Three words of warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.
Big time. I'm currently working on--and snippeting from--the section of the book after the big climax has occurred (cough cough...yeah, double entendre intended, sorry, but I couldn't resist). Click through the jump break to read the next sequential scene of the book. Again. it's draft, subject to change, probably contains missing words or typos (or both) not to mention Microsoftian formatting quirks but hey, it's free. ^_^ Tell me what you think in the comments - your feedback is salve for my soul.
# aftermaths #
Joshua had wondered if he’d ever get a minute to speak alone with Shayla. The way her Proctors hovered, it was a wonder she didn’t go mad before now. Then again, she’d been acclimated to this behavior all her life. She’d been a child when she’d come here. She’d grown up with the Grey Suits around every corner. It wasn’t normal, not for a human and certainly not for a Phoenician, but it was her normal. She’d probably be uncomfortable if she realized she was alone in the room with himself and Brennan.
Luckily for him, Brennan wasn’t likely to be getting up until the medic had him stitched and anesthetized. He was glad to have Jared coming. He knew the man. He could ask the man to medically-require that Brennan stay put in his quarters if it came to that, but hopefully, Brennan wouldn’t prove so difficult to contain. More difficult than he had already, that is.
Joshua crouched down in front of Shayla, to make sure he was in her range of vision, and rested his hands on her knees. She still held the knife in her lap, cradling its hilt in a dangerously fixated way. Joshua knew that look in her eye. He’d had it in his own eyes more than once. He also knew why she’d cut off her hair. It was a thing Mates did to signify they were in mourning, so all who met them would know of their loss. It was a means of releasing the emotional turmoil. He’d tried it once himself, a lifetime ago, when his first wife had died. It hadn’t worked and he’d resorted to more extreme measures of self-destruction, so he understood the point of the Phoenician custom. He just doubted it would prove effective enough to give Shayla respite from her pain right now.
He’d heard that Phoenicians used to cut off a hand. That would have helped Joshua grieve in the past but he’d been watched over like some crown prince and unable to try it out. He didn’t think Shayla would try it but he was actually worried given the way she was fiddling with the hilt of the knife. He wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to stop her should she make a move with it. He didn’t think even he could double talk his way out of it should the sole Phoenician living among the humans manage to slice off her own hand—or anything other than her hair. If she were already Mated—and she probably was—then just the absence of her hair was going to be hard enough to explain. He was definitely going to have to explain her situation, he could see that now. His future held a very uncomfortable conversation with seven very old men.
“Shayla,” He spoke quietly, soothingly. “We only have a few minutes before one of your Proctors finds an excuse to come back in here, so I need you to focus, please. I know you want to avenge this, to take action against them for what happened to Raif, but I’m begging you, please don’t. Not yet.”
“I don’t need your permission.” Her voice was low, her eyes still fixed on the gleaming metal in her lap.
“No, but your people—”
“They will forgive me. Afterwards.” She looked up, a distance in her eyes. Her lashes were still wet from tears but the tears had definitely stopped now. She’d moved on into anger. Unfortunately, Joshua also knew that look all too well.
“Raif always said it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” She choked on a sudden sob. “I never understood how he could say that—until now. I understand now. They will forgive me after I have done this.”
“What are you going to do?”
She looked him in the eye and her gaze was cold enough to send a chill down his spine, not an easy feat after the things he’d seen in his many lifetimes. He’d only seen a Phoenician look at him with those glowing blue eyes once before. He hadn’t feared for his life back then, being protected by the circle of old men, but he was worried now. She could kill him with a thought.
“I’m going to kill them. All of them.”
He didn’t doubt she could and even would—if no one stopped her—but he had to try to stop her. She blinked slowly and the light faded from her eyes.
“How will you know who’s to blame, Shayla?”
“Charlie told me.”
“He could have lied.”
“Not about this. You have no idea what’s been going on here, Joshua, locked away in your big house on the—”
“I know about your plans for an uprising, Shayla.”
She looked back down at the blade in her lap and started spinning the hilt around between her fingers, making the gleaming metal catch the light in the room. “Then you do understand. This was deliberate. I cannot let it go unanswered. They have to answer for this.”
“If you still have loyalties to your friends, to that plan—”
She looked up at that. He’d forgotten how tied to plans the Phoenicians were. It was a superstitious belief but he could use it. “The plan included vengeance on them, didn’t it? Just stick to the plan, Shayla.”
“They didn’t. Why should I? People like Dramond and Kindi have no honor. They don’t deserve a dignified departure from the Council—and they’re not the only ones behind this. I can’t let any of them remain. There’s only one way to kill a Gorthon worm and make it stay dead. You can’t just cut off one head, Joshua. It just grows another. They’ve been in this together…” She looked back down at the knife. “They’ll go out together.”
She was fully-vested in this, he now realized. She was willing to kill herself to avenge Raif’s death. He couldn’t let her just throw her life away, not after everything he’d gone through to make peace with her people.
“Will you give up your honor for this?” He asked, knowing now how to reach her. “Shayla, you know Raif kept a lot of young Proctors alive over the years, and he didn’t ask forgiveness to do it. He asked permission. Always. And he never acted alone when he had someone there to cover his back. More than half the Proctors on the planet are going to want to avenge Raif’s death—for their own honor. So many are alive today because of Raif. Let them repay him with honor and dignity. Let me help you find a way that doesn’t involve a blood bath. No one needs to die for this. Spilling blood won’t honor anyone, especially not Raif.”
“Blood will be spilled. It won’t be mine.”
“Will you have the Proctors Corps slaughtered to feed your need for vengeance?”
“What do you want from me?”
“Let me go with you, we’ll ask permission together.”
“Whose permission, Joshua? I’m a Senior Councillor. You’re the Administrator. Just whose permission do you think we need?”
“The Seven Chiefs. They’ll have a plan for this. They always have a plan.”
“That’s the problem with asking their permission. Fine. I’ll ask them. I don’t guarantee to obey their requests.”
He found it unlikely she would disobey the Seven Chiefs. No one disobeyed the Seven Chiefs. Twice. But his concerns were allayed by her agreement to ask. At least they’d be informed and know he’d tried to stop her. What really settled his nerves, however, was the fact that she gave him back Brennan’s knife.
When Jared, the MedTech, arrived, Joshua had him examine Shayla first, just to be sure she was physically unharmed by whatever it was she’d done to Raif. Joshua had seen a body incinerated by a Phoenician throw before—it hadn’t looked like that. He’d seen two different versions of remains after a Phoenician throw. The first had been a corpse lying on a funeral altar and the clan of the deceased had combined their throws to incinerate the remains into a light, powdery ash that flowed up in the resultant sudden hot air column and then fell on the mourners like snow. The focused and directed throws of the circle of mourners had left nothing behind on the pyre.
He’d also seen the results of a Phoenician throw on a human. Back in the early days, almost a hundred years of expansion after the humans had first landed here, there’d been a lot of conflict between the two peoples. The stubborn humans wouldn’t take the hint that the planet was already inhabited and the Phoenicians didn’t like the attempts to displace them. It was their world, after all. The humans were welcome to go back to their own. Except, of course, they couldn’t. The remains left behind when a Phoenician attacked a human, one on one that way, were more ash than a funeral pyre powder but far less charred corpse than was the thing on Shayla’s bed.
The thing on her bed was disturbing in the extreme.
He needed to get those remains out of this room and then he needed to get this room out of her mind. The Seven Chiefs might help with the latter but he knew just the man for the first job. While Jared examined Shayla, Joshua took advantage of the fact Brennan was physically immobilized to have a quiet conversation with him about it.
Crouched in front of his damaged future, Joshua said, “I’m taking her back to Phoenician land. While we’re gone, you’re going to do two things, just two. No more, no less. Are you listening?” Brennan tried to nod. “One, get rid of that thing on the bed. Get rid of the bed with it.” Joshua raised his index finger when Brennan’s mouth opened to object. “It’s not Raif anymore and I don’t ever want her to see it again. She’ll have nightmares about this for years even if I take steps to prevent it. Have MedTech dispose of the remains, Jared will liaise for you there, and then have the entire room sanitized, floor to ceiling. Make sure there’s not one molecule of Raif’s DNA left in this room. If I thought she’d be willing to change quarters, I’d suggest you get her a new assignment, but I’m guessing she’d object?”
“Yeah, no way she’s moving. Raif tried to move her into Gaultier’s place more than once over the years before I came along and—bottom line, he said, she’s never moving out of here. He planned on giving me Gaultier's place because he wasn't using it. He was going to stay with her wherever she..." Brennan glanced over at the bed again. "I think this is the only home she’s ever had.”
Joshua knew the problem. She’d nested here and that made her harder to dislodge from her home than a moon from its orbit. “All right, then, we can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, so we shall have to move the mountain.”
“No one. It’s an old saying. Have the room emptied before you set up the cleaning crew. Everything is to be taken out of here and destroyed. Have the rest of her Proctors help you pack up her personal items but use plain, impersonal containers. Requisition some movers and have them take a cut of the repo. They can sell some of it on the Black Market for more than their work crew fees after the union dues are paid. You’ll be in charge of this project but you obviously won’t be doing the physical labor.
“If your fellow Proctors won’t do it, I’ll authorize a work crew under the Administrator’s Office. No one will question anything with that level of authorization. Draw on Raif’s funds in the Gaultier account to buy new furniture.” When Brennan started looking worried, Joshua added, “You’re going to have to get used to giving orders, and spending his money and most especially, you’ll need to become accustomed to getting what you want, when you want it. Redecorating a vacant room isn’t much but you have to start somewhere. Just arrange everything exactly the same way it is now using new materials. You don’t even have to decide anything. You have the codes for his bank accounts, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’m not in charge of the team, Collier made that real clear and I know Raif never wanted to put me in charge. He was talking to Ronen. He’s the guy—”
“I know who Ronen is. Let him direct your teammates if it makes you feel better, delegate whatever tasks you like but ultimately, you’re in charge of this project. I’m giving you personal responsibility for this matter. Do you understand? It’s personal, not business, and if anything goes wrong, I’ll hold you responsible, not Ronen, not Collier, not any of the other Proctors. Understood?”
“Good. Now the other matter. Can you speak as freely to Julia Travis and Ashley Rains as you do with me? Will you be intimidated by their being Councillors?” Brennan shrugged then winced when the broken collarbone complained. Joshua went on, “Then you’re also in charge of informing the…what shall we call them? Rebellion? Freedom fighters? Hm, let Ashley pick the name for their little group. Propaganda’s his department, and because I know your Tactical scores, I’m going to give you a little help planning the balance of the rebellion.”
“I thought we already settled this, Brennan. I know what they’re doing. You know what they’re doing. We all know what’s really going on here. Isn’t your friend in Julia’s department in on it as well?”
“Yeah, okay, so you know but—look, I can tell Julia and Ashley what happened to Raif, or what I think happened, but—”
“But you’ll need help to plan a response.”
“It’s not just that. I can’t get involved, in the middle of—they’re gonna overthrow everyone. I’m just a Proctor.”
“I know, which is why I’d like to suggest you work with someone more capable of managing the situation—and the people. Would that be all right with you?”
“Depends who you got in mind. Collier only got an eighty-two on Tactical and I don’t think he actually took the Strategic course. Besides, he hates me. He’ll screw it up just to get rid of me.”
“This isn’t an exam, Brennan, this is real life—real lives are going to be lost. Haven’t you ever seen anything more serious than those scuffles with the Spooks we had back in Trouville?”
Brennan shook his head in the negative.
So he’d never face real battle against a formidable enemy—or one who could think beyond the next five minutes. “All right then, this is what we’re going to do. William Harrington will be your very special advisor. You’ve spent some time with him. Do you think you can take orders from him? Pass orders from William onto your team? Ronen’s team. Whosever team the other Proctors are in your mind.”
“What were his scores?”
Joshua noted Brennan was suppressing a grin. It faded as soon as Joshua said, “One hundred and five on Tactical and one hundred and twelve on Strategics.”
“He got everything right and all the extra credits?”
“He wrote the extra credits. Now, can you shut up and take orders from William or do I need to put Collier in charge after all and let you confine yourself to redecorating her quarters?”
“I’m not a decorator. I can work with Harrington.”
“Good, but you’re still going to do both. Wait until we’re gone and start with getting this room cleared.” Brennan motioned to indicate his incapacitation. “As soon as you can manage to get up, requisition the work crew. I’ll make one available that you can trust and they’ll just so happen to be next on the roster, so don’t waste time security-checking them. Just take the first crew issued to the Administrator’s Office I advise you to manage them so that this room is cleared before William arrives but at the very least, don’t let Julia and Ashley see that corpse. In fact, don’t let anyone but William or the work crew in here until it’s cleared, understood?”
“You know Ronen and Collier have already seen it? Bowman, too.”
“I’ll take care of them. William should be able to get here within the hour, maybe less. At that point, you should contact Julia and Ashley—unless he’s already contacted them before he locates you. He’s very good at multi-tasking and he’ll anticipate your very thoughts. Don’t let it throw you. e He aI should have Shayla back here tomorrow, though honestly, I really can’t say how long this business will take. Her people have their own customs for these things.”
“Why are you taking her back there?”
“Because I’m afraid only the Seven Chiefs can control her at this point and honestly, I think they’re the best ones to handle…her perception of the situation. Unless you think I should allow her to massacre half the Council in a bloody streak of vengeance?”
Brennan gulped and looked past Joshua’s shoulder. “So she’s over the shock and thinking about vengeance already?”
“Oh, yes, she’s firmly grounded in anger now. The sooner I get her out of range, the better for everyone.” Joshua paused then added, “Especially those of us who remind her of Raif.”
Brennan looked up at him, puzzled, glanced over at the bed and looked back in horror. Joshua was pleased to see it had finally occurred to him that if she could do that to Raif, whom she loved, she could do far worse to them, whom she barely knew.
[to be continued]