59

From within the two women watched the nearby dogfight between Harper’s Drift 9 and their attacker. There wasn’t much debris nearby, so Harper used the Entropy 8 as a maneuvering focus. Rosh watched shots fire past the hull of her ship with clenching fists. “Where’s that gun of yours. Quit dancing.”

The attacking fighter popped in from a blind angle, straight toward the window of the pod. There was a split second to grab hold before the blow sent them careening.

“I think it fair, perhaps, to discount your trip fee,” Rosh breathed as the pod slowed.

“It’s my rotten luck.” The passenger, a lovely woman though currently disheveled, shot her a fey look. “Listen, if we get through this, I will pay double.” She sighed and muttered.

The window drifted round in time to see the fighter release a beam that stretched into a razor-thin plane. Drift 9 dove out of the way, but Rosh’s ship was helpless in its path. “No stop – why -” She watched the beam fatally interrupt both of her engines. “ENTROPY,” Rosh wailed as her machinery crumbled.

A wide white flash suddenly cut across their field of vision. The fighter wobbled past, now missing part of a scorpion wing. Another gigantic beam flashed out of the Drift 9, making a square hit before anyone could blink. The fighter just drifted now, leaking fuel into space, the rear of it shredded.

The two looked at each other, holding their breaths. Drift 9 popped up in front of them, hatch open, pulling them in.

59

After steadying the pod, Leiv Gruun opened the door. The passenger exited, staggering over to sit on a nearby cargo case. As Rosh stepped out, she clapped Gruun on the shoulder. “SkyFather?”

Leiv nodded and grinned. He was a crack shot with that beast of a thing, from the time they went asteroid shooting. Emira felt the ship beneath her on its way into the next neighborhood.

The green-haired passenger looked up from where she sat. “Where are we headed right now?”

“Out of here, first,” Emira Rosh replied. “After that,” she looked at Gruun, “we’ll talk it over.”

“I’d like to discuss it before we go very much further.” She stood and approached them. “My errand is urgent.”

Leiv and Emira gave each other a look. “We’ll take it to the captain,” he said, gesturing for them to follow.

Toller vacated the copilot’s chair when the three of them entered. Leiv touched Wendel on the shoulder before he took the seat. She unbuckled and embraced Emira. “I’m sorry about your ship.”

Emira began the laughter, but they both carried it for a moment. “Ah. I’ve caught up with you. Now we’ll both have nines.”

“Great number. Badge of pride.” Wendel wiped her eye.

Emira indicated her passenger. “This is Arcta Hydraia. She’s looking to contract a private transport.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hydraia. You’ve found the best ship round these parts.” The two of them enjoyed the joke. “Well, where is it you’re headed?”

She drew herself up, smoothing her hair. “To Alisandre Capital, with haste.”

57

Drift 9’s passenger door whooshed shut, and Leiv Gruun, Wendel Harper, and the boy Toller collapsed just inside. It was a couple breaths before Wendel picked herself up and headed to the cockpit. There, she opened a channel to the Entropy 8, Emira’s ship. “Rosh,” she projected, “Rosh, are you there?”

“Harper, I’m here, yeah. What do you need?”

“We’re leaving, and you have to come with us. Sorry, I’ll explain once we’re away. Where’s Manoukian?”

“His ship left about an hour ago. I have a passenger, though -”

“Bring em, leave em, either way we really can’t wait.” As she spoke, Harper turned her ship live, locking seals and decoupling. Gruun joined her, getting things ready. “It’s me they’re after, but I think we’ve all been noted.” She ran a hand through her short blond hair. “We’ll be safer leaving together, now. If we’re separated, meet us at this system’s freight shipstream. We’d better hop out of this galaxy, at least.”

“Ghosting the party, hm?”

“Exactly.”

“Alright. I’m fueled up, systems tested and smooth. I’ll be right behind you.” The two cargo ships detached from their outer bays and drifted casually away from the refugee resort. Wendel was glad for the other vessels in nearby space masking their departure.

It would be twenty minutes before they reached the freight shipstream. Toller stood behind the pilot’s chairs, watching the aft display. Odessia 6 had dwindled almost completely, Genesee behind it covered in clouds. He remembered his pack, still on board the resort.

Toller blinked at the display. Something approached them from behind. He studied it as it grew larger. Once he could glimpse thruster flare, he tapped Gruun’s shoulder.

Leiv turned to squint at the monitor. A few seconds, then a few seconds more. He activated his mic. “Drift 9 to Entropy 8. Check your aft display and tell me what you see.” Harper paused to look over as well.

Rosh took a moment to respond. “I see someone closing with us in our wake.”

“That’s what I thought,” he muttered. “Let’s arm-”

“I’m target locked.”

The channel crackled loudly as the frequency was hijacked. The voice of the man Toller slapped with his handcuffs snarled over the line. “You thought you could just skip town. No Ms. Harper, you’re coming with us. So unless you consider your friend’s ship reasonable collateral-”

Just then a hatch opened in the back of Entropy 8, letting out a couple dozen fast, bright objects in a miasma of heat. It dropped suddenly out of path. Audio crackled as the intruding connection cut off.

Harper pumped a fist. “Scatterbugs! That’ll keep his lock occupied. Alright, let’s shake em.” She peeled the Drift 9 up into a cloverleaf arc, pointing her nose to Rosh’s flank trajectory. Toller, meanwhile, hung onto two wall handles as the ship swung around.

Leiv turned during the two seconds of level flight. “You. Strap in.” The boy lunged for the fold-down seat, clicking the belts shut in time for a plunge toward the Entropy 8.

“Harper!” shouted Rosh over the channel. “Who is this asshole?” The pursuant ship was fast, a streamlined model not designed for cargo. It fired intermittently at the both of them.

“Aynsdotr and crew. They want me alive. They’ve been redirecting shipments from all over. Their methods tipped me off to the existence of an entire network, and I wasn’t wrong.”

57

Grunn finished setting impact shields, and checked his gauges. “Auxiliary turbos are up.” He looked back at Toller, then nodded to the pilot. “Let’s helix.”

“Helix?” shouted Harper.

“Helix!” Rosh concurred. The two ships parted on their own rotational paths, switching relation while expanding and contracting the space between, slowing and speeding on coordinated whim. They were followed by the scatterbugs, weaving a flashing net that effectively distracted targeting.

“I started keeping tabs on them, connecting incidents.” As she spoke, Wendel torqued her yoke, leaning from her chair. “I got in the way of a couple shipments, just to see.” The following ship fired a few missiles, detonated by intercepting scatterbugs. “I thought this was head guy here, but now I’m not sure.” She checked the monitors. “We have to cripple him, ship’s too fast. We can’t get away like this.”

“Breaking out,” replied Rosh. She pulled a side split stall maneuver that set her above the incoming fighter. “Passenger can’t operate the big gun, so I can’t do more than this.” She sprayed an arc from her forward turret that shaved the pursuer off his path.

“Oh – we’ve got a gun.” Wendel gave Leiv a hot stare, and he lifted his eyebrows and got out of his chair. He pointed to Toller, then back at the copilot’s chair. “You, sit there.” Harper nodded agreement while watching her flying.

Toller waited till he could make the leap, then lunged in. He strapped up, and went ahead and started touching things.

“Just don’t actually use any controls unless I ask you to.”

“Yup.”

With only two scatterbugs left, the Entropy 8 was doing the hummingbird, firing the occasional salvo on the chasing fighter. Harper could see Rosh was tiring. “How’s the SkyFather back there, old man?”

“Warming up!” replied Gruun over the com.

“Tell me when.” Harper ramped up her speed, arrowing toward the fighter’s belly. She had the pistol sprayer and Potato Gun up front to use, and she realized she didn’t have enough hands. “Okay – boy – Toller – I need your help, this is simple.” She pointed to a trigger stick to the right of his seat. “Pistol sprayer. Give that a try.”

“I’m not right-handed,” he warned her.

She sighed. “Oh well.” He moved the control and squeezed the trigger. It gave bursts of light fire in the directions he guided it. “Waste as much of that as you want. Superficial damage, but still don’t hit our friend. Can you handle that?”

Toller gave a serious face and a cool nod, wiping his palms on his pants.

“That display is your targeting,” Harper pointed. “No target lock on your gun, but you’ll see when he’s in range, just a second.” With the ball control on her dash, she aimed the Potato Gun before smacking in the command. A pause, then a muffled fthoom as a plasma ball released. The glowing blob drifted slowly at first, becoming denser and gaining in speed until it was hurtling toward the fighter like a fist. As it hit critical density and released its phronium-fueled boom, the fighter just barely outran it. The shockwave, however, threw the ship into a barrel roll as the Drift 9 sped past it. Toller saw some of his shots connect with the hull.

The pursuant ship hung still after coming out of the tailspin. The Entropy 8 banked around it in successively tighter circles, trying to do enough damage to keep him off. Harper realigned herself to face them, watching him float.

In silence, a shell of white light exploded from around the fighter and grew, expanding past the Entropy 8, nearly reaching Drift 9 before vanishing. Wendel and Toller glanced at each other.

“Rosh?” Entropy 8 was afloat, and the smaller ship headed towards it. According to a quick check, Drift 9 was fine.

“Entropy 8?” The fighter ship began to dock alongside Rosh’s ship.

“Emira!?” Harper tapped the mic, wall com, controls, but hers were all fine. Only silence on the other end.

The com channel crackled again. “Your friends aren’t answering because they can’t. If you want to ensure their safety, join us. Please.”

Harper steered them in that direction. She waited before hearing the channel disconnect before calling to the back of the ship. “What’s the word?” she asked with an edge in her voice.

“SkyFather’s charged and ready.”

Harper exhaled. “Good. Only issue now-”

“Look!” called Toller. He pointed out the oval of light appearing on the side of Entropy 8.

Wendel lifted her head with a sudden rush. “They’re activating the escape pod.”

47

Wendel and Toller stood with laden plates looking around the banquet hall-now-cafeteria. The wide banquet tables had been reassigned to infirmary use, so the furniture here was a mishmash of refugee belongings. The two migrated over to bar stools at a round table facing most of the room.

From there they could see the kitchen, crewed with staff and volunteers. They were filling pans with breakfast for the growing stream of arrivals. Toller took a moment to appreciate his full plate before diving into the chicken and rice.

47

Wendel was more leisurely about her ink gravy and biscuits. “Tell me about where you’re from.”

A couple more spoonfuls entered his maw before he stopped speak. “I’m not really from anywhere anymore. What I remember of home is just my mother’s house. When she died, I left.” He shrugged with a rueful smirk.

“What was your mother’s house like?” The hum of conversation grew as more people sat to their meal. Wendel kept her gaze up, while the boy remained focused on his food.

“It was small, with hardstone walls.” He chewed, his mouth half full. “She had plants, and posters from around the neighborhood. We had enough. It seemed like there were a million other apartments around us, lotta walking stairs and riding elevators. It was warm in Meriada. I mostly remember playing with blocks, and her reading books with me. Then it ended, and I’ve been going ever since. Guess I’m going farther than I thought.”

She looked him in the eye and smiled. “Many of us do.”

“Hey, can I set this down here?” The blond man’s voice boomed from where he appeared at Wendel’s shoulder. Without waiting for her answer he put down his mug, turning to lean against the edge of the table.

“Leiv. How was your supply run?”

“It went fine. Genesee’s running low on its own produce, though. After another week or two these ships will be depending on delivery from Freshwater. Might be some reshuffling of people then.” The scent wafted from the steaming cup of joe. He kissed his hand and touched Wendel’s shoulder. “I’ll be back.” They watched him exit the hall from the side door behind them.

The boy next to her polished off his portion with a quickness, and gesturing to the cup said, “I’ll get some of that for myself. Any for you?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be here.” He brought his plate to the kitchen, leaving his kerchief on the chair. Wendel reached over to Leiv’s cup and sipped on it.

30

From the cockpit, Wendel Harper read the real-time data feed on the planetwide Genesee disaster signal. The hold of her ship was empty, hovering light and steady, ready to take on cargo. She held point in formation with three other pilots. No one ship was like another, but they flew together just the same.

30

A voice crackled in through her headset. “Are we still waiting on Gruun? Ehh. Those suits can talk all morning about who to send where and do what, and nothing gets done.”

Wendel smirked at her friend’s grumping. “You better be glad he’s there instead of you. I can just see it now, you with the IDRA. The bucket brigade to put out the fire on city hall.”

A dry chuckle came through the com. “That’s exactly what it’d be like. Na. Gruun can do all the fancy talking he wants, he’s good enough at it. It’s just, I’m on my third systems check since we been waiting here for him,” he ended plaintively.

“Anyway, glad you made it, Manoukian. Didn’t think I’d see you again so soon.”

“Eh well, you know I’m a soft touch for a rescue mission.”

“Here he is,” chimed in the voice of Emira Rosh from far left wing. The channel bleeped as his com joined in.

“Leiv,” said Wendel with a warm smile.

“Hello Darlin. All you all. Awww, but it’s been a long morning.”

“Sounds like it. What’s the word from the hallowed halls of bureaucracy?”

“Well, the Imperials are putting another refugee ship in orbit for temporary residence seeing as how both Anzi and Annan are now on the impending list. They still can’t or won’t supply any ships for ground rescue, so that’s being left up to the Genesee Guard.” Sighs from a few voices. “We report to GG Unit 17. They’re currently still ferrying survivors from Surcha Province, but they’ll be en route in two days. Instrument readings give us a week till Anzi’s situation goes critical.”

“So we just hang here while the air gets thicker.”

“That’s right. You all ready to do a sweep of the fault?”

“Hours ready, Gruun. Glad you’re back.” His ship came into visual, and they reformed to give him lead. “Just sent you all a flight plan. Let’s go.”

In v-formation like underwater shellhunters, they slid through the cloud layer coming into bird’s-eye view of the stone city of Anzi and the barren, craggy hills around it. Maneuvering low enough to see the ground with the naked eye, but well above city traffic, they followed the line of hills curving to the southwest. The scar on the ground where the fault lay was highly evident; it was already shifting.

Wendel saw the dark cloud to her right before Leiv spoke. “Something’s happening to the north.” They swung around to face it. Before they’d finished crossing the city, a series of cracking booms like dynamite shook the air.

“This isn’t preliminary,” Wendel muttered. “This doesn’t look preliminary,” she said over the mic.

“Ohhh no it isn’t,” said Gretz. From north to west, a a growing wall of ash-laden black smoke billowed upwards. Booming, grinding noises sounded at alarming decibels. In the distance, through the screen of ash, the sides of three hills began sinking, while lower elevations began to steam and seethe.

Beneath chemical waves of ash, lava began to bubble, pool, and spread. The city sat squarely in the path of things now happening. Wendel mentally calculated the rate of disaster. “An hour – maybe three before the city gets swallowed. Does anyone know what just happened?!”

“Instrument reports are on the air. The entire fault is under immediate and violent subduction. Not expected to cease for weeks.” Leiv’s voice weighed heavily as he echoed the news. “The magnitude of the tenth anticipated tectonic shift… within hours will destroy the city of Anzi.”

“All of it lost,” intoned Emira Rosh.

“Let’s go. It doesn’t matter who else is coming, we have to get there now. We each find a place to land and take on as many passengers as we can. Also,” Leiv paused, “this is voluntary.”

“Bullshit this is voluntary,” said Rosh.

“Not kidding around, Starweavers. We’re going into the fire here. We have our reasons for what we do. So,” Kev cleared his chest with a cough, “follow me if you’re ready.”

“He’s right,” said the fifth wing. “I have my reasons. Fair winds to you all.” The last ship zoomed up towards atmospheric exit. This was followed by a stunned silence from the other four arcing southeast towards the city at top speed.

The approach took five minutes. Minimal flight directions and responses were traded as each of the pilots steeled themselves to singlehand their cargo ships through the chaos.

The two outer wings claimed the nearest city quadrants and broke off first. Wendel Harper took to the southern direction. In the sky surrounding them, a multitude of private ships were taking off on their own desperate flight paths. She looked for an open space to hover and take in some people. It can be so difficult, she thought with an edge of absurdity, to find a parking spot.

She glimpsed a park ahead. Torrents of hot ash might be following her by minutes. More than ten, not more than thirty. The growing stench of subterranean minerals smelled like engine fire.

The park she approached had, Wendel noticed, very high walls; it was in fact, not a park. It was a warehouse without a roof, with a green space inside? She pushed aside her questions as she noticed that there were plenty of people within who were clearly aware of the catastrophe’s onset. Mercifully, the airspace above it was clear, and she maneuvered into it.

Setting the controls to keep the ship flying in place, she unrolled the cable ladder to hang just inside the main entrance. She scrambled over to the hatch, and dropped onto the ladder, hanging on one hand, amplifying her voice with the other. “My hold can take on forty people. I count,” she said scanning quickly, “twenty-three. Climb aboard ONE at a time. Move, let’s go!” She hopped back in, sticking her hand out to wave people up.

Wendel was relieved to see people helping each other on board. She was giving a hand to the eighth person up when she overheard the argument on the ground.

“What are you saying – this is our chance, you’re coming with us.” Toller tried to grab Cheli’s hand, but she drew away just as quickly.

“No, I’m not. You go.”

Wendel stuck her head down as she reached for the next passenger. “Wrap it up, I’m stopping again to fill the hold!”

“You heard her!” Toller took a few quick steps toward Cheli, but was stopped when an older, taller man grabbed his shirt.

“It’s her place to make her decision. You don’t have to understand.” Toller was shoved toward the ladder, which he grabbed. “Save your life.” He began to climb, numb with disbelief. He couldn’t take his eyes off Cheli, who was now smiling slightly. He was almost to the top when she reached in her pocket and threw something at his head. He blocked and caught it on reflex. It was a tassfruit, pulpy and sweet in its leathery skin. Before he could think of something to say or do, Wendel Harper hauled him into her ship.