Kor leaned back in his chair and sipped his cold coffee. His eyes were tired from a flight shift followed by a final review of their mapping and coordinate data, one more grind through the haul, hunched over his cabin desk for hours. He tried to feel accomplished. From a mess of coordinates and signal data, he’d tamed (with significant help from Nem and Chantil, of course) their Ferron scouting haul into concise packages, bundles, and a few classic tubes containing rolled map copies. All packed up and ready for sale or delivery, depending on the bounty. Their work reduced to numbers and dry descriptions, though often paired with a soil or mineral sample boxed up in the cargo hold. The hold was halfway to a plant nursery, at this point.
At the top of the pile lay the heavy, leather-bound folder containing the scouting report on Isle Seven. It was the biggest prize of the bunch, with the largest standing bounty and a buyer already lined up. Kor scanned through the island’s information once more, a final proofing survey of the signal markers and drift data, the exhaustive list of geological and airborne features, the cataloging of endemic lifeforms, the water levels and soil quality. He knew them by heart at this point. The Silvertail colonist group would be thrilled at the find, and their bounty for the information was more than fair. Kor might even be able to finagle something extra out of them.
There a bonus for a former griffin nest? Or is it a discount?
Regardless, they were clearly eager for results. Nem yanked a simple call/response signal from them this morning, sent via a new communication relay set up at the edge of the Ferron Expanse. The Bits and Pieces, a fixer hulk, had set up shop on the easy side of the upwell storm’s boundaries, and the Silvertails’ bosses and forerunners were gathering there. The Wink and Smile was bound their way, the fixer hulk cutting their return to a semblance of civilization by days.
Even if the place will be a damned zoo. The Bits and Pieces was big even on the ramshackle scale of fixer hulks, able to expand into a makeshift port in the middle of empty skies. No doubt there would be half-a-hundred crews swarming it as the worst of the storm’s outer reaches dispersed. It was why Kor was so keen and insistent on getting as much of a head-start as possible, even if it meant riding out vicious storms and dodging who-knows-what. Delaying a few weeks would have brought in crowds and competition.
After sealing up the report on Isle Seven, Kor stacked the packets and folders with a sense of finality. He and Lukas needed to run the numbers once more, then make some sales of anything not yet earmarked for a buyer. The Bits and Pieces will have a marketplace running at full throttle, filled with buyers and risk-loving merchants making deals with other scouting crews and prospectors and general freelancers. With proper hustle, he and Lukas could clear out the rest of their finds and come out well into the black before accounting for the premium—fetching Virtue statue.
Were that all they were after, this run would be a stunning success, exactly what a freelancer wanted. A normal crew would take it easy for a spell after cashing out. But there was always more to do, grander projects left unfinished. They could restock and rest a day or two at the Bits and Pieces. Then, depending on the level of competition gathering around the hulk, they might swing back through Gloria. Then figure out their next step.
The dreadnought Virtue was still out in the ‘thereabouts’. The statue made it plausible that a significant portion of the wreck could waiting to be rediscovered. Kor opened the case containing the grand old Imperial survey chart and unfurled the so-very-prized, so-partially-useful map. The Ferron upwell storm had retracted to perhaps sixty percent of its peak diameter, though the outer regions of the expanse were still riven by storms ranging from mild to wild. He traced a finger around a circle over the center-west portion of the expanse, uncertain of the precise extent of the remaining storm walls. Their deep listens in those directions bounced back vicious storm song, sufficient to figure out a the extent of the Ferron Expanse’s remnant, off-center heart. A significant stretch of skies were still veiled in mystery and what ifs.
Kor harbored no doubts the Virtue was smack-dab in the middle of it. It was simply the way of things, one of the few points on which he felt certain. He eyed the coordinate system on the map and did some mental math for the line of clarity running from that old beacon on Cassy’s Claws. He traced the line from east to west. It pointed like a dagger straight into the southeastern edge of the remaining storm. No coincidence it was an area where they’d heard signal echoes implying a landform heavy enough to sit still through the storm. Nor the fact of this chart showing the outline of a matching island in the area.
Their second dive into Ferron will be in pursuit of whatever lay in that area, see if it held anything of critical interest beyond the value of the land itself. Could be each piece had nothing to do with each other, pure happenstance. Then again, everything else seemed to click together with uncanny luck. Found charts and captain’s quests, and then superior charts and clues and damned weird shards. All gliding on towards…what, exactly?
Kor straightened in his seat and rolled his shoulders, his coin charm shifting against his chest.
Playing with house odds.
The air in Kor’s cabin rippled with pressure, power, and presence.
Think of the Spirit and She shall appear.
A spike of anger ran through his mind, a good-enough distraction from the typical headache inducing reconciliation of his perspective and perception adjusting around Luck’s presence. Kor doused the feeling by draining the dregs of his coffee. Besides, any pointed emotion would turn to slag the moment Luck spoke. Instead Kor became cool and desperately curious. She’d been silent since Hub and unfelt since before they crossed the upwell storm’s walls.
Kor rolled up and replaced the Ferron survey chart before asking, in his reserved-for-these-chats conspiratorial voice, “Where have you been?”
He expected a non-answer and not a thoughtful silence broken by the fitful shift of cloth. Kor half-turned in his chair, careful not to look too quickly, take in the sight gradually. Luck sat on his bunk, facing the cabin door. She wore a full-on aviator get-up, classic canvas-colored pants and black boots, matched with a jacket bearing too many pockets and heavy goggles perched atop her head. Kor couldn’t help but give half a grin. She looked like a piece of poster art come alive, complete with the uncanny hard lines of color and contrast.
“Upwell storms carry more than the power to reshape the tapestry of the sky,” Luck said. Her gaze was fixed away from him, her face an unresolvable blur, a blind spot in Kor’s vision. She shook her head, a spill of black hair floating behind her back. “I’ve been distracted and diverted. This storm is strong on many axes, only a few of which you can see, Kor.”
Buffeted as he was by her voice, always seeming to resonate through the air and into his brain like vibrations through a ship’s hull, for once Kor didn’t have a follow-up question. Her absence was rather sensible, given the conditions. Myths and legends of the Down Below rumbled through his memory like an approaching stormfront. Images of formless wrath and darkness dispersed into a low, constant presence. The fluid cycle of creation and destruction.
“Well, it’s good you’re back on board. Feels like the next run’s gonna be complicated.”
“Only until it consolidates down to a single resonant thread. The odds and fates approach limits of certainty.” Luck stared aft, as if piercing the walls (which Kor always assumed she could) and watching…what?
“But not yet.”
“There are many actors racing toward the same goal, all for their own reasons, all calibrated to distinct echelons of nobility or ambition.”
“Differing ideas of justice and vision, in pursuit of virtue, to put an Imperialist spin on it.”
“I do love a good race. Even if I’m grasping at straws for the next step.”
“You’ve possessed the next step since Hub, Kor.”
Kor shivered with keenly felt unease. Much as he preferred Luck being forthright in theory, it worried him in practice.
“Yeah, and it has me spooked,” he admitted. The Virtue comm shard’s network, whatever it may be, was too much a question mark, even for Kor’s level of risk-taking. Kor read through Chantil’s account (a full write-up, naturally) of Nem’s incident with the shard network countless times over the couple weeks. Then proceeded to do nothing about it beyond keeping the girl and the shard separate for the time being. An operational risk, professionally stated. Stalling, to be honest and accurate.
“It will lead you to the Virtue. If in a round-about way. They were pieces of her, after all.”
“That sounded far too much like a capital ‘Her’ for my comfort, oh Spirit.”
“Perhaps so,” Luck said, her voice dense with a grim resolve as she vanished.
Kor blinked against the sight of the air in his cabin shimmering in the wake of Luck’s departure, a question halfway to his lips. Then, before the residual unease of her presence faded, another piece slipped into place, one Kor should have seen this entire time. The stakes multiplied before his eyes and amplified the questions and uncertainties.
He ran his hands over his face, wanting to holler and laugh at his lot in life. Figures. Just when Kor thought he’d gotten everyone on board with pursuing a wreck, it became so much more.
“Vision and Virtue,” he hailed quietly.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2018