“It’s here,” Ben said. “Wait and let me check there’s no one in there.”
“Hurry,” Val told him.
He was nervous again, breathing as shallowly as he had when taking her to Station 4. Something about his behavior was wrong, she realized, but she didn’t have time to analyze it. She had to watch him punch in the codes so she could use them herself if she needed to.
“Nobody,” he said. “Morine was here an hour ago but she left. It’s safe.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“Ben—” She bit her lip. “It’ll be all right. Just let me take a look at it. You won’t get in any trouble. I promise.”
“Okay.” He entered the unlock code and the door slid open.
Creches filled the room—ten of them, translucent boxes on gray pedestals, monitors blinking at the foot of each one, cables and tubes snaking in and out, medical instruments set into cradles around the sides. Harsh white lighttubes in the ceiling emphasized the sterility of the chamber. The air tasted crisp and clean, but that just made the atmosphere feel that much more monstrous.
Inside the nearest crèche she saw a humanoid floating within a cloud of hazy pink gas, as still as a corpse, probes and needles sticking its body at a dozen points. The number 387 glowed in the monitor.
Who were you? Val wondered. How long have you been here? If I took you of the tank, how long would you survive? For a moment she toyed with the impulse to start opening the crèches and free all of them, or at least as many as she could fit in her yacht. No one deserved this half-life, not even the beings who were doing this to them. Even if they died within minutes, a clean death would be better for all of them.
But she had a job to concentrate on. Maybe when she was finished she could transmit the location to AW and let them come in and take the station. Yeah, that’ll happen soon. She had to get Rumav out of here. The others were—not her problem.
“This is Materials Management Three,” Ben said. “It should be right over here.” He put a hand on her elbow—the first time he’d touched her. His grip was firmer than she expected, but she let him lead her across the room to a crèche in the corner.
“This one’s empty,” she said. The monitor was dark, the tank clear.
“No, I mean—this one.” He pulled her around.
The monitor read 1682. Wrong number. She felt his hand running up her arm and in a flash realized that she’d made a mistake. Ben’s nerves weren’t fear, but excitement.
She twisted her arm, yanking it free of Ben’s fingers. He lunged forward faster than she expected, as if it were part of his plan, and wrapped his arms around her waist. They tumbled to the deck. She felt his breath against her chest as they hit the hard surface.
Ben was on top. Fortunately he wasn’t very heavy, and with a grunt she was able to push him off her body. She chopped her hand across his neck. He yelped, but instead of crawling away he pushed himself forward and rammed his head into her stomach. Hard.
Spawn of a— Val couldn’t breathe. For a moment she struggled for air, gasping helplessly, and then Ben reared up and slapped her face. Bright lights flooded her eyes, and her face stung as if burned by a plasma flare.
She kicked, her knee slamming into his hip with bone-shattering force. Ben scampered away, stumbling on his feet. Val launched herself at him, intent on taking him out as quickly as possible. No time for games. But he ducked down as she flew forward and caught her ankle in his hands and yanked. Her shoulder rammed into the deck, and Ben jumped on her again with a frustrated grunt. Val felt a hand on her neck and another one ripping at her shirt, his fingers grasping at her chest. “Don’t . . . don’t . . .,” he whispered, and she felt his breath on her cheek, hot and stinking.
She butted her head up into his face. She felt his nose crumple and heard another yelp, softer and angrier than before. But he stayed on top of her, his hand tightening around her neck, sending shocks of pain shooting down her spine.
“I’m—sorry,” he hissed. “You just—can’t—know what—”
Anger flooded her body, and Val shoved an elbow into Ben’s side. A rib cracked. His grip on her neck loosened. “No!” he shouted. Val rolled off her shoulder and scissored her legs around his hips, flipping him onto his back. She sprang to her feet and aimed at kick at his face.
Ben curled up into a ball, blood dripping from his nose, weeping with a pleading wail in his voice. “No, no, please . . .”
She changed her mind and drove the side of her foot into his shoulder. He shuddered, clutching his nose, and lay still. Crying.
Val caught her breath and straightened her blouse, staring down at him. Pathetic, she thought. Piece of horny trash. I could rip off his—
But she stopped and took a deep breath. “Ben? Ben!”
“Wh-what?” He pressed his face against the deck, trembling all over.
“I’m . . . sorry . . ..”
“Ben! Look at me.”
He blinked tears from his three eyes and peered up, his mouth hanging open, as if ready to scream for mercy.
Worthless scumspore. “If you touch me again I’ll kill you. You know that, right?”
He nodded, sniffling.
“Okay. Where is 9749?”
“M-Management Two. Across the hall. I swear!”
You will swear if you’re lying again. She leaned down, caught his shoulders, and pulled Ben to his feet. She put a hand around his throat, pressing her thumb down just enough to make breathing a real worry. “Get me in.”
“All—” He croaked, unable to speak, and then just nodded. Val spun him around and clamped a hand down on his shoulder, digging her fingers into his skin. Then she walked him across the room.
“No tricks,” she whispered.
“No—no. I’m sorry—”
“Shut up.” She waited for him to open the door.
He lurched across the hall, his legs shaking, to a door marked with the numeral 2. Checked the entry log, then tapped in the access code. The door slid open.
Her shoulder still throbbed, and she had to focus on slow, even breathing to keep the pain and anger under control. She’d underestimated Ben, assumed he was harmless. But no one was harmless, and the list of people she trusted completely was filled mostly with the names of dead people. Foxe wasn’t on that list yet, and she doubted he’d ever make it in this lifetime. Ben was off it permanently.
“Over here.” Ben tried to pull his shoulder free but Val kept a clawlike grip. He led her to a tank labeled, yes, 9749.
“On the floor,” she ordered. “Face down. One twitch and I’ll kill you.”
He dropped to the deck, flat. “Hands behind your back,” she ordered. He clutched his hands together, whimpering.
Val stepped to the monitor. The being was in level-2 suspension; vital signs were healthy. The readout provided some basic information that told her she was looking at Rumav. He’s right here. But how— “Ben, how do I get him out of here?”
“Ben!” She swung over and stomped her heel down on his foot. He squealed. “How I do open this up?”
“My access code—77 Alpha Epsilon 4315.” He moaned. “There’s a menu. Second from the bottom.”
A panel sprang up on the screen. “Got it.” Resuscitate Full. “Just press?”
Authorization clearance required. “It’s asking for authorization.”
“Uhh . . .”
“What do I use?” she demanded.
“I don’t have one. You need specific codes every time—”
She hit Cancel on the menu. Now what? “Can I wake him up manually?”
“It’s dangerous! You can’t do it—”
“You’re the one in danger, Ben! What do I do?” How much time did she have? She tapped her comm bracelet to get Foxe, but Ben lifted his head, a desperate look in his eyes.
“Shut down the primary system,” he told her. “Then disable the AG field, and then you can open the tank and detach everything.”
“Is this going to trigger any alarms?”
He closed his eyes and gave a nod of despair. “They’re probably already on their way.”
“Kitt.” She resisted the urge to kick Ben across the face. At least he’d warned her. “Up. Now.”
She hauled him off the deck and dragged him toward the door. “Open it!”
The passageway was still empty. How long? Seconds, maybe. And now she realized that it ended in a bulkhead twenty meters away. Only one way in or out. Good planning.
She shoved him back toward the door to room Three. “Inside.”
She hit him across the face. He screamed, then collapsed to the deck like a leaf. Val stepped over his body and began entering his access code. She could get inside, hide, warn Foxe—
An android’s voice, cold and commanding. Val froze.
The andy held an arm outstretched toward her. She knew it had a pulser mounted inside its arm, ready to burn through the synthetic skin on his palm. It had golden eyes and a body like a big Harlikkan death-wrestler. A humanoid male stood behind it, glaring at her.
“He tried to rape me!” Val shrieked. “He tried to stuff me in one of those tanks and—and . . .”
“Ben.” The man stepped around the andy, shaking his head. “Idiot.”
“Controls were activated on 9749,” the andy said. “That behavior does not match her statement.”
“I got away!” Val triggered tears from her eyes and let her shoulders shake. “Then he opened that door and I fell against a machine—”
“You’d better come,” the man said. “Right now.”
“You will both accompany us,” the andy said. “Any attempt to resist or escape will result in countermeasures that may lead to injury or death.”
“You can’t—can I call my husband?’ She reached for her comm bracelet.
“No communication,” the andy said. “Place your grasping appendages above the highest point of your body. Co-operate when the guard places appropriate restraints on you.”
“This is— ” She stopped as the human moved toward her, keeping clear of the andy’s aim. With a sigh she lifted her hands.
Gotten out of worse hellholes, she thought as the guard pulled a roll of restraint tape from his belt. Lots worse. “All right. But there’s going to be trouble.”
“Who knows about these passageways?” Foxe asked.
“Everyone,” Frique said.
Foxe was hunched over, the ceiling rubbing the top of his head. Glowspheres every ten meters cast dim light, and his feet kept kicking empty bottles and the occasional mutant rat. “So how safe are we in here?”
“You can only reach about half the station here.” Frique’s whisper echoed like the call of a distant bird. “None of the secure areas. They just haven’t bothered installing surveillance yet. Or they don’t want to take it away from us.”
“How’d you end up here?” He still didn’t trust the tech.
He sighed. “My ship was making a delivery, and the boss was bored with me. Traded me for some slimehog with a bigger rod. First couple of months I didn’t mind. It was different, and I didn’t have to forn anyone I didn’t want to. But you ever spent four years inside a cube? Out in the void?”
Foxe had endured a prison camp for six months of freezing air, raw mutant-meat, and daily beatings. This place didn’t seem so bad. But his universe had been limited to a dark blockhouse and thirty other dirty prisoners with nothing to live for. Maybe not so different. “I can see your point.”
“I’ve got to get out of here. Ay, I’m on the red list right now, one more mistake and—okay, here.”
He stopped, pressed his ear to a seam in the gray wall. “Empty. I think.”
“What’s out there?”
“Food storage. Automated. Shouldn’t be anyone in there right now.” He checked his wrist. “Not for another hour.”
“The Management compartments are just down the hall.”
“But I bet they’re monitored.”
“Yeah, but I go in all the time. Unless we do something stupid—”
“How far to the tether ports? That’s where my ship is.”
He frowned. “Tethers are on the other side of the station. This is closer to the main docking ports. They want material tanked as fast as possible once it’s delivered.”
“Wait.” Foxe lifted a hand, thinking as fast as he could. Getting past the security station with Rumav—and Frique, if he actually brought the tech along with him—would be the toughest part. “Any way to disable that andy at docking?”
Frique took a deep breath. “No,” he admitted.
The honesty actually relieved Foxe. If Frique had promised he could get through the security station without a problem, the odds were he was either stupid or lying. Foxe knew some tricks for dealing with security androids. If they got that far, Frique wouldn’t have time for a change of mind.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Frique popped the panel out, and Foxe slid through into a long narrow room lined with storage freezers. He smelled stale protein and hot spices, but he saw only the flickering light of the storage locker monitors.
Frique dropped next to him with a soft grunt and replaced the panel. Foxe tied the length of cable he’d torn from the handcomp around his arm and stepped to the door.
The corridor outside was quiet. Frique pointed to the left. Foxe nodded. A Bekkan prayer flowed through his mind: The true prey lives inside you. Sometimes these bits of wisdom came into his brain at the worst moments, as if trying to tell him something he couldn’t reach consciously. What the hellcore was this one saying?
They turned at a branch in the hallway. Foxe could feel Frique’s breath on his shoulder. “Here. Materials Management Two.”
The corridor was a dead end, with three secured doors facing each other. Foxe led him to the one marked Two and waited while Frique tapped the key.
The door slid open. Frique closed it again as he followed Foxe through. “It’s crèche—wait. Something’s wrong.”
He was staring at a crèche, but Foxe felt the problem in the air. What—? He inhaled, and realized the problem at once.
You can’t live with someone two days and not pick up part of their essence. An eyelash floating in the air, maybe, or a faint scent he wasn’t aware he knew. Years of living on the edge of death had taught him not to ignore what his senses told him. And right now they were quietly insisting that Val had been here not long ago.
His eyes darted around the room. “Is he still there? In the tank?”
“Yeah, but . . ..” He peered at the monitor. “Someone didn’t close the menu right. They’ve been in here.”
“Damn it to hellcore.” She’d been taken. It wasn’t the only explanation, but it was logical, and it was the one he needed to accept if he didn’t want to take any unecessary risks. “All right. Can you wake him up?”
“It takes a couple of hours for—”
“Can you get him out of there fast? Without bringing security right here?”
He frowned, thinking through the question. “Yeah. Sort of. I can shift the monitor to the backup and put crèche support on standby. They won’t notice that for maybe half an hour. But he won’t be in any shape to walk.”
“We’ll get him there.”
“But if anyone sees us—”
“My job. Yours is to get him out of that coffin right now.”
He looked at the deck, moving his lips without sound. Foxe didn’t have time for an attack of nerves. With one step he was at Frique, one hand around the tech’s skinny neck.
“If you can’t help me, I don’t have any use for you.” Foxe squeezed the bones beneath Frique’s skin, forcing a shudder of pain. “Do it.”
“All right! All—” He staggered away as Foxe released him, and rubbed his shoulder. “I’m doing it. Don’t hurt me.”
“Just get to work.”
Watching Frique navigate the crèche menu, he tapped a number into his comsol. Val, honey? I want to take a nap. Where are you? But she didn’t respond.
He unclipped his handcomp and set a virtual link to the comsol, They’d let him download the facility’s basic layout so he wouldn’t have an excuse for wandering around or getting lost. In a moment he had a location, but the section was unmarked on the schematic.
He shoved the player in Frique’s face. “Where is this?”
Frique looked up from the monitor, irritated. “I can’t . . ..” He blinked at the screen, then took a deep breath. “Security Holding. What is that?”
“Nothing.” He shut down the gameplayer and clipped it back to his belt. “Get him out of there.”
So that was it. Val was out of the game now. He tried to ignore the jolt to his stomach while he thought through his options. How long could she endure an interrogation? How long would it take them to guess what was going on? To start looking for him? How long would she live after they were—
Breathe, he told himself. Val knew the risks. She wasn’t the type to complain about bad luck. She’d keep her mouth shut as long as she could, no matter what they did to her. He couldn’t afford to waste time worrying about her—no matter how strong the feeling grew inside his gut.
“Tough luck, Val,” he whispered.
“Nothing.” Val was on her own. Nothing he could do. “Just keep working.”
“What were you doing in Materials Management?” Morine’s voice was quiet, but her artificial eyes drilled into Val’s face with a dark blue intensity.
Val glared up into her face. The holdchair’s restraints were still open, as if to show that Morine, or the Venzoid security chief in the room, didn’t consider her a serious threat. Your mistake. The air in the small compartment had a sharp antiseptic smell. She imagined the staff scrubbing blood from its walls and deck on a regular basis.
“Told him twice already.” Val nodded at the Venzoid, Azid had no head—a Venzoid’s brain was deep in the chest—just a tangle of eyestalks sprouting between the bony shoulders of his three arms. Weapons dangled from his belt—a neuron pistol, a nerveblade, other instruments of pain. “Maybe three times, or can’t he count?”
“There’s no reason for you to be in Management,” Azid said through the mouth in his belly. “That’s not the Development section.”
“In two days I’m supposed to know every cubic on the ship? Station, whatever? Ben said he was taking me to the zygotes.”
“Ben told me you asked to see the material.” Morine’s fingers tapped her hip. “One specific piece of material.”
“Ben wanted to show me ‘one specific piece of material’ between his legs! This shirt cost me 150 credits and he ripped it trying to get his filthy hands on me.” She breathed faster, letting her face turn dark. “Why don’t you ask him about—”
“Ben’s interrogation was finished a few minutes ago. What I want—”
“W-what happened?” She made her voice tremble. “Is h-he—he tried to rape me, b-but—”
Good. “But he—”
“D-Verasite has some side effects. Shock. Brain damage. That’s why we’re not injecting it into you, not just yet.”
They stood close—Morine about a meter away from the chair, with Azid just behind her. Val could take Morine down, probably get to Azid, but once they saw what kind of violence she was capable of they’d know she was more than a woman married to an idiot, seeking a freak child. They’d clamp her down and start drilling into her brain for answers.
As long as she seemed helpless and terrified, she had a chance.
“I thought he just . . .” She looked down at the deck, away from their eyes. “I flirted with him. Maybe he thought—but he still attacked me! I had to fight him—”
“And you did a good job,” Azid said. “His bruises and wounds tell us that.”
“Didn’t meant to hurt him—not too bad. I was scared!” She let a tear fall down her cheek.
“You should be.” Morine frowned and tapped one of the implants in her arm, then closed her eyes, listening to a message internally. She responded too quietly for Val to hear, and her face turned dark.
“I need to go,” she told Azid. “Get everything you can out of her.”
“Too late,” Azid told her.
Val watched Morine leave the compartment. Azid stood in front of her, every eyestalk pointed in her direction. “This won’t hurt. I don’t like hurting anyone.” His arm stretched from its socket, extending toward her like an eel emerging from a reef. She could grab it, but he was too far away for her to snatch a weapon from his belt. Just a little closer . . .
Three long fingers wrapped themselves around her wrist like flexcuffs. A pinprick from the center of Azid’s palm stung her skin, and she clenched her jaw, preparing for the pain—
Val gasped at the sensation flooding through her body. Not pain. She’d expected—not this feeling, not pleasure so intense it made her blind, so deep inside she thought she’d burst, so electric her skin felt on fire. Ohh . . .. She gasped, squirming in the chair, and tried to remember where she was, who she was, why she was here. After a moment she gave up and surrendered, letting the pleasure flood through her body, hoping it would end soon, hoping it would never—
And then it was gone. She felt as if she’d hit the bottom of a dark shaft with a hard empty thud. “Kitt,” she murmured.
“Do you want it?” The voice came from light years away. “More?”
“Yesss . . .” she hissed. Her body was speaking, ordering her to throw herself into the source of that pleasure again, agree to anything that would get her there. Desperate desire clawed at her chest.
“Then tell me what I want to know.”
Anything. She opened her mouth to answer him, and remembered the crèche. Ben. Rumav. Foxe.
Kitt. “Eat slime,” she whispered, hating herself for denying the pleasure. Hating Azid for withholding it.
The sound from the orifice in his belly was like a burp. “You want it. Don’t you?”
“Please . . .”
“One more short taste. You’ll want it even more when I stop. Then you’ll need to talk. You’ll want to tell me. Whatever, for just one more taste.”
No . . . She bit her lip as hard as she could, hoping it would give her something to fight back the pleasure. But then the sting pricked her arm again and she leaned back, breathing hard, tears running down her face. Yeaaahhh . . .
“I have direct contact with the facility,” Declannes said. “It’s called Leda. The director is a humanoid female—Morine Andala.”
“Good.” Shrinn took a position in front of the CommBoard. “Get her on.”
“Yes, sir.” Declannes was eager for action.
The screen blinked, and Morine appeared. Black hair in a braid, implants in her arms, and anger in her cold synthetic eyes. “What is this?” she demanded.
He was aware of his team’s attention. Aje was here in the control room, his arms and face tense. Every station was staffed for combat, and the rest of the team was in full armor, their weapons charged, listening to the exchange. Waiting for the word.
He spoke with a slow, even tone. “My name is Shrinn. We’ve placed over thirty SP-2 antimatter micro-mines on your hull and within the structure of your station. I will detonate one of them to prove I’m willing to destroy Leda unless you give me what I want.”
She smirked. “And what do you—”
“Do it,” Shrinn told Mateon.
“Yes, sir.” Mateon hit two keys on her board. “Five seconds.”
He stared at Morine as the seconds counted down. He knew her type: a petty tyrant, jealous of her small power, hiding her fear by menacing the beings around her. She survived on threats and intimidation, not any real respect. A coward at the core. She’d rush to give into him when she realized who and what she was facing.
Shrinn shifted his eyes to the survey screen as the final second came. Then the mine detonated: No flash of light, no rippling explosion, but a core of darkness, silent and deadly as a cancer. In a moment pieces of the hull broke away. They whirled in the vacuum, and the team saw a brief, faint glow around the gash as the air in that section hissed into the darkness.
Mateon took a deep breath and nodded in satisfaction. “Damage to Leda’s hull,” she reported. “Radius 17.5 meters. Loss of structural integrity minimal. Area is now sealed. Three bodies. Station weapons are active and seeking target.” She smirked. They were out of range for Leda’s Thunder missiles to reach them accurately, even if they could locate the ship under stealth mode.
Morine was shouting to someone off screen. Her face was taut, worried, struggling to maintain her self-control and her authority over her crew, which would right now be panicking, thinking of their own survival instead of following her orders. “Just do it!” she snapped, and turned back to Shrinn. “What do you want?”
“That was a demonstration. I can destroy your entire station just as easily.” He paused, letting her worry. Just as she was about to throw a curse at his face, he said: “I want two things: First, the specimen delivered by Quili’s Fire.” The Tadori ship was still clamped to Leda’s hull.
“QF brought . . . more than one specimen . . .” He saw her fingers move on a keyboard, looking for data on the cargo he wanted.
“This one had seven fingers. Dark skin. Long braided hair. I don’t care about his condition. Dead, damaged, or unconscious, I want him in an escape pod within thirty minutes. No other ships are to leave your station within that time, or I’ll destroy you. Twenty minutes.” He glanced at Declannes. “Start counting.”
Declannes hit a countdown display. 30:00 . . . 30:59 . . .
She blinked. Shrinn could sense her confusion. A specimen? Morine opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of whatever she wanted to say. She shrugged. “What else?” Suspicious but hopeful.
“You’ve got one human named Foxe on Leda. I want him. Put him in the same pod. Thirty minutes. Twenty-nine now.”
She said nothing. For a moment he thought she might argue, just to show him she didn’t take orders from anyone. She didn’t have any loyalty to her clients, but she’d need to maintain her own authority, to show her crew that no one could push her around. Then she relaxed. He saw the relief in her shoulders, her eyebrows. Not worth it, she was thinking. Good.
“We have Foxe.” The name sounded like a curse. “Do you want the other one? The female traveling with him?”
Valeria Lynd. Shrinn had considered the option over the past few hours. Did she care about Foxe as much as he’d cared for Lanesh, or was she just a business partner?
“No.” She hadn’t killed Lanesh. “Just Foxe. Thirty minutes.”
Declannes cut the screen. Morine vanished.
He’d discussed tactics with his team. They could have simply triggered the mines and destroyed Leda without warning, sending their bodies spinning into space. They could board the plaguedamned station—they were prepared for that option with their weapons and battle armor—and kill everyone they saw: crew, customers, victims. They weren’t afraid of the risks. But the biggest risk was that somehow Rumav—and Foxe—would slip away from them again. Shrinn needed confirmation. Bodies, dead or alive. He wanted to see them with his own eyes before he could report success with confidence.
These perverts running Leda weren’t soldiers. They pretended to be in business, weighing profit and loss. They wouldn’t fight back.
And if they did he’d destroy them.
“There’s activity in the docking sector,” Declannes said. “Emergency preparations for departure by several ships.”
“Sir?” It came Aje, stationed at the SystemsBoard. “Foxe could escape with the target on any ship there. Shouldn’t we—”
“They have him. You heard—”
“She could be lying.”
Had he miscalculated? Morine could try to stop them from detaching, but frightened beings would risk ripping free from their docks and tethers no matter what she demanded. “Tag all the ships,” he ordered Declannes. “Right now. Mateon, help him.” It could be done in a matter of minutes. He was still confident that Foxe would be in the pod, but Aje as right—they couldn’t afford to take any chances.
Foxe couldn’t escape this time.