Eriphet prowled the empty streets of Maiden, looking for Dai Lumen. The mercenary had to die. On a whim, he turned back towards the Oracle. It was the last place they’d expect him-and perhaps he would find Dai dead on the floor. That would make him feel better. Better still if he could catch the Gazer. He would not be so slow this time.
A thing came whirring through the silence.
It was a ship, one of his own. He waved it down, but the vessel held its course. Eriphet stepped into the center of the street, waving angrily now-- only to see the ship’s guns were cocked and ready. He jigged back, just dodging the ray. It melted the walkway where the Valkyrie had stood moments before. He slipped into the alley and ran, his long legs carrying him quickly over the shadowy, uneven ground. There had to be a break, somewhere-
The ship flipped sideways, following him into the narrow space.
There was no time. He smashed in a Glaspex window and dove into a small workroom. Flames licked in behind him; the shooter had heat-bombed the whole street. The room groaned as he ran through it; pictures on the wall slid to one side, and the ceiling began to crumble-
he raced through the space into the hall and then to the far side of the tilting building where he tore through another window-only to realize that here, there was a four story drop to the ground. The building had been put on a ledge, overlooking a giant pool of orange water.
He leapt, questions scrambling through his head.
Something had gone wrong. Had his team turned on him? Or had--had the humans won? Had one of the humans actually managed to steal one of their ship?
He hit and sank, liquid stinging his nostrils. He walked up the artificial lakebed, noticing sculptures, benches, playground equipment. It was an underwater park. He walked into the shallows, where he knew he’d be able to stand if necessary. And sure enough, he could breathe.
He floated, his eyes just above the water, watching flames devour the building on the shore.
He heard shouts and gunfire; voices in pain, but there was no telling if the sufferers were friends or enemies. Screams have no language.
He crept along the lakeshore, moving as slowly as he could without rippling the water. Finally he came to a place where he could see his ships through the spaces between buildings, and he saw the reason for his team's silence.
The humans of Maiden had captured his ships, his weapons. They had decimated his team; Phyrnosian flesh was spattered in the street. His mind began to pound. He pressed back. Time to hide. Time to get underground. He slipped back down the shore. Thanks to Dai's intelligence on Maiden, he knew there was a tunnel system in the outpost’s interior interior. Although the Finder had known no routes, Eriphet assumed that if he could follow a tunnel all the way to its conclusion, surely it would have to--
there, a drainage tunnel. He shot towards it, thankful for his white hide, which did not stand out against the pale, sculpted shore.
He dove inside. He didn't see the beautiful Losira, perched beneath its overhang. She yanked him underside. He fell into running water, which broke his fall. He stood, almost screamed, his body rigid with fear and fury; he surged up out of the water towards her.
"Don't," she said; "it's me.”
It took seconds for him to slow himself.
“Look at you,” she said. She ran her hand down her body and then put her claws to his lips. Embarrassed, he licked her hand, averting his eyes. Her substance calmed him. “Thank you.”
“Do you know a way out?”
He looked around. "Still getting my bearings."
“With respect, follow me, lord. I have an idea. I’ve been looking around.” She led him into the inner workings of Sand Maiden. The narrow walls opened into a cavernous hollow filled with still, dark waters. "This is the interior water reclamation system of Sand Maiden," she said. "It's cold, but I think it's our only chance." They waded carefully, clinging to the wall with the aid of railways. Eventually the railways rose farther above the water level, bringing them to a narrow ledge. It was cracked and narrow. The sides of their claws hung over its edge, even as they went along one foot in front of the other. In the distance they saw ghostly shapes coasting over the water. Thrillseekers in gliders and wetsuits, soaring happily in the space and the silence. They were unaware the raid had even taken place.
“Where are we going?”
She gave him a toothy grin. “Don’t you trust me? After all this time?”
"Seems like yesterday you were only a hatchling, abandoned to the Academy.”
She let her tail touch his leg, and they were off again."I saw a racing ship a little ways back. If it's still there..."
They climbed into a higher tunnel system and passed through a series of locks. The walls narrowed. "There's more light here," she said. "We must be getting close to an opening."
"Look, there!" Perched jauntily at the edge of the opening was a dapper little space craft, built for racing and ready to fly. She took his hand and suppressed a happy yell.
“We’re dreaming,” he said.
“I wish we were, sir." The ship was rocking, every so slightly, from side to side. “Looks like its occupied.”
“Wait here.” Eriphet slid forward on his belly. The ship was so small it did not even have a board. It was a flimsy thing, made as lightly as possible. He was not entirely certain how well it would hold up for their journey home. But he had to try. He edged the door open with his claw, and pulled slightly too hard.
The door was not even locked. It jolted open on its hinges, revealing a man and a woman naked on the floor. She screamed; he scrambled for something under the seat. The Valkyrie leaned inside and grabbed after the man. He pulled him out by his legs and squeezed his throat silent. The man’s flesh was unpleasantly soft to the touch; he felt his neck pop in his grasp like a cracked stem. The woman was still screaming, but she was coming at him, running at his face with her hands outstretched. He caught her by the neck and swung her outside. She broke like a stem, too. He let her fall into the water. Her blonde hair bobbed once, and then darkened with wet-she was washed downstream.
“Quickly, Losira,” he said. He ripped open the dash, yanking out liquid cylinders and chips, and began to work. "You're good at it," she said, joining him. “Phado. My neck is kinking. You think this little thing will be enough to get us home?”
“I have to override the injectors if we’re going to cross the Oup Hind alive.”
He had to override the safeties as well. The tiny ship screamed error codes at him. He held a tiny cylinder up to the light and then re-inserted it, twisting it to the left. The ship quieted. "Engines have always made sense to me," he said. "They're simpler than most things, really." He closed the dash. Deep exhale. "It should be enough to get us home, but just barely. Ready?"
She said she was. They shot over the precipice. The dead lovers ship fell towards the water before the engine clutched and caught. Then her nose tipped up, and they rose again towards the light, leaving the pipe system, flying upwards through a huge, thickly crusted cylinder.
When they emerged they saw the reason for the crust. They were in a huge dump filled with cooking waste. It was sealed over with Glaspex.
Losira reached for Eriphet’s hand.
“Here we go,” he said. She pulled back the controller, shooting them up, up towards the seal. She squeezed his hand and they cracked through, sending huge sheets of Glaspex crumbling back behind them.
“Setting course for Phayara Khado, sir,” she said.
He sat back, closing his eyes. “So many dead. I have failed.” He looked at her, his face as still as a mask. “The humans will come after us, now.”
“We can handle them, sir.” Gently, she moved her tail away from his.