While Jagati charted a new course on the bridge of the Errant, Tariq El Karim ascended the gangplank of the Al-Jinn, his grounded airship.
The damage done his ‘ship was but one item on the index of grievances Tariq held against the thieves, placed just below the theft of Tariq’s most prized cargo and above the injuries suffered by several of his crew.
And he still had no idea what had become of his men aboard the Errant, which meant he had to take crew away from breaking down their camp or repairing the ‘ship to search for the four missing men.
Stopping at the top of the gangplank to brush the patina of Dyar’s Canyon from his coat, Tariq looked over the cargo bay, lit by the bulkhead sconces, noting as he did the acrid stench of crystal det and a strip of blackened metal where the bay door’s lock had been.
The odor of det and broken lock were the only signs of intrusion. Otherwise, every crate, canister, and barrel was undisturbed, all secured under their flight webbing.
This surprised Tariq, as several of those crates, canisters, and barrels contained high-value goods—goods a man flying a wreck like the Errant should have found tempting.
But Pitte had left all untouched, instead using the small window of opportunity to steal one middling-sized box.
A box secreted in one out of several dozens of smuggler’s hides aboard the ‘ship, which meant they had to have known not only what they wanted, but where to find it.
The intimacy of their knowledge with his ‘ship further inflamed the anger already burning in his gut and he gave up on the coat, instead striding into the belly of the Al-Jinn and up the companionway, moving so quickly that the remaining dust wafted around him in a violet haze, as if he were himself the spirit of air and fire for which the airship had been named.
He didn’t stop until he reached the entrance to the starboard pod on the third deck, where he looked inside to see the Al-Jinn’s mechanic already head and shoulders deep into the engine’s guts.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“Not as bad as it could be,” Jacques O’Malley said, sliding out from the open casing. His expression, what little was visible above the ruddy beard, was perplexed. “Kinda surprising, considering anyone with the smarts to break into the pod’s guts like they did could’a done a lot worse, but they just disconnected the overhead coupling.” He pointed to the part in question with one hairy paw. “And pulled out the secondary and tertiary buffers, but—and this is what’s so swarm about it—they left both tubes standing outside the pod, nice as you please, so’s we’d see what they did.”
“Very polite of them,” Tariq murmured.
“I’ll say,” Jacques agreed, immune as ever to his leader’s sarcasm. “Be easy enough to hide the buffers, or destroy the lot and let us try to power up and, well, that’d be the end of the line for the Al-Jinn here,” he said, patting the crystal-drive’s casing with affection.
Tariq considered that. “Are you saying you believe they wished us no harm?”
“Well, nothing permanent, I’d say. Just wanted us grounded long enough to make their getaway.”
“Which, as it stands, seems to have worked.”
“As my old gran used to say, some days you’re the dire wolf, some days you’re the dodo,” Jacques said, giving his beard a scratch.
“A point of view,” Tariq said after a beat. He never could say if Jacques’s easy humor was endemic to the entire population of the Moosehead Territories, or unique to O’Malley alone, but it never ceased to intrigue him. In the earliest days of their association, he had even wondered if the red-haired giant possessed the slightest notion he was part of an outlaw organization, until the day the member of a rival crew attempted to get between Jacques and a biscuit tin from Earth, circa 2240.
The tin had brought in a pretty sum, but to this day, Tariq gave Jacques a wide berth when the mechanic had his socket wrench to hand.
Though, now he thought of it, Jacques and his wrench might have been useful against Pitte and his crew.
At the sound of his name, the shadow captain turned from the open engine pod to see Ysabel, his sniper and second-in-command, waiting in the passageway behind him. He was surprised to see her so soon, as she’d been leading the search party for the missing men.
“You found them?” he guessed—and it was truly a guess, for Ysabel’s carved-ebony expression gave nothing away.
Her close-shaved head dipped in a single nod. “All four. On the island.”
Jacques peeked out of the pod. “That’d be right cramped.”
Tariq had to agree, as the island was in fact more of a boulder with aspirations, set in the middle of an alkali lake. It was large enough for one man to lie on if he kept his knees tucked in. Four would have been challenging.
“And they were alive?” Tariq asked.
By the Keepers, it is like pulling teeth. “And what is that you are holding?” he asked, his eyes dipping to the hand she’d kept low at her side.
“Franco had a souvenir from the Errant,” she said, handing over the object.
Tariq held up the wicked-looking hook, attached to a soft leather cuff with a series of buckles sliced apart.
The leather, he noted, bore a few suspicious red-brown spatters.
Jacques leaned further out of the engine pod. “That’ll leave a mark.”
“It did,” she confirmed.
“Where?” Tariq asked.
When she failed to answer he looked at her, at which point she dropped her gaze to an anatomical region that had Jacques going pale and even Tariq experienced a brief chill.
“Liliane says Franco will still be able to sire children,” she said.
“That’s assuming he can find a woman willing to let him try,” Jacques said after a beat, bringing something close to a smile out of Ysabel.
Tariq, however, found nothing amusing in the situation. Far from it. “Did any of them say how they lost the Errant?”
Her head shook once, left to right. “Only Franco was conscious when we rowed out to them, and he passed out in the boat.”
Which Tariq found understandable. “I will speak to them when they wake.”
“Liliane has Franco pretty morphed up.”
“Then I will speak to him last,” he said. “Meanwhile, Dyar’s Canyon is no longer a haven for us. Ysabel,” he looked to his second, “spread the word I want the caves emptied and everyone aboard the Al-Jinn within the hour.
“Jacques,” he said as he turned to the mechanic, “can you get her flight-ready within that time?”
“Should do,” he said, scratching the beard. “Could do faster with a pair of spare hands,” he added.
“I can assist,” Ysabel said before Tariq could ask. “As soon as I speak with the others.”
“Good.” He turned away. “If anyone has need of me, I will be on the bridge, plotting out our course.”
“You don’t mean to follow them?” Ysabel asked.
Tariq glanced back. “I don’t need to follow them. I know precisely where they are going.”
The stoic sniper and quizzical mechanic shared a glance. “Okay, I’ll bite,” Jacques said. “Where are they going?”
“And now I will bite,” Ysabel said. “Why Nike?”
“Because,” Tariq explained, “Pitte knew not only where in all of Fortune to find us, he also knew the best time to sneak into the Al-Jinn.”
“The dawn storms,” Ysabel guessed, referring to the electrically charged dust storms which swept through the canyon at sunsrise, without fail, from Treicember through March. During the storm season, Tariq kept the Al-Djinn powered down, and any crew not on sentry duty atop the canyon walls slept in nearby caverns.
“And not only were they aware of the storms,” Tariq said with a nod, “they bypassed a small fortune in easily disposable cargo in pursuit of that case. Which leaves me wondering how Pitte knew so much about us.”
“Someone had to have told him,” Ysabel said, baring her teeth.
Tariq nodded. “And only one person outside the crew knew where we would be, and what we carried.”
“Oh,” Jacques said as he caught the falling quarter star, “no. No smogging way.”
Tariq understood the sentiment, and yet… “Can you think of anyone else?”
“But why?” Ysabel asked, shocked enough that her brow actually furrowed. “And after she went to such trouble to steal it?”
“That, I do not know,” Tariq said. “But I intend to find out.” With that, and a brief Midasian-style salute with the hook, he turned away. “If anyone has need of me, I will be on the bridge, charting the fastest route to Nike—where I expect to have a very long conversation with my wife.”
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