Endgame: Chapter 2

…for these reasons, the wholeness of a soul is not dependent upon the health or condition of the physical body in which it resides, and those who espouse such are ignorant of the will of the gods. Therefore, to allow the death of a body for the stated purpose of preserving the integrity of its soul is as sacrilege, and those who defend and perform such acts are as anathema…

 

Jani Kilian read the passage once, then again. Then she closed the leather-bound scroll and stepped away from the pedestal on which it rested, backing away for the first few steps, reluctant to turn around. It won’t bite. Well, not yet anyway. “When will you publish it?”

Ní Tsecha Egri stood in front of the workroom’s narrow window and looked out over the Bay of Siros. His orange shirt rivaled the rising Elyan sun in brilliance, his bright blue trousers sedate by comparison. He wore his hair in the idomeni equivalent of a Service burr, and the blaze of backlight through the glass rendered the short, pale brown strands nearly invisible, accentuating the outline of his skull.

He cracked open the pane seals, allowing the smells of sea and sun into the workroom. “I already have, nìa.” He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “Ná Meva sent the transmission to Rauta Shèràa Temple yesterday evening.”

Ná Meva. Jani imagined the elder female bearing down on the enclave com room, the wafer containing Tsecha’s treatise gripped like a talisman, grey-streaked horsetail flicking with each stride. Yet another exiled propitiator. At the Elyan enclave only a few weeks, and already Tsecha’s invaluable sounding board in matters of theology. They’re two peas in a pod. Meva as eager to disseminate her dominant’s seditious essays as he was to write them.

Unlike some of us. Jani slumped against the wall and tugged at the front of her grey wrapshirt, a near perfect match for her grey trousers. She never felt comfortable in the clashing bright colors that most Haárin and Thalassans evinced, preferring to stay with drab and somber despite the ribbing she occasionally took. “If you already sent it, why pretend to ask my advice?”

“I do not pretend, nìa.” Tsecha’s shoulders rounded in anger. “I esteem your advice.” He straightened slowly. “I did consider my arguments with care. I spent much time reevaluating bornsect histories. I could find no flaw. I then gave a draft to ná Meva, and she could find nothing to dispute.”

“You showed it to her before you sent it.” Jani heard her own voice, soft and steady, and wondered at her calm. “But not to your religious suborn. Not to the one you’re training to take your place. Not to me.”

Tsecha stilled, his hesitation obvious. Weighing his words–another humanish habit he had adopted. “You have learned much these past months, but not enough to contribute to this level of discourse.” He looked across the room at Jani, the backlight casting his face in shadow, obscuring his expression. “Not yet. In time, yes, I will discuss these matters with you in the same depth as I do with her, but until that time…” His voice had grown quieter, the usual booming baritone thinned and drained. “I must be sure of the logic of my arguments. Rauta Shèràa Temple will take any error and use it to render the entire treatise as nothing, and I cannot allow that to occur.”

Jani pushed away from the wall and paced the workroom. It was the largest and most well appointed space in the small house, which was located in the heart of the Thalassan enclave. Tsecha had claimed it as his own despite the objections of ná Feyó Tal, the dominant of the Elyan Haárin and his nominal superior, who felt he should reside within her enclave. But bowing to authority had never been one of Tsecha’s traits. Neither is listening, come to that. “You’ve called the entire concept of Wholeness of Soul into question. One of the cornerstones of Vynshàrau faith.”

“Most other bornsects believe in the concept as well, to the great detriment.” Tsecha once more turned his face to the window. “It is an argument that needs to be made.”

But do you have to make it now? Jani kept her comment to herself. She’d never held back her own actions for the sake of anyone, family or lover or friend. Maybe this was just life’s way of paying back with interest. “The new meeting room’s not ready. Dathim told me he’ll have to work through the night.”

“You change the subject, nìa. Have I angered you that much?” Tsecha shut the pane, then turned and walked to his worktable, a V-shaped stone slab that took up almost a quarter of the room. “So he will work. So he will complain. And still the room will be completed on schedule, and the visit will take place tomorrow, as is planned.” He fussed with a stack of wafer folders. “It is a social visit, nìa. So Governor Markos has told us. A courtesy call. I do not know why you worry so.”

Jani stopped in front of the table and studied her old teacher. Read their shared history in his stark, high-boned face, the mutiny, and the subterfuge, and the lies. “Governor Dmitri Markos of the Commonwealth colony of Elyas is coming here to ask you to act as go-between for him with Wuntoi and the other anti-Cèel bornsect dominants. He’s bringing with him the governors of Amsun and Hortensia.”

Tsecha rolled his eyes, but the gold on gold shading of his sclera and irises blunted his attempted display of humanish irritation. “I know all this, nìa. I do not know why you are telling–”

“Secession. Elyas wants to secede from the Commonwealth, and Amsun and Hortensia and the rest of the Outer Circle want to go with her. They believe Cèel is on the way out and the Vynshàrau with him, and they want to make nice with Wuntoi and his Pathen because they’re the likeliest successors. That’s why they need you. They know they’ll need the support of the Outer Circle Haárin to have any hope of pulling this off, and the Haárin support Wuntoi as the next Oligarch.” Jani planted her hands atop the table, spread her fingers, pondered her gold-brown skin. “This could blow up fast. You should be keeping your head down now, for the sake of Markos and the others, if not for your own, and instead you’re attracting attention–”

“The danger is the governors’, nìa. They are the ones who wish to secede.” Tsecha leaned against the table, his voice deceptively light. “If their attempt fails, it does not affect the Elyan Haárin.”

Jani fought the urge to grab Tsecha by the shoulders and shake him. “Thalassa, in case you’ve forgotten, is in a different situation than the Haárin enclave. You’ll dodge the spray when it hits the fan. You’ll be able to leave. You’ll have a place to go. But what the hell do you think will happen to Thalassa? We’re hybrids, in a diplomatic no man’s land–” She stopped when she heard her voice ring in her ears and saw Tsecha’s shoulders start to curve. “You could have waited,” she said after her heart slowed and her hands unclenched. “Your treatises. You could have published them some other time.”

“They are necessary now, nìa.” Tsecha averted his gaze as he spoke, something he seldom did when they stood so close together. “To alter thinking. To persuade, and enrage.”

“I think you have the ‘enrage’ part covered.” Jani turned and walked to the other side of the room. “I’m not too sure about ‘alter’ and ‘persuade’.” She stopped in front of a display niche and plucked a small stone ovoid from its base. “It’s hard to get anyone to listen once tempers overheat,” she said as she hefted the stone. “I should know.”

“I must speak. I must protest–”

“But why now?”

“You do not–”

“I don’t mean to interrupt.”

Jani and Tsecha both fell silent and looked toward the entryway.

“Ní Tsecha. Jan.” Colonel Niall Pierce doffed his brimmed lid and stepped just inside the room. “Just came from the new meeting house. Checking on preparations for tomorrow.” He wore semiformal kit of dress desertweights, the white tunic startling against his tan trousers and sun-baked face. “Dodging flying tile shards.” He grinned, the scar that cut his face from his nose to the corner of his mouth twisting the expression into something sinister. “Ní Dathim Naré is not happy.”

“Dathim is never happy.” Tsecha gestured impatience, the edge of his hand cutting through the air like a blade. “Always he complains of schedules, of lack of supplies, of–”

Jani watched Niall, who seemed transfixed by Tsecha’s rant. He knows we’re meeting the governors, but he can’t figure out why. She had tried to keep him from getting involved in the security arrangements for the get-together, but he was Admiral-General Hiroshi Mako’s man on the spot, and the presence of three high-level colonial officials dictated his participation. He’ll escort them here, and wait outside while we talk to them. He won’t be able to find out a thing. She hoped. She prayed.

“–and still, he is not satisfied!” Tsecha stepped around the table and strode to the door. “I will go and speak with him.” He brushed past Niall, barreling through the foyer and into the street. “Ridiculous, and truly–”

Jani stepped outside in time to see the brightly garbed figure vanish down an alley between two houses. Sensed Niall draw alongside, and felt his stare etch the side of her face. “Go ahead and say it.”

“I never thought I’d see Tsecha grasping for an excuse to get the hell away from you.” Niall set his lid back atop his head, then squared it by running the thumbs and forefingers of both hands back and forth along the brim. “I debated whether or not to go in. Then your voices began carrying and folks stuck their heads out to listen. Decided I had better throw myself on the grenade before they started selling tickets.”

Jani glanced toward a nearby house in time to see a head duck back inside a doorway. “We weren’t that loud.”

“The soundshielding doesn’t exist that can filter out ní Tsecha Egri once he boils over.” Niall stared up at a seabird that swooped overhead. “Anything you can talk about?”

Jani gauged the man out of the corner of her eye. With his skin, uniform, and bronze Service burr, he appeared as grave as she, a study in brown and white. He stood a little shorter than she did, his frame lean and muscled, his narrow, wolfish face hardened further by the cheek-cleaving scar. Only his eyes, honey brown and long-lashed, offered a sense of his humor, his well-schooled intellect, his warmth.

His nosiness. Jani pretended interest in the blooms that filled a streetside planter. “What’s the word?”

Niall studied her for a moment, then shrugged. “Avelos and the Amsun gang just arrived, and are currently ensconced in Markos’ villa. Wallach and the Hortensian contingent won’t arrive until dawn. Cutting it close, in my opinion, but they didn’t ask my advice regarding travel arrangements.” He drew closer, and lowered his voice as a trio of Thalassans emerged from a house across the way. “Jan? We may be on different sides of the fence, but I can still listen to whatever you can afford to tell me.”

It’s your skill at filling in blanks that worries me, Colonel. Jani watched as more Thalassans wandered into the street. “Do you want to take a walk?”

Niall exhaled with a grumble. “You want to walk, we’ll walk.”

They set off along the narrow lane, past the low, white houses with their arched doorways and passages and domed roofs in shades of blue and yellow. While a few Thalassans had brought plants from their home colonies to display in window boxes and planters, native flora dominated the landscaping. Instead of hybrid lawn, creepers in blue and red-dappled green carpeted the spaces between houses, their low tangle broken up with clusters of the same brilliantly flowered shrubs that dotted the hillsides. Like Karistos, Thalassa hugged the cliff line, and the creepers had been trained to stream over the edge, fringing the rock face with variegated ropes of leaves. Views of the Bay of Siros filled the eye from three directions, and the buildings closest to the brink had been trimmed with terraces so Thalassans could enjoy them whenever they wished.

“I still can’t get used to this scenery. Been here six months Common and it still takes my breath away.” Niall leaned against a guardrail and pulled his nicstick case from his trouser pocket. “So.” He removed a silvery cylinder and crunched the ignition tip, then stuck the filter end in his mouth and took a pull. “You two having another difference of opinion?”

Now it was Jani’s turn to shrug. “It happens.”

“More and more, seems like. What was it this time?”

Jani rolled up her shirtsleeves and held out her arms so the sun could warm them. “I thought that Thalassa would take the place of Rauta Shèràa, that he’d come to consider it home. Now I think it reminds him of what he lost. He spent his entire adult life up to his chin in worldskein politics. He was one of the most influential idomeni who ever lived.”

“He still is, gel.” Niall tugged at his tunic’s banded collar, then wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow. Even with cooling cell-equipped clothing, Elyan heat battered non-native humanish with oven-like intensity. “Just because Cèel stripped him of a title and made him Haárin? Doesn’t mean a damned thing to anyone I talk to. Call him by his bornsect name, Avrèl nìRau Nema. Or call him Egri nìRau Tsecha or ní Tsecha Egri or a sack of laundry. He’s still a power to be reckoned with.” He stepped back from the rail until the shade of one of the Karistos region’s weird palm trees fell across him. “Cèel thought that if he made him Haárin, he’d neuter him. All it did was give him the freedom to rebuild his power base, surround himself with like minds.” He took a last drag on his ‘stick, then flicked the spent cylinder into a trash bin.

“He never needed moral support, or an audience.” Jani pushed down her sleeves and refastened the cuffs. “He believes that which he believes. Fine. It’s not just duty that compels him to speak out, it’s something more. It’s in his blood and bone, the air he breathes. He could no more keep quiet about what he feels is wrong with Vynshàrau religious doctrine than I could flap my arms and fly across the bay.” She paced along the rail. “But what he doesn’t realize, or want to realize, is that every time he shoots off his mouth, I’m the one who gets hit with the flak. Questions about where I stand. Rumors that Thalassa is a training ground for anti-Commonwealth extremists. And when I try to tell him that Thalassa doesn’t have a diplomatic leg to stand on, that Chicago is afraid of us and his radicalism is assumed to be our radicalism, he tells me that I do not know of that which I speak.” She stopped and glared out at the sun-seared water until her eyes teared from the brightness. “So on he flames. I put out one fire, and a week or two later, another pops up to take its place.” She turned to Niall to find him leaning on the rail and watching her, his head cocked. “What?” She caught the bare twitch of his lip, and felt her face heat. “Shut up.”

“I’m not saying a word.” Niall straightened, then pulled a linen square from his trouser pocket. “And I’m not taking one iota of cold pleasure in this at all, even though any sort of chill would feel like heaven at the moment.” He ran the cloth over his face, then folded it into a tight square and tucked it up his sleeve. “‘How does it feel?’ will never cross my–”

“Niall.”

Niall raised his hands in mock surrender. Let them fall, and walked toward the stand of weird palms. “You and I…” He lowered onto a rickety chair someone had left beneath. Braced his hands on his knees, and looked out at nothing. “We had to build walls around parts of our lives. It’s not always easy. I know you well enough to pick up when you’re holding back, and I’d guess you could say the same about me. It’s difficult, dealing with the conflicts and the suspicion. But when you’ve a friend…” He switched his gaze to the flagstone at his feet. “It’s worth it.” He sat still and silent for a time, then shook his head as though awakening from a daze. “Tsecha’s a strategist, a thinker. You’re more a tactician, a field man. I always thought you complemented one another well.”

“That depends on whether we’re fighting the same battle, doesn’t it?” Jani kicked at a loose flake of flagstone, sending it skittering across the terrace. “If we start to fight one another, who do you think has the advantage?”

Niall sat back and folded his arms. “The strategist. They would take the long view, have back-up plans in place. But sometimes they get wrapped up in theory and miss details…” Again, a shake of the head. Harder, this time. “Tsecha would sooner die than fall out with you. I think it would break his heart.” His eyes widened. “Christ, Jan.” A scrabble for another nicstick. The sharp crunch, followed by the drift of smoke. “Growing pains. This place has exploded since you arrived here a year ago, and you’re still shaking things out. He’s adjusting to life in the enclave. You’re adjusting to duties as a priest-in-training and the dominance of Thalassa. Stands to reason you’d fight. If you didn’t, I’d call in one of John’s medicos to check your vitals.”

Jani looked toward the settlement, the newest homes that stood on what a month ago had been vacant land. “There are those here who have no place else to go. Their families disowned them when they hybridized and their governments don’t trust them because they don’t know whose side they’re on. If Chicago decides that there’s some sort of militant hotbed developing here, what action do you think they’ll take? Hell, Niall, you get the memos. You have the list of who to pick up first.” And I bet I know whose name is at the top.

Niall looked everywhere but at her. “I take from this that we have another theological essay to look forward to.” He glanced at her sidelong, then turned his attention to his nicstick, working his thumbnail between the filter and the body and prying them apart. “I’ve read the previous offerings, in translation, of course. He does tend toward the carpet bomb approach when it comes to stating his case.”

“He’s idomeni. Carpet bombing is standard operating procedure.” Jani tapped a beat atop the rail. “He will make his point, regardless of the cost to himself. Or anyone else.”

“And you won’t?” Niall stared at the dismembered ‘stick as though he’d never seen it before, then tossed it into the trash bin. “Parts of Chicago still bear the scorch marks, Jan. You’re as radical as he is.”

“Would you believe I’m learning circumspection?”

“Not without witnesses.”

Jani grinned, but the expression soon faded. “We’re here on sufferance, we Thalassans. Beggars, being allowed a place to squat because we’re quiet and don’t bother anyone.” She motioned to Niall, then started walking across the terrace back to the house-lined street. “That can change so quickly, and then what?”

“You’re worried that Stash Markos will kick you off Elyas. You?” Niall rose and fell in beside her. “He never struck me as the type to harbor a death wish. You’re talking nonsense, gel.” He glanced overhead, and sighed. “I blame this damned sun.” He fell silent, fixed on the uphill climb. Then he drew a deep breath. “So, I expect that Markos and the others are coming here to consult with Tsecha about that bombing at the Amsun docks.”

Not up to your usual standard, Colonel. Jani struggled to keep her face blank. You’re usually so much more subtle when you pry. “Yes. They want to make sure that the word gets out that they support the Amsun Haárin, and that they’ll not rest until they apprehend the parties responsible.” And there was her reply, just as stilted. But as good a tale as any, and even more so for being partly true.

Niall studied her, the brim of his lid shading his eyes, hiding them from her gaze. Then he gripped her elbow and pulled her to a stop. “Whatever happens, whatever–” He looked up the street, now filled with hybrids working, talking, and lowered his voice to a rough whisper. “You’ll get some warning. I know people. I’ll get you out.”

“What about John and the others?” Jani nodded toward the bustle. “I wouldn’t leave without them.” She watched Niall look up the street again. Saw his shoulders sag, and knew his thoughts as though he spoke them aloud. It’s a town now, Niall, with schools and shops, a Net station and a shuttleport. How do you evacuate it without anyone knowing? She resumed walking, then paused until Niall caught her up. “Mako still give you a hard time about hanging around with me?”

Niall shook his head. “Not as much as he used to.”

Meaning that he’s happy to have a spy in the midst of this brew. Jani pressed a hand to the back of her neck, and tried to massage away the growing tightness. “Did you want to check out the meeting house again? Maybe the shards have stopped fly–”

The siren cut the air like a scream, stopping everyone in mid-word, mid-stride. Blessed silence fell for an instant, then another howl. A youngster cried for her house-parent. A few hybrids headed for doorways.

“Shuttle’s coming!” a male shouted as he started trotting up the street. “That’s the new signal.”

Jani looked at Niall to find he had pulled his shooter, his knuckles blanched against tanned skin.

“Jesus. Maybe you could tell your crew to lower the pitch a little.” Niall powered down the weapon and holstered it. “Damned thing sounds like a shatterbox just before it hits. Bloody banshee wail–”

“I’ll tell them.” Jani pulled in a deep breath in a futile bid to slow her fluttering heart. “Looks like we have a visitor.” She started to walk, one slow step after another. Breathe. Breathe.

“Wallach? His crew is scheduled to touch down at Karistos. That’s where my team is.” Niall quickened his pace and brushed past her, funneling his panic into motion and anger. “Flying fuck governors with their flying fuck timelines and their flying fuck–” He touched his ear, activating the comlink to whichever subordinate was unlucky enough to be first in the queue. “Beck! What the hell–”

Jani held back, until Niall had moved well out of earshot. Inhaled, and felt her heart trip, then slow. Continued to walk up the road, lined with low white houses…felt the sun…the heat…

…the slip of sand beneath her boots…a sensation of sliding…

…the hum of a shooter, the pound of her heart…

…the line of tents.

Jani closed her eyes. Please, Lord. Not now. She prayed. Not now.