Captain Maros opened his eyes and saw nothing.
For three heartbeats, he was a teenager again, in the collapsed loft apartment, entirely enclosed in impenetrable shadow, two thousand pounds of steel and wood and plaster collapsed on his right hand.
But no, he was in the Sun Talon, or what remained of it. He was still strapped in. The inertial compensator, the heavy-duty gunnery restraints, and his borrowed helmet had protected him from the worst of the G-forces in their sudden breaking maneuver. He didn’t know whether Melville had been as lucky. He also didn’t know the condition of the ship, though he suspected they’d taken a beating. Maros could feel a slight but consistent breeze of fresh, cool air. That was good news for everything, but the ship. The Talon was built to be vacuum worthy and flew pressurized. The breeze spelled disaster for the priceless fighter.
Three hundred million dollars. Even without the obscene cost increase in rare metals and the top secret metamaterials that allowed the ship to function, Maros had lost the Liberty Corps three hundred million dollars. One-fifty, per ship, was gone on a failed chase.
Maros tested his hands and feet, moved his fingers, wiggled his toes. Nothing broken. He hadn’t been pinned or crushed, not personally. He couldn’t yet speak for the ship.
Maros tested his arms and legs, traced his neck and the back of his head for wounds. He might have scattered black and blue marks under his flight suit. He certainly felt like he’d walked into a brick wall, but he’d sustained no real injuries.
“Lieutenant Melville.” Maros unbuckled his restraints and reached forward toward the pilot. He touched the other man’s shoulder with his left hand. No motion. “Melville.” He tapped the pilot on the shoulder. No response. “Melville!” He shook the man by his shoulders.
The pilot gasped and coughed. He fell forward onto his restraints, wheezing, dragging in short, ragged breaths. Melville looked around, plainly disoriented.
“What happened?” Melville pressed some of his controls. The ship did not respond. “Everything’s dead.”
“I wanted to ask you the same thing,” Maros said. “I don’t remember anything after the emergency stop.” He hadn’t expected such brutality from his quarry. Even after seeing Captain Gregory demolish Tucker, and feeling the brunt of the young Cloud’s power, there was a flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants attitude about them, particularly Gregory, that made them hard to take seriously.
“How are you?” Maros tested his legs again and thought he was perfectly capable of walking. He could leave the tunnel, if it weren’t blocked, and probably walk a good deal farther, if he had to.
“I think I’m…” Melville screamed. It was a single, loud howl of pain. Then his breathing shortened even further, almost hyperventilation. Maros feared the other man would go into shock, but his breathing quickly got under control. “The floor of the compartment warped and twisted my leg with it. I can’t move it.”
“Are you pinned?” Maros asked. Even after five years, he remembered his own panic under the rubble. He could still feel himself crying for help, buried, his throat sore from dirt and from yelling. He could still hear Max calling out to him, trying to calm him. He remembered every minute of their fifteen hours under the rubble.
“No, thank God.” Melville moved again and gasped, but this was a controlled sound. He expected pain and dealt with it.
Maros slid his hand to his belt and brought out his miniature flashlight. He lit it. The cockpit interior looked mostly the same, only darkened. Maros’s own compartment interior looked entirely undamaged. The same could not be said for the front compartment.
The front of the Talon had almost split in two. There was a horizontal gap running from beneath the windshield all the way to the pilot’s feet. That entire section of the ship had snapped apart. This was probably the same blow that caused his leg injury and was likely the source of the fresh air.
Maros checked himself for wounds a second time, this time with help from the flashlight. Then he helped Melville do the same. Other than the leg injury, he was mostly unhurt.
“Excuse me.” Maros leaned over the divider between their seats. He sent the flashlight beam out the windshield, out into the tunnel. The flashlight beam met an almost solid wall of rock, ten maybe twenty feet distant. The tunnel was impassable. The tunnel floor between the rock wall and the Talon was littered with dirt and boulder-sized chunks of concrete.
“Those freaks almost crushed us.” Melville leaned up to look out the windshield, but winced and sat back. “I know you want the Aesir, but I’d love to see that camper under those rocks.”
“It could be significantly worse.” Maros ignored his comment. “If they didn’t trigger a larger collapse that trapped us from behind, we should be able to go back the way we came.” He clapped the pilot on the shoulder. “That hard brake and cushion maneuver you did saved us.”
“Cut my poor baby in half too.” Melville waved to the gap in the front of the ship. “No fixing this shit.”
“Is there any way to tell whether the Talon’s been buried? It feels like we’re leaning to the right, but it’s hard to tell.” Maros looked up to the ceiling of the inoperable vessel. He didn’t want to talk about the damage to the ship, the damage that had occurred due to his desperate operation. “We might be in some precarious position.”
“No telling.” Melville futilely pressed at another of the switches. “Open the roof hatch and pray.” He touched his leg and groaned again.
Maros pressed at the roof release switch. This obviously did not work. He handed the pilot the flashlight and pressed at the roof hatch with both hands. It moved, but with effort. Were they buried? Were they trapped? Maros felt his breath catch in his throat, his memories threatening to overwhelm his current focus. Maros pushed with the full force of his prosthetic hand, with enough strength that he wondered whether his hand would puncture a hole in the hatch, but it gave way and swung open. The hatch must have been warped in the crash or been struck in the cave-in. He heard only some pebbles fall away as it moved.
Maros took the flashlight and climbed onto the top of the fighter. He shined the light around. Other than the collapsed wall, separating them from the western exit of the abandoned tunnel, the passage remained open behind them. There were plenty of rocks jarred loose, but few that would have destroyed the fighter or killed its occupants. So it could have gone worse.
Maros aimed his flashlight back toward the eastern mouth of the tunnel. He saw it, clear and open.
“We’ll be good to backtrack. I can get help.” Maros climbed back inside and retrieved the emergency pack stashed in the compartment between the seats. He drew out the thermal blanket, first aid kit, and the extra ration and water packs. He set these within Melville’s reach.
“Is your med pack standard?” Maros asked. “I’m going to try to call for help, but I’m not optimistic with reception. I might need to leave the ship, and I want you to get painkiller before I go.”
“We’re not ready for me to use the morphine, just yet,” Melville said. “If you don’t get your radio working, you’ll need me to work on the ship’s long range module. I’ll just grab a bite to eat.” Melville removed a ration pack from the stash. He pulled up his helmet and took a bite from one of the high-calorie, flavorless bars they’d been given.
Maros drew out his radio and clicked it on. Nothing, not even static. “Okay,” Maros said. “I have to leave the tunnel. Hopefully outside I can get a transmission back to my command and central dispatch. Do you have everything you need? Will you be warm enough?”
“Go ahead,” Melville said. “You got me the thermal blanket. That should be enough, as long as we’re not here for days.”
“Days?” Maros asked. “It’s not like we’re in some really remote place. We’re only miles from the currently-used interstate.”
“Things are different away from the eastern seaboard. Typical. The coasts still get everything. You’re a Philly brat. You don’t know how it is.” He took another bite from the bar. “Go. Get us help.”
Maros climbed out a second time. He closed the fighter’s roof hatch without letting it latch. He’d brought his pistol with him in the fighter, but there’d been no room for his sword. He was glad for that, having to jump from the fighter’s roof. He stopped and considered his best path to the ground. He didn’t want to place any undue strain on the wings, on the off chance that the ship could be fixed.
Eventually, he settled for sliding down the rounded side of the cockpit, behind the wings. The jump was only six feet. He examined the ship. It was clear that the Talon’s legs had snapped off. He could see one, crushed and broken, in the flashlight beam. The ship sat on the rounded bottom of the cockpit housing. Maros slid and landed easily on the balls of his feet.
Maros unclipped his pistol in its holster. He held up his flashlight, lighting his path. Then he picked his way between rocks and breaks in the floor. While pursuing the Aesir, the Talon’s leg sensors had been adept at navigating the pockmarked and broken tunnel floor. The same route that the ship had traveled in seconds, took him a good deal longer than he’d anticipated.
His radio beeped before he reached the tunnel opening. He drew it out. “Maros.”
“Kol.” Duncan’s voice sighed out through the radio. “Oh thank God, you survived the crash.”
“Yes,” Maros said. “I’m fine. How did you know we…”
“I need to talk now. Listen, you’ve got trouble on the way. You have the Bedford County Division headed after you. They’re planning to file charges against you for commissioning the ships, taking action in their airspace, pursuing a fugitive without alerting them. If command goes along with them, you could be dishonorably discharged, or you could be demoted, reassigned anywhere.”
“Bedford?” Maros said. “Why would I worry about them? They’re smaller than we are.”
“They’re doing the filing,” Duncan clarified. “But we stepped on major toes, Kol. There’s an Operative from Western Command, stationed in the Quiet Zone. He’s running things, and he’s out for blood by the sound of it. Still, I think after our community work, you can push for a quiet resignation.”
“Resignation?” Maros spoke louder than he’d intended. “No. We’ve come too…”
“This guy is ready to string you up,” Duncan interrupted. “You do not want to go rogue. You need Corps Command on your side with this. It’s the sunk cost fallacy at this point, Kol. We’re done.”
“How long do I have to prepare?” Maros considered his mentors and allies, the superiors he’d aided, his options. “Do you know when the Bedford contingent can be here?”
“They left as soon as the Sun Talon’s radar signature disappeared. They could be on you in minutes.”
* * *
“You know, you don’t have to waste your turn.” Enoa didn’t look away from the small touchscreen tablet Orson had given her, showing the remote feed from the camera they’d planted outside the Aesir. But she walked from the couch to the entryway of the Aesir’s bathroom, where Orson was working, the shower partially disassembled, various lengths of piping littering the floor around him. “You could sleep for the last hour until your watch starts.”
“I kinda did have to waste it.” He spoke without turning around. “I didn’t realize I’d filled the drawers in all of the spare quarters, and that had to be taken care of so you could move in.”
“What did you do with all of that stuff?” Enoa had selected one of the enclosed bunk rooms, but couldn’t fill her drawers with clothing or personal items. She’d found all of the storage filled with assorted hand-written papers, maps of obscure locations, and cassette-taped recordings of late night conspiracy radio.
“Uhhh, it’s on my bed now. I’ll get it all later. I’m not going to be able to really pass out until probably around noon. One of us needs to keep watching that feed.”
“What happens at noon?” Enoa had been staring at the camera feeds for three hours now, since she and Orson finished securing the camouflage tarps and setting the hidden camera.
“If they come after us, I think it’ll happen before then. I…” He did something loud enough that he gave up speaking.
“You didn’t expect the Sun Talon ships though, either.” The camera feeds showed the same view of the vast star scape she’d watched for hours. Enoa had never experienced the full remoteness of the destabilized world. This was her first night in the dark wild, but the view of the Milky Way almost made up for the lack of sleep. “Don’t you think it would be wiser for you to rest or to keep flying? I still don’t get why we had to park here. All of those abandoned things are freaking me out.”
“There’s always a chance we’ll still give off some sign of life,” Orson said. “We’d stick out like a sore thumb if somebody really got a good look at us, but when I saw this field of derelict old stuff, I had to go here. It’s perfect.”
“But you said you think there are people living in some of the junk. Aren’t we in danger?” Enoa wished for a second camera, one aimed at some of the abandoned vehicles that dominated the field around them. The collage of former trains, trolleys, buses, cars, scrap, and other assorted junk could hold anything or anyone.
“We’re right at the edges.” Orson set aside the length of pipe he was working on and turned to face her. “And it’s less likely people will be out and about with the snow. Besides, the Aesir can take care of itself and us too.”
“I still think we should’ve gone farther.”
“I admit I could be wrong. I’m wrong all the time, honestly, but I’ve learned to stand by one thing, no matter what. As soon as possible, get safe and regroup. Learn as much as you can, as early as you can. If we kept flying, we’d still be running, but now we can be productive.”
“What will we do if they find us?” Enoa was too exhausted to feel real fear, but after the closeness of the chase, Orson’s continuous nonchalance no longer reassured her.
“If they can find us through the cloak, then we’ll have no choice but to stand and fight, sooner or later.” He grabbed one of the larger lengths of pipe, Enoa couldn’t tell from the corner of her eye, but she thought it might be the one he’d bought at Mayhill. “But I’m hoping they don’t, we wait a while, and then we can continue on to grab my cash. We’ll be safe outside Chicago.”
“Safe with… What did you call him, Gramps?”
“Gramps!” Orson laughed, an absurd guffaw, suddenly loud enough that Enoa jumped. “He’s called Pops, but I think he’ll be Gramps to me from now on.” He fit the piece of pipe into place. “I’m glad it’s not the valve or I’d have to solder it. I hate soldering. I’m always afraid I’ll get burned in the face.”
“You have the sword of fire up by your head all the time.” She chuckled now. “That doesn’t seem to bother you.”
“I’ve worn the sword most days for years and years, now.” He began to reassemble the bottom of the shower stall. “But I’ve only soldered, maybe, twenty times. It’s like they say, you can even get used to hanging, if you survive the first jerk.”
“Absolutely no one says that.”
“My nana used to say it.” Orson stood and moved to the bathroom sink. He filled a glass of water and poured it into the shower drain, a process he repeated multiple times. “I’m checking my work.”
Orson walked from the bathroom and past Enoa’s spot on the floor. He knelt down and rubbed his hands along the floor. Finding a small lip, he pulled up one of the panels. He looked down into a maze of machinery, pipes, blinking lights, the innards of the bizarre camper.
“You’re sure we’ll be safe with this Pops?” Enoa had been pleasantly surprised with her shooting. She’d hit the pursuing ship a few times, but that hadn’t won the battle.
“Pops’ main business in the California desert got nailed by a Thunderworks attack, and it’s still standing, so yeah, I’m pretty sure.” Satisfied he didn’t see any water under the floor, he closed the panel again and returned to the shower. “It’s leaving again that worries me. It’s cute in cartoons when the heroes get chased by the same asshats, across the whole damn planet, but I’m not onboard for that.”
Enoa slid onto her back and held the camera tablet above her head. The view had not changed.
“What are you doing?” He glanced over his shoulder. He’d fit the floor back into place and had begun to seal the edges of the drain and shower stall.
“I thought I’d be more comfortable lying down.” Her upper arms were already protesting, probably still sore from her failed explosion and her adrenaline death grip on the tri-cannon’s controls.
“No.” She rolled onto her side and attempted to prop the tablet against the wall. Every time she removed her hands, the small screen began to slide toward the floor.
“Don’t break the datapad.” Orson watched her continued efforts to work with the tablet. “Use the little stand on the case.”
“Y’know.” Enoa searched with her hands along the back of the tablet until she found the thin metal legs. She stood the screen beside the wall. “I really wish we hadn’t given all that money to those people at that fort. They were horrible to us, and we gave them almost two hundred dollars.”
“Yep.” He finished with the shower stall. He stood and tested both faucets. “The hot needs a new washer, but that can wait. Once I get myself some early breakfast, you should get some sleep. I’ll take my turn.” He walked to the freezer and brought out a box of frozen waffles. He placed one in the toaster set into a compartment of one of the cabinets.
Enoa stood and walked just far enough to slide into the same position on the couch, the tablet now balanced on her stomach. It still displayed the dizzying, crowded starry sky. No Liberty Corps fighters or planes in sight.
The toaster popped up and Orson collected his waffle. He grabbed his new bottle of raspberry syrup from Mayhill and poured a liberal amount on the waffle. He held his syruped waffle in his bare hands and took two quick bites out of it.
“No plate?” Enoa watched him devour the waffle, turning it from side-to-side to stop the syrup from dripping onto him or the floor. “You’re an anarchist.”
“I have very steady hands.” He spoke between bites.
“Ugh!” Enoa rubbed at her eyes. “I really wish we would’ve gone somewhere else, last night. I can’t stop thinking about how we were treated.”
“It’s not worth obsessing over. We got what we needed.” Orson finished the waffle and washed his hands at the kitchen sink. “This is probably syrup they had sitting around since the former owners left, but I managed to get some of it.”
“But maybe the old owners were run out of town by the crazies, and now the Mayhill Market made money on their hard work.”
“Maybe,” Orson said. “Or maybe at least a couple of those vendors will think well of us. But if the Liberty Corps really are their friends, we were doomed from the start.”
“I keep thinking about all the stuff I should have said, when that old guy came at us with the gun. I should have explained more to them about my house being burned and the plan with Tucker to help him take over my hometown and…”
“It wouldn’t have mattered.” Orson took a seat in an armchair opposite her. “They’d made up their minds, especially that old guy. When a tiny, homogenous group like that makes up their collective mind, no one can change it.”
“You can’t know that. Every community is different, especially now, with everything so weird and dangerous.”
“I guess. I’m just worried that after how successful we were in Nimauk, you think that’s the default for adventures, and it’s really not. Sometimes you solve the urgent problem but cause like fifteen more, and then there are lawyers involved, and angry letters, and I skip town in the middle of the night and add it to the list of places I can’t ever visit again.”
“People liked us in Nimauk because we talked to them. I don’t think we did enough to show the truth in Mayhill. Wait, you’ve got a list of places you can’t visit again?”
“Yeah, but it’s not that long. Ten or twelve places, total. And as far as Mayhill goes, it’s good we flew off, then. Imagine if those Sun Talons had cornered us in the parking lot!”
Enoa hadn’t considered this, but she had no time to respond. The ringing phone sound began again. Someone was directly hailing the Aesir, just like Captain Maros had, during the battle. Enoa sat bolt upright. She stared into the camera feed and saw nothing had visibly changed outside.
Orson ran from his chair, up to the dashboard. She followed him with her eyes and caught sight of the lone blinking light at the dash. Orson tapped at it.
“Long range hail,” he said. “This is nobody close. I’m not going to answer. Usually calls at this time of the morning aren’t good news, but if they state their message, we should hear it.”
“Do you have an answering machine?” Enoa set the tablet aside. “Or some way to record messages?”
“This is Wayfarer’s Day Job to Wayfarer One.” A man’s voice spoke. Enoa could hear a smile in the voice. “Pick up you lazy freeloader. If I have to be awake to clean up your mess, then so do you.”
“Freeloader?” Orson hit the blinking switch. “I’ll pay your people when I get to Chicago, but right now I’m busy hiding, so can we not do this now?”
“Hiding?” the man asked. “I knew it. I had Jamie call back to that Fort you were visiting, and they said you were under arrest for receiving stolen goods from a town called Nichaulk, Ninnak, whatever. They’re accusing my Barter Operators of being in cahoots with a wanted criminal. Tell me you at least “received” something good.”
“I didn’t receive anything, Pops.” Orson settled into the driver’s seat. “Listen, it’s a long story, and I don’t want to have transmissions bouncing all over the place. You have my permission to use my long-term funds to reimburse whatever deal you made with that Barter thing.”
“Oh I already did,” Pops said. “Don’t let that worry you.”
“I’m sorry if Mayhill caused problems,” Orson sighed. “But it’s not my fault. They’re working with this militia that’s after me. I need to get clear of this, but I’ll get you a proper explanation, in person. This time I didn’t do anything even debatably shady. I’m helping a young woman regain her inheritance and excluding some Sun Talon pilots who tried to shoot me down, there haven’t even been any major injuries.”
“Calm down, kid,” Pops laughed. “I’m just giving you a hard time. I was one of the founders of the Midland Barter Network. I’ll sit on Mayhill if they raise trouble, but truth be told I’m actually glad to hear you’re in a hairy situation. You’re always more likely to take my jobs when you’re a little desperate.”
“You’re a dirty old crook,” Orson grumbled.
“I’m a dirty old entrepreneur,” Pops corrected. “And I have a fantastic job for you at twice your usual rate. You’ll be making pre-shutdown lawyer money just to protect an energy convoy.”
“Well,” Orson said. “I owe you for the Mayhill business, but I have a major lead in my investigation, like I said.”
“Inheritance, you say?” Pops said. “That’s right, the Fort people said you were with – and I’m quoting them – a young Indian girl.”
“Yeah that sounds like how they’d put it,” Orson said. “Even I was freaked out by the level of paranoid xenophobia going on there. Pops, you should have seen how they’re living, like something out of one of those sixties murder cults.”
“Hmm.” Pops said. “I guess I shouldn’t have called now. I don’t mind bothering you, but your guests are another story.”
Enoa didn’t know whether or not to speak. Pops seemed benign enough, but she didn’t trust anything after Mayhill.
“I have her watching the external camera,” Orson said.
“Well hello to her, mysterious young lady.” Pops shouted. “I hope this loser hasn’t dragged you into one of his dumb treasure hunts.”
“It’s my dumb treasure we’re hunting,” Enoa said. She picked up the tablet again. Still no change. “And traveling in the Aesir beats spending weeks stuck in the cab of my truck.”
“You say that now,” Pops said. “But you’ve never been in that gross camper with the waste system backed up. If that happens you’d rather walk to your dumb treasure.” He laughed again, at his own humor. “My name’s Earl Darlow, but almost everybody calls me Pops.”
“Hi Pops,” Enoa said. “I’m…”
“It’s probably better to leave names out of this,” Orson said. “I’ll get you a proper introduction later.”
“Sorry.” Enoa felt her face flush. She didn’t like being in a position where she didn’t know what the rules were. Could the Liberty Corps really be listening? Or was Orson just rattled from the ambush, the night before?
“Damn!” Pops said. “You really are taking this seriously. I haven’t heard you this rattled in years. Now I’m almost excited about the story, assuming it won’t cost us any more money.”
“For now,” Orson continued. “Blast me the file about the job, while we’re already making so much transmission noise. I’m not saying I’m taking the gig! But I hate to give you extra work without reward, and I’ll take a look at it.”
“I’ll have it sent right over,” Pops said. “You’ll love it. It’s got intrigue and explosions and a seedy bar. Classic Wayfarers Highway adventure! And Commodore Augustin is a class act. You’ll get along. She gets it, y’know? You’re a harder guy to place since Josiah tried to shoot you, what is that now, eighteen months ago?”
“I think Josiah would still try to shoot me,” Orson said. “Given the opportunity.”
“Oh, he absolutely would,” Pops said. “That greasy little freak holds a grudge, who knew? But Anais Augustin and the Solar…”
An imminent beeping sounded, both from the camper’s roof speaker and the tablet in Enoa’s hands. Her mind had wandered without her noticing, absorbed both in her own exhaustion and in Orson’s conversation with his unusual employer.
“Gotta go, Pops,” Orson said. “Talk to you soon.” He hit the yellow button, ending the connection. Then he slid the dial aside, shutting down all lights in the cabin. The beeping likewise ended from the tablet. Enoa scanned the image from the external feed.
“What do you see?” Orson ran back toward her. “Is there something up there?”
“I see…” Enoa saw the dark purple sky, faint stars, and a many-armed shape, floating in the air. It was directly above them.