Within three days, the Errant came to rest above Lycos, an unsettled territory that stretched from the Cliffs of Avalon to the Oracle Ocean, a little over a hundred klicks northwest of Nike.
They’d have gone all the way into the city, but Nike Flight responded to their radio request with the information that there were no docking slips available and heavy traffic precluded high moorage over the field.
Any other time the Errant would have anchored in Faraday until Nike opened up, but John preferred to avoid the company—and gossip—of other aeronauts until after they’d delivered the cargo, so he’d set a course to the Northwest wilds.
While technically Lycos was a no-landing zone—it was one of Avon’s protected wild lands—the Keepers determined flyovers and high moorage caused minimal impact to the local ecosystem. As long as the airship in question remained above two hundred meters and kept their running lights off, they would not be subject to fines or confiscation.
Keepers stationed at Lycos enforced the flight code, patrolling by land, air, and sea, but for the most part, enforcement seldom proved necessary. Interestingly, quite a few aeronauts were quite happy to fly high and dark and, more to the point, out of sight.
For his part, John appreciated the chance to drop anchor and shut down engines for a few hours, not only because of Tariq’s threats, but because the three days of pushing the ‘ship while watching for signs of pursuit had worn on the crew. He figured Nike’s crowding would grant the crew a few hours downtime before they had to deal with…whatever they were dealing with.
Not that they knew what they were dealing with, because Rory hadn’t yet unlocked the case. This despite secreting himself in the machinist’s room for the entire three days.
He did emerge every so often, long enough to toss back a mug of tea and whatever food lay about the galley.
Once, he was called out to re-re-patch gas cell eighteen, but other than that, his time was given entirely to matching wits with the tri-level Kairos combination lockset.
Eitan said the case had become the young mechanic’s white whale.
Jagati then asked what a beluga had to do with a briefcase.
John simply excused himself from the conversation, being less interested in ancient Earth literature than he was in the cargo.
It was the cargo on his mind now as he knocked at the machinist room door, intending to tell Rory he was free to give up on keeping things pretty and break into the damned case.
The door opened, and John barely resisted stepping back from the rumpled, wild-eyed manifestation of a Campbell Islander that appeared.
“What? What is it? Can ye nae see I’m working here?”
It was interesting, John thought, how Rory’s Campbell dialect intensified under pressure. “I can see that,” he said, meeting the younger man’s manic gaze with his own steady regard. “I thought you’d want to know we’re at high anchor over Lycos until Nike can get us a slip.”
“If you’ll recall, we determined you should attempt to suss out the box’s combination until we reached Nike.”
“Yes, but we’ve not yet reached Nike, have we?”
“Perhaps not, but we are—”
The door slammed in his face.
“—close,” John finished even as he heard the door’s bolt snick home. A far cry from Rory’s habitual deference back in their days on the Kodiak. “So, I’ll come back later, shall I?” he called through the barrier.
The response, muffled as it was by six centimeters of allusteel-encased bamboo, might have been an acknowledgement, a curse, or an anatomical suggestion John believed to be impossible.
A far cry, indeed, and while he’d long ago learned to expect this sort of attitude from Jagati, it was a side of Rory previously unseen.
Then again, he’d also never seen Rory bested by anything of a mechanical nature, and that included the occasional locks which needed the occasional bypassing.
He could try to force the issue—manic or not, he knew the young man would obey a direct command—but from what the Nike air controller said, there was still time for Rory to achieve a victory over the enemy.
Or rather the Kairos tri-level combination lockset.
As he stood, staring at the door and thinking through the issue, he noticed the odor of burning threading into the cargo bay behind him, announcing dinner more effectively than any chime.
Since he doubted Rory would be amenable to another interruption, John left him to it and headed to the aft ladder, climbed two flights to the starboard passage, and then continued forward, past the med-bay and training room, until he reached the galley.
When he crossed the galley’s starboard threshold, he found the lamps glowing warmly in their hull sconces, the tea steeping in its pot on the table, and the air redolent with the bitter tang of smoke that confirmed it was Jagati’s turn to cook.
It was, in short, a normal meal on the Errant.
Except it wasn’t, because, despite successfully avoiding pursuit by Tariq and the relative nearness to a significant payday, it was a strained company seated at the round table.
More strained than Jagati’s cooking could account for.
Perhaps Rory’s edginess was contagious.
Either way, of the three assembled, only Eitan displayed any appetite, ingesting the unevenly grilled aurochs kebobs and soggy kale with a single-minded efficiency that spoke of a man not yet accustomed to regular meals.
“I don’t like it.” Jagati finally broke the oppressive silence while shoving the kale around her plate.
To her left, Eitan disposed of the last cube of blackened meat, then put down his chopsticks and used a crumbling bit of naan to scrape up the drippings.
“Then why did you make it?” John asked, giving up on shoving his own food around and instead shoving the entire plate to his right.
Eitan, without looking up, retrieved the chopsticks and started working his way through John’s untouched meal.
“Not the dinner.” She glared across the table. “This job.”
As if to emphasize her point, she stabbed a limp clump of kale with enough vehemence to make John wince as he asked, “Which part?”
At his right, Eitan’s dark eyes slid up from John’s plate, then immediately slid down again.
“All the parts.” Jagati swung her fork up and pointed the kale in his direction. “Starting with this nameless client.”
“Sameen,” John said, lifting the teapot from its place at the center of the table. “Her name is Sameen.”
Jagati waited for John to finish pouring out before asking, “Just Sameen?”
He set the pot down, picked up his mug. “That’s the name she gave me, yes,” he said, drinking.
Jagati’s eyes narrowed as she turned the fork around to take a bite, at which point she seemed to actually see the kale, and instead let the clump fall back to the plate, where it landed with an unappetizing splat.
Eitan looked up hopefully, so she pushed the plate to her left. “It’s all yours,” she said, then shook her head over the Fujian’s non-discriminatory appetite before returning her attention to John. “So let me get this straight—a woman you’ve never met hired us for a retrieval, supplied all the details about the location of the item, up to the hide aboard the shadow traders’ ‘ship, but not her surname, or what the item is, how many shadow traders would be involved, or how desperate they’d be to keep it.”
John sipped his tea. “That about sums it up, yes.”
She slumped back in her chair. “And you were satisfied with that?”
“I wouldn’t say satisfied, precisely, but—”
“Because generally, when we take a client, we get a few more details.”
“And how has that been working for us?” He thumped his mug onto the table. “A year’s worth of jobs, and we’re barely able to keep the Errant aloft, much less earn enough to feed the crew.”
Both glanced at Eitan, who was just finishing up John’s plate and preparing to move on to Jagati’s.
“Still,” she began, turning back to him.
“We were going to lose the ‘ship,” he cut her off then continued as Jagati and Eitan—who at that last statement did look up—stared. “The Errant was going to be impounded by the Nikean Transport Authority and held for auction unless we paid off our quarterly freight levy. And perhaps we might have managed the levy if we hadn’t already used up the profits from Raul Nyevsky’s hemp shipment on a month’s moorage in Stolichnaya during that last winter storm, or had to give up a part of the profit from Noam Carrera’s leather shipment because of the bolts we lost while fighting off those pirates. And should we talk about the fine for Shaori Yu’s contraband hives?”
“I might live a full and happy life never talking about those hives,” Eitan put in, as it had been he and Rory who’d been tasked with smoking the swarming beasts back into submission.
“Could have been worse,” Jagati said, raising her own mug. “Could have been spiders.”
Eitan’s head tilted. “Who in their right mind would be shipping contraband spiders?”
“My point,” John cut in before an entomological debate ensued, “is the bees and the fines and the storms and the pirates all happened, and in every one of those jobs we had those few more details.” He glanced at Jagati. “More, if Eitan got as close to Nyevsky’s brother as I think he did.”
“Brother and sister,” Eitan said with a smile.
Jagati’s glare turned his way. “Seriously?”
“A very warm family,” he said with a shrug. “And Stolichnayan winters are very cold.”
John’s eye started to twitch. “I’m simply saying we knew every one of those clients quite well, and still we suffered a number of setbacks. And those setbacks led to us being unable to pay the Nikean levies, which led to me standing in front of the docking offices arguing with the NTA official when Sameen stepped in and offered to settle our debt as down payment for this job.”
“And you said yes?” Jagati asked, sitting up and leaning forward to rest her crossed arms on the table. “Just like that? Without telling m— Consulting with the rest of us?”
“Yes,” he said. “Just like that.”
“Why?” Eitan asked.
“Because it was say yes or forfeit the Errant,” John said, his voice tight with anger. Not at them, but at himself, for having failed. “And because when a woman wearing a coat that cost as much as our combined quarterly salaries in the Corps appeared like honey from the Keepers with a generous offer and stingy single name, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to take them both.”
“A woman like that,” Eitan offered, “could likely afford better.”
“I’ve no doubt she could,” John agreed. “As I have no doubt she knew that in hiring me she was hiring someone too desperate to ask questions. And she was right,” he admitted. “Because I did not ask a single one, and it nearly got us killed. So,” he drained the bitter dregs from his mug and set it back down, “if either of you are rethinking my position as captain of the Errant, suffice it to say I won’t hold it against you.”
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