Jack’s gaze stayed on the terminal, never leaving the flashing lights that mapped local Einz patrols.
Sahara’s Z-class manta showed up aquamarine blue, and he watched it with interest. She was staying true to her word–so far.
“It’ll look suspicious if we both go,” she’d said. “So I’ll run intercept. Any other Einz come chasing what they think is a suspect data ghost, I can stop them, or at least slow them down.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Sahara–in fact, she was one of the few truthful people he knew–it was that he didn’t trust the Einz not to have been listening to their conversation. And if they came knocking, Sahara didn’t owe Jack any extraordinary effort of protection.
“Anything?” Lee asked from his seat in front.
“I’ll tell you if there is,” Jack said, not looking up.
A moment of silence and then an annoyed sigh. “Why do you do that?” said Lee.
“And that? That is not an answer. That is barely more than a bodily function.”
Jack’s lip twitched but he managed to suppress a smile. He’d never been good at chitchat. He got that from his mother. This thought, bitter as it was, made him want to at least attempt a conversation.
“You’re terrible at flying.” All things considered, he realised soon after that this, perhaps, was not his best conversational gambit.
Lee actually looked round at him, eyes wide. “Computer, is there an ejector seat for the good soldier?”
“Yes,” said the manta, “but given that he is right, that you are a terrible pilot, I would recommend keeping him around a little while longer.”
“Oh, you can shut up too, you bag of bolts,” Lee said. Then he went on grumbling: “I swear to Trine, all of you are against me.”
“You’re a good doctor though.” Jack said after listening to Lee for a few minutes more. “This leg you gave me. Better in every way than my other.”
Lee hushed up some then. They flew on in a different kind of quiet than before.
Jack chomped down on his ration bar, sticking the entire thing in his mouth with just two bites. His chewing roused Lee who had been attempting to doze now that they had a convincing gap between them and the Einz patrols.
“Do you have to do that?”
“Yes,” Jack said.
“I mean, you could chew with your mouth closed.”
“I could,” Jack agreed. He went on chewing as noisily as before.
Lee sat bolt upright and, with a huff, turned back to the central terminal. “Computer, how long until we reach the Rose Flats?”
“Seven hours flying, however I will not be taking you all the way there.”
Jack watched as Lee processed that, the man going through a rapid succession of blinks. “Excuse me?”
“Xana was quite clear that I not put myself in any unnecessarily risky situations. The closer we get to the Rose Flats the higher the risk of encountering marauders. As such, I will only be able to take you within fifty miles of the peninsula. You will have to walk the rest of the way.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Override that.”
“Listen to me you stupid machine–”
“I recalculated, factoring in the likelihood of you doing something stupid and giving away our position. I can recalculate again if you would like?”
Lee turned to Jack as if looking for help.
“I could do with stretching my leg,” he answered.
“Who would have thought I’d miss the trauma ward, but let me tell you it’s downright paradise compared to you two!”
And so it was that the ship took them a few more uneventful hours in the direction of the Rose Flats before bringing itself down amid the rocky outcrops above the Gas Sands, so named for their tendency to belch earthly chemicals that, unfortunately, were incredibly noxious. Not the best place to land a ship, but that was sort of the point: anybody looking for auspicious landing spots would not pick the Gas Sands and so this would provide them an extra layer of, albeit pungent, protection.
Jack followed Lee out into the open air and then watched him gag. Again, he had to hide a smile. “Your first time out here?”
The doctor nodded.
“We’ll soon be over the worst of it. Air will clear if we keep walking in that direction.”
Jack limped on, Lee following behind.
“Did you always want to be an Einz soldier?” Lee asked when the bubbling and liquid-like terrain in the valley gave way to more solid land. In places there was even a smattering of vegetation, a rare sight for someone from Trine.
“No,” was Jack’s answer. When he felt Lee’s death-stare, he decided to be charitable. “You were right in the hospital. About my Dad.”
“Mother’s Einz. Dad’s from Trine.” Jack grimaced. The augmented leg was a better fit than his last, but it still rubbed something fierce when going up hill. “Course I never should have happened, but they were young. He was her bodyguard, she was a daughter of a minor family. Apparently they were in love, until her parents found out. Then Dad was exiled back to Trine. I grew up at the south-side, near the Slurries. Then, when I was ten, Mother came looking.”
“She took you above the smog?”
“Gave me a chance to live up there so long as I joined the military. Course I took it.” Jack looked back at Lee as the other man struggled up the hill after him. “Didn’t tell me my dad had died until a year or so after. Course, by then, it didn’t matter. Mourning’s only good if it soothes you.”
Lee reached Jack’s position. He held Jack’s gaze. “I’m sorry.”
Jack nodded. “Life’s shitty sometimes. Listen, I’m going to have to stop soon. I haven’t quite settled into this leg yet and–”
“No, to be honest I could do with a breather,” Lee agreed.
They walked on a little further until they came to a deep canyon. They’d reached the Sweet Spot, so called because, despite the barren state of the land around, this area had managed to tap into what little water was still banked in the earth and had spawned an oasis of vegetation and life.
They descended into it slowly, with Jack needing long minutes to rest, until they came to sparse but nevertheless tall tree cover. He looked to Lee, whose mouth was open in wonder, and that was when he couldn’t help but smile.
“This here place,” was all Jack said, but Lee nodded in agreement.
They found a spot that was enclosed on both sides and settled down. Jack pulled at his trouser leg until through the fabric he could feel the release catches for his leg. He disconnected it, felt the filaments withdraw into their respective cavities and then drew out the leg. He set it at his side.
“You don’t carry a gun,” Lee observed.
“Never liked ’em.” He coughed. “You got any water on you? My throat’s dry.” Lee dug into his rucksack and took out one of several flasks. Jack took it, gave a nod in thanks, and then drank. “Course, my other leg had a blade concealed in it. Your replacement doesn’t.”
“I wasn’t about to help you butcher any Trines, was I?” Lee said. Then he seemed to realise how frank he had been because he looked at Jack with his eyebrows high. “I’m–”
“No, don’t be sorry. You got a point.” Then Jack winced.
“Is it your leg? Let me see.”
“No.” Jack said. “It’s fine. I just need to rest.”
“If you get an infection you are no good to me.” Gone was the slightly comical Lee. Now he had a set to his jaw and a heavy focus. “Let me look.”
Jack had rarely come up against someone like Lee. Even rarer a doctor. Truth be known, he wanted to punch most in the medical profession. They were all very handsy and he disliked that intensely. But Lee, for some reason, was different.
Jack untied his belt and took down his pants.
Lee examined the docking part over Jack’s knee. He expertly removed the clamp and withdrew it, exposing the reddened stump and filaments beneath. Jack hissed. “You’ve got some bruising and edema. I can drain it with what I have in my kit, but it’s going to mean you won’t be able to move for a few hours.”
“Then wait. I can bare it.”
“We need to get moving–”
“I said no.” Lee pulled out a silver case from his bag and opened it. In it were several medical implements and a few wicked looking needles. “This shouldn’t hurt too bad.”
The needle sunk deep in Jack’s flesh. His brows met and he found Lee’s gaze.
“Yeah, I lied,” Lee said. “But this next part won’t hurt at all.”
When Lee’s fingers began to work the flesh around Jack’s knee joint, Jack let out a gruff shout. “You lied again,” Jack commented.
“I do that sometimes. But….looks like it’s draining mostly clear, so that’s good. No infection this time. But you’ve not been looking after it. You have to–”
“I know, I know.”
Lee delved back into his pack, and from there took out a pot of some kind of salve that, when applied to Jack’s skin, felt both cold and hot at the same time. Then he wove a dirt resistant bandage around the area, tying it off and taping it in place for good measure.
Within minutes, the ache Jack had been feeling began to ease.
“What?” Lee asked. At first Jack didn’t understand the question. Then he looked down to find that as Lee had been tending him, his hand had moved to Lee’s arm, his thumb rubbing the wrist bone.
Jack stopped that movement, but he didn’t take his hand away.