“The visible aspects of the condition, it is believed, first manifested themselves during a stressful period in the patient’s life. Therefore, the mild agitation that commonly precedes the acute phase, although evident, was easily ascribable to the patient’s augmentation or other, more mundane, causes.”
Internal Communication, Neoclona/Seattle, Shroud, J., Parini, V., concerning Patient S-1.
The frigid morning dampness seeped through Jani’s weatherall as she hurried out of the charge lot. She jammed the notes from her crack-of-dawn meeting into the side pocket of her duffel; as she did, she quickly surveyed the scene behind her. Rain-slick skimmers hovered beside boxy charge stations. Trickle-charge lights glimmered like distant stars. A single streetlight bathed everything in a cold blue sheen. No movement in the ice-light. No sound.
Jani took a step. Stopped. She could feel eyes follow her, could sense their probing like a skin-crawl across her shoulders. She turned.
A few meters away, a feral cat regarded her from its perch atop a discarded shipping crate. It stared at her for a few moments, then poured to the ground and vanished into an alley. Seconds later, Jani heard the scatter of garbage, followed by a strangled squeak.
Sounds familiar. The poor mouse. It probably never knew what hit it. Jani could sympathize. Her meeting had gone much the same way.
It’s like everyone’s forgotten Whalen’s Planet exists, girly. Commercial traffic at the docks is down sixty percent in the last two weeks. That’s six-oh.
She trotted down a side street that led to the main thoroughfare. Her right knee locked as she turned the corner, and she stumbled against a pair of mutually supportive inebriates who had emerged from one of NorthPort’s many bars.
One of the drunks shouted as Jani disentangled herself and hurried away. Something about how her limp made her ass wiggle. She looked over her shoulder, caught glimpses of brightly colored ship patches and a slack-jawed leer. She felt the blush creep up her neck and kept moving.
She entered the lobby of a hostel that catered to merchant fleet officers, tossing a wave to the desk clerk as she hurried to the holoVee alcove. Several employees already sat on the floor in front of the display screen, their positions carefully gauged to allow them a clear view of the front desk.
On the lookout for the manager. Jani kept quiet until she entered within range of the holoVee’s soundshielding. She knew an unauthorized break when she saw one. “Is this it?”
One of the cleaners nodded. “Hi, Cory,” she said without looking up. “It’s the CapNet broadcast. It’s just getting started.”
Jani did a quick mental roll call of the small group, counting faces, uniforms. She didn’t know their names–she tried to avoid the complication of names whenever possible. “Where’s the garage guy?”
“He’s still out sick,” the cleaner said. “Should be back tomorrow. He’ll be mad he missed this.” The young woman grinned. “I’ll tell him you asked about him. He thinks you jam.”
Jani responded with her “Cory” smile. Quiet. Closed. A smile whose owner would blush and keep walking. She leaned against a planter and surveyed with satisfaction the lack of fuss that greeted her arrival. Yes, Cory Sato, documents technician, had settled quite nicely in NorthPort over the last six months. Jani Kilian had never seemed farther away.
Until her morning meeting.
Business has dropped over the side these past two weeks, girly. NUVA-SCAN annex won’t answer our calls. Even the Haárin are complaining. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?
An overwrought voice interrupted Jani’s troubled meditation. “A great honor is being paid the Commonwealth,” the CapNet reporter gushed, “opening a new and exciting chapter in human-idomeni relations!”
Spoken like someone who has no idea what she’s talking about, Jani thought as she watched members of the Commonwealth Cabinet walk out onto the sheltered stage that had been erected in front of the Prime Minister’s palatial Main House. Steam puffed from their mouths. A few of the coatless Ministers shivered in their formal, color-coded uniforms. Chicago in winter looked even less hospitable than NorthPort, if that was possible.
Treasury Minister Abascal, ever-flushed face glowing in lurid contrast to his gold tunic, trundled to the podium “to say a few words.”
“Where’s the ambassador?” someone grumbled.
“He doesn’t come out till later–you want the poor old bastard to freeze to death?”
“Never get to see him at this rate.” One of the day-shift waiters checked his timepiece. “All fourteen Ministers gonna talk–it’ll be hours.”
“Not all fourteen,” said the restaurant hostess. “Van Reuter’s not there.”
Really? Jani studied the rows of faces, looking for the one she knew. Had known. Long ago. “Too bad,” she said. “He’s the best speaker of the bunch.”
“You like him?” The waiter glanced at Jani over his shoulder and sneered. “He’s a Family boy nance.”
“He knows the idomeni,” Jani replied. “That’s more than you can say for the rest of them.”
“You don’t see him much since his wife died,” the hostess said. “Poor man.”
“You hear about him, though,” the waiter muttered. “Nance.”
On-screen, Abascal finished to scattered applause and gave way to Commerce Minister al-Muhammed. Jani leaned forward, straining to hear the commentary over the buzz of multiple conversations. Commerce controlled trade and transport schedules–maybe something al-Muhammed said would shed light on the slowdown around Whalen.
“Is al-Muhammed the “A” in NUVA or the “A” in SCAN?” someone piped, drowning out the minister’s voice.
Oh blow! Jani shouldered her bag and walked through the middle of the huddle. “Al-Muhammed’s the ‘A’ in SCAN,” she said, bumping the speaker in the back of his head with her knee.
“He’s another nance,” griped the waiter.
“Cory, I thought you wanted to see this,” someone called after her. “You’ll miss the ambassador.”
“I have to go. I’ll catch it somewhere else.” Somewhere quieter. She should have known better than to try to watch the program with others. Some things needed to be studied in private. Pondered. Mulled.
We’ve officially reopened relations with the idomeni. Jani rubbed her stomach, which had begun to ache. Wonderful. She walked past buildings of black-and-yellow thermal scanbrick toward NorthPort’s Government Hall. The elegant twelve-story edifice loomed over all like a stern but forgiving patriarch, offering numerous types of guidance to his wayward children. Audit assistance from External Revenue Outreach. Documents counseling from the Commerce and Treasury Ministry annexes. By all appearances, family relations appeared very close.
Appearances, as the old saying went, could be deceiving.
Why you always hang about with the nances at Guv Hall, girly? What goes on there so interesting you need to see it every day?
She increased her pace as she headed out of the business district, monitoring her stride in shop windows and mirror-glazed brick. She had only become aware of the hitch in her walk over the past couple of months, and had attributed it to a combination of the NorthPort weather and a cheap mattress.
Among other things. Jani took a step. Right foot down. Another. Left foot…down. She had to assume that. She hadn’t much sensation in her left leg. Or her left arm. The lack of feeling sometimes made quick movement an adventure, but she maneuvered pretty well for a half-animandroid patch job. And my ass does not wiggle–she glanced at her reflection–not much, anyway.
Block after block fell behind as she tried to walk off her growing apprehension. She passed warehouses, long-term skimmer charge lots, then a three-hundred-meter stretch of sand and scrub before coming to the houses.
The facades of the one and two-story polystone homes would have appeared familiar to most humans, but a careful observer would have noticed the subtle alterations. Smaller, fewer windows. No doors opening out to the street. Blank walls facing the human side of town. For humanish ways are strange ways, and godly idomeni avert their eyes.
The low clouds opened. Cold rain splattered down. Jani yanked the hood of her weatherall up over her head, but not before looking around to see if she was being observed. She wouldn’t be welcomed here. The made-sect Haárin, like their more disciplined born-sect counterparts, preferred their humanish neighbors keep their distance.
Except when it comes to business. The Haárin were non-violent criminals and other idomeni social anomalies, their manufactured sect the pit into which the born-sects dumped their misfits. Even though Jani understood the Haárin better than most, she still couldn’t be sure whether they settled on human worlds because they enjoyed aggravating their governing Council or because they actually liked the neighborhood. They definitely enjoyed learning concepts like float-rebound accounting. They liked dealing, and possessed a disrespect for Commonwealth rules and regs that was almost colonial in its fervor.
They’re probably all at the gathering hall, waiting for Tsecha’s speech. The reopening of formal diplomatic relations between the Commonwealth and the Shèrá worldskein, and the subsequent reevaluation of trade and taxation laws, concerned them as much as it did Jani’s bosses in the Merchants’ Association.
I foresee busy times ahead for documents technicians. Jani squinted as the rain pelted harder and thick fog wended around homes and down the empty street. Then a shadowed movement in the murky distance caught her eye; her stomach clenched as it always did when she saw a NorthPort Haárin. Their born-sect forebears had been Vynshàrau and Pathen, and the strains had remained undiluted. The approaching Haárin was rope-muscled, slender, and two meters tall. His yellow-orange skin, which screamed jaundice to humans, in idomeni reality marked the races that originated in Shèrá’s desert regions.
It’s only Genta. Jani’s anxiety subsided. The shuttle dealer walked toward her with long, loose-limbed strides. His dark green overrobe clung wetly to his matching belted shirt and trousers, the hem catching on the fasteners of his knee-high boots. Clothing drenched, fine brown hair plastered to his scalp, the Haárin appeared completely at ease. With his narrow shoulders, age-grooved jowls, and wide-spaced yellow eyes, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a bored cheetah.
“Nìa Chaw-ree.” Genta crossed an arm over his chest in greeting. His right arm, palm facing inward. A sign of regard, if not respect. “You ar-re noth ath a holoVee, watching speeches? That is wher-re all idomeni ar-re, watching speeches.” The English words tumbled from barely moving lips, all trilled r’s and fuzzed hard consonants. “Insthead, you ar-re her-re in the rain.”
“Yes, ní Genta–I don’t like speeches,” Jani replied as she returned Genta’s greeting gesture. And I have some nerves to walk off. But a Haárin wouldn’t know a nerve if it reared up and bit him in the ass, so no use mentioning that. “Why aren’t you in the gathering hall? Tsecha’s born Vynshàrau–they’ve always been friends of Haárin. You might like what he has to say.”
Genta held a spindle-fingered hand to his face and brushed water from his hairless cheeks. His stare pierced Jani. She, of all people, should have been used to it by now, but the direct gaze of idomeni eyes, dark irises surrounded by more lightly colored sclera, could still disconcert. Looking strangers in the eye was taboo for all born-sect idomeni, but the NorthPort Haárin were adopting the custom as a matter of good business. The fact that it rattled the hell out of most humans had nothing to do with it. Of course not.
“I did not wait for Vynshàrau to tell me to live with humanish,” Genta said, “and I do not need what Vynshàrau says now to work with humanish.” Like all his fellow worldmen, he became much more intelligible when he had a point to make. “NìRau Tsecha is not for Haárin. He is not for Vynshàrau, or even for idomeni. He is for something here,” -he thumped the middle of his stomach, where most idomeni believed the soul resided- “and to fight for such does not extend GateWay rights or alter contract law.” With a distracted gesture of departure, he started back down the street.
“It will be bad for business,” he continued, his rumbling voice deadened by the fog. “Bad, as it was before. Even now it starts–where are all the ships these past weeks? No good can come from this. No good.” With that, Genta disappeared into the swallowing mist, leaving Jani alone in the rain.
Eventually, she returned to the human side of town. She wandered from storefront to storefront, finally joining a small crowd that had gathered in front of a communications shop. Every holoVee screen in the window contained the image of Prime Minister Cao.
“And now, fellow ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,” Cao paused, drawing out the moment, “it is my honor and my privilege to introduce His Excellency, ambassador of the Shèrá worldskein, of the Vynshàrau and of all idomeni peoples–”
“Sects,” Jani muttered.
“–Ègri NìRau Tsecha.” Cao looked off to the side and extended her arm. “Excellency!”
Jani sensed the tension around her as on the screen, a familiar face came into view. Familiar not because of the Genta-like skin tone, the same gold eyes and long, straight nose, but because of something deeper, something older. She felt wet cold wind brush her face and imagined it drier, hotter. Instead of damp mingled with the acid bitterness of skimmer cells, the sweet odor of lamptree blooms filled the air. The crowd surrounding her towered above her, wore flowing overrobes, and spoke in lilting rises and falls.
Eighteen years ago, in the godly capital of Rauta Shèràa, when we both were known by the names we’d been born with—
—I almost got you killed, didn’t I, NìRau?
“–it has been too long.”
The recorded audience exploded into applause as the ambassador raised his right hand above his head in a subservient greeting. The red stone in his ring of station flashed reflected daylight like a small warning light. As the clapping died, Tsecha bowed his head and continued his speech in High Vynshàrau.
Jani positioned herself so that the crowd blocked the subtitles. She watched Tsecha’s posture and gestures, the sweep and flourish of the highly choreographed language, and intuited meaning the way a musician discerned note, tone and tempo. It had taken her seven years to develop the skill; pride and respect for the language prevented her from playing ignorant and covering it up. The Haárin had noticed her ability soon after she’d arrived in NorthPort. Whenever their trade council experienced a communications breakdown with the Whalen’s Planet Merchants’ Association, they always contacted Cory Sato to help resolve it, a fact that only helped worsen her relationship with her bosses.
Jani flinched as the woman next to her pointed to the newsscreen. “It’s so beautiful! That language. Those gestures. Like a kind of dancing!”
A man in a dockworker’s coverall shook his head firmly. “Don’t trust them. None of them, not even the ones we got here.” He gestured in the direction of the Haárin enclave. “Sneaky bastards. Don’t see none of ‘em here, do you? No, they gotta shut themselves away all private.”
“Tsecha’s the Pathen Haárin’s religious as well as secular leader,” the woman said. “They’re required to gather together in their meeting hall to listen to him. Then afterwards, they’ll pray.”
Jani nodded in agreement. Genta had, in fact, committed a serious breach of order by not attending the program. But even the most humanish-behaving idomeni felt that acting one way while believing another was disorderly; Genta’s cultural conditioning prevented him from hiding his displeasure with his ambassador. Likewise, his council’s action against him would be very public, and very swift. If his delivery contracts are cancelled, the MA will explode. And she would be dragged in to ladle oil over the whitecaps, sure as hell–
“Them and their prayers.” The dockworker glared at Tsecha’s image. “Everything’s a damned prayer. Even their damned meals. Say it’s their religion, but whoever heard of a religion where it’s a sin to eat in public? In a restaurant? With friends. Like normal.”
The woman frowned at him. “Eating’s different for them. They store food very carefully and keep records of where it comes from. They call their meals ‘sacraments’ and their cooks ‘priests.’ They eat by themselves and pray the whole time. Very ceremonial. Very precise.” She nodded knowingly. “That’s how they honor their gods.”
“The Haárin honor money more than gods,” another man said. “You can buy some of their blessed sacrament if you really want it.” He grimaced. “Don’t know why you would, though. They season their food like to blow the top of your head off. Even the sweet stuff.”
“Sacraments.” The dockworker snorted. “Bunch of creeps. Talk like they got marbles in their mouths, look at you like you’re dirt.” He walked away, his expression stony. “Didn’t need any damned ambassadors for almost twenty years. Why now?”
Interesting question, sir–I’ve pondered it myself the past few weeks. Jani cast a last look toward the screen, taking note of the ministers sharing the stage with Tsecha. Every face wore a broad smile. Well, those expressions would be wiped out soon enough when they realized what they’d let themselves in for. At least this time she’d be far enough away to avoid shrapnel. For once in her screwed-up life, she’d stationed herself, as her mainline Service buddies used to say, well back of the front.
The rain had turned to mist. Time to head back to the Association tracking station she called home. Jani hurried in the direction of the lot where her skimmer sat charging, picking up her pace even though her back had begun to ache. Her bosses would soon be screaming for official morning docking numbers. She couldn’t afford to piss them off anymore.
A shout sounded from behind. The pound of running feet. Jani’s heart raced. Her breath caught in her throat. Then chill calm washed over her, like an old friend resting a hand on her shoulder. She reached into the inner pocket of her duffel. Her hand closed around the grip of her old Service shooter. She wheeled, only to see the desk clerk from the hostel racing toward her.
“Jeez, Cory, wake up!” The young man slowed to a gasping halt. “I need–to talk to you.”
Jani withdrew her empty hand from the duffel and tried to smile.
“Boy, you look wrecked.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You get those old farts you work for through that audit ok?”
“As always,” Jani replied.
“You know,” the clerk leaned closer, “there’s a doe here from SouthPort Consolidated. Jammin’ blonde. She’s looking for doc techs. Pass her exam, she’s offering Registry-level jobs.”
The clerk rolled his eyes. “You, dummy! You’re the talk of the Merchants’, my manager says. All the paper you vet is so clean, it squeaks. Six months on the job, not one observation from Guv Hall. My manager calls it a miracle.”
My bosses call it something else. Jani’s smile faded. The word “verifier” hadn’t been said aloud at this morning’s meeting, but the mute accusation had hung heavy in the air. Government spy. They think I’m a government spy.
If they only knew.
Jani glanced down the street, where the crowd still gathered in front of the communications shop. “I’ll think about it.”
The clerk sighed. “Yeah, well, don’t think too long. She’s checking out tonight.” He shook his head. “Registry-level jobs. Just think. Exterior Ministry on Amsun. Maybe even Earth!” He punched Jani’s arm. “Registry–that’s the top of the tree!”
I know all about the Registry, child–my name resides in a very prominent place in that epic tome. “Thanks for the word,” Jani said. “I’ll give it all due consideration.” She left the clerk to argue with her retreating back and ducked into the alley she always used to reach the charge lot. Then her stomach grumbled and she tried to recall what waited at home in her cooler. Cold air–damn, I need to buy food. And all the decent shops were in the opposite direction.
Jani hurried out of the alley, slid to a stop, and scurried back into the shelter of a doorway. The desk clerk was talking to an attractive blonde. His new contact from SouthPort Consolidated, Jani assumed. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall seeing that company name on any shipping logs that had passed through her hands.
Jani studied the woman’s neat hair and stylish clothes, both several GateWays removed from the best SouthPort had to offer. She watched as the desk clerk nodded, then pointed in the direction of the alley.
She backed down the passageway, her sore back protesting every stride. When she reached the other end, she looked up and down the street, ducking into the shadows as a passenger skimmer drifted by. She listened, until she heard only faraway street sounds and knew for certain that she was alone. Then she ran.