So he actually approves of the way I’ve been handling the situation? That’s a relief. More than anything, I don’t want to mess things up, but I’m walking a tightrope that gets thinner with every step.
After sending Tarn the equivalent of “you got it, boss” via bounce, I go see how Vel is coming with the gizmo that will detect Constance’s frequency. We all agree she knows something important, or she wouldn’t be missing, so it’s become top priority to find her. He’s gifted with electronics, but he has to modify some of his existing equipment, as there isn’t a bounty-hunter outlet store anywhere on world.
From somewhere deep inside me, I can feel the grief and fear banging like a drum. I’m able to ignore it for now, keep it under wraps and pretend I’m sure everything will be fine. It will serve no purpose if I break down.
Hit stops by shortly thereafter, checking in on me. She’s been protective since I displayed such weakness. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah. We’re looking for Constance. How’s Dina holding up?”
She shrugs. “She thinks a lot of March . . . and she’s mad at you. I don’t think it’s because she really believes you’re to blame, but sometimes you just need to be angry at somebody, y’know? It can’t be March because he’s gone, being all heroic and shit. I don’t know how you put up with it. I’d rather serve my own time in the mines than have somebody do me that way. The guilt would be worse than the punishment.”
“It does get old,” I admit. “Sometimes I wish he was more . . . ordinary, but he wouldn’t be the man I love if he was.”
“The bitter with the sweet,” she agrees.
“So what do you guys do to keep from going nuts with boredom anyway?” It’s a casual question more than anything. I don’t want to talk about March anymore because that sharp, stabbing pain in my chest is back.
Hit makes a face. “We play a lot of Charm.”
“That’s right,” I murmur. “Jael mentioned he played with you the night Sharis was poisoned.”
Her whole body freezes. “He was with us for one hand, Jax. No more. So if he’s using us as an alibi—”
So we have one merc, whereabouts unaccounted for, who fits the height profile. If he did this, I’ll kill him. Rage crashes over me, and my hands curl into fists. Yeah, I know he’s had a rough life and never found a place he belongs. It’s no wonder, if this is the way he treats people who take him in.
“You want me to keep this quiet?” Hit asks.
“Please. Right now, it’s just a suspicion, nothing that will get March off the hook. For all we know, he hooked up with some Ithtorian babe.” We both shudder over that. “I need evidence, and the last thing I want is for Jael to bolt before we find it. If he did this, I’m handing him to the Bugs in chains.”
Vel glances up as I step into my bedroom, which he’s turned into an inventor’s lab. Metal bits, wires, and tiny glittering chips litter the table. The guts of some device are showing beneath the casing, but I don’t know enough about this sort of thing to judge how the project is coming.
“Nearly there.” He answers my unspoken question. “But please take a seat, Sirantha. Your presence will slow me down if you hover.”
No hovering, gotcha. Within half an hour, he closes the thing up, then programs it via remote. Lights spring up on the exterior, which is surely a good sign. As I look on, he tinkers with it further, and the color shifts to green. Vel gets out his handheld and taps away at it for a moment. If I had to speculate, I’d say he’s linking them somehow, so he can better interpret what the tiny transponder detects.
“Anything?” Though I know questions annoy him when he’s trying to work, I can’t resist.
His answer floors me. “She is nearby.”
“What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
“Because apparently, she is also here, here, here . . . and here.” Vel turns his handheld toward me so I can see the different signals.
They seem to be of varying strength. “What does that mean? Is she in pieces?”
“That is one possibility, but I have drawn no conclusions at this time.”
I stand up, relieved to have something to do. It’s also good I don’t need to wear my ornate gold robe anymore. “No point in sitting around speculating. Let’s just go check out each location.”
Vel leads the way, and we swing out of my quarters toward the first point on the map. All of them are within the government center somewhere, so this shouldn’t take too long. As we approach the first site, the signal grows stronger, flashing with great urgency. Unfortunately, it also lies behind a door marked PRIVATE: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Dammit. I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. I glance both ways and see no patrols, but that won’t be the only security. Vel is already making his own assessment, checking out what we’ll need to get inside without getting caught.
“I need you to take this over to the access panel on the far wall,” he tells me.
There’s no time to ask why, or what I’ll be doing. I’m capable of following directions blindly if I trust the person issuing the commands. “Then what?”
“Keep an eye on the camera angle. When it pans away, you will have thirty seconds to open the access panel and align this”—he holds up a small, flat silver device—“with the bottom edges of the controls. That will take care of the cameras, giving us a three-minute window to get through the door. If it takes us any longer to get out of there, they will eventually see us breaking and entering.”
He doesn’t need to tell me that’s an outcome best avoided. I don’t want us all sent to the mines. Hell, I’m trying to save March from that fate.
“Camera pans away, thirty seconds, three minutes inside. Got it. I’m ready.”
I amble down to the end of the hall and pretend to check out the rampant greenery. It seems like asking Vel the name of the plants would be carrying the pretense too far, so I simply bend to examine the waxy green foliage. The moment the camera’s off me, though, I go to work on the panel. I’m conscious of the seconds ticking away as I seek a catch that will spring the panel.
There, found it. My heart thuds in my ears as I fit the gadget into place. At first nothing happens, then it purrs to life. Since it’s thin, I’m able to close the panel on top of it, giving no sign of what we’ve done. If we have time, it would be smart to remove it, unless it dissolves on use, like the best black-market ware.
“Good job, Sirantha. Five seconds to spare.”
Time for Vel to do his part. First he attaches a code breaker to handle the lock. That’s serious contraband, available only on Gehenna. I’m a little amazed and impressed that he managed to sneak it on world with all the scans and tests they put us through before allowing us to leave the docking area. Then again, he may have returned for it. After that first time, security slacked way off, as though they didn’t consider we could simply make a second trip to the ship.
Using the tech, he pops the lock easily and we’re through. This isn’t a simple maintenance closet, which I already suspected. In the first room, the walls are plain and pale, the floors bare. I would guess they’re designed to feel institutional, although that could be me imposing human values on Ithtorian culture. We come to another door, complete with security pads. It doesn’t take Vel long to crack those either. Whatever happens in this suite, they don’t want a record of it because there are no cameras anywhere to be found.
“Interrogation chambers,” Vel explains briefly. “For criminals more dangerous than they considered us to be . . . or we would have been in here ourselves.”
From the stains on the floor, I suspect it’s used for more than just interrogation. There’s nothing in the first two rooms. We come to another door, also locked, and the signal seems to be coming from beyond it.
“How much time do we have left?”
“A minute, forty-five seconds,” he answers, going to work on the security pad.
I tick off the time as the door snaps open. To my vast disappointment, there’s only a tiny cleaning droid in there, attending to some hideous spillage on the floor. It’s some bodily fluid I don’t want to identify, the remnants of somebody being tortured.
The little machine gets very agitated when it registers our presences. It woos and hisses at us, skittering in circles. Shit. Does this thing count as a witness?
He’s thinking along the same lines. “I was so sure my calculations were specific enough to target only Constance.” He makes a sound that the chip can’t translate, but I know intuitively it’s a curse. “We will have to take it with us. We cannot chance that it is aware enough to realize we do not belong here and report our presence.”
I agree, so I snatch it up. Though it’s small and looks like a spidery crab, the thing is heavier than it looks, solid metal. Vel reaches over to power it down before it can beam any information about its circumstances. The central computer may wonder what’s happened to it, but surely units break from time to time. It won’t be flagged as urgent, I hope. Then we head for the door.
Once we’re safely outside again, thirty seconds to spare, I offer, “Maybe it will help you refine the program so you don’t pick up any more cleaning droids?”
We have five more spots to check out yet, but I don’t feel too hopeful anymore. In any case, I hope we don’t encounter anyone on the way back to my quarters. I can’t think of a single compelling reason why we’d be appropriating a cleaning droid.
Omni News Net: Profile of an Unsung Hero
TAMIKA NAVARRO, AGE 27
[Lili Lightman faces the vid wearing a serious look. The set is empty but for her and a wall of screens that offers shifting images in tribute to a courageous young woman. They start with pictures of her childhood, progress through her teen years, and end with her graduation photo, where she’s proudly clutching her credentials.]
Lili: Three days ago, Tamika Navarro died protecting the people she served.
Ms. Navarro was raised in a spacer family, and she was traveling the star lanes as soon as she was old enough to jump. She worked on freighters, saving enough money to put herself through medical school. Once she completed her training, she went to work for Phas Shipping as one of their company physicians.
Her crewmates remember her as kind and calm in a crisis. She always had a moment to help out, even if the problem wasn’t medical in nature. Her dedication often caused her to work long hours without submitting a chit for extra pay, knowing the shipping company could little afford it. Dr. Navarro might have made better credits elsewhere, but she grew to care deeply for her crew and considered herself responsible for keeping them healthy and whole.
Three days past, she faced her greatest and final challenge. When the Morgut attacked their vessel, intending to devour the crew and steal the cargo—ore out of Dobrinya mining colony—Dr. Navarro kept cool. The officers attempted to drive off the other ship, but their weapons were insufficient for the task.