“I own my body. I rule my mind. I command Iron.” Kol Maros knelt in a Liberty Corps private training chamber. As Captain, he had the right to use such spaces. The walls and floor were tiled and soundproofed.
He had gone too long without working on his Shaping – almost a month. He had not trained in the lead-up to his hearing. He had not practiced since before the final planning of the Nimauk operation.
A block of iron, a single piece, sat in front of him on the floor. His sword, his one successful bit of iron work, lay to his right, unsheathed. He wasn’t sure how much his mental exercises had helped him forge the sword, but he left it there for encouragement.
Kol had memorized the Liberty Corps Shaping manual. He knew every word. Before the threat of his hearing, he’d gone to sleep every night rereading the instructions, trying to internalize them, trying to believe them. Without thinking the right thoughts and ruling the mind, it wasn’t possible.
Kol believed in Shaping. How could he not? He’d seen it done – powers of iron and light and whatever Enoa Cloud had done to him. But in his quiet, honest moments, he knew he wasn’t thinking the right thoughts, not often, not with belief.
He would believe now. He had to. This was his second chance, and he could not afford to waste it.
‘First, own your body. If you do not own your body, Iron will know. Only the might to wield the hammer can force the iron to bend itself.’
‘Second, rule your mind. If you cannot rule your mind, your will cannot know Iron. Only the unyielding mind can bend the metal that built empires.’
‘Third, command the metal before you. If you can’t command a single ingot, how will you rule Iron, the element that created civilization?’
‘Iron can rebuild the world. It can bring Liberty to everyone.’
‘But that is impossible without commanding Iron, ruling your mind, owning your body.’
Kol owned his body. His training regimen and diet had not wavered in three years, not one day. He documented his caloric and nutrient intake, every day. He estimated his body composition, every week.
Kol ruled his mind. He always fought his doubts. He always fought, period, struggled and forced his will on the metal. He never yielded.
Kol would command the metal. He would own it. Morons like Lieutenant Goes could Shape Iron. Why couldn’t he? He would learn. He would Shape now.
NO! Rule the mind. Command the metal. He breathed deeply.
Own the body. Rule the mind. Command the metal.
Kol closed his eyes. He imagined the iron block before him. He imagined it bending. This was not a simple image. No, he felt the hammer in his hands, heavy, but in his control. He sent a blow into the Iron with his mind and his will. Then he sent another and another and another – three perfect strikes with all his body’s will and mind’s control.
He heard the metal ring against the floor. Kol opened his eyes.
The metal had not changed. But, but he’d heard it move…
Kol ran his left hand over the metal. It was still perfectly smooth, unmarked. How had it made the ringing sound but remained the same? He’d heard it. He knew he’d done something.
Kol had stopped too soon. He’d heard the sound and stopped his efforts! He had not ruled his mind. He could not command the metal.
He’d failed. He’d failed again.
Kol fought the urge to yell. He balled his fists and slumped to the floor. So much had changed. He’d learned so much from his brush with destruction, but he still was unworthy of the Iron power. Why? What was wrong with him?
He had no choice but to try again.
He rose into a kneeling position. He rubbed at his eyes with his flesh-and-blood hand. Then he positioned the iron so it again sat directly in front of him.
“I own my body. I rule my mind. I command Iron.”
* * *
“Alright, here’s what we do.” Orson stood in front of a whiteboard in the Heartland-6 presentation room, in one of the trailers of the soon-to-be-complete drive-in complex.
Enoa felt out of place sitting alone, off to one side. Commodore Augustin and Chief Morita were accompanied by a small entourage of security and technical staff. Pops sat with his own employees, a varied group who wore no uniforms. Jordyn Yaye was joined by two other archers.
“The powered armor on those guys is tough,” Orson continued. “And it covers more of the body than standard body armor, but there are documented weak areas, at the crotch and under the chin. The armor has only minimal heat resistance, so it shouldn’t be able to fight my sword for very long. The problem is Nalrik and his arm cannon. So we need to make it less likely he’ll use it.”
Orson began to draw rough circles on the whiteboard. “If I fight him where he has plenty of room, he’ll use the cannon, so I need to get close.” He drew a big circle. “What we need is for me to meet him in an indoor space, somewhere big enough that it isn’t an obvious trap, but small enough and with enough obstacles to make it less likely for him to start blasting.”
He drew small circles around the larger circle. “We also need nearby locations where backup can hide. To some degree, this will depend on whether we get actual Great Lakes law enforcement or if it’s strictly Chief Morita’s, uh, posse.”
“I would prefer you didn’t use that term.” Morita shook his head. “This isn’t a western.”
“The help we might recruit is still Solar Saver security,” Augustin said. “They just won’t be from the land division. The Sabres helped us create that division, and we still don’t know the extent of their infiltration. But I’m a Commodore for a reason. We began as a maritime operation, and I still trust those personnel.”
“And you’re sure you can get your people down from Quebec before tomorrow night?” Orson asked. “I think we all agree it’s better if Nalrik’s crew is apprehended rather than, well, y’know…”
“They will be here,” Augustin said. “They know how important our agreement is with the Archers. They will help us fulfill that.”
“Obviously it’s better if the local alliance sends its own people,” Orson said. “But we can’t wait on them.”
“I can’t see the Great Lakes going for this,” Pops said. “They don’t have the military holdings that the other alliances do. Most of their power is in water-route access and working rail lines. They don’t need to be embarrassed by Nalrik’s crew.”
“Alright,” Orson said. “For those of you who don’t know, Pops owns an attraction on old Route Sixty-six, this dinosaur times thing, and…”
“The Beginning of Time Tour,” one of Pops’s team corrected, an older man with a heavy mustache and long white hair, tied back. Looking at him, Enoa could not place his ethnicity.
“Right,” Orson said. “Anyway, there’s this huge room with animatronic dinosaurs. This is a warehouse-sized space. I’ll get back to Nalrik and tell him I’ll meet him there for the trade-off. We obviously can’t give them Milo, so this will have to be fast. But without Nalrik using his cannon, I can get the Archers safe from their other weapons using these.”
Orson stepped around the whiteboard and retrieved a fabric garment bag. From inside, he removed two raincoats. “These are lined with the same armor I usually wear. I’ll get the Archer hostages in these, and they’ll be able to withstand fire from the Sabres’ blasters.”
“Unless someone gets a headshot,” Morita said. “Maybe it’s just the aesthetic of the coats, and I’m sorry if that’s what it is, but I think we need a better plan for this operation than armored raincoats.”
“The raincoats have some armor in the hoods too, like my coat,” Orson said. “And they’re big enough to fit a lot of different people.”
“I have their measurements,” Jordyn Yaye said. “If that would help.”
“My concern isn’t with their measurements,” Morita answered. “My problem is the whole coat-based plan. How can you be sure you can get at Nalrik and get the coats on the hostages, without having our own prisoner to trade?”
“We can rig up another animatronic,” Pops said.
“I want it on the record that I was heavily against using my dinosaurs for this exchange.” The long-haired member of Pops’s group stood up. He spoke with an accent, but Enoa was not sufficiently versed to tell which one. “But…”
“Kash,” Pops said. “We haven’t had that place open in years.”
“You don’t need to argue with me again, Earl,” he said. “We’re agreed now. We’re agreed. My point is, I am the animatronics designer in the room. We could make a simple Milo dummy. We won’t have time to get the face right, so we’ll blindfold it and keep it light enough for Orson to carry. My dinosaurs should hide the fake Milo’s energy profile from the Sabres, if at least some of them are powered on. If we get a recording of real Milo, the fake one might even talk.”
“How will you set up the meeting place with Nalrik?” Enoa didn’t like even one element of this plan, least of all wondering what role she’d have to play.
“He should be able to do a scan with the holo probe Nalrik sent,” Pops said. “Return to sender.”
“I’ll do that as soon as we get all the details done here,” Orson said. “Seriously, I’m open to ideas. This has happened every time I made a plan working on the Solar Saver situation. I come up with a plan, everyone tells me it’s a crap plan, but no one offers me anything better. Then we just go for it with my crap plan and improvise when things fall apart.”
“I’ve got a good plan.” Jaleel walked into the room, wearing his archer suit, sans mask.
“This is that archer who flew with you?” Pops asked. “I didn’t think anyone else was coming.”
“Jaleel,” Jordyn said. “Where have you been? You’re so late.”
“I can’t pitch my invention if I haven’t finished it,” Jaleel said.
“You should’ve at least told me what you were doing,” Jordyn said. “It’s not like we don’t live together.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Pops said. “We’re not worried about this, are we, Commodore? Jaleel, you’re their inventor, right?”
“I am.” Jaleel nodded once.
“What’s your idea?” Orson asked.
“You’re relying on how Nalrik thinks,” Jaleel said. “But that’s a bad idea because the dude’s a bloodthirsty nutso. I don’t know if you haven’t noticed, but he’s excited about fighting you in a pretty sick way. What you need to do is stop his arm cannon from working. Then it won’t matter what any of them try.”
“That’s what I plan to do,” Orson said. “Once I get your friends out of harm’s way, I’ll get close and destroy his cannon with my sword.”
“That’s too late in the plan,” Jaleel said. “You need to take out the cannon first, and I know how to do it.”
* * *
“Divenoll gave us nothing.” Duncan walked into Kol’s office. “I don’t think he wrote one word that wasn’t ‘no’. Did you read his report yet?”
“I didn’t.” Kol had a box of forms to complete to begin his new position. He had another box of requisitions paperwork to finish before his fact-finding mission could start. “I needed to ask Divenoll, but I didn’t really expect him to cooperate. Did you think he’d help us? He’s a big reason I want to do our fact-finding mission first, give any tempers a chance to settle down.”
“Listen to this.” Duncan lifted the paper. “’Do you still possess any relevant files from the International Hierarchia Statute Association? If so, please describe.’ He says no. No explanation. Number two, ‘Do you possess any eyewitness testimony that could yield answers in this search?’ He says no. ‘Do you have any knowledge that might aid this investigation?’ No. He’s basically telling us he’s useless. He’s admitted he’s useless.”
“If we can get onto a working GARNET terminal, he’ll be irrelevant. This is a choice we didn’t have before our reassignment.” Kol looked past Duncan and found Max in the doorway.
“Captain Maros.” Max spoke with formality. “I would not have interrupted, but your schedule has been booked since I left for dinner.”
“Max.” Kol stood and walked around his desk. “I was afraid you left for your train without saying good-bye. I’m so glad you didn’t. I’ll drive you there.”
“Kol, I have a request,” Max said. “I’ve taken on a research project for Survivor Histories. I’m writing a narrative about destabilization, specifically the role High Strangeness events played in the changing world. I want to go with you and access the IHSA system, as well.”
“You can’t be serious,” Kol said. “This could be dangerous and…” Kol sighed and sat again, now on the edge of his desk. “I know what this is and I know you’re coming from a place of… I know you’re trying to help me. I do, but I can’t command if I have my brother there trying to persuade me to go AWOL. I can’t.” He watched Duncan quietly edge out of the room.
“I’m not trying to persuade you of anything,” Max said. “I’m doing research. I need some purpose. Who knows how long I’ll be allowed to stay in my home, rent free. I am who I am now, and I need to do something with my life.”
“I know you,” Kol said. “You hate the Liberty Corps. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have some plan to show me the ‘error of my ways’. And I’m telling you this – I will find the Dreamside Road, and then maybe I’ll leave active service. I’ll keep ultimate power out of the wrong hands and then I’ll be free.”
“I read your regulations,” Max said. “You can recruit civilian experts. If you’re concerned, I will work for you, as a volunteer, as an advisor. I don’t morally badger my superiors.”
“I know there’s more to this.” Kol stared at his brother. Max stared right back. Kol didn’t need this, constant judgment, constant dissection, but Max was the root of his failings. If this was what he wanted, he would not refuse him.
“If you want to advise my mission,” Kol nodded. “I’ll be happy to have… What I’m trying to say is, there’s no one better to have with me than another Captain Maros. But this will also be my opportunity to show you how much good I do in my work.”
“I look forward to that.” Max smiled.
“We need to figure out what you’ll need to go.” Kol set his hand on one of his boxes of paperwork. “Because we’re leaving as soon as my supply requests are approved.”
* * *
“Orson,” Enoa sat in the passenger’s seat. “I still hate this plan so much.” They’d driven from the Heartland-6 complex and taken old Route 66 south, until they reached a suburban sprawl of chain stores and industrial plants, factory towers that now stood dark. After the constant bustle of the Solar Saver crawler, the trip along the quiet highway seemed like they’d traveled into a forgotten time.
Many of the buildings were seemingly empty. Few were lit. Some of the lights Enoa saw flickered, fire, not electric light. She expected more civilization, this close to the city, to one of the rebuilding alliances. Enoa was reminded of Fort Mayhill and the desperate survivors who had built a new life in the old Savings Spot location. Enoa wondered how many buildings around them were truly abandoned. She wondered about the lives of those people.
“I know.” Orson had parked the Aesir at the entrance to the Beginning of Time Tour, a ride, museum, and gift shop. The camper sat at the foot of a fifteen-foot statue of a caveman, hefting a club.
“Did you ever hear back after you sent your own hologram to Nalrik?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t, but I didn’t expect to. They’ll be here, and we’ll have a lot more help when they try their shit.”
“There’s no guarantee Nalrik doesn’t have help too,” Enoa said. “And they might see our backup arriving.”
“The others are parking at the all-night diner that way.” Orson pointed with his thumb. “Even if they use infrared, it could be anyone. There are hundreds of people working and even living in these businesses. This operation is easier to pull off now that things are so messed up.” He lifted his right pointer finger. “I think I hear someone coming. That should be our people.”
Enoa was quiet for what felt like an eternity, until a soft knocking sounded on the Aesir’s side door. Orson keyed the door to open.
Three people walked on board. Jaleel came first, bow and arrows over his shoulder and a large black case in his hands. Behind him came a woman dressed in a down coat with the medical entwined-snakes symbol on it. Enoa did not remember its name.
Last came Kash, Pops’s animatronics designer. He carried something shaped and dressed like a human being, in boots and a heavy coat.
“A Sabre Elder deserves more respect!” Milo’s voice yelled from the animatronic. The bound figure kicked its feet.
“That thing is so gross,” Enoa said.
“It feels gross too,” Kash replied. He set it on its feet. “Something strange always happens when Orson Gregory’s in town. I’m too old for this weird shit, but this drifter asks me to make an angry mannequin and the next thing you know…” He laughed.
“Helping me usually pays pretty well,” Orson said. “And it’s a lot more interesting than spending your whole retirement sitting around in that Jacuzzi.”
“Like hell it is,” Kash said. “Can’t argue the money, though.”
“Don’t you think we should focus?” the medical woman asked. “You need to go over there in ten minutes.”
“I try to lighten the mood,” Orson said. “Enoa Cloud, this is Doctor Carmen Lopez and Kash Armstrong.”
“I’m a doctor too. I have a Ph.D.,” Kash replied. “You always forget that.”
“I never knew that. What’s your doctorate in?” Orson asked. “I thought the doctor thing was just a way to con yokels into thinking you’re a medical professional.”
“I have done that,” he said. “But I studied mechanical engineering at MIT. How else do you think I could build my dinos or whip up all the weird props you need for your schemes?”
“You can operate the animatronics too, though, right?” Enoa asked.
“I designed them,” Kash replied. “No one knows them better. I am a man of many talents.”
“Okay,” Enoa said.
“I’ll make this fast for you,” Lopez said. “Kash was stationed with Pops during their time running a covert information post for the Hierarchia. Pops drags Kash along on his harebrained schemes and Orson’s harebrained schemes, but he can handle the animatronics.”
“How’s the face on mannequin Milo?” Orson said.
“Mostly covered,” Kash said.
“You haven’t seen it yet?” Enoa asked. “You haven’t worked with it at all.”
“I spent the day rehearsing with Jaleel,” Orson explained. “I didn’t have time to work on this portion. You didn’t stop by and see how any of the rest of us did?”
“I trained this morning,” she said. “Then I rested so I’d be ready for tonight.”
“Oh right, sorry,” Orson said. “Show me what I need to do with fake Milo here and I’ll head over.”
“He moves his legs like he’s walking, but you need to do all the work.” Kash demonstrated and showed Orson how to make the weird animatronic move. “We recorded him since yesterday and we got six workable phrases, all triggered by its own button. The bottom button’s a long speech about the renewable energy industry so you need to be careful with that one.”
“Did you get one where it sounds like he’s talking to Brett?” Orson asked.
“No,” Kash said. “And he ranted at me for three hours. He tried to get me to join his cult and talked about helping impoverished countries. I was raised in Portland, but that racist bastard assumed I got here last week and grew up in a cave. Who the hell would emigrate now? It’s not like this land is a bastion of opportunity, but I digress. I had to listen to his manifesto a second time, editing the recordings for the animatronic.”
“Why didn’t you make someone else do the heavy lifting?” Orson asked.
“And have them screw it up?” Kash passed the animatronic to Orson. He set the doppelganger on the floor. The animatronic’s eyes were covered and it wore a heavy scarf that concealed most of the mouth. Orson worked with the Milo mannequin until he managed a decent illusion of having a prisoner.
Enoa only half-watched this process. She stared out into the darkness, wishing she’d progessed beyond simple transmutations and learned to fight. She would not feel truly safe again until she could hold her own without luck tipping the scales in her favor.
“I better get moving,” Orson said. “Wish me luck.”
“You’re sure you don’t want me with you?” Enoa asked.
“I am,” he said. “After Jaleel and Kash leave, you keep an eye on that big building over there. If anything goes down, stay safe. Make sure anyone injured gets to Doc Lopez. Easy. Is the support team ready?”
“I’m ready!” Jaleel said. “It’s rare I get to test so many great projects for a good cause. We’re going to save my friends!”
“When have I ever not been ready?” Kash asked.
“Fair.” Orson looked back to Enoa. “If anything goes too crazy, I have my comm.”
“I know,” she said. “Go save some people.”
Orson adjusted his tattered coat so his armor was mostly concealed. Then he fit his bandana and visor, lights lit. He walked out of the Aesir, leading his ‘hostage’ away through the gloom, toward the large building, and the trade-off. Enoa watched him until he passed out of sight.
“I’ll set us a five minute timer,” Kash said. “Then we’ll head on over.”
“Sounds good!” Jaleel bounced on the balls of his feet, fidgeting with his case and his bow. “Can’t wait.”
“Stop please,” Lopez said to the young man. “You’re making me nervous. It’s fine. Orson’s a goof, but he knows what he’s doing. If he says he can help your friends. He can.”
“I’m not worried about him,” Jaleel said. “I’m worried about me.”
“Dr. Lopez?” Enoa said. “May I ask how all of you came to work for Pops?”
“I worked for Pops as a kid,” Lopez said. “He’s a complicated man and I’m not going to do him justice trying to explain him in a minute. He’s been in the adventuring business for a long time and he went legit when his kids were born, but he still knows what he’s doing.”
“So you’ve worked for him all your life?” Enoa would do anything to avoid thinking about their current situation and how incredibly powerless she was. “I don’t get it.”
“No, not even close,” Lopez said. “There were…”
“Vehicle approaching!” Ruby announced. “Repulsor-powered, speeder profile. It is silent. It will arrive in approximately twenty seconds.”
“Do we have any hovering things on our side?” Enoa didn’t wait for an answer. She switched over to the driver’s seat and powered on the Tri-cannon. “Jaleel, take the Incursions.”
“I’m on it.” He ran forward and jumped into the passenger’s seat. “This is bad, but maybe I’ll be more useful in this fight.”
“You two find somewhere to strap yourselves in!” Enoa called back to the others.
“I sat down as soon as the Warning Lady Voice started talking,” Kash said.
Lights lit ahead of them, bright enough to make the Aesir’s windshield tint to avoid the worst of the glare. There was a boxy transport approaching.
“Ruby, how many weapons do you see?” Enoa counted three guns, one on the roof and one on each side, all facing them.
“Eight guns,” Ruby said.
“Eight!” Enoa asked. “Where…”
“Don’t move, camper!” A loud female voice projected out of the hovercraft. A door opened in its side and several people ran out into the dark parking lot, hefting machine parts. They began assembling what appeared to be gatling guns.
“We’re here to make sure you stay right where you’re supposed to be,” the voice continued. “No backup for Captain Gregory.”