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.
“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.”
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.”
Silja guided the skiff in a careful descent toward the island. There was enough light to see that there wasn’t much to be seen. This isle’s surface was rough and raw, completely exposed to whatever long-lasting lashing the upwell storm fancied at the time. Cold, too, the spires providing only the crudest shelter, the winds weaving around them and nudging the skiff with reminders of how bad things could get in a hurry. Their whispering song coiled through the jagged terrain, falsely hushed, wanting to be heard. The whisk of the Wink and Smile’s turbines faded into the background overhead, but Silja kept them fixed in mind, an invisible tether, moral support.
The Wink wouldn’t have been able to get close to this wreck, its body too wide to slip around the spires, the ground too mounded by boulders and hills to land. The wrecked lancer was wedged up against a spire’s base, tilted and half rolled over on its starboard side. Silja frowned as she saw the fore of the craft was smashed against a hillside. So, a rough controlled landing, but not a full crash. Not enough damage to the hull and, slimmer profile aside, the lancer would have clipped something in a harder fall and lost more of itself.
She spotted a patch of ground large and flat enough for the skiff near the wreck’s rear. Silja navigated the skiff in a tight landing and brought them down with the announcing crunch of landing struts against rock. She dropped the skiff’s engines to a warm idle, quieting the area but for the wind through the spires. Those spires now towered above them, rising to dim shadows against a cloudy sky.
“Not military,” Wilcox declared with authority as they landed. He unhooked himself and climbed into the cargo bed, humming over their supplies before grabbing the light-duty stuff first.
Silja murmured an agreement, unclipped her restraints, and leaned over the skiff’s controls to give the derelict a long look. No, not military, otherwise there would be weapon mounts either along the exposed flank before them, or up top, where they saw nothing but cracks in the paneling. Instead there was nothing but bare exterior plating, some crumpled and broken, but all lacking traces of martial modification from the base model. No markings whatsoever, which was odd. Not even the ghostly echo of identifying decals or paint. No obvious battle damage, though it was possible the other side was completely ruined, if not by an attack then by the landing. A pair of fins remained attached to the exposed flank, though at least two were sheared off, leaving discolored lines along the hull.
It was Durroan design, long, boxy, and utilitarian, but without all the excess flair added to the exterior to draw attention away from those cues. She knew the style well from the majority of traders and freelancers from home and grinned at the memory of buzzing ships like this on her first couple hoppers before earning her wings proper.
Wilcox lit a lantern behind her, pushing back the isle’s murky shadows and Silja’s nostalgia-bright memories alike.
“Ferozia-class” she said with a snap of her fingers. She dismounted filled in the rest of the ID, breath frosting in front of her face from the chill. “Durroan all-purpose freelancer. Complement flexed between five and fifteen depending on config. They stopped making them before I was born, but they were all over on my side of the Northwest.” As to why they stopped building them, well, the Durro shipyards started going bigger around that time.
“Ah, I should have known that. So this guy could be pretty much anything?” Wilcox shouldered a pack of tools, then passed over a prybar and a second small lantern.
“Pretty much,” she said while sparking on the light.
“I’ll take a look around back,” Wilcox said.
The mechanic ambled off around the wreck, head tilted in assessment.
Silja strode up to the lancer’s side access door, the paneling ajar and no longer flush with its frame. It hung a good way above her, the ship cantered from the crash and its aft halfdeck. A convenient thigh-high boulder acted as a step up, allowing her the height to reach the center of the door. Silja mouthed an apology and put the prybar to work, pulling the broken door loose with her second yank. It rattled out a hollow threat before sliding along its dirt-lined housing with a metallic growl.
Lifting the lantern, Silja pointed the beam down the accessway as she peered over the edge. The corridor angled down and away from her, bland walls and access panels coated with unknown years of slow decay, the gradual consumption of rust and dust. Further in lay a larger chamber lit by slivers of shivering gray light from the rents in the topside hull. Otherwise the lancer’s interior was still as a tomb but for the motes of dust swirling the lantern’s beam.
Wilcox’s boots announced his return. “Rear engines appear intact, though angled too high reach from the ground.”
“Looks awkward to hover the skiff over there.”
“Right. I don’t think that’s a good line of work anyway, given how much time we got.”
Silja clicked her tongue at the loss of obvious value. Then again, they definitely didn’t have space for a whole damn lancer engine or two.
“Guess the next crew to come by will be the lucky ones,” she said lightly, if relieved that she wouldn’t be the one doing the rip and tear job.
Realizing she was stalling, Silja emptied her hands into one corner of the doorway, found a firm grip against the frame, and hoisted herself up with a grunt. Once inside, she caught herself from tipping over from the cantered deck, the footing dodgy from slight sway of the isle, her sense of ground balance and flight balance warring with each other. She scanned the corridor ahead once more, listening with baited breath as if she were a thief in the night. Perhaps one-third true, in this case. Her gun remained stowed. Sometimes you just knew a ship was hollowed out and empty, felt it as soon as you crossed the threshold. The only thing calling this place home was dust blown in via countless storms.
Silja turned and lent a hand to Wilcox, hoisting him up into the wreck with a heave.
“Prospective new rule: flat wrecks only,” he muttered. He braced a hand on the wall to gain his balance on the tilted deck, then wiped the layer of grime that followed his touch on a pant leg.
“You could always send someone else.” Silja’s breath puffed heavily in front of her face, the ship’s interior colder than outside.
“Yeah, and they’d get it wrong and miss easy money.”
They proceeded down the corridor, boots threatening to slip at each step, and came to a central, common room. It was one of those adaptable spaces freelancers had that could be made into anything. On a ship this size, it was the only real space to stretch your legs, the corridors tight and narrow, the cabins compact and often shared. The gentle reek of stagnant water hung in the air. Water had pooled about knee high on the far side of the chamber, lapping at a pile of once-bolted in tables and benches. Films of green and brown algae floated atop the water and crept up the half-submerged furniture and nearby walls.
And yet…nothing to identify the ship. No posters or decorations, either fallen or eaten away by age and weather. What few markings on the bulkheads were the standard messages and warnings in Imperial Standard and smaller Durroan underneath, the kind that faded into the scenery the more you lived on any ship.
Though they stood there for only a moment, the complete lack of identity itched at her something fierce. Then Silja angled her lantern up and let out a relieved sigh when she finally saw something with a sense of personality. Swirling filigree coiled along the ceiling, the thin lines painted a pale gold and still holding their hue after however many years of dereliction.
“There. Along the ceiling,” she said. “You can see traces of filigree patterns. Lot of Durroan folk favor it in their ships and buildings. One of the few things we could agree on, besides that whole Coalition thing.”
Wilcox followed with the lantern light and grunted an agreement. “So, a touch of customization. Native market instead of shipped out elsewhere in the frontier or Osspor.”
“Right. Or at least, a holdover from a previous owner. Not worth the hassle to replace those linings half the time.”
“A touch of home for you?”
“Couple degrees of separation, but, yeah. A little bit.” Silja couldn’t shake that kinship in her blood. Well, half of it, anyway. Even though she was frontier born and raised, detached from her mother’s homeland of Durro by a generation and the Barrier Expanse. Just something you felt, always there in the background.
It wasn’t enough to satisfy her curiosity over the who or the what of this ship’s story, but they had business to attend to first. The rear of the common room held two exits, one corridor to the engine room, the other crunched in from the crash, likely to the ship’s modest cargo hold. Ferozia-class ships had a quirky rear-starboard hold, like a backpack hunched over one shoulder.
Wilcox led the way to the engine room, finding handholds along the wall and taking care to avoid sliding down into the murky water. Silja followed, glancing around for any kind of further identification or flavor. Nothing presented itself.
The engine room had barely enough space for two to stand and work without being half buried in the machinery. Here the age of the ship’s design was on display, everything built with a greater volume of harder iron and steel, touched with brass fittings and knobs. Pipes and ducts coiled like vines in the shadows, appearing skewed and wild from the wreck’s tilt and the uneven light of their lanterns. There was a classic feel to it all, complete with a bunch of bona-fide levers linked to who-knew-what.
“Compact and efficient, at least,” Wilcox said as he blitzed through a series of taps and checks and fiddles at the deck’s control panel, a general fluency guiding him. Silja took a step back, looked for more details on who this ship was and came up empty. She went to work, rummaging through a few storage bins set into the walls. Each turned out to be either empty or half-filled with spare parts and tools they already possessed in great supply on the Wink. No engineer’s log or any other such paperwork presented itself.
“All right, we got something here,” Wilcox said after a few minutes at the panel. “Four of six rear power cells are intact, all with juice remaining. Worth our while to yank them out, though I’ll have to rig them to some subsystem to get use out of them.”
“Any life to the rest of the ship?”
Wilcox gave a short laugh to that.
“Nah. That’d be impressive. Something’s severed and shorting out the connections forward. Might be a backup source on the bridge…or what’s left of it. I’d imagine it’d be dead by now from auto-beacons anyway.” Kor and Nem didn’t mention a word about a tracking beacon, so it must have faded to nothing by now. A final voice calling out for help in a true middle of nowhere.
Wilcox stomped a circle on the floor before finding the hatch for the subdeck. He knelt and opened it, the hinges creaking from their long slumber. Silja held her lantern over the drop, illuminating the cramped space below.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” she said. “Not crunched up or anything.” The right impact could turn a retired model like this into a nest of pipes-turned-spikes.
“Yeah, we’re good for some cell salvage.” Wilcox set his bag of tools in the corner above the hatch, pulled out a hammer and pounded on the ladder below the hatch. It extended after a few blows with a rickety rattle and Wilcox followed it down shortly thereafter.
“Check those bottom drawers for cell canisters. Should be a few left behind if they had any sense of code or decorum.” He disappeared into the guts of the engine room subdeck.
The canisters were right where they were supposed to be, two stacks of hollow discs of pale gray metal.
A brown hand reach up from below and requested, “Bolt cutters.”
Silja found the requested item from his bag and held them just out of reach.
“Since when was I assistant engineer for this job?”
“I never dismissed you from earlier service.”
She handed off the bolt cutters. “Yeah, yeah.”
Silja settled in, handing down tools as called for like a surgeon’s assistant. It was quiet work, the clanks and grinds and occasional curses from Wilcox below a steady counterpoint to the winds and the creaks of the forgotten ship. After a few minutes, Wilcox lifted up the first power cell disc, a weighty battery of condensed fuel that smelled faintly of chemical death. They were old model stuff, pre-War designs that were a touch too unreliable. She gingerly enclosed the first cell into the canister and placed it against the tilted wall of the engine room.
“We sure these are good?” she asked, rolling her gloved fingers together, testing for grease or residue from the power cells.
“If they haven’t raptured and leaked already, they’re good ones. Won’t be connecting them to the Wink’s main systems, but we can siphon them dry on secondary stuff. Or just sell ‘em off when we get out of Ferron.”
Silja winced when Wilcox stepped up the ladder and casually dropped the second power cell onto the deck, the battery sliding against the angled floor with a threatening grind.
“It’s fine,” he insisted.
“Guess they take a bit more than a jostle to get set off.” She caged the second one and stacked it atop the first with a surplus of care anyway.
Wilcox looked back down into the sub deck and said, “Yeah…a bit more.”
“Well. You know we didn’t fight every battle straight-up,” he said while lowering himself back down into the subdeck. “Next pair are deeper in so…” he trailed off.
Silja leaned over the ladder and called down, “One day you’ll owe me a decent-sized favor, and I’ll collect on specifics.”
“Fair enough,” Wilcox shouted back as he returned to work, digging deeper into the underbelly of the ship.
The break got Silja thinking of old war stories and new revivals. Of current missions and unfinished tales. She looked around the anonymous lancer’s engine room, still wondering about its own story. When Wilcox returned with the third cell, Silja held him up with a raised hand.
“You think the Virtue’s out there?” she asked, pairing it with a dead serious look.
Wilcox caught her tone, stepped higher and set the power cell into the waiting open canister. Gently this time around. “Maybe. Kor certainly thinks so. As do the Hawks and those Remnant fools.”
Never mind whatever-the-hell’s going on with that weird shard and Nem. Silja knew she could leave that part unsaid.
“Say we get there first,” she said. “Think he’ll do right by it?”
“I do. For now, while it’s still over the horizon and wholly theoretical. But you know him better.”
“Only in a disconnected way.” The wing-mate before, and the captain now. Not much of the in-between, where this whole mad plot came from. The same was true the other way around, but he offered to hire her on after a couple hours of catching-up.
“What I don’t think he has is a plan. I don’t fault him on that count. There’s no way to predict what we’ll find, if we find it.”
“Sure. Hard to say what we’ll need.”
“I had the good fortune to never see a dreadnought personally during the War. But given how caps and super-caps work…the Virtue should have a way to improvise a solution on site. Most ships do, one way or another.”
“Again, you’ll owe me one day.”
“One day,” Wilcox agreed. “He needs us around. Me to get whatever half-baked plan we figure out right. You to keep him honest, alignment-wise. A reminder that he already made the right choice on this sort of thing back with Heath.”
Silja nodded. That choice was one of the few in her life that she held no doubts over, large or small. She wouldn’t mind if it had more company.
“Anyway,” Wilcox said after a moment of shared consideration. “We’re clear down here of good stuff. The fourth cell got breached in the crash.”
“Let me guess. I’m lugging these back to the skiff?”
“You’re the assistant today. So, yes.”
“That’s Chief Engineer Wilcox to you.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
Silja locked the recovered power cells into the skiff’s storage crate, then knocked on the top twice for good measure. If it were only those, it would be a modest salvage haul. Worthwhile but only barely. She looked up through the isle’s towering stone spires. The weather held for now, a gray ceiling punctured by those fleeting peeks of clarity. They were seeing blue with increasing frequency as they retreated out of the Ferron Expanse. She could hear the Wink and Smile in the distance. No doubt they were making use of the steady position to take another deep listen into the skies for other nearby surprises or opportunities. Perhaps even match this rock to its pre-storm coordinates.
Eyes back down, Silja looked over the Ferozia-class lancer once more, humming and hawing at the lack of flair and identification on the exterior. Aside from the opened portside door, the ship was busted up, quiet and untouched, as if she weren’t there and never was. The anonymity gnawed at her something fierce, and there was enough time to investigate further and give this nameless ‘him’ a proper due diligence walkthrough.
After clambering back into the wreck, Silja paused in the common room, listening for a break in the clangs and muttered oaths echoing up from the engine room.
“You need any more help back there?” she shouted back.
Wilcox’s muffled reply sounded near enough to a ‘naw’ for her purposes.
Silja angled her lantern ahead along the ship’s central corridor. The deck was buckled or cracked here and there but otherwise passable, if persistently skewed, as if she were in a dream. Visually, it was much the same as what she’d seen so far: bland, paneled walls devoid of décor aside from the filigree along the ceiling. It led her forward to a cluster of four crew cabins.
One by one, Silja opened each cabin, the doors alternating between pliable and requiring convincing with the prybar. Pointing the lantern’s light where the cabins lacked non-standard skylights, the chambers were quick checks. The story was much the same in each of them, small spaces with one to two bunks. What sleeping pads remained were thin and eaten up by whatever opportunistic mold or creature passed through here. The port-side cabins were in better condition than starboard, less damaged from the landing. And yet nothing presented itself. One and all, the cabins were cleaned out of logs, notes, personal possessions. While she feared finding the remains of a crew member, it would, admittedly, give this place some semblance of a story. Finality instead of persistent, insufferable nothingness.
Perhaps they were rescued? Part of a convoy or wing and plucked up by their compatriots?
Mid-ship held a narrow galley, utility rooms, head, showers. Her boots crunched against heavy chunks of glass from a now-absent viewing window opposite the galley bar, another feature erased from the crash. A quick rummage through the galley drawers revealed nothing but long-rotted foodstuffs, and even that was sparse. This was looking more like an evacuation. An orderly rescue.
Some relief there, even if they left little sign of who they were or where they were going. Maybe that’s the secret. Try not to leave a trail, even if a crashed ship was one hell of a sign. So: Strip it bare of most signifiers. Wouldn’t be that hard with a mid-size lancer like this. It’d take maybe a few hours for a motivated crew to burn or drop any real clues and pack up their personal belongings and ship’s logs. The skybound traveled light by habit and necessity. Then let nature erase the rest with time, especially if the rock’s this remote. Especially if a decade-long upwell storm lent a hand.
Can’t haunt a ruin if no one died and no one considered this craft a home. The thought drew a breath of cold air around her neck. Silja shrugged her shoulders up, brushing away the feeling with her coat’s collar.
Ships were elaborate tools to some. Interchangeable, passing between owners and never quite a home to most. If a tool couldn’t be saved, you tossed it out to become another scrap score. Just another blip in the signal, one of countless thousands scattered across the skies. Silja knew her own perspective on the soul and spirit of any given ship was about as skewed as the deck below her feet. And she nurtured it, despite seeing hundreds of ships fall to pieces in war. Hell, one of her tattoos had seventeen hash marks for her combat kills and some of those were solo efforts. She was responsible for at least that many blips.
Maybe that’s was why she cared.
She was almost done, one last portside cabin before the bridge. An officer’s chamber, it was slightly larger, with a single bunk, a narrow fold-down desk, and most notably still had a storage trunk. Here we go. A puncture in the hull above allowed in winding lines of thin, fresh-smelling moss and created expanding spots of rust and discoloration.
Silja eased open the trunk, the lock missing, discarded in the haste of the evacuation. Inside lay a ruffled pile of clothes. She picked up a pale blue shirt and smirked. It was a woman’s corsair-style top, with flared wrist cuffs and a plunging neckline. Wholly out of fashion for about twenty-five years. Either this dated the wreck, or the owner was stubborn and simply didn’t care.
She rummaged through the rest of the clothes, feeling like a proper scummy scav digging through someone’s underwear. Nothing but old cloth, mildew eaten in places thanks to the puncture above. Again, no journals or weather-eaten logs. Whoever cleaned this out, if partially, would have taken those.
“A charm or a commission patch or…something,” Silja muttered as she piled everything back into the trunk. It was only polite, despite the contents being a damned tease.
Back to the corridor. The final starboard cabin was the captain’s by process of elimination. The door gave her no trouble and revealed that they were extra thorough here, as expected. The place was stripped clean, the desk drawers open and empty, the anchor points for storage trunks conspicuously empty. Then it was all made filthy from a hull breach above and the inflow of unknown years of rainwater. They even went so far as to burn something off the wall above the desk. Perhaps a sigil or equivalent? Regardless, it was too far gone to bother pondering over shadows and smudges.
Silja went back to the corridor and leaned against the slanted walls. She thumped a fist against the metal and tried to talk and think all this over.
“Who were you folks? What colors did you wear, what flag did you fly? Imperial? ‘Lition? Whichever suited you at the time?” Or maybe this all happened before the grand choosing of sides.
There had to be a plan here. Some hope or objective driving them, even if it was dashed against an anonymous rock and stripped out in a hurry. What it was Silja couldn’t imagine. This far out? Where could they possibly be going? The ship was too small for an ultra-long haul. They had a destination in mind and had to be part of a fleet. There was no other way they would be rescued and evacuated, with the presence of mind to methodically erase every trace of who they were.
The door to the bridge was a bastard to get open, but Silja own fuel cells possessed frustration aplenty for her efforts. Within was a compact control deck. Two consoles flanked the narrow path to the helm, both recessed a step down into the deck. Nav/Comm to port, Conditions to starboard. A quick glance revealed the Nav/Comm banks to be emptied of all recording slots. At this point she knew better than to bother checking for log books or maps in their typical spots.
Ahead, the nose of the ship was gone, the forward windows replaced by a wall of stone and gnarled metal, all smashed inward. The fuselage was buckled up under the pilot’s seat and down from the ceiling. Silja’s heart sank as she approached what remained of the helm, knowing well those stains weren’t entirely water damage. The control console was, of course, a total loss. Yet from among all the dirt and gnarled metal the flight stick stuck out, still mostly intact. It was wheeled style with an open top, leather grips, buttons along the inner edge. And…
A pair a bent emblem wings were pinned into the leather. The placement was so intentional, it could be nothing but a memento and memorial. At least one crew member didn’t make it out.
A semblance of a tale clicked together for her. One cabin with items left in it, undisturbed but for information that might give away who these people were. A controlled crash. An orderly evacuation.
Silja gently plucked the emblem from its perch and brushed away a layer of grime (and perhaps blood) from the center. Give the Durro eagle and serpent some clarity in their entwined duel. She herself had earned and owned a couple of these emblems. And she no longer needed a name, either for the ship or the pilot. Their story was clear enough.
“Sorry for digging through your stuff, sister. If you were the only one to fall here, you carried them through. They got out, somehow.”
Silja always swore she’d prefer to die on her ship, controls and fate in her own hands. To die at home, perhaps while fighting for it. So long as it was the right ship, the right home. Like this, though? With no one to remember save for some scavenger, years later? A blip in the signal?
Suppose that’s just the way for all but the greatest and grandest of us.
She wasn’t totally convinced by the thought.
Silja pressed the emblem back into the ship’s controls, a single spot of color shining amongst the nameless ruins.
(End of Episode Sixteen)
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2018