As Tilly uses the building’s ducts to approach her mentor’s office, Dr. Kristof tells her to come in.
He never told me how he always knew when I came creeping through the ducts, but he knew. I think it’s because Dr. Kristof has been in this office so long he knows every background sound by heart. As such, the minor sounds I make don’t fade into that well-known collection of creaks and sighs. That’s my theory, anyway.
“Be right down, sir.”
“I’ll be right down,” Dr. Kristof said. “That is what you meant to say, is it not?”
I lifted aside the duct grating and rolled my eyes at my former professor. “The ‘I’ is implied and my grammar choice is perfectly acceptable for casual conversations.”
Grabbing the lip of the opening, I tucked and dropped into the office below. Landing lightly, before Dr. Kristof, I added, “You’re a chem teacher. Why do you care about my grammar? Besides, I graduated years ago.”
“When you stop learning, you stop living, my dear.” Dr. Kristof opened his arms wide, gave me a big hug, and then held me at arm’s length. “It’s good to see you, girl! How are you?”
“I need help, sir.”
“I rather assumed that, Tilly. The RIA rarely pays visits to mere chemistry professors. They claim you are part of some great threat to the Star Kingdom.”
“From their point of view, I suppose I am.”
Dr. Kristof’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “They also told me you’re some kind of thief?”
To my surprise, I felt heat in my cheeks from a blush.
My old mentor offered a gentle smile, “To which I told them, ‘I bet she’s a damned good one!’ You always could do anything you truly set your mind to.”
“You aren’t…disappointed in me?”
“It’s not the career I’d have chosen for my favorite student, but following that path has let you put a burr up the RIA’s backside. That’s no small accomplishment.”
“You sound as if you’re proud of me.”
“I am. Back in my youth, I was quite the republican. I even met Rebecca — the future Mrs. Kristof — at an anti-monarchist protest. I could have sworn I told you about that.”
“You did. It’s one reason I came to you.”
“I’m glad you did, Tilly. But, as I said, we don’t have much time before the RIA checks on me. They do so with distressing, though unpredictable, regularity. What may I do for you?”
I pulled the analysis from my equipment pouch and handed it to Dr. Kristof. “I can only understand part of this. Can you interpret it for me?”
He took the copy from me and flipped through it. “It will take a while, but I think so. What are you looking for?”
“A way to destroy the item described in the report.”
“Will you tell me what the item is?”
“Are you certain you want to know, sir?”
“I’m a scientist, my dear, of course I want to know.”
“Okay.” I met his gaze and said, “It’s the Star Stone.”
As my old professor’s eyes widened, we both heard footsteps out in the hallway. Dr. Kristof flicked his eyes up to the duct. I leapt and caught the lip of the opening. As I pulled myself into the duct, Dr. Kristof stuffed the report in a pocket and then walked to his office door. As I lifted the grating into place, I heard the door control beep.
“Dr. Kristof?” a woman’s voice called. “Open this door, immediately.”
I scooted as far from the grating as possible while still giving me a narrow view of the door. Dr. Kristof unlocked it. Before he could do anything else, the door slid aside and revealed a trim woman a few years older than me. She wore a no-nonsense expression on her face.
“You were told to keep your door open and unlocked,” she said as she glanced about the small office.
Dr. Kristof backed out of the doorway. “I always close my office door when I’m preparing an exam. One can’t have students wandering into the office and discovering the questions, can one?”
The woman entered the office, looked under the desk, and then opened the door to the small closet. “Why did you lock the door?”
“I didn’t realize I had until you asked me to unlock it. It’s the result of decades of habit, I suppose. You’d be amazed how ill-mannered many students are these days. They think nothing of simply barging through a closed door without requesting entry permission.” Dr. Kristof shook his head at this appalling lack of manners. “In my day, none of us youngsters would have dared—”
The RIA agent turned back to Dr. Kristof. Her eyes glanced at his shirt, narrowed, and then returned to normal so quickly I almost missed it. Turning to the door, she said, “You may shut, but not lock, your door.”
“But what of the students who charge through—?”
“I’ll station myself outside the door until you finish with the exam. That should deter your mannerless students.”
Dr. Kristof shut the door and turned back to his desk. I looked at his shirt and saw what caught the woman’s attention — a small dusty smudge over his breast pocket. Glancing down at my frictionless catsuit, I spotted a dust smudge over my own breast. Dammit, this is why I wear a new catsuit on every job. Every job except this one, since I couldn’t risk contacting my usual suppliers. If only I hadn’t let Dr. Kristof give me that hug.
Pushing that thought aside, I considered my next course of action. Through the ducts, I heard the soft murmur of the agent’s voice. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it was bound to be some variation of, “She’s in the ducts.”
I had to clear out, and fast — but not before I warned Dr. Kristof. Carefully lifting the grating again, I waved. When he looked up, I pointed at the dust on his shirt. He saw it immediately and turned a questioning look my way.
Thinking solely of Dr. Kristof’s safety, I pointed at the pocket with the report and indicated he should give it back to me. Reluctantly, he stood and handed it back to me. Once I had it secured in my pouch, I replaced the grating, waved, and scooted back toward the vertical duct I’d used to climb to the third floor. Reaching it, I used a fiber-optic cam to glance down the shaft. An RIA agent crouched at the bottom of the shaft, a blaster ready in his hands.
I carefully scooted away from the shaft. I didn’t bother heading for any of the other ventilation shafts. If the RIA had one covered, they had them all covered. I couldn’t go down, but I also couldn’t go up since I’d have to use the same shafts. So much for leaping to a neighboring building and escaping through it.
That really only left one choice. I stopped at the first grating I came to and peered into the office. Dr. Calloway — the chemistry department’s least favorite professor — sat at his desk studying something on his data pad. His door was shut, at least. Without giving myself time to think too carefully about it, I quietly removed the grating. Calloway didn’t look up from his pad, though that was about to change.
I swung down into the office, landing in front of the door. Dr. Calloway recoiled in surprised terror as I locked the door.
Catching the front of his desk, I shoved it hard toward the professor. The thing was big and heavy but I had plenty of adrenaline pumping through my veins. It pushed Dr. Calloway against the wall, knocking the wind out of him and trapping him against the wall.
As I opened his office window, I said, “That makes us even for the ‘D’ you gave me in organic chem.”
Dr. Calloway just stared at me as I leapt from his third-floor office window.
Can Tilly get away from the RIA? Find out in Chapter 54 of The Recognition Resistance.