51

As she came to, Wendel calmly opened her eyes. She was sitting on the floor, her hands secured to a fixture behind her. Looking to either side, she saw a darkened bunk. Across the room, someone was chained to a wall pipe. “Toller,” she whispered.

Conscious, Toller nodded to her and jutted his chin to the door. Then he jerked his head to one side, indicating something behind him. He wiggled his shoulders and gave her a slow nod.

Wendel smirked and curled her fingers up to examine her bonds. Locking strongfiber loops. He had something that would open these? She watched him shift and work, both of them listening through the quiet.

Bootsteps approached, followed by discussion, then the sound of a key. In came two men wearing grey coveralls off the loading bay. They shut the door behind them and turned on the light.

One walked to Wendel and tilted her face up. Meeting his eyes, she felt a rush of recognition. She had been right about the undercover shipping network. Poke a web at enough points, and the spider comes out to investigate. She only regretted the boy’s involvement.

“This is she. Wendel Harper.” He sucked his teeth. His rough black countenance showed him to be some years older than his associate, and his posture was military. “We’re going to have words about your presence in our doings. Possibly you made an honest mistake or two at the beginning. But now you’re meddling. And we won’t have it, not from you or your group.” Her group.

Wendel’s voice stayed light. “Leanders Aynsdotr. It was your patterns that tipped me off. Pirates and thieves.”

“Call us what you want, we’re not petty.”

“You’re building an interesting stock of materials. What is it you want here at Genesee disaster? You didn’t come all this way for little old me.”

“You know much less than you think you do. Don’t worry, we’ll teach you more about us before the day is over.” He turned to the other man. “Well done. Let’s get them all on board, and we can go.”

She watched Toller in her peripheral vision. Aynsdotr’s lackey stooped to reach the restraints. With unexpected grace, the boy slithered from where he sat, trapping the man’s feet. Toller grabbed his shirt collar, using his arm as leverage to bring him down. The boy kicked him in the head hard enough to knock him out.

Wendel saw Aynsdotr draw his weapon as Toller grabbed the electric baton from the downed man’s belt. The boy flung it across the room into Aynsdotr’s face. In the time it took for him to scream and drop his aim, Toller closed the distance, wielding his broken cuffs like a sap. Rooting his feet, he swung it straight across Aynsdotr’s temple, dropping him to the ground.

51

Wendel watched Toller pause for the next couple breaths. He blinked and began to search pockets. He withdrew a rectangle key. “Here, this is it.” As he leaned toward her, she caught his gaze with a piercing look. He let her search his eyes, appearing slightly embarassed. Satisfied, she relaxed, leaning away so he could unlock the cuffs.

She stood, rubbing her wrists. “We have to find Leiv, and the others. We have to get off this ship.” Looking at Toller’s puzzled face, she realized she was grinning. She raised her eyebrows and started to laugh.

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.

44

The window view from the recomissioned vacation resort-turned-refugee ship Odessia 6 beheld the northern curve of Genesee at morning. Ice caps were visible, marred with faults that could be picked out with sharp vision. Wendel Harper sat on the carpeted hallway floor looking out, her short blond hair coated with dust, face hovering between relief and regret.

44

Quiet footsteps announced the arrival of the teenage boy she’d rescued aboard her ship. He slowed as he neared her, stopping close by. He faced the planet sunrise, hands in his pockets. He looked as though he’d had sleep.

Toller allowed the quiet to stretch on. There’s a word to describe the common feeling to those whose destiny has become separate from their home planet, the new sense of oneself as extraterrestrial. He couldn’t state it, but there it was, encapsulated in the moments he watched the sun shine over it from space.

He remembered his mother, the last time he saw her before she died. Beautiful in his memory, surrounded by drab walls in their depressed city neighborhood. Her presence in his thoughts took him by surprise.

“You’re sure, then,” said Harper, breaking the silence. “You’re not going to stay here or go back.”

“No.” He looked at her sidelong. “I’ve reached escape velocity. I never actually thought it would happen.” He showed the sincerity in his eyes. “Thought I’d live my life planetbound. Took pride in it, even.” He looked to see if she knew what he meant. “But that’s over. I’m gone, and I think I’ll just keep going for a while.”

Harper nodded. Calmness surrounded his figure. There was energy in that poise of being, but little direction. “You’re still not sure where.”

“I never really bothered with astrography before. I could head to the capital, but I think I’d be lost there.” He shrugged, looking at his hands before putting them back in his coat pockets. “More lost than I am?”

She smiled a bit. “You’re not lost. You look like you know exactly where you are.”

He nodded. “It’s a habit I picked up.” They met each other’s eyes and smiled.

“Feel like getting the morning meal?”

“..Yeah. Are they just feeding us here?”

“More or less.” She uncrossed her legs and stood, shouldering a medium-sized pack. “Come with me.”

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.

15

The oncoming sunrise and still-visible moonset balanced each other on opposing edges of the horizon. The grassy slope on one side of the little airlot was just beginning to brighten. Two old friends crossed it towards each other.

Walking part of the way, the wiry, medium-height man crossed his arms, smiling. He angled his chin toward the healthy, muscled blonde throwing her arms open. “Gretz Manoukian, what brings you to Southerpart?” She gave him a tight squeeze and a pat on the back, which he endured with a stoic grin.

Section 15

“Eyyy, same as you. Unloading government stock.” They stood a few feet apart, facing the changing sky. The breeze smelled of evaporating moisture, and color rose softly.

“How long you staying down here on Genoe?”

“Hey, until I feel restless. I’m paid. You?”

“Yup, I saw the credits hit the account, but I’ll keep moving on. Treat you to breakfast roast? Heard they’re grilling wild runner hens out behind the saloon.”

He turned to face her with a stretchy grin. “If that’s so, you just made my day.” They crossed the airlot together.

Wendel Harper called out as they approached the grillmaster. “Jay, it’s you doing these birds? Is that gunpowder again for the seasoning?”

“Yep. It’s been all head shots lately, but sometimes you miss the taste of scattershot in the body.” He set down his grill poker and caught Wendel in a hug. He and Gretz shared a nod.

“I’ll have one and he’ll have one. Gunpowder’s got all the vitamins and minerals we need.” Jay set to finishing two nearly done birds.

Gretz leaned against the wall. “What’s the news in Southerpart?”

“Well, you know about the livestock failure. They think it’s some rare pollen spread happening planetwide. None of the Aquarii wanted to hang around. Maybe they figured they’d be susceptible.” Jay watched the food cook. “Decent business for those of us who can hunt the planet birds and buzzers. Wouldn’t call it easy living, though.”

“Well anyway,” said Wendel, running a hand over her short hair, “these flocks have got a new fancy-tech innoculant. The bio-imm team sounded pretty confident, so let’s hope they know what they’re doing.”

“Yep. Glad you could bring ’em.” Jay picked up two sticks and offered one in each hand to both of them. “Least I can do is make you breakfast. Gratis.” He hissed a drawn-out S through his teeth. An old man and woman rounded the corner arm in arm, clearly following their noses. Jay smiled and turned the other birds on the grill. Wendel and Gretz raised their food in salute and turned to go.

The two sat on the grassy slope, each biting at the small elongated runnerbird on its skewer. Between them, an open infosheet lay on the grass. This paperweight cloth received Wendel Harper’s subscriptions daily, and bundled or crumpled nice and tight in any pocket she happened to stuff it into. She rustled it flat with a hand, and set it to the daily issue that covered the inhabited planets in the Leuko Galaxy.

“Genesee is coping with major geothermal disruptions. Elections this year for the Genoene Council.” She read headlines aloud when they struck her interest. Gretz Manoukian stared into the sky and ate his breakfast. “Princess Soleil is back from her Alisandrian tour. The hunt for Raev Sturlusson continues.” The sun had fully risen, shining directly into their eyes. She shook it by its corner and the sheet went blank. “I think that’s enough news for now.”