Brando felt good. The test flights had gone nearly without a hitch: at least, what he called hitches. But that wasn’t it. Smog had added quite a few things to the Snark: paid for by all of them, and he’d get to keep them should the mission prove successful. But that wasn’t the reason either. It wasn’t even the feel that new redline system brought: and hard as it was to stay at the helm, the rush of acceleration was pure awesome.
After the first night at Mithril’s, Brando had slept for nearly thirteen hours straight. Even then he’d needed to be slapped awake by her, and ordered to go back to the Snark in case Red or Pick showed up. He’d wandered back to his ship in a warm pink daze. She’d been paranoid. No one had turned up. Brando had crawled right into his bunk from habit and lain there for a while, staring at the ceiling. It had taken a while before he realized why sleep wouldn’t come: he simply wasn’t sleepy.
Brando’s good mood came simply from having a clear head for once. After all this time, it actually felt a little weird not to push each thought through a haze of insomnia. The amount of sleep he’d gotten in the past week equaled what he’d gotten in the month previous. No more gut-twisting memories flashing up at random to wrench him upright in the middle of the night, while the Snark drifted in her camouflaging mantle of cloud.
After that first night, they’d been more careful: well, regarding public knowledge at least. Now sitting in Smog’s place again, Brando thought back over how quickly everything had been shifted around. Mithril was great to him…though probably not tonight thanks to that shiner. Should’ve been a bit gentler. But there was a reason he hadn’t. Smog had hit the nail right on the head. The maneuvers he’d pulled to simulate running the Breach were nothing compared to the reality. If they got through with nothing but bruises and ruffled feathers they’d be lucky.
Still, Brando felt bad. He’d have to find a gift or something to make up for it, maybe. Other than that, Mithril seemed to be getting used to the quarters as much as one could the few times she had come by. They were cramped to say the least, especially when testing bed weight restrictions and the ability of shimmersilk to block noise. Not totally soundproof. He wondered if they’d even be able to keep their secret, and how much of his cut it'd take to get Smog to bury that fact if it became public.
Pick, much as the griffin hated to admit it, was growing on him. Brando wasn’t about to propose, but he no longer entertained thoughts of booting the pegasus out the hatch just before running the Breach out of Dust. Pick seemed like a decent sort. Something was a bit off about him, though. When Brando had rocked the Snark hard, Pick had held his footing better than he figured someone of his knowledge would. He thought back, remembering Pick not knowing what a redliner was…or at least acting like he didn’t. Still, Brando couldn’t do much about his ignorance. His contacts in Aura had all vanished faster than free drinks at a party. Smog’s work: Brando had no doubt. Then again, even the people he’d owed money and favors seemed prepared to forgive the debts, and as none of them were the forgiving type, they’d been scared off or paid off. Just one more ‘expense’ to deduct from those two million bits, in all likelihood. So unless he cared to ask the dragon, he had no way of digging into Pick’s past. If Smog knew anything, he seemed unlikely to share.
That shovel was really bugging Brando. Some old rumor…
Well, at least Brando hadn’t broken Pick's guitar. He seemed rather protective of it, more so now that he mentioned it specifically to Smog. Brando could understand that: probably a family heirloom or a hard-won treasure of some sort. At least Pick seemed the type capable of keeping the mission secret. There was also the issue of only two of the crew knowing how to pilot the ship. Pick seemed the best bet to train, so Brando needed to talk to Mithril about having them take turns training him at the helm in the off chance they both got incapacitated. Or needed to sleep at the same time for some bizarre reason.
Brando still wondered about Red Raider too. She didn’t say much, didn’t interact with the rest of them much from what Brando saw, and came off as a bit of a cold shoulder, which surprised him: what with her being a DJ. Might have something to do with the mission, or that they were police and a criminal and she had issues with one end of those extremes or the other. Or maybe she'd just been so busy with other things and prepping there hadn't been enough time to properly greet one another. Whatever the case, he hoped she’d be of sturdy enough stuff to not get flung about when they hit the Breach, otherwise they might need some healdust sooner rather than later.
[This next bit is an expansion by internetcatchphrase.]
Or maybe the Little Miss DJ act was exactly that: an act. Brando hadn’t dealt much with Smog in the past, except as a bartender. He’d known that Smog was an information broker, but he hadn’t had an inkling of the scale. Over the past week he’d asked around as best he could with no solid contacts. He hadn’t learned much, but that alone had been scarier than almost anything he could have been told. Asking about Smog made drunks go sober. Chatterboxes fell silent. Bums suffered an attack of memory loss no amount of bits could cure. Whole bars of dockyard toughs acted like a pack of foals facing an angry teacher. Smog was feared, and no one inspired fear like without doing fearsome things.
Or, more likely, ordering them done.
Brando almost looks up at the balcony as an ugly thought sails into his mind like a fleet of Zavrosi interceptors from a cloudbank. Everyone associated pirates with the skull-and-crossbones. Brando happened to know that pirates flew the Jolly Roger to signal they were prepared to accept a peaceful surrender, loot and pillage, and leave them with their ship and lives. It was a good thing to see. When pirates flew a pure red flag, it meant no survivors. Red Raider had a red pennant flag on her flank. That wasn’t the name and cutie mark of a mare born to rock a rave, or whatever they called it. It was perfect for the worst kind of pirate. Was she trying to leave the life behind her, start a fresh life, only for Smog to blackmail her? Was this DJ act just a cover? In either case, was she Smog’s insurance policy: the dagger poised at their backs in case any of them felt…treacherous?
Or, Brando conceded, he could be paranoid.
[End insertion. See metatext.]
The ominous silence surrounding Smog made Brando feel a lot less comfortable about Old Pinky. Especially since the dragon had cut off all his other means of gathering information from the shady side of things. The near-magical vanishing of debts to pay and people to appease was a major weight off his back. But Smog never was much for charity. Some would say he’d been tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even aside from being fireproof, Brando felt his situation had overall improved. Smog seemed a bit more solid than the types he’d dealt with before, and though Brando didn’t feel safe around the dragon, he did feel a bit more secure. One of the few things anyone was willing to share was that Smog’s word was gold. He never lied or broke a promise. If Brando kept his end of the deal, Smog would keep his.
Brando twitches his thoughts back to the present, looking back over to Smog after the two ponies had finished telling the miniature dragon what a pain he’d been. “She handles great, Smog.” Brando said. “The new kit doesn’t choke out the engine. She kicked into overdive faster than a frightened eel and almost as slick. I suppose that’d be due to the mechanics actually being mechanics, and not creeps that flunked out of engineering school, yes?"
“Indeed.” Smog said. He pulled a candle from behind the bar and lit it from a trickle of flame out one nostril. It was as poisonously green as his eyes, and the candle flame held the color. He held the candle out to Brando, who took it without thinking. As it swapped claws, the flame went from green to normal yellow.
Brando blinked, and then noticed that his pipe had gone out. Too busy musing while the other two talked to remember to puff. Relighting it with the candle and taking a drag from it, he let the smoke curl up over his beak. “I really got no complaints, other than the fact I can’t get her to hold a shroud. The new cloud generator works too fast for the spells in the envelope’s skin to keep up, I think. Instead of ending up wrapped in cloud, she ends up perched atop one, with only the cabin buried. Aside from that, and my having to get used to the new engine noises, I think we’re quite ready, comrade."
Smog blinked at Brando. Nothing more. “I’ll have the problem fixed tonight. Unless it takes longer, you will leave by tomorrow noon.” Smog didn’t look up, but he raised his voice to its usual muted boom. “RED, PLEASE COME DOWN AND JOIN US FOR A MOMENT.”
META: Before you start complaining about where I must have pulled that little swerve, the pirate flag trivia is historically accurate fact. I must confess that I helped DJ-AL3X decide on Red Raider’s cutie mark. The above fact may well have been lurking in my subconscious when I heard ‘Red Raider’ and handed me the thought of a red pennant flag. The connection surfaced while editing the above post, helped along by DioBrando dropping some of Brando’s backstory on me in a PM. It involves pirates. This lightbulb moment led directly to my inserted bit. DJ-AL3X has indicated he has a story as to why Red’s name and mark don’t match her profession. He hasn’t shared it with me and I haven’t asked. If I’m dead wrong, it’s still a suspicion Brando would logically have. If I just let the cat out of the bag, I apologize. But I couldn’t do anything else: it’s something Brando would notice.