I awoke to a cacophony of aches and pains. Commander Adams had worked me over, but he’d stopped short of inflicting debilitating damage.
My hands were still secured behind my back but now I was on my side on the floor. My left arm felt leaden, hopefully because I’d slept on it and not because my shoulder was dislocated or worse.
A soft sound nearby snapped me back to the situation at hand. I kept my eyes closed and feigned sleep. The air stirred as someone leaned over me. A hand touched my neck and I struck, lunging up head-first. My skull cracked against something hard and the person above me fell back with a deep groan.
I twisted around and kicked out with my bound legs. I hit something soft and the groan turned into a grunt of pain. Based on the timbre of the voice, it was likely a man, but all I could see were legs and feet outlined in greenish-gray. We were in a pitch black room but they hadn’t taken my contact lenses. I pulled back for another kick.
“Queen Rani, stop, I’m not your enemy,” the man snapped. He rolled away and sat up. “Your breathing changed. I was checking if you were still alive. Clearly you are.”
A dark smear of blood ran from his nose. His face was bruised even more than before, but Emperor Kos was easy to recognize. Clean away the blood and bruises and the man would be gorgeous—the result of a millennia-long dynasty and the best genetics money and power could buy.
The Quint mercs had untied the Emperor’s arms. His legs were still shackled. He held himself stiffly, but that could be because I’d just kicked him.
Emperor Kos watched me with wary suspicion, proving he could see. His eyes didn’t glow with the telltale sheen of night-vision contact lenses, so he had some sort of augmentation, likely biological. People as rich as the Emperor didn’t bother with mechanical ocular implants.
“How long have I been out?” I asked as I levered myself up into a sitting position. The mercs had taken my belt and weapons but left me in the stealth suit and boots.
“Two hours, maybe,” he said. “Without being able to connect to the net, it’s hard to tell.”
I mentally reached for the net and came up empty. This room blocked all signals—I couldn’t even see my ship. Without the constant background noise of an active net connection my mind seemed too quiet, too still.
I had trained to deal with the abrupt loss of connection and could also disconnect for particularly delicate jobs. But for normal people, forcibly cutting off their net connection amounted to psychological torture.
“How are you, Emperor Kos?” I asked. “Any injuries I should be aware of?” Is the lack of a net connection making you crazy?
“Please, call me Valentin. I only have minor injuries so far, though I think you might’ve cracked a rib. Why are you here?” he asked.
“I’m here for you,” I said. Sticking close to the truth was far easier than weaving elaborate lies.
“My advisors hired the Rogue Queen to rescue me?” he asked skeptically.
“I don’t exactly hang a shingle with my name on it, but dig deep enough and you’ll discover that if you want something found, I can find it,” I said, dodging the question. “And you might as well call me Samara. ‘Queen Rani’ makes me feel far fancier than I am and ‘the Rogue Queen’ is a mouthful.”
“Did you lead my soldiers here to die?” he asked.
“No, they managed that bit of incompetence on their own. No one told me that Kos soldiers were attacking tonight. I planned to sneak in and grab you.”
Pins and needles stabbed my left arm as the blood flow resumed. First things first, I needed my hands in front of me. Thankfully, these cuffs had a spreader bar designed to keep my hands separated to make lock picking more difficult. It meant I could slide my arms under my butt rather than having to dislocate my shoulder to pull them over my head.
It took some ungraceful wiggling, but I managed to get my hands in front of me. Emperor Kos looked far more impressed than the move deserved.
A look at the cuffs proved what I’d suspected—they were an older style that many units still used because they were harder to pick. Of course, the cuffs had been around for long enough that people who made a habit of getting put into them had had plenty of time to practice getting out of them, myself included.
I needed to have a plan before I took them off or the Quint soldiers would just slap me back in them. And a lot of that plan depended on how helpful—and useful—Emperor Kos would be.
“How long have you been here?” I asked. “Do they normally keep you in this cell?”
“I’ve been moved three times since they grabbed me. We’ve been here a little over a week. Last night was the second time I’ve been out of this room since we arrived.”
The light mental tickle of a waiting neural link took me by surprise. I glanced sharply at Emperor Kos who nodded very slightly. My neural link was protected by the strongest defenses I could buy or build—he shouldn’t have been able to contact me without permission.
In fact, he shouldn’t even be able to see my link, what more connect to it.
I double-checked all of my mental firewalls, but I had a feeling that he was playing on an entirely different level. However, if we wanted any hope of escaping, neural link transmission was the best way to communicate secretly.
The link connected with an unusual burst of static. I’m encrypting the signal, Emperor Kos said through the link, to prevent eavesdropping.
Neural links were heavily encrypted by default, so he must be adding an additional layer of protection. And the fact that he could, and thought that he needed to, made me question just how secure these links were in the first place.
You sound like Emperor Kos, but one can’t be too careful. Touch your right eyebrow with your left pinky, I said.
He raised said eyebrow but followed my instructions. Samara, I told you to call me Valentin, he said.
I ignored the request. The intimacy of a first name made him real, made him a person and not just a payday. It was a complication I didn’t need.
My head throbbed. I rubbed my forehead and used the movement to pull a pin from my hair and palm it. I had pins sewn into the seams of my stealth suit, but if the mercs were going to make it even easier, I wasn’t going to complain.
I pulled my knees up rested my forehead against them. The move was calculated to make me look small, harmless, and hopeless. It would also make it less apparent that we were linking.
I peeked at Emperor Kos. His frown smoothed out into a neutral expression when he caught me looking. So I wasn’t the only one plotting. How did you link without my permission? I asked.
State secret, he said with a grin. Even bruised and with a busted lip, his grin hit me like a meteor. Can you get out of the cuffs? he asked.
Yes, I said. How often do they check on you? Do you know anything about the guard rotations?
They turn the lights on in the morning and someone brings me breakfast. Some days Commander Adams tries to get me to talk, but mostly it’s just a random guard bringing food. Someone also brings me dinner. Other than that, the door doesn’t open. The lights go out at night, and there is a camera in the corner.
I couldn’t wait for the guards to open the door on schedule. They’d be expecting an escape attempt. Which meant I needed to provide them a reason to open the door early. Something urgent.
A plan began to form. It was risky, but everything was risky at this point. I let it simmer in my subconscious and started picking the lock on the left cuff. It was tricky with my arms wedged between my chest and legs, but it kept the cuff out of sight of the cameras. I returned to my questions.
“Any luck linking out while you’ve been here?” I asked aloud to keep the guards guessing.
Emperor Kos followed my lead. “I can’t connect even when the door is open.” He continued across the link, I tried last night but although the block was lighter, I’m not sure the message got out.
The mercenaries were being unusually careful with Emperor Kos. Most Quint mercs were hotheaded and impulsive, but this squad was a higher caliber. The Quint Confederacy wanted something from the Emperor. Badly. But what?
Whatever it was, they wanted him kept alive, which was good enough for my plan.
The handcuff unlocked. I left it around my wrist and carefully wrapped my arms around my legs until I could reach the lock on the leg shackle. The shackle was clamped to my ankle over the thin leather of my boots. I had to assume the guards were onto me at this point, so I moved quickly.
Do you have an escape plan? Kos asked.
Yes. It goes like this: step one, escape, I said. I didn’t add that step two was ransom him and step three was profit—he’d find that out soon enough.
I hoped for something a little more concrete, he said. I tried to overpower a guard and got this, he pointed to his bruised face, for my effort. I think they are augmented.
I would be more surprised if the soldiers, especially the guards, weren’t augmented. It wasn’t an impossible situation, not quite, but it was far from ideal. We needed to escape tonight, while the mercs were still recovering from the Kos soldiers’ attack. If we failed tonight it could take days or weeks to find an opening to escape, time I didn’t have.
The leg shackled unlocked. Showtime. I let a good dose of crazy slip into my smile and Emperor Kos flinched back. “You thought I was here to rescue you,” I said. “That’s adorable.”
He frowned. “But—”
I cut him off. “Your brother sends his regards,” I said.
With that, I attacked.