By the time Jinna had gathered up a few belongings from her nearby flat, and Gideon had “arranged” transportation—he informed Mia they would absolutely be returning the sassy little Edsel Comet, as soon as they had Jinna settled—it was well after fourteen midnight, and the main airfield gates were locked.
Luckily, Mia was able to lead them to a smaller gate, the one used by the field and ‘ship crews.
It was, in fact, being used as they approached, by two somewhat worse-for-wear aeronauts.
“All I’m saying is, life on airships’d be a deal simpler, if we had us some matter transporters, like they had back inna day.”
“You’re sauced.” His friend tried to slap the speaker’s arm, and hit the air instead, proving the sauce had not been selective in its targets. “Ain’t so nuch thing as matter tranposters. Never ‘ave been.”
As one, Mia, Jinna, and Gideon—carrying Jinna’s carryall—slowed their pace, the better to avoid being brought into the drunken debate.
“A’course there were,” drunk number one insisted, weaving to a halt. “S’in all’a records ain’t it?”
“Them’s ficshun, Johnny,” drunk number two opined drunkenly. “If all’a books our aassestors brought wiff’em was a record, we’d be arse to elbows in fairies, an kaiju, an’ coffee.”
“Oh my,” Gideon whispered.
Jinna elbowed him.
“I don’ know how you can close your mind so, Ken.” Drunk number one shook his head—and almost face planted because of it.
“An I don’ know how you can hear past the wind whislin’ through that empty skull, John.”
At this point, the pair turned off towards the passenger liners, and though Gideon feared they were going to come to blows (or, given the level of sobriety, near misses), at least they’d be doing it far, far from him.
“I never did believe in coffee,” Mia was saying as they wove their way through the anchored cargo vessels.
“I’ve always wanted to,” Gideon said.
“There it is.” Jinna pointed and all three froze, staring at the uniqueness that was the Errant.
“It flies?” Mia looked from the ship, to Jinna, and back again.
“If it does, I bet they serve coffee, too,” Gideon said.
They did not serve coffee, but Rory assured them that the Errant did indeed fly. “She’s nae much to look at, but she’s a rare lass,” he said.
The visitors looked up at the much-patched hard-shell of the airship’s dirigible, then back to Rory, currently perched atop the port aft engine pod, with his torch in one hand and spanner in the other.
“I can believe that,” Gideon said.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Mia offered.
“What’s a bad idea?” Rory asked. “And for that matter, what are you doing out and about, and it so late?”
“It’s nothing,” Jinna began.
“Jinna’s in trouble,” Mia said at the same time.
“Trouble?” Rory was already halfway down the pod’s ladder as he asked, “Of what sort?”
And whatever Gideon might have thought of the Errant—or her captain—the gaze the young man turned on Jinna was reassuringly serious.
“You’re dead pale,” Rory observed before Jinna could protest again. “You’ll come inside and have some tea while you tell us what’s what.” Already he was leading the small party around to the rear gangplank.
“Rory,” a male voice emerged from the gondola as they approached, “have you figured out what’s going on with the port engine yet?”
“And here’s John,” Rory said, patting Jinna on the shoulder. “I’m still sussing it out, Captain, but there’s another problem we’ve to see to.”
“Problem?” the man echoed. “I’m not sure we can afford any more problems with this job… ah, pardon me, Jinna.” He paused halfway down the gangplank as he noticed the young woman Rory was shepherding aboard. “I didn’t realize Rory had company.” He glanced up, saw Mia and Gideon, and dropped his chin in a nod of greeting before returning his attention to the mechanic.
Gideon, watching, found himself annoyed by Pitte’s lack of distinction.
There was nothing about him to suggest a man complicit in the institutionalized murder of half a company. He looked, in fact, like what he was supposed to be—an ordinary freighter captain, dressed in shirtsleeves and faded trousers held up by equally faded suspenders.
Physically he was almost as tall as Gideon, and about the same age, though his hair was more fair, his eyes a warmer shade of blue, and his physique more solid than Gideon’s rangy frame.
Then again, Pitte hadn’t spent half a dozen years in the stir, harvesting crystal, and fighting for every spoonful of Morton kibble.
“So, what kind of problem are we talking about?” Pitte was asking, coming the rest of the way down to the tarmac.
“Jinna’s got some sort of trouble,” Rory explained, then looked back at the others. “This is John Pitte, captain of the Errant. John, this is Jinna’s friend, Mia.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Pitte smiled down at the dodger, who grinned back.
“Sorry,” Rory said, looking at Gideon, “but I never caught your name.”
“I didn’t throw it,” was Gideon’s short reply.
Pitte’s eyes turned to him, and then he took a step closer as he asked, “Don’t I know you?”
Gideon’s chin dipped once in acknowledgment, but he said nothing. He did see, however, the moment the starbuck dropped, because Pitte’s face went white and blank, as if he’d seen a ghost.
In a way, Gideon supposed, he had.
“Colonel Quinn,” Pitte said, the name falling hollowly between the two men.
Gideon’s chin dipped again. “I’m surprised you remember. We never met. Formally.”
“No,” Pitte said, his face still unreadable, until he looked past Gideon’s face, and his expression became actively puzzled. “You kept the coat?”
Gideon nodded to Pitte’s civilian garb. “You didn’t.”
“No,” Pitte said again. “It didn’t feel right…”
Which was all John Pitte had time to say, because that was when Gideon’s already thin hold on control snapped and, with a rushing shove, he slammed Pitte back, headfirst into the Errant’s hull, where he then grabbed the stunned captain by the throat with both hands and began to squeeze.
Behind his eyelids, he read the names etched in the wall of his cell… Eitan Fehr… Esther Carver… Bertie Walsingham…
Around him, Gideon heard voices rising in shock, hands tugging at him in protest.
But there was no protest in Pitte’s eyes.
There, all Gideon saw was acceptance, and, he thought, relief.
It was as if Pitte had been waiting for this moment.
Waiting for judgment.
Pitte’s silent affirmation of his own guilt served only to make Gideon more angry. “Six soldiers,” he said as he’d wanted to say so often over the years. “Six of my company died on your order.”
“N-Not mine,” Pitte’s voice creaked out as an arm, presumably Rory’s, snaked around Gideon’s own throat in an attempt to pull him back.
But Gideon wasn’t letting go. Six dead soldiers lent him more than enough strength to hold on. “Liar.”
“No,” Pitte managed to force out. “My fault, but not… mine.”
Which made squat all sense to Gideon.
Distantly, he was aware of Rory’s arm falling away. Going for the cops, maybe?
Didn’t matter. He’d be too late.
“Maybe,” he said to Pitte, “you’ll get to explain it to them.”
“In fact,” a new voice—its cultured Fujian accent the twin to the dead Eitan Fehr’s—cut into Gideon’s awareness, “he has already explained it to me. Repeatedly.”
Gideon shook his head. He was just hearing things, that was all; memories surfacing in the face of Fehr’s killer.
“Let him go,” another voice snapped from behind, this one female, supremely angry, and not known to Gideon.
He might have ignored the order, but it was accompanied by the press of something cold, metallic, and humming at the base of his skull.
“Let him go,” she said again, “or I will be decorating the hull with your brains.”
“Gideon,” Mia’s voice, strangely thick, followed the threat.
“I won’t bother to count to three,” the woman said.
From atop the gondola, Elvis let out a low croon.
But it was Pitte’s expression—one that had no name, but which Gideon had seen in countless mirrors since that day in Nasa— that had his fingers loosening, and his hands falling to his sides.
Pitte, no longer held up by Gideon’s murderous fury, slumped down onto a supporting shoulder.
A shoulder that belonged to Eitan Fehr.
Which was impossible, because Eitan Fehr was dead.
Gideon’s hand half rose, then fell again.
He was just turning to Mia, who was, unbelievably, crying, when he felt a sharp thunk at the back of his head.
And then he was slumping too, all the way to the wet tarmac, where he heard Pitte’s voice, much the worse for wear, berating the woman.
“Jagati, that was hardly necessary.”
“Were you without oxygen long enough to suffer brain damage?” the woman asked. “Because that was absolutely necessary.”
To Gideon’s mind, Jagati probably had the right of it, though he was too far down the long slide to unconsciousness to say so.
“You have such a way with people, Quinn,” Dani said, leaning over him on the wet tarmac.
Her dark hair was loose this time, spilling down in a curtain, closing him off from everyone else.
“It’s a skill,” Gideon told her. He reached out to touch that hair, the midnight rain of it, and saw his hand was still shaking from the effort of nearly murdering a man.
She jerked her head back, taking her hair with it. At her side he could see Pitte, still supported by the surprisingly not-dead Fehr.
Standing next to both men was a tall, statuesque woman with skin like umber, and hair as dark as Dani’s, but tumbling in a riot of curls while Dani’s fell straight as the rain currently falling on the airfield.
The woman’s hand was gripped around her gun, and she was glaring at Pitte, which told Gideon this was probably the Jagati who’d knocked him senseless.
To either side, Mia and Elvis, and Jinna and Rory, were looking on in various states of shock and anger.
None of them were moving.
“What?” he asked, looking back to see Dani watching him. “What’s wrong?”
“You,” she told him. “This,” she gestured at the tableaux surrounding them. “What you are letting yourself become? What you are letting Jessup Rand turn you into?”
“Rand’s not turning me into anything,” he said, then watched her tilt her head in that particular way she had, and cursed. “Fine, what’s he turning me into, then?”
“Him,” she said simply.
“Which would be bad,” Gideon said, amazed at the coldness in his own voice, “if being Rand weren’t working out so well for him.”
And that, he thought, as she shook her head and faded into the rain, was exactly the wrong thing to say.