Enoa did not sleep well that night. She and Orson alternated watches. No attack came, but even when sleep found her she dreamed of armored invaders.
She was groggy the next morning, even more than she usually was, since her training began. She gave up early on sleep and found Orson at watch, sitting in an armchair, flipping through tall stacks of paper and drinking coffee. He wore his repulsor boot and the remainder of his usual gear was draped across the back of the chair.
“Good morning,” he said. “How are you?”
“I’ll be better after today,” she said. “Hopefully.” She sat on the couch. “Where’s our prisoner?”
“Still sleeping, I think,” he said. “You teenagers wasting the day away!”
“I know it’s hard to tell for an old man,” she laughed. “But I’m twenty.”
“Oh,” Orson laughed too. “Well, once you cross thirty, all your perceptions are skewed and you’re basically dead.” He grabbed a piece of paper from beside him. “That reminds me. Nozomi Morita was here about a half hour ago. She’s planning another one of her little get-togethers.” He handed the paper to her.
Enoa unfolded it and found a brief note.
I’m hoping to get a bunch of people to go to the ice sculpting show at 2, this afternoon. Meet us at the parking garage level if you want to come along.”
“That’s too bad.” Enoa set the paper down. “If I’d known she was planning something, I could have asked if she was free when our meeting with the Saver Board is over.
“Actually,” Orson said. “I think you should go and hang out. Jaleel is ready to do his part today, once I buy him something to wear other than his archer getup, and all our other loose ends should be together, by then.”
“But what if the Sabres attack?” Enoa asked.
“That’s more reason to go with Nozomi,” Orson said. “Either everything is fine and you get a deserved rest after your week of intense training.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Or the Sabres attack, and then we’re going to want someone trustworthy near Chief Morita’s family.”
* * *
“You can’t actually be considering this?” Max spoke as soon as the Liberty Corps escort departed. The duo of Weatherhold’s Officers had shown them to Kol Maros’ new office, a small room in one of the out-buildings that surrounded the Liberty Corps complex at the old Navy Yard.
“How can he not?” Duncan asked. “He was rewarded for screwing up. Kol, you work so hard you even fail upwards.”
“But why was he rewarded?” Max asked. “Divenoll was out of line, but I don’t see a logical reason for this reassignment.”
“Czar Hawthorne has always liked Kol,” Duncan said. “He even wrote to Kol after he started spending all of his time in the Lost Park Office, you know, for his safety. They were practically pen pals.”
“Czar Hawthorne?” Max asked. “You know this Hawthorne, personally?”
“We all met him in Liberty Basics,” Duncan said, before Kol could speak. The younger Maros sat behind his new desk, staring in disbelief. He’d survived. His career had survived. Divenoll had been publicly shamed. He couldn’t have hoped for a more favorable outcome, but it didn’t feel as triumphant as it would have before Nimauk. Maybe the stress hadn’t left him, too much pressure and fear, but Kol still had a sense of dread. He’d been pulled away from the gallows, but a guillotine still stood.
“Yes, but this man remembers my brother,” Max said.
“He remembers me because I sought him out,” Kol said. “I talked to him a few times. We corresponded regularly for my first year in the Liberty Corps, before he stopped making public appearances… and occasionally afterward.”
“I don’t think I follow,” Max said.
“Mr. Hawthorne had similar life experiences to ours, and I wanted to get a chance to talk to him about that and learn how he dealt with his own physical impairment.” Kol hated when his brother went into investigator mode. As much as he admired Max’s capacity for research and acquiring information, having that probing mind focused on him was never an enjoyable experience. He was anything but prepared to have this conversation.
“You’re Captain Kol Maros?” An officer wearing the blue uniform of a non-commissioned officer stood in the doorway. Two gray-uniformed supply crewmembers stood behind her with a treaded cart, loaded in boxes.
“I am,” Kol said.
“Records delivery.” She motioned to the supply crew. “Recent information about the Aesir and all relevant files on the Dreamside Road.”
“Excellent,” Kol said. “I’m looking forward to getting started.”
“I’m glad I caught you,” she said. “Our office just received a report about the Aesir, and it was almost forwarded to Operative Divenoll, but luckily I saw the routing change and got ahold of the team.”
“That is fortunate.” Kol spoke to the woman, but he watched Max maneuver out of the supply crew’s way. He watched the look on his brother’s face. Discomfort? Disgust? When Max had decided to go stony-faced and distant, even Kol couldn’t read him beyond knowing he wasn’t happy.
Kol didn’t wait for the supply crew to depart before digging into the files they’d delivered. The top box was the most recent intelligence, records recovered from an unearthed IHSA outpost in the Yukon, some conjecture toward Project Dreamthought and their Shaping. The rest of that box was filled with reports about the Aesir and about Orson Gregory. There was even a page about Enoa Cloud.
“New information about the Aesir.” Kol paraphrased the report. “I expected Gregory and Cloud would immediately proceed after the trove, but he appears to be working for a renewable energy collective, looks like he’s dealing with some bandits. One of our operatives has an information source in this collective, but he’s not stationed near the flagship crawler, where this is going on.”
“Why would Gregory be there?” Duncan said. “I thought he was after the trove, too. Isn’t that why he was in Nimauk?”
“I thought so too.” Kol kept skimming the text. “Maybe he needed the money. Aren’t jobs like that how he makes a living? Chasing the Dreamside Road costs a lot. We know that.” He looked up from the report. “There is some conjecture about Enoa Cloud. Apparently, she’s only rarely seen.”
“We’ll need to look into this operative and his source,” Duncan said. “Sounds like the kind of crap rumors we worked with before you got ahold of Tucker. But if it’s true, maybe Gregory will be tied up for a while and we can get a jump on him.”
“Wait.” Max didn’t speak loudly, but he said that one word with such force and command that it drew the other mens’ attention. “Is this it? You’re off the hook now, Kol, so you’re back to business, as usual? No questioning of your actions. No concern about the people you’re serving under. I have a contact, formerly FBI, who I was going to reach out to. They’re with the Northeast Alliance now and…”
“Not this again,” Duncan interrupted. “Come on, Max. No, things here aren’t like they were when you served. The Liberty Corps isn’t like the old League of Earth’s Nations militaries, but that could be a good thing. Just because Divenoll went after Kol doesn’t mean that’s all the Liberty Corps is. Divenoll got slapped today. Did you see his face?” He chuckled.
“You serve a man who – unless I’m totally misreading the display we saw at the hearing – no longer speaks to his forces, whatsoever,” Max said. “This man actually uses an individual whose job title is ‘Voice’. He calls himself ‘Czar’. He has ‘Barons’ working for him. Why would a group like the Liberty Corps, with ‘liberty’ in its name, have a single ruler with a royal title? It’s all insane. It’s like bad satire, except it’s clearly by design. What’s Hawthorne hiding?” Max held up his hand. “I see you waiting to interrupt me, Duncan, but you’ll hear my piece. How do you even know it’s the same man, the same individual giving orders? Maybe this Hawthorne you knew, Kol, was murdered and someone else is using this Voice character to hide that. I mentioned the cult-like behavior before, but the display at the hearing was lunacy. And the two of you are just getting back to work, like nothing happened.”
Kol did not respond. His mind had gone blank. Max’s anger transported him to a much earlier time in his life.
“Mister Hawthorne was almost assassinated multiple times,” Duncan said. “He used most of his fortune to build the Liberty Corps into a real force in the lead-up to Thunderworks, and the titles are meant to scare the lawless savages who started looting after the shutdown. It might not make sense as an old world belief system, but it makes perfect sense when you look at what it’s responding to. It’s not perfect. It was all made up, as we needed it.”
“Of course it was,” Max said. “Just like this Hawthorne will need to stay dictator of any territory he occupies.”
“I’m sorry for everything,” Kol said. “I’m sorry you used all that time for my defense and gave so much when it wasn’t needed, but the Aesir is trying to find powerful items and leave them in the hands of private parties. After Thunderworks, we know that’s too dangerous. That’s the bigger problem now. I can’t let a new Thunderworks happen. And if stopping that helps us too, then good. I will have earned my redemption.”
* * *
“I come from a little town called Alexandria, right on the Mississippi.” Jaleel spoke to the Solar Saver Collective’s Board of Directors. He wore the suit Orson had bought for him. He held a small note card in his hands, but he wasn’t reading from it.
“I first learned about you when my whole neighborhood was evicted through eminent domain, to help build a bridge over the river. The house my family lived in for four generations got bulldozed to make a bridge for this crawler.”
Orson sat beside Jaleel, dressed in his full gear, sheathed sword propped against his leg. He took the opportunity to observe the Commodore’s Lounge and the people gathered at the impromptu meeting. There were physically fifteen people in the room, and a further nine more present via teleconference. A series of wide monitors stood around the conference table, each with enough room that it could swivel and allow the member on the call the ability to view the meeting. Commodore Augustin appeared via a video monitor at the head of the table, opposite Orson and Jaleel. Another monitor stood to Orson’s left, showing an older woman in a navy suit, Etta R. Curnow, a lawyer Pops had recommended.
The usually-present Board members were in attendance – Thomas Nicks, Arnold Chambers, and Chief Morita. Each of them had at least one aide. Morita had an additional three security officers. All of the security crewmembers eyed Jaleel.
Chief Legal Counsel Randal Swift and major shareholder Walter Irvin were also physically present, with two aides apiece. The other seven Board Members and key advisors occupied the remaining monitors.
“We only found out about the eminent domain process when they showed up with letters telling us to leave.”
“We were told everyone was excited,” Swift interrupted. “I know for a fact payment tokens were prepared. I drafted a letter and…”
“Oh, they had tokens,” Jaleel said. “But they also had their armed Sabre members, not that we knew they were Sabres, not yet, not until old Mrs. Stewart refused to leave and her house burned down – by total accident – in the middle of the night. We knew we had no choice.”
“We thought about petitions and legal plans, but they were blackmailing the local government to go along with it.” Jaleel looked through papers on the conference table. “They accused some local elected people of misusing official funds in the aftermath of the Thunderworks attack. We brought you evidence of that. That’s on page… page…”
“Page four,” Orson provided.
“Thanks,” Jaleel said. “So this got us…”
“Before you begin again,” Swift raised his hand. “I’m still somewhat confused what you want from my clients. If you allege that members of Sabres Unlimited – a group of people who have been nothing but good to the Collective, I might add – have done something illegal, I don’t see why you’re raising this matter with us. And it certainly does not excuse your own group’s illegality. I can’t help but feel…”
“While this is unorthodox,” Curnow, Pops’ lawyer, interrupted. “After the Sabre’s display last night, surely you can appreciate the dire position you’re in. You are openly associated with Sabres Unlimited, and they have committed blackmail, theft, and murder, in your name. Please read the documentation, if you have doubts. We all know these are unconventional times, but the Sabres use of eminent domain was spurious at best, in any era. And I will repeat myself when I remind you this was done in your name. Plus, it isn’t clear how many of you were familiar with and/or complicit with what was going on?” She paused.
“Now, the Wuyar Archers offer a compromise. They are willing to work off what they owe you for the property that was damaged, by helping you streamline your technical security. They have extensive knowledge of your systems. This work will be done in exchange for cooperation against the Sabres Unlimited. Now, may Mr. Yaye continue?” Swift nodded once. “Mr. Yaye?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jaleel said. “My sister, Jordyn, investigated this first. She was majoring in journalism before the shutdown, and when she started looking into the Sabres, she found examples of their behavior all over the country, going back many years. We’ve seen how far this goes. The Sabres had chapters all over the world. They had members in many levels of government. They have this whole Illuminati operation, and we fought back the only way we could, by sending a message nobody could ignore. I’m sorry that people were scared of us, but I’m not sorry for trying to stop the Sabres.”
“Illuminati?” Chief Morita made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “This is simply impossible. How could a well-known group operate this way, without anyone knowing? You can’t commit murder, even today.”
“That’s not true,” Jaleel said. “Not in this crawler maybe, but there are lots of places where murders go unpunished. And their financial crimes led to a lot of Sabre Chapters closing down. The average lifespan of one of their chapters is only seven years, but most of their members are with them for thirty years, on average. Whenever they do something greasy and someone powerful starts looking closer, that chapter closes down and they move someplace else.”
“And when you decided you couldn’t seek justice,” Augustin said. “You took it upon yourselves to become archers using homemade technology? Why arrows?”
“Because we’ve been doing archery with targets since grade school. I had a production of Robin Hood, and I learned to make bows.” He shrugged. “We got good. Really good. Seven years of practice does that. Two years for fun. Four years as a neighborhood defense after Thunderworks, keeping away the pirates who came down the river. One year fighting the Sabres. Read their manifesto. They’re going after people to make your business into an empire. But they messed with the wrong people when they ran into the Wuyar Archers.”
“What does Wuyar mean?” Augustine asked.
“Wuyar,” Jaleel said. “Y.R., like initials. Yaye for my sister and me. And Robins for our friend and partner. We made that into Wuyar because it sounds cooler and because it’s anime as hell.” He cringed. “Heck! I’m sorry.”
Some sparse laughter sounded around the table. Orson laughed too, despite himself, and he took a good look at the members who had not yet spoken. He wasn’t sure what was needed to persuade them. He wasn’t sure whether they’d agree to his final suggestion, but that could wait.
“We’ve been called the Wuyar Archers for years,” Jaleel said. “And some of us talked about changing the name, but the Archers fighting the Sabres has a ring to it, right?”
“And you built all of those arrows?” Thomas Nicks asked.
“I build everything.” If Jaleel tried to hide the pride in his voice, he failed.
“Before we move on,” Irvin spoke up. “I have to say something. If this is true, it’s a horrifying story, and we need to do our part to address it. It’s our civic responsibility and it’s the only way to protect this organization, but I still need more details.”
“It’s in the documentation,” Arnold Chambers said. “If you look through it, they gave us everything, in painful detail.”
“But if the Sabres are so good at covering their tracks,” Irvin continued. “How did these, these children manage to get recent records from places all over the world? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt the Yaye family visited the former Rojas farm in South America. Did you?”
“I got them the information about that,” Arnold Chambers said. “The Archers approached me four months ago, after they found out about my own investigation into the Sabres.”
“You let the Wuyar Archers destroy your own firm’s equipment?” Swift asked. “Really, Arnold? All you’ve talked about for months is paying off your investment. ‘Oh, how will Chambers Electromotive recover?’ But you were involved!”
“I’m not letting someone die in my name,” Chambers said. “I’m not going to be a pawn in someone’s plan to make the world how they want it. I can’t believe the rest of you weren’t more suspicious. How much of this just fell into our laps. I cannot…”
All of the monitors went dark. The teleconference attendees vanished. The lights stayed on, but dimmed. People fell silent. Orson immediately drew up his hood and visor. As soon as he did so, he saw the alerts across his vision.
|MULTIPLE CONCEALED WEAPONS – UNKNOWN DESIGN|
|TARGET LOCK! HEAD SHOT – 100%|
“Get down!” Orson grabbed his sword and fired his repulsor. He flew backward out of his seat, twisting in midair, as he spun out of the likely range of whatever might be thrown at him. He heard multiple projectiles, a weird sound he didn’t know – wamp! Despite his efforts, something hit him in the side of the coat. He threw himself to the floor. The projectile vibrated, the way Daniel Tucker’s metal had – like it was trying to burrow its way through his coat and armor, before going inert.
Screams erupted. Most were fear, but one was pure agony. Someone else had been hit, and they likely hadn’t been wearing high-quality body armor.
“No! Mr. Chambers!” Jaleel’s voice. “You bastards!”
Regular gunfire sounded. Multiple guns. Wamp! More screams.
Orson tried to regroup and turn around. He had to intervene. He was the best chance everyone had of fighting off the attack.
Another of the drilling projectiles struck him in the back.
Orson thought through the weapons he could bring to bear. It was hard to guess what to use. He hadn’t yet seen who had launched the attack.
He ignited his repulsor again. He slid across the floor and heard another wamp fly past him, as he blasted away.
Orson got his leg under him and jumped to his feet. He drew his sword, just as another volley of gunfire sounded toward the table. He saw a warning arrive on his HUD.
|HEAD SHOT – 95%|
But Orson was ready. He launched himself to the left. He watched the percentage on the shot decrease to 20%. That was enough for him to take stock of the room.
He saw two attackers, armed with long, thin weapons he’d never seen before, only a few centimeters in diameter. Tubes trailed from the weapons – possible reloading mechanisms? Where had the shooters hidden these things?
One of the attackers had attended the meeting as Irvin’s aide. This man was aiming at Orson. The other shooter was a Solar Saver security guard, in uniform. He was keeping the loyal security pinned down behind the overturned conference table.
There were multiple bodies on the floor. Thomas Nicks and Arnold Chambers were both down, as was one of the security officers, and two of the aides. Morita and his remaining guard had been the source of the return fire. Swift, Irvin, and a handful of aides hid behind them. Jaleel was there too, fiddling with his wristwatch. The other surviving aides had fled to the far corners of the room.
Orson didn’t know what effect his sword would have on the weird projectiles the attackers were using, but unlike Brett Nalrik’s force, the shooters didn’t wear powered armor, and their faces were bare.
When the head shot percentage rose to 70%, Orson covered his face with his arm.
|TARGET LOCK – ARM – 85%|
Orson felt another strange projectile strike his armor.
He blasted his way in the direction of the conference table and sent a flash of light from his left gauntlet, enough to leave the attackers blind. Then he jumped toward them.
Irvin’s aide had been tracking him, preparing to attack again, before the flash. He shot another projectile. Orson’s HUD tried to scan it.
Orson dodged the projectile and rocketed at the aide. The sword of fire took the shooter in the elbow. He howled as his arm fell away, still clutching the odd weapon. The shooter collapsed, grabbing at his cauterized wound.
The other shooter spun toward Orson, but he didn’t manage to fire. Jaleel jumped over the table, his watch around the palm of his hand. The young man jabbed the watch into the shooter’s neck. It made a sickening sizzling sound. Jaleel’s watch was a weapon!
The second shooter jumped and screamed. He shoved the young man away, revealing a deep, red welt where the watch had pressed into his flesh.
Orson prepared to leap at the second shooter, but there was no need. A bullet took the man in the head. His body hit the floor. Morita and the surviving loyal security guard charged around the table.
The room erupted into screams and panic. There was no relief after the violence ceased. All of the terror that the imminent danger had quieted could no longer be contained. The surviving aides, still crowded at the far walls began yelling in an unintelligible cacophony.
“They killed Mr. Nicks, and Mr. Chambers is hurt really bad.” Jaleel looked on the verge of tears. “They killed all these people. What are those things? What were they shooting?”
“I don’t know.” Orson rested his hand on Jaleel’s shoulder. “But we’re gonna get Mr. Chambers to medical attention.”
“They can get at us anywhere.” Morita stepped beside Orson.
“Not anywhere,” Orson said. “We need to search these spies and make sure they don’t have listening devices.” The last-standing security official nodded and began searching the fallen shooters.
Orson turned to the room at large. “Listen everyone, I believe we’re safe, for now, but I’m going to have to evacuate all of you.”
“And how do we know we’ll be any safer going with you?” Swift asked. “Who would think this could happen here. In your own force, Morita! Dear God!”
“We’re going to stay with Earl Darlow,” Orson said. “And that’s sure better than here.”
“Earl Darlow!” Irvin yelled. “You’re taking us to stay with an old criminal.”
“You weren’t too particular when you were looking for endorsements,” Orson said. He didn’t have time for more arguments. There could easily be further attackers on the way, and he had no true guarantees that there weren’t other spies among the aides or even on the Board, itself. “Jaleel, please get out your Morse doodad. We need to get ahold of your sister.”
“His sister?” Morita asked. “Why are you contacting the Archers?”
“No one knows this crawler better than they do,” Orson said. “They agreed in case of an attack that they’d be here to extract everyone. We’ll need to get our evacuation plans, figure out everyone we have to extract, figure out transportation… The Aesir can hold pretty many people, but I’m hoping to save a seat for a special guest.”
“We have to locate our families, too,” Morita said. “My wife and son are home, but my daughter is out at the ice show.”
“Enoa’s with her,” Orson said. “And we’ll get them an Archer escort once they’re back in the crawler.”
“I can help them get to your ship.” Jaleel was crouched at the floor. He’d picked up the traitor security officer’s weapon and was snaking the tubing out of the dead man’s sleeve.
“Actually, I need you and Chief Morita,” Orson said. “We’re going to pay a visit to Milo Nalrik. It’s time to end this.”