Pascal opened the door to his assigned quarters and skimmed the tells he’d left in place before he and the others had headed out to the tavern.
The slip of paper in the drawer, the strand of hair on his pillow, the thread at the door of the closet, all in place. He glanced into the small head, where the fragrant cedar soap lay just so in front of his shaving kit, which in turn was propped just so on the edge of the sink.
It wasn’t that Pascal feared either Alain or Lakshmay would have been rooting through his belongings in his absence though, if they had, they would likely have been searching for a book, or the supplies manifest.
And, he reflected as John entered the room behind him, a book or the supplies manifest would be all they’d find.
But setting the tells, and checking them, were ingrained habit for Pascal, and had been, for too many years to count.
“All clear?” John asked, reminding Pascal that the Errant’s captain had some familiarity with the life.
“All clear,” he replied, heading for the desk to open one of the drawers, from which he drew a bottle, along with a stacked set of copper cups.
“Still traveling prepared,” John observed, then cocked an eyebrow. “Favreau’s Familiar?” His lip turned up in the hint of a smile. “Not very Stolichnayan.”
“An old friend introduced Pyotr to Favreau,” Pascal said. “Which is true enough,” he added, shooting John a glance as he opened the bottle.
“That was quite an evening,” John reminisced.
“It was quite a mission,” Pascal amended, handing John a cup before filling one for himself. “To Siqiniq.”
“To Siqiniq,” John echoed the name, and then both men drank.
Pascal let the woodsy malt glide over his tongue. He closed his eyes, the better to savor the slow spread of heat from the liquor as he swallowed.
A brief respite, but a much needed one, and over as soon as he heard John’s cup clink on the desk.
With a sigh, Pascal opened his eyes to see John taking a seat on Pascal’s neatly made bed. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything,” John said, but with that hint of a smile. “And nothing.” He leaned forward to rest his arms on his legs. “I’d forgotten, or told myself I’d forgotten, how it is with Spec Ops.”
“You were so good at it,” Pascal said. “Your eye for detail, your curiosity… your painfully honest face.” He paused, set his cup down. “What did it, in the end?” he asked, meeting that honest face. “What made you transfer? Sorry,” he said, waving his own question aside. “You don’t have to say.”
“I think, maybe I do,” John said, but even so, it was a moment before he continued. “I left because—because I was so good at it. It became too easy to slide into whoever, whatever, was necessary to do the needful.” And as Pascal watched, something, some shadow, passed over John’s face as he added, “And that—it being so easy—struck a little too close to home.”
At which point Pascal remembered again that night, long ago, with John and Siqiniq—lost during that same mission—and a bottle of Favreau’s Familiar, and the truths all three had spilled as the bottle emptied. “Your father,” he murmured, understanding.
“I was still young enough to worry,” John agreed.
“Corps healers are the best. They would have sensed—”
“The healers never lived with him,” John cut in, then shook his head. “Even without that baggage, I found I didn’t like who I was in Spec Ops, and there were other ways to serve.” Then he caught himself and met Pascal’s gaze. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Pascal, who never would have been accepted into the Infantry, and would have to seek accommodations for the Air Corps, shrugged. “I do like who I am in Spec Ops.”
“And you are good at it.”
“Most of the time,” Pascal said, absently rubbing at his forehead, only to wince when he struck the dressing Rory had taped over his temple. “Ugh.”
“How bad is it?”
He looked at John. “You don’t just mean my head, do you?”
“Your head is made of granite,” John said, “so, no. I mean this—whatever—Soshi was delivering? And how did Conn know to look for her in the first place?”
“That’s the thousand starbuck question,” Pascal said, angling so he could lean against the desk. “Soshi told me the intel was delivered by a runner from Kopernik, who likely received it from a Thracian asset. Given the way Conn came in—you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, as the scene replayed in his memory. “His sword was out when he walked into the snug—he’d stabbed Soshi, grabbed her tipper and threw the drum at me before I could even draw my shooter. It was more desperate butchery than planned assassination.”
“But he knew to attack Soshi,” John pointed out.
“Yes, which makes me fear the runner’s body is also out there, somewhere” Pascal said, turning to look out the port.
“I wonder—“ John began before a soft knock, followed by a hissed, “We know you’re in there!” followed by the door swinging open interrupted him.
Pascal watched Eitan and Jagati strode into the room like twinned thunderclouds.
“What took you so long?” John asked, clearly unsurprised by his crew’s invasion.
“Eight stitches,” Eitan said.
“And tea,” Jagati added, starting to close the door, but a soft “Oi!” stopped her and in a few seconds Rory came sidling into the room, which was suddenly quite crowded.
Keepers this crew was tall, Pascal thought.
“I thought you were checking the anterrium cells for damage?” Jagati asked the engineer as Eitan crossed to the far side of the bed.
“I was,” Rory said, easing past her to stake a claim in front of the closet. “No troubles up top, but,” he added, with a quick glance at Pascal, “I bet there are some here.”
“There will be if we don’t get some explanations.” Jagati closed the door behind her and leaned against it as if daring anyone to escape.
Pascal looked from the small invasion to John. “I suppose,” he said, “some introductions are in order.”
“Ya think?” Jagati growled, tension seeping from every pore.
John simply shook his head, as if accustomed to frayed tempers and surly first mates. “Everyone, this is Major Pascal Ouellet, Colonial Special Operations,” he said, waving at Pascal. “Pascal—well, you already know everyone.”
“I’d say it’s a pleasure,” Pascal offered, “but I get the feeling you’d disagree.”
“Maybe we would be pleased, if we’d been kept in the loop from the start,” Jagati snapped.
“Maybe you could say that a little louder,” Pascal countered, keeping his voice low. “I’m not sure your voice reached Kallik’s room.” Which was across the corridor and two doors aft from Pascal’s.
“Listen,” she said, stepping forward, only to halt when John raised a hand.
This time she hissed, but returned to her self-appointed post at the door.
“I believe Jagati’s point,” Rory stated from his position near the porthole, “is that, if you’d told us you had a mission, we could have been on guard.”
“Spies tend, on the whole, not to tell people that they engaged in the act of spying,” Pascal pointed out.
“But John knew,” Eitan said. He looked at John. “The way you behaved in the labyrinth, and after. You knew who Pascal was, and what he was doing.”
“John knew me from our days working together in Spec Ops,” Pascal said, before John could reply.
“Former member of Spec Ops?”
Jagati’s question had Pascal looking from Eitan to John.
“You didn’t tell them?”
“Leave your past on the ground,” John muttered. “It’s not just a motto.”
“Of course not,” Pascal said, then shook his head. “I am sorry,” he said to everyone, before focusing on Eitan. “I am especially sorry for your friend. And more, I am sorry I have to ask you—who was he? This isn’t me being petty,” he said as Jagati let out a soft curse. “I can be,” he added, glancing her way, “but not this time. Please,” he continued, focusing on Eitan’s dark gaze, “who was hie?”
Eitan, who’d said nothing, not even moved since hearing the word traitor, took a breath, let it out before he, too, folded himself onto the bed. The mattress creaked under his weight and he set his blade and his coat carefully aside before he answered. “Conn was another POW in Adidas,” he said at last. “We became friends… as much as one can, in the Domino arena. He’d been Airborne, and I was Infantry, so we… had a rivalry going, the way people do,” he said, glancing at Jagati. “Our cells were close, and we had practice together, meals together—were occasionally partnered in the arena. I knew he was the eldest child of two, that his parents were a weaver and an agrifarmer, respectively, and that Conn was looking forward to going home and setting up a shop of some sort. He didn’t care what,” Eitan added, his eyes going distant. “Just to have a place and to provide something that would make people happy. He was always keen for a joke, and was proud of his sister, who was studying medicine in Epsilon.
“And then, one day, both our names were drawn for a death match—a practice the Adidans adopted shortly before the war’s end,” he explained, though Pascal had, through other sources, heard something of the Adidan death matches. “The last time I saw Conn,” Eitan continued, “he was bleeding out on the arena floor, and I had been declared the victor.”
There was a moment of silence following that, but as much as Pascal might have to say about the Adidans and their toxic traditions, there simply wasn’t time. “If you’re correct,” he said, “and the man in the labyrinth was Conn—”
“It was,” Eitan and Jagati said at the same time.
“Right,” Pascal said after a beat. “If that’s the case, then he was also at one time a Colonial soldier.” He paused, took a breath, then asked, “What would have made him turn?”
At the question, he heard John, Jagati, and Rory all sucking in a breath, but Eitan simply shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “The Conn I knew… he wasn’t what I would call over patriotic, but he loved his home, his people. But this—the man in the labyrinth—he was not the same. And the last time I saw him, I thought—I was sure—he’d died.”
“Maybe he did,” John murmured.
“Then who was that out there?” Jagati asked. “Because he didn’t feel right.” She grimaced, then shrugged.
“What remains,” Pascal said, then shook his head. “There are ways and ways to break a mind, and Keepers know it happens, more often than Command would like to admit.”
“That’s not disturbing at all,” Rory observed.
“Tell me,” Pascal agreed. Still,” he said, “however Conn was lost, he successfully intercepted the information Soshi meant to deliver.” He sighed, just stopped himself from rubbing at the dressing on his head. “I don’t know if we can leave without some idea what happened to that tipper.
“Tipper?” Jagati echoed, visibly confused. “Like a kid who knocks over sleeping aurochs?”
There was a moment of silence before Pascal said, “No.”
“It’s actually more of a—” John began.
“’Tis the cipín he means,” Rory said, then turned to face Pascal as he reached into his pocket and withdrew a piece of slender wood carved with thick grip in the center, and bulbs at either end.
“Keepers in the apiary,” Pascal breathed. “How—where did you find it?” he asked, and had to hold himself back from hopping onto the bed to reach the mechanic.
“In the snug, half under the table.” Rory eyed the traditional striker used by bodhran players the world over. “At the time, I was surprised it didn’t break, given the crack in the middle.” As he spoke, he held up the cipín for everyone to see that there was, indeed a thin line bisecting the central grip. “Then I realized it wasn’t a crack at all, but a seam.” He looked at Pascal. “Clever place to hide something, if the something’s small enough.”
“This would have been,” Pascal muttered, then glared at Rory. “Did you open it?”
“I wouldn’t,” John said.
“I would,” Jagati countered.
“By all means, if you want to be sworn in as an asset,” Pascal told her.
“You are already using us,” Jagati snapped, then lowered her voice to add, “so why not?”
“Because the pay is lousy, and you strike me as someone with authority issues,” Pascal told her.
“Can confirm,” John murmured
“Wouldn’t any message be in code?” Eitan asked.
“Likely,” John said.
“Definitely,” Pascal admitted. “But, as you’ve all proven more than able to adapt, improvise, and run with a hunch,” here he again eyed Jagati, “I wouldn’t advise it.”
“Then what would you advise?” Jagati’s voice was cloaked in patience, belied by the arms she crossed over her chest.
“To begin?” Pascal turned from Jagati to Rory, “I recommend you hand over the tipper.”
Rory turned to John, first, so Pascal also looked at John, waiting.
John nodded, Pascal turned back to Rory.
Rory handed the tipper across the bed and into Pascal’s waiting hand.
“Wait,” Jagati said.
“Keepers preserve us,” Pascal rolled his eyes. “Why?”
“Because I can feel your doubts,” she explained through gritted teeth. “If you don’t trust us, we can’t trust you. What are you worried about?”
“Everything,” Pascal said. “All the time. Because that is my job. And right now I’m worried about whatever is in that tipper, which I know has led to at least one death, so far.”
And with that, and a deft twist, he unscrewed the top half of the stick, revealing a narrow, tightly rolled slip of paper, which he read quickly, then read again.
He muttered a curse, rolled it up, slid it back into the tipper, and closed it up.
Finally, looked at Eitan. “It is in code,” he said, then turned to John. “This information needs to be delivered to General Satsuke, in person.”
“We can drop you off on the way back from Kopernik—” John began.
“No,” Pascal said. “I can’t return with you. I have to go to Kopernik.” He glanced at the tipper, brow furrowed. “Now more than ever. My cover is in tact, so far, and if the information in this message is correct, I need to see what is happening in Thracia.”
“Not to play silly buggers,” Rory said, drawing Pascal’s attention, “but you wouldn’t happen to know where yon general is at this particular point in time? So we’re not flying hither and yon after her?”
“Last we spoke, she was to fly to Epsilon,” Pascal said. “But I can confirm that before you lift off from Kopernik.”
“Assuming we agree to make delivery,” John said.
At which point Pascal, and everyone else in the room, turned to stare.
“You mean you’d say no?” Pascal asked.
“Why would I say yes?” John asked back.
“If you’re going to say it’s my duty, let me remind you that I was court martialed and drummed out of the Corps for doing my duty. At present, my duty is to my crew and my ‘ship, and my crew has already bled for you, so your arguments in favor are…” John held out his hand, palm down and waved it.
Pascal’s eyes narrowed. “John, are you attempting to blackmail the Corps?”
“I suppose I am,” John said, and appeared altogether too proud of himself.
Then again, Pascal was feeling little tingles of pride, himself, which was odd, until he saw Jagati’s face, heard Eitan’s throat clearing, and the tingles shut off like a light switch.
Sensitives, he thought, and shrugged.
He looked over to John, who was still seated on the bed. Not, Pascal knew, because he was tired, but because by sitting it spared Pascal from always having to look up to meet his eyes.
It was, all in all, a very John thing to do.
“Very well,” he conceded, with his own, faint smile. “And what would it cost to persuade you to make a delivery to Epsilon?”
John named his price, which was followed by Rory letting out the quietest whoop of joy Pascal had ever heard.
Jagati’s face was a blank as she stared at John, while Eitan’s expression became, if possible, even more closed.
Pascal, for his part, gave a short nod. “I can’t promise, you understand, but I will do everything I can to see the Corps meets your asking price.”
“Good enough.” John said, and held out a hand for the tipper.
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