Inside the Gypsy Moth’s cockpit, Koz watched Mollin complete the pre-flight checks.
The others had departed, and Vir-22 Flight had cleared the ship for departure. The cargo hatch was sealed, the docking passage retracted.
“Are you sure you know how to fly this thing?” Koz asked, tapping the comp resting open on his lap.
“I knew there was something I forgot to ask Ray about,” Mollin said, flicking the nav console to life.
“Kozamir,” Mollin slid a glance towards the copilot’s chair where Koz was hunched. “Yes, I can fly this thing. I am rated for personal and commercial interstellar vehicles, as well as in-atmo flyers, skimmers, hydro, and land vehicles of various design. As you might recall,” he added, with a hint of warmth.
Koz hunched over the comp. “It’s been a few years,” he said defensively.
But he did remember.
He remembered, in particular, skimming over one of Paen’s emerald oceans with Mollin, some years ago.
The Cherrii had piloted the hydro-skimmer while Koz stood behind him, one hand on his lover’s shoulder, the other held up, as if giving the balmy sea air a high five. The suns had beamed, the water shimmered, and Koz reveled in the unusual twining of freedom and peace.
An illusion, that twining sensation, but in the moment it had been a wonder.
He’d never said it aloud, and wasn’t sure Mollin knew, but the Cherrii cy-tech had been Koz’s first serious relationship outside of the creche Koz had been grown in. Grown in, rather than grown up in, as Koz, like all his creche mates, had emerged from their tanks as new adults, their physiological and neural development that of an eighteen-year-old Human
Now, thinking of his creche-mates, he couldn’t help but compare his experience with Ray, an AD who had been allowed to mature as a baseline Human—among Humans—never even knowing he was an AD.
What could it have been like, he wondered, experiencing childhood?
Was it wonderful?
And what about adolescence? From everything he’d seen as owner of the VRcade, those middling years were a minefield of hormones, awkwardness, and—on occasion—jaw-droppingly stupid choices.
Never mind the acne!
But still, he’d often wondered… had he and his creche mates missed something? Some vital juncture of neural development that would make functioning as an adult easier? Would any of his relationships have lasted longer, if he’d had the same kind of storied history as his partners?
“Do you have the coordinates for our holding position?” Mollin asked, breaking Koz from his reverie.
“What? Oh. Yeah. Right here.” Koz tapped the comp to life, pulled up the spacial coordinates for the asteroid field where they would remain in hiding until Harry, Mo, and Jessyn plugged in their respective data tabs. With a flick of his wrist, he shot the coordinates to the nav holo.
“Dorothy,” Mollin addressed the AI, “what’s the status of our shields?”
[Shields are at ninety-seven percent] she replied. [There is still a weak zone in the lower port region from the drone attack in Surresh, but I believe we will be able to maintain hull integrity within the Styx asteroid field long enough for the team to activate the Monkeys.]
If it were anyone but Dorothy, Koz would have questioned that level of optimism, but he knew the AI would never downplay a risk to the ship, which was, after all, her own body.
For all that, he heard himself saying, “I just hope Harry finds Siane, fast.” This because Harry would be the last to activate his data tab.
Jessyn and Mo could, and would, plant theirs as soon as the opportunity arose, but everyone agreed Harry should wait until he and Siane were united before planting the final lines of a code that would unleash havoc within the prison.
Mollin hummed something that might have been agreement, or perhaps he was simply pleased that the sub-light engines had reached a hundred percent.
Koz wanted to hate him for how calm he appeared.
It had always been that way, he now recalled. While preparing for any activity, from planning a night out to slicing into the Decagon, Mollin would hover and question every detail—the living analog of the over-programmed nurse droid—but once in action, he seemed to settle into his skin, becoming one with the Universal consciousness that the Cherrii believed linked all matter.
This in direct opposition to Koz, who lived most fully in the build—of a code, a firewall, a virus, or a better toaster—but when the time came to step away from cyber and into physical action, it was his turn to become the fretful droid, questioning every step.
Which reminded him, “Did someone say something about the Moth having a silent running protocol?” he asked, looking at Mollin.
[That is correct] Dorothy assured while Mollin eased the ship away from the docking bay. [Though I recommend delay engaging the protocol until after we emerge from hyperspace on the far side of the Styx belt. Ship signatures disappearing before they’ve engaged their FTL engines tend to raise suspicions.]
“Truer words,” Mollin said, making Koz think there was a story there. He was about to ask when Dorothy spoke again.
[You may be interested in knowing that Scarecrow has made his final check-in and has boarded the Charon] Dorothy said, using Harry’s call sign for the mission, following the theme of Em and Glynda set by Mo and Jessyn. [Tin Man has been removed from the GIES holding facility and is en route to the Charon] she continued, referring to Ray. [If we wish to inform him of Rikert’s presence on Libra, we have approximately twelve minutes and fifteen seconds to do so.]
Mollin and Koz shared a glance. “You know him better,” Koz pointed out.
“That doesn’t make him less likely to want to break something.”
Koz felt his lips twitch. “He can’t break anything. He’s not here.”
“Don’t count on it,” Mollin muttered. “The guy has skills.”
They looked at one another.
“We could flip a coin,” Koz suggested. “Loser has to tell him.”
“No coins,” Mollin pointed out. “What about that game you liked, rock, paper, sword?”
“Scissors,” Koz snorted. “And you always won.”
[You now have eleven minutes, thirteen seconds] Dorothy intoned.
“I have an idea,” both men said at the same time.
The grinned at one another, then looked up.
[You want me to tell Tin Man that his arch enemy is waiting aboard Libra, don’t you?] Dorothy asked.
“If you would be so kind,” Mollin said.
The AI made a sound very like a sigh. [Making contact, now]
While he had no wrist unit—that had been disappeared along with most of his kit—Ray’s internal clock agreed that roughly thirty minutes had passed before Bader and Otto returned, shackles in hand, to prepare him for transport to Libra.
He wondered what they’d say if he thanked them for taking him where he’d been meaning to go, anyway.
“So, how’s that ID run working out for you?” he decided to ask, instead.
Bader’s grimace and Otto’s curse were the only answer he got. Not a surprise, given Ray’s position in Zodiac.
While he lived under his own name, for the purposes of his cover, Ray Slater, ex-con and jammer, had taken great pains to remove himself from the ConFed database. Not, he imagined, as efficiently as Koz might have done, but just efficiently enough for Ray to walk the walk of a disgraced Marine now making his way on the nightside of the Known.
“Sit,”Bader said as Otto, his nose looking only a bit swollen. He held out the leg shackles. “Behave.”
“Want me to play dead?” Ray asked. “Maybe beg?”
“You don’t have many friends, do you?” Bader asked back.
Ray’s brow arched, but he sat, and focused on Otto, who approached Ray’s ankles with the care of a zookeeper trying to tackle a hungry lion. “Your nose looks better,” Ray observed as the magnetic cuff snicked over his left ankle.
“Up,” Bader said, and Otto popped up, while Ray rose slowly.
Bader's lip curled at Otto, but she said nothing, merely pointed to the door.
Otto led the way out, Ray, after a quirked brow from Bader, shuffled after, grateful his hands were locked in front of him. If he lost his balance, he could at least take Otto down with him.
Outside the cell, Otto turned right and Ray followed, noting how hollow their footsteps sounded in the narrow passage.
They passed five cells, all open, dark, and empty. Ray wondered if he’d see any of those cell’s previous occupants on the transport.
They exited the gray corridor of the holding facility, and Otto continued past the wide opening of what Ray took to be the GIES C&C.
A quick glimpse showed a number of agents and techs spread out in front of a mosaic of holo screens that displayed rotating sections of Vir-22. He smelled bad coffee and BO. Something like a snarl caught his attention, and he spied an agent bearing a gash along his temple that hadn’t been fully healed.
Probably Ray was responsible for that gash.
He sent the snarl a toothy grin, then stumbled a bit as Bader poked him to move on.
“You’re so strict,” he said over his shoulder.
"Just keep moving," she hissed.
Once they passed the control center, they hung a sharp left, crossed through another wide arch and into what passed for the GIES motor pool on station.
Waiting in the makeshift garage were several small six-wheeler hatchbacks—the station equivalent of the ancient Terran paddy wagons—nowadays known as tour buses.
Ray imagined he’d arrived at the facility in just such a tour bus.
Leaning against the nearest bus was a long, lean, pock-marked specimen with black eyes, shaved black hair, and a name tag that read Vanzale.
The look in his hooded eyes sent a message Ray was infinitely familiar with; Sadistic animal.
“Vanzale,” Otto greeted the other man.
“Shithead,” Vanzale replied. He sent Bader a look and a leer that said more than enough.
“What do you want, Vanzale?” Bader asked, her tone bland enough Ray suspected she despised the guy.
“The Man wants me to come along on escort.” Vanzale said.
“Great,” Bader said, her tone indicating it was not, in fact, great. “You can drive.”
Vanzale’s leer slipped a little, but he moved towards the cab with an ill-tempered shrug.
Ray was willing to bet Bader didn’t have many friends, either, but he took her rough shove towards the open hatch silently, deciding it was best to let everyone think of him as an object, one that could be pushed and bundled and ignored.
Until it couldn’t.
Reaching the vehicle, he pivoted to face the two agents, dropped his ass on the deck, pulled his shackled legs up, then spun again to haul himself onto one of the two benches running alongside the bus.
“Looks like the cloney’s had practice boarding a bus,” Otto observed as he clambered up after Ray.
Bader said nothing, climbing in and hauling the hatch closed before parking herself on the bench at Ray’s left.
Ray waited for the bus to thrum to life and jerk forwards before turning to Bader. “Which branch were you in?” he asked and, when she didn’t deign to answer, continued on, “Because if I were betting, I’d put my money on the Corps.”
“He’s got you dead t’rights, Bader,” Otto said, from his perch on the opposite bench.
“Did anyone ask you?” Bader snapped at her partner.
“Hey,” Ray said, “cut Otto some slack.”
“You’re the one who broke his nose,” Bader pointed out.
“You’re the one who hoped I would,” Ray replied.
“Oy, that’s not true,” Otto said, kicking at Ray. “It’s not true,” he said to Bader. “Is it?”
“Of course not,” she told him. “Get a grip, Otto.” But her lip twisted, and she glanced at Ray. “CFMC Artillery. Ninth Battalion, Eleventh Marines.”
Ray let out a low whistle. “The FTLs” he said, using the battalion’s nickname.
“You were a Devil Dog?” Bader asked, looking less surprised than the question indicated.
“War buff,” Ray lied easily. He figured he couldn’t keep his identity from the GIES goons forever, but no point giving anything away.
“Why the FTLs?” Otto wondered.
Bader slid a glance his way. “Because the ninth were famous for deploying at faster than light speeds.”
“Could they?” Otto asked.
“Could they what?” Bader asked back.
“You know, deploy at faster than light speeds.”
“Dude, it was a nickname. Like Roaring Thunder or Wolfpack.”
Otto thought about that. “That’s stupid.”
Ray, watching Bader’s hand curl into a fist, wondered if she was going to break Otto’s nose again, but before he could decide if he should intervene or sit back and enjoy the show, he felt the soft hum of his sub-dural comm activating.
[Good day, Captain] Dorothy greeted him. [We are taking advantage of the transport window to continue your briefing. First, please be aware that for the duration of this mission, your call sign will be Tin Man.]
The man without a heart, Ray thought, wincing internally.
[In addition] Dorothy continued, [we have updated your comms remotely. While no one aboard Libra Station will be able to contact the Gypsy Moth, or vice versa, you should be able to communicate amongst yourselves.]
Which would be great, Ray thought, if he still had his wrist unit.
But Dorothy, he discovered, was all over it. [As we believe all of your personals would have been confiscated] she continued, [you should be aware that the Rasalkan implant has an audio-control feature, which we enabled during the update. If you wish to activate your comms say ‘Wallace Blue’. If you wish to go silent, say ‘Yogurt’.]
Ray almost snorted, but held it together, as Dorothy was still talking.
[There is more intel, specific to your situation,] she said. [But before I deliver the information, I feel compelled to warn you that it is vital you maintain your temper. Please cough if you understand.]
Ray didn’t like the sound of that, but he gave a little cough, then shrugged at Bader’s glance. “Dry throat.”
“We’ll get you some water on the shuttle,” she said.
“You gotta stop treating cloneys like people,” Otto judged.
Bader shot Otto a one-finger salute, which was heartening.
[Thank you] Dorothy said. [I may now inform you that during your initial arrest, we discovered Frederick Rikert is aboard Libra Station.]
Ray’s entire body twitched.
Ray shook his head, though it did nothing to dispel the red fog tinting his vision. “Got a chill.”
“Someone walked over your grave,” Otto decided.
[There is more] Dorothy’s voice continued before Ray could comment on Otto’s superstitious judgment. [It appears that, since leaving the CFMC, Rikert has taken a position in GIES, and is currently the Director of Operations in the Shunto system. And we overheard him telling Agent Otto that he wished to meet you—that is, the AD recently arrested on Vir-22—immediately upon your arrival.]
Deeply aware Bader’s eyes were on him, Ray remained still, biting down on the hate, the bile, the urge to squeeze the life out of Rikert with the shackled hands resting with seeming complacence on his thighs.
“Seriously, dude, are you okay?”
Ray blinked, forced himself to meet Bader’s concerned gaze.
“I’m good. Just thinking how I’ll miss your sparkling company once we get to the shuttle.”
“You won’t be missing nothin’,” Otto snorted. “Didn’t you get the memo? We’re to make sure you get settled all nice and comfy in the stir.”
Ray’s gaze shifted from Otto to Bader. While Rikert’s name bounced through his cranium like a ping pong ball with spikes on it, he wondered if either of these two officers knew what would happen to him—what happened to all of the ADs who were sent to Libra.
Otto? Possible. But it was tough to think of Bader being complicit in the sapient trafficking aspect of GIES.
Then again, as Rikert himself had proven, the uniform didn’t automatically bestow honor on those who wore it.
[One last thing,] Dorothy’s voice hummed inside his head. [I have been asked to relay Harry’s request that you not murder Rikert until after Dr. Kosterlovovich’s code has been enabled.]
“Shit,” Ray muttered.
“What now?” Bader asked.
“Nothing,” Ray said. “It’s all good.”
Of course, it wasn’t all good. Not even close. But, thanks to Dorothy, Ray at least knew what was coming.
Rikert might be some high flying director with GIES, but he was no one’s idea of a warrior.
And when the time came—and it would—Flying Monkeys ore no Flying Monkeys—Ray figured he wouldn’t have too much trouble ending him.