Kolben Maros, new Captain in the Liberty Corps Recovery Division, was assigned a team of ten troopers, a well-supplied but ultimately defense-focused squad for his new mission. Unlike his former command, these were soldiers, formally-trained. Most had credentials dating back to service before Thunderworks, service while Kol was still a child. He hadn’t yet learned their names and had only just received their files, but the work had already begun.
“We won’t engage with the Aesir while it’s aboard the Solar Saver,” Kol addressed his new force – ten newcomers and a formally reassigned Duncan Racz. All twelve of them were sandwiched in Kol’s new office. “And I hope we won’t have to pursue the information they have. At this time, we’ll proceed under the assumption that Captain Gregory’s claim is true. The Dreamside Road was not hidden under Nimauk. If Gregory and Miss Cloud had unearthed the power stolen from the IHSA, I don’t think he would immediately take some protection job.”
Kol was used to being the youngest person in the room, but the context suddenly changed when he wasn’t the person who’d recruited the room’s occupants. One of his researchers had to be in his forties and yet here he was, in Kol’s command.
“I’m not satisfied with the information we’ve received,” Kol continued. “I’m not yet sure if everything has been transferred to my office, but we don’t have reports on any efforts before the Liberty Corps began this search. If Operative Divenoll isn’t able to provide us with his records from the IHSA, we’ll launch a fact-finding expedition to one of the GARNET terminals.”
“I need all of you to be ready to leave with minimal notice. If Divenoll can’t provide us with details and our threat assessment finds a reasonable terminal, we’ll leave immediately. I am assigned to this mission until the end of my current commission. That means I have less than a year serving with you. As far as I’m concerned, we have only those months to find the Dreamside Road.”
* * *
“Wayfarer’s Day Job.” Orson spoke into the dashboard receiver. “This is Wayfarer One. We have three craft incoming. Is the Fly-in field open?”
“Fly-in is ready for you, Wayfarer One,” the controller answered. “We have med teams standing by. What is your condition, Captain? We have the code scrambler waiting for you.”
“Code scrambler?” Orson said. “I don’t think we were followed or bugged.”
Enoa looked up at the concerned tone in Orson’s voice. She’d been half-asleep for most of the flight to the Chicago suburbs. Her restless night, the danger, and her frequent Shaping had worn her down. Why did these adventures all happen at once?
“No, sir,” the controller said. “You’ll have a full briefing when you land.”
“Alright,” Orson said. “Have you been in touch with the Solar-wings about the air traffic and landing protocols?”
“We’re all set up, Wayfarer. Thank you.”
“Great. I’ll be down soon.” He hit another button on the dash. When he spoke again, the internal microphone carried his voice without shouting. “Okay, everybody, we’re almost there. We’ll figure out where you’re all headed in a minute.” Orson rested his hand on the side of the copilot’s seat. “You awake?”
“I am now.” She stretched as far as she could, still buckled into the seat. “Sorry I wasn’t awake with you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think Chief Morita and I were the only ones awake in the main cabin. Maybe Ms. Castillo. But I think the whole younger generation passed right out. I felt like a bus driver coming back from a field trip.”
“Jordyn could only be a few years younger than you.” Jaleel yawned. “She’s the same generation you are.”
“I was already traveling in this ship when the IHSA files were leaked by the Blitzkrieg. Everyone who became an adult after that is not my generation.” Orson yawned too. “Now you have me yawning.”
“You were already Captain Gregory during the Blitzkrieg?” Jaleel asked. “That’s what, like ten or eleven years ago?”
“No, I wasn’t in charge. There were six of us on that first trip, and none of us was in charge. None of us even wanted to be here. The captain thing was only since Thunderworks.”
“Wow, who else was here?” Jaleel asked. “Anyone I would’ve heard of?”
“You’re sure this drive-in business is safe?” Chief Morita interrupted. “I’m still not sure whether I should take my family to some of the local corporate housing.”
“Augustin’s been here since yesterday, but I’m sure Pops and his people would help you look through the security, so you can make up your mind. Remember too, the Sabres can probably access the Solar Saver corporate housing.” Orson pointed out the windshield. “Take a look around. It’s pretty impressive.”
The Aesir approached a massive circular complex. Enoa couldn’t figure out what she was seeing. It looked like a snow-covered crop circle. But as they got closer, she saw it was a series of outdoor lots, separated by hedges and walls, each facing a multi-story film screen. A cluster of buildings sat at the center of the complex.
Orson brought the Aesir low over the center buildings, mostly ranch-style. He lowered the ship into a clearing behind one of the film screens. The clearing was paved and free of snow. A small marshal crew stood at intervals in the landing area, waving paddles. Orson halted the Aesir and watched as the two Solar Saver planes switched to rotors and landed. Then he guided the Aesir into an open spot.
“Thank you for choosing Wayfarer Air for your evacuation needs.” Orson stood. “We hope you never have any evacuation needs, but if you do, please consider us again. Have a great rest of the day!”
Orson then caught Chief Morita’s attention. “Before you go, I have a present for you.” He reached deep into one of his ragged coat’s pockets. Morita looked on with concern. Orson withdrew a red wheel. “It’s a good thing this pocket didn’t completely tear out.”
“Is that?” Morita took the wheel. “Is this the crawler’s steering wheel?”
“Sorry,” Orson said. “I didn’t have time to lock down the crawler properly, like you wanted.”
“Wow,” Jaleel said. “Why do they steer it with a go kart wheel?”
“I am not the person to ask,” Morita said.
“Enoa,” Orson said. “I’m going to see everybody safely out of here and escort our prisoner. Pops and his people want to scan everything, but you can get some rest, once that’s done.”
“That’s okay, Enoa said. “I can wait.” She watched Orson open the ship’s side door. Chief Morita led his family from Enoa’s bunk.
“I’ll see you soon?” Nozomi called to her.
“Of course!” Enoa said. “I’ll have to find out how I can stay in touch while we’re here!” She watched the Moritas leave with Adelyn in their wake. Then Orson and Mr. Sandoval removed Milo, the Archers following after them.
Enoa sat alone, but only briefly. A trio of jumpsuit-wearing techs came aboard with a large crate. They unloaded the crate, removing devices that looked like retro video games, something that appeared to be a Geiger counter, and another device that looked like a metal detector. The team swept these objects through the cabin. Enoa watched them before drifting off into a half-awake stupor.
She didn’t intend to sleep, but she snapped awake when she heard more approaching voices.
“…but if you have bad news, I’d rather get it now.” Orson followed another man back into the Aesir. “What could possibly have happened that you couldn’t tell me out there?”
“I need to have a couple of scans done first, okay?” The man answered. She recognized this voice from the tightbeam call in the derelict graveyard – Pops Darlow. “Are you done in here?”
“Nearly,” one of the scanning techs responded. “Nothing so far, so you should be fine staying aboard.”
“Glad to hear it!” Pops said. “I don’t care much for the idea of being blown up. They say it’s a quick way to go, but not exactly what I’ve got in mind.” Earl “Pops” Darlow had white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He wore a slightly oversized suit and overcoat, but no tie. His shirt was a headache-inducing neon green. He looked more like a retired infomercial host, rather than the financial enabler of Orson’s adventures.
“You must be Enoa Cloud.” Pops approached her, hand extended. “Nice to meet you in person. I’m happy to see Orson hasn’t led you into too much trouble yet.” They shook hands.
“And you must be Gramps.” Enoa smiled as sweetly as she could.
“Gramps!” Pops turned back to Orson. “I forgot that! You’re teaching your protégé to ambush me! To think, that I would be maligned here, in a venture I have supported through years and so very many dark days.” He shook his head theatrically.
“Don’t look at me,” Orson said. “She’s a lot more formidable than she seems. She’s learning the Shaping the Hierarchia studied.”
“So she is,” Pops said. “Hmm, then she might want to sit down with us and review my friends and enemies report. I have a lot to share before the other scan is done.”
“What other scan?” Orson asked. “He’s been talking about some other scan for about fifteen minutes without any explanation. What could you possibly be scanning?”
“I want to get through everything else first.” Pops called down toward the restroom, where the scanning team was waving their devices around the shower area. “Is it bugged in here or can I share news?”
“You should be fine, sir,” one of the techs answered.
“Thank you! I need to share this information soon before our beloved captain is too impatient to hear me.”
“I wouldn’t be impatient if you quit hyping this secret thing you’re scanning!”
“No hype.” Pops took a seat in one of the armchairs. “All killer. No filler. All substance, minimal flash, minimal salesmanship.” Orson took the other armchair. Enoa sat on the couch.
“Okay, what do you want first, friends or enemies?” Pops looked between Orson and Enoa.
“Friends first, I guess?” Orson shrugged. “Is there any enemy news I want to get out of the way?”
“Who can say?” Pops drew a small device from his pocket. It was larger than most phones and too new to be anything pre-shutdown, but it had a touchscreen. Then he took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket and set them on the end of his nose.
“First your correspondence,” Pops read. “You got a wedding invitation last month for this coming autumn, Eloise Corwin.”
“Eloise is getting married?” Orson said. “To whom? I don’t think she was even dating anyone the last time I saw her. Is it that hybrid-farming-technique guy from Puerto Rico, that she was talking about?”
“How should I know?” Pops said. “The invitation is in your box.”
“I’m glad you told me,” Orson said. “I almost called her a couple weeks ago. I need her help with some business for me and Enoa.”
“That’s why we run through this,” Pops said. “It wouldn’t be the first time you came here, never checked your box, and missed crucial information.”
“That’s awesome for her,” Orson said.
“You owe me an explanation about that business, I might remind you,” Pops said. “But not now. Moving on. You also have a letter from your cousin Clark. He’s back in the old farmhouse and wants you to know he’s started his band again.”
“Who is going to hear his band now?” Orson asked.
“What music does he play?” Enoa asked. She had really no awareness of Orson’s life. It was an odd thing, seeing this man every day, essentially being his roommate, but knowing virtually nothing whatsoever about his outside life.
“Pop-punk,” Orson said. “I used to thing they were pretty good, ten years ago.”
“I also got this job application.” Pops pulled a crumpled paper from his jacket pocket. “A man named Chet says you saved his life in a place called Trolley Town, and that you promised to help him. He wants you to vouch for him.”
“Trolley Town?” Orson asked. “I don’t know any Trolley Town.”
“Could he mean the derelict place where we fought the Liberty Corps?” Enoa asked. “You promised to help those people.”
“Oh yeah! I almost forgot that. Yeah, we had a big battle with the Liberty Corps in this field filled with derelict vehicles and all of the people hiding there were displaced. It could be one of them.”
“Well,” Pops said. “I’ll conduct the usual interviews. It’s harder, these days. I used to be able to find everyone’s life story before I had to make a decision whether to hire them. Hell, Orson, I even found out how many years you were a Cub Scout when I was thinking of offering you our current arrangement.”
“That’s still creepy,” Orson said. “No amount of years will make that not creepy.”
“Maybe.” Pops shrugged. “But that’s also what makes me sure none of my people are secretly Sabres Unlimited members.” He picked up his datapad again.
“One more thing for friends,” he said. “The Bacchanalia Brewing Company has not renewed their lease at the Inn at the Evergreen Forest. And if I remember correctly, your bonnie lass Sirona’s most recent beau is Bacchanalia’s general manager.” Pops hit Orson on the arm. “Might mean trouble in paradise.”
“Who says bonnie lass?” Orson said. “How is that news?”
“It’s only news because I like making you uncomfortable. My own children are married and my grandchildren are too young to be properly upset by that kind of ribbing, so I need to wait for you to come around.” He glanced at Enoa. “Oh no!” He spoke with mock-horror. “You two aren’t an item are you? I hope I didn’t misread the room.”
“Not at all,” Enoa laughed. “Please feel free to make him uncomfortable about his relationship history.”
“She is the kind of fantasy adventurer friend I can get behind for you,” Pops said. “Enough with those mystical weirdos speaking in riddles and ninth-grade book report symbolism.”
“I don’t have many of those as actual friends.” Orson laughed too.
“You had Ophion,” Pops said. “That old wizard was pretty weird. And talking about him leads me to the enemies portion of today’s presentation.” He tapped at the datapad.
“I’ve been looking into that Liberty Corps you ran into. I’ve been hearing about them for a while, and I thought they were your typical post-government militia, but I’m seeing some scary stuff.” He turned the touchscreen around to face them. “You might have to come closer to see this.”
Enoa rose and stood beside Orson. Pops tapped at the screen. It resolved into the image of several odd aircraft flying over a field in the desert. Enoa thought she saw at least one Sun Talon. The view changed abruptly to display a legion of Liberty Corps troops standing inside a closed hangar, most clad in blue Rifle Corps armor. This force dwarfed the local crew Maros had brought to Nimauk. Maros’ ragtag band, with their mismatched weapons and ill-fitting armor, seemed like trick-or-treaters compared to this true army.
The view changed again to a factory assembly line. A row of people stood at a conveyor belt, altering metal pieces, before passing them down the line. The metal steamed.
“What’s happening here?” Orson asked. Pops touched the screen and the view zoomed in. The feed blurred, slightly, but it became obvious that the workers touched the items on the conveyor belt with their empty hands, bending the metal, Shaping it.
“Looks an awful lot like magic to me.” Pops looked at Enoa. “Does this mean anything to you?”
“The Liberty Corps has people learning to Shape iron,” Enoa said. “This group makes it look so easy.”
“Yeah, Man Bun’s crew acted like they were trying to crap out a ham,” Orson commented.
“Who’s Man Bun?” Pops asked. The view on the datapad changed.
“I’ll tell you later,” Orson said. “What… what are we looking at now?”
The latest clip showed moving shapes, hovering hundreds of feet in the air, over another desert landscape. Only when the view expanded did Enoa see that these were people. They hung vertically, half-naked, some wearing only underwear. They struggled, limbs flailing, like they were falling. But they remained suspended in the sky.
Enoa tried to count the people, difficult with the wobbly feed. She reached eight before the people fell.
They all suddenly plummeted to the Earth.
“What is that, some kind of tractor beam?” Orson asked. “Beam people up and just let them drop?”
“I’ve no idea,” Pops said. “Sick shit, though. Pardon the French.”
“How did you get these videos?” Orson asked him.
“The Liberty Corps salvaged some of the surviving Hierarchia transmission towers and satellites, and they’re using GARNET infrastructure,” he replied. “Seems like they think it’s safe to use the old IHSA encryptions.”
“Who are you, really?” Enoa asked. “No one told me you were some kind of spy. I thought you worked in tourism, but you can break into old government feeds?”
“I spent half my adult life in a protection agreement with the old Hierarchia,” Pops said. “Kitsch is my passion. Information is my career, what’s left of it anyway.” He chuckled. “Just like you’re a Shaper-in-training, but your real job was running your antique shop – Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea.”
“How do you know about that?” Enoa asked. “There are no electronic records of my ownership. It was only in my name three months.”
“Here we go.” Orson sighed. “Now you’ve encouraged him.”
“I’m old enough to find analog news,” Pops said. “Would you like a Nimauk update? Daniel Tucker was arraigned last Wednesday, charges of murder, kidnapping, corruption, conspiracy, more I can’t remember. I have the article saved, if you want to read it.” He tapped at the datapad screen. “It’s easy to get news from Nimauk, now. Everyone’s talking about the battle you and Orson had with Tucker and the Liberty Corps.”
The image changed to a blurry repeating loop. Enoa saw a human shape, a tall white-armored man thrown through the air, flying backward, long hair streaming out in all directions. The person landed in a pile of snow. Then the recording began again.
Enoa noticed the other figure in the loop – herself. She appeared only for an instant, until the blast emerged from her staff, throwing the young captain.
Orson began to laugh. “That’s Man Bun! You blasted the bun right out of his hair. I’m so glad somebody got this on video. I kept hearing about it, but it’s better than I expected.”
“That’s you, isn’t it?” Pops asked.
“It’s me.” Enoa knew she’d done incredible things, impossible things, altered the world in ways that would alarm almost anyone. But there was a difference between knowing and seeing.
“We better stay on her good side,” Pops said.
“Yeah,” Orson said. “I wonder why the Liberty Corps has this video.”
“Those last three videos were all in a file about Shaping,” Pops said. “I know I heard the term mentioned in reference to that old hippie, Ophion, but it’s pretty bizarre to watch. No offense.”
“How did anyone get video of me fighting Maros?” Enoa asked. “I didn’t think there was anyone else around.”
“There must’ve been,” Pops said. “But we can come back to the Liberty Corps, if we have time. I have a couple minor updates for Orson.”
“Thank you.” Enoa sat back on the couch, uncertain. So much had changed, so quickly. How many days had it been since she’d left home? She couldn’t remember.
“Josiah Grenning has officially warned us that you are not to come near his facilities,” Pops continued. “He wants you to know that he’s bolstered his raptor force.”
“I don’t plan to ever see him again,” Orson said.
“Didn’t think so.” Pops set his datapad aside. “And finally, before I see if the scan is done – the Five-Point Palm is recruiting again.”
“How?” Orson asked. “They’re all dead!”
“Not quite, remember,” Pops said. “Renadi escaped custody. He’s still alive, and he’s looking to build a new crew of anarchists.”
“I beat them once and if that third-string toady manages to put together a new team, then I’ll have to do it again.”
“Your attitude is always refreshing.” Pops took a small earpiece from his pocket and pressed it into his right ear. “Is the scan complete?” He sat back in the chair. “The scan of the red machine. The flying red machine. Yes. Yes. It’s not rigged somehow? No explosion? Then push it over.” He tapped at the earpiece “Looks like you can see it.” He stood.
“What the hell is this, Pops?” Orson stood too. Enoa followed him.
“There’s a reason I gave you the rest of the news first.” Pops walked back to the door. “I have a feeling this is about to take up the rest of our day.” They followed him out of the Aesir and into the landing area. They stood between the two Solar Saver planes.
Four people dressed in what looked like hazmat suits were pushing a floating, beachball-sized, red machine across the ground toward them.
“Isn’t that an old hologram projection machine?” Orson pointed at it.
“Turn it on.” Pops nodded. “I think that’s close enough.” One of the hazmat-suited crew touched the side of the machine.
An image projected into the air, larger than life-size. The image had a bluish tinge, but it was distinct enough even to be seen in daylight.
The hologram showed a man Enoa did not recognize, but could only be Brett Nalrik. He stood in his Strateren armor with arm cannon, helmet off, four armored men around him. Two people were lying on the ground in front of them, hogtied, their heads hooded.
“You have my uncle, Gregory,” Nalrik said. “I’m gonna make this real simple for you. You have two days to return my uncle.” He raised his arm cannon and aimed it at the hooded prisoners. “Or I kill my archer guests.” He lifted two fingers. “And if two days pass and I don’t hear from you… After I kill them, then I’ll come for you.”