Payload

Chapter One

There was an explosion at the Gloria docks that afternoon. A small one, someone’s ship going up for whatever reason, though for a hot minute everyone expected the worst. It happened a little way around the curve of the suspended moorings hung from the city’s waist like a jumbled wire skirt cloaked with airships and machinery. None of Kor’s crew had been close enough to properly rubberneck.

A few hours later a polite pair of enforcers showed up at the Wink and Smile and invited Kor up to the Governess’s residence for a quick business meeting. Kor suspected the two events might be related and agreed to come along. No need to be rude.

Kor expected a more extravagant residence for the undisputed ruler of Gloria and its neighboring isles. Nestled among the handful of ostentatious mansions of the Crown district at the top of Gloria’s central pillar, the Governess’s house was a relatively modest two-story, free-standing home of fancy Orventian stonework, though missing the symbolic statues at the corners of the roof and mounted Sigils between the upper windows.

The garden, however, was unique, a walled and gated patch of greenery that wrapped around the house. Part security perimeter, part natural flaunting, its very presence was a luxury. Land was wealth, and to devote even this much to ornamental plants was a statement indeed. Late evening light angled across the wind-stirred shrubs and flower beds, bathing everything in a sheen of gold. Kor’s escort led him past a dry fountain, the centerpiece a model of Gloria’s vertical city in miniature.

They frisked him a second time at the house’s front entrance even though the escort to his left, a be-suited and suitably large fellow, already carried Kor’s side arm. He surrendered it at the gate, but they went through the motions again anyway. Kor patted his hair, knowing he didn’t look his best after a long day of running around town and maintenance tasks on the Wink.

A butler with impeccable manners guided Kor through the entry hall of the Governess’s residence. The walls were decorated with a mix of Duroan and Frontier paintings, a contrast of the precise brush strokes depicting scenes of Durro’s cities and the blurred skyscapes of western art. Kor exhausted his artistic commentary before they reached the end of the hall and the butler knocked twice on polished wood door.

A murmur from within. Enter.

“Captain Kor Icomb, ma’am,” the butler said as he pushed through the door. Kor felt a little thrill at being announced. Could have used more fanfare, but he wouldn’t be picky.

Ordelia Avarro, Governess of Gloria, sat behind an executive desk of polished tan colored wood. She looked the part of her self-styled title, in a high-necked, so dark it was almost black, blue dress. At a glance, she wouldn’t look out of place in a century-old painting of an aristocratic household. She closed a ledger as Kor entered the office, sliding it precisely to a corner of the desk and setting her pen atop it.

“Thank you kindly, Oz,” she motioned at the empty chair across from her. “Good evening, Captain. Please take a seat.”

“Governess Avarro. It’s a pleasure,” Kor said. He did as he was bid. Gentle lamplight tinted the room in faint golden shadows, highlighting and obscuring the array of books and trinkets and trophies on the left wall’s shelves.

“Likewise.”

The butler retreated to the hall and a brief stillness descended over the room as the door closed. Governess Avarro was in her mid-fifties, her dark hair streaked with steel gray and pulled back in an intricately patterned braid. Her face was sharp, severe, and rather pale. A timeworn silver wedding band glinted on her left hand, her only piece of jewelry.

The Governess looked over Kor, head slightly tilted, dark eyes steady. Kor recognized the look. She was preparing a pitch. Kor held her gaze, trying not to let his eyes wander over the office’s décor.

“You’ve been quite busy these last few months, Captain. Your ship has garnered a reputation as a swift and reliable freelancer.” She spoke with a local frontier drawl somehow refined into sounding more sophisticated than Kor thought possible, her words faintly spiced with a Duroan accent.

“Gotta keep moving. If I’m not on a job, I’m just losing money.” For the most part, the Wink’s jobs have been the dull variety, the sort of hauls that were a chore to enter into his logbook. Profitable but boring.

“I know exactly what you mean,” she said with a knowing smile. Kor knew she rose out of the hustle of the merchant and trade life, though some of the details of how she made the jump from successful trader to ruler of the city were lost in the muddled years of the Dissolution. In the span of a decade, Gloria careened from Imperial frontier port to pirate haven to prosperous freeport. The Governess was doubtlessly responsible for the later swings.

“Therefore, I won’t mince words. I wish to hire you for a discrete job, starting immediately.” The Governess opened a desk drawer to her right and Kor heard the telltale clink of glassware and bottles.

“I’m listening.”

Two tumblers of finely worked glass arrived on the table, followed by a bottle of brown liquor, label facing away from him. A bit of a tell, showing she really wanted to get a ship in the air and would grease the conversation sooner rather than later. Kor wasn’t about to complain. She poured two fingers into each of the tumblers in a precise and practiced motion, not spilling a drop.

“There was an incident this afternoon in the mid-skirt docks, not far from where your ship is moored. A prospector’s scouting cutter apparently had an anti-intrusion device. Someone triggered it and blew the ship in half. Killed the snoop.”

“No surprise there. I know the prospector type. Twitchy and desperate fellas looking for a big mineral score out in the empties.” Kor knew he wasn’t all that many false steps from being in the same class. He had a nicer ship and a crew, sure. But only a year or two of bad luck could drag him right back down into the grime.

“That’s exactly what he was,” she said.

A tumbler slid across the desk toward Kor. He picked it up and gave her a nod of thanks. His original estimate was correct. The glassware felt like classic, pricey old school stuff. Not overly ostentatious, like much of the rest of the Governess’s wealth. Merely presenting itself as it is and letting others figure it out.

This prospector, however,” she continued, “Found something more interesting than a new scattering. He was looking for some help in the recovery when he ran afoul of stronger hands.”

Kor sipped the whiskey. A smooth drink, but with a touch of rougher flavors and edge to tell you it wasn’t some long-running traditional distillery.

“Local brew,” the Governess said. “Little place up on the north end of the isle. They were skimming the grain harvest for years. Bought them out a couple years ago, turned them legit.”

“It’s good. I couldn’t help but notice we’re talking about this prospector in the past tense.”

“He’s missing. Maybe dead after talking too much in a bar. More likely captured by your competitors.”

“I haven’t accepted the job yet,” Kor said. She was leading him along and he was damned interested in the destination.

“No. But I think you will. He found a crashed Seeder ship out in the Rawlins Expanse. A portion of their genesis payload appears to be intact. He returned here to get help with the recovery.”

The Governess took a slow drink and let Kor consider the implications for a moment. The Seeders were a peculiar and extinct group of folk, long-distance wanderers who traversed the frontiers, seeking out barren new isles. They would then fertilize viable islands with a kind of powerful seed and soil and spore mixture, leaving the accelerated beginnings of ecosystems in their wake. A hybrid religious order and isolationist community, they were encouraged by the Orventian Empire in earlier centuries, support which dried up over time. The Seeders were a dying breed before the War and were gone before it ended.

Their planting payloads, their seemingly magical touch of life, had been jealously guarded and never quite figured out by non-Seeders, not even the best of the Empire’s scientists. A Seeder genesis payload, even damaged, was worth a fortune. The Governess’s deal was apparent without her needing to say another word.

“Why not use your own people?” Kor asked. “Why a freelancer like me?” Gloria’s home fleet wasn’t vast, but they had ample ships to police and guard the port and its outlying isles.

“My fleet is either occupied in their duties, of uncertain loyalty for such a mission, or too damn slow to get there in time. Additionally, I’m not hiring you as the Governess of Gloria. I’m hiring you as Ordelia Avarro.”

So it was a race, then. Kor tapped his fingers against his glass, already wanting to get out in the skies and starting burning toward this new prize. He was a man with a well-defined list of tastes, and this job fit the bill.

“You’ll forgive me for being a touch suspicious. The last charming lady to offer me a sudden job and a sack of coinage turned out to be not quite what she seemed.”

Avarro brushed off the embedded compliment with another slow draw from her glass.

“An occupational hazard. And I have no reason to trust you to not run off with the payload should you recover it. Which is why I’m offering something you want more than mere money, Captain Icomb.”

She reached into another drawer and pulled out a long avorium tube. The silvery-white metal rose into the air between them with only a gentle nudge. Avarro gave it a second tap and it floated down to land against the wooden desk. Kor’s heart began to race.

“These are the original charts for the Ferron Expanse. Authentic and badged by the Imperial Cartographic Service.” She spun the case in place, showing Kor the etched Sigil. Then she opened the tube and slid out one end of the thick paper within. A matching golden glyph caught the room’s soft lamplight.

Kor tried to keep his cool and finished his drink. No shock Avarro knew he was looking into Ferron. He’d been sending out feelers for any information on the storm-sealed expanse for months. There were rumors of the complete original charts being somewhere in the Northwest. Jeppesen’s notes made multiple references to his own search. And here they were. They’d be wildly out of date due to the upwell storm, but knowing the initial conditions of the region was worth a mint. It could be worth, well, about as much as an intact Seeder genesis payload.

Avarro reached across the desk with the bottle and refilled his glass.

“I’m offering an old school exchange of goods. Get me that payload and you get these charts. I’ll cover your ship’s operating expenses as well.”

Kor gave her a hard, assessing look. She was calm and dead serious. He couldn’t detect a hint of deception, but then again, she had a couple decades of experience on him. It didn’t matter. He knew the hook was set.

“You said I had competition.”

“Yes. As I said, the prospector is missing, almost certainly in the hands of a rival interest and possibly dead. And no, I don’t know who they are. Fortunately, my port security secured the wreck of the prospector’s ship. His logs and notes survived the explosion and he was sensible enough to take good coordinates of the island in question.”

She pulled out a singed bundle from yet another drawer and laid it on the desk. It was a standard ship’s logbook that had seen better days.

“I promise that’s the last trick in my desk, Captain,” she said with a grin.

Kor nodded, running through a mental list of what he would need for such a mission. They were finished with the important maintenance tasks on the Wink. He could be in the air in a few hours at most.

“I’d need to leave tonight.”

“Indeed you should.”

Kor drummed his fingers against the desk. He figured there was enough time for a little more upselling.

“I want six months of priority docking at the promenade moors upon delivery. The nice ones.”

The Governess laughed.

“Sure. Do we have a deal, Captain?”

Kor extended his hand across the desk.

“We do.”

Chapter Two

The target coordinates lay in the Rawlins Expanse, about ten days of reasonable flying southwest of Gloria. The Rawlins Expanse was a largely empty stretch of sky between the bulky mining chains around Grindtown and the wilder arc of homestead and wilderness isles abutting the fringe territories of the Triplets. There wasn’t much to recommend the expanse for anyone, which would explain how a Seeder wreck could go unnoticed for however many decades.

The Wink and Smile made the trip in six ragged days of round-the-clock flying. After a hasty exit from Gloria, Kor flew through the first night, running on the rush of a race against time and unknown competitors. He entrusted Chantil with shifts of straight daylight flying, knowing she was at least modestly capable of handing the ship, then took over for the extended evening and night shifts.

This was a valuable test of the ship’s capabilities. Kor alternated the Wink between hard and fast burns and lower-power cooldown periods, pushing the engines, seeing what kind of endurance the ship and Wilcox had for the heat. The Wink performed admirably and Wilcox only complained a little bit.

Kor’s own endurance was somewhat questionable. With better planning, he might have arranged his sleep schedule to rotate over the journey such that he was well-rested when they arrived at the target. Instead, he was six hours deep into a morning shift when Nem announced they were an hour away from the isle. Sometimes his fondness for improvisation bit back with harsh steel jaws.

Normally he could see the skies ahead in their infinite variety, the dozens of subclasses of cloud forms, the intricate interplay of winds and swells, the moods and colors of the Churn below. Today it was just a blue-white-gray blur.

Kor decelerated the Wink to a typical cruising speed. Screaming across the Northwest for six days carried a number of compromises, most of all a greater margin of error on their comm and listening equipment. They weren’t flying deaf, but they were wearing earmuffs. For the approach, he wanted Nem working without a handicap.

“Give me an assessment, Nem. We still got a tail?”

“Don’t even have to look for that one, Cap,” she said between clicks and switches on her console. “We’ve had two points howling toward us for the last couple days, clear as can be. They’re burning as hard as we are.”

The competition. Kor knew somewhere in the haze of the last six days she had told him as much at least twice. He made sure their heading was locked in and clear for the near future, then undid his restraints and stood. Multiple joints and nerves lodged official complaints over their recent treatment. Kor ignored them.

“Coffee?”

Nem shook her head, focused on the song of the skies.

Kor made his way down to the galley and was relieved to see there was still a serviceable amount of coffee in the pot. The little machine was in the midst of an endurance test of its own. Kor refilled it and set it brewing another round, taking his lukewarm serving back up to the flight deck.

He paused at Lukas’s cabin and hammered on the door three times. Lukas had been impressed into engineering service, mostly watching gauges and waking Wilcox when the needles went beyond some limit or another.

“One hour, Lukas!”

A startled and groggy ‘Aye’ replied from the other side of the door. At least one of the crew would be well rested.

The short walk and caffeine dosage managed to dispel most of Kor’s lingering mental funk by the time he returned to the bridge.

“Got an origin on either?” Kor asked as he settled back into the helm. He stretched out his legs, not quite ready to belt in. The weather conditions were calm enough to trust the Wink not to wobble into some disastrous spin for another minute or three.

“Gloria on one. They’re basically in our wake.”

Kor nodded into his capped mug. That would be whoever captured the prospector. It likely took a little doing to beat the location of the Seeder wreck out of him. Or they were just tailing the Wink’s signal. The first possibility could leave them as low as dim thugs. The second possibility could put them on the uncomfortable side of capable.

“The second?”

Nem hummed and hawed for a few dramatic seconds.

“Wider signal. Maybe a wing, maybe just big. Routed out of the east. Could be from anywhere in that arc. Grindtown. Roteon. Knucks.”

“None of those places fill me with confidence.”

“Thinkin’ pirate?”

“Definitely. The professionals, too. The Hawks and Sunders have informants in Gloria to tip off their main wings and the organization to respond quick.”

Avarro’s suspicions that her people weren’t wholly loyal seemed to be on the mark.

“How much alone time will we have on isle?” Kor asked.

“By these distances, maybe six hours on the outside,” Nem replied. “The ones from the east will get here first.”

“We’d best get to it, then.”

Kor finished his drink and belted in. He gave the Wink a little more power but not enough to set their signal howling across this expanse. They had served as a free beacon for their competitors for long enough. It was time to get down to business.

*  *  *

From afar the island looked like a moldy brown egg floating among the clouds. Kor did a double-take over the remaining distance. This place was huge, on par with Gloria, the exact sort of island people would be all over and claiming were it not for the location. They were days away from anything and that was at much higher speeds than freighters and other civilian craft could handle.

As it loomed closer, the egg revealed cracks in its upper shell. The cracks turned into gaps, the fragments in fact smaller isles hugging close to the larger, central landmass. Kor throttled the Wink back as orbiting bergs and boulders came into sight, a scattering of rock spread around the island and drifting up from the Churn.

“Still an active rising point,” Kor said. The curious energies of the skies pulled new islands together, drawing raw material up out of the Down Below. Depending on how long ago the Seeder ship found this place, it might have looked completely different and far smaller. Time had grown the site from a single quality vein to a motherlode.

“Getting a lot of signal interference from below. We’re kinda low, and the isle’s rock sign is confused, messy,” Nem said. “Could be why this place hasn’t got much attention. I’d be hard pressed to hear it from a distance if we didn’t know exactly where to look.”

The thrill of (re)discovery burned away any sluggishness from the past week of hard flying. Kor took the Wink around the broken outer shell of the island, seeking a gap large enough for the ship to slip through. Creeping, fast-growing plant life strung itself along the large, steadier islands, sometimes a fuzz of moss like a five-day beard, sometimes a mane of vines twisting about in the winds.  Glimpses of a shadowed interior teased from within, showing hints of greenery lit by bars of sunlight.

Kor found a suitable gap in the island’s shell, a parting in the petal-like structure. He eased the Wink through, nervously eyeing the wobbling rock walls that doused the flight deck in shadows. On the far side of the transit, the island unfolded before them and Kor took the ship on a low, slow passage to gain the lay of the land.

Below lay a grand bowl of terrain that extended far into the distance, many miles across. Mid-day sunlight shone down through a broken ceiling above, but much of the land lay in gentle shadows, like a perpetual early twilight. The outer walls were barren save for creeper vines and other opportunistic growth. Short peaks of exposed brown, red, and gray stone interrupted the downward slope, raw and harsh. As one looked deeper into the bowl, the greenery became more intense, breaking up the base stone with the pointed shrubs and thin grasses of an arid climate. Pools of collected rainwater dotted the outskirts, oases of enhanced growth.

A forest grew at the bottom of the bowl, a dense and wild expression of plant growth overrunning the short peaks in the terrain. Genuine trees occupied the heart of the place, strange primal varieties with thin, fast-growing trunks that reached impressive heights in the span of years instead of decades.

The flight deck door opened, admitting Lukas.

“Hell of a place, Captain.”

“No argument here,” Kor said. “Chantil seeing this?”

“Yep, she’s below. Told me to stop making slack-jawed noises so she could concentrate on her notes.”

“Since you’re here, we might as well find our wreck and work out an attack plan.”

The whole place looked like the radiating effects of an explosion of life. Which made it easy to figure out where the wreck would be: ground zero, where the growth was thickest. Kor guided the Wink over the central forest. As they approached the heart of the island, they lost sight of the ground, the tangled canopy drawing a veil across the land.

“What a mess,” Lukas said. “Looks like a job for the skiff, Captain.”

“Yup. Seems like we can slip through here and there. Nem?”

“Been pinging the ground,” she said. “Take her toward…fifteen. Sounds a little off center.”

They didn’t need more guidance than that. Kor turned on the ship’s spotlight and they soon found the rusted and overgrown ruins of a ship, just barely visible through gaps in the treetops. The crumpled but unmistakably man-made structures continued for some time before fading into the shadowed greenery.

“That’s a big one,” Lukas said. “At least destroyer sized.”

“A lot of internal space to look through, wrecked or not,” Kor said. “Let’s hope our prospector friend left a trail.”

Kor pulled the Wink away from the central forest and out to the clearer slopes of the isle. Soon enough he found what he wanted, a sheltered overhang in which to set the Wink down and tuck her away in the shadows. The engines needed a cooldown period and he didn’t want to leave her hovering with rival interests en route and half their crew on the ground.

“Lukas, this is gonna be you and me. According to the prospector’s logs, the payload was a two-man job to carry out. We’ll have to be enough.” Wilcox would need time to check over their stressed ship systems. Chantil was the only one who could fly the ship in a pinch. Nem to listen for incoming trouble. Damn, did they need more hands.

“Once again. I’ll grab my stuff.”

Chapter Three

Mounting up was old hat at this point. Gear. Guns. Tracking Beacon. Skiff. Goal clear in mind, with coordinates and heading in hand. Kor tugged on his restraints in the new skiff’s pilot seat when Chantil strode into the cargo bay. She was dressed in full field work mode: rugged wear, collection bag, rifle.

“You going somewhere, Doc? Kinda need you here to keep the Wink mobile if need be.”

Chantil gave him a look of strained patience. She dug around in her bag and pulled out a pair of small sample jars. She handed them up to Lukas in the passenger seat beside Kor. He accepted them without question or complaint.

“I considered waiting until you were already gone, but wanted to give you two these. If you see anything…strange, would you please take a sample?”

“Sure, Doc,” Lukas agreed before Kor could say otherwise. He let it slide, since anything that could fit in the jars would be no great additional trouble.

“I’ll remain near the ship, Icomb,” she added. “But I won’t confine myself on board when that,” she pointed out the open cargo doors toward the gradual expansion of Seeder-birthed plant life, “Is right outside my door. Do you have any idea how rare Seeder isles are? Especially one as recent as this? This might even be the last Seeder isle.”

Kor held up his hands in surrender, not possessing the excess energy to argue against her entirely valid points. He was curious as to what she might rustle up from the desert-like fringes.

“All right, all right. Just…no more pet oozes.”

Chantil hummed an ambiguous response, then took a few steps back to give the skiff a wide berth.

“Happy hunting, Icomb, Roth.”

“And you, Doc,” Kor said.

Kor went through the new skiff’s start-up, the sequence still novel and unfamiliar. A touch of bitterness lingered over how the Dross job went down and how easily Tess deceived him of the nature of her ‘research’ vessel. But it worked out in the end as this skiff was ace. It rose from the deck with a whisper and leapt ahead when he throttled it up into a snappy flight out of the shadowed hollow and over the island’s outskirts.

Disperse clusters of scraggly cacti and other low-water plants rooted themselves in the broken rocky soil, giving the outskirts of the isle a hostile, arid appearance. The land was armed to the teeth with spines and pointed fronds, a mean-looking array, but efficient in their way. Soon pools of water appeared below them and short sharp grasses covered the ground between taller shrubs and ferns. The shades of green increased in intensity as they flew over the landscape until the central lowland forest loomed before them.

Kor followed their target coordinates until the youthful, tangled forest rambled below the skiff, a living catalog of species. He recognized many from his travels across the skies, but an equal portion were entirely unknown. There, a black-trunked tree with articulated branches like finger bones and adorned with long, frill-like leaves. Another with parasol-shaped domes colored mottled green and yellow and seemingly sturdy enough for a man to stand upon them. Fruit and flowers hung from countless stems, often painted in too-bright colors speaking to potential poison within.

They reached the target coordinates and Kor found a gap in the canopy to slip through to the ruins below. The wreck lay across the newborn forest’s floor, seeming to fade into the terrain in places. Seeder ships were part of the cycle themselves. Built mostly of old-style wooden hulls, they were designed to be ultimately scuttled and turned into fertile ground for new growth. When in service, the ships wore light cloaks of moss and other tenacious plants that could ride along on their epic traversals of unknown skies. Now, nearly every rent in the hull boiled over with life, the vines and trees anchoring themselves to their delivery system. It served as both cradle and grave.

And yet, as he guided the skiff in a slow, tree-dodging survey of the wreck, Kor couldn’t help but sense the unseen missing pieces of the ecosystem, the gaps left by the Seeders’ sowing. If pressed, he wouldn’t be able voice the specifics, the sort of subtle details nature would patch in over time. He could hear it in the muted buzz of insect life, as though an unnatural quiet lay over the forest. There weren’t enough birds and the plants were too varied, still in the early stages of their competition for adaptive supremacy. The whole place carried a disjointed mix of natural purity and man-made artifice.

Kor sought out either an open entrance or signs of their prospector scout’s initial explorations. The fore of the ship was a compacted and overgrown mess, only recognizable as such from the surrounding wreckage and their own foreknowledge. Multiple tears along the ship’s topside granted a few, fleeting glimpses of a darkened, vine-choked interior, or were filled in by the reaching trunks of thin, fast-growing trees.

At the rear of the wreck were the ruins of the craft’s engines, great cylinders of fire turned into hollows and nests of the few long-distance birds that flitted through this young forest. The overgrown tech dated the ship to the pre-War years, though the condition of the wreck and Kor’s own knowledge couldn’t narrow it down any further. The deep furrow behind the ship from the impact was almost erased by time and weather, a barely visible dip in the land that disappeared from sight under the surrounding trees.

A great rent in the hull on the ship’s port side was generally clear of overgrown vegetation, the scattered pieces and broken rock below forming an approximation of an entry ramp. Figuring he wouldn’t find a better spot, Kor landed the skiff in a narrow clearing covered in knee-high ferns, their fronds twisting wildly in the wake of the landing craft.

Kor and Lukas dismounted and shouldered their gear. They paused at the base of the ramp of buckled hull and stone, and considered the scale of the ruin. Time was limited and there was a whole lot of ship to search.

“We’re dealing with a destroyer-type ship, right? Old school as the hull looks, it probably follows the same rules as a war ship,” Kor said, knowing they should start on familiar ground, though he personally never served on a ship this size.

“Seeder payloads aren’t much different from bombs,” Lukas added, gazing at the wreck as if seeing through to the interior. “Meaning we’ll find an intact payload where one would store munitions,”

“Sounds reasonable. And it looks like this is where our lead found his way in, too.”

The hole in the hull showed signs of recent human passage. Withered fragments of severed vines lay across the makeshift ramp and some of the surrounding growth was limp and flat, as if trod on. Strangely not yet recovered, despite the space of weeks between visits. Another incongruity of the life here.

“I only ever saw Seeders once back home. Big, old wooden ship like this one, with hundreds of sails sprouting from the sides like so many leaf-covered branches,” Kor said, relating the memory as an excuse for a few more moments of hesitation before entering the wreck.

 “They only stopped in port a couple times when I was a kid. My mother always said they kidnapped children,” Lukas said. “’Don’t you go near those Seeders, Lukas! They’ll steal you away like the others!’”

Kor forced a laugh, though the stories of the wandering Seeders snatching away children were common enough to feel like they bore a grain of truth.

“Hadn’t heard of them anywhere since the War,” Lukas said.

“Gone extinct, maybe. Or gone out over the horizons, never to return.” Kor suspected the first, but wanted to believe the second.

“Maybe they ran out of new sky.”

“No. I don’t think we’ve reached the edge. Hopefully we never do.”

“I just want to be clear that you know they were sort of a suicide cult, Captain.” Lukas said, indicating the long wreck rambling away into the forest’s shadows. “You don’t ride a crashing ship like this unless you believe in something all the way to your bones.”

Kor sparked alight his lantern and adjusted the vents for a strong single beam. They had hesitated and chewed the fat outside enough.

“You’re right,” Kor said while giving the machete a few test swings, silently happy Lukas was here to check his wistful ideal of the Seeders. There was such a thing as going too far. “I suppose I romanticize their, ah, higher calling a little bit. Let’s plunder their tomb, balance it out.”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

Kor ascended the stone ramp and stepped through the threshold before he could think otherwise and waste more time humming and hawing. A breath of cool, shadowed air and the warning hiss of some guardian creature greeted him. He brought light and blade to bear toward the sound to his right. A pair of golden eyes reflected the lantern from a nest-like hollow in the broken hull. A serpentine, frilled body coiled defensively under his scrutiny. Kor took a prudent step back, but relaxed his guard.

“Fan snakes,” he said, nodded toward the hollow. Kor didn’t know the specific species, especially since the creature retreated into its nest as they stepped away. A pest in some places, critical rodent-killing predator in others, fan snakes wore long, wildly colored sails along their bodies and were able to ride wind currents between islands.

“Probably taken along for the ride with the Seeders,” Lukas said. “Little far out for one of them to glide out on their own.”

“Let’s hope that’s as big as the residents get.”

They were in an empty side chamber, perhaps a cabin, perhaps a utility room. A broken doorway led to one of the ship’s main corridors. Even in ruins and darkness, a common logic prevailed in the ship’s layout and Kor was able to find his way without much trouble.

The halls of the Seeder’s ship were slightly askew, making their explorations angled and footing uncertain. A cloak of moss clung to the walls, up to two inches thick in places, spongy and dark green. The fading signage and labeling of the different decks and chambers showed through in clear patches on the walls, but Kor couldn’t make heads or tails of the glyph-based language.

Soon they were in the heart of the ship and passed wide doorways leading to the crumpled remnants of common gathering spaces or perhaps greenhouse-like areas of growth and experimentation. The ceilings were once grand curves of windows to let in the life-giving sunlight of the open skies. Now entwined branches and vines cloaked the chambers in shadow, and broken glass crunched beneath their boots below the layers of dirt and decay.

Of the former inhabitants of this ship, there was no sign at all. As they probed through what was definitely old quarters and living spaces, any dreaded macabre sight didn’t present itself. Whether abandoned ahead of time, or already recycled by the rampant plant growth, Kor didn’t care to speculate.

A trio of neon green lights blinked in the corridor ahead. They faded when Kor traced the lantern’s beam over them and resumed when the shadows returned. His approach lost its caution as the source came into sight, a cluster of thumb-sized insects with bulbous, luminescent bodies, over-sized fireflies. They skittered up to higher perches on the corridor walls as Kor and Lukas approached, but not quite out of Lukas’s reach. He gently trapped one within a sample jar and snapped the lid on before the creature had a chance to escape.

“Check that off the list,” Lukas said. He gave the jar a shake and the panicked bug flickered its light before settling against the glass, seemingly resigned to its fate.

The path of the prospector was less obvious as they went deeper into the wreck. What few signs of broken vines and scratched-out markings on the walls to track progress were often obscured by shadows or already washed away by the grip of rampant nature. As a general rule, whenever Kor needed to apply the machete, it was a sign that they had strayed from their goal.

They proceeded forward along the central corridor, and soon found the plant life pulling away, becoming sparser, easier to navigate. Kor began to check each side room, their path now lacking any real sign of the prospector’s passage.

The first was a storage room filled with the rotting remnants of sail cloth, the backup plan for flying beyond the fringes of the frontiers. The Seeders were never in much of a hurry, so the old ways could be sufficient for their purposes. Kor imagined a wholly classic airship still pressing outward, even today, the craft and people patched and changed from a journey of generations. Such an expedition was far beyond what he would ever want, but the possibility alone charmed him.

It being a storage room spurred them on, feeling as if they were getting closer to where their prize would be hidden. Additional side rooms were filled with the broken remains of similar utility items. Crates, spare parts, empty canisters. General rubbish.

One door opened into a vaulted space, perhaps another former nursery, though the empty frames of glasswork looked much less extensive. The deck had collapsed into a descending cone lined with oddly uniform spiny plants, all centered around a pool of sludgy water, green-black from years of collections and decay. Arm-thick vines and roots wound through the spines and into the pool, tapping its nutrients. The empty windows above let in the forest’s fitful light, the gaps clear of obstructions. The faint scent of rotting flesh was worth heavy suspicion, as were the few feathers scattered about the chamber.

Kor tore a fistful of the ever-present moss from the wall, balled it up, and lobbed it into the room. It tumbled a few feet upon landing before the spines contracted around it, pinning and slicing the morsel into pieces. A series of alien clicks rippled through the chamber, and soon the chunks of moss were pulled down into central sludge pool.

Lukas laid a guiding hand on Kor’s shoulder and said, “All right. Carnivorous room. Let’s move on, Captain.”

Whether it was an experiment run wild, or a creation that had reached its intended state, Kor couldn’t hazard a guess, but he was all-too-glad to leave it behind.

Kor pushed through another barely-intact doorway with a little more haste than their recent experience would call for. He felt the press of time, the unknown rivals out in the skies drawing ever closer. Fortunately, the chamber was empty of carnivorous horrors. Then came the smell, a powerful, earthy scent, far stronger than the rest of the ship. It smelled like the distilled essence of growth, uncomfortably strong, too concentrated to be wholly natural. The air itself felt…heavy.

Odd, blue-black vines coiled around the ceiling and floor, following the walls like an additional fence. Vertical slits flexed along the vines’ length, seeming to breathe in the too-moist air. Broken racks and other restraints lay tumbled down against the walls, and grooved tracks in the floor confirmed this place as a storage room.

When his lantern crossed the Seeder’s genesis payload, Kor had to do a double take. It looked utterly common, a big rectangular crate of simple metal surprisingly lacking in rust across the silvery panels. Seeder glyphs labeled the long side, annotated with numbers below, all in fading white paint. By the light of Kor’s lantern a thin puddle of yellow-green fluid gleamed like gold on the deck below.

The two men circled their prize, a pause to marvel at the power contained within the humble crate. The touch of biogenesis distilled to a usable substance. Even with the thing in front of them, it was hard to believe. The Seeders ranged out further and sooner than anyone else would dare. There was no telling what they found beyond the fringes of known skies on those decades-long sojourns. What seemed like inscrutable magic to everyone else might be the results of extreme self-reliance and experimentation. Discoveries from places far beyond knowing, incubated by already skilled green thumbs.

“Suppression. That’s what it feels like,” Kor said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the black, breathing vines.

“Maybe a fail safe,” Lukas wondered. “Keep this stuff from going off in the hold?”

Kor eyed the payload, wondering if it would start blooming as soon as they pulled it out of the room.

“Maybe,” he agreed.

“Well, if this is like a bomb the question is: can it go off on its own, or does it need a trigger?”

“Some kind of catalyst. Maybe part of the machinery that spread the stuff or another Seeder-made mixture.” Kor knew any such machinery would be smashed and buried beneath the wreck below them, likely forever unsalvageable, even with a massive unearthing operation.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Kor said. He laid a hand on the top of the crate. A layer of sticky, pale dust followed. “It just feels too easy, you know?”

“When the other shoe drops, we’ll dodge it,” Lukas said. “As always. Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.”

Kor and Lukas gave it a test push. The damn thing was heavy, like a two-person couch filled with sand, but it moved. A set of runners on the bottom would serve as skis, so long as they didn’t slot it into the grooves on the floor. It would be a mighty pain in the ass to get outside and onto the skiff, but it was doable. They encountered no serious gaps or dips in the corridors that would stop them in their tracks.

A realization stilled Kor’s examinations of the payload.

“Oh no. That prospector probably could’ve eventually wrangled this thing out solo. But his ship probably didn’t have enough room to get it on board.”

Lukas gave a nod and a grimace. “Likely too wide to fit in his doors. What a damn shame for him.”

Kor clicked his tongue in sympathy as he looked over the payload once more. What a soul-crushing moment, to see your golden ticket right in front of you and not have to means to get it home.

“Let’s get this thing moving,” Lukas said.

Kor paused, looking around the hollowed out storage space. There could be more to find elsewhere in the wreck. Logs or equipment or…

They didn’t have enough time. Kor braced his feet on the uneven deck and bent to the task at hand.

Chapter Four

Kor slumped in the skiff’s pilot seat and stared up at the forest’s primal canopy, the tangled branches and vines admitting thin, indirect sunlight. The island’s perpetual evening-like light made it difficult to gauge the time at a glance, but Kor figured they were cutting it awful close.

Lukas hopped up into the passenger seat and the resultant bounce of the skiff jarred Kor alert.

“All set,” Lukas said. He sounded about as weary as Kor felt. They managed to wrangle the payload out of the wreck and it now sat secured in the cargo bed beneath every restraining line available.

Kor flexed his hands, then wiped them once more on his pants before touching the skiff’s controls. The payload leaked through its crate in spots, a grainy and sticky substance that resisted multiple attempts to wash it off with their water canteens. Which, he supposed, was by design.

“We fly this back to the Wink,” Kor said, thinking out loud while he retraced their route up and out of the entwined vegetation. “Leave it be in the hold. Then slip out of the isle’s shell. Quiet flight if no one’s looking. Hard one if they are.”

“Turret?” Lukas asked flatly, knowing the answer.

“Definitely, at least at first.” Kor would take flight over fight nine times out of ten today, but they needed to be ready for the remaining one.

“All right. Just don’t expect me to hit anything.”

“Acknowledged.”

The skiff flew with a touch of sluggishness from the payload, echoing Kor’s own weariness. Soon enough they slipped out of the confines of the forest, the plant life shrinking to more reasonable heights. Kor gave the vaulted airspace above a hard scan as he pushed the skiff toward the Wink’s hiding place. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the numerous gaps in the outer islands to the west, making the whole place a touch brighter than before.

Which made it easy to spot the Cyclone-class fighter circling high above the island’s central bowl, a silvery shape against the surrounding earth tones and lines of sky.

Kor pushed the skiff to maximum, which wasn’t all that fast, and downright pathetic compared to a fighter. The land below rolled by lazily, the shrubs and pointed fronds offering cover for nothing bigger than a cat. In the distance, he could see the hill where the Wink was tucked away in a hollow.

“You have a plan here, Captain?”

Kor shook his head. He could hear the rising hiss of the cyclone’s engines, like approaching a waterfall laying just out of sight.

“Best we got is running. They won’t shoot us if we have the payload.”

Probably. Kor could tell with a glance they were too far away to make it in time, even if the fighter was ill-kept.

His plan didn’t last three minutes. The fighter streaked ahead of them and banked around, slowing to occupy their direct forward path. Cyclone-class fighters were a late-era War design, clearly Imperial, with a compact pointed body bearing the telltale scaled pattern and heavily angled wings. A half-circle of weapon mounts bristled on the underside of the silver hull, the twin main cannons likely primed, ready, and right on-target.

The pilot nosed the fore of the ship downward, telling them to land. Pound for pound, they might outweigh the fighter, but as nice as the new skiff was, it possessed the maneuverability of molasses in any lateral direction. Never mind being effectively unarmed.

“Got us dead to rights,” Lukas said, more bemused than upset.

Kor cut the throttle and guided the skiff to the ground. They landed in a field of short, wide-bladed grass poking up through countless cracks in the half-tamed stone. The cyclone fighter remained airborne and kept its cannons focused on them, but made no further aggressive moves. A stylized red hawk wing adorned the fighter’s starboard side.

A Night Hawk ship. Kor wasn’t surprised by the affiliation. Just disappointed.

They sat tight, grounded for a few minutes until the expected backup arrived. Cyclones were designed to latch on and ride the dead zones on larger ships, they didn’t have the solo range to get this far out. Meaning there would be other ships coming and sure enough, a cutter came into sight through the gaps above and made a beeline toward them. It was a narrow-hulled patrol ship, similarly badged with Night Hawk emblems and painted the customary black. It wasn’t large enough to carry a Cyclone, meaning they’d have another ship coming. Most likely a lancer.

The cutter landed nearby and four pirates in snappy black uniforms disembarked from the side door. Two leveled drawn pistols at Kor and Lukas, which seemed an absurd redundancy given they had the twin cannons of a fighter aimed at the skiff.

“Let me guess,” Kor called over. “You’re under Drexler’s command?”

The Hawk he assumed was the leader, a fellow with a shaved head, a rack of golden earrings, and too much swagger in his walk, seemed taken aback by Kor’s guess. He recovered his professional grade scowl in short order.

“That’s right.”

Kor just had to laugh, a mix of built up exhaustion and amazement. He expected more time before Drex would have a chance to repay the debt from Knucklebone.

“All right. Let’s go through the motions of the stick-up, yeah?” He’ll be damned if he let them get in too much gloating on their scoop of this prize. It was the least he could do.

“Let’s,” the Hawk agreed, motioning with his own weapon.

Kor slowly removed his pistol and tossed it well aside of the skiff. Lukas followed his lead and unshouldered his weapon. They then dismounted from the skiff and stood well aside of their so briefly held prize. One of the Hawks stepped up into the cargo bed and looked over the payload, then gave the leader a thumbs up.

“You might want to let the Dead Reckoning know you have the notable and occasionally fearless Captain Kor Icomb in captivity.”

The lead Hawk gave him a sour look, yet seemed to not know quite what to make of Kor changing the script on him. He gave a quiet string of orders to two of his crew, who returned to the cutter.

Lukas gave Kor a quizzical look.

“Stalling, mostly,” Kor muttered. He figured he might as well gamble on Drex wanting to extend their petty feud, soften the blow so they could keep it going.

“For what?”

Kor shrugged. From the way the lead Hawk held himself, Kor didn’t see any openings for trouble. Too sharp and focused on the task at hand, which fit with his impression of the Night Hawk’s organization of late. Less pirate and more professional mercenaries, even if they were in the midst of a theft.

The lead Hawk pointed at Lukas. “You. Help undo the restraints and pull it off the skiff.”

Lukas complied, grumbling to himself about spending all that effort getting it onboard and tied down.

One of the Hawks returned from the cutter carrying a bundle of canvas in her arms and a gas canister over her shoulder. She busied herself spreading the canvas on the ground behind the skiff. Sturdy lines ran to the side of the canvas, connected to a deflated balloon. Kor kept his face appropriately dour, despite the new opportunity emerging before him. That was a cargo lift balloon. The Hawks needed to float the Seeder payload up. Once again, the box wouldn’t fit into the ship on hand. They would have to tow it into the cargo hold of their lead ship.

That would take time. Time for…something to break the situation open for him. He was still at a loss as to what form that something would take.

The head Hawk cleared his throat to get Kor’s attention and another pirate circled around behind him.

“Lieutenant Drexler has ordered me to deliver his regards. He said, uh, ‘No great bodily harm. Merely severe inconvenience.’ Said you’d know what he meant.”

Ah. This part. His gamble was paying off, even if it came with a price.

Kor breathed deep, taking what he assumed would be his last comfortable breath for the near future. He exhaled as the first blow smashed into his stomach. It would have doubled him over, had he not been held up from behind.

When the beating ended, Kor lay on the ground, the grass blades a field of sharp points against his back. He preferred focusing on that instead of a couple dozen other pains competing for his attention. The passage of time blurred for a little while as he stared up at the vaulted dome of floating islets.

Lukas leaned over him, face now adorned with a swollen lip and a squinting left eye that would certainly purple up soon. The fact he was standing spoke either to his toughness or the Hawks’ restraint. Elsewhere, the Night Hawk cutter lifted away with the departing whine of well-maintained engines. They were probably in a hurry.

“They’re floating the payload for pick-up and I don’t see anything big enough to carry it yet. We might be able to contest if we mount up and get back to Wink.”

Kor nodded, not yet willing to concede the game.

Lukas extended a hand and hauled Kor to his feet. Everything hurt but the pain was equitably spread around his body, so he could stand and walk. The payload floated a couple hundred feet above the ground, wrapped in gray canvas and dangling from the inflated balloon. The Night Hawk cutter hung close by in a defensive posture.

The Cyclone fighter wheeled about above Kor and Lukas, its guns trained on the empty skiff.

“Oh, come on…”

Lukas grabbed Kor by the shoulders and pulled him over a nearby waist-high ridge. They rolled away as the fighter opened fire on the skiff, cannons shattering the island’s relative quiet. An explosion followed as the skiff’s engines went up, the dim evening-like light of the island briefly tinted fiery orange.

With its target eliminated, the cyclone fighter pulled away with a departing hiss sounding like a poorly suppressed laugh.

Kor crawled through the mean grass to the crest of the rocky lip and surveyed the damage. The forward half of the skiff lay askew, the seats smoldering, and the rest was scattered in pieces spread across the field. One of the engines stood separate and on end, a fire burning merrily in the circular casing.

After a minute of waiting for any further spiteful moves that didn’t arrive, Kor stood and staggered down among the wreckage of their former new skiff to pick up the pieces of their gear. Fortunately, their packs were thrown clear beforehand and were spared any long-term damage.

Lukas upended his pack and shook out the shattered glass of the sample jars. He barked a laugh and held up an undamaged jar with the firefly from the Seeder wreck. The critter pulsed a couple times in alarm, but looked no worse for wear.

“Might as well bring it along,” Kor said with a shrug. He looked upslope toward where the Wink was sheltered. They were so close. Less than two miles, the difference of a couple wrong turns back inside the Seeder wreck. At least it would be a short hike back to the ship. A leisurely walk to mutter about his sore spots and consider this failure.

Kor turned his back to the ascending payload, hitched up his singed sack of gear and started for the ship. Lukas fell in beside him. They only made it five minutes, over the first minor rise when Kor came to a sudden stop.

The winds coursed through the floating isles and whispered through the harsh vegetation. And above that rang the reverberation of heavy engines. Kor turned, looking up and expecting to see Drexler’s lancer, Dead Reckoning.

His heart missed a beat when he spotted Tess’s ship from the Dross. No, not that one. This was the first one, the larger of the pair from Doralee, months ago. Now that he saw it in flight, it looked to be a heavy lancer, bulkier than the Raptor but more capable, versatile. They must be the other signal, the one that followed in their wake from Gloria. A third player had joined the game, if fashionably late.

Across the broken dome of floating shell islands, the Dead Reckoning slipped through a gap and into sight, accompanied by a pair of Cyclones. Drexler’s ship was a sharp-looking bird, a well-maintained Imperial lancer with the classic hexagonal main body, the hull scaled like ancient armor.

And in the middle of it all, a flimsy balloon lifted the Seeder payload for an aerial pick-up.

“Well, isn’t this gonna be a mess,” Lukas said.

“Yep. You up for running back to the ship? I’m thinking we can sneak back onto the table.”

“Are you?”

No. Kor spun in place and took off in an uneven jog, the rush of the changed situation blunting away the worst of his aches. He wasn’t much of a runner unless properly motivated. The terrain mostly cooperated, the broken stone crunching below his boots, the pointed and spiked plants easy enough to dodge. No guns rang out above, the two factions spending time sizing each other up. Kor spared a few glances upward to see the stand-off was settling into a stare down as the payload took its sweet time rising from the ground, a tempting prize increasing in prominence.

So long as they tried to bully and threaten and glare their way to an impasse, it gave Kor enough time to have the chance to make the situation more complicated. He mulled the calculus as he staggered and stumbled over the rocky terrain.

Three fighters, a cutter, and the Dead Reckoning for the Hawks. Well-maintained ships, no slack to be found there. Call Tess’s allies Dora for now. Heavy Lancer. Likely top-notch armor, though maybe not as hard-hitting as the Raptor. Wink’s probably faster than both her and the Reckoning.

There would be no fighting them, unless they severely wounded each other. But only the three present lancers could possibly grab the payload. They would have to scream through the middle, snag the prize, and get the hell out before either side could get in a word otherwise. Scoop the would-be scoopers, as it were.

Kor had executed on thinner battle plans in the past. This one would have to do.

Chapter Five

Kor’s boots hit the deck of the Wink’s cargo bay and the unseen force pushing him along in their sprint back to the ship lost all momentum. He staggered across the deck and collapsed against the old skiff, panting and ragged. The craft was tucked in a corner of the cargo bay next to the big package of spare parts from the Dross job, the less valuable portion of what Tess left behind. Its retirement was short-lived.

A row of crates lined the wall under the catwalk and bundles of harvested plants lay in categorized clusters around the hold. Chantil had been busy, even managing to uproot a pair of waist high shrubs, their root balls wrapped in cloth. Lukas dodged around the new obstacles and sat at the base of the stairs with a mighty huff.

As soon as he gathered enough breath to do so, Kor shouted, “Wilcox!” up at the engine room door. The mechanic stepped out onto the catwalk after a moment, relaxed as can be. He hooked his thumbs under his belt and looked over their disheveled state.

“Captain, you two look terrible,” Wilcox said.

Kor pushed himself to his feet, wanting for all the world to lie down and sleep. But first he had more trouble to put on his tab.

“Seeder payload’s on a lift balloon. I need you to improvise a sky hook. Strong enough to haul in, say, two hundred pounds.”

“Make it three for drag and the lift system,” Lukas added.

“Sure, three,” Kor agreed. Might as well overcompensate.

Wilcox stared at Kor for a moment, eyes narrowed in thought. Kor could see a plan taking shape, with all the attendant difficulties of what he was asking. Wilcox then looked at the skiff and its winch.

“Will do. We’d better get the Doctor to secure down her harvest,” he said.

“Good man. We’ll be airborne as soon as I can summon the will to climb those stairs.”

*  *  *

“Light exchange of weapon fire,” Nem reported. “Sounds like they’re done talking, Cap.”

“Feeling each other out, taking potshots from a distance.” Kor thumbed the ship’s comm channel. “Wilcox?”

“We’re ready as we’ll ever be down here, Captain,” came the reply from the hold. “Anchored the skiff down and threw together a wide hook at the end of its winch. You’ll have about a two hundred feet of line dangling off the ship.”

“Understood. I’ll try to keep it steady for you down there.”

“Please do.”

The flight was going to be rough. First, they’d be dragging something behind them, initially just a line, then the payload itself. And they would have the cargo hold doors open, which will disrupt their stability. And they might have someone shooting at them.

No problem. It was all just a matter of luck combined with the element of surprise.

The weight of the day fell away as the Wink lifted off the ground, the sense of flight snapping Kor fully alert and ready to brawl. He kept the ship low to the ground for a minute as the engines warmed up, taking the time to get a visual on the fight up above.

The Dead Reckoning hung back on a steady arc and fired broadsides toward the Dora. The three fighters flew in fast, harassing patterns around the bigger ship. Dora responded in kind, though took a pair of hits that she shrugged off with her heavily armored hull. Both sides seemed half-hearted in their efforts, trying to push the other away without committing too much themselves.

Let’s complicate things.

Kor accelerated the Wink into the dome of airspace above the Seeder isle. He worked the ship’s adjustment jets hard, fighting against the rebellious motions from the partially open hold doors. With no time to waste, Kor made a straight line for the white balloon keeping the Seeder payload floating below the fray. The patrolling Night Hawk cutter kept back, guarding the common prize in this brawl, but not so close as to risk a stray shot making this all for naught.

Kor rolled his sore left shoulder where the cutter’s skipper gave him a parting kick.

“Light up that cutter, Lukas,” he ordered with a grin.

Last Call’s slugs barked out two rounds, the shots streaking ahead and slamming into the cutter’s flank. No explosion followed, but the smaller ship recoiled from the attack, outer paneling and armor flying off, trailing smoke or steam. The cutter wheeled about and dived, seeking escape instead of confrontation. Kor held back the order to hold fire. Whatever Lukas thought best would be fine with him.

The Wink wobbled something fierce as the rear doors opened wider and the line was unspooled and dropped.

“Line out,” crackled the comm, Chantil’s voice nearly lost among the rush of air.

“Got a fighter peeling off from the Dora,” Nem said. “Comin’ our way.”

“Acknowledged,” Kor replied to both. He eyed the payload and its balloon, threading an invisible needle’s eye in the air a couple hundred feet below his flight path. He’d get one shot at this without any additional pressure.

The balloons flashed out of sight below and a beat later the Wink shuddered from a sudden additional weight, an anchor dragging her backward.

Gotcha!

Kor felt his guts tighten up as he eased off the throttle. They needed time to reel in their catch and…

A giant’s fist rained blows across top of the Wink. Nothing gave out, the ship took the punch with grace. Kor inverted their tilts and dropped down, a flash of weightlessness to dodge the fighter’s line of fire, maybe even get the payload level with the cargo hold. His positioning screen showed an orange X circling about for another run. Kor kept the Wink moving forward, if restrained. Just a few moments more.

The fighter’s second attack run went wide, the guns booming out but falling aside. A moment later the Wink’s handling improved and an interior rumble told him the cargo doors were closing.

“We’re clear,” the comm squawked.

“Thank you. Get secured.”

Kor kept their motions smooth but quick for a minute. Enough time for Wilcox and Chantil to get to better spots to ride out the rest of the brawl. He braced for another hit from their pursuer, each breath tight in his lungs. And then…nothing. Distant impacts echoed through the Wink as the other ships increased their respective rhetoric. The trailing decal on Kor’s screen changed direction.

“One Cyclone down. Dead Reckoning is committing in earnest,” Nem said.

Kor judged enough time had passed and throttled up the Wink, the inner walls of the island’s shell looming large in the forward windows. Now it was a matter of getting out while everyone else was distracted. The easiest route out, now they had a view from within, was up through the top. But that was far and straight and through an active engagement. While Kor would match his skills against a number of the gaps in the shell in calm conditions, they didn’t have the time to spare for threading the needle.

Kor pulled the Wink up well short of the inner walls and brought her about. The flashes of cannons lit the dimming dome above the island. The Dead Reckoning trailed smoke from a handful of wounds, but remained nimble and returned fire. The Dora appeared no worse for wear, seeming to shrug off the bulk of the Night Hawks’ attacks. Both of the remaining Cyclone fighters kept their distance, not wanting to share the fate of their missing wingmate. A plume of black smoke rose from the rocky outskirts of the main island below.

Beyond the Dora lay a sizable gap in the floating islets. Plenty large for the Wink to slip on through at speed. Kor aligned their heading to strike right through and opened the comm channels.

“Lukas, hold your fire against the Dora, but cover us if things get too hot. Wilcox, we’re going for a bit of a record.”

Two acknowledgements returned.

“Nem, holler at me if there’s even a whisper of obstructions in our path.”

“Yep.”

The Dead Reckoning kept their exchange with the Dora hot and heavy. Weapon tracers flickered through the airspace ahead, a scattered hailstorm. There was something else at work here, some grudge or rivalry between the two forces Kor could only imagine. Regardless, it was so kind of Drexler to give them covering fire, even if they were about to fly through the background.

Kor eased the Wink up toward her maximum forward thrust. The typical rumble of the engines rising to the occasion bore an excited, jagged edge. He was pressed back into his chair and the Wink leaped ahead. His hands flashed through a flurry of micro-adjustments to the controls, nudges transformed into great motion by the rushing, headlong flight. The slice of open blue sky grew larger ahead, a tantalizing view of being clear and free.

Dora coming about,” Nem reported. “No signals or comms.”

The sparse tracer fire from the Dead Reckoning dropped to nothing, clearing the space ahead. Either Drexler was standing down or preparing a sucker punch with the Dora distracted. Kor would gladly accept either, so long as he wasn’t the recipient of the latter.

Their view of the Dora flashed by as the Wink passed the other ship, a blur of dark gray plating and glowing blue engine fire. Ahead, a few drifting boulders lurked about the edges of their path, but the way remained clear as the view of the open skies widened.

Kor’s positioning screen resolved a new threat in pursuit, the Dora accelerating to give chase. He judged the distances and didn’t like what he saw. Depending on how fast they were, the Dora might be able to close to a firing line on their vents. They had no real cover to deflect such an attack. Unless they created some.

“Lukas. I’m going to tilt us up. Go nuts on the upper half of the gap, tear up it up.”

“Come again, Captain?”

“Fire on the upper isle and make some new bergs.”

“Understood.”

“Everyone else will want to hold on tight.”

Kor pushed the Wink to her maximum as the gap drew closer, red needles twitching in warning across his console. The light faded as they fell deeper into the shadows of the shell, the light of the skies beyond all the brighter and painfully sweeter.

Breathe and GO.

Kor pulled the Wink up and banked starboard, the view ahead skewing wildly, nothing but hard, unforgiving rock straight ahead. All of his training screamed at him. Out of control. Crash imminent. The thunder of the turret made it all the worse, a brief convergence of everything a pilot didn’t want to see or hear. A trail of blasts carved across the face of the islet forming the top half of the gap. Dust and debris billowed out as great cracks spread across the floating stone. A massive chunk of the islet calved off from the bulk and began to fall.

With no small measure of relief, Kor brought the Wink back into line and pointed her slightly downward, correcting her course. Above, a slow shower of boulders descended from the islet, the natural lift of the stone disrupted, the fragments, some the size of ships themselves, seeking a new floating equilibrium.

The Wink and Smile hit the gap ahead of the avalanche, the precursor stones and pebbles pounding against the hill like a vicious hailstorm. Dust wrapped the ship in a temporary fog, their view of the skies ahead obscured in a moment of terrifying blindness.

“Luck see me through,” Kor whispered among the din, halfway to a true prayer.

The feared hammer blow didn’t land, and the light returned as the Wink leapt into the airy embrace of the open skies.

Kor bottled his palpable relief for later and kept the ship burning hard to the northeast. He wouldn’t waste the precious minutes the Dora would spend threading through another gap in the island’s shell. Hopefully Drexler’s wing would provide additional distraction. Kor might even buy Drex a drink the next time he saw him, assuming their next meeting didn’t immediately go hostile. It wasn’t something he was willing to bet on. He’d used up enough good fortune for the day.

Chapter Six

Kor estimated he was awake for at least thirty hours before collapsing in his cabin. Long enough for an extended, reckless burn away from the island to get as much of a head start on pursuit as possible. From there, they took the long way back toward Gloria, cutting due east toward the dense isle chains around Grindtown, the heart of the Northwest’s mining operations and their rough and tumble ports. It was a smoky stretch of sky with enough traffic to get lost among crowds of industrial and trader ships.

They topped up at a grimy little port that mostly served ore haulers and miner crews and sent a message ahead to their client in Gloria. A prompt response came back, a set of coordinates. The days back north to Gloria went by without incident, though Kor had Nem keep a sharp ear out for any Night Hawks or the still-nameless other faction.

The rendezvous point was a spit of land on the west side of Gloria’s island. It lay on a slight rise, like a wall at the edge of the island hemming in the green and gold farmland that rippled into the distance. The city itself lay far to the southeast, the stone spire and its skin of construction almost lost in the day’s haze.

Brisk evening winds stirred the cargo hold, the doors deployed and waiting for the Governess’ pick-up. Kor mulled the job while looking over the payload crate. The stuff hadn’t gone off in transit, though a hairline leak dripped onto the deck until they patched it. Chantil had bottled a few samples from the leak, though no one dared to attempt to open the container itself. A few of the plants harvested from the island’s outskirts sat in crates converted to planters, the others boxed up or suspended in preserving fluids, or otherwise stored. One of the shrubs had ridden north next to the payload and was visibly larger just from being in the proximity of the Seeder’s magic touch.

Lukas watched from above, casually armed but not overly threatening. Just in case, you know?

A private yacht-style ship landed on the cliffs nearby, your typical luxurious craft, all windows and shiny metals and viewing platforms. Two escort cutters hovered nearby. A few moments later, Ordelia Avarro stepped up into the Wink’s cargo hold, flanked by two guards. Her eyes fell across the scuffed, but intact, Seeder payload, nose wrinkling at the earthy scent, still strong despite the winds.

“Well done, Captain Icomb,” she said, clearly trying to hold back a triumphant smile. She motioned at one of her guards, who stepped forward and handed Kor the polished avorium tube.

Kor stepped back to the payload crate and opened the tube, gently sliding out the thick, rolled charts like the treasure they were. He unrolled the chart, eyes barely registering the precisely drawn islands and coordinates of the Ferron Expanse, the simple, yet detailed inks in blue, red, and black. He ran his fingers over the sigil of the Orventian Cartography Corps in the lower right corner, a raised golden embossing.

They were legitimate charts. One of the entire expanse. The other two detailed surveys of two major island chains. Kor was careful not to set them atop the payload itself, fearful of stains.

“Satisfied, Captain?” Avarro asked. She stood across the payload from him. He hadn’t noticed her move, so focused was he on the charts. The greenish residue of the payload’s compressed, vital contents stained her gloved fingertips

“Yes ma’am. I deem our trade complete.” Kor rolled the charts up and returned them to their case. He stepped away from the payload, waving a hand across it, as if presenting it for inspection. The Governess’s two guards stepped up to the payload and began wrangling it back toward her yacht.

“You have copies, don’t you?” he asked as they wheeled her prize down the ramp. Both sides were taking a risk here, betting on the potential value of their goods. The maps might only be a rough guideline, perhaps useless beyond historical context. The Seeder payload might be worthless without a proper catalyst or dispersal system, no better than quality fertilizer.

“Of course. In triplicate. But so far as I know, you and I possess the only original and complete charts of Ferron this side of Osspor.”

Kor nodded. There could be more originals floating around, but if Jeppesen’s notes were any indication, there weren’t anywhere nearby. Perhaps in the Imperial archives in Orvion, assuming they were among the pieces saved from the Dissolution.

Avarro tapped the deck with the toe of her boot, pointing out the discoloration from the payload’s leak.

“Much as you collected a few, involuntary, samples, yes?”

“I try to keep my ship clean.”

“Naturally,” she said. You’re looking to be the first in, aren’t you?”

“That’s the plan,” Kor said. No need to be secretive. He knew she planned for the upwell storm clearing out soon. With Gloria the closest good port to Ferron, the waves of explorers, prospectors, and other efforts will be a massive economic boon to the city. And therefore, a boon to the Governess’s wealth.

“The storm’s winding down and there are…exciting times ahead,” Avarro said, her eyes speaking to a host of plans for the coming land and resource rush. “Shall I keep you in mind, should I need discrete adventurous services, Captain?”

“Please do, ma’am. We’re always looking for interesting work.”


Onward to Episode Eight || Back to Episode Six
Season One || Guidebook || Support

Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016

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