The first thing that struck Gideon was the water.
Not just that of the Avon River, flowing sluggishly a hundred meters from where Gideon stood transfixed on the Ramushku’s gangplank, but also the droplets of condensation sliding from the gondola to patter onto the tarmac, or hiss to vapor on the cooling engine pods.
There was even a mist rising from the river as the overcast sky darkened to twilight.
Moisture-heavy air filled his lungs and tickled his nose with a bright, mossy odor, before escaping again in the warm fog of his own breath.
Gideon wasn’t a believer in the Old Earth concept of Heaven, but if such a place did exist, he wouldn’t argue if it felt just like this.
Less enthralled with the climate was Elvis.
The draco crouched in his habitual perch on Gideon’s right shoulder, tongue darting and triangular head tilting almost upside-down as he tried to make sense of an atmosphere utterly unlike the desert of his hatching.
“You’ll get used to it,” Gideon murmured, still entranced by a landscape that didn’t burn his eyes.
He could stand here forever, soaking in the damp.
“Anytime, mate,” a gruff voice growled from behind.
Or he could get out of the way, which he did, before the crewman behind him escalated from gruff to surly.
Once off the gangplank, he stepped away from the barge, slinging the pack containing all his worldly belongings over his left shoulder. “Well, Elvis,” he said to the draco, “now what?”
Elvis gave a deep croon.
“Yeah, me neither.”
At a loss, Gideon remained still, scratching his draco’s head and staring out towards the city.
After a time, he became aware of a number of airfield crew pausing in their labors to study him. He assumed it was Elvis holding their attention.
Dracos, or, domesticated dracos, were a rarity.
While his speculation was not entirely wrong, it was also not entirely correct.
After all, this was the Nike airfield, a major hub for air trade in the United Colonies (and beyond, with the recent Peace Accords), and source of a thousand odd stories of what might come off a docking airship.
Rumors of anything from contraband crystal to smuggled antiquities to stowaways (or rather, the remains of stowaways) in the bilge-keel circulated from ‘ship to ground and back to ‘ship on a daily basis.
All of which meant that, as interesting as a tame draco might be, it was the man standing on the tarmac—tall and lean and solitary—who drew the queen’s share of the attention.
And then there were his eyes.
Wolf eyes, one passing rigger thought whimsically, until those very eyes passed over hers, leaving her a great deal less whimsical and a great deal more sad.
Gideon, however, missed the rigger’s empathetic response. All he’d seen was a woman walking away, and so turned from the reminder of departures past to hear a handful of the Ramushku’s crew swearing they smelled rain in the air.
Gideon hadn’t experienced a drop of rain in over six years. At the mere thought, he felt himself go weak at the knees.
Maybe there would be a downpour.
Maybe he could just lie down on the open airfield and bask in the sheer wetness of it all.
Or maybe that would be weird.
Probably it would.
He sighed and closed his eyes, trying to imagine how it would feel to be utterly drenched.
“It had to be Nike.”
He opened them again to see Horatio Alva, theoretically reformed grifter and fellow parolee, joining him.
“All the cities in all the colonies and they decide to dump us in bleedin’ Nike.”
Gideon looked at Nike’s skyline, then at the native Nikean. “Not anxious to see the hometown?”
“More it ain’t anxious to see me.” Horatio glowered at the nearby city, but, as the airfield’s lights began shimmering to life, Gideon thought he spied a flash of quiet yearning in the other man’s eyes.
“Bugger this,” Horatio said, ignorant of Gideon’s speculations. “I’m for the river. I’ll lay odds there’s at least one steamer shipping out tonight.” He glanced at Gideon. “You want to come along? You got skills, and like as not one of them boats will be heading Tesla way.”
“Thanks,” Gideon said, “but I doubt Tesla would be too happy to see me, either.”
Besides, if Gideon read Satsuke’s murky intentions correctly, Gideon had business in Nike.
“You can never find Earth, again,” Horatio quoted, still staring at the city.
“Who’d want to?”
Horatio’s response was a bark of a laugh. “True enough,” he said as he shouldered his own recently restored possessions and turned for the riverside wharf. “Good luck to ya’, Quinn.”
Because luck and I are on such good terms, Gideon thought. “You too,” he said, but Horatio was already moving.
In moments, he was little more than one shadow amidst many, and soon lost to sight.
Gideon turned his back on the river to find himself alone at the base of the gangplank.
From here, he could see the Ramushku’s crew disappearing into the airfield’s control center. Of the other ex-convicts returning to society, there was no sign.
Maybe, like Horatio, they’d all decided to take ship elsewhere. Or maybe they were simply anxious to see something of the world before their recidivistic nature got them pulled out of it again.
Either way, they’d all moved on, while Gideon remained standing in the middle of the airfield with no clear plan of action.
Possibly his uncertainty came from the fact that, for the past six years, his life had belonged to the corrections officers of Morton, and before that to the Corps, and before that to Fagin Martine. And while Martine was a thief-maker, the Corps military, and Morton a prison, each possessed their own rigid structure, and crystal-sharp discipline.
Now, here he was, and no one was telling him where to be, when to sleep, what to eat, or who to kill, and maybe, just maybe, it was more independence than he could handle.
Except, if he were being honest with himself, he’d never been the most compliant dodger in Martine’s hive, and his Corps personnel file held half again as many reprimands as citations—and he didn’t want to count how many hours’ punishment labor he’d pulled in Morton.
And no one had ordered him to love Dani…or to send her away.
For her own good, his ever-so-helpful self reminded him.
Gideon, tired of himself already, shook free of the introspective chatter with a hiss, which Elvis echoed, and focused on the dark, wet (Wet!) airfield.
Unless he really wanted to bunk on the tarmac (and he was pretty sure someone in the dock master’s office would take issue with that), he needed to get going.
Which naturally brought him back around to the question of where to go.
All he knew of Nike was that it housed the Tactical Division, and that Dani enjoyed the Shakespeare Circus.
She’d promised to take him if they could get a long enough furlough. But that was long ago, and they’d never quite made it to the Circus.
In the now, all he had was himself, and Elvis, and the few starbucks handed to each of the parolees as they debarked.
Oh, and questions. He had plenty of questions.
Those questions had him (for about the ten gazillionth time since the Ramushku raised anchor) chewing over Satsuke’s intentions in setting him free.
Not only free, but free in the same city that housed Jessup Rand, a man Gideon was not supposed to get within spitting distance of.
Then, as he had the other ten gazillion times, Gideon reminded himself that Satsuke’s intentions were none of his concern.
For now, for the first time in a very long time, his intentions—and the actions which followed—were the only ones that mattered.
All he needed to do was define said intentions, at the same time trying to adjust to living in a world with no guards, no Corps, no prospects, and no woman.
Even as he thought this last, a woman stepped out from behind a stack of crates bearing the logo of Tenjin R&D.
“Gideon Quinn,” the woman said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”