While the bus carrying Ray made its way towards the Charon, Jessyn and Mo walked briskly through Vir-22’s upper docking ring.
Jessyn, now wearing the shimmer of a dress Mo had selected while shopping, accepted the multitude of stares with a gentle smile.
Most of those who gawked at her passing were Human or Cherrii, two sapient species particularly concerned with physical modesty.
Milleons and Gmell, with their carapaces and fur, respectively, had little use for clothing at all, while the Eiolans, Lambdols, Rasalkans and Surad cultures considered clothing more as an adornment, merely another way to express one’s personality.
As long as the body in question was dressed for the appropriate weather, and had a place to stow whatever credits, tech, or weapons said body required, the amount of material involved was immaterial.
A thud from her left pulled Jessyn’s attention to where a Cherrii had just into one of the potted trees placed along the docking ring’s inner bulkhead. Jessyn offered the woman a gentle smile, and continued to count down the gates until they reached the Acheron’s docking bay.
At first, Jessyn thought it wasteful of the prison to use two shuttles when all the passengers were headed to the same place but, as Mo pointed out—during one of their many planning sessions around the galley table—the Acheron provided anonymity to the auctions’ clientele, while the Charon granted plausible deniability to Libra’s employees.
“And, who knows,” Harry had added, “it’s possible the rank and file on Libra don’t know what’s going on upstairs.”
“That seems unlikely, doesn’t it?” Jessyn asked, turning to her father.
“It’s a big station,” he’d said, sipping at his coffee. “And it wouldn’t be the first time the brass kept secrets from the people doing the real job.”
“Preach,” Mo had agreed while Ray draped his arm over Jessyn’s shoulder.
She felt the weight of his casual contact now, taking comfort from it, and from Mo, striding confidently at her side.
The other woman had remained mostly silent since their departure, and even before they stepped off the ramp of the Gypsy Moth, had gone so deeply into her chosen character that even her surface emotions had flattened like a sine wave in a dead room.
It was an impressive feat, but it also reminded Jessyn of Gavin Booth, a man whose emotions ran that flat—all the time.
Gavin, she now recalled, who had murdered the man he called brother before Jessyn’s eyes, and then escaped into the sewers of Ócala.
That Gavin was still out there, somewhere, with his empty eyes and sharp blades, still gave her the occasional difficult night.
Fortunately for Jessyn’s peace of mind, she could sense the mix of anticipation, determination, and the faintest shimmer of worry, flowing beneath the featureless barrier of Ana Volkova, Mo’s chosen alias for this operation.
Not that anyone aboard the Acheron would know her as Ana.
Like everyone else participating in the auction, Mo and Jessyn would be known only by their assigned aliases, in their case Em and Glynda, respectively.
But Mo believed Ana the best fit for their deception, and had even created an entire backstory to justify their presence.
A backstory that allowed Jessyn to mostly play herself. Should anyone ask, she was a Rasalkan Naihad attending the auction on behalf of her current patron—the same Pyotr Nikolaev who employed Mo’s character, Ana.
“What is he like, this Pyotr?” Jessyn recalled asking as they dressed to play their parts.
“Terrifying,” Mo had told her. “Think of the worst person you know, then multiply the awfulness by a hundred, and then you’ll get close to what Pyotr is. And even if we never mention his name, anytime your patron comes up in conversation, you should let the fear show.”
“But he’s not real, is he?” Jessyn asked, frozen in the act of clipping on an earring.
“Pyotr isn’t,” Mo admitted, twisting her hair into a severe ponytail, “but I’ve met plenty of flesh and blood analogs.”
Which, now that Jessyn thought of it, was likely why she was thinking about Gavin.
She shot a glance at Mo, who was skimming the docking corridor with the same flat-eyed stare Ray so often used.
Even as she thought of her beloved, a frigid, red rush of fury overtook here, and she stumbled.
“What is it?” Mo, using Ana’s exotic dialect, halted and spun, resting a hand on Jessyn’s elbow.
“Ray is—very angry,” she said, meeting his sister’s eyes. “If I were to guess, I would say he has learned about Rikert’s presence on Libra.”
Mo’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “You can feel this?” she asked, still deeply in character.
“Very much so. It is a part of the bond. He also can sense me, though not so often, or so deeply, as I do him.”
“That must be… difficult,” Mo/Ana said as they turned and continued on their way to the Acheron.
“There are times,” Jessyn admitted, before letting out a long breath. “I believe we should be prepared for Ray to do something rash.”
Mo made a “tch” sound, eyeing the queue in front of the Acheron’s docking tube. “The Cowboy doing something rash? It must be a day of the week.”
Jessyn felt an inappropriate bubble of a laugh, which was burst a half second later by Mo’s sudden curse, spun on her heel, took Jessyn by the elbow, and steered her back the way they’d come.
This time it was Jessyn’s turn to ask, “What is it?” in a rushed whisper.
“I know one of the people boarding the Acheron,” Mo hissed, all traces of Ana gone.
“Who?” Jessyn asked, though she knew better than to look back at the line of passengers.
Mo simply shook her head and kept walking until she found the discreet curve of a hall that led to a series of comfort rooms, almost dragging Jessyn along to the last empty unit in the long line.
“In here,” she said, and bundled Jessyn into the cramped space with her. “We have to change parts,” she announced, already peeling out of Harry’s blazer. “Lose the dress.”
Jessyn wasted no time, her inner and outer senses buzzing with urgency. “Who was it that you know?”
“The Eiolan,” Mo said, hanging the coat on a provided hook and unbuttoning Ray’s shirt. “Kaara A’Avak.”
Jessyn held out the scrap of a dress and accepted her shirt in exchange. “Female,” she recalled from the glimpse she’d gotten of those outside the gate which, though brief, was aided by the fact the Eiolan in question was over two meters tall, and had a waterfall of intricately braided blue-black hair, the streaks of silver and the fineness of her bones indicating her maturity. Jessyn recalled the clinging drape of fabric the woman wore, which revealed as much as it concealed. “Very elegant. And she has a luscious figure.”
“Tell me,” Mo said with feeling, then frowned as she stepped out of Jessyn’s trousers and held them out. “Excuse me, but aren’t you life bonded to my brother?”
“My heart is his, forever,” Jessyn agreed. “But a person must appreciate all forms of beauty, wherever they exist.”
“That is a remarkably balanced point of view,” Mo decided, slipping into the dress while Jessyn pulled on the trousers.
“And I must presume we are changing clothes now, because Kaara does not know you as Ana?”
“Got it in one, sister,” Mo agreed, shimmying the dress down over her hips. “About eighteen months back, Kaara and Ambrosia both spent a long weekend at the private estate of Kaara’s boss. Her boss,” she continued, kicking off Ana’s sensible shoes, “who had in his private art collection an ancient Boz puzzle box he’d had stolen it from its planet of origin.”
“And you, or rather, Ambrosia,” Jessyn said, buttoning Ray’s shirt over her slacks, “was at the estate to retrieve the stolen artifact?”
“That. Plus me and my team may have helped ourselves to a few other pieces the asshole boss had in his collection,” Mo said, turning to Harry’s blazer and digging into an inner pocket. “I found out pretty quickly that Kaara wasn’t involved in the art theft, but if she’s here now, it may be…” She paused.
“It may be you misjudged her, and Kaara is very aware of her employer’s less savory deeds,” Jessyn completed the statement.
“That is a very classy way of saying she’s in the slime with him.”
“It is also possible, if this man is as bad as you say, he has some leverage over Kaara, something that keeps her doing his bidding.” Now Jessyn paused, looked at Mo. “Is he here, as well? The boss?”
“I didn’t see,” Mo said, pulling a spike-heeled sandal from one of Harry’s pockets, then diving into another pocket and producing a second. “Doesn’t mean he’s not.”
“No,” Jessyn agreed, then frowned. “You had a pair of high heeled shoes? In Harry’s pockets?”
“I never travel without them,” Mo said. “And as we’ve just seen, you never know when you’re going to need a new character.”
“But in his coat?”
“Right?” Mo waved the shoes before sliding her feet into them. “That jacket is like the TARDIS of outerwear,” she added, sighing with satisfaction as she settled into the heels and slid her sensible flats into the original pockets.
“TARDIS?” Jessyn removed her necklace, earring, and the bracelet containing the data tab, trading them for Mo’s wrist unit.
“Terran science fiction thing,” Mo said, slapping on the adornments. “I’ll explain later.”
Jessyn decided that was just as well, for while Mo appeared perfectly at ease switching from Ana to Ambrosia, she herself was feeling a bit small and unimpressive in her jammer ensemble.
“The jacket will help,” Mo told her, apparently reading Jessyn’s body language. “Here.” She unhooked the garment and held it out, so Jessyn turned and slid her arms in, allowing Mo to settle the shoulders, fuss with the collar.
“How do I look?” she asked, turning to face her friend.
“Better. It’ll be better still once we roll up the sleeves—and put your hair back.”
Jessyn remained still while Mo made adjustments, tugging out the right cuff of Ray’s shirt before rolling up the shirt and jacket as one. “I hope I am not supposed to play Ana.” Jessyn held out her left arm at Mo’s gesture. “I have never learned Russian.”
“No,” Mo said, pulling the band from her hair and handing it to Jessyn. “I think, with Ambrosia in play, you’ll need to play a simple bodyguard, with slight overtones of babysitter. Do you know anyone who fits the bill?” she asked, while Jessyn caught her curls into a tail and Mo ran her fingers through her own hair, tousling it artfully.
“I believe I do,” Jessyn said, thinking of Eineen Marifanne, the hard-eyed chief of security for House Szado. “Should we alert the others to our change of character?”
Mo shook her head. “Comms are for emergencies. This isn’t an emergency so much as a plot twist. Okay,” she continued, taking a deep breath and letting out a whole-body shimmy. “Ready to dazzle ourselves some scum-sucking lowlifes?”
“Yes, but…” Jessyn began, then paused as she found herself at a loss for words.
“What?” Mo asked, before adding a gentle, “The clock’s ticking, hon.”
“It is, yes, but before we move on, I—want to thank you.”
Mo’s brows rose. “For what?”
Jessyn’s head tipped as she considered the other woman, who had shifted from hard-eyed fixer to wanton socialite in less than five minutes. “For all of this,” she said.
“Well,” Mo huffed, “I appreciate your appreciation, but it’s my brother these assholes are messing with, and no one messes with my family,” she said, with a blend of heat and ice Jessyn both wondered at and appreciated. “Plus, there’s the whole sapient trading thing.”
“All true,” Jessyn agreed, “but it is also true you were committed to helping from the beginning, before we knew about the slavers, before they took Ray. You were willing to help when it was only my mother’s life in play.”
“And like I said before…” Mo reached out and took Jessyn’s hand, “ … no one messes with my family… sister.”
“Oh,” Jessyn said, and it seemed suddenly as if every cell were basking in the warmth of her new sister’s gaze. “Well, then, let us indeed go and dazzle ourselves some low-scumming low suckers.”
“Do you do that on purpose?” Mo asked, pulling the door of their compartment open.
“Do what on purpose?” Jessyn asked back as she followed.
By the time they reached the queue for the Acheron, Kaara was nowhere in sight, likely having already boarded.
But Kaara’s absence didn’t keep Mo from fully embracing her new identity, to the shock and awe of every sapient they passed.
Even Jessyn, a fully trained Naihad, couldn’t help but appreciated Mo’s artistry as she flirted, scorned, and pouted her way to the docking tube entrance, and the waiting security team.
As they approached, Jessyn folded herself deeper into her imagined version of a jammer; cool, assessing, occasionally moving to stand between Mo and any overly interested observers.
In one case she fixed an entranced Drellan with her best imitation of Eineen’s soul-shriveling glare.
Since the Drellan raised his massive hands and turned back to his companion, Jessyn thought she’d done well enough.
Still, as Mo clipped up to the waiting security team, Jessyn thought it might be easier to play an intimidating jammer if she were a bit taller.
“Password?” Mo gaped at the two guards who, Jessyn noted, were not wearing any uniform that would associate them with either Libra or GIES. Both the male and female officers wore simple gray suits, which did nothing to disguise the shoulder harnesses each wore, but did pull a little at their biceps—impressive in both cases.
Jessyn adjusted her stance, the better to match their statue-like posture.
“Do you remember anything about a password, G?” Mo turned her pout on Jessyn. “That’s ‘G’ for Glynda,” she told the two guards then leaned close, providing a stunning view of any bits the dress didn’t already display. “That’s her alias,” she whispered, loud enough to reach half the line behind them. “And I’m Em. Because we’re not supposed to tell our names.”
“Yes, miss,” the male guard said, clearing his throat and putting up a brave attempt to not stare at Mo’s casually displayed cleavage. “We know. But before you can board, you have to give us the password.”
“Well, I don’t remember any password,” Mo said, flipping her hair and cocking her hip.
“If I may, M-miss?” Jessyn said, keeping her expression bland even over the stumble, and fixed her gaze on the female member of the team. “Carquan,” she said quietly enough the rest of the line couldn’t hear the name of a particularly ugly fish that had a sword-like snout, native to the Gmell home world.
“Oh! That was a password?” Mo turned her pout upside down into a flirtatious “oops” of a smile. “I thought he was just describing his p—“
“Please make your way onto the shuttle,” the male guard said, a flush creeping up his neck.
Mo flashed him a finger wave and tottered off.
Jessyn, striding after Mo, thought she heard a soft, “Safe travels,” from the guard, but Mo’s ensuing shriek of “Kaary-kins? Is that you?” pulled her focus forward, to where Mo was racing towards Kaara A’Avak, who stood in the middle of the docking tube, her expression blank, as she found herself with an armful of Ambrosia.
“Code names,” Jessyn said as she rushed to join the entangled pair. “Remember the code names.”
“Oh poop.” Mo pouted and bounced back from Kaara, but kept hold of one hand. “I forgot.”
“Again,” Jessyn murmured.
Mo giggled. “G’s right. I couldn’t remember the password, either. Code names and passwords and whatnotall… it’s like we’re in a spy vid, except in a spy vid I’d have a much cooler code name, like Cyclone, or Elpheba.” She heaved a long-suffering sigh and proceeded to draw Kaara forward, to the open hatch of the shuttle. “But nope, it’s just plain Em, E-M,” she clarified for the baffled-looking Eiolan. “What’s your fake name?” she asked, shaking their joined hands. “I bet it’s fabulous.”
“Ah. Well. It’s—Kyetzaal,” she said. “For the Ceruvalian bird.”
“I knew it!” Mo said with a pout. “Well, all I can say is next super-secret auction we go to, I’m getting a better alias.”
“Ha,” was Kaara’s weak reply.
But as the couple stepped through the hatch and into the Acheron, Jessyn was swept by a complex wave of shockembarrassmentarousalshamefeardissapoinment.
Not from Mo, but from Kaara.
Interesting, Jessyn thought. Perhaps Mo was correct in her assessment of Kaara’s character.
Jessyn hoped so, for Mo’s sake.
But, as she followed the pair onto the shuttle, Jessyn was struck by another thought—a thought that, later, she would recognize came naturally to people like Mo, and Harry, and Fayla.
And that thought was, if Kaara was somehow an innocent, how could she prove useful?