Continued from page 1
Outside Command, she took a deep breath.
She had seen it done in a million bazaars on a thousand commerce
planets. Traders didn't stride, they wandered, circling around
what it was they wanted instead of marching right up to it. But
her circling was done. Now, she had to close the deal.
As soon as she sauntered in, Crais
began yelling at her. "Officer Sun, we need you in uniform
NOW. The traders will be here in half an arn and we must be ready."
Crichton gave her a worried look.
He was too forgiving of her inner struggles, and too accepting
of her failures. Frell him, why couldn't he understand why she
was pushing herself?
She walked over to Crais slowly, looking
about her with an appraising eye. When she reached his console,
she stroked the controls. "They will be here in 400 microts.
Their firepower is an order of magnitude less than Talyn's, and
there is no ship within range to forward their signal should they
decide to unmask us." She kept her voice calm and even, reporting
If Crais was nonplussed by her demeanor,
he hid it behind his Captain's Stare. "That is no matter.
The plan was set, we all have our roles to play. There can be
no changes at the last microt."
"Crais," she said quietly.
"I stopped taking orders from you almost three cycles ago."
Crichton chose that moment to speak.
"Aeryn, no one is trying to command you. But we need to work
together here. We've got a plan, everyone knows what they're supposed
to do, let's get to it. I can't pull this off by myself."
"No, John. You are becoming better
and better at being a Peacekeeper. They will not doubt you. But
you are not the only one who gets to be something different than
what you were."
Crichton stared at her, his thoughts
racing to process what she had just told him. "Right, new
plan. I'll go talk to Rygel..."
Aeryn nearly relapsed into a Peacekeeper
rage. "Crichton, shut up. Rygel is the owner of this vessel,
and the one interested in the tools you need. You and Crais are
our Peacekeeper guards. Stark and I will be traders hired by Rygel."
At Crais' snort she whirled, and this time she did let her rage
out. "You arrogant prig, how dare you think of us as good
for nothing but slaves? Soldier, tech, or brute, all of them are
nothing but slaves to captains. We are more, and we are
going to frelling act like it all the time."
Crichton, trying to manage a soothing
tone, said, "It's just an act, like you say."
"Act it long enough, and you
are living it. I will not do that anymore."
The traders' vessel was smaller than
Talyn, but the traders came with force. Three enormous Luxans
stepped out of the ship first, weapons ready. Crichton swore softly
behind her; she could sense him stroking Wynonna's hilt. Crais
was poised for deadly force. Rygel made a telltale sound, and
she knew it was up to her.
The biggest Luxan stepped up to Stark.
"Who commands here?"
Stark started to speak, but stuttered.
"Our commander is...is..." Not good.
Quickly she raised her hand to attract
the Luxan's attention. "I will be leading the negotiation.
Who commands does not concern you."
The Luxan gave her a leer. He started
at her feet and slowly travelled up her legs, to her waist, then
her chest, and finally, after what seemed like an arn, her face.
He grinned. "You? And here I thought we had some entertainment."
His fellows chuckled, but kept their guns leveled.
She debated twisting his tentacles
into a knot, but his pulse rifle was very large in front of her.
What would Zhaan have done? Or better, Chiana? She smiled, tilted
her head in acknowledgement and said, "You will be well paid,
I assure you. The tralks you buy will be in awe of your enormous...coin."
The lead Luxan guffawed, for an instant
looking like D'Argo. But when his mirth ended, his look was shrewd.
"We have had some unexpected costs. The price has gone up."
She frowned. Fortunately, Stark spoke
up. "We have been waiting for you. Our time is not without
value." His voice was surprisingly firm.
The Luxan jerked his head. The other
two holstered their pulse pistols and went back into their ship.
"If you can't pay, we'll just have to be on our way."
"Laraq, please show our friend
what he will receive if he can produce what we seek." Behind
her, Crichton started, then pushed over the container with the
price they had agreed to, plus twenty percent. When the lid was
lifted, the coins shone under the harsh lighting of the docking
bay. Rygel's polishing did not go for naught; the Luxan's eyes
gave away his greed, although his tone remained bored.
"Well, you have something. It
might be enough. Get the goods!" he bellowed over his shoulder.
The other Luxans soon wheeled down a pallet with a refridgerated
trunk, two large boxes, and perhaps a dozen small containers.
Aeryn walked over. Crichton and Crais
stayed back; she was now between them and the Luxans, but they
had placed their arms aside for the moment. Ten, eleven, twelve.
Different shapes, matching what Crichton had told and shown her.
The only problem was that she didn"t know how to confirm they
held what they needed.
Rygel brought his thronesled forward.
"Out of my way, let me see what we have. You, open them up!"
He gestured more towards Crais, but Crichton moved quickly forward
and started opening containers, being careful to show each one
to Rygel as he made his own inspection.
While the Hinerian and human worked,
the Luxan leader talked. "Strange stuff you asked for. What
do you plan to use it for?"
"Your only concern should be
spending the money you are about to make." She smiled, hoping
to mislead him.
The Luxan was still curious. "This
ship is a unique design. Peacekeeper, is it?" He glanced
at Crais, standing back with arms folded but a pulse pistol obvious
in the crook of his arm.
"Our employer's design. This
is a prototype, with its own protection. Less ships are needed
to escort it."
"Looks more like a Leviathan
than a Hinerian luxury yacht. What were you planning to do with
the tools again?"
Aeryn gave him as guileless a look
as she could muster. "A tingler field."
"What?" The Luxan was surprised.
"You don't need these tools to build a tingler field."
"You do if you want to increase
the stimulation to all senses."
The Luxan grunted
in disgust. "Tell me it's not for the Hinerian."
"But of course." Crichton
and Rygel were finished with their inspection, so she and Stark
pushed the container of coins towards the Luxan. "I believe
this will be sufficient for your trouble."
The Luxan did a quick estimation of
what was in the container. "We"re done here. Take it
up!" As his companions carried it aboard their ship, he turned
back to Aeryn. "Have a good time with the slug."
Aeryn managed to smile back. As soon
as his back was turned, it changed to a grimace.
The traders were gone. Crais returned
to command, with only a guarded nod indicating his approval. Rygel
headed for the galley muttering about how useless a tingler field
would be with this crew. Stark hopped after him towing the pallet
with the food and other supplies, smiling madly and reliving his
moment of courage.
Crichton started sorting and cataloging
the tools as soon as the traders were off the scans. Aeryn stayed
to help him. A strange mood was upon her. It wasn't relief, like
you felt when combat ended and you realized you were still alive,
or joy at their success, or amusement at the Luxan's deception.
It was something else. She wasn't sure what it was, but she liked
"So how many dresses did you
buy?" Crichton was looking down, but somehow managed to sound
like he was staring at her. Odd how she could tell without looking.
"One." She noted the type
of tool she was holding on the ledger and put it in the appropriate
bin. She was getting better at telling them apart, even how they
"Oh." Crichton managed to
sound noncommittal, but he couldn't keep quiet. "Then why
did you wear it today? Your dry cleaning bill is going to be horrendous."
Dry cleaning? "It's not for everyday."
And it already had a minor rip; it didn't suffer abuse nearly
as well as her leathers. But fixing it did not seem impossible.
"Then why today? Honestly, Aeryn,
what was so special about today?"
"Nothing." She set down
the next tool, and tried sitting with her hands in her lap. Odd,
but not uncomfortable. "There doesn't have to be any special
reason. That's the point."
He was confused, but not frustrated.
"OK. Well, it's certainly different." He started to
say something, caught himself, said something better. "I'm
glad you like it."
Aeryn smiled to herself. Maybe later,
she'd smile for him. But not yet.