Sand Waits For No Man

When Winston was in his second year of academy, his father had suffered a widowmaker heart attack and died alone in the muck of the street. Pedestrians had turned their coat collars up and hurried by. Upon hearing the news, grief had hovered over Winston and threatened to consume him. Instead, Winston withdrew from the world and threw himself into his studies. Winston’s father may have died penniless, but he had worked tirelessly to allow Winston to get an education. So Winston excelled at it and graduated as a certified prospector with guaranteed work in the Hourglass. 

His employer – a mining consortium sponsored by the Northern Axis of Nations – had flown him first to the Rim of the Hourglass, then on to the new island of Whiteshard, where he now waited in a miners’ flophouse for his first assignment. But just now, the promise of that life had shattered when a man plopped down into the seat across the table from Winston.

Winston knew the man. When Winston was a child, his father had fallen into debt and this man had come around to collect. He had insisted that Winston call him “Uncle Dee”. When Winston’s father failed to pay, Uncle Dee became a “family friend”, and over the years began to come to Winston’s father with jobs. Sometimes these simply involved turning a blind eye at work, and sometimes they involved sneaking out at dusk and returning in the morning, boots covered in mud. When Winston’s father died, Uncle Dee had paid Winston a visit, tousled his hair, and promised to come calling at some point in the future to finish collecting on his debt. Winston knew it was a ticking time bomb hovering over his life; he just hadn’t expected the bomb to go off so soon.

Uncle Dee had a congenial smile and a paternal personality, but Winston knew there was a dangerous knife edge hidden under the apparent joviality. Dee had a job for him, although Winston wasn’t sure what that meant until he was led across town into a dimly lit stillhouse in the basement of a supply depot. Winston had to duck to avoid the piping of the stills that ran low across the ceiling. The pungent smell of alcohol hung heavy on the air. As Uncle Dee led Winston to a table in the back corner, Winston looked around at the other patrons. He had expected a room crowded with a mob of rowdy miners, but instead there were only a few scattered groups, made up of subdued men wearing scowls and dark looks on their hardened faces. Winston then understood what sort of “job” Uncle Dee had in mind for him.

Uncle Dee bought a decanter of a clear spirit and grabbed some small metal tumblers. Sitting at their table, he set one tumbler in front of Winston and two in front of himself. He poured three shots. Just then, a large man ambled up to their table. His towering form blocked the light from the room’s dim lanterns. Winston balked – the man’s build, posture, and unwavering look of mild displeasure marked him as a military man. Then Uncle Dee smiled and raised one of the tumblers up to the man. “Locke.”

“Decker,” the man – Locke – replied. He took the shot and the three of them drank. Winston’s eyes immediately began to water uncontrollably.

So, Winston realized, “Uncle D” was short for Decker. It suddenly struck Winston just how out of his depth he was. Uncle Dee – no, Winston chided himself, this man was no friend – Decker wasn’t just a man who had come to collect a debt. Decker had deep ties through at least the underworlds of both Winston’s home city and the Hourglass – and probably much further. If Decker was working with a military man like Locke, it meant whatever he was getting Winston into was serious.

Soon more shady figures arrived at the stillhouse and swaggered over to their table. Winston understood that this was the first meeting of the “crew”, and that everybody would be sizing each other up. He sought to make himself look as unimportant and non-threatening as possible. Decker introduced each individual as they arrived.

The first was Holden. “One of the best gryphon wranglers on the Rim. Used to breed them, and he ran a significant smuggling operation in the early days. Now he keeps a low profile and mostly supplies tourists and small outland operations.”

Next was Sanford, and three other burly men. “The muscle. We’re going to need to move quite a bit of weight in a short amount of time.”

Finally, Metie. “Used to be a renowned cat burglar in an Eastern city; infamous enough that the Eastern Axis’s Interpol turned its burning gaze in her direction. After a job gone bad – and if you work for as long as she has, you’re guaranteed to eventually run a rotten job – she escaped with her life, though not much else.”

As these introductions were made, Winston had a vertigo-inducing moment of perspective as he realized how widespread Decker’s network of criminal contacts must be, and how many dangerous pies he must have fingers in. He was a veritable figure in the criminal underworld, a man with a reputation. 

“Right,” Decker clapped his hands, grinning. “Let’s dive in.”

“Hang on, who’s the grunt?” One of the men with Sanford – he had a head of silver-gray hair – gestured at Locke. The other people around the table nodded or gave short words of agreement about the inquiry.

“Locke is my assistant. Don’t be alarmed by his looks, he’s quite trustworthy, and silent as a stone when it comes to keeping secrets.”

Grey Hair didn’t look satisfied, but didn’t interrupt again as Decker continued.

“You’ve all heard of East Rim, but you may not know why it has become such a heated issue between the Western Reach and the Eastern Axis. The Western Reach controlled both the town of East Rim and the area around it back when it was a simple logistics depot, despite the entire stretch technically lying within the Eastern Axis’s claimed territory. Of course, a couple years ago East Rim broke off from the Rim and entered the Hourglass. The Eastern Axis took the opportunity to enforce its land claim and took control of the new island. They set up mining operations, but they only got a few small initial shipments out before the Western Reach blockaded the island. After a brief standoff, the Eastern Axis all but abandoned the island, preferring to lose the investment than start a full-on war with the Western Reach.”

“Are you going to get to the point, Decker?”

“The point,” Decker said placidly, “is that a little birdie told me that when the Eastern Axis pulled out, they left behind a significant amount of mined material; my source estimated forty pallets. That may seem like a lot to transport, but by carefully selecting only the most valuable pallets, we can make off with nearly half the total value, which would come out to around 7500 den.”

Someone whistled. 7500 den was a lot of money, even accounting for the 9 way split. Winston could see the gears grinding behind several of his compatriots’ eyes, calculating their share of the take. The calculation, by necessity, brought to mind the number of people seated around the table. Those calculating eyes turned towards Winston.

“Right, so what’s his deal?” Metie pointed at Winston.

“Remember the bit I mentioned about ‘carefully selecting’–”

Sanford cut Decker off. “The boy can speak for himself.”

Winston cringed slightly. “I’m– I’m a certified super-elemental prospector and appraiser.” He stumbled over his words, despite the simple sentiment.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“Well… how will you even know what to take? This is going to be an industrial space, not a bank vault. Which palettes do you take? Which materials can be safely taken out of their containers and packed together – and which need to stay safely contained?”

“So tell us now.”

Winston chuckled despite himself. “Uhh… it’s complicated.” He looked at Decker for help, but the man only stared at Sanford with a slight frown and crossed his arms.

“Come on,” one of Sanford’s team piped in, “I’m sure a college smartie like you can explain it clearly. Then you can go back to your nursery, and we get your share of the take. It don’t look like you want to be here.” He glanced at Decker knowingly.

“Ok,” Winston said, swallowing, “starting with monogen: species 2 and 3 require constant compression forces to avoid-“

His interrogator threw up his hands. “Alright alright, you’ve made your point. Now shut up before I shoot you and regret it.”

“Gentlemen,” Decker cut in mercifully, “may I continue?” He looked around and each member shrugged or nodded.

“All those valuable little nuggets, all of that potential 7500 den, is going to slide into the Vorticle in just 2 days. We can slip in past the tiny island garrison as they prepare to evacuate, round up the unguarded pallets, and rendezvous with a pack of gryphons to make off with a take that would otherwise simply be lost to the storm. I’ve already got a fence lined up, so we’ll be parting ways with our shares just 3 days from now. It’s a quick job, a victimless crime, and we’ll all be living quite well for a while off the returns.”

As Decker finished his spiel, Grey Hair was the first to speak: “I don’t like this. Your information smells like it came from a blackcloak – military intelligence, it’s gotta be.”

Sanford: “I agree. And what if the gryphons are late? No offense Holden, but I don’t like trusting my life to someone I just met. I’m not saying you’ll get cold feet, but there are a dozen other reasons that could delay you; and a delay for you is tragedy for us.”

Metie: “Wait, Decker, you didn’t get your fence contact from the same source as the tip-off right? This sounds like a major setup.”

Decker waved his hands in a placating gesture. “I guarantee this is not a setup. You all know me, either directly or by reputation. I’ve never arranged anything but the surest opportunities. I’m a cautious man. And to prove how sure I am of this job, I’ll be coming along as well.” That seemed to satisfy all parties. “You’ve all heard the plan. Now is your last chance to back out,” Decker said, looking around at each person. Winston wondered if that offer applied to him. Decker hadn’t looked at him as he said it. Winston owed a debt to Decker – and even if he begged off, Winston wasn’t sure he would be safe. Unlike the others here, he was no career criminal, and now Winston knew too much to walk away unscathed. No choice but forward. Risk of limb and life was the hand he had been dealt, so he would play it.

“In the coming days,” Decker continued, “if you start wondering why you signed onto this job: just think about the payoff. More than 10 times the most profitable job any of you have ever pulled off, if I’m not mistaken.” Metie weaved her head in a non-commital gesture. Decker sighed, “Metie’s final failed job notwithstanding.”

Winston felt like he should chime in. “But just how exactly are we supposed to get onto a fortified island unnoticed in the first place?” The other gave nods of agreement, and Sanford gave Winston a new appraising look.

None of them liked Decker’s answer.

***

They left after nightfall the next day. Winston had enough time to clear up immediate loose ends, paying off his bill for his lodgings and storing his possessions in a depository in town. He would lose his job when he failed to report for duty, but it would be fatal to run from Decker, and anyways the payoff from this job would be enough to live on for years, even after Decker exacted his debt from Winston’s share.

The crew entered a steamworks at the edge of town – the door had been left unlocked by a bribed worker – and descended into the small catacombs beneath it. One of the tunnels led to a natural fissure of rock, and they slithered down deeper into the bedrock of the island. Soon the crack widened and ambient light began competing with the illumination of their torches. Finally it opened up to the outside, and Winston saw the sands of the Hourglass.

There was a rickety wooden framework lashed to pitons driven into the bedrock face, below which there was simply 30 meters of air and then the churning surface. This was on the side of the island, so the sand flowed past to the left – it wasn’t a fast flow, no more than a few centimeters per second, but Winston knew that if he fell onto that treacherous surface he would find a painful and suffocating death as he was slowly but inexorably pulled beneath, his body crushed and his lungs filled with coarse grains.

Here the crew met their transporters – Kighters. There were 8, one for each person in the crew, minus Holden, as he was to meet them at their destination with the exit strategy. The Kighters were wrapped nearly head to toe in sand-colored cloth, and each carried under their arm a package of fibrous lines and gossamer sheeting.

“Can’t believe I agreed to this,” Sanford said under his breath, peering towards the ledge.

The head Kighter shook hands with Decker and they exchanged some brief words. Then the Kighters started handing out cloth sheets to the party and helped them wind it around their bodies in a complicated pattern that matched their own garb. The woman who was assigned to Winston explained in a thick foreign brogue, “No bare skin, the sand,” gesturing to the air with a spin of her hand. She adjusted the sheet on Winston’s body. “Make it is tight.”

Some of the other Kighters were less patient. Grey Hair kept brushing off his assigned transporter, who was trying to adjust the wrappings. Eventually the other man threw up his hands and stalked away from Grey Hair. “Boy, if he’s uncomfortable now, he definitely isn’t going to like the next 16 hours,” Metie said to Winston.

“16 hours?!” Winston felt a little ill.

“Sure. It’ll be daybreak soon, and we need to make our final approach under the cover of night. Ergo, we’re going to be out on the sand for at least the whole day. There’s a reason kites aren’t more common – they’re sloooow.” She turned to the rest of the group and raised her voice. “Everyone went to the bathroom before they left, right?” She laughed when one of Sanford’s goons looked panicked.

One by one the Kighters unfolded their contraptions, then hooked their assigned party member onto their body harness and jumped off the rickety wooden platform. As Winston and his transporter plummeted through the air, he felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. But the gossamer unfolded above them, and by the time the ground reached them, they were falling barely faster than a feather. His transporter gracefully stepped onto the sand, and Winston felt the kite pulling up on their harnesses. Winston kept expecting his Kighter to be sucked under the surface, dragging him down with her – but she kept taking one light step after another, and soon he got used to the strange sensation of hanging just above the deadly slope of the Hourglass.

Winston saw now that the kite contraption was much more than a single sheet with a line, like you might see in a child’s kite. The main lifting sheet was thin enough to be nearly transparent, and hung high above them, while a second sheet sat much closer to them, linking the numerous lines running between the harness and the main sheet. In a moment of insight, he realized that the setup was designed to minimize their visibility from the air. The smaller sheet, which was woven in a complex camouflage pattern, could be oriented to block out or at least distort the shadows their bodies cast onto the sand. With luck, any hapless observer’s eyes would pass over them, simply writing it off as part of the surface’s visual noise.

As they pulled away from Whiteshard, Winston could look up and down the full span of the Hourglass. The slope was maybe 15 degrees, starting from the circular rocky Rim and running down to a hazy cloud – the edge of the electrostorm that surrounded the Vorticle, the ultimate destination of everything in the Hourglass. He could see miracle freighters drifting down from ports on the Rim to the islands closest to the Vorticle, where super-elemental matter was mined and shipped out before the islands were subsumed by the electrostorm.

Beside him, the other members of the criminal crew clung to their transporters. Sanford’s goons, Grey Hair in particular, were white knuckled and steadfastly looked away from the ground, as if  by ignoring it they could will away the fact that they bounced across a deathtrap.

They drifted on for an hour, then two. There was scant little to do but gaze at the mind-bogglingly vast stretch of curving flat ground that spread out in every direction. When that grandiose natural beauty became tiresome, Winston gnawed on some gryphon jerky. But the sky was a crisp blue and the air was mostly cool and clear, except for the occasional pocket of wind-whipped grit that blasted Winston in the face, and he couldn’t help but enjoy himself for much of the ride.

As time drifted on, he felt that the sky was significantly less azure, and the pockets of airborne sand came more frequently. No, he wasn’t imagining it. He looked around and tried to gauge their position. It seemed like they might be intersecting one of the roving weather systems that meandered across the Hourglass.

“Sand devil!” Decker had noticed as well. These vortexes of air laden with small grains of sand were difficult to spot against the backdrop of the Hourglass, but now that he was in one Winston could understand what made them so dangerous to sailors and Kighters alike.

The sand-laden air now assailed Winston in a constant pelting wash across his entire body. He silently thanked the tight wrapping that protected his bare skin from the worst of the abrasion. He looked up and saw that the air-whipped sand was tearing up both sheets of their kite. He watched the upper gossamer sheet flutter with more and more lost wind, spilling the lift and thrust that bore them safely across the Hourglass.

“Is too close to the storm,” Winston’s transporter said. “We are normally running the contraband between the towns. Never down here.”

He wasn’t sure if it was in his mind or not, but he felt like each footstep of the Kighter thudded just a little harder on the treacherous sand. He glanced around, but it was hard to tell if anybody else was getting nervous – everybody was wrapped head-to-toe, obscuring their face, and like usual, they clung onto their kite harnesses for dear life.

“Decker!” Metie was shouting across the group. She pointed. “Freighters!” Then she pointed back. “Shadows!”

Indeed, Winston saw that the torn kite sheeting wasn’t doing as good a job of blending their shadows anymore, and the late-day sun was coming in at such a steep angle now that it was sending their shadows stretching far across the sand. Looking ahead, he saw them now: a pair of miracle freighters hanging a few hundred meters up in the air, sailing at a bearing that cut directly between the Kighter convoy and their destination. One of the miracle freighters was a simple transport freighter, but the other was its gunfreighter protection detail. As Winston watched, the gunfreighter began a banking turn in their direction

“They saw us!” Decker shouted to the group. “We need to head for the shadow cast by the Rim. We’ll be camouflaged there!”

The wall of darkness was close, and the transporters all angled straight towards it. Winston judged the speed and saw that they could reach the cover of shadow before the gunfreighter. But would they really be able to disappear into that darker patch? If the crew of the gunfreighter looked hard enough, surely they would be able to spot eight kites traveling across the surface?

As they slipped across the boundary, the leader of the Kighters shouted “Down, down, down!” The other seven Kighters immediately dropped into a knee-first slide onto the sand and pulled the kite closer to the surface. Winston’s transporter dropped the lower sheet until it totally covered them. Winston peered through the sand-torn gaps in the sheet and saw the others similarly cover themselves. Their larger gossamer sheets stayed in the air, though much lower. The kites ceased to move in the sky, and Winston noticed that his transporter’s arms were fully flexed as she sought to counteract the kite’s movement; her whole body tensed with concentration.

The gunfreighter drifted nearby, making a lazy sweep past them. Then it continued on to return back to the transport freighter it was convoying. But Winston could feel the sand of the Hourglass slipping over him, inexorably piling more and more material onto his legs. “Increase your area,” his transporter hissed, “more body on the ground. I cannot pull you out if you go under.” Though his instincts were screaming at him to stop, Winston obeyed and fell onto his knees. He could feel the difference – although the sand still sucked at him and covered his lower legs, he wasn’t sinking into the surface as quickly. He couldn’t bring himself to drop onto his hands, however. If his hands sunk below the surface, he would be completely helpless. His transporter was nearly laid out horizontally, her back against the surface, arms wrapped tight around the kite lines.

Soon the gunfreighter moved far enough away that the Kighters felt safe, and they hauled on their kite lines, drawing themselves and their wards up out of the sand. Winston breathed a sigh of relief. He wouldn’t have believed it if somebody had told him at the start of the day that he would be glad to get back to the lurching, aching pain of being suspended in a kite harness for hours on end; but compared to the suffocating danger of getting down on the sand, this was paradise.

Their final approach to East Rim was uneventful. The sun had set, and the waning light hid their forms against the sandy backdrop, yet allowed the interlopers to glimpse parts of the island they approached. Winston craned his neck and stared at the defenses as they grew nearer, until they vanished behind under-hanging rock as the crew slipped down beneath the island. The fortifications looked formidable. The embankments were almost indiscernible, simply a network of mounds that provided protection from flying shrapnel. Built within, however, were complicated contraptions that were, Winston guessed, siege weapons designed to take down enemy gunfreighters.

It was dark as they climbed onto the island. The Kighters used the air currents to boost right up to the edge, then grabbed onto rock. Winston was hauled toward the jagged cliff face, and he scrabbled to lodge a foot in a nearby crevice. When all the crew had been deposited on the side of East Rim, Decker motioned to Locke, who began pulling out some sort of bundle of cords from his pack, and handing them out to the Kighters. Winston saw that they were made from threads woven around beads of diamond, built up into sturdy cords. 

Diamonds had been used as a form of currency around the Hourglass since the earliest days – the mineral was a byproduct of the industrial processes used to refine super-elemental matter, so workers could be paid in diamonds proportional to their production of the valuable matter. The value of the mineral, which had never been very high to begin with, had immediately plummeted from the rising supply, leaving the uniformly sized beads as a widely-used scrip. The Kighters, apparently, demanded their payment in the form of woven cords, and Winston saw that rather than fill vulnerable and bulky pouches with diamonds, this allowed them to wind it around their bodies for safekeeping.

With payment, the Kighters departed. The party began to scale the cliff face. They moved in three chains, and Winston climbed in the middle of his, with Locke leading the line and Metie following up behind. It was a short climb compared to some, Winston reckoned, but he had never experienced the creeping vertigal fear of being anchored to a surface by nothing else than a piton and length of rope, gravity trying to claw him down into the void beneath.

At the top, the party unanimously flopped down and stretched their aching backs, legs, arms, hands, and fingers.

***

Under the cover of night, they snuck farther onto the island. The intel had been correct – although the island seemingly bristled with siege defenses, there were hardly any Eastern Axis soldiers left on East Rim. The band of thieves easily skirted around the one group of – clearly drunk – wandering soldiers they encountered and reached the mouth of the mine, which was completely unguarded.

The mine was abandoned; all the workers had been pulled out once the Eastern Axis decided it would be impossible to export the mined matter past a blockade. They found the main stockpile room and – “Oh, shit.” Sanford uttered the phrase, but they all stood, mouth agape, thinking the same thing.

They had been expecting about forty pallets of super-elemental matter – not just buckets of raw ore, but neatly sorted bundles of the good stuff. Some fraction of those pallets would be worth packing out on gryphons, and so they would make their escape with the cream of the crop. Instead, there were – Winston made a quick mental calculation – upwards of 150 pallets stretching out in front of them.

“That,” Decker said, “is a lot.”

“They must have hit one of the richest veins ever discovered,” Locke said. “These aren’t low quality types either, right Winston?”

Winston tried to work some moisture back into his mouth. “Umm, yep, from what I can see, there are a lot of rare species in here.”

Sanford turned to him. “Well?”

“Well… what? I said they looked pretty rare…” Winston’s heart raced under Sanford’s gaze.

Sanford spoke slowly, as if to an idiot. “How. Much. Is. It. Worth?”

Winston stammered. “Um, supposing our original estimate about value was accurate, the most valuable of these would be worth 1.5 or 2 times more per-pallet… plus I’m not seeing too many low-value varieties in here, so maybe add another factor of 2-”

“Get to the point, boy!”

Winston cowed and sped up what he was saying: “-then times 4 for the number of pallets so maybe 10 to 16 times the original value estimate?”

Sanford turned to Decker, as if asking ‘and that original estimate was accurate, right?’ and said, “16 times… that’s not just the biggest job any of us have ever pulled. That’s enough for each of us to live like kings for the rest of our lives.” Sanford and his goons all had eyes that were deep with greed, surveying the pallets in front of them.

After a moment, Decker cleared his throat. It broke some of the tension that Winston hadn’t noticed was building in the room. “That is,” he said, “if we could carry it all out. But we are limited by the number of gryphons that Holden is bringing – one for each of us, plus two purely for cargo. For one pallet per gryphon with a rider, and three per riderless gryphon, that’s 15 pallets.”

“A freighter!” Metie was beaming. Everybody turned to her. 

“What?” One of Sanford’s goons actually looked around in concern before realizing they were underground, and looked a little sheepish.

“If the gryphons can’t take all the pallets,” Metie explained, “why don’t we use a freighter?” Seeing only confused expressions, she continued, “there are still people on the island. That means at least one more freighter is going to make a stop here. If we can commandeer one, we can use it to take all – or at least most of – the pallets.”

Everyone pondered this for a second. Sanford: “How many soldiers do you think are still on the island, Decker?”

“Could be no more than ten, but probably more like thirty,” Decker replied.

“That is quite the margin of error,” Sanford said thoughtfully. He turned and pointed at two of his muscled companions. “Erick, Little, go out and get a better look at the main fortifications. See how many soldiers you can count.”

“They can count?!” Metie asked in a tone of mock astonishment. The goons gave her dark looks, then headed out towards the surface.

“Even if there were only ten soldiers, though,” Locke said after they left, “those aren’t good odds. There’s eight of us, and, no offense Winston, but I don’t see you being much help in a fight.”

“You saw them,” Decker said. “The only thing they have to entertain themselves is drink, and it seems they’ve done a good job of it so far.”

“True,” Locke mused, “even at 2-to-1 odds, we could handle a group of drunk soldiers.”

“Hang on,” Winston said.

“Well, the real rub is the freighter, anyways,” Sanford cut in, rubbing his chin. “We don’t know how many crew – all sober, I might add – are going to be on it, and that’s a dicey proposition to hinge a plan on.”

“Hang on!” Winston said louder. Everyone stopped and looked at him. He shrunk down, sheepish. “I was just thinking… um, this whole plan is based on the assumption that the Eastern Axis is abandoning the stockpile. That it isn’t worth retrieving, right?”

Decker sighed and with a patient tone explained, “Yes, the Western Reach has made it clear that they will attack any shipment coming out of East Rim, and the Eastern Axis wouldn’t risk starting open conflict over a single deposit of… ah. That is an interesting and alarming point, Winston.” He frowned.

“What?” Sanford looked between Winston and Decker. “What does that mean?”

“This changes the calculation,” Decker said waving at the vast number of pallets. “It is entirely possible that the Eastern Axis will make a final push to transport this stockpile. And if true, then the freighter that comes to pick up the remaining soldiers won’t be a lone cutter, but a cargo freighter accompanied by a detachment of heavy cruisers. Of course they’ll try to run the blockade, slip past the Western patrols; but if push comes to shove, they’ll engage the Western Reach with gunfreighters while the cargo hauler slips away.”

Sanford crossed his arms, and looked steadily at Decker. “I’m assuming you have a contingency plan, then?”

“Of course I do!” Decker said blithely. There was an awkward pause, and even Winston could tell that behind the placid grin Decker was furiously wracking his brain for a plan.

They never found out what wild idea Decker was preparing to pull from thin air, because at that moment one of Sanford’s goons – Erick – burst back into the chamber, puffing hard. “Miracle freighters just came out from around the Vorticle,” he gasped out at length. 

“Eastern Axis?”

“No,” he said with a vigorous shake of the head. “Western Reach.”

“You’re sure?” Decker asked, but he was already turning and starting a brisk walk back up to the surface. Metie, Locke, and Winston followed. Decker turned and pointed back at Sanford, Erick, and Grey Hair. “We don’t have much time. We need to clear a landing site for the gryphons and get these pallets moved outside.” Without uncrossing his arms Sanford said, “It’ll be done; don’t fret your pretty little head, Decker.”

***

The gunfreighters indeed displayed the red chevrons of the Western Reach Proelica along their sleek frames. Three of the deadly carbon-black contraptions escorted a bulkier cargo freighter, unarmored in order to carry more weight. Without ablative paneling, you could see straight through the skeletal framework of the miracle freighter, see where the cabins, engines, and control surfaces attached to the sturdy network of bars – bars that both kept the freighter together and kept it aloft.

“They mean to land troops and carry off what’s been mined,” Decker said softly, perhaps realizing it as he said it. The Eastern Axis soldiers left on East Rim had clearly come to the same conclusion, because just then a magnesium-bright flare shot off from the nexus of fortifications at the edge of the island. It cast the billowing clouds of the Vorticle into stark chiaroscuro relief and illuminated the nearby sands of the Hourglass with its unnatural color.

“I hate to say it, Decker,” Metie said, “but your tip-off is looking more and more like it came from military intelligence.” She pointed at the gunfreighters. “I’m thinking someone talked and the WRP heard.”

Decker shook his head. “No way. But there’s also no way the Eastern Axis was going to keep this motherlode under wraps – one way or another some miner or freighter crewman was going to talk.”

The Eastern Axis wasn’t long in its response. Winston soon spotted a cutter – a gunfreighter that was more engines than guns or armor – running full throttle towards East Rim. No doubt a heavier response was coming behind it at a slower pace. The few soldiers left on East Rim began unlimbering the assault cannons planted within each ring of entrenchments. Even fighting against the fierce winds near the Vorticle, the Western Reach freighters would reach East Rim in less than an hour, Winston estimated. Western Reach freighters were significantly better at handling near the Vorticle – the Eastern Axis freighters were much slower against the wind, and their machines would take a beating from the abrasive air-sand even if they never engaged the Western Reach. This was why, Winston realized, the Western Reach had waited until the last possible moment to launch their assault.

The island’s defenders began firing two types of shells – one pierced the air with a scream and disappeared into the night, the other arced up and exploded into some sort of cloud that glittered in the moonlight. The first, Locke explained to Winston, was designed to shred gunfreighter armor upon impact. The second was throwing flak into the air, beads of material that reacted violently against the superelements used to construct the vacuum-filled structural members inside the gunfreighter. The hope was that the flak would find its way through holes in the ablative armor created by a volley of the armor-piercing shells.

The Western Reach freighters wove past the flak clouds, making a beeline for East Rim. Each member of the heist crew helped pull the pallets out of the undefended mine entrance, down to the side of the island facing the Vorticle. Thorny brushweed had been cleared away in a 20 meter circle, large enough for gryphons to land without spooking. As Winston hauled against a rope to drag one of the last few pallets down, the anti-air fire succeeded in taking down a Western Reach gunfreighter. A lucky shot struck one of the diesel motors, and a burst fuel line erupted into flames. The fire spread quickly in the armored interior. Oil-slicked crew fell flaming from the contraption as its control surfaces lost function and it spiraled out of control. Another nearby gunfreighter had to pull a hard evasive maneuver to avoid collision, but just then the raging fire breached the magazines and the out-of-control gunfreighter exploded in a massive fireball, consuming both craft. In the same instant, sun-bright lightning arced horizontally, reaching out from the Vorticle to the expanding fireball, dancing across the fractal surface of the conflagration.

The entire heist crew stood in stunned silence, staring slack-jawed at the aftermath of the spectacular display. A silence fell, the anti-air batteries ceasing for the first time in 45 minutes. Little beads of glass scattered across the ground at Winston’s feet. He realized in the relative silence that the howling of wind had risen to a heady scream, and the slightly gritty wind had turned into an abrasive assault of air-sand. The horizontal lightning viscerally confirmed what he knew intellectually; they had entered the danger zone of the Vorticle. Static discharges from the constantly roiling pillar of sand and dust would arc to nearby conductive objects and in the process form a hail of molten glass from the air-sand.

“We gotta get the hell out of here,” Sanford shouted over the wind.

“Holden is late,” Decker replied. “We can hunker down in the mines and wait.”

“Holden’s not coming! We’re taking a freighter,” Sanford said pointing at the remaining Western Reach contraptions, “or we’re going to die.”

A shell from the last Western Reach gunfreighter landed somewhere on the island and exploded, sending tremors through the ground. When Winston regained his balance, Decker and Sanford were face-to-face, piercing each other with frigid glares.

Then, “Gryphons!” Metie pointed towards the Vorticle, where they could just make out the silhouette of a flock of gryphons against the dark clouds. Decker broke away from Sanford, slapped Metie on the back and heartily praised her sharp eyes. After a moment of confusion, everyone was scrambling to get into position to receive the caravan of flying beasts.

The gryphons landed one by one, descending rapidly towards the brush clearing before powerfully beating their feathery wings downwards two or three times and skidding to a stop in the dirt. Winston saw that they were linked together by a long, thin line clipped to each of their harnesses. Holden rode the lead gryphon, and the others followed in close succession. The crew scrambled to guide each gryphon out of the clearing before the next one landed. Metie, working beside Winston to guide one of the beasts, asked, “Won’t the lightning be a problem for us?”

Winston shook his head. “The lightning usually only goes between the Vorticle and nearby islands. Even if it passes near us, because of the sand in the air, it will go around us rather than through us.”

“Ok, but what about that freighter earlier?”

Winston considered for a moment as they unclipped the gryphon’s guide line and tied it around a nearby tree. “The lightning likes to jump to or pass through superelements, and that fireball was full of little bits of ordinated hexagen – exploded miracle freighter, that is. Fortunately, part of the purpose of these pallets is to insulate the superelemental payload against static discharge.”

Grey Hair stood by to help Holden off of his gryphon. As Holden dismounted, Grey Hair yanked on him and sent him tumbling head over heels into the dirt. Grey Hair kicked him viciously in the head. Winston stood slack-jawed, then turned to see Locke on his knees in the dirt, with one of Sanford’s goons – the one called Little – standing over him holding a bloodied knife. Sanford held a knife to Decker’s throat. “Stay where you are!” he barked. His other goon, Erick, stalked over to Winston and Metie. He looked at Metie with a gleam of joyful menace in his eye. He gestured with a wicked 12 inch cargo blade: “Your weapons.” Metie slowly reached inside her coat and pulled out two daggers, throwing them down onto the ground. Erick picked them up and tossed them into the scrub brush. “Where’s your sharp tongue now, eh?”

Meanwhile, Sanford had searched Decker for weapons, finding a blade – which he tossed away – and a small flechette pistol. He shoved Decker towards the gryphons and checked the pistol. Satisfied, he sheathed his knife and aimed the pistol at Decker. “Right,” he shouted, “let’s head back to the mine. Turns out we’re going to be bringing back a bit more cargo than planned.”

Sanford’s goon Erick stayed behind to watch Holden and Locke, who laid on his back, breathing shallowly. Sanford, Little, and Grey Hair marched Winston, Metie, and Decker back up the hill and back to the cache. Sanford turned to Winston. “Okay kiddo, pick the ten most valuable pallets.” Winston tried to focus, but he shivered uncontrollably. His body was awash in adrenaline and slick with a cold sweat. “Ten? But-”

Grey Hair smacked Winston on the side of the head, hard enough to send Winston stumbling onto the ground. As he sprawled on the hard packed ground, Metie shouted “Hey! Watch the goods! You may not use your brain, but he needs his to pick out your damn pallets.” 

Little turned and punched her squarely in the mouth, sending her crashing against the cavern wall. “I’ve had more than enough of your lip. Open your mouth again and I’ll cut those lips right off.”

Sanford extended his hand and helped Winston up. He wrapped his arm around Winston’s shoulders in an affable gesture. “Look, son. It’s very simple. Tell me which of these are the most valuable, or I’ll kill them–” he nodded at Metie and Decker “–and then I’ll kill you.”

Winston tried to work moisture into his impossibly dry mouth. “Those four,” he said meekly, “and that group over there.” He pointed at the pallets and then dropped his hand and hung his head. Sanford let him go, and Winston began shivering again, falling to his knees.

Winston, Metie, and Sanford’s goons worked to move the pallets out to the gryphons, while Sanford stood guard with the flechette pistol. Outside, the lightning had grown more frequent, and the Western Reach’s single remaining gunfreighter was almost directly overhead. Its cannons bombarded the beleaguered island defenses with explosive shrapnel bombs. The anti-air fire had almost entirely stopped, the cannons presumably disabled in the exchange of explosives. Meanwhile the cargo freighter darted back and forth, trying to make a landing on the island to discharge its complement of marines. And in the distance, the Eastern Axis’s response fleet fought against the prevailing winds, firing the occasional ranging shot towards the Western Reach freighters.

At the brush clearing, Sanford had the new pallets loaded onto the gryphons, leaving only four with a single pallet’s worth of cargo. The math was clear. “Well,” Sanford said, “I’m sorry it had to turn out this way, Decker. But once we understood you weren’t in control of the situation, we realized this was for the best. See you in the next life.” Decker gave him a pursed sarcastic smile, while his eyes stared daggers. 

Sanford mounted the lead gryphon, then watched with his pistol readied while his goons mounted the three other rider-ready gryphons. Sanford tucked the gun away, and took hold of the reigns. In that instant, Winston understood he was dead. With the fear and adrenaline of the last twenty minutes stewing in his heart and head, the evaporation of consequences drove him to action without his having made any conscious resolution about it. In fact, as he watched himself spring forward, a part of his mind screamed at him for his reckless stupidity. He dodged behind Sanford’s gryphon, through the beast’s peripheral vision. He grabbed wildly at the straps holding the cargo on as the gryphon reared up. It kicked its left leg back, the razor sharp hoof nicking his scalp. Even though it barely grazed him, it still imparted enough force to send him spinning away, blood streaming across his vision. Sanford shouted in surprise and flailed wildly with the reigns to keep control and balance. The netting holding the cargo tore, and bundles of raw superelemental growths spilled onto the ground. Sanford lost his balance and tumbled from the saddle, smacking into the ground. Grey Hair nearly fell from his own saddle as he hurriedly dismounted, but Sanford rose on his own, barely injured despite the savage fall. Sanford handed the flechette pistol to Grey Hair and waved him away. Grey Hair aimed the pistol at Decker and Metie while Sanford pulled Winston off the ground. “That was ballsy, I’ll give you that. I didn’t expect you’d be the one to try something like that.” He knocked Winston to the ground with a blow, and then kicked him in the ribs. Winston pulled into a fetal position, instinctively covering his head with his hands. “You could have killed me, and I respect that. But I can’t let that kind of thing go unpunished, even for an already deadman.” His hand worked the clasp on his belt knife.

“Sanford!” Little shouted to catch his attention. “Sorry boss, but we don’t have time.” He pointed in the distance, where the Western Reach cargo freighter had made landfall, and a squad of marines were swarming over the defenses of the Eastern Axis.

Sanford sighed and withdrew, picking up the valuable bundles from the scattered pallet, shoving some into his own pack and emptying one of their equipment bags to carry the rest. He remounted the gryphon with the bag and the band of mutineers took to the sky with the entire host of gryphons. As Holden stirred on the ground, groaning, and Locke struggled to rise, the dirt dark under him with blood, Decker and Metie watched the gryphons depart. A despair settled over the group. Then Metie turned and began attending to Winston. Decker shook himself and crouched to inspect Locke’s wound. Winston groaned and rose slowly with Metie’s help. “Nice try, kid,” she said. “That took guts, although I would have thought you had more brains than that.” Winston grunted in an approximation of a chuckle.

Metie left him and strode over to check on Holden. “Alright, what’s the plan, Decker?” she asked.

Decker shook his head. “No plan, Metie. The Western Reach marines have probably secured the island by now; there’s no way we’re getting a ride off.” He looked at Locke. “Good news, you’ll live long enough to die in the storm. As far as stab wounds go, you got pretty lucky.” He smiled grimly.

“No,” Winston said. They both looked at him. Winston pointed up. “Watch.” They looked up to what he indicated.

The mutineers were about two hundred feet in the air when a blinding bolt of lightning licked out and struck the lead gryphon. The animal gave out a piercing avian shriek audible even over the roaring storm winds, and began to tumble towards the island. It pulled the rest of the gryphons with it, although the other mutineers tried to fight it. None of them managed to cut the line linking the gryphon train before Sanford’s gryphon crashed into the brush. The others cried out and flapped furiously, striking the ground at various awkward angles. By the fourth gryphon, the train had recovered enough authority that the remainder landed with a semblance of control.

Decker and Metie gawked. “Come on,” Winston shouted. “Before they have a chance to recover!” They jumped up and the trio ran towards the crash site.

Little had just extricated himself from the saddle of the fourth gryphon when Metie crashed into him and sent him to the ground. She kicked him heartily. “How’s that for wit, you lout?”

Decker grabbed a utility blade from one of the cargo gryphons and stalked towards Sanford’s singed gryphon. The animal kicked weakly, suffering some sort of muscle spasm. Decker stooped and pulled his flechette gun from the pile. He aimed, and fired. The beast went still. He aimed and fired again, then turned and walked away.

“Decker!” They turned to see Holden supporting a weakly standing Locke, both slowly making their way towards the crashed gryphon train. “The Western Reach has taken the island. They’re already pulling pallets out of the cache. If they haven’t spotted us already, they will soon.” Decker nodded, and the crew quickly cut cargo loose from two rear gryphons. They cut free the third gryphon from the second, which was too injured to fly, and the crew mounted up. 

“Looks like you’re gonna live after all, Locke!” Decker helped him into the saddle. “We’ll get you to a doctor in no time.”

Over the wind, the crew heard shouts of surprise. On the crest of the hill, Western Reach marines pointed towards the gryphon train. The soldiers began unlimbering heavy rifles, and without a moment to lose Decker slid onto the new lead gryphon. He turned his steed and made to take off. “No, wait!” Holden motioned in the other direction. “Take off with the wind. We won’t gain enough speed otherwise.”

Decker nodded, and they reared around, charging straight at the squad of marines. A day ago, Winston might have cried out or clenched in fear. Now, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, he simply set his jaw grimly and watched as they barreled towards the soldiers. The soldiers yelped in surprise, and before they could finish readying their weapons, the gryphons charged through their midst, knocked some to the ground, and kicked into the air, the wind surging them forwards. Decker turned in his saddle and fired some flechettes at the marines, causing them to dive to the ground for cover.

Ahead of them, the Eastern Axis cutters were engaging in a vicious close battle with the remaining Western gunfreighter. Explosions and acrid powder smoke filled the air, and the train of gryphons passed neatly underneath the engagement, slipping away unnoticed. As they drew further away, there was a resounding crack. Winston turned to see lightning strike the island again and calve away an entire piece of the rocky base. The massive shard of stone and earth tumbled slowly downwards, crashing into the sand and almost instantly sinking underneath the surface.

They flew for a ways in silence. The wind dropped from a howl to a low whistle, and eventually to relative placidity. “Seventeen hundred!” Metie said loudly for everyone to hear.

“Eh?” Holden turned to look at her.

“It took me a little while to work it out, but it’s seventeen hundred den.”

Holden looked at her blankly.

“Our take!” she said brightly. “Things got a little mixed up between the value of the pallets, the number of gryphons, and so on.”

Holden frowned. “Seventeen hundred den, split 5 ways… that’s not a bad take. Don’t know if it’s worth getting kicked, beaten and stabbed for…”

“No,” Metie cut in, “seventeen hundred per person.”

Holden’s eyes widened. Then he began to chuckle. Winston couldn’t help himself, he smiled and began to laugh too. It felt good, the stress and anxiety flushing out of his body. Even though his body ached in a hundred places, a glow spread inside him. They were safe, and he was rich. Soon all five of them, even stoic Locke, were laughing heartily as they flew through the rich violet sky, towards a newly dawning sun.