While outside the office, Agents Bader and Otto—and Mo, Jessyn, and Harry—all waited for more, inside the office, the silence following Rikert’s last comment stretched until, at long last, Rikert eased back in his chair. “Nothing?” he asked, clearly hoping for some kind of response from his captive audience. “None of the ingrained rage against the machine of authority that led to your military downfall?”
"What can I say?” Ray rested his now-empty glass on his knee. “You're not the only one around here who's evolved. Though I am curious,” he continued, “just how it all works. If it’s not a Frankenstein deal…”
“I can assure you, no limbs were cut off in the making of this body,” Rikert filled the expectant pause.
“Then we’re back to the lemonade analogy,” Ray pointed out, unaware that his audience had extended by two, “which people tend to drink.”
“I’m afraid I don’t—ah,” Rikert let out a soft snort as the credits dropped. “Now we’re into vampires, I see?”
“If the fang fits,” Ray quipped. “But seriously, are the Pygmalion techs literally making lemonade out of those people?”
“Let me disavow you of two misconceptions,” Rikert said. “First, no, there was no lemonade—or any other potable substance—involved in my upgrades and second…” And here he leaned forward, laced his fingers on the top of the desk and, eyes still locked with Ray said, “they were—“
In the corridor, an expletive that emerged from Otto that had Callie’s brows raising in surprise.
At the same time, in the depths of Tower Three, Harry grimaced and shook off the support offered by both CO Luddy and Soren, the inmate who’d fallen.
“Are you gonna okay?” Luddy asked.
“I”ll be fine,” Harry said through gritted teeth.
The question was, would Ray?
And in the heights of Tower One, Jessyn and Mo shared a glance.
“You know,” Mo said as the pair continued to edge towards the first data port, “every time I think I’ve seen the worst sapience has to offer, the universe stirs up some muck to prove me wrong.”
“The Diotessas back home say that cruelty is like a black hole,” was Jessyn’s observation.
“Because it sucks?” Mo asked.
/Ouch,/ Ray’s voice slid into their conversation. /Am I bleeding?/
/Not yet,/ they heard Rikert reply. /But the day is young./
“Because it has no bottom,” Jessyn replied bleakly.
“Nice.” Ray offered Rikert a thin smile. "Did you get a sense of humor infusion along with the super-strength cocktail?"
“I believe I said no one drank anything,” Rikert corrected. “Pygmalion’s R&D simply perfected the gene splicing process Tammas Ren developed which was actually based on the Crispr gene editing of Earth’s twenty-first century.”
“Okay,” Ray said. “So that would be a ‘no’ on the sense of humor.”
Callie shook her head. “He’s pushing—“
“—Rikert,” Jessyn murmured. “Why?”
Mo shrugged. “More intel? Or—“
—Ray was priming the pump to make a move of his own, Harry thought, while watching Luddy order Soren and the other two inmates to get back to work, “before the ore separation team notices a gap in delivery, and then all our asses are gonna be in the crusher.”
Which was, for Harry, an all-too-relatable sentiment.
Though not privy to his audiences’ thoughts, Ray was indeed pushing Rikert for the very reasons Mo and Harry considered.
After all, an irritable Rikert was much more likely to talk too much, or make a mistake, than a calm, collected Rikert.
So yes, he was poking at Rikert for tactical reasons, but also, just a little, because he enjoyed it.
And as Rikert’s eyes narrowed and his lips pursed, Ray figured he was getting as close to irritable as the Moth had gotten to the canyon walls during the flight from Surresh Prime.
Time to push a little further, he thought before asking, “Don’t you think it’s strange though?”
“In what way?” Rikert asked, eyes simmering with impatience.
“It’s just that, you spent all that time, energy, credits—not to mention however many ADs—to upgrade your body, but couldn’t be bothered cleaning up that—”
“Cor!” Otto coughed with the effort to stifle a laugh. “Can’t say much for his brains, but this bloke’s got a right humongous set’a stones on’im.”
“He’s a Marine,” Callie murmured with audible lilts of both respect and pride.
“Court martialed ex-marine, you mean. . .”
“Once a marine, always a marine,” Callie said, giving him a sharp elbow to the ribs as she asked, “How much longer do we have?”
At that exact moment, the fly gave a staticky sputter and cut out.
“Hang on,” Otto said, snatching the device off the wall. “I think we can recharge it from the bus.”
“Hurry,” Callie said, almost dancing in place as he dove for the bus.
Ray's latest poke had Harry stifling a curse.
Fortunately, Luddy was engaged with directing the three inmates on the best way to manipulate the giant tube into place, so Harry angled away from the CO and gave his wrist unit one tap to activating the mic.
“Scarecrow to Em and Glynda,” he began as he tapped the wrist unit again, opening the chamber containing his third of flying monkeys, “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That the Cowboy’s about to get himself pulverized?” Mo asked in return.
“I was hoping we could prevent that,” Jessyn whispered as she and Mo eased around the pod of Neocols.
/We will,/ Harry replied as Jessyn watched a dapper Human male step up to the podium. /But to do it, we’ll have to let the monkeys loose. Now./
“But what about Mother?” Jessyn asked quietly. “You haven’t found her, yet.”
/I’ll find her. Whatever it takes,/ Harry promised. /But first we have to give Ray a fighting shot. Do the job, let the monkeys fly. I have to go,/ he added, adding a rushed, /Scarecrow out./
“It’ll be okay,” Mo said, taking Jessyn’s hand and giving it a bolstering squeeze.
Jessyn wanted to believe her, but found that her empathic blindness, combined with the seemingly depthless levels of evil roiling within Libra, made it very difficult to trust anyone, or anything.
No way out but through, she reminded herself, even as Rikert’s voice slithered through Ray’s comms.
/Now there’s the Lieutenant Slater—/
“—I remember.” As he spoke, Rikert’s pale features seemed to ripple with loathing. “Not so evolved after all, it seems.”
Ray felt Vanzale’s hand land like a lump of meat on his shoulder, holding him in place.
“Have you been drinking lemonade, too?” Ray asked, peering over his shoulder at the GIES agent.
“Not yet,” Vanzale said.
“Only a select few have received upgrades to date,” Rikert explained. “But Agent Vanzale and I have an understanding. He does whatever I say, whenever I say, without question, and he will receive his due reward.”
“I thought maybe I’d ask for a few slices of Slater,” Vanzale said, giving Ray a not so gentle shake.
“You’d better hurry if you want some of this,” Ray said, dipping his chin to indicate himself, then jerked it in Rikert’s direction. “That one gets his way, there might not be anything left but some Slater-colored yogurt.”
Vanzale made a gagging noise and Rikert’s skin paled slightly.
Ray smiled, pleased that he not only caused his captors a little discomfort, but that, by the soft click behind his ear, the vocal cue had successfully killed his mic.
Whatever happened next, it was better that Jessyn and Mo not hear it.
“Shit,” Harry said as soon as he realized Ray closed his comms.
“What?” Luddy, turning from the trio of inmates who were wrestling the tube back into position over the hatch.
“I forgot, the section chief wanted me to upload the TPS report from the first half of the shift,” Harry said, hoping like hells there was such a thing as a section chief—or TPS reports—on Libra. “Is there a data port nearby I can use to send them? I don’t want to get dinged two weeks in.”
Luddy rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “Laryng’s on duty today, isn’t she?”
“How’d you guess?” Harry asked, while silently blessing the universality of bureaucracy.
“Port’s over here.” With a come-along gesture, Luddy headed to where a control panel was set into the wall to the left of room’s open arch.
As they walked, he gave Harry a side eye. “You know, you remind me of someone.”
“Well, I’ve been told I bear a strong resemblance to Lord Harry on Polaris Abbey.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Luddy said, then slammed a hand on Harry’s arm. “Wait a minute.”
“What?” Harry asked, curling his fingers around the data tab, ready to throw the first punch, if it turned out that Luddy had suddenly recognized recognized him as Bolger, the janitor Luddy had met on the shuttle.
“Where the hells are your shields?” Luddy demanded.
Shields? Harry thought. Not what he’d been expecting. “I… ah… must have left them in my berth.”
Luddy shook his head, his expression pained. “Look being dinged for a TPS isn’t great, but you do not want to get caught without your shields if someone initiates the Cerberus riot protocol.”
“I guess that would be bad,” Harry agreed, while wondering what the riot protocols entailed. Shields, of some sort, apparently.
“Lucky for you I’ve got a spare pair,” Luddy said, digging in his pocket, from which he pulled a couple of devices that looked like old-school earbuds, which he handed to Harry. “Not that we’re likely to have a situation down here—we only put non-violent offenders in the refinery—but it only takes one sonic blast to ruin your whole day.”
“I bet,” Harry said, inserting the earbuds as he recalled the sonic defense system back in Koz’s penthouse.
Not an experience he cared to repeat.
“He cut off his comm,” Jessyn said, disbelieving. “Why would he do that? Why would Ray shut us out?”
“Probably because he’s about to do something monumentally stupid and he doesn’t want us to worry,” Mo said.
“I don’t see how being cut off will make me worry less.”
“No but, what about the bond?” Mo asked. “Can you still feel Ray?”
“Oh.” Jessyn frowned but her eyes seemed to turn inward. “Yes. Not as strongly. Not his emotions. But his essence is still there.”
“Well, hang onto that,” Mo said. “Trust that, trust him, and trust me, because Harry’s right, we need to plant those data tabs, which means we need a new plan.”
Meanwhile, he’ll need the monkeys flying, so it’s time for a new plan.”
Even as she spoke, at the front of the room, the host gave the podium a gentle tap with a stylus. “Honored sapients,” he began. “Welcome to Libra.”
“I think we’re up to the new new plan, by now,” Jessyn said.
“Just follow my lead,” Mo patted her arm, “and when the time’s right, go for the port behind the painting.”
At the same time, one of the gray clad security drones approached, stepping between the two women and the ugly painting-slash-data port.
“Ladies, if you would take your seats?” said, laying a gentle hand on Mo’s elbow. “The event is beginning.”
“Keep your pants on, Jeeves,” Mo snapped, flicking at the drone’s shoulder.
“Did you just flick me?” the drone asked, visibly shocked.
“I’ll do a whole lot worse if you don’t take your grimy hands off me,” Mo said before adding Ambrosia’s high-pitched standard, “Do you know who I am?”
At which point the host faltered to silence, and all eyes in the room latched on the foot-stomping drama Mo was creating.
If this was Mo’s new new plan, Jessyn thought it left much to be desired.
In Rikert’s Office, Ray tapped the glass on his lap. “I guess that means there’s no chance of another drink?”
“No,” Rikert replied, rising from his chair. “Time, I think, to put an end to your not-so-storied existence.”
“Well, if I can’t numb the pain, how about maybe giving me a little something to even the odds?” Ray asked as Rikert came around the desk. He didn’t move—hard to with Vanzale gripping his shoulder tight enough to cut the circulation. “Make the next beatdown more interesting?”
Rikert’s laugh this time was laced with malice. “You know, I didn’t think I’d regret killing you,” the older man said, pointing a finger at Ray, “but now, now I may actually feel a little bit sorry.”
“Aw, I bet you’ll feel more than a little sorry,” Ray said.
“Oh? How so?” Rikert asked.
Which was a good question, and Ray wasn’t entirely sure of his answer.
“Well, sure, you get the thrill of killing me,” he said. “Maybe even extend the moment by torturing me first—get your revenge for all the pain I caused you. But when it’s done, it’s done. And then where are you?”
“Immensely satisfied,” Rikert said, giving his arms a quick, one-two shake as he came around the desk.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ray said and then, just as Vanzale hauled him up and out of the chair, took the glass he’d been holding the entire time, and smashed it back into Vanzale’s face.
It was move Rikert obviously neither expected or was prepared for because he faltered mid-step, at the outer corner of his desk. Almost lurched backward, in fact; giving Ray the time needed to follow through with a swift punch to Vanzale’s throat followed by a back-knuckle snap to the bridge of his nose.
While the sufficiently loopy GIES agent folded, Ray snapped up the other man’s falling pulser, then delivered a spin-kick to his chest.
Vanzale went flying, into the bookcase behind him; bouncing like a child’s toy to settle, face-down on the office floor.
“I see what you mean. That was satisfying.” He spun the pulser, cowboy-like, and thought of Mo as turned to face Rikert. “Now. . .how about you and me work on the immensely par—whoa! Hands down!” Ray snapped the order at the other man, who had not only retreated behind his desk, but was messing with his ears. "Trying to comm for backup?" he asked as Rikert’s hands shot out to his sides. "Not very mano-a-mano."
"Says the man holding the only pulser in the room,” Rikert replied, eyeing the gun.
“We un-enhanced types have to make do,” Ray replied.
“Interestingly, so do we enhanced types,” Rikert said, before adding a quick, “Cerberus, activate Siren protocol,” as he dropped like a rock to the deck.
A move that saved Rikert’s life, because Ray was pulling the pulser’s trigger by the time he heard the word “activate.”
In his experience, when the bad guys activated any kind of protocol, it did not work out well for the good guys.
Turned out, he was right, because the pulser’s blast had only just struck the wall behind Rikert’s desk when the first thrums of an all-too-familiar sonic blast threatened to burst his eardrums.
It wasn’t as potent a blast as he recalled, and he almost regretted that, as there was no blanket of unconsciousness to ease the head-splitting pain, or the sharp pain as his knees slammed down on the floor.
Worse, perhaps, was the fact that he was still awake, and all too aware, of Rikert as he came around the desk, leaned down to retrieve the pulser still miraculously clutched in Ray’s hand.
He could even see Rikert’s lips moving as he crouched in front of Ray, but the cacophony prevented him hearing whatever he said.
Just as well, Ray thought, because now Rikert had the gun, which meant it was game over, and more than anything, Ray did not want Rikert’s to be the last voice he heard.
He had a fleeting image of Mo, and a surprising flicker of his estranged brother Soljah, offering a typically judgmental glare, before his mind fixed on the picture of Jessyn, on the stairs of Ankh, back on Ócala, and the sensation of something he’d never known was missing, clicking into place.
Sorry, Sálufá he thought, just as he felt the pressure of the pulser’s muzzle digging into the flesh under his chin, and braced for what he expected to be a very quick, very messy, death.