Orson interviewed almost forty shop managers, owners, and workers. He spoke to the owner of an ice cream parlor whose seventy-flavor selection sold well, despite it being February. Orson interviewed the elderly couple who operated the animal shelter, a refuge for the homeless pets encountered in the Solar Saver’s meandering journey. Orson visited the outlet office for a regional law firm and discussed the complicated legal structures of the current and growing governmental alliances. He visited two breweries, a book shop, a home goods stall, a sculptor, and the woman who ran the level-by-level sound system.
Unlike Orson’s first trip through the Solar Saver bazaar, he now openly wore his gear, sword high on his back. His coat was loose at his shoulders, less effective as armor, but it billowed slightly behind him, caught in the breeze of fans and other ventilation. Though it was winter outside, the interior of the crawler was anything but cool.
“I heard you were coming ‘round.” An older man waved to Orson from the opening of the Sabres Unlimited stall. He looked more like a vacation-bound retiree than someone who would have a prominent place in the crawler, the pinnacle of high-tech engineering. He wore an oversized sweatshirt with the image of a black bear in a sweater and the phrase ‘Everybody’s Daddy’. He also wore sweatpants tucked into tall black sweat socks, and gray sneakers – the Velcro only partially closed. “Every so often we’d see you weaving on through the crowd. We weren’t sure when you’d get to us.”
“I’m doing my grid.” Orson raised his notebook, a small, black number that clasped shut with a most serious sound. Orson didn’t always take notes but it gave off the appearance that he likely did.
“I’m sure you kept everybody on their toes,” the man said. “There was no telling when Orson Gregory might turn up to have a talking to with ya!”
“I thought about making appointments,” Orson said.
“Why?” the man laughed. “Better to catch everybody off guard.” He smiled, mischievously.
“True.” Orson returned a slight smile and walked over to the stall. It was set against a bare expanse of the bazaar’s blue-gray wall and featured a selection of posters, adorning the stall’s front counter and standing around on four-legged, metal stands. Most posters contained an emblem, depicting five stylized swords, intersecting around a rough sketch of the planet Earth. “Plus,” Orson added. “I’d need to hire on a social manager to keep track of my schedule and then people would try to reschedule – total chaos.”
“I’m impressed how fast you’ve managed to go about it,” the man said. “You’ve really been zipping around, these last three or four days. Where are my manners?” He stood from the chair and offered his hand. “I feel like I already know you. Been reading all about you. I’m Milo Nalrik, Sabre Chairman of our Solar Saver Chapter, but please, call me Milo.”
“Orson Gregory.” Orson returned the handshake.
“You don’t have to tell me who you are!” Milo said. “Oh, before I forget.” He leaned down beside his chair and grabbed a cardboard tube. From within the tube, he brought out a poster and held it out to Orson. “I’d love if you signed this. Is there an autograph fee?”
“Uh…” Orson said. “I don’t really do this sort of thing.” Orson received the poster and unrolled it. It showed a blurry picture of the Aesir, flying over a city. It was a truly low-resolution image, but Orson knew he’d seen it before. “I’m sorry, but I prefer just to do my work.”
“Noble gentleman and modest. Of course!” Milo called past Orson. “Brett, Gregory’s finally here. Get back here.”
Orson turned in the direction Milo had shouted and saw a tall young man talking to the three women working at a photography stall. This man was probably related to Milo. They had the same pale coloration and the same thick wavy hair, minus Milo’s gray, but their builds were nothing alike. Brett was probably a full head taller than Orson, while Milo was a good deal shorter.
Orson watched the man. He leaned against the photo stall’s far support and looked like he was in the middle of some story. He spoke animatedly and offered his own mischievous smile to the women. Orson was curious what reaction Brett was receiving from his audience, but the women had their backs to Orson.
Brett stopped speaking when he caught sight of Orson. He made a brief comment and then walked back toward the Sabres Unlimited stall. One of the three women turned to look after Brett, but he didn’t see her. He was busy assessing Orson’s armament, visibly glancing at the wayfarer’s repulsor boot.
“Here’s my nephew,” Milo said. “Brett Nalrik.”
“Strateren armor.” Brett pointed to Orson’s right boot, as he approached. “Hierarchia rebuild. Not quite as rare as the original models from the eighties. How do you manage to keep it powered without the main core in the torso?”
“I know some smart people,” Orson said. “And I’m pretty tricky too. Not a lot of people know about the specifics of this technology.”
“Not a lot of people collect the stuff, like I do,” Brett said.
“You collect it?” Orson asked. “How? The Hierarchia did a pretty good job of scooping it up.”
“They liked keeping samples to study.” Brett grinned. “I have a full suit, even the full array of blasters, but the repulsors are busted. I even got my hands on one of their arm cannon builds, in the same old air base where they were hiding the crawler transport we’re standing in.”
“Stop showing off.” Milo snapped his fingers. “We’re trying to be transparent and help Captain Gregory, here, with his investigation.”
“Commodore Augustin mentioned your organization helped her in starting this venture,” Orson said. “IHSA salvage?”
“Nobody else had all the best toys in all the same places,” Brett laughed. “Easy, easy pickings since Thunderworks.” He looked to his uncle. “You’re after the archers. I’ll be interested to see what you can do against them. They’re a hard crew to catch.”
“I see that,” Orson said. “That’s why I need to learn more about the lay of the land here. I’m surprised to see you don’t have an entrance onto the access corridors.”
“No need to have it in the bazaar,” Milo said. “All we have here is our informational displays. Everything else we need for our work can be unloaded at the prescheduled stops.”
“Can’t do community outreach when you’re not in a community,” Brett added.
“Right,” Orson said. “Do you mind walking through some of the programs you take part in?”
“You can have a copy of all of our brochures,” Milo said. “That’s probably the easiest way to go through everything. We instruct communities in water management and construction projects, infrastructure. Nothing sexy, but it’s what’ll get everybody back on their feet.” He drew a stack of pamphlets from beneath the table. “I think this is all of them.”
“Thanks.” Orson took the stack. His pockets were already bursting with business cards and handwritten NewNet site names and colorful sheets of coupons. He should have brought some of his evidence bags, just to collect the advertising. He wasn’t sure whether he’d manage to find space for this new collection of information.
“So you actually donated the technology to build this place?” Orson glanced over his shoulder. They were currently situated on Level Five, about halfway up the tiered bazaar. The press of people, above and below them, seemed somehow louder, sandwiched in the middle of the crawler.
“That’s right,” Milo nodded. “We got five crawler transports, three built so far.”
“Sabres International knew the Commodore from some business she had up around New Foundland,” Brett said. “They liked her idea, and they knew I could get what she needed. I operate in those circles.”
“What circles can you operate in where you can get multiple crawlers and armor that wasn’t made on this planet?” Orson asked. “I’ve been in an IHSA vault before. There’s no way they had all five crawlers in one location.”
“They didn’t.” Brett laughed. “That’s the fun of it, being well connected. You know how it is. You travel in the kinda circles where you can get that energy sword, your whole arsenal, and the Aesir, of course.”
“Your versatility is what you’re known for,” Milo said. “Everything’s been done. They’ve been saying that since I was around your age, but in your case, Captain, doing everything makes you an original.”
“I guess that’s right,” Orson said. Before he spoke further, he heard the sound of footsteps. The approaching person wasn’t running, but they were walking with clear, urgent purpose. He turned away from the Sabres and found one of the Solar Saver security team approaching, a tall woman, taller than Orson in her high work boots. The name ‘Lundberg’ was embroiderd over her heart.
“Captain Gregory,” Lundberg said. “I’m afraid we’re going to need your attention, right away.” She glanced at the Sabres Unlimited stall. “It’s an urgent matter you will want to address.”
“Alright.” Orson assumed the worst, some other security breach, something the Solar Saver command didn’t want reaching their notable tenants. “Nice meeting the two of you.”
“Of course. Of course! Duty calls.” Milo said. “But you’ll have to stop back some other time and sign my poster.”
“Like I said,” Orson said. “I’m not in this for the notoriety.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing you in action against the archers,” Brett laughed.
Orson said no more and followed the security guard away from the Sabres Unlimited stall and through a crowd of children and young adults. They were watching a match in the crawler-wide Rock-shock tournament, played on a series of retro, oversized arcade-style machines. The guard led Orson through the arcade. When she reached the stall’s main desk, a place for exchanging tokens and registering for events, the guard flashed her badge. The brown-haired teen behind the desk stiffened.
“Stay calm,” Lundberg said. “Official business. We need use of the access door.”
“Right away!” He swung up a section of the counter and led them to a door set into the back of the arcade stall. He fumbled with his key ring, before allowing them into yet another of the crawler’s many access corridors.
“What level of trouble are we about to see?” Orson asked. “Is anyone hurt?”
“You’ve received a message, we believe from the archers,” Lundberg said. “That’s all I know.”
The guard led Orson away, to the end of that corridor and onto an access stairwell. They ascended floor after floor and turned away from the path to the Commodore’s office and the other command areas. Orson realized that she was taking him toward the Aesir.
He reflexively reached for the small tightbeam commlink he carried, the device that should keep him constantly connected to his boat and to Enoa, probably still aboard, training. The sound was on, dialed up. It’s readout lights were lit. If she’d tried to get in touch, he would have heard her. Orson considered sending her a message, but couldn’t see what could be gained from it, other than potentially causing unnecessary concern in himself or Enoa.
When the guard led him into the Aesir’s docking chamber, she gestured to the wall beside the door. There, an envelope was stuck to the wall, held by a long piece of tape. Orson’s name was on the back, in marker.
“I’m guessing there’s no security footage of this arriving here.” Orson tapped at his visor and let his HUD scan the envelope. He slid his gloves up onto his wrists and drew the bandana to his mouth.
“No,” Lundberg said. “And that’s why we’re concerned. One second it wasn’t there. The next, it was. We can only assume someone interfered with our security feed.”
“Okay,” he said. “Have any of your people scanned it? I’m guessing you’ve got someone who looks for poisons.”
“We do,” she said. “They’re on the way.”
“How long?” Orson commanded his HUD to issue another scan.
“Could be half of an hour.”
“I’m taking a look,” he said. “This could be urgent. They went to ridiculous lengths before to talk to me. You might want to back up.” He expected her to protest, but she didn’t. Did she agree with his assessment or had his reputation offered him a brief moment of convenience? Lundberg stepped away.
Orson pulled the envelope from the wall and opened it.
Dear Captain Gregory,
Thank you for trying to set matters right. While we write this, you are currently meeting with Sabres Unlimited, the root of all Solar Saver’s crimes. We appreciate your integrity.
But their work is progressing. Soon it will be too late for us to act. We cannot wait for you to learn the truth.
The Solar Saver crawler will not reach Chicago. But we would appreciate your help in evacuating its occupants. It is impossible for them to survive what we need to do.
We appreciate your help,
The Wuyar Archers
* * *
“It’s not about the quantity of water,” Sucora said. “It’s about your mind. Learning what Shaping feels like, how your mind and body feel, that’s what’s most important. Everything comes from that.”
Enoa had heard those words at least two dozen times as she endlessly repeated the meditations and exercises. Listening to the films, training, she worked to hone her mind, trying and trying to draw water from the ‘stream’ in her mental Dreamside place.
“Don’t neglect your other exercises,” Sucora said. “There’s a connection between mind and body. You cannot neglect either one.”
Enoa had taken daily laps, running through their level of bazaar before the shops properly opened for the day. The first morning, she’d been hesitant, afraid she’d get in trouble with someone. The normally vibrant marketplace had a surreal and disconcerting energy when empty. But that had not happened, and she settled into a regimen, training while Orson did his daily batch of interviews. Then she joined him in the bazaar, once he’d finished his work. However, with him lengthening his schedule, she’d been training well into the evening, even eating alone.
Enoa was surprised to see him burst back into the Aesir, ranting about archers and envelopes and an arcade. Her mind was still dazed from training, still half-awake, half-entranced. She heard only snippets, even after she’d shut off her aunt’s film.
“I didn’t like those Sabre people, but I can’t let the Punk Rock Ren Fair crew blow the place up or something.” He fell into an armchair.
“You didn’t like them.” Enoa sat on the couch. “Did you think they were suspicious?”
“I don’t know,” Orson said. “No more than a lot of people, right now. The stealing of space tech is pretty weird, but… I guess they just smiled too much.”
“They smiled too much?” Enoa asked. “I think you’ve done enough interviews for the day. You need to take a deep breath or something.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe. I don’t know. The head of the local chapter is too good to be true. He asked for my autograph. That’s suspicious.”
“You have a biography!” She laughed. “Why would someone wanting your autograph be weird?”
“I guess you had to be there,” he said. “Oh! And his nephew, ugh. He’s the one who got the bases for these crawlers. And he says he has a full suit of alien armor, like this.” He pointed to his repulsor boot.
“That’s from space aliens?” Enoa also pointed to the boot.
“No, mine’s an IHSA reproduction, but this nephew introduces himself by pointing that out. Like he knows what it is and claims to have a full suit of the original space model. He was just, ugh. I’d say you’ll see when you meet them, but I really hope you don’t.” He groaned. “How was your training?”
“Fine,” she said. “I managed a better transmutation today, finally, still only about a half-cup of water. Except I can’t make the condensation happen at my hands. It just keeps appearing on the floor, like someone silently dumped water everywhere. I didn’t even notice it, right away, and I almost wiped out walking through it.”
“Maybe that’s one of your moves, slick floor,” he said. “Hey, actually…” He stood. “It might be. We might be able to use this. Can you do the slick floor attack on command?”
“Probably not,” she said. “It’s not like I’m trying to make a slippery floor. I’m just not good at what I’m trying to do.”
“Well,” he said. “I’ve got an idea. You’ll have a few days to prepare, but if you’re on board, how do you feel about using your Shaping to make a little money?”