Chapter One: Lukas sticks to the plan.
Lukas pulled the door control lever and ambled over to the exact center of the hanger floor. Chains and mechanisms rattled and whirled under the deck and within the walls. He got into position just as the doors parted and slid open, letting in a fresh shock of winter air. Their berth on the west end of Second Terrace granted a partial overlook of the port outside, not the best, but a good view of the spindle isle at the middle of it all. The isle rotated in the uplifting air of the city’s sheltered hollow, a node of activity among the swirling vitality.
Hub. Biggest city in the Northwest. Lukas’s home for a few years and his deployment HQ for much of the War. When they weren’t burning off toward some fight or another, that is. Lukas’s heart ached to wander the port’s layered streets, see what’s changed, what’s stayed the same. That alluring mix of the familiar and new, since nothing in Hub ever stayed the same for long.
But his mind said no. Not only no, but hell no.
Hub was trouble. Especially when you’ve racked up debts and grudges and sort-of-fulfilled-technically-speaking obligations and favors like Lukas had. Too much of a risk to go carousing (more than once) or sightseeing (outside of totally legitimate business). The upside was you might recognize someone. The downside was you might recognize someone.
Lukas wagged a finger at the bustling port.
“Not this time,” he said.
His plan was to stay out of trouble and Lukas was sticking to the plan. Besides, he had plenty of work to do here.
Stormy padded out to him and sat on top of his left boot. Lukas looked down at Nem’s adopted cat and received an inscrutable look that he swore was slightly judgmental.
“Once again its just you and me, cat.” The Wink and Smile was nice and quiet now that the standard clean-up and repair tasks were finished. Chantil had packed a bag and checked into a hotel before the engine turbines stopped spinning, though she swung by a few times to drop off boxes of undisclosed items to her quarters-slash-lab. Wilcox and Nem were in and out, seeing to their respective upgrades and repairs. Silja clearly wanted alone time, though she and Lukas killed a bottle of the good stuff a couple nights ago and barely spoke a damn word during.
As for Kor…well, their good captain was up to something and wanted no one else to help. Packed up and ready to travel two days back and looking pensive as all get out. ‘Back in a few days, try to stay out of trouble’. Mostly because he was likely to be finding enough trouble for all of them. Lukas knew that glint in his eye. He’ll drag the story out of Kor when he got back.
Lukas shook his head and turned away from the view, eliciting a grumble from Stormy. The rear of the Wink loomed above him, cargo hold doors wide open. Crates of supplies and spare parts filled about half the hold already, with more arriving today. The skiff was parked outside the ship for now, though Lukas would have to keep some space open to fit the reliable rust bucket among all the supplies.
He stepped into the hold, picked up a clipboard, and glanced over his acquisition list. The nice thing about Hub getting airs about being civilized was you could order up damn near anything for delivery. Lukas’s only time in the city was that first full day, flying around suppliers and shops and ordering up dozens of items. Let someone else do the hauling. Looking down the list, most of the rest should be arriving today.
Filters, water and air. Check.
New salvage tools. Check.
Fuel cells for extended haul. Check, already up in engine room.
Turret rounds. Not delivered. Overpriced, but at least attainable.
Self-sealing containers for samples of anything weird. Check and bulky empty space.
Foodstuffs. About half delivered. Rest should filter in today.
And on and on. Everything they’d need for an extended haul through unknown skies. They’ll be able to store some of it in Gloria. Given the unknown fruits of Ferron, they had to balance supplies with storage space for samples or salvage or whatever they found worth hauling back to civilization. There was no such thing as over preparing for something like this. Especially since they could always barter with other storm-breaking ships. Assuming things remained friendly. Call it fifty/fifty on that.
Stormy busied himself with batting at the inner wall of the cargo hold, likely after some insect. The little gray fella has been having a grand old time leaping between the stacked and tied-down crates. Kor acted like he knew the cat was on board the entire time. Lukas doubted that bit of face-saving.
“Least you’re earning your keep,” Lukas said.
Lukas frowned at a set of smaller boxes containing dry foodstuffs, rice, coffee, ration packs and so on. Might as well stash those upstairs in the galley, clear some space. If the Wink and Smile’s recent record was any guide, they’d be landing the skiff hard and fast a couple times during the expedition. At a minimum. Anything left down here should be able to take a hit.
The afternoon faded into a blur of shuffling boxes around the ship and receiving various deliveries in the hold. Lunch was a held-over cup of stew and a treasured bag of pork jerky. Pork. Hell, should have saved it for later, trade it for ten times the value when they were out in the fringes and everyone was bored of beans and fowl.
The light started to fade into evening and the chill in the air fell to the low side of brisk. Lukas ran out of boxes to shuffle around. He shrugged into his jacket, grabbed a folding chair, and set it up at the bottom of the cargo ramp.
The final delivery of the day showed up right on time, though it was the least wanted. A nondescript fella on a new, black hopper landed in the hanger as if he owned the place. He dismounted and pulled out a small, padded duffel bag from his craft’s storage compartment.
“You Roth?” he asked.
“Yep.” Lukas didn’t get up and didn’t give a damn if it was rude.
He set the bag down at Lukas’s feet and said. “Roscoe’s eyes only.”
Lukas waited until the courier was off and away before picking up the bag and bringing it aboard. He pushed an unsecured crate at the middle of the hold out of place and knelt to the deck. He prodded the tiny recessed latch just so and the panel popped open, revealing an empty compartment. Lukas slid the bag inside and closed the compartment off, the paneling cunningly blending in with the rest of the floor.
That’s two out of three. Pending delivery of course. Lukas didn’t care a whit what was in there. Better to not know. Another one off the mental checklist and another reason he refused to get too involved with ‘R&R’ in Hub. Enough troubles followed him around without taking on any new ones.
Lukas looked up to see Stormy giving him another judgmental look from the engine-room catwalk.
“Yeah, yeah. I think we’re done for the day, cat.”
It was definitely evening enough to crack a bottle from the crate he left to cool in the hold all day. Lukas settled back into the folding chair and watched the port light up against the descending night. He took a drink and hoped his crewmates followed his philosophy of keeping any incidental trouble at arms’ length.
Even if he himself could only call it a qualified success.
Chapter Two: Nem traces a signal.
Nem stood atop Hub’s eastern windbreak wall and listened. Here, high above the mixed-up noises of the port, she could almost hear the skies. The winds brought in sharp, clear air, and whispered through the safety netting. But that was just her imagination filling in the missing data. Nem clutched a hard-shelled case of comm equipment in one hand. She held her hat in the other hand, which was a poor fashion choice given her location.
One of Hub’s public signal centers weathered the winds behind her. The building was all old-school curved stonework, looking like a primal cliff dwelling if it weren’t for the arsenal of broadcasting and receiving equipment glinting in the morning light. Nem was a little early for her scheduled time slot at a high-power console. She could see the station’s mated pair across the city atop the western break-wall. Both were ideal casting locations, even if the neighborhood left much to be desired. Too exposed for anything besides communication nodes and some of Hub’s defensive gun emplacements.
A chime signaled the ninth hour and Nem went inside the station, weaving through the steady stream of messengers relaying out the morning’s work. The interior was built in a circle around the central equipment, wide hallways curving out of sight in either direction from the reception room. The station’s ambient sound of clicks and clacks and shuffling paper and the murmur of people sending and receiving signals across the skies wrapped her in an easy, warm comfort. Nem checked in at the front desk and was quickly led to an open console among a row of such pods in the left hallway. Each console was enclosed by curving, padded walls, though open behind. Even to Nem’s sharp ears the details of her neighbor’s activities were an unintelligible murmur.
Nem looked over the console station. The gear was about fifteen years out of date, but the central shared equipment on the other side of the wall was what really mattered. Even from outside she could tell this place was keeping pace, tech-wise. The chair creaked and wobbled even against her light weight, though. She set her case on the desk and opened it. Inside were her personal headphones, a mostly blank notebook, and the folded and refolded and transcribed ciphered note from Gloria months back.
Her little secret. She worked on it here and there and it still barely made sense, a layered mix of signal codes, geo-locations, nonsense, and code phrases that might as well be nonsense without context. The notebook contained zero Wink and Smile related business. This one was all personal projects, which, honestly, was just the note and her own rambling research into…err…whatever it meant.
Still didn’t know the what or the where. But Nem had a few concrete leads to follow now. She could have investigated with the Wink’s gear, but she needed the detachment from her day-to-day. She didn’t know what she was about to tap in to. No need to give them a beacon straight home.
Whoever they were, anyway.
Let’s find out, yeah? That was today’s objective. Clarifying the picture, cleaning up the song.
Nem unplugged the station’s headset and set it aside. They might have been older than her, but being a classic was only worth so much. She connected her personal headset and settled it over her ears. The unfamiliar station surroundings and sounds fell away as she activated the console and attuned to an empty, baseline frequency.
First she got her bearings, unfurling her reception to gain the shape of the local conditions. Hub was a noisy, well, hub, of signal traffic, a sonic echo of its position as a nexus of commerce for the Northwest Frontier. Nem could hear rivers of messages flowing out to the other major ports: northwest toward Gloria and Grindtown, south toward Reaches, west toward Summit and Triplets. Each thread was a reflection of the major trade and travel lanes, as clear to her ears as lines on a navigation chart.
Then there was east toward the core continents, a shining thread dwarfing the rest in power due to the distances involved. Nem stretched out that way as a warm-up, quickly finding the location of the first relay station out in the Barrier Expanse. For all the chatter and signal flowing through, it must be a lonely place, a hermit-like artificial isle crewed by a few comm and maintenance folk.
Nem turned to the most recent page of her notes, where she had recopied the translated target strings from the Gloria note into a coherent list. She hesitated a moment, hands on the frequency and targeting dials. Last chance to pretend it was all a mistake. Ah, but the mystery was too tempting.
The first target was easy to isolate: A buoy west of Hub, near the geographic center of the Northwest Frontier, but not muddled up by the isle chains around Grindtown. Clean tone, sweet and new and low traffic. Very new, the ID tone humming out in a fresh sort of timbre Nem usually didn’t hear with the pre-War gear that floated out in these skies.
It was a seed location. A sign post. Nem could hear something lurking below the light traffic signals. A thread of song thrumming to a cadence distinct from the general populace. Yet, when she tried to trace it, it faded at her attention like a mirage on the horizon.
The second string was a passcode, perhaps? No, an altered alignment of her own signal. Nem made the adjustment and the second thread opened up. It sang an alluring mix, clean and new like the first buoy. Serene and detached from the common chaos of the skies.
The ambient background noise of the station fell away, all sense of her physical location isolated and muted as Nem fell deep into the sounds of the skies. She came to a second buoy, connected to the first and further out to the northwest. Again, the node was clean, newly constructed. The low traffic levels meant it was easier to keep moving onward and outward, following an emerging chain of fresh communication links. Each waypoint was contextualized by the previous one, a sequence leading her on. She didn’t notice that half her waypoints weren’t in her notes, weren’t deduced from previous work. They simply emerged from the song, a natural accompaniment. Intuitive leaps, like she already knew where to go.
A comingled chorus of messages ran along this network, their ciphered content singing in a manner Nem hadn’t encountered before. A new encryption method, maybe. But it sang to her, as sure a call as any, reverberating through her mind. Nem let herself be led along, to wander these new sonorous pathways.
Time vanished into the soundscape. The routes were clear to her, but far flung. She was deep in the haze, beyond precise communication and orientation, where everything operated on impressions. Even these new nodes faded to murky, deconstructed sounds, distinguishable only by their remnant identifiers from before. Where one must weave yourself into the song of the skies, let the chaos and order flow around you, perhaps show her what she wanted to know.
Reaching so very far out. Always northwest. Into Ferron, so distant yet Nem knew the boundary of the storm by sound, knew that vicious howl. That’s where the network’s trail cut off, but there was no fraying of the tone. It simply vanished into a void like it continued onward, spreading out a net of sensation into the storm.
Searching. Calling out.
To whom? Or what?
A three beat chime cut through the distant mix of storm and secrets. A local, polite reminder.
“Miss. Your time’s nearly up.”
Despite the warning, Nem looked around wildly, the embrace of the signal roughly torn away. One of the comm center attendants stood next to her, his face schooled into a neutral, patient cast. Anyone working here would be used to such reactions. Nav/Comm people were always a little odd.
“Thank you,” Nem said, though it sounded like a gasp, a relief.
A simple nod in return. About five minutes left. Time for one more deep dive, if she remained focused. She needed to know more.
What did she want to know? It all stood out in her mind, like an afterimage she didn’t yet wish to blink away. A new network, perhaps still under construction. The signal within ciphered via new means, yet strange and alluring. The sense of so much remaining locked away, hidden signals scattered across the frontier, jewellike and unreachable.
It was too much to take in. She’d have to approach from a different angle, on a different day. Someone was paying attention to investigations. She could hear something adjusting to her tentative tests. Each time she prodded toward one of the jewels, the link frayed and started to fade into background dissonance. Too quick to be natural decay, even with her partial information. Security measures, someone on sonic guard-duty, and if so they were good.
Good as they were, it was too fast. The only explanation would be they were close. Right on top of her. On the plateau? In the city? In this very building?
Once more into the mix. Stopped. Definitely being blocked by someone local. But the response time lagged a beat or two. Nem waited a moment, fingers tensed on a switch. Then, a rapid fire set of touches, not aimed anywhere. Didn’t need to be, they had her number. She just wanted a feel for where her adversary was.
The counterstrokes came from nearby. Within Hub, though not in here. Got ‘em. Nem scratched out a signal ID onto her notes. She didn’t read the numbers and letters. Didn’t even think them. They just went straight from the signal to her hand and onto the paper, bypassing the gal in the middle. Nem pulled back, though it was so very hard. The sounds were so sweet, a beautiful euphoria wrapped in razor blades.
Nested coordinates within the strings. They would have to be at a static casting site.
They also most certainly had her location as well. There weren’t many public-accessible comm sites of this strength in Hub. It was very much time to leave.
Nem unplugged her headset and flicked the console’s main switch off. She shut her notebook without looking at the signal ID because those digits scared the hell out of her. She packed away her things, winding up cables with oddly stable hands. She felt like she finished something, a task completed and then forgotten, taken care of. Her mind buzzed with lingering echoes of the strange network, staying with her despite disconnecting. As if part of her being was still catching up, still deep in the mix and decoding the last few messages of the day.
Nem left the comm station, the fresh air blowing away some of the fog in her head. She couldn’t quite sync up with the low-key background tune of the windbreak overlook. Everything felt and sounded too still. A couple cabs idled among the lot where the messenger hoppers parked and she found an empty one with an enclosed compartment in short order.
A persistent sense of that secret network stuck in her mind, numbers and frequencies and nonsense code words thrumming in a slow dirge. It overwhelmed her normal thought processes and interior solo.
“First Terrace, Astella Docks, berth five,” she said, voice too calm.
The cab lifted from the platform, wobbled for a moment in the crosswinds, then settled into a smooth descent within the city’s sheltered airspace.
Where am I going?
The invasive buzz faded and Nem’s thoughts returned to some semblance of clarity. She broke out in a cold, panicked sweat, breath suddenly hard to come by. Her heart accelerated as she realized that she hadn’t been in control of herself. Dancing to someone else’s tune. Her eyes fell on the notebook, clutched in a death grip on her lap. What was she getting in to?
Reversed: What’s gotten into me?
She needed to calm down and reassess. Normally Nem would tap into a certain frequency in the skies, a soothing, global baseline. Some irony in the cause and solution to her state being locked within the symphony of signal. Both were too far away right now. Delay and divert, then.
Nem caught her breath and said, “Hey, sorry, could you drop me at Silver Square instead?” Some restoration of normality to her voice, though she wouldn’t trust herself to walk right now.
“Sure.” It was still on First Terrace, but a little further of a distance. Enough time for Nem to calm herself down before arriving. She didn’t think on much of anything for a few minutes. Simply listened to the rustle of air against the cab, the muffled whine of the craft’s engine.
The cab landed, she paid the fare and then gingerly stepped out, legs shaky but cooperating. First Terrace’s background noise helped steady her. It was crisp and breezy, an organized harmony. Dull and staid and lacking the rhythms and improvisations of the rest of the city, yes, but steadying. She needed boring right now.
Silver Square was much like the rest of First Terrace, hewing to stark Orventian design and styles, but patched up with a nod towards being ‘Post-Imperial’. Nem ducked into a café. Ordered tea and a pastry, mostly out of formality rather than hunger. She didn’t think she could eat right now. She claimed a corner table with a view of the entrance. Laid the notebook on the table, closed. She stared at the plain brown cover long enough for her tea to arrive.
She went about this project wrong. She was too curious and too confident in her own ability, unaware of who or what she was up against.
Well, she had an idea of the who. Those sharp black ships they dueled out in the fringes. Their Dross job was messing with the local comm buoys. Perhaps altering or replacing the pirate network out that way, making use of unpatrolled and unmaintained equipment. Tess watching her work too closely, too knowingly. Then there was the stranger with his message and mistaken identity and the whole beginning of this puzzle.
Beginning. Perhaps not there. There were so many missing parts to the whole, gaps in the signal, critical fragments lost. Now feeling lost in her own head. And this wasn’t the first time, though previous…episodes she attributed to poor sleep or nightmares.
Nem sipped her tea, scalded her tongue a bit. But she felt steady enough, now. She opened the notebook to where she left off at the station, where she wrote down a string without thinking it.
She suppressed a yelp when she saw it wasn’t one but a neat list of nine. The last was a location string of whoever was countering her. As for the other eight, well, they summed to a chorus of cryptic nonsense. She didn’t remember writing any of them down. Nem shut the notebook, then opened her equipment case and crammed it inside. She didn’t want to look at it any more. Too many questions and she was still too scrambled to think on them. All she managed to do today was amplify and expand the puzzle. Bring it inside herself, somehow.
She could break down this one too. Though she would be cautious when investigating in the future.
Start from the ending. What’s at berth five of the Astella Docks?
It was a short walk from here. She could pass by from a distance, scout it out. Seemed like enough of a plan for now.
Nem devoured the pastry, suddenly famished, and finished her tea with slightly more decorum. Then back out into the streets. No sense of eyes on her. No too-regular accompanying footfalls hiding amongst First Terrace’s staid and respectable melodies.
The Astella Docks was the high-class sort of place she expected from its location in the city. Two clusters of star-like docking platforms around a central service building capable of serving all but the most ridiculously sized yacht. Everything was clean and precise and boring. Given the expected clientele, most of the berths were quite visible from the street. Gotta show off, you know?
Berth five held a nondescript lancer. Imperial design, hexagonal body, scaled hull in charcoal black. About the Wink and Smile’s size, though with a longer body. Heavier plating. A grove of antennae bristled along the topside. A pair of high-power receivers under retracting shielding plates on the flank. A signals ship.
Nem forced herself to walk away, but suppressed the urge to run. She knew she could have walked up to that ship and been welcomed. The passwords were imprinted in her head from today’s explorations, just out of conscious reach but ready to be triggered.
Today’s explorations, she insisted.
Chapter Three: Wilcox takes a side gig
Wilcox watched Hub rotate around him. The Spindle, a floating isle in the middle of Hub’s sheltered airspace, granted a scrolling, late-afternoon view of Second and Third Terrace, the open skies to the south, and then back around again. Mechanic shops and fixer joints covered the isle itself, a neighborhood of repair and refurbishment at the heart of the port. The odor of grease and oil and freshly welded metal pervaded the isle, though it was possible such scents just followed Wilcox around and he stopped noticing it a couple decades ago.
The Spindle was a refuge in both profession and politics. Wilcox could never quite feel at ease in Hub proper. As the major Imperial port during the War, the legacy of its alignment echoed through much of the modern-day city. Echoes of what he fought against, sometimes writ large and proud with a fresh, post-imperial, coat of paint.
Ruke’s place was a service hanger built out of a naturally-carved hollow in the isle, furbished to be somewhat livable. An old War buddy, Ruke was one of a handful of Coalition mechanics in Hub who quietly set up shop and kept to themselves. Wilcox couldn’t have done the same, wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut against all the Orventian-descended flair and pretense. Now it felt like the Empire never left, or perhaps a new one was rising in its place. He sensed it in the air, the great machine of humanity turning back to old methods, piece by piece. As cyclical as this isle’s rotation.
Ruke did tidy business, though. He and his crew had just wrapped up a the last job of the day, a quick hull patch on a cutter, and sent them on their way. Wilcox was content to watch others work. Besides, he would have to charge Ruke if he got pulled into a job on an off day. Wilcox was saved from an overabundance of brooding a few minutes later as Ruke walked over to his perch near the windows, still air-drying his hands from washing up.
“How’s the recruiting goin’?” Ruke was a short man, his skin touched with amber from the Sheltered Sky area of central Osspor. He’d gone a little soft and round in the years since they served on the Unified Will. Wilcox likely looked the same to Ruke. It’s likely the Unified Will fared better than the both of them. He knew it survived the War and Dissolution. Wilcox had a hand in making sure of that. Flying in the Altani Inner Fleet, last he heard.
Wilcox shook his head. “All the kids out here are either too eager, too dumb, or know too much.” He got the go-ahead from Kor to recruit another hand for the Wink, and the last couple days were a consistent flow of disappointing visits to mechanic clubs and job offices.
“Sounds like you’re defining the job so that you won’t find anyone good enough.”
“Maybe,” Wilcox admitted. He knew his standards were too damn high. “I’m looking for someone with a lack of pre-held notions.”
“Got enough of your own?”
“Exactly,” Wilcox said, though secretly it was more about a leaving different sort of legacy. He wanted to find the right mechanic kid or maybe two. Needed quality baseline parts to build something like that.
Ruke leaned in closer, the very image of conspiracy. Wilcox braced himself.
“So, I just got word from a buddy of mine. Den. Old ‘Lition mech like us, got a shop over on Third. He wants to let us in on a job.”
“You know my rates for an off-day.”
“This is more an expression of pre-held notions.”
“He’s got a contract job on a big engine piece. Sub-cap scale. Maybe a ‘vette, maybe bigger. Been working on it for a couple weeks now on behalf of an anonymous client. Bunch of intermediaries and such. ”
“So not Hub.”
“Nah, the local fleet’s got their own guys for something like this. Anyway, Den figured something was up with the job, too good money, too many unanswered questions on his end. Didn’t want to be helping out the Hawks, or anyone like that. So he hired a guy to follow the money. See who he’s working for. The P.I. came back scared-as-hell, limping, and ready to skip town.”
Wilcox jumped to his own conclusion, but motioned for Ruke to carry-on and get to the point. His old colleague was certainly one for extending the story.
“Turns out it’s a bunch of revivalist Imps and they’re building up quite the arsenal. Been seeing something of the like myself in the last couple months.”
“I have direct experience with them.” Wilcox had spotted a few ships buzzing around Hub this past week that fit the style of their newly acquired adversaries in the Raptor and Dora. Too clean and new and moving around like they owned the place. Couldn’t get a count on their numbers here, but they added up to a major concern. Components in a new machine, built in the image of the old.
“Yeah? Bit of a dance out in the fringes?”
“After helping rebuild one of their ships’ engine vents on a rock out in the Dross, yeah.”
Ruke nodded at this and said, “You’ll have to tell me that story later.”
“Nearly fell out of my own ship in a later encounter.”
“That one too, but listen: They’ve moved up the timetable on the contract. Den needs hands who know their way around something that big. They said to get it done ASAP.”
“Can’t say I’m thrilled about helping those people, Ruke.”
“Who said anything about helping? Den and I got something else in mind. You game for a spot of rebellion, Wilcox?”
Wilcox gave a long look at the slowly turning view of Hub and all its airs and legacies of a once-defeated cause.
“I do believe I am.”
* * *
Wilcox swung by the Wink and Smile to pick up his tool set before showing back up at Ruke’s the next morning. The hour was on the bad side of too-damn-early for an off day, but Wilcox was too curious about this side gig to grumble much about it. Ruke left his apprentices in charge of the shop for the day, and the two mechanics mounted up in a half-decent skiff.
The air wielded a hard-edged winter’s bite and did more work waking him up than any amount of coffee. Ruke flew them over to Third Terrace and into a densely packed industrial area of the city. Already the forges glowed and belched out rising columns of steam and smoke that entwined on the updraft winds.
Den’s shop was a converted warehouse, the broad main doors half open for the skiff to slip through. A cargo mule parked at the center of the floor carried a cylindrical engine core the size of a supply shed. Half the paneling was open, the interior components in various stages of repair or replacement. Bundles of connective wiring and cooling tubes hung in organized coils, mingled with straps hooked up to a crane lording over the operation. Nearby worktables overflowed with sub-projects, and a medley of tools and spare parts were scattered around the floor, the evidence of the pace of work rising to a sudden frenzy. A trio of bleary-eyed assistant techs sorted through the supplies, getting ready for the day’s work.
A tall, pale-skinned man walked over to greet them as they dismounted from the skiff. A morning cigarette dangled from his mouth, and it did not smell like his first of the day.
“Ruke! Welcome aboard this damn mess.”
“Mornin’ Den. This here’s Wilcox. Almost as good as I am.”
Wilcox shook Den’s offered hand and let Ruke’s inaccurate comparison slide. He coolly looked over the engine core. It was a good piece of tech, and didn’t look battle damaged. Maybe pulled from a ship caught in port under repair on the day of the armistice and decommissioned before the Dissolution turned hot.
“Imperial destroyer engine core. Drake-class.” Wilcox said. It wasn’t a guess.
“You got it. Downshift job into a Heavy ‘vette.”
Wilcox nodded. A plausible conversion job, so long as the rest of the set-up was reinforced to handle the extra power. Their engine room would be a hellish furnace no matter what they did for venting, though.
“What’s left to do?” Ruke asked, motioning for a cigarette himself.
Den handed one over. “About four days of work.”
“When do they want it?”
“Shit, alright. Guess it’s a double throwback for us.” Ruke nodded over to the far side of the room, where a man in a dark coat lounged in a folding chair, reading a book and looking like he wasn’t going to help at all.
“On site micro-manager,” Den said, his voice dropping low. “Been in and out through the project, mostly telling me to work faster.”
“He know anything?” Ruke asked.
“Nah. Eyes gloss right over when I explain what we’ve been doing.”
“Perfect.” It was a look they all knew well, and it was hard to fake.
“Let’s get started with the honest work. Still needs to get done regardless.”
Thus Wilcox found himself on another repair job in the name of people he’d rather not help out, all things being equal. This engine core was an echo of their efforts. Component parts of the old order, recycled and plugged into whatever’s working. Pretending to be what once was, but in reality an imitation, stability to be determined.
That didn’t mean Wilcox wasn’t worried. No, sir. The more he learned and saw for himself, the more these…imperial remnants frightened him. They weren’t mere die-hards. The Dissolution burned those types out. This was different. It had markers of planning and financial backing. However, like all grand projects, for all the effort and hours of work put into it, a simple flaw, buried deep, can make the whole thing come crumbling down into ruin. Whether it be empires, or resurgent revival efforts, or an engine core undergoing hurried conversion work.
The job proceeded at a good clip with two additional experienced mechanics, a blur of swapping out parts and adjusting a thousand little things. The politics and implications of the task fell away in the pursuit of perfection of the machine, or as close as humanly possible under the time constraints. It was about lunch-time when they had a chance to consider their real move. The observer ghosted without a word, likely to either report or get something to eat himself. The three chiefs fell into a hushed conference.
“Key’s not to muck up anything in here,” Wilcox said. “Assume their engineer is competent. They’ll check for anything suboptimal in the core itself.”
“Especially since it was a contract job and rushed at the end,” Ruke added.
“Right. So what we do is make the core perfect. We hit the connectors to the superstructure instead.”
“A very fine fraying of the connections?”
“As subtle as we can make it. They’ll be throttling output and will miss the warning signs for a good while.”
“Sounds like you’ve done this before,” Den said.
“You wanted someone with experience,” Wilcox replied. “Mine’s merely more specific to this situation than you thought.”
Den looked suddenly doubtful. “How long?” he asked. Hesitation, then.
“Under average load? At least a couple months before their engineers are staying up all night wondering what-the-hell. Sooner if they run hot and heavy in a fight. Any breakdown won’t be catastrophic unless they do something stupid. At most a stranding, wings clipped for an extended period. A severe and expensive inconvenience.”
Wilcox was fairly certain about all that, though he could definitely turn this core into a big damn bomb with an unknown fuse. No desire to go that far. He didn’t need a sabotaged ship going up in a fireball, all hands lost, on his conscious.
Well…another one, anyway.
“Long enough to make it look like it was their fault or random chance or aged parts,” Ruke said.
“Sure, sure,” Den said. “Otherwise they’ll be coming back here in a hurry.”
“If you don’t want to go through with it, we’ll pull back,” Ruke said.
Wilcox nodded his agreement but added, “They’re the ones trying to cobble together something new. Trying to rebuild what we spent our lives breaking down. They’re already throwing their weight around out in the fringes near Ferron. Staking claims. I think it’s time they ran into a little more resistance from the War’s other leftovers.”
Den considered this and said, “Hell, you’re right. My gut said to call Ruke in to do this, so let’s finish the job.”
The Coalition didn’t have a catchy, common hail. No real need and everyone wouldn’t have agreed on one anyway. Action and deed over philosophy and virtues. Then and now.
Chapter Four: Verica catches up with a friend
Verica looked over the tidy block of offices, checking over the address once more, though she was certain this was the place. The inner streets of Second Terrace lay in a late morning stillness around her, but this would be a quiet section of the city at any time of day. The communal noise of the port was a muted buzz that came from all directions, an inescapable sense of urban vitality.
After a week in Hub, Verica no longer felt the compulsion to regularly check over her shoulder. Not that there was much danger. No, any chance recognition would be deeply awkward at best, shameful at worst. Hub was the inner bound of her exile, and served as an increasingly deceptive imitation of the real thing, of home. Close enough to smell, but never touch. This address was an exception, however. Despite the ties to her past ventures and failures, this was a refuge and an authentic experience.
Wayfinding by Beatrix, declared the front door’s decal in elegant script. Below was Bea’s business emblem, an outline of a paper map with curling, ragged edges and no details aside from a fat X with a dotted line approaching the destination. Simple and serviceable to everyone else, but a direct reference to a select few. Verica recognized the shape of the map and gave it a small, sad smile. Then she opened the door and stepped inside, a step into the past.
Beatrix had done well for herself. The reception area of her office was lovely and warm, more akin to a personal greeting parlor, and decorated with trophies and relics from her travels. Verica recognized a pair of palm-sized amber shards on an end table, their crystalline depths gleaming with diamond-dust swirls. She found the one of the left. A vintage map of the Northwest Frontier, circa eighty years ago, occupied the wall above a pair of broad, plush chairs. Plenty of places were missing from the map at a glance. More and more found and added, even to this day.
A young man sat behind the reception desk. Blond, keen-eyed, and busy with an array of documents and a thick reference text. Bea’s taste in assistants hadn’t aged a day. He guarded a pair of office doors and a shelf filled with files and additional texts, ancient and current. Verica knew many of them, ranging from classic expedition reports, mainstay flora and fauna encyclopedias, geology texts, local history, and complied tall tales.
“Good morning,” he said. “Are you scheduled to meet with Ms. Trelain?” He sent a skeptical look over a schedule to his left and outside the fray.
“Officially, no, but I think she’ll make an exception,” Verica said, loud enough to carry through the inner office doors. An interior rustle and a chair scrapping against the floor was followed by the left door opening. Beatrix was a steel-haired, middle-aged woman with a face lined and mapped from great experience and great emotion. Zerish descent, complete with bloodline connections to the old nobility, though her career spent in the wilds had bronzed away her pale complexion.
“Ah, professor. So good of you to arrive on short notice,” Beatrix said, voice brusque and professional. Such restraint didn’t match her eyes. “Saul, why don’t you take a long early lunch?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, making himself scarce with practiced efficiency. He packed away a folio of work, flipped on a hat, and drew the blind on the door on his way out.
Once Saul was gone, Beatrix rushed around the desk and drew Verica into a vice-like embrace.
“Verica! I’ve been counting the days since I received your message.”
Verica suppressed a measure of guilt for being in town for a week before calling on her. Still, one bundle of tension in her head melted away, one she hadn’t realized was there.
“As have I, Bea,” she said, extricating herself, though not quickly. “I see you’re doing well.”
“Well enough. Been here for months but just finished unpacking everything the other day. But where are my manners? Torsian Black, Clarian, or Avan White?”
“The black, please,” Verica answered without hesitation. She already stashed a generous box of Avan white tea in her quarters on the Wink. She would no doubt be sick of it within a month or so.
Beatrix nodded toward the pair of plush red chairs and spun on her heels to march back into her office. Verica sat and shuffled through the short stack of Core published naturalist and adventure magazines on the central table. Secrets of the Northwest Frontier! Bizarre beasts and pirate treasure: FOUND!
Not entirely inaccurate, honestly.
Beatrix bustled back with a tray bearing a steaming kettle, prepared in advanced. The set of porcelain was white and encircled with bands of green and gold, the cups showing the subtle battle damage of countless meetings with clients and friends. A robust scent wafted over the area from the tea. Beatrix made another circuit to her office, this time returning with a pile of journals and magazines. They were months old at the youngest, a mix of dry academic journals and more general magazines. A slip of paper marked a page or two within each. A tied bundle of letters accompanied it all.
“Thank you, Bea,” Verica said as she accepted the stack, another wide slice of her recent work, reaching back into her time on the Triplets, before the Wink and Smile.
“Certainly, though I wish you would dispense with the alias nonsense.”
“Pen name,” she emphasized. K.Z. Springvale’s writings and adventures and research brought in a modest income and allowed her to maintain a presence in her old circles without drawing the ire of a few specific people.
“Nonsense,” Beatrix insisted as she settled into the opposite chair. She leaned over the kettle and judged it ready. She poured for the both of them.
“Well, dear, I think we should get my customary pitch out of the way.”
Verica said nothing and studied the teacup and saucer in her lap. Best to get this part over with.
“You know you have a place here. I could certainly use your expertise.”
“Bea…” It was so very tempting. Beatrix ran a varied business. Guiding. Research. Outfitting. A general problem solver and intermediary for whatever daring or mundane venture you could dream up. For Verica, it would be less than what she had before, sure, but the right mix of field work and opportunity for research. ‘K.Z’ would have a faster turnaround on her articles, as a bonus.
But she would have to stay still. That was the deal breaker.
“I’ve turned down many jobs since I prefer to run a slim ship, though the aura of exclusivity helps in its way. I would make an exception for you.”
“You know I can’t,” Verica said.
Beatrix let out an exasperated sigh, dramatic but authentic. This was an old, sore, and unchanging point of contention for the both of them.
“Fine,” she conceded. “But you should at least talk to Dorian while you’re here.”
Verica raised an eyebrow at this new and wholly unacceptable maneuver.
“No,” she whispered.
“I talk to him regularly,” Beatrix said lightly. “Even done a few contracts for him. He doesn’t blame you, you know. He knows you saved his life.”
“His family doesn’t see it that way and neither do I. One point of redemption doesn’t salvage the rest of that disaster.”
“If you would just…”
“Please Bea. Leave it alone. I can’t. Not yet. Not until…”
Until what? Until I prove them all wrong? Find that grand old myth just over the horizon?
“I know,” Beatrix said with a sigh, ceding to Verica’s stubborn mix of oath, exile, and pride. As she’s done many times before.
A silence grew between them, comfortable enough.
“I saw an empyrean,” Verica said as casually as she could manage.
“Did you now? Let’s begin with that.”
They caught up. Verica was able to excise much of the last year, since Beatrix had read her steady stream of missives and articles and reports. In turn, Beatrix went through a handful of her more notable jobs. Mostly scouting and the occasional tourist safari.
“Your captain’s got eyes on Ferron?” Beatrix asked, making no effort to conceal her own interest. Verica would expect nothing less, given her business.
“He’s not my captain,” she said, perhaps a touch too defensive.
Beatrix gave her a skeptical ‘mmm-hmm’.
“He does. Risky as it may be, the initial view of the region in the wake of the upwell storm is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have to see it and record whatever I can before it’s sullied and settled by ten thousand hands.”
She dared not mention the other reason. Icomb’s real objective, mad as it sounded. He was out checking on his lead right now. Checking to see if it was all just persistent rumor and recent myth-making, the sum of an old pirate captain’s delusions and a younger ‘lancer captain’s suspicions. Verica desperately hoped it would all fall apart and amount to nothing. For the sake of herself, and the Wink and Smile, and the whole damn region.
“I have a number of requests from clients in regards to Ferron,” Beatrix said. “Bids for locations and claims and samples for all manner of things. Far more than I can fill. Would you at least consider some remote, freelance work. For me?”
“Yes. For you.” Though it was just a way to try and bring her in, Verica owed Beatrix something more. Being the relay between her frontier exile and her continuation of work within certain Core circles had to be no little bother on top of Bea’s own business.
“There’s significant interest, then?” Verica asked.
“Oh my, yes. Saul’s been neck-deep in potential contracts.” Beatrix looked over at the reception desk, gauging the work remaining. “I’m perhaps waist-deep myself. The rush will be unreal once the storm clears. Everyone wants their piece, as usual.”
“Not used to quite so much competition?”
“I’m almost old enough to say I’m sick of it. Almost.”
A pause. A refill of tea. Verica tapped a contemplative finger against her cup for a moment. On to the next quarry. Her initial suspicion of having to dig around for information about those new ships with their revivalist Imperial flavor was incorrect. Or perhaps more accurately, those suspicions were blown away by the quiet, but not much of a secret, establishment of those forces within Hub itself.
“What can you tell me about these Imperial revivalists, or whatever they’re called.”
Beatrix’s huff and head shake told her half of it. “Some debate on that last account. A lot of folk just call them Remnants. There’s a high-minded, overlong name, I’m sure. I’ve done work for some of their allies here in Hub over the last couple years. They tried to recruit me a couple times. I declined.”
“How long have they been around?”
“Technically speaking, some of them have been here for decades. Definitely a few old true Orventian officers among their number. But this more open, formal phase…a few months, I’d say.”
Verica nodded, thinking it over. The timing lined up too well with the Ferron storm clearing. They had a measure of investment or backing in Hub, and there was a land-grab on the horizon. Where a group with enough muscle and organization could set up a tidy new fiefdom, regardless of the contents of the new expanse of sky. Or perhaps because of the contents.
I hope you’re wrong, Icomb.
“We’ve encountered their ships. Our interactions have been…mixed,” Verica said.
“They shot at you?”
“A couple times.”
“Figured they’d play rougher out in the fringes. Around here they’ve been hiring hard but politely. Poaching all kinds of people from freelancer crews, scouts and prospectors, N/Cs, the Hub Fleet. I contract out a lot of my jobs to a handful of crews and my list is starting to get short.”
Beatrix looked over her in a critical way.
“I assume you don’t have much in terms of evening wear?”
Verica scoffed. “It hasn’t been a priority, Bea. Why?”
“Well, if you want to learn more, they’re throwing some kind of soiree up at The Overlook, that old Imperial club. I’ve got an invite. Guess they’re still trying to recruit me. You can be my plus-one.”
Verica thought long and hard on this one. She read Bea’s secondary objective like a book. Dorian would be there. He was too well-connected to former Imperial and current Frontier power circles to not be. She would have to confront more than a room full of fanatics. Yet, her previous resistance crumbled in the face of unanswered questions and curiosities. And she had a ride out of town headed as far away as possible. She could face down her biggest mistake for a few minutes.
“When’s the party?”
Chapter Five: Verica attends a party.
On first impression, Verica was stunned by the elegance and reverence on display at The Overlook. It made all the other Orventian-style clubs she visited across the Northwest look like shoddy facsimiles. On second impression, perhaps that was for the best, as this bona-fide display of old Imperial wealth and fashions left her disquieted and deeply worried as to these people’s goals. It all approached a full-blown Imperial revival movement without crossing the final line. Yet.
The Overlook was decked out, the party’s attendees dressed to the nines. A survey of the room showed it mostly guests and unaffiliated people, with sporadic folk in Hub Fleet gold. Their hosts were scattered through the crowd, identifiable by sharp, charcoal-colored dress uniforms. Verica wore a rented green dress that the tailor insisted was quite fetching and perfectly complemented her skin tone, completed with a jacket for a more martial look. Beatrix wore fashionable silver, a delicate balance between shimmering attention grabbing and merging with the crowd’s similar styles.
They shared a drink at the central bar, where one could gain an overlook of The Overlook. The club’s breathtaking night view of Hub’s port lived up to Verica’s expectations, at least. The lights swirled below them like constellations in motion, and a trick of The Overlook’s position made it seem the building floated high above everything, detached from the world below. The party mirrored its view, the attendees flowing through groups and formal introductions and conversations, the wait staff flitting among the crowd, splashes of white.
After a few minutes, Beatrix excused herself to make a quick circuit of fly-by greetings of her own. Verica observed the crowd, listening to the prevailing chatter on the air and raiding a passing tray of appetizers. Glasses clinked and jokes were given obligatory laughs. A lounge singer purred through a song, accompanied by a lonely horn, cutting through an indelible tension in the room. It was all like a very earnest costume party. As if some people didn’t get the message that they lost this sort of thing. That the world moved on.
Or perhaps we haven’t moved on. Just idled on high, waiting for the cross-currents to die down before getting back to work.
Beatrix returned and said, “I have a veritable bounty of canoodling to do, Verica.”
“Please, carry on, Bea. Reap your harvest.”
Beatrix grasped her hand and added, “He’s in the left dining hall.”
Verica took a fortifying breath and nodded. She pushed away from the bar and went to the entry of the dining hall, weaving through the crowd with purpose. Her resolve was short-lived, and she paused at the threshold, gloved hand gripping the curved divider wall.
She recognized Dorian from the back of his head, though the wheelchair was a bit of a giveaway. He held court with a trio of other too-well-dressed people at a prime table right next to the windows. All Verica had to do was walk up. He would make time for her, if only a little.
Verica didn’t move. Memories clawed their way out of containment. Of a bizarre isle chain with stranger creatures. Of the pursuit of an obsession, deeper and onward. Of madness and death.
So many lost due to my ideas. My obsession.
She consigned an entire damn expedition, in her name, to the abyss. And Verica couldn’t forgive herself because she hadn’t given up the hunt.
Some call it Leviathan. Ka-Toron, the Sky Shaper, in Kural lore. Officially a myth in Torsian academic circles, which certainly didn’t help her reputation when she pursued the increasingly solid rumors and tales across the Northwest Frontier. Pursued all the way out to a no-name isle chain days away from nowhere. There, she saw it. Saw it slip down into the Churn as if it were weightless instead of a titan. Finally saw it right before the storm hit and everything became a damn nightmare. She had no physical proof. Nothing but her own testimony, stained and ragged. No other survivors could or would admit to anything more. Mostly because there were so few other survivors.
And so, she continued. She wandered, gathering more clues and rumors. Because if she stopped, what the hell had the last few years been for?
No. I can’t stop. Not entirely.
Verica was grateful she had a spot on the Wink and Smile, bound for as far from here as possible. Hub was confrontation of all the stark, minor insanities of her life laid bare for what they were. Irrational obsessions. Guilt and pride. Exile (partially self-inflicted) and the pursuit of self-destruction via random frontier chance.
Dorian never looked her way. Verica turned from the side dining hall and returned to the main floor and its calming, overlord’s view of the port. She helped herself to another glass of wine from a server’s tray as she very precisely wandered as far away from Dorian as possible. She possessed a lot of practice in that regard.
She made a couple brief stops in groups of strangers to correct a few overheard and blatantly wrong notions, mostly basic geography or wild falsities about other freeports. From the hosts came numerous grand ideas spoken with old accents unsuppressed among the older ones, feigned or learned by the younger. The running theme was not a new empire, no. They aspired to build something new, taking specific surviving pieces to their own purposes.
The other dining hall held the confirmation of these ideas, answer writ large in the form of a ten-foot-tall hand-painted Sigil, framed and hung to dominate the wall opposite the windows. Verica read through the components and promptly drank down the remainder of her wine. The elements of the artwork were modifications or evolutions of the Sigil they found on Cassy’s Claw so many months ago. Second Storm. Rediscovery. Order. The Union of Remnants. The central spirit: Virtue, her light a beacon shining through a breaking fog.
That made it as official as anything, really.
Someone stood at her shoulder. Verica turned to see Tess, another discovery from months ago. She wore a dress uniform with lieutenant bars and a far too satisfied expression on her face.
“Enjoying this sample of the old life, Doctor?” Tess asked, that betraying accent slightly more prominent.
“That’s one interpretation, Tess,” Verica said. She looked over the other woman with casual dismissal. No need to be polite here. “What exactly are you, Tess? I’ve the feeling this isn’t our last meeting.”
“I manage problems, Doctor. Most of the time I solve them. Sometimes I create them.”
“A vague but acceptable answer. Rescue any research vessels, lately?”
“Fortunately, no. They’ve all been running smooth.” Tess motioned at the Sigil painting. “A touch too bold, I’d say, but the top brass have pushed for a more open image of our cause.”
“I think you’re all a step or two ahead of yourselves. In my experience, the Northwest Frontier has a habit of reacting poorly to too much enforced order, whether from within or from without.”
“Everything breaks eventually. Come, Doctor Chantil, it’s almost time for the presentation. You should have a front-row seat to another rung of our ascendency.”
“Please, lead the way.”
Verica allowed Tess to hook her arm through hers and guide her back to The Overlook’s central hall. She snatched up what she assumed to be a final glass of wine from a passing tray. In the central lounge, most of the attendees listened to one of the Hub council members, a young man whose name Verica didn’t know, speak of building stability and expanding the calming reach of civilization. Of shedding their frontier monikers. Of bringing long-overdue maturity of the region.
Good luck on that one.
The crowd nearest to the window gave way to the uniformed operative, and Verica and Tess stopped right near the glass, their view of the port unobstructed. She found Beatrix on the upper level, and nodded away her concerned look.
“I won’t bother trying to appeal to your past life, Doctor,” Tess whispered to her. “Clearly you’ve made up your mind. I think it’s best for you to simply see more of what you’re against. The growing power your captain defied.”
The council member yielded the floor to an elder Remnant man, his sculpted gray hair and extensive medals and commendations, old and new, marking him an admiral. He launched into a long, rambling statement of ideals and virtues. Verica saw Tess nodding along to the speech, the look of a true believer in her eyes. Others affected the same across the room, though not a majority. She spotted a healthy amount of both skepticism and outright disdain. So even among their hand-picked guests, the Remnants didn’t have majority support, from this one, wholly unscientific observation.
The admiral reached a climax, sweeping his hands towards the grand view and saying, “Thus, I present the newest addition to our cause. Ladies and gentlemen, the Path of Arctarian.”
Everyone turned to the window as spotlights flared alight in the port below, their beams carving through the night in unison to stop in a clear patch of airspace. A warship rose from the shadowed lower levels, a gleaming Imperial corvette, hexagonal hull scales shimmering in the spotlights’ focused fire. It was big, relative to anything but a destroyer, and armed to the teeth, bristling with gun emplacements along the flanks. It’s rear engines glow with faint blue light, like a halo of luminance. Six cutters circled the warship, newer models, similarly polished up and shining in the lights.
It was all very impressive. The Overlook applauded, some politely, others enthusiastically enough to drown out anything less.
“This is but one of many restoration projects, all working toward a nimble fleet that can react and deploy quickly. With ships such as these—”
Harsh red and orange light burst from the rear of the Path, shattering its fleeting halo and shading the night in bloody hues. A chain reaction ran along the corvette’s starboard tilts, flares of smoke and fire. The ship began to list as its attendant cutters scrambled defensively, though no weapon fire streaked toward the Path, or anywhere else. The explosion came from within the ship itself.
Naturally, The Overlook mirrored the view and erupted into chaos of its own. The Remnant officers in attendance hustled here and there, some rushing from the building entirely. The admiral was red-faced and fired out orders to anyone in earshot. Tess simply stared out the window, part scowl part shock.
Verica sipped her wine and watched the spectacle below, The Overlook’s view granting perhaps too much of a good look to an embarrassing incident. A few emergency assistance ships puttered out toward the corvette, but the Path seemed to have partially recovered on its own. However, the belching smoke from the rear engines and wavering alignment looked, even to Verica’s untrained eyes, like significant damage to the Remnants’ shiny new prize.
Tess gave her a high-quality accusatory glare, one impossible to buy or fake.
“I’m just as surprised as you are,” Verica said with smirk. “Bemused. But surprised.”
“Tess! To me,” snapped an unseen person in the milling, amused, and shocked crowd behind them.
Tess held her gaze for a moment longer, searching her for any sign of involvement. Verica raised her glass in a mock toast.
“Ascendency is never easy. We’ll see you in Ferron.”