“If I don’t get back in the air soon, I might go crazy,” Captain Flynn said as he hoisted a box of rations and carried them up the manta’s gantry. “I ain’t meant to be land locked, and definitely not in some stinking desert.”
The docking bay was a hive of activity. Vardy had announced that they were ready, and that come night fall they would set off on the first phase of the plan. Captain Flynn and Sahara’s group had walked their way back over the Rose Flats to recover their ships and bring them in–discreetly–to be suitably prepped.
There was nothing discreet about getting Lee’s Manta here however. That had required nearly a full hour of arguing with Xana to remotely fly the ship to their position, and then even more arguing to get the damned ship to open seen as how Lee hadn’t been in touch with it for several days and it was seriously miffed. But, at last, things were going smoothly.
“Reckon we’ll stop anywhere with hot running water?” Sahara asked of Jack as they carried a large chest of weapons onto Jack and Lee’s ship. Off of Jack’s look, Sahara responded, “What? I like having a bath. It relaxes me.”
Jack’s eyebrows met. “What about the water vapour?”
“What do you mean? What water vapour?”
“From the bath. Doesn’t it fog up your eye?”
She glared at him with her good eye before pulling on the box of weapons and prompting Jack to keep walking lest he stumble and fall.
“I want food,” said Ursera, stroking his large belly. He hoisted a rectangular crate up into the air and carried it toward Captain Flynn’s manta as though it were made of straw.
“I hear you, big guy,” Captain Flynn said, angling a finger at Ursera. Then the good captain looked around, his scar-pocked face twitching. “Where’s your pup, Jack?”
Jack, at the threshold of his manta now and looking over their provisions, paused from his work to glance down at Flynn. “He’s his own person.”
“You already ruined things between you?”
Jack let his gaze slide away. “Sahara, your shields working all right?”
“We’re fully juiced and loaded. Ready for the off.”
“Come on, man,” Captain Flynn said, stepping closer to Jack. “I just meant, shouldn’t he be here, helping load the ships?”
“He’s with Vardy,” Jack replied. “She wanted to look at his augments, make sure he was ready.”
Lee lay on the metal table in front of Vardy as the cybernetic woman’s fingers worked over his body, examining his various bits of tech. At first, lying shirtless on a table suspended in the air so that she could reach him without having to move too far from her main terminals had been an unsettling experience, but now he found he was starting to relax into it. When she propped him up and her fingers danced like a spider’s legs over the nape of his neck, that feeling of ease did dwindle slightly.
“You’ve had no data ghosting since?” she asked.
“None. My interfaces are taking longer to connect, and the headaches are still pretty bad, but–”
“You could turn that off you know? Pain receptors are easily blocked for people like us.”
Vardy looked into Lee’s eyes. It was the first time he’d been able to properly study her. Her sallow skin was lumpy with several augments poking out from her sub-dermal layers. Around her jaw were vicious looking clamps which branched up to ports at her temples. Her crown was a hairpiece of sorts, luxurious cords of hair snaking toward hair from every angle through which central data lines fed directly into her major neural interface at the base of her neck.
“I like to feel,” Lee said after a while. “It keeps me from forgetting.”
Vardy’s fingers withdrew. “Memory is overrated, but… I respect your choice.”
Her thrown like chair creaked and she ascended even as Lee’s examination table drifted down toward the ground. He sat up. “We’re done?”
She did not answer, at least not directly. Instead, she turned away from him as several of her monitors congregated to catch her gaze. They flickered and then, as one, they displayed a map of the region surrounding the rose flats. She watched the screen intently. Lit by the sepia of the screens, she had a glow to her metallic features.
“My brother was also an augmenter,” she said.
“Right.” When Lee reached the ground he picked up his shirt and began to button it up.
“He wasn’t as skilled at coding as me, but his augments were the very best around. I wish he could have worked on my physiology, but he died before most of my augments were added.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lee said. “My Mum and Dad are both gone too.”
Vardy zeroed in on the map. Several lights had appeared on the screen, and then a thick cloud of engine signatures flashed up behind them in vivid red.
“My brother’s work, it always had a particular self-preserving code, so you would know he was the one who had engineered something.”
“What are those lights? Vardy, they look like they’re–”
A proximity alarm blared into life.
Vardy turned to him. It was hard to tell, but as the woman descended, her great metal chair craning her down, her eyes lit a verdant green, she seemed to be smiling. “It’s time for you to go, Lee. But one thing: When all else seems lost remember to go back to your roots.” Her hand reached out for Lee’s and, though Lee couldn’t exactly explain why, he felt compelled to try to take it. He didn’t get that far, though. As he reached up a spark shot from Vardy’s index finger and collided with his own.
Lee reeled back as new understanding flooded him. She’d created a data bridge, and now he could see exactly what she had orchestrated. “No, you didn’t have to.” His eyes grew wide in fear. “Vardy…”
“It is okay. This is the work we have to do. We would never have been able to infiltrate the smog otherwise. We needed a distraction.” She surged back up into the air, her many computer panels circling her as she began to code. “Now run!”
“What the hell is that siren?” Captain Flynn said.
“Nothing good,” Jack offered.
The double doors to the hanger craned open and in ran Lee panting like he’d hot-footed it all the way from Vardy’s main chamber. “The Einz have found us. We have to get out of here.”
“But, what about Vardy?” Sahara chipped in.
“No time to explain, everyone to their mantas, keep constant communication. Go, go!”
Lee followed Jack up the ramp and into their vehicle. As the cool air of the unit hit, Lee suppressed a chill. A massive explosion sounded above them. “She’s started the sequence already, we don’t have long. Sahara, do you hear me?” Lee said as he walked through into the cockpit.
“Who died and made you boss?” Sahara’s salty tones came back.
“Take that as a yes,” Jack said. He sat at the secondary terminal and ran his fingers over the diagnostics. “Engines ready when you are.”
“Ship?” Lee called.
“Yes Lee,” the ship’s voice responded.
“Incoming interface. I have some instructions for you.” Lee picked up the main data cable and held it to the back of his neck. A few seconds, and then came the bite, but the awful stabbing pain barely registered as he offered up all the information that the ship would need.
“Understood. Transmitting to our poorer, and more shabby sister ship.”
“Hey!” came Sahara’s voice again. “Leave Luncinda alone. She’s been with me a lot of years.”
“And it shows,” Lee’s Manta commented.
Another explosion. The three ships turned in wreathes of blue light, and began roving forward through the long cavern toward the hanger entrance.
“We gotta move, we gotta move!” Captain Flynn’s panicked voice sounded down the speakers. “Why aren’t the doors opening?”
“I’m on it!” Lee held out his hands and from his wrists there snaked data branches that locked to the computer terminals before him and began to communicate.
“What you doing Lee?” Jack leaned over Lee’s chair.
“He is accessing my central processing unit and taking over my executive functions,” the ship answered.
“Lee, did the brain bleed not teach you?” Jack was almost thrown as part of the cavern collapsed in front of them. Evasive maneuvers kept them alive, but shaken.
“This is different. The ship can maintain my health while I do this. Trust me.”
“The doors, Lee, the doors!”
“Almost…almost…ah!” Lee shouted as he gained control of the ship’s transmission units. The code was sent and immediately the hanger doors rumbled and began to part, with only seconds to spare. “Engage thrusters on my mark.”
“Check your long range sensors. The ships aren’t quite close enough yet.”
“Close enough for what?”
“Three, two, one. Now! Go, go, go!” The roar of their engines was lost as a huge explosion rocked the entire chamber, bringing down the rest of the roof behind them along with a cloud of fire that chased them out into the air and the thick smoke beyond.
“Hold tight, this is going to be rough.”
Their ships gyrated as cloud after cloud of debris rose up beneath them, and arrows of fire shot through the air with sonic menace.
“Vardy had an auto-destruct sequence throughout the caverns. She used the central computer like a bomb and detonated the Rose Flats to give us our way out,” Lee said, and though his voice was as dispassionate as the computer’s own, tears ran down his face.
He felt Jack’s touch on the back of his neck again, and it was welcome.
“She knew we’d never get out of there without cover,” Sahara said. For once, she sounded almost fragile.
“Let’s not waste it,” Jack said. “She’s taken out the lead ships. The others don’t seem to be following.
“An EM filter,” Lee commented. “Now we use the smoke to get us up into the smog bank and then navigate blind to the rendezvous point.”
“Rendezvous?” Captain Flynn’s voice crackled. “She never said anything to us about meeting anyone up there. Who is there whose can help us?”
“Family,” Jack said, and that was all.