An hour after setting down in Nike, Rory went looking for Eitan.
He found him in the training room.
Like all the common rooms, the Errant’s weapons and training area was located on the third deck, which meant one could get in one’s exercise in the training room, then brew a cuppa in the galley amidship and take it to the forward lounge to enjoy the view, the victrola, or a book from the well-stocked shelves. And should one suffer an injury in training, food poisoning in the galley, or a paper cut in the lounge, one could recover in the sickbay, located aft the training room.
It also meant that all four rooms still shared the eau de burned aurochs remaining from the recent meal, making Rory not the least sorry to have missed out on dinner as he stopped in the training room’s starboard door, where he stood watching Eitan shift through a form older than Fortune, his movements smooth and his balance steady.
To Rory, the apparent serenity of the kata contrasted sharply with the expression on Eitan’s face, never mind the flower of death the Fujian’s swirling blade described around him.
Then Eitan flung himself into a spinning-kicking-slashing affair, and so effective was Eitan’s targeting, that Rory found himself ducking the fictitious head that would have come flying his way after a particularly nasty neck-level sweep.
Even as Rory straightened, Eitan came to a standstill, swinging the blade in salute to whichever absent master had taught him. He’d doffed his shirt for the exercise, and so was bare to the waist and gleaming with sweat.
Rory could almost hear the rush of sighs loosed throughout the city from the near occasion of Fehr.
“Did you require something?” Eitan asked, crossing to the weapons rack.
Which led Rory to wonder if ristos were born with that polite-but-distant tone, or did they take classes in it?
“As a matter of fact, no,” said Rory. As he waited, Eitan slid the blade into its place before catching up a towel draped over the rack’s bar. “But I did come up with something you might require.” He held up what looked to be a few bits of leather, metal, and buckles. “I got to tinkering between goes at the lockbox,” he explained.
Eitan’s distant expression took another few steps back. “Rory…”
Rory held up his free hand to stave off judgment. “It’s not what you’d be expecting,” he said, and, since the sword was safely in its rack, stepped into the room and held the device up for Eitan to see.
Eitan stared, silent a moment. “Is that—”
“A dagger you see before you?”
Eitan looked up.
“Sorry, hard to resist that one.”
“Perhaps you should have.”
“Ha,” Rory said. “But I was thinking you might be wanting it on our little venture. Just in case, mind.”
“Hmm.” Eitan’s eyes dropped again to the weapon. “It is a serviceable blade, but I expect I will be carrying a shock stick, less likely to offend the local police.”
“Aye, and so you should, but look here.” Rory held the contraption flat to the inside of his own left arm, bare beneath the rolled-up shirt sleeves. “It stays snug under your sleeve,” he explained, fastening the buckles, “and if all goes well, no one will ever know you’re carrying.”
“The sheath is backwards,” Eitan pointed out. “I would be unable to draw the blade.”
“A little patience, if you don’t mind.” Rory pulled the last tongue though the last buckle. “Now, supposing you’re in a tussle, aye? And you’ve need of a secondary weapon…”
“Have I lost my primary weapon?” Eitan asked, continuing to towel himself off.
“What?” Rory looked up. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
“In which case, the point is moot, as I am likely dead.”
That Rory’s glare was predictable did not make it less enjoyable to Eitan.
“Just give this a watch, will you?”
Eitan, careful not to smile, nodded.
“Right, so there you are.” Rory assumed a position that, viewed sideways by a myopic drunk, might resemble a fighting stance. “Enemies from all sides and you with naught left to fight with.”
“Naught beyond my arms, my legs, my elbows, my head, my—”
“My turn,” Rory cut in. “Any road, you’re surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned… The usual,” he said with a quirk of a grin. “But, just as the drones think they’ll take you down easy, you give your left arm a twist, thusly, and—” Rory suited action to word and the blade he’d set in a spring-loaded sheath shot out past his open palm. “Presto,” he said with a flourish that almost resulted in him slicing his own palm open.
Eitan remained where he was, towel forgotten in his hand, staring.
Rory straightened and held out his arm. “Of course, on you there’s nae a hand to get in the way. And, ah, unlike a prosthetic which is always there, wi’ this you’ve only to press this,” he set his right palm against a raised plate at the top of the sheath and the dagger retracted. “Neat as you please.”
Still Eitan remained silent.
“Right,” Rory said, visibly deflating, “well, t’was only a thought, mind. If you’ve no use for it…”
“Use?” Eitan’s left arm rose in a gesture that remembered a hand being there. “Rory.” He flipped the towel around his neck and approached the mechanic to grip him by the shoulder. “This?” He looked down at the spring-loaded blade which, as promised, was nothing like the false appendages Rory had crafted to date. “This, I like.”
Later, while the suns dipped westward, Jagati and Eitan stood at the top of the gangplank, watching Rory depart the Errant, the occasional shaft of sunslight gilding his light brown hair or refracting off the brass buckles of his pack.
Jagati had to admit she found his performance convincing. His body language played as furtive enough to appear suspicious without tipping into pantomime. He was so committed to the act she almost hoped they were being watched.
Rory passed into the next docking ring and at her side Eitan stepped out to follow the mechanic.
Which was when Jagati discovered he hadn’t been kidding about the Off switch, because it didn’t matter how hard she tried—and she tried—her attention slid away from Eitan the way a magnet’s north pole slid off the field created by another magnet’s north pole.
Even though she knew he was right there in front of her, the best she could manage was a glimpse of the dark brown coat or a flash of the silver hoop in his ear before her attention was pushed away, towards the heavy freighter one slip over, or up to a flock of pelicans swooping overhead or back down to that fraying lace in her boot she kept meaning to replace.
The entire experience left her unbalanced and edgy and more than happy to return to the Errant. Once inside, she climbed up to the bridge. Here she found John seated in the copilot’s seat, the ‘ship’s teleph handset in his left hand while he rubbed the knuckle of his right thumb over his brow, as he did when tense or irritated. Or both.
“Yes,” he said into the handset as she continued onto the bridge, “understood.”
She looked the question at him and he dropped the knuckling hand as he mouthed Sameen at her before continuing, “I’ll be there by twenty-three thirty hours.” He paused, as if interrupted. “Ah, forgive me,” his gaze dropped to the deck, then rose to the bridge’s sloped ceiling. “that would be half-nine.”
Jagati’s lips curled in a sneer. Apparently Sameen wasn’t familiar with the military’s twenty-eight-hour clock.
While John’s expression grew more pained, her sneer thinned to a frown at the uncomfortable idea that her instinctive mistrust of the client might have something to do with said client being a woman. An idea she immediately dismissed as ridiculous, and more than likely an offshoot of her reaction to her recent view of John in a towel.
Not that there was anything odd about her reaction, especially given how long it had been since she’d caught sight of, much less engaged in recreational activities with, a like-minded male. So long, in fact, her memory started playing back the view of the captain in his shower, with particular focus on his…
Nope. Not going there.
Cutting the image off at its knees, she crossed to the starboard locker to pull out the reason she’d come to the bridge in the first place—her long-range crysto-plas repeater rifle. It was the favored weapon of the Air Corps jump teams, and the one with which she was most familiar.
“Of course,” John was saying, still engaged in the teleph conversation, then paused for whatever Sameen had to say next. “Ah,” he glanced up to where Jagati had propped herself against the nav table to check the rifle’s sights. “Yes, well… I, ah, I look forward to it. Yes. Thank you. Yes. Yes… Goodbye.”
On that last he quickly hung the handset in its bulkhead cradle, then continued to eye it, as if afraid it would bite.
Innnnteresting, she thought. “What’s the plan?” she asked, flicking the fire control from single bolt to burst and back, taking a visceral pleasure in the heavy kchink of the metal as it shifted beneath her fingers.
“She gave me an address.” He held up a torn-off triangle of graphing paper bearing the imprint of his handwriting, which, like everything else about the man, was immaculate. “She, ahh— She specified I should come alone.”
“Not to worry. I can cover you from a distance,” she said as she double-checked the cell’s charge and was pleased to see it over the 80% mark. “Unless she tries to get you naked. That happens, you’re on your own.”
“I hardly think she’d be interested in— It’s more likely she doesn’t want to risk any interference in the retrieval of her property.”
“Who says it can’t be both?” Satisfied with the rifle’s readiness, Jagati hefted the gun and looked up to see John exiting the bridge, hands raised in surrender as he muttered something unintelligible.
“What?” she called after him. “Was it something I said?”
While John ducked Jagati’s teasing, Rory settled in one of mag-tram’s inward-facing benches and opened the recently purchased newspaper. He’d purchased it less to catch up on the local doings than to have something to hide behind, lest his gaze track back to the bearded man who’d followed him from midway across the airfield and onto the tram.
He was a burly fellow who’d emerged from one of the cargo domes scattered throughout the airfield. Rory doubted he’d have given the man a second thought, were it not for the device-which-must-not-be-named.
But, since the device-which-must-not-be-named was involved, Rory did give the man a second thought, and a third when, after he paused at the gate’s kiosk to purchase the Suns Times, the bearded fellow dropped down to tie his shoe.
A move which would have proven more convincing had he not been wearing laceless boots.
A hum and a bump caused Rory to glance up from an advert for Tenjin Research to see the tram’s operator had activated the drive.
As the conveyance slid along the magnetic rails, it took all Rory’s will to keep himself from looking to see if his ginger shadow was watching him, from where he sat at the rear of the trolley.
He had also to keep himself from seeking Eitan, whom he knew to be following, even though he couldn’t see past the sensitive’s psionic fog.
At one point he felt sure he’d spied the hem of Eitan’s long coat, but in retrospect, it could as easily have been a leaf skittering over the tarmac, or the shadow of one of the riverside wind harvesters, or a loose bit of canvas atop a palette, fluttering in the evening breeze as he passed.
Once things settled, Rory meant to sit his crewmate down and get a full primer on just what the sensitive meant by an Off switch. For now, however, he just hoped an armed and dangerous Eitan really was following the man who was following him.
At that thought he smiled because, even without knowing all the hows and wherefores, Eitan’s trick would make a fine story to tell Jinna, once this charade played out.
For now, he gave the paper a rattle and turned his attention to the doings in Nike. Mostly so he’d not focus on the man with the red beard, or his nigh invisible crewmate, or the device-which-must-not-be-named.
Then he let out a soft snort of a laugh, thinking he should have picked up one of the dreadfuls at the airfield kiosk for, sure as bees belonged, he was living out the plot of one this very minute.