Orson had never felt so tired, at least not when he was in active danger. He hovered, suspended by his single boot repulsor, floating hundreds of feet above the ground, above another Solar Saver helipad. He looked at the pad with his HUD, seeking any sign that this one was also rigged. His sensor was picking up no signatures of explosive agents or unusual trace elements, but bombs weren’t the only booby-traps, as he well knew.
“Do you see anything?” Orson spoke into his comm, which provided a direct tightbeam broadcast back to the Aesir. “I’m all clear.”
“Uhhhhh,” Enoa said. “One second!”
Why had the Solar Saver crew insisted on using him as a big show – let the tourists and the traffic see him do a fly-by? Scratch that, he knew why. They had investors, investors who’d had their faith shaken by the multiple recent sabotage efforts by the Wuyar Archers. And who could blame them? If Orson chose to invest, he might be reluctant to put his money into a project that was frequently bombed from the inside, without any culprits brought to justice.
But if the Solar Saver Collective, whether Commoder Augustin or some other decision-making party, had just let him drive aboard, he could be inside by now, aboard and asleep.
He’d known older adventurers than himself, much older. How did the septuagenarian contingent of wise old mentor figures he’d known during his journeys manage to navigate the world without sleep?
Orson also thought about the absurd lengths of time he’d gone without sleep in his earliest adventures. During the last couple days of the Blitzkrieg crisis, he’d had no more than a few hours of sleep. And how many at Hand Island? He must have gone literally days without sleep, or so it seemed.
“Orson?” Enoa said. “Are you okay?”
“What do you…?” He hadn’t noticed that he’d drifted down and to the right, such that he was no longer level with the side of the landing pad. He’d zoned out, and when he noticed his mistake, he felt his mental and physical focus on the repulsor slipping. He slid to the side and almost blasted himself away from the crawler entirely, until he positioned his leg straight under him again. He’d look ridiculous from the ground, if anyone were watching him.
“I just really need a nap,” he said. “Do you see anything?”
“Not really,” Enoa spoke after a pause.
“What does not really mean? Either the sensors see something… or they don’t.” His tone of voice was harsher than he’d intended, short and frustrated. He knew the Solar Saver crew would obviously want to also proceed with their own independent review, before they let him aboard, and then they’d want pleasantries and discussion and who knows what else. How long would it be before he slept again? An hour? Two? Orson had never been more grateful for his policy of sleeping before a pre-planned takeoff. He’d slept until late afternoon, the day before, though that was now over twenty-five hours earlier. The sun was just about set, and it had still been sunset when they’d set off from Nimauk.
“I’m getting this yellow light at the corner of the energy signature, uh, detection thingy,” she said. “I don’t see what that yellow light is, in the user manual.”
“That’s just showing the landing pad is currently drawing detectable power.” Orson could fight his way through bureaucracy, but he couldn’t handle another bombing. “Is there anything else?”
“I don’t think so, only the little alerts that say we need to check the bullet impact points where the Liberty Corps rifleman shot in here, this morning.”
“If they’d actually punctured the hull or hit something important,” Orson said. “We’d know already.”
“Then,” she said. “I think if you’re good, we’re good.”
“Great. Leave the readings where they are. I’m coming back in.” Orson judged the distance between himself and the Aesir, and triggered a new burst of power from the repulsor. He arced up above his ship and eased the thrust from the boot until he landed on the Aesir’s roof. He cycled open the roof hatch and dropped to the floor, inside.
“Please be good news.” He slid his visor and bandana down to his chin and settled into the driver’s seat. He took a look at the readouts from the dashboard, and exhaled.
“Is it alright?” She faced him. “Hey, you don’t look well. Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I’m sorry for being short with you. I’m just tired, and I can’t go without sleep like I used to.”
“That’s okay.” She looked at him like she expected him to drop onto the floor at any moment. “I just don’t feel right that you have to go through all this and I slept all day. Although, I did tell you that you should have taken your turn sleeping, instead of fixing the shower, right away.”
“Fair point.” He yawned, a big, uncontrolled yawn. He covered his face in his arm. “Let’s get this over with.” He hit the receiver switch. “Solar Saver, this is Aesir, we’ve finished our sweep and found nothing unusual. I’m not one to make assumptions, but it looks like the attack earlier was a message to me.”
“We swept the landing pad before we extended it,” Augustin said. “If you’re satisfied, so are we.” She sighed. “I apologize for the delay, Captain Gregory, but without further ado, I gladly begin your protection charter. It cannot begin soon enough.”
“Happy to get started.” Orson tried to make the pleasantry sound sincere, but mostly failed. He buckled himself in place and pulled the goggles back over his eyes. He raised the Aesir’s shields.
Orson landed the Aesir onto the pad. He tried to ignore Enoa tense beside him. He tried to ignore a slight groan from the pad beneath them. He was immediately aware of the rumbling and machinery noises from the crawler in a way he had not been before.
A new low-volume grinding sound began. Enoa jumped. Orson started too, even though he’d been expecting a new sound to begin, as the crawler lowered its landing pad into itself.
Orson reduced the shields yet farther. The energy field was imprecise and he didn’t need to scrape the inside of the crawler as they passed within, not to mention how the field might interact with any machinery or protections inside the huge vehicle.
The interior of the landing dock was Spartan, utilitarian gray with geometrically shaped lights set into the walls and ceiling. Orson leaned forward to get a look at the mechanism that retracted the landing pad, but couldn’t catch sight of it before the structure locked in place. Orson heard the crawler’s roof hatch slide shut, far above them.
Orson waited another few heartbeats. Then he shut down the Aesir. Nothing exploded. The Aesir remained intact. Its occupants were not turned into greasy smears on the crawler’s walls.
Enoa let the air out of her lungs and sagged in the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s hope I can leverage some naptime out of these people.” He hit the comm. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but it looks like we’re aboard and weren’t blown to tiny bits.”
“Phenomenal!” Augustin answered. “Welcome aboard! This is such a relief. Well, I’m sure you’re weary after your long journey, but I’m considering throwing a brief welcome party for you and your crew. We can have food, drinks, dessert, and a brief tour ready in, say, an hour?”
“I don’t want to be a party pooper.” Orson looked at Enoa. She seemed almost as tired as he felt. She hadn’t moved since she’d fallen low in her seat, after they’d successfully landed. “But would you or your crew be offended if we pushed this until brunch tomorrow? I worked another job yesterday and jumped right into this contract because of your, er, the pressing needs of the whole deal.” Orson switched off the receiver on the comm. “If you want to do this, I can rally.”
“One, I’d rather make myself some of my own pancakes and pass out again,” she said. “And two, you definitely can’t rally.”
“I appreciate you promptly agreeing to your position on this voyage,” the commodore said through the comm. “I’m sure the Board of Directors would prefer you were there for my show of strength, tonight, but they’ll get over it.”
“Great!” Orson touched the receiver. He had no idea how relieved he’d feel. “That’s fantastic news, honestly. It’s been a wild day, and I’ll be really prepared to hit the ground running right away tomorrow.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Are you sure we can’t tempt you with the presidential suite? It’s right down the hall from my residence, and I can personally attest to the view.”
“That’s an incredibly kind offer, especially given the already generous terms of my contract.” Orson wondered how many ‘very kind offers’ he’d need to dodge before this conversation came to an end. “But I sleep best on my boat.”
“Can I offer you room service, to get our partnership started? We have a fantastic shrimp scampi, today’s special.”
“One moment please.” Orson released the receiver switch. “Do you want anything? They’re probably doing the whole gourmet thing here, so I’m sure they have something fun you could eat.”
“Pancakes and sleep is all I want,” she said.
“Cool.” He tapped the receiver again. “Thank you so much, but I think we’re all set. I’m already looking forward to brunch, once we’re totally rested.”
“Well, our room service information should be in the materials Mr. Darlow sent you.” If Augustin was offended, it didn’t enter her voice. “It’s available twenty-four hours a day. The menu changes all the time, but is available on the Solar Saver Experience loop. You can find the loop on our localized phone line and all broadcast channels. The menu also updates on the Solar Saver Experience App. Your materials should include a localized NewNet login, usable on all compatible devices. Meals are included for you and your crew. Orders can be placed right from your device.”
“Sounds great.” Orson didn’t manage vocal enthusiasm. “I’m looking forward to meeting you properly tomorrow, and getting started.”
“Likewise,” she said. “Have a restful night, Captain Gregory. We’ll be in touch if we need you.”
“Goodnight, Commodore.” Orson shut off the receiver. He slid back in his own seat and pressed his hand to his face. “I’m just so cooked, right now. Maybe I will sleep and then get room service. I’m way too tired to make food.”
“I can leave you some pancakes,” Enoa said. “I’m not sure if you like vegan pancakes.”
“Thanks.” He managed a small smile. “That’s up to you. Unless the consistency is totally different, most pancakes are a syrup delivery system to me, if I’m being totally honest.” He scratched his chin. “But I also have a feeling I’m going to want to make my money’s worth from these people. If you feel like sharing, leave some pancakes on the top shelf of the fridge, and I might grab them when I’m awake enough to be a human being.”
“Okay,” she said, before immediately groaning. “I don’t want to move either. I can’t believe how insane this last day was, and tomorrow could be just as nuts.”
“Yeah, although you can have a nice rest, if you need it.”
“I might, but I won’t be able to rest too much. I know how important tomorrow is.”
“I’m sorry if this is a more dangerous situation than I realized, but it’s probably not even close to how much trouble we were in back in Nimauk.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “Tomorrow I begin my training.”
* * *
Duncan Racz stood in the dark and the freezing rain, on the corner of Broad and Intrepid, beside the northeastern edge of the former Navy Yard. For the first time in weeks, he’d packed his travel bag without including any disguises. He wore his heaviest coat, and an extra sweater, over his pressed Oxford shirt, but he was still cold. The forecast had called for snow, but the temperature edged higher than expected. A few scattered drops of freezing rain seeped through the layers of his clothing and chilled his flesh.
The meeting had been planned hours before, but he was the only one on time. Duncan knew that public transportation was spotty, at best, but he couldn’t think of a benign reason for the RAAG drop ship to be late. Duncan spent copious amounts of time alone. That was part of his job, but since Kol had flown off, his mind conjured a constant stream of ominous ideas.
Duncan watched the occasional boat come and go, and smaller Liberty Corps aircraft dart through the sky, but no sign of the drop ship. There were few lights to be seen, since the city’s electrical grid stopped supplying most streetlights.
Duncan imagined the drop ship involving itself in another futile chase against the Aesir. He imagined Kol thrown overboard for his failures, plummeting to Earth. All of this was ridiculous. He’d never heard of a field execution, not in four years of Corps membership.
Duncan stared at the massive new building Eastern Corps Command had constructed over part of the former Navy Yard. They were building something in there, something on the water, but whether it was, a water or air vessel, Duncan couldn’t tell. And it was a brazen move to start construction with so many of the nearby communities destitute and the disputes with the Northeast Alliance still ongoing. Duncan had to admit, the Liberty Corps’ claim to the property was tenuous, at best, especially after they’d removed the remaining local government with threats of force.
Duncan heard the drop ship before he saw it, the thrumming he could feel in his sinuses. He smiled up at the massive vehicle as it descended from the sky, much faster than a conventional aircraft could have. Duncan braced himself and the ship came to a stop, hovering over the water.
A ramp descended from the ship until it touched the dock. Assorted Liberty Corps troops disembarked, most armored, a mix of local, hardscrabble divisions, survivors from the ravaged western groups, and better-equipped troopers, real warriors. Duncan felt proud of Newtown Division, despite recent events, but there was no denying the gap in skill between the crew he and Kol had assembled, and the true military divisions. They moved with confident, competent discipline. Their equipment and weaponry was newer and more advanced – Duncan saw a number of blasters and other particle weapons. Even their armor looked better, better maintained, better fit.
And then came Kol Maros, still in the borrowed flight suit he’d been wearing for two days. He walked with a slight limp. He had a visible fat lip. Only his hair looked orderly, but that offered no surpise.
A man in purple and black armor walked behind Kol – Divenoll. Duncan had tried to learn what he could about the Operative, but other than his service in the old IHSA, he’d found nothing.
“Good to see you alive, Captain.” Duncan saluted the new arrivals. Maros returned the gesture, but with reticence. “Operative Divenoll. Good evening, sir.”
“Agent Racz.” Divenoll said. “I’m glad you’re here. You won’t be forced to travel far to provide your testimony.”
“My full account can be found in the report I filed this morning.” Duncan tried to keep the hatred from his eyes and did not know whether he’d succeeded.
“I’m sure we can extract a more thorough accounting, if not more truthful,” Divenoll said.
“Hopefully you’ve learned real courtroom procedure.” A man in a wheelchair with attached umbrella maneuvered around the milling crowd of departing Corps personnel. His hair was buzzed short and he was clean-shaven. He moved closer to them as he spoke. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re lucky you weren’t tried for war crimes for your Tonderak Raid, but it’s been decades, you must have learned something.”
“Who the hell are you?” Divenoll faced the new arrival, a vein pulsing at his temple. “Some gimp thinks he can roll in and insult me.”
“I’m not surprised you don’t want to talk about it,” the man replied. “You were still working under your birth name, then. And pre-internet, you probably hoped you’d left your old life and failures behind you.”
“Max.” Maros sighed.
“Oh!” Divenoll laughed in Maros’s face. “You called your own brother to represent you?”
“Agent Racz called me,” the other Maros said. “My brother was too worried that uneducated Corps officers would think less of him and weaken his case. I guess he knew better than I did. I reminded him about the Michaels hearing from three years ago, a father represented his children in a class six disciplinary matter. That’s real precedent. But poor Kol was right, the Liberty Corps officer class really don’t read, do they?” He shook his head. “It will be very time consuming to read your regulations aloud for everyone at the hearing. It could take hours! But I’m always glad to play my part in supporting literacy.”
“You’ve read the regulations.” Divenoll said.
“The train ride from Richmond took forever.” Max nodded. “It’s a dark night and there wasn’t much to see, so I had to find some way of occupying myself.”
“You’re already more thorough than your brother,” Divenoll said.
“Maligning the subject of the hearing, tut-tut. That’s a clear violation of Article Eight, section seven, and truly unprofessional, I might add.”
“The defense ridiculing a charging officer is also a violation.” Divenoll actually curled his lip into a smile.
“It is! Article Eight, section nine, but thankfully for me, I haven’t yet become the defense. My brother has yet to accept me. Until that time comes, your guidelines are clear, I’m just a well-read, connected bystander, and I can ridicule you as much as I like. Besides, I’m not a Liberty Corps member. After my honorable discharge from the actual United States Army, I had no interest in helping or legitimizing violent pretenders, like the Liberty Corps.”
The two men stared at each other until Divenoll turned back without another word. The operative ascended the ramp into the drop ship. The Maros reunion fell silent as well, until the drop ship rocketed away.
“You’re freaking amazing!” Duncan hugged Max and then Kol. “This bozo doesn’t deserve you, Max.”
“I don’t,” Maros nodded. “I deserve whatever they give me.”
“Don’t talk that way,” Max said. “Stop mupsing and give me a hug. I sat on the train for three hours, and they made me dig out my ID five times.” Maros leaned forward and hugged his brother. “It’s good to see you two again. I finally know how Mom felt, but let’s get out of the rain. Is Popi’s still open?”
“It was in September,” Duncan said.
“Let’s eat,” Max said. “Like we aren’t living after the end of the world.”
“I’m not sure I feel up to that.” Maros was looking nowhere in particular until his brother took him by the forearm.
“You need to enjoy yourself in the little things,” Max said. “We’ve talked about this. Eat with your brother and your oldest friend, because then we have work to do.”