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Authors: Kristine Smith

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BOOK: Endgame
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“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 al
ways 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 complimented 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 backup 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 cloud 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 ask John to check your vitals.”

Jani looked toward the settlement, the newest homes that stood on what a month ago had been open 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 Haárin docks on Amsun.”

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 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 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 home-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 that he had pulled his shooter, his knuckles blanched against tanned skin.

“Jesus.
Maybe you could tell your crew to lower the pitch a little.” He 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 com-link 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.

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

By the time Jani reached the landing field, the rest of the enclave had already gathered along the runway. She scanned the crowd and spotted a cluster of medcoat-clad Thalassans crowded around a tall, slim figure, like children around a parent.

John Shroud surveyed the scene like a landowner regarding his domain. He smiled when he spotted Jani, and freed himself from the confines of his laboratory tribe. As always, he wore formal clothes beneath his medcoat, a daysuit in palest grey undertoned with blue. His wheat-blond hair had been freshly clipped into a Caesar fringe, which framed and accentuated his monkish visage.

Hello, Doctor.
Jani held out her hand, felt her disquiet ease as John's long, strong fingers encircled her own.

“I just spoke with Niall. He's trying to find out who it is.” John put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Governor Wallach's shuttle just touched down at Karistos, so that's off the list. No one's requested permission to make an emergency landing.” He looked toward the runway and shrugged. “It's a mystery.” He rested his chin atop her head. “Niall seemed a little shaken.”

“It was the new approach alarm. It took us both by sur
prise.” Jani backed away so she could look John in the face. “Maybe they could ramp it down just a little bit.”

“You're the boss. Tell them. It will be done.” John shrugged lightly, a problem easily solved. Then he looked at her, and his gaze altered from affection to professional assessment. “Are you all right?” He moved back so he could see her face more easily. “Niall's not the only one who looks like he's seen a ghost.”

“I'm fine.” Jani pressed her face against his medcoat, in part so she could take in his scent, but mostly to keep him from questioning her anymore. “There's too much going on is all.”

“That's news.” John gave her shoulders a squeeze. “I wish Niall would get a move on. Some of us have work to do.”

“I see it!”
someone shouted. “They're coming in over the bay!”

Conversation ceased. Everyone turned toward the water just as a black dot broke through the clouds. It grew rapidly, wings becoming visible, sunlight flashing off the metalloceramic skin.

Jani raised her head and squinted at the approaching shuttle. The underside looked dark, as though the craft had made a bad landing and scraped the hell out of the thermal coating. Then the mess of lines and shading resolved into an all too familiar pattern, two snakes twining around a winged staff. Her stomach tightened. “John? Is that what I think it is?”

“It's a caduceus.” John's voice emerged a puzzled rumble. “What the…?”

“It's a Neoclona shuttle, Doctor.” Niall shouldered through the crowd to join them. “Expecting any visitors?”

“No.”
John released Jani and moved closer to the runway's edge as the shuttle passed overhead, then banked for the last time and settled into its final approach, wings flexing and reshaping to compensate for the crosswinds. Then it touched down, dust billowing behind it like a windblown veil, its engines cut back to near silence.

Jani moved in beside John. Took his hand in hers, and felt the barest hint of sweat on his palm.

The shuttle slowed until it drew even with them. As soon as it stopped, the door to the passenger cabin swept upward while the exit stairway emerged and unfolded to the ground.

Valentin Parini stepped up to the threshold before the stairway extended completely. He wore a daysuit in somber greyed green, the severe lines disturbed by the briefbag that hung from one shoulder.

John shook loose Jani's hand, then straightened the already flawless lines of his medcoat.

“I thought he was never supposed to embark on a long haul unless he told you?” Jani watched Val as he let his foot dangle over the first step, waiting for the stairway to stabilize.

“He's not.” John's voice sounded like the rumble from the depths of a cave. “It was an agreement he, Eamon, and I made at the beginning, that we would each know where the others were at all times.”

“Eamon broke that rule.” Jani waited for an answer, and looked over at John to find him watching Val with narrowed eyes.

“Val and I never did.” He fell silent, his face a professional mask.

Val collected himself as he started down the stair, disdaining the handholds that ran along both sides. As soon as he hit the ground, he hit his stride, a saunter that had over the years made fists itch and teeth grind from one end of the Commonwealth to the other.

John waited until Val had crossed the invisible halfway point before walking out to meet him. His step was weightier, but just as fluid, with the deceptive quickness of molten metal flow.

Then came the hitch in Val's step, the slowdown as he drew nearer to John. When no more than a couple of meters separated them, he stopped, the shock that filled his eyes at war with the unperturbed attitude he struggled to convey. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, glancing at Jani without seeing her before returning to John.

It's the first time he's seen John in person since he hybridized.
Jani looked at her lover and tried to see him as his best friend did, comparing the albino presence that Val had known so well with the pale blond, gold-skinned figure that stood before him now.
And let's not forget the eyes.
The same silvered blue as John's daysuit, as glittery as jewels when he smiled.

Val fought to appear detached, but his face kept betraying him, dismay and shock and affection jockeying for the lead, with professional curiosity bringing up the rear. His jaw slackened as his eyes widened, the only sound emerging from his mouth a strangled, “I—”

John smiled, stopping just short of a full-blown idomeni teeth-baring. “It really is me, Val.”

“Your voice hasn't changed. It still”—Val gestured at waist height—“sounds like it's coming up through the ground.” His pronounced widow's peak and arched brows giving his high-boned face a catlike cast. “The Mistys you sent didn't do the transformation justice. My God.” He held out his hand. John took it, and they shook. Then the grins broke through and John pulled Val close.

“Any idea what he's doing here?” Niall muttered.

“None.” Jani watched man and male hug, Val thumping John's shoulder while John mumbled something that made them both laugh. “I'd like to believe that it's purely a social call, but somehow I doubt it.”

Val broke away, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. Then he turned to Jani. “You, my pensive beauty. My one and only girl.” He moved in and embraced her, wrapping her in an odd combination of herbal cologne and the ozone sharpness of freshly cleaned cloth. After a moment, he released her and stepped back, lips twitching as though he wanted to say something else but couldn't find the words. His eyes were bloodshot, their deep hazel dulled by spent nerve. He raked a hand through his ash-brown hair, disturbing its structured style and looking even more as though he'd just awakened from restless sleep.

Jani struggled with her own conflicting emotions, relishing the sight of her old friend while at the same time wondering why he'd come. “You look tired.”

Val shrugged. “Long hauls always wear me down. If the cabin fever doesn't get you, the monotony will.” He started to say more, then stopped and hung his head. “There's something else—something I—oh,
hell
.” He turned back to the shuttle, one hand pressed to his forehead as though a headache had come to call.

Jani followed his pained gaze, and saw that the passenger cabin door still gaped open, as though someone else still needed to disembark. Then the name formed in her mind just as the all-too-familiar figure stepped into the doorway, white-blond Service burr shining in the sun.

“What in bloody hell…?” Niall's hand went to his sidearm.

Captain Lucien Pascal paused at the top of the stair, looking first toward the bay and the cliffs beyond, then scanning the crowd. He wore desertweights, the sand-toned short-sleeve shirt highlighting his pale hair and tanned skin. As soon as he spotted Jani, he pulled his garrison cap out of his waistband and set it atop his head, then started down the stairs at an easy lope.

“Val?” John's voice was tight, his relaxed air vanished.

“I can explain.” Val licked his lips. “It's a
long
story, though.”

“I have all the time you need.” John drew closer when he realized they stood surrounded by perked ears and curious glances. “
Dammit
. Of all the people you could have carted here—”

“Pascal.” Niall stepped in front of Jani just as Lucien drew near, blocking him as well as any wall.

“Colonel Pierce,
sir
.” Lucien came to attention and snapped a salute, then removed a documents slipcase from his trouser pocket and held it out to Niall. “Captain Lucien Pascal reporting for duty as ordered.”

“What?”
Niall took the sipcase, ripping open the seals
and yanking out the contents, while off to one side John and Val argued in low tones.

Lucien, meanwhile, offered nods and the occasional smile to the Thalassans who had crowded closer. He looked as always like a Service recruitment poster, desertweights fresh, shoes polished to mirror brightness. His orange rank tabs, ribbons, and designators had been perfectly aligned, and his garrison cap set at the optimum angle to imply just enough jaunt with a minimum of cocky. Add to that a frame graced with just the right amount of muscle to flesh out his ranginess, the face of a fallen angel, and chocolate brown eyes that reflected soulless depths, and what you had was the stuff of dreams.

Or in my case, the odd nightmare.
Jani surveyed the Thalassans who crowded around them, and to her surprise noted that it was Lucien's forearms and not his looks that attracted the bulk of the attention. Crosshatched by raised scars that had healed white, they served as souvenirs of, judging from the mutterings, one of the more famous battles ever fought by a member of the Commonwealth Service.

“He fought one of Cèel's security dominants within the challenge circle—”

“He killed him.”

“He had no choice—”

As usual, Lucien seemed oblivious to the upset he'd caused. He leaned as close to Jani as he dared while Niall continued to pore over his orders. “
Speaking of taking my breath away,”
he whispered in French.

“And he shall spread discord wherever he goes,” Jani replied in English. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Now, is that any way to—”

“Pascal.”

Lucien shot Jani a pointed look before drawing up straight and turning to Niall. “Sir.”

“I haven't had a chance to check my inbox for my copy of these orders.” Niall flicked a corner of the documents sheaf with his fingernail. “Signed by Supreme Command, as I'd
have expected.” He chose his words with care, loath to even hint at the fact that his revered commander might have inflicted Pascal on him without so much as a “Do you mind?”

“Yessir. Arrangements were made in haste.” Lucien's voice came light, imbued with innocence and a sincere desire to help. “Due to the scheduling, I needed to impose upon Doctor Parini and invoke billet privileges in order to arrive in good time.” He turned to John. “Please let me know, Doctor Shroud, if Neoclona wishes to pursue remunerations.”

“I intend to.” John shot another glare at Val, who swallowed hard and fixed on his shoes.

Jani glanced at Niall, who looked ready to smoke the entire contents of his nicstick case at one go.

“We should get inside.” Niall folded Lucien's orders and stuffed them back in the slipcase, then turned to Jani. “I would like to use your comroom, if I could.”

“Going to shoot Mako a missive?” Jani turned and followed John, who must have decided that they had provided the rest of the enclave with enough gossip fodder for one day and started the uphill trudge to the Main House.

“You could say that,” Niall spoke in a rough whisper, mindful that Lucien had fallen in just a few paces behind. “Assigning that sonofa—to
my
staff.” His face flared. “What the
fuck
is he thinking?”

“Are you sure the orders aren't forged?”

“Could you check?” Niall's face lightened for an instant, then the storm clouds gathered anew. “Don't bother. That professional piece of ass knows damn well that if he took Roshi's name in vain, he'd take up permanent residence in the brig within a week. Even he's not that reckless.” He smacked the slipcase against his thigh. “God
damn
it.”

“Why?” Jani tried to catch Val's eye, but he avoided hers, feigning interest in every stone and shrub he passed. She stared at the top of his head, willing him to look at her, but he remained fixated on the rocks and scrub as though they were the most fascinating things he'd ever seen.

“Tell me and we'll both bloody know.” Niall jerked a thumb back over his shoulder at Lucien. “Go collect your gear, Captain. And hang onto it. You may need to move at a moment's notice.” He exhaled with a growl. “Right back to Earth, if I have anything to say about it.”

Jani glanced back at Lucien, who gave her a smile that might have counted as ingenuous as long as she didn't look at his eyes. They shone, alight with the simple joy he always derived from making a difficult situation even worse. He pursed his lips and mimed a kiss, then turned and trotted back to the shuttle. “I don't like this.”

“You
don't like it?” Niall glared at the slipcase as though it held his death warrant. “It's Roshi's signature—I'd know that anywhere. His personal parchment.” He folded the case in half and shoved it in his trouser pocket. “Bloody fucking hell.”

They continued the hike to the House. The wind picked up, blowing sand with abrasive force, as though hurrying them on their way.

BOOK: Endgame
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