*Warning: This chapter features references to trauma and trauma induced mental illness.
As he waited for whatever came next (with zero helpful input from the voice in his head), Ray contemplated the alibi he’d coughed up (almost literally) for Sims Al-Kar’s consumption. An alibi that was, as most of Ray’s covers, a bald-faced lie perched on a precariously melting iceberg of truth.
In this case, the lie was that Ray had ever worked for the outrageously named Juno Je T’aime.
The truth came into play with Juno Je T’aime himself, because, upon arriving on Beta Niobe during those fateful few days Sims had referred to, Ray had followed his standard MO, which was to spend as much time as feasible trolling the flesh dens in search of any potentially useful gossip.
What he picked up during the Beta Niobe op was that a pilot in the employ of the Centaurus Smugglers’ Guild had been caught en flagrante delicto with the husband of a Guild chieftain.
A breach of ethics (and good sense), and punishable by death.
By the time Ray picked up the dirt on Je T’aime, the pilot was in the wind, and as long as he stayed in the wind, Ray’s alibi would hold, since there was no one available to say Ray hadn’t been the one to help him escape the wrath of Maan (the name of the cuckolded chieftain).
Meanwhile, instead of lying around and waiting for what came next, Ray figured he should be trying to devise an escape.
At the thought, another laugh-slash-cough rasped out of dry lips because the locked-down restraints told him quite definitely he wasn’t going anywhere.
Ray, my boy, you are utterly screw…
“You are one lucky sonufabitch, El Tee,” Oz announced, striding into the room.
The rotund crook, who’d remained out of sight throughout Gavin’s exercise, came up to the table and went about unbuckling Ray’s restraints.
With every muscle in his body bitching for the right to be awarded the blue ribbon for a higher degree of pain than their muscular brethren, Ray eased his way up and swung his legs off the table.
“What happened?” he asked, sitting very still because now he was upright, the room seemed to be tilting.
“What happens is now you walk,” Oz said. “Al-Kar and Booth’s boss did a run on your man, Juno, and he was where and when you said, so they were ordered to set you loose.” As he spoke, he crossed to the desk and grabbed Ray’s belongings, which he then hauled over and dumped on the table next to him.
“Do you want me to sign for that?” Ray asked, echoing Finn’s query from earlier, in the Ankh interrogation room.
“Funny guy,” Oz said. “But you probably don’t want to waste time working on your standup act. Al-Kar’s not happy to let you go, and Booth?” The bear-like Oz gave a surprisingly delicate shudder. “Best he don’t see you again. Booth don’t like having his toys taken away.”
“Copy that,” Ray muttered, and slid off the table, where he immediately discovered his muscles had the consistency of not-yet-hardened rubber. “Or maybe I should just sit here a minute.”
Oz shrugged and crossed the room to make use of the same bar Gavin had earlier, and Ray used the time to slowly pull on his shirt and jacket, then started to massage his legs. Once he felt semi-functional, he grabbed the SIG (minus its clip) and his show roll of platinum strips (lighter by a few hundred credits). The knife had gone the way of Gavin, and Ray figured it’d be a mistake to ask for it.
Once he was dressed, Oz pointed him the way out and he found himself out of the wolves’ den and back on the streets and saw, from the color of the nearest street sign, he was on level three.
He’d been right. And that was the good news.
The bad news? From the look of the neighborhood he found himself in, getting released by the Rose’s thug brigade was just trading one wolf pack for another.
Three of the latter, in fact, emerged from the shadows of a nearby alley, moving to surround Ray.
“Well, looky what’s here,” said one.
“Looks like Christmas is early, eh, mates?” said another.
“I gots dibs on his shoes,” came a voice from behind. A fourth wolf. “And there’s a timepiece on his wrist.”
“Fellas, come on. Can’t we talk about this?” Ray threw up both hands in anticipation of the rush he knew was coming.
“On second thought, looks like some rats already snacked on him,” another voice flowed out of the dark of the alley, this one both female and familiar.
“On second thought, looks like some rats already snacked on him,” the first wolf repeated.
“Clothes don’t look like much, anyway,” the female spoke again.
“Clothes don’t look like much, anyway,” the second wolf offered.
“And that watch probably fell off a shuttle.”
Wolf three, this time, echoed the woman’s words.
“Why don’t you let this poor gentleman go his way?” she said.
“Why don’t we let this poor gentleman go his way?” wolf one suggested.
As one, the four ragged wolves backed away and melted into the dark from whence they’d come.
A moment later, the alley’s shadows folded away to reveal a familiar face.
“Jessyn?” Ray spoke the name in a combination of relief and disbelief. “Did you just do the Jedi mind trick?”
She might have answered, but if so, he never heard, because at that point the little glimmer of strength he’d held on to—that had gotten him this far—melted away and he collapsed.
The rest of what Harry believed the weirdest escape in the history of escapes—and he’d broken out of the Kelm—continued with the occasional prompt to turn, take the emergency stairs, and, every so often, a sudden injunction to duck through a door or wait.
He only heard footsteps once, when the voice held him mid-stairwell. A heavy tread emerged from a squeaking door half a flight above where he stood, his heart pounding loud enough he half-expected it to echo.
At long last, however, he emerged in a back alley of ground-level Romeria, surrounded by the kind of refuse he associated with the garment industry.
The sliver of sky between the buildings was faded midnight, shading to violet in the east. The morning air chilled the perspiration on his bare skin, stinging the burns and fogging his breath.
To his left, only a few yards off, a blue sedan, shades deeper than the sky, waited.
One of the back doors slid up and open.
Either that was his ride, or Gemini and Neishi were playing a game that would have made the Judon Inquisitors weep with pride.
If Judon wept.
He tucked Neishi’s case more securely under his arm and made for the car at a determined limp.
On reaching the sedan, he leaned down and looked in.
And saw her.
Golden brown hair, gilded fawn skin, black eyes, and a body guaranteed to make a man’s brain deep-six.
She still wore the dress that looked like smoke—or his breath in the predawn air.
“Lady,” he greeted the woman who had walked through his memories only hours ago and who, he felt certain, had just gotten him out of Kelmno v.2.
He threw a nod to Eineen Marifanne, who was riding shotgun (literally), and the driver—one of the two men who’d helped wrangle Enris back at Ankh, the one with the sense of humor.
Then his eyes returned to the smoke-clad woman. “How did you find me?”
Her answer was to shift aside, making room for him. “They will be looking for you.”
“Right,” he said, then, “right” again. Then he shook his head and climbed in next to her. He hadn’t even gotten his ass all the way down in the seat before the adrenal secretion the Lady had released in his system gave out and he was sound asleep.
“I would, but you are on top of me.”
“What?” Harry’s eye peeled open to view what had been a very nice dress, until some idiot had gotten blood and…other things… all over it. “Sorry,” the idiot said, and started to push himself up. “Oops,” he said from the floor of the car.
“Mr. Degas,” Eineen Marifanne’s voice came from somewhere.
Harry’s arm floated up in an approximation of a wave. “Hey, Captain.”
“I have him,” a male voice with a French or Nouveau Verdun accent that sounded rather amused crept up from around Harry’s feet, then a hand caught his and heaved him expertly from the floor of the car.
“Hi,” Harry said.
The Lady, freed from a lapful of Harry, sighed and said, “Upstairs.”
“Mmm. You smell good, Jessyn.”
“Thank you. But I am not Jessyn. I am Tahna.”
He was stretched out on his back and his head cradled in someone’s lap. “You were in my head,” he said, grinning with pleasure at having sussed this out.
“With Jessyn’s help, yes.”
“Jessyn,” he sighed the name and tried to open his eyes again. They refused to budge. “Where is she?”
“We’re here.” Another voice, this one male (and familiar?) prevented the lap owner from responding.
Ray detected swift, purposeful movement, heard the sound of car doors sliding open, and then he was hoisted up, pulled across a hard, fabric-covered surface, and bracketed between a pair of strong bodies.
They were moving, carrying him along. His ears registered the rhythmic thump and clip of variously shod feet on pavement.
“Where are we?” he asked—whomever. “And where’s Jess—”
“Shh. Be quiet, Ray. Please.” Jessyn’s voice came from somewhere behind him. “Don’t worry. You are safe now.”
“And dense,” the familiar voice said. “Very—dense.”
“Mollin! M’man!” Ray’s eyes cracked just enough to catch a glimpse of copper to his left.
“Shhh,” Jessyn said.
His eyes creaked open a little farther and he saw Jessyn and an unfamiliar young woman with red-gold hair standing each to one side of an elevator, the doors of which were opening to display another party already inside.
“Harry!” he said as his rescuers shuffled him aboard.
“Ray,” the other man, likewise slung over a pair of shoulders, greeted him. “You look—”
“—like shit,” both men said at once.
“But seriously,” Harry added as the doors closed on the rescue operation, “how’d you find us?”