secured storage on Earth. Maybe there was something she could learn, something she could discover that would make it not hurt as much. Something she could use to help Evan, and, just possibly, herself.

I don't think like that anymore. Every time I try to help, I fuck up. I'm jumping ship at Padishah
. She started undoing the fasteners of her coverall. Her hands stilled.
No, I'm not
. Evan had been right. After almost twenty years, her Family boy still knew her very well. She pondered that disquieting thought as she headed for the bedroom to mine something presentable from the depths of Risa's luggage.

 

In contrast to the interior of Jani's cabin, the
Arapaho
hallways were simple: undecorated walls of light grey composite, floors of dark grey, footstep-muffling lyno.

Jani hurried after her guide, a frazzled mainline Spacer First Class who had apparently been instructed to
bring Ms. Tyi to dinner without delay
. Her hip twinged with every step. The outfit she wore, a tight, one-shoulder, floor-length column dress in dark blue, had not been her first choice. Or her second. Or her eighth.

Seven damned bags of clothes, and none of them fit
! Jani tugged at the dress again as she struggled to keep up with the sensibly booted SFC. Her own sensible boots were hiding beneath her bed—cowards that they were. Her current footwear—strappy, metallic-colored, and high-heeled—had been spared a one-way trip down the disposal chute solely because they were the only shoes in her possession that kept the dress from dragging on the floor.

She and Evan were going to have to discuss hazard pay.

The rough polycotton strap of Jani's duffel bit into the skin of her bare shoulder. Her choice of handbag might cause raised eyebrows among her dinner companions, but she didn't care. Some things, a woman kept with her at all times.
Like her shooter, for example
. She straightened as best she could in her impossible shoes. It had been a very long time since she'd had to look this polished.

“Here we are, ma'am.” The SFC slid to a halt before a
double-wide set of sliders embossed with the Interior seal and knocked sharply. The doors opened immediately. She mumbled, “Good evening, sir,” and bolted around the nearest corner just as Evan, resplendent in formal black, stepped out into the hall.

“Well, this
is
a change for the better!” His face lit up as he held out his arm. “I picked that dress,” he added as he led her inside. “I must say, I have excellent taste.”

Jani tugged at the gown's rear. “It's too tight.” The back of her neck tingled as Evan lagged behind to take in the view.

“No, not a bit,” he said. “Just confirms you still have a waist. Judging from your previous attire, I'd given it up for lost.” As they walked through the sitting room, Jani heard Evan clear his throat. “Can't say I agree with that purse, though.”

“Bugger,” she said as she strode on ahead. The dark green and silver suite was furnished with a tasteful, expensive blend of ornate modern and stark antique. She swallowed a comment that it was larger than some homes in which she'd lived as the odors coming from the dining room made her mouth water. Her step quickened.
God, I'm starved
! Over the past few months, it seemed she could never get enough to eat.

She pulled up short as she entered the dining room. Evan's steadying hand gripped her numb left arm as two pairs of eyes stared in surprise. Jani managed a composed smile. She recognized her dinner companions from the postings in various Guv Halls.
Maybe this dress wasn't such a bad idea after all
.

Evan pushed past her. “Risa, I'd like to introduce two of the more important members of my staff.” He nodded toward a tall, dark blond man dressed in a dandyish, pale lilac dinner suit. “This is Durian Ridgeway, my Documents chief.”

Jani forced herself to extend her hand as Ridgeway pursed his lips and looked her slowly up and down. “Ms. Tyi.” The soft cast of his boyish features was offset by the glitter of his blue eyes. “I've looked forward to meeting you.” His accent was clipped and difficult to place.

Earth British
, Jani decided. She'd thought New Manx, at first, but no self-respecting Manxman would have allowed himself to be seen wearing the curious wad of bright purple
braiding Ridgeway had fashioned into a neckpiece.
Clotted octopus
, she thought. Maybe it indicated a sense of humor?

Ridgeway beckoned to a slight young woman who appeared lost amid the furniture. “This is my deputy, Angevin Wyle.”

Angevin stepped forward. Her outfit, a fitted copper gauze gown with matching nosebleed heels, seemed to be giving her trouble as well. Jani studied her face. Wide-spaced mossy green eyes, carrot red curls shot through with gold, stubborn chin, all combined to uncover long-buried memories.

I attended school with your father. Hansen Wyle and I were going to change worlds, once
. She accepted Angevin's subdued greeting.
Then it all fell apart
.

Evan herded them toward the dinner table, where a first course of glistening vegetable jellies coddled in crushed ice awaited. “I'm glad we could meet now,” he said as he helped Jani with her chair. “I don't think we could afford to delay until we returned to Earth.”

“Perhaps not, Ev,” Ridgeway agreed grudgingly as he assisted Angevin with her chair. “I'm just hesitant to leave documents of this nature aboard an unsecured vessel.” He nodded toward the sideboard, where an anodized metal documents case rested.

Jani noted the large case's double touchlocks and felt a pleasant shiver of anticipation. She hadn't had the opportunity to handle close-controlled paper since her Service days.

“If you consider the
Arapaho
unsecured, Durian, we
are
in trouble.” Evan speared a tan star-shape with a narrow, two-pronged fork and ferried the wobbly morsel to his mouth. “But I prefer to believe that in this, as in so many things, you are erring on the side of caution.”

“Perhaps.” Ridgeway tried repeatedly to snag a quivering orange sphere, but the tidbit kept sliding off his fork. “These
méduse
,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “I always have trouble eating these things.”

“It's probably afraid of your neckpiece,” Angevin Wyle said as she executed an expert forking. She chewed thoughtfully, expression placid, the look in her eyes as flinty as the documents case's finish.

Evan coughed and reached for his wineglass. “It is a bit much, Durian.”

Ridgeway fingered his garish neckwear and smiled. Lips only. The sidelong glare he gave Angevin promised a stern lecture behind closed, soundproofed doors.

Thy father's daughter
. Jani looked down at her plate to hide her grin. The
Arapaho
suddenly felt very homey.

The balance of the meal passed uneventfully. Make that the imbalance. Embers of conversation sparked fitfully, only to die. Except for her single instance of fashion commentary, Angevin remained silent. Ridgeway was sociable, though guarded, while Evan alternated between expansiveness and distraction as the synergistic effects of lack of sleep and generous servings of five varieties of wine took hold. He had always enjoyed his liquor, but you'd think he'd have known better.

Now is not the time, Evan
. After-dinner iced water in hand, Jani left the three behind to talk, or in Angevin's case, listen, shop. She examined the artwork in Evan's sitting room, then paused before an official portrait of the Interior Minister and his late wife. Evan looked thin and worn. His dress tunic hung on his slim frame like woven lead. Lyssa, also in black, appeared drawn and pale. Neither had made any attempt to smile.

“That was taken almost three years ago, a short time after the children died.” Durian Ridgeway drew alongside. The tiny glass he held contained a bright pink, presumably lethal, liqueur. “Too soon, in my opinion. They both look ill. It's not the kind of image you want to see scattered throughout the Commonwealth.”

Jani glanced into the dining room. Evan was holding forth and gesturing broadly as a seated Angevin Wyle stared and nodded like someone in a trance.
Bewitching, isn't he
? Even after all these years.
You'd think I'd have acquired immunity
by now
. “Pity Evan and Lyssa couldn't time their tragedies better.”

Ridgeway's eyebrows arched. “I'm sure I sound harsh, but that is part of my job. To observe, monitor, see things which perhaps His Excellency would miss.” He drew closer. Jani forced herself to stand still as he brushed against her bare shoulder. “Well, Ms. Tyi, this must all be a big change for you. From a little post on Hortensia to a Cabinet-class ship, all in a matter of weeks. But, you know what they say.” He mumbled a few sentences, of which she recognized little and understood nothing.

Servir? Servirat? I'll bet that's Josephani
. Her supposed native language, of which she knew zip. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Ridgeway?”

“Would you like me to repeat it, Ms. Tyi?”

“Judging from your accent, I don't think it would help.”

He pressed closer. Jani felt his breath in her ear as his chest pushed against her left arm. The numb one. All she felt was the pressure. “If you couldn't understand that, understand this. The contents of the files I will be turning over to you, if revealed, could shake the Commonwealth to its foundations. If anything happens to that paper while it's registered to your control, I will not rest until I personally grind you to fine powder with my bare hands.”

“No need to be melodramatic, Mr. Ridgeway.”

“I have been with Evan for fifteen years. Since I left school, my primary duty has been to him. I will not stand by and watch everything he's built get blown to bloody fuck-all for the sake of one of his whims.”

The fruity odor of Ridgeway's breath filled Jani's nose. Her full stomach gurgled in protest as she forced herself to look him in the face. His eyes watered—the liqueur was apparently as potent as she thought. “If you have anything to say to me, mister, you really should wait until you sober up.”

Ridgeway's bleary glower sharpened. “You don't like me, Ms. Tyi. That's fine—I'm not mad for you, either. I don't believe your participation in what I consider should remain an in-House investigation is necessary.” He took a step back.

“But we both follow orders, don't we? Live to serve? That's what I tried to tell you before, and so badly, too. I do
apologize.” He strolled from the portrait to a display case of ornaments, gesturing for Jani to follow. “But now, I think we understand one another. The idomeni have a term for our particular brand of impasse. Esteemed enemy. For now, let us consider ourselves esteemed enemies.”

“We'd have to have a ceremony,” Jani said, “to declare it properly. There are offertories to the gods, followed by the shedding of blood through ritual combat.”

Ridgeway offered a sly smile. “Is that a challenge, Risa? Perhaps later. It sounds very…cross-cultural.” He reached into the display case and fingered a polished shell. “What do you think of Ms. Wyle?”

She's like her father
. “She's like most dexxies. Rough around the edges. Needs some social buffing.”

Ridgeway scowled at Jani's use of the slang term for documents examiner. “Buffing,” he said pointedly. “Not a day goes by when I don't stifle the urge to throttle her. But considering her background, I make allowances.” He returned the shell to its niche. “You've heard of her father, of course?”

“Hansen?”

“Yes. One of only six humans to degree at the Academy in Rauta Shèràa. One of only six to study the paper system with the race that perfected it. What an honor.” Jani could hear the envy in Ridgeway's voice. “Then that damned war started, and he had to stick his nose in. What a waste.”

Jani struggled to keep her tone level. “From what I've heard, he knew the Laumrau leaders. He knew the Vynshà. I believe he did what he thought best, in order to help.”

“And the shatterbox found the building he was in anyway, and the building collapsed on him anyway, and he died anyway, even though he was only trying to help.” Ridgeway pushed the display case toward the center of the table. Jani winced as the metal supports screeched against the polished wood.

“Now the idomeni are back,” she said, “and you have to work with them. How do you reconcile that?”

“I don't,” Ridgeway replied too quickly. “But I do have the opportunity to help the daughter of the man I grew up wanting to emulate.” The look in his eyes grew reverential.
“Hansen was more than one of the six. He was One of Six. They were treated like idomeni, constantly being tested—the pressure was unending. But he always came out on top. He was the best.” He sighed. “I'm afraid Angevin will have to emerge from under a fairly formidable shadow.”

Jani worked her tensing shoulders. “I think,” she said slowly, “part of the girl's problem, if she indeed has one, will be in having to deal with other people's expectations.”

“True. True.” Ridgeway nodded sagely, his sarcasm detector apparently flooded with ethanol. “All we can do is all we can. In the end it's up to her. No one can work magic with someone fundamentally unsuited to the task at hand.” He gave Jani a superior smile, his sarcasm synthesizer apparently functioning just fine. “Speaking of which, why don't we get this transfer over with? You realize what I'm handing over to you?”

“Yes.” Jani did a mental ten count. “You're giving me sensitive files pertinent to the investigation of Lyssa van Reuter's death, which contain details of His Excellency's life.”

“Oh, they contain details, all right. Their contents may shock even a jaded soul like you, Ms. Tyi. We never realize what Mother Commonwealth knows about us until it's too late.” Ridgeway offered her his arm. “Shall we?”

Angevin bounded to her feet as Jani and Ridgeway reentered the dining room. “His Excellency's been telling me the most ripping things! All about the idomeni!” Her enthusiasm withered as soon as her eyes met Ridgeway's. She walked over to the sideboard and rummaged through a large leather bag. From it, she removed a sheaf of papers and three pouches, two the size of a man's hand, one much larger.

In the meantime, Ridgeway collected the documents case and carried it to the dining room table. Evan, fresh from making young women's eyes shine, perched on the arm of a nearby chair and graced Jani with a tired grin.

The grin died when he saw what Ridgeway was doing.

We knew this was coming, Evan
. Jani pulled her duffel from beneath her chair, cracked the fasteners, and removed her own small, scuffed pouch.
Besides, what can go wrong
? She knew the answer to that. She would just try not to think about it.

The world of close-controlled paper did get complicated at times, but an ownership transfer was one of the simpler procedures. As Angevin Wyle laid out the logs that they each would sign and date, Ridgeway prepared to reprogram the case's touchlocks to accept Jani's prints.

Of course, he'd have to scan her hands and retinas first, and run a comparison check against the various databases each Cabinet-class ship contained within its systems. Criminal. Service. Medical. A matter of procedure. Everyone understood that. Just another form to file away for future audits.

Ridgeway smirked as he removed his scanner from the largest of the three pouches and activated it.

Jani heard Evan fidget behind her. She smiled, which seemed to disappoint Ridgeway. He pouted when she stepped without hesitation into range of the boxlike scanner and held out her hands.

But my handprints aren't the same, are they
? Or her retinas. The doctors who had reassembled her had been, after all, very forward-thinking. She watched as a bright yellow light throbbed beneath the scanner's surface. The device hummed, then the indicator display glowed bright, clear green.

“Happy, Durian?” Evan asked, injecting the distilled essence of generations of Familial ennui into his voice.

“Just following prescribed procedure, Ev,” Ridgeway said as he stuffed the scanner back into its pouch. “Better safe than sorry.” Using a UV stylus, he opened the switches in the document case's control panel, waited for Jani to place her palm against the sensor pad, then closed the switches, locking in her print as the key.

Just like the good old days
. Jani glanced at Evan, who winked back. She removed her scanpack from its cracked plastic pouch. The oval device contained a mass of her farmed brain tissue, through which a network of nervelinks and data chips had been implanted. Working together to serve as guideposts on a roadway, the unit and its attachments stored the data necessary to enable its owner to navigate through the documents maze. Her brain-in-a-box, literally. How long had it been since she'd used it as it was meant to be used? In front of her peers, during a high-level documents transaction?

Jani brushed a few flecks of dirt from the scanpack's sur
face. Over twenty years of use meant that the hand-sized, five-centimeter-thick oval didn't look much better than its container. Scratches dulled its black polycoat finish. Some of the touchpad labeling had been worn away. She examined the nutrient insert slot along the side, then sniffed quickly. No fishy odor, which would have signaled a leak in the spent nutrient broth line, a sure sign of a poorly maintained 'pack. That had never been a problem for her, but accidents did happen. If Ridgeway even suspected she didn't maintain her equipment, she knew she'd never hear the end of it.

Ridgeway looked from his own immaculate tortoiseshell unit to Jani's. “Oh, Ms. Tyi, that is a confidence-builder.”

Jani shrugged. “The problem with having nice things, Mr. Ridgeway, is that in some of the places I've lived, there are those who would wish to separate them from me. I try to avoid trouble.” She turned on her device, waited for the display to activate, then gently slid it over the first of the three forms.

The sensors on the 'pack's underside evaluated the paper surface, analyzed the inks and metal foils decorating the ornate document, decoded the encryptions contained in the chips and prionics embedded in the parchment.
Everything but Luna's phase on the day it was made
—that's what the document would tell her scanpack, which then would compare that information to the data stored in its own chips and cells.

Bright green identification strings scrolled across the display. “It's a current-issue Interior Ministry ownership transfer log, all right,” Jani said to Ridgeway. She ignored his glower, affixed her signature to the document, then moved on to the next as Angevin and Ridgeway completed their portion of the first. After all three forms were completed, they each took one copy. Jani stashed hers in her duffel, while Angevin returned hers and Ridgeway's to the leather bag.

“Are we finally finished?” Evan groaned. “I don't know how any business gets completed in a timely fashion these days.” He sounded bored, but his face showed the drained relief of a man whose fever had finally broken.

“Yes, Ev, you can go to bed now,” Ridgeway said as he jammed his 'pack back into its sheath. He followed up the
snappish remark with a smile, but that did little to counter his bundled-underwear edginess. “We will be disembarking late day after tomorrow, at Padishah,” he said to Jani. “If you need any assistance afterward, zip us a message through message central transmit. We'll do what we can.” He eyed her scanpack again. “I'm sure the equipment you work with leaves something to be desired.”

Angevin walked over to Jani, looking at her for the first time with something akin to a smile. “Looks used,” she said, pointing to the scanpack's battered case.

Jani nodded. “It has been.”

Angevin was about to say something else, but Ridgeway linked her arm through his and led her away.

“Till tomorrow, Ev,” he said as they left. “And a good evening to you as well, Ms. Tyi. You will remember what we talked about?”

“What was that all about?” Evan asked after the sliders closed. “Don't tell me—Durian was being Durian.” He eased into a lounge chair and ran a hand over his face. Even in the cabin's soft illumination, his skin looked dull. “Forgive him, Jan—he takes damned good care of me in the bargain. And he's worried about those docs.”

“You're not?”

“I'm not sure what you'll think of me after reading some of them, but I have to take that chance. Besides, I trust you.” He studied Jani for a few moments, his expression neutral. Then he motioned for her to take the seat across from him.

“Like Durian said, in two days we'll reach Padishah. He and Ange will be catching a Service courier that will get them home a week ahead of the
Arapaho
.” He took a deep breath. “I need to go with them. Elyas is petitioning to reopen colonial secession talks. Along with the other Outer Circle worlds, they somehow dragged the Jewellers' Loop into the brawl, and that means lots of might and money flying around. The centrists want me home.”

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