Things have come unraveled; the hunter and hunted alike in a tangle of wrecked ships falling into a distant star. Things were no better at home. In a flash of INN reporting Brimstone jumped to the forefront of galactic media. The Xi’an, the Banu, the UEE, all looking for their pound of flesh. Merc’ bounty hunters are already burning in. I guess it’s true what they say…
I GUESS IT’S TRUE WHAT THEY SAY…
Incinerator 39, Brimstone
Doc gaped. Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any weirder.
Heat poured out of the open doors. The big laser was off; this was just the heat that lingered inside the large ceramic-lined cylinder. An inscrutable slag of incinerate bubbled on the floor of the furnace, whatever residue that was capable of surviving a few hundred thousand degrees.
That part wasn’t weird; hell, incinerators ran all the time in factory environments. Two guys at the back of a truck working a tailgate lift wasn’t weird either. But when the load on the lift is a life-sized jade statue and the two guys are Petrovich and Charles Vane… shit just got real weird.
I cleared my throat and both men turned, frozen midway through wrangling the gloss green soldier towards the open door.
My eyes narrowed as I deadpanned, “I’d love to say I’m not surprised.”
They looked at one another in silence. Petrovich shrugged, Vane spoke. “C’mon, give us a hand.”
A rational man would have been tempted to turn and run. I didn’t see nuttin, I wasn’t here. But my rational days seemed solidly behind me. This life, the crazy shit that goes on around here, has a way of sucking you in. I threw my shoulder against the back of a cold jade knee and heaved. We wobble-walked the statue the couple meters between truck and furnace, then pushed it through the open door.
“So somebody wanna tell me—“ The sight of a green head in the air cut me off and I jumped to catch it before it hit me in the chest. The face in my hands stared up with sightless jade eyes.
“C’mon Doc, clock’s ticking.” Vane didn’t have his usual growl, but there was an insistence in his voice. “This place is gonna be swarming with rent-a-cops and genius here didn’t think to clean out the back room.”
Petrovich winced, cussing under his breath in that odd blend of Russkie and Chechen.
I chucked the head into the furnace, then hustled to grab a series of broken parts off the back bumper. Based on the number of severed limbs piled like cordwood, somewhere were pieces of priceless history that looked like the Venus di Milo.
Petrovich grunted with a pair of ten litre buckets, one in each hand. I grabbed the next one that Vane handed down from the truck, groaning under the weight. The lable read DuroMAX Polycarbonate, with a color code for Yangtze River Green.
I looked up at Petrovich, who one-handed the bucket from my grasp and heaved it into the furnace. He pointed back towards the truck and shooshed me along with both hands. “Move faster.”
Vane hopped down off the back of the truck, one bucket of jade-colored 3D printer substrate on each shoulder.
Probably half full, I muttered to myself.
Vane tossed a nod towards the front of the truck. “Front cab, paperwork, all of it goes.”
I headed for the cab, suddenly aware that the dog had gone missing. I craned my head, looking left, right. Nothing. She must be off taking a dump, I thought as I trotted up to the cab.
Yanking the door open I found an armfull of scanprints piled on the seats and floorboard. Photos of jade soldiers, some in the hold of a large freighter, some overlaid with photogrammetric grids. Designs for shipping containers, three-meter cubes capable of holding four statues in padded internal compartments. I walked back toward the furnace, flipping through sheets of blueprint.
“Sonovabitch Vane, you had Petrov 3D print a duplicate set of statues?” That made no sense; even made from 3D scans they’d never pass up-close inspection. Then my breath caught in my throat and I looked up as I rounded the rear bumper. “The ones on the news, the ones that got destroyed—“
I stopped, my eyes settled on Vane and Petrovich. They stood motionless, their own gaze focused to the left of the furnace.
“Yeah fuckstick, dey were fake.” I knew that voice in an instant, even before he added “Clever Vane, real fuckin smart guy. So where ARE da real ones?”
My gut sank as I looked to see Lazlo standing in the shadows. It was just light enough to see that he had a large bore pistol in his hands. His beady little pig-like eyes burned at me. “I knew you two were in cahoots, I just didn’t know how.” He sneered in my direction, “So I followed you, and look where it leads me.”
“I don’t see where that does you much good.” For a man with a gun pointed at his chest, Vane seemed not just unperturbed, but almost disinterested. “Every bounty hunter with cab fare is on his way here looking for you. How long you think you’ll make it on the street; an hour, a day?”
Lazlo turned three shades of red. “That was your doing wasn’t it?”
“No it was—-“ I blurted the words before my brain could catch them. It couldn’t have been Vane; the news said that Banu intelligence had traced communications back to a Brimstone-based organized crime figure who was believed to be behind the Co’Ral incident. There were very few things I would put past the reach of Charles Vane the pirate, but feeding info into a national intelligence service was beyond some rogue pirate. That was…
I looked at Vane; there was no mistaking the smug look of victory. If my lips weren’t sandpaper-dry I would have whistled, long and low. Ho-lee shit.
“Oh it was you Doc?” Lazlo must have taken my outburst as an aborted confession. “You and that schizophrenic freak you been ‘pallin around with? You two been playin’ footsies with the tortugas down in the Nek a whole lot lately. You set me up to be your fall guy?”
It was Vane’s turn to look surprised. He flashed me a raised eyebrow that said ‘We’ll talk about this later.’
At the moment I wasn’t sure there would be a later. Petrovich was sweating, maybe it was stress or just being stuck in front of the open furnace door, buckets of polycarb at his feet where he dropped them. Vane was just standing, although it struck me that he was edging ever so slowly towards the tail of the truck. Whatever his play, he’d need a diversion.
“Yeah, it was me you pint-sized sack of shit.” The words tumbled out of my mouth with neither plan nor forethought. I thought Lazlo would pop a cork, eyes wide and mouth agape at a side of me he’d never seen. I just rolled with it. “Do you have any idea how nauseating it has been to put up with your bullshit while we worked all this out? To have to explain things to you in tiny little words so they’d fit in that slug-brain of yours? Shit, Gort gets things faster than you do.”
I watched Lazlo’s jaw begin to tremble as his teeth ground together, saw the color flush across his face. His pupils went wide as rage filled his brain. There were other things going on, things I’d bet nobody else in earshot could imagine. Neurophysiological effects like auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, loss of fine motor control, all impacts of stress that in a crisis rob you of awareness, of your ability to respond. Things that can stretch your reaction gap into seconds. If Vane moved suddenly he’d have a huge head start.
I glared at Lazlo with an open hatred. How do you like that science shit?
But Vane didn’t move. If he seemed at all shocked at my sudden outburst he was downright startled by the black and rust missile that slammed into Lazlo, teeth clamping on his extended arm. The gun fired once, the round whining off the pavement.
Lazlo screamed, thrashing against the weight of the dog that dragged brand-new fangs through the meat of his arm. Flesh tore in a spray of blood and the dog dropped to the ground.
Clutching the four fingers left on his mangled hand, Lazlo stepped back, his heel catching a bucket of polycarb. He stumbled, eyes wide with fear, and toppled backwards into the furnace. Petrovice kicked the door shut and without a heartbeat’s hesitation slapped the big red button on the panel. Blazing light poured through the smoked glass.
“God damn Doc,” Vane was the first to speak, his voice thick with amusement. “When you decide to go, you’re Hell on wheels.”
I heard the words but barely processed their meaning, my focus on the dog. She stood looking at me, the strip of meat in her mouth ending with a severed pinky. Her tail wagged energetically, ears peaked up with pride. I rushed to her, hands sweeping across her sides in search of injury. There was none; the streaks of blood on her chest were the last traces of Lazlo.
Vane took a knee next to the dog, running his hand through her fur in obvious admiration. Then he looked up, a thoughtful expression on his face as though something important suddenly crossed his mind.
“I guess its true what they say.”
I shook my head. “What?”
He ruffled the dog’s fur as he and broke out into a laugh. “Payback’s a bitch.”