THE PRIMAL CONTINENT
By Conlan Brown
CHAPTER 1: Raiders from the Sea! VICTOR BLAINE … INTERIOR. KENYATTA’S MANOR, PORT CARUSO -- NIGHT.
“Matraque was the best of us. Mightiest man on the expedition. Broad shoulders and powerful thews. A sailor, a treasure hunter, and an adventurer at heart. I once saw him fight some sort of massive prehistoric beast with his bare hands, wrestled it in river shallows. Thrashing and splashing.”
“And what did you do while he was fighting this creature?”
Victor Blaine lies stretched across the library couch. His bow tie undone, tuxedo shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, a cigar dangling from one hand, a cocktail in the other. His tuxedo jacket draped over the back of the couch. “Me? I did what I always did. I ran, screaming. Like a child.”
The Port Caruso Gentleman Adventurer Club laughs in chorus. They wear tuxedos, all of them, most with a brandy in their hands—standard after-dinner fare for these parties, like always.
“How very like you, Vic,” one of them laughs. “The coward of the Primal Continent.”
Vic smiles and watches them laugh. Such big teeth to go with their big cigars. Horse-like teeth, he thinks. Or perhaps donkey teeth. Braying jackasses, all of them.
“Vic, after reading your book again, I wonder sometimes how you’re able to make it to the light switch at home some nights.”
“It’s a tiny home. Much smaller than all of yours.” He takes a sip of his drink. His very good, very expensive drink, provided to him free of charge. He likes his expensive drink.
“It’s my turn to tell an adventure story,” one of the Gentleman Adventurers says, well-practiced at smoothing the slur from his speech. “One of the times I was climbing Mount Omana, I had this local native for a guide and he started--”
“I want to hear the rest of Vic’s story,” someone says from the corner of the room.
“But I was going to tell my Shogunate sherpa story.”
“Yes. Again. You always tell that story. I want to hear what happened to Matraque.”
Vic lays with his head on the leather arm of the couch. The criminally comfortable couch. He thinks of Matraque.
“What happened to Matraque?” he asks, almost to himself.
Vic takes a drink, cigar in hand. A free dinner is never truly free. This is why Vic is here. This is the price he pays for their hospitality. He shrugs. “I have no idea what happened to the bottom half of him. But the top half looked scared.”
The Gentleman Adventurers laugh. A weak, uncertain sort of laugh this time, polite more than joyful.
“Did that prehistoric beast get him?” someone asks with an amused chuckle.
“That’s an entirely different story. Matraque killed that creature with his bare hands.” Vic feels his pulse quicken, and he pushes down memories of sounds and smells. “Whatever killed Matraque was bigger, meaner, and far more vicious than anything as simple as a massive lizard.”
Vic takes a sip of his cocktail. Hard liquor, sweet sugar, tart lemon peel, bitters. The ice clinks in his glass and pops as it touches the warm air.
The first of the Gentleman Adventurers laughs, then another. Soon they are all laughing. Vic laughs too. Why not?
“Excuse me?” a servant asks from the library door, letting in the sounds of band music from the next room. “Kenyatta and her guests would like to speak to Mr. Blaine in the solarium.”
The Gentlemen Adventurers turn and look at Vic. One at a time, staring at the door, their heads turn toward Vic. He takes another sip and another puff.
Their host’s unexpected guests pulled her away from the party almost an hour ago, marching into the solarium with her like they owned the place.
“Vic,” someone says. “I believe they’re asking for you.”
He swivels and sits on the couch edge cradling the cut crystal of his glass in both hands. The fireplace pops. “Kenyatta actually wants to show me off to her goose-stepping guest?”
“Uh…” the servant stammers for a moment, “I believe it’s Kenyatta’s goose-stepping guest who asked to see you.”
The Gentleman Adventurers laugh.
Vic takes the last swallow of his cocktail. He sets the glass on an end table and his cigar on an etched crystal ashtray. He stands. “Well, gentleman, I give you my assurances, I would be running and screaming like a child right now if I had any choice in the matter.”
They laugh. Again. They always laugh when Vic speaks. Any statement which doesn’t involve the earning or spending of big piles of money is inherently amusing or quaint.
He clears his throat, hoping Kenyatta’s guests merely want stories.
“So anyway, as I was saying, I was climbing Mount Omana. It was the third day and I had a Shogunate Sherpa named… uh… something foreign. Anyway, I told him expressly that I only eat duck eggs…”
Vic walks from the library. Away from the simple comfort of simple men who know nothing but riches. And he walks toward a room filled with fascists who have executed more men in a day than Vic has met in a lifetime...
VICTOR … INTERIOR. SOLARIUM -- NIGHT.
The Skaldenheim commander and his entourage of goons stand as Vic enters the darkened solarium. It’s a long room with high windows overlooking the storm-tossed ocean. Thunder rumbles in the near distance. Kenyatta, their collective hostess, doesn’t stand.
There’s dinner on the table, plates set with pheasant and foie gras. Kenyatta put out the best dishes and the finest silver tonight. A lot of trouble to go to for fascists. She either wants something from them or is afraid of what they might do.
Kenyatta is an older woman, thin and frail and fabulous. Her clothes are at the bleeding edge of fashion, and her eyes drip with a haughty superiority Vic has practiced, to no avail, for years.
“Vic, dear, do come in,” she says, gesturing with an arm that sweeps more than waves in such a flowing gown. Her voice is foreign and exotic in a way Vic can never place. “I would like you to meet Field Marshal Bjorn of the Skaldenheim Military.”
Vic offers a hand, wishing he weren’t.
Field Marshal Bjorn is a thick, broad-shouldered beast of a man--with a brown beard braided in traditional Skaldenheim knots. He wears a black leather trench coat over a black uniform. The crossed silver thunderbolts of Skaldenheim adorn everything, from his cap sitting on the table to the medals on his broad chest.
Field Marshal Bjorn does not offer his hand to shake. Instead, he stares.
“Ah,” Vic says after a moment, putting his own hand back at his side. He clears his throat, wishing he still had a drink in his hand—something to do, other than stand and stare.
Kenyatta breaks the silence.
“Field Marshal Bjorn was asking about you, Vic. You see, he--”
“You’ve been to the interior of the Primal Continent?” Field Marshal Bjorn says with the sing-song accent of his people. So thick, it’s nearly comical.
“Yes,” Vic says, relaxing his shoulders and putting his hands in his pockets. “Would you like to hear some of my stories? I was just telling the Gentleman Adventurer’s club about a man from my expedition named Matraque--”
Field Marshal Bjorn lifts a dismissing hand. “How far inland did your expedition reach?”
He shrugs. “Not far.”
“He’s lying,” someone says from the corner of the room. “His expedition made it further into the Primal Interior than any other, before or since.”
“I’m sorry,” the tuxedoed man says, stepping toward the table, a brandy in his hand. He’s an older man, well dressed and well-spoken. His hair is white, but his body is fit. “I haven’t formally introduced myself, Field Marshal Bjorn. I’m William Durant, president of the Port Caruso Gentleman Adventurers club. You may have heard of my mining operation in--”
“I’m familiar with your strip-mining operation, Mr. Durant. And your gun-running operations,” Field Marshal Bjorn says without taking his eyes from Vic’s. “Now, be honest with me, Mr. Blaine, how far inland did you reach?”
Vic smiles and forces a good-natured laugh. “You should read my book. The whole story is--”
“I’ve read your book.”
Vic stops. His mouth is dry. “You should read better books,” he says and laughs.
“Yours is a book of adventure.”
“It’s hardly high literature.”
“There is no literature higher than adventure. There is nothing greater than to endeavor toward greatness and to struggle through uncertainty.”
Vic shrugs. “Perhaps all writers are simply doomed to hate anything they published more than five years ago. What I always really wanted to write were introspective art pieces filled with honest observation and human frailty. You know the sort. But no one ever wanted to publish those.”
“Frailty is a thing we accept when we lose faith in our ability to rise above our circumstances. Adventures are stories which make us believe in our ability to be more than our frailties.”
Vic watches Field Marshal Bjorn for a moment. “Can I get a drink?” he says to a nearby servant.
Field Marshal Bjorn takes his seat at the table again, Kenyatta watching but not interjecting. “Miss Kenyatta and I were in the process of negotiating the final details of our presence here in Port Caruso, at the edge of the Primal Continent. Since she is the closest thing to a mayor this smuggler town has, I sought her advice for who would be the greatest help to myself and my army.”
A servant hands Vic a glass. “What army? You have…” he counts the men in the room, “a dozen men at most?”
“No,” Field Marshal Bjorn says, shaking his head. “We are merely here to negotiate the use of Port Caruso as a launching point into the Primal Continent. My army has yet to arrive.”
“An invasion?” Vic asks. He tries to think of what valuables he might have at home and how long it would take to shove them all in a suitcase. He might even have time to charter a flight to some other rickety town just as far from civilization.
“No, Victor S. Blaine, author of adventures. An expedition.” He says the word with a long hiss. The sort of tone one might reserve for the most titillating or salacious gossip. There’s joy in the Field Marshal’s eyes, impossible to miss.
Vic takes a sip from his glass. Thinks. Nods. “Best of luck with that.”
“You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Blaine,” a woman says from the back of the room. A young, beautiful woman. Short in stature but commanding in her stride. Blonde hair beneath her black officer’s cap. “We need someone with your experiences.”
“A guide?” he asks, taking a slug of his drink.
“Yes, to ensure--”
“Not a chance.”
“Pardon?” she says, clearly not used to questions or challenges.
“Not a chance in hell. Not a single chance in a thousand hells.”
“You should hear me out, Mr. Blaine.”
“And you should run, Miss…?”
“Captain,” she says, unblinking.
“Captain?” Vic whistles. “You’re hardly in your twenties. I have stacks of books taller than you.” It’s impressive, in a valiant, children-as-soldiers sort of way.
Field Marshal Bjorn clears his throat. “Bear witness,” his voice is loud and commanding. The Skaldenheim soldiers stand at attention, backs straight, shoulders flat, eyes level. “Captain Freya Magnus of the Skaldenheim Science Corps. Shield Maiden of Honor.”
A soldier speaks, his voice barking as if giving a command. “I was there when she received the highest of academic honors, taught by the finest Skaldenheim professors. I bear witness for her.”
Another soldier adds in the same tone. “I was there when Field Marshal Bjorn requested Captain Magnus as science officer for his expedition.”
“I was there when Field Marshal Bjorn demanded Captain Magnus as his science officer, despite the application of old men with many more years of safe thinking.”
The soldiers go silent.
Vic is quiet for a moment. He looks her over and tries not to picture her sinking into quicksand or crushed in a landslide. “How many bullets are you taking, Captain Magnus?”
“We have many bullets.”
“How many do you, personally, have?”
“Because you only need one to get for yourself everything the Primal Continent is ever going to give you.”
They all stare at one another. Vic. Captain Magnus. Field Marshal Bjorn. Kenyatta. Even William Durant of the Port Caruso Gentleman Adventurers Club.
Durant clears his throat from the edge of the room. “Vic, why don’t we--”
“What?” Vic asks, unable to hide his contempt. “March to certain death in the unforgiving wilderness of the ever-changing continent? For what?”
Captain Magnus steps to the table. “There are powers in the Primal Interior, Mr. Blaine. Even powerful beings, perhaps. Don’t you feel them calling to you?”
“They’re real, Mr. Blaine.”
“I’ve been deep into the Primal Interior. There’s nothing there. Just more death.”
There are memories of more, but they’re so hazy. Half-forgotten and dreamlike. Memories of something powerful. And terrible. Things he’s never spoken or written about.
“The people of Skaldenheim need these powers for our war efforts. The Matriarch herself--”
Vic turns toward the door, “Then get someone else, because I’m not going back into that wilderness. Never again.”
He’s almost at the door when he hears Durant call after him. “Spoken like a true coward.”
Vic stops and feels something snarl deep inside of him. Something so basic, so primal, so unquenchable. Something lion-like…
It doesn’t matter what the feeling is. Vic tucks it aside.
“Cowards often live,” he says, reaching for the door handle.
Someone grips his wrist. A Skaldenheim soldier holding a rifle looks at Vic through the protective steel spectacles of a black helmet, face stern.
Vic looks back at the dinner table and those standing around it. Lightning blinks in the windows, and thunder rattles the delicate dishes.
“This isn’t a negotiation, is it?”
VICTOR … INTERIOR. KENYATTA’S MANOR, LIBRARY -- NIGHT.
They let Vic walk on his own. They don’t point their weapons at him. Still, he knows what he is, marching him back into the library on display for all the other Port Caruso Adventurer’s Club members.
He’s a prisoner.
The Skaldenheim soldiers stomp out of the solarium holding rifles and submachine guns. They move to the walls and encircle the room like a constrictor snake, their boots thundering as they march.
The Gentleman Adventurers stare. Some stand, cigars dangling from open mouths, others sit, clutching their drinks as if they were pearls.
When the last of the Skaldenheim soldiers exit the solarium, they part like curtains. Their stomping march halts, and they stand like an iron casing around the library. From the parted curtain of the soldiers steps Durant, then Field Marshal Bjorn.
The Field Marshal strides, one mirror-polished boot after another, his hands clasped behind his back, black leather trench coat pulled back to show the many medals jingling from his chest.
He stops, boot heels snapping together like magnets.
“Hrah!” the Skaldenheim soldiers chant, each stomping their right boot in a single boom.
One of the Gentleman Adventurers stands. A toady-looking man in a tuxedo that bulges around his middle as if he’s concealing a beach ball beneath his over-stretched shirt. “What is--?”
“Bear witness,” a Skaldenheim raider says, his voice shouting as if he’s standing on a parade ground. “Field Marshal Bjorn, leader of the Great Expedition.”
“I was going to--” Toady Man says.
“Behold,” a soldier shouts in the same parade cadence, the sing-song accent of his Skaldenheim heritage thick as he speaks. “I was there on the banks of the Dorah when Field Marshal Bjorn rallied the men against our Kurultai foes. We were lost and scattered, but he showed us courage and carried us to victory.”
“Hrah!” the raiders chant, basso and fierce.
“Uh…” Toady Man mutters. “That’s very--”
“Behold,” another soldier shouts from the opposite side of the room. “I was there in the frozen winters, in the ice-thick fields of the Northern Line, when food was scarce and the men were cold. I bear witness to Field Marshal Bjorn, who shot wild game and brought us food. He found shelter and led us through the snow.”
“Hrah!” they chant again, stomping a single boot as they do.
“Behold,” a third soldier shouts before Toady Man can speak again. “I was there in the Aquila Forest as Field Marshal Bjorn forded the rushing rapids under enemy fire. While lesser men cried out in fear, Field Marshal Bjorn stayed ever brave. Ever true.”
Vic snorts to himself. Fascists with their self-congratulating exaggerations. He scans the room, trying to meet the eyes of the other Gentleman Adventures, seeking out a friendly face with whom he can share a haughty eye roll.
But there are no eyes to meet. Every man stares at Field Marshal Bjorn or the soldiers shouting his praises. The Gentleman Adventurers stare. Mesmerized. Even Durant.
“Hrah!” the soldiers shout, full of resolve.
And among the Gentleman Adventurers come the smiling but unpracticed shouts of a few. “Hurrah.”
“Behold. I was there when Field Marshal Bjorn held the line in the streets of Strelsau. As the bodies of his own men piled higher than the sandbag defenses we built to hold back the Trajan Legion. He commanded us to hold the line. He shot the cowards who ran. The gutters ran red with flowing blood of our brothers and sisters in arms, but never did Field Marshal Bjorn give an inch to the legionnaires, for he is the living embodiment of the greatest of all Skaldenheim heroes. The embodiment of blood and conquest.”
Field Marshal Bjorn stands before his audience, eyes lifted to them all, posture perfect.
In unison with the Skaldenheim soldiers, the Gentleman Adventurers, with glasses raised, shout.
He stands among men who are already conquered...
Field Marshal Bjorn snaps his fingers and soldiers to either side close ranks beside him. “Begin moving troops into the manor. This will be our new base of operations. Quarter officers in bedrooms.”
“Excuse me?” Kenyatta says, the words polite but her tone incredulous.
Vic shakes his head. Raiders and marauders, they’ve just traded the longships for U-boats.
Field Marshal Bjorn turns to her. “We require a base of operations. This house pleases me and its size serves our purposes. We will use this.”
Kenyatta makes a sound. A sharp, controlled, insulted sound. Then she smiles with a kind of pleasant, almost predatory smile. “Very well.”
“And him,” Field Marshal Bjorn says, meeting Vic's eyes. “Mr. Blaine will be our guest here in the manor.”
Black-clad raiders step to either side of Vic, their boots clopping, and they grab his arms.
They’re really doing this. The damned fools. The damned, idiotic, goose-stepping fools are really going to launch another expedition. “I don’t suppose I have a say in the matter,” Vic asks.
“I quite enjoyed your book, Mr. Blaine,” Field Marshal Bjorn says. He sheds his coat into the hands of a nearby raider and removes the officer’s hat from his bald head. “But it taught me too much about who you are as a man. So, I can't let you away from my sight.”
Vic glares. His dry throat scratches, and his fingertips tremble. He might faint. “This isn’t going to go the way you think it will, Field Marshal Bjorn.”
The Field Marshal seems un-bothered as he steps toward the fireplace.
“Can I get you a drink?” a member of the Gentleman Adventurers asks of Bjorn.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a horn of mead, would you?”
The Gentleman Adventurers laugh.
“I’m afraid not,” Durant says. “Scotch, perhaps?”
The soldiers lead Vic toward the library door. He pushes back, trying to stay, trying to warn. Their grips squeeze at his arms, and they drag, pulling his feet across the wooden floors. “I’m warning you Bjorn, this isn’t a game.” He braces his heels into the floor, but the Skaldenheim raiders yank him along. He shouts as they pull him further. “None of this will go well for you or your men.”
Freya Magnus, Shield Maiden, watches as the men pull Vic toward the door. Her eyes are sharp and narrow. She’s the only one who looks at Vic, the others rushing to bring Field Marshal Bjorn a cigar or ready a place for him at the fire.
“Perhaps you could share some of your adventures with us, Field Marshal?”
“Here’s your Scotch. Our best.”
Vic shouts, like a madman, the frantic words bubbling out of his choking mouth, his legs kicking as they drag him. “This isn’t going to go well for you.”
Vic hears one last thing as the soldiers pull him through the closing doors of the library.
It’s one of the Gentleman Adventurers.
“Ignore Vic. We’ve never much cared for him, anyway...”
FREYA … INTERIOR. MANOR, SOLARIUM -- NIGHT.
Freya watches. She has seen it all before. The way others are caught in the spell of Skaldenheim’s declared greatness. It’s mostly an illusion, but she has sold it to the masses since she was a child paragon of her nation. Often she truly believes it, herself.
The Field Marshal sits on a stool, warming his thick hands before the fire, the Gentleman Adventurers stand in a circle around him, smiling and entranced by tales of heroism. Most of the shared glory and gruesome realities forgotten to time and retelling.
“...and of course there were no reinforcements to be called. It was but me and my shield brothers, crouched along the cobbled streets of Ardensted, holding our position as the enemy artillery fell from the sky like--”
“Field Marshal Bjorn?” the oligarch Kenyatta says from across the library. The men lift their collective heads and look at Kenyatta. They stare. One clears his throat as if interrupting this invader is some unbearable offense. Already loyal to their new strong man.
Field Marshal Bjorn sits with his back to Kenyatta, massive shoulders stooped. “Yes?” he says, his head turning just enough to see her from the corner of his eye.
“May I have a word with you?”
He leans closer to the fire, spreads his fingers wide before the flames. The Adventurers suddenly find their shoes very interesting, each staring at their own or someone else’s.
Field Marshal Bjorn stands, rolls his shoulders, and turns. The braids of his beard swing. “Very well,” he says and steps toward Kenyatta, following her back into the solarium, motioning for Freya to join.
Freya follows into the darkened solarium, closing the door behind them. A single lamp with a stained glass shade glows in the corner. Lightning flashes on the horizon.
“You’re not planning to leave anytime soon, are you?” Kenyatta asks as thunder rumbles in the distance.
“I’m afraid our expedition is not yet ready. First we must fortify the city. Port Caruso is now part of Skaldenheim’s supply line, and as you doubtless know, an army’s supply line is its lifeblood. Cut that line and an army will starve and fall.”
“You mean to occupy my city for many months?”
Freya steps forward. “Field Marshal, you promised we would launch the expedition before--”
He lifts a muscled hand.
“First fortification and pacification, then our expedition.”
Kenyatta stands in the solarium for long moments, facing out into the darkness, toward the sea. “Is my life here over?”
“No,” Bjorn says, his laugh a deep rumble. “You are now a part of Skaldenheim glory. You will be a part of making this city glorious.”
Kenyatta nods with a passive acceptance. “You said something about pacification.”
“Yes. Local elements often resist. There is no point, but they bluster,” Bjorn makes gibberish noises and rocks his arms as if marching, “resist, resist, resist, they say. They don’t understand why, but they do so because they blindly worship resistance. You must end that kind of talk. With bullets when you must.”
“And if I refuse?”
“You mean resist?” His eyes don’t blink.
Kenyatta says nothing. She understands. “Very well,” she says with a smile, “if that’s what Skaldenheim needs from me, then I will be your executioner.”
“Executioner?” Field Marshal laughs, holding his belly. “Don’t be ridiculous. There are far more heroic words for this task.”
She smiles. It’s a polite smile. A political smile. “Then we will have to find a heroic title for me.”
“Indeed. Now, if--”
“Field Marshal Bjorn?” a soldier says, leaning through the partially opened door.
“It’s the prisoner, Mr. Blaine. He escaped from his escorts and is fleeing the manor.”
Freya blinks at the soldier, certain she misheard.
“What?” Bjorn barks, looking as if he might rip the beard from his face.
“Should we shoot to kill?”
“No! He will be our guide. He must be kept alive. Chase him down and bring him to me.”
VICTOR … INTERIOR. MANOR HALLS -- NIGHT.
Vic sweats and huffs. Sticky streaks run from his flipping hairline to his panting lips. His tuxedo shoes click down the winding marble stairs.
Kenyatta’s labyrinthine manor disorients him. It always has. Every crimson wall or silken curtain looks like the next. Every crystal chandelier eventually seems the same from floor to floor. Only the ancient art gives him any meaningful direction. Black statues of smooth onyx, each a different monster or demon or god, with grinning jaws and squinting eyes, most ringed with golden bands. And there are the slabs of stone etched with lost languages and occult glyphs. These are his guideposts to his destination.
He snorts as he stumbles against a wall. There's a statue of a stone beast with a long snout and a mouthful of smiling curved teeth. The bulbous black eyes seem to glare at him, reflecting chandelier light in their mirror polish.
For a moment, he can nearly hear the creature’s snarl. There’s no mistaking their call.
“This way,” a Skaldenheim raider calls from the stairs above.
Vic studies the beast again. The dots of light in its eyes stare and pierce deep into him. Into his heart. His swiftly beating heart.
“No,” he stammers, pushing to his feet and rushing down the steps. He skips in twos and threes, his patent leather Derby shoes nearly slipping.
He pulls the dangled strap of his bow tie from his neck and throws it, thankful he left his jacket upstairs.
Vic leaps to the floor and runs in a dead sprint toward the wooden door at the far end of the hall. A cook from the house staff steps out of a kitchen door, sees Vic coming, and leaps out of the way. A silvery chafing dish hits the floor, spilling soup across black and white checked marble.
He flings open the wooden door, steps into the garage, and dashes into the dark.
The garage is bigger than many homes, filled with cars in diagonal rows, one of the broad carport doors tipped open toward the night air.
“Did you hear that?” a raider shouts from behind, the cook running to find a mop. A set of shadows thump down the stairs.
He slams the garage door and turns the lock.
Now for a car to steal.
There are so many of them.
Vic rushes between the vehicles. His hand runs across the polished metal of fenders and doors. Do any of them have enough fuel? Enough speed? Are any in here because they need repair?
He second-guesses everything. Second-guessing causes fear. Fear stops thought. He runs past a white convertible with its ragtop up and stops, pushing his fingers through his sweaty hair. But he must think if he wishes to survive.
“In here,” a familiar voice says from the backseat of the white luxury car. A long, narrow phaeton-bodied car with a ragtop and suicuide doors. It looks fast.
A thin and matronly silhouette sits in the back seat of the car, staring forward, not looking at him.
“Get in the car,” she says, “I need you to drive.”
Someone shakes the door Vic just locked. Then slams the frame. Then shouts, “Stand back!”
“Don’t be stupid. Get in.”
A rifle shot blows a hole through the door’s lock.
Vic climbs into the car...
VICTOR … EXTERIOR. PORT CARUSO -- NIGHT.
“Hurry!” Kenyatta calls from the backseat as Vic guns the convertible’s engine and the car fishtail out of the garage and onto the driveway.
“I’m hurrying,” Vic says, grinding gears and spinning the steering wheel. He looks back at Kenyatta in the rearview mirror. Behind her, through the back windshield, he sees a trio of soldiers rush from the garage with the cook following. They raise rifles.
“Look out!” Kenyatta calls, and he sees the ancient fountain brimming with water.
He weaves and the tires squeal.
“Left,” she says, and he obeys, nosing the car toward a muddy side road.
It’s an oceanfront road with a steep drop-off toward the docks. The convertible races past a searchlight shining from a Skaldenheim dirigible, light slicing through the car’s cab. Troops spill from landing boats tethered to the Port Caruso piers and docks a quarter mile out and below.
They truly have come. A full Skaldenheim Expeditionary Force. No one thought it was possible. Port Caruso is a smuggler’s town. There’s nothing here but pirates and fools and those few who get rich off the black market. Every year a few go into the jungle in search of glory, and only bones and limbs ever wash up on the banks of the city’s river. To think, an entire army would come? To stay? To launch some misbegotten adventure.
“Behind us!” Kenyatta shrieks. A truck roars toward them in the rearview mirror, the truck bed filled with standing raiders.
“They won’t hurt us,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re both too valuable. They’d never risk--”
The truck rams their back bumper, and the car skids toward a ditch, spraying water as they hit a puddle.
“They wouldn’t dare,” he says, then glances at his side mirror. A rifle flash blows the mirror to twinkling shards, and he jumps, trying not to spin.
“I think they might.”
Vic shifts gears. “All the more reason to get away.”
He hits the gas and the car weaves through the mud. They may be faster, but the truck is heavier and more stable. Escaping with just speed might be impossible.
The truck pulls alongside their driver’s side, and a Skaldenheim raider swings down, landing on the convertible’s running board.
Vic shoves open the suicide door, cracking the raider in the hip and throwing him. The raider grabs the ragtop, ripping the canvas free as both spin through the air, splattering in the mud.
Raiders scowl at them from above, climbing the truck’s sides and preparing to jump into the car’s now-open top.
“There!” Kenyatta says, pointing past Vic’s face toward a narrow gap in the cliffside to his right. He jerks the wheel and steers into the gap.
“What’s in here?” he asks, peering into the darkness, the Skaldenheim headlights skidding into the narrow passage behind them.
The walls flash by, the headlights catching the round corners of etched art and roots bursting between cracks. The passage is tall and wide. A hall made for giants.
Vic glances over this shoulder at the Skaldenheim truck bumping along behind them.
Every bulging stone rocks the car. They jolt and careen.
They shoot past snake etchings and under the yawning mouths of lion statues, eyes flashing with precious stones. There’s just enough light to course correct, but there’s darkness everywhere.
“I see it,” Vic barks back at Kenyatta, and he swings wide around a pillar carved like a bearded king.
Rifles blast from behind, and the stone walls puff with shards and bursting dust.
The passage ahead is dark, but Vic accelerates.
Kenyatta screams something but when he glances back she’s gone, the other suicide door flapping open.
Vic looks forward again just in time for the ground to drop out below the car, and the front end plunges, slamming hard. It’s a sharp drop, steeper and rougher than Vic expected.
Steps. He’s driving down wide steps. A staircase leading into unfathomable darkness. With each new step, the car slams. And slams again.
Vic stomps the breaks, but gravity is too strong. There’s no stopping now.
Down ancient steps.
Into the unknown.
And smashes to a stop...
FIELD MARSHALL BJORN … INTERIOR. ANCIENT RUINS -- NIGHT.
Field Marshal Bjorn steps from his car, not far behind the truck of pursuing raiders. His men, his reckless men, stand at the top of the stairs, firing their rifles into the dark.
“Stop!” he shouts. Another rifle blasts. “Stop shooting.” He steps alongside the line of firing raiders. Several recognize their commander and snap to attention, rifles at parade rest. One young man fires down the stairs, and Field Marshal Bjorn shoves the rifle toward the floor. “I said stop.”
The young raider snaps to attention, only now realizing who gives the orders.
Field Marshal Bjorn walks to the top of the steps and peers into the darkness, the truck’s headlights shining past him. Motes of dust and broken stone drift through the light.
“Field Marshal,” the young insubordinate says, contrition in his voice, “I--”
“Put this one in the brig. Gather rifles and ammunition. And lights, we’ll need lights in the ruins.”
“Field Marshal, it’s dark and--” Bjorn turns to the speaking raider and glares. “Yes, Field Marshal. Right away.”
“There’s no room for cowards here. We hunt cowards, we don’t become cowards.” There’s no engine sound and the smell of burnt rubber. “I doubt anything but dead bodies down there, anyway...”
FREYA MAGNUS … INTERIOR. KENYATTA’S MANOR -- NIGHT.
Freya slips through the hall, past guards standing at attention and men in tuxedos. Many hurriedly comb their hair with their fingers as they see her coming, several of the old men in tuxedos bow, all of them smile at her. Men always smile at her. Big, warm smiles, so bright they might be the sun.
Their smiles do not warm her heart.
Her heart belongs elsewhere, on other things. Especially now, at a time when her entire expedition might be in peril.
“Shield Maiden,” a raider says to her, reaching for his helmet as if he might sweep it from his head like a top hat. He is a boy. Probably three or even four years younger than her, seventeen or eighteen. A farm boy or a fisherman’s son, fresh from the fjords of the Skald Lands or some stretch of icy coastline. It’s in his voice. There is no smell of fish or manure on him, and this surprises her.
“Let me through,” she says, staring past him to the door. He’s in her way.
“I have instructions to guard this room from--”
She lifts her eyes to him. She lifts her eyes to everyone. A common problem for a short woman in a world of soldiers and old men.
Soldier boy meets her eyes, blushes, and fumbles for keys. “Yes, Shield Maiden, I was…” he trails off as he unlocks the wooden door with a ring of brass skeleton keys.
Some think of beauty as a blessing, but it was her mother who taught her differently. Beauty is a weapon. Purchased, practiced, cultivated, and turned against obstacles and enemies. Yes, it makes the foolish fall in love, but she doesn’t care about these men. They’re all just sharks searching for a meal, thinking of her as simply the biggest catch. Beauty hides the fact she is also a shark, which is a powerful weapon, indeed.
Freya steps into the darkened room, surrounded by the glowing lights of radios and equipment.
The light snaps on behind her.
“Soldier boy,” she says without turning to him.
“Yes, Shield Maiden?”
“What is your name?”
“Uh, it’s Svensen, Sven Svensen. Private Sven Svensen.” His voice cracks as he says it.
She stares forward, out the darkened window. “Why did you turn on the light, Private Sven Svensen?”
“I, uh, well, I thought…”
She clasps her hands at the small of her back.
“Do you, uh, do you wish for me to turn off the light?”
“And another thing, Private Sven Svensen,” she adds, still not turning.
“Yes, Shield Maiden?” he asks, voice hopeful.
“My rank is Captain.”
He turns off the light and closes the door, leaving her in the dark.
Captain Freya Magnus, Shield Maiden of Skaldenheim, takes a moment to let her eyes adjust. Then reaches into the pocket of her uniform and removes it, holding the precious thing in the palm of her hand.
It glows. A warm, yellow-white light. Bright enough to light the cupping of Freya’s hands. Bright enough to illuminate her face. Bright enough to cast shadows across the walls. But barely. It’s like a candle flame in her palms.
It’s a crystal. A shard of crystal, at least. The size of her thumbnail. Cloudy and pale, with jagged corners and sharp edges.
The light glows from within it, like a light bulb. The jagged lines cast dark shadows across the walls.
The crystal is warm in her hands and in her chest. A kind of warmth rises from the harsh light.
Her most precious of all secrets.
More precious than all the shameful secrets of her family, more dangerous to her future than all her carefully forgotten failures, more valuable than all the gold stolen and stashed by ancestors long dead.
The crystal pushes against her, firm and sharp, but she pushes back, stern and insistent.
The crystal is stubborn today. Willful. But she gazes upon it, determined and disciplined, pushing against the energy with which it drives itself. She matches its vibrations with her mind’s eye and presses.
It takes longer than usual.
Brighter. Harsher. Fuller and stronger.
The crystal thrums in her palms, then flashes to blinding light, filling every corner of the room, banishing every shadow. The lights of the radios pale by comparison.
So much light.
The light pushes air, fluttering through her hair and uniform, twirling papers like snowflakes.
“Show me,” she says, looking at the map pinned to the board on the stone wall. “Show me again.”
There’s a hum, deep and low. It vibrates through Freya’s hands and chest, all the way to the bottoms of her feet.
There’s a gentle knock at the door. Soldier Boy Sven Svenson. He says something, his voice muffled through the door and drowned by the hum.
“Show me,” she says, urging the crystal and ignoring the knocking.
A set of light motes gather and spin for a moment, orbiting the crystal in her hands. The motes break free and flutter across the room, leaving clouds of twinkling dust as they glide to the map.
Freya rushes to the wall, watching the bright motes seep into the map’s glossy paper.
“Port Caruso,” she says, reading.
“Captain!” Soldier Boy calls from the hall.
The motes bleed across the map’s face, cutting trails. Shadows form across the Primal Continent map in shifting clouds. The bright motes slip and weave in the narrowing channels of darkness, avoiding the ominous shadows as they pull together.
A circle of light forms in the dark clouds. It waxes and wanes. It’s the moon, showing her the days of the month as the motes zig and zag across the page. The motes worm and seek, rushing toward a landmark--a skull drawn with a sharp pen, the ink seeping and bleeding.
The motes come to the eyes of the skull.
“There?” she asks.
The motes glow in the eye sockets of the skull.
She notes the position of the moon. So little time. So few days left to make it past the darkness.
“Captain? Are you alright?” She ignores him.
“How long?” she asks the crystal. “How long will the path stay clear before--”
The clouds of shadow pull tighter, choking off the path from Port Caruso to the motes.
She notes the moon’s form.
“No,” she shakes her head. “It’s not enough time. I need more time.”
“Captain, I’m going to open the door.”
“No!” she shouts, watching the darkness collapse on the trail. The darkness envelops all. Casts the room into shadow.
The door opens, and a pillar of light shines in behind her.
Private Svensen’s silhouette stands in the bright hallway, looking into the room’s darkness. Three raiders stand behind him, holding submachine guns.
“Captain Magnus, I…”
“Go away,” she says, stuffing the crystal into her pocket. “I wish to be alone.”
Two of the raiders behind Private Svensen laugh, punching his arm and jostling his helmet.
He closes the door and leaves her in darkness.
Freya looks out the window at the Skaldenheim fleet gathered in the bay, their searchlights crisscrossing the sky.
Bjorn thinks this is victory. He believes they have time.
Should she tell him about the shard? Does she dare risk it?
The expedition is in danger. And she’s running out of time...
CHAPTER 2: Perils of the Sky! CONRAD KHAN … INTERIOR. CARGO PLANE -- NIGHT.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Khan. Everything is going to be fine...”
“Everything is not fine!” Conrad Khan shouts over the booming thunder, flipping switches and fighting the plane’s controls.
How did he let this happen? How did he let her talk him into leaving a day early, before knowing if the situation was safe? She batted those eyelashes, is how. Great Tengri, was he always this much of a sap?
Turbulence bucks the plane, and Cricket Saint-Jones, the intrepid reporter and paying passenger, braces herself in the copilot’s seat.
The sky ahead yawns black, filled with flashing thunderheads. Rain splatters the windshield. Wiper blades squeak and strain, tossing water, but the rain is too thick and too heavy. The splatters are too constant. Droplets ding and bang against the plane’s fuselage. Thunder blasts the night and shakes the wings.
“Great Tengri, Lord of Air and Fire, you’re really going to let me crash and die this time, aren’t you?” he mutters.
It all came out as words. Lousy way to instill confidence in the customer.
Thunder shakes the plane, and blinding light flashes.
“Were we hit by lightning?” Cricket asks.
“Give me a moment to come up with a more comforting lie.”
“Mr. Khan, I’m normally a calm person…,”
“I’m certain you are.” He lifts the radio receiver from the plane’s dashboard, flips switches, and turns knobs. “Port Caruso tower, come in Port Caruso tower. This is AV-03, I repeat this is AV-03, we will be approaching the airfield in, uh, maybe ten minutes. Do you copy?”
“Port Caruso tower, I repeat--”
Cricket screams. In his ear.
He jerks from her, startled by the noise, pressing a palm to his ear. “Dammit, lady!”
“Mr. Khan, there’s something on the wing.”
“What?” he glances through the side window at the dark and the whipping rain. Nothing but stormy sky.
“It was there. I saw it.”
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a gremlin.”
“A gremlin?” he sputters in disbelief. “Everybody knows gremlins don’t--” a shock of turbulence slams the plane. Everything lurches and bucks. Crates shift in the hold. “Everybody knows gremlins don’t fly this far south.”
“I know what I saw.”
He looks out the side window again, “Well, I’m certain you--” and sees the face of a bat-like gremlin pressed against the glass.
They both scream. Hers is probably more dignified.
Conrad shoves back from the window, nearly hitting Cricket as he does. The gremlin snaps at the glass. Teeth and tongue slip and scrape. Its eyes are like shiny red marbles in the cabin light.
The gremlin pulls away into the dark.
“Is it gone?” Cricket asks.
“If there’s one there’s more. Do you know how to fly a plane?”
“The plane,” he asks, looking her over. She wears a brown leather jacket, rugged jodhpur slacks, and battered knee-height boots. She has her black braids pulled back by a knot of cloth instead of a bow. She looks ready to survive a sandstorm. Time to put appearances to the test. “Can you fly?”
Not the response he was hoping to hear.
Something metallic shrieks and bends outside in the rain, and Conrad looks out again.
The gremlin, hunched and grotesque, holds fast to the left engine, pulling shiny chrome from the housing. Windshear whips through the creature’s brown fur and webbed wings, the wingtips flutter and snap in the storm. The beast dips its face into the exposed engine and bites like a lion pulling the entrails from a fresh kill.
“Hey, Ugly!” Conrad beats the glass with the heel of his hand, “Stop eating my plane.”
Ugly does not stop. Ugly lifts his bat head, looks at Conrad with unblinking red eyes. Like a cow taking a slack-jawed chomp on its cud, Ugly takes a slack-jawed chomp of loose engine wires, slurping the ends like noodles.
“I said stop!”
“Can you just ignore it?” Cricket asks.
Something goes boom, and the plane lurches. Sparks and fire leap from the engine. There’s smoke spewing from the wing when Conrad looks back.
“That’s a negative. I’m going to have to…,” Conrad grimaces, “do something.”
“First thing’s first, you’re going to have to fly,” he says.
He unlatches his harness. “It’s like driving a car.”
“But we could crash.”
“Just like a car.”
“Into the ocean.”
“It’s possible to do that in a car as well. Just grab the yoke. It’s, yes, the thing I’m pointing at. That thing. Just… uh… hold it steady.”
For a moment, Conrad thinks she might not do it. But she looks at the controls, takes a breath, and grabs the yoke with self-assured confidence. He’s still pretty sure she can’t do it, but she’s willing to fake it for now, and that’s more than half of getting better at anything.
“Just like that,” he says. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“What are you going to do?”
He’s up and walking into the cargo hold when he calls back. “Ill-advised pest control...”
CRICKET SAINT-JONES … INTERIOR. CARGO PLANE -- NIGHT.
Cricket Saint-Jones sits at the controls, hands squeezing and face sweating. The shockwaves of the storm and turbulence blast through the plane, rumbling up the yoke and into her arms.
She decided she could do this when she left Decapolis, and there’s no reason for her to change her mind now.
“Intrepid Reporter,” she says, nodding to herself. “Intrepid Reporter Cricket Saint-Jones.” It has a nice ring to it. But she’s not the story. She’s just here to see it firsthand.
The plane tips to the left if she doesn’t pay attention, so she has to keep the yoke pulled partway to the right at all times. It’s the result of the damaged engine, she supposes. The gremlin ate something important. Can an engine be saved after this sort of thing? Can they get to Port Caruso?
Was it worth it?
She looks at her reflection in the front windshield and furrows her brow. She takes on a look of determination. “You want this Cricket. This is worth it.”
She nods at herself and muscles through another pounding wave of turbulence. Rods of lightning crack the sky, from the highest heavens down to an ocean she can’t see. “Intrepid Reporter, Cricket Sain--”
A gremlin the size of a man flies at the windshield, backlit by lightning. She jerks the yoke and tries to miss it...
CONRAD … INTERIOR. CARGO PLANE -- NIGHT.
“DAMMIT!” Conrad shouts as the plane thrashes with a violent turn, grabbing a cargo strap to steady himself. Something hard hits the plane near the windshield. “What was that?” he hollers toward the cockpit.
“I hit a gremlin,” Cricket shouts back.
He steadies himself against a heavy wooden crate lashed to the floor. “Don’t do that. There are more gremlins than we have planes.”
Conrad whips the canvas from the crate and reveals the stenciled words:
--DANGEROUS CONTENTS!: HANDLE WITH CARE--
Conrad jams a crowbar under the lid and pops the nails loose, revealing what’s inside: dozens of illegal submachine guns packed in straw. The kind of cargo that keeps a smuggler’s town like Port Caruso a viable place for profiteers and desperate gunrunners.
Warren police-issue submachine guns. A Drummer Boy, as the racketeers call them on the streets of Decapolis and Thebes. They’re small compared to the tripod-mounted machine guns used by soldiers in trench warfare. The round drum magazines they use look like a can of movie film, hence Drummer Boy’s nickname.
Conrad takes one from the crate, pulls out a drum magazine, blows straw from it, and latches it in place with a satisfying…
“The gremlin is back on the engine,” Cricket shouts from the cockpit. “I think it’s still hungry.”
“Of course it’s still hungry,” Conrad mutters to himself, pulling goggles from a nearby peg and lashing a cargo strap around his hips. “Great Tengri, you have to be the least helpful deity in--”
There’s a bang from outside, and the plane lurches again. Conrad’s knees jog and barely brace in time.
He doesn’t answer for a moment as he reaches for the side cargo door and spins the wheel—the door slams open with a wind-thrashed bang, and cold rain blasts into the cargo hold.
“Just…” he tries to think of something inspiring, “do your best.”
He steps into the doorway, the ocean zipping by somewhere far below under a carpet of black and purple clouds. Rain buffets his body, and fat drops blast the cargo hold interior.
“Okay,” Conrad mutters to himself, trusting his weight to the strap around his waist, the other end lashed to the floor hooks, “let’s see how you like this, Ugly.”
Ugly’s still hunched on the engine, hind legs pulled up tight, wings raised like flags in the hurricane-force winds.
Conrad lifts the Drummer Boy, aims, and unleashes hell and hot lead through the stormy night.
Like the name, the submachine gun sounds like a drum, rolling and pounding. Just as fast and just as fierce. Raindrops snap against his goggles, and muzzle flashes burn lingering holes in his vision. Steaming brass casings twirl through the night. He fires and fires until the Drummer Boy stops.
Conrad pushes the goggles from his face to his forehead. He blinks back the rain, and bright splotches in his sight.
Ugly is gone.
Conrad laughs. He tastes the rainwater on his lips. He drops the empty magazine from the Drummer Boy and loads another, feeling the magazine lock into place.
“Miss Saint-Jones,” he calls toward the cockpit. He catches something from the corner of his eye, winging through the sky beside the plane, illuminated by a pillar of blue lightning.
He turns his head in time for Ugly to hit him with the power and force of a charging bull, throwing them both into the cargo hold…
CRICKET … INTERIOR. CARGO PLANE -- NIGHT.
Cricket looks over her shoulder in time to see Conrad’s body fly over a wooden crate and hit the fuselage wall with a metallic bang. There’s a gremlin in the cargo hold.
She should do something. Intrepid Reporter Cricket Saint-Jones should do something.
Conrad lays across the crates and kicks the gremlin in the jaw. It sounds like a butcher slapping down a side of beef.
Should she unstrap and rush back to help? No, that would lead to crashing.
There’s a scream from the cargo hold.
But she has to do something.
She looks at the control yoke, gleaming with the flashes of distant lightning. Cricket grips the yoke.
Time to try something foolish...
CONRAD … INTERIOR. CARGO HOLD -- NIGHT.
“What the hell?” Conrad shouts as the plane pitches and the displaced Drummer Boy slips from his reaching fingers.
Ugly shrieks. It’s a nasty, high-pitched shriek.
Is that crazy reporter doing a barrel roll?
It’s hardly a barrel roll. The plane won’t maneuver like that on one engine. But it can turn sharp enough to throw Conrad through the air.
And straight out the cargo bay doors, into the rainy night.
He jerks to a stop outside the plane, held by the tether. His vision blurs with cutting pain.
The smell of burning fuel stinks in the air, even over the smell of rain. Billows of black smoke twist from the engine Ugly was eating, and Conrad coughs as it touches his lungs.
What the hell was she thinking? Especially since he’s stuck outside of the plane and Ugly managed to stay inside with her.
His legs dangle over nothing. Big, black, thunder-cracking, lightning-shattered, nothing. He kicks out of instinct, hoping to catch a toehold on something. But there’s only stormy sky.
Rain rips over him in stabbing pulses.
Somehow, he hears Cricket shout over the sound of the engine and the storm. The plane jerks and dives at an impossible angle.
The maneuver swings him through the air like a rag doll.
His fingers catch the edge of the cargo door. It’s imperfect, but he’s holding something.
Pain lances through his fingers. Aches ripple through his back and arms. Exhaustion burns and burns through every fiber of his being, and yet he pulls himself, inch-by-blessed-inch, through the doorway--just in time to see Cricket holding the Drummer Boy. It must have slid to the front of the plane and between the cockpit seats during the dive.
Ugly stands between him and the cockpit, and she twists in her seat, holding the submachine gun, either not seeing or not caring about Conrad.
“Hey!” he shouts.
The drumroll blasts clatter through the cargo hold. Conrad slams behind the last wooden crate at the back of the plane.
Bullets blast crate wood to toothpicks and blow dinging holes through the aluminum fuselage. Lightning flashes lance through the dark hold in narrow beams.
Ricochets ping and buzz.
Ugly shrieks as bullets shoot through him in red splatters.
The Drummer Boy is empty.
Conrad lifts his head over a crate to see Cricket looking down in surprise at a smoking submachine gun, the action locked back and the last round spent.
Ugly staggers for a moment, hunched and bleeding.
The gremlin hits the floor, dead.
“Are you okay?” Conrad asks, stepping over the gremlin carcass, climbing into the pilot's seat.
She gives him a breathless nod.
"Well, one of us had to get it right, Mr. Khan."
Conrad takes the radio microphone and holds it by the post. “Port Caruso airfield, this is AV-03, do you copy?”
“Port Caruso tower, I repeat--”
“Port Caruso tower, this is…” he stops mid-sentence. And stares.
Below and ahead. The curved hemisphere of canvas stretched tight over a rigid frame. They fly over the dirigible marked with the crossed lightning bolts of Skaldenheim. Machine guns point from emplacements running the top curve of the envelope. Crews of soldiers in ponchos man the guns, watching the plane fly past on a smoking engine.
“What in the…?” Conrad doesn’t finish.
On the storm-tossed waves rides an armada of Skaldenheim ships, including aircraft carriers filled with fighter planes. Is that a U-Boat periscope?
“Is this…” Conrad stutters for a moment. “Is this an invasion?”
He watches the ships for a moment as they ride through the tossing storm.
“I don’t know,” she says. “But I’m here to find out...”
CONRAD … INTERIOR. CARGO PLANE -- NIGHT.
“Maybe Port Caruso isn’t the right place to land,” Cricket says.
Conrad almost loses the statement, not thinking about what she’s saying. “What?”
“Can we go somewhere else? Can we fly back to one of the islands or maybe the coast of--”
“Somewhere else?” he asks, looking down at the dashboard filled with holes, up at the windshield filled with holes. “We’re flying on one engine, almost out of fuel, and I don’t know if I can get the engine operational again before, well, ever.”
“Maybe a water landing?”
“That’s called crashing. In the ocean.”
“There are no other towns.” Conrad Khan looks at the map in his lap and does his best not to hyperventilate. “It’s Port Caruso or nothing.”
Cricket looks out the window. “I didn’t know there would be so many of them. My sources told me the Skaldenheim military had a small presence in Port Caruso and were negotiating with the local oligarch to use the town as a base for launching their expedition. I didn’t know it was a--”
“An invasion force?”
“That’s a strong term.”
“That’s a strong navy down there. And they’re steaming right toward Port Caruso. By the time we land and come up with a plan to leave, they’ll have full control of every shack, warehouse, and saloon in the town.”
Conrad breathes as slowly as he can. Staying calm has never been his greatest strength. He scans the stormy horizon and catches Cricket from the corner of his eye. She’s writing something in a notebook.
“Are you taking notes?”
“I want to remember the details as they happened.”
“Are you writing a book?”
“An article. Or series of articles. Maybe a book later. I’m a writer; it’s the sort of thing I do.”
“Writers,” he reaches for the radio again. "Not a sane group of people.” He keys the radio. “Come in, Port Caruso tower, do you hear me? Port Caruso, do you copy?” Conrad hangs the microphone from a hook and watches as the dingy smuggler city comes into view.
Port Caruso--a run-down, ramshackle blend of old and new. An ancient city filled with temples and pyramids, and ziggurats. Built by the forgotten, plundered by the respected, civilized by opportunists, and made home by unwashed thieves. A staggered stair-step slope etched into a bay by people who lived before history was written. It’s a city filled with shacks, shanties, stucco apartments, terraced buildings, and the occasional manor. All built between the stone fragments and pillaged ruins. And all hidden behind a veil of rain so thick it looks like fog. The city lights burn yellow through the night.
Something in the plane lurches and pops. Conrad feels it in his arms, rippling through the control yoke. “Hang on,” he says, flipping switches.
“Are we going to make it?” Cricket asks.
“Do you have a more specific answer?”
“Have you made your peace with Heaven?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You’ve got about a minute and a half to figure it out.”
Rainwater sputters into the plane through bullet holes.
He thinks of the Skaldenheim fleet behind him. Of the airfield ahead of him. Of the cold rain still dripping from his clothes. It’s terrible, all of it. Everything is bad.
“Great Tengri,” he mutters to himself, wipes the wet from his face, and tries to scowl. He tries to look mean. Haggard. Devoted. Driven. He tries to look remotely like he isn’t terrified.
Conrad takes the microphone from its hook. “Port Caruso tower, do you read me?”
“Yes”--crackle, crackle--” read you. Can”--crackle--” us?”
“I’ve lost an engine and--” The signal fills with static.
Conrad peers through the windshield, focusing on the airstrip ahead. It’s a small airfield at the far edge of the town, pushed up against the jungle beyond. He checks the wind.
“Egh,” he grunts, reaching for the landing gear controls.
“Wait, what is it?” Cricket asks.
“Bad wind. Erratic directions. Not a good thing for soft landings.” He pushes the landing gear lever, and the hydraulics hum through the hull, strong at first, then weaker to one side. “Uh-oh…”
“I’m not entirely certain the landing gear is fully deployed on the left side.”
“How did that…?”
“The landing gear is housed in the underside of the engine. That gremlin must have chewed deeper than I thought.” He grabs the radio. “Port Caruso tower, if you can hear me, we’re coming in fast. We are likely going to need a fire crew. Do you copy?”
Too late anyway.
He levels the plane. Feels his heart beat fast. Feels his hands tremble. The altimeter spins down as he pulls back on the throttle and manages the stick.
Wind pounds the plane from every side. Damned continent, everything’s screwy here.
The landing strip is clear now. Rain-soaked and poorly lit. Flashes of lighting reflect from shallow puddles as the wind bends and snaps palm trees.
Faster and faster, the ground gets closer. Conrad levels off. Not his best work, with one engine dead and the wind thrashing like this. Not his best work at all.
Conrad focuses on the basics. Too late for anything fancy. Challenging as the basics seem.
He cuts the engines. Glides. Keeps the nose up—textbook approach.
Wind whistles past the plane and through the bullet holes. Rain pounds the windshield. The sounds change pitch as he nears the runway, the single remaining engine roars. The plane draws closer and closer to the ground.
They land hard. Sledgehammer hard. There’s a bang as the left wing hits the landing strip and drags. The landing gear didn’t descend on that side. He knew it.
Conrad and Cricket both lurch in their seats.
His harness catches him. It’s a sharp catch, like the jerk of a parachute opening. Like the time he bailed out over Han-Largo Bay.
Momentum carries them, flings them, launches the plane across the slick concrete of the landing strip.
Toward the fence and the jungle beyond.
Toward the Primal Continent.