New Stakes

Chapter One

Kor would grant train travel one point in its favor: If the train hit a slow section of track and you, perhaps, didn’t want to be seen at the end-point terminal, you could slip through a couple easy locks and choose your own exit. Thus, after a welcome stretch of hours of fitful sleep in budget-class seats, Kor and Zek made an unscheduled early stop and ditched the train as it passed through the industrial ruins above Hub.

Kor staggered to a stop as he capered over the empty parallel rail line, boots crunching through the piled buffer zone of small gray stones. Zek executed an even less graceful dismount from the train, though he had a better excuse. While slow-moving, the train soon departed without care or notice, its passage a fading controlled roar echoing through the ruins.

Hub’s broken industrial crown rose around them in a grave silence wrinkled by the whisper of wind cutting through broken walls. The bright afternoon sunlight cast everything in an unflattering manner, highlighting every cracked and crumbling wall, every rusted and twisted piece of rebar, every weather-worn Imperial sigil with chipped and faded colors. Here lay a different sort of Orventian remnant, the forced rapid industrialization of a colony city into an anchor of the Empire’s supply lines. It smelled of dust and standing water, with a thin, sooty layer from squatters’ campfires. Yet Kor could taste the open skies nearby and feel their shifting eddies on the air.

Zek looked around, getting his bearings. “Every time I pass through here, I expect the whole place to have fallen in on itself,” he said.

“Better for you it isn’t. Otherwise your hiding spot might be below a few tons of concrete.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing, honestly.” Zek nodded at a road crossing the rail lines, clear at the intersection, weed-choked elsewhere. “That’s the way.”

Zek seemed to know where he was going, following turns in the former streets, and circumventing mounds of collapsed masonry that blocked their way. While the city was yet to put in a full effort to clear the ruins beyond the rail lines, Kor spotted unlicensed efforts against the buildings, furtive or bold deconstruction and stripping jobs, signs of their passage obvious in fresh, intentional scars against the ruins. Hell of a place to hide something, assuming you could find it again. One legacy of empire entombed within another.

“We certainly knew how to go big and get there fast,” Zek said. “Even if this whole place was quickly and shoddily done.”

“Probably figured they could re-do it better after the War was over.”

“That’s the spirit. Assume we’ll win, for how could we not? Surprise, my fellows.”

The air freshened as they walked through the ruins, the sounds of Hub’s port an approaching din, glimpses of the open skies visible along the streets and alleyways between the former factories. Here and there were the cratered remains of munitions workshops, the intentional or accidental detonation of their products the closest thing Hub saw to an attack during the conflict and its drawn-out aftershocks.

Their destination was a two-story storage building wedged between what looked like a worker’s barracks and a block of offices. All three were plain and box-like, never meant to be anything more than expedient and utilitarian. The cliffs’ edge was nearby and the final stretch of ground to the building was across a former landing pad, the numbered ID painted on the concrete and still partially visible.

Zek paused at a side door, examining the frame, the ground at their feet. Everything seemed to be in order.

“Barracks is missing a floor, the offices a roof, and this place a little of both,” Zek said, preemptively answering Kor’s question of potential inhabitants. “Hide something valuable somewhere worthless. Well…half of something, anyway.”

He shouldered the door open. As promised, a wash of light entered from a broken ceiling and lit a jagged sinkhole in floor. A tumble-down pile of crates half-filled the hole and any remaining equipment was either looted away or broken and left behind, leaving the extant portion of floor clear. The second floor was perhaps one-third intact, accessible via a wall-mounted ladder Zek was already halfway towards.

“The Virtue receiver core is in two pieces,” Zek paused and patted his chest. “Well, three technically. Each component can function as a homing device on its own, through they’re better in harmony.”

“Split for security and redundancy?”

“You got it.”

Zek dragged a broken shelf away from the wall next to the ladder, stepped around it, and knelt. He brushed away a layer of dust and fiddled at a recessed latch.

“This might be a while, Kor. Keep an eye out, will you?” He pointed above and behind him, toward the ladder.

“Sure,” Kor agreed, though he eyed the ladder and floor above with a healthy level of skepticism. Then he shrugged and climbed up. It would be a fine lookout spot and if it hadn’t fallen yet, why would it today?

There was less of the same on the fragmentary second floor. A few busted crates or perhaps file cabinets, looted and salvaged years ago, the remains of a mounting spot for a small crane, and a single straight edge of a square gap in the floor for vertical access. Kor had a clear view of the entryway below, as well as sightlines outside toward the way they came across the landing pad. All was quiet nearby aside from Zek clicking through some mechanism and muttering to himself through the process.

In the other direction, through a missing section of wall, Kor found a fine view of Hub, under the circumstances. Not much of the port itself was visible, but the breakwalls curved outward into the skies, and a stream of ships arrived and departed in the endless flow of commerce and travel.

Something wasn’t right. That big freighter was taking a strange, inefficient way out of the port. Kor squinted against the brightness of the skies, picking out details from specs and smudges in the distance. Hub’s two destroyers were pulled back in a defensive posture, their firing lines layered with the turrets along the breakwalls. Multiple wings of attack cutters flew in circuits behind the capital ships, ready to engage in a moment. Yet it all felt cautionary. The air didn’t have that tight, anxious feel of an imminent engagement. After all, cargo traffic still flowed, if in unusual routes out of the city.

Another fleet was arrayed out in the distance, centered around a third destroyer, a fiercely angled Altani-made spear point of a ship, painted deathly black and bloody red. There were few enough destroyers flying in the Northwest and this one Kor knew by reputation.

That was the Moment of Silence, one of the Night Hawks’ flagships. Commanded by one Commodore Bianca Torrez, former Savvy Scourge crew and briefly captain. Not-so-briefly Kor’s other half, until their shared flame faded to a flicker before being snuffed by shifting winds.

Bianca brought a hell of a lot of friends, too. Multiple wings of the mercenary fleet were arrayed in a blockade formation, though they weren’t enforcing it. Kor spotted that one freighter slip through the lines unmolested. Elsewhere, business went along as normal. This wasn’t an attack. While the Night Hawks weren’t forbidden from Hub, these numbers were a provocation. They were here for a reason and willing to damage relations with Hub to accomplish it.

Kor knew why. He descended the ladder, look-out job forgotten or achieved, depending on your point of view. Zek had multiple panels of decreasing size piled up next to him and pulled up an unassuming square metal box with a wooden handle out from the hidden, nested cubby hole. He cracked the top open, glanced inside to check the contents, and shut the box again, satisfied.

“What’s wrong, son?” he asked with a grin. “You look like you’ve either seen a ghost or your ex.”

Kor pointed a thumb over his shoulder and said, “You’re right on the second. About a third of the Night Hawks’ fleet is out there.”

Zek straightened and clambered up the ladder to see for himself. He brought the box with him. After a minute, Kor heard Zek whistle up above, impressed.

“They’re lookin’ good,” the old man called down. He returned to the ground floor and didn’t seem nearly worried enough.

“Bianca Torrez is in command of that destroyer. It’s her fleet.”

Zek harrumphed. “Girl always had ambition, I remember that much. Weren’t you two…” he made a vague motion with his free hand.

“Yes. She also led the mutiny that killed Jepp.”

“She pull the trigger on him?”

“She did.”

Zek looked down, a moment of silence of his own. Kor allowed him another bout of mourning. This wasn’t at all how Kor wanted to deliver that piece of news, but circumstances have a way of forcing your hand.

“Ah, Will,” Zek said quietly to himself, “You held on for a few years too many.” He met Kor’s gaze, eyes initially hard but softening after a second.

“Think they’re here for me?”

Kor gave him a withering look.

“Yeah, yeah.” Zek patted the square metal case. “Anyway. The other half is hidden down on Fourth Terrace inside another old building no one gives a damn about. Besides the owner, that is.”

“You?”

“Yep! Property was cheap then. Still probably is down on Fourth.”

“Alright. We’ll take the cargo lifts down, stay out of sight as much as we can. Stop by a comm station. I’ll whisper over to the Wink and have them pick us up on the spot.”

“Hot exit?” Zek asked as he knelt at this pack and stuffed away their first prize of the day. Second being the other half of the receiver core. Third being a clean escape.

“Probably. The Hawks’ll have at least a few crews in port keeping an eye out for us. Once the Wink departs, they’ll get stirred into action.”

As they gathered up their gear for another hike through the ruins and down through the city, Zek stopped them before they left the broken-down building, its last piece of loot withdrawn.

“Kor. Here.” Zek pulled the cord out from around his neck and handed over the keystone-like shard of the receiver core. Kor accepted it. It was heavier than it looked, the material smooth and clean, like dirt or sweat couldn’t stick to it.

“Spread the pieces out a little more. If Bianca’s working off Jepp’s files she’ll know nearly as much as I do but…well, I didn’t tell Jepp everything. Left out a few details he’d approve of after he got over being angry with me.”

Kor pulled his lifering from his belt. The charged avorium was held in a cloth sleeve and the shard slid in alongside with some minor cramming. Best hiding place he could think of. No one would even think to take away someone’s ring.

“That’ll do,” Zek said.

“Well. Let’s get a move on.” Just a couple more stops. How complicated could it get?

Chapter Two

They passed the same conversation countless times while descending through Hub. The scene was the mirrored again and again: regular folk and the sky-bound alike, arms crossed, standing in clusters with a view of the port, the skies beyond, and the stand-off therein. Hub thrummed with a particular vitality at all times, but now it carried a worried, defiant, scornful edge. Kor harbored the distinct feeling he might be the unintentional spark that set those tensions off. A firework show, unscheduled and unapproved by the Council.

Kor didn’t have the time or inclination to stop and gather more information, though he overheard snippets of chatter straight from the rumor mills. Something related to an explosion in port the other night? An unmarked corvette, even. Unmarked meaning Remnant, no doubt. At least he had nothing to do with that.

On Second Terrace’s backstreets, while switching to different lift lines, Kor stopped at a comm station. It was a little public place with an overused console, the controls grubby, the tech inside doubtlessly out of date. Somehow, the abandoned station outside town where he kicked off this whole chain of events seemed better looked after. He sent a quick coded message the Wink and Smile’s way. An alert, a pick-up location, a time. He could only hope Nem was listening, or at least nearby.

As before, Zek knew exactly where they were going and only needed a couple reminders from Kor as to the quieter routes down through the city. As if this run through town, checking on his hidden treasures, was a well-practiced circuit. Kor expected to spend additional days out in the sticks, the pieces to be under a meaningless rock somewhere. Not hidden in the largest city in the frontier, stashed away in plain sight. Then again, any chance discovery or theft would be hard-pressed to know what they found, nor how to even use it.

“This is it,” Zek said. They stood before a shuttered workshop, double-wide roll-up doors sealed and padlocked, smoke and exhaust vents on the roof rusted and unused. Fourth Terrace curved away in either direction, almost organized and proper if you restricted your view and ignored the stacked, hodgepodge chaos the further you went from the port-fronting street. Said street was quiet and misty beyond a hundred feet, the day’s cloud floor reaching up and shrouding the lower, unseemly terraces of the city in a traffic-slowing fog. Perfect weather for getting up to no good.

Zek patted himself down and sighed. He walked around to the side of the workshop and tested the door anyway. Secured.

“Locked myself out of my own damn property,” he said.

Kor gave the area another furtive look-over. The landing platform jutting out into the port opposite the workshop was empty and looked so weak and improvised it might as well be decorative. A pair of hoppers buzzed by on the street, their riders paying them no mind. Kor no longer twitched at the sound of an approaching vehicle, but until his butt sat at the controls of the Wink and Smile he wouldn’t dare think they were getting out of this clean. He could rely on his luck without pressing it.

A quick application of brute force to the door’s hardware was enough to let them inside. The clank and clatter was lost among Fourth Terrace’s daily business of active workshops, salvage breakers, budget mechanics, and various low-key illegal operations.

Inside lay the remains of an old craft shop with a big metal worktable in the center of the room. Whatever product or business made here was no longer recognizable in the scattered junk left behind. Dust cloaked everything in a layer of gray, and Zek stepping inside stirred up an interior fog to match the one outside. Kor set his pack on the worktable, drawing out a hollow thud and adding to the fog.

“Don’t have the story for this one, I’m afraid,” Zek said, voice low. “It was just cheap and provoked the fewest questions during the transaction.”

“That’s all I need from it,” Kor said. He eyed the door and mulled the trade-off of a look-out position and simply maintaining the appearance of nothing going on here. He went with the latter, dragged the broken lock inside with his foot, and shut the door. Narrow windows, sealed with storm shutters, let in sufficient, if fitful, light.

Just keep things quiet as long as possible.

A residence was attached to the back of the workshop, a simple three rooms and sharing in the status of ‘former’. There were signs of its use as a temporary flop-house in the past: a few folding chairs against one wall, empty bottles of whatever, a rolled-up sleeping pad. Zek shucked his various gear on the floor as if he owned the place (true) and went to an alcove in one corner of the main room, perhaps once a closet, its door removed long ago.

Kor took up a watch post at the entry to the residence. Zek went to work and wasted no time striking up a fine racket hammering away at another false panel. Kor would offer a hand but the space was only wide enough for one to reasonably work. The anonymity of Fourth Terrace should see them through.

Still, Kor looked over the scene. What looked like a back exit, barely discernable in the gloom, was outlined on the back wall of the residence. The side room also had a shuttered window, enough to escape through should the situation call for it. Another whine of a passing craft echoed through the mostly empty building. Birds scratched against the metal roof above, likely a fine nesting place only rarely disturbed a human visit.

He tried to relax. This was just a quiet and simple retrieval of another treasure at the end of the trail. The prize hidden under the red X. No race to get there first. No grand duel with other factions. Kor could get used to…

Wait. Is this too easy?

“So, Zek. You said you didn’t tell Jepp everything.”

“That’s right. You know he left a lot of details to me on the Savvy. This is no different.”

Something that went missing after you left. Ended up killing him, in a roundabout way.

“Did he know about this place?” Kor drew his pistol. A prudent check of capability. They had time. He wouldn’t need it.

“Ah…I believe so. Yes. Used it as a safe house once or twice when he snuck into Hub for some reason or another. You know how he was occasionally heading off on some private mission, yeah?”

“Sure, sure. Explains the retirement bunker on an isle outside Ferron.” Maybe Kor was worrying too much. The real problem was hovering out beyond the port, a blockade of black ships that knew exactly what the Wink looked like. Who to tail, who to actually blockade. They would be stirred up right about now. His crew would be just about to depart the hanger.

“Right.”

Kor heard a rattling near the front of the adjacent workshop. Chains? Nah. Simply more birds or maybe the passing of a larger craft. Not the Wink on approach. Too soon and not heavy enough.

Zek grunted in effort, drawing Kor’s attention as a final panel popped off from the rear wall.

“Whew! Little bastard was stuck good.”

Outside an engine much larger than a hopper’s surged. The entire building shifted and groaned. Then the wide roll-up doors at the front of the shop were ripped off, letting in a wash of wet air and pulling the resident dust up in a grand billowing exhale. Kor slid into cover just as greeting hail of gunfire cut through the air.

An assertive pounding on the rear door denied that specific route out.

 “You got another secret exit?” Kor called over to Zek. The old man carried a metal case, the matching twin to the first. He crouched out of sight from the residence’s entryway, revolver gripped in his other hand. Pale light flooded inward from the new opening. The gunfire ceased after the first salvo. Now that was a statement of intent. Good to know where things stood.

 “I think they got it covered,” Zek said. “We had a good run, but sometimes, we’re running full throttle straight for a pre-determined outcome.” Zek glanced around the room, then ripped open his travel pack, pulled out the first half of the Virtue receiver core, and threw it into the corner with the various piled junk and furniture. It blended in with the rest, just another forgotten piece of who-knows-what.

“But we can do it your way and roll the dice once more,” Zek added.

“Jepp didn’t know you split the core.”

“He did not.” It was another chance, one at the end of a chain of possibilities. Maybe he gets out of this alive. Maybe there’s mercy on the other side. Maybe they’re just as compressed for time and won’t be thorough. Maybe he can circle around and get the other half of the core. Too damn many maybes, even for Kor’s tastes. He knew he wasn’t getting out of Hub with all the pieces. Now it was a matter of salvaging anything useful.

Multiple footsteps sounded against the fallen metal door outside.

“Zek. Kor. Please toss your weapons forward and dispense with the inevitable tricks and nonsense,” ordered a sonorous woman’s voice, one with every expectation of being obeyed. “Let’s talk this out like crewmates. Savvy?”

“Your lady’s callin’,” Zek said with a fatalistic grin.

“Yeah and she has me dead-to-rights.”

Again.

Chapter Three

A pistol, a revolver, and a rifle clattered their way into the front workshop. Kor and Zek followed slowly, hands where anyone could see them. Zek carried the recovered receiver core in one hand, held as loose and unthreatening as a lunch pail.

Three figures backlit by pale light stood on the far side of the now overturned worktable. Kor spotted a couple more men out on the street clearing away the chains used to rip open the workshop. A heavy cutter, black with red touches, sat awkwardly outside, half on the untrustworthy landing platform, half on the street. The rear door of the residence banged open behind him. They were quite surrounded.

Bianca’s hair was shorter than before and tied back aside from a rogue curl against her temple. Her face, a natural tan from Durroan blood, was a touch thinner, her dark eyes harder from experience. She kept up the red lip color, a bloody Night Hawk red. She wore the standard black of their fleet, though her coat was devoid of rank insignia. Her figure was muted, bulkier. A flak jacket under the coat perhaps.

She still looked great, honestly.

Drexler stood on her left and Noralin on the right, marking both as her lieutenants. There was no love lost with either of them. Drexler’s grudge account was renewed recently twice over. And Noralin, a sharp-featured and exotic woman, even by the varied and mixed standards of the frontier, had never liked him. Some flavor of Ekuan, would be Kor’s guess.

Kor locked eyes with Bianca for a moment, her face unreadable beyond her brows knit into a slight, professional scowl. Kor could feel everyone else wishing they could step away.

Bianca broke the gaze and said, “Master Zekerian. It’s been a while.”

Despite having his arms out in surrender, Zek stood as if in command, as if this was years ago, way back when.

“Well ain’t this a strange sort of reunion. Drex. Nora. I assume the twins are keeping the engine running outside?” No one but Savvy Scourge veterans. Meaning Bianca didn’t have the greater Night Hawk fleet in on the Virtue job. There was no other reason for her to come here personally unless she was keeping it under wraps. This was a quick mission into the city. All for him and Zek. Well, probably just Zek.

Bianca had no doubt as to who was in command and went straight to business. “You got it. Check them.” She nodded to the man behind them and steps approached behind Kor.

Their owner murmured, “Hey, Kor. Pardon the process,” in a heavy frontier drawl.

“How’s it flyin’, Renzo?” If forced to choose a former Savvy crewmate to have a carbine pointed at his back, Kor would have picked Renzo. Call it a deeper kinship with his fellow pilots, regardless of what colors they wore.

 “You gave me quite the chase out there, credit where due.” A quick pat down for other weapons followed, finding nothing. The lifering with the hidden keystone shard went completely ignored, as it should.

“That was you?” Kor asked, casual, as if just catching up.

Renzo moved on to Zek, repeating the process. “Yeah. The slip you gave us here was a cute move. Almost got you in the canyon. But those damn local goons were worthless, let me tell you. They’re clear, Commander.”

Bianca stepped around the overturned table, Drex and Nora shadowing her, weapons still raised and readied. “Certain loose ends have their uses. The receiver core. Now, Zek.”

Zek handed over the case, shaking his head in dismay.

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with, Torrez.”

Bianca stepped back and opened the case. Her finely honed scowl softened into brief surprise before resuming its position. She hooked the case’s handle onto her belt and said, “No, I don’t. That’s why you’re coming with us. I could use a guide, unwilling or not.”

“Apologies, Master Z,” Renzo said while he drew and bound Zek’s hands together at his back.

Zek looked over to Kor and gave him a single shoulder shrug, appearing resigned but maintaining a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Gave it a good shot, Kor,” he said.

“Sometimes the dice turn up dead,” Kor agreed.

“A matter of perspective, I’d say,” Bianca said. “Load him up but show him a reasonable amount of respect, boys. Just don’t regress into taking orders from him.”

“Never cared for it the first time around,” Drexler said. He ignored Kor through all of this save for a quick victorious smirk. Fair enough.

Zek didn’t resist being escorted out into the street by Renzo and Drexler. The rear door of the cutter was open and guarded by a pair of familiar faces from the past. Kor really was the odd man out from this particular legacy.

Bianca kept her gun trained on Kor, held low, pointed at his gut. Noralin leaned in and said in a low, whispered conference, “If the Rems know you’re here personally, they’ll risk it.” File that away for later. If there is a later.

“They won’t. We have time. Give me a moment with Kor here. Call if we have PortSec incoming.”

Noralin gave Kor an acid glare, squeezed Bianca’s arm affectionately, and left the workshop, creating another silent reunion crossed with settling dust in her wake.

Kor rolled his neck, keeping a calm affect. She had him dead to rights. A final loose end. And yet, once Noralin was out of earshot, Bianca returned her gun to her hip. She couldn’t do it. Again.

“I really should just shoot you now.”

“You should,” Kor agreed. Cold-blooded, but it would certainly add a few points to her growing reputation. Deposed the greatest pirate in the frontier. An unbelievable ascent through the ranks of the Night Hawks. Stealing a destroyer from a core nation. She’s been busy.

“And I still can’t. It feels wrong, for all my talk and posturing.”

“I was counting on that. And I appreciate it. You know I’d return the favor if our places were reversed.” He meant every word. Damn him, he did. Kor knew Bianca wasn’t the jilted type. There wasn’t much value in offing him. After all, she’s got everything she wanted. Then and now.

A short laugh, a sound Kor was surprised to find could still cut through him clean and easy. “Well,” she said, “Call this two. The third time might be the charm, Kor.”

“We’ll see.”

Bianca shook her head with a sad smile. “I’m gonna see you in Ferron, aren’t I? Even though I have almost everything on this, you won’t give up.”

“It’s a safe bet. I even have a ship ready, unlike the last time you left me behind with nothing but the gun in my hand and the clothes on my back.”

“Maybe one day you’ll tell me how you got off that rock.”

Same way I’m leaving this one, love. Kor simply grinned in reply.

Bianca read his canned answer about ‘luck’ and said, “Even so. You should stick to freelancing up in Ferron, Kor. Look for other treasures. Leave this fight to meaner birds.”

“You dancing with the Remnants?”

A barely perceivable glance to her left, toward the opening and the street. A delicate calculation of risk in the furrow of her brows. Kor could still read her after a couple years apart. She was on a tight timeline, too. ‘They should be here by now’, she didn’t say.

“Among others. But I will shoot you down if you keep chasing the Virtue.”

“Ferron’s a big place. I’ll take my chances.”

“You always do.”

An exchange of shouts and calls followed by a whirl of black cloth as Nora rushed into the workshop.

“Commander, we’ve got—” her warning was severed by a controlled burst of gunfire. She cried out and staggered into the broken workshop, one leg stiff and awkward. She stumbled to the floor. Bianca turned in place and pulled her crewwoman into the shadows. Kor snatched up his pistol and pushed the overturned worktable to provide better cover. Outside, shots were exchanged between the still-open Hawk cutter and their unseen assailants.

“Rems?” Bianca asked once she pulled Noralin behind the table. She prodded at Nora’s wound, calm and collected. Kor joined them, crouching low. Old combat reflexes kept him steady, even if he’d prefer to be flying in any real fight. The past few days were pulling every scrap of value out of those training camps days.

Noralin nodded. “Ground squad on the street. Through the fog. Six,” a grimace while putting on a brave face, “Maybe eight.”

Kor glanced around the table. The Hawks in the cutter were in a defensive position against the assailants on the street to Kor’s left. They traded a few potshots. In a lull in gunfire, Kor picked out the high-intensity hum of nearby engines.

“A wing of interceptors out there,” he said.

 Bianca cocked her head to listen, gloved hands pressed to Nora’s hip, staunching the blood. “Three or four,” she agreed.

“You got back-up coming?”

“They should be. Assuming they see us in this fog.”

“Yeah, and make it an even worse stand-off.”

It was too far across the street for Bianca to get there with Nora in tow, two women with only three legs between them. Kor holstered his pistol for now and grabbed his pack, fortunately fallen on the inner side of the table. Then he reached into the light and dragged Zek’s rifle to him. It had three shots loaded. Bianca’s eyes narrowed at him, but she said nothing and remained focused on Noralin.

“No freebies,” Kor said. “If I get you a distraction or two, what do I get in return?” There was always time to deal.

“I won’t shoot you on sight in Ferron. Only if you really piss me off, so don’t get too ambitious.”

That worked just fine for Kor. “Yeah, that’s your territory. See ya in the blue, B.”

Bianca looked skeptical, as if she knew the agreement was too quick and easy. But she nodded, somehow looking imperious in dust spattered clothes, crouching behind an overturned table with bloody gloves.

Kor darted into the residence, stooping low. Another exchange of gunfire outside covered the sound of him fishing out the second half of the receiver core from the pile of junk in the corner and stuffing it into his pack. The rear entrance stood open, revealing an alleyway so narrow it felt like a rounding error in the hodgepodge construction of Fourth Terrace.

He had no idea what form his distraction would take, and didn’t care too much for who he was benefiting. At least, that’s what he told himself, trying to rebury those old feelings of kinship and more with the two women behind him and the men on the ship outside. The enemy of my enemy, and all that.

The key difference being: The Remnants shot at him once. Well, so did Drexler during the Seeder payload job. But that was just business. Another key difference: Having the keystone and half of the receiver core. Let Bianca think she got it all again. He’ll scrape by with more than she knew.

Wouldn’t be the first time.

Chapter Four

The alleyway was a passage of rough, grimy walls barely wide enough for one man. Senses on high alert, Kor could feel the air vibrating from a too-damn-close pair of tilt engines. The craft was above and to his left, hovering over the roof of a nearby building. In the other direction, he spotted two blandly uniformed soldiers approaching the alleyway. Covered both ways, then.

Kor leveled his pistol up and fired. One, two, three, simply looking to discourage approach for the time being, the sound amplified by the confining alley. The two soldiers split out of his firing line and he backpedaled immediately, coming to an intersection of filthy alleyways, the port-fronting street visible. Kor tucked himself against a brick wall, shooting glances down the alleyway, trying to keep that angle covered for the moment.

Fourth Terrace was the kind of neighborhood where the locals possessed a keen sixth sense for knowing when to make themselves scarce. Kor almost felt alone, which suited him just fine. He picked out the sound of two interceptors above the street, one near, one further. Covering and menacing the landed cutter, no doubt. The third craft sounded close enough to touch, one, maybe two buildings over.

Another round of shouts and gunfire erupted in the street, slicing through a general stillness that was quick to fill in the gaps. Thankfully, they’ve only traded small arms fire so far. No one wanted to be the first to escalate. Not with two fleets staring each other down outside town and an unknown number of Remnant and Hawk craft in port. Those reinforcements were already hurtling down this way, into a cloud haze and a too-delicate stand-off. It could all very easily spiral out of control.

The air stirred around Kor, kicking up dust and debris. An interceptor crept into view above the roof, the downdraft a blinding breath of roaring turbine blades. Kor squinted through the blast and recognized the craft in an instant. A Gazelle-class fighter, lean-bodied with oversized tilt engines and a wide range of motion. A Kural-made craft, he’d seen little ships like this his entire life, the wings of Imperial-badged patrols a hypnotic view from his childhood home. They were delicate to maintain but quite fast with a wide variety of weaponry configuration. Such as the mounted anti-personal automatic swiveling his way at an awkward angle.

Kor darted out of its line of sight, ceding the alleyway. A rapid blast of bullets shredded masonry behind him, filling the air with pointed shards and swirling dust. He stooped to snatch up a fist-size fragment of brick and circled around behind the next building in line, below the interceptor and away from the street. Listening closely, he guessed the ship ascended a few feet and circled in place, watching.

Facts raced through his mind as he trotted between tightly packed, damp, grimy walls. Gazelle-class. They were designed for ship-to-ship combat. The awkward, close angle from ship to ground had saved his life and created an opportunity. Its tilt shields would be retracted, open wide here to compensate for being over solid ground.

Kor tossed and caught the brick chunk in his hand, holstered his pistol for the moment, and decided to take the quick, vandal chance. An angle opened up as he reached the other side of the building, the interceptor’s starboard tilt directly above him. With a heave and a grunt, Kor hurled the chunk of brick into the fighter’s turbines. It shattered against the spinning blades, most of it deflected away, but enough fragments rattled dangerously into the mechanisms to foul the craft’s lift. After a moment, it listed to starboard and the pilot surged upward to avoid crashing into the buildings.

Kor hustled out toward the street, stopping short at the corner of a building and risking a peek. The rest of the squad of Remnant soldiers were spread behind cover beyond the workshop and Hawk cutter. The cutter’s tilts spun at a low, readied intensity, but the rear door remained open. Gunshots continued between the two, pinging off the street or the reinforced hull of the black ship. The other two interceptors hovered high, both also Gazelle-class, one cloaked in the heavy fog, the other nearer to Kor and covering the workshop and cutter.

Still a stalemate, though the third, damaged interceptor dipped toward an open platform to Kor’s right, further from the center of attention. Kor counted that as a win. He had no idea what else he could accomplish here, but he unshouldered and raised Zek’s rifle, sighting toward the Remnant squad.

An unseen clock nearby clanged the fourth hour of the afternoon. Kor looked up to see the shadow of a mid-sized lancer darken a portion of the air above. He grinned.

The Wink and Smile descended into the fray, cutting through the hazy air, her tilts screaming as she pulled out of the descent. Kor’s grin withered into a wince as his ship thumped against the closer of the Remnant interceptors, a vicious clangor of metal that sent the much lighter ship tumbling downward and out of sight. The Wink stabilized just above street level. Kor could just barely make out Lukas through the turret openings on the underside of the ship, and met his eyes. Then he waved them back, away from the potential worst of it, toward a nearby landing platform already partially occupied by the same interceptor he vandalized from below.

More ships howled on approach, like banshees in the fog. Kor cracked off two shots toward the Remnant ground squad. His suppressing fire was quickly lost in the thunderous bark of a mounted cannon firing. The far interceptor, already weaving away from the street at the Wink’s arrival, exploded from a solid hit and tumbled downward.

Acrid smoke stained the day’s fog. The ground squad backed toward the alleyways, rushing for the cover of the buildings, knowing damn well to get out when the ships started fighting. Carbine fire from the Night Hawks followed them.

Kor sighed in relief as Bianca and Noralin emerged from the workshop and a pair of men from the cutter rushed to get them on board. Within seconds the rear door was sealed, and the black ship lifted from its platform and surged out into port. A pair of smaller cutters in matching black fell into formation around them and the trio faded from view.

Taking Zek with them, but Kor could be bitter about that later. Now there was the matter of making his own exit. Kor turned and dashed up the street, toward the waiting Wink and Smile. He could hear more ships on approach, whether Remnant craft or port security, he didn’t care to find out. The Wink hovered over the landed interceptor, turret trained on the Remnant pilot, who had exited his ship to clear the turbine. Now he was held up in the same manner as Kor not two minutes ago, positions reversed.

“Everything fair game, mate,” Kor shouted over to the pilot as he jogged by. The sweet sound of the Wink’s cargo doors opening carried him onward, ducking instinctively under the ship’s belly despite plenty of vertical space. He paused at the edge of the platform, the mist-shrouded port fading in the distance all around him. No chorus of cannon fire boomed beyond the breakwalls, though he felt a ragged-edged tension to the sounds of the port. Too many engines at high intensity, ready to make a move. One of the Remnant interceptors, the one so rudely shoved away by the Wink, hovered below, not engaging, likely awaiting orders or reinforcements.

The Wink dropped a few feet, near enough to the platform for Kor to clamber up onto the lowered door. Chantil stood at the threshold and bent to lend Kor a hand.

“Welcome back, Icomb,” she said after hauling him inside.

“Thanks, Doc.” The cargo hold was packed tight and full, months of supplies and gear neatly organized into secured stacks. The old skiff was lashed down in one corner, a little awkward until they shed some of the equipment in Gloria. All the familiar sounds and smells of, well, home, washed over him. He allowed himself a moment to soak it all in, despite it only being a few days away. Being run ragged across the continent will have that effect on a man.

Chantil jammed on the button to close the cargo doors. “Where’s your plus-one?”

Kor shook his head and shed the rifle and pack, gripping the straps of both in one hand. He rolled his shoulders and said, “Scooped at the last minute by the Night Hawks.” And then I helped her escape, he declined to add.

“We still a go for the big job?” Chantil’s voice was reinforced with resolve, as if she was ready to be gone and carried no doubts.

Kor patted the pack with his free hand. “Oh yeah. The competition’s just begun.”

The ship ascended, the lift under his feet an indelible relief. Airborne once more. Now they just needed to get the hell out of Hub in one piece. Kor found his second wind and pounded up the stairs, still carrying the pack. He wasn’t going to let the fragment of the Virtue out of his possession for now.

The ship lurched to port, causing Kor and Chantil to brace themselves against the corridor walls. A steady, controlled descent followed. The rumble of distant cannon fire vibrated through the wall. Kor found his feet and hurried ahead.

Kor shoved through the flight deck door. Silja and Nem were at their respective stations. The forward windows had a view of precious little, a blur of gray interspersed with idling ships flaring their signal lights (or not), floating traffic platforms, and harder to identify junk that drifted aimlessly in the depths of the port. Silja deftly weaved the ship through the mess outside, while Nem called out scattered identifications and directions.

His gear was unceremoniously shoved under the small rear table. There wasn’t time to swap out pilots, but he could trust Silja to kept them in one piece. Certainly not the time for their continuing friendly argument of who was the better pilot. Kor slid into the chair at the dusty command console and strapped in. Definitely a disorienting position on the flight deck. Chantil clicked into the conditions console behind him.

“Welcome back, Captain. She’s running sweet and easy,” Silja said.

“You’re welcome,” squawked Wilcox through the comm speaker.

“Always good to hear, folks.”

The command station was slow to wake up. Maybe he shouldn’t have cut that specific corner in repair and renovation. Its positioning screen, already not very trustworthy, could barely resolve the nearest points of motion and signal. Beyond their visual sightlines, their sonic bearings were distorted and worthless.

“Cast the common band, Nem.”

Nem let out a short laugh. “Roger that, Cap.”

A cacophonous, nonsensical roar blared from the speakers. Voices floated among the chaos, trying to fight through the distortion to little success. Someone was intentionally jamming the common communication band. Stood to reason other channels were being disrupted as well. It explained the delay on the other Hawk ships arriving at the workshop. They had to follow the Wink, since they had the actual street address. Another pay-off for their continuing stake-out.

Nem clicked off the common band after a few seconds. “Jamming across the board,” she said. “Someone’s making a move and hiding it in the chaos. Started up fierce about fifteen minutes ago.”

That was too much for one little ship. Too much for trying to nab a Night Hawk commodore. Too much for Kor to consider at the moment. It also meant regardless of how well Bianca fared on her cutter, she might not get the word out to her fleet to stand down against the Wink. Whatever was going on, their best bet was slipping away in the chaos, before anyone could sort things out and start asking questions.

“Well. I thought I got us a free pass from the Hawk fleet, but we can’t bet on that now.”

“On who’s word?” asked Silja over her shoulder.

“Bianca Torrez herself. Don’t start, Sil. You too, Lukas,” Kor added into the ship-wide comm.

“Time for that later,” Lukas replied, voice wind-crossed and distant but Kor could hear the grin on his face.

“I’m hearing something on a hard approach, Cap. Straight at us.”

His conditions read-out was at least functional. A dense cloud floor below was causing the updraft of mist into the city. If everyone was flying by sight and too-close signal readings, they might as well cling to cover as long as they could.

His call to make. His dice to throw. Once more.

“We got a high floor. Hard dive into the thick, Sil. We’ll skim out in the cloud cover.”

A brief, silent moment. Silja rolled her shoulders, flexed her hands on the Wink’s controls and said, “Aye, captain.”

Kor found his charm in hand, a quick nervous roll between idle fingers. “Blanket our pings forward, try to get something out of this mess.” Three seconds of warning before a collision was better than one. The scattered, inconsistent blips on his positioning screen faded out as Nem refocused the Wink’s navigation equipment. A cone of moderate clarity emerged ahead, but not nearly far enough to be comfortable.

The ship descended into the haze, the view ahead angling into a blinding gray cotton. The altimeter clicked lower and lower, though still a generous distance from the Churn or anything immediately lethal. Debris wasn’t his concern, once they fell below the mess of Fifth Terrace, the hollow that sheltered Hub was generally clear.

Silja leveled them out right as the air started putting up resistance. Buffeting winds rocked the ship, a mix of updrafts from the Down Below and crosswinds from the plateau’s sheltering walls. And the Wink danced through them all. No undue strain on any of his readouts. No feel of desperation in the flex and creak of her hull.

“Echoes of pursuit,” Nem said, calm. No positioning or heading. “Hearing a wing in parallel to us.”

Kor tried to guess their position from memory, but then the cloud fog parted in the distance on the starboard side. The stone cliffs of the western breakwall loomed out of the haze.

Silja swore and pulled the Wink out of a collision course, arcing into a parallel ride of the disruptive air close to the plateau’s cliffs. On one hand, the cliffs were a line of clarity. On the other, a hard, deathly barrier. The ship shuddered from the reverberation of flying so close to their stony guideline. Then, the breakwall ended in a hairpin curve and everyone was pulled in their seats as the Wink banked out of Hub’s shelter at a hard angle around the western wall. The confining pressure faded by degrees and the embrace of open skies could be felt in the air despite the blinding cloud cover around them.

“Clear of the port,” Nem announced. “Got open lines west and east. Blockade coverage across wide south arc.”

“Give her everything, hard westward until all clear.” Kor’s positioning screen flickered into functionality, confirming an array of dozens of Night Hawk ships in an arc outside Hub. A mirroring defensive arc of Hub’s Fleet lay above and quickly fell behind them.

Their cloud cover dissipated as they left the continent behind, the mists lacking a way to climb up. Afternoon sunlight highlighted dozens of black ships high and ahead. At the heart of it all hung the Moment of Silence, a visiting queen holding court. A trio of cutters rose out of the mist, making a straight course for the flagship. An escort detached from the group to greet them in the neutral zone between the fleets. And another wing of fighters left the fleet in attack formation straight for the Wink and Smile.

Kor didn’t need to give an order here. The Wink aligned westward and furiously accelerated. Eager to be gone, she soared sweetly, engines a chorus behind them, the open blue ahead.

New calculations. Fresh fighters. Limited range but closing the distance will take…

The Night Hawk fighters faltered in their attack, dropping speed. Then they turned around, returning to the fleet.

Kor sighed in relief. Bianca had kept her side of the bargain for now.

“We clear?” he asked.

“Confirmed,” Nem said.

“Cool her down a touch, Sil. But I don’t mind a little hustle for the next hour or so. Get some distance between us and that damn city.”

“Route?”

“Summit, Grindtown, Gloria. Then we’re heading into Ferron.”

 


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