Authors: Kristine Smith
“I'm telling you now.”
John stopped in front of her. “I should have told you sooner. That was my mistake, and I will pay for it, assuming I haven't already.” He bent closer, mindful of their audience. “Some things are not your job. Some things, you leave to those who know what the hell they're doing. Do you really believe you said anything that Sikara and Cossa didn't already know? They were going to wait until they spoke with Markos and prepared him for the onslaught, until they had everything in place. The concept of Thalassan autonomy is a smoke screen. The idea that someone who decides to hybridize risks losing their livelihood, their life's workâ¦” His eyes clouded. “That's the more important point.” He bit a thumbnail. That was a new tic, one that the angle of his hand revealed had already claimed the index and middle fingers. “Quino's sharp, but as Sikara said, he makes mistakes. This dramatic raid of his was a mistake. You've given him a chance to recover.”
Jani sat back, fighting the invisible weight that pressed down on her shoulders. “They won't have time. This isn't Chicagoâthey're out of their element here.”
“They have what they need. A few Service officers. A few colonial officials. If Stash Markos isn't placed under house arrest by sunset, we'll be very lucky.” John laughed, a humorless bark. “Of course, they won't call it that. They'll invent a reason to place him in protective custody. A newly discovered assassination plot, or something.”
More Thalassans appeared, and the setup for the afternoon meal that Jani always thought of as “fourses” began in earnest. Her stomach growled as aromas of baking bread and various tangy sauces reached her. The animal, demanding
her feeding, even as the higher being's gut twisted and she wished she could crawl in a cave and hide. “But if they took your recordsâ”
“That's the documents examiner in you, fixed on paper.” John's voice defrosted, a little. “I do keep copies. And the most important thingsâ¦let's just say they're safe, and leave it at that.” He quieted. Then he circled around the sofa and strode to the lift. “I'll be downstairs, working. While I still have work to do, and time in which to do it.” He nodded curtly to the few Thalassans who offered greetings. Waited by the lift for a few moments, then struck the wall with the flat of his hand and headed for the stairs.
Jani lay back her head and closed her eyes. The hum of courtyard conversation, the clatter of plates and the beeps of cookers, formed a pleasant background noise. Enough to clear her racing mind and quiet her rumbling stomach, purge Meva's laugh and Tsecha's dismissal and John's doubt. But not lulling enough to bring sleep. That escape route had closed to her, provided no respite at all. Instead, she just breathed slowly, in and out, and tried not to think of what tomorrow's meeting might bring.
“Where did you get this ham?”
Jani opened one eye to find Val standing in front of her, holding a filled plate.
“It can't be Virginia, can it? I didn't think Earth would trade with you.” He sat on the edge of the low table and plucked strips of baked ham from a pile that included sliced hybrid mango and bean salad.
“It's Hortensian, I think.” Jani forced open the other eye and sat up. “Glad you like it.” She watched Val shovel in food with the focused abandon of a starving teenager. “Should you be here, considering?”
Val stopped his fork halfway to his mouth, then lowered it. “I begged your excellent Mister Brondt to let me layover. He found me a room, and I showered. Took a nap. Pretended I was at a resort, far away from everything, waiting for the love of my life to show up.” He tried another bite of ham,
then set his plate on the table. “I have a reservation at some place in Karistos, but as soon as I'd show up, Quino would lock me down. I'd be a prisoner. Who needs that shit? I hid as soon as I saw the skimmers in the driveway.” He sighed. “I wanted to see John. I wanted to at least try to make itâ¦not seem soâ¦”
“Horrible?” Jani leaned forward, hands clenched between her knees to keep from reaching out for Val's neck. “Rotten? Insert your adjective of choice here. If you run out of English, there's Elyan Greek, my Acadian Frenchâ”
Val pressed his hands to his temples, then locked his fingers behind his neck. “How is he?”
“How do you think?” Jani forced a smile at two Thalassans who wandered past. “He went downstairs to work.”
“That's John for you. It was the same at Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a. âJohn, that last bomb hit right next door!' âIt missed us? Great! Time enough for one more assay.'” Val laughed, a sound softened by memory. “Sikara and Cossa.” His brow arched. “John picked the right man. Rudo hates Quino's guts.” His eyes closed halfway as he accessed long-buried gossip. “Fight over a girl, back in the Pleistocene. Don't know who won. Can't have been over Quino's wife. He wouldn't cross the street for her.” He sniffed, then grinned, one marriage dissected and all was right with the world. “So what happened? With Quino and that?”
“It wentâ” Jani stopped, then studied Val's handsome face. Close enough to reach out and touch, yet so far, far away. “They came for some documents. Both sides worked it out.”
“But didn't Rudoâ?” Val's brow furrowed. Then his face reddened. “Oh.” He looked toward the courtyard, where fourses had hit its stride, a hundred different conversations bouncing off every hard surface. “I guessâ” He coughed. “Yeah.” He braced his hands on the table's edge, then pushed to his feet and grabbed his plate. “I have to go.” He didn't look back as he maneuvered around the planters and the maze of tables and vanished into the shadows.
Well, I finally kept my mouth shut.
“And that didn't help, either.” Jani girded herself, then rose and walked into the midst of the mealtime melee. Filled a plate and found a seat away from everyone, the transient on the run, with no time to talk.
Then she went to the library. Dragged a favorite chair out onto the balcony. Found a recording board and a stylus and made notes for the next day's meeting.
Jani wandered upstairs eventually, after the Main House had gone dark but for the graveyard crew. A determinedly nonchalant question to the night nurse awarded her the news that John had retired an hour earlier. Now she stood before the door to their suite, hand on the control, and pondered.
He should be asleep by now.
Years of hospital training had left him a light sleeper, but if she undressed in the sitting room and slept on the couchâ¦
The door whispered open and she crept inside. Stepped inside the bedroom just long enough to pull a T-shirt out of her armoire, and stilled when she heard the rustle of bed-clothes, the voice.
“Where've you been?”
Jani activated a table lamp, since there was no longer any reason to risk her shins in collision with the furniture. “Library.”
“I should've guessed.” John worked into a sitting position and activated the bedside light. “I ran into Val in the clinic. He was wandering around, trying to make himself useful. He sounded quite hurt. Said you'd given him the boot.”
“He asked what had happened with Quino. I didn't tell him.” Jani boosted atop the low dresser. Under normal cir
cumstances, she would have sat at the foot of the bed, then edged closer toward the inevitable, but normal was a day ago. A lifetime ago. “I was practicing keeping my mouth shut.”
John hung his head. “I'm sorry for that.”
Jani smoothed the T-shirt over her knees, stretching out creases. “I can't do anything. I can't make it stop. Every time I open my mouth, I say the wrong thing. Every time I don't open my mouthâ¦same difference.” She folded the shirt in half lengthwise, then rolled it from the bottom up into a tight tube. When she finished, she stared at it. In another life she'd have tossed it in her duffel and continued packing, but she wasn't going anywhere. Now when things got tough, she had to stay put. “Every time I do something, it's exactly the thing you don't want done.”
John's head snapped up.
“I don't need you to do anything.”
He flinched as his own volume battered him, then sagged against the headboard. “I just need you to be there. It means a great deal. To be able to look across a table, across a room, and see you.” His face lightened in grim wonder. “I can't recall ever feeling so alone. Even in Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a, after you left the first time. The way I felt then was nothing like the way I felt this afternoon. It hit me like a broadside that I was going to lose it. All of it. That Val would do what he could, but in the end he'd save the companyâ¦even if that meant shunting me aside.” His eyes widened, flashing silver in the half-light.
“He wouldn't haveâ¦” Jani hesitated. Then she shook out the T-shirt and started rolling it anew.
“Even you doubt him.” John looked around the room as though searching for something. Then he fixed on her, waiting until her gaze met his. “This year has been the best of my life. I worked. I changed. I learned so much.” A bare hint of a smile. “And you were always there, somewhere. Not side by side with me every moment, but still. Always together, working toward the same goal. It was the way Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a should have been. The way my entire life should haveâ”
His voice cracked, and he smoothed his hands over the sheet again and again.
“You think I'll leave you if you lose Neoclona?” Jani looked around the bedroom and sawâ¦a room. It possessed a beautiful view and held all she had never wanted or needed, and yetâ¦
You leave rooms. You close doors, and never open them again.
They were places you passed through, not places you remained. “I once lived out of a Guernsey Station storage closet for two months. I'm adaptable.”
“I'm not. Not anymore.” John pushed a hand through his hair, the wheaten strands capturing all available illumination and holding it like a miser. “I won't be the same, after they take it away.”
Jani set the shirt aside and slid off the dresser. “You'll be what you've always been.” She approached the bed slowly, ready to veer toward a nearby chair at the first hint of rejection. “You were a controlling, arrogant, brilliant, driven pain in the ass in Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a. Before you'd built your empire. Before anyone had heard of Neoclona.” She paused at the footboard. “You're still controlling, still arrogant, still driven. Still brilliant. Still a pain. In these essentials, you will never change. You'll take what's available and remake it as you always have. You are what you've always been, and will continue to be whilst you breathe.”
John managed a grin. “That sounds like something your father would say.”
“He does.” Jani lowered to the edge of the bed, just within arm's reach. “Mostly to my mother.”
“A handful, is she?” John pushed down the sheet, then pulled up his legs so he sat cross-legged. “He and I should get together sometime and compare notes on the Kilian women. I think he'd talk to me. He seems to like me a little more than does your mother.” His brow twitched. “Brilliant?”
Jani rolled her eyes. “I thought you'd pick that out of the list first.”
“But also controlling, arrogant, driven, and a pain in the ass.” John wiped a hand over his face. The first hint of beard
glinted across his cheeks, combining with ruffled hair and skewed T-shirt to make him appear agreeably rumpled. “And yet you love me anyway.”
“I've been told more than once that I possess my own endearing qualities.” Jani shrugged. “One of the reasons we're together is because we can't find anyone else who'll put up with us.” She looked over at John, to find him staring her down, lips slightly parted.
“We could've found worse places to land.” He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her to him, applying rough kisses to her face and neck and lower still as he peeled away first her clothes, then his. He drove into her almost immediately, going off on his own for most of the journey, not waiting for her to catch up. Too intent this time on finding solace to offer any.
Jani held him until he finished, and cradled him as he slept. So much simpler, sex, even though it only served to delay. Even though it was only half the song, the melody sans the words. But she'd settle for half, accept it and never argue. For her, the words had always been the difficult part.
All was still and quiet, but for John's breathing and the tumult in her own head. She slept eventually.
And she dreamed.
The sunrise horizon glowed orange as Rilas parked her skimmer behind a rock formation, then gathered dried scrub and branches and spread them across it, obscuring it further. Even the smallest risk could not be allowed, for there were dangers enough at times such as this, when the moment had come to act. When the planning ended and the action began.
Once she had hidden the skimmer, she uttered a prayer to Caith and strode to the house. Her slingbag hung from her shoulder, bumping her hip with every stride. Animals fled before her, scuttling beneath rocks as she passed.
The dawn air felt cool, which she did not expect. So much did this place resemble Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a that she anticipated
the same warmth, longed for it.
Soon her task would be completed, and she would be free to leave this godless world. Her berths had been purchased, as had her new name, her new possessions. All rested in a locker at Elyas Station, assembled in pieces by those who did not know that which they did, and left in their hiding place by another. So eager, humanish and idomeni both, to perform tasks for payment. So disinterested, humanish and idomeni both, in the reasons for that which they did.
Such is the way of humanish, which the idomeni have taken as theirs.
So said nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el, who knew all there was to know of these matters.
Rilas surveyed the area around the house, both visually and with a handheld scanner. She compared the signaling to that she had compiled on the day she first visited the place, took note of the minor variations. More small animals had entered and departed, leaving their food remnants and their waste. Leaves had blown in through one of the broken windows, piling in one corner of the area she had chosen for staging.
But no being has entered.
The inevitable disturbances created by a large form walking through a rubble-strewn, dusty space did not reveal themselves. Since the day she first examined this house, no one else had visited.
She walked through the shattered entry, then across the rubble-strewn room to the window. Took one last look at the grounds, the distant cliffs and the sliver of bay beyond. Then lowered her slingbag to the floor and knelt beside it. Opened the flap and set to work, hands moving with speed born of practice as her mind pondered the details of the task ahead.
She removed the pieces of the rifle strut, assembled it and balanced it atop the sill. Assembled the rifle itself. Activated the sight mech, then tossed its satellite into the air to find its way to the area above the target. Removed one of the cylinders from its chill encasement and inserted it into the chamber. Locked it within.
She eased into a half-sitting, half-reclining position atop the wide sill, edging onto her side so she could lie beside the
rifle. Brought it close and curled around it. Felt the sharp chill of the rocks through her thin clothing, the edges like blades digging into her skin, and offered the pain to Caith as sacrifice, as always.
Pressed the rifle to her shoulder and lowered her eye to the sight mech. Waited for the secondary to activate, calibrate, and send back the first of the signals.
Nothing for a time but blurred images of portions of the house yard. Then came color. Clarity. The image of the distant road. The houses that lined it. The meeting house around which workers had gathered and commenced their labors.
Rilas settled in. She was at her most vulnerable now, this she knew and truly, so fixed on her target that she could miss any warning signal from her secondary.
But such is as it is.
Such risk was the tribute she paid Tsecha, the fact that at some point she left herself as open, as exposed, as he was.
She breathed the fetid air, let it fill her, became one with the blasted house.