After distressed good-byes between Nozomi and Jaime, he and Camron offered her and Enoa help climbing into the access ladder chute, the ladder that could take them to any level of the crawler’s structure.
The ladder was built into the back starboard corner of the crawler, stretching from a loose panel near the ground, all the way to the top observation level. Thankfully, they didn’t need to go all the way to the top.
Enoa struggled to climb with the staff in her hand. She’d tucked it through one of her belt loops and that was enough to give her some use of her right hand. But the long weapon was still cumbersome and she was forced to follow Nozomi. Enoa hadn’t yet trained to use the staff, and she didn’t want to risk striking the other woman. After their escape, she needed to learn how to do the staff-collapsing technique she’d seen her aunt perform, on the films.
Nozomi climbed at a careful, deliberate pace, even with Enoa below her. The ladder rose through darkness, enclosed in an arc of metal mesh. She held in her left hand the small flashlight she’d borrowed from Jaime. She still had partial use of that hand, in gripping the ladder, but this surely served to slow her, even further.
Jaime had shown them the way to the loose panel. They’d circled around the crawler, and he’d dislodged the opening beneath the ladder, sliding it aside.
It was a nearly silent climb, eerie. Even on the enclosed ladder, they could see faint lights glowing between supports in the crawler’s superstructure. They saw the outlines of beams and other supports. Their footfalls and motion echoed as they rose.
But then other noise began. First, there was a distant hum, a sound so faint it might have been imagined. The sound got louder, until it became unmistakable. This was the activation rumble.
The crawler was about to move.
* * *
Jaleel lead the unlikely procession through a passage too narrow to walk normally. They could only progress sideways. Milo and Chief Morita followed him, with Orson taking up the rear. They were forced to sidle through the dark passage, lit by occasional status lights, dotting the complex array of equipment built into the walls. Jaleel held a flashlight and Orson had his visor lights lit.
“You’re lucky my nephew agreed to leave,” Milo said. “You wouldn’t have been able to drag me away to smear my name. But,” he laughed. “You’ll meet him soon. He won’t take kindly to your false charges, and there’s no where you can run from him.”
“If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me that,” Orson said.
“I just can’t believe he was there with only one guard,” Jaleel said over his shoulder. “We should’ve paid him a visit before.”
“Oh!” Milo shouted. “You’re the archer Orson’s ward captured. I didn’t expect a little boy. I thought you were Yoshito’s assistant, some wunderkind who memorizes maps.”
“Keep walking,” Morita said.
“Working with terrorists, Yoshito,” Milo said. “You might get me in the kangaroo court they have in Chicago, but I won’t go quietly. All I’ve ever done is to build and preserve our society. I might not live to see it, but the Collective Method will win out or we will all die. Humans need each other and this absurd every-man-for-himself business will send us all to the grave.”
“That’s what you think you’re doing?” Jaleel asked. “How does taking people’s homes connect anyone? How does killing people make us united?”
“Killing?” Milo said. “Poor boy lost himself to propaganda. All we want is to keep people together. Solar Saver can do that, if it’s run properly.”
“You know,” Orson said. “It doesn’t matter how you justify what you did. You missed your shot. Your boys didn’t manage to kill us. Now everyone will know the truth about you.”
“You know,” Milo copied him. “You’re the very worst, Captain. Making people think it has no consequences to live as you do, a pirate, in all but name.”
“Keep moving,” Morita ordered again, with a small shove.
“You could do so much, Gregory,” Milo continued. “You fought the civilization-breakers, but now you’re all for independent living. Can you imagine how horrid the world would be if everyone lived like you, energy and resource independent? Everyone has a part to play and everyone must play their part and know their interconnected place. Like the great pyramids, all stones stand together to complete the mighty structure. Independence kills careers. It would kill civilization. There would only be chaos. The temporary fossil fuel industries weren’t perfect, but they forced everyone to connect in an ordered society. Everyone knew their role, and no one could avoid it.”
“Shittiest TED Talk ever,” Jaleel said.
“I bet he falls asleep to recordings of his own monologues.” Orson chuckled.
“Let him speak,” Morita said.
“What do you think this is, Yoshito?” Milo asked. “My grand confession? There’s still no proof to your insane charges, and every word I say is straight from the Sabres International official material.”
“I’m going to be happy not to hear you anymore,” Jaleel said. “We’re almost there.”
A rumbling began at their feet, as the crawler powered on. Milo immediately began to laugh in earnest, a raucous belly-laugh, a cackle.
“Who gave the ignition order?” Morita halted and forced Milo against the wall.
“He must have some check-in system,” Orson said. “They didn’t hear from him, so now they’re acting.”
“No check-in.” Milo laughed again. “This is all part of the plan. We need to finish the trip to Chicago and personally deliver the terrible news of the tragic deaths on this crawler.”
“We’ll be in Chicago long before you get there,” Orson said.
“How?” Milo asked. “How will your little camper fly away if no one operates the lift or opens the docking doors?”
“Alright,” Orson said, before anyone else could speak. “New plan, you two get him back to my ship. I’ll shut down the crawler and open the docking area.”
* * *
“Maybe this ladder isn’t as big a security problem as I thought.” Nozomi groaned. She struggled to force the wall panel aside. It was open only a crack, enough to let light filter through from the hallway.
“Is it enough that you could fit through?” Enoa leaned to the side, trying to judge the gap Nozomi had created. It was hard to tell from several feet down, but Nozomi was thin enough that she might fit.
The light from the hallway was blocked. A shadow stood in the entryway.
“Out of there, now!” A man spoke. The wall panel slid fully aside. Enoa squinted in the light, but she saw the man reach into the opening and bodily haul Nozomi free of the ladder. The other woman yelled.
“You are going to be in so much trouble with my father,” Nozomi said. “I found a major security breach working with him and you grab me?”
“We’ll sort it all out,” the man said. “Get your I.D.”
Enoa forced herself to ignore the exchange. She forced her mind into her Dreamside glade. It was easier now. Danger, fear, adrenaline helped her find the place where Shaping was possible. No longer was it the exhausting mental struggle to think the right thoughts, to make it possible for her to command the world.
But this time, she didn’t think her water tricks could help her. None of the recorded lessons from Aunt Sucora could help her now. She hadn’t progressed far enough in the films to learn proper martial skills.
Enoa needed the explosion power she’d discovered.
“I see you too,” the man said. “Come on up.”
Enoa climbed, but her mind was elsewhere. Her one successful explosion had been an accident, and she struggled to reconcile that with her training. She pictured a bubble forming around the point of the staff, a bubble of hot air that would pop on contact. She wasn’t sure if that would do the trick. She didn’t know, but she’d learned too much to find the mental reckless abandon that had let her blast Captain Maros.
No, she couldn’t doubt. She had to plan and stick with the plan. Hot air bubble blast was the best she could manage.
“Disarm yourself,” the man said. “Give me that.”
“But this is a family heirloom.” Enoa made her voice small. “I couldn’t just give it to you. It’s not…”
“Give it to me.” The man reached down into the shaft toward her.
Enoa gave it to him.
She stabbed the staff up at him. He caught it with his hand, but the hot air popped.
The man yelled as his hand burned. The force of the bubble threw him up to slam his head into the top of the open panel. Enoa gripped the ladder and managed to withstand the recoil. Nozomi screamed out in the hallway.
Enoa saw the man clutching at his hand. She swung the staff and delivered a blow to the side of his head. He yelled, and yelled again. Enoa wasn’t sure, but she thought Nozomi must have begun pummeling him from the back. He tried to turn around.
Enoa climbed again. She shoved the staff into the man’s face. He raised his hands and recoiled from the attack. Nozomi jumped way. She was rubbing at her knuckles, sore from striking the man.
Enoa clambered free of the open panel. She found the man reaching to a gun holstered at his hip.
Enoa struck him across the face again, at the same time that his backup arrived. Two men ran down the corridor toward them, holding guns. These guns were quickly aimed at Enoa and Nozomi.
“Turn around!” One of the Sabres yelled. “Hands to the wall!”
Enoa didn’t move. She looked at the guns. She was no expert, but these didn’t look like blasters – just standard firearms. If she destroyed their ammunition, she could give them a real fight. She watched one of the two Sabres approach their comrade, who huddled at the wall.
Enoa tried to imagine a void around the guns, but that wasn’t enough, was it? What had Orson told her, that she’d deoxidized the ammunition of the Liberty Corps weapons? How would she picture that? How would she make that real?”
“What are you doing?” Nozomi watched her. Enoa didn’t return the glance. She was busy, trying to force the Shaping.
“Hands on the wall!” the Sabre said again. “Hands…” But he didn’t finish his command. He shut up when they heard the sounds of more tramping feet.
“Drop the gun!” A male-sounding voice yelled from behind the Sabres.
“We have you outnumbered,” a woman yelled. Enoa knew the voice, Jordyn Yaye. What was she doing back on the crawler? “Don’t move!” Three archers and a Solar Saver security officer ran down the hallway, weapons aimed at the Sabres.
“Archers!” Nozomi stepped behind Enoa. “But, one of my father’s force is with them. Enoa, what’s happening? What is this?”
“Gun down.” The security officer said. “Our agreement is null. Stand down, Sabre.”
One of the Sabres turned, gun aimed at the security officer. An arrow exploded in his face, sending him falling flat onto his back. Another arrowhead burst in the air above him, releasing a net that pinned him to the floor.
The last Sabre standing nodded. His grip on his gun loosened. He wordlessly placed his weapon on the floor and raised his hands. The Archers and the security officer advanced on the Sabres.
It was only then that Enoa spotted the figure who’d been hiding behind the Archers – Adelyn Castillo. The restaurateur stood, wearing what looked like cold weather exercise gear, under a parka and backpack. Enoa almost didn’t recognize her in such casual attire.
“I should have gone with Anais,” Castillo said, by way of hello. “I’m glad to see you’re well.”
“Thanks,” Enoa said. “And I’m happy you’re okay too.” She looked to Nozomi, who had a distant, somewhat shell-shocked appearance. “Nozomi, do we want to go to your family apartment? Is it near here?”
“Uh,” Nozomi said. “Yes, right that way. But will there be more of those men? Are they… Sabres Unlimited members?”
“They are,” Enoa said. “Excuse me!” She called to the Archers. “Could one of you come with us, in case we’re attacked again?” The Archers spoke briefly among themselves, before one of them jogged up the hallway toward them.
“I’ll come with you,” the archer said.
“Lead the way.” Enoa nodded to Nozomi.
* * *
Orson maneuvered through the maintenance ductwork, heading toward the speaker system’s master control, situated on the technical level where Enoa had captured Jaleel.
“Alright, so you’re looking for the repair space,” Jaleel said through Orson’s comm. “It’s all a grid, so once you find it, you should be able to get up to the top. Well, not the top. The shafts go even higher.”
“How will I know I’ve found it?” Orson wasn’t prone to claustrophobia, and his HUD offered him enough extraneous information about his surroundings that he seldom felt isolated. But he had obviously little time, and he’d passed four miniscule vertical shafts, three so small he didn’t even need his repulsor to step over them.
“Oh, you’ll know,” Jaleel said. “It’s the one you can fit inside. How many wiring openings have you passed?”
“Three or four,” Orson said. “There were three tiny openings and one a little bigger.”
“How much bigger? Big enough to fit inside?”
“No,” Orson said. “Not even close, just big enough that if I didn’t have the HUD I could’ve tripped and gotten caught inside it.”
“That happened to Perry when we first started doing this. It was awful getting him…”
“I think I found it.” Orson arrived at another shaft, this one just wide enough for him to squeeze inside.
“Great!” Jaleel said.
Orson stepped into the opening and fired his repulsor. He hovered in place until his HUD assured him he was angled in such a way that he could fly without grazing the tight walls. He blasted upward.
“Yeah, this must be it,” Orson said. “Second to last floor, right?”
“Should be,” Jaleel said. “The top is the Commodore’s Lounge and some sensors, so the next down should have the sound system.”
“Cool.” Orson arrived on the correct floor. “Give the comm to Chief Morita. I need to know what he needs to do to patch through into the sound system.”
“I can get you to the sound system,” Jaleel said. “I was supposed to take control of that when I met Enoa.”
“Yes, but we want to patch Chief Morita through so everyone can hear him, right?” Orson let his HUD scan the walls of the ductwork until he could find the sliding panel that would let him exit into the crawler proper. Most floors the duct and support passages exited into the access corridors, but the technical control level wasn’t like this. The wall panel slid aside and Orson found himself already on one of the catwalks.
“Oh yeah,” Jaleel said. “Well, here he is.”
“Fast work, Captain,” Morita said. “It shouldn’t be far based on Mr. Yaye’s account. If you go to the edge of the catwalk, can you see the yellow sign for the Top Shelf Delicatessen?”
Orson looked around the catwalk. He saw no one, but the murmur of bazaar guests was alarming, knowing there were almost certainly Sabre members in their midst. He walked to the nearest catwalk railing and looked down. There, he saw Top Shelf Deli, in bright yellow neon.
“Yeah, yeah,” Orson said. “I see it. It’s down and to my right. Where do I go now?”
“Excellent news!” Morita shouted, enough that Orson considered dialing down his comm volume. The device was clipped to his visor. “If you turn right and travel to the end of the catwalk, there should be the auxiliary audio control terminal. You still have the card I gave you?”
“I do.” Orson walked along the catwalk. “But we better hope my universal adapter can actually patch you through from the comm. I’m no expert, and we don’t have enough time to rework this if it doesn’t connect right away.”
“We can’t leave without some statement,” Morita insisted.
“Alright.” Orson walked to the far side of the catwalk. There, a large device was set into the wall. It looked more like a vintage ATM than any sound system he’d ever seen. It had a keypad and multiple card slots.
“Where do I plug this in?” Orson removed the comm from his mask and extended its charger cord.
“Fit my card into the yellow slot,” Morita said. “And plug your comm into the input at the base. I’ve already told Assistant Chief Singh of his increased role. When this is finished, we’re ready to depart.”
Orson fit the comm’s charger into a bulky adapter, from his belt, then plugged it in. He slid the command card into the yellow reader.
“There should be a green light now,” Morita said. “If there’s a green light, I can give my message.”
“Alright, I see it,” Orson said. “Let’s try this thing.”
* * *
“Nozomi.” Her eight-year-old brother Ichiro tugged at her coat. “Are we actually going on the flying camper? You’ve seen it, right? Is it cool?”
“It’s very cool.” Nozomi rested her hand on her brother’s shoulder.
“You’re entirely sure it’s necessary?” Nozomi’s mother had multiple bags packed, and she was busy running through a checklist of belongings. “This isn’t something they can take care of? If they made peace with the Archers, why do we have to run now?” She aimed a glance back out the door, where the archer who’d accompanied the young women now stood guard, outside.
“I don’t have much more information than you do,” Enoa said. “But I don’t think this is an overreaction. No, but…”
“Attention Solar Saver guests.” Chief Yoshito Morita’s voice spoke from the crawler PA system. His voice sounded tinny through the residential hallway speaker. “I regret to inform you that we will not be progressing toward Chicago. At this time, there has been a security breach, unrelated to the Wuyar Archer situation. For your full security, we have decided not to continue our travels until this situation is resolved.
“This should not impact your safe business or shopping. Please continue enjoying our comforts and amenities. Our security staff and support personnel will on duty, as usual. If you prefer to leave, we are prepared for your safe departure. Above all, I want to stress that you are in no danger, and there is no reason for concern.”
“Why would he tell people not to worry?” Nozomi asked the room, at large. “That will make them worry more!”
“We need to move,” Enoa said.