A Scattering of Vultures
“You should not have challenged him,” said Grace as she diagnosed Rose’s injury with her soft, sensitive hands, “your floating rib has been broken in two places.”
“It’ll heal,” the hardened fighter could barely tolerate being sized up and so closely analysed, as she laid back on her own bed. Her carboncloth shirt was rolled up to just under her chest. The swelling and bruising from the injury had already dissipated, to the medic’s surprise, though the bones had set improperly.
“It will heal wrong unless I re-break and set them right,” she dictated plainly as she pulled out a small vial, containing a thick silvery liquid. Pulling the cork on it and pouring a small portion into the palm of her other hand, she then corked it up and set it aside, lathering the matter into both of her hands.
“That doesn’t look like conventional Behraanese medicine,” Rose commented with a hint of scepticism.
“I do find that conventional Behraanese medicine alleviates only temporarily or artificially, most of the time,” she said with some pride, “and, other times, there are numerous side effects that could make the most simple of injuries the least of one’s worries.
“No, I prefer to use more--natural sources. This is simple silver powder in a Khrynthoss Thesium Crystal oil. It will feel warm to the touch and will sting around the broken bones. Apply only a few drops, and spread it thinly around the wound, twice a day. The bones--”
“Why didn’t you just say ‘quicksetter’?” Rose sighed, “and anyway, I’ll only need the one dose, thanks.”
“You are familiar with Khrynthoss medicine?” Grace rubbed the lotion across the injury, taking note of her reaction, the reaction of a patient who was used to the medicine being applied.
“Noregaan, actually,” Rose replied, feeling the quicksetter sink in, singing like a pot of boiling water poured steadily on her stomach but reacting little. The rib then cracked where the breaks were, warranting a short-breathed gasp of agony which she tried her very best to stifle.
Then, the bone realigned itself and seared where the breaks were. She clutched her side out of instinct and clenched her eyes shut, tears streaming down the sides of her face.
Seconds later, the pain was but a memory, the rib made whole. As if surfacing for air from under water, she inhaled deeply, then began to laugh. “I can never get used to that,” she said between pants.
While Rose suffered through the aggressive healing process, Grace placed her hands in a nanosink, a basin where one had their hands cleaned by nanites, the nanites dying and falling to the drain. It resembled water, only it had a slightly blue hue to it.
“You took that well,” Grace said, once again placing her hands on the point of injury, “and the rib is now healed properly.”
Rose nodded and brushed off Grace’s hand, sitting up, swinging her legs over, pulling down her shirt and taking a deep breath. “Not my first time with quicksetter. Probably not my last.”
“You’re sure quicksetter is Noregaan in origin?” Grace asked.
“Khrynthoss and Noregaa, they’re neighbours. They rub off each other a lot, but Thesium’s Noregaan, after Taan-Thesa, one of the nations there.”
“You must have been there then, to know this,” Grace concluded.
Reminded of another time in another life, Rose nodded subtly, “long time ago.”
“I heard there was a slowing of time there,” Grace added, sitting in a rather comfortable leather chair across from the bed, “is it true?”
“Every two seconds on Noregaa,” Rose paused, still bearing the residual burning of the quicksetter, “is like a minute anywhere else.”
“Fascinating,” the doctor smiled her honest smile, “I would love to see it sometime.”
“Well, it’s like any vacation setting,” Rose said, “great to visit--and not so great to live there.”
Grace simply stewed on the thought of a faraway, slower pre-industrial world. It almost sounded romantic.
“Now, Suragaa, while not perfect, has a certain beauty to it,” Rose hopped to her feet and donned her jacket, “take the rainbows twice a day as the sun comes across the ring. Take the skies turning from blue to every shade of orange. Take the perfect starry nights and the one moon. It’s not bad, here.”
“So, not a good vacation setting,” Grace stood as well, “but a good place to live?”
“For some,” she nodded, heading out to the rest of the again-moving ship, “we might just find out, since we’re stranded here. Thank you for the quicksetter.”
“You ought to be careful for a few days,” Grace followed part-way, “lest you re-break your rib. Try to lighten your duties. If the Captain wills against it, I will vouch on your behalf given the circumstances.”
“You’re making me out to be a cripple,” Rose said out of the side of her mouth. Then, she ascended the stairwell, adding, “I’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
Moments later, Grace whispered, as if to herself in her reflection on one of the Noregite doors, “so do we all. So do we all.”
Laura’s cabin was much like her own office in Graldica, Behraan. However, it was smaller in most dimensions, featuring a with a stiff grey couch under the rear window. She sat on top of a mahogany-coloured desk in the center of the room. Rose leaned on its side and the newcomer, one Haren Hakrum, was seated in front of the two of them with his back facing the cabin door to the bridge.
While Laura needed only a translator, her long-time academy friend served equally well as a bodyguard. As always, Laura was just as much a menace at her desk as she was to nearly every other member of her crew before they were even approved.
The man hunched over in the chair, rather small for his otherwise bulky frame. He was without his armour and wore only a chainshirt and sand-blasted, multi-pocketed pants with an array of leather belts from hip to hip, hip to shoulder, around his ankles and numerous around his left forearm. He slouched there, patiently awaiting whatever it was his young captor had to say.
“I will be frank,” Laura stated, waiting for Rose to begin translating before she carried on, “I don’t trust you. I trust you even less because I can’t read you, and less still because you’ve already declared yourself and this--petty squad of yours--an enemy of the Dominion.”
“I need not my victor’s efforts to translate the undercurrent of venom you excrete from your cold tongue,” Haren said evenly, leaning back, “I have spoken quite enough to your ilk, and know and speak and understand the dialect you carry, perhaps longer than you have carried it yourself, child. So do not presume to insult my intelligence simply because I live on a world your shortsighted people call a lesser one.”
Rose stopped her translating entirely, as an approval of his excellent linguistics. Her brows blipped up and she pushed off the desk, instead leaning on the wall on the side.
“So why on Bentor did you attempt to seize our vessel then?” Laura leaned in.
“As you should, though likely do not, possess the knowledge of it,” the man held his position and tone, “Behraan has extended its icy grasp upon this world in times past. It has plundered our tribes, consumed our resources, and placed upon this world creatures of horror—such as the Giith, the colossal metal-eating arachnids, not caring if from the hull of a flying ship a kilometre above the land, or from the iron in a man’s bloodstream. As if this world was not difficult enough to live in. That is the nature of our attempt to seize your vessel. It pales in comparison to what your kind has done to ours.”
“I was not aware of this,” Laura hummed, “nor was it ever in our historical records. You must be confusing us with some other local band that walked all over you. It seems there have been a lot of those--”
“Perhaps it is you who confuses historical records,” he cleared his throat, “for historical truth. As common knowledge professes, the more a person thinks to be true, the less a person knows to be false.”
“In plain Behraanese, please,” she raised a brow.
“It is a Behraanese saying,” he replied coldly, “I mean to say that if one should carry out each day of their life believing everything those favourable or reverent to them suggest, then that same one would lose their capacity to taste water from oil. To discern truth from lie--escapes those blinded by their misplaced faith.”
“If you’re saying I’m blinded--”
“I make no such implication,” he shook his head, “all I can tell you is that while you could very well be correct, and I could be the mistaken one, considering all matters and all viewpoints equally, and glimpsing deeper into the differences of detail may in fact forge you into a better leader. One of a steel that will always shine, and never rust. A steel that is as malleable as it is tenacious, and as pure as it is raw.”
“You’re digressing,” Laura scowled, clearly unimpressed with the lecture.
A short breath later, he nodded, “in this matter you are correct. Please, Captain Laura Vinfield, state the business you have with me.”
“What do you know of a Janeth Sehra?” she asked plainly.
A short few seconds later, he shook his head, “I do not know that name.”
“To think one who knows so much Behraanese wouldn’t know, from historical records, one of the most famous Behraanese heroes of all time,” she grimaced.
“The one who taught me the tongue was a scholar on the present and the future, and not a historian,” he shrugged, “and that one did not possess the name of Janeth Sehra.”
“So who was it?”
“While I can say truthfully that it was not the one you seek,” he sighed, “I also pledged an oath of secrecy in concern to the name, their whereabouts or anything related to them, until a specific array of circumstances arrive that void the oath.”
“And what are these circumstances?” asked Laura.
“They most certainly are not the current ones,” he shrugged again.
“That wasn’t the question.”
“You digress from your own business, now,” he crossed his remaining arm across the limp metal one.
“You’re right,” Laura sighed, “Fine. You may not know Sehra by name, but you may know her by face.”
She then pressed an array of buttons on her keyboard under the desk. Atop the desk appeared a three-dimensional coloured image of a lean woman in a green-on-black Behraanese uniform, notably with neatly-kept, silvery hair and very pronounced, almost luminescent blue eyes. The image was no more than half a metre from head to toe, but it more than sufficed, for it could be read in his eyes that he recognized the woman as well as one might have recognized their own brother or sister.
“I have seen this woman,” he said plainly, “though I know her not by more than a face. She is a skilled ranger, and her territory is wide. And she is a cunning warrior. She comes in every few months with meat and skins, and at times the shells of a giith, trading for weapons or vehicles, but never anything she could not carry or could not carry her.”
Laura paused, as if letting her mind soak all of this in, attempting to picture her greatest role model, eking it out on the desert plains and hunting all varieties of animal.
“If that suffices,” he leaned back in, “I do have one question for you. What is it you seek in Nywan?”
“Yes,” Laura turned to Rose curiously, “what’s in Nywan? And how do you know of it at all?”
“I learned it from Outer Rim History level 6,” Rose smirked, “the class you skipped all the time when you were seeing that gir--”
“Right,” she said swiftly, shaking her head, “and what’s there anyway?”
“People,” Rose shrugged, “it’s a stable nation, well-organized, well-supplied and fairly peaceful. They hole up in an ancient city, with a giant wall around it. They may be able to help us. At the very least, we can trade our excess cargo in for parts we could use. They generally speak the same dialect as Haren here, so I can do some investigating, and find some leads on where this hunter of ours can be found.”
“She cannot be so easily traced,” Haren warned, “there have been those who dared attempt it. Those foolish enough either disappeared into the desert, or were sent back in a couple of different compartments of their vehicle. Those who hunt her, often fail to realize that they will become one of her next marks.”
“How do you know this?” Laura turned off the imaging.
“I know this,” he turned his face to express a long scar under his jawline that stretched across to the back of his neck, “because Kabaiila has blessed me with my life. I only saw this woman the once, though forever will I have this reminder, the knowledge of how she could have killed me just as well, should her aim not have been interrupted by the sun passing the ring and shining into her cold blue eyes.”
“Blessed, indeed,” Laura hummed, then stood, “you will lead us to Nywan, then. At the time of our arrival there, Rose will have power over your fate. Hopefully Kabaiila will bless you a second time.”
“That’s really not necessary,” Rose piped.
“Neither was busting your rib,” she darted her eyes at the man from behind him, “if it were up to me, I would have had him sent back to his boys in a couple of different compartments of a vehicle--and slammed it into their tank, while I was at it.”
“It was a duel,” Rose stood, glaring at her, “the injury was called for. We agreed on it, and we’re both still alive and walking. So don’t pull that protective grahaamut on me again, Laura, not this time!”
“Whatever,” the Captain shook her head, “we’re done.”
With that, she walked on out of the cabin.
“She is...” Haren began, still there with Rose, “disturbed by something, and deeply so.”
“She’s a control freak,” Rose sighed, sitting down again, “she struggles to be in control of everything because she feels like she can’t control *anything*. She’s just about impossible to please.”
“So I have observed,” he nodded, “why are you not their leader? You clearly have the confidence, the tact, the...experience. Why do you allow yourself to be her pawn?”
“Even pawns have to keep their queens in check sometimes,” she stared out the rear window, then suddenly arose, “we should go to the bridge, see what’s what.”
“I concur,” he followed her out.
“Captain,” Darrick stood as his resentful leader stepped on deck, his face filled with that same urgency from before, “my sensors are still out, but I can make an easy visual. Look due north.”
With that, he pointed to the smoggy horizon, black smoke billowing and flashes of light cascading randomly upon these forming clouds.
“No need to tell me twice,” Laura looked left and right, as if to get a full view of every detail, “there’s a battle going on over there.”
“Not a battle,” said Hakrum as he gazed through a pair of primitive, unpowered binoculars, “a raid. There are smaller craft assaulting a freight ship. It has only but begun, and the freighter has time and armour and sheer size.”
“Let me see,” Laura swiped his binoculars, getting a view for herself. Barely able to make out silhouettes behind the walls of smoke, she nodded, “they don’t seem to be concerned with us. We should leave well enough alone.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Olsein added.
“Can you make out their markings?” Roselii asked the native in his tongue.
“They are the Ma’guul,” Haren stated simply, more comfortable in Nywanese, yet with an undertone of sorrow, “they prey upon any whom they come across. Their cause is not of death or of vengeance or of a god. It is of greed and self-satisfaction and gluttony. If they truly want what is on that freighter, they shall attain it. Should they see us, they shall definitely come for us next.”
“What did he say?” Laura eyed the two. Darrick sat back into his chair, steadying the ship while waiting on a command.
“He said they are the Ma’guul,” she iterated, “mercenaries. Raiders. They’ll come after us when they’re finished with that freighter.”
“Then we best not be around when that happens,” Laura flicked a few of the intercom switches left of Darrick’s console, “Edge, I need you to get whatever juice you can from what’s left of the day’s sun. Get us out of here.”
“With certainty, those aboard that ship to die without our assistance,” Hakrum warned.
“Look, I call the shots on this ship,” Laura barked, her eyes narrowing in like laser sights, “and we’re not exactly ship shape here. We have no power core, no engines, and barely enough power to keep us moving. Every little hill is a chore right now.”
“I do believe your contribution may be just enough to drive them off,” he implored.
“Not gonna risk it,” she shook her head.
“Then I can no longer aid you in your quest to Nywan,” he turned away slowly.
Almost as if in retort, the whole of the vessel shuddered and creaked, sending all but Rose stumbling, as the Skyreign made a slow and reluctant lean to the right, toward the nearing battle.
“Darrick, answers!” Laura commanded.
“It looks like the starboard lifters computer glitched out!” he exclaimed, quickly attempting to countersteer “it’s rebooting, but I’ve lost some steer!”
“And it seems,” Olsein hummed, looking forth beyond the bow, “that the vessel itself has made the decision for us. They would most certainly have seen us by now.”
“Hmm,” Hakrum looked deeply into the bewildered pilot’s face, his eyes squinting, “yes.”
“Get us out of here, Darrick,” Laura growled, throwing herself back in her seat.
<Captain,> Edge commed in, <I’ve traced that glitch to the computer control unit beside the former core. Without regular power, it’s been running off its emergency battery, and that battery’s about to die. I could try to get the battery to recharge from the solar arrays, but that will take time.>
“Time we don’t have, Edge,” Laura barked aloud, “get that computer back. I want to at least limp out of here.”
<Limping it is, Captain,> he sighed, <give me a couple of minutes.>
“That’s up to the Ma’guul now,” she closed the channel, shaking her head, “okay, so we fight. We can’t steer, but we can fight.”
“We can steer right,” Darrick’s eyes showed his typical false sense of confidence.
“Good enough,” she nodded, “grab your guns. It looks like this--native--will have his way.”
“The way was not my own,” Haren sighed, sitting next to Laura, “as my arm is still dysfunctional, I am limited to tactically advising you and those who serve and defend you--”
The speech of the long-winded man was blown away by the cacophony of weapons barrage upon the already-weak starboard, from a hovering open-canopy vehicle strafing from over the nearest dune.
“Under attack!” Miya shouted.
“You figure?” Laura glanced her way the once as the covert Miya tracked the vehicle, her turret straining to swivel fast enough.
Olsein, too, manned the bow gun and began the return fire.
Roselii, with the other gunners, prepared, but did not fire.
“Evasive tactics!” Laura shouted to Darrick.
“No!” Hakrum exclaimed, “we cannot bestow upon them the knowledge of our weakened condition. We must press straight and true, and show these Ma’guul that it is we who must be feared, not they.”
“So you’re saying they smell fear,” Darrick replied simply, “I could actually work with that. Those guns did nearly nothing to us, just shook us around is all.”
<That’s about right,> Edge added, <the weapons fire from that skiff might be a threat for the poor freighter out there, but the Skyreign barely even took a scratch. If that’s all they’ve got, our armour alone is gonna win the day.>
“That gives me an idea,” Darrick smirked smugly to himself, “Laura, permission to do something—unusual? Maybe, daring?”
“You’d do it if I denied it anyway,” she shook her head, her hand propped up under her chin.
“Nonsense!” he looked back with a grin, “on you, Captain.”
After a few moments, she nodded, “make it good.”
“Okay,” he then stood and, after a few settings set, slowly made his way to an unmanned turret on the port side.
Laura, plainly confused, stood up and gasped, “Darrick, what on--”
Until that point, the small, nimble raid vehicles of the Ma’guul only harried the freighter, largely ignoring the Skyreign as it painfully lumbered into the fray.
After that point, after the ship began to steer itself erratically, nicking the dunes here and making a slide there, they swarmed her.
“Well it is not fear they ought to smell,” Olsein said as he picked off a straggling biker, “rather, sheer stupidity!”
“Sheer stupidity, maybe” Darrick grinned, listening to all the bouncing of the inferiority around him, “but give it a minute.”
“Back at the helm!” Laura demanded.
“Jussssst a minute,” he leaned back, throwing his hands behind his head, legs crossed and staring into the sky, watching the glitter of the field.
“Refrain from firing,” Haren said evenly.
“Thank you,” Rose said aloud, who hadn’t fired a shot.
Laura only glared about as her orders were ignored, especially at the nonchalant Darrick.
“You let me do it,” he held his chin high, not looking anywhere but up, as if daydreaming.
“I didn’t think you’d do anything this stupid!” she snapped.
“Actually,” Rose stood up and walked away from the turret, “it’s the best idea he ever thought up.”
“And it is prevailing,” Hakrum said, as the rain of bullets slowly let up to nothing, when the swarm of bikes and skiffs backed away in concert, “they will not waste precious ammunition where it will not reward them. They are many things I care not to mention, but complete fools, they are not.”
Moments after they dissipated, Darrick returned to the helm of the flailing Skyreign and resumed catching up, if more stiffly than before, with the beaten box of a freighter, making certain not to be caught in the wake of sand and smoke behind it.
Laura simply stormed off into her cabin without a word.
Shortly thereafter, the lean of the Skyreign’s controls balanced out, and Darrick more liberally pushed onward.
<That should do it,> Edge chimed, <I’m gonna clean up down in the cargo, gonna borrow Sam.>
“Can’t do it yourself?” Rose belittled.
<All that shaking around pulled a couple of muscles in my back, and I’m not getting any younger,> he replied, ignoring Rose’s sorry attempt at humour.
“Alright,” she nodded, looking left and right, “let’s see what’s what. Make contact with them and see about getting the freighter to stop--”
“They know we’re behind them,” Darrick eased back on the forward lean, “the ship is slowing down, for us no doubt. They probably tried calling, but I got nothing, just...static.”
“Do what you gotta do,” Rose stood, nodded to the pensive Hakrum, and stepped into Laura’s cabin, “here we go again.”