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Code of ConductChapter OneThe 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 heatcreep up her neck and kept moving.
She entered the lobby of a hostel that catered to merchantfleet 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 Hadrin 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.Code of Conduct. Copyright © by Kristine Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.