Zack stared at the sharp tip of the arrow. It was a very clean cut, and metallic, made by some factory. It had a realness to it that dwarfed the now-distant threat of the Desperate Measures Agency. The woman pointing it at him was serious… he either needed to get off the world immediately, which wasn’t an option yet, or get way from her.
”Starprey?” he said, repeating the word she’d just called him. The meaning was obvious, but he needed a few moments for his brain to spin into gear.
“It’s what the Sthenites call offworlders,” she said. “They come from the stars, and because of what they’ve done and tried to do before they’ve earned the penalty of being hunted for sport. Allegedly for food if we’re talking about the Azurebacks, but they say a lot of things about those people.”
“So when you kill me, you won’t be handing me over for dinner then, Miss…?”
“Chala,” she said.
“Never heard that name before.”
“It used to be Charlotte, but Chala sounded more like the names they have here, so it’s what I go by.”
“How long’ve you been working on gaining their trust?”
“A long time now,” said Chala. “Not really your concern.”
“Where do you get the arrows?”
Chala raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a strange arrow.”
“It’s a common design.”
“I’m sure if I went to a sporting goods store on Veskid I could buy some just like that, yeah,” said Zack. “But you say you’ve been here a while, long enough to gain trust from societies that don’t trust offworlders. Did you stockpile a huge number of arrows before you came here, or do you have some way of making them? A little shop or machine that can make fresh ammunition?”
“Arrows can be retrieved and repaired,” she said.
“Which would be a lot easier with a shop. Do the, uh… Sthenites? Do the Sthenites approve of industry as long as it’s small and on the personal level?”
“Of course,” she said. “They know the value of technology, they’re not stupid. They have metalworking, wheels, written language, agriculture, everything a culture needs to thrive and advance.”
“So when you land and set up a place for yourself, they see your machinery and think of you as… what, a blacksmith?”
“Let’s not focus on me anymore, let’s get back to you. Can you, or can you not, call for your ride now?”
“No,” said Zack. “There’s no network here, and she won’t be back in range for a few hours at the earliest.”
Chala frowned, as if thinking over options. Then she released the arrow.
Much earlier, on another world…
Harold Zamona came to the slow realization that he was waking up.
His head hurt. He didn’t know how a pain could be dull and distant while also feeling strong and immediate. He lifted his hands to his face and felt the strange sensation of metal against his forehead, a reminder that the gauntlets were still, as always, a part of his life. It was fortunate that his incredible muscular strength also came with increased physical durability; even with the gauntlets, such idle motions would have caused many self-inflicted calamities otherwise.
He could smell strawberries? And dust. Where was he?
“I think he’s coming out of it,” said a voice, a man.
“I’m going on the record… again… as saying this is a bad idea,” said another man.
“We know,” said a woman. “We’re ready if it is.”
Harold shook his head and, somehow, forced his eyes open. It was hazy and shadowy, but things were coming into focus. Soon, two shadows in front of him congealed into the forms of a man and a woman, standing in a room filled with stacks of crates and boxes. The woman was wearing an outfit that reminded him of a nun’s habit crossed with a futuristic knight’s armor, and the other was wearing a green trench coat with a matching hat that, given its antenna, could probably connect to any local networks and might have its own computerized functions.
He felt a surge of adrenaline and almost jumped at the two, but resisted the urge when he realized that the first was pointing some sort of energy rifle at him, and the second was lowering two Purcellian striker pistols his way.
“Sister Barris and Zack Gamma,” he said. “The lawyer who would help Azar when no one else would, and the investigation and protection specialist who was hired by an unknown client right when Barris and Azar needed to drop off the grid. This is good.”
Barris exhaled, as if she’d been worried.
“Why?” she asked. “I’m glad you think it’s good, but it doesn’t look like things are going your way.”
“It means I didn’t tear down the wall of that laundromat for nothing,” he said. “You’ve gotta make quick decisions in this line of work, and it’s always good to know you made the right one.”
“Doesn’t look right from where we’re standing,” said Zack. “You’ve put us in an awful position here, frosty.”
“Frosty?” said Harold.
“As in frozen,” said Zack. “You’re the Iceberg.”
“I’m not anymore,” said Harold. “It’s just Harold now. Or Harry. They might call me for another special night, but the wrestling life’s effectively behind me. Where’s Azar?”
“Why should we answer any questions?” asked Barris. “You’re the one who invaded our hideaway.”
“I heard three voices,” said Harold. “And there’s two of you. Who’s the third person? I assume it’s Azar, but if I’m wrong, just let me know.”
Zack and Barris shared a quick glance.
“So… Azar’s here, then,” said Zamona. He started to stand, but Zack took a more definite aiming stance.
“Stay right there,” he said. “Stay right on the floor, or Barris and I send you back to dreamland, and this time you won’t even get the chance to make a return trip.”
“Why did you bring me here, then?” asked Zamona. “Why not end me at the laundromat? Or just leave me there while you made your getaway?”
“The police would have found you,” said Barris. “Questions would be asked, charges filed, and anyone who was looking for us who wasn’t already hot on your trail would get that much closer.”
“Then drop me off on a park bench or side alley on the way to wherever we are instead of bringing me the whole way,” he said.
“Believe me, I wanted to,” said Zack.
“Then why didn’t you?”
“I asked them not to,” said another voice.
Harold turned his head. There was a small passage leading away from the dusty room, a hallway obscured by shadows and a stack of boxes. What were all the boxes in this room for? A dark face was peaking out from the hallway, a scruffy, grizzled face that had seen a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. Azar.
Zack rolled his eyes.
“Would you mind?” he said. “Get out of here. We’re trying to keep you away from the dangerous bounty hunter.”
“We’re not getting anywhere,” said Azar. “Harold, is it? How did you find where Gamma and Barris were keeping me?”
“I checked with the DMA to find likely agents who were working protection jobs,” he said. “Worked out that most of ‘em weren’t protecting you, and narrowed down the remainders until Gamma was the most likely person to follow.”
“See?” said Gamma. “Exactly what I told you he would’ve done. Now, can we please shoot him and follow his suggestion of leaving him somewhere that we aren’t hiding?”
Harold tensed. The lawyer and the detective were both good shots from what he remembered, but they needed focus. If he moved quickly he could probably disarm one of them without the other shooting him. That might buy him all the leverage he needed to reach Azar and escape. He prepared to leap…
“Wait,” said Azar. “One other question for him. How much is Bristlecorp offering for me?”
“A lot,” said Zamona. “Anyone who finds you is not only going to retire, but they’ll retire well. They could buy a small planet without hurting their savings.”
“That’s a lot of money,” said Azar. “What if I offered to pay you instead?”
“I know you’ve got a lot of cash,” said Zamona. “I don’t think you want to pay me as much money as it would take.”
“Maybe not in a lump sum,” said Azar. “What if I paid you in employment? Mister Gamma and Sister Barris are wonderful at what they do, but extra protection couldn’t hurt.”
“My rate’s pretty high,” said Iceberg.
“Hang on,” said Zack. “Azar, a word? Barris, keep an eye on Harry there.”
Zack walked to the hallway, stepping around the strawberry-scented cartons. He leaned conspiratorially toward Azar.
“I get what you’re trying to do here,” said Zack. “I really do. But here’s the thing: we’re not on the same tier as those three punks who tried to jump you in the alley anymore.”
“They weren’t punks,” said Azar. “They were financially troubled, and desperate for any way out.”
“Right, okay. But Harold Zamona isn’t destitute. He’s not poor. He’s still making money from merchandising. He might have some financial troubles now and then, a lot of former celebrities do, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of any. He’s one of the smart ones. People like him aren’t bounty hunters because they need the cash, they’re bounty hunters because they’re bored. And even if I’m wrong? You can’t just pay more than your bounty to every bounty hunter. I know a Virellium Coin is worth a lot of money, and your interest is crazy, but how many until you lose a coin? Twelve? Twenty? Fifty? Eventually the bounty’ll still be on your head, and you won’t have any money to make it worthwhile.”
“I don’t need to pay everyone who comes my way,” said Azar. “And I certainly don’t plan on paying in just money.”
Azar pushed his way past Zack, stepping into the room. Harold looked up, but Barris kept her eyes and her rifle aimed his way.
“I don’t like being on the run,” said Azar. “I don’t want to be enemies. My offer stands. Join me, Harold Zamona. I don’t know how long this will last, but until it’s all over I need protection, and I don’t want to keep secluding myself in places like this.”
“Where are we, by the way?” said Zamona.
“That’s not important,” said Barris and Gamma, simultaneously rushing to speak before Azar could answer.
“The point is, I need someone like you,” said Azar. “I’m making Barris accept a payment comparable to what I’d be paying an overtime lawyer, even though I think she’s just donating it back to that order of hers. Gamma takes a standard DMA fee of the same amount. If you joined our organization here, we might have something to work with. Barris running her legal work, Gamma keeping his eyes and ears open everywhere, and you for more, uh…”
Azar nodded at the gauntlets.
“…you for more hands-on security, if you don’t my mind saying so. These two tell me that you’re quite strong.”
“The strongest,” said Azar. “Sounds like quite an adventure.”
“It hasn’t been yet,” said Azar. “It’s dull waiting around for people to kill me. But I want to stop surviving and start living. If you’re there to protect me, that might be an option.”
The room became quiet. In the distance, the sound of some machinery added to the scent of strawberries in the air.
“Let’s say I said yes,” said Azar. “When would I be starting?”
“Right away,” said Azar.