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Synopsis

Winga was raised on Gaia, where men are stay-at-home caregivers and subservient to a government dominated by women. Stifled by her mother and the Gaian matriarchy and haunted by the suicide of her sister, Winga marries Jakor Jansing, an investigator for the Inter-Planetary Services. When her new husband dies under suspicious circumstances, Winga is visited by IPS Captain Rifkin Lile. The IPS wants Rif to marry Winga in order to gain entry to the notoriously closed society of Gaia and investigate an alleged drug smuggling ring.
Rifkin Lile, born and bred on a spaceship, wants only to get this mystery solved so he can go back to the job he loves — captaining a spaceship. He is very reluctantly following orders; eventually, he discovers that he was given this job precisely because he was expected to do poorly at it.
Rif and Winga marry, but before they can leave for Gaia, Winga is attacked, and in the aftermath, she finds an information disk hidden among her belongings. The disk documents changes in human genomes. When they reach Gaia, they learn the disk is a record of genetic alterations deliberately made over centuries by Gaian women. Winga’s brother contacts Rif and tells him the men of Gaia have been smuggling contraceptives for some time, and Jakor had been helping them.
With the help of a diverse cast, including Rif’s best friend, who is a descendant of Muslims still living on Earth, and Rif’s sword-wielding ex-girlfriend, they discover the reason for Jakor’s death and for the genetic alterations — all part of a long-standing conspiracy designed to ensure the men of Gaia are forever compliant. In a hair-raising finale, the now very pregnant Winga fights for her life against her own aunt who is the leader of the conspiracy to maintain female superiority on Gaia. Along the way, Rif and Winga struggle to learn to work as a team and to respect each others’ talents and differences.


Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Rif didn’t like the assignment. He did not appreciate being drafted into the Special Services as a spy. He did not want to “experience a matriarchal culture.” He certainly was not going to ask the woman to marry him. He said so, many times, getting louder with each repetition, knowing it was useless. Captains in the Inter-Planetary Service did as they were told.
“I heard you,” said the Admiral. “My orders stand.” She sat back and gave him that Admiral stare. “You’re here. You’re male. You’re familiar with the situation. You’ve got clearance. And I don’t have time to find anyone else.”
“What if she won’t agree to take me?”
The Admiral smiled her narrow-lipped smile. “Captain Lile, I have been told that you never fail when you set yourself to convince a woman of something.”
“I haven’t convinced you,” he said sourly.
She laughed, her white teeth flashing in her copper-colored face. “Admirals are different.”
“Look,” pleaded Rif, “I know how to show a woman a good time, but I’m not much of a shoulder to cry on for one who’s bereaved.”
The Admiral laughed again. “I don’t think you need worry about this woman crying on your shoulder. She’s Gaian. Believe me — I know. Women from the Gaian matriarchy do not grieve in front of men.”
Rif tried not to be intrigued. “Are you saying she’s like an Amazon?”
“No, Gaians don’t believe in violence as a solution to any problem.” The Admiral’s smile died. “Gaia might best be compared to a Muslim country of old Earth – with the women in control rather than the men.”
Rif blinked. “Wait’ll Hamir hears about this,” he murmured.
The Admiral shook her head and sighed. “Captain Lile, I know this is not the kind of straightforward assignment you’d prefer. But if the Pharm Lords have established a connection on Gaia, we must intervene. We have to know what Jakor knew. You have your orders. Dismissed.”
He suppressed a profane comment as he left.

Rif was uncomfortable in his dress uniform when he faced Winga for the first time. Nevertheless, he knew his brown eyes were serious and sympathetic as he said, “I’m Captain Rifkin Lile. I’m an old friend of Jakor’s.”
She regarded him silently.
He smiled charmingly. “I’d like to talk to you about him, if I may.”
“He’s dead.”
His smile disappeared as he said, sympathetically, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.”
“You mean you wouldn’t be here if he were alive?”
“No, that’s not what I mean!” He paused, drew a breath. “I’m sorry, I know this must be a difficult time for you.”
Her eyes made mincemeat of the standard phrase.
“Look, could I please come in? I really do need to talk to you.”
She backed away from the door. He squeezed past her into the motel room. A lieutenant’s salary didn’t go far in a place like this, known as one of the four “Honey Moons.” The planets had been manufactured strictly for resort use. The view out the windows was a glorious expanse of sea, mountains, and — seen through the dome — the enormous planet which they orbited. It was totally artificial, of course. It was not actually possible to walk on the surface. All the honeymooning was done under the dome. The woman’s lieutenant would not have been able to afford to stay here. The Special Services had paid the bill. But she was not supposed to know anything about that.
He surveyed the room curiously, hoping to understand her, but there was little to see. It was a standard resort room, with a variety of pillows, blankets, throw rugs, and cushions; it was expected to be used primarily for sex. But the fold out mirrors were all folded in, the elaborate lighting system had been reduced to a minimum, and the closets and drawers full (as he knew from experience) of imaginative accessories were all closed.
“Well, Madam Jansing — I knew Jakor pretty well. The Inter-Planetary Service wants me to see if there’s anything we can do to help you out in this difficult — I mean now.”
“I do not recall hearing J– I know. Women from the Gaian matriarchy do not grieve in front of men.”
Rif tried not to be intrigued. “Are you saying she’s like an Amazon?”
“No, Gaians don’t believe in violence as a solution to any problem.” The Admiral’s smile died. “Gaia might best be compared to a Muslim country of old Earth – with the women in control rather than the men.”
Rif blinked. “Wait’ll Hamir hears about this,” he murmured.
The Admiral shook her head and sighed. “Captain Lile, I know this is not the kind of straightforward assignment you’d prefer. But if the Pharm Lords have established a connection on Gaia, we must intervene. We have to know what Jakor knew. You have your orders. Dismissed.”
He suppressed a profane comment as he left.

Rif was uncomfortable in his dress uniform when he faced Winga for the first time. Nevertheless, he knew his brown eyes were serious and sympathetic as he said, “I’m Captain Rifkin Lile. I’m an old friend of Jakor’s.”
She regarded him silently.
He smiled charmingly. “I’d like to talk to you about him, if I may.”
“He’s dead.”
His smile disappeared as he said, sympathetically, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.”
“You mean you wouldn’t be here if he were alive?”
“No, that’s not what I mean!” He paused, drew a breath. “I’m sorry, I know this must be a difficult time for you.”
Her eyes made mincemeat of the standard phrase.
“Look, could I please come in? I really do need to talk to you.”
She backed away from the door. He squeezed past her into the motel room. A lieutenant’s salary didn’t go far in a place like this, known as one of the four “Honey Moons.” The planets had been manufactured strictly for resort use. The view out the windows was a glorious expanse of sea, mountains, and — seen through the dome — the enormous planet which they orbited. It was totally artificial, of course. It was not actually possible to walk on the surface. All the honeymooning was done under the dome. The woman’s lieutenant would not have been able to afford to stay here. The Special Services ake mention you.”
“No,” he chuckled deprecatingly. “Well, it’s true we haven’t seen each other in awhile, assigned to different sectors and all, but we hung out in our younger days. Jak– Jake was a pretty wild guy once.”
“I find that hard to believe.” Winga folded her hands in front of her. “Impossible, in fact.”
Rif sighed and mentally tossed the Admiral’s strategy out the airlock. “Look, I’ve got a proposition for you, and I’m going to sit down while I talk about it. If you stand there, I’m going to get a crick in my neck, so I hope you’ll sit down, too.” He grabbed a pillow chair and sprawled into it, trying to look at ease.
“Would you like some ale?”
“Yes!”
She went to the servo to order it, and he had his first chance to study her without that dark blue, ice cold stare coming back at him. She moved with the confidence and easy balance of an athlete; her shimmering dark blue caftan slid gracefully over the silver body suit beneath. He wondered if blue were the color of mourning on her planet, or if she wore it because it matched her eyes. Her hair was black, held back with a silver clasp. The dark, shiny mass reached barely to her shoulders where it gently brushed her caramel-colored skin. Altogether, he would have found her very attractive if there had been the slightest warmth in her manner. But he figured the odds at 80-20 that he would be unsuccessful in his mission; he classified her in his private catalog as admiral material. Best to be straight forward.
She returned with the ales, handed him one and sank to the floor, managing to achieve a cross-legged position with less effort than it had taken him to sit in the chair. She waited, her eyes freezing him. He felt like draining the mug of ale and walking out, but the thought of his career detained him. He sighed and launched into his story.
“The IPS suspects some members of Gaia’s ruling council have come under the control of the Pharm Lords.”
She sipped her ale. “That is not possible.”
Rif sighed. He was so much the wrong man for this woman. He leaned forward. “The IPS didn’t think so either, at first, but they have been requested to investigate a flow of contraband which has been traced back to the Libra Quadrant.”
“So, why Gaia?”
“Because we’ve placed agents on all the major planets of the Quadrant, and they’ve found not a trace of a cartel.”
She shrugged. “Then it must be based on a minor planet or asteroid. Or your agents are incompetent. Or the information you have is in error.”
Rif smiled. “You sure don’t beat around the bush, do you?”
“Why would I beat a bush?”
“It’s an old Earth expression. It means you say exactly what you think.”
For the first time, she looked a little uneasy. “Jakor said I have no tact…”
Rif saw an opportunity. He held up a hand. “I’m not criticizing. I appreciate your honesty. In fact, it’s because Gaia has a reputation for being scrupulously honest and law abiding that the IPS is anxious to investigate. What better place to base a smuggling operation?”
Her uneasy look vanished. Perhaps he had imagined it. She examined him silently, until he felt like something in a petri dish. “Your logic,” she said finally, “is faulty. I cannot believe you are so obtuse as to propose this. Gaia has the reputation she has because she is incorruptible.” She waited.
Rif was determined to outwait her. He sipped his ale. Time passed.
Finally she spoke. “How did you expect me to help you in this preposterous investigation?”
Why, wondered Rif, had any man wanted to marry this woman? “The IPS,” he emphasized, “thought you would be interested in helping to clear up this problem on Gaia by taking me back with you. I could pose as your husband, if necessary.” He suppressed a shudder at the thought. “We’re told that Jakor never met your family.”
She shook her head. “First of all, Gaia is not involved in smuggling. It would be contrary to all Gaian spirituality. Secondly, although my family did not meet Jakor, some of my friends did. And third, if your information is so poor and your conclusions so weak, I would not want to be involved in any investigation with your IPS.” She finished her ale and stood up. “Unless you have something of real interest to say to me, you are wasting my time. And perhaps your own.”
He remained where he was and drained his ale. “Why did you marry him?”
“I do not believe that is any of your business. And I suspect what you really mean is, ‘why did he marry me?’” She didn’t smile, but her eyes lost their hard glitter, and he got a faint glimpse of another person — a person he might have liked to meet. “The person whom you knew ‘pretty well,’ by the way, preferred to be called Jake.” Her eyes continued to hold that attractive gleam.
Rif shook his head and smiled lopsidedly. “Look, all right, that was supposed to be a cover story. A very poor one. You were supposed to be a distraught widow and not notice. Obviously we don‘t have nearly enough information about you. But I don’t believe it is any of my business why Jak — I mean Jake married you. What I am interested in is why you chose to leave Gaia. You obviously have a high respect for your home planet, yet you defied your conventions to leave it for a man you’d known less than a year. That doesn’t seem logical. And you obviously are a logical woman.”
“I wonder,” she said wryly. She took his mug and her own to the disposal chute. She stood with her back to him as she said, “Knowing that Gaia is incorruptible and believing it to be faultless are two different things. Gaia is far from perfect, and in addition to wanting to be with Jak — with Jake, I wanted to experience other world systems. That wish has not changed with my husband’s death. I have no intention of returning there anytime soon.”
“You were intending to return — with him. Why not with me?”
She shook her head. “I had no intention of going back.”
Rif frowned. “He told the IPS the two of you would go back.”
“Eventually, perhaps.”
“He said, within two ten-days. That’s what he told the Admiral, at any rate.”
She stood so still she might have been a statue. Rif stirred uneasily.
“Are these true words?” She looked at him. “I see that you believe them to be true.” She looked out the window. “Your Special Services must have drafted him….” She took a deep breath. “Fortunately, I am not in the Service.” She held out her hand. “Good day, Captain.”
Whether she intended to shake his hand or help him up, he wasn’t sure. He clambered awkwardly to his feet, touched her hand politely, and went to the door. “If you change your mind –”
“I am sure I can reach you through your IPS. Thank you.”
She put her hand on the door, but he held it closed. “I don’t suppose I need to ask you not to talk about this?”
Suddenly her eyes shone with laughter. “I wouldn’t wish to appear so ridiculous as to talk about this to anyone I know on Gaia. And I know no one at all here.” He went out and she shut the door behind him.
He swore in several languages. What was he going to tell the Admiral? And why couldn’t he have spent more time with the woman with laughter in her eyes?

Winga leaned against the door. She tabbed the speaker, heard him swearing, and laughed silently. She hadn’t laughed in months. She sobered. What had she been reduced to? Teasing an off-world male. It was an indication of how far she had come. Her mother would say, how low she had fallen.
Jakor had been buried thirty-two days ago. She had infuriated her mother and rejected her traditions to marry him. Now she was living in a strange place among people she could not understand. What if the Captain spoke truly? Not that there could be smuggling on Gaia — but if someone thought there was… Had Jakor been recruited by the IPS Special Services? Or had he been working for them all along? Had he really planned on returning to Gaia? Her mind shuddered away from the possibility that he had married her solely because she was Gaian.
Since his death she had been trying to discern her path. She could attempt to make a life for herself here, or on another IPS world. But she did not understand these people! She had never imagined that life away from Gaia would seem so utterly alien! She could return home — with no likelihood of a welcoming reception.
When she had seen Jakor’s body sucked into the recycling shute, she had felt as though her future and her freedom were being sucked into the void along with it.
But if Jakor had been lying to her, perhaps that freedom had been an illusion all along.

Rif returned to the IPS base on the neighboring moon. The planet they orbited was an uninhabitable gas giant, but it was a convenient source of energy for the twelve moons orbiting it, all of which had been made habitable in one form or another. Most were privately owned, like the Honey Moons, but the IPS had commandeered two for its own use.
The Admiral was, predictably, furious. “You were not authorized to tell her any of that.” She leaned forward, fists on her desk. “That material is classified need-to-know only. You knew that perfectly well. I could have you court-martialed for this.”
“Excuse me, Admiral, but I wouldn’t have gotten in the door if I had stuck with that ‘friend of Jakor’s’ story!” Rif bit back words one did not use with a senior officer. “Why didn’t my briefing include the rather elementary fact that his friends called him Jake?”
The Admiral stepped back. “Did she tell you that?”
“Yes! Why didn’t I know it?”
The Admiral turned to look out the window, apparently watching a ship as it touched down on the seaport. As the spray arced into the air and a rainbow appeared, she said, “Because they didn’t.”
“What?”
The Admiral turned back to him. “His friends didn’t call him Jake. I was his supervisor for five years, and I never heard anyone call him Jake.”
Rif shook his head. “Well… I wonder if she lied about the trip, too.”
“What trip?”
“She said Jakor had not spoken to her about returning to Gaia.”
“Hmm.” The Admiral walked over to a couple of easy chairs set in an alcove. She rubbed her small nose with one hand. Rif suspected she was hiding a smile. “Let’s sit down, Rif. Or do you prefer Rifkin?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Rif.”
“Have a seat, Rif. Would you like some tea?” Not waiting for an answer, she had her orderly serve them. “I don’t quite know how to say this… ”
He eyed the tea with alarm. He had heard about the ‘Admiral’s tea ceremony.’ Scuttlebutt had it that she only shared tea with those whom she was about to throw into the proverbial black hole. “Your reputation would indicate that you are never at a loss for words.”
She smiled, and the few wrinkles in her broad face revealed that the expression was foreign to her. “You project a certain overconfidence with women, Rif. Some women are attracted to that, and some are merely… inspired to bring you down.” She sipped her tea. “I know you have that effect on me. And apparently also on Winga Jansing.” She looked out the window again. “I should have expected that.”
“Our information on her seems to be lacking,” persisted Rif. He set the tea on the table next to him and considered the Admiral’s averted profile. Her copper skin shone in the light from the window. “It did occur to me that she was admiral material.”
She gave a bark of laughter. “And that was not a complimentary thought, was it, Rif? You don’t have to answer that. Well, I have decided that you are correct. And I apologize.”
“Excuse me?” Rif had to consciously close his mouth.
The Admiral said wryly, “I know that sounds strange, but I realize I sent you in unprepared. I was in a hurry, and I underestimated her.”
Rif straightened uneasily. Her corollary seemed to be that she had overestimated him.
“We will get nowhere by trying to mislead her. We will have to be honest and assume she will be discreet. And that our information will convince her to help us.” She picked up a file from the table and handed it to him. “Here is some new information which may help you to convince her.”
“You want me to see her again?” Rif was appalled.
“I am ordering you to see her again. And this time I am authorizing you to tell her as much as you deem necessary to recruit her. But no more than you absolutely have to, of course. I should have suspected…”
He sighed. “Why do you say that, Admiral?”
“Because I did know Jakor pretty well, Captain. He had a superb mind. But he had very little empathy for people. Part of the reason he was good at undercover work was because he did not become embroiled in the lives of the people in the places he infiltrated. He was not my first choice for Gaia. I had sent several agents before Jakor with specific orders to create a relationship which would give us an inside look at the society. Off-worlders are not normally welcome in Gaian society. Jakor’s success was a great surprise. A shock, really. I should have known that any woman attracted to him would have to be intelligent and strong-willed — and a woman who would marry him so quickly — well, she must be very impulsive.” She finished her tea. “And when Jakor died, well. I was suspicious, naturally.”
“You are suspicious about the circumstances of the crash?”
“I am, although the investigation turned up nothing. You have the results there.” She pointed at the files. She paused and Rif saw a hint of doubt in her face. “Jakor was a very good pilot… “ She squared her shoulders. “Any questions, Captain?”
Rif took a deep breath. If Jakor had been murdered, then Winga might be in danger… as would he be if he married her. “If you think she is like yourself, Admiral, then perhaps you can give me some suggestions on how to approach her. So I do not appear ‘overconfident.’”
She stood up. “Be honest with her, Captain. And smile. You have a very attractive smile.” She smiled, all her teeth showing.
I already tried that, thought Rif.
“Dismissed.”

Winga Jansing did not feel intelligent or strong-willed. She spent the morning walking through the artificial city, trying to fathom a society which existed for tourists. How could these people live such shallow lives? Everywhere people were selling poorly made souvenirs at inflated prices. Why would a human person spend day after day in such unworthy, purposeless activity? The walk only depressed her. She returned to her room, hung up her cloak, and carefully placed the bundle of flowers she carried in water. She meditated a moment, centering herself on the flowers and reaching deeply to feel the connection between their spirit and hers.
On Gaia, such contact with the earth was so natural it was effortless. Here she was finding it more and more difficult. Was it the lack of any true connection with nature? Her own confusion? Her rejection of her mother’s advice and Gaian tradition? She brought her hands to her forehead, pressing against her temples as though that would clear the fog. Her concentration was broken by a sudden awareness. She opened her eyes and stared blankly at the flowers. If what she now suspected were true, she had been far more out of touch with herself since Jakor’s death than she had realized. Slowly she went into the opulent facility and accessed the medical servo. She performed a quick test, which confirmed her suspicion. Her impulse was to get a drink of ale; since that was out of the question, she plugged her personal chip into the hotel’s computer net and did some research. As she had suspected, the Honey Moon’s facilities for a woman in her condition were not what she would wish. The computer alerted her to a message the Admiral had left for her. After she had heard it, Winga’s hard-won determination to remain independent faltered. She had to organize her thoughts. She had always found that easier to do aloud. She told her chip to record, then began reciting her options:
“One. I stay. I find employment at one of the hotels. Advantages: I would not have to move. I may not like it, but I am familiar with this world now. I would not have to face my family. Disadvantages: I would lose my Birthright. It may be neglectful of my responsibility to my family to do so.”
She paced to the window and stared out at the bay. Giant holo kites swooped over the water. The hotels anchored them as advertisements to the incoming tourists. “I do not comprehend this situation! I do not know why Jakor is dead. Was it an accident? Is there some conspiracy?” She pressed her head against the window and allowed herself an irrelevant comment. “I do not like this world.
“Two: I could go to some other place. Advantages: I could find a world which suits me better — and I it. It may be that I would be removing myself from some danger. But I would not know.” She sighed again. “Disadvantages: Same as previous option.
“Three: I could return home. Advantages: I would have no need to find employment or habitation. I would have friends. I could claim my Birthright. I could investigate the suspicions of the IPS. I could ascertain for myself the truth of Jakor’s death. Possibly I would help Gaia. It may be that my wedding vows require this of me. Certainly my religious vows do. Disadvantages: I would have no status. And Mother…” She sighed.
“Four: I could marry the intrepid Captain and go home with him. Advantages: I would be taken care of, but not trapped — not by Gaia, at any rate. I could claim my Birthright with full status. Disadvantages: I would be shackled again to an alien male. This time I would know from the start not to trust him. Print.”
She walked over to the printer and examined her choices, but in voicing them, she had made her decision. In her condition, she really had no choice. She only hoped she had not alienated the Captain past all forbearance. His crooked smile was rather attractive.
Winga opened a cupboard and pulled out a small shelf. There was a pottery bowl there, and in it she placed the bouquet of flowers. They were natural flowers; she had had a hard time finding them in this unreal place. She took several deep breaths and placed her hands around the earth-colored bowl. It grew warm and golden-colored. The hotel room disappeared from her consciousness, and she felt herself to be standing in a field on Gaia. She felt the breeze, and the tears slipped down her cheeks. “I do need you,” she whispered. “I will come home.”

Rif could see she was not surprised by his return. “You knew I wouldn’t give up so easily, didn’t you?” he asked, smiling.
“I knew the IPS would not.” She smiled back, and he blinked. The remote coolness which had repelled him before had disappeared. For a moment he couldn’t remember what she had said.
“The IPS. Yes, well, you were right.” She did not hinder him as he entered, but ushered him in graciously, then offered him a drink. He watched her hands as she put the mugs on a tray, added crackers and napkins. “So, what’s changed?” he finally asked.
“Pardon me?” Her hands stopped. She dropped her head so that her hair swung forward.
He stepped closer, trying to see her face. “You were not so hospitable two days ago. What’s changed?”
She turned away from him, carrying the tray. “I asked the management for a couple of chairs. I became weary of all the pillows.” She put the tray on a table between the chairs and adjusted the window glass so the afternoon sun would not blind them. “Do you mind if I leave them clear? I like to watch the kites. They are the only things in this city which do not have a schedule.”
He glanced out at the kites. The nearest one was in the shape of a turtle and said: “You’re home at the Shell Inn” in brilliant orange, yellow and green. “They’re not free, though,” he said. “All they can do is dance on their strings.” He glanced at her and saw she had paled, her mocha skin suddenly egg white. “What is it? Are you ill?” He took her arm and helped her to sit down.
“No, no, I am fine.”
“Here, have something to drink.” He grabbed a mug and offered it to her.
She waved it away, “No, that is for you. I’m not having ale this evening.” She picked up her own mug and sipped it, gradually regaining her color. “That is better. I am well. I neglected to dine, so I am a bit faint.” She picked up a cracker and took a bite.
“Hmm. Well, I guess it’s up to me to be frank, and hope you’ll be likewise when I’m through.” He looked at her over the rim of his mug, but her gaze appeared fixed on the kites. “My orders are to be truthful and to smile.” He smiled. “I’m authorized to tell you as much as is necessary to get you to agree to marry me and take me back to Gaia. It doesn’t have to be a real marriage, of course, just –”
“I agree.”
“Pardon me?” He put his mug down.
She faced him with all the icy dignity she had first shown. “I agree.” She stood up. “Make whatever arrangements are necessary — for a true marriage, not a sham. All I ask, Captain, is that you agree to abide by Gaian custom when we are on Gaia. Is that acceptable?”
“Affirmative. That is, yes, of course,” said Rif in shock.
She held out her hand. “Then I will take you to Gaia, Captain.” He put his hand in hers and she shook it. “That is your custom, is it not? We have shaken over it.”
Feeling shell-shocked, Rif allowed himself to be conducted out the door.

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