The Outrider vehicle looked like something out of retro avant garde art. It was tall, white, and mostly vertical, with three treads, and four spinning antenna towers sticking out from the top. There was also a railed maintenance deck at the rear, with a door into the vehicle and a ladder up to the sensor towers.
When the Thopter arrived at the unresponsive Outrider East, Orson and his Solar Saver security escort found the vehicle smoking, its driver tied in the cab’s passenger seat.
“This is why I don’t like self-driving stuff,” he said to the gunner beside him.
“It’s self-guiding.” The pilot spoke over her shoulder. “It’s not supposed to be self-driving. I don’t know how it’s doing this.” The Solar Saver crew had seated Orson in the glass-shielded, passenger-side rumble seat of a Thopter, between its pilot and rear gunner. Another security officer sat on the opposite side, with his back to Orson. All four occupants faced outward through the vehicle’s lowered shielding, one transparent bubble over each occupant.
All Solar Saver aerial defense officers wore uniforms with orange stripes down the arm, heavy helmets, and translucent orange blast shields that lowered over their eyes.
“How are we going to get alongside it, if it’s still moving?” Orson asked.
“Standard speed for the Outriders is twenty-five kilometers per hour,” the pilot said. “It’s going only half that speed. I can maintain level course. That’s no problem.” The pilot did as she promised and maintained a fixed pace beside the trundling machine. “What happened to the defense escort, though? I don’t see any sign of them on our scopes.”
“If you want to check on them.” Orson looked down at the Outrider and the smoke that rose in slow plumes from one of its antenna. “I should be able to land on that access ledge.”
“That’s against protocol,” the pilot said. “You can’t go in there alone, without Class Five Clearance.”
“Is that an Outrider thing or an everywhere thing?” Orson asked. “My materials didn’t say anything about needing a constant babysitter.”
“We’re glad… Captain.” A female voice called from the Outrider, projected out of some unseen speaker. It was a distant sound, muffled by both the roar of the Thopter’s propellers and the craft’s hull, designed to protect passengers from the propeller noise. “But we’d…”
“Do you have your own speaker that we can project my voice at them?” Orson asked.
“Of course I do,” the pilot said. “We use these for crowd control around the crawler. Can you be sure they aren’t already listening in?”
“No,” Orson said. “This isn’t my bird. I don’t know when it’s being gamed. Please hit your speaker.” The pilot pressed down a key on her console.
“Hello, archers,” Orson directed his comment to the microphone and the Wuyar Archer-controlled Outrider. “I need you to turn up your speaker volume. I can’t hear you.”
“Hello, Captain. I hope this is better,” the voice said, now loud enough to hear inside the Thopter. “We’d hoped you’d come alone.”
“That’s life, isn’t it? I’d hoped there would actually be a human being waiting here, but what can ya do? Let’s not waste time. What do you want? To my knowledge, you’ve introduced yourselves, but you haven’t provided any demands to the Solar Saver crew.”
“We’ve been very clear,” the voice said. “Cease operations west of the Appalachian Mountains. Stop stealing land and property and resources. Stop sacrificing lives for your new empire.”
“You’re gonna have to be more specific than that.” Orson tapped the pilot on the shoulder, and she released the receiver button. “I’m going in. I’d like to take your guard with me. He can get us inside through that back door, and then I won’t mess with your rules.”
“I have some names for you, if you’ll remember them or can write them down.” The female voice spoke from the Outrider.
Orson tapped the pilot on the shoulder again and pointed for the receiver. “I need to know what you did to the security escort before I listen to anything.”
“They’re safe,” the voice said. “Unlike your employers, we’re not killers. But there isn’t much time. If you want the truth, that conversation starts right now.”
“I don’t usually carry a notebook on me for this sort of thing,” Orson called. “Gimme a minute, alright?” He tapped the pilot’s shoulder and readied the small voice recorder in his coat’s left, inner-breast pocket.
“How would you get us down there?” the guard asked.
“We could land, and I could fly us over with my repulsor,” Orson explained. “Do you know the controls of that thing?”
“Why else would I be singled out to be here?” the guard said.
“Geez.” Orson readied his repulsor. “No need to bite my head off.”
“We don’t need you here,” the guard said.
“Is now really the time for this?” the pilot said. “Landing won’t work. We don’t know where the archers are, and our guns are next to useless on the ground.”
“Well, then I’ll have to fly us down.” Orson tried to judge the distance between the Thopter and the Outrider. “I guess you can’t exactly hang onto me.”
“While we’re still above open fields,” the pilot said. “I can keep you just five feet above the antennas. With your repulsor, you might be able to hang onto each other and jump.”
“Are you ready, Captain?” the voice called from the Outrider. “I’m sure your bosses will be trying to get inside this vehicle, and we’re not ready to lose you yet.”
“Report in, please,” the voice of Commodore Augustin spoke in Orson’s earpiece. “Do we know why they haven’t checked in?”
Orson pressed the earpiece. “I’m working on finding out.” Orson turned back to the guard. “What are we doing? I can fly down myself and cut in with my sword, but that will do some damage and break the rules.”
“Fine,” the guard said. “I’ll do it. But if you drop me, there are still enough lawyers around that you’ll be putting my kids through school.”
“How do I get to him?” Orson ignored the guard. “Does the seat back slide out of the way?”
“You can lower the seat backs, so you can climb through to his side,” the gunner nodded.
“Thanks,” Orson said. He set his hand on the divider between the seats. “How do…” The durable, uncomfortable, plastic seat backing began to slide away into the bottom of the Thopter. Orson was suddenly and keenly aware that he was sitting on an aircraft about thirty feet above the ground, unsupported by anything but a plastic seat and a foot or so of metal and wiring.
“Let’s do it,” the guard said.
“Progress?” Augustin asked, through the earpiece.
“When I have something to write home about,” Orson replied to the Commodore. “You’ll be the first to know.” He turned to the guard. “Let’s get these shields out of the way. Then you can slide to the front of your seat.” The guard nodded. Orson and the guard pressed against their glass canopies, raising them away from the sides of the Thopter. The cold February air entered the Thopter, as well as overwhelming noise from the propellers. Orson was surprised how little sound leaked through the shielding. How loud was the Outrider’s speaker?
The guard slid forward. Orson turned around, now kneeling on his seat, repulsor facing outward. He pulled up his hood and visor.
“Nice mask,” the guard shouted and rolled his eyes.
“Do you want me to drop you? Hard to prove.” Orson took the guard under the arms. “We ready?”
The pilot gave a thumbs up.
Orson ignited his repulsor. He shot them both into the air.
The guard yelled as they flew free of the Thopter. Orson was also surprised how fast they plummeted, as they entered the controlled fall. They wobbled from side to side, as they dropped. He was not used to supporting almost two hundred pounds of guard, and they almost fell beneath the level of the maintenance deck. Orson sent a brief burst to the repulsor, angling up for the platform. He feared he actually could drop the guard and triggered a second burst.
Orson almost slammed the man into the rear ladder, but he grabbed hold of one of the rungs. Above the platform, Orson released the guard and gradually deactivated the repulsor. He dropped to the deck.
“Why in hell do you have only one jet?” The guard asked, as he climbed down the ladder, toward the rear door.
“Just what I’m used to,” Orson said. “I only had the full set for a few hours.”
“I thought we were talking.” The woman spoke from the Outrider’s speaker. She spoke loudly, but not at the obscene volume she must have used to be heard inside the Thopter. Orson could think of only one explanation for the change in volume. “We’re really disappointed, Captain. Everyone talks about you like a hero, ‘oh he did this, he did that’. But we’re just seeing a corporate stooge.”
“I want a peaceful resolution to this situation.” Orson pointed the guard toward the small hatch, set into the rear of the Outrider. The guard nodded and pressed at the door, but it did not move.
“What did the Solar Saver do to deserve being targeted for destruction?” Orson asked. “I’m ready to take down your evidence, if you’re ready to give it.” He watched the guard pull a small, thin stylus from his utility belt and insert it into a groove between the door and the hull.
“We know you’re breaking into the Outrider,” the voice said. “Trying to break in before we talk doesn’t make it seem like you care what we have to say.”
“You could have this thing full of dead bodies for all I know,” Orson said. “Every violent nutcase on the planet says they’ve got a good reason to do what they’re doing, but not many of them do. Give me details if you want me to take this seriously.”
“Are you ready to take down names?” she asked.
“Oh,” Orson said. “I’m definitely ready to take names.” To his surprise, the voice laughed. Orson reached in his pocket and started recording. “Go ahead.” He looked down to the guard and found him still fumbling with the stylus. Orson wondered if he’d be forced to cut open the door, anyway, once he’d gotten the information from the archers.
“Look at the Rojas Massacre.,” the voice said. “Look into the New Father Road Project. Look at the current negotiations between Solar Saver and the Mississippi Alliance. And learn about Sabres Unlimited. You’ll be on our side, when you learn the truth.”
“Stop your hostilities for a week,” Orson said. “I need time to look into this and, if possible, to put together some kinda solution. Can I have that?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t know you, and everyone with Solar Saver is either too dumb to help, too ambitious to trust, or downright evil. Learn what you can, but we will not stop.”
“How will I do research if I need to spend every waking minute chasing you?” Orson asked. “One other thing, give me a way to contact you. I am getting to the bottom of this, no matter what I find, but I might need to reach you.”
“No,” she said. “The Thopter guard is almost inside the Outrider. He worked fast. This is good-bye for now, Captain Gregory. Happy hunting.”
She was right. The guard had forced the stylus into the hatch. With a strained whine, the door opened onto the darkened interior of the Outrider. The guard drew a pistol from his hip.
“Nice work,” Orson said. “But I think I’ll lead the way.” The guard scowled under his helmet, but did not speak. Orson triggered the blaster to move from his sleeve into his hand. Then he approached the door and scanned it with his HUD. He cautiously went inside.
The interior of the Outrider was empty. As he suspected, the archers were projecting from some remote location.
Orson found himself in a room full of scientific equipment, sensors, monitors, and readouts. It looked retro Space Age with displays that were utilitarian and graphically primitive. Orson heard the guard stepping into the Outrider behind him.
“We’re in, Commodore,” Orson triggered his earpiece. “It looks like it really is going along remotely. I’m not sure about the source of the smoke, not yet.”
“Keep me posted,” she said. “One other thing, I heard you speak to that woman and the information she provided you. I have to say I’m not very comforted by how quick you were to take interest in their excuses for violence.”
“Can we talk about this when I get back?” Orson had not kept his earpiece active and wondered whether the guard had been sent along as a microphone. “I think I found something.” There was an odd device, looking like a cheap Halloween spider, stretching long legs and webbing across the Outrider’s main controls. “What is this?” Orson gestured to the guard and then to the ‘spider’.
“I have no idea.” The guard advanced. “This is nothing I’ve seen before.”
“It looks almost homemade,” Orson said. “I know you folks want your stuff working again, but I think it’s best not to touch it until we know what we’re dealing with here.”
But they didn’t get to learn what they were dealing with, because the ‘spider’ burst into flame. At the same time, the Outrider began to slow, and the lighting on the scientific displays winked out.
“Do you have an emergency oxygen supply or air filter?” Orson asked the guard, as he pulled his bandana up to his face, making sure its attached filter fit across his mouth. The guard did not answer. He was already fitting a gas mask over his face.
Orson drew a flame retardant pellet from his own belt, from the pouch beside his Stink Set. He tossed the pellet. It burst and filled the air with a caustic spray.
Orson could see through his HUD that the flames had been extinguished. The pellet had succeeded, but not in time.
Nothing remained of the archers’ device but melted plastic. The Outrider came to a stop.
* * *
“Remember what I taught you,” Sucora spoke from the film. “Remember the place of peace and calm. Breathe. Find that place.”
Enoa sat cross-legged on the mat, hands held out in front of her. She tried to quiet her fears. She tried to ignore the self-conscious embarrassment she felt, trying to maneuver the strange adventuring world, with Orson. She struggled to silence the fears of her violent new environment, the omnipresent dangers that she’d found everywhere since she’d left home. She fought to silence her misgivings, her feelings of disbelief, her doubts in learning the Shaping.
“Breathe,” Sucora said again. She’d left long spaces of recorded silence on the film, times where she gave only brief, guiding instructions. Sucora Cloud had truly recorded this film with the intention of it being used while her niece began her studies. Enoa wondered if all of the training films were like this. “Breathe. You will know when you find that place. There is no hurry to find it. Take your time. Go as slowly as you need. The energy you will feel existed before us, before all of us, and it will still be when we are memory.”
Enoa followed the repetitive words. She found her mental place of meditation, the place she’d made for herself as a child, when her aunt had persuaded her into bouts of these mental exercises. Enoa imagined herself in a spring glade outside Nimauk, a place that was itself half-memory, and half-imagined. She felt the grass beneath her bare feet, smelled flowers, and heard the distant song of birds and life, thriving around her. Sucora had guided Enoa through the growth of this mental place, all her life, as long as she could remember, following old Nimauk belief.
Enoa found this place again. The focus and calm came easier to her as a young adult. Now, the Nimauk glade carried the nostalgia of home, like a reunited loved one’s warm embrace. Enoa had also learned will and patience. This was training she could not have followed even two years earlier. Adventure had called her when she was ready to learn. That was a gift. It felt like fate, as much as she believed in fate.
And then, even those self-satisfied, comforting thoughts left her. Enoa was in the imagined glade as much as she was in any real place, though she still heard the recorded Sucora’s occasional guiding words.
“Are you ready?” Sucora asked.
“I am,” Enoa said, under her breath. “Show me.”
“It’s fine if you need to turn back and keep working on your breathing,” Sucora said. “There is no hurry.” Enoa waited for the recording to move on. “Good. If you’re ready, close your eyes, if you have them open. Some things are easier to see with your mind than with your eyes. Sight is the most mundane sense, and it can hopelessly tie your true potential to the mundane reality you’ve witnessed all your life. Don’t let it.” Enoa kept her eyes closed.
“Now,” Sucora said. “Cup your hands as you would to catch water.” Enoa did so. “Good. Leave them like that and imagine you’ve placed them in a stream or a river, a fast-moving water. It’s cold and difficult to catch.”
Enoa found the spring she always heard in her meditative place, clear water, cool. She placed her cupped hands into the water, felt its flow and motion, felt the hints of other life around her.
“Lift your hands from the water, slowly,” Sucora commanded. “Concentrate. Feel the water in your hands. Be careful not to spill the water.”
Sucora’s voice was all that tethered Enoa to her physical reality, in the Aesir. She wasn’t on an old yoga mat. She sat in grass, in loamy soil beside a stream. Her hands were in the stream. She pulled her hands free and held water.
“Now, open your eyes.”
Enoa looked at her cupped hands.
She held water, real water, though not much, just enough for her to know that this was real. This was not a mental trick, not an illusion. Enoa had pulled water from the air, and she held it in her hands.
“If you didn’t succeed the first time,” Sucora said. “Rewind and make sure to find that place of peace. But if you succeeded, then you’ve pulled water from the air. You made condensation happen in your hands, changed matter from one state to another. Transmutation.”
“Transmutation.” Enoa repeated. She tried to keep her mind in the trance-like, Dreamside Road place. It was hard not to congratulate herself and lose her focus.
“Hold onto the water. Feel this. Remember this feeling.”
Enoa’s bracelet projected a hologram in front of her.
|Wow (new user)! Transmutation already!|
|RANK: Advanced Beginner|
The bracelet’s projection broke the spell. Enoa was startled by the sudden light. Her concentration evaporated. Her mind left the place of peace.
Awareness of the real world slammed back into her. She heard the distant whirring of the Solar Saver, a slight beeping from somewhere in the Aesir, machinery. Even the feeling of the mat beneath her, rather than grass, came as a disorienting surprise. She felt suddenly claustrophobic, sitting in the camper.
When she became aware of Sucora again, her aunt was midsentence.
“… this isn’t an easy thing to learn. This is a hard first step, but once you do this, you’ve made that leap. You’ve changed the world with nothing but your will, your mind, and your spirit.
“When you do this, you’re a Shaper, kiddo.”