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Investments

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Investments

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Author: Walter Jon Williams
Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, 2018
Science Fiction Book Club, 2004
Series: Dread Empire's Fall

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Unable to find a meaningful posting due to the hostility of his superiors, Captain Lord Gareth Martinez has accepted a meaningless post as Inspector General of Chee, a newly-settled world. Intending nothing more than a pleasant vacation with his family, he first stumbles across a murderous conspiracy, and then learns he must battle a literal cosmic menace that threatens to wipe out all life on the planet.

This novella originally appeared in the anthology Between Worlds (2004), edited by Robert Silverberg, and was reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 101, October 2018. It can also be found in the anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection (2005), edited by Gardner Dozois.


Excerpt

The car sped south in the subtropical twilight. The Rio Hondo was on Lieutenant Severin's right, a silver presence that wound in and out of his perceptions. As long as he stayed on the highway the rental car, which knew Laredo better than he did, implemented its own navigation and steering, and Severin had nothing to do but relax, to gaze through the windows at the thick, vine-wrapped trunks of the cavella trees, the brilliant plumage of tropical birds, and the occasional sight of a hovercraft on the river, fans a deep bass rumble as it carried cargo south to the port at Punta Piedra. Overhead, stars began to glow on either side of the great glittering arc of Laredo's accelerator ring. The silver river turned scarlet in the light of the setting sun.

The vehicle issued a series of warning tones, and Severin took the controls as the car left the highway. Severin drove through an underpass, then up a long straight alley flanked by live oaks, their twisted black limbs sprawled like the legs of fantastic beasts. Overhead arced a series of formal gateways, all elaborate wrought-iron covered with scrollwork, spikes, and heraldic emblems, and each with a teardrop-shaped light that dangled from the center of the arch and cast pale glow on the path. Beyond was a large house, two storeys wrapped with verandahs, painted a kind of orange-rust color with white trim. It was covered with lights.

People strolled along the verandahs and on the expansive lawns. They were dressed formally, and Severin began to hope that his uniform was sufficiently well tailored so as not to mark him out. Practically all the other guests, Severin assumed, were Peers, the class that the conquering Shaa had imposed on humanity and other defeated species. It was a class into which Severin had not been born, but rather one to which he'd nearly been annexed.

At the start of the Naxid Rebellion Severin had been a warrant officer in the Exploration Service, normally the highest rank to which a commoner might aspire. As a result of service in the war he'd received a field promotion to lieutenant, and suddenly found himself amid a class that had been as remote from him as the stars that glimmered above Laredo's ring.

He parked in front of the house and stepped from the car as the door rolled up into the roof. Tobacco smoke mingled uneasily in the air with tropical perfume. A pair of servants, one Terran, one Torminel, trotted from the house to join him. The Torminel wore huge darkened glasses over her nocturnal-adapted eyes.

"You are Lieutenant Severin?" the Torminel asked, speaking carefully around her fangs.

"Yes."

"Welcome to Rio Hondo, my lord."

Severin wasn't a lord, but all officers were called that out of courtesy, most of them being Peers anyway. Severin had got used to it.

"Thank you," he said. He stepped away from the car, then hesitated. "My luggage," he said.

"Blist will take care of that, my lord. I'll look after your car. Please go up to the house, unless of course you'd prefer that I announce you."

Severin, who could imagine only a puzzled, awkward silence following a servant announcing his presence, smiled and said, "That won't be necessary. Thank you."

He adjusted his blue uniform tunic and walked across the brick apron to the stairs. Perhaps, he thought, he should have brought his orderly, but in his years among the enlisted ranks he'd got used to looking after his own gear, and he never really gave his servant enough work to justify his existence.

Instead of taking his orderly with him to Rio Hondo, he'd given the man leave. In the meantime Severin could brush his own uniforms and polish his own shoes, something he rarely left to a servant anyway.

Severin's heels clacked on the polished asteroid material that made up the floor of the verandah. A figure detached itself from a group and approached. Severin took a moment to recognize his host, because he had never actually met Senior Captain Lord Gareth Martinez face to face.

"Lieutenant Severin? Is that you?"

"Yes, lord captain."

Martinez smiled and reached out to clasp Severin's hand. "Very good to meet you at last!"

Martinez was tall, with broad shoulders, long arms, and big hands; he had wavy dark hair and thick dark brows. He wore the viridian green uniform of the Fleet, and at his throat was the disk of the Golden Orb, the empire's highest decoration.

Severin and Martinez had been of use to each other during the war, and Severin suspected that it had been Martinez who had arranged his promotion to the officer class. He and Severin had kept in touch with one another over the years, but they'd never been in the same room together.

Martinez was a native of Laredo, a son of Lord Martinez, Laredo's principal Peer; and when Martinez had returned to his home world, he'd learned that Severin was based on Laredo's ring and invited him to the family home for a few days.

"You've missed dinner, I'm afraid," Martinez said. "It went on most of the afternoon. Fortunately you also missed the speeches."

Martinez spoke with a heavy Laredo accent, a mark of his provincial origins that Severin suspected did him little good in the drawing rooms of Zanshaa High City.

"I'm sorry to have missed your speech anyway, my lord," Severin said in his resolutely middle-class voice.

Martinez gave a heavy sigh. "You'll get a chance to hear it again. I give the same one over and over." He tilted his chin high and struck a pose. "'The empire, under the guidance of the Praxis, contains a social order of unlimited potential.'" The pose evaporated. He looked at Severin. "How long are you on the planet?"

"Nearly a month, I think. Surveyor will be leaving ahead of Titan, while they're still loading antihydrogen."

"Where's Surveyor bound, then?"

"Through Chee to Parkhurst. And possibly beyond even that... the spectra from Parkhurst indicate there may be two undiscovered wormholes there, and we're going to look for them."

Martinez was impressed. "Good luck. Maybe Laredo will become a hub of commerce instead of a dead end on the interstellar roadway."

This was a good time to be in the Exploration Service. Founded originally to locate wormholes, stabilize them, and travel through them to discover new systems, planets, and species, the Service had dwindled during the last thousand years of Shaa rule as the Great Masters lost their taste for expanding their empire. Since the death of the last Shaa and the war that followed, the Convocation had decided again on a policy of expansion, beginning with Chee and Parkhurst, two systems that could be reached through Laredo, and which had been surveyed hundreds of years earlier without any settlement actually being authorized.

The Service was expanding to fill its mandate, and that meant more money, better ships, and incoming classes of young officers for Severin to be senior to. The Exploration Service now offered the possibility of great discoveries and adventure, and Severin - as an officer who had come out of the war with credit - was in a position to take advantage of such an offer.

A Terran stepped out of the house with a pair of drinks in his hand. He strongly resembled Martinez, and he wore the dark red tunic of the Lords Convocate, the six hundred-odd member committee that ruled the empire in the absence of the Shaa.

"Here you are," he said, and handed a drink to Martinez. He looked at Severin, hesitated, and then offered him the second glass.

"Delta whisky?" he asked.

"Thank you." Severin took the glass.

"Lieutenant Severin," Martinez said, "allow me to introduce you to my older brother, Roland."

"Lord convocate," Severin said. He juggled the whisky glass to take Roland's hand.

"Pleased you could come," Roland said. "My brother has spoken of you." He turned to Martinez. "Don't forget that you and Terza are pledged to play tingo tonight with Lord Mukerji."

Martinez made a face. "Can't you find someone else?"

"You're the hero," Roland said. "That makes your money better than anyone else's. You and my lord Severin can rehash the war tomorrow, after our special guests have left."

Martinez looked at Severin. "I'm sorry," he said. "There are people here concerned with the Chee development, and it's the polite thing to keep them happy."

Since the Chee development concerned the settlement of an entire planet, and the special guests were presumably paying for it, Severin sympathized with the necessity of keeping them happy.

"I understand," he said.

Roland's eyes tracked over Severin's shoulder, and he raised his eyebrows. "Here's Terza now."

Severin turned to see a small group on the lawn, an elegant, black-haired woman in a pale gown walking hand-in-hand with a boy of three, smiling and talking with another woman, fair-haired and pregnant.

"Cassilda's looking well," Martinez remarked.

"Fecundity suits her," said Roland.

"Fecundity and a fortune," Martinez said. "What more could a man ask?"

Roland smiled. "Pliability," he said lightly, then stepped forward to help his pregnant wife up the stairs. Martinez waited for the other woman to follow and greeted her with a kiss.

Introductions were made. The black-haired woman was Lady Terza Chen, Martinez' wife and heir to the high-caste Chen clan. The child was Young Gareth. The light-haired woman was Lady Cassilda Zykov, who was apparently not an heir but came with a fortune anyway.

"Pleased to meet you," Severin said.

"Thank you for keeping my husband alive," Terza said. "I hope you won't stop now."

Severin looked at Martinez. "He seems to be doing well enough on his own."

Lady Terza was slim and poised and had a lovely, almond-eyed face. She put a hand on Severin's arm. "Have you eaten?"

"I had a bite coming down in the skyhook."

She drew Severin toward the door. "That was a long time ago. Let me show you the buffet. I'll introduce you to some people and then - " Her eyes turned to Martinez.

"Tingo with Mukerji," Martinez said. "I know."

She looked again at Severin. "You don't play tingo, do you?"

Bankruptcy doesn't suit me, he thought.

"No," he said, "I'm afraid not."

*

Terza took Martinez' arm in both her own and rested her head on his shoulder. "It was time you came home," she said. "I've never seen you with your own people."

He looked at her. "You're my people, now," he said.

Terza had spent most of her pregnancy on Laredo, but without him - that had been in wartime, with the Convocation in flight from the capital and Martinez fighting with the Fleet. After that, with the rebels driven from Zanshaa and the war at an end, the family had reunited in the High City to bask in the cheers of a thankful population. Chee and Parkhurst had been opened to settlement under Martinez patronage. Roland had been co-opted into the Convocation.

Now, three years later, the cheers of the High City had faded. Enmity on the Fleet Control Board kept Martinez from command of a ship or any meaningful assignments. Terza led an active life that combined a post at the Ministry of Right and Dominion with a full schedule of High City diversions: receptions, balls, concerts, exhibitions, and an endless round of parties. Martinez was feeling more and more like his wife's appendage, trailed around from one event to the next.

The choice was stark: either go home or write his memoirs. Sitting down to write the story of his life, like an old man at the end of his days with nothing to offer to the empire but words, was an image he found repellent. He arranged for passage to Laredo on the huge transport Wi-hun, and embarked his family and their servants.

Before he left, Martinez applied to be appointed Lord Inspector of the Fleet for Laredo, Chee, and Parkhurst, thus giving his journey an official pretext. The appointment was approved so quickly that Martinez could only imagine the joy on the Fleet Control Board at the news that Senior Captain Martinez had been willing, for once, to settle for a meaningless task.

The appointment kept him on the active list. It gave him the authority to interfere here and there, if he felt like interfering. Maybe he would interfere just to convince himself that the postwar arrangement hadn't made him irrelevant.

"Captain Martinez! Lady Terza! Are you ready for tingo?"

Martinez decided that he wouldn't submerge into irrelevance just yet, not as long as games of tingo were without a fifth player.

"Certainly, Lord Mukerji," he said.

Lord Mukerji was a short, spare Terran with wiry grey hair, a well-cultivated handlebar mustache, and all the social connections in the worlds. He had been brought in as the President of the Chee Development Company in order to provide the necessary tone. Opening two whole worlds to settlement was beyond the financial capabilities even of the staggeringly rich Lord Martinez, and outside investors had to be brought in. It had to be admitted that the Peers and financiers of the High City preferred to hear about investment opportunities in tones more congenial to their ears than those uttered in a barbaric Laredo accent.

And Lord Mukerji had certainly done his job. Investment had poured into the company's coffers from the moment he'd begun spreading his balm on the moneyed classes. Important Peer clans were signed on to become the official patrons of settlers, of cities, or even of entire industries. Company stock was doing well on the Zanshaa Exchange, and the bonds were doing even better.

Martinez and Terza took their seats as a tall figure loomed above the table. "Do you know Lord Pa?" Mukerji said.

"We've met only briefly, before dinner," Martinez said.

Lord Pa Maq-fan was a Lai-own, a species of flightless birds, and was the chairman of a privately-held company that was one the prime contractors for the Chee development. From his great height he looked at Terza and Martinez with disturbing blood-red eyes and bared the peg teeth in his short muzzle. "All Lai-own know Captain Martinez," he said. "He saved our home world."

"Very kind of you to say so," Martinez said as Lord Pa settled his keel-like breastbone into his special chair.

It was always heartening when people remembered these little details.

"I haven't kept people waiting, I hope." Lady Marcella Zykov hastened into to her place at the table. She was a first cousin of Roland's bride Cassilda, and the chief of operations for the Chee Company, having been put in place to look after the money the Zykov clan was putting into the venture. She was a very short, very busy woman in her thirties, with a pointed face and auburn hair pulled into an untidy knot behind her head, and she absently brushed tobacco ash off her jacket as she took her place.

"Shall we roll the bones, then?" Lord Mukerji said.

All players bet a hundred zeniths. The bones were rolled, and they appointed Marcella the dealer. She ran the tiles through the sorting machine and dealt each player an initial schema.

"Discard," said Terza, who sat on her right, and removed the Three Virtues from her schema.

"Claim," said Lord Mukerji. He took the Three Virtues into his schema and smiled beneath his broad mustaches. He waited for Marcella to be dealt a new tile, then touched a numbered pad on the table. "Another two hundred," he said.

Martinez thought it was a little early in the game to raise, but he paid two hundred for a new tile just to see where the game would go. Two rounds later, when Lord Mukerji doubled, Martinez and Terza both dropped out. The game was won by Lord Pa, who had quietly built a Tower that he dropped onto Lord Mukerji's Bouquet of Probity.

"Roll the bones," said Mukerji.

The bones made Mukerji the dealer. As he ran the tiles through the sorting machine, Marcella looked up from the table.

"Will you be traveling to Chee, Captain Martinez?"

"I'm Lord Inspector for Chee," Martinez said, "so I'll be required to inspect the skyhook, the station, and the other Fleet facilities."

"And Parkhurst as well?"

"There's nothing in the Parkhurst system at the moment but a Fleet survey vessel. I can wait for it to return."

"I can offer you transport on the Kayenta," Marcella said, "if you can leave in twenty days or so." She turned to Terza. "That way Lady Terza can accompany you without the discomforts of a Fleet vessel or a transport."

Martinez was pleasantly surprised. He'd been planning on booking a ride on one of the giant transports heading to Chee - they carried immigrants as well as cargo and had adequate facilities for passengers - but Kayenta was the Chee Company's executive yacht, with first-class accommodations and a crew that included a masseur and a cosmetician.

He turned to Terza, who seemed delighted by the offer. "Thank you," he said. "We'll definitely consider the option."

"Are you going out to Chee yourself, Lady Marcella?" Mukerji asked.

"Yes. They're beginning the new railhead at Corona, and Lord Pa and I will need to consult with Allodorm."

Martinez caught the surprise that crossed Terza's face, surprise that was swiftly suppressed. Terza took up her tiles.

"Is that Ledo Allodorm?" she asked.

Lord Pa's blood-red eyes gazed at her from across the table. "Yes," he said. "Do you know that gentleman?"

"Not personally," Terza said, as she looked down at her tiles. "His name came up, I don't know where."

Martinez noted with interest that his wife wore the serene smile that experience told him was a sure sign she was telling less than the truth.

"Shall we roll the bones?" asked Lord Mukerji.

Mukerji doubled three times on the first three rounds and drove everyone else out of the game. Martinez realized he'd found his way into a very serious and potentially expensive contest, and began to calculate odds very carefully.

Terza won the following game with the Six Cardinal Directions. Lord Pa won the next. Marcella the game after. Then Lord Pa, then Martinez with a Bouquet of Delights over Lord Mukerji's Crossroads.

"Roll the bones," said Lord Mukerji.

Lord Pa took another game, then Terza, and Marcella won three games in a row. In the next game, the bones rolled six, so the stakes were doubled and the bones rolled again, and this time proclaimed Martinez dealer. He discarded Two Sunsets, only to have Lord Mukerji claim it, which argued that Lord Mukerji was aiming at filling a Bouquet of Sorrows. Mukerji in his turn was dealt, and discarded, a South, which Martinez claimed to add to his East and Up to make three of the Six Cardinal Directions. On subsequent turns, Martinez was dealt a South, needing only a North and a Down for six. Mukerji claimed Four Night Winds, doubled, kept a tile he was dealt, doubled, was dealt and discarded Two Ancestors, then doubled again anyway. Terza and Lord Pa dropped out of the game during the doubling, turning over their tiles to reveal unpromising schemas.

Martinez looked at the total and felt his mouth go dry. He received a generous allowance from his father, but to continue the game would be to abuse his parent severely.

His contemplation of the score made him a critical half-second late when Marcella, dropping out of the game, made her final discard, a Down.

"Claim," Mukerji said.

Mukerji had claimed the tile simply to thwart him. Martinez, the word already spilling from his lips, had no choice but to let Mukerji take the tile he badly needed to complete his hand.

"Double," Mukerji said, his eyes gleaming.

Martinez looked at his schema, then scanned the discards and the tiles of the players who had dropped out of the betting. Neither of the two Norths was revealed, and neither was the second Down.

He looked at his own tiles again. Beside the Directions he had Three and Four Ships, a Sunlit Garden, and a Road of Metal. If he got Two or Five Ships, he'd have a Small Flotilla. A Flotilla plus the Cardinal Directions equaled a Migration.

He scanned the discards and reveals again, and saw singletons of Two and Five Ships, which meant other Ships were still in the sorting machine.

Or already in Lord Mukerji's schema.

Martinez decided it was worth the risk.

Without speaking Martinez dealt himself another tile. It was Four Ships, and he discarded it. Lord Mukerji ignored it and took another tile, which he discarded.

Five Ships. Martinez claimed it, discarded his Road of Metal, then dealt himself another tile, which he discarded.

He was suddenly aware that the room had fallen silent, that others stood around him, watching. Roland watched from amid the spectators with a frown on his face, and Cassilda with her hands pressed protectively over her swelling abdomen. Lord Pa's red eyes were obscured by nictating membranes. Marcella was frozen in her seat, but her hands formed little fists and her knuckles were white.

Terza, on his right, had the serene smile that she wore to conceal her thoughts, but he saw the tension crimping the corners of her eyes.

Lord Mukerji was dealt and discarded a tile, and then Martinez dealt himself an Angle, which he discarded.

"Claim," Mukerji said in triumph.

He laid down his completed Bouquet of Sorrows, then added the Angle to his Point and his Coordinate, making a Geometry. His grin broadened beneath the spreading mustache as he pushed the odd Down into the discard pile.

"That's a game for me, then," he said.

"Claim," said Martinez.

He turned over his tiles to reveal the incomplete Migration, which he completed by adding the Down and discarding his Sunlit Garden. From the room he heard a collective exhalation of breath.

He looked at Mukerji, who was suddenly very white around the eyes. "That's a limit schema," Mukerji said.

Honesty compelled Martinez to speak. "And the bones came up six, if you remember, so the limit is doubled. And I'm dealer, so that doubles again."

Lord Mukerji surveyed the table, then slowly leaned backwards into his chair, draping himself on the chair back as if he were a fallen flag.

"What is the limit?" Martinez heard someone ask.

"Ten thousand," came the reply.

"Fucking amazing," said the first.

"Well played," said Lord Mukerji. "I do believe you let me have that Cardinal Direction on purpose."

"Of course," Martinez lied.

Mukerji held out his hand. "You must give me an opportunity for revenge," he said.

Martinez took the hand. "Later tonight, if you like."

There was applause from the crowd as the two clasped hands.

"I need to visit the smoking lounge," Marcella said, and stood.

Martinez rose from the table. His head spun, and his knees felt watery. Terza rose with him and took his arm.

"That was terrifying," she murmured.

"Ten thousand doubled twice," Martinez breathed. "For forty we could buy a small palace in the High City."

"We already have a small palace."

"I could have lost it tonight." He passed a hand over his forehead.

Roland loomed up at his other elbow. "That was well judged," he said.

"Thank you."

"But you were lucky."

Martinez looked at him. "I am lucky," he said. If he weren't, he wouldn't have been a senior captain before he was thirty.

"Just so you don't go counting on it." A mischievous light glowed in Roland's eyes. "You're not taking up tingo as a substitute for the excitement of combat, are you?"

"Combat's easier," Martinez said. He looked at his brother. "That isn't true, by the way."

"I know."

A thought passed through Martinez' mind. "Mukerji wasn't playing with our money, was he?"

"You mean the Company's? No. His presidency is ceremonial; he doesn't have access to the accounts. He doesn't even take a salary."

Martinez raised an eyebrow.

"Oh," Roland said, "we gave him lots of stock. If the Chee Company does well, so does he."

"He may have to sell some of his stock after tonight."

Roland shook his head. "He can afford a lot of nights like this."

"How many, I wonder?" Terza said. She stroked Martinez' arm. "I should make sure Gareth's got to bed. If you're all right?"

"I could use a drink."

"Absolutely not," Roland said. "Not if you're committed to an evening of high play."

Martinez let go a long breath. "You've got a point."

Terza smiled, patted his arm, and went in search of the children. Martinez went to the bar with Roland, ordered an orange juice, and poured it over ice.

Roland ordered champagne. "You don't have to rub it in," Martinez said, and turned to find Severin at his elbow.

"You're finding your way all right?" Martinez asked.

"Yes. There's a Cree band tuning in the ballroom. I'll dance."

"Good."

"I hear you've done something spectacular at tingo. Everyone's talking about it."

Martinez felt a tingle of vanity. "I made a mistake early on," he said, "but I calculated the odds correctly in the end."

He explained the play as he made his way back to the parlor. They came to Mukerji, who was speaking with Lord Pa. "If the geologist's report was in error, then it must be done again, of course," he said. "I'm sure Cassilda will - " He broke off, then looked at Martinez. "Lord captain," he said. "Shall we resume the game?"

"We seem to be without a few players as yet," Martinez said. "May I introduce Lieutenant Severin? He saved the empire at Protipanu, and saved me a few months later, during the battle there."

Pa looked down from his great height, nictating membranes clearing his red eyes as he gazed at Severin with studious intensity. "I don't recall any of that in the histories," he said.

"The wrong people wrote the histories," Martinez said. Those same people had decided to keep Severin's contribution to the war a secret. He had used a trick of physics to physically move a wormhole out from under a Naxid squadron, and since the empire depended for its very existence on the wormholes that knit its systems together, the censors had decided not to remind people that such a thing could be done.

"In any case, lord lieutenant, I am pleased to meet you," said Pa to Severin.

"So am I," Mukerji said. His long mustache gave a twitch. "You wouldn't care to join us for a game of tingo?"

"Thank you, my lord," Severin said, "but I don't play."

"Don't play tingo?" Mukerji said, blinking with apparent astonishment. "What do you do in those officers' clubs or wardrooms or whatever you call them?"

"Mostly I do paperwork," Severin said.

"Perhaps we should actively search for a fifth player," Martinez said. "I'm not certain that Terza will return from putting Gareth to bed anytime soon."

He spoke quickly. He knew that, as someone promoted from the ranks, Severin was unlikely to possess the large private income normal for most officers. Very possibly the unfortunate man was forced to live on his pay. A game of tingo played for high stakes wasn't simply unwise for a man like Severin, it was impossible.

Best to get him off the hook as quickly as possible.

Pa and Mukerji went in search of a tingo player, and Martinez asked Severin about his last voyage, several months in which Surveyor had been in the Chee system, making one rendezvous after another with asteroids, strapping antimatter-fueled thrusters onto the giant rocks, and sending them on looping courses to Wormhole Station One, where they were used to balance the mass coming into the system on the huge freighters. The task was both dull and dangerous, a risky combination, but the voyage had been successful and the wormhole station wouldn't need any more raw material for a year or more.

"Fortunately the mass driver on Chee's moon is taking over the job of supplying the wormhole stations, " Severin said, "so we're available for other duties."

"Excellent. Your voyage was uneventful otherwise?"

"Our skipper's good," Severin said. "No one on the trip tore so much as a hangnail."

"Do I know him?" Martinez asked.

"Lord Go Shikimori. An old Service family."

Martinez considered, then shook his head. "The name's not familiar."

Marcella returned from the smoking lounge brushing ash from her jacket. Pa and Mukerji arrived with an elderly, fangless Torminel named Lady Uzdil.

"I seem to be caught up in the game," Martinez told Severin. "My apologies."

"I think I hear music," Severin said.

"Enjoy."

What did Severin do with himself in his ship's wardroom? Martinez wondered. He probably couldn't afford most of an officer's amusements.

And judging by his uniform, he couldn't afford much of a tailor, either.

Martinez settled in to play tingo. Lady Uzdil seemed to be shedding: the air was full of graying fur. Martinez played conservatively, which meant that he frequently allowed himself to be driven out of a round by Mukerji's insistent doubling. He held firm when fortune gave him good tiles, though, and managed a modest profit on top of the forty thousand he'd won earlier. Lord Pa did very well, Cassilda well enough, and Lady Uzdil lost a modest amount. It was Mukerji who lost heavily, plunging heavily on one bad venture after another. Though he didn't run afoul of any limit schemas, and he didn't lose another High City palace, Martinez calculated that he lost at least the value of a sumptuous country villa - and not one on Laredo, either, but on Zanshaa.

After two hours Martinez considered that he'd done his duty in giving Mukerji a chance to win his money back, and left the game. Mukerji protested, but Cassilda and Pa were happy with their winnings and left the game as well.

"I'm glad he doesn't have any financial control in the Chee Company," Martinez told Terza later, when he was abed. "Not if he runs a business the same way he gambles."

"I'm sure he has no idea whatever of how to run a business," Terza said as she approached the bed. "That's what Marcella's for." She wore a blue silk nightgown, had bound her long black hair with matching blue ribbon into a long tail that she wore over one shoulder. The look gave her a pleasing asymmetry. Martinez reached out one of his big hands and stroked her hip with the back of his knuckles.

Their marriage had been arranged by their families, one of Roland's more elaborate and insistent conspiracies. Martinez felt free to resent Roland's interference, but he had decided long ago not to resent Terza.

"What about Ledo Allodorm?" he asked.

Terza's almond eyes widened faintly. "You noticed?" she asked.

"I saw you react to the name. I doubt the others know you well enough to have seen what I did."

"Move over. I'll tell you what I know."

Martinez made room on the bed. Terza slipped beneath the covers and curled on her side facing Martinez. Her scent floated delicately through his perceptions.

"I found out about Allodorm when I was asked to review some old contracts left over from the war," she said. The Ministry of Right and Dominion, where she was posted, was the civilian agency that encompassed the Fleet, and dealt with issues of contracts, supply, Fleet facilities, budgets, and support.

"Allodorm is a Daimong from Devajjo, in the Hone Reach," she continued. "During the war he received a contract to build four - or was it five? - transport vessels for the Fleet. The war ended before he could deliver the ships, and the contract was canceled."

"So what did he do?" Martinez asked. "Convert the transports to civilian purposes? That would be allowed, wouldn't it, if the government didn't want them anymore?"

Terza frowned. "There was an allegation that he never built the ships at all."

Martinez blinked. "He took the money and did nothing?"

"Other than commission some architects, print some stationary, and recruit some staff and some high-priced legal talent, no." She looked thoughtful. "It was possible to make a calculation that the war would be over before he had to deliver. If we won, the contracts would be canceled; and if the Naxids won, they wouldn't care if he'd started work or not."

"Didn't the Investigative Service climb all over Allodorm's operation? Couldn't the ministry at least have asked for its money back?"

Terza offered a mild shrug. "After the war the IS was involved in purging rebels and their sympathizers, and didn't spare a thought for the people who were supposed to be on our side. When the file finally came across my desk I recommended an investigation, but the ministry decided against it. I don't know why; it's possible that Allodorm is politically protected."

"So now Allodorm is on Chee, and Marcella and Lord Pa are traveling to consult with him."

"Maybe he's a sub-contractor."

"That doesn't speak well for the prospect of the Chee Company's balance sheet."

"The Chee Company may be all right," Terza pointed out. "It's Lord Pa and the Meridian Company that's the prime contractor. If anyone's being gouged, it's probably them."

"Either way, it's my family's money." He shifted closer to Terza's warmth and she rested her head on his shoulder and put an arm across his chest. "Our balance sheet has improved anyway. What shall we do with Mukerji's cash?"

He could sense her amusement. "Buy something preposterous, I suppose. You've always talked about taking up yachting."

Martinez felt a twinge of annoyance. "They wouldn't let me into the Seven Stars or the Ion Club," he said. "A provincial can't past their august doors, no matter how many medals he's won." He kissed Terza's forehead. "Or how many high-placed ministry officials he's married."

"So join a lesser club," Terza said, "and beat the pants off the Seven Stars in every match."

Martinez grinned at the ceiling. "That's not a half-bad idea," he said.

He felt Terza's warm breath on his neck as she spoke. "Is this the room you lived in as a child?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Same furniture, too, but the model Fleet ships that I hung from the ceiling are gone. And so are the uniform guides to the various academies that I'd tacked up on the walls."

Her low chuckle came to his ear. "So joining the Fleet was your idea, I take it."

"Oh yes. I had a lot of romantic ideas - must have got those from my mother. And my father didn't mind, because in the Fleet at least I'd learn some useful skills."

He remembered, before the war, when speaking with - with a certain person, a woman he preferred not ever to think about, a woman with pale hair and milky skin and blazing green eyes - he'd expressed his frustration at being in a meaningless service, a club not unlike the Seven Stars but less useful, a club devoted to ritual and display and serving the limitless vanity of its commanders.

The war had changed that, at least for a while.

What hadn't changed, apparently, were the politically-connected contractors who gouged the government while delivering shoddy, late, or nonexistent work.

That, he supposed, was the government's business. What concerned Martinez was that if Allodorm were stealing money now, he was no longer stealing it just from the government, but the Martinez family.

In which case, it had to stop.

Terza pressed closer to Martinez on the bed. She kissed his cheek. "I wonder," she said, "if when you were a boy in this bed, you ever imagined - "

Martinez sat up, displacing Terza's head and arm. "Comm," he said. "Wall display: on."

The chameleon-weave fabric of the display normally matched the geometric pattern of the wallpaper, but now it brightened into a video screen displaying the Martinez crest. "Comm: search," Martinez said. "Ledo plus Allodorm plus Meridian plus Company. Begin."

In a half-second data flashed on the screen. Martinez chose the first listing, and saw a page from the Meridian Company's official prospectus of the Chee development. He absorbed the information.

"Allodorm's chief engineer for the Meridian Company," he said. "He's in charge of all their projects on Chee. All of them."

He turned to Terza and saw her pensive expression. "Something wrong?" he said.

A serene smile crossed her face, the one he knew for its falsity.

"Nothing at all," she said.

*

"Daddy says I'm a genius. Daddy says I'm going to do great things."

"I'm sure you are," said Severin.

"I'm going to smash Naxids." The dark-haired child raised a hand over his head. In his fist was a toy warship. He flung it on the polished asteroid material of the verandah. "Bang!"

"Good shot," Severin observed.

He'd grown with a pair of younger sisters, and knew how to keep a young child entertained. Lord Gareth Chen - who bore his father's first name but the surname of his mother, who was the Chen heir and ranked higher - picked up the warship and flung it again. Wet explosive sounds came from his pursed lips.

"But what if the Naxids come from this direction?" Severin asked, and leaned out of his metal whitewashed chair to threaten the boy's flank.

"Bang!"

"Or from here?" The other flank.

"Bang!"

"Or here?" Overhead.

"Bang!"

Lord Gareth the Younger was at a stage of life where this could go on for quite a while before he got bored. Having nothing better to do, Severin was content to continue the game, though his thoughts were elsewhere.

He had awakened that morning with a dream clinging to his memory like a shroud. In the dream he had been driving up the oak alley toward the house, beneath the series of iron arches, and somehow one of the arches had transformed itself into a proscenium, and he'd stepped through the proscenium onto a stage that was the house.

The house had been covered with lights, and a party had been under way. The guests glittered in fine clothes and uniforms. Severin knew none of them. Their conversation was strangely oblique, and Severin kept feeling that he could understand them if only he listened a little harder. At some point he discovered that they were not people at all, but automata, smiling and glimmering as they spoke words that had been pre-programmed by someone else.

In the dream Severin hadn't found this discovery horrifying, but intensely interesting. He wandered through the party listening to the conversation and admiring the brilliance of the puppets' design.

When he woke he was still under the spell of the dream. He breakfasted alone on the terrace - apparently his hosts were not yet awake - and he found himself thinking about the strange conversations that he'd heard, and trying to work out the obscure story behind them.

He thought about going back to bed and hoping to pick the dream up where it had left off, but at this point Gareth Junior arrived, and the battle with the Naxids began.

He was rescued in time by Martinez, who came out of the house and lunged at his son, scooping him up in both arms and whirling him overhead as the child shrilled his laughter.

Following Martinez from the house came his older brother Roland, who carried a cup of coffee in one hand. Both wore civilian clothes, which made Severin more conscious than usual of his shabby uniform.

"I suppose it won't be long before I'm behaving like that," Roland said as he watched Martinez twirling his son.

"I suppose it won't," Severin said.

Roland sipped coffee. Martinez tucked his son under one arm and turned to Severin. "Has the boy prodigy been bothering you?"

"He's been mashing Naxids, mostly."

Martinez grinned. "Exercising tactical genius, eh? Just like his father!" Young Gareth still under his arm, Martinez sprinted into the house as the child waved his fists and laughed aloud.

"Perhaps I won't behave like that, after all," Roland decided.

Martinez returned a few moments later, having delivered his offspring to the nursemaid. He combed his disordered hair with his fingers and dropped into the whitewashed metal chair next to Severin.

"I saw you dancing last night," he said. "With a curly-haired girl."

"Lady Consuelo Dalmas," Severin said.

"Consuelo." Martinez blinked. "I thought she looked familiar. I used to see her older sister, when we were all, ah, much younger."

"She's invited me to a garden party tomorrow afternoon."

Martinez smiled. "Have a good time."

"I will." He considered offering a resigned sort of sigh and decided against it. "Of course," he added, "sooner or later either she or her parents will discover that I'm not a Peer, and have no money, and then I won't see her again." Severin clasped his hands between his knees. "But then I'm used to that."

Martinez gave him an unsettled look. "You're not regretting your promotion, I hope."

"No." Severin considered. "But it's made me aware of how many locked doors there are, doors that I once had no idea even existed."

"If there's anything I can do to open them... " Martinez ventured.

"Thank you. I'm not certain there's anything that can be done."

"Unless we have another war," Roland said. "Then all bets are off."

Smiling lightly to himself, Roland walked to the verandah rail and looked out into the oak alley, raising his head at the honeyed scent of the o-pii flowers floating on the morning breeze. "Consuelo's not right for you anyway, if you don't mind my saying so," he said. "Too young, too much a part of the fashionable set. What you need is a comely widow, or a young woman married to a dull old husband."

Martinez looked at him. "You don't have anyone in mind, do you?"

"Let me put my mind to it."

Martinez gave Severin an uneasy look. "Better make your wishes plain. Roland has disturbing success as a matchmaker."

There was something in the air, Severin felt, some history between the brothers that made this an uncomfortable moment.

"I'm only here for a month," Severin said.

"Narrow window of opportunity," Roland said. "I'll see what I can do."

Martinez looked at Roland. "Apropos conspiracy," he said, "do you know anything about Allodorm, Meridian Company's chief engineer?"

"I've met him on Chee Station," Severin said. "Though I haven't conspired with him."

"I haven't met him at all," Roland said. He turned around, eyes mild as he contemplated his brother. "I appreciate your confidence in my omniscience, but what I really do is look after family interests in the Convocation. I'm not really connected to the Chee development business."

"Terza thinks that Allodorm's a swindler," Martinez said. "And if she's right, he's in a perfect place to walk off with a lot of our money."

Roland absorbed this with a distracted frown. "What does Terza know, exactly?"

"During the war, he took the money to build five ships and then didn't build them."

Severin felt a moment of shock. As an officer in government service he was familiar enough with waste and theft, but five whole missing ships seemed extreme.

There was a moment of silence, and then Roland turned to Severin.

"I'd appreciate your discretion," he said.

"Certainly," Severin said.

"There may not be anything in this," Roland said.

"Of course," Severin said.

He found himself fascinated by the interactions in this household, the delicate play between the decorated Fleet officer and his politician brother. Since his promotion he'd had the opportunity to observe several Peer families, and none had been quite like this one.

"I wish I knew who hired Allodorm," Martinez said pensively.

"Lord Pa, presumably," Roland said. "The question is whether Lord Pa know about the Fleet ships, or cared if he did." He pulled another of the metal chairs toward Severin and sat. "Would you tell us about this Allodorm?"

Severin shrugged. "He's a Daimong. Youngish, I think, though with Daimong it's hard to tell. When Surveyor first docked at Chee Station, he was on hand to make sure we got everything we needed. I thought that was very good of him."

"Were you treated well?" Roland asked.

"Yes. Since I'm the exec, the lord captain assigned me to work with Allodorm, and it was first-class all the way. Supplies came aboard within hours of submitting our requests. The victuals were fresh. Allodorm put one of the worker hostels at Port Vipsania at the disposal of our liberty crew, and he hosted a dinner for the officers."

"Nothing odd?" Martinez asked. "Nothing a little off-center in the way the station's run?"

"Other than it being first-class, no," Severin said. "In the Exploration Service we're used to things being more worn and shabby - it's not like we've got the Fleet's prestige or budget - but everything on Chee Station was new and shiny and efficient. The facilities were bigger than they needed, but then there are plans to expand."

The brothers contemplated this. "I don't suppose we should tell our father."

"What would we tell him? We've got dozens of inspectors on Chee anyway - what can he do that they can't?"

Martinez gave a little shrug. "Not get bribed?" he said.

"Father's supposed to open the meeting of the Petitioners' Council in something like fifteen days." Roland gave a tight little smile. "If he abandons his task and goes charging off to Chee on the Ensenada to expose the wicked, that's all the warning Allodorm or anyone else is going to need. Everything would be tidied up by the time he gets there."

"And you?"

"I'm not going anywhere until Cassilda has our baby, after which the whole family will leave for Zanshaa so that I can sit in Convocation."

Martinez sighed. "I'm the Lord Inspector, aren't I? I suppose it's up to me to inspect."

Severin thought again about the two brothers. They knew each other well, they worked together deftly, they had a shared history and vocabulary. It occurred to Severin, however, that perhaps they didn't like each other.

"Lady Liao," Roland said suddenly.

Copyright © 2004 by Walter Jon Williams


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