“These are the fruits of your failure.” Divenoll emerged from the trees barefoot. Most of his unique armor was draped over his right arm. He wore only a thin tunic and pants, despite the foot of snow on the ground and the bitter cold. Divenoll walked at an unconcerned pace, leaving steaming, melted footprints in his wake, as he returned from wherever he’d been all day. “Think of all the assets we lost to your idiocy.”
“I didn’t force those teams into Gregory’s trap.” Maros lost whatever mental resolve he’d built to insulate himself from Divenoll’s ridicule. “This was a terrible tragedy, but nothing after the dogfight can be blamed on me. There is nothing in the Corps procedural guidelines that suggest that a full pursuit is mandated. I could not have…”
Divenoll marched through the snow. He did not speak. He did not look at his forces in the newly arrived rover. He stared at Maros and didn’t break eye contact until they were only feet apart. Maros stopped speaking, but didn’t look away from the other man’s gaze.
“Bedford team advanced into the field when the second electromagnetic pulse went off.” The female officer spoke. “I believe they would have done so no matter who was giving orders. This isn’t a reflection on Mr. Maros.”
“You will refrain from providing your report in the presence of a civilian, unless you’re instructed to do so.” Divenoll directed this to the officer and the rover team, but he didn’t look away from Maros. “There’s no point voicing your complaints until you stand before the review panel. They will decide your fate, Mr. Maros.” Divenoll turned away from Maros and returned to his own rover. He set his armor in the rover’s open hatchback. Then he drew his datapad and issued commands on its screen.
“What about Lieutenant Melville?” Maros asked. “Did you drop him off somewhere, or was he in the caravan when it fell into Gregory’s trap?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “Who’s Melville?”
“Melville’s fine.” Divenoll did not look up from his datapad. “He will receive our best medical attention, once the second drop ship’s crew extracts him from his fighter.”
“He’s still in the fighter?” Maros asked. “You just left him in there? I’m glad you didn’t send him off to be killed by Gregory, but you just… You left him in the crashed ship all day?”
“There was nowhere to go with him during the pursuit,” Divenoll said. “The second drop ship crew will extract him before we leave, as I said. We’re all headed for the old Navy shipyard in Philadelphia.”
“Philadelphia?” Maros asked.
“Baron Weatherhold has wrested control of the shipyard.” Divenoll put on his armor and slipped his feet into his boots. “The Eastern Command will be based there, leaving Montauk as a research station. You’ll see it soon. Baron Weatherhold will personally preside over your hearing.”
“I…” Maros began.
“Our operation is concluded,” Divenoll said. “The Aesir successfully evaded us, all because you committed us to a conflict we were unprepared to fight. Anything you say now will be used against you in your hearing.” He finished fastening his armor. “I am going to receive the full report from my staff.” He gestured to the rover, whose crew had fallen entirely silent. “In that time, you are free to send out communications without your comments being used against you.”
Maros watched Divenoll climb into the second rover. Then the vehicle drove a short distance back up the road. Maros eyed this rover, trying to see if he were being watched. Then he turned back to Divenoll’s rover and retrieved the canteen the operative left beside his driver’s seat.
Maros walked through the snow, into the tunnel. He lit his flashlight and maneuvered through the potholes and pits in the earth.
“Lieutenant, it’s Captain Maros!” He called, when he stood beside the wrecked fighter. “Lieutenant Melville, are you alright?” No answer. Maros forced himself back onto the lowest wing of the fighter and then onto the top of the cockpit. He found the cockpit hatch ajar and opened it. He aimed the beam of his flashlight into the opening and illuminated Melville, huddled under the blanket, his mouth open.
“Melville!” Maros called. He didn’t want to wake the man if he were just sleeping, but he had to be certain of his condition. “How are you?”
“I’m alive.” Melville groaned, as he woke. “One of the boys from Bedford said he’d check on me in an hour. That was… hours ago. Did they forget me or did the op go sideways.”
“Sideways, I’m afraid.” Maros leaned against the cockpit opening.
“Wow,” Melville said. “Those Aesir bastards really live up to the stories.” He groaned again. “Would you mind taking the flashlight out of my face? I haven’t had any light in here for hours.”
“Oh, sure,” Maros shut off the light. “I’m sorry.” He’d been trying to get a good look at the pilot’s face, his complexion, judge the look of him. He liked how verbal he still was, but Maros wanted to see him. He didn’t agree with Divenoll’s assessment of his responsibility, but he did hold guilt over Melville’s injury. “Can I get you anything? I have more water for you, but, full disclosure, I did take it from Operative Divenoll.”
“Well, I wouldn’t need it if he’d have spared the time to dig me out of here.” Melville winced as he reached up. Maros lowered the canteen by its strap and then dropped it into the pilot’s outstretched hands. Melville unscrewed the cap and sniffed. “It really is water. Damn!” He took a long sip. “When are we getting out of here?”
“Soon, supposedly. There’s a second drop ship coming.”
“A second drop ship?” Melville said. “Why is it a second drop ship?”
“Operative Divenoll invested a large response in his efforts to capture the Aesir.” Maros had no intention of walking through the entire endeavor. He knew that he likely should. Melville was a potential ally, especially given the negligence he’d received from Divenoll, but he didn’t have it in him. “I can’t believe they just left you here.”
“I can.” Melville laughed. “Ultimately, we all have a price, kid. It just sounds bad to talk about that out loud.”
“I suppose.” Maros was in no mood to contemplate such a concept. He already had enough to think about. “Do you need anything?” he asked again.
“I could go for either a tall scotch on the rocks,” Melville said. “Or some stronger painkiller. But I’m guessing you have neither.”
“No on the scotch.” Maros laughed. “What happened to the painkillers in the med kit?”
“We didn’t take a second emergency kit,” Melville said. “You were in too much of a hurry. We only had the one morphine dose. All that’s left is the ibuprofen.”
“If you’re relatively okay,” Maros said. “I think I’m going to check on the drop ship.” In truth, he wanted to reach Duncan. He wanted to speak to someone that wasn’t tied to last night’s debacle, but he hated to leave the wounded man.
“Go ahead,” Melville said. “Thanks for checking on me. Maybe you’re not as much of a brat as you seem.” He laughed again, a sound with as much pain as humor. Maros laughed with him, made brief good-byes, and left the tunnel.
Maros waited until he caught sight of the second rover, still well up the road, away from Divenoll’s rover, where he’d spent most of his day. Then he drew out his radio and switched it back to his customary frequency.
“Duncan, it’s me. Are you there?”
“Jesus!” Duncan yelled. “I was sure they’d sent you to die.”
“I’m okay, for now,” Maros said. “They didn’t send me anywhere. I wanted to check in and let you know that I’m alright. If anything reached you about the second chase after Gregory and Cloud, I wasn’t there.”
“I was sure I’d never hear your voice again, and I’d never get to say ‘I told you so’.” Duncan didn’t sound himself. He had an odd scratchy sound to his voice.
“Say it now,” Maros laughed. “They’re going to eat me alive at that hearing. Weatherhold is presiding at his new base in Philly.”
“Well… the Sun Talon thing was a bad idea. It was, but the rest didn’t violate any of the guiding principles or edicts. They would have to break our own code to penalize you for what happened with the drop ship.”
“You did hear about it.”
“Everyone heard about it. Are you kidding me? But no one can blame you for it. No one. We’ll get you representation. Divenoll got trounced by Gregory, but that’s a good thing. I’m looking into this guy, he was real IHSA. Looks like he worked for them since the mid-nineties. And Gregory and Cloud kicked his ass.”
“We can’t afford real representation for me,” Maros thought through his savings. “Corps Command won’t let just any lawyer into our proceedings. I’ll go and explain myself and face the consequences.”
“What about Brielle?” Duncan hadn’t hesitated. He’d been ready for this suggestion. “I know it’s been a while, but she was always pretty, er, fond of you, and her degree is in criminal justice. She’s no lawyer, but she already has most of the clearances.”
“No, no, no,” Maros said. “I’m not dragging her into this. There’s no way we can be sure who knows we were together. Given how we met, it could put her through difficult scrutiny, if our history became widely known. And I doubt she’d agree to do it. She doesn’t like anybody enough to risk her own career, anyway.”
“She puts on a tough face because she has to.” Duncan had been ready for this, too. “But we can spin this for her if she refuses. This is a chance for her to make a name for herself, save your butt, and show up Divenoll.” Duncan raised his voice. Maros looked in the direction of the second rover. How long did Divenoll need to discuss the failed operation?
“And how could she leave her command in Missouri for days or weeks?”
“If not her, you’ve got only one choice. He’d be my first choice if he weren’t your family.”
“Not him, either. You know I can’t ask him.”
“If you don’t call him, I will.” Duncan shouted. “We need Max. We need your brother.”
* * *
Enoa got a clear look at the Solar Saver. The machine stood on four massive treads. These supported a structure that was nearly two hundred feet tall. The bottom was a steel gray, plain and utilitarian, but above the base, the entire structure was almost blindingly bright, like all sides were covered in mirrors, except these weren’t mirrors. They were solar panels, or something similar.
The vertical sides also sported windmills, odd wobbling windmills that swayed up and down as the crawler moved. These were the objects she’d thought were girders.
Orson had grumbled during the entire half-hour effort to extricate themselves from traffic, drive off-road for a mile, and then fly back. Before takeoff, he’d activated the full suite of “power-guzzling” external cameras and sensors, to help his upcoming landing. Then he’d fallen into sullen silence. That suited her headache just fine. She watched the absurd traffic, stretching as far as she could see, even from her in-flight perspective.
Two small aircraft approached from the crawler. They were mottled gray, with fluttering wings and spinning rotors. Each held two occupants, a pilot, and a rear gunner, who faced some kind of large projectile weapon. The gun hung from the back of each aircraft like a protruding stinger, pointing downward.
The comm controls let out the phone dial tone. Orson answered the call they knew was coming.
“Aesir this is Solar Saver.” A confident female voice spoke. “Commodore Anais Augustin, speaking. It’s my privilege to welcome you aboard the flagship of our land fleet.”
“It’s my privilege to join you.” Orson answered. “I was told you’ve got a parking place for me. Where should I set down?”
“We have platform three-two-eight waiting for you,” Augustin said. “It’s the hydraulic helipad that we sent topside. You should see guiding lights, momentarily, and I sent two of our Thopters to guide you in. Security Chief Morita is looking forward to talking shop with you.” The two aircraft passed the Aesir. Enoa watched her console and saw the two vehicles turn and enter into escort positions at their either side.
“I’m looking forward to getting to work.” Orson switched off the receiver on the comm and gripped the wheel with both hands. He had an intent look in his eyes, focused from adrenaline, not an expression Enoa liked to see.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This thing is still moving,” he said. “I’ve never done a landing onto a moving surface, so that’ll be fun for me. Heh.” He let out the short laugh he made when he was genuinely concerned but wanted to sound normal. This laugh had the exact opposite effect. Enoa found herself eyeing the Solar Saver, searching for the promised lift.
She saw it, a metal platform that stood out from the top of the crawler, a dull space in the reflective surface. She could not judge the size, but it hardly looked large enough to hold the Aesir. She tried not to look at Orson, but she could practically smell the nervous energy oozing off of him. She clenched her hands against her seat.
Enoa looked down. She watched the massive treads rolling across the interstate. She wondered whether the thing actually could travel cross-country, or whether there were some areas, over rivers, that were simply impassible. Her mind was confounded by the absurd complications and logistics that its crew must face, every day. Why would anyone build something like that?
Enoa was still staring at the ground when the lift exploded. Fire and smoke gushed from the top of the crawler. The Aesir was still a good distance from the blast, but Orson pulled back, and they flew upward away from the fire. The Thopters followed them away from the explosion.
“Report, Solar Saver.” Orson thumbed on the receiver. “Looks like somebody has an issue with my reserved parking. I’d love to offer you fire support, but until you can get me aboard, I’m not sure what I can do.”
“Stand by, Captain,” Commodore Augustin spoke in a level tone, surely a practiced façade in the face of the surprise disaster. “I’m keeping Eagle Eyes One and Two in support positions. We’ll update you as we progress. I apologize for the delay.”
“Someone doesn’t want you to go to work today.” Enoa ran her hands through her hair. She watched the smoking landing pad. “On the bright side, the crawler’s stopped moving. Looks like you should be fine to land if they can get you a parking spot that isn’t on fire.”
“You’re getting the hang of this.” Orson laughed. “You’re not wrong. Hopefully, they didn’t have a welcoming committee waiting for me there, to get blasted too.”
“Oh no! I never thought of that. What will we do if they can’t find a way to get you on board?”
“I have no idea. This is all pretty new to me.” Orson pressed a key on his own dashboard display.
“What are you looking at?” Enoa saw a bright flash from the screen.
“I’m referencing the external feeds,” he said. “Let’s see what I can learn from the explosion playback. Might help us figure out what’s up.” Enoa leaned over to get a look at the recorded video.
“Projectile target lock,” Ruby suddenly announced. “Impossible to judge projectile type. Evasive maneuvers recommended.”
“What?” Enoa and Orson yelled at the same time. They looked out the windshield to see a group of figures who’d emerged from the top of the Solar Saver.
“Magnify!” Orson pulled his goggles over his eyes. A section of the windshield switched to a zoomed computerized view, showing the group of people standing atop the massive vehicle.
They were dressed in black body armor, mostly leather, by the look of it. They wore plain black masks and were totally obscured from view and from the great winds at the top of the huge structure. Every one of them held a bow and had a quiver of arrows at their back.
A last group of these people emerged from the Solar Saver, carrying an odd metal framework, but neither of the Aesir’s occupants could focus on this. The screen continued to zoom in, until it showed one of the archers holding his bow, an arrow aimed right at them.
“What do they think they’re going to do to us with an arrow?” Enoa asked.
“If they blew up the pad,” Orson said. “That’s probably not a stone arrowhead.”
The archer let the arrow fly. Beeping issued from the Aesir’s speakers. Orson spun the wheel to the side. Thankfully, the Thopter pilots dodged, as well, breaking formation and providing enough room for the Aesir to enter evasive maneuvers. Orson blasted away from the arrow, but wheeled the ship around to track its trajectory.
The arrow exploded, but not in a ballistic burst of destruction. Instead, it released a calculated haze, a smoke. This smoke spread across the sky. It changed shape and formed into the likeness of two words in the air, high above the Solar Saver, large enough even to be read on the ground.
Orson sent the Aesir cruising back toward the Solar Saver, in time to see the archers climb aboard the odd metal framework they’d been carrying. The framework consisted of two rows of parallel, outward-facing seats. Loose armor panels dangled in front of these seats. The ceiling of the framework structure spread out into the shape of wings.
“A glider!” Orson gunned the Aesir forward at the group, but the glider was no glider at all. Just when the last of the archers climbed aboard the thing, a burst of rocket flame erupted at the back of the strange object. It flew from the top of the crawler and jetted away at an unbelievable speed, over the traffic.
Orson flew over the Solar Saver, just in time for the gout of flame to erupt out of the roof hatch that the archers had used to exit the crawler. Orson turned toward the devastation for a moment, watching as two entire twenty-foot solar panels cracked across the roof of the crawler. Enoa looked at her monitor and watched as the Thopters chased after the strange, makeshift aircraft. They were nowhere near fast enough.
“I’m on them!” Orson gunned the Aesir away from the fire and toward the odd aircraft. He quickly overtook the Thopters and blasted right past them, gaining on the enemy vehicle.
“Stand down archers.” Orson pressed the receiver on his comm. He grabbed the Incursion Cannon triggers and fired a shot above the aircraft, a warning. “The next one wings you.”
The enemy vehicle let out a smokescreen. This was their only response. The smokescreen spread out and out and out, until it occupied a space hundreds of feet across. Enoa looked down and watched as the obscuring cloud grew, until it nearly touched the ground. She looked to her monitor and saw that the red enemy sensor designation had vanished.
“Hang on,” Orson said, as he sent the Aesir over the top of the cloud of smoke. He flew along the mass of haze, scanning various displays and dashboard readouts, as he went. They cleared the far side of the smokescreen and spun around to face it.
“We’ll see them when they come out of there.” Orson rested his hands on the firing controls, ready for anything to emerge at them. “Normally I’d get in touch with the Solar Saver, but the archers knew I was coming, so I think we’ll ignore all incoming calls for now. Do you wanna take the tri-cannon?”
“I got it.” Enoa watched her monitor, looking for the enemy sensor designation to reappear and the enemy craft to emerge from the cloud. “We’re ready this time.”
They waited for the smoke to clear, ready for a fight, their exhaustion gone, entirely aware of the current battle. They watched their monitors and readouts, their hands resting beside triggers.
But when the smoke cleared, there was no enemy aircraft to be seen.
The archers had vanished.