THE GYPSY ROVER 2389 A. R.
“Wake up, Darame. Wake up, now.”
Wake up? I’m not asleep… am I? Not asleep… not awake. Concentrating on the familiar voice, Darame willed her body to move. It ignored her command.
A low hissing sound reached her ears, and something was placed over her nose and mouth. “Breathe, girl — breathe deep. Gotta remind your lungs how to breathe.”
Ah, sweet saints, it was oxygen — a rich mix. And something to help clear her out — was it gas or fluid they used to fill the lungs? She had never really cared about the procedure, as long as she trusted the person running the barracks. Mona… why is Mona waking me? Is something wrong? She’s the pilot, I can’t do a damn thing shipboard —
“Up, girl, up. Only six hours until we’re boarded. See the hot planet on the comp screen, feel the heat. Need me topside soon — ” Another hissing sound erupted through the cabin.
Final restimulant. A red gel light over the cot, praise Mona, she was so kind sometimes, at odds with her gruff appearance. Eyes attempting to open, to focus, blinking rapidly, then slowing… Darame stared through the dim light at the solid blur with Mona’s voice. Grayer than she remembered… when had Mona come out of Sleep?
“Hal-sey….” The name came out funny, almost stretched.
“Waiting for you, girl. Received a transmission from Brant a few hours ago. Need your final briefing.” The older woman folded her arms over her flat chest and gave Darame a hard stare. “Never seen anyone take to Sleep like you do… make a good ice cube.”
Managing a thin chuckle, Darame flexed her fingers, enjoying the sensation of warmth from the cot — med table? — she occupied. Always so cold; it was almost unnatural the way she was always so cold…. “I’m… ready to… sit.”
Mona obliged by nudging her up from behind. Still trembling from the restimulant, Darame settled her hands firmly behind her and drew in deep breaths of oxygen. In a few moments the old pilot removed the face mask. “Some day your luck will leave you, girl, and it will take you a full day to recover, like normal folks. Halsey shouldn’t trust it so much. Fine mess we’d have if we had to carry you to the lander!”
“I’m tougher than I look, Mona, remember?” Darame managed to croak. Better — her voice was coming back. Always low, it’d be hoarse for a few hours, but that was a small price for the stretch of Sleep. How many years lost on this trip without it? Ten? She never paid attention. All people in her line of work used Sleep — her friends would still be around when Gypsy Rover returned to Caesarea Station.
Her brain finally started working; she turned slightly, facing Mona’s sharp, almost bony features. “Why are you doing barracks duty?” Halsey had hired some medtech since it was a long trip and a large crew. Where was he?
“Just you,” the woman said stiffly. “Didn’t like the way that fella was looking at you. Didn’t want any funny business with your revival.”
An inward smile, but Darame did not let it reach her face. “I took a contraceptive gel before we left, Mona — it should be good at least a hundred days terra.”
The familiar sniff… “Principle. Don’t like him. Not so much to him that women like you cross his path regularly.”
Smiling, Darame reached up to lightly touch the pilot’s arm. “You are mother and father to me,” she teased, listening as the lilt sluggishly returned to her voice.
A keen hazel gaze raked her features. “Better to you than that old scoundrel Halsey. Make it to the water by yourself?”
Even after all these years, Mona’s clipped, Emerson speech could still confuse her… questions or commands? Smiling, Darame said: “Yes. I can reach the box without help.”
Another sniff. Mona didn’t approve of those secret smiles. “Topside, then. Keep hold the rails, there’s a problem with the artificial gee.” Nodding once, the pilot moved off into the darkness of the room, and Darame heard the hatch wheel spin.
Problem… gee was probably intermittent again. Where did Halsey buy (buy?) this heap, anyway? It had more problems than she cared for, but Mona had been satisfied, which meant that it was secure where it counted.
Flexing fingers, flexing toes… always a few moments longer to come out of it. Was she reaching her limit already? Despite what science said, she believed the old stories: only so many Freezes to a customer. Human tissue could only be pushed so far.
And Halsey? He took it well, that was certain. Darame shuddered to think how old the man might be…. Sweet Saints, he had known her great-grandmother! But kind to her, doting on her — taking her in when her father tried one trick too many, and overplayed his last game.
“Should’ve stuck to mining,” she muttered as she always did when thoughts of her father crossed her mind. Time to try out the feet.
They worked just fine, Saint Jude be praised. Standing brought on no dizziness…. Good. How about walking? A few wavering steps made her reconsider. And consider again. Changing direction, Darame headed for the boxes.
Bathing always helped, hot water getting things moving again. Amazing, the drugs they used, that the body could go through such extremes in only a few hours…. Shivering against the cold of the room, Darame stripped off the thin shift covering her body and stepped into the shower box.
At least the seals worked — she closed the door firmly and started the flow. Relief. She could taste the pleasure. Going through Freeze always killed off her surface skin, like sunburn — scrubbing it away with soft soap made her feel more like herself. Such delicate skin, surprising it was so tough….
“Wake up,” she ordered idly, knowing the mind wandered after Sleep and as always annoyed by it. The job at hand, what was the job at hand? She worked the soap into her long, fine hair, almost scratching at her scalp. It was Brant’s scheme, this one, not Halsey’s, for all her old friend had protested. Brant — dear God.
“He’s never betrayed me,” Halsey had said cheerfully at their last briefing before entering Freeze. Which was true; Brant had always been careful with Halsey, for many reasons.
He has betrayed others. Abandoned allies at Emerson, running for space and the safety of Caesarea Station. Claimed there was no choice, but Darame was not so sure. She had friends in Emerson system, friends who had seen what had happened…. And their version of the event did not match Brant’s later tale. Of course his partner was dead, and dead men rarely tell their side of the story….
Nuala is different. There is trine gold. The thought made her hands momentarily still. Wealth beyond any imagination. That long-elusive kin to platinum, so far found only in a few systems, already mined out everywhere else. Rumor had it that on Nuala trinium was as common as iron ore. That she doubted…. But the veins must be massive to have led to such a rumor.
And the Nualans didn’t care! They used it for jewelry, by the Seven Virgins. And to plate components in their satellites. As an alloy, sometimes, or — Dear god. Maybe outside interest had made them more careful with it.
No corrosion, no tarnish… It was even immune to radiation, God alone knew how, she was no chemist. A gram worth…What had Halsey said? A canister of cut diamonds? A cargo hold full? Something incredible.
Slowly she rinsed the soap from her hair, wishing for something gentler than ship’s issue. Well, maybe on Nuala. They exported a lot of luxuries. A smile rose to her lips. Maybe syluan would be cheaper there. An entire wardrobe of syluan, as elegant and durable as silk, but with that sheen that practically glowed in the dark… and such colors!
Punching the vacuum, Darame leaned against the wall, waiting as the recycling system sucked the box dry. A Nualan ship would meet them, take them to the surface, because of the radiation belt circling the planet. Only Nualan ships could breast the dangers, and they didn’t share the secret. How much gold can we carry out in our pockets? Brant, have you found a Nualan crew with averted eyes and a price you could meet?
Carefully stepping out of the box, Darame pulled a wipe from the wall dispenser and wrapped it around her hair. Still quiet; Mona must be keeping that medtech busy. Good… she needed some private time.
Slowly finding her balance, she moved to her locker. A quick inspection told her that someone had tried to force the lock. Foolish. Did they think a thief of her caliber would leave her own unguarded? The pulse must have given the would-be burglar quite a jolt — maybe even marked him. She’d have to keep an eye out for recent burns. Spinning through the code, she popped the door.
A pale visage greeted her, the brightly polished metal a poor mirror. Darame reached to press a moist finger against the back of the cabinet. Her pallid twin mimicked her action, reaching outward. Tiny, elfin, bearing a beauty at odds with her long-dead, tall, fair cousins. To be my mother’s daughter, a valkyrie among women. Still, the dark good looks of her father had served her well, just as her current odd condition brought fruitful results.
Loosening the wipe, she let the mass of silver hair fall around her face and shoulders. Something unexpected from Norwood — everything about that system had been unexpected. In the food, it had turned out; both her partners that trip also ended up with silver hair, although both currently dyed it. Darame had found her combination of silver hair and basalt black eyes especially effective when seducing men. And, after all, her part of these jobs usually included a bit of such activity.
A slight shrug; she was good at it, it was part of the game. Graduating from simple deceptions to the big money had cost her a few bargaining tools, but she did not regret the price. PPR — Public Promotion and Relations. That was her department, its title a shield from the probes and sensors used by a dozen law enforcement groups. Halsey and Brant worked the Victorian Technique: no matter what the game, their team knew only what related to their own responsibilities — no more. And what she did was not illegal, it was simply a part of current business techniques.
Of course Halsey’s part could get them life imprisonment or “adjustment” on almost any civilized world. Worse, on some parts of Emerson. But that was not her business. Great gain… great risks.
She studied her wardrobe for appropriate clothing. Activating the screen, she searched for the clothing requirements portion of Brant’s communiqué. Ah — No pictures, only a terse narrative. Quaint. Fortunately she could read Caesarean…. Could the person who sent the message for Brant? Probably — Caesarean was used throughout the Seven Systems as the language of trade and diplomacy.
No real requirements. Nuala was mainly a hot place, but the season was over halfway through autumn, well past the pre-winter equinox. No proscriptions about clothing, although something clothing the loins was considered good taste…. Then pants were perfectly acceptable. And someone stepping off a deep space transport was never thought out of style — indeed, often set new trends.
Pulling on a white, sleeveless stretch-top to hold her full breasts firm, Darame dug for her white pants. Fortunate she was delicate enough to wear white — it made Halsey look like a freight hauler. The silk pants were tailored but not skintight; never advertise without reason, especially on planet landers. A collarless turquoise overshirt with long sleeves completed the outfit. Knotting the tails in front, her fingers lingered on the smooth Cathay silk, blousing the garment to hide “one of her best attributes,” as Halsey teased.
From him, she would take it. It was kindly meant, the affection of a doting grandfather image who was as proud of her exquisite body as he was of her intelligence and natural cunning. From Brant… Brant had learned never to make personal comments.
Drained of water, her hair billowed up in the dryness of the air, refusing to hold any shape. Smoothing the tips against the small of her back, she finally ignored it and turned over a hand, comparing natural pallor to acquired tan.
Sufficient. Enough color to look healthy, at least. She wanted to look casual, yet effective enough to attract attention, should one of her chosen marks see her while en route to her lodging. Curiosity never hurt her work…. A touch of rose cake to her high cheekbones and lips, and then off to check in with Halsey.
Strange how she was never conscious of ship movement. Somehow it was slowing, now… Topside Mona would be arranging their last trajectory, calculating the mass ratios, taking care of the millions of details Darame had never understood and never cared to understand. Now followed the part she hated, the long, cold night in the belly of the ship, before an in-system lander docked with their vessel. This time that image seemed ominous….
The corridor was deserted, which suited Darame’s current frame of mind. No use for that medtech, or any of the others on this trip. Why so many new people? That still bothered her: so many new to the fold, or part of Brant’s team. Only Halsey and Mona were long-standing partners…. Darame tried to calm her growing unease. Surely Halsey knew better than to trust Brant! To even work with him again, except that the stakes were so high —
Holy Virgin, this was Nuala, not a mere hop to Emerson. Furthest of the Seven Sisters, a law unto itself, only remotely tied to the alliance which bound mankind together. Maybe not even human….
She shoved the thought back into her subconscious. Too late to worry about it, they were hours away. Surely people from off-planet weren’t allowed near the dangerous places. Surely people tainted with radiation were isolated…. The thought of being touched by a genetic nightmare brought vivid pictures to mind. Reaching Halsey’s room, she pounded on the door to drive away the image.