Divenoll watched Orson’s attack on the drop ship nine times. The recording had been streamed to Divenoll’s datapad before the ship’s destruction, and he had so far watched it nine times. Maros sat in the passenger seat, beside the operative. Nine times they saw Orson fight the recon trios, striking all of them with his sword. Nine times they watched him return to the Aesir and depart again, flying toward the drop ship. Nine times they watched the drop ship’s bombardment, its gatling guns blasting, until Orson rocketed out of view. They heard gunfire and indistinct shouts, knowing each time how the video would end.
“Magnocharges in the dorsal and starboard hatches! Abandon ship!” School Bus Two yelled. “Abandon…” A flash of light obscured the screen. The feed cut to static.
Divenoll did not speak. He did not look away from the screen. He hit the replay button. The tenth playback began.
Maros tried to return to his place of composure and distant focus. He tried not to contemplate Divenoll’s motives for the repeated rewatch. What could he possibly notice that he hadn’t seen the other nine times? Maros couldn’t quite shake the idea that this entire video stunt was motivated by his presence, that this was a message for him, personally.
Maros also tried to ignore Orson’s fighting. The wayfarer displayed a brutality he hadn’t shown in Nimauk. Even his fight with Tucker – what Maros had seen of it from video recordings taken by his forces and by assorted tourists – seemed like a polite skirmish compared with the swift, lethal swordsmanship Orson displayed here. What was different now? Was Orson in more danger from the likes of the drop ship than he’d been from Tucker? Was he sending his own message, trying to dissuade further pursuit? Or was he angry that they’d bombarded civilians? Orson had gathered almost thirty people from the derelict shantytown. He’d tried to help them…
And Enoa. She’d done something too. He’d heard her shout just before the Corps rifle force had experienced a double misfire. That could be a coincidence, but Maros didn’t think so. He thought of his own sword, stashed with Duncan, his first foray into Shaping. He needed to get back to work.
“Operative Divenoll,” a female voice spoke through the radio at the dashboard. “We are in position. Bedford team is approaching from the west, Somerset from the south. I have my team cutting through the trees. We’ll have a perimeter momentarily.”
“Good work.” Divenoll shut off the video playback, which was currently displaying the moment Orson went back inside the Aesir. “Let me know…”
“There are no large energy signatures, no signs of life, but somehow a message is being broadcast through the remains of the field,” the woman said. “I believe it is a looped message from Captain Gregory.”
“Patch it through,” Divenoll said. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
“…you’d better stay away if you don’t want to get hurt. If you are the Liberty Corps, this is your last warning. Never cross my path again. And if you kill innocent people, that counts as crossing my path.” Orson’s voice had an odd reverberation, like a distant echo. The message paused before it began to play again. “Warning! This area is booby-trapped. It’s lethal for just about anyone to be in this vehicle graveyard. These traps are only meant for the Liberty Corps, so if you’re not them, you’d better stay away if you don’t want to get hurt.” The loop continued.
“What shall we do, sir?” the woman asked. “After what you said happened to the drop ship, I’m hesitant.”
“Scan the area,” Divenoll commanded. “See if you can…” A loud pop sounded through the other end of the radio. “Lieutenant, can you hear me?” He waited for a reply. “Lieutenant.” Silence. “Let it be known that I am waiting for your next transmission.” He set the radio aside and turned to Maros for the first time since Orson demolished the drop ship.
“Let’s do some math,” Divenoll said. “You cost the Liberty Corps thirty thousand dollars in ammunition and equipment replacement during your escapade in Nimauk. Sixty-thousand dollars in legal fees, so far. Three hundred million dollars for the Sun Talons – you filled out the forms for their use, I know you know their pre-shutdown value. The drop ship alone cost four hundred million dollars, with an additional eighteen million dollars for each of the thirty-six probes that were destroyed. Your total price tag is currently hovering near one-point-four billion dollars in old States currency. That doesn’t account for the computers and other equipment on the drop ship, additional repair expenses to Nimauk, depending on whether or not Corps Command decides to launch an incursion on the town. And pray now that nothing else was destroyed.” Divenoll fell silent and stared into Maros’ face.
For his part, Maros did not immediately respond. He struggled for words.
“How many…” Maros finally began. “How many lives were lost in the engagement, ours and locals?”
Divenoll turned back to his console and continued the tenth playback of the broadcast feed from the drop ship. “We will wait to create a casualty report until we make contact with the advance team. As for the derelicts…” He shrugged.
* * *
Enoa woke up disoriented and still tired, already furious with herself. She’d slept a long time. The light through the camper’s windshield and windows looked like late afternoon. The sun was already setting, the sky an orange hue.
She was still on the Aesir’s couch. She reached to her side, trying to find the button for the seatbelt. Failing to do so, she noticed the faint sound, like a whisper. She leaned up and saw Orson slouched forward at the steering wheel. He was muttering to himself.
“Orson! Are you still awake and driving?” she asked. “I haven’t felt us move.”
“You couldn’t have been awake long,” he replied. “Every few minutes the honking starts from the front of the line and goes for miles, like a noisy version of the wave.”
“You know, like at football games or concerts,”
“Uh, sure?” She still couldn’t locate the button for the seatbelt, so she slid up on the couch and slowly pulled her legs free. She sat up. Her body felt rested except for a stiffness in her shoulders and upper arms. Her mouth was dry and there was a sour taste in the back of her throat. She’d never gone to sleep without brushing her teeth. Traffic still hadn’t moved, so she decided to stand.
“Did anything happen while I was asleep?” Enoa asked. “You must be exhausted.”
On cue, the honking started, far in the distance, but the sound rippled back, car by car, along the full length of traffic, four lanes wide, and stretching much farther ahead than Enoa could see.
“If we’re not moving,” she said. “Am I good to brush my teeth and get a drink of water?”
“I think we’re moving in just a second,” he said. “Yeah! Thank God! Yes, they’re moving ahead. Sit back down a second, will you?”
Enoa sat back down on the couch, but she didn’t do anything with the seatbelt. She turned and got a better look out the windshield. The sun was falling at such an angle that it reflected off of the bumper-to-bumper line. Enoa could see the interstate around them, and the flat expanse of fields beyond that.
The Aesir finally edged forward. Orson sighed, a sound of pure bliss. She could hear his smile, a smile that lasted about three seconds, until the compact car in the adjacent lane pulled partially in front of the Aesir. Orson slammed on the brakes. Enoa fell against the arm of the couch.
“Look at him.” Orson laid on the horn. “He’s literally in two lanes. Why is he even changing lanes? There’s no exit near here. Absolute…” The driver of the compact car honked its horn. “No. NO! You little prick. I could blast that shitting thing halfway to the moon. Who drives this way, without a government to protect you? One glance at my periscope and BANG!” Several vehicles behind the Aesir added their horns to the din, as did affected vehicles in the next lane. Several unaffected drivers in distant lanes also added their own noises. Orson groaned, a truly pitiful sound.
Enoa took advantage of the traffic jam to visit the bathroom and brush her teeth. She hurried, but by the time she returned to the cabin, the compact car had only just straightened into the lane ahead. Before traffic began to move, Enoa retrieved a water bottle from the fridge, removing it from one of the small velcro loops that held all their goods in place. Then she joined Orson in the front of the Aesir.
“How long have you been at it?” Enoa asked. Orson did not reply, apparently lost in thought. She shielded her eyes from the setting sun and looked at their surroundings. She’d never seen a stranger conglomeration of vehicles. She saw a procession of modified construction vehicles, diggers and dump trucks and a bulldozer, all of them altered, their cabins reinforced or expanded. This caravan had metal sheeting on typically exposed machinery, armor, or shielding from the cold. The construction crew got a wide berth from fellow travelers.
There was another vehicle, a semi-trailer pulling a large boat. This boat was filled with people, each sporting a long rifle. They wore war paint and ‘armor’ that looked like it had been scavenged from assorted athletic gear.
A trolley was driving, a few cars ahead of the Aesir. This vehicle had been modified for roadways and was now painted in a strange camouflage pattern. Its windows were tinted, impossible to see inside.
There were also other assorted campers and buses, although none as strange as the double-decker bus used by the denizens of the derelict field. Enoa was surprised how many cars there were. At least half of the vehicles in the absurd miles-long traffic jam were cars. She was tempted to sneak glances at the occupants, but fought the urge. What mix of bravery or desperation brought people out into the wide world without other lodging?
Traffic stretched forward into the distance, as far as she could see through the flat fields around them. Nothing could be seen on either side of the traffic, save grassland and one massive building, far in the distance, maybe a half-mile or more away. The building had an odd shape, like it was an unfinished skyscraper, still under construction, with girders and metal supports sticking out at odd angles.
“Sorry,” Orson said. “I’ve been thinking about some logistics of the new job. Did you want to know how long I’ve been driving?”
“Yes.” It had been so long since she’d spoken, she’d almost forgotten her own question. “You haven’t been going all day, have you?”
“Not quite. After you passed out, I went around and tried to make sure no one else was hiding in one of the abandoned pieces of old junk, and then I had to lay all of my booby-traps, and I had to record my warning, and then I had to go to that coffee pot and make sure no one went there, hoping for a rendezvous. Ugh.”
“I slept through all of that?” Enoa asked. A pounding began in her temples, and she felt like returning to her new bunk and shutting the door. She usually liked Orson’s stories but there were few sounds that wouldn’t annoy her at that moment. Another wave of honking began from ahead in the line. She unwillingly paid attention to the sounds. Most were standard vehicle horns, but a few had foghorn noises and assorted song jingles. Some of the tunes she thought she knew, but she couldn’t pick them apart through the cacophony.
“You did, and I gotta say those Jenkins at the Coffee Pot were just as annoying as that lady said,” Orson continued, once the honking subsided. “I was there for less than five minutes, when these freaks dressed up like they were in the 1700s or something, came running out shooting bolt-action rifles and trying to stab me with bayonets. I mean, I got out of there just fine, but it was more than I felt like dealing with at nine in the morning.”
“There’s a group of people who are hiding in a giant coffee pot, that ran out and tried to stab you?”
“Yeah. It was a crap morning. And then, I didn’t want to risk getting attacked by the Liberty Corps again, so I accepted the job from Pops right away, and he sent me here.”
“Pops sent you to this traffic jam?” Enoa scanned the absurd conglomeration of vehicles. “Why is this happening? It looks like rush hour outside a big city, but I can’t imagine all of these people are here to see these fields.”
“They’re following Solar Saver Prime, like we are.” Orson pointed out the windshield toward the odd building she’d viewed in the distance. Enoa looked at it again. It appeared to be the same distance away as it had been minutes ago.
“Following?” Enoa asked. “Isn’t that a building?” It wasn’t. Enoa saw what was happening. The massive structure was moving, cruising through the countryside.
“No, it’s not,” Orson said. “That’s Solar Saver Prime. That’s where we’re going, once I get ahold of them, and they clue me in on how I can get to it through the traffic. Right now, the far left lane is supposed to be devoted to vehicles that actually need to go somewhere, but that’s obviously not the case.”
“But…” She’d waited through his explanation, hoping he would actually answer her most basic questions. “But what is it? Where’s it going? Why is it going?” She pointed at the gargantuan contraption.
“It rolls around collecting solar energy,” Orson said. “It goes all over the place.”
“But wouldn’t it get just as much solar energy staying still? It’s not like it can move fast enough to go around the Earth, with the sun. And why would people want to follow after it?”
“It moves because it’s the new world’s most expensive mascot. It delivers high-yield batteries and solar arrays, but half the inside of that thing is like a moving amusement park. It’s got restaurants, and bars, and gaming, and sports and all the jobs that go along with that. People live in there, and they’ve got hotels, too, but most of the sleeping spaces are small as a coffin. People are relatively safe traveling nearby, though. It has its own security force. It’s a whole big sales pitch. Oh yeah, and it allegedly has the new internet, and some people show up just to get on there.” He shook his head. “Check out all the bad drivers. Half of them have their noses in phones or whatever. We almost got hit, an hour ago, by this old lady with a laptop on the dashboard, in front of her steering wheel.”
“How do you know so much about this thing?” Enoa glanced at the nearby vehicles, trying to see which of their fellow travelers were online.
“Pops sent me their public brochure and some behind-the-scenes info his folks gathered about them. They’re in partnership with him and are stopping by his place outside Chicago, in twelve days.”
“It still seems really inefficient. Think of all the money they’re wasting on that thing. And what does it run on? Solar, hopefully.”
“I don’t know all that.” Orson pressed a button on the dashboard. One of the small monitors on Enoa’s side of the dash lit up. “You can scroll through the message from Pops, if you want to read it. I skimmed the major details, but I needed to focus on the issue they’re having, that I’m supposed to fix. Some group of bandits, called the Wuyar Archers, are attacking them, non-violent so far, but they’ve broken them down twice.”
“Wuyar Archers?” Enoa paged through the report. “And you’re doing, what? Running their security?” She saw a watered-down schematic for the Solar Saver, technical specifications, crew manifests, reports of Wuyar Archer activity.
“No,” he said. “I’m not running security. I’m just working with them to find those archers.”
“Oh! I thought for a second that you were going to be the Sheriff Webster of that thing.” She pointed to the Solar Saver vehicle again.
“No, no,” he said. “Not my style. This is limited work. Hopefully, I can get to the bottom of this in the time it will take them to meander between here and Chicago.
“Get to the bottom of this?” Enoa laughed. “I thought you were more warrior than detective. In Nimauk, you seemed to prefer the fighting.”
“I usually do. Fights tend to be once-and-done, but I’m observant. Either I can be a bodyguard here or I can actually put a stop to the threat, y’know?”
“Okay, Inspector Orson.” She offered a mock salute. “Will I have to follow after you holding your pipe and magnifying glass?”
“Hilarious. I actually might have a training room, for you. I passed along that we’ll be staying on the Aesir – I hope that’s okay. I don’t know these people well enough to rely on their hospitality – but I said we could use an exercise room if they have something that can function as a firing range. Give you some space to start your Shaper studies, where you can’t blow up my ship. They didn’t respond to that yet, so we’ll see.”
“Yeah.” The brief humor had distracted her from her headache and general post-battle malaise, but the thought of beginning her formal instruction brought back the danger of their latest adventure, the chase, the aerial attack, the man who had died in front of her…
“If we’re lucky, this will get us away from the Liberty Corps, give you time to train, make me some cash. It’ll be great.”
“Where is ‘here’, exactly?” Enoa had never seen flatlands like this, except at the coast. The world had never looked so huge, the countryside and highway stretching out to infinity.
“We’re outside Canton, Ohio. I flew out of Pennsylvania, pitch black, up at about twenty thousand feet, cloud-cover level. I was sure more Liberty Corps ships would be on us, but we got lucky or we lost them. I wanted to meet up with the Solar Saver by land – they apparently have limited docked parking, where you drive up inside the crawler, but now we’re stuck.”
“What happens if they don’t have a parking space for us?” Enoa looked at the sprawling crowd in the traffic. She wanted somewhere reasonably quiet to rest her head, but that seemed unlikely no matter where they ended up.
“We have a spot reserved for us. Pops says that somewhere in the document.” Orson tapped at the comm box, set into the dash. “I’m going to give them a call, actually. Pops had a really brief conference call with us all this morning, but I didn’t want to talk in Liberty Corps territory. I’m definitely thinking the Corps has some old IHSA base down in West Virginia or Virginia.”
“Okay.” Enoa perused the documents on the Solar Saver crawlers, scanning for pictures. She’d do the real reading later when she was less tired, but still wanted to procrastinate. She saw incredible views from the pinnacle of the massive vehicle; sunset over the Pacific Ocean, a highway between the Rocky Mountains, many-mile views of the Plains.
“This is Captain Orson Gregory. Hello, Solar Saver Prime, this is Captain Gregory, hoping to come aboard soon. We’re in your traffic jam now, so some advice on reaching you would be helpful.”
“Hello?” A low voice answered. “This is Thomas of Solar Saver Prime. I’m not sure who gave you our direct-link communication channel, but I’m afraid we’ve closed our base-tier parking and I don’t see your name…”
“Captain Orson Gregory of the Aesir.” Orson emphasized the ship’s name. “This is Wayfarer One, chartered for a security position in the Solar Saver Collective, under Commodore Augustin.”
“Oh,” Thomas’s voice had fallen almost to a whisper. “Of course! Wonderful! The Commodore doesn’t want you in base-tier parking. You have a landing pad reserved for you. We assumed that was what you normally do.”
“I think as a security operation it would be better…” Orson began.
“Commodore Augustin was quite specific. It is the decision of our Board of Directors that you need to make a grand entrance, let everyone see you coming.”
“That should’ve been in the paperwork,” Orson said. “I might have to pull off road. I’ll be more comfortable taking off without other vehicles literally inches away from me.”
“Actually,” Thomas said. “It would be better if you were seen flying in from a good distance away, maybe two miles. Could you get out of traffic and backtrack, just that far to make a heroic entrance?”
* * *
Maros slept. He’d been allowed to sleep, actually commanded to rest by Divenoll. Before, they’d waited together, watching the drop ship footage for three hours. No word had returned from the recon force sent to the derelict field. In time, Divenoll departed, taking the radio with him. He’d ordered Maros to rest and left the vehicle. Maros resisted the urge to sleep until the utter silence of the world around him overcame his fear and racing thoughts.
He awoke to the sound of an approaching engine. He opened his eyes to an orange sky, the early sunset of deep winter. He rubbed at his neck and rose into a sitting position, looking out the window of the rover’s rear hatch. There, up the potholed road, an approaching shape could be seen.
Maros hit the door activation and the rear hatch swung up and out. He stepped into the snow and resisted the cold. The vehicle came closer, and he could see that it was alone, a second rover of the type Divenoll drove.
“Operative Divenoll!” Maros yelled. No response. He stood beside the rover until the other vehicle arrived beside him, its driver-side window rolling down, even as it came to a stop.
“Where is Operative Divenoll?” The driver asked, a woman, the same person who had spoken over the radio. “I need to report in.”
“What happened?” Maros asked. “Why couldn’t you report over the radio? It’s been hours. Where is the rest of the recon team?”
“The field was loaded in traps,” she said. “Everyone else is dead.”