A little over an hour after leaving the Moth, Harry stood in a high end boutique and watched Mo hold up a hanger, on which draped a wispy bit of fabric she optimistically termed a gown.
“Are you really planning on wearing that to a prison?” he asked as Mo as she turned to face a full length mirror, the better to see what wouldn’t be covered, he supposed.
“No,” she told him, then glanced in his direction. “I’m planning on Jessyn wearing it. Remember,” she said, “I’m going in as the jammer, Jessyn’s the buyer.”
“Harry.” She let the hanger drop to her side while her other hand rose to rest on her hip. “Stop thinking like a father for two seconds. We want to fit in with these assholes, but we also don’t want anyone remembering details about our appearance, later on.”
“And the best way to keep people from remembering your appearance is to give them something to focus on,” he agreed. “But I was thinking something like a scar, or an eyepatch. Maybe a tastefully shaved head.”
“That’d work for you,” Mo said. “But those of us on the female spectrum have to use a different tack.” She turned, held up the excuse for a dress. “Trust me.”
Harry, who was used to being the one who said that, decided not to respond.
While Mo began prowling for accessories, Harry glanced at the chrono on his wrist, gauging the time. With luck, Ray and Jessyn would have finished the supply run and on their way to make contact with Jean-Baptiste Bisson.
For their part, Harry and Mo had already knocked out Koz and Mollin’s wish list, an errand that had been complicated by Koz guiding every single purchase via comm.
By the time they’d completed the order, Harry had a tick in one eye, and was pretty sure the Gmell clerk at Cyber Shack thought he was flirting with xer… or about to stroke out.
“I think this will do,” Mo decided, pulling Harry’s attention back to the present, and the fact that she now held a micro-sized clutch and a chunky metallic collar to go along with the wisp of a dress. “And those shoes,” she decided, pointing at a collection of stilts with ribbons on a shelf next to Harry.
“Those won’t work,” he said, as she snapped up a pair. “Rasalkans don’t do heels.”
“Interesting,” Mo said. “I guess that explains why there weren’t any in her wardrobe,” Mo mused. “Still, not to worry. These are for me, and I do do heels.”
“Okay, but, is this the last?” Harry asked as he trailed after her. “You know Ray and I still have to finish putting Bolger and Haley together,” he added, referring to the covers Koz, Dorothy, and Mollin had built for them. It had been Dorothy who’d determined they should board Libra using the names of the actors who’d played the roles of the Scarecrow and Tin Man from the ancient film of The Wizard of Oz.
“You’ve got four hours before the Charon departs,” Mo murmured to him as the clerk tallied up her purchases. “That’s more than enough time.”
The register’s holo flashed the total damage, and Mo turned to Harry, who hid the wince and played along, pulling out his clip of credits and peeling off an amount that, he was certain, would cover the purchase of a small, tasteful studio in the Sol Sector.
Lucky for him, it was Zodiac’s money he was spending.
Still, he hoped Ray and Jessyn had been a little less profligate in their grocery shopping.
Despite Harry’s hopes, Ray and Jessyn’s supply run did not feature any bargain hunting.
Especially not when it came to the beverage department, which included a case of Wallace Blue Label, which Ray fully meant to hide under the bed, if only to keep Mollin and Koz from sucking down his stash.
Come to it, he thought, best to hide some of the coffee, as well, since Harry and, again, Koz, both appeared to have a twenty cup a day habit.
Anyway, the grocery shopping was done, and Ray had arranged for all the supplies to be delivered to the ship, so he and Jessyn could ascend to deck nineteen’s outer concourse, en route to The Gorgon’s Lair, where they hoped to find Jean-Pierre Bisson, and their one chance of infiltrating the Libra auction.
The plan, posed by both Harry and Mo, was to let Jessyn make the primary approach, on the theory that asking nicely and flashing some cash might be enough to get her and Mo aboard Libra.
If, by some perverse chance, Bisson proved immune to Jessyn’s Naihad charms, Ray would step in and convince the go-between the old fashioned way.
Ray knew it was petty, but he really hoped Bisson was immune.
For reasons he couldn’t name—okay, maybe he could name a few (Koz, Mollin… Harry)—Ray was in the mood for a good fight.
But first they had to get to Bisson, who had set up shop on one of the larger rings of the station, which was built in the shape of top, the sort that was narrow on both ends, but expanding to a wide center.
Every deck was connected via a central core of lifts, as well as strategically located escalators, all crowded with shoppers, business types, and families.
“Are we sure we’re on the right deck?” Ray asked, eying the line of shops on both sides of the gently curving concourse.
“Why do you ask?” Jessyn peered up from beneath the hood of her jacket. In concession to their intended destination, she’d chosen to once again dress in the geek chic she’d opted for on Surresh Prime, including the green jacket.
“I guess I thought our guy would be based somewhere with more edge… and fewer pretzels,” Ray said, nodding towards the vendor currently passing just such a pretzel over to a Suradi teenager. “This is way more middle class than I expected.”
/You have to admit, it’s a great cover/ Harry’s voice burred behind both their ears.
/Definitely/ Mo agreed, having been fitted with her own bio-tech communicator, courtesy of Jessyn. /Who’d suspect a slave ring to be operating next to the Construct-a-Tardigrade store?/
/Is that really thing?/ Koz asked, joining the party.
/You want one, don’t you?/ Mollin asked back.
/I didn’t say—maybe/ Koz admitted.
/Can we try to stay on mission?/
/Too late/ Mo responded to Harry’s question.
Ray rolled his eyes at Jessyn, but she was looking in another direction.
Sensing her unease, he took her hand and picked up a wallop of tension from his bond mate.
“What is it?” he murmured, pausing and lifting her hand to his lips, using the move to cover a scan of the concourse around them.
“I’m sensing—attention,” she murmured, opening herself further, so he, too, could feel the intrusive prodding.
“Source?” he asked, bending his head to her hood, while his eyes skimmed right, then left. “Got them,” he said, spying two Human males on a nearby escalator.
“The escalator,” she said at the same time.
The moment the two noted Ray’s attention, they turned their eyes away.
/Problem?/ Harry asked over the comms.
“We’re being surveilled,” Ray said. “Badly.”
/What? Why?/ Mo asked.
“Could just be my legend catching up with me,” Ray said. “Unlicensed jammers aren’t always popular with local law.”
/Play it cool, for now/ Harry said.
“Again, not my first rodeo,” Ray said between clenched teeth.
“Father worries,” Jessyn murmured as, together, they turned and continued to walk, fully aware of the two men stepping off of the escalator to trail them.
It wasn’t until they were nearing their intended destination, and the two shadows became four, that Ray also began to worry.
Rather than go into The Gorgon’s Lair and risk their mission, he steered Jessyn to the left, and onto another of the escalators, this one ascending to deck eighteen.
Both noticed when one of the four, a Human female, split off to pull out her handheld comm unit.
“Shit,” Ray said.
“What?” Jessyn looked back.
“That’s a GIES handheld,” he hissed, turning forward. “I got a look, up close and personal, when they hit Phantasmik.”
/Are you sure?/
/Cut the chatter/ Harry snapped, then added a terse, /Sit-rep/
“We're heading up to eighteen, got three geese on our asses,” Ray murmured into Jessyn’s hood. “One veered off, probably calling for assist.”
“She was,” Jessyn agreed, sharing her impressions of the approaching deck, which Ray picked up as a frisson of fear spiked by needles of antagonism.
Even as their heads came even with level eighteen they spied five GIES agents in full riot gear, all clomping in the direction of the escalator, and sending shoppers and vendors scattering.
“We’re blown,” Ray announced tersely, as one of the agents raised the same handheld scanner he’d seen in Phantasmik.
/But why are they after you two?/ Koz asked.
/Possibly it has something to do with Ray thrashing a number of their agents back on Surresh Prime/ Mo said.
“Need some quiet,” Ray snapped, then angled towards Jessyn. “You need to disappear,” he said. “When I make my move, you ghost.”
“What?” Her eyes snapped back. “I can cover you,” she said, while Ray dipped his left hand into one of his many jacket pockets.
“No time, and too many,” he told her. “Do it,” he said, even as he felt the escalator treads level out beneath his feet.
Before she had the chance to respond, he was turning towards the waiting agents. With an underhand flick he released the micro-smoke bomb.
A feral grin pulled at his lips.
The ensuing shrieks, curses—and an incongruous squeal of delight from someone’s child—barely penetrated the adrenaline charge that flowed through his limbs, as if on command.
On spying the first armored agent emerging from the smoke, Ray leaped into a sideways kick that caught the guy in the throat.
As the agent dropped, choking, Ray came to a landing in time to hear another agent shouting, “Rogue AD on 18 Gamma, request backup!”
AD? The term echoed in his brain. “Where?” he asked, but by then another figure solidified from the smoke, and the question fell away as he engaged the next enemy, and the next, and the next.
Two decks above the battle, Mo put a hand on Harry’s elbow. “Did that agent just say what I thought he said?”
/Repeat, we have a rogue AD. All units respond/ filtered through Ray’s comms.
“Never mind,” she said.
/I told you I wasn’t the one who triggered the scanners on Surresh/ he heard Koz say.
/Not the time/ Harry snapped as he took Mo’s hand and the pair raced for the nearest lift.
On deck eighteen, a virtually invisible Jessyn slid to the right to avoid the flying body of a GIES agent.
Between the motion of the combatants and the station ventilators, the smoke from Ray’s micro-bomb had already shredded into little more than patches.
The clarity of the view was an education for Jessyn.
She had never before had the opportunity to see Ray engaged in such intense close quarters combat.
It was also unnerving—and not only because more agents were joining the fray.
She also noted a good dozen of the station constables had arrived, though these officers were less interested in Ray, focusing instead on controlling the growing audience.
An audience that could prove a danger, if her empathic veil were to slip, but fortunately, most eyes were fixed on Ray as he, with almost casual efficiency, decimated one after the other of the agents swarming him.
“Stop pussyfooting and put the fake down,” one of the ogling horde demanded, setting off an explosion of cheers of endorsement, along with the sticky sense of revulsion Jessyn recognized as a response to anything other.
It sickened her, as it always had, but there followed a glimmering of hope in the, “Baseline Nazis go home!” that came from another sector of the crowd.
That rallying cry gave rise to others of the same mind, and within seconds the milling crowd had separated into camps, leaving the station constables taking a more aggressive stance, in hopes of preventing a riot.
Mixing with the anti-GIES team, Jessyn eased closer to where Ray still held his ground. Perhaps, between the dissonance of the crowd and her own veil, she might be of assistance to her bond mate.
As she neared, Ray knocked a stun wand out of one agent’s hand, twisted that agent’s elbow and threw him into another agent, who’d been coming up behind Ray.
Spinning, he ducked beneath the overhead swing of yet another attacker's wand.
She couldn’t say how or when, but suddenly Ray’s vibro-blade was in his hand.
A heartbeat later, the blade was in the agent’s boot.
For a millisecond, everything froze.
Then there came a collective intake of breath from the stricken agent, as well as those watching.
Then the man let out a howl of pain, which broke the tableaux, and a fresh influx of uniformed attackers coalesced from the seething crowds to circle Ray.
Jessyn, still unseen by the masses, used the moment to trip one incoming agent, which led to domino effect of uniforms running into one another.
Ray used the space to snatch up one of the fallen stun wands, rising to crack it across the cheek of the nearest agent.
The man dropped, and to Jessyn’s surprise, left an opening between Ray and the escalator.
Ray spied the gap as well, and she watched him take the first step towards a possible escape, when a spike of terror and a high-pitched cry pulled both his and Jessyn’s eyes to a Gmell kit, barely old enough to stand on two legs.
Xer tail was puffed and whiskers fully extended in panic as the surrounding agents, constables, and civilians frothed mindlessly at one another, heedless of the young life at their feet.
Jessyn felt Ray’s curse more than heard it, and was herself moving in the tot’s direction when the dark flash of her beloved swept past her to lift the child up and away from the murderous stampede.
Jessyn started towards Ray but even as he turned from the angry crowds, several of the GIES supporters began to pummel him with hands, feet, food containers, whatever came to hand.
Gritting her teeth against the echoes of his pain, Jessyn continued to ease forward, to where Ray was hunched over the child, shielding xer with his own body.
Already, the GIES agents and constables were moving in to displace the civilians and, from the occasional yelp and thud, some of the civilians were learning what an active stun wand could do.
It was more than she could bear, and for a moment, the shadow dropped, leaving Jessyn visible for anyone to see.
But the only one who bothered to look in her direction was Ray. Not only looked, but met her gaze, and held it, even as he whispered something to the kit huddled in his arms.
It was the psionic rush of Ray’s trust more than the warning in his eyes that had Jessyn stepping back and holding out her hands to catch the ball of fluff as Ray threw the kit her way.
Then the stun wands landed, and Jessyn—wincing as Ray’s hurts echoed in her psyche—raised the veil again, hiding herself and the kit until she could remove xer from harm’s way.
Jessyn lost several minutes soothing the kit, then more seeking xer parent, a frantic-looking Gmell with similar striping combing through the grumbling crowds.
Only after the kit had toddled to the safety of xer parent’s desperate embrace did Jessyn dare to look back at the epicenter of the violence to find no evidence of the war so recently waged.
All that remained where some members of the crowd being herded away by station constables, while others stood in a muttering clutch as more constables issued citations.
A thick pink slush, one of the fruit beverages popular on the station, made an incongruous lake on the gleaming tile.
And in that lake Jessyn spied a few drops of deeper red.
Looking beyond the press of sapients, she found, at last, what she sought.
Ray, fully unconscious, being slung into the rear of an inter-station transport. As she watched, two GIES agents climbed in after him, and pulled the hatch closed.
As the transport engaged, taking Ray away on its near silent treads, Jessyn remained where she was, still unseen, and utterly alone.