Vechkov wanders into the cockpit and slumps into his usual chair at the sensor station, rolling the moss tube sample between his palms. “OK, so,” he says to Sionnach, “we’re supposed to go to Sol for a second opinion. Once Sharpers is back on board, we’re good to go.”
Meanwhile, the woman who calls herself Sharpers these days sits at a corner table in the mess hall of the Rucker, grumbling into her commlink: “What do you mean he wants me back on the trail? I thought he was worried I’d draw too much heat?”
The voice on the other end replies: “Rodrigo Levante’s in the wind. Caught a shuttle off Citadel and high-tailed it to Quaquan. Who knows where he might go after that? He’s a huge liability. Plus, his brother still owes Lord Fagin a great deal of money. Lord Fagin doesn’t want to have to worry about these things. You’re normally quite good at cleaning up such messes. And, well, *you* owe him too. So, you’re going to find Rodrigo Levante and kill him. Then you’re going to eliminate Armand Levante. You’re cleared to deal as you wish with anyone who attempts to get in your way.”
“Fine,” she growls. “I’ll find my way to Quaquan first.”
She doesn’t bother breaking the news to Prague or Sionnach. By the time she’s disconnected the commlink signal, Sharpers is dead. Shark’s back, with cold, black eyes and a set jaw. She finds the next outbound flight and books passage. Never so much as glances at the Pride.
Unaware of the human female’s abandonment, Sionnach nods to Prague, doing the jump computations while he waits. “Course laid in and ready,” he says, “She say how long she’d be?”
“Should’ve been back by now,” the captain replies, brow furrowed. He tilts his head, pondering. “And here I was gonna share a piece of the profits from this endeavor with the crew.” He shrugs. “More for you, I guess. We’ll find a new engineer. Let’s go.”
“Done and done,” Sionnach replies, his voice sounding a lot more sure about this than his face, “Retracting umbilical, disengaging docking clamps….” The Pride shifts gently away from the Rucker until she is clear. “All set, course laid in and ready,” the pilot says, glancing back at Prague.
“All right,” Vechkov says. “Sol System, then. Let’s see what the Sorties want to offer us for tasty, tasty moss.”
“Deeelicious…” Sionnach replies, pulling the lever that brings the jumpdrive whirring to life as the ship slips free of reality.
A few hours later, the Ekaterina’s Pride reaches the outskirts of Sol System and the Tilsworth-Cooke drive trades off with the sublight engines. An alarm sounds and a red light flashes on the nav display reading: “FARADAY MALFUNCTION – TC DRIVE INOPERATIVE”. Apparently, Sharpers wasn’t lying about the circuit problem in the Faraday cage.
Sionnach winces as the alarms start going off. “Hmm…” he mutters a bit before he calls back over his shoulder, “I don’t suppose you’re hiding a new jumpdrive onboard, are you boss? If not, we might be stuck here for a bit.”
Vechkov frowns. “Let’s just hope the Consortium’s willing to buy us a new one, eh?”
“That’d be nice of ’em,” the Pyracani replies, chuffing in amusement, “Third planet, right?” He lays in a course that comes arcing down into the system to meet Earth in its travels.
“Yeah, third planet,” Prague replies. “Last I checked.” He scratches the back of his neck, grimacing at the thought of something. He peers toward Sionnach. “You think Sharpers sabotaged the Pride?”
“Seems a bit weird she’d do that and tell us what she did,” Sionnach replies with a shrug, “And why do it at all? Not like she can beat you to your claim.” As he guides the ship in, he looks the sensor feed over. “Station out in orbit,” he says, “Big one. We docking there or landing planetside?”
The captain eyes the starbase. “Citadel? Nah. This is more of a scientific/diplomatic thing. Take us down to the San Angeles spaceport, planetside. Should be a car waiting for us.”
“Notifying solar traffic control of flight path,” the caninoid replies with a nod, “Should be on the ground in 5.”
“What if she’s in trouble?” the Ungstiri muses as the Pride approaches Earth. He studies his knuckles. “I just left the Rucker without so much as registering her as late, let alone missing.” He frowns. “I think that kinda makes me a dick.”
“Maybe,” the fighter pilot says with another shrug, “Sharpers smells like a woman who can take care of herself, though. And, as you say, she did at the very least leave us in a lurch.”
“Maybe,” Prague agrees. “Well, I’ll at least send a message to Captain Lee on the Rucker. See if she saw Sharpers at some point.”
“Sounds good,” Sionnach replies as the ship hits atmo. The pilot maneuvers the vessel gently through other traffic, as well as various air currents until it comes smoothly to rest on the tarmac.
A few minutes after the Pride sets down, Prague leads Sionnach down the ramp and walks toward the spaceport entrance. It’s daylight, under a cloudless blue sky. Intent, the Ungstiri keeps his eyes fixed either on the doorway or the tarmac. He never, ever looks up.
The Pyracani steps off and does quite the opposite. “Never been here before,” he says, peering around curiously, “Heard about it when humans started popping up back home a few years back.”
“Nice enough, I guess,” Prague says with a shrug, still studiously avoiding eye contact with the heavens. “Maybe a little too roomy.” He relaxes some as they step into the main dome of the spaceport.