2335: 5/25: 1105
The corridors of Russell's Station Blue Sector were swarming with libertied Fleet personnel, merchanter crews, and station residents out slumming or shopping. The scene was pleasantly busy and prosperous at first glance, but Signy could see the little tell-tales of tension in the faces of many of the station residents and some of the merchanters. The first tendrils of the War were reaching out to Russell's, and the presence of the two carriers docked for supplies and personnel R&R was irrefutable evidence of it. Russell's was solidly Earth - of course. For now. But Union ships still docked there, sometimes. Earth was very far away, and Cyteen was not.
Some of Norway's were heading back to the ship now: technicians with an early call to check systems, the supply clerks, a couple of squads of Marines who had only been granted half-leave. Farewells were being said to sleepover partners and short-term drinking buddies.
"So, you got to get back?" said her previous night's entertainment. He was a big man, very dark-skinned, friendly and good-looking and completely unambitious. He crewed a skimmer-tender: steady work, only occasionally dangerous, and necessary to anyone with a jump ship to refuel. He had no beef with Earth Company or, for that matter, Union. It was refreshing.
"Not me, mate. My call's for tomorrow. What about you?"
"Well ... there's some supplies I got to get. But this evening? I'm all yours, officer lady."
"All right, then. You got a number I can call, Toby?"
"Just look up Laughing Boy – the ship. Ask for that big bastard Tobias Sekibo. They'll put you right through to me." He grinned, and they shook hands before he swaggered off toward the sector doors to Orange.
"Hey, XO!" That amazingly loud shout could only come from Di Janz. She pivoted on her heel to see him peeling off from his squad of Marines and making a beeline for her.
"Di. What's up?" He was scowling in a way that was serious business.
"Those bastards from Australia. Their shiny new captain's throwing his weight around, and them with it. One of his officers was telling us to pick up some special prisoner. Oh, 'scuse me: not a prisoner. A person of interest,. I asked the bitch what we were s'posed to do with this person. She said, take her to Australia. And why can't their own scuts do it? 'Cause none of 'em have early board call, and she can't be bothered to bother 'em. Anyway, I figure we don't need to wipe their butts. I'm not messing with that crap unless the Old Man or you orders me to."
"What's that Australia officer's name? You catch it?"
Di frowned. He'd obviously had a really prime time the night before: his eyes were red-rimmed and bleary. "Raske."
Lieutenant to Signy's Lieutenant Commander rank. Roditsa Raske was a bridge officer, but not one of Captain Edger's best and brightest. And even if she'd been his personal pet, they didn't have to answer to another ship's officer unless it was a crisis situation. "Where was this?"
"Outside some flash sleepover ... um, Boyleston's."
Flash indeed, and Boyleston's considered itself a blasted hotel, not a sleepover. This was getting interesting. And potentially hot. "Damn straight you don't need to pick up her trash. Take the kids home, Di, and get some sleep while you can. I'll check in with the Old Man about where we stand on this."
Di marched back to his Marines and started them moving toward Norway's access again. Signy ducked into a public comm booth but pulled her own pocket unit instead. "Sunspot to Norway Comm. Come in, Norway Comm."
There was a slight crackle. Then: "Norway Comm here. What's up, Sunspot?"
"Got a matter for Timekeeper, Norway Comm."
"That right, Sunspot?"
"No joke, Norway Comm." She figured she might be cooling her heels here for a while until someone could dig up Captain Halvorsen, but in fact, the Old Man came on in three minutes flat.
"Trouble on dockside, Sunspot?" They were encrypted now: really no need for the code names, but it was tradition.
"Had a little talk with K1 Top. Brass from Static tried to co-opt them into some special prisoner escort duty. I shut it down. What's our course on this?"
"Sounds like you made the right correction, Sunspot. Something smelly, was it?"
"Check it out, if you can. But no, no need to do their work. Tell 'em I said so, if it comes to that."
"I copy. Sunspot out." She tucked the unit back into her jacket and took a steadier breath. No way Tord Halvorsen would let Tom Edger's order his crew around, especially for something that sounded this off kilter. She made her way toward Station Central.
Boyleston's was a hop and a skip from the main offices: popular with merchanter brass and visiting civ officials. The door of the place looked like it was made of dark wood and smoked glass, and there were old-style lanterns on each side of it. The lobby was quiet and subtly lit, but the bar off to the left of it was filled with Australia crew, moody and bitching and each of them at least three drinks down.
"Mallory," said a woman's voice, and the tone was what she'd likely use if she found some oily crud on her dress blues.
"Raske. What's this about our Marines and your business?"
"Stupid bitch," said one of the men. "We got twelve crew here, and there's one a' you."
"Do I look worried? I'm not worried. And that's Lieutenant Commander Mallory to you, ensign. Raske? Report."
The woman had the grace to try and stand up straight. Mistake, though: she was wavery on her feet. "Just some brainiac bitch, is all. Union Special. Here for a convo with a whole mob of other tech wizzes. Captain didn't want to leave a chip on the table, is what. Your guys were heading in anyway, lazy scuts."
"They're our scuts, and they're on leave until they check in on our ship. They can be lazy. And you don't get to order them in this situation. You want this issue handled? I'll handle it."
"Nosy, stuck-up bitch," muttered another man.
"What was that, Mister? Speak up."
Raske finally seemed to comprehend that the situation was out of her control. "I'll contact the ship. Our ship."
"No need, Raske. As you were. Enjoy yourselves, boys and girls."
The room was near-silent until she reached the doorway. Then she heard "Shit. We're hosed."
Damn straight they were, thought Signy, and presented her credentials to the desk clerk. "There's a Union professor or something here? Want to talk with her."
The man looked at her ID, her stunner, and then at the doorway to the bar, where the Australia crew had grudging gone back to their drinks. "I'll let her know you're here."
He punched a button – number 229, SIgny noted – and murmured into the comm mic. "EC officer ... don't think so ... um, no, can't do that." He didn't look happy as he got off the phone. "She says she figures she has no choice."
"Was there a conference here? What happened to the rest of them?"
"More than a hundred of them. Medical, life sciences. The rest all got on their transports. The Hinder-bound one's already jumped out. The one for Pell is in countdown. The Union one's still refueling. This lady ordered her escort to board. Don't think they were happy, but they were those tank-breds: they went."
"Name of that Union ship?"
Lawrence family. Pan-Paris. Established Name. "Tell you what," she said, and ran her ID through the reader on the desk. She typed in a reasonable sum and tapped her way through the "Tip – services" dialog. "Here's my number. Let me know when those Australia sots leave."
He looked at her sharply. "You're from Norway?"
"Yes sir. Executive officer. You got my name there in the reader."
"They're saying, on dockside, that –"
"No," she cut him off. "Dockside gossip's not worth a half cred, and you really don't want to know more than that. You going to make this worth what I just paid?"
His eyes flicked to the bar again, and then back: steady, sober gaze. "Yes, ma'am. She's in room 229."
"Good job. Pleasure doing business with you." She nodded to him and headed for the lift.
Upstairs, it was dim and quiet, except for the faint domestic clatter of housekeeping staff at work down the hall. Room 229 was almost all the way at the other end. There was a pressure-sealed emergency access next to the door of the room. Signy pushed the comm buzzer.
"You're the EC officer?" said a deep feminine voice. There was the barest trace of a Unionside accent.
There was a moment of silence. The door had a peephole. Signy flung it a crisp salute. The comm clicked off, and a moment later, the door opened.
The Union Special was a wiry woman of medium height, with strong, regular features and fair skin. The beginnings of lines on her face argued that the darkness of her hair was dye over rejuved grey. Signy guessed that she was a bit older than Signy herself. "Lieutenant Commander Signy Mallory, ma'am. ECS-5 Norway."
The other woman raised elegant eyebrows. "I've heard of it. A jump carrier. As is Australia, whose crew prevented me from making my board call."
"Where did you become involved, Commander?"
"My orders are to keep the peace here at Russell's and supervise our libertied crew. We got a complaint about Australia crew holding a civ. That's not a peaceful situation, ma'am."
"But I'm an enemy citizen."
"Still a civ. My captain said to handle it."
"Oh, that does sound promising. I think I like your captain."
"All spit and polish, aren't you? But there's a time for that, too, even in a situation like this. Manners are the enzymes of civilization. Come in, Commander."
Signy nodded and stepped inside, hand on her stunner. The clerk had said that the woman's escort was gone, but this situation was not stable. The place was a full-blown suite, with a soft green carpet, a beige sectional with a scatter of green and dark orange pillows, a striped reading chair, a small table for dining or conference, and a desk with an elaborately ergonomic chair and multiple data connectors. Doorways to the side were half open to show a bath and a bedroom. A half-eaten meal on a tray was on the table, and a reader and tablet on the desk. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the place.
"Will you have a seat, Commander?"
"No need, ma'am. This isn't a social call. Any idea why Australia is so interested in you?"
The Union researcher seated herself on the plushy chair. Her body language was so upright, forceful, and in control that Signy was reminded of the Old Man in his command seat. "Well, I guess I haven't introduced myself. I am Dr. Ariane Emory."
The name was vaguely familiar. Dr. Emory must be more than a researcher. "You're a Union official?"
Dr. Emory sat back and tilted her head. "Not in any way that you would have heard about, I imagine. But I was the Proxy Councillor of Science for several years, at Cyteen. I've now returned to my research."
"You're some kind of genius." Dr. Emory's mouth quirked at that.
"Oh, yes. I am a Special."
"Is that enough for Captain Edger to think you're a bargaining chip, ma'am?"
"How blunt. But I suppose there's no point in indirection. I am considered the leading researcher in the psychological techniques used in creating our azi workforce."
"I think you know the answer to that, Commander," said Dr. Emory, softly.
"So maybe Captain Edger has a point."
"I can't say that's wrong."
SIgny shook her head. "Do you want me to take you into custody?"
"I think you're too intelligent for me to get anywhere with lies. If I were working with your psychset, I'd estimate you to be at least Beta level."
"Flattery won't help, Dr. Emory."
"Very good! Maybe Alpha, not Beta."
Signy's head was starting to hurt. "I need a reason not to haul you in. What will you do if you get back to your lab?"
"Continue work on my project. It was only fully funded four years ago. I have so much to do."
"Partially. I'm refining the methods that we use to make the azi what they are."
"That's part of it. But what a child learns is so much more than what she takes in through her conventional five senses. There's what's going on in her own body when she takes in the training, and what happened in her body and mind before that time." Dr. Emory's face had softened, very slightly. She was speaking more rapidly, and though the volume of her words was actually fainter, her speech had become more intense. "The human mind is the most amazing tool we have. I've only just started this work. It would be criminal to stop now."
Signy's comm pinged. She opened her jacket and glanced at it, saw the signal light for unencrypted communication flashing. The number displayed was Blue sector and therefore could not be Toby's. Had to be bad news. She put the unit to her ear. "Mallory."
"Ms. Mallory? Prem, at the front desk. The others are leaving."
"Damn. Thanks. Hold on a minute." She looked up. "Dr. Emory, we're running out of time. Tell me one thing. Why is Union fighting Earth?"
She looked surprised. "Surely you know about that. Earth, more than twenty years away, is trying to control us. We're a thriving society on our own. They don't understand us."
"But what does that mean to you, Dr. Emory?"
"Well, of course, my line of research doesn't even exist on Earth."
"Because you're in the business of creating slave labor."
"It's not that simple!" exclaimed Dr. Emory. For the first time, her cultured intellectual shell cracked, and there was a hint of desperation in her voice. She drew a deep breath. "Commander Mallory, could your starship function if every crew member did just what he or she wanted to do? Did you never have something go wrong where it would have gone right if the crew involved were completely dedicated to their task, and knew, at the deepest level, without conscious thought, what they should be doing, and could execute it without hesitation?"
Signy remembered her rider pilot training. Union technology, they'd been told. And then wondered whether this woman had been involved in the eventual triumph of the Hellburner project. She brought the phone back to her mouth. "Prem, there's an emergency access on this level. Where does it come out?"
"Service door at the back. For deliveries, mostly."
"Blue 3, corridor 5, access 23, number 107."
"Can you disable the alarm?"
A pause; then: "Yes."
"Good. Do it." She cut the connection. "Dr. Emory, grab your stuff. All of it."
"Really? What are we doing?"
"You're going home." Signy tapped in Toby's number. Be there, she thought, pointlessly, as Dr. Emory stared and then surged to her feet, gathering up her tablet and reader as she dashed to the bedroom.
"Yo, Laughing Boy," said a voice at the other end of the connection.
"Hi, I need Toby Sekibo. Stat."
"I need to talk to Mr. Sekibo, right away."
"Oh, OK, no worry. I'll put you through, hold on."
A few precious seconds ticked by. Finally: "Hey, Toby here. Is this Signy?"
"Damn straight. How'd you like to make 500, easy?"
"Oy, scary lady, I don't charge for that! You just tell me when and where."
"Shut up. How soon can you get that tub of yours out of dock? Do you need a special flight plan?"
"No, no problem, we have a standard route. It's ours, anytime. But –"
"No talking, dammit. Just listen. Can you go past the Winifred? Close enough for a pod transfer?"
"Risky biz here! What you smuggling, Signy?"
"Union citizen, unlawfully detained. But it's not going to be easy to get her out of here in the clear without a lot of fuss. 500, straight to your bank account. Shouldn't take you more than 30 minutes out of your way."
"Can't argue with your hourly, but what about dinner, hey?"
"Sekibo, dammit ... ."
"Just a little joke. OK, how're we doing this?"
"Meet us at Blue 3, corridor 5, access 23, number 107. Back door of Boyleston's. How soon can you get here?"
"No more than 15, lady. I'll take you to Laughing Boy the back way, right?"
"Spot, on Toby. You're number one!"
"And don't you forget it, babe!" He cut the connection.
Emory had reappeared, wearing a light coat and holding one large bag and a heavy-looking carry. "You trust this person?"
"As far as this goes. He's a skimmer pilot and co-owner. We're not in a war zone: to get him arrested, Australia would have to explain what they were up to. And I don't think they want to do that." She tapped in Norway's number.
"Norway Comm here. That you, Sunspot?"
"The same. Listen, can you patch me in to USM WInifred Comm?"
"Hell you say, Sunspot."
"My say-so, Norway Comm."
"Your neck." But there was a click of relays, and then the buzz of the connection alert on the merchanter.
"Winifred. How may I direct your call?"
"Your Old Man, please."
There was a pause. "Who is this?"
"We have your missing passenger. She'd like to come aboard. Clock's ticking, Winifred."
There were shuffling and whispers at the other end. Then: "Tia Lawrence, Comm 2, here. You've got Dr. Emory?"
Signy passed Dr. Emory the comm. "They're asking after you. Keep it short."
"Ariane Emory here. Can someone get my aide Florian AF-9979?" Emory waited, tapping her fingers on her leg with her free hand: the first purely nervous gesture Signy had seen her make. Finally: "Florian: E1 green. Blue: Name one: 32 94 111 22 82 112. Name two: 72 67 39b 112 18 54. The next voice you hear will be Name two." She handed the comm back to Signy. "Tell him what they need to know."
"Nice. Florian: a fueling skimmer will approach your transport shortly. Tell the Winifred that this'll be your boss."
"Understood, Name two. We'll be watching for it. Thanks."
After that, the trip down to the Laughing Boy's berth was an anticlimax. Toby met them at the accessway and led them through a circuitous route involving corridors that Signy mentally marked for future use. Station security was a joke sometimes. Down at Orange Dock, Toby's partner Kiko stowed Dr. Emory's bags, and Toby waved the researcher toward the access.
"Wait." Emory stopped and held her hand out to Signy. Signy took it: dry, steady, but cold as ice. They shook. "Commander. I don't imagine that this is much comfort to you, but I firmly believe that what I'm doing is in the interests of humanity."
Signy looked her in the eyes. "Lots of people have said they believe that about what they're doing, Ma'am. Some of them even meant it."
"You don't think I do."
"It doesn't matter. Get going."
Dr. Emory looked like she wanted to say something else, but then she pursed her lips and shook her head. "Goodbye, Commander, and thank you."
Signy watched her disappear down the chill tube of the access, followed by Toby. Kiko slammed the seal to and locked it, then waved Signy over to an operations monitor where they watched Laughing Boy ungrapple itself and head out. Kiko switched camera views several times so they could watch the approach to the merchanter. The rescue pod was a tiny dot ejected by the skimmer and promptly caught by Winifred's loading grapple, which withdraw back into its hatch. A few moments later, Signy's comm pinged: Norway Comm.
"Cam Lawrence says their cargo's safe, and thanks."
It wasn't Comm 1: it was the Old Man. "Thank you."
"So you handled it. Fair enough. I'll expect a full report."
"You'll have it. Sunspot out."
Kiko was looking at her. "Trouble?" she asked.
Signy glanced again at the monitor. The status line had changed for Winifred: she was in count, bound homeward to Pan-Paris. From there, Ariane Emory and her party would have to catch another transport to Cyteen. It would be weeks until she was back in her lab, but Signy had every reason to believe she'd get there.
She just hoped that someday, she wouldn't find herself looking down a rifle barrel into the eyes of a Union azi soldier and wondering whether she knew the mind that had created his.
"No," she said. "No trouble at all."