“I suppose the advantage to plummeting feet-first down such a narrow shaft is that I can’t help but land on my feet,” Leo said as he wiggled his finger around to try to get the tip of his claw into the tiny unseen opening.
“Is that likely to matter?” Galatea asked him.
“From this height? Well, it would be embarrassing if, at my funeral, it was said that I had failed to do so. I’m sure I’d never live it down.” He paused in reflection for a moment. “I suppose the real trick would be to land on someone else’s feet. Why should I have to take the fall? Oh, well… here goes something.”
With a flex of his finger, he pushed the recessed button with the needle-sharp tip of his claw. There was no outward reaction, but his keen feline ears heard the faintest of humming from inside the silver shell.
“It’s powering up,” he said, disengaging his claw and pulling his hand away.
“What’s it doing now?” Galatea asked as it began to vacillate in place, scooting a centimeter in one direction and then the other. “Is it moving?”
“Yes,” Leo said.
“In place,” Leo said as it began to move up and down on its carriage. “It’s exercising or something.”
“Start-up routine,” Galatea said. “System check. It will probably run through all its major functions before it resumes its previous program.”
“I suppose knowing my luck, it’s probably going to be moving onto its cream pie dispensing function or electric shock administering function after it gets done with the motor ones,” Leo said.
“I can’t imagine why anybody would feel the need to put a cream pie dispenser in a sensor drone,” Galatea said.
“So, the electric shock is still on the table,” Leo said.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. It’s a sensor drone. It will scan for things like damage, electrical problems, anomalous energy readings, lifeforms…”
As she spoke, the drone had begun to hum louder and a blue light emanated from the front edge of it, the end opposite Leo, lighting up the tunnel ahead of him in an eerie blue glow. The light moved backwards, a glowing line sweeping over the top of the tube and then coming back down the back of the robot. It stopped when it hit Leo in the face.
“Yeah… I think it found a lifeform,” Leo said.
“Fascinating,” Galatea said. “How can you tell? Are your feline senses…”
The rest of her question was cut off by a blaring klaxon. Galatea, hearing the sound reduced to a safety threshold through her room’s communication link, winced. To Leo, hearing the sound in genetically-enhanced person, the sound was like a knife… a knife being driven into his head by a giant mallet held by a fifty ton assault mecha that had been shot out of the railgun of an even larger warmech with enough force to explode a planet on impact.
Actually, the knife was kind of superfluous. Forget about the knife and keep the rest. That the intensity and suddenness of the sound caught Leo off his guard is the key point that should be taken away from the tortured analogy.
He fell… feet first down the shaft he’d so painstakingly wriggled his way up, he fell.
Never could the expression “let the chips fall as they may” be uttered more aptly than as a description of a casino evacuated due to explosions. The floor was like a ghost town, littered with cards and dice and the remains of drinks. The old-fashioned video slot machines were dark and lifeless. The more modern holo terminals that took up so much space weren’t even doing that… in the absence of power, they were absent, too.
Lilliana and Regan charged through the main floor without stopping, as there was no real cover to be found within it. A door marked for staff only was open at the far side, its security countermeasures disabled by the evacuation protocol. They bolted through it.
Lilliana closed it, ripped the cover off the inert control console next to it and spliced together a bypass to override the global system, using only one hand and bending wires with her teeth since her other arm was still numb from the stunner graze.
Reverted to its default condition, the door locked and charged itself to repel unauthorized intruders with escalating amounts of electricity. A few more bypasses later and it could no longer recognize an authorized intruder, nor would it be so patient before moving onto its highest level of deterrence. She pulled a bit of wire out of her hair and put in a jump disabling the faintly visible blue force field so that it wouldn’t give their location away—not that they wouldn’t easy enough to find on an internal scan, but why make things easier than they were?—then bent that wire so that it would be knocked out by surge of power when the door first discharged its shock.
“There,” Lilliana said, letting out a breath she’d been holding the whole time she’d been fiddling with the electronics. “It’s not a pretty hack… Galatea could probably have done better… but that should get the job done.”
“Of course,” a rich, smooth voice said from the speaker on the console. “Let it never be said that little Lilly Corsair does not know how to shut a door.”
In his lair, Fortunato smiled, watching the surprise turn to anger on Lilliana’s face.
“You,” she said. She wasn’t facing the console. She was addressing the room, the air. He liked that. The Finger was his. It was his lair, more than that… it was his heavenly demesne.
“Are you honestly surprised?” he asked.
“Frankly, I expected you to show a little more patience,” she said.
He chuckled, too softly for his communicator to pick up and broadcast.
“The truth is, I hadn’t intended on addressing you so early in the game,” he said. “I was enjoying watching you twist, wondering when I would strike, how I would strike… if I would even bother to strike. But when I saw you, doing what it is that you do best… well, I’m a nostalgic man. Though I do have to say you’re slipping, lover. Your crewmate’s on the same side of the door as you.”
“The Bastard’s got a point, he does,” the absurdly dressed one-eyed fop said to his estranged lover. “It’s gonna be awful difficult for me to take ‘em on with a door between us.”
“What do you want?” Lilliana asked. “You want the Stella? We don’t have it.”
“Why would I want the Stella?” he asked.
“You hired us to steal it,” she said.
“While I admit to nothing of the sort,” he said, “I suppose you would also accuse me of attempting to destroy that charmingly derelict transport ship in which you have been tramping… the transport around in which you have…”
“Oh, just end it with a preposition!” Lilliana said. “You can play the cultured rogue with me, but you’re still a rogue, and I know where you came from as well as you do.”
“Regardless, if you believe I hired you to steal an item and that I arranged to destroy the ship while it was carrying said item, then it should stand to reason that I have no interest in the item, shouldn’t it?”
“A lot of things should have stood to reason in my life,” Lilliana said. “Particularly those parts that involved you. Why should this be any different?”
“Reason was never your forte, dear Lilly,” Fortunato said. “You should leave it to me.”
“I ask again… what do you want?” Lilliana asked.
There was a flare in the corner of Fortunato’s screen array and an audible bzzzt mingled with a scream. The door’s forcefield flared back to life.
“I suppose I should mention, at this point, that I didn’t call off the hospitality ambassadors when I decided to reach out and touch you,” Fortunato said. “I should probably let you get on with the running for your life now. I’m sure you have a good deal more running to do. Talk to you soon.”
62: Smooth Operator 64: Closeted » »
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