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

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