By the time Jagati reached the bridge, Rory was nowhere to be seen, but Eitan, left arm around the yoke, was tapping the pressure gauges.
“Problem?” she asked, crossing to the nav table.
“Gas cells three through nine show half-capacity,” he told her, not looking up.
She considered that, and the fact the ship hadn’t dropped a few thousand feet. “Probably the gauges are acting up.”
“Most like,” he agreed, giving up on the tapping and giving the panel a concerted thud.
“Better?” she asked.
“Averaging ninety-three percent,” he said, relaxing back into the pilot’s seat. “But once we moor, we should ask Rory to check the gauges—after he gets the aft port engine running soundly, and cells eighteen and twenty-three patched.”
“Always something,” Jagati replied, pulling out the appropriate charts while he again took hold of the wheel with his right hand.
As she worked, Eitan avoided thinking about the hand that wasn’t there, or the false prop Rory would soon build to fill the empty space.
Rory, Eitan soon learned, had difficulty accepting that some things, once lost, could never be replaced.
“By the way, thanks for the save,” Jagati said after a time, echoing Rory’s earlier statement as she headed for navigation.
He replied with the same crooked nod he’d offered Rory.
“Lost another one?” she asked, her voice muffled by the pencil stuck in her teeth.
He didn’t have to ask what she meant. “Not lost so much as sacrificed.” He twisted in his seat and met her gaze, warrior to warrior, and saw she understood.
But then, she always had.
Seven months prior to the showdown in Dyar’s Canyon, Jagati walked into Tesla in search of a drink.
The suns had tipped into late afternoon, casting the spires of new construction into stark shadow, so it felt like walking into a forest of barren trees rather than a city in recovery from a long and devastating war.
And the fact she’d even entertained such a metaphor confirmed to Jagati her need for that drink.
Yeah, five. Five might about wash her brain free of the hours spent slogging through the Errant’s books, followed by an argument with the airfield’s purser regarding their mooring fee, leaving Jagati with a headache the size of a general’s ego and a bad taste in her mouth.
She’d taken powder for the headache, and would kill the bad taste with whatever was on offer at Musk’s.
Located within stumbling distance of Tesla’s airfield, Musk’s also served as a meeting place for those seeking berths or cargo space—legitimate or otherwise—on an airship, or captains looking to hire on crew—legitimate or otherwise—for same.
In fact, she expected to find John at the tavern. Having won the quarter star flip that left Jagati with the books, he’d gone ahead to pick up the payment from their last client, seek out the next job, and, she hoped, look for another able hand for the crew.
Sure, she, John, and Rory could manage the day-to-day, but their last job had included a tussle with pirates, and while they’d successfully fought off the scavengers, the anterrium cells took damage, and John had ended up with a dislocated shoulder.
So yeah, a crew member who could hold their own in a fight was high on her Landing Day wish list.
But first, the drink.
She shoved through the tavern’s swinging doors and took a reviving breath of booze, leather, and sweat. Then she spotted the glass flying in her direction, shattering to musical pieces against the doorsill.
One brow raised, she turned left and eased up to Musk’s wall-length bar where she found a lonely bottle of whiskey. Since no one seemed to be missing it, she decided to give it a home in her belly, and settled back to watch the show.
The focus of the action was a single man standing over the wreckage of a table at the pub’s center, currently fending off two attackers at once.
He was on the taller side of medium height, which would put him eye to eye with her. His skin was shades lighter than her own deep umber, while his wavy, shoulder-length hair and beard were blacker. To match his eyes, she thought with appreciation. Lean, muscled arms were well displayed by the sleeveless tunic of faded red, belted over a pair of patched trousers in deep green, tucked into what looked like Adidan infantry boots.
Over her first sip from the purloined bottle, she watched him block an incoming punch with his right hand while simultaneously slamming his left elbow into a second assailant’s throat, while also giving the first attacker’s trapped hand a vicious twist.
The stranger moved so smoothly, it took several moments for Jagati to notice his left arm ended a few centimeters below the elbow.
Even as she registered the deficit, that same elbow rebounded from the now-choking assailant into a roundhouse to slam twisted-wrist guy in the temple and dropping him to the floor. Then he drew a sword of Fujian design and with an economy of motion Jagati approved, set the blade under the chin of the gasping throat-punch victim, who held up his own two hands and sidled back.
Dark, Broody, and Dangerous looked over the tavern. “Does anyone else care to interfere?”
No one did, and so he turned his attention downwards.
Jagati followed his gaze and picked out a pair of boots sticking out from beneath the broken bits of table.
A pair of boots she recognized—hard not to, when the left boot’s sole had been taped around the upper and the right boot was laced with shipping twine.
Dark, Broody, and Dangerous, meanwhile, kicked aside a bit of table and held the sword over the boots’ owner, his arm still in its sling but with a couple new bruises to keep those from the pirates company.
“Seriously?” she asked as two pairs of eyes, blue and black respectively, turned her way.
“Jagati,” John said, “you should—”
“Stay out of what is not your business,” Dark, Broody, and Dangerous cut in.
“My captain.” She pointed at John. “My business.”
The black eyes flashed. “Your captain is a murderer.”
She looked down at John. “Nasa?”
“So it seems.”
Dark, Broody, and Dangerous looked from her to John and back. “You know of Nasa?”
“And how many times have I told you,” she said to John, “to tell them you didn’t give the damn order?”
“Them?” DB&D asked. “Order?”
“And how many times have I told you,” John replied with that infuriating calm of his, “I didn’t stop it, either.”
“Excuse me?” DB&D held up his stump.
“No.” Jagati looked at John. “You didn’t stop Rand, but you did try. More than I did.”
“Rand?” DB&D’s eyes narrowed.
“It wasn’t your place,” John insisted. “Even if you’d had the chance, it wasn’t your place.”
“I was next in the chain of command.” She looked at DB&D. “Which I guess means you’ll have to kill me, too.”
The black eyes held hers for a moment before turning down towards John.
He swept the sword aside and crouched to place the stump of his arm at John’s throat, above his shirt collar.
In moments John’s expression changed from resignation to shock, from shock to grief and, finally, just before the bottle she’d forgotten was in her hand had the chance to fly, to sympathy.
The stump fell away.
DB&B rose and sheathed the sword with the ease of long practice. Then he held out his hand to John.
“It was five,” the stranger said to John. “There were five you failed to save.”
In the following silence, John took the offered hand and allowed DB&D to pull him to his feet.
Jagati realized she was holding the bottle upside-down—mostly because there was liquor dribbling on her boot—and lowered it. “I missed something.”
“Yes,” both men replied at once.
“I am a sensitive,” DB&B explained.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” she said over the internal shudder. “Because I guess checking first would have been too easy.”
“Jagati,” John murmured, his attention still on the stranger. “You say you were at the Nasa Escarpment.”
The dark head dipped once.
“As part of the Twelfth Company.”
Again, a single nod.
“You’d be Lieutenant Eitan Fehr.”
“That is who I was,” Eitan said. Then turned and walked out the door. He made it to the middle of the dust-ridden street before stopping.
Where, after all, did he have to go?
He was still considering the question when someone slammed into him from behind. Years in the cage had him spinning, prepared to defend, but instead found the woman—Jagati—stumbling backwards, until he caught her by the forearm and held her upright.
“Sorry,” she said, blowing a curl out of her face. “We didn’t want to lose you.” Then her expression changed, softened. “Except you’re already lost. Wait.” The softness faded. “Where did that come from?”
Eitan’s brow arched, at both the perspicacious statement and confusion after, but all he said was, “Forgive me.” He dropped his hand from her arm, then glanced at the leather of her jacket. “I seldom connect so clearly through fabric.”
“Not a problem.”
Her tone and the accompanying shrug told him it was very much a problem.
“I think it is,” he said. “It is my sorrow to have invaded your privacy.”
Again her expression shifted, this time to a scowl. “You didn’t have a problem invading the captain’s.”
“A unique circumstance, and one that saved his life.”
“Do you think I’d really have let you kill him?”
“I think you would have tried to stop me.” He waited for her to process the statement, and hoped she’d not decide to challenge it.
“Okay,” she said at last.
Believing the conversation over, he started to turn away.
Then she spoke again. “Do you want a job?”
He froze, turned back. “Do I— A what?”
“A job,” she clarified with obvious pleasure. “Work. Gainful employment. An occupation—”
“Hold, please.” He held up both hands—or one hand and one stump. “I know you know I know what a job is—”
“—I only wonder why you would offer one to me.”
“You’ve got some good moves.” She gestured towards the bar. “The kind we could use on our crew.”
He looked at her, saw she was serious. Something stirred to life in his chest.
But— “No,” he said, backing away. “Forgive me, but no.”
“Betsim,” she cursed, kicking a puff of dust up. “So much for Fate.”
Despite himself, both the curse and the comment tugged at him. “You appear too pragmatic to believe in the vagaries of Fate,” he observed, lifting his hand to brush that recalcitrant coil of hair from her cheek, enjoying the flash of irritation the act inspired.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…” she tossed out with a grin.
His eyebrow quirked. “Except we live on Fortune.”
Her eyebrow quirked back. “Smartass.”
At that he laughed, and then he stopped. How long had it been since he’d laughed aloud?
And why, he reminded himself, is that?
“I am sorry.” He shook his head. “It is not what Heaven or Earth or Fortune hold that is a concern, but what holds me.”
“And what is it that holds you?”
His eyes slid away to the South, towards Illyria, and back.
“Okay,” she said after a strained pause. “I’m guessing that after Nasa things got—difficult?”
His head dipped in a crooked nod.
“And some difficulties might be tough to come back from,” she offered.
Curious, he nodded again.
“The question is,” she continued, laying her hand on his arm, above the empty space, “do you want to let what happened back in the day define who you are now?”
His eyes shifted focus, as if adjusting from a distant view to the woman before him. “Supposing I say yes… What sort of job are you offering?”
“The same sort you did in there.” She jerked her head back towards the tavern. “Seriously, our crew could use a man with your skills. Preferably before Pitte gets himself killed.”
“So, are you and Pitte a—”
“What? Us? No. No…no. We’re just partners. And friends. And…partners. In business.”
“Interesting,” he said, his lips easing towards a smile that had once come easily. “In that case, perhaps I will join you. But understand, it may not work out.”
She returned his smile. “You keep telling yourself that.” She gave his arm a gentle squeeze and turned to the door of Musk’s as it opened and John Pitte emerged. “He’s in,” she said.
“Good,” Pitte said. “That’s good.” He turned to Eitan. “I wish we could offer more—for Nasa—and what came after.”
“It is well,” Eitan said. “I survived both Nasa and what came after, and,” he glanced again at Jagati, “perhaps none of us should allow what happened then define our choices now.”
On the Errant’s bridge, Jagati retrieved the compass and flipped on the nav table light. “You know,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “you could always tell Rory to stop making replacements.”
“I came to a similar conclusion,” Eitan admitted as she once again followed his thoughts. “But if I did, what would he do with his spare time?”