Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Four

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Previously:
Chapter One 
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Turbines to speed...


CHAPTER FOUR


I was up just before the chime. When I emerged from the refresher I found some clothes laid out for me. Centon leather boots, pants, a blouse of Paklys silk and a jacket designed by Pol Etom Olla on the end of my bed. I took a minute to appreciate the luxuriousness of it all.
“We leave in thirty,” Jugee said over the room’s system. I held still for a moment to see if there was anything else. There wasn’t.
So I went to the console and opened a screen which promptly told me that I had no access to the infranet. If I wanted it all I had to do was click one box to charge it to the room. Not knowing Alu Besdiae’s nature, I decided not to incur the charge. So I retrieved my blouse and tried to open a connection via the inboard controller on my sleeve. No play there, either. The blouse had been soaked for too long.
Resigned, I dressed in the clothes that Alu and the werlibug had laid out for me. I looked too stylish to work but not fancy enough to be received in any proper way. I sighed and whistled for my valise to follow me. It was time to leave.
Alu commented on my costume when I entered the main room of the suite. “You look like one of those infuriatingly efficient pirates in the Carshishe System.” His smile didn’t help my mood. 
And the smell of the atmosphere caused me to gag. I’d tried to hold it back but it was too much, too acrid. My nostrils burned and the sour taste on my tongue overwhelmed me and I ran back to the ‘fresher in my room to vomit. After I cleaned up I looked at myself in the mirror. “You can do this,” I said out loud. When I went back, I stood straight and presented myself as I’d been trained to do. 
“Jugee says I should apologize,” Alu said, “for leaving the room set for my own comfort. In the future I will endeavor to find a happier medium for both our comforts.”
I nodded, accepting the not-apology. The werlibug perched on the back of a sofa across the room, studying me. 
Alu wore the same suit as the night before but with a different shirt. Still no tie. He looked me over once again, cold and clinical.  It made me uncomfortable until he finally said, “Jugee, well done on her wardrobe. Our car is waiting,” he said, “are you ready?”
“Yes.”
“Leave your valise. It will be sent with the few things we have here to the Compass. To my ship.”
Jugee flew up as I passed him to follow Alu out of the room. In the vator I stood as far as I could from Alu and was grateful no one else got on. We crossed the lobby without checking out. When we finally got outside I was relieved to breathe fresh air and feel a cool breeze. It helped me clear the Symbi atmosphere from my senses. I still wanted to take a shower, though.
The car was on par with the Embassy limo: deep, rich leather seats, climate controls for each passenger, and the smoothest of takeoffs. So different than the hack I rode in the night before. If this was the style they traveled in, I could get used to it. Except for being so near a Symbi.
When I looked out the window, the car was in the high lane reserved for the ultra-rich and powerful. It was rare that Madeleine and I ever flew this high but it gave me a perfect view of Kinetsia City. The Amberg Spire, three hundred floors of art from all over Ffeine and the entire System. A ring of giant digital screens orbited it touting the current and upcoming exhibits, all of which I never saw. Nuary and I had spent hundreds of hours exploring the museums in the Amberg. The thought that I wouldn’t ever be there again to honor her or expand my horizons depressed me. I stopped looking out the window. 
I was going to miss so much about my adopted home it hurt. Whether or not Alu noticed, I didn’t care in that moment. I let myself grieve for the remaining few minutes of the trip.
We touched down three blocks from the Olan Embassy and wheeled the rest of the way.  When the car came to a stop, I hesitated. The driver held my door open, waiting patiently for me to get out.
“You will come with me and face her,” Alu said. “This is the price of your passage.”
I’ll never forget how bad I felt. My stomach dropped through the bottom of my feet when I walked up the five short steps to the front door of the Embassy. Side by side with a pat Symbi and a werlibug flying just behind us I thought we must have looked comical.
Madeleine’s major domo, Csif Pindotrage, received us in the grand sitting room. She was distant, emotionally removed as she should have been but looked fabulous in a new suit. When I greeted her by name she returned the greeting formally, without a hint of recognition or acknowledgement that we liked the same kind of pop music. I wondered if Alu would pick up the cues as to who she was.
“Daymya Holling, Messeer Alu,” she said, bowing slightly, “the Ambassador will not be able to see you today.” She looked worried.
“My appointment was not canceled,” Alu said. I kept an eye on Csif while I scanned the room. The windows were shuttered. Nothing was out of place but there were white cloths over all the furniture. I had half-expected that given Madeleine’s activity last night but the house was deserted.
Csif gave me a quick glance then addressed Alu. “Events have dictated that Medayma be away from the residence. She did leave a message for you, though.”
“Jugee?”
“There’s only one person in the house besides us. And we’re looking at him.”
“Her,” Alu corrected.
He looked at me.
“Csif identifies as mat.”
She bristled a little but didn’t say anything.
Jugee landed the werlibug on the arm of a sofa. “My apologies, Medayma Pindotrage. I am updating my files.”
“There is a separate message for Daymya Holling,” Csif said and snapped open two screens; one for me and one for Alu.
“Jugee, did she take it with her?”
“I’m looking.”
My screen glimmed up and there was an image of Madeleine. She looked tired, more tired than I’d ever seen. Her dark skin wasn’t as lustrous as usual and her black hair was pulled back tight. I couldn’t tell where she was when she recorded from the background, either. It wasn’t any place I was familiar with. I reached up to pause the recording but no controls opened when I touched the screen.
“Jugee?”
Madeleine took a deep breath and spoke to me. “I’m disappointed you didn’t come to me. After all the years I spent with you - all the things I taught you - I hoped that you would be as true a daughter to me as I wanted to be a mother to you. It’s obvious now that you would never have joined me in public service. You see the world in such stark terms - and it’s not at all the way you want it to be.”
“It’s not here, Alu.”
“She took it?!”
“It’s not here.”
I had no idea what they were talking about, or how they could talk while Alu watched a message. Madeleine went on.
“Little Duchess, you are going to have a hard life. You may not see it that way now but your coming back here was a terrible mistake. The Clave are coming to investigate. They will find all the things I have done and all the things that have been done on the premises. My career is over, yours never began. 
“The Clave will want to question you. You’ll be pursued wherever you go, they’ll have your identifying information. You know their reputation.”
A phone screen opened in the air behind Csif, who paid no attention to me. 
“Jugee, go look. She says there’s something for me in the upstairs library.”
The werlibug flew away faster than I had thought possible.
Csif turned to look at the phone screen as it bleated its tones, begging for someone to answer.
“They do not quit, Duchess. Eventually the Clave will track you down no matter what you do. If you’d only come to me we could have resolved this amicably. Instead my people are anxious to hang me for what you revealed to the world. I am on the run now too. As much as I love you, as much as you are my own flesh, I will destroy you if we should ever meet again.”
“Alu! I’ve got the package but it’s not what we came for.”
“We are leaving now. Daymya Holling -“
I raised my hand. “In a minute.”
Alu grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the screen. “Now.”

Madeleine wasn’t done but because my proximity to the screen had changed the sound clipped and the image paused. Whatever else was on her mind, I never got to know.

***

Jugee joined us in the driveway, with Alu pulling me behind him until I stopped short. He carried a small, square package underneath. It looked like one of the secure boxes Madeleine used sometimes to send documents around the city.
“Where did our car go?”
“I sent it away,” Alu said, yanking my arm again. “I planned to be here longer than ten minutes.”
“I’ve whistled up a hack to meet us three blocks from here,” Jugee said. “It’ll be there waiting for us.”
Alu whipped me ahead of him and picked up his pace as we crossed the green space on the far edge of the driveway. I stumbled through the shoulder-high bushes lining the wall, using my free arm to cover my face against the sharp branches. We burst through to a strip of grass about six feet wide that ended in the perimeter wall. In all my time here, I’d never been on the edge of the property. The white stone wall was always part of the view when I left the Embassy but I’d never paid attention to it.
“What is in the package Medayma left?”
“I don’t know, Alu. There’s a blocker on it. I need time.”
“Keep working on it.”
“There’s a concealed door on your right,” Jugee said. “Here.”
The werlibug threw a green light on the wall where the tiniest of cracks ran in the shape of a rectangle. 
Alu said, “I see it. Have you killed the cameras? Erased any trace of our presence?” He pulled open the door.
“I’ve done what I can but there was a live feed in the sitting room. I’ve traced it to the local darmes precinct but I’m having trouble figuring out where it is there. Or if it went on somewhere else.”
Inside the door was a small, dark room. “Straight ahead,” Jugee said. “Watch out for the stairs on the left.”
The door behind us closed. My left hip bounced into a metal railing as Alu continued to tug me in his wake. “I had no idea this was here.”
“Where is our exit, Jugee?”
In response, the werlibug cast another green light ahead of us. “To your right, about ten steps. Darmes are on their way. Expect lights and sirens in less than two minutes.”
“We need to get out of here and across the street before they show up,” Alu said. 
“Then let me go and we can run,” I said, more forcefully than I intended. “I’m not a child.”
“I will leave you behind if you cannot keep up.”
“Right. I know that.”
Alu let go of my hand and I stopped while he found the door. My blouse was torn and I felt blood oozing from a cut on my forearm but I’d never felt so exhilarated as I did in that moment. “I’ll keep up.”
The door opened and daylight poured in, blinding me for a second. The werlibug punched into my shoulder as Alu went out. I didn’t look back at it, I just followed.
On the other side of the wall I faced an enormous momid bush, easily eight feet tall and spread at least ten feet wide. Its spade-shaped leaves were their full summer deep red color and they swayed in an easy, cool breeze.
Alu was gone around the bush to my right and jogged after him. Jugee, the werlibug, buzzed past me. It was a stroke of luck that no one was on the street to see us come out of the secret door. Alu was already a hundred feet ahead of me with strides twice as long as mine. I ran to catch up but noticed houses on either side of the street, all surrounded by walls higher and more formidable than the one around the Embassy.
“There are dozens of cameras on this street alone,” I said to Alu’s back. 
“We’re invisible to them,” Jugee said through the werlibug. His voice was just as full and resonant as it had been in the hotel. “I’ve cast a wide viewpointer field that you’re almost falling back out of. Run faster.”
I picked up my pace and got within six feet of Alu, who slowed noticeably. 
“Turn left at the next intersection,” Jugee said. 
My heart raced and adrenaline wired me up. I was bursting with excitement which overcame my fear. As we made the turn Jugee told us to I heard the first faint siren.
“I’m through the blocker, Alu.”
“Well?”
“It’s nothing. An old media player.”
“Where is the car?”
“Take the next right, then left. It will be at the curb. A red Dyswovvo. Four doors.”
Wailing sirens were closer but at least a block away. My heart pounded. I was grateful for the physical training that Madeleine insisted on both at school and privately. I smiled. It was all working out after all.
We made the final turn and our hired car pulled up half a block away. 
“It’s a piece of junk,” I said. “This is our getaway?”
“It’ll make it to the Compass,” Jugee said. “That’s all it has to do and the driver has good ratings.”
“Too much talking,” Alu snapped. 
“Dropping the viewpointer in three, two, one.”
I could see the driver studying his handheld and not looking up. Best he didn’t see us running full speed at him, appearing out of nowhere. Jugee zipped ahead to get his attention.
Alu slowed to a brisk walk and I followed suit. When we got to the car we split so we could get in on either side. Jugee flew in with me, perched on the back of the seat between us.
“Headed for the Compass, yah?” The driver was a pat human, probably thirty years older than me. He pulled out onto the road without looking. A screen on his dash identified him as a long-term temp driver. He did this in his spare time for a few ferune here and there. I wondered what the bribe would have to be to keep him from ratting on us when the darmes posted us as wanted.
Jugee buzzed his wings. “Just the ride, driver. No questions and there’s a big tip for you.”
I sat on the passenger side, Alu was behind the driver, fuming. He was hard to read.
Until he turned to me. “We will have a longer conversation later,” Alu said, “but if you are with us you will have to keep up better.”
The look in his eyes intimidated me. All I could do was say, “I’ll do my best.”


©2016 by Jason Arnett. All Rights Reserved. Please share by linking to this page.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Three

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Previously:
Chapter One 
Chapter Two

Let's light this candle...


CHAPTER THREE


Madeleine, my adoptive mother, held salons every other month at the embassy. She would invite interesting politicians and artists and thinkers and put them in a room to see what happened. 
Three or four years before, there had been a Symbi at one of the salons. It had to have been Alu Besdiae. Of course now I know it was him and he was in the company of a Pirousian human pat. I didn’t get to speak with either of them which suited me fine.
Now in that moment of panic, waiting for the Symbi to arrive in his room, I castigated myself mercilessly. Over and over I called myself stupid and wrong for executing my plan so badly. There was no going back. Trapped in a closet was not part of my plan, nor was waiting for Alu Besdiae to sleep so I could sneak out. 
The door to the suite chimed and whistled open and I pulled my knees up to my chest. I struggled to keep control and stay quiet. Then I beat myself up some more because I should have closed the door to the little bedroom. 
“Messeer, I beg your -“
A pat voice, a sycophantic subordinate. He sounded like he was trying to apologize. The servants at the embassy talked like that when they’d fouled up. Madeleine always shut it off quickly, let them know that if it happened again they’d be gone.
“Do you know who I am?” Another pat voice, this one lower in timbre, more measured, mellifluous, refined, resonant. 
“No. No messeer, I- I don’t.” Real fear from the sycophant. 
“He is the guest of the Embassy of Olan.” Another voice. Besdiae wasn’t alone. I cursed myself some more. “Perhaps your supervisor neglected to tell you Medayma Ambassador Skartarine was paying the bill?” 
The new voice was sweeter, definitely a tenor. I imagined the bellhop cringing at the censure.
“Please accept my apology on behalf of the Riange Hotel. I believe you will find everything in order. When your luggage arrives from the Compass I will bring it myself.” 
“There is no need,” Besdiae said. Each word seemed measured, considered, but he didn’t speak slowly at all. I thought he must have been high born. Which was just as bad as if he wasn’t. I was hiding in his room. “We have no luggage coming.”
Remember I couldn’t see anything because I was in a closet with the door closed. I didn’t set any pryers out and I wouldn’t have opened a screen to see the feed anyway. What I heard was a loud buzzing sound and the bellhop yelping in fear.
“Your apology is not accepted,” the second voice said. 
“I’m sorry! Please!”
“Jugee, leave the man be. You have more than made the point.”
The buzzing subsided and I heard the door open and close again. My wait was really beginning. I needed to pee.
I honestly don’t know how long it was before I heard the buzzing again and it came closer. Then it was inches from me, on the other side of the wall. My bladder doubled its size.
Truthfully, I was prepared to meet my death head on, like my Mama did.

Of course I was terrified.
Anyway. The door opened. I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything. The light stung my eyes and I couldn’t see anything except a giant shadow looming over me. Everything I’d done to that point, all my preparations, and I’d never thought it would end like this. Like my parents.
“Come out of there.” Alu Besdiae’s voice boomed like thunder. His musk was powerful and I sneezed. His shadow took a step back and my eyes had adjusted enough that I could see him then. 
His scales were such a dark green they were almost black, with yellow ridges in the center. He wore a very good tailored suit but no tie. I noticed his cufflinks glinting in the light behind him. His face was still shadowed so I couldn’t see his expression. 
It took me a long time to stand up. Finally I did, with some dignity. Chin held high, I stepped out into the room without taking my eyes off him. 
“I know you,” Alu Besdiae said. “We have met before.”
“No. We haven’t.”
My eyes were adjusted now and I could see his face. He didn’t look cruel, didn’t have any madness in his eyes that I could see. His eyes were golden, unlike the other Symbi I’d ever met; they all had green-blue. “At the Olan Embassy. When the opera singer was there, I forget her name.”
“Somna Kintnen.” I said it without thinking. That was an event I would never forget. Will never forget. But I couldn’t remember meeting a Symbi then, that would have stood out in my memory. That was something that I definitely would have remembered.
So I didn’t say anything else.
Behind Alu Besdiae I saw something flicker, heard the buzzing. I’d seen those things on screens but never in real life. A werlibug is an elegant machine: its long, tapering body sprouts three separate sets of wings stacked one on top of the other. Six legs allow it to walk on any surface it wants to, in any direction. Segmented eyes on the head cover almost three hundred sixty degrees in every direction. 
Alu said something I didn’t understand: “Jugee.”
The werlibug fluttered up, the buzz of its wings didn’t sound remotely mechanical. It glided with perfect grace toward me, stopped and faced me, hovering at eye level.
“You are Deirdre Holling: parents Jallan and Eri were murdered by Mesy Cusytuo on Pirous, Cober City, ten cycles ago relative. Adopted by Madeleine Skartarine, ambassador from Olan to Ffeine eight point three cycles ago relative. Educated at Vember Selixe Academy, with an emphasis on interpersonal communication and computer science. Your grades were above average but not exceptional. You graduated half a cycle ago but have yet to take a position in the Olan Embassy as most have expected you to do.”
“Jugee.”
“You have never been involved romantically with anyone, though you’ve been courted and stalked by a number of people. Your profiles show an interest in multiple genders no matter their identities but you have not committed yourself one way or the other. After accessing your cloud files it is apparent that you are the secret source that connected the death of Nuary Mons with your adoptive mother and a network of like-minded politicians. They are thought to be planning some sort of coup but it will take further investigation for me to be sure.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Your teachers liked you; you were active in at least one unsanctioned campus group dedicated to deseg-“
“Jugee.” Alu was sharp the second time. The werlibug drifted closer to me.
“She can’t be trusted, Alu.” It hovered for a second or two more then wheeled away so hard I had to dodge to keep its back end from whacking me in the face. I waved off the action as if it smelled but it didn’t. The werlibug retreated to a position behind the Symbi, landing on the end table at the head of the bed.
I’m sure my surprise showed on my face, but Alu remained impassive.  But in that moment I sensed he was frustrated with Jugee. I don’t know why, but that’s the sense I got.
He leaned in toward me, his tongue slipped out between his lips to taste the air around me. I started involuntarily. 
“You have no need to fear,” Alu said. His voice was a rumble of thunder in a clear sky. “You are quite safe, though I am curious how you managed to get in this room. Perhaps hotel security is not what it once was?” His manner was slow, gentlemanly. It gave me a little hope, despite my fear, that he was a pat of his word.
“Please,” he said, holding his hand out to indicate the chair, “sit.”
I hesitated.
“Not all Symbi are bad. Cusytuo - according to his file - was quite insane. Fixated. His beliefs overtook him.”
It took me a second to process what he said. I concluded that Alu was trying to win me over by distancing himself from Cusytuo.
“He was Anticlude,” I pronounced, trying to show off that I’d done my homework too. 
The soft laugh Alu let out gave me pause. “I am not. Your prejudice is showing. I would rather hear how you gained access to my room.”
Before I sat down, I cast a glance at the werlibug.
“I said you are safe here. Jugee will keep his distance, as will I.”
Alu moved around the foot of the bed and snapped his fingers. The other chair in the room zoomed over to him so he could sit too. He crossed his legs and laid his hands in his lap. He was a polished, refined pat. 

There was no way for me to relax, so I kept my back straight while I told him how I’d invaded his space.

***

“Safe to say then,” Alu said, narrowing his eyes, “that you had no idea who I was when you came in. Else you would not have.”
“True.”
He looked beyond me, then turned his head to ponder everything. “Jugee, what is the status of the investigation regarding Medayma Skartarine?”
“News reports are implicating her but police sources aren’t. Rumors are flying that the Clave are in consultation.”
“The Clave?” I was horrified. 
Alu sounded surprised at my concern. “Of course, the Clave. They are the law in interplanetary matters.”
“They’re the law for hire,” I said. It was true. Still is. All they need is someone’s money and a target.
“Regardless,” Alu said, “they are a singularly determined entity. You should have anticipated their involvement.”
He was right and I knew it. I should have thought about it and I shouldn’t have even tried to escape via commercial liner. I cursed myself again, I couldn’t help it. I had been so stupid!
“And now you know that we know who you are,” Alu said. He measured every word against my reactions. While he thought about it, he tapped his long think forefinger on his chin. I was never sure what he was looking for. “So you are clever for your age to have hacked your way into the premier hotel on the planet. But you did not specialize in programming. Jugee, how were her grades?”
“Top ten percent of her class. Instructor comments note often that young Miss Holling could have had perfect scores across the board.”
Intrigued, Alu asked, “So? Why did you not have better grades?”
I wanted to puff up, to tell them that I was the best student Vember Selixe Academy had ever seen. They didn’t need to know my reasons for dropping some tests, losing some homework. It was none of their business.
“Did my best,” I said.
“No.” Alu shook his head. It seemed to me that he wanted to laugh off my answer too. Instead he shook his finger at me. “No, that is not it. I suspect you did not want anyone to see how smart you are. You hid from them. You are attempting to hide from me.” He put a lot of emphasis on that last word, lowering his voice to do it.
“At first I thought you were an agent of one of my competitors. You are not the first mat to show up in one of my rooms, after all, but there was fear in your eyes when I opened that closet. And determination.” He uncrossed his legs. He looked like a king on his throne, leaning to his left to put his chin on his knuckles.
“You need to get off-planet, you need me to do that. I can help you to evade the Clave, help you get somewhere to start a new life with a new identity. Is that what you want?”
I wanted to look away, embarrassed at being so damned obvious. If I did that then he won. No way did I want to let him think that, so I kept my silence and held my gaze. Of course he wasn’t intimidated.
And he kept quiet, too, waiting for me to respond.
“Yes,” I said. I must have said it because he heard it.
“Good, then you will answer any question I ask you.”
His tone didn’t sit well with me, made me feel like a child. Which I was still but I didn’t feel like it; I was done with school, I had money and my convictions. Like everyone that age I felt invulnerable, immortal. Alu waited for my answer, patient, glowering. His yellow alien eyes bored into me like drills mining for valuable ore. He knew I would eventually break the way he knew he didn’t have to repeat the question. 
“They didn’t deserve my best work,” I said finally. I hoped it would be enough but Alu didn’t react. It was torture having to decide but in the end, with the Clave coming, I needed to do what was necessary to get away.
“My father taught me not to show my true potential, but to realize it as best I can.”
That seemed to satisfy the Symbi.
“When can we leave?”
“Tomorrow,” Alu said without hesitation, like he’d anticipated my question. “It is late now and I have business with Medayma Skartarine before I go.”
Out of reflex more than anything, I started to ask about his business but stopped myself before I did. “Can I just head out to the Compass and wait for you there?”
Alu shook his head. 
“Fine then I’ll wait here.”
“We’re checking out before we head to the embassy,” the werlibug, Jugee, said. “You’ll have to come with us.”
It was my turn to shake my head. “No, no, no. I can’t go back there.”
“Do you fear for your safety? You have my guarantee that no harm will befall you as long as you accompany me.” He relaxed and recrossed his legs. 
Impossible was the word that kept rolling back and forth across my mind. I almost drowned in it. But impossible is nothing. It’s only a state of mind. “After ten cycles of living with her I don’t know what Madeleine will do to me if I set foot in front of her again. I doubt you do, either. And what about the Clave? We need to be far, far away before they even get here.”
Defiant, that’s me.
“The Clave has agents on every world,” Alu said, “they are already investigating. Or we must assume they are. They will be at the embassy by tomorrow afternoon. Fortunately for us, my appointment is first thing in the morning. We will be launching from the Compass before they know you are gone.”
He had an answer for everything. Insufferable bastard.
“What about tonight? What if they’ve already been to the embassy?”
“No one knows you are here. And Jugee is monitoring for any incursion by the darmes. I offered you safety, are you interested?”
His eyes narrowed, he leaned forward. The power was all his if I gave it to him.
“I answered the question. What more do you want? Who are you?”
“Do you accept my offer of safety or not?”
I didn’t want to give in but I didn’t want to be back out on the street with the Clave looking for me. And having Madeleine looking for me, too. She knew, she had to know, what I’d done; she was too smart not to know. I didn’t have a choice and Alu knew it. There was only one thing for me to say:
“Thank you.” 

***

Alu told me how the next day was going to go and left sure everything would go according to plan. I had my doubts. Jugee stayed behind while I pulled back the covers and rolled my fears around in my head.
The werlibug landed on the foot of the bed, folded its wings back and didn’t move. For too long it stood there, silent and unmoving. I didn’t know what to make of it so I stopped what I was doing. I held a pillow close in case it decided to lunge at me or something. Thing is, I had no idea what was coming. 
“I’ll set an alarm for you,” Jugee said, “but you should try to sleep sooner than later. Alu prefers to be on time over everything else. Also -
“Also you should know that I don’t trust you. Neither does Alu, but he’s seen something in you. If you betray him the way that you betrayed your adoptive mother I will burn you to the ground.” 
His voice was full and resonant. It took me a moment, but I realized he must have used the room’s sound system to sound so lifelike. I’d seen werlibugs on screens but never in real life. I think I mentioned that before, but in case I didn’t. I marveled at the design of the thing even though it was threatening me.
Jugee must’ve sensed that I hadn’t paid attention to the threat. He sent a jolt of electricity at the pillow’s bottom end. I dropped it. The smell of singed fabric stung my nose and I stumbled backwards.
“I will burn you down, Deirdre Holling, daughter of Jallan and Eri. Do not doubt me.”
And with that, the werlibug zipped up and away out of the room. The door shuttered down as I leapt over to lock it with my palm on the pad.
When I caught my breath my heart was still racing, sweat rolled down my neck. What had I gotten myself into?
It took me two hours to get to sleep. I wondered if Jugee was capable of monitoring everything in the room. Those thoughts were no comfort at all. I tossed and turned. I thought of Madeleine and what all this must be doing to her. Feeling sorry for her would be easy and would negate everything I’d done to this point. 
I finally nodded off thinking that there was no way I could ever go back.



©2016 by Jason Arnett. All Rights Reserved. Please share by linking to this page.
NEXT: CHAPTER FOUR

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Two

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Previously:
Chapter One

Ready?


CHAPTER TWO

The Kez is Kinetsia City’s bawdy district where anything goes. It’s the huge tourist attraction, the thing the city is most embarrassed by. It’s also surrounded by high-end hotels. When the driver landed the cab on the edge of the Kez, he didn’t pretend to care and I didn’t ask him to. I’d given him all of my cash in the hopes of buying his temporary silence. I hoped he wouldn’t report the deviation. If he did, though, my destination was still masked. Finally, the rain had stopped.
With my valise floating close to me, I skirted the edges of the Kez. I kept my head down and ignored the catcalls. Bright lights over filthy streets gave no sense of safety as I made my way through the grime. Tourists gawping at storefront promises made the whole thing surreal. There were families here - with young children no less! - taking the whole thing in like it was some kind of carnival or museum.
Which it is, but now I’m off-topic. A little slice of personal judgement, I suppose. I’m pretty good at telling others what they should do when I’m incapable of doing the right things myself. 
Anyway, I ended up pulling my valise under my right arm as I crossed the Kez. Fourteen blocks of tawdry salaciousness to reach my goal. Soon enough, there it was: the Riange Hotel. 
It’s huge. 
The building dominates the Kinetsia City skyline. Most of the regular customers of the hotel arrived by sky car starting at the tenth floor. The more money you had, the higher you could check in. 
The hotel itself could accommodate any needs. Bleeding edge artificial intelligences translated every language. The kitchens could make anything any customer asked for, accommodating any allergen they might be made aware of. It’s the best hotel on the planet. Maybe in the entire system.
I walked around until I found the loading docks for the kitchens then walked past them. Thank Natostha I’d been bright enough to wear comfortable boots. 
All the nooks and crannies of a major building leave plenty of places for someone to hide. Mostly the staff will sneak out to smoke, or arrange a rendezvous of some kind. My job now was to set myself up as an administrator of the hotel’s ownership. Five minutes’ work, tops.
I worked quickly. Used my own pic along with the name of a low-level clerk in a larger office for my credentials. I sent a backdated email saying that I would be coming into inspect the kitchens’ inventories. They were to give me all courtesies and cooperation. My plan was to get in and use my new identity to get into hotel registration to find what room Alu Besdiae was in. I hoped he wasn’t using an alias of some kind. 
With the fake ID set, I walked back to the dock. Another human leaned back against the half wall trucks pulled up to. She was smoking a baker and tried to hide it when she saw me. I raised my hand to say Don’t worry about it and walked up the short stairs without a word. I heard her exhale heavily. The dock had four bays with large rollup shutters. Next to them was a black steel door with a sign telling the hours of the day deliveries were accepted. 
The palm reader took my print and unlocked the door at once. 
Inside was a thin hallway just wide enough for me to walk without bumping my shoulders on the walls. The doors at the end of the long hall led to the kitchens but it was the one on the right, about halfway down, that opened and spilled out an ancient receiving bot. 
As a rickety bucket of bolts, the bot failed. It was falling apart at the seams. One arm drooped so low it almost scraped the floor while the other shook as its three wheels rolled it toward me. The large flat head had four lenses, all different sizes, but only one seemed to be working. 
“Pause for scan-ning,” it said in Standard then in four other languages. I stopped.
The largest lens threw out a wobbly green beam which scanned me from head to toe twice then presented a scanner. “Palm i-den-ti-fi-ca-tion,” it said in its hollow robotic voice. I laid my hand on it and pressed hard. The reader didn’t move so I assumed the decrepit look was a ruse to fool potential troublemakers. 
Its lens continued to stare at me while the reader did its job. I heard whirring in its guts. There was a strong smell of burning wires, too.
“Wait,” it said and rolled back into its little room but the door stayed open. When it plugged itself into a console, I held my breath.
There’s a light over the doors at either end of the hall. Both were solid red. If this went badly I would have a hard time getting anywhere that I might consider ‘out’. 
The bot disconnected and rolled back out on its wobbly tires, its broken arm swung back and forth. Its good arm didn’t look much better. I was only half sure this thing was an act.
“En-try ap-proved.”
Over the door ahead the light turned green. I couldn’t help myself and smiled at the bot. “Thanks,” I said and walked by the security station. I was better than I thought. No, I was as good as I thought.

What? You said you wanted all the details. Do you want me to tell the story or not?
Okay, then. Where was I?

It was noisy on the other side of those double doors. The laundry, with all its steam and out of balance washers was on the left and a sign pointed the way to the kitchens. I followed the signs to the office, which was on the edge of the production area. Two large mixers - and I mean the giant ones taller than me - stood like sentries facing into the ovens, grills and fryers and clean stainless steel tables. Fortunately, this kitchen was dark. The blinds on the inside of the large window were all the way up. If anyone had been in there, they would have seen me straight away.
It was empty.
I looked all around to make sure I was alone then tried the office door. It was unlocked and I went straight to the desk. All coming up roses, right?
My login didn’t work on the computer. I tried everything I could but no luck. 
The sound of squeaky wheels rolling across the hard tile floor made me hold my breath. A patrolling security bot, a sharper looking twin of the one that let me in, hove around a corner. I had time to duck under the desk to avoid the green sensor beams it threw out. It was looking for anything out of place since the last time it was here.
Which of course was the door to the office that I had stupidly left open.
It rolled over, the axles grinding in the crooked wheels, squealing with every rotation. The Riange sure didn’t spend a lot of money on their bots. 
My mind raced at what to do if I was discovered but I needn’t have worried. The bot pulled the door shut with one of its arms and left the area.
When I realized I was still holding my breath I let it out all at once. My heart pounded hard against my chest and my head thrummed. I was doing something for a change, not just obeying whatever Madeleine wanted. It was like that time that Nuary and I found the city archive, only she wasn’t here to share in my excitement. I took a moment to feel sorry for her and then for myself before getting back to the business at hand. Once I did that I could figure out how to get him to take me off world. Then I could figure out where I really wanted to go.
I turned on the viewpointer and made myself invisible. It wouldn’t stand up to a security scan, no way, but it would keep fleshy eyes and digital pryers from seeing me while I tried the computer again.
After three more tries I realized my mistake. There was an address that had to go after my username. That was a second goof. Nothing monitored my continued attempts to login so I didn’t get locked out. I would have set security up for that along with an alarm that a station was active in an empty room.
Once I got into the system I could look at the hotel registry and find my quarry. Administrative powers rock.
He was on the seventy-eighth floor. A high roller but not in the elite class yet. Close, though. The room was ready for him but he hadn’t checked in yet. I frowned; he had a suite of rooms, not just one. Definitely a high roller.
I checked the roster of housekeeping staff and picked someone who was scheduled off. After I replaced her picture with mine, I was Jaxis Primar in the system. I could open any guest door I needed to.
So I erased my digital tracks and fried the admin identity. 
Time to get upstairs.



* * *



It took forever for someone to come down on the vator. I couldn’t very well call it to an empty kitchen and expect security not to notice. Though given the state of things downstairs that might have worked. I didn’t want to take the risk though. There was plenty of time before Alu Besdiae arrived. And these places all run like clockwork, even late at night so I wasn’t worried.
I say it took forever. Really it was only about ten minutes before two human housekeepers came out. Engrossed in a fascinating conversation.
“—powder everywhere! Every kind of powder you could think of.” The tall mat was pushing a cloth covered cart laden with dirty dishes.
The pat with a lot of body mods including full-sleeve tech ink and piercings all over her exposed skin. Her hair was nice though she was bored with her companion. “You spend too much time obsessing over the guests, Heppe.” 
I slipped onto the elevator and waited for the door to close. 
“Eh,” Heppe said with a shrug. “Doesn’t change the fact that the darmes would love to see who was in that room with all those drugs.”
“So call ‘em,” the pat said. 
The door didn’t close and didn’t close and didn’t close. The two housekeepers disappeared around a corner. I almost reached out to press a floor button. I was desperate to press that damn button and get the vator moving. It finally dinged as the hydraulics whirred the doors closed. I relaxed. Then I punched the button for the seventy-eighth floor. My viewpointer had plenty of battery so I could relax a little more until someone else got on the vator.
I don’t believe in a particular deity. Mama wasn’t devout anything but understood why some found faith important. She tried to teach me that, I suppose, but she ran out of time. My father had religion. It got both him and my mother killed by a Symbi, a fanatic who claimed the same beliefs as my father. Doesn’t matter now. That’s how I ended up an orphan and in the system where Madeleine found me ten years ago.
So - I don’t have religion but I was grateful to whatever powers that be at that moment that no one got on that vator. I thanked the stars and Natostha for that. I allowed myself a sigh of relief when the car slowed. When the doors opened, it was another stroke of luck the hallway was empty. I didn’t think too much about it, about the coincidences. My goal was in reach. 
I was still invisible thanks to the viewpointer. I made my way down the hall, followed the signs toward Alu Besdiae’s room. I made a wrong turn and went halfway down one hall before I realized my mistake. Other than that, I did my best to stay out of the line of sight of the ceiling pryers. It was reasonable to assume no one was watching, but best I didn’t take any chances.
When I got to the room, I checked both ways to ensure no one was coming and quickly keyed in Jaxis Primar’s code. The door opened on the first try.
Now I’ve mentioned I made quite a few mistakes along the way. This was the first time I’d done anything like that. Madeleine raised me to be a polished ambassador as she expected me to follow into her career. My senses were bright and sharp in stark contrast to the flutters in my stomach. If I hadn’t made a huge mistake down in the kitchen office I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today. 
I closed the door behind me and took in the decadent opulence of the suite. The Riange Hotel was truly a grand place despite the pedestrian kitchens below. In the entry was a table and lamp, a mirror and a coat closet. Ahead was a long, deep couch covered in Trenshen leather, with two wing chairs on either side. They all faced inward for a conversation pit. It reminded me of Madeleine’s sitting rooms, where she held her salons. My curiosity carried me into the rest of the suite.
Two bedrooms on either side of the sitting room. One was larger than the other but both had spectacular views of Kinetsia City below. I looked into the refresher too. 
Kinetsia City is the capital of Klekuun as well as the world capital of Lippe. The Riange is the premier hotel in Kinetsia City because it can accommodate visitors from all over the system. Settings in each suite can be changed to make every guest as comfortable as possible. That means that if a guest needs a boiling ammonia bath to clean up, the hotel can provide that. The atmosphere in the room can be mixed to exacting specifications if need be. Furniture and the decor can be tailored to any taste too. Like I said, this is the best hotel on the planet.
So, the ‘fresher, yeah. The hotel puts toiletries in each ‘fresher according to need, too. And what was on the sink and in the bath were items that only a Symbi would use. 
I - well, I have issues with Symbi. I mentioned the fight I had back at school, right? Pul Ljin - the Symbi mat I mentioned - found out my parents were killed by a Symbi. She kept needling me and taunting me about how her race was superior to mine. She wouldn’t stop. 
And because none of the teachers or administrators saw it or heard it, nothing got done.
One day I’d had enough and I fought her as hard as I could. All the rage I felt at being made to feel small and somehow less by this arrogant mat… I couldn’t stand it. Nuary was my lookout when I ambushed Pul and got her down. It’s not clear in my head how many punches I threw but I remember Pul’s face being a mass of scales and blood.
I ended up pulling her shoulder out of its socket. Nuary pulled me off her and Pul Lijn never bothered me again.
For weeks I waited for someone to bust me out for it, but the school never talked to me. I avoided my mother by staying that night at Nuary’s. Every night in my head were recriminations for beating Pul so badly. I hadn’t know I was capable of it and that scared me more than anything else. The realization that I didn’t hate all Symbi startled me. My hate was only for Pul who abused me and the lunatic who killed my parents. They’re bigger than me, you know. They tower. Their lizard eyes make me cringe. Pul was even a head taller than me which is why I sucker punched her.
After that I tried to look every Symbi I encountered in the eye. Hard as I tried not to be intimidated they still terrified me. 
And there was no way in Jommua I wanted to travel with a Symbi. None.
The biggest mistake I’d made that night was not checking the room settings. Once I’d figured out it was a Symbi room, I felt the lack of humidity and a vague tang of ammonia in the air. I had to get out of there.
Which is when the room’s comm squealed and a pat voice asked for Jaxis Primar.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were off today?”
It was her damn supervisor. 
I didn’t answer. Finally, he came back on the speaker and said, “Messeer Besdiae is on his way up. You need to get out of there.”
Of course I ran to the door but stopped short of it, realizing that if I left then he’d know someone had been in there. What if he put two and two together? I mean, Madeleine was about to be in a world of trouble with the darmes. What if he connected the mat running away from him to her? 
Yeah, I was overthinking it, which kept me from bolting. Instead I found the closet in the smaller bedroom and huddled in its darkest corner.
Hoping to Natostha I didn’t have to see him.



©2016 by Jason Arnett. All Rights Reserved. Please share by linking to this page.