Illustration by Phantom
"We're pullin in to the Maelstrom Channel, folks, the smallest of Islaire's waterway entrances," Corman announced to his hungover, seasick companions, "Step off from the starboard, watch yer step, and thank ye for piratin with the Lake Lady." The ship rode out the last of its momentum in a dank, stony cavern that could have accommodated a ship five times its size. It bobbed beneath a steel catwalk. A man and woman in plated body armor looked down on them from it.
"Regis Corman!" The woman laughed, "A shame to bring the Lake Lady so far just to turn her around!" Corman urged Quincy and Crichton off the ship with stern arms.
"Levi an I av ad disagreements over shipments," he drawled smoothly, "But he's gunna want this one. Got is favorite Ranger." The Inspector's eyes widened at the pale Crichton.
"We'd have sunk with any other Captain," he told them, grasping the clammy wall, "Tolerate him for today." The Inspectors hardly dropped their jaws before Corman swung to the metal walks.
"The lamb is fer Darren on Broodman Avenue, the whiskey goes to Beatle in the Sorry Saddle," he rattled, "Oh, an the spiders are mine. Every hair out o place on them is one I'll yank from ye meself." Hard as he tried, Quincy couldn't imagine where he could possibly be hiding it all.
Watery tunnels and twisted staircase cascades led them upwards. Quincy struggled to keep pace as they passed neon-lit inspection booths. Crichton waved off each one, which proved authentication enough for their whole party. In the dripping shadows, Quincy couldn't help but think aloud.
"I didn't know the Nether Layer had a capitol."
"Officially, it doesn't" Crichton said.
"Not since thirty years ago, when Levi an this loose screw blew the bridge connectin it to the outlans," chuckled Corman, "Keepin your greatest hits from the Quinster?"
"Aren't your stops in a different part of town?" was Crichton's bitter reply. Quincy's focus tore between Crichton and lights flashing through iron grates overhead.
"The only stop concernin me is Levi's," said Corman, "I'd rather not be tossed on me ass soon as yer gone." They climbed the final, rattling grated stairs to the streets of Islaire.
Even in the busiest business districts around Greenknoll, Quincy had never seen anything quite like it. The end of one building was the beginning of another. Every street was walled with stores, restaurants, and residences. Stone pillars held up metal awnings. Hardwood storefronts glistened in neon advertisements, with the Beacon's weak
light almost out. Quincy had to recheck when he thought he saw one with the Strand slogan. At second glance, he read it right: Fight Your Fate.
The markings and size of the roads was for cars, though Quincy couldn't find any. What he did see was a number of people that dwarfed what he'd considered bustling in the Legs, while the width of the street cast the illusion of emptiness. Quincy swayed between the gravity of colorful storefronts and steel towers that hung over the frame of the city. He was hardly tracking his companions anymore, when Crichton stopped him.
"We'll take this one." Quincy followed him to a boxy vehicle something like both a car and train. At the sight of Crichton's raised arm, its metal wheels screeched still on its tracks. The rod connecting its roof to a hanging cable sparked until it stopped.
"We'll take this what?" Quincy blurted, and Corman erupted into laughter.
The trolley deposited Quincy, Crichton, and Corman in the northern outskirts of the Islaire. The last passengers had departed fifteen minutes past, and Crichton had to show the operator a special card to get them past a perimeter of chain links and razor wire. The men and women patrolling the grounds carried rifles more powerful than most Terra Ranks. The guards in dark body armor were invasive and abrasive with their hands-on inspection of Quincy and Corman. Between the two of them, they confiscated a telescope blade, hunting knife, pistol, a fold-open shotgun, and some kind of rope-and-rod combination. Corman grinned through their growing panic every time the man frisking him found a new compartment, until he reached his inner thigh.
"Yer a fine lookin lad," said Corman, "But, with respect, I'd rather the lady." He nudged over at the armed woman who'd been fortunate enough to inspect Quincy. The guards let them through the double sliding doors to one of the tallest towers in Islaire.
Inside, carpeted paths through an open atrium branched to offices, storage closets of weapons or food, and rooms of people debating weapons or food. Quincy couldn't take it in fast enough. Crichton led the way through a re-purposed corporate ghost town to a small elevator. Eerie silence killed the time on a thirty-floor climb in the mirrored box. When the lift slid open, they stepped into the trudging path of an irritated man.
"Crichton," the man paused at the sight of him.
"Levi," said Crichton. Without conscious intention, Quincy had developed a vague expectation, and Levi didn't exactly meet it. His face was sharp, like a bird of prey. He was only a bit fuller and taller than Quincy. His eyes were an unnatural kind of dark, forest green, segmented by silver rings that almost looked mechanical.
"Why in this great, wide hell have you brought me Regis Corman?" Levi said. Corman took the liberty of answering with the gun-stick he'd stowed along his inner thigh.
"To secure a deal," he said to the man at the other end of the jabbing weapon, "The delivery of yer Ranger and yer..." he looked back to Quincy, unsure of their relationship. Levi considered the pirate and his weapon with less than mild interest.
"I don't know this boy," Levi sighed, "We'll sort it out as we go, I suppose. Put that away Corman. Come with me, the lot of you."
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