Less than an hour after their transmission with Dowlas Brak, Jaydi Tarin and Bo Kaydell had dismantled the operation on Tab Kabelac. It was late in the afternoon, and the first moon was beginning its ascent. The red and brown landscape stretched out over the plain and melted into the faint purple and red band on the horizon. The blue expanse above was losing its strength, but not yet giving up the day.
From the loading ramp of the Terentia, Jaydi stood listening to the low hum of the engines, her eyes flickering over the landscape. The ship’s motion system would give them warning long before anyone approached, but she wanted some semblance of comfort for her vigilance. Comfort did not come. Closing her eyes, the events of the last few weeks replayed in her head. The Skipwing was becoming more and more questionable. Shaking her head, she dismissed all her mutinous thoughts. In the three years she had worked in the organization, Dowlas Brak had never been known to put himself, the organization, or his people at risk. As far as leaders of illegal modder groups went, he was one of the most decent and honest. Dowlas Brak deserved her loyalty.
A cold, wet nose wiggled into the palm of her hand, bringing her back to the present. She opened her eyes and looked down, but the dog had already trotted off with his head to the ground, sniffing every inch, tail wagging furiously. He was probably sensing their urgency. This dog seemed to have a knack for that.
Bo emerged from the shack, the breeze courteously blowing his hair over the bald spot. He glanced over to Jaydi, who was still studying the dog. “Are you ready?”
She nodded. While Bo had been loading the last of the post onto the ship, she had gone into the cavern beneath the shack and put on her gear. For reassurance, she patted her left hip where she kept her pistol hidden beneath her jacket.
He appeared satisfied. “Okay.” Walking toward the ramp where Jaydi was standing, he whistled to the dog. “Come on, Max.” The dog loped up the ramp and into the ship, tail flogging the air.
Bo reached the ramp and stopped next to where Jaydi had gone back to watching the skyline. “You look nervous,” he told her.
She turned to face the old warrior. The lines on his face had deepened over the past couple of years and his auburn head was peppered with a little more grey, but his eyes sparkled with keen intuition. He was thinking exactly what she was thinking. She broke eye contact, turning away to survey the area one last time. They were still alone and unwatched. For now.
The sound of Max’s barking echoed into the loading bay and down the ramp, relieving the tension. “Time to go,” Bo said casually, jogging up the ramp. Jaydi followed him, activating the ramp mechanism as she reached the top.
Max’s barking stopped as they reached the cockpit. His tail still wagging, he gazed up at them expectantly.
“Incoming transmission,” Jaydi said, taking a seat in the co-pilot chair. A green indicator was flashing on the dash, but she knew better than to pick up any strange communication without checking its origin first. Reaching for the control panel, she keyed up the information on the incoming sender. It was a familiar encrypted code. “It’s base,” she said, alarmed. “Maybe something’s wrong.”
Bo sat down into the captain’s chair and leaned over to take a look at the detail. “Let’s head toward civilization. We’ll talk on the way.” While Jaydi strapped herself in, Bo keyed up the flight sequence and grabbed the throttle. The Terentia groaned as the landing stanchions were upraised into the belly and the hover boosters powered up. The ship moved forward, picking up speed as they went. Max, still sitting between them, slid back into the cockpit door, giving his tail something else to buffet. Bo turned his head around the back of his chair, frowning at his companion. “Sorry about that, buddy. I forgot to put you in your kennel. We’re only going to be moving for a few minutes, I promise.” Max’s tail thumped the door in response. Turning back around, Bo nodded at the holo Jaydi was positioning on the dash, between them.
Jaydi touched the green indicator and the holo lit up. A blonde, good-natured looking young man blinked back at them. “Hi guys. Where’s Brak?”
“He’s not here,” Jaydi told him. “What’s going on, Det?”
“Well, I wanted to talk to him about the Skipwing plans he sent in. I thought he was going to be with you. So you guys are going to the Exchange alone?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Is this your first time partnering up?” he asked.
“Yes,” she intoned and took a deep breath. “So, you haven’t heard from him?”
Det shook his unkempt blonde mane. “Other than those Skipwing blueprints he sent in, no. And it was sent in a very odd code – he must have had Spark transmit it. We were lucky to figure out what it even was. But we got started right away.”
Another young man with dark red hair entered the holo, sitting into a chair beside Det. “Hi guys. Where’s Brak?”
Bo cut into the conversation with an exasperated breath. “Brak’s not here and we’re on our way in to make the Exchange. What’s going on out there?”
Det leaned back in his chair. “Brak sent a message in with the blueprints, saying he wanted us to build another Skipwing. So we got started, and you won’t believe what we figured out –”
“NO,” Bo thundered, “WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU TWO DOING?”
Silence followed. Inhaling deeply, Jaydi spoke slowly, enunciating every word carefully. “You two had better tell us what’s going on, and it better be about Tango.” The figures on the holo suddenly froze, staring back in stunned silence. Jaydi looked exasperated. “Who’s in charge out there?” She demanded. “Is anyone monitoring red channels?”
Red channels were used only in highly emergent situations, and usually only initiated by their leader or a second in command, that is to say, Dowlas Brak only. It was highly unlikely that he had not sent the word out to everyone, with their primary base being the first place as soon as he had a secure signal.
“Well,” the red haired man started, “we’ve been really busy with this Skipwing thing. All of us. So no one was in the Comm room… I mean, how often is there an emergency? No one even remembers using red channels around here, except for that one time –”
Det pivoted his chair around for a full view of the communications desk. “Ah, guys,” he started. “There’s a message here, about two hours old…” His voice trailed off.
Jaydi and Bo took notice of the time and stole sideways glances at each other. Bo’s eyes flickered to the blanched images as he said, “Well, you’d better get on it then.” He cocked his head at the holo, motioning for Jaydi to shut it off.
The two young men on the holo stared back at Jaydi and Bo. “So, we’ll see you back at base then?” Det asked.
“No,” Jaydi’s dark eyes glittered. “You won’t.” She switched the hologram off, swung it out of the center dash and back up against the wall as Bo brought the Terentia to a gliding halt. Max, undaunted from the trip, trotted to the front and plopped down in between them.
“We should have been easier on them,” Jaydi said, unbuckling her harness.
Bo grunted in response.
“They’re mechanics and engineers, not fighters,” she reasoned.
Turning around in his chair, Bo’s steely eyes met hers in a look that said, “This situation is much more serious than Dowlas Brak is telling us. Everyone could be in danger.”
She knew it to be true, but the time to talk about it was not before the Exchange. After, when they were back at the ship and in the black, they would talk. But not now.
He broke eye contact and stood up from the captain’s seat. Max followed his lead, standing up and padding to the back door, tail beating the air. “I need to grab a few things,” he said indifferently, “and I’ll meet you down at the glider.”
Her eyes followed him to the door. “Yeah, okay,” she mumbled.
From the cockpit she wandered down to the loading bay, stopping first to grab her pack. The bay was large and dim, with miscellaneous crates stacked up on all four sides and the glider parked on the side opposite to the ramp. She tossed her pack into the glider’s back seat, walked to the ramp and hit the mechanism. As the ramp lowered, the light of the sinking sun filled the bay. Squinting her eyes, she stepped out onto the ramp. The surrounding landscape reflected the same red and brown rock seen everywhere else on the planet, but in the light of the sunset, the colors sang out with rich warmth. Bo had parked the ship smartly on the backside of a curved cliff that scaled upwards about one-hundred feet. From this position, the ship would be concealed from anyone heading out of the umbrella. Although once the sun went down, it would be difficult to see anyway. It was just another precaution.
The sound of spastic footprints was heard from behind and she turned to see Max running toward her at a breakneck pace, his dark coat reflecting a brighter red in the light of the sunset. At the last possible second he turned and ran a couple of circles around her, stopping at her back to grab her jacket in his mouth. He pulled lightly, growling playfully. “Okay,” she smirked, “I’m coming.” The pointer ran two more excited circles around her and pelted back up into the ship.
When she reached the top of the ramp, the glider’s engines turned on with a low growl and rose up slowly from the bay floor. Its triangular, silver body stopped about three feet up and hung in midair with a low hum that echoed across the bay. Max sat calmly by the glider, panting.
“That’s quite a dog you have,” she said to Bo, who was loading a wooden crate into the back of the glider.
“Yeah,” he grunted, heaving the crate into the back. “Sometimes he surprises me.” With the package secured in the glider, Bo straightened up and turned to face her. “Are you sure you still want to do this?” he called across the loading bay.
Suddenly, she felt annoyed. “Do what?” She stopped a few feet in front of him. His face was somber and he was holding something in his hands. “Make the Exchange? Yeah, I’m sure. Brak told me to do it, so that’s what I’m going to do.” She didn’t like having her loyalties questioned.
Bo leveled his gaze at her and when he spoke, his voice was low. “Listen, Tarin. I’m not questioning your bravery or anything. It’s just that neither of us really know what’s happening with this whole Skipwing thing and I think that what we’re about to walk into is possibly more dangerous than we know.”
She stared back at him for a minute, her face impassive, dark eyes glowering. “So are you coming with me or not?” she asked coolly.
He rubbed his hand over his face. “If you decide to go, I’m going. But if you decide that it’s too risky, I wouldn’t fault you for it.” He sounded tired and his grey-blue eyes studied her.
“So I’m deciding for the both of us, is that it?” she snapped irritably.
“Something like that.”
“Why?” Jaydi’s eyes narrowed. “If we go, do you think it would be a big mistake?”
Bo shook his head. “I don’t know,” he told her honestly. “Usually when I go into situations like this, I know who it is that I’m going with. Well,” he corrected himself, “I know you but I’ve never worked with you like this before. And I hear you’re an amazing pilot and all that, but I’ve never really seen you…” his voice trailed off.
“In a heated situation,” she finished for him.
He almost looked embarrassed. “I’m not going to lie to you. You’ve probably heard a little bit about my past. I’ve seen a lot of horrible things, been in a lot of horrible situations. This has nothing to do with your gender, if that’s what you’re thinking. It has everything to do with your mettle. When things go bad and it’s a matter of life and death, some people rise to the occasion. Others don’t. There’s really no way for anyone to know how they’re going to handle it until they get into a situation. Some of the most brave and well trained soldiers have lost their nerve, putting the rest of their team in considerable risk. We don’t know if we’re about to walk into a bad situation here or if we’ll be able to get in and out quietly,” he paused. “So I’m asking you if you still want to go through with this.”
Jaydi’s face remained inexpressive, but her eyes softened. “I understand,” she said soberly. Taking a deep breath, she held it for a brief second and exhaled. “I’m going.” It was her final word.
Bo nodded. “Somehow I had a feeling you were going to say that.” He grinned. “But you know I had to ask, at least for my own conscience.”
She smiled, despite herself. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the item balled up in his hands.
“This,” he said grandly, “is in case you were still going. And since you are, it will come in handy.”
“So what is it?”
He shook it out and held it up. It looked like a jacket made from a strange, metallic spider web. “This is a Net, and it will save your life. The vest you have on will protect you from the most common legal weapons, but this will protect you from everything else. It goes on under your Protekt Vest.”
“High powered energy pistols won’t penetrate it?” She raised an eyebrow and unzipped her outer coat.
“Not at first,” he told her.
She looked up at him, warily. “Not at first?”
He chuckled. “Well, if you get shot with an energy pistol – say, something really high powered and illegal, you’ll still feel the force of the blast and it will definitely knock you back or even stun you a bit. But it won’t harm you. The Net will store up the energy and eventually will need to ground on something or someone, so you’ll need it to contact something else periodically. The jacket will release the energy.”
“Grounding it on a person? That could kill them,” she told him, removing her Protekt Vest.
“If you’re getting hit so much to release that kind of a charge, someone’s trying to kill you. Better them than you.”
“Okay,” she said, slipping the Net on over her t-shirt. “Is there one for you too?”
Bo tapped his chest. “Already have it on.”
“And you just happened to have these lying around for a special occasion? What are they, special military issue?”
“No, the military can’t afford these. I know a guy.” He smiled. “And I have some extra weapons stashed about the glider for just in case.”
Jaydi nodded, putting her vest and jacket back on. “Of course you do.”
It was about a ten minute drive into the security area of the umbrella. The second moon had not yet risen, although the glowing band of red and purple was now accompanied by a deep orange. The temperature was cooling rapidly, but so far it was comfortable. Max even seemed to enjoy the ride from the back seat of the glider, propping his head up on the door so his ears could stream behind. Bo flew the glider wide around a hill, and the lighting on the security gate was visible ahead.
Jaydi squinted her eyes in the dimming afternoon light. “Is it just me, or do they look a little more heavily armed than usual?” she asked.
Bo frowned. “Yeah, they do. Last chance to change your mind about this,” he told her.