season, before Green Eyed Monster
It was green. She had found
it on the last commerce planet they had felt safe to visit. She
couldn't say why she had bought it, but she had. A small change,
perhaps, but one she was ready to make.
Aeryn walked purposely towards
Command. If she lingered, she would lose her certainty. She never
shrunk from confrontation, but this would be different. The traders
were scheduled soon, and she had come to her decision late. So
be it, she thought, and opened the door.
Crais was speaking into his
comm as she entered. "Crichton, the traders will be here
in three arns. They will bring the tools you requested, but the
price will be half again what we originally expected." Not
waiting for a reply, Crais returned to the careful short-range
scanning that they hoped would help Talyn elude Peacekeeper notice.
It had been a risk coming this close to a Peacekeeper controlled
area, but they needed many supplies, and some could be used to
study Scorpius' obsession, wormholes.
Crias heard her footsteps
but mistook her identity. "Stark? What is it?" Crais
hated being interrupted when he was working with Talyn. Still,
he had been very polite to her since she came aboard. It made
their new relationship easier to bear.
"How many traders will
be involved in the negotiation?" Crais was startled to hear
her voice, and looked over his shoulder in surprise. His head
stopped, eyebrows raised.
"What," he said
in a low, serious tone, "are you wearing?"
Aeryn gave him a withering
look. :"It's a dress."
"This is hardly the
time to expand your wardrobe, Officer Sun." Polite,
but with a note of Captainly finality.
Aeryn was spared trying to
think of an answer when Crichton and Stark entered the bridge.
Crichton stopped short and gave her a wood whistle; dren, she
was starting to think in his idiom.
"Nice outfit, Aeryn.
What's the occasion?"
She shrugged. It would sound
so pathetic, voiced.
turned and was staring at her with barely feigned patience. "Aeryn,
the rendezvous with the traders is in three arns. They will expect
a complement of Peacekeeper officers on board. Perhaps you should
return to uniform."
She looked out the viewport,
the better to maintain her calm. "No."
Stark started to stammer.
"No? You disagree? What does that mean for the plan?"
She heard Crichton's step
as he moved just over her right shoulder; perfect position for
a shoulder throw, a decade of training reminded her. It made her
angry, even before he spoke.
"Aeryn, I know you hate
to admit it, but Crais is right. We need to project a look of
strength, or the traders will be suspicious and blab to everyone
about us, which will get back to Scorpy, which will bring him
down on us like ugly on him." He touched her shoulder, lightly.
"No." She spun
away from him, putting a safe three feet between them. A strand
of hair fell across her face; she pushed it away. "You always
have plans. Change this one. I do not have to be a Peacekeeper
for this deception to work."
"We are not being as
deceptive as we would like to believe." Stark observed in
his odd voice. Crais and Crichton ignored him.
Crais favored her with his
Captain's Stare. Still effective; she almost flinched at his obvious
disapproval. His voice bore down on her with the weight of authority.
"The traders will be armed; they insisted on three of them
attending. We must present a convincing display of strength. Three
armed officers is a greater guarantee of safety than two."
"Talyn is the
greatest guarantee of safety. No trader would risk his cannon,
whether there were three or two or one Peacekeepers present."
"We need three people
to make this work. Crais will oversee the trade, playing commanding
officer. You and I get to watch each other's backs when we buy
the stuff." Crichton smiled at her, with that frelling charm
he was so good at. "I can't do it alone."
"And where will Rygel
and Stark be during this charade?" She felt the noose closing,
the logic of the plan closing in on her.
"Buckwheat will watch
from one of his hidey-holes; if they try to scam us, he'll see
it and let me know. Starky will bustle about, playing the servant."
started at the word. His conditioning ran deep.
Crichton gestured wildly,
his smile slipping. "OK, yeah, he's going to play
a slave. That's what they expect, that's what we're going to show
them. Aeryn, you know I make a lousy Peacekeeper; you're a good
one, they will believe you."
"You're getting better
every day." Aeryn said, and left Command before he could
* * *
Rygel was obstinate. "Are
you fahrbot? I am not unknown; they will recognize me and then
go tell every sentient they meet that I was last seen near a developed
system buying technology whose only possible use is wormhole exploration.
Scorpius may be insane, but he will see the link between a cetain
handsome Hinerian and that frelling wormhole technology in a microt."
"Talyn is far more memorable
that you, and we last heard of Scorpius three starbursts ago.
He's nowhere near here. If he was, this deal will be exactly what
he's watching for. If we all play the roles Crichton and Crais
expect us to play, then we'll confirm his suspicions and spring
the trap, if there is one. But he's not here, so it doesn't matter
whether you are the most famous trader in the Uncharted Territories
Grimacing, Rygel floated
at her eye level, the easier to get out of her reach. "We
haven't lasted this long by being reckless."
"There is nothing reckless
about this. It is a simple substitution in the plan, you take
my place during the transaction. I will beŠsomething else."
Rygel barked with amusement
and tilted forward. "What else can you be? Even in that ridiculous
garment, you still walk, talk and glare like a Peacekeeper. You
wouldn't fool anyone."
Aeryn seized the thronesled
before Rygel could escape. "With you, I act like a Peacekeeper
to remind you that I won't take your dren. You missed the point.
I don't have to fool the traders; they won't think I'm a Peacekeeper
if I'm not pointing a gun at them, and with you waving money at
them I will be unimportant. What you should think about is what
happens if the deal goes wrong and Crichton and I are pinned down?
Are you and Stark going to rescue us?"
"If I had to, I could."
But a waver in the thronesled gave the lie to his words.
"Dren. Your skin is
much safer with me watching it anonymously than it is if you put
me in the line of fire. Do you trust Crais to back us up if the
traders decide to take the money and the ship?"
sour face was answer enough.
* * *
Stark was pacing in the room
he shared with Rygel, agitated, but not much more than normal.
He muttered to himself. "Bad plan, bad plan. Can't slip up,
won't go back. Stay on your side, not my side." She watched
him briefly, then tapped on the door to get his attention.
"Aeryn," he hurried
over to her. "We have dissent. We must be together on this."
"I have a plan."
Stark looked at her strangely.
"Crichton is the one with all the plans."
She nearly struck him. Why
did it always have to be Crichton's plan?
"Stark. Pay attention.
You don't have to be a slave."
Stark gave her a bemused
look. "Of course I do. Everyone expects it. A free Bannock?
It's a contradiction in terms."
"Since when do slaves
speak logic? You look like a slave because you act like one. Straighten
up." She grabbed him by the shoulder, forced his back vertical.
"But what am I supposed
to be then? No one would believe I am a Peacekeeper for a microt,
no more than you'd be mistaken for Zhaan." Something in the
way his voice caught suggested there was more he wasn't saying,
but she had no time to find out.
who do traders deal with all the time?"
The visible half of his brow
furrowed. "Other traders?"
"Correct. They come
in all sizes and races, even Bannocks. We don't have to play the
roles just because they are the most familiar ones."
Stark looked at her doubtfully.
"We have much less practice being anything else." She
did not miss the we. Too true, for everyone on Talyn. She
gripped him by his biceps and put her face six inches from his.
He did not struggle.
"Look me in the eye
and tell me you want to be a slave again, even for an arn."
Stark stared at her with
his one eye. Something flickered on the edge of his mask. "Never,"
"All right," she
took him by the arm. "We need to find you better clothes."