Chapter One – Kor

Flying through a scattering was hard to recommend to anyone with a lick of sense. As geographically fixed fields of broken or newly risen bergs and other isle-forms, one could usually go around, over, or under them. Only fools, rogues, or the highly incentivized chose to fly into and through.

Kor felt like a little of all three.

Rain drummed against the Wink and Smile’s hull, a steady chorus of noise layered atop the wealth of information Kor juggled while keeping the ship on track. The tumbling chaos of the Dross stretched out as far as he could see and beyond, from Churn to Heights and hundreds of miles across. High bands of rain clouds dimmed visibility, but the skies remained navigable. The flight controls translated the strong winds and subtle currents against the ship into tactile resistance in his hands. His positioning screen flared with boulders and bergs milling about the nearby skies. Nem fed him a stream of call-outs and course adjustments, her nav/comm gear listening further out into the Dross. There was a new sound as well: the smooth glide of metal runners two decks below as Lukas swiveled and stretched the new turret, waiting for the call of a potential threat.

Kor didn’t like the look of a patch of boulders ahead, a half dozen fragments turning about each other in unsteady cycles, the intricacies of their dance lost in the rain-crossed gloom. He curved the Wink into a long, easy side-step of the formation, giving it a wide berth, knowing such features could just as likely spin one of its members out as smash together. The forces driving the formation and alignment of all islands across the sky ran rampant in scatterings and made any obstacle worthy of caution.

He didn’t bother to curse the rain or its endurance. On balance, the weather was a benefit during their first day in the Dross, making it harder for any unknown or hostile ships to hear the Wink’s passage. At worst they’d taken a couple dings from debris too small to see or dodge. Kor winced at every additional hollow bang against the hull when the Dross threw out a cheap shot against his ship. The exterior should be undamaged on the whole, though there will be scratches and dents to work out after this job was over.

The job was a hasty recruitment. A woman named Tess rushed up to the Wink on the Gloria docks, extolling a tale of desperate need to aid her associates’ stranded research vessel. ‘Studying a human-made scattering’ was her group’s mission, and now her friends were stuck out in the Dross, that vast scattering of broken islands near the heart of the Northwest Frontier.  Tess had the parts for an on-site repair and a fix on their location but needed a ship to get out there as soon as possible.

It seemed a damn fool thing for a bunch of green Core researchers to pick as their first job out in the frontier. To head into a wilderness, a haven for outlaws, pirates, and anyone else who didn’t want to be found. That didn’t change the fact Kor accepted the job and found himself dodging those same rocks and pirates.

“Got a lane opening, Cap,” Nem reported. “Matches our target line near enough.”

“Hit me.” The attraction and repulsion of the Dross’s free floating stones often converged into clear passages, only to later crash together and erase the fleeting emergence of any greater structure in the chaos. Such lanes were an ephemeral but welcome occurrence, even if they took you a little aside of your true heading.

The day bled by in a tense succession of such findings, riding clear openings in the Dross as long as possible between wilder, seat-of-the-pants navigation. Kor fell into an active trance, his attention flickering between the ever-changing sight out the forward windows and the passive, but no less threatening display on his positioning screen, orange outlines of ship-smashing presence.

Eventually the daylight, such as it was under these rain bands, approached its end.

“You got a shelter for us, Nem?”

“Yep. Got a likely isle ‘bout forty minutes ahead, Cap,” Nem said, leaning over to a side panel at her station. “Steady signal on it, no tumbling over last hour or so.”

“That’ll do.” The larger fragments of the Dross could be stable for months at a time until some other berg smashed into them and sent them back into the communal chaos. There would be no calm, overnight hovering out here.

Their shelter for the night appeared on schedule, a teardrop shaped isle barren of any life more complex than the fuzz of moss it wore like a two-day beard. Kor set the Wink down atop the upper flare of the isle next to a jagged hill that would serve as a wind-break. The ship wobbled slightly with the isle, a gentle, inconsistent sway that’ll do nothing but make any sleep more restless.

There were hundreds larger isles like this out in the Dross, the remnant fragments of the avorium-rich isle chains that used to reside in this stretch of sky. Then the War arrived and brought along its associated industries and hungers. The Dross was the motherlode of the Northwest’s resources and gradually stripped bare by giant Orventian mining ships. Now a legacy of rock and ruin was all that remained.

Kor stood from the helm with a grateful sigh, his joints popping from sitting for far too long. The Wink pointed toward the skies, and he could see the weather was starting to break up and allow in glimpses of fading sunlight.

Nem doffed her headset and ran a hand through her hair, the silver dye recently refreshed into a near-metallic sheen.

“What do you reckon for tomorrow?” Kor asked. “Target point by noon?”

She frowned, lost in thought, eyes distant. Kor waited as the silent moment stretched too long.


Nem snapped alert and said, “Sounds right by me, Cap. The destination signal is a little spotty, but I’ve been narrowing it down all day, when I can.”

“There something else?” he asked. She seemed a little off. Or, rather, she was off in a different direction from usual. Kor chalked it up to the unbroken hours of nav work.

“The local buoys have been sketchy, is all,” Nem said, shaking her head to clear out any lingering fuzz. “Making it harder to narrow down some pings.”

“Not too surprising, the buoy net out here isn’t well maintained. Half of them have been smashed by the rocks and the other half have been mussed with by pirate gangs for years.”

Nem snickered. “Heard some of that. Amateur work. More annoying than anything.”

“I’ll let Tess know what’s up,” he said. “Rest up, Nem. We’re doing it again tomorrow.”

“Can’t wait.”

Kor couldn’t imagine he’d sleep well tonight. The chances of someone coming across them were low, but the risk was there, since this was a good sized isle for overnighting. He glanced once more out the forward windows as he left the flight deck. There was only another hour or two before those chances of discovery approached zero.

The Wink’s observation deck bore the name out of default rather than any assigned purpose. The broad line of windows certainly implied that function. Though if Kor wanted a view of the skies, he’d set the ship to a hover and go up top into the open air. While at rest it was a little too quiet here, and the Wink’s normal noises sounded muffled.

A small round table and mismatched chair were the only furnishings in the chamber, both anchored down via the recessed bind points on the deck. Tess sat back in the chair and gazed out at the evening skyscape. The rainstorm had broken up into scattered component clouds and the descending sun slashed across the sky in fractured rays. Numerous nearby bergs turned in their respective places, the light playing off their ragged surfaces, revealing contours sculpted in infinite variations.

Tess turned in her seat as Kor crossed the empty deck. “Evening, Captain Icomb,” she said, favoring him with a tired smile.

Tess was Kural, but from the inner Core-facing bands of Kor’s homeland, where consistent contact and mixing with fairer-skinned people lightened her skin. She had the sort of face it was hard to say no to, at least initially. More importantly, she was able to pay the majority of the Wink’s fee up front and without haggling. That fact alone made Kor believe her story and her great need.

“This is as far as we go today, Ms. Jorra,” Kor said. “Too many risks flying by night. Don’t want to strand another ship out here.”

“I understand, Captain.”

“We’ll set out at first light and make it to your colleagues by afternoon, I should think.”

Tess relaxed at this news, letting her shoulders slump in relief.

“Good, that…that’s great, Captain.”

“Get some notes in?” Kor asked, looking over the note pad atop the table. Cramped script crowded the paper, written in some manner of shorthand or code. Kor didn’t recognize the language and even if he did, the scientific perspective might be just as mystifying.

“Yes. Merely some additional observations on the Dross. Something to do besides pacing about this chamber. I apologize if I’ve wore a path in your deck, Captain.”

“Totally forgiven,” Kor said. He leaned against one of the support struts along the window bank, splitting his view between Tess and the skyscape outside.

“How long were you folks investigating the Dross before the accident?”

Tess sighed and gave him a mirthless laugh paired with a genuine smile.

“This was our first deep dive. We had just finished an initial study along the edges nearest to Gloria,” she said. Her voice carried a low, melodious timbre, her accent a formal Torsian one of extensive education but seasoned with echoes of their shared homeland. “I stayed behind in Gloria as a point of contact and to send a few advance findings inward.”

“A mix of good and bad luck, then,” Kor said. Kor had to admit he was somewhat charmed by her, job aside. Tess looked to have taken better to the frontier in the very way Chantil resisted it. A comfort in the environment. They were both Core academics, but Tess wore the clothes better. Figuratively and literally.

“Yes, we fell backwards into a decent emergency plan.” She returned her gaze out the windows to the view of rapidly approaching twilight, the shadowed sky spotted with distant dark shapes drifting on wild trajectories.

“Hell of a thing,” Kor said. “How people can shatter a whole patch of sky.”

“Indeed. There’s nothing quite like the Dross anywhere in the known skies. Other scatterings follow rules and patterns. They rise or fall, combine or drift apart. The cycle of new lands forming from the primordial unknown. But here, in this corner of the frontier, is an exception. An enduring devotion to…disorder.”

“Could just be the scattering going local.”

“Perhaps,” Tess, her weary smile making another appearance. “It’s curious how long it’s lasted. Normally a strong hand sets things into a new order, the natural forces of the skies reasserting their rule.”

“Around here we tend to reject such things, and one could say it was a strong hand that created this mess.”

“I suppose that’s true,” she granted.

Chapter Two – Verica

Verica drummed her fingers against the galley table and watched fitful curls of steam rise from the tea kettle. The scent of a mellow, evening blend of tea leaves filled the air, the drink nearly the right temperature. The oblique view of the Dross through the galley windows had gone dark and the first day of this current job was over. Verica felt some minor frustration at being more of a passenger than a participant this time around. The tea was a much needed bulwark against a persistent restlessness.

Tess entered the galley and her eyes instantly locked onto the kettle. She wore every hallmark of multiple days’ worth of worry and distraction.

Verica lifted off the topmost cup from the nested stack and poured herself a serving.

“Tea?” she asked, raising the kettle for a second cup. A wholly understandable look of relief washed over Tess’s face.

“Yes. Thank you, Doctor Chantil.” She sat down heavily on the opposite bench.

Verica poured a second serving and slid the humble but sturdy metal cup across the table toward Tess. Ceramics or other delicate materials had no place here, sadly. The dishware also prevented serving the drink at its proper temperature, but it was within an acceptable range.

“A taste of home,” Tess remarked. The tea was a blend of Kural varieties, the only reasonably priced region of origin out here and understandably favored by their captain and mechanic. Torsian blends were too expensive and access to superior flavors from Eku were lost thanks to the War and Dissolution.

The less said about locally grown varieties the better.

“I thought you might appreciate it.”

“I do. Something to soften the edges of the last few days.”

Tess spent much of the day on the observation deck attempting to wring value out of this journey. Verica couldn’t fault her for that. The empty room had a serene quality to it. Outside of that, she had seen Tess pacing about the halls and the cargo hold, clearly distracted at her companions’ plight and stranding in the Dross.

And yet Verica was unconvinced by her story and her claim that she was part of a research group out of the Core. Tess certainly wore the requisite studious, critical set to her eyes, always questioning and assessing her surroundings. She watched Tess sip her tea, noting the subtle expressions of etiquette and table manners. Her posture and hand positioning were in line with a well-heeled Imperial upbringing.

It required further investigation.

“Which university sponsored your expedition?” Verica asked, trying to thread the line through polite and curious.

“Carento,” Tess said without hesitation.

“Ah.” Carento lay on the northwestern edges of Torsia, a corner of the Imperial continent that managed to dodge the worst of the War and its aftershocks. Its university was no grand name by the old order of things, but Verica’s grasp of the Torsian academic ecosystem had decayed in the years of her exile. Perhaps Carento had risen in prominence, with so many other institutions failing in the absence of Imperial largess and falling enrollment.

“What about you, Doctor Chantil? Forgive any prying, but I recognize a kindred spirit.” She raised her cup, a nod to the impression of civility the tea represented.

“I’m formerly of Jarrao,” Verica lied, naming her former employer’s rival school. The two institutions were basically twins and competed with each other in every way possible, petty or plausible.

“I see. A shame what happened.”

“It was the reason I stayed out here. I took a liking to…independent research.”

Jarrao was now a shell of itself, reduced to a skeletal population of caretaker administrators and retired professors. No grand collapse, merely a sudden dearth of funding. Verica knew anyone who might bother to check on her own claims would find it too much trouble to dig through the ruins of Jarrao’s records. A way to make her trail disappear. It was doubtful Tess knew of Verica’s story. The fallout had been fairly restrained. Cutting and personal, yes. Vindictive and unfair, yes. But publically restrained.

Small favors.

It was a risk, all the same. Tess was closer to home, in that regard, than the four hunters a few weeks ago. If Tess recognized her name and its stigma, she was either polite enough to say nothing or disciplined enough to show no sign. She was the one in need, after all, and had no room to be picky of traveling companions.

“I understand what you mean. These skies have a strange attraction to them,” Tess lowered her eyes to her tea, no doubt warring with her own memories. “We knew it was a risk, coming this far out, but we’re fighting for a new normalcy, in our own way.”

“Agreed. With all the disruption, it’s more important than ever to carry on. To question and search and catalog and understand. Especially out here on the fringe of the unknown, where new mysteries arise from the mists.”

A response died on Tess’s lips as she deflected something inward.

“I’m sorry, Doctor Chantil, I think I will turn in early,” she waved a hand over her face. “I’ve barely slept since I heard the news of their stranding out here.”

“Of course. We’ll see them out tomorrow, I’m sure of it.”

“Thank you for the tea,” Tess said. She stood and Verica watched her retreat toward the guest quarters.

She knew how Tess felt, a cocktail of helplessness and desperation when your long-planned expedition went so completely wrong. When something you poured your heart and reputation into turned to cinders on the capricious whims of these frontier skies.

And yet.

Perhaps it was her imagination but Verica sensed a veiled purpose. A wariness beneath the weariness. The Dross was unique, yes. The effects of rapacious industry were worthy of study before the changeable skies scrubbed away the details. The motivation was borderline, a delicate balance of risk and value. The details were just specific enough to inspire Icomb into action and vague enough to leave Verica questioning this research group’s true aims.

Something niggled at her thoughts. Something in Tess’s words. Not what she said, but how she said it. A hint struck her and she grabbed hold of it in her mind.

Verica downed the rest of her tea and stowed the kettle and cups. She then strode toward the rear of the ship, on the hunt for a second opinion. She paused on the catwalk above the cargo hold, the space below occupied by the second skiff Tess brought along, as well as two large packages of repair supplies. Their expedition must be well funded by Carento to be able to gather together so much emergency material.

Verica crossed the catwalk and pushed her way into the Wink’s engine room. She stopped in her tracks at the threshold, grimacing at the wash of heat. The engine room was naturally the warmest area of the ship, where the energies of the engines bled through the machinery and hull. Even at rest, the engine room pulsed with dry, persistent warmth.

Draped over and around the cargo hold, the engine room was nearly as large as the space below, though crowded with the internal workings of the ship across two levels. Verica stood on the grated deck of the upper level, which allowed her to see the entirety of the room spread around and below her. The power core stood on the level below, a bulbous nerve center linked to the engines and other systems by an orderly web of cables, tubes and other connections. To either side stood the twined engine banks, vertically bridging the two levels and embedded into the hull. The whole place reminded her of a ruined cathedral to the discarded goddess spirits overlaid with a mechanical skin.

It was also loud, a steady suppressing din of countless machines spinning away at their respective purposes. An ecosystem of metal and grease and fuel and power. Verica slid the engine room door closed, though it only served to amplify the reverberating noise. Even in the short few minutes she waited for Wilcox to come into sight from whatever nook he worked in, a trickle of sweat formed in the small of her back. It wasn’t that this place made her nervous. It was merely out of her element, too much writ too large. Finally, she spotted the mechanic’s shiny brown bald head emerge from the shadows on the level below.

“Wilcox,” she called down through the floor. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course, Doctor.”

Wilcox stowed a handful of tools before ascending a ladder between the two levels camouflaged against an inner wall.

“What do you need?”

“I have a questions about our current client. I need a sounding board.”

“Tess? What about her?” Wilcox pulled out a handkerchief and rubbed stains from his hands as he listened to Verica lay out her admittedly spurious case.

“Yes. Tess. Are the supplies she brought legitimate? Match her story?”

“They are,” Wilcox confirmed, sounding confident. “Everything matches an emergency replacement of exterior engine vents and the repair of ruptured internal channels. I’d guess a lucky hit on an engine bank cascaded into greater internal damage, overwhelming their supplies on hand and forcing a landing. The parts are quality, similar to what I’ve installed and shoved out of the way on previous vessels. Why?”

Verica nodded through his explanation. Out of her element indeed.

“Something’s not right about this job,” she said. “It feels…wrong.”

“Feels? Doctor you’re the last one around here I’d expect to base things off gut feelings.”

Verica paced a tight circle about the entry chamber of the engine room, noting the wide tray of sand and other leavings of their feline stowaway. She couldn’t imagine how the creature tolerated the noise back here.

“It’s her accent,” she said firmly. “That’s all the evidence I have.”

Wilcox shrugged. “Pretty typical Imperial accent.”

“Not so. There’s an ever-so-slight lilt to it. One belonging to a certain corner of the old Torsian aristocracy and spread to certain…hardliner areas of Orventian society.”

Verica didn’t specify. As the Orventian Empire fractured, such hardliner factions became nihilistic fanatics and led remnant fleets in all manner of insurgent, destructive actions. If we cannot rule, their thinking went, why should the vultures be allowed to inherit our legacy?

“Tess can’t be much older than thirty and is Kural to boot. Unless she joined up when she was ten years old, and got over the bias against westerners and women, I doubt she’s a member of such sects.”

“I know. It doesn’t make sense. Especially since they spent the Dissolution engaged in round-about methods of self-immolation. But it’s there, an arrogant whisper to her words.”

Wilcox chuckled.

“Let me guess,” she said. “It’s all the same to you.”

“I can hear such a modulation in your voice, Doctor. Whatever you’re hearing, the difference is too subtle to my ears.”

Wilcox considered for a moment, then said, “How about this: I’ll volunteer to help with their repairs. I’ll go over with Tess tomorrow, keep my eyes open. I can’t imagine they’d refuse my aid.”

“And if she refuses, we’ll have another line on her.”

“That, too.”

“Are you sure, Wilcox? If I’m right, remote a chance as it is…”

“The odds are remote and I’ve been in worse situations,” Wilcox assured her.

Verica nodded, though took note of his claim of worse situations. It was a plan of sorts and would have to be enough. At the very least, Verica found something to occupy her thoughts and efforts while the rest of the ship ran about the business of this job, questionable as it may be.

Chapter Three – Nem

The Dross was a feast to Nem’s ears, a sonic firestorm, the sort of challenge she craved. Thousands of rock signs sang out in a cacophony, all unique in their shape and distance and timbre. The undercurrents and unseen magnetism of the Churn reached up and sent it all spinning and rising and diving. Then, whispers heard on the air, the echoes of other ships lurking somewhere in the mix. Most were strangers behind their respective masks, muddling their trails as Nem scattered the Wink’s.

Yesterday’s rain made it easier, in a way, the steady static muffling out irrelevant signals of bergs and boulders too far away to matter to their route. A faint haze obscured the distance in the visual this morning, the blues of the sky faded like sun-bleached signage. This had no effect from Nem’s view beyond a slight amp to the margin of error on long distance pings. The buoy signal towards Gloria was dodgy, but Nem kept a lock on it all the same, an orienting anchor.

A particular set of ship-sign was the current focus of her attention. Three to five ships in formation but not paralleling or chasing them, no. They might be minding their own business, but the regularity of their formation gave them away. The captain had given her a set of signal tone, pirate call-signs and such for diverting attention from the Wink. Nem didn’t have the heart to tell him they were too damn old to be any good. She cast them out anyway, hoping anyone listening would have similarly lax standards and take the deception at face value.

Might as well, yeah? Pirates were lazy when it came to nav/comm. Nem learned that first hand during her informal training on a big trade freighter running the routes between Hub and the Triplets. They never got caught, despite the frequency of hold ups and raids along those trade lanes.

She frowned at the memory. Thinking about the Lost Among Friends always left her cold. There was a disconnect between Nem and her adoptive family. They raised her and sheltered her, and for that she was grateful. Yet they were on different frequencies, and her life on the freighter was often a muddle of work and repetition. So she poured herself into nav/comm training and the shifting songs of the skies. Turned out she was a natural and, when it came time, she walked away from her childhood home with a handful of utterly neutral good-byes.

Nem stretched in her chair and gave her back a twist. She exchanged a look with Tess behind her, catching the woman staring at her work. Their client watched from the little booth-like table at the rear at the flight deck. She was harder to read, a mixed signal. Her associates were stranded and needed help. Sure. No problem with that. Her destination coordinates were quite good, a big isle two days into the Dross. A landmark with a bit of drift to it. Nem fixed its position less than an hour after they left the shelter this morning, and it sang out in her headphones as a growing undertone.

Anyone with half a brain could and should be able to give her that much. If you didn’t know a little of how to get around in the skies, you’d best stick with the ground. But while Tess claimed and spoke like the coordinates were a mystery to her, her eyes said otherwise. Little signals in how she looked at the nav/comm console. She understood more than she let on, especially in how she eyed the new panel to Nem’s left, where the controls for Turchov’s custom network resided. She and Wilcox finished installing the controls but had no opportunity to test them before Tess hired the ship for this rescue mission.

And now Nem could feel Tess casually watching her work, eyes on her back leaving a whisper of an itch.

Whatcha watching for, hmm?

A new spike in the skies’ symphony refocused her attention. Nem closed her eyes, one hand pressed to her left headphone casing, right hand resting on the primary tuning dials. The bridge and Tess and the various inconsequential noises of the Wink and Smile faded below her notice.

She drifted among the sonic chaos of the Dross. The distinct beat of a ship pulsed out among the broken isles and boulders. They weren’t masking themselves very well, likely on account of a haze of disruption around them singing to rough skies. Nem listened around the signal. They were among a dense patch of rock-sign and making significant evasive maneuvers. No weapon fire to be heard. Poor route-finding resulted in a need to react in the near term and shout their presence to anyone with sharp ears.

Nem tightened their reception bands in the direction of the newcomer, hands flying across her console in precise, snapping motions. The beat rose to prominence in her hearing, the bulk of the Dross reduced to dull white noise. A mid-sized vessel, larger than the Wink but not by much. Solo. Definite and rapid hard maneuvers gave away all she needed to hear. She isolated out their unique signal and locked it into a hold slot on the console. Just in case.

Soon enough, their vector changed, passing out of the narrowed reception band. Nem expanded the receiver’s ears, her mental count of being so focused in a single arc passing the prudent time. It took only a few seconds to snatch out their signal, but when Nem returned her ears to the whole, the skies had progressed into a new phase, the ever-changing song presenting a new tapestry for her to parse.

“Brief catch of a Lancer-sized vessel, Cap,” she reported. “Not in pursuit, or even reaching out toward us. I’ve got a line on them.”

“Acknowledged, Nem. Thank you.”

Nem returned to the general flow, her attention briefly touching on their lines toward their destination and back to Gloria, like tugging on a safety harness. Secure and steady for both. Time bled by in the mix, a cycle of checks and scans and deep listens. Occasionally Nem prodded at the local buoy net, but the damned pirate-run network wasn’t doing her any favors today, same as yesterday. It sounded like someone was bleaching out the system, no doubt the result of clumsy hands.

Nem checked for the wing from before to find the formation on a new intercept vector, pointed very close to the Wink.

“Company, Cap,” she snapped out. “Closing on 35.” She listened in. The four ships, and she was now certain it was four, held an altered formation, but sang the same union of direction signal. The Wink thrummed with a kick of fresh power as the captain fired the engines higher. Nem sent out a distance measuring pulse straight into their teeth, masked as best she could as the impact of two bergs.


The pulse returned.

“Ten and closing. Four ships. Nonsymmetrical balance in tone.”

“Probably a three-one wing,” Kor said. “I’m seeing a lane up ahead, not far off course for us, can you confirm?”

Flight instead of fight. A fair bet. The Wink was fast and well-maintained. Slim odds any given group of rogues out here could match her. Nem saw the lane in the signal, a channel relatively clear of isle-sign. She sent a pulse down that way, again the crash of a false impact. The echo returned late, scattered and dispersed.

“Confirmed, lane running high at 163.”

“Taking it. Drop a weird trail, Nem.”

The Wink banked and accelerated into their new escape vector, pressing Nem into her seat. The gray and brown bergs of the Dross flew by, far enough aside their route to look threatening, but be a harmless backdrop. Simultaneously, she took the whole of the incoming signal, mirrored it, and broadcasted it back out behind them, a cone of duplicated noise encasing their actual signal.

The wing of potential pursuers remained on their previous vector, and fell further away from the Wink. Nem held out on any further pings their way in order to let the Wink ghost away in the mix.

“Looking clear, but they’re going to be real close to our destination, Cap.”

“Close enough to interrupt?” Tess asked, speaking up for the first time in a while.

Nem decided to not be so rude as to pretend she didn’t hear Tess through her headphones. She pulled off the right bulb and shot a look over her shoulder.

“Maybe,” Nem said. “Depends on how loud y’all are once you’re up and running.”

“We can run interference and defense, if need be, Tess,” the captain assured her. “Then an escort out, as agreed.”

“We’re getting close,” Nem said. “Maybe you should get your skiff ready.”

Tess nodded at her with a thin smile. “You’re right. I will head below and prepare.”

“I’ll holler at Lukas and Wilcox to help you out,” Kor added.

“Thank you, Captain,” Tess said as Nem felt her pass directly behind her.

Nem waited until the door to the flight deck clicked closed. She then flicked up a clear shield and pressed down a yellow button. This unlocked a large nested dial of three concentric rings just to the right of the console’s center. Then she made slight adjustments to the Wink’s native signal tone, modulating their sonic identity. It was just a touch on all three values, otherwise that wing of ships might notice the change if their N/Cs were on point.

No harm in altering your mask in this dance. Never know who might be listening.

Chapter Four – Wilcox

Wilcox tugged on the cargo straps securing the boxed parts atop Tess’s skiff. Not so much as a wobble. Good. This load made up the more critical components among the two sets of materials Tess brought along. Between this delivery and whatever they had on-hand down on the isle, they should have enough to rebuild most of a damaged engine four times over. Tess was vague on the precise details of her ship’s damage, but that could be forgiven. Most folk couldn’t do any better.

Tess stood on the deck next to the pilot’s side of the skiff, a small sack of possessions slung over her shoulder. She stared at an empty corner of the cargo hold, distracted in her thoughts.

“Looks like we’re good to go, Tess,” Wilcox said.

She shook her head to clear out any recent cobwebs and quickly mounted the skiff. Wilcox mirrored her, climbing into the passenger seat. Tess gave him a pointed look as he secured his bag of tools between the seats.

“Hope you don’t mind if I lend a hand,” he said.

“I’m not sure if it’s necessary, Wilcox. You all have already done so much for us.”

“Oh, I must insist, ma’am,” Wilcox said while double-checking his bag. “You’ll want every capable hand to get these repairs done as quick as possible.”

“Every saved moment is valuable out here, Tess,” Chantil added, her face fixedly neutral. She stood aside of the skiff at the base of the stairs, sleeves still rolled up from helping load the repair components.

“Of course,” Tess agreed. “Forgive me. I wasn’t thinking straight. You’re right. We caught wind of a band of raiders on the bridge not an hour ago.”

Wilcox could almost hear a strain in her voice, or perhaps saw a fleeting stiffness to her motions as she buckled into her seat and ran through the skiff’s start-up sequence.

“No harm done.” Wilcox clicked in his seat restraints. Ahead, Lukas opened the cargo doors, the grind of metal-on-metal a touch atonal to Wilcox’s ears. He’ll have to check the runners in the crawlspace next time they were in port.

Chantil climbed the first few steps of the hold’s stairway and caught Wilcox’s eye. They exchanged barely perceptible nods. The recon mission was a go.

 The skiff was a newer model than the Wink’s, its greater lift load obvious to Wilcox’s eyes from the bulk of the engines. Glancing around the pilot and passenger seats showed off a clean, dark gray construction with everything well-placed. His restraints were firm and comfortable, and the cushions actually had some thickness to them. Wilcox felt a final pang of jealousy as the craft smoothly lifted off the deck and glided out into the open skies with nary a rattle or sputter.

Cold but weak crosswinds tugged at his jacket like a minor daily task he let fall by the wayside. The Dross spread out around them, disorder writ large across the sky and extending to the horizon. The end result of Imperial ambitions, the broken pieces of Orventian hungers spinning away, seeking their own new peace.

The island was shaped like a spindle, with a wide waist of messy, rocky plains ringing a jagged, multi-peaked mountain. Numerous shadowed caverns and hollows dotted the surface of the island. A long pointed underside reached downward along a slight axial tilt and a cloud of bergs orbited below like an incomplete skirt of stone. As they approached, Wilcox spotted a few rusty points spread around the island, the remnants of construction or wrecks. No, they were anchored communications buoys, rusted from exposure but not as old as they looked.

Wilcox gave Tess a sidelong glance. She didn’t speak as they traversed the space between the Wink and the isle. A stern, focused expression remained fixed on her face, perhaps out of controlling the skiff though her apparent ease with the controls spoke otherwise. Wilcox felt his opinion on her click over to the other side. Her research vessel just so happened to find refuge on a large isle that also served as a comm buoy node? A destination in itself?

Tess deftly guided the skiff around the scattered obstructions drifting about the isle. Wilcox spotted a splash of yellow cloth, a too bright signal against the gray and browns of the broken isle, a marker for her ship’s hiding place. It led to a broad, hanger-like opening on the side of the isle, a cavern with ample room for a ship of moderate size to hide away in the shadows.

Wilcox schooled his expression into one of a bland and slightly oblivious professional.

The skiff passed a lookout as they entered the cavern. Tess slowed the skiff and exchanged a hail with him and he waved them through. He carried a combat rifle, recent model, but was otherwise dressed in civilian clothes. Ethnically Altani from his naturally tan-colored skin and short-cropped dark hair.

A constellation of lamplight shone in the deeper reaches of the cavern, resolving into modern, clean burning lanterns. A mid-sized ship occupied the depths of the cavern, tucked away in the shadows but with ample room above to lift and escape the shelter. A fair-skinned woman with the look of an assistant mechanic strode up. She waved Tess toward a cleared space near the ship, eyeing Wilcox all the while. Tess brought the skiff to a stop, the landing struts crunching into the cavern’s stone floor.

“I brought along another hand from our recovery ship,” Tess said stiffly, cutting off the younger woman’s questions.

“I…I’ll let Enos know,” she said.

Wilcox noted the lightly scattered evidence of a multi-day camp as he dismounted from the skiff. The lanterns’ steady white glow highlighted the rear of the ship and the spread of parts and tools. A pair of extendable ladders leaned against the darkened engines, a ring of six vents, the lower two of which were missing, all set into a hexagonal body. A pile of broken, twisted metal lay nearby, parts of the engine’s inner workings exposed.

Enos introduced himself. He was an older man, perhaps sixty, and exuded an easy-going confidence Wilcox could recognize in a fellow mechanic in a heartbeat. He took Wilcox’s apparently unexpected presence in stride. Tess seemed relieved to pass him off to someone else, and hurried off to the underside of the ship with little more than a murmured good-bye.

“Happy to have extra help,” Enos said, looking over the supplies. Sounded like he meant it, too. “Let’s get this unloaded.”

Enos sent Kee, who was indeed his assistant tech, inside with the interior components for the linkage flow, assisted by one of the generically dressed men with the look of a career soldier.

There was still a job to do and Wilcox’s questions over the ship fell to the fringes as they set to work. The ship’s damage was true to Tess’s word. It looked like they tussled with some local raiders and took an unlucky hit that cascaded to clip their wings from within. It was a lancer by tonnage, but a body type Wilcox hadn’t seen before. Its hull was night black, at times seeming to fade into the surrounding shadows of the cavern and obscuring finer hull design cues. Something newer out of the Core, perhaps, which would align with their story, especially since any research venture would be well funded so far out in the frontier.

A number of endemic dangers and risks harried any frontier travel, especially to visiting crews. Which is why, Wilcox supposed, a pair of crewmen watched over the entryway to the cavern with rifles that packed enough kick to shatter the cockpit window of a raider-quality cutter. As any scientific, university funded expedition would have, right?

Even with only eyes and proper light on the aft of the ship, Wilcox could see few signs of age. The engines were newer models, a permutation on standard design, but the undamaged vents bore only token corrosion from flight-hours. Wilcox pegged the ship at no more than two years old, perhaps younger. Compared to the average vessel plying the frontier skies, this ship was factory-fresh.

Wilcox went back to the skiff to retrieve another set of casings. He let his gaze slide over the wings on the walk back, trying to remain oblivious to the unmistakable embedded missile pods above the shoulder joint. The pieces started to fit together. He missed it at first, but now Wilcox recognized the ship’s body type. He’d seen it once before in a sketch done in Kor’s passable hand. This ship was just like the mysterious one they scoped out on Doralee. And it sure as hell wasn’t a research vessel. This bird wanted to fight.

Wilcox kept his concerned, studying face fixed. They went about the repairs at a quick pace since the crew had readied the engines while waiting for delivery. He even lapsed into an easy comradery with his counterpart, the often unspoken language of mechanics smoothing away any difference. They didn’t swap tales of previous postings, and their anecdotes were heavily self-censored. Wilcox knew Enos figured him for a Coalition man, and it was better to not bring up any awkward politics.

He caught sight of Tess and middle-aged woman with pale blonde hair locked in hushed conference near the deployed exit ramp under the center of the ship. The woman carried the unmistakable bearing of an officer and she looked at him with hard, pitiless eyes. Wilcox felt an itch on his left shoulder, where his Coalition crest was tattooed in bold black lines but thankfully hidden by his shirt. The itch spread across his back, skin crawling as he hurriedly returned to work. Much as Wilcox would love to see the inside of this craft, he doubted it would result in anything more than a pair of bullets in his brain.

They completed the exterior repairs after an hour or so. He and Enos stood back from the engine bank and gave it another look-over. Aside from a mismatched coloration, the rear of the ship looked sky-worthy. There would be testing to do before any flight but Wilcox’s work here was done.

“You said there’s another load of parts on your ship?” Enos asked. Wilcox placed his accent in the genericized melting post of pre-war Imperial dialects, similar to Chantil. Much as he tried, he couldn’t quite catch the supposed hardliner lilt the Doctor insisted was there.

“There is.”

“I think we’re good to go here, Wilcox.” He glanced toward who Wilcox assumed was the captain, the blonde woman, now speaking with a trio of crewmembers bearing a wealth of tools and the windswept look of an exterior job very recently completed. Where were they all this time?

Wilcox quickly stowed his tools, once again thankful he only took out what he needed and returned them at once. Enos placed an arm over his shoulders and politely, but firmly, guided Wilcox back to the skiff. He gave no resistance.

“But just to be safe,” Enos said, “I think you should head on back to your ship and pick up those extra parts.”

“Aye, think I will.” Wilcox quickly mounted the pilot seat and stowed his bag.

“Take your time,” Enos said, slapping the skiff’s side wall twice. Wilcox caught his meaning. Ship engineers never had the luxury of taking their time. One of the armed crewmen looked to take issue with his departure, but Enos waved him away.

Wilcox guided the skiff out of the shelter cavern, accelerating as he got a handle on the craft’s responsive controls. Without a load in the bed it was downright nimble and worlds better than their existing skiff. It lacked the slight slop that quietly terrified him, the quirks Kor liked to call ‘character’.

Wilcox let out a long sigh as soon as returned to the crosswinds and sunlight of the open skies, unspooling a bundle of tension he refused to acknowledge while on-isle.

So who are those people?

Diagnose the problem.

They’re flying a military ship of recent make. A post-War design, thus not eliminating any particular culture. However, it did rule out local origin. Even among the tumble-down pieces of the old Imperial order back east, only a handful of nations were capable of building a ship like that, and none of them possessed the stomach for kicking off another arms race.

That makes it a secret, or at least low-key construction. Privately funded. There were countless families, mercantile concerns, and organizations who managed to make it through the Dissolution enriched. Or, as Chantil thought, some remnant Imperial hardliner sect. Plausible.

The crew was of mixed ethnicity, a hodgepodge of Osspor and Torsian cultures. An Altani or Durro or New Kurala crew would be more homogenous. They looked like a frontier crew, but the ship itself eliminated that possibility. Further away, then? Tess claimed they flew out of Carento, and Wilcox figured it might as well be the truth.

Their captain, despite her civilian clothing, oozed every sense of the worst sort of Imperial officer. Something had gone sideways in their mission and she was all business in patching it back together. Enough to tolerate a stranger touching her ship, but only slightly. Wilcox might be reading too much into one look, but it took a lot to get his skin crawling.

Wilcox looked over his shoulder at the isle. The afternoon light lent a proper contrast between the bulbous comm buoys and the rock and lichen atop the isle. He grunted to himself with a realization as he brought the skiff toward the Wink’s opening cargo doors.

Chantil waited in the cargo bay near the door controls, the cool winds tossing her hair about behind her.

“Well?” she asked as soon as the skiff went still.

“That whole operation reeks of a secret military operation. You were right.”

Chantil nodded, keeping her face neutral and restrained. Her suspicions being validated was no cause for cheer. The Northwest Frontier had enough competing pressures and factions without new players throwing their weight around toward whatever end.

Wilcox hopped down from their new skiff. He looked over at the second package of spare parts. Truly spare. From what he saw they would be ready to fly in under an hour. Chantil set the doors closing.

“We’re keeping this,” he said. “Let’s head up, let the Captain know what I saw.”

Chapter Five – Lukas

The new turret emplacement lay below the Wink and Smile’s chin and was partially open to the skies to grant the new guns ample firing angles. Cool winds rushed in to bite at Lukas through his flight jacket and gloves. This spot of sky was fairly high altitude and the air smelled thin, crisp. Lukas swiveled the turret through a series of loosening, testing motions. They were still working out the details of the emplacement, but a live, cards-down engagement would iron out far more than any number of test runs.

Two levels up on the flight deck, the rest of the crew were in one of those circular meetings Lukas was all-too-glad to listen to remotely.

Who are they? Dunno. Got some theories.

They a threat to us? Maybe. We did them a favor, though. That’s worth something.

Deal’s still on until they show otherwise. Back to your posts, we’ll have company soon.

That worked just fine for Lukas. Tess’s ship might be strangers around here, but they should be well aware of the value of a person’s word, the weight of a favor done in good faith, and correct payment.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

Soon enough the call came down from above, as they knew it would. Incoming ships with uncertain intentions, the same ones who’d been sniffing after them all day. The other half of their agreement with Tess: running defense until they got back in the air.

“Incoming at two-eight-eight,” Nem said through Lukas’s headset. “Three C, one L.”

“Got it,” Lukas said, turning the turret toward the stated angle, working with the banking of the Wink. They rose in height, claiming the high point above the spindle isle, but still able to cover their charges should they emerge in the middle of a firefight. Lukas readjusted the noise-dampening headphones over his head, old pieces with scuffed, bright yellow casing. He considered adding the goggles, but the glare of sunlight was weak today, almost ideal shooting conditions. He didn’t care for the restriction on his vision either.

There was a pause once the raider wing emerged from the Dross into the clearer space around the spindle isle. This was the obligatory attempt to chat it out, maybe bargain away any sort of confrontation.

“Hold fire for now,” Kor said. Even through the comm link Lukas could hear how little Kor believed this encounter would remain peaceful.

Lukas wasn’t entirely sure who the raiders were. He’d gone fuzzy on who was who over the last couple years and was happier for it. Their badging looked like some evolution of an informal pirate fleet whose numbers were in constant flux, the sort of part-time organization that comprised much of the Northwest’s lesser rogue elements. Those numbers were trending downward, what with all the consolidation attempts (and failures) in recent years.

None of that mattered right now. Here it was simple, impersonal. Clear. He didn’t expect they’d be the sort willing to deal. Most gangs operating out of the Dross were the hard, hungry types. Lukas kept the turret aimed at the lead cutter of the four, gently adjusting for relative motion and distance. ‘Finding a targeting solution’ as the ingrained terminology went. That always sounded a little too smart for Lukas’s tastes. When it came to guns too big to carry himself, he relied far more on gut feel and eyeing the target than any deeper understanding of physics.

Which might be why he wasn’t a very good shot when it came to turrets.

He looked over their oncoming foes. Three cutters, older mismatched models, two razormaws and one beat-to-hell but still sleek Imperial peregrine-class. One lancer as the command ship, its long body patched and reinforced with welded fragments of other ships, making it look halfway to a true junker. All against one sharp freelancer with a gunship’s slug cannons. Not the best odds, but Lukas had seen worse and Kor’s damnable luck would probably see them through.

Old, dusty memories of vast fleet engagements bubbled up in the back of Lukas’s mind. Images of metallic titans setting the skies afire while their attendant swarms swirled about each other in overlapping duels of smoke and iron. The intervening years made them easy to dismiss, a history book closed and shelved.

“Free fire,” Kor ordered in his left ear.

The Wink accelerated into combat maneuvers and Lukas’s slice of sky around the turret shifted and banked in smooth motions. The raiders flowed into the clear airspace around the big isle, holding to a reasonable approximation of a formation. Lukas aligned the slugs and loosed a short salvo of eight shots, mostly to warm the guns up and get a feel for the distances, for the air. The shots went wide of the lead cutter, more of a warning shot than anything else.

They kept coming on and Kor lifted the Wink into a more elaborate pattern, showing off her agility, a warning shot of another kind. We’re much faster, it said. Are you sure you want this fight? The chorus of a return salvo from the four raiders confirmed that, yes, they were intent on seeing what was on offer. It was a thin attack, on balance. A crew like that would be packing disabling weaponry to hobble trader freighters. Their money was in plunder and salvage, ambush over full-on conflict.

“We’re stalling for the folks inside,” Kor said, the tinny comm connection in Lukas’s headphones sounding even more distant with the rush of air around him. “Wilcox says they’re packing quite the bite for a research vessel.”

Lukas focused on diverting fire. Kor was weaving the Wink around too much for anything more. An attack run into that many ships was out of the question, regardless of how low of an opinion they might have of their gear. Last Call’s guns sang smooth and loud, reverberating in his bones with every shot, their blunted roar striking right through his headset. Fleeting bursts of heat raced through the emplacement, welcome seconds of warmth.

Lukas found a solid firing line on one of the razormaws. He waited a beat for the correct alignment before—

“Drop!” Kor called on all channels, voice ringing through the ship like an alarm. Lukas growled in frustration as his view shifted and the backdrop of the Dross flew upward. The Wink fell into a controlled dive, lifting him against his restraints. He shut his eyes briefly against the dizzying spin at the base of the dive as the ship snapped smartly into a new evasion vector. Now Kor was just showing off.

Did I secure that canteen next to my bunk?

A bean-shaped berg flashed across his view, so close the Wink shook. The ship was down among the floating boulders below the spindle isle, Kor taking advantage of their agility to weave among the scattered field, fouling up any pursuit and firing lines. For both sides. The raiders sent token shots through the debris field, showing enough discipline to restrain their fire in such conditions. A berg took a hit, unleashing a rapidly fading cloud of dust. Lukas kept the turret in motion, more out of testing their set-up than finding a shot.

They exited the isle’s skirt of debris and wheeled around. The raiders were sensible enough to not even bother with the boulder field and edged around the obstructions in pursuit. Up above, Lukas saw a new dancer enter the floor. An angular black ship, its silhouette like a diving raptor, screamed out of the island with a fury. That would be Tess’s ‘research’ vessel with the lean take-no-shit profile of a warbird. Its wings flashed with weapon fire and the raider lancer bloomed with twin bursts from a hard hit.

The Wink banked around the debris field and charged toward the cutters. How quickly fortunes shift. The odds were still uneven, but now in their favor.

Lukas eyed another targeting solution and let Last Call’s slugs roar.

Chapter Six – Kor

Kor let the Wink coast once they cleared the debris field below the spindle isle. His positioning screen showed the raider cutters erring on the side of caution and taking the long way ‘round in pursuit. He flexed his hands around the controls. No sweat greased his grip and the tension in his blood was a pleasing buzz. It had been a while since his last genuine battle, and the old reflexes came roaring back, easy as can be.

“Big comm pulse up above, Cap,” Nem reported. “The isle’s definitely a buoy node.”


Tess’s crew, whoever they were, must have been toying with the local buoy network. It certainly explained the missing pieces to Tess’s story Kor had been too credulous to see. Might even be research mission of a different sort and, given the kind of ship they’re flying, not their only objective. In any case, a big signal like was akin to setting off a flare at night. Anyone in the Dross would hear it and some would come running to check it out.

Kor banked the Wink about and pointed her slightly upward toward the spindle isle. He considered giving Lukas a clean attack run on the cutters. Kor knew his fancy footwork had been a cause for frustration.

“New actor under the pulse,” Nem said.

Tess’s ship came screaming out of the isle’s cavern, looking for all the world like a clawed raptor in mid-dive. The raiders banked toward the new threat, their lancer quickly aligning into a firing position.

They were far too slow. Light flashed on the flanks of the black ship and trails of cannon fire crossed the intervening air. Explosions raked across the raider lancer, gouging out massive holes in its hull. The reverberation of the blasts rumbled across the sky and echoed through the Wink. The wounded lancer began a slow curling dive as it struggled to maintain a balanced lift.

Kor charged the Wink toward the fray and Lukas joined in, their turret below sending out another salvo into the trio of confused cutters. Their attack was less lethal, but scored hits on the lead ship. It wobbled and started to turn aside, their forward spotlight flashing three times in the universal signal for yielding. The other two began to scatter, engines burning outward in retreat.

“Hold your fire, Lukas,” Kor ordered. The raiders were now wildly outgunned and had had enough. Kor started an ascent, staying mobile but standing down from fighting stance.

Last Call’s guns went silent.

Tess’s ship, the Raptor for lack of another name, wasn’t feeling so merciful. It roared after one of the cutters, its recently repaired engines burning bright and its weapons flashing through another salvo. A plume of smoke burst from the rear of one of the cutters, its forward motion cut to a limp. The Raptor paused in consideration as the rest of the raiders fled into the sheltering chaos of the Dross.

A single missile streaked out from the Raptor, trailing white smoke. It struck the crippled pirate cutter, consuming the ship in an explosion of orange fire and spinning pieces of shrapnel.

A strong hand, asserting order.

Kor’s sympathies were restrained, given those same raiders were gunning for him, sight unseen and words unsaid not two minutes ago. As for the descending lancer, it looked to be righting itself despite the gaping holes in its hull and undoubtedly reduced crew. The comm pulse from the island would draw aid or scavengers soon enough.

As for the black ship, Kor felt he had a measure of them. He kept the Wink in a high, evasive arc over the spindle isle, wary and ready to put the island between him and the Raptor if he needed to make an escape. The Raptor turned with the Wink, keeping her in sight like a curious but sated predator.

“Contact signal from them,” Nem said. She didn’t need to specify the who. “Casting.”

“Captain Icomb, your assistance has been greatly appreciated.” A steady female voice with a precise Torsian accent spoke through the flight deck’s speakers. Not Tess but someone comfortable with command. Kor kept the Wink on a fast, evasive track before leaning toward the microphone embedded into the pilot console.

“Happy to help, ma’am.” No need to be rude, but Kor figured he’d throw out something to muddle the mix. “This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered your kind. Might I ask your name?”

“Permission denied. While you have our gratitude, I’d encourage you to curtail any such curiosity.”

Kor committed every detail of the black ship to memory. While a similar to the one on Doralee, this one was smaller, thinner, harder. While they were nimble, Kor estimated the Wink could out-dance and out-fly it on a good day. But if it came to shooting there was no comparison.

“Understood. I take this to mean we won’t be receiving the second half of our fee.” It wasn’t a question. Not really.

“That is correct, Captain.” A pause and a murmured background advisory. “Ah. I’m told you have a new skiff. You may keep it. Consider it a make-good.”

Kor nodded to himself. The newer skiff was a fair sight better than their existing one and would roughly balance out the books. Regardless, given what he’d seen from the Raptor, he was in no position to force the issue.

The comm connection snapped off and the Raptor nimbly changed direction and streaked out to the west.

“Get a trace,” Kor ordered. “I want their tone locked into our scans from now on.” Kor wasn’t sure if he wanted it for avoiding them, or tracking them down. He could make that decision later.

“I’ve been trying. Hitting blur,” Nem said, scowling at her console. “I’m being blanked. Like they have our exact tone or…”

“Tess memorized it while watching you,” Kor said. She spent plenty of time watching the Dross pass by from the rear of the flight deck. Details fit together with ease, now that he thought about it in retrospect. Tess was some kind of operative for that crew, able to fix a sudden problem and come away with useful observations at the same time. The main question was: Did Tess choose the Wink and Smile out of purpose or out of coincidence?

“I changed our signal key,” Nem said. “After she left.”

“Only a small adjustment, right? Enough to scramble anyone in our weight class, but someone with cutting edge tech could ferret it out, yeah?”

Nem didn’t seem to hear him. She flicked through rapid adjustments to her equipment, scrabbling after a fallen and lost coin.

“I lost them. I don’t understand.”

“Nem. We got played. But we’re in one piece and learned something, right?”

Kor’s voice was harder than he wished because he was more cross with himself than anything else. He got taken in by a true enough story from a pretty face, not seeing she was even sharper than she looked.

Nem went still, taking a centering moment, then said, “I got a partial of their tone during the firefight. Incomplete, but we might be able to hear them coming in the future. Unless they’re flying dead quiet.”

“All we need for now. We’ll keep an eye and ear out for them, whoever they are. Start looking for a place for us to hole up tonight.”

“Roger that, Cap.”

Kor pulled the Wink into a northwest trajectory, orienting toward Gloria from memory. There were enough hours of daylight left to get a good start on getting the hell out of the Dross with all due haste. He would prefer to go in the opposite direction as the Raptor, but geography wasn’t going to cooperate this time.

Another player on the stage, it would seem. Much as Kor wanted to take their advice, he knew he wouldn’t leave it completely alone. Not with a mystery like this. Just wasn’t in his nature.

‘Curtail any such curiosity’.

Request denied. 

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Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016

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