John remained silent as he wound his way through the crowded bar, dodging the occasional swinging mug or wayward elbow as he went.
He did not stop at the bar, but rather turned in the direction of the tavern’s entrance and sidled his way to the door, currently propped open to Nike’s chill.
Stepping out onto the Rigging’s sheltered porch, John took a deep breath of the damp air before leaning against a pillar, crossing his arms, and staring out into the street. “Pascal,” he said as the other man who’d been introduced as Pyotr came up alongside him. “It’s been a long time.”
“Long enough for you to improve your poker face,” the other man said, the Stoli accent replaced by the North Fordian John recognized. “And it was already a good poker face.”
John glanced down, saw the green eyes flash with a quick hint of amusement in the light from the tavern window.
“Civilian life looks good on you.” Pascal noted, turning towards the rain-pelted street.
“Does that surprise you?” John asked.
“A little,” Pascal admitted, shoving his hands in his coat pockets. “You were very keen on the Air Corps. I suppose I thought you’d be a lifer.”
“I might have been,” John replied. “But as you probably heard, that choice was taken away from me, after Nasa.”
“I did hear about that,” Pascal agreed. “But not until a few years later. I was occupied… elsewhere.”
“Of course you were,” John murmured as a rickshaw came spinning down the street, spraying water everywhere
Someone inside the tavern had started singing The Last Time I Saw Guinness and a rush of voices joined in.
“You probably don’t know this,” Pascal continued, “but Special Operations opened a quiet investigation into Nasa soon after the event. Very quiet,” he added. “But I know one of the officers assigned, and he is nothing if not tenacious. The truth will come out.”
“Some of it may already have,” John replied, thinking back to his meeting with Gideon Quinn—another officer blindsided by the events at Nasa.
“That’s good then,” Pascal said. “Still, I was sorry to hear of your part in it.”
“I had no ‘part’ in any of the affair,” John said tightly. “I was attempting to follow regulations, and I was stabbed in the back—literally—before being court martialed for my troubles. Worse than that,” he continued, “my command crew were all demoted and scattered throughout the fleet at the whim of the armchair general who commandeered my ‘ship.”
At John’s outburst, Pascal cleared his throat.
“Forgive me,” John said as, with some effort, he bundled the familiar rage up like an old carpet, to be dumped back into the mental closet where it lived.
“Nothing to forgive,” Pascal said evenly. “Though I believe the Air Corps owes you and your crew more than an apology.”
“I’d as soon have nothing more to do with the Air Corps,” John said, dragging his eyes back to Pascal’s before adding, “Or any other part of the Corps, come to that.”
“Ah,” Pascal said. “Now we come to it.”
“I don’t want my ‘ship, or my crew, involved in any of Special Operation’s activities,” John said.
“What makes you think I’m still with Special Ops?” Pascal asked, but quietly, as a couple stepped out of the pub and, sharing an umbrella, dashed down the sidewalk in the direction of the tram stop.
John waited for the amorous pair to turn the corner before replying. “You mean, besides the fact your name isn’t Pyotr Aaberg, you’re not from Stolichnaya, and you’ve never shown the least interest in charitable works?”
“You wound me,” Pascal clutched a hand to his heart. “I’ve given generously to several charities over the years.”
“Fine. Yes. I am on an assignment. And no, I can’t tell you what it is.”
“And what about the Natsiqs?”
“Oh, they’re quite real. Real doctors, really working with HBB. As is Dr. Spencer.”
“Spencer? Oh, the one at the airfield,” John said, recalling Alain’s earlier mention of a fourth associate. “But tell me, do you, or General Satsuke, or anyone in Special Ops, at all care what will happen to the good doctors, or their organization, if your cover is blown?”
“Please,” Pascal scoffed at that. “There is not an intelligence organization on Fortune that doesn’t embed their operatives in various rescue organizations. In fact, I can guarantee there’s at least one Midasian spy working on the Teslan border, right now.”
“And how many innocent doctors will be arrested by the Colonial Corps should that Midasian operative be discovered?” John asked. “How many will be interrogated?”
“Are you implying the Corps tortures their prisoners?” Pascal’s question was undercut by one of the new crystal-powered autos speeding past at what had to be thirty kph.
“Did I mention I was stabbed in the back on my own bridge, while a general of the Corps looked on?” John asked in return. “More to the point, we know several of the Coalition states do torture their prisoners. Can you say, with one-hundred percent certainty, that those three doctors on your team won’t suffer if you are discovered?”
“My cover has never yet been blown,” Pascal said. “But, assuming such a catastrophe were to occur, I’ve been assured that the rest of the team will be protected, and yes,” he added as John opened his mouth to protest, “I believe it. Not that I blindly trust our fearless leaders, but I do know they aren’t willing to weather the public smog storm that would erupt if something happened to a group of volunteers under our watch.”
“Vague and political,” John observed. “How very Spec Ops.”
“Something you know well,” Pascal said, “as one of Satsuke’s operatives.”
“I was nothing more than a courier,” John pointed out. “Like almost every fleet captain out there.”
“You were more than that,” Pascal said. “I read the report on Dodge—that Midasian cell you uncovered. And the exfil in Thracia.”
“And look where all that got me,” John pointed out, bitterly.
Pascal sighed, looked up. “Stabbed in the back?”
“That won’t happen this time,” Pascal said.
“You can’t know that.”
“Perhaps not, but I do know that the refugee truly needs aid. It’s just your bad luck the Errant is the only available transport. So the only question remaining is if your resentment of all things Spec Ops is great enough to prevent civilians on both sides of the border receiving food, shelter, and medical care?”
Both men fell silent as the tavern door opened again, this time to an aeronaut who paused, blinked owlishly at the rain before shrugging, clomping down the short steps, and splashing her way in the direction of the airfield.
He turned back to see Pascal’s gaze—open, earnest—and, John thought, as innocent as a murder hornet. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll take the job.”
“Just see we get paid,” John said as he straightened. “And don’t include my name in your reports.”
“You have my word,” Pascal said.
“For what that’s worth,” John muttered as the other man produced the “missing” contract from his inner pocket. “But before we rejoin the others, you should know that keeping your secret from the crew won’t be easy.”
“I think you forget how good I am,” Pascal said, leading the way back into the pub.
“And humble,” John pointed out, following the other man into the wall of heat and noise. He leaned down so Pascal could hear him. “But what I mean is, two of my crew are sensitives.”
At that Pascal came to a halt. “You couldn’t have mentioned that at the start?”
With the barest hint of a smile, John patted him on the shoulder. “I imagine you’ll be fine if you avoid Jagati—and whatever you do, do not let Eitan seduce you.”
“Please. I am a professional,” Pascal scoffed, once again using Pyotr Aaberg’s Stolichnayan accent.
And then they reached the table where the rest of their party was waiting.
Which was when Pascal set eyes on Eitan Fehr for the first time. “Why, this is hell,” he muttered.
“Professional,” John reminded him, sotto voce before announcing. “We found the contract.”
To be continued…
This website is ad free, and depends upon the generosity of its readers (that’s you!) to keep posting, so if you are enjoying, please Like, Subscribe, or Share on your favorite social platform, using the handy buttons below. Lastly, if you have the means, you may buy the authors a coffee. Or buy an ebook. Every little thing helps.