18. Dangerous games.

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Now they were safely in Earth orbit, Carli knew she only had a few days to prepare, but since the success or failure of the operation depended largely on keeping Lazzaro off balance and distracted, she had to spend at least some time each day working on him.

Whether that meant finding an excuse to wander onto the bridge whilst Toes was doing his gripe ‘n’ groan session and stand in Eric’s line of sight until he noticed her, sitting at his table in the canteen when he was chatting to other crewmen and flashing him an occasional coy smile, or “accidentally” running into him in the corridor when he was taking his morning run, Carli made sure he saw just enough of her to make him uncomfortable, but not enough that he had a chance to talk to her about anything except official ship’s business.

She felt bad about it and she held onto that feeling; it somehow helped her justify her actions, making her conscious of how important her mission was and giving her an added incentive to complete it as soon as possible.

For his part, Lazzaro was totally confused by her attitude, he couldn’t for the life of him work out what he was supposed to do.
Did he brazen it out and hope it was all some kind of elaborate joke?
Should he call her bluff and hope she was just waiting for an opportunity to explain?
Or should he seek out Diaz, talk to her privately and take the chance that she wouldn’t go running straight back to her friend with news of his discomfort?

He quickly discounted all but the first option however, as he was still concerned that his memory of that night hadn’t returned and he didn’t want to risk the loss of his pass getting back to the captain.
So all he could do was concentrate on his duties as First Officer and pray that the situation resolved itself soon because, with the Three Zees in trouble, he was going to need to have his wits about him.

*****

Meanwhile, in the vast interplanetary void between Jupiter and Mars, Dreeb and his hired killers were on course for their pre-arranged rendezvous point. The cruiser had reached the potentially dangerous area of the asteroid belt, where careful programming of the nav-systems was essential if they wanted to maintain faster-than-light drive.
They were heading for Phobos, Mars’ largest satellite, the plan being to hold station on the “blind side” of the small moon, hiding in its shadow until it was time to intercept their target.

“Sir, there’s a burst transmission coming in now,” said one of the black-clad, masked mercenaries; Dreeb didn’t know his name and didn’t want to, (he had actually issued the crew with numbered badges when he retained their services, specifically to avoid personal interaction) “do you want to take it here on the bridge?”

“No,” Dreeb replied, “transfer it to the scrambler in comms,” he crossed to the door of the small secure room and swiped his pass across the sensor panel, “and don’t get any funny ideas, this message is for my eyes only.”

The crewman grunted and shrugged, then routed the message as he’d been told, signalling indifference to his boss’s secrecy. His expression, had anyone been able to see it, said he’d been hired to do a job without asking questions, and that was fine by him.

Dreeb closed the door and powered up the custom built comm panel, activating the encryption software by scanning the coded chip that was embedded beneath the skin of his wrist.
A stream of code scrolled past; the data from Lazzaro’s stolen security card, then the screen went blank and the lines of numbers were replaced by the spiky trace of an audio player.
He checked the time code and noted that, although the message been received just moments earlier, it had been recorded two days previously and only sent when the cruiser had come within range of the transmitter onboard the Alice Marie.

Dreeb played Carli’s report, a crooked grin twisting the scarred contours of his face as he listened, then he copied the security data to a flash drive he kept on a chain around his neck, deleted the original and the audio file and closed down the comm panel.
He left the small room and beckoned to the man who had reported the transmission.

“Six, I’m going to my cabin, you have the bridge.” The man gave a curt nod. “Unless there’s an emergency I don’t want to be disturbed until we’re on final approach to Phobos.”

*****

As Dreeb headed for a voyeuristic fix of death and disfigurement, courtesy of his subspace SnuffStream account, Carli was trying her hardest not to feel guilty about spending yet another mealtime torturing Eric.

She’d sat opposite him at lunch, shamelessly flirting with members of the engineering team, laughing loudly at their jokes and joining in when they mocked Lazzaro’s expression of disgust at some of the more tasteless stories.
In the end he’d got up and left the canteen, clearly disappointed at her behaviour, which suited Carli fine, despite the pangs of conscience, the less he wanted to do with her today, the happier she was.

After another ten minutes of banter with the engineers, Carli made her excuses and left, not rushing but with a nervous urgency that she fought to control.
She stopped to chat with Diaz, who was on her way for a workout in the gym and promised to join her there when she’d been back to her quarters to change, but when her friend was out of sight Carli doubled back and headed for the transport bay.

Finding the bay empty, as she assumed it would be at this time of day, she once again disabled the door access panel and retrieved the hidden transmitter from behind the hidden panel in her locker.
She checked the display and then, noting the symbol for a delivered burst message was showing, entered a code to activate the unit.
This time however, she had to spend valuable seconds fitting a new comm chip, one that would only transmit on a single, very specific frequency.

It seemed to take forever for the signal indicator to flicker on and she could feel the thumping of her heart against her ribcage by the time she heard the faint sound of a voice, repeating the same phrase over and over;
“Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…”

She took a deep breath and spoke quietly and clearly, “Intel Ops, this is agent Fisher, codename: Carli…I say again, Intel Ops this is Carli, do you read me?”
She thought for a moment they weren’t going to reply, that they’d abandoned her, then;
“We hear you Carli, go ahead.”

That was it, no pleasantries, no “How’ya doing?” nothing, but it was enough to calm the pounding in her temples and she could detect only the faintest of tremors in her voice when she spoke.

“Message sent successfully. Repeat: Message sent and acknowledged. Predicting the hostile to be in position at Phobos ahead of schedule. Requesting confirmation of intercept team’s deployment.”

“Affirmative, a full team has been deployed and is currently en route to the coordinates you provided.”

“Understood,” Carli paused, unsure of how to phrase the next question, “um, when will it be necessary for me to inform captain Toes of my deception? I assume he will be made aware of the situation prior to the operation being executed and I doubt he’ll take kindly to being used like this.”

She had been expecting some discussion on the matter, so she was surprised at the abruptness of the reply.
“Negative. Repeat: Negative. Do NOT make the captain aware of any facet of the operation. This is strictly need to know. Control out.”

And that was it.
Zena Fisher, Intel Ops officer, codename: Carli, was on her own again.

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