The game's afoot!*
To catch up on previous chapters of The Libra Gambit, click HERE.
*Apologies for the late post. Combo of pandemic-brain, software updates, and high school from home led to delays. Hopefully the chapter is worth the wait. Cheers!
Harry’s descent to Libra’s refinery went relatively smoothly.
It helped that he’d come aboard in the middle of a work shift, meaning fewer staff were moving from deck to deck.
In fact, the lift stopped only twice, once at level fourteen to let on a pair of lab techs carrying lunch trays—presumably from the level fourteen docking donut—and again at level thirty-seven, to let them off.
Neither of the techs offered Harry more than a nod, as they were locked in a heated discussion over a call made in one of the most recent Galactic League football games.
When at last the pair stepped off the elevator, they left behind echoes of their opinions on the righteousness of the interception in question and the odors of grilled cheese, spicy Amil noodles, and coffee.
Harry, more of a basketball fan, had no opinion on the game, but as it had been approximately four hours since his last cup of joe, he did experience a surge of caffeine envy.
Rather than fixate on his least harmful addiction, Harry kept his eyes on the deck indicator, watching each level number flicker until the lift came to a gentle halt at level forty-two.
Even as Harry stepped forward, the doors slid open, and a wall of heat slammed into him. Immediately, sweat popped on his forehead, and the thuds and clangs of heavy machinery echoed along the deck.
Harry took a breath that tasted of metal, and smoke, and despair.
This last because, for Harry—for almost twenty-six years—smoke and despair always walked together.
Get a grip, he told himself, and stepped off the lift, into the furnace-like heat of what felt like Libra’s version of hell.
A hell which, Harry soon discovered, was marked by arrows on the deck.
Bright, multicolored arrows, each fluorescent shade leading to a different station.
Keys to the arrows were affixed to the bulkhead at regular intervals, informing Harry that the green arrows led to the security cubicle, orange to the ore analysis chamber, and the incongruous pink pointed in the direction of the emergency medical bay.
There were more, he found, trailing along the green to where two corridors met at a crossroads. Here, blue arrows joined the landscape, leading to the inmate elevator system, and purple to ore receiving.
And, while Harry had committed the necessary schematics to memory, he couldn’t help but appreciate the serendipitous appearance of a series of yellow arrows, leading to the smelting chamber that was his destination.
Breathing in the searing heat, sweat forming, drying, and reforming over his skin, he smiled, and turned to follow the yellow deck arrows which took him, not to a creaky forest or a field of poppies, but through a series of sooty corridors which opened on either side to a series of processing stations, each representing a different stage in the refining of tririsium.
In any other circumstances, Harry might have found the experience of being front and center of an ore separation facility fascinating.
Not that he was anyone’s idea of a geologist, but he couldn’t deny the inherent curiosity of how a thing worked tugging at him every time he passed one of the stations, trying to determine how one shoveled literal metric tons of space rubble into a tube on one level of the tower, before extruding the far less heavy, but a few million times stronger, tririsium at the other end.
Even as he wondered over the undertaking, he passed a room in which a trio of inmates muscled a ginormous articulated tube that sprouted from the bulkhead towards an open hatch, and saw one of the inmates trip.
The fall caused the tube to shudder, and a tiny fall ore trickled out, falling through the grated deck at their feet.
At which point a CO emerged from the shadows, baton already in his hand, already rising to strike a sharp blow across the shoulder blades of the inmate who’d fallen.
At which point Harry forgot all about the wonders of modern technology—and most everything else—as he found himself no longer at the door, watching, but standing between the inmate, still flat out on the deck, and the incoming baton of none other than Luddy, the kale-hating CO from the Acheron.
“It’s okay,” Mo muttered as she and Jessyn followed the rest of the potential buyers along the station’s upper docking ring. “It’ll be okay.”
“How can you say that?” Jessyn hissed back. Her expression was as stoic as ever—Mo had to give her friend props for her acting skills—but her skin had gone slightly ashen, and her voice trembled. “I can’t feel anyone. It’s as if I have lost my vision, or my sense of touch. It feels as if I’ve lost a limb.”
“You haven’t lost a thing,” Mo countered, adding a judicious amount of snap to the whispered statement. “At worst, you’ve got the equivalent of a stuffy nose. It’s not permanent.”
“Perhaps not,” Jessyn said, her eyes still skimming the station they traversed, the other buyers, and the security staff that ranged behind and alongside the groupings, herding them towards their destination. “But given I cannot use any telempathic actions to protect us, or our mission, it would be foolish to pretend we have not just lost a potent weapon.”
“A weapon,” Mo said, her eyes skimming over the corridor—matching up their route with the schematics they’d studied for hours. “We have more. You have more,” she said, giving the other woman a shoulder nudge. “And look, we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be,” she added as the bodies in front of them angled to the right, through a widely arched door and into a reception area that, again from the schematics, would contain the two functioning data ports necessary to upload the flying monkeys.
Stepping inside, she felt more than heard Jessyn’s huff of disgust, and found herself agreeing as, alongside the expected podium and seating for the coming auction, the lounge featured a full bar, a host of buffet tables, and—possibly worst of all—eggplant-toned walls covered with art.
Sort of art, Mo corrected herself, as she took in a wall hanging that looked like a Rorschach test and a Neocol had gotten busy and made a baby.
Shaking her head, she turned back to the room itself, and noted many of their fellow passengers were making for the buffets where—in contrast to their time on the Acheron—the various parties loosened up enough share greetings, introducing themselves with their chosen aliases, requesting someone to pass the salt.
Of those populating the lounge, only the lone Judon, the quartet of Neocols, and Kaara remained completely aloof.
Though Kaara, Mo observed, had opted to hit the bar—this time requesting something that looked a lot stronger than the tea she’d chosen on the shuttle.
Jessyn’s quick intake of breath pulled her attention back. “Yeah, it’s tacky,” Mo agreed, “but—”
“Not that,” Jessyn said. “Or, well, yes, that, but also,” Jessyn tipped her head towards one of the buffet tables, shoved up against the right side wall, “that table is blocking one of our two data ports.”
Mo angled to get a closer to the table in question and saw that, yes, the utility panel was blocked by a rack of pastries.
“Bad but not impossible,” Mo said. “Maybe I’ll be in dire need of a croissant once the bidding starts. Where’s the second port?” she asked as Jessyn led the way further into the room, making space for Milleon party. “We can hit that before they start the auction.”
“We could,” Jessyn murmured her agreement, “if it weren’t covered by a painting.”
Mo’s eyes followed Jessyn’s gaze and latched on another of the room’s purported artworks, which was, indeed, covering the very spot the schematics had indicated held the lounge’s second data port. “Ah. Well. Time for plan B.” She eyed Jessyn. “I know you can’t sense anyone, but can you still do the thing?”
“Thing?” Jessyn echoed, looking momentarily perplexed.
“You know…” Mo waved a hand between herself and Jessyn, as if erasing her from view. “The thing. The ghosty thing.”
“Ah. That thing.” Jessyn’s brow cocked. “You tell me. Can you see me now?”
Mo frowned. “Yes.”
“Then, no, I cannot do the ghosty thing.”
Life might, as Rikert had indicated, be a gamble, but Ray—standing between a smug Rikert and a disturbingly amused Vanzale—had the distinct impression that in this case, Rikert was holding the better part of a royal flush, and had palmed the queen.
“Tick tock, Slater,” Rikert prodded smugly, reinforcing Ray’s opinion. “Best take your chance, or I may change my mind and have Vanzale shoot you, anyway.”
Ray’s brow rose, he glanced at Vanzale, who had already drawn and activated his sidearm. “Prisoner attempted escape,” he said. “I had no choice but to take him out.”
“Fine,” Ray said, turning back to Rikert. He sighed, let his head dip, as if in defeat, then unleashed the same jab that, back in the day, had broken Rikert’s nose.
Except, this time, he missed Rikert’s nose by the proverbial country mile.
Missed because Rikert had bobbed out of the way milliseconds before Ray’s fist could connect.
Before he could recover, Rikert’s left hand shot out to grab Ray’s still-moving wrist, twisting it clockwise and creating the perfect opening to slam his right palm into Ray’s chest.
And that was the point at which time slowed for Ray—much the way it appeared to slow in the presence of a black hole—allowing him to contemplate a number of simple truths.
Truths such as the exquisite pain that came from a rib cracking… underpinning the realization that Rikert had, sometime during the past few years, picked up some serious CQC moves—and possibly a steroid habit.
But the final, and likely the simplest, truth was the realization that, while he’d never rammed by a Kerallian musk, that he now—as his breath once again left his body, which was flying across the deck and into the nearest wall—he was pretty sure this was what being rammed by a Kerallian musk ox felt like.
Then he hit the wall, and time spun back to normal, and Ray’s vision grayed, and then so did everything else.
He couldn’t have been out long, however, because when consciousness returned, it arrived with a jarring thud that told him he’d just been dumped back into the chair in front of Rikert, who was once again propped up against the desk.
“I have to say,” Rikert observed as Vanzale retreated and Ray attempted a less collapsed slouch, “that was more gratifying than I ever imagined. And believe me, I’ve been imagining just that moment for a very long time.”
Ray didn’t reply straight off, but remained slouched while he estimated the short distance between the chair and Rikert… and decided it might as well be a few kilometers.
No way was he going to take another swing at the smug bastard.
At least, not until he got a better grip on Rikert’s strength and speed, which were both far beyond anything the man had displayed back in his Corps days.
Still, there was pride.
Pride and the mission, he thought and so, well aware that Rikert was watching, waiting for some sort of a response, Ray spat a gob of pink tinted spittle to the carpet, then met the cool blue gaze before rasping, “Been working out?”
Rikert’s laugh was deep, and genuine—a fact that appeared to surprise Rikert as much as it did Ray.
If Vanzale felt any shock, he kept it to himself.
“I feel like I’m missing the joke, ” Ray said as Rikert’s laugh eased to a chuckle.
“Not a joke,” Rikert said, waving off the statement with a final chuckle. “But I’m flattered. Really. To think someone with your CQC experience would think what I just did came from anything as prosaic as lifting a few weights.”
“So, what then?” he asked. “Vitamins? Steroids? Brain transplanted into an android body? Super-soldier serum?”
Even as Rikert blinked. “Ah, in order, no; no; too expensive, pure science fiction and… not quite, right, but close,” Rikert replied, his smirk amping to an unsettling level before asking, “Do you really want to know?”
Ray considered the man before him— a man who had, at last contact, possessed the fortitude of an overcooked noodle, and who had just knocked Ray across a room, possibly cracking a rib, with one punch.
A man, he thought, who held a high place in the Genetics Investigation, Enforcement, and Security—an agency that, from all they had recently discovered—was profiting off the bodies of ADs.
And, he also thought, there was more than one way to profit from an AD’s body.
“Only if you’ve got a shot of Wallace Blue help wash it down,” he said at last, masking his relief at the sub-dermal buzz that told him he’d succeeded in activating his comm implants.
Whatever the hells else Rikert was up to, his team would want to know.