“Are we there yet?” Koz asked, appearing in the cockpit, holding two fragrantly steaming mugs of coffee, brewed from the fresh supplies the crew had picked up on Vir-22. "I thought I heard a ping,"the AD continued, halting just out of reach as he frowned at the active HUD hovering in front of the pilot’s chair.
Since Koz had been asking the same question repeatedly since the Moth had taken refuge on their chosen asteroid, barely an hour ago, Mollin tried (and failed) to suppress an exasperated sigh.
He knew—universe did he know—Koz wasn't one for waiting.
Or sitting still.
Give Koz a quiet beach and a sunset, and Koz within minutes, would be yanking out his palm comp with the intention of designing a VR app replicating the scene for the meditation market.
Mollin knew this because he’d been on that beach… and had a copy of the app.
What he’d never been able to fathom was if the AD's hyperactive tendencies were a side-effect of his caffeine addiction, or was simply hard-wired into his DNA.
Whichever the case, of one thing Mollin was certain, and that was if he bothered to point out to Koz that only four minutes had passed since his last request on the mission status, Koz wouldn't give Mollin that second mug of coffee.
And Mollin really wanted that coffee.
"Keep ignoring me, and you won't get this coffee," Koz warned, as if reading Mollin's mind.
Mollin's toes curled, but he did respond. "No, there has been no alert, no ping, no nothing.”
“That last was a double negative,” Koz pointed out, holding the mug out of Mollin’s reach.
Mollin grimaced.“Don't make me hurt you.”
<Gentlemen, if I may?> Dorothy chimed in.
"Oh, please,” Mollin said.
"Sure," Koz shrugged, but didn't relinquish the mug.
<Dr. Kosterlovovich, I take it you have been monitoring Cerberus’ activity data stream on your comp?> the AI asked.
Koz shot a glance at his battered laptop, sitting open on the console. “Of course."
<And have you noticed any change in the prison’s routine? Any alerts to station security?>
“I… no.” Koz sighed.
<Then all evidence suggests we are not ‘There’ yet,> Dorothy concluded.
“So give it a rest," Mollin added, holding out his hand. “And give me that coffee.”
Down in the bowels of Libra's refinery, Harry took a hot, dry breath and experienced a fleeting urge for something stronger than coffee as he watched CO Krieg, a Drellan with possibly the broadest shoulders he'd ever seen, scowl at Soren, who was still waving.
“Soren,” her greeting rumbled out like the ore that had only recently come rolling out of the chute a few minutes earlier. But at least her attention was fixed on Soren’s manic grin, so Harry took the opportunity to gesture at the other two inmates, who proved excellent team players as they took his cue to sidle into position between the scowling CO Krieg and the splayed out body of CO Luddy.
"Where the hell's your boss?" Krieg asked, her eyes narrowing as she skimmed the room. "Didn't you say Luddy was working the rest of this shift?" she asked as her gaze landed on Siane.
"I did," Siane began.
"And he was," Harry stepped, literally, into the conversation as he moved to stand between Krieg and Siane. “But now he’s not,” he continued. “I mean, Luddy got sick, so now he's not here. In this room, that is."
He felt more than heard Siane’s whispered, “Smooth.”
“You've got to be shitting me," Krieg growled. “First Ipswx and now Luddy?” She took another step into the room.
“Yup.” As Harry spoke, he countered Krieg's movements, this time putting him between the CO and the group covering Luddy. “What can I say? It's been a rough day in Ore Receiv—Transfer,” he corrected himself as, behind Krieg, Siane jabbed a finger at the sign over the utility panel that read Ore Transfer.
“It’ll be a lot rougher if this shift ends with a shortage,” Krieg shot a silver-pupiled glare to the three inmates guarding Luddy. “So, which one of you is virulent?”
“He is,” they all said at once, pointing at one another.
“For fuck’s sake.” Krieg shook her head then brought her attention back to Harry. “And I suppose you’re Luddy’s replacement?”
“Got it in one,” Harry said.
"Well, Luddy's replacement, best set your team to emptying those scoopers, before they're backed up to the asteroid belt.”
"You betcha," Harry said. "We'll get right on that, won’t we fellas?” He waved to the trio, who all waved back, then returned his attention to Krieg—and Siane, who was lowering a flattened palm from her head to her waist in what he thought was a “tone it down,” signal.
“I’ve got to get back to separation,” Krieg said, giving the Soren Trio a last glare before turning to the door, at the exact same time a gurgling noise arose from the deck.
“What was that?” Krieg asked, spinning back.
“Sorry," Harry grimaced. "A little indigestion is all.”
“You’d better not be coming down sick,” Krieg said.
“Healthy as a horse,” Harry swore.
“What’s a horse?” Krieg asked.
“Terran animal,” Harry explained. “Four legs, runs fast, known for being really healthy though, now I think of it, I can’t say why.”
Behind Krieg, Siane’s eyes rolled skywards.
“Right,” Krieg said, clearly unimpressed. “My advice? Get your team to work before all our asses end up in the jaws of a mgroth—Drellan amphibian,” she said before Harry could ask, “known for eating slow-moving sapients.”
"Ah," Harry said. "Ha.”
Krieg grimaced, started to turn again.
"Kale!” someone shouted, and Harry turned to see Luddy, sitting straight up as Soren and friends skittered away from the suddenly, and very much awake, CO.
"Luddy?" Krieg took a step in his direction, the muscles in her neck bunching, baton in her hand.
Harry had to admit himself impressed that Krieg wasted exactly zero time on stupid questions, but spat out an immediate, “Cerberus, Enable—”
“Wait!” Harry shouted, waving wildly with his own, sadly weaponless, hands. “I surrender!”
“You do?” Krieg asked as Luddy groaned his way to his knees.
“We do?” Siane asked.
“Yes, we do,” Harry said, sending her a speaking look that said, better to surrender than to be incapacitated by a sonic brain scrambler.
From her expression, however, his explanation translated to blahblahblah, I’m a complete idiot, blah.
With no hope of clarfiying at the moment, Harry focused on Krieg and the bleary Luddy. “On the upside,” he told them, “you’ll both probably be up for a promotion for stopping a prison break.”
“Prison break?” Krieg echoed.
“In space?” Luddy asked.
“Technically that’s my line, but yes,” Harry agreed.
“And you really thought you’d get away with it?” Krieg asked while Luddy gathered the spare baton and gestured the other inmates to join Harry.
“Actually,” Harry said as Siane stalked over to his side, “I’m surprised I made it this far. I was sure the monitors would pick it up the second I clocked Luddy. Sorry about that,” he added to Luddy.
“No problem. Wait,” Luddy said, frowning.
“There are no visual monitors down here,” Siane told Harry.
“Tririsium emissions scramble the sensors,” Soren added from Harry’s right.
“Is that so?” Harry asked, as if this were news.
It wasn’t, but if it helped him stall until Jessyn and Mo got their sections of the code uploaded, he’d happily wear the dunce cap.
“You’re not a very at good prison breaks, are you?” Luddy asked.
“To be fair, it’s only my second prison break,” Harry pointed out.
“I’ve got some bad news for you,” Krieg said, pulling a pair of cuffs from her belt, and held them out to Luddy, “it’s also going to be your last."
Harry didn’t like to admit it, but it was looking as if Krieg was right about that.
But then, even as Luddy stowed Harry’s baton and reached for the cuffs, the air exploded in a storm of shrieks underscored by the battering of what sounded like a few gazillion bats flapping out of the cave.
It was enough to cause everyone to duck—even Harry flinched—and Krieg swung out with her baton.
“What in the hells is happening?” Luddy demanded as, all along the floor, lights flickered and the thrum of machinery ground to a stop.
“That,” Harry said, “would be us achieving a higher level of order.”
“Fly my pretties! Fly! Fly!” came over the speakers.
“Unbelievable,” was Siane’s observation.
Ray was no stranger to that weird telescoping of time that invariably accompanied a near-death experience.
Too well did he know the sensation of physical time stretching, so that a slicing dagger, a hail of bullets, a flying garden gnome (that one still gave him nightmares) seemed suddenly to slow and stretch, allowing him ample space to consider all the ways the action had gone wrong and, more to the point, what steps he could take to swing the battle back to his advantage.
But today, in this moment, as he observed Rikert's steady hand taking aim, he was forced to accept that, not only was the path to this second too convoluted to track, he was—and for only the second time in his life—unable to see a viable way out.
Or, to put it bluntly, things weren’t looking good for the visiting team.
Not only had there been shit-all sign of Koz's code taking effect, Ray was still kneeling (kneeling!) in front of Rikert, recovering from a sonic hangover.
He only knew his limbs were present because of the pins and needles running up and down them. In addition, given the space between himself and Rikert, Ray figured his odds were slim—like Eiolan supermodel slim—that he could reach Rikert before Rikert got off a shot that had way better odds of proving fatal.
Possibly worst of all, if Rikert put a plasma bolt in his head, the last thing in the Known Ray would see was Rikert's sneer.
Well fuck that.
If this was the end, he was not going to meet it kneeling (kneeling!) like some suplicant in a medieval fantasy.
He’d meet it halfway.
Preferably with a fist to it's smarmy-ass face.
And he was just gearing up his legs to make the final, fatal, leap, when a sudden and cacophonous shriek rang through the office speakers, accompanied a veritable thunder of flapping wings, all this followed by a cackling exhortation to “Fly, my pretties. Fly! Fly!”
The cacophany caused Rikert’s hand to jerk, sending his instinctive shot wide of Ray, who continued to push foward with his intended attack, but even as he did, a massive thudding, then a groaning, then a tearing had both men turning to the door, and then both men jumping away from the door, as it, and a good meter of wall on either side, exploding inward, giving way to a mildly hazardous spray of metal and chemical liquid debris and the forward half of a prisoner transport bus.
Lucky for Ray, both events were—shocking, yes—but also more than sufficient to distract Rikert from his intended victim, instead waving the pulser from the hissing bus to the shrieking air and back, allowing Ray just enough space to throw himself into a forward roll that ended with both feet slamming into Rikert’s chest and sending him tumbling over his desk, the pulser flying in the direction of the hissing bus.
Ray rolled up and to his feet—not steadily but, hey, up was up—before Rikert’s body thudded to the office’s carpeted floor.
Hot damn, he thought. Harry’s plan was actually working, which meant two things.
First, that Mo and Jessyn must have planted their data tabs before they’d been corralled, and second, Harry absolutely going to be impossible to live with, from here on.
A few minutes before Harry and Ray’s timely rescues, Jessyn stood stoically, listening to Mo’s continued railing against the security staffers surrounding them.
She was impressed by Mo’s ability to remain in character, even when their mission had so spectacularly failed. But for all Mo’s confidence, Jessyn’s heart thudded sickly as she watched their host close his communication with Rikert.
She had not been able to hear their conversation, or rather, nothing beyond Rikert’s initial, “I don’t have time for interruptions, Claude,” but she'd had a good view of Rikert, and his anger had been apparent, as had the weapon in his hand.
Jessyn had little doubt who was on the other end of that pulser, or what Rikert's intention was, once left to his own devices.
And she was powerless to do anything about it, unable to sense even the most blaring irritation or rampant fear.
Some, she knew, considered emotions an intangible—ephemeral wisps and spikes generated by the secretion of hormones—but to the telempaths of Rasalka, emotions were the threads of an ever-changing universe of color, texture, scent, taste, even temperature.
Every unique sensation not only told a story, they could also, as Jessyn long ago learned, could be used to deceive and, at the worst, weaponized.
But here, now, without her empathic connection, Jessyn was lost—a becalmed bark adrift on depthless ocean—unable to identify what emotions lurked beneath glasslike surface, never mind manipulating them.
So with no recourse to action, she continued to watch Claude, who paid no mind to Jessyn, but did gesture to one of gray-clad security staff.
At his signal, the woman spun on her heel and brushed past Kaara, who'd fallen back in the direction of the buffet table when Mo was apprehended.
Kaara froze, but the staffer ignored her to swing around the table, where she stopped in front of the utility panel that, had all gone as planned, Mo would have used to upload Koz’s code.
Now, while Jessyn watched, the security staffer tapped one of the glowing controls, and a half-second later, both sides of the lounge's main door swept closed, sealing the guests in the room.
“That seems—bad,” Jessyn observed.
Nor was she the only one to think so as a rush of commentary and movement from the rest of the guests indicated their own distress.
“That seems worse.” As she spoke, Mo jerked her chin to the back of the room, where Claude was disappearing through the lounge's rear door, which closed behind him.
"Much worse," Jessyn agreed. "We have to do something,” she said sofly, even as the other guests began to scramble from the seating area to demand answers.
“We are doing something,” Mo replied, offering Jessyn an absent pat on the arm.
Jessyn’s head tipped. “We are?”
"You bet," Mo murmured, "Or, more to the point, Kaara is doing something.”
"Kaara?" Jessyn echoed, wondering if she sounded as much of a dullard as she felt.
Mo's only reply was a raised brow and a wink, which, given the circumstances, Jessyn felt inappropriately optimistic.
She was about to say as much, but then she caught a flash of movement near the buffet tables. Not from the security staffer, who had taken her station at the locked-down entrance, but from Kaara who, as Jessyn watched, snapped a data tab into the utility panel's dock.
“Oh,” Jessyn said.
“Exactly.” Mo beamed.
"Hey, you—Eiolan!" the Judon barked, striding across the lounge, her mesh veil chiming as she demanded, “What are you doing?”
“What?” Kaara’s hands rose and fluttered, a study in innocent confusion. “I was merely trying to contact someone in authority—to complain about our treatment—”
"No,” the Judon said, pointing. "I saw you plant something in that dock. What was it?"
“This would be a good time for the monkeys to arrive,” Mo hissed.
"Better answer her,” one of the security staff said as Kaara shrank away from the eyes of the crowd.
"Father must not have planted his tab, yet," Jessyn whispered.
“Okay, time for plan,” Mo huffed. “Hells, I’ve lost track. Time to make some noise—”
Barely had the word left Mo’s lips when the lounge’s speakers erupted in a screeching wail unlike anything Jessyn had ever heard, followed by a flapping and a female voice commanding her pretties to fly.
“Holy shit,” Mo said.
“What’s happening now?” another guest cried out, but was soon drowned out by the recording Koz must have included as part of his code.
Distracting enough in itself, but add to that the flashing of lights, the sounding of alarms, and the suddenly opening lounge doors, and the result was chaotic indeed.
Even better, from the recording’s first exhortation to her pretties, the walls blocking Jessyn from her own talent crumbled, allowing her to once again sense the emotions swirling through the ether around her.
And not only sense…
With a quiet smile, she reached out and took Mo’s hand. “Be very, very quiet,” she murmured.
“Why, are we hunting wabbits?” Mo whispered back.
“Better,” Jessyn said with a tight smile. “We’re going to do the ghost thing.” And with that, and a sideways slip of a thought, she stepped out of the vision of every sapient in the room, taking Mo with her.
“Hey!” Mo’s nearest guard jumped half a meter before slapping his partner in the shoulder. “Where did they go?”
“The hells?” his partner said, poking at the air where the two women had been with his baton.
“Wait. Where’s the Eiolan?” the Judon shouted over the noise a moment later. “She just disappeared!”