It’s her stride that catches your attention, even before the uniform, the poise and bearing that bespeak a lifetime of military service: you’d know that posture anywhere. After all, you see it in the mirror every day.
Surprising, you think, that she still wears the uniform, albeit stripped of rank and insignia—in another time, another place, you’d find that telling, telling indeed. But the ins and outs of Aeryn Sun’s psychology are no longer your concern.
And for that, you are profoundly thankful.
Although, were you to take an interest, you might make much of the child she carries, tucked securely against her left side, keeping her gun hand free. That tells you she’s armed without needing to see the flash of holster peeping out from under her coat as she walks through the bazaar. But her walk draws the edges of her coat apart, revealing something that you do not expect: she’s pregnant again.
That should be neither here nor there—your only consideration should be how soon Aeryn Sun, her child and John Crichton, who is certainly nearby, leave the planet—you focus on the child instead.
Given the mother, you expected that he would be dark-haired, not the tow-coloured curls that brush against his nape and cheeks. No doubt it will darken with age. You're too far away to distinguish the colour of his eyes: you wonder if those clear blue Crichton eyes bred true. Nevertheless, he's a robust specimen—rosy-cheeked and healthy as a propaganda poster.
The child clutches a toy drannit in one hand, which he waves in circles as he burbles into his mother's ear, pausing to gnaw on the snout. You smile as Sun deftly removes the toy from her offspring's maw, nearly losing a digit in the process as he snaps at her fingers with his wet, gummy mouth.
You consider the possibility that the PK leathers were chosen for their stain-resistant qualities—oh, how the mighty have fallen.
And yet, Aeryn Sun and her companions have done more to further the Sebacean cause than many who wear her colours. You know better than to take them lightly.
Sun stops at the chandler's stall, directly in front of your table on the long porch running the length of the saloon. You ask Chilnak what you've done to anger him lately. Frell if you haven’t just stumbled into a viper's nest and all you can do is hold still and hope they don't bite.
The publican walks with an obsequious shuffle to your table and refills your cup. He brings a message: Davos has been delayed but will meet you here. You give the barkeep a sultry smile and toy with the pendant dangling between your breasts to hide your frustration and send him off with a little something extra in his step. That idiot Davos is probably still frelling whatever easy tralk he passed out with last night. This will be the last time you let Central Command arrange your contact on planet. Next time, next time you'll be able to insist on complete command of the operation from planning to execution—if you don't frell this up or rather, if Sun and Crichton don't frell this up for you.
Your failure to acquire the wormhole weapon at Katratzi and Qu'jaga did not go unnoticed or unremarked and it cost you: status, position, influence. Grunts like Sun believe the propaganda, that the Peacekeepers are the last true meritocracy in the galaxy. From farmer's brat to battle-born, all can one day wear the bars of a Peacekeeper Captain and command from the deck of a mighty Avenger-class carrier—at least so long as you're Sebaecean and pure blooded. If, however, one of your sires mingled their perfect Sebaecean genes with an anonymous Nebari, you might as well not exist. Unless they think you might be useful to them, think it might be useful to have Peacekeeper-trained agents who can pass in Nerbari territory, spies that don’t look quite Sebaecean, don’t scream Peacekeeper to everybody they pass on the street—unlike Sun. Prove you have value and one day you might find yourself wearing those bars after all. But the cost will always be higher for you. And there is always a cost.
Fortunately, Sun's business with the chandler doesn't take long. The money changes hands and there’s a flurry of gestures in the general direction of the spaceport. The movement catches the child's attention. The drannit is momentarily forgotten as he leans forward and makes a grab at something in Sun's hand. She gives it to him and this produces another excited, drooling burble. Sun smiles and drops a kiss onto his curls as he focuses on his acquisition.
Where did she learn such tenderness? Find the ability to express affection with such casual ease? Central Command's psychological work-ups postulated that her relationship with Crichton was based on transference of her indoctrinated loyalty to the Peacekeepers combined with sexual attraction—Sun wouldn't have been the first woman to throw it all away for a good frell. But you tried that angle when you interrogated the lover and that is why you no longer bother with the psych reports prepared by Central Command.
The child sits back in Sun’s arms and introduces the drannit to his new prize, knocking the two toys together and laughing. He smiles with delight and offers the model command carrier to the drannit before tasting it himself. Sun turns from the chandler to remove it from his mouth.
You know the very microt when she catches sight of you—the indulgent smile drops from her face faster than her hand falls to the pistol you know is under the flap of her coat. She turns to her left, putting her body between you and the child, and pulls back the flap of her coat, tucking it behind her leg so it won't foul her draw. Her eyes never leave yours, waiting for you to make your move.
Jeso, a big hulk of dumb and obvious, stirs behind your left shoulder. You hired him to be your bodyguard but his real purpose is to distract the locals and draw the attention away from you, like a sleight-of-hand. Dumber than a budong though he may be, not even Jeso can miss the tension radiating off Sun like a nuclear detonation.
You stop him with your hand, catching him in the sternum, before he takes a step.
"Relax, darling," you purr, "She's just an old friend."
"Don't look particularly friendly to me."
"We parted company under unfortunate circumstances. I believe that she may have taken some offence."
You turn your head a breath to the side, then back, your eyes still on Sun. In spite of yourself, you hope she'll back down. She has a child in arms and another in her womb, reasons enough to chose discretion over valour, while this fight is a luxury you can't afford right now—not at the cost of your assignment.
Perhaps she reads it in your eyes or perhaps she is merely mindful of the children she carries. Her nod is barely perceptible but she draws her coat closed again. With a last word to the chandler she turns and leaves, shifting the child so that her body is again between you and him.
You let go the breath you've been holding, covering your relief with a sip of tea. Perhaps Chilnak hasn't singled you out after all.
Then you see Crichton, waiting for them with the amphibian at the mouth of the bazaar. Everything can still turn to dren. When Davos arrives, if Davos arrives, you will kill him for putting you in this situation—trapped out in the open like a vorc in a pen.
The child twists in Sun's arms and lunges for the amphibian. You'd have thought he'd want his father, not the slug, but Sun doesn't hesitate to pass him over. You can't help smirking as Crichton's pet dominar doubles as child-minder, bobbing up and down in the hoversled with a lap full of baby as the child's parents talk.
Crichton's head jerks up. Sun must have mentioned your name. You'd be flattered that he can pick you out of a crowd so easily if not for the loathing clear in his eyes even with the length of the alley between you—he's always taken everything between you personally. It makes him dangerous. If he thinks you've threatened Sun or the child, he won't hesitate…
You shift in your chair, edging it back from the table to give yourself room to draw the holdout pistol strapped just above your right knee if Crichton makes a move.
He doesn't. He settles for throwing a dirty look your way as he reaches for his son, lifting the child into arms and tucking the little boy, still brandishing his toy command carrier and the drannit, against his chest. The little family moves away from the bazaar, back in the direction of the spaceport. Sun is the last to go, sharing one last look with you before walking away.
You realize you still don't know what colour the child's eyes are.
From start to finish the entire incident doesn't last 900 microts. It takes twice as long for you heart rate to slow to normal but your composure is perfect when Davos arrives, smelling of quim and alcohol. You work out the rest of your tension by verbally eviscerating him. He takes your threat to do the same to his guts if he ever blows another rendezvous seriously, which is the only useful thing to come out of the entire meeting.
Composing your report back to central command that evening, you note that you have grave doubts about his continued usefulness or his ability to connect you with Nebari resistance agents but omit the encounter with Crichton and Sun. By way of Jeso, you know that a shipment of preserved foodstuffs, basic medical supplies and children's sanitary garments were delivered to a transport pod in Hangar Bay 14 just before sunset this evening. You know whoever rented the bay paid cash (in krindars, ironically) and lifted off as soon as the supplies were loaded. Tomorrow you will pass along a third-hand report of two Sebaeceans shopping for coolant rods in the bazaar, just in case Central Command has anyone monitoring Crichton's whereabouts.
When the report is complete, you disconnect from the comm-net. Your communicator looks like a personal entertainment console, indistinguishable from the real thing without breaking its circuitry down into its component parts and submitting the whole thing to analysis. The mechanisms that encrypt and decrypt the signals embedded in the entertainment feed are buried in a dozen different subsystems. It's a remarkable piece of engineering. Not in the least because it's also a functioning entertainment console.
Your fingers slide over the various data chips nestled in their slots inside the carrying case: your briefing reports, copies of field reports, surveillance—hidden within porn, sportscasts, adventures games. You even have a few genuine entertainment chips but none of your favourites, nothing that would tip anyone to your identity.
You don't know why you brought it. You've never looked at it. You don't look at it now.
The medical scan after Braca removed you from command on the grounds of "battle-fatigue" revealed two fertilized ova. The genetic protocols make no exceptions for rank—both were submitted to baseline genetic screening. Only one was deemed suitable for implantation and gestation.
Maryk's daughter is assigned to an elite regimental crèche, her immediate future secured by her paternal line and an embryonic genetic profile that indicated she would pass for pure blood. As a descendant of the Central Command, you expect that she will be fast-tracked for command, ushered through the doors you had to scheme so hard to open.
The other ovum was removed. The genetic differences between Human and Sebacean were enough, combined with the lingering Nebari taint in your own genes, to exceed the genetic baseline.
You recall how Crichton nestled his son against his chest and his inability to distance himself. You remember how John Crichton settled accounts at Qu'jaga.
As long as John Crichton is alive, he will not forget you. You made sure of that on Arnessk and no doubt there are other sins he's added to your tally since. There will be a time and a place where you can no longer avoid a confrontation.
The chip is an investment against that day, documented proof that you and Crichton conceived a child on Arnessk—something to weight against your life, should it be necessary. Until then…
You replace the console in its carrying case and check that the door to your rooms is barred. Tomorrow, you'll have Jeso check with the spaceport and make sure that the leviathan left orbit.
Davos promises that he can arrange for you to "bump into" some of the leading members of the resistance at an official reception tomorrow: if you're going to spend the night being pawed by diplomats and merchants, you need your beauty sleep. The last thing you do before you turn off the lights is take off the holster around your lower thigh. You set it on the bedside table but you hold onto the gun.