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<< 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 facts.

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 it.

"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 worked together.

"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.

The End

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