There was a longer, more thoughtful pause, in which Eitan and Jagati shared a look, then they both turned back to him.
“I hope you’re not expecting me to take the job,” she said, literally waving the concept aside. “I hated the idea before and, hearing what you’ve had to deal with, the levies, the admins, the well-dressed women?” she shuddered. “Thanks but no thanks.”
John looked at Eitan.
“As much as I enjoy a well-dressed woman, my skills are more confrontational,” the other man said.
“Perhaps Rory?” John suggested. All three gave that a thought.
John himself considered. “Perhaps not.”
“So we’re agreed,” Jagati said, slumping back in the chair. “You’re stuck with being the captain.”
“Ah, well, if you say so.”
“I do,” she said, giving a vigorous nod.
“Though perhaps,” Eitan ventured, “once we receive the payment for this venture, we should take a more formal approach to managing our capital. Create accounts for the business and the crew—even make a few investments.” When he noticed the others staring, he shrugged. “I read economics for two terms.”
Jagati eyed him. “Of course you did.”
“Did you happen to read engineering whilst you were at it?”
All four turned to where Rory stood in the galley’s port doorway, the much-disputed box under one arm.
“Rory.” John rose from the table. “Did you crack the combination?”
“I did,” the response was short, but still nowhere near as irritable as when John had last spoken to him, half an hour since.
“And?” Jagati asked, also rising. “What is it? Art? Jewelry? A shoe? One of those fart-sounding things?”
“I think that was a kazoo,” John murmured.
“Whatever.” She waved him off, though at the time she had been unreasonably obsessed with the item. It had been one of their first retrievals, undertaken on behalf of a Dolian risto with a fondness for Earth instruments. “C’mon,” she prompted Rory, “what is it?”
“That’s what I’m trying to say. I’ve no idea what it is. Here, see for yourselves.” He strode to the table and John hastily shoved the teapot and mugs aside to make room for the case, which, as advertised, didn’t have a mark on it.
“Pretty,” Jagati observed with a glance at John.
Rory, however, didn’t appear interested in compliments on his handiwork. Instead he focused on the case itself, now sitting on the cleared space between John and Jagati. He angled the box so Eitan, on the opposite side of the round table, could see as well, then grasped the case’s two front corners and lifted the lid open in a manner that came off as more dare than flourish.
“So.” He stood back, shoved his fists in his trouser pockets, and glared at everyone. “That’s it.”
The other three looked inside the box. And kept looking.
“Okay, so—not a kazoo,” Jagati said. “Unless they come in box shape?”
“Box-shaped with keys on,” John said, angling his head to get a better look. On the whole, the object wasn’t large, around twenty centimeters long and fourteen wide, and set in a nest of cotton. Given the size of the case, he figured it to be no more than three centimeters deep. “Numbered keys,” he added, nodding at the columns of black and silver keys set into the black allusteel casing. They only ran from 0 to 9, but others, these black and copper and bearing various mathematical signs, filled the two rows across the top and the rightmost column.
More numbers were engraved on what looked to be a long row of spinning drums, visible through a slat above the topmost row of symbols. A toggle on one side indicated the thing was powered. By crystal, aluminum, or solar cells, John couldn’t determine.
“See what I mean?” Rory leaned over the table. “I’ve never seen the like.”
“I have,” Eitan said, speaking for the first time since Rory had entered the room.
“Is it some kind of new teleph machine?” Jagati reached for the object.
“Wait.” John placed a cautioning hand on her wrist. “Is it a weapon?” he asked Eitan. “Some sort of explosive?”
“Should we contact your friend?” Jagati turned to Rory. “Jinna was demolitions in the Corps, right?”
“Was,” Rory agreed. “But as she’s over five months along, I’d prefer not to expose her to a potential boomer.”
“You need not contact your friend,” Eitan said. “It is not an explosive, though some might argue it is a weapon of sorts.”
“Of what sort?” John asked.
“I believe that is a piece of ancient Earth technology.”
“Really?” Rory asked, hands coming out of his pockets to lie flat on the table as he leaned in closer. “Brilliant!”
“There is no ancient Earth technology on Fortune.” Jagati dismissed the concept with a wave.
“Even if there were, this device is of recent manufacture,” John offered.
“And of Colonial make,” Rory added, straightening. “This toggle, these keys,” he pointed to the parts in question, “all out of the Macintosh catalogue, and the case is Tenjin-quality allusteel.”
“I grant you, the device itself is new, but the design is ancient.” Eitan’s left arm jerked up in acceptance and dismissal at once. “I have seen diagrams of machines similar to this and read papers on how they were used.” His eyes moved from Rory to Jagati and landed, finally, on John. “I know what this is.”
“All right,” John said, though, as he met Eitan’s gaze, he felt a chill skittering up his spine. “What is it?”
“That,” Eitan said, “is a calculator.”
At the same time the Errant crew learned what was hidden in the lockbox, Tariq El-Karim entered the bridge of the Al-Jinn.
“Any news?” he asked, pulling off thick leather gloves worn while assisting with a tangled mooring line.
Except for the gloves and his boots, the rough garb of the desert had been replaced by clothing more appropriate to the city: a white collarless shirt, gray trousers, gray-and-silver vest, all under an oilskin topper, the latter a guard against Nike’s default climate.
“Nothing from Sameen.” Ysabel rose from the captain’s chair atop the command dais. “But Phillips made contact,” she added, referring to the docking official Tariq kept in bribes.
“And?” he asked, his boots on the deck softening to a whisper as he joined her on the carpeted dais.
“You were right about Pitte’s destination,” she told him. “The Errant called in a request for docking several hours ago.”
That he was correct came as no surprise, but the Errant’s timing did, as the Al-Jinn had only dropped anchor an hour ago. “They made better time than I expected,” he said, slapping the gloves in one hand.
“With a three-hour lead,” Ysabel pointed out.
“In an inferior ‘ship.”
“Mmm,” was Ysabel’s comment, before continuing. “Philips understands our situation. He told them there are no slips available, but that fiction won’t hold once he goes off-shift.”
“As long as we are docked before them,” he said, looking to the airship’s forward windows, beyond which could be seen the vast expanse of Nike, a circular maze of mixed stone and greenery, rising before the liquid slate of the Oracle Ocean.
And before the city the sprawling hive of Nike’s airfield, bustling with aircraft and the aeronauts who manned them.
The Al-Jinn would be docked in the hour, cleared through customs in three. He watched a barge ponderously descend to a riverside slip and considered the timing. “Deraun,” he said as he turned to the radio station, “open a channel to Phillips. Tell him we will need to know the Errant’s slip assignment at least an hour before they do.” He turned back to Ysabel. “That will give your team time to get into position.”
“Position? To do what?”
“To put Pitte and his crew under surveillance.”
At that her eyebrow rose in question. “You don’t mean to board her outright?”
“As much as I would enjoy it, I have not purchased enough good will for Nikean law to overlook a boarding. Best to follow them. If they have the cargo, do what you must to retrieve it without bringing the coppers down on our heads.”
Ysabel nodded her understanding and turned to depart. Before she stepped off the dais, however, she looked back to ask, “And what will you be doing? While we attend to Pitte’s crew?”
He turned away, his eyes focused on the growing expanse of Nike in the forward window. “I will be going home.”