The first thing Jarek noticed when he woke to the vibration of his comm was the deep ache behind his eye sockets, throbbing in time with his pulse. The second thing he noticed, squinting with bleary eyes through the familiar soft red lighting of the ship cabin, was the dark shape of the rectangular bottle on the nearby dresser.
“Come to papa,” he mumbled, leaning over the edge of his cot to reach for the whiskey.
“Isn’t it a bit early for a drink, sir?” The smooth voice with a light English accent came from the cabin speakers.
“Aren’t you a bit nosy for a robot?”
And wasn’t it nighttime anyway? A glance up to the cockpit windshield confirmed as much. He managed to snag the bottle without falling off the cot and flopped back down to tip the remainder of the fiery liquid into his dry, sleep-stained mouth.
“Would that I could look away, sir.”
“Pshhh. You’d miss me in a heartbeat. Or, you know, a CPU pulse. Or whatever.”
“An immaculate comparison, sir.”
“Yeah.” Jarek frowned as he raised his left wrist to glance at the comm that had buzzed him awake. “Remind me again where we landed on dialing down that sarcasm setting of yours?”
The message from Pryce was simple enough, but it set his heart beating faster: “Possible lead on our girl. Stop by.”
Could this be it? Would they finally find Fela?
“I believe it was right at the conclusion that I don’t have a sarcasm setting, sir,” Al said.
He snapped his fingers in mock letdown. “Clearly those computer jockeys had no idea what they were unleashing on the world.”
Al sniffed, an affectation that was completely unnecessary for a digital construct. “Some called me the crowning achievement of the twenty-first century, you know.”
“Oh, I remember.” He slid off the cot and pulled on a dark, long-sleeved Henley and a pair of brown cargo pants. “And then all those pesky nukes had to come rocketing down to steal your thunder.”
He added a pair of socks and boots, ran a hand through his dark, disheveled hair, and blew out a long sigh. “What if it’s just another dead end?”
“Then we’ll keep looking, sir. We’ll find Fela. And if we don’t, life will go on nonetheless.”
“Not for long, if I keep running around in squishy meat suit form. And besides, how can you say that, man? Fela’s our home—yours even more than mine.”
“Much as I would delight at being whole again, sir, I feel compelled to point out that an armored exosuit doesn’t do us much good if you die retrieving it.”
Jarek closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. “What the hell else am I supposed to do?”
“Live,” Al said without hesitation. “Farm, hunt, find a special friend. Settle down. You know, the human thing.”
Jarek snorted and went to buckle on his gun belt and sling his sword over his right shoulder. “Yeah, how’s that working out for the rest of the world?” He slapped the ship’s rear hatch release. “Besides,” he added, slipping in an earpiece as the boarding ramp lowered with an electronic hum, “what do I need friends for when I have you, buddy?”
Al sighed in his ear. “I’ll inform Pryce you’re on your way, sir.”
Pistols within easy reach at mid-thigh and sword securely strapped at his back, Jarek descended from the ship and into the muggy night.
Pryce’s shop—or his emporium, or whatever the hell the old madman happened to be calling it—was located in the old West Ward, part of the area most Newarkers simply called the ’Skirts these days. It wasn’t that far of a walk to the sparse little community. Given the muggy warmth of the night, Jarek was glad for its proximity.
He only passed two people along the way. Both of them rushed indoors when they saw him, one into a crappy apartment building and the other into a crude shanty.
The shanties that had sprung up in the aftermath of the Catastrophe fifteen years past had slowly grown into more permanent structures as their inhabitants came to the realization that things were not simply going to snap back to the way they’d been anytime soon. Granted, most of the buildings in Newark weren’t in much better shape. Some shining souls had banded together and done their best to repair what they could with what resources they could scrounge together, but between the lack of any real government and the persistent threat of roaming marauders, the drive to restore society to its pre-Catastrophe splendor had been a slow one at best.
They probably had the vamps (or the raknoth, as Pryce insisted on calling them) to thank for that. He shook his head, wondering what sick twist of cosmic fate had brought those vicious things to Earth, as he turned a dark street corner and approached his destination.
“Young master Slater,” Pryce said as Jarek stepped into the shop.
The small front room was relatively empty aside from the counter that Pryce was fiddling behind and the bulletin board that hung on the wall. The board displayed a mixture of odd jobs, bounties, and resumes of all shapes and sizes. As much of a hodgepodge as the board was, Jarek knew it was nothing compared to the smorgasbord of supplies in the back room where Pryce kept his proper shop.
“Got your message,” he said, pulling the metal door closed behind him. “What did you hear?”
A knowing smile crinkled the older man’s forehead underneath the ludicrous set of round goggles strapped there. Above all else, Jay Pryce was a scholar and a tinkerer. He never liked to wander too far without his goggles, just in case he should need to make use of a power tool or a welding torch or any other ocularly unfriendly device. Coupled with the greasy, tool-stuffed shop apron he so often wore, the thin, bushy wisps of white hair exploding from under the bands of his goggles left Pryce looking every bit the mad scientist he actually was.
“It seems,” Pryce said, “that the Resistance may be involved—to your delight, I’m sure.”
“This is my ‘jumping for joy’ face,” Jarek said, carefully setting his dark eyes and strong jaw in a flat expression. “Can’t you tell?”
Pryce grinned and stepped around the counter to offer him a battered canteen of water, then paused, sniffed at the air, and wrinkled his nose. “Or perhaps something a bit stronger?”
“That’s a pretty astute schnoz you got there, old-timer.”
“A congested anosmic could smell the booze on you from across the room.”
Rather than ask what the hell an anosmic was, Jarek swiped the canteen from Pryce’s hand and took a long pull of cool, clean water. “I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment. So who do I need to talk to, then? Huxley? Johnson? Please say Huxley. He’s the only one of those Resistance a-holes I can almost stand.” He smacked the canteen onto the counter in a flurry of droplets. “And what do you mean, they may be involved? What did you hear exactly?”
Pryce studied him with a mild frown. “How old are you now, son? Twenty-five?”
“Twenty-six. So about a quarter your age, if my calculations are in line.”
Pryce rolled his eyes at that. “I know you’ve been through the shit and there and back again more times than I can count, and with no one but Al beside you, but—”
Here they went again. “Ah Christ, man. Look, forgive me if I decide to have a drink or two while I wait around for something to pop up. How else am I supposed to tolerate being stuck in the ship with Al?”
Al directed his indignant sniff through the comm speaker so Pryce could hear as well. “It’s technically me who’s stuck there with you, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jarek said, flapping his fingers and shaking his head for Pryce to see. A smile warred with the frown on Pryce’s face. “Come on, Pryce. Give me a break and tell me what’s up. Just don’t tell me the freaking Resistance has her.”
“Not as far as I know. To answer your previous question, though, I hear Johnson hung up his hat, and Huxley . . .” A shadow crossed over his face. “Huxley is dead, allegedly by the Reds’ doing.”
“Shit. Sorry to hear that.”
“At any rate, it’s probably Huxley’s understudy you need to talk to. Michael Carver, I believe it is.”
“Double shit,” Jarek said, wrinkling his nose. “That boy scout? You think he knows where Fela’s at?”
“Maybe,” Pryce said. “Maybe not. Someone was in here a few days ago saying that Carver and Huxley intercepted something of prodigious value bound for the Overlord himself. No one seems to know much beyond that.”
Jarek absentmindedly picked up the device Pryce had been working on. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but that wasn’t uncommon in Pryce’s shop. “You think it was Fela?”
“Could be. I’m guessing the guys who nabbed Fela when you were—what was it again?”
Jarek narrowed his eyes at the device. “Decompressing.”
“Ah yes, decompressing. Well, it stands to reason that they were either Reds themselves or in league with them, and we know who’s at the top of that booty chain. If Fela was headed anywhere, it feasibly could’ve been on that shipment.”
And yet Pryce was only thinking to tell him this now, days after he’d heard the news?
“Something else happen tonight?”
“You bet your pasty ass it did!” Pryce said, putting on his unreasonably excited scholar face. “This is where it gets good. According to the gents I just talked to, a little blond woman blew through The Rath earlier tonight looking for Carver. Cute too, they said.”
That was interesting. The Rath was a real shithole, typically full of uninspired but dangerous thugs. As delightful as it would’ve been to watch a cute blonde kick The Rath’s ass, though, he didn’t really see why this mattered.
“I think we have an arcanist on our hands!” Pryce said.
Jarek looked up from the device in his hands. “An arcanist? Seriously?”
Pryce nodded, looking like he might simply burst with excitement. “No one at The Rath had the fuzziest about what the hell they’d really seen, of course, but judging from the descriptions . . .” He shrugged.
“And so the plot thickens,” Jarek said. “Wait, why would this chick be looking for Carver there?”
“Oh, right. I may have forgot to mention that Carver was allegedly captured by the Reds earlier this week.”
“Well, triple shit, old man!” Jarek cried, throwing his hands up. “You couldn’t have started with the bit where the guy with the info is locked up in the damn Red Fortress?”
“In hindsight, I do see where that seems problematic. And it sounds like the clock’s ticking on this one.”
He tossed the electrical whatever back to the countertop, much to Pryce’s irritation. “Jesus. Even if I could figure out a way to get to him before they kill him, assuming they haven’t already, it’s not much to go on.”
“You’re right. Better go follow all those other leads of yours. Maybe you can stroll right into the big city and ask nicely.”
“Please don’t encourage him,” Al said.
Jarek smiled as a strategy crystallized, and he began to unfasten his gun belt. “Yeah, about that—you mind holding my hardware for a day or two, old-timer?”
Pryce frowned. “Why do I suddenly feel an ominous sense of déjà vu?”
“Sir,” Al added, “if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, I really must protest.”
“Imagine my shock,” Jarek said.
“You should try listening to Alfred for a change,” Pryce said. “You’d live a lot longer—probably still have Fela too.”
“Guys,” Jarek said. He turned his hands palm up with the gun belt still hanging from the one. “It’s totally different this time. I’m older, wiser. All that bullshit.”
“We could find another way, sir,” Al said. “Perhaps the Resistance would be willing to—”
“I’d rather have a round of fisticuffs with the Red King in my birthday suit than work with those idealistic idiots.” He removed his sword and offered it to Pryce with the guns.
Pryce scowled but took the weapons. “Guess I won’t waste my breath trying.” His expression darkened as Jarek removed his earpiece and comm and handed those over as well. “You’re sure about this?”
Jarek shrugged. “It’ll all just end up in some asshole’s hands when they take me in.”
“I wasn’t talking about the damn comm. This is ballsy, son. Even for you.”
He raised a hand as if to say What’s one to do?
“It’s only an exosuit, sir,” Al said quietly. “It’s not worth dying for.”
“That’s our home, Al. Of course it’s worth it. Christ, you’re still in there, man—the real you. Did you forget?”
The heat in his own voice almost surprised him. Almost.
“Of course not,” Al said. “Just . . . Don’t leave me alone here, sir. I don’t want to be a ship forever.”
“Just keep her warm for me, buddy. I’ll be back.”
“Be careful,” Pryce said as Jarek grabbed the door handle.
“Don’t ask me to start now, man,” he said, pausing to look back. “You’ll just get me all confused.”
* * *
THE WALK THIS TIME WAS considerably further, which was unfortunate. Deciding to pull a risky move was one thing. Deciding and then having to walk a few miles toward the impending unpleasantness—that was something more. As much as he liked to play it cool, Jarek couldn’t deny the anxious fear dancing in the pit of his stomach. He was walking into the belly of the beast, essentially naked. Ballsy he might be, but he wasn’t crazy enough to do it without breaking a bit of a sweat.
But what choice did he have?
He needed to get Fela back. If there was a chance Michael Carver could help him do that, then he needed to get to Carver. Al could insist all he wanted that Fela was only an exosuit and they could survive without her, but Jarek wasn’t buying it. Fela had been their shelter for fifteen years now. She’d seen them through thick and thin. Fela was more than an exosuit. She was a part of him, and more than a part of Al. More than anything, she was theirs, dammit, and he was going to take her back.
After half an hour’s trek through the summer night, he arrived at The Rath. Perspiration ran down his forehead and soaked through his shirt. A light breeze breathed over him, and he delighted in the cool relief as he stopped at the mouth of the alley to focus up. The smell in the alleyway implored his nose to wrinkle, but he forced himself into practiced composure as he approached the pub’s entrance.
He wasn’t the same frightened kid he’d been the last time he’d walked into this shithole. And he was going to get Fela back.
Grumbling voices carried through the door, along with the subtler sound of broken glass being swept across a wooden floor.
He pushed open the door, and an amused smile spread over his face at the overturned furniture and the clearly disgruntled denizens. “I’ll be damned,” he mumbled.
He’d heard stories about arcanists—their alleged existence happened to be one of Pryce’s favorite topics—but he’d never taken them for more than that. They were stories, legends. The scene before him didn’t prove anything mystical was at work, but it was certainly interesting.
Every eye in the room turned his way as he stepped through the doorway. He wasn’t surprised to see half the men’s weapons follow a second later.
“Gentlemen.” He nodded amicably to the room at large, doing his best to ignore the guns and keep the grin on his face wide and easy. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. I hear he’s a hot topic here tonight.” His gaze fell on the big guy sitting at the bar in a cheap, worn-out suit. Distant, unpleasant memories scratched at the edges of his mind. “It’s Tom, right? Care to help a brother out?”
Big Tom had been the only one in the pub who hadn’t turned to look when he walked in, but the glare he shot Jarek now more than made up for the initial neglect.
“You,” he said, clearly taking his own walk down memory lane. “Jarek Fucking Slater.”
At the sound of his name, several men tensed and eyed him with renewed wariness, their weapons shifting from his general direction to his chest and head.
He couldn’t help but smile at the reaction. “Long time, big guy. Care to help an old pal find Michael Carver?”
“Right, then.” Tom looked around the room. “Tie the fucker up, lads.”
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