So we do.
Vel and I follow the directions from the handheld. We range into a little-used part of the government center; I hope we’re not trespassing. Instead of the lush, tropical environs in the public areas, this is all bare and plain, some matte metal that could use a good cleaning. From the dirty treads on the floor, heavy equipment is often brought through this way.
We pass a few low-ranking Bugs as we go, but nobody seems overly curious. Then again, I’m not dressed as the ambassador, and I doubt they’d recognize me without the gold robe. The only common theme between my public persona and the real Jax is the green tattoo around my throat.
Still, at any moment, I expect someone to stop us and ask what the hell we’re doing. Tension settles in my shoulders. This part of the complex isn’t for public passage. What are the penalties for being here?
The device beeps faster as we get closer, distracting me. Finally, we make the last turn and wind up outside a maintenance closet. Once we step inside, it becomes clear the spot we’re trying to reach is somehow behind the wall. Vel fiddles with it, and the access panel pops open.
We both stand for a moment, cursing. Now it’s just an empty space through which maintenance droids can pass to make repairs. In other words, Jael has indeed moved the Lila unit. No wonder he wanted me to get off world as soon as possible. He must’ve known his fiction wouldn’t hold forever.
“Our next move has to be finding that damned interrogator and telling him the truth,” I say decisively.
Vel agrees, tapping his handheld for a few seconds. “He is currently at the center for jurisprudence.”
I make a face. “Where else?”
On the way, we don’t say much. Vel guides us smoothly from the tram to the lift that adjoins the building. Most complexes connect via underground, and it’s rare for Ithtorians to need to go outdoors, which is just as well, given the nuclear winter out there. There are no hitches in our mission until we hit the outer office.
A low-ranking male objects, “You may not interrupt the interrogator. If you care to make an appointment, he will see you at his earliest convenience.”
After Vel translates, I draw myself up, trying to look intimidating. “I am the ambassador from New Terra, and I have information he’ll wish to possess immediately. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when he finds out you delayed me.”
Fear of his boss’s wrath seems effective. The Bug leaps to his feet and retreats into the inner office, presumably to relay the information. A few minutes later, Ehon himself comes out.
“I trust this is important, ambassador?” The interrogator waves us back to his sanctum sanctorum.
“You have the wrong man in custody. March only confessed because the poison was found in my quarters. He was trying to shield me. Through a private internal investigation, we’ve discovered the real culprit.”
I quickly outline the circumstances . . . and how he tried to do away with one of my staff members. I don’t dare tell the whole story because they don’t know Constance is a droid. I’m not sure how they’ll take that revelation. We don’t dare do anything that will screw things up now that the alliance has passed. Vel confirms my caution with a slight inclination of his head.
By the time Vel has rephrased what I said into the best possible form, Ehon has started tapping his claws against the chitin of his chest. That’s not a good sign. “But this person somehow survived the attack and being held for days against her will?”
After Vel relays the question, I nod.
“Will this person testify in front of the tribunal that she saw this mercenary hide the vial in your quarters?”
Ouch. Therein lies the rub.
“She . . . can’t.”
Ehon is out of patience with me. “So you bring me this story with no physical evidence and no witness? Just what do you expect me to do with this information?” He sits forward, glittering gaze fixed on me. “I will tell you what I think, ambassador. Now that the alliance has passed, you are trying to save your lover without regard for our justice system or the truth.”
Pretending I don’t understand keeps me from doing something stupid. I wait for Vel to speak before I protest, “That’s not true. I just want the real guilty party to pay.”
The interrogator checks something on his terminal. “He is. This is a moot point, ambassador. Even if you had evidence, the offender was sentenced this morning, and we do not try the same crime twice. The prison convoy left for the mines two hours ago.”
Oh, Mary, no. Anguish crashes through me, smashing barriers I’ve put in place. I’m drowning in it. March thinks I didn’t even care enough to come see him, not once, not even to say good-bye. He probably thinks I’ve written him off. That’s what the world would expect of the old Jax.
Easy come, easy go.
I can’t imagine how alone he must feel right now.
From somewhere far away, Vel and Ehon seem to be talking, but I can’t hear them through the roaring in my head. Too little, too late. Through the sheen of tears, I offer a clumsy wa in parting as Vel drags me out of the interrogator’s office. He keeps me upright, but I can’t seem to make my legs cooperate.
Vel gives me a little shake. “Sirantha, pull yourself together. It is beneath you to stand and weep like a woman. You can do better than this.”
Well, I am a woman. But his brusque treatment helps more than a soothing pat. With great effort, I battle it back and try to think. “Where are the mines from here?”
He regards me for a moment, incredulous. “You cannot be thinking of a rescue?”
“You bet your ass I am.”
“They are eight hours by underground,” Vel replies. “And I do not know of any way to get inside from the surface.”
“So we might need to stow away.” I make a mental note. “Well, we’re going to get in there somehow, leave Jael in March’s cell, and get the hell off world.”
I know my orders are to wait for the summit to be decided and transport the Ithtorian representative, whoever that turns out to be, but Tarn can send another ship. My presence here isn’t vital. The delegate will still arrive on time for the peace conference—such things take time to arrange. If we play this well, they’ll never know they have the wrong human. I suspect we all look alike to them anyway.
If things go badly, it will destroy the alliance and any hope for Ithtorian assistance in the coming war. I know that. For March, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Despite his obvious misgivings, Vel tells me, “I am with you until the end.”
That declaration makes my heart twist inside my chest. I don’t deserve that kind of loyalty from anyone, let alone someone like Vel. You could search the galaxy thrice over and not find his equal.
Having a plan helps, however impossible. I head for the underground, already planning our next move. “We need to get Doc, Dina, and Hit together quietly. We can’t let Jael know what we’re planning, or he’ll bail. I wouldn’t put it past him to steal our ship and leave us stranded here.”
“We should stay off comm channels,” Vel says. “I do not know what he can do, but it is best to assume he has the ability to listen in.”
“You don’t think he has some kind of tap on my terminal, do you? Would he know that Constance has taken up residence there?”
We take the lift down to the station while he thinks about that.
“I do not know,” he says eventually. “Before yesterday, I would have said it was impossible for a PA to split into segments and hide within the processors of six separate cleaning droids. I no longer feel able to predict what might happen next.”
“You and me both,” I mutter.
When we reach the ship, we find Dina and Hit together, no surprise there.
“Emergency meeting in my quarters,” I say, ignoring Dina’s fierce scowl.
I don’t have time to fight with her if we’re going to make this happen.
Next we go looking for Doc. He’s working on something in his lab. When I step closer, I realize he’s tinkering with samples of my DNA and that of Baby-Z. Remembering the little lost one gives me a pang. I guess he’s back to his original assignment, which was to try to come up with a species that could jump without the aggravated risk of burnout.
“What do you need, Jax?” he asks.
“Your help. Come to my quarters as soon as you wrap up here.”
Once everyone is assembled, the door is secured, and Vel has set up his signal jammer to make sure we’re not being bugged, I fill them in. It doesn’t take long to explain what happened to Constance and Jael’s role in it. By the time I’m done, they look livid—with the exception of Doc. He just seems puzzled.
“That son of a bitch,” Dina growls. “I’m going to pull out his spleen and make him eat it.”
“Do we know why he did this?” Doc asks.
I shrug. “With all due respect . . . I don’t give a rat’s ass. It’s what, not why. Here’s what I need from you, Saul—a sedative powerful enough to make a Rodeisian sleep for a week.” Jael has lost my loyalty, so I don’t hesitate to explain. “See, he’s Bred, and he heals crazy fast. Pain doesn’t faze him either. It’s unlikely we could take him in a fight.”
“I could,” Vel says quietly. “But it would be messy, and I would sustain grievous physical damage in the process.”
“That’s best avoided,” Hit says. “And it would slow us down. As I understand it, time is critical.”
My thoughts exactly.
I go on, “So here’s my idea. At this point, he’s afraid we’re going to find out what he did, but he doesn’t realize we already have. He did something with the Lila unit when he found Vel was building something to try and track Constance. To his mind, he’s covered his tracks completely, and he won’t be expecting us to make a move on him. It’s imperative we all pretend nothing’s changed if we run across him.” I glance at Dina. “Can you do that?”
For a moment she struggles with the idea of not moving on the man she wants to kill, then she says, “Yeah. I can. I will. Don’t worry, Jax. I’ll hold up my end.”
“Great. Then this is what I need from you and Hit . . . he’s been hanging out with you guys, right? So invite him to your room tonight to play Charm. Don’t insist. Just mention casually that you’ll be playing, and he’s welcome to stop by.”
Hit murmurs, “I can do that.”
I glance at Doc. “Can you use the med data you took when you worked on the wound in his side? To make the sedative.”
He nods. “I can . . . but I don’t like it, Jax. Are you sure he did this? Have you talked to him? He took a knife in the gut for you. It makes no sense that he’d save your life but poison Councilor Sharis for no apparent reason.”
“Doc,” I say dangerously, “don’t even think about talking to him about this. If he’s alerted, then our whole plan goes to hell. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. I know what Constance said.”