The thud of the tram changing tracks brought Rory’s attention up from the paper, which he’d been not so much reading as absorbing, moving from the Tenjin ad to an op-ed on the ethics of forced labor in the crystal fields and thence to a review of Founding Fortune! The Musical—and quite scathing it was—enough that Rory could resist the itching urge to peek at the bearded bloke.
Moments after the change, the conductor announced Tempest Park and Rory stood up.
As the door opened, he caught a whiff of damp stone and a glance out the window confirmed the promised rain had begun.
“Lovely,” he muttered and folded the paper into the pack before slinging it over his shoulder and stepping out into the wet.
Once on the walk he shoved both hands into his jacket pockets and headed left on Tempest Park Avenue, which led away from the Keeper-protected park and past a number of small shops. As he walked, the smattering of rain increased, so he joined the other umbrella-less commuters in hugging the sides of the clustered buildings, taking advantage of the occasional awning in hopes of avoiding a complete wetting, while along the road, the streetlamps flickered to life.
Rory, hunkered against the rain, looked down at the shining pavement, where the lamplight reflected like Illyrian opals.
And where had that bit of fancy come from? He shook his head and, with the other building huggers, weaved his way down the street, paying no more heed to the many shop displays than he did the poetically glistening cobbles. He did, once, spare a glance for the Adidan pomegranates on display at the grocer’s—it still surprised him to see Coalition goods in the colonies—and he stopped cold in front of the tea stall for several moments, as if considering a cuppa in the dry.
In fact, he only wanted to confirm he was still being followed and, sure enough, there was the cargo drone, his russet beard dripping, seemingly engrossed in yon pomegranates, four shops back.
There was no overt sign of Eitan, but if he tried to view the street only from the corner of his eye, Rory could see the occasional rushing pedestrian swerving to the right or umbrella twisting left of their path, as if avoiding a puddle. A mobile, Eitan-sized puddle.
It was not a reassuring view.
It became less reassuring when the red-bearded man looked up and suddenly he and Rory were staring at one another through the curtain of rain.
“Ha.” Rory’s breath plumed out in a rush of nerves.
Redbeard’s own mouth twitched in a rueful grin just before Rory spun on his heel and sped down the street, hitching the pack higher on his shoulder as he wound, hopped, and sidled through the press of foot traffic, until he reached a narrow alley to his right and ducked into it, where he promptly discovered the term “alley” might be an overstatement.
Sure and the space had certain alley-like characteristics—loose pavers, bits of compostable matter from sources unknown, and only a few slender rectangles of light from the upper windows of the left-hand building—but while it had the dressings of an alley, it boasted little in the way of bins or back doors. Most importantly, it lacked an opening onto any other street, being backed as it was by the towering rear wall of a Marlowe Street tavern called Here’s One in Your Eye.
In short, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.
Which was why when, halfway down the road...path...track to nowhere, and Rory heard the telltale splash of large boots and a rolling gravel sound that suggested a large man clearing his throat and the spark-to-thrum of a shooter powering up, he shrugged, turned to face he of the ginger beard, and smiled. “Can I help you then?”
“Pretty sure you can.” Jacques O’Malley stopped short of the bright patch of light in which the young man had come to a halt.
Despite Ysabel’s assessment that the lad would prove an easy target, the Al-Jinn’s mechanic had heard enough buzz on the Dyar’s Canyon fight to know this skinny Campbell hadn’t been cowering in a corner while his mates did all the stinging. “First let’s see your hands. Slowly,” he added, gesturing with his shooter. “We don’t want any unfortunate surprises, do we?”
“That we do not,” the lad agreed, removing his hands carefully from the jacket’s pockets and spreading the fingers wide to show them empty. “How’s that?”
“Perfect,” Jacques replied with a grin. No reason not to be amiable. Until there was a reason to not be. “Now, I’ll thank you to hand me that pack you’re carrying, eh?”
“Ah…” And even through the rain it was easy for Jacques to see the thin man’s expression become troubled. “Now, that might be a wee bit of a problem.”
“It’ll be a much bigger problem if you don’t give it over.”
“That…is a very good point.” The troubled expression cleared somewhat and, under Jacques’s watchful eye, the man dipped his shoulder so the pack slid down and into his right hand.
“Just give it a toss.” Jacques held out his free hand, but then the fellow’s face became troubled again. “Hand it over, kid.” He wiggled his fingers and twitched the shooter suggestively. “You’ve been doing great so far. Don’t smog it up now.”
“Believe me,” the young man said, his brown eyes locked on something over Jacques’s shoulder, “the last thing I want is to make any trouble.”
“Oh, come on.” Jacques’s good humor started to melt like salt in the rain. “You don’t really think I’m gonna fall for the ‘there’s someone behind you’ trick?” He took a step forward. “I may be from Moosehead, but even I—”
Huh, Jacques thought as his world went gray, not—
“Not a trick,” Rory murmured as his would-be robber slumped to the pavers. He then looked up at the shadowed figure stepping over the prone thief—a figure swathed in a hooded, oilskin coat—and who was most definitely not Eitan.
Some minutes before Rory entered the narrow alley, Eitan had exited the tram and stepped aside, waiting until his crewmate and the red-bearded shadow (and a more conspicuous tail Eitan could not imagine) achieved a decent lead down Tempest Park Avenue.
Once Rory passed the grocer’s, Eitan stepped out into the crowd, scything through the early evening pedestrians—laborers seeking their homes or their dinners or perhaps a drink to warm chilled bones—all the while keeping a firm grasp on the psionic veil Jagati referred to as his Off switch.
Prosaic names aside, maintaining the veil was a complex exercise, one Eitan learned long ago from the same Galileo who’d introduced him to the technocrist movement.
As he recalled, such tricks were honey in the comb for Leo. For himself, sustaining the veil while maintaining awareness of his physical body in space, was both complex and draining.
Worse, if he maintained the veil too long he’d suffer a backlash migraine, something he’d learned the hard way, and at the worst possible time.
Still, he doubted today’s exercise would cause such a backlash. Even if it did, he considered the price worth paying, if it allowed him to do the needful in keeping a weather eye on Rory.
Thinking of the weather, the part of him tracking his physical self noted the rain had increased in the past few minutes.
That information prompted his eyes to narrow against the water and to be wary of umbrellas, all while continuing to observe Rory’s rain-slicked head turning towards a tea stall.
And then, quite suddenly, he found himself in the path of a woman so laden with parcels under her umbrella he doubted she’d have seen him even without his psionic veil. Twisting aside to avoid a head-on collision, he felt someone from behind slam into him, hard enough to make him stumble.
Righting himself, Eitan had a moment in which to notice a figure in a hooded coat sweeping past and down the street, following the same path as Rory and the red-bearded man.
This would have been alarming, except in the same moment Eitan’s precarious hold on his divided awareness slipped, dropping his entire self out of the present chill rain of Nike and down—down and back—to the sultry steam of equatorial Illyria.
So while his boots stood frozen in the overrun gutters of the 9th district, in his mind his bare feet trod on thick sawdust. The rain that pattered over his coat became sweat slicking down his chest.
He did not see the brown and gray stone pavers, nor the splashing, cursing Nikeans sluicing around him. In his eyes, the world was green with vines and red with blood, and the voices he heard were the shouts of the audience as they cheered on their favorites, and the stench of shackle rot warring with the ristos’ perfumes crowded out the Nikean odors of damp, stone, and wood smoke.
The dissonance of memory was so complete, Eitan did not know his psionic wall had crumbled, or that he’d dropped to his knees in the pouring rain, or that twenty meters distant the hooded figure who’d jostled him was turning into the same alley Rory had entered minutes earlier.
Rory’s eyes fell from the shadowed hood in front of him to the gun which had just impacted Redbeard’s skull and was now aimed at himself.
The hooded man’s empty hand reached out and the waiting fingers wiggled, reminding Rory that, despite the sudden change in cast, this was still a robbery.
“Right,” he said, and, mindful of the shooter, tossed the pack over.
The hood’s waiting hand snatched it out of the air by one strap and, in the same motion, slung it over his shoulder.
Package delivered, Rory waited for the hooded one to make his exit, but instead, after the slightest of pauses, the thief came another step closer, close enough Rory could see the steady glow of the shooter’s charge indicator.
Which was when Rory realized that robber 2.0 might not be as amenable to a peaceful resolution as his predecessor.
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