The clouds of smog outside looked like metal wool, thick and unforgiving. That was all the inhabitants of the three manta craft had seen for the past twenty-four hours, and now cabin fever had set in.
“She should have signalled by now,” Sahara said over the comms. “The plan’s a bust.”
“Sure is starting to look like we’ve been hung out to dry,” Captain Flynn said from the other craft.
“Trust me,” Jack replied. “She wouldn’t miss an opportunity like this.”
The comms were muffled. Jack looked to Lee who was staring back at him. “Are you okay? I know you’re relationship with her is–”
“Sorry to interrupt your inept romance, but I have detected engine signatures up ahead.”
“Einz?” Jack asked of the computer.
“One cruiser, the other signature is…”
“It’ll be an Angel.”
“Yes, you are correct.”
Lee reopened the comms. “You all tracking those?”
“Better late than dead,” Sahara said by way of answer.
“I am being hailed,” the ship said. “It is the Angel ship.”
“No, don’t take it,” Jack put in. “Send her this exact message: You are late. Take us to the docking station. Two of you will disembark. Two of us will do the same.”
“Message sent,” the computer said.
“Flynn, Sahara, you two hang back. If this goes south no need for us all to end up captured.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but without Lee there’s no plan at all,” said Captain Flynn. “Shouldn’t we be the ones to–”
“She won’t accept anyone but me or Lee now. Sending anyone else, that would piss her off.”
“Captain’s right,” Sahara said. “This is playing into her hands.”
“I have a response from the Angel ship,” the computer cut in. “These terms are acceptable, though she says she will be meeting you alone.”
“The ships’ signatures are altering. They are changing course.” Lee was tracking them as best he could but flying the manta with a constant stream of information running through his head was proving difficult in this smog. Even so, he was beginning to get a hang of it. “There weapons and their primary shields are all now offline. I think she wants us to know she’s serious.”
“It definitely looks that way,” Jack said.
They flew on.
With Trine beneath them and the Einz above, Lee felt almost like he was being crushed. There in the smog, with nothing but the data flooding his systems, he could sense everything and yet see nothing. It was almost maddening. Then something emerged from the murk. A series of huge stone maws that led up a pocked cliff faces.
“Lower exhaust tunnels,” Jack said over his shoulder. “Except for emergencies, they’re not used. Einz patrols will often will at the maintenance hatches and use the lifts up into the living quarters. Quicker than going above the smog and through all the checkpoints.”
“Surely the tunnels are guarded?”
“The Einz’s higher families also use these tunnels for…activities they’d rather not have everyone know about. Paying workers and guards to look the other way isn’t unusual.”
Lee tracked the smaller ship closely. Angel Class, with its thin and narrow body flairing into dorsal and fin thrusters and two large, sunlight grabbing tail sails at the rear. They were dull now, but Lee could guess that under the radiance of daylight they would look almost opulent. To be sure, this kind of craft wasn’t built for the smog, but it handled well and, as its docking clamps unfolded and connected, Lee was impressed by the ease with which the ship came to a rest. He suspected he wasn’t the only one neural interfacing with a ship.
“We can dock at the otherside, the gantry connects both. Look, there,” Jack said pointing. “Sahara, Flynn?”
“That’s Captain, you little shit. And yes. We got you on sensors. Constant lock. The other ship is hanging back just like we agreed.”
“First sign of trouble, let us know.”
“Okay,” Lee said, disconnecting his wrist augments. “Computer, I’m giving control back over to you.”
“How kind,” the computer’s voice retorted. “Docking now.” There was a screech and then a noticeable sideways drift as the craft locked into place. “Docking successful. All systems are nominal.”
“And the other ship’s?”
“I am having a hard time reading the second Einz vessel. Specifically, any life signs.”
Lee disengaged the primary neural link, hissing as the leads withdrew. “I put it down to the sensory interference from the smog.”
“My systems are calibrated to be able to detect life-signs regardless of severe atmospheric conditions. If you had taken the time to properly go through my instructional files, you would know that.”
“Don’t have time for bickering,” Jack put in.
“Sure. But, Sahara, Captain, you get all that?”
“Yes,” Sahara said.
“Sure did. Your sensors are better than ours but we’ll be on the lookout.”
“Okay,” Jack said. He held up an electro rifle and powered it on. The weapon’s charge barrel flashed electric blue. “Let’s do this.”
Fastidious white, from the sweep of her lacquered hair all the way down her tailored suit to the pointed heels on her feet. Even through the smog she was unmistakable. And unmistakably Jack’s.
“Hello, darling.” She reached forward and took Jack by the shoulders, planting a kiss on his either cheek. “You look tired. Have you not been sleeping?”
“This is Lee,” said Jack, ignoring the question.
Lee stepped forward. An intense wave of dislike coursed through him. “You hide your augments well,” he commented. He wanted her to know he knew she was altered. But, if it had caught her off-guard, she showed no sign.
“Thank you. I notice you don’t hide yours. But then, I suppose in the Latrine there’s no need to worry about what polite society thinks, is there?” she answered, still smiling. “Now, shall we get to the matter at hand.”
“You said you could get us a safehouse.”
“Yes. And I have. The Einz families aren’t monitoring the lower districts as heavily anymore. When you are going to burn everyone to death, there’s very little point.” She said it like it was simply a fact, no hint of emotion. “The old farmhouse on the west rim of Mitel. You remember it Jack. It’s where–”
“No,” Jack said. “I don’t.”
She considered Jack for a moment, and then her gaze ticked back to Lee. “There’s just one thing Lee, and I’m sure that a man of your talents can appreciate this.”
Lee’s augments flared into life. The ship’s computer’s voice echoed in his ear. The Einz cruiser is moving.
“What are you doing?” Lee asked of her. “Your augments are active. You’re…”
She stared back at him. “Why don’t you tell me.”
“Answer him!” Jack stared at her.
I am not reading life-signs on the ship because there aren’t any.
“It’s a decoy.”
“Like I said, there’s just one little catch. I haven’t got room for all of your friends,” the woman said. “Besides, I need some…insurance. So I thought I’d make alternative arrangements.”
“Sahara, Flynn, get out of here, now! She’s going to–”
A blinding rose light parted the clouds, and Lee almost stumbled back as it swept into him like a wave of burning acid. After long seconds, the light began to fade. It took longer for Lee’s vision to return to a state where, through spotty patches of darkness, he could see again.
There was only silence on the comms.
“Ma,” Jack said, catching her wrist. “What did you do?”