Fragments

Chapter One

Kor sat at the Wink and Smile’s underused command console with chin in one hand and a drafting pencil in the other. He stared down a hazy patch of map data, as if he could will it into a greater degree of certainty. Their buoy network fed them updates on the positions of isles and scatterings, their respective coordinate shifts steadily falling to normal conditions. The fragments of a complete vision resolving into view. While a tentative sense of order was emerging from the outskirts of the Ferron Expanse, there were patches of enduring storms blocking off some areas. Usually, Kor would simply shrug and look for an easier target, but this specific indistinct area hinted at a larger landmass sheltered within its storms, potentially the precise kind of prize island they wanted to get a first look at.

He straightened and rolled his neck, eliciting a pair of creaks and a crack. A thin, almost-sunlight shone through the flight deck’s windows, and the all-encompassing upwell storm was once again reduced to a droning background roar. Kor thought it sounded weaker now, on day six of this expedition, than on day zero. But the decrease was so gradual he couldn’t commit to believing it without hard numbers to back it up.

As they filled out their knowledge of this corner of Ferron one benefit was a constant supply of stable isles and bergs, allowing the Wink and her crew moments of relative peace and quiet, a break from the cycle of day and night shifts. Even now, the ship sat idle on a small, high-altitude isle, little more than big, barren rock with trustworthy drift numbers, one of hundreds already mapped out and tentatively pinned to the map.

The snap of metal and a muttered Kural curse brought Kor’s attention to the true project of the morning. He stood and turned to see that, yes indeed, the entire back right corner of the flight deck continued to be a damn mess. A swath of the flight deck stretching from the N/C console to the rear table was covered and tangled with wires, tools, technical manuals, cases, and the like. Nem and Wilcox sat at the table, both hunched over parallel projects. Multiple boxes of communication gear, spare parts and obsolete alike, lay in a rough circuit on the table. Kor circled around to get a better view of it all, stepping between a pair of storage bins, but keeping a proper distance. The N/C console itself was opened in multiple places, its internals crudely exposed for the sake of quick visual comparison. All morning, Kor had watched from a safe distance as Wilcox and Nem slowly buried themselves in prototype set-ups and equipment.

The glimmering shard of the Virtue’s communication array crowned the whole grand mess, standing tall in the middle of the table atop a twisting metal housing that looked more like a bird nest than anything useful. The half-oval-shaped shard stood point up, the broken midsection and inserted keystone nearly lost among the in-progress nest. The shard was a pale rose color in the late morning light and its depths glinted and swirled, the colors within following their own, beguiling patterns.

The more he looked at it, the less Kor felt he knew what it even was. Some kind of crystal or gemstone? A metal or mineral? He’d never seen its like in any bazaar, workshop, or pirate raid. Nor had Lukas in his own extensive mercantile experience. Nor Chantil in her readings or explorations. If it was part of a capital ship’s communication array, there would have to be a hell of a lot of it. They didn’t know what it would do or how it worked and they were about to plug it into his ship.

‘Just see what happens’, was the best they could manage.

Well, first they would test it on old, spare chunks of comm gear. Kor was making most of this mad plan up as he went along, but it didn’t mean he was a total damn fool. They had standards and protocol. At least, when they wanted them.

“Where’d they even find this thing,” Kor asked aloud.

Wilcox tugged at a bundle of wires on the old communications unit and leaned back, surveying the scene. He stared into the depths of the shard for a moment and shook his head, dismissing thoughts. Armed with pliers and a focused squint, Nem continued fiddling with a ring of contact points, their conversation tuned out as if she were deep in the mix.

“If it’s from a dreadnought, then it came out of Antrech. And Antrech didn’t exactly share the nitty-gritty of their wonders,” Wilcox said. He coiled up a length of loose wiring as he spoke. “Anything they launched was a marvel, if perhaps only on the inside. Among the ‘Lition fleets, there was a healthy rumor and story economy about which Imperial ships were Antrech make. They were the dangerous ones. The ones that might surprise you with something you’d never seen before.”

“Not too different on the other side,” Kor said. He leaned against the rear wall and crossed his arms as he dredged up memories. “From what few years I had before it all came tumbling down. Most battlegroups or defense fleets had that one ship everyone talked about in whispers. The one that seemed to punch above its class or simply have a damnable amount of luck.”

“I could say the same for present company,” Wilcox said.

“That’s just my magic touch, no special technology required,” Kor quickly angled them back on course. “You ever work with a veteran from Antrech? A mech or engineer or other technical type?”

“There aren’t many Antrech veterans, not out in the open. Even if a few filtered out here, they wouldn’t talk about it. That place was layers upon layers of secrecy.”  Wilcox moved on to sorting the gear on the table around him and connecting a few cables to the test console.

Kor nodded, granting the point. “Zek said something to that effect. An inner circle of devoted custodian technicians on the Virtue.”

“Sounds about right. And, well, we all know what happened to the city itself.”

Antrech was one of the few places in Torsia, the Imperial home continent, to be attacked in force. On top of that, the final raid on the place, days, if not hours before the armistice was settled, was caught up in an annihilating explosion. The entire city, every record, every work in progress, every scientist, technician, and shipbuilder. All turned to dust and ash, likely from a weapon of their own design. So the stories go, anyway. Whatever had caused the ‘Antrech Incident’, the skies were better off with it consumed in the blast.

From the faraway look in Wilcox’s eyes, the other man was thinking much the same thing.

“I’d imagine anyone with credentials from that place who survived or escaped before the end would fetch a premium for any number of nations or organizations. Supposedly Altani snuck a cluster of scientists and engineers out for their own purposes, but who knows.”

 “Which comes back to why we’re chasing the Virtue,” Kor said. “Even setting aside mercenary concerns, that legacy of power and technology is too much. Too dangerous.” He nodded at the shard, an all-too-present example. “Fragments like that are strange and valuable enough. We don’t need an entire damn dreadnought pulled out of here.”

Kor frowned to himself and wondered how much of that believed. Why? For old oaths of fallen captains? The threat to an ever-changing way of life in his adopted homeland? Kor dismissed his doubts once more.

Because it is right. That should be enough.

 “I agree completely. We’re better off without. I didn’t fight, in my way, just to have such a large piece of that old order rise up out the mists.”

 “I think we’re ready, Wilcox, Captain,” Nem said. She brushed a loose bang of hair off her face, revealing tired eyes entirely focused on the shard. Nem looked worn out. She’d been putting in long hours, either on her typical N/C duties or working with the buoy networks. Kor kept suggesting she take it easy for a day or two. He would have to upgrade from ‘suggest’ to ‘order’.

Wilcox traced the machinery’s connections with a wandering finger, from battery, to old console, to a custom-made box Kor didn’t recognize, to the shard itself sitting in a nest of metal and wires and contact nodes. Kor allowed himself to be impressed that they built an entire secondary communication system with scrap pieces and all within a morning’s work.

Nem pulled on a thick glove, then carefully placed the ring of contact points on the top of the shard, a crown of twisting metal and wires. Did streams of darker red drift toward the contact points within the shard? Kor couldn’t be sure.

Wilcox jammed a final pair of cables into the spare comm console and said, “Give it a shot.”

Nem twisted an old red dial on an intermediary box, located somewhere in the chain lost among the tangle. The test console chugged into functionality, drawing power from the spare batteries and other pieces of the improvised set up.

An unmistakable flash of inner light pulsed from the shard with the activation. The three let out a collective sigh of relief. Any initial optimism then vanished as a shower of sparks burst from the test console. Something inside the box popped and fizzled. Wilcox and Nem started yanking out cords and wires, seemingly at random. Thin smoke drifted out from the console and spread an acrid scent across the flight deck.

“And that is why we test,” Kor muttered.

“Let’s throttle it down even more,” Wilcox suggested.

Nem eyed a schematic and nodded agreement, still staring at the swirling depths of the shard. The darker threads of red now coiled into a mirrored inner ring below the circle of contact points. It flowed like a circuit of blood for a few moments, then dispersed into the typical procession of eye-deceiving motion.

Another round of set-up and alterations followed. Kor left them to it and busied himself with their supplies checklist and keeping an eye on the weather conditions. Being only day six of the trip, their supplies were flush, still within the bounds of normal jobs and hauls. But their head start was running out. They needed a good find soon. Something more tangible than survey and scouting data. A prize island, or salvage score. Perhaps, once they concluded this experiment, it was time to chance another storm-ride. Maybe skim through that tempting blank patch on the map, discover what’s really there.

After an hour, they were ready for round two of activating the shard. Kor resumed his position near the door and braced for more micro-scale fireworks. Cables connected, switches turned and…nothing amiss. No sparks or smoke. Once activated, the system was quiet, the shard itself thrumming with internal light.

Wilcox leaned over to the attached console and squinted at a meter.

“As nominal as can be expected, give then nature of the gear.”

Nem lifted a set of old headphones to one ear, then winced away from the output.

“Whoa.”

“How’s it sound?” Kor could catch an unchanging high-pitched squeal, thankfully muted from where he stood.

“Awful. That’ll need heavy filtering,” Nem said. She lifted the headset closer to her ear, now with a few inches of air buffer. “But…I can catch some variation. There’s something structured playing out there. I just don’t know—”

The shard began to flash, the inner light running through the standard rhythm of a dot-dash code, something Kor needed to dredge up out of his memory to translate. Nem was quicker on the draw and read it out on the first repetition.

“Z. E. K. M. O. S. D. A. R. K.”

The message repeated once more and the shard went back to its idle swirl of colors punctuated by pulses lacking all sign of pattern or signal.

“Zek. Moment of Silence. Dark,” Kor said. A broad smile crossed his face. “He’s alive and we got line to him, but he can’t talk much right now.”

“They can’t be inside the stormwalls already,” Wilcox said. “A big ship like that couldn’t take the stress.”

“Agreed. Bianca wouldn’t risk her flagship. But they’re probably hovering just outside now. Waiting for the break. Maybe sending in scouts.”

“Where do you reckon they’ll enter?”

“South arc,” Kor replied without hesitation. “The Hawks aren’t welcome in Gloria, making the southeast arc inconvenient. East and west are too remote for a fleet like that.”

“Isn’t that right on top of the Remnant’s claim?”

“I’m sure they’ll work out a civil agreement of cooperation and compromise.” A fortunate turn for both their opposing forces being unfriendly with each other. Makes it easier for one little ship to slip around and get things done under their noses. At least, that’s the plan. One of Kor’s default ones, in fact. Hasn’t failed him so far.

“There’s no way he could get a signal here and back that easily,” Nem said. “Not through the storm and over that distance.”

“We aren’t dealing with normal comm gear. Zek said the Virtue possessed rule-breaking comm tech. This must be the connection between fragments he told me about.”

“Incredible.” She gazed into the still twisting depths of the shard, transfixed and hypnotized. Kor could practically hear the gears turning in her head at a frenzied whirl.

“I think we should change up the nest,” Nem said. She pulled a schematic from under a coil of wiring. “Make the shard itself detachable.”

Wilcox murmured in agreement, leaning over the shard and peering into the housing at its base.

Kor was about the say the same. “Keep it in the lead box so we don’t have a tracking beacon barking at all hours. Last thing I want is the Hawks having a direct line on us.” Much as he was willing to press Bianca’s amnesty, Kor preferred to start as late as possible.

“Right,” Nem said.

“To say nothing of whatever other fragments are out there. No telling who has what fragments, either now or in a few weeks as folk start combing the expanse for loot.”

Nem seemed to have banished most of her weariness, though not all. “If they can communicate that easily, with such a crude set-up on our end, I might be able to track down other fragments. Once I, uh…” she shrugged, “Know what this thing even sounds and acts like as a comm piece.”

“We’ll give it a proper test run once you two work out the kinks.” As the storm cleared, new regions and routes were opening up for them to explore. With the initial eastern buoy network sketched out, Kor estimated they had another solid week of trailblazing before any concrete competition slipped into Ferron. With the Night Hawk flagship lurking outside the storm (and her attendant fleet no doubt nearby) they needed to stay ahead of the curve. If the shard could give them another edge, it was worth the periods of revealing their location.

But for now, it was comforting to know they had a man on the inside of the competition.

 

Chapter Two

Nem only needed to wait a day for her chance to dive deep into the shard’s signals. The Wink idled on another stable refuge isle, one of the increasing patchwork of minor discoveries from the past week of surveying. A sullen afternoon sky gleamed outside with occluded sunlight. The Captain and Chantil stood over the conditions console to her left, talking over the details of a new target island, one shrouded in a persistent sub-storm. Wilcox chimed in on occasion through the ship’s comm. Nem confirmed the numbers once more about twenty minutes ago during her warm-up. That location held promise.

Everything was ready and at-hand. Nem accounted for the isle’s drift in the prevailing winds in her settings. She cleared out a column of recording slots, the tapes ready for any opportune target. The Virtue’s shard was out of sight behind her, standing like an upright pink egg in a cradle of metal and wires, all inside an easily sealed lead-lined box. Long, higher quality cables connected their custom-built system to the Wink’s Nav/Comm console. A control box for the shard’s equipment sat at her right, complete with a bright orange kill switch, just in case she needed sever the connection in a hurry.

 “I’m going in,” she announced, her voice a muffled, distant sound against her settled headphones. The Captain wished her luck, the words seen rather than heard. He was playing it cool, though she could see the pensive excitement in his eyes.

Three switches, the normal wake sequence for the Wink’s gear. A dial twisted down, setting the shard’s output to a temporary zero. A final switch to transfer the incoming signal to her headset, its heavy ka-chunk the satisfying beginning of any session. The internal sounds of the ship faded from Nem’s hearing. The squawk of the ship’s comm channel. The clank of footfalls on the deck and the door opening at her back. The wind against the hull. All vanished into a tiny point of background noise.

The Ferron Expanse’s constant, storm-wracked cry came to the fore in her ears. It was the bass line of the region, the tone-setter of her work, the foundation on which all else is built. It was a companion, even while sleeping, easily ignored, but an ever-present reminder of the signals waiting for her ear. The physical shape of Ferron was reflected in the sonic: channels of calm crossed with disruptive storms. The wild bands of transition between the calms were so muddled and chaotic that they served as discrete markers of a sort, a veil to punch through, consistent in their condensed inconsistency.

Ferron, so abandoned and storm-wracked, yet it contained networks all the same, structure playing out across the sky. Three networks sang in the stream of sound, a union of the incoming data and Nem’s mind sorting out the signal from the noise.

First: Their own, the shining lights against a vast darkness, their two private buoy nets. She’d been toying with them for days now and the novelty hadn’t worn off. Each session with the eastern arc added to their knowledge of the region, filling in the settling isles and currents of the reborn region-to-be. The incomplete southern arc was impressionistic, a thin thread of data containing tempting hints of landscapes and oddities, but veiled by wide uncertainty ranges. Lore instead of knowledge, but informative nonetheless.

Second: What Nem called ‘the unsealed door’. This strange one she feared, a vault filled with the glimpses and whispers she encountered back in Hub. Its components were older, definitely pre-storm equipment, yet powerful and obscured behind so much encryption and mystery. Nem knew she could give in, as she accidently did before, and ride that network. Discover the secrets contained within. Lose herself. No. She already carried that strange burden etched into her head. Now was not the time to confront it. Soon, perhaps.

Focus.

Third: The shard and, by extension, the scattered remains of the dreadnought Virtue. The third network now lay at her fingertips. Their improvised system was activated and hummed like an unknown tune in her peripheral hearing, filtered and muted from a whirlwind testing session late into the previous night.

Try to find something concrete,’ the Captain told her this morning. ‘But don’t overtax yourself, understand?

Nem assured him she wouldn’t. It didn’t make a dent in the obvious concern on his face. Maybe she’d been pushing herself too hard. Why shouldn’t she? Everyone else was putting in considerable work, the nights and days bleeding together, always on guard against the fractious skies and the fading storm. These last couple days of finding refuge isles was a new development, a welcome deceleration in pace.

Rest could come later. For now, the novelty of something wholly new spurred her on.

With a quick tuning, the buoy network flowed into her headset. The threads were so fine and clear, lacking in all the haze and fuzz of traffic. A sweet moment of solitude, in the physical as well as the sonic, doomed to expire. Over the last few days, Nem caught wind of others probing into the outskirts of Ferron, their signals amplified for safety and navigation. Other voices in the storm, wandering without much aim or direction. Stealth wasn’t much of a priority when there wasn’t much to hide from.

With the buoys attuned, Nem reached for the shard’s control box. She paused with her fingers on the dial and took a breath.

In we go.

She turned the dial a bare few degrees, unmuting the incoming sounds from the shard. Once she got the right sort of filtering applied to it, she could at least stand to listen for more than a second. The screeching was now on the right side of tolerable, and it sang in alien sounds and rhythms. It would take days of practice to make sense of it alone. Thus: Cross over the first network with the third and look for intersections of clarity in the storm. While the buoy network was confined to its own region, she could use them as additional ears to catch extra sounds singing and sighing through the stormy skies.

The two networks joined and Nem mentally reeled from the impact. Hundreds of miles of storm-crossed sky unspooled into her awareness. The shard’s network was scattered far and wide, reporting impressions and influences, currents and conditions. Small wonder the raw output was nonsensical. There was simply too much going on at once. The Wink’s systems and readouts tried to make sense of it all, working with Nem’s own intuition and training to turn this unbound supply of cryptic noise into, well, anything.

She must not get distracted with the vast well of potential knowledge at her fingertips and thrumming in her ears. Find something close. Attainable. A proof of concept. Nem throttled back the Wink’s equipment, making use of their buoys only to enhance the local soundscape. The shard sang over it all with constrained, furious force. Yet sensibility emerged from the shard’s signals, like the distant tolling of manic bells and delicate chimes of crystal and glass.

That’ll work. She sent out sweeps in steadily increasing radii, each extension raising the noise, empowering the shard’s song. Rock-sign of known bergs and isles echoes back to her through the Wink’s equipment. Nem imagined a sketchy map of the local area. To the northwest, the shard’s song focused into something less awful. A resonating, pulsing sensation. Nem crossed over the range multiple times and the two networks began to align.

There. A match. A junction between the increasingly crystalline chimes of the Virtue’s fragments and the more familiar sounds coming over the airwaves, enhanced by their own network. It lay deeper into the storm’s remaining layers and beyond their comfortable bands of relative calm. A haven of consistency on the far side of rough skies, ringing out with the signals of solid land and clear skies. At the heart lay a beacon, shining in time with their own piece of the Virtue.

Nem narrowed down the location, fine tuning the harmonious song of the two systems as best she could. Correction: The Virtue’s fragment wasn’t adjustable, not exactly. It was a matter of aligning their own reception and her own hearing and a quick interpretation to make sense of the fluxing and bizarre incoming data. Hard numbers emerged from a mix of art and science and intuition. Nem scratched out the coordinates and a heading, then locked the target into the N/C station’s memory banks. The small rolls of tape turned within the casing, a quiet whirl she couldn’t hear in fact but mentally filled in from repetition and memory.

She cut the incoming signals from her headset. Residual mental echoes rang in her head, stronger than normal. Understandable. Nem hummed along to them, pleased with the results. For a first dive into this haphazard union of systems, anything concrete was a resounding success. And she felt fresh and sharp enough for another round of exploration. With a working rubric for navigating the shard’s signals, she might as well get additional testing in.

Let’s see what else is out there.

Nem brought the shard’s output back to the fore in her headset and simply sat and listened to it for a moment. So much to absorb. Yet, there was a common thread in the merged songs. A resonating note, like a keystone for translation, guided her along. A lens through which she could find her way through the fog. It wasn’t long before pressure ached against her ears and mind, the precursors of over-doing it. Nem had sunk herself deep in the skies for a week straight. She knew she was quickly approaching her limits on account of the complexity and strangeness of the work.

Yet she persisted and delved deeper. She wandered, the passing minutes a vague impression in the back of her mind. Following the union of the shard and its fragmentary siblings onward, deeper. With each connection and reach the stable, familiar equipment and presence of the Wink and Smile faded, and the shard took up more of the merged song.

The fragments of the Virtue’s shone like diffuse points of light against stormy skies. They were scattered so very far, with no rhyme or reason to their distribution. Chaotically random after a decade of upwell storm flows. While she couldn’t map them just yet there was a vague sense of density. Always toward the heart of the storm, each sonic leap further out reducing the secure foundation of her familiar equipment. But the Virtue’s fragments, its accidental network, were able to make up the deficit. Able to carry her along, so long as she smiled and nodded to the still unknowable language they spoke, that odd, eldritch chorus thrumming across Ferron.

It pulled her into the heart of it all. Geographically vague, but centered within the language and signals of the scattered crystalline fragments.

And then, a wall. No, a citadel. And within, a throne.

She slumbers among the swirling vortex of the storm.

Waiting.

Calling.

Images flooded her mind. Visions of isles like latticework, far too delicate to survive the winds, and yet they stand firm. Creatures, no, spirits weave through the fractal expansion of material. Serpents, solid only in pulsing moments, coil through the depths of the lattice, guarding a tomb and cradle.

Then, claws enclosed her mind, riding frequencies unheard but felt deep within her core, pulsing along her nerves. It sought some foothold within. An empty room, a vessel.

Cold satisfaction.

This will serve.

Nem gasped, perhaps cried out. She couldn’t hear her own voice. The resonating chorus of the shard rang in her head like an unstoppable gong, sonorous and furious, far too large to be contained with the mind of one woman. She pulled away from the the shard network, throttling down the output.

It didn’t stop, still ringing, resonating.

Nem cut all reception bands and powered down the N/C systems, setting the Wink’s gear to idle.

It didn’t stop and continued to echo against the walls of her mind, expanding unseen cracks, breaking barriers.

Kill switch engaged. No, she could still hear it, them, Her. She tore her headphones off, a clatter onto the console surface. Still she could hear it, calling and resonating, a looping echo in her head.

The shard. Nem staggered out of her chair and dove toward the shard, the crystal pulsing away despite the power being cut off. Pulsing in time and in resonance with the echoes in her mind. She heard Chantil calling out to her. No, she had to stop it first.

In a frenzy, Nem slapped away the shard’s crown of wiring and contact points, not caring what she damaged or how much painstaking work she was throwing away. Wires followed, yanked out of their sockets until the shard stood alone in its socket within the lead case.

Clear. She slammed the case shut. Finally came silence. The spell was broken and everything snapped back into the physical. Her vision swam and suddenly she couldn’t manage anything more than short gasps. Sweat soaked a line down her back. Her hands shook.

Chantil gently grasped her shoulders and guided her into the bench. “Easy. Easy. Breathe. Try to calm down.”

Nem sat and slid away from the other woman’s touch, all the while drawing in ragged, thin gasps. The sound faded into memory, raw and pointed. From hot to cold, she shivered. She focused on the pain in her wrist where she slapped away the contact gear. Something real and physical, a beacon of a different sort.

Recovery and reset. The sound of the wind against the hull. The whirl of air and power circulating through the Wink and Smile. Nem’s breaths and heart calming down. Simple things. Chantil sat across from her and waited, watching, assessing. If she looked at Nem askance before, this was a resounding confirmation.

And perhaps she should.

“What happened?” Chantil asked when Nem finally felt calm enough.

That’s the question, ain’t it? Nem didn’t know, but she’ll have to explain. Deflect for now until she understood herself.  

“I went too deep,” Nem answered, voice somehow hoarse. “Tried to see too much, too fast.” She nudged the shards heavy container a few inches away from her. “These things are all fragments of a whole, and they’re like…like a network of their own. Woven across the expanse in a scattered patchwork.”

“You found a lead? I saw you write something down, then lock a coordinate box.”

Nem nodded. “Nearby piece of the same stuff. Gotta be.”

“And then?” Chantil folded her hands and Nem imagined the mental notes being scribbled.

“I dipped back into the shards’…network for a little while longer. Just to see where some of the threads went. Then it got to be too much and I…well, you know.”

“Nem, you recorded those coordinates an hour ago.”

An hour. Nem looked out the side window above the table. The light had progressed toward evening, a disorienting realization that threatened her barely recovered balance. She looked back to the tabletop and tried to explain.

“I…followed the threads deeper. Every network has nodes. Some have hearts or origin points.” Now, the evasion. “I didn’t find the heart, but I touched its threads.”

“Deeper into the storm.”

Nem nodded, though it wasn’t a question.

“Not the center, though. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you a where. She doesn’t want to be found yet.”

Wait. She?

Chantil noticed as well, acknowledged in the quirk of an eyebrow. Nem knew Chantil had far more pressing and personal questions. She could see it in her hard, assessing eyes, turned on Nem in a way she’d never seen before. An answer would be owed. To the entire crew and to herself.

“I…I don’t recall everything,” Nem said. Half a lie, as the memories of the heart of the network, that lattice-draped citadel, were starting to blur in her head. Perhaps sealed away, another question etched into her mind.

Chantil thankfully relented and said, “You should go get some rest. Try to sort out what happened. Then, when you tell Icomb all this, be sure to remind him you cannot be overtaxed with this unknown system. Right?” Her words left no doubt that such a discussion would happen. She was right, of course.

Nem numbly nodded, though wondered if the reminder was for the Captain or for herself. She couldn’t help but agree. The rumblings of a fierce headache raced through her mind like lightning in the storms they’d been dodging all week. She needed to take a break. Especially now.

Even if the questions and enigmas within her mind had multiplied and perhaps taken root.

Chapter Three

The thick cloud fog faded from gray to white and parted around the Wink and Smile, the residual tension and rattle of the last few hours of storm riding dispersing like a long-held exhale. Ahead lay a bubble of calm, stable air, sculpted like the eye of a storm, the passing clouds and weather systems circulating around this point, somehow deflected away. That alone would be enough to give Kor cause to pause in wonder and bafflement over what-the-hell-is-this, but their target sat at the heart of it all and upstaged any weather curiosity. Or, perhaps, anchored and created it.

At a glance, it looked like a big ball of rock-studded moss, a free-floating, too spherical to be quite natural, biome of life detached from any host landform and large enough to be called an isle on its own. As they drew closer, the Wink smoothly settling into a parallel hover in the easy, calm air, Kor could see the isle was cloaked in winding vines and fuzzy expanses of grasses and mosses. The fringes twitched in faint winds, reaching vines dancing around the shell like diaphanous feeder stalks on the underside of any proper rocky isle.

Were this a regular island, Kor would deem it worth a closer. As a bizarre or mutant offshoot? He was already eyeing their route into the interior with the skiff. Navigable gaps in the green shell studded the shell with tempting avenues into the veiled and shadowed interior of the isle. Or was it a berg? Hard to tag it with a proper classification with so much of it covered in plant growth.

 “Well. I’m already willing to call this worth the hassle,” Kor declared. The shake and worry of those hours of storm riding half-blind were forgotten with the view.

 “These are quite rare outside of the core continents,” Chantil said. “They take decades to build up and detach from tropical altitudes and usually require the stability and predictability only Heartsky can provide.” She wrote as she spoke, and Kor could imagine the scent of smoke from her pen tearing across her notebook.

“Like icebergs out of cold bands,” Lukas said from the rear of the flight deck, “But plant and whatever else.” He unbuckled and stood, groaning as he stretched out the kinks from sitting too long.

“Correct. Its mere presence out here in frontier skies is incredible. The fact that it’s within the bounds of an upwell storm,” she trailed off, shaking her head. But she almost looked pleased.

“They got a name?” Lukas asked.

“A free-floating verdant anomaly,” Chantil replied, off-hand, matter-of-fact.

“So…a life-berg,” Lukas decided.

“Life-berg,” Kor agreed. He supposed there was a reason much of the Northwest Frontier ended up with names like Hub and Summit. Chantil was too absorbed in the sight to sigh disapprovingly.

Lukas walked to the forward windows and leaned against the framework. He ran a hand through his hair and eyed the life-berg, trying to work out an appraisal from here.

“Just how promising was that signal Nem found?”

“Echoes of the Virtue via resonance with our piece back there,” Kor said. “Could be anything. Maybe a hull fragment or another piece of salvage. More likely another crystal chunk like the shard.” Kor would take anything solid at this still-early stage in their Ferron expedition. Mostly because ‘anything’ would be worth a mint.

“But not whole thing itself.”

“Nah. That life-berg is way too small to hide a dreadnought.” Kor thought he saw a slight twitch in Chantil’s eye.

“We’re heading over there quick as we can, aren’t we?” Lukas asked.

Kor’s response was his finest, winning grin. Was there any doubt?

“Hell,” Lukas said as he shoved off the hull. He gave the life-berg a parting long look, turned away and said, “I’ll get my gear and start clearing shit away from the skiff.”

“Much obliged, Lukas. Send Sil up here to swap in if you see her.”

“Roger that.”

The flight deck door clicked closed.

“I assume you’ll insist, Doc?”

“Absolutely,” she said, then pointed at the berg with her pen. “That is the primary reason I’m even on this whole mad trip.”

“But not the only one.”

They both avoided looking at the sealed lead box at the rear of the flight deck, instead sharing a knowing glance at the empty Nav/Comm station.

“Even more so now, Icomb.”

Kor knew he let Nem’s shifts go too long through the initial days of Ferron. As for her incident, which led to finding this place, he wanted to dismiss it as a mix of overwork and staying too deep in the mix. That was always a danger with N/Cs. Add strange, nah call it mystical, tech on top of it and you got a stew going.

He worried it was more than overexertion. Chantil certainly thought it was more than that, though she refused to speculate too far. ‘Not enough data’, she told him the other day.

“Perhaps this excursion will grant us clarity on what we’re up against. In addition to any loot, of course,” Chantil said.

“Here’s hoping,” he agreed.

Kor throttled the Wink up and set her into a slow circuit around the life-berg. The place was quiet and still aside from the twitching of vines in the weak winds. He felt the potential within, a sense of something concealed, something driving and creating this little anomalous spot in the storm.

Time to crack it open, see what’s inside.

* * *

Kor settled into the skiff’s pilot seat, working his back into the thinning padding and running his hands over the controls’ worn brown leather wrappings. They cleared a launch line in the Wink’s cargo hold, the blocking crates and supplies shifted and stacked into temporary wall. Chantil sat in the passenger seat to his right, clad in her rugged coat, rifle and satchel of supplies stowed securely against the storage box between the seats. Lukas was once again willing to ride rough in the back, putting his faith in the cargo straps and Kor’s piloting. The black shoulder strap of his carbine stood out stark and telling against his white sleeveless shirt and tattoo-painted shoulders.

All in all, they looked more like hunters than explorers for this trip. Then again, this far out in the frontier there wasn’t much daylight between the two professions. Kor tapped through his own kit. Lifering, machete, handgun, location beacon (with a backup on the skiff itself). Plus the steely will to accomplish something in Ferron beyond bill-paying survey work.

“Be on high alert,” Chantil reminded them. “I caught serpent calls out of the—”

“Life-berg,” Lukas provided.

“Free-floating verdant anomaly isle,” Chantil insisted.

“How big?” Kor asked.

“Hard to say, but not loud enough to be of the giant variety. The gaps in the shell aren’t nearly large enough. Besides, I thought you two liked surprises and improvising?”

“I got limits, Doc,” Kor said as he punched through the start-up sequence. The skiff woke up with its customary rounds of complaints and threats of a false positive. But it did start.

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve been sleeping for a while,” Kor muttered to the loyal craft. He gave Wilcox over at the door controls a thumbs-up.

The cargo doors opened and let in a gob-smacking blast of warm, humid air. After many days of flying high and cold, it took him off guard, even with advance warning. Kor felt a little over dressed in his flight jacket.

“Is that all?” Wilcox half-shouted over the mild roar of wind and the whine of the skiff’s engines. “Barely have to be secured for this one. You losing your edge, Captain?”

Kor eased the skiff to the edge of the hold, then leaned toward Wilcox as they passed each other.

“I take conditions as they come. If the skies want to be easy for me, so be it.” He threw a glance at the rest of the hold and hoped he wasn’t jinxing himself for later. They weren’t set up for any manner of rough landing without breaking half a hundred things.

“Good luck to ya,” Wilcox called out as they exited the ship into too-calm skies.

The encompassing shell of deflected clouds turned the midday sunlight into a pale suffusion, just weak enough for Kor to leave his flight goggles hanging loose around his neck. He wasted no time admiring the view and surged the skiff toward the waiting spherical isle. A wide gap in the upper hemisphere was his target, a promising enough opening chosen after too many minutes squinting through a scope trying to parse out the benefits of one vine-draped cave against another.

Silence reigned as they left the Wink and her weighty presence and turbine noise behind, entering that always-eerie stretch of open sky between one anchoring point and another. A moment of emptiness and solitude, despite the other people on the skiff with you. The instant passed as the life-berg took up the majority of the view ahead and the sounds of the wind through the openings and tunnels whispered them on. Shadows shifted within the green shell of wild plant growth, accompanied by the flitter of birds and the buzz of insects. Kor eased off the skiff as they reach the opening, taking a moment to align while the residents within stirred with the approach of visitors.

Kor kept his realization that they were staring into a shadowy maw of an opening, about to be swallowed up, to himself. Below all the plants lay a dense, rock-like structure, though with the light being dim, Kor wouldn’t commit to calling it rock just yet. He eased the skiff through the handful of dangling vines across the gap, the tough tendrils snapping like warning shots and silencing the nearby song of the smaller residents sheltering in this place. Lukas opened one of the storage boxes and pulled out a lantern, sparking it alight and passing it up. Chantil wedged the light source between the seats, giving them something of a guide beacon.

“Much obliged,” Kor said, voice low and perhaps overly respectful of the place. It was more cradle than tomb, after all.

Chantil drew her knife, reached over the side of the skiff, and sliced off a chunk of the berg’s curling, organic skeleton. She held it up, bending and flexing the material.

“Densely packed growth, though I couldn’t tell you what of. Toughened or calcified plant matter. Maybe previous generations formed a growing foundation for the entire place. Fascinating.”

She reached into her satchel and bagged the sample without further fanfare.

Kor slowed the skiff to a near-hover as he threaded ahead through the tunnel. Soon they left the skies’ light behind, now doubly filtered by cloud and shell. Spires of actual stone threaded through the tangle among the coiling of ever-present vines and plant growth. Other tunnels and passageways, some framed by rock, forked off their chosen route. The air became moist, almost tropical, tasting of moss and a rampant cycle of layered decay and growth.

Both Lukas and Chantil were unstrapped from their seats, the former scanning the too-many directions for threats, the latter snatching up samples of the life-berg’s denizens.

“It feels temporary,” Lukas declared. “Like it won’t be here for much longer.”

“Perhaps so,” Chantil agreed, her gaze running slow processions across the enclosing structures. “Perhaps the storm is the only reason it could survive, somehow.”

Kor tried to keep them on a mental course inward. He assumed there would be a heart to the place, some seed or catalyst that created this whole strange thing. Perhaps one in the same with the signal they sought.

Shadows flickered and slithered in the distance, perhaps a trick of the light, perhaps something more. No growls rumbled, no hisses beyond the sigh of weak winds against the outer shell of the berg. Those same winds coursed through the tunnels around them like gentle breaths, carrying the clear, clean scent of the surrounding storms. And in the lulls, the faint smell of rotting meat, of old meals and discarded bones.

“Doc…”

“Yes. The smell of a lair. We’d best hurry along,”

Kor kept his sense of position jostled and calibrating, trying to choose inward pointing paths through the berg. Call it an educated guess or a sense for the dramatic, but he supposed whatever sent out that signal would lie at the heart of this place. The approach to the core grew darker with every turn and every puttering traversal through one tunnel or another. With layers of growth and stone between them and the skies, all was nearly dark beyond the reach of their lantern. The faint light of the deepest forest, shrouded here by a complete spherical canopy. Chantil slowed her collection, and the from volume of creaks and rustles in the cargo bed, Lukas increased his vigilance.

His threading the needle of this berg was eventually rewarded when the lower half of the passage peeled away, the view muddled by a cross-hatch of thin, sagging vines. An open space spread out below them, as much of a central chamber as Kor was willing to seek out. He started a slow descent, the skiff snapping through interceding vines as they crossed into the heart of the lifeberg.

It was a domed space ill-lit by broken threads of grayed out sunlight. A circular patch of ground below looked to be grown out of a rocky drifter isle, though now it was a glade of short shrubs, piled mosses and grasses, and vines winding around a few spires of stone. Pale green nodules drifted about the open airspace, floating orbs composed of shivering threads. Lines of violet flowers traced the firmer structure of the isle and lent a too-sweet scent to the air that rose and fell with the faint, changeable winds.

Small winged creatures, neither bird nor insect, fluttered in the darker corners of the glade and dome. Their night-black wings were like animate pieces of cloth no larger than a man’s hand with fingers spread.

“Some manner of small ray,” Chantil murmured to herself, breaking their initial shared silence.

“This has to be it, right?” Kor asked, if perhaps rhetorically. If not this, what else?

“That spot of artificial silver-white among all the greenery says so.”

A statue stood in the heart of the glade, leaning against a vertical column of the calcified, plant-matter. Vines coiled about her figure and only a serene face and hands folded over her heart were easily seen. It radiated a benevolent feeling through the glade, an unspoken shield of protection and preservation.

“Yeah. I bet that’s the source of our signal,” Kor said.

Kor brought the skiff down onto a patch of clear ground, the wake of the engines sending puffs of loose dead leaves skittering away. He dropped the skiff to idle and restored the glade to its former quiet of the wind through the berg’s tunnels and the whispers between leaves. Drops of water seeped from the domed ceiling above, pattering against ground and skiff and shoulder alike.

“This feels like that seeder isle, you know?” Lukas said as he hopped down from the skiff, landing softly on the overgrown ground.

“It’s possible. A different stage and initial payload, and too confined to spread out properly.” Chantil widened the lantern’s aperture but left it at the fore of the skiff, the light cast out in a wide beam across the glade and highlighting the statue in pale light.  “The diversity I see from here goes against that working theory, however,” she added.

“Could just be a matter of ‘any shelter in the storm’,” Kor said. All three kept their voices low, respectful.

“Granted.”

The three approached the statue. Kor led, pushing aside a few waist-high stalks with the machete but not needing to swing it. Lukas backpedaled at the rear, sweeping his eye and aim across the dome above and around them. The ground thinned and evened out around the statue and Kor recognized it for what it was. A ship’s figurehead, ten feet tall, or thereabouts, with the remains of the hull where she was attached protruding from her back like shattered wings. He could tell she was built of an avorium blend on sight, though not an alloy that would cause her to float away. The silvery metal wasn’t corroded at all, despite the damp, hot conditions of this berg.

“Virtue herself,” Kor declared, though it was hardly necessary. Any of them would recognize that serene face and collar of her chaste robe from countless pieces of Orventian Imperial iconography, sigils, statues, and murals. This glade was a shrine, though one constructed from context and place and blind coincidence, rather than human hands.

Chantil knelt at the statue’s feet and pulled at a fistful of growth. It came away easily, as if the plants could only find purchase on the statue through volume alone. Kor and Lukas added their efforts and soon they disrobed the statue of her outer clothing of plant life, revealing Virtue’s traditional humble robes.

“Think this was from the Dread?” Lukas asked.

“Why else would our shard resonate with it?” Kor responded with the natural follow-up.

“This is why,” Chantil said from the statue’s left side. There, another shard of the odd crystalline material had pierced the statue’s hip. She extracted it with a grunt and a yank and held up it up to the lantern-light. It was paler than the one of the Wink, nearly white with only hints of pink and red glimmering in the light. Chantil turned it in her gloved hands, taking care to avoid a pointed edge. It was irregularly shaped, like a broken fragment from a larger piece of the unnamed material.

“How much of this stuff was inside that thing? If it was part of the comm array, how could it pierce something outside of the hull?”

“Battle damage is weird like that,” Lukas said. “Even if Zek said the entire ship didn’t go up, enough firepower from the opposing fleet could make it happen.”

“Especially if the upwell storm gave certain fragments the needed push. I’ll wrap and stow it away.” Chantil returned to the skiff, holding the shard as if it were sleeping, venomous creature. Perhaps so.

Kor stepped up to the base of the statue and said, “Pardon me, miss,” as he grabbed it about the hips and gave it a solid jostle. Virtue wobbled in place above him and he judged it could be shaken free, the lightweight material allowing them to easily carry it back onboard the Wink.

“Lukas. Gimme a gut check price.”

Lukas didn’t bother with any humming and hawing.

“Oh, we’re looking at an open auction, highest bidder vanity item, Captain. A Virtue figurehead from the Virtue herself? Priceless. We’ll make a mint just passing it off to an antiquities house. Let them ship back to Torsia, sell it some gray-haired Imperial nostalgia hawk.”

“Just the kind of news I wanted to hear. Let’s take her down and get her to the Wink.”

Lukas didn’t move for a moment, staring at the Virtue statue with a frown.

“You all right with this?” Kor tried not to think of the old symbolism of their past lives and oaths, and the new symbolism of their current grand objective.

“Yeah, Captain. Just pocketing old bits of respect and protocol. Recasting our girl here as delayed payment I’m owed.”

Wrangling the statue down from its makeshift dais was more a matter of clearing entangling plant growth than anything else. Being avorium, the statue’s light weight was disorienting, but Kor and Lukas were more than enough to carry it back to the skiff. All the while, Kor couldn’t help the itch between his shoulders, the sense of being watched from just beyond the encompassing dome above them. But maybe that was just the guilt of tearing up this impromptu shrine for his own gains.

Chantil left them to it, alternating between keeping watch around the glade and harvesting any sample or slow-moving denizen that caught her eye. She returned a full satchel to one of the rear storage bins as Kor and Lukas finished securing the statue to the skiff. The metal maiden sat diagonally across the cargo bed, tilted from the remnants of the broken hull along her back.

“I do want a more extensive on-the-ground survey, Icomb. This…skimming of details from scattered isles is more frustrating than anything else.”

“Soon as we get clearer skies and a good target, you’ll get your wish, Doc.” If they could find a true prize island, Kor wouldn’t mind a few days of sitting close to a temporary camp.

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Wouldn’t expect otherwise.”

A hiss threaded through the shadowed paths and mossy tunnels of the berg. Responses rattled across the glade, a rising, angry chorus.

“Figured we were getting presumptuous. Professional opinion, Doc?” Kor clambered up into the pilot’s seat before hearing the answer. He knew it wouldn’t be good.

Chantil unshouldered her rifle and snapped through her checks, then followed up into the passenger seat. Kor heard the click of Lukas’s carbine from the cargo bed.

“Please fly us out of here, Icomb.”

Nearby roots and vines crunched and snapped from the approach of a large body, the precise direction impossible to parse.

“Quickly,” Chantil emphasized.

Kor blazed through the skiff’s start-up, adding a flick to the tracking beacon’s switch from ‘Here’ to ‘HERE’. The skiff saw no need to be dramatic and thrummed to life on the first attempt.

A crash from a tunnel entrance on the far side glade announced the arrival of a reptilian head caged with curling, ram-like horns. The serpent’s pointed, tooth-lined maw split open and loosed a challenge cry, the sound shaking Kor’s bones like too-close thunder.

Chantil turned in her seat, raised her rifle, and snapped off a shot. The serpent recoiled with a guttural, reverberating honking, and retreated into the tunnels, its coiling shape a departing shadow.

Kor raised the skiff toward their entry point above. Serpent response calls echoed through the isle’s tangle of pathways, impossible to tell just how many of the beasts nested here and were now riled up in defense of their stolen totem.

“You remember the way out, right?” Lukas called out.

Kor gave a short, bitter laugh.

“Yep. Just follow the light ‘til we’re clear!”

He did just that, tracing the increasing light in a tightly controlled not-quite-panic. The basic logic of it shouldn’t fail him now, even if the slow navigation of the skiff made it take longer than he wished. For all his care, vines snapped against the side of the craft, with a pair of hard bumps as a shadowed shoulder of sterner stuff came into contact with the skiff. All the while his heart raced and skin crawled at the sound of a rushing, crashing, hooting pursuit in the tunnels around the isle. They were fortunate that the residents were just as inconvenienced by the structure as the visitors.

Though luck or precise piloting skill, they reached the edge of the berg’s shell and emerged blinking into the pale gray skies. Kor pulled the skiff against a gust of wind, much stronger than before they entered. As his eyes adjusted, seeking out the pale green wedge of the Wink and Smile, he saw something was amiss. The shell of shifting, slithering clouds around the lifeberg now contained destabilizing ripples and other disruptions.

More significantly, there was a serpent waiting for them nearby. A medium-sized one, by Kor’s eye, with a head as broad as a man’s chest and the jaw strength to easily bite through said chest. Its body, covered in iridescent scales and lined by transparent sail-like fins, coiled through a hypnotic, knot-like pattern. The serpent’s head remained still and focused, its black eyes dead-set on the skiff.

Kor pushed turned the skiff aside and gave Lukas as much of a broadside as he could. The carbine rattled out a burst of shots. The serpent weaved upward and danced out of the line of fire, though at least one shot connected, a brief spray of bright red blood that scattered on the winds. Kor gave the skiff a full surge of power, which, with three on board plus cargo, was a motivated putter at best. He wanted distance between them and the isle, both to be further from reinforcements and make themselves easier to spot by the Wink.

Chantil turned in her seat, only partially strapped in, rifle raised and tracing a target on the isle.

“Two more emerging,” she said, confirming Kor’s intuition on the first part. “Rams work in threes, should be the entire pack.”

Another burst of fire erupted and Lukas swore, red and hot.

“BRACE!”

One of the serpents rammed into the skiff, rear and aft, tossing them upward. Kor winced against the bite of his restraints and threw his hand out to grab Chantil’s coat. She recovered and thumped back down as Kor stabilized the skiff. Lukas let out another long chain of shots.

“Reloading! Wounded one below us, Doc!”

Chantil recovered her poise and snapped off two shots. One of the serpents let out a warbling, pained cry. Kor gave his surroundings a quick sweep and saw the beast wasn’t down, and all three spread around them in pursuit, a noose coiling about their neck.

What do they want besides plain hunter’s hunger?

Eerie as the glade was, Kor doubted the serpents cared about some old metal statue. And a few plants and flowers aside, they only took one other thing from the berg.

Weird enough to be true.

Kor reached down and opened the storage box between the seats. He grabbed the shard from the Virtue and flung it over the side of the skiff. The passing air ripped away the cloth and the pink crystal glinted and pulsed in the light as it tumbled downward. With a cry, the pursuing serpents altered course and chased the shard. One snapped the prize up in its jaws and its two companions coiled around it in a protective ball of shimmering scales and rapidly beating sail-fins.

“Huh,” Chantil said.

“Explain that behavior,” Kor said with a forced grin, trying to soothe the burn of losing so much potential profit, or at least knowledge, from the shard.

The Wink and Smile pulled into view around the curve of the berg and Kor pushed the skiff ahead with all due haste. Now that the immediate danger was past Kor could sense a weakened get-up from the skiff’s rear engines. He kept an eye on the clouds splitting around the isle, the ripples and distortions still threatening to collapse the bubble. He didn’t want to think the local weather, the berg, the shard, and the serpents were all intertwined, but it was the best working theory he had.

It was an easy enough landing, though a snug fit once again. As doors closed and the light from outside shrank to a line and then to nothing, Kor shook out the aftereffects of yet another escape. He exchanged a nod with Chantil then reached back and patted Lukas on the shoulder. A thumbs-up came in response.

The Virtue statue stared up at the cargo hold ceiling, unflustered. One big prize out of two wasn’t a bad haul, even if she brought more questions along for the ride.

 

Chapter Four

The galley windows were dark eyes staring out into a gloomy, calm evening. The Wink and Smile sat at a smooth idle, still within the too-odd-for-Kor’s-tastes bubble around the life-berg. Metal utensils clacked and scraped against trays, and a kettle of tea on first refill made the rounds. While normally their haul today would be cause to crack a bottle of the good stuff, there was an unspoken decision to keep the alcohol sealed this time around, a sense of wanting to stay sharp. Just in case. Still, they went fancier for this one, breaking open some canned chicken and using up the more perishable vegetables of their supply.

Everyone but Nem was in attendance for this unplanned crew dinner. She was still sleeping off her…incident. There was little talk across the table and regular glances Kor’s way carried the expectation that he would break the conversational silence. Such are the burdens of being captain.

“What the pure hell are we dealing with here?” he asked aloud. He didn’t feel the need to specify.

“Quick reminder that this was your idea,” Lukas said, waving the tines of his empty fork in an all-encompassing circle.

“Yeah, to hunt out loot, score some jobs before the crowd, scratch that ‘defy the unknown’ itch. Then maybe close the book on some better-off-dead War tech.” Old promises of dead pirates. New encouragement of a matron spirit only he could see. Rational and normal motivations. Kor hadn’t heard a whisper from Luck since entering the Ferron storm. Another notch on the storm’s belt of being too damn weird.

Might as well lay out the few, recently gathered, fragments of information, see if they could make sense of them.

“Sil, you said before I cranked up the skiff’s beacon, the winds got stronger and whatever was keeping this little isle of serenity maintained started to waver, yeah?”

“That’s right,” she said. “Cross-chop picked up out of nowhere. Cloud shell started getting wrinkled. Not a peep from our equipment about a shift.”

“That lines up with when we yanked the other shard and moved the statue,” Lukas said.

“Yeah. We throw the shard back to the serpents, and they back off…”

“Damn strange behavior,” Chantil said with a fixed, faraway look.

“Few minutes later these skies calm back down.”

“Damn strange coincidence.” Wilcox added.

“So, at a minimum, we have a piece of tech that interacts with the local weather. And is coveted by serpents and specifically protected.”

“Which they simply don’t do,” Chantil added. “Serpents that size don’t horde items. They hunt, they nest and whelp, then they move on. It’s completely aberrant behavior.”

Kor continued his role of moderator and guide with, “And these shards can sense each other and draw a guiding line between pieces with enough motivation and improvisation on the human end.”

“Maybe that’s the trick?” Wilcox asked. “If the Virtue could manipulate the signal-scape, then its shattered pieces are now interacting with the areas where they ended up. Maybe that shard is pushing out this bubble of calm, working on a wavelength we aren’t attuned to.”

“Which possibly explains the serpents’ affinity for it,” Chantil said. “Whatever signal the shard produces, the serpents are attracted to it. All skybound creatures have some level of interaction with the sound-scape, whether for navigation or communication. If we can improvise a means of reading the shards’ signals, why not the natural world as well? Especially with the biological deviance inherent to upwell storms.”

“Shouldn’t we be asking these questions with Nem here?” Lukas asked.

“No, because this ain’t an inquisition.” Kor said with tolerate-no-guff firmness. Lukas gave him a conceding wave, meaning no harm.

Not yet, anyway.

“As for her…could be just the storm and being too deep too long,” Silja said. “I’ve seen it before. She’s been working too many hours and N/Cs can burn out like light bulbs. Reading all that signal scrambles them up.”

Wilcox nodded at this and said, “Happened a lot on Coalition ships during the War, since we always flying with lean crews. Some babble and displacement and confusion might be Nem getting off easy. I knew of multiple N/Cs getting tossed into confinement after long escape hauls, all mad as a loon.”

Chantil said nothing to this, though her narrowed eyes and mouth in a hard line suggested she wouldn’t write it off that easily. She swirled her cup of tea and said, “Our overriding question is this: How much do we attribute to the upwell storm and how much do we speculatively assign to the Virtue and its scattered tech.”

“Hard to diagnose,” Wilcox said, “When the two are so intertwined. The upwell storm began right after the Virtue went down. Or, was defeated, rather.”

“I find it hard to believe that’s a pure coincidence,” Kor said.

Wilcox continued, “Or if so, surely the two systems have fed into each other over the intervening years, making the precise timing irrelevant.”

Another pause of contemplation.

“Not enough data,” Chantil said. She didn’t specify as to which topic. Probably no need.

Nods around the table on that point.

“So, we keep eyes and ears open,” Kor said, wanting to wrap up this line of thought since it wasn’t going anywhere solid. “We got time on this. Not much and its drifting away. But we got time.”

If the storm and the Virtue’s odd tech were feeding off each other, time would fade the storm’s power. That, at least, was clear from the softening weather and shrinking bounds of too-dangerous skies. No harm in waiting a little while longer to see if their explorations shook anything else out.

“So, what’s our next move?” Lukas asked. “Ideally lower on the narrow-escape-Lukas-shoot-that-thing scale.”

“If I may be self-serving,” Chantil said, “We have the coordinates for a large island nearby. If the numbers bear out, it’s potential colony material.”

Kor agreed. “Yeah, Doc, I’m thinking so. Go back to normal exploration for a few days. If that island works out, we’ll secure another solid payout from the bounties back in Gloria.” The target was a close match to a sizable, and unsettled, pre-storm island. Couple hundred miles from where it was twenty years ago, but a close match. “Take advantage of this calm spot overnight, strange as it may be, then ride out and move on.”

Aside from all the questions left on the table, it almost sounded like a proper plan.

* * *

Silence. There’s a pure moment of nothing between sleep and wakefulness, the flatlined boundary where your dreams fade away but before the surrounding ambient noise rose to seize your attention for the day. Like the beat before the song begins, it’s banished and gone once you notice it.

Nem reached over and flicked on the softer, bunk-side light, then half buried her face in a pillow, squinting against the light and listening. The ship thrummed with the sounds of a nighttime hover, the turbines singing their faint duet through metal and internal air alike. Mellow hums pulsed through the Wink and Smile like heartbeats and breaths, the sigh of ventilation, the gurgle of water. An artificial life harmonizing into a familiar background tune. No footfalls or muted buzz of talk or clank of work threaded their way through the walls. Nem guessed it was past midnight.

She sat up, sloughing off an immense amount of sleep, shirt clingy, air too warm and stagnant. How long was she out? A day and some change? Probably needed it after what happened but she gave a disapproving frown all the same. She hated losing any sense of time.

Better recalibrate.

Her notebook sat on the stand next to her bed, grinning open from a pen in the middle. Nem removed the pen but didn’t look at the most recent entry. A bunch of questions and mysteries that were multiplying on their own, their signals amplifying. She shoved the book into a drawer and out of sight.

The temptation to visit the flight deck and take a quick listen to the sounds of the skies quivered through her head. Not the shard, no. The normal mix.

No. Not just yet.

She pulled on fresh clothes and left her cabin. It was a conscious effort to turn left in the corridor, away from the flight deck. The cargo hold instead, for a different, softer sort of comfort. A couple stops on the way, most importantly the galley, where she plucked one of the dwindling supply of chilled, fresh (sort of) apples. Plenty of evidence of a common meal lingered in the room, with the scent of chicken spiced to overcompensate for bland efficiency the most prominent. A small pang of missing out on that chimed in her thoughts.

Nem stepped onto the catwalk over the hold, bare feet sinking slightly against the gridded metal. The structure creaked from Silja hanging from one of the support bars below, rolling through a set of pull-ups.

“Morning,” Nem called down, her voice its normal timbre. Good.

Silja dropped to the deck and said, “Hey. Cat’s around here somewhere.”

Nem clicked her tongue over the stacks of the cargo hold and padded down the stairs, stopping three steps from the bottom and taking a seat. She gathered signals from the scene lit by faint utility lights. The skiff was moved and stained on the rear. There was a new, long item in the hold that drew her eye. It was covered in a tarp and secured into the grid of supplies. So, they found a worthwhile piece of loot or salvage. Good to know her efforts paid off.

After a time, long enough to reduce the apple to ruins, Stormy trotted up from some hidden place within the stacked supplies and aggressively rubbed his face against her shins. Despite Nem’s best efforts, he didn’t care to wander up near the crew quarters, favoring the cargo hold and hanging around Wilcox in the engine room. That’s feline gratitude for you. Still, the cat climbed into Nem’s lap and settled in. A stretch of companionable silence followed, broken by the huffs of Silja’s exercise routine and Stormy’s rumbling purr.

Then Nem shivered, though it was far from cold, the warmth from outside seeping through the hull and joining forces with the nearby idle engine blocks. Stormy sat upright in her lap and fixed his gaze in the air above them, eyes tracing nothing at all. Nem almost dismissed the first as her imagination and the second as a bug. Then she saw a glimmer of light play and flow under the tarp covering the new acquisition at the rear of the hold. She gave a start, then tried to focus on the light, but it was gone, perhaps never there.

Silja was between sets, canteen in hand, and gave Nem a brief, askance look. Something which was getting mighty old from the rest of the crew. Even if it might be deserved of late. Silja either realized this or Nem let fly a slight glare. Regardless, the pilot tried to shrug it off with a tight smile and a drink from her canteen.

After a moment, Nem said, “Sometimes there’s a…feeling to the air in here. Sometimes the observation deck. Sometimes up top. All over, really.”

“Yeah, well,” Silja said. “This ship’s weird.”

“How do you mean?” That was the first time Nem heard it put so bluntly.

Silja looked around, as if talking about someone behind their back. True enough, in this case.

“She’s shaped weird. Interior space doesn’t match her exterior profile. It’s hard to see from the inside, and I don’t really notice it much anymore. But the design is…I don’t know. Weird.”

“Like there should be more space, but you have no idea where it’d go.” Nem would defer to Silja on this. She herself only knew two ships in detail. The other jobs she took between the Wink and Smile and Lost Among Friends were short-term deals.

“Yeah, and we don’t notice it because we’re under-crewed. Cushy amount of space for all of us. Ship this size should have at least ten and Kor gets by with five, plus a half with Chantil.”

Nem gave the cargo hold another hard look. Stormy mirrored her, following another unseen target through the air.

“But maybe it’s just my imagination,” Silja said with a shrug. “After crawling through a few of the utility spaces while helping out Wilcox, it could just be the tech and other guts of the ship taking up space.” She sat on the deck and rolled onto her back with the resigned sigh of self-inflicted physical work.

“Yeah, maybe,” Nem agreed, attention trailing off and back to the odd feeling laying over the hold. It seemed to radiate from the new addition, false lights aside. Nem stood to investigate, evicting Stormy from her lap, and making her way through the cleared lanes between the crates and boxes and spare parts.

Nem saw the impressions of a statue through the tarp. Laid out on the cargo bay’s deck, the statue put in a fine imitation of an oversized coffin, the covering like an Ossporian funeral drape, whether for northern burial or southern burning.

“Hell of a find, that one,” Silja called over, though she was now obscured by the crates between them. She went back to another set of exercises, her breaths like a rhythmic beat to Nem’s steps.

Nem unhooked the tarp’s securing points and pulled it back, folding it over the strap at the statue’s waist.

The Three Spirits were symbols of the Orventian Empire. To some on board this statue was something lost. To others, something brought down and defeated. To Nem, this serene face meant nothing at all. Just a holdover from a world order she never saw beyond the ruins and stories and scars worn by her elders. Indistinct memories of evading the War flickered in her head, not real enough to be anything but false creations or the reconstructions of childhood after the fact.

Nem held back a surprised gasp when a pale, rose light glimmered from a puncture on the statue’s hip. She reached in and traced a finger along the inner edge, easing around a few sharpened points of metal. A touch of warmth gave her pause. Nem knelt and saw a fingernail sized piece of crystal lodged in the avorium of the statue. A thin slice of the same material as the shard from the Virtue.

I shouldn’t.

She did, pressing her index finger against the crystal. It was sharp but not enough to cut skin. No ill echoes of her previous experience rang in her head. Only a strange sensation of peace simmering through her nerves like long-awaited good news.

Silja puffed through her exercise, properly distracted.

The fragment came loose easily and provoked no further reaction when she held it in her palm.

Nem stood and re-covered the statue, checking the securing lines with a tug. She bid good night to Silja, pet Stormy once more, and returned to her cabin. Maybe she would put a new entry into her notebook after all.


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