“Chicago is a cold place. In every way.”
— Clase, Thalassan Histories, Book I
“Coppélia is a classic tale. In it, a doctor named Coppélius builds a clockwork doll and tries to give her life.” Colonel Niall Pierce sat with his booted feet propped on the edge of the portable com–array console, hands folded primly in his lap. “A young couple, Franz and Swanilda, cross his path. Franz falls in love with the doll, named Coppélia, who he thinks is a real girl. Swanilda becomes determined to find out more about this mysterious beauty who has stolen her lover’s heart, and breaks into the doctor’s house to find her.” He leaned back, the harsh overhead light washing out his bronze Service burr to pale brown and casting his features in sharp relief. Narrow. Angled. The wolf in repose. “And it’s a comedy, I’ll have you know. Nobody dies.”
“Imagine my amazement.” Jani Kilian tucked her hands inside the sleeves of her field coat and huddled against the curved wall of the prefab bunker. Outside, freezing rain fell—she could hear it patter on the domed roof. Insets in the polyfoam wall and floor supplied the heat that made the space bearable. She pressed against the hard smoothness, soaking up all the warmth she could. “I thought someone had to keel over every five minutes for an opera to qualify as a classic.”
“Coppélia is a ballet, not an opera.” Niall tilted his head back and spread his hands palms up, begging the ceiling for respite. “I told you all about it at lunch last week, but it appears to have slipped your mind.” He turned toward the figure who sat on the floor next to Jani. “Have you ever attended a ballet, ní Tsecha? Humanish dancing?”
“No, Colonel.” Ní Tsecha Egri, the Haárin dominant, shook his head back and forth, his latest adoption of humanish gesture. “I have seen plays and holoVee programs. Histories and such. No dancing.” He pushed up the edge of his headscarf with one gold-skinned finger and scratched his scalp. “Nìa?” He leaned close to Jani, his voice falling to a whisper. “Ballet is leaping about to music?”
“Pretty much, inshah.”
“I saw a dancing goat once. Is that as ballet?”
“It is quite similar, yes.” Jani unfolded to her feet and walked across the shelter to join Niall at the console. She placed a hand on his shoulder, felt his warmth through his blue fatigue shirt, and tried to remember the days when she could feel comfortable in conditions like these. “Any change?”
Niall glared in injury, the scar that cut his left cheek from his nose to the corner of his mouth deepening as he frowned. “A dancing goat?” His eyes spoke to the frustrated patron of the arts that he was. Honey-brown and long-lashed, his only handsome feature, they were currently narrowed in aggravation and regret over missed performances and unappreciative students who ignored lunchtime instruction.
Jani offered a rueful grin. “I’m sorry you couldn’t attend your ballet. I know you looked forward to it.” She dragged a stool from beneath the console and sat next to him, then pointed to the display screen in the center of the flickering communications array. “Doesn’t look any different than it did twenty minutes ago.”
“Part of that’s the fact that the pickup’s malfunctioning. Our comtech should be back any minute with the replacement parts.” Niall sighed. “The image straightens out every few minutes. From what I can see, they’re still clearing snow. Marking out the cordon.” He massaged the back of his neck. “Mine clearance is one of those dichotomous activities. Nerve-wracking to perform, but boring as all hell to watch. Especially when no one seems to be doing anything.”
“I heard that.” A male voice laced with annoyance emerged from the array’s speaker system. “If you’re both bored in that nice, warm, dry bunker, two hundred meters from all the stuff that goes boom, I’d be more than happy to trade places with you.”
Niall and Jani looked at one another and smiled. “Hey, Pull,” Niall said with a laugh. “How’s it going?”
“Saturday night at the Haárin enclave—what a rip-roaring place.” The irritation in Lieutenant Randal Pullman’s voice was palpable.
Jani glanced back at Tsecha, who had risen and now walked across the bunker to join them. He stood taller than she by a head—the top of his headscarf grazed the light fixture as he passed beneath it, sending it swinging back and forth and casting his thin frame in weird shadows on the wall.
“Rip-roaring, nìa?” Tsecha stood over Jani, arms folded and hands tucked in his sleeves, his long face skull-like. “What is rip-roaring?”
No sound emerged from the speaker for a time. Then came a throat-clearing cough. “Is that you, ní Tsecha?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Pullman. Glories of the night to you.” Tsecha glanced at Jani and bared his teeth, cracked amber eyes bright with humor. “What is rip-roaring?”
“Rip-roaring? It’s—it—” A long sigh rattled. “Ah, boy.”
“Out with it, Pull.” Niall’s shoulders shook.
“Rip-roaring means . . . exciting, ní Tsecha. Thrilling.” Pullman’s voice grew softer with each passing syllable. “Electrifying.”
“So you find standing in deep snow late at night an excitement? I learn more of you each day, Lieutenant.” Tsecha’s air of mischief faded. “What of the mine?”
Pullman’s voice emerged more businesslike. “From what I have been able to determine thus far, ní Tsecha, the mine is most likely a remnant from an old field exercise. The Service used to operate training facilities here before the land was leased to the idomeni.”
“What sort of mine? Have you yet determined such?”
“No, ní Tsecha. That’s still under investigation.”
“It is a trainer, as you say? Or a dud? Such objects emit signals particular to their type, do they not? One simply identifies the signal, and thus the type of mine, and removes it accordingly.”
“Yes, ní Tsecha. We have not yet identified the signal.”
Jani glanced at Niall to find him regarding her, his face set with concern. They had both sensed Pullman’s reluctance to discuss the situation. They’ve had two hours to ID that mine, and they haven’t yet. What’s the problem?