Enoa deactivated the Aesir. She sat in the passenger seat, exhausted, until she heard the crash behind her. She spun around, to see.
The archer was crouched on the floor, his cuffed hands clutching at a square of flooring he’d lifted away. He was struggling with that flooring.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry. I couldn’t help but look around, y’know. I mean, this is the Aesir, right?”
“Okay.” She stood and retrieved her staff. “I think that’s all for now. If you help us fix this situation, maybe Captain Gregory will give you a tour.” She approached him with the staff and expected resistance, but the young man just continued to work with the floor.
“You have to let me look around.” He set the floor back down, but not quite snugly in place. “He has to. You have no idea how much this can help me, just seeing this place. Captain Gregory faced down with those Sabres, and that’s got me mostly convinced he’s alright, so letting me see a bit of the ship might convince me to help out.”
“Well,” she said. “That’s not up to me, so for now I’ll show you back to your room.” She took him by the upper right arm and directed him to the bunk they’d prepared, a space that now locked from the outside. Enoa opened the door and gestured for him to go in.
“Do you need the bathroom first?” Enoa asked. She really hoped he said no. She hadn’t planned on what her procedure would be if she had to monitor a male prisoner’s bathroom use. She didn’t know what damage he could do in the bathroom, but, then again, he’d almost immediately found one of the removable floor panels.
“I’m sorry.” Orson ran back aboard the Aesir. “Are you alright? I can’t believe they actually chased you back here!”
“We barely got away,” Enoa said. “If I didn’t get Ruby to power on the shields, one of those Sabres would have caught us, and the shields did this red flashing that you’re going to want to look at.”
“I will,” Orson saw the prisoner.
“And I would’ve had to shoot…” Enoa continued.
“What’d he do, try to escape?” Orson interrupted, when he noticed the dislodged floor panel.
“No, Captain!” the archer said. “I’m just admiring the design. This place really is both a ship and a camper. Just the routing of the systems has to be absolutely incredible.”
“He’s their inventor,” Enoa said. “The whole way back here he was asking me if his ‘fire extinguisher’ worked.”
“Did it?” the archer asked. “I know I shouldn’t ask now, but I spent days trying to get the electrical discharge just right to maximize its chances of reacting to the heat shield around your sword.” Enoa and Orson both stared at him. “It wasn’t personal. It’s actually pretty cool to meet you, but I didn’t know you, and I didn’t want you to go all Ben Kenobi and lop my friends apart.”
“Ben Kenobi?” Enoa asked. “Who’s that, some axe murderer?”
“Axe murderer?” the archer asked. “He’s from Star Wars. Wait, were you in a monastery or something? Did you have to isolate yourself to learn your magic?”
“What?” Enoa said.
“Don’t worry about it.” Orson shook his head, before turning back to the archer. “I don’t usually just lay into people with the sword, but your extinguisher was fine. Nice work. Now, what’s really important, I need to get in touch with the other archers. I have a plan that might be able to fix everything, but the Solar Saver Board is only giving me a day to get them a workable solution, or they want to take you from us and kick me out of here.”
“Take me?” the archer yelled.
“But we saved them from the Archers,” Enoa said.
“They just need to do the right thing,” the archer corrected. “They didn’t really need to be saved.”
“Well, you stopped that Nalrik,” Enoa continued. “And they just want to kick you out?” Sucora had always taught her to keep an open mind. People have layers you will never know and cannot see. Judgments cause blindness. But Enoa couldn’t help herself. “What, will their stock price go down, or something?”
“I don’t think there is a stock market anymore,” Orson said. “I don’t know how it works now. They’re just none too thrilled about the whole video showing dead people.”
“They shouldn’t be thrilled,” the archer said. “We didn’t document all those horrible things to make anybody happy.”
“I don’t know all the details,” Orson said. “Actually, I don’t know any of the details. You archers didn’t give me time for my people to do research, and you refused to just give me the damn proof. But I guess there was a full-tilt riot on the ground, and it was like bumper cars with people trying to drive away or get back in line. Whatever happens, I need to talk with your friends. If I can get them in touch with my people in Chicago, and actually exchange information, I think we have a chance of going after the Sabres and putting an end to this situation.”
“They’re not gonna go for that,” the archer said. “No way.”
“They essentially only have four options.” Orson raised a finger for each point. “One, they can go with my plan and try to legally get the Sabres. Two – they can refuse that and try to convince me to get you out of here when the Collective Board ends my contract. Three – they can give up and just let me turn you over to the Collective. Or Four – they can wait until I leave and continue to sabotage the Solar Saver Collective. Regardless, I’d bet my life those Sabres aren’t through with them. Do they want to fight the Sabres alone? Or do they want the regional law, the majority of the Collective, and us on their side, when the fight comes?”
“Damn,” the archer said. “I mean, I’m all for sharing the information with you. We already broadcast most of it live. What does it hurt to pass along the footnotes, right? But…” He took a deep breath. “I’ll think about it.”
“For one thing, I should actually see the video,” Orson said. “I can’t address the whole freak-out on the ground if I have no idea what you showed them.”
“I need to think about what to do,” the archer replied. “It makes sense to show you, but I don’t know what’s best for the others.”
“Do it,” Enoa said. “It’s dangerous, but this is your best shot.”
“Do you know that, like, in advance?” the archer asked. “Are you, uh, what’s it called? Clairvoyant? Is that one of your powers?”
“No,” Enoa laughed. “No fortune telling. That’s not really how it works.”
“I’ve had my connections looking into the Sabres all week, and I’ve gotten essentially nothing,” Orson said. “The short timetable and the craziness in the world makes the necessary research almost impossible. We need the data the archers have and, in return, I’ll get them a decent deal, legally.”
“And what if the Sabres just attack any court thing you try to do?” the archer asked. “I know you’re a big fighter but just think about that powered armor. It’s even scarier than I imagined. Oh wait, do you have secret powers too?” Orson frowned at him. “Aren’t you still just a dude?”
Orson smiled. “I thought like you when I got started, but I learned to like being the underdog. You seem like the kind of guy who enjoys solving puzzles you’re not supposed to solve.”
“Go on,” the archer said, cautiously.
“You want to beat the Sabres,” Orson said. “You have proof. The Collective must have proof, whether or not they know it. The Collective wants to have smooth business. So, our puzzle is to make it clear that the Sabres are really bad for business.”
“What about doing the right thing?” the archer asked. “And stopping brutal murderers?”
“Maybe I’m a cynic,” Orson said. “But we can’t be sure those investors are motivated by ‘the right thing’, unless they’re in the crosshairs too.”
“Hmm,” the archer replied. “And what do you need from me, personally.”
“Well, first,” Orson said. “I need your name and enough about you to make you seem credible to the Collective. Why are you after the Sabres? Why, personally? Then we have to get in touch with the other Archers.”
The archer eyed them both. He glanced between Enoa and Orson. He chewed the inside of his cheek.
“My name’s Jaleel Yaye,” he introduced himself. “And I already know your names. Everyone’s heard of Orson Gregory, but I couldn’t find much about you this week.” He nodded to Enoa. “Do you really need to know about my personal reasons for going after the Sabres?”
“I don’t know how else we’ll do this.” Orson nodded.
Jaleel had another moment of silent thought. Then he nodded too. “If I go along with this, you better be one hundred percent sure this plan will bring them down.”
* * *
Kol Maros sat in a plastic folding chair. Max was beside him. They were situated at a standard, laminate, wood-grain folding-table. Max had a briefcase on the table, as well as two neat stacks of papers, bookmarked in several places with color-coded sticky notes. He’d gone to his place of quiet determination, an intense focus he’d had since childhood, a mental willpower Kol had always envied.
The hearing would begin immediately, whenever Baron Weatherhold arrived. Kol tried not to think about that. He tried not to spare any attention to the small tribunal of Liberty Corps Eastern Wing officials who would serve as his prosecution. He tried not to think about the assorted witnesses in attendance – Divenoll, Duncan, Lieutenant Melville. He tried not to contemplate where he was, only three blocks from the wreckage of the apartment building where his grandparents once lived, a place that was now just rubble.
Instead, Kol thought about Max’s focus and Max’s briefcase and Max’s papers. And the generic table. Kol waited and tried to forget all about what he was waiting for.
One of the black and purple armored Barony officers walked from the rear doors and threaded his way through the makeshift meeting room, until he stood on the raised platform where the Baron himself was scheduled to sit. Kol could no longer ignore his situation.
“Baron Weatherhold will not be presiding over this hearing,” the officer said. “In his place, we are receiving new instructions from the Lost Park Office.” The room fell silent. Kol saw Max look at him. The Lost Park Office was not a term Max would have seen in the official Liberty Corps informational materials. “The Voice of Czar Ilias Hawthorne of the Liberty Corps will address this assembly, shortly.”
Shortly was an understatement. Only seconds after the officer said those words, there was a great humming in the sky. An aircraft was approaching and approaching very quickly. The sound grew, until it was directly above the building. Then the humming ended.
But another sound came, a soft thud, just outside. As one, the Liberty Corps officers and personnel stood, as the outer doors were thrown open.
Seven people processed inside. Six guards, armored in red and clothed in purple, walked in, long bladed spears in hand. They surrounded a tall man in Liberty Corps armor of three colors: white to denote his officer’s rank, red for his skill with a blade, gold for his place in the Czar’s office. All seven wore identical face-concealing helmets, though the Voice’s was tinged with gold
The Voice of Czar Hawthorne and six members of the Liberty Corps leader’s personal bodyguard walked through the assembly, between the tables set for the defense and the prosecution. They did an abrupt about face, and looked out at the room.
Kol caught his brother looking up at him, one eyebrow raised, probably seeking some explanation. He could never explain without showing disrespect to the Czar’s own office. He hoped his brother would catch on.
The Voice of the Czar? What had happened to Mr. Hawthorne that he’d taken a spokesman? Even the Czar title he’d thought was more of an external affectation. Why would this Voice man’s presence stop Weatherhold from presiding over the hearing?
“Good morning,” the Voice said. “I am here with formal instructions from our High Commander, Czar Ilias Hawthorne of the Liberty Corps.” The Voice lifted a long piece of paper to his concealed face. “I will now read the words of His Excellency.”
“Liberty lives!” The Voice read. “Our Corps is honored by your great work. I wish I could be with you, but I have surrendered the freedom of my time to build liberty for everyone!”
Some throughout the room cheered. Kol realized, belatedly, that he should do the same, but the moment passed.
“Three orders,” the Voice continued. “First, I commend you on your procurement efforts. Thanks to your work, our eastern expansionary fleet will be prepared to launch by winter’s end.”
“Second, let it be known that the ongoing riots and vandalism our forces face in Philadelphia will not be accepted. After the attack on our Manticore tank facility, I want it to be known that all petty vandals may be publicly flogged and all organized sabotage should be met with lethal force.”
“Third, I know that you are gathered here primarily to judge the work and failures of our loyal brother Kolben Maros. This hearing is a waste of our valuable time and resources. I have consulted with my advisors and have a final decision for this disciplinary matter.”
Kol’s head swam. His brother took him by the forearm. He was too numb to read the gesture. His judgment had arrived, with little fanfare and no discussion.
“Kolben Maros failed in this effort to retrieve the Dreamside Road,” the Voice said. “Captain Maros was reckless. He wasted funds. He led his people into imprisonment. Others reacted to Maros by pursuing even more foolish courses. People died because of this plan. Captain Maros can no longer lead Newtown Division. He is no longer the captain of any geographical division of the Liberty Corps.”
Kol tried to stop the shaking in his legs. It was over. But he had a year left in his commission. Where would they go with him? Would he suffer the indignity of demotion? Would he serve under someone he knew, or would they send him somewhere far afield, far from Max, from Duncan, from his life? Max’s grip tightened on his arm. Kol looked at his brother and saw an expression he’d never seen there, calm fury. Max looked ready to attack the Voice and his bodyguards.
“However,” the Voice continued. “Captain Maros showed that he is far more dedicated an investigator than even our best intelligence teams. His failures came only from his blind passion for our noble cause. Young Kol even succeeded where our own Operative Chace Divenoll failed. Operative Divenoll was the leader of our efforts to find the Dreamside Road and he failed year after year. Before he failed us, he also failed the IHSA in this search. He failed us all.”
“So Kolben Maros will lead our current efforts to recover the trove. I always knew you had a bright future, young Kol, when I recruited you and gave you your captaincy. And now we’ve determined how you can benefit our great Liberty Corps. Your new mission, Captain Maros, is quite simple. Find the Dreamside Road.”