A Matter of Blood
© 2010 Andi Marquette
Torri glared at the vidscreen and went through the data again, scanning the lines of information and Saryl’s findings. Damn. This completely ruined the original plan. There was no way they could drop the spice cargo at Burnside Holdings then conduct recon at Tinsdale without attracting Coalition attention. She looked up at Saryl then, seated across from her at the same table, glad they were alone in the mess. Saryl brushed at the front of her shirt and exhaled in frustration.
“I’m always grateful for your cryptographic and hacking skills,” Torri said. “But sometimes, I hate it when you’re right.” She sighed and sat back, interlacing her fingers behind her head as she stared at the smooth metal panels of the ceiling. “This adds a new dimension. And not in a nice way.” Damn again. Why can’t anything be simple? And why can’t I just let things remain as they are between me and Kai?
“We just can’t make a traditional merchant run to Vegas Sector,” Saryl said, a shrug in her voice. “So we’ll come up with a plan that either demonstrates our complete lunacy or complete brilliance.”
“The two not mutually exclusive.” Torri continued staring at the ceiling. “Why is the Coalition limiting merchant traffic in that part of the sector?” She dropped her gaze back to Saryl. “There are few outposts. There’s no need for a constant stream. How many merchant runs does that sector get every year?”
“Fifty or so. Maybe four every month.”
“Exactly my point.” Torri leaned forward again and rested her hands on the table’s surface, where a map of Vegas Sector glowed from within. “Offworld merchants only?”
“No. Earthbound as well.”
Torri glared at the red-highlighted area, which encompassed the entire Tinsdale holdings north of Burnside and unclaimed territory further north of Tinsdale, too toxic for human life. And probably most life in general. Residue of the Fortunata Wars three hundred years earlier, when the Empire came to power on the carcass of the Planetary Alliance. The Empire hadn’t been perfect—what governing body was? But even at its worst, the Empire couldn’t match the scale of brutality and scope of venality that defined the Coalition. Barely in its infancy, snapping the Empire’s neck not ten years ago. Torri sighed. How I dread its adolescence. “Where in Vegas Sector do the comms originate?”
“North of Tinsdale holdings. About thirty standard Earth miles.” Saryl’s fingertip glided over the tabletop, adding a blue tinge to an area of the map that might have been ten square Earth miles.
Torri contemplated the spot. What would the Coalition want to trace out there? Kai had said two months ago that the Coalition was mucking about on her family’s holdings, but limiting traffic in this way indicated they were up to something more than just simple training missions. Were they beaming comm signals as locators in addition to warnings? “Run another analysis on mineral content in that area. And water sources. A full geophysical overview.”
Saryl complied, her long fingers barely grazing the opaque surface of the table’s control panel.
What’s there? Torri replayed her last visit to the region, two years before she graduated from the Academy. That was. . .maybe eight years ago. Nine? Barren desert landscape broken by ragged buttes and irregular rock formations. Wind-battered and dirt-laden, valuable for few resources beyond minerals and what the most intrepid settlers coaxed or forced from the soil through tech-farming. Kai had taken her all over her family’s holdings, beyond the tea fields, to the borders of the unclaimed territory. What does the Coalition want? She looked up as Jann entered the mess, yawning and stretching.
“We’ll be in Earth’s orbit in thirty hours,” he announced. He scratched his abdomen through his customary black shirt, then tucked it into his trousers, also black. “Any further instructions—” he stopped tucking and stared at the map glowing from within the table. “Don’t tell me,” he said after a few moments. “Coalition trouble in Vegas Sector.”
“Are they that transparent?” Saryl finished running a data access code and looked up at him. “We should let them know. Their actions aren’t secret and their code shields don’t work very well. Maybe we’ll get a reward for our efforts.”
“Good idea,” he said, finishing his ministrations with his shirt. “And they’ll forgive us our past transgressions against them and we can retire to our own holdings.” He looked at Torri then. “How bad is it?”
She motioned to the bench next to her for him to sit, which he did. “It’s the Coalition.” She pointed to the area in red on the map. “It’s always bad. The question is the matter of degree.”
He leaned forward, studying where she pointed. “So they’ve got. . .what there?”
“I’m guessing the beginnings of a new military base,” Saryl said. “And the comms are limiting merchant travel throughout Vegas Sector. That’s a new directive, by the way.” She glanced at Torri. “Within the last two weeks. I can’t track who ordered it.”
Too bad. That might tell them something more, whether it was a local Coalition order or if there were higher-ups behind it.
“Damn,” Jann muttered, voicing Torri’s thought. “Why do they always go slagging around in our schemes?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Saryl said. “A whole series of galaxies out there and they have to focus on this one, this province, this sector.”
“Didn’t we go through this recently?” Jann sat up straight, pretending to think. “Oh, yes. I believe it was two months ago. An opal run in Newburg, wasn’t it? Which is on the other side of Earth. Why can’t they leave this poor planet alone?” He sighed plaintively. “Or why can’t we?”
Torri grimaced and Saryl pointed at the vidscreen. “Here’s the analysis. It’s dry in that area they’ve co-opted, dry in Vegas Sector, and dry throughout Amer Province. Consistent, this part of Earth. Groundwater is practically nonexistent and most of the mineral resources were mined before Fortunata. That leaves whatever the settlers can produce or control. Here—” she pointed at an area marked Tinsdale—“they’re famous for their tea crops.” She looked at Torri, the inflection on her words implying “but you knew that already.” Empire allowed for such nuances in its cadences, emphases, and varying accents. Which was why it had remained a dominant language of commerce and social gatherings, the Coalition’s ascent to power be damned.
“Maybe there’s a tea-addicted Coalition official who wants it all,” Jann volunteered with a scowl.
“Tea is a lucrative cash crop,” Torri said, “but it’s a long-term profit investment. Not a short-term source of quick money.”
Jann ran his hand over his bald scalp, a contrast to his thick eyebrows, two-sided triangles, each apex centered over his upper eyelids. The ends of his brows barely touched just above the bridge of his nose. “And we all know the Coalition likes short-term economic windfalls to line their pockets. Like, say, a shipment of a specific type of opal in a market-cornering scam. Growing tea and shipping it to various distribution points. . .that’s something the Empire, not the Coalition, would have been sniffing around. Deals with local farmers and all that.” He looked from Saryl to Torri. “There’s something down there they want. And if the Coalition is already limiting traffic, then that something is valuable.”
“True. But it may not be something that has market value.” It may be something as simple as a grudge, she thought. Or perhaps a future marriage. . . “What holdings immediately border Tinsdale besides Burnside?”
Saryl tapped the tabletop and another map appeared, overlaying the original. Ansi to the east, Shan to the west.” They all waited as another layer appeared. “Burnside’s to the south, as you know. Any of the other two familiar?”
Torri thought a moment, going through her memories of her last visit to Tinsdale. “I know the names, but not much about the politics. Can you intercept comms from these holdings to determine if there’s a wedding or some kind of alliance that might involve the Coalition?”
“Good angle,” Jann said, appreciative. “Now I see why you’re the captain and I’m but the lowly quartermaster.”
“And Finder of Exquisite Bargains,” Saryl teased. “No one barters as well as you.”
He pretended to preen. “At last, my talents are acknowledged. But enough about me. What sort of plan do you think is in order here?”
“A good one.” Torri raised an eyebrow at him. “But we need more information in order to make it.” She opened a commlink with a thought. “Jindor, please join us in the mess. We have need of your opinions on a matter.”
“Aye, aye,” came the response. “Five minutes. Out.”
Torri addressed Jann, then. “I’ll need you on the bridge to spell Jindor.”
He pretended disappointment. “I never get to hear the girl talk.”
“I’ll make sure you know all the details,” Saryl said, making an adjustment to the map.
“In that case. . .” he grinned. “Your leave, Captain?”
“Dismissed. Run a few navscans. See if you can figure anything out. Confine them to Vegas Sector.”
“Done.” He moved to the far end of the mess to generate a meal and Torri turned her attention back to the map.
“We need to know what’s brought the Coalition to Vegas,” she said to Saryl. “So we can plan around it. I don’t like engaging them if we don’t have to.”
“Unless it’s an opportunity we can’t pass up.”
“I’m not certain this is that opportunity.” She pondered the map a moment, wracking her brain for something, anything, that might provide a clue as to the Coalition’s interest in the region. The mess door slid open and Jindor entered, passing Jann as he exited. She took a seat next to Saryl, which created a juxtaposition in size. Saryl stood almost seven feet tall. Sitting, she still dwarfed Jindor, a petite Malrusian who barely reached five feet. The effect was almost comical because today, Jindor wore a tan shirt and dark blue trousers while Saryl was dressed in a dark blue shirt and tan trousers. Saryl grinned down at her and offered a greeting. Jindor smiled back and nodded at Torri.
“At ease.” She gestured with her chin at the map within the table between them. “What do you make of it?”
Jindor studied it for a long moment. “Vegas Sector. I take it you’ve discovered some unusual Coalition activity north of the Tinsdale holdings.” She arched one fuchsia eyebrow, a match to her hair color, and a contrast to the deep green of her eyes.
“We have. Saryl’s run a geoscan and found that this area has few, if any, minable resources and even fewer agricultural.”
“With the exception of tea,” Jindor replied evenly. “And grapes for vinting. But that’s a long-term investment and the Coalition prefers short-term thievery.” In the nuances of Empire, her statement connoted not only an observation of Coalition preferences, but a personal connection to them, and not good. Jindor had no love for the Coalition, and Torri suspected her past was riddled with scars from wounds it had inflicted, but she didn’t press and Jindor hadn’t offered more than a few comments in crew banter. She’d only just joined the Far Seek two months earlier in Newburg, and Saryl had found nothing beyond what Jindor claimed and what she’d revealed to Torri. Secrets. Everybody had them. As long as they didn’t interfere with the Far Seek’s livelihood, Torri left them alone.
“Indeed. And whatever it is they’ve decided to exploit there is valuable enough that they’re limiting merchant traffic.”
Jindor looked at her in surprise. “Even local Earthbound vessels?”
Torri glanced at Saryl and Jindor looked up at her.
“That’s an affirmative. All merchant vessels.”
“Which means our original plan—”
“Is on its way to a boneyard.” Saryl called up more data on the vidscreen but Jindor ignored it, instead directed her attention at Torri.
“Have you considered some kind of alliance in play with a local official? Perhaps a marriage?”
Torri smiled, pleased that Jindor’s approach echoed hers. “Saryl’s checking that angle.”
“No merchant traffic,” Jindor mused aloud. “So to get into Vegas Sector, we need some kind of clearance. Something that even the Coalition won’t refuse.”
“Like what?” Saryl pulled up genealogies of the Tinsdale Holdings and those that bordered it. “Medical?”
“No,” Jindor said, studying Saryl’s findings on the vidscreen. “That requires too many permits and the Coalition always targets medical transports as potential smuggling venues.”
Torri tracked Jindor’s finger on the vidscreen, interested to see where her thoughts would take her.
“Mercenaries.” Saryl caught Torri’s eye. “That’s my favorite.”
“Maybe,” Jindor muttered. “May I?” Her fingertip hovered over the screen and Saryl got up, to switch places with her. “But if it’s a lockdown op, they’re not going to employ mercenaries for that. . .” she trailed off as she moved images and genealogy charts across the screen. She was following one of her hunches, Torri knew.
“I know.” Saryl sat up, triumphant. “Pleasure envoys.”
Jindor stopped what she was doing. She looked from Saryl to Torri, who fought a laugh.
“Wouldn’t you pay a goodly sum to dress our fearless leader in the robes of an envoy? Bathed and perfumed? Made up like a Vaneth synthetic, perhaps.”
Torri gave her an “in your wildest dreams” look.
“I’ve heard those synthetic pleasure envoys have three breasts,” Saryl continued. “We could grow one in medical for you.”
“I’m quite happy with the two I have,” Torri shot back.
“And I’m sure many others are also happy with them, too.” Saryl waggled her eyebrows and Jindor was suddenly extremely interested in the vidscreen again. “But imagine how much happier you’d be with three.” Saryl made kissing noises at her.
Jindor cleared her throat before Torri could reply. “The Coalition targets pleasure envoys as smugglers, as well.” She ran her fingers over the vidscreen and the image there appeared, larger, on the tabletop. “But yes, I would pay a goodly sum to see the captain in that outfit.” She flashed a wicked grin at Torri, who rolled her eyes and looked down at the table.
“This is the Ansi genealogical chart,” Jindor said, putting an end to further descriptions of what Torri might look like as a pleasure envoy. “Regent Evoran is current Holder. His oldest daughter is nearly twenty Earth years old.” Jindor pointed to the name on the chart. “She is not bonded.”
“Neither are a lot of us,” Saryl commented. “And?”
“According to your data, the Ansi line maintains Alliance traditions.” Jindor touched the tabletop and an image of some kind of festival appeared.
Torri leaned forward. “It’s a Corderan,” she said, recognizing the symbols on the banners.
Saryl’s expression registered confusion.
“It’s one of many rituals that developed after the final Administration collapsed on Earth,” Torri said.
“And in the subsequent Reorganization, when the Alliance established itself across Earth and then in the other Quadrants, survivors on Earth developed new customs that fused history and myth. The Alliance encouraged it—rulers thought it best that Old Earth retain a certain nostalgia, to prevent any kind of ill will and political uprisings. The Empire encouraged it, too, after replacing the Alliance.” Torri paused. From tragedy we create pleasantries that mask the past’s true meanings. She nodded at Jindor to continue, though she knew Jindor had probably already picked up on Torri’s thought before she’d actually made the gesture. Most Malrusians were either fully telepathic or extremely intuitive. Torri hadn’t decided which best described Jindor.
“Survivors thus created new family lines,” Jindor said with a glance at Torri before she focused on Saryl. “And to create alliances with other families through mate-bonding, the rituals needed to be public. Or, barring that, a visual announcement that a family member is not bonded and thus available for potential suitors.”
“That’s what a Corderan is.” Torri pointed at an Earthman in the image wearing a red jerkin belted at his waist and red trousers tucked into black boots. He held a long, red feather. “He’s available. This is his family’s announcement about it.” She thought about the Corderan her father had never held for her because she’d run away to the Academy at sixteen. The decision had come with a hefty price. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in her family for over fifteen years. At this point, it was for the best, since they believed her dead, fighting the Coalition in the Collapse. Torri was certain her father had been mortified to hear of her activities, and no doubt relieved that she was gone.
“But sometimes, the ceremonies are just a formality,” Jindor was saying, “because a bond-mate has already been chosen.” She called up another database, reading through the entries. “And here, Regent Evoran has proudly announced the Corderan of his daughter Liyah, in two months’ time.”
Torri leaned forward, seeing where Jindor was going.
“We’re not on the guest list,” Saryl said, bemused. “And what do we do for the next two months? Though I’m sure the captain will find something to keep us busy.”
“Wait, Saryl. Think about it. A ceremony like this requires food and liquor. And whatever else guests need to ensure they have a good time.”
Saryl’s eyes widened. “And they’ll need merchant ships to bring them the goods. Of course. Evoran will have to apply to the Coalition for special exemption.” She drummed her fingers on the edge of the table, thinking. “How will we get on that merchant guest list?”
Torri caught Jindor’s gaze. “We need more time than just a delivery. We can’t justify staying longer than a day, even under an exemption. That’s not enough time to find out what interest the Coalition has in the Tinsdale holdings.”
Jindor nodded and returned to searching databases.
“Captain, a word?” Saryl’s voice carried an edge that Torri recognized as requesting a private audience. They’d worked together too long for her to ignore it.
Saryl nodded once and stood, towering over the table. Without another word, she turned and exited, ducking to avoid the top of the door, lower than the ceiling.
“Shall I continue with this project?” Jindor inquired as Torri stood.
“Please. I’ll check in later.” Torri didn’t wait for a reply as she strode from the room. She didn’t expect one.