Hungry gulls squawked over the bloody port. Dark clouds parted and a blazing sun peeked through the parting pall with ceaseless increase. The grim, sooty remnants of distant, burnt buildings littered the shambolic nautical freightway and mingled with the nascent twilight to cast the whole vista in a sickly amber hue. Two groups of soldiers, white-plated, and gray-and-black, picked through the scarlet bodies of the dead like hyena’s in the wake of a lion’s kill.
Amidst that scene, Ryard knelt beside Straker as one of her medics administered a potent sedative and tended to the harpoon-borne leg-wound. The Director’s armor had been set aside, the left leg of her suit bunched to a pallid, gashed thigh. Her normally pristine and frigid countenance was drawn, haggard and wracked with emotion. “A single feather,” she muttered and reached out unsteadily and took the man’s hand in a feeble grip.
“If not for you we’d be dead.”
He squeezed her hand gently and returned her warm gaze. “You once did a similar favor for me. It is only right I repaid it.”
The woman inclined her head solemnly. “Debts ought to be repaid. Whether one is held to them or not.” Straker groaned, retracted her hand in a paroxysm of pain, closed her eyes and leaned wearily against the cargo crate where she had sustained her injuries. The medic grasped her comfortingly, but she shook her head. “I’m alright. Go. Tend to the others.” When she had recovered and the medic had departed, she looked toward Ryard with a curious sentimentalism. “That business with Haldeck and Vangr seems a lifetime ago.”
Ryard took a seat beside the woman as she fished out a pack of cigarettes from her jacket. She put the aromatic cylinder between her lips, closed the pack and made to return it, then paused and proffered it toward the CAV-keep. He took one with a smile and for several minutes they sat smoking in silence and watched the colors play across the bay, visible beneath the vast shadow of the seawall. For that brief moment it seemed as if all trouble had been abstracted from the world. Ryard’s eyes wandered from the distant, sun-lit water and the ships and cranes which obscured it, to the face of the woman into whose employ he had rendered himself, thick coils of smoke visible behind her fragile visage to the north. His senses revolted at the discordant scene and his mouth parted to expel the dark matter that weighted upon his mind.
“Meris was at the scene when Sonderon was shot. He saw the man who did it. When he described the shooter, I didn’t believe it, so I had Lanning run a search of aerial drones in the region. There aren’t many left, but he found one that was over the area when the shot was fired.” Ryard tilted the panel display of his wrist-bound transceiver to the woman, on it was a picture of a unfinished skyscraper on which perched a large, muscular man in antiquated military garb with eyes the color of rusted-blood. A ghastly smile was visible on his incongruous slab-like face. “Its him, Vera.”
The woman’s mouth quivered. “Vangr. But why would he resurface now?”
“I have a theory, but I couldn’t say conclusively. The only thing that’s definitive is the make of his weapon. Was an aircraft tethering rod-dispenser.”
“I’m not familiar.”
“They’re used by sky-technicians on the larger HOCL platforms. To keep them from drifting apart.”
“Why do you always know such arcane things?”
“Lind keeps me current.”
“So what’s the significance of the tether?”
“There has been a large influx of southers into that line of work.”
“So he was trying to frame the southers?”
“You told me his name before, Mr. Vancing, but nothing of the man himself,” Sonderon said as he strode before the pair. His stern countenance relaxed momentarily. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear. Your man here was convincing, but scant on details. I feel owed some further explanation.”
Straker surveyed the politician studiously before she answered. “Vangr was the former head of security for Kryos’ flagship, Progenitor. Hot-headed, sarcastic, but came highly recommended. Proved competent. So, to my discredit, I vouched for him. Five years ago, with the aid of one of our researchers, a woman named Haldeck, he absconded with a item of considerable value and vanished to the east, lying low somewhere in the Federation. We learned, only later, that his daughter was a prisoner of The Bureau at the time and lay under the shadow of execution. She had apparently violated one of their esoteric state mandates, and was accused of upsetting the social order. Whatever deal Vangr made with the easterners, likely a trade, our material for his daughter, fell through.” She paused to take a puff off her cigarette.
“His daughter was executed. Since that time we’ve heard nothing of him.” She gestured to the man’s bandaged arm. “Until this recent incident.”
“Why should he come after me instead of the Federation?”
“Don’t take it personally. Its not your life he wants.” Ryard replied. “But the chaos your death would bring. Same with Kryos. Same with The Board, only in that instance, they were successful.”
Before Ryard could answer, Sirin and Kopf walked up with an old man bearing a sun-beaten face, who threw his thick, calloused hands out and exclaimed, “Bless you, by the gods, bless you. We thought we were food for the fishes.” A few yards behind the trio, a group of common folk massed. Warehouse laborers and fishermen. Some bore injuries and looks of fear, but all eased by varying degrees to contours of relief.
Sirin saluted and spoke with her usual clipped incision. “We found him and the others hiding in a shipping container, Director. He wanted to see you. Says he knows you.”
“He does,” She replied weakly, a little smile breaking out. “That’s Mr. Alder, the local portmaster.”
“Oh, what have those savages done to you, Ms. Straker?”
“Made me a hobble, it seems. But unless I’m party to some sudden illness over it, I’ll recover.”
“Fortune smiles on you twice. Well, you must come with us to Wall Town.” He pointed to the far, towering aquatic barrier.
“That’s precisely where we were headed.”
Alder bobbed his patchy, crinkled head. “Good. Good. One of the only safe places left in this cursed city.”
“Why’s that?” One of Sonderon’s men inquired.
“Because there’s only one way in or out by land. If those Bureau partisans, or some others, come after it, there’s a straight shot to sea. And from there, to the colonies.”
Ryard cast his eyes out to the dead bodies that littered the shipping yard. “Before we leave, we ought to move them.”
Raimer shook his head. “Won’t do to linger. There’s no telling when they might be back.”
“I agree with Major Vancing.” Sirin stated pensively. “We can’t leave them to the birds.”
“Best not to chance it.”
“It strikes me as unlikely the federants would return without reinforcements, Captain. Even if they do, they stand no chance now that Sonderon is with us.”
“Your lass is right,” Sonderon replied with a hint of pride. “Those animals won’t be back anytime soon.”
Raimer glanced to the Director, who nodded. “Very well,” he said with discontent. “But be quick about it.”
Sirin saluted. “Yes, Sir.”
For the next half hour the soldiers worked tirelessly, dragging the corpses of their comrades and those of the federant enemy into an empty industrial transportation freezer to secure the bodies from the prying beaks of gulls and the deformations of the heat. After the icy internment was complete, the combine debarked the shipping yard and traveled by foot, with a persistent wariness, to a habitation-zone within the forty kilometer-long fortification known as Wall Town. Over two hundred feet the modular seawall rose, bisecting the docks and fisheries and the artificial outer quay. The place had previously served as a resort for those traveling to and from the city and the deep colonies, and now took on the character of a council of war. Sonderon’s men alongside some braver members of Alder’s workforce and a few of the uninjured KSRU elite, took positions along the spindled, inner-wall balconies, all of which afforded clear views of the route through the expansive shipping yard to the massive, plated doors of the structure.
Alder led Ryard, Sonderon, Raimer and a crutch-bound Straker to his private study on the ninth story. The chamber was small, with a low-ceiling, bamboo-paneled floor garnished in coconut matting, padded stucco walls, two cream-colored divans, to either side of the thin entrance, and a couch in the center, beyond which was a hardwood desk and a scuffed and well-worn armchair. On the desk, an affin module displayed a picture of Alder with a buoyant woman and two bright-eyed girls with seashells beside a fishing boat. Above the desk, an array of nautical paraphernalia. As Ryard helped Straker settle into the left backless sofa, the desk-set module glimmered and blared. Overtop the maritime family picture, the words ‘Call incoming’ appeared.
“I’ve got to take this. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be right back. There’s coffee in the cupboard.” With that, Mr. Alder removed the module from its reticulated stalk and retired to a side room. Ryard sauntered to the small cupboard which folded out from the wall above the portmaster’s desk and there removed a tray containing four thick white sealed self-warming cups. He twisted the tops of the vessels which hissed, warmed and went silent and handed them to his companions.
“Feeling better, ma’am?” Sonderon inquired.
Straker nodded. Her eyelids were heavy, movements slow, all trace of agony, gone. “Much better. I’ve yet to thank you for your assistance.”
“Ports are cornerstones of prosperity. Leverage in negotiations with whatever government will eventually be formed.”
“That’s why you decided to aid us?” Raimer prompted with a hint of disgust.
“It was a factor. But there were many factors. I’ve long supported the efforts of the KSRU. I respect your work as much as I resent your founder.”
Straker blew on her steaming coffee to mask a rising vexation. “What do you hold against Mr. Kryos?”
Sonderon, hands clasped together on the cup in his lap, tilted his head to one side, looking to the woman as a principal who sought to upbraid a precocious pupil. “He cut his roots. If he ever had any.”
“He’s not a plant.”
“Neither is he aecerite, though our blood runs through his veins.”
“You object to his residence in the colonies?”
“I should think every man would object to living under the sea. Crazy a thing as ever I heard. What can a technologist removed from us know of the city or his own stock who built it? He’s a gadget churner who has no appreciation for the spiritual.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You take harpoon and offense on his account. What compelled you to give yourself so completely to this man?”
For a moment Straker said nothing, then she set her coffee aside and reached for the zipper at the collar of her bodysuit.
“I shall show you.”
Straker unzipped the suit to her navel.
“What are you doing?” The words froze upon his lips, for the pale sliver of skin beneath the vestments bore jagged scars that spiderwebbed between her small bosom and stretched from clavicle down below her stomach. Sonderon straightened in his seat, his visage assuming the proportions of shock. Ryard’s eyes went wide. Raimer looked to his boots, discomfort in every gesture.
“I started my work for Kryos Industries in a three month tutelage to their director of research and development. A man named Callahan. I was to make memos, give my thoughts on his team’s designs and fetch packages of model parts and schematics which were often brought in for him. One day, a packet came, heavy, wrapped in brown paper and twine. I thought it odd. No one I’d ever met used twine, or such coarse paper. But scans showed nothing unusual, so I brought it to Mr. Callahan. He gave me a smile, took the package and said he’d made up his mind to keep me on permanently, if that was still what I wanted. Naturally, I said yes. The next moment someone called for me from the adjoining room, I jogged to the door and as I turned the corner there was an explosion. I remember a hot blast of air and being flung to a wall. Then nothing. Darkness, that seemed to last for days. The next thing I remember was Kryos’ face staring down at me in a strange room. The packet had contained a bomb, he told me. Sent by the anarchists of Aestival. My insides were torn up. Many organs had to be replaced. Skin, grafted. Childbearing, no longer a possibility.” She ran a finger down neck to sternum. “He saved me. Rebuilt me. Entrusted me with Callahan’s mantle. And who was I to him? I was nothing. No one. A mangled, barren clerk.” With a touch of anger she retracted the zipper and re-sealed her suit. “You asked why my loyalty lies thus, Mr. Sonderon. That is why.”
Quiet filled the room. Sonderon fiddled with his coffee cup and inclined his head. “That I understand. I’m sorry to have offended you. It wasn’t my intention.”
The door flew wide and a young man walked in and bowed curtly.
“Hope I’m not intruding.”
“What is it, Closton?” Sonderon barked impatiently.
“Just wanted to let you know every level has been secured.”
“Good. Here, have some coffee.” Closton took the cup and walked behind the desk and pressed a panel. The wall slid apart to reveal a balcony overlooking the bay.
“Didn’t notice that,” Ryard stated.
“Keeps out the water during high tides.”
At that moment Alder returned from the adjacent room.
“Security Commission is coming. Want a detatchment stationed here until the situation is resolved with the Association and the East.”
“What did you tell them?” Straker demanded.
“That I’d close the water-gate and turn back all inbound vessels.”
“Once Kryos arrives, we needn’t worry about the Security Commission.”
“And if the Security Commission arrives before him?” Sonderon prompted.
“We prepare for a siege.”
Ryard and Closton retired to the balcony as Sonderon and Straker’s discussion proceeded.
“Why, that’s incredible!” Closton declared, leaning over the railing and gesturing to the vast, dark shape in the water of the bay, with a breadth beyond the ambit of their gaze. “How’s it possible for an artificial island’s foundation to be laid so quickly? Must have come unmoored, looks like its… moving.”
“That’s not an island,” Ryard corrected with a glance to the designated depths.
The man turned to Ryard, his visage disclosing nervous perplexity. “What then?”
“Its a ship.”