Once Tiago departed, John, Jagati, and Rory turned their attention to cleaning up the mess.
Eitan, at Tiago’s orders, remained in the medbay, resting.
Since John wanted to be aloft by sunsrise, the three able-bodied crew focused their efforts on the bridge, envelope, and engines. Everything else, John said, could wait.
He’d just finished inspecting the envelope, and a long, tedious exercise it was. After finding it empty and untouched, save for the tool kit pulled from its niche, he descended through the midship hatch, dropping to the deck in time to spy Jagati exiting the bridge, one leg of the nav table in her hand. Now they were no longer in the city, she’d retrieved her gunbelt and shooter, a sure sign she expected further trouble.
“I’m going to hurt her,” she said, brandishing the table leg in his direction. “A lot.”
“Mary,” the name eked out between clenched teeth.
“What makes you so sure it was Mary who wrecked the table?”
“I’m not. But it’s her crew. Plus,” she said as she tossed the table leg into the rubbish bin she’d hauled up for the purpose, “it’ll make me feel better.”
Since he couldn’t argue with that, he opted to change the subject. “The envelope’s clear,” he told her. “I figured I’d check on Rory’s progress with the engine pod. He said there’s something squidgy in the battery connection.”
“Of course he did.” She rolled her eyes and turned back to the bridge. “Hey,” she paused, looked back, “have you cleared the vent systems yet?”
“After I talk to Rory.” He waved and added the vents to his mental list as he descended the central ladderwell. On reaching the third deck, he spied Eitan retrieving what looked to be every book from the lounge from the corridor deck. Some of the larger books—the technical manuals and histories— appeared to have torn pages. Likely Galileo’s people hoped to find the calculator hidden inside one of them, like the Maguffin in a penny dreadful.
Eitan had just tucked one such tome in the crook of his left arm.
“I thought you were supposed to be resting,” John told him.
“And I thought my mother lived in Tendo,” Eitan replied, straightening…slowly.
Eitan sighed. “The pain is gone,” he said. “All that remains is—I suppose you might call it a kind of distance—as if I were walking in a dream. But I can walk. And carry.” He nodded towards the books in his arm then met John’s concerned gaze. “Believe me, I have been through worse.”
John believed him, though he wished he didn’t. “Just don’t overdo.”
“Yes, amah,” came Eitan’s irreverent response, bringing a reluctant smile to John’s lips as he continued down the companionway. On the way down, he ran over the checklist of tasks remaining before they could safely lift off. Envelope and cells, check, bridge, mostly check, bilges and three out of four engines, check...
He paused, mid-ladder. Had there been something else? Something Jagati had suggested? He frowned, trying to recall, then the chill night air slithered up the ladder to remind him of the engines, and Rory, and he continued on his way.
Dropping to the cargo bay, he found Nike’s dank had moved in and set up housekeeping.
Since his jacket hung on a hook two decks up, he settled for rolling down his shirtsleeves on the way to the gangplank.
“Rory,” he called, approaching the open door. “Have you figured out what’s going on with that engine yet?”
“I’m still sussing it out, Captain,” Rory called back, “but there’s another problem we’ve to see to.”
“Problem?” John resisted the urge to put a finger to the right eye before it commenced to twitch—again. “I’m not sure we can afford any more problems with this job… ah,” he said, pausing halfway down the ramp as he saw Rory was not alone. “Pardon me, Jinna.” He assayed a smile for the young woman standing uncertainly on the tarmac. “I didn’t realize Rory had company.” Rather a lot of company, he noted, as, lurking behind Jinna he spied a girl of indeterminate age, her bedewed black curls springing madly over a deep fawn complexion and wide dark eyes, wearing a patchwork collection of clothing that identified her as one of the local dodgers.
He also noted a bruise marring the girl’s jaw, but his experience with dodgers in general and Rory in particular taught him not to comment, so he let his gaze move on to the last of their visitors.
Just past the girl, outside the Errant’s running lights, stood another man, clad in the distinctive coat of the Corps’ Infantry.
Habit had him nodding a greeting before continuing down to join his mechanic on the tarmac. “So, what kind of problem are we talking about?”
“Jinna’s got some sort of trouble,” Rory said, glancing over his shoulder. “This is John Pitte, captain of the Errant,” he told the others. “John, this is Jinna’s friend, Mia.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” John’s easy smile warmed further at the girl’s answering grin.
“Sorry,” Rory apologized as he looked at the other man, “but I never caught your name.”
“I didn’t throw it,” came the short reply.
At the sound of the stranger’s voice, something twisted deep inside John—something that forced him to take another step closer to the soldier, the better to see the man inside the coat.
He was tall, yes, even had a few centimeters on John, and spare with it, and with the deeply tanned features of one who’d spent long hours under the suns. Like John, his eyes were blue, though the newcomer’s were of a lighter, colder hue.
But wasn’t the color of the stranger’s eyes that had the chill running up John’s spine. It was their expression, which, along with the voice, snicked into place in John’s memory.
…Quinn, here, ident number Echo-seven-niner-four-delta-zero-zero-four, requesting you a) look up the term ‘classified’ and b) put Captain Pitte on the line, over…
He blinked, shutting out the past, the better to focus on the man before him. “Colonel Quinn,” he uttered the name and, though he wished he could offer more, no one had ever come up with a suitable apology for institutionalized murder.
“I’m surprised you remember,” the man, who was indeed Quinn, said. “We never met. Formally.”
“No,” John said, finding it difficult to sift through the static of memory to hold on to the present. As if gripping a jump line, his eyes locked on the scarred leather of Quinn’s pauldron, and doing so heard himself asking, “You kept the coat?”
Quinn’s chin jerked in John’s direction. “You didn’t.”
“No,” John said again. “It didn’t feel right…”
Which was all he had time to say because that was when whatever slim thread of control had been containing Quinn snapped, and in the space of a heartbeat John was propelled back, so fast and hard that his feet left the tarmac and the next thing he felt was the sick thud of his own head striking one of the gondola’s ribs and the next thing after that were the shockwaves of pain reverberating through his skull, echoing back to the day Quinn’s hatred was born.