Morgan and Carlacci waited until Darquin finished docking the shuttle Lartiel before they warily boarded her, where they found him already starting a flight check.
“Heya,” he said to them, still working. “Could one of you guys spot me here?”
“I got it,” Carlacci said. Darquin stepped out let him take the helm and moved to the seat directly behind it. “So what’s going on? Why did you land in this shuttlebay instead of the main one?”
Darquin was consulting his datapad. “Did the security sensors pick up anything?”
Stopping as she took the co-pilot position, Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Should they have?”
“I’d sure feel better if they did.” Sighing, he put down the datapad. “I just got done reporting in when someone appeared right there–” He pointed into the thin aisle between the rows of acceleration chairs. “–and projected a holovid recording of me talking to my contact.”
Morgan and Carlacci exchanged glances. “Did this person say anything?”
“Hell yeah. `More care is needed, Tomás.’ Stuff like that. Real spooky, man.”
“Wait a minute.” Carlacci turned to face him, looking at him over the edge of the pilot’s chair. “She called you by name?”
“Yeah. And the holovid closed in on somebody with a hood watching me from a few booths over.”
“What did this…apparition say?” Morgan said. “Exactly.”
Darquin paused, going over his memory. “Let’s see. She called me and said something about more care being needed on my current mission. When I asked who she was, she dodged it faster than a politician. `Know only that I’m a friend. Watch, take heed, and be aware.’ Then she disappeared, saying, `More care in needed, Tomás.’ That’s it.”
“But why?” Carlacci said.
“Not to psych me out, that’s for sure. She sounded concerned instead of threatening. And if she could pull that off without our people or scanners picking up on it, she could’ve killed me or given me away at any time.”
Morgan nodded. “A techno-mage.”
The other two Rangers looked at Morgan. “No way,” Darquin said.
“I thought they disappeared when the Shadow War started,” Carlacci chimed in.
“That’s what our reports said. Either way, they seem to be back. I’ll inform the Captain.” Morgan raised her fist, about to speak into the comlink on the back of her hand. “You two get ready for launch. Mage or no mage, we still have to pay that Centauri dealer a visit.” She tapped her comlink.
Ryath’s ship beeped, warning her that a shuttle had just left the Phoenix. She connected to the ship’s sensors and recognised the shuttle.
“Tomás. Quick to respond, but have you taken precautions?” She directed her Flyer to follow the shuttle. The black ship silently broke orbit and deftly followed the shuttle to the planet’s surface.
After a quick update sent to the Captain, Morgan passed on to Carlacci and Darquin the order to proceed as planned.
The shuttle launched smoothly, but to the Rangers on board, the prospect of unseen eyes beside them lent the transition from hangar to void a surreal tinge. As Carlacci maneuvered them into Abbai 4’s atmosphere, Darquin referred regularly to his datapad, occasionally over his shoulder. Carlacci glanced at Morgan for new orders, half expecting her to send them back to the ship. Morgan kept her eyes straight ahead, looking out at the rivers of fire pouring over the viewport, as if watching for another sign.
Carlacci shifted controls lightly, sending the Lartiel into a slightly steeper descent. “Did you have a landing spot in mind?” he asked Darquin.
“Right on Cheys’ roof. Once we hack the sensors, I mean. I got the addresses for their friend-or-foe systems right here.” He held up his datapad.
“Got it. Morgan, I think those controls are closer to you, actually.”
“On it.” She turned to them, fingers dancing.
“I’m looking forward to this,” Carlacci said quietly. “We were able to finally get rid of a cadre of Gaim chemists who were making up designer drugs, killing a lot of the Abbai … but the best evidence said it was Cheys who bankrolled them.”
Darquin nodded. “That guy gets dirtier the longer you look at him.”
“Probably just has to scrape his back to keep himself in hair grease.”
Transmitting the data with a final touch across crystalline keys, Morgan grimaced at Carlacci’s analogy.
Carlacci decelerated, bringing the shuttle’s descent to almost nil as he looked to Morgan. “Are we clear to land?”
“Ie, at your leisure.”
He stood up gingerly as the roof of Cheys’ estate came into view. His estate was a wide, multi-level mansion, modest by Centauri standards. Its few spires were industrial steel instead of gold, stolid instead of ornate.
Carlacci brought the shuttle in, letting it come to rest lightly on the largest section of flat roof. “There.”
“Stealth looks good,” Darquin said, leaning to check readouts, “and their friend-or-foe systems are letting us through. Not a bleep to be heard.”
Morgan rolled her shoulders a little to relax them — not long since she did this last.
“What’s the plan from here, Chief?” Carlacci asked, unconsciously lowering his voice.
He shrugged. “B `n’ E. We gotta reach their mainframes, private terminals, crystals, whatever they’re using. Find hard info, copy it, and bail.”
Carlacci opened the shuttle’s hatch and quickly moved through it onto the roof.
Morgan stood, but paused to let Darquin go first.
Darquin followed him out, datapad and grim determination in tow. Trying to adjust his eyes to the moonlit night, he opened a schematic on his datapad as he gave the unblinking sensor lenses a few passing glances.
Morgan was the last out. She closed the shuttle behind them.
“Nearest door is going to be at the edge of that garden,” Carlacci murmured.
He nodded, signaling a three-meter spread before he led the way through the brush of the roof garden.
Watching the Lartiel land on the roof of Lord Cheys’ residence, Ryath smiled at their ingenuity. “Mmm…maybe I was too cautious?” she said to herself. “But it can’t hurt just to keep an eye on what happens.”
Once more she directed her ship to change direction and land a little way from Lord Cheys’ house. Exiting her ship, she dissociated with it leaving her completely free to concentrate on the mission at hand. Silently she slipped from shadow to shadow, her black clothing and black hooded coat allowing her to merge into the darkness entirely.
Gaining access to Lord Cheys’ grounds was too easy, even for a Techno-mage. It was almost as though she was expected too. Heightening her awareness, and increasing her sensors to their maximum, she continued toward the house. Twice she stopped and held her breath as Centauri guards casually passed her hiding place.
Carlacci suddenly stopped dead, flinging a hand into the air to signal the others, as he neared the door. A Centauri woman was lying half-asleep on a couch among the tall plants. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat, realizing that she was face down — and wearing nothing but a silken towel draped over her back.
Darquin put his datapad away, reaching for his folded pike, as he joined him. Frowning as he saw Carlacci frozen there, he moved to smack the other Ranger’s shoulder and did a double-take when he caught a glimpse himself. He glanced around to find Morgan, and took another quick look before his superior met up with them. “Hijole,” he whispered.
“A couple weeks ago, that wouldn’t have thrown me.” Carlacci grinned as he saw the mesmerized look on his face. He grabbed Darquin by the sleeve and led him safely through the door. “Guess sometimes ignorance is bliss,” he murmured.
“Oh right, you say that now, but you have–Hey!”
Glancing at them both, Morgan interrupted their sotto voce sparring with a faint cough. “Now where?”
“Back to work,” Darquin sighed. “Two flights of steps, into a storage area. Cellar slash cargo hold.” He drew out his datapad and tapped some keys on his hand-link. “Area’s clean.”
“After you,” Carlacci said.
He smirked before heading in. “Not likely.”
Ryath could sense only six guards patrolling the grounds, far too few for this size a residence. And she had located three more inside the house, at the far end near a cargo hold. The Anla’shok were still on the roof, and there was a weaker signal up there with them. A Centauri female, no doubt. Many Centauri nobles kept almost a harem of ladies for their entertainment.
Ryath made her way to what looked like a backdoor. “Too easy!” she cursed.
Scanning the immediate interior she found no-one waiting within the room, which looked very much like a kitchen. Picturing the door unlocking, in her mind’s eye, she listened for the telltale click heralding the success of her spell. Quietly she crept into the dimly lit room, sensors still at maximum. Entering undetected, she set to placing probes in each room she passed through, keeping track of all inside the house.
She saw the Rangers near the lower level and the Centauri guards who were apparently searching more than guarding. The master of the house had sent them on an errand, one that revealed either arrogance or a growing desperation–possibly useful in the future.
One room she entered was full of Centauri silks, all of different colours, hanging from the ceiling. She took a moment to lose herself in a dream; a life she would never know; a life for a woman with less knowledge of the universe and its perverse workings.
At the bottom of the stairs, they looked out at the small maze of vacuum-sealed crates.
Darquin smirked. “Packing stuff away for Christmas, I guess.”
Morgan sniffed, darkly amused.
“Hope they’re not getting ready to bail … not yet, anyway.”
“Look over here.” Darquin pointed out a long crate, playing with a label until it pulled away and revealed squiggles of Abbai script. “Abbai defense components.”
Looking it over, Morgan growled softly. “Oh, now they’ve done it.”
Carlacci frowned, his dark brows almost knitting together. “They can’t afford to take those offplanet, even legally! The Abbai have been trying to put the planetary defense net together even since the Shadows took it apart. They still are!”
“And we sure can’t take it with us. Question is, do we leave it….” Darquin picked up and threw a handful of dust from the floor. A sensor beam shimmered in the scattering dust. “Or wire it to whatever that’s rigged up to.”
Morgan had peeked into the crate. “Wire it — it couldn’t be used now anyway, not like this.”
“Run interference for me?” Darquin asked, turning to Morgan. He didn’t wait for an answer as he climbed onto the aisle of crates in front of him.
Morgan nodded, stepped away from there.
Carlacci retreated to the cellar door, listening in case anyone else should approach.
Carefully bounding onto the next row of crates, he crouched and quickly attached another device to his datapad. Then he pried open a wire-ridden access panel from one of the largest crates and hooked his assembly into it. He quickly returned with his datapad, leaping back down with Morgan and Carlacci, and reached into the Abbai crate. “Ooh, they’re really gonna like this.” “No sign of guards yet,” he said as he worked. “They’re probably all outside, staying clear of the sensor nets.”
Morgan bared her teeth, appreciating their prank.
“One big plus, or maybe two. This’ll cover our exit if we get caught. No boom, no court-martial.”
“Almost too bad. Been too long since I’ve seen nice fireworks,” Carlacci murmured.
“Whoa, easy, big fella.” He waved Morgan and Carlacci over to get a better look at the schematic he was pulling up. “Let’s start with these rooms on this floor. The E-M scans from here, here, and…here look like comm or data devices.”
“Right,” Carlacci said, nodding. “Should we take one room each?”
“Sure, I’ll take the further from the right. One more thing.” He handed each of them a data crystal. “Abbai backdoor codes. He’s probably using Abbai encryption.”
“You hope so.” Morgan took hers, headed for the center one.
He shrugged and grinned. “Well, if I was guilty as sin and didn’t have any Vorlon tech….”
Carlacci grinned, silently taking the crystal from Darquin’s hand, following him to the dense security door at the end of the cargo hold.
The soft silk caressed her face and hands. Ryath had never felt anything so soft, so smooth, delicate, yet strong. She ran her fingers over the material and followed the weave through her thumb and forefinger.
She very nearly missed the new signal her sensors had picked up. A larger signal, but similar to the guards.
How did he get in the house without me picking him up? she thought.
Self-doubt crept into her thoughts again. No….no. It must be another reason. She couldn’t for now think what it could be, but it had to be something else.
Following his route through her sensors, bringing up the schematic for the house, she saw him enter a room on the second floor. The schematic said the room was a bedroom, one used by the Heads of the House. Then Lord Cheys must know this person. The thought wasn’t heartwarming. In fact she was now beginning to think of all the terrible things that could go wrong. The tech echoed her anxiety and sent a surge of heat through her body.
I must concentrate! It’s not just my life at risk! She breathed deeply, and continued on her way, planting probes away from the high traffic areas of the house.
The signal of the stranger still troubled her as she saw the Rangers split up, each going a separate way. “Oh damn! I’ll never be able to protect all three of them if they separate.” She sighed and made a quick decisive move towards the closest Ranger. “Time to be properly introduced, I think!” she smirked.
Copyright (c) 2001 Niki Hipwood, Jamie Lawson, Leslie McBride and Joe Medina. All rights reserved.