Dominion Of The Banished
Andry Rovilet toggled his crawler’s controls and watched the view screen as the drone lifted. As soon as the bird cleared the mount, the picture shuddered, flipped, and spun. Onscreen, rocky ground rushed forward. Then everything fritzed to black.
That was the third crash. This wind was not going to cooperate. Way too gusty. The whole squad knew it, of course, but orders were orders. By the time Cap told them to lock down the drones, Andry had lost two more.
Heavy fliers had already scouted this far northern edge of Acquiana, Dominion’s largest continent. Their findings were on record, so these additional forays were a waste of good spyflies. No one really believed Command was looking for the missing shuttle down here. It could have sunk in the ocean or blown farther north across the straits to Darven, the nearest continent, or to the islands. Submarine crawlers had scoured the depths and other terrestrial squads had scouted Darven, with no luck. No physical traces remained. Sooner or later, Command would have no choice but to take the search to the Quaking Isles. That was their last resort before they had to admit that the only remaining evidence of the shuttle came from space. The unshielded, underpowered, inadequately equipped craft had transited. As incredible as that seemed, the hypergate log verified it. Which was what Andry’s sister Linayd had been saying all along.
“All right, people,” Cap’s voice said in the ear jack. “Spread out. Use the ground-sounders.”
Andry was in lead position on the northeast side of the broad semicircle of crawlers. Cap’s order sent him toward the straits at an angle. With so many hoodoos and other rock formations in the way, he’d be jigging and jogging his way along. That was slow enough without the erratic ground tremors. If only those had a rhythm, he could compensate for them. As it was, he could only ask the crawler to creep a few paces at a time. At random intervals, it skittered sideways or slipped backward or bounced along the ground. Plus, the tremors added their own dimension to the discordant electronic signals coming from the islands, or from above or below them. The locus kept moving. Maybe headquarters could make sense of it, given enough info, but the islands’ electrical storms and tremors would make tracing a downed shuttle impossible. And there was no downed shuttle.
Still, Command had his squad wasting their time, going through this exercise. Why? What were they really expecting to find here?
At last, Andry’s crawler reached the far side of the rough karst terrain. He steered it into a smooth, shallow canyon, the former path of a sunken river.
A flurry of pings called his attention to the ground-penetrating sensors. Something below was setting off the alarms.
His first thought was that karsters ousted from Stonegarden might have stashed more stolen galienite. If so, he needed to get there first. Even with their father dead and Andry’s jack of a brother in change, Cor Rovilet deserved a heads-up.
The topography had been running downhill from the karst to the shore. Just ahead, the underground river emerged and fanned out from a ragged cave. That would give him access. He’d take a look when he finished this run, unless Cap recalled them too soon.
As Andry’s crawler came within sight of the straits, another tremor hit. He halted for a minute and watched erratic waves slap the shore. Those gray lumps of islands in the distance were the center of all this seismic activity.
The waves grew larger and more coordinated, and then his eyes played tricks on him. The waves weren’t the only thing moving. The shore was. It was like crack-the-whip. The water moved, which energized the ground, so it moved, too. Or maybe vice versa.
His crawler lifted off the rocks and slammed down again, throwing him into the crash webbing and knocking his head against the side panel.
The earth shimmied and sank. Waves flooded toward him. A crack opened in the rocks to his right, sucking the river and incoming waves into its depths. The Quaking Isles were definitely doing their worst today.
“All, right, pack it in,” came Cap’s command.
Andry put the crawler in reverse and gunned it out of there.