Last Call

Chapter One 

The rental hopper crested a low hill, engines straining against the weight of its two passengers more out of general protest than deficiency. They passed a guide light, a spike of metal topped with a bulb that flared periodically, denoting their distance inland. The winds coming off the skies whistled through the industrial ruins at their back, carrying the scent of rusted metal and moss. Kor kept the craft low and slow, not trusting its lift over land, in the way of most sky-bound captains. A strange contradiction, being more comfortable with nothing below rather than something firm, but there it was.

 “Should be just ahead,” Silja said over Kor’s shoulder.

The salvage yard spread across a nearby field, a big square lot among the patchwork of such plots above Hub, where the land was too windswept or ground down to be worth planting. A few dozen ships stood or hulked or heaped in generally organized rows, piles of tech in varying states of functionality and salability. By Kor’s quick assessment, at least half might be sky worthy with a reasonable amount of work. The rest were likely earmarked as parts for the more promising acquisitions, keeping a portion of the salvage supply chain in-house. Wheel ruts carved emerging paths between a handful of promising cutter-sized ships and a warehouse-sized storage building on the far side of the lot. Another free-standing building of neat and formerly pretty brick and mortar stood at the center, shaped in a wind-deflecting form, two stories. Nice. Maybe salvage itself, as most things in the Northwest Frontier were.

Silja muttered to herself behind his back. Whether a resolution as the next step toward her ultimate goal came into sight, or some other observation, Kor couldn’t catch it above the whine of the hopper’s engines. A misting rain filled the air, lacking substance to get anything in motion wet, and the clouded over skies pushed the day into an even earlier winter twilight. The salvage lot lay still, any workers seeming to have closed up shop early. A paved landing pad near the warehouse was empty save for a single skiff covered in a gray tarp. A few lights shone within the central building, hopefully from the man they were here to talk to.

Kor circled the hopper around to the leeward side of the building and set the craft down near the front door. An overhang stood to the left of the door, covering a slim hopper bike and a four-wheel cart splattered with mud. Their own hopper’s landing struts sank into ground saturated from the recent days of rain.

“We’re just here to talk, right Sil?” Kor asked as they dismounted. He clicked his tongue as his boots squelched into spot of mud.

Silja glowered at the door ahead and pointedly patted her coat for her gun. Like Kor, she was cloaked in a long black duster, though hers ended higher on the calf, a reasonable buffer from concerns of dragging the fringes through the mud and dirt. Her hair was freshly dyed, a bloody crimson, and uncovered against the weather.

“We’ll see,” she said. Silja strode up to the door and gave it a thorough knocking. A proper rain started up at that moment, drops hissing against the ground and pinging against the hulls of the collected ships.

A pale skinned, broad shouldered man answered the door. He was of a height with Silja and carried the look of a career greaser about him. Kor would place the two of them even in a fight, if it came to that. Despite the framing of dark cloaked strangers appearing out of the building rain, he looked comfortable enough to face them down.

“Good evening. Inrik Jensen?” Silja asked cheerily. She nailed the accent on his Skolad name, easy enough given she was half Skol herself. Better with honey than vinegar.

“Ja,” he said, not bothering to point out he was closed for the evening.

“Altani Gunship, third run Aura-class. Gold-brown hull plating. Weapons stripped. You got it from a Sunder intermediary less than a year ago. Designation: Last Call.”

Kor listened beyond Silja rattling off the ship’s details. For other footsteps in the house. For the whine of nearby ships. Aside from the increasing hiss of the rain, it was quiet.

“I have no such ship.”

“Of course. He was quite nice, I assume you sold him quickly. I kindly request you check your records as to who, Mr. Jensen, and I’ll be on my way.”

Inrik gave her a token moment of consideration before saying, “Hmm…No. Go away.”

Silja didn’t risk a foot and allowed him to slam the door in her face. A deadbolt clicked into place. Her pleasant smile held position on her face for a moment before melting into cold, hard fury.

“OK,” she whispered. She scratched a fingernail against the door. It was cheap wood, not very sturdy or expensive. Quite out of character with the solid brick construction of the house. A replacement. She reached into her coat and withdrew a blunt-nosed Durroan pistol.

Kor sighed and drew his weapon as well.

Silja took a step back and gave the door a quality kick-in. The cut-rate, glued timber didn’t put up much of a fight, but made a hell of a racket splintering inward. She shoved the door in with another kick. It slammed against the wall, hinges complaining mightily. Silja darted inside, coat trailing in her wake.

Kor swept into the building just behind Silja. Inrik was most of the way to some stashed weapon or other contingency plan when they yelled, “Stop!” in unison. He stopped and turned toward them with a mild scowl, as if this were an inconvenience rather than anything serious. Kor would prefer the former.

Once certain Silja held Inrik’s full attention, Kor quickly ran his eyes over the ground floor. As expected, it was the gently chaotic office of a salvage and restoration business. A few desks, a lot of shelves containing too much paperwork. A pair of side rooms, doors open, no motion or sound within. All in all, it carried the appearance of a legitimate business, though that only made it easier to hide any shadier transactions among the dull stuff. A stairway from above entered the room in the rear. No footfalls sounded on the second floor. No one came in as reinforcements.

“Didn’t even give me the chance to bribe you, mate,” Silja said.

Inrik slowly planted his palms down on a nearby desk, conceding his delicate position but still not looking too worried. He replied with a twisting string of Skol. Kor recognized a couple choice pieces of profanity.

Aura-class Altani gunship named Last Call,” Silja insisted, her voice crossed in shadows.

Kor glanced over the business licenses on the wall. A Hub sigil adorned the wall between a couple run-of-the-mill certificates. He looked for a couple mismatched mates, the in-plain-sight declarations of how tight Inrik was with the city on the cliffs below. Unless the codes had changed, it appeared they weren’t stepping on any toes attached to big feet. A small relief.

“I see you’re starting to remember,” Silja said. Aim steady. Voice steady.

“I may be. Might be easier to walk away, half-breed,” Inrik said.

“I ain’t looking for easy,” Silja said, letting the insult slide away.

Kor drew out a small pouch of coinage and tossed it to the desk. The weighty currency clanked temptingly, an assurance for Inrik and a reminder to Silja to keep it under control.

Silja nodded toward the pouch.

“Who did you sell my ship to?”

“Donated to the house,” he said with a hunch of his shoulders, shrugging off this spot of trouble to show up at his business. “To clear up some misunderstandings. Maybe six months back.”

Kor assumed he kept up a string of such donations. Neighborhood aside, Inrik’s yard was increasingly prime real estate above the rim and over the city. Eventually the scrap and salvage ops among the broken down factory districts will clear out enough space. Better to think about that than the implications of their next step.

“You do anything to him?” Silja asked.

“Just a few repairs, tune-ups,” he replied, relaxed in the way of knowing this was now someone else’s problem. “As you said, he was quite nice.”

Silja nodded and started to back her way to the broken doorway. Kor was out before her and loosened the hopper from the deepening mud.

“Maybe buy a better door, yeah?” she said before turning away from the shop. She swept a leg over the rear seat in a flurry of rain-deflecting fabric. Kor set the hopper upward as soon as she was seated, blinking against the rain. Should have dropped the extra cash for a covered model.

Silja settled against Kor’s back and was silent as he took the hopper back toward the city. He flew higher as they passed through the industrial ruins, the cleared avenue a dark canyon with cliffs of crumbling walls and broken smokestacks. Lights shone among the ruins, some artificial white, others flickering fire orange. The rain turned to wild, wind-swirled mist as they crossed the edge of the plateau and into the updraft column that buoyed the vertical port. The hopper responded by becoming less terrible in handling. Kor didn’t want to admit it was better than his skiff.

They weaved through the evening traffic in the heights of Hub, dodging shiny yachts and speedy, covered cabs buzzing among the brightly lit former Imperial neighborhoods. Kor found an empty public docking platform and settled the hopper down for a moment. Looking through the grated platform, he could see the entirety of the port stretch downward into the misty night.

“So. It’s in the Hub fleet now,” he said.

“Sounds that way,” Silja said. She sighed, though with resolve rather than resignation.

Kor rummaged through his memory of who he knew here in the city. Those ties that weren’t completely severed. It was a brief list, especially since it boiled down to knowing the extent of the city’s defense forces. A tall order, and at the moment he was coming up empty.

“We can start at the fleet yards,” he said. “Work the mechs and pilots. At least there we speak the language.”

“I get the feeling we’ll be buying a lot of drinks.”

“Good thing they pump out cheap swill here.”

“Small favors. Think we’ll do some ship-watching tomorrow? I’ll know him on sight, regardless of paint or tags.”

“I’ll get my scope ready.”

It was a thin enough plan to barely warrant the name, and not up to the task at hand. All they had to do was pick up a cold trail, find and then probably steal a military vessel from the prime city-state of the frontier, and get away clean.

Kor hoped Silja was certain when she said she wasn’t looking for easy.

Chapter Two

Fleet yards were always loud as hell. The collection of repair and refit jobs, dock sergeants shouting at their charges, and disembarking crews yelling after each other all reverberated off the enclosing metal walls. Located on the third terrace of the city and sprawled over and around the western wind-break wall, Hub’s fleet yards would give a military planner a headache at a glance and a panic attack under closer examination. While there were a few secured areas where Silja and Kor couldn’t just walk in as if they belonged, most of the operation was mixed in with surrounding public businesses, opportunistic or convenient as the case may be.

At least it was sheltered from the weather, the superstructure of the yards turning this section of the city into one massive hanger, the previously established streets of the third terrace swallowed up. The day’s incessant rains drummed against the roof dozens of feet above Silja’s head, and the streets and platforms of the yards were already locked into a lamp-lit evening.

Silja spent a miserable wet morning watching the port, a random shot in the dark to see if she could spot Last Call out among the swarm. No such luck was in the offering. She paced once more below the upper docking level. Her view wasn’t the best, as the fleet docking rows were one of those areas actually guarded from unofficial rabble like her. She could catch sight of the ships through gaps along the walkways all the same, a motley collection of styles and makes. Mostly cutters and gunships, crews of one to ten depending on the craft. From here, Hub’s fleet looked to be built out of old Imperial stock. Understandable, given the city’s history. But, like everything in the Northwest, the line-up was patched with a variety of former Coalition craft, sleek Altani builds like Last Call, or utilitarian and unadorned Durroan ships. A few exotic or custom craft stood out something fierce, each likely with a story as to how they found their way into this particular commission.

But no Last Call. Nothing on the lower docking platforms either, according to Kor’s first scouting report. Silja turned and followed the general flow of foot traffic. Rapidly fading puffs of breath swirled in the light winds above the milling crowds. They had slipped into the yards right before the late afternoon shift change, when the patrol crews would swap out. Most would be setting course straight to their preferred bars, unless aero-crew culture had shifted radically in her years away from halfway formal operations.

She paused at a public dock, though the access ramp was guarded by a pair of Hub port security dorks uniformed in faded yellow coats and carrying perfectly functional carbines. Down the ramp stood an Altani gunship that could pass for Last Call’s second cousin, different line but similar design cues. An Essence-class, with a curving main body and fin-like flares of wings and stabilizers. A two or three crew model, with a rotating turret on top, or bottom if the pilot and gunner were game to fly upside down.

The guards gave her your standard move-along look and Silja complied once she absorbed a few more details. A mechanic crew worked on the underside of the engine block, light finishing work, not a lot of mess. The hull was completely stripped of paint, making the ship appear nude in its pale metallic shell and doing nothing to hide the long welding seam on the starboard side. It was not yet rebranded with the city’s insignia.

Maybe I’ll settle for a replacement if this trail goes cold, Silja thought to herself as she walked away. She probably could have gotten some further details out of Inrik as to who among the Hub fleet took possession of Last Call, but knew that line only led into a maze of bureaucracy and faceless clerks and stymied requests for information.

Besides, it’s not like she had proof of ownership papers for Last Call. It wasn’t exactly a typical acquisition. There was just no one with the authority to tell her otherwise.

Silja met up with Kor at the center of the fleet yards’ commercial row, where the previous neighborhood continued to thrive among the martial operations. A half-circle of little six chair eateries blasted steam and smoke and spices across the small square. Hub banners snapped from lampposts, splashes of honey-gold cloth emblazoned with the city’s spoked wheel sigil.

“Nothing?” he asked. Like Silja, Kor ditched the dark business look of the long coats for his flight jacket free of insignia and affiliation. Just a couple independent pilots looking to relax with their kind. Service tattoos covered, though.

“Nope.”

“Guess we’ll move onto the human element.”

Silja patted an inner pocket through her coat, feeling out a purse of coinage destined to be transmuted into liquor and then, hopefully, into information. It was getting on to the proper hour for such things.

“Hope you’re thirsty,” she said.

They hit up a couple small places first, hole-in-the-wall spots, the first too quiet but with a decent chicken stew. The second was livelier but turned out to be a mechanic bar with the frustrating combination of perhaps knowing of the ship in question and being utterly tight-lipped about their charges. Mechanics usually only bragged to other mechanics.

The third place Kor took one look around the floor, gave a start at a group sitting to one side, and hustled Silja out in a controlled panic.

“Let’s try somewhere else,” he said back out on the street.

“Old friends?”

“Exactly old enough to not be friends, yeah. No need to jog their memories.”

They ended up at Tin and Tire, a big, two story place, the clientele a fair mix of freelancers and fleet crew, the former making the trip for the atmosphere, perhaps to rub shoulders with their more bound but more consistently paid colleagues. Silja could tell the two populations apart with a glance. Hub Fleet members carried a certain swagger to themselves. A feeling of confidence and comfort, of knowing where your home was and being well-equipped in keeping it secure.

Must be nice.

The place was starting to fill up but the air still tasted clear enough to breathe. Sets of fans built into the walls created a front-to-back airflow and made decent headway against the build-up of smoke and the collected scents of whole lot of folk just trying to unwind. People clustered around the tables at the center of the main floor, where a variety of games played out for those willing to lose their wages against poor luck.

“Let’s start with the tables, get a feel for the place,” Kor suggested.

“Try not to win too much, yeah?” Silja said as they descended the entry stairway.

Kor gave her an insufferable shrug and a grin.

“Some men are just luckier than others, Sil.”

Silja slid into an open stool at a spin table. A cylindrical piece of polished metal occupied the center of the table, a stack of three turbine-like blades encased in labeled rings. Originally improvised from spare parts, the wheels were intentionally finicky with their odds, sometimes favoring certain numbers over others. To say nothing of the house tweaking the fan blades during off hours to keep the regulars guessing. Silja placed light bets on the center wheel, not feeling ambitious or lucky enough to risk the upper and lower wheels. The dealer revved up the wheels, making a fine racket, and the scouting job resumed.

Through the first hour working the room, Silja could place the tone as one of a collective held breath, though not necessarily for the same thing. Munitions trade was still strangled out of Osspor. The Night Hawks called a full mustering of their fleet and then…silence. Disputed rumors about a colony out towards the Triplets breaking down in their third year. Gloria pulling away a lot of unattached crew and freelancers. That last one Silja confirmed herself a few times, trying to bring along whoever she was working around to what she wanted to know.

And then there was the Ferron storm. Everyone knew someone looking to cash in on the storm clearing soon, knew of a venture hiring ships and crew in preparation for the rush. Kor told them to play coy with anything related to Ferron. He believed in their head-start. They certainly earned it with that whole buoy nonsense. Silja’s doubts weren’t over the idea itself. She looked forward to going through the storm walls. Not every day you got the chance to see so much new sky. Leave what you knew behind, if only for a little while.

No, her doubts were on Kor himself. He was holding something back, but only for a little while longer. Like an announcement. Chantil knew. Silja initially thought she and the captain were a thing. Which was fine. But no. She was too distant, too detached from the rest of the crew. Maybe that’s why she got a preview of whatever Kor was really up to.

Silja had the feeling she’d find out soon enough.

Time passed as it tends to do in places like this and Silja’s supply of local currency dwindled away, the Hub discs flying their way back into the hands of the house. She got talked up by a fine-looking petty officer from one of the fleet corvettes, and on another night might have investigated further. But she was looking for a different sort of fellow, you know?

After a time she settled on one end of the long main bar, simply to get something for herself instead of this damn search for a golden rivet in the scrap yard. A weathered voice to her right saved her from any potential wallowing.

“What’s the good word, Red?”

The automatic nickname, even from complete strangers, caught her attention as much as her real name. Maybe she should try a different color, throw everyone off, herself included. Silja turned in place and replied with what she hoped was a pleasant face.

“Just sitting still until the next one,” she said, leaning into pilot chatter.

He looked on the far side of fifty. Silja couldn’t see any rank insignia, he was dressed down like everyone else here, but he had the bearing of a longtime veteran. He was a pilot though. That much Silja could tell with a glance. Something in the eyes, a look she recognized in herself. The look of staring into the distance for too long, of searching out the faintest hint of motion against an ever-shifting backdrop.

He nodded and said, “You got a seat waiting for you, or are you looking?”

“Got one. Shared. Still getting a feel for her.”

“Good to hear.”

“I see you have a couple fresh ones over there,” Silja said. Two kids sat on the far side of him, one boy, one girl, both minding his every word but looking pretty damn proud of themselves. Some manner of pilot training officer, then.

“That’s right,” He tried and failed to keep a beam of pride contained. “I’m willing to call them good enough.”

“Thought I recognized that glow,” she hoisted her drink. “Congrats, then.”

Three replies, a toast complete. Likely one of many for them tonight.

“We’re minting them in twos and threes these days,” the officer said. “Hell, I was one of thirty.”

“Well, when I was their age, let’s just say there were a lot of open seats and not enough time to go through a whole…process.”

“I gotcha and no grudge here. Everyone’s a former something.”

Hell, why not. “Speaking of, I got a friend in the fleet I’m trying to track down.”

“Yeah? ’Round here?”

“Sounds like it. Altani gunship. Aura-class. Designation: Last Call. Recently signed up with you guys.”

Last Call. Sounds pretty ‘Lition to me.”

“Everyone’s a former something.”

He gave her a one-beat laugh, conceding the point. “I may know it, though I’m curious as to why any component of the fleet is any of your damn business, Red.”

While his tone was light, a shot of pride hit Silja harder than any watered-down drink so far tonight. No, not going to hide this piece of her past.

“That ship, flown by me, was part of Heath’s fleet. Part of the desertion wings that stood down and saved this city.”

That was a sore subject among the seasoned pilots of Hub. The only time, throughout the War and Dissolution, when their spotless record of relative safety was put into doubt. Silja wasn’t going to back down from the last time she did the right thing without doubts haunting her afterward. And if that got her in another fight, well, that’s a price she’d pay.

But not this time. He raised his glass and gave her a nod of respect.

“Some might brag we could have held you guys off no matter what. I don’t hold with that.”

“Strange that both me and the ship have circled back around to Hub.”

“This city has that ability.” He mulled over his words for a moment and said, “I remember your ship. There was a push and pull over who got it. Sat idle for a while ‘til it got assigned to a wing.”

“You gonna tell me the who and the where?”

“Naw. You don’t have that much credit.”

“Sure.” Wasn’t going to be that easy. “How about the last time you saw him?”

A more genuine pause of consideration, brow furrowed. “Too long.”

Her heart seized up. He read her expression and held out a soothing hand.

“I’d have heard about a ship going down. Could be I missed him, could be a longer mission to the outer holdings.”

A quality tease, there. Silja knew he knew more about the ship, but formality and nominal state secrecy held back any more. The chat faded into regular old small talk before dissipating altogether, though they parted with a friendly word.

Not much later, she and Kor stepped back out into the streets of the fleet yards. The trail remained thin. Silja didn’t know how much patience she had left for trawling fleet rumor mills, blindly casting out feeler signals.

“How’d you do?” Silja asked.

“Hub’s fleet’s starting to feel a little fractious. A couple commanders pulling in different directions. Seems to be an echo of the city’s council.”

Silja nodded and added, “Quality acquisitions like Last Call being contested is the sense I got.”

“Nothing specific on the ship itself?”

“Close enough to taste. One training officer definitely knew of him. In the fleet and still alive, but couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me much more.”

“I think maybe we…”

Rapid footsteps from behind cut Kor off. They turned at the call of “Hey, Red.” It was one of the kids from before.

“Yeah?”

“L.T. said to tell you ‘Vision’s Overlook’. Said you’d know what that was.” She withdrew back to the Tin and Tire at Silja’s acknowledging nod, her task seen to.

“Sounds Imperial,” Kor said as they made their way back to the hopper. The enclosed space of the fleet yards gave way to the open streets of third terrace. Street lamps shimmered with halos against the damp, cold night air. Evening activity fell into a general quiet, the vibrant commerce left behind for disjointed block houses and closed-up workshops.

“One of the old clubs?”

“Yeah. Probably up on first terrace.”

“Can you get in?” There was no way Silja could navigate through a place like that. And no way she could hold her temper or tongue around the sort of insulting nostalgia that went on inside.

Kor waited a moment before puffing out a breath.

“I can probably talk my way in, depending on what’s going on that day.”

“That day?”

A resigned shrug.

“Decadent imperialist.”

She and Kor reached the hopper, parked among dozens of small craft on a public platform a little too far of a walk from everything. She jostled open the storage compartment and tossed Kor his coat. The damp night promised to resume raining, maybe before they could make it back up to the Wink’s hanger.

Silja turned in place as she shrugged into her coat, giving the darkened streets around them a quick once-over. A shadow of a figure watched them from afar, or so Silja thought. Probably nothing, but maybe not.

“Got an audience,” she said as they mounted up. The hopper coughed once before the engines lifted half a foot from the platform. She glanced back at their new shadow and spotted an orange light flickering in their hand. Too fleeting and artificial to be a lit cigarette or something else innocuous.

“Let’s get lost and quick,” Silja said.

It took about ten seconds after they were airborne for the first attacker to side-swipe their hopper.

Chapter Three

Metal crashed against metal and Silja grit her teeth against the impact. She held on through a follow-up shift in acceleration as Kor pulled their craft further into the open transit lanes. The shock wore off in a few seconds and Silja’s atrophied combat senses kicked into gear. Glancing blow to the back of their hopper. Three hostiles on harass circuits, their drivers and craft little more than shadows and noise lost in the night and rush of air. One settled into a guard position between them and their recently departed landing platform. Another arced back around from the first attack, readying another pass. A third waited above, watching, ready to react.

“Damage?” Kor shouted back at her.

Silja looked behind. The plating around their port lift engine was snarled up something fierce, the fan blades squealing out of alignment. She leaned up against Kor’s back and reported, “Compromised lift on port side. A disable and drop hit.”

Kor chose their only valid direction: down into the misty night, into the lower levels of the city. With a damaged lift engine, their pursuers’ hoppers possessed better vertical, especially with single riders instead of two. The only way they could stay ahead was to dive at speed with gravity assistance. Which, not incidentally, meant fewer patrols, a greater chance of getting away with something, and a lower chance of survival.

“Well, at least we know we’re on the right track!” Kor said as they dived into the depths of Hub, sounding a little too pleased with the way things were going.

“Silver linings, Kor!”

A wind-chilled damp pressed against Silja’s face and cut through her coat. Fourth terrace flew by, the dense, uneven arrays of residential windows shining like a scattering of gold and white in the night. The surrounding port became more improvised and hazardous to fly through as lights became fewer in number. Directly below them a rectangular shadow resolved into a cargo freighter without a single signal light on, and Kor pulled the hopper hard to port to dodge around it.

That wouldn’t even fly in Knucklebone.

Kor leveled out their dive, seeking an opening to slip away or ditch their ride and get away on foot in the city. Silja drew and primed her pistol, judging them in loose enough territory to level a response. With the freighter as a distraction and a funnel, their pursuers weaved around the ship in a predictable arc. She turned in place and gave them three shots, pistol barking away, mechanisms smooth. The slow burn of drinks and egging on other pilots to give up minor state secrets took its toll. Adrenaline and old training could only balance out so much alcohol and weariness. She missed her mark, though one shot did ping off the leader’s craft.

That must have signaled to the lead hopper to stop playing nice. It caught up to them, weaving on the approach to foul Silja’s aim. He swung in close and quick, faster than Kor could pull their own ride away. Its side casings pounded into their hopper’s rear, just behind Silja’s legs. Starboard side this time, a substantial hit that almost tossed Silja from her seat had she not held on for dear life. Kor quickly put more space between them, but the crunch of metal announced the damage had been done.

They needed to get out and away now. Silja could feel their hopper was unstable and a second whine trailed behind them. There was no sustaining this chase, though Kor took them into another wobbling, terrifying dive to open the distance back up.

The arc of Hub’s fifth terrace unfurled around them in all its messy, broken down glory. They would have to stop here, somewhere. Sixth terrace was less a city district and more a junkyard that made Knucklebone look organized and proper. And below that it was a long, empty drop into the Churn.

“We have to ditch,” Kor said.

“You’re clear behind.”

“Right.”

Kor cut forward thrust and all three of their pursuers blitzed by them. They were quick, though, and were already turning in response. Silja emptied her pistol into one at the peak of his turn. A cry of pain and a wobble of the hopper was her reward. He dipped toward the nearest open platform, ill-lit by dirty street lamps. He was in control enough to make a landing, which was fine. She didn’t need a death on her hands tonight.

Their hopper angled dangerously downward and Kor pointed them away from the fallen pursuer and into the curve of fifth terrace. Disorganized platforms emerged at random from the cliffs, the streets crowded with improvised construction and a general lack of scheme and building code. A clear section of street emerged in the misty night and would have to be good enough.

“Brace!”

They hit the street hard, bouncing once, the undercarriage of the hopper absorbing much of the blow and shattering into a trail of fresh scrap. Metal dragged against stone and they careened to a stop against the front of a closed and barred up shop. A cloud carrying a wash of dust and the scent of engine fluids flowed over them. Silja leapt off the hopper and fumbled with her pistol, trying to reload but her hands shaking too badly for such precision.

“You OK?” Kor asked, slow to dismount and staggering a few steps as he walked off the impact. He scanned the murky night sky above the street for their pursuers.

Silja gave up and jammed the gun and magazine back into her coat pockets.

“Yeah, yeah I just—,” she shook herself once, which seemed to steady her nerves. “Let’s get out of here.” The crash had already drawn a few onlookers, too many eyes on them, though no one approached to offer help.

“Right. Let’s head inward, find a lift up.”

Silja spared a glance for the hopper. It was a total loss. Definitely not getting their deposit back. The locals would clean up the mess, the easy salvage falling right on their doorstep.

They took the scenic route through narrow old alleyways, fifth terrace’s slums quick to conceal them from any further pursuit. Silja sensed the occasional set of eyes on them and they disturbed a few alley cats, but no further trouble presented itself.

Soon they arrived at the cliff face, the lights of fourth terrace’s platforms shining above their heads through the murky night. Public cargo lifts were set into the stone of the plateau, taking advantage of a series of slanted wind-carved tunnels behind Hub’s terraces. Not the most glamorous transit option, but they wouldn’t get swarmed. This particular lift was idle and waiting.

They stepped aboard and closed the old metal doors. Kor shoved the control level to second terrace. The squeal and rattle of old chains echoed against the angled elevator shaft’s stone walls. A fine racket, but not enough to drown them out.

Silja slumped against the cage-like walls of the lift’s cart, feeling the last couple days weighing her down a few times over. “Thoughts?” she asked.

“Aggressive discouragement,” Kor replied. He took up a similar position opposite of her. “Probably a result of Inrik passing word up the line.”

“Seemed pretty unofficial to me.” Silja rolled her neck, already feeling a twinge from the crash. A different sort of hangover awaited her tomorrow morning.

“Yeah, comes back around to word of multiple factions within the home fleet. But why Last Call, specifically?”

“Well, I think he’s worth fighting for, but he’s nothing special. Just a nice gunship as far as Hub’s concerned.”

“Gotta be something else, then. Something they don’t want us stumbling into.”

“You feeling this is too hot?” Silja asked, almost too quiet to be heard over the rattle of chains. She kept telling herself she would go to any lengths to get her ship back. But now doubts scratched at the back of her mind.

“No,” Kor said without hesitation. “But let’s cool it for a day. I’ll see what this Orventian club angle is.”

“Back to ship watching, I think.” Random shots were better than nothing.

The noise lessened as they ascended, but the lift didn’t stop until second terrace. Kor rolled open the door onto a well-lit and quiet backstreet, a whole different face of the Hub.

“Think the same dealer will rent us another hopper?” Kor asked.

“Somehow I don’t think so.”

Chapter Four

Kor paused at the base of the steps, the efficient, business-like traffic of Hub’s first terrace flowing smoothly through the street behind and air above him. Hub’s grandiose central plaza and its monolithic Orventian buildings, once the regional Imperial headquarters, lay a few minutes’ walk to the east. Golden banners rippled from every tall lamppost and building. It was getting on to sunset and hopper cabs buzzed about first terrace’s wide avenues, taking government functionaries and upper-crust merchants to their homes.

The Overlook’ declared the narrow, raised black letters against a recently cleaned white façade. They dropped ‘Vision’ from the name, apparently, shedding the overt Imperial spirit. Double brass doors inlaid with geometric deco patterns awaited Kor’s approach, metal gleaming in the bright white lamps that flanked the club’s entrance. The club stood on the  outward side of the main avenue, the far side of the building likely containing a titular view of the city’s port and the skies beyond.

Kor’s hesitation wasn’t a matter of fear. Rather, it was the slow process of dredging up a former self. That hotshot young pilot, academy credentials and aspiration in hand. Before the disillusionment of a losing war, the dissolution of what was, and the decade of improvisation and wandering since.

Probably overthinking it.

The doors opened smoothly, revealing an entryway decorated in understated elegance. Dark imported hardwoods, tiled floors, a few choice pieces of artwork. Two large be-suited fellows flanked a second set of doors inside and Kor could feel their quick assessing looks. He came unarmed, cleaned up, fresher pair of boots so as to not track in any dirt. A steel-haired middle-aged woman greeted him from behind a reception podium with a well-practiced, gracious smile.

Kor felt that simply walking in as if he belonged was half the battle, but knew his winning smile wouldn’t be enough, nor was this the sort of place to flash an old service tattoo. Fortunately, he still had his old jacket patch from the Imperial Fleet, however fleeting his participation in formal operations was. He certainly never possessed the rank for these sort of places when they were active.

He laid his weathered jacket patch atop the podium. Seventh Imperial Fleet, 44th Wing, To Slice Across the Skies, in Glory and Grace. An authentic layer of grime dulled the colors, the fallen Orventian Imperial Command Ship Unified In Our Common Purpose against a faded blue background. The hostess gave it a proper look, turning it over in her hands like the minor relic it was.

“Good afternoon. I would like to see what you all have to offer.”

His voice sounded odd to his ears, lacking that absorbed frontier drawl, falling back to the crisp, proper tones of his academy days. His Imperial days. How easy it was to change into old clothes.

“Certainly, Mister…” she prompted while handing back the patch. No code words, no hails. Not needed.

“Captain Kor Icomb, currently freelancer.” No need to keep a secret. He was probably on the record somewhere, if they cared to look.

“Vision and Virtue, Captain,” she said. She nodded to one of the guards, who opened an inner door, then motioned for Kor to follow her through with decidedly more genuine smile.

They entered the main hall and Kor stopped in his tracks. The Overlook impressed immediately, with most of the inner wall containing a grand curving window that granted a crystal-clear view over Hub’s descending port. Placed so high in the city, the club had clear sightlines out into the southern skies. Kor might have whistled. It was one hell of a sight for a ground-bound spot.

A central bar watched over everything near the entrance and the floor stepped down to a lounge area at the base of the grand window. Two adjoining dining rooms flanked the main hall, one curtained off, the other modestly filled with tables occupied by groups of twos and threes and fives. A lounge singer trilled through a cascading, upbeat tune in the open dining hall, accompanied by a piano.

 “The bar and lounge are open seating,” the hostess said after waiting for the effect to wear off. Clearly Kor’s was a common reaction to first-time visitors. “There are plenty of tables available in the dining room to our left should you wish to take a meal. Enjoy, Captain.”

Left to his own devices, Kor went up to a bartender dressed in your world-wide typical black vest/white shirt number.

“Whisky. Neat.”

“Could you be more specific, sir?”

Kor ran his eyes over the rainbow array of bottles available behind the bar. No doubt there were more in another room, perhaps a cellar stacked high with who-knows-how-much.

“Surprise me but don’t beggar me.”

“Understood,” he said, catching his meaning.

He received a midrange vintage, local but refined. Likely from a distillery further in the Hub plateau. Kor nodded his appreciation to the bartender.

Kor was a little sore almost everywhere from the chase and crash last night. The bandages around his left arm itched. Beyond that he felt somewhat underdressed. This whole scene was a little too nice for some freelancer captain like him. He was pretty certain the stern fifty-something couple across the room were Muin and Jirra Golenst, a husband-wife duo who traded places on a Council Seat. Yet, here and there, he saw others looking slightly out of place, but not at all rejected by the better dressed attendees.

Looking around, Kor was at a loss as to what he was supposed to accomplish here. This wasn’t like the watering holes yesterday. Folk kept to themselves, especially since Kor was obviously a first-timer here. A see and been seen sort of place, instead of the unwinding, cavorting sort of place. He wandered about the central room, eyeing the artwork or freshly restored railings and tables, sipping his whisky all the while.

Despite strategically placed candles and very out-of-season floral bouquets, The Overlook smelled of adhesive and sawdust, evidence of a rapid renovation in the air. A quick peek into the curtained-off room revealed a space still under construction. Matching tables lined one wall, their surfaces covered by protective sheets, looking fresh and new. Wood construction but banded with shiny brass. Matching chairs stood in stacks nearby, upholstery looking a touch too fine. Most interesting was the canvas pinned over the western wall, just the right size to conceal a decal or Sigil.

An influx of money and purpose, then. This was a more dedicated game than the one played by the old officer clubs scattered across the frontier. Those were mere nostalgia scenes, stripped of much of their old imperialist symbolism, allowed to continue as a benign serving of halcyon days past. This didn’t feel like the past. This felt like the here and now and into the future. Kor always considered the people of Hub high-minded, but this was a little much even for them.

He drifted over to the centerpiece window and leaned against the polished wooden railing, wide enough to set down his empty glass. He traced his fingers against the railing and realized his answer. He didn’t need to talk up someone, trawling for information relating to Last Call. The Overlook itself, in all its grand elegance and presumption, was the answer. Here was a new order rising, in Hub with connections spreading outward across the Northwest Frontier. Last Call got absorbed into the new effort, somehow, a choice acquisition from the Hub fleet. Kor banished all doubt that the Wink and Smile’s recent altercations with those slick new ships was part of this game.

So, they had eyes on Ferron while building support here at the strongest port in the Northwest. But did they know what Kor knew about what lay beyond the fading storm walls? When some of them (as amorphous as them and they were) said ‘Vision and Virtue’, did they know the potential significance? He had to assume whoever directing all this did.

Kor was rescued from being lost in thought by a second drink arriving at his elbow, glass clunking against the flat railing. Drink delivered not by the wait staff, but by another patron. She was dressed in Hub fleet colors, muted gold, with a pair of wings on her right shoulder denoting a pilot of rank. She was about of age with Kor, a touch past thirty. Light brown skin, either the central Osspor nations or just the result of frontier mingling.

“Another drink, Captain Icomb?”

“Thank you kindly, Lieutenant…?”

“Clare Weiss.”

She held her own matching drink, both containing two fingers of pale brown liquor. Kor took up the left glass and caught the scent of windswept badlands and ancient spices.

“This is Ishemmi, isn’t it?” An old, inner Kural vintage.

“Good nose. They’re saving the best stuff for a later event.”

“I forgive you. When’s the real party?” Kor couldn’t help but sense he stood in the midst of a prologue.

“Next week. Invite only.”

“The occasion?”

“Invite only.”

“Pity, though this is more than enough for me.”

A pause, their eyes pulled outward toward the chaotic swirl of ships bustling about Hub’s port. Everything looked model-sized from here aside from the occasional stately cab or merchant lord’s yacht passing through the foreground. In the distance, Hub’s twin guardian destroyers glittered in the evening sunlight, each a nexus of activity themselves.

“Look at it all,” she mused, “So much motion and activity and blood and sweat and failure and triumph.”

“Price and reward of freedom,” Kor said. Believed every word, too.

“Sure,” she agreed. “But to what end?”

“It’s an end unto itself.”

Clare seemed to consider this and ended with a slight nod of concession.

“Until recently I was like you. An old hand, a remnant of what once was.”

“I think you wear our shared unfulfilled promise well.”

“Aye, same to you. We were in the sweet spot, yeah? Too young to get in while there was honor and glory or just a salary to be had. But just old enough to be included in the end and watch the downfall.”

“Watch it all go spiraling out of control.” Bonds of nationality and ideal and purpose shattered.

“Watch it all turn to ashes and scrap.” Promises old and new burned away by chaos and mistrust, by too many factions with their unifying causes done and dusted.

“Scattered across the skies.” Found here and there, elements of what was lost still salvageable, if you knew where to look squinted hard enough.

They clinked their glasses together in an ironic toast.

“Until recently?” Kor asked.

“This place is a little out of the budget for the Hub fleet, don’t you think?”

“You take up independent contract?”

“Aye. It’s good money with better virtues at the heart of the venture.”

Kor took another drink to mask any overt reaction.

I hear ya, even if you’re just making use of the expression.  

“I figure you know why I’m here?” Kor asked after a moment. Now that he knew there was a greater organization at work, there wasn’t much need to be coy.

“Looking for a taste of old times, naturally.”

“That’s one way of putting it. This is gentler than last night, in any case.”

Clare gave him a sympathetic frown.

“You know how orders can get crossed,” she said.

“If you’re light on your feet, there’s not much trouble. I’ll hold my fire against the messenger, though y’all could have led with the open palm instead of a fist.”

“We might as well start over, Captain. You have another chance to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

Ah. This is a recruitment hustle. He should be flattered, really, and the temptation was there. Even after these recent months of being his own man, responsible only for himself and his crew and owing nothing to any authority, Kor considered it. It’s so much easier to have orders to follow, ideals to patch the inevitable holes in your own moral code.

Naw.

“The freelancer life suits me too well. I must decline.”

Clare didn’t look at all disappointed. If anything Kor caught the flicker of a wry smile play across her lips.

“Are you certain?” she pressed. “We’re approaching last call.”

Kor nodded knowingly.

“I’m sure, Clare.” With that refusal, Kor felt the weight of competition bearing down on him, the sense of betting one little lancer with a head-start, a lot of luck, and some inside information against an unknown but certainly much larger opposition.

Wouldn’t have it any other way. Kor finished his drink and said, “Think I’ll settle up, then.”

“Don’t worry about it, Captain Icomb. Consider it an overdue perk from your previous service.”

“Well, thank you kindly. Give my regards to the house for their hospitality.”

“Certainly. Although, you should have your friend relent. Let her down easy, but…have her let go.”

Kor would definitely have to sleep on it before breaking the news to Silja.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll let her know.”

Clare Weiss spread her hands. “Tell her he’s in good hands.”

Chapter Five

The residents and visitors to Hub flitted and floated about the stacked terraces of the port in all their gathered variety. Hundreds of vessels, their numbers dwarfing Gloria or Knucklebone or Grindtown on their best days. This was the great artery of commerce connecting the Northwest and the Core continents, where the flows split and spread across the frontier’s half-tamed skies.

And here Silja was, looking for a single drop of blood among the torrent. She was starting to get sick of looking at airships.

The rain had let up since morning, but Silja kept her flight goggles in place against the glare of the afternoon sun. Her coat continued to put in good work, combining with the winds to keep her relatively dry. She felt anonymous enough, just some woman parked atop a heavier platform of traffic lights, all black but a blaze of red hair. Watching for who-knows-what. She might have been conspicuous if there weren’t dozens of other similarly dressed and mounted people crisscrossing the port. Couriers zipping here and there, towing little cargo trailers. Quick taxi hoppers carrying more adventurous fares. A couple gangs of youths on their patched-up rides. Port officials on dreadfully bright yellow craft, directing traffic or adjusting the countless lane and directional buoys that kept this swirling hive of ships and people from crashing into each other.

Her mind wandered over the last few days. Strangely prominent was Inrik’s defiant gaze despite a gun trained on him. He had no idea how badly she wanted Last Call back. Thought it was just a bluff, a shake-down. Probably dealt with the like many times in the past. She might have pulled the trigger if he said he turned her ship into parts. She didn’t know how she would react to that particular dissolution, her ship gone for good and spread across the skies in pieces.

Not well, most likely. She knew it was a distorted relationship. She’d collected her share of lovers over the years. A couple good men. Couple bad ones. Never got too broken up over breaking off any of them. But Last Call…he was home. Anything or anyone else was just a temporary convenience.

Silja turned Kor’s scope over in her hands. The piece looked like a damn navigation antique and made her uncomfortable for fear of dropping it. With a sigh she raised the tube and swept her gaze over a section of open-air docks along Third Terrace opposite the fleet yards. This was the third time today, at least. The Hub fleet was easy enough to spot, with their grandiose spoked wheel Sigils against their bronze or muted gold hulls. In the heart of the port, that meant cutters, fighters, and gunships. The occasional lancer, though she wasn’t even looking at them. Too big. Hub maintained a few destroyers, but they were further out. Silja occasionally spotted one on duty outside the sheltered curve of the city’s port, a big old Imperial ship, stark pale gray against the clearing blue skies.

Her view settled on a familiar sight. It was the Essence-class gunship from yesterday’s scouting. Last Call’s second cousin, the one with the welding seam, now slightly covered by a layer of primer. It was docked well outside the fleet yards, the access ramp once again guarded, though by a pair in generic, private security uniforms. A pilot, also not in Hub colors, was just now entering the underside of the ship. Soon the engines spat out gouts of steam in the cool air as they spun up.

“Well isn’t that strange,” she said to herself.

Silja tucked away the scope and started up her hopper. She’d given the port a thorough enough pass (or three or four) to need a break. Get a couple hours of turn-over and check again before sunset. Besides, this was too curious not to investigate further, given what they’d heard about the Hub fleet having some internal conflicts.

Where ya off to, new guy?

Silja dipped the hopper into the circular flow of traffic around the port’s floating spindle isle as the gunship eased off its platform and joined the crowd. The air bit at her face, skin numbed to the wintery chill. Billows of mists flared up from the base of Hub’s hollow, riding up the plateau cliff faces but not quite reaching the port itself. Her target was in no hurry, allowing others their proper-right-of-way, even if the written and unwritten rules of flying in crowded, urban airspace varied wildly depending on where you were from.

The gunship left the central column and followed the city’s walls to the east. Silja accelerated to keep up, already straining the hopper’s abilities. Her target slipped around the edge of the city’s sheltered hollow and darted further out from land, gaining agility in the more open air. Traffic thinned out as soon as you left the confines of the windbreaking barriers and Silja hesitated a moment. To put more space between her and her target, of course. Certainly.

She checked her lifering, then eyed out the position of the Hub-badged patrol craft before taking the hopper into the open crosswinds. As soon as she crossed some invisible barrier, her bike nearly went rolling into the plateau’s cliffs, the winds doing their damnedest to smash her to pieces for emerging from shelter with a woefully underpowered craft. Any face-losing yelp of surprise was lost in the controlled frenzy of wrangling the hopper back in line.

Silja found a gentler current in the leeward side of the sheltering wall and stabilized the hopper. Over the eastern edge of Hub proper were the picked-over ruins of the old Imperial shipyards. Always meant to be temporary and improvised due to the War’s resource effort in the Northwest, time, wind, and salvage crews hadn’t been kind to the place. Most of the dock spurs were long gone and the temporary offices and barracks were looted inside and out. A few sturdier skeletons of construction and repair frames remained, anchored deep against the stone and wearing coats of rust. The cliffs themselves were pockmarked with excavated hollows and caves, some of which still contained active, lived-in places connected to the city through the underground. Lights shone around the entryways of the larger caverns to guide in anyone arriving in port the less fashionable way.

The partially cleared remnants of wartime industries lined the rim of the plateau above like a smile after a lifetime of barfights. Silja never flew against Hub specifically during the War. The only time she saw this side of the city was when Admiral Heath’s Dissolution peacekeeping fleet arrived to ‘restore order’. When she and Kor and quite a few others turned their backs on their power-mad commander. In a way, she helped saved this city. Even if she spent the preceding years fighting to ensure this particular legacy of ruin.

As for the gunship, well, they appeared to have a rendezvous out here. The ship glided into the increasing afternoon shadows, nearly passing out of sight among a cluster of lingering girders and platform skeletons. Silja brought her hopper in close to the rock walls, feigning at being a resident of the unfashionable, but inhabited, sections closer to the wind-breaks. She parked atop a wide girder jutting from the stone, the outer end sheared off by some past disaster. Any closer would make her too easy to notice.

The gunship slipped into a shallow hollow among the dockyards denoted by a string of too-bright, too-new white lights. Silja pulled out Kor’s scope and gave the site a closer look. That particular landing site looked cleaned up and cleared of obstructions. The approach lines through the ruined docks, while intimidating at a glance, were quite navigable, even for a mid-sized ship. Beyond the landing area, a pair of domed communications nodes were anchored against the rock, thick bundles of wires clear against the stone and running further east.

A larger hanger, perhaps once part of the old shipyards, was set into the cliffs above the docking area. A pair of cargo mules hauled crated supplies up through the partially opened doors. Silja couldn’t see much beyond aside from bright work lights and the impression of activity within. The hanger itself was large enough to service lancer and corvette sized ships. The doors slid closed after the mules were through. Tiny glints of metal or glass in the shadows gave away more than a few people on watch duty, or perhaps defensive turret placements.

Just what is happening over here?

This operation smelled unofficial and well-organized. She glanced outward and quickly spotted a pair of patrol cutters badged in Hub’s colors and sigil. They had to know about this. The wrecked areas around the city proper were decently watched for illicit, or at least tariff dodging, activity. This crew was operating in plain sight, though with a nod to privacy. Not a big secret, but also not advertising themselves.

Silja collapsed the scope and stowed it. That gunship was in the Hub fleet yards yesterday and was now parked in an undefined and independent location. Probably off the books, as if it never were. An itch between her shoulders made her want to make herself scarce. She’d seen enough. A flow of resources, Last Call likely caught up in it and headed further and further out of reach.

Silja turned the hopper back toward the port. She found a transit tunnel through the wind-break, a once-natural wind-carved hole in the plateau expanded and inhabited. It was wide enough for small personal craft and cargo skiffs, but nothing bigger. Strings of mismatched lights guided her through the tunnel, all the while passing underground homes and literal hole-in-the-wall businesses.

The sudden feeling realizing exactly what she was made her slump in her seat. She was just one woman pitted against too many unknowns. Silja gripped the controls of the hopper against a building melancholy, the sense of futility. No. No, she still had some power left in her fuel cells. Instead she stoked her old Coalition spirit. Tended to that ember of defiance, to keep herself warm and as a reminder to bide her time. She could see the opposition taking shape. Now she needed to listen, watch. Wait. Even if it hurt to set the search to idle for the time being.

Silja was used to staring down much bigger opposition. If it was back to that, so be it.


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