Five levels down from where Jessyn and Mo were boarding the Acheron, Harry settled into place in Charon’s main cabin.
A standard short-range shuttle, the Charon featured twenty rows of eight seats each, separated by a central aisle.
The aisle itself was fitted with a series of strategically placed bars riveted to the ceiling for passengers who had arrived too late to claim a seat.
Harry was one such passenger, along with a baker’s dozen new and returning Libra employees who had arrived too late to get a seat.
But unlike most of his fellow straphangers, Harry’s delay had been intentional, as transport security had a universal tendency to grow more lax as departure time neared. And though he didn’t doubt Mollin’s skill in creating false identities, Harry had always been a suspenders and a belt kind of guy.
So he had arrived late, and was now standing amidships in a clump of corrections officers, techs, and maintenance engineers who, judging by the odor of various intoxicants seeping from their pores, had been enjoying their seven weeks’ liberty up to the last second.
Since, during the bad old days, Harry had been known to take advantage of every second off the clock to seek oblivion at the bottom of a bottle, he didn’t feel in a position to judge.
Instead he focused on ignoring the ghosts of whiskeys past wafting around him while he glanced his wrist unit, which told him that the shuttle was running late for departure.
Late, he surmised, because the pilot was waiting for the last-minute addition of one Ray Slater to the passenger manifest—a supposition that proved correct as a rumble of bodies towards the rear hatch had everyone shifting to see what was happening.
Harry shifted as well, his boots scuffing over the rough deck as he peered around the passengers behind him.
As he did, the knapsack strap slid down his shoulder, forcing him to shove it back into place, knowing it would slide down again in a matter of moments because of the posture he’d adopted for Bolger involved a spinal contortion his partner from the IMS had referred to as a question mark with aspirations.
Harry’s spine was already regretting the choice, but his cover—a gregarious everyman Harry had used to great effect over the years—was the hook that made the rest of the character fall into place.
No one who met Ray Bolger—or Pat Mannox or Willy Bligh or Mads Gallafray—would remember anything more than crooked slouch with a thick Yorkshire accent.
And right now, Ray Bolger—along with everyone else in the shuttle— was trying very hard to see what the fuss at the aft hatch was about.
“Oy,” he said, crooking his head further to the right, around the black-clad corrections officer blocking his view, “what’s all this, then?”
“Looks like the geese snagged another cloney,” the CO replied, jerking his chin in the direction of a tall GIES agent assisting a shackled Ray Slater into the shuttle.
“Blimey,” Harry whistled. “Do all GIES agents look like that?”
“Hardly any,” the CO lamented as he angled towards Harry, revealing a name-tag that ready Luddy. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“That I am,” Harry beamed a crooked grin that revealed a false gold tooth. “Got my first shift inna janitorial crew at 2200.”
“Ack,” was Luddy’s comment.
At the same time, someone a few bodies closer to Ray and his escort spat out a hissed, “Fucking copy,” that had the blond frowning.
Ray simply shot his dark gaze in the direction of the comment.
The shot must have struck true, because no one made any further remarks.
Ray’s gaze skimmed over the cabin, hitched momentarily when it landed on Harry, then continued on, until another pair of GIES agents pushed through the crowd to join the party.
Both were male, but one was on the shorter side, and sported some vestigial swelling about the nose.
Harry was willing to bet his last credit Ray had something to do with that swelling.
The taller man, on the other hand, looked to Harry like he ate kittens for breakfast, which was probably why all he had to do was send a single, baleful glare at the nearest row of passengers to get them to stumble out of their seats, clutching their personals as they eased away from the agents and their charge.
The kitten-eater took the window seat, while Ray was unceremoniously dumped in the second, and the shorter fellow took the next chair, sandwiching Ray between the two, somewhat limiting Harry’s view of the party.
Rather than take the aisle seat right off, the blond agent edged past the displaced foursome, making her way aft to where Harry spied a cold unit built into the bulkhead. From this she pulled a bottle of water.
Popping the tab as she returned, she took her aisle seat, again surprising Harry when she didn’t take a drink herself, but passed it to her left.
As Harry watched, Ray’s joined hands lift the bottle in a salute to the blond agent, who offered a middle finger in response. But if Harry were any judge of people and, with only one notable exception, he was a very good judge of people, that was not the Middle Finger of Disdain, but the Middle Finger of Camaraderie.
Go Ray, he thought, at the same time the shuttle’s hatch whumped closed and a voice the intercom crackled to life.
“Attention all passengers, Charon is cleared for departure from Vir-22. Please make sure you have control of your belongings and, as this is a crowded flight, those standing will want to grab hold of a safety rail.
“The journey to Libra Station is a short one, and we expect to make our jump to FTL as soon as we reach the recommended safe distance from Vir-22. For those returning from leave, please be aware there are ample space-sick bags located behind every seat. Thank you and enjoy the ride.”
With another crackle, the pilot signed off and the shuttle bumped forward.
Without a word, Harry, Luddy, and every other straphanger clutched their belongings closer and grabbed the nearest rail because, while inertial dampeners were great for keeping space travelers from being pancaked, they were less reliable about the average jerks and jolts.
While the engines hummed louder, the general chatter eased and Harry took a moment to peer through the nearest window, where he was able to see the curve of the docking ring recede as the shuttle veered to starboard. Within seconds, the station gave way to a thick scatter of stars.
Looking out at that scatter, Harry wondered about the rest of the team.
If everything was going to plan, and given he’d received no emergency comms, confidence was high everything was—for the moment—still going to plan, the Moth would have already departed, and the Acheron, with Jessyn and Mo aboard, prepping for its own journey.
For better or worse, the mission was a go.
Harry’s eyes slid away from the cloud of stars outside to the aft of the shuttle, where he could see the top of Ray’s dark head, tilted towards the starboard window, and wondered what he was seeing.
Then he thought back to their earlier argument—okay, one of their earlier arguments—and wondered how Ray was handling playing the Trojan horse on this operation.
Ray hated playing the Trojan cow.
He especially hated playing the Trojan cow in shackles, being transported towards a max security penitentiary.
The head shrinkers he’d been forced to visit during his early Zodiac training would have had a lot to say about trauma and triggering and unresolved anger issues.
Mo would have told him he just hated playing low status.
Both were probably right, but it didn’t make him hate it any less.
But, given there was shit-all he could do about it, Ray turned from the window—currently blocked by Vanzale’s fug-ugly profile—took another sip of the water Bader had given him and let his thoughts shift from the bitter reality of the shackles weighing him down to—pretty much anything else.
Look for an upside, he thought while the cool water failed to ease the tightness in his throat.
Upside, upside, upside…got it!
One upside, thanks to GIES and their scanner, was that he now knew he hadn’t been abandoned by his parents.
Downside—he hadn’t been abandoned by his parents because he didn’t have any parents.
Or, if he got the science of it right, he didn’t have the standard pairing.
What he had, as an Artificially Developed Human Life Form, were a series of progenitors. Or, he recalled, thinking back to the (way too many) galley discussions during the mission’s planning phase, he had a selection of chromosomes of the DNA of said progenitors.
He wondered if he had anyone cool in the mix?
Then he wondered who had done the mixing in the first place, because included in his minimal knowledge of ADs was they all came from registered labs, or creches.
If his… builders, he supposed was the best term …were part of the ADHLF database, Ray would have been identified as a clone—shit—AD—well before now.
Certainly he would have been tagged when he signed on to the Corps, which had a strict “No Clone” policy.
All worth investigating as some later date, but now that his meanderings had landed on the Corps, Ray realized he’d reached the peak of the upside of Harry’s damned Trojan cow—and that peak would be the moment in which he personally put an end to Frederick fucking Rikert.
It took away from it, a little, that Rikert was a proven coward, and the weakest of weak sisters, but having witnessed the deaths of close to five hundred Marines because of Rikert’s murderous orders, Ray figured he could take one for the ghosts of his team.
All he needed was a few minutes alone with Rikert, and shackles or no shackles, he would—
“Passengers, brace for FTL,” the pilot’s announcement snipped the thread of Ray’s thought.
Sucking in a lungful of the shuttle’s metallic air, he straightened in his seat to peer above the heads of his fellow passengers, and sure enough caught sight of Harry who, as chance would have it, was looking at Ray.
Ray let his lip quirk just enough for Harry to see, and Harry—a vision of slouch in the dun-colored janitorial garb of the prison station—tapped a finger to the side of his nose in acknowledgment.
If Harry had any worries—about Ray’s fate or, more likely, about how Ray was going to behave on-station—it didn’t show.
What he could see, even over the five-plus meters distance, was the same gleam of anticipation Ray himself felt as the Charon slid into hyperspace for the few seconds necessary to reach Libra station.
Libra Station… where Rikert would be waiting.
Harry, meeting Ray’s predatory gaze, had little difficulty guessing what the other operative was thinking.
Then again, given that he, himself, had taken on this prison break (In Space!) for less than selfless reasons, Harry also understood he had zero right to try and force Ray’s hand, one way or the other.
He could only hope Ray could keep a hold on his vengeance long enough for Koz’s code to be loosed on Cerberus—this though Harry had learned long and long ago that hope was the most fickle of virtues
But hope he did, because the Charon was already emerging from its short trip though hyperspace, and looking again through the nearest window, Harry was able to make out a truncated view of the mass of the Libra Station… where Siane would be waiting.