Bracing his legs against the weight, Darquin eased the security door open. As it cleared the doorway, a newfound tension played through his frame. A dark shape had just approached the door.
In a blur he whipped his hand out, effectively gagging the new arrival. As he was bringing his other arm around to pin his opponent’s arms, his fingers registered a petal-like softness that reminded him of better times and warmer people. Blushing, he yanked his hands back instantly.
The Rangers exchanged glances as the robed figure stepped through the doorway and stood with them.
“You’re, ah, solid this time,” Darquin mumbled.
Carlacci couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. He’d never seen Darquin look so guilty.
Through an evil grin, Morgan spoke gently into Darquin’s ear. “You’re lucky she didn’t turn you into a frog.”
“I might as well be.” He turned back to the robed figure, mortified. “I, I’m sorry. I thought–”
“I was not harmed.” A woman’s lips could be seen within the dark hood, curling into a wry smile as she snuck in an implicit threat. “So you were not harmed.”
The smirk on Morgan’s face echoed hers. Morgan stood by and watched, letting Darquin take the initiative…or in this case, try to get it back.
He was shrugged it off, sighing his frustration away. “I’ve had worse offers. So…what should we call you.”
“Ryath. As I said before, I’m a friend.”
“You know who we are?”
Ryath nodded. “Tomás. Peter. Margaret.”
“Morgan,” she said sharply.
Ryath paused as if processing the data. “As you wish,” she answered. “I have invoked a holographic shield around us. As long as I maintain the illusion, Lord Cheys’ surveillance system won’t detect our presence by sight or sound.”
“As long as we have some privacy, maybe you can explain why you’re here.” Morgan waited for an answer, then pressed the issue. “What do you want?”
“To help you. That much is obvious, surely.”
“We can afford to trust her, at least for now,” Darquin chimed in. “A techno-mage could’ve given us away or worse anytime she wanted.”
Morgan nodded, her eyes still on the mage. “So you’ve said. The Captain will want to know more, one way or the other.”
“If that is her wish.”
“Another thing,” Darquin added gently, “we’re trying to interrogate someone in the middle of enemy territory. I don’t know how solid this shield is, but if one of Cheys’ men bumps into it–”
“Hard to argue with that,” Morgan said quickly. “Ryath. All I ask is that you let us do our duty. If we run into trouble, it’s everyone for themselves. Leave, or stand and fight. It’s up to you.”
“Understood…Commander.” Raising an eyebrow at the mage, Morgan gestured to Darquin the signal to move out.
Darquin stepped into the corridor beyond the thick security door, gesturing to the right to indicate where he was going. He felt eyes staring into his back and tried to remind himself it was Ryath.
Morgan nodded, and indicated the other direction, to see what else could be found.
Carlacci glanced from one to the other, the silent question clear from his expression. At Darquin’s nod, he turned to follow Morgan.
To their surprise, they saw only the passage they had just crossed. No sign of Ryath at all.
At the first grouping of rooms, Morgan ordered faintly, “Take the first, I’ll get the next.”
Darquin nodded and slowly followed her directions, putting his ear to the door. He showed them his open hand, a signal for caution, then held up two fingers. There were at least two people inside.
Morgan paused, watching.
“Go on ahead,” he whispered. “They’re coming out.” He urged them on with several impatient sweeps of his arm.
She nodded, and did, cautious.
Carlacci drew his datapad out from the folds of his Anla’shok duster and hotwired it into the door lock of his choice as thumbed Darquin’s crystal into the data port. He looked across the hall to the others as his data-cracking programs loaded the access codes into the lock.
He shot a glance at the datapad as the access codes flickered in rapid succession. The lock had rejected the first one. The second. The third.
Ryath was watching them from behind her holo-projection, an illusion of the empty corridor behind them, occasionally monitoring through the microscopic probes she had left earlier. And the daring of these Rangers astounded her. They sought to exploit the psychological blind spots of their enemies as her people might, except without the benefit of the ancient tech which her order had handed down for generations. She had heard the stories, of course. A mage had to learn as much folklore as possible, to know how best to become part of it. But it didn’t prepare her for the sight. The thought of risking detection and inevitably one’s life, to do so freely without tech or doubt as these Anla’shok were now, amazed her.
And yet, even as the tech was shrieking its demands through her body, she doubted she could ever give it up.
Carlacci held his breath. The lock was ignoring the fourth and fifth codes. Six.
When he heard the lock unlatch, he took his connectors in his fist and yanked them loose as he slipped into the room on the other side.
Darquin was crouching low, the tube of his folded pike in his upheld fist, watching Morgan listen at another door and slip into the second room, out of sight just in time.
From within the shadow cast by the open door, he watched two of Cheys’ thugs walk down the corridor.
With a wide smile, Darquin sidestepped into the vacant room, unpacking his data-cracking kit.
The room that Carlacci found was small and dark, barely more than a closet. Its only light came from fading glow-strips along the ceiling. He looked down at the stacks of sealed boxes that filled the space. He had to hop onto them to get inside and close the door behind him.
After a moment’s pause to let his eyes adjust to the dark, he raised his knee, craning his neck to get a better look at the writing on the boxes. He couldn’t read the language, but recognized the barcode-like rendering of Gaim script.
Frowning, Carlacci leaned in to look at the display and control panel attached to the crate. The writing here was rendered in Centauri and Interlac. He sighed with relief. He could read those.
It confirmed his hunch — these were climate-controlled storage crates, containing a number of volatile biochemical agents.
“Bastards,” he muttered under his breath. He pulled a datapad out of his pocket and quickly copied down the inventory on the crate. It’d take Mira’s medical expertise to confirm it, but Carlacci’s experience told him clearly what had happened.
Carlacci came out quickly, his normally cheery features twisted by a mix of pity and disgust. His right hand twitched slightly as he caught a glimpse of the disappearing thugs.
Morgan’s scowl bored into the thugs’ backs as they left. She leaned out of her hiding place to place Carlacci again before she snuck toward him.
He met her eyes with a expression made of hard steel. “We chased the Gaim off, but Cheys is storing their raw materials. Either the Gaim think they’ll be able to come back, or Cheys is looking for someone else to pick up where they left off.”
She glanced away, absorbing the information. “Any markings on it?”
“Got it right here.” He raised his datapad.
“Then we move on.”
He followed her quietly, slipping the medal around his neck back into its place under his shirt as he did so, lips still moving in invocation. Morgan didn’t miss the motion. She smiled, but not mockingly. Gesturing to him, she headed out again, more cautious now.
He moved with her, close and silent as a shadow, entering the next room over. He was back out again a moment later. He drew a deep breath, trying to dispel the anger simmering evenly toward rage.
These rooms weren’t the sensual pleasure chambers or well-stocked wine cellars the Centauri were known for. Instead Carlacci saw slave pits and drug lab stockpiles. He didn’t want to remember the details, but he took them down. Cheys’ domicile was like a R&D think tank, storing the prototypes of modern Abbai poverty in every room on this floor.
He didn’t react when Ryath appeared beside him, her image frothing into existence like a storm front. Carlacci only looked up at her, avoiding her eyes, not in the mood to face another stoic reaction. He nodded to the room he’d just left. “More of the same,” he muttered.
Morgan found a number of rooms locked. That could be bypassed, but speed was important now. She waved at him to double-back to the first, where there was a hint of success.
Ryath stepped into the first room where Darquin was working on a data terminal. She sensed the signal from his link as he tapped a few keys, and traced it to the silent vibrations on the other Ranger’s comlinks. He was telling them he was in position.
He pushed his first crystal into the data port, keying in commands. “Damn it.”
“Skip the next access code,” she said. “Try the one after that.”
He looked over his shoulder at her as if already accustomed to her presence, still focused on his task. He tapped the third Abbai access code into the terminal. Then his face brightened. His datapad immediately began sifting through files, lulling security programs as it explored Cheys’ secrets. “Boom-cha,” he said, impressed. “We’re in! Thanks.”
“Um…sorry about what I did earlier.”
“You already said that.”
Darquin started, then paused as if considering something. That was when she realized she had momentarily lost the dramatic inflection she normally put into her voice. His remark must have distracted her.
“Well, it’s not the best first impression I ever made.” Darquin watched the data flicker on the screen. “Do you already know what’s in here?”
Ryath grinned, amused by his blatant attempt to change the subject. “No. Only suspicions.”
Darquin blinked as the datapad flagged a four-year-old cargo manifest. “I think I see why.”
Through one of her probes, she homed in on the readout. Judging from his eye movements, he was focusing on one of the names that had signed the form…Morden.
Darquin programmed the crackware to fill another data crystal with everything it could get. “If he’s in here, there’s gotta be more.”
Ryath looked away from one of the other names, that of Tilar. “More than you realize, Tomás.”
From her probes, she could see Morgan nodding to Carlacci beside her before she eased the next door open.
Carlacci stood outside, watching the corridor for anyone else who might arrive.
Darquin snatched up his digital loot and headed out, flashing Carlacci a grin as they met in the corridor, regretting it instantly. Looking into Carlacci’s face was like seeing a time-dilated mirror image of himself a month ago.
Morgan was out just a moment later, face hard. “More slave quarters. Not empty.”
Carlacci blinked, looking past Darquin to find Morgan. “Hell. They saw you?”
She shook her head. “Asleep, mostly.”
“Can we take them with us?”
“We might.” Then Morgan added, softly, “They’re children.”
“Christ,” Carlacci whispered. “How many?”
“We can carry about 20,” Darquin offered.
Ryath stepped forward to join their impromptu huddle. “Remember what I’ve said.”
Darquin nearly crushed the electronic sniffer in his fist. “You mean about caution? You heard ’em. Our options just narrowed–” He glanced over his shoulder. “Incoming.”
The Rangers are about to move for cover when Ryath raised her hand. “Wait. Stay close to me.”
A mist ran over them, quickly dissipating as three guards, thick and large humanoids from high-gravity worlds, walked into their view and opened the door to one of the slave rooms for a moment. Shaking his head, one of them grumbled to the other and pulled out of his pocket a comm unit, little more than a microphone with an underpowered comm relay. Carlacci glanced around from Morgan and Darquin to the hooded techno-mage in front of them. The guards weren’t at all aware of them.
“Cheys,” the comm unit announced wearily.
“The count is the same, my Lord,” the guard said.
Morgan scowled, trying to overhear.
“Is it,” Cheys answered. “Very well, call my valets to my study. Quickly now.”
The guard thumbed his comm unit and led his cohort back the way they came.
“The holo-shield is still in place,” Ryath said. “We’re quite safe.”
Carlacci stepped forward, fingers still white around the grip of his pike.
“Did that sound like what I thought it did?” Darquin said.
“Ie.” Morgan’s eyes were dark as she glanced around, thinking.
“Centauri do like having child valets,” Carlacci said. “Now what?”
“I’ll catch up. Once I find a data junction,” Darquin said, twirling his folded pike as he put it away, “we go steppin’.”
Ryath pointed ahead of them. An access panel in the distance shimmered. “Hurry, Tomás.”
“Just watch me.”
Carlacci nodded as Darquin ran into the corridor, tools in hand. “After you, Morgan.”
“Let’s check the rest of the rooms first – don’t want to miss anyone.”
“Right.” He was off quickly.
“Ryath.” Morgan waited until the mage turned and faced her. “Understand. We have to do this. It will stop Cheys from finishing his deal. By saving a few, we can in effect save them all. That is why we’re here.”
“As I am, Commander. I am here…to help. And as you might soon learn, I mean what I say.”
Carlacci returned quickly. “That’s it. He must be low on stock, to be filling orders with children,” he said, his low voice carrying a venom Morgan had never heard from him before.
Morgan agreed with him, but didn’t comment.
Tools between his lips, Darquin sent another silent signal from his link, indicating he was finished.
“Let’s get those out.”
Ryath and Carlacci followed Morgan down the corridor. Darquin waited beside the access panel and stepped into line with the others as they passed. To the universe at large, their charge was unseen and unheard.
Phoenix–“Trick of the Tail (Part 3)” (c) 2001 Leslie McBride, Niki Hipwood, Jamie Lawson, Joseph Medina
Babylon 5 TM and (c) 2001 Warner Bros.