Ginber 28, 000165
"Ten thousand people." Robert spun slowly in the conference room chair. "Ten thousand people," he repeated.
Hardi's eyebrow went up. "You've seen epidemics before."
"Not deliberate ones," he said. "And not ones I couldn't do anything about." He sighed heavily. "I should have stayed at the base in Jai."
"If they can't ship in water fast enough now to keep people alive while the antidote is being found, and they won't let you help research it, it doesn't much matter where you are," she said flatly.
"What about the brain scans?" she asked. "If you can figure out what's going on with all this—" she waved a hand around her, "you'd give me some good bargaining power." She raked her hands through her hair. "I could certainly use all the help I can get."
Robert chuckled ruefully. "Aren't we just a pitiful pair? You call back Darnell," he said with a sneer, "and I'll see what I can do with the scans without proper equipment."
"Will do," said Hardi, already pushing the "Call" button. "Let me know if you find anything. Interrupt me—" she stopped as Darnell's irate face appeared. Robert slipped out with a jaunty wave, good cheer restored.
"You sicced the fucking Feds on us," Darnell snarled. The little of the room that Hardi could see behind him was smoky, and she could hear clanking and hissing in the background. Darnell looked off to the side for a moment, then waved away whoever was taking his attention.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Mariatu," Hardi said. "I've been here avoiding a surprise Fed search. Why do you think it took me so long to get back to you?"
"Dammit!" he swore. "They know how we're hiding."
Hardi scoffed. "Give it up. Give us the antidote. They'll get you eventually, and another ten thousand people might be dead in the meantime."
His jaw set, but he didn't say anything.
"I've got a deal for you..." taunted Hardi.
Darnell's expression didn't change.
"Here's something you may not know as fact," she continued. "A whole bunch of untrained... whatever we ares together causes uncontrolled visions." She saw his expression lighten a bit with the revelation, but he still didn't say anything.
"Consider that free info," she said. "The Feds are coming for you, and they're coming for me. If I can save both our collective asses, we can live free long enough to figure this out."
"If you betray us..." Darnell growled.
"I won't," she swore.
Darnell nodded very slightly. Good enough for Hardi.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do..."
"Don't shoot!" Robert shouted frantically, voice higher than normal. "Don't shoot! We're unarmed."
Hardi and Robert stood outside the village transport they had taken to Jai, hands up.
"On your knees!" bellowed the police officer guarding the door of the consultants' hotel. His gun moved steadily between aiming at Hardi, then Robert.
Hardi and Robert both dropped to their knees, hand still up. Hardi grimaced at the dust they swirled up, but kept her peace. It hadn't rained yet in their time on Ming Ung, and the land was dry and cracked.
The door behind the guard opened and five suited-up officers came out cautiously. Shay Wilder came out behind them.
"Everybody, let's keep calm," Wilder said, hands out. "Remember, we're all here for the same thing—to save lives."
Hardi couldn't help rolling her eyes a little, and heard one of the suited men snort a little with laughter.
"As you can see," Robert said with a tiny flourish of his raised hand, "we're alive and uninfected."
"Ignoring the fact that you could easily have been infected while you were out... wherever you were," Wilder allowed, "I'll grant that yes, you were probably not infected when we had you in quarantine, Ms. Rhodes."
"Thank you," Hardi drawled. Robert gave her a warning look, and she added, "I don't blame you for being cautious. After all, there are lives at stake."
Wilder gave her a narrow-eyed look, but let her mockery pass. "Why are you back, Ms. Rhodes, Dr. Yuk? Do you have some new insight from your dusty travels?"
Hardi smirked. "Why, yes, we do. We have a disk containing the formula for the antidote, along with production instructions and a sample."
"Who gave them to you?" Wilder asked much more intently.
"No clue," Hardi said with a shrug. "What matters is that we have it." She paused for a beat. "I'm happy to hand it over if I won't be arrested for breaking quarantine." She and Robert had debated this bluff at length—Robert had been mostly concerned that they would get shot for attempting to hold out.
"Just hand over the disk," Wilder said slowly, "then turn yourself in. We can debate the minutiae later."
Hardi scoffed. "I won't be arrested," she said. "I was being held against my will—"
"You risked the lives of everyone in Jai and the people who helped you hide—" Wilder insisted.
"I wasn't infected!" she shouted back. "I knew I wasn't infected, and Robert—Dr. Yuk did, too. He wouldn't have let me go if he thought I was a risk."
Wilder looked at Robert skeptically. Robert nodded, a faint smile on his face. "I am a doctor," he said simply.
"Plus," Hardi added more calmly when Wilder didn't jump back in, "if I were infected, I'd be pretty damn sick by now without proper treatment. I wouldn't be standing here easily shooting the shit with you."
Wilder conceded her point with a wave of his hand. "As you said, what matters is that we have the antidote."
"Tell me flat out that I'm not going to be arrested, detained, or harmed," she said, glaring around at the police officers. Robert poked an elbow in her direction, and she added, "Robert, too, or the Ungians that helped us."
Wilder tapped his nose with a finger, eyes narrowed as he stared hard at Hardi. "Fine," he said finally. "No legal action or physical detainment, but you're both fired, effective Ginber 27th, when you escaped. No severance package, all time off and bonuses forfeit."
Robert squawked, but Hardi knew she wasn't going to get a better deal. "Agreed," she said quickly. "The bag is in my pocket, if I can—" She reached for her pocket slowly, eyes on the police.
"Everybody, stand down," Wilder said. "We're all safe and friendly here." He didn't sound especially friendly. One of the officers gave him an incredulous look, but they all put their weapons away.
Hardi pulled out a small black bag and unzipped it to show Wilder and the group the vial and disk. "This should be everything we—you—need."
"Where'd you find this?" one of the consultants asked as the bag was hurried into the hotel.
"We got a tip," Robert said as he stood and dusted off his clothes. His royal blue button-down was positively tame by Robert-standards, but it fit his strangely somber mood all day. "They said they'd done enough damage and gave up. It included the location of that bag."
"'Gave up?'" Wilder asked. "Gave up on religious persecution? That doesn't fit."
Robert shrugged casually. "Maybe we had it all wrong. Maybe they just wanted to make sure they could get some treasure from the population." Everyone looked at him. He shrugged again, not smiling. "Just speculating."
"Turn over the details of message you received," Wilder said, turning back to Hardi. She pursed her lips at the demand as he continued, "We shouldn't trust their word that they'll stop attacking. They've already proven themselves to be dishonorable people."
"'Dishonorable?'" Hardi muttered to Robert.
"Well, they are," he whispered back. "They blew up a fucking city and poisoned a planet." Hardi's eyes widened. "Don't turn them into heroes for giving up the antidote after thousands of people died," he hissed.
She shivered at his vehemence and turned back to Wilder. "Yeah," she said. "We should keep looking for them and keep and eye out for more attacks."
"I'll ask one more time," Wilder said, looking between Hardi and Robert. "Do you have any clues as to who made these attacks? If we find out you've been withholding information, there's no saving you from the law."
"No," Hardi said, taking a slow breath. "I don't know who did it."
Robert was quiet long enough that Hardi looked over at him. He squinted up into the sun, then looked back down to find them both looking at him. "Oh. I don't know who the monsters were," he said. Hardi let out her breath.
Wilder gave them both a hard look. "You'll both need to clean out your room at the hostel," he said coldly. "By the end of today. I can't say I care much for where you go, except that you should stay accessible but out of the way." He turned and headed back into the base. "I suspect you'll both want to keep your heads low for a while."
Robert sighed lightly after Wilder was inside. "I think you have a message to go fake. I'm going to pack."
"Robert...?" Hardi stopped. "Turning them over wouldn't have gotten us the antidote any faster."
"No," he said slowly, "it wouldn't have. But you put the burden on the Witches of Ming Ung to keep the peace. None of this is their fault, but if they can't keep up their end of the bargain with you, they're back at square one."
"That's not true at all," Hardi argued. She steered him towards the hostel. "I put myself in the middle. If the Witches don't deliver to me, then it's up to me to placate Darnell." Robert just grunted.
They were quiet as they got in the hostel and headed up to their room. Justine poked her head out from the kitchen and waved cautiously. Robert gave her a grin and jaunty salute, and she relaxed, ducking back into the kitchen.
"You're unstable, you know that?" Hardi muttered. "You go from hot to cold quicker than almost anyone I've ever met."
Robert gave her a dramatic eye roll and boldly swung open their room door. They froze.
"Fuck," Hardi swore softly.
Clothes were strewn everywhere. The desk was turned over in a corner. The dresser was pulled away from the wall, drawers stacked bottom-up on the floor. A bright pink and black shirt of Robert's hung from the corner of the top drawer.
"Well," Robert said, "I guess they weren't sure if we were just hiding under the bed."
Hardi smiled slightly and heaved the desk upright again. The desk-planted comm had been practically ripped out, leaving a hole and exposed wires. She whistled softly and started setting the dresser to rights.
Robert started picking up clothes and shoes, dusting off his beloved shirts and folding them carefully into his bag.
"You know, Robert," Hardi said, "we—I could really use your help."
"This really isn't my specialty," he protested, sweeping up a pair of Hardi's pants and holding them up for examination.
Hardi snatched the pants away and threw them into her bag. "You're already jobless," she pointed out. "You might as well learn something new."
Robert chuckled. "Thanks for that, by the way. You didn't protest too hard to keep our jobs." Hardi just shrugged. "I'd need facilities, subjects."
"You've got the subjects," Hardi responded. "What kind of facilities do you need?"
"Expensive ones," he said. "It's not that simple. Without a team, without funding, it's not something I can just jump into. And researchers don't get money for researching telepathy or clairvoyance or whatever this is. Hell, if your psychologist is to be believed, I could end up 'disappeared'," he said, wiggling his fingers dramatically.
"Have those doctors really come up missing?" Hardi asked seriously.
He shrugged. "I haven't looked up more than a couple of them, but those two did fall off the radar, yes." He looked around at their little room. "Then again, they could have retired to a place like this and we'd never find them again."
Hardi hummed thoughtfully and handed him one of his shoes.
"Sirka would be the best place," Robert mused idly. "I wanted you to go there for the brain scan, remember? Best damn facilities in the Federation. I could probably rent out some space from Dr. Jugo—I bet she remembers me fondly." Hardi didn't rise to the bait.
A few minutes passed in quiet packing before Robert asked, "Hardi? What about your thug?"
Hardi blinked, confused. "Markos. Well..." She sighed heavily. "This is... important. He wouldn't understand that," she said, glancing at Robert out of the corner of her eye.
"Doesn't sound like he would," Robert said neutrally, handing Hardi a bra. She blushed, masked by her skin tone.
"Yeah," she said softly, trying not to remember him sleeping on the couch as she left. "So... you'll check with this Dr. Jugo?"
"As soon as I get to a working comm," Robert promised.
Finally they were both packed and in the hallway, Hardi with her single suitcase and Robert with his seven.
"Wait. Seven bags?" Hardi asked. "Didn't you have six when you got here?"
"I don't really keep up with these sorts of things," he replied, glancing curiously at his bags. "Are you sure I didn't have seven?"
Hardi opened her mouth, then closed it. She wasn't 100% sure.
Robert grinned boyishly. "Whatever. Where to, Ms. Harding Rhodes?"
She smiled back, feeling light. "Well, Dr. Robert Yuk," she said. "We both have a 'god' to demystify. Let's get to it."