Dusk, Book 2
by J.S. Wayne
eBook ISBN: 06896-02221
[ SciFi Romance ]
As the trio grows closer and comes to trust each other, the question of who else can be trusted becomes more timely and important than ever before. Each tick of the clock signals time running out… for Pete, Olivia, and Merrick as well as for a hapless alien race caught in the grip of an assassin with a personal agenda that plays both sides against the middle.
“… And so, it is my great honor to present Colonel Peter Silva with the Dusk Diplomatic Corps Meritorious Service Medal for his courage and heroism in being willing to sacrifice his own safety and life to protect two senior members of the DDC.”
Olivia extended her hand. Pete took it, shaking it as firmly as public decency dictated. He would a lot rather have kissed her, and from the look on her face she was thinking much the same thing. Duty had to come first, though.
A series of rapid whirs and staccato clicks indicated the presence of tri-vid cameras, there to commemorate the occasion for reporting throughout the human-controlled galaxy. He kept his face carefully neutral, trying hard not to think about the intrusive lenses. Olivia hadn’t exactly lied, but she hadn’t told the whole tale to Ambassador Al-Aziz, either. If she had, Pete had no doubt he’d already be on his way off-planet under close armed guard, probably by Kozlowski.
The large man loomed in the background somewhere off to his right, but Pete could feel the intensity of the Naval warrant officer’s stare burning between his shoulder blades. He wasn’t unduly worried about it. Kozlowski couldn’t make any kind of a move without tipping his hand about exactly why he was really here and who he was really working for. Even so, it bothered him that he couldn’t nail the warrant officer down any better than that.
Olivia had finished pinning the medal to the breast of his dress tunic: a stylized supernova emblazoned with the crest of the DDC, depending from a midnight-blue ribbon with alternating white and black stripes. Now she looked at him expectantly, raising her eyebrows. The message was clear. Say something, dolt!
He cleared his throat. “Thank you, Madame Ambassador. I am pleased to have been of assistance to the Dusk Diplomatic Corps.”
If they wanted more of a speech than that, they could form a conga line and kiss his ass for it. Pete had always hated public speaking, and awards ceremonies were the absolute nadir of the public appearance spectrum as far as he was concerned. He couldn’t help thinking about another such ceremony, only months before, when he had stood before a crowd of hostile, grieving faces in this very uniform and handed widows, bereaved parents, and crying, confused children the IC flags that had lately draped their loved ones’ caskets.
It was a dirty secret that many of the caskets did not contain remains. In far too many cases, the destruction had been too complete to make reconstructing the bodies and ensuring that this finger or that splash of blood went with this corpse practical. Pete knew it, and was under orders to keep his mouth shut about it. It would have done no good, General Neville had told him, and would only further sour public sentiment toward the Regina IV massacre.
As if anything he said or did could have made that interplanetary pooch-screw any worse. Pete almost laughed at the notion, even now. With a long breath, he stamped down the threatening, dark chuckle.
Olivia moved to his side and stood, looking directly out at the bemused and somber faces filling the amphitheater. Was it his imagination, or was she bending toward him the way he wanted to bend toward her? More clicking and whirring sounded, and he did his best to look anywhere except at the soulless glass eyes of the cameras. On his other side, he felt another presence, more prickly than Olivia’s but just as supportive in its own way: Merrick. The other man put his hand on Pete’s shoulder in a silent gesture of thanks.
His shoulder jumped and tensed under Merrick’s fingers. Although it didn’t hurt, his body knew it should. That was what happened when you got a hole the size of a pencil burned through your body: it hurt. If anything, it itched like crazy as the cellular matrix Olivia had injected into the wound worked to heal torn and cauterized flesh, blood vessels, and muscle. He didn’t move, but gave the barest hint of a nod, acknowledging Merrick’s presence and the contact.
How strange, to think he had experienced his first moonrise on Dusk, his first threesome, and his — he thought quickly — seventh brush with death all in one day. Any sane person would be hiding under a bed somewhere or demanding a one-way ticket back to Terra, and fuck the promotion that came with this ridiculous gig.
He tensed. On one of the ledges high above the main floor, a dark figure crouched. Although the room blazed with the soft light of a hundred fluorescent lamps and the reflected gleam of the blue diamond table around which the DDC members sat, pools of shadow still yawned in the ribbed vaults between the walls and ceiling. It was in one such swatch of darkness that the figure lurked.
“Who is that?” he murmured out of the side of his mouth to Olivia.
He raised his hand, moving his index finger toward the figure. Before he got it more than halfway up, Olivia quickly smacked it down again. She laughed as if he’d just made the funniest joke ever, but her eyes stayed stern and serious.
“That’s Galacia City Security. They have a presence all around the room. Don’t draw attention to them.”
Pete glanced around and saw it was true. The security people were doing their best to stay unobtrusive, but now he knew what he was looking for, there was no missing them. Two stood near the huge doors. Another pair skirted the crowd, working in opposite directions in an arc that would take them directly past each other. He checked again and picked out no less than four concealed near the ceiling.
If he had to guess, he’d imagine there were at least three times as many as he’d seen.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Call me crazy, but getting shot at makes me a little paranoid.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And you think I somehow missed that incident? I was there, remember?”
He shook his head in apology. “You’re right. Guess we’re both a little jumpy, and we have the right to be.”
She pursed her lips. “I don’t want to be angry at you, Pete. I want this over with so we can go back to my quarters and fuck like restlan all night long.”
“I’d like that, too.” He started to turn, to ask Merrick his opinion, when a thought intruded.
“Tell me about Trelawney’s assassination. I never got the full story on that.”
Olivia’s face darkened incredulously. “Of all the times you could ask about that, you decide to do it now?”
He shrugged. “I was thinking about it. There are some things that don’t add up. Why didn’t they find any DNA, for example? How did the killer manage to enter and leave Trelawney’s quarters without getting picked up by the surveillance equipment? And those are just the obvious questions I have based on what little I’ve heard about it.”
She stuck her lip out in the gesture he was quickly coming to recognize as her signal that she was thinking about something she didn’t much like. It lent her stern, Nordic features a pouty, little-girl cuteness that didn’t detract one whit from her womanly curves. With a sigh she recounted the tale.
He took in the information as she and Merrick alternated, explaining the circumstances behind the erstwhile ambassador’s demise. When they had finished, he frowned. “And GCS found nothing? No DNA, nothing on the monitors?”
“No. It was as if whoever, or whatever, killed Trelawney was a ghost.”
“But they did find a knife in Trelawney’s neck.” He chewed on that for a moment. “And somehow they managed to escape without getting picked up on the monitors, without leaving a blood trail, and without leaving any trace they were ever there. That just doesn’t make sense, unless they somehow used magick –”
He snapped his mouth closed as Olivia and Merrick stiffened, their eyes swiveling to meet his like particle-beam turrets.
“That’s the one thing we didn’t consider. There’s no way to screen for that,” Olivia said slowly. “Every Dusk native can use magick to some degree, and to us, the air hums with it. Magick leaves traces, but against the ambient energy field of so many people using magick at the same time, consciously and otherwise, the only way to detect it would be if someone happened by exactly at the moment the assassination occurred.”
Pete nodded. “And that didn’t happen, as per the security monitors. No one entered or left for fifteen minutes on either side of Trelawney’s death, right?”
Merrick scowled. With the certainty of a man who has made it his life’s business to understand and recognize the behavior of other people, Pete concluded the scowl wasn’t directed at him. Merrick might be prickly as a cactus where Olivia’s safety was concerned, but he wasn’t the kind to shoot the messenger for delivering tidings that ran retrograde to what he wanted to hear. “No.”
Pete opened his mouth to ask a question, but Merrick preempted him. “Even if the assassin was capable of turning invisible, which is not unheard of, he couldn’t have concealed himself from the heat sensors, pressure panels, and visible light monitors all at the same time. Also, he would still have cast a shadow.”
The image brought up an image in Pete’s mind of an ancient Terran fantasy work he’d read as a kid. “Kind of like Frodo and the Ring, right?”
Merrick gave him a comic double-take. “Huh?”
Olivia laughed. “I get the reference. Tolkien, Merrick.”
Merrick grumbled. “I hated that series.”
“Not everyone thinks grav-ball is the ultimate expression of human ability.”
The taller man flushed. “It just seemed so bland compared to my everyday life. Hairy midgets running around, trying to throw a ring in a volcano? Blah, blah, blah. I was learning how to do things that would make that wizard shit his robes before I could walk.”
“Okay, but the point is that you get the idea. If there was no indication of anyone in the corridor, we can conclude one of two things. Either the entire security system encountered a meltdown at the exact same time and then came on just in time not to catch anything amiss…”
“Couldn’t happen,” Olivia broke in. “Too many redundancies.”
“… Or the assassin was never physically present,” Pete plowed on over the top of her protest. “Which means either there was no assassin, which given the placement of the blade is highly unlikely because suicides don’t generally stab themselves in the back of the neck, or the assassin was somehow able to kill him remotely.”
Olivia flinched, the blood draining from her face until he imagined he could see right through her into the crowd beyond. “That –”
“Ah, there you are, Colonel.”
Pete turned to see Al-Aziz and Kozlowski striding toward him in precise step. The ambassador’s burnished bronze face was fixed in a coldly neutral expression.
“I wished to offer you congratulations on your award, and ask the favor of your company in my quarters so we can discuss a few matters of great import to our business here.” Al-Aziz visibly flinched, steeling himself before reaching up and brushing one hand down the right side of Pete’s tunic. “If you will excuse us,” he said to Olivia and Merrick. His tone made it clear he wasn’t making a request.
“Thank you for your assistance, Colonel. I look forward to speaking with you later.”
“As I do you, Ambassador.” Pete felt the armor of training and bearing sliding over him automatically, providing a cool, professional buffer between his emotions and the outside world. “We will talk soon, I trust.”
He barely managed to check the look of loathing that tried to slip through from showing on his face. Instead, he contented himself with a pleasant image of burning the Terran envoy to so many cinders as Kozlowski took up a flanking position. Al-Aziz swept out of the chamber, his robes flowing behind him like his own personal sandstorm at a pace that had the military men scrambling to keep up.
As the trio rushed through the corridors, no one made any attempt to talk. Pete was too busy sulking and feeling the weight of Kozlowski’s stare on him to have any interest in conversation, and from the way the warrant’s eyes bored into him, the other man was too busy making sure Pete didn’t do anything untoward. Meanwhile Al-Aziz was busy doing what he did best, which for Pete’s credits was being a precious, pompous asshole.
Finally they reached the ambassador’s suite. The doors opened to reveal a sizable sitting chamber, maybe half again the size of Pete’s accommodations. Al-Aziz didn’t speak until they were all inside and the doors securely closed. Kozlowski took up a post against the doors, his body language just a little too casual to be genuine.
“Well, Colonel, you have certainly had an interesting day.”
Pete said nothing.
“I’m speaking to you, Colonel.” Al-Aziz’s voice held a distinct undertone of threat.
“Yes, Ambassador,” he replied.
“I do not know what you were doing with Ambassador Gunnarson and her… bodyguard. What is more, I do not care. However, your idiocy in being shot comes at the worst possible time. Are you trying to destabilize these negotiations?”
Something at the base of Pete’s skull gave way with a resounding twang! Before he realized he was speaking, he grated, “No, Ambassador. Next time, I’ll ask whoever tried to kill me if they can pretty-please hold off until it won’t cause you any inconvenience.”
Al-Aziz froze in place and swiveled his head around to eye Pete incredulously.
“What did you just say?”
In for a penny, Pete thought, and repeated himself, drawing the words out to ensure each syllable carried the maximum payload of insult.
Al-Aziz’s complexion took on a ruddy, mottled hue. “Colonel, I will not tolerate your disrespect or your insubordination. You are a member of this party because I specifically requested a Marine to serve as my military attaché. That means General Neville gave you to me, and until such time as I have no further need of you, you are my property.”
Pete’s heart thudded a little bit faster as Al-Aziz’s words sank in. The rush of blood to his head crushed his vision into a narrow tunnel of black shot with scorching red flickers at the edges of his vision, and only long experience enabled him to fight off the crimson tide that threatened to coat everything in his line of sight. He spoke, his voice a low, deadly monotone crackling with incipient carnage. “Ambassador, allow me to be crystal clear. I am not your or anyone else’s property. I will follow my orders as they were given to me and I will do exactly what is required to support this mission. But I am not bought and paid for. Not by you, not by Neville, not by the Corps, and not by anyone or any-goddamn-thing else. Do I make myself perfectly plain?”
As the last echoes of his voice died from the room, he realized somewhere during his tirade his voice had gone from cold, flat and calm to thermonuclear. Although Al-Aziz stood some three inches taller than him, he felt as if he was viewing the ambassador from a vast height.
Al-Aziz smirked at him, plainly pleased to have gotten under his skin. “Colonel, I have seen the orders you were given. They are not subject to interpretation. You will obey them, to the letter, or I will have you packed back up to the Fallujah’s brig. Do I make myself perfectly plain?”
“Yes, Ambassador.” The words hissed and crackled with barely restrained rage. “I understand entirely.”
“Good. Now. You will tell me everything that transpired between you and the ambassador.”
“No, I will not. I will tell you everything that is relevant to our mission, Ambassador. Not one syllable more.”
Al-Aziz’s face went ashen. “Colonel, you are playing a very dangerous game.”
“I’m not playing any game at all. You want to hear about what happened that has bearing on our mission, fine. You want me to tell you about the attack, done. I’m not here so you can live vicariously through me, Ambassador. Do not make the mistake of assuming I’m your lapdog and can be brought to heel. I don’t care how big the goon behind me is or what he thinks he’s going to do to stop me.”
“The ‘goon behind’ you, as you so eloquently put it, is here to ensure you do your part to make the mission successful. We want that magickstone very, very badly, Colonel. If you compromise our objective, I will reupholster my seat on the Terran Council with your flayed skin.”
Pete yawned. It had been a long day, his shoulder itched and ached like all blazes, and the ambassador’s threat just didn’t have enough fangs to make him sit up and take notice. He’d received more creatively worded threats from far scarier individuals and it hadn’t made a dent. Al-Aziz’s limp promise didn’t do much to raise Pete’s blood pressure.
“Do you know what the most amazing thing about this conversation is, Ambassador?”
Al-Aziz produced a fluted crystal flask and began to pour the light green liquid within into a glass. “What is that, Colonel?”
“The most amazing thing about this conversation is that we’re still having it,” Pete replied. He turned on his heel and found himself nose to chin with Kozlowski. “Make a hole, Warrant Officer,” he commanded.
“I can’t do that, Colonel.” Kozlowski’s demeanor was that of someone mentally cracking his knuckles in anticipation of violence. “You’re not going anywhere until the ambassador says otherwise.”
“I gave you an order, Warrant Officer Kozlowski.”
Kozlowski moved his right leg a half meter outward and a quarter meter back. “You’re not leaving, sir.”
Pete thought for a moment. Then the way forward became clear.
“I’m going to go around you. If you try to attack me, I will defend myself with extreme prejudice. Then, while you’re healing from the severe beating I will administer to you, I will contact the Fallujah and prefer charges for a court-martial. And unlike this flouncing jack-off –” He tossed his head in the general vicinity of Al-Aziz “– I can get it done.”
He took one crisp step to the right and stepped around the blocky warrant officer. To his mingled surprise and disappointment, neither man made a move to stop him. The door opened in response to his proximity, and he stalked out without a backward glance.