26. On the Highway

“We’ll have to do a proper tour of everything, once we’re stocked up.” Orson set the Aesir on a gentle course into the west. “Like the washing machine does this weird thing where if you set it on delicate it just shuts off, and I’m pretty sure that’s some kinda fire hazard, but I don’t know enough to fix it.”

“What in the world is this thing?” Enoa glanced around the darkened cabin. Once Orson had taken them well away from the festival, he had shut down all extra lights and switched over to his mask’s night vision. They flew over a pitch-black landscape, invisible from that height. The lights on the ground were truly few and far between, scattered islands of light, the clustered remnants of American civilization that had survived. Judging by the lights, not much had survived.

“You want to know what the Aesir is?” Orson tapped his hand against the dashboard.

“Yes.” She nodded, though he wasn’t looking at her.

“It started as a way way to hide weird tech. The whole anti-gravity thing works independently of aerodynamics, right? So test it on an unlikely vehicle and no one will suspect. It was a working prototype and there were supposed to be more, but when everything went to shit a few years ago, I got entrusted to keep it safe. But that’s great for me. It’s custom, a total ghost. This baby is on no one’s registry, except by reputation.”

“Convenient,” she said.

“It used to be,” he agreed. “It doesn’t matter all that much now.” They’d been flying for the better part of an hour, coasting slowly, as Orson worked his way through a diagnostic of the ship’s systems. “Might as well buy everything we need, at once.” Outside, the view of the darkened distance was obscured further by a new bout of snow, clumps pelting down heavy and fat.

“Sure,” she said. “And where are we headed?” He had told her the plan already, but her head had been swimming, full of distant thoughts and daydreams. She’d left her home. They were out on the highway, over the highway, actually. The adventure had begun.

“I think I might have a way for us to find that hidden island.” If he’d told her before, he clearly didn’t mind saying it again. “Even if a landmass is omitted from maps, it should still show up from that underwater sonar stuff they do to predict earthquakes. If we get the help of the right geologist, we might be able to find this island, even without your aunt’s letter.”

“Do you know the right geologist?” Enoa had no idea where to find anyone, out in the new broken world. What did scientists do for work now? There probably wasn’t much funding for non-utilitarian projects.

“Nope,” he laughed. “But my friend Eloise might. She worked with the League of Nations Research Coalition. She used to know everybody in the world of zany sci-fi stuff, but now I think she’s still back in her old family home in New Mexico.”

“New Mexico?” Enoa couldn’t imagine the desert or any expanse of flat land. She’d seen pictures, but the actual scope of different geography felt deeply alien to her. “We’re going to New Mexico tonight?”

“Not tonight.” Orson tapped at his mask, maybe changing the focus of the goggles’ magnification. Outside, the snow had intensified and become almost a total whiteout. “We have a couple stops to make first. Tonight, I need to grab some parts to redo the shower drain, so it doesn’t leak around beneath the access panels. Then I have to swing by my, uh, my financial manager tomorrow – he’s outside Chicago – and make a withdrawal of funds. I don’t have a bulk supply of antiques to sell for this adventure, but thankfully I have some savings from past jobs.”

“I won’t be a burden,” she said. “I’ll pay my share of all expenses.” She wanted to ask him what he did for money. What are the economics of being an adventurer? So far as she knew, adventurer had never been a proper career.

“That wouldn’t be a big deal under normal circumstances,” he said. “Since I got the whole Wayfarer One notoriety, money hasn’t been too big of a concern. Plus it’s pretty cheap to live in this boat, but I’ve lost literally months of work to missed leads on this Dreamside Road business. Still, I can handle all the bulk expenses and ship issues, and you can just worry about your share of food and toiletries and such. If worse comes to worst, I can always stop and find work, but until you’re properly trained in your Shaper skills, my jobs are too dangerous for you to join in. I can’t guarantee how much work there will be for an antique expert.”

“Training,” she said. “Yeah.” She hadn’t so much as touched her aunt’s films since they’d packed them aboard the ship. She could still feel the power of the explosion she’d sent at Captain Maros, but she couldn’t silence her doubts. How were such things even possible? What was wrong with her, going off with some wanderer, planning to study magic? The sense of unlimited, wild opportunity had vanished, and she was left feeling foolish and strange and frightened.

“So what’s the name of this place we’re headed to, right now?” She dearly wanted to change the subject away from the cold practicality of their situation.

“We’re visiting the little town of Greenwell, home of the Greenwell Hauler Supply,” he said. “I’ve gone to that place three or four other times. They used to have one of the biggest truck and RV parts shops in this region. Plus the Moonlight Most Buffet is nearby, and they make the best pancakes. Vegan pancakes are a choice there too, I believe.”

“Really? I didn’t expect to find that, much of anywhere. I just assumed you forgot that pancakes aren’t normally vegan.”

“I don’t know how their vegan pancakes are,” he admitted. “But this place made a name for itself by having the widest variety of food at any buffet in the state. They say, the widest variety in the country, but that’s hard to prove. They used to have the most syrup flavors in the country, though. There was an inn, where some old friends of mine used to work, that was in contention for the title of most syrup flavors, but they ultimately lost out to the Moonlight.”

“It sounds like a genuinely cool place,” she said. “I expected maybe a greasy truck stop, at best.”

“Uh.” He shrugged. “Not too greasy, no. Honestly, I probably could’ve worked harder to get replacement parts back in Nimauk, but one of the guys at the little Irish Pub outside the festival reminded me of this place. I got sort of adopted into the pub crowd by one of Webster’s deputies.”

“Which one?”

“Guy named Higgins?”

“I don’t know him.” She ran through the members of the Sheriff’s Department that she’d met over the years. “He’s probably from elsewhere in the county.”

“Maybe? Anyway, he’s distantly related to Gregorys from Ireland, so I wound up getting adopted into that crew and they started talking about this place.”

“Gregory is an Irish last name?” Enoa’s knowledge of names began and ended with Nimauk, as in the actual Nimauk tribe that once lived in her little corner of the world.

“I guess? I was always told we’re Scottish, but I’m no expert.” Orson pointed out the windshield. “You won’t be able to see it, but down there is the old Turnpike exit that led into town. I think we’ll set down on the exit ramp and drive the rest of the way. Sometimes it’s better not to land right on top of people. I’m not totally sure if I want to announce our presence, especially with all the solar cells I used up in Nimauk and my shoulder still healing.”

Orson guided the Aesir in a long circular arc toward the ground. Enoa tried to find the road beneath them with her eyes, but the snow was too heavy, and the darkness too complete.

The ship landed. Orson took the exit ramp from the highway, leaving deep, heavy tracks in the pristine layer of snow on the road.

“Good thing it’s still snowing,” he said. “No one will notice we just suddenly touched down in the middle of the road. I almost never advertise the whole flying camper thing at random pit stops, just FYI.” He left the exit ramp and arrived on a thin, lonely road. “Here’s another reason to love the Aesir. It’s light for its size, but it’s phenomenally balanced and the computer systems can measure for uneven terrain and road hazards. And there are these telescoping arms with teeth, like umbrella shaped things, that pop out the sides and dig into ice and slick conditions.”

The camper cut through the white layer with ease. Orson lit the headlights, once they were a reasonable distance from their landing place. The road they traveled was surrounded by houses, entirely dark buildings, a village or township.

“Oh wow,” he said. “I had no idea we were in a residential area. I would’ve turned on the lights further away.”

“It’s not that late, is it?” Enoa said. “Is this area so dangerous that people don’t light up, after dark?” She had no idea what the rest of the state was like, how dangerous the world would be.

“It’s only like eight-fifteen, so probably not.” Orson slowed the camper to a crawl and took a look at one of the houses. “They look too good to be derelicts.” He accelerated the Aesir forward. “The Hauler Supply was only a mile or so along this road and the buffet wasn’t a lot further than that. What happened here?” They passed on through the abandoned town, further away from the darkened highway, until they found the one light in the whole village. The light was angled up at a sign.

It looked like an old interstate logo sign, the sort that lists food and gas and overnight lodging, but this one appeared hand painted, or at the very least poorly printed. It read:

Greenwell Township has moved to Fort Mayhill. Take the second left onto Elm Street.

Food – Moonlight Most Buffet

      Harold’s Hoagies

      Early-Bird Drive-in


Gas – Mayhill Fill-up

“Fort?” Enoa looked around. “This place gives me the creeps. Do you want to turn around?”

“That’s up to you,” he said. “I’m curious to see what happened to this town. I’ve only ever had good experiences here, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I guess we should check it out.” Enoa did not want to end the first day of her adventure by being too frightened to visit a highway rest stop. Orson did not immediately respond. “Yeah, let’s go.”

He drove the two blocks forward and turned onto Elm. There, they could see a high hill in the far distance, probably the Mayhill from the name. Diffuse light illuminated the pinnacle of the hill, blurry and indistinct, obscured by the still-heavy snow.

“I think they used to have a Savings Spot department store up there,” Orson said. “Why would they move the whole town there?”

How would they move the whole town up there?” Enoa asked. “You were telling me about the Irish pub. I think I’d rather talk about that again than try to figure out what’s wrong with this place, before we get there.”

“Oh yeah,” Orson nodded. “Well, the regulars at the pub took me in as one of their own and wanted to share traditional Irish breakfast with me and that turned into traditional Irish happy hour, and then I didn’t get to pursue my post death battle pancakes. Anyway, that Higgins mentioned the Moonlight and that brought everything back.”

“He didn’t tell you how freaky this place is now?” Enoa knew a wide variety of Nimauk locals, many of whom thought they had a complete grasp on all goings on in the state or world around them. Some she trusted with travel directions. Many she did not.

“No,” Orson said. “But he said he doesn’t take the old Turnpike or any interstates. Going his way, we might not pass through this, but obviously we spent most of the journey in the sky. I usually press people for more details, because anything’s possible in the world now, but I was pleasantly surprised by the whole Irish thing, and I decided not to mess with that. If I really am Irish, I should probably be more aware of the culture, and I have really no experience with that. I’ve only ever been in Ireland for about a week, and that whole time I lost to this kidnapping trial involving a Fomorian Raider, and that’s a long and annoying story. My only other minor Irish encounter was with this Irish reading group. For some reason, they just detested my memoir, like hated it, hated me in it too, left awful reviews. I don’t even know how the hell they found it.”

“What didn’t they like about it?” Enoa could see the memoir bothered Orson, but she decided she’d rather keep discussing it than the creepy abandoned town they were passing through. “Isn’t it good?”

“I think it’s pretty good. I’m obviously totally biased, but I think it represents my first adventure in a pretty fun way. It was just marketed to the wrong people, and my biographer wrote it so half of it was a flashback my character told to my friend and the rest…”

Lights appeared on the road ahead. They fell silent. Orson dialed down the headlights, but he didn’t slow the Aesir. The source of the lights, a large pickup truck, must have been parked somewhere between the darkened village buildings. The truck had pulled out of its hidden parking place, seemingly just to face them.

The truck didn’t move when they passed it, but the driver, who wore night vision goggles of his own, eyed them wordlessly. Orson waved at the man and kept driving them on, through town toward the tall hill. Neither Orson nor Enoa spoke for the rest of the trip. The uneasy paranoia of traveling after destabilization had eclipsed her personal worries and his literary grievances.

The road up the hill was steep and icy and too narrow for other vehicles to pass in the opposite direction. Enoa leaned to the side and tried to see if the telescoping spiked devices had activated, but the heavy cloud cover deepened as they climbed and made it almost impossible for her to see anything past the windows.

“That truck’s following us.” Orson tapped at a small window of light on the dashboard. “He turned in behind us, once we got about halfway up.” Enoa leaned forward, trying to get a look at the rear camera feed, but she couldn’t see it from the passenger seat.

“What’s the plan if this guy…” Enoa began. “What if he wants to hurt us?”

“We get out quick.” He tapped at the flight lever beside him. “I’m in no mood for crap, and we’ve got other options for supplies and pancakes.”

They summited the hill and arrived at a cinderblock wall. A guard booth was set into the concrete, with windows that looked out at oncoming travelers and a metal bar lowered across the roadway. A woman in a heavy parka opened one of these windows and leaned out toward them. Orson pulled his goggles down to his chest and rolled down his side window.

“Good evening! What’s the toll?” Orson reached one hand into his pocket.

“What’s your business here?” She pointed behind them, in the direction of the abandoned town and the interstate. “Our man saw you land back thataways. We’ll need a proper explanation who you are.”

“We’re hungry travelers,” Orson said. “And we’re looking to resupply.” He drummed both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m sorry if I alarmed you. We try to land outside town and keep everything polite, but it’s hard to resist flying, if you can.”

“Uh-huh.” The woman stared at Orson. “What supplies are you looking for?”

“I have a pipe that needs to be replaced in my shower and maybe a couple other minor things.” Orson pointed one thumb over his shoulder. “And maybe I’ll grab some other provisions. We’re headed into the Heartland, and it’s been a long while since I’ve gone that way. I can’t head west and not stop by the Moonlight Most.”

“He’s been talking about it all night.” Enoa flashed a broad smile and leaned up toward the open window. A frigid breeze blew in, bringing a swarm of snowflakes with it. She shivered.

The woman nodded. She closed her window and turned away from them, before speaking into a small handheld intercom, wired into the side of her booth. She spoke a long time, but she looked bored and unconcerned.

“Alright.” She opened the window again. “We don’t usually accept visitors at this time of night. Everything closes at ten, but if you’re willing to buy, we’ll let you in. It’s three dollars an hour for a parking spot in Lot H. Go around the village, not through it. We’ve got Rick following you to make sure you get there without trouble.” She pointed past the Aesir, probably to the truck that had been tailing them.

“Thank you.” Orson drew out several coins and passed them down to the woman.

“Thanks!” Enoa smiled again.

The woman inclined her head. She closed her window and hit a switch by her seat. The metal bar swung up and away. Orson closed his window and drove through the gap in the wall and onto the top of the hill.

The whole hilltop was loaded in squat prefabricated buildings. What had once been a massive parking lot, was now taken up almost entirely by the makeshift village. People mingled between the buildings, a whole community, milling about that Saturday night. Several people stopped to watch the Aesir pull into their community.

Orson drove out of the way and allowed Rick and his truck to pass them. The former tail drove on and around the village. Orson followed him. No other vehicles were on the perimeter of the community, save a snowplow that was working to push snow from between the rows of prefabs and off the edge of the hill’s steep sides.

“I thought the fort thing was just cutesy,” Orson said. “I didn’t think it was literal.” Other than at the steepest edges of the hill, most of the perimeter of the town was blocked by cinderblock walls. As they drove, they only passed one other exit, also blocked by a guard booth.

Rick led them to the far side of the hill, well away from the majority of prefabs, to a patch of pothole-laden macadam that hadn’t been plowed. Orson couldn’t see any clear parking spaces, so he came to a stop parallel with the truck, beside one of the tall spotlights that dotted the edge of the hill. Most of the former heavy parking lot lights were no longer lit, probably in order to maintain the new village’s homelike atmosphere.

Rick waved and drove away, without any further acknowledgement. Orson and Enoa watched him go.

“Are you hungry?” Orson unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbed his keys and stood, once the man passed from sight.

“I could eat.” Enoa stood, as well.

“I’m thinking it might be a good idea to head by the new Moonlight Most, first.” Orson closed his coat. “There were a couple of faces I think I’d know if I saw them. Maybe if I’m generous with money and we’re polite, they’ll let us know what the hell happened here.” He left his sword in the hooks on the wall. Instead he walked to one of the sealed lockers. Enoa watched him open it, and she caught a glimpse of what must be part of his arsenal. She saw a collection of odd metal instruments, tiny objects beyond count, metal spheres she assumed were explosives, and a miniscule pistol with a wire trailing from one end. Orson drew out the pistol and snuck the wire up his sleeve.

“No sword?” She asked.

“Not this time.” He tapped at his wrist and the pistol slid up his sleeve, as well. “I’d have to be an idiot to wander out there without some way to defend myself, but the sword is too conspicuous for these suspicious folks, so it’s a blaster kinda night.”

“Blaster?” Enoa thought of the cheesy B-Movies the local TV relay used to marathon. “Like a ray gun?”

“Uhhhhh,” he said. “Not really. Single burst of compressed light and heat. It’s another thing I can run with the solar cell. I’m an awful shot, honestly, but it’s pretty inconspicuous.”

“Should I bring the staff?” Enoa wrapped her new cloak around her shoulders. “It’s just about the opposite of inconspicuous.”

“We know it’s a dangerous weapon.” He chuckled. “But it looks like something that’d hold up a clothesline. You’re probably fine to bring it.”

“I think it looks very imposing.” Enoa retrieved the staff from her luggage and enjoyed the reliable sense of warmth from its touch. “But I’ll take your joke as permission.”

“Remind me that you still need to pick a room and get set up for the night.”

“How many rooms does your camper have?” Enoa looked around the cabin. The space was relatively compact, with not an inch wasted, efficient systems, efficient storage. “You mentioned a big water tank. You have all your flight tech. You have multiple rooms. Oooh, is this ship magically bigger on the inside?”

“I give you three weeks,” he said. “You’ll see it’s actually way smaller than it looks.” He pointed toward the back of the cabin. “There are five rooms off from the cabin. The big bedroom where I sleep, that’s the only one with real walking space, sorry. Then the bathroom and three other smaller rooms that were consolidated from the old bunk set up. They’re basically just a bed and drawers. You can close your door, but some of the drawers you can’t open unless you’re standing outside of the room. Sorry again, I forget how non-ideal this is for most people.”

“It’s honestly better than I expected.” She adjusted her cloak. “I’m sure it will be just fine.”

“Thanks.” He smiled. “Are you ready?”

“Yep!” She followed him to the door and they exited the ship into the snow-filled parking lot. The door locked behind them. “Is the security system set up?”

“Oh yeah.” He nodded. “No way I’m leaving my baby unprotected in this freaky place.” He looked at her. “Last chance to turn around.”

“Let’s go for it.” She felt genuinely prepared for the adventure. Now, present on the hilltop in the snow, the surreal atmosphere felt like just one more facet of the new journey. She’d left mostly-safe Nimauk. She was over the edge of the wild and had to expect strange and uncanny goings on. “Let’s eat and see what we can find out.”

“Cool,” he said. “Let’s go.” They started off through the snow toward the odd village and the first stop of their new adventure.

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