Precursor

Chapter One

Silja Oterrvo wasn’t much fond of unbounded personal freedom. It was too easy to start drifting, to let life’s winds carry you along. She needed a goal, a driving force with just enough loose authority to give her momentum. She was well aware of the contradiction between that desire and her past as a freedom fighter writ in fading colors on her left bicep.

A cool, blustery morning greeted her as she left the hole-in-the-wall flop house wedged among Gloria’s shadowed lower moors. Silja carried her duffel over one shoulder, not trusting the innkeeper from helping himself to any loose belongings left behind in his clean-enough, closet-sized rooms. She strode through the winding, half-improvised streets with confidence, this being her fourth day in town, and her seventh visit to the dockmaster office.

Silja stopped at the same open front, five-chair eatery for the third morning in a row. The chef-server-owner of the little booth gave her a flicker of recognition as she paid two jots for the privilege of a bowl of thick oat-something dotted with red bits she assumed were berries. Just a flicker, though, as Silja was just one of hundreds of hands-for-hire filling up Gloria these days, all looking for a job, something to break their own drifts. A goal.

Well, she did have a goal, but it was so far away and so vaguely defined that she had half a mind to add a sub-goal: Circle back around and strangle that smarmy son-of-a-bitch Sunder what gave her the long promised information.

Where’s my ship? Where’s Last Call?

Hub, he said with a crooked grin.

You’ll have to do better than that. Silja shivered at the memory of her own voice. The wrong answer would have set her off. She would have beaten him to a pulp and tossed his body into the sludge. But then she wouldn’t have been able to get out of Knucklebone. Not alive, anyway.

Dealer down there, name of Inrik. Snaps up good ships without asking questions and resells them.

He didn’t have anything more. Just a name and a place and a thank you for your service to the Sunders, Ms. Oterrvo, your debts are cleared.

Silja got on the first ship out of that shit-hole port, but traveled north instead of south, Gloria instead of Hub. Gloria was cheaper, closer, and had a next step. A job offer. She found a spot on a clunky hauler and negotiated her fare down with some good old manual labor. They made a long stop in Yusola, since no one wanted the extra attention of coming straight to Gloria from a pirate port. Suited her fine, since Yusola was a water port and the delay gave her enough time to get in a near-scalding bath and burn off Knucklebone’s stink. Worth every coin, that.

Sated, if not satisfied, Silja slid her empty bowl across the counter and resumed her hike upward. Not two minutes later she paused at a break in the cables and beams of Gloria’s metal skirt. Clouds and mist cloaked the island’s lower plains and farmland, making the spire of the city seem to float alone among the skies. Bands of too-colorful rain clouds approached from the northwest, their grays tinged with violet and deep blue and flashing with internal lightning. Even days away and dispersed, the spun-off children of the great storm drew the eye with a mix of mystery, threat, and temptation. The talk around town was the titanic upwell storm was entering its death throes, and this would be the weather’s way for the next few months.

A blocky freighter passed across her the view, breaking the sky’s hold. Silja tugged her jacket closer and continued on her way.

The streets grew crowded as she ascended the vertical structure of Gloria, and she knew well how hard it was to find a room for an unspecified number of nights. She recognized the look in some of her fellow vagrant, unmoored travelers’ eyes. They had some number of skills, the will to apply them, and just enough coin to get out to a place that might be hiring for something decent. Folk were catching onto the scent of coming work, and Gloria was the heart of the effort. Captain clubs, job boards, and merchant offices would be full of prospective workers and crew members, to say nothing of the unofficial dealings in bars and taverns.

Silja reached the dockmaster’s office, a sparkling white building lording over its arc of the market promenade and claiming a fine view of the open skies to the south. This time around her bribe amounted to something. Yes, the Wink and Smile came in late yesterday. A couple more discs got her the moor number: Promenade, 250°. High class and not far from here.

A fleet of fine, clean, even occasionally noble ships occupied the promenade docking level: Personal craft, yachts, obviously successful merchant ships. Even the attendant noise of a full-up docking area felt muted and cleaner here, and the flights of cargo skiffs and cabs ran in organized lanes. It certainly raised the question of what the hell Kor’s ship was doing here.

Silja descended the access ramp at 250° and came up short as the ship came into sight. She hadn’t gotten a good look at the Wink and Smile back in Knucklebone since Knucks was always dark and they were in a bit of hurry. It fit right in with the other custom craft on this docking level, not quite hewing to a core style, though it was vaguely Imperial in the way most ships were. She had a wedge shaped body, though sculpted with just enough curves along the fore and flanks to make her unique. The tilt turbines were smoothly integrated to the profile, and every inch of the grayish-green (depending on the light?) hull politely declared her speed as a matter of fact.

Yeah. This’ll do nicely. Silja had refused to acknowledge just how much she hated being grounded over the last year. Too much heart-ache there and her former employers in the Sunders knew damn well to never let her near a ship. Keep assets in place, as it were.

The Wink’s rear cargo doors were wide open and Silja saw she was walking into a bustle of activity. She had been sleeping late these last few days. Kor was backing an old model skiff into the hold, a real junker that made Silja wince at the contrast with the Wink. The skiff’s cargo bed was overloaded with equipment secured under a thick netting. They were buoys, bulbous models in the thick Vostokan style, pale gray and trying to float away from each other under the netting.

Silja looked over the Wink’s crew. She recognized Lukas from Knucklebone. He nodded at her as she approached, and spoke a word to Kor before pulling down another buoy from the skiff. A tall, severe-looking woman helped him, her brown skin and dark hair making her origin difficult to place. Another Kural man with the competent look of an engineer knelt at the end of a line of metal runners. He methodically measured and adjusted what looked like an extending deployment track for the buoys. A young woman, pale and slight with freshly dyed silver hair, hauled a wide test console to each buoy. She unlocked a panel on the side and clipped in a pair of connections to the inner workings, then clicked through a series of tests, nodding to herself at the winking green lights.

Kor bounded down the extended cargo ramp and broke into a wide smile, but stopped short in front of her.

“Reporting for duty, Captain Icomb,” Silja said. The title felt weird on her tongue, but she snapped to attention anyway, old muscle memory coming back for a modicum of formality.

“Ms. Oterrvo, I’ve considered your qualifications and find them…satisfactory. Welcome aboard the Wink and Smile.

They embraced for a long moment and Silja felt the coil of tension in the back of her mind relax by degrees.

“A buoy run?” she asked. “A public service job seems a little dull.”

“Who said anything about public service? This is the precursor, Sil. The job before the mission.”

“Ferron?” she asked, knowing full well such a thing would be exactly the sort of trouble Kor would get up to. Silja glanced at the buoys once more, now seeing that they did look tough enough to weather the worst storm.

“That’s right.”

“Aren’t you a little early?” While Gloria was starting to fill up with folk eyeing the soon-to-open territory, there was months of waiting to go before the Ferron Expanse was navigable.

“Not for what we’re about to do,” Kor said. “Once we get these loaded up, we’re going to go over the plan in detail. You showed up right on time, Sil.”

“You know my conditions?” Silja asked, quiet enough to keep it between them.

“I do,” he said. “You got a lead?”

“Hub. Dealer by the name of Inrik.”

Kor bobbed his head side-to-side, as if jostling the new information around with all his other plans. Then he said, “We’ll have time between deploying these guys and when the expanse becomes navigable. We’ll look into it, track him down.”

Silja nodded. It was all she needed to hear on that front. She slid her duffel bag across the cargo bay deck to an unoccupied spot and tossed her jacket after it.

“Let’s get these buoys unloaded.”

Introductions came as they worked to get the buoys secured. There were sixteen, each needing to be lashed down and doubly-secured with netting, or else they’d start to float wherever they pleased.

A brief tour followed, with the initial foreign feeling of learning a new ship lingering for a while longer than normal, something Silja blamed on being grounded for so long. She looked over the turret emplacement with a more critical eye, though the sight of Last Call’s talons alive and in-service put her more at ease. Even if she would have to make changes to the entire set-up.

Silja picked the cabin across the corridor from Lukas’s. Not next door. He looked like the snoring type. It was empty, save for the padded bunk, and dusty from disuse. The walls were bare and in great need of any sort of décor. She set her duffel down in the corner and sat on the bunk with a sigh.

It wasn’t home, but it was enough for now.

Chapter Two

Kor ended the crew meeting with an informal order for everyone to get a good night’s sleep before their departure tomorrow. He was unable to follow his own directive and rest proved as elusive as a sighting of a griffin by reliable eyes. It was well past midnight when he found himself in the observation deck watching the procession of night over Gloria’s upper moors.

Everything was set and everyone had a role or three to play in the coming mission. They’d been working toward this job for months now, flying all over the Northwest, raising funds and sharpening their skills. Now the custom buoys were on board, the deployment plan laid out. All ready for another step toward breaking into a vast unknown.

Yet it wasn’t excitement or restlessness keeping him awake. Instead he felt…hollow. For all their efforts, so much was still incomplete.

Kor watched a slice of western night sky, patches of pale stars visible through the broken cloud cover. The successive storms blowing out of Ferron were taking a short break. Lights from airships arriving in port late flashed across the darkened deck. After a brighter traversal of light from a departing yacht, a shimmer of golden radiance remained in the corner of Kor’s eye and the vague impression of a too-tall feminine figure leaned against the wall on the far-left side of the windows.

“Evening,” Kor said quietly. He looked over his right shoulder to assure himself the door to the observation deck was closed.

The pressures of Luck’s presence were softened this time around, perhaps out of her not taking any concrete form, so far as Kor was willing to see. She was a luminous Spirit, a ghost at the edge of his vision, easily reconciled as a trick of the lights from the port. She cast no light beyond herself and the deck remained dark save for the passing beams of other ships outside.

“Why didn’t you tell them?” she asked, her words flowing through his mind like liquid fire.

Why indeed? Kor still held back one point, a secret kept close to the vest. Ferron might contain something more than a vast array of jumbled up islands old and new. More than prime new places for settlement and mining, more than strange critters slipping out through the storm walls. There might be old secrets thought long-gone, old wounds thought to be healed-over. And that would be the biggest prize of them all.

Perhaps.

“Because I don’t know for sure. And it’s a good thing we’re going down to Hub in the interim for Sil. I can look into it.” He had the maps. He had Jeppesen’s notes. He had the rumors and hearsay. There was one man, still alive last Kor knew, who could help him piece the rest together. One of the few Savvy Scourge veterans not dead or within the Night Hawks’ and Bianca’s command. The only problem was finding a man who very much didn’t want to be found.

“What’s more,” he continued, “I know the crew deserves to know the stakes of this long game I’ve been playing. And should that all-mighty If prove true, maybe it’s too much for some of them. And they’ll walk, as is their right.”

Kor shook his head and let out a heavy sigh. He had finally built up something he didn’t want to risk. Something he wasn’t willing to lose. It was a problem for the future, though the time between now and then was getting smaller by the day.

“You’ve never been one for a sure thing,” Luck reminded him, as if her very presence wasn’t enough.

“One of the few things I know for a certainty,” Kor agreed.

“Delaying only gives you all the more time to stew and worry.”

“Yes,” he granted. No use in denying it. “Unless you wanna play spoiler and just tell me, Luck. Wouldn’t you know?”

“There’s a chance,” she said. “Upwell storms blind more than human eyes.”

Kor nodded. It fit with what he’d figured about Luck. She was just as much a being of the world and skies above, while upwell storms drew their strength from the unknowable Down Below. She was a human concept and bound within the same realm as her creators, careless and forgetful as they were.

“Honestly, I’m not sure which way I want the dice to fall.”

“Nor I.”

Now that gave Kor pause. Luck was inherently uncertain. It was her literal nature, after all. But this was the first time she sounded…worried? Concerned? Anything other than her typical molten aloofness, a stain in the liquid gold of her voice. In turn it worried Kor double. The main reason he was able to keep everything together through the last couple years of careening from one scheme to another was the assurance that he played with weighted dice. Eventually he’d roll a blank and fail catastrophically as his debt of ill luck came due.

Not yet.

Kor pulled his charm out from under his shirt and rolled the coin along his fingers, gently twisting the thin chain. “From the sound of it,” he said, “We’re looking toward the same thing, Luck.”

“No. Not quite. But you’re going in the right direction. I’m just along for the ride.”

Kor seized on her words, knowing any hint as to Luck’s purpose in her patronage of his life and his ship was a rare thing indeed. He knew he was being used and as subtly helpful as she was it would be nice to know what Luck wanted.

More what-ifs and mysteries to lay atop the pile building up in the Ferron Expanse.

“Well, we might be flying straight into some turbulence real soon here.”

Luck vanished mid-sentence and Kor spoke to an empty deck. After a few meditative minutes he stood and made his way back to his cabin for a second chance at sleep.

Chapter Three

Nem worked with a demon perched on her shoulder, whispering in her ear. The Ferron upwell storm rumbled in the distance of every sonic band she might lend a listen. It was a too-slow, too-deep backing track and made every check and isolation and scan drearier than they actually were. But there was more to the storm’s droning call. Thin threads of…something else murmured among the gloom. They were like the evaporating fragments of a dream after waking and she couldn’t catch them. Maybe when they drew closer, though by then she’d be busy with the buoy deployment.

She looked forward to this job because the deployment plan was mostly hers. The follow-up relied on her, the activation of a fresh, private network, the influx of genuinely new (or at least, greatly changed) sky and all the signal and calls therein. The new panel to one side of her N/C console stuck out from the whole, the dials and readouts and casing all a little cleaner than the rest.

While Nem had no trouble finding the sonic signature of the upwell storm, visually it was still unseen over the horizon. As the Wink traveled northwest toward the storm, the bands of weather pelting the region with cold rains and hard winds had slackened for the past couple days, which only generated the sense of a bigger blow being prepared. They were still a day and a half out from the first deployment arc for the buoys. Another long haul trip, though today the components of the flight deck were remixed.

 Silja flew the Wink ever-so-slightly different from Kor, even accounting for being new to the controls. Her adjustments to the ship carried a distinct tempo and duration, shifts that rang back through the incoming signals amplified in Nem’s ears. More obvious was her lack of experience in having a dedicated N/C. Nem’s occasional advisories always seemed to take Silja by surprise, reflecting a different school of training, and a different career course. This was a pilot used to flying solo, so it was good they were getting in flight hours during the easy days.

Doctor Chantil sat at the conditions station, earning back some familiarity before they got to rougher skies where she’d be needed. Conditions was a distinct, but interconnected position in a crew. A flurry of needles and meters divined out the vagaries of the sky unseen by the pilot and unheard by nav/comm. From a string of data, one could see storms and wild winds before the rest of the crew, essential when the skies could coalesce a surprise out of nothing but air and mist.

Nem smiled to herself, knowing the good doctor’s continual protestations of being a resident and not a crew member rang increasingly false in everyone’s ears. Her thread of tone harmonized with the rest of the Wink a while ago and she hadn’t quite realized it yet.

An alien, organic cry wailed out of the mix. It wasn’t from Ferron, too clear and close. Nem cut out the background noise and listened as if she were trying to catch the whisper of a ship flying quiet. There, again. A horn-like bellow above the beats. Then a response, a series of hoots, all to the northwest. They didn’t match any of the typical signs she knew like the sound of her own voice.

Animal, then? Good thing they had a specialist on board.

“I have unknown sign ahead,” Nem reported. “Not rock, ship, or storm.”

“Smooth in all directions,” Chantil agreed. She turned toward Nem, “What do you think it might be?”

“You tell me, Doc.”

Nem yanked out a cable and broadcast her current filtered band. The muted background mix filled the flight deck until the series of call and response hoots rang out through the general chaos. Chantil’s dark eyes narrowed in sharp assessment.

“Those are serpent hunting calls, sure as daylight. Drop into whale-song frequencies.”

Nem did so, adjusting a pair of dials into the deeper frequencies. The output sound became garbled and violent, catching threads of the Churn below, and she quickly applied an oft-used filter to blank it out. A haunting warble fought through the noise, singing of distress and warning. Even to Nem the complexities of whale-song reached beyond comprehension. She never wanted to learn the specifics of sonically tracking the giants of the sky. Never wanted that particular qualification.

“Whale-song out here?” Silja asked over her shoulder. “Everything around Gloria was hunted out years ago.”

“Possibly a roamer,” Chantil said. “Since the whalers have gone elsewhere, it’s sensible the whales may find and repopulate wherever their predators aren’t. Alternatively, it may have come out of Ferron.”

Chantil always gained a measure of vitality when things turned toward her expertise. An upswing in her rhythms, a leashed liveliness to her voice. The barriers opened and her typical dour formality fell away, but only for this sort of thing.

“Out of Ferron?” Silja asked. “You think so?”

“I have some personal experience with fauna emerging from the Ferron storm, yes. Most whale species can skim the upper layers of the Churn. An upwell storm is no more difficult for them. I suspect there’s a manner of wildlife reserve beyond those storm walls.”

“In some ways that’s bad news,” Silja said. “If there’s a fresh population of the critters out in Ferron it’ll attract the worst sort of folk once the storm opens. Whale blood’s getting pricey, and the whalers are hungry as hell, let me tell you.”

“All the more incentive to being among the first in, to see what’s out there before it become despoiled by careless hands. Perhaps we’ll catch onto a living myth or two before it retreats beyond the horizon.”

Nem split her attention between the other women and isolating an origin point of the serpent and whale calls. Once she knew the scale of what she sought, a set of target coordinates followed without issue. They were quite close.

“They’re just barely aside our route,” she said. “Won’t lose much time to check it out.” Nem left the direction unsaid, waiting for a prompt and agreement. Technically speaking, no chain of command was in effect.

“Hit me,” Silja said after a moment.

“Adjust three to port. Target is approximately ten clicks onward.” The Wink eased into the altered direction, barely perceptible.

Chantil tuned the conditions station and added, “I have a patch of weather in that same direction. Quite soft, just a cloud band.”

Within a few minutes, a gray patch of sky resolved out of the day’s cloudy background and loomed closer. It looked like a band of rain halfway to dropping its load. Nem double-checked the last known position of the whale-song and it was pinned right in the heart of the clouds.

“A passive system,” Chantil said. “No lightning. Curiously shaped. Almost…organized but without the stronger winds or other effects. Our quarry is certainly riding the cover.”

“So we’re hunting now, Doc?”

Nem suppressed a snicker at how quick Silja adopted the informal address, though Chantil never gave a sign she cared a whit.

“I’m always on the hunt in some fashion, Ms. Oterrvo.”

Scratch that. New gal’s getting the last name treatment. An easy signal to interpret, that one.

Silja didn’t seem to mind. “Easing up and taking her in,” she said.

The Wink rapidly found herself in a misty murk, beads of water pooling and trailing away against the forward windows. Rainfall drummed against the hull, adding its own strain to the mix. Nem restricted her incoming bands and sank into the local sounds. The skies were muffled, with a slower pace, but clear of threats. Quieter. The thread of the flight deck whispered in her left ear, Chantil advising Silja on the sudden weather conditions.

The hoots and whale-song faded as they drew nearer to the center of the placid rainstorm. This was no surprise, as the larger beasts of the skies had a sense of approaching signal, a means of hearing out prey, ships, and isles. Some whales had a bulbous organ on their back or bellies filled with a noxious silvery fluid. It was suspected of functioning like an organic nav/comm system, but spoiled when harvested and exposed to air, preventing most investigation.

Nem manually directed the receiver in a slow sweep of the murk, not exactly sure what she sought. A heartbeat? A wraith in the fog? The longer she listened, the more familiar the quiet swells and troughs of the local soundscape became, rhythmic and odd in how consistent it was.

Like a breath.

“Are we sure this is weather?” Nem asked. “It’s too regular.”

“It does feel weird, yeah,” Silja said.

“Feels? Could you be more specific?” Chantil prompted. At some point, she had produced a notebook, open and ready at her side.

“As in I’ve compensated for the same variation in the head-and-crosswinds multiple times. The exact same adjustments. Same feeling to my hands.”

Chantil tapped at the conditions console. “The system’s now moving slightly out of alignment with prevailing winds. As if it changed course…”

The flight deck went quiet as all three women realized they were in the middle of the thing itself. Or at least its effects, the weather sculpted by the creature.

“Nem, can you confirm the center of the system?” Chantil asked, her voice wavering with a slight undertone of excitement and a touch of fear as she ran through the specific coordinates.

Nem broadened the incoming signals, looking for the gentle shift in clarity defined by the clouds’ edges. The heart of the storm, gentle as it was, lay exactly where Chantil said. And all the while, Ferron growled in the background, hemming her in. Nem shook the feeling away.

“Confirmed. Silja, adjust to this mark,” Nem said, stringing out a fine-tuned heading.

“Roger that, but I’m taking her out of here at the first sign of trouble.”

There wasn’t much doubt as to whether or not they would continue the investigation. If you weren’t game for a little misadventure here and there, you didn’t belong on the Wink and Smile.

As the ship reached the center of the flowing clouds, a new beat joined the rising symphony in Nem’s head: her pulse.

A dark shape rose through the mists ahead and below. Bullet-shaped with a tapering head, it was many times larger than the Wink. Sacs inflated and shrank along its long body, drawing in and expelling streams of mist. An array of diaphanous fins flared around the whale’s midsection then folded back along the body in a smooth rhythm. Its flesh was a pale gray, nearly white, and marbled with swirls of black, blue, and violet.

“Keeping a respectful distance,” Silja said at an irrational but understandable whisper.

Chantil said nothing, instead furiously and blindly writing notes, her eyes transfixed on the giant.

Pulses of luminosity rode the creature’s back and flowed along the extending blade-like fins, creating shimmers of heat and steam where the mists came too close. Birds, seeming no bigger than white and gray spots, followed in the whale’s wake or roosted among the duller, craggy sections of its hide near the split, rudder-like tail. The whole scene was a mobile crucible of life, a union of heat and moisture.

“An empyrean,” Chantil said finally, making no effort to hide her awe. “They’re…they’re ancient. Reclusive. Titans of the skies.”

“Out of Ferron?” Nem asked.

“Must be. There is an empyrean’s blade back home inside the sciences complex. They look fragile but are diamond-hard. So too their skin. They can cut through a storm wall with ease, to say nothing of any threats.”

Sinuous shapes lurked in the empyrean’s wake, their heads adorned with cages of curling horns. Thirty feet long with scaled hides sporting flexing fans, the serpents flew in an undulating triangle.

As a precaution, Silja angled the Wink further away from the creatures’ route.

Chantil nodded at the view. “Our would-be hunters. Those ram serpents are no threat to her. They’re scavengers or merely drafting.”

Nem jumped in her seat as the empyrean bellowed across the sonic bands, the sound reverberating across the flight deck. Then the noise moderated itself into a flowing, droning song, as layered and complex as anything she had ever heard. The empyrean sang in tones and melodies utterly foreign to Nem’s trained ears. But, after a time, she decided the calls weren’t worried. The serpents were annoyances at best. The great whale was dismissive of them, but sang out a warning call of their presence to her kind all the same. Nem couldn’t hear any responses. This was a lonely stretch of sky for most everyone. On a hunch, Nem punched the record button and filled a blank tape with what pieces of the empyrean’s song they could catch.

“Is there anything you want us to do, Doc?” Silja asked.

Chantil shook her head. “No. There’s little we can do but count ourselves lucky to have seen it.”

The titan began to pull away from their sight, its shroud of mist concealing the details once again. Soon the Wink drifted alone in clearing, empty skies.

“Let’s resume course for the drop zone,” Nem said into the growing silence. She gave Silja the target coordinates and the ship sprang back into traveling speed. Chantil ignored them as she bent over her notes and wrote out her thoughts while they were still fresh.

Nem knew there would be other moments like this. Perhaps not as grand, certainly more hazardous, but equally mysterious or fascinating. The mere sound of the upwell storm, that grand and gloomy background, promised as much.

And she couldn’t wait to pry open its secrets.

Chapter Four

Wilcox yanked as hard as he could on his safety line, pulling against the securement point on the port-side wall of the cargo bay. Rock solid, as in the previous checks. He tugged at the harness around his waist and chest. Tight and somewhat awkward over his cold-weather clothing, but just as secure. He nodded, satisfied. You can never be too sure, especially given what they were about to do.

The buoy deployment track occupied the center of the cargo deck. Wilcox gave it a builder’s critical eye. It was a long cage built of smooth metal runners with well-spaced vertical bars keeping the whole thing together. An extending portion wrapped around the rear end of the track, long enough to slide out and drop the buoys just far enough out of the Wink’s wake to get snatched up by the storm’s winds. The whole thing looked more like scaffolding than anything else, though it was fundamentally similar to dedicated drop systems, if skeletal and temporary. Wilcox could spot at least a dozen improvements he could have made to the system but held back since it was a two-time construction.

The track made a right angle turn starboard near the forward wall, where the buoys stood ready, the first set of eight in looser cargo straps and gently jostling against each other, trying to float free of the staging area. The second set of eight stood in the corner, firmly restrained near that container of excess supplies and parts from the Dross job. Damn thing’s been sitting there taking up space for weeks. It was only a little larger than the buoys and Wilcox had half a mind to just launch it on the track as well. Let the Ferron storm have it.

Lukas stood on the opposite side of the track and Silja waited at the inner wall nearer to the buoys, giving them a three-point arrangement. They were similarly bundled up against the coming chill and also ran through nervous, reassuring checks of their harnesses and life rings. The second measure, while so ingrained into their habits it was like breathing, was only a gesture for this job. If you got sucked out today a life ring wouldn’t be worth a damn.

Kor’s voice squawked out of the comm speaker near Silja. “Five minutes, cargo bay.”

“Roger, bridge,” Silja replied, leaving the connection open. She would be announcing their launch progress as they went along between wrangling buoys into place. Wilcox and Lukas had the pleasure of running them along the track to the extending ramp. Physics would take care of the rest. Wilcox carried the distinguished position of opening and closing the cargo doors while the Wink flew along the edge of a storm. The benefits of seniority.

“Happy with your new assignment?” Wilcox called over at the newest crewmember.

Silja shook her head with a half grin.

“I’ve signed up for lower-odds ventures once or twice before.”

“This should be easier than those others.”

Wilcox nodded at their shared perspective, that indelible ‘We already did the impossible’ assurance his fellow Coalition veterans carried. It was high time this ship got a little more balanced in their past affiliations. He’d weathered an Imperial majority crew for months on end, suppressing sighs over their various, irritating bits of nostalgia.

There was little additional banter as they waited out the approach. The Wink rocked in the crosswinds, the angle of the deck weaving through unpredictable sways. Wilcox spared a glance to the engine room door above him. He’d tweaked and tuned the engines and other systems to be able to run on their own for the duration of the job, but it was still a risk, an additional source of anxiety on a morning where no more was required. The warmth of the engines kept the cargo bay far too warm for their thick clothing, but that would all change the moment they got the call and Wilcox opened the lower bay door.

Again, in the middle of a storm. Just…inviting the chaos on board. All for a head start on some vaguely defined, but plausible, payout. Risks and maybes. He thought he was done and retired from taking such chances. Given his record, what need was there for more? But he couldn’t shake the desire to challenge the odds, despite years hopping around frontier ports trying to pretend otherwise. The allure of working an engine room in the open skies, of fighting against the variables of an imperfect machine, was simply too strong.

The three of them went through final checks. Lukas and Silja jostled the cargo straps on each of the eight buoys in this deployment phase. The things were solid work, about five feet tall with bulbous lower sections that made them look like fat-bottomed salt shakers. Two of the eight were heavier relay nodes, recognizable by additional communication bit and bulbs on their shells. They looked tough enough, in a thick style evocative of heavy Vostokan bombardment cruisers.

Wilcox grabbed one of the deployment tracks’ vertical bars and gave it a tug. No give. He’d done as much as he could to reduce the risks on his end. Now for the performance, the grand test. He reached over as Silja set the first buoy in place at the head of the track. The device bobbed away from his touch with a lightness that belied its bulk.

The ship hit heavier winds and Wilcox swayed in place, steadying himself against the launch track. Not long now.

“One minute,” Kor announced though the speaker.

Wilcox exchanged a set of reassuring looks with Silja and Lukas. He then turned and hustled to the door controls, positioned every so precariously near the doors themselves. They weren’t really placed for use in rough skies, because that would be foolish. A ship this size wasn’t meant to perform with a gaping hole in its hull. And yet this would be twice in as many months for the Wink and Smile, with a third scheduled.

He felt the ship yawing into an odd forward angle, assuming a skimming position. Wilcox paused with his hand on the controls, listening to the engines above. They hummed in a higher pitch from the hard burn, but sounded within safe range. No reason to abort, yet. Time to execute.

“Opening!”

“Opening doors, bridge!” Silja relayed.

Wilcox grasped a handhold on the wall and then pressed the lower door button in one last moment of relative quiet and stability.

The lower bay door retracted smoothly and frigid, swirling chaos flowed into the cargo hold. Wet, wintery air cut through his coat and turned the sweat from the warm wait into an icy skin. Wilcox held on as the Wink gave a wild lurch followed by a controlled adjustment into some semblance of smooth flight.

Relatively speaking, of course.

Lukas cautiously followed the track down to the release for the extending ramp, keeping a hand on the upper runner as he found his feet. After a steadying breath, Wilcox let go of the handhold and strode across the deck to the track, winds tugging at his feet with every step. With practiced efficiency, they undid the hooks keeping the ramp in place and shoved the framework out into the sky. The metal clanged and scraped against the deck before settling into a restrained vibration as it fell into place. The winds tried their damnedest to rip it free, but the construction held. For now.

No reason to abort. Proceed. 

Wilcox and Lukas followed the track back to the first buoy, held back with a looped cargo strap by Silja, her feet planted, leaning back against the winds’ pull. A pair of loose straps flapped wildly behind her, a small and hopefully solitary oversight. The second set of buoys in the starboard corner remained in well in place. The old skiff in the port corner under the stairs didn’t so much as jostle.

Wilcox turned as he and Lukas grabbed hold of the first buoy. Only then did he look aft and out into the sky. There, he saw madness writ large.

The Wink and Smile rode the very edge of an upwell storm. The storm wall occupied the entirety of their limited view, a titanic barrier of flowing clouds in all the darkest shades he’d ever seen. Lighting flickered in the depths, flashes of odd colors. He couldn’t hear any thunder due to the winds, a roaring, deafening assault. In that moment, Wilcox could see an order to it all. The storm wall was stacked in alternating flows, layers of directional winds driving the enduring upwell of power from below. Yet there were disruptions and decay in the system, an unraveling to the structure, a wild expelling of energy.

“Go!” Wilcox yelled above the storm. He and Lukas pushed the buoy forward, running along the track, the device seeming to amplify momentum and eager to rush out into the open air. Wilcox counted four vertical bars and let go, coming to a stop with room to spare. The buoy continued on the track, dropped along the ramp, and was quickly snatched away into the storm. Soon it was lost among the background, drawn in by the constant lethal pull grasping at the Wink and Smile.

One.

“ONE!” Silja yelled into the comm.

The ship eased into a steadier, though turbulent, rhythm as Kor got a feel for the storm. Wilcox still wavered drunkenly as he and Lukas returned to the buoys, the forces at work making it clear this would be the best case scenario in terms of balance and footing. They dropped the second buoy and then the third, the first relay node. Each glided out along the track and tumbled out into the storm, flying as if weightless and swallowed in moments. Offerings to the great storm and the great unknown within.

The ship crossed into a patch of rougher winds as they braced to push out the fourth buoy. The cargo deck darkened and even the view of the too-damned-close storm faded under a blanket of dense fog, the heart of a cloud. Coils of icy mist wormed through the opening and trailed up along the walls. In moments, a rime of frost coated areas of the deployment track and cargo deck. Wilcox’s face and hands went numb under the sudden frigid assault. Then it was gone, departing as the Wink found clearer skies. A breath of relatively warmer air whisked through the cargo bay, banishing the fleeting frost into a shimmer of moisture.

Wilcox and Lukas jogged along the slick floor with the fourth buoy and sent it out. Number five followed as they worked like cogs in an imperfect machine, the only voice Silja’s as she called out each deployed buoy into the comm.

Wilcox paused to note the ramp was shaking wildly, the securements at the end of the deck showing stress and flex from the winds. Something to improve afterward, room for iteration even with such a temporary construction.

Six buoy, second node. As they started the run, Wilcox once more noticed the chill of winter against his face, the deep cold sneaking back into the hold over the previous two launches. Halfway down the deck, a patch of unseen ice stole away his footing and Wilcox tumbled to the floor. At that precise moment the storm uppercut the ship and the Wink lurched upward. Wilcox grabbed for the nearest anything, but the fresh ice fouled his grip and he rolled downward toward the open sky. Buoy six sailed out ahead of him and vanished into the mists. He followed, sliding across the slick, heavily angled deck.

His restraining line went taut and swung him into the frame of the cargo doors, smashing his side into the hard, reassuring metal. His legs flailed out in the open air. A heartbeat with closed eyes passed. The safety line held. Always triple check. Minimum. Wilcox looked up as the ship fought to right itself. Lukas and Silja held on to whatever was nearby, eyes wide in relief and terror. He found a grip on the wall and pulled himself around the edge, coming to a rest below the door controls.

Echoes of sundered hulls, snarled metal, and tumbling crewmates rang through Wilcox’s mind. He sorted through the memories and set them back in place. He caught his breath as the Wink leveled out.

“Sound off, bay!” crackled the comm through the howling winds.

“All hands, bridge,” Silja hollered back.

Wilcox pushed himself to his feet as the ship pulled away from the storm wall and stabilized. His breath puffed in front of his face, thick and heavy. Ice glinted everywhere. His right side burned in dull pain, a precursor of more to come. Cautiously, he crossed over to the track and the waiting seventh buoy.

“We finish the job,” he said. Lukas nodded and braced against the buoy. Silja kept one hand on the cargo straps and leaned back to the comm and said, “Two more, bridge.”

“Brace for skimming re-entry.”

The jostling and swaying was old hat at this point. As soon as the Wink returned to its skimming position, Lukas and Wilcox shoved out the seventh buoy, if perhaps at a slower pace. Ice crunched beneath their boots and fell like snow as the buoys scrapped against the runners.

March back. Eight. The final buoy fell away into the insatiable maw of the Ferron upwell storm. Wilcox and Lukas hauled in the extending ramp, the runners bent and awkward from the battering they received from the storm. Repairs and improvements would have to be made.

“Eight out, bridge.”

Already the Wink had pulled away from the edge of the storm, taking a hard port turn and sailing out into smoother skies. The winds slackened and the short walk to the door controls was downright easy. Wilcox slammed the lower button and sighed in relief as the view narrowed and vanished behind a metal shell.

Silja slumped onto the floor below the comm, shaking with mad laughter. Lukas simply leaned against the wall below his restraint point, hands on knees, the image of weariness.

Wilcox listened to the engines. They sounded a touch out of sync. He unhooked his harness and let it fall to the wet deck, the ice crystals already melting away into a fine mess. He started climbing the stairs, wincing at every other step. Sometimes it was best to just keep the machines running. Process the rest later.

“Now we do it all again in a couple days,” he called down to the others.

Chapter Five

The Ferron upwell storm flowed across the northern horizon. Today it wore thin, fierce currents across its face from Churn to Heights. Bands of spun-off systems lashed out like whirling blades, sharp and intense. Kor kept the Wink and Smile at a prudent distance for the time being, a few clicks out from the harshest winds. He eyed the upper levels of the great storm, miles above. A broad disk of sterling silver clouds spun atop the system, comprising a partial ceiling, though from here they still flew in patchy late morning sunlight.

The second, southerly buoy deployment arc looked warmer but harsher than the operation a few days past. This was the true prize, as the southern areas of the Ferron expanse held the best previously known isles and knowledge of their new layout would carry a fine price. The first deployment went completely according to plan and the eastern arc was seeded with the buoys. Well, aside from almost killing Wilcox. Would that be the second or third time? Kor would have to check his logbooks.

“Conditions analysis complete,” Chantil announced behind him. A column of meters on his pilot console clicked and twitched as they aligned with the local conditions. The results were as Kor expected: hard winds with greater pull than the previous drop. They’ll have to deploy from further away to avoid the worst of it.

“Thanks, Doc. We clear, Nem?” The deploy zones were remote, being at the edge of a decades-old storm and all, but they caught whispers of other ships scouting out the area. More eyes, curious and capricious alike, were turning toward Ferron.

A pause and, “Yeah, Cap.”

“You got a concern?”

The gentle rattle of cables against console casings, the sound of Nem shaking her head.

“Lot of disruption in the soundscape. Got some deaf angles.”

“Understood.” It was probably no worry. Anyone following such an approach angle would be skimming the edge of the storm. Only a madman would travel like that.

Kor gave the control sticks a nudge and angled the Wink onto an insertion vector to skim the edge of the upwell storm.

“Taking her in, cargo bay,” he said into the ship-wide channel. “We’ll be skimming further away and dropping the buoys at greater intervals, but be advised of higher winds than last time.”

“Roger that, bridge,” Silja replied. Kor cracked a small smile. Her presence was still novel.

The beginnings of the upwell storm’s crosswinds refocused his attention razor sharp on the task at hand. No familiarity lurked in the feel of the forces buffeting the Wink, there was no direct experience from last time to guide him. This was completely new, the storm presenting a distinct challenge between days or even hours.

Up ahead, the wall of flowing cloud bands expanded to fill much of the view. Kor felt smaller and more insignificant with each passing minute, the scale of this storm never anything less than stunning. He angled the ship into a skimming position, a constant tangential vector to the storm’s edge, adjusted for the inward pull of the winds. Kor kept the clean, geometric version of it in mind, a simplistic comfort against the array of forces pulling him this way and that.

“In position, cargo bay.”

“Opening.”

The constant barrage of adjustments to the ship’s course from within and without surged to a crescendo. Kor could feel the loss of precision at the aft of the ship and tried to even out the jets down that way. The winds in the cargo hold roared through the comm, carrying a blunted, static-like grime to them. Down there, it would be nearly too loud to think straight.

Engines green. Tilts green. Jets stressed but green. Another wobble as Wilcox and Lukas extended the ramp. Kor knew the rhythms to deal with it. He was getting used to with flying while the hold was open. Not exactly a high priority skill taught at the academy. A perturbation and instinctual adjustment let Kor know the first buoy was away.

“One!” Silja shouted through the comm, her voice distant and half absorbed by the storm.

“Tracking,” Nem said. “It’s in.”

A band of white approached, a spin-off flare of clouds. A snap assessment placed it as harmless window dressing, the clouds lacking form and flowing with the prevailing crosswinds. Kor’s view went blank for too-long seconds, but he felt the second buoy fall away as soon as they cleared the fog.

“Two!”

“Trac—Ship sign! Closing hard in our wake!”

“Stand down, bay. We got company,” Kor ordered. “The buoy?”

A rumble of unnatural thunder struck through the rattle of the ship and the roar of wind. Kor’s eyes flicked through his readouts. Nothing went further askew on the Wink, but he knew damn well that was an explosion.

“Missile strike on buoy two,” Nem said. “It’s gone.”

Kor’s positioning screen fought to resolve anything of value, the orange lines flickering and shoddy against the influence of the nearby storm. He kept the Wink on course for the moment. Their best defense was the storm itself fouling any weapons. As for the loss of the buoy, well, they assumed some would be lost in the storm. If not like this.

“We got a visual, bridge,” Silja reported from below. “Lancer. Dark hull, winged design.”

“Roger that, bay. Hold drops.”

“The Raptor?” Chantil asked, though it was barely a question. Those ships kept creeping up onto their business, it seemed.

“Thinking so,” Kor said. “Nem, match their sign to what you saved from before.”

“On it. No further hostile indications”

Kor raised the Wink out of the storm by a token distance, but remained in position for the remaining drops. The buoy networks, despite the shuffle they would receive from the upwell storm dying down, needed to catch similar initial insertion areas and currents. He didn’t want to call it off yet, the gamble was still in play.

“It’s a match, Cap.”

“Of course it is. Can the buoys work in a three-four split?”

 They would effectively lose two buoys if they pulled out now. Maybe make a network of six further out. Kor felt it safe to assume the Raptor would repeat their attack on additional buoys. It was the calculus of how much spite they would tolerate. Or perhaps, how accurate their missiles were in shearing winds.

“Yes. But three’s the min for relaying and amplifying signal. And the node has to make it in next.”

Kor nodded to himself. “Bay. We’re going into a deeper skim. Launch a node and one additional buoy. Then we’re pulling out.”

Act like you didn’t notice. Blame the storm. There was a charm to taking the risk, pressing their patience, defying their aims, whatever they truly may be.

Kor took the Wink closer to the storm, and Ferron responded in kind, shaking the ship down to the rivets. His heart skipped a beat when he heard the wrench of metal, some exterior panel being pulled loose. Jets red. Engines yellow. Tilts yellow, trending orange.

He didn’t feel the third buoy go out.

“Three!”

“Tracking. Missile launch.” Nem’s voice was ice. One beat. Two. Three. “Miss. Buoy’s in.”

“Four!”

This was approaching too much for the ship to take. Not with an open hold. Warning indicators blinked and flashed for his attention. Kor obliged them, pulling the Wink away from the storm’s edge. He would relax from the weakening disruption if it weren’t for the loaded guns in his wake.

“In, Cap.”

“The Raptor?” No emergency indicators flashed from his console, though he was sure Wilcox would find a host of problems on his end.

“Matching ascent away from the storm. Not closing. No weapon sign.”

The ever-so-helpful positioning screen finally resolved an orange X far in the Wink’s wake.

“Wilcox, seal the bay. Silja, get to the turret. Nem, get me a line to the Raptor. Cast ship-wide. We all need to know who we’re dealing with.”

“Reaching out,” Nem said.

An internal rumble, detectable through the crosswinds via familiarity alone, signaled the closing of the bay doors. The Wink’s handling fell back into generally predictable shifts and weaves. Kor heard the smooth scrape of metal runners below as Silja loosened up Last Call’s turret. He pressed the Wink further out from the upwell storm, a high arcing parallel of the storm wall, far enough for calmer air, but close enough to leave their next move in doubt.

“Link open.”

The background noise of another flight deck wavered through the speakers, a hum of machinery and murmured communications between crew members. A static undercurrent hissed at the edges of the link, the storm a displeased crowd in attendance.

“Known but unnamed ship. This is Kor Icomb of the Wink and Smile and I really think proper introductions are in order.”

The confident, female voice with a high-class Torsian accent replied, same as in the Dross. “Very well, Wink and Smile. I am Captain Katerine Vorel and our designation remains none of your concern. While you’ve earned a measure of gratitude from me in the past, I must request you cease this project.”

Kor grinned to himself. There had been no sign of them during the eastern deployment. At a bare minimum they’ve already gotten away with a slim majority of the project. But there was no reason not to finish the job. Each buoy drop was a die roll, but they work best when thrown in clusters.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Vorel. However, I fail to see, nor would I recognize, any authority you might have over this matter and this region.”

“You’re quite right, Mr. Icomb. Much as you have no restrictions on deploying Nav/Comm technology in these skies, I have no restriction on shooting them down.”

“And if I refuse to oblige your request?” The Raptor only hit one out of the four buoys, but Kor figured they rightly guessed that another deep run wasn’t in the cards for the Wink. The storm would take care of the problem.

“Then I may be forced to escalate from the technology to its source. We’re aware of each other’s capabilities, Mr. Icomb. As far as you’re concerned, this territory is under my authority for the time being. Stand down. That is all.”

The connection snapped off, Vorel’s final words hovering over the Wink’s flight deck like an order. One she assumed would be followed. The Orventian, Imperial tones in Vorel’s voice were more than echoes. They were loud and clear signals. In the past, it would be a relief to have orders to follow.

That time had long since passed.

“Well, what can I say, folks,” Kor said, addressing the crew. “I’m in a defiant mood and of a mind to finish the deployment. We want all the buoys in, as some will no doubt fail during the fading of the storm.”

“Could we delay the launch, find another arc?” Chantil asked.

“Yes. But we know the Raptor isn’t alone. At minimum the Dora’s out there and it’s safe to say they’re on the same team. There could be more. If they’re patrolling this area, they’ll be on the look-out for us staring yesterday, and likely have a good grasp of our tracking signal.”

“Definitely,” Nem confirmed.

“We got four more buoys that wanna take a ride into Ferron and the Wink can’t take any additional deep skims. I’m open to ideas, folks.”

Fighting the Raptor straight-up was out of the question. Out racing them was a possibility, but a risk. Delaying the drop would only make it harder to get it done. A silent minute stretched out through the ship. Outside, the buffeting gales of the Ferron upwell storm jostled at the hull, a reminder of a task left unfinished.

It was Lukas who spoke up first.

“Hey, Captain? Me and Wilcox got an idea.”

Chapter Six

Lukas set the last grenade inside the parts container and carefully withdrew his arm from the maze of girders, plates, and other random pieces of hardware. He then turned to the small mound of salvage from a lucky pick-up a few days ago and started filling the remaining empty space. A few choice bits heavy in avorium drifted about in the container, mocking him with their high price-to-weight ratios. He supposed it would be worth losing the bonus cash if this idea paid off.

“You think this will work?” Lukas asked as he stood up and stepped away. Wilcox took his place, the lid in-hand, and quickly closed off the container with four twists to the sealing clamps. They already muscled the container into the buoy launch track, though pushing it out would be a hassle without any built-in buoyancy.

“It’s possible,” the mechanic said, though it sounded too much like a doubtful admission for Lukas’s tastes. “A sudden debris field in appropriately chaotic conditions could overwhelm their tilt’s casings, or damage the weapon mounts, or foul their nav/comm receivers.” Wilcox squinted at nothing in particular and added, “One in a million to hit the rear engines.”

“So it’s a matter of luck,” Lukas said as he checked his safety harness. He had to disconnect when he dashed up to his cabin to grab the remainder of those grenades. They might not even go off, but they were worth the extra oomph. Especially if he could gloat about it to Kor later.

“So it is.” Wilcox said, calm as can be. For someone who fell halfway out of the ship the other day, he seemed the steadiest person on board.

Lukas had his fill of the type of orders and authority the Raptor’s captain attempted to lay on them. And he was damn sure how Wilcox felt about Imperial-accented officers throwing their weight around despite it being years since their authority went up in flames.

“Ready down here,” Lukas called into the comm.

“Dropping to a height similar to the first two,” Kor replied.

Lukas nodded to himself. Good. Sell the bluff of another buoy drop, but not too deep to completely foul up their missile targeting. And an easier time on the two of them down here in the bay.

Lukas weaved through the buoy staging pen. If the container worked, they would have to two-man the remaining actual drops, what with Silja over on the turret as a precaution if the ploy didn’t work. But in that case, they’d probably just run like hell.

The deck rose and fell through the intensifying winds as the Wink once again assumed a skimming position. A pit of dread, old but well-known, appeared in Lukas’s gut. That of the possibility of a split second of impact and the metal shell protecting them being torn open or pocked with holes. You never knew how another ship might take a blatant provocation.

And yet here he was. No real complaints, neither.

“Opening!”

Again, the lower door opened. Again, a torrent of winds flooded into the cargo hold. Lukas took hold of his now-customary grip on the starboard wall. No ramp extension this time. The container’s weight would just break it. And again, Lukas steadied himself against the view, that shearing wall of clouds and winds, too damn big to wrap his head around.

A dark, winged ship followed in their wake, matching their skimming height and watching like a coiled predator. Fortunately, the Raptor wasn’t holding to an attack distance, but it was close enough to pop anything they might drop.

Which was, of course, the hastily conceived plan.

Wilcox trotted over to the container and Lukas matched his position at the rear of the cylinder. They gave it a heave and started a slow push toward the edge and the storm-wracked skies. The container scraped against the deck and rattled all the while, the contents within not at all secure and Lukas well aware of the small explosives tossed in for good measure.

The storm’s grasp tightened around his legs as they reached the edge of the cargo bay. He tried to forget how damn close to the open skies he was, nearly taut safety line or no. One last heave and out the container tumbled, a hard gray shape against the soft, flowing backdrop of the upwell storm. Lukas expected it to fall like low-mix brick, but the Ferron storm took hold of the container and carried it along behind them, toying with a new morsel.

A plume of white smoke appeared from the Raptor’s underside before being lost in the currents. Lukas only reached a mental count of one before the container exploded in a fireball. The air rippled around the blast and the clangor of artificial thunder thrummed through the Wink and Smile. Lukas grinned at the few additional bursts from within the sudden black haze. Barely visible fragments of metal and debris scattered across the intervening air between the two ships, stirred about by the storm’s winds.

Lukas held onto his celebratory ‘woo’ for a moment.

The Raptor took a hard turn away from the storm wall. Credit to its pilot on the reaction time. All the same, a new trail of dark smoke followed from its port-side wing. The air behind the Wink quickly cleared of any sign of debris and the Raptor resumed its pursuit from a slightly greater distance from the storm. However, it flew with its port side dipping down, damaged but not crippled.

“That’s a hit,” Wilcox shouted to Lukas across the buoy track. “Tilts.”

Lukas let fly a victorious whoop before rushing back to the comm as fast as his cautious one-hand-always-on-the-track stance would carry him.

“Captain, we’re seeing damage to their port tilt!”

“Hearing that up here, bay. Hold on for a hard ascent.”

*  *  *

Ascent.

Kor gave the Wink and Smile’s tilt engines full power and watched the altimeter creep smoothly upward. The decal denoting the Raptor fell away on his positioning screen, their vertical lift compromised by that lucky shrapnel hit. There were signs of pursuit, a pair of distant explosions, missiles fouled by the winds. But they weren’t going to catch the Wink. Not today and not with a clipped wing.

Lukas probably put those damn grenades in there. I’ll never hear the end of it.

He held their trajectory for a long while, the Ferron storm’s alternating layers of cyclonic flowing clouds scrolling down through the forward windows. Despite the tight, constant adjustments needed to manage the grasping influence of the storm, Kor felt a bundle of worry fall away.

Defiance.

Kor would defy the odds with this plan. Defy the storm with its execution. Defy whatever ethereal authority Voral, or anyone else, thought they could extend over him. Then he would top it off by defying what he feared lurked in the heart of Ferron.

Soon. But not yet.

He leveled out the Wink’s trajectory before they got too high, then slid into one last deployment skim.

“Drop the last four when ready, cargo bay.”

The deployment passed in a trance. Buoy five. Six. At this height the winds were still a constant battle but less chaotic. Thinner. Almost predictable, but Kor wasn’t arrogant enough to assume anything. Visibility shortened and the air held a softened edge. Whorls of mist spun out of the storm wall like spirits of the past freed from a long imprisonment.

Seven. Eight. Deployment complete.

The cargo bay doors sealed up with their tell-tale internal rumble. Kor eyed the disc of clouds extending out from the heights of the upwell storm. There was always the chance the fly higher.

“Doc. Tell me about that cloud ceiling.”

“Checking.”

Kor took the Wink into a smoother patch of sky, far enough from the storm wall for a break from the harder winds. He eased off the engines and the ship settled into a calm he hadn’t felt in a good while. Echoes of vibrations thrummed through his muscles, a tension that melted away as the calm continued.

Raptor’s signal is receding to the south, Cap.”

“Not much out that way,” he said, imagining a map of the Northwest Frontier. A few small settlements, a couple mining ops. A backwater and a decent enough place for a mysterious organization to set up temporary shop. Kor didn’t think he’d be heading through there anytime soon. Another zone of dodgy sky to add to the list.

“The disc is navigable,” Chantil said after a few minutes. “Appears to be an outflow of moisture. No dangerous structure to it.”

“I’m taking us up and through,” Kor decided. “See what’s on the other side.”

“Its upper bound is close to the ship’s limit,” Chantil added.

“But not beyond.”

“Correct.”

One last ascent for the day. The cloud ceiling played the trick of never seeming closer until they were among it. An all-encompassing mist shrouded the Wink and Smile in a cotton fog, and the forward windows streaked with trails of water. A mild shaking began but compared to what they’d been through over the last couple days it was a minor discomfort.

Then the shaking stopped and the clouds faded to mist and then into crystalline clarity. Kor lowered the Wink out of her ascent, the subtle eddies and vibrations of the air outside losing their bite. The air tasted odd, thin enough to make itself known, but not yet too dangerous. They were only here for a visit, a quick look-see. Fingers of bone-deep chill crawled into the flight deck, and fractal patterns of frost dusted the forward windows. His console’s altimeter crept to the lower edge of the red zone on the dial. The boundary would be close enough to spit across, though the projectile might freeze mid-air.

The Heights.

Unfiltered sunlight, harsh and beautiful, shone down on the cloudscape before them, the light laying bare every contour, every swirl, every swell. The roof of the Ferron upwell storm stretched to the northern horizon and beyond. Concentric ridges of cloud flows rotated against each other, marching away into the distance, their descent toward an unseen center of the storm barely perceptible. Gears in a vast machine, hued in all the colors and shades of primal storms. Vortices rose into the Heights, funnels of air and frost that weakened as they reached into the thin air. Other flaws and cracks dotted the titan storm’s upturned face, heralds of an approaching dispersal marring the stormscape.

The veil was about the lift on a remade world.

I won’t claim to know you. But I’ll dance on your winds and fight through your mysteries. I’ll be first in line when the time comes.

It took some doing, they may very well have picked up some new rivals, and there was some restless waiting yet to go, but the Wink was willing and eager to get started.

Satisfied and well aware of her limits, Kor bought the Wink and Smile about and started a descent, angled toward Gloria.

“Taking us home.”

Epilogue

Verica watched and waited in contemplation as the tea cooled in the humble metal kettle. Another early morning in the Wink’s galley. She transferred one of the shrubs harvested from the Seeder isle into a permanent container a few weeks ago. Now, bolted down against the galley’s outer wall, it gave a splash of color to offset the brushed metals and dull gray cabinets of the room. The air was a touch fresher, the wide, blade-like leaves pulling double duty as a filter in addition to décor. Above the shrub, a mounted beetle carapace from Cassy’s Claws added a touch of savage, black and purple flair on the wall between the windows.

After a proper amount of time, Verica poured herself a cup of tea, nimbly adjusting the kettle when the Wink jounced from an errant wind. A complex scent filled the air. The tea was a blend of a smattering of regions that somehow managed to merge into a distinct identity. Much like herself. Which, she supposed, was why she liked it enough to pay the extortionate prices in Gloria.

She was halfway through her cup when Kor entered the galley, looking rested but still muzzy from a long, well-deserved sleep. He briefly scowled at the empty and idle coffee maker.

“Tea?” Verica offered.

“Sure, Doc. I’ll take a cup,” Kor said. He slid onto the bench across from her.

A second cup was poured and delivered with a thank-you-kindly.

“I’m still mad at you for not waking me for the empyrean,” Kor said after a few sips.

“You needed your rest.” She herself had put in a long night over the finishing touches to her write-up on the empyrean sighting. Whether she sent it along to her contacts was another, still-unanswered question. Word can and would slip out of academic circles. Ferron would be prime whaling territory once it opened, regardless of what she did, but perhaps she could forestall the inevitable for a time.

“Think there will be others?”

“I’m betting on it,” she said.

Maybe we were looking on the wrong side of the frontier. Verica quickly reburied that thought in its shallow grave. On to another subject.

“Clearly you’re comfortable counting Captain Vorel and her ilk as an enemy.”

“She can get in line with the others,” Kor said, his dismissive tone laughably false.

Verica’s previous suspicions of those too-new ships with their Imperial-flavored officers were only strengthened after the brief confrontation with Vorel. The name tickled at her memory like an almost familiar scent on the wind.

“I have some people I can ask about Vorel and her crew,” she said. “We’re bound in that direction already.”

“Hub.”

“Indeed.” The city held associations and implications for everyone on board. Or so Verica assumed, where she didn’t already know. Ostensibly they were going to the frontier’s de-facto capital out of obligation to Silja, to search for her previous ship. But it was awfully close to Night Hawk territory, as well. Never mind Verica’s own past associates, good and ill.

“I already know the answer to this, but, all the same…do you have a plan going forward? Now that the buoys are out?”

“Hell no, Doc. Just ideas. Goals. A host of concerns, old and new.”

“I suppose there’s a certain comfortable status quo in that, Mr. Icomb.”

“Well, like you, I got some folk I need to call on while we’re down in Hub. Favors to cash in. Others to repay. Find some things out for sure.”

Verica caught sight of a fleeting look in Kor’s face. Fear? No, not quite. Dread. Dread and resolve. She recognized it. She’d seen it in the mirror countless times.

“Kor,” she said quietly, “What are we hunting?”

Kor stared at the tabletop for a long moment. He then slid the empty tea cup across to her.

“Pour me another and I’ll tell you my theory.”

End of Season One


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