The Wintertide Festival had long been known as the biggest costume party in the world. For decades, that had been enough to draw travelers from across the globe. The half-forgotten Nimauk culture and the towering, fairy-tale-esque hills also called to the wanderlust yearning of the American story.
Now, most of the visitors roamed no more than two hundred miles. But some others were drawn from farther afield; vendors with nowhere to sell their wares. Many annual farmers markets, fairs, and expos had faded into the past. Others visited too, called to one of the few great, notable events, a relic of the old world, a lone beautiful stop on the nearly empty highway.
Iosefa Afu made his living flying a puddle jumper plane between the Micronesian Islands where he’d been bred, where he’d grown up, where he still lived. Fifteen years ago, he’d met a local Nimauk woman, his future wife, Lise, while she toured his native islands. Once married, they’d annually attended the Wintertide Fest, until the skies became too dangerous.
Iosefa knew his wife desperately missed her childhood home and after years of apprehension, they’d once again completed the journey. Once, it had taken them only days, much of that time spent sightseeing. This year, the journey lasted two weeks, with multiple stops in backwater airfields, untended and abandoned, with fuel very hard to find. Iosefa was relieved at their safe arrival and glad he’d managed the journey, but he feared his time away from work and feared to travel home.
He was immensely comforted to see the Aesir, beyond any logical emotion he could put into words.
Iosefa knew men and women who’d been forcibly and wrongfully incarcerated by the IHSA on the Isla de Manos, the secret Isle of Hands, where so many unspeakable, bizarre war machines had been constructed. All of those tales spoke of the prison break, the great revolt. All of those tales mentioned the Aesir, the strange flying machine that aided the revolution and flew for days, ferrying prisoners away from the scarred island.
The Isle of Hands now lay deserted, a burned, empty shell, forgotten by the world, but the stories lived on. Iosefa recognized the Aesir when he saw it, and he was proud to share the sky with Wayfarer One.
Gary Parrish and his husband had adopted a young girl, orphaned after the Thunderworks attack on New York City. She’d read about the Wintertide Festival in school, before the funding dried up and her home education began. It had been difficult for Mr. Parrish to escape work long enough for this vacation, south to Pennsylvania. Lawyers are necessary, even after the end of the world, especially after the end of the world.
Disturbed by the intense noise of gunfire and explosions, Mr. Parrish saw the Aesir’s flight from his family’s hotel suite balcony. He watched the odd craft blast into the sky and disappear. Instantly, he remembered seeing that shape, that same ship, on the blurry, shaky international newscast sent from Norlenheim, in Scandinavia. There, the Aesir had helped defeat the organization that killed his daughter’s birth parents.
Mr. Parrish lived the law, the law of the pre-shutdown world. He abhorred violence. Even so, he couldn’t help feeling rare and untempered excitement, when he saw the Aesir go dark and escape.
Brigid O’Malley was born in Massacheusetts, but lived in Maine for almost ten years. She’d worked imports at New Galway Harbor, within thirty miles of the Canadian border. Her career died slowly, like the shipping business, like her town. Jobless, and with few surviving local family members, she’d packed her truck with as many provisions as she could afford, as well as her handful of notable keepsakes. Then she’d taken the long road south, aiming for Florida, in search of work, before passing through Nimauk’s festival, almost by accident. She’d discovered a festival sign, after leaving the broken interstate by the wrong exit.
Brigid wouldn’t know the name Orson Gregory, not if someone asked her. But somewhere, back in the unconscious hidden depths of her mind, she remembered the national manhunt for the boy, just eighteen years old, who had disappeared from his New England home. She couldn’t remember whether he’d been kidnapped or accused of a crime, but she’d heard rumors about the boy’s triumphant return and how he’d been instrumental in the defeat of the Blitzkrieg domestic terrorist ring, the organization that many believed began the world’s slide into chaos.
When Brigid saw Orson’s face, as he rushed past her in the Nimauk town square, she didn’t consciously recognize him, but he reminded her of a vague feeling of relief. The boy who had once vanished onto the highway still lived and still wandered the world.
Suddenly, Brigid’s own road did not seem so dangerous.
Before the end of the night, all three of these travelers were detained and forcibly held in the Nimauk Visitor and Entertainment Center.
Before the end of the night, all three of these travelers witnessed the next chapter in the legend of the Aesir, as well as the arrival of a new central character in the story of their time.
The Aesir had escaped. It had vanished. It was gone.
Captain Maros should have reprimanded his men, delivered retribution and punishment. They had not relied primarily on catching the fleeing ship with their winch anchors and tow cables. He’d specifically commanded them to do so. They’d wasted a sixth of their year’s allotment of ammunition. They’d publicly embarrassed themselves.
But when Liberty Corps Agent Duncan Racz found Maros, staring over the edge of an iron-railed overlook, beside the train station, the young Captain didn’t look frustrated. Duncan knew his friend. Maros wasn’t mad. He wasn’t even annoyed.
“What the hell are you grinning about?” Duncan asked.
“Why are you in uniform?” Maros didn’t quite manage to pull the smile from his face. “I thought I told you to get into a second disguise.”
“I’ve got one or two lined up.” Duncan pulled at the shoulder of his white officer’s armor. “But I thought you might need a little backup after…” The Agent didn’t know how to finish his sentence without insulting his Corps Family.
“They aren’t disciplined.” Maros turned around and pressed his lower back against the railing. “They failed, but given the odds against them, I think they did rather well. I marshaled them successfully within fifteen minutes, and they chased down a vehicle that operates on roads, water, and can fly. That’s an admirable start. They’ll learn.”
“Admirable doesn’t matter when you’re up against world class skill. Look, I didn’t believe you about Gregory, but that was undeniable.” Duncan loosened his breastplate. Should his new disguise be an astronaut or a knight? Something with a helmet, he’d decided. “There’s no second place in this situation.”
“But there is a first place.” Maros smiled openly. “Look, you’ve stood by me these last two years, and I’ll never forget that. You’ve ignored everyone’s doubts. Every other Corps Captain in the world is working to master the Ferrant-side Power, and I’m here looking for buried treasure.”
“You’re studying iron too.”
“Not enough.” Maros reached for the hilt of his sword, sheathed at his belt. “I’ve never done any work without the forge, but now I’ve done something more important. We’ll be on the fast track to nationwide positions soon.” He balled his prosthetic hand into a fist. “And it will make everything right, correct all my past failures.”
“We’ve been through this, Kol.” Duncan rested his hand on Maros’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault what happened.”
“Soon fault won’t matter. Soon I will find the key to rebuilding the world. We’ll be saving the world, Duncan, just like when we were kids, jumping around with those dollar store plastic swords Max gave us.”
“I’m glad you’re happy.” Duncan drew his hand back. “I really am, but you can’t discount Orson Gregory or the Cloud woman. They aren’t going to just sit by and…”
“Master Nine will deal with them,” Maros interrupted. “They’re no match for Nine in the right environment.”
“I’m not sure I fully trust Master Nine.” Duncan did not want to have this conversation again.
“I know I don’t.” Maros shook his head. “But if we manage the next steps properly, we won’t have to.”
“What is next?”
“Next you get into your new disguise, like we talked about.” Maros turned back to the railing. He scanned the rushing water, thinking of the power that had sent four train cars into the depths. “Then I’ll send three squads down to question everyone who witnessed the Aesir. We need to spin this back in our favor. That won’t be easy, but once it’s done, I’ll personally contact Master Nine. It’s time we finish two years of work.”