The freeport of Gloria coiled around a mile-tall column of stone, a crowning spire overlooking the island’s fertile and essential plains and forests. What started as a conservation of farmland had grown into a vertical city, built on circular terraces and suspended from rocky overhangs.
Kor strode through the backstreets of the Waist, Gloria’s market level, with increasing comfort. Why, he’d been in port for a full day and hadn’t been shot at or around once. Not even a whiff of trouble from past associations. He had to give all credit to Gloria’s current management. This ‘Governess’ had cleaned up the town real nice. Metaphorically speaking. The inner streets, with their older tenements and warehouses and shops wore a proud and authentic layer of grime, a relieving contrast to the newer, too-clean promenade facing the skies. Even a few of the old false houses remained along the inner streets, their flimsy facades barely strong enough to withstand the winds. Kor wondered if they were maintained as before, dirty little tricks in case of attack. Above, Gloria’s column rose up and out, casting the inner neighborhoods in sheltering shadow. Street lamps glowed along the streets of the Waist even though it was midday, their attendant insects whirling about in wild orbits.
Kor followed a set of directions to their current destination, Nem walking alongside him. She eyed anything remotely interesting as they walked, eager to set off for her own R&R. He only needed her around for this final task. His meager crew put in a great many hours in maintenance on the approach and after landing yesterday. Mostly dust removal.
“First time in Gloria, Nem?”
“Yeah. Lost Among Friends only ran routes down south between the Triplets and Hub.” Her words carried only a whisper of wistfulness for her previous ship, a trade freighter. Kor figured she’d bear a greater fondness for what was effectively her childhood home. Not so.
“Well,” he said, “This is a damn sight nicer than it used to be. This Governess really turned the place around.”
“I heard it was more of a purge, Cap.”
“You heard right,” Kor replied. Gloria had rolled and yawed through the gamut of alignments during the Dissolution. From Imperial rule to Coalition-backed rebels to a barely functional pirate hole. But the island was too valuable and too well placed to leave to anarchy, leading to the rise of the current rule: a woman styling herself ‘The Governess’, backed by traders’ money and a Core nation’s might. By Kor’s reckoning Gloria had gone full circle, right back to being a funnel of frontier resources into the Core lands.
All to his current benefit. He and Lukas had easily found buyers for their haul from the expanse crossing and Jepp’s cache. The salvage was effortless since Gloria had its fair share of fixer and scrap shops. It wasn’t on the level of Hub down south, and didn’t have a true shipyard, but respectable. Jepp’s gem stash took a little more leg work, with most of yesterday eaten up by wheeling and dealing at shops ranging from scummy to high-brow. Kor settled in the middle on a broker who asked the proper minimum of questions and presented an offer high enough to make Kor uncomfortable.
Good thing he was about to spend a fair chunk of it.
“Here we are,” Kor said. Nem hummed an unimpressed response.
‘Crow’s Call Communication Particulars!’ declared a red and black sign bearing the silhouette of a crow calling out signal waves. A red light stood in for the crow’s eye, blinking inconsistently in the false evening gloom. The shop looked like a converted warehouse and not so promising on the outside, but from what Kor had gathered the owner did good work and didn’t care much for publicity.
Hopefully he would enjoy a challenge.
Kor pushed through the double metal doors. Inside was an open workshop, the entry area and storefront loosely defined by a chest-high counter. Beyond the counter lay a maddening mess. Wires and components coiled over the tops of open storage crates. Buoy casings floated in the center of the floor, contained by heavy nets hung from the ceiling to form a gently rippling dividing wall. A series of nav/comm consoles of varying designs, ages, and functionality lined the left wall. One console was hooked into a new comm package, its screen flickering through some manner of programming routine. The whole place implied an internal order Kor wasn’t equipped to understand. This wasn’t so much a for-hire workshop than a personal laboratory. It was perfect, exactly what Kor wanted to see.
Kor approached the counter, looking for a service bell. No such luck.
“Good morning!” Kor called out, his voice hollow and reverberating through the space.
From above came the reply of a flutter of feathers and a disdainful caw. Kor glanced up and spotted a crow in the rafters above the entryway. It would appear the shop’s title was literal. A gap in the net-bound buoy casings widened to reveal the proprietor of the shop, Turchov.
“How can I help you, friend?”
Turchov was a barrel of a man, with an unruly-by-design black beard over full cheeks. His pale skin and accent placed him from Vostokia, a cold Core nation at the very northern tip of Osspor. An orange tabby followed him, the cat shooting Kor and Nem a protective glower.
“I’m Captain Kor Icomb. This is my NC, Nem Pearson. We have a proposal for you. A custom comms job.”
“That is what I do, Captain. Speak your desires.”
Kor figured he might as well be direct and start laying out the plan piece by piece.
“I need a set of signal buoys. Enough to work over an entire region.”
“Thinking fifteen or so,” Nem added.
“They need to look old fashioned. Pre-War or older.”
“That is a large order for a single ship, Captain,” Turchov said, “But simple enough to fill from old Imperial stock. What else?” A polite way of saying ‘And why do you need me?’. The orange cat jumped atop the counter and placed itself between Turchov and Kor. Kor tried to ignore its unblinking stare. Turchov ran a hand along the cat’s back.
“They need to appear barely functional, keeping with their look. Poor comm signal, scrambled nav readings.” Kor needed these things to take advantage of the one of the central rules of the skies: never meddle with an active buoy, even a half-broken one.
“A false face relay network,” Turchov said, catching right onto what Kor wanted. “You want a communication network that doesn’t want to talk to the greater buoy chains and a positioning network that tells anyone not speaking the right language the wrong coordinates.”
“Yup. We want anyone listening to think they’re singing junk, but in fact are the best you can make, an ace system. The comms don’t even have to work.”
“It would be easier if they didn’t. I always preferred navigation to communication, Captain.”
“The chatter can be as complicated and dense as you need. I can handle it, so long as I can modify it from our ship,” Nem said.
“They also,” Kor added, drumming his fingers against the countertop. “Need to be sturdy.”
Kor had to show his hand eventually.
“Enough to ride out the last weeks of an upwell storm.”
Turchov let out a short guffaw, and the plan certainly deserved it. Kor was about to pay this man to build out an ace system, only to throw them into a dying storm.
“I catch your meaning, Captain.” He looked over his shoulder at the line of buoy casings and shook his head, dismissing them as a group. “For the death throes of the Ferron storm…I would need sturdier shells for such a thing. That should be no problem. You will also need an additional receiver on your ship to hear them properly.”
“Remote activation,” Nem said.
“Yes, they cannot be active within the storm itself. It’ll fry the circuitry.”
Another cat introduced itself by rubbing against Kor’s leg. He glanced down to see a scrawny gray and white cat. It returned the look, expectant. When Kor made it clear no further attention was forthcoming, the cat moved on to Nem to try its wiles on her. It worked and Nem stooped to pick up the cat. It remained in her arms without complaint, all the while shooting feline glares up into the rafters. A crow quorked with contempt.
“He likes you two, it would seem. A recent acquisition. Stray. The crows bully him around too much,” Turchov said with a frown.
“Not integrating into your, ah, system?” Kor asked.
“No. Not well.”
“How many you got?”
“Three crows. Cats, eh…” Turchov waved a hand indecisively. “That number is in flux. You need a ship cat?”
“Yes,” Nem said, swaying in place. “The ship’s missing one.”
“That’s bad luck,” Turchov added, gravely serious.
“Only in northern Osspor traditions,” Kor countered. “I don’t have concerns about my luck and we don’t even have rats for him to hunt.” So far as he knew, anyway. Vermin were always a possibility.
“Seems like a needless risk,” Turchov said.
“Needless!” Nem agreed.
“So, the buoys,” Kor said, throttling the conversation back on course. “I’m buying the buoys, the system, and a healthy amount of discretion. And I need it all within three months. You in?”
Turchov pondered the idea, one hand stroking his beard, the other scratching the counter-top cat on its chin. The silent moment stretched into a solid minute. Kor glanced at Nem and she returned a barely perceptible shrug. The upsell cat in her arms squinted back at him, utterly content.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I can do this in the time frame you wish.”
“Great! How much will this cost me?”
Turchov told him in such a firm and confident way as to deny any possibility of it being anything but the fair and accurate truth. Kor rocked back on his heels from the blow to his so-recently flush accounts. Nem laughed. A crow cawed.
Guess we’re working those intervening months.
“Done,” Kor said, thumping his fist on the countertop. Somehow, in a single word he simultaneously felt like a high-roller and bottom-feeder. It will be worth every coin. Once the Ferron Expanse became navigable, they will have their own positioning network pinging out the shape of the skies and have a head-start on where to look and what’s out there. Step Four.
“Wonderful! Let us work out the details, Captain.”
Nemily Pearson ambled along Gloria’s market promenade, humming to the melody of life, her steps unconsciously falling to the hidden beat. She listened to more than watched the scene around her. Folk went about their respective business in every which way, their activities a cacophony of sonic threads fading in and out of prominence, briefly joining before they unraveled into their separate ways. It was a heady mélange of trade and commerce, of deals struck, schemes plotted, and hungers sated.
Yet it all paled in comparison to skies themselves. Once you keyed into that subtle symphony of signal and learned to ride the waves of clarity and distortion, the islands and ships and storms each became instruments of their own. The grandiose scope of the composition humbled and enthralled you. Left you exhausted and fascinated and begging for more. There were dangers in going too deep for too long.
Nem took a deep breath and savored Gloria’s relative quiet. It was nice to unplug for a while. Necessary, even. Give herself a soft reset.
And find some new music. Her old tapes, while loyal standbys, were starting to get a touch repetitive. She needed a broader range. Gloria was better linked into the trade networks than the Triplets and should have a better selection. Once she found a store. Perhaps some sort of Core collectable and luxury shop? How much demand would there be out here anyway?
Gloria’s market promenade lay along a circular avenue, a belt of respectable commerce cinched about the waist of the island’s central pillar, half shaded by the flare of land above and half sunny in the afternoon light. Blustery winds stirred it all to add a whispering undercurrent to the sights and sounds.
A wall of storefronts stood on the inward side of the boulevard, a curving series of construction mixing simple frontier brick and mortar with cliff-like Orventian stonework of smooth white and gray. Streets and narrow alleyways cut between sets of storefronts, radiating out from Gloria’s central column like rays of light. The outer side lay open to the surrounding skies, the view occasionally broken by a smaller shop or eatery. Metal platforms jutted out from the street, wide enough for hopper-cabs or cargo mules to land. A few of the little ships darted above the market level, engines buzzing as they ferried folk between the city’s vertically arranged tiers.
Signposts sprouted from the fencing along the outer edge with regularity, quivering in the wind. Most held advertisements on their lower panels and were topped by onion-shaped lamp bulbs and an emblem with a degree measurement, an address noting where you stood on the market circle. Nem passed the 170° marker. She was almost a third the way around since parting ways with the Captain, then.
Her mind kept returning to the Captain’s plan for delving the Ferron Expanse. It could work. Even if half the pingers went mute in the initial mix, the storm would spread them all over. The Ferron Expanse might be huge but if the plan worked they could have their own custom network. Ears in place before it was navigable to airships. Catch the sound of islands and know where to look before anyone else. The switch-on would be chaotic nonsense, nothing but new signals. The prospect of such a challenge excited her even more and Nem certainly fancied being at the center of her own little network. Queen of the castle, if you will.
She should also sneak on that cat next time she went by Crow’s Call. Or maybe wait for when they picked up the buoys. The Captain didn’t explicitly say no and the Wink was big enough for a cat to hide out until it was too late to kick it off. By Nem’s read there were nothing but strays on the ship already. Five disparate strands roughly bundled together and trying to harmonize. What harm in another accompaniment? Especially a furry one who brought good luck.
Speaking of accompaniment: Nem was being followed. A steady, furtive footfall lurked below the market’s noise and life. It was a breath out of sync with the surrounding chorus and too consistently behind her to be anything else. Right?
Nem turned into the next available store without glancing at its signage, bells on the door adding their own little ring to the mix. The market’s song faded to a dimly-heard muffle. She paused a beat as she realized this was a men’s clothing store. Poorly chosen. Was she was looking for a gift? Then again, she wasn’t high fashion herself. But nothing would fit.
“Can I help you, miss?” asked the proprietor, a long-limbed and sharply dressed fellow.
“Hats,” Nem said with more conviction than she expected from herself. It was time for an impulse buy. She certainly had the money for it.
After a believable amount of time, Nem left the shop while adjusting her new hat. It was cream colored and supposedly matched her complexion, with a wide enough brim to deflect the sun without being overbearing. She looked up and down the street as she did so, giving the scene a thorough sweep as she tuned back into the song suffusing the air.
With all properly aligned, Nem set off down the street once more, this time with directions from the clothier to a shop that sold music tapes. Greta’s Gallery of Goods near 210°. Not much farther around the promenade. The accompanying footfalls fell in behind her after a prudent few moments.
Right. Her new friend. She hadn’t seen anyone out of place or suspicious, though Nem supposed that was the point of tailing someone. There were plenty of alleyways to duck down, all pointed inward to the island’s column, eventually crossing the inner ring streets. Seemed a poor and unpredictable choice. Easy to get trapped and lose the rhythm.
Nem was getting much too ahead of herself, her imagination filling in gaps in the signal. This was all clearly a mistake. Who would be following her, anyway? She knew no one in Gloria besides the others on the Wink. A simple solution, then. Allow them to catch up with her in the open, see their mistake or speak their peace and move on.
She reached an intersection of the market avenue and a wider spoke street. Outward, a node of three larger platforms jutted into the skies. This was the 180° plaza, with a centerpiece fountain bearing a statue of a woman. The head was missing. Nem approached the fountain, figuring it once depicted one of the Imperial Spirits, the personifications of the Orventian Empire. This was Vision, judging by the robes. No water pooled in the basin. Post Dissolution rule must have decided the water was better used elsewhere. Couldn’t fault the logic there.
Nem turned and took a seat on the rim, her feet extended and palms planted to either side, feeling the smooth stonework. Just taking a brief rest. Nem gave the scene around her a firm look-over and parsed the crowd. Her tail’s footfalls had stopped. She filtered out the obviously uninvolved. Workers and shoppers, especially those walking in groups. No. No. No. There. Gray coat, nice hat. Young man, about her age, convincingly examining the wares of a tech shop. Just the right distance away.
Someone sat on the rim of the fountain to her left, their presence completely unheard and undetected.
Guess I was wrong. How was I wrong?
He was a nondescript fellow of about thirty and wore a wide-brimmed hat partially hiding a Zerish face. A face like hers, though Nem had never been to her cultural homeland and bore it and its people no true kinship.
“A ballad of errant strands and lost virtues, traced across the sky.”
And obliterated Nem’s mental focus.
The background music faded to a dull, distant ring, as if her speakers had given out. A clawed, dissonant feeling scratched through her mind. Beats missed. Measures ripped from the composition.
Nem blinked a few times, equally baffled by the words and the sudden silence. It was code. Nem had no idea what it meant but dearly wished she did. No. Not again. This was her imagination filling in a disruptive gap in the music. Everyone stumbled now and then.
“Mate, I think you’ve got the wrong gal,” she said. Believed it, too.
They exchanged a look beneath respective hat brims. His pale blue eyes were steady and impassive, yet so very certain. Then a shift, a beat of consideration, a mistake realized. This had to be a case of mistaken identity, as she thought.
“You’re right. I beg your pardon, miss.” A grin, a nod, and he was up and gone. He vanished into the crowds, those once distinct footfalls fading into the improvised symphony of Gloria’s markets.
A mistake. That was all.
Nem lingered on the fountain for a moment to get her mind attuned the city’s rhythm. A woman argued with a customer about the condition of her wares. The whirl of a passing cab overhead. A crew of workers grumbled impatiently on one of the landing platforms, their delivery late.
Back on rhythm. Nem took a steadying breath. There was something under her left hand. A piece of waxy paper folded into a palm-sized triangle. Nem hadn’t moved her hands since sitting down.
What game was this, what puzzle? Nem unfolded it once, just a peek. Neat, nonsensical writing peered back at her, perhaps containing a subtle internal logic. A delivery, left behind by mistake. She must have fell into the correct moves in whatever dance the stranger jammed to, said the right thing without knowing.
Nem stood and pocketed the note for later. Such a mystery was irresistible and she could always destroy it if it looked like trouble. Something new, all the same. An additional composition for the grand whole.
But first she needed to find that music shop.
The punch connected with his jaw. Lukas Roth reeled from the blow and kept his temper on a tight leash, focusing instead on the familiar numbness spreading across his face, the herald of soreness to come.
Hello, old friend.
Lukas had a lot of debts scattered hither and yon across the Northwest. Unlike what he owed Kor, not every debt had such a friendly arrangement and interest didn’t accrue in the various forms of legal tender.
“Jimmy. You done?” he asked after running his tongue along his teeth, confirming all was in order. Lukas deemed one hit as fair play for an old crewmate sauntering into your shop as if nothing were amiss. He would take issue with any more before getting a proper word in.
Jimmy clapped fist against palm in consideration. He’d kept in form in the intervening years, still as burly and ready to brawl as when they crewed The Cannoneer’s Glare. Like Lukas, he was northern Osspor stock, pale skinned with a crop of loose brown hair. Jimmy had always been ugly and Lukas was fairly sure the crooked nose was his fault, though he couldn’t remember the when and how.
“You still owe me a hundred sails,” he said, turning a palm upward to receive payment. “Said you’d have it tomorrow and you wouldn’t be here unless you have it now.”
‘Tomorrow’ was about four years ago and just so happened to be the same day Lukas terminated his service on the Glare. The two events weren’t directly related. Lukas gave Jimmy an apologetic grin and reached into his inner vest pocket. He drew out a coin pouch and tossed it over. The twelve thin coins within dragged the pouch into a gentle descent to Jimmy’s waiting hand, speaking to the quality of the contents’ avorium alloy. Jimmy tugged the pouch open and gave it a hard look all the same.
“We sorted?” Lukas figured the extra coinage and the punch would account for any incidental interest.
“Sorted, Roth,” Jimmy said with a finalizing nod before pocketing the payment. He circled back around the worktable to the hunk of scrap tech sitting atop it. Looked like the guts to an engine.
Lukas folded his arms and leaned against the wall, feeling all the lighter with one more debt seen to. Jimmy’s chop-shop was a mess but such places always were. Knee-high bins of spare parts stood in two rows against the opposite wall. Choice salvage pieces hung in a half-assed display in the grimy and narrow storefront windows. Places like this didn’t get much foot traffic, but it looked like Jimmy had assembled a decent living.
“You need anything else?”
“Few questions is all,” Lukas said, knowing he’d overpaid enough for a few minutes of continued patience.
“Where’d the Masked Motives land after the falling out?” Gloria had changed so much since the last time Lukas crewed a ship based here. It used to be a pirate port in all but name, the absence of Imperial authority like a fast-acting rot.
“Blown to pieces by one of the Durro gunships the Governess brought in. Few survivors floated up on rings but none of Jerace’s posse, if that’s your worry.”
Lukas crossed another line item off his list of debts and hoped Jerace had a nice long fall into the Churn. A pirate like him deserved worse.
“A concern no longer. What about Lylah?”
A wide, crooked smile settled on Jimmy’s face and Lukas’s heart sank. Win some, lose some.
“Got out clean. Heard she’s running with the Night Hawks now. Bad luck there, Roth. She’s the ‘pound of flesh’ sort.”
Lukas was suddenly very interested in watching out for a white lancer. Then again, if Lylah joined up with the Night Hawks, her ship would be repainted to match. At least he and Kor would have another thing in common, though Lukas wouldn’t trade places with him. ‘A woman scorned’ and so forth. Kor had it much worse in that regard, even if he seemed intent on ignoring it.
“Well, at least Gloria’s cleared out for me.” Lukas stood, feeling like he’d made out pretty well today, swollen jaw aside. He made to leave and said, “Thanks for the intel, Jimmy. You take it easy.”
“What about Roscoe?”
Lukas stopped in his tracks.
“Naw. You’re joking.” There was no way that old scum runner could still be in town. Lukas hardly considered the possibility when they pulled into port. Getting rid of folk like Roscoe was the entire point of Gloria’s purge.
“Yep, he’s still here,” Jimmy said, enjoying a twisting of the screws. “He pulled some favors and had to give up some of his business, but he made an arrangement with the Governess. She’s a trader and will always deal if the money’s right.”
Lukas knew Kor wanted to base out of Gloria for the coming months. He let out a sigh that morphed into a groan. He had to take care of this particular debt now. Today, even. It was early enough in the morning. Hopefully.
“You know where I can find him?”
Roscoe’s place lay in the hazily defined under-district of Gloria, known as the Skirts. Billowing out appropriately below the Waist, it was a chaotic, multi-level arrangement of would-be neighborhoods and ship moorings grown out of the original structures anchored to the island’s column. The winding pathways and streets were often interrupted by lifts and ramps running between the active new dockyards and the proper areas of the city above. The whole place was a by-product of frontier improvisation, now shrouded by new construction following an actual plan.
The streets under the Skirts still held a lively activity, with folk going about their business. Lukas used to run these routes and didn’t much care for how easily he became accustomed to walking them once again. A lot of the boisterousness had gone, the bars and brothels and dens moving to Gloria’s brighter neighborhoods. Or fled the island altogether depending on what they were peddling. He stopped by the Wink beforehand, dropping off all but petty bribe money and dressing down in a manner that screamed ‘don’t even bother’. He had enough sense to arrange the actual payment elsewhere.
Just gotta take care of old debts. It takes a while to scrub the dirt off, but Lukas was starting to feel clean and unchained. True freedom was a few years off yet, baring a big score. Perhaps with whatever Kor expected to loot out from under the Ferron storm. Lukas wouldn’t mind a lucky break for once.
He found the address quick enough. The place didn’t look like much but was appropriately located in the perpetual shadow on the north side of the column. One of those old inner-ring buildings of Gloria, lurking among the machinery and pathways and anchoring bars of the proper parts of town. The windows were newer, reinforced at the least and perhaps barred behind closed blackout curtains.
Lukas strode up like he belonged there. A thick-bodied guard leaned against the front door, a Durro-looking fella with olive skin and a slicked-back hair style that seemed like more hassle than it was worth. He didn’t look too dumb, unfortunately.
“Fall off, mate. This ain’t a shop,” the guard said, eyeing him dismissively. Lukas felt an itch on the back of his neck, the feeling of a second set of eyes on him. A look-out somewhere on the street? Just how far had Roscoe’s fortunes risen?
“Oh, I know it. You tell Roscoe he’s got an old debt wanting to pay up. He’ll make the time. Unless you want to lose him money?” He still felt in control, though his grasp was slipping.
The guard took it all in stride and asked, “Name?”
Lukas gave it. The guard knocked on the door twice with his heel. Lukas heard a plate pulled aside, obscured by the bruiser’s lounging.
“One Lukas Roth to settle up,” the guard said over his shoulder.
No reply but the plate returning to place. This operation was becoming more organized and semi-professional by the second. At least he didn’t need an appointment. That would be the most worrisome development of them all.
After a few moments the door opened, the guard stepped aside, and a lean Kural woman blocked his way. She nodded at Lukas’s belt and he surrendered his side-arm. It was an old standard issue Imperial pistol, a ten-shot piece, common as can be. Aside from the sigils inked into his skin, it was all Lukas had to show for all those years of service. It’s hard to pay out a veteran’s stipend when the Empire ceased to exist. Strange he held such fondness for an item representing the beginning of all his troubles, his first bad bet. Sentimentality was unpredictable like that.
She and the bruiser frisked him all the same, perfunctory and quick. Lukas had no designs on violence. He just wanted arrange a payment and be done with it.
“Come on,” she said, waving him inside.
Within was an inactive storefront converted into the semblance of a reception room. The immediate area past the front door was devoid of cover, but across the room the countertop and two doorways leading to the rear of the building were well appointed for a nice defense. Not the grandest headquarters of a would-be kingpin Lukas had ever seen, but respectable. The sort of middle tier establishment that didn’t draw too much attention, quietly accruing the wealth and quiet power of the underworld in ports across the skies.
“Through there,” the woman said and nodded to the left doorway. She returned to the far-side of the countertop, leaving his gun in plain sight on one end. “Let yourself in. He’s aware.” She went back to a short stack of paperwork, the mundane bookkeeping of whatever operation Roscoe had his fingers in these days.
Lukas didn’t bother to knock and pushed his way through the plain wooden door at the end of the short hall. Within was a well-decorated study, a wide wooden desk halving the space. Shelves of trophies filled the walls. Lukas picked out old branded goods of distant origin, a line of bottles of quality liquor, and a few books, old and new. He priced most of it with a glance, another old reflex he had no trouble reviving. The amount of wood in the study’s décor would have been surprising a couple generations back, but not so much anymore. Now it was a bit of an affectation of would-be wealth.
Roscoe didn’t look his part. He was a short, round, bespectacled man, and his tan face spoke to a vague heritage that could be from anywhere north of New Kurala. Looked like an accountant and bookkeeper rather than a mid-sized crime boss and smuggler with a trail of ill deeds behind him. Perhaps that’s why he was so skilled at his job. Like a humble trade freighter hiding a battlecruiser’s armament. Another burly guard stood calm and collected in the shadowed rear of the room, next to a door Lukas assumed led clear to an escape route, perhaps even a waiting hopper.
“Lukas Roth,” Roscoe said, layering his name with all the dingy nooks and crannies of their past association. “So good to see you alive and well, partner.” He gestured with the stub of a cigar in one hand to a low-backed leather chair in front of the desk. The cigar wasn’t an affectation like the woodwork. Ekuan, from the heady, spicy scent that condensed all the tales of that distant continent into a lingering haze. A cigar like that was worth a week’s pay to most folk, maybe more these days.
“Roscoe. You’re doing well, I see.” Lukas owed him, but it was just low enough of a debt to be willing to walk into the griffin’s aerie and expect to come out alive. It was debt worth holding over him, but not worth killing for. He could be thankful for that much.
“Very much so. Turns out going mostly above the mists and cutting a deal with the powers-that-be can work out for some.”
If Jimmy’s life was a cobbled together sort of comfort, Roscoe’s was extravagance for the sake of it. Lukas shifted in the fine leather chair, hoping he wasn’t visibly sweating bullets.
“Came to the same conclusion myself.”
“What ship are you working these days, Lukas?”
Right to business. Lukas considered and dismissed the lie. Roscoe would just have someone tail him and find out anyway. This was increasingly looking like a bad bet, too much improvement on the other side of the table.
“Wink and Smile.”
Roscoe mulled the name for a moment and said, “Arrived yesterday. Mid-sized lancer of unclear make. No tags, no rags. Wedge-body, two-by-three rear plus turbine tilts. A clean record. Pristine, even.”
“That’s right.” The details of the Wink were all from memory. The precisely arranged folders atop his desk were closed.
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t intend to be flying through Gloria for the near future. You’d have laid low and I wouldn’t have known you were in port until you were long gone.”
“In my defense, I hoped you were dead,” Lukas said, stone-faced. Meant every word.
“That’s understandable,” Roscoe said with a toothy half smile. “No such luck.”
“I just want to pay you out, Roscoe. Be done with you.”
“And I would love for you to repay me, Lukas, but I don’t want your money. I don’t particularly need it, and not at any exchange rate of favor-to-coin you’re capable of meeting, better fortunes or no.”
“Then how you want to resolve this?”
“Favor for favors.”
Lukas was afraid of that. Afraid the debt would string him along once more. Afraid of the plural. Exchanges of favors and deeds were woven deep into the fabric of the frontier. When you tell someone that you owe them one, you’d best mean it. Lukas meant it, those years ago. And it was time to pay up.
“One for one,” he offered. Might as well try.
“No,” Roscoe replied like a gut shot. “Maybe back then, but fortunes change, Lukas. My stock has risen while yours…” A slow draw and lazy exhale. “Might be worse, given you’re trying to be so wholly legitimate.”
Lukas found himself with nothing to say. He was getting wrapped up in more bad business and walked right into it.
“Your captain freelancing I assume?”
“He looking for work?”
“Not from you.” He wouldn’t drag Kor and the Wink into this. He wouldn’t jeopardize the best thing he had going in years.
“A pity, but I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Roscoe knocked on his desk three times. “Three small jobs for you. Let Sao up front know and check-in with us when you’re in port. You let us know where you’re headed next. I can find some discrete work for you.”
Roscoe wasn’t asking. Lukas glanced at the guard in the shadows behind Roscoe. Ready to draw in a heartbeat. Discrete work could be any number of things, most of which he had experience in and few he’d like to do again. Roscoe didn’t specialize. He ran whatever was in demand and forbidden, whether unlawful or merely unspoken. As long as the numbers balanced out.
“Three jobs and we’re done?” Lukas felt one more chain wrapping around him and he’d stuck his neck right into this one. Another bad bet, the latest in a long-running series.
“And we’d be done.”
“You got a deal.”
Jackson Wilcox was a man of order, while the skies were an interlocking system of imperfect machines, filled with agents of chaos, never mind nature’s own entropy.
Thus, Gloria’s docks were a soothing thing of beauty. Anchored along the island’s spire-like column, the docks radiated out from the stone in geometric lattice work, a grand union of platforms, cables, lifts and struts. A mess of metal and rope and people and ships at a glance, but a well-running machine to trained eyes.
He watched this wedge of docks from above, seated at the counter-top of a small eatery, a pod-shaped business catering to dock workers and visiting mechanics. They served simple, efficient fare with secretly good coffee. A benefit of sticking near the docks when other crew would head up to Gloria’s promenade or heights. This was for the greasers (though Wilcox kept himself as stain-free as possible) and the rousts and the fixers.
A man of order. Yet still he fought, in his own ‘keep these damn engines running’ way, to bring down the old Order. It was an unwieldy machine, the Empire, better broken and rebuilt than constantly patched to function.
Hard to say if the replacement parts were doing their job, though. Perhaps that was why he remained in the frontier. For all the disorder of these open, wilder skies, most human influences were inherently orderly, a banishing of chaos with purpose, while free of the Core’s layers of history and obligations and ‘it’s always been this way’ excuses.
Well, that was the philosophical reason, anyway.
The docks radiated out like spokes on a wheel, each wedge its own node of activity. Dock 4-4 was full-up today. Half of the six platforms held merchant haulers, each distinct in design and age but unified in badging. Cait and Company. Never heard of them, but they looked prosperous, with two Zerish-built runners with their old-school design cues of wooden ships of the past. Next to them stood a big, bulbous Vostokan freighter, its contents currently being unloaded into cargo mules for transit elsewhere in the port. Two cutters badged with Gloria’s sigil stood on the outer spokes. Imperial refurbs at a glance, the one on the left hiding battle damage with a patch and paint job on its port side.
Then there was the Wink and Smile. A lancer by her size and looked no more than fifteen-years-old, though her hull was a distinct alloy and might age differently. But Wilcox had been working on her from within for a little while now, and overseen repairs before that. The Wink was older than she looked, but lightly used. Her engine and systems design was Imperial, in the vague way that all airship systems were ultimately Orventian. Wilcox prided himself on knowing from a glance where a ship came from and what mindset designed it, and the Wink was a mystery. Kor might be coy about the where and how of he got the ship but Wilcox figured him out a while ago. The Wink was second-hand, that was certain, and her captain didn’t know where she came from either. Not originally. Not the birthplace.
A puzzle for another time.
Wilcox nodded his thanks to the tender, sliding an extra coin across the countertop with his empty cup. He thought to check his written shopping list, but had every item fully in mind already. Another, simpler task lay ahead.
The signs were easy enough to spot. Specific color combinations. Word choices in the shop names. Affiliations flown like flags in plain sight. Wilcox knew who he was looking for, even if he didn’t know where he was going. He’d never been to Gloria before, but the port followed the same unwritten rules and structure as any place. The circular, half-shaded streets overlooking the docks rolled by, composed of mostly new construction and filled with fixer and mechanic shops migrated up out from the now-scummy areas deeper under the Skirts.
This was a likely place. Meltdown Mechanicals, in the seemingly common alliterative naming scheme of Gloria’s merchant class. The sign had all the proper symbols under a patina of wind-borne dust: A Coalition deep-blue background with segmented wheel symbols tucked along the edges.
Wilcox pushed his way into the shop, and was greeted by a well-organized main floor heavily scented with oils and metals.
“How can I help you?” The proprietor was a middle-aged man, Altani, bronze-skinned, sharp eyed, graying hair.
“Broken bonds,” Wilcox said. There was always a slight risk to leading with the old code phrases. They were well known at this point, but still useful as a clubby handshake. Anyone faking it would give the deception away in their face or response time.
“Forged anew,” the shop owner replied. His stance softened, an instant change in mannerism, like fitting a critical part back into place.
Old ties, useful at times. Hindering in others. Well, it wasn’t so bad for Wilcox. After all, he flew on a ship under a former Imperial. Still counts, even if Kor was just under the cut-off of being old enough to be a true Imperial pilot. He could see it in the Captain’s eyes. A lingering wistfulness for a world order he only barely touched before having it collapse around him.
“I’m looking for a professional-grade ship mechanic’s kit.” Kor’s rapid departure from the Triplets had taken Wilcox by surprise, to say the least, and he’d been working with an incomplete toolset for far too long. Might as well splurge for a full new kit.
“I’ve a couple spare sets, if you’re looking to pay for ‘em.”
“Let’s see it.”
He shouted for some unseen assistant to bring a replacement toolset. An audible but wordless assent replied from the back.
“I’m also looking for a set of forward guns, standard mounts, fixed or swivel, between 20 and 40. Know anyone who might help me out?”
The shopkeeper harrumphed with a private joke.
“Sorry friend. You won’t find anything worth a damn in the entire port.”
“Pardon?” That couldn’t be true.
“There’s nothing on the market. We haven’t had a munition shipment in months. Not for the general populace, anyway. Even the chop shops are cleared out by now.”
“Depends on if you’re the gamblin’ sort.”
“I’m not. But my captain is, so I guess that makes me one, too.”
An understanding grin. “Fair enough. You might find something down in Knucks, if you’re willing to head that way.”
Knucklebone. A port run by a guerilla-turned-pirate-turned-organized crime outfit call the Sunders. Another machine set in motion by the War and still turning away while their criminal peers became marginalized and bled out. A different sort of order emerging, such as it was.
“Think I’ll exhaust other options first,” Wilcox said.
“Not so bad down there, so I hear. So long as you keep your head down and get in and out quick. And don’t mind triple checking everything.”
“That’s for sure,” Wilcox agreed. He wasn’t above ill-gotten equipment, so long as it worked.
They filled the air with the small-talk common to mechs across the skies. Tips, tricks, and anecdotes, largely centered on improvisations and repairs their respective captains or clients would be aghast to hear. So long as the machine worked, and worked well, you could get away with a lot.
All the while Wilcox gave the shop a harder look, masking it behind casual appraisal. This shop was well off the main drags, but looked a little too prosperous. Well-stocked. Wilcox took a harder look around the shop’s wares, looking for small signs of what else they were up to.
Well, for one, that crate on the floor next to the door leading to the back was filled with neatly organized replacement parts for military-grade weaponry. Orventian design, but a newer build. The metals had the dark tint of Altani-sourced ore. Recently built and shipped disassembled from the look of them.
So that was interesting. Almost seditiously so. After all, why would a fixer shop need fragments of such firepower. Wilcox could imagine a few scenarios. Not too far-fetched either. Durro-backed strongwoman in charge of the second-largest freeport in the Northwest Frontier, and an ascendant rival to Hub down south. Altani-backed Hub, much as the council down there would claim otherwise. Durro and Altani, two cornerstone nations of the old Coalition, now barking at each other across the frontier, setting up their influences and pieces on the board.
Wilcox didn’t bother asking after the gear hidden in plain sight. Those old Coalition ties only went so far. And besides, it was none of his business. His job was complete after putting these new machines into motion. Let others maintain and manage their inevitable faults. He was retired from all that, on a quiet freelancer.
Granted, a quiet freelancer planning to be first into the Ferron Expanse. Bit of a contradiction there. And yet he stayed on.
The assistant returned with a heavy tool case and hauled it atop the worktable. He opened it and spun it around. A pristine array of tools and meters and other devices shined back at Wilcox. Perfect.
“Exactly what I’m looking for.” None of that consumer-grade junk in the promenade shops. Wilcox slid a roll of coins across the counter, the coins’ eight edges thunking their way along. No price was named. He knew the kit’s worth.
“Apologies for the currency,” Wilcox said. It was mostly Imperial coin, the faces of dead emperors of a discarded old order. It was an overpayment, to cover the still-shaky exchange rates.
“Not a problem, friend. I take a certain pleasure in removing them from the market. The ‘changer we use melts them down.”
Components melted down and re-forged, as it should be. Order. Old into New.
“A certain poetry in that,” Wilcox said.
Verica Chantil read through the short letter once more. It would serve. She signed a name that wasn’t her own, trying to imbue the script with a bit of a sarcastic sneer. She hated that name, even if it served her well in this exile. She waved the paper a few times to dry the ink, a wholly unnecessary gesture, and folded the note thrice. It went into the courier bundle with the rest: A write-up on the creatures she and Icomb pursued on Doralee, a few run-of-the-mill reports on the wildlife she’d seen, and a follow-up to what she sent in before leaving the Triplets in a hurry. She sealed the bundle, checked the address a final time, and passed it off to the courier office worker. The package was weighed and priced. Verica gave a thin smile and paid the sum without concern.
She left the courier’s office and returned to the wind-swept streets of Gloria’s Crown District. Here, the homes of the port’s most successful (legitimate or otherwise) merchants and bosses stood along wide, curving brick streets. A variety of small businesses and services formed a ring on the outer edge of the district in stately mimicry of the similar districts below.
In fairness, Gloria was better than the Triplets, thanks to its connections with Osspor that went around Hub’s dominance of routes between the frontier and the Core. Better, but still a former pirate hole that’s been dressed up and washed since the War. She’d heard the current boss of the place was a woman about her age, calling herself ‘The Governess’ or something of the sort. Just another frontier strong-arm, but her power was real enough to drive out anyone she didn’t care for, pirate and legitimate competitor alike.
She got results. Proper credit was due there. All the same, Verica didn’t care for the town. It was yet another loosely managed impersonation of proper civilization, the sort she’d spent far too much time among. She was starting to get used to it. To the limitations. To the improvisations of conveniences. Here, the quality of life between field work and civilization was a blurred line.
One day. I’ll be able to go back one day.
Verica paused in place and pushed her bitterness back into its proper mental storage jar. Gloria wasn’t quite that bad. It was founded by Imperial hands and would carry on some traditions, the little things for which her heart ached.
A test, then.
Verica knew she could find the right places. The influence of the Orventian Empire lingered beyond the Dissolution’s aftershocks, if you knew where to look. It was tracking of a different sort. The signs were subtle. A choice of color here or an old Imperial symbol hidden in a reworked sigil there. They were less statements of loyalty to a dead empire then adherence to traditions and a level of quality.
She picked up the trail and found her way to a shop of luxury goods. Anything ‘Imperial’ was often now ‘Torsian’, substituting the Core continent for the still-loaded term. Verica browsed their stock, her eyes alighting on Orventian pocket watches, Zerish brandies, and Kural silk scarves. Nice things. Civilized things. All largely tossed away in pursuit of some vague new flavor of freedom. But this shop was a dead-end. It all smelled false, like their wares were hauled out of looted mansions and cleaned up to look legitimate.
Onward to a moneychanger, an errand while seeking out the trail once more. Verica possessed ample money, if remotely held. Her instincts came through for her all those years ago and she transferred her accounts before the mood around her changed from inquisitive to accusatory to vindictive. Little sense in hording hard currency like Icomb and other frontier natives did. Like scavenger birds, honestly.
Verica grimaced at the exchange rates. The world was still figuring out whose money was worth what. Hard to blame the locals for focusing on tangible, valuable commodities and hard coinage instead of the credit and paper notes of the Core. She simply needed to have proof of credit relayed through the buoy network. It would be some time before the signal made it over to Hub, properly processed to the bank, and permission returned. Layers of codes and signal compacted into chirping nonsense.
Tomorrow afternoon, she was told. Fair enough.
Verica spotted a sigil on the wall over the moneychanger’s shoulder. It was a faded etching of the three Imperial Spirits, their faces faint impressions in the wood paneling. An easily removed or cleaned icon, but left alone despite the office’s otherwise fastidious appearance.
“Do you need anything else, Ms. Chantil?” The slight lilt in the moneychanger’s voice confirmed it, that of an accent disciplined over the years.
“Where might I find a proper afternoon?” Verica asked.
“Black Feathers, here on the crest,” she said with a smile. “It’s near the 100° marker, behind a restaurant of the same name.” Her faint frontier drawl melted away by the end of the sentence, the affectation lifted for a moment.
“Vision and Virtue,” she replied, seeming to enjoy blowing the dust off the old Imperial hail.
Black Feathers was likely a former officer or gentleman’s club, though the practice ceased being segregated by gender a century ago. The front had been converted into a more mundane restaurant with a residence above, a practical evolution. The entire operation might be someone’s hobby, for all she knew. Verica walked right by the front and around to the side where she found another entrance. It wasn’t quite a secret. No, the club stood in plain sight. It simply didn’t bring attention onto itself.
The door was built of solid, strong oak brought in from the Core. This was the correct place. Verica adjusted her coat, hoping the dress code was as lax as the location in the skies would suggest. Three knocks, polite but not pressing.
A young woman answered, about Nem’s age. Barely old enough to have firm memories of the way of life she serviced.
“Are you open?” Verica asked in old Orventian. She winced inwardly at her accent. It had been a while indeed.
“Of course, madam,” was the reply, her syllables similarly decayed. Understandable. Even the language of the old order crumbled with time. No further code words needed, only an acknowledgement of a common bond, frayed and withering as it may be.
The entryway was a narrow compromise to the business up front. Verica allowed her coat to be taken before being led into the club itself. The main room wasn’t crowded. A couple in one corner, well into afternoon tea, and a group of four men at a table each well tucked into an early supper. Plenty of seating to choose from and remain discretely and politely isolated from other customers. Verica choose a tall-backed leather chair near the rear windows and ordered black tea for now. Keep it simple.
The walls weren’t quite as full or well-appointed as they should have been. Normally they would be adorned with tasteful and precisely chosen décor. Paintings of the far reaches of the Empire, or subtly symbolic items or trophies. Compromises or sales or perhaps just theft. A few sections of the wall were clearly empty of former enshrined icons of the Orventian Empire’s reach. Left bare as a statement, though Verica could only guess whether it was a defiant and foolish dream of return, or an emphasis of an era well and truly departed.
Verica didn’t miss the Empire. She missed the Imperial way of life because she had no other identity to fall back on. She was a child of the racial and cultural muddle of the Orventian Empire. She had no true tribe to cling to, that primal Us as security against the ill-defined Them. For all their enlightenment, it was disheartening how quickly old ways came roaring back when the Coalition’s con-artist heroes sundered the Soaring Citadel.
Perhaps that’s why she remained in this exile. Despite the lingering political tensions, the frontier somehow remained progressively blind to color and creed.
That was her philosophical reason, anyway.
The afternoon faded away in sips of tea, a serviceable Kural blend. Verica browsed the selection of news pamphlets, the slim brochures of cheap paper bearing word from across the skies in varying stages of freshness. Tensions in Osspor between the patchwork of successor nations continued to be bait for the press, though anyone with half a mind knew the appetite for serious confrontation was zero. Missives from Torsia and the Imperial remnants were weeks old, and dull besides. Nothing from Eku or the frontiers in the opposing southeastern skies. Not surprising since the Dissolution resurrected once-banished clouds of ignorance and uncertainty. Everything seemed further away today than when she was a girl. A truly backwards state of affairs.
Soon enough the scent of Gesalan tobacco permeated the air, completing the scene in one way, despite the club’s many missing pieces. The quartet had lit up matching cigars and were getting into a less-than-hushed argument. It was slightly indecorous, but the couple left some time ago, leaving Verica the only other customer. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed her by the windows. She eavesdropped on their conversation, an equally rude gesture.
“I suspect you doubt our mission,” said the most boisterous of the group, a white haired but vigorous looking man. Verica surmised him to be the leader of this cadre. They wore the look of Core-dwelling thrill seekers with money to spare. Hunters, perhaps. Verica knew their kind well. Even considered herself one of their number, after a fashion.
“Far from it. I believe you. I simply doubt the quality of contacts this far out.”
“All part of the adventure, old sport. You have to account for a certain paucity of morals in the frontier. We paid only a quarter in advance for this very reason.”
“Yet we’re stranded here all the same unless we can convince someone to take us that far out. Cameron and I combed the docks all morning. Every captain turned us down.”
“All the more reason to continue our pursuit,” a third man replied, bolstering the leader’s resolve.
“Indeed. This only raises the quality of adventure to be found in the Claws. These frontier captains fly dangerous skies. If they’re reluctant to venture out to the Claws, there must be a grand reason.”
Verica knew of the place. Cassy’s Claws, a large, low-lying island far north of Gloria. Too far from the trade lanes and other ports, the Claws were unsettled and supposedly the haunt of all manner of creatures. One of many sources of tales traded across the frontier, of great beasts and hidden secrets. As for the reluctance to travel there, well, Verica attributed that to profit margins and easier commitments.
Icomb told her yesterday to be on the lookout for new jobs. The transit to the Claws and back would appeal to his sense of exploration, that much was certain. The island intrigued her, as well. In her experience, tales of strange beasts evolved out of something concrete and worth cataloging. No harm in investigating this group’s mission further.
Verica stood and strode over to the end of their table. The four fell into a polite silence at her arrival.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “I couldn’t help but overhear you were in need of a charter.”
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016