Maros sat alone in the back of the rover. He’d gotten good at waiting, without thought or worry. He’d learned to empty his mind, observe nothing. He could not see Divenoll. The man had walked a distance away to electronically observe the operations against the potential Aesir hiding places.
“Status!” Divenoll yelled, the sound muffled inside the rover. “Status!”
Maros shifted to the side, hoping to keep track of the man, but couldn’t see him. Divenoll’s voice fell to an inaudible drone, but he spoke at a rapid pace.
Maros’s eyes were drawn away from Divenoll when the headlights blasted out of the old tunnel, blinding him. The sound of engines soon followed, and Maros forced his eyes open in time to see what looked like the entire Bedford division rushing from the tunnel, around the rover, and on up the pock-marked road.
The rover’s rear hatch rose. Maros shivered. Divenoll arrived at the opening and shoved his control pad at him.
“Ion field,” Divenoll said. “Your report on the Aesir’s capabilities was lacking. Any loss to our assets will be considered an additional cost of your failed campaign. Now, very slowly, detail every piece of concrete intelligence you have on the subject of the independent vessel, Aesir, and her crew.”
“I have no way of predicting the armament aboard that vessel,” Maros said. “I pursued it in the air. They used an Ion field? Were our ships airborne when this happened?”
“All airborne craft lost power,” Divenoll said. “Details. Now, boy. I need everything you know.”
“I thought all repurposed craft had emergency inertial cushions to aid in such situations.” Maros did not know what else he could tell the man.
“Many crash seats were equipped with dampeners,” Divenoll said, “as per protocol. However, we have never encountered a device that could produce an ion field of that size without any external signs. And there were no signs of any such offensive, even during our strafing bombardment.”
“Bombardment?” Maros rose into a crouch. “You bombarded the derelicts in that field? Why? What about Protocol Five? The heat signature you showed me was far too great…”
Maros did not see Divenoll’s hand lash out until it was almost touching his cheek. The Operative backhanded him across the face so hard his lip split.
Maros fell back against his seat. He gasped and raised his hand to the searing welt on his face.
“Don’t try to educate me, boy,” Divenoll said. “I was there when the protocols were written. Aid me in locating the Aesir and recovering our assets or be silent. Had you not attempted to investigate the Dreamside Road on your own, any materials possessed by Sucora Cloud would eventually have come to us. You ruined that inevitability. Now speak, and remember that all of your reactions will be logged as evidence for your upcoming hearing.”
Maros flexed his prosthetic hand, a grip that could bend iron. He couldn’t ignore the lives likely lost in Divenoll’s onslaught or the potential that he, Kol Maros, might be blamed for those deaths. But Maros didn’t let himself speak before he was ready and calm. Even when threatened by a senior Liberty Corps Officer, Maros found strength in his Corps training. He’d learned so much about strengthening his mind and his resolve, not just his body. He found the words.
“I had no way of knowing the Aesir’s capabilities,” Maros said. “Captain Orson Gregory and Enoa Cloud are extremely dangerous. Nothing I have said would lead you to think anything else. Your blind assault was foolish and will do nothing but earn our cause justified enemies.”
“If you have any interest in your career or your freedom, you will walk me through every detail of your encounters with these individuals,” Divenoll said. “I have dispatched all local divisions to support search and recovery. This operation has become too expensive to accept any other resolution than the capture of the Aesir and the death of her crew.”
* * *
Enoa was thrown to the floor and not by a bullet. Something else hit her, struck her bodily and threw her sideways. She fell onto her stomach on the floor, just as a new volley of bullets struck the Aesir’s hull. At least two entered the camper, striking places unseen with obscene noise. Enoa threw her arms over her head.
She heard Orson’s boot repulsor ignite and spun around in time to watch him launch from the doorway. The door cycled shut behind him. Enoa heard a crackling sound she didn’t initially recognize. But she’d heard it only once before, when Orson had battled Daniel Tucker.
Orson had drawn his sword. The rifleman did not fire again.
Enoa stood, ignoring the new sources of pain in her side, where Orson had struck her. She approached the window in the door. Only Orson was standing. She saw a total of three Liberty Corps troopers motionless in the snow around him. He was masked, his goggles lit. He turned in a slow circle, looking around them. Then he sheathed his sword and walked back to the Aesir.
Orson knelt beside the fallen man who’d asked for their help. He slipped his hand under the man’s coat and long beard, to his throat. Enoa watched Orson’s mask, looking for some sign of what had happened to the man.
Orson closed the man’s eyes, and positioned him on his back. He stood again and approached the door. It cycled open at his touch. Enoa stepped away.
“I’m sorry I shoved you.” Orson spoke from the doorway. “Change of plans. We need to get everyone out of this place.” He looked in the direction of the crashed Liberty Corps drop ship. “And I need to put a stop to them chasing us.”
* * *
“School Bus Two to Western Barony.” A man shouted from Divenoll’s control pad. “Check in – post crash. Ion field fried our power core. All probes are disabled.”
“I know,” Divenoll said. “Your remote feed is transmitting directly to me.”
“Yes, sir,” the man answered. “We’re rewiring and recharging, and will be online in under an hour.”
“What happened to School Bus One?” Divenoll asked. He sat in the front of the rover. Maros still sat in the back of the rover. He found his emotionless, thought-free, mental void, waiting his turn to speak.
“He was in the john when the field hit us,” the man said. “Not much left. Everyone in their crashwebs survived, almost two-thirds. We sent a recon trio. They were ordered to find the Aesir without making contact, but they disobeyed that order.”
“Dead?” Divenoll asked.
“Yes, sir,” Bus Two said. “They had reason to believe that the Aesir’s energy shield was lowered to let out the field and took it upon themselves to attempt to damage the vessel.”
“Results so far are inconclusive. At this time, I am advising all of our efforts to focus on regaining control of our ship. Long range sensors show only six active energy sources. None look bigger than an eighteen wheeler, but we believe one is the Aesir. It’s difficult getting a full understanding of our surroundings. We can view the energy signatures with the handhelds, but we have only localized thermal imaging without our main computer.”
“Then I’m modifying your objective,” Divenoll said. “Send a recon trio three miles north to State Route one-sixty. I have divisions from Bedford and Somerset, as well as my ground force from the Quiet Zone out to meet you. They will coordinate recovery.”
“Two more things,” Divenoll said. “I want you to assemble a combat-ready team, no more than six. Can you do that?”
“We have two recon trios prepared for defensive positions,” Bus Two said. “I don’t know if that’s…”
“Perfect,” Divenoll interrupted. “Also, assign one of your engineers to your guns. Now, I need you to listen very carefully. I have former Newtown Division Captain Kolben Maros with me. He is going to provide a series of details to you about the Aesir and her crew.”
“And what will we be doing with this information?” Bus Two asked.
“You will find the Aesir,” Divenoll said. “And ultimately execute Captain Gregory and Enoa Cloud.”
* * *
Enoa sat in the passenger seat, her hands on the tri-cannon’s control yoke. She kept the energy gun aimed on the big drop ship, in case the Liberty Corps personnel managed to bring it online. Orson had replaced the dashboard solar cells, but they hadn’t yet gotten their systems reset and flight-ready.
Orson had gone to gather the locals, anyone still hiding among the graveyard of vehicles, with a promise that he’d teach her how to use his set of commlinks ‘later’. He’d been gone only eighteen minutes, but Enoa had never felt time pass more slowly, an impossible crawl. She saw no motion anywhere and heard little. The deep winter morning offered no sounds but a soft breeze between the derelict vehicles and rare, distant birdsong.
Enoa heard approaching engines and looked down at the topographical computer map. The imperfect scan of the area showed only small shapes where the derelict trolleys and buses sat. The radar signatures of the four approaching vehicles showed four yellow circles maneuvering through the maze around them. The circles came to a stop beside the Aesir. Enoa knew that this was likely Orson returning from his efforts to aid the people hiding among the derelicts, but she checked for the control triggers to the camper’s door-height cannons. She also noted another yellow circle on the far side of the field – maybe people who had not joined Orson’s evacuation.
“Alright!” Orson spoke outside. His voice boomed from the ceiling speaker, loud enough that Enoa dialed down the volume on the external microphone. “We’re meeting again at the giant coffee pot place. Hopefully, we’ll be safe enough there that I don’t have to rush through the rest of the details. Does everyone know where that is?”
“The Lincoln Coffee Pot?” An unknown female voice asked.
“What other coffee pot is there?” A male voice answered.
“I think so?” Orson said. “I picked it from my computer, uh, road atlas, and it doesn’t give me too much information about the place, just that it’s close to the Father Road west.”
“The Jenkins family uses the Coffee Pot as a lookout station,” the woman said. “I’m not going near Jenkins territory. They’re too dangerous.”
“The Liberty Corps just bombed you,” Orson said. “What could be more… Okay, okay, sure, we can find somewhere else. I only picked the coffee pot because it was listed on my road atlas. Where else do you know that we can regroup? I’m going to compensate you for what you went through, but please, we need to move quickly.”
“What about the Fighter’s Nest?” A low voice asked. “It’s this dope little place I used to visit. Great view, made out of an old airport terminal.”
“Uh, lemme see.” Orson fell silent. “Is this the one?”
“No,” the voice responded. “That’s the actual county airfield. The Nest was closed for like thirty years. Great place to hide.”
“I don’t think that’s on any of my maps, can we…”
Enoa saw something, movement, out the windshield. She hit the button on the dashboard that Orson told her would view heat signatures. There, she saw a group of six people advancing through the maze of wreckage, directly toward them.
Enoa slid her fingers to the controls and aimed the tri-cannon in their direction. There was no telling if these people were other innocents, hesitantly seeking escape, or if they were more crewmembers from the drop ship.
Sounds erupted around Enoa. Something exploded in the distance. A huge grinding also sounded, just outside the camper, like shredding metal. Then something struck the Aesir’s shields. Then something else struck the shields. Then something else. Each of these objects bounced away. Her apparent security didn’t stop Enoa from jumping in her seat. Outside, voices screamed. Even Orson yelled. One of the engines started again.
“Ruby,” Enoa yelled. “What was that?” She glanced at the map. The drop ship was still dark, but two of the yellow circles had vanished, the distant one on the opposite side of the field, and one of the evacuee transports Orson had gathered.
“Heavy aircraft gatling gun,” Ruby’s eternally calm voice replied. “Fired from the RAAG drop ship. The Liberty Corps drop ship targeted local energy signatures, but all fire is currently focused on this vehicle. Would you like me to recommend evasive maneuvers?”
“Please, I can take care of this,” Orson said to the gathering outside. “Please.” If he said any more, his words were drowned out by the roar of engines. On the map, one of the yellow dots sped away.
“I’m sorry,” Ruby said. “I didn’t quite catch that. Would you like me to suggest evasive maneuvers?”
Enoa didn’t respond. She ignored the occasional strikes from the gatling gun and looked toward the shapes of heat, waiting for them to become visible with the naked eye. They finally entered view, a contingent of Liberty Corps personnel, half with guns, the other half with long-handled blades. Enoa pulled the cannon triggers.
Nothing happened. She pulled the triggers again – still nothing.
“Ruby!” Enoa yelled. “What’s happening? Why can’t I shoot?”
“Just listen to me,” Orson was yelling outside. “If you run now I can’t help you. I won’t be able to do anything. It’ll do more harm than good if I have to track you all over the countryside. Just…” Another yellow dot departed from the screen.
“Solar cells insufficiently charged to allow for shield interval firing,” Ruby said. “Offensive countermeasures impossible.” Several small boxes appeared on the Aesir’s dashboard. Enoa didn’t bother reading them. Even if they offered her a way to override the shield precautions, she didn’t have time to figure them out.
Enoa unbuckled and dove from her seat, charging along the camper’s cabin toward the side door. The door slid open in time to reveal Orson standing in the way of a group of the evacuees. They were climbing from a trolley with its roof torn away. The roof dangled from the back like an open tin can, likely the source of the shredding sound she’d heard. The group carried at least one motionless person between them, unconscious or dead.
“Listen,” Orson was trying to keep them from climbing into an odd double-decker bus. “I can help.”
“Orson!” She yelled. “Liberty Corps!” Orson drew his sword. He spun toward the drop ship and tapped at his goggles. At the same time, the drumming from the gatling gun ceased.
“Everyone get behind me,” Orson said. “Enoa, good eye. Stay in the Aesir.”
Enoa did not turn away. She knew where to look for the Corps troopers and had a higher vantage point than Orson or the evacuees. She saw them, the team from the drop ship, approaching through the metal maze. What was Orson going to do to stop them? He needed to act.
The crowd of people struggled toward the bus, slipping through the snow. Could she interfere, herself? Orson tried to advance around the evacuees, but the group carrying their fallen comrade sprawled onto the ground at his feet, slush spraying in all directions. At the same time, the Liberty Corps squad came into clear view. They were going to attack. Orson wasn’t going to act in time.
“No!” Enoa yelled. Orson seemed most comfortable fighting alone. Could he protect everyone? Could he stop the new attackers? She had to stop them. If the Liberty Corps opened fire, they would kill more innocent people. She couldn’t stand to see more people die because of them. Her mind was filled with the image of the desperate man, begging her for help. She imagined the man’s body, struck by bullets, falling, lifeless. She had to stop them. Stop them. Stop them. Stop them!
The three riflemen raised their weapons and took aim, but only one managed to fire. His weapon produced a burst of energy, like Orson’s blaster. This projectile tore a chunk from the double-decker bus with a sound like a giant bug zapper. The other two shooters couldn’t fire. They pulled their guns’ triggers as ineffectively as Enoa’s own attempts to fire the Aesir’s weapons.
Enoa’s legs gave out. She fell against the camper’s doorframe. She grabbed at the metal, trying to keep herself upright. She failed and slid down into a sitting position on the step. A hologram projected from her bracelet.
|Wow! Great job, New User!|
|Combustion manipulation is a delicate and complex art! Fantastic work!|
|LEVEL: 3 (estimated)|
Enoa realized what she’d done. She’d stopped the physical projectiles. She’d worked Shaping for the third time, but her body betrayed her again. She couldn’t stand. She could hardly move. Her body was numb, and she felt her mind remain distant, dazed, like she was half-asleep.
She watched, dreamlike, as Orson rocketed toward the Liberty Corps troops. The energy rifle fired toward him repeatedly, but the projectiles missed or met Orson’s sword and dissipated in the heat. Then Orson was on the Corps personnel. He slammed into the last shooter, as they both disappeared from sight. The remaining Liberty Corps forces rushed to aid their comrade.
This was too much for the remaining evacuees. The trolley group – led by a woman dressed in a heavy parka, its down lining poking out in several places, feathers fluttering away – charged aboard the double-decker bus. Then the strange vehicle wheeled around in a wide turn that nearly slammed it into the Aesir. Enoa dimly wondered what effect the huge mass of metal would have on their energy field. The bus barreled away in the opposite direction, weaving precariously and sliding on the icy path. The evacuees were gone.
And Enoa still couldn’t move. She sat, fighting to return from the dazed, entranced state of her mind. She heard the sounds of struggle and the crackling of the sword of fire and one furious yell from Orson. She also heard the gatling gun begin again, free to attack with the Liberty Corps personnel out of the way.
Enoa recovered enough presence of mind to remember herself, still slumped in the Aesir’s open doorway. She hauled herself inside, limbs numb, crawling back just far enough for the ship’s door to cycle shut. Then her vision narrowed. She couldn’t fight it anymore, but she jerked her eyes open when she heard the door open again.
“Let’s get you somewhere more comfortable than the floor,” Orson said. “I’m sorry you had to see that. Can you stand?”
“I didn’t…” She tried to speak and could not, but the shock of his arrival had snapped her awake. With one arm around Orson’s shoulders, he helped her to her feet and guided her back to the couch. She fell onto her side, lying down.
“Shields at twenty-three percent,” Ruby announced. “I strongly recommend evasive countermeasures.”
“I’ll be right back.” Orson walked away from her, somewhere deeper in the camper. He ignored Ruby’s warning and the bursts from the gatling gun. Enoa heard crashes from his direction. He was rummaging through his supplies again, but she didn’t have the energy to look at him or see what he was trying to find. When he returned, he had another belt slung over his shoulder, like a bandolier. This one had pouches built into it, compartments for supplies and weapons.
“What’s that?” She managed.
“Explosives,” Orson said. He walked to the center of the floor, and she heard the sounds of the roof hatch and Orson’s repulsor. He rocketed out and the hatch sealed again.
Enoa tried to force herself to sit up, but she couldn’t. All she could do was slide back, so she was propped up against the arm of the couch. She heard the sound of the gatling gun change, and a second gatling gun joined it. The RAAG had started a full offensive against Orson.
The guns only stopped when the drop ship exploded. Enoa could see enough of the massive craft through the windshield that the new burst of light left an afterimage in front of her eyes, before the Aesir’s windshield adjusted for the brightness. The entire building-sized flying machine was suddenly gone in a fireball that rained shrapnel and debris.
Enoa fell lower on the couch, still too tired for her surprise to fully register. The world had gone totally silent, a chill winter morning with nothing to break the quiet.
Enoa drifted off, asleep. She succumbed to exhaustion. She didn’t know how long she was out, and barely heard Orson return.
He walked through the door. She could see that the bandolier of explosives was now empty. He looked disheveled, his hair wilder than usual, his eyes downcast.
“The locals all ran.” He sighed. “I left some surprises for the Liberty Corps, but we need to get out of here. We need to get far away from here.” He approached the couch. “I have to find us somewhere safe, and you need to get training when you’re up to it.”
“Yeah.” She barely kept herself conscious, her mind still in the place of secret power that she reached while Shaping.
“If you move over just a little bit, there’s a seatbelt in the couch,” he said. “There are restraints in the bunks too, but not all of them are installed properly, so if it’s okay with you, you can just rest here.”
“Okay.” She slid to the side, but not very far. Orson reached beside her and drew out a thin seatbelt and wrapped it snug around her and the side of the couch before buckling it in place, beneath one of the cushions. Then he retrieved a pillow and blanket for her.
“Rest up for now,” he said. “I don’t want to be here when the Liberty Corps triggers the booby traps I set for them.”
“Where are we going?” Enoa managed the question.
“Like I said, we need to hide, and we need cover to get away from this part of the country. I think getting close to more people might keep the Liberty Corps away, so I’m going to take that protection job from Pops. Tomorrow we’ll meet up with the Solar Saver Collective.” He unclipped his sword belt. “I can’t believe you can halt combustion, without training. You won’t need me around once you really get started. But now, you should rest. I’ve got some driving to do.”
Enoa fell asleep again before Orson walked away.
* * *
Investigating Researcher Seventeen had spent seven hours watching computer screens, daydreaming about her other life and her other name. A half-mile away from the steel observation tower where she worked, that other woman’s grandchildren slept, and hopefully would still be sleeping, when IR-17 was permitted to become their grandmother, once again. Then she’d take the freight elevator down to the ground floor and change clothes in one of the overnight crew’s sanitation chambers. She’d also switch from her black IR helmet into the gray one provided for her anonymous departure protocols.
IR-17 would then exit through the tower’s rear doors and walk to the small lot of identical steel gray custom Orthanc Enterprises electric cars, relatively new, the last model produced pre-shutdown. She would drive her indistinguishable car from the tower into the Research crew village, pull into her garage, and remove her helmet.
Then she could live by her other name and be that other woman, make waffles and build snowmen and later enjoy movie night with her grandchildren. But not quite yet.
For the next twenty-three minutes, IR-17 would watch the rows of monitors, vintage devices, built when she’d been young, when secrets were easier to keep. She watched a green, plain text report, monitoring seismographic data from Oceania, a ticker feed of updates out of a construction project on the Arab Peninsula, local news from a small city in the Pacific Northwest.
No disturbances. She was almost home free.
But then the alarm sounded, and the course of IR-17’s day changed in an instant.
She determined which of the thirty monitors and readouts was beeping, the one that was wailing for her attention. She already knew which it would be. It was the only disturbance she’d reported in years, but one she’d hoped futilely would be a fluke.
UNEXPECTED GARNET LOGIN! UNEXPECTED GARNET LOGIN!
User Device: Sucora Cloud
Further Data: Inaccessible
“Inaccessible.” IR-17 unplugged her keyboard from the news feed monitor and ran it over the wall of monitors until she reached the GARNET waveform detector. She plugged in the keyboard and issued three commands, four commands, five commands.
Another message appeared on the monitor, but it was not the one she’d hoped for or even the one she’d expected. It provided further data, but not about the GARNET login.
The new message gave a list, a list describing an unusual flying object without transponder, detected near the GARNET login. The object had the telltale signs of anti-gravity propulsion and was likely solar-powered. The craft was probably between thirty and fifty feet long.
The records supercomputer, buried a mile under the surface, a mile and a half below IR-17, searched all air traffic records for a matching craft. It delivered a verdict in thirty seconds, unbelievably fast for the antique, one-of-a-kind device.
There was only one aircraft that matched all of those criteria. The Aesir had returned.
There went waffles, building the snowmen, cocoa. Movie night was likely out, as well. It had been a gorgeous daydream. Thankfully, the kids were old enough, now, that they would understand her absence. They would not be afraid or unsafe, waking alone and spending their day unsupervised while she worked.
IR-17 had hours of research ahead, but she referenced recent reports and drafted a brief memo to her employer, her benefactor, her protector. Notice had to be given.
I am writing to provide proof of the pattern I reported previously. A new user visited the GARNET, using the login and transmitter of former IHSA Operative Eta, aka Sucora Cloud. Collected newspaper records show Ms. Cloud died on August 8, last year.
The new user has logged into GARNET on four occasions, showing a clear trajectory from Nimauk, Pennsylvania, headed west.
The new user appears to have been involved in a conflict with the Liberty Corps. Multiple Sun Talon transponder codes were detected, and an RAAG drop ship, as well as a unique energy signature, an anti-gravity drive, solar probably, but with some kind of emission. After extensive research, I believe that the Aesir has returned to local airspace.
While this will also need to be verified, I believe that the new user is traveling with Captain Orson Gregory or that Gregory, himself, is the new user. I believe he, like you, is pursuing the Dreamside Road.
I will continue to monitor these energy signatures and await your further instructions.