Episode Seven: Derelict begins Oct. 25th.
Skies Unbroken – Season Two
Episode Six: Fragments
The galley windows were dark eyes staring out into a gloomy, calm evening. The Wink and Smile sat at a smooth idle, still within the too-odd-for-Kor’s-tastes bubble around the life-berg. Metal utensils clacked and scraped against trays, and a kettle of tea on first refill made the rounds. While normally their haul today would be cause to crack a bottle of the good stuff, there was an unspoken decision to keep the alcohol sealed this time around, a sense of wanting to stay sharp. Just in case. Still, they went fancier for this one, breaking open some canned chicken and using up the more perishable vegetables of their supply.
Everyone but Nem was in attendance for this unplanned crew dinner. She was still sleeping off her…incident. There was little talk across the table and regular glances Kor’s way carried the expectation that he would break the conversational silence. Such are the burdens of being captain.
“What the pure hell are we dealing with here?” he asked aloud. He didn’t feel the need to specify.
“Quick reminder that this was your idea,” Lukas said, waving the tines of his empty fork in an all-encompassing circle.
“Yeah, to hunt out loot, score some jobs before the crowd, scratch that ‘defy the unknown’ itch. Then maybe close the book on some better-off-dead War tech.” Old promises of dead pirates. New encouragement of a matron spirit only he could see. Rational and normal motivations. Kor hadn’t heard a whisper from Luck since entering the Ferron storm. Another notch on the storm’s belt of being too damn weird.
Might as well lay out the few, recently gathered, fragments of information, see if they could make sense of them.
“Sil, you said before I cranked up the skiff’s beacon, the winds got stronger and whatever was keeping this little isle of serenity maintained started to waver, yeah?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Cross-chop picked up out of nowhere. Cloud shell started getting wrinkled. Not a peep from our equipment about a shift.”
“That lines up with when we yanked the other shard and moved the statue,” Lukas said.
“Yeah. We throw the shard back to the serpents, and they back off…”
“Damn strange behavior,” Chantil said with a fixed, faraway look.
“Few minutes later these skies calm back down.”
“Damn strange coincidence.” Wilcox added.
“So, at a minimum, we have a piece of tech that interacts with the local weather. And is coveted by serpents and specifically protected.”
“Which they simply don’t do,” Chantil added. “Serpents that size don’t horde items. They hunt, they nest and whelp, then they move on. It’s completely aberrant behavior.”
Kor continued his role of moderator and guide with, “And these shards can sense each other and draw a guiding line between pieces with enough motivation and improvisation on the human end.”
“Maybe that’s the trick?” Wilcox asked. “If the Virtue could manipulate the signal-scape, then its shattered pieces are now interacting with the areas where they ended up. Maybe that shard is pushing out this bubble of calm, working on a wavelength we aren’t attuned to.”
“Which possibly explains the serpents’ affinity for it,” Chantil said. “Whatever signal the shard produces, the serpents are attracted to it. All skybound creatures have some level of interaction with the sound-scape, whether for navigation or communication. If we can improvise a means of reading the shards’ signals, why not the natural world as well? Especially with the biological deviance inherent to upwell storms.”
“Shouldn’t we be asking these questions with Nem here?” Lukas asked.
“No, because this ain’t an inquisition.” Kor said with tolerate-no-guff firmness. Lukas gave him a conceding wave, meaning no harm.
Not yet, anyway.
“As for her…could be just the storm and being too deep too long,” Silja said. “I’ve seen it before. She’s been working too many hours and N/Cs can burn out like light bulbs. Reading all that signal scrambles them up.”
Wilcox nodded at this and said, “Happened a lot on Coalition ships during the War, since we always flying with lean crews. Some babble and displacement and confusion might be Nem getting off easy. I knew of multiple N/Cs getting tossed into confinement after long escape hauls, all mad as a loon.”
Chantil said nothing to this, though her narrowed eyes and mouth in a hard line suggested she wouldn’t write it off that easily. She swirled her cup of tea and said, “Our overriding question is this: How much do we attribute to the upwell storm and how much do we speculatively assign to the Virtue and its scattered tech.”
“Hard to diagnose,” Wilcox said, “When the two are so intertwined. The upwell storm began right after the Virtue went down. Or, was defeated, rather.”
“I find it hard to believe that’s a pure coincidence,” Kor said.
Wilcox continued, “Or if so, surely the two systems have fed into each other over the intervening years, making the precise timing irrelevant.”
Another pause of contemplation.
“Not enough data,” Chantil said. She didn’t specify as to which topic. Probably no need.
Nods around the table on that point.
“So, we keep eyes and ears open,” Kor said, wanting to wrap up this line of thought since it wasn’t going anywhere solid. “We got time on this. Not much and its drifting away. But we got time.”
If the storm and the Virtue’s odd tech were feeding off each other, time would fade the storm’s power. That, at least, was clear from the softening weather and shrinking bounds of too-dangerous skies. No harm in waiting a little while longer to see if their explorations shook anything else out.
“So, what’s our next move?” Lukas asked. “Ideally lower on the narrow-escape-Lukas-shoot-that-thing scale.”
“If I may be self-serving,” Chantil said, “We have the coordinates for a large island nearby. If the numbers bear out, it’s potential colony material.”
Kor agreed. “Yeah, Doc, I’m thinking so. Go back to normal exploration for a few days. If that island works out, we’ll secure another solid payout from the bounties back in Gloria.” The target was a close match to a sizable, and unsettled, pre-storm island. Couple hundred miles from where it was twenty years ago, but a close match. “Take advantage of this calm spot overnight, strange as it may be, then ride out and move on.”
Aside from all the questions left on the table, it almost sounded like a proper plan.
* * *
Silence. There’s a pure moment of nothing between sleep and wakefulness, the flatlined boundary where your dreams fade away but before the surrounding ambient noise rose to seize your attention for the day. Like the beat before the song begins, it’s banished and gone once you notice it.
Nem reached over and flicked on the softer, bunk-side light, then half buried her face in a pillow, squinting against the light and listening. The ship thrummed with the sounds of a nighttime hover, the turbines singing their faint duet through metal and internal air alike. Mellow hums pulsed through the Wink and Smile like heartbeats and breaths, the sigh of ventilation, the gurgle of water. An artificial life harmonizing into a familiar background tune. No footfalls or muted buzz of talk or clank of work threaded their way through the walls. Nem guessed it was past midnight.
She sat up, sloughing off an immense amount of sleep, shirt clingy, air too warm and stagnant. How long was she out? A day and some change? Probably needed it after what happened but she gave a disapproving frown all the same. She hated losing any sense of time.
Her notebook sat on the stand next to her bed, grinning open from a pen in the middle. Nem removed the pen but didn’t look at the most recent entry. A bunch of questions and mysteries that were multiplying on their own, their signals amplifying. She shoved the book into a drawer and out of sight.
The temptation to visit the flight deck and take a quick listen to the sounds of the skies quivered through her head. Not the shard, no. The normal mix.
No. Not just yet.
She pulled on fresh clothes and left her cabin. It was a conscious effort to turn left in the corridor, away from the flight deck. The cargo hold instead, for a different, softer sort of comfort. A couple stops on the way, most importantly the galley, where she plucked one of the dwindling supply of chilled, fresh (sort of) apples. Plenty of evidence of a common meal lingered in the room, with the scent of chicken spiced to overcompensate for bland efficiency the most prominent. A small pang of missing out on that chimed in her thoughts.
Nem stepped onto the catwalk over the hold, bare feet sinking slightly against the gridded metal. The structure creaked from Silja hanging from one of the support bars below, rolling through a set of pull-ups.
“Morning,” Nem called down, her voice its normal timbre. Good.
Silja dropped to the deck and said, “Hey. Cat’s around here somewhere.”
Nem clicked her tongue over the stacks of the cargo hold and padded down the stairs, stopping three steps from the bottom and taking a seat. She gathered signals from the scene lit by faint utility lights. The skiff was moved and stained on the rear. There was a new, long item in the hold that drew her eye. It was covered in a tarp and secured into the grid of supplies. So, they found a worthwhile piece of loot or salvage. Good to know her efforts paid off.
After a time, long enough to reduce the apple to ruins, Stormy trotted up from some hidden place within the stacked supplies and aggressively rubbed his face against her shins. Despite Nem’s best efforts, he didn’t care to wander up near the crew quarters, favoring the cargo hold and hanging around Wilcox in the engine room. That’s feline gratitude for you. Still, the cat climbed into Nem’s lap and settled in. A stretch of companionable silence followed, broken by the huffs of Silja’s exercise routine and Stormy’s rumbling purr.
Then Nem shivered, though it was far from cold, the warmth from outside seeping through the hull and joining forces with the nearby idle engine blocks. Stormy sat upright in her lap and fixed his gaze in the air above them, eyes tracing nothing at all. Nem almost dismissed the first as her imagination and the second as a bug. Then she saw a glimmer of light play and flow under the tarp covering the new acquisition at the rear of the hold. She gave a start, then tried to focus on the light, but it was gone, perhaps never there.
Silja was between sets, canteen in hand, and gave Nem a brief, askance look. Something which was getting mighty old from the rest of the crew. Even if it might be deserved of late. Silja either realized this or Nem let fly a slight glare. Regardless, the pilot tried to shrug it off with a tight smile and a drink from her canteen.
After a moment, Nem said, “Sometimes there’s a…feeling to the air in here. Sometimes the observation deck. Sometimes up top. All over, really.”
“Yeah, well,” Silja said. “This ship’s weird.”
“How do you mean?” That was the first time Nem heard it put so bluntly.
Silja looked around, as if talking about someone behind their back. True enough, in this case.
“She’s shaped weird. Interior space doesn’t match her exterior profile. It’s hard to see from the inside, and I don’t really notice it much anymore. But the design is…I don’t know. Weird.”
“Like there should be more space, but you have no idea where it’d go.” Nem would defer to Silja on this. She herself only knew two ships in detail. The other jobs she took between the Wink and Smile and Lost Among Friends were short-term deals.
“Yeah, and we don’t notice it because we’re under-crewed. Cushy amount of space for all of us. Ship this size should have at least ten and Kor gets by with five, plus a half with Chantil.”
Nem gave the cargo hold another hard look. Stormy mirrored her, following another unseen target through the air.
“But maybe it’s just my imagination,” Silja said with a shrug. “After crawling through a few of the utility spaces while helping out Wilcox, it could just be the tech and other guts of the ship taking up space.” She sat on the deck and rolled onto her back with the resigned sigh of self-inflicted physical work.
“Yeah, maybe,” Nem agreed, attention trailing off and back to the odd feeling laying over the hold. It seemed to radiate from the new addition, false lights aside. Nem stood to investigate, evicting Stormy from her lap, and making her way through the cleared lanes between the crates and boxes and spare parts.
Nem saw the impressions of a statue through the tarp. Laid out on the cargo bay’s deck, the statue put in a fine imitation of an oversized coffin, the covering like an Ossporian funeral drape, whether for northern burial or southern burning.
“Hell of a find, that one,” Silja called over, though she was now obscured by the crates between them. She went back to another set of exercises, her breaths like a rhythmic beat to Nem’s steps.
Nem unhooked the tarp’s securing points and pulled it back, folding it over the strap at the statue’s waist.
The Three Spirits were symbols of the Orventian Empire. To some on board this statue was something lost. To others, something brought down and defeated. To Nem, this serene face meant nothing at all. Just a holdover from a world order she never saw beyond the ruins and stories and scars worn by her elders. Indistinct memories of evading the War flickered in her head, not real enough to be anything but false creations or the reconstructions of childhood after the fact.
Nem held back a surprised gasp when a pale, rose light glimmered from a puncture on the statue’s hip. She reached in and traced a finger along the inner edge, easing around a few sharpened points of metal. A touch of warmth gave her pause. Nem knelt and saw a fingernail sized piece of crystal lodged in the avorium of the statue. A thin slice of the same material as the shard from the Virtue.
She did, pressing her index finger against the crystal. It was sharp but not enough to cut skin. No ill echoes of her previous experience rang in her head. Only a strange sensation of peace simmering through her nerves like long-awaited good news.
Silja puffed through her exercise, properly distracted.
The fragment came loose easily and provoked no further reaction when she held it in her palm.
Nem stood and re-covered the statue, checking the securing lines with a tug. She bid good night to Silja, pet Stormy once more, and returned to her cabin. Maybe she would put a new entry into her notebook after all.
(Episode Seven: Derelict begins October 25th!)
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017