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.

(Continues next week!)

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Season One
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Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017