As Jessyn departed, Ray gestured for Mollin to join him amidships.
Mostly to prevent Doyle noticing Koz, who was currently bellying his way over the deck and into the cockpit access passage, where Mo had already taken shelter.
By the time Doyle’s eyes shifted to Ray, all the charm he’d put on for the Rasalkan Naihad disappeared in a flicker. “Five. Weeks,” he said.
Ray and Mollin shared a glance, then turned to Doyle.
“Five weeks what?” Ray asked.
Doyle’s brow furrowed, all the way up to his bald pate. “Five weeks since any one of you has bothered to check in. I don’t know if you recall, but we have this funny little thing called protocol, in which you check in every standard week. Two at the worst. But have you? No. I know this because my calendar tells me it’s been five full weeks since your last contact, right before the Moth lifted off from Ócala.”
Ray’s brows rose. “You didn’t check in?” he stage-whispered to Mollin.
“I thought you did,” Mollin reciprocated in kind.
“Ha,” Doyle said to Ray, with zero humor, before his gaze turned to Mollin. “I expect this kind of shit from that yahoo,” he poked his cigar in Ray’s direction. “But I expected better from you.”
“Ahhh, he’s a bad influence?” Mollin offered, then jerked as Mo snorted back a laugh from the forward passage.
“What was that?” Doyle asked, looking around.
“Vacuum bot,” Ray lied easily. “Sometimes it jams when it’s trying to suck up too much crap.”
“Uh huh.” Doyle took a slow puff from his cigar and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Ok troops, let’s pretend that we’re an actual government organization, and I’m playing the boss—at least long enough to tell me what you’ve been doing for the past five weeks.”
Ray looked at Mollin.
“Have at it,” the Cherrii said.
“Thanks a lot,” Ray grimaced.
“Waiting,” Doyle reminded them.
“Fine,” Ray said, then shoved his hands in his pockets—a habit he’d picked up from Harry, he suddenly realized—and took them out again. “First, we haven’t been in touch because, as you noticed, we have some company.” He indicated the door Jessyn had disappeared through. “And while Jessyn, and by extension Lady Fayla, both have clue that I have a relationship with ConFed law enforcement, I didn’t think you’d be comfortable with them knowing the details.”
“I’m not comfortable with them knowing the generalities,” Doyle countered. “So you can imagine how I feel about Domina Breeshandra being a guest on your ship.”
Ray could absolutely imagine how Doyle felt about Jessyn’s presence on the Gypsy Moth.
Which was why, he, Harry, and Jessyn, had worked out a response early on.
“It wasn’t my first choice, either,” he said, pulling out the script they’d hammered out. “Fact is, I was hoping for a little R&R involving beaches, blue water, Jessyn in a bikini, Jessyn out of a bikini, drinks served in hollowed out zang gourds…”
“I love those things,” Mollin offered. “Especially when they put those little paper tops inside.”
“Those are umbrellas,” Doyle told the Cherrii before turning back to Ray. “And while I, too, enjoy an occasional foray into tropical waters and drinks decorated with Humanity’s least useful contribution to mixology, why aren’t you on a beach somewhere with your lady friend? And don’t even get me started on you,” he added, glaring at Mollin.
“Mollin is here for the same reason Harry’s aboard,” Ray said, drawing Doyle’s baleful gaze back his way. “Turns out, we impressed Fayla Szado so much with how we handled the Draconis/Sisterhood deal, she’s hired us.”
“Hired you?” The question emerged with a fog of cigar smoke. “To do what?”
Here we go, Ray thought, taking a breath.
“Fayla Szado wants us to break a friend of hers out of jail,” Harry said, stepping into the lounge even as Ray took a breath to explain.
Ray let out the breath and watched as Doyle froze, his cigar poised just short of his mouth, eyebrows rising to what might once have been his hairline.
“I see,” Doyle finally managed. “And would it be asking too much for you to expand on that?”
“Not at all.” Harry pulled up alongside Ray. “Specifically? She wants us to exfil an inmate from Libra Maximum Security Station.”
“Uh huh,” was Doyle’s response.
“Not quite the explosion I was expecting,” Mollin whispered.
“Wait for it,” Ray whispered back. “In three, two, one—“
And then Doyle exploded.
Or, more erupted, to Ray’s mind, as cigar smoke puffed thickly, and curses flowed like the last Vesuvius blow, back in Earth’s twenty-second century.
“He’s quite the linguist,” Mollin observed, clearly impressed.
Ray couldn’t argue. He turned to his left to see Harry’s head tilt ever so slightly. His expression was one of patience, but there was something in the other man’s stance that told Ray, at least, there was a lot more going on under the surface.
He wondered what that more might be, but Doyle was winding down, so Ray returned his attention to his Control in time to hear a last string of drill-sergeant-worthy epithets—in Suradi—before the cigar came out and was stabbed in Harry’s direction. “Best tell me now, and make it good, why I shouldn’t be hauling your sorry asses back to base and slapping them into a prison that no one will break you out of. And you know how I know no one will break you out of it?” The cigar went back between the teeth and he leaned close, eying each in turn before answering his own question. “Because no one knows—”
“It exists,” Ray said, completing the threat before Doyle could. “He uses that one a lot,” he told Harry.
“Ah.” Harry’s mouth twitched and then, to Ray’s wonder, his posture began to shift, his spine straightening, hands clasped behind his back, feet shoulder-width apart. “If I may explain, Colonel?”
Doyle, still looking ready to chew the cigar into shreds, unconsciously mimicked Harry’s posture. “Oh, please do.”
Harry didn’t ignore the sarcasm, but rather acknowledged it with a quick dip of the chin and hint of a smile.
Ray eased back and prepared for the fencing match.
“First, yes, we are deeply aware of the questionable nature of endeavoring to break into a prison on behalf of an alleged member of a criminal syndicate. However,” Harry continued, before Doyle could voice the comment all three men could see forming, “we agreed to take the job in the interest of engendering the trust of the aforementioned Fayla Szado.”
Doyle chomped the cigar once, then took it out again. “And how’s that working out, so far? And by working out, I mean, what is Zodiac getting out of this deal, and not the levels to which you mean to deflower the Black Rose garden.”
“Good one,” Mollin said.
“He has a way,” Ray conceded.
“You know I can hear you, right?” Doyle glowered at Ray.
“Sir.” Harry gave Ray a bland look before focusing on their boss. “It helps in that, by accepting the Lady’s commission, we preserve Ray’s cover, while continuing to build on my own. In addition, I promised Fayla we would try to help her friend. I did not guarantee we’d succeed.”
“So, you’ve got some wiggle room.” Doyle considered that. “Make a little splash but then, oops, sorry. Couldn’t get your pal out. It could work,”
“It could,” Harry agreed. “And possibly would have…”
Doyle looked pained as Harry paused. “You’re going to say ‘but’ aren’t you?”
“But…” Harry confirmed Doyle’s suspicion, “… in prepping for the operation, we uncovered some disturbing intel on Libra.”
“Define ‘disturbing,’” Doyle said.
“I’ll do better than that,” Harry replied, giving Mollin a nod. “How about a little show, along with the tell?”
Mollin jerked his head in an awkward nod and darted back to the comp station. In a matter of seconds, the cy-tech had initiated an interface between the Moth and Doyle’s command ship, the Harpocretes.
While the names, numbers, dates, and death notices team Moth had uncovered streamed between the two vessels, Harry began to explain the nature of their findings, and the conclusions they’d drawn.
Throughout the recitation, Harry continued to stand at what Ray thought of as the next thing to parade rest. The only thing Harry left out was the name of the “friend” Fayla had asked them to extract.
“So, you’re telling me there’s a private prison in non-ConFed territory operating as a clearing house for brainiacs,” Doyle summarized, his eyes narrow as he studied the data streaming on his side of the comm.
“Not just brainiacs,” Ray said, easing back into the conversation. “From what we could pull off the arrest records, most, if not all, of the victims are clones—”
Another noise arose from the forward passage.
“You need to get that vacuum serviced,” Doyle said.
“I need to trade it in,” Ray said, thinking dark thoughts in Koz’s direction. “As I was saying, the stolen people seem to be Artificially Developed Human Life Forms.” He glanced at Harry, noted the lack of surprise and figured Jessyn had updated him on all the latest. A little nod, however, told Ray he should continue, so he did, laying out the timing of Libra’s conception, and how it lined up with the political targeting of ADs back in the ConFed territories.
Even Doyle, a war-hardened, stone-cold operative who pretty much lived in the seedy underbelly of the Known, looked sick by the time Ray finished speaking.
“So, yes,” Harry picked up the narrative, “our original plan was to put on a show of effort for Fayla, maybe gain some trust cred with the Black Rose. But now?” He met Doyle’s gaze. “I may be new to Zodiac Division—but isn’t shutting down this sort of operation what we’re here to do?”
Ray didn’t hear it aloud, but he was almost certain there was an implied “sir” at the end of that question.
Who are you, he asked silently, and what have you done with Harry Finn?
“If you’re right—” Doyle began.
“We are,” Mollin stated flatly.
“If you are right,” Doyle reiterated, glaring at the cy-tech, “an operation this precise would have to go deeper than the one prison. Fact is,” he surmised over another puff, “we could well be looking at a full thirty-one flavors of corruption.”
“Yes,” Harry agreed.
“And?” Ray asked.
Doyle’s lip curled. “And, if that is the case? I’d wager every one of those flavors are toxic, especially if you don’t handle them in just the right way.”
His attention fixed once more on Harry. “Can you?” he asked. “Handle it the right way?”
“We can handle it,” Harry said. “Right, wrong, or indifferent, we will handle it.”
Again, there was that ghost of a “sir” at the end of Harry’s statement.
Doyle chomped his cigar, thought, then let out a casual, “A’ight. You’re a ‘go’. Now’s the time for me to remind all of you that, should this operation of yours go tits up, or any one of you be caught, killed, maimed or otherwise compromised in the pursuit of this insanity, the ConFederation government will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
“Then I guess we’d better not fuck it up,” Ray said, after sharing a glance with Harry and Mollin.
“Guess you’d better not,” Doyle agreed and, with a last, general glare, disappeared.
Everyone waited a beat.
“Dorothy?” Ray asked.
[Transmission closed] the AI affirmed.
“That was—surprisingly easy,” Mollin said as Koz and Mo slipped out of their hiding place.
“Too easy?” Mo asked.
Mollin made a vague, “I don’t know” gesture.
Harry let out a sigh, then stepped around to drop onto the sofa, as if he’d just crossed the finish line of a long and punishing race.
Ray frowned at the space where Doyle’s image had been standing, then he turned to Harry. “What was that?” he asked at the same time the door to Harry’s quarters opened, and Jessyn stepped out.
Harry looked up. “What was what?”
“That not-quite-military but completely military thing you were doing for the boss. You were ‘handling’ him, right? But what was it? Neurolinguistic programming? Mirroring? Low status?” he asked, listing the various methodologies he’d learned from Mo’s exploits.
Harry shook his head, grinning. “That, my dear boy, was acting!” This was said with a grand sweep of his arm.
Ray ignored her. “Acting.”
“Yup.” Harry lowered his arm. “In this case, I was reprising the character of Lt. Daniel Kaffee, from that timeless military drama A Few Good Men, which I played at university, in my salad days.”
“Salad days?” Jessyn asked.
“Ancient Earth saying,” Harry explained. “Something to do with being young. Damned if I know where it came from. Anyway, Kaffee is a dissipated part-time officer, with a deeply buried ethical streak, who was suddenly faced with a conspiracy that, if he takes it on, could cost him his career, or worse. The perfect archetype for selling our plan to Doyle.”
“Again,” Mo said, plopping down next to him, “it’s not a plan.”
Harry’s smile shifted satisfied to predatory. “It will be.”