Remember that rat from part seven? The one that appeared in one sentence? It’s about to get really important. And no, I still haven’t sat down and made an outline yet. Why do you ask?
The eXime cabin was round and had two proper seats facing a curved control board. That was all that Persephone had the time to register. She was too busy clutching her arm and swearing.
“Why didn’t you say you were injured?” Arch asked
“Because you were unconscious until a minute ago,” she snapped. Her arm was going to need to be set, preferably soon.
“Take us back to the city.” Arch motioned with the gun. The driver did nothing.
“Do you need me to speak louder?” Arch’s finger compressed the trigger and a slug pinged off the console.
Persephone jumped up. “Give me the damn gun!”
“I got it covered,” Arch replied.
“Yeah. Because shooting the controls and filling the cabin with shrapnel is a brilliant idea.”
The driver’s face was white as her helmet but there was a bright line of blood on one cheek. It was superficial but probably hurt like a bitch.
Persephone held out her left hand. Arch ignored it and focused on the driver. “Take us back.”
Persephone grabbed Arch’s wrist. He was surprised and that was all the advantage she needed to twist the gun out of his hand. She tossed it out of the still open door.
Arch looked like a toddler about to throw a tantrum.
“Did you watch my ads at all? Seriously?” She said calmly. Then she turned back to the driver. “Now that we’re all a lot safer, do you think you can be reasonable and take us back now?”
“What about Boyce?” the woman asked.
“You might have noticed that I don’t much like guns. So why would I go out of my way to pick up someone who carries?”
“He was just doing his job.”
“I’m guessing the job was to bring the data back. It probably wasn’t specified how. In my mind that makes the gun Boyce’s idea. Poor improvisation if you ask me. Who’s your boss? I’d like to file a complaint.”
The driver rolled her eyes, and pointed at the eXime logo on her helmet. “You think maybe we were hired by the people you robbed? You can send the complaint to Padilla.”
“You report directly to the CEO? Unlikely. The upper echelons like to keep a distance between themselves and gun-toting creeps like Boyce. Hell, they even like to keep their distance from honest thieves like myself. I know one who tends to send his son to handle anything quasi-legal.” Persephone glanced sideways at Arch.
“My father didn’t ask me to hire you,” Arch growled. With his dark complexion, his face resembled a cooling lava flow. “It was my idea.”
Persephone smiled. “See. We don’t need guns to be honest with each other. Now, it’s your turn.” She turned back to the driver, but Arch wasn’t finished.
“Albion’s efforts were too small minded to get us out of this mud pit. Water filtration, incremental advances in battery technology, ethanol generators. Technology that’s five hundred years out of date. Quentin and I were working on something new. My father nixed it. That didn’t leave me many options. But I have some new plans now. And a prototype. ” Arch waved triumphantly at the cabin. “Tell me how it works!” He shouted.
“I, I don’t know.” The driver stammered then mouthed “Is he always like this?” in Persephone’s direction.
“He does have mood swings.”
As if on cue, the lava flow congealed into a cold mask. “She’s been driving us in circles. I’m going to take over. I need to get this thing back to the complex.” He took a step towards the driver, grabbed her shoulder and tipped her out of her seat.
The woman was more surprised than hurt. “I was just trying to scan for Boyce. You can’t leave him out here! And you don’t know the controls.”
“I sure hope Boyce can swim, but I sure know I can drive,” Arch replied and raised a lever on the console. The craft jumped straight up into the sky. When the Albion craft changed directions, it tied your stomach into knots. When this one did something impossible, you barely felt it (unless you were outside hanging on by an arm). Persephone pulled the door shut.
The driver scrambled to her feet. “You’re going to kill us! Bring it down.”
Arch flicked another switch on the console and the thrusters fired. They were still ascending, but accelerating up at a diagonal now. “Strange. It was perfectly safe when you did it.”
“Lift takes a lot of fuel. We’ve been out here for a while. Bring it down. I can get us back to the city.”
“First tell me what gives it lift. What fuels it?”
“Didn’t you steal the plans for this thing?” Despite the supremely smooth ride the driver was looking a bit green. Her gaze was fixed on a point midway up the console. There was a dial there with two pointers. Both were just two ticks shy of a red line marked ‘zero’. Make that one tick shy.
“Fuel gauge, Arch. There.” Persphone dropped into the passenger seat and tapped the dial.
Arch shrugged. “She’s probably lying about the range.” He turned the wheel. The craft arced smoothly and continued to rise. “Seems pretty user friendly.”
In fact there were a lot fewer controls and gauges than the Albion craft. For instance there was nothing that looked remotely like the thing that Arch had called a leveler. There was however, an all too familiar looking red light flicking on the console. If it was a proximity warning, it must have been the clouds that had set it off. They’d just plunged into the lower edge of the layer that had been dumping rain on them all morning. The domed top of the cockpit was semitransparent and provided a 360 view, but there wasn’t much to see. Just a dark grey haze that left beads of moisture on the view screen. Persephone had gone to school, knew the basics of water cycles, but still found it surprising that there was no actual rain inside of a rain cloud. But then she’d never been inside one before. “Umm. Driver woman. Whatever your name is. What’s that light?”
“Fuel warning. Six minutes left.” The woman didn’t bother providing a name.
“You trust her?” Arch asked. “I don’t.”
“Does it matter?” Persephone replied. “If she’s right, and we don’t believe her, we crash and sink for the second time today. If she’s lying and we do believe her, we rush this incredibly valuable prototype back to the city which is where we should be heading anyway. Seriously, my shoulder hurts and I’d like a chance to look under the hood before I pass out. That is assuming we can get back to the city in six minutes.” Persephone looked to the driver for confirmation. The woman’s face was still a greenish white and the bloody scratch from the bullet had dried to a brown crust. She hesitated then nodded.
“It’s fast enough. If he’ll let me drive.”
Arch gripped the yoke even harder. That didn’t bode well for their chances of getting back.
“Trust me,” Persephone said, “You’ve been waiting this long. You can wait a bit longer to see what’s up there.” Before watching the Old Sol video footage she wouldn’t have understood, but watching those ships lower an entire city out of the sky had given her a hint of what Arch must be feeling. “And anyway, I doubt this thing is ready for low pressure.”
Arch eased his white knuckled grip on the yoke, but didn’t release it entirely. He took a deep breath and glanced sideways at the driver. “Tell me what fuels it. Then you can drive.”
The driver hesitated. “Rats, mostly. The boffins feed them rats.” She reached for the yoke. Persephone tensed, but Arch just looked stunned for a moment and then tossed back his head and laughed, big gulping hysterical laughs. “That’s so ridiculous, I almost believe you.“
“Why would I lie? I want to live. That’s what I I know.”
Arch continued laughing, but released the controls and stood up. “So much for Q and A industries. Get ready for Lab Rats Incorporated.”
The woman ignored him. She scrambled back into the driver’s seat and toggled the altitude lever. The dropped out of the clouds and plummeted all the way to a cruising height of 4 meters. Then she fired the thrusters and sent them rocketing back towards the city. If she’d been lying about the fuel reserves she did a pretty convincing job of faking desperation. They were swooping in over the floats in under five and a half minutes.