Inside the privacy of what, pre-Mo, had been his quarters, Harry took a moment to process everything Koz and the team had uncovered, so far.
As he did, his eyes fell to the bed. It was neatly made, but the ancient ISM Academy t-shirt Mo had taken to sleeping in still lay crumpled over one corner.
He took a deep breath and the lemony scent he associated with Mo tickled his senses.
With a pained huff, he walked to the room’s stingy desk and pulled open the side drawer.
For another few seconds he stood looking down at the contents, which included an old, hand-carved yo-yo, and a still shot of a young Siane, somewhat the worse for its travels.
Taking another, Mo-infused breath—now laced with the memory of smoke—he closed the drawer, folded himself into the desk chair, and activated the communications console Fayla’s lead cy-tech had installed before the Moth lifted off from Ócala.
Since Fayla wasn’t one to skimp on her tech, the connection was made quickly. Mere seconds after Harry keyed in his ident, a small holo-screen erupted atop the console.
Harry’s heart tripped at the vision of Fayla Szado, her brows perfectly arched over a pair of eyes so black and deep, a man could willingly drown in them.
Harry certainly had.
The holo showed more than her eyes, and once he forced himself to surface from those liquid depths, Harry noted her masses of black curls almost carelessly held in place by what looked to be braided platinum.
Her gown, of the same shade as the braids in her hair, shimmered from one gold-brown shoulder in gleaming metallic river.
What he could see of the fabric had a distracting tendency to cling in all the right places.
“Harry,” she greeted him, one brow quirking as she did.
“Do you always dress like that?” he asked.
The brow quirked a little more. “Like what?”
“Like a glass of unblended scotch in the middle of an AA meeting.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she said.
“Because you’ve never been to an AA meeting,” he replied.
“A point.” The brow relaxed a fraction. “But not, I think, the one you comm’d me to make.”
She had him there. “Is this a secure channel?” he asked.
“The channel I have assigned to a Human male who illegally married a Rasalkan, more illegally sired a child with her and helped ruin an alliance between the my own Black Rose and the Draconis syndicates?” she asked before answering her own query. “Yes, Harry, this is a secure channel.”
“And you’re alone?”
“Why?” Now she angled to face him directly. “Were you hoping to engage in a long-range sexual encounter? I would be willing, but I have a meeting soon, and as I explained before you left Ócala, I feel it best to wait until we had permission from your wife.”
Which, he had to admit, was a very Rasalkan point of view towards adult relations.
However, also not the point of this communication, he reminded himself.
So he got to the point. “Dr. Kaylin Tsosi,” he said, then eased back in the chair and waited.
Fayla’s head shifted all of millimeter. “It seems Eineen owes me two hundred credits. She didn’t think you’d find the connection,” she added by way of explanation.
He felt his jaw tighten. “So, you knew there was a connection between Dr. Tsosi and Siane?”
“Of course I knew.”
“And it never occurred to you to mention Tsosi? A geneticist who happens to specialize in single-species genetic degradation?”
“There was little point mentioning Tsosi’s existence until I had some assurances you could infiltrate Libra. And since it was agreed you’d contact me prior to taking any significant action, there was plenty of time to update, had Eineen won the bet.”
“And what made you so sure Eineen would lose?” Harry asked. Not because he cared but because asking was better than giving in to the anger burning in his gut at being left out of the loop.
“I know Siane,” she said simply. “Well enough to be confident she would have told you more Rasalkan history than she should have. Enough,” she added, “to get us both killed, if the Matriarchy were to learn of this conversation.”
“At this point, the list of what could get both of us killed is epic,” he commented, before adding. “Which, I guess, was why you didn’t mind sharing the Rasalkan complications with Tsosi,” he guessed.
“You guess correctly.”
“Still, it’s a big step, given the Matriarchy’s views,” he mused. “Why Tsosi? And why now?”
“Three reasons,” Fayla said. “First, Tsosi identifies female. Second, she is an AD, which makes her uniquely suited to understand our situation. And third… we are running out of time.”
And though her expression remained as smooth as ever, those last six words sliced across the void between them like a knife. “How bad is it?” Harry asked, and when she hesitated, added, “We’re already on the executioner’s block. Not much point holding back now.”
“True enough,” she murmured, then her chin dipped slightly. “Very well. In the past ninety-three years we have moved from a zero population growth to a negative population growth. The last quarter century has seen a forty-percent drop in viable conceptions, and not every conception survives the first year of life.” She paused, and Harry thought he spied something like regret flash over her features before she continued. “If the numbers continue to drop at this level…”
“The Rasalkan species will become extinct,” he finished the thought she left hanging.
“Except we both know there’s another way,” Harry said. “And we both know this because there is a living, breathing example in the next room.”
Fay’s eyes hardened. “And we also both know that way is forbidden. As you, Jessyn, and Jessyn’s mother discovered.”
“Because of a bunch of hide-bound batties,” Harry said, using Jessyn’s favored term for the Matriarchy, “who won’t let go of the past.”
“The past,” Fayla bit the word off, “is not as distant as you would like to believe. Then again,” she added bitterly, “Terrans are known for their short memories.”
“That’s a pretty damning statement,” he pointed out, “Given we’re the same species.”
“I care what you found out about the auctions,” Koz said to Dorothy as the door closed behind Harry.
“Me too,” Mo said.
“May as well hear it,” Ray agreed, glancing at Jessyn, who nodded vaguely.
[If you recall,] Dorothy chimed in, [Dr. Kosterlovovich procured the dates of the untraced payments Cerberus had on file, and which coincided with the dates of the reported deaths. However, those dates also coincide with the unusual shuttle activity.]
Mollin looked back at Ray, “Those would be the ones you thought were for conjugal visits.”
“It was a valid supposition,” Ray said defensively.
Mo shook her head. “Only three shuttles arriving on one day, every four months?” she said. “That’s not a lot of conjugality for a prison this size.”
[Beyond that,] Dorothy said, [those same three shuttles, the Styx, the Acheron, and the Phlegathon, arrive at the station every four months, at the exact the same time as the reported deaths, and the corresponding payments… going back for over five standard years.]
“And Libra has been in business how long?” Mo asked.
“Six years,” Jessyn replied, her voice tight. “The Matriarchy granted a lease for the location seven standard years ago. The Libra consortium initiated construction immediately after, and the station began accepting their first penal contracts within a few months of completion.”
“That’s a pretty fast turnover,” Ray said, even as Koz raced for the forward computer station.
“What?” Mollin asked, following.
Mo popped up from to sofa to follow Mollin.
Ray and Jessyn both rose as well, but when Ray trailed after Mo, Jessyn remained where she was. Torn, Ray knew, between their current conversation and whatever her father was discussing with Fayla.
“I want to see every one of the deceased listings we were able to pull from the Cerberus slice,” Koz said, drawing Ray’s attention forward.
“Why?” Mollin asked.
“The timing,” Koz muttered, focused on his work. “The timing is too close.”
“Too close to what?” Ray asked, and shared a confused look as he joined Mo, before Koz let out a hiss as he raised a new screen.
“What is it?” Ray asked, eyeing the rogue’s gallery of images lined up in a neat column on the left.
“These are inmates listed as deceased we got from our slice,” Koz said. “The ones that match up to the auctions.”
Alleged auctions, Ray thought, but something in Koz’s voice kept him from saying it. Instead, he leaned over the AD’s head to study the images, as well as the biographies, which included place of origin, education, conviction records, and date of death.
It was all there, all the data one might expect to see in a prison database.
All except… “Where’s the birthdate?” Ray asked, skimming over every line, in case he missed it.
“Technically, they don’t have one,” Koz said in a hollow voice. “We have a date of emergence, but we don’t all emerge at the same biological age so… no birthdate.”
“You can’t mean it,” Mo said, her hand dropping to Koz’s shoulder.
“You’re saying they’re all ADs?” Ray asked. “All of the missing people?”
“I thought it was weird there were no birthdates listed on that last group,” Koz murmured as Ray turned back to the data. “Learning Tsosi had been arrested with Siane, that got me thinking harder. Then Dorothy tied in the shuttles, and with the number of disappearances, and payments—and how long they’ve been going on—since the prison opened.”
“Six years ago,” Ray recalled.
“But the lease was contracted seven years ago,” Mo said, glancing back at Jessyn, who nodded.
“Do you know what else happened seven years ago?” Koz asked, looking up at Ray, then Mo, then Mollin, who gaped.
“That’s when I was assigned to you,” Mollin said.
“Because that’s when the Baseline movement began lobbying for registration and containment of AD life forms,” Koz said.
“Goddess,” Jessyn murmured, and the horror she felt iced Ray’s spine.
“There are days I wish weren’t right so often,” Koz said, his voice tight.
“And you’re sure?” Mo asked. “Sure they’re all ADs?”
“I’m sure,” Koz said, his eyes locked on the faces of the lost. “I even know some of them. A few from the underground, a few from university, but these two?” he highlighted two young women who appeared to be identical twins. “The Dixit sisters were in my creche,” he explained. “We share a progenitor. I’m sure,” he said again.
“They can’t be in it alone,” Ray heard himself say. “The prison, I mean.”
“Right in one,” Mo agreed. “Not when you add in the Baseline movement, the Senate.” She shook her head. “There’s a limit to how much leverage one private prison can apply.”
“Unless that private prison was just taking advantage of the sentiment,” Mollin suggested. “Following the trend?”
“Could be,” Mo said. “Or, if we’re thinking big—and in my line of work I’ve found most assholes think way too big—it could be the entire Baseline movement was a ruse. Designed from the get to foster enough resentment they’d have reason to lock up every AD they could find, and profit from it.”
“You know what you’re saying,” Mollin pointed out. “You’re saying that Libra’s owners are in collusion with the Baseline movement, and by extension, the ConFed Senate, to disenfranchise the ADs for—money?”
“That is indeed what I am saying,” she agreed.
“But…that’s—unprecedented,” Mollin said.
“Nothing unprecedented about greed,” Mo pointed out. “Check your Terran history. And Judon. And HaQ, and Drellan.”
“Still, it’d take a lot of greed, and a lot of grease, to set up a system this large in scale,” Ray said, speculating on the enormity of the operation, which even he—the unofficial team skeptic—no longer thought of as alleged. “It was supposed to be a simple prison break,” he heard himself complain.
“Well, Cowboy, now it’s a conspiracy,” Mo punched him in the shoulder.
“Kill me now,” he said.
As if on cue, a new, deep, and supremely angry, voice said,“Happy to oblige.”
Ray, Mo, Mollin, and Koz spun towards the center of the room where, in place of the holographic data mine Koz had posted amidships, hovered a life-sized holo of Colonel Liam Michael Doyle, director of Zodiac Division.
His clean-shaven head gleamed from lights that didn’t exist on the Gypsy. In his hand was a cigar, on his face, a scowl.
Thankfully that scowl was aimed aft, and away from the confab at the front of the lounge, which included not only Ray and Mollin, but an unregistered AD and a professional grifter.
“Colonel!” Jessyn, who was standing directly in the Doyle’s eyeline, greeted Doyle, holding his attention and allowing Mo time to dive for the cockpit corridor, while Mollin shoved Koz under the computer desk. “How good to see you again,” she continued, beaming.
For reasons Ray couldn’t fathom, Jessyn had a soft spot for the ornery Control.
“Domina Breeshandra,” Doyle responded in kind. “Always a pleasure,” he added, temporarily losing his habitual, dour expression. “Though I’m a bit surprised to find you in such dubious company.” He shot Ray a glare as he strolled over to join the conversation.
“The Lady Fayla, whom you met on Ócala,” Jessyn said, taking Ray’s offered hand, “gave me leave to spend some low time with Raymond, and to assist with Mr. Finn’s recovery from his gunshot injury.”
“Low time?” Doyle looked at Ray.
“Downtime,” Ray explained.
“Got it.” Doyle nodded. “That was damn considerate of Lady Fayla.”
“She values Mr. Finn,” Jessyn said simply. “But I confess, it is an unusual experience, spending so much time with a male crew. It is entirely different from traveling with my sisters. Much louder,” she decided. “And with much more colorful language. Though, of course, there are fewer pillowfights,” she added with a demure glance that had even Doyle, that stale crust of an operative, barking out a laugh.
“I don’t know what in the hells Slater did to deserve a lady like you, but I hope he knows how lucky he is,” he said with a grin.
“Be assured, I remind him, frequently.” She grinned back.
“I bet you do,” Doyle agreed. “Unfortunately, Domina, I’ll have to ask for some privacy. I need to speak with Slater and Mollin. And, if I could ask you to send Harry in, from wherever he’s…recovering?”
“Of course.” She dipped her head to Doyle, placing her right hand over her heart in farewell. As she turned to leave, she ran that hand down Ray’s arm before she made her way to the Harry’s, or rather, Mo’s, room to inform her father of this latest contact.
And, Ray trusted, to update him on Dorothy and Koz’s latest discoveries.
Inside the bedroom, seconds passed while Fayla's dark eyes revealed nothing.
“The same species," she at last echoed Harry’s statement. “But a very unique sub-species. And one that would have been wiped out had Tremman Xaan not extracted my foremothers from the sword and fire of Homo Sapiens Sapiens at what you Earthers so charmingly call the dawn of civilization.”
Xaan, as Harry recalled from Siane’s stories, had been a xenobiologist from the Andromeda galaxy, chosen to study the early development of sapient life on a little blue marble at the edge of the Milky Way.
It helped that the Tremman—Xaan’s species—reproduced by budding, with the daughter bud carrying not only the physiological characteristics, but also the consciousness of her progenitor.
This unusual system allowed Xaan to observe and record over millennia the rise of one particular branch of hominids, and the offshoots of that branch.
Offshoots that included a particular group that was statistically given to female births, and which possessed certain neural abilities that would later be grouped under the term Extra Sensory Perception on Earth.
All of this Harry remembered as he studied Fayla’s cool expression. “And we’re all grateful to Xaan for that,” he said. “But letting your species die off now because a bunch of pre-historic assholes invented genetic cleansing a few million years ago seems short-sighted.”
“It might be,” Fayla countered, “if the descendants of those pre-historic assholes were not as motivated by greed, power, and lust as their forefathers. And before you try to convince me Humanity has evolved,” she warned, “I will remind you I have walked in your memories.”
“Without asking permission,” he said tightly. “And given your Matriarchs are so calloused by the past they’d choose to murder a woman for bearing a half-Human child, I’d recommend you lay down that rock you’re about to throw, before you get glass in your eye.”
“I have no idea what that statement means,” Fayla said, the eyes in question flashing. “Nor do I have time to engage in a battle of philosophies. I have people waiting, so if all you wanted was to confirm Tsosi’s presence, and her importance, you have done so. And yes,” she continued, before he could draw a breath to respond, “I would very much appreciate it if you could extract Tsosi along with Siane.”
“Sure,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “No problem. Except,” he said, leaning close to the screen, “there’s a something else.”
Her perfect brow arched. Perfectly.
Harry’s lip curled. “Turns out, Libra’s got a sideline going. Or, did you already know about that? Maybe have another side bet with Eineen?”
“I did not.” Now she leaned in. “Tell me. Everything.”
He told her everything, then felt a sick twist as, for the first time in their acquaintance, an expression of open shock crossed Fayla Szado’s face.
It was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by something else.
“This cannot go unanswered,” she said at last.
“It won’t,” he promised.
“If it were anyone else saying that, I would doubt them,” she said. “Even given it is you, this will not be a simple undertaking.”
“Neither was taking down Mariska and her psycho sidekick,” Harry reminded her. “And really, when you get down to it, this is still a jail break. It’s just, bigger.”
Her lip twitched. “Your confidence is…” she paused, thinking.
“Impressive?” he asked. “Inspiring?”
“Terrifying,” she determined.
“I didn’t think anything could terrify you,” he said.
“You think wrong. My days and nights are an endless dance with forces that would happily crush me. Only a fool would not know fear in those circumstances.”
Which made sense. It also gave him the opening to ask, “Did anyone, Sisterhood or government, know you were attempting to confer with Dr. Tsosi?”
“No.” She let out the faintest huff of breath. “No. First, because there is no certainty Tsosi can help, and secondly because…”
“Because it would be a coup for House Szado to supply a solution, or even a partial solution, to the Rasalkan problem,” Harry concluded, when she paused.
“Yes,” she said at last, and he could sense no shame in the admission.
Nor would there be, in a society in which, as she had just admitted, the dance of power was intricate, endless, and deadly.
Even as he thought this, the door opened, and he turned to see Jessyn stepping inside.
“Lady.” The younger woman crossed both arms over her heart as she spied Fayla’s image. “My sorrow to intrude, but Colonel Doyle has made contact.” She turned to her father. “He seems eager to speak to you.”
“I bet he is,” Harry said.
“We have also learned more,” Jessyn said. “Regarding the sales on Libra.”
“Tell us,” Fayla said, even as Harry stood.
She did so, and as she did, Harry felt a little tingle, and with that tingle, came a tight smile.
“What are you thinking?” Fayla asked.
“I’m thinking the colonel’s timing is perfect,” he said.
Fayla and Jessyn looked at one another, then at Harry, but it was Jessyn who asked, “How?”