Maros saw the Bedford caravan approach. Like most community-level Liberty Corps forces, it consisted of a ragtag mix of vehicles, mostly military-style or militarized trucks and jeeps. The Liberty Corps did not provide vehicles for its community-level groups, and neither did it decree which to use or not to use, but most groups sought out military-esque transport. Maros also saw a few cars and vans, though fewer of these. Many vehicles bore flags or banners, though these could not be seen in the dark.
The young captain had seen legged shapes flying above the mountain, Liberty Corps scouting drones. He’d known the recovery team was upon them, and he’d returned to the fallen Sun Talon. Melville had gone clammy and weak, and Maros had helped him with a morphine injection. Then he’d walked back to the mouth of the tunnel. He’d barely returned when two of the probes rushed past him into the mouth of the tunnel. Then he’d seen lights in the distance and heard the roar of the two-dozen engines, as the caravan rushed along the abandoned, potholed road.
Maros adjusted his flight suit and stood straight. He tried not to contemplate his failures, past or present. He tried not to contemplate his future.
The caravan drove right past him. All those trucks, jeeps, vans, and modified cars roared right past him, weaving across the broken road, past the fallen rock. They entered the tunnel and headed straight for the fallen ship and Melville. Maros almost turned to watch the procession head into the tunnel. He couldn’t help the red-faced embarrassment spread over him. He was negligible. Only the hardware mattered, only the failure, his failure.
But there was one vehicle headed toward him. Just one. This was a strange machine, angular, bronze chrome, with huge ridged wheels. It looked like the rovers the IHSA once used in operations outside the planet Earth. The strange vehicle turned to the side and parked directly beside him.
The driver’s side wing door opened. It swung out and up. One man sat inside, wearing black armor, tinged with red and purple. This was not an individual in the standard Liberty Corps chain of command. The man’s armor was decorated with an exotic rank insignia, orange and purple bars, in addition to the standard gold and silver. He was silver-haired and physically unassuming.
The man looked at Maros and his eyes held clear contempt. This was the Quiet Zone agent Duncan had warned him about.
“Operative Divenoll.” The man climbed out and introduced himself without offering a handshake. “There is little time to waste. You were already made aware of the investigation into your conduct and the likely charges to be brought against you. Any disciplinary or corrective action taken against you can be mitigated by your assistance in our urgent pursuit of the Aesir.”
“Made aware?” Maros asked. “I’ve received no communications from Montauk Command. I…”
“Agent Racz was rather thorough in his assessment of your situation,” Divenoll interrupted. “Have you suffered a head wound that’s left you incapable of understanding what I’m saying?”
“No,” Maros began. He’d never heard of Corps Command intercepting radio chatter within a community-level division, but seemingly, Divenoll had done so. “I…”
“You will speak only to answer my questions.” Divenoll returned to his rover and withdrew a long datapad and tripod stand. He set the device in front of Maros and extended the tripod’s legs to their full meter height. “I have dispatched seventy-two probes throughout the local region, seeking some sign of the fleeing Aesir. Currently, it does not appear on advanced radar, so either it has a more complex cloaking device than we have on record, or it is hiding somewhere.”
Maros looked at the screen. He saw a dizzying kaleidoscope, views from all seventy-two probes, looking at abandoned buildings and obscured forest roads, lakeside caves, city parking garages. It was information, too much for him to take in, at once.
“I have pinpointed the twelve most likely locations for a hiding place, within two hundred miles, locations with the necessary heat profile, in the general westerly direction the Aesir was heading, as well as some logical advantageous characteristics. But I cannot narrow this list further, and we cannot allocate the resources to all twelve locations. You’ve been involved in this matter for weeks. If you can narrow my analysis, you will earn some leniency.”
Maros watched most of the seventy-two results disappear, leaving only a dozen on the screen. He saw the wreckage of a lakeside town and the same dirty parking garage, full of broken cars, left derelict now for half a decade. He saw a railroad roundhouse; a graveyard of buses, trolleys, and trucks; and the remains of an interstate service plaza. He saw a whole array of abandoned and destroyed places, and empty places, all seemingly devoid of civilization.
“What other details do you have?” Maros looked up at Divenoll. “Do you have air traffic reports? What kind of readings do your probes give you?”
“If I had anything else to go on,” Divenoll said. “Why would I be speaking to you? I’d cuff you and deliver you to your hearing.”
“Cuff me,” Maros said. “I…”
“You had one genuine lead, and you blew it,” Divenoll said. “This project is of the highest interest to Corps leadership, all the way to Corps Czar Ilias. But you kept this information to yourself, concealed leads, misused funds and assets. Your encounter with Gregory is the only reason you haven’t been gagged.” Divenoll pressed his fingers to the screen. “We have two RAAG dropships coming up from the Quiet Zone, a meager response for something so important, but this is all we could muster with no notice. If you’d properly disseminated information, we would have sent a full detachment from Montauk Command, three thousand infantry and crowd control, to take Nimauk. Whatever Sucora Cloud had left behind, we would now have it. But instead, we are left playing catch-up.”
“You want me to pick two?” Maros spoke mostly to buy himself time. The enormity of his situation, the interwoven path of choice seemed almost inevitable and impossible. He needed time to think, time spent away from the relentless, almost freakishly unblinking stare from Divenoll.
Enoa Cloud was undoubtedly clever and her newfound abilities would, given time, make her a deadly adversary, but the choice of hiding place would likely be Gregory’s. What was his style? How did the odd traveler think, outside his outward displays of flash and bravado? Where would Orson Gregory hide?
“Two.” Divenoll nodded once.
“Then what?” Maros asked.
“Then I transport you to Newtown Division to await your hearing,” Divenoll said. “You will return all Corps property, but you are not considered a flight risk and will not be detained. Any assistance you render for us will be a determining factor in your judgment. Now,” he tapped the screen. “Pick two.”
* * *
Enoa and Orson sat side-by-side on the Aesir’s couch. The probe bot was no longer in the air above them and could no longer be seen with the exterior cameras, but another small device Orson held showed that the probe was still in the sky over the vehicle graveyard, where they’d been parked since the dogfight.
“That tarp thing we put over us,” Enoa said. “Will it keep the robot from seeing us?” The probe obviously could not hear them, but Enoa found herself speaking in a whisper.
“Yes,” Orson said. “It looks like a standard IHSA auto-seeker, nothing more advanced or experimental, but if that thing can see through the radar blanket, we have real big problems.”
“An auto-seeker?” Enoa said. “It looks for cars? There are lots of cars here.”
“No, uh, it means automatic. It’s pretty basic AI.”
Enoa occasionally glanced from the camera feed to look at Orson’s other device, but she couldn’t read it. His single-minded focus on this other gadget did not reassure her. He stared at whatever this machine told him, his eyes fixed on it, barely blinking, like a wild thing, some jungle animal eyeing a rival or a predatory creature.
“The probe flew off.” He sighed. He held the little monitor over and showed her the blank neon green display. “Maybe it wasn’t Liberty Corps. If there are scavengers for IHSA tech around and they already have a probe, they’d be drooling over those Sun Talons we fought.”
“Where would a scavenger get a probe?” Enoa didn’t have enough facts to outright dispute what Orson knew about secret tech, but something didn’t sit right.
“I used to hear lots of rumors about there being this big base in the Radio Quiet Zone that the government used to maintain down in the Blue Ridge Mountains area.” Orson pressed a button on the new sensor. “But I never heard much about it. I know there were big mobs who stormed the other famous bases, maybe somebody got to… Wait.”
The green of the device’s display was now broken up by yellow lines. It looked almost like a pulse rate monitor, with the small jagged arcs of light crawling across the screen, like a heartbeat. But then, the lines intensified. There were more peaks than anyone’s pulse.
A bright light or lights appeared outside, intense enough that they shined through the edges of the blinds that they’d drawn in front of the windows and windshield. They could hear a noise now too, a rumble in the sky, a consistent thrum, like a sustained thunder.
Enoa returned her attention to the camera feed. She saw no motion, no shapes, nothing in the sky, but she saw the lights. She could see the individual beams of illumination moving outside. There were shapes out there, many shapes.
“Would you be okay getting in the front passenger seat?” Orson stood. “I think this is going to be another fun ride.” He jumped to his feet and waited for her to do the same. Her legs and shoulders still ached, but the sound of the craft in the sky was enough to propel her to the front of the cabin. She sat and buckled herself in place.
She thought Orson was right behind her, but she heard a metallic sound on the other side of the ship. She leaned to the side. He’d donned his jacket and metal boot and now stood at one of the lockers in the wall. He tapped in a code and the door swung open on its own. He drew out something wrapped up in a thick fabric.
“What are you doing?” She tried to get a closer look at the new, odd something he was holding.
“This is that weapon I was telling you about.” He took the driver seat, with the odd shape in his lap. He pulled the cover aside to reveal a machine, a pale gray octagon with what looked like a tap jutting out from the side. There was a ratty, dirty piece of masking tape on one side. On the tape, she saw a handwritten note in faint, red marker – “IF Maker.”
“If Maker?” She asked.
“Not ‘if’. I. F. Ion Field Maker.” He drew aside the dashboard and removed two of the solar cells from the Aesir. “Keep checking those cams. I think they might just be searching the area, because it’s a good hiding spot, but we need to be ready.”
“Is the IF Maker that electromagnet machine you wanted to use in our last chase?” Enoa looked back at the tablet and saw nothing more than those same maneuvering lights. The sound of the great ship was still sustained.
“Yes,” Orson said. “If I use it, it should knock out just about anything in the sky, but it’s going to take most of the power in these solar cells.”
“Don’t we need those to escape?” Enoa looked into the open dashboard and saw two of the three cell bays empty. “How many do you need to drive?”
“I can drive with one.” He fit the two cells into the IF Maker. The tap on the side of the machine gave out a pale blue light. “And the ones I swapped out a couple weeks ago should be ready to go.”
“Won’t we be really vulnerable too, after you fire that thing?” Enoa still didn’t see anything on the tablet screen, but the lights seemed to have stabilized, as the probes, or whatever they were, stayed level in the air. “What if one of those robots lands on us?”
“It’s really risky,” Orson agreed. “That’s why I haven’t done it yet, but I need to be ready. It’ll be another minute or two, just to have this damn thing primed to fire, and if they actually can see past our cloak, we might not have that long.” He set the box aside and grabbed a lever on the dashboard. A weapon trigger slid out of the dash, near Enoa. “These control the Incursion Cannons in the front and sides. If I have to us the IF, we’ll have no shields for a couple minutes, and the tarp won’t be retractable. This is a last resort, if they actually start shooting at us, fire back. You’ll have to shoot right through the tarp.”
“Those are the ones that fire physical bullets?” Enoa couldn’t believe how casual she’d become, learning about deadly weapons, weapons they’d just used to destroy a crewed aircraft. “How do I control which gun fires?”
“There are four triggers.” He didn’t look up from the IF Maker. “If the front of the ship is twelve O’Clock, the four operate clockwise from left to right, with the triggers corresponding to guns at nine, eleven, one, and three. Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” she said. “I hope I have time to figure it out when we’re in less danger.”
“Me too. Like I said, this is a last resort.” He pushed at the tap. It didn’t move. He pushed again and strained against it. “Just have to get this primed and we’re ready. We’re almost…”
Enoa didn’t know whether Orson stopped speaking when the bombing began or if she just couldn’t hear him. The first explosion started well to their left. Enoa had never heard something so loud or something so clearly destructive. It was like the train derailment again, but worse, somehow. This sound wasn’t the physical result of solid objects striking each other. This explosion was fire and energy, the sound of matter being torn apart. It sounded hungry, the explosion, as it consumed everything.
Then another explosion hit, and another, and another. The ground shook. The roar from the blasts was so great that Enoa was tempted to cover her ears, even inside the ship.
But she didn’t. The screams began, faint sounds when compared with the blasts from the sky, but they were all Enoa could listen to. Many people were screaming, all the lost people who had chosen to take refuge in the graveyard. Enoa wondered about them, probably desperate people who had nowhere else to go, who’d lost their place after the shutdown. Now obliterated by the Liberty Corps – it had to be them. These people were dying because she and Orson happened to hide here.
“Come on you damn bastard!” Orson rammed the tap of the IF Maker into the dashboard. It swung up and into place. He slapped his whole palm down on the machine.
A wave of blue light passed out from the device. Enoa felt it pass over her, an electric tingling sensation. Then the visible wave passed out of the ship, spreading out and out, faster and faster, a dome growing into the sky.
Then came an instant of absolute quiet. The IF Maker’s field had shut off the power source of the shapes in the air. Even the great rumbling ship fell silent. The screams and responses from the people on the ground went quiet too.
The ship and probes fell from the sky. Every flying object crashed to Earth. These sounds were loud too, but they were metal meeting ground. They were physical sounds, horrible and deafening, but without the unearthly roar from the explosives.
The screaming began again, immediately. There was no pause or period of silence after the crashes. And without the roar of the ship engines or the explosive impacts, Enoa could pick out individual voices. She heard crying children, a man weeping, a woman wailing, in a ragged, agonized cacophony. The vehicle graveyard sounded full of people, full of wounded and dying people.
Orson started the Aesir’s engine. “I had to shut down everything, even the fridge,” he said. “But we’re totally back online. Thank you, Doctor Sun.” He reached up and raised the blind at the windshield. Then he hit the switch that retracted the cloaking tarp. The headlights lit and revealed burning carnage.
Where the snowy field of rusting and derelict vehicles had been, there was now mostly smoldering wreckage. There’d been an uncanny, almost natural beauty to nature’s reclamation of the collection of vehicles, but this looked like an image out of a war zone.
It was still too dark to make out the individual vehicles, but it appeared that few of them were unscathed, except those around the perimeter, like the Aesir. It appeared that the attacking aircraft had spread out in a grid to more effectively bombard the area. They’d fallen in that grid, as well, pockmarking the entire area in craters, as the devices plummeted to Earth.
In the far distance, a hundred yards distant, a massive machine lay on its side, embedded in the ground, surrounded by indistinguishable metal detritus, like a ruin from a bygone, dead civilization. This machine was a hundred feet across, easily, like a small office building had crashed from the sky.
“Bastards sent a Roger to kill us.” Orson pressed his hand to his forehead. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“A Roger?” Enoa didn’t turn away from the carnage outside.
“RAAG drop ship,” Orson said. “They were Hierarchia troop transports. If they ever needed to mobilize their forces in a military offensive, the kind of stuff they were saving for an attack from another planet or some other gonzo shit like that.” He looked across the Aesir’s dashboard. “I need to pop in some other cells, but I think we’d be wise to get some distance between us and this. The Hierarchia only used those things like twice.”
An unseen woman let out an agonized wail. Other cries joined in. How many people had been using that abandoned place for refuge?
“We need to do something for those people.” Enoa unbuckled herself and stood. “We’re the reason they’re in this position. People died because of us.” She forced herself to take a deep breath. She retrieved her staff and cloak and made for the Aesir’s right side door.
“I know.” Orson jumped to his feet, as well. “But there will be more. If the Liberty Corps has drop ships, they’ll have other forces, and they’ll be out there. Those drop ships can carry like fifty soldiers. Not only are we in danger being here, but we’re putting them in more danger. If the Liberty Corps sends an army, even if we win, there will be nothing here but a big crater. We…”
“Take us with you!” Someone struck at the Aesir’s door, the left one. “Take us with you.” The low voice said again. “We have children. Please.”
“Be careful,” Orson said. But Enoa had already rushed to the door and threw it open, revealing a man standing alone. He was dressed in a great tattered parka, too big for him. He had a huge growth of gray-flecked beard. Little of his face could be seen. There was no sign of children, but this man didn’t get the chance to explain his situation.
Enoa saw the armored shape in the distance, blue armor, a Liberty Corps rifleman. The soldier raised his weapon toward the Aesir and fired.
The bearded man collapsed when the Liberty Corps rifleman peppered the Aesir’s side with bullets. He fell to the ground, leaving the gunman with a clear shot at Enoa.