Contact Imminent: Chapter 1

What follows is the *draft* of Chapter 1 for CONTACT IMMINENT. The Ritual Disclaimer follows–this chapter could change at anytime, or get tossed out with the bathwater depending on how things go. If nothing else, it’s a good preview of the tone of CI and the state of Our Girl’s life about five months after the events in LAW.

 

Coppélia is a classic tale. In it, a Doctor named Coppélius builds a clockwork doll and tries to give her life.” Colonel Niall Pierce sat with his booted feet propped on the edge of the portable com array console, hands folded primly in his lap. “A young couple, Franz and Swanilda, cross his path. Franz falls in love with the doll, named Coppélia, who he thinks is a real girl. Swanilda becomes determined to find out more about this mysterious beauty who has stolen her lover’s heart, and breaks into the doctor’s house to find her.” He leaned back, the harsh overhead light washing out his bronze Service burr to pale brown and casting his features in sharp relief. Narrow. Angled. The wolf in repose. “And it’s a comedy, I’ll have you know. Nobody dies.”

“Imagine my amazement.” Jani Kilian tucked her hands inside the sleeves of her field coat and huddled against the curved wall of the prefab bunker. Outside, freezing rain fell–she could hear it patter on the domed roof. Insets in the polyfoam wall and floor supplied the heat that made the space bearable–she pressed against the hard smoothness, soaking up all the warmth she could. “I thought someone had to keel over every five minutes for an opera to qualify as a classic.”

Coppélia is a ballet, not an opera.” Niall tilted his head back and spread his hands palms-up, begging the ceiling for respite. “I told you all about it at lunch last week, but it appears to have slipped your mind.” He turned to look toward the figure who sat on the floor next to Jani. “Have you ever attended a ballet, ní Tsecha? Humanish dancing?”

“No, Colonel.” Ní Tsecha Egri, the Haárin dominant, shook his head back and forth, his latest adoption of humanish gesture. “I have seen plays, and holoVee programs. Histories, and such. No dancing.” He pushed up the edge of his headscarf with one gold-skinned finger and scratched his scalp. “Nìa,” he leaned close to Jani, his voice falling to a whisper, “ballet is leaping about to music?”

“Pretty much, inshah.”

“I saw a dancing goat once. Is that as ballet?”

“It is quite similar, yes.” Jani unfolded to her feet and walked across the shelter to join Niall at the console. She placed a hand on his shoulder, felt his warmth through his fatigue blue shirt, and tried to remember the days when she could feel warm under conditions like this. “Any change?”

Niall glared in injury. “A dancing goat?” His eyes spoke to the frustrated patron of the arts that he was. Honey-brown and long-lashed, his only handsome feature, they were currently laced with aggravation and regret over missed performances and unappreciative students who ignored lunchtime instruction.

Jani offered a rueful grin. “I’m sorry you couldn’t attend Coppélia. I know you looked forward to it.” She dragged a stool from beneath the console and sat next to him, then pointed to the display screen in the center of the flickering communications array. “Doesn’t look any different than it did twenty minutes ago.”

“Part of that’s the fact that the pick-up’s malfunctioning. Our comtech should be back any minute with the replacement parts.” Niall sighed. “The image straightens out every few minutes. From what I can see, they’re still clearing snow. Marking out the cordon.” He massaged the back of his neck. “Mine clearance is one of those dichotomous activities. Nerve-wracking to perform, but boring as all hell to watch. Especially when no one seems to be doing anything.”

“I heard that.” A male voice laced with annoyance emerged from the array’s speaker system. “If you’re both bored in that nice, warm, dry bunker, two hundred meters from all the stuff that goes boom, I’d be more than happy to trade places with you.”

Niall and Jani looked at one another and smiled. “Hey, Pull,” Niall said with a laugh. “How’s it going?”

“Saturday night at the Haárin enclave–what a rip-roaring place.” The irritation in Lieutenant Randal Pullman’s voice was palpable.

Jani glanced back at Tsecha, who had risen and now walked across the bunker to join them. He stood taller than she by a head–the top of his headscarf grazed the light fixture as he passed beneath it, sending it swinging back and forth and casting his thin frame in weird shadows on the wall.

“Rip-roaring, nìa?” Tsecha stood over Jani, arms folded and hands tucked in his sleeves, his long face skull-like. “What is rip-roaring?”

No sound emerged from the speaker for a time. Then came a throat-clearing cough. “Is that you, ní Tsecha?”

“Yes, Lieutenant Pullman–glories of the night to you.” Tsecha glanced at Jani and bared his teeth, cracked amber eyes bright with humor. “What is rip-roaring?”

“Rip-roaring? It’s–it–” A long sigh rattled. “Ah, boy.”

“Out with it, Pull.” Niall’s shoulders shook.

“Rip-roaring means…exciting, ní Tsecha. Thrilling.” Pullman’s voice grew softer and softer with each passing syllable. “Electrifying.”

“So you find standing in deep snow late at night an excitement? I learn more of you each day, Lieutenant.” Tsecha’s air of mischief faded. “What of the mine?”

Pullman’s voice emerged more businesslike. “From what I have been able to determine thus far, ní Tsecha, the mine is most likely a remnant from an old field exercise. The Service used to operate training facilities here before the land was leased to the idomeni.”

“What sort of mine–have you yet determined such?”

“–no. Ní Tsecha. That’s still under investigation.”

“It is a trainer, as you say? Or a dud? Such objects emit signals particular to their type, do they not? One simply identifies the signal, and thus the type of mine, and removes it accordingly.”

“–yes. Ní Tsecha. We have not yet identified the signal.”

Jani glanced at Niall to find him regarding her, his face set with concern. They had both sensed Pullman’s reluctance to discuss the situation. They’ve had two hours to ID that mine, and they haven’t yet. What’s the problem?

She reached for the console controls and tapped one of the pads. The flat display shimmered, then the two-dimensional image pushed out from the screen, lengthening and widening to form a three-dimensional layout of the mine site. The casualty radius, centered by a black X and encircled by an orange ring two hundred meters in diameter, stared out like a huge bull’s eye. The image stuttered every few seconds as the relays miscued, but it remained steady enough to discern the movement of personnel and equipment, both human and idomeni. “There’s the demolitions tech.” Jani pointed out the lone figure standing within the cordon, operating the remote-control ‘bot that cleared snow from around the mine. “He’s still digging the thing out, but I can already spot it at this scale. Why’s he still working?”

“Where is Dathim?” Tsecha leaned over the console and searched the miniaturized scene for the towering figure of his suborn. “I will contact him and learn what he knows.” He walked to the far side of the bunker as he dug inside his coat for his handcom.

Niall leaned close to the speaker and dropped his voice. “Ok, Tsecha stepped away for a while,” he said, the sharp tones of Vynshàrau Haárin serving as background. “What’s going on?”

In the three-dimensional image, a figure at the edge of the cordon raised a hand. Pullman, kitted out in grey and white winter camou topped with a layer of body armor. “The disposal tech thinks that some water got into the brain of the mine and is screwing up the thing’s ability to respond to signals. I’d never heard of that happening, but your guy confirmed. Faber, your comtech. He’s at the supply truck hunting for parts for your console.”

Niall edged about in his seat as he studied the scene. “So if the tech doesn’t know what kind of mine we’re dealing with, how the hell is he setting up?”

“According to Ordnance, it’s one of two types. Either a Slager that’s live but sans detonator, or a Beekman trainer that’s most likely a dummy but could be live as well. The Slager’s casualty radius is the greater of the two at one hundred meters, so that’s what we’ve gone with.” Pullman-in-miniature paced a tight circuit on the edge of the cordon. “It’s getting tense here, sir. The Vynshàrau have already gone nose-to-nose a couple of times with our folks. They’re picking apart the fact that one of our demis detected the mine signal in the first place–they want to know why we were flying that far inland over their territory. Diplomats from both sides are weighing in with all kinds of questions and demands and to top off this shitcream sundae, I don’t think this tech could find his ass at high noon in the Hall of Mirrors.”

Niall patted the front pocket of his shirt, the usual resting place for his nicstick case. “Who’s handling the diplomats from our team?”

“Dubrovna. Problem is, everyone at this level is used to dealing with Cal Burkett. Hard to back down to a major when you’re used to dealing with a general.”

“So why the hell isn’t Burkett there now?”

“He’s with the PM, sir, back in Chicago. They’re patched in via the same live feed you have. It’s my understanding that they’re briefing Ambassador Shai.”

Niall massaged the back of his neck in earnest. “Tell me about the tech.”

Pullman muttered something foul under his breath. “Name’s Wode, sir. Lance Corporal Rikki–two k’s and an i. Supposed to be good, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he’s fartin’ around out here. He’s recalibrated his equipment four times already and if he digs out any more around that mine, the entire forest floor is going to collapse.”

Jani tried to imagine the thoughts going through Wode’s mind–surrounded by testy soldiers and bureaucrats of two species, mindful that every move he made, or didn’t make, would be examined under a dozen microscopes, each with a different filter. “A Slager would require one type of code to ensure disarm, a Beekman, another. A cross-up in signals would precipitate a crisis I don’t even want to think about. If the mine brain is malfunctioning and he’s unsure about which type he’s dealing with anyway, isn’t it better that he take his time?”

“He has to make a decision sometime, ma’am, or hand it over to someone who can. We have to clear this thing and get these people and idomeni out of here before a fistfight breaks out.” Pullman’s image seemed to stride atop the console board from one set of touchpads to another. “Why can’t we just clear the area and blow it up? Hell, we could have blown it up from Sheridan.”

Niall hung his head. “We have to be able to show the intact device to Ambassador Shai and prove it didn’t pose a danger to the Haárin.”

“They’re not willing to take our word for it?”

“Over the last three months, four Haárin have been attacked and the enclave itself has twice been the target of vandalism.” Jani could sense Niall’s stare, and avoided it. Sometimes she felt as though he didn’t want her to talk about the worsening relations between the idomeni and humanish, as if doing so made matters worse. “Given that,” she continued more quietly, “I don’t think they’d take your word for the time of day, do you?”

Pullman-in-miniature kicked at a mound of snow. “No, ma’am.”

Jani sensed someone approach from behind, and turned to find Tsecha standing at her shoulder. “Dathim has told me that Shai has sent nìaRauta Elon to see to this matter, along with her suborns, nìRau Ghos and nìRau Feres.” Tsecha turned his head to face his left, then brought up his left hand chest-high, palm facing outward. It was a High Vynshàrau gesture of dismay, of the sort he seldom employed since his outcast to Haárin. That he felt compelled to express his consternation in such a definite manner said all that needed to be said about Elon. “I recall her from my time as ambassador. The Council willed her as my security dominant; thus was I forced to tolerate her.” He broke off his posture and looked to Niall. “I should attend this matter, Colonel. Your Lieutenant Pullman should not be left alone to deal with such as Elon.”

“No, ní Tsecha. Sorry.” Niall shook his head. “While your concern is appreciated, your assistance is not required. We have Major Dubrovna to deal with nìaRauta Elon–Lieutenant Pullman is safe.” He patted his shirt pocket again, his longing for a dose of nicotine etched in every line of his face.

“You have not dealt with Elon. She is as a mine whose signal you do not know!”

“You stay here!” Niall’s voice shook the air in the small space. “Ní Tsecha.” He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees, his gaze fixed on the floor at his feet as he struggled to regain his composure. “To most Chicagoans, you are still the symbol of the idomeni presence on Earth. That presence…is being questioned by some humanish at the present time, and because of that, both your dominants and mine feel that you should not be observed involving yourself in this matter.”

“OK.” Jani stepped between the two, man and idomeni, and felt the current of anger that flowed between them. “That explains why you’re keeping Tsecha holed up here.” She stared down at Niall until he raised his eyes to meet hers. “Why am I here?”

They studied one another–Jani sensed the time pass just as she discerned Niall’s examination, just as she knew how she appeared in his eyes. The strange golden cast to her brown skin. Her long-limbed gangliness. Her eyes, dark green irises surrounded by the paler sea of sclera, eyes unlike those any human being ever possessed.

Niall took a deep breath. “You know damned well why you’re here. Everywhere Tsecha goes, you’re never far behind. You’re as much associated with the idomeni presence here as he is. You’re–” He reached into his pocket, then yanked out his hand as though it burned.

“I’m the hybrid. I’m what all those questioning humanish fear seeing one day when they look in the mirror.” Jani swallowed a howl of frustration. “I’m not contagious, Niall. It took months of medical intervention to get me this way.”

I know that.”

“So why–?” Jani fell silent as a sharp thunk sounded from outside. Another.

They all looked to the door of the bunker as the panel slid open. A young man decked out in Service raingear blew in, escorted by a gust of chill wind.

“I’ll have those relays retimed in a minute, sir.” He swept back his hood and undid his coat fasteners as the water dripped and puddled around him. The cold had bitten his ears and nose–they flared red against his pale skin and dark hair. “I spoke with the techs down at the truck–they said the sub-Misty’s functioning normally. What we’re seeing up here is what’s really happening down there.”

“Thank you, Faber.” Niall’s face lightened, his relief at the interruption obvious. “What’s the mood like down there?”

“Irritable, sir.” Faber hung his coat in the gear alcove at the far end of the bunker. “Everyone’s wet. Cold. Waiting for something to happen.” He turned to face them, and hesitated, his gaze passing over Tsecha and Jani before settling on Niall. “At the rate things are going, they’re going to be there a while.”

“Really?” Niall shot Jani a questioning look. “Aren’t you supposed to be going on a trip soon?”

Jani nodded. “Outer Circle. Day after tomorrow.”

“Hmm. Looks like you may miss some of the fun here.” The flatness in his voice gave away nothing. “How long will you be gone?”

“Six weeks out, same back. Week or two to do what I have to. Close to four months.”

“We’ll be well into spring by the time you get back.” Niall stood, then walked across the bunker to the gear alcove. “Probably about the time the first reports get issued.” He dragged on his field coat. “I’m going to take a walk. See what I can see from out here.” He activated the door panel, and pushed through the gap without a backward glance.

“I do not believe, nìa, that he wants you to leave.”

Jani turned back to Tsecha, who had cocked his head to one side, a gesture of curiosity more humanish than Vynshàrau. “He will have to get used to the fact, inshah.”

“Yes. As will you.”

Jani hesitated. “I’m going outside.” She walked over to Faber, who stood bent over the console. “Excuse me.”

Faber straightened with a gasp, then slowly lifted his gaze to look Jani in the face. “Yes, ma’am.” The top of his head only reached her shoulder, and the difference in height seemed to rattle him.

Among other things. Faber, Jani decided, didn’t like her. She’d run into it more and more often as of late, this sense from some humanish that they didn’t want her to get too close. If I kissed him atop his pointy little head, would he run screaming into the rain? Given the tension around the place, maybe now wasn’t the time to experiment. “Could I borrow your coat?” she asked, knowing full well that to him, the request might constitute the same sort of invasion. “I need to talk to Colonel Pierce, and my coat isn’t keeping me warm as it is.”

“Ma’am.” Faber led her back to the alcove. He lifted his coat down from its hook, shook off the remaining droplets of water, then held it out for her.

Jani took it from him, and flung it across her shoulders like a cape. “I promise I’ll touch it as little as possible,” she said, leaving him to redden like an alarm as she slipped out into the rain.

She found Niall standing in the shelter of a nearby stand of evergreens. He turned when he heard the sound of her approach, but didn’t speak.

“You want to go down there, don’t you?” Jani wedged into the shelter beside him. The rain fell about them in a steady patter, but the canopy of branches slowed the flow-through to the occasional drop. “Go ahead–we’re fine up here.”

“I have been ordered to remain with you and Tsecha and remain with you and Tsecha I will.” Niall had already flipped open the top of his nicstick case and removed a long, white cylinder. He bit down on the bulbed end–the tip flared blue-white in the cold wind. “Tell me about this trip of yours.” He stuck the other end in his mouth and took a long drag, then released a stream of smoke with a groan of relief.

Jani pulled Faber’s coat more tightly around her shoulders. “I told you about it last week, during lunch. It crossed paths with Coppélia–they must have cancelled one another out.”

“Humor me,” Niall replied, not amused.

“I’ll be paying a courtesy call on the Haárin at the Karistos enclave on Elyas. Their dominant, ná Feyó, is a favorite of Tsecha’s–he wants me to deliver a gift to her.” Jani knew how inadequate the explanation sounded, but Tsecha had given her little more to go on.

Feyó requires an assistance, nìa.

“You’re leaving at a time like this to deliver a gift?” Niall exhaled another cloud of smoke, which the wind sliced to nothing. “Haárin shuttles leave Luna once a week–let one of them play errand boy.”

“You just finished saying that I require protection to continue to work in Chicago. I think my getting away for a few months might do me some good.”

I cannot leave this damned cold place, nìa–Shai will not allow such. But you may go, and go you must.

Niall shook his head. “On the contrary–I think it will make matters worse. You’ll be acting as the intermediary between two Haárin enclaves. How is that going to dispel the perception that you’re not human anymore?”

“But I’m not human anymore.”

“That’s news to me.”

“Only because you don’t listen.”

They lapsed into edgy silence. In the distance, dim illumination shown through the trees. Every so often, a shout would carry. A flash of light from a piece of equipment.

Yes, it is dangerous here for Haárin. It is dangerous everywhere, nìa. You must go.

The bunker door opened a crack–Faber’s head emerged. “Wode’s started to move the mine, sir!”

“About damned time.” Niall extinguished his ‘stick against the wet trunk of a tree and shoved the spent cylinder in his pocket.

Jani followed him into the bunker to find Faber sitting at the console, Tsecha looming over him.

“They just got started, sir.” Faber glanced over his shoulder at Jani before switching his attention to Niall, who had dropped into the chair next to him. “Wode’s decided to use a biobot to hoist it–he must be too worried about signal cross-up to use a standard comwave.”

“Jack up the mag on this,” Niall replied. “I want to see what’s going on.”

Faber worked comtech magic on the console–the outer edges of the image disappeared as the area of the cordon itself expanded. As if on cue, Pullman glanced up–Jani could see the droplets of rain that dotted his armor and ran down his face like sweat.

“Drop that face shield, Pull,” Niall grumbled.

“Sir.” Pullman flipped down the poly barrier, then ran his sleeve across it to clear the water. “Wode’s ready to lift the thing.”

“Will wonders never cease.” Niall braced his elbow on the edge of the console and covered his mouth with his hand, his eyes fixed on the scene playing out before them.

Wode looked even younger than Faber. Colder, too–the wind had nipped his cheeks as well as his nose, so that he looked flushed with fever. He stood thirty meters from the exposed mine, his hands gloved with the translucent sensor web that enabled him to control the cylindrical biobot. He stood still, straight, his arms bent at the elbow and hands facing in as though he held a box by the sides. Every few seconds, one finger would move, then another. Each time he moved, the biobot would edge closer to the mine.

The mine itself seemed a puny thing. A blank silver oval the size of a man’s hand, it vanished like an eclipsed moon as the biobot rolled over it.

“The ‘bot’s hollow,” Niall said, eyes still locked on Wode’s every move. “Once it’s settled above the mine, it will hoist it up inside.”

“Then the bottom of the ‘bot will close,” Pullman added. “The mine will be encased until it can dry out. Wode figures fifteen minutes with some warm air circ, and he’ll be able to identify the signal.”

“Why’s he standing so close to the mine?” To Jani, Wode appeared like a man entranced, eyes closed, shoulders slumped, fingers twitching. “Can’t he do that from outside the cordon?”

“The problem with bio signals is that they’re weaker than standard comwaves,” Pullman replied. “He has no choice.”

As they continued to watch, one of the Vynshàrau broke away from the crowd behind the line and walked inside the cordon to stand by Wode. A young male, his thin frame padded by armor, his face covered by a shield.

“It is Feres,” Tsecha said, “Elon’s suborn.”

Niall stood and bent over the console. “Pull, what the hell is going on?”

“Feres is a witness, sir. The Vynshàrau don’t trust our transmissions–they want one of their own to watch the mine be contained.”

“That’s bullshit!”

“We tried to block it, sir, but Dubrovna overrode.”

“Well, I just trumped her. Stop everything now! Get that Vynshàrau out of there now!”

“Yes, sir!” Pullman stepped inside the cordon. “Wode, pull up now!”

Wode and Feres both turned.

Light travels faster than sound. The flash filled the image space like a miniature sun. Yellow-white. Blinding.

Then came the thunder of the explosion. Through the speaker as through the air, so the rumble sounded at the same time the bunker shook, the light fixture trembling as though a giant set down his foot.

They had all dropped to the floor. Now Niall bounded to his feet and ran for the door. “Faber–stay behind and watch them!” he shouted as he pushed through the gap.

Jani lay on her stomach, the echo of the explosion still sounding in her ears. “Ní Tsecha?”

“I am most well, nìa.”

“Good.” She boosted to a running crouch and headed for the door, then fell to one knee as a hand gripped her coat sleeve.

“You’re not supposed to leave.” Faber’s eyes were wide. His hands encircled her arm without clamping down, as though the thought of contact repulsed him.

“Stop me.” Jani shook him off and bolted.

The rain fell harder now. Jani coursed through it, unfeeling, following the light and the equipment sounds. The cries.

Then she broke through a ring of trees, and the console image filled her eyes. The vehicles. The humanish. The idomeni.

She took one step. Another. Tried to avoid the shattered branches, the flecks of red in the snow. Watched medics hoist Pullman atop a gurney and cover him with a medblanket. They’re taking care with him–hurrying– That meant he lived. Please.

What the hell are you doing here!”

Jani turned to find Niall bearing down on her from the other side of the cordon.

Who let her in here!” He waved toward a figure in body armor. “Morton! Get her out of here now! Carry her if you have to!”

“I’m going!” Jani held up her hands like a surrendering prisoner, two steps ahead of the advancing Morton. “I said I’m going!” She broke into a run, didn’t stop until she stood amid the trees again. She looked behind her to find Morton had left her. Emergency illumins flashed yellow and orange against the night sky. An ambulance siren wailed.