“Enoa,” Nozomi Morita said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you all afternoon, what is the – I don’t know quite how to say it – the meaning of the staff you brought with you? Is it religious?”
“My staff?” Enoa sat in the small heated pavilion, looking on the ice sculptures outside. A woman, dressed in an unseasonably light jacket, carved another of her creations. Soon the lion she was working on would join the growing menagerie of animal-themed ice sculptures she’d carved that day, an elephant, a dolphin, and a bear.
“My staff was a gift from my late aunt.” Enoa looked around the table at the small group Nozomi had managed to assemble. They were joined by Jamie Gordon, Nozomi’s boyfriend, and his work friend, Camron Chavez. “She used the staff as part of her meditation, so I guess you could say it’s spiritual, but not religious.” Enoa felt bizarre carting the staff along with her as she walked through the attractions built to entertain the Solar Saver caravan. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if it were made of wood. People had walking sticks. People had religious items, but she didn’t know of any religions that involved carrying around metal poles.
There weren’t many people out and about to notice Enoa’s unusual accouterment. The size of the crowd of parked cars had noticeably thinned, such that sparse traffic now actively passed around the crawler. In the heated tent, an elderly couple napped a few tables away, and a group of apparently downtrodden travelers huddled together, speaking softly to each other, paying them no attention. Enoa couldn’t help observing the crowd, such as it was, not after her close calls with the Sabres the night before.
“Oh wow, you’re really dedicated to your family traditions,” Nozomi said. “My obaachan tried to share her Buddhism with me and my brother, when she was still with us, and we appreciated her spending that time with us, but we don’t really follow it. I wonder whether that would be different if things weren’t so difficult for everyone. It’s almost like we have our own culture, now, our generation. We grew up after everything went crazy.”
“I was just lucky,” Enoa said. “Until recently, my life wasn’t that different than it always was. I worked in my family’s antique shop like I used to on summer breaks. I was in my hometown, and I’ve had family living there forever, but since I left, I feel like I need the staff with me now.”
“Why did you leave, if you don’t mind me asking?” Camron said. He had a fit build and chin-length, wavy hair. He smiled at her. Enoa was suddenly aware of the fact that before the last several days, she’d never met a grown man around her own age before, other than customers, potential customers, and militia forces who wanted to rob her. All the young men in her world, she’d known since childhood.
“I have unfinished business,” Enoa finally answered. “It was my aunt’s business, but it’s mine now. She passed about six months ago. Cancer. There were some things she wanted to do before she passed away, and I want to take care of them for her.”
“Is Captain Gregory helping you with that?” Nozomi asked. “That’s what I’m really curious about. The two of you are such a mystery. For him, I guess he’s supposed to be. That’s his thing, being the hero-for-hire, and I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’m sure we’d all love to hear that story.”
“Orson’s something of a mystery to me too, but I can vouch for the hero business,” Enoa said. “He’s friends with an older man who knew my aunt. We’re going to visit another friend of theirs who was keeping some things for her. She wanted to take me herself.” She shrugged. “I don’t think I could get there without Orson’s help, not in these dangerous times.”
“You’re so lucky,” Nozomi said. “My parents would never let me go on an exciting adventure like that.”
“Remember.” Jaime spoke before Enoa could. “Not all of us have the protective family, not anymore.”
“Oh no,” Nozomi said. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Enoa. I’m so sorry, everyone. I should know better…”
“I was lucky.” Enoa held up her hands. “Like I said before, my life didn’t change too much with the shutdown. And my adventure is nothing glamorous. The places we go are more interesting than I am. I never knew things existed like these Solar Saver machines. They’re like something out of a movie.”
“I hope to get transferred into the crawler,” Camron said. “If I play my cards right, maybe I’ll get an apprenticeship, start making the good money.”
“What do you do?” Enoa asked.
“We’re both in the vanguard team.” He gestured to Jamie. “We help clear the road for the crawler. We work with the Outrider teams. It’ll be a lot more fun in the summer though.”
“It definitely will not,” Jamie said. “I overheat, brother. I…”
Enoa’s commlink buzzed in her pocket, sudden and insistent. She didn’t hear another word spoken around her. She doubted Orson would be contacting her for an ‘all-clear’. Something had happened. His suspicions must have been correct.
“I need to take this.” Enoa grabbed the comm and answered it. She stood from the table, grabbed her staff, and walked away from the others. They watched her go.
“Hi,” she said. “What’s up?” She didn’t want to actively whisper, but she had a feeling she didn’t want anyone else to hear the news she was about to receive.
“Hey, I’m fine and Jaleel’s fine,” Orson said. “But we got attacked at the meeting. Sabres. Chief Morita’s okay too, but we have a couple casualties. Listen, I need you to go with his daughter and get the whole Morita family back to the Aesir, okay?”
The others must have noticed something in Enoa’s expression. They stared at her, wordlessly. She wasn’t sure how much they could hear of the conversation. Probably not much. They didn’t look nearly scared enough.
“I’m glad you’re okay.” Enoa watched the expressions of the others change from perplexed to concerned. “What do you want me to say?”
“Do you trust the people you’re with?” Orson asked. “We’ve got a plan, and we don’t have a lot of time. Put us on speaker if you trust the audience.”
Enoa looked around. The pavilion was still mostly empty. The snoozing old couple were still asleep, and the travelers still spoke among themselves. There was no one else.
“Is everything okay, Enoa?” Nozomi called.
“It’ll be on speaker in one second.” Enoa whispered. She found the switch on the side of the round communicator and returned to the table. “I heard from Captain Gregory at the meeting. Your dad’s okay, but he needs to talk to you.”
“Is everything…” Nozomi began.
“Hi, kids.” Chief Morita spoke from the comm. “I’m going to need you to listen to me very carefully.”
“What’s wrong?” Nozomi asked. “What’s happening?”
“Everything’s going to be fine.” He answered his daughter. “The crawler is staying where it is for a few days, and we’re taking a trip with Captain Gregory to Chicago. I have some business there with Commodore Augustin.”
“What happened?” Nozomi asked again. “Is it the Archers?”
“No, no,” Chief Morita said. “Everything will be alright, if you follow instructions. All that matters right now is you’re safe. Ms. Cloud is going to go with you back to the apartment so…”
“What’s happening?” Nozomi asked. She’d gone still, her eyes wide. Fear had set in. “Are we in danger?”
“You’re going to be fine,” Chief Morita said. “Listen, we don’t have a lot of time. If your friends have living space in the crawler, they should go there and stay there. If they don’t, it would still be a good idea to remain at their usual overnight shelter for a few days. You need to go with Ms. Cloud, and you must go now. Do you understand?”
“No!” Nozomi sounded suddenly younger, afraid in the helpless way of the very young. Jamie rested his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Camron just looked confused. Both young men stayed quiet.
“I owe you a long explanation when we’re safe,” Chief Morita said. “But I need you to go with Ms. Cloud. Go with her now. Be safe.”
“I understand,” Enoa said. “We’ll be okay.”
“You have your staff?” Orson asked.
“I do,” Enoa said. “And the kit you sent with me. Unless it’s the guys we ran into last night, we’ll be okay. What do I do when we’re back on the ship?”
“Wait for us,” Orson said. “We’re going to have a few more guests.”
“You’ll be safe,” Chief Morita said. “I love you, Nozomi.”
“I love you too,” she said.
“Enoa,” Orson said. “Don’t call if you get back safe. Save calling for bad news, okay?”
“Okay,” Enoa said. “Anything else?”
“Nope,” he said. “See you soon.”
“See you,” she said. The line clicked off.
“What’s happening?” Nozomi asked again. “Why would we have to leave our home?”
“How do you know what’s happening, Enoa?” Jamie asked.
“Why did Captain Gregory ask you if you have your staff?” Nozomi asked.
“The meeting this afternoon had trouble.” Enoa got a better grip on her staff and felt the warm thrill spread up her arm. “But I’ll get you back to the Aesir, Nozomi, don’t worry.”
“Trouble?” Nozomi said. “What kind of trouble? Do they think we’re in danger? How will we be safe?”
“We’ll be safe.” Enoa spun the staff in her hand. “Because my staff is spiritual, but it’s also a weapon.”
* * *
The Archers met Orson, Jaleel, Morita, and the Chief’s hand-picked security force on the roof. They blasted in from the far distance in their build-a-rockets, four this time. Orson could see in his HUD that most of the seats on the small craft were empty. These were meant for evacuation, not just escape.
“I can’t believe we are going to rely on these people to save us.” Chief Morita stepped close to Orson, to be heard above the wind. “If you told me this yesterday, I would have advised Commodore Augustin to remove you.”
“It’s not my first pick, either,” Orson said. “If we didn’t need to wait around to grab Milo, I’d smuggle everyone out on the Aesir.”
“Under other circumstances,” Morita said. “I would never allow my family on the same vehicle with a man I plan to apprehend. You’re sure your vehicle is safe from attack?”
“I am. The only thing that might pose a real threat to my boat is that cannon of Brett Nalrik’s, and if he’s here there’s no transportation available that will keep your people safe.”
If Morita planned to say more, he didn’t get the chance. The build-a-rockets had shut off their boosters. They glided to a stop on the crawler’s roof. The Archers immediately began to disembark, forming into small groups of three.
Two of the Archers approached Morita. Jaleel ran from Orson’s side and caught his sister in a brief hug. Orson watched the accompanying guards stiffen.
“Do you want to do the introduction, or should I?” Jaleel looked back at Orson.
“I think I will.” Orson stepped to the side to face both groups. “Security Chief Yoshito Morita, meet Jordyn Yaye and John Robins of the Wuyar Archers.” Morita nodded to the two spokespeople and shook their hands.
“I take it you’ve agreed to the terms Captain Gregory presented to us, this morning?” Chief Morita asked.
“We are agreed,” Jordyn said. “Assuming you support our legal efforts against the Sabres, end all of the initiatives begun by the Sabres, and help us in recovering our friends who were captured, last night. We lost four members to the Sabre attack as we were leaving. I don’t plan to lose more.”
“I’m sorry your people perished pursuing the truth,” Morita said. “If you seek amends for the damage to property and you help evacuate the people in danger, I will recommend any help we can offer you.”
“And whether they go for it or not,” Orson said. “You have me.” He looked to the rest of their odd assembly. “We need to figure out where each group is going, who you’re evacuating, and how they’re leaving this crawler. We’ve only got a vague idea who the Sabres have on their payroll, so you can’t necessarily trust anyone who isn’t on this roof.”
“Couldn’t you have worn something else?” Morita asked the Archers. “Everyone who sees you will be a potential problem.”
“This is our only armor,” Jordyn Yaye said. “And you had our lead designer captive.”
“But you don’t need to worry,” John Robins added, cheerily. “We move around this place without being seen at least once a week.”
“Mmm.” Morita offered a curt nod.
“Let’s get into our teams.” Orson looked between the unorthodox forces he’d assembled, watched the guards greet their crews of archers, everyone uncomfortable.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Morita looked at Orson.
“Yeah, me too.”
* * *
A long boarding ramp extended from the bottom of the crawler. It had a gentle enough incline for almost anyone to climb aboard the machine. Four men stood at the top of the ramp. They wore no insignia – two wore suit-and-tie, the others wore the generic Solar Saver technical crew coveralls. The suits held small card-readers. The coverall-wearers held batons.
“Are they usually there?” Enoa pointed to the ramp. The others followed in her wake, as they wove their way through the line of mostly-empty pavilions and stalls, tromping across the dirty, crushed snow.
“No,” Jaime said. “Usually, it’s just one guy. Maybe they have more security, after the Archers last night?”
“Yeah,” Enoa said. “I’m not so sure.”
“What’s going on here?” Nozomi looked at Enoa. “You know, don’t you? What aren’t you telling us?”
Enoa looked between Nozomi and the two young men. All three looked at her, expectantly. She didn’t know whether to tell the truth. She didn’t know the young men. She had met them only hours earlier. They could be lifelong Sabres and she couldn’t possibly know.
“A group of people is after the crawler,” Enoa said. “I’m not sure if they’re trying to destroy it, hurt people, or take it over. But I know they’re not the Archers.”
“Is it the Sabres Unlimited?” Nozomi asked. “Like the Archers said in the video they played, last night?”
“I hope not,” Camron said. “People were already a mob after that video. I don’t know how they’d be if it was true. This job is my whole life, right now.”
“If they’re the ones you’re running from, you can’t go in through the ramp,” Jaime said. “But I know another way. There’s an access hatch at the back tread, over there.” He pointed. “If you go there, it’s a steep climb, but they won’t see you.”
“You’re sure?” Enoa asked.
“What do you mean a steep climb?” Nozomi asked. “How do you know about that? Why does everybody have all these secrets?”
“I’m sure.” Jaime nodded, before turning to his girlfriend. “Do you think I check in with the gatekeeper when I visit you after the bazaar is closed?” He lowered his voice, “when I’d have to log it with one of your dad’s guys?” He laughed. “They’re for emergencies. I know one of the guys who installed them. He works in the Outrider crew now, and he told me about them.”
“I know you don’t check in.” Nozomi blushed, slightly. “But I thought you just, I don’t know, talked your way past the gatekeepers or you knew them, maybe.”
“Is it a climb I could do one-handed?” Enoa looked at her staff.
“That depends how far you need to go,” he answered. “I don’t have any trouble getting to the apartments on the staff level, but I always have two hands for the ladder.”
“I’ll do it.” Enoa knew she didn’t have time to consider further. Better she have a tiring climb than get caught by the Sabres. “I’m new here, but unless one of you has a better suggestion, I think this is our best option.”
* * *
“It’s a shame it had to happen this way.” Milo Nalrik couldn’t quite remember the name of his current bodyguard, one of his nephew’s friends, a ‘recent-hire’, so to speak. This man was young, with black hair buzzed very short and slightly larger than average ears. Milo knew he’d seen the young man before, but he couldn’t recall his name. “I wish it could have been done peacefully, but the wheels of the world need to turn.”
“What do ya do?” The man shrugged and spared him only a glance.
This is what Milo hated about his nephew’s hires. Were they competent in dangerous situations? Yes, of course. But they lacked the respect, the proper respect that a true young Sabre should show him. With this man, Milo, a fourth-generation Sabre elder, was treated like a child being baby-sat. He wouldn’t take it.
“Young man,” Milo said. “Make yourself helpful and get me a sweet tea from the fridge.” The man didn’t say anything, but he grunted and stood. He walked out of sight, toward the living area’s tiny kitchenette.
Milo smiled to himself and his small pettiness, and he looked out his window toward the snowy fields. He liked being respected, but he’d settle for getting what he wanted.
But his satisfaction didn’t last. He heard several odd sounds, in quick succession.
First there was a sliding sound, like a door in need of lubricant. He then heard a brief gasp, another grunt, and a heavy thud. What was he doing? Milo could accept some rudeness from a competent man, but this…
Milo heard the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps.
He turned around to berate the man, but by the time he leaned sideways in his chair, that thought left his mind.
Chief Yoshito Morita led the way toward him, with Orson Gregory and a young man in a suit following behind.
“What an unexpected surprise!” Milo had been cornered before, but he always managed a smile. “I didn’t expect to see you today, after that business last night.”
“You didn’t expect to see us alive,” Chief Morita said.
“We’re not dead,” Orson said. “But you should still consider this a haunting.”