Jarek Slater, and the Ballad of the Broken Glass Kids
A Harvesters Series short by Luke Mitchell
(Click on Part 1 to begin)
PART I - JAREK AND THE BROKEN GLASS KIDS
Jarek Slater took one last wistful glance down the bleak, sunbaked alleyway and sighed. It still looked too much like an escape route. He took one last pull from the dark bottle on hand and welcomed the fire that tickled its way down his throat, leaving traces of oak wood, cherries, and Pryce’s own handmade love dancing across his tongue in the aftermath.
“One last pull, sir?” came Al’s smooth English robot judgment in his earpiece.
Jarek scowled, then relented when he remembered his disembodied AI companion could no longer see such affectations. Not without Jarek deliberately raising his comm camera to face level first, at least. It hadn’t been easy for either of them, acclimating to Al’s new handicaps since they’d lost Fela.
“Personally, I blame the alcohol, buddy,” he said, frowning instead at the bottle in his hand. Almost empty. Maybe Al had just a smidgen of a point. It had been his seventh or eighth one last pull in the past two minutes.
“Not to mention our current surroundings,” he muttered, looking back at the old Victorian house that’d once been a lowdown inn for those in dire need, and a home for Jarek, too, albeit for a too-brief moment in history.
Someone had been taking care of it.
“Did I mention this is the worst idea you’ve ever had?”
“You did, sir. Multiple times.”
“Right.” Jarek frowned at the bottle, then downed the defiant last drops like the ruthless conqueror, Alexander the Drunk. “And where did we land on that one?”
“I believe right at the part where this was in fact your idea, sir.”
“You can’t prove that.”
“To you? Never.”
Jarek grinned, wiping his mouth, and appreciating the warm buzz that tingled through his brain as he did. “They can take my suit, but they’ll never take my sassy robot.”
“Stirring, sir. Perhaps we can have matching T-shirts made, after we’ve seen to business here.”
That alone was enough to bring the sober sauce oozing down on his head like a murky cloud of regrets and poor decisions, new and old. This was where it had all started—where Conner and his Iron Eagles had gotten their hooks into Jarek, and tugged him along on his first inevitable steps to the Soldier of Charity. This was where Rose had done the same, in her own far gentler way.
What in Palpatine’s spirit had possessed him to actually come back here, Jarek could hardly say—other than that there’d been another bottle involved, and that Al had seemed to be making a whole hell of a lot of sense at the time.
What if we didn’t find Fela, sir? his friend had asked a few nights earlier, when they’d been watching The Dark Knight Rises aboard the ship, and Jarek had bared his emotional throat—or his drunken one, at least—just an inch too far. What if we hung the cowl up while you’re still alive? What if you found something else out there?
Keep dreaming, Mr. Robot, he’d told Al. You’re stuck with me for life. Us against the world, buddy. No girls OR garden hoes allowed. No happy endings. I’m gonna die in the black armpit of this world, and you’re gonna like it.
He’d really only been ribbing Al, he’d told himself. Testing the AI’s waters for a rare rise, and all that. Except now, a few days, a few drinks, and one persistent Mr. Robot later, having somehow come—seemingly by magic—to be sitting outside his first and only teenage love’s home, Jarek couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he’d also been subconsciously ribbing himself right into this ill-planned madness.
Who knew how that twisted noggin noodle of his even worked anymore, after all the shit it’d seen? Christ, after all the shit it had done, with its own two meaty Jarek Hands.
Frankly, the thing was borderline out of control.
Case and point, Jarek Slater—fully dysfunctional and borderline alcoholic slayer of Grade-A Certified Assholes, of whom there’d been more than he could count, by the by—sitting here on an abandoned back alley stoop across from his ex-girlfriend’s house like he actually thought maybe there was some version of reality in which this didn’t all end in an epic, fiery, slow motion car crash.
“What the shit, man?” he muttered to himself, setting the bottle down on the ledge, and preparing to hop down.
This was bullshit. Rose was dead for all he knew, and even if she wasn’t, what the hell had he been thinking, coming here?
It was high time he got the hell out of here and back to the real world. Back to Fela. Back to control.
“Nice try, Noodles,” he muttered to his sneaky little subconscious, looking back to the old house one last time. He started to hop down from his perch.
Then he saw her, and the very world shifted beneath his feet.
It wasn’t really the magic moment Jarek suspected Al and his own subconscious noggin noodle had been hoping for. Then again, that might’ve had more to do with his drunken surprise than with the moment itself.
Jarek Slater was no stranger to being blitzed—not in any sense of the word. He did some of his best work that way. So really, if it was anyone’s fault that he suddenly found the world spinning out of control, he could probably lay the blame on the pile of empty bottles and other broken things that’d drawn his kindred soul to this particular alleyway perch in the first place. Or on Al.
Whatever the case, all he caught of Rose was a fleeting glimpse through parting blue window curtains before he was consumed by a jarring crash, a brief but holy hell of a racket, and a nice string of concussive impacts that left him lying on the pavement with a single aching buttock and the hard line of his sword sheath pressed insistently into his back.
“Son of a…”
“Cat got your dignity, sir?” Al chimed in his earpiece.
“… Horse’s rectum,” Jarek finished for posterity, wincing as he righted himself and looked around at his new intimate neighbors, Mr. Garbage Pile and the Broken Glass Kids. “This seems about right.”
“Perhaps you could use another drink,” Al suggested.
“Oh, bite me,” Jarek groaned, easing clear from the pile of sharp-edged bottle children and rising to his feet. “I was startled. When have you ever seen me bite it just because of the booze?”
“Would you prefer I list the incidences chronologically, sir, or by location?”
Jarek just scowled at his wise-ass companion and focused on brushing himself off, wondering if he should bolt for the ship or go knock, wondering if she’d seen him, recognized him. He frowned at his hands, noticing a few small lacerations from the glass.
Christ, maybe he was drunker than he’d thoug—
“Oh my god.”
Jarek froze at that voice, like a ripcord yanking his brain backward nine years, back to the wondrous sight of Rose nestled up in his arms, both of them so young, so afraid, so hopelessly desperate to believe they could save one another from this terrible world. He saw the Eagles. Saw the bodies. Saw Conner’s sneering face, and his cold, dead eyes.
Jarek blinked to clear his head, and looked up at the face he’d once sworn he’d never forget. She didn’t look like he remembered. Still the same flowing copper hair, still the same gentle grace and angelic beauty, but also different in a way he couldn’t describe. Different like it simply wasn’t the same person living behind those pale green eyes. It probably wasn’t. Maker knew it wasn’t the same man she’d known, facing her now.
Maybe that was why she was staring at him like she’d seen a ghost.
“What are you—”
“Doing here?” he asked, finally finding his tongue. “Ah, you know”—he shrugged—“just happened to be flying by, taking in the old sights, thinking about Frank’s pancakes and the good ol’ times. Definitely not stalking you.”
It was her turn to blink. She did it like she half-expected he might simply evanesce into thin air, her gaze shifting from his face to the sword strapped across his back, to the pistols holstered at his thighs, and lastly to his hands.
“You… You’re bleeding,” she finally said.
He frowned down at his hands like he was consulting a map, and realized he was indeed bleeding more than he’d thought. “Hmm. Hazards of perching in dark alleys.” He squinted up at the sun. “Bright alleys. Whatever. Look, uh…”
He searched for a tactful—or possibly tactical—way of saying, This was definitely a huge mistake, so why don’t you go have yourself a nice life and maybe I’ll see you for the big five-oh midlife crisis in the highly-unlikely event either of us is still alive by then? Somehow, though, he couldn’t seem to find the words. Possibly, he highly suspected, as he looked at her and she looked at him, because some part of him suddenly didn’t want to.
“It’s really you,” she said softly.
He raised a bloody hand, trying to smile. “Guilty.”
“I… don’t believe it.” Her brow furrowed. She looked caught somewhere between asking him to come in or telling him to get the hell out of here and never come back. Which is to say, in that moment, he had absolutely no idea what was actually going through her head.
It was an unfamiliar feeling, for a man who usually took pride in his uncanny ability to read the deep, dark intricacies of the human spirit and psyche. But maybe those abilities didn’t extend so well to decent, well-adjusted human beings. Maybe he’d been living too long among the savages of the post-Catastrophe world. Maker knew there were enough of them.
“Rose?” called a voice from inside the house. Frank? Jarek couldn’t tell. “Is everything okay out here?”
The man who appeared in the doorway was not Frank.
Clean cut. Dignified bearing. Strong jaw that had probably never taken a proper punch. His dark brown eyes scanned Jarek, alert and weary, lingering on the sword hilt for a pause before moving onto his bloody hands. Some kind of understanding set it. “You need help?”
Not Rose’s dad. And probably not her plumber, either, judging by the apprehension that’d appeared on Rose’s face, and the territorial tension wafting off of the guy like bad aftershave—which the guy probably totally used, by the way.
“What, these?” Jarek replied, holding his bloodied hands up in question. “Just a minor misunderstanding with some edgy youths. I was just, uh…”
Just going. Say it, dammit.
He was half-certain Rose was thinking the exact same thing. Then again, when their eyes met, he was also half-certain she wasn’t. Jarek’s mind was adrift with muddled thoughts of ambiguous ocular tractor beams when Prince Aftershave’s voice cut in.
“Sorry, do you two know each other?”
“He stayed here once,” Rose said, “back when my dad was… running things.”
Definitely not her plumber. Defensive lie of omission. Jarek was more focused for a moment on the other undertone, though. Grief for the fallen. Frank had passed. Too damn bad. The man had been one of the good ones. But passing was just the thing to do these days.
“Right,” said Prince Aftershave. “Well, if you want to come in, I can get those hands cleaned up for you, at least.” He glanced at Rose as he said it, maybe just asking if hospitality was a good idea, but likely as not gauging her for some kind of guilty tell. “I’m Rory, by the way,” he added, focusing back on Jarek.
“Ooo…” Jarek shuddered. “That name would’ve put me in a cold sweat when I was a kid…”
That earned him a blank look.
“I had trouble with my R’s,” he explained.
Al cleared his “throat” in Jarek’s earpiece.
“That is to say, hello, Rory. Name’s Jarek. I’d shake your hand, but…”
He faltered, bloodied hand halfway raised in evidence, fixated on the clear recognition—and equally clear discontentedness—scrawling across Rory’s brow.
“Jarek,” Rory repeated, glancing at Rose with something like accusation in his eyes. Quickly as it came, though, he regained his composure, drawing up a little straighter for good measure. “Great. Well, let’s see about those hands, Jarek.”
And with that, Rory dipped back into the house in what Jarek took to be a clear and concise broadcast of, Follow if you will, Fuckface.
Rose watched the man that was most assuredly not her plumber vanish into her house—their house—before turning back to Jarek like she still didn’t quite believe he was here.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he said it. Not that there weren’t several thousand decent enough reasons floating through the stale, nine-year-old air between them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d said those two words so sincerely.
Maybe that’s why the hint of old softness touched her eyes then. Or maybe not.
“You’d better come in,” was all she said.
Jarek glanced down at his bloodied hands and back up to her slowly retreating form, eyes tracing where they knew they shouldn’t, delusional brain noting for the first time that her dark trousers and maroon tunic were practically matching the pants and shirt he was wearing—his favorites. Like it was all freaking meant to be.
That thought, above all, cued him in to the fact that he’d finally gone and lost his mind. His feet, though, didn’t seem to care.
“Worst idea you’ve ever had,” Jarek murmured to them under his breath, as those eager little feet stepped forward to follow.
Maybe it was just the half-bottle of Pryce’s finest doing the talking, but Jarek wasn’t quite ready for the gut punch combo of random nostalgias and radically unresolved teenage traumas that leapt out at him as he stepped through the rear pantry entrance after Rose, through the kitchen, and into the main floor of the old home and low-down inn. Not that it looked like much of an inn anymore. If anything, it looked more like a homemade medical clinic—complete with a gurney, what looked like an operating table, and a few simple beds for recovering patients.
“I need to grab a few things downstairs,” Rory said, shooting Jarek a cursory frown before turning his attention back to Rose, “if you want to get our patient situated.”
He disappeared through the basement doorway and plunked off down the creaky steps before either of them could reply.
“What happened to Frank?” Jarek asked quietly once he’d gone, looking around the room, eyes lingering on the bar where Conner had once recruited him to the Iron Eagles while Frank had served them all pancakes.
Rose shook her head, not meeting his eyes. “He got sick, about a year after you…”
She looked up at him, cocking her eyebrows as if to say, Your word, not mine, but now that you mention it…
“Sit,” she added, tilting her head toward a chair over in the corner, near the putative operating station.
Jarek didn’t move, lost in a memory, and in the sight of her now, in this place. He’d forgotten that he’d even forgotten, the way her brow scrunched up like that when she was peeved with him—every little facial tic that seemed so bizarrely familiar on this virtual stranger’s face.
“Look,” he said. “About before. Back then. I didn’t… It wasn’t really by choice that I…”
“Stop.” Her eyes had hardened. “We were kids, it was a lifetime ago, and I don’t care. I don’t know what you came here for—”
“Kinda makes two of us.”
“—But I have a life here. A good life. A loving partner, and…” She glanced at the open basement door, as if remembering they might be overheard. When she turned back to Jarek, she looked tired in a way he didn’t understand. Tired like she hadn’t slept in years. “Where’s Al, Jarek?”
The abrupt swerve in topic caught Jarek off guard enough that he might’ve been nearly as startled as Rose when Al spoke up quietly from his comm.
“Present, ma’am. And might I say it’s lovely to see you again, so to speak.”
Rose stared down in surprise at the speaking comm on Jarek’s wrist, then back up to his eyes. “Did something happen to Fela? Why’s Al stuck in a comm?”
“Long story.” He frowned. “Several long stories. And he’s not really in the comm, so much as…”
He trailed off at the creak of approaching footsteps on the stairs, wary by default when it came to alerting outsiders to the rather mind-blowing fact of Al’s existence. Jarek’s artificial construct of a buddy was one of a kind, after all. Just like Fela.
“Who’s not stuck in a comm?” Rory reappeared in the doorway so quickly one might’ve thought he’d had minor reservations about leaving the two of them alone in a room. He looked at Jarek. “Is that your AI friend?” Looked to Rose. “Alfred, was it?”
Jarek turned to Rose, feeling equal parts surprised and betrayed that she would’ve told anyone about Al. Feeling it right up until his Big Boy Brain reminded him that his very existence had probably graduated to ghost story status in her mind years ago, and that this childish feeling of betrayal was probably exactly what Rory was driving for.
Al didn’t answer Rory’s call, waiting to see how Jarek wanted to play it. Rory didn’t seem to care all that much. His point was made. He was watching Jarek with a kind of quiet challenge, though challenge was probably too strong a word for it. More of a subtle, Look, Fuckface, I know her better than you. Na-na-na-na-na, and shit, coupled nicely with the superior air of a presiding savior, bearing his tray aloft, loaded with decidedly homemade-looking medical supplies—rags and sutures and other joys.
“I hope you don’t mind a bit of pain, Jarek,” he said, watching Jarek eye his wares.
Coming from Dr. Straightnose McShinyjaw, the statement nearly startled a yip of delighted laughter from Jarek’s Disillusioned Happy Place.
“Lucky for us, I had a drink before I came in,” he said, noting that the glass bottle on Rory’s tray was clearly marked, “Ethanol,” and kind of half-tempted to inquire what a man had to do around these parts to procure another.
At least until Rose murmured, “I smelled.”
“You know what?” Jarek said. “I think I just remembered I left the oven on back, uh, somewhere. Whatever. I’m gonna go and let you two get back to—”
“Please,” Rory said. “Sit.” He looked between the two of them. “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but please, let me help you.” It wasn’t quite clear if those words felt righteous on his tongue, or tasted like a donkey’s ass. “It’s what I do.”
It was both, Jarek thought, looking down at his hands, and realizing he’d dripped a few drops of Jarek Juice on the floor. Definitely both.
“Go on, sir,” Al said in his earpiece. “I’d rather not listen to you bicker about infected lacerations for the next two weeks.”
Jarek heaved a sigh, and went to sit down.
The burn of ethanol on exposed lacerations was hardly the most painful thing about the following fifteen minutes. That distinguished honor undoubtedly went to the awkward silences. And to the awkward conversations. And to pretty much everything to do with the general fact that he, Jarek Slater, had somehow wound up on his old flame’s boyfriend’s—or husband’s, or whatever’s—operating chair, receiving the morally superior but undeniably professional care of a man who clearly thought he was some kind of worthless drunk.
And shit, maybe he was.
What had he been doing since Boston, nine years ago, they wanted to know? Just fighting—and on a few rare and hauntingly emotionless occasions, fucking—his way across these United States, trying to make things right in the world, never coming anywhere close. Just playing house with Al, sometimes holed up in their ship for days or weeks at a time, living on nothing but beans and booze and marathon movie sessions that had all felt pretty damn satisfying right up until Dr. Holier-Than-Thou had come to work on Jarek’s wittle boo-boos, with his questions and his copper-haired goddess, Rose the Willing-and-Admiring Assistant.
Jarek didn’t tell them any of this, of course. Didn’t answer Rory’s prodding questions with much more than ambiguous vagaries. He’d been around, you know? Fighting the good fight. Yada, yada, and all that.
When the questions persisted, Jarek turned them back on the source, asking Rory and Rose about their burgeoning little clinic here—how many patients they typically took in, and how in the hell they thought it wasn’t eventually going to land them in the servitude, willing or otherwise, of whatever teeming armpit of humanity had laid gangland claim to this region of suburban Oak Square ruins.
“This place isn’t as bad as it used to be,” Rory said, clipping off the last of the four stitches he’d decreed were required by Jarek’s right palm. “Civilization’s returning faster than some people like to think.” He leaned back from his work to fix Jarek with a serious look. “And I know what I’m doing.”
Jarek wondered if he should tell him how many poor bastards he’d heard say those words over the years, shortly before their do-gooding had gotten them killed.
“I’m going to check on Phoebe,” Rose said quietly—maybe because her assistant duties were coming to an end, or maybe because the rising levels of testosterone smog hadn’t left enough room for her to breathe. She stood and moved for the stairs before either of them could argue about being left alone with one another, and well before Jarek could manage to open his mouth and ask who the hell Phoebe was.
Then again, that last bit might’ve been more thanks to his own reticence to hear the answer, and to the growing, wobbly amoeba that’d suddenly appeared in his stomach with a rather overwhelming theory of its own.
Rose had a life here, after all.
Mightn’t she also have a Phoebe?
Before that thought could properly take hold, a sharp intake of breath drew Jarek’s attention to the adjoining parlor, where Rose had frozen, staring out the front windows, tensed in a way that instantly flipped the switch on his combat instincts.
The sting of alcohol and unanesthetized stitches fell away right along with the better part of the buzz in his brain—insignificant input evaporating like fog from the windshield, clearing the way for the low rumble of the twin diesel engines pulling up out front.
“Rose?” Rory’s hands paused at the gauze wrap, noticing her distress if nothing else.
The engines sputtered to silence out front, accentuating the clunks and clacks of opening car doors.
“Shit,” Rose whispered.
Jarek eyed his sword where he’d set it down in the corner.
“It’s fine,” Rory said, leaning over on his stool to glance out the window behind Jarek. He nodded to himself, confirming his own assessment at whatever he saw. “I’m almost done here anyway. We can take another.”
But that wasn’t the issue. Jarek could see it plainly on Rose’s face. Whoever was out there, she didn’t think it was a good idea to mix them with a wild Jarek. Why, exactly, he didn’t know.
Judging by the sound of approaching voices and boots on the front porch, though, he was about to find out.
PART II - AN ARMADA OF ASSHATS
The men were regulars here at Rory’s humble clinic. That much, Jarek could tell just by the way they walked in. It wasn’t that they acted like the owned the place—wasn’t just that, at least. It was more that they moved as if they were already plenty familiar with the lay of the land, and of the soft, copper-haired treasures therein.
“Careful,” Rory said, frowning down at Jarek’s tensing fists as he set the gauze roll back on the tray. “You’ll tear your sutures.”
That was hardly the most pressing of Jarek’s concerns, but Rory was already standing to go greet his repeat customers, his smile friendly, his words easy.
Maybe Dr. Oblivious was right, and Jarek was misreading the situation. Maybe the looming depravity he smelled on these men and the quiet terror in Rose’s subtly hunched shoulders were just figments of his violence-warped imagination. But he doubted it. Because he could see what he had a feeling Rory could not.
These men were killers.
Not the worst he’d seen. Not by a longshot. These ones could at least still pass themselves off as normals to anyone who hadn’t taken one too many bloodbaths. But Jarek had. He couldn’t not see the predatory prowess in the way they strolled in, subtly checking corners, keeping hands close to weapons, naturally falling into formation so as to cover one another’s blind spots as they all surveyed the domestic—and fleshly—trophies they might like to claim, if and when the time was right. Like they’d raided similar homes a hundred times before.
That, or Jarek was just totally full of shit.
It was hard not to wonder sometimes. Jarek was hardly the kind of guy to rattle the spirit gems and spout claims of dark auras and bad jujus. But he had known enough killers by now—known them as friends and foes and everything in between—to trust that his subconscious mind was sufficiently equipped to recognize patterns and pass the message up the ladder when he saw a fellow homicide jockey. Or six.
“Got hit by bandits out on 95 coming back from a supply run,” one of them was saying out in the parlor. “Bastards came outta nowhere.”
A likely story, whispered Back-of-the-Brain Jarek.
“We’ve never heard that one before,” Al said, almost as if in agreement to the unspoken thought.
It was exactly the kind of warped tales—AKA outright lies—Conner had fed them in this very room back when he’d been recruiting Jarek to his star-spangled Iron Eagles.
Heaping bullshit or not, though, Jarek kept his mouth shut as a few of them filed into the larger makeshift operating room. Not that the silence helped.
Maybe it was his own damn fault—some underlying field of sarcasm and generally insulting airs he unwittingly broadcast into the universe. Or maybe it was simply the nature of the predator’s instinct. Damned if he knew. Whatever the dysfunction, more often than not, if he could smell the violence on a pack of hard men, they had a funny way of taking a sudden interest in him. Like they could feel his goddamn murder radar pinging off their dirty hulls, and it set them on edge.
“Who’s this guy?” asked the one who’d been speaking for the group in the parlor—a slightly shorter model off the Assholes with Hats assembly line—while one of his taller, beefier compatriots clomped over and picked up Jarek’s sword in the corner, turning it over under his beady-eyed scrutiny.
“Just a lucky drunk,” Jarek said, leaning into the slur on some subconscious instinct, and taking control of the narrative before Rory could open his mouth and imply otherwise. “Did’joo know this guy’s a doc?” He held up his neatly bandaged hands in open wonder. “Din’n know they even made gauze anymore.” A snort, and a meaty burp. “Or docs, either! Get a load’a all that!”
“Maybe dial it back a notch, sir,” came the voice of reason in his earpiece.
Al probably had a point. Rory was already looking at Jarek like he thought he might’ve had a psychotic break. Luckily, though—or unluckily, depending on how one looked at it—with the exception of the two who were still ogling Rose, the goon squad was too focused on Jarek now to notice anything was off from Rory’s expected baseline.
Jarek couldn’t even say why he was so sure the drunk stranger routine was the right play here. He’d learned to stop questioning his instincts on these things a long time ago.
“Oh, hey,” he gushed, as Rory led the burly man with a shredded shoulder, a face full of winces, and what looked like a good bit of soaked blood on his too-dark shirt over to the operating table, “are you guys here for the doc, too? Shit, what happened?”
“Someone shut this idiot up,” muttered their Napoleonic leader.
The Neanderthal holding Jarek’s sword looked up, like he was trying to parse if it had been an idle comment, or a genuine order.
“That won’t be necessary,” Rory said quickly, eyes darting rapidly from his disrobing patient to Napoleon, to the Neanderthal, and finally to Jarek. “He was just about to—”
“Leave,” finished Napoleon, directing the word at Jarek. “Thank these good people and get out of their hair. Go on.”
“But…” Jarek looked around the room, eyes wide. Innocent as baby Jesus. “But I’d love to stay furra chat, though. ’S been a while since… you know. Not much chattin’ out there, these days.”
Napoleon marched over in dramatic, stompy-boot fashion and leaned right down in Jarek’s face, bearing the gifts of a megawatt man glare and a startling dose of does-a-bear-shit-in-your-mouth halitosis.
“Get the fuck out of here, and don’t come back.”
It took considerable willpower not to burp in the man’s face—surprisingly more than it took for Jarek to raise his hands in doe-eyed surrender, and start to stand from his chair. “Okay, okay,” he said, in appeasing tones. “I get it.”
“Wise move, sir,” Al chimed in his ear, kind of making him wish he would’ve let that burp fly on principal alone.
Napoleon was already turning back to the operating table, like Jarek had ceased to exist. Jarek followed his gaze and saw that the show had begun.
As Rory helped his groaning patient the rest of the way free from his bloody shirt, it was clear enough the guy had taken a shot to the left shoulder. Almost certainly from a shotgun, which alone wasn’t necessarily damning to their claim of a wild bandit attack.
But the devil was in the details.
Birdshot. That was the best explanation Jarek had for the pins-and-needles shit show that’d had its way with the guy’s flesh from arm, to shoulder, to chest. A bloody mess, it was, but fairly superficial.
Birdshot. It would’ve seemed odd, if Jarek hadn’t already found their entire story suspect. Most bandit outfits rolled with more hefty buckshot in their shotgun loads, after all, if not full on slugs. Birdshot implied hunters, implied homesteaders, and judging from the spread of the impact, this guy’d been taking aim at his shooter when the birdshot had hit.
“What’s he still doing here?” someone asked, but Jarek only half heard, absorbed as he was in scanning the rest of the crew, searching for something to more tangibly confirm or deny whether he’d lost his mind.
Gleaming pocket watch there. Owner fiddling with it in admiration. A new acquisition? Maybe. A pronounced limp from his friend as the man quit ogling Rose long enough to cross to a bar stool—no visible wound. Blunt trauma? A fall? Scratch marks on his face. Human nails, probably. A struggle. Strangulation? Maybe.
And there, on Neanderthal’s neck, where he’d missed wiping them off: flecks of spattered blood. Blunt trauma, probably. Close range.
All possible signs of a handily survived scrape with the baddies.
All more likely evidence of the fierce but ultimately futile defensive struggles of the poor bastards whose home these six had just finished cracking like a delectable egg.
That, or Jarek really was totally full of shit.
“Hey!” said one of Rose’s blonde-haired, square-jawed gawkers. “Door’s right there, bucko. Believe you were told to vacate the premise.”
Jarek blinked dumbly at the guy, trying to gather his mildly drunken thoughts, trying not to point out that surely he meant vacate the premises, and mostly just struggling to move past that one glaring snag instead:
Who the hell even called people bucko, anyway?
He took a step toward the parlor, wishing to Christ that Rose would at least meet his eyes and give him something to go on here, but she was far too tense. All things considered, that was probably about all the answer he really needed here.
“Many marauders out there on 95?” he asked, pausing from his retreat long enough to look around the room like a lost puppy.
“Bandits,” corrected the Neanderthal holding his sword, as if that distinction were somehow important. Maybe it was, to them and their internal narratives.
“Was headed that way m’self,” Jarek slurred on, like he hadn’t heard or understood the correction, “before me ’n’ my bottle went’n had a lil misunderstanding.” He swiveled his gaze around to their fearless leader. “Was jus’ wonderin’ if I’m gonna be havin’ trouble out there.”
Napoleon Asshat held Jarek’s drunken gaze with cold scrutiny for an uncomfortably long stretch, suspicion flickering back in, back out. Then he came to some decision, and shrugged Jarek off once and for all—another drunken idiot, no longer any of his concern. “Nothing to worry about,” he said, turning back to Rory and his wounded man, “so long as you don’t piss off the wrong people.”
“Speaking of which,” said their blond Bucko in the Parlor, eyes flicking to Rose, “I could use a drink.”
He said it in a tone that plainly suggested that, in Bucko’s World, a pretty thing like Rose would’ve already had the decency to have offered them a round by now. He said it in a way that made Jarek want to shoot him on the spot. But now wasn’t the time.
The room had gone too alert at the not-so-casual edge in Bucko’s voice—six hardened men, two innocent civilians, and a tipsy Jarek all suddenly riveted to the silent tension clinging to the charged air like someone had rigged the room to explode and set the detonator to the first one to breathe.
Jarek saw the looks passing between the crew—a few of them slightly put off that their Bucko would be so forward in this place where they’d not yet agreed to leave civility behind, the rest of them visibly excited at this daring new territory. Like a bunch of junkies all silently querying if the time had come for their next fix.
It was kind of disturbing, how readily such men were beginning to fall into Jarek’s Hierarchy of Wild Monsters. He was a regular goddamn academic sociopathologist, sorting them into neat little columns. Oh, they’ve killed in self-defense, but not yet in cold blood? Oh, they’ve murdered in cold blood, but not yet raped their victims?
Oh, Johnny Two-Machetes in the corner over there has done all of it and more in a past life, and is kinda wondering now if his new marauder fam is gonna be down with the dirty when he finally lets his true freak flag fly?
Maybe disturbing wasn’t a strong enough word.
Careless, on the other hand…
Jarek realized he’d let too much murderous intent creep onto his face, his hand drifting a little too close to the Glock at his right thigh by its own free will. Mr. Bucko and his friends hadn’t missed it.
“Please,” Rose said, the weak half-gasp somehow managing to give pause to the faint rustle and creak of four or five men all shifting their full attention to Jarek, and preparing to draw. “Please, just go. We don’t want any trouble.”
“I might,” grumbled Bucko, cracking his knuckles and eying Jarek like a ham sandwich. The rest of them just sneered. No trouble. That’s right.
“All right, all right,” Jarek said, patting the air with his bandaged hands. He glanced over at the Neanderthal holding his sword. “Any chance I could ask you to pass me my sword, friend?”
Jarek didn’t really expect him to hand it over, and in a way, he wasn’t wrong. Neanderthal didn’t lay finders-keepers claim to the weapon, though.
He just opted to hurl it at Jarek’s face instead.
Were he to recount the tale later, Jarek might’ve been tempted to insinuate that he’d restrained his freakishly quick reflexes and taken the shot merely to solidify his charade as the harmless drunkard. Maybe some part of him even did. Whatever anyone wanted to claim about the motives in the room, though, the only thing Jarek could attest to without question in that moment was that a loaded sword sheath to the head was no way to calm the nerves.
Pain flashed across his face in a clap of red lightning, begging him, as his bandaged hands reflexively caught onto the rebounding sheath and hilt, to rip the sword free and start slicing. He dropped his hilt hand and slung the weapon over his shoulder instead, turning for the house’s side exit—the one that would take him past Rose—without a word. No reason for words, now. No reason to pay any mind to the dumb round of laughter that followed him, or to anything but Rose, waiting for her to meet his eye, to give him the sign.
Only there was no help us in her eyes, when they finally flitted up to his. Thanks, but no thanks, that downtrodden look said. C’est la vie, and hopefully they don’t get too greedy.
“Safe travels,” she said quietly as he passed.
He almost grabbed her then and there—right hand draw, Bucko and Johnny Two-Machetes dead in a blink; left hand draw, Neanderthal and the Strangulator joined them.
“Don’t come back,” came Rory’s voice from behind, dissipating the momentary daydream.
Jarek didn’t need to look to hear the tense edge in Rory’s voice as he hovered beside his patient. If nothing else, at least Dr. DoGood was finally beginning to grasp that these harmless regulars of his might be less easily managed than he’d previously thought—even if he did believe that was by fault of Jarek’s rowdy presence, and not simply the inevitable lay of the land.
Walk away, said the voice of Jarek’s inner survivor. Walk away and don’t look back. Not your problem. They don’t want your help.
Jarek slogged through the parlor, down the hallway, ignoring Bucko’s derisive call to be careful out there, now. Black anger roiling. He was almost to the side entrance when the faint whisper of a creaky old floorboard above drew his eye up the stairs, through the banister rods, to the only sight that could have given him pause right then.
She was watching him through the top line of banister rods, just out of sight of the clinic gang below, head pressed to the dark wooden dowels, hands grasped on like she was looking out through prison bars. She couldn’t have been more than five. And she had Rose Atwood’s copper-red hair.
Jarek stalked past his alleyway perch from earlier, heart pounding, face throbbing, murderous intent set two clicks short of full on berserker mode.
There they had it. There it was.
“Sir,” Al said in his most cautious of tones, “I do feel inclined to remind you that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and to point out that Rory and Ms. Rose might well have the situation under control more than you are willing to admit in your…”
“In my what, Al?”
“Your emotional state, sir.”
“Emotional state,” Jarek grumbled, only barely reining himself in from kicking the empty bottle in the middle of the pathway ahead. “You’re an emotional state.”
“Sir, I only—”
“You didn’t see her, Al. You didn’t see that little girl. Or Rose. I don’t give a damn who asked for what. I’m not leaving until I know they’re safe.” He frowned back at the old house over his shoulder. “Hell, I might even like to see Dr. DoGood in there live to douche it up another day.”
“Well, at least that rules out the grounds for gross sexism in our vigilante ways.”
“You want me to do this every bit as much as I do, Mr. Robot.”
“I never claimed otherwise, sir. I’m merely attempting to help you clear your head and think about this like—”
“Like a less-drunk you.”
Jarek reached the far end of the alleyway and peered around the corner, a few houses down, to where the clinic gang had parked their rides. As expected, they’d left two men standing guard over the two vehicles—a battered red truck and a muddy black wagon-style Humvee.
“I dunno, buddy,” he muttered, squinting at the vehicles’ windows and wishing to hell he had Fela and all of her glorious scanners and bulletproof armor. “Drunk me might be just what the doctor ordered.”
“Or explicitly didn’t order,” Al pointed out.
It’d be the Humvee, if anything. Not that he really expected these men to be hauling obvious trophies around in their oh-so-girthy combat wagon. They were still careful monsters keeping up appearances, after all.
“You got anything on the ship’s scanners, Mr. Robot?” he asked anyway.
“Not unless you’d like me to shed cover and move closer.”
“Not yet,” Jarek said, briefly checking both of his guns. “Be ready, though.”
Jarek nodded to himself, wondering whether he should jump the rickety fence behind and circle around the long and cautious way, or maybe even go the exact opposite approach and play the wayward drunken shuffle card again. If those two sentries drew and fired on him just for walking up… well, at least he’d have his answer about what kind of outfit they were running here. And probably a few new holes, to boot.
So maybe somewhere in between, then.
Watching from the corner, Jarek waited until both sentries were looking elsewhere, then darted out across the street, keeping low and quiet. He paused for a moment behind a rusted old heap that had once been a truck, peering to make sure he hadn’t set off the alarms, then slipped behind the dilapidated house behind, and cut over through a few overgrown patches of fenced wild grass that had once passed as the city equivalent of yards.
He came back to the main street just in time to hit the dirt at movement off to the right, but it was only a few painfully thin pedestrians wandering by at the next intersection, a few more houses down. Two men and a woman. All with backpacks and tattered clothes. Local scavengers, probably. Non-violent sorts, judging by the way they appraised the two armed sentries posted outside of Rose’s and Rory’s clinic and skedaddled right the hell on, posthaste.
Jarek let out a charged breath and crept forward from the cover of the rampantly overgrown hedges, approaching the dark Humvee at a slinking crouch, viscera tingling with two parts dread, one part morbid anticipation. He didn’t want to know what was in that Humvee. Probably, it was nothing—though tinted windows didn’t exactly instill confidence in their owners’ moral uprightness. He didn’t want to know.
But he couldn’t help himself.
“Sir, I believe I’m detecting faint vocalizations inside,” Al said, as Jarek closed on the rear passenger side.
He cupped his hands around his eyes, forming the closest thing to a daylight seal he could with the darker interior as he peered inside, and…
Faint vocalizations, whispered some goddamned clinically psychopathic part of his brain. Less faint now, as the ones making them caught sight of the stranger gaping in, and the baseline struggles intensified. Gagged. Bound.
“You hear that?” asked one of the sentries on the other side of the boxy vehicle, where Jarek couldn’t see him.
The words should’ve sent a pulse of combat adrenaline racing through his veins—and he supposed maybe they did. He was just too lost in the darkening storm inside to really care.
“How much clearer can you get?” grumbled another voice. “I told ’em, man, one more peep and—”
“Just shut them up, will you?”
A muttered curse. Footsteps approaching on the dusty asphalt. Jarek’s hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, stitches threatening to tear, peals of blackened thunder cresting through his insides, ushering in a killer’s calm fury.
He quietly drew his sword and went to work.
Rose had known from the start that it would eventually come to this—that it had always been coming to this, and always would be, so long as men like Jeb and his so-called deputies ran amuck in the streets, unopposed by any central power. The world had gone well and truly mad, and good as his spirit was, Rory had never been capable of understanding that, deep down. But Rose understood.
It was why she’d nearly died of fright five and a half years ago, when she’d first realized she was pregnant with Phoebe. It was why she managed to restrain herself now, as the one who’d insisted on a drink—she didn’t know his name—slid into the pantry behind her and wasted no time in violating her personal space.
“You’re not trying to hide, sweetness?” he asked, just quietly enough that the others wouldn’t hear out in the old living room.
Rose swallowed, acutely aware of the weight of the tiny Colt she wore at her groin like a religion, and knowing just as well that she couldn’t reach for it. She’d made a mistake, even coming back here on the pretext of checking. Allowing one of them to catch her alone. She’d only wanted a moment to rein in her nerves and steel herself for the rest of this unpleasant episode of Marauder Clinic with her naive husband, the impartial healer.
She hated it when these guys rolled through. Hated it so much she would’ve forbade it, had they not already been in too deep to safely walk away from this particular arrangement. Damn Rory and his unshakeable code—his unflappable moral creed to help anyone, everyone, no matter what. Damn the fact that she loved him for it. That it might’ve even been part of what had kept them safe here this long.
But this time was different. Something had changed. Jarek Slater had walked back in like he’d forgotten his keys and taken nine years—and more than a few drinks—to remember, and the world had taken a sudden and grimy turn for the madder.
“I told you I’d check if we had any liquor left,” she said, her voice impressively level despite her thundering heart. “We don’t.”
He came closer. Laid his hands on her.
“Maybe it ain’t liquor I came back here for.”
The tears in her eyes were almost instant, and she hated them for that. Hated herself for the fear and the weakness. Hated the world for making this man. Most of all, she hated her trembling hands, and how powerless she felt, incapable of reaching for the gun, of reaching for control.
If it were only her and Rory—if it weren’t for the sweet, fragile angel who was probably peeking down through the banisters right that moment, even though they’d told her a thousand times not to—Rose might’ve gone for it then and there. Maybe she’d take him by surprise. Maybe she’d kill the man. But even if she stopped one bastard, she couldn’t get rid of all of them. Not even close. She’d be lucky to take two of them before the rest took her right back—in every possible meaning of the word. But that wasn’t what truly mattered.
What truly mattered was that, if she ever dared to raise her hands in self-defense, she knew in her soul that they’d take it out on Phoebe every bit as cruelly as they would on her. That was all that mattered. The only thing that mattered.
So she settled for sliding away from the bastard’s appalling touch—not defensively jerking, not reacting like startled prey, only shifting toward the door like nothing had happened, and like she was simply going to rejoin her husband, where her assistant hands would shortly be required anyway.
The bastard stopped her. A quick step and a strong arm barring the doorway.
“Rose?” Rory called from the operating room. It wasn’t hard to hear the concern in his voice.
“Answer,” whispered her brutish molester, sliding a shameless hand down to her right breast, looping the other around her waist to pull her closer.
She never should’ve come back here.
“Rose?” Rory’s voice was more worried now. Slightly urgent. Just like this animal’s filthy hands. “I need your help, Rose.” A pause. Then again, with a hardening edge. “Right now!”
“Answer him,” whispered the sick bastard growing noticeably hard against her right hip, all the more excited for this little game of his. “Do it.”
Out in the operating room, she heard one of his fellow roughnecks offering to help Rory in her stead. She heard Rory’s flustered reply. Heard the scrape of him hastily rising from his stool. The sharpening of tones. The prickly scrape of her molester’s stubble on her cheek, and his greedy hands on her body.
This was it.
Jesus Christ, this was it.
Rose reached for the gun.
A rushing woomph of sound slapped the air. A sucker punch straight to the thickening surreal haze clogging her brain. The room snapped back into focus. The rank and file of the dim pantry shelves around her. The plain old rank bite of her molester’s unbathed body odor. Men cursing outside. Startled. Angry.
“What the fuck?” muttered her predator against her ear, drawing back a few inches to shoot a curious look through the adjacent kitchen.
“Des, get the fuck out here!” someone barked—Jeb, she thought—and the blond-haired, blue-eyed walking shit-stain of a man straightened from groping her like he’d just been shocked.
“We’ll pick this up later,” he muttered, more to himself than to her, it seemed, until he gave her ass one last squeeze and stalked angrily off through the kitchen—nearly straight into Rory.
“Rose!” Rory cried, rounding the corner, wide eyes flicker from her, to Des, to her tears, to Des’ face—connections buffering. Des didn’t wait for him to figure it out. Didn’t make way either. No sharing the highway for a man like that. He pushed straight through Rory, and Rory let him, leaning hard up against the countertop to let him pass, the shock and worry on his face only then beginning to resolve into understanding and resultant abhorrence as he turned his gaping focus back to Rose.
“Watch ’em right here,” someone was saying, just around the corner. Rose only half heard. She was too lost in the rush of relief, too consumed by the crushing shame, and by how obscenely naked she suddenly felt.
Why was he looking at her like that?
“The resta you assholes, on me!” Jeb’s war cry broke through her spiraling thoughts on sheer volume alone.
There were hoots and hollers, and an entire orchestra of cocking weapons. There was the thunder of boots on wood, and the thud of the front door thrown open with violent abandon. Then the ruckus spilled out into the street, and she and Rory were staring at each other in what felt like silence, and their shotgun-shot patient—the man they called Vic—was leaning around the corner, wounded shoulder bleeding. Gun in hand. Pointed at them.
“Let’s go Doc,” he said, gesturing with the pistol barrel. “You and the lady come have a seat for a minute.”
“I…” Rory looked uncertainly from Vic to Rose, base shock finally fading from his eyes, the calm resilience of the impartial healer returning to the steering wheel. He reached for her, compassion and worry and a thousand other things returning to his eyes. Then Vic smacked him across the back of the head with the pistol and yanked him backward, shoving him around the corner into the operating room.
“Come on,” Vic said, keeping the gun trained on Rory as he nodded to Rose to join her husband out there.
She couldn’t seem to move. Just stood there, feeling the weight of her hidden handgun like a small moon, calling to her hand, voices outside shouting and—
“I said move!” Vic snapped, cocking the hammer of his gun—that metallic click shattering the ice in her legs.
Rose was gliding forward almost before she knew it, head whirling with what was happening out there, and with the gun she needed to use in here before she couldn’t. It was a minor miracle they’d never noticed the concealed weapon before, much as they stared. That luck wouldn’t last. Clearly hadn’t lasted.
The first chance she got—the first real chance…
“I’m trying to help you, Vic,” Rory was saying when she rounded the corner into the operating room. His hands were raised in surrender, begging Vic to see reason. “We are trying to help you. This isn’t—”
“Shut up, Doc,” Vic said, perfectly dispassionate. He leaned over to look through the window, then backed up to the mouth of the parlor, where he could watch them both with the gun. “That guy, the drunk one. You knew him?”
Rose was staring out the window, trying to make sense of the pluming black smoke wafting from the direction of the outfit’s vehicles. She leaned further and saw Jeb out there, presiding over two dark shapes laid out on the pavement.
“Hey!” Vic snapped. “Did you know him?”
That’s when it all started to click in her head. She opened her mouth, pieces still falling in place. But Rory’s look had already told all.
“I’ve never met him before,” her husband said.
Even telling the truth, he was a terrible liar.
“I saw him trip and fall in the back alley,” she interjected. “That’s it. He was drunk. He was bleeding. We wanted to help.”
God, let Phoebe stay upstairs. Let her hide. Please, let her hide.
“We help people, Vic,” Rory said, hands still raised in peace and submission. “That’s what we do. You know that. And if you’d just lower the gun, I’d—”
“I said shut the fuck up,” Vic growled, taking a threatening step forward. “I don’t care if you heal the lame with a touch of the dick, Doc, we’ve got no use for a pair of lying—”
A hand closed around his mouth from behind. A bloody, bandaged hand, Rose registered, right before a dark glint of rapid motion flashed across Vic’s front, and a river of blood spilled down his throat in slow, viscous motion.
Rose would never forget the look in Vic’s eyes in that moment. No more than she would forget the look of the man who’d just slit his throat.
The face, she recognized. It was Jarek’s face. But the eyes… Dear god, those eyes. What had happened to the hopeful boy she’d once thought she loved?
He’d been to hell and back.
Or maybe he was still there.
Neither she nor Rory could find words as Jarek held their struggling ex-patient, his struggles drastically weakening by the second, until Jarek finally lowered the limp body silently to the floor in a bloody, wide-eyed heap.
“What the…” Rory whispered. “What the fuck did you…”
He couldn’t finish. Silence settled in the room. Outside, the street was filled with the muffled calls of Jeb’s crew, sweeping the surrounding area for the dark-haired stranger who’d just walked in and set their collective world on fire before they could blink. And looking at Jarek now—shoulders heaving, sword dripping blood on the carpet, cold hellfire in those dark eyes—Rose had no doubt that he was only getting started, that he fully intended to burn each and every one of these men to cinders before the day was done.
“Get the girl away from the windows,” was all he said, hooking a thumb toward the stairs. Toward Phoebe.
Then he was gone.
PART III - THE RIGHT MURDERER
“They appear to be regrouping out front, sir,” Al reported in Jarek’s earpiece as he darted out of the side exit for the second time and took off running down his second least favorite alley in the world. “Though it’s hard to tell for certain until I get the ship closer.”
“Hold back,” was all Jarek said. He didn’t have the pizazz in the tank to muster up anything more than that. Not with the wounded man’s warm carotid blood still stiffening on his hands.
It wasn’t the first throat he’d ever slit. It probably wouldn’t be the last. But Christ, did he hate the feeling. The soft, slick tug of blade on flesh. The blood itself, and the god-awful sounds, and the rapid descent from enraged bucking to feeble stirring as yet another predator came to realize it was really over—that this was the moment of violence he wouldn’t be walking away from.
For a man who so despised taking life, Jarek sure did do it a lot—doubly so when he didn’t have Fela to level the playing fields enough to allow him to resort to anything less than absolute lethality. No Fela, no mercy. It was the only way.
“Keep your distance until we need the distraction,” he added to Al, more because he needed to say something out loud than because Al needed to hear it.
“Acknowledged, sir,” his companion replied anyway.
They’d been through enough fights together that Jarek probably wouldn’t even need to say the word when it was time for the fly-by startle that was one of their routine staples in tight spots. He’d just have to make especially good use of the opening this time.
That, and the one other pathetic trap he’d had time to lay out front were pretty much Jarek’s only cards in this five-on-one shit show, save for his sword, a pair of Glocks, and his good old fashioned killer instincts.
Christ, did he miss Fela.
It had felt like a fifty-fifty: whether his improvised car bomb—expertly engineered via the red truck’s gas port, a torn shirt sleeve, and a lighter from one of the dead sentries—would detonate before one of the clinic gang looked out the wrong window and realized their sentries had gone AWOL. Jarek had been ready to roll either way, so long as the dirty bastards came outside to investigate, rather than hanging around in the house, where there were three too many innocent bystanders for stray gunfire to happen upon. And now…
Three down. Five left.
Until this was over, that was the only way to look at it. Later, when he and Al were safely back on the ship, and he was alive and they weren’t… then, he could think about what he’d done. For now, though, three down, and five left. And those five, he saw as he glanced carefully out from the mouth of the alley, were getting defensive. Starting to realize they weren’t dealing with just any wild street drunk.
They’d converged back at the smoking wreck of their reduced convoy, three of them fanned out around the vehicles trying to watch every way at once while Napoleon and Bucko investigated the scene of their two dead sentries, and the wagon-style Humvee that was now empty—tail hatch open, bound and gagged trophies inexplicably missing. Stashed where?
Only Jarek Slater knew.
Had he done all this just to free their hard-earned booty? Had he taken the pair for himself? Jarek could see the questions bouncing between the two marauders, right alongside the most obvious of all conclusions: it didn’t matter how or why he’d done what he did, so long as they found his drunk ass and killed him dead.
“Fine by me,” Jarek muttered, readying his pistol and leaning into the corner, preparing to move.
“Sir, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that you are not currently bulletproof. For the record.”
“Thanks for the pep talk, buddy.”
“Do be careful, sir.”
Jarek flexed his bloodied hand—bloodied both by a stranger’s blood, and his own. The stitches had definitely torn beneath the gauze.
“When have I ever not been?” he asked, hoping to Christ the guy hadn’t had hepatitis or something, then remembering on the glass-half-full side that he might well be dead before he had to ever worry about that anyway.
Who said he couldn’t be optimistic?
The thing most people don’t realize about charging five armed killers head on is that it’s not actually as dangerous as one might think.
It’s more dangerous.
So much so that even Jarek Slater’s Legs of Fearless Optimism turned to jelly as he pounded the pavement, rushing for the cover that would put him in effective range—both as target and shooter.
Heads turned. Weapons raised. Fired.
In Fela, he could’ve stabilized enough to return accurate shots while he sprinted. In meatsuit form, he just hit the dirt and squeezed off a few blindfire rounds while the clinic gang proceeded to give his innocent heap of rusted street side cover a hearty lead enema.
Cars made shitty cover. There was no getting around that, even if these guys weren’t packing much in the way of heavy firepower. Pinned and under fire for more than a handful of seconds, Jarek probably would’ve been sporting a few new holes, and maybe a lot less life in his veins. But Al was ready.
Jarek had barely mouthed the word when their beloved ship came roaring in over lines of abandoned houses, raining down what sounded—and only sounded—like quite the convincing barrage of heavy weapons fire.
Most of the clinic gang lost their shit and took Jarek’s place on the pavement even as he sprang up to take aim. All except Napoleon and his fearless Neanderthal, who both stood unafraid and turned their weapons on the new threat.
Jarek squeezed off two shots at Napoleon’s faded blue hat, and at least one of them hit. The marauder leader collapsed to the ground with his men as Jarek turned his aim on the Neanderthal and pulled the trigger. Once. Twice. Three times.
Four. Big guys got four.
Whether the guy was packing kevlar, though, or whether he was just more resilient or pissed than Jarek had accounted for, the Neanderthal didn’t go down. He turned his weapon on Jarek as the ship roared around for another pass, and the rest of the gang hopped up to join him, yelling a steady stream of expletives that began with, “It’s a trick!” and ended with a rather concerning depiction of the improbable intercourse Jarek was about to receive.
“I don’t believe that’s anatomically possible,” Al said.
Jarek, who didn’t especially care about the fine point logistics right then, fired the rest of his mag down the line—enough decently-aimed lead to make even the Mighty Neanderthal duck for cover—then he lurched out from cover and across the street like a drunken sprinter from the starting block. The first shots rang out on the left. He took one bounding step across the crumbled sidewalk, dove over the adjacent house’s waist-high stone wall, and considered calling it a day right then and there as he thudded down into the overgrown wild grass with burning lungs and a whole flashy party of odd boo-boos.
But the gunshots kept coming, and Bucko and his well-flannelled pal were almost to Jarek’s last trap. Though trap might’ve been an overly ambitious word for it.
Trick Pony #2 looked a lot more like a rusted old Ford than a pony. It sat innocently enough on the street side, betraying no hint of the comm Jarek had left beneath it earlier. Not that the kill squad would’ve noticed anyway. They were too busy blasting away Jarek’s wall and coming for his virgin eye sockets as he scuttled through the grass for a better—and hopefully less predictable—firing position.
“Now would be best, sir,” Al said quietly in his ear.
“Do it,” he muttered, slapping in a fresh magazine and preparing to shoot.
“Doing it, sir,” Al replied. Across the way, and almost seamlessly, an eerily passable clone of Jarek’s voice shouted out from beneath Trick Pony #2: “Surprise, ass hats!”
Much as he was willing to do what it took to make it through this scrape alive, Jarek didn’t feel particularly good or accomplished about popping up and double-tapping Bucko’s flannelled friend as the guy whirled to face the sudden sensory startle of Trick Pony #2. Jarek did it anyway. He tried for Bucko, too, but the crafty blond bastard was already ducking for cover, wise to the deceit.
That was Tricks One and Two, out of the bag. That was five men down and three left. That was a right steaming pile of I don’t wannas plopping down on the dwindling flames of Jarek’s vengeance, quietly asking if maybe he shouldn’t have just looked the other way and shuffled on back to the ship to start with.
Too late now.
Some small part of him hoped they’d just pack it up and run. Their leader was dead, after all, along with four more of their pals. Any reasonable group of booty-happy marauders might’ve learned their lesson and decided to cut their losses by now. Then again, a reasonable marauder was essentially an oxymoron in Jarek’s experience, and judging by the sheer volume of gunfire pelting his sad little wall as he crawled to a new firing point, it seemed a fair guess he hadn’t happened upon amicable unicorns, here.
Not until one of them shouted a ceasefire through the erratic bouts of man-made thunder.
“Hold up, boys! Hold it!”
There was a pause in the gunfire, and a few hissed words as the two no doubt asked the one what the hell he was thinking. In the relative silence, Jarek heard the rushing air of his ship hovering somewhere nearby.
“The one with the machetes is talking to the blond one, sir,” Al relayed from his eye-in-the-sky position. “Pointing to Miss Rose’s house. The big one is starting to circle around at your 1 o’clock.”
“Goddammit,” Jarek muttered under his breath, already seeing where this was going, and fairly unsurprised at what came next.
“Come on out and lay your weapons down, friend,” one of them called, “and we might just have a proposition for you.”
That was definitely Bucko talking. Just as definitely as his proposition was a short track to multiple bullets in the head—though most likely only after a good bit of thumping around. Nothing like the feeling of bones breaking beneath one’s boots to reassert one’s shattered sense of control over the world.
In a few truly deranged circles, Jarek might’ve actually bought that his showing here might’ve passed as a kind of morbid audition for the gang. We sure do like the way you slaughter, friend. Forget about those dead saps. Why don’t you come and have a nice plunder with us? Think of the children.
With the possible exception of Johnny Two-Machetes over there, though, Jarek was pretty sure these three weren’t even remotely that far gone. They just wanted him dead, whatever lever they had to pull.
He took a breath, and called out his reply. “Let’s say hypothetically I’m not down for being propositioned by three dudes. What then?”
A few more hissed comments. Then Bucko’s voice.
“Well, then I suppose we’ll just walk back into the doc’s and start killing each and every one of those good folks until you see fit to behave.”
And there it was. The Achilles heel of anyone and everyone who’d ever tried to stop an asshat from being an asshat: the infinite capacity of the apathetic asshat for wanton destruction and collateral damage as a means to an end.
“Kinda fucked up, if you ask me,” Jarek called back. “But I guess you do what you gotta do there, Bucko. Not sure what those people did to you, but you should probably know we’re gonna be coming for your cornholes no matter what you do at this point. Especially you, big guy, with your—”
Gunshots split the air, cutting him off as decisively as any good face slap. He tensed, preparing to crawl this way or that to escape their fire, preparing for the Neanderthal to come flying over the wall to his right. Then it hit him.
Shattered glass. The plunking, splintering sounds of wood walls under fire.
They weren’t shooting at him.
They were shooting up Rose’s house.
And as soon as that thought hit him, he was already on his feet, good senses fled, torn between throwing his hands up in surrender and trying to gun them all down before they noticed him. He didn’t get the chance to decide. Chock it up to the primal mother hen fear ratcheting its cold claws around his brainstem, clouding Al’s urgent cry of warning.
In Fela, he would’ve heard the big man coming over the wall a mile away. With Fela, he would’ve taken the blow like an unstoppable titan, grinning all the while, then punched the big bastard right back. Punched him through the damned wall. With Fela, he would’ve wiped this whole miserable crew off the scorched face of the earth in the space of ten seconds.
But he’d lost her. And now a few hundred pounds of Grade-A Asshole were flying straight at him.
Goddamn asshats, was all he had time to think.
Then a meaty fist thunked into the side of his head.
Jarek didn’t lose consciousness. Not really. But things did get pretty damn fuzzy for a minute or two when the Neanderthal decked him straight to the land of colorful sounds and painful smells. There was motion, and impact, and more motion. There was the resolving image of Bucko’s snide smirk. Snapping fingers in Jarek’s face. A few curses, and a hard boot to the ribs.
There was the faint relief that the shooting had stopped, followed quickly by the sober realization that his Glocks were missing, and that he was lying in the middle of the street, surrounded by three pissed off killers, one of whom had freed a machete from its sheath.
“Well now you’ve done it,” Jarek groaned. He wasn’t even entirely sure what he meant by that until his rattled brain finished piecing everything together and informed him that the ship was landing in the middle of the street nearby, boarding ramp already lowering.
Al. He must’ve had a plan. A plan that probably started with the fact that ships didn’t normally fly themselves, and ended with a twist Al probably would’ve been sharing right that moment, Jarek realized with an internal curse, if Jarek’s earpiece hadn’t gone missing—taken by his magnanimous captors, no doubt. Or maybe embedded in his brain from the Neanderthal’s flying super death punch.
Either way, Jarek was going to have to roll with it.
“I told ’em to let me have my fun, dammit,” he grumbled, hoping it would be enough to sell the act of the vengeful ship crew coming for their fallen soldier. Judging by the uncertain glance that flickered between the three marauders on the street, it was.
“Check it out,” Bucko said to Johnny Two-Machetes, nodding toward the ship. Then, for good measure, he kicked Jarek in the head.
When the world stopped spinning again, Johnny Boy was approaching the ship, weapons raised, Bucko covering him just ahead, and Jarek was being hauled from the ground by the ghost of Paul Bunyan himself. The Neanderthal hefted him up until his wobbly feet left the ground, holding him up like a raggedy meat shield as he jarred something hard and pointy to his right temple. A handgun muzzle.
“I sure hope you’re maintaining trigger discipline there, big guy,” Jarek groaned, earning himself an angry squeeze and a painfully hard temple jab. But that was okay. Because Al had a plan. Probably. He’d take at least one of them out of the picture for Jarek. Most likely. Which ostensibly left Jarek caught in an angry ox’s death grip with a gun to the head and possibly one more man to worry about if and when death by meat crusher was circumvented.
At least he could feel his sword pressed up between them.
“We’ve got your man, assholes!” Bucko called ahead, strafing around to get a better line of sight as Johnny Two-Machetes approached the base of the boarding ramp.
Any second now.
Jarek tried not to tense. Tried to remain fluid and unthreatening, ready for anything.
It happened quickly.
At a nod from Bucko, Johnny Boy charged up the boarding ramp like a drunk pirate on the high seas. He’d barely reached the top when the rear of the ship kicked up, tipping him inside like a great mechanical maw throwing one down the gullet. The ship was already lurching skyward, taking him away. Bucko was shouting something. Jarek was too preoccupied snapping his head back into the Neanderthal’s nose and praying to Jesus the guy didn’t have a twitchy trigger finger.
He twisted free in what little space it bought him, dimly noting he wasn’t dead yet as he swept an elbow up at the Neanderthal’s gun hand, and a fist down to his groin. The big man groaned, and Jarek kept swinging. Headbutt to the nose. A hard stomp to the left knee. The bastard clung stubbornly to the gun as Jarek tried to pry it free. It discharged once, twice. The Neanderthal pummeled him in the ribs—an explosive splash in the sea of pain. Jarek stomped his knee harder, dropping him to the pavement, then ripped his sword free from the scabbard and brought it down in a messy slash across the man’s throat.
On pure battle instinct, he tucked and rolled from there, reaching for the man’s gun. Or he started to, at least, before something small and furious ripped across his back on a clap of thunder. He hit the ground with a snarl, somehow having lost his sword but gained the Neanderthal’s gun. He spun on screaming knees, raising the weapon. Too late, he saw, coming around to stare down the barrel of Bucko’s raised gun, time slowing as he tried against all odds to draw his bead faster, knowing it was impossible.
Then Bucko jerked to the thunder of the next gunshot, his gun inexplicably devoid of the concomitant muzzle flash, his eyes suddenly unfocused. Vacant.
Bucko collapsed to the pavement, dead before he hit the ground. Jarek followed the trajectory his unbelieving eyes told him the shot must’ve come from, and gaped at what he saw there.
She stood on the edge of the front porch, her face a mask of blank shock, a small handgun still raised and pointed at the man she’d just shot dead. She turned those shocked eyes on him, and for a second, he forgot everything else. Then a wet, sputtering gurgle from the big man beside him brought him back to the bloody warzone where he’d just killed at least five men, and wasn’t allowed to quit just yet.
Jarek rose to his feet, wincing at the line of fire the movement seared across his back—a grazing shot, from the feel of it. Or so he idly hoped. It was hard to care much about anything in that moment other than that he’d made it, and they hadn’t.
The big man was dying on the pavement. Not quite there yet, but not far off, either. Jarek gritted his teeth and used the man’s own gun to put him out of his misery, wishing more than anything that it didn’t have to be this way—that he could let these men live, trusting that they’d learned their lesson and would henceforth live lives of peace and service to their fellow survivors.
But that wasn’t how it worked these days. Never had been, he supposed. But at least there’d been prisons back then, before the Catastrophe. There’d been governments. Real authorities, capable of taking real control over such men. Now, though…
Now, there was only the will of those who would take and destroy, and the blood-soaked hands of those few who were willing to stop them.
It was appalling work. Jarek saw his own disgust for the deed reflected in Rose’s eyes. Reflected, and directed right back at him. He couldn’t stand it.
“Bring him down, Al,” he called, not knowing where his earpiece or comm were, but trusting his companion would hear anyway. He only wanted this to be over.
Why the hell had he ever thought to come here?
What would’ve happened here today if he hadn’t?
The ship descended, leveling out from the series of whirling orientation shifts Al had been using to keep his unwilling guest pinned, or at least off balance, inside. The tail end dropped, engine housings shifting to maintain altitude as the boarding ramp opened and Johnny Two-Machetes came tumbling out in a screaming ball of hate and violence.
Jarek was on him before he could recover. He put one hard kick to the man’s head to keep him from regaining his feet, then raised the borrowed gun, burning to be done with it all.
“Wait!” someone shouted behind.
“Fuck you,” growled the marauder at his feet, squinting straight up into Jarek’s eyes.
Jarek pulled the trigger, and watched with a numb, hollow feeling as another piece of his humanity chipped free. He stood there for a long few seconds, watching it drift away on the wind. Then he turned to go find his gear and assess the damage.
The damage, it turned out, was fairly minimal aside from eight dead marauders, a few shot out windows, and the shallow gouge of flesh missing from Jarek’s back—and possibly his soul, too. Not even half as bad as it could have been, all told. Rose and her family were alive and unharmed, for starters. Even if they were probably scarred for life. Maybe that was for the best, though. Anyone crazy enough to run an open clinic these days probably needed a few more scars to wisen them up to exactly what manner of world they were living in.
Case and point, Rory’s current existential meltdown.
“You killed them,” the good doctor echoed for maybe the fifth time, trailing after Jarek like a lost puppy, or a sleepwalker shuffling from one nightmare to the next. He’d already gone through the less than necessary act of checking each and every one of the marauders for signs of life, after he’d emerged from the clinic to insist Rose take their daughter while he came out here to take care of business.
Whether or not Rory had seen how his loving wife had already taken care of business with Bucko, over there, Jarek wasn’t quite sure. Even if he had, something told him that Rory’s brain might’ve simply reframed it, or shut it out completely so as to protect his imperative narrative of Jarek-as-home-wrecking-demon-and-slaughterer-of-innocent-patients.
Rose had taken Phoebe back inside without argument. Without a word. Jarek would never forget the hollow look in her eyes—one part lingering fury for the men who would’ve hurt her family, three parts horror that she’d actually found it in herself to pull the trigger. Nor would he forget the way little Phoebe’s wide eyes had flicked from the scene of death straight to Jarek, like there wasn’t any question in her mind what had happened to these men, and what that made Jarek.
He’d never felt so damned repugnant in his life.
Which is why he nearly lost it and clocked Rory a nice stiff one on the nose when the righteous do-gooder went and said it again.
“You killed them.”
“They were hurting people out there, Doc,” Jarek said, not stopping on his way to the house where he’d stashed the booty from the crew’s Humvee. “Probably would’ve killed you too, eventually. They had to be stopped.”
“That’s…” A moment of hesitation. Jarek could practically hear the opposing forces of philanthropic optimism and pragmatic realism sloshing against one another in Rory’s head. “You don’t know that,” he finally said. “No one could’ve known that.”
“Come on,” Jarek said, peeling open the dry-rotted gateway to the target house’s front yard. “How many times have they fed you that bullshit line about getting jumped? You don’t think it’s odd that this particular band of guys just happened to keep getting unrightfully attacked… crew of eight… what, maybe twice a month or so?”
He paused to look at Rory, already knowing what he’d see but unwilling to pass up on the small hit of satisfaction from knowing that even Dr. DoGood couldn’t completely ignore the whiff of the unsettling truth beneath all the convenient lies. Rory wasn’t stupid, after all. He was just a decent person. Which was why he clung so desperately to the noble story.
“You don’t know,” he insisted. “They… they maintained order out there. They… They’ve been coming here for over a year, now. They wouldn’t have hurt us.”
Jarek let out a breath, shaking his head. “I get it. I do. You wanna believe you could see the real monsters coming from a mile away, right? But here’s the thing, Doc. Guys like that don’t write it down on the freaking calendar. It doesn’t happen like that. Those men had killed people to survive. They were here because they’d grown comfortable taking what they wanted from people who owed them jack shit. From there, I can tell you from experience, you’re sitting on a loaded powder keg of violence, and you don’t even know who’s holding the match.”
The furrow in Rory’s brow suggested he was less than sold on Jarek’s street smart wisdom. Jarek pressed on anyway, determined to drill it into the man’s virtuous skull.
“It starts with something minor, more often than not. I’ve seen it more times than I care to count. Maybe they decide to take even more advantage of your hospitality.” He hooked a thumb in Bucko’s general direction. “Maybe they ask for a drink. Maybe they decide to have a bit of fun with your wife in the back room while no one’s looking. No one but her, at least. But they know she won’t say a thing, just like they know you wouldn’t do anything about it even if she did. Because you wouldn’t hurt a fly, right?”
He saw it on Rory’s face: he’d just touched a nerve. Stabbed it, even.
“Maybe the situation snowballs from there, or hell, maybe one of them just breaks a goddamn lamp on the wrong day. Doesn’t matter how it starts. The wrong hit of adrenaline on the wrong day, and suddenly it’s like someone snapped the goddamn murder glowstick, and before you know it—woopsie—someone accidentally brained the good doctor because he twitched the wrong way, and because that’s what survivors do. And hey, now that he’s dying in the corner, might as well just get their rocks off and torch the place like they’ve always kind of wanted to anyway, right? There’s gotta be another doc out there for next time. No one’s irreplaceable. No one’s above the law of violence when you’re the goddamn apex predator.”
It was only when Jarek stopped that he realized he’d been practically shouting, shoulders heaving with emotionally agitated breaths, bullet-grazed back burning like meat on the grill.
Rory was gaping at him like he’d just come to some important epiphany. “You’re insane,” he finally said, glancing around as if only then noticing that Jarek had led him into the overgrown yard of a long-abandoned house for no apparent reason. “Those men… You’re… You’re…” His expression hardened, some semblance of control and reason returning. “I want you out of here, Jarek. Now. I want you away from my family.”
Jarek coughed up a twisted huff of bitter laughter before he could help himself. It was just too rich, standing here a few feet from the threshold of the hard evidence that proved exactly what manner of men the good doctor had been so ready to patch up today.
“I’m serious,” Rory insisted. “I want you g—Agh!”
Moral quandaries and difficult conversations aside, Jarek would’ve been lying if he’d said he didn’t kind of enjoy grabbing a startled Rory and dragging his righteous ass to the front door.
“You wanna help someone, Dr. DoGood? Why don’t you stop defending your regulars and try helping all the people they’ve been busy with?” He shoved Rory to the wall with one hand, gripping the door handle with the other. “You wanna know what I pulled out of your good buddies’ Humvee back there?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Just opened the door and hauled Rory inside, absently hoping that his hard evidence had listened to what he’d said earlier and refrained from running for the hills the moment he’d left to circle back to Rose’s before the truck bomb surprise could kick the party off.
They had listened. Or maybe they’d just been too terrified to move. Either way, the two girls were still there, huddled together against the wall, dirtied and bruised and shaking in the handcuffs Jarek hadn’t had time to remove earlier.
“Hate to say I told you so, Doc,” Jarek said quietly, more for their benefit than for Rory’s, “but I don’t think your pals were planning on maintaining order for these two.”
Rory’s face was ashen in the wash of daylight from outside. “God. Jesus, I… I…”
Jarek left Dr. DoGood to sort out his crisis of conscience and instead went to the two cowering girls, moving with slow, non-threatening intent. “Sorry about all the ruckus out there,” he said gently, fishing into the little pouch of goodies on his gun belt for one of the pre-bent hairpins he kept there. “On the bright side, those gentlemen won’t be bothering you anymore.”
His fingers closed on one a hairpin, and he drew it out, holding it up for them to see, then gesturing to their handcuffs, trying to muster up a friendly smile from somewhere in the depths.
A bit of mechanical fumbling and a few shaky questions and answers later, Rory escorted the two un-cuffed girls out of the abandoned house and into the clinic to give them a more thorough checkup, along with a hot meal and a fresh change of clothes.
The good doctor didn’t explicitly forbid Jarek from accompanying them in. In fact, after the revelation of seeing what his ex-patients had been up to on those supply runs of theirs—and what they might well have eventually been up to with his own precious family, left unchecked—Jarek might even dare say Rory had had a change of heart. Not enough to condone the violence that had occurred that day. Maybe not even enough to condone Jarek himself. But enough that Rory might’ve at least welcomed him for a quick meal, and to patch up his grazed back.
Jarek, on the other hand, needed to blow this town by yesterday.
The wounds, he could take care of himself. And if he couldn’t, he’d visit Pryce in Newark. What Jarek couldn’t handle right then, was the thought of walking back into that house, with all of its good memories and all of its bad, and seeing the look in that little girl’s eyes—the distilled essence of what he’d become, colored through her young naivety and tinged with the specters of Conner and Stenson and all the other stupid things he’d ever done, starting with the bright-eyed hope he’d once harbored that he and Al might actually make a difference in this world.
“Get me the hell outta here, Mr. Robot,” he muttered, watching the trio disappear into the clinic before turning for the ship’s open boarding ramp.
“If that’s what you wish, sir,” Al said carefully, clearly less than pleased that this little post-Fela experiment of theirs had failed so miserably, but also hesitant to argue, probably for fear of making it all worse. As if there could be any more damning evidence that Jarek wasn’t cut out for some sunny return to a life that didn’t involve outlaw justice and a trusty powered exosuit.
How he’d allowed himself to think otherwise for even a minute… well, it just went to show what kind of naive horseshit even a cynic could start believing when they really wanted to. Not that he had wanted to. And to say he’d actually believed would have been a stretch anyway. No. This had simply been… what? Not a detour. Not even a proof of concept to get Al off his back with all the incessant yammering. Just… an itch.
One last curious itch to scratch off the scabby, well-chapped ass of his past.
And so he had, he decided, staring up into the cozy interior of the ship that was home. Or half of home, at least. The other half was still out there somewhere, waiting for him and Al to reclaim her, in all her armored, marauder-pounding glory. Fela awaited.
Jarek took his first steps up the ramp only to falter when he felt someone watching. Rose had appeared on the porch, watching him like she’d somehow divined his intent to leave without a goodbye almost as quickly as it had come to him. She didn’t look particularly surprised, either. Maybe because, in some way, she still knew him. Or maybe because leaving was just the only decent thing for him to do.
He couldn’t really tell, as she stepped off the porch and glided across the pavement toward him, ghostlike in the reddening light of the setting sun. Every bit as beautiful as she was haunting.
“I’d say we should do this again sometime…” he said, trying and failing to strike a lighthearted tone as she drew up to the bottom of the ramp.
“But this is probably goodbye?” she offered, stepping up to join him on the ramp. He might not have guessed she’d just killed a man, if he hadn’t witnessed it with his own eyes. Maybe he’d underestimated her—or overestimated, depending on how you looked at it. Maybe Bucko hadn’t even been her first.
“You’re not one of those Jedi mind-readers I’ve heard legends about,” he said, searching her face, so familiar and yet so strange to him, “are you?”
She shook her head faintly, and if the ghost of a smile touched her lips, it was most certainly a sad one. “I just figure it’s foolish to count on the impossible happening a second time.” Her brow crinkled. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
Jarek teetered on the ramp even as his tongue tottered on the words. Suddenly he was seventeen again, longing more than anything to tell her how he’d returned once, a few months after the situation with Conner and the Iron Eagles had imploded. How he’d watched through the window under the cover of night as she and Frank had eaten dinner—one of his stews—and Jarek had stood there, wanting to go and knock on the door, wanting to go in and never leave again. He wanted to tell her how he’d spent years imagining that he’d return to her soon, just as soon as he’d done what he had to, done enough good out there in their shit storm of a world to silence the thing inside of him that wouldn’t let him sleep without seeing Conner’s face, and the faces of all the others like him who were out there, taking whatever they wanted, unchecked by anyone.
He wanted to tell her all of it. But all he could seem to do was bob his head in numb agreement, staring off at the house just to escape her gaze. Because maybe, if he was really being honest, he’d never truly expected he’d be seeing her again, either.
He’d forgotten what it felt like, being tongue-tied.
Rose followed his gaze to the house, and to her family within. “He’s a good man,” she said, as if she fancied she’d read his thoughts.
“That’s why I’m worried,” he muttered.
Maybe she had.
She looked back to him, studying his face with a crinkled brow, like she’d only half heard him. “I still think you are, too. Somewhere in there.”
“Thus confirming my theory that your instincts are not to be trusted.”
Christ and all his friends, if she only knew.
“Seriously,” he added, shaking himself free of the memories, “you guys shouldn’t stay here. Not after this. And if Dr. DoGood in there is really set on taking care of people in the future, you can’t just run an open clinic like this. It’s—”
“Well, I was going to say ‘unconscionably irresponsible for two skill-valued adults with a five year old daughter to protect.’ But yeah, obviously that too.”
She gently bobbed her head, not disagreeing with the sentiment, but also not volunteering any promise that she and Rory would actually reconsider their position here. Maybe it was none of his business. Probably not. But still, after today…
“You’ve never told him, have you?” Jarek asked, before he could remind himself that that was none of his business, either.
There were any number of ways the question could’ve been interpreted, not the least of which revolved around the fact that they had been lovers way back when—and first lovers, at that. But the look in her eyes told him that she’d understood his meaning perfectly well without the clarification.
“I’ve never told anyone,” she whispered, eyes fixed through him— reddening as they settled on the memory of the dark night when he’d first found her. The night he’d first killed a man, trying to protect her. She blinked the brimming tears away, dabbing quickly at her cheeks, mustering composure. “I never will.”
Jarek nodded absentmindedly, understanding just fine.
It was time to go.
“I heard the stories, you know,” she said, before he could. “Back then, about Conner and the Iron Eagles, and the armored maniac who took them all down in Newark.” She looked up to meet his eyes. “I’ve heard more stories since then, about the man they call the Soldier of Charity.”
Jarek swallowed, a thousand different thoughts and emotions struggling for position at the top of the pile. “Sounds like a total cock hat to me.”
That was definitely a smile this time. Sad but genuine. She reached up to brush his cheek. “Take care of yourself out there, Jarek. Don’t give up.”
He couldn’t say a word. Couldn’t blink. Hard men, violent killers, and all assorted monsters coming for him from all sides, and he’d never falter. A loving touch on the cheek, and he was paralyzed.
Rose didn’t wait for a response. Jarek watched her go, paralysis draining from his limbs with each step she took. He resisted the urge to reach for his cheek where it still tickled from her fingertips. He watched until she’d closed the front door behind her.
The entire thing felt incomplete. No goodbye. No thank you. No look what you’ve done, now get the hell out of here. Just an endless wall of c’est la vie, and so it goes. Life went on, didn’t it?
“You heard the lady, Al,” Jarek said quietly. “Let’s go find our baby.”
“I’m not entirely sure finding Fela is what Miss Rose was suggesting, sir.”
That made two of them.
“Yeah, well, I’m not entirely sure that matters,” he said anyway, forcing himself to turn away, to finish climbing the boarding ramp, back into the cramped, dirty ship that was home. “In fact, I’m entirely sure it doesn’t. We need Fela, buddy. We won’t survive much longer without her.”
“Only if people don’t stop shooting at us, sir.”
Jarek slapped the hatch switch to close up shop, suppressing the beginnings of a grin. It was always kind of touching, the way Al made it sound like a bullet to Jarek was in any way a bullet to himself.
“Get us in the air, Mr. Robot.”
“Someplace nice. Dealer’s choice.”
“Sandy beaches, bottomless drinks, and beautiful women, sir?”
Jarek snorted. “I mean, that’s all well and good or whatever, but why bother with paradise when I could camp out on the side of a mountain watching movies in my underwear with my trusty robot pal?”
“Are you certain we shouldn’t seek medical aid for your back first, sir? Or at least consider leaving pants in the equation?”
“You only get to pick one, buddy. Just get us anywhere away from here.”
“Very well, sir.”
Jarek was strolling up to the cockpit, the ship gently beginning to rise beneath his feet, when his comm buzzed against his wrist. A message from Pryce: “My tuchus was burning. Everything okay out there?”
Jarek frowned down at the message, parsing the suspiciously tight timing. “Al? Do you have something you wanna tell me?”
“Hmm,” Al said, all-too-perfectly innocent and thoughtful. “Only that I cherish your friendship, sir. And that I’d never betray your confidence.”
Jarek rolled his eyes and sank gingerly into the captain’s chair, swiping out a reply to Pryce: “Three cheers: the right murderer won the day. Forgot how much stomping the forces of evil sucks in squishy meat suit form.”
Pryce’s reply came quickly: “We’ll find Fela. I’ve got my ear to the ground. Both ears, actually.” Then, a few seconds later: “Fresh batch of my finest fresh off the still next time you’re home.”
Jarek looked around the cockpit, pondering the oddity of that oh-so-ambiguous-yet-utterly-ubiquitous word.
“I’ll keep that in mind next time I need to remember my only drinking buddies are a prissy robot and an old geezer,” he swiped and sent.
“I’m not prissy,” Al huffed.
“Says the snoop-bot reading my private correspondence,” Jarek grumbled.
“You’re typing it on my face, sir.”
“Reason 4,979 we have to get Fela back.”
“You know, this expansive list of yours might seem more authoritative if you made any effort to count continuously. Or if you’d actually bothered documenting the other 4,925 reasons through which you’ve apparently been skipping.”
Jarek waved his hands at the cockpit cams to show how mock-impressed he was. “Well forgive me, Mr. Robot. Some of us didn’t get to do all that fancy high school jazz before the planet exploded. You’re lucky I can even count.”
“The luckiest sentient construct on the planet, sir.”
Jarek grinned, staring out the windshield as the only sentient construct on the planet yawed the ship around to the southwest, toward Newark, and Pryce. Toward something like home.
“Might as well go visit the old man,” Jarek mumbled, glancing back into the untidy cabin of his living quarters. “I’ve only got a couple bottles left back there anyway.”
“Reason 4,980, sir?”
Jarek blew out a long sigh, feeling inexplicably heavier than he had only moments ago, the lance of fire burning across his back with renewed ferocity.
“Reason number one, buddy. They took our home.”
He looked down at the receding afternoon glow of the mostly-wrecked, mostly-abandoned streets of the Boston suburbs, wondering if he’d ever see them again, knowing deep down that he probably wouldn’t.
“They took our home,” he repeated, reaching for the manual throttle on the cockpit console. “And we’re gonna take it back.”
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