If you haven't been reading along, you can catch up by clicking on Conditioned Response in the tag cloud to bring up a list of earlier snippets from my upcoming SciFi Thriller.
The release date was scheduled for December 31, 2011, but it's looking more and more each week like I'll have to reschedule that for January, 2012. I'd rather deliver a polished work, late, than a mediocre work, early.
As always, 3 words of warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!
If you're kewel with spoilers, go ahead and click through the jump-break to read the end of the chapter, in sequence, with what's been snippeted before. If you don't like spoilers, please don't blame me for accidental clicks.
Getting Shayla into clothes, so she could travel, proved a challenge. She finally acquiesced when Joshua stopping arguing against her wearing Raif’s jacket. The brown one he’d had on the last few days was about ten sizes too big for her, the sleeves coming down past her hands, the bottom reaching nearly to her knees, but Joshua knew she didn’t care how it fit. She didn’t want it for a its utility as a piece of clothing. She wanted it for the little bits of him she might still get out of it. The scent of his body, a random strand of his hair, any of the little marks he might’ve gotten on the fabric during their two days of travels. She’d want to keep all of those remnants for the memories they’d preserve. Her attachment to the jacket did, at least, remind Joshua to give Brennan one additional task.
“Clean out his quarters. Make sure you trust whomever it is you task to that activity because until we know who did this and why, everyone’s a suspect. You should trust them implicitly—or tell William and he’ll bring in someone from the outside. Just don’t give anyone an opportunity to examine his things until we’ve gone through them for evidence.”
“What am I supposed to do with it all?”
“Send it over to Gaultier’s. Your genetic print should gain you access to his life—and allow you to control access to it by others. Restrict it, that is. I’m surprised that hasn’t sunk in by now. I’ll have my own people sift through it. My genetic print should gain the same access.”
It took Brennan a minute, but then his eyes went wide and he said, “Wait, so you mean all this time, Raif and I could’ve—either one of us could’ve pretended to be you?”
“Thank God you’re not a complete idiot. I was beginning to worry even years of training wouldn’t be enough to salvage you.”
Joshua strapped Shayla into the passenger seat of his Viper with surprisingly little difficulty. He’d expected her to object but she’d hardly said another word after he’d taken Brennan’s knife away from her. It’d be more correct to say she’d given him the weapon just to make him shut up about it. Then she hadn’t said another word to him. Normally, he didn’t mind it when a woman gave him the silent treatment, but he needed to talk to her again before they landed.
Once he thought he could be coherent about it, he tried to sound non-chalant and said, “Shayla, there’s something you need to know about me before we land.”
“Thank you, but I know as much about you as I can take right now.”
“Shayla, have I offended you? Because after our nice, little holiday in—”
She scoffed and shook her head. “That five minutes was a lifetime ago. Raif’s lifetime.” She looked out the window, pointedly away from him, and muttered, “It’s hard to believe I can fit into this tiny cabin what with your ego along for the ride.” She turned back to him and said clearly, “I don’t know how I ever thought you were anything like Raif. You’re not even half the man he was.”
Joshua had hardly known his late descendant, and the fact he still thought of him as “the lost sample” certainly didn’t raise the man’s esteem in Joshua’s mind. Even so, Joshua’s ego was a little bruised by her implication that he didn’t measure up to a dead Proctor. There were hundreds of dead Proctors every year, hundreds of thousands had come and gone over Joshua’s lifetime, yet Joshua was still here. Surely that counted for something.
“I’m not the villian here, Shayla. Just so you know, everything I’ve done has been intended help, not harm.”
She added, “Just so you know, everyone in the Phoenician camp has met Raif. They know and love him. Most have sat over a meal with him and over the years, we’ve overlooked the fact that he’s not, technically, Phoenician. He’s learned our ways and practically become a member of my clan, so when you show up at my side looking like you think you’re him or some kind of replacement for him, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with the reception you get. I appreciate the ride, Joshua, but your kind are not welcome among my people. There’s a reason for that Closure I just pushed through the Council. It was to keep your kind out. You can drop me and leave. I’ll find my own way out.”
“I’m not dropping you off and…Shayla, I’m sorry if my relationship to Raif bothers you. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t ever supposed to meet you or even be him.”
“That’s right, he was supposed to be you, and now you’re planning to take Brennan’s life instead, aren’t you?”
“No! I’m not taking anything. I’m making Brennan an offer, the same one I made Raif, and I hope he’ll accept. He seems to be soaking it all in eagerly enough. I certainly wouldn’t force Brennan to do anything, just as I never pressed the issue with Raif when he didn’t show an interest. I don’t know why you have such a nefarious view of me, but it’s just not true. I’m not what you—Shayla, we’re nearly there. This isn’t at all how I wanted this to come out.” Joshua had already painted the large, flat mesa where he wanted the autopilot to land. Now he tapped in the Administrator’s code to let them pass through the Closure, coming up fast as they descended from the high speed lanes. “You have to listen to me for a minute—because that’s all we have left.”
“Because you want it? I’ve been called controlling and manipulative, and I think it’s good to know these things about myself because now I can work on changing, but you…you don’t want to change, do you? Joshua, I don’t have to do anything. You, however, have to pay attention to those controls, unless you have a death wish you forgot to mention. I’d probably survive the crash from this altitude.”
She crossed her arms and he was tempted to crash-land just to prove her wrong, but he didn’t override the controls he’d already set.
“I set the autopilot to take us down safely and…I thought I had mentioned my death wish to you.” He bared his teeth at her and gave her his best threatening glare. She took it in and had the decency to look a little taken aback. Unfortunately, he noticed the clouds rushing past the window behind her. Time was nearly out. When he glanced out the front, he could see the flat mesa where he’d directed the auto-pilot to land. There was a small cluster of people already standing there and Joshua could see more movement in the trees surrounding the area. There’d be a crowd gathering by the time they opened up the hatches. “Shayla, I’ve been here and learned your ways—”
The braking jets fired, screeching too loudly for her reply to be heard but he caught the gist of it by reading her lips. She wasn’t exactly calling him a liar but that might’ve been better than the word he thought she called him. Phoenicians had so few swear words in their language, he couldn’t be sure.
She climbed out but stopped in her tracks two steps from the car. Joshua took in the view and knew why immediately. More than a dozen excitable young Phoenician men had gathered on the mesa and more were pouring out of the treeline every second. They were here to protect—or follow the orders of—a cluster of three old men. It had been a long time since a human had ventured uninvited onto Phoenician land but Joshua wasn’t a threat. He hoped they recognized him and knew that, too. He recognized the three old men, of course. He’d sat with them so many times over the years, he knew them all intimately. He didn’t know any of the young faces behind them. Except for the Seven Chiefs, he realized it was quite likely every last Phoenician he’d ever met and befriended all those years ago had long since died. It was good to see at least three familiar faces.
The ancient one leaning over the bent cane was Cadmus, the Elder, and holding up the Elder’s other side was B’tar. Half the Elder’s age, B’tar actually looked older than Cadmus today. As the next in line to be Elder, B’tar now lent his strength to Cadmus, literally. Joshua had learned that, too, sitting for hours around their fire. The third old man, standing just an arm’s length away from B’tar, was Thuvius, the youngest of the Seven Chiefs. He wasn’t nearly as old as he should be, Joshua decided, but frail as the old men were, they stopped Shayla in her tracks with a single silent glance.
Abruptly, one tall young man broke through the growing crowd of spectators, breathless anticipation lighting up his face. He stopped at the Elder’s side and the gleaming smile fell as he took in Shayla’s appearance. It was like a light had gone out inside the man. If Joshua had to guess, he’d say the guy had to be the lucky man who’d been Mated to Shayla when they were children. Assuming Phoenician customs hadn’t changed, this man would have been here, waiting all those years she’d spent with Raif on the Outside, for her to come back and be officially Joined with him.
That wasn’t going to happen now. Joshua could see that as clearly as this man could see Shayla's hair had been cut off. The cutting of her hair was her indication to all who saw her that she’d lost a Mate. Given that this young man was supposed to be her Mate, he couldn’t be happy to see her standing there, as though she were in mourning. He had to have known about Raif’s relationship to her if Raif had spent as much time with her here as she’d said. Maybe no one had realized how close they’d been. Joshua couldn’t imagine how anyone had missed it. He’d seen the charged chemistry between them in the first three minutes after meeting them at the Centre.
The Elder lifted the gnarled hand with the cane and waved his index finger at the young man, indicating he should move forward, then the Elder dropped his weight back onto the bent stick. The young man stepped forward, never taking his eyes off Shayla, but his was dark with simmering anger now. His long hair was pulled back with a simple tie at the base of his neck, leaving the ends to fly loose around his waist in the light breeze sweeping across the open plains. He reached up now and pulled the mass of blue-black Phoenician locks over his shoulder. Joshua was sure the slight glow to the man’s hair was not a trick of the light but rather, a symptom of the man’s emotional state. Joshua was afraid he knew what was coming next. He hoped all the guy cut off was his hair. No one else moved to intervene, so Joshua held his position in front of the Viper, several paces away from Shayla.
The man stopped in front of Shayla, toe to toe. He had to be breathing into her face that way. She looked up at him as he withdrew the sizeable blade from the sheath strapped to his hip. Then, with a single quick, firm stroke, he cut through all of the hair in his grip, keeping the blade close to his skull, above where the hair tie had been. The long tail dangled in his hand a moment before it lost its glow. He leaned back to resheath the knife and threw the hair down at her feet, saying something quietly enough Joshua couldn’t make it out. If the man held to tradition, which Joshua suspected he had, then it was Now, you are dead to me. It was a very old-fashioned form of dissolving a Mating. Joshua had heard of it, by only because it had been mentioned in stories as something done in the “old days” which were hundreds of years old when Joshua had heard the stories—hundreds of years before today. He’d like to meet and get to know a Phoenician man who held so firmly to the old Ways. It was strange that Shayla, the lone Phoenician to venture Outside to live among the humans had been Mated to such an old-fashioned man.
Joshua sighed in relief when the man finally turned on his heels and trotted across the plains, away from the crowd. Three men broke away from the crowd and ran after him.
Shayla stood there, her eyes unfocused, her head turned away to remove the shank of hair at her feet from her peripheral vision. When she finally moved, she stepped deliberately over the clump of hair at her feet, but continued to pretend she hadn’t seen it there. Joshua moved to join her and Thuvius took one step forward before the Elder’s cane came up to strike Thuvius in the solar plexus. No one spoke. Not aloud. That was what Joshua had always hated about these old men. So much of their conversation was not spoken aloud.
He’d learned, through much practice with Athena, to keep up with the Seven Chiefs’s high-speed silent conversations, but it had been a long time. He was out of practice and Athena wasn’t here to help him. He lowered his mental guards and gathered up all of the pieces of his mind then did his best to prepare for the onslaught of thought. When Cadmus entered his mind this time, Joshua’s prevailing thought was that he remembered it used to hurt a lot more. Maybe the deteriorating of his mind had an advantage after all. He smiled at the old man.
The Elder straightened and said, “It is good to see you again, Old Friend. You must stay and sit with us.” B’tar handed the Elder’s elbow over to Joshua who took his place walking slowly with the old man back towards the treeline. Joshua knew how much more deeply Cadmus could probe his mind when he had physical contact like this, but he’d forgotten how warm and comforted he felt inside when the old man hugged would do it. It was a sense of coming home. Shayla followed behind him with Thuvius and he couldn’t help but feel as though the pair of them wanted shove a knife into his back. He wondered if they’d fight each other for the right to do it—or just for who got to go first.