The airship drifted down toward the crawler, flanked by Thopters of the same design as those that defended the Solar Saver. All of these aircraft were black. The airship emitted a gray haze, probably some unusual cloaking technique. It would have been very effective at hiding the ship, if the night sky weren’t cloudless and star strewn.
Enoa felt less prepared by the minute, for the work that awaited her. When she’d agreed to the plan, it sounded like a fun caper, but actually knowing she might need to attempt Shaping for the plan to work… That changed everything. Actually being there, in the most-expensive restaurant on the crawler, the Domicile, made the truth of her responsibility seem suddenly real.
She and Orson stood by the restaurant’s long glass wall, both dressed in yellow and black Solar Saver technical crew uniforms.
“I still think you should have put your hair up,” she said. “Take your turn as Captain Man Bun.”
“Nah.” He shook his head. “I’m just not that committed to my role.”
They watching as guests arrived. The restaurant was only slightly smaller than most freestanding restaurants she’d visited, and even to her inexpert eye, everything looked expensive in the uncomfortable way the Solar Saver donors and leadership had before.
Through the window, Enoa saw a helicopter; an odd, silent, glowing hovercraft; and the haze-enshrouded airship. The dirigible-esque vehicle appeared to be right out of the nineteen thirties. Seeing the wealth and opulence, taking in the clear power of the new arrivals made her feel very isolated.
“Now, see.” Orson pointed to the ship out the window. “That’s too obvious a mark. Why did no one tell me the donors fly around in target practice?”
“Our associates don’t always tell us how they’ll be arriving.” Adelyn Castillo approached them, dressed in a yellow and silver evening gown. “Anais might have been in a better position to tell them what to do if you’d been more open with your plan.” Castillo had an infectious exuberance, even during casual speech. This also served to conceal her mood, and Enoa couldn’t tell whether or not Castillo approved of Orson’s plan.
“I couldn’t be more open,” he said. “I didn’t have time to rule out suspected spies, so I was honest with you, Enoa, Commodore Augustin, and Chief Morita. That’s all.”
“That’s a real shame,” Castillo replied. “I think you’d enjoy yourself tonight if you weren’t working. You’d get a real shot at seeing what we’re building here, not just the day-to-day logistics, but the society we’re rebuilding. Instead, you played into the appearance of elitism in this incredible operation and sent our valuable working class guests out into the cold.”
Orson sighed, a slow, ‘I should really shut up now’ sound. “There’s no way most of the people out there really represent ordinary people in the country. Either they have an assured deal that they can chase after you and wait their turn to come in and pretend the world isn’t messed up, or they’re desperate for safety, or they’re desperate for work.”
“Many of them are desperate for work,” Castillo agreed. “And the Solar Saver Collective gives so many people work, if only temporary work, hundreds, just since you came aboard, last week. People can travel along with more safety than they’ve known in years. Are there bugs in the system? Of course. But this operation is new. It’s only a year old and didn’t have a major following until eight months ago. This takes time, but the regular, working people are part of this experience and they absolutely would be in here, instead of outside, running between unseasonable attractions, in the cold.”
Enoa looked down to the gathering in the fields, beside the mostly parked traffic. Down there, a series of flatbed trucks had arrived, each carrying small structures, housing temporary restaurants, bars, impromptu shopping areas. Further on stood a last-minute gift from Chicago, a large modular screen that had been assembled. The screening of a film had begun. Multiple movies were planned, but now it was a family-oriented cartoon, something about a tall, talking bird who had just become a postal worker.
Enoa tried to follow the plot with just the visuals, but she doubted she’d pay attention even if she could hear it. If she’d made different choices, she could be there, chasing nothing but her own short-term enjoyment, with others her own age, other young people who had finished their adolescence in the chaotic world.
“I’m just trying to keep everybody safe,” Orson said. “If the Archers don’t show up, I’ll… I don’t know.”
“You’ll make a grand gesture so everyone sees how bad you feel?” Castillo smiled. “Captain, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, and I’m sure your jaded facade helps you in your travels, but I want you to see the value here. Mr. Darlow sees the value. He knows now.”
“I see something else,” Orson said. “I’ve been trying to figure something out. Pops is like a kitschy tourist-trap guy. He’s been around the block a good thousand times, but I just didn’t get why you cared so much about what he had to say. You want his endorsement, and you want mine too.”
“Is that so bad?” she laughed. “Is it so terrible to have your opinion valued? You’ve become a legend for fighting the people who destroyed the old world. What’s the harm in lending your support to some of the people who are trying to build a new world?”
“I don’t know,” Orson said. “This seems like a fantasy. Can you imagine really trying to drive this way, with your giant crawler and your caravan, if cities operated like they did a few years ago, with basically one lane of traffic in use? I wish I had more time, I’d explore what people do when they need to get past you going the other direction. And what do you do with highway signs? How does this thing not smack into them? And you’ll never be able to drive anywhere with an overpass.”
“Highway signs?” Castillo said. “I’m fairly sure there’s a team that removes them and then reinstalls them after we’ve passed.” She sighed too. Even that sounded positive. Enoa marveled at her ability to seem peppy.
“This place has its problems,” Castillo said. “It obviously isn’t too good to be true. Get to the bottom of this archer situation, but please, give it a chance.”
“I value the ideals,” Orson said. “But I guess when it comes down to it, this place just has too much potential to be a problem, and I really don’t trust anybody that far.”
“Don’t trust anybody?” Castillo asked.
Enoa made the mistake of looking in her direction and made very awkward eye contact when the other woman glanced at her and gave her a sly smile. Enoa wondered about Orson. Was he distrustful because of what he’d lived through? Or was he alive because he was distrustful? She wondered more and more about her own fate, her own future. She had no place to interrupt their conversation, but their clashing worldviews did nothing but further frazzle her.
The conversation would certainly end soon, anyway. The first guests had begun to filter into the restaurant. Enoa was no high-end fashion expert, but she saw jewelry the like of which could probably buy her home and her shop’s full inventory, multiple times over.
“I don’t make a habit of giving out my endorsement,” Orson said. “I trust people if I know them, for as long as I know them, but…”
“You still actively endorse the Inn at the Evergreen Forest,” Castillo said. “And Ms. Birgham has national attention, and you surely trust her or trusted her. I’m sorry for overstepping, but you can’t be truly anti-corporate if you spent several years as the romantic partner to a notable businessowner.”
Enoa caught Castillo shooting another odd glance in her direction, something too brief for her to read.
“You know,” Orson said. “I thought you and the Commodore had some kind of opposites attract, balancing-each-other-out thing, but I think I’m wrong. You both like pushing people’s buttons.” He laughed and Castillo did too. Enoa didn’t know whether Orson genuinely felt the laughter or if he could laugh authentically, on command.
“Sirona Birgham is the exception that proves the rule,” Orson said. “First off, I met her when we were both wayfarers. And it’s not like I don’t trust anyone who owns a business. But the Inn at Evergreen had a forty-something person staff and, for the record, it was actually a partnership, last I checked. That’s totally different from this. Anything that has thousands of employees and multimillionaire mega donors calling the shots from behind the scenes could become a faceless sprawl, whether a government or a corporation. There’s always a chance something faceless will go corrupt and evil and get away with it, through its size.”
“Well,” Castillo nodded. “I really hope we prove you wrong, but I like your open honesty.” She looked to the small crowd of guests gathering at the entryway. “Good luck tonight, Captain. Whether or not you trust us, we’ve put all our trust in you.”
“Thank you.” Orson bowed his head and fell silent until Castillo meandered through the restaurant toward the guests. “What’s wrong?” He turned to look at Enoa. “I’m sorry if I sounded negative. I just prefer a straight fight to this vague spy garbage.”
“I don’t feel ready,” she said. “I shouldn’t have agreed to this. I can barely do the Shaping, at all. And that’s making me doubt everything. I’m not even as together as I thought I was. And the training is making me so groggy and just out of it. And I keep thinking about how awkward I was talking to Nozomi Morita, the other day. I was never like that back home. I talked to strangers all the time, but now…”
“You expect too much of yourself,” Orson said. “You’ve been through constant garbage for a long time. You’re studying magic stuff. And this…” He waved to the restaurant. “Don’t worry about this. Do your best.”
“What if I fail?”
“You won’t,” he said. “But if something goes wrong, just remember none of my plans go totally right. I usually end up making things up as I go. Just improvise.”
“But what if…” Enoa didn’t get to finish her sentence. A noise came from the wall behind the bar, and they turned to find a woman in the yellow and black tech uniform leading a twenty-strong crew of musicians, most carrying instruments.
“I’m helping the band set up,” Orson said. “Some swing group that plays up and down the Mississippi.” The tech supervisor approached Enoa and Orson.
“I’m here to show Miss Cloud to her post,” the supervisor said.
“Show me where to go.” Enoa said. “I’m ready to get to work.”
“Do you have the spare house key and your garage-door opener?” Orson asked.
“I do,” Enoa said. She reached in her uniform pocket to be sure. Yes, both the spare Aesir door key and the charged stun box were waiting for her.
“Then I’ll see you later,” Orson said. “Have fun making money.”
“You too,” she said. She watched Orson join the band.
“Alright, which of you is Bassam?” Orson asked the band. Several voices called out. “Okay… well, which of you is the Bassam I’m supposed to talk to?”
“Right this way.” The supervisor led Enoa around the bar and toward a spot of wall that slid aside, revealing a hidden freight elevator. “It’s dull work, but it’s important.” They stepped aboard the elevator.
“It’s really simple enough, though,” the supervisor continued. “Keep watch. When someone steps up to speak at the microphone, hit the green button. When they step away, hit it again.” The elevator opened onto a catwalk, set above the top floor of the bazaar.
“I don’t have much sound experience.” Enoa had no sound experience.
“That’s okay,” someone said from the catwalk. “The mics are actually my gig tonight. Tonight you’re the audience. Low pressure.” Enoa followed the voice and found a masked person, dressed in black, bow and quiver of arrows over his shoulders.
The supervisor gasped and slammed her index finger into two buttons on the lift’s control. The elevator groaned, but nothing happened. The doors stayed open. Enoa pressed herself back against the side of the elevator. She hadn’t made an explosion since she’d started her transmutation training, but she didn’t even have her staff. She was unarmed. The tech supervisor jammed her fingers into the buttons again. No results.
“Archer!” The supervisor yelled. “Archer!”
The archer let his bow drop to his left hand and retrieved an arrow with his right. The supervisor didn’t manage a third call. She shut up when the arrow pointed at her face.
“Yeah,” the archer said. “I’m gonna need you to not talk, now.”
* * *
Orson was still working on microphones when the Wuyar Archers stormed the Domicile Bar and Grill.
“Does this work?” Orson asked the trombonist whose microphone he was adjusting. “There’s not a lot of room.”
“I’m used to it,” the musician answered. “I…”
“Archer!” a distant voice yelled.
Orson looked over his shoulder and found dark-clad shapes charging into the restaurant. The Archers had arrived, and they were brandishing their weapons, sending donors and guests huddling against walls.
“Don’t move! Don’t speak!” A voice shouted from the entryway, a voice Orson knew, the voice from the Outrider. People screamed. There came the sound of glass breaking and crashes he could not identify.
Security began their countermeasures. Three individuals, with guns and stun batons, rushed from alcoves around the room. Orson used the cover to run. He charged from the makeshift bandstand and dove behind the bar. There, he found Adelyn Castillo crouched, out of sight, as well as three bartenders, several members of the wait staff, and the band’s backup drummer, sticks in hand. All watched Orson.
“You said they’d be after machinery,” Adelyn hissed.
“I was wrong.” He reached beneath the bar and slid out a case, the metal lockbox that held his gear. He retrieved his mobile key ring and fit a key into the case. Then he risked the noise and threw open its latches. He heard shouts and a single cry of pain, as he slid his arms into his coat, buckled his belt, donned his gloves, activated his armor framework, and readied his sword. He sat down and kicked off his black right shoe. He slid that leg, pantleg and all, into his repulsor boot and connected the wiring. If he hadn’t worn his gear almost every day for half a decade, he couldn’t have dressed that quickly.
“Go get the ones hiding behind the bar,” a male voice said.
“I’m on it,” replied another.
Orson heard someone approach the bar from the opposite side. His gear wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t masked, but he’d run out of time.
When the archer arrived at the bar and aimed an arrow over it, Orson drew his sword and jumped to his feet. With a swing of the sword, Orson cut the arrow in half, sending the odd square arrowhead dropping to the floor. The archer gasped and jumped back, but to his credit, he reached up to grab another arrow.
Orson used his repulsor to jump over the bar. When the archer aimed his second arrow him, Orson sliced the bow in half.
“Sorry about that,” Orson said. “Open bar closed early.”
The archer yelled and retreated back toward his fellows. Orson lifted the sword of fire and sent its sapphire glow through the room.
There came a cheer from the Bassam Band and another from the crowd of donors at the entryway. Orson wasn’t looking at them. He counted archers and found fourteen, total. Six pointed arrows at him. The others had their weapons aimed throughout the crowd.
“Captain,” the speaker archer called. “What did you learn with your days of research?”
“I’ve learned there are a lot of honest people trying to make a real living in this place,” Orson said. “Do the restaurant owners or artists or musicians deserve to be terrorized?”
“Did the Rojas family and all their hands deserve to be murdered to make way for a lithium mine?” the speaker asked. “We’re not here to talk philosophy, Captain. We’re here to offer a choice.”
“Lower your weapons!” Chief Morita ran from some back corner of the room. Orson didn’t know where he’d been, but he saw eight bows train on the security man.
“Your backup isn’t coming,” the speaker said. “We have control of all elevators and doors. Lower your gun.”
“I know you folks think your Steampunk anarchy thing is cool,” Orson said. “But you would’ve been better off letting me do more research and less planning for your next attack.”
“We ran out of time,” the speaker said.
“Just let us go!” a man yelled from the donor crowd. “Who are you? What is this?”
“Shut up!” An archer yelled.
“You stay away from him,” Morita replied, but his voice sounded smaller. He looked around. There were only two other security personnel in view.
“You’ve been nabbing guards for a while, haven’t you,” Orson said. “As somebody who’s done the whole infiltration, sneakery deal, I’ll be impressed if no one’s hurt.”
“We aren’t killers,” the speaker said. “We’re here to offer a choice.” She pointed toward the restaurant’s long window. “If you look outside, you’ll see the viewing of Mimi’s Post has been interrupted.” Orson didn’t look. “We have control of your screen and will use it to show highlights from the Solar Saver’s crimes.”
“We’ve done no crimes!” Thomas Nicks, the PR boss, yelled. “Why do you hate us so much? We’ve done nothing wrong!”
“That’s why we’re here,” the speaker said, “to show you the truth.”
“If you had all this proof to give out,” Orson said. “Why didn’t you get this to me with your warning? Why didn’t you make sure I saw it? I call bullshit.”
“And let your bosses have the chance to prepare lies?” the speaker said. “No.”
During the conversation, the crowd noise grew to a constant murmur of fearful chatter and terrified whispers. Donors crouched together. Wait staff attempted to find one another. And the musicians worked to gather their instruments and belongings.
“Trickshot,” the speaker commanded. One of the archers switched the arrow they held and fired an object into the air, a projectile that exploded in a burst of light and noise. Everyone fell silent.
“Where is Commodore Augustin?” the speaker asked. “We’re here to offer her a choice. Either we reveal the truth to her followers, outside, or she can come with us and see the truth for herself.”