Even as the Charon emerged from hyperspace, Mollin was setting the Gypsy Moth down on the surface of one of the 187 large asteroids circling Chara, the K-type star in the Shunto system which the Libra Super-Max Prison station called home.
Lacking any habitable worlds, the asteroid belt was Chara’s sole feature of note, being a rich source of tririsium, an element essential to the construction of spaceship and station hulls.
And, thanks to hours of research on the prison, Mollin knew the belt was also one of the main reasons the Libra Consortium had given for seeking a contract with Rasalka’s governing body to build their prison station within Rasalkan space.
As a working prison, Libra utilized robot harvesters—what Harry referred to as space vacuums—to collect the tririsium. The vacuums then returned to the station, where the tririsium was offloaded and refined, then loaded onto transports and shipped out to buyers from across the Known.
Because Libra didn’t pay the inmates for their labor, the consortium was able to sell the processed tririsium at a discount, undercutting other refineries while still pulling in a tidy profit—this on top thousands of per-prisoner stipends paid to the prison by various ConFed governments.
And that didn’t even account for what the consortium was earning from the sapient trafficking.
As Harry had noted earlier, when it came to crimes against sapients, these people weren’t slackers.
A tapping pulled his attention to his left, where Koz was bringing up the HUD.
“Looking for something?” Mollin asked.
“Not really,” Koz watched as a robo-scooper zoomed by overhead. “I just hate waiting.”
“Hopefully we won’t be waiting long,” Mollin said. “If things go as planned—“
“Please,” Koz said, sending Mollin a side-eye. “I think I’ve been aboard long enough to know things never go as planned for your crew.”
“That’s not—no, it is true,” Mollin admitted. “But if things go even a third as planned, we should have confirmation of your Monkeys hitting Cerberus within the hour. As soon as they’re out, we’ll be lifting off to make our scheduled rendezvous.”
“Great,” Koz said, staring at the HUD which, Mollin noted, painted his face in shades of orange and green—almost like a Cherrii’s base skin tones. “So we wait.”
“We wait,” Mollin agreed.
“I hate waiting,” Koz said, after a beat.
Mollin sighed, turned to his own console, studying the readouts from the scanners, which mostly showed rocks, rocks, another scooper, and more rocks. “Me too,” he said.
Docking at Libra was refreshingly uneventful, and allowed Harry to chat up his fellow travelers while keeping a weather eye on Ray.
Playing up his “new guy” persona, he queried those inclined about what to expect on the job, in part to keep up his cover but also to fill in any potential holes in his prior knowledge of the station.
Suspenders and a belt.
So far, his queries had earned him the information that one should avoid the canteen’s kale, and that there was a haunted lavatory on level C-13.
Harry believed the first, questioned the second, but, as Bolger, played into it. “Blimey,” he pronounced—a statement that earned a snort from Ray’s direction (everyone was a critic). “Haunted by who, or what?”
“No one knows,” the Drellan CO who’d first mentioned the haunted toilet intoned, blasting Harry with a waft of (whiskey-suffused) breath. “But word has it there was a fight in that particular head, between two inmates, a Milleon and a Jezz’ra, and the Milleon bit the Jezz’ra’s head off.”
“That’s what I heard,” a Gmell in the coverall of a station tech affirmed. “And everyone knows the Jezz’ra have a special…” here xer whiskers twitched and xe waved xer splayed hands, no doubt indicating the nomadic Jezz’ra’s uniquely evolved pheromones, which could, at the will of the individual Jezz’ra in question, be used to alleviate suffering, attract mates, mesmerize or, according to the more virulent space (gossip), kill their enemies.
“And word among the inmates has it that, every cycle, at the hour the Jezz’ra died, its headless body appears, demanding to have his head returned,” the Drellan concluded with a sepulchral tone.
“That’s a right chillin’ tale,” Harry admitted, scratching at his chin. “But I has a question,” he continued, glancing from the CO to the tech and back. “If this Jezz’ra’s got no head, how is it he can be asking for his head?”
Which led to a short pause, followed by a loud guffaw from the Drellan and a purring chortle from the Gmell.
Luddy shook his head at his fellow employees’ antics. “Reckon you’ll do all right,” he said to Harry. “But, seriously, don’t eat the kale.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry said as the Charon bumped up against Libra’s docking ring and, all through the shuttle, people went about the business of collecting their belongings and preparing to debark.
Harry peered past Luddy and noted that the three GIES agents had wasted no time getting out of their seats, and were already herding Ray towards the aft hatch.
From the sour expressions and soft mutterings, the rest of the passengers might have resented the GIES agents taking priority of the exit, but one glance from Mr. I-Eat-Kittens prevented any overt commentary.
For his part, Ray didn’t bother looking back, and when the hatch opened, the last thing Harry saw of his daughter’s bond mate was him tossing the empty water bottle into the shuttle’s recycler on the way out.
It’ll be fine, he told himself. Ray was a professional, and beyond that, he wouldn’t do anything to put Jessyn at risk, no matter how much he hated Rikert.
At which point it struck Harry that, while he had factored in Ray’s response to Rikert, he hadn’t taken into account how Rikert might respond to Ray.
Ray, for his part, had been thinking of little else but how Rikert would respond when he came face to face with the man who’d beaten him to within spitting distance of death.
Shock? A given.
Unless, that is, someone had transmitted an image of the newly captured AD to the prison, but there’d been no indication—from the GIES agents or Dorothy—that such a transmission had occurred.
So, okay, shock.
Which, now he thought of it, Ray was going to have to match, because if Rikert realized that Ray knew Rikert was waiting on Libra, it might put the rest of the operation at risk.
Jesus, he thought. Who knew playing the Trojan cow would be so fucking complicated?
But it was okay. He might not be an actor like a certain, silver-haired PIA, but Ray could pull off surprise.
And given that the aforementioned beating had been both epic, and public, Rikert’s shock would probably give way to a red-haze, blinding him to anything but his own anger.
And Rikert was the type to hold a grudge.
Says the kettle to the pot, a voice in his head that sounded like Mo reminded him.
Ray chose to ignore his inner Mo, in part because Ray wasn’t holding a grudge so much as a white-hot ball of retribution, just waiting to be launched.
But he also ignored the inner Mo because the Charon’s hatch was opening, and Vanzale already leading the way out of the shuttle.
“Watch your step,” Bader murmured, guiding Ray over the gap in the hatch, and into the slap of the docking tube’s antiseptic-scented air.
Bader’s murmured warning swung Ray’s vengeful contemplations to the blonde GIES agent. “Why are you here?” he heard himself ask. “With GIES, I mean.”
Her eyes cut sharply in his direction, then forward, to where Vanzale, and now Otto, were pulling ahead. “Needed a job. GIES was recruiting.”
“There are other jobs,” he pointed out, keeping his voice as low as hers.
He didn’t think he imagined the sudden tightening of Bader’s grip on his bicep, or the accompanying hitch in her step.
“Not for everyone,” she muttered, before giving herself a barely visible shake and increasing their pace so they caught up with the other two GIES agents, already crossing the threshold of the docking tube.
Emerging in their wake, Ray took in the standard, shades-of-gray prison interior and took a breath of the recycled air before his eyes landed another inter-station bus, identical to the one that had delivered him to the shuttle, waiting in front of the dock.
And there, leaning against the vehicle, arms crossed over his chest, bored expression on his saturnine face, was none other than Frederick Rikert.
The boredom lasted maybe a heartbeat, before the flat blue eyes Ray recalled widened in recognition, and there, two hearbeats in, was the shock Ray had foreseen… jaw dropping, spine straightening, crossed arms falling to the sides and fists clenching.
Four heartbeats later was when Ray discovered there was no need to worry about working up his own shock and awe, because in the nanoseconds between their eyes meeting and Ray’s own vision turning bloody red, Rikert had closed the distance between the bus and Ray—when had the asshole gotten so fast?— buried his fist into Ray’s gut with a force—that left Ray hunched over and trying to A) remember how to breathe and B) not puke.
As the first wheeze of air made it into his lungs, he thought he heard Bader’s curse, Otto’s chuckle, a soft whistle that might have come from Vanzale.
But more, and worse, he felt the soft waft of warm, cherry-scented breath over his cheek as Rikert’s voice flicked a single, snakelike, “Surprise!”
At which point Ray gave up the fight and emptied his roiling guts on Rikert’s shiny black shoes before husking out a, “Right back atcha.”