Monday, July 18, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter One

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.

Let's dive right in.


I’m not a very nice person. 
Maybe that’s not true any more, but it was then. At best, I was disloyal and vindictive. At worst - well, I’m a thief. And a liar. Probably a lot worse. Maybe I wasn’t always this way, I don’t know. Who’s to say?
But if you had to make the choices I made you might understand, you might not. You might think you’re better than me. I hope you are.
Mm hm.

Yeah, I was raised with a lot of privilege so I don’t expect any sympathy. I wouldn’t respect you if you offered it. Not that you would.
But you paid for my story, not the whining. That’s free. Phew.
Okay. Where to start?
My plans to get off world were on track. Everything that had to happen was checked off except for this one last thing. As much as I didn’t want to do it, I figured Messeer and Medayma Mons should know what happened to their daughter. I respected them more than anyone else so I stopped on my way to the ‘port. There was time. 
Their daughter, Nuary, had been missing for three weeks. She and I met my first day at Vember Selixe Academy and were friends by the end of the second. Best friends after the first week. She was there on a welfare scholarship from the city and I was a daughter of a prominent political figure. Nuary had excellent grades and worked hard but her parents lacked status. They were Eutoma, the newest human species to assimilate into the Systems. A thousand years ago. My people are Pirousian, who the histories say are the original humans. 
Mostly the differences between the various human species is genetic. There’s not a lot of physical variation between us; my features are a little broader, my eyes a little bigger than Nuary’s were, my skin a couple shades darker, her hair less straight than mine but it’s not important. Well. It’s important to a bunch of small-minded bigots who think they run things. It was important to Nuary because no one at the Academy ever let her forget where she came from or who her forbears were. 
Teachers spent little time on her questions in class when they bothered to call on her at all. They would ‘forget’ appointments they agreed to for after class or before school. I spent many evenings in this same living room studying with her, drinking Medayma Mons’s tea. She made the best biscuits, too. Better than Cyleen, the cook at the embassy.
Nuary’s disappearance was written off as a common lower class runaway. She would turn up or she wouldn’t and the Darmes didn’t care. The Monses didn’t have any money to make them care, either. Medayma Mons offered me tea, the same as she had after I’d fought with that Symbi girl a couple years before. It seemed so cruel to tell them the truth that I started out by saying goodbye. Then I had to explain why I was leaving. I skirted the issue as long as I could but their daughter was dead; murdered by a sex-crazy politician in a posh hotel
Of course they crumbled. Their sweet daughter was the first in their family to have a decent future ahead, was. They held each other and cried their eyes out. I kept my distance until Medayma Mons folded me into their embrace and I cried too. It was all the closure any of us would get.
“I should go,” I said, pulling away from them. I wanted to stay with them, eat with them, mourn with them. I felt the block of ice form around my heart again as I wiped at the corner of my eyes. My valise floated up and waited to follow me.
The Monses were still teary, but Messeer Mons was regaining control. He pointed at the documents floating in a window at his shoulder. The little egg that projected them lay on the coffee table. “How could all this be true? Are you sure? She was selling herself?”
No reason to lie, that would have been more cruel. “I’m sure.”
“Did you know what she was doing? Did she tell you?” He waited for me to answer, he implored me with his eyes to answer. I looked at Medayma Mons weeping silently on the couch. I told him the truth. My heart broke all over again.
“No,” I said, quiet. “I knew something was going on but she kept me out of it. I had no idea until I found all - this.”
Messeer Mons’ mouth turned down and quivered. Tears gushed down his cheeks. I wanted to hug him but I didn’t. When he got some control again, he bowed and said, “I — please take our blessing with you. We will pray for your safety.” 
“Please -“ Medayma Mons’ voice shook, “do you know who did this? Who sold her to that mat?” She was begging. 
I could have said ‘no’, I could have left it for them to hear from the press in a couple of hours. I could have. Instead I tapped on the sleeve of my raincoat then I slid two fingers from elbow to wrist. A keyboard lit up and I looked at Nuary’s parents again, wanting to be sure. They nodded.  Slowly I entered a four character sequence. The documents floating in the air behind Messeer Mons cleared the way for a  picture to come into view. When it resolved itself, I looked away though I heard them both gasp.
Messeer Mons grabbed my arm. He wasn’t trying to hurt me but the look on his face made it clear he wanted to hurt someone. After a moment, he softened and took my face in both his hands. “I am so sorry for you. I understand now. Go in peace and know that you are forever welcome at our table.”
He turned back to his wife to comfort her. 
I left.

* * *

Before the door closed I had my viewpointer on. Now I appeared to be a middle-aged, pear-shaped Procyon with long, droopy whiskers and a lot of gray fur in my mask and around my snout. The trick to using that kind of tech is to remember the size of the body. I had to give anyone I met a wide berth or the illusion was broken. My own modifications added a very slight scent to throw off anyone sensitive.
When the vator came, I was glad no one was in it. As it dropped forty floors to the street I counted my blessings that the Monses hadn’t thrown me out. They could have. If the situations were reversed, I might have done. My regret was that they would be asked questions they couldn’t answer. They would survive and in the end be as okay as anyone who loses a child could be. 
I pressed another command into the keyboard on my sleeve to kill the snoop circuit in the vator car. Then I switched my viewpointer profile again. My face was different and my jacket changed colors but I looked human. The valise hadn’t changed during any of this and wasn’t part of the program. I would have to install an accessory circuit when I had the chance.
The lobby was empty and it was still pouring outside. I commanded the valise to pop my umbrella out as I walked toward the street. It opened and floated over my head as I stepped out from the covered entrance. It was wide enough to keep me dry. The viewpointer incorporated rivulets of rain squirming on the water repellent, tight woven fabric of my jacket. I worried more about the antique valise. My boots were high and I was warm and dry.
 My hack waited at the curb. I took a deep breath and walked down to the sidewalk. The door on the hack opened and I pushed the valise ahead of me then got in. The umbrella folded itself and I grabbed it out of the air.
With the door shut I told the driver to take me to the Compass. “Departures, please.” I was still ahead of schedule but I could easily get lost in the spaceport crowds. The viewpointer made it easy, too. 
The driver was a Tenebrian mat. He had a neck like a tree stump and scales the color of  Baelian lavender. His huge black eyes drooped with a kind of I’ve-seen-it-all-and-nothing’s-going-to-surprise-me look. The gills in his neck opened and closed regularly with a slight wheeze like other silfolk I’d met. A thin ring at his shirt collar kept him hydrated with an intermittent mist. He programmed the hack for the journey then turned to face me. He laid his arm across the back of the driver’s seat and drummed his webbed claws on the leather. “Compass, Terminal 41. Direct route?”
I nodded.
“Two seventy-five plus thirty extra for water mess,” he said. Half his long face was in shadow, his purplish scales tinged green by the dash lights. He was missing more than a few whiskers on either side. “You got chitte?”
Private transportation was an extravagance. As much money as I had it wouldn’t last forever if I kept spending like a - well, like a spoiled child. I paid the fare then added a tip. 
He snorted at the ten percent extra I gave him but grabbed the stick and pushed the car out into the street. We headed upward into the remains of rush hour traffic, just like I planned. Everything was on schedule.
So I took the opportunity to check that all the other moving parts of my plan were working properly. He wouldn’t be able to see my screen even if he leaned back to try. I knew that if he got out of his driver’s seat, the hack would lock and he’d end up losing his job. That was why I chose that company. It was likely he really needed the job because the company only hired ex-cons, then extorted half their salaries. 
I opened a screen with the controls on my sleeve.
My money was safely being transferred to the Chantun Confederation. That was as close to a universal account as I could get and it was the most secure. It was the best I could do to have access to my money wherever I ended up. 
I decided to check the newsfeeds to see if the story had broken yet. 
Nothing. Not a word.
There was still time for me to get to the ‘port and get launched so I opened the shipline’s website. This was not as good. My flight off planet was cancelled and rescheduled for the next morning. I wondered if there was something sinister behind it. Notification emails in my inbox were waiting for me to open them so maybe it was on the up and up. Maybe not. The Darmes weren’t dummies. And they had the files I sent them. Maybe they were waiting at the Compass for me. No way I could trust my cover now.
I was going to miss Kinetsia City. It sprawled below the car for forty square miles, right up to the ocean, lighting up the night. A beacon for incoming starship boats. Ten years here in the care of my adoptive mother was hard to let go but it was necessary. Whatever the repercussions of my actions, I didn’t want to be around to feel them. Nuary’s fate was bad. Mine could be a lot worse.
So how the hell was I going to get off planet? Glad you asked.
In a matter of moments I had a discrete connection running through more than a dozen proxies. The embassy had three separate heavy duty firewalls. With a little push here and there I could open up a remote connection to my mother’s desk so I did. I wanted to check the logs and see where she was given the note I dropped on her two hours ago.
She was moving her money and a couple of fake identities around with ease. Madeleine was thorough, ensuring no one but her knew where all her personal wealth was. She was going to have to hide for a long time and she couldn’t go back to her own home world because I’d ratted her out.
And don’t presume it was easy to betray my adoptive mother. If I’m not nice, she’s positively vicious. We’ll get to that, don’t worry.
Her browser histories downloaded automatically but nothing out of the ordinary caught my eye. I checked the activity logs to see what programs she had been using recently. Nothing there, either. But Madeleine was looking for the breach. She set up a hound to trace all the keystrokes on her system for the last year. It was following the dead ends I’d left for it, chasing its own tail round and round. I smiled at the thought that the master manipulator was now a victim. I wished I could see her face.
Madeleine had her calendar open. All her meetings and appointments were cancelled except for one: a two hour meeting with Alu Besdiae. I watched her open an email to him then close it. That made me wonder, so I downloaded the calendar and opened it in a separate window. I checked to make sure the Tenebrian driver wasn’t trying to pry then looked Besdiae up.
Nothing. She had an alarm that his ship was arriving tonight and a meeting set up to see him for two hours tomorrow. I switched on a new tab and tried to search for him. I assumed it was him because Madeleine rarely made a meeting for longer than fifteen minutes. Knowing that she loves pats I assumed that Alu Besdiae, whoever he was, was a potential lover. I wondered what would happen when he heard the news of Madeleine’s troubles? He had to have a ship of his own to be coming in to the Compass as late as he was, maybe he could get me off the planet? According to the alarm on Madeleine’s calendar, he was staying at the Riange Hotel.
Maybe he wasn’t a potential lover. Maybe they were business partners.
Maybe that business had resulted in the death of my best friend.
An alert popped up. 
The story about Nuary’s death was live. Of course they led with reports of debauchery and corruption at the Olan Embassy. Sex sells everything. My adoptive mother was not named directly but was the prime suspect by implication. The Darmes spokesbeing said there were several people of interest on their list and declined to name any of them. Reporters and anchors speculated wildly.
Another alert showed up, this one glowing red, chiming and blinking to get my attention. Someone was trying to access my screen, trying to observe me the way I was observing Madeleine.
I cut the connection, whipped off my rain jacket and rolled down the window. The wind was cold at this altitude and sharp, like ice needles in a wind tunnel.
“Hey!” the Tenebrian driver turned around. “Don’t do that!”
I shoved my jacket out the open window and closed it. Rubbing my arms to warm up, I told the driver: “Change of plans. Take me to the Kez.”
“That’s clear back the other direction! Look, kid…”
“I’ll double the fare. Cash.” I waved the bills at him. “Only report what you have to.”
He looked at me sidewise, shrugged. “Your money, kid.”
When I laid the bills on the seat next to him, he smiled. I sat back and watched my adopted home get closer as he piloted the car back to the west and down to ground level.
That’s when I let the fantasy in my head get out of control.

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