how she was never conscious of ship movement. Somehow it was slowing,
now . . . . Topside Mona would be arranging their last trajectory, calculating
the mass ratios, taking care of the millions of details Darame had never
understood and never cared to understand. Now followed the part she hated,
the long, cold night in the belly of the ship, before an in-system lander
docked with their vessel. This time that image seemed ominous. . . .
The corridor was deserted, which suited
Darame's current frame of mind. No use for that medtech, or any of the
others on this trip. Why so many new people? That still bothered her:
so many new to the fold, or part of Brant's team. Only Halsey and Mona
were long-standing partners. . . . Darame tried to calm her growing unease.
Surely Halsey knew better than to trust Brant! To even work with him again,
except that the stakes were so high
Holy Virgin, this was Nuala, not
a mere hop to Emerson. Furthest of the Seven Sisters, a law unto itself,
only remotely tied to the alliance which bound mankind together. Maybe
not even human . . .
She shoved the thought back into her subconscious.
Too late to worry about it, they were hours away. Surely people from off-planet
weren't allowed near the dangerous places. Surely people tainted with
radiation were isolated. . . . The thought of being touched by a genetic
nightmare brought vivid pictures to mind. Reaching Halsey's room, she
pounded on the door to drive away the image.
"Enter, enter," came a brisk,
cheerful voice, the annoyance edging it disappearing when he recognized
her. "Such a racket, Davi! Ready for action, are you?" His round
face beamed as he extended a meaty arm to offer a brief hug. Not a contact
person, Halsey she was the only one he touched when others were
present, and even alone the embrace was frugal. He was tanned, which he
certainly had not been back on Caesarea, but otherwise he looked the same.
Always the same . . .
"Ready for anything Brant can dish
out, old man," she murmured, testing the range of her voice. The
low notes were returning already good, all would be normal by planetfall.
"Changes already?" She settled into the seat next to his, accepting
the warm broth he was pouring into a mug. Halsey was the last alive who
remembered 'Davi,' the ten-years-Terran child dumped into his lap by grudging
relatives. That nickname no longer seemed a part of her, except when Halsey
pulled it out of storage. Where her mother found the name "Darame"
was not known, but its multisyllabic roll of letters had served her well,
and this time it would serve her better.
"Some changes, but nothing we can't
handle. Before we start final memory, what name will you use this trip?"
"Darame." This caused Halsey's
thin eyebrows to lift. "Didn't you tell me Nualans are the best in
the Seven Systems at sniffing out truth?"
"It is said their people do not lie."
His expression was serious.
Darame grimaced. "Wonderful. I can
smell worm-rotten fruit already. But I imagine they have the best interrogation
equipment, as well. If a false name trips a stress, they'll dig deep;
even my shell might crack. Better to give them no doubt about the
foundation of my story." She grinned suddenly. "After all
I've nothing to hide."
Her mischievous grin was infectious; Halsey's
smile blazed like a torch at nightfall. "Boast, boast." But
he straightened his shoulders, his pride in her a glint in his eye. No
world had a record of her, no agency a shred of evidence. Darame had been
cautious during her lengthy career, and thus had no secrets. How could
she feel any guilt for her line of work? Those she fleeced were greedy
fools, exploiting their own people and planet for gain. Halsey chose his
prey carefully, choosing only those who previously had been predator.
It was a very old human tradition, the mirror game; cheating a mark with
his own greed. . . . The Caesarea Force turned a blind eye to Halsey's
scams, a fact which simultaneously amused Darame even as it confirmed
her suspicions about most authorities. The greatest philanthropist of
the planet could be forgiven the source of his money, since he only struck
at those the Force could not reach, the wealthiest and most devious of
the underground economy.
"Very well Darame,"
Halsey continued, stressing her name. "Let us get to the vitals.
The only 'change' from what we decided back on Caesarea is in the long
term portion of the plan. We may be able to turn this into a trade agreement."
His pleasant tenor voice rolled smoothly through familiar code words.
Darame nodded her understanding. The truth of this con would only be known
when they hit dirt Brant could not trust any sort of message. But
the original plan had involved a simple "in-and-out" scheme,
attempting to use an insider's greed as a weapon. If someone could be
bribed into awarding them a middleman contract, they would simply disappear
with the shipment, leaving the official with the first installment of
the bribe and a great deal of explaining to do. But if those involved
could be induced to "join" their team . . . this could become
a lifetime position, a bent elbow in the trade laws, the perfect niche
to skim cream from milk.
That farm image, a remnant of her distant
past, brought a smile to Darame's face. And a tiny shrug. Either way made
no difference to her. Brant and Halsey could retire on the original agreement.
If things became long-term, perhaps the rest of the crew could live like
kings as well. Halsey would tell her no more he never did. The
same routine as always. . . . Why am I nervous?
"Brant is disappointed at the timing.
. . . It would have been better if we had arrived earlier. We will be
met momentarily by a trinium transport, which will take us to a drop point
"A mining transport?" That was
not simply unusual, it was abnormal.
"The only passenger station is far
to the south, a small, neutral city called Amura. Brant's 'sponsor' did
not want to wait the days necessary for a ship to bring us north, and
so arranged for a special lander to meet Rover." Smiling at
the added questions in her eyes, Halsey paused to sip his kona. Darame
waited silently and wrinkled her nose at the mere thought of drinking
the bitter brew. Halsey had few annoying habits, and fewer vices. She'd
allow him a bit of mystery in his schemes, and his stimulants.
"Disappointment?" she prompted
finally, when she realized he wanted a leading question.
"The Festival of Masks, a rather .
. . boisterous . . . celebration, will be over by a planet day by the
time we enter the city. It would have been a good time for us to arrive,
a chance for you to strike up conversations with no suspicion. The night
following begins the Feast of Souls, a somber religious holiday."
"Religious holiday?" Darame repeated
casually, submerging her tension. Memories of Gavriel flitted through
her mind of portions of Emerson and Kiel. Just what they needed,
a religious complication.
"It's all right," Halsey said
hastily, as if reading her mind. "The Nualans are very religious,
but tolerant even of their own schisms. As luck would have it,
it is an heir's birthday, and Brant has arranged for us to be invited
to the private celebration."
"An ambassador's aide arranging invitations
to royal parties . . . He moves quickly, as always," she murmured,
pouring another cup of the nutritious broth. Easy on the stomach for a
few hours . . .
"The communique was signed off by
Second Ambassador Brant," Halsey offered, a definite twinkle in his
"Second Ambassador? Good heavens,
Halsey, did he marry someone?" Her surprise was genuine. The Caesareans
were lax about some things, but usually strict about seniority and promotions.
Brant had not been with their foreign branch of government that long.
Of course, with Nuala so isolated, the rules could be different for this
"Or perhaps a death . . ." Halsey
did not continue on that path; he always avoided reminding Darame that
Brant's methods were occasionally very direct. "At any rate, he has
hold of several important ears. The code breaks down into the names Iver
and Caleb they'll be your marks. But the emphasis is light on the
last code, so I think you can simply get your bearings the first night."
He smiled as he spoke, leaning back in the flexseat with an audible creak.
Darame half-closed an eye, waiting for the snap, but the mold held. "Good.
You need some time to play. Your last job ran past the deadline."
"Past?" she said innocently,
and he laughed, his huge frame shaking. Darame had boarded scarce moments
before takeoff, the authorities in close pursuit. It seemed like yesterday.
. . . It might as well have been yesterday she was bundled
into Cold Sleep right after briefing. Time off after this job. When
was my last vacation? A year ago . . . More than that . . .
She let him enjoy the joke, while she pondered
a few more questions. Usually she preferred to find out things from the
natives of an area, but basics had to be observed. "Halsey . . ."
"Yes, Davi?" The big man patted
moisture from his red face.
"The succession in Atare on
the entire planet. Your notes say it is a matriarchy?" If power was
in the hands of women, why play up to the men?
"Yes and no. Descent is matrilineal.
You remember that eighty percent of the population is sterile?" he
asked in turn.
"The genetic mutation problem."
"Exactly. It's one of the reasons
we've brought gene packets as part of our trade package; they always need
new strains. But they prefer the natural process, and so fertile people
have power it's as simple as that. Certain families have historically
had great fertility, and this helped them move into positions of great
power. The Atare family not only controls the trine mines, it is also
one of the strongest and most numerous clans. Power is shared between
the eldest male and female of a single generation who are children of
the last eldest female. The man carries the name of the clan as his title
in this case, Atare and the female, whatever the clan, is
called The Ragaree, the mother of the heir. Does that make sense?"
"Then . . . the man's children do
not figure into the next ruling generation?" she continued.
"No. I think they become the head
of the judicial branch or something, but they have nothing to do with
the rule. The ruler's sister's children will rule, and must be trained
for their role. They are living repositories of what the Nualans value
most: healthy, fertile genetic material." Halsey had his superior
look on his face.
"I heard somewhere that they dote
on their children," she murmured aloud. "I doubt that they look
at their offspring as living tissue cultures."
"Their children are everything to
them," Halsey stressed, serious once more. "Each royal family
has their own system to protect their heirs. Among the Atare, it is an
organization called the guaard. It's modeled somewhat on the janissary
system; they are totally loyal to the ruling Atare and Ragaree.
Guaard have existed over a thousand years, and there is not one
recorded incidence of betrayal. Brant claims they are incorruptible by
any normal means. Fortunately the royal family and its hanger-ons are
not so virtuous."
Smiling slightly, Darame straightened in
her chair. "Halsey . . . I . . . need to prepare myself on something.
Are the Nualans . . . Do they look human?" she said quickly. "Not
that it's a big problem, but "
"My dear child!" Halsey said,
seizing her hand. "Do you think I'd throw you to dogs like a bone?
Of course they look human! I'd call the Atares quite human. After all,
they've been bringing back spouses ever since they succeeded in passing
the radiation belt. By now their heredity is mostly off-worlder."
Then he winked. "Not bad looking, either."
"If you had your choice of materials
for a baby "
"No, no! Not the Atare clan. At least
not the ruling line. Their looks are solely from generations of having
their pick of mates. After all, even if some of the ragarees weren't much
to look at, the idea of all that wealth, prestige, and security must have
tempted a lot of people. They have become an unusually handsome line.
This assignment won't be a chore."
"At least it will be a feast for the
eyes?" she suggested, lifting her mug as if to toast him.
Halsey raised his steaming kona, gently
bumping it against her molded cup. "Probably better than that
they are known as scholars and lovers, my dear Davi. Bored you shouldn't
be, in any fashion!" His merry laugh rang out again as he
sipped his kona.
We'll see. They value fertility among
some sects on Emerson, too . . . so they only have sex during certain
times of their year, and it's poor sport, my alpha male friend. But men
rarely think about how a woman sees such things. Something bothers me
about this job, old man.
As if by command, memory finally returned.
. . . She had not worked with Brant since she heard about that Emerson
fiasco. Darame answered Halsey's smile, not wanting him to worry, even
as she calculated how much credit she could withdraw from her account
without causing comment. This place was too much of an unknown to make
any better plan. Trust and adore Halsey she might, but she wanted enough
money on her person for a ticket to Caesarea, if something went wrong.
. . .