Otso Mustonen stood among onlookers crowding a pool table watching an intense game between an audacious university student and a cool-headed man wearing an over-sized cream-colored sweater.
At 6’5″ and as an avid weightlifter, Otso dwarfed all other patrons in the tavern. He stood in the back, leaning against the wood-paneled wall, and observed the game over everyone’s heads with ease.
A snarky comment from the student elicited a murmur of disapproval from the crowd.
Otso ignored the student. Instead, his sky blue eyes followed the player in the sweater who stood aside with a tilted head, watching his opponent take forever to line up a third consecutive shot.
A grin sliced across Otso’s rugged face.
The sweater-wearing player was a snobbish engineer named Sans Chiba who had the twisted luck of being Otso’s coworker for nine years which had grown into an unlikely friendship. Despite being in his mid thirties, Sans’ sleek black hair was peppered with white—cropped short in the back with long sweeping bangs.
The student took a shot which resulted in a foul. Snickers rippled through the audience.
The honorary referee, an aged tavern regular, manually surrendered to Sans the white cue ball. Broad smiles spread around the room.
Otso called, “Sans! Be kind!”
“Kindness isn’t always an effective teacher, Otso,” replied Sans. Now he had the cue ball in one hand, cue stick in the other. He was allowed to place the ball anywhere and, judging by the look in his hickory brown eyes, the game was about to take a ruthless turn.
Otso’s phone vibrated in his pocket. Still chuckling, he withdrew his phone and answered it without looking at the caller ID. “Hello?”
“Hey, Otso, it’s Rika. We have an active breach warning in Teym. You’re the nearest DROSS pilot. Can you come?”
“Nearest—what happened to Chuck and Mia? They’re supposed to be on call over there for the next five days.”
“They are but they were both called out this morning to an ugly breach in Shahl, and it’s still a mess over there. They’re not gonna be finished anytime soon.”
A second breach in 24 hrs? Scowl creasing his thick brows, Otso considered his wrist watch, a gesture that Sans spotted as he straightened from taking a shot that made his opponent turn gray. The town of Teym is two hours away by car. “By when?”
“Now. Or as soon as you can. Even two hours from now is gonna be cutting it close. Geez, in two hours—knock on wood—you might be doing disaster response instead of disaster prevention.”
Running a hand through dirty blond hair that was long on top and shaved close on the sides, Otso straightened after a moment and headed for the door. “Dammit.”
* * *
Otso walked outside into the nippy autumn night onto a murkily lit patio area overlooking a full gravel parking lot, still holding the phone to his ear.
“I’ll have the data and DROSS unit waiting for you when you arrive,” said Rika, “but you need to get here, like, yesterday. I don’t know how long we have until this blows up.”
“It’ll take me longer than two hours if I want to get there in one piece. I’d gone out drinking and the quickest path to Teym from here is an unlit country road. Some of it doesn’t even have road paint.”
He heard the door behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Sans slip outside, clearly looking for him.
Sans walked over, mouthing: “Work?”
“Breach warning in Teym.”
Without missing a beat, Sans fished car keys out of the inside pocket of Otso’s leather jacket and started down the steps to the gravel parking lot.
Caught off guard, Otso blinked but quickly followed. “Rika, use the bunkers if the breach happens before I get there and don’t let anyone do anything stupid. I’ll get there as soon as I can.” With a clipped goodbye, he ended the call and jogged to catch up. “Hey, what happened to your game!”
Sans’ breath trailed like smoke as he marched under a crooked lamppost. “I won.”
“How? It had only been like ten seconds!”
They reached a late model white sedan at the nearly pitch-black edge of the lot. Its headlights flashed as Sans unlocked it remotely.
“And now the kid is wallowing in defeat and paying for your drinks,” said Sans as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
Pulling open the passenger door, Otso bent to look in at him, wide eyed. “I ordered–“
“Top shelf liquor.” Sans brought the car to life. A hint of a shrug. “Some life lessons are expensive. Get in.”
Otso complied, his disbelief melting into wry amusement.
DROSS engineers weren’t required to travel for work. Unlike DROSS pilots who could be summoned to various hangars around the countryside to operate DROSS units as needed, engineers were assigned to and worked out of specific locations. As a result Sans didn’t drive much for work, which worked out perfectly because he despised driving.
Sans shifted the car into gear. “Also, I don’t want ‘thank you’s for doing this. I want a good playlist and free food when we get there.”
Chuckling as he selected a playlist from a music app on his phone, Otso reclined his seat to get comfortable. He shut his eyes. “You got it.”