55. Mannequin Milo

Orson led the Milo animatronic into the Age of the Dinosaurs attraction.

The interior was dark, but he didn’t bother with the lights. That could wait until Kash and Jaleel arrived to support him. He kept his visor lights lit and entered a foyer, with fossil-design carpeting and chandeliers manufactured to look like they were made of dinosaur bones.

He saw no sign of Brett Nalrik or his powered-armor crew.

Orson struggled to fit himself and mannequin Milo around the attraction’s locked turnstiles. The Age of the Dinosaurs was built to resemble a primordial forest, with towering trees designed to hide the mechanisms that maneuvered the theme park creatures.

None of the animatronics were active or visible, not yet, but Orson was still careful, threading through the labyrinthine attraction. His visor lights extended only so far, and he didn’t need to trigger some kitschy critter to jump out at him and ruin whatever poise he had going into his meeting with Nalrik.

The path through the fake forest looked like dirt, but it was actually weathered and mottled paint, a subtle piece of work, guiding tourists through the dinosaur forest toward the food court and gift shop at the far end of the attraction. Orson could have entered at that end, but he’d chosen not to. Who knew if he’d need to have a feel for the attraction’s interior? Better to check things out.

When he arrived at the far end of the maze, he found a sign. It read, ‘You survived!’ It also featured a tall image of a caveman giving a thumbs up.

Orson had taken his time in the dino maze, but still saw no sign of Nalrik’s crew. No motion. No heat. He watched his surroundings, until he found a narrow balcony, up above the gift shop level, offering a bird’s eye view of the fake jungle. Orson started in that direction, toward the high ground.

Where was Kash? The dinosaur animatronics remained silent and unmoving. Orson didn’t know for sure whether electronic interference was needed to sell the fake Milo stunt, but that had been the plan. He didn’t like proceeding without it. Was Kash merely late, struggling with old machinery, sluggish after years unused? Or had the plan already somehow fallen apart? Orson considered hailing the others on his comm.

But before he could, he saw a sudden flash of heat in his visor, a moment before five armored suits exploded into the room from above him. There’d been no skylight, but Nalrik’s crew had made one. He wasn’t sure, but he thought they’d blasted a hole in the ventilation system.

“Holy shit!” Brett Nalrik yelled. “You actually have him.” He chuckled, sounding genuinely amused. “Sorry for the language, Uncle. We’ll have you back soon.”

Brett aimed his arm cannon down toward Orson. The other Sabres had swapped out their holdout blasters for heavy-duty repeaters.

HEAD SHOT – 100% (5x)

The message appeared on Orson’s HUD. He was stuck on the floor, clutching at the fake Milo. The five armored Sabres flew, their weapons trained on him.

Orson pressed one of Milo’s talk buttons.

“The best days for Sabres Unlimited are still ahead of us!” The recorded Milo spoke. “You can count on that.”

“You tell him.” Nalrik kept his cannon pointed at Orson.

“Where are they, Brett?” Orson triggered his blaster to arrive in his hand and pressed it to mannequin Milo’s head. “Where are your hostages?”

“Why would they be here?” Nalrik asked. “We’re not done talking with them yet. We need to find out where the Archers have been hiding. We gotta find out who in the Solar Savers was working with them. But all that will be easier when we have you too.”

“You broke our deal, Brett. Now there’s no reason for me not to cook his brains out.” Orson wrapped his free hand’s fingers around the animatronic throat. “Give me a reason.”

“You do anything to him and we kill you where you stand,” Nalrik said. “Your only chance of walking out of here is handing him over.”

“I think I’ll walk out right now.” Orson took a step back in the direction of the maze. “Because you won’t shoot me while I’ve got a squeeze on your dear old Uncle.”

“Did I say you could move?” Nalrik followed him with the cannon. The other Sabres did the same with their own weapons. “You untie Uncle Milo. Let me see him. He’s never this quiet. If he’s drugged or if you hurt him, I’ll use that sword of yours to roast you alive.”

“Mr. Nalrik does look a little, I dunno, a little limp,” one of the other Sabres said, through his suit’s external speaker.

Orson knew his options were dwindling so, as usual, he picked the wildest and most distracting plan he could manage.

He flew, pulling mannequin Milo with him. As he arced upward, he drew his sword. He released the animatronic and decapitated it. Wiring and dislodged metal bits sprayed out of the dummy’s neck like some bizarre piñata. The Sabres howled in horror and rage. Nalrik’s high-volume external speaker picked up the private helmet communications line from the other Sabres. It produced a shrill sound like some furious, unearthly chorus.

Orson didn’t like throwing away Kash’s work, but it was better to wreck the dummy while it was still a useful distraction, than be stuck with it once they realized it wasn’t real.

Orson rocketed back toward the maze. He landed on his feet and had just crossed the fake treeline when an overwhelming wave of repeating blaster fire began cutting the maze to shreds.

“A Sabre Elder deserves more respect!” Mannequin Milo’s torso voice box played. “A Sabre Elder deserves more respect! A Sabre Elder deserves more respect!”

Orson ran, weaving back through the false trees, angling for the doors. He needed Jaleel’s surprise. This situation could still be salvaged.

“Where do you think you’re going, dipshit?” Nalrik yelled after him. “We’ve got nightvision too. We can see you. You can’t hide.”

*          *          *

“Ruby, make us hover!” Enoa made no effort to talk to the Sabres.

“Right away!” Ruby said.

Enoa felt the thud at her feet. The Aesir’s other occupants yelled.

“What the hell are you doing?” Kash said. “Orson told us you’re not a pilot.”

“I’m not.” Enoa raised the Aesir’s shields. “But I am on a quest to fulfill my aunt’s last wishes, and I will not be destroyed by these people. I will not.”

“Aww,” Jaleel said. “Now I can’t shoot again.”

“I have a feeling you’ll get a chance really soon,” Enoa said. “Ruby! Help me fly to the dinosaur exhibit.” She pulled back on the wheel and ascended above the parking lot. The shield pinged as the Sabre forces began to open fire.

“Do you mean the Frosty’s Finest presents The Age of the Dinosaurs Exploratorium and Family Dining Experience?” Ruby asked. “Should I plot a course to the Frosty’s Finest presents The Age of the Dinosaurs Exploratorium and Family Dining Experience?”

“Yes!” Enoa replied. “Jaleel, get Jordyn on your communicator and let her know what’s happening. We need backup if we’re going to reach Orson in time for the plan.” She watched him retrieve his touchpad and start tapping a message on the screen.

“It’s too late for the plan, quest girl,” Kash said. “If they expected we’d try to help Orson, they’ll expect him to get tricky.”

“That’s more reason for us to get over there,” Enoa said. “Ruby, come on. How do I go forward?”

“The Aesir’s primary flight control can be found to the left of the steering column,” Ruby said. “Tilt it in the direction of the desired thrust.”

Enoa found the big building on the other side of the lot, where Orson had gone. She turned the steering wheel and aimed toward it. Then she took the flight control and pushed it forward. The Aesir flew without resistance, effortless. Enoa released the control. The ship now hovered in place above the roof of the large exhibit hall.

“That’s too far!” Jaleel said. “Unless we want to land on the roof.”

“We do not want to land on the roof,” Dr. Lopez said. “That Nalrik man will see us.”

Enoa turned the wheel and spun the Aesir back toward the lot. Then she nudged the flight control. “Ruby, if we land now, will we be at the front of the dinosaur building?”

Something struck the Aesir’s shield hard enough that the whole ship shook. All passengers yelled. Enoa gritted her teeth. It felt more like the energy impacts during the Sun Talon battle than any physical projectile.

“I’m sorry,” Ruby said. “I don’t understand. Would you like to return to your previous coordinates in the parking lot?”

“No,” Enoa said. “Ruby, please land the ship in front of the entrance to the dinosaur place.”

“You would like to navigate to the Frosty’s Finest presents The Age of the Dinosaurs Exploratorium and Family Dining Experience main entrance?” Ruby asked. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Enoa said.

“Why doesn’t Orson have a belly gun on this thing?” Jaleel asked. “The roof gun isn’t enough.”

“Where would a belly gun go when you’re driving around?” Kash asked.

“Oh,” Jaleel said. “Right.”

“You would like me to take control of mobility and land the Aesir?” Ruby asked. “Is that correct?”

“Yes!” Enoa said. The Aesir began to lower toward the ground, just outside the Age of the Dinosaurs. Another of the energy blasts struck the Aesir’s shield.

“Shields at eighty percent,” Ruby announced. “Would you like me to take defensive measures?”

“Just get us landed!” Enoa yelled.

“I’m sorry,” Ruby said. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“What defensive measures can you do?” Jaleel asked. “If you want to protect the shield and the guns can’t hit stuff on the ground, what’s left for us to try?”

“Your voice is not recognized for voice command,” Ruby said. “Current occupants are few enough that your voice can be added…”

“Tell him,” Enoa said. “What defenses do we have?”

“The hidden front cannons can be angled toward targets while in flight,” Ruby explained. “Would you like me to do this?”

“Yes,” Enoa said. “Angle them, but please get us landed too. It won’t matter once we’re back on the ground.”

“You should’ve rammed their hovercraft,” Kash said. “Knocked them down like bowling pins. We’d be inside by now if you’d done…”

“Don’t be a backseat driver, Kash,” Lopez said. “They’re trying. If you had the idea at the time, you should have shared it then.”

“I didn’t have time to share it then.”

“Ruby,” Enoa said. “Why are we still hovering?”

“Can I shoot down yet?” Jaleel asked. “Do you have to talk for me, Enoa?”

“Are the cannons angled?” Enoa asked for him.

“My presets dictate I monitor only one task at a time,” Ruby said. “You may choose one or…”

“I need to shoot!” Jaleel said.

“Fine,” Enoa said. “Please angle the weapons.”

“I can only temporarily angle the weapons while we are airborne,” Ruby said. “Weapon-based settings can be changed or modified with administrator password or direct command. You can speak or input the password now.”

“Angle the Incursions at that thing chasing us,” Enoa said.

“The Incursion Cannons are now aimed at the pursuing transport,” Ruby said. Jaleel didn’t hesitate. He pulled the middle two triggers on the Incursion Cannon controls, sending return fire at their pursuers.

“Now land, please,” Enoa said. The ship began to lower again.

When the Aesir touched down, the constant energy projectile attack slid the ship across the macadam. The shields absorbed the blows, but an awful whining sound came from the speaker. A drumming then began on the shields, physical strikes, bullets.

Enoa saw the transport approaching in the headlights. It now fired from several places. Crews of Sabres were also advancing, bringing their assembled artillery with them.

“The energy weapon strike interfered with the shift to land-mode,” Ruby said. “My apologies. Sustained fire is depleting shields – fifty percent. I have realigned the Incursion Cannons to hit ground targets.”

Jaleel opened fire from the Incursion Cannons, aimed right at the hovercraft. Enoa joined in with the roof gun, sending bursts of energy at the enemy vehicle.

The transport exploded in a rain of shrapnel, in all directions. The Sabres scattered away from the blast. The Aesir’s windshield darkened to protect from the light.

Even inside the cabin, the noise was loud enough that the Aesir’s passengers yelled again.

“This ship packs such a punch!” Jaleel had a manic edge to his voice, both fear and excitement.

The noise had been so great that Enoa had missed the chime from the ship’s comm, but she noticed the blinking light when her attention returned to the controls.

“Orson!” She opened the channel. “Are you alright?”

“Orson, you have these kids blowing people up!” Kash called. “What’s wrong with you?”

“The Sabres are attacking us,” Enoa said. “We’re trying to get to you.”

“They had a hovering tank thing, and we blew that up,” Jaleel said.

“Okay, okay,” Orson whispered. “I was gonna ask where you are, but I get the picture. Listen, Nalrik doesn’t have the hostages. I lost mannequin Milo. The Sabres are shooting at me, and their attacks are starting this place on fire, but at least I can hide in here. I don’t want to lead the arm cannon out to you.”

“Fire!” Kash yelled. “No!”

“Reinforcements are on their way.” Jaleel unbuckled himself. “I heard back from Jordyn. We need to try my surprise. Come on, Kash.”

“When I go in there,” Kash said. “My first concern is going to be getting the sprinklers on. There’s no more building insurance. Even if Earl doesn’t have enough staff to keep this place open, I’m not going to abandon my dino babies.”

“But it will take time to rework the new arrows with the place on fire! I didn’t plan for that much heat.” Jaleel reached for his case. “I’ll need some cover.”

“I’ll go with Jaleel,” Enoa said. “Assuming the Aesir will be safe. It’s only a matter of time before more of those Sabres try to get at us.” Enoa looked out the windshield. Since the transport’s destruction, none of its support fighters had returned.

“I want to be safe too,” Dr. Lopez said.

“Sorry about this,” Orson said. “Enoa, when you leave, tell Ruby to put the Aesir in home defense mode. That’ll okay the computer to return fire with all the guns and rockets.”

“Rockets?” Jaleel asked.

“All of you better hurry,” Orson said. “There aren’t many plans of mine that don’t involve destroying the whole building.”

“Do not destroy the building!” Kash said. “Do you want to owe me three million dollars?”

“You don’t own the building,” Orson said. “Seriously, Kash, I called to make a plan. I’m sitting in a corner of the room that’s on fire so I can hide from their sensors. I can’t stay here forever. I might have to use my mask’s targeting computer, and you know how sick that makes me. I’m running low on options.”

“We’re on our way, Orson.” Enoa stood and grabbed her staff. She readied her mobile comm. Jaleel moved to follow her. Kash also stood, but reluctantly. “Ruby, when we leave, go to home defense mode.”

“Got it,” Ruby said. “Home defense mode will activate when you leave.”

“Jordyn says they’re attacking a group of Sabres at the edge of the parking lot.” Jaleel looked at his Archer communicator. “But Collective security is sending people over here.”

“Okay,” Enoa lit a flashlight and opened the Aesir’s door. She listened and looked out into the parking lot. She heard distant gunfire, but saw nothing more than a single smoking fragment of the destroyed transport.

“Ruby, please open the shields so we can walk outside,” Enoa said. “Then raise them again.”

“You want me to lower shields so you can exit the ship?” Ruby asked. “I can do that. I will then activate home defense mode.”

Enoa led her odd trio toward the Age of the Dinosaurs attraction. It was a tall building, a repurposed warehouse, but with easy pull door handles. The building was covered in the silhouettes of dinosaur skeletons.

“Hands up.” Two figures emerged from the shadow of the doorway. One wore black combat gear and held a rifle. The other was smaller and wore what looked like a police-style ballistic vest. He was older with a long, gray handlebar mustache, and wore a tan cowboy hat. He pointed a pistol at them.

“Put down your weapons,” the rifleman said.

“No.” Enoa pressed her staff against the ground. “Get out of our way.” She had no idea how she would do it, but she’d stopped guns before. A real journey waited for her, beyond the Sabres and their plots. She needed to stop this encounter. She needed to survive.

“I’ll shoot you.” The old man aimed his gun at her chest.

NO! He wouldn’t shoot her. They wouldn’t. Enoa saw a void around the guns, inside them, inside the ammunition, a nothingness without oxygen, without Anemos. Enoa was an Anemos Shaper. She did not need her mental glade. She had the truth. She had her truth – she could do this. She was the blood of Sucora Cloud, Master Shaper.

Enoa stepped forward.

The old man pulled the trigger. His gun made a popping noise. No projectile.

 The rifleman attempted to use his own weapon. Ping. Nothing. He tried again. Still nothing.

“Hold, son!” The old man backed away from the rifleman. “We’ve got squib rounds. Don’t you know better?”

“Both of us?” the rifleman said.

That was all the time Jaleel needed. He loosed one of his concussion arrows. Both of the Sabres went flying. Jaleel sent two more arrows after them. They burst into nets. The Sabres were pinned.

“Holy crap,” Kash said. “Where does Orson find you people?”

“Was that more magic?” Jaleel asked.

“More Shaping.” Enoa nodded. “It was. Now, let’s go before more of them show up. I’m early in my training and anything like that is a bit of a gamble.” She led them to the door of the attraction.

Enoa walked inside. The smell of noxious melting plastic hadn’t escaped the building but was overpowering in there. Enoa drew up her cloak so it covered her nose and mouth.

“Alright,” she said. “Jaleel, let’s get your surprise ready. Kash, I guess you do whatever you’re gonna do.”

She found the older man had already begun sneaking away. He’d donned a large night vision helmet, his long white ponytail sticking out the back. He ran to the far side of the lobby, toward a concessions counter. With surprising agility, Kash swung his legs over the counter and hurried through a door marked ‘Employees Only’.

Enoa stood beside Jaleel as he opened his case. Most of the interior was empty. Only three arrows waited inside. Jaleel picked one of the arrows and squeezed it, just beneath the head. It began to glow and give off sparks of electricity.

“Fire extinguisher two-point-oh,” Jaleel said. “Let’s take out that arm cannon!”

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