Three days later, John hauled a crate down the gangplank to where a crawler painted in the Healers Without Borders blue and green waited.
The skies were clear, the suns bright, and the Kopernik air frigid—February in Stolichnaya—but it lacked the angry bite of Upsilon’s storm
Still, as he arrived at the crawler where Jagati and Eitan were assisting with load in, John figured they would all be recovering from that bite, for some time to come.
Bypassing the crawler’s ramp, he placed his crate onto the bed and stepped back as Jagati grabbed the crate and handed it to Kallik who, with Eitan, secured it place among the rest of the supplies they’d been loading.
Pascal, back in his guise as Pyotr, sat on the edge of the bed, ticking off the supplies as they arrived.
“Was that the last?” Alain asked, coming from the crawler’s cockpit, Lakshmay at his side.
“Not quite,” Pascal said, then looked up to where Rory was muscling a dolly stacked with boxes of tinned goods across the field.
“But that is.”
“Oh, good,” Kallik said, as they peered out over Pascal’s head. “I don’t know how we could have survived without a season’s worth of vat-grown salmon.”
“They were donations from the Nike plant,” Alain said, eyeing his offspring.
“And they chose to donate the one protein they can’t convince anyone to buy,” Kallik pointed out.
“It’s true, no one has quite mastered vat grown seafood,” Lakshmay agreed.
“Buck up, doc,” Jagati said, giving Kallik a thump on the shoulder—that friendly act having all three of her crewmates gaping, “pretty sure I saw a sizable crate of seasonings stowed in the back.”
“Not enough spice on Fortune,” Kallik muttered.
Jagati grinned, shook her head. “Be careful out there,” she said to the young doctor. “And,” she added, hopping down to the ground to shake Lakshmay’s hand, “holler if you need us.”
“Who are you and what have you done with my first mate?” John asked, then wished he’d said nothing, as her eyes flicked to him, and away, again, reminding him that while the doctors might have been admitted into her carefully curated circle, he, himself had been relegated to the perimeter.
A familiar throat clearing drew John’s attention back to the crawler, where Pascal, still seated, was digging into a satchel, from which he pulled out a bottle. “Before we leave, I wanted to be sure you had this,” he said, the Stolichnayan accent in full force. “A gift.”
Kallik leaned over the other man’s shoulder. “Favreau’s Familiar?”
“Not a vodka?” Alain asked, leaning against the crawler.
“Captain Pitte is from Moosehead,” Pascal explained. He held out the bottle. “An old friend introduced me to Favreau’s,” he said, for the benefit of the others, “and I thought it would be to your liking.”
“Your friend has good taste,” John said, looking up to meet Pascal’s gaze which, being Pascal, was thoroughly unenlightening. John took the bottle. “Thank you.”
“No,” Pascal said quietly. “Thank you.”
Once hands had been gripped over the deal, the rest of the crew filed out of Pascal’s quarters, leaving John and Pascal alone.
“So,” Pascal said.
“So,” John echoed.
They looked at one another. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Pascal said.
“For which part?” John asked.
Pascal shrugged. “All of it. But mostly, for ruining your chances with Jagati.”
John frowned, replaying their evening in the tavern. “You were already in the snug,” he pointed out. “How did you know we were—that we meant…”
“Please,” Pascal waved at John. “I don’t need to be a sensitive to read frustrated lust. Though,” he glanced at the door, then back, “I suspect it’s more than lust, isn’t it?”
“Much more,” John said, after a beat. “It always has been, with her.”
“I truly am sorry,” Pascal said and, John knew, meant it. “But—well, that’s how it goes with this job, and the job is bigger than me.” There was a pause before he continued, “This is where you’re supposed to say that everything is bigger than me.”
John managed a smile. “That joke was worn to a thread a decade ago.”
“Siqiniq didn’t think so.”
“Siqiniq was, on occasion, an ass.”
“Truer words,” Pascal agreed, then picked up the bottle of Favreau’s. “Another drink?”
“May as well.”
Walking through the quietly busy Epsilon Base, Rory took a breath of the morning air—which, while chill, was nigh balmy compared to the Stolichnayan winter—and wondered, once again, if he should have stayed aboard the Errant.
Ever since that hushed meeting in Pascal’s cabin, he’d been of two minds about setting foot on Epsilon Base, but Epsilon Flight had relayed General Satsuke’s desire to meet the entire crew, so here he was.
Normally, Rory enjoyed getting out and about in Epsilon, which was itself, less a city than a collection of tiny villages, laid out in a modular approach.So, rather than the wagon wheel sections of the Nike’s twelve districts, there were circular clumps of neighborhoods and agricenters scattered along the plains, separated by waterways and natural preserves. Every residential district had its own homes, schools, shops, and the like, just as Nike did, but with more space between.
Flying overhead, it looked like a piece of ancient art, all these circles of varying sizes and textures, connected by the thin lines of roads, canals, and the occasional sky tram, running along wires slung between massive towers.
Usually, when they landed in Epsilon, Rory would choose a neighborhood at random and dive in, which was smogging epic, because no two districts had the same architecture, or design, or dining, or—well, enough to say that Epsilon was a smashing good place to enjoy a liberty, and he, Jinna, and Liam had once made a pact to visit every one of Epsilon’s twenty-two districts.
They’d made it to seven, before the war ended.
Then Jinna had become pregnant, and the York, with Liam aboard, had gone down in the Amazon mountain range soon after.
Still, every time the Errant had anchored in Epsilon since, Rory had continued the tradition, if only to tell Jinna about finding a new noodle shop, or tavern, or spice seller—the woman was mad for spices—but it wasn’t the same.
It would never be the same.
But, in all those visits, even when he’d still been in the Air Corps, Rory had never spent more time on base than it took to get off the airfield. And he’d certainly never darkened the doorways of the Special Operations compound.
Today, as he followed his crew, who followed the ensign assigned to lead them to General Satsuke’s office, Rory didn’t know if he was relieved or disappointed that the place looked like any other Corps structure.
“Here we are.” The ensign, young enough to have missed the fighting, paused at the door to the office. “I’ll be waiting outside, to escort you back to the gate,” she added.
“Like we don’t know where it is,” Jagati muttered.
“Regulations,” John muttered back.
“As you say, sir,” the ensign agreed, then stepped back even as the door to Satsuke’s office popped open to reveal a handsome man of medium height with long, black hair tied back in a tail. “Ah, Ensign Ndlaze, thank you.”
“My pleasure,” Ndlaze replied before stepping back and sliding into parade rest.
“Come in, please,” the man said, pulling the door further open for the crew.
Rory, last in line, got a glimpse of what he supposed was a waiting room—small desk, some chairs along the wall, a low table, and some maps on the walls—before their host spoke again. “I am Colonel Saeng Baek-Tenjin,” he introduced himself, before turning to John. “Captain Pitte. It’s an honor. Major Ouellet speaks highly of you.”
John offered a ghost of a smile as Saeng moved on to Jagati. “My wife served as a jump master on the Phalanx, before transferring to S.O., she’ll be sorry she missed this meeting.” As Jagati’s brow rose, he smiled. “She enjoys reminiscing with like-minded officers. I have never been able to find the joy in even the idea of leaping out of an airship, with nothing but a slender line and a hopefully attentive lineman preventing me from becoming a blot on the landscape.”
At that, Jagati grinned. “It’s not that bad.”
“Yes, it is,” John said, and he and Saeng shared an understanding glance.
Saeng turned his attention to Eitan. “Lieutenant Fehr. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Eitan nodded, seemed inclined to say nothing else, and Saeng appeared to be fine with that, as he angled towards Rory. “Mr. McCabe. You may not know it, but your assessment of the Odysseus has become a case study for new recruits in Spec Ops.”
“The—my—oh,” Rory said, which was all he could manage.
The Odysseus was a Midasian airship, discovered on the fields of southern Stolichnaya in the last years of the war.
Rory’s captain at the time had wanted to repair the ‘ship and fly it back to Epsilon. Rory though, had prior experience with Midasian’s, and had warned against it. The warnings, coming as they had from a lowly enlisted, and a disgraced on that that, might not have made a difference, had Lt. Liam Del, who himself had his own suspicions about the downed ‘ship, not supported Rory’s assessment.
In the end, Rory, Liam, and Airborne Specialist Jinna Pride had been dispatched to search the ‘ship prior to any action, and there discovered that the Odysseus had been mined with casks that, had they blown, would have infected everyone aboard with Midasian fever, likely leading to a serious outbreak in the Corps, if not the Colonies themselves.
It had been quite a day, and had ended in Rory, Liam, and Jinna becoming friends, and more than friends, though Rory hadn’t realized as much at the time.
Colonel Baek-Tenjin smiled. “It was good work, on all your parts. My sorrow for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Rory said, curbing the swell of confused feelings that always arose around thoughts of Liam, and counted himself lucky when the connecting door opened and a wee woman with white hair leaned out to say, “Oh. Good. You’re all here.”
Two days out of Kopernik, Rory pushed open John’s door.
“Eitan said you wanted to see me?”
“I did.” As he spoke, John pushed away from his desk, grabbed a slip of telgram tape, and held it out. “You received a message, from Jinna.”
“Is she well? Is it the baby?” Rory shoved the spanner he’d been holding into his pocket. Taking the tape he gave John a look. “Don’t tell me you didn’t at least skim the message.”
“Only the first bit, to make sure she’s doing well,” John admitted, leaning back on the desk as Rory read through the necessarily terse missive.
“She’s still at staying at Elysium, sharing a room with Mia,” Rory noted. “And she says—“ he paused, went back a few words, read again. “She says she’ll not return to Kit’s Diner at all, but means to open her own tea shop.”
“Her own place?” John’s brows shot up. “I didn’t know she’d had such ambitions.”
“Nor I, but she says after some discussion, she and Gideon mean to become partners, of a sort.”
“I have trouble seeing Gideon serving tea and cakes,” John observed.
“Well, it’s not likely he will,” Rory said, folding the tape into his pocket. “Jinna doesn’t say much, but it’s more that Gideon will be a silent partner to her business, and use his share of the profits for his own.”
“And what business would that be?”
Rory tracked back along the tape and frowned as he read. “She says he’s meaning to become a private facilitator.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Nor I,” Rory said with a shrug. “But if it works out, Jinna will be her own boss—no more worrying over whether she’ll have a job tomorrow.” Which had often been a worry, as Kit’s owner had both a short temper and a tight wallet.
“No, but it will be another kind of burden,” John observed. “And with a baby on the way—she’ll be needing more than financial stability.” He met Rory’s glance, and for a moment Rory saw his own doubts, reflected in John’s eyes. “I won’t ask if you’ve thought about leaving the Errant,” he said at last. “All I ask is, if you do decide to stay with Jinna, you help us find another mechanic.” He paused. “And a medic,” he added.
“Well,” Rory said, clearing his throat as he looked towards the port, where the skies were purpling with sunsset, “it’s early days, yet, isn’t it? No knowing what Jinna will want. Besides, apparently, her own tea shop.”
“I think she wants you,” John said. “And I know you want her.”
“But I also want this,” Rory said, turning back to John. “What we’ve built, what we are building? I want that, too.”
“I know,” John said, idly picking up an old pocket watch from his desk, sliding the chain through his fingers as he added, “but we can’t always have everything we want.”
To be continued…
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