Stormrider

Chapter One

Maps. A half-dozen of them were spread across Kor’s cabin desk. He had dimmed his light, too faint to read by, just enough to know what he was looking at. Everything was still and silent. The Wink and Smile stood at a night-time anchorage on a stable isle a few hours outside of the Ferron storm. He could find it on one of these maps if he bothered. On this evening the isle was empty save for the Wink, though there were signs of others passing through recently. Hopefully it was a preview of having the skies to themselves.

The official Imperial survey map of the Ferron Expanse lay front and center on his desk, the glyph of authenticity gleaming gold in the low light. Kor only needed to trade the power of life itself for it, to put it melodramatically. His eyes wandered over the numerous isle chains and scatterings, all precisely marked with drift lines, coordinates (Imperial cylindrical, naturally), and annotations of three letter codes for features and qualities. Every time he looked over it he found something new. Tonight, squinting against the poor light, was no different. In the far north of Ferron was a small, low-laying isle marked with ‘landform status unclear’, and ‘plume vent, nontoxic’.

Intriguing! And it was all technically useless. An image of the Ferron-that-was. A reference piece, the positions of landforms and scattered dangers shuffled or eliminated by the now fading upwell storm.

The higher-detail regional maps from that crashed cutter (so long ago now…) flanked the main map on the left. They depicted the southern reaches of the territory, both inside and outside the storm. That area was a focus of Orventian development before the War and the target of the Remnants afterward, apparently. The isle chains were heavy over there. Enough to keep Jeppesen’s little isle in place, more or less. Probably enough to make it easy to track down the handful of built-up would-be colonies and supply stations. Or whatever else the Empire left strewn across that stretch of sky.

A map of the southeastern territories was partially obscured by the others. The details within the storm were copied from main map in Kor’s passable hand (haven’t heard any complaints) and aligned with up-to-date data from outside the storm. The arc of the storm wall sliced through the center of the chart, the unlucky isles within reduced to the dotted lines of a theoretical existence. They could be hundreds of miles away, subsumed into the Churn, on the opposite side of Ferron, or even exactly where they used to be.

As to the truth of the matter, well, it was his self-assigned job to find out.

On his right lay a pair of fresh charts, filled on the southern and eastern edges with known features outside the bounds of the upwell storm. They were mostly empty and ready to be filled in, the first drafts of whatever they may find. The maps-to-be covered a fresh logbook specifically for jobs in Ferron, a square of depth rising below the flat, empty planes. It already contained a bundle of bounties and there were a few Kor favored. Mostly requests for survey and cartographic data, the sort of jobs they could fill without heavy equipment while dodging whatever wild weather Ferron threw at them. There were a pair of princely offers for the location and vital details of settlement quality islands. A pair of colonist fleets were gathering in Gloria, revving to go and stake a claim of potentially invaluable first settlement rights.

The eternal pursuit of blank slates. On that account, Kor was an expert in chasing such fresh starts. Enough to know they were never truly empty, regardless of how you entered those uncharted skies. There were always impressions from the past, either resident, residual influences, or the momentum of whatever storm drove you to this new, supposedly clean slate.

Even their objectives in Ferron were a conflated mix of old and new. Sure, there was the thrill and pursuit of the unknown. The mystery and challenge of a remade stretch of sky. An opportunity of a lifetime and all the attendant chances to profit from it. And yet his grandest objective, his ‘for the greater good’ pursuit of the Virtue, was a direct inheritance of a pirate and rogue past he’d prefer to leave behind.

Kor blindly scratched at the service tattoos on his right shoulder and upper arm. His finger traced the Savvy Scourge’s saber, the boundary between the muddled charms of his wandering years and the most recent addition of crisp triplet dice. He needed to choose an official piece for the Wink and Smile. Lukas and Silja had asked after it, wanting to carry on that cross-faction tradition. Their particular continuation of the story so far, their own map of themselves.

Oftentimes the main thing you carry into new skies are the scars etched onto your skin and soul. The ghosts and causes haunting you, desirable or not.

Kor let his eyes wander across the shadowed cabin. He mounted Zek’s rifle in a set of ring braces on one wall, another trophy among the rest. It used an uncommon bullet caliber. Totally useless without advanced warning. Not unlike the pieces of the Virtue’s receiver core, both of which were now in a shielded lead box and locked in his personal storage trunk. He, Nem, and Wilcox prodded at them a couple times during the transit from Hub to Gloria. Nem had some ideas, as Kor hoped she would. In recent days, she and Wilcox were reading through technical manuals to improvise a means for actually, well, using the supposed tracking ability of the strange material from the dreadnought.

Another count where they were making it up as they went. Another blank slate before them. All these maps and Kor didn’t know where he was going. Not specifically. That was the primary, heart-of-hearts attraction. Even if you found dead ends or had to turn away from an endless horizon of nothing.

Realizing his mental brooding read-outs were trending into the red zone, Kor decided to call it a night. He rolled up the prized survey chart and slid it back into its avorium case, the metal silky smooth to his touch. The other charts received a cursory stacking on the desk, weighed down by the Wink’s logbook and the newer Ferron book. Kor opened the desk’s locking drawer and caught sight of that strip of old red silk. One of Bianca’s from those years he claimed to have left behind. He supposed its continuing presence, and recent accords, made him a damn liar.

Ah well.

Kor returned the map case to the drawer and closed it, the lock’s click loud in the silent cabin. Then he reached over and turned off the light. The chase continued ever onward and it would be a long day tomorrow. Whether the target was new starts, old virtues, or whatever else. It was the pursuit of that ideal place. The search for fresh, unbroken skies.

 

Chapter Two

Once again faced with the full dire splendor of the storm, Kor had to admit: The Ferron upwell sure as hell didn’t look like it was fading. As before, a titanic wall of stacked, alternating bands of cloud flows sealed off the northwestern half of the sky. Unpredictable winds shoved against the Wink and Smile every which way, even at this prudent distance of a few clicks further out than strictly necessary. Above, a constant outflow of moisture and energy streamed outward in the Heights, the smooth ceiling spotted with bulbous swells trailing curtains of rain. Below, the Churn was highly active, billowing upward in fleeting, spire-like thrusts among massive anvil-topped systems. Some of those storms below were night black, as if constructed of sculpted obsidian, shining with firm, assured destruction in the morning sunlight.

But the past few days of observation have been consistent. The wrath of the Down Below was confined to its normal upper bounds, and those spin-off storms dissipated quickly as they left Ferron. The activity in the Heights, while a cold, constant ceiling, was widely spread. As for the storm wall itself, it was a broken, decaying front. There were great visible gaps in the wall, stretches in the rotating clouds where the barrier faded to a swiftly moving fog, tempting windows of opportunity. Beyond those fleeting openings lay dark gray sky, but one not completely riven by storms. A calmer expanse waiting within the dying titan.

“Tell me once more, Doc,” Kor said over his shoulder.

“What inner readings we can see are orders of magnitude lower than before,” Chantil said from the conditions console. Her voice was a mix of resignation at repeating herself for his benefit and a nervous edge all her own. “Lightning activity is down. Vertical drafts are scattered. Overall wind strength down.”

“Those gaps give me just enough time to get a listen on the interior,” Nem added. “It’s rough, but navigable, with a rise in clarity at some distances before going fuzzy. Sounds like a normal stormy sky beyond the reach of the wall.”

‘Beyond the reach of the wall’. That’s the rub, the variable, theoretical distance they’d have to cut through to reach relatively stable skies. The primary risk. For today, at least.

We are ready, Kor reminded himself, a constant mental mantra for the last few days. The cargo hold contained supplies for weeks, with room to spare for any opportune loot. Wilcox assured him not two hours ago that the engines, power systems, tilts, filters, and everything in between was in top-notch shape. Even a quick freelancing (and procrastinating) job was hard to snag with all the temporary competition in their home port. Gloria was packed full of would-be explorers and prospectors and even a couple wildcat settler groups. All looking to stake a claim as soon as the storm allowed passage.

Nothing left but to move forward. This was the objective, the grand goal on the horizon, and eating up half of it before their eyes. Every extra hour inside Ferron could translate to extra payoff, more time without much competition. These initial weeks of the fading storm belonged to the bold, the lucky, and the reckless. Kor considered himself two out of the three on a good day. As for which two, well, that’s another variable.

Kor took a long, slow breath and patted the luck charm against his chest. It was time.

“We’re taking the next large gap in the storm wall,” he announced. “All hands strap in.”

“Ears open, sharp,” Nem said. The rattle of both her and Chantil tugging on their seat restraints followed.

“Engine room ready to burn,” Lukas replied through the comm. He and Silja were down there assisting Wilcox with whatever minor crises Kor never had the displeasure of learning about. A small privilege of being captain.

Kor angled the Wink upward, taking her on a long ascent. Low and high were both choked with storms and activity, but when the Churn was acting up, higher was always better. The storm wall loomed ever larger in the forward view, the flows gaining texture and complex, interplaying shades of grays and blues. Between each band lay a boundary zone of chaotic, floral swirls, the shearing crosswinds therein worth giving ample room. Kor picked out a tall counter-clockwise band and dropped into a parallel course running against the flow.

Howling winds enveloped the ship, a dull yet penetrating drone without pattern or rhythm. Kor felt a secondary vibration through the ship’s controls, an extra sense for responding to the conditions and endless, rapid changes outside.

“Weakening intensity incoming from the west,” Chantil reported. “Looks like a big one.”

“Confirmed, Cap.” Both of their voices were muted from the roar of the storm. The ship was so close to the walls of the storm Kor couldn’t see any difference in the hulking, churning mass ahead of them. He would trust their word and the signals.

“Entering skim position,” he said.

The Wink and Smile drew close to the storm wall. Harsh winds sheared against the ship, the tug-of-war between natural forces and the strength of the hull. After a few moments of fighting to keep the Wink aligned in a constant skipping tangent to the curve of the storm, Kor finally felt sure. The storm was weaker than last time, when they deployed the buoys. Its grip wasn’t as solid and the crosswinds, while fierce, were more noise than substance. The ship’s adjustment jets needed only moderate micromanagement. He could pull them away to safety with ease.

Ahead, the solid cloud wall faded into a swirling, dark gray mist. As the leading front of the gap passed them, the Wink shuddered from the sudden absence of the walls’ inward pull and the storm went silent around them. In the distance, a curl of cloud approached, like a vertical arcus front, signaling the gap ending in a concentrated, mile-wide wall of force.

“Brace,” Kor announced, his voice a hollow thunder through the ship’s comm in this final moment of relative quiet.

A simple turn inward, a maneuver he’d done countless times in every ship he’d ever flown. The Wink and Smile darted inside the upwell storm, the gap putting up so little resistance Kor nearly overcompensated. He yanked them out of the potential spin and realigned into an arrow straight northwest course, aimed fast and true at the heart of Ferron and away from the wall.

“Spots,” Kor ordered. They should have been on from the start. He knew he forgot something. Hard white light sliced ahead of the ship after a moment, highlighting thin zephyrs of haze flowing at speeds unfelt. The crosswinds didn’t match the sight. As if they were pushed along by other forces, or perhaps were mere optical illusions. Behind, unseen directly, the arcing front closed the gap in the storm wall and the skies around them grew that much darker, a pervasive gray gloom.

The droning roar of the Ferron storm returned, now an all-encompassing din.

“Adjust port by sixteen degrees, unknown sign,” Nem voice carried the hollow tone of her being deep in the mix.

“Port by sixteen.”

The patter of heavy dust rang against the hull, punctuated by a handful of bullet-like pings. Drifting boulders flared on his positioning screen in their former course before dissipating into ghostly impressions in their wake.

Ahead, a roll of near-black cloud descended from above, a smooth swell, while a powerful updraft pushed them into it. It was as if a titan’s hands were sculpting the skies specifically to crush the new intruder. Kor shoved the Wink and Smile into a hard dive, cutting through the updraft and seeking clearer stretches of airspace below. Chantil fed him a string of directions, generally where not to go. The tilt turbines screamed, their efforts heard loud and clear through the creaking, flexing hull and storm’s howling. As they pierced through the boundary of the updraft, the loss of counter-force nearly flipped the ship over. Kor cut the descent and all on board were rocked as if they impacted a hard floor. One of his dials shot into a warning zone. The rest were merely stressed, but green.

“Line rupture on starboard tilt,” Lukas reported as if on cue. “We’re patching.”

“Understood.” Kor leveled out their descent and now the ship slightly tilted to starboard. He eased off the turbine for now and pressed hard on the starboard jets, though they couldn’t compensate for the entire loss.

Not once did he dare think this was a mistake. No. They were cutting through the birth of a remade stretch of sky and no birth was without its pains.

“Floor is dropping fast,” Chantil reported. “You’ve plenty of space ahead. Electric low. Pressure off.”

There was little to see outside. A blank slate gray, the distant clouds defined by degrees of darkness while the constant winds smoothed away details. The Wink and Smile rocked and bumped to a random beat of minor forces as they cruised in a shallow descent. The roiled ceiling fell out of sight, muddled by distance. After a few minutes, Kor felt the starboard tilt climb back to normal strength, the needle on its linked dial smoothly dropping to nominal.

“Test it,” Lukas again.

Kor did so, righting their slightly angled course.

“Feeling good, much obliged folks,” he said into the comm.

Mist beaded against the forward windows, but no rain pattered against the hull. It was twilight-dark, but navigable. Winds and squalls roared in the distance, the encircling upwell storm wall a background growl, a low undercurrent thrumming through the body of the ship and into Kor’s bones.

That’ll take some getting used to.

“We’re past the influence of the walls, Icomb. Conditions are falling into,” a pause, “Simply a gigantic stretch of stormy skies.”

“Immense variations in the soundscape,” Nem added, “But comprehensible in the local.”

“Which means there should be lulls, bands of calm,” Kor ventured. There had to be. Those signals couldn’t all be phantoms.

“Agreed,” Chantil said. “Searching.”

“Maintaining a general north-northwest course until you two tell me otherwise,” Kor said.

A long, strangely normal stretch of storm riding followed, the skies outside darkened from the narrow, chilled band of altitude they rode. A test of endurance as they sought out the known (assumed?) inner regions of calm that sang to them over the storm wracked miles.

Their immediate visual and aural detection was consistently poor, but Kor chose this entry point not only due to its proximity to the eastern buoy deployment, but on account of relatively empty skies on the pre-storm map. While they had no reason to assume the regions would be as clear as back then, there was nothing to say otherwise until they saw the nature of the reborn expanse for themselves. Might as well hope something stayed the same.

Tempting periods of stillness tried to lull him into a false sense of security, the repetition of reacting to the slightest new crosswinds or course adjustments from Nem or Chantil keeping him alert and sharp. To say nothing of the occasional band of hard-charging wind, an invisible flow within the greater system suddenly shoving the Wink into an altered course.

Kor weaved the ship through near misses of stone, from spinning bergs to clouds of pebbles. Chantil warned him away from lightning-threaded systems, flashing in the distance with unbridled power. Nem guided their heading through cold, near-freezing skies, lanes of icy safety in the chaos. And behind, the crew in the engine room kept the fires burning, allowing the Wink and Smile to leave a hot trail across Ferron. And onward they flew through a convocation of raw, elemental skies.

 Then the ship and skies gradually fell into a true stillness, like all creation let out a long-held breath. Visibility grew as the endless murk gave way to clarity, the skies clearer, if still perpetually gray, sealed above and below by barriers of swiftly moving cloud systems.

“Would you look at that,” Kor murmured.

Thin Churn-to-Heights funnels danced in gentle processions far from their course. A temporary forest of vaporous trees, almost mocking their resident destructive forces. Tumbling boulders, their size hard to judge this far away, weaved among the cyclones. Some smashed together, fusing into one. Others rose from the cloud floor to join the dance. An upwell of material from below, the creation of isles before their eyes.

Kor heard the scratch of pen on paper from Chantil behind him, recording the sight.

Glad I came to terms with the maps being marginal guidelines yesterday. If this was even a rare occurrence while the storm was fading, the degree of changes to the old structure of Ferron might be even greater than they ever suspected.

“How’s it sound, Nem?”

“The storm howls in the distance,” Nem said, “A dying heart, the fading fire. It used to be so menacing. Dire. Violent. Glorious. Now mere residual echoes of that magnificence.”

Kor turned in his seat and asked, “You OK there?” He caught Chantil eyeing Nem with a raised brow, her pencil quickly scribing down an additional note.

Nem was hunched over the N/C console, the very image of focus. She shook herself and straightened her back. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said with a wan smile. “Just a lot to take in.”

“We’ll press on through this calm for a while. Keep an ear out for anything large enough to serve as shelter but don’t overdo it.” Kor knew she would voluntarily put in unhealthy hours once they activated their buoy networks. Another system to keep an eye on.

“Will do.”

The calm persisted, though they weaved their course to follow softer skies away from the fractious boundary storm walls. Weak, heavily filtered sunlight managed to pierce the cloud ceiling in scattered, narrow rays. Yet in every direction lay a violent potential for chaos interspersed with expanding bands of calm, of normalcy. A remade world emerging from the storm.

 

Chapter Three

Kor sipped his coffee. An Altani variety, though the thermos’s metal cap gave it an off flavor. A second thermos was tucked under his arm. It was morning, though neither bright nor early. He had flown through the previous day, guiding the Wink on a course through the outer bounds of Ferron. Once they got a handle on the greater storm and its surprising subsystems, it wasn’t too difficult to dodge the worst of it. Just a long test of endurance.

He leaned on the catwalk railing overlooking the cargo hold. Below was a maze of wood and metal crates, all crossed with bright red and yellow straps. Narrow paths allowed access to the turret nest and the handful of utility rooms on the lowest deck. The sundry supplies and gear held up well so far. A few toppled from poor securement during their various dives and turns and ascents yesterday, but were already stacked back up with an extra strap or two for good measure.

Kor proceeded with his delivery to the engine room, taking the gentle shifts of the ship under his feet in stride, the conditions outside calm, but far from still. He paused, as he often did, at the threshold of the engine room. This place always carried the sense of sacred ground. A part of his ship, but the responsibility more or less out of his hands, a subdomain contracted out. The moment passed and Kor stepped inside into the engine room, only to be immediately struck by a disorienting blast of cold air. The thrum of the Wink’s engines and power systems merged with unseen sets of fans into a raucous din. Wilcox must have the intakes on full blast. Understandable, given how long and hot they ran yesterday. A strange mix of hot and cold played against his skin, the suffusion of lingering heat from the arrayed systems and energies eventually winning out.

Wilcox reclined on a short, fold-out bench and gave Kor an acknowledging wave as he entered. As usual, the mechanic was slightly frowning at nothing in particular, and looked like he was running on a questionable amount of sleep. He gave a grateful grunt when Kor handed over the coffee. A critical resupply.

“Much obliged, Captain,” Wilcox said after taking a long drink.

“We good?” Kor motioned around the engine room, at everything and nothing in particular. Valves. Meters. Pipes. Etcetera.

“She’s good. Try to ease up on the starboard jets until we set down. Their pressure’s off from yesterday.”

“Alright.” If all went according to plan, they wouldn’t need much in that regard today.

“I reinforced the patch on the feed lines for the starboard tilt. Checked over the other side as well. Should be fine going forward.”

“What was the problem?”

“You mean besides that vicious dive and recoil you pulled on us?”

Kor waved him off and conceded. “Fair enough.”

Their stowaway cat watched the two men from a padded cubby in one wall, a converted tool storage compartment. A mesh netting hung from two mounting spokes and could stretch over the opening. He gave Kor one of those fixed feline stares that some people (perhaps present company) imbued with enigmatic intelligence. Kor thought the little gray fellow looked empty headed. Maybe both.

“You good?” Kor asked.

A pause. “Yeah, Captain. So far. You should ask again in a week or two.”

“Well, you should have made that hire instead of getting up to trouble.”

“Ah, Sil and Lukas are good enough for the time being.” He took a drink, shaking his head with inwardly targeted dismay. “I didn’t plan on laying low the last couple days in port. I assumed they wouldn’t overtax the corvette’s core during a damn parade display. Makes me question the quality of mechs they got running their fancy ships, honestly. Needed to contract me in twice now.”

“Send ‘em a bill.”

The ghost of a grin pass across Wilcox’s face. “Nah. The second time was a freebie.”

“We’ll be charting at a hover for a few hours soon, assuming the weather holds out.”

“The buoys?”

“Yep.”

Wilcox nodded, his gaze drifting over to the opposite wall, looking at something unseen beyond. Part of the comm array, if Kor had to guess.

“Should be a simple matter of flipping the switch. Everything on our end has been ready to go for a while.”

“Good to know. You take it easy for a spell, Wilcox.”

“Way ahead of you, Captain.”

Kor proceeded up to the flight deck. The ship swayed in the winds, but just a touch. It was calm enough for Kor to be unstrapped and pace about, which is what he really needed this fateful morning.

“Captain on deck,” Lukas said from the conditions console. Kor almost chuckled at the formality, despite his friend’s wry tone. He’ll take what he could get.

“I’d tell you ‘at ease’, but you’re already there.”

Lukas was kicked back, wielding a mug of coffee and a bar of hardtack rations. He eyed a few critical read-outs and dials, keeping watch for the warning signs of incoming rough skies. He raised the ration bar at Kor, offering a square or two.

“You know we got better food, right?” Kor asked after refusing Lukas’s generous offer. If anything, they should be saving all of the bland, long-term rations. For multiple reasons, taste and enjoyment being secondary.

“Call it habit. I’m used to them,” Lukas said with a shrug. “Also, this one broke open from one of the fallen crates yesterday.”

“Waste not.”

Kor walked the length of the flight deck. He gave Nem a quick ‘hold’ gesture as he passed her and stopped beside Silja at the ship’s controls. Her current searing red hair contrasted against the distant cast in her eyes. Partly from a long shift, sure, but also a glimmer of seeking something out in the murk, something Kor couldn’t guess, though he knew the root cause.

“You want to swap out?” Kor could work from the pilot console. Just a matter of juggling clipboards and pens and controls if need be.

“I got another hour or so in me. Besides,” she nodded ahead, “Second best view on the ship, even when it’s a whole lot of nothing. Guess it’s first while the turret’s sealed up.” They closed off the turret opening and retracted the guns for now. All the better for storm riding and if they had the skies to themselves there wasn’t much need for the firepower.

“Alright,” Kor said. He knew she could power through some exceptionally long hauls, both from a shared past in former fleets and recent test runs.

Kor paused at the forward windows. Outside, the Ferron Expanse was an interminable gray sky, the floor and ceiling mirrored slate clouds, unmoving at a glance, like a dull painting. There was no way to be sure about the weather in Ferron, and despite an initial learning process, Kor was as far from trusting the region as he could be. It has only been one day, after all.

“Nem, does it sound as clear as it looks?” This might be best they were going to get.

“Sure does,” Nem replied without missing a beat. “Good conditions for casting and reception, Cap.”

“Alright. Slow her to a hover, Sil.”

“Easy hover,” Silja confirmed. ‘Hover’ wasn’t quite accurate. In fact, they were riding a slow, wide wind current band within the greater storm, their position orbiting the distant center in a gentle northward drift. Despite the calm conditions, the storm thrummed through the air and ship alike. Low enough to ignore when you had something better to do, but it crept in during idle moments, an eerie presence running through all.

Kor ended his delaying tactics on the forward side of the Nav/Comm console. He stood with arms wide, palms against the console, head down. Moment of truth. It was time to switch on their custom buoy networks. Their approximate position was roughly between the two buoy deployment arcs, but there was no telling just how far the storm spread the tech across Ferron. To say nothing of the disrupted deployment of the south arc.

Please just work. Just give me three in each arc. You can take the rest.

He finally met Nem’s patient, almost cat like stare. She was wide-eyed, energized in a way only the young could be after a long yesterday, and ready to get to work.

“Turn ‘em on, Nem.”

“Woo-hoo!”

Nem crisply clacked through a handful of buttons and switches, then slid on her right elbow to the far end of the console to reach a final activation command. She wrangled her headphones into position, slightly bobbing in place in excitement. Her grin was the brightest thing they’d seen since they left the sun behind on the outside of the storm walls.

Kor held position at the N/C console. In a stroke of mercy, it was a short wait for the initial results.

“They’re coming online,” Nem said, voice barely above a whisper. Her exuberance faded into a mask of focus, eyes closed, lips tight. She flipped a switch and the deck’s speakers let out a stream of quiet white noise. The heavily filtered incoming band was soon speckled with scattered bright chimes. Ding. Ding. Ding.

“That’s the east arc reporting in. Ping-back is the nearest node.”

Kor pumped his fist in early celebration. That’s one. He circled around the N/C console to the rear table, its surface covered with his notes and charts. A copy of the southeast quadrant of Ferron formed the base layer of the table’s mess. Kor slid into the bench and snatched up a pencil, then sorted through the stacks of paper and notebooks and magnetic pins.

“Where’d it end up?” Kor asked.

Far. At least a hundred miles from the deployment zone. It’s relaying the wake signal.”

“We got coordinates?”

Another pause accompanied by the tuning of dials, and the crackling noise washing over the flight deck dropped to a muted hiss. The tell-tale pings rose in prominence, setting a cool, metal beat to their actions. Nem whispered to herself, words unintelligible to Kor.

“Got ‘em,” she said. “Ready?”

“Hit me.”

She did so and Kor saw the buoy had traveled much farther than expected, but still well within useful range. He hastily slashed out a pair of arcing parallel lines along their present course, the calm band of weather they rode. The node was just inside the lines, unless his estimation was wildly off the mark. Could be, but any potential stability or predictability was great news.

“I got east node two,” Nem announced, the sound of relief harmonizing with her dead-serious, focused voice. “Muddled signal. Either really far or in the middle of a storm or other disruption. Hearing at least four ping-backs from the relay buoys.”

“Give me the ranges when you get them.” Six out of eight. An excellent rate of survival.

“Imperial Cylind,” Nem reminded him.

“Sure.” The old scheme but they could convert later.

Each range of coordinates was followed by a satisfying clunk as Nem locked them into a bank of saved, high priority targets. Kor circled the ranges of each buoy on his draft map, then set one of the magnetic markers against the large copy of the Ferron map covering the table. The eastern arc buoys were haphazardly spread over a wide range of hundreds of miles. Still, it was good coverage of an area that once held a fair number of valuable islands. They would have to make a pass through the network to narrow the ranges, but the immediate potential value already nodded toward at least breaking even in these early days.

“The nearest buoy. Is that range correct?” The closest circle of uncertainty was an incredibly tight area, so accurate as to be suspicious at this stage and under the still-prevailing weather conditions.

“I checked it twice before telling you. Weirdly good data, yeah.”

“Could it be damaged?”

“Possibly. Its signal tone is odd. And relaying through there is weaker than taking the wrong way around.”

“Sounds like you got your first maintenance job,” Lukas said from the conditions console, his first peanut-gallery comment since they started.

“You might be right,” Kor agreed. He jotted down a note near the buoy in question and examined the skeleton of a map. The target range wasn’t too far away, they could make it there around midday tomorrow. Take a route along this calm channel for as long as possible, then dip back into the rougher fringes to the buoy.

“Got the south arc coming in,” Nem said. A fury of clicks and adjustments followed, her hands composing a tune only she could hear.

Kor’s hopes weren’t high for the southern arc. Loathe as he was to let the Remnant’s threat influence his actions, the eastern arc was an easier job, closer to Gloria, and required faster investigation. Time was off the essence. They needed to get moving on anything valuable before the swarm arrived with the full fading of the storm. Better to go for the assured medium value than the risky jackpots. For now.

“Hearing one node. Not a peep from the other,” Nem said, voice mournful.

“Understood.”

“Disruption is fiercer out that way. The signals are a mess, not casting it here. Even so, I’m getting two relay points in our network.”

Three out of seven. Just barely on the right side of useful, and then only marginally. Nine out of sixteen buoys made it, though. Credit to their maker and sturdy Vostokan design.

“Ranges when you get them.”

“Aye.”

Kor added three more circles to the map, a pathetic trio scattered around the resource-rich southern Ferron-that-was. The results were less than ideal but, should the need arise, the buoys would serve as a handful of loaded dice for the area.

With the buoy activation completed, Kor took over flying the ship, though he brought a manageable bundle of material and drafts to the pilot console. Course adjustments were few enough, the conditions outside cooperating. As the network relayed in more information, Kor spent the time hunched over the first draft map, the chart now dotted with isles of marginal certainty among expanses of the unknown. It was starting to look like a real map now and wildly different from the pre-storm chart.

“I’ve been scouting out the area around that nearest buoy,” Nem said after a time. “Getting a lot of rock-sign muddled with the expected tone.”

“How much we talkin’ here?”

“Medium isle. Hand in hand and beat in beat with the buoy.”

“It’s stuck to an island. It must be.”

“Sounds like it. There’s some drift, though I can’t fine-tune the numbers this far away.”

Kor examined the map and reviewed his quickly sketched route to the buoy from earlier. Yes, they could reach it early tomorrow, barring any unforeseen barriers of weather.

“I’m all for putting the first solid feature on this map,” he said while bringing the ship back to full power. The Wink shook herself out of a half-sleep, the thrumming from the rear engines rising to a cruising thrust. The ambient sound of wind and the ever-present grinding roar of the greater storm faded in favor of the familiar mechanical and metallic groans of the ship in motion on a fresh heading. One of the best feelings in the skies.

On a whim Kor asked, “Hey, Nem. Any ship-sign?”

“Not a peep, Cap.”

“Perfect.”

Chapter Four

Frost crystals dusted the forward windows in fleeting patterns while the hull shivered in the winds. The skies were heavy with moisture and dark, the daylight hours once again more suggestion than any point of fact. A persistent chill crept into the flight deck, amplified by the jouncing, inconsistent ride. With storm fronts and thunderheads emerging from above and below, their viable passages narrowed to a weaving thread through the worst of it all. Kor guided the ship through strange looping currents of air, rattling crosswinds, and frigid bubbles of all-too-brief stillness.

Perhaps with another few rounds of storm riding, Kor thought his ragged edge of nerves and over-awareness of every shudder and shove against the ship could be honed into a functional tool. While he considered his piloting experience comprehensive, one didn’t often specifically practice this sort of flying. The kind where you felt like there was a gun at your back, wielder’s intentions unknown.

Filtered signals output sighed across the flight deck, a gentle white noise speckled with occasional pings from their still-stabilizing buoy network checking in. Their target coordinates chimed ahead of them, the nearest buoy a guiding light in the brooding, icy storm. Only another hour or so of rough flying to cut through this maze of storm systems, ending in a probable (presumed, heard and hopefully seen) calm nearer the buoy and its bonded island.

A distracting wave of static flickered on Kor’s positioning screen, a pulse of disruption centered on the Wink herself. On the fritz, again. He frowned and queued up a mild curse.

“That’s odd,” Chantil said behind him. “Looks like a—”

WHAM. A gigantic hammer blow crashed against the topside of the Wink and Smile. The ship reeled from the blow, listing heavily to starboard, their weight suddenly unbalanced. Metal groaned and ripped aft of the flight deck as whatever hit them rolled off. Kor shook the shock from his head and hauled the ship back in line, all the while listening to the crunch and shatter of smaller impacts hailing down over their heads. Then came the heart-stopping moment of consideration, of the ship absorbing the blow and learning how bad the damage was. Indicators across his console shifted into the red, needles danced wildly, alarms buzzed and beeped.

But the controls never wavered in his hands. Engines intact, tilts spinning. Kor categorized and dismissed the array of concerns and minor emergencies with a firm mental ‘later’.

Outside, massive bergs of ice descended from a dark slate ceiling, a hailstorm with ammunition the size of boulders. The skies ahead flashed as the hail sliced through the beam of the ship’s spotlight. They were suddenly enveloped in a frozen hell.

“Emergency ringing, all ears open and searching,” Nem called out above the din.

Kor’s positioning screen held firm and did its duty, drawing up the largest hailstones, though their presence was as fleeting as frost against the windows. The static wave was a warning, the little screen trying to resolve a sudden, descending scattering of objects. Kor pulled the ship hard to port, where the fewest flickering warning circles appeared.

“Check this nav line,” he ordered.

“Best I can see,” Nem confirmed.

Kor surged the ship ahead with all due haste. Lighter impacts resounded off the hull and their flanks. A few additional hard blows rained down, each sounding like the beginning of the end, but none as severe as the first. The Wink’s propulsion maintained thrust and agility. They weren’t damaged where it counted and that made all the difference. For all the appeal of having these skies to themselves, if they went adrift there would be no one to lend aid.

Then, the frozen fury dwindled to a few scattered pings against the hull. The ship entered another calm patch of skies, the relative silence heavy with unspoken threats. Fouled air flowed through the flight deck, carrying the scent of chemicals and leaking oil. Some kind of line rupture, which would explain system readouts going red on Kor’s end. As their course smoothed, Kor could pick out missing background ship noises, only notable in their absence. An annoying new buzz started up somewhere unseen.

“All hands, sound off,” Kor said, ship-wide. A fiercer chill made itself felt around his legs and against his bare hands. Defenses compromised on that front.

Chantil and Nem each returned a ‘here’ over both of his shoulders.

“I’m alive,” Silja said through the comm, sounding rudely awakened.

“We’re fine down here,” Wilcox reported. “Heat distribution cut out somewhere, Captain. Going to get cold up there. Seeing what else is busted now.”

“Understood.” There were far worse results than a chill.  “Will try to find you a smoother line to get around easier.”

“Much appreciated. We will need a set-down-power-down,” Wilcox warned.

“Good thing we’re headed toward one already.” This first island was now a repair and survey stop. Kor rapped his knuckles against the glass of the positioning screen. “I take back half of what I said about you, little friend.”

He could partially diagnose from the pilot’s controls. A quick tap through the jets showed no response from a handful on the top side. Exterior damage up there, doubly noticeable from a slight additional drag, the ship not quite as smooth and nimble against the passing skies.

“How’s our route?”

“Weather’s clearing out for now. Looks like another ring of easier skies,” Chantil said.

“Getting the signals back in line, Cap. I’ll have a fine-tune for you in a few.”

“Good enough for me. Onward, if with a limp.”

*  *  *

The conditions data bore out, soothing the skies into another extended calm, the prevailing flow of winds now clockwise and southerly. Ahead, the target island sat high and still, though the swiftly moving cloud ceiling and floor made this area appear rough. The Wink and Smile approached the western side, where the isle’s ice-packed main peak presented a cold shoulder to its first visitors in years.  Meltwater trails descended into the isle’s lowlands and careened off the edge cliffs to create a vaporous cloak on the landform’s underside.

All in all, the island lay on the right side of gloomy as it emerged from the long storm. With uneven cliff lines riddled by wind-blunting inlets and sheltering hollows, and the first impression of water supplies, there was moderate promise here. While not nearly large enough to be the next great freeport in the Northwest Frontier, perhaps it could become a waystation or small colony, depending on its post-storm climate and the quality of its stone and soil.

“WS-F-001,” Kor declared formally. He wouldn’t presume to give it anything more than a quick serial number. Especially since it might already have a pre-storm name, once they got down the vital details and compared it to the old maps. Whether any such name would stick in the following years wasn’t for him to decide either.

“Buoy signal’s on the south side,” Nem said.

“Bringing us around. Check to see if this is a bottle isle.” A matter of due diligence for any isle, the dice-roll check to see if its caves and canyons were significant rain-catchers. Reservoirs of water, large or small, were of the highest priority in an expanse like Ferron.

“Getting some hollow replies back, yeah. Nothing huge, though.”

“Noted.”

The dry, necessary collection of survey details followed. Approximate weight, surface area, height, drift, classification codes for visual mineral composition, wildlife, water supply. The island wore two shades of stone. A weathered brown made up the majority, the edges worn down by unknown years of wind and rain. A mature pre-storm island, scoured of most of whatever lived on it before, though it now wore a patchy coat of moss and other clinging, stubborn plant life. Attached to the southern side, however, was a much rawer, jagged extension of the island, the stone a dark gray, almost black, its formations pointed and unwelcoming. The seam between the two looked like a line of hot glue only recently cooled. A fresh rock from the Churn, colliding with a native. And apparently, trapping one of their buoys between them somewhere.

“It’s got a bit of a drift to it, but the alignment is stable,” Kor concluded. “Good resources, good terrain. Looks like we got a winner.”

“Which was clear from the plant growth alone,” Chantil said. “I’d say right-side-up for the duration of the storm.”

“What’re you thinking, Doc?” asked as he eyed out a landing spot on the southern lowlands near their buoy signal.

“It could harbor a population of something bigger than spores and grasses. Depends on cave and underground system for shelter.”

“So long as it’s not another sleeping hive of giant beetle-things.”

“I cannot rule out that possibility from here, Icomb.”

Kor gave her a short, mirthless laugh. “Well, I can give you a few hours on isle, depending on repairs to the ship and the buoy.”

“That will serve, though I could easily spend a week here,” Chantil said.

Kor landed the Wink on a rock-strewn plain near the buoy signal. Pools of water rippled with gray reflections of the swiftly flowing skies and old ice glinted in the shadows of rocky overhangs. Expanding fields of short grasses partially covered the plain, the growth long enough to twitch in the winds, as if the land itself shivered in the chilled air. The terrain rambled downward from the tableland of the larger established isle toward the collision zone between the two, now merged into one, isles. There, the impact had shredded and partially collapsed the cliff edges, remaking that corner of the isle into a field of spines, the upturned stone like sparsely spread teeth.

“Powering down all systems,” Kor said into the comm. “Wilcox, I’ll check out the topside damage in a minute here.”

“Roger that. I’m going to worm my way up to the interior damage. See you at the breech.”

All went quiet save for the wind against the hull. Kor stood from the pilot console and stretched away the hours. After a moment, the grinding background roar of the upwell storm crept into his hearing.

“Alright, Nem I got you a short hike to the buoy. Doc, you mind rolling your first walk-about into covering her?”

“Certainly,” Chantil replied. She glanced at a meter on the conditions console, then looked at Nem and said, “I’ll meet you outside, Nem. Wear a coat.”

Nem stared out the forward windows at the cold, windswept landscape.

“I hate field work,” she muttered to herself. But she pulled off her headphones and unbuckled all the same.

Kor swung by his cabin for his old flight jacket, already feeling the need while inside the ship, the outside chill fully infiltrating the corridors. The top-side access hatch was off the corridor leading to the flight deck, a short climb through the upper hull of the ship. Kor waited a moment at the base of the ladder, trying to banish various images of horrifying hull damage that he rightly knew couldn’t be the case.

Up top, the first thing he noticed was the wind trying mightily to cut through his coat, a stylish but perhaps insufficient choice. It wasn’t quite freezing, but the high altitude pulled no punches. Then his eyes fell on the crude tear in the Wink’s topside hull about halfway back, a circular dent punctuated by a rip in the metal. An unlucky hit but a fortunate placement. A few feet difference and the hailstone might have damaged the tilt turbine under the starboard-side flare of the ship’s body.

Kor stepped up to the rent in the hull. A section of the outer plating had been ripped off from the winds. It pained him to even see it, but was an understandable result and not as bad as he imagined. A split lip after a fight. He estimated they could cut a new panel from the spares and patch and seal the gap quick and easy. Through the hole he could see a utility access crawlspace. Soon enough, lantern light bobbed through the shadows and Wilcox looked up through the gap at him.

“Tell me good news,” Kor called down at Wilcox. The mechanic pointedly looked around the crawl space, either in genuine assessment or to make him wait that much longer.

“First impression: Not as bad as it sounded at the time,” Wilcox admitted. He reached out of Kor’s sight and yanked on something. Kor winced at the snap of broken machinery.

“A couple ruptures from the impact. Already got a patch on those. Few other things just needed a cooldown and reset. I’ll have to run some new wires in a little bit here, once I see how much of the hull needs either hammering out or a panel swap.”

“She’s dented and a bruised, but the damage isn’t so bad, by my count.”

“Alright. I’ll climb up there in a few, in any case.”

Kor nodded, always willing to defer to an expert second opinion. All the while, he kept checking the horizon with quick sweeps, eyes hard, ears open. The skies were calm, nothing amounting to a threat emerging from the pervasive overcast conditions. Yet a brooding weight hung in the air. Just enough to make you want to get a move on as soon as possible.

“I don’t want to overnight here.” If need be, they could probably find a sufficiently large overhang or sheltering cave for the ship. Kor didn’t worry much about the isle getting flipped over.

“Nah, she’ll fly fine. But I’ll have a better idea soon enough,” Wilcox said, always keeping space to retreat and reassess the timeline of repairs. A true professional. He dug into his bag of gear and held up a roll of measuring tape. Kor gingerly reached around the jagged edge of the tear in the hull and grabbed it.

“Get me some initial measurements, if you would be so kind, Captain.”

“Sure thing.”

Kor straightened and allowed himself a quick survey of the landscape around the Wink and Smile. He watched Nem and Chantil depart from the ship. They walked through a hardy patch of growth with thick, almost wooly curls of dark green, the ground slick from precious, locked-up moisture. Nem picked her way through the grasses with hunched shoulders, bundled up in a rarely-seen winter coat and carrying a communications repair kit in a beat-up case. The elder woman strode slightly ahead with ease, occasionally kneeling to take a closer look at some detail or another in the field.

Back to the task at hand. Kor carefully measured the extent of damage on the hull, both the greater dent from the impact and the section of hull they would need to patch. The color would be off, the replacement panels didn’t have the right pale green hue.

“The first isle and the first scar,” Kor said to himself once he committed the initial measurements to memory. He knocked on the hull twice, maybe for luck, maybe to reassure himself of the ship’s solidity. “Here’s to many of the first and few of the second.”


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