A cold morning wind rushed into the utility station through the rusted, open door. Kor hunched his shoulders against the winter sky’s caress and brushed a layer of dust off the comm console’s keypad. A permanent layer of grime remained stuck in the crevices between the fat, square number keys. He glanced at his notepad for the tenth time, though the code was firmly established in his memory for a couple weeks now. Sixteen digits, painstakingly mined out of the ciphered (or not) research and ramblings of Captain Jeppesen’s files. The end of a chain of contact and relay points, each more a minor hassle than any kind of challenge. All to unlock another set of questions. Or, at least, confirm a single, pressing question.
The comm station, an old, first-wave colonization Imperial piece, woke right up when switched on. Solid construction, though credit was due to its long and lonely vigil in a sheltered and sturdy shell about an hour outside of Hub. Forgotten in the shuffle, but left alone because that’s just the rule of the skies when it came to comm gear. Never knew when it would be your lifeline. Or your link into past trouble and future trials.
Legacies are funny things. What loyalty did he owe Jepp? Why did he adopt this cause? This old oath wasn’t Kor’s to fulfill. He was tangentially involved, third order association at best. Yet he chose to make it his business. For the sake of all.
Besides, he’ll be in the neighborhood anyway.
Kor punched in the sixteen-digit string, buttons grinding against grime but clicking in as they should. The code itself was a mix of target location, password, and signal flare. Nonsense to anyone listening unless they had the exact right frame of mind. He scrubbed a layer of dirt from the thick glass screen above the keypad and alignment dials, a three-inch display with chunky orange numbers.
Now I wait. All the while, his ears strained for the sound of an approaching airship or the crunch of boots against the stiff, winter-pale grass outside. A glance over his shoulder and out the door showed dawn starting to break and work its way to the west side of the continent.
Captain Jeppesen, like any proper pirate captain, kept a few secrets close to the vest. Some were easy money, meant to stave off crew discontent in a dry spell. Some were no doubt busts, whoever managed to follow up on them. Some were his retirement plan, which Kor looted himself and led him, roundabout, to this forgotten comm shed. This turned out to be the big one, the one Jepp let on to a handful of his crew. Kor (present), Bianca (Hawk commodore, Jepp’s killer), Ensoi (deceased, natural causes), Jia (deceased, mutiny), and a few others, half disappeared, half under Bianca’s command. A dwindling few in the potential know. But none of them had the whole story. Just implications. Enough to worry and wonder.
The console’s screen flickered and outputted a response string. A fast response this early in the day, but this was the sort of thing that got you out of bed in a hurry. Kor carefully recorded the digits into his notepad, trying to keep his hands steady. They were location coordinates, tagged with an identifier ending with ‘Z’. As Jepp’s notes insisted it must.
Kor took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his now-racing heart. No further information came through, but he waited for a while, just in case.
During the War, the Orventian Empire completed construction of three capital ships known as dreadnoughts. They were titans, wonders of technology, embodiments of the Empire’s power. Goddesses among mortals and named as such. Justice. Vision. Virtue. The three matron Spirits of the Orventian Empire itself.
Justice was defeated in battle at immense cost, the drain on Coalition resources to do so extending the War a couple years.
Vision was sabotaged from within, her isle-cracking main cannon annihilating the ship and all on board.
Virtue was damaged in an extended battle on the Osspor side of the Barrier Expanse. Her fleet was defeated, but the dreadnought herself fled into the Northwest Frontier. A rag-tag Coalition fleet, aided by local mercenaries and fortune seekers, pursued her far into the fringes, eventually sending her down into the Churn deep in the Ferron Expanse.
Or so the story went. Her fate was uncertain because the Ferron upwell storm began in the midst of the final battle. Perhaps triggered by the battle itself. The surviving members of the fleet pulled away as the engaged ships vanished into a haze of storm and fire. There was always doubt whether the Virtue was truly destroyed. With so much avorium in her hull, the Virtue had the weight and buoyancy of a small isle. Enough to perhaps weather the decade-long storm. One titan of the skies enduring through another.
Zek, or rather, Zekerian A. Toswold, co-founder of the Savvy Scourge with Jeppesen, saw it all happen and was supposed to be a firm link to finding the wreck of the ship, if it survived. According to Jepp’s notes, that is. Kor worked his way through a whole lot of ‘Zek knows. Has the keys.’ The old captain believed it with enough fervor to make Kor scared as hell.
The world was better without such power as the Virtue. So, in addition to the rest of the bounty of the soon-to-reopen Ferron Expanse, Kor had another objective. Find Zek. Bring him out of hiding. See if they could find the wreck of the Virtue. Finish the job, make sure she’s dead and gone.
The comm console remained silent. Kor cleared the received messages and set the machine back to stand-by, to resume its lonely vigil as a waypoint. He re-stuck the station’s door, as he found it, and returned to his skiff parked on the scraggly, wind-swept grasses at this particular edge of the Hub continent. The morning sun was starting to banish the night’s chill and the return trip to Hub should be less wretched than his pre-dawn flight out.
Kor gave his surroundings a full sweep as he mounted up and clipped in to the pilot’s seat. Half land, the drier, abandoned patches of terrain north of Hub. A quirk of climate and overmanaged inland rivers turned the western fringes of the continent into a useless dust bowl and scrubland. Half sky, today swept with thin streamers of clouds above and a high gray haze below. Stable conditions, which suited him fine since it was a long way back for a rusty little skiff. He spied out a few ships making the circa-continental route in the distance. None seemed to be paying him much attention. No one followed him on this leg of the investigation. Leaving port two hours before dawn paid off.
The skiff started up with nary a cough or complaint. Kor nodded in approval at Wilcox’s continual miracle of keeping this bucket running. In an expected turn of events, most of the small-craft rental dealers declined to loan him a hopper for a few days. Kor guided the skiff into the cliffs’ updrafts and began the slow trip back to Hub. Plenty of time to get any further brooding out of the way. He’ll be too busy with a little friendly manhunt afterward. Zek might be willing to meet him, but he probably won’t make himself too easy to find. Otherwise, well, he would have been found already by someone with less noble aims.
The pursuit of the grandest prize in the Northwest skies had well and truly begun. Kor could only hope he bought himself enough of a head start.
* * *
Back on the Wink and Smile, with everything laid out on his cabin’s desk, Kor judged this quest properly ridiculous. The collected ramblings of a pirate captain, pointing to his partner in crime, pointing to the wreck of a ship unlike no other. Well, like two others.
These are the stakes on the table, as it were.
The received coordinates were quick to translate to a geographic location. A place in the middle of nowhere, east and inland from a small port north of Hub called Cleft. The destination was beyond the bounds of easy flying, tucked among low hills and a fair distance from anything. The route was simple enough, land-bound as it were and requiring an overnight of roughing it. The trick was getting out of Hub without being pursued too closely. As with all else, all he needed was a head start.
Kor packed up his files related to Jeppesen and the Virtue, tidily fitting into a folio stacked atop the useful journals of the old captain. A folded bundle remained outside the whole, which included Kor’s notes and a reasonably detailed chart of the area around Cleft, marked with his destination. It was years out of date, but that area of the Hub continent wasn’t exactly known to be a frequent tourist destination or a hotbed of development.
The air in his cabin shuddered to reconcile a now-familiar distortion of reality.
“Luck,” Kor said, voice low. He could hear the crew going about their business, some of which he assigned. “Figured you’d want to see me off.”
Kor half turned, gaze fixed on the wall, but able to discern a figure of blended metallic colors sitting on his bunk. Bronze-skinned, clad in silver, hair of gold. A quick flash of a headache bolted through his brain before settling down.
“Strange,” Luck said after a moment. “I expected more chaos at this juncture.”
“I won’t bother to ask about certainty.” Mostly because he felt sure about this one. Trusted his gut instinct. Still, Kor pulled out his charm and twisted the coin about in one hand.
“The possibilities condense to this one path, before splitting wildly across mending skies.”
Kor raised the bundle of his research and ramblings and said, “Could have just spoiled a few things for me, gotten us here faster.” He placed the folio and journals into a drawer and set the lock.
“You assume too much of my own foreknowledge, Kor. I never know. I cannot know. I only see chances, forking endlessly into the haze of future time.”
This was spinning further than Kor had the capacity to consider. He didn’t need any fresh doubts from his main source of uncanny confidence and good fortune.
“House odds?” he asked.
“House odds,” she agreed. “And a warning. I cannot reconcile Zek in all this.”
“He’s the wild card?” Not a reassuring thing, coming from her. Then again, it changed nothing about his course and anyone else wouldn’t even have such additional doubts.
“Perhaps. Or, better stated, he’s a nexus of possibilities. The die tumbling mid-flight.”
Someone knocked on his cabin door and in the space of a glance the air shimmered and Luck was gone. Kor stood and shouldered his waiting travel pack, stuffed and ready for a few days of roughing it.
Time to play his hand.
Silja waited in the corridor, her hair freshly tussled from an open-compartment flight across the port.
“You talking to yourself in there, Captain?” Silja asked.
“Just going through one of my legendary pep-talks,” Kor replied, smooth and easy. He closed and locked his cabin door. “You got the ticket?”
Silja held up a cardstock sleeve, branded with the jolly red logo of a regional shuttle company. “Round trip flight to lovely Reserton.”
Kor could tell she was still smarting from the search for Last Call being a dead end. After an understandable few days of intensive self-prescribed therapy (of the liquid and companionship variety), Silja righted her ship and now kept a strained cheer about her. But she brought in a few boxes into her quarters a couple days ago, creature comforts and more than what she could pack into that old duffel bag. Here to stay, for the time being.
Also, Reserton was a heap of a town, a glorified supply depot on the southeast side of the continent.
“Great. Pitch ‘em.” And Kor wasn’t going there. “Were you followed?” He motioned toward the rear of the ship and headed that way. The Wink had an uneasy stillness to her from being in port for too long. He could feel it in the walls and floors, see it in the crew. Knew it within himself.
“Definitely. Put some effort into being evasive, but I had company from here to the shuttle depot.”
“Get a make?”
“Not really. Seemed like your factory-standard discrete, but not all that skilled, eyes for hire.”
“Good enough,” Kor said as he pulled open the door to the cargo hold. From the catwalk, complete with stowaway cat watching from the engine room door, he paused and surveyed the gathered gear and supplies. Everything a freelancer operation needed for a long haul through who-knows-what, though they would stash a few things in Gloria, free up space for any treasures Ferron might surrender in the initial days.
Lukas and Nem waited below in the hold, and Kor assumed Wilcox was at his typical in-earshot place in the engine room.
“Y’all hear from Chantil?” he asked.
“She sent word. She’ll be there, Cap.” Nem said from below, sitting atop a sealed crate, idly kicking her feet. Nem felt a few miles more distant than usual of late, but Kor would be hard-pressed to state specifically how. Probably on account of having the least to keep her busy when port-bound.
Lukas crossed the hold from the big doors and took up a blockade position at the base of the stairs. Arms crossed, he asked, “Where are you actually goin’?”
Kor descended a few steps before saying, “My target’s somewhere inland of place called Cleft, a couple shuttle stops north of here.”
“Cleft? I recall that place being a shit-hole back when I was stationed here.”
“Maybe, never been there myself,” Kor said, reaching two steps above Lukas.
“You’ve been stalling on us for a while, Captain,” Lukas said, not yielding way.
“I have,” he admitted. “And this is the last time. Call it old pirate problems, mixed with a unique opportunity. I might have someone with me when I get back. In that case, we’ll be departing in a hurry.”
“How much of a hurry?” Lukas pressed, though Kor could tell this was more concern than confrontation. More than anyone, Lukas was going stir-crazy here in Hub, even if it was self-inflicted.
“Hard to say. Y’all should keep an eye on the make-up of the port though. Especially in regards to any more Night Hawks.”
“Yeah, I haven’t stared at meaningless ships for a few days now,” Silja said with forced levity.
“And what if you don’t come back, Captain?”
“Give me a week. After that…you might want to make yourselves scarce. Head up to Gloria. Keep an ear out. If you don’t hear from me in a month, well…” Best left unsaid.
“See you in a few days, Cap,” Nem said.
“Good luck,” Lukas said, finally stepping aside.
“You know it. Let’s get going, everyone.”
Everyone but Lukas donned similar long black coats, hoods up. Though honestly, Nem didn’t quite strike the right figure and size to fool anyone on a good glance.
“Don’t know why you need four when three will do,” Wilcox said as he descended the stairs after stooping to give the cat a walk-by rub.
“Gotta pad the odds, Wilcox. Besides, you’d be conscripted into this with three anyway, being the most mistakeable for me.”
“That’s fair enough.”
Outside the Wink but inside the hanger waited four cabs, all enclosed models of similar make and livery. A pair of drivers chatted while leaning against their craft, and the other two looked impatient as hell. The hanger doors were parted only wide enough to let them out one at a time. Brisk winds brought in the scent of oil and smoke from the port.
They each chose a different cab and mounted up.
“So, what’s the big idea, mate?” the driver asked as Kor settled into the back seat.
“Oh, just a quick shell game.” Wilcox was bound for a long, circular nothing route, Nem for the train station up above First Terrace, and Silja for the old, eastern shuttle depot.
“We the coin?”
“You got it. Take me to the shuttle terminal, the new one.”
They were the third to leave the hanger. The cab bobbed and weaved into the swirl of Hub’s traffic lanes with casual competence. Kor would not miss flying around here. It was stimulating for a few days, what with so much buzzing about a confined space. Now it looked exhausting and tiresome and he wasn’t even at the controls. He’d take open skies any day of the week, thank you.
Kor glanced out the rear of the cab frequently, trying to parse any pursuit from the traffic. Supposing they had two working the stake-out on the Wink’s hanger, fair to call it fifty-fifty (with no outside help) of them picking the correct cab. He lost track of the other cabs almost immediately.
Kor couldn’t ID their stake-out watchers. They’ve rotated through positions for the last couple days, always keeping an eye on the Wink and Smile. His enemies list wasn’t that long and he figured it was either the Night Hawks or the Remnants keeping tabs on him. The former more likely at this point, since Bianca had to know what he knew about Ferron. About the Virtue. She must have gone through the Savvy Scourge’s files and Jeppesen’s cabin in meticulous detail once she seized control. Surely there was some redundancy in Jepp’s records, especially since the mutiny was a complete surprise to half the crew.
The cab approached the shuttle depot, a long arc of a building on the far end of Second Terrace along the western break-wall. A set of wide landing pads occupied the inner side, suspended docks and mooring on the outer side. This was the newer transit depot, where commercial shuttle companies and those lucky and consistent freelancers gathered and shipped folk across the Northwest Frontier or through the Barrier Expanse to Osspor.
Kor paid the cab fare, tipped generously, and quickly merged into the flow of people entering and exiting the station. The terminal was all gleaming glass, steel beams, tile floors and paneled walls in cream and white. It was almost too nice for Hub, but that was the momentum of things, and unlike the restorations up on First Terrace there were minimal post-Imperial touches. For now, at least, but something of a relief.
The murmur of hundreds blanked out sound into a muddled din. The crowd was a mix where you could tag someone at a glance. Frontier folk with a more keen-eyed, savvy look, on their way somewhere else. Hub locals in a hustling, similar cast but carrying an easy comfort of being home. Newcomers to the region, either wide-eyed or skeptical, likely thrown off by their arrival point being so clean and civilized.
Kor walked up to one of the terminal’s cafés where Chantil sat at a table with a good view of the passing crowds. Armed with an empty cup of coffee, a dejected pastry and the morning newspaper, she looked entirely like the first group. She passed a shuttle ticket over to Kor, and it promptly vanished into his coat.
“My pleasure, Icomb.” Chantil’s eyes went back to the entrance of the terminal. Then, “Tan coat, about sixty feet back, near that awful-smelling meat-stick vendor. Duroan look to him, seems to be in a hurry.”
“You don’t like mystery meat logs?” The odd blend was part of the appeal.
“Not a mystery I’d pursue, no. He’s lingering at a newsstand, now. Attention this way.”
A quick, discreet silence as a waitress refilled Chantil’s emptied cup.
“Alright. Now I gotta finagle a way to get rid of this guy,” Kor said, thinking out loud. “Maybe pull him toward the empty areas of the terminal, maybe a quick backroom brawl—”
“Or I could just throw this scalding hot coffee on him,” Chantil suggested, raising her steaming cup. “Keep things simple.”
“That works for me.”
“Good luck out there, Icomb. I hope you’re wrong.”
“As do I,” Kor agreed, even though it felt less and less likely.
They parted and Kor headed for the middle of the flow of passengers, moving as if he had already gotten out of the city clean. He identified which exit led to the correct loading platform and waited a few moments. He might have heard an agonized and shocked yelp behind him, but it was hard to parse out of the din of so many travelers. Besides, he had a flight to catch.
Kor disembarked at Cleft to discover the town was, in fact, something of a shit hole. Smelled like one, too, like a stockyard for terrestrial animals. Such was probably their prime business these days, the nearby land given over to ranching. As with other areas north of Hub, a shift in climate turned this chunk of the continent into a scrappy dustbowl.
Built on either side of an eponymous deep cleft in the plateau’s edge, the town was a waystation for travelers along the circa-Hub route. From the raised shuttle platform at the edge of town, Kor could see sun-bleached, shoulder-to-shoulder buildings along a few streets running parallel to the canyon. More than a few appeared empty and ignored. Compared the vitality of Hub, Cleft was languid and worn out, but also lacked in the damn-the-odds optimism that sustained similar settlements further out in the frontier. A handful of carts and hoppers buzzed between the two halves of the town though, by Kor’s casual estimation, the north side of the canyon looked worse off than the south.
A warning buzzer sounded and Kor shuffled away from the landing pad, the shuttle spending as little time at this layover as possible. Only a pair of other passengers disembarked with him, another three getting on. He had about four or five hours of daylight left, enough to grab a local hopper rental and strike off down the canyon. Keep himself airborne as long as possible and keep himself ahead of any potential and assumed pursuit.
He found a dealer willing to rent out a hopper for a few days, and he managed to haggle her down to a price approaching extortion. And not in his favor. At that price, he might as well have just bought the thing. The craft was a hybrid of traditional cliff-hugging flyer and a ground-bound four-wheeler. An ugly thing, with chipped paint and a few scars of rust, but the engine hummed along sweetly and it had a storage trunk for his gear.
Kor took the hopper out into the canyon, after a few moments of hovering above the edge, testing the craft. Can never be too sure, lifering on hand or not. Satisfied, he struck off down Cleft’s canyon, a wide scar in the continent, a not uncommon quirk of geography and geology that allowed a flow of buoying winds to come off the skies and inland. The local stone was predominantly rust red and crossed with sandstone bands, a striking sight making up for the downtrodden state of the town.
As soon as he was out of sight of Cleft, Kor pulled the hopper onto a outcrop of rock above the canyon. He dismounted and felt under the paneling and around the folded in tires. Eventually, in a sheltered spot behind one of the wheel wells, he found it: A small tracking beacon. It was warm to the touch, active. Kor fumbled blindly, found the tiny switch on one edge, and deactivated it. He’ll try to remember to switch it on if he had to ditch the hopper, but he wasn’t about to give anyone a direct bead on him.
Boulders, some steadier than others, drifted in the middle of the canyon like sky-bound scatterings in miniature. The hopper was game to weave around and through without trouble, but it was clear evidence of declining use of this natural, buoyant inland passage. More trafficked channels would be kept clear. Signs of homesteads dotted the canyon rims, usually windmills spinning away and glinting in the afternoon sun. Kor saw no signs of bandits or other such trouble, but since there wasn’t much worth stealing around here, they would take their expertise elsewhere.
The afternoon progressed, a clear day, calm enough aside from the winds pushing him along up the canyon. Few other craft plied the route, and Kor mostly flew in solitude. Over time, the chasm narrowed, the bottom rising gradually, but the hopper maintained a reasonable lift. Even so, Kor unconsciously hewed closer to the southern cliffs, just in case the retreating skies suddenly lost their grip.
The tell-tale whine of sky-worthy engines rose through the whisper of the canyon’s winds, on fast approach. Kor slipped the hopper closer to the southern cliffs, where building-sized chunks of rock floated just barely free of the continent’s cohesion. No place to land and ride into the brush presented itself, naturally, the cliff edges either a complete rocky and jagged mess or grown too thick with the concealing, gnarly trees he sought as cover.
He found a stable-enough spot on the inner side of a large boulder, setting the hopper down to hide in a shadowed curve of rock. While a freighter with local business was possible, Kor saw no reason to risk it. And the only bandits around these parts were the ones trailing in Kor’s wake. The thrum of the little craft’s engines was deafening when he wanted to be silent, and he hoped the constant whistle and whine of the canyon’s winds could make up the difference. He didn’t trust it to start up with a quickness when it mattered.
Kor listened as the pressure in the air shifted a touch, the sense of a large body coming to a stop above him on the other side of the floating stones. The smooth whisk-whisk-whisk of metal tilt turbines sang a duet. Engines ceased their thrust and hissed in idleness. Something swiveled, metal against metal. A heavier cutter, crew of four to eight. No sound of other ships could be heard.
Time for a snap call. Kor looked over the edge of his precarious hiding spot. The chain of boulders formed a partial roof along the cliff edge. Angled sunlight from the west streaked through the lower reaches of the canyon, golden highlights against ruddy red rock. Elsewhere lay deep patches of shadow. There was a lot of cover down there, assuming he didn’t slam into an unseen boulder in the shadows. He needed one fast move. The cutter’s size would slow them down enough for him to zip ahead and find a better way inland. It was enough of a plan for now.
Kor surged the hopper’s engines and dived off the boulder, air coming alive against his face. He was in sunlight for mere seconds, but it felt like an eternity of exposure. The depths of the canyon wrapped around him in relieving, chilled shadows as the thunder of guns shattered the land’s silence. The shadows were banished and fragments of stone exploded out behind him, shards clattering against the hopper and stinging at his back.
Their gunner was quick on the draw, but had the restraint to stop as Kor passed from sight. He pushed the hopper ahead as hard as it could bear, weaving around the shadowed impressions of drifting boulders as big as he was.
Whenever Kor got shot at, he liked to recall how long of a stretch he’d gone without it. It helped keep his head on straight when all he could do is run or fly away.
The number of days wasn’t very large this time around.
He raced eastward, weaving through numerous drifting stones. The shadowed, chilled air of the canyon depth sliced through his coat, and his gloves fought a losing battle against a creeping numbness. With the way ahead clear for a moment, Kor risked a glance backward. A wide-bodied cutter, black hull with red touches, pursued him through the center channel of the chasm, taking the cautious but clear route. His head-start dwindled.
The cutter took additional shots at him whenever the sight lines cleared. It was a lower caliber gun, unlike the initial salvo from a ship-to-ship weapon. Perhaps they downshifted from ‘kill’ to ‘severely wound’, which was flattering. They wanted to go through whatever he carried, maybe get a few questions first. If they knew exactly where they were going, they’d have gone ahead and beat him to Zek.
His stony coverage above became scarce, the canyon clearing from cliff to cliff. It was time to bail. Kor cast around for options. There, where the skeletal trees thinned. Kor knew there were parallel ground tracks along the canyon, but they weaved away from the cliffs at times. This deep into a continent, a sky-bound ship would have perhaps a couple miles of sluggish reach, and burn through a damnable amount of power to do so. His hopper had even less reach, but all he needed to find was a path or old road in the brush and switch to the wheels. Then he would have a speed advantage.
Once the final large boulder fell behind him, Kor launched the hopper into a breakneck ascent along the cliffs, sunlight washing over him and making him a fine target. The cutter agreed and fired, shots falling wide and shattering against the canyon walls. Kor gained a fair amount of height above the cliff’s edge, the hopper’s controls losing precision away from the touch of the skies. A weathered, dry expanse of land unfurled below him. He angled downward, diving into the tangled brush, seeking out any gap in the trees. A scratch of a pathway, running parallel to the canyon, emerged from the pointed, nettled-ridden tangle.
The hopper smashed through overhanging, bare branches, and Kor pulled up just in time to prevent it from crashing against the ground. His lift stuttered and faded, but held out just long enough for him to kick the wheels down on either side of the craft. Rubber met gravel and the engine chugged between modes. The hopper surged forward, spraying loose pebbles in his wake.
Not out of this yet.
Kor raced onward and discovered the scrubland east of Cleft was approximately ninety-percent dust, half of which he kicked up in a conspicuous plume behind him. The rest found its way into his mouth. Tough, shoulder-high shrubs with evergreen needles lined the track in dense clusters, serving only to remind him how confined and restricted he was. But the dreaded shadow of a pursuing ship above never arrived. Nor did Kor hear the complaints of overworked engines on approach whenever he paused the hopper to take a swig of water and check his bearings. The only shadows were the lengthening ones from the descending sun.
As twilight began to settle over the land, Kor found a taller stand of growth just off the track. It would serve for the night, a mix of evergreens with pointed, triangular leaves and barren and crooked, perhaps dead, trees.
Under the glare of his flashlight, Kor munched through a ration bar, studied his map, and weighed his situation. That was a Night Hawk cutter, no doubt about it. He couldn’t tell which fleet wing. They wouldn’t risk overland travel and likely moved on to the speck of a town at the inner terminus of the navigable portion of the canyon. Then they’d double back toward here, split on the ground with a skeleton crew on the ship. That’s what Kor would do, at least.
Kor himself was still a fair few miles from the target location, a spot nestled among a set of hills south of the canyon and east of here. It would take much of tomorrow to get there, mostly via gravel tracks that grew increasingly vague on the map as they approached the hills.
True night fell and brought down the hammer of a harsh chill. Kor tried to start a small fire, as this region possessed deadwood in abundance. Three matches broke in half before one caught, a strange run of minor, ill luck. He supposed it needed to balance itself out somewhere.
Despite the fire crackling merrily and keeping the cold winter night at bay, sleep was about as elusive as Kor hoped to be. Bundled in his coat and occasionally dropping more fuel into the fire, Kor simply stared in the flames, dozing part of the time, otherwise wide awake and mind racing through considerations.
What was the Virtue worth? Depends on who you asked.
Setting aside his noble aspirations, for Kor and most other freelancers, it was the motherlode of salvage. Even pieces of the hull would be worth small fortunes. Any surviving technology, some of which is known to be years ahead of the curve even after all this time, could be worth even more. Any relics and ornamentations from the ship, easy pick-ups, were worth a premium on account of their uniqueness.
To folk like the Night Hawks, the Virtue was power. Anything left that could be restored would be a gigantic boost in power and prestige for whomever may be paying for their services. If they weren’t working for themselves on this one. Kor would put the odds heavily in favor of the latter. The same went for Hub or any other freeport. Hell, the core nations could even jump into the game.
Then there’s the Remnants. They wanted something more. Kor had to assume they knew it may still be there. To pull any icon of the old order out of the mists would be a coup like no other. Symbols were powerful, and the Virtue was doubly symbolic in name and ability. Can’t put a price on that.
As the weight of a too-long day finally dragged him down to sleep, Kor decided it was all too complicated. Everyone would be better off without such a legacy reborn into the skies. He just hoped he was quick enough to see it buried for good.
The polished barrel of a long, mean revolver found a steady mark directly on Kor’s left eye. A weathered, white-haired, light-skinned man held the gun, calm and sure as can be. Kor recognized Zek after a moment, the intervening years since he left the Savvy Scourge piling up in the lines of his face.
“My man,” Zek said coolly, “You got a very short time to tell me what you want.”
Kor stood before a reinforced door at the base of a gently angled mine shaft. The tunnel was wide enough to comfortably fit a busted-up truck and Kor’s hopper with room to spare. Indirect afternoon sunlight cast the roughly excavated stone walls in pale impressions and cool shadows.
There was nothing in Jepp’s notes about any final challenge. No coded call/response. No password. Jeppesen probably assumed he would be following the trail to Zek himself and wouldn’t need any further credentials.
How about the truth?
“I’m Kor Icomb, a former crewman of the Savvy Scourge. I’m following the oaths of Captain William Jeppesen to the wreck of the Imperial dreadnought Virtue.”
Zek didn’t so much as blink as if he expected every word.
“And if ya find it,” he said. “Then what?”
“I blow it back to hell where it belongs.”
Zek pulled his gun away from Kor’s face after a too-long moment of consideration.
“Yeah, I remember you now. Joined up not long before I retired. Well, come on in. Let’s hear how much shit you dragged to my door.”
Kor patted himself down, trying to beat the dust from his clothes. In a few strokes he expelled a mound of the stuff from his day-long trek along old hauling tracks and winding, hill-hugging trails.
“Don’t worry about it,” Zek said with a glint in his eye. He motioned inward with his revolver. Once Kor stepped through, Zek pulled the heavy door shut and threw a pair of bolts into place, the secure metallic thuds echoing through the room.
Inside was a hybrid of a humble residence and a communications bunker. Kor counted six different consoles of varying makes and ages around the walls, screens and lights flickering through signals and each connected to wires running up through the roof. Elsewhere were the expected creature comforts of an improvised home, though each section of the room was delineated into a purpose. Three doors, each seeming as weighty and secured as the entry, stood on the other walls, likely leading deeper into the mine complex.
“When’d you send that last contact code?” Kor noted Zek’s too-casual tone and the fact he hadn’t yet holstered his weapon. A generator hummed somewhere out of sight. Ventilation blades rattled somewhere above.
“Around dawn yesterday.”
Zek nodded and the revolver went to his belt. Kor felt most of the remaining tension drain from both of them.
“You couldn’t have waited a couple hours? Bit of a rude awakening.” Zek motioned at a pair of chairs around a wooden table.
“I was working on a tight timeline,” Kor said as he took a seat.
“Aren’t we all.” Zek walked a circuit between the communication and technical consoles, checking readings. He nodded to himself, nervously running a hand through his hair and inputting quick commands into the machines. The old man didn’t match of the look of the oracle at a quest’s end, in tough mended clothes and a swaying walk suggesting an old leg injury.
The living areas of Zek’s hidden base were freshly overturned. Two conspicuous travel packs lay stuffed and ready in the middle of the floor next to a support pillar. The air smelled like fresh ashes and the cast-iron stove’s door was open, the interior smoldering. A pang of guilt struck Kor. He had upended this man’s life in a hurry.
“How much hassle was it to find me?”
“A few lucky breaks with Jepp’s files, then a whole lot of spare time spent figuring out the what and where. Then getting out here.”
“As we designed,” Zek said. He finished pulled a half-full bottle of brown liquor from a shelf. “Drink?”
Zek set two murky glasses on the table, which was in fact an overturned giant spool for wire or tubing. The host gratefully slumped into the other of the mismatched chairs, then poured two somewhat miserly servings. He slid a glass over to Kor.
“To Jepp,” Zek said for a toast as they clinked the glasses together. They drank. It burned like only a rustic, unrefined whisky could. “What do you want to know?”
“Well, I guess you could tell me how you got from point A to B to wherever on the chain here is.”
“Life story. Sure, I can condense that.”
Zek closed his eyes for a moment, sorting through his memories to pluck out the correct threads of his own life’s composition. Kor recognized the gesture from other N/Cs.
“I was a communications officer on an Orventian battlecruiser, First Fleet, Heartsky theater. The War was full throttle and going poorly for us. We were bruised and demoralized from the Eku evacuations. The Coalition had Kurala mostly cut off, and they were making stronger forays into Heartsky. Then the dreadnoughts Justice and Vision launched. Total surprise to everyone. No idea how the Antrech shipyards kept those monsters a secret. But they staunched the bleeding and started to turn things around.”
“Most ‘Lition vets say that without those ships, they might have been able to force an armistice years sooner.”
“I wouldn’t disagree,” Zek said, eyes distant. “Would have been less death on both sides.”
“Until the next war a couple years later,” Kor added.
“Until then, yes. So, we stabilized Heartsky around Vision, while Justice hammered away in the north. Dreadnought battlegroup postings became the biggest prize in the fleet, with ruthless competition to even be considered. After a year, Virtue was slated to launch, but they had to loosen up their standards from ridiculous to rigorous.”
As Zek spoke, his frontier twang melted into a smooth, crisp Torsian inflection. The hermit retired pirate faded into the background and his previous life reemerged.
“I secured a commission in the Virtue’s comm bay. What a damn work of art that place was. Not simply a beyond bleeding edge set-up like her sister ships, though we had that in spades. She had a second experimental array, a discrete system that could…ah…warp and alter the local soundscape.”
Kor blinked at Zek, at a loss for words. He took a drink and found a couple, “I’m sorry?”
“The Virtue could warp the very sounds of the skies, mate. Like an uncharted island chain disrupting signal or a phantom continent.”
“Like an upwell storm.”
Zek snapped his fingers and pointed at him. “Like that.”
“So, despite being huge—”
“She could completely hide herself,” Zek said with a proud grin. “Disperse trails remotely. Vanish from the signal. Blank enemy communications, if close enough. Stealth her accompanying fleet, though we had to go back to signal lights and other low-tech methods whilst doing so.” Zek sounded just as mystified at the concept as Kor was, and he worked with the damn thing. Which meant…
“You didn’t know how it worked, did you?”
“Hell no! The crew was about half veterans from the Imperial Fleet and half…I don’t know. Devotee technicians? Huge sections of the ship were forbidden to my kind. All ‘no access’ unless you were a Custodian. I believed in the Empire. It was good to me. But those people, all Antrech folk, they took it too far into themselves, somehow.”
The dreadnoughts were the crowning achievement of the Antrech shipyards and research labs. Kor wasn’t surprised if they inspired a certain religious devotion among their creators.
Zek uncorked the whisky bottle and poured partial refills. Kor almost politely declined.
“Anyway, I assume you know how the Virtue found her way into Ferron?”
“That much I know.”
“Mmm. We were running scared and clueless. The Custodians had a destination in mind, as did the command staff, though it was cloudy as to who was actually in charge of the ship. Didn’t tell us where or what we were going for way out in the middle of nothing. My team’s job was to keep us concealed from the enemy fleet. We leaned on the ship’s unique capabilities for weeks. No rest with degrading performance as supplies thinned. Only a matter of time before we got caught.”
Kor’s charts of the Ferron Expanse showed nothing such a large ship would be fleeing towards. While tiny Orventian outposts dotted the region, nothing could hope to service or save a cruiser, much less a titan like the Virtue. And beyond Ferron’s outer fringes there was nothing known worth betting on.
Zek continued. “So. The battle. Both systems couldn’t take the load and after a few hard hits comms went…strange. Some manner of feedback loop with the local skies’ soundscape. It was something new, something utterly unknown. I’ve run through those minutes in my head nearly every day since. Maybe it was the building upwell storm, combined with the immense firepower being deployed all around us, combined with battle damage. But the Virtue’s comm arrays started to howl. Started to call out and resonate with…”
Zek threw up his hands and gave a helpless smile.
“Every time you think on it, you come to the same conclusion,” Kor guessed.
“Every time. I just didn’t know enough about the ship herself. Perhaps too few people did.”
He finished his whisky, considered the bottle and decided against.
“Soon enough the ship was damaged beyond salvation, especially with the storm rising out of the Churn. As I fled to an escape skiff, I passed a broken-open sealed corridor, one that led into the internals of the comm array. Within was another sight like nothing I’d seen before. A union of metal and crystalline material. Light and power flowing through everything like the blood and breath of the ship herself, all rushed in the panic of her death throes. I grabbed a loose piece of a receiver core, still recognizable in shape, if not material. Figured I could magpie it away and sell it later, even if that thinking was wildly presumptuous. Maybe I thought myself dead already.
“I made it to a utility skiff with a few other crew. Flew it into the teeth of a dying battle and burgeoning storm. We immediately got hit by debris. I was the only one who managed to hold on as we were thrown clear of the worst of it. Got a fine view of the Virtue as she spun about like a toy in the storm’s grip. But she stayed aloft somehow. Were those lights the engines still firing, despite the damage? Did she stabilize just as the mist and cloud walls arose around her?”
They sat through a silence of empty glasses and heavy memories.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think she went down at the time. Not all the way. In a moment of impulsive mercy, one of the ‘Lition auxiliaries saw me floating there and snapped me up. Maybe as a P.O.W. Anyone from a dreadnought would have to be worth something or at least know something.”
“Jeppesen captained that ship, didn’t he?”
“You got it. We fled the battle with the others and, as was common for crews like his, didn’t report in later. He needed a new N/C officer and, well, I had plenty of experience with Imperial signal codes. Jepp went back to rogue work and I went along, all those years of loyalty to the Orventian left behind in Ferron.”
That was news to Kor. As far as he was concerned at the time, Zek was an old hand on the Savvy Scourge, informally second in command and holding most of their captain’s confidence. Kor wondered how much Zek knew about Jeppesen’s end. He owed the old man the story in exchange, should he ask for it.
But now they were to the core of the matter.
Kor took a swig of water from his canteen to sooth his scoured and raw throat. “Once the storm clears, can you find the Virtue? What about that comm piece you grabbed?”
Zek tugged at a leather strap around his neck and pulled a polished white object from below his shirt. It was a finger-length rod, ivory white, but glinting with deeper reds and blues when he rolled it in his fingers. It looked like something not quite of this world, a half-turn out of phase.
“This here’s a connective keystone to that receiver core from the Virtue. It…resonates with the other fragments of itself. Jepp and I split the core in half and hid the pieces back in Hub.”
“So…treasure hunt?” This was much more familiar territory.
“A treasure hunt,” Zek agreed. He tapped his temple with the rod. “Got the maps in here. Then we can improvise a means of scanning and tracking the Virtue in Ferron with the receiver core. You can jury-rig it to most comm equipment and get a…well, not quite a signal. A trace, a hint of the Virtue’s song. Even all the way out here, I can get an echo. It’s how I know that ship isn’t dead and gone.”
Kor didn’t need the weight of this confirmation bearing him down just yet. Plenty of time for that later. Just need to keep moving. He said, “I got a ship, an ace comms gal, and a private buoy network seeded in Ferron already.”
Zek returned the shard to its hiding spot. “That’ll do, Kor. That’ll do nicely.”
A set of red lights started blinking on one of the wall consoles, one with a bundle of wires rising to the ceiling and running out through one of the vent shafts. Zek nodded sagely at it. He carefully replaced the cork in the whisky bottle and took a slow look around his ramshackle abode. Then he shrugged and stood up, patting his revolver with his free hand.
“Right. Let’s get back to the skies, Kor.”
“We’re surrounded, aren’t we?”
“Oh, most certainly,” Zek said waggling the bottle at Kor. “I was stingy with this for a reason. Gotta stay sharp! A couple fellows have been skulking around the hills since I sent you that message. Don’t think they made my hiding hole until you rolled up, making a damn racket on that heap of a wheeled hopper.”
“You got a plan?”
“Yep!” Zek kicked aside a faded rug to reveal a hatch set into the floor. “We’re on top of an old mine, after all. I got an escape route and a waiting hopper and everything.”
Kor sighed, planted his palms on the table, and pushed himself up.
No rest for the wicked.
“Who we dealin’ with here, Kor?”
“Our fellow Savvy alumni. The competition.”
Zek gave a harrumph. “Still freelancers?”
“Nah. Everyone left is either a Night Hawk or living low and quiet.”
“Mmm. Except you, that is.”
Kor gave a helpless shrug. Zek had him there.
“Well. I’ve haven’t been so deeply retired that I’d take chances with them. Open those side doors, would ya?” Zek said.
Kor did so while thinking over their options, which amounted to flight or flight. Everything he’d done so far on this quest relied on being one to three steps ahead. Now it felt like a half step. Maybe a quarter.
Each side door opened into a tunnel of rock walls and old metal panels set onto the floor, all leading off into the darkness of the old mine. Stale air puffed into the bunker, implying none of the paths went anywhere productive. Kor turned back to see Zek taking a rifle down from a wall mount. The old man found a box of rounds and calmly loaded the weapon. He muttered a checklist to himself all the while.
“Gear packed. Hopper ready. Files to ashes. Ah…”
“You know how close they are?” Kor asked, not feeling the same calm.
“Oh, maybe right outside.” Zek glanced at a console. “But not up the entry tunnel. Yet. Any distraction you can rustle up would be helpful. I need to hit my kill switches for all this…hobbyist business. Leave less of a trail.”
“I’m on it.”
Kor unlocked the front door and opened it a crack. Silence responded from outside. Trusting Zek’s sensors he peeked out and saw no motion highlighted against the afternoon light up the slope. Gun drawn, Kor stole out to his hopper, crouching low behind the vehicle. Still no response, though he could hear the growl of nearby engines. He flipped open the storage trunk and grabbed his pack, thankful once again he traveled light.
Staying low enough to make it a pain in the ass, Kor reached under the hopper and reactivated its tracking beacon. It was the least he could do given the next step. Taking his chances, Kor stood and started the hopper on the second try. He walked it in a circle, oriented it up the ramp, jammed down the throttle, and let it rip forward. He ran alongside it for a few paces to keep it aligned. The hopper roared outward and into the sunlight, making a fine racket all the way. Gunshots cracked out after it, followed by shouts.
Another lost deposit.
Kor hurried back inside the bunker, slamming and sealing the door behind him. Zek stood before his bank of comm consoles, rifle shouldered, hands extended to either side like an orchestra director. The screens flickered wildly through nonsense readouts and errors, building to a crescendo. Sparks popped from each machine in succession and they all went dead.
Zek gave his gear a flourished bow and turned to the floor hatch.
“Let’s go. After you.”
The escape hatch descended for dozens of feet to a thinly lit bottom. The accompanying ladder quivered as Kor stepped onto it. He hurried down, spurred on even faster when Zek followed and the ladder creaked dangerously. The shaft went nearly dark as Zek sealed the hatch above.
The descent ended in a mine tunnel wide enough for a line of rails with room to spare. A wide-bodied four-wheeler waited in the dim light. It had two proper seats, front and rear, and looked utterly incapable of flight. Hardly a ‘hopper’ but it’ll serve. Kor stashed his pack in the storage trunk. Zek reached the bottom of the ladder and gave it a wrench, pulling half the thing down after them, the clatter of light-weight metal against stone echoing through the tunnels.
“You drive, I’ll ride gunner,” Zek said as he stowed his own packs and slammed the trunk closed.
Kor got his bearings with the controls and the four-wheeler started up without complaint, equally eager to get going. In full agreement, Kor set off down the tunnel, following the easy curves and old rails until they came to an exit shining bright with winter sunlight. The craft’s engine chugged along without much care for stealth, but Kor kept it as low as possible as they approached the exit.
“Hold here a moment,” Zek said while they were still out of sight. Kor brought them to a halt and killed the engine. Both men cocked their heads to listen. Calls echoed among the hills and gullies outside, accompanied by idling engines. Ahead, the track exited out into a small valley among the hills. The rails struck off through an assembly of tumble-down buildings from the former mining operation. A little ghost village, all sun-worn wooden boards and whatever rusted metal components that hadn’t been pulled away for salvage.
“I’d say at least a half-dozen craft,” Kor said. “So, at least twice as many men.”
Zek whistled. “All that for little ole me.”
“You don’t seem too disturbed.” Perhaps his claim to have died already in Ferron had more weight than previously thought.
“Eh. It was only a matter of time. Besides, they’ll want me alive. You…I’m not so sure.”
An unmistakable, if muffled, explosion rocked the stony bulk of the hill above and around them. The tunnel shivered and absorbed the blow, loose pebbles and dust falling from the rough ceiling and walls.
“Was that you?” Kor asked.
“Nah, them. I couldn’t get the triggers to work right.” Zek unshouldered the rifle and went back to business. “There’s three old roads out through the hills. They’ll have the canyon and north roads covered. Probably came down with temp-hire goons from one of the canyon towns. So, we head east to Dee’s Junction. It’s a haul but it’s on the rail line down to Hub.”
Kor woke the four-wheeler and it growled like a beast lairing within the mine. He eyed the cluster of buildings along the rail line and decided to avoid the open, central space. Looked like a perfect place for an ambush.
“You got room to the left, along the ridge.”
They roared forward into the light and took a hard right out of the tunnel. Kor saw a flash of cloth inside one of the main buildings along the rail. Gunshots snapped out around them. They bounced over the rail lines as Kor surged toward a gap between a square outbuilding and the ridge above them. Broken pieces of wood, scraggly new growth, and fallen stones dotted the way forward.
Zek’s rifle cracked out and received a cry from the ridge above. More shots trailed behind them as Kor wove around what obstructions he could and smashed through others. Chunks of wood and shrubs flew around them as the heavily sloped rock wall closed in on their right. The way ahead was clear enough, but the long building to their left worried him. Keeping a firm hand on the controls, Kor drew his pistol and emptied it into the building at the shifting shadows in the gaps and windows. Shouts echoed among the mining village. Not too many of them. Maybe three or four.
A road emerged from the village and descended into a gray and white forest of gnarled trees and tangled brush. Kor caught sight of a minor blockade ahead on the road. They had horses, off all things, a creature high on Kor’s ‘not-to-be-trusted’ list.
“Straight on, hard,” Zek said, voice taking on an old, recognizable officer’s tone. Kor suppressed a reflexive ‘yessir’ and gave the cart as much speed as it cared to take. He felt Zek shifting in place behind him, and heard the click of the rifle.
Crack-crack. Zek snapped off a pair of shots into the ground at the horses’ feet, bursts of gravel and dirt flying and startling the beasts. That flushed out three more men into action. One attempted to control the horses, the other two taking cover in the thin curling trees.
Crack. Zek hit one of trees, eliciting a shout of pain and a spray of dry bark. He shuffled around behind Kor’s back as they drew closer. Then came the dead-serious bark of his revolver, suppressing fire, much as he could manage.
It was enough. The four-wheeler blasted through the incomplete blockade in a flurry of shouts, shots, and dust. Fitful departing shots followed them for a moment, aim fouled by the chaos and an increasing plume of dust in their wake. Kor weaved the hopper a touch until they reached a gentle bend in the road, riding into a partial skid to create a final belch of dust to cover their escape.
Kor glanced back at Zek to see the old pirate slumped back in his seat, worn but otherwise in one piece with no new holes. The land around them fell into a remote silence slashed apart by the rumble of the four-wheeler’s engines and tires. They heard no signs of pursuit and met no further obstacles.
“This was a flush-out, I think,” Kor said later when they paused alongside the road to trade positions.
“Sure,” Zek agreed. “They’ll know we’re going back to Hub. Try to get us there.”
“My ship will be ready to go soon as we get there. Once back in the skies we won’t be so…linearly restricted in how we proceed.”
Zek barked a laugh and said, “Well, we’re all hurtling on a line toward destiny, regardless of transport.”
“I prefer to think I have a little more influence on the route.”
“If you say so.”
They rode through the night, swapping places every hour or so. Kor caught fitful bouts of sleep in the rear seat. The land recovered degrees of vitality as they went inland, the air still winter-dry but with hints of moisture, and the occasional trickle of small streams and brooks along the road. Otherwise, the only sound was the growl of their ride in the night. But, if they kept on this course, they would be making a whole lot more noise in the coming months.
End of Episode Three.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017