THE DEATHS OF TAO
To my loving wife and most favorite person in the world, Paula Kim
The path of a vessel is strewn with the dead. The journey of a Quasing even more so, for it is that constant cycle of life and death that will take us home.
Huchel, Genjix Council – Eastern Hemisphere, the Quasing of King Solomon
The lone black car slunk through the dark, unlit streets, a ghostly shadow creeping past the decrepit warehouses and abandoned storefronts along the South Capitol at the outskirts of Washington DC. Sitting in the car, Jill Tan glanced out the tinted windows at the darkened snow-dusted shapes of the washed-out world. Tonight’s meeting with Andrews was another bust. There had been far too many of these dead-end nights of late. And each time a deal didn’t pan out it put the Prophus one foot deeper into the grave.
Having to sit down with the first-term senator from Idaho, the leader of the slightly-crazed and lowly regarded Trinity Caucus, was a stark reminder of how precarious the Prophus’ position was in the United States. Their influence in American politics was slipping, forcing them to reach out and deal with the fringes of government. When a schmuck like Andrews could dictate terms to her, Jill knew they were in trouble.
You should have pushed harder on the Poseidon Bill.
“No one’s vote on a bill is worth a committee chair, Baji. I’m not going to hold Wilks or the Prophus hostage to that half-term hack.”
Our orders are to make sure the appropriation passes by any means. We desperately need those resources rerouted to us. What is a two-year chair to us?
“I’m not going to sell the farm. It’s bad precedent.”
We are still three votes down in the Senate.
“I’ll dig them up somewhere,” Jill murmured absently as she studied the whip count. She wasn’t nearly as confident as she sounded, though she wasn’t sure why she bothered feigning confidence with Baji. Her Quasing knew everything she did and then some. Still, maintaining the facade was second nature to her. You didn’t survive working as an aide in Congress long showing weakness.
She looked out the window again. Leave it to Andrews to plan a meeting in a place like this. He didn’t want to be seen with her, he said. She would taint his reputation. Just who did he think he was? The meeting had lasted three hours. In the end, he had given her the runaround and made outrageous demands that he must have known she could not accept. Dealing with him wasted precious time and effort, neither of which Jill could afford to lose.
She checked her watch: 9.14pm. A mountain of work waited for her back at the office. She’d be lucky to make it to her bed by three. Well, it wasn’t like she had much of a private life anyway.
Maybe you should reconsider that date with Doctor Sun. He is an MD, not to mention one of Wilks’ big donors.
“Baji, I’m fully aware of what the ‘Doctor’ title in front of a guy’s name means. That man is boring, self-centered, and probably a sociopath. And he has yeti paws. What do you use to pick men besides an MD anyway?”
That is about it. That and they are not hosts.
“Worst criteria I’ve ever heard.”
Hardly. Look at Roen. A host and not a doctor; where did that get you?
Jill harrumphed and went back to work. Her personal millions-years-old alien was wise and knowledgeable, but her matchmaking philosophy was straight out of the eleventh century. Still, Jill’s romance batting average had been pretty dismal of late. The very thought of dating, even with someone not repugnant, felt wrong.
“Damn that Roen,” she said.
A blinding light suddenly appeared from behind and rammed into the rear of the car. Then another came from the side and punched the front, spinning it around.
“Are you alright?” asked Shunn, her driver and one of the men on her security detail, though he was the one with blood trickling down his forehead. Chevoen, the other bodyguard, had already gotten out of the car. Jill could hear the sound of gunfire rattling the side panels.
“Stop checking on me and get out,” she snapped, pulling out her Ruger. “Get word to Command. Defensive perimeter. Follow my lead for a retreat.” She got out and took cover behind the door. Gunfire filled the air as several shadows appeared out of the darkness. She leaned over the trunk and engaged the dark figures. Two bullet holes appeared in the panel centimeters away from her face.
One flanking you on the roof.
She put her back to the car and scanned the roof just in time to see a dark figure duck behind cover.
“Prophus!” a voice called. “We wish to parlay.”
We are surrounded. Two Genjix on the opposite rooftop as well.
“They just jumped us, Baji. Why would they want to talk?”
Only one way to find out. See if you can buy some time. Chevoen must have sent out a distress signal.
“What do you want to talk about?” she yelled.
One of the Genjix appeared and held up a phone. Jill kept him in her sights as he approached. When he was within five meters, he tossed the phone to her. She caught it and brought it up to her ear.
“Hello, Jill,” a smug voice said across the line.
She scowled. “Simon.”
I hated Biall even before I became Prophus.
“You’ve repeatedly ignored my calls to your office, so I took more drastic measures. How was your meeting with Andrews? Fruitless? Of course it was. We got to him two months ago. You Prophus are a little behind the curve these days.”
Jill bit her lip. “Well, good for you. We both know Andrews is a one-term senator. I hope you didn’t pay too much for him. Is there anything else, or are you just here to gloat?”
Two more to the right. Total of eight in range of vision. Take out the one on the rear roof first.
“What’s our escape path, Baji?”
Side street to your rear.
Simon continued rambling, as if he wasn’t aware that she was in the middle of a standoff with a dozen guns pointed at her. “Gloating is human. The Holy Ones demand better of their vessels. In fact, we want to work with you. A little bipartisanship if you will.”
Jill didn’t buy it. The last time Simon offered bipartisanship in Congress, the Genjix reneged and caused the financial meltdown of the real estate market. Of course, their people had bet on the collapse and made billions from the betrayal. Scratch that. The Prophus weren’t betrayed; they were outmaneuvered.
“Actually, Hogan would like to deal with your boss,” Simon said. “Can the misguided senator from the land of Lincoln spare two hours for the noble senator from West Virginia?”
Jill exhaled in exasperation. “All this because you want a meeting?”
“Next time, take my calls. I’m not to be trifled with.”
“Let me guess. The South Korea Destroyer contract? The East Seas Minerals Sanction? Or the Japanese IEC Standards Tariff? Which one?”
“Among others. Call it a grand package.”
“What are you offering?”
“I’ll send your assistant my terms tonight. You will present it to Wilks in the best possible light, and then we will both be praised for working across the aisle. Is that clear?”
“Why would I want to help you?” Jill said.
“Because if you say no, my men will kill all of you.”
“Then I guess I don’t have much of a choice. I’ll need time to look your offer over, though.”
“You’re not in much of a position to talk terms, but take some time to think it over,” he said. “I want your confirmation by next week. By the way, Baji, Biall still owes you one for the Revolutionary War. Here’s a partial payment.” Then he hung up.
“What happened during the war?”
Biall’s vessel at the time was the nephew of Lord Sandwich, First Admiral of the British fleet. He was promoted to captain and sent to the States. My host, John Paul Jones, captured his frigate. Then they gave him a sloop. I sank that. Then they put him on a desk job at the port of Yorktown. When I raided the port, I kidnapped him. Lord Sandwich had to pay ransom three times for the lout. He has held a grudge ever since.
“I would hold a grudge too if I were him.”
Jill tossed the phone back to the Genjix agent. “You got your meeting. Now back to your masters, dog.”
The Genjix agent looked at her and smirked. “We have orders to let you live unless you cause trouble. The others don’t. Kill them!” he barked.
The exchange the next minute was deafening as all sides opened fire. Her two Prophus guards, however, were outgunned and out of position. The Genjix made short work of them and before long, she was the only one left alive. Jill huddled behind the car door and reloaded, too angry to mourn the men who just died protecting her.
“Your people are dead, betrayer,” the Genjix agent shouted. “Drop your gun and come out. You are free to go. Otherwise, your life is forfeit.”
Drop your gun. There is no other way to survive this.
“Baji, shut up. They killed Shunn and Chevoen because they could. Show me their positions. Now!”
Images flashed in her mind of the Genjix kneeling on top of the roof behind her, the two to her right leaning against the van that had rammed them, and then the commander of the ambush who was speaking with her. Jill stood up and unloaded her clip at the three groupings, successfully taking out two more thugs. She didn’t stick around to count her kills, though, booking it toward the side street.
“Take her down!” someone yelled.
Bullets kicked up dust all around her as she sprinted down the narrow sidewalk and turned into an alley. Something about running here reminded her of Roen, that bastard. A lot of things reminded her of him these days.
A moving shadow on the roofline of one of the buildings caught her attention. She flattened against the wall and scanned for movement. Then she heard the tramp of footsteps to her right; ten or so Genjix by the sound of them. Jill crouched, taking cover behind a dumpster, and peered over the top. Nearly a dozen men and a white unmarked van bore down the alley toward her.
Looks like a Penetra van.
“Well, there goes hiding as an option.”
The advent of the mobile Penetra scanners had changed the course of the war in the past three years. When the Genjix had first completed the Phase I Penetra Program and invented a scanner that could detect Quasing within a host, it had little effect on the war, because the machines were the size of houses. However, over the past few years, the Genjix had successfully miniaturized the scanners. Now Penetra vans were everywhere and the Prophus were finding it harder and harder to avoid detection.
There are too many.
“I’ve had worse.”
It was just brave talk though. They both knew that. As much as Jill had trained over the years, she was never going to be Sonya. Baji’s previous host had trained Roen to be an agent, and had been one of the Baji’s favorites. She was captured by the Genjix while trying to rescue Jill and Roen during the Decennial and had died at the Capulet’s Ski Lodge in Italy. Baji had never forgiven Roen for Sonya’s death and, in a way, had not forgiven Jill either.
Jill leaned over the side of the dumpster and took three shots. One of them found its mark while the other two bounced harmlessly off the van. She ducked just as a hail of bullets banged the dumpster like a drum.
Two on the near side are creeping forward against the wall.
A quick image flashed in her head of two men crouching, edging closer toward her, using the dumpster to stay out of her field of vision. Jill exhaled again and aimed at the position in her mind, taking a Genjix agent square in the face. Another barrage of gunfire exploded around her, and she distinctly heard someone call out for a suppression rotation.
“I wish I had a grenade.”
Might as well wish for a rocket launcher while we are at it.
Jill bit her lip, her mind racing to find a way out of this trap. Maybe she had something almost as good as a grenade. The Genjix agents were getting close. She dug in her purse and pulled out a small can of pepper spray. She hefted it in her hand and leaned toward the side.
You are not that good a shot.
“Positive thoughts, please.”
Baji was right though; Jill was at best an average marksman. They were going to overrun her position at any moment. And it wasn’t like she could hide with that Penetra van close by. She leaned over the side and rolled the can toward them. Then she took aim and pulled the trigger in rapid succession. She missed her first three shots. Flashing lights from the barrel of pistols exploded around her.