Friday, February 13, 2015

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter VIII: Of Family Ties and Strange Territories

25 Autumn, 1927

Esmé shook her head free of the towel and peered into the tiny mirror of the cabin bathroom. She tilted her head one way, then the other, taking stock of her new hair. Short... dark... and yet somehow still a mess. She chewed on the corner of her lip, and huffed. Clearly she'd have to find a barber once they hit Port Arthur. The smell of the hair dye burned her nostrils, but after cleaning up for so many jobs in the HA, at least her skin didn't sting after showering anymore.

With some conscious effort, she smoothed her crooked frown into a neutral expression of dull indifference, and tried to adjust the set of her jaw. Could she still pass as male, she wondered. It had been easy enough back when she was younger, and her aunt was still hopping from caravan to caravan. Maybe with some patchy facial stubble? With the fiery orange of her natural hair colour extinguished and supplanted with a sooty black, her skin's underlying darker cast seemed to come forward. Her face looked harder somehow. More serious. More Emirati too, she noted.  

More like Aunt Fatti... 
She felt the angst stir in her again, uncoiling from around her heart. Ugh... the ol' trenchworm she thought, and immediately felt silly and ashamed about it. Ever since her aunt had tossed her that old, faded Peace River Army Survival Handbook in her first cycle travelling with Esmé, the chapter on parasites had left its mark, especially the section about trenchworms growing to adulthood in human chest cavities. The truth was that trenchworms had only ever been found nesting in cadavers, so the handbook was probably full of shit, but whenever Esmé felt that familiar strangling surge of anxiety and apprehension, somehow all she could think of was a thick, bile-sucking worm eating her from the inside. 
She doused the beast with a quick draught of sour spirits from the flask sitting on the sink, and poked gingerly at the ugly black and purple expanse across her flank, where the flak vest had only tenuously arrested a bullet. She grimaced, and sprayed down a fresh layer of medical sealant on her arm where she'd sustained a flesh-wound by desperately leaping onto an armed Protector from a tree. Not the worst beating she'd ever taken... but it had still been awfully close for comfort. 
Navigating the cramped bathroom cell, she gathered her things, zipped herself into her pair of recently-acquired coveralls, and stepped into the cabin. The disconcertingly smooth, quiet hum of the maglev beneath her feet was the only sound. A single blade of sunlight cut across the tiny room from the open sliver at the bottom of the window blind. On the opposite wall, a flickering landscape was projected as the train raced by. It was distorted and inverted by that old trick of the light, an alien landscape flowing backwards in time.

Ryss lay on her bunk staring at the ceiling, her chest rising and falling in a taut, controlled rhythm that made her emotional tumult all the more palpable. Grizz dozed comfortably on his upper bunk across from Ryss, in apparent defiance of her discontent. A thin smile was spread across his lips and the book Esmé had tossed him yesterday was resting on his chest. It was a dodgy detective story, a souvenir from the luggage whose digi-tags she had surreptitiously switched at the Reunion spur stopover. Even now - even like this - she found Grizz impossible to read. I wonder if he's even really asleep? Maybe he was dreaming about love, or of faraway literary wonderlands... or of sliding a knife between two ribs and twisting. It might all be the same thing to him. Esmé shivered.

Rummaging through the waylaid dufflebag, she found the right accessories: a conspicuously clean duster coat, double-breasted sweater, expensive sunglasses, a vanity decorative dustcover for a data glove. They were men's clothes, slightly too big, but perfectly suited to changing her silhouette and personal style.

It certainly wasn't the first time they had needed to change their appearance in the last cycle, but for the next two weeks it would be critical not to be recognized. The disguise would have to become part of her. Esmé paused a moment to ponder how Jax... how Lukas Lassander... had carried on such an elaborate disguise for close to a cycle in front of his own kin... for no good reason. Thinking of Jax sent the old trenchworm writhing again, twisting around her lungs. She tried to banish it with a wry smile. “That crazy, paranoid idiot.” she muttered.

The smile faded on her lips. Jax's words had been lingering in her mind. His blame and recrimination echoed persistently, all the more sharply for the truth of it all. She had burned the team on this one. Up until now, her investigation for the Kin... for Ti... had generated no conflict in her working relationship with the team. Even when it became more and more obvious that being placed with the Lassanders was no accident, she had seen her role with them and with the Kith as separate streams. Complementary, even. 
The White Rock affair had gone so wrong so quickly. Esmé had been fully weighing the benefits of pitching the job to Jax, as one more chunk of valuable intel against the Bear. Then, everything happened too fast. Radsley was pushing too hard, HIRA was stringing them along, sending them on to devil-knows-where, and Jax was apparently only too happy to jump through every hoop they put in front of him.

The man had his secrets. Somehow his blithe disinterest in Fennec's past, her operational history and her loyalties, had always seemed to derive from a taciturn respect for the necessity of secrets, both his own and of others. Now she understood differently; he had kept his own counsel so long, had presumed so much upon the bonds of family, that it never occurred to him that anyone else's secrets, or opinions, mattered.

Esmé reflected on Jax's decisions... so carefully measured, so exactingly planned... and then improvised in brash, irrevocable strokes. What he'd said was probably true; the team had never been so vulnerable, but that development had been a long time in the making. Too many enemies in all the wrong quarters. He had exposed his family to incredible risks, all in the name of protecting his family. Threatening the Matoux patriarch to his face in his own camp, such that the caravan baron could only act against them to save face. Murdering Daniella Morris, just so they could find themselves in the exact same circumstances again with HIRA. The Humanist Alliance jobs had ensured that HIRA owned them, lock and stock, but gunning down a SRID director in a public restaurant sealed the deal. 
None of them trusted HIRA, even before White Rock. And Radsley... could they even trust him now? Esmé liked the big Humanist. The man had an easy charm and a genuine, rough-hewn openness that was unusual in her experiences with smugglers and Humanists alike. And yet, how likely was it that his rogue turn was only another play in HIRA's game? Perhaps it was better that he was with Jax now, where his charm would find no purchase. Jax trusted nobody... and now more than ever.

Esmé sighed. The Lassanders had been stirring up a hornet's nest around them for a long spell now, while she had been acting in the interests of her own family... Fatti, Ti (miraculously still alive!), the Badlands... maybe all of Terra Nova! She still felt badly about how it had gone down though, and perplexingly, she felt bad for Jax. Always disapproving, dissatisfied, full of blame, talking about loyalty and his family, while holding himself up as the sole decision-maker. Esmé paused as she sorted her tools into different containers in her new dufflebag. It was too familiar, wasn't it?

Hardy...” she whispered softly.

Her brother and Jax were certainly different people, one a sharp-edged laconic covert specialist, the other a simple stubborn homesteader with dirt under his nails. And yet, their similarities had suddenly come into sharp focus, and with such impact that Esmé was momentarily stunned.

If you go, you’re going. Don’t come back! 
She winced and instinctively looked to Ryss, still lost in her own apprehensions. Poor kid.

She thought of home, of her parents, of Hardy and his family. At least I didn't bring them into this. Fatti knows the risks.

Sure, her aunt knew the risks, but did she know that she was in grave danger right now? Or at best, in another 3 weeks? Fatima Jepps could look after herself; she wasn't so old that she couldn't disappear into the desert tomorrow, leaving no tracks even for HIRA. Of that, Esmé was certain. But how could she warn her without tipping the Humanists, without suggesting to them that she was at that moment hurtling to Port Arthur instead of being nestled in a southbound cargo crate? It would be all about the timing, but she had to get to the rendezvous first. Her hands closed around the Caspari hard drive, carefully wrapped and stowed away with her tools. She hoped it would be worth it.

Esmé pushed all the noisome thoughts of Jax, family, bears, and humanists out of her mind, and glanced at the dancing landscape projected on the far wall of their cabin. Getting to Port Arthur was all that mattered right now. 
Ti was back, and he would know what to do. He always seemed to know best, didn't he?

Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game 


Hermes 72 - Heavy Gear RPG - Most artwork Copyright 2002 Dream Pod 9, Inc.