The scent of fresh-brewed bulk coffee filled the air above the long galley table. Kor had called the crew to a morning meeting and everyone was right on time. Granted, that’s an easy feat when the Wink and Smile ran on a skeleton crew of four plus one. They sat in companionable silence, it being either too early or too late for much small talk.
“Where’s Chantil?” Lukas asked while guiding his empty cup in a circle against the brushed metal tabletop. He was the entirety of their night shift and had passed on any coffee.
“She’s not, strictly speaking, obligated to show up,” Kor answered. “We’ll give her another minute.”
Overcast skies of silver and white shone through the narrow galley windows. The last few days had been easy flying and they were on the far side of a big empty expanse. Formerly empty now, as their transit had filled in a couple dots on the map, yielded respectable salvage, some promising ore samples, and a couple prized finds Kor hoped would pay off in the near future. Not bad for taking the long way ‘round, all in all.
Chantil swept into the galley, ignored them all and went straight for the coffee pot.
“Fantastic,” Kor said. “I won’t give the run-around and get straight to it. Here’s the next thing, folks.”
Kor withdrew a bundle of thick folded chart pages from his inner jacket pocket. He unfolded the more worn of the set and slid it to the center of the table. It was a weathered chart of a patch of sky, nothing special at a glance and old enough to be only half useful. It bore classic yellowed edges and carefully hand-drawn, but still imperfect, contents. Nonsensical ciphered coordinates and names ringed the map and labeled its features. A chain of islands marched across the map in an arc, one small isle circled and more annotated than the others.
“We’re following a good old fashioned treasure map,” Kor said, free hand throwing in a little flourish above it.
There was a beat of silence as the crew gave the map an initial look-see.
“Seriously?” Wilcox said. The mechanic looked deeply disappointed.
Chantil gave a derisive snort from the side. Even Lukas rolled his eyes, more bemused than anything else.
“Does it have a red X as well, Mr. Icomb?” Chantil prodded. “Perhaps warnings about a clan of cannibalistic bird-men guarding the ancient treasure?”
Lukas muttered something to Wilcox, and the two shared a chuckle.
Kor had to admit he expected it to go over a little better than this. He let them have their fun and run out of ammo. Only Nem seemed engaged. Their nav/comm gal spun the map toward her and gave it a closer look. Kor unfolded the second chart, a newer copy, though still well-worn from his own drafts, calculations, and corrections. A fresh copy of the cipher’s decryption followed and he set it all in front of Nem
“This the decoding?” She pointed with a pencil without looking up.
“Yeah, I think I got most of it figured out. Enough to know where we’re going.”
Nem gave a noncommittal hum, leaned over the two maps, tucked an errant lock of silver hair behind her ear, and fell into the task. She quickly scratched out a couple calculations. Kor was proud of what he’d puzzled out, all things considered, but having a pro like Nem check his work would give him the requisite certainty.
Chantil had taken a seat at the table, carrying the coffee pot with her. She and Wilcox had already moved on to talking about modifications to the electrical hook-ups in her cabin, Kor’s lark of a map forgotten.
“Alright I’ll bite. Where’d you get that thing, Captain?” Lukas asked.
“Jeppesen’s cabin on the Savvy Scourge.”
Another moment of silence save for the scratch of Nem’s pencil. Wilcox halted mid-sentence, suddenly attentive, and the mood at the table was becalmed. Kor figured that would garner sufficient notice.
Lukas followed-up. “Captain Jeppesen? Golden Jepp?”
“That’s right,” Kor confirmed.
Lukas flipped his cup right-side-up with a clank. “Doc, if you’d be so kind.”
“Who is this Jeppesen?” Chantil asked as she leaned over and filled Lukas’s mug.
Lukas took a swallow of coffee, grimacing at the heat, and explained. “Pirate captain. Raised hell throughout the War and Dissolution. Right up to present day.”
“Your typical ’freedom fighter’ turned criminal,” Wilcox added. “Though he was useful during the War, since he mostly hit Imperials.”
“Yeah, ‘cause the Coalition paid him. You forgot to mention that, Wilcox,” Lukas said, voice measured, careful to keep out any accusatory bile. “I’m sure y’all weren’t fans once he switched to your folks during the Dissolution.”
Wilcox gave a shrug deeming those facts fair. Here in the Northwest, the War was rarely a clean two sides. Dozens of rebel groups and rogue ships played both sides and took out old grudges against each other. Kor took care to monitor the temperature between his friend and his mechanic. Old loyalties can linger in the air like the scent of smoke after a fire.
“He’s never been caught but hasn’t been seen in a while,” Lukas said, finishing the run-down.
“He’s dead,” Kor said quietly, unwelcome memories flashing through his mind, wild and red.
“You sure? I’m not touching anything tied to him if he ain’t dead and gone.”
“With my own eyes, Lukas.”
“Who did him in?”
Kor gave him a steady look telling him to take a guess.
“Shit,” Lukas buried his grin in his mug. Kor supposed he guessed right.
“The map leads to some sort of refuge or hideaway,” Kor said, certain he had everyone’s full attention. “There are notes of multiple visits over a couple decades with positioning and drift data for the isle. We never went anywhere near it when I was on the Savvy, but Jepp definitely disappeared for a couple weeks when we put in for a long repair.” Kor tapped the map. “More than enough time to swing out to this place in a quick solo ship to stash something away.”
“What could possibly be there to warrant the trouble, Mr. Icomb?” Chantil asked, more investigative than skeptical.
Lukas answered. “Golden Jepp was damn good at his trade, Doc. A crafty bastard. If he was making deposits…this could be one hell of a payday.”
“And since he’s dead,” Kor felt he needed to emphasize the fact for Lukas’s sake, “There won’t be any repercussions when we help ourselves to it.”
“Your calcs look right, Cap,” Nem said, finally looking up from the charts. “Isle should be there, plus or minus a few. Not far from us either.”
“Wilcox, how much range we have left?” Kor knew the answer, he just wanted to openly cut away any excuses.
“Plenty. Couple weeks before it becomes a problem. Running low on coffee, though.”
“An actual fuel crisis,” Chantil added.
Kor stood and tried to look authoritative. “We can spare a few more days before we turn for Gloria and some R&R. Jepp’s island is near the edge of the Ferron upwell storm.”
Thoughtful silence. The concept of flying close to a gigantic years-long storm had that effect. But there weren’t any outright refusals.
“Near, but not inside,” he continued. “We find the isle, hit up a dead pirate lord’s secret stash, and get the hell out. We abort if the storm’s acting up. Y’all keen?”
They were keen on it. Kor could see it in their eyes. After all, there was a certain purity to something so old fashioned.
The Wink’s flight deck buzzed with a distinct energy Kor hadn’t felt before: one tinged with the strength of purpose and resolve but without the stink of desperation or coercion. Strapped in at the helm he could feel the Wink’s physical potential energy reverberate through the restraints. The ship flew smoothly along at full power, nimble as can be. Everything felt tense, but readied.
Granted, all that energy could simply be what lay ahead leaking through.
Thin white clouds dotted the immediate skies ahead right up to a soaring storm wall of dark gray and blue. It carried the self-assured power of nature’s wrath and blocked out the northern sky all along their route. Not the Ferron upwell storm, but a regular one spawned off the titan waiting further ahead. The Wink bumped gently through the precursor wind currents, ably keeping a dagger-like course into the storm’s heart.
“You ever ridden a storm, Doc?” They’d enlisted Chantil to work the conditions sensors, such as they were. With Nem plugged deep into the sounds of the sky for the transit any extra eyes were useful. Chantil agreed without complaint, any arms-length ‘passenger-not-crew’ act set aside. They’d tried to give Chantil a run-down of the basics, until she calmly mentioned she knew her way around an airship, thank you. Kor sensed she’d done some solo flying in the past, the when and where unknown.
“Not like what I’m seeing here,” she said into the console. “Big band of storm, from Churn to Heights. Like a single ripple in a pool of water.”
“Spun off the upwell,” Kor said. “You just keep an eye on those readings, and holler about anything useful or dangerous.” They were a day out from their target coordinates, but plenty close to see the regional effects of the titanic storm. This was a big sweeper of an offshoot, a ring of dense but narrow storm walls that upwells spawned regularly. No real way around it but to ride it out or double back until it breaks up. Punching straight through the middle was the correct move. Too high led to the lightning-infused thunderheads in the Heights. Too low lay the Churn’s chaos and disruption of a different, unclassifiable sort, given extra reach riding up the base of the storm wall.
“Clear of any debris for now,” she said, her eyes half-closed while listening to the storm. “This is a real howler on the meteo channels.” Kor knew listening to a storm was a whole different level than open sky. Like opening your ears to a realm of aural chaos, the structure impossible for the untrained to comprehend. But it contained knowledge, just as the open skies did. The shape of the storm, where the intensity was highest, where the winds were fiercest. The sound of a storm was currently subsonic but soon enough they wouldn’t need headphones and amplifiers to get a sample of what Nem could hear.
“Well let’s hope it’s more sound than fury. Wilcox.” Kor had locked open the comm to the engine room and the occasional bangs and whistles of the machinery shouted back at him. Lukas was down there to help with any minor mechanical crises. Hopefully he wouldn’t be needed.
“We’re good to go down here, Captain.” Wilcox sounded unfazed. He’d likely dealt with worse countless times before.
The forward windows showed a consistent view of not much at all. The storm wall loomed closer, consuming the entire sky and painted in deep blue-grays and indigos, the varied colors a tell-tale sign of wilder weather. There was no lightning from what little Kor could see. Small favors. He turned the interior lights up against the rapid onset of storm-born twilight.
Kor drew out his charm and gave it a light flip with his left hand, the thin chain coiling close about his neck. He snatched the old coin out of the air and tucked it under his shirt without looking at the result. No need.
“Entering the storm wall,” he announced, flexing his calloused hands around the flight controls.
The Wink pierced the storm wall. Beads and rushing trails of water covered the forward windows and at first there was a near silence. Kor kept the ship steady and full power ahead, but felt every buffet double, once through his seat and again through the control sticks as he made small adjustments. Every passing second intensified the turbulence, rising to an unseen but certain crescendo. This was but a prelude.
He took a few thoughts to reassure himself. After all, this was child’s play compared to what Kor planned to do in the near future. If the Wink couldn’t handle this echo of the upwell storm, they had no business even thinking about dancing with the real deal.
Everything lurched upward as the storm sucker-punched the Wink in the gut. Kor heard a shout of surprise from Chantil get cut short as he snapped the ship back level, hammering on the top-side jets. Outside was dark as night and the lights in the bridge felt insufficient.
Minutes passed as the ship forged a path forward, each moment a jostling challenge, innumerable tiny duels between the Wink and the storm. A dull, numbing roar drowned out anything but a shout. Kor fell into a rhythm of micro adjustments to the stabilizers, his thumbs weaving over twin arcs of buttons on either stick connected to the arrays of small jets spread over the Wink’s hull.
“Charged patched dead ahead. Adjust twenty-eight degrees port and drop three-fifty.” Nem’s directions were calm, taut, and delivered in a strange cadence.
“Twenty-eight port, down three-fifty.” Kor angled the Wink on the new vector. He caught a glimpse of electricity flaring through the darkness. Everything rattled, hard at first, then fading to an inconsistent vibration. A hollow clang sounded off on the deck below. No matter how well you turned down a ship, something would start a racket in the first sign of rough skies.
“Ease off the top-side jets, Captain,” Wilcox squawked from the engine room. “Jammed. Redirecting to the flanks and underside.”
Kor clicked his tongue and snapped back an, “Understood.” He knew he was leaning on the top side too much as the storm had a consistent push upward. Ride too high and you’ll get caught in the thunderheads and fried. Kor angled the Wink downward to compensate.
Clenched jaws and back-of-the-mind fears aside, Kor felt a thrill run through his blood. A feeling anyone flying has tasted, especially out in the frontiers. Challenging the force of a storm with that old human defiance. The open skies can give, but they mostly take. They hem folk in, but still reach out and make someone you know disappear without a trace. So you fight back in whatever way you can and look to defy whatever the skies can throw at you. It was all part of the deal, and if you didn’t secretly love it, you’d best stay on solid ground.
“Debris, starboard twenty-two! Tumbling rock sign!” Nem shouted, yet almost song-like in delivery.
The view ahead was a black fog, the windows pattered with fat steaks of moisture. Useless visually but a blank expanse to clear his mind. Kor could envision the clean lines on a chart. He cut their forward thrust and pulled the Wink hard to starboard. The stabilizers screamed out a tiny chorus.
A deeper shadow the size of a freighter flashed through the storm-scape ahead of them. The Wink reverberated with its passing like a shudder of relief. Kor allowed himself a similar moment before gunning the engines once more and brining the Wink back on course.
“Storm weakens another click out,” Chantil said, voice weary. “Keep north-northwest.”
“Roger that, keeping her steady.”
There were no more close calls and the final breakthrough felt as if the storm had decided to toss the Wink aside. Kor wrangled with the sudden change in pressure and crosswinds and then all was quiet. Pale overcast light shone through the forward windows. Kor cut the interior lights to half and locked in a northward course. He leaned back against the headrest and let out a long exhale.
“Easy,” he sighed. Kor waited a few minutes to ensure it would be smoother flying ahead, then released his restraints to do a walk through for any damage.
Some airships have dedicated navigation tables with all the tools one would need integrated into the table itself or handily stowed within easy reach. The edges would have adjustable grids and the navigator could slide any charts below a glass surface for protection or layering for comparison. The number of bells and whistles was limited only by your budget.
The Wink and Smile had no such table.
Every relevant chart covered the table at the rear of the flight deck: Jepp’s map, the recently recovered Imperial naval charts, and what current maps of the area Kor already had on hand. A jumble of pencils, notes, and a miss-matched collection of nav tools weighed down the curling edges of the more rebellious charts. Kor and Nem leaned over opposite sides of their thoroughly professional set up, pouring over the information they had.
The skies remained calm after their transit of the storm band and the Wink hovered high while they sussed out their target’s location. They were oriented toward the west in order to get their strongest receiver pointed north, and peeks of sunset slipped through forward widows. The comm equipment pumped the sounds of the sky through the speakers, and Nem kept her head tilted towards the console, listening for any changes nearby. Kor could almost call it gentle, chaotic ambiance instead of just plain noise, since the output was heavily filtered to blank out the roar of the nearby upwell storm.
Kor turned Nem’s compass over in his hands. A nice piece, built into lovingly carved green-tinged wood, the glass facing only slightly scratched, the twin red needles steady, the dial smooth. A maker’s mark was burned into the casing on the back side. A mononym: Tarai. Orventian then, and older than Kor at the very least. She was missing a few pieces to the set, but they made a fine heirloom collection all the same. Made one wonder how she got it.
“Got them in the Triplets, Cap,” Nem said, reading his question. “Lots of old Imperial stuff floating around, you know?”
“Oh, I know.” Kor felt a phantom tingle on his right shoulder where his service tattoo marked him just as surely as the compass.
Nem glanced once more to her messy sheet of notes and shifted the magnetic green pin they’d been using for Jepp’s island. Kor shook his head at the adjustment. One of their flexible bars denoting the connecting line between islands lay at the center of attention across the recovered Imperial survey maps. It ran between two large islands, anchors of this particular island chain, denoted with blue pins.
“If the isle is there then the entire line needs to rotate southward,” Kor said, moving the overlay bar.
“Then the curve is wrong, Cap. I just pinged out the big one for the third time today,” she tapped one end of the bar. “You shift it like that and the north anchor island would be inside the storm. I wouldn’t be able to hear it at all.”
Larger island chains were linked by unseen forces with hundreds of miles of reach. Regardless of how serious a storm or wind current got, larger islands reacted like a net, holding formation even as their absolute positions drifted. Hence, Jepp’s refuge isle would be anchored against the years of the upwell’s changes in size and severity. Additionally, if they read Jepp’s ciphers right, he visited the isle three, five, and eight years ago. The Ferron storm was on its twelfth. The isle had to be in a stable position outside the storm. They’d been adjusting its position for a while now, working around the boundary of the upwell storm, lightly penciled in on the main chart. They knew the exact position of the storm, at least.
“Then we’re missing something else,” Kor said.
“I’ll check the scans again,” Nem said. They couldn’t just scan the skies for the island either. In normal conditions, sure. Nem could find it in a couple minutes. But the Ferron storm belched out disruption across the whole spectrum and anything smaller than the big anchor islands would be lost in the sonic chaos.
Kor stared down at the collection of maps, one hand splayed out again the thick paper, adding an array of five brown lines atop the mess. For all his confidence this morning, this was the reality of finding a single point in the skies with imperfect information. They knew where the island was, if ‘where’ counted for a generous swath of sky. The late Captain Jeppesen had no such difficulty, apparently.
Kor idly picked up the guide bar as Nem went back to the comms console to run the numbers once more. Jepp’s isle was big enough to be caught in the net, but only just barely. If a collision had broken off a piece, or the storm stripped away enough mass, it could become a drifter isle and could be damn near anywhere. Kor set the bar back in place, then smirked as he saw it was upside down. He reached to correct it and paused, hand hovering.
“Big island in the north, outside the storm. South anchor further out than mapped…”
It was upside down. The storm had flipped over the entire damn island chain. And Jepp’s isle was right outside the storm wall. Kor moved the green pin to a mirrored position along the arc, aligned the rulers, and eyed out the new positioning.
“Hey, Nem. Try these coordinates…”
The Ferron storm sealed off the entire northern sky. From Churn to Heights, the titanic upwell spun in a slow procession, stacked horizontal bands of white and gray and blue and indigo as far as Kor could see. Lightning flared in the concealed depths, bursts of brightness against an enduring gloom. Yet it all moved with a certain mathematical precision, the bands of colored clouds flowing in alternating directions, everything at its proper pace. A light gray ceiling blocked the sun, and the clouds above distorted into spiraling strands of infinite complexity where they met the storm.
“Looks like a solid wall, at times,” Lukas said from behind him. “Other times it’s just…flowing chaos.”
“And so very stable,” Chantil added. Storms are wanderers, life-giving, life-taking nomads. To see one holding its position for so many years was in violation of what everyone took as normal.
Nem was deep in the sounds of it all, listening with eyes half shut. Kor figured it was a symphony of a different sort to her, all the variances and tones of the skies compacted into a swirling mass.
Kor had eyes on their target, a brown smudge against the storm slowing resolving into an island as they approached. To him, the eeriest part of all this was utter lack of significant air currents buffeting the Wink. Something so massive should be causing havoc in the air, yet stillness prevailed only miles from the storm wall. He tried to relax his arms, unconsciously readied to make adjustments to the ship’s course.
The flight deck was as still as the air outside and the Ferron storm loomed ever-larger until it simply was the entire sky. Jepp’s island wasn’t more than a scant few miles outside the upwell. Kor didn’t bother to ask Nem for nearby signs. The interference would be immense and anyone or anything out there might as well be invisible. Kor flew on sight and the automatic short range pings, displayed in distorted near nonsense on the small positioning screen to the left of the flight controls.
Kor brought the Wink to a stop above Jepp’s island. It was a small one, barely weighty enough to lock into an island chain and avoid significant drift. In calmer skies it would be enough for a homestead if you wanted privacy. But now it was as barren as a fresh berg floating up out of the Churn. As stable as the storm looked, it clearly could reach out and scour the isle of anything not bolted down and prevent anything new from taking root. Not one glimpse of anything green and no birds nested here. They were wise enough to steer clear.
And Kor planned to land on it and poke around. Jepp’s map implied a shelter inside a cave, and that was the only reason Kor bothered to pursue the map at all. Anything freestanding would have been blown away years ago.
“Spots,” he ordered.
Lukas activated the ship’s signaling spotlight. It flickered once before holding steady, brightening the rocky contours of the island.
“Spots on, Captain.”
Kor pulled the Wink level with the isle and guided her in a slow orbit.
“Definitely upside down,” Chantil said. “The lower tapering of the isle is now a peak. Strange seeing it from this angle. You’re normally looking up at it.”
The Wink dropped below the edge of the isle’s main body, the disc-like formation so common across the skies. An inverted vista greeted them, thrown into stark relief by the spotlight’s glare. Skeletal trunks of trees dangled from the barren rocky surface, their roots deep enough to hold out against the storm. Short hills bulged out, marching inward to a moderate rise at the former crown of the isle. Glimmers of metal shone here and there, though it all amounted to nothing and looked like a bombed out ruin from the War.
Kor brought the Wink under the isle, gliding inward toward the short hills at the center. He soon spotted a trail running along the ground, the remnants of a path, and followed it.
Angling the Wink upward, Kor bathed the opening to a fair-sized cave with light. The walls were worked into a more regular shape, a usable shelter entrance. Bits of twisted metal and other signs of habitation glinted in warning, like tribal totems on a mythical lost continent.
“Wide enough for the skiff, I’d say,” Lukas remarked.
“At least at first, yeah.” Kor thumbed the intercom. “Wilcox, we good to go down there?”
He waited through the requisite pause and imagined Wilcox sighing and stomping over to the speaker across the cargo bay.
“Skiff’s ready, Captain.”
“Thank you, Wilcox. Lukas, you good for some spelunking?”
Lukas clapped his hands together in excitement, though his grin looked forced.
“Let’s do it.”
Kor guided the skiff out of the Wink’s hold. The open air felt charged and primed to explode, needing only a spark. Once again, the stillness and ease of the flight sent a nervous wariness through him. It just felt wrong. You don’t get far if the sight of the vast empty distances of the skies affect you, but something like the Ferron storm was an exception. Kor tried to push it to the back of his mind, a multi-hued background to the flight over to the cave entrance.
Lukas clicked a lantern alight as they approached the cave, though the Wink’s spotlight made it a drop in the bucket for the time being.
“Figure it an old refuge?” Lukas said.
“Yeah. You take out the beacon and it’d be hard to find unless you knew where to look. Not a bad place to stash away a few things.” Scattered across the frontier were islands with small depots of shelter and supplies for adrift or lost ships. They were built during the initial exploration of the frontier, before proper settlements and the buoy network caught up. No longer so needed, most were forgotten or salvaged or repurposed.
As the skiff entered the cave, their suspicions were confirmed by a weather worn plaque on the wall above bearing the iconographic shelter markings and instructions. Lukas swept the lantern’s light across the cave showing dark brown stone worn smooth in places by the wind. A broken metal walkway was set into the now-ceiling, some of the pieces fallen to the floor, others seemingly swept out into the skies. The pathway followed the cave in and curved out of sight.
“Good,” Kor said, looking ahead. “Shelter’s less likely to be pulled out by the upwell storm.”
Kor could only guide the skiff a few dozen feet into the gently narrowing cave before swinging the craft around and setting down against the former ceiling. He left the engines idling low, the skiff pointed outward. A little prudence never hurt anyone.
“Feel like I’m going to fall up as soon as I unbuckle,” Lukas muttered while looking up.
Kor unclipped his restraints with a smile and dismounted the skiff. They shouldered the gear: a few empty sacks, others filled with hooks and rope and a smattering of salvage tools that could be mistaken for the trappings of random vandalism. Not completely inaccurate, now that he thought on it.
Lukas raised the lantern to highlight an uneven floor. Short spires of rock jutted up, forcing their footing to the delicate side as they approached the bend in the cavern, boots crunching against sparse, loose pebbles. The walls closed in but not close enough to be oppressive, wider above than below. Soon enough the shelter stood before them, a wall of cheap metal stained with rust and age blocking off the cavern.
“Easy enough,” Kor said. He hadn’t expected much difficulty, otherwise there wouldn’t be an old refuge here at all.
Lukas approached the base of the wall, reaching to his waist for a hooked rope. The shelter’s door stood toward the left side, close enough to the rock wall to allow an easy climb. Wordlessly, Lukas swung the hook into a quick spin and threw it at the door handle. The clang of metal echoed through the cavern as he missed the first shot.
The second throw landed and the two of them joined together to yank the door open. The old thing broke right off its hinges, landing with a mighty clatter against the stone floor. They quickly secured a grapple to the door frame.
“First into the breech,” Lukas said, handing the rope to Kor.
“Wasn’t that your job?” Kor knew Lukas had seen a number of breech and boarding actions in the War.
“Retired and sure and hell wasn’t first. Lead by example, Captain.” He also had the sense of humor to keep it light. Not so for many others.
After a quick ascent, Kor balanced on the door frame, clicked on his own light, and guided the beam over the interior. A grand, jumbled mess greeted him, all the contents of the refuge piled against the slightly curved ceiling. Kor lowered himself down onto a convenient stack near the door. He guided the light over it all and sighed.
“Oh good,” Lukas said from above. “More crap to sort through.”
“Digging for gold,” Kor said. He waded into the mess and started the search.
Jeppesen had brought in a wealth of items. Canned goods. Papers and letters, some bundled, others loose and scattered. Trophies were everywhere, like the emblems of ships taken in his career pinned against one wall. Tumbled furniture formed an uneven base of the terrain, all much nicer than you’d expect in a refuge.
“We’re digging through a pirate captain’s retirement plan,” Kor said over the shuffle of their digging.
“Little optimistic to be a renowned pirate for decades and expect to retire to a quiet little island,” Lukas opined from behind a lifted mattress.
“Nice to have a plan in case you make it.”
Lukas let the mattress fall with a whump.
“And what ended the plan, Kor?” he asked, the lack of any honorific ‘captain’ obvious. He asked as the friend and not a crewman.
Kor considered for a moment as he pulled a small bookshelf to the side. He’d been dancing around his service on Jepp’s ship since revealing the map to the crew. In other ways he’d been stuck in that dance for the last few years, toward everyone. And himself.
“Same thing that’s killed pirate captains since time began. Mutiny. I signed on with Jepp after he’d already started going soft. Desperate times for me but it was work that got me off the ground. The crew was mixed on the, ah, direction of our working style. We mostly just took small time traders in shake downs. Clean and easy, but boring. Hell, every shot I fired was against other pirates.”
“That’s so.” Kor was sure. Mostly.
“And Bianca led the mutiny?”
Another thing Kor would prefer to not even think about, a name that conjured a storm of emotions more complex than the titan outside.
“She did. Killed Jepp herself.”
“Then you guys had a falling out.”
“Oh, we were well fallen by then, but our history got me off that ship alive. Barely.” Kor tossed an old jacket aside and found what they sought. “Hello there. Lukas, over here.”
A tried and true chest lay near the bottom of the pile. It was banded in humble iron and covered in leather, nothing fancy. They hauled it to the top and Kor frowned at how light it felt. Certainly not heavy enough to be filled with hard coinage, though he did hear something rattling inside. He grasped the front-and-center padlock but let it fall back. It could be dealt with later.
“Think there’s anything else?” Lukas asked, looking around with a grimace that hoped this was enough.
Kor stared at the chest for a moment. Would they be lucky enough for this to have all they were looking for?
“No. This is it. Jepp appreciated the classics. Let’s leave the rest be.”
The room shuddered, everything shifting as the shelter and the entire isle listed twenty degrees to one side. Only the storm getting frisky could shake it like that. Kor and Lukas exchanged a knowing look. Only lucky so far. Lukas grabbed the chest, lifting it easily.
“Time to go!”
The island corrected its tilt, shifting the collected contents of the shelter once more. Kor dragged an empty bookshelf toward the door, the short drop suddenly not nearly short enough. With a controlled burst of frantic stacking, he piled enough things to reach the door frame without much difficulty, and scaled the uneven slope of piled furniture and possessions. Lukas followed, awkwardly wading through the room and passing Kor the chest. With adrenaline easing the lift, Kor raised the chest to the lip of the door, pausing with the load balanced overhead.
“How sturdy are you?” Kor asked as he tipped the chest out into the cavern. A solid thunk and no sound of spilled contents followed.
Kor followed up and confirmed the chest was in one piece. The lantern they’d left on the outside had been tossed askew, its beams throwing off drunkenly rocking luminance. Kor gave Lukas a hand up to the top of the door, then grabbed the rope for a quick rappel to the cavern ceiling. Lukas was right behind him, landing a good deal less gracefully against the awkwardly angled ground.
Lukas grabbed the chest while Kor snatched up the lantern. He gave a single look to the other assorted gear and dismissed it. They had plenty of rope on the ship.
“Alright just gotta—”
The storm slammed into the island and Kor found himself cut off by the rocky floor of the cavern. Tiny points of stone bit through his clothes took their tolls. Light spun about as the lantern careened from his hand to shatter against a wall. Near darkness washed over them as the isle slowly righted itself once more.
Kor clenched his jaw and pushed himself up, ignoring the fresh scrapes on the right half of his body.
“You OK?” he called out to the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the faint light flowing into the cavern from outside.
“Yup,” Lukas replied, sounding equally worse for wear.
The sound of a hand smacking against leather-bound wood answered. Kor followed it, gradually becoming less night blind. Weak light blinked around the bend in the cavern, the Wink’s spotlight signaling like mad for them to get out.
Kor and Lukas shared the load of the chest and followed the light out. Each step was blindly placed, the footing uneven and angled by the isle’s continued listing in the winds. He inwardly braced against another hard shock from the upwell storm, but the third blow never fell.
They reached the entrance and saw the skiff had weathered the changes in the isle’s orientation well, loyally perched upright on cavern floor, if somewhat tilted. Wind howled across the entrance of the cave, replacing near-blindness with near-deafness. Kor could taste a tangy dust on the air, unidentifiable and concerning as all hell.
Lukas lashed down the chest in the cargo bed as Kor flew through the skiff’s start-up sequence. The craft responded without complaint and jerked upward as the jets came on. Lukas settled into his restraints and gave Kor a thumbs-up.
Kor throttled the skiff forward perhaps more hastily than the little thing deserved and the cavern walls warranted. Ahead, the shaded view from the cave was fogged with dark flowing dust riding a crosswind. He saw Lukas shrug his jacket over his head and was jealous of the protective luxury. Kor took a deep breath as they approached the threshold, readying for what he knew was coming.
The winds immediately sent the skiff into a spin as they entered open air. Kor closed his eyes against the swirling backdrop of clouds and the inverted isle and pulled against the spin, hoping he had enough forward momentum to avoid slamming into the isle. Dust bit into every inch of exposed skin and the skiff’s engines screeched, the sound barely cutting through the roar of the storm. But Kor pulled the skiff out of the spin all the same, bringing their course straight.
Kor blinked away the dust in his eyes and searched around for the Wink. The ship was wheeling about to point the cargo doors toward them, but also a distressing distance away. Kor was thankful Chantil and Nem had pulled out to a safer distance from the isle, but dismayed at the gulf of air between them. He angled the skiff toward the Wink and gave it all the little craft had, quickly leaving the shadow of the isle’s disc.
All the latent energy of the upwell storm had found its spark. Kor made the mistake of looking at the storm as he wrestled with adjustments to the skiff’s imprecise controls. Portions of the storm swelled outward from some of the circulating bands, the beginnings of another wave of wild weather birthed from the upwell. Elsewhere, tenuous and chaotic clouds of dust flowed out of the great storm, darkening the skies around them.
Kor saw a flash of something solid in the storm wall. Something winged.
Nothing could survive the winds, not yet. A result of his imagination and the visual noise of the storm.
The Wink drew closer, the cargo doors yawning open and causing the ship to rock violently against the incoming winds. Hoping he had the proper trajectory, Kor cut the skiff’s forward thrust and let momentum carry them in. He allowed himself a short sigh as he braced for impact. The skiff hit the cargo bay floor with a controlled crash, metal screeching against metal. Kor angled away from the stairs and they met the far wall with a jolt that shuddered the entire ship.
Lukas emerged from his jacket, dazed but with a dumb-ass grin on his face. Kor heard the cargo doors closing and knew he’d see Wilcox at the controls and assessing the damage.
“Never boring,” Lukas said.
Kor undid his restraints and sprinted toward the flight deck.
The contents of Captain Jeppesen’s treasure chest didn’t even cover half of the Wink’s galley table. Kor had sorted out the bulk of it: bundles of papers, three slim books, and collections of records and reports from the War. From an initial flip-through, it looked like everything was about the Ferron expanse and the upwell storm. Chantil sat across from Kor, skimming through one of the untied bundles of papers. Lukas sorted through the valuables further down the table, puzzling over an initial valuation of the true spoils.
“The old man had to be on to something in the Ferron expanse,” Kor said while turning a bound collection of surveying data over in his hands. “Explains the position of the refuge. He wanted to be nearby, storm or no storm.”
“This is far more than a passing interest,” Chantil stated over a cluster of hand-written notes. Kor recognized the handwriting as Jepp’s. Portions of it looked ciphered as well. “It’s thorough, with the sort of arcana only notable to the enthusiast. Or the obsessed.”
“Well, I guess me and Jepp were on the same wavelength. I’ll start going through it all in detail. See what’s going to be helpful.”
“Helps with what, Mr. Icomb?”
Kor figured it was about time to let them in on the plan. He motioned at the galley windows, now streaked with grime and dust from their flight from the edge of the upwell storm. “The Ferron storm is dissipating, throwing off more storms and burning off energy. Soon enough a sturdy ship will be able to pierce the storm walls. I intend to be one of the first through. First to assess the new and changed skyscape. First to discover, first to profit.”
Chantil gave him a long stare, her light brown eyes calculating, assessing. Kor expected skepticism, or at least one of her scoffs. Instead she simply nodded.
“The immediate aftereffects of an upwell storm are poorly documented. Isles that emerge from the midst of upwells aren’t always stripped bare like bergs. Some harbor strange and…altered wildlife. The sort of creatures that fade into folklore and rumor. It would be best if we investigated as soon as possible before the crowds muddle the scene.”
“You know I’m in for it, Captain,” Lukas added.
“Well, alright then,” Kor said, brushing away another scattering of the charcoal-colored dust shaken loose from his clothes. The damn stuff had gotten everywhere in the space of a few hours. The Wink flew ahead of a deep gray beast of a storm carrying even more dust from the upwell. They should be able to make it to Gloria before the storm. Speaking of which…
“What’s our payout looking like, Lukas?”
Of hard treasure, Jepp’s chest stuck to quality instead of quantity. There was a small sack of antique coinage, a collection of dozens of different nations and mintages including pre-Orventian pieces. There were a pair of quality silver ingots, stamped with Hub’s old Imperial sigil. Jeppesen was practical. There was no need for a big pile of currency or gold.
Lukas opened the true prize, a wooden case containing a felt-lined grid. Gemstones occupied each cubby, a rainbow collection of light-weight, value-dense wealth. Some were decoratively cut, others raw material pieces for tech.
Lukas held a blood-red gem up to the overhead light.
“This little box is worth five times the entire salvage pile,” he said.
“Think you know the right folk in Gloria to help us move it?” Kor asked, though he knew the answer.
“I always know a guy, Captain.”
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016