Every few hightides, a lowlife spent too long in the sludge bath at Lash’s tavern and slandered Staever’s gang for being hired claws.
“No real thief goes on council pay.” He’d slur his words, splashing in the black oil. “An’ no lobster should get soft on his crabs. He won’t even shock ‘em.”
So every few hightides, Staever kept his cool and explained how shocking crabs with flint sparks trained the steeds to fear their riders. His Cuttlefish Gang made great money by trusting their crabs instead.
It was early morning. Staever stroked his crab’s back with one claw, invisible from the road behind a dune. Through his loose-knit mask, he watched haze rise off the desert floor. He already felt thirsty, but ignored it, scanning the horizon for the shadow. Only one glass-hauler would pass by today.
Staever’s nerves were calm. He knew his vehicle, the crab harnessed to a wooden slab greased with mud, like he knew his legs. Behind him, a signal from his friend Wrest–a tight circle of his right claw–told Staever he hadn’t seen anything either. Like Staever, Wrest wore a mask over his eyes, mouth, and antennae. Unlike Staever, who was lithe enough to hide behind a mound of sand, Wrest had to look for a jutting rock to conceal his bulk.
Two lowly travelers wandered opposite sides of the road, one holding a signal mirror, the other hiding a bulky sonic detonator. Both of them had masks like the ones Staever and Wrest wore, ready to slip them on to close on the target.
Sunlight flashed off the mirror: a signal from Emaria, the lookout. A slender vessel approached from seaward.
“That’s our man.” Staever watched the ship. “Small but cocky, like Graphus said. Barely under sail.”
“How’s the guard?” Wrest asked.
“Looks like one. No, two. Not expecting trouble.”
Emaria’s first signal meant she’d seen the transport. She’d flash her second when it was in capture range. That might not take long–for a land-vessel under wind power, the glass-hauler was moving fast.
Wrest voiced an idea Staever was already turning over. “Did Graphus say anything about a clay engine?”
“He warned me they might have yellow stuff, but he always does.” Staever thought back to his last meeting with their contact. “He’s paranoid.”
“Can you blame him?”
“I did once. I apologized.” Staever raised his claw above his head and swung it downward, the sign for yellow clay.
Arcite, who held the detonator, tapped his front claws together. Acknowledged. They could ride down a wind-powered hauler, but not a yellow clay engine. Arcite had one chance to cripple the ship’s blade, or their target would speed away. Staever wasn’t worried about his timing. With Arcite, the real danger was whether he would set off part of the bomb to entertain himself.
Emaria signalled again, twice as long. The ship, a ramshackle carriage that had seen action before, was closing in. A whirring turbine behind the hull powered treads of flexible bone for hard-packed surface, or two propellors for soft sand.
One lobster on deck worked the tiller with one claw, feeding yellow pellets into the burner with the other. The second watched the road ahead and rested his claw on a sword of sheer white bone.
Staever tensed, ready to snap the reins. Wrest breathed deeply behind him. The lobster with the sword fixed his gaze on Arcite and Emaria in turn, then nudged his partner at the tiller. The driver snapped at the guard.
Emaria raised the mirror disc for the third signal, but Arcite was faster, yelping several times into the shell. The buried red clay caught fire and exploded, shooting flame up the transport’s steering rib. The guards flew off their legs as their vessel jackknifed.
It would damage the glass, but there was nothing they could do. Staever urged his crab forward. Wrest did the same. Their sleds sailed over the ridge, making no sound.
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