Sahara’s hand slapped down hard on the ship’s console as she hoisted herself up to standing. “What did that bitch do to me?”
“Shut the Trine up, you stupid computer, I know what she did. She paralyzed my ass and her flunkies came and took Lee and Jack. I could hear the entire fricking time. How long we been out?”
“The field emitted by the decoy ship has interrupted my internal chronometer but, based on auxilliary data, over six hours.”
“Shit,” Sahara said, rubbing at her forehead. She booted up her eye-drive and checked its target and locking systems. Thankfully, they weren’t wiped and didn’t appear to be altered in any way. “Must be a new type of neuro-EM field. Great. That’s all we need. You there Captain?”
“I think I’m leaking from every hole,” came back the Captain’s charming reply.
“You stay on your ship then, Cap,” Sahara said. She kicked a still groggy Ursera who was slumped in the passenger chair and only just coming round.
“No, we need to all get after them–”
“Respectfully, Cap, Ursera’s got that whole mutated bear-man thing going and I think my eye drive augments might have saved me from the worst of the hit. Makes more sense if we go and you and the team stay behind.”
“They’ll know our position,” Captain Flynn said mid-belch.
“Then why aren’t we in custody?” Ursera asked, standing up with a painful growl.
Sahara nodded. “She’s Jack’s ma. She knows that if we get caught we could implicate him. I reckon she’s not told anyone about us. She set this up so she could take him and Lee, maybe keep them under tabs until after all this is done. Which means that…for now at least…”
“We’re just Einz ships that broke down in the smog or are looking for an unlawful good time at the exhausts,” Captain Flynn finished. “What are you thinking?”
“You go back to the Undine offices and do as much as you can to keep us on track. Get the ships somewhere for when we need them, keep things smooth. Me and Ursera will go after Lee and Jack.”
“You think you can do it alone? After what Nargena just pulled?”
“Found time to catch her name, did you?” Sahara said. She almost smiled.
“It’s in the personnel files. I’m a good Captain. Look over everything thoroughly, including my recruits’ family history, you know?”
“Yeah, I bet. But no, I don’t expect to be able to beat her. She’s probably got guards over every inch of that sodding farm house who’ll be augmented to the nines. But here’s the thing: maybe we don’t need to beat her.”
“You serious?” the Captain laughed. “You, Sahara Devanche, are pitching that we should, what, try reasoning with her?”
Sahara rolled her eyes. “I don’t just shoot stuff. I’m clever.” In the silence that came after she glared at Ursera until he agreed with her.
“It’s a gamble, Sahara,” said the Captain.
“She’s Einz, sure, but Jack’s not. He must have some extended family down there. I mean, I don’t know but I think it’s the best we got. If we don’t get to the Smog Suppression System in time–”
“All right, all right, we’ve still got five days before they’ll load in the new commands and set this whole thing in motion. We still have time.” A long pause. She could practically hear Captain Flynn simultaneously trying to think while also trying not to wretch. “Fine, go. I’ll get myself together and then get back to Central. The rest of you…”
Sahara switched off the comms. She turned to Ursera who was trying to rub some life back into his tree trunk legs. “How are you with climbing?”
They’d been doing this for what felt like hours.
She was pleasantly surprised that Ursera was keeping a reasonable pace as they climbed their way to Central Undine. For a big man, a proficiency in climbing narrow ladders wasn’t guaranteed. It also wasn’t a given that the ladders would support his weight, but so far so good.
Sahara’s eye drive spun a warning pulse. “Something’s coming.”
“You know what I always tell you,” Ursera grumbled.
“I know, Pops. But I ain’t ever leaving you behind.”
The Hammerheads were…odd. Fetal tissue developed to the stage of limbs and gills and a basic if compact human infant shape, then augmented to have horrific eye stalks sticking out from either side of their heads on which were mounted rotating camera ports. Their fused legs wafted like a stumpy tail that would crack electric, and their underbellies, covered in magnetic field-balancing liquids, glistened with an odd, green enmity.
The Hammerhead descended from above in a buttery motion, then found a level. It’s mouth opened and a voice issued forth, articulated not by a voice box, tongue, or lips, but by digital speaker.
“What are you two doing in these tunnels?”
“Ship broke down, didn’t it? Could only get as high as the smog. That’s why I’ve been out there, what, three, four days?”
“Why not take the lift up?”
“She can’t if I’m travelling with her,” Ursera said.
The Hammerhead descended to look at him. “You are a mutate, First Order. You are under quarantine measures after every flight. You must report to Central Undine for processing.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do. But lifts only take us as far as the lower cities.”
The Hammerhead left Ursera and returned to Sahara’s level. “You will escort the mutate above ground through the first access point you come to. We will be watching for you to emerge.”
“You must report to the Undine Quarantine Office within 24 hours or you will be considered a keeper of a wild and dangerous mutate and punished for this violation.”
“Yeah, I know the drill.” Sahara had no intention of making such a trip, but it was important that they look like they were cooperating.
“You will also subject yourself to a full augment analysis to retrieve data from the past seven days. Will you comply?”
Sahara felt the weight of suspicion hit her. She shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Not like I’ve got any choice.”
“There is no choice. There is only duty.” The Hammerhead’s mouth closed and it slid through the air past Ursera and away into the dark beneath them.
“Always so charming,” Ursera said. “You know–”
“Is this going to be another ‘When I was human?” story?”
“Less of the cheek you,” Ursera chided, but playfully.
They continued climbing until they came to the access port proscribed to them. Sahara placed her hand on the circular door. It warmed to her touch.
“Hello traveler. State your designation.”
“Sahara Devanche, Einz Patrol Unit 7C, Captain Jeremiah Flynn’s Ward. Plus one mutate, First Order. Ursera Devanche.”
The door slid open and stark artificial lights of Central Undine’s main street stabbed at her eyes. People in Trine imagined that the Einz all lived above ground, looking up at the sun every day, but in truth the Undine sun was an illusion: images projected on the huge dome of the city in which they were kept. Maybe the really rich Einz families in their high towers did get to see the sun, but Sahara had only ever seen the real sky in snatches during transport missions and security operations. Never had she bathed in its light.
She stepped onto the unnervingly clean street and helped Ursera do the same. The sterile air of Central Undine filled her lungs, the perfume of the genetically engineered plants lining each perfectly sized building hitting her with just the right balance of sweetness and zest. It was early morning and the order of the automated traffic filled the streets, soundless and, to Sahara at least, unsettling. Even the people walking by in their always pressed, standard issue pastel uniforms were as noiseless as they possibly could be. Public Quiet was in effect to mourn the loss of another Einz regent and it would extend for days, if not weeks.
Ursera leaned low and graveled in her ear, “Home sweet home.”