“Somebody could have reprogrammed her,” Saul points out.
Vel shakes his head. “A PA of her caliber has protocols in place that will initiate a self-destruct if unauthorized personnel attempt such a maneuver.”
I try to keep my cool when I have about a thousand conflicting impulses roiling in my head. Screaming sounds good. So does punching something. Beneath it all, the need to jump ravages my nervous system. I can feel myself starting to unravel, so I direct my attention elsewhere while Doc thinks.
“That reminds me,” I say. “Dina, I need you to head for my quarters with a memory spike big enough to hold an entire PA, including all programming and files.”
“Mother Mary,” she mutters. “You don’t ask much, do you?”
“Can you do it?”
After a little bitching, she admits, “Yeah, I can. I’ll take care of it as soon as we’re done here. Where is she?”
“In the terminal in my quarters. I’ll signal her that you’ve been cleared. I told her not to show herself to anyone.”
Hit nods. “Smart. We might’ve lost her if she hadn’t been so damn resourceful.”
Yeah, that surprises me a little, to be honest. She’s definitely gone beyond the parameters of her helpful administrator chip. Dina or Vel might want to compare notes later on and see what makes Constance tick.
I glance at Doc, figuring he’s had long enough to weigh all the angles. “Look, I know you don’t like passing judgment, but Jael’s guilty, and I want March back. Are you in or out?” He hesitates, and I add, “If you say out, I’m confining you to the lab with no comm until we’re done. Nothing personal.”
“I’m in,” he says heavily. “I can’t leave March to rot in an Ithtorian prison. I’ll get started on the drug dosage right away.”
“Excellent. I’m afraid I need to ask one more thing of you, Doc.”
He looks apprehensive, rubbing thumb and forefinger over his gray goatee. “What is it?”
“Vel and I will join the game at Dina’s place. Jael will think that with everyone where he can see them, he has nothing to worry about. You’ll catch him off guard.”
Saul’s expression shifts to abject horror. “I won’t hurt anyone, Jax. I don’t cause harm.” His face goes grim. “There are enough people who do so gleefully without my adding to it.”
“That’s why you’re perfect for this job. You come up behind him and fill him full of sedative. It won’t technically hurt him.”
“A semantic difference,” he tells me coldly.
I hate to play this card, but I’ll do anything, say anything, to see March safe. “So you’re ready to risk letting Jael get away then? He’s smart, or we’d have been onto him long before now. If anything goes wrong tonight at Dina’s place one of us could be seriously hurt, maybe even killed. Then who’s going to rescue March?”
I stretch my legs out, leveling on Doc—one person who’s been unfailingly kind to me—my coldest look. “But I guess you’ll be fine with that because you’ll have your principles intact. I hope they’re enough to sustain you when you have to tell Keri what happened to March.”
Dina’s swift intake of breath tells she can’t believe I said that. For a long moment, nobody speaks in this frozen tableau. I can hear Hit breathing next to me.
Then Doc says softly, as if his heart is breaking, “What time?”
“Yeah,” Jael echoes. “What time?”
Ah, shit. I turn slowly to find him standing in the doorway. He cracked Vel’s security and slid in without anyone noticing. That speaks volumes for his skill level. I wish that didn’t also mean we’re royally fragged.
The merc saunters in wearing a cocky smile. “Seems strange that you’d be having a private party, and I’m not invited, y’know?” He nudges me with his foot. “What’s up with that, Jax? I did save your life. What happened? Am I not your best mate anymore?”
“That depends,” I say slowly.
“On what, darling?” He stands between me and the door.
I don’t have a weapon to hand, and he does. Jael spins it elegantly in the palm of his hand, but his reflexes are lightning fast. I don’t know how much he heard, so it might be worth our time to bluff. No, forget that. Now I’ll take Doc’s advice since my plan has gone to hell.
“On whether you tried to kill Sharis and destroy everything I’ve been working toward. Saving my life just isn’t that major in comparison. I’m not that important.”
“Your man seems to think so,” Jael says, still smiling. “I heard he’s already on his way to suffer for you. Touching, that, if a little foolish for my tastes.”
“Answer the question,” Dina demands.
Jael shakes his head. “You seem to have all the answers. What could I add?”
“The truth,” Saul says. “You could tell us why. Help us understand you.”
“Oh, I’m dead simple, Doc. I like credits, lots of them. Your mother pays very well, by the way, Jax, a grand way to make a little extra on the side. Tarn hasn’t been shelling out as fast as I like, and let’s face it . . . I’m made for more interesting jobs.” I wonder if anyone else notices the faint, bitter stress on the word “made.”
He thinks of himself as something less than human, though he’s technically more. Mary curse it, I don’t want to pity him when I loathe him so much, but I know what it’s like to be despised and hunted. I’ve never been more miserable than when everyone thought I was responsible for the crash of the Sargasso. So maybe I understand the reason he’s like this, but it doesn’t change anything.
At least I understand his abortive apology on the skiff now.
“So it was just another job to you.” I’d thought I was over the sting, but hurt bubbles up anew. “I cared about you, you know. I thought we were friends.”
His cocky smile flickers. “Men like me don’t have friends, love.” Some of his flippancy fades, as he regards me. “But I never meant anything to happen to you. I don’t have anything against you, quite the contrary. You’ve been good to me. I thought they’d never search your quarters. I figured you’d have immunity by virtue of your post.”
“Forgive me if I don’t swoon over your good intentions.” My tone could cut glass. “What the hell do you want from us?”
“Right now? Passage. We’ve stayed long enough. Wouldn’t want to wear out our welcome.” He gestures with his weapon. “I’ll send you and Hit to do your thing in the cockpit. I’ll be keeping Dina, Doc, and the Bug to ensure your good behavior. If we don’t wind up on Gehenna within twenty-four hours, I’ll start killing them one by one.”
“Okay,” I say, placating him. “You’re in charge. We won’t do anything dumb.”
I glance at Hit, who gives me an infinitesimal nod. Trusting that she has a plan, I suck in a fortifying breath and climb slowly to my feet. Jael tracks my progress with his gun, and I’m careful not to make any sudden moves.
Hit does that for me. Almost before I can track the movement, she dives across the room and stabs him with the hypo from her pinky nail. His weapon discharges as he goes down, but luckily, it hits the furniture. One of the chairs now sports a smart smoldering spot.
“You may be Bred,” she bites out, lips pulled back from her lips in a feral snarl, “but you don’t threaten the woman I love and get away with it.” She gives his inert body a kick for emphasis. “It’s a lethal poison for anyone else, but I think he should survive it.”
I take cover. Jael thrashes for a while, but as his nervous system shorts out, his convulsions slow so that the weapon tumbles from his hand. Dina steps out from behind her chair and falls into Hit’s arms. They kiss with a tenderness I’ve seldom seen between two people. I make myself look away, not knowing if I’ll ever see March again.
That hinges on Jael.
So let’s hope his metabolism won’t permit him to die from this either. Otherwise, it puts a serious crimp in my plan. We need to leave a living human in the cell to work in the mines. That’s the only way this goes undiscovered. The Bugs will forgive us for scarpering off; I’ll ask Sharis to tell everyone I heeded his warning about the danger.
“Well,” I say, “that didn’t go as planned, but in some ways, it’s better and more efficient. Dina’s off to fetch Constance, and we need to steal a tram. Shall we talk about phase two?”
The plan has so many prongs that I have trouble keeping track of them. Right now, if all has gone well, the ship is telling the docking authority that they have orders to quit the planet immediately, based on the threat to the ambassador, and that another ship will arrive to take the representative to the Summit, once a location has been agreed upon. They will then pause just outside sensor range, so Dina and Hit can sneak back into the atmosphere and land a shuttle near the mines to wait for us. We’re going on the assumption we’ll be able to find an exit once we’re inside.
As for Vel and me, well, we didn’t need to steal a train. Instead, we’re traveling openly on one. This has to be the first time that humans have ever passed for Bugs, and this getup is hot, heavy, and restrictive. It took Vel hours of shaping the material to make it look convincing. Good thing he has an artistic background and practice making himself look like someone else. I suspect he’s never reverse engineered the process in this way before. To make matters worse, I can barely see out of the side-set eyes, and I can’t make a sound before we reach the mines.
Jael lies at our feet in unbreakable restraints, muzzled like an animal. He regained consciousness about an hour ago and has been glaring at us with implacable hatred ever since. I feel the weight even if I can’t see his eyes. That’s too bad. He’s going to pay for what he’s done, even if I can’t interest the Ithtorians in carrying out the sentence. I don’t imagine he’s any happier in his disguise than I am, but I don’t care about that either.
The underground seems to cover the entire surface of the planet, zooming through darkness as if the world is honeycombed with such passages. Our ride is so swift and smooth that we cannot be touching the ground. For a moment, I marvel at that and speculate about the nature of the magnetic field that powers the technology.
Once we’re inside, Vel will need to hack their system quickly and find out where they’re keeping March. Pretty much everything hinges on that. Then he’ll need to snag the codes that authorize us to place a prisoner in his area. But I don’t have doubts. I can’t afford to entertain them.
Still, Dina and Hit have orders to wait for us no more than twenty-four hours. If we don’t turn up by this time tomorrow, they know they’re supposed to rendezvous with the big ship and get the hell out of here, and they’d better follow orders. I don’t want anybody else getting caught in the cross fire.