Kristine Smith » Contact Imminent: Chapter 2

Contact Imminent: Chapter 2

What follows is the *draft* of Chapter 2 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.

 

Jani checked every room and alcove as she walked down the aisle of Service Medical’s Trauma Center, keeping one eye toward collision avoidance as doctors and nurses darted around her and orderlies pushed past her with skimgurnies and carts bearing equipment.

She found Niall in a waiting area within sight of the main nurses station. He sat in a darkened corner, hunched over a spent nicstick, the floor in front if his chair wet and mud-streaked from the mess shed by his boots.

He looked up as she entered. A streak of mud coated his left cheek, smoothing over his scar, erasing his sinister air. Indefinable dark stains spotted the coat he’d draped over the back of his chair, as well as the front of his fatigue shirt and trousers. They might have been blood, but it was impossible to tell in the poor lighting. “You made it out of the madhouse.”

Jani lowered into the chair next to his. “I saw Tsecha back to the enclave, then hitched a ride on one of the equipment trucks. The last ambulance had just left.” She glanced toward the hall in time to see two nurses break into a sprint. “How’s Pull?”

Niall started to speak. Stopped. Licked his lips. “Part of the biobot casing sheared into his lower abdomen. He wasn’t wearing full frontal, and there was a gap in just the right place.” He patted his left side. “Left kidney’s gone. Liver’s sliced up. Even though his augmentation had kicked in, he bled…a lot.” He exhaled with a shudder. “They got to him in time. They don’t need to break out the brain boxes and make sure he’s still hitting on all boards.”

“So the tally is?”

“Two dead, Feres and that…tech.” Niall slumped back. “Twenty-seven wounded, including two Haárin and three deputy ministers.”

“I heard on the way in that Mako just left to see the PM.” Jani tried to imagine the mood in that meeting, and found she didn’t want to. She despised Admiral-General Hiroshi Mako, and though he preferred to deny it, he felt the same way about her. But a member of his Service had made an error that threatened to kneecap humanish-idomeni relations already crippled by recent tensions, and it fell to him to explain what had happened. Jani almost felt sorry for the man. Almost, but not quite. She ached for Niall, however–he was the A-G’s man-on-the-scene, and even though it hadn’t been his show to run, she knew he’d blame himself for every error and miscue. “So what went wrong?”

“Where do I fucking start?” Niall held up his closed fist, then raised his index finger. “We should never have let Diplo make the calls.” The middle finger. “We shouldn’t have allowed all those observers on-site.” Ring finger. “Like Pull said, we should have cut all the crap off at the pass by doing a remote disinter-disarm from Sheridan, and told Shai to kiss our collective ass when she howled.” He glanced at Jani sidelong. “In so many words.” He let his hand drop, and lay his head back. “Of course, none of this would have happened if whoever had been in charge of the initial land clearance had done their job. A lot of brass is going to go over the side before this investigation is signed off.”

Jani rose and walked across the alcove to the vend machines, digging in her trouser pockets for tokens. “You’re using some pretty nasty training mines now compared to what they used in my day.” She found the coffee selector, and ordered two cups.

“That was no trainer It was a live and kickin’ Slager with an intact detonator sensitive enough to respond to the biobot signal. Once Wode pulled it out of the ground and enclosed it in the ‘bot compartment, a heartbeat could have set it off.” Niall took the dispo cup of coffee Jani handed him, but instead of drinking it he just stared into the steam rising from the liquid. “I’m going to see his face in my sleep. Looked like a damned twelve-year old. Should have been operating a remote control skimmer in his parents’ backyard, not a mine removal device in the woods in the middle of the night.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Yeah.”

Jani returned to her seat. Sipped her coffee, and winced as the sour machine brew coursed down. “So what was a live and kicking Slager doing buried on the grounds of the Haárin enclave?”

Niall tried his coffee. He swallowed it without a change in expression–either he was made of hardier stuff than she, or he was simply too numb to taste. “You remember the drill–sometimes you put the real stuff out there to give the demolition teams real practice. Try out new detection devices. Learn to use the devices they’ve got.” He scratched at the dried mud on his face, then stared at the dirt under his nails. “That training method is frowned on, however, because, well, people can get hurt. So you fudge the records, which then means that you can’t always depend on them to tell you what’s out there. The old hands know that. But they didn’t send an old hand–fresh-out-of-the-box Wode got the call. By the time they got someone out of bed who realized what that could mean, it was too late.” He rose and walked to the vend area, still scratching at his muddy cheek. He grabbed a dispo napkin from the dispenser next to the machines, then soaked it in the stream from the water fountain. “Not to change the subject, but what are you doing here?” He leaned against the wall as he cleaned his face. “I thought you’d stay with Tsecha.”

“I wanted to find out about Pull.” Jani peeled an advertising sticker from her cup, a pass good for two free tickets to a midweek showing at the base Veedrome. “Tsecha and Dathim are administering to the injured Haárin.”

“I thought that was the sort of thing he’d been teaching you over the last few months. How to act as a priest.”

Jani nodded. “I’ve learned some of the ceremonies and protocols. But there are a few Haárin who haven’t adjusted to me yet. One of them was one of the ones who got hurt–Tsecha and I both figured that the last thing she wanted to see was my face bending over her muttering prayers.”

Niall finished cleaning his face, then checked the results in the smooth metal surface of one of the coolers. “I wouldn’t have expected Tsecha to give in like that. He’s a great one for shoving things down people’s throats.”

“He’s starting to feel discouraged.”

“Welcome to the damned club.” Niall tossed back the last of his coffee, then crumpled the cup into a ball and banked it off the wall into the trash. “Not to change the subject, but how do you feel? My augmentation’s activated–people keep backing away when I try to ask them questions.”

Jani watched Niall kick at the floor like a restless horse pawing the ground. She couldn’t imagine backing away from him for any reason, but she nursed the same Service-made gland in her head that he did and the synthetic neurotransmitters it pumped out had much the same effect on her as they did on him. “I feel–focused. Like I have things to do, and I can’t rest until I get them done. Colors are sharper. Sounds seem louder. Everyone else moves too slowly. The usual.”

“Started to come down yet?”

“No.” Jani paused and tried to get a sense of herself. “Maybe a little. The hybridization has made it less predictable than it used to be.” Or rather, less predictable in its unpredictability. At one time, her augie caused her senses to jumble–sounds became aromas while touch and scent sang to her in a range of tones. Now she simply grew tired and jittery as her brain and body said “enough” and battlefield alert gave way to moody exhaustion.

“Sometimes I think I should take all that medical advice I’ve received over the years and have the thing taken out. I feel like hell.” Niall gathered his coat. “If you contact Special Services, one of them can see you home. I have to check on Pull. Then I need to contact his parents. Tell them what happened.”

Jani watched her friend move with the heavy-footed gait that spoke of exhaustion and the emotional bottoming-out that in his case went along for the ride. “Niall, stop hammering yourself. Pull will be all right.”

Niall looked at her and nodded, his predator’s face reddened from rough washing, his poet’s eyes dull. “Yes. I can tell his folks with complete confidence that the Service is up the spout with the finest medical staff in existence anywhere.” He walked out into the hallway in the direction of the nurses station, shoulders bowed. “And idiots aplenty to ensure they keep in practice.”

#

Jani walked out into the night to find the rain had finally stopped. The sky had cleared as well; only some fast-moving clouds remained to obscure Luna, and hide the few stars that could be seen through Fort Sheridan’s blaze of outdoor lighting.

“I’m not calling Special Services.” She’d never tell Niall, but his regard didn’t buy her much in the way of acceptance–save Pullman, no one else on his staff liked her very much. A tensely silent ride into the city lacked appeal under the best of circumstances. With humanish-idomeni tensions now thick on the ground, the word best did not apply.

Another plan. She followed the walkways from the hospital to a less-traveled area of the base. On the way, she passed office buildings in the semi-dark of graveyard shift. Maintenance sheds. Rolling landscape buried beneath melting snow, broken up by stands of bare trees and winter-stripped shrubs.

Before long, South Central Bachelor Officers Quarters came into view, a multi-story cement block devoted to the housing of male officers in various stages of transition. Jani walked in the front entry, ready to avert her eyes on the off chance she encountered anyone in the halls or the stairwell. I should have applied film to them. But her identity as a human-idomeni hybrid was well known–all of Chicago knew what her eyes looked liked. What good did it do to apply a film to make them appear human, when everyone knew what lay beneath?

She keyed into the stairwell, took the steps two at a time. Stopped at the fifth floor. Negotiated the familiar twist of hallways before coming to a stop in front of the door marked West-1, the name L. Pascal etched into the metal nameplate.

Jani reached for the buzzer, but the panel slid open before she had a chance to press the doorpad.

Lucien Pascal stood in the doorway, a disheveled vision in Service blue pajama bottoms, white-blond burr diffusing the backlight to a pale aura around his head. “I’ve been trying to track you down for the last hour.” He stepped back to allow her to pass. “You have a real talent for falling off the map.”

“It was a talent I worked at for years. Nice to know I’m still in practice.” Jani caught the barest whiff of cologne as she entered the spare three-room flat. A peppery scent, lighter than the throaty musk Lucien favored. She looked toward the bedroom–the door was open, the corner of the bed that she could see was rumpled. “How much have you heard?”

“Good morning. It is officially morning now.” Lucien stepped in front of her, blocking her view of the bedroom. “I’m fine. I’m not hurt. Tsecha is fine. So is Dathim. Everyone you know is all right. If any of those comments are incorrect, could you tell me now so that I’m not caught by surprise later.” He moved closer–the light fell across his neck and chest, accenting scattered red blotches, along with several fresh bruises that formed a characteristic pattern.

Jani touched a red mark near the hollow of Lucien’s throat. “I’m fine. Tsecha is fine. Dathim. Everyone you know.” She pressed her fingertips against the bruises, gauging them–yes, they had been left by someone who had gripped far harder than they had to. “You, on the other hand, look a little roughed up.”

Lucien gripped Jani’s wrist and eased her hand away. In contrast to Niall, his face was the poet’s, fine-boned and full-lipped, with just enough softness about the jaw to imply a vulnerability that in truth had never existed. Again in contrast to Niall, his eyes were the predator’s, chill brown and calculating, windows to a mind that saw life as a gameboard and all others as pawns, to be played, or sacrificed, as the situation demanded.

“You want to know how much I’ve heard?” He backed away and walked about the sparsely-furnished sitting room, picking up clothes, straightening couch cushions. “Demiskimmer on lake patrol flew too close to the Haárin enclave. Picked up a choppy transmission that spelled ‘one of our mines’. They informed Ordnance, who said ‘oops’ and informed the world, who converged on the enclave. The demolitions tech they sent to pull the mine misread the signal, killed himself and a Vynshàrau.” He stopped in mid-pillow fluff and looked at Jani. “Anyone you knew?”

“Feres. One of Elon’s security suborns.”

“One of the hardcore elite. That should play well back on Shèrá.” Lucien resumed his housekeeping. “Have I missed any of the high points?”

“Not really. Except that they thought the mine was a trainer, but it turned out to be live and fully armed.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.” Jani started her own walkabout, poking through the places Lucien had yet to straighten. “For someone who looks like he just rolled out of bed, you sure do know a lot.” She arrived at a chair one step ahead of him, grabbing for the object that lay in a small heap beneath.

“That’s not yours.” Lucien bumped her and tried to pull the thing from her hand as she reached down for it.

“It’s not yours, either.” Jani held the article up for inspection–it proved to be a man’s Service-issue t-shirt. “Wrong size.” She sniffed the neck, and detected the same peppery scent she had when she entered the flat. “Wrong scent, too. Besides, you don’t fling your clothes around the room.”

“Not unless someone asks me to.” Lucien plucked the shirt from her grasp and folded it. “He works for the Public Affairs Office. When the first calls came in, his admin tracked him here. It’s his job to head up damage control, which in turn means he has to know what damage needs to be controlled.” He glanced at her beneath his lashes. “I can be very persuasive when I want to learn something.” He lay the shirt over his arm. “Another memento to add to the others,” he said as he smoothed his hand over it. “Are you even a little jealous?”

“Of what? Those lovely bruises he left behind?”

“Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot in return.”

Jani patted a chair cushion into place, then slipped off her coat and sat–the standard issue ergoworks braced her back and legs, but not well enough to ease the growing aches that signaled the need for sleep. “You played him. It’s a talent you’ve worked at for years. You’re still in practice.” She tried to stifle a yawn, and failed. “If we were both dropped in the middle of a city we’d never before visited, I daresay we’d manage pretty well. But we’re both in Chicago, and the natives know our footprints. We need to take care.”

Lucien strolled to the couch and sat. “You’re not making much sense, you do realize that?”

“I’m leaving for Elyas the day after tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“I’ll be gone a while.”

“I know that, too.” Lucien lay the t-shirt on the cushion beside him, and stroked it like a cat.

Jani followed the smooth flow of his muscles, the play of light across his chest and stomach. An hypnotic sight, marred only by the bruises that had blued and darkened in the time since her arrival. Mr. Public Affairs plays rough. She toyed with the idea of tracking down the man and giving him a little of what he dished out, except… It’s none of my business. Lucien lived most of his life outside her purview, and he never did anything without a reason. If he felt that what Mr. PA offered was worth the knockabout, the best favor she could do him was to stay out of it.

He does what he feels he has to. Circumstances had compelled Jani to live the same way once. Maybe it was the memory of that time that touched the anger in her now, a vein of hostility that opened more and more frequently as her hybridization advanced and the idomeni aspects of her personality emerged.

So much rage. Jani struggled to focus on the present. What do I have to work with? Look at the situation as it is, not as I think it should be. “Seeing as you’re in Intelligence, how difficult would it be for you to attach yourself to the mine investigation?”

Lucien’s hand stilled atop his souvenir shirt. “Officially, my spec is communications. Weapons interface falls in roughly under that header, but there are people in Ordnance who know a lot more about the subject than I do, and they’re the ones who will be called in to answer questions.”

Jani examined the back of her right hand. She had cut it sometime during her run through the woods–a thin line of dried blood traced along her knuckles. “Unofficially, your spec is killing inconvenient people.” She flexed her fingers, watched the line crack and flake, felt the wound sting for the first time. “Apply yourself in that direction for a bit.”

Lucien’s hand moved to his thigh, the t-shirt forgotten. “You think that mine was put there deliberately?”

“I heard a whole truckload of reasonable explanations during the return ride across the lake. Now I’d like to hear the unreasonable ones.” Jani gazed at the sitting room walls, flat white and as bare as the day they were finished, without even a tacked-up holo to indicate the personality of the man who lived within their bounds. “The Haárin took up residence in the enclave four months ago. At first, things seemed peaceful. The Holland area wasn’t populated by humanish, so no one lost their property. The Haárin had less reason to go into Chicago, so they didn’t rattle the natives by turning up in odd places, as they had been wont to do when they lived on the embassy grounds.”

“Dathim used to enjoy doing that.” Lucien grinned–he nursed an infatuation for the Haárin that had led to the development of one of the Commonwealth’s stranger friendships.

“Yes, he did. The people who looked up to find two meters worth of long-faced Vynshàrau looming over them didn’t find it so enjoyable, however.” Jani smiled anyway–the tales of Dathim’s exploits had made for an evening’s entertainment on more than one occasion. Then she sobered. “As I said, things seemed peaceful at first. The honeymoon lasted for about three weeks. Then one morning an Haárin security suborn found one of the enclave food repositories broken into and humanish excrement smeared over the bins.”

“I don’t need the recent history lesson.” Lucien dragged the t-shirt onto his lap and picked at the hem. “I spend as much time there as you do, if not more. I know all about it.”

“Did you know that whoever got in there destroyed kettles containing experimental media? Thanks to some urging by ná Feyó and the other Elyan Haárin, Tsecha had sanctioned research into synthetic foods. When Shai found out…my old teacher barely managed to talk himself out of a one-way trip on a fast cruiser back to Shèrá.” Jani fought the urge to rest her head on the seatback. If she did that, she’d soon drift to sleep, Lucien’s soft voice serving as lullaby. “Then came the sniper attack. Shots fired by a projectile long-range with a working distance of three kilometers. Then came skimmer sabotage. Add the mine, and we’ve got people who not only know what they’re doing but have access to very nasty things.”

Lucien locked his hands behind his head and sprawled back, a pose that displayed his naked torso to its best advantage. No matter how serious a discussion turned, he never forgot what he considered the essential argument. “Do you think the Service is responsible?”

Jani admired the view, however calculated. “The mines and weapons are manufactured by Family companies–they fear the Haárin’s economic competition just as the Service fears their impact on Commonwealth security. If you assume the Family supplied the means, then the question becomes whether they do the dirty themselves or hire it out. I’d say the field is pretty wide open.”

“Given that, I’m surprised you’re still planning on leaving the day after tomorrow.”

Jani shrugged. “I have no choice.” She felt Lucien’s stare, knew he expected her to tell him why she had to leave, and knew just as surely that the less she told him, the better. That won’t be difficult–I don’t know much. “Ná Feyó has told Tsecha very little–she doesn’t trust the security of the Haárin communications linkages. All he can determine is that she’s enmeshed in some sort of power struggle. An Haárin version of a bornsect fallout. He can help her by throwing his support her way–most Haárin still consider him their religious dominant even though he’s no longer Chief Propitiator of the ruling bornsect. The ideal solution would be for him to visit the Elyan enclave himself, but he’s afraid to leave Earth. Afraid he’ll draw unwelcome attention down on Feyó. Afraid that once he’s left Earth, Oligarch Cèel won’t allow him to return.”

“So he’s sending you as his emissary?” Lucien eyed her skeptically. “I’ve watched you train in bladework with Dathim. He’s told me enough about your religious instruction with Tsecha to know that it will take years for you to learn all you need to. You’ve only been at this a few months.”

“I know.” Jani shifted in her seat. She nursed her own bruises thanks to Dathim’s enthusiastic teaching–a sword in his hand worked like a fist. “But I didn’t come into this wholly unprepared, and I’ve helped the Elyan Haárin before. If Tsecha tells them, through me, to support Feyó, they will.”

“Is she that important?”

“To him, she is.” Jani fielded Lucien’s smirk. “It’s not just that he esteems her. Feyó’s a radical by any measure, and she has a revolutionary’s personality. She knows how to work idomeni and humanish alike. If she loses her position, there’s no one of her caliber to replace her. Considering how thoroughly Haárin shipping lines and trade routes have integrated with their Commonwealth counterparts, her ouster could destabilize the entire Outer Circle.”

Lucien lowered his arms and sat up. “If she’s so magnetic, why has she lost influence?”

“That’s what I have to find out.” Jani once more fought the urge to close her eyes, then wondered what she’d see when she finally did. Like Niall, she knew what she’d see when next she dreamed. Pullman’s raw-boned vitality, reduced to pools of blood in the snow. Wode’s slow fingerings as he maneuvered the biobot over the mine. “I don’t want to leave now, but I don’t have a choice. That’s why I’m asking you to plug yourself into the mine inquiry.”

Lucien stood, purloined t-shirt in hand. “Someone is going to wonder why I’m interested.” He padded across the carpeted floor and disappeared into the bedroom. “The fact that I’m information-gathering for you isn’t going to fly. I’m not supposed to feed classified data to Haárin intermediaries.”

Jani listened for the sound of a dresser drawer opening, then closing, the sign that the t-shirt had joined its brethren in their very private display case. “Could you tell people you’re doing a favor for an old Family friend?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something. I always do.” Lucien stepped into the bedroom doorway. “I found a blue-bordered envelope in my paper mail yesterday. It contained a nice, thick sheaf of documents from the Office of Review. And a set of orange tabs.” He folded his arms and leaned against the jamb. “I’m a captain, as of last month.”

Jani smiled, and meant it. “Congratulations. I know you were starting to feel anxious.”

“I’m not sure how long I’ll stay a captain if I have to keep the home watch. Things have a tendency to spin out of control when you’re involved.”

“I won’t be here.”

“You’ll be here in spirit. That should be sufficient to upset the balance of power.” Lucien pretended interest in the condition of his hands. “So, now that’s settled, any plans until the sunrise?”

Wariness worked through Jani’s growing haze as the many possible replies to Lucien’s simple question presented themselves. She’d visited his flat only a handful of times, and had never stayed the night despite his veiled, and not-so-veiled, invitations. As always, she felt that she intruded, that she had entered a place in which she didn’t belong, the inner workings of which she didn’t want to know. She stood and gathered up her coat. “I should go home.”

“I hope I haven’t offended your delicate sensibilities.” Lucien’s voice sharpened, the soft French Provincial accent faded to nothing. “I have showered. Unfortunately, the bruises won’t be healed before you have to leave–”

Lucien.” Jani stopped in the middle of the room. The hand that held her coat felt gloved in lead. It hung at her side, leaving the garment to drag on the floor. “The psych job. Save it for someone who buys it.”

“I would have done anything he wanted in order to find out how you were.”

“Rough trade for information. You’ve done it before. You crave the power. The control. You like it. Your. Choice.” Jani fixed on the image of Pullman being lifted from the snow onto the stretcher–the memory touched some deep place within her and released sensations she’d long suppressed. Touch and smell and sound. “Well, there were times in my event-filled past when I didn’t have a choice. So stop trying to make me feel guilty about all the awful things you’ve put yourself through on my account, because your primary consideration has always, always, been what’s best for Lucien Pascal.” Her breathing came labored–the sense of weight had moved up her arm and across her chest.

“Post-augie irritability, compounded by fatigue. Aggravated by all those memories that bubble up to the surface because you’ve lost the will to keep them locked down where they belong.” Lucien left the doorway and walked to her, shaking his head. “I know the feeling.”

Jani opened her hand and let the coat fall to the floor. “You are a liar.”

“Yes, but I’m your liar.” Lucien rested his hand on the open neck of her coverall, then waited to see if she’d pull away. When she didn’t, he opened the top fastener, the second, the third, his fingertips brushing her skin with each slow movement. “Your spy. Your whore. Your whatever you happen to need at the time.” He bent close, his lips and tongue tracing swirls of heat along her throat and neck as he slipped the garment from her shoulders. “All I want in return is the chance to make us both feel better for a little while. Is that too much to ask?”

Jani took Lucien’s hands in hers and held them away from her body. Caught the chill that flashed in his eyes, the anger at a need denied. Pushed down his hands until they hung at his sides, then freed them. Counted the seconds as they stood, still and barely breathing, separated by a few scraps of cloth and a gulf of understanding wider than any sea.

“My choice.” She leaned forward, and brushed her lips against his.