Two minutes after Doyle’s comm…
“When was the last auction, again?” Harry asked, still seated on the couch, Mo at his side.
“What happened to the ‘alleged’?” Mo asked.
“It was implied,” Harry told her while Koz turned to the screens.
Harry leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as the internal buzz that was either the beginning of an idea or a low-grade coffee craving hummed along his spine.
“The last auction appears to have been held thirteen-sixty-five, seventy-four,” he rattled the universal system date.
“And Cerberus tells you they’ve been happening at regular intervals,” Mo said, sharing a look with Harry.
“Like clockwork,” Koz confirmed. “Which means the next one would be taking place in four standard days.”
“Four days,” Ray echoed.
“Well, more like three days, nineteen hours, and thirty-two minutes, to be exact,” Koz admitted.
“So that would be a few hours less than four days to come up with a plan to infil a super-max pen,” Ray said as Harry turned to see him press a finger to his brow.
“Ah, yes?” Koz said.
“A super-max,” Ray continued, dropping his hand, “that happens to be protected by three—count them, three—AIs— in order to exfil at least a dozen HTVs—High Value Targets,” he explained to Jessyn, “from two different locations within said supermax. Hopefully,” he added, “without getting caught or killed in the process.”
Harry nodded thoughtfully. “That sounds about right.”
“I hate you,” Ray said.
“It’ll be fun,” Harry promised. “You might even get to shoot someone.”
“I’m getting the urge to do that, now,” Ray told him.
Two hours after Doyle’s comm…
“It looks like they keep the ADs in a separate holding area from the rest of the inmates—there’s a force-shielded cell block at the top of the containment tower,” Koz said, glaring at the holo he’d pulled up.
“Makes sense,” Ray said from where he and Jessyn sat at the galley table. “They don’t want to risk the merchandise getting bruised by the general population.”
“And they won’t send them joining the labor crews in the refinery tower, for the same reason,” Mo added from the lounge, where she was pacing from one side of the room to the other, while Harry paced from forward to aft.
“It might make sense for them,” Mollin offered from the forward computer station, “but it’s harder for us—trying to infiltrate two different towers.”
“Three towers,” Mo corrected.
Ray turned to see her come to a halt as she and Harry hit the middle of the deck at the same time. She hissed, stepped back, then looked up. “Three towers,” she said again.
“What are you thinking?” Harry asked, also easing back a step.
“I’m thinking the Milleon Two-Step,” she said, tapping her fingers on her thigh.
“Don’t you need eight people—and a sous chef—for that one?” Harry asked.
“You’re thinking of the Macron variation,” Mo told him. “With the original, there’s no chef, and you can get by with six.”
“But the Two-step doesn’t take the three AIs into account,” Harry told her.
Mo opened her mouth to protest, then rocked on her heels, frowning. “Damn it, you’re right. I hate that you’re right.” And the two commenced pacing, once again.
“Do you have any idea what they’re talking about?” Jessyn whispered to Ray.
“Just enough to know I don’t want to know,” he whispered back.
Five hours after Doyle’s comm…
“I have good news and bad news,” Mollin said, spinning away from the comp station to see Koz sleeping on the couch, Harry on his way to his room.
Of Mo, Ray and Jessyn there was no sign.
“What is it?” Harry asked as the door to his berth opened, and damp-haired Mo stepped out. “I hope you left some hot water,” he added.
“There might be a drop,” she told him. “Then again, if you were willing to share, we could save water, and wash each other’s backs.”
“Hmm,” Harry said, but he didn’t move.
Neither did Mo.
Mollin tapped his feet, swiveled the chair from side to side.
“As I was saying?” he finally said.
“Right,” Harry said, and turned his way, thus missing, Mollin supposed, Mo’s smug smile. “So, what’s the good news?”
“I’ve got the departure schedule for the Styx, Acheron, and Phlegathon,” he said. “You know, the shuttles we think carry bidders to Libra for the auction?”
“Excellent,” Harry said. “What’s the bad news?”
“According to internal shuttle records—“
“Were those part of the slice?” Mo asked, her eyes keen.
“Not the internals,” Mollin said. “I got the shuttle idents from Cerberus. Once I had those, I was able to locate the shuttles and slice directly into their systems.”
“Nice,” Mo said. “If you ever decide you want to leave government service, I could find a place for you on my crew.”
“Always nice to have options,” Mollin said. “Anyway, what I got from the Styx, Acheron, and Phlegathon is, no one gets aboard any of them without an invitation.” He paused long enough to note the two Humans sharing a glance. “And, you expected that,” he concluded with a huff.
“Hardly a surprise,” Mo confirmed.
“An operation like this would want to vet their potential clients,” Harry agreed.
“All we have to do now is find the concierge,” Mo continued.
“Concierge?” Mollin asked. “Oh, the go-between,” he concluded. “The one who does the vetting.”
“I’d lay odds they’d be located on Vir-22,” Harry offered.
“Close to the prison, and outside the ConFed,” Mo surmised.
Both the grifter and the marshal turned to look at Mollin.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You want me to find the concierge who, I might remind you, could be any one of the over 200,000 sapients who populate Vir-22 at any one time.”
“That sounds about right,” Harry said.
“You realize,” Mollin told him, “finding this individual will be only slightly less difficult than getting tickets to see Suicide Sadie’s Black Hole Blues Band.”
“Tell you what,” Mo said, “you find that concierge, I’ll make sure you get a pair of tickets, with backstage pass, the next time Sadie and the guys play the Eiolan Crescent.”
Nine hours after Doyle’s comm…
“Got it!” Koz said, slamming a fist on the galley table.
“What?” Mollin’s head popped up from where it had fallen on the console. “Ack,” he said, and scrubbed at the side of his face.
“You’re good,” Harry told the Cherrii as he walked to the galley for more coffee. “Got what?” he asked.
Koz beamed from under a tangled mop of hair that told Harry he’d been worrying at it for some time. “I’ve figured out how to take control of the security systems, without permanent damage to Cerberus.”
“Okay,” Ray, who’d dropped into a snooze on the sofa, sat up, gently nudging Jessyn, who’d fallen asleep on his legs, to waking. “Let’s hear it.”
“In words of five syllables or less,” Mo added, dropping in the chair next to Koz.
“Flying monkeys,” Koz said, grinning like a madman.
“Did he say flying monkeys?” Jessyn asked over a yawn.
“I believe he did,” Harry said.
“I need a drink,” Ray said, but then he remembered there was nothing left to drink, and flopped back on the couch.
Nine hours and eight minutes after Doyle’s comm…
“So the monkeys aren’t really monkeys,” Mo said, once Koz finished explaining.
“No.” Koz sighed. It wasn’t that his listeners lacked intelligence. They were all, he’d come to learn quite quickly, very smart people.
It was more that Koz’s brain worked differently from most others—even among the ADs he’d known—and some of those differences led to difficulties in communicating the myriad ideas forever swirling through his synapses. “There are no actual monkeys.”
“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed by that,” Mo decided, easing back on the couch she shared with Jessyn.
“But,” Koz continued, “once the three data sticks are in place and the code released—“
“Why three sticks, again?” Ray asked from where he sat on the galley counter.
Koz felt his jaw twitch. “Because there are three AIs in play,” he said.
“Yeah, but you said they were all twisted together?” Ray asked, twining his fingers together to illustrate. “Why can’t one stick deliver the code to all three?”
“Because, while the AIs are intertwined,” Koz said, “they are still separate entities. We have to treat to them as such.”
“And we have to upload them all at the exact same time?” Harry asked, pausing from where he paced the lounge.
“If we don’t administer the monkeys within milliseconds of one another,” Mollin, leaning on the comp console next to Koz, replied, “whichever head remains will have time to begin generating a replacement.”
“Actually, I found a way around that,” Koz said, shrugging as Mollin turned his way. “I can add a trigger, so even if the sticks are plugged in at separate times, they won’t commence upload until each detects the other two. The only drawback is that the sticks have to remain in place, so they can’t be left where someone might come along and take them out.”
“So it’s still best if we can deliver the code in synch,” Harry said.
“Or at least stay close to where you inserted the stick.”
“Does that sound as dirty to everyone else as it does to me?” Ray asked, then hunched his shoulders. “Guess not.”
“So, what happens now?” Harry asked, turning back to Koz.
“Oh.” Koz huffed, ran a hand through his hair, got his fingers tangled in the curls he’d been worrying for hours. “Well, I’ve got the code pretty much locked, but I need some components, for the build, itself.”
“So we’ll need to do some shopping,” Mo concluded.
“Can we get some food while we’re at it?” Ray asked.
Seventeen hours after Doyle’s comm…
“We are a go for docking at Vir-22,” Ray announced, exiting the cockpit.
“And not a moment too soon,” Koz said, holding up a mug from where he sat at the comp. “This is the last of the coffee.”
“I have it on the shopping list,” Jessyn said from the galley, holding up the palm comp even as Ray shot the AD a scowl.
Since Koz’s brainstorm the prior evening, he no longer needed to maintain the mirror connection with Libra, so Ray had set course for the space station, where they could resupply and, if all went well, initiate Operation Ruby Slippers.
“Did you get the Moth’s cover in place?” Harry asked.
“It’s not my first rodeo, Old Man,” Ray replied, leaning on the arch of the cockpit as he eyed Harry, who was laying flat on the floor with his eyes closed. Ray deduced from this that Harry was either deep in thought, or his pack was causing more pain than usual. Or both. “As far as the dock-masters, security, and anyone else in our around Vir-22 is concerned, the ship docked in ring 18B is Kansas Twister.”
“I’ve also got your legends in place,” Koz said to both Ray and Harry. “You’re both entering as new hires, via the personnel shuttle Charon.”
“Great,” Harry said, not even opening his eyes as he asked, “And are we any closer to getting the B team aboard?”
The B team, Ray thought, meaning Mo and Jessyn, who meant to get aboard Libra as a potential bidder for the auction, with her plus one.
“As a matter of fact, I think I found Libra’s concierge, with a little help from Dorothy,” Mollin said, rising, somewhat stiffly, from the comp station.
“Consider those tickets yours,” Mo told him.
“What tickets—never mind,” Ray said, deciding he just didn’t need to know.
“Who is it?” Harry asked, not moving from his prone position.
Mollin turned in Harry’s direction. “A Human who lives on the station, one Jean-Baptiste Bisson.”
“What makes you think he’s our guy?” Ray asked.
“DeBoine’s comm records include a suspicious number of coded transmissions that coincide with the dates of the auctions,” Mollin explained.
[In addition] Dorothy added, [shortly after the date of each auction, a five-figure payment appears Mr. Bisson’s business account]
“Business?” Harry and Mo asked at the same time.
“He owns and operates a shop on the nineteenth level of the station,” Mollin explained. “The Gorgon’s Lair, selling games, collectibles, and graphic novels and the like.”
[Of greater interest, Mr. Bisson has no record of criminal activity—or any record to speak of—and no ID images are available.]
“He’s been wiped from the system?” Harry asked, wincing as he sat up.
[That is the likeliest supposition] Dorothy agreed.
“Pretty high level for a lowly concierge,” Mo said.
“Guess his superiors aren’t taking any chances,” Harry murmured.
“So, I go to the guy’s shop,” Ray shrugged. “Convince him to put us on the invite list.”
“And how will you know if you’re beating up, sorry, convincing, the right guy?” Mo asked.
Ray frowned, but couldn’t find a good argument.
“Actually, I think you’ll be able to recognize Bisson,” Mollin said, then looked up. “Dorothy?”
[Quite] the AI agreed. [It appears that, while Mr. Bisson’s likeness has been scrubbed from RegConFed and ID.net records, he has a regular standing appointment with one of the station’s medical facilities.]
“And that helps us, how?” Ray asked.
“The medical records haven’t been scrubbed,” Mollin explained. “They don’t have a headshot, but they do have his height, weight, and images of his spine.”
“How am I supposed to ID a guy’s spine?” Ray asked. “I mean, without removing it first?”
[I believe external observation will suffice] Dorothy offered. [Given that Mr. Bisson suffers from Brachus Rouge kyphosis.]
“Don’t make Ray ask what that is,” Mo warned as Ray’s cheek began to twitch.
“Brachus Rouge kyphosis is a congenital, degenerative disease of the spine, first diagnosed in the Rouge Canal region of New Verdun,” Koz said, causing everyone to turn in his direction.
“Of course you’d know that,” Mollin said.
[The condition can be mitigated if caught early enough] Dorothy continued. [But for reasons unknown, Mr. Bisson’s wasn’t treated in childhood, so—]
“Wait.” Now Harry held up one hand. “Are you saying the concierge we’re looking for is…?”
[The hunchback of New Verdun, yes] Dorothy filled in the expectant blank.
“I’m going to park the ship,” Ray said over Harry’s explosion of laughter.
Eighteen hours after Doyle’s call…
The original plan to send out three teams—one for general supplies, one for Koz and Mollin’s tech, and one to acquire an invite to the auction—fell apart soon after docking.
It was at that point that Dorothy, skimming the newsfeeds for the station, discovered GIES had recently installed an office aboard Vir-22.
“These guys are everywhere,” Mo complained, as the team gathered around the galley table.
“Strange that they’d be allowed to set up shop in Rasalkan space,” Harry said, glancing at Jessyn.
“Vir-22 is neutral territory,” she explained. “There are two levels dedicated to diplomatic business, including residences for the offilan ambassadors.”
“GIES are hardly an ambassadorial agency,” Ray pointed out.
[But their presence is covered by the ConFed ambassadorial umbrella] Dorothy said.
“Whatever they are, they’re here,” Harry concluded, and looked at Koz. “You’ll have to stay aboard the ship.”
“Why?” Koz asked.
“Did you not just hear what Dorothy said?” Mollin asked back. “GIES is on the station—and you’re an AD.”
“And I already told you…” Koz argued as he turned on the Cherrii, “GIES did not tag me back on Surresh.”
“Right,” Ray said, slipping into a leather jacket and checking the lay of his garrote, vibro-blade, micro-smoke bomb, and collapsable baton. The pulser was snugged in the ankle holster, and his Sig was stowed in the weapons locker, because only a suicidal idiot carried projectiles onto a space station. “That’s why the entire spaceport lit up after you passed through their scanner.”
“That had to be a glitch,” Koz said. “I’ve run over a dozen tests since we left Surresh, and in every one, my blocks held. It wasn’t me that GIES tagged.”
“Whether or not you were identified on Surresh Prime…” Jessyn eased into the brewing argument, “… there is no point in taking an unnecessary risk, when one of us can easily pick up your equipment.”
“And,” Mollin added, “you and I can focus on finishing the program for your flying monomites.”
“Monkeys,” Koz reminded him.
“Whatever,” Ray said, dodging Mo’s elbow.
“Let’s move out,” Harry ordered, tucking Mo’s arm through his while Jessyn likewise corralled Ray.