A Matter of Containment — short story

So here’s another thing from the Luninatia Orchid.

A Matter of Containment

© copyright 2008 Karin A. Robinson

The finger, Kat thinks, smirking to herself. The finger was the mistake. No one waggles their finger at Parkhurst the Wolf without regretting it sooner or later.

Inspector Grosnag waggles his finger again. “I’m not stupid, Captain,” he whines nasally. “You’re a member of the Smugglers’ Guild. That means that you … are … a … smuggler.” He enunciates the last few words carefully and pedantically, each with its own matching finger waggle.

“The Guild conducts honest trade,” Wing Parkhurst answers patiently. “The term ‘Smuggler’ merely hearkens back to the time –”

“I don’t need a history lesson, Captain,” Grosnag snaps. “I do need to conduct a full inspection of your cargo.”

“And I’m telling you that I haven’t the time, Inspector. You’ve read the manifest; I have twelve kilos of fresh shrimp that have to make it to Phobos by no later than fifteen hundred for a banquet at the IF Council.” Wing flashes the man his most charming smile. However, the captain’s most charming smile includes the vicious scar running from just below his left eye down to his throat, which gives even his genuine smiles a menacing edge. This smile is not genuine, but it’s certainly menacing. “You don’t want to get me in trouble with the IF, do you?”

The Martian isn’t impressed. He crosses his arms and huffs a little. “The diplomats on Phobos can wait for their shrimp cocktail,” he growls. “I’m going to have my crew examine every last millimeter of this ship, Captain. And the sooner you cooperate, the sooner this can be over for both of us.”

Wing sighs wearily. “Of course, Inspector. If you and your crew would follow me, I’ll show you the cargo hold. Lieutenant, I’ll need you to accompany us.”

“Yes, sir,” Kat answers blandly, falling into step behind the captain.

“We’ll begin with the cargo hold,” Grosnag continues, as he motions to the six blue-suited techs to follow him onto the Scorpion, “but I’m familiar with all the dodges you people use. I doubt that I’ll find whatever it is you’re hiding in the cargo hold.”

“Then would you like to skip the cargo hold?” Wing asks mildly. “I mean, if you think it would save time.”

“Don’t twizz with me, Captain,” Grosnag snarls. “I said we’re going to examine every last millimeter, and we’re going to examine … every … last … millimeter.” He waggles the finger again.

I wonder, Kat thinks, suppressing a smile, how long before the captain hauls off and clonks the man?

Wing’s been in a rotten mood all morning; they were supposed to spend last night in Martiopolis with Kat’s mother, and instead they were diverted here to Halta City, where they had the rotten luck to get the one Customs Inspector who pronounces his job title with the krecking capital letters. Kat can tell that the captain’s about to lose control and pull one of his classic fissions. He smiles just a little too broadly as he leads the way to the cargo hold, where Rochester and Jem are tethering the last of the crates into place, clicking to each other in the melodic hooting of e. Kat can only understand the slightest bit of the comp-language, but she knows enough to overhear them wagering on tonight’s pod race. She makes a mental note to ask Rochester what the odds are.

“Where would you like to start, Inspector?” Wing asks with a sweep of his hand. “As you can see, we’ve got all our cargo containers tethered and ready to go.”

“Well, your crew can just un-tether them,” Grosnag replies, turning to his techs. “Morrison, O’Brien, you’ll come with me. The rest of you will search every single one of these crates visually, electronically, physically and any other -ally that comes to mind. Don’t stop until you find something. And, once you find something, let me know. And then keep looking for more.”

Wing rolls his eyes and nods to Jem, who un-tethers the last crate and brings it over. Rochester bobs along beside her, the torches of the cargo bay glinting on his smooth brass shell. Kat watches Grosnag as he glowers at the pair.

They’re not too fond of droids in Halta City, Kat thinks. After all, we’re in the hometown of “Crasher” Traynor, who murdered six hundred droids in a week. Probably would’ve cheerfully murdered a few hundred Mercurians, too, but they’re better at fighting back …. Some members of the Mercury Collective can almost pass for an unmodified human, but Jem’s clan wear their e-implants proudly on their shaved heads, and a glittering array of wiring and sparkling circuitry shines against Jem’s mahogany skin, running down from her neck and over her shoulder to the epad on her wrist.

“Tell your tech to open up the container,” Grosnag tells the captain, looking away from the droid and the Mercurian in disgust.

“You don’t want your crew to conduct the inspection themselves?” Captain Parkhurst asks, narrowing his eyes.

“Oh, I think it’s much better to have your crew open the containers themselves,” Grosnag says with a nasty little smile. “It prevents … accidents.”

Are there crews out there that still zip-trap their cargos? Kat thinks, turning a laugh into a cough.

The captain shoots a vicious look at her. “Very well,” he grumbles. “I suppose you want to start your tour of every last millimeter of my ship now?”

“Not quite yet,” Grosnag sneers. “I just want to be here for the first one they open. It’s a little ritual I have. But then again, you people know all about rituals.”

Does this joe have a death-wish? Kat thinks, rolling her eyes. He’s twizzing with Parkhurst the Wolf, and yet he’s acting like the captain’s just another two-byte smuggler.

Wing ignores the deliberate insult. “Ah, so rather like sniffing the cork before decanting the wine,” he murmurs.

It’s clear from the Martian’s face that he has no idea what the captain means. “Just have it open the crate,” he says carelessly.

Jem looks over at the captain sharply, and Rochester buzzes irritably. Wing shakes his head almost imperceptibly at them, and then turns to the Martian once more. “Inspector,” he begins in dangerously silken tone, “when you say ‘just have it open the crate …”

“Enough delays, Captain,” Grosnag snaps. “Either robot will do.”

Jem takes a sharp breath through her bared teeth, and Rochester’s lights flash an angry white as Kat feels her own fists clench. She’s amazed at the captain’s self-control; usually, he would have sent a bigoted sleghole like this back to the office wearing his glute on his head, but Admiral Ngyen had a three-hour meeting with Wing last week, and Kat can see her captain restraining himself valiantly.

“Inspector,” he says icily, “you will not use that word in the presence of my crew, and you will address them with the respect due any sentient being.”

“We are on Mars, Captain,” Grosnag replies nastily. “I see a self-disfigured bionic and an antique disc-style domestic. Legally, neither one is human here.”

Wing looks sharply at the man, who glares back at him, desperately trying to match the intensity of the captain’s gaze. As much as Kat hates being the target of a Parkhurst Staredown, she enjoys watching this pathetic fleb wither under her captain’s steely examination.

Eventually the man looks down to the floor.

Wilmington Parkhurst is not a tall man; he is, in fact, a few centimeters shorter than the average Lunar, but he seems to tower over the Martian as he steps forward. “Inspector,” he hisses menacingly, “you are on my ship, and you will address my crew with the proper respect. Is that understood?”

The humming of the Scorpion’s engines seems louder in the silence as Grosnag stares at Wing’s knees angrily. After an unbearable pause, the man finally looks up, and speaks to a point just over the captain’s shoulder. “I will address you, and you will address your crew,” he mutters. “Now order your crew to open the crate.”

Wing’s jaw clenches a moment, but to Kat’s shock he merely closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

Maia’s been doing those Xavieri meditations with him, Kat thinks with a grin. I’ll have to tell her she saved a life today. Too bad it has to be this fleb’s life, though …

Captain Wing Parkhurst opens his eyes and turns to Rochester and Jem. “Consultant Rochester, Corporal Xaraax,” he begins quietly. “Stand to ease.”

Grosnag’s face reddens. “I said –”

“I will open the first crate myself,” Wing growls. He kneels down beside the small container and takes out his dremel. He looks up at the inspector. “Do you want to get out of the way? I can’t remember which ones my crew rigged with the explosives.”

“Oh, we were low on explosives,” Kat says innocently, “so we used poisonous reptiles instead.”

Wing glares piercingly at Kat. “My lieutenant thinks she has a sense of humor,” he says calmly. “We would never put poisonous reptiles in our cargo containers.”

Grosnag arches an eyebrow. “Indeed.”

“Oh, yes,” Rochester puts in, his lights winking a pale blue, “it would be cruel to feed them only customs inspectors; after all, they prefer to eat their fellow vertebrates.”

Kat bites the inside of her lip in order to keep from bursting out in laughter. She savors the look on Grosnag’s face as his jaw drops and his eyes pop out in amazement.

And in order to acknowledge the insult, she thinks in delight, he’d have to acknowledge Rochester as a person. Everyone knows that machines can’t be insolent.

“I’ll just open this crate,” Wing continues, his face carefully blank. He opens the seal and begins lifting out clear-wrapped blocks of dried vegetable protein.

“You’re carrying tivip-cakes to Phobos?” Grosnag asks incredulously.

“No, the tivip-cakes are … Consultant, what’s the destination of the tivip-cakes?”

“Out-Belt to Ganymede, Captain,” Rochester answers. “Emergency rations for a new settlement.”

Wing tips over the crate to show the empty inside. “Now may we continue with your tour, Inspector?” he says in a tired voice.

“No, we may not, Captain,” Grosnag says in a voice that makes Kat’s stomach squirm. “I will inspect the container myself now.”

“Another part of your ritual, Inspector?”

Grosnag ignores this and kneels beside the crate, turning it round. He only looks for a minute before his face lights up triumphantly. “This container has a false bottom,” he says with smug satisfaction. “Morrison, your dremel, please.”

Grosnag struggles with the panel for a moment.

“Allow me,” Wing sighs, and slips a catch on the side of the crate. The bottom slides open, revealing a small sack of white powder.

Grosnag arches an eyebrow, and gingerly lifts the bag up, hefting it slightly in his hands before giving it to Morrison. The customs tech opens the bag and examines it with a small probe. He tastes a bit on the tip of his finger.

“It’s flour, sir.”

“Flour?”

Morrison nods. “Wheat flour, sir.”

“Fine-grade pastry flour, actually,” Wing replies evenly. “I have a friend opening a restaurant on Ganymede.”

Grosnag stands up, glaring at the captain’s left shoulder. “How many of these crates have false bottoms, Captain?”

“All of them, I’m afraid,” Wing answers innocently. “There was a clerical error in our supply department.”

“A clerical error?” Grosnag frowns.

“Yes. I ordered the type with an extra storage space on the top,” he explains nonchalantly. “For smaller, breakable items. The quartermaster sent us this type instead.”

“Flour isn’t breakable, Captain.”

“I wouldn’t have my crew put anything breakable in a bottom compartment.”

Not that there’ll be a bottom in here once we turn off the gravity in the hold, Kat thinks. But Grosnag’s a domer; he’s probably never been off-Mars in his life. He doesn’t know a thing about the world off-world … she stifles a grin.

“And do all these crates have pastry flour in their false bottoms?”

“Now, Inspector,” Wing smiles, showing all his teeth at once. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.”

Grosnag turns to the four techs lounging at the door of the cargo bay. “Well, get to work. Make sure that the captain’s … crew members … open each and every one of these crates for you. Including,” he finishes with a sneer, “the false bottoms.”

He faces the captain again, and flashes him a tight little bureaucratic smile. “Well, Captain, I’d like my tour now.”

“Captain, the door –”

“Ease, Lieutenant Sandersen,” Wing interrupts Kat with an impatient gesture. “I’m sure someone just left that red scarf on the side-hook accidentally.” He pauses theatrically. “After you, Inspector.”

“No,” Grosnag replies. “I’d like to see you go first, please.”

After all, Kat thinks, you never know when the captain’s going to go completely grezman and zip-trap his own crew’s common room with explosives. Or poisonous reptiles.

The captain turns on the light as he enters.

“Holy kreck, didn’t you see the scarf?” Zap shouts, springing up as he wrestles with a towel covering his head. “Now, unless you want to join in – oh,” the Scorpion’s gunner finally manages to remove the makeshift blindfold. “Captain. Sir.”

“Corporal Tarsis, Corporal Spencer,” Captain Parkhurst begins in a bored voice as Zap and Raleigh stand to attention, “may I introduce Customs Inspector Grosnag, who is conducting an examination of every last millimeter of our ship. Inspector – I’m sorry, is there something wrong?”

Grosnag’s face has turned a vivid purple. “Tell them to cover themselves.”

“What, you mean put the towel over my head again?” Zap asks with a shameless grin. He’s clearly enjoying himself.

“Ease, Tarsis,” Wing frowns. “Inspector, we don’t have any nudity taboos on Luna; my gunner simply misunderstood your request. Spencer, Tarsis, hit the showers, get dressed, and report back here in twenty with the rest of the crew, understood?”

Zap and Raleigh scramble out gratefully.

“What were they doing with that –” the Martian points down with a faint look of horror on his face. Morrison nudges O’Brien with a knowing smile.

“I try not to probe too deeply into the proclivities of my crew,” Wing replies mildly. “This is the common room, of course. The individual quarters let onto this room, but you’ll have to wait until my crew returns before you inspect those. Our soldiers have the right to be present when their personal property is inspected,” he finishes darkly.

With a tightly controlled wave of his hand, Grosnag signals Morrison and O’Brien over to the small mess and dining area at one end of the large room. While they begin their search, the inspector paces along the length of the room, looking around with distaste at the neo-jazz holos hanging on the walls, the soft couches with the lime green and neon pink hempvelt covers, the vidset with its disorderly rack of datapods, and the footlocker with a half-eaten nutricake and a few empty drinkbulbs scattered atop it. There’s a pinoker game laying unfinished on a side table; the next round of betting should be interesting now that everyone’s had a chance to check out everyone else’s cards.

Grosnag shakes his head, and turns back to Wing. “I know you Lunars are fond of your individual rights,” he says to the space a half-meter left of Wing’s head. “Most of the rest of humanity feel you’ve taken it spans too far, you know.”

“We don’t care what the rest of humanity thinks,” Wing replies quietly.

“This … disorder …   wouldn’t run in my command,” Grosnag continues, waving a hand at the rec area. “We believe in a little military discipline –” he stops, the color draining from his face, as Wing pulls a small piece of metal from his pocket. The Martian jumps as a thin blade of light appears from it, and his eyes grow wide as he reluctantly focuses on the buzzing blue-white dagger.

Captain Parkhurst wheels around suddenly, throwing the weapon directly at Kat’s head. Without flinching, Kat reaches up and plucks it neatly out of the air mere centimeters from her forehead. Gritting her teeth, she resists the impulse to return the favor and throw it back at him. Instead, she dips her mind into the blade’s circuitry and shuts it off, enjoying her captain’s frown as she returns his weapon to him. Oh, don’t shoot me that look, she thinks, flashing Wing an insolent grin. You throw your slaadyen at me, I have every right to turn it off. At least I don’t try to count the notches anymore. I’d need at least an hour in a quiet room for that.

Wing turns to the astonished Martian. “Can any of your crew defend themselves so well?” he asks in a menacingly soft voice.

We won’t mention that I’m the only one of the crew who can catch a slaadyen in midair, Kat thinks smugly. It’s a skill that Wing taught her when she was fourteen; she just wishes he wouldn’t use it as a party trick.

Grosnag suddenly becomes very interested in his squad’s inspection of the common room, and watches them in silence until the crew of the Scorpion enter, bickering good-naturedly about last night’s game.

“You’re tweaked, Tarsis,” Max sneers. “The Red Sox haven’t won a pennant since 2262. Kreck, ever since they traded Rokowski to Mercury –”

“Engineer Kress,” Wing growls, “this is an official inspection!”

Kat suppresses a grin; the captain is a rabid Luna City fan, and his beloved Sox just choked themselves out of their third chance at the World Series in as many years last night. Wing Parkhurst scowls at his crew as they come to a loose interpretation of attention. Jem glares at the inspector, and Rochester’s lights are ominously dim. They’ve obviously shared their experience with the rest of the squad; Raleigh and Zap glare at the Martians, and even Maia is without her usual smile.

Wing turns to Grosnag. “So whose privacy do you wish to invade first?”

“We’ll run this in ascending order of rank,” the inspector sneers, and flashes the tight little smile on and off again. “We’ll save your quarters for last, Captain.”

The squad trade astonished looks amongst themselves; absolutely no one (except for Maia, of course) is allowed in the captain’s quarters. But Wing merely heaves yet another weary sigh. “As you wish, Inspector. Corporal Xaraax, we’ll start with your quarters first, so that you and Rochester can return to the cargo bay.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Jem answers, rolling her eyes.

“Is this a crew member’s quarters or the ship’s arboretum?” Grosnag frowns, stepping into Jem’s quarters.

“Corporal Xaraax is a talented botanist,” Wing replies with a hint of pride in his voice, and Kat smirks as Jem’s ears turn pink.

A dazzling variety of flowering plants hang in hydropods from the ceiling, and smaller hydropods line the walls with vines of roses and grapes. Jem has rigged the hydro-valves to drip into each other, creating a pleasant trickling music, and she’s set the room torches to a leafy green. She has an array of holo-posters set up behind the wall-mounted hydropods to create the effect of a sunny conservatory, with a well-manicured lawn just visible behind shimmering glass panes. Silver windchimes ring quietly by each of the four room-vents.

“I don’t see a bunk,” Grosnag snaps.

Jem clenches her jaw only slightly as she presses a switch inside the wall. A hammock of l-fibers appears suspended between the two largest hydropods. “I don’t use it much,” she drawls. “I usually sleep with one or two of my crewmates.”

Grosnag ignores her, but Kat can see O’Brien and Morrison trading looks as they conduct their examination. They all disapprove of our morals, she thinks with a smirk, but they all wish they could join in, too …

“There’s no contraband, sir,” O’Brien declares.

“And the plants?” Grosnag asks sharply.

“There’s no restricted species, sir,” Morrison answers. “Hey, is this a Chalochortus Catalinae?”

Jem’s face breaks into a grin. “You know your lilies.”

“It’s a pretty rare specimen of Mariposa. Where did you –”

“Morrison!”

Morrison looks down at the floor.

You forgot that you weren’t talking to a ‘real’ human being, didn’t you? Kat thinks. And now you’ll be in the flipper with your c.o. for it, too.

“Corporal Xaraax,” Wing says in a gentle voice, “why don’t you and the Consultant head back to the cargo bay and make sure the rest of the Inspector’s team is all right, won’t you? After all, we did leave them with a load of zip-trapped crates.”

Grosnag stumbles over the threshold of Zap’s cabin, and Kat has to stifle a laugh. Of course, it would be a little disorienting, if you weren’t expecting it, she thinks, grinning in the darkness.

They float in midair, surrounded on all sides by glittering lights embroidering an infinite night. Over their heads and slightly to the left, a stellar nursery shines against the gloom. Far in the distance, a comet (tailless in intersystem space) crawls against the starry backdrop.

“You changed the holo, Corporal,” Wing says, looking around with approval. “It was the Horsehead Nebula last week,” he tells Grosnag in a conversational tone.

“Turn it off this instant!” the inspector barks.

The wall-mounted hydropods here hold mostly soy and tomato, but there’s a few mint plants in a hanging hydropod just over the double-wide bunk with the hand-sewn quilt. A collection of antique drums sit on a braided rug in one corner, next to a small Gaian shrine. Grosnag eyes the figure of the Goddess with distaste, but says nothing as the techs conduct their examination.

Max’s quarters, however, earn an immediate snort of disgust from the inspector. “This is what I mean about you Lunars! Look at this mess! Where’s the military discipline here, Captain?”

Kat always feels sorry for the plants oxygenating this room: dirty tunics and briefs have been left lying in a heap by the disheveled bunk, and crumpled nutricake wrappers and empty drinkbulbs are scattered everywhere. The walls are plastered with holo-posters of racing pods and naked flesh. Grosnag scowls at a poster of a marijuana leaf decorated in rainbow fractals that spin and undulate in whirling spirals.

Wing sighs resignedly. “Sometimes a commander is limited by poor material, inspector.”

“Poor material, huh? Well, we don’t get material this poor on Mars, Captain. We weed them out before their roots can get wet.”

“I’m Martian, inspector,” Max puts in blandly.

Grosnag raises an eyebrow. “You can’t come from any good stock, pup. Probably clanless, aren’t you?”

“My father’s Rudolf Kress,” Max replies quietly.

The inspector’s face goes white. “General Rudolf Kress?”

“Oh, you’ve heard of him?” Wing asks with a show of mock innocence. “Well, no surprise; after all, he was just re-appointed chief of staff of the Martiopolis Guard.”

It was a unanimous vote of one, Kat thinks. And Halta City just accepted the benevolent ‘protection’ of Martiopolis last year.

The inspector recovers quite well, considering. “I’m surprised your father let you join these Lunars,” he sneers. “They’ve corrupted you with their loose morals.”

“My father suggested I join,” Max answers.

“You did know that Rudolf Kress was in the Luna Smuggler’s Guild, didn’t you? He and I went through basic together, in fact,” Wing tells the inspector. “Later, we served aboard the L.T.S. Selene under Captain Mgobe, right up until Kress’ court martial.”

Grosnag spins around on his heel. “Well, is there any contraband in here or not?” he snaps at his team.

“It’s taking us a little longer to sort through,” Morrison says, grimacing as he gingerly lifts a filthy sock up in one gloved hand.

Amazing, Kat thinks. It’s as if he just can’t process the information, and so he chooses to ignore it. But I’d be willing to bet serious Orchids that that little nugget will be repeated in their barracks tonight …

Raleigh’s excruciatingly tidy quarters are a welcome relief. She would rather eat plasma than admit it, but she also usually sleeps with one or two of her crewmates. The communications operator of the Scorpion has turned her room into a gallery of holos, some of friends and family, but mostly of landscapes she’s taken on their missions. There’s Shatner ridge on Mercury, hanging above a shot of the domes of North Pole Station on Mars, and beside it is a view of Jupiter from Io with the Eye just on the horizon. Each picture is more spectacular than the last, but Kat’s favorite one hangs just above the head of Raleigh’s bunk: a holo of the whole squad in front of the Moonborn Café back home in Freedom.

Grosnag glares at the holos in annoyed silence while Morrison and O’Brien complete their search.

“Sergeant Windsor is the next in ascending order of rank,” Wing tells the inspector as they cross the common room to Maia’s quarters. The rest of the squad have gone back to their stations, and Maia has been waiting patiently by the side of her door, staring into space with a mysterious smile playing at the corner of her mouth. Grosnag halts suddenly, as he gasps at the sergeant with sudden recognition.

“I’ve seen you before,” he blurts out, “when I was on Luna, I went to Freedom, and …” Grosnag stops, as he realizes exactly where he saw Maia. His face turns a vivid shade of purple. “It … it must have been someone else,” he stammers, “somewhere else.”

“So, then you’ve been to Freedom?” Wing asks cheerfully.

“It was a long time ago,” Grosnag splutters. “In fact, I don’t think I went to Freedom. No, it was one of the other old settlements. Armstrong’s Landing, I think.”

“Pity,” Wing smirks. “There’s a top-clip brothel in Freedom called the Moonborn Café. You might have heard of it. Before the sergeant enlisted on this mission,” Wing continues, “she worked as one of the … entertainment staff there. Oh, don’t worry,” he smiles as the inspector’s blush deepens. “The Hollanders are known for their discretion. They would never divulge the identity of a client.”

“And exactly what services does the sergeant provide for you?” Grosnag asks defensively.

Wing fixes the inspector with a steely look. “Sergeant Windsor is the ship’s navigator,” he replies evenly. “Sergeant, I believe we’re ready to inspect your quarters now.”

All the hydropods in Maia’s quarters have rose and jasmine bushes twining out of them, the fragrant blossoms crimson and violet. The bunk is nearly hidden in soft scarlet pillows, and every surface is covered with intricately woven tapestries and scarves in various shades of red. All the room torches are set to a dim amber color, flickering to create the effect of hidden firelight, with the brightest flame surrounding the altar to Aphrodite. Grosnag frowns at a door that has been decorated with a beaded curtain. “What is this?” he sneers. “Extra closet space for the sergeant’s wardrobe?”

“That is the door to the adjoining quarters,” Maia murmurs placidly.

“And who gets to bunk next to the Hollander?” Grosnag mutters. “Or is the room awarded for good behavior?”

“The door joins onto my quarters, inspector,” Wing replies evenly.

Kat has to bite the inside of her lip to keep from laughing at the look on the inspector’s face. O’Brien and Morrison snicker audibly as they conduct their examination. I’d love to hear the conversation in their barracks tonight, she thinks.

“Would you like to inspect my quarters next?” Wing continues, his face totally pinoker. “Then you can check that the door doesn’t let into some secret compartment between our quarters.” He steps over and puts his hand to the side-plate lock.

Grosnag scowls at Wing as the door slides open with a faint hiss. “You don’t even trust your mistress?” Grosnag snaps, and immediately flinches when the captain wheels around on him.

Wing lets the silence sink in for a while. “I would trust any of my crew with my life,” he eventually replies in a menacingly soft tone. “Can you say the same of your crew?”

Probably not, Kat thinks, watching Morrison and O’Brien as they suddenly become incredibly busy with their instruments.

Wing cracks a wide smile as he pauses at the threshold. “By the way,” he continues airily, “how are you with birds?” He takes a polymesh glove out of his pocket and pulls it on.

“Birds?” Grosnag asks uneasily.

“Galadriel! Ho!” Wing shouts. Grosnag flinches as a huge falcon swoops over his head, landing on the captain’s upstretched wrist.

“I think she likes you,” Wing murmurs. Galadriel stares down at the inspector, clicking her beak ominously.

“Captain,” Maia asks with a hint of impatience, “I really need to complete my pre-flight checks. May I return to my post?”

“Indeed, Sergeant. Lieutenant, you may return to the common room –”

“Oh, that’s not necessary, Captain,” Grosnag cuts in, looking away from the falcon. “I wouldn’t want to infringe on your right to a witness.”

He actually thinks the captain’s less likely to misbehave in front of one of his crew, Kat thinks, suppressing a grin. Naïve fleb.

Wing shrugs resignedly, but says nothing. Still carrying Galadriel on his wrist, he leads the way into his quarters, and Kat looks around with interest as she follows Morrison and O’Brien into her captain’s sanctuary; she’s been able to break into his office, but has never been able to rip the lock to his quarters.

The whole of the outer bulkhead has been fitted with a holo-wall (one of the new, expensive units with X-Rez II™, Kat notices) currently displaying a dim cloudy wash of dark crimson-brown. Most of the room is taken up with a sitting area, the soft couches and chairs covered in understated dark beige. You can’t get an X-Rez for under a thousand Orchids, Kat thinks, rolling her eyes, and he’s got it set to krecking wallpaper to match the sofa.

Grosnag walks over to an easel set up in the corner. “I didn’t think anyone still sketched using ink on paper,” he says in an incredulous tone.

“I find the process of the analog techniques extremely gratifying,” Wing replies.

Grosnag shoots him a blank look.

“I like drawing by hand,” Wing continues wearily. Kat’s seen enough of his work to recognize this one as his standard fare, a simple still-life executed in the captain’s stark, realistic style: a dremel, a handcomp, and an apple with one bite taken out of it, arranged carefully on a wrinkled cloth.

Grosnag turns away from the easel. “And you collect books, too?” he says, scowling at a small shelf. He peers at the spine of one of the volumes. “Neey-it …”

“Nietzsche,” Wing mutters. “A little light reading. Galadriel, to your stand.” The falcon swoops off her master’s wrist and flies over to a collection of branches in the corner, dipping her beak in a small bowl of water hung there.

Kat rolls her eyes and turns her to attention to the collection of holos on the opposite wall. There’s an old one of the captain’s sons, Charles and Peter, about ten and twelve, leaning against a tree in Freedom Park Green. Above that hangs an artsy shot of Kat’s mother, smiling seductively over her shoulder, Wing’s crimson bathrobe draped over her bare back. Beside it is a fairly recent holo of Peter and Christine at their wedding.

Only two more years, Kat thinks, and there’ll be a holo of me and Charles right beside it. I just wish I could get the husband without the father-in-law.

Grosnag and his crew have gotten to the captain’s private bathroom, and Kat joins them eagerly, craning her neck to see into the small chamber. Jem and Max couldn’t total for weeks why the Scorpion’s takeoff protocols had a correction for such a large mass to starboard; eventually Maia told them about the bathtub.

Kat’s eyes open wide. I thought Maia was tweaking us …

Even Grosnag is impressed. “Captain, how much …”

“Over six hundred kilos.”

“Is that …”

“Solid Luna basalt, measured and cut to fit this room. Costs me more Orchids in takeoff weight per year than it does to move a week’s worth of cargo, but it’s worth it.”

Grosnag stares in amazed silence at the gleaming fixtures and the glossy surfaces as O’Brien and Morrison move on to the bedroom.

Kat almost wishes she had waited in the common room; she’s not sure how she’s going to reconcile her conception of the captain with black silk sheets and zebra-print hempvelt cushions. She also wishes she hadn’t seen the hooks set in the wall above the bed, but at least those tally with her idea of the man. Hoping that the captain doesn’t notice her embarrassment, she stares intently at the small shrine to Kali, with the ritual dagger carefully pointed toward Solaris.

“Sir, I’ve found something,” O’Brien says, holding up a small wooden box. “Tubes of rolled tobacco leaf.”

“Cigars, O’Brien,” Grosnag sighs, pulling himself away from the bathroom. “Non-Martians can have them in their own possession while in Martian ports,” he turns to Wing. “As long as you’re not leaving any of them here.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Wing says blankly.

No, we didn’t just leave fourteen cases here on Mars, Kat thinks, suppressing a grin. The captain’s clients paid him almost nine hundred Orchids for those New Hanoi Specials.

“You do very well on a captain’s pay,” Grosnag says accusingly.

Wing smiles. “I have a few sidelines,” he admits.

“You mean like smuggling explosives?” the inspector asks, waggling a finger. “I’ve heard that one of you Lunars is going to be trying to sneak a whole load of explosives to the rebels on Deimos. Is that what’s paying for your fancy bathtub, Captain?”

Hold a tic, this fleb has no idea …. The realization is so sudden, Kat almost gasps aloud. Suddenly, it all makes sense: the rudeness, the callous officiousness. This sleg isn’t suicidal, he just doesn’t know who the captain is, Kat thinks. But that can’t be. A customs agent not knowing about Parkhurst the Wolf is like a droid not knowing about Traynor the Crasher.

She looks over at the captain, who is now grinning with delight at the inspector as if Terrapass has come early; Kat can see that Wing has just realized the same thing. “Tell me, Inspector,” he begins slowly, “how long have you been in your job?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your file, Captain Gabrielle,” Grosnag snaps, reddening slightly. “Is there something wrong, Lieutenant?” he asks sharply, as Kat’s jaw drops open.

“I’m sure the Lieutenant just remembered something she forgot to do,” Wing says quickly. “She does that a lot. But I apologize, Inspector. I meant no disrespect. I was only curious because you’re so good at what you do.” He catches Kat’s eye and shakes his head very slightly.

Grosnag scowls fiercely at Wing’s right shoulder. “I can tell sarcasm when I hear it, Captain. You and the rest of your clicks zip around the system, breaking trade restrictions easy as Winchell, without caring about treaties or regulations, or any of the laws the rest of us have to obey, and you think that you’re better than me somehow?”

“I promise you, Inspector,” Wing says in his most soothing voice, “I certainly don’t think that I’m any better than you.”

Kat is sure she heard her captain stress the word ‘think’ ever so slightly.

Grosnag waggles the finger once more. “Captain Gabrielle,” he growls, “I know one of you Lunars is going to try to sneak that shipment of explosives past me, and I swear I will find it.”

“I can assure you,” Wing says quietly, “you will not find any explosives aboard my ship.”

Grosnag narrows his eyes. “That’s not the same as saying you don’t have any explosives on board, Captain. But I will find them.”

Wing merely stares up at the ceiling with a faint smile.

Gaia save us all, Kat thinks, the Dingo’s actually enjoying this … she suppresses a shudder. She hates it when Wing begins enjoying himself; it usually ends very badly for someone.

“We’re done here, sir,” Morrison breaks the silence.

“Well, Lieutenant,” Captain Parkhurst murmurs, “that only leaves your quarters, I believe.”

Kat opens her mouth to answer, but stops herself in time. Of course, Grosnag doesn’t think Rochester’s a person. A piece of metal doesn’t have quarters. And we’re doing this by rank, and Rochester doesn’t have an official rank in the Guild. I wonder what they’re hiding in there ….

“Something else your Lieutenant has forgotten?” Grosnag snaps.

“Oh, she probably remembered the vials of zhrek she’s got hidden under her bunk,” Wing says in a bored voice.

As the second in command of the Scorpion, Kat gets a cabin the same size as the captain, without the private bath (but she’s right next to the common bath, with her own door, an added bonus when trying to race Zap to the first shower). While Jem and Raleigh often sleep away from their quarters, Kat always sleeps in hers, but that’s only because it’s where almost everyone else sleeps, too. Consequently, Kat’s quarters are merely an extension of the common room, with four bunks pulled together at one end, piled high with purple and green hempvelt cushions. An outdated X-Rez I™ (she saved up for almost a year) fills the opposite wall, and every other available space is taken up by more neo-jazz posters and holos of everyone’s family and clicks. Zap and his mothers hang next to Raleigh and her brother Albert, and Jem’s father on Mercury smiles next to Kat and Maia at Xavier Station.

Grosnag frowns at the largest holoposter over the head of the bed, a picture of a scarlet-clad goddess in a platinum blonde wig. “Lady Carmen Lunita, Queen of the Moonborn Café,” he grumbles. “You Lunars are actually proud of him, aren’t you?”

“She’s the top-grossing musician in the system,” Wing replies. “She made over two million Orchids last year on concert income alone.”

And as her agent, you get ten percent of those Orchids, Kat thinks bitterly.

“He’s an embarrassment to your Royal Family,” Grosnag counters. “He’s supposed to be a prince, and he calls himself a queen.”

“The drag act has an honorable history in the entertainment industry. The –”

“That fudger is a menace to society,” Grosnag interrupts angrily.

Kat can’t help herself. “That fudger is my father,” she blurts out before she can stop herself. Wing winces as Grosnag turns to Kat, looking at her closely for the first time.

“I thought you were studying law at Phobos,” he says in a low voice.

“That’s her older sister Rebecca. This is the Princess Katherine,” Wing tells Grosnag blandly.

He knows I hate being called ‘Princess,’ Kat thinks furiously.

Morrison and O’Brien have stopped their examination and are staring at her, their mouths hanging open.

“Get back to work!” Grosnag snaps. He turns back to Katherine. “We’re not impressed by who your ancestors are here on Mars, your Highness.”

That’s why you deny citizenship to ‘clanless’ people, then? But she knows better than to say this out loud. “I prefer to be addressed simply as ‘Lieutenant,’” she tells the inspector coldly.

“Well, Lieutenant, I guess you’ve been transferred from your unit,” he says with a sneer. “My wife follows all your family’s newsvid; for some reason she likes you people. Last time I listened to her scrolling on about you, she said you were serving with that degenerate pirate.”

“You mean Parkhurst the Wolf?” Wing asks quietly.

“Yes,” Grosnag answers sharply. “I mean Parkhurst … the …” he trails off, suddenly looking at Wing with widening eyes. “You …”

How could he not notice the krecking scar before, for Gaia’s sake? Kat thinks with amusement, as the Inspector’s face turns ashen gray. Of course, he has been avoiding looking straight at the captain ever since their staredown in the cargo bay.

“There’s no contraband here, sir,” O’Brien says weakly.

“Shall we move on to the engine room, Inspector?” Wing asks in a soft voice.

“Captain Parkhurst, I …” Grosnag splutters, “I didn’t ….”

“Ease, Inspector,” Wing says with a smile. “My lieutenant made me promise that I wouldn’t kill any more bureaucrats this week. Isn’t that right, Lieutenant Sandersen?”

“Oh, yes,” Kat replies brightly. “I told him twelve is his limit.” Not to mention the Assassins’ Guild frowns on its members killing for their own reasons, she thinks, suppressing a grim smile. And when you break the rules in the Assassins’ Guild, they don’t just make you scrub hydropods.

“What do you mean there’s no contraband in the containers?” Grosnag’s face has had a serious workout today, and now relief, officiousness, anger, exhaustion and sheer disbelief fight for control of the inspector’s features. “Did you double-check them?”

“And triple-checked, sir.”

“And the false bottoms?”

“All contain exactly one kilo of fine-grade pastry flour, sir.”

“How many containers?”

“One thousand, nine hundred eighty-six, sir.”

Grosnag turns to the captain. “You must have a lot of friends opening restaurants,” he says bleakly.

“I enjoy good food,” Wing replies conversationally. “Well, we mustn’t keep you and your crew just standing here. In fact, I understand that you’re expecting my colleague Captain Gabrielle. Do give her my regards.”

Grosnag jumps as his handcomp beeps. He flicks open the com channel irritably. “I said I wasn’t to be disturbed,” he snarls.

“I’m sorry, Inspector,” the voice on the other end of the link crackles, “but it’s important –”

“It had better be,” Grosnag growls.

“You said I was to tell you the moment I got any unusual theft reports, sir. For the Cranwell case, sir.”

“Oh, for the love of – all right, what did he take this time?”

“A shipload of false-bottomed cargo containers, sir. He’s probably already sold them to a smuggler.”

“How many containers?” Grosnag whispers, as Wing assumes his most innocent-looking expression.

“Not quite two thousand, sir. I have the exact number –”

“That won’t be necessary. Grosnag out.” The inspector stares down at the floor in silence for a long time. “Captain,” he says slowly, “is there anything you wish to declare at this time?”

“Blessed Allah, Grosnag!” a sharp voice rings out from the hatch. “Aren’t you finished with the inspection yet?”

Wing breaks into a wide grin. “Ahmed! You spamming talc-head! You’ve been having your man hold us here on purpose, haven’t you?”

“I swear I had nothing to do with this one, Wing,” the tall Martian smiles as he strides up to the Captain. “Though I would have been perfectly justified, with the price you charged me for those cigars.”

“You obviously haven’t tried them,” Wing replies with a chuckle, pressing palms with the man. “I guarantee you they’re worth every miliorch you paid.”

Grosnag gapes helplessly as his supervisor claps Wing on the back. “All right, you old pirate,” Ahmed laughs. “I’ll reserve my judgment until tonight’s dinner party. You’re sure you can’t stay? Fatima’s fissioned at you for not stopping by to say hello.”

“I honestly can’t stop tonight,” Wing tells him. “But give her a kiss for me.”

“And you tell your mother I said congratulations. I hear she’s the youngest Assassin to make the Inner Council in the history of the Guild.”

“We’re all very proud of her,” Wing says jovially, “and I hope to break her record someday.” He turns to the trembling Grosnag, who has been cowering at his side in sheer abject terror. “So, Inspector, you were asking me something?”

“I … er …” Grosnag stammers helplessly. “I …”

“Out with it, man!” Ahmed barks. “Did you find any explosives on the Scorpion?”

“No, sir, but …”

“Grosnag, is there any reason you need to detain my friend Captain Parkhurst any longer? After all,” Ahmed finishes with an ominous scowl, “you do have other duties to attend to.” His handcomp beeps, and he flicks open the channel irritably. “What now?” he growls.

“Ambassador Kchal is waiting for you, sir,” a nervous voice says.

“I’ll be right there. Haroun out.” Ahmed shakes his head. “Wing, get off my planet before you get in trouble,” he says, winking.

After Ahmed Haroun is gone, Grosnag whirls around on his crew. “Let’s just get the kreck out of here,” he bawls. The technicians trade meaningful looks and pack up their equipment.

The captain watches in amusement as the inspection team makes its hasty escape. “Well, we’ve had our fun,” he grins, turning to Kat. “Lieutenant, tell Corporal Spencer to link the L.T.S. Sarek, please. Have her ask Captain Gabrielle to link me at her earliest convenience.”

“Yes, sir. And should I move the flour?”

“Is there something wrong with it?”

“Well, it’s all spread out, one kilo to each container, just like you ordered for the inspection,” Kat replies. “Wouldn’t it be more convenient to have it all in one place?”

“Certainly not, Lieutenant,” Wing Parkhurst says with a smile. “Didn’t you know? Large amounts of flour stored in one place can be dangerously explosive.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

The Art for today is another illio from the Luninatia Cycle. It’s my rendition of a fancy hotel lounge on Europa; the sun and jupiter are their approximate sizes in the sky. Yes, out there, with low atmosphere, it would be that dark in the daytime.

(c) copyright 2007 Karin A. Robinson

Not much else, except I got a facebook account. I only plan to use it for WAI purposes, but who knows? Anyway, had fun adding my family and various friends on my list.

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