The Wink and Smile pierced a final stretch of cloud haze and unveiled their destination. Cassy’s Claws appeared to drift atop the cloud floor below, the large island’s landforms like skeletal fingers scratching through the mists. Four long headlands bedecked in dense greenery extended from the highlands of the island’s central palm, their cliff lines descending into the clouds below. The mists common to low-lying islands across the skies shrouded the lower reaches, moisture coiling about the Claws like untamed vines.
Kor leaned back at the helm, taking in the view. It never got old, coming to a new place, especially when the skies cooperated and added their own dramatic flair. Cassy’s Claws lay a week north of Gloria and the journey had been easy enough. The island was well out of the way of all major trade routes, abandoned on one particular edge of the frontier. It was poorly defined on his charts: A set of coordinates and a loose approximation of size and shape. It was known, but not well, which lent a quiet thrill of rediscovery to their arrival.
A boisterous chorus of ‘huzzahs’ from the observation deck below shattered the serenity of the moment as the Wink’s current clients celebrated their arrival. Kor winced at the inevitable cigar smoke staining the insides of his ship. The quartet of Core-native hunters and thrill seekers were good men and their money for chartering the Wink was even better. It was their inexhaustible spirits, so confined onboard for so many days, that wore on Kor’s patience. It’ll be a relief to have them off the ship each day, chasing whatever trophy prey they believed to be hiding among the Claws’ forests.
“Got anything worrisome, Nem?”
“Negative, Cap,” she said. “Clear on ship-sign, city-sign, bergs, and buoys.”
“Clean as can be. How’s the Churn interference?” The Claws were a low-lying island, hot and tropical, and close enough to the cloud floor of the Churn to warrant thinking twice on permanent settlement. Kor glanced at his altimeter. Even with the descent to the Claws still to come, they were at a reasonably safe height, though there was always the off chance the Churn could send up a destructive tendril of weather. Something to keep in mind, a few readings to check a couple times a day.
“It’s annoying, but stable. No aberrant signal. Actual floor still pretty far down, but this mist cover sounds permanent.”
Kor’s positioning screen drew out the shape of the Claws’ nearest edges, an incomplete sketch of orange on black, but improving over time. The damn thing’s been twitchy all day which generally meant they were on the right track. Otherwise they’d be in boring, well-behaved skies.
“Seems to have been the case for a while now.” The density of plant life on the island implied the Claws had avoided any major life-scouring events from below. The four peninsulas of land that made up the titular Claws each reached southward at varying heights. Kor eyed the outer two, about equal in height above the mists.
“I’m going to take us along the westernmost headland.” The claws stepped down from west to east, the second covered in denser jungle and the third wrapped in swirling mists, far too low for Kor’s tastes. The easternmost broke the trend, rising the highest of the four. Each showed minor scouring on their near-vertical cliffs, the stone melted or morphed in chaotic patterns. Elsewhere the cliffs were stained strange colors: bright reds and yellows and oranges, like painted flames frozen mid-inferno. All were the results of harsher weather reaching up from the Churn below.
“If there’s no difference, Cap, go with the eastern finger. I’m getting a whisper of something. Old signal. Maybe a beacon. Maybe nothing.”
Kor brought the Wink about in a gentle turn to the east, angling the ship such that the view remained fine from the observation deck below. He didn’t care for being a chauffeur, but there was no sense in denying their passengers their money’s worth.
“Got anything else on it?” Nor was Kor one to deny any bonus salvage on a job. He was going to need every coin these coming weeks. If there was any room in the hold, that is.
“Mmm, old pattern. Weak, but starting to clear up now.”
Kor heard the flight deck door open. He glanced over his shoulder and suppressed a sigh when he saw the youngest of the four hunters step onto the flight deck. Hatch, a blond-haired Zerish, lanky and about of age with Kor but possessing a better maintained youthful enthusiasm. He was dressed the part, in browns and greens, as if he was ready to slip into the brush at any moment. His clothing bore a few recent stitches and the shadows of stains, speaking to his group’s travels.
“Mr. Hatch, I’d expect you’d to be below with your fellows, celebrating our arrival.”
And not on my flight deck, as requested. Chantil was supposed to be playing hostess to their guests, but Kor supposed it was like herding cats. At least Hatch wasn’t carousing about armed to the teeth, as if expecting a beast to spring out from the unused crew cabins. Not anymore, anyway.
“Quite right, Captain, quite right. We merely wanted to ascertain our first landing site,” Hatch said while striding across the deck to stand aside the helm. He gazed out at the island ahead, his eyes glittering with excitement. Kor caught Nem rolling her eyes. She settled her headphones fully over her ears.
“Well, I’m sorry to say it’s too late in the day to set down. We’ll overnight on high and get a better lay of the land. That way you fellows will have plenty of time to prepare an attack plan.” Kor needed more time to observe the local conditions before setting the Wink down for any stretch of time. The Claws may look stable but even the boldest captain didn’t trust the Churn in unfamiliar skies, even with a height buffer like they had here.
“Ah, fair play, Captain, fair play,” he said grinning madly as he watched the Claws glide across the forward windows. “It’s just a touch frustrating, know what I mean? To see something you’ve chased for so long be near enough to touch and be stymied at the last moment. A terrible tease, that is.”
Kor forced a smile and said, “I know exactly what you mean.”
More than you know, sir, more than you know.
“This is the crowning piece of our journey, you know, our grand prize,” Hatch said. “Each destination a greater challenge, ever further out into the wilds of the frontier. You’ve heard stories of the Claws, I assume? Being, ah, local.”
“Sure have, though I couldn’t confirm or deny their truth.” Every remote island of any size in the Northwest carried a set of tales. The Claws had their ferocious beasts. The Raelins had their reclusive natives. The Pearls their hidden treasure troves. The Kushoals their mysterious ruins. The details of what island held which mystery could be freely reorganized as well.
“That’s the allure, eh? Finding out what’s true yourself, braving the unknown as a bona fide man of the skies should.”
“That’s the allure, Mr. Hatch,” No argument there.
The bridge’s comm speaker crackled and flooded the air with boisterous background noise. “Mr. Hatch, would you care to return below for a toast,” said Chantil. Kor thanked her timing, if not her ability to keep them fully contained in the first place.
“Ah, of course! I’ll return presently Ms. Chantil!” Hatch shouted back. Totally unnecessary. The speaker could pick up voices fine, especially in calm conditions such as these.
“Cheers, Captain!” he said while hurrying off the flight deck and restoring the bridge to its proper serenity.
The Wink approached the tip of the eastern claw. Kor figured he might as well give them a show and brought the ship on a lower pass, just above and west of the landscape. The surface of the east claw was rugged and heavily forested right up to the edges of the cliffs. The landscape rambled through prominent hills and sudden ravines, and Kor could see the veils of streams tumbling over the edges, contributing to the mists below. All wore a coat of dense jungle, the boughs waving on winds that increasingly buffeted the Wink as she glided alongside the headland.
Even on the sheer cliff rock, plant life wormed its way into toe-holds, as if the island couldn’t contain its own vitality. Still, Kor could make out pock-marked sections of cliff face, as if rotted away from age or weather. Here and there patches of forest were stripped of significant plant life, but not in any discernible pattern. The wounds from wild lashes from the Down Below, like tendrils of an unseen monstrosity.
The third and the lowest of the four headlands lay to the west. Forested like its siblings, but heavily obscured by mists, its hills rising like too many knuckles along a skeletal finger. The closer an island dwelled to the Churn, the stranger the land and odder the creatures that could thrive in such a hostile, changeable environment. Perhaps the tales the hunters chased had some credence, but only the most desperate or obsessed captains would risk their ship in such climes.
They would not be landing on the third claw, or even the second.
“About parallel with the signal now, Cap,” Nem reported. “Super weak tone. Old model distress signal.”
“War crash?” Kor didn’t expect to be mounting a rescue operation. Anything buzzing out this weak would be years old, the hardware carrying on long after anyone on the ship would have succumbed to the wild environment out here.
“Possibly. Sounds like an obsolete Coalition code.”
“I’m going to give the land a pass-over, see if you can narrow down its location.”
“Roger that, Cap.”
Kor tried to stitch together an initial story as he arced the Wink over the east claw. There were a few big engagements on this side of the frontier during the War, but always around Gloria or in the Ferron Expanse. Cassy’s Claws were too remote for either side, so far as he knew. The downed ship was likely a scout, maybe off course, maybe pursued out here. Crashed or grounded for any number of reasons and stuck out in the middle of nowhere, distress beacon still going off after all this time.
East Claw rambled below them, rugged and wild. A few clearer patches dotted the interior, perhaps large enough for the Wink to set down for a day and give their passengers what they came for. None of the locations gave Kor much confidence for an overnight. They’ll be taking those in the air.
Still, the island called to him, already offering up a little mystery to get him on the ground. It didn’t take much to tempt him with a sense of adventure or a little bit of exploration, and Kor had every intention of obliging the island’s offer.
Cheery morning sunlight streamed through the Wink’s open cargo doors and the rich, layered scents of the forest filled the air. Kor leaned against the railing halfway up the stairs and watched as the four hunters hustled about the cargo bay in a flurry of final preparations and gear-checking. They carried a small arsenal between them on top of a wealth of specialized and general wilderness equipment, most of which looked field-tested. For their first day on the ground, the hunters requested a region near the base of the easternmost headland where the jungle thinned and transitioned into high-grass fields. Kor found a landing site some distance away, chosen under the guise of being a sound site for the ship. It was a fair hike from their specified hunting grounds but close to the old beacon signal Nem picked up the day before.
Reginald strode up to a few steps below Kor. The bewhiskered and ruddy-cheeked leader of the hunters carried his bulky pack with ease, his age barely considered. Kor was fairly certain Reginald’s rifle was the oldest thing on board the ship, an antique monster of a weapon that rose two feet over his shoulder and left no doubts as to its stopping power.
“Captain,” he hailed, “Please forgive any early rudeness on my part. On further consideration, this landing site might be ideal.”
“We wouldn’t want to startle any game with the ship’s landing,” Kor said.
“Quite right! We wouldn’t want to spook the local beasties, eh? Not until we shoot them, that is.”
Reginald let out an overlong guffaw. Kor grinned through the storm.
“Furthermore, the lads and I could use a morning constitutional and introduction to the landscape. A capital idea, Captain, capital!”
The rest of the ‘lads’ were nearly ready, running through final gear checks with pseudo-military precision. Nem chose this time, after all was packed and perfected, to deliver a homing beacon. It was a bulky, jug-sized hunk of metal containing a short range signal she could track from the ship. A safety measure hacked together on the flight out. She held it out to them with a wry smile. Kor guessed it weighed at least ten pounds.
“I will let that be a young man’s burden,” Reginald said. All leaders know when to delegate.
“Good hunting to you, Reginald,” Kor said. “We’re looking to be airborne by sundown.”
“Understood, Captain!” he replied with a salute and a slaying smile. It was impossible not to find his enthusiasm infectious. Reginald returned to the cargo deck, barking commands. “Time to march, boys! Mr. Hatch, if you will be so kind to take point! Huzzah!”
“Huzzah!” they cried out in unison to the stomp of boots departing through the bay doors. Soon they passed out of sight among the dense greenery of the Claws’ jungles.
A welcome quiet settled over the cargo hold, though even in their absence the hunters crowded the space. Rows of crates and stuffed trophy animals stood in two lines, the cumulative fruits of their months-long grand tour of the frontier. Hauling all of their supplies, even those not needed for this leg of the trip, was part of the contract. From the look of the goods, they started their journey with a luxurious bent, but reduced their style to favor function over comfort. All the same, Kor hoped the crate bearing the emblem of a Torsian distillery held what it advertised and they would be inclined to share in the event of a victory toast.
“Huzzah,” Nem said without an ounce of motivation. “Here, Cap.” She held out another tracking beacon, smaller than the first but equally bulky and improvised.
“This is the smaller one?” Kor turned it over in his hands, testing its weight. It was canister-shaped, with a rounded top. There was a switch embedded into the bottom, set to the on position.
“Best I could find in Gloria on short notice. Tested them last night. Seem fine. They’re meant for port-bound cargo mules, but should work out here with no other signals to muck up the local harmony.”
“Much obliged, Nem. Though it’s a good thing we don’t have far to walk.” The tracer signal lay only a mile from their landing site, though the site was obscured by the canopy on the fly-over. Kor hadn’t seen broken trees or anything else to imply it was a recent wreck, making it as old as they suspected.
Wilcox emerged from the engine room door on the catwalk above them. Kor saw he was entirely prepared for a short hike and potential salvage job and didn’t bother to ask.
“Peace and quiet,” Wilcox announced to the cargo hold. “How novel.”
“Oh, they’re not that bad,” Kor countered.
Nem hummed noncommittally.
Kor bounded down the last few steps to his waiting pack. He managed to wedge the tracking beacon inside and hefted it up to his shoulders.
“You and Lukas mind the ship. We should be back before midday.”
“Roger that, Cap. Good luck.”
“Always, for me,” he said.
Wilcox joined him on the cargo deck, waiting as Kor rechecked the heading numbers against his compass, reinforcing the location in his mind. Time to sally forth.
“Huzzah!” Kor cheered as they descended out of the hold. Wilcox did not take up the cry, merely shaking his head with a frown. He loosened a machete from its sheath and gave it a few slow test swings.
“Tromping off to another wreck,” he said.
“Yet again,” Kor said. “You complaining?”
“Not at all,” he held out the machete. “After you, being so enthusiastic.”
Kor accepted the blade with a smile, aligned with a southern heading, and struck off into the jungle.
Cassy’s Claws made Doralee look like a well-manicured garden isle. The morning sunlight and humidity of the jungle settled over them like a blanket. While the winds off the skies stirred the canopies above, they did little to blunt the heat of the forest floor. Kor’s arms burned from the countless machete blows required to forge a path through the unrelenting jungle. In no time at all he’d worked up a thorough sweat.
“You know,” Kor remarked, “I think this is the island getting me back for dropping the hunters off so far from their preferred grounds.” They would likely have an easier time of it, as their route would wind through thinning forests to the grasslands.
“I’m just glad they’ll be off the ship during the day,” Wilcox said. He was just as drenched, his recently shaved head like a sweating brown egg. “You’ve seen the hold. It’s a damn taxidermist’s shop down there. That stuffed sikki gets me every time.”
Kor had no argument on that point. The sikki was their biggest trophy and the dead bird looked alive and on the verge of a violent rampage. There were a dozen other trophy animals in the hold, some fully stuffed, others only heads, and who knows how many in crates. At night, he sometimes imagined hearing little bestial cries coming from below.
“Well I didn’t expect they would have so many, ah, trophies already.”
“Wish the engine room had a locking door. Make it easier for us to hide down there.”
Wilcox cleared his throat. “What? Sometimes I refer to the ship and I in the plural.”
“Uh huh.” It was hardly a rare quirk among mechanical types and Kor understood the feeling.
“I do dread the return flight to Gloria.”
Kor rolled his eyes at Wilcox’s continuing gruff perspective on their clients. “Is this because they’re Orventian?”
“No,” Wilcox snapped. “It’s because they’re old Orventians. It’s because so far as those fools see it, it’s still the heyday of the Empire. Or at least, they’re pretending like it is. No surprise they got ditched in Gloria. Someone must have hoped they’d run into someone with less patience for their…exuberance.”
“I was an Imperial too, Wilcox. Lukas as well.”
“But you don’t cling to it, Captain. You’re a frontier man now. Lukas too. You’re not acting as if nothing’s changed. You’re not holding on to some…delusion of past glories.”
Kor didn’t bother to correct him. He carried his own delusions, even if they weren’t as overt as the hunters’.
“And you’re still Kural, even if your accent’s deplorable.”
Kor considered a reply in Kural, but didn’t want to prove Wilcox right and said nothing.
Their route led gradually downhill, the terrain becoming sharper, rockier, but thankfully thinning of dense undergrowth. Aside from a few glimpses of furtive unknown somethings flitting through the forest, Kor hadn’t heard or seen much of anything worth hunting. The greatest presence of animal life were the swarms of insects harrying them every step of the way like all the mistakes of an interesting life.
Though they had less than a mile to traverse overland, it took well over an hour of hacking through vines and undergrowth to reach the target coordinates. The hiss of rough running water stayed ahead of them for the final stretches of the journey, pulling them onward. Eventually the jungle yielded a break in the terrain, the view ahead clearing. It was a cruel joke, for the ground dived into a steep ravine, the lower depths veiled with mist from unseen rapids or waterfalls.
“There it is,” Wilcox said, pointing downslope. The rusted shell of a downed ship clung to the side of the ravine, thankfully on the near side. From here Kor knew the fuselage was just the forward compartment, the rest scattered who-knows-where or fallen deeper into the ravine.
“Thinking we’re not getting much more than satisfied curiosity this time around,” he said.
“Doesn’t look like much from here, and in poor condition to boot,” Wilcox agreed.
Kor gave the slope below them a hard look and determined it was navigable without the hassle of ropes and such. Their descent was kinder than the jungle, clear of obstruction and harsh angles. The wreck perched on a wide ledge and was buttressed in place by slope-clinging trees. The pervasive undergrowth returned on the ledge, further anchoring the broken ship in place. The island laid a claim on this wreck and held it tight. Kor was too worn out from bushwhacking to contest the issue. As for the ship itself, it had been broken roughly in half, the forward compartment revealed to the elements through a circular opening, rusted and mangled from the crash.
“Coalition scouter,” Wilcox said gravely, appraising the ship from a fragment. “Durro by the design of the cockpit and what’s left of the forward windows.”
Kor stepped up into the wreck, nudging aside a few dangling plants at the jagged entrance. There was nothing worth salvaging, all in all. Anything not metallic had been eaten away by time and weather. The hull was rusted through and too bulky to consider hauling out. The flight controls were a broken mess with a fern growing up through the console. Despite all that, a weak light blinked on the left side of the console, obscured by dirt, the beacon somehow still running off battery power after all these years. Kor tried the switch connected to it and felt something break. The beacon went silent.
There was no sign of the pilot.
Kor turned back to Wilcox. The mechanic was examining a ripple in the fuselage, continuing his autopsy. Some of the tears in the metal did look odd. Like they were gnawed on by something.
“Early verdict?” Kor asked.
Wilcox ran a gloved hand over the hull, fingers picking out a line of indentations from small caliber weapons. “Hard to say for certain, but I think this one was shot down. Some shadows of scoring here and there. Hit toward the rear, some interior flames, then a controlled crash into the jungle. Raises the question what both sides were fighting over all the way out here.”
“There was little worth defending out here for the Empire. A chance encounter?” Kor knew that explanation didn’t sit right even as he voiced it. As usual, satisfying one dose of curiosity led to greater questions.
“Well, they were always hiding something, all those grandiose works of theirs left half-finished.” Wilcox said. “Why not hide one out here in the absolute fringes?”
“Fair enough, but I don’t…” Kor trailed off as he spotted motion behind Wilcox. A probing, seeking claw or horn reached over the edge of the wreck, shiny black highlighted against the greenery of the ledge beyond. The beast clicked and scratched against the wreck, sounding large enough to cause concern. Wilcox read his expression and tensed up, hand drifting to the machete. Kor nodded to the left as he drew his pistol.
A large insectoid face peered around the edge of the broken fuselage. It was at least the size of a pet cat. A wide set of scythe-like mandibles clacked at them, as if taking a bite out of the air.
Kor had seen enough. “Naw,” he muttered as he leveled his gun at the beast and fired. The shot rang through the wreck and was punctuated by the bug’s screech. It recoiled from the shot, launching itself away with a gout of ichor. An earthy stink wafted through the air.
Wilcox spun in place after the shot, machete raised. Kor would laugh about the mechanic trusting a hand tool over his side-arm later. They prowled forward together, stepping wide of the slick of ichor shining with oily prisms. The ledge outside was clear and quiet, the only trace of the creature a shell fragment about the size of Kor’s palm. As he turned it over, wincing at the sticky underside, Kor revised his assessment of the island’s hunting potential.
“Let’s head back to the Wink,” he said. “This island just got more interesting on multiple vectors.”
Chantil would like to take a look at the shell fragment, no doubt. And Kor wanted to give the mapping data another once over. The wreck implied the Claws held another secret to uncover, one he would very much like to turn out.
The treetops of the easternmost Claw glided below the skiff, the cart’s downdraft stirring the boughs where the trees reached a little too high. Mid-morning light cut across the landscape, rich and warm, right at the tail end of burning away the overnight mists. Kor kept their flight speed low, both out of concern for Lukas strapped into the cargo bed and a result of the skiff’s limited get-up over land. Chantil sat beside him in the other seat, her assessing gaze fixed on the rambling greenery below.
The hunters returned just before sunset yesterday, allowing the Wink a valuable twilight fly-over of the Claw for another visual sweep. That, combined with a few hours of pouring through signal and survey data, yielded another lead within the jungles, a ghostly echo of man-made construction hidden amongst the trees. The site was located about mid-way down the Claw, nestled in a low dip in the landscape. Kor was happy to oblige Reginald and company with the same starting point today. It kept their own target site well in range of the skiff.
“Doc, I’d assume you’d be out with our guests once or twice.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude on their boys’ club,” she replied with a slight waver in her voice. Probably from the engines. “I gave them field work, all the same.”
“Asked them to keep an eye out for those big bugs, myself.” Kor quizzed the hunters on any sightings yesterday. They hadn’t seen anything like it, returning only with a healthy selection of local birds.
“Precisely. I’ll need a better example, more than a carapace fragment anyway. Not to say I’m ungrateful for you bringing it to me, Mr. Icomb.”
“I have a knack for giving ladies the perfect gift.” Kor kept his eyes on the view ahead, but filled in her eye-roll mentally.
“Don’t think I could take that big of a dose of them myself,” Lukas shouted over the engines. No nervousness colored his words, despite his improvised position in the cargo bed being wildly against regulation in any place where there were regulations. Kor knew Lukas had been through far rougher rides. This one didn’t end with a firefight. Probably.
“I’ll grant they’re somewhat boorish,” Chantil replied, “but they mean well and they’re paying well.”
“The last part’s all I care about,” Lukas said.
“We’re coming up on the target location,” Chantil told him. Kor nodded, already spotting out the broad dip in the canopy where the land slouched down in the middle of the peninsula. He pulled the skiff back into a slow approach, seeking a break in the trees. There, a curious winding line of thin treetops running from the center of the land out toward the cliff lines to the east. Kor judged it wide enough and started a slow vertical descent.
The skiff slipped through the canopy extending out over the clearing, the wake of the engines tearing free leaves and weak branches. It was a tight fit, but soon enough Kor set the skiff down on the oddly clear lane of terrain. The whine of the engines faded, replaced by the constant background din of the forest. Behind Kor, Lukas unhooked himself and stood with a satisfied groan. A carbine was slung across his chest, a mean-looking post-War piece, and he loosened the weapon while gazing cautiously about the surrounding jungle.
This lane of cleared land curved out roughly east to west, the trees on either side leaning over the space as if the jungle was trying to hide a shameful deficiency. Thick undergrowth filled in the lane to about waist height and a few bold saplings reached up for the premium direct sunlight above.
“Almost like a road,” Chantil remarked. “If drunkenly laid.” Chantil, dressed in white and tans, looked wholly at home as she retrieved and shouldered her pack and rifle from the cargo bed.
“Thinking the same,” Kor said as he shouldered his satchel, feeling the extra weight of the tracking beacon. Looking westward, rawer breaks in the land interrupted the generally level lane before it dipped out of sight around a bend in the trees. Kor gave the jungle a deserved hard look, but couldn’t claim to feel like he was being watched. Then again, he had a limited idea of what to be on the lookout for.
Kor unsheathed the machete and motioned along the lane to the center of the Claw. His arms were sore from yesterday’s bushwhacking, and he looked upon the clearer route downhill with great relief. It was cooler than yesterday, a few precious degrees making all the difference.
The land descended as they followed the path. The geological changes were relatively recent, for while the short drops were grown over with plant life, they still held a raw appearance with patches of exposed rock. They walked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts and assessments of the jungle. Over time, the path narrowed, from wide enough to fly the skiff through, to no more than two men abreast. Kor made minimal use of the machete, the plant life cooperating, allowing them to weave around most obstructions.
“Smells like a swamp ahead,” Chantil said, breaking their silent march. Kor sniffed it out soon after, the damp scent of decay and still water. The faint bubbling of a stream ran below the jungle’s din of insects and birdcalls.
They reached a final drop in the path and discovered the source. A broad swamp filled a low, bowl-shaped hollow in the land ahead. Massive trees ringed the space, conspiring with their crooked swamp-anchored cousins to shade much of the area, the sunlight fighting through to the water in fitful patches. The unmistakable ruins of buildings dotted the swamp, perhaps a dozen small to medium quick-build shelters, the kind of construction used in the establishing year of a colony or homestead. Once uniform in material and shape, the buildings now lay askew and collapsed into the swamp, rusted and grown over with time and abandonment.
Kor knelt down near the edge of the short cliff. “Well, well,” he muttered to himself. “This island gets more interesting by the day.”
“Pre-War by the look of it, I’d say.” Lukas waved off a building cloud of mosquitoes with his free hand, a constant no matter how far out you fly.
“A bizarre place for a colony of any sort,” Chantil said. She shook her head at the idea. “No sense in it this far out.”
“If he were here, Wilcox would grumble about Imperial ambitions, or some such,” Kor said. The fact the colony was of Orventian make wasn’t in doubt. Rusted and ruined as they were, the buildings lacked all the mixed improvisation of a frontier homestead. These were factory made from a centralized design and installed in a typical ring pattern on the site. Kor had seen, lived, and trained in camps just like it.
He frowned at a flash of memories of those halcyon days. Of clear routes forward, of youthful ambitions within grasp. All seemed fine, right before it all came crashing down into the decay laid out before him. Kor shook his head to clear the memories and fixed his mind on the objective ahead. As always.
A central building still stood at the heart of the swamp, the largest and sturdiest of the bunch. It lay atop a raised isle, though even from here Kor could see it was just barely upright. He mentally mapped a route through the swamp to it, following fallen logs and over the seemingly stable rooftops of the outbuildings. Then he spotted out a couple points around the bowl-like hollow where they could climb out. Just in case.
Kor withdrew a rope from his satchel and cinched it tightly around a nearby tree. He tossed the loose end over the short drop to the swamp, then gave another hard look at the ground below. It looked solid enough, the exposed cliff a mix of compacted dirt, entwined roots, and stone, partially overgrown with the ever-present opportunistic undergrowth of the jungle. Lukas wordlessly knelt near the edge of the drop, keeping an eye for anything untoward among the sunken colony.
“You have a doubt?” Kor asked, tugging on the rope once more to make sure it was secure.
“No more than usual,” Lukas said.
Kor lowered himself over the edge and quickly descended, the cliff crumbing in places under his boots, but otherwise solid. The saturated ground squelched under his feet upon landing but held firm. Though it was only a short drop, he felt the air fall a few degrees at the water level, and the shadows became that much darker. He walked up to the vaguely defined waterline as Chantil and Lukas descended. The water was dark, obscured by shadow, mud, and plant life.
From ground level, the ring of short cliffs around the colony looked like a perfect cutout, as if some grand sculptor had carved out the land below. Across the way, a thin stream cut over the cliff, falling into the swamp in a bubbling, subdued waterfall. Otherwise, stillness reigned across the swamp.
The trio started across the murky landscape, winding along fallen tree trunks and rises of solid ground. While an aura of abandonment clung to the place, it lacked the morose silence of a grave. The ruined mounds of the outbuildings didn’t bear any obvious battle damage. There were no signs of any residents, but the fast and tenacious growth of the Claws’ plant life explained that. The decay of time and water had scrubbed away most of the details of the colony’s previous life.
Shapes in the murky water slithered or swam away from their passage, but no threats or bestial inhabitants made themselves known. Chantil murmured theoretical identifications to herself with each partial sighting.
It all felt off kilter to Kor, like this colony was intentionally placed in the jungle. Common planning would place it nearer to the cliffs or in more open terrain for better airship access. Was this site shelter against something, or perhaps from prying eyes? This was in addition to being on the Claws at all, an island too remote and too low to the Churn for any extended comfort. The presence of this swamp was testament to the island’s ultimately unstable landscape, the result of some geological shift diverting water into the colony site.
The central building of the colony was a long, rectangular block lacking in all personality by design, but now bedecked in all the dirt and growth of its location. Rust flared across the sheet metal construction and it had a definite tilt from the softened ground, but the place was intact. No remnants of a title or other labeling remained above the front doors, both of which gaped open to reveal nothing but soft darkness within.
Kor sparked a lantern alight, frowning at the realization they were running low on lanterns. Another item for the shopping list. He opened all four sides, letting the oil-fueled light out in pale wedges. Then he strode up to the entrance, Chantil and Lukas following close behind. He peered inside, not expecting anything to be in residence. It was too damn quiet for that.
Inside was a common room, large enough to accommodate everyone who might have lived here for whatever purpose or function. Thin, indirect light slunk through gaps in the roof and a few high windows near the angled ceiling. Kor stepped through and held the lantern high. A mound of furniture lay piled against the right wall, loose chairs and folding tables swept into a cluster by the slant of the floor and years of rain. Dirt and muck had built up in the far corner, perhaps a foot deep and climbing up the furniture legs. His retired senses for easy loot were silent. This place had been largely stripped bare, likely by the inhabitants. There were a few scraps of posters and placards on the walls, but nothing legible. It would seem this site didn’t quite rate some sort of engraved signage or other embellishments.
The whole place dripped or creaked in whatever direction you weren’t looking. Something fluttered among the dilapidated rafters. Lukas snapped the carbine upward, seeking the source.
“Wanderlarks,” Chantil said. “Relax.” She knelt near a pool of muck and showed no hesitation running a gloved hand into it, lifting out a string of decayed plant matter. She flung it away with a dismissive flick of her wrist.
Lukas chuckled to himself and said. “I recognize this layout from the Hub camps. Had an absolute prick of a ground XO running my section. His office was off the left hallway…fourth door.”
“Yeah?” Kor said. The left hallway held a germ of promise, since the right one was on the far side of the furniture pile, and crammed with additional debris. “Worth a look.”
Temporary Orventian buildings were painfully geometric and dull, intentionally in contrast to the typical Imperial style. The hallway’s floor sunk a step down from the common room and was broken in spots, allowing in upwells of dirt or pools of fetid water. The interior walls hadn’t held up nearly as well as the exterior. Many of the inner rooms contained caved-in pieces of the roof or had fallen in on themselves. Everything wore a cloak of damp decay. Kor spotted a number of waterlogged and ruined books or stacks of paper, the contents unrecognizable at a mere glance, and didn’t bother investigating them further. Yet there were odd patches where the floor and walls were nearly pristine, as if recently scrubbed clean by maintenance crew running wildly behind schedule.
The fourth door on the left was stuck closed. Figures this would be the only thing not at least half-way to collapse. Kor jostled it once, judged it loose enough, took a step back and gave it a firm kick. It did the trick, the door sulking its way open through the loose collected debris on the floor.
Lantern held high, Kor stepped into the office. The yellow-white beam highlighted the back wall and he stopped in his tracks. An Imperial Sigil was painted there, half ruined by the environment, but intact enough to freeze him in place. Sigils were common, ubiquitous even. They contained details of whatever branch or division or department operated here with their choice of color, motifs, and iconography. Sigils were like a supplemental language for the Orventian Empire, civilian and military. Anyone who grew up under Imperial rule, which was basically everyone older than Nem, learned to read Sigils intuitively.
Kor didn’t recognize this one. Not even a little bit, though the lower left half being ruined didn’t help. There were the traditional common elements: the three Imperial Spirits, the skies, and the faded colors. But the elements didn’t make sense together, the standard syntax of Sigils ignored.
“Doc. Look at this.”
Chantil took one look and it gave her equal pause. She tilted her head to one side, trying and failing to find something to say.
Kor set the lantern on the slanted desk at the center of the room and took out a sketch pad. He went to work, trying to capture the details of the Sigil.
“Iteration,” Chantil said. “On the right. Maybe?” Sigils had a central circular seal bearing three major components or ‘anchors’ at the zero-, one-twenty-, and two-forty-degree positions.
“Vortex or swirl or storm up top?”
“Perhaps. It’s difficult to say with the left one missing.”
Each of the anchors of a Sigil informed the other two. Order mattered. Context derived from the rest of the piece mattered. Which Spirit stood at the fore in the center mattered. The entire system was pretty overwrought now that Kor thought about it and sightings became increasingly rare.
The three Imperial Spirits always adorned the center of the seal. Their poses and clothing varied, based on the Sigil’s association. Kor made a hasty sketch of a robed Vision, standing on the right. Pointing outward, guiding. Her sisters Virtue and Justice were missing, the lower left half of the sigil ruined along a diagonal divide.
Kor frowned at the sketch while filling in a few initial thoughts and details. Another mystery offered up by this island. Out in the hallway something loudly dripped to the floor, increasing to a staccato flow, then a thick splatter.
“Hey, uh, Captain? Doc?” Lukas called out, voice thick with concern. “We have company.”
Chantil turned and leaned out the office door. Her eyes widened in measured surprise. Kor followed, tucking away the completed sketch of the sigil into his bag.
A cloudy gelatinous mass flowed down from the ceiling to pool in the hall a few feet beyond Lukas, directly in their path out of the building. Mud colored, it carried a variety of bones and plant matter suspended in its body. Kor couldn’t guess as to its mass, as the flow from above showed no signs of slowing down. Short, probing pseudopods reached out toward them, picking up loose dirt from the floor.
“Ah,” Chantil said, raising a lecturer’s index finger. “That would be a cleaner ooze. Very dangerous. Don’t let it grab you.”
“All right, then. I’m gonna shoot it.” Lukas said, raising the carbine.
Lukas cut her off as he fired six quick shots into the ooze’s main body. The ooze barely registered the attack, the bullets sinking into its increasing bulk. Some fractured, others slowed to a stop and floated within the gelatinous mass. A powerful stink of acidic rot wafted back towards them.
“They’re quite resilient creatures,” Chantil continued, “It’s best to just walk away. It’ll lose interest if we’re far enough away.” Despite her advice, she didn’t move while starting intently at the creature, as if filing away mental notes.
“Yeah,” Lukas said, stepping back a pace. “Captain, this hallway’s a dead end. Scouted it while y’all were in there. The way to the back entrance around the corner is caved in.”
Figures. Kor sighed and left his pistol in its holster. “You mean to tell me we’re pinned down by something with a top speed of ‘shuffle’?”
“Seems that way.”
The ooze oozed closer. Its supply of…body ended from the ceiling, though Kor had no better idea of how large it might be. Lukas continued to menace the creature with the carbine, despite the weapon’s uselessness.
Chantil pulled a pack of field rations from her bag and flung half of it to the far side of the ooze. A seeking pseudopod followed the bland brick of cheap nutrition, quivering with anticipation. It wrapped the rations in its morphing limb and pulled the meal into its body. At least something appreciated the taste, but the ooze showed no sign of following the food in its entirety.
“Doc, are you helping or studying it?” Kor asked.
“Well, I suppose it’s a little of both.”
Kor gave her his finest glower.
“Fine. We could grab a loose wall panel and—”
Chantil yelped as the floor burst up at her feet. A probing tendril of ooze slithered up from below the floor, wrapped around her ankle and pulled Chantil off her feet. She struggled for a moment then hauled herself backward, pulling the ooze’s pseudopod along with her. Faint trails of smoke emerged from her pant leg. She already gripped her utility knife, somehow drawing it in all that rapid motion.
Kor pulled out the machete. Chantil nodded and held still, gritting her teeth and fighting against the ooze’s tenacious gelatinous strength. Kor took a quick breath and brought the blade down through the ooze’s limb in a smooth chop. The attached end waggled with less drama than he’d expect from a sudden amputation and retreated back under the floor. A few droplets landed on Kor’s forearm and he batted them off, wincing at the quick burns they left behind.
“Thank you, Kor,” she said. Chantil spared no time in cutting away her pants at the knee, the detached fragment of ooze still eating away at the fabric. Then, calm as can be, she pulled a sample jar from her bag and stuffed the bundle of cloth and ooze fragment inside. She sealed the jar with a satisfied nod. A little of both indeed.
A solution dawned on Kor.
“Lukas,” he said, “break open your lantern and toss the oil on that thing. We’ll burn it out.”
“Should work,” Chantil said, slightly out of breath.
Lukas complied with a nod, snatching his lantern from the floor and yanking the reservoir loose. Kor grabbed his from the office and did the same, taking care to keep the light on for the time being. Lukas splashed his supply over the ooze as the creature continuing its slow creep forward. Kor drizzled a line onto the floor, then added to the oily sheen atop the ooze.
Kor touched the fading flame from the upper half of his lantern to the oil trail. With a roar, the oil slick ignited and raced onto the ooze’s flesh. The creature recoiled from the flames, attempting to fold onto itself to smother the blaze. The oil stayed on the ooze’s surface, leading the flames across its body. A rancid scent of acid, ash, and death flooded the hallway as the creature silently burned away.
Kor, Lukas, and Chantil backed further up the hall, near the corner where the roof and walls had caved in, preventing a simpler escape. A draft from above kept the air tolerably foul. After their nerves settled, they sat down and ate their field rations, waiting as the ooze took the better part of an hour to burn out.
“Like a horrible campfire, really,” Lukas said
Chantil held up the jar with the ooze sample. The fabric of her pants had been completely consumed, and the fragment of the creature prowled against the glass, seeking out more food.
“Still alive?” Kor asked.
“Fragments of living oozes can survive being cleanly severed, yes.”
“You’re going to bring that on my ship, aren’t you?”
“I promise it will be strictly contained. Besides, it takes years for them to grow large enough to threaten a man.”
Once the ooze burned down, Kor took another long look at the Sigil on their way out. Maybe it was nothing but a defunct project, a grand work half finished, as Wilcox said yesterday. Maintained during the War, found by a Coalition scout, then later evacuated or abandoned as the Dissolution roiled across the skies. It was the easy answer but as Kor retraced their path back to the skiff, he felt as if it were the wrong answer.
“The beast charged me, hooves tearing up the ground, tusks glistening crimson from my friend’s blood. Its eyes were beady and hateful, seeking to spill my own. I leveled my Grouster, knowing I had but one shot, one moment to fell the monster.”
“But then!” Hatch cut in, “A blast from the brush struck the beast just above the eye.” He jammed a finger against his temple. “Straight to the brain, a one-in-a-million shot from yours truly.”
“Just so!” Reginald agreed. Kor had quickly figured this story was shared often, and followed a light script. “That’s when I knew this young pup and I were of the same spirit!”
The hunters’ second day on the Claws resulted in few trophies, but did include a pair of sizable game birds perfect for supper. Kor needed little convincing to throw together a feast, despite the spread of humble canned and long-haul fare to pair with the birds. The Wink’s galley had been gussied up as best they could manage, with the long, brushed metal table covered with a trio of mismatched makeshift tablecloths.
At this point, the meal was picked over and winding down over Altani whisky and a blurred succession of tales of huntsman valor, old and new.
“Just a moment, was this the Cao trip or Fynall?” asked Cameron, his words a touch imprecise from the liberal libations of the evening. Reginald, Cameron, and Hatch rapidly fell into a clearing of the record, full of implied details and shorthand Kor didn’t have the energy to decipher.
“Trover! What was the beastie in the Fynall steppes?” Chantil and Trover were seated at one end of the table, huddled together over some topic or another, the rest of the group barely acknowledged all evening. Trover was the most academic of the four, that mix of book research and field action Kor recognized in Chantil. Kor only caught snatches of naturalist talk between them, including a version of events with the ooze in the ruined colony and moderate levels of flirting.
“A quillback treffer,” Trover replied without doubt. Kor only had a vague idea of what a treffer even was. Some kind of pig in the Core lands. Nothing like that back home.
“An ivory or whiptail?” Chantil asked Trover, recapturing his attention with a hand upon his forearm.
“Neither! Or perhaps both! A subspecies of some sort…” They resumed a hushed discussion, the rest of the table once again forgotten.
“Well, that’s settled,” Reginald said as he picked up the last slender bottle of Altani whisky. “We’d best finish this bottle, lads. Ladies.”
At that, Nem gathered a few small scraps of meat on a dish and stood. Kor gave her a questioning look.
“Just taking a little more and stretching my legs, Cap.”
“With no fork?” he asked.
“Oh. Right!” Nem hastily snatched up a fork. “Guess I’ll turn in for the night. The whisky. Too strong for me!” That checked out, she looked a little flushed. She made her good-byes and left the galley, though she exited toward the hold instead of her cabin.
Yet another toast tore Kor attention back to the table. To Adventure and the Frontier! The whisky was serviceable, but a far cry from the choice stuff made in the Core. Kor hadn’t had enough to convince himself otherwise, either.
Cameron gestured at Lukas’s service tattoos, clearly visible below the cuffs of his shirt sleeves.
“Lukas. Where’d you fly during it?” There was no need to specify.
“Out here with the Frontier Auxiliary Fleet, until they started calling us the Hub Fleet.”
“Ah. The scrappy sort of fighting. Small wings, scattered across vast skies, where the actions of one man, one ship can turn the currents of conflict.”
“That’s, uh, one way to put it,” Lukas said. He glanced at Kor and received only a slight, sympathetic shrug. “To be honest, we mostly fought other locals until the Seventh showed up.”
“Right. The Seventh! Were you part of Ambition’s Fall?”
Ambition’s Fall. The last great Imperial victory in the Northwest, the largest clash of fleets this side of the Barrier Expanse. The campaign was a three-month-long series of battles across the heart of the Northwest, ending with the destruction of the Coalition’s regional command ship, the Price of Ambition.
“Yup.” Lukas’s eyes flashed through things Kor could only imagine. “The whole thing.”
“I was on the Indomitable. Battery officer.” He layered his words with meaning, assuming everyone knew the score. To be fair, they all did. The Indomitable, a cruiser, struck the killing blows against the far larger Ambition in a reckless, heroic maneuver that flew in the face of all rational ship-to-ship tactics.
“Guess I have you to thank, then. I was in the boarding cutters heading to the Ambition when you guys sent him down. Boarding action was cancelled mid-flight.”
“A stirring victory,” Cameron said, raising his cup. Lukas reciprocated, if less enthusiastically. “If only efforts elsewhere were as successful.”
“Successful,” Wilcox said, breaking his evening’s general silence. “An interesting way of putting it.”
“I beg your pardon?” Cameron asked.
“I was in the Ambition’s wing. On the Unified Will. The campaign looked a bit different from my end. I remember the Seventh being bled dry, confined to Hub for a year afterward.”
“Yet the loss of the Ambition—”
“Was a temporary set-back and his sacrifice bought the Coalition fleets room to solidify the western front around the flagship Shared Fates. The Fifth Imperial fleet had to be called in from the north, leaving the loyalist nations up there to fend for themselves against Durro.”
Reginald shifted in his seat, frowning from his own memories.
“And fend we did,” he muttered.
“Well,” Cameron said, straightening in place. “I had no idea there was a Coalition man on board.”
“I have no need to advertise it.” Nor, Kor knew, did Wilcox mind being outnumbered by some degree. Coalition vets had a knack for defying the odds. Though there was little desire from anyone else to join in. Lukas studied his drink, finding the simple brown liquor and metal cup fascinating.
“I suppose it’s easy to claim credit for a grand plan with the powers of hindsight. Shatter the world’s peace and call the results an improvement.”
Kor saw the old scars coming to the fore, the conversation approaching a bad line. “Perhaps we should—”
“The world is a machine, sir.” Wilcox said. “But in the moment it looks like chaos, an amalgamation of ill-fitting parts. Yet there’s always a flow. All must flow in its proper direction. The winds. Drifting isles. Fuel lines. Rivers. Migrating birds. People. Nations. The Orventian Empire imposed an unsustainable rigidity on the fluid natural order.”
“And yet the Dissolution was the height of rapid, rapacious disorder.”
“All the works of man trend toward dissolution. We simply helped the process along. The pace was unfortunate, but the result was by design and damn whatever aspirations those glory-seeking heroes claimed.”
“A design,” Cameron sneered. “Rather, a patchwork of half-broken nations.”
“Yes, and all the imperfect freedoms that go along with them. Try to look at it from a proper perspective.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“Only your loose interpretation of history. Many former Imperials need a reminder that they lost.”
It was the truth, and a hard one. The looming wall at everyone’s back. Some people preferred to forget the details, live on as close as they could.
“Perhaps you’d better turn in, Cameron,” Reginald gently suggested.
“Quite right. I should.” He stood. “Good night, all.”
Wilcox raised his drink in a sloppy Imperial salute.
“Wilcox,” Kor cut in, forestalling a final insult. “Head up top. Get some air.”
“Aye, Captain. Think I’ll do that.”
Kor looked around as the two combatants went their separate ways. The meal was winding down to its end, the wind fully taken from their sails. Chantil and Trover had already slipped away.
Reginald broke the awkward silence.
“He always get that philosophical, Captain?”
“Here and there, though I’ll say your man led him on a bit.”
“I suppose he did. There’s still quite a bit of denial and interpretation over the War back in Torsia.”
Kor pulled out a folded copy of the Imperial Sigil they found in the abandoned colony. He spread it out on the table, spinning it around for Reginald to view.
“Speaking of Imperial interpretations, do you recognize this Sigil? Seen it anywhere, past or present?”
Reginald considered it for a beat. “No, old sport. A most curious Sigil permutation. I saw nothing like this through my years in the service.”
“Nothing current, either?”
Reginald shook his head, mournful. “There was a concerted wave of de-Imperialization across Torsia a few years back. Sigils scrubbed away. Statues torn down. Art galleries still stand half-empty, their empire-tinged masterpieces ferreted away to who-knows-where. Orvion may not have burned like its vassals, but it’s been hollowed out all the same.”
“Hence a trip like this, yeah? Recapturing a little of the old spirit?”
“You’ve the right of it,” Reginal said. “Have you considered my request?”
They wanted a multi-day overnight trip into the Claws’ central highlands, a capstone wilderness journey for their grand tour of the frontier skies. After a few days of keeping an eye on the needles, Kor judged the local weather stable enough to chance it. Easing any newfound tensions might be a good idea, as well.
“I have. If you’re willing to take the risk, we’ll set you down for a few days of overnighting. This Sigil’s got me on the scent of something else. Could use the time to fly freely around the isle without needing to pick and drop you folks off.”
“Bully!” Reginald raised his cup, finishing the liquor as soon as Kor reciprocated the gesture. “I’ve a spot in the highlands in mind. I suspect our prize prey tends to the higher altitudes.”
“Good hunting, sir.”
“You too, Captain. May your own quarry reveal itself!”
Kor ambled through the open cargo bay doors, stretching his legs on a lazy morning after their first overnight on the ground. He slept in today and it felt damn good. They dropped the hunters off a couple miles inland for their multi-day excursion yesterday morning, then set the Wink down closer to the cliffs for a day of cleaning and maintenance tasks built up over a couple weeks of flying.
Their landing site lay at the junction of the western and second claw, where the jungles thinned to reasonably forested fields with minimal hills and ravines. The sort of place you’d want to place a colony, with a commanding view of the channel between the claws and easy access to the associated buoying winds. The skies were the ideal shade of crystalline blue today, perfect flying conditions. The underlying mists of Cassy’s Claws were the lowest he’d seen, the threat of wilder weather as remote as it could be. It was only natural they planned to be ground-bound all day.
Outside the cargo bay was a temporary campsite centered around the blackened remains of a campfire placed a prudent distance from the ship. Chantil was setting a shoulder-width crate down atop a tarp-draped folding worktable, just outside the shadows of the sparse trees. The good doctor jostled the box and eyed the contents through one of the finger-sized air holes. She nodded to herself, satisfied. Kor’s curiosity led him on, as it usually did, and he strolled up to the table.
A variety of instruments neatly lined one side of the table, the tools running the gamut from investigative to cruelly surgical. Chantil wore a white apron with a pair of lightweight goggles poised on her forehead, her hair tied well back in a single braid. The jarred oozeling from the colony sat atop a nearby crate, laying in the sunlight in what Kor could only assume was a relaxed, oozy manner.
“Good morning, Mr. Icomb.” She almost sounded cheerful, though the business dealing work gloves she pulled on countered it. Kor appraised the crate as Chantil undid its lock. The wood was damp from morning dew and nothing stirred within.
“Dare I ask?”
“The carapace fragment of that beetle inspired me to capture a complete specimen. I improvised a few traps and set them out overnight. This is the only successful catch.”
Kor casually drew and checked his pistol. All was in order there.
“My thoughts exactly. I poisoned the beast earlier and it appears to be dead.”
“Good to know,” Kor said.
“But we need confirmation,” Chantil added.
Kor shook out the remnants of a lazy morning, steeling himself for the unwanted possibility of having to deal with another one of those things.
“Proceed,” he said.
Chantil picked up a foot-long metal rod of unclear purpose from her tools. She slid the crate partially open and scientifically jabbed the creature within. The vigorous prodding provoked no response.
“Well, it’s certainly dead now.” Chantil said, removing the crate’s top and setting it aside. She nodded at a waiting clipboard holding a thin notebook in place. “I’m going to dissect the creature. Would you be so kind as to take notes for me? Take care for any, ah, sprays of fluid.”
“Sure, Doc.” Kor took up his assistant’s tools, settling the clipboard in the crook of his arm and ready to transcribe her findings. A few paragraphs in Chantil’s flowing script laid out what little they already knew of the creatures.
Chantil tilted the beetle corpse out of the crate. This one had deep green coloring, like a dimly lit forest. As he saw at the chewed-over wreck in the ravine, the bug had two bony protrusions up front, curved and pointed like horns. The wide scythe-like mandibles had a great range of motion, as Chantil demonstrated by idly testing their limits. Its eyes and mouth were tucked under a heavy brow of carapace plating that extended across its entire back. Its legs clutched close to its belly in a death grasp.
“The wings are sheathed under the back plate. Unusual, but not unheard of. They’re on the small side compared to body weight. Flight is likely wind dependent and non-migratory. Capable of short-range leaps judging by the sturdy looking legs.”
“The mandibles and horns are like threshing tools. Very strong. Perhaps able to work through stone and metal. Signs of manual sharpening on the horns.”
“The wreck looked a bit chewed on,” Kor said. “We figured it was the crash or rust.”
“Perhaps not. Shall we see what’s inside?”
“You sound pretty excited there, Doc.”
“Do I? I suppose it’s been a while since the last time I did this.”
Chantil snapped her goggles into place and then rolled the beetle onto its back, its flat plating lending a nice, stable position. She chose a pair of shiny dissection instruments, a set of pliers and a sharpened hook. Chantil slammed the hook into a central seam on the beetle’s underside. It broke through with a weak crunch and she pulled the hook toward her, cleanly partitioning the creature’s belly carapace. Oily ichor wept from the incision, shining with rainbow iridescence in the morning sunlight.
Kor walked a partial circuit around the table, trying to find the ideal angle to observe the proceedings while avoiding any potential sprays of fluids. While not particularly squeamish, Kor thought better of the former and instead focused on note-taking while listening to a squelching, snapping soundtrack.
“First impressions: Interior is much like any other insect of its type, merely scaled up in the manner of aberrant residents from Churn-touched lands. No surprise, given our location.”
Noted. The Churn could warp and twist creatures that lived near it. It’s where the tales of all manner of weird beasts originated throughout the skies. Some may have even emerged from the Down Below, emissaries of that unknowable hell. Supposedly the Churn could change people in the same way, but Kor hadn’t heard a credible report of such a thing. Plenty of not-so-credible ones, though.
Chantil continued her dissection.
“A large stomach. Chambered and expandable? Hmm. No. It has multiple stomach-like organs before proceeding to the lower reaches.”
“Cutting open the first stomach chamber now.” The precise tearing of flesh followed. “Yes! Only minimal digestion of contents. A mix of plant and animal matter. Omnivorous, as expected.”
Noted. A pungent scent wafted over the area before the winds blissfully cleared it away.
“The scent glands are quite large relative to its size. Beyond what would be expected due to local aberrant influences.”
Noted and concerning.
“Perhaps some manner of forager. Looking at the throat again, it appears capable of rapidly disgorging the contents of its first stomach on command.”
Noted and gross.
Minutes passed with a wealth of other minor observations flowing out from the operation. By the time Chantil finished the creature was reduced to unrecognizable components and viscera, aside from the platter-size back plating. A fine-looking trophy piece, Kor had to admit.
Chantil sighed with no small amount of satisfaction, dropping the last of her ichor-stained instruments into a cleaning tray. “Initial conclusion: The multi-staged stomach and ability to disgorge the contents implies a forager. The scent glands are equipped to lay and trace chemical signals for others of its kind. While my expertise with insects is only moderate, I can identify nothing resembling sexual organs. A worker drone.”
“That implies a hive of some kind,” Kor said. Noted.
“Precisely.” Chantil doffed the ichor stained gloves into a waiting pail and shoved her goggles back onto her forehead. Spatters of purple and black stained her apron.
“As for its aberrant size: There were few signs of uneven physiology. I think this species was enhanced or altered by the environment many years ago, and successive generations have smoothed out the more…deviant changes typically seen in Churn-touched life forms.”
Kor looked over his notes once more, the story of this island becoming more complicated. Though a resident hive of giant beetles could be more than enough to discourage any colonization attempt, regardless of where the settlers placed it.
Chantil picked up a pair of unused calipers and gingerly picked up a finger-sized chunk of entrails. Kor followed as she brought the morsel over to the jarred, sunbathing oozeling. She quickly opened the jar, dropped in the morsel, and snapped the jar shut. They watched the oozeling wrap itself around its meal, the flesh sizzling within the pale brown jelly.
“You give it a name yet?” Kor asked.
“It doesn’t have nor need a name. It’s a blob of viscous digestive juices driven by base hunger and nearby vibrations. It’s ambulatory chemistry, at best.”
“That doesn’t sound too different from any other critter, Doc.”
Chantil stared at the oozeling a moment longer, then gave a slight nod.
“A fair point, Mr. Icomb,” she conceded. She gave him a long, assessing look not unlike her expression while dissecting the beetle. Kor knew she had no trouble reading him, something that had become much less frustrating over time.
“Just trying to figure this damn island out,” he said.
Chantil nodded, the expression almost sagely if it weren’t for the streak of ichor on her left cheek.
“Reassess the core facts, Mr. Icomb,” she said. “Forget, for a moment, the implications of the ruins and the wreck and their associated histories and politics. They derive from something else, likely a fundamental aspect of this place we’ve yet to discover. Our hunter guests have been following a similar method in their travels.”
“Oh yeah? I’ll give it a go,” Kor said. “Need to sort out our mapping data for later sale anyway.”
“Indeed. Stories of fantastic beasts don’t arise from nothing. They may be hoping for more, but their targets have been driven by facts. Their ebullient journeys have been guided by Trover’s expertise and research.”
“Y’all compare notes?”
“Peer review,” Chantil replied with a twitch of a smile.
* * *
Thus Kor found himself paging through their charts and survey data once more, though this time seated at a folding table in the afternoon sunlight outside the hold. A different table from this morning’s dissection. An array of conscripted local stones served to hold everything down against the persistent, energizing winds blowing in off the skies.
Start with the facts: The initial coordinates of Cassy’s Claws on a chart from the set he bought way back in the Triplets. It was older than he was, perhaps double. The chart used the Imperial cylindrical system, a scheme that tied all places to how far they were from the Soaring Citadel, seat of the Orventian Empire. They had an additional location finding for the Claws out of Hub, something slightly more comprehensible at a glance.
Kor then went over their own survey data, taken in X-Y-Z shorthand. Folks have largely switched over to that system, but the zero point was still the Soaring Citadel all the way out in Torsia. What’s left of it, anyway. Kor scratched through the conversion between the old and new coordinates, looking for the island’s drift from the intervening decades.
Zero. He frowned at his notes and decided he messed up the math. Easy to do when converting cylindrical systems. He tried again.
Zero drift. Impossible. All islands had some amount of drift, especially over the course of decades.
Get it together Kor. Those academy classes gotta be worth something.
Zero. Kor clicked his tongue and double-checked every initial coordinate they had for the Claws. They were all from the perspective of anchored locations, either a core continent or a frontier plateau. No mistake there. Meaning…
The island’s coordinates were fixed. Not merely a stable position in the skies but a fixed position. Cassy’s Claws wasn’t an island at all. It was a plateau, its Churn-crossing base obscured by the mists, its cliffs doing an impersonation of the underside tapering of an island. That explained the attempts at settlement. Plateaus are too rare and valuable to give up on without extreme circumstances. It explained the resistance to being devoured or overly scoured by the Churn despite its height. Plateaus blunted the worst of the Churn’s effects.
This raised the value of their survey data by an order of magnitude. If it was true. If the math bore out. Kor needed to visually confirm the land was linked to the Down Below, see the supporting column of stone for himself. The weather needed to cooperate and allow them to probe the underside. It was a risky proposition no matter the conditions.
Kor knew he could leave it be. Let this island be someone else’s problem. Cash in on the charting data as is, show the buyer the math and make them bother with the confirmation. That plus the charter fees for Reginald’s crew would be plenty to make this month worth his while.
It wasn’t a true choice. Kor knew he couldn’t leave those questions unanswered. Not when the challenge called him, right here and now. He looked over the numbers once more, then packed up to plan for tomorrow’s flight.
Kor tossed his lucky charm. The coin tumbled in the air above the pilot console for a beat longer than normal, aided by the Wink’s steady descent. He caught the coin and checked the result. Luck favored him with a smile. Kor nodded, reassured, and pocketed the charm.
Have to take every precaution, you know?
Up ahead, the Claws’ eastern cliffs scrolled upward as the Wink continued its descent. Angled morning sunlight revealed stony contours and colorful scars across the cliffs. Kor’s positioning screen showed the land beginning to slope away as normal, the natural tapering of the underside of an island. If his suspicions and calculations were correct, the cliffs were a structural deception concealing the land’s true nature. Yet they needed and wanted a visual confirmation of the Claw’s correct classification, making the data worth much more to any buyers.
The weather was cooperating this morning, peeling back the mists below. While low-lying, the Claws had ample space between their underside and the Churn to make this flight only somewhat risky. It was an all-hands transit all the same, with Chantil on the conditions console here on the bridge and Lukas working assistant to Wilcox in the engine room. While Kor had put the ship through her paces before, it had been easy flying for a few months now. They needed to sharpen up for when the Ferron Expanse cleared and Kor took the Wink into the true unknown.
His positioning screen began to fritz out, as expected. The needles on the various dials and readings twitched with uncertainty. Ahead, the cliffs’ angle increased, pointing inward to the shadowed underside of the Claws. Kor eyed the altimeter, hoping they’d have enough space to thread the needle. He had his doubts on that.
“Everything’s running smooth, Captain,” Wilcox replied through the comm speaker. “We’re ready for anything.”
Low transits could disrupt any ship system without warning. It was why home fleets, pirates, and whalers kept a handful of ‘obsolete’ airships in their back pockets for any necessary deep dives. The more old fashioned the technology on the ship, the less likely the Churn could break something and leave you adrift. Of course, it could just reach up and smash you in an equally old fashioned way.
Kor slowed their descent as the underside of the Claws began to loom above them, obscuring the sky like a stony thunderhead. The winds were gentle, requiring only slight adjustments to the ship. The cloud floor below was hazy and indistinct, the layer of mists obscuring the actual threat of the Churn further down. This was low enough for Nem to figure out whether she had good or bad news.
Folk lived on the underside of some islands, especially higher, stable places with uneven, catacomb structures. But the stone was carefully patrolled and inspected for loosening segments. This also wasn’t at all like poking under Jepp’s island back near Ferron, a one-man place like that didn’t weigh down on you. Here it was more akin to flying through a vast cavern, the reflected light from below dimmed, the edges of the island above an expanding horizon of stone.
“Cap, we’re gonna have to shunt,” Nem announced. “Not enough room above the line.”
The bad news, then. Kor examined the gloom below, eyeing the thickening mists compared to the descent of the Claw’s underside. No luck there. He knew that might be the case.
“Understood.” Kor cut the Wink’s descent for the moment, unlocked his chair and spun to face Chantil.
“You ever hear raw Churn-song before, Doc?” Below a certain height, signal data became heavily disrupted by a native distortion called Churn-song. A Nav/Comm could do a Churn-song shunt to filter the incoming signals and divert the heaviest of the mess away, but the curious nature of the mix demanded an output somewhere. The easiest way was to receive the whole signal, then split and broadcast out the harshest stuff. Right into the bridge.
“I have not,” Chantil said, wary. “I understand what it is. No reason I can’t handle it.”
“I’m not doubting you.” Kor knew she was tough. This was different. “But you don’t have to be here. Don’t have to listen to it.”
“It’s just noise.”
“No,” Nem said. “It’s not. There’s something else and I can’t fully explain it to prepare you. It’s different for everyone. A resonance in your mind, digging around, looking for ways to strike at you. Calls up your mistakes, your losses, your sins. The captain and I are trained to handle it. We’ve experienced it before.”
Kor could remember each time clearly, from the first training dive at the academy to a desperate gambit last year. He didn’t have the ear for signals like Nem did, but he could feel out the large-scale signals. Chung-song contained echoes of the local skyscape and telegraphed changes, warning of hazards as if their signal systems were somewhat functional.
“We have to cast it out somewhere,” Kor said. “And once we do, we can’t just turn down the volume. Churn-song doesn’t play by the rules. If it becomes too much for you, leave the bridge.”
Chantil squared her shoulders but made no move to leave. “I understand.”
“Wilcox, you catch all that?”
“Understood, Captain. We’ll buzz you if there’s trouble.”
The comm channel clicked closed, the thrum of the engine room returning to a remote sensation felt though his chair. Kor locked back into place and resumed their course.
Kor kept the Wink on a smooth pace, its descent matching the sloping ceiling of stone above. They had ample absolute space between their flight path and the island, but Kor preferred more discretionary distance to react. His tense connection to the ship was ready and waiting for the whisper of a threat so he could nimbly dodge her out of the way. Debris large and small often calved off the bottom of isles lying this low in the skies, the rock softened by the proximity to the Churn.
A speaker broadcasted dead air punctuated by susurrations of static. A false twilight descended as the Claws blocked out the sun. Swells of mist billowed up from below, too soft and passive to be threats. The Wink’s spotlight dispersed the gloom as best it could, a white beacon leading the way.
It began as a constant sharp static once the Wink crossed some invisible altitude threshold. The Churn-song quickly rose into an awful cacophony of screeches and howls, structured and madly musical enough to sound intentionally wrong. It intensified into something spectral and furious, the wailing of a fleet of ghosts in the signal. It wasn’t even that loud, simply a binding aural presence.
To Kor, it sounded like the shattering of hulls and screaming winds. Echoes of the cries of crewmates ripped out through the breach. It wasn’t anything new, components of the occasional mundane nightmare. His war record might be brief but it was long enough to imprint such memories without assistance from Below. The song seemed to sense his callouses and shifted its attack. It became rawer, more elemental, like the sound of the skies themselves cracking open and oblivion howling through.
It almost got to him until Kor sought out the reassuring feel of his ship through the controls. He kept his mind on the flight, on the lives in his hands. Systems were green, the Wink weathering the unseen storm below like a champ. The fact he could fire the engines up and tear back to the serene relief of clear skies was no small comfort.
Actionable information hid beneath all the chaos and foul, false memories. Kor could roughly map local conditions in his head, a welcome, useful distraction. An unchanging boundary above, the Claws’ weighty presence. An intensification from the Down Below. Stillness between and…an eye in the storm straight ahead.
The noise took on a sullen, defiant bent and soon the geographic heart of Cassy’s Claws loomed ahead. The mists lost their obscuring power and, as expected, a titanic pillar of stone rose up through the eternal murk below, connecting the Claws to the unknown depths. It measured miles around, its surface rippled like layered melted wax. The ship’s spotlight illuminated but a small fraction of it. Confirmed. Cassy’s Claws were an ill-formed plateau.
Kor brought the Wink closer to the pillar. They crossed another threshold and the Churn-song went abruptly dead, signal cleared out. A powerful silence settled over the bridge. For a second Kor though he had spontaneously gone deaf before the normal sounds of the Wink returned to the fore, like a soothing balm. Kor ran his hands over his face, wiping away the sweat.
Kor looked back at Chantil. She was a little pale but stoic. Kor wondered what she heard, what internal horrors the Churn sang to her. He would never ask.
“Getting clean readings here,” she reported. “Remarkably stable conditions.” A pause and then, “Is it like that all the time?”
“No,” Nem said, quietly. “That was more intense than usual. But it’s always there. A counterpoint to the harmonies of the skies. The shadow cast by their light, the required contrast. It must be due to this silent dead-zone around the column.”
“Speaking of,” Kor said, “Got any thoughts on this?”
The silence was more of a surprise than the continental column. A circle of clarity appeared in his console’s distorted positioning screen, complemented by an additional line of stability heading due west.
“It’s some kind of natural comm channel.” Nem re-settled her headphones into position. “It’s thin but I’ll try probing it out.”
“Yeah, find out how far can you reach west.” A map of the Northwest Frontier came to mind and unless Kor was wildly off mark, this node pointed straight into the storm-sealed Ferron Expanse.
Kor took the Wink in a slow orbit around the pillar. He reminded himself that despite the welcomed silence, the possibility of threats falling from above remained. They reached the western side, where the silence extended out into the open skies. Kor aligned the ship’s exterior comm equipment westward and brought them to a temporary halt. He soon heard a rapid series of adjustments and inputs from Nem behind him.
“Got it!” Nem cheered. She yanked out an audio jack, releasing the dreamy, violent storm song of the distant upwell storm. It was messy but sounded like a masterpiece symphony compared to the Churn. The signal faded in and out of clarity as the Wink bobbed in the winds. Grabbing a signal that far away was unheard of.
“It narrows down to a pin-point,” Nem said. “Maybe a few hundred miles into Ferron before it fades. Not the most useful channel…”
“Unless receiving equipment was set up on the other end,” Kor said. He brought the Wink around to face the Claws’ supporting pillar. There was no sign of construction or equipment anchored to the stone, though from here any drill holes would look like natural formations. If it had been removed or fallen out over the years, you’d never see the evidence unless you got up too close and went over the stone with a fine-toothed comb.
“I have the coordinates and heading of the channel recorded,” Chantil said. “We can overlay it and see where it points.”
“I already know where it points,” Kor said with a grin. “Our first destination in Ferron.”
Kor would not be including this little anomaly with any potential sale. Keep this one close to the vest, another secret to pocket.
They made another circuit of the column to get a few more readings. Kor then guided the Wink out along that westward channel of sweet silence until they were once again in open, sunlit skies.
Kor woke to another lazy morning and another ramble out the open hold of the Wink. He spent much of the previous evening drafting an initial chart for ultimate sale, careful to excise any secondary information he preferred to keep a secret. After building up a fair amount of momentum on the draft charts he carried on into a late night of overlaying yesterday’s discovery of the anomalous channel over his partial and theoretical maps of the Ferron Expanse. There was another big to-do: Scrounging up actual complete charts of that storm-sealed territory. They’d be laughably out of date after years of the isle chains being jostled and shuffled around by the storm, to say nothing of whatever new places got dredged up from below. But a reference point would be nice to have, and such maps’ relative scarcity only made Kor more eager to score one for himself.
Kor looked over their landing site. They chose the same location as before, though further away from the tenuous tree line. Lukas lounged on a folding chair, feet propped up on another, his carbine slung loosely atop his lap. A mug of coffee steamed on the ground below him. Nominal guard duty. Otherwise, there was little sign of their temporary residence. No need to leave additional unexplained items on this rock for the next crew that came poking around.
“I’m taking a walk out toward the cliffs,” Kor called over to Lukas in a manner that declined any company.
“We’ll hold down the fort here,” Lukas replied, waving over his shoulder.
Kor walked along the Wink’s port side, giving the ship a quick look-over despite checking her in detail not two days ago. He paused at the forward weapon ports, empty and sealed up. Getting the ship some teeth was near the top of the to-do list. He’d been irrationally fortunate in not needing any real firepower so far, but Kor knew he couldn’t push his luck much further on that vector.
The Wink pointed out toward the cliffs, as if the ship were gazing longingly out over the grass-choked fields and into the skies beyond. Maybe out of a desire to be up and gone.
Probably overthinking it a little.
Kor followed the point of the ship out into the field leading to the cliffs. It was an easy ramble over broad and flat terrain filled with waist-high grass. The winds stirred the field in rippling waves and warm, late-morning sunlight completed the scene. It was all too idyllic and totally baffling that someone hadn’t made a more vigorous attempt to colonize Cassy’s Claws.
Yes, it was low to the Churn. Yes, most of the island was dense, rough jungle. Yes, an unknown number of giant omnivorous beetles lived here, plus whatever the hunters were after. Perhaps all that could be managed in some way laying well outside Kor’s pay grade.
The location wasn’t a secret, known to more than a few surveyors. Yet it somehow slipped through the cracks and fallen below people’s notice. Maybe this island was just a bookkeeping error lost in the burning rolls of the fallen Empire. One slice of knowledge dissolved in the Dissolution, as it were.
It was why Kor was so keen to be among the first into Ferron once the storm cleared. Who could say how many islands and forgotten projects were consigned to the dustbin after the Dissolution? He wanted to rummage around and see what treasures lay forgotten by the collapse.
How many secrets were hidden in plain sight?
The grasses dropped to ankle height, becoming a scrappy, ground hugging variety as Kor walked and mulled things over. His boots scuffed against rough stonework instead of soft soil and cushioning grass. Kor paused in place, then kicked at the ground and etched out the broken remains of distinct, man-made surfacing, crumbled to obscurity. He took a few steps further on and scratched around again, once more turning up chunks of crumbled, too-uniform stone.
Kor straightened and followed where the grasses transitioned in height. The lines were too straight and the proportions of this field were familiar. It felt standardized and was positioned so ideally at the end of a landing and launching channel between two of Cassy’s claws. He looked back at the Wink framed against the trees of the surrounding jungle. With a little imagination she looked as if she were parked on the back lot.
This was an imperial airbase. Hidden in plain sight.
Kor kept up his search, quickly discerning the edges of the airbase’s main landing zones as compared to hazy, youthful memories. The outbuildings were gone, either pulled up when this site was abandoned or simply blown over the cliffs after years of storms. As Kor patrolled about the shattered, overgrown concrete he felt a sudden shift in the air, an unseen weight, like pressure in his ear unable to pop. He slowed his pace, since he now walked accompanied.
“Luck,” he said.
“Kor,” Luck said, infusing a single word with uncanny texture and warmth.
Kor kept his gaze focused on the skies and waited for the typical mental disorientation to fade while reality reconciled her presence. The feeling passed quickly. At least he was getting a handle on that much.
Luck walked to his right, between him and the high morning sun, but cast no shadow over the grass-choked stone. Cloth of gold rippled at the edge of his vision, the motion out of sync with the winds blowing in off the skies. He caught glimpses of dark skin and braided, molten silver hair. She was the Kural version of Luck today, as depicted on the coin charm around his neck. Kor couldn’t figure a pattern to her physical appearance. There likely wasn’t one.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” It was never just social call with her. She always showed up to prod him in some direction, even if he didn’t recognize which direction until well after the fact.
“It is remarkable how far your Empire spread,” she said, freely ignoring whatever questions she didn’t care to answer, as was her style.
“To the far corners of the skies, then beyond to find new limits,” Kor replied, figuring he got the old creed about three-quarters correct.
“Even when those pursuits were ill-conceived,” she said breezily but with a touch of something else…? Kor tried to grasp it but it slipped away in the sheer pressure of her presence and the narcotic sweetness of her voice.
Kor noticed his path across the field had turned, unconsciously guided by Luck’s steps. It was a detached feeling, as if all he owned rode on a single roll of dice currently tumbling in flight. Something he’d learned to roll with whenever Luck decided to show up.
“All the same, a base this far out is unusual.” Kor figured he might as well keep throwing out lines, see if he could catch anything actionable. True to her name, Luck could be fickle, distant. This seemed like one of those times.
“They had many secrets. Grand works left half-finished by their sudden fall.”
Kor chuckled at that. “Wilcox said much the same thing,” he said. Everyone had a sense of it, the unresolved issues and projects left spinning in-place until they ripped themselves apart for lack of service. It was a consistent background tension across the skies, like a discordant tune playing next door.
“The Orventians were nothing if not ambitious.”
His boots struck a hollow space, the ground below suddenly metallic. Kor recoiled back in surprise and saw the source: an overgrown hatch. He recognized it immediately, a vertical shaft that led into an underground storage space. Orventian airbase design sometimes used such spaces, accessed by lines of drop shafts large enough for cargo and shuttle skiffs.
An old airbase out here was one thing. Perhaps a stepping stone from the initial explorations of the frontier and repurposed into a remote retreat position during the War. It explained the ruins and the old coalition scout in the ravine. But a storage facility? That implied a serious supply chain and there wasn’t anything to supply in this direction. The Ferron Expanse to the west was supplied through Gloria and there was very little worth mentioning to the north.
Luck departed, the air no longer stressed by her presence, the world relaxing to its natural state. Kor figured this was what she wanted him to see. He needed to access the underground, see what might be left over, sheltered from the passage of years. The first hatch was no good, too overgrown and he didn’t carry a worthwhile blade. Kor paralleled the grass boundary of the airbase, seeking the other access shafts, his steps hurried, excited.
Eventually he found a hatch clear enough to test without having to hack and dig through the ground cover, a big panel of rusted metal about six-feet square. A few fitful plants grew about the edges, but he was able to clear it by hand quickly enough. Kor found a dust-filled groove at the center of one edge and knelt down to find a handle. He brushed away the collected fill of dirt and gave it an experimental tug. It had some give, the hinges across the panel not totally rusted shut.
Kor repositioned and lifted the hatch just enough to get his fingers under the panel. With a heave and an accompanying metallic groan, he threw open the door, the metal slamming against the ground and throwing off a cloud of dust. The winds coming off the cliffs snatched away the brief fog. Kor brushed off his hands with a satisfied sigh and leaned over the open shaft.
The high sun should have lit a short descent into a storage area, with ladders set into the walls and perhaps abandoned supplies or equipment below. Instead, within was a long circular drop into the rock of the Claws, the walls lacking in both the regularity of man-made work and the irregularity of a natural formation. Portions of the stone glistened with green and purple iridescence. Elsewhere, a pale, wax-like substance coated the walls in bulbous cells. Drowsy chitters echoed up from below. Stiff wings flexed within alcoves while limbs and mandibles stirred in hidden numbers.
Kor had found a beetle hive and the sun’s glare stirred it from slumber. A pair of on-guard beetles glared up at him, much friskier than their awakening fellows. They clattered up the shaft’s walls in unison, pointed horns and blade-like mandibles aimed precisely at Kor.
Not all lucky finds lay on the good side of the coin.
The tall grasses slapped against his legs as Kor executed a bona fide headlong rush back to the Wink and Smile. Insectoid buzzing and clattering wings pursued him across the former airbase. A deep droning rose from the opened hive at his back, a dire chorus of countless chitters.
Looking over his shoulder was absolutely out of the question.
A motivated beetle flew ahead of him and wheeled about in the spitting image of an attack pattern. Kor replied in kind, drawing his pistol and firing out a pair of wild shots. He missed and the drone dived toward him. Kor ducked to the left, nearly stumbling over his own feet. The bug clattered onto the ground with a faint screech and found itself tangled in the taller grasses. It tossed freshly sheared green stalks into the air as it struggled.
Kor considered a vindictive departing shot but didn’t want to slow down. Instead he loosed three more shots into the air, hoping it would garner sufficient attention from his crew. He crossed into the shadow of the Wink, no true shelter but a small relief all the same. Lukas charged up around the ship, stopped and planted his feet, and raised his carbine. Kor shuffled to the side and tipped his ears away as Lukas fired a controlled burst at his pursuers, covering Kor’s escape. Bullets whizzed by a little too close and crunched into their target.
The tilt turbines puffed out exhaust, someone on the flight deck blessedly running the start-up sequence. Kor slowed to a trot as he rounded the back of the ship. The engine banks hummed with power. Nearby lay two turned over chairs and the corpse of another beetle, Lukas’s work. Kor paused on the cargo ramp, spotting more of the creatures staggering out of the tree line, drunkenly answering the call of the hive.
“How many?” Lukas asked, only a step behind as they ducked into the ship.
“Lots,” Kor puffed out. “We’re outta here. Everyone on board?”
“Yep,” Lukas said while sighting his weapon out bay doors.
Kor hammered the door controls and said, “We’re going to do a hot pick up of the hunters. Shoot anything that wiggles inside.”
A few seconds of rest were enough and Kor dashed across the cargo hold, dodging around the hunters’ damned luggage and trophies on his way to the stairs.
“Wilcox, we’re going from 0 to 100 ASAP,” he shouted toward the open engine room as he took the stairs three at a time. He heard a grumbled reply.
Once he reached the bridge, Kor vaulted over the rear consoles and slid into the helm. His hands flew through the commands to wind up the Wink’s systems without running too hot.
“Nem. Alert those fools,” he snapped, though he could hear her clacking away at comms. A droning buzz rang out across the land at this point, barely dulled by the ship’s hull. It sounded louder than could be attributed to the one hive Kor had stirred up. As if the entire land had taken up the insects’ song. There was no way the hunters would be caught totally unaware.
Up ahead, the once-serene field of grass was splotched and blackened by a building swarm of giant beetles. Fortunately, the swarm wasn’t headed directly toward the ship, but appeared to be organizing into a communal mass. Crews of bugs fanned out across the field, threshing their way through the grasses, devouring what they could. A point in Kor’s favor that some of the critters were focused on less mobile feeding.
A dark blur flashed across the forward windows while clunks and clanks of increasing somethings bounced off the hull, as if they flew through a debris field. It was past time to be airborne. Kor opened the ship-wide comm channel and locked it on.
“Sound off, folks.”
Three replies. Kor throttled up the tilts and the Wink nimbly lifted into the skies.
The land fell away below. Kor opted for a generous flyover height above the Claws, knowing the bugs’ flight abilities were limited and to make it easier for the hunters to see the ship’s rapid approach. He just hoped their beacon was doing its job and they took mind of the urgency.
Dark, shifting clouds rose from scattered points across the Claws like drunken cyclones. They spread over the nearby forests like a giant ooze, consuming all in their wake.
“Got a lock on their beacon, Cap,” Nem reported. “Up high near the middle of the island.” She rattled off a heading and Kor set the ship on a course toward the central highlands. The jungles scrolled below them, the greenery now lightly interwoven with winding tendrils of beetle swarms in their feeding frenzy. The canopy stirred across the land, driven by the awakening horde. Kor had to think the timing of it all was coincidence. One jostled entry to a hive couldn’t provoke this much of a response. Perhaps he was just the final nudge. Or so he hoped.
Kor spotted Hatch waving a red cloth at the top of a promontory. A surge of relief washed through him, thankful the hunters were savvy enough to climb to higher ground for an easy pick-up. All four men looked whole and hale. Kor brought the Wink downward, easing off the throttle despite all primal protestations otherwise. Hatch ceased signaling and hurried toward a large, limp tan-colored bundle. He and Cameron then lifted some manner of trussed up beast between them. All the while, their companions kept rifles raised, scanning the highland forest below. Gunfire barked as Kor lost sight of the four while bringing the rear of the ship around.
He felt the rumble of the bay doors opening and the ship’s handling went all quirky from the winds. A mess of sound came through the comm speaker: Lukas shouting for them to hurry their asses, the crack of rifle shots, and the thump of something heavy dumped onto the deck. And…laughter? Kor shook his head, but didn’t blame them overmuch. They would be having a grand old time in all this. Here’s to getting your money’s worth.
Out the forward windows, Kor could just spot a serpentine line of the insect swarm weaving across the lower elevations. The hungry horde carved its way through the forests, heading toward the nearby cliff lines.
“All clear, Captain,” Lukas shouted over the comm, his voice accompanied by the blissful internal rumble of the doors closing.
“Hard rise in three,” Kor announced. He hammered the tilts’ lift to maximum and the Wink and Smile launched upward into the skies above Cassy’s Claws.
From the safety of on high, they could observe the procession of the creatures’ feeding. Kor took the Wink on a final observation circuit around the hidden plateau. Once they reached the cliffs, the swarms would descend into the Churn in an organized and intentional manner. Clearly they could survive the transition into the Down Below and whatever awaited them beyond the clouds. Their consumption of the island was limited to certain areas, and most of it was left untouched. It explained the failure of the base and colony, the scouring in places, and the rambling lines through the forests clear of all but fast-growing groundcover. Kor thought it was all due to swells from the Churn. Not so. Perhaps it was a periodic pattern of life, some sort of nesting ground for them.
Now I’m thinking like Chantil. Kor could only assume she was on the deck below, cataloging all she saw.
“Gotta say, Cap, I think this devalues the charts and coordinates.”
“Yes, Nem. The thought occurred to me.”
Kor set their course to Gloria, the target heading already committed to memory. He sat back from the controls and let the tension ease its way out. He was willing to call this job a success. The survey data might be a bit of a bust, but the lead into Ferron could make up for that loss many times over. As to the Claws’ human history, Kor had a pile of clues and ideas, but not much inkling as to why. Something stuck with him as the Wink cruised out into the open skies. Perhaps their own investigation of Cassy’s Claws was meant to be incomplete. Such was the natural state of many places across the frontier skies. Kor didn’t have to like it, but he could accept it, after a fashion.
Grand works. Half-finished.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016