Chapter One

When under typical traveling thrust, the engine room of the Wink and Smile was halfway a furnace. The chamber was a squared-off arc above and around the cargo hold, with the engine blocks blasting away at the both rear corners. The grand summation of a hundred systems and all their pipes and ducts and valves and control panels and meters filled the space up into an orderly maze of tech.

Silja rounded the corner into the port-side entry area which served as the control center/engineering deck. She wiped sweat from her face with one hand, and patted the other dry on her pant leg. At the main control panel, she searched through its dozens of status lights and pressure gauges. Even to her trained and practiced eyes the engine room panel was intimidating, though half the buttons having Kural glyphs instead of Imperial Standard labeling didn’t help. Silja found the switch for an external vent and paused with her finger on the switch. There were some things she always asked permission for, even if this was her ship as well. Call manners combined with old military procedure bolted into her brain.

“Opening vent…six?” she asked, voice raised in calibration against the ambient engine noise.

“Yup,” Wilcox confirmed as he followed her out of the linking passage that ran between the engine blocks.

Silja jammed on the switch. Metal clicked and slid somewhere unseen, then one of the ducts above rattled and sent a flow of cold air whisking through the room from the slotted vents in the hull. It smelled like soft rain and clean metal. Silja sighed as she stepped into the center of the flow, plucking at and fanning her sweat-stained shirt. Small wonders.

Blessedly, Kor was flying high today. On her last shift at the helm, it was the opposite, a long, low and hot route under the storm bands, the Churn and weather above turning the otherwise calm skies into a hotbox. The Wink was burning its way out of the Ferron storm and the last few days were generally easy flying. Rougher skies retreated with the storm itself, though there were plenty of smaller, common storms and wilder weather still spinning out of the fading titan.

Wilcox kicked open a storage compartment, plucked a towel from a stack and wiped down his hands, pulling away dark streaks of oil. Then he tossed over a pair of clean white hand towels to Silja. She managed to dodge the worst of the mess during the job, a quick swap of the florally fragrant fluid that pumped from a central reservoir, through the engines, and back as a sickly-sweet waste product. They canned it up and set it aside for a later trash drop. The reservoir lay directly between the two engine blocks, hottest point on the ship without being directly inside (or behind) the engines themselves. It was sweaty work best done quickly.

 “Thanks for the help, as always,” Wilcox said. The ship thrummed around them in a dozen frequencies and volumes, singing along as best she could. For all the gunk that piled up on a this long-haul expedition, the Wink and Smile ran sweet and smooth. Credit due to its engineer and mechanic, though Kor was damned lucky to get a ship this well behaved.

Silja still thought the ship was damn weird and ran too easy, though.

 “Nah, it’s no trouble,” she said. “You know I’m a better hand than Lukas at this. Did plenty of my own minor repairs with Last Call.” Her voice held steady at the name of her missing ship, even though the heartache still rang deep and true.

Hurts like an old wound, just here and there and when it’s about to rain.

She gave herself a quick wipe down, lacking any sort of bashfulness. Wilcox turned aside and said, “Better help than this one, too,” while wagging a finger at Stormy. The cat was fast asleep inside a recessed storage alcove, despite the noise and heat of the engine room. Talk about small wonders.

Wilcox brushed a towel over his head, seeming to sweat half as much as Silja through the whole process. Call it acclimation, she supposed.

“Half the trouble is terminology,” he said. “Little things that mark whoever taught him the basics of ship mechanicals as a true-born Imperial.”

“Even after all this time, I still do a double take every time they call it the ‘flight deck’ instead of ‘bridge’.”

“Exactly.” Wilcox always sounded relieved with they exchanged such things. Silja could imagine the passive Imperialist nostalgia getting old given the rest of the small crew, new alignments and buried loyalties aside. It was inescapable. Hell, there was a ten-foot statue of the Imperial Spirit Virtue in the hold right now, bound for the auction as it may be. And they were on the trail of a monster of a ship bearing the same name. Reminders of how no one really won the War. Both sides lost eventually. Yet pieces of identity remained. Nem aside, all of them were too old to swap out those oils from the mental machinery, but wise enough to keep them from overflowing. Most of the time.

The ship shifted its course, a gentle adjustment felt in a fleeting tug against the turn and a slight angle to the deck under their feet. Silja almost didn’t notice the shift, so accustomed she was becoming to the Wink and Smile’s motions. She exchanged a knowing look with Wilcox and walked over to the engine room’s comm speaker. Sure enough, it crackled open with a message from up top.

“Go ahead bridge,” Silja said, preempting them. She could imagine Kor’s eye twitch. Wilcox snickered at the beat of dead air.

“We got some busted up ship-sign, not far out of our way,” Kor said.

“A derelict?”

“Yep,” Nem said, “Blank on beacons. Rock/Avor tonal mix. Isle-bound crash site.”

“We’re taking a look, but don’t want to linger too long. You two game for a quick scrap?”

Silja looked over at Wilcox and mouthed ‘you good?’. He nodded and opened a storage alcove, pulling out a bag clanking with tools.

“Always. How much time will we have?”

“Call it an hour and a half, we got a big lead on a stormfront I wanna maintain.”

“That’s enough for a quick loot,” Wilcox said to her. “See what’s there, strip out any fuel cells. Do a walk-through for anything better.”

“The usual scrap.” Silja said lightly, though there was always a touch of sorrow in ripping apart derelicts. A further erasing of whatever once dwelt within that ship. Maybe she’ll see if she could salvage some semblance of a story out of it.

“What’s our ETA, captain?” she asked.

“Ah…little under an hour. We almost missed it.”

“Forty-four minutes, plus/minus three,” Nem clarified.

“We’ll be ready.”

“Understood. Flight deck out.”

“Yeah, yeah.”


With their first run through Ferron coming to an end, the Wink’s cargo hold was a proper mess. Between the stacked supply crates and spare parts were potted plants taken from a handful of green isles, more than a few animal skulls and hides, that big Virtue statue under her funeral-shroud tarp, and a half-a-hundred other things. The bulk of their haul’s potential value, statue’s auction price aside, lay in the dozens of sealed and labeled sample containers, with their array of soil and mineral samples from every isle they came across these past weeks.

Wilcox and Lukas had cleared a lane for the skiff below, a continuation of the constant shuffle of material in the hold. Hell, Silja thought as she descended the stairs, even if this wreck has something choice, we might not have enough room to bring it in.

She wore her Vostokan-style coat, all heavy gray fabric and faux-fur linings with plenty of pocket space. Depending on the scale of any work, she’d probably shed it halfway through the job, then try not to forget it among the ruins. She was armed, of course, though down one of her guns on account of Chantil’s experience back on Isle Seven. Silja knew the Doc was tough but damn. She believed her, of course. Re-cleaned and stitched up her wounds when they picked her up. Then listened in disbelief at the argument over going back down to look for the creature’s lair before leaving the island. Speaking of…

“How sure are we about residents?” she called over from the base of the stairs. “We’re running fifty-fifty out here in that regard.” Ram serpents chasing a statue like its their goddess. Freaky raptor flocks drafting off the ship’s wake for days at a time. Whatever that shell critter clamped to the underside of the hull was. A damn griffin.

“Doc said this place is too barren for anything significant,” Lukas assured her, though he didn’t look entirely convinced himself.

Her definition of significant and my definition of significant ain’t exactly in sync, Lukas.”

Lukas grinned and shrugged. “What’s the wor—”

“You shut your mouth right now.”

Chortling to himself, Lukas headed for the door controls, weaving around a pair of shoulder-high ferns in five-foot-wide storage-containers-turned-soil pots. They were red today. Yellow yesterday. Maybe green tomorrow. Supposedly they weren’t poisonous. ‘Probably’.

Silja walked a circuit around the skiff, eyes running through a checklist. She gave the craft a fond pat on a side panel, one of the few sections unmarred by rust and scratches. Skiffs had tough lives, all work and incidental abuse with not enough appreciation.

“So long as you don’t go and name it,” Wilcox said over the cargo bed as he looked over the securement of their salvaging gear. Saws and torches and prybars. Tools of destruction for the sake of ripping out morsels of value. He wore a light brown jacket, once again seemingly immune to temperature. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care too much.

Silja hauled herself up into the pilot seat, strapped in, tapped her lifering once more, and ran through the start-up sequence. “Hey, I’ll invest in a ship having a bit of soul, but even I won’t go that far.” A ship needed to be someone’s home to earn a name or even a pronoun. Skiffs were still tools at the end of the day.

Wilcox climbed into the passenger seat and strapped in. Silja shot Lukas a thumbs-up. The cargo doors rumbled open, letting an a wash of high, cold air. Silja breathed in the mix of purity seasoned by the backdraft of the Wink’s engines. She eased the skiff forward, careful not to bump their other cargo.

“Enjoying the role reversal, for once,” Wilcox called over to Lukas as they approached the threshold.

“Yeah and you’ll probably come back with the skiff undamaged and barely getting your blood up. What’s the fun in that?”

“I’ll take it.”

Lukas gave a slight nod, eyes briefly distant as if to say, ‘yeah, wouldn’t be the worst thing’. Then he said, “Good luck, you two. Bring me back something nice.”

Given what she saw from the observation deck when they approached the isle, Silja had her doubts.

The skiff exited the cargo hold and dropped a couple slow feet as it adjusted to flying free. Silja let the surrounding winds wash over her, a concordance of external forces and knowing the skiff’s limited mobility. Kor’s estimate of an hour-thirty seemed spot-on from the surrounding cloud scape. Things were calm enough, with a thin, swiftly flowing ceiling of striated clouds and a reasonable layer of rolling, puffy and gray systems framing the isle below. Nothing too organized, but the longer you waited the more likely something would form up and cause you trouble.

The target lay on a small drifter isle, more of an up-jumped rock with a sense of long-term alignment than anything else. Numerous stone spires jutted from the isle’s central body, making the place seem shadowed and forested by stone. Fitful creeper vines and lichens clung to the dark brown stony surfaces. Looked like a stripped-down version of the Reaches freeport in miniature. From their view above, she could make out the crashed (landed and abandoned?) ship among a cluster of central spires that formed a partial shelter.

Even in normal skies, if there ever were such a thing out here, the isle would be a dejected, unforgiving place. A dot on the map, a blip in the signal and positioning screens and nothing more. Whoever flew that ship would have to be in mighty desperate straits to force a landing here.

“Looks beaten up bad from time and weather. Heavy cutter or maybe a small lancer,” Wilcox said over the crosswinds’ mild roar.”

Silja had a feeling it was the latter. She led the skiff in a gradual descent, angling in a slow spiral downward to keep the wreck in sight.

“Pretty generic hull profile,” she said. “Long single deck, maybe half a deck on the aft underside.”

“Agreed. He’s seen better days.”

“Let’s get down there and give him another bad one. Maybe wring a story out of it.”

(Continues Next Week)

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