Lee hated flying, he hated the manta crafts and he especially hated Xana and every single one of her machines.
He was making good time though, and if all was well he would be able to reach the Rose Flats by early the next morning.
Zipping across the arid terrain, watching the sand roll by, he could almost forget his aversion to all things airborne. It was odd to see the ash clouds thinning the further he got from Trine. He knew, of course, that eventually he would meet with the clouds from other continents. The Einz had spread across the world and so their smog suppressant machines would soon reinforce the black sky he was used to. But, for now, there were brief moments where the ash was thin enough that he could see a dapple of what he supposed might be moonlight. With just a thought, he steered the ship toward those patches, as though he could collect them up and save them.
The decayed data streams told that there were once vast oceans here. Lee tried to imagine what that must have been like. The teeming life, the rush of water all around. Of course, he was racing across what would have been the very depths of the ocean floor where the pressure would have been crushing, the extremes in temperature from the chill water to the volcanic plumes absolute. But still, the streams said, life had persisted.
Of course that was before the Einz.
“Warning,” the manta’s voice chimed in his head. “You are approaching an Einz perimeter.”
“Map it for me.” Lee instructed, concentrating on that thought.
The map came up on the left panel of his curved, sleek cockpit. “Bring me up a map of the same area and cross reference the quickest route with minimal interaction.”
The manta did so, but slowly. The Einz controlled data access streams, and they were beginning to reach the outermost limits of the Trine hack. Just a little further and Lee would be cut off from the Dark Sea that was their network until he could find another hotspot.
Eventually, the map flashed up. Then, another warning chime. Lee glanced at the screen. There it was again.
Minutes after he had left Central Trine, a data ghost had appeared on his sensors. Often, these were nothing but figments of past ships sending out their locations. Because of the way the Trine had needed to render its networks in haphazard fashion it could not completely purge such remnants. Besides, they were useful for masking that which you did not want seen. The problem was, that worked for everyone–Trine or Einz.
The data ghost had persisted throughout the journey as an occasional blip on his outermost sensors. If it was a ship, and if it was pursuing him, it was too far out to get a reading. He had to assume that was on purpose, which meant the pilot was skilled. Probably more so than Lee was. Which, to be fair, wouldn’t be difficult.
Lee read the maps again. “What’s that?” he asked of the ship, pointing to a cloud of life-signs. Fortunately, through the interface, the manta could decode his vagaries.
“Migrating damsel eels. They navigate through Einz territory in a direction that is believed to be the track of one of the world’s former ocean currents.”
“How dangerous are they?”
“There size makes them formidable but they are relatively benign, unless–”
“Plot a course straight through the middle,” Lee said. “And use it as a tunnel to take us through the Einz barrier. Your cloak and their life-signs should mask us.”
“Complying with your ill advised request.”
Lee glared at the cockpit screen. He could tell Xana had programmed this heap of junk.
The switch in trajectory was swift, his stomach lurching as they peeled off their course and rocketed to the right and upwards, scaling a huge dune of sand and then surging up toward the ashy sky. The ship turned over on its back then, leaving Lee hanging in the air for a few moments as the gravity stabilizers kept him in position.
“I hate flying,” he repeated. Then, in an abrupt turn that almost gave him whiplash, the ship righted itself and the damsel eels came into view.
They were huge, translucent-bodied serpents with many diaphanous fans for wings that shone with opalescent beauty as they beat against the air. The eels’ mouths opened and closed in time to their undulations, revealing rows of bone white teeth. They surged past Lee, paying him no mind but buffering him with their wake.
“Okay, onward, keep a constant speed, and dim the lights. I don’t want to startle them.”
The lights softened to a twilight sheen as they moved forward at a gentle speed. The sounds of the eels, odd clicks and moans, filled the cockpit with a pleasant song. While this wasn’t exactly a comfortable part of the journey, it was at least a break from the monotony of the desert.
“The data ghost?” Lee asked.
“Sensors detect no pursuit.”
“They do detect an imminent threat however.” An eel peeled off from the left-hand stream and, with jaws open, loomed over Lee’s craft. “Evasive patterns initiated. Please attempt not to bleed.”
The ship’s thrusters sent the craft forward and up, toward the damsel eel.
“No, no, no!” Lee let out a high pitched wail as the ship spun side over side, narrowly missing the creature and cutting a course along its flank. The ship then righted itself and with an abrupt boost of speed shot forward and away from the creature.
This seemed to provoke some of the other damsel eels to change course, heading higher above the manta craft. A few, though, opened their jaws and sped toward Lee. It was then that Lee realised he hadn’t taken into account one very important thing: if the eels were migrating, they might be doing so after spawning. In which case…
Attached to the underside of a rotund eel was a fledgling damsel gripping on to its mother with its hinged jaws.
“We have cleared the Einz perimeter and are now crossing the Olan strata. The cliffs will provide us significant sensor cover. Recommendation that we set up camp.”
“No, we can’t stop.”
“Your heart rate is elevated, your skin is clammy. You will vomit shortly. Signs of fatigue are setting in. I could also detail your bowel status if you would like?”
Lee wanted to keep flying but, when another eel lurched at them from the right and the ship dropped several feet and entered a rapid nosedive, his aforementioned bowels found the ship’s line of argument slightly more convincing.
“Okay, do it. But I want sensors running constantly.”
“I was considering flying blind, but you’re the boss.”
Under the rim of the ship where its cloak kept him hidden, and with the campfire warm and his belly if not full then at least soothed by a nutrient ration, Lee felt a little bit better. He had also unplugged himself from the manta’s direct neural connection, leaving his aching head a little less clouded.
There were sounds in the night, gravens and ferals no doubt, desert wolves and worse. But for the moment Lee felt somewhat safe. If they flew as fast as the manta could safely operate, and so long as they didn’t meet anymore unexpected problems, they could still make the Rose Flats by midday tomorrow.
“Manta, does your cloak prevent sound from escaping too?”
“Play me some music. Soft. Something with strings.”
A light violin concerto vibrated in the air, the notes escalating and dancing with the flames. Lee’s eyelids began to close, sleep threading in his synapses. Peace.
“Human life sign detected, closing rapidly from the left.”
Lee’s eyelids snapped open. He scanned the dark.
“Why didn’t you sense it before?” he stammered.
“Proximity shield. Two hundred yards. One hundred yards.”
A woman emerged from the pitch black, her wrist pointed at Lee and the red dot of her sight trained on his chest.
Sahara looked as displeased to see him as she had the first time they met on the roof of the hospital. “Did you straight up forget I put a trace on you?”