“This is it.” Mo, easing Kaara to where she could lean against the bulkhead, stopped in front of a door bearing the glowing designation, Upper Cargo Hold.
“Don’t look like much,” Otto observed.
“That would be the point, I’d think,” Kaara said.
“Better take the lead,” Mo told Otto.“If there’s security inside, they probably won’t shoot you first.” As she spoke, she handed him the pulser and took his baton in exchange, then wiped the baton on her dress, because Otto’s hands were apparently quite sweaty.
“'Probably,' don’t sound like great odds,” he said.
Mo gave him a pat on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”
He sighed, but lifted the pulser and threw her a weak grin. “In for a credit, eh?”
“That’s the spirit,” she said, then turned to Kaara. “Stay out of sight,” she warned, then leaned close to the door’s com panel. “There’s no place like home,” she murmured.
The door slid open to reveal a round, two-story chamber featuring six cells on each floor, all occupied.
The air thrummed with the charge of the energy screens holding the prisoners in place, and the air smelled like a lightning storm caught in a can.
Mo and Otto turned from the cells to see a muscle-bound Human in one of the ubiquitous gray suits rising from a cubicle set into the wall to their left.
“What’s GIES doing here?” the man demanded of Otto. “Did the auction finish already? Where’s Rikert? And what’s with all the noise?” He waved at the speakers, which had moved on to proclaim this was a horse of a different color.
“Well,” Otto said, easing into the room, “it’s all kind of complicated, but basically…” He paused, clearly trying to think of something sensible to say.
“Basically what?” the guy asked.
“Screw it,” Otto said, and shot the guy, who froze, shook himself, and started to draw his own pulser.
“Umm,” Mo said.
“Shit,” Otto muttered, and fired again.
The guy grimaced, dropped his pulser, but took another step towards Otto.
“Slowly I turned,” Mo whispered, recalling an ancient skit her brothers had loved to act out when they were kids.
Otto fired again.
The guy stopped, then blinked, then toppled to the deck with a mighty thunk.
“It’s like watching a tree fall,” Mo observed.
For a moment she and Otto stared at the fallen guard.
“Is it safe?” Kaara asked, peering around the door.
“Who are you people?”
All three looked at the nearest cell, where one of the prisoners was standing as close as he dared to the energy screen, staring at the fallen guard.
“We’re the good guys,” Mo said, skimming the ranks of confused, hopeful, and angry faces now peering from all the cells.
At last her gaze fell on the young woman with close cropped black hair and tattooed face who their research had identified as Kaylin Tsosi, and then sought out the Dixit twins Koz had said were his creche-mates. “Dr. Kosterlovovich says to say hello.”
“Koz?” One of the twins’ expression shifted from suspicious to incredulous.
“How did he know we were here?” the other asked, taking her sister’s hand.
“Long story, happy to tell it later.” Mo said as she activated her comms. “This is Auntie Em to Emerald City. We’ve found the Ruby Slippers… all fifteen of them.”
/Congratulations/ Mollin’s voice came back, masking the muttered, “Did she call us slippers?” from the cells. /You will pleased to know we have docked and are waiting to receive boarders. Do you require any assistance?/
“Only if we can’t get these cells open,” Mo said. “But we can get the cells open, right?”
/I believe the code phrase will be as effective on the cells as on every other door./
“Great,” Mo said, then looked the controls at the front of every cell, then at the multitude of ADs. “Everyone, repeat after me—”
Upon joining the rest of the gray-clad security team in the concourse, Harry took a position to the left and rear of the civilians Rikert’s goons had recovered.
The group included three Humans, a Drellan, a pair of tusked Javant and a single Judon.
A lot of muscle in that group, Harry mused. Enough, in fact, that the stun batons each of the security force held would be set to maximum charge.
And while none of the corralled civilians appeared inclined to put up a fight, several of the party continued to complain—loudly—about their treatment since arriving at the prison.
Unfortunately for the assorted bellyachers, their audience was limited to the security staff herding them, and a single Libra technician digging through the nearest control panel, probably trying to figure out what was going on.
Fortunately for Harry, the continued protestations allowed him the freedom to open his coms.
“Scarecrow to Emerald City,” he murmured, his voice pitched so low only the com could pick it up, “I'm en route to the auction house, but I've got a lot of local company.”
/Emerald City to Scarecrow,” Mollin’s voice came back. /Em has collected the slippers and is also en route to the auction house. And as I just mentioned to Em, we are docked and locked, but it won’t be long before support ships from Rasalka and Vir-22 arrive and start complicating matters./
“Understood,” Harry replied, eyeing the Judon member of their little herd, who was angling in his direction. “I’ve got incoming. Scarecrow out.”
He barely caught Mollin’s acknowledgment as the Judon came up alongside him, her reptilian eyes gleaming over the veil all Judon wore to prevent lower life forms gazing on them.
As typical as the veil was, the rest of her clothing was uncharacteristically nondescript. Most Judon dressed in the colors of their profession, but this one wore a soft tunic and trousers in tones that ranged from oatmeal to biscuit.
The lack of distinguishing attire made him wonder which branch of the Judon government was interested in Human ADs.
“I must say,” she murmured, the sibilant whisper for Harry’s ears only, “it is most surprising to find you in such a place, and in such a uniform, wearing a name not your own.”
“I’m sorry.” Harry controlled the jerk of alarm at that opening. “Have we met?” he asked, his eyes skimming the surrounding guards.
“No.” And now the woman turned just enough to meet his gaze, and the slit of her irises narrowed as she added, “But every Judon Kai knows the face of the prisoner who led the escaped from Kelmno… Finn-Haija.”
When it came time to move out, Mo took the lead with Otto. The two diminutive Dixit sisters followed, supporting Kaara between them, with the rest of the ADs filing behind.
As they retraced their steps back to the auction room, Mo wondered at the amount of noise eighteen pairs of feet could make in narrow passage.
"You'll want this back I reckon?" Otto asked, holding out the pulser.
"Actually, you should keep it,” she said as they passed an open door to the right. "If we run into anyone, the first thing they'll notice is a uniform, holding a pulser. In the fraction of a second it takes to see the rest of us, you'll have taken them out."
Then she paused, as she recalled there weren't supposed to be any open doors in this corridor—or at least, no doors she hadn’t opened.
Mo was already turning when the tinny sound of a translator confirmed her fears.
“An interesting theory," the Neocol was saying as she followed her three pod members into the corridor. "Shall we put it into practice?"
“Don’t,” Mo said, pressing Otto’s hand, already raising the pulser, down. “Do the math,” she added, nodding to where the other three Neocols had entrapped several of the ADs with their tentacles.
Tentacles Mo knew could deliver anything from the faintest sting to a heart-stopping charge.
“As you see,” the first Neocol’s translator crackled over the clicks and hisses of the amphibion's natural speech, “you may attempt to fire upon one of us, but that shot will remove five of your cargo.”
"Cargo?" Mo echoed the lead Neocol's statement. "Is that how you see them?”
The amphibions all started clicking and hissing before the leader waved a tentacle and turned an eye in Mo's direction. "Is that not how you see them?”
Harry, deeply aware of the four armed security officers ranging alongside the collected “guests,” turned his gaze forward, continuing to play his part. “And I suppose this is where you blow my cover?” he asked, scanning the surrounding sapients to make certain no one was paying attention to their conversation.
“On the contrary,” she murmured. “This is the part where I offer to help you do—whatever it is you mean to do.”
Harry considered that. “And what do you get in return for this help?”
“A ride off this station.” She sighed, fluttering her fine mesh veil. “The Judon do not have any diplomatic status with either the ConFed or the Rasalkan Matriarchy.”
“You’re on,” Harry said, angling to the left along with the rest of the herd, then pausing as they came to a halt before a pair of arched doors, sealed shut. Looked like they'd reached the outside of the auction house. “Just know, if I die before we get those doors open, no ride for you.”
Her eyes narrowed with what might have been amusement. “Understood.”
“Good.” Harry watched as the first security guy he’d met started playing with the console, attempting to open it. “You take those two,” he jerked his chin at the gray suits to their right. “I’ve got those,” he indicated the two on the left, including the first he’d spoken to, who was at the control panel. Probably trying to get the doors open.
The Judon gave a soft hiss of acknowledgment. “And the guests?”
“Scare them off or put them down,” Harry muttered, already moving. “Whichever works.”
This time she said nothing, but slid through the grumbling passel of Humans in search of her targets while Harry, his baton already raised, closed in on the lone Gmell in the crowd.