Once inside the elevator, Ray took his place at Harry’s right, which kept both his right hand and Harry’s dominant left free.
As Shayleen boarded, Ray looked over her shoulder and spied Jessyn holding one of the children’s hands in hers, and felt an odd tug, deep inside. Before he could dwell on the meaning of that internal clutch, he noticed another woman crossing the carpeted floor in Jessyn's direction.
Though he only saw the other woman’s back, and couldn’t recall knowing anyone with bright fuchsia hair, the way she moved—determined, economical, focused—had him straightening.
He knew that walk.
But even as he tried to get a closer look, the doors of the elevator slid closed.
“Something wrong?” Harry asked, reminding Ray the older man was almost preternaturally observant.
“Thought I saw someone I knew,” he said, then shook his head and shrugged it off. “I don’t think this place is her jam.”
“You’d be surprised how many people find themselves in Oz,” Shayleen said, turning to face the two men.
“I can’t help but think there’s a double meaning in that,” Harry said.
Shayleen gave him the side-eye before asking, “Before I take you to the Wizard, what are you carrying?”
“A tin of mints, a few credits, and my fading good looks,” Harry told her and, at her arch expression added, “I’m not armed. This building is full of kids.”
“If you’re lying, the lift sensors will pick it up, and you won’t like what happens, after,” the Milleon said, the mandible’s clicking in counterpoint to the translator they wore.
“Not lying,” Harry said, glancing up at the multi-faceted eyes.
“He’s not,” Ray agreed. “And believe me, I tried to change his mind.”
“Okay.” Shayleen turned to Ray and held out a hand.
Ray felt the grimace, but Harry’s pointed gaze had him sighing and handing over the Sig he wore in a shoulder rig, the vibro-blade from his right sleeve, and the mini-smoke grenade, for emergencies, tucked into the lining of his jacket. “Careful with that,” he said, laying the micro-boomer in Shayleen’s palm. “It’s sensitive.”
“Nice,” was her comment.
“Ray,” Harry said and, when Ray looked at him, gave a pointed look at Ray’s left foot.
“Right.” Crouching, Ray slipped the wafer-thin throwing dagger from its ankle sheath.
Shayleen accepted the blade along with the other items, then handed them to the Milleon, who had produced a small case and held it open in one of its forelimbs.
“Garrote,” Harry muttered under his breath.
Ray shot him a glare. “Who’s side are you on?”
“The side that gets me a meet with the Wizard and doesn’t make Ms. Head of Security angry.”
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” Shayleen agreed, straight-faced.
“But you don’t care if I get angry?” Ray asked, yanking the slim wire of the garrote from under his jacket collar.
“You’re not as scary,” Harry told him. “That’s all he’s got,” he said to Shayleen. “Unless you count his hands, feet, head, elbows and, well, his whole body because the guy’s pretty much a walking weapon.”
“I hear the same about you,” she said to Harry.
Harry looked as surprised as Ray felt at that comment, but didn’t press, as Shayleen had already turned to the control panel. She pressed her palm to a sensor which let out a soft whine and a green glow before a slot opened in the panel. “Penthouse,” she said into the slot.
“Nano-sensors,” Harry murmured.
Shayleen straightened. “The Wizard is choosy about who he allows behind the curtain.”
The green panel pulsed once, as if in agreement, then Ray felt the pressure of the floor rising beneath their feet, indicating they were moving up.
The building was only seven stories tall, so it was a short trip, and one that ended as smoothly as it began, with the doors sliding open to what he supposed was a reception area, of sorts.
Under inset ceiling lights, three plush sofas, covered in a soothing pattern of rusts and browns, with hints of deep green, curved around a large transparent center table, and all this was plopped dead center of a midnight blue carpet that, when Ray looked more closely, found to be scattered with stars.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” Shayleen said from the elevator, where she and her cohort remained, with all of Ray’s kit. “The boss will see you in a moment.”
With that, the door closed with a soft hum, leaving Ray and Harry alone in the room.
They looked at one another.
Harry tapped the implant behind his ear, then cocked an eyebrow at Ray, who read the question in his eyes and tapped his own implanted comm, from which Mollin should have been peppering both men with questions and/or warnings about the mission, the Wizard, and possibly the expanding universe theory.
He shook his head at Harry. “Nothing,” he murmured.
“Dampening field,” Harry murmured back.
Since he had no doubt Harry was right, Ray shrugged and turned his attention to the quiet, civilized, quiet, well-appointed, quiet, space.
“Looking for something?” Harry asked.
“Waiting for another wall to slide open to reveal a menacing figure in a wicker chair,” Ray replied.
Harry’s lips twitched. “And would this figure be petting a cat?”
“Naturally,” Ray said easily. “Right before delivering the infamous, ‘At last we meet, Mr. Bond.'”
“And you bitch about my Star Wars obsession,” Harry said. “How many of the Bonds have you seen, anyway?”
Ray’s grin widened. “All of them. From Dr. No all the way through The Bond Legacy. Me and a couple of friends from the orphanage ate them up.” As he thought of those childhood friends, Ray’s mind danced to the fuschia haired woman he’d seen outside the laser tag arena.
“Legacy,” Harry mused, crossing to one of the curved sofas. “Was that the one with the Bond clones?”
“No.” Ray followed, eyeing a closed door at his three o’clock. “You’re thinking of Bond 59, Fractal. Legacy was the sixty-first film, the one with the daughter James never knew he had.”
As he said it, he and Harry turned to look at one another.
“Interesting,” was all Harry said, and left it at that.
Understandable, as Harry and Jessyn’s relationship was considered something of a state secret, known to only a handful of individuals.
About the same number of people, Ray reflected, who knew that he and Jessyn were, to all intents and purposes, married.
“So,” he said aloud, changing the internal subject, “when do you think the Wizard will appear?”
Even as the last word left his mouth, the overhead lights faded, giving way to a deeper glow from within the center table, and the rise of a large, bald, green head from the table’s center.
“WHO ARE YOU, AND WHY DO YOU SEEK ME?”
“Ouch,” Ray said, tapping his ear.
“You’re off-book,” Harry said to the glowy skull-head. “I know you know who I am, because Ms. Head of Oz Security told me you knew.”
“OH. RIGHT. BUT THAT STILL DOESN’T EXPLAIN WHY YOU ARE HERE.”
“Can you maybe turn down the audio?” Ray asked.
“Fine, I’ll play.” Harry shot Ray a warning look, then turned to the head. “We’re here to talk to Dr. Kozmir Kosterlovovich.”
“OH,” the head’s face crinkled, in anger or concern, Ray couldn’t begin to say. “I WISH YOU HADN’T SAID THAT.”
“Why?” Harry asked while Ray, despite the empty room, braced for an attack.
“ASK TAMMAS REN,” the voice boomed.
Ray looked at Harry, saw a brief and disturbing flash of horror.
“Who is Tammas Ren?” he asked, but didn’t get an answer, because that’s when the assault he’d been preparing for struck.
Not a physical attack, that he probably could have handled, but in the eardrum-pounding form of a sonic blast so intense it disrupted his hearing, his vision, and any sense of himself in space.
He thought, briefly, of Jessyn, and prayed she wasn’t experiencing the sickening shockwaves through their empathic link.
And then the next wave hit, and his knees folded under him, and his face thudded onto the carpet, and he ceased thinking altogether.
Even as her men boarded the elevator, Jessyn bid a regretful farewell to Vidi, Tal, Axllyn and a few of the other younglings from her team.
While she watched the small party ascend to the next level where, she was told, they meant to “kick it at Power Sabers” she experienced a moment of envy.
Not so much for the sword game, though it sounded delightful, but for a childhood that made space for such things as laser tag and pretend swords and—being a child.
A fruitless wanting, she reminded herself, and eased to the side while the last of the laser tag players from her round passed by and up the crawling ramp.
She noted that the doors leading from the arena had closed, signaling the beginning of a new round.
The attendant behind the conveyer belt perched on a tall stool, picked up a cup bearing the green Oz castle and pulled out a palm-comp.
And the last person remaining in the room, a woman dressed in a slick fuchsia catsuit the exact same shade as her hair, came up alongside Jessyn.
“I didn’t see you in the arena,” Jessyn observed.
“I’m not playing, today,” the vision in pink said. “I’m Mo,” the woman introduced herself.
“Pretty,” Mo observed, then added, “I know your man.”
Jessyn’s head tilted slightly to the right. “I see.”
“I doubt it.” Mo’s lips twitched with a hint of a smile. “I also know what he does for a living. Not the jamming,” she added, her voice dropping to a murmur. “His real job. The one with the body count.”
Jessyn’s breath hitched. Not from Mo’s casual statement so much as the swamping rush of fear beneath it.
“You know, but you’re not afraid of Ray,” Jessyn said. “You’re afraid for him.”
Mo’s hazel eyes widened. “And I thought I was good at reading people,” she murmured, glancing back at the bored attendant before turning her attention back to Jessyn. “Yes, I’m afraid for him,” she said. “And unless you can tell me why he’s here, in Oz, and with a interstellar marshal, you should fear for him, too.”
“I can’t tell you all,” Jessyn said, “but I can tell you my men mean no harm.”
/Something’s wrong/ Mollin’s voice filtered through Jessyn’s implant. /I can’t hear Ray or Harry./
In that exact moment, Jessyn experienced a sudden flare of suspicion—this time through her bond with Ray.
“Azfylnja,” she swore.
“Wait,” Mo said. “I know that curse. That’s Rasalkan."
“As am I,” Jessyn said. "And if you know enough of Rasalkans to identify their curses, you won’t be surprised by this.”
As she spoke, she raised a hand and laid it over Mo’s milk-pale cheek, felt the silken fall of hair as the woman twitched with the contact. But the contact was necessary, as it allowed Jessyn to share her own emotions—and the raw desperation of her need.
Mo's eyes hardened and then, oh so briefly, filled… and then sharpened. “Come with me,” she said, grabbing Jessyn’s hand and rushing to where the wall panel was once again opening to reveal the elevator hidden behind.
As the lift door opened, Jessyn spied the petite woman who had approached Harry, and the Milleon at her side.
“Shay,” Mo came to a halt, blocking the elevator door. “Zinnab-Sixty-Five,” Mo jerked her chin at the Milleon.
“Mo.” Shay’s smile of greeting shifted to guarded curiosity on spying Jessyn at Mo’s side. “What are you up to?”
“Comm the Wizard,” Mo, said. “Tell him I was right. Ray is not a threat.”
“Really?” Shay appeared unimpressed. “Because pretty boy was carrying enough weaponry to take out half this arcade, and the silver fox is a cop.”
“Former cop,” Jessyn said to Shay. “If you know who he is, you know Harry is no longer a marshal, and beyond that, he only came to ask a favor of your Wizard. A very large favor, but just that,” she added.
Shay’s expression set in stubborn lines.
“Dammit,” Mo swore, then looked at Jessyn. “Do the thing,” she said. “That sharing thing you just did with me.”
But Jessyn was already lowering her barriers.
Which was probably why she so easily sensed Ray’s confusion, though he was in the penthouse, and she the sub-basement.
“Who is Tammas Ren?” she asked, even as Ray did, and then, as Ray did—and despite his prayers—clapped her hands to her ears as she experienced the echoes of the sonic assault being unleashed upon Ray and Harry.
Somewhere outside of Ray’s pain, she heard Mo’s cry of concern, Shay’s call for medics, felt the unmistakable grip of a Milleon’s forelimbs catching her.
But not even Zinnab-Sixty-Five's strength could stop her from following Ray as he fell, and fell, and fell into the long dark.
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Before Harry met Ray…
Meet Ray and Harry in the dark days before their fateful meeting on Ócala.