Jessyn might have found some comfort in knowing that, despite the burns of the stun batons, and the bruises caused by GIES fists and boots, Ray was feeling no pain.
Unfortunately, the absence of physical suffering created a vacuum of sorts, and if there was one thing Ray had learned in Sister Jaeger’s natural sciences course, it was that nature abhors a vacuum.
In this case, nature decided to express her disapproval by replacing one nightmare with another.
So, while his body rocked in the artificially chilled transport, his mind was a few million lightyears away, sweating bullets—and dodging same—in a swampy, merc-infested jungle on Verdanti Prime.
“Comms, sit-rep!” Ray’s order scraped along a throat already raw from shouting, but it brought an immediate response from the young communications tech—a baby faced Mars-born lance corporal named Kastral—hunkered down at his right side.
Through the eye-stinging haze of Verdanti’s yellow dust, the dappled light of its emerald foliage, and the back-and-forth weapons fire, Ray could just make out the sporadically scattered bodies of his Marines–sprawled in the dirt and muck, or partially shielded by the riddled and shredded corpses of their fallen comrades as they fought to defend themselves from the murderous torrent that rained down from the hillside high above.
“It’s bad, Lieutenant,” Kastral said, his voice equally raspy as his superior’s.
Ya think, kid? Ray thought as the corporal continued.
“We lost contact with second platoon on the east slope,” the kid told him. “Third squad, west slope reports casualties at sixty percent. They got guerrillas popping up outta spider holes all over, lobbing concuss and liqua-phospher grenades. First and Fourth squads are pinned down and getting their asses ripped a klick up the mountain. Kydor mercs are dug in like ticks. We’re getting our asses handed to us, sir.”
Handed to them because they’d been set up, Ray thought. The entirety of Hill 986 was nothing more than a well-engineered trap.
And Ray’s company had dropped right into it.
“Patch me into the personnel commlink, Corporal,” he ordered, pitching his voice over the percussion of the ongoing battle.
“Aye, sir. You’re on. Go ahead,” Kastral shouted back.
Ray kept his eyes on the forward threat as he spoke into the secure comm stream. “This is Hard Rain Actual to all elements—fall back. I say again—all elements disengage and fall back to grid position Ceti-zero-one-one. I repeat—fall back to Ceti-zero-one-one. Acknow—”
“This is Thunderstorm Leader,” a second, and instantly recognizable voice crackled through the stream. “Belay that order. I repeat—belay that order.”
Inside the GIES transport, Ray’s fingers twitched, and his breath shot out in a rough, “No”.
At the indication of possible waking, the GIES agent seated on the right side bench applied his stun baton to the jerking prisoner on the transport floor.
The agent, who had a wad of gauze shoved up the nose Ray had broken, didn’t know he was sending the AD into a deeper nightmare, but if he had, he might have shocked Ray a second time.
By the time Harry and Mo arrived at the scene of the battle, it was all over but the mopping up.
Literally, Harry noted, as he stepped over the disk-shaped auto mop sucking up what looked like an exploded slushee.
He didn’t have to ask what had happened.
Between Ray and Jessyn’s comms, and the eruption of news screens popping up all over the station, he and Mo had managed to catch the highlights of Ray’s fight, and subsequent takedown.
As he and Mo wove through the dispersing crowds, Mo looked around, the bags carrying her purchases swinging casually.
Only the iron grip of her hand in his betrayed her nerves. “Where is Jessyn?” she murmured as they passed a pair of station constables who were busy prodding some lingering witnesses along.
“Here,” Jessyn said.
“Christ on a cracker,” Mo hissed as Harry’s daughter appeared at his side.
“My sorrow,” Jessyn said, but her voice was flat, and her expression distracted. She’d ditched the hooded jacket she’d been wearing when the GIES agents first tagged Ray, and somewhere in the past few minutes had acquired a tee shirt that proclaimed her a slave for Stargrinds Coffee.
Her hair, which had been loose, was now caught in a topknot
“Solid quick change,” Mo approved.
“Did you know?” Jessyn asked the grifter. “About Ray being an AD?”
“Not here,” Harry cut in, and steered both women towards a bench nestled under an arbor of some spike-leaved potted trees that would provide a measure of privacy.
As they walked, he scanned the deck for any remaining threats.
Shoppers, shop owners, and one hard-eyed Human who probably thought his plain clothes were enough to cover the smell of GIES wafting from every pore.
Harry suspected the guy was looking for Ray’s female companion, and forced himself to relax as he felt those hard eyes cross over Mo and Jessyn, only actually relaxing when the agent’s attention shifted to a Human teenager dressed very much as Jessyn had been, only a few minutes before.
As soon as they reached Harry’s chosen bench, Jessyn turned to Mo to echo her original question. “Did you?”
“No.” Mo, who appeared more pale than Harry recalled ever seeing her, dropped to the bench, letting the shopping bags fall to the deck with a crinkling thud. “But it would explain a lot,” she added as Jessyn sat down at her side.
/How so?/ Koz asked over the comms, reminding everyone he and Mollin were still a part of the conversation.
“What he said,” Harry indicated the implant, just under his ear, as he folded onto the bench, next to Jessyn.
Mo eased forward, so she could see both Jessyn and Harry. “The orphanage where we grew up had no record of Ray’s birth mother. Or father, or any other relations, for that matter.”
“Don’t orphanages keep that sort of information confidential?” Harry asked.
“They tried to.” Mo’s shrug spoke volumes. “When I was fifteen, and Ray and Soljah—another adoptive brother—were twelve, we decided no one had the right to keep our parents from us, so we sliced into the orphanage records.”
“And what did you find out?” Jessyn asked.
“That Sol’s family had been killed in a HaQ assault on their settlement, and he’d been rescued by the crew of the CFSS Shamshir[ Persian sword
]. We also discovered that my parents were both killed when the iaxoprine processing station orbiting Mandela cut too many corners. The explosion that left a few thousand dead. If I hadn’t been in a day care on planet, I’d have been killed, too.”
“And Raymond?” Jessyn asked as Mo paused.
“As far as the Mission of Mercy staff knew, Ray came from nowhere. Literally. He was left on the stoop of the orphanage, like something out of an Ancient Earth melodrama, at around eighteen months old. Parents unknown, DNA untraceable. Ray was crushed when he found that out,” she said, kicking the bags at her feet. “He said he wasn’t, but he was. He never got over the idea that his parents didn’t want him. That he wasn’t… enough.”
Harry wondered if that particular sense—of not being enough—was one of the criteria for working in Zodiac.
Then he focused on the present. “That answers one question,” he said, “but it leads to a lot more.”
/Like how the Corps didn’t catch on to Ray’s being an AD?/ Koz asked.
/Or Danseker?/ Mollin said.
/Or Zodiac?/ Dorothy added.
“For starters,” Harry replied. “But all those questions are going to become woefully academic unless we find out where Ray’s been taken and what they plan to do once he’s there.”
/The first part’s easy enough/ Koz came back. /Just a matter of slicing into the GIES systems./
“Thank you,” Jessyn said.
“While you’re at it,” Harry said, “cut Ray’s comm’s.”
/I did that the second he was taken in/ Mollin said.
“Why?” Jessyn asked. “The comm implant is organic, untraceable, and can’t be heard by anyone but Ray.”
“The device is untraceable,” Harry began.
/But the transmissions might trigger GIES security/ Mollin added.
/Until we know what kind of setup they have, it’s safest to go dark/ Koz finished.
Jessyn’s head dipped, but more in dejection than acceptance.
“Meanwhile,” Harry said, “we need to get this operation back on track.”
“On track?” Mo echoed, her eyes narrowing as she met his.
Harry felt the chill, but dove in anyway. “Whatever else is happening, we all know there’s an auction scheduled to start on Libra in less than seven hours.”
“Yes,” Mo said, “but if you hadn’t noticed, we just lost one of our key players.”
“I lost a key player,” Harry said. “You two are still good to go.
“You can’t seriously be thinking of going it alone,” Mo said.
“I’m used to working solo,” Harry assured. “And even if I weren’t, if we don’t follow through, at least a dozen more ADs will disappear, and it’s another four months before our next chance. And given what we know, it could well be Ray on the block by then.”
There was a significant pause as the others digested that scenario.
/Well/ Mollin said at last, /at least things can’t get any worse—/
“Don’t!” Mo, Harry, and Koz all said at once. “Don’t ever say that,” Mo finished off.
/What?/ Mollin asked.
Jessyn’s head tilted. “Why?”
“Because the second anyone ever says things can’t get any worse, they always get worse,” Mo said.
/That can’t be statistically supportable/ Mollin said, after a beat.
/Wanna bet?/ Koz asked, and as he did, Jessyn let out a small sound of distress.
Harry glanced her way, then straightened. “What?” he asked, taking her hand, which had gone colder than the air conditioning warranted.
“He is dreaming,” she said, her voice shaking.
/Who?/ Mollin asked.
“Raymond,” Jessyn murmured, her eyes going glassy.
“You can see that?” Mo asked.
/Fascinating/ Koz observed.
“See, hear… feel,” Jessyn said, taking the other woman’s hand, linking the three of them. “He dreams of Verdanti,” she said, her voice rough, as if she were breathing smoke.
“Oh,” Mo began.
“Shit,” Harry finished, just as the cool shopping deck before him began to waver, and darken, before coalescing into a smoking ruin that smelled, not of pretzels and sweets, but of burning, and blood.
“With all due respect—a full frontal charge?” Ray rasped into the mic.“Sir…” He sought for the right words, and came up with, “Are you out of your fucking mind—sir?”
“Do I need to remind you who you’re talking to, Lieutenant?” came back through his comm. “You have your orders. I advise you to carry them out.”
“I know full well who it is I’m talking to,” Ray replied, even as the image of Colonel Fredrick Rikert—tall, black hair, supercilious expression—sitting on his ass in the safety of the UCS Schwarzkopf shot through his head.“And I should add—sir—that you aren’t aware of the situation here. What you are ordering is suicide. In my opinion—”
“Your opinion is duly noted, Hard Rain. Now carry out my orders.”
“No, sir. I respectfully refuse...SIR.”
“Oh. Ray.” Mo’s voice, struck with horror and sorrow, filtered through the roar of battle in Harry’s ears, just as Jessyn’s spicy perfume managed to penetrate the odors of smoke, sweat, and blood.
In his hand, Jessyn’s trembled.
He tried to open his mouth, to break the spell of Ray’s nightmare, translated through his bond to Jessyn, but at that moment, the choking smoke swirled thicker, and he was again immersed in the battle.
Ray sucked in air thick with smoke and ash, and immediately coughed out the same.
A comm crackled with static, and he knew that static was the only response he was going to get from Rikert.
Even though Ray, while he’d refused to give the order that would needlessly kill his soldiers, he also refused to leave them to follow Rikert’s directive without him.
He wouldn’t leave them to die without their LT, and had informed Fucking Rikert of same.
So it was that Ray now trudged onwards with his troops, taking aim and firing, watching the enemy die, and his own soldiers become meat.
He felt his lips pull back in satisfaction when his bullets shredded through the Kydor merc that had just scrambled out of a spider hole.
Kicking the body back into the hole, he scanned the smoking, smoldering humps of vegetation before spying the remnants of his company, doggedly continuing the push up a hill they had zero chance of taking.
His comm crackled again, and Ray felt the sudden hope that the colonel had realized his mistake, and was calling the survivors to the LZ for evac.
Because Rikert, who didn’t know—or didn’t care—that he hadn’t closed the comms, was calmly ordering an air strike on Hill 986.
The very hill Rikert had, only minutes ago, ordered Echo Company to take.
“Hard Rain to all units take cover find a hole get small!” Ray’s bellowed response was literally a babble of unbroken words. Words which barely had time to leave his lips as the first duo-vehicle wave of A-75 SkyHornets swooped in above the tree-line to their right, bomb bay doors agape.
Suiting action to word, he grabbed the nearest collar—which turned out to belong to none other than Lance Corporal Kastral and dove into the spider hole after the body of his last kill.
“Whoa!” Harry released Jessyn’s hand and sprang to his feet.
As he did, the vision of the Verdanti-Prime, and the incoming bombers, dropped away to be replaced by the low-fi music piped over the concourse speakers.
“What the ever-loving fuck?” Mo asked, flapping her hands around, as if wiping spider webs aside.
Harry figured that was because, as they’d both just discovered from Ray’s nightmare, the tunnels the Kydor had used on Verdanti-Prime were called spider holes because they’d once housed actual spiders, until the Kydor evicted them.
“Ach,” he said, brushing the memory of a silken web from his own face, then he looked at Jessyn. “Oh, hey,” he said, immediately kneeling in front of her. “Are you okay?”
His daughter, ashen under the gilded brown skin, turned her streaming eyes to him. “He killed them,” she said, her voice thick—with emotion, rather than ash. “Rikert. He killed them all.”
/What?/ Koz asked over the comms. /Who killed what?/
/Or who?/ Mollin joined in. /What’s going on?/
“Long story,” Harry said. “For later.”
/In that case/ Mollin said, /you might want to listen to this—we’ve sliced into a real-time transmission. It’s a conversation between GIES C&C on Vir-22, and someone on Libra. Hang on. I’ll link it to your comms./
There was a moment of blankness, then Harry’s comm buzzed to life.
/… plus the freak’s DNA marker ain’t in any of the registered labs/ an unknown, and decidedly voice erupted in Harry’s skull.
Jessyn tensed, while Mo’s expression went flat.
Harry straightened from his crouch and shifted so his body would provide cover for both women from any curious passers by
/But you’re sure it’s an AD?/ another voice‚ also male, but cultured and, to Harry’s ear, a mite supercilious, asked. /Not a false positive?/
/It’s one of them, all right/ the first voice declared with an audible sneer. /I’ve run three separate scans, and the marker is real. My take? The way this thing could fight? Probably came out of some ConFed black ops creche./
Harry had a moment to wish that didn’t sound possible.
/What kind of shape is it in?/ the cultured voice asked.
/Some bruises… and burns… since it took at least five shocks to put it out. I had the medic administer a sedative to keep it down. It gets lively, we might end up having to kill it./
/That would be a waste/ the cultured voice snapped. /As long as it’s under control, go ahead and put it on the Charon. Maybe one of today’s bidders is in the market for a fighter./
Jessyn let out a curse she must have learned from Ray.
/What about station law enforcement?/ the first voice asked. /There were plenty of constables on hand when the arrest went down. Won’t they wonder why we’re not processing it through normal channels?/
/You shouldn’t have any troubles on that front/ Mr. Chill replied. /The Vir constabulary have been made aware of the GIES mandate to protect Baseline civilians of all species from the AD scourge. And if this particular AD is as brutal as you claim, the locals should be down on their knees thanking us for protecting them. Get the AD on the shuttle/ the voice concluded. /I’ll take it from there./
/Yes, sir/ the first speaker said, in a voice that hinted of gritted teeth.
/And, Agent Otto?/
/If you ever question my orders, again, I will have you transferred to Genetic Archives, where the only ADs you will be tracking are in petrie dishes. Understood?/
/Yes, sir, Director Rikert/
At which point the comm splatted in their ears, then went silent.
“Rikert,” Harry said, while flashes of plasma and pink mist and the deaths of hundreds of soldiers poinged around in his brain. And with those flashes, the knowledge that, the last time Ray and Frederick Rikert had crossed paths, Ray had beaten the colonel nigh to death.
/Who’s Rikert?/ Koz asked.
“Rikert was the colonel in the ConFed Marines who knowingly dropped a few payloads of plasma canisters on Ray’s battalion,” Harry said.
/And who Ray beat mostly to death, shortly thereafter/ Mollin added.
“Which led to Ray being court martialed,” Mo finished.
There was a pause before Koz spoke again. /You know, there has to be more than one Rikert in the Known./
“Dorothy,” Harry said, “what’s the status on Colonel Frederick Rikert, ConFed Marines Corps?”
[Frederick Rikert, Colonel CFMC, retired from the Corps and took a position with the Genetics Investigation, Security and Enforcement division on USD 19.02.69. As of 06.18.73 he is listed as Director of Operations for the Shunto system.]
“That answer your question?” Harry asked Koz.
Mo’s hands curled into fists. “Of course Rikert would have joined GIES.”
“And he’s on Libra,” Jessyn added.
Harry sank back down on the bench and draped an arm over Jessyn’s shoulder, while Mo dropped her head into her hands.
/See?/ Koz’s voice filled the deathly silence /This is why you never say it can’t get any worse./