If I didn’t need Vel to make this work, he wouldn’t be here. I wish I could do this on my own, but I can’t. The chip only lets me understand Ithtorian; I don’t have a vocalizer to simulate language. I can’t cut through systems like he does either, so he’s critical to our success.
The underground has no windows, and the interior lights flicker from time to time. Like the other guards, we stand motionless. The rest of them don’t have any prisoners they’re transporting. I can only assume they’re reporting for an extended shift at the mines. Wonder who they pissed off to get this assignment.
It seems like an eternity before we arrive, but the tram eventually slows. A red symbol lights up, and I know even before Vel cues me that this is our stop. Vel tosses Jael over his shoulder with casual strength. No doubt the merc would struggle, but the manacles he’s wearing subject him to subtle electric shocks that, instead of hurting him, turn his muscles to pudding. I just love Vel’s bounty-hunter pack. As Hit predicted, Jael shrugged off the poison in record time, but it was long enough for our purposes.
Vel waits for the other guards, learning from their example, and I stand quiet, doing the same. When they disembark, they head for a tall, solid metal door at the top of a sloping ramp. There’s a reader everyone is supposed to use, but once the first guy does it, the rest of them just catch the door and pass through. That’s a break for us since we don’t have credentials, and I suspect they wouldn’t be easy to forge on the fly.
We fall in at the end of the line, following the other guards up a spiral walkway that leads to a platform. From there, they all go their separate ways, and I can see we’ve reached the staging area for the mine complex. Before we left, Vel did all the research he could on this place, based on limited available information, but he couldn’t hack their system from outside.
I follow him down a corridor where the flooring is made of some dark, dull metal. The rough obsidian walls glitter with starry luster, probably whatever they mine here. Vel doesn’t appear to be paying any attention to our surroundings, but I’m positive he knows where we’re going.
The mining area is vast and sprawling, but the security is less on this side. Going the opposite way on the platform would take us into the prison complex, where they break the prisoners until they’re docile enough to work in the mines. At that time, they’re also fit with an ankle bracelet that detonates if they roam outside their assigned area.
I know why we’re going this way first, but it doesn’t stop my heart from pounding like a class P drum. Any minute I expect someone to stop us, but guards are few and far between on this side. The miners we pass don’t even stop their work as we go by. Most of them look thin, weary, and utterly beyond hope. I’ve never seen such dull eyes in a Bug; it’s like they don’t even see us anymore.
Vel makes a swift right turn, carrying Jael over one shoulder as if he could bear his weight forever. Thankfully, the plans he found for this site are relatively up-to-date. We stand outside an abandoned guard outpost. At one time, this site was manned and used to keep tabs on the prisoners close-up. They’ve since found better ways to break the prisoners and make them docile, so they don’t need the same number of guards. Given the trouble, they haven’t removed the equipment, which is downright antiquated.
Let’s hope it’s still functional.
Vel crosses behind the work area, dumping Jael none too gently on the ground. Once more, my job is to look out for anybody who might question what we’re doing. So far, it’s just miners as far as the eye can see, mechanically operating the machinery. In fact, the constant roar of equipment makes it hard to hear myself think.
“It is functional,” Vel says, as if he heard my unspoken worry.
Though I don’t stop my paranoid sweep of the corridor to either side of us, I know what he’s doing. First he’ll use his jammer so they can’t pinpoint the site of unauthorized access, if they even notice it. Then he’ll find out where March is being kept.
I just hope they haven’t hurt him too much. After all he’s been through, it’ll take more than a day to break him. He won’t be docile enough to work yet, not by a long shot. At least, we’re counting on that.
If he’s accepted his fate, and they’ve put him to work out in the mines, we won’t be able to find him until after his shift is over . . . and here, they work twenty-four hours. But maybe Vel could find out what hours March works on his system profile. I don’t know how much information the Bugs keep in a central location.
That will complicate matters considerably. Our plan counts on mobility and speed. If we have to hang around down here for an extended period of time, it increases our risk of being discovered—and having our ride take off without us. There’s no point in borrowing trouble, however.
Once he’s found March’s cell location, he’ll look for the codes they use to assign prisoners to that area. And then we’ll head that way with Jael. In theory, it all sounds pretty simple. In practice, I’m so scared I could die.
Thank Mary, Vel is always so cool and calm. I don’t think I could’ve done this with anyone else. This is probably the stupidest and most dangerous thing I’ve ever done . . . in a long history of same.
March is worth it.
“Found him,” Vel says at length.
Not fast enough. There are a couple of guards on the way. Only one positive, they haven’t seen me yet.
“We’ve got company,” I whisper, darting around behind the workstation.
It’s not a big area, but if we crouch, we might be able to hide. Of course, there will be no explaining that away. I glance at Vel, hoping he’ll know what to do. If we clock these two guards, we risk them waking up before we’re ready and sounding the alarm. I don’t feel good about killing two Bugs if we don’t absolutely have to. Maybe we should try talking to them.
He answers by hunkering down, making himself as small as possible. I take his example and hope for the best.
They pass by without even looking in our direction, though not because of Jael’s cooperation. The bastard thrashes—or tries to—in hopes of attracting their attention, but he only succeeds in relaxing his muscles to the point that he can scarcely move. I love that he can be immobilized with the equivalent of deep-tissue massage. He can’t even claim we’re hurting him.
When I’m sure the guards have had time to get out of sight, I return to my post. Vel gets back to work as if nothing has happened. He still has more data to locate.
“Transfer codes,” he says with satisfaction.
Only then do I realize he’s been speaking Ithtorian the whole time. That surprises me. I’ve gotten so used to the sound of the language that it doesn’t even register anymore, as long as I understand his meaning.
“Ready to move?”
In answer, he shoulders an increasingly limp Jael, and we retrace our steps back to the platform. It’s deserted now as we’re slightly off shift. I hope that doesn’t cause trouble, but we couldn’t have gone straight into the prison area.
Our first test comes when we reach the initial checkpoint. There’s a bored and slightly bloated Bug sitting at a terminal. I can’t see its sex organs, but I assume it’s male. Females rarely get sent to work here.
“State your business,” the guard demands.
Vel bluffs. “We have a prisoner for placement in sector 1167-A.”
“Why is he unconscious?” That sounds like a careless question.
“He resisted at his sentencing.”
The guard clicks his claws in disgust. “So many of them do, as if it changes anything. Crazy savages. Codes?”
As Vel supplies them, I hold my breath. The guard inputs them and a light comes on. What does that mean? I feel myself start to tremble, fear sweat slipping down my spine. My idea of hell would be eternity down here.
Already the walls feel like they’re closing in on me. I can do this if it means saving March. I push the terror into a hard little knot and swallow it.
After what seems like forever, the guard says, “Clear,” and buzzes us through. The security door just past him clicks open.
Vel leads the way since he’s memorized the layout of the place. We repeat that process at two more checkpoints, but the codes are good and current, so nobody questions us. They’ve never had any trouble out here, so they’re not expecting any. That works in our favor. Besides, who the hell, besides us, would try to sneak a prisoner into the mines?
I concentrate on keeping my movements Bug-like. I don’t want to attract untoward attention. Down here, though, nobody looks too hard at anyone else. Even the guards have a hopeless air. I guess they know there’s no recovering from whatever disgrace landed them here in the first place. The only thing worse? Being confined here instead of assigned here.
We travel for a good long while. Apparently March has been put in a remote area. The last checkpoint lets us into the prison proper. This area has been carved from solid rock, and the cells are primarily caves fitted with metal grates. I’ve never seen anything like it. These prisoners are devoid of the most basic necessities. They’re forced to sleep in their own filth, no bath or toilet facilities. It’s beyond horrifying.
The prisoners don’t call out as we pass. Most of them simply lie curled on their sides, waiting for the next cruelty. No wonder they’re so docile once they move to a better area. They’d probably do anything to avoid being returned to this place.
And I let them send March here. I let this happen. My heart breaks.
Vel says then, “Unless they have moved him and not recorded the switch, March is just up ahead, Sirantha. Do you want a moment with him before I bring Jael in?”
I almost forget and answer in universal. Just in time, I simply incline my head.
“Then you will need this. Simply press it up against the lock and wait.”
He’s pressed a code breaker into my hand. Though I’ve never used one, I’ve seen March and Vel do it. It requires no special skill, just this piece of hardware. I nod my thanks, and Vel pulls back into a niche in the rock wall. I shouldn’t linger long before we move, but I appreciate him giving me this time.
March’s cell is no different than anyone else’s, just a dark hole in the rock. Since he hasn’t been here long, it doesn’t stink like some. In this uncertain half-light, I can’t even make out if he’s in there, but it doesn’t stop me from putting the code breaker to work. Slender filaments snake out into the lock.
A moment later, the door swings open, and the item trickles away into chemical dust. That must have been the last charge. Trembling all over, I step into the cell. As my eyes adjust, I see March slumped against the far wall.
“I didn’t think I was due for another beating for hours yet.” But his voice sounds tired, not defiant.
Shit. He thinks I’m a Bug.
My hands are shaking so bad, I can hardly get the headpiece off. Finally, I manage, and he leans forward to get a better look at me, as if he thinks his sight might be playing tricks. He comes up on his knees, knuckling his eyes for good measure.