While Jessyn faced an unimaginable void in Libra's upper docking ring, fifteen levels down, Ray was dealing with a perfect storm of emotions—and the lingering ache of Rikert’s sucker punch.
Now, as the bus made its counterclockwise journey between Libra’s towers, Ray barely resisted prodding at the tender region beneath his sternum, where Rikert’s fist had buried itself.
Instead he flexed his hands, still weighed down by shackles, and peered through the narrow slit of the bus’ windows, where the gray of the bulkhead was occasionally broken up by slivers of signs, doors, and the occasional slice of a Libra staff member’s uniform.
And sitting just beneath the window he studied, Bader sat quietly, her expression troubled, and her gaze shifting occasionally to the forward cab, where Rikert had retired with Vanzale.
Otto, at Ray's right, was also silent.
Most likely because his attempts to rattle Ray’s cage over the punch—and the ensuing pukage—had been stifled by the swift application of Bader's boot to Otto's shin.
More and more, Ray wondered how Bader had ended up working for GIES.
And that, he reminded himself, was a problem for another day.
He had enough on his plate already, without adding Bader's potential crisis of conscience to the agenda. Especially since there was already a war for the top spot on that agenda, between the mission imperative of getting himself embedded with the other imprisoned ADs, and the moral obligation of wringing Rikert’s space-pale neck.
Because he could so easily picture the second, his hands fisted, then relaxed again, as his inner eye presented him with the image of Jessyn.
Jessyn, who was risking her own life and freedom—and both her parents’—for the sake of a couple dozen ADs she'd never met.
And while his inner eye contemplated his bond mate, his inner ear got a taste of Mo, reminding him to “Put your testosterone on hold.”
And if that weren't enough, Harry's voice joined in with a dry, “Wait for it.”
It was that last remonstrance from Harry that had Ray’s lip curling, just in time for Bader's gaze to rest on his face.
He watched her eyes narrow, her jaw tense, and braced for whatever question was floating behind the agent’s flinty gaze, but before she could speak, the bus eased to a stop and then, after a soft bounce, the entire vehicle began to rise.
Freight elevator, Ray thought, recalling the schematics the entire team had committed to memory over the past few days.
And if those schematics were accurate—as Mollin, Koz, and Dorothy all swore to be the case—the lift would stop on the first level of Tower Two, where the ADs were held in a separate block from the rest of the prison's population.
Ray didn't quite hold his breath, but there was some slow-age of intake as he counted off the trip in seconds, using the same pattern he'd learned as a child…One-Bradbury City… two-Bradbury City…three-Bradbury City… four-Bradbury City…
He'd just reached thirteen-Bradbury City when the lift jolted to a stop.
And there—praise Jesus, Mary, and the Gypsy Moth Geek squad—he could see, almost centered in the bus’ excuse for a window, the top two-thirds of the words “Tower Two Deck 1-Beta”.
He was on the same deck as the ADs.
Now it was simply a question of whether Rikert intended for Ray to join his fellow pariahs in the cage, or had something a bit more private in mind?
If it was the first, Ray would be in position to direct the prisoners to safety once Koz's monkeys flew, but he’d probably miss his chance at Rikert.
If it was the second, he'd be in a good position to end Rikert, but getting to the containment block would be challenging, to say the least.
Like old Father Padraigh used to say, back at the orphanage… “You can’t have everything—where would you put it?”
It was then, as Ray was recalling the wrinkled brown skin of the gentle priest that the bus eased to a stop.
He turned to watch Bader open the hatch, and looked past her to see a corridor lined with offices.
Rikert, it appeared, had opted for the second, private, option.
Immediately following that realization, the part of Ray that still had nightmares about Verdanti Prime threw a small, tasteful party.
At the same time the other part—the part that recognized the need to stay on-mission—tossed its metaphorical hands in the air and hit the bar.
And all the while, the outside part—the Ray Slater everyone could see—maintained a bland-just-edging-on-sullen expression as Otto prodded him towards the hatch with his baton.
Angling awkwardly to the deck, he got a brief impression of a drab corridor with closed doors on both sides, most with holo-signs above the keypads indicating who used the space.
Even as his eyes locked on the sign reading “F. Rikert, Director of Genetic Investigation, Enforcement and Security-Shunto Sector,” both Rikert and Vanzale emerged from the bus’ cab and crossed to the door, where Rikert entered a key code.
The door slid open, Rikert entered, followed by Vanzale.
Neither spared Ray a glance, not even when Bader and Otto led him into the room, the ankle shackles clinking dully as he stepped from the outer decking to the carpeted office.
Stopping inside the doorway, between Bader and Otto, Ray studied the space.
Up against the right hand wall sat a crescent-shaped desk and comp-com, along with seating for guests in front of the desk, and a leather sofa flush against the left wall, with a low coffee table in front, with a coffee service sitting on it.
It was, Ray thought, the model of the average office.
Until, that is, one got an eyeful of the decor, which was not only very un-office like it was—in its entirety— a shrine to Rikert’s military career.
Ray stared, unbelieving, at the hodgepodge of medals, framed photos, statuary, souvenirs… there was even a number of transparent mannequins, all bedecked in uniforms representing each phase and rank of Rikert’s career in the ConFed Marines.
But it was the portrait, done in oils, and featuring a solemn-visaged Frederick Rikert in his combat fatigues, weapon in hand—set against a smoke-choked background Ray was certain was meant to represent the jungles of Verdanti Prime—that took the proverbial cake.
Ray’s teeth clenched as the earlier nausea roiled anew, and he wished there was some bile still left in his system… so he could do unto that portrait what he had already done unto Rikert's shoes.
Meanwhile, Rikert, seemingly oblivious of Ray’s reaction, was busy removing his befouled footwear and dumping them into the recycling unit set in the office’s back wall. He then opened the panel to the right of the recycler, revealing a closet that held several changes of clothes, a few spare pairs of shoes, and what looked to be a kimono.
Spying that last, Ray wondered what kind of office activities required short silk robes.
He didn’t get to wonder for long, as Vanzale took Otto’s place at Ray’s side, shoving him in the direction of the desk and pushing him down into one of the two chairs facing the uncluttered curve of the desk.
Having slipped into a fresh pair of shoes, Rikert came up even with his desk, and looked to where Bader and Otto flanked the office door. “Thanks for your assistance in delivering the prisoner,” he told them shortly. “Now, if you’ll remove his shackles, you can both wait outside while I conduct the interrogation.”
Otto, who’d already been turning toward the door, paused at that last instruction. “You want to take off the cuffs?” he asked. “Are you sure about that, Guv?”
“Are you questioning my orders, Otto?” Rikert asked back, one sardonic brow rising. “Again?”
“No, sir,” Otto declared, hauling the magnetic key out of his pocket and making a beeline for the chair Ray occupied.
Behind him, Ray watched Bader’s expression close down, assuming the blank expression particular to NCOs across the known, and which Ray privately named the "This shit is above my pay grade,” face.
The only sign of life behind her expression came when her eyes turned to meet his, and he saw, briefly, a hint of unease. But as the weight of the shackles fell away from his ankles, her eyes went as blank as the rest of her face, and she remained at parade rest.
Otto deactivated the shackles on Ray’s wrists and, gathering both sets of cuffs, stepped quickly away, obviously having learned from their last encounter.
From where he loomed behind Ray, Vanzale let out a snort that had Otto’s skin darkening.
“Thank you,” Rikert said, then gestured at the door. “That will be all.”
Ray, looking, caught one last flash of worry from Bader before she turned on her heel and followed Otto out of the office, leaving him alone with Rikert and Vanzale.
As the door closed behind the two agents, Rikert, at long last, turned his attention to Ray.
“Slater,” he said.
“Asshole,” Ray replied, then let out a “Christ!” as Vanzale delivered a clap to his ear. Ray shot a glare up and back. “Did you learn that move from Sister Jacob?”
“Vanzale,” Rikert warned the other man off.
Grinning, then shrugging, Vanzale took a step back, but as he did, he unfastened his jacket to reveal the shock baton at his belt and the pulser holstered under his arm—a clear message that Ray would pay for any misbehavior.
Ray flashed a tight grin at the guy—clearly Rikert’s enforcer in the GIES ranks—then turned back to the desk.
“As I was about to say,” Rikert said, “it’s been a long time.”
“Not long enough,” Ray countered.
“A point of view,” Rikert said, then leaned back against the desk, hands flat on either side of him as he continued to study Ray. “You know, I always suspected there was something off about you, back in the Corps,” he said, his blue eyes speculative, “but I can honestly say it never occurred to me, not even with your sniper rankings and unprecedented CQC skills, that you were a clone.”
“We prefer to be called ADs,” Ray said, echoing Koz’s comment, the day they’d first met.
“And I suppose I’d care what you prefer, if you were a person,” Rikert said, a hint of a smile playing at his lips.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Ray replied, trying to squash the adrenaline that wanted to turn that smile to mush.
“A bit harsh,” Rikert determined, “but true. So tell me,” he continued as he pushed off the desk to stalk behind Ray’s chair, “did you always know you were a fake? Was that why you were crap at obeying orders? Was it your inherent lack of humanity that led to your attempt to murder me?”
“If I’d wanted you dead, you’ve have been dead,” Ray countered, his cool voice belying the hot rage coursing through his veins. “All I did after Verdanti was give you something to think about.”
“And I did,” Rikert’s voice slid from behind. “In fact, after that last encounter, I thought about you quite a bit.”
Ray felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder, and tried not to tense.
“I thought of you while I was in hospital. I thought of you when you were sentenced to ten years in Danseker. And then I thought of you when you were released after serving two years—out of a ten year sentence.”
“What can I tell you?” Ray’s shoulder twitched in a shrug, but failed to dislodge the hand. “I was a model prisoner.”
“That I sincerely doubt,” Rikert replied, and the hand on Ray’s shoulder gave a gentle squeeze before disappearing. “But we won’t debate that claim at this time,” Rikert said, continuing his circuit around Ray until he came around to face him, once more. “What concerns me, now, is how a clone was able to join the ConFed Marines, undetected.”
“If it helps,” Ray said, “I didn’t even know I was an AD until your goons targeted me on Vir-22. Fact is,” he continued, stretching his legs and crossing them at the ankle, “I’m still not sure their scanners weren’t malfunctioning.”
“Be sure.” Rikert’s hint of a smile returned, but didn’t make it to his eyes. “We haven’t been able to trace your DNA marker to a specific lab, but the existence of the marker proves your artificial status. And do you know what that means?” he asked.
“No, but I bet you’re going to tell me,” Ray said, eliciting another snort from the monolith of Vanzale.
“It means I can do whatever I want to you, and there’s not a sapient in the Known who will lift a finger to tap me on the wrist. You,” he said, “are a literal nobody from nowhere, which means no one will care if you never step out of this office.” He straightened, looked down his nose at Ray. “You’ll want to stand up, for this.”
“Why?” Ray settled deeper in the chair. “You’re gonna shoot me, might as well be comfortable.”
“Oh, I’m not going to shoot you.” Rikert removed his jacket, laid it on the desk, then unholstered the pulser at his back, which he tossed to Vanzale, who caught it with one hand before tucking it into his belt. “All we’re going to do here,” Rikert continued, “is set the record straight. One on one, mano a mano, you and me.” He rolled up one sleeve before waggling his fingers between Ray and himself. “We’re going to see who’s the toughest son of a bitch in the room.”
Ray listened, but Vanzale—a definite candidate for the title—didn’t snort at that.
Which was worrying.
Rikert finished rolling up his other sleeve, flicked a glance at Ray. “Up. Now.”
“Fine.” Ray sighed, rose, gave his fists a shake, then let his arms hang loose at his side. “You want some payback? Take your best shot.”
Rikert smiled. “I want more than payback,” he said. “I want vindication. Which means we have to recreate the original event—when you attacked me.” He raised his chin, an invitation. “Come on then.”
Ray glanced over his shoulder, to the quietly observant Vanzale, who also smiled.
He turned back to the waiting Rikert. “How can I know for sure your man won’t toast me for attacking you?”
Rikert offered Ray a shrug of his own. “Life’s a gamble.”