Doubleblind (Sirantha Jax #3)

7,169
07.03.2019

Let them keep suspecting what they will about that. It’s bloody convenient.

“Are you positive this thing will work?” I ask.

There’s a certain irony as Vel answers, “No.”

Fair enough. He’s been in exile a long time, and technology may have outpaced him. Regardless, we have to try.

“Do you feel like laying odds?”

“If you would be silent for a moment, Sirantha, I might be able to finish.” That’s the closest he’s come to losing his temper in a long time.

I respond by falling quiet, as he requests. My breath seems overly loud, so I try to restrain myself. Finally, the lights on the side of the surveillance units go yellow. Excellent. We scuttle past and pause long enough for him to unlock the door. Once inside, I take stock of the security station, little bigger than a san-closet.

During the day, this is manned by a bored guard, who dozes over the displays. These cameras are tuned to a little-used tube station, but Vel can patch into other units from this location. That’s why we’re here.

He produces another small device and sets to work. Though it’s superstitious at best, I cross my fingers that he can get a jammer running. That will give us an opening for him to hack into another security terminal. Theoretically, the jammer will prevent their equipment from detecting the breach. Otherwise, they’ll dispatch a team to the site of unauthorized access before we can discover anything useful.

We shouldn’t even be here, but it’s such a welcome relief from sitting around that I can’t worry about it. Headlong action is my natural state, not prudent patience. A few seconds later, Vel nods—the device is operational.

I know my role in this mission. Stand guard and keep a good watch on the hallway. If it looks like anyone is coming in here, sound the alarm. As I understand it, he knows a secret way out of here . . . unless they’ve changed the layout of the security station since he was here, always a possibility.

While he works, I peer out the slats in the thin, strange door. It’s made of a matte substance that in some fashions resembles metal, but in other ways, not so much. After three minutes, he detaches the jammer from the terminal and pushes to his feet.

“I jacked their surveillance on Sharis’s quarters. We will examine everyone who came to see him up to twenty-four hours before he was poisoned. Let us go.”

I’m on board with that. Cautiously, we slip out into the hall, and I’m relieved to find nobody coming around the blind bend where I couldn’t see from inside the room. The late hour and this station’s remote location both contributed to our decision to stage our break-in here.

A san-bot zips down the hall toward us. The thing seems quite agitated, and it bangs into my foot repeatedly. I glance down in puzzlement, then step over it. On the way back to my quarters, tension roils inside me. I know the magnitude of what I’ve done. If they find out, the alliance is finished. Hell, maybe it is now. Maybe I’m kidding myself I can still make it happen. I won’t know for sure until Sharis wakes up—or not.

Once we arrive, Vel snaps a manual lock onto my door. We don’t want their people coming in while we look at these holo-files. Since we have a long time to cover, we’ll be watching these for a while. If someone calls while we’re occupied, they’ll doubtless put the worst possible spin on it. Another Bug will assume Vel is busy being deviant with his pet soft-skin.

“This will take a while,” the bounty hunter says as he dumps the data from his pad into a portable player, no surprise that he doesn’t want any trace of this info in their terminals. “You may as well make yourself comfortable.”

The feed flickers to life, showing a 3-D representation of the hallway outside Sharis’s flat. These are the results of public security cams at work, recording routinely those who come and go. Apparently, it functions as a wondrous preventive because nothing deters crime so much here as the fear of getting caught. Incompetence is the bogey that haunts all Bug dreams.

In theory, investigation sounds exciting. It sounds like there would be lots of sneaking around, lots of thrills and danger. Turns out, not so much. Oh, we did sneak into that remote security station, but afterward? This investigation turns into a game of “whose eyes will glaze over first?”

To keep myself attentive I make notes. By the end of the day before Sharis was poisoned, we have a list of five Bugs and one cloaked figure. They must assume that one is human because Bugs don’t wear clothing as a general rule.

Unless he’s trying to make someone think he’s human. In that case, Vel could craft himself into anyone he wanted, but his countrymen consider it debased and dishonorable, used in any fashion other than to stalk prey. Most Ithtorians wouldn’t even have the necessary skill to mold the excreted material, generally used for insulation against the cold, to look like a credible human being, let alone a specific person.

This is the last caller, someone who showed up after Mako left in the middle of the night. Since we departed from Devri’s early, I didn’t see them leave together, but Sharis and Mako have become partners since our arrival on world. The timing seems interesting.

“Can you freeze this?”

Vel does so, and we examine the small, grainy figure from all angles, but the camera is fixed. We can’t add data that isn’t present. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get a look at the face.

“How tall is he?” I ask aloud.

“It is hard to say for certain with only blank walls for comparison, but I would estimate . . . at least two meters.”

“Not me then.” I flash him a smile. “Or Doc, Rose, or Dina. What’s the short list of people who are tall enough to throw that silhouette?”

Vel considers in his measured way, so I start ticking them off, answering my own question. Though I hate to name them, I have to be comprehensive. “March. Jael. Hit. Any number of clansmen, serving aboard the ship . . . they tend to be tall. Can you pull up personnel files and run a scan based on height parameters?” When he nods, I add, “Good. Get me that list soonest. I have some people to talk to.”

It’s not impossible we could have wound up with a purist in our crew, I suppose. From what I gather, Doc put things together in a hurry, doing March a personal favor when they caught my transmission. In addition to their recent wedding, Keri and Lex are still cleaning up the mess on Lachion. It’s a wonder she let March go at all.

“Of my people, only Devri and Ehon come to mind as being tall enough,” Vel says eventually. “Unless the individual wore a prosthetic device of some kind.”

“Like heels?”

“Or headgear. We have no way to determine what is beneath that cloak based on the image here.”

I offer, “The Grand Administrator is tall.”

He shakes his head. “Not her style. She would never do such a thing herself.”

“But her lackeys might if she wants us off world bad enough.”

“Unquestionably. She might even consider it fitting punishment for Sharis, who defied her in persisting with this notion over her objections.”

Something else occurs to me. “Is there a way for you to get into their private files on the OP? We need to know which of their people are tall enough to fit this as well.”

The sheer amount of work we need to do in the next forty-eight hours boggles the mind. So many people to check out, so many leads to chase. We don’t have nearly enough manpower to handle this internally—and to make matters worse, we have to use the utmost discretion. If the Bugs find out we’re poking around when the matter is officially closed, it won’t be good.

“I can do it,” he says quietly. “But time runs against us. You do realize that, Sirantha? It will take time to run down each person and interview them. Since all we have is a suspicion—and we may be incorrect about this dark figure—please do not pin all your hopes on this.”

My weary response lays my soul bare, showing him more than I ever meant. “I don’t know what else to do.”

CHAPTER 40

I commandeer the aft lounge to do the crew interviews.

Vel spends a couple hours working on various bits of tech that mean nothing to me. It’s a good thing he’s so gifted at this, which strikes me as curious, considering he once wanted to be an artist. So I ask.

“How come you became a bounty hunter? I know you told me about meeting Trapper, but didn’t you want to paint or something once you got away?”

Vel spares me a brief glance. “I had already learned a hard lesson about that, Sirantha. It . . . hurts when I create. This is just another marketable skill.”

Interesting. It’s also a lesson in how sometimes people’s dreams shatter, but the pieces don’t come out clean. Instead, the shards linger beneath the skin, even after the wound seems to have healed. I let it go, sensing Vel doesn’t want to talk about his failed artistic aspirations. I can’t help touching the tattoo around my throat, however. In some ways, I’m like his living canvas, a memento of the life he’ll never live.

That makes me sad.

Turns out, there’s only one person we need to talk to straightaway. While Vel’s scan came up with a ton of crew members who fit the height parameters, only one of them has left the ship. Sure, someone might have compromised the logs, but they’d need both training and opportunity to erase all trace of their passage. If we get nothing from talking to this guy, then we’ll take a look at the people who would know how to do that.

I’m dressed in a severe black jacket and matching trousers, giving me the vague look of authority without affiliating me with any particular group. It feels good to change out of that stupid gold robe. I’ve taken an unreasonable loathing to that color over the last few days.

Curiously, my hair has begun to grow out even more since we arrived, now past my shoulders. I suspect there’s something to inspire growth in the air here, something that keeps the plants blooming. Human personal designers would love to know the secret of that, I’m sure. To prevent it from softening my face, I’ve slicked my hair back and bound it in a band. With Vel at my back, I imagine I look harsh and intimidating. It’s a start.

Though it’s standard security protocol, it really helps in this situation that they keep a log of everyone who boards and disembarks. I take another look at the ID that’s been bounced to my datapad. There’s not much about this crew-man here, just his blood type and next of kin. Still, we need to have words, so we send for him.

When he arrives, the clansman stands to attention, arms stiff at his sides. He’s tall, or he wouldn’t even be here, but this kid can’t be more than eighteen. What’s his story, I wonder? Couldn’t wait to get off the Lachion rock, gravity holding him back? Maybe he’s a colonist who’s always been secretly yearning for the stars.

He doesn’t make eye contact, as if it would be disrespectful. Or maybe he has something to hide. It’s also possible he finds Vel unsettling in his native form. I wish Constance were here to read the boy’s vitals. I haven’t thought to ask Vel whether his ocular cam has thermal settings, but we’ll capture a visual log at least.

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