52. Solar Saver Escape

For all its bulk, the gargantuan Solar Saver crawler was usually driven by only two people – a pilot and a copilot. In fact, the cab only had two seats. The navigators and coordinating technicians who aided the drivers – now that the former aerospace transport operated on roadways – had to be positioned in the small passage outside the cab.

That day, there was no copilot and half of its usual dozen support staff were nowhere to be found. Orson didn’t know what excuse the Sabres had chosen for their absence, but he assumed there was one.

He viewed the crawler cab with his HUD, from his perch atop the walkway that marked where the original crawler transporter met the new Collective construction.

“I’m looking at the cab,” Orson said into the comm. “Are we ready for me to get the show started?”

“We’re almost to your ship,” Chief Morita said. “You should begin. It will take you time to complete the full shutdown. You can’t wait until we arrive at the Aesir.”

“Alright,” Orson said. “Here I go.” He rocketed from his perch, blasting through the frigid wind.

Orson landed on top of the crawler’s cab with a hollow thud. He knew the support and security vehicles would see him. But traffic was intense around the Solar Saver, and not in the usual sense.

The cars, campers, trucks, customs, and other vehicles were fleeing. Some sped past the crawler, hurrying along toward the front of the pack. Others attempted to pass in the opposite direction. Those that could, careened off-road, plowing through the snow, arcing all the way around the village of tents that held the assorted attractions. It appeared Chief Morita’s reassuring message had failed.

Orson caught sight of one vehicle headed for the crawler – a jeep. His HUD magnified the occupants. They wore tactical gear of some sort. They were armed – probably Sabres, but they were far enough back in traffic that they weren’t an imminent threat. 

He dropped onto the small exterior walkway, leading up to the cab. This walkway was once useful, back during the crawler’s original rocket-carrying days. But with the new Solar Saver construction on top, the walkway was almost impossible to reach. Orson followed the walkway along the driver’s side of the cab.

“Chief Morita orders this crawler shut down,” Orson shouted. The crew inside, all wearing headsets, did not respond.

Orson hated his mobile supply kit’s microphone. It distorted his voice and made him sound like a B-movie villain, but he needed to be heard over the crawler.  

“Chief Morita orders this crawler shut down.” Orson spoke into the microphone. The technicians finally saw Orson. One drew a pistol and aimed it at him through the floor-to-ceiling side window. Another adjusted his headset and began speaking at a rapid pace.

Orson cut a small opening in the side window of the cab. The gunman didn’t fire, maybe unwilling to risk damaging the controls. This hesitation gave Orson enough time to toss multiple pellets from his stink set into the open cab.

Orson saw the occupants clutching at their faces. The driver worked to secure gas masks.

Orson struggled to clip his rebreather’s mouthpiece to the inside of the bandana, with his microphone still connected. He checked that the apparatus was placed over his mouth. Then he cut a larger hole in the glass and jumped through it.

Orson readied his left glove’s electric prod. He shocked gunman. Then he hit all the Sabre techs in reach, forcing them back into the support passage. The driver stayed focused on the road. He couldn’t exactly turn away from steering the enormous structure, just to futilely attack Orson.

By the time Orson was finished and had sealed the crawler cab’s hatch, most of the stink had dissipated through the cabin’s broken window. He took a deep gulp of recycled air before he pulled his rebreather aside.

“I need you to shut down this crawler.” Orson still spoke in the microphone, so the pilot could hear him. “Will you do that please? I don’t think you want to fight me.”

“No.” The man’s headset also had a microphone. “I really do not.” He pressed down on the brake, eased it down slowly, and then he flipped two other switches on the console. Up close, Orson saw the controls. The steering wheel looked like it belonged on a child’s play car. It was bright red and less that a foot in diameter. The driver could operate it one-handed.

“It’ll shut down soon,” the pilot said. “Then can I go? Can I leave? Please!”

Orson saw one of the security jeeps had pulled up alongside the crawler. The vehicle was much too low to allow for boarding the crawler, and he doubted the Sabres would mount any attack that could damage the crawler’s controls. How long would it be before the Sabres managed to reach him?

“You can leave when we’re done,” Orson said. “Can you also operate the docking berth controls from here? If you do that I’ll even chase you out into the hallway there and make it look like you got away from me. They won’t know you cooperated. Does that sound like a good deal?”

*          *          *

Enoa found the docking area already filled with people. She saw dozens of Archers and several families, but she didn’t focus on faces, not right away. Her attention was occupied by the space. She was used to the Aesir sitting alone in its own berth, but the berths’ dividers had accordioned back into the walls. Enoa saw the enormity of the room, stretching across five berths along the top level of the crawler. One of the four berths was empty. The little hovercraft she’d seen the night before occupied the spot beside the Aesir. Small planes, outfitted with four wings and mid-section rotors, filled two other berths. The planes bore the sun emblem of the Solar Saver Collective.

Other than the Aesir, all of these craft were bustling with activity. Teams of archers ushered families and supplies on board. Enoa watched a group of archers transport what she thought were body bags aboard one of the planes. When she finally found a familiar face, Arnold Chambers, he was prone on a stretcher, being carried onto the hovercraft.

“Are we getting aboard?” Adelyn asked. “Or do we need to wait for Captain Gregory to get back from whatever he’s doing?”

“I can let you in.” Enoa remembered herself and her responsibilities. “I’m sorry. Let’s go.” She led the odd procession to the camper and got her key in hand. 

“I call shotgun!” Ichiro Morita said.

“You’re sitting with me,” his mother replied. “Don’t ask for a special seat on the flying machine!”

“Uh.” Enoa unlocked the door and stepped inside. “I’m sure there are good and safe seats for everyone.” She actually had no idea where everyone would sit. She had never expected – she did the math – eight people to come with her. But they all followed her – Adelyn, the three Moritas, the Archers, and the security guard whose name she still did not know.

All of these people looked at her.

“I, uh,” Enoa began. “Ruby, I need help.”

“Yes?” Ruby replied. “I am detecting a larger than average gathering aboard. They are not moving in a manner that reflects hostile behavior, so I did not initialize defensive measures. Should I do so now?”

“No!” Enoa yelled loudly enough that even the Archers were startled. Enoa forced a small laugh. “Ruby talks for the Aesir. She’s a…” Enoa didn’t know what Ruby was. “She’s a real jokester.”

“Would you like to hear a joke?” Ruby asked. “I learned three jokes during installation.”

“I want to hear a joke from the computer girl!” Ichiro called.

“Your voice is not authorized for voice command,” Ruby said. “And the number of individuals aboard exceeds emergency voice-command authorization. To enable voice commands, visit the settings menu and select…”

“No!” Enoa yelled. “Ruby, I need to know where people can sit that they’ll have seatbelts.”

“Was that a joke?” Ichiro said.

“Shh.” Nozomi set her hands on her brother’s shoulders. “Let Enoa help us.”

“The pilot’s and copilot’s seats have restraints,” Ruby said. “Two rumble seats, with restraints, can be extended from the control area. The sofa is equipped with three seat belts: two shoulder belts and one lap belt. The two installed armchairs are fitted with seatbelts. Each bunk has two seat belts. For additional restraints, more seating can be installed through the customizations process. Would you like me to explain customizations?”

“No,” Enoa said. “Thank you.” She looked through the group. “I’m not sure if there are specific places Captain Gregory wants you to be. I guess, unless I hear otherwise, Ms. Castillo, you can take one of the armchairs. The Archers can have the couch. The security officer, I’m sorry I don’t know your name, you can take the other chair. And Morita, uh, family, you can have the seat belts in my bunk, if Ichiro can sit with Mom.”

“Can I please see the ship fly around?” Ichiro asked.

“We’ll be flying soon. Don’t worry.” Enoa guided the Moritas to her bunk and was grateful she’d been keeping her new space cleaner than she had her room at home. She’d made a horrible mess in the days after Aunt Sucora passed. Now, the mess was gone, burned with so much else…

She felt the comm vibrate in her pocket. She drew her cloak aside to reach it.

“I’m aboard.” She answered the call. “Just getting everyone buckled in.”

“Can’t we sit out there?” Ichiro asked again. “It has to be just as safe there. You wouldn’t have Auntie Adelyn be somewhere dangerous.”

“Great!” A voice came through the comm. Enoa didn’t immediately recognize it as Orson. His voice sounded distorted, deeper, and almost robotic. “I’m just wrapping up here, and you should feel the crawler shutting down soon.”

“I want you all to be able to stay together,” Enoa said to the boy.

“What?” Orson said.

“I’m getting everyone in their seats,” she said.

“Oh. Well listen, Chief Morita and Jaleel are on their way with Milo Nalrik. Put him in the bunk we prepared for prisoners. I’m gonna get you all raised from here, okay?”

“Okay.” Enoa tried to suppress a giggle at Orson’s ridiculous magnified voice. She made sure the Moritas were situated and found the seatbelts, hidden at the wall. Enoa stepped back into the cabin. “So you’re meeting us on the roof?”

“I’m gonna try,” he said. Then he said something away from the comm that she could not hear. “We’re still trying to get everything set up. Alright, if you’re okay, I’ll talk to you soon.” The line went dead.

Enoa made sure the various passengers were secured, and she walked to the pilot’s seat. No one was outside in the docking area. They must have all gotten aboard the vehicles. Everything waited on Orson and the prisoner escort.

She didn’t wait long. Jaleel ran through one of the docking area’s doors, shoving at an older man that could only be Milo.

Gunfire! Chief Morita backed into the room, shooting through the doorway. The hatch cycled shut. Then the security chief took Milo’s arm. The old man was clearly unwilling to hurry, but the others practically lifted him off of his feet as they charged toward the Aesir. Enoa ran from the pilot’s seat and met them at the door.

Chief Morita forced Milo aboard. Then he and Jaleel came inside too, before the side door closed.

“Hello,” Enoa said. “Let me know what I can do.”

“Captain Gregory says you have a bunk set aside for Mr. Nalrik.” Morita scanned the room. He caught the attention of his officer, already buckled into one of the armchairs.  “Mr. Sandoval with me.” The guard nodded and unbuckled himself.

“Dad!” Ichiro called from his mother’s lap. “They showed us through the crawl spaces.”

“Papa!” Nozomi also called to her father.

“Are we okay, Dear?” Mrs. Morita asked.

“It’s so good to see you.” Morita waited for Sandoval to get a good grip on Milo. “We’ll be just fine, and you’ll have to tell me all about your adventure soon.”

“So,” Milo turned to Enoa. “You’re the girl traveling with Gregory. Until you escaped my nephew’s men, we assumed you were just his little tootsie. Lots of traveling men prefer the exotic-looking girls.”

“I don’t want him to have the bunk,” Enoa said. “Let’s put him on the roof. Maybe flying fifty miles at a few thousand feet will teach him some manners.”

“Oh wow,” Jaleel said. “Are you gonna do more magic, now?” The other archers let out small cheers.

“I might.” Enoa didn’t break eye contact from Milo. “I didn’t get my practice in today, and I’m just starting explosions.”

“This way.” Sandoval took Milo by both arms, before he could reply. “I apologize, miss. Where is he really going? He’ll be out of sight soon.”

Enoa showed Sandoval to the bunk-turned-cell and the location of the seatbelts. Then she returned to the front of the cabin, most eyes still on her.

“Have you heard more from Captain Gregory?” Chief Morita asked. “I executed an override on all of the docking doors. It will keep out the Sabres, but not forever. We need to leave. We may not win a firefight with the force they’ve assembled.”

“And they’re like one-third old people.” Jaleel stood beside his sister, still seated on the couch. “I’m not talking about those older people who are still super-healthy and fit. Some of them could barely walk and still they were shooting at us. There was one guy who looked like Yosemite Sam, handlebar mustache and all, but really old.”

“I just talked to Orson before you got here,” Enoa said. “But I’ll get in touch with him again.” What would she do if he didn’t show up? She already knew the shields were unsafe inside the crawler.

She led the security chief to the front of the cabin. Jaleel followed after them.

“When do I get my tour?” he said.

“Still not up to me.” She settled into the pilot’s seat before retrieving the commlink. She didn’t want an audience for Orson and his usual madcap plans.

Before she could activate the communicator, sparks emerged from the docking bay doors.

“This feels like déjà vu.” Jaleel sat in the copilot’s seat. “Didn’t the Sabres knock down those exact doors just last night?”

“No, that is the emergency bulkhead.” Chief Morita stood behind them. “We haven’t had time to replace the standard set of doors.”

“Orson,” Enoa lifted the comm. “What’s up with us getting out of here? Evidently there are old people who are going to try to kill us.”

“Put me on speaker. Turn your volume low,” Orson said. “Oh, and also turn up your comm’s input. It’s tough to hear in this cab. I have a question for Chief Morita.”

“Orson,” Jaleel said. “Is there a reason you sound like Darth Vader?”

“I need my mic so the driver can hear me,” Orson said. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to do with the comm so I didn’t deafen you guys with this dumb mic.”

“Done.” Enoa finished adjusting the comm.

“Hi Chief,” Orson said. “We’re trying to get the docking doors open, but we can’t find it on the master controls for the door locking system. It’s like it’s not there.”

“That’s because it isn’t there,” Morita said. “Who is we?”

“I got the Sabre spy guy helping me out,” Orson said. “The pilot.”

“I see,” Morita said. “Why can’t you follow the instructions I wrote for you?”

“Those…” Orson said. “Those were destroyed. The stink bomb I used must’ve caused the ink to run, so I recruited some help, under duress. But this spy didn’t even complete the training. Can you believe that? Doesn’t even know how to open the garage door.” He paused. “Wait, what does that mean?”

“What does what mean?” Morita asked.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Orson said. “Hold on a second! What are you doing? You already tried that.” The Sabre replied with something inaudible, through the comm. “Yes, you did. It didn’t work.”

“If the old people break through the bulkhead, are we going to return fire at them?” Jaleel asked.

We aren’t doing anything.” Enoa hit the switch that locked the tri-cannon’s controls on her side of the dash. “But I will be firing back if I have to, yes.”

“The pilot needs to activate the remote terminal,” Morita said. “From there, it’s a simple command. I… I wrote that down for you.”

“Did you hear him?” Orson asked. “He said go to the remote terminal. Yes, that looks like the one. Hey, I think we almost got this.”

“The terminal is labeled.” Morita sighed and muttered under his breath. “I have a second-cousin who doesn’t speak a word of English, and he could figure this out.”

“I’m sorry, okay,” Orson said. “It’s not my fault. Enoa, you have my permission to shoot at anyone who so much as aims a slingshot at the ship.”

“I’m ready to shoot something too!” Jaleel said.

“Yeah, you made a weapon specifically to fight me,” Orson said. “You need to go at least a week without planning to attack me before I let you use my weaponry, sorry!”

Enoa watched the sparks cut their way through the door. Should she concentrate on offense, attack them with the cannon? Or should she try her Shaping, stop the enemy from firing? She didn’t know whether she could manage the deoxidization again. She also didn’t know how well she could hit many relatively small, moving targets.

“Okay, we got it,” Orson said. “You should feel… Wait, I might need to keep you in there. It looks like the Sabres mobilized some Thopters.”

“We can take ‘em!” Jaleel said.

“The door’s almost caved in,” Enoa said. “It’ll be pretty irrelevant soon.”

“Do the other aircraft have weaponry?” Orson asked.

“Limited,” Morita said. “Our planes only have a set of forward guns. I can’t speak for the Chambers Electromotive hovercraft. But I believe we should risk it. We’re in just as much danger here.”

“What are we doing?” Another voice asked through the commlink – the Sabre, probably.

“Just do it!” Enoa yelled. The cutting burn had almost reached the bottom of the emergency bulkhead. “Get us out of here!”

The doors burst open. But the docking pads began to rise. They moved up toward the ceiling.

Several people charged through smoke at the door. Enoa aimed the cannon, and she tried to see if they truly were as old as Jaleel said. But the lift had risen too high for her to see the pursuers.

“We’re out!” Enoa said. The Aesir emerged onto the roof, revealing the clear sky and snowfield. Enoa could see only a few scattered vehicles on the roads in the distance.

She powered up the Aesir, not that she could do much with it.

“Listen, I’ll be right up there, okay!” Orson yelled. “Enoa, see if Ruby can lift you off the top of the crawler. If not, you might have to trigger the ‘off-the-cliff’ failsafe.”

“Captain, I don’t want to do anything called ‘off-the-cliff’ with my family aboard,” Morita said.

“Off the cliff!” Adelyn yelled from her seat. “What’s off-the-cliff? What are you talking about?”

“Jaleel, what in hell are you doing up there?” Jordyn Yaye yelled to her brother.

“I’m volunteering my expertise as gunner!” Jaleel yelled back.

“Ruby!” Enoa said. “Make us hover.”

“Right away,” Ruby said.

With the thud at her feet, Enoa felt the Aesir leave the surface of the crawler. She dialed up the shields and got her hand on the tri-cannon’s yoke.

“I would like to alert you that there are formerly friendly craft incoming,” Ruby said. “But they seem to be in an attack formation.”

Enoa saw four red dots on the radar and three yellow dots. The other escaping vehicles appeared to still be parked on the top of the crawler. Enoa aimed the tri-cannon toward the Thopters.

“Is there somewhere I can sit?” Chief Morita asked.

“Oh no!” Enoa said. “I’m so sorry! I forgot. Ruby, send out those rumble seats you mentioned!” She heard a grinding sound behind her.

“Thank you,” Morita said.

“Enoa, if you can handle the guns,” Orson said. “Do it. If you can’t, ugh, let Jaleel have the Incursions, but make sure you watch the other craft. Do not shoot down the people we spent all day rescuing.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Jaleel yelled, laughing.

“If I let you help,” Enoa said. “You can’t act this way. It’s freaky.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But this is the greatest day of my life.”

*          *          *

“You might have escaped me for now!” Orson shouted after the driver, voice still distorted. The man rushed away from him down the passage, back into the crawler. “But I’ll find you!”

An advancing team of Sabres, consisting primarily of their rabid-retiree company, sent a volley of bullets down the passage toward him. Orson jumped back into the cockpit. Then he sealed the cab door.

He took a last look at the sonar. It was a unique design. He couldn’t easily decipher it, but it looked like the Thopters had started a strafing run across the top of the crawler.

He ran to the hole he’d opened in the cab’s window, before he remembered himself. He hadn’t disabled the crawler so it couldn’t be started again.

Orson had no time to figure out the subtle sabotage Morita had hoped to execute. He drew his sword and sliced the steering wheel clean off the dashboard, driving the sword through the support column. He stuffed the tiny wheel in his biggest coat pocket, as he jumped back through the hole in the cab window.

The jeep that had previously tailed the crawler was nowhere to be seen, but now a flatbed truck had blocked the open lane of roadway. An armed and body-armored force stood on the back. Even with the other cars still attempting their escape, this crew opened fire on Orson, peppering the exterior of the crawler with bullets.

He ignited his repulsor and flew far away from them, his job in the cab already complete.

He pushed his repulsor as hard as he dared, harder. The sudden ascent and the shrinking view of the ground and cars and snowfield made him dizzy, especially with his HUD altimeter’s constant changes. But the Aesir waited with a full load of passengers. They waited for him.

Before he reached the top of the crawler, the Chambers Electromotive hovercraft blasted out away from the Solar Saver platform. It flew at a surprising speed that far outstripped the Thopter chasing it.

The Thopter gave up in its pursuit and opened fire on Orson. He flew upward, angled away from the craft. The limited mobility of their guns made them ill-suited for combat with aerial opponents.

Orson heard the Aesir before he saw it. Once he pulled away from the sounds of gunfire, he could hear his own ship’s weapons, all firing at once. What were they doing?

When he crested the top of the crawler, he saw the Aesir hovering above the Solar Saver planes. Neither of the other aircraft had taken off, and the Aesir sent out a constant stream of projectiles, keeping the other three Thopters at bay. The enemy aircraft circled out of reach, like a trio of buzzards.

Orson pulled his microphone away from his mouth and activated his comm. “Nice protection, but I think we’re gonna have to hit at least a couple of these guys before we can leave.”

“Well, if we weren’t stuck in one place,” Enoa said. “Maybe we could accomplish something.”

She wasn’t wrong. Orson watched as all three Thopters dove in at once, from above, leaving Jaleel’s cannons useless. Enoa spun the Tri-cannon in circles, keeping the Thopters away, but unable to concentrate on any one target the way she had in their fight against the Liberty Corps.

“I’ll even the odds.” Orson saw the fourth Thopter flash toward him from his right. The Thopter’s attack was reckless and haphazard and didn’t seem to have any of the bizarre stolen technology Brett Nalrik provided.

Orson waited for the Thopter to arc above him, moving to bring its guns against him. He didn’t let that happen. He intensified his repulsor and flew parallel with the enemy craft.

Orson cut off the barrel of the Thopter’s gun. The hunk of metal toppled toward the ground. That Thopter sped away before Orson could bring his sword against it again.

He laughed, watching it flee. But his laughter ceased when he saw the three other Thopters ascend together, hundreds of feet above the Aesir and the crawler.

“Enoa,” Orson said. “I want you to shoot at the Thopter that’s at your three O’clock. Follow it until you get your chance. They’re ascending to attack the Collective’s planes.”

“I didn’t think they could shoot accurately from that high up,” Enoa said. “Why haven’t they tried this before?”

“They’re not accurate,” Jaleel chimed in. “Those things have crap targeting. They might as well try to shoot at someone using an Atari copy of Space Invaders. Their odds are better for hitting the crawler.”

“Maybe,” Orson said. “But maybe they’re not trying to kill the people on the planes, just stop them from flying away. How much damage would they need to ground them?”

“Why can’t you just shoot them with that blaster you have?” Jaleel asked.

“I work the repulsor with my left hand so I really only have the sword. Just listen to me. Enoa, have Ruby follow the altitude of those Thopters. If they ascend together, go right with them. I don’t know what we’ll do if they scatter, but hopefully we’ll deal with them before that.”

“Can’t we just have Ruby follow them?” Jaleel asked. “You’ve got this AI on your ship, and you don’t even ask her for help.”

“AI?” Orson laughed. “I think she’s more of a search engine voice, like the Aesir’s computer can do some things and give some information and that voice talks to us.” 

“Oh, I thought she was like J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Jaleel said. “But I guess she’s just Siri.”

“You’re losing me. I don’t know those names.” Orson flew in low, just above the two planes.

“What? How do you not get those?” Jaleel said. “I guess I can see not knowing J.A.R.V.I.S., but Siri? I thought you were a pretty normal guy before you started fighting supervillains.”

“Orson hasn’t gone on the internet in ten years,” Enoa said.

“No way. How did he function?”

“He had people chasing him since then,” Enoa said. “I don’t know. Ask him.”

“We can talk about my cultural awareness some other time,” Orson said. “We need to deal with these people. They know if we escape that their whole world ends. Either they’re zealots who are losing their perfect fantasy world or they’re basically mobsters hiding evidence. Either way, there’s not a lot they won’t do.”

Orson watched the Aesir rise toward the Thopters as the small craft converged above the planes. They opened fire, angling in a complicated formation, weaving back and forth.

Orson waited until Enoa tapped into her Shaper focus zone or whatever the hell it was. She sent an energy blast right at a Thopter. The projectile sliced a wing in two. Supported only by guiding propellers, the craft wobbled down toward the ground.

The other Thopters broke formation, looping around the Aesir. Jaleel dealt one of the Thopters a glancing blow.

It gave up on the attack. The ship, still sturdy, flew off, away from the crawler, into the distance.

Orson flew at the last Thopter, as it dove toward the planes. It opened fire, strafing the top of the crawler, shattering solar panels and burying metal deep in the roof of the large vehicle.

Orson dropped down onto the Thopter’s nose. He activated his boot’s magnetic anchor. It wasn’t perfect, but he’d stay upright long enough to distract the gunner and disable the craft.

But this Thopter held more than a pilot and a gunner. Its passenger hefted a Minigun, somehow modified to attach to the base of the craft’s propellers and fire between the glass canopies.

The passenger opened fire.

Orson turned away. His coat was riddled with bullets and the force of the strikes threw him backward. He buried his sword in the nose of the Thopter, as he deactivated his boot’s magnet and jumped away.

He watched the Thopter fall, already smoking, its nose aflame.

Orson fired his repulsor and took stock of himself. He felt the chill wind. It crept up under his protection. His coat was torn in ribbons of shredded fabric. Now, the sheets of his armor were exposed.

“I’m coming back.” He sheathed his sword and flew toward the Aesir. He remote triggered the roof hatch and made sure no one stood beneath it. Then he dropped through the opening into the cabin.

“I usually don’t come home to a crowd.” He spoke to the room at large. “Sorry it took so long. I figured it made sense to stay out there since this armor is basically bullet proof.”

“You have the coolest job in the world.” Jaleel began to clap. The other Archers and some passengers joined in. Orson nodded, but didn’t take the time to acknowledge them further.

“I see why people hire you.” Adelyn Castillo offered him a small smile. “You do make quite the impressive show.”

“If you’re stuck here,” he said. “You might as well get some entertainment.”

“I’ve alerted the planes to take off,” Chief Morita said. “It should only take a minute for them to be airborne, and we can be on our way.”

“Great!” Orson rested his hands on the backs of the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. “Thanks, you two, for your help. It would have been miserable without you. Now, let’s do a little musical chairs, so I can fly us away.”

“It was an honor.” Jaleel stood and offered a salute.

“He’s going to be talking about this for the rest of his life,” Jordyn Yaye called from the couch. “He’s going to be too much to handle.”

“Let’s take care of the Sabres,” Orson said. “And he can be too much for a long, long time.”

“Please let us leave.” Enoa stood too.

“We will.” Orson let Jaleel slip past him into the other rumble seat. Then Enoa settled in the copilot’s chair. Orson removed his sword and set it in its hooks, at the wall. He tested the controls, as he sat down. He waited until the planes lifted from the roof. They angled their rotors backward, propelling them out and away from the crawler.

Orson sent the Aesir following after them, leaving the massive vehicle deactivated, its passengers and followers scattering in all directions.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I want to be anywhere but this damn crawler.”

“For once, Captain,” Morita said. “I completely agree with you.” 

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