Never claim, brag, or even presume you can outrun a storm. The storm usually wins.
Kor eased the Wink through a dusty gray void. The wave of strange weather spun off the Ferron upwell storm caught up to them in a big way after they raided Jeppesen’s isle. The wind currents weren’t much trouble, almost gentle for a storm. It was the dense gray dust carried on its winds that blinded them in nearly every way and made navigation a guessing game. They were near an island, that much was certain, and Kor would like very much to set down and ride out this mess.
“Come again, Doralee, message unclear,” Nem said into her headset. Comms was almost as garbled from the dust storm, though Doralee’s signal beacon had been close enough to get a fix on the island and an open line, after enough wrangling. Nem said she wanted a challenge, after all.
It’s polite to ask permission from the locals before storming onto their land, even though Kor had every intention of setting down, damn their response. Any shelter in the storm and all that. Kor glanced at the folded section of chart wedged onto the pilot console next to the useless positioning screen, mentally fixing the Wink’s location. Doralee itself stood on a spit of land on the east side of the isle, a little port of a few hundred souls, a bunch of farmland, the usual. One of many isles of civilization across the frontier, a connective link in a grand net across the skies. The rest of the isle was claimed wilderness and the Wink approached from the west, right into the heart of Doralee’s backwoods.
“They said to help ourselves to the west side, Cap,” Nem reported. “Unsettled wilderness. Should have sheltered hollows and some wind-breaks from the hills.”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t make it out,” Nem said, sounding like she didn’t care for the admission. “Some kind of FYI. Didn’t sound all that serious.”
“We’ll keep an eye out, all the same,” Kor glanced up at the swirling nonsense on the other side of the windows. “Much as we can.”
His positioning data shook itself out of the fog, amber decals flaring against the black screen to show the Wink on a very slow collision course with a range of hills. Found ‘em. Kor guided the ship up and over to the leeward side of the barrier hills. The weak bumps of the storm smoothed out as the view ahead and below cleared.
Doralee was forested over rolling rocky hills, much like most islands in the Northwest. Visibility was still miserable but good enough for Kor to find a low-lying clearing in the woods for the Wink to set down for a spell. Perhaps a pond in wet years, the area was dry and clear, a fine landing point at any time and doubly welcomed today. Kor unlocked and pushed the landing gear handle forward, wincing at the thought of dust swirling into the housings. They were likely the last places on the ship the dust hadn’t infiltrated to some degree.
The Wink bumped onto the ground, settling into a stillness Kor hadn’t felt in weeks. He stood slowly, his sense of balance missing the subtle, floating feeling of being airborne.
“Gonna grab a dust mask and give the Wink a walk-around,” he said to Nem. She pulled her headphones down around her neck and stretched in her seat. “You coming?”
She looked forward at the dust still visibly swirling outside, fainter but very present.
“Much as I wouldn’t mind getting off this ship, I think I’ll wait until Gloria, Cap.”
Kor gave her a mirthless laugh on the way out and said, “You’re missing out.”
* * *
Kor was goggled, masked, and armed as he slid open the cargo bay’s port-side exit. The mossy ground was a short hop down so he didn’t bother with the extendable ladder. Even though he was sheltered from the winds on this side of the Wink, he tugged his jacket closer as he took a look around. The forest fenced in the clearing, if not quite dense enough to look ominous. Above, the dust storm flowed over the area, diverted by the hills to the west to create this calmer pocket of low-lying ground. It was gloomy, but not enough to require additional light.
He started his walk-around. The Wink’s exterior curved up and slightly outward, the gray-green hull still looking fine. Kor never thought to paint it, as the metal had a natural sheen and look to it. The Wink was a rare variation on an uncommon body design. Wingless, save for the suggestive flare its flanks curved up into. A sleek form, with everything built into slight curves, the exterior riveting nearly invisible and the instrument ports cunningly placed. It was as if the ship had been carved from a single block by a deft sculptor.
Kor passed around the rear of the ship. The cargo doors were built into the hull to look seamless and were flanked by the rear engines. Vertically arranged in two columns of three, the engines steamed in the moist air. Kor grimaced at the dust already collecting in the folds of his clothes. They would have to do a thorough cleaning of the engines with compressed air before taking off. Then give the entire ship a twice-over at Gloria. Kor had no desire to be shaking this dust out of every nook for months to come.
Forward of the starboard tilt turbine was a big plane of empty hull space. Normally that space would be filled with a decaled name and affiliation sigils. Getting ‘Wink and Smile’ up there was another incomplete item on the ship’s to-do list. Maybe in silver letters, with a nice shine to them. Kor would prefer to keep the rest of the space empty and free, no further affiliations needed.
Kor strode around to the fore of the ship with increasing swagger. Everything looked top-notch. He’d check with Wilcox for any internal troubles, then they can wait out the storm for a few more hours. Maybe overnight depending on how slow-moving it was and—
“What the hell is that?”
What appeared to be round clod of mud had affixed itself to the fore of the ship, right atop the lower observation deck’s windows. It wasn’t a bird, smacked out of the sky or otherwise. Then it moved, body undulating once to shift to the right. Kor hopped a step back in surprise then stooped to pick up a small rock. He gave the rock a gentle toss, not wanting to ding the windows. It smacked against the thing with a fleshy thunk. The creature writhed in place before launching itself off the ship with more speed than Kor would have expected. It unfolded into an approximation of a flat quad-hopper and flapped toward the forest.
Kor watched it disappear into the trees, then looked back to the windows. A faint green ooze drizzled down the Wink’s hull where the creature had perched. He saw Chantil through the windows, notebook held in the crook of an arm. She scowled down at him for interrupting her own observation of…whatever that thing was. Then she gestured to the rear of the ship. ‘Meet me down there’ it said. Kor obliged, glancing over his shoulder into the dust storm for any more of those things. He gave the last corner of the Wink a cursory examination as he returned to the side exit.
Chantil bustled through the inner door leading to the cargo bay, meeting Kor in the short passageway just as he stepped up into the ship. She had a notebook open and a pen at the ready. Kor pulled his dust mask down and shifted his goggles to his forehead.
“Hey Doc. I—,”
“Did it make a noise?” she asked.
Chantil added a mark on her notes.
“Did it inflate as it flew away? Did you see any air sacs?”
“I didn’t get a good enough look,” Another mark. Chantil re-read her notes, brow furrowed. She was in rare form.
“It had sucked undersides and excreted fluid while attached to the windows, though the glass appears undamaged. Likely for digestion. Perhaps akin to the winged slugs of the Jora’den jungles…?”
“So you don’t know what it was?” Kor asked, finding his opening.
Chantil looked up from her notes with an excited fervor in her eyes. “I have no idea! I can’t think of a single comparable creature. They must be from the upwell and riding the dust storm.” She leaned to the side, examining the landscape beyond the open exit door. She then snapped her notebook closed with a decisive nod.
“I’m going to go get changed,” Chantil said.
“I’m going to catch one and you’re going to help me.”
“Doc…” The thought of one of those things inside his ship was about as attractive as the creature itself.
“Mr. Icomb, do you have something else scheduled while we’re grounded?”
Kor didn’t. Not until the storm passed, anyway.
“Fair enough, I’ll tag along.”
Chantil returned quickly and transformed. She wore a sturdy brown coat, a women’s cut stopping at mid-thigh, mended in places and worn at the cuffs. Elsewhere, brown leathers over black boots, a rucksack of gear over one shoulder and a hunting rifle on the other. A bandana patterned in three shades of green hung around her neck and a pair of goggles waited on her forehead. Kor had to admit she cut a hell of a figure in it all.
“How long have you had that rifle?” The weapon was a gorgeous piece, with a faded cherry-wood body showing years of use and care.
“Long as you’ve known me, Mr. Icomb,” Chantil said. “I’ve simply never needed it until now.”
Kor smirked as he thought of a couple instances otherwise, but let the moment pass.
“Carry this.” She handed him the second sack of gear clutched in one hand. Within were a net, a few sturdy glass jars, and collection bags. Kor slung it over his shoulder without complaint. He didn’t mind the sudden conscription into this hunt. Chantil had been game for more than a couple of his own whims and ideas, past and future. Best to pay down those informal debts when you could.
They stepped out into the blunted fury of the storm. The winds had picked up a notch, causing the trees to sway in the currents. Chantil wordlessly took the lead, following the tree line halfway around the ship, searching for some sign or clue to follow. Kor hoped they might get lucky twice, find one of the things nearby, though he didn’t believe it would be that easy. Chantil paused at an area of thinner growth and motioned for him to follow. Inward and uphill, it would seem.
Doralee’s backwoods were mostly tall, thin trees with waxy, dinner plate sized leaves. Underfoot grew a mess of species: ferns and creeper shrubs and dozens of other opportunist varieties whose seeds rode the winds between islands. A temperate landscape, if rocky and raw where wild plant growth hadn’t taken root. Doralee floated at a higher and cooler altitude whereas another isle at this exact X/Y spot but deeper Z would be tropical, receiving more rain and heat from the lower weather systems spun off the Churn.
A double canopy covered the skies above them, the first wind-stirred greenery, the second a dun gray of dust-choked clouds wearing shifting striations. As above, so below, with the spotty undergrowth inlaid with a sublayer of fresh dust. Little moved among the trees outside of the wind, the resident birds having better sense than Kor and Chantil, hunkering down in shelter. All the same, Kor kept glancing at any motion, searching for anything strange, right hand drifting to rest on the pistol at his belt whenever they paused.
Chantil moved with a different set to her shoulders, some amount of her formality and rigidity melted away in the wild. Alert and comfortable, she navigated the dodgy terrain with ease, her gaze sweeping over the forest, taking in all the details. Kor had seen hints of this side of her before, but even then, she was somehow restrained.
Making me more and more curious, Doc.
A rustle in the undergrowth to the left. They both whirled to face it, Kor with his pistol drawn and readied in a snap. A flash of tawny fur retreated deeper into the woods and the only sound was the wind stirring the canopy above.
“A huntsman lynx,” Chantil said, voice muffled from the bandana. “They released the damn things on the larger islands decades ago in order to control rats and other non-native pests. A horrid idea.”
Kor’s thoughts went to the wilder tales he’d heard and spread along himself. Of lurking beasts and one-of-a-kind monsters among the jungles of low-lying, fog-shrouded isles. Of barely glimpsed shapes in the distant skies at twilight. Of griffins and giant serpents and krakens.
“Think we’ll find something more interesting?”
“We already have,” Chantil said. Then she seemed to read his meaning. “Hardly worth considering anything more fanciful, Icomb,” she said, brusque as always. “Not that people haven’t tried looking.”
They tracked further out, always moving uphill. The low cloud ceiling loomed closer through the trees, and the gray haze in the air persisted like a sickly morning fog too stubborn to pass on. The winds waxed and waned, sometimes falling to nothing and leaving the forest in silent stillness save for their footfalls. Each step felt like an increase in isolation and Kor kept a mental tether toward the Wink. Should be easy enough to find from here. Just go back downhill.
Soon enough they came across a substantial find: A circular patch of ground cover, about six feet across and stripped bare of most plant life. Acid-eaten fronds and stems hung limp and dejected over furrowed and disturbed ground.
Chantil knelt at the edge of the area, setting her pack and rifle to either side, both at the ready. Spatters of the creature’s greenish fluid lay across the ground. Torn fragments of leaves gently sizzled in the fluid, filling the air with a chemical scent. Chantil nudged a dot of fluid with a utility knife, raising it to her face for a closer look. Kor crouched a short, wary distance away and kept an eye on the surrounding woods.
“It isn’t corrosive to the knife, and possibly other metals, if you’re worried about your ship,” Chantil said.
“Less so now.”
“Certainly a digestive.” Chantil indicated the feeding circle with a sweep of a gloved hand. “Please collect a few of the damaged leaves in one of those jars, Mr. Icomb.”
“You’re the expert,” Kor said, layering it with a question. Chantil met his look, face obscured by the goggles and bandana. She turned back to the creature’s traces, lifting a half-eaten stem of long pointed fronds and shaking drops of the fluid into a clean sample jar. Kor followed suit and did as she asked, gingerly angling still sizzling leaves into a jar.
“Indeed I am,” she said, tossing the frond away. Chantil sealed the jar and gently swirled the contents, examining the sample. “You understand the drive for discovery, correct? For exploration? This is my version. Try not to read too much into it, Mr. Icomb.”
“Every explorer has a big prize, Doc,” Kor said, placing his sample jar into his sack. “What’s yours?”
Chantil replied with a short, steady stare. “Let’s move on,” she said, broking no argument. She shouldered her gear and looked uphill, already decided on a direction.
Touched a nerve, then. Kor rose to follow her.
More signs of the creatures showed up as they went higher in elevation. Acid-eaten and broken portions of the canopy revealed the creatures’ preferences and the ceiling of blowing dust drew closer as they climbed. Multiple times Kor wanted to point out a flash of strange shapes riding the storm above, but was certain Chantil saw them and uncertain whether they were anything but his imagination.
Chantil snapped alert. Something rustled through the canopy, a dark gray patch flapping just out of sight. She sprinted after it, navigating the terrain with an uncanny comfort. Kor struggled to keep up with her, cursing himself at every stumble and half trip.
Kor caught up right in time to see Chantil lowering her rifle. He hadn’t heard a shot.
“Slipped away,” she growled. “Never had a clear look, much less a shot.”
“We’ve been out here for a while now, Doc.” Kor was starting to think seeing the one on the Wink was the extent of their luck in this case. The forest didn’t want to give up any more freebies and they were chasing ghosts, or might as well be.
“Humor me a little longer, Icomb,” Chantil nodded toward the top of the ridge. “A quick patrol along the crest, at least.”
“Sure thing.” Kor figured they had a few hours before worrying about sunset.
And so they continued. The top of the ridge revealed another ridge crest running parallel to them. Chantil’s intuition proved out and they found a few more scattered signs of the creatures feeding on the local plant life. They collected a few more samples of the fluid, all the while catching tantalizing glimpses of shapes in the clouds above.
Kor even remained silent when Chantil led them down into the gully between the ridges, figuring her pursuit was burning itself out. The forest surrendered another ground-based feeding site, but this one wasn’t like the others.
While the ground was disturbed as if the activity was recent, the plants weren’t stripped by the creatures’ strange fluid. Instead, blood stained the ground in a small dust-covered pool and the winds stirred scattered, dark feathers.
Chantil knelt to investigate, turning a feather over in her fingers. Kor kept a steady, patrolling eye on the surrounding forest, not liking how fenced in the ridges made the area.
“A sikki,” Chantil declared. “A couple hours gone.”
Kor kept a keener eye out now. Sikkies were nasty things with a grudge against the world and the hardware to take it out on others. They started out like most other birds but as they got older they grew too big to fly, their wings atrophying to uselessness. They settled on islands and became ground hunters. They could take a man if motivated enough. Kor empathized with the sikki though. Being permanently grounded after having the freedom of flight would turn anyone sour and vicious. Kor would become a mean, old recluse too.
“No, that’s not quite right,” Chantil said. “There’s no detritus from the kill and they’re messy eaters. That means something took it.”
“Hunter?” he suggested, dialing it back to a mundane answer. Kor hadn’t heard a gunshot, though how well it would carry in these woods was up for debate. Sikki meat wasn’t high on his list, but you got a lot from a single bird. They might merely have stumbled on some backwoods folks’ dinner plans.
“Likely.” Chantil motioned up the slope of the further ridge. “There are signs of passage that way. We might as well follow it for a little while. Agreed?”
Kor nodded, his curiosity trumping his desire to start heading back to the Wink. Chantil picked out a trail with precision, a string of barely-there blood drops or what she claimed were human footprints. They crested the opposite ridge and pushed to the edge of the crowing foliage to see lights shining through the dusty haze below. There, at the base of a steep descent and resting in another low hollow in the land, was an airship.
Kor sidled up to the line of foliage crowning the ridge, thinking himself concealed enough behind the fronds and dusty haze to avoid notice from their unknown neighbors. The ship was a mid-sized ’lancer, like the Wink, though a little bigger and a completely different body design. This one wasn’t quite like any other airship he’d seen, with a gray hull that looked brand new. A winged design, each wing flaring out further than normal but seemingly hinged, the turbines and engines able to turn independently. Red signal lights blinked along the body in a crisp rhythm. Every inch of it smacked of sparing no expense.
Likely the advisory Doralee tried to tell us. Unless these woods concealed a different secret or strangeness they needed to know about. He didn’t see anyone outside on watch and scattered feathers whirled around on eddies near where an exit ramp might be. That was one mystery solved, even if it led to another.
“You got a sketch pad in all that hunter gear, Doc?”
She did, withdrawing a pad and pencil from her coat with admirable precision. Kor nodded his thanks started a quick sketch, squinting through the wax and wane of dust swirling in the air. The ship faded in and out of clarity, each surge of dust threating to make it vanish like a mirage.
The ship leaned forward from its landing struts, like a bird of prey frozen mid-dive. It wore heavy plating all over the hull and its windows were few, narrow, and blacked out. Kor noted the weapon mounts, some fixed into the sleek body, others on obvious swivel points. Military grade stuff and not War salvage. This bird had talons, factory-fresh like the rest of it. With all those moving parts they likely wanted to ride out the dust storm, same as the Wink. And not a mark on it. No sigils. No flags. No name. Fast and mean as hell.
Kor nodded in passing approval at the sketch and passed the pad back to Chantil.
“You considering introducing yourself?” she asked while watching the clouds above.
“No, we leave ’em be,” Kor whispered back, though the winds and rustle of the forest could cover a full-on shout. “Worth remembering though, Doc. Take a hard look.”
Kor pushed away from the ridgeline and traded places with Chantil. He took a gander upward and saw a couple four-lobed shapes flit through murk above. More of those things, close but sticking to the cloud cover. Kor figured letting Chantil lead them in pursuit once more wouldn’t hurt.
Chantil returned from the crest of the ridge, making an enviable deal less noise through the undergrowth.
“I don’t recognize the design,” she said.
“Nor I.” Kor wished Wilcox were here, just for a moment, to get his take on it. Their mechanic had a knack for the subtler hallmarks of ship design, and might be able to figure out the region of origin. The sketch would have to do.
“First blush? Smelled of arrogant authority.”
“I agree, one evolved to fill a suddenly empty niche. It was only a matter of time,” Chantil said. “Eventually some fragment of the old Coalition would get their act together and build something new.”
Kor hummed an agreement, though it didn’t sit quite right with him. The ship could be damn near anything and anyone. Single ship mission. Reconnaissance. A wealthy old admiral taking her new prized ship on a long maiden voyage. Or a new piece on the board, yet another party looking to profit from the frontier. Kor had varying degrees of welcome for each possibility.
Chantil pointed further along the ridge where it curved away from the ship and rose toward the flowing dust above. Kor tightened the mask over his mouth, wanting more than ever to spit out the kernels of grit that had wormed their way in. The hunt resumed.
Kor felt the storm losing its bite. The sightlines through the trees grew clearer and the wind gusts became infrequent, softer. He pushed his goggles onto his forehead without much concern for blowing dust, flexing his face to work out the rings of pressure around his eyes. Chantil’s stride through the forest was undiminished. If anything Kor sensed a greater fervor to her steps as the storm waned.
They paused at the base of an ascent where the two ridges merged and rose to meet the low flowing clouds, the heights obscured by the gray fog. Chantil stopped to lean over yet another patch of ooze-eaten plants. They’d passed a few others like it, increasing in frequency as they rose in elevation.
“Thinking we let them go on their way first,” Kor said. He’d spent much of the last leg of the hunt mulling over that ship. He hadn’t come to any new conclusions. “Rather we not bump into each other.”
“Do you think that is over-cautious?”
“You disagreeing, Doc?”
Chantil gave it a thought and shook her head.
“No. It would be best if we didn’t, ah, borrow trouble.”
Kor had to grin at the expression. The frontier was starting to stick to her. Only a few more years of losing that accent and Chantil might be able to blend in.
“We’ll keep an eye out for their like all the same. See if anyone in Gloria knows who they are.”
Chantil shifted her pack on her shoulder and gave her rifle a look-over.
“Shall we ascend, Mr. Icomb? Find the other fantastic beast on this isle?”
Kor sighed inwardly at the climb. “After you.”
Kor wasn’t much fond of hiking, all in all. Especially over rough ground while chasing gray ghosts in the skies above. Their hours in the backwoods and hills of Doralee were starting to wear him down. His legs burned and his paced slowed as he followed Chantil. Kor figured he was in better shape than this, but he’d been doing a lot of sitting around during their travels over the last couple weeks. His newfound freedom was making him a little soft.
Well deserved, for a spell.
Chantil showed no such slow-down. If anything she led the climb with greater fervor than before. The trees thinned as they climbed, the canopy broken with gaps and storm damage. Fallen branches fouled the already rocky and unfriendly ground. Chantil paused every few minutes to note further signs of her quarry’s leavings. Acid-eaten fronds, stripped branches, and the like. Kor could only imagine how the dotted line of signs looked solid and clear to Chantil.
They reached the boundary of the storm, where a flowing gray fog obscured the top of the rise like a curtain across a stage. The treetops swayed in heavier winds and zephyrs of blowing dust lashed out from the greater whole, fleeting, seeking tendrils of wild weather. Kor caught up to Chantil, puffing against his dust mask and balancing against the winds. The gusts weren’t strong enough to toss them around but were sturdy enough to falsely threaten it. Kor leaned against a tree and pulled aside his mask for a swig of warm water from his canteen, resigned to a dose of dust with the drink.
“They’re here,” Chantil said, setting aside her pack and unshouldering her rifle.
Kor followed her gaze and caught sight of the creatures wheeling about in the fog above. The things’ four-lobed bodies glided on the winds, their central chests swelling and shrinking with the odd sort of propulsion some creatures used in these remote skies. They moved like nothing he’d seen before, ably riding the wind as if it were a mere suggestion when their apparent weight should send them tumbling along.
Chantil primed and aimed her rifle with smooth, practiced precision. She fired a shot into the murky sky, lending a crack of absent thunder to the strange storm. The clouds absorbed the shot without reply. Chantil cleared the chamber and took aim once more, tracking shadows in the dust above. Kor rested his hand on his pistol but knew he needn’t bother drawing it, for multiple reasons. He spared a thought for the unknown ship sheltering below and hoped they were far enough for the gunfire to go unheard.
Another peal of artificial thunder and nothing fell from above. Chantil’s rifle growled with grinding dust as she pulled the bolt. She knelt to check the weapon, a faint snarl visible from uncovered portions of her face. Kor couldn’t see any more of the creatures in the gloom. They looked to have cleared out with the shots.
The storm pulled away from them, retreating higher into the skies. It was weakening or moving on from Doralee. Kor could see the barrier peaks at their backs with greater detail and could probably pick out the hollow where the Wink awaited their return.
“Might be the best chance we get,” Kor said.
“No,” Chantil said, firm and almost fanatical. She stood, shouldered her rifle, and turned toward the rising hillside. “We still have more time and more height to gain. Some may be lingering behind.”
Kor had his doubts. If these things rode on the dust storm, they’d be clearing out with the weather and with every passing second the dust ceiling retreated further away.
“Alright, Doc.” Little harm in one more climb with an end in sight.
She set off upslope once more, chasing the retreating ceiling of flowing dust. Kor followed without haste, all the while noting her less precise movements. She stumbled, only slightly, here and there, desperation or simple frantic pursuit fouling her formerly smooth traversal of terrain. It wasn’t far to a false summit, the prominence lending an expanding view of Doralee’s clearing contours.
Chantil stood alone on the barren rise, realizing the storm had departed and her quarry with it. She didn’t bother to aim another shot. Kor took his time in meeting her up there, allowing her a moment or two alone. Most folk preferred solitude when watching whatever they desired fall out of reach.
Kor pulled off his dust mask and goggles, the air finally clear enough to go without them readied.
“Come on, Doc,” he said. “Let’s head back.”
Chantil shook her head in disappointment rather than refusal.
“I’ve barely anything to show for it,” she said, addressing the skies themselves, fists clenched at her sides.
“We got a couple samples from the plants. It’s not a total loss.”
She yanked off her bandana, balling the dirtied cloth in her hand.
“Dust and scraps and the dubious testimony of a couple frontier rogues. A solid scientific basis, Icomb. It beggars belief this could happen to me…”
A strong wind rose once more, ushering zephyrs of dust off the ground to catch up to the main body of the storm. The roar of it against Kor’s ears almost stole away her last word.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016