Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Helldiver

Part I

by Dan Edelman


Cinnamon Rogue leaned back on the side bench of the shallow-drafted launch and shut her sunburned eyes against the blazing horizon. Bored, anxious, and achey, bum numbed from the sea-worn leather-wrapped padding, she'd been watching since before dawn for an armada reputed to be ten, twenty, a hundred times larger than all Myriadian fleets combined depending on who spun the tale. A tale growing from some convoluted prophecy that gibbered in weighty archetypes. The Shadowdeath Wind, Sei Javala had said in that loaded matter-of-fact way of his. A tempest howling the end of all things, he said, bringing The Darkness.

Her launch drifted on the boreal Aestiva nearly four hundred leagues to the north of Helldiver's Ghost. Out on that vast sheet of shifting gold plate, far from the ship, she gave some leash to the fear that the prophecy, howsoever packed with hyperbole, spawned within her. Cinnamon hated the feeling, but it felt worse to batten it down all the time among the ship's leery-eyed gobs.

Her right foot rested on one of two small ovate green tanks strapped to the polyplate motor housings. Boosters, these tanks were called, designed, they said, to get you out of trouble as fast as you got into it; warnings covered them in prim Western Danalae script. Back in the day, when the West thought it might find purchase and influence in the Myriads, its minions had skulked over the islands like a morning fog with gifts of technology and materials that no sun had burned off. The crass gargling idle of the launch's two powerful Western engines worked unpleasantly on her head, an insistent reminder of the residue of war machines the West had left.

Ever restive, the boreal Aestiva's long, placid rhythms of evening carried a predatory stalk. With its sudden squalls and great swarms of sea drakars and basilisks and kraken, the boreal seas belonged to no one. This far north, the nearest land fell some seventy-eight leagues away, a spatter of atolls at the very tip of the Myriads named for the flesh-eating kelpies rumored to infest them. Not her idea of a haven. The launch's bubble screen, proven, the Westerners said, to protect vessels from aggressive wildlife, was, as usual, off; such a defense might have value in a quiet austral lagoon somewhere. In the boreal seas, the pucker factor always ran high.

Cinnamon's lids dragged tired grit over her slowly opening eyes. She sipped a bit of sweetwater from her canteen and slid a hand under her purple scarf to agitate her scalp. A few loose strands of coal-black hair waved across her field of vision. The evening breeze teased glittery points from the sea. She turned her attention to the north. A blue-grey line foamed with a burly lather of bloody clouds. Her eyes narrowed. The light was wrong. The fire was gone, the sky hemorrhaged. But this far north the sun could not have set already. It hadn't. The horizon had risen. Cinnamon blinked several times to be sure.

"By the gods," she murmured and slipped behind the launch's wheel. She powered up the engines and spun the launch around, flinging a silver veil of water that momentarily hid the chopped horizon rolling toward her.

Twin engines bellowed and the launch squatted on its foils as she laid into the accelerator. She hurled an incredulous thought at Sei Javala:

It's coming.

####

Rodonovan Swords, captain of Helldiver's Ghost, called the Pirate in Taelemone and all points West, called the Prince, the Sultan, and Helldiver everywhere else, stood on deck beside a salt-coarsened signaling lamp, watching acrid black smoke roil over the swaying Aestiva. The shattered prow of The Flying Sprite resembled a pyramid's ruins jutting from the burning water. At the edge of the oil fire, which painted the sea with dancing and fractured gold, frenzied sharks churned the vast blood patch, picking over sailors of The Flying Sprite. Their screams were frail things flitting about like the white-and-grey gulls already trolling for bits.

A large shark, easily twenty paces long, scudded by Helldiver's Ghost, its man-high dorsal fin wearing a zag of grey light along its ragged edge. The shark tilted, turning a dark eye up to regard Rodonovan, and nudged the transom, tasting the black corvette with its sandpaper hide. A flick of its tail and the fish drifted through the flotsam back toward the wreckage.

Rodonovan climbed the stairs to the overlook leading to the bridge. Pink curds spread across a bruised sky, falling upon the dying sun's saber, and a keen anxiety clawed his gut. Sick of it all. Soon the West would again intrude on his world. He wanted no part of anything involving the bad-luck West. None of it. The idea of Myriadians on either side dying over Western troubles disgusted him.

The Flying Sprite slipped beneath the Aestiva with a frothy sigh, another specter to haunt the shallows while the reef patiently claimed it as its own. Beyond its sizzling print, another steam launch bobbed. Sailors were helping others out of the water with desperate yanks on outstretched arms. You could go down with your ship or take your chances in a lifeboat after losing a battle. A Myriadian crew generally split on that choice. And most would rather be killed in battle than choose between drowning or feeding the fish.

Rodonovan was tired. Who'd once said that empires were forged from the fires of war?

Mantra swept past in a shimmer of scales to loop up toward the fruited sky. The little drakonnier peaked, hovered, and fell in a slur of speed toward the boiling blood patch. She struck the water and blasted skyward with a tiny shark in her oversized talons. A larger shark leapt clear of the water narrowly missing Mantra's rapier tail with a gnashing of water and grave cracking of jaws. The drakonnier's warble seemed a taunt.

Some glib fool, Rodonovan knew, tracking Mantra's path aft to the stern walk where she would feast. Some long-dead emperor who had ordered men into battle from a throne far removed from the carnage, amusing the court sycophants with his cleverness. Well, Rodonovan had never pursued empire. He wanted only to unite his people and return to Taelemone, the land of his ancestors, a land he'd never seen but as a scar on the horizon. Lately though he was having trouble remembering why. Perhaps his disgust at the West was a flimsy shield of righteousness against a deeper repugnance. How long had he been fighting for his people's right to a land none had set foot on? Really though, the question was how long had he been fighting his people for their rights?

Helldiver's Ghost had nearly died this day, engine room gutted by one of The Flying Sprite's ship killers. Six sailors killed, and eight out of a dozen engines damaged or destroyed, a gaping wound in the hull. Fortunately, his Chief Engineer, the only man in the Myriads and like as not most other places who understood Ghost's propulsion system, was spared. It could've just as easily have been he and his men feeding the sharks.

Bangs and clanks and whirrs and zips, whooshes and wet slaps, curses and grunts and edgy laughter, the wheezy breathing of the pump spitting water from the portside vacuole in the engine room. The activity of sailors standing down. The familiar simmer. Sea wasp launchers lowered into their bays. Rotary cannon pods retracted into gun ports and their armored doors slammed shut. Hoses dowsed the base of the charthouse, damaged by a sea wasp fired by The Flying Sprite as it approached for its killing stroke. Moments before the hostile corsair struck the massive coral reef entwined with the blazing fumaroles stitching the Aestiva to give the Fiery Ring its name.

Wounded, Helldiver's Ghost had killed the foundering Flying Sprite quickly, and now its sailors chummed the water, clinging to a thin loyalty born of greed. What a waste. With Red Sky Magus killed last month in the fall of Black Tombs, most fleets sailing under his standard had immediately and unconditionally declared their neutrality, willing to neither throw in with Rodonovan nor be drowned by same. They too were tired. Some of those fleets disintegrated too -- sailors held allegiances only to their ships -- you lived and died on and for your ship -- beyond the rails though, fidelity was a matter of short-term interests. But The Flying Sprite had sailed under Hang-Low Christian's Crooked Cross. Hard as it was to imagine, Red Sky had an actual friend. One who smelled some phantasm of power left in the wake of Red Sky's death. One who had become a lingering annoyance. Rumor had it that Hang-Low's fleet skulked about the Desolate Atolls to the southeast. Goblin Rod's juggernaut had been dispatched.

War polluted the scent of the Aestiva. So much blood spilled. The blood of men and womyn who'd followed Rodonovan or defied him. And what to show? Unity? This unity he had prayed to and preached his whole life? The fleets had fractured, ships had scattered to the winds. Had everyone but him seen the utter emptiness of his pursuit? Irredentism. It was a concept wholly void of the passion, hatred, blood, desolation that spoiled its reality.

The black deck vibrated with the reloading of weapons below. The next time those weapons deployed would be against someone other than Rodonovan's own people. Other than humyn. Turning his gaze onto the curl of surf on the outer reef, revulsion at the thought held an edge of despair and shame and failure limned with the faintest dew of relief.

In a shattering geyser of red water, a breaching sea drakar gripped a huge shark in its long spike-toothed jaws. It flopped back into the water with a boom, ivory belly up and an elongated, triangular fin of mottled blues and greys waving briefly in the froth. Panic resounded from the sailors in and around the other steam launch.

"A draksy inside the Ring?"

Rodonovan looked down at Squeezebox Davy, who squinted to watch the true giant of the Aestiva take its full. The old Master Chief's cheeks billowed like two fresh-baked buns around a mouth pinching an ancient whalebone pipe. His curly greyed muttonchops climbed up under his black wool-knit cap and seemed to drape over ears bespeckled with tiny gems.

"None of this bodes well," Rodonovan said, knowing he must avoid the luxury of existential musings with his sailors. And yet this waning afternoon, it seemed he had given in to that urge.

"That launch is overloaded, Captain," Squeezebox said with gravel in his voice and a spew of sweet blue smoke that shredded in the breeze. "It'll either capsize on its own or the draksy will take it down."

Hatred was the only thing in this world that persisted, Rodonovan knew. And he knew too that he still persisted after forty years not by showing mercy to those who hated him. A lesson reflected in the pool of blood spilled from the slash put in his wife's throat by a man once given mercy. Gone over a score of years now, Ambra persisted in the unhealing wound of her absence.

To the west, three corsairs from his fleet stood down to reassume their picket positions; the ships to the east would be doing the same. When the Western war passed over the Myriads like some infernal squall, men and womyn would die.

"We've poisoned the Aestiva enough for one day maybe?" Squeezebox said. "Surely some of them men'll sail for you." His tobacco-torn voice rolled out in an odd monotone that made Rodonovan look at the sailor. He couldn't hold the older man's earnest gaze for long before returning his own to the sea.

The drakar, easily a hundred paces from snout to tail -- nearly the size of Helldiver's Ghost -- churned the bloody water. Dorsal fins slashed the water as sharks scattered around the oil fire; they'd soon find the other launch. Or the drakar would. "Some maybe. And what of the rest of them, Master Squeezebox?" Rodonovan asked. Wind nuzzled through his hair to murmur in his ear. He'd already allowed that weird-eyed Ferracane -- yet another Westerner -- on his ship, much to his superstitious crews' irritation.

Squeezebox scratched under his cap, smoked his pipe. "I'd wager they've had their fill of all this, Captain."

"Master Squeezebox," Rodonovan said, thinking, "this" meant his thing, his war, "I need a damage assessment on the charthouse and the engine room. I want the hull breach closed by sunset. I want a status report on all engines. Has the tender picked up the replacement blocks? I want all engines back online by sunrise, when we will honor our dead. See that all gun crews secure their stations. You will also see to the care and housing of The Flying Sprite's sailors. You are, as you've always been, the busiest man on this ship."

"I was always the busiest man on your father's ship, so I wouldn't have it any other way, Captain." Squeezebox headed for the charthouse, a rotund ball of bustle barking orders and trailing drifts of redolent pipe smoke.

To Ensign Tommy Greensticks, Rodonovan thought, Please bring Ghost about. See that the launch bay doors are open and secure that last steam launch. I want those men.

Aye, Captain.

Captain...

The mellow thought of Sei Javala, Ghost's healer and navigator, jarred Rodonovan coming so quickly on the heels of Greensticks' terse reply. Yes, Javala?

We have a report from the North: The Darkness will arrive at dawn.

Rodonovan turned away from the railing to head inside the bridge as three of Helldiver's Ghost's twelve engines idled up. Please bring Kai Ferracane to the bridge.

When Rodonovan entered the bridge, Greensticks barked, "Captain on deck!" Terence Eight Legs stood and saluted, while the Western fugitive, Dexter Revenant, managed to offer a turd-eating grin without even smiling. Rodonovan waved a hand -- at ease -- and said to Sei Javala, "That Westerner knows more about this then he's told us."

Revenant tossed out an arsehole's laugh. "That sounds familiar."

"As you wish, Captain," Sei Javala said.

Panic shaded through Rodonovan, a queer sense of aimlessness. He gazed out the panoramic bridge window as the black corvette circled past the funeral feast of the sea drakar toward the overcrowded steam launch.

####

The engine drone waxed and waned in long abrasive whines as the recon launch rode giant long-backed waves.. Each sweeping rise and fall a brief forever under the moonless sky that intensified the chill creeping into Cinnamon. She skated south on the black water, a sense of hugeness made more gaping by the star spray overhead. She would have wide open water until she passed the Ascensions to the West. To shrink that open space, to dull the dread wrought by the trouble following her, Cinnamon turned her mind to more mundane matters. Or if not so mundane, at least more palatable. Tasty even..

They'd fished Kai Ferracane out of the Aestiva about a dozen leagues off the northern coast of Taelemone as he gutted one shark after another in a losing battle. Standing on deck, naked but for one of those Western combat knives and a heavy pack on his back that he guarded jealously, blood from a massive wound painting his leg, he wouldn't say who he was or what he was doing out there. But Dexter Revenant had breathed, "Kai Ferracane," and the story in that utterance rang with the same epic resonance as the rumors of this Ferracane also tolled. Dexter Revenant, a fearsome man with a warrior's posture, as intimidating and deadly as any sailor in the Myriads, despite his penchant for japery, had whispered, "Kai Ferracane," with a sort of superstitious awe as the two Westerners exchanged an elaborate and fairly absurd handshake she'd learned was called a dap.

She generally considered Revenant an arsehole, but, well, there was something about Kai Ferracane. Maybe it was something juvenile like he showed no interest in her when most sailors sniffed about like dogs trying to get at a slab of meat. If she had a ducat for every minute of insufferable conversation... Maybe it was his carriage, the way he glided on sea legs, despite the gash in his thigh, like he wasn't a lubber from the endless dirt. Maybe it was simply that he'd been bare-arse naked when she first saw him two days ago, dark as a southerner, mapped with countless scars that netted muscles like wild roots witch-bound into the form of a humyn, not a tattoo in sight to speak anything about him. Maybe it was the death lurking in his weird eyes. Those weird eyes that changed colors like some sorcerer's trinkets to match his dark moods.

Against her better judgment she'd asked Dexter if Kai Ferracane was as dangerous as the rumors said. "He could kill this entire ship," Dexter had said, scrubbing a hand over his bristly blond hair. "None would be the wiser." Blustery words without an iota of bluster in them.

"A former friend of mine put it best," Dexter had gone on, as was his predilection. "To his enemies, Kai Ferracane is evil incarnate."

"Former friend?"

"Well, dead friend. But you get my point.."

"Evil, yes."

"He is wall-to-wall. Big, big, big éclat."

"Hmm, wall-to-wall and big eh-clah."

"Means he walks it, walks it, from one end to the other -- wall-to-wall." He'd gawked at her to see if she understood. "And éclat is respect."

"I get it."

"But he's a congenial sort," Dexter added with a wicked little arsehole smile. "Advocates nonviolence."

As for how Kai Ferracane managed to end up in the Aestiva with only a knife and that pack strapped to his back, he only said he'd been to the Lornlands.

Cinnamon laughed, a flat honking in her ears, whipped away by the speed of the launch. The Lornlands. People didn't go there. You sure didn't come from there either. Not by yourself, not naked with a knife. She laughed again. Seemed Ferracane had been swimming the Aestiva home.

Cinnamon liked that. She liked that a lot.

####

Kai Ferracane sensed the roll of the Aestiva as he emerged from the clean black roused by an intrusive thought. The fuzzy hum of the pumps was gone, suggesting the hull breach had been repaired. He smelled his sweat, his salt, and the salt of the ocean. Right leg extended to accommodate the zipper of stitches holding his thigh together, he sat with left leg tucked in on a small bunk suspended from the bulkhead of a small, low-ceilinged room, walls hung with intricately patterned tapestries of earthen reds, browns, greens, and yellows that concealed the utilitarian grey bulkhead lined with conduit. He kept his head down to keep it from hitting the other bunk directly overhead. The meditation cleared away the last vestiges of his short-lived maiden voyage on the Aestiva -- or rather in the Aestiva. Sweat stuck to his flesh in cool but moisture-laden air.

Mister Ferracane, to the bridge, please.

Sei Javala's thought sang softly in his head again.

Kai slid off the narrow bunk to dress, leaving a dark sweat stain on the crimson cotton blanket. The body machine was mellow, refreshed if damp, but still feeling the effects of three unpleasant days carousing all too intimately the creatures inhabiting the powerful body of water. The wound in his thigh had festered quickly despite the body machine's ministrations. Sei Javala had treated it with various noxious powders, which seemed to help. Although the wound still wept a cloudy fluid, the pain had subsided to a muted wailing well beneath the body machine's threshold. Come morning, he would ask for a launch. Time to go. He wouldn't be responsible for destroying this ship.

A rug similar to the tapestries covered the cold polyplate floor. The clothes provided for him lay folded over the back of a chair made of some dark wood. It accompanied a small lacquered writing desk of the same wood. He had to bend to keep from smacking his head on thick conduits running along the ceiling. He pulled on the sturdy black pants -- breeks they called them -- and hassled with the string ties of the annoying shirt, a blousy thing of admittedly comfortable linen. The pack containing the Lornlands relic leaned against the desk.

An empire wanted it back.

And he had a feeling that might be why he'd been summoned to the bridge.

Kai swung the pack over his shoulders, cinching the leather straps tightly against his shirt. He immediately felt ill. Dark, dark magicks in the thing. The pack's ancient leather, black with time and wear, was stiff from its extended dunking in the Aestiva. He left his hair down.

He peeked out of the room's single blacked-out porthole; the indigo sky indicated the recent transition from twilight to night. One tapestry partly concealed a rack of swords and rifles, none ornamental, standing beside a narrow storage locker filled with ammunition and pistols. The desk and tapestries made for a kind of failed coziness that could not conceal the chill of combat and death emanating from every corner. A familiar ambience to Kai, cozy in its own clutching way.

He left his private quarters -- it belonged to absent people with the curious names of Sinister Van Dyke and Jester Dan -- and wended his way through the aft berthing compartment where sleeping crewmembers played the traditional rude nocturne. To starboard, he recognized the hatch that led to the launch bay. They'd brought him onboard from there.

In noncombat situations, the body machine let him feel pain to reduce the chance of reinjury, so he limped a bit. In tight grey passageways dimly lit by intermittent caged lights, the scent of the ocean danced with the odor of paint and soap. He couldn't read the signs and was unsure of where he was. That uncertainty fed the constant faint specter of fear that fueled the body machine's passive heightened awareness.

In turn, it chafed at his sense of urgency to return to Zahariad to deliver the relic and aggravated his unhappiness that his presence, or rather the relic's, could bring far worse down on these people than the sad war they fought amongst each other. Tomorrow he'd ask for a launch or something to get him off this ship.

As Kai stepped through a hatch, voices and the zip and ring of tools filtered up from a passage to a lower deck. Likely the engine room. And likely the tender had arrived with the replacement engines. He continued forward, hoping he was heading toward the stairs to the bridge. Then, at a dark, tight intersection, Kai sensed furtiveness, heard a tiny jangle, smelled sweat and stale tobacco and rum. He grabbed at it.

A choked "Whoa!"

Kai recognized the face he yanked from the unlit passageway and immediately released the old sailor they called Squeezebox. "Sorry," Kai said.

Squeezebox held up one hand and rubbed his neck with the other. He sweated profusely, breathed a bit heavily. "No, no, it's my fault, Sirrah. Didn't expect anyone. Didn't hear a thing. Hard not to make noise in these passageways. And you with your leg half cut off." He reeked of rum. He chuckled, revealing a fractured grin of a few lonely yellowed teeth. "But then they say you're the devil's own to your enemies."

"Devil?"

"They say."

"Is they Dexter?"

"Ah! Funny! Dexter. So true. That's funny! Not so successful an ambassador of the endless dirt, that one, eh? A bit long in the tongue. But I see kindliness in your eyes, lad. Even if they do change colors. Hah."

Kai nodded, a bit at a loss, saw the lie haunting the mirthless gaze of the small old man, who then said, "I was just checking on the lads in the hold. My idea to bring them aboard, my job to see that they got what they need. Make sure they got enough food -- some big, big southern sailors down there. Some of them got injuries, some of them are just scared. And it's hot as the hells down there."

"Probably not as hot as in the belly of one of those fish," Kai said, cringing at the stupidity of that sentiment, wishing to be cordial without involving himself in incessant drunken gabbing. And yet wishing he didn't feel that way either.

"Hah. So true. So true." The short round man's blue shirt wore countless stains like islands in the dark wash of his sweat. "They needed us but we need them too. It's far past time to let go of our differences. I seem to forget what they were. The differences, eh? Want to treat them lads right, show them some respect. They'll see we ain't so different. Or the differences don't make no difference. Hah. All just brothers. Like it used to be. When loyalty went easily beyond the rails, when loyalty was about -- " he pounded his chest, "a man's heart and will and not about a flag's coercion or twisting words about grand ideas. Nobody remembers anymore. By the hells, we don't even fight the same anymore. Used to be you'd board a ship and look right into the eyes of the men you killed. Know the cost. Now there's rarely a boarding. You hardly catch a glimpse of your enemy. Nowadays, it's all Western cannons and missiles fired from afar. No idea what you've just done to a brother. Yellow, if you ask me. Hah. No offense."

"None taken," Kai said. He'd seen up close and personal what stand-off weapons could do to a man, friend and foe alike. He'd seen up close and personal what a knife could do too. Results were the same. Everything about Squeezebox told Kai that the man hid something and not just the sidearm under his vest. The rum? Maybe the old sailor had shared a few with the "lads." A medical treatment or a "show of respect" that Rodonovan might not condone. Some might argue that winning loyalty with drink differed little from coercion. Then again, the elder Myriadian's nervousness was nothing new to Kai. Many men behaved that way around him. Of course, it could simply be the dislike most of these Myriadians held for any Westerners.

"Someday mayhap you'll share your tale of how you ended up starkers in the middle of a swarm of sharks," Squeezebox said, smile stiffening a bit. "Gotta be worth a tankard or two." Gold loops in his ears tinkled against each other as he looked down as if checking himself, then up at Kai, at the pack on his back.

Kai wanted to offer a genuine smile, wanted to laugh, liked the idea of throwing back a few ales and listening to the old domo's lies.. He liked the idea of many things the body machine wouldn't allow. He said, "Can you direct me to the bridge?"

"You're on your way, but this ship is tricky, tricky, tricky. `S why no one can take it with a boarding. Designed so you can't control the key chokepoints. Not without the schematics, anyway. Hah. I'm yammering on. Keep on forward `til you nigh about leave midships. At the sick bay -- can't miss it, light's always on -- " a chuckle, apparently, that was funny, "take the portside hatch and then the very next forward hatch. Go too far and you'll find yourself looping back to the officer's berthing. Take the `tween decks ladders up two decks to the main deck. Well, I better go check the lads in the engine room, make sure Chief Crabwalk is happy. Hah. G'night, Sirrah."

Kai figured Squeezebox and his "checks" were probably in high demand among the overnight crew. After a fashion, he found the ladder to the deck, and felt its steepness deep in his thigh with every move. He made his way to the bridge, sensing the energy above well before he slipped into a sparse hexagonal room bathed in green light and simmering with urgency. The broad and bald-headed Dexter Revenant looked like a child next to the giant captain, Rodonovan. The man held near mythic status in the Seven Valleys and for once the reality matched the rumor. They stood with the robe-clad Javala around a small table that matched the shape of the bridge listening to a gangly wan fellow in a grease-smeared smock.

A sailor sat at a console of gauges glowing white. A medley of hairy spider tattoos played over his bald head, their color lost in the green night light, and the lobe of is right ear wore three small discs that looked black. Those were some mark of status in a place called the Wavery Islands, which had, according to Dexter, some tenuous alliance with Rodonovan based on marriage and political expedience. Another sailor with a thick braid of hair brushing his belt stood by the wheel. The pilot stared with tired eyes through a sliver opening in the otherwise blast-shielded glass that wrapped around the entire bridge at a serene oceanscape rendered in green and black. Fumaroles formed a chain of breathing white beads.

" -- the last of the head bolts for engine eleven and we're adjusting the lifters for engine twelve," the smocked sailor said hoarsely. "Another two hours." His eyelids hung over his eyes, and his blond hair seemed to have died trying to escape the bow holding it captive.

Rodonovan absently walked his fingers down the manicured slashes of beard on his cheek. The green cast of the bridge accentuated the fatigue drawing out his face. "You have an hour, Chief," he said. His head nearly touched the bundles of conduits running along the ceiling.

The engineering chief crossed his lanky arms, face void of any emotion, and said nothing for a moment. Tattooed tentacles wrapped around his pale right arm. He spoke softly, "Then there's break-in time, Captain."

"I'm aware, Crabwalk," Rodonovan said. "Yes, Captain." Chief Crabwalk slouched around Kai with a cool, flat glance and disappeared through the hatch.

With arms bracing him, Dexter mugged at the chart on the table. Sei Javala's eyes slid over to Kai, and his expression became that of a polite person refraining from announcing the presence of some unpleasant odor. Kai couldn't suss out the reason why -- perhaps, simply, he smelled bad. Like a Westerner. The healer managed to tip his pointed chin in greeting. The motion caught Dexter's attention. He looked up and grinned. He and Kai exchanged a short dap.

"Something change?" Kai asked.

"Something changed."

"What're we talking about?"

"Don't you know?" Rodonovan asked.

Kai raised his eyebrows.

"The Shadowdeath Wind," Sei Javala said.

Kai took in everyone's nonreaction to those overweight words.

Rodonovan's fingers stopped at his chin, rat-a-tatted. "Sei Javala, please show Mister Ferracane."

Kai had learned that sei meant witch in Javala's far eastern language; it was a title of high regard. The witch treated Kai with the least circumspection. Not to mention that the man had likely saved his life. It was bad enough Kai was from the West, but his coyness about the relic had done nothing to warm things up. The sei turned to a small screen on the starboard bulkhead, the hem of his lightweight robe whirling. He had no hair and in the green, color-leaching light, his robe glowed against his dark skin. Shorter than them all and thin, Sei Javala had the delicate bearing of an aesthete. His dark eyes narrowed in concentration, his breathing became audible, not quite labored. Another oceanscape bloomed slowly on the screen. Images sharpened, faltered, flickered. While many odd things flashed across the screen, one reappeared consistently and lingered.

"A little noisy, but actually fairly clean given the distance from which the thoughts were sent."

Kai studied the screen. "Thoughts..."

"An early warning," Sei Javala said.

"That's from one of your pickets?" Kai blinked when he saw his own face on the screen for a split second. No one seemed to notice.

"Cinnamon," Sei Javala said.

"What?"

"Cinnamon Rogue."

"Oh." Her. With the shiny black hair and unabashed green eyes that had fucked him in a way he knew well from so many other touchless experiences but was barely able to imagine thanks to the body machine's pragmatic chastity. Who smelled of exotic spice and war, alluringly unknown and comfortingly familiar. Cinnamon with the questions nearly as forward as her gaze. All said, an unwittingly annoying person. What would it be like to just be with her, to answer those questions? "How far out is she?"

"At last contact, one hundred sixty leagues. We expect her -- and it -- at dawn."

"And it is what I think it is?"

"Yes."

"Huge magicks," Sei Javala said. "To subvert nature like that is huge magicks."

"It's coming for you I presume?" Rodonovan said.

"This." Kai tipped his head back to indicate the relic. "For this."

"Must worth a fortune," Greensticks said.

"And what is it, exactly?" The Captain asked.

"The less you know, the better, I think, Captain...."

Rodonovan's expression darkened.

"An emperor's ransom," Greensticks said.

Kai continued lamely, "Um, Captain, if you could spare me a launch, I'll leave now. Maybe redirect this thing."

A muttered, "Yellow," floated about the bridge with the elegance of a slipped fart.

"Understand that every picket reported the same thing," Sei Javala said.

"There's more than one of these things?" Kai refused to look in the direction of the sailor piloting the ship.

"No."

"And the pickets ran, what, a thousand leagues?" Kai said.

"Roughly, yes."

"Crazy, huh?" Dexter said.

Kai did not share Dexter's bright and slightly desperate trench grin. "Big anyway," he said.

The potpourri of images faded from the screen and Sei Javala said, "Most of our ships advocate heading to open sea now."

Rodonovan shook his head curtly. "We know these reefs far better than any alien armada does. This Legion's ships will be forced to trickle inside the ring where we can hit them as they maneuver or run afoul of the reefs. And we can ride out anything just as well here as we would in open water. Inside the ring we can use our fastboats to strike their larger vessels. Our island positions will be able to strike as well. We can defend the island.. Show them a wolverine and perhaps they'll leave our lair alone." He turned to the Kai. "Do you reckon it will matter whether you're on my ship or somewhere else when that thing arrives? A politer man might thank you for your consideration, but your gesture strikes me as simply dimwitted. Whatever it was you were up to in the Lornlands has brought your war to my people."

Kai waited a beat before saying, "I met Omen and -- "

"So you said," the Captain snapped. "After we pulled your sopping arse from the middle of a feeding frenzy. You seemed to think you purchased berthing on my ship with that bit of trivia. If so, consider your currency spent."

Kai liked this hard man, this legendary pirate prince, and wished he could know him as a friend. Why he seemed to gravitate to the unreachable was an interesting question. "He reminds me of you," he said. Rodonovan stilled; only the fire continued to simmer in his eyes. Kai knew he had to step lightly. "Don't know why he came to the Seven Valleys, but Omen recognized early on that this war was his war. He's leading the Ramblewood resistance against the armies that are conquering my homeland. I'm here now because I wished to help him and everyone else who has taken up arms against this Legion."

"Do you consider yourself clever?" Rodonovan said. "Trying to game me?"

"No one's ever mistaken me for being clever," Kai said. "As you have already recognized."

"Omen is his own person; he makes his own choices and he lives with them. And dies with them."

"The other fleets have been warned," Sei Javala said, chin bobbling on gnarled fingers. "They think it's some ploy."

"They make their choices too," Rodonovan said. "We see what the morning brings and then we sail for the Misty Broom. Sei Javala, please raise the prefect's office at Chiming Harbor and ask for permission to drop anchor." He turned to Kai. "You'll go ashore there.."

The pilot eyed the spider-headed sailor, clearly unhappy. The air, already thickened by the green light, stilled by the coldness emanating from the captain, swelled further with silence. Kai gazed at the ocean tilting and rolling in some secret gambol. "Hey, Dex," he said, feeling an all too familiar inertia, a blended charge of violence and despair. "Show me that heli."

####

Engine bellow rose and fell as the launch skipped over a strangely flat dawn sea. Cinnamon Rogue forced herself not to look over her shoulder every few seconds. The speed of the thing was unnatural. But that's not really true, is it? Sorcery was every bit as natural as the tides.

But it was fast.. No denying that.

At some point her kerchief had snapped off her head and now her black hair flung behind her like whipped smoke. Sea mist ran in rivulets down her cheeks. Her fingers ached from squeezing the wheel.. In the pale light, she couldn't make out the redness surely coloring her knuckles, but she could see the dense lines of the small black tat dotting her widow's finger on her left hand between the first and second joint. A rune of hate, what the gentle called a rune of memory and the superstitious called a devil's eye, to remember the hurt wrought by the Taelemonites who killed her husband for fishing too close to their shore. There were other runes. Hidden in the curlies of her quim and tucked in her arse cleft. For the rape that same day so long ago.

Kai Ferracane hadn't a single tat on his body.

"Then who are you?" she'd asked. She, Kai, Rodonovan, and Dexter had been sitting in the officer's galley the night they'd pulled him from the water. Ferracane had asked for some red beans and rice, had accepted a bit of fish only after a strange and somewhat unreasonable pause to ponder the idea. He kept that mysterious pack as close to him as his prick. "I mean," Cinnamon went on, flustered for verbalizing what she'd intended to be only an idle thought, "how do you define yourself?"

Ferracane's eyes had flushed from amethyst to a startling blue. Rodonovan had shifted in his chair, shoulder-length hair swinging, blade-like eyes crinkling with amusement restrained by melancholy.. Dexter grinned like a fool, tossed back his ale, and got up to draw another from the keg. Cinnamon's flabbergast had less to do with what the change in eye color had done to Kai's countenance than what it had done to her.

"I don't," were his last words to her.

In the peach blush of dawn, Cinnamon thought how fun it would be to pursue someone not already interested in her. Provided, of course, she escaped what currently pursued her.

She looked over her shoulder. The wall of water rolling at her stood scores of paces high. Hundreds of paces maybe. A smooth wall, not quite sheer, and profound as the Devil's Cliffs of the Fiery Ring. And it would overtake her launch long before she could reach that haven..

Cinnamon had survived typhoons and waterspouts and the angriest winter squalls of the northern seas. She'd seen rogue waves swallow corsairs, and swarms of sea drakars tear apart fishing ships. But she'd never felt betrayed by the Aestiva until now.

She saw shapes in that wall of water. Beasts bigger than any sea drakar meandering up to the limits of the wall to reveal preposterous bands and veins of color; and vast clouds boiling forth, darting to and fro, and vanishing back into the green murk. Once, a tiny reptilian head on a long green neck spotted with black and white peeked over the top of the wall to leer at her with a mouth full of crooked spikes.

The twinkling of the Fiery Ring's outer reef on the horizon brought a strong sense of relief. She tried to will more speed from the launch and eyed the anonymous black toggle beside the throttle. She'd wanted to wait until Helldiver's Ghost was in sight.

"Well, close enough," she muttered and flipped the toggle.

A moment, then the engines wound out in a terrifying wailing harmony. The launch squatted and blasted forward. A yell leapt from Cinnamon's mouth. The launch skipped hard, began to wobble, then lifted free of the water, bow pointing at the pale blue sky.

Cinnamon backed off the throttle and the launch dropped, slamming her against the console. The boat skidded sideways with a scythe of silvered water and the engines stalled. In the raging silence, the green bottles hissed. "Well, bugger me," she growled, slapping the toggle off. She smacked the blue-lighted ignition button a couple of times, cursing the unanswered zip of the starters.

Finally, with twin Whu-u-um-bubba-bubba-bubbas the engines burst to life with belches stinking of raw fuel.

Cinnamon shoved the throttle forward, cranking the wheel to correct her direction.

The wall of water grabbed the launch and hoisted it.

####

"How do pirates end up with a quad-gen Vipra?"

"First of all, Kai, that's a good way to get your stones kabobbed on a saber." Dex stood behind the heli's port wing, drummed his fingers on its polyplate armor. "They're fisher folk."

"Kabobbed, right." Kai ran his hand along the port cannon blister just aft of the cabin, slicking his fingers with condensation. Somebody had slapped on a single coat of light blue and white paint over the heli. The streaked and drippy attempt at countershading for the environment barely concealed the high-temperature standard black paint of the Vipra, giving the colors a greyish hue. Squatting -- and feeling that move deep in his thigh -- he scraped a fingernail along the inboard hardpoint, a fat tube launcher dimpled with the heads of nineteen antiarmor sabot rockets called screaming stars. White paint curled up like a worm and flittered to the deck. "This boat seems perfectly equipped for fishing.." Kai flicked paint flecks from under his nail.

"Helldiver's Ghost is a ship. A corvette to be exact. These are oppressed people, pushed off their land. I mean literally. Sound familiar? And second, the Vipra was payment."

Kai switched his attention to the outboard pylon hung with a rack of four NI crystal-eyed Deathstalker missiles. He stood, a little woozy from the relic that clung to his back, the leather straps like talons. The leg wound clung to the breeks. Kai eased the stiff fabric free of the tacky stitches. "Payment?"

"Part of it. For giving us haven."

Kai grunted, sauntered around to the Vipra's nose and eyeballed the housing of the NIVOTADS mission avionics. His fingers caressed the heli's skin, usually a smooth blast-reactive polyplate over Wet-7, a thick liquid armor able to absorb direct fire. Had it been its standard black, the polyplate would absorb the light pouring from the floods illuminating the makeshift pad. He felt the coarse lines and burrs of hastily applied paint. He loved helis, loved how the NI technomancy made the gunship a massive extension of his being. He hated how the body machine allowed him to love a weapon. "Us?"

"Oh." Dex coughed up a snicker. "Didn't I tell you? These islands are infested with Dagian Guard."

"That you neglected to tell me." Kai squatted again checked the belt feeds to the four articulating rotary cannons suspended in standard diamond stow position from the heli's chin. "That's good."

"Should make you feel a little better about yourself." Dex forced a chuckle. "Most of us are off to some place called the Desolate Atolls, hunting a fugitive."

"A fugitive?"

"Strictly recon. Under the command of one Goblin Rod," Dex said. "That's the other part of our payment."

"Fetching Rodonovan's enemies or working for a domo named Goblin Rod?"

Dex laughed again, more easily this time.

The black Vipra barely fit on the makeshift flight deck. It hunkered there, insectile and predatory with the center fuselage cannon blisters like burly shoulders, barely contained by the taut three-finger-wide yellow straps secured to tie downs on the black armored polyplating that curled off the fantail in large pointed petals, like an awakening flower.. The little drakar thing, what's its name -- Mantra -- watched them from the swept outboard tip of one of the bobbing rotors, wings arched up over its vulpine head. The predawn scent of the ocean swirled about the heli. Helldiver's Ghost sat low in the water, unwisely low it seemed to Kai, and the waxing and waning tish of ever-moving water against the hull suddenly grated on him. Standing, he looked into the canopy's black glass, the floodlights like ivory eyeballs, his reflection lost in the glare.

"Lanto's not here, is he?"

"What? No. Huh? I mean, um... The Archgeneral is dead. Right?"

"I guess he did tell me that."

Dex laughed not so comfortably. "He told you? Well, he wasn't lying. Told you...." Shaking his head, trying to seem less uneasy.

It was more than his eyes that made even RAITHs edgy around him. The men and womyn respected him as a soldier and unit commander, but only a rare few had ever become what Kai would call friend. And Dex wasn't one of them. He released the canopy and it popped upward with a sigh, beads of water spilled over the curved glass. The cabin light illuminated the cramped space.

"So, hey, I know what you told the captain -- and on his own ship too." Dex gave a smiley grimace to punctuate Kai's etiquette misstep. "But you can tell me what you got on your back, right?" Dex asked. "It's making everyone nervous."

Kai recalled his trek from Zahariad, his easterly jaunt through the Fracture, how the land had shifted from deadly desert waste to deadly frozen waste when he reached the Lornlands, the vast chaotic cavern system on the southwestern Malakite frontier where the relic waited, the gigantic Selph and Otra, the grand drakars, ancient enemies, twinned against him protecting it. The thing on his back had almost killed him, and seemed to harbor malevolence toward him still. It made him nervous too. He undid the straps and tossed the pack to Dex, feeling instantly better with it off his back..

"It's heavy," Dex said buckling. "Damned heavy."

"It's got a queered kind of magicks about it." Kai used his toe to release the heli's single step-up. He climbed into the cabin and slipped around the armored wing of the seat. He eased into the armored bucket's tight embrace, drawing an unexpected comfort from the thin black-checked gel-cushions. Beyond Helldiver's Ghost, the Aestiva seemed strangely desolate, its shifting surface chipped like worked stone and broken by white boils marking the peaks of reefs. The body machine was refreshed and moving into combat readiness, but Kai felt so tired suddenly. Bone weary. A fatigue colored the same barren grey as the water moving all around him.

The heli's cabin was pristine, no flakes or scuffs in the dull black finish, no wear on the spongy cyclic and collective grips, no pits in the canopy; although damp like everywhere else on that ship, it smelled of fresh lubricants and had a crisp tight feel. The silly watchwords of the RAITHs spread across the leading edge of the forward console: You can run, but you'll only die tired. The NI halo sat on the starboard console atop the darkened caution-warning panel. Kai picked up the black band and fit it on his head, its two spider-like nodes, the magick component of the NI called arachnites, dangled against each cheek. It had been a long time since he'd used any neuro-initiation technomancy. The halo tangled in his hair now.

"Oh my," Dex murmured from outside, gingerly clasping the end of the relic. "What're you going to do with this?"

Kai held one grey arachnite in his left hand and pressed it against his head above the NI halo. A sharp prick as the arachnite's stubby legs pinched his flesh through his hair and self-inserted. "Bringing it to Zahariad," he said. A spurt of vertigo whirled through him. "That's all. It's the Claymage's burden to save all worlds. Or something." He attached the second arachnite, shook off the dizziness. Arachnites were supposed to be made from bits of one of the twelve Lodestones destroyed during the Dagian Conflict. "Default set?"

"Right," Dex said, tying up the pack. "Straight from the crate." He grinned up at Kai. "Never had a virgin before, eh? You go easy on her. I've seen you fly."

"Never flown?"

"Rodonovan refuses to use it against other Myriadians. He straps it to his deck as a deterrent."

"Expensive ornament."

"More than you know. It only seemed to make his enemies fight harder. They seemed to know he wouldn't use it or the entire air wing we made available to him. Stupid war."

"Redundant," Kai muttered.

Hello, Kai Ferracane, the Vipra's stilted androgynous voice said inside his head.

Auxillary, Kai thought. Never had nothing.

Across Kai's field of vision, the annoying NI display glowed once, a single phantom light. Auxillary power.... Repeat second query.

Cancel.... Load cues and commands.

The words "Load cues and commands" appeared in the air between him and the canopy. A quickly fading green stamp. How you were supposed to fly while hallucinations of your thoughts blinded you was a mystery known only by the Aerodustrial techs who designed these helis. No Dagian Guard Kai knew flew with visual display engaged.

Load cues and commands. Ready.

Forward area weapons system, ready cue.

Ready cue, the heli said.

Faws.

Cue ready.

Ready fire order.

Ready fire order.

Ah.

Fire order ready.

"So Kai, tell me, you going to get Cinnamon or what?"

"What? I'm trying to concentrate. Get cinnamon... What do you mean ‘get'?"

"Get, go'bro." Dexter said with a prurient cackle. "Get that fig. Or take it. Looked like she was ready to give it away. If her eyes had hands, they'd'a torn your clothes off."

"Oh.... Ha ha." Kai lost the NI display, shook his head. NI technomancy required absolute focus -- absolute -- which was why the application had never diffused beyond the Dagian Guard. Neuro-initiation and the kind of distractions inherent to combat flying mixed poorly.

"I know her a little bit, go'bro. She's definitely ready to ride your purple. And she's what's known in polite company as discriminating."

Purple polite. Time to ride, go'bro...

Chaotic thinking detected, Kai Ferracane. Please disengage and reengage.

Damn. Kai released and turned toward Dex. "Domo, I need to concentrate here."

"Sorry, go'bro," Dex said, looking contrite for a moment before a wicked grin bloomed. "She is sweet though, huh?"

"Sure," Kai said. The body machine cleared his mind. He kind of doubted he'd be any more comfortable with this kind of talk even if the body machine tolerated it.

"Sweet, sweet, sweet, more honey than cinnamon." Dex chortled huskily. Maybe growled a bit.

"Hey, Dex?" Kai said.

"Yeah, go'bro?" "Fuck off for a minute, will you?"

"Domo..." Dex fell silent.

Kai squared himself, reengaged.

Hello, Kai Ferracane.

Load cues and commands.

Load cues and commands. Ready.

Starboard outboard hardpoint, ready cue.

Kai meticulously went down the list, fire control, engine control, safety control, loading his usual set of cues and commands. He provided any general information he thought might be useful that the heli couldn't ascertain on its own, like the current location of the other Dagian Guards and the name of the town where Rodonovan intended to put him ashore. Behind the ebb and flow of green visuals, the spare instrument panel loomed with its few unlit manual flight control gauges, the angled canopy jettison handle, the boresight. There was a major drawback to NI technomancy: if it failed, airspeed indicator, altimeter, engine/rotor indicator display, fuel indicator, caution warning panel provided enough information for you to fly, and all weapons systems could be handled manually, but that organic connection to your heli was gone. Which, after growing accustomed to it, was a bit like having a limb amputated. A couple of limbs.

Engine check complete, the heli said. System is gold to go.

Weapons check, Kai thought.

Weapons check proceed.

Faws.

Faws.

Kai slid his eyes starboard, heard the four forward cannons move as a unit. He tracked horizontally to port and the four cannons swept that direction. He made four rapid calls and each cannon tracked separately to distinct targets.

"Yo, yo, yo, go'bro. Wake up, Kai."

The haze of the NI display wavered again. Dexter peered around the right blast shield.

Visual display off.

Visual display off.

Systems check complete. Standby.

All systems gold to go. Standing by.

Kai pressed the small releases on the backs of each arachnite and they popped off with tiny ticks! and a vague vertigo. NI headaches and post-flight hangovers, ugh. "What?" The sky had brightened to a cool pale yellow scarred with cloud frills. The silhouettes of small islands tilted in the distance. Distant bird cry tripped about in an ominous stillness. Kai realized what he'd noticed earlier without registering: all the other ships had vanished.

"Incoming, go'bro."

"How many?"

"One. We better get back to the bridge."

####

The steep angle threatened to flip the launch, but its foils held. Cinnamon was higher than the Fiery Ring's protective cliffs. She might simply be pushed right over the Fiery Ring and the rest of the Myriads until this hell-born wave simply ran out of energy. She took little comfort in that. She could also power down the launch, rise up and over, and let the wave pass her by. But that would leave her amid whatever was swarming within the water. No comfort there either.

Cinnamon had seen dreads and jugs and `vettes and `sairs running full speed to the north and the east and the west, hoping, she figured, to meet the enemy on the move. Or maybe just to escape. One corsair was caught broadside and rolled, but it was out of her sight before she could learn the fate of its crew.

She saw Helldiver's Ghost, sleek and low and black like a lazing shark and at the same time looking like an unwitting fish might from the vantage point of an osprey. She also saw the outer reef, a bracelet of white and orange and black and brown encircling her home island. And she knew that once this section of the wave struck that reef...

####

"...it'll impact on the island," Rodonovan was saying when Kai and Dex entered the bridge. The captain snatched a comlink off its rack on the side of the map table, the tiny black square lost in his huge hand. "Engine room. I want full power to all twelve engines."

"All twelve, Captain?" Crabwalk's scratchy voice replied. "We haven't had enough break-in -- "

"Full power, Chief." Rodonovan's voice was even and low, but the sailor piloting Helldiver's Ghost kinked his head, wariness in his lined eyes.

"Full power, aye, Captain."

Rodonovan then said, "Sound general quarters, Mister Greensticks."

"Aye, Captain." The pilot reached up and tapped a red button on a busy overhead console. A harsh braying started slowly aft and marched forward.

"It's taller than I thought," Rodonovan said. "It would seem that I miscalculated."

"It would seem that nature has a way of reasserting itself," Sei Javala said. "I doubt this was part of the Shadowdeath Wind's calculus."

"Sei Javala, please send message to any remaining ships to make for open ocean. Please send message to the island to execute the evacuation plan. Please web thought communications throughout Ghost."

"Only The Harridan is left and she is moving, Captain. I will communicate your wishes to island command.... All communications have been webbed for combat."

Rodonovan grunted, dashed beard hiking up his hollow cheeks as his mouth set dourly.

A vast green cliff dominated the view from the bridge. Kai estimated three minutes until the wave hit the outer reef. He knew little about oceans, but he could guess the outcome of that impact. Not much time to evacuate the island.

On the console that Terence Eight Legs monitored, a bank of buttons winked one at a time in slow succession. "All engines online, Captain."

"Full speed ahead, Mister Greensticks.."

Greensticks eased the throttle to the right of the wheel forward. Helldiver's Ghost shuddered and began to move, a rising thrum underscoring the strident cry of the alarm.

"Sei Javala, please contact Chief Squeezebox and have him secure for storm running," Rodonovan said.

"Aye, Captain."

"Did the pickets make it in?" Dex asked. He held the wrapped relic as if presenting arms.

"Some are dead," Sei Javala said, "others have scattered to the east and west, hoping to find this sorcery's end."

"What about Cinnamon?"

Javala thrust a slim, long-nailed finger toward the wave where Kai made out a sliver "There."

"Oh my," Dex said. "We need to help her."

"She is not asking for help," Javala said quietly.

"What? So?"

"She's lost," Rodonovan said without looking at anyone. Maps and other things shifted on the bridge as Helldiver's Ghost picked up speed, the thrum deepening, emanating through the bulkhead.

Long whips of mist snapped off the wave's edge. The clamor of men scrambling for general quarters added counterpoint to the pre-battle song Kai knew so well. "I can get her," he said.

Rodonovan tipped his head to gaze at Kai from behind a fall of brown hair. "I'll not lose another launch. Or another sailor."

"Like as not, Captain," Greensticks said, "you'd be able to find both somewhere far to the south." Terence Eight Legs nodded vigorously.

"I'll use the heli," Kai said. The malicious chuckles faltered. He recognized the look on Rodonovan's face as one of resignation. "Oh?" the Prince of the Aestiva said.. Even Sei Javala's eyebrows rose.

"Seeing as it's available."

"That's a load of whale turds," Greensticks said.

"He flies like the devil's own," Dex said with glee.

Greensticks muttered.

"Is that so, Mister Ferracane?" Rodonovan asked, favoring Dex with a witheringly mild look.

"I've been hearing about my kinship with this devil of late," he said.

Greensticks growled, looked to his captain, his lined eyes sharp with outrage. "He'll fly like the devil to his own safety, I'd wager."

A smile may have made Rodonovan's mouth move, or controlled anger. Kai couldn't tell. The man didn't like him on board his ship, bringing trouble, talking about his son. Kai understood that and accepted it. What he was less sure of was whether the man trusted him. That he didn't much like.

"Sei Javala," the captain said, "can you contact Cinnamon?... Tell her help is on the way."

"I can." "Can you patch the Vipra's NI into your communication web?" Kai asked.

"Yes, with some qualification. It was easy once I recognized the magicks at the heart of your neuro-initiation systems. Your Dagian Guard comrades were very helpful in negotiating what really amounts to an overly complicated camouflage. However, it is not a perfect integration so your communication remains in open air."

"Good enough." Kai headed for the door. He grabbed the threshold and looked over his shoulder. "Dex, you get that relic to Zahariad."

"What? How?"

"Be creative," Kai said, ignoring the other eyes drawn to him with the force of those two words. "And take the rest of the Guard with you. They'll be far more welcome there than they are here. And. And. Do not lose that."

####

Sending someone! Who? How? No!

Kai Ferracane.

Was there irony in that? Cinnamon wondered. How?

Apparently he has some flying prowess.

Flying!

Cinnamon was irked. It would've been annoying enough having some hero shove off in a launch, but flying? And a Westerner too. She'd seen that contraption. Rodonovan's trophy. His gigantic sacred prick. How ridiculous.

Helldiver's Ghost made for the Maiden's Cleft in the outer reef at building speed. It sailed right through the impact zone. Not a chance, Cinnamon knew. Not a chance in all the hells.

She'd seen the other Westerners fly their ungainly looking airships around, but the way the ugly sky blue heliunit flicked off the aft deck of the corsair made it seem that some large bird of prey had taken to the air. It darted straight toward her.

Cinnamon?

Kai Ferracane. You're on a fool's errand.

For many years now.

Oh please. Cinnamon twisted her face. How annoying.

Cinnamon, this is what I need you to do for me....

Cinnamon laughed mightily at Kai Ferracane's absurd idea even as the wall of water struck the reef and began to hollow out, pulling the launch up at a radical angle and throwing her off balance.

####

"We're at full speed, Captain," Greensticks said.

The heliunit flitted past the navigation bridge portside, nose dipped, sleek and rapacious, yet hulking like some bloated insect. Rodonovan watched it head straight toward the massive surge and then shoot skyward as if yanked on a rope, still amazed at the precariousness of the machine's flight.

Kai Ferracane's voice filled his head, lacking the usual clarity of the com-web and available for all to hear: Captain, once over, deploy all weapons.

Can you give me a status?

Stand by.

Rodonovan did not think he was afraid to die, but he had unfinished business and that always stoked up a frantic anger within him. But this time, a near-dizzying sadness gnawed at him. He could find no meaning to this current state of affairs. And he had led people who had trusted him into this situation.

He missed his son. A chilling pride gripped him. Two days ago, a naked Kai Ferracane, dripping with water and blood, had greeted Rodonovan with the words, "I've met your son, sir. Omen Swords is a brave leader." The Westerner's deviled eyes swam from purple to blue to purple, shifting like the seas. As quickly, the pride withered and an abominably barren sadness perched inside Rodonovan, a tumor.

Well... Ferracane's unsure thought meteored through Rodonovan's head, different from the more lucid and easy communication he was used to onboard, ships of two classes. The small craft look like Miniak elements. They're small not as big as your ship, but I would anticipate taking heavy fire, Captain. They're escorts, I think, for the rest of the ships, which look like supply ships or troop transports. A lot of them. Lay down a suppressing fire across all fields and bear east full speed. And expect storm conditions. I'll do what I can to run point and help you break out.

And Cinnamon?

And Cinnamon.

Rodonovan gripped the chart table. That response lacked conviction.

Chief Squeezebox's thought burst into Rodonovan's head: We are secure for storm running, Captain.

The wave hit the outer reef and leapt upward, pulling taut, an emerald sky clouded with flaws. The Maiden's Cleft vanished beneath deep water. To the west, the wave peaked and began to suck back as if taking a deep breath. And there like a bug on a wall, hung Cinnamon.

Time to impact, Sei Javala? By simply willing it, you could direct a private thought toward one person and it would remain ears only for that person, save that Javala could hear all communications should he wish. Not even the sorcerer knew how the ancient magicks of the sounding charm accomplished such an effortless thing.

It will be close.

That's not what I asked.

Seven seconds. Or so.

Rodonovan announced that over the com-web.

The heliunit swooped down and headed north-by-northwest. Straight for the wave's peaking section..

####

When the landing gear bays whirred shut, a jolt moved through Kai. The comfort of the cyclic and embrace of the twin turbines' roar, the taste of violence.

From the air, the water was teal fading to crystal blue near shore. The reef coiled like a snake through the water, across white sands, and between the carcasses of sunken ships. Kai got his first good look at Helldiver's Ghost. Pointed at the bow, it flared out a bit amidships, and tapered near the stern. At the bow, the hull curved protectively over the deck in a manner that probably cut drag. It sat low in the water, seeming nearly submerged and the superstructure flowed smoothly out of the deck, raked backward, and eased back down in a narrow teardrop shape.

"Don't know where he got the polyplate technology," Dex had said. "And he ain't saying. Everyone recognizes Ghost because it looks nothing like any other ship on the Aestiva. It looks like something from the future, but I heard it's just the opposite."

Helldiver's Ghost was the dull black of a RAITH heliunit. It cut through the water with impressive speed, trailing a boiling white froth. To port, Kai saw the lone ship that had stayed with Rodonovan. Running parallel to the incoming wave, making for the same break in the reef that Helldiver's Ghost sped toward, it had no chance. Kai also saw Cinnamon's launch moving easterly on the wave's face. She had little chance too, he thought. He looped around to the west, climbing above the wave's height to take in the vista beyond.

Hundreds of ships riding gigantic if gently sloped swells under a sky blackened with storm clouds. Most appeared to be transports, huge and broad and moving in a relatively orderly flotilla at the stately pace of a confident expeditionary force. Humyn ships of rust-streaked metal, standing in stark contrast to the smaller ships slashing the uneasy ocean in an arrow-shaped vanguard. Those were faceted oblongs camouflaged in blocky greys and blues and whites and blacks. Miniak.

"Well, this should get festive."

Dozens of ships burned, chunks of them drifted amid flaming slicks of oil, others, mostly submerged, floated belly up. And bodies floated in the water. Kai knew the vulnerability of being in the deep water and felt a sympathetic anxiety that the body machine quickly quelled.

Captain, once over, deploy all weapons, Kai thought, not exactly sure who all might be picking up his communication. He explained as best he could, chalking up the storm theatrics to the Hand of Morath, the power behind the Miniak.

The wave seemed to gather itself and rise, lines of tension radiating out. Kai dropped the heli down and dipped in toward the wave's sheer jade face just as its peak pitched forward. He spotted the launch in dimming dawn light. Beyond it, Helldiver's Ghost climbed a section that was not quite vertical, looking like a toy. Below them all, he caught a glimpse of the other ship, another toy, this one abandoned, sliding helplessly sideways.

The lip of the wave curled overhead to crash on the reef hundreds of paces away. The world became a spiraling, howling tunnel of green with a bright and towering gash ahead embracing a serene alternative of sky and water and islands.

####

Clinging to the wheel, Cinnamon pulled herself up, spreading her legs to keep balance. She saw Helldiver's Ghost meet the wave's trough and climb. The Harridan was not so lucky. Its posture to the wave's face had been too oblique and like a silken cloth sliding over a table, the Aestiva dragged the corsair into the breaking wave where it disappeared beneath the collapsing lip.

An incredible roaring squall; an entire ocean spinning in huge coils.

Cinnamon stopped breathing. Her launch sat low on the wave, not so vertical now, but soon the collapse would catch her. In that breathless moment, fear accelerated into calm. She looked back toward the gnashing white wall boiling toward her and saw the queerest thing.

A heliunit.

Diving from near the arc of the curl, its canopy black

Grab the cannons.

The words boomed in Cinnamon's head, louder than the exploding water around her. Gently, the flying machine crept to within a pace of her launch, hovering there as if curiously investigating some scent. Like the fingers of some god, the four forward cannons of the heli eased in toward her, black and dripping with moisture.. She drew a hoarse breath and wrapped her arms around the lowest cannon barrel. It dipped and the heli bobbed.

I'm --

The heli shot forward.

Facing backward, Cinnamon caught the launch shooting up the wave's fracturing face and beyond her line of sight. She swung her legs up and gripped the cannon's receiver assembly as best she could and hung on.

####

Rodonovan gripped the chart table and fought gravity as Helldiver's Ghost climbed the rolling green slope. Mantra dug her talons into his shoulder, warbling nervously into his ear. Greensticks clung to the ship's wheel and Sei Javala gripped a conduit, placidly staring through the bridge's window. The corvette creaked and moaned like some decrepit rust bucket, and the dozen-engine harmony had taken on an ominously growling whine. The breaking wave consumed the vista. At the same time a monolithic infinity and racing immediacy.

Helldiver's Ghost had weathered some of the worst ship-swallowing northern storms Rodonovan had ever had the misfortune to sail through, danced with a typhoon in the southern reaches, shaken off the slaps of rogue waves all over the Aestiva. Rodonovan knew the corvette would survive the wave; he worried instead about what waited over top.

All weapons deploy on my command. Fire at will.

There was a kind of snarl and then a skidding noise as Terence lost his balance and fell away from the monitoring console. He struck the bulkhead beside the hatch and lay there cursing and rubbing his spider-tatted skull. Dexter reached to grip the man's arm and helped him scrabble to his feet.

To port, Rodonovan first saw the leading edge of the wave's lip, the massive frosted whirl of the wave's heart, and then, something he had trouble processing: the aerial contraption, the machined insect from the West. Zipping toward him from out of that spinning tunnel, great wings of mist whipping off of it.. With a humyn hanging from it like prey.

"By the gods..."

Helldiver's Ghost breached the top of the wave nearly vertical with a boom! Green density gave way to a sky, black and boiling.

####

Kai adjusted the Vipra to handle the extra weight of Cinnamon beneath his feet. The heart of the wave exploded behind him, blowing a thunderous, drenching gust from out of the whirling barrel that grabbed the heli and flicked it forward. Kai fought the cyclic and directional control pedals.

Cinnamon!

Get me the hells down!

As Kai righted the Vipra and climbed, ahead of him, Helldiver's Ghost blasted through the very edge of the wave's break like a sword thrust at the seething sky. Most of the ship cleared the water. It hovered, a long beard of foam unfurling from its prow, before splashing down with a burst of white.

Every gunport dropped and Helldiver's Ghost bloomed with fire.

Kai passed athwartships of the corvette's stern as it broke to the east.

I'm coming in, Kai thought. He swung the Vipra around and piloted it toward the landing pad just above the firing line of the rotary cannons below the fantail. The corvette bobbed crazily on the wild sea, far worse than when Kai had taken off. But he maneuvered in and hovered above the tilting deck for a moment.

I'm off! Cinnamon Rogue thought.

Kai eased into the cyclic and applied power. He saw Miniak gunboats break toward the East. Gold all weapons systems, he thought.

The fuselage blisters scalloped open and twin sets of rotary quads extended clear of the cannon bays on either side of Kai's peripheral vision. Gold squares dotted the top tier of the warning light console.

All weapons systems are gold to go, the Vipra told him..

Kai went hunting.

####

Helldiver's Ghost rode massive, hoary swells, powered down to six engines, shaking with the indiscriminate firing of all weapons.. If they were hitting anything, it was dumb luck. Rodonovan took some solace from several plumes of smoke until he saw that one and then another swayed over the remains of Myriadian ships.

"Our sea wasps are not finding their targets," Rodonovan said, melancholy and fear glassed over by the odd, vibrant calm that allowed him to command under fire.

Dexter nodded. "The Miniak know how to hide their heat signature. We learned that the hard way during the Fugue War. But that heli's got FaF NIVO tech. Watch how that works."

"You Westerners are the only people I know who unnecessarily complicate communication by shortening what you say."

Dexter grinned. "Fire and forget, neuro-initiated, visually operated technology," he said. "Or if you prefer, as do we, Captain, ‘look and cook.' Does that uncomplicate it for you?"

"That's very sweet," Rodonovan said. Find your rhythm and find your targets, he thought over the com-web. Sea wasp batteries switch to manual targeting. Fire at will, but maintain control, and find your rhythm. You know this ocean's dance. Find your rhythm.

We cannot dial in a firing solution.

This is no ocean I recognize, Captain.

That sentiment was echoed by other gunnery masters.

Dexter nodded his head. Miniak armor takes a beating. Without joint support and standoff fires, we can't defeat a van of Miniak ships. And we can't harry with launches in this ocean. Best we can do is put down a suppressing fire and haul ass to the East, make it to the Broom.

Rodonovan would rather keep such talk off the com-web. The Misty Broom lay hundreds of leagues away and was no guarantee of safety anyway.

The Vipra boomed across the bow from starboard, heading north. Twin carriages of four rotary cannons emerged from either side of its fuselage. Rodonovan grunted; he hadn't even known those weapons were there. Its chin cannons waggled and whirled, like fingers warming up.

Cinnamon?

Yes, Captain? She sounded dejected.

Rodonovan grunted again, mouth crooking up on one side. He got you.

Never seen anything like it. Totally ridiculous.

Where are you?

"Here," Cinnamon said, stepping onto the bridge. Her dark hair splayed over her shoulders, her beauty strained by a profound exhaustion casting a pallid hue over her face. Terence Eight Legs grinned broadly, "He got you."

"Got you," Dexter said, hanging an arm around her shoulder. "Got you nothing. He owns you now."

"Arsehole." Cinnamon pulled half-heartedly away from the large man's grip. Rodonovan could almost feel the quivering in her body from across the bridge.And as much of it was from anger as from the come down.

"Maybe you should go to your cabin," Sei Javala said.

"I think not." She stayed a hand that wanted to run through her head and instead tilted her chin up defiantly.

"I could order you," Rodonovan said, knowing her response. He'd once thought Omen and Cinnamon might find each other. Well in fact, they had. But his son's understanding of women remained utilitarian, while she clung to a shuttered need to prove herself better than all men and in need of none of them. That generated the wrong kind of sparks. Rodonovan hung on to a fatherly affection for the young womyn who might've someday captained her own ship, might've given him grandchildren.

"You could, Captain," Cinnamon agreed, steel in her smoke-ringed eyes. "But, I'd say that is far worthier of your exertions." She chucked a dripping chin toward the window.

Huge transports rolled in an endless flotilla beneath a black sky glowing crimson with lightnings. Even had Rodonovan not been fluent in the language marking the superstructures with long-winded charms for good weather, he would've recognized those dirty white icebreaking hulls with their specially scooped bows as Malakite. While dismayed, he was not surprised. Ferracane had been in the Lornlands, and anything worth possessing there belonged to the Malakite Empire. An emperor's ransom indeed. The stakes of this game rattled him with a queasy sense of smallness.

Sitting low, the smaller enemy ships swarmed the heaving water toward Helldiver's Ghost unmindful, it seemed, of its weapons. They had yet to fire a single return salvo; such discipline and confidence was disconcerting. Rodonovan scanned the dismal vista. Over the prow shield, he saw one of them bearing directly toward Ghost from the East. "And where is the Westerner?" he wanted to know.

Dexter, leaning on Ferracane's pack, said, "Oh, he's out there."

"I see nothing, lubber," Greensticks snapped.

Dexter tossed the pilot an obnoxiously happy grin and infuriating shrug.

"He's supposed to be opening a route to the East," Rodonovan said. "He might consider starting with that impediment." Straight on, the enemy ship, about the size of Ghost, resembled a black-and-white-and grey motley orb with deliberate faceted planes and a low rise that might've been a superstructure. A cluster of scarlet lightnings gashed the black sky behind it.

"I told you that Westerner would fly off," Greensticks said with a bitter laugh.

"Mind the wheel, Mister Greensticks," Rodonovan said. "Mister Revenant, do you imagine your friend expected the Miniak to be aligned with the Malakite Empire when he thieved that?" Rodonovan eyed the sword-like package on which Dexter leaned.

"I figure he knew his enemy," Dexter said.

Greensticks spat another laugh.

"Does that ‘relic' then belong to the Miniak?"

"The Miniak are war dogs and nothing more," Sei Javala said. His face wrinkled as if inhaling a pungent fart. "That relic has the disturbing properties of something far more fundamental than anything that could emerge from a civilization of our time."

"It's magic?" Cinnamon asked.

"Very powerful," Javala said.

Dexter shrugged. "Kai Ferracane doesn't say a lot. When he does, I listen. ‘Don't lose it,' he said. If the Miniak or the Malakite or you want it, it'll have to come off my dead body." He hefted the package, which seemed heavier than its size would suggest, and strapped it around his shoulders.

Greensticks hissed.

"Don't try so hard to be an arsehole, Mister Revenant," Rodonovan said. "I'm trying to evaluate our chances for survival. Look out there. That's a rather sizable force. All for one stolen artifact?"

"That's a lotta-lotta people out there," Dexter agreed. "Even for Kai Ferracane."

"It's an invading army," Rodonovan said.

"For the Myriads," Dexter said.

"I think they care nothing for the Myriads," Sei Javala said. "That expedition is for Taelemone. But its mission has been slightly expanded to include the recovery of that item you are prepared to die for." We should prepare for the possibility of a boarding, Captain, he thought.

Rodonovan barely nodded, turning to look aft through the panoramic window to where his home had once been. The Fiery Ring was gone but for Storm Castle's modest peak, a lump of green slapped by boiling white. He'd lived his whole life on that island. Nearly every childhood memory had just been drowned. The scale of magicks needed to do that -- he couldn't begin to get his head around that. This was the war his son had willingly joined?

He turned his attention to something more manageable: the threat against Helldiver's Ghost. He wanted those Miniak ships kept outside the line. What if he gave them the Westerner's precious relic? A launch and Dexter Revenant to save his ship?

The three remote cannons arrayed along the leading edge of the prow shield began to track the approaching ship, but without the sharp assuredness typical of Western precision gunnery. Moments later the gunners stationed over the bridge opened fire. Golden ribbons arced toward the ship, boiling the water around its hull before it vanished into a trough. When it appeared again, its profile had changed.

"Weapons deployed!" Greensticks cried as the Miniak ship disappeared behind a silent yellow glow.

Howling.

"Incoming!"

The starboard remote gunner station exploded overhead. Conduits ruptured and a portion of the bridge ceiling collapsed. Already falling, Rodonovan dove to the deck beside the chart table, grimacing in anticipation of being crushed. The com-web erupted in a chaos of thoughts.

Firefighting system on in forward RGS!

Damage report!

We've been hit!

Where were we hit!

Are we being boarded!

What hit us! What hit us!

Starboard RGS! We need medics!

And over it all the worst part of the com-web: the horrible thoughts of the burning, the dying, wild and formless.

Water showered the bridge from a ruptured line, sounding like a vast cascade in the tight confines. Rodonovan climbed to his feet. Things moved with the familiar velocity of combat. "Mister Revenant, shut down that valve. Mister Greensticks, get up and get control of the ship. Now!" This is the Captain. We took a hit on the forward RGS, starboard side. I want a damage report. I want forward sea wasp batteries directing fire dead ahead. I want all gunnery stations targeting in their killing fields and calculating firing solutions. Launch bay, prepare FABs. Master Squeezebox?

Aye, Captain.

I want all nonessential personnel armed to repel.

On these seas, Captain?

On these seas.

Aye, Captain... Captain, I, uh, was wondering then about the lads below.

Below?

From The Flying Sprite, Captain... Nonessential you said. We could sure use them, `specially if you think the enemy is good enough to board on these seas.

No. They know nothing of our --

But Captain, a fight's a fight! We need sailors! Now is no time to hang on to the old grudges... With all due respect, Captain, look at what's out there.

Rodonovan traced his beard, flicked water from his face, and remembered the last time he felt so out of control had been when he'd first captained a ship through a southern typhoon. Post a guard, with a weapon's rack. On my command, release the sailors. Not a moment before.

Aye, Captain.

The water's roaring shush fell off to a rapid tic-tac. Rodonovan wiped his face, looked to Dexter, who was making sure the small valve was firmly shut, and said, "Prepare to get down to the launch bay. You and that thing on your back will leave should they attempt a boarding." Turning back to the Miniak ship, Rodonovan blocked out the com-web as best he could, failing to convince himself that he was asking Dexter Revenant to escape.

"I don't think so," Dexter said, and then sensing Rodonovan's annoyance added, "I mean, Captain, you want me out in that in a tiny boat?"

Westerners could be so gods damned weak livered. "We may all be in that soon enough. You'll do as I say or I'll have someone else transport the relic."

"It has to be a boat that'll get me to Chiming Harbor."

Rodonovan merely looked at the brash warrior. He'd come to rely on so many other people since Omen had left for the same gods forsaken lands from which Dexter and this new one, the markedly absent Ferracane, had come. And he'd allowed them on his ship. He wished Omen were there and then took it back. Better to not know whether his son still lived than to know the boy was going to die.

"Sei Javala," Rodonovan said, "please contact Goblin Rod. Ask that he disengage immediately and set sail for Fool's Cap."

"Aye, Captain."

Smoke wafted past a bridge window laced with fractures; it wouldn't hold up under any kind of fire now. A familiar stink drifted onto the bridge. Rodonovan gripped the coarse leather wrapping the edge of the chart table and told himself that the automated fire system would knock down the fire. The forward sea wasp batteries came around and began to elevate above the prow shield. Terence Eight Legs had moved aft and opened the weapons locker. It was lined with Western weapons and stacked with ammunition. Terence began handing out weapons.

"Hey, Ter, I'll take a C-CAPR," Dexter said. "They're always fun."

"You get one of them bombs your own self," the sailor said.

"Heh, heh." Dexter far too happily snatched one of the close combat antipersonnel rifles from the rack, then squatted to open the small freezer at the bottom of the locker where the drum magazines of disconcertingly unstable C-CAPR loads were kept. He grabbed a drum and slammed the locker shut. Chuckling, he slid the drum onto the black, stockless weapon, tweaked it into place.

The Miniak boat dipped down in another trough. Prepare to take fire! Rodonovan thought. The ship reappeared, and something was different.

"Look!" Terence Eight Legs said.

On skirling wings of misted water, the heli ascended behind the Miniak craft like a soft blue angel. Two yellow streaks stabbed from it toward the ship.

"Brace!" Dexter cried.

A white fireball swelled with incredible speed in all directions from the Miniak ship. Shocking heat buffeted Helldiver's Ghost along with a concussive Crump! that further frosted the glass. Everyone on the bridge shied away or ducked.

Shielding his eyes, Rodonovan watched the turbulent white wall spread skyward and over the water. Then, from its heart burst the heliunit, trailing spiraling coils of flame.

"The hells..." Terence Eight Legs murmured.

The heliunit leapt upward out of view, dripping fire from its now black skin.

####

Kai took the Vipra up in a half mage wheel, then into a lazy screw, leaving the extreme heat behind. Red lightning, the familiar residue of heavy magicks, scarred the smoked vault overhead.

General status.

General status... Cooling systems operational. All weapons systems gold to go. Hull integrity maintained with noncompromising buckling to the aft equipment bay hatch, port engine nacelle hatch, and aft avionics bay hatch; thermistor reading: surface temperature dropping to normal. Main rotor head integrity maintained; thermistor reading: gearbox temperature dropping to normal. Tail rotor integrity...

Kai listened to the drone with distant satisfaction. He dropped quickly to the deck, which resembled rolling hills. The status report cutoff:

Impact imminent.

The proximity alarm sounded in his head not for the first time. He caressed the collective and followed the face of the wave up, skipping off the rounded peak. "Outstanding." He'd flown hilly topography before, but not hilly topography that moved. Disengage proximity sensor. He didn't want to listen to that warning all day.

Do you really want to disengage proximity sensor?

Yes.

Proximity sensor off.

There were a score or more of remaining Miniak ships. Little was known about Miniak magnetic-based weapons systems other than that they could throw a stunning amount of metal onto the killing fields at a breathtaking rate. Any chance of avoiding the reception of that offering would require speed and maneuver, bold, stones-out flying without a thought of hesitation. Not a moment of hesitation. A single hostile lock on and festivities would end quickly.

Most of the ships, all weapons now deployed, were arraying themselves to cut off any escape route for Helldiver's Ghost. Others were bearing down directly on the Myriadian vessel. Classic interdiction. Kai had limited firepower and limited time. He targeted and locked the easternmost ship as he crested a monstrous wave then dropped down into a vast trough like a blue-metal valley. When he swept back up to another peak, Kai ripple fired three screaming stars from the portside tube launcher. They tumbled toward the Miniak ship, which suddenly appeared right in front of Kai riding the peak of a wave. With their weight and speed, the wailing sabot rounds tore into the ship's ovate superstructure, dissolving it into shards. A cacophony resounded around the heli as a cloud of fragments was chewed by its rotors.

Rotor status.

Damage to hub assembly; damage to number one pitch housing; damage to number two pitch housing; damage to number one lead-lag link. Recommend RTB.

Festive, he thought. Even if inclined to return to base, how much fun would he have trying could land the heli back on the deck with the ocean moving so insanely?

Repeat query.

Cancel.

Damage to hub assembly; damage to number one pitch housing; damage to number two pitch housing; damage to number one lead-lag link. Recommend RTB.

Noted.

He really was out of practice. Kai dipped back down to the deck, acquiring the next target. What? Only twenty more ships. He chuckled.

####

Rodonovan watched the heliunit slide through the debris-choked space occupied a moment before by the Miniak ship's superstructure. Helldiver's Ghost sliced through the flaming patch marking the end of the first Miniak ship. Rodonovan could hear the rush of men positioning themselves to defend the ship from boarding and the chaotic yawping of the com-web. He spotted only five of the Miniak vessels on the high seas, closing in on Ghost amid nets of impotent cannon fire.

"What is that?" Cinnamon asked.

"What?" Dexter said.

"He's laughing," Sei Javala. "Your friend. It comes over the web as a sort of echo."

"He finds this funny?" Cinnamon asked, a look of distaste deepening the fatigue lines in her face.

"It's not that kind of laugh," Dexter said. "That's Kai Ferracane. He's -- "

A white-yellow flash drew everyone's attention, and, slowly, like the huge cats that stalk the beaches of the Endless Archipelago, the black heli skimmed over a wave crest, nose down. Cannons poured ribbons of gold weave into the pyre that had just been a Miniak ship. The heliunit zipped away and, just as it dipped into another trough, twin red flashes whipped from either wing, cutting sharply backward to streak straight toward the bridge. A sharp whoosh! smothered choked cries of fear on the bridge as the missiles winged within a pace of the panorama window before anyone had time to move. A moment later offset crumps sprouted twin fireballs fine on the starboard quarter where a Miniak ship had been approaching the line.

Rodonovan glanced at Dexter and in as steady a voice as he could muster said, "That would be flying like, how did you say it, the devil's own?"

Dexter's nonchalance blipped into a quick frowning shrug. "Hey, Captain, I'm a ground pounder. What do I know about aviating? But I do know that enemy elements are being removed from the battlespace."

"Arsehairs, the lot of you Westerners," Greensticks muttered, clearly shaken.

"Hey, Greensticks," Dexter said, smile a warp of utter humorlessness, "if that's got you all a-shiver, you should see Ferracane's wet work. Close up and intimate."

"Seems by the gleam in your eye you might be the only one here interested in Ferracane's ‘wet work,'" Greensticks said, meeting Dexter's smile with one as iced. Eight Legs snorted.

"Both of you, that's enough." Rattled, Rodonovan turned back to watch the heli move off in a seemingly impossible ascent. He was mortified at the idea that he could've turned that contraption on his own people by simply asking one of the Dagian Guard he'd foolishly allowed near him. That the line between leadership and repression was as thin as his will sickened him. Through the frosted glass, he could hear the heavy whirr of rotary cannons, the sizzle of missiles, and the horrific chorus of those rockets called screaming stars.

"What're them other noises he's makin'?" Terence asked, fingertips to the strew of spiders capering over his skull.

"Just fire commands," Dexter said. "That's how you communicate with the NI system. See, that's kind of funny, those grunts."

"Sounds... musical," Terence said with a small smile.

Sei Javala smiled too, but it was tremulous with confusion. "The ancient rhythm of the landed nomads," he said. "Underout, they call it. Hah. He is not even aware of it."

"Aye," Terence said, head cocked and moving slightly to the rhythm shuffling along beneath the urgent back and forth of the gunners. "Like Wavery swingin' stride." He began to hum, keeping time with a pistol-shaped hand in the air, and his thoughts soon moved along with Ferracane's continuous fire commands.

"Only a Southerner would think it was time for a sing-along," Greensticks muttered. "Them spider legs, tickling your brains, Terence."

Javala's thoughts beat over the com-web too, his own low grunts adding counterpoint.

Rodonovan eyeballed both men, and said nothing, while Greensticks scowled. Sei Javala met the Captain's stare and his expression was encouraging, his head nodding. It did indeed seem like a sing-along.

An angry shu-u-u-ush! preceded an explosion that rocked Ghost aft. This was followed by a rapid tattoo of explosions and polyphony of gunfire raking armor. Urgent calls to action, confusion, and death swarmed the com-web like ants of a disturbed colony. Miniak ships swarmed too.

"That heli can't handle all of those ships," Dexter said. "If we can't start dialing in on those targets, they're going to take us apart."

"No. They wish to board us." Open the bay doors. "Master Dexter, please find your way to the bay."

"Not a chance."

Chief Bones?

Aye, Captain. Defenses are firmed, ready to repel. Soaking Madge's fire team is positioned to defend the bridge.

Good, JackLuck. I need you on the navigation bridge now, please.

Aye, Captain.

"I'm not leaving, Captain. Not in one of those coffins. Not out in that."

"Don't be a fool," Cinnamon snapped.

"Fool nothing," Greensticks said. "He's yellow."

A dangerous look clouded Dexter's face. Greensticks countered with a bland smile.

"They want what I suspect Ferracane stole," Cinnamon said.. "So let's get it the hells off this ship then.."

"You think the Miniak'll leave Ghost afloat?" Dexter asked.

Sei Javala's thought intruded, Hold fire! Everyone! Everyone! Hold fire!

Rodonovan turned sharply to the witch man, who went on, Listen to the Westerner! Listen! Find that rhythm! What do you hear? That's right! Find it! Use it! Insistent, but without urgency, he matched the rhythm of the Westerner's fire commands with his own hums and grunts. Terence followed suit. Soon other wordless thoughts joined in, and Rodonovan knew those belonged to sailors from the Wavery Islands and Darkstruck Bay and other places along the eastern spill of the Southern Archipelago. Greensticks' face kinked as if he whiffed shit.

The thoughts droned fuzzily, dissonantly and clashing, before finding a unity. The bellow of Ghost's war making began again to thrum painfully into Rodonovan's ears, but its character had changed. It marched. Somehow. With a cadence deeply complex and deeply arousing in his blood.

Now over the rhythmic burr came words:

Direct hit!

Right up the slats!

Direct hit!

Direct hit!

Impact! Oh my! Lookit that poltroon burn!

The vast bulk of Chief JackLuck Bones squeezed through the hatch followed by the lithe Soaking Madge. Not as tall as Rodonovan, but nearly twice in girth, JackLuck shrunk the damaged space, made Soaking Madge look like an adolescent girl, which in fact she was. Across his chest was a huge antique Wavery fighting knife, considered too cumbersome by most, the serrations on the top of the wide silver blade looking like a wild mane, its handle fuzzy with worn brown leather. An old double-barreled combat loader was swung casually over his shoulder, its stock and barrel cut down to sizes appropriate for the close quarters of deck fighting. "Captain, we are firm and prepared to repel. What be your pleasure?"

"Chief, please escort Dexter down to the bay and see that he gets on a launch."

"But -- " Dexter started.

"If he refuses, kill him and ensure that his package is on that launch."

"But -- "

"Aye, Captain." Bones' head was bald and agleam with sea spray and sweat; on the back, a jagged scar stood in as a gaping mouth for a river cat poised to pounce over the curve of his scalp, only its orange stripes, teeth, and gleaming eyes revealing it from within the camouflage of his black skin. He put a gigantic hand on Dexter's shoulder. The Westerner's face darkened murderously and he tightened the grip on the C-CAPR.

Weapons leaped to point at him. Only Greensticks grinned.

"Steady down, Dexter," Soaking Madge murmured. She held a blade beneath the ear she spoke into, looking kind of sleepy behind a net of black hair falling over her thin, angular face. After Uriah Bloodangel left with Omen for the West, she had assumed command of the fire crew, a position coveted by more than a few sailors twice or more her thirteen years. None made even passing attempts to challenge her over the last six years. The force of the grip she had on the Westerner's wrist was clear in the way vein-laced muscles rising beneath cocoa-colored skin.

Dexter made a quick assessment, deflated some. The menace on his face remained. Soaking Madge released his wrist and faded toward the door, keeping her littoral green eyes on the Westerner. JackLuck kept his hand on Dexter's shoulder.

Cinnamon was nodding her head and smiling with a lazy smugness. She held a small knife in her hand.

"Good to see that you're satisfied, Cinnamon," Rodonovan said. "You'll be escorting Master Dexter to Fool's Cap." "Fool's Cap? Down to the Waveries? I thought you wanted me resting, Captain." Her eyes narrowed and fury flushed over her still-damp face in mottled blemishes. "You're trying to get me off this ship. To protect me! You think I can't handle a boarding. But Soaking Madge can? But this poltroon Greensticks can?"

"Hey, Cinnie!" Greensticks said. "Don't come that -- "

Cinnamon jabbed a finger at the sailor, but spoke to Rodonovan, "Nobody, not even you, Rodonovan, is forcing me to run from a fight!"

"The bridge is too crowded. I want it cleared of nonessential personnel. You have your orders." Rodonovan turned his attention back to the grim vista before him. The Aestiva undulated in that familiar sexual sashay of the deep ocean, its ensorcelled fury fading. Far off, broad on the port bow, the Malakite flotilla rode the huge seas like some vast serpentine. Enriched by their vast trading network, the Malakites were expert mariners with centuries more time sailing and shipbuilding than the Myriadians. Rumors spoke of submersible Malakitian ships able to sail under the ice floes that choked off the sea lanes above the Lornlands.

Lightning stabbed the water as if in the hands of a deliberate maniac. The burning hulls of Miniak warships seemed a crazed mimicry of the Fiery Ring, throwing volcanic light at the black sky. Ghost rumbled and trembled as it took fire. Heavy fire, just as the Westerner had promised. Rodonovan's lip curled toward a flaring nostril. That Westerner's very presence had promised disaster.

Ships inside the line! We have ships inside the line!

Ahead of Ghost, fine on the port and starboard bows, two Miniak ships bore down on them, well inside the line. On the port and starboard beams, more ships. On these seas, Ghost could not outrun them.

"Please, Cinnie," JackLuck said. "Don't make me get all condescending with you. It'll only make you madder."

"CLEAR THE BRIDGE NOW!" Rodonovan roared.

The damaged bridge stiffened with tension made palpable by the escalating, suddenly desperate tempo of the chanted thoughts and the rising keen of the spotters working on firing solutions. Rodonovan rarely raised his voice, and rarely did anything good come of it.

The bridge hatch opened and war screamed in. Rodonovan caressed the hilts of his southern war knives and the worn grip of his mini. He remembered the first repel on his father's ship, Typhoon Blue, a dream theater borne of fury and fear and smoke and blood-slicked decks and gut stench. He remembered his last boarding; the same but different. He hated both.

Prepare to repel! Prepare to repel! Port and starboard! Prepare to repel!

Other low-slung Miniak ships slipped over the line. Shot through with adrenalin that weighed on his limbs, Rodonovan eased the mini from its holster and chambered the first round. Soaking Madge unslung what she called her "deck swab," a single-shot monstrosity as likely to damage the deck as clear it of swarming enemies. She cracked the dark green weapon open. Its breach yawned with a metallic inhalation, and she fed it a fist-sized cartridge from a belt around her narrow waist.

Two of her fire crew entered and took up positions to hold the bridge.

Rodonovan nodded curtly, fought the urge to order the release of The Flying Sprite crew, and moved toward the bridge door, Soaking Madge trailing. She would guard him until death.

The heliunit roared over the bridge heading south, all guns, articulated in all directions like splayed claws, spitting fire. Spent casings tumbled in nets over the deck and into the sea. Red streaks peeled away from either side of the heliunit, stabbing into Miniak ships. Explosions spread over the water to meet in front of Ghost's bow; the heat was awesome..

"Open water," Greensticks said breathlessly. Ahead, blue sky and calming water met the hell-borne non-night and squalling Aestiva like the collision of two distinct seascapes.

"All engines, full speed," Rodonovan said. His teeth were gritted against the anxiety thrumming deep in his bones. Then he realized it was nothing within him, but rather on the com-web. Kai Ferracane calling fires at an astonishing speed with an astonishing rhythm. And Sei Javala and Terence kept pace, herking and jerking as if daemons rode them.

Ready FAX pods, Rodonovan thought.

"All engines, ahead full, aye, Captain," Terence said with almost no break in the rhythm he kept.

Preparing FAX pods.

Just a little space between Ghost and the Miniak and he could loose an inferno. With yet another Western weapons system. He'd used fuel air explosives only one time before -- to save his son -- and swore never to use them again after seeing the utter destruction.

The frenetic chanting ceased abruptly like the snapping of a blacksteel cable. Sei Javala staggered and crumpled against the communications console. One big step and Rodonovan was there to help him back to his feet. Breathing hard, the old sorcerer nodded once, clasped Rodonovan's forearm with slender fingers banded by delicate gold rings. At the navigation console, Greensticks helped Terence off the floor. "Javala?" Rodonovan said. A raging silence filled his head.

"The sounding charm has been damaged."

"Are you okay?"

"Of course, just a bit of a shock. We'll have onboard communication, albeit of diminished clarity, but we've lost all external communication until I can see to the sounding charm. Kai Ferracane is on his own." Sei Javala steadied himself and closed his eyes. A moment later, broken thoughts jerked through Rodonovan's mind, truncated as if struck by thick hatchets of silence. "Hm. Won't be easy to understand."

"No."

"How long can you keep that up?"

"As long as necessary."

Rodonovan doubted that, but did not press. Master Bones? He had to repeat that twice more before JackLuck responded.

Aye, Cap -- ?

Stand by in the bay.

Rep -- tain, you're bre -- up..

Stand by. Stand by in the bay.

Standing by, aye --

As Ghost bellowed and picked up speed, Rodonovan leaned over the navigation console, peering out through the cracked and crazed panorama glass to watch the Western contraption climb sharply into the fathomless sky, whirling insanely as weapons fire knitted the black sky all around it. He'd yet to meet a ship that could stay with Ghost running all engines, and hope chilled his flesh. But red filled his vision. A cage of lightning slammed down around the heliunit. It wobbled, slowed, began to drop.

####

Kai targeted and loosed the last of his Deathstalkers and climbed in a vertical spiral to avoid fire. He realized that he no longer had the chatter of sailors in his head.

All area weapons systems overheating. Moving to mandatory cool-down stand by. Damage to hub assembly; damage to number one pitch housing; damage to number two pitch housing; damage to number one lead-lag link. Recommend RTB.

Kai terminated the Vipra's ascent to survey the battlespace. The air turned red and exploded, and for a moment he thought he'd been hit by surface fire. Then the sky was black again and he realized he'd been struck by lightning.

The heliunit's engines choked, the console went black, and the controls stiffened. Power loss. All systems down. Shifting to auxiliary reserve.

With a humming whine, power returned as the `unit slowed and wobbled. Kai regained control.

Mission avionics destroyed. All area weapons systems overheated and in mandatory cool-down stand by. Damage to hub assembly; damage to number -- Hostile lock on, take evasive action.

Somebody had him. Kai looked for the enemy. Override --

Hostile lock on, take evasive action. Hostile lock on, take evas --

Hostile lock -- Hostile lock on, take evasive action.

Host -- Hostile lock on, take -- Hostile lock on, take evasive action. Hostile --

A lot of somebodies had him.

Sending distress signal.

"Damn," Kai muttered.

####

Miniak weapons lit the blackened day with a fusillade of fire. Rodonovan watched the heliunit come apart, twirl and tumble to the Aestiva ahead of Helldiver's Ghost. A billowing curl of blackened fire marked its descent like some kind of question, like dumbstruck tattooed in soot across the bluing sky.

Enemy fire fell off to nothing as Ghost left the Miniak gunships behind. It passed over the burning debris patch that marked Kai Ferracane's grave.

FAX... ready... --tain.

Climbing the back of one last swell was like crossing a threshold into a new world. The Aestiva soothed to a rumpled sheet reflecting the sapphire overhead, and the storm of war faded. Helldiver's Ghost slashed through the water.

I want a damage report all stations, now, Rodonovan thought, wondering if they'd actually gotten away. He repeated the request.

Sailors returned broken acknowledgements. Frustrated, Rodonovan grabbed the handheld and used the old address system. "Stand down for repel and stand by for work details."

The all-clear alarm sounded.

Master Squeezebox?

After a pause that made Rodonovan's heart flutter. Aye, Captain.

I need you on the bridge.

Another pause. Aye.

Bay?

Bay, aye --

Please secure doors and clear the bay.

Secur -- doors and blowing... Captain.

Master Bones?

Aye, Captain.

Please inform Master Revenant that Kai Ferracane went down.

Please re -- tain, you're br -- ing --

Tell Revenant his friend is dead!

Aye, Cap --

End of Part I -- To Be Concluded Next Month


© 2009 Dan Edelman

Bio: Dan Edelman lives in Ramona, CA, where he does contract work as a writer/editor. He mostly look after the kids and has not, sadly, done much fun writing in recent years. Fortunately for Aphelion readers, his stories Swords in the Fire (to which Helldiver is a sequel of sorts), Bone Up Yar and The Jazz-Jazz (which featured the fearsome Kai Ferracane), appeared in this very webzine (in November 2004, February 2005, and March 2005 respectively).

E-mail: Dan Edelman

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