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John woke not so much with a start as with a slow, unenthusiastic sally.
As consciousness poked him back to reality, he did a quick assessment and found one head, aching; four limbs, tingling (though his right arm seemed twisted in an odd fashion as well); one mouth, dry and cottony; and his breathing labored. All signs every aeronaut recognized as hypoxia, often the result of flying at high altitudes without pressurization.
Something that should not have happened.
Not on the Errant.
Not with his crew.
As he came more fully awake, he noticed a relative silence that told him the engines had been shut down, but the gentle sway of the deck said they were still aloft, but not in flight, so most likely at high anchor.
Another poke had him hissing, and one eye peeled open as he came to realize it wasn’t just consciousness poking him, but…
”Jagati,” he said, peering lopsidedly at his first mate. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“I wouldn’t have to poke you if you woke up when I said your name the last thirty-two times,” Jagati grunted.
He began to sit up then froze as he realized his right arm hung over his head, secured by a shackle, the chain of which ran through one of the D-rings used to secure cargo nets.
On the other end of the chain, a second shackle held Jagati’s left wrist.
“Ah,” he said, meeting her gaze before peering through the bay. “Where,” he asked as a cold ball formed in his gut, “is everyone else?”
“Haven’t seen Rory or Jinna, but Eitan’s over there.” She jerked her chin aft, past John’s shoulder, and he turned to see the soldier slumped against the pallet holding the emergency water rations. His right arm hung suspended by a length of rope tied to the bar that held the water casks in place on the pallet. His shirt draped loosely over the stump of his left arm, resting on his lap.
“Shouldn’t he be awake by now?” John asked.
“He may be out a while longer,” said a deep, unfamiliar voice bearing the lilt of Harp.
Both John and Jagati turned to the forward section of the bay to see a pale, dark-haired man descending the companionway. “I perhaps misjudged the amount of morph in his wine,” the not-quite-a-stranger continued speaking while he stepped under one of the overhead lamps.
On spying the newcomer, John’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t know where, but he felt certain he’d seen this man before. “You drugged him,” he said, struggling to his feet and rubbing his right arm, now thoroughly numb.
“Why?” Jagati asked, rising as well and shaking her no-doubt-numb left hand.
“It seemed the best way to avoid being murdered on sight,” the man explained.
“Sensible,” John admitted.
“And where is Jinna?” Jagati pressed. “And Rory?”
“The little mother is safe. As is your mechan—”
“The docking office,” John blurted as he matched the stranger’s face to a memory. “That’s where I’ve seen you before.”
The dark eyes moved back to his. “Very good.”
“What?” Jagati looked from John to their captor and back. “What?” she said again.
“The day Sameen—or rather, Mary—hired us,” John said as he glanced in her direction, then back to the other man, “you were there in the Nike docking offices.” Now he recalled, he could see it clearly. A tearful, somberly dressed Mary exiting the room and stumbling against John. “You were standing near the control-tower door,” he said, meeting the dark, assessing gaze. “You were watching her…us.”
The dark head tilted in a crooked nod. “Also observant,” he said. “Impressive, given your state of mind at the time.”
“Your worries over the Errant’s finances, the creeping sense of powerlessness—not unlike the powerlessness you experienced when General Rand took over the Kodiak—and your fear of failing her—”
“You Sensed my thoughts,” John cut him off.
His response was another nod.
“Which would make you Galileo,” John said. “The man Eitan told us about.”
“And a sensitive,” Jagati said, the term barely able to eke through the teeth she’d clenched tight. “And Eitan’s ex-whatever.”
“A great deal more than whatever.” Galileo showed the first signs of emotion before returning his attention to John. “And Sensing your thoughts took no great effort. Your anxiety radiated like a fallen ‘ship’s distress beacon. Loudly enough I knew you’d respond when Mary provided a solution.”
Which explained why, out of all the aeronauts crowding the docking office, Mary had “confided” in John.
It also, he surmised, explained why he’d accepted her offer without hesitation. “You didn’t just read my thoughts, did you?” he asked Galileo.
“I may have exerted a little pressure,” Galileo admitted. “But as you’ll have seen, our Mary has skills of her own.”
“She does, does she?”
Jagati’s comment elicited a smile from Galileo while John felt his face grow warm.
Likely because Jagati’s eyes were burning two holes in it. He shook his head. “Whatever Mary’s skills, and however much or little influence you exerted, you violated my privacy. You broke the law,” he added.
“I’ve broken several.” Galileo’s apparent amiability went the way of Earth. “And am likely to break more, unless you return my property.”
“Yours?” Jagati asked. “Like, ‘I found it, so it’s mine,’ or like ‘I made it’?”
“Of course he made it,” Eitan’s voice, thick with Morph, had the other three turning their heads to see him pulling himself to standing. Once on his feet, he pressed the stump of his left arm against his temple, as if it ached.
“Well, that changes everything,” Jagati said then, at John’s confused look, shrugged. “If he found or stole the thing, it’s about the money. Creating it, it’s about more than a handful starbucks.”
“Actually,” Galileo said, “it is about the money. Mostly.”
“Well, that’s a swarming waste,” she huffed.
“I wasn’t aware you had technocrist leanings,” John said.
“I don’t, but he’s got the brains to build something incredible—”
“Not to mention illegal,” John threw in.
“You just mentioned it,” Eitan commented.
“But,” Jagati’s glare spared no one as she continued, “he’s focused on the starbucks? It’s tired, old, Earthbound thinking.”
“Funny,” Galileo said, “as your captain here seems to have said the same thing to you, regarding your opinion of sensitives.”
John, who had been remembering that conversation, tried to avoid Jagati’s glare.
“In this case, she is correct,” Eitan offered, studying Galileo. “You’ve always been brilliant, Leo, but you never allowed ethics to stand in the way of your desires.”
“Ethics put no food on the table.” Galileo dismissed the insult with the flick of a hand. “Not that you would know.” He glanced at Eitan. “But it’s fine to see you’ve found a crew as self-righteous as yourself.”
“No one’s accused us of being self-righteous before now,” Jagati observed.
“Actually, I have been—” John began.
“Doesn’t count if I said it.”
“Ah. Sorry. Carry on.”
She carried on. “And given I joined up for the three squares, like most every Fordian in the Corps, you can take your poor pitiful-me defense and shove it up your—”
“Jagati can be somewhat frank in her opinions,” Eitan cut in, sending her a glare of warning John knew she’d shrug off, so he added a hand on her shoulder, which she also shrugged off, but she did settle back.
Galileo’s lip curled in a sneer. “Good luck to you with that one,” he said to John.
This, John expected, would have set Jagati off again, but for the sudden spate of cursing and the thud of boots on the ladder.
John straightened at the sound of an agitated Rory, followed soon thereafter by Rory himself, tumbling down the last few steps and onto the deck.
“How are you?”
“Are you all right?”
The three Errant crewmembers stretched to the limit of their bindings in a futile attempt to aid their mechanic as he rolled onto his back and blinked up into the rafters.
“Ow,” he said distinctly, then glared at the individual following him down the ladder. “There was no need t’push.”
“On the contrary,” the woman said, stepping down onto the deck, sword in hand, “it saved me at least another ten steps of listening to your complaints.”
John looked up, then stared. “Ysabel?”