Kristine Smith » Rules of Conflict: Chapter 1

Rules of Conflict: Chapter 1

“Name?”

Jani Kilian shifted her attention from her aching stomach to the admissions clerk who currently held her MedRec card by the corner like a dirty dispo. The woman tapped her stylus against the data entry grid that rested on the desk in front of her, the staccato impact of plastic on polycoat sounding its get on with it song.

“Shane Averill,” she replied, “just like it says in the card.” She snatched a peek at her reflection in the highly polished counter. Chilly, too-dark eyes. Jaw tensed with discomfort. She forced a smile.

The clerk ignored the attempt at sociability. “Date and place of birth?”

Jani heard her voice quiver as she recited the information she’d memorized in preparation for this encounter. The Earthbound accents that echoed through the cavernous lobby made her nervous.

Coming to Felix had made sense after fleeing Chicago. Being the closest colony to Earth, it was an easy burrow to hunker down in. So obvious a stopping place was it that the Service agents who had no doubt pursued her would have bypassed it for someplace less likely. The Channel Worlds. Or Pearl Way.

But the burrow had proved to be made of quicksand. Expensive but necessary equipment purchases had absorbed her finances, forcing her to remain until she could earn enough money to leave. Then her dodgy health had taken a serious downturn.

The stomachaches, I can handle. But not the nausea, the vomiting, the pounding heart. She knew she risked exposure by coming to Neoclona-Felix, but it was the only place on the planet that could treat her properly, and she had grown sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

It was a matter of minutes now. One blood study or encephaloscan, and she’d be blown.

But they promised I had nothing to fear. Cal Montoya, the doctor who had saved her life in Chicago, and those he spoke for. Promises were made to be broken. Her stomach clenched, and she leaned into the counter.

“Parents’ names and worlds of origin?”

Jani looked around the Neoclona facility’s glass and stone lobby as she gave voice to more of the fictitious Ms. Averill’s invented history. Shades of purple–the company’s signature hue–shone from every surface, even the tinted glass that softened the battering Felician sun. Bathed in shafts of grape-colored sunlight, she felt as though she stood at the bottom of a filled punchbowl.

“I don’t suppose you can give me the first letter of your patient string?”

Jani took a steadying breath as the pain in her gut eased. “P-seven-eight-dot-one-two-dash-four-eight-zee–”

The tapping ceased abruptly. “You know your patient string by heart?”

Jani restrained the urge to turn on her heel, walk out of the lobby, and disappear into the Felix Majora crowds. “It’s just a series of encodes. GateWay nearest my birth planet, followed by world code, followed by sector–”

The clerk ran the record card through a scanner, then watched the disgorged data as it scrolled down the grid screen. “Shipping administrator for Felix Cruiseways, huh? Figures you can memorize forty-two character strings.” Her haggard features softened at this discovery of a kindred, data-crunching soul. She even cracked a smile. “Is Cruiseways a good place to work?”

Jani eyed the clerk’s bright purple shirt. Silver caducei, every detail of snake, wing and staff visible in the holoetching, sparkled from collar and cuffs. The knowledge of what lay behind the symbols made her shiver. Or maybe it was the sub-arctic temperature of the lobby. “It’s all right. I doubt it’s any more exciting than what you do here. Besides, with the way Earth-colony relations are headed, the shipping and travel businesses are bound to take a hit. You’re better off sticking with Neoclona.”

The woman sighed and tugged at her dark blonde bangs. Earthbound, judging by the odd twang of her Felician Spanish, and younger than she initially appeared. Mid-twenties, but her attitude aged her. “It just didn’t turn out to be as exciting as I thought it would when I answered this posting. ‘See the colonies! Meet new people!'” She fingered an entry into the grid. “Check in with the outpatient nurse on thirty-seven. She’ll tell you where to go from there.”

Jani reclaimed her records card and offered a commiserating grin of farewell. Dear child, the last thing in the Commonwealth you want is an exciting life. She waded deeper into the bowl, toward the lift bank. Trust me.

They asked her the same questions four more times as she scaled the floors to her doctor’s office. Crude way to suss out potential healthcare fraud, but with the field of documents forgery as advanced as it was, the human element usually turned out to be the weakest link. Something about the increasing isolation and the proximity of sharp metal instruments and blinking analyzers tripped up less determined con artists.

But we’re the few, the sneaky, the hardcore liars. Jani followed the latest in the afternoon’s series of white-coated backs down a hallway lined with examining rooms. She had reached the seventy-second floor, aerie of department chiefs and other demigods. Her appointment had been made with a divinity named “Tellinn.” Deputy chief of endocrinology. Narrow, slumped shoulders. Shaggy black hair that needed trimming. Lap dog eyes deep-set in a drawn, pale face. Looked as though he could use a little of what he sold.

“This way, Ms. Averill,” he said as he led her around yet another corner. “You’re complaining of nausea?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re feeling jittery?”

Yes,” Jani hissed. Two decades of experience compelled her to memorize the locations of the nearest exits, the security desk, the dead-end hallways. “At first, it just happened after I ate, but now it’s constant.

“Could be one of the food allergies we’ve been encountering lately,” Tellinn said glumly. “Are you from Elyas? Elyans have an awful time when they come here.”

“No, I’m…not.” Could they tell she was Acadian from her pattern of genetic mutations, or would her unique condition swamp out minor colony-to-colony differences? What won’t they find out about me, if they probe deeply enough?

Jani sniffed the filtered air and shivered again. She hated hospitals. Not that this richly appointed corner of Neoclona’s far-flung empire resembled in any way the jury-rigged basement in which, eighteen years before, the company got its start and she received a second chance at life. But old memories died hard, and every time she caught a biting whiff of antiseptic no filter could ever totally eliminate, three faces formed in her mind.

The three empire-builders. Eamon DeVries, who hated her guts. John Shroud, who…didn’t. And Valentin Parini, who put out the fires that raged between the two polar opposites like the born fireman he was.

John and Val promised I would be looked after. Their representative had spoken in their names–she had nothing to worry about. She looked up and down the hallway as she trudged after Tellinn. Exit to stairwell–unalarmed–second hallway to the left of the nurses’ station.

“Jesus Christ!” Tellinn slid to a halt so quickly Jani almost walked up his back.

“Not nearly so grand,” said the man who had stepped out of the shadowed doorway. “Hello, Hugh.”

“Val.” Tellinn’s voice shrank to whisper.

“Sorry to drop in so abruptly.” Valentin Parini riffled a hand through his ash brown hair. His eyes were large and almond-shaped, his nose a finely molded arch, his cheekbones precipitous. Time’s passage had left only some crinkled skin around his eyes.

“What–are you–” Tellinn’s complexion, moontan to begin with, had turned downright chalky.

The barest hint of recognition flickered in Val’s green-brown gaze as it moved to Jani, then back to Tellinn. “I just punched through the GateWay two days ago. Forgive me for not messaging ahead, but being so near, I didn’t see the point.” Full lips curved in a cool smile. “Don’t worry, this isn’t a surprise inspection. John didn’t send me to Felix with an agenda.”

Tellinn drew the back of his hand across his mouth. “How did you get here? No one mentioned sending out the VIP shuttle.”

Val shrugged lightly. “Felix Central Orbital Station to the city shuttleport. Chartered a heliskim. Landed on that new rooftop pad you installed last year. I must say, I do like the sensation of dropping onto my hospital from the clouds.”

“Like God Almighty himself,” Jani muttered. Val responded to the jab with a knowing smirk, but the glare Tellinn focused on her held murder. And something else. She looked again at Val, who winked.

“Actually, Hugh,” he said, pointing to Jani, “I’d like to perform this physical, if you don’t mind. I checked the appointment roster at the nurses’ station. Another food allergy–my, my, they seem to be everywhere these days. They’re a pet interest of mine–did you know that?” He waved off the other doctor’s protest. “However, my role in all this is strictly off-paper. Keep your encode in her MedRec and draw up any scrips yourself. As far as we’re all concerned, you’re the physician of record.” His all-business expression softened. “I’ll explain it to you over dinner tonight.” Jani swore his eyelashes fluttered. “But only if you can fit me in, of course.”

Twin rounds of color bloomed in Tellinn’s cheeks. “I–did have something, but I–can cancel.” He blinked as though dazed, then handed Val the data recorder board he had up to that point been holding in front of his chest like a shield. “I’ll be in my office.” He shot Val a last, stunned look, then walked slowly down the hall and disappeared around the corner.

Val watched Tellinn leave with the discerning eye a gourmet would direct toward the dessert display. Then he turned to Jani, and the look sharpened. “Oh Captain, my Captain.” He pointed to the examining room door. “In there. No sudden moves. Hands where I can see them.”

Jani pushed the panel open; it whined under the force. “You haven’t changed a bit, you shameless bastard. You sandbagged him.” She held the door open while Val sauntered past. “You’re more than he can handle and you know it.”

“But with me as a distraction, he won’t give you a second thought, will he?”

“He’s in love with you!”

“Yes, well. Believe it or not, after a few days with me, he’ll be ready for six months without. I’m the white chocolate cheesecake in his life–a little piece of me goes a hell of a long way.” Val set the recorder on a table beside an analyzer. “But, first things first.” To Jani’s surprise, he held out his arms. “Just a quick hug, Jan. Because I’ve missed you. Because knowing I’d be seeing you again scared the hell out of me.”

Jani hesitated. Then she walked, a little unsteadily, into Val’s embrace. He enclosed her lightly, as though she might break. She squeezed back harder. He wore a crisp linen daysuit in light green; the stiff material crackled in her grasp like leaves.

“If you’re trying to wring the years out of me, you’re too late.” He pulled back so he could look her in the face. His eyes glistened. “You look lovely. My one and only girl.” He tugged at one of her short, black curls, then ran a fingertip down the bridge of her nose. “That’s held up well, I must say.”

Jani batted his hand away. “Social climber. You gave me a Family face. Damned bones you could sharpen blades on.”

“Bullshit. I passed on the Parini countenance in the only way I cared to.”

They grinned idiotically at one another. Then Jani sensed her instincts firing warning shots, and her smile faded. “How did you know I was here?”

“So much for sweet reminiscence.” Val tapped her gently on the chin. “Well, what can I say, except that there’s nothing loyal employees and money can’t accomplish. We have spies in every colonial city with a decent port–our Felician contact spotted you soon after you arrived. When you didn’t depart immediately for a more out-of-the-way refuge, John started to worry.” He frowned as Jani extricated herself from his arms. “We decided I should come. John feared you’d bolt if you saw him.”

“Did he?”

“Well, maybe I needed to convince him. Sit on him. Threaten him a little.” Val crossed his arms and dropped his chin–his skeptical pose. “So?”

Jani shrugged. “I spent all my cash on gear. I needed to earn a berth.” She wavered beneath his stare, weighty with paternal gruff. “And I haven’t felt good for months.”

“That’s what John was afraid of.” Val fingered the collar of her white trouser suit. “That’s very pretty. Tres Felicienne. You’ve got five seconds to peel out of it. We have work to do.”

First came bloodwork, followed by a series of intrusive swabbings and scopings Jani could have done without, thank you. Then came an upper G.I. scan facilitated by her swallowing of a biodegradable, capsule-sized camera, and completed in spite of Val’s insistence that she stand beside him at the display receiver and watch the full-color, three-dimensional workings of her digestive tract. Her equally adamant reply that he’d find himself wearing the camera if she did as he asked put a stop to his goading.

“Last part.” Val rolled a stress screen the size of a full-length mirror into the center of the room. “Let’s see how those new limbs of yours are doing. Off with the medgown. Get behind the screen. Stand up straight. Move only when I tell you to.”

Jani stripped off the tissue-like gown and stepped behind the dull, milky screen. It brightened to translucent glass and emitted a barely perceptible hum.

She looked down at her left arm, then her left leg. No longer numb limbs driven by half-formed nervenets, but fully functional animandroid, the best Neoclona could produce. Replaced almost six months ago, during her first ever visit to Earth.

“Jani, atten-hut!”

She snapped to attention, chin up, shoulders back. The screen mirrored her image; she avoided looking at her face. Her light brown skin held up well under the room’s chemillumination. Her legs didn’t look too bad.

But, as always, her eyes drew her in. They looked like two black holes staring back from the screen surface. She didn’t like using that filming. It was the same brand holoVee actors used, formulated to show up well in the imaging, and less likely to fissure than commercial brands. But it was too dark for real life. People were starting to comment.

Bet they’d shut up if I let them see what was underneath.

“At ease, Captain. Your whole thorax has gone red. Relax.”

Jani took a deep breath and thought about white, puffy clouds. “Can I talk?”

“Yeah. Just don’t gesture.”

“How do I look?”

“All greens and blues–a veritable study in symmetry and stress distribution. The new limbs are fine, of course, but the old musculature has held up very well. We really did an exceptional job on you. I don’t believe we’ve ever topped it.”

“Well, you boys always worked best under pressure.” Jani’s hands clenched, and she thought about clouds again. “Trying to patch me together while holding off the Admiral-General’s office and the Consulate–can’t imagine much more pressure than that.”

“Turn ninety degrees to your right, please.” At first, it seemed Val would ignore further mention of their shared past. Then he cleared his throat. “The difficult part was justifying the supplies we ordered. Most of the Consulate staff had been evac’d out of Rauta Shèràa by then, and the ones that remained weren’t sustaining the types of injuries to justify the materials we shipped in. It reached the point I became a daily visitor to the Service Intelligence annex.” He chuckled warmly. “Guess that’s where I developed my legendary powers of persuasion. Turn your back to me, please.”

Jani turned. “The Vynshà had taken the perimeter settlements by then. All they’d left to do was declare themselves ‘rau’ and send their Haárin advance troops into Rauta Shèràa to prepare the way. The Family members who’d supported the Laum were scrambling to realign themselves. Some pretty formidable names feared for their lives. You’d think Intelligence would have had their hands full getting them out of Rauta Shèràa alive.”

Val sighed. “Yes, the Vynshà were exhibiting remarkably human vindictiveness, weren’t they? I think Intelligence was concerned John, Eamon, and I were on the same short list. We were bad boys, remember? Turn ninety degrees, please.”

Jani rotated slowly. The rough sensapad on which she stood made the soles of her feet itch. “Did you really think they’d have killed you?” She tried to shift her footing, but stopped when she heard Val grumble. “Nema considered the three of you esteemed enemies. A chief propitiator’s regard should have been enough to save you.”

Val huffed. “We had traveled pretty far into the land of forbidden knowledge by then. Besides, Nema was on his Temple’s fecal roster. His regard and a vend token wouldn’t have bought us a cup of coffee.” A series of clicks sounded as he downloaded the screen data into the recorder. “All done. You can come out now.”

Jani eased from behind the screen and reached to the floor for the crumpled remains of her medgown. The chill of the tile helped ease the burning on the bottoms of her feet, but before she could examine the damage, Val called to her.

“Ok,” he said as he wheeled the screen against the wall. “Let’s have a look at those sweet baby jades of yours. Strip off those eyefilms.”

“My eyefilms?” Jani backed against the sinkstand. Her ankles prickled. She stifled a cough.

“What’s the matter with you?” Val took a step closer. “What’s wrong?”

Jani coughed again as her lungs filled with scancrete. “Can’t breathe. My feet–” She slumped against the sinkstand. Black patches grew and faded before her eyes.

Val rushed to her. He knelt down, grasped her ankle, and snatched a glance at the bottom of her foot. Then he looked back at the sensapad. “Damn it! Damn it, damn it, damn it!” He hurried to the pad platform, tore the thin polymer film from its metal base, rolled it into a tight tube, and shoved it under his jacket and into the waistband of his trousers. Then he rushed to the door, pushing through the gap before it opened completely. “I need a shockpack!”

He returned dragging an equipment-laden skimcart; white coats streamed in after him like a flood of milk. A man and woman wearing department chiefs’ gold caducei on their collars lifted Jani onto the scanbed while a stone-faced Tellinn clipped a monitor relay to her ear. “Hurry the hell up, Val,” he snapped. “Her oxygen saturation’s dropping like a rock.”

Prodded with probes, raked over by scanners, Jani watched the frantic bustle with growing disinterest. Her world had become one of deadened emotion, blurring color, choppy sound and motion. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Val work over her right arm, then felt the slide of a needle. The heaviness in her chest eased, and she inhaled with a wheezy rattle.

“Blood pressure’s up. A hundred over fifty-five.” The source of the announcement, a silver-haired woman with the words Chief of Staff etched into her ID badge fixed Val with a glare. “What happened, Parini?”

Val’s eyes locked with Jani’s. They know, Jan, they said, as the once-glib mouth worked soundlessly. Sweat trickled down the face he’d copied for her, in a basement lab outside a war-torn alien city, when he and John and Eamon had learned enough about her to realize rebuilding her old one wasn’t an option.

They know you’re here.