Lilly observes everything with interest as they pass through the rusty doors, down the stairs, and into the compound. Any little thing she notes could help Jimmy when he conducts his upcoming raid. There are no exterior guards, but if this is the only access, sneaking inside may be tough. And although she has not spotted any cameras above ground, external surveillance is likely. She does not get a good look at the locking mechanisms on the door, either. The stairwell is dimly lit, and they are rushed through it too quickly.
They pull off their respirators as they descend about thirty meters below ground. After passing through another set of doors, they find themselves in the large central chamber. Jimmy would need some serious firepower to bust this far down. A handful of guards mill about the large room, and some are seated playing cards. Five guards in our escort, four playing cards, six others about. That’s more than one per prisoner, Lilly realizes. The odds make her a little uneasy. And if we have to fight them, we’re going to need to use their own weapons against them. In the middle of the space is an elevated desk from which a middle-aged white woman watches over all. The sergeant leads Lilly and Imogen straight there and presents them to Warden Rita of Ten Tines Prison. Although everyone here is in a uniform, none have the official Dominion military seal on them. The warden’s outfit is a little fancier but bears no rank insignia.
The whole way, Imogen looks around in wonder as she barrages the sergeant with questions related to the contamination of the environment. “How is it not getting into the groundwater? Or you must have a pretty good water purification system here?” He ignores her, as she anticipated, but she continues to maintain her cover. It gives her an opportunity to look for internal surveillance systems. If there are any, they are well hidden, though.
The warden finishes entering something into her computer and then leans down to look at the new arrivals below her desk. “The contamination does not go very deep,” she says, addressing the scientist’s comments. “And the ground here is quite stable. Notice all the rock you’re in.” Indeed, the room seems carved out of the bedrock. “Now, what were you two fixing to do? Something about gathering samples? You know this is a restricted area, right?” She glances over at the sergeant, who nods and assures her that he conveyed the message. The antagonizing guard from above now plays the role of obedient good soldier.
“Of course we know it’s not safe to be here,” Imogen replies, cheerfully ignoring the whole “restricted” topic. “There’s so much contamination! The university is doing a study and so we’ve been contracted to collect a bunch of samples.”
“The landing didn’t go perfectly, ma’am,” Lilly adds. She sticks close by Imogen’s side, but her attention is more on the rest of the room than it is on what will probably be a boring conversation that Imogen can handle entirely on her own. Cameras have this space well-covered, she notes. To the north, a haggard janitor gets pushed out of the next room by one of the young guards. The middle-aged man then starts sweeping this one. When Lilly looks at his uniform more closely—orange coveralls, slippers instead of shoes—she realizes he must be a prisoner. The rest of them are likely through the door on the west wall, based on the “Cells: Restricted Access” signs there by the “Don’t Be Dumb” poster.
“I’m sympathetic with science,” the warden says. “Fixing up these wastes would be a good thing—”
“Is this a science facility?!” Imogen asks excitedly.
“No. This ain’t the place for it,” Rita snaps, cutting off the scientist before she can launch into her next set of questions. “I’m going to need your identity papers.”
Imogen produces her green card and hands it over with no protest. “I’m a famous Umojan scientist,” she shares. “I was on UNN!” Their own identities are the perfect cover for this little reconnaissance job, as sample collection is right there on Lost & Found’s business cards. Lilly follows her partner’s lead, presenting the brand new ID printed on Mar Sara just before that planet’s liberation.
Rita enters everything into the system, performing a quick background check. “All right, one Lilly Washington.” Tap, tap, tap. “You haven’t been up to much, clean record. Well, not for long, I guess. Thank you.” She hands back that ID and picks up the next one. “And Imogen Owendoher.” The scientist corrects Rita’s pronunciation. “No surprise: foreigner,” the warden says, looking over the green card. Tap, tap, tap. “You do realize your visa expires in six months? You should get that renewed or you could be deported. Or worse! And you wouldn’t want that, now would you?”
Is that a threat? Imogen wonders. Or is she just a jerk? She reaches out with her mind, trying to sense into the warden’s basic drives for some hook by which to manipulate her. What Imogen gets off Rita in waves is her strong desire for vengeance. The Confederacy wronged her greatly, so she will do whatever she can to further turn the screws on former Confederates.
“You said your ship got all banged up ‘cause you’re flying around in restricted space, is that right?”
“Well, it was the unstable land—” Imogen rattles on more, expressing concern for the local environment. “Surely we’re not the only scientists to have come out here to look at this fascinating waste,” she says leadingly. If Neiman has been here, she needs to know. The warden could easily lie with her lips, but not with her thoughts. Imogen concentrates on those rather than her words.
“We don’t get many visitors,” Rita says. “Now, I heard you wanted to make a phone call for some kind of tow truck vehicle.”
“Or if there’s some kind of mechanic shop here, maybe there’s some gear we can borrow to get her up on a jack and, oh, I don’t know… Lilly there is the one who takes care of the ship.” Imogen keeps the conversation going as she tries to force her way back into the warden’s mind, but something resists her. Did Neiman cause some sort of forgetfulness? she wonders. When she finally gets through, the warden is visualizing the workshop to the north. Frustrated, Imogen pushes harder. There must be something about Neiman in this woman’s mind. A faint memory stirs. On the very periphery of the warden’s vision some days past, a figure steps away from a workbench and then leaves the workshop. Rita’s attention was directed elsewhere at the time, so she did not register facial features, but Imogen can tell the person was in neither a guard uniform nor prisoner coveralls. If she can just get to that bench, she may be able to pursue this lead further with some psychometry.
Rita calls the sergeant back to attention and tells him to escort the unexpected visitors to the workshop to see if anything there can help get their ship out of here faster.