Rachel pulled her thumb into her mouth, then grimaced at the taste of blood and machine lubricant. She lay back and glared up at the Albatross drone, suspended between two chairs to facilitate easier access to its electronic circuitry.
Like everything inside it, the transmitter components were tiny, designed to be as light as possible, which made manipulating them a delicate process. It also wouldn’t work unless seated correctly, which meant she could not afford to lose even one of the tiny screws.
The lubricant was thankfully not toxic, but once she’d brushed a knuckle against one of the rotors, there was no escaping it. The blades were thin, engineered to make the Albatross one of the quietest drones ever created, but they were also incredibly sharp.
“Need a hand?”
Delaware knelt next to her, looking workmanlike in his dark fatigues. She let her head fall back, and looked up at him.
“Your hands are too big,” she grumbled, then but her thumb back in her mouth. “If I break the wrong connection it’ll disable transmission to our receivers as well as the Walsh.”
He reached into his back pocket and extracted a pair of latex work gloves, and a small case full of magnetic tools. “These might help.”
Rachel lifted her head, then snatched up the items. “Where did you find them?”
“Screwed to the inside of the pelican case.”
“Would’ve been nice to have an hour ago,” she growled. “No manual?”
“I triple checked.”
Rachel opened the case and extracted a little clip gooseneck flashlight. She pressed the button, satisfied by the brightness of the bulb, then looked for a spot on the drone body where she could clip it.
Delaware, who was now down on his back next to her, identified a place where the light seemed made to clip. At first Rachel was annoyed at having missed it, but she couldn’t begrudge him for observing something she hadn’t. Her recall was almost perfect, but only if she noticed the right things. One of the things she loved about him was his unexpected reserve of knowledge and insight. He knew a great deal of things she didn’t, things that went deeper than her library of intellectual facsimile. Most of what she knew, stored away in expansive, towering mental archives, was pure useless.
One glance through the pages of a manual, and this task would’ve been the work of an hour instead of three. She’d have the location and purpose of every part from the schematic images, and the potentially fatal guesswork would not have posed a problem.
She clipped the light up into the dedicated slot and noticed another button on its little panel. Frowning, she pressed it, and the bulb switched over a black light, causing the interior of the drone to light up like a velvet painting. Each of the components, the screws, the wires, were now visible in high orange and yellow relief. Some brilliant engineer had treated them with a highlighting chemical coating.
“Well damn,” Delaware said in his soft southern brogue. “Good old fashioned American know-how.”
Rachel smiled and reached for the little magnetic screwdriver. In less than a minute she was able to get all four of the screws out, and the plate off. She studied the interior wiring of the transmitter, noting the location of the power supply. They’d taken the batteries out of the drone to stop it transmitting its signal back to the ship it had been built for, but the power supply presented an issue of its own, because it broadcasted a strong signal intended for the Walsh wherever it was.
She indicated with the screwdriver. “I’m going to refashion the lithium battery to lower the signal strength, and rewrite the protocol. We’ll set up an intranet between some mobile phones, and we should be able to have a direct feed into the cameras.”
“How long do you think that will take?”
She shrugged, awkward from her supine position. “A day, if Sakuyama can get me the phones and the raw lithium. I don’t want to extract this power supply until I’ve wired and tested the other one.”
“Good,” he kissed her temple. “It’s dinner time.”
“Mm. More tuna.”
“And powdered vegetable protein. And some fruit leather if Major Ortiz is feeling celebratory.”
He got to his feet, moving with surprising grace for his height, which was three inches over six feet. Rachel remained on her back for a moment, studying him from this angle. She had hundreds of perspectives on him, his powerful, lean body, his rich umber complexion, his jade green eyes, but this was a new one, and she wanted to make sure it was safely secured in her never-ending vault.
Only then did she accept his hand, allowing him to pull her to her feet, and thence into his greedy embrace. He kissed her with obvious restraint, but couldn’t resist nibbling a little on her lower lip.
“You smell like an auto shop.”
“Not for the first time.”
“It’s surprisingly sexy.”
“Not a fantasy I’m prepared to indulge,” she warned him, though his fingertips moving down the small of her back were distracting her more than she wanted to admit.
“Go hose off. I’ll see you in the common room.”
She was tempted to ask him to join her, though the hose-shower she’d rigged in the basement laboratory was less than idea for a two person shower. Like all of the hydro stations, the academy included a water testing lab, which necessitated easy cleansing. In the Alpine Guard barracks, this made them convenient for torture, but Sergei had never taken possession of this building, which was smaller and required a security passkey to enter.
It had taken her about twenty minutes to set up a system for hot and cold running water, with a tarp for privacy. That was after they’d tested the water quality. The human remains in the mountain reservoir several miles to the north were likely still in place, but their diseased soft tissues had now decomposed, no longer posing any harm to the water supply. Still, she would never shower without experiencing a recollection of water being poured down her throat while unyielding hands held her in place.
Miryam hadn’t wanted information from her, not really. Her decision to torture Rachel was punitive, to weaken her and put the various factions that wanted her in the arena together to face off for the privilege of recovering her. Delaware had been the one to take her away, back when he’d the helicopters and the ship.
As she dried off and put a bandage over her thumb, she felt the needle fine guilt pierce the back of her neck. She couldn’t think of the Walsh without hating herself for not fighting harder for it, for not putting greater focus on restoring it to these people, these Americans who had accepted her into their ranks. Who had accepted her command over them, which made her feel honoured, but also terrified her.
She dressed in the simple low-visibility fatigues they had all adopted in preference to the conspicuous field issue forest green camouflage. They’d made the decision early to make an effort to blend, and the low-visibility served them better in combat, which was now an almost exclusively night time affair for the simple reason that they had night vision equipment and their enemy did not. What they lacked was the ability to do visual recon from the air, which was the reason it was so critical for Rachel to get the drone up and running with its long-range tracking disabled.
She pinned up her wet hair and took the central stairs two at a time until she reached the ground level. Unlike the basement facilities, the upstairs had been converted years ago for the purpose for which the building was now named — the academy. The large common foyer had been turned into a single room class where her mother had once educated the orphans and refugees of this world, struggling to preserve some kind of scholastic, intellectual spirit. At minimum the children of this degraded afterworld would at least learn to read and write, to do math, to understand the lessons of survival as Nadia Kori redesigned the curriculum to fit their reality.
In deference, Delaware’s people had not altered the room in the slightest, except to reconfigure the tables. Otherwise the images, the black boards, the alphabet and mathematics posters made it look just it had — like a friendly school room. It was quite different from the universities where her mother had once trained high level educators, but it was still very much Nadia.
Rachel took comfort from her presence, even as she mourned for her. She had last seen her mother on her death bed, slowly choking as a freak strain of double pneumonia cut off her breath. She had not been there when she died, nor when she had been interred in the sky burial, her physical remains offered to the vultures.
Vikram had, though. Her brother had no doubt wept his tears of guilt, concealing his responsibility for her death from everyone with his convenient show of grief. It wasn’t that Rachel believed he’d ever intended for their mother to contract his manufactured plague, but his self-delusion that it couldn’t happen was almost as unforgivable.
It happened here, in this building, something she’d pieced together later. He had not, as it had transpired, been attempting to kill their mother. It was the weak and sickly children, her students, that he found demographically inconvenient to his civic designs.
She didn’t want to think about Vikram now. One day soon she’d have to reckon with him, to find some way to break his hold on the USS Walsh, but she had no idea she would accomplish that. She doubted very much she’d be able to talk him out of it and she didn’t know if she was capable of killing him.
As usual, dinner and briefings went together. Half the Marines were in the field to the north, putting up a shifting show of force to keep the Lammergeier patrols occupied and disoriented. The other half was recently rotated back, making up the assembly along with the members of Delaware’s personal force, and Major Ortiz’s smattering of officers.
“Any word from our friends on the water?” Ortiz prompted as Rachel joined them, sitting next to Delaware and accepting a plate of canned foods.
“Nothing on the open airwaves,” Rachel said between bites.
Delaware had initially kept the officers in the dark about Valentine Savage’s detachment, but as Rachel was perfectly placed to handle coded communications, he had been more open about their mission, stopping just short of revealing what it was.
Rachel could guess but she knew better than to speculate. Their mission parameters required specific conditions. Rachel knew that the fighting in the north was partly to facilitate those conditions, but she had bowed to Delaware’s wishes not to question him further about it. She might not like being in the dark, but she also knew if Sergei were to capture Delaware, to torture him, Rachel knew she’d break. She’d say whatever was necessary. She had no illusions about that.
She was aware, as she fished through her tasteless but adequate dinner, that Delaware was watching her. She glanced up at him, caught sight of that top down smile that was so particular to him. His green eyes, which could turn pale and cold when he was angry, were now bright and warm, while the expression on his mouth hardly registered.
She was dimly aware of the conversation, but she wasn’t really paying attention. There was nothing new, and they wouldn’t know more until they had the news tomorrow from their allies. For now, it was quiet. They were defended.
It wouldn’t last. Sergei had left Nasrin al-Sayed in charge of his army, a military officer of with a far greater instinct for strategy than he’d ever possessed, but ruthless and implacable for all that. Rachel knew her, and intended to get to know her better. She had command of the tanks barricading the road to Taaj, the ones Rachel hadn’t destroyed during their sabotage mission in the tunnel. These were all problems of logistics and technology that faced her, something she excelled at. She was as equipped as she could be for this particular fight.
But she couldn’t shake the knowledge that out on the water, her brother had command of the most powerful war machine in the world, and if she’d stayed on board instead of fleeing back to her allies and her lover, she might have taken it back from him somehow. They would all be eating from the astonishing bounty of the ship’s farming unit, and she and Delaware would spend the night in the captain’s quarters instead of sharing a pallet on the floor in her mother’s old office.
And yet, he was content. She could see that clearly. He was far too much the gentleman to complain about being deprived of his luxurious command, but his delicacy ended there. He was suited in temperament to this bloody work. He only ever hinted at the anguish at their losses, the people under his command, when they were alone together, but even this grief he was turning towards the goal of cold-eyed vengeance.
After dinner, Rachel intended to return back to her project and finish what preparations she could in anticipation of the necessary supplies, to satisfy herself that she’d done everything possible before letting herself be distracted. Delaware would soon meet with Commander Wailea and Lieutenant Kurosawa to outline strategy for the next twelve hours based on what they were hearing from patrols, and from their allies.
He caught up with her in the hall, somehow managing to come alongside her with far more stealth than a man of his stature had any right to possess. He expressed no need to disguise his intentions as he pulled her around the corner. His mouth was greedy on hers, his hands seeking, his body hard against her as he pressed her into the wall.
Then, almost immediately after he’d started, Delaware drew back, grinning.
“Don’t be long.”
He slipped away before she could answer him, leaving her overheated and disoriented. Not trusting her balance, she bypassed the stairs for the elevator, grateful there had been no witnesses.