Harry came back to himself in a warehouse that, like most warehouses in the Sol Sector, was ill lit, grimy, and smelled like a machinist’s shop.
This particular warehouse was located on Ceres and had been decommissioned for several years. Despite that fact, the place was crammed floor to dome with crates, bales, and pallets of weapons and weapon-related accessories.
Harry was, at the moment, standing in the middle of that crowded room, facing Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth while Seth Aliombe stood at Harry’s side.
Though, as far as Sims and Gavin knew, Harry and Seth were a pair of well-connected brokers, currently representing a Judon pirate in the market for some black-market arms.
* * *
Despite the fact he could feel the table pressing against his leg, hear the scuttle of a rodent in the distance, some part of Harry understood he was not, in fact, on Ceres, that his body still sat in a quiet room that smelled of copper.
But knowing didn’t prevent the memory spooling onward.
* * *
“As you can see, we have sufficient inventory to meet your client’s needs,” Sims said, indicating the piles, columns, and mountains of munitions surrounding them.
“So I see,” Harry said, then glanced at Gavin, whose expression was, as always, a blank.
“Most of what you see is spoken for, otherwise I’d be happy to give you the ten-credit tour,” Sims Al-Kar continued, fastidiously flicking a bit of dust off his sleeve.
“Then let’s do some business,” Harry said, placing the briefcase he’d brought along on the table with a shuddering thud.
* * *
Harry felt his heart quiver, as if in sympathy with that table, and the sensation had him taking a step away from the other three men.
As he did, the unfolding scene came to a halt, like a holo-vid put on pause.
“How long has it been, that it still hurts you?”
At the question, Harry turned from the long-ago meeting to find a woman standing at his side—a woman who had not been present the day this memory was made.
He looked at the table, at the three men held frozen in time, and then back at the woman. “This doesn’t feel like a dream,” he said to her.
“Because it is not a dream,” she told him. “This is a memory.” She glanced about herself, sniffing the stale air. “Quite a vivid memory, at that.”
Harry didn’t know how to respond to that, so instead he asked, “Who are you?”
“I am the Lady.”
Harry believed it. Not only for her looks, though she’d been genetically blessed, from her riotous black curls and fawn-toned skin to black eyes so deep they challenged him not to drown in them.
Her dress was a simple drape of fabric that might have been made of smoke and seemed to have been designed to make a man’s mind deep-six.
But beneath and beyond the impressive surface, he sensed something more . . . something powerful.
“How long has it been?” she asked again.
“Not long enough.” He turned back to join the other men where they waited, frozen in time.
* * *
“Our client has provided the requested price, in platinum,” Harry said, turning the briefcase so it lay flat on the table, the locks facing him. “But Xylla-Kaija wants visual confirmation of the merchandise before we make the payment.”
“As well you should,” Al-Kar said, nodding to Booth, who hauled up the briefcase he’d brought to the party.
Keying the combination, the case snapped open with a hiss. Harry tensed, then relaxed as Booth presented a data unit, which Harry accepted with a dead-steady hand before passing it over to Seth for confirmation.
His partner activated the device, skimmed the data, and nodded his satisfaction. “This is what we’re looking for.”
Harry nodded and popped the top of his briefcase, but instead of turning it around to display obscene stacks of credits, hauled out the two ISM-issue pulsers stowed inside.
The one in his left hand he pointed at Booth; the other he tossed to Seth, who caught it with his familiar grin.
It was that grin, beaming with a sense of camaraderie, that had Harry looking away, and the scene freezing again.
* * *
“What is it?” the Lady asked.
“I don’t want to do this.” Even as he said that, he caught the first drifting scent of smoke.
“You must,” she said simply.
“If you don’t, you will not walk out of Ankhar alive.”
Harry looked at the table, the two gunrunners, and his friend. “And why do you care?” he asked her.
“I have my reasons,” she told him, before adding, “none of which would matter to a dead man.”
The breath trapped in his chest escaped in a pained laugh, but Harry returned to the table, and his past.
* * *
“I guess this means you don’t work for the Judon pirate?” Sims asked, looking less distressed than Harry would have expected, given the circumstances.
“Good guess,” Harry replied. “We’re ISM. Marshal Aliombe,” he jerked his head toward Seth, “and Detective Inspector Finn. And you, Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth, are both under arrest for theft and wrongful disposition of military weaponry, transport of same across systems, falsifying official documents, unlawful occupation of a Confederation Fleet base, and malingering.”
Seth glanced his way. “Malingering?”
Harry shrugged. “I always liked the sound of it.”
“It’s good you enjoy your work,” Gavin commented, his green eyes glimmering in the mask of his face. “I do.”
“I bet.” Harry resisted the urge to step away and instead grabbed a pair of cuffs from the briefcase, which he held out to his partner. “Seth, do the honors?”
“Ah,” Seth said, his voice sounding somehow strange. “About that . . .”
“What?” Harry risked a glance at his partner who, Harry now saw, had turned his pulser from Sims to point at Harry. “Seth,” he asked. “What gives?”
“Sorry, partner,” Seth said with a shrug, “but Sims and Gavin are more valuable to me on the outside than in prison.”
“Value?” Harry echoed, even as Booth slithered up alongside him and removed the pulser and cuffs from Harry’s possession. “To you? Are you saying they work for you? He works for you?” He pointed at Booth.
At that Seth’s lips stretched in something between a smile and a grimace. “I suppose it comes as a shock, learning your subordinate is more than the pansy cy-tech you thought he was,”
Harry’s eyes narrowed at that. “I never thought of you as a pansy.”
“No?” Seth shrugged. “Maybe not, but you still never would have guessed your partner was working both sides of the law.”
“Yeah,” Harry said while, at the same time, Booth affixed a cuff to his right wrist, “about that . . .”
“Harry?” Hearing his own words echoed put a crimp in Seth’s armor. “What are you up to?”
Harry merely pointed to the ceiling, from which a wailing alarm began to sound, followed by the static-ridden burst of a voice through the warehouse intercom.
/This is the ISM drop ship Chanticleer to Ceres Depot. All within be advised this station is under lockdown by the Intersystem Marshal TacOps Division. All within are ordered to stand down and await further instruction./
“The thing is,” Harry said, ignoring the barrel of the pulser Gavin had pressed to the back of his head, “I did guess my partner was working both sides of the law.”
In the quiet following Harry’s statement, the warehouse floor groaned under the weight of a drop ship setting down just outside the bay doors.
“Well, shit, Harry,” Seth said, sounding almost like himself. “How long have you known?”
“Not very,” Harry admitted. “Not long enough.”
“What’s the play, Boss?” Sims asked, eyeing the bay doors.
“Yeah, boss,” Harry asked, “what’s the play?”
Gavin said nothing but pressed the barrel of his pulser deeper into Harry’s skull.
Behind him, Harry heard the chime that warned of docking-bay pressurization.
Seth continued to study Harry and then, in one smooth move, lifted his weapon and fired straight at Harry’s head.
Or rather, nothing beyond Harry’s heart tripping.
“The fuck?” Sims asked.
“The pulsers weren’t charged,” Seth explained, staring at Harry. “Always the clever one, aren’t you?”
“Just prudent,” Harry said, and then shot his elbow up into Gavin’s nose and kicked the table straight into Al-Kar’s groin.
Harry heard movement behind him and spun around to block the incoming knife Gavin had drawn. Cursing at the cut to his right arm, he delivered a left cross which sent Gavin stumbling.
Harry spun to go after Seth but stumbled to a halt. Seth hadn’t fled; he was waiting with his ISM-issued Glock—the kind that fired actual bullets—aimed at Harry’s chest,
“You do know that firing bullets in a pressurized atmo can go very badly,” Harry pointed out.
“Oh, I know.” Seth replied, even as the bay doors slid aside, allowing the TacOps team to hurtle through, the echo of boots on the deck like an avalanche.
Harry jerked his head in the direction of the incoming squad. “That is the sound of thirty hyped TacOps troops. You shoot me, they will take you out—assuming you hit me and not something that goes boom.”
“All good points,” Seth said, his voice oddly flat. “Then again,” he added, “it might be worth it.”
Harry watched Seth’s finger tighten on the trigger.
Which, no doubt, would have been it for Harry, except that while Seth and Harry were focused on one another, other forces were also in motion.
Forces like Sims Al-Kar, who perhaps had a greater survival instinct than his partners, and who appeared behind Seth to force the Glock down, likely hoping to discharge the weapon at the deck rather than at anything that might rupture.
And forces such as Gavin Booth, who had slunk off into the stacks after being clocked by Harry, to return rolling a cask of refined ioprine—one of the key elements in sub-light fuel, and highly combustible—which he then shoved across the deck toward Harry.
All of which meant that when Seth pulled the trigger, it hit neither Harry nor the deck, but the cask of ioprine.
Harry, diving away from both the cask and the gun, saw only the first glimmer of the explosion before the shockwave hit, knocking him end over end away from ground zero, and for a time, there was nothing but black and pain.
It was, in fact, the pain that woke him, and he really wished it hadn’t.
But when he did wake, eyes tearing from both the smoke and a crushing weight on his back, Harry thought he saw Sims and Gavin moving through the inferno, holding something up between them.
He also saw, perhaps five yards from where he’d fallen, a disembodied arm, the unguided hand still holding a gun, which was still pointed directly at Harry.
And that was the last thing he saw before the world faded again to a black he fully expected to be final.
* * *
Harry, no longer in the warehouse—no longer anywhere—turned to find the Lady again at his side.
“Now I understand,” she said.
But before Harry could point out that he didn’t—couldn’t—she placed one hand against the side of his head.
His head that, a heartbeat later, rose from a table to find himself back in the small room inside Ankhar, where Captain Eineen Marifanne was setting a cup of coffee in front of him.
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