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Authors: Kristine Smith

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BOOK: Code of Conduct
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Angevin rushed back into the storage room, reemerging with her documents bag in hand. “Please don't tell—”

Jani waved her quiet. “You told a
male
Security guard to tell Ridgeway you had gone to the parts bins. I ran into the guard and told him I'd deliver the message. Got that?” Angevin nodded wide-eyed as Jani pushed her down the hall.
She watched her disappear around the corner, then sagged against the wall. Her neck seized up as she tried to flex it.

“We airn't done nothin' wrong.”

Jani turned slowly to find the young man still scowling. He'd pulled a flat copper case from the inside pocket of his tunic and removed a nicstick. “Airn't seen each other for over three bloody months.” He stuck the gold-and-white candy-striped cylinder in his mouth without cracking the ignition tip, shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, and started pacing.

Upon close examination, he proved good-looking, in a pouty, dissolute choirboy sort of way. Thick, straight auburn hair covered his ears and collar and flopped over his forehead. His skin had an office pallor, his uniform black boots needed polishing, and he slouched.
Boy, I bet Ridgeway hated you on sight
. “You Channel Worlder?” Jani asked.

He wheeled. “Yeah!” He stepped close, until his nose was only centimeters from hers and she could smell the spiced odor of his unignited nicstick. “So the fook what?”

Jani looked into his eyes, the same mossy green as Angevin's. More bloodshot, though. “What's your name?” she countered softly.

The question, or the manner in which it was asked, seemed to throw the young man. His jaw worked. “Steve. Forell.”

“Jersey? Guernsey? Man?”

“Guernsey.” He took a deep breath. “Helier.”

Jani smiled. “I've been to Helier. A beautiful city.”
If you were born with antifreeze in your veins
. “And what do you do here at Interior, Mr. Forell?”

The smile began in the depths of the narrowed eyes and quickly worked down. Steve Forell shook his shaggy head to help it along. Relaxed and grinning, he looked all of twelve years old. A gamy, street-wise twelve, but twelve all the same.

“Screw that—you're trying to redirect me attentions.” He worked his nicstick like a toothpick. “I'm a dexxie, like Ange. Xenopolitical branch. Work with the idomeni. Schooled at Oxbridge Combined.” He tugged at his hair. “The xenos came looking for redheads and scooped me up.”

“Colony boy at an Earthbound school. You must be good.”

“I am.” The grin flickered as Steve glanced down the hall in the direction Angevin had gone. “Not good enough, though, according to some.” Then his smile vanished and instead of looking street-wise and twelve, he looked lonely, scared, and five and a half.

See what happens when you learn names. You get involved
. Jani leaned harder into the wall.
I do not have the time
. Her back ached now, and the elevator episode coming so soon after the traffic adventure hadn't done her post-augie nerves any favors.

“What's the matter with you?” Steve asked. “You look fit to pass out.”

Jani massaged her tightened scalp. “Can you get me out of here?” She forced a smile, and felt her travel-dry skin crinkle under the stress. “I'm not cleared for the close-controlled floors. The elevator won't listen to me.”

“Surprised Durian didn't have you tossed out a window.” Steve pushed his way back into the storage room, emerging with Angevin's shopping bags. “Here.” He shoved two of the slick plastic sacks into Jani's arms and gripped the remaining bags with looped thumbs and forefingers only. “He even picks out her clothes,” he grumbled as he glanced at the bags' contents. “We'll leave them with the door guard. Meeting'll go on for hours, anyway.”

They walked back to the elevators. The area had been cleared of cams and reporters; a pair of guards stood sentry by the closed conference-room doors. They eyed Jani warily, but relaxed when Steve walked over and handed them the bags.

“What now?” he asked as he rejoined her. He flipped open a panel beside the elevator and punched in a code sequence.

“I haven't eaten since the Luna shuttle. That was over ten hours ago. Just point me toward the food.”

“You need dinner?” Steve brightened. “I could do with some dinner. The cafeteria on Two is the best one. That's where all the nobbies eat.” The doors closed, and he blinked in surprise. “What the hell happened to the lights?”

“Your government takes issue with the bidding, nìRau?”

Tsecha remained very still in his low bench seat, conscious of the sidelong glances of the others at the table and the more direct, fear-filled stare of the man who had spoken. Humanish eyes. He should have grown used to them by now.
But so much white—like death-glaze
.

He crossed his left arm over his chest and lowered his chin. “The bidding, we are most content with, and truly, Mister Ridgeway.” His voice rumbled, even in both tone and pitch and, he felt, unaccented. He was most proud of his English. “My Oligarch wonders only of the lapse in security. He fears it happening again.”

Ridgeway shook his head in a show of impatience, obvious for even a humanish. “NìRau,” he said, “Morden nìRau Ceèl has our word it won't happen again.”

Tsecha remained calm as the other humanish at the table shifted in their chairs. Some exhaled loudly. He stared openly down the large wooden oval at Durian Ridgeway, but felt no pleasure as he watched the man's tired face flood with color. It had always been too easy with that one. “Yes, Mister Ridgeway,” he replied, “but you also gave your word last year. And your office gave its word last month in your name. You pledged your word to research this company's documents, and you failed. What value is your word, Mister Ridgeway? I ask you that.”

The room itself seemed to sigh in response. Then the man at the table's head, Deputy Prime Minister Langley, spoke.
“In Durian's defense, Staffel Mitteilungen took us all by surprise, nìRau. They purposely delayed obtaining their start-up registration until the end of the fiscal year. Many of our new businesses do this for the tax advantage. StafMit did it in hope that, in the flood of applications, the screening committee Durian chaired would miss the fact that via a blind trust, Gisela Detmers-Neumann held a significant financial stake in the company.”

Tsecha looked directly into the Deputy PM's eyes.
Dark Langley, as the night is dark
. If they were as idomeni, Langley's eyes would look as two black pits. He sat rigidly, his seat, like the seats of all the humanish, elevated above Tsecha's. The positioning of the chairs, the humans' stiff, formal posture, were meant to display respect. But he had never detected either the gentleness of friend or the wary regard of esteemed enemy in any of those in the room. What could he sense? Fear? Definitely. Dislike? Perhaps.
They do not want me here
. That was indeed unfortunate for them. Here, he was. Here, he would stay.

“Tax advantage, Mister Langley?” Tsecha placed his hands palms down on the tabletop. Red bands trimmed the broad cuffs of his sand white overrobe, making it appear as though blood flowed from his wrists. His ring of station glimmered on his finger, the jasperite also reminding him of blood.

“Yes, nìRau.” Langley's thick, black eyebrows arched with some vague emotion, but he offered no accompanying gesture or change in posture to indicate which it was. Puzzlement? Surprise? Or perhaps the man felt embarrassment concerning the question? Who could tell with these government humanish? Their faces were as blocks of wood, their gestures, when they bothered to gesture, meaningless flailing. “Taxes,” Langley repeated. “The saving of money.”

“Ah.” Tsecha spread his fingers. Wrinkled. Age-spotted. He touched a thread-fine scar near the base of his left thumb, the remains of a blade fight with an esteemed enemy, now long dead.

à lèrine
—the ritual combat that declared to all idomeni the hatred between two. So many such bouts had he fought in defense of his beliefs—the scars etched his arms, his chest and shoulders. They had thinned and faded over time, as he
had. He had grown so old, waiting. “Yes,” he said, with a nod he hoped Langley comprehended. “I know humanish have great interest in money, and truly. That interest has been displayed to idomeni in times past.”

The room sighed again, for those reasons all humanish knew, yet would not speak. In an effort to placate, Tsecha bared his teeth to the Deputy PM. Smiling, to humanish an expression of most benign regard. Why then did the man squirm so?

“We've been through all this, nìRau,” Langley said. Indeed, he seemed most displeased. His jaw worked. He gripped the arms of his chair.

“Yes, Mister Langley, we have.”

“Our purpose today is to discuss the Vynshàrau's reluctance to allow StafMit the opportunity to bid for contracts to install communications equipment in the Haárin settlement outside Tsing Tao.”

“Yes, Mister Langley, it is.”

“Since Mister Ridgeway's committee approved StafMit's preliminary registration, thus bringing them to the Haárin trade council's attention, I asked him here to—”

“To
trap
him, Mister Langley.” Tsecha dropped his words slowly, carefully, like stones into still water. “And to embarrass Mister van Reuter.”

Plink
! Ridgeway stared at him openly, unsure whether to be grateful or to fear what could follow.

Plink
! Langley exhaled with a shudder, his anger a solid thing that one could hold in the hand.

Plink
! The other humanish at the table stared at their hands, in the air over each other's heads, anywhere but at one another.

Tsecha pressed his lips together to avoid baring his teeth. He most enjoyed telling humanish the obvious truths they so feared. It shocked them so.

“NìRau, I would have thought this neither the time nor the place, but perhaps—”

Tsecha shut out Langley's drone. He had heard the arguments before at too many meetings, could recite them as he did his prayers. It would have surprised the humanish to know if the choice had been his alone, Tsecha would have allowed
Detmers-Neumann and her fellow outcasts to welcome him to this damned cold city, to sit and watch him speak to the shivering crowds.
But when her first openness failed, she tried to worm, to sneak, to…to
…Tsecha's command of English failed him. He only knew that blood had asserted itself as it always did. Gisela proved she shared skein with Rikart, and truly. So, just as truly, would he never acknowledge her.

His gaze flitted from one tense face to another, finally coming to rest on the female sitting next to Ridgeway. Blood asserted itself, or did it? He tried to will the red-haired youngish to look at him, but she kept her eyes fixed on her lap. Angevin. What did such a name mean?
Not-of-Hansen
? How much Tsecha missed her father, as well as the one who worked with him. His green-eyed Captain.

If they were here, what meetings we would have
! But Hansen, Tsecha's brilliant Wyle of the godly hair, was dead, and the man's daughter could not compare.

And Kilian…

Tsecha looked down at his mottled hands. He thought so much of age lately. Death. All these meetings brought such thoughts. All this talk with as-dead humanish was enough to drain the hope from any living thing. And he had had such hopes once, had seen the future in two faces. But one was dead and the other, according to the increasingly impatient word of all his experts, had to be as well.

But they never found the body
. Though his Temple rejoiced in their belief that Jani Kilian had died in fire, Tsecha had nursed the slight doubt he had sensed in the humanish soldiers who had told him of the crash, grasped it like a handhold in a wall of sand. Had fire destroyed his toxin? He hoped not, with each progress report he received with shaking hands. He prayed not, over each of his six daily sacraments. With each bite of sacred food, he begged the gods to answer him.
Send me my kièrshia, please
, he wove his entreaty around Langley's continuing thrum,
before they bury me
.

And when his Captain had returned to him…ah, then, would there be meetings!

Jani followed Steve into the dining hall and waited as he tried to figure out where to sit. In past lives, this hadn't posed a problem for her.
When alone, one-seat table, dark corner, facing the door
. The dictum had been drilled into her head by frustrated mainline Service instructors unprepared to deal with a documents examiner who felt it her primary duty to plant herself within view of the cashbox and watch the way the staff handled the money.

But then, for eighteen years, the scorned procedure had become second nature, an acknowledgment of a threat that, if not always acute, had staked a permanent claim in Jani's mind.

Well, now was the time for something new. Unlike the long, bench-seated tables she had always encountered in cheap public eating areas, the tables here were small and round or small and square, each covered with silver cloth, decorated with a vase of real flowers and surrounded by no more than eight flexframe chairs. The room itself, an expansive arrangement of tiered, skylit ceilings and windowed exterior walls, would easily hold a thousand. It appeared about half-full now, the mealtime din dampened by soundshielding.

“How's this, then?” Steve asked as he claimed a window table. The outside view of the House gardens was stunning, but he showed where his priorities lay as he turned his back on it and pointed out a nearby table filled with upper-management types. “Sit here long enough, whole world goes by.”

Her growling stomach urging her to
please eat now
, Jani settled next to Steve and shoveled in a few steaming forkfuls. Then the tastes of the salmon steak and steamed fresh vegetables hit her, and she slowed down. A meal like this deserved some respect—this wasn't a pickup from the
tamè
stand across the street from NorthPort's Guv Hall.

“Good stuff, eh?” Steve asked after a few minutes.

“Hmm.” Jani swallowed, then pointed toward the sea of diners with her fork. “So, which are the nobbies?”

In quick succession, she received capsule descriptions of several department and division heads, the general tone of which led Jani to conclude the gossip rag in her duffel had lost a giant when Steven Forell opted for the documents corps.

“Shut up!” She coughed into her napkin as he regaled her with a tale of the novel use to which the head of the Farms Bureau had once put his diplomatic courier service.

“'S true.” Steve's broad grin reflected a raconteur's joy in an appreciative audience. “You could hear 'em all up and down the hall. Some limp-dick from the Ag Ministry came here and threatened to have him classified as an animal-research facility if he didn't knock it off.” He pushed away his empty plate and maneuvered the chair across from him so he could use it as a footstool. Then he picked up his nicstick from its perch on the edge of his tray and crunched the ignition tip between his teeth. “Thanks for covering for me and Ange,” he said, his face obscured by spicy smoke. “'Preciate it.”

Jani pushed away her own cleaned plate and sat back to observe the passing parade. “Wasn't the smartest move, considering all the people milling around.”

“Weren't my idea, either.” Steve's shoulders hunched defensively, his good humor dissipating with the smoke. “Always supposed to be the randy young buck's idea, innit? Havin' it off on desks.” He sneered. “I had dinner reservations at Gaetan's tonight. Treasury Minister eats there.” He took a pull on his nicstick. Jani watched the thin dose line move halfway up the unit's shaft. “I know how to behave. Be nice if some people gave me a chance to prove it.”

Jani watched a cluster of well-dressed manager-types scud
past. “Is it that important to you? To pretend you're one of them, act like they do?” Unpleasant scenes from her Service past flashed in her memory. “Do you think you need to do it to keep your job?”

Steve bristled. “I don't act! Why should I pretend, anyway? I'm just as good as any of them.”

“Not to them.” Jani began tearing her dispo napkin into tiny bits. Talking about Earthbound—colony relations always made her shred things. “You don't sound like them, and you don't act like them. You're branded on the tongue and in every other way you can think of. Our great-great-etceteras lost the Greatest War, remember? That's why we got kicked out in the first place. We're the problem children. Forever and for always.” She picked up a sprig of herb from her plate and stuck it in her mouth.

Steve edged straighter in his seat. “You sound like a secessionist,” he mumbled, eyes locked on a pair of high-level staffers walking by the table.

“More a realist than anything. The day we get them to take notice won't come until we can bleed them semiconscious for using our GateWays and importing our goods. And for reeling in our best brains, convincing them they have to come here if they want to be somebody.”

“They've started jailing secessionists, you know.” Steve had, Jani noted with bemusement, toned down his accent considerably.

“There are a hell of a lot more of us than there are of them,” she said. “How many jails they got?”

Steve exhaled with a shaky rumble. “Witch. Mam warned me about girls like you.” He tossed his spent nicstick onto his plate. “I'm changing the subject. Not real comfortable talking politics. Always get that swimming-in-shit feeling after a while. Ange told me your name. Can't place your accent. Where you from, Risa?”

Jani hesitated. “Tyi's a Josephani name.”
J'suise Acadienne, en actual
. The name of her home world sounded strange to her. Over the past eighteen years, she'd called herself everything
but
Acadian.

“Never been to Josephan,” Steve said. “Heard it's nice.
Bit off, rebel like you doing for the Minister. Everyone knows you're one of his spooks.”

Oh, they did, did they? Jani surveyed the dining hall. About three-quarters full now, and no one, she noticed to her chagrin, wearing anything remotely resembling ship coveralls. Like it or not, she'd have to start dressing properly to avoid attracting attention. “Spook's a general term. The work I do is more specialized.”

“Oh yeah? Do tell.”

“Investigations of particular interest.”

“As opposed to general butting-in?” Steve pushed his tray back and forth. “And what interesting bit of biz are you investigating at the moment?”

“You're the gossip expert. What have you heard?”

“That you're looking into Lyssa van Reuter's death.” Steve ignited another 'stick. “Thought that were an accident.”

“Might still be.”

“But you don't know yet?”

“Not until I have a chance to see all the data.”

“Data? You make it sound like an experiment.”

“It could have been, to someone.” Jani watched the side of Steve's face as she spoke. He appeared relaxed enough, if solemn. But then, he had a lot on his mind.

“She had problems,” he said. “Or rather, you knew she had problems, but she never let on.”

Jani thought of the bleary-eyed face on the holozine cover. “Except when the holographers were around?”

“Timing.” Steve waved weakly to someone at another table. “I'm afraid if the Lady had problems, they were with timing.”

“You sound as though you liked her.”

He hesitated. “I never worked with her.”

“But you must have friends who did. How did they feel?”

“She were Family. No brothers or sisters. Used to being the center of it all, if you know what I mean.”

“Difficult to work with?” Jani knew it would be best for the investigation to remain neutral regarding Lyssa, but being Anais Ulanova's niece could have had the expected nasty influence. “Spoiled? Demanding?”

Steve ignored the question. “So, madam,” he said, pushing his chair away from the table, “shall we go?”

They left the cafeteria to find a small crowd had gathered in the glass-sided walkway. Steve elbowed a path to the paned wall, frowning as he checked his timepiece. “He's leaving early. Wonder what happened?”

Jani looked over his shoulder toward the white-robed figure crossing the secured skimway oval two stories below. Whispers of “It's him! It's him!” buzzed about her. Her heart thumped.

“He doesn't look real happy.” Steve shook his head. “You can tell by the set of his shoulders, how slouchy he is.”

Jani's own spine straightened in self-defense. Nothing activated her urge to confess to everything and brace for the worst like the slumping amble of a pissed-off Vynshàrau.
No, this is Nema
. Jani watched the ambassador slip into the rear seat of an off-white, triple-length skimmer.
Chief propitiators do not get pissed; they become enraged
.

“I hope Ange is all right.” Steve pulled on his tunic hem. “When things don't go well, Durian takes it out on her.”

“What was the ambassador doing here?” Jani wedged beside him and watched the idomeni vehicle drift away like a land-hugging cloud. “You'd think there'd have been notices or something.” She thought how close she had come to being shoved into that damned conference room.
Evan, why the hell didn't you warn me
!

“Langley were responsible for that. He says Interior has the best layout for meeting with Tsecha—the secured conference rooms are furthest away from any and all eating areas and food-storage facilities.” Steve recited the policy with bland formality. “'Course, doesn't mean our man should be allowed to attend these meetings, seeing as the flies are settling on the bloated corpse of his career and all.”


Steve
.” Jani pressed a hand to her aching stomach. She'd definitely overeaten.

“Langley's one ham-handed wanker, 's all I can say. Likes twisting his little knife.” Steve gestured toward the spot where the idomeni skimmer had been parked. “I wonder what he thinks of all this. Thought about asking him a couple times, figured I'd be gigged for bleedin' cheek.”

“You've met him?”

“Nothing one-on-one. Sat in on some document-transfer protocols. Harmonizing paper systems. That'll be the bloody day—they run rings around us.” He tugged at his bangs. “He stared at my hair, like they expected. Gave me a nod. I feel sorry for the old codge.”

“Why?”

Steve gave an uncertain shrug. “Because he's so out of place here. I mean, he's the only member of his delegation who even tries to communicate directly with us. The rest of his crew just passes everything directly to the translator corps. But…”

“But?”

“He talks about the time before the war a lot. What went on at the Academy. What he tried to teach his students.”

Oh hell
. “Such as?”

Steve forced a laugh. “He thinks we're all going to be the same someday. Us and the idomeni. That living together will cause us to blend.”

“Blend into what?” As if she didn't know.

“A hybrid race. Rauta Haárin, Tsecha called it.” Steve tried his best, but he garbled the Haárin
r
, coughing it up from the back of his throat rather than trilling it. “A brand-new sect.”

“You can't blend beings together like ingredients in a bowl,” Jani said as she did her best to avoid looking at the reflection of her filmed eyes. “It doesn't work that way.”

“You might be right,” Steve said. “I ran it by a friend of mine. Genetics therapeutician. She thinks it's a joke.” He frowned and toyed with a fastener on his tunic. He tried to appear sure of himself, but Jani could sense his confusion. How would the word of a human rate against that of an alien ambassador, one who possessed a most unique brand of charm?

Like a tsunami with legs
. Oh, yes, she remembered it well.

“He makes a strange kind of sense, though,” Steve said. “He says that idomeni and humanish both think they control their environments, while in reality, the environments control us. Our environments want order, and order means everything the same. He thinks our worlds will force change upon us,
set it up so we'll have no choice but to hybridize.” His stare grew dreamy, as though he focused on something far away.

Jani tried to laugh, but it caught in her throat. “You have let him get into your head, haven't you?” She had to wave a hand in front of Steve's face to get his attention. “Look, he's a religious leader. Charismatic and persuasive and sure he speaks the truth. Sincerity doesn't make him right.”

“He's good though, Ris. ‘We shall change or we shall die, and truly.' That's what he said. He really believes it. You can tell the way his eyes light up.” Steve shook his head. “Maybe it is all about politics. Maybe he's just looking for humans who could lobby for his policies.”

“He does know his way around a Council chamber.” Jani looked at the place where Nema's skimmer had been parked. She could sense his presence, like a ghost forever seeking the thing that would allow it to rest. Humans had names for behavior like that. Fervid, when they felt kind. Fanatic, when they tired of mopping up the blood. But if you denied that part of Nema, you denied the charm as well. And felt the loss, as though you'd disappointed your champion. “Humans don't have the maturity to deal with Tsecha. We took an incredible risk allowing him here.”

“What do you know about him?” Steve turned to her, eyes shining. “Have you ever met him?”

Shit
. “No. I've just heard things. I know he changed his name after the last war.”

Steve shrugged off that piece of old news. “Avrèl nìRau Nema, it used to be. They told us about that in the prep courses. Didn't tell us why, though, exactly.” They were the only two left in the walkway now. He took the opportunity to ignite a nicstick. “Said it had something to do with the war. New government, new name.”

Something to do with the Temple authorities pressuring him to sever every link to a past they found disordered
. How had they felt when their chief priest informed them of his new name? Tsecha. Sìah Haárin for fool.
Depending on the accompanying gestures, of course
. Jani could imagine him announcing his new skein and sect names, arms at his sides, hands obscured by the folds of his overrobe. Palms open,
thumbs extended. The Vynshàrau equivalent of crossing his fingers behind his back.

BOOK: Code of Conduct
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