Rory didn’t slow his pace until, five flights and half a ‘ship’s length later, he reached the rear of the Errant’s bridge. There he paused long enough to spy Eitan Fehr’s silhouette at the helm, pushing the airship’s engines to their limits.
Against the blazing blue of the winter sky, Eitan’s head shifted from the radar console and back to the wide forward window, doubtless scanning the surrounding skies for signs of pursuit. As Rory’s eyes adjusted to the brighter light of the bridge, he saw his crewmate’s shirt had a rent in the left sleeve and his hair, a mass of black he most often wore in a tail, hung loose to his shoulders.
Could be worse.
Likely they were worse for the shadow traders who’d taken the Errant, of whom Rory had seen no sign.
He took another moment to slow his breath and check for bodies. On finding none, he tried to be relieved, but there was the niggling worry of where Tariq’s men had ended up.
To distract himself from that concern, Rory turned his attention to seeking any damage to the bridge.
Given the Errant’s colorful history, most observers would find themselves pressed to identify any fresh scarring.
Rory wasn’t most, and easily picked out a fresh gash alongside the navigator’s table to port, a new ding in the elevation relay’s brass surround, and a burn scar in a starboard girder.
“I apologize for the mess,” Eitan called over his shoulder, as if reading Rory’s mind—a feat usually requiring physical contact.
“’Tis nae so bad,” Rory replied with a shrug. Still, his fingers brushed over the blackened girder on his way to the helm, where he stopped behind the empty copilot’s chair. “I’m to thank you for the save,” he said. “So—thanks for the save.”
Eitan’s response was a crooked half-nod, which showed a hint of bruise above the neatly trimmed beard.
Rory wasn’t fluent in Eitan’s nods, but this one came off like a you’re welcome, so he turned his attention to the control panel. “Port aft engine is running a mite hot.” He nodded to the engine’s output indicator, mid-console.
Eitan’s head dipped again. “I noticed, but we would probably like a few hundred more kilometers between ourselves and the shadow traders before we drop speed, if you think she’ll do?”
Rory considered the question. If Errant had been built in the colonies, he’d have already shut down that engine. But Errant was of Midasian make, and her liquid-aluminum batteries were far less volatile than the crystal cells which powered the vast majority of Colonial ‘ships.
The flip side of that quarter star meant that finding replacement parts proved a continual trial, and the reason the port aft engine was running a mite hot.
“She’ll do better if you bump up the output in the other three,” he decided.
Eitan made the necessary adjustments while Rory glanced over the pressure gauges arrayed along the forward panel, above the ballast controls. “Cells eighteen and twenty-three are low,” he noted.
“Possibly the electric storm caused some damage?” Eitan suggested while he nudged the elevation levers set in the deck between the two seats back with his left elbow to increase their ascent. His right hand remained on the yoke of the steering column, holding their course steady as they rose.
Rory took a moment to appreciate the ease with which the other man worked Errant’s myriad controls. There was an instinctive grace to Eitan’s movements that echoed his skills in close-quarters combat—and really, what had happened to Tariq’s men?
Rory glanced down at the other man. “So, how did you manage it, anyway?”
Rory’s eyebrow arched. “Playing daft buggers, are we?”
“Fine.” Rory raised his hands in surrender. “How did you retake the ‘ship?”
“I was in the training room when the shadow traders boarded, so I took the aft ladderwell to the bact-tank and stayed there until the appropriate time came to attack.”
“And I’ll grant that’s impressive,” Rory said, “but there were three shadow traders still aboard when I was hauled away, all armed to the teeth.”
“Four,” Eitan corrected.
“Four,” Rory echoed.
Eitan’s glance slid sideways. “Do you truly wish to know?”
“No,” Rory said after a moment’s consideration, “I don’t imagine I do.”
Eitan nodded, toggled the engines back to a less strenuous output with his left forearm, then elbowed elevation levers forward, leveling the ‘ship. “Were you planning to see about the pressure in cells eighteen and twenty-three?”
“Yes,” Rory said, pulling his eyes up and away from Eitan’s maneuvers. “Right. Carry on, then, and I’ll just—do that.” Feeling the blithering idiot, he turned to leave the bridge. “Except,” he stopped halfway to the door and turned back, “I can’t help noticing you’ve lost your prosthetic.” He didn’t add the “again,” but he thought it.
“I did not lose it.” Eitan glanced down at the space where the hook had been buckled on his left arm, then back to the window. “I know precisely where it is.”
Rory’s mind juggled the idea of Eitan and four shadow traders, all armed to the teeth, who were no longer aboard the ‘ship. “I don’t want to know that either, do I?”
“I am certain you don’t.”
Rory sighed. “Aye, well, I’ll get to work on a replacement. Would you be wanting to go back to the prongs, then?”
“Whatever suits,” Eitan replied. “I have no preference.”
Of course you don’t, Rory thought, because you’ll just lose that one as well.
While Eitan never spoke of it, Rory understood his crewmate hated the prosthetics. Hook, clip, prongs—it didn’t matter what Rory came up with—Eitan would use the thing for a time, and then it would go missing.
He should stop trying, except that went against Rory’s native urge to fix things and, as far as Errant’s mechanicals were concerned, he felt he managed quite well.
People, however, were a knottier matter, with Eitan one of the knottiest individuals Rory knew, save one other. And since he could do naught about the pride of Jinna Pride, he continued to make new prosthetics for Eitan.
For the nonce, however, he’d a ‘ship to keep aloft so, on leaving the bridge, he made his way to the midship envelope hatch.
The envelope could also be accessed from the aft ladderwell Eitan had used to hide from Tariq’s men, and which opened onto each of the ‘ship’s six decks.
He’d reason to hope the cells dropping pressure meant leaks in the cells themselves, as those could be repaired from within, sparing him the need to harness himself to a line and patch the rigid allusteel envelope from the outside.
With this optimistic thought, Rory donned one of the breathers left hanging next to the starboard ladder before climbing up to crank open the locking wheel.
Pushing open the hatch, he was glad of the breather, as on the instant he felt the cold touch of anterrium frosting over his exposed skin.
He climbed quickly into the envelope, dropped the hatch closed behind him, zipped up his jacket, and pulled on the insulated gloves he kept tucked through his belt.
He now stood in the small space between the outward curve of the starboard frame and the anterrium tank which rose up from the center of the envelope’s base.
To Rory, it was like standing at the bottom of a cavern, or the inside of a massive hive. Vast and chill, the vaulting space, with its three tiers of gas cells and interconnecting catwalks, left him feeling both awed and insignificant.
A job to care for, but at less than a third the size of both the Kodiak and the York, well within Rory’s abilities to maintain, with the occasional help from John and less occasionally Eitan and—if desperate—from Jagati.
He looked down through the grating at his feet, where dozens of pipes sprouted from the central tank and climbed, like organized vines, up the frame’s interior. Thinner shoots split off from these vines to feed anterrium into each individual cell.
It was the tank Rory addressed first, double-checking the gauges set into the container to confirm the readings he’d seen on the bridge. Once he had, he twisted closed the valves which supplied the two compromised cells, then hefted the patch kit from its niche under the grated decking.
This would be the third time he’d patched up number twenty-three, and the second for eighteen. He’d best check on six, eight, and eleven while he was up here, as all three had suffered during the rammy with the pirates last August, just before Eitan joined the crew.
Perhaps, once they’d received their payout for this job, he could squidge enough of the ready out of John to replace some of the more decrepit cells altogether.
That hopeful thought—along with the focus required to size, cut, and affix patches in the numbing cold of escaped anterrium—kept Rory’s mind occupied enough that he came up with only two new prosthetic designs, and Jinna invaded his thoughts no more than six times.
Seven at most.
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