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Authors: Kristine Smith

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BOOK: Endgame
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Avelos and Wallach stared across the table at one another, while Markos folded his arms and nodded. “The Service supports secession.”

Niall glanced downtable at Scriabin, who nodded almost imperceptibly. “The Outer Circle would remain allied with the Commonwealth—that would be one of the conditions of the separation. But the colonial governments would be granted their autonomy. The forces stationed both here and at Amsun Base would be theirs, to command as they would. To man as they would, be it with humans”—he gestured toward Jani—“hybrids…even Haárin.” He spoke slowly, his Victorian twang all but buried in careful intonation. “All indications are that Cèel and his Vynshàrau will face a challenge from the Pathen by year's end. Aden nìRau Wuntoi, the Pathen dominant, is ready—he has Oà and Sìah backing, and would be anyone's first pick to assume the Oligarchy. The Pathen and Sìah Haárin are well settled here in the Circle, and we want them on our side
now
. We want friendlies in place so if Rauta Shèràa implodes and civil war spreads throughout the worldskein, our border colonies don't get chewed up in the process.” He placed the stylus back in its holder, then worked off his nerves by flexing his fingers. “One war at a time. We can't fight to keep the Outer Circle in check and at the same time take on whatever Cèel throws at us. For that reason, we don't want to risk losing the support of either the resident humans or the Haárin. Or any combination thereof.”

Jani made to speak, then paused and pressed her fingertips to the middle of her forehead. She could feel the tightening, and knew it would only get worse. Tracking the Thalassan ball through the diplomatic maze had that effect on her. “You would support the Pathen alliance against the Vynshàrau, knowing Cèel would see this as a threat to his authority, maybe even an act of war.” She waited for Niall to nod. He didn't. He didn't look at her, either, which made the sweat bloom along her back. “You'd commit Service troops to this?”

Scriabin nodded. “Yes.”

“Troops that you and Mako have no right to commit?” Jani recalled Niall's words during one long ago lunch.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Maybe the bigger question was, did the ghosts believe in you? “The Service taking sides in an idomeni civil war. Am I the only one who's seeing history gearing up for an encore performance here?”

“It would be different this time.” Niall's lips barely moved, as though he feared to say the words aloud.

“You, of all people, can sit there and say that to me? We're Exhibits A and B, for crying out—” Jani stopped when she felt the stares from the rest of the table. Took a deep breath. “What happens,” she finally said, “when Cao figures out that you're snaking her?”

“She's preoccupied with the upcoming election.” Niall sat forward, braced his elbows on the table's edge and gestured toward his ally. “Yevgeny's going to clean her out. He's playing Cao even in most polls, and all his numbers are trending up. In between now and then, we just need to keep Cao out of the loop.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Niall, but I take ná Kièrshia's point.” Scriabin ignored his aunt's irritated muttering. “The number of like minds on Cabinet Row is significant, and most are not seen to be supporters of mine. Even if I should lose the election—and despite what the good colonel says, odds that I win are even at best—I feel that there will be sufficient push in place to ram the secession bill through.”

“Many a slip twixt cup and lip,” said Wallach, the resident realist.

“The word's treason.” Jani looked around the table, and saw that even Ulanova had grown thoughtful. “Much as I care for some of you, my concerns are other. If Mako gets rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and disappears into some Cabinet Row cellar with the rest of his buddies, what happens to Thalassa? If it becomes known that I aided and abetted a treasonous cause, and with John Shroud stripped of all influence and ability to pull strings due to his expulsion from Neoclona, what happens?” She took note of the lack of surprise at that particular bit of news.
Great Ganesh—did everyone know it was coming but us?
“You'll all be arrested.” She clenched a fist and tapped the table. “Meanwhile, Fort Karistos will be restocked with hardcore Earthbound. Thalassans would be split into Haárin or humanish regardless of their level of hybridization—the Haárin would be shipped back to their former enclaves, and the humanish would be jailed. Without medical care, some of them would die. The ones who didn't could be exiled or executed, rejected by their families, or simply stoned in the street like lepers. Thalassa isn't just the only home they have. For some, it's the only home they
can
have.”

Scriabin studied Jani for a long moment, then glanced sidelong at Tsecha. “What does Thalassa want?”

“I think the more important question is, why should we care?” Ulanova didn't look at Jani but instead concentrated on her hands, running a fingertip over the edge of one scarlet talon. “What can they offer that makes sustaining them worth the effort?” The single word reply,
Nothing
, hung unspoken in the air.

Jani stared down at her single page of notes. Despite the hours spent on the library balcony, she'd sketched out only a few words, arranged in a list, written in a mongrel Acadian French-Vynshàrau scrawl that no one could read but she. Then she glanced at Tsecha, who studied her in turn with narrowed eyes.
So, nìa?
his look said. Academy examination,
but on a different scale, the results the altering of lives rather than student assessments.
Teacher and student, in the class that never ends.
She bit back a nervous laugh, and began.

“Thalassa's bargaining power is that it's the chosen home of a male who is acknowledged to possess one of the foremost medical minds in a generation.” Jani traced the first word on the list.
John.
“With some initial support, and a base from which to operate, he can continue to provide the area with a level of economic stability that it otherwise wouldn't possess.”

Ulanova raised a hand. “Eamon DeVries—”

“Will wreck Neoclona inside of a year.” Jani dug a thumbnail across a word farther down the list, grooving the parchment.
Jackass.
“No one can deny that he's a good device man, but when it comes to the complex dynamics of running a Commonwealth-spanning entity like Neoclona…” She took note of the stricken expression on Scriabin's face, and knew she'd struck the right chord.
Or nerve.
“John Shroud, working on the colonial side. Val Parini, on the Commonwealth. A measure of stability during what may turn out to be a tumultuous time.”
Friend.
The last word on the list.

“Our Neoclona facility serves the entire colony and provides about one-quarter of the jobs in Unter den Linden and the surrounding area.” Wallach sketched something that resembled a tombstone. “I don't want to see that end.”

“Neither do I.” Avelos shook her head. “I think we can speak for our colleague on Whalen and the heads of the satellites and stations. We need Neoclona as it is today, a strong,
stable
medical care provider and employer.”

“This is good.” Tsecha bared his teeth. “The Outer Circle Haárin value the opportunity they find here, and wish that John Shroud may continue to thrive so that all remains as it is. We will support your cleaving of the Outer Circle colonies from your Commonwealth.”

And we will keep our businesses with you, and continue to run your most profitable ports, and promote the stability of your colonial governments.
Jani read between those lines as though they'd been scrawled on the wall in letters a meter
high. So did Markos and his colleagues, judging from their soft sighs of relief.

“No one I've spoken with thinks breaking up Neoclona's a good idea. I think a reversal of that particular decision should be easy enough to shove through.” Scriabin's shoulders sagged, the first and only sign that he'd felt any tension at all. “Well. It appears we're all in agreement.” He looked to Tsecha, who nodded. As one, they pushed back from the table and fell into light conversation while those who used recording boards fingered pads and tapped displays, erasing the contents and purging memories.

What you say here, what you see here, let it stay here when you leave here.
Words to keep living by. Jani folded her own notes and tucked them back in her pocket, then looked at Niall to find him grinning at her.

“That was too goddamned easy, wasn't it?” He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Sad day, when you can't trust common sense.”

“It was too easy, but we're all like minds here. The fight comes when Scriabin takes this to Chicago.” Jani stood, stretched. Her stomach rumbled, this time from hunger.

“—sabotage.” Markos's voice carried from the other end of the table. “Cèel scares me. He's spent the last decade building a network of spies throughout the Commonwealth. He'll find out about this and—”

“Stash.” Scriabin closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them slowly, like a beast roused from slumber. “Cèel's attempts at spy networks have gone and will continue to go the way of all the other humanish practices he has sought to adopt. Subtlety is not his strong suit. I remember when…” He circled the table and draped a thick arm around the man's shoulders and steered him to the door.

Jani followed the others outside, sneezing as the sun hit her in the face. “I'm numb.”

“Nìa?” Tsecha drew alongside her, arching his brow in a humanish display of puzzlement. “You have that which you wish.”

“For now.” Niall set his lid, then patted his trouser pocket as the nicotine yearning surfaced. “Keeping it won't be easy.”

“It will be a busy time.” Tsecha looked out over the bay and bared his teeth. Then he clapped his hands and started after Scriabin. “Minister, I must ask you—”

“Lunch?” Niall glanced at his timepiece. “Make that breakfast.”

“Let's go.” Jani patted her stomach, then started up the road toward the Main House.

 

Rilas's heart beat harder as Tsecha moved into her vision field. She willed her breathing to slow, and sighted down until the cross hairs of her sight mech centered on the shorn head and downloaded the target position from the satellite.

Edged the stock away from her chest so the beat of her heart would not jostle the rifle.

Held her breath.

Pressed the charge-through.

“Are you going to tell John right away?” Niall glanced back at Tsecha and the other officials, then unfastened the top clasp of his tunic and dug into his trouser pocket for his 'sticks. “I can't imagine you'd want to keep him hanging.”

“I'm torn between blurting everything and holding back. I don't want to get his hopes up.” The morning breeze off the water still held a chill, and Jani hugged herself.

“He's a big boy, Jan. He knows how the game is played.” Niall puffed out a smoke ring. “Better to give him all the ammo so he can figure it out him—”

“Ná Kièrshia!”

Jani turned to find Avelos running up the incline toward them, dress boots skidding on the gravel.

“Ní Tsecha—” The woman stopped, chest heaving as she pulled in air. “He's ill.”

Jani rushed past her and down the incline. Saw Scriabin, Markos, and the others standing clustered near the front of one skimmer.

Scriabin broke away and trotted out to meet her. “He leaned against the skimmer. Said he felt dizzy. We helped him to the ground. He said he wanted to sit.”

“Nìa!” Tsecha leaned to the side to peer at her through a jungle of legs. “I am better now. Help me rise.”

Jani turned to Niall, who stood at her shoulder and had already pulled out his handcom. “Call John.” Then she pushed past the others and knelt beside Tsecha. “
Inshah
, you should sit here until John comes.”

“I can stand.” Tsecha gripped her shoulder with a hand like cage wire. “I am well—I am—well.” He pushed himself into a crouch, then slowly straightened.

Jani moved close so she could support him, then struggled to maintain her balance as he sagged against her. “He's too weak to walk—we need one of the skimmers.”

Niall moved to Tsecha's other side and took his arm. “I'll drive, but someone needs to help us get him inside.”

“I can—not—” Tsecha pressed a hand to his left ear. “Something—” He worked his jaw, then shook his head once more. “—in—my—ear—” He paused, the look in his eyes altering from puzzlement to alarm. “Nìa?” He tried to take a step forward. “I do not—” His knees buckled and he became dead weight, dragging Jani and Niall to their knees with him.

“I see John.” Ulanova's voice emerged tight. “Both him and Val.”

Jani counted the seconds as John and Val raced down the road toward them in one of the clinic's skimcarts. Another cart followed close behind, carrying a tech and more doctors.

John leapt off the cart while it still moved. “What happened?” He knelt in front of Tsecha, scanner in hand, and pressed the probe against the idomeni's forehead as he checked his eyes. “Ní Tsecha? What happened?”

Jani tried to shift her weight as gravel pierced her knees like nails. “He felt dizzy. We tried to get him into the skimmer, and he collapsed.”

“I—cannot—” Tsecha's voice emerged hushed, hoarse, as though his throat had been coated with dust. “The sky spins—”

Val unfastened a gurney from the back of the cart and lowered it to the ground beside Tsecha. “Ní Tsecha, you're
going to feel movement under your legs—we're sliding the gurney underneath.” He touched a pad on the side of the floating platform and it vibrated, then thinned. He took hold of one end while the tech took the other, and together they worked it under Tsecha's knees. “Now John's going to help you lie back.”

“Relax, ní Tsecha.” John placed an arm around Tsecha's shoulders and with Jani and Niall's help eased him onto his back. He detached a larger scanner from the side of the gurney and activated it—the relay to the Main House clinic opened immediately, the green illumin fluttering. “Eccles—stand by for signal.”

While John talked to the clinic, Val loosened Tsecha's clothing, then plucked scanner probes from a bag he'd pulled off the skimcart and attached them to the idomeni's chest and scalp. “Eccles, are you receiving?”

“Yes, sir,” came the tinny response. Illumins flickered over the surface of the scanner as data was relayed and retrieved. “Visualizing a small hole in the left tympanum—”

“I see some bloody discharge.” John inserted a probe into Tsecha's left ear, then checked the scanner display. “Does your ear hurt, ní Tsecha?”

“It feels as though something—” Tsecha tried to touch his ear, but John blocked him, taking his hand and gently lowering it to his side.

“Do you hear ringing, ní Tsecha?”

Tsecha grew agitated and tried to pull his hand from John's grasp.
“I cannot hear.”

“Pronounced deafness in left ear.” John tried to speak into the scanner while keeping Tsecha still. “Possible inner ear involvement.”

“Perforation due to ear infection?” A few beats of silence. Then Eccles's voice, more hesitant this time. “There's no sign of inflammation or fluid buildup.”

“There could have been trauma.” John lowered until he spoke into Tsecha's right ear. “Ní Tsecha?”

Tsecha licked his lips before replying. “Yes, John?”

“Apologies for imposing upon your privacy, but did you lave your ears this morning? Did your physician-priest administer any treatment?”

Tsecha tried to shake his head, then winced and gripped the edge of the gurney. “No.”

“Could be a tumor,” Eccles offered.

“Then why aren't you seeing it?” John rose, his facade of professional detachment showing cracks. “Ní Tsecha, we're going to take you to the clinic for further evaluation and treatment.”

“Where is—nìa?”

“I'm here.” Jani crouched beside the gurney and took Tsecha's hand. “Not going anywhere.”

“The clinic.” Tsecha blinked as though dazed. “I do so enjoy visiting…” He sighed, then finally stilled and closed his eyes.

Jani kept hold of Tsecha's hand as Val and Niall maneuvered the skimcart alongside the gurney, then hoisted the gurney onto the back of the cart and locked it in place. Then she crawled atop the platform beside him.

“Nìa.” Tsecha tried to touch his ear again, then let his hand fall. “I want to talk to John.”

John wedged himself atop the platform next to Jani, then waited for Val to pile into the driver's seat and the cart to accelerate before touching Tsecha's arm. “I'm here, ní Tsecha.”

“John?” Tsecha reached out to him. “Come where I can hear you.”

John moved so he crouched closer to Tsecha's right side. “We're almost at the clinic.”

“You will treat me as you did my nìa?” Tsecha tugged on John's sleeve.

Jani tried to read something in John's eyes, his expression. But his self-control had returned en force—she might as well have tried to read a wall.

“I will, ní Tsecha.” He nodded, his voice a dark blank.

“You will not allow the worldskein control of me?”

John shot a look at Aris, the idomeni hybrid who served as
the xenomedical specialist and currently rode shotgun while monitoring the scanner outputs. “Except for the damage to his ear, all readings are within normal variation and stable,” the male replied, answering his unspoken question.

“John Shroud
.” Tsecha's voice held a divine rage. “Promise me—you will not allow—”

“I won't allow them near you.” John squeezed his hand. “But ná Via, your physician-priest—”

“Not her! Not any of them!” Tsecha struggled to sit up, but the restraints that held him onto the gurney stopped him. “John—you must—” He fell back against the gurney pad, his labored breathing drawing worried looks and hurried scanner evaluations from Aris.

John took a dispo cloth from a dispenser on the gurney footguard and wiped it over Tsecha's brow. “Everything I did for Jani, all the effort I expended…” His hand slowed. “All the care—”

“All the
protection
.” Tsecha kept moving his head to better hear.
“John.”

John looked at Jani, then at Aris. “Are you sure—”

“John!”

“I swear. By all in which I believe.” John shifted so he could keep an eye on both his patient and the scanner that Aris held. “I will take care of you.”

By the time the skimcarts reached the Main House, Thalassans had already gathered near the entry. Niall worked crowd control, then helped open doors and push planters and furniture out of the carts' path.
“Please keep clear,”
he called to the hybrids who hurried across the foyer to meet them. “Wait on the other side of the courtyard, please.”

“There's something—” Aris studied his hand scanner. “I see a small mass in the left internal auditory canal.”

“A neuroma?” John leaned forward to look at the display. “Why the hell didn't you spot it before?”

“Because it wasn't there before.” Aris stared at his scanner, then muttered something and gestured for Val to stop the cart. “It's growing.”

“How—?” John grabbed Jani's wrist. “You have to let go.”

Jani gripped Tsecha's hand harder, felt him squeeze back. “No.”

Niall took her by her shoulders and eased her off the platform. “Let him do his job, gel.”

“Son of a bitch.” Aris leapt out of the cart and circled to the gurney. “John, it—”

As he closed in, Tsecha's back arched, his body twisting against the restraints. Other doctors joined John and Aris, moving in rapid concert, one-word orders sounding. As they worked over Tsecha, he continued to writhe and shake, his breath coming in gasps, his skin paling to clay.

Then he shivered. Twitched.

Grew still.

“Oh, God.” Aris checked one scanner, then another.

Jani tried to follow as the cart with its motionless cargo was driven to the lift, but once more Niall held her back. She watched the doors open, John and Val unfasten the gurney and carry it inside. The doors closed.

 

Jani sat in the visitors' alcove, repositioning her chair until she had the best possible view of the door to Tsecha's room. The clinic was quiet, seemingly deserted. John had restricted access to medical personnel only, but when Jani snuck down the stairs and through the corridor, she encountered no guards, only a red-eyed nurse who at first seemed about to ask her to leave, then waved her toward the alcove and disappeared into the room.

She flinched when she heard the
click
of the stairwell door, the clip of hard soles on lyno. Relaxed, a little, when she heard the rough Victorian mutter.

“Where the hell…?” Niall stopped in the alcove entry. “There you are, gel. Kid said he saw you come down here.” He dragged a chair beside Jani's and sat, balancing his brimmed lid on his thigh. “You know, the kid who's always writing things down and imaging?”

“Torin.” Jani paused to rub her eyes. “Torin Clase.”

“Torin—that's his name. Nuisance in the making, he is.” Niall drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “I turned Yevgeny and the others over to Brondt. They needed to call their offices, settle down their staffs.” He sniffed. “Head off any press inquiries at the pass.” He glanced toward the door and swallowed hard. “Anything?”

Jani shook her head. “Ná Via, his physician-priest, went in about a half hour ago. No one's come out. I contacted Dathim. He was going to tell Meva and Feyó.”

Niall nodded. “Bloody hell, Jan.” He sat forward, lid still in hand, working his fingers back and forth along the brim. “It's the not knowing that makes it worse.”

“Tell me what you don't know, Niall.” Jani waited for him to respond, and took his silence for the surrender she knew it to be.

They both started at the distant
hiss
of the lift door. Soft footsteps followed, played out in double time.

“Jani? Jani?” The voice, as rapid as the steps.

Jani's head started to pound. “In here, ná Meva.”

The female appeared in the alcove entry. She had dragged on her propitiator's overrobe over a bright purple shirt and orange trousers, and tucked her hair into a messy knot. “Feyó will be brought by Dathim. I am by myself.” She looked toward the door to Tsecha's room, then back to Jani. “You saw?”

“I didn't see him fall ill.” Jani rose and walked past Meva into the corridor. “When Niall and I reached him, he was already on the ground. He said he felt dizzy.” She paced, heart tripping each time she passed close to the room. “His eardrum had perforated. John ordered him brought here for evaluation. Everything seemed under control. Then scanning revealed a tumor. Then he suffered a seizure, or…something.” She stopped, closing her eyes as the images flashed. The arching back. The shuddering. The stillness.

“Haárin have gathered in the meeting house, and in the temples. They wait.” Meva adjusted her overrobe sleeves, her shoulders slowly rounding. “You are not dressed as is seemly.”

Jani looked down at her blue shirt-jacket and trousers, now rumpled and dusty. “I haven't had time—”

“He is your dominant.” Meva stepped in front of Jani. “You are to be a priest, and I have never seen you wear your overrobe.” She had never displayed the idomeni reluctance to look others in the eye, and her auric glare drilled even more deeply than Tsecha's.
“You do not know your gods, and you do not know your clothes.”

Jani clenched her hands, felt her heartbeat strengthen, then slow. “I am not leaving.”

“You must wear that which—”

“I am not leaving to change clothes. Not now.”

Niall wedged between them, nudging Jani back. “Tell me where it is, gel.”

“Right side of the closet.” Jani turned away, listened to Niall's footsteps recede, the door to the lift whisper open, then closed.

“You must prepare.” Meva's voice at her shoulder. “For whatever is to be.”

Shut up.
Jani stuffed her fists in her pockets. Sometimes the anger built, a rank combination of the remnants of her augmentation and typical idomeni temper, but taking a swing at Meva would just make a horrible situation worse. “We still haven't heard from John. We still don't know—” She heard the lift door open again, and turned to find Dathim striding toward them, followed closely by ná Feyó Tal.

BOOK: Endgame
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