“I’m guessing you told her the plan?” Harry asked Jessyn over Mo’s finger, which was still digging into his sternum.
“You told her the plan?” Ray echoed, turning to Jessyn.
“She is your sister,” Jessyn said simply.
“I wouldn’t call it a plan,” Mollin offered, crossing to the galley with Koz, both aiming for the coffee machine.
“That’s because it’s not a plan.” Mo poked Harry again.
“It has plan-like elements,” he countered, sidestepping before she could deliver another poke.
“And you…” she spun and crossed to where Ray still stood in the open arch, “You knew what this maniac wanted to do, and you didn’t call me?”
“I don’t make a habit of bringing you into my work,” Ray said.
“And I appreciate that.” Mo dropped her pointed finger before it could poke Ray, which Harry thought unfair. “But this isn’t your usual job, is it?”
Ray winced. “No.”
Mo shot a glance at Jessyn. “What about you? Does your resumé include any jailbreaks?”
“I have never broken anyone out of a prison, no,” Jessyn admitted while Mollin set the coffee machine to grinding. “But I have assisted in extracting people from dangerous situations, including Koz, just today.”
“Invisible Woman deal, right,” Mo said, eyes narrowing. She turned to Harry. “Lawman?”
“I once broke out of a Judon POW station. Does that count?” he asked as her brows shot up to her fringe of bangs. “Which brings us to you,” he continued, gesturing with his mug. “Ever stage a prison break… Duchess?”
Mo held his gaze for a moment, then let out a slow breath. “I started to,” she admitted. “A little over seven years ago. I had the groundwork laid, the team put together.” She turned to Ray. “We were ready to make the first play when the asset got out on his own.”
“Ohh,” Jessyn said, putting it together a half-second before Harry did.
And Ray, who had been in Danseker Super Max seven years ago, until Colonel Doyle recruited him to Zodiac, looked into his adoptive sister’s eyes. “You were going to try to get me out of the Dutchman?”
“It was a really good plan,” Mo said, then added, to Harry, “An actual plan.”
“Mine has plan-like elements,” Harry insisted, mostly to give Ray a chance to take a breath. Then he did, and the inhale looked as if it hurt.
“You never told me,” Ray said.
“You didn’t ask,” Mo replied.
There followed a pained silence, broken by the splat of coffee being spit into a mug.
At that cue, Jessyn crossed over to the siblings.
“We should sit, take some rest,” she said, placing one hand on Ray’s shoulder and taking Mo’s hand with the other. “I will make tea,” she added, speaking to Mo.
“That would be nice,” Mo said, tearing her eyes from Ray.
In the galley, Mollin cleared his throat and set two mugs of coffee on the table before taking one of the four chairs.
After a beat, Koz joined him, setting his comp down with a gentle thump, then scooting his chair closer to Mollin when Ray and Mo, steered expertly by Jessyn, joined them.
Harry took his time before slipping back into the galley himself, where he opted to lean against the counter, while those at the table shifted in their seats and avoided looking at one another.
Jessyn, meanwhile retrieved the teapot she’d brought aboard—Ray’s galley had contained no such niceties—and began to warm it under a stream of water in the sink before scooping the tea—which she’d brought aboard as well—into the pot.
Every move was simple, but also infused with a grace that made the homey task mean more.
As Jessyn adjusted the tap to emit water on the boil, Harry’s thoughts fell back… a long way back… to the granite-countered kitchen of the Pennsylvania cabin he'd shared with Jessyn's mother.
Siane had also been fond of tea.
But his wife’s preparations had been less serene and more…determined, Harry recalled as the echoes of slamming cupboard doors, whistling kettles and sloshing water filled his memories.
And then, as always when memories of Siane surfaced, there followed the shadow of smoke, the stench of burning—and the inevitable hat trick of loss, failure, and grief.
Though he’d learned, thanks to Fayla Szado’s telepathic talents, that the fire…and the loss, and the failure…were all an illusion, didn’t seem to matter a damn.
It hurt now, as it had hurt for over two decades.
Even as he tried to staunch the oozing of his second-oldest wound, Jessyn turned from setting a mug under the coffeemaker. He gave his head a quick shake, and her eyes dipped in acknowledgement, before turning to serve those at the table.
“Thank you,” Mo said, lifting the cup of delicately spiced tea Jessyn set before her, while Jessyn retrieved Ray’s coffee and a bottle of his favored Wallace Blue Label, and set them on the table.
Ray shot her a grateful look, opened the bottle, and doctored his coffee.
“So…” Mo leaned back in her chair and eyed Harry. “Tell me about your plan-like elements.”
“To start,” Harry began, “we discovered Libra Max runs on several shifts per Galactic Standard year. In Libra’s case, the staff remain aboard for four months, then take seven weeks off. And the shifts are staggered, so they’re not all changing on the same date.”
“Too much staff shuffling on and off at once being a security risk,” Ray tossed in, leaning back in his chair so that the front legs left the floor. “Danseker had a similar procedure, but their people work only two months on, and get one and a half off.”
“Because they have to deal with all the hard-cases,” Mo said, sparing him the barest of glances.
“The point is,” Harry said, “there are staff shuttles coming and going from Libra like clockwork, ferrying incoming and outgoing guards, techs, janitors, medics, and such. They use those same shuttles for supplies and visitors—attorneys, ConFed inspectors, intake and release of inmates. There’s also some other traffic that comes in every four months, also like clockwork, for reasons we haven’t been able to determine.”
“I still say those are the conjugal shuttles,” Ray said, leaning further back in his chair.
“Except the transports in question depart within three hours,” Harry pointed out.
“Only takes a few minutes,” Ray muttered, taking a sip of his doctored coffee.
“Not if you’re doing it right,” Mo, Jessyn, and Koz said at the same time.
“The upshot,” Harry continued over Ray’s spit take, “is that our best chance to get aboard Libra would be to create some false ID’s and go in on one of the staff shuttles as new hires.”
“Not bad,” Mo said, nodding. “In fact, it’s got a lot in common with the insertion we had planned for extracting Himself.” She jerked her chin at Ray, who immediately lost his balance on the teetering chair, and had to jerk forward abruptly so as not to drop to the deck.
“Sorry,” he said.
“As I was saying…” Mo turned back to Harry, “as far as a plan-like elements go, it doesn’t suck.” She raised her mug of tea as she asked, “So what comes next?”
“That’s the thing,” Harry said with a shrug. “We never got to what comes next, because inserting the fake IDs was a non-starter.”
“I couldn’t get in,” Mollin said, glancing from Mo to Koz. “Libra’s security, admin, safety—hells, all the station protocols—are policed by three—count them, three—AIs.”
“Three?” Koz sat up, his expression shifting from wary to interested.
“Three separate entities, all running from one internal core,” Mollin confirmed.
“Sounds crowded,” Mo offered.
“I can relate,” Ray muttered.
“I couldn’t slice into the prison’s specs directly,” Mollin continued, “but I was able to dig into the blueprints.”
“How?” Mo asked.
Mollin glanced at Koz. “I used the back door I helped you prop open a few years ago.”
“The one into the Criminal Justice Oversight file?” Koz asked, eyes wide and, when Mollin nodded, grinned. “That was our first slice, together.”
“Yes. Well.” Mollin’s face blanked, and Harry imagined if his skin could change, it would have shifted to the mauve of the Cherrii blush. “CJ Oversight stores the specs for any prison holding convicted members of the ConFederation. That includes Libra, and Libra’s AIs, which are a prototype,” he added. “Patent pending.”
“An expensive prototype,” Jessyn recalled.
“They call it Cerberus,” Harry added.
Mo frowned. “I know that name.” She glanced around. “Why do I know it?”
“It reminded me of Xeriboros,” Jessyn said. “A mythical creature with the body of a man and three animal heads, and known for tearing the arms from the Rasalkans it encountered.”
“Interesting,” Koz said over Mollin’s soft ack. “In Terran mythology, Cerberus, or Kerberos, is a three-headed hound—the heads and body were canine,” he added, for clarification. “It’s said his job was to prevent the dead from escaping the underworld, and was the offspring of the monsters Typhon and Echidna.” He paused to notice five pairs of eyes staring. “I picked up a degree in ancient mythologies a couple years back.”
“Of course you did,” Mollin said.
“Here’s hoping the AI Cerberus is closer to the hell-dog than the arm-eating critter,” Ray offered.
“Here, here,” Mo said.
“Anyway.” Mollin cleared his throat. “The way these three AIs function is—it as if they have three bodies, or heads,” he nodded at Koz, “but they share a single brain, so they always know what each other are doing. And what’s more, they don’t have regimented areas of authority. They trade off systems oversight on a regular, but so far unpredictable, basis.”
“And if one is disabled?” Koz asked.
“According to the specs at the Decagon, if one head dies, the remaining siblings will pool their code and start to grow a replacement.”
Mo straightened. “That’s—”
“Amazing!” Koz said, leaning forward. “Actual silicon self-generation? That's a—”
“A real problem, for us,” Harry cut off the geekish enthusiasm. “Given we’re talking quantum computing. The head we kill wouldn’t have time to go cold before a replacement was spawned. And besides that—”
[Besides that] Dorothy jumped in [we don’t want to go murdering innocent AIs. Do we?]
“No, of course not,” Koz assured the AI.
“It depends,” Ray said, then grimaced in a way that told Harry he hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
[Depends?] Dorothy echoed.
“On what?” Koz asked.
“I’m just saying that if there are good and bad people—biologic sapients,” he corrected himself as Koz cleared his throat. “It follows there can be good and bad AIs. And, given the Cerberus-es,” he added, frowning, “work for Libra, there’s every chance they’re not on the side of the angels, which to me means we should leave every option on the table.”
“You’re thinking like a hitter,” Harry observed while the others looked at Ray with expressions ranging from disappointment to horror.
“At least I’m thinking,” Ray said, his expression shifting to a cold appraisal Harry imagined was the last thing a lot the aforementioned bad people ever saw.
“And I’m not?” he asked, meeting the cold appraisal with a cool curiosity.
“Do you ever?” Ray asked back. “What kind of thought process went into that Trojan cow thing you pulled on Ócala?”
“It was a Trojan horse,” Harry said, “and given that the thing worked out in our favor, I don’t know why you’re bitching about it, now.”
“I’m bitching about it because in the month—”
“Three weeks and four days—” Mollin murmured.
“—we’ve been working together, it seems like every decision you make arrived by way of your ass.”
“Now there’s an image,” Harry said.
“As much fun as it is watching you two spat like an old married couple,” Mo interrupted, “maybe we want to get back to the issue at hand?”
“I think I forgot the issue at hand,” Koz complained.
[The issue is how Mollin hopes to disable Cerberus—without committing sapiecide—in order to extract Jessyn’s mother from Libra prison station] Dorothy offered.
“Oh.” Koz slumped in his chair. “Right.”
“Thank you, Dorothy,” Mollin said.
[Think nothing of it] Dorothy replied.
Ray pressed a finger to his temple, and Jessyn let out a soft sigh.
Harry grit his teeth and nodded at Mollin.
“The upshot of all this,” Mollin said, turning to Koz, “is that once I laid eyes on the Libra specs, it was clear I wouldn’t be able to get in without your help.”
“Flattering,” Koz said after a beat, “but we both know I’m not the only slicer in the Known.” Here he glanced at Mo.
“I don’t know,” she said, knuckles giving the table a quick rap. “Sean’s good—really good—but he’s not you.”
Koz frowned. “What about that other guy? Gemini? He’s new on the scene but word is he’s iced.”
“Ahh,” Mollin said and Jessyn made a small sound of distress and Harry felt everything go cold.
“What?” Koz asked.
“Gemini is Harry’s bat-shit crazy ex-partner,” Ray said helpfully. “And thanks to Harry’s Trojan farm animal is now working through his issues in a max-security psych ward back in Sol System.”
“Which,” Harry said, offering his own bland look to Ray, “is why we forced Mollin to track you down.”
“Forced?” Koz looked at Mollin.
“Hounded him near to death,” Harry assured.
“He did not want to give you up,” Jessyn added.
Koz let out a hiss, slugged some coffee back, then set the mug down on the table. “I’ll look,” he said at last. “But no promises.”
“Understood,” Harry replied, shoving down a rebellious surge of hope.
“If you can find them an in,” Mo said to Koz, “I might be able to help grow the rest of the plan.”
“Your assistance would be most welcome,” Jessyn said, beaming at Mo.
“Lawman?” Mo asked.
“I never turn down expert advice,” he said.
“Really?” Ray asked.
“I never turn down productive expert advice,” Harry amended.
“Want to get started?” Mollin asked Koz quickly, probably worried Harry and Ray were about to get into another spat.
“Hells to the yes,” Koz said, rising from the table.
“I’ll take a look, too,” Mo said, also rising.
“The more the merrier.” As he spoke Koz hefted his personal comp and all three moved out of the galley to converge on the Moth’s main comp-comm interface.
[Do you require my assistance?] Dorothy asked.
“Not yet,” Mollin said. “We’ll just be retreading old ground at this point.”
[Then, if no one minds, I would like to go into rest mode. I still have a number of old personality files that require cleaning up to blend with my new parameters.]
“Go to town,” Ray said, downing the remains of his coffee in a swift gulp before setting the mug down with a thump. “I should run a comms sweep,” he said. “Make sure no one on Surresh Prime—or ConFed law—has connected the Phoenix Rising to the Moth.”
“Good idea,” Harry said, though he suspected Ray really just wanted a few moments of privacy.
“And we will tidy the galley,” Jessyn said.
“We will?” Harry asked, diverted enough to look at his daughter, who arched her brow at him. “Right,” he said, straightening. “Tidying it is.”
He took the cloth she tossed him and started clearing the table. He no sooner had the tea and coffee mugs gathered when Koz spoke.
“Mirror neurons,” the AD said.
“Say again?” Harry asked, turning his way before remembering the mass of mugs and setting them on the counter with a jumbled clatter that had Jessyn, who was wiping the sink down, sighing.
“Mirror neurons,” Koz echoed as he glared at the multitude of holos filling the air over the comp station.
“That was awfully fast. Are you sure?” Mollin asked, his own eyes darting from mini-screen to mini-screen.
“Seriously?” Koz asked back.
“Right,” Mollin said. “Sorry.”
Mo just shook her head and made room as Koz hip-checked Mollin out of the chair, taking his place at the comp, while Harry and Jessyn crossed over to stand next to Mo.
A glance at the dozen or so holo-tiles showed multiple scrolling lines of code that might as well have been ancient HaQ, as far as Harry could tell. “So, about these mirror neurons?” he asked.
At his side, Jessyn shifted. “I believe Koz is referring to specialized cells in biologic brains,” she said. “They fire on performance of an action, or on viewing another biologic performing an action.” She paused, looked at her father. “Xenobiology is a required course in the Naihad Academy.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Jessyn’s right.” Koz nodded as he set his personal comp on his lap and activated it. “Different sapients house them in different regions of the brain, but to date, mirror neurons have been found to exist in every catalogued biologic life form in the Known.”
“And that’s the kind of universality that makes my job easier,” Mo commented, leaning on the back of the chair.
“How so?” Jessyn asked.
“Everyone’s got the same relative wiring,” Mo said with a hitch of a shrug. “Not even millennia of evolution can keep the brain from wanting what the brain always wanted—we just dress it up prettier than when we were hunting mammoths and hiding from saber-tooth tigers.”
“Hmm,” was Jessyn’s comment.
“You disagree?” Mo asked, not angry, Harry noted, but curious.
“Not entirely, but in my work, I consistently find a deep, almost intrinsic, need to cherish, and be cherished in return. Even the most scarred heart of the most weary of soldiers carries within it the shadow of the child she once was.”
Mo’s lip quirked. “I sure hope Ray knows how good he has it, with you.”
Jessyn smiled back. “If not, I will be sure to educate him.”
“Which is all very interesting,” Harry said. “But how do these mirror neurons apply to our current problem?”
“They apply,” Koz said, “because Cerberus has them, too.”
“Cerberus, the three-headed AI has neurons?” Harry asked.
“Not actual neurons, no,” Mollin said, then glanced at Koz who, still being entranced with the gigabytes of data floating in front of him, didn’t seem inclined to answer. “We’re not talking wetware—”
“Thank the goddess,” Jessyn murmured.
“But this,” Koz said, pointing at one of the screens and using both hands, dragged the edges out so it dwarfed all the others, “this is a program that—haha—mirrors the effect of mirror neurons. You’ll note it’s not that Cerberus shares a single physical head…”
“I will?” Harry whispered to Jessyn.
“… it’s that the three AIs all share an inverse iteration quantum code. This is how they can switch tasks without any noticeable lag.”
“Noticeable?” Harry asked.
“But there is a lag?” Mo followed up.
“There is.” Koz continued to scan the holo. “And that lag, along with some mirror neurons of our own, is how we’re going to get in.”
“That’s—brilliant!” Mollin said. “I knew you could do it!” With a treble whoop, he dragged Koz up from the chair and laid a kiss on him that had the other three taking a judicious step away from the comp.
When Koz didn’t object to the kiss—and, in fact, showed more than willing—Harry looked over at the other two. “So,” he began.
“I think I will tell Ray the good news,” Jessyn said, and spun towards the cockpit arch.
“I could use a shower,” Mo decided, then glanced at the two geeks before giving Harry a considering look. “Care to wash my back, Lawman?”
“Ah,” Harry said, and shuffled a foot. “Hah.”
She smiled, shrugged. “Some other time.”
Then she sauntered off in a swish of silk, leaving Harry thinking he could do with a shower—at the coldest setting—himself.
At which point Mo turned into his quarters.
Or not, Harry thought, and turning his back on Mollin and Koz, who were still at it, headed back into the galley to finish the cleanup.