“How can there be nothing?!” Kor demanded. “That’s absurd.” He was sweaty and weary from a day of hustling all over Gloria. He sold their previous job’s load of salvage (damn near half a trade freighter), checked in on Turchov’s buoy work (‘More time, Captain, more time!), and then spent the afternoon searching in vain for any kind of armament for the Wink. He dared to hope Wilcox or Lukas would be successful where he failed. Not so.
“As I said. There’s not a single available cannon, rotary, launcher, or flechette,” Wilcox said as he refilled his cup from the water pitcher. The three of them used the Wink’s galley, as they often did, as a conference room. Hard afternoon sunlight glared through the galley windows, a reminder of the hot, weak-winded day outside. A black beetle carapace from Cassy’s Claws hung on the wall between the windows, glinting in the light.
“I thought we could take anything under forty?” Kor persisted, holding onto a fading hope.
“Oh, the ship can handle anything appropriate to her weight class,” Wilcox said. “Plenty of power, connections like-new, and the forward mount is very adaptable. There’s just nothing for sale to slot in.”
“Gloria’s cleaned out, Captain,” Lukas added. “I tried everywhere. Sounds like the last couple months have been squeezed on big guns.”
“What little gets out here is snapped up by the port defense fleet. By any means necessary, at times,” Wilcox said.
Kor knew both men were more adept at such things than he, through mechanical brotherhood or better navigation of gray markets. He believed them, he just didn’t have to like it. They needed heavier munitions and it was high time to fill that particular gap in the Wink’s ability. Kor knew he couldn’t keep bluffing forward. Eventually someone would call.
“I don’t want to haul my ass all the way down to Hub,” Kor said. The Northwest’s wanna-be capital was a long trip from here, and freelancers often found themselves entangled in the city’s various webs.
“Well, Captain…you know where else we can try,” Lukas said, leaving the where unspoken.
Kor knew damn well. He massaged his forehead, mind tumbling through the pros and more numerous cons.
“Knucklebone,” he muttered into his hands.
Wilcox hummed disapprovingly.
“They’ll have something,” Lukas continued, presenting his case. “It’s a lot closer than Hub. We’ll come out ahead of the mark-ups and risk simply through saved time.”
Knucklebone was the exact sort of place Kor wanted to leave behind, where old associates and bad blood may yet linger. He wanted to avoid it, but at the same time, found it tiresome that certain past grudges could confine where he flew. No true freedom there.
“We’ll give Knucks a try,” Kor said, his resolve finding a new solidity. “We’re getting pressed on time and this ship needs teeth. I’ve already passed on a couple jobs where we’d want the insurance.” Kor would have to bluff his way forward one more time. Knucklebone might be a Sunder port these days, but it was open to almost all. He just hoped he wouldn’t see any familiar faces or familiar ships.
“Lukas, rustle up a haul of clean goods. Foodstuffs, filters, that sort of thing. Make it worth our while, win or lose.” It would be a low margin load but a quick sale regardless of market conditions.
“Easy enough,” Lukas said while eyeing the angled sunlight at Kor’s back. “Think I got enough time left today.”
Kor turned to Wilcox. “I assume we’re all top-notch?”
“Of course. You’ll excuse me for not partaking in our destination, however.”
“One could say you folks are the reason Knucks is still around, Wilcox. We should thank you,” Lukas said with a grin. He often looked for ways to jab at their conflicting pasts, but knew where the line between playful and insulting lay.
“One could say,” Wilcox conceded with a small nod.
“I have no intention of spending a second longer in Knucks than necessary,” Kor reassured the table, though he knew it would take some footwork to find what they needed. Regardless, the matter was settled.
“All right then,” Kor said. “Let’s visit the ole pirate watering hole.”
* * *
Knucklebone was a long, rocky cylinder of an island with flanged ends, the spitting image of a stripped and bleached finger bone. Each end housed a gaping entrance to the isle’s hollow interior, where the port city lay hidden from sight. The isle drifted on a tight circuit in the midst of choice sky, a three-day jaunt south of Gloria. To its west was a primary north-south trade lane. To the east, the vast scattering of the Dross, a shattered mess of sky and the true haven of outlaws and pirates.
From here, Knucklebone commanded a fine position near the heart of the Northwest Frontier, though the surrounding lanes weren’t particularly dangerous beyond a higher rate of unofficial toll-taking. Too much concentration of activity would provoke a response. That said, the policy of Knucklebone has always been ‘You’re welcome to try’ when it came to clearing the place out. Run by the Sky Sunder consortium (hard to call them a pirate fleet these days), it was less a pirate capital and more a neutral gathering place, a figurative and literal watering hole.
A deep reservoir filled a long groove atop the isle, a gently sloshing supply of fresh water kept topped up by the area’s frequent rains. Pumps and filtering stations dotted the shoreline, interspersed with windmills and refilling towers for passing ships. All provided for a fee, of course. Little grew on the isle but scrappy mosses and lichens. Larger, greedier plant life was discouraged as a matter of course and profit.
“Dialing back the noise,” Nem said. They kept their own signal muddled and distorted while in transit, making their passage and position hazy to anyone who might be listening. “Hailing the port for a landing berth.”
“Beautiful as ever,” Lukas said as he leaned against the wall to Kor’s right and watched their approach. Vents of steam and smoke rose along the rim of the reservoir, spurred along by the prevailing winds into a long, hazy trail. Below, a slurry of wastewater drooled from the island, a vile rain descending the empty miles to the Churn.
“Crowded today,” Kor remarked. Ships of all sizes and designs buzzed about the isle, many in slow, wide orbits, others heading in or out of the island’s hollow interior. He looked over the disperse fleet of dozens, seeking out anyone familiar. The skies were clear on that count, and he found some comfort in the Wink being just as unfamiliar to everyone else.
A trio of destroyer-sized, U-shaped ships drew the eye, the vessels floating in a loose formation below and well aside of Knucklebone. Rusty discolorations stained their bulky, uneven hulls and their inner sections bristled with all manner of hooked and pointed instruments. Their appearance left no doubt as to their purpose as massive, mobile meat grinders.
“Three kill ships,” Kor said. “That’s a lot of whalers on-isle.” A single whaler kill ship carried a hundred hands, plus dozens more on the quicker chase and reel cutters. Each represented a small fleet of its own. Whaling was a dirty and dangerous trade, crewed by the sort of desperate, no-other-choice folk who’ll accept the risks and pay.
“At least they’re polite enough to be downwind. Should be fine,” Lukas said, brow furrowed. “Means their crews got paid and will be taking all the attention, starting all the fights.”
Only one of the three was processing a kill. The deflated and discolored husk of a whale occupied the hot-seat, held up by the various restraints and tools draining out its precious fluids. The creature was unrecognizable at this point, a limp sac of harvested flesh. When alive, whales themselves were wily, fast, and unpredictable prey. Bigger than some airships, every piece of the creatures could be harvested for some use. Oil for burning and machine applications. Blood for painkillers, medicinal and otherwise. Hide and bones for low-weight constructions. Meat ground down for the canneries.
“Negative, Knucks.” Nem said “We’re flying bare. No tags, no rags.” Neutral. No sovereign, no pirate association. She delivered the jargon without her usual relish, voice constrained. She learned her trade by avoiding these people, after all.
“We’re clear, Cap. East end. Berth fifteen.”
“Thank you kindly, Nem.”
The Wink dipped down to align with the island’s central axis where a broad oval opening led into the hollow core. Mounted buildings and gun emplacements fringed the entryway, none of which hewed to any overriding organizational scheme. Some even seemed decorative. Banners of pirate fleets past and present rippled in the winds, a host of mostly black flags with a giant crimson banner of the Sky Sunders in the prime position, top and center. A visual list of who was welcome, though Kor couldn’t see any notable exclusions. He eyed a black banner emblazoned with a pair of red wings with no small amount of aversion.
Kor ducked past a pair of reckless cutters exiting the port in a hurry and brought the Wink into the shaded interior. A chill ran over him, something he attributed to the sudden shadow but just as easily owing to the return of a skin he thought long shed.
Knucklebone’s port grew from the opposing cavern walls like a vast, metal fungus, disorganized and improvised through and through. Lamplight of inconsistent color and quality illuminated the metal platforms, mounted buildings, and stacked construction, both sides hugging to the curve of the interior’s walls. The north wall held a majority of the city and everything of interest to visitors of all stripes. To the south were the private moorings and headquarters of the Sky Sunders organization, the current rulers of Knucklebone, but far from the first to claim it.
Kor eased the Wink through crisscrossing traffic of skiffs and cabs and other small sky-worthy craft: fighters and cutters, lancers and light freighters. The Wink was on the small end of mid-sized airships, but here she felt like a giant. Nothing bigger than a lancer could maneuver inside the port and the tight confines were part of Knucklebone’s defense. Kor could just make out the skeleton of an Imperial cruiser at the bottom of the hollow, its barren metal bones dimly lit by the disjointed vibrancy above. They were the last to try to tame Knucklebone, back during the War when the Orventian Empire could still spare warships to chase pirates. Once crippled, the cruiser was squeezed into the city and scuttled, left as a feast for whoever wished to salvage from it. Now it stood as a rotting monument amongst Knucklebone’s sewage.
Berth fifteen was lit by a ring of pale white lights and the red glare of a billboard advertising the quality ladies and lads of a brothel. A sleek crimson gunship and boxy merchant freighter occupied the neighboring berths. The platform creaked as Kor brought the Wink down.
Kor unbuckled from his seat with some reluctance.
“They give us a docking fee, Nem?”
“Sure did.” She told him the amount. Kor added fifteen percent. He looked over at Lukas who was clearly a little too excited to be here.
“Let’s go meet the welcoming party.”
Kor opened the lower bay door, just enough for he and Lukas to duck under and onto platform fifteen. The rank, smoky musk of Knucklebone speared into his nostrils. That was one thing that hadn’t changed a whit.
A tall stick of a man waited outside on the platform. He wore a crimson red jacket bearing the insignia of the Sky Sunders, the ruling consortium of the isle. Mismatched rings occupied each of his fingers, his hands gripped around a clipboard. He was bearded but trimmed and a relatively ancient tricorn hat completed the look.
Even pirates needed a harbormaster’s office.
“Standard docking and discretion,” Kor said. He tossed over the docking fee in a pouch. The official caught and pocketed it in a well-practiced motion. It contained a little extra for the standard skimming, another well-practiced motion.
“What do you have for me?”
Lukas listed their modest haul. “Three piles of rice. Four pallets of filters, standard, half-and-half.”
“Filters?” he asked speculatively.
“Literal filters,” Kor said, as flat and serious as possible.
“Ah. Fair enough. The house will buy it all, if you wish.” He named a rate and Kor didn’t argue. It would serve and be done quickly. He looked over the nearby docks. Most were filled with ships in their motley variety. Kor didn’t see any with concerning brands of familiarity, though there were far more further along the port and difficult to discern in the perpetual gloom.
“Anything I should know?”
The functionary clicked his tongue, and gave Kor a look-over. “Maybe stick to the higher, neutral bars. Lot of whalers in port, cashing out a haul. You know how they get.” And keeping themselves in debt in the process, the port of Knucklebone happy to enable their desires with a smile and open palm. No shortage of ways to spend your wages here, a fact Kor hoped to take advantage of, though in less frivolous ways.
“How about Hawks?”
“A few around, as usual,” he said, matter-of-fact and inviting no further free intel queries. The revelation neither soothed or incited Kor’s worries. He assumed there’d be a few ships from the Night Hawks around here. He just needed to be lucky in regards to which wing they were.
The harbor official wrapped up his paperwork, tearing off a proof of payment and handing it over. “I’ll get a crew out here to check, unload, and pay ya.”
“Much obliged, friend.”
“Enjoy Knucklebone, gentlemen.”
It was a smooth transaction. A crew of dock laborers with a pair of hovering skiffs unloaded the Wink’s modest cargo within an hour. Kor kept a watchful eye on them from the stairs all the same. Then, after double checking that the ship was secure, Kor and Lukas set out into Knucklebone on foot.
Kor wore a loose-sleeved shirt that covered his service tattoos and implied an unknown number of concealed surprises. He hid his money so well a pickpocket would need a map, a torch, and the secret handshake to find it. Lukas had fewer qualms over past affiliations, wearing a sleeveless shirt. He carried an empty cloth sack over one shoulder. Elsewhere they stuck to dull and neutral colors. They were armed, of course, but showed no intent in manner. It was part of the code here: If you start shooting, damn near anyone might start shooting back, either to restore peace or to fulfill some dull or fresh vindictive need.
“What’s with the sack?” Kor asked.
“I got a list,” Lukas replied simply.
“Right. Let’s see what’s available.”
Knucklebone’s port followed a vague internal order, stacked in a vertical arc of interconnected levels. Each level followed a winding impersonation of a boulevard, though the main streets would divert around or over a building or converted airship here and there. Throngs of merchants, pirates, whalers, and every other manner of rogue prowled the grated metal streets. Below their feet, visible through the metal paths, lay the rooftops of the next level, the streets staggered inward along the curve of the cavern to avoid falling dirt and worse from above. The higher levels, as was so often the case across the skies, were the nicer climes, though here it was more degrees of grime and quality of services than any real class.
Thanks to its placement inside the isle, Knucklebone’s improvised streets and alleyways lay in perpetual evening. It was easy to lose all sense of time here, especially when the wash of indirect sunlight from either end of the cavern faded into night.
Kor and Lukas went high-class for their first stop: A clean, well-lit shop bedecked in the crimsons of the Sky Sunders. Formal and prosperous, it stood at the far end of the uppermost promenade, a point where traffic from the docks flowed past on their way to other entertainments.
Looking around the organized and cataloged main floor, Kor judged the place would even be up to code elsewhere. For all the formality, their wares were the choicest contraband. Modern military quality ship components (mostly Nav/Comm tech), an entire wall of small arms of all origins and styles, rare trophies and luxuries from across the skies, and an enviable selection of items to drink and smoke. The works.
But nothing Kor was looking for today. Not so much as a hundred-year-old cannon as likely to explode on you than deliver its payload. Not on the floor, not in the back.
“All sold out on such things, gentlemen,” said the woman working the floor. She was suited up, formal and Core-classy were it not for the half-shaved hair and sheathed saber at her hip.
Kor glanced at the Sunders patch on her jacket and asked, “How much for a one-day membership?”
She returned a gracious, yet patronizing, smile. “You’d be disappointed in the results. We’re truly out of stock on such weapons. You might try Kurtz’s, down a level and inward a few minutes.”
“Think I will, thank you.”
They retrieved their effects from the security gauntlet at the front door and returned to the hazy streets of Knucklebone. Kor looked about for a descent point and found a set of haphazard stairs leading down to the next level. He felt the pull of the interesting areas of the port city, but remained focused on the task at hand, one that resided in the duller mercantile fringes.
“On to the next one,” Kor said, feeling optimistic. He wasn’t so lucky as to find what they needed at the very first stop. That’d be asking too much.
Kurtz’s was a neutral place by the colors. The cramped shop was lit by lamps of varying intensity, making the place look more suspect than it really was. They carried similar wares, but with a greater variance to the quality and permanence of the displays. Most of the best stuff was locked in sturdy cases, the glass smeared from years of curious passing hands.
Kor cut to the chase.
“Mounted guns. What’ve you got?”
Kurtz himself was a massive fellow, bearing all the look of security instead of ownership. He coolly appraised Kor and Lukas as they weaved through the shop floor. A hard-eyed Kural dwarf watched from the shadows behind the counter, a shotgun at the ready. Kor gave him a nod all the same and received a barely perceptible one in return.
“Nah,” Kurtz said. “Haven’t had one through in weeks.”
A resigned shrug.
“You know who might have any?”
Another shrug. They wouldn’t get a tip toward a competitor this time around.
Lukas pointed through the counter’s glass at a small box containing four hand grenades.
“I’ll take those.”
Kor gave him a questioning glower.
“It’s a good price,” Lukas said, placing his payment on the countertop. “You never know when you’ll need grenades.”
Kor hummed doubtfully.
Lukas accepted the box from Kurtz and briefly checked each grenade. They were the pineapple-looking Orventian military design, the sort Lukas had handled in the past. Satisfied, he shut the box and ferreted it away in his sack.
“Two discs I’ll break one of these out at an opportune time and you’ll thank me.”
“It’s a bet, but it needs to be organic. You toss one of those out at the first whisper of trouble and I’m calling foul.”
“Fair enough. Let’s keep heading down, Captain. I know there’s a lot of…fine establishments down on three. The entire port can’t be sold out, you know?”
“Surely not,” Kor agreed. “Onward!”
Four more shops flew by without success, ending with the same ‘sorry-mate-nothing-for-yas’. Each stop took them deeper into the scummy depths of Knucklebone, ever closer to the collected literal and figurative filth below.
“Someone tried to sell me a battlecruiser’s main gun,” Kor said as they weaved through the grungy streets of the fifth level of Knucklebone, looking for one last shop. The air reeked of chemicals and refuse. “There aren’t even battlecruisers flying that could mount it. Never mind how they got it in there or how they’d get it out.”
“We’re being followed,” Lukas said in a low voice.
“Yeah, I know,” Kor snapped, annoyed more at the inevitability of it than the fact it was happening. They picked up a tail somewhere between the fourth and fifth shops as they transitioned deeper into the city’s grime levels. Kor only caught a few glimpses of him, but as the company on the streets became the rougher sort of career scum, it became easier to pick him out, a consistent additional shadow lurking at a discrete distance. Both Kor and Lukas and their tail started to look a little too clean for the neighborhood, a little too put together.
“You or me?” Lukas asked. It was a fair question.
“You’re the one gearing up,” Kor said. Lukas’s sack of purchased loot from their otherwise fruitless shopping venture clanked dangerously as they walked purposefully, but unhurried, to their next stop.
“You’re the one with a pirate queen with a grudge.”
“Don’t give her that much credit. She’s not a queen. She’s baroness at best. And it’s more of a ‘Don’t let me see you again’ thing. Not a grudge.” Or so he hoped.
“Six of one,” Lukas said. “Here’s the place.”
Now they were into the scraper shops, none of which showed promise on the outside. Kor stepped through the door and had his biases confirmed. It was basically a walled off junk pile, complete with mounds of greasy salvage and plumes of noxious smoke drifting up from who-knows-where. They were digging at the roots now, but at this point he’d take a busted piece and fix it himself.
The proprietor of this shop untangled himself from one pile of loosely organized scrap. He wore heavy goggles, perhaps for welding, though Kor saw no torch or other gear.
“Ship mounted guns, any condition,” Kor said, the string of failures blunting away his diplomatic side.
The fellow looked around his shop, head motions rapid and bird-like.
“Sorry, mate, I got nothing,” he, Kor, and Lukas said in unison.
A crooked smile. “Long day looking, right?”
“Yeah. You got a read on why there’s nothing around?”
“Eh…War salvage’s picked over for guns.”
“Sure,” Kor knew that first hand. Most of their salvage ops showed signs of someone coming though years before and stripping the weaponry.
“Then there’s the Core, trying to squeeze us.” He looked around conspiratorially. Kor could imagine the wild look in his eyes beneath the goggles.
“Yeah. They’re draining away our ability to resist. Funnel it all toward Hub, which is a puppet government for a new Empire run by the elites of the old Coalition.”
“Go on.” It wasn’t the most implausible thing Kor had ever heard. Given how absurd this run of ill-luck was, the fellow’s half-baked conspiracy theories seemed almost reasonable.
“The Dissolution was a front, you see. An intentional breaking of any chance of unified resistance. Then they start picking up the pieces, here and there, like scrap.”
“Mmhmm.” Orchestrating the Dissolution, however, seemed beyond the ability of human hands. Like starting a wildfire on a windy day and expecting it to burn in your preferred direction.
“Over the course of decades they’ll change everything. Piece by pieces, isle by isle, we all get reclaimed. Melted down like so much human salvage. Our skin and blood, the sweat of our labors reprocessed into the shambling husk of a new world order.”
“All right,” Kor said, cutting him off. “You take care, mate.”
They left the scraper workshop empty handed, and paused on the crooked, darkened streets of Knucklebone’s depths. Other nearby shops promised similar disappointment.
“Let’s head on up top. Find a drink or two on neutral ground,” Lukas suggested.
“A fine idea,” Kor agreed. They could visit the rumor mills, see if anything might turn up that way. He checked for their tail but didn’t see him. Better to extend and muddle the trail before heading back to the Wink, in case they didn’t yet know which ship was his.
“That fella’s theories aside, I bet someone is gearing up,” Lukas said as they wound their way back up to the main entertainment promenade.
“Only explanation,” Kor said. “It’s likely a little bit of everyone.” No conspiracy beyond the market being wrung dry over time.
“Maybe we should do some gun running, if supply’s this scarce.”
Kor knew Lukas wasn’t serious. While the temptation was there, it was checked by the world of trouble involved. Kor could name at least eight ports, nations, or consortiums who’d take issue with the act. Never mind the fact they were under geared for such activity. Their first customers would be themselves.
A fair few steps upward later, Kor and Lukas shouldered their way through the cramped streets of the upper promenade. Here lay Knucklebone’s main attraction, a long, winding row of bars and dens and parlors and whatever else you might desire. One could find any number of methods of parting ways with their money.
Except buying ship-grade weaponry, apparently.
An energizing, chaotic din suffused all with an allure that seeped into your skin from proximity alone. Arguments and hails and catcalls and laughter rang off the crooked buildings in a half-dozen languages seasoned with countless accents. There was color to it all, an attempt to dazzle despite the pervasive grime of its cave-dwelling nature.
The faint winds channeled through Knucklebone’s cavern did little to dispel the rising smells from below. Kor attributed some odor to their own clothing, their failed probing of ever-lower markets following along for a while longer. The residents made do with scented smoke billowing from censers raised at points along the streets, and the promenade’s multi-hued lighting stained the drifting clouds of smoke all the colors of a stormy sky. Along the outer side of the street, toward the central hollow where countless ships buzzed about their varied business, irregular gaps in the construction allowed in hopper cabs working fares or lightly bobbing, vendor-carrying craft. Often mobile eateries, they hawked delicacies of questionable quality from across the skies and lent exotic, spiced scents to the air.
Kor felt his spirits buoyed as he and Lukas took a fork in the promenade. As usual, Lukas knew a place, and Kor let himself be led, focused on the vibrant energy of Knucklebone and keeping a sly eye behind them. Their tail was somewhere behind, lost among the shifting, cavorting crowds.
They entered a narrow stretch where the buildings shouldered close together, barely wide enough for three abreast. A large tavern stood on the left, the façade covered in a mural composed of generations of graffiti. Fleet and ship emblems peeked out among the signatures, accusations, and generally lewd art direction. On the right stood the two-story backside of another establishment, the upper windows aglow and outlining folk watching the crowds below.
Up ahead, the tavern disgorged a pile of former patrons into the street, lending an additional hoot and holler to the evening. They blocked the narrow alleyway and Kor paused, bemused, as the pile of drunken limbs untangled and reassembled into men. They were a group of freelancer crew, neutrally dressed, though now accessorized with splashes of drink and streaks of dirt from a scuffle.
Behind, a similar scene played out of the tavern’s second entrance, the bouncers evicting another unruly pile into the street. Kor could make them for whalers at a glance, a more ragged, harder look to them and well-practiced in the art of getting thrown out of bars.
Clearly these two groups were fighting inside and unless Kor missed his guess they seemed eager to resume festivities, staggering to their respective feet and glaring ahead. No exchanged shouts or threats. The time for words was well passed and they had an indiscriminate look to them.
Kor noticed the lane was clear but for Lukas and himself. Spectators leaned out of the second story windows on either side of the alleyway, eager for a round of free entertainment. A squall had coalesced around them and was funneling their way. Kor didn’t think they’d be so kind as to let them through peaceably.
“Ah,” he said.
Kor and Lukas exchanged a knowing look. Lukas cracked his knuckles, adjusted his pack of loot, and stepped around to Kor’s back. A hard corner inside the pack reminded Kor of the minor explosives contained within.
“No grenades, no guns,” Kor muttered.
“Won’t lie, the first crossed my mind.”
The two groups closed on them, and Kor started a slow advance in their original direction. With the dim light and heated, intoxicated blood, he didn’t expect either side to be discriminating. The cramped conditions in the alleyway didn’t lend themselves to slipping through easily, either.
Old reflexes that Kor thought atrophied, much like weaving though Knucklebone itself, came roaring back. Kor ducked aside the opening swing from the first brawler, and tried to funnel him around to the whalers with a shove. The second man saw that and came right for him, a lean fellow smelling of sour beer and sweat. Kor weaved through the exchange of blows as the rest of the group flowed around them. A few sharp, fresh aches blossomed across his body by the time a whaler snatched Kor’s opponent from behind, drawing him away.
The walls to either side of the alley thudded with shoved bodies as jeers rang down from the observers above. It was a total mess behind him, though Lukas was still on his feet and a step behind, blocking and returning a quick jab into a whaler’s side.
Kor got a tantalizing view of empty street ahead as another challenger tried to grapple onto him. Kor spun with his assailant’s attack, grasping the man’s wrists for a half turn and throwing him back toward the scrum. His aim was off, and the fellow rebounded off a wall, the metal ringing hollowly. Kor rode the momentum himself and stumbled out of the group. He backpedaled away from the brawl, tensed and waiting for the next man to jump him, but the engagement ended there. Lukas extricated himself soon after, parting with his final partner after a couple body blows, seemingly just to prove a point.
The alleyway widened a few paces beyond the brawl and soon met a cross street. Despite the general haze and scent of Knucklebone, the open space was like a fresh breath of air after a smoke-filled backroom deal. Kor sighed and relaxed, rolling his left shoulder. He took a hit there, but couldn’t recall the when and who. He looked down at his hands and squeezed the split skin atop one knuckle.
“You good?” Kor asked while patting down his own possessions. Everything was in order.
“All good,” Lukas replied. He hitched up his pack, checking the weight. He hardly appeared bothered by the brief scrap.
“Glad we got the inevitable brawl out of the way,” Kor said. “Smooth flying from here on out, yeah?”
Lukas scoffed. “Speak for yourself. And even then I have my doubts.”
The alley fight continued behind them, a convenient blockade and distraction for their tail. It was starting to burn itself out and the whalers appeared to be victorious. Not a surprising result. Kor would have bet on them from the start.
“Let’s hustle on,” Kor said, quickly slipping through the gathered crowd without having to force the issue.
The Crooked Crane was a neutral tavern on the outer side of the promenade. Kor scanned the room as they sauntered in to find it peopled by freelancer and merchant types, a collection of gray and white flags lending a relaxed feel to the place. A line of windows on the rear wall overlooked Knucklebone’s central airspace, the lights of passing ships floating by in the gloom. An old rotary turret watched the tavern’s floor from above the bar. It was a nice piece, polished and seemingly complete, including a feeder belt of bullets.
Lukas pointed at it and said, “Think they’ll sell us the décor?”
“At this point, we might as well enquire.”
The Crane wasn’t crowded and they took a table with a nice view of the entrance and a comfortable solid wall behind it. Kor couldn’t forget they were followed for much of the last couple hours. Soon two pints clunked down onto the table and their coins pulled a vanishing act.
Kor and Lukas took turns working the room for rumors and hear-say. The weapon shortage was a matter of shrugs and vague suspicions, but no concrete cause. Kor prodded folk toward the clearing of the upwell storm and the Ferron Expanse re-opening. It was a known incoming event and some were preparing for it, but the unknown timing of the storm breaking gave most captains and ventures pause. It was exactly what Kor wanted to hear. The uncertainty favored those close by and ready to go at the first sign of the upwell storm clearing.
Otherwise, it was the usual stuff. A wave of new settlements here and there in need of this or that. Hub consolidating and expanding its reach down south. The major players over in Osspor continued to glare across their hastily drawn borders, still more talk than action. Piracy felt mild of late, though the sort of folk drinking in a bar in a pirate haven generally possessed a knack for dodging such troubles.
The rotary gun was not for sale.
Back at the table, Kor watched as Lukas jostled through his sack of purchases. He silently ran through a mental checklist, nodding to himself. Lukas was only half-way through a second drink, with no sign of wanting any more. Perhaps trying to stay sharp. Kor’s curiosity almost got the best of him when a familiar face walked through the door and stole away his attention. Fortunately, it was a welcome one.
“Silja,” Kor called out over Crane’s mellow din. He waved as she spotted him and broke into a shocked smile. She hollered an order to the bartender and made her way across the tavern floor.
Silja was a sturdily built gal about Kor’s age. Her short hair wore a fading red dye job, the normal light brown fighting its way back. A laundry fresh sleeveless shirt showed off toned arms adorned with service tattoos and clashed with grimy gray pants. She was paler than he remembered and the crimson armband on her left bicep was a mark of concern.
“Kor, how the hell are you?” Silja cried as she slid onto the bench and threw an arm around his shoulders. She smelled of grease and a long day’s work. He returned the embrace, the intervening years seeming to vanish.
“Alive, kicking, and flying,” Kor said. “You?”
“Two out of three.” She pulled away, looked across the table to Lukas, and extended a hand.
“Silja Oterrvo,” she said, leaning into the rolled Durro pronunciation.
“Silja and I were wingmates in the post-war frontier fleet.”
“Let’s be clear here,” she said. “You were my wingman.”
“That’s true.” Kor remembered the rickety fighter he flew in support of her gunship, a junker with the personality of a boulder and the agility to match.
“You mentioned as much a few times. Admiral Heath’s fleet, right?” Lukas asked. “Up to the Battle of Hub?”
“Yeah,” Kor said. Despite being a former Imperial officer, Admiral Heath took on the responsibility and authority to enforce a rough manner of order in the Northwest Frontier. More importantly, he commanded the Clarity of Purpose, the only remaining sky-worthy battlecruiser on that side of the world. Heath recruited anyone who would serve the sake of order, former Coalition or Imperial, independent or pirate. The fleet served as a shelter in the frontier as the Dissolution raged in the Core. For a time, at least.
“We were a little late on walking away,” Silja said. “Turned out to be the best time.”
The fleet’s clarity became muddled and many of its members realized they were becoming the bad guys. The security fleet had turned into the bully, the raider, the extortionist. The Battle of Hub wasn’t much of a battle when half of Heath’s wings abandoned him at the moment of engagement.
Lukas hefted his sack of gear experimentally and said, “Not to be rude, but I think I’ll let you two catch up. Got some business to take care of tonight.”
“You don’t need any back-up?” Kor asked. Lukas made no mention of other plans or need of assistance, and unless asked Kor knew to let whatever private matters his friend had in Knucklebone remain private.
“I got a list,” Lukas said again, though somewhat more darkly. “I’ll be back at the ship by morning…whenever that is.” He stood and nodded at Silja. “Nice to put a face to Kor’s stories.”
“Give ‘em hell,” Silja said.
Silja and Kor remained shoulder to shoulder despite the opening of space around the table, radiating an old comfort that hadn’t waned. Another round made its way to the table and they raised a quiet toast to other wingmates, some gone, others simply elsewhere.
“Who you flying for these days, Kor?”
“Myself,” Kor said, trying not to sound too self-satisfied. “You can call me Captain, if you’d like.”
“That’s not happening,” she laughed. “But, really?”
“Really. Got a lancer, the Wink and Smile, for about a year now.”
“No shit. How’d you manage that?”
“Whole lot of luck.” It was the glib answer, and a correct one.
Silja scoffed. “It was always ‘luck’ with you.”
Kor pulled his charm from under his shirt. Silja nodded at it with a smirk. It proved her point.
“I suppose it’ll balance out if you wear that thing long enough.”
“I think it’s working out so far. What’s keeping you here, Sil?”
She gave him a level look, those blue eyes hardening into a targeting solution. The intervening years mattered for something, it would seem. Understandable.
“I owe the house,” she admitted, lifting a weight from her shoulders, if only temporarily. “But I’m almost out. Maybe another month of work.”
“You want a job? I could buy you out if it’s only a month left. We could use more hands, especially you.” Silja could fly and shoot and Kor knew they’d need more of both in the coming days.
She shook her head, regret plain on her face. She tugged at the crimson armband, loosening it.
“I don’t wanna screw up the deal. I’m almost done on my own,” she read the building concern on Kor’s face. “It’s nothing that bad, Kor. Just honest labor for assholes. I’m better off here than a lot of folk, but I need to close the deal out to the letter of their terms. No buyouts, nothing suspicious.”
“They have your ship.”
Silja drowned a flicker of rawer emotion with her drink.
“Yeah. Well…no,” she added. “The Sunders know who has him. Where he’s kept. Likely be a whole ‘nother pile of shit to work through to get him back.”
Kor figured as much. Whatever deal she was paying down, they must have the only leverage worth a damn to her: Last Call, a nimble Altani gunship she borrowed from the withdrawing Coalition fleets.
“How about this,” he said. “We’re flying out of Gloria for the time being. You finish up here and head on up there. Open offer.” He left the aid in getting her ship back unsaid. Kor knew it would come hand-in-hand.
“I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks. So why are you here, Kor?”
“Shopping. Looking for guns for my ship.”
“You been flying empty?”
Kor shrugged. “I’ve managed to fake it this far. No dice on the shops here. Everything’s sold out, apparently.”
Silja shook her head, clearly fighting down a laugh.
“And after I talked down your dumb-ass obsession with luck.”
“Oh?” Kor braced himself for good news.
“I got Lasty’s main slugs downstairs in a lock-up.”
Kor mentally sized up the cannons. While they were meant for a smaller gunship, the firepower would be enough for now and it would fit on the Wink easily.
“You wanna sell ‘em?”
“I’ll lease them to you. They’re still mine but doing me no good down there. I might even feel better with some piece of him flying, for now.”
Kor raised his glass. “We have an accord and you’re welcome to reclaim them at any time.”
“Deal,” Silja said. They drained their glasses and she slid hers to the center of the table. “You wanna go now? Before I get all sentimental and think twice?”
A shadow loomed over their table and Kor cursed himself for letting his attention drift wholly away from the room. This wasn’t the tail from before, he was too tall and conspicuous in his fine black coat with touches of fiery red and the badge of the Night Hawks on the left breast. Lieutenant emblem, if Kor guessed right. A healed-over burn marred the lower right side of his face, the severity somewhere between tough and tragic. That was a new feature. Kor recognized the rest, belonging to another old crewmate from his less fondly-remembered past.
“Drexler,” Kor said. “Care to join us?”
“Icomb,” Drexler said, halfway between a snarl and a smirk.
Kor leaned back, trying to cast a carefree air and beckoned Drexler to sit down. His old crewmate clearly just wanted to talk. For now, at least.
Let’s get on with this.
Drexler didn’t take the open chair and instead rested his hands on the tabletop and leaned ever-so-threateningly over the proceedings. His coat was slightly open and Kor spotted Drexler’s side-arm at his hip, clipped in and secure. No quick draw. Good.
“What happened here?” Kor rubbed his chin in parallel with Drexler’s burn scars. On further consideration, they didn’t look too bad in certain light against his brown skin. They suited him and his current fleet, balanced between mercenary and pirate.
“Last ditch incendiaries on a take.” Drexler’s voice rumbled more than Kor remembered. Perhaps another professional affectation, what with him being an officer now.
“Got the job done all the same.”
“Good to hear. So, how’s Bianca?”
“She’s doing fine and will be mighty interested to hear you’re around, Kor. Hell, I remember the rock we dropped you on, curious about how you’re still alive myself.”
“Caught a lucky break, as I do. How’d you know I was alive?”
“Word gets around. We heard you were working out of the Triplets. The Commodore put out the call to keep an eye out for you in the common haunts.”
Commodore, eh? Kor couldn’t rightly recall how many ships the rank put under Bianca’s command. A worrisome number, no matter the fleet system the Night Hawks used.
“Looking to score yourself some points with the boss lady, Drexler? Gotta say, you’ve known her long enough to know how she operates.”
“This ain’t about the Night Hawks, Icomb. I’m giving you the gift of a warning. One former crewmate to another, ya know? You should continue being scarce. You savvy?”
Savvy. The expression confirmed Kor’s suspicion on Drexler’s motives. This was lingering Savvy Scourge business, posturing over the potential rewards of old secrets held by old crews. It also meant Drexler came alone.
“You give Commodore Torrez my regards and tell her I don’t appreciate being told where I fly, Drexler.”
A smug half-grin creeped across Drexler’s face. Challenge accepted.
“She’ll be glad to hear it. Fly easy, Icomb.” He straightened and turned away, coat rustling as he strode out of the Crooked Crane.
“Nice meeting you!” Silja called out after him, scowling. “Like I wasn’t even here.”
Kor drummed his fingers against the tabletop, unsatisfied. He suddenly felt like getting into the spirit of Knucklebone.
“Sil, you up for a little adventure? I don’t think I made my point strong enough”
“On a Hawk? Sign me up.” Silja tugged off the crimson arm band and tucked it away in a pocket. She didn’t want to be mistaken as working for the Sunders during what came next.
Kor slid around the table and pushed himself up, checking for any impairment from his drinks. Nothing noticeable.
“Let’s move. Don’t wanna give old Drex too much of a head start.”
The streets of Knucklebone wrapped them in a dim, ill-smelling haze as soon as they left the tavern. Kor looked for Drexler in the passing crowds, spotting a few doppelgangers, the long-coat style now inconveniently popular.
“The Hawks roost on a set of reserved docks over on the west end,” Silja said as they weaved through the promenade’s foot traffic. “He’s probably headed that way, since it’s getting late.”
Kor glanced around the perpetually dim streets and caverns of Knucklebone and wondered how she could tell.
“If we can get a ride, we can cut him off,” Kor said. There was no plan. Every step of this was going to be improvised.
“I got an idea for that. This way.”
Silja led him down a narrow alley between a rowdy-sounding bar and an open-fronted noodle shop. The scent of simmering broth blanked out the stench and smoke and reminded Kor how damn hungry he was.
They came to a cluster of small docking platforms meant for cabs and cargo skiffs. A single rust bucket of a skiff with an empty cargo bed occupied the platform. No one lingered in the immediate area. Silja hopped atop the engine block between the bed and the pilot seat and yanked open an access panel. The skiff’s engines whined to life after a few moments of fiddling.
Silja looked around the dock, committing the location to memory.
“I’ll bring it back,” she promised.
The pilot seat was a hopper-style bench, and Kor slid in behind Silja. Not seeing any other restraints, he wrapped an arm around her stomach as the skiff lifted from the platform.
Old familiarity indeed.
“Do the wardens below still take side action?” he asked over her shoulder.
Silja nodded. “They sure do!”
Kor might have heard someone angrily shouting after them as they pulled away from the bustle of the upper promenade. Couldn’t say for sure.
Silja brought the skiff into the isle’s central airspace, far enough from the winding levels of the port to avoid sudden traffic, but keeping the pedestrians identifiable between the buildings. She kept the skiff smooth and steady, weaving around any nearby air traffic with ease. A credit to her skill with a craft she’d never touched before.
Kor scanned through the stacked mess of Knucklebone. Drexler was easy to spot, in his long black coat and purposefully stride. Their quarry took a stairwell down to a less populated sub street, avoiding the crowds above.
“Easy enough,” Kor said. He drew and checked his pistol. “Look for a stretch where we can pull in quick and invite him aboard.”
The dense western docking area loomed ahead through the multi-hued, sign-lit airspace. Kor spotted a wing of Night Hawk ships docked in a cluster, a lancer and two cutters. Perhaps all under Drexler’s command. He’d done well in the last couple years.
“Think he’s really alone?” Silja asked.
“Yeah. This was leftover personal business among the alumni of the Savvy Scourge. Unlikely to have anyone else nearby privy to it.”
Kor figured there couldn’t be more than a dozen crewmates left from those years. Most were part of the Night Hawks now, Bianca’s officers like Drexler. The rest were dead or in quiet retirement. A couple were missing, loose ends.
“And what business is that, Kor?”
I have to tell my crew the real story sometime soon.
But not yet.
“You join up with us, I’ll let you in on some vintage pirate secrets.”
“I’m going to hold you to that. This looks like a good spot,” Silja said as they paralleled an open stretch of street. Drexler strode through the relatively empty pathways, the shadows from above and a lack of bystanders and obnoxious glowing signage making it as good an opportunity as any.
Kor climbed over the engine block into the cargo bed, keeping a hard grip on the raised rim of the skiff. He clenched his teeth and rode the roll as Silja pulled the skiff into Drexler’s path, the engine wake kicking dirt directly into their quarry’s face.
Kor stood and drew his gun. He kept his aim steady as Silja lowered the skiff to the street. Drexler looked up from the sudden wash of air and dust and froze in place, scowling.
“Drex! I wish to expand upon our previous dialogue.”
Drexler eyed the docks furthered ahead, considering his limited options. They caught up to him just in time, before he reached friendly territory. The few people out and about in this area of Knucklebone saw their stare down and made no move to intervene.
Drexler’s hands twitched toward the opening of his coat. Kor knew he was armed and was contemplating their respective resolves and reaction times.
“It’s been a while, Drex,” Kor reminded him. “Can you really be so sure?”
Drexler considered the idea for a moment more, hands frozen partway between a threat and a surrender.
“All right,” Drexler said, spreading his hands. “Gotta say, you’re making it worse for yourself, Kor.”
“Nah, this is a side-step at best. Come aboard, Drex. We’re going for a ride and having another chat.”
Kor quickly secured Drexler’s hands with the skiff’s cargo restraints and bound him against the rails. He made sure to remove his old crewmate’s holster, taking care to securely stow his weapons. Kor then settled back on the pilot seat, back-to-back with Silja. She took the skiff back out into Knucklebone’s central airspace and started a slow, gentle descent, keeping the engine noise low enough for Kor to talk over it.
“Drex, mate. Let’s properly catch up!”
“I got nothing more to say.”
“Come on, Drex. I could hook you to this winch here. Dangle you behind us all old-school tough-guy like. But you know I’m really not that sort of man. I don’t want to kill you or cause great bodily harm. I’m just looking to inconvenience you for a little while.” Kor tried to keep his grin in check. He did indeed believe he wasn’t that sort of man anymore. But a little indulgence here and there didn’t hurt.
He got no response. Drexler preferred to watch the stacked levels of Knucklebone drift by. Kor decided on another approach.
“How long do you think you’ll need to be missing before your crew appoints an acting commander and lets your commodore know you’re MIA. That’s so out of character for you, Drexler.”
No reaction again, but it told him Drexler’s standing in the Hawks was good enough for such a thing to not be much of a worry. He was confident in that regard. His crew would wait, search for him.
“Look,” Kor said. “I know you’re gonna try to repay me double, so let’s get the understanding of a new grudge out of the way. You keen?”
“I’m keen. Already got ideas, Icomb.”
“Great! Sil, take us all the way down,” Kor said. Drexler’s eyes widened at his directions. He knew where they were bound.
“Damn you, Icomb, what do you want?”
“There we go! How about this: each question you answer I shave some time off your internment.”
“What’s my starting number?”
“The skies are uncertain Drex. Best you can do is prep in whatever way you can.” Old wisdom, applicable in all corners of life.
“What are you flying these days?” Asking about someone’s ship was the best way to break the ice, after all.
“The Dead Reckoning,” Drexler said, straightening in place with a bristle of pride. “Jackdaw class lancer.”
“Imperial make. Nice! Holding up well?”
“Took some doing to patch up, but she’s one of the better ones. Must have been a later production run or in the reserves. Seventh or Second fleet, IDs and Sigils were already stripped when I got her.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” Kor said. “Know anything about this weapon shortage?”
Drexler shrugged. “Supply out of the Core is constricted.”
“Y’all to blame?”
“Only a little, where we can,” Drexler said, giving him a hard look. “Takes a lot to refit a fleet.”
Kor let the implicit threat roll off.
“Hawks been busy?”
“Wrapped up an operation down south. Some forceful consolidation. The usual business.”
He was dancing around any concrete details, but Kor didn’t press on it. Instead he went right for the golden question.
“Do you know which ship here is mine?”
A sullen silence.
“This one’s worth double, Drex.”
“No,” he admitted. “Not yet.”
Kor tried to keep his relief on a tight rein. The Wink won’t be anonymous forever, but any additional time was golden.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll get acquainted in the future.”
The majority of Knucklebone’s port and air traffic now hovered high above them. The broad lower platforms of warehouses and lock-ups spread along the cavern walls, quiet and still and minding their own damn business. A chemical undercurrent rode on the air, the scent of boiler operations turning whale blood into harder narcotics.
“What happened to the Savvy?” Kor asked, his voice softening. He already had an idea on this one.
“She took some hard hits not long after you were…ejected. Turns out her invulnerability only applied when Jepp was in charge.”
“Fancy that. Scuttled?”
“Nah. Shelled out and stored.”
“Damn shame.” The Savvy Scourge was a unique ship, a custom Torsian, but not Imperial, build, fast as hell with a mighty bite. Captain Jeppesen was the only one who knew her origin, and never shared the tale. Replacement parts were always a pain to find and Kor remembered many weeks in ports and at fixer stations in order to keep the Savvy top-notch. No surprise Bianca stored her after too much damage. The Savvy was too unique to scrap, but too costly to maintain.
“How serious is Bianca about me?”
“Hard to say. She acts like it’s some old school fire and blood grudge.” Drexler shook his head. “Don’t give yourself too much credit, Icomb. It’s not an obsession. Just a blacklist and you’re not the only one on it.”
Kor nodded. He knew it was a tactical move on Bianca’s part, further colored by emotion. It kept the other loose Savvy alumni in check and their mouths closed. Kor understood the strategy but he wouldn’t apologize for the emotional subtext.
I know I was right.
The cavern emptied out around them as they approached their destination. The true depths of Knucklebone were a vast, uneven sludge pool sunk into the inner rock of the isle. The lights and platforms and scaffolding of the port hung high above, connected to the pools below via descending pipes and chutes clinging to the walls. The collected waste and run-off sloshed through a rudimentary sewage system before draining out of the island and down into the Churn.
Upon seeing the place first-hand, Kor marked it as the best organized district of the entire island. The intake pools looked well-maintained, layers of grime and filth on the original construction aside. A small population of workers, called wardens, kept things running down here for whoever was in control up above. Piles of salvage and whatever else might clog the drains loomed to one side of the pools. A row of thick-walled houses stood above the pools, anchored to the rock wall. Their entrances were sealed with two-layered airlocks and squads of bulbous air filters spun away on their roofs.
The stench was, of course, overpowering here at the source of the port’s pervasive stink.
Silja set the skiff down on one of the landing platforms marked by a ring of pale white lights. One of the wardens waddled up at their arrival, encased in a thick, water-repelling coat, heavy boots made for stomping, and masked and goggled to the point of being unidentifiable. Tools in a wild variety decorated a utility belt about the warden’s waist. The set-up made Kor seriously question his own token precautions against the environment’s stench and gasses.
“A live one?” the warden asked, their voice muffled through the heavily filtered mask. “Talk about a change of pace!”
“Got anywhere he can simmer for, oh…eight hours?” To be honest, Kor hadn’t kept track of Drexler’s score, or even pegged a starting number.
“Eight?!” Drexler cried out, his composure finally cracked. He knew it would be longer until he could call down a ride up top. Maybe closer to ten or eleven hours, if his luck broke the wrong way. The sludge pits weren’t exactly a popular cab destination.
The warden hummed and hawed. As expected. Kor pulled out and jingled his secondary, easy-access coin pouch, meant for this precise purpose. He tossed it over and it disappeared into one of the warden’s numerous coat pockets.
“Got just the place,” the warden said. “Follow me.”
The warden led the three along a rusted and encrusted grated pathway. It was a short drop into the muck on either side and hand rails were in short supply. They arrived at a six-foot-wide circular pipe along the rock wall. A hash-pattern grate enclosed the pipe in a fine imitation of a jail cell.
“Flood outflow pipe,” said the warden while unlocking the grate. It swung open with a rumble and a creak. “Sludge levels are low this time of year, so it’s mostly dry.”
Kor eyed down the pipe through the darkness marching into the stone of the isle. A thin stream oozed along the floor and it seemed like every square inch could start dripping at any moment. It was perfect.
“What’s at the other end?”
“One long drop,” the warden said. “He might even get a breeze or two of fresh air if the winds are right.”
“Looks good,” Kor said. He set Drexler’s belt atop a storage barrel well out of reach of the bars of his temporary new residence. He waved Drexler in with the end of his pistol and his old crewmate complied, eying the encrusted walls of his cell with a sneer. Silja undid the makeshift restraints as she shoved him into the pipe. She smiled with some private satisfaction.
The warden unhooked a smaller, backup breathing mask and forced it into Drexler’s recently freed hands. The pipe grate was then closed and locked.
“Put it on. Trust me.”
Kor holstered his gun, realizing only then how much of a vice grip he had on it. Another bluff successful. He turned to leave, feeling like he’d gloated enough.
“Icomb,” Drexler called out. He leaned against the bars, seeming to have decided to get as comfortable as possible. “I got one last question.”
“You’re welcome to ask, Drex.”
“What happened between you and Bianca? You two were good together. I wanna know what sore spot I have to blame for this.”
Kor held Drexler’s gaze, remembering all the days on the Savvy Scourge. The raids and hold-ups, the comradery and wheeling and dealing. They were rogues, but they had been the best in these frontier skies. He forced down the complex bundle of memories around Bianca herself, a warm, dulled wound that never healed properly.
“I told her ‘no’,” Kor said. Drexler nodded, seeming to understand.
Kor turned back toward the skiff and waved over his shoulder.
“See you out in the blue, Drex.”
Silja took the skiff into a hard, too-fast ascent to get away from the worst sludge pools’ smell. Kor turned over the consequences of locking up Drexler in his head while the rushing air drowned out all else. It was definitely a bad decision. Impulsive. Inciting. Indulgent. Kor already carried the ire of a one of the Night Hawk’s commanders. Tonight would only add to the tally.
It wasn’t his most responsible act, all in all. While Kor knew he could live with it, he had a crew to consider now. He didn’t want to come to Knucklebone for this exact reason. It drags you back into old ways and often leaves a mark. Their ascent slowed and Kor loosened his arm around Silja’s stomach, her solid presence a reminder he’d get something tangible out of this trip. All the better if she joined up on the Wink once she cleared her debts in Knucklebone.
Two storage districts anchored the base of Knucklebone’s stack, broad, quilt-like platforms located at the widest point of the island’s hollow. The warehouses and lock-ups were arranged in passable grids or arcs. Cheap sheet metal construction made up the majority of the area, a quick and easy choice in the absence of harsh winds. Scattered lamps illuminated roughly laid streets and pathways between the buildings, practically an afterthought.
Silja guided the skiff into the lower of the two levels. The inner rock wall and connective beams enclosed the space around the level, and the upper storage district formed an oppressive ceiling. While there was ample room for skiffs and cargo freighters to maneuver, the airspace felt cramped and confined, especially with only one exit direction.
They skimmed over the rooftops of countless nondescript lock-ups. Kor eyed a handful of look-outs skulking in the shadows of alleyways. The whine and whisper of unseen engines echoed against the sheet metal walls, like a half asleep insect hive. The chemical scent of blood boilers was stronger here, and Kor saw trails of oddly colored smoke rising from venting pipes.
“Few too many folk about at this hour,” Silja muttered. “Let’s be quick about it.”
She brought the skiff down into a long row of storage units, a shadowed canyon, anonymous as can be. The borrowed craft fit horizontally, its cargo bed backed up to a padlocked door Kor assumed was Silja’s unit. They hopped off the skiff, the engines dropped to a low, neutral hum. Kor paced in a quick circle, keeping himself loose and ready. The itch on the back of his neck told him to be on guard, though it might just be the neighborhood.
Silja fished out a key and unlocked the door, sliding it open with a too-loud rumble. She groped around the inner wall until an old lantern clicked alight, weakly illuminating the interior. An irregular shape stood inside under a canvas covering, four barrels prominently pointing under the fabric. A handful of sacks and crates lined one wall, a modest stash of possessions.
Silja yanked off the canvas, revealing a four-barreled long-gun built of dull gray metal. It was still mounted on a gunship-style swivel point. The feeders were intact, the cables and connection wires neatly bundled together at the rear. Kor judged it in good condition in a snap, noting the Altani design cues of slight points and curves to lessen the harsh geometry of mass production. The entire package was strapped down to a pallet, ready to move. Their borrowed skiff’s winch will come in handy tonight after all.
“They might be a little soft for a lancer,” Silja said, fondly patting the guns’ main body. “But should pack enough of punch against anyone your size or smaller.”
“They’ll serve fine, Sil.” Most ships sported weaponry about this level. The bigger cannons no longer had ships to mount them, and the exotic, experimental weapons developed toward the end of the War were too finicky.
Kor extricated his large money pouch from its hiding place and tossed it over to Silja. She caught it, then held it away at arm’s length.
“Eww, it’s so damp.”
“You’re welcome. You sure this won’t run afoul of your deal?”
“Nah, it’ll be fine. I’ll just tell them some version of the truth. Hell, they’ve offered to buy this off me before.” She nodded at a pair of metal cases, their sides branded with a long-gone munitions company. “Few dozen rounds in those. A throw-in bonus.”
“Let’s load it up.”
It took some doing, but Kor and Silja wrangled the turret onto the skiff, dragging the pallet across the floor while the winch motor growled away. The sounds echoed down the row of lock-ups and beyond, but no one interrupted. As they worked, Kor heard the distinct sound of a ship passing through the confined airspace above. It passed by again a few minutes later, while they strapped down the ammo crates, as if on patrol. It sounded larger than a cargo skiff and spurred Kor to work faster in securing the turret.
“You over her?” Silja asked as they finished strapping the guns down to the cargo bed. The barrels pointed aft, menacing the near-empty storage unit.
“She did try to kill me, you know. Indirectly. Left me on an uncharted isle.”
Silja grinned and asked again, “So, are you over her?”
The escalation of distant shouts into the staccato of gunfire cut off Kor’s witty reply. He rolled over the side of the skiff, ducking low to the ground and glaring down the end of the alleyway for trouble. Silja was a beat behind him. The cry of hovering airship engines buzzed above the storage district and rebounded about the catacomb of sheet metal walls.
Kor listened and parsed out the ship sounds through the wild small arms fire punctuating the night. “Three ships,” he said, “Cutters. Maybe a heavy fighter.”
“Them’s raid numbers,” Silja remarked.
Silja laughed. “Around here? Take your pick. The rent’s cheap for a reason!”
After a few moments of keeping his gun trained on the end of the alley, Kor relaxed his guard when no action made itself known.
“Boost me up,” Silja said, “I’ll give it a quick look.”
Kor holstered his pistol and knit his hand together. Silja stepped up and he boosted her to the roofline. She glanced around, taking in the airspace in a couple seconds before dropping back down to the alley.
“Three cutters,” she reported, her pilot’s sense grasping the scene. “Indie whalers from the look of them. Two prowling over the bigger storehouses, one covering the exit angle. Not looking like they want to share airspace.”
“We can’t jet out with this load on this skiff,” Kor said. He had a mental picture of the area from their flight in. The space above was enough for smaller ships to slip in and out of the storage levels, but there weren’t many options once above the rooflines. They’d be an unknown factor in plain sight. The sort of thing to get shot first and maybe questioned later.
“Maybe just hunker down and—”
Cannons boomed and shattered the already fractured night as the cutters opened up on a target. A fiery explosion out of sight turned the shadows bloody and the linked platforms below their feet shuddered from the blast. Ruddy light from a newborn inferno bloomed over the rooftops.
“That was definitely a boiler house,” Silja said between the pop of smaller aftershock blasts.
“If they’re intent on raising a ruckus, the Sunders are going to be all over them,” Kor said. There were limits to the Knucklebone’s permissiveness and whatever manner of whaler/boiler gang fight going on over there was well over the line.
“Eventually. Down here they prefer to let ‘em burn each other out, then sweep in.”
“I’ve no desire to get caught in a sweep.” Kor had every intention of flying out of Knucklebone before Drexler’s internment ended.
“Me neither. We need to get out.”
Kor looked at the cannons, uncovered and glinting in the faint reddish light.
“Think this junker could power the guns?”
“Yeah,” Silja nodded, eyeing Last Call’s turret. “But we’d lose almost all lift.”
Kor listened once more to the fighting. It sounded closer to the rear walls, leaving a route outward possibly clear of entanglements.
“No lift will be better for us. We hug the streets to the outer edge, see if we need to force the issue with their rear guard. Then yank the connections and haul our asses up and out.”
“Watch my back,” Silja said as she vaulted into the cargo bed and went to work loosening the turret’s bundle of connective wires and leads. Festive Duroan profanity seasoned her work.
Kor snapped his watch between either end of the storage alleyway. Somewhere above, the cutters loosed a salvo and another explosion rocked the storage level, this one deeper in but well apart from the first blast.
“Think this is the best I can do,” Silja said, sitting up from the open engine block panels. She held up a thick black wire and pointed to an open port. “This is the trigger connection. Plug it in when ready to fire. Skiff can keep the whole thing on and still fly or, well, hover.”
She clambered in the pilot seat and Kor mounted up in a precarious spot aside the strung out cables, gripping the wall of the cargo bed for balance and pinning down the canvas tarp with a foot. The skiff weakly lurched up and turned in place toward the outer edge of the storage level.
Much as Kor would prefer to describe their trip as barreling through the streets, they had no such luck. The skiff managed a stately glide barely a foot off the street and strained against its improvised state as a mobile gun platform. The worst of the fighting was elsewhere, though he saw a few bystanders or perhaps look-outs hunkering down and watching their passing with bemused bafflement.
Kor busied himself by fishing out a quartet of slugs from one of the ammo cases and loading the cannons manually. They would only have one salvo on the underside of the rear guard. The guns’ range of motion was limited but the barrels were locked into a decent upward angle.
Another blast resounded through the grated streets. Kor caught sight of one of the attacking cutters receiving returning fire from below, small arms fire pinging off its hull.
“You get a make on the rear guard cutter?”
“Razormaw. Hit ‘em on the chin,” Silja said.
“Got it.” Razormaws were a mass-produced line, brutish-looking ships with too many systems packed into the forward compartments.
Soon they came up below the rear guard cutter. They weren’t expecting heavy resistance until someone flew down to see what the ruckus was about. Thus the razormaw faced its wedge-like body outward and the skiff’s approach went unnoticed. Kor considered a disabling shot on the ship’s rear engines, the vents burning a dirty yellow in the night. Instead he lined up the shot on the ship’s flared forward underside. The alignment was easy, like one’s first live training exercises.
Kor shouted a warning of, “Ears!” Then he jammed in the trigger connection while palm-plugging one ear and shoulder-stuffing the other.
Last Call’s guns roared out four shots, the kick-back knocking the skiff to the floor. The underside of the cutter blasted open in two places, lighting the night with sparks and fire. Further internal flashes and pops confirmed Kor hit their weapon systems, defanging them and preventing any return fire.
Kor yanked out the wire connections and threw the canvas over the turret, covering it enough to pass a casual glance. The skiff’s engines spun up and the craft lurched upward, no longer suppressed. Kor vaulted over the engine block and into the back of the pilot seat as Silja gunned the skiff out into the open air.
Kor looked back once they were clear. Five buildings smoldered and billowed out plumes of ill-colored smoke from the destroyed boiling operations. The two other cutters circled above the mess, aligning toward the exit. The rear guard ship listed to one side, slowly turning in place as its crew tried to right it. Up above, a wing of crimson colored ships descended toward the storage levels. Silja kept her distance and played at innocence as best she could. If they were spotted, the Sunder ships made no move to show they cared.
Kor relaxed as the skiff reached the anonymity of Knucklebone’s port levels. Oval slices of night sky shone through either end of the island’s hollow interior. Even at this late hour, numerous craft bustled about their business, lit by the port’s undiminished lurid glow.
“East end. Berth fifteen,” he said to Silja.
“Got it. We all together back there?”
Kor glanced back at the cargo and nodded to himself. Mission accomplished, if in a roundabout way.
“We’re short four rounds but otherwise all accounted for,” he confirmed.
“Good. I suppose this saves me the trouble of shipping it myself. Or I got the trouble out the way early.”
“If you’re game for more, hit us up in Gloria when you can, Sil.”
“If tonight was your sales pitch, I think I will!”
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016