"It's Doctor Song, sir." Gryphon snuck a quick look over his shoulder. "She's... packing." The tramp of boots echoed through the corridors, drowning out the swearing of his superior officer on the other end of the commphone, but he thought he could hear the faintest breath of displaced air. Sure enough, when he turned around, Song had disappeared.
A disgruntled murmur ran through the crowd of guards assembled around her cell, and Gryphon waved at them frantically to shut up. "Strike that, sir, she's gone." He winced and pulled the receiver away from his ear. "Yessir, I'm sure. Nosir, no telling how. Yessir, full investigation right away." He hung up and made a face at the phone before turning to the rest of the guards.
"Right, back to the guard lounge, you lot," he said before any questions could start flying. "Dickenson, you've got the official record this round, yeah?" The small brunette nodded and smiled encouragingly. "Airdrie, it's your turn to fetch the security feed." Airdrie rolled his eyes in annoyance — all the more impressive since he had five of them, dark orange against the lime green of his skin — but trotted away obediently. "The rest of you, you know the drill. Move it or lose it!"
He chivvied and prodded them back into motion, though it wasn't nearly as uniform as their run down the corridor had been. They straggled into the lounge, talking quietly among themselves. Dickenson went straight to her locker and pulled out a large plastic box, setting it on one of the tables with some ceremony. The rest of them sprawled into chairs in a display of insubordination that Gryphon would usually have called them on; today, though, he was as tense as any of them, waiting for Airdrie to return. It didn't take long, but Gryphon felt every minute.
"The evidence, then?" he said, taking the vidchip from Airdrie and tossing it to Donner, who stuck it in the playback machine. The screen flickered to life and they all watched closely as a grainy, silent image of Doctor Song moved jerkily around her cell, gathering bits and pieces and occasionally having unheard conversations with someone just outside the camera's sight. Gryphon winced, knowing that had been him.
Song showed no signs of being in a rush, simply packed a rucksack and then pulled something out of its depths and strapped it on her wrist. She looked straight at the camera, mouthed the word Sorry, and disappeared in a flash of light.
A collective groan echoed through the room. "What was that?" Airdrie burbled, turning to the woman next to him.
"Looked like a vortex manipulator," Nella replied. She ran a hand distractedly over the soft blonde fuzz that covered her scalp. "What I want to know is where the hell she got hold of one — "
"What I want to know is whose name is up this time," Gryphon interrupted, not wanting to get into assigning blame just yet. "Dickenson, you got the roster there?"
"Yep, and it's a close one," Dickenson said, shoving her hair behind her ears as she unsealed the box. "Some people aren't gonna be very happy with this." She unrolled a large sheet of paper and cleared her throat. "Now, there was no outside assistance, yeah?" Nods and mumbles of agreement traveled around the group. "Doesn't preclude inside assistance, but there's no evidence of that. Still with me?"
Another, less fervent, sound of agreement filled the room. Dickenson lifted an eyebrow. "Unless someone wants to speak up? No? Then shut it. And elemental manipulation slash natural disaster is also clearly not the case. So! That just leaves 'under her own power,' and the closest block of time was..."
Dickinson paused, drawing out the tension, and Nella threw a spoon at her. "Ow! Okay! Winner of this cycle's Doctor Song Escape Prediction Pool is Donner!" She tossed a large, heavy pouch towards the young guard; he caught it easily, despite the other grasping hands that tried to intercept it, and blushed at the sarcastic applause.
"Nice one," Gryphon said approvingly. Maybe this would help the newbie get over the embarrassment he'd felt at Doctor Song's last escape on his watch. "First round's on you tonight, mate — plus an extra for me, since I'm kicking you all back to patrol and writing the sodding report myself," he added, rising from the table. "Get back out there and I'll see you downplanet tonight."
"Bags running the pool next time," Nella said, snatching the box from Dickenson.
"All yours," Dickenson replied, "just remember: no bets until she shows up again!"
"No fear, Miss Priss, I know the rules." Nella banged the door of her locker shut and scuttled out of the room. Dickenson rolled her eyes at Gryphon and followed.
Gryphon massaged his temples for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain the day's events in politic terms, before reaching for the commphone and ringing the warden's secretary. "Yeah, hi, Dan — can you buzz a set of forms RS-95µ down to my office?" He winced. "Yes, again."
By the time Gryphon made it downplanet, his head was spinning from trying to quantify the escape and the guards' lack of culpability. The wall of noise that washed over him as he walked into the pub set him back on his heels, and he nearly walked back out again. Before he could turn around, though, Airdrie caught sight of him and waved — and when Airdrie waved, everyone noticed. Sighing, he made his way over to the guards' tables.
Nella shoved him into a seat and put a glass in his hands. "One Stormy Weather," she said. "You look like you need it."
Gryphon laughed wearily and downed the drink in one. The bitterness hit first, but then the warmth of the alcohol spread out from his stomach to the rest of his limbs, unraveling his headache. "Damn right I did. Donner, isn't it your round?"
Donner slid a pint across the table and held his own aloft. "A toast!" he yelled. "To River bloody Song, wherever she is! Long may she keep the top brass in confusion and the guards in beer money!"
"To Doctor Song!" the rest of the guards chorused, and drank.
A couple of rounds later, Airdrie brought out a deck of cards. "Ready for a game?" he asked, shuffling with a showiness that only four tentacles made possible. Nella, Donner, Dickenson, and Gryphon nodded, and the group shoved around until the players formed a rough circle. Airdrie dealt.
Nella picked up her cards, gasped in shock, and immediately tried to cover her mistake. "So," she said, tossing a chip in the middle of the table. "Seemed like a pretty straightforward escape, this time. Must've made the paperwork pretty easy, huh, Gryphon?"
Gryphon grimaced, half at his own cards, half at Nella. "Not really," he said, adding a chip to the stake and wondering whether trying to bluff was worth it. "Loads of questions about where'd she get a manipulator, why didn't we know she had it... if she'd just blown a hole in the wall again it'd be a lot easier to explain why we didn't stop her."
Donner wavered for a moment, visibly deciding whether or not to fold, then threw a couple of chips onto the pile. "It was kind of a boring escape, wasn't it?" he asked. "I thought Doctor Song had more style than that."
Nella laughed and swatted him on the shoulder. "You just want another kiss, don't you?" she teased, and Donner looked away uncomfortably. "Ooh, Doctor Song," Nella mimicked in a falsetto, "is that a hallucinogenic lipstick in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
"Stop it," Dickenson said, clattering a chip onto the table. "You're just jealous she's never kissed you. And you should be," she added. "Song is a fantastic snog, lipstick or no." Everyone stared at her, and she dimpled. "Long story," she said dismissively, but her eyes still sparkled and her bronze cheeks flushed darker. "Airdrie, you gonna put up or shut up?"
Airdrie rippled with laughter and rolled a chip across the table. "I remember when she took out half her cell with a neutron blast," he mused. "We never did figure out how she got in contact with that Mephellian warship in the first place, did we?"
"Nope," Gryphon said, watching the betting travel across the circle again, more slowly this time as everyone tried to figure out who was bluffing. "Too busy trying to pick up the mess and figure out who else had escaped. Caught all the rest, though."
"How long was she gone for that time?" Donner asked, wide-eyed. This was only his second Song escape — he'd done well to scoop the pool.
"Three weeks!" Nella slapped her cards down. "And all of us on doubles all that time!"
"To be fair, it did take nearly that long to get her cell back in order," Airdrie pointed out.
"Yeah, but then she only stayed for two days! Talk about taking the piss!"
"Still don't know how she disappeared out of the showers when all she had with her was a towel," Gryphon put in, trying to distract Nella. "What'd we chalk that up to? Who won that pool?"
"Uh, me." Dickenson coughed. "I may have taken that one on, ah, inside assistance."
"Oh, you tart," Nella said delightedly. "That how you found out how good a snog she is?"
"You know, that might be cheating," Donner said slowly. "Can you get in on inside assistance if you're the inside assistance?"
"Huh, good question." Gryphon pondered for a moment. "Buy us another round and we'll call it good," he decided finally. "But don't the rest of you go getting ideas."
"Fine, whatever, but after this hand, hey?" Nella broke in. "I wanna take all your money first. See, patriarchal overseers!" She slapped a red oligarch, a black pope, and a green cardinal down in front of her. "Beat that!"
Gryphon looked at his cards, then back at Nella. The bluff hadn't been worth it after all. "Out," he said.
"Guess I can't be lucky twice in one day," Donner added, tapping his cards into a neat pile. "Me too."
All heads turned to Dickenson, who was shuffling and reshuffling her cards with a look of dismay on her face. "I think I'm out too," she said sadly, but someone reached over her shoulder before she could discard her hand. Gryphon looked up and his jaw dropped.
"No, see here," Doctor Song said, resting her chin on Dickenson's head and pointing at her cards. "You've got a constitutional monarchy with matriarchial determination. White queen, green Lieutenant Governor, white Prime Minister — but that's okay because the colours match — and red Amazon to add the historical authenticity."
Kicking out the chair behind Dickenson, Song swung it around and straddled it. "What?" she said, smirking at the dumbfounded guards. "Can't a girl want a drink? Not like you were watching my cell."
"Oh!" Dickenson said happily, having just put her cards in the proper configuration. "She's right! Unless you can beat that, Airdrie...?" Airdrie shook his headstalk and Dickenson beamed, gathering up the chips. She glanced quickly at Song. "I'll buy a round for the whole table, then, shall I?" she asked Gryphon.
Gryphon paused for a moment and studied Doctor Song. She looked back at him evenly, face impassive, but somehow... she looked tired, or, more than that, wrung out. She looked like she needed a drink, anyways, and she had as good as promised to go back with them by showing up here. "Sounds right." he said, and watched Song relax imperceptibly.
Grabbing the deck, he shuffled all the discards into it. "I'll deal. Are you in or out, Doctor Song?"
Song's eyes glittered and she smiled mischievously. "Oh, in, darling," she said, producing a stack of chips from some invisible pocket in her dress. "This time I'm definitely in."