Kor Icomb drummed his fingers against the clipboard held in the crook of his arm. It held a chart of their recent travels, though it wasn’t much of a map yet and a draft version besides. A crisp, white expanse of possibilities, a big empty. Kor knew it was simply a matter of striking out across the unknown and seeing what’s out there, replace the possibilities with certainties. He didn’t have much more to add for now, truth be told. They were two days out from Appleseed, a fair sized isle at one particular edge of the known world. He’d already filled in the island’s dimensions and headings, and now idly added flourishes to the lines denoting Appleseed’s minor drifting range.
The wind snapped at the pinned edges of the paper, strong enough to make itself known but weak enough to be an enjoyable companion. Kor looked up from the map. It was the clearest sort of day he could ask for: Nothing but big, bright blue in every direction save down. The green-gray metal of the Wink and Smile’s top deck basked in the morning sunlight, not fully reflecting the light and gaining a bit of a glow. The airship’s engines buzzed along below, running at a slower cruising speed for a spell to give the turbines a rest and allow Kor access to the top deck without being tossed off by the wind.
Kor looked north along their current heading. He wouldn’t mind it staying this way for a little while longer. They could all use some peace and quiet. Leaning against the railing on the top deck of his own ship with the warm sun on his face, Kor nearly lied to himself thinking this wouldn’t be a bad bit of forever-after. Almost.
The sound of boots striking the ladder rang up through the open hatch nearby, announcing one of his crew coming up to join him. Kor considered raising the clipboard and map back up to make it look like he was at a real task.
Kor watched over his right shoulder as Verica Chantil ascended the ladder.
“Doc,” Kor greeted her. Not one of the crew, technically speaking. More of a resident contractor.
“Mr. Icomb,” she replied as she gained her footing on the deck, that subtle shift of weight into the manageable winds. Any formality was immediately checked by Chantil reaching behind her head to undo the tie on her hair, allowing the long black strands to billow about as they pleased in the wind. She gazed ahead into the big empty before them, savoring the wind.
Kor wouldn’t be one to interrupt. He busied himself with bolding the details of a few low bergs they pinged out yesterday. Known to the folk of Appleseed but needing to be on the map all the same.
He eyed Chantil here and there, waiting. She had the light brown skin and schooled accent of the deeper, civilized core lands. The good doctor (philosophical, not medical), always looked a bit sour, her face pinched in a perpetual, analyzing squint. Fortunately, it didn’t always extend to her mood. Not always. Late thirties, if he had to wager, and a handsome woman, by the by, if she ever stopped looking sour. She likely had a good cause for that and Kor often wondered how she ended up out here at the northwest fringe of everything. He also had sense enough to never ask outright. It was a piece-by-piece mission, a long-term project.
“Do you have a plan after we cross this expanse, Mr. Icomb?” Chantil asked after she settled against the railing opposite Kor.
Kor finished retracing the largest berg, pausing as if in deep consideration.
“Got a semblance of one, yeah.”
“A semblance,” she prompted, unimpressed.
“Something I’ve kept close to the vest.” Kor patted his chest, right over the pocket where that semblance had resided for much of the last year. Another luxury of recent fortunes: not having to keep that old piece of paper on his person at all times. The luxury of relative stability. A man could get used to it.
“Beyond that,” he continued, “I’ve got enough to buy some time if this whole explorer and freelancer kick doesn’t pan out.”
Chantil shook her head at that. “So your plan, aside from the one thing you won’t tell us, is to continue improvising and following whims until…”
“Until I make it work. Until something comes together. Until a master plan makes itself known. Yes, doctor. That is my plan.”
Chantil turned back to the fore of the Wink and murmured a, “Very well,” into the oncoming wind.
“You reconsidering your lease, Doc?”
“No. This is fine for now, even without a clearer direction. I certainly understand why.”
Kor supposed she did. He figured he wasn’t that hard of man to read. Fresh out of resolving their interlocking troubles and tasks down south in the Triplets, he and Chantil and the rest of the varied cast-offs composing the Wink’s crew could use a stretch of dedicated purposelessness. After a year of doing someone else’s bidding, hustling to someone else’s beck and call, they could all use a break. To not be utterly reactionary and live for themselves for a change.
So here they were. Crossing an ‘empty’ expanse of sky, charting whatever they found for the sake of selling that knowledge to whomever might be interested in paying for it. It was good enough for now and gave Kor time to figure out what came next. He had another idea brewing and they had the correct heading for it.
A warbling cut through the buzz of the Wink’s engines. With a flutter of feathers and a less graceful clonk, a broad-winged glider bird alighted at the aft of the deck. It flexed its long wings and completely ignored the pair of humans watching it. A crest of brilliant red feathers sprang from the back of its head, contrasting something fierce with its dun gray body and wings.
“What sort of species is that, Doc?” This was, after all, one of her specialties.
“Distance glider, obviously. But it wouldn’t be this far out from solid land. This expanse is too big and there aren’t enough nesting isles. So far as we’ve seen, anyway.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Kor said as he pulled a compass out of his well-worn flight jacket. He knelt to the deck.
“I don’t know.” Chantil wasn’t too proud to avoid admitting as much. One of the reasons Kor liked her well enough.
“We should follow it. A bird like that must know of places to land in this big empty.”
“For once, I entirely agree with your whims, Mr. Icomb.” She knowingly eyed the compass, now flatly pressed against the clipboard on the deck. Kor adjusted the ring.
“You’re the professional. After you.”
He would have bet Chantil almost smiled. With a deep ‘whoop’ she stomped toward the bird and the creature took flight with a dejected squawk. As if operating with its own guidance systems, the bird swirled about once and took off on a north-northwest heading. Kor memorized the values and rushed to the hatch, eager to get to the bridge and change the Wink’s course to follow the lead of their latest guide.
Kor watched the cloud-streaked skies slide by through the grand arc of tessellated windows at the fore of the Wink’s flight deck. He could hear faint, tinny music coming out of Nem’s headphones behind him. Sounded like the end of the brass band tape she favored. The song came to an end, returning the flight deck to the collection of hums and ship vibrations that passed for silence.
Nem sighed with a touch of drama. Kor unlocked his chair and spun it around, swinging his feet up to rest on the inactive console between them.
“What’s up, Nem?”
Nemily Pearson was the youngest on board, not a day past twenty and that was being generous. Pale skinned with silvery-white hair, she’d be ghostly if it weren’t for a grounded intensity to her eyes. She wore two sets of headphones. The smaller pair around her neck was the source of the music. The other set were comm gear, big bulbous things that brought the subtleties of the skies to her trained ears. The left one was flipped back, the right one on.
“I’m bloody bored, Cap. Ears on this.” She yanked a jack out of her console and the incoming comm signals piped though a speaker instead of her headphones. Nothing but dead air came out, broken by the occasional crackle of equipment.
“I did warn you it might be a little light while we do this crossing.”
“Little light don’t mean dead. Need a challenge here and there, you know? Been switching back to the buoy near Appleseed just to see if I can snag it this far out.”
Nem flicked a switch and a faint musical chime worked its way through the speaker. To Kor it was typical buoy signal, a mix of harmonious and atonal noise, but to someone like Nem it contained a whole different sort of song, melodies of coordinates and relayed signals and reports.
“Still have a lock on it, yeah. Wouldn’t normally hear something that little direct, but with the skies this calm and no one muddling the airwaves, I was able to isolate it.”
While ‘prodigy’ might over-doing it, Nem definitely had the knack for the complexities of Nav/Comm. From what Kor had seen, she could have blitzed through Imperial qualifications and landed a place on a command ship. If there were still an Orventian Empire, that is. Or command ships. Kor counted himself lucky getting her on board and didn’t care to ask why she accepted.
“Just gotta be a patient, Nem. The next thing will have you busy, I can promise that.” And for once it was a promise he could easily keep.
“Do tell us more,” crackled Chantil’s voice over the intercom. Kor had forgotten he’d left it open.
“Don’t you got a bird to watch, Doc?” Their resident naturalist was tracking their bird guide with a scope from the observation deck below. Kor imagined she had a sheaf of notes on the bird already written. From what he’d seen of Chantil’s cabin (she was technically a passenger and therefore got larger accommodations), she had quickly converted it into a cross between a study and a lab.
“His heading is unchanged.”
“So it’s a he, now?” Kor asked.
“Well, with the head crest, I figured it for a male from the start. Seemed your typical means of gaining the attention of a mate. A red head crest. A fan of iridescent tail feathers. Large antlers. A personal airship of unknown origin. That sort of thing.”
Kor grinned. “I’ll tell you a little about where I got the Wink if and only if you start calling me ‘Captain’.”
He could weigh the pause through the intercom and it had heft. Chantil had been the most prodding about where he got this ship, even more so than Lukas who had the most right to be curious. All Kor would say was: ‘A stroke of luck’.
“Some mysteries are better unsolved, Mr. Icomb,” she finally said.
“Offer’s on the table, doctor.”
Nem fished out another tape and swapped it in. Something orchestral rang out from her headphones, and Kor didn’t know enough about that style of music to hazard a guess as to composer or origin.
Kor spun his chair back to the helm and locked in, eyes running over the various meters and readouts. Nothing amiss, as expected. His gaze wandered further afield.
The Wink’s bridge was odd. Triangular in shape, it was arranged like a military ship in the fore, with the helm right in front of the arcing windows and multiple stations running along each wall. Another pair of consoles occupied the center of the main floor. Aside from Nem at comms, all those stations were empty of crew, and a few even empty of equipment. It was as if the designers had left it open for future adaptations, which was a running theme for the Wink as a whole.
But the bridge was spacious as well, like a civilian pleasure craft. The rear of the bridge was raised a step. A table sat in one back corner, built like a circular booth in a restaurant, with a wide viewing window on the wall above it. The floor in the other corner had mounts for extra chairs, seemingly positioned for additional lounging.
One reason Kor was reluctant to tell Chantil or anyone else more about the Wink was that he didn’t have many answers. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The skies slid by for another hour. The Churn was low and calm out in this big empty, the world’s cloud floor marble smooth aside from a few fitful fingers rising from the greater whole. Nem’s symphonic tape whispered out across the bridge, accompanied by the occasional interjection from Chantil’s avian-based course corrections.
A chime, steady as a heartbeat, rang out from Nem’s console. She cut the music and settled the other half of the comm headset over her ear.
“Getting a ping back, Cap. Mix of isle- and ship-sign.”
Kor hammered in the command to give the engines more juice and the Wink shivered as the secondary power cells woke up. He could feel the energy through the control sticks, a tighter responsiveness. If there was another ship out there, he didn’t mean to be slow on the draw.
I really ought to get a cannon on this gal. It was one of many upgrades and improvements he had in mind once they reached the Gloria freeport. The Wink might be ready to dance at the ball, but she could use some jewelry and a hidden holster or two.
“I see it,” the intercom crackled out Chantil’s voice. “Still just a smudge though. You couldn’t spring for a better scope?”
“Another upgrade on the list, doctor,” Kor said. “Nem, how’s it sound?”
“No motion on the ship-sign. It’s right on top of the isle,” Nem reported. “And we’re the only ones talking on the air. No other engines. It sounds like a wreck.”
Kor relaxed but left the ship at higher power for now. Within a few minutes a raw and rocky isle of modest size came into view. It looked like a newer isle, no more than a couple decades out of the Churn. Kor slowed the Wink as they approached, guiding the ship to a stop a few hundred reasonable meters above the isle.
Moss and short scrappy plants covered the isle and vines dangled on the underside. A few gray and white birds similar to their guide wheeled about in the air above and below. Lying among this fresh bit of nature was a silver-hulled ship, only partially overgrown. While it was roughly wedged against a rise in the rock, it wasn’t broken up enough to be a full-on crash.
“No distress signals, Nem?”
“Nothing, Cap.” she confirmed. Kor hadn’t expected any.
“Just us and the birds. Getting some additional rock-sign now that I know how they sound out here. I’ll isolate them.” She continued to fiddle with the knobs and dials on her console, falling to focus on a new task.
“Carry on, Nem,” Kor said.
The stranded ship looked Orventian in design, an Imperial cutter or patrol ship. Largely intact and almost certainly abandoned. Which meant this was a pay day. Kor set the Wink to idle, unbuckled his restraints, and thumbed the green comm button labeled with a turbine.
“Wilcox. Feel like scrapping?”
The mix of roars and hums and who-knows-what-else of the engine room answered at first. A voice cut through the din and said, “Always! I’ll meet you at the skiff.”
Kor crossed the bridge with a spring in his step. Chantil’s voice squawked over the intercom as he reached the door.
“Bring back a sample of guano, if you’d be so kind.”
“You got it, Doc,” he shouted over his shoulder.
The Wink’s cargo hold was a goodly size, big enough for small time trade runs, should the fancy strike them and the right offer came along. Even with the rusty skiff at the center of the floor, there was plenty of space for more. As Kor clanged down the broad metal steps, he could just barely make out the handful of concealed compartments in the walls and deck below and only because he knew exactly where to look. Whoever built this ship did fine work.
Kor would prefer to keep those compartments empty. Lukas had already offered to hook him up with a few low-key smuggling runs. Kor had refused for now. It’s not that he was entirely above it, it just depended on the cargo and how much they needed the money. And for a little while, they didn’t need the money.
Strange feeling, that.
Wilcox stood next to the skiff, checking the engines once more. A compact man on the far side of his forties, with the deep brown skin and broad Kural facial features. Kor had the automatic kinship toward the man from the faces of his upbringing, but that was hard-checked by dead politics. Wilcox was a Coalition man. Served every year of the War in service to the fractious alliance that brought down the Orventian Empire. He was damn proud of what they accomplished, even if the medium term results left a lot to be desired.
The mechanic had a fastidious aura about him. No scattered grease stains, clean shaven, hair kept in a short, neat natural. Something of a consummate professional. How he managed to come so cheap was a mystery to Kor.
Well. His price was a mystery but in no way related to good luck. How Wilcox came to reside on the Wink was more a case of a hasty exit and a renegotiated contract.
The skiff was your typical shuttle craft for a freelancer like the Wink. Seated two safely. More, if they didn’t mind hanging on for dear life in the cargo bed. Open topped, with a pair of weak engines only good for hopping to and from stationary points, the skiff was as ugly and utilitarian as the Wink was svelte and elegant. Kor supposed it would need an upgrade one of these days.
“Wilcox,” Kor said as he crossed the cargo deck. “Ready for a hack job?”
The mechanic lifted his hefty bag of supplies into the cargo bed and secured it to the restraints. The bag didn’t even jingle. Everything in its place.
“Ready and willing, Captain.”
Kor flipped up the bay doors’ switch covering and gave the button beneath two punches, a beat between them. With a requisite shudder, the Wink’s bay doors smoothly retracted, revealing an open square of clear sky. They gained a fair amount of altitude in pursuit of that bird and the air outside was crisp and cool. Kor tugged his flight jacket closer and climbed into skiff’s pilot seat.
The skiff’s turbines whined as he started it up and it lifted off the deck with a rude lurch. Wilcox winced.
“We OK going out in this thing, Wilcox?”
“Yeah, I checked it twice. Just…don’t push it too hard.”
Kor patted at his belt opposite his pistol to confirm the presence of his life ring, the nervous and diligent tick of airmen everywhere. If you fell it was your one shot. Could lift a man for a little while, its light blinking madly. So long as you held on and anyone was in sight, you might get a second chance instead of taking the plunge into the Down Below.
“You’re the one that bought this thing,” Wilcox said. “Could have sprung for more. I work with the materials available, miracles not included.”
Kor guided the skiff out of the Wink’s hold, keeping it slow going. Once they crossed the threshold he could feel that subtle release of pressure. That feeling of being out in the open sky, of no limits or boundaries.
“You were there when we jetted from the Triplets, Wilcox,” Kor said once they were clear. “You know damn well everything else was bought up.”
Wilcox harrumphed at that. “If you’d given me more time, I could have grabbed mine from the shop. Among other things.”
“I reimbursed you for that, Wilcox. We’re square.”
Miles and miles down, the Churn shifted and billowed, the great cloud floor of the world an ever-present enigma watching from below. And between them and the Churn was nothing but a long fall and empty sky.
The isle was a short flight away. A potato of rock no more than two hundred meters across on the longest side, the isle was still coated in moss and a few scrappy plants, some dangling from crevices and hollows on the sides, like an unkempt green beard. Crowning the top and clearly implying the isle had a stable enough orientation were the remains of an Imperial cutter. Sleek, small, quick, it was a step above a single seat fighter, a versatile airship used as mostly as patrol and escort craft. The wreck’s story became more obvious as the skiff drew closer.
“Engine damage along the starboard side,” Wilcox said. “Not enough to send her down but enough to cripple. Seems they limped away from a fight and went adrift in this expanse. Landed here and set off a distress beacon.”
It was clear no one answered that beacon. The wreck was in rather good condition, if turned into an extension of the nesting ground as far as the birds were concerned. Had the crew been rescued, the cutter would have been salvaged or at least scuttled.
“What do you think, last wave of ships?” Kor said.
“Yeah. We saw plenty of these during the last couple years of the War. Hell, half of Hub’s current fleet is made up of these guys.”
He figured as much. Kor had seen this style of cutter all over the Northwest. Mass produced by the Empire during the War and mass repurposed afterward. Which meant a lot of demand for spare parts.
Kor guided the skiff down near the cutter, landing on the moss-covered rock with a thump.
“Most likely going to find the crew still inside,” he said with a grimace as he undid his restraints.
“Most like,” Wilcox agreed.
The ground had the subtle listing of a small isle, just enough sway in the winds to make sensible folk not want to stick around for too long, old wreck or no. Small craters dotted the isle’s surface, many filled with rainwater from a recent storm. A handful of the glider birds nested in hollows, eyeing them warily but not intent on scattering from their homes. Kor and Wilcox reached the cutter’s wreck to find the side hatch open. Not broken or compromised, just left open. Aside from the quarks and warbles of the birds, the area had the quiet of a grave.
Kor stepped up into the cutter with a hand on his pistol, but no expectation of its need. The narrow crew compartment was streaked with bird droppings and scattered feathers. Any shelter in the storm, man or beast. Weather damaged charts and notices covered the walls, as well as a winking pin-up girl poster, torn in half at the waist, but grinning all the same.
The galley table had been folded down from the wall. Atop it was a knocked over glass bottle, labeled with tape and marked ‘degreaser’, the faded scrawl somehow sarcastic. Three upended glasses sat around it. Surrounding it all were three life rings, much like the one Kor could feel at his waist, a comforting source of heat.
Grim as it was, Kor felt some relief at not having to find a picked over body or three.
“Looks like they took matters into their own hands. Took the long way down.”
“Looks like,” Wilcox agreed.
Kor took up one of the glasses.
“Vision and Virtue, my fellows,” he said, raising the glass in salute. He could feel Wilcox’s momentary discomfort at the old Imperial hail.
“Go see what all you can salvage from the engines, yeah? I’ll take a look up ahead.”
“Roger that, Captain.”
The forward windows were stained over by time and weather, and the filtered daylight made the cockpit dim and dusty. The cockpit was cramped even with just one man, but well-designed in a way only Imperial ships were, an intuitive layout and style Orvion had that no one could replicate. Kor settled into the pilot’s seat and tried the controls, his hands remembering the standard boot sequence for Imperial-made ships. None of the dials twitched, none of the panels lit up. Burnt out, as expected. He tested the other consoles, comms, weapons, systems. Nothing doing.
He could hear Wilcox rummaging through the rear engine compartment, the clangs and shifts punctuated by cursing in Kuralan. Kor’s handle on their shared cultural language was moderate at best, mostly picked up from conversations between his parents. They largely stuck to Imperial with their children.
The thought and the Imperial cockpit got him thinking on far away old homes. He’d heard Jovell was largely spared from the war and the worst of the Dissolution. That whole region of southern Osspor was under a successor state run by Kuralans now. Once Kor figured out just how much of his record still followed him, he’ll have to go back for a visit. If only for a little while.
A discarded uniform patch sat on the console. Maybe an extra. Maybe left there intentionally. Three cutters streaking across a silver sky. 23rd wing of the Fifth Fleet. One of the fast attack wings that crisscrossed the Northwest during the last years of the War in a vain attempt to stabilize one corner of the Orventian Empire’s house of cards.
The storage compartment at his feet was unlocked, though the hinges complained mightily as he pulled it open. Within he found the ship’s log and a short stack of charts and started to flip through them. The maps didn’t have this area of the Northwest mapped at all, but the more well-known parts had that old imperial precision. The level of detail went above and beyond the market standard and the major landmarks were all valid, even if the smaller isles would be off from fifteen years of drift. Worth a fair deal to the right buyer.
Kor’s breath caught on the last one. This was the prize, depicting a stretch of sky to the west of Gloria. The Ferron Expanse. Hundreds of miles across, it was a remote frontier of a frontier, sparsely settled but well charted by the Empire’s initial surveys decades ago. Dozens of quality islands, hundreds of drifter isles. Kor wondered how many of them were left and where. Right at the end of the War the entire Ferron Expanse was swallowed up by an upwell storm, a years-long tempest that jumbled and changed entire stretches of sky, its storm walls impassible to ships.
This chart was of Ferron’s southern reaches, some areas outside the storm, others lost beyond the walls. While an incomplete picture, this was one of the last pieces he needed and Kor now knew for certain what their new mission would be. Pre-storm maps of the Ferron Expanse were rare enough and technically useless. But knowing the initial conditions of the shape of those skies could be an advantage. Upwell storms last a great while, but their durations can be calculated and they dissipate just as quick as they form. The Ferron storm was overdue to fade, and he’d heard it was weakening. When it did, there would be a land rush like the Northwest hadn’t seen in generations, to say nothing of the weirder stuff an upwell storm could surface.
Kor intended to be the first ship through the storm walls.
“Captain,” Wilcox shouted up the corridor, “Could use a hand tearing everything out back here.”
Kor folded up the charts and stuffed them into his inner coat pocket. Then he snatched up the uniform patch and went aft to help with the other payday on this wreck.
The Wink’s cargo bay held the sum total of the abandoned cutter’s engines and associated systems. The salvage job took a few hours and a half dozen trips back and forth with the skiff, but they’d managed to get it all on board before sunset.
“Good haul, Kor,” Lukas said as he deposited a load of piping and other loose pieces into one of the trio of wheeled, open-topped canvas containers.
“What do you reckon, price-wise?” Kor asked while sorting through an array of more delicate items placed on the deck. Control paneling, mostly, its wiring and connectors intact and splayed out like creeping vines.
“Without those power cells, maybe twelve hundred for the lot. More if you’re on the good side of a fixer shop. I think—”
“You know a guy,” Kor finished for him while looking up with a grin.
Lukas towered over most, your stock standard frontier bruiser at a glance. He was light-skinned, though a few degrees darker than Nem, with a crop of brown hair possessing a will of its own day-to-day, and matching bold and bright military tattoos high on his bared arms. Those tattoos could get him a free drink in half the bars in the Northwest and a free fight in the other half.
“Right you are, Captain.” Lukas spoke with a thicker variety of the northern Osspor drawl that had spread its way across the entire Northwest Frontier. He motioned toward the undamaged half of the cutter’s starboard turbine casing. They took up opposite ends of the casing and team-lifted it over to a corner of the hold.
“Could get more with those old power cells,” Lukas suggested once they set the load down, the clang of metal on metal resounding through the hold’s cavernous acoustics.
“Wilcox figures he can transfer them into the Wink’s systems. Save on costs down the way.” The mechanic carried the canisters off a few minutes ago, leaving Kor and Lukas with the grunt work of sorting out the rest of the salvage. They went back to the main piles and resumed partitioning pieces into the containers.
“Your call. So keeping on northward?”
“For a bit. I have something brewing.” Kor could use an extra day or two to let the plan ripen in his mind. Fortunately, Nem had pinged out a chain of isles similar to the one today. They’ll swing through them tomorrow to record coordinates and take a few rock samples. Maybe sell the results to a prospecting op.
“Then we’ll put in at Gloria,” Kor continued. “See what’s available there.” Gloria was the largest freeport in this corner of the Northwest, a node of trade and travel between the frontier and the inner lands.
“Gloria,” Lukas said, layering the name with all manner of subtext.
“Yeah. Been a while since. Heard it’s settled down.”
“Heard the same. Still…that’s awfully close to her, Kor.”
“I know. But she doesn’t know the Wink and doesn’t know I’m on it.” Kor managed to hide any worry spreading across his face. Speak not her name.
“And if she finds out?”
“Then it’s a good thing this ship is fast.”
“So long as you’re aware.”
“Aware as can be. You got any surprises for me in Gloria?” Lukas had more outstanding grudges than Kor. For all his acumen for wheeling and dealing, he had a long trail of debts and mistakes. Unlike the rest of the crew, Kor didn’t have to wonder the background whys of Lukas being on board. He’d bought out his old friend’s contract back in the Triplets, transferring a debt to a friendlier lender. That debt carried a few informal riders, however.
Lukas shook his head. “Nothing worth more than a few drunken punches and a couple sails to smooth things over.”
“Good to hear. You let me know if any port has something serious lying in wait. We’ll take care of it.”
“Aye, Captain. Should I bring any opportunities to you?”
“Within reason. Nothing that’ll drag us back down.” They exchanged one of those knowing looks that summarized a shared history without a need for words. Those chaotic years of the Dissolution and the deeds they were none-too-proud of. Kor knew he wasn’t entirely clean, but he was out, had every intention of remaining out, and every intention of carrying Lukas with him.
Kor stepped into his cabin, closing the door behind him with the weary and grateful sigh of a too-long day. Luxurious by ship standards, his cabin had enough room for a bunk that didn’t have to fold up, a desk built into the wall with an anchored chair, and a stack of locking drawers. His travel trunk was fixed into a corner, its worn leather surface and brass banding speaking to uncountable miles flown. The cabin’s walls and floor were bare save for a few useful hooks. Kor figured he’d fill out the empty spaces with trophies over time. Now that he felt comfortable enough to start earning them.
Speaking of, Kor drew the Imperial insignia patch from the grounded cutter out of his jacket and flung it onto the desk. The first salvage op as a free-flying captain was a fine place start to a collection of keepsakes. The jacket followed onto its hook near the door, then he thumbed off the silver clasps of his shoulder holster and added it to the wall.
Kor sank onto the bunk and bent over to unlace his boots. A quiver ran through his bones, like the thrum of distant cannons firing a broadside. He straightened and in the corner of his eye caught sight of great deal of red and gold occupying the desk’s chair.
“Evening, Luck.” He kept his voice low. Didn’t want any of the crew to overhear, and he knew she could hear him regardless of volume.
“Evening, Kor,” a molten voice replied, feminine after a fashion once Kor’s mind made its self-preserving adjustments to the sound skipping past his ears. Like a voice pumped through comm headphones, but far too clean and clear.
“Any of this your doing?” Kor kept his eyes fixed to the cabin door for now. Not out of respect or fear. He just wanted to avoid the headache that came from looking at her too long.
“Hard to tell, isn’t it? How much is me and how much is just…coincidence.”
He nodded at her typical fifty-fifty answer as he kicked off his boots and slid them under the bunk.
“Some would say that’s two sides of the same coin.” He reached over to his pistol and drew it from the hanging holster, starting the motions of unloading it. Just something to keep his hands busy and attention away from her for a few more moments.
“Some would say,” Luck agreed. “Better for me to keep it ambiguous. I think I prefer not having the attentions of many true worshipers.”
“Would some of your Sisters disagree?”
“Those with the capacity to do so, sure.”
Kor reckoned he was prepared enough to look at her and half turned toward the desk.
Luck lounged across the chair, draped over the arms like a divine stole. She wore a radiant red dress straight out of a lounge singer act. A mane of golden curls dangled from her head, not quite touching the floor. She was factually, objectively beautiful, even though Kor could never assign a description to her face, nor a color to her skin, as if those details refused to stick in his memory. Additional difficulty came from the colors and the angles. The red of the dress, the gold of her hair, they looked like a particularly fine paint, too consistent, as if light and shadow didn’t matter to them. And Luck herself had the figure of an Imperial-Deco mural come to life, yet the light of the cabin’s steady white bulb didn’t properly fade around the curve of a leg.
Kor could feel the rear-guard portions of his brain rallying a mighty defense. Then again, what he saw was likely the result of such mental compromises. At some point, without thinking, he must have pulled out his coin charm from around his neck. He turned the gold piece around in his fingers. Both faces held images of the Kural version of Lady Luck, one side a smile, the other side scorn.
“To what do I owe this visit, Luck?”
Luck flourished a hand. Kor saw only a blur, his eyes not willing to lay an interpretation over that particular manipulation of reality. She now held a map, folded and yellowed. Jepp’s map, out of its drawer and leather folder. Kor’s map now, a single piece of inheritance from an old employer. Less a keepsake than a recovery of invested time.
“What do you think is buried under the big X, Kor? Some old coins? Jewels? An old pirate’s secret retirement stash?”
“Those would be nice but it’s more symbolic at this point. A purpose. Even if it’s nothing, it’s something to chase,” he said. “Close the loop on this new beginning.” He spread his arms and looked around the cabin, part for theatrics, part relief for his mind. “Maybe I’ll get another ship out of it.”
Luck laughed, sweet, seductive, powerful. It rattled Kor to the bone. When she stopped he briefly considered giving everything he had to have it continue.
“The mind of a gambler. I shouldn’t be surprised,” Luck said.
“If you need me to be some place specific, just say the word.” He was mostly free of earthly debts but still owed big on an unearthly one.
“You know I don’t work that way, Kor. Chances are you’ll be exactly when and where I need you to be.”
“Got odds on that?”
“I always know the odds.” The white flash of a smile crossed the unresolvable impression of her face. “But I’m not one to tell. It spoils the fun.”
“Worth a shot.” He figured that if she ever told him the odds it was either a comforting lie or a desperate enough situation to make a goddess worry. He’d prefer neither.
“You keep following your hunches, Kor. You’re still playing with house odds. For now.”
And then she was gone. The air in the cabin rippled and the pressure against every inch of Kor’s skin withdrew, its presence felt only in the sudden absence. It helps to have a little bit of the forgotten divine on your side, so long as you grew accustomed to their disregard of hellos and good-byes.
Kor went to the now empty chair. It was cold to the touch as he sat down. He unlocked the drawer and checked for the contents he knew would be there. Within was the folder containing Jepp’s map, untouched and unmoved, with a strip of fine red silk wrapped around it. Two keepsakes from a past life, keeping each other company. Nodding to himself, he relocked the drawer and slid his crisp and new logbook toward him. He wrote a circled ‘L’ in the upper right corner of the page and set to filling another big empty with a record of the day.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2016