Orson gave Enoa and Jaleel the armored raincoats before they trekked into the fake forest.
Enoa adjusted her coat. It didn’t fell well over her cloak, which kept bunching up at her shoulders. She should’ve stayed behind with Kash. She’d been a spectator since they’d walked in the building, and she hated it. She had no long-range fighting skills and had to watch the others battle the Sabres. She would have been a lot more useful out in the Aesir, helping the Archers and the security in their parking lot shootout.
She followed Orson along the forest path. Jaleel walked after her. He held the plundered spraystick in one hand and his bow in the other. She wasn’t sure if he actually intended to somehow use both, but she wasn’t about to argue. She needed some sort of ranged weapon too.
She heard a sudden noise, mechanical. Orson put his left arm out. She and Jaleel halted. Orson angled his sword ahead of them.
A massive screaming shape, bald metal reflecting the sword’s light, erupted from the trees. The head alone was almost the size of a small car. Most of its body was still obscured by the trees, also partially deformed and melted by fire. The creature let out a shrill whine from a damaged voice box.
Enoa jumped away, unthinking, even though she knew the dinosaurs were fake.
“I knew there was no way Kash didn’t hide a T-Rex in here, somewhere.” Orson waited for the beast to finish its cry and retreat back into the forest. Then he led them further along the path.
This was their fifth encounter. Every few steps there were velociraptors charging across the path or long-necked grazing dinosaurs leaning down to mime eating the melted leaves. Thick-skulled creatures, their flesh also burned, once charged so close to Orson that he reflexively swung at the lead animatronic.
The dinosaurs did their job well – surprise! In that lighting, the fast-moving bare metal was indistinguishable from oncoming armored Sabres.
“Orson,” Jaleel said. “You couldn’t see the Sabres in your HUD, could you?”
“Nope,” he replied. “They can hide their body heat, somehow. They’re indistinguishable from the animatronics, as far as I can see. They have lots of tech I’ve never heard of. Like that – what did you call it – the spraystick? For five years now, I thought my HUD had the full IHSA catalog in it, so that’s troubling.” He came to a stop. “We all need stunners, just in case.” He retrieved from his belt what appeared to be a long, glowing screwdriver.
“What is this, some kinda Doctor Who thing?” Jaleel asked.
“Seriously, you need to calm down with the references,” Orson said. “This is a zap pin. It gives out nasty electric shocks. Enoa, do you still have the one I lent you?”
A shape plunged from the ceiling, shrieking down toward them. It cast a shadow across them, a shape so large its wings almost grazed the trees on either side of the path, as it swooped. It sounded nothing like the humming of the Sabre jetpacks, but they jumped away from the dinosaur and its five-foot snapping beak.
“What was I saying?” Orson exhaled, once the Pterosaur swung back toward the ceiling.
“I still have the zap pin you gave me before we left the crawler.” Enoa found the oblong item at her own belt. “But I don’t know how to use it. You gave it to me when I was headed out the door. Is it like the stun box? I still have that too.”
“They’re similar, but the pin’s less intelligent and can be used multiple times.” Orson handed the zap pin to Jaleel. “The pins are super easy. Turn it on at the handle and stay away from the shiny part. Enoa, if you can get at someone with the box, use that instead. The box caters its electric shock to the target. That’s why it’s so limited.”
“What do we do if we don’t find Nalrik?” Jaleel asked.
“I don’t think that’ll be an issue,” he said. “I think we’re being watched. My sensor picked up something. It pinged some energy use, continuous, not like the animatronics. Both Sabres could be close. I think it’s likely the last guard is with Nalrik. Yeah, be ready.” He nodded to the trees. “Here comes something.”
Orson threw himself to the side. Something tore through the trees faster than any theme park dino, something too fast for Orson to fully react. A blast of blue light struck him in the shoulder armor. Enoa could clearly see the energy disperse across the naked metal. He drew his sword and aimed his blaster between the trees.
“I think they’re both over there,” Orson said. “Close.”
“You can’t see them?” Jaleel raised the spraystick.
“No, but…” Orson began.
A man flew through the fake trees, jetpack ignited. He bore down on the three of them, his left arm glowing green, his right holding a small blaster, firing continuously, as he flew. One of the shots hit Jaleel in his armored stomach and the force of the blast sent him sprawling to the ground.
Enoa made herself small. She reached into her pocket and found the stun box.
She watched Orson swing his sword at the blaster, as the Sabre flew past him. But the fire blade met the glowing left arm – an energy shield. The sword clashed with the field until the man drew his arm back. The Sabre came to a landing and fired again.
“Nalrik’s close!” Orson yelled, using the sword to catch two of the projectiles that passed near him. “Go, if you can!”
Jaleel jumped to his feet. “Let’s go!” He shouted and adjusted his mask, before charging toward the spot where the Sabre had burst through the trees.
Enoa got a better grip on her staff and ran after him. She imagined some robot dinosaur, half-cooked, slamming into her as it followed its preprogrammed course. But she managed to maneuver through the trees. If Nalrik truly hid in that direction, he’d chosen a place with a series of green emergency lights. The illumination was just enough to keep sight of Jaleel, rushing ahead in the gloom. He held an arrow and the spraystick in his right hand, apparently ready to fire either weapon.
A burst of blue light flew toward them. It missed Jaleel and exploded against one of the false trees. The tree didn’t fall, but Enoa gave it a wide berth as she ran through the forest. Jaleel loosed an arrow and sent a projectile from the stolen spraystick.
“You killed my friends, you son of a bitch!” Jaleel said.
Enoa entered a small clearing. It was filled with a flock of what looked like feathered pigeon-lizards. They milled about, pecking at the grass.
Nalrik stood in their midst, against a tree, his arm cannon extended to his side. An electrified metal clamp emerged from the ‘fire extinguisher’ arrowhead and covered the barrel of the arm cannon. The arrow shaft still stuck out from the weapon. What looked to be a robotic spider was grabbing at the arrow with its legs, trying to pry the device away.
Nalrik did not speak to Jaleel. He held a blaster in his free hand and sent another two bolts at them. Jaleel had apparently expected this. He was already throwing himself at the floor before Nalrik retaliated.
Enoa had expected Nalrik to fly, but maybe he was unwilling to with the spider still digging at his cannon’s obstruction. Before he brought his blaster to bear again, Jaleel sent a concussion arrow into the right arm of the Strateren armor. The force of the arrow sent the blaster spinning from Nalrik’s hand.
Enoa watched Jaleel draw the zap pin Orson had given him. He ran at Nalrik before the man had a chance to draw another weapon.
Enoa followed suit, palming her stun box. She rushed Nalrik too, running toward his left side and the arm cannon. From what she’d heard, the cannon’s beam was strong enough to bring down aircraft, but it also seemed to take away Nalrik’s ability to use his left hand.
“God damn you, boy.” Nalrik turned to Jaleel and swung at the younger man with a swift right hook. He was fast, so fast Enoa wondered if his movements were aided by the powered armor. Jaleel dodged the strike, jabbing the zap pin into the inside of Nalrik’s elbow and then again into his armpit.
The big man didn’t even flinch. He sent his fist into Jaleel’s stomach. Even with the raincoat, the force of the blow sent Jaleel flying several feet. He splayed on the ground, his arrows spilling from his quiver.
“You should have known your place,” Nalrik said. “But maybe I…”
Enoa charged from Nalrik’s unarmed side. She jumped around the arm cannon and the robot spider.
Reaching up, she jabbed the stun box into the gap at the armor’s chin.
The box met hard metal. Nalrik had reinforced his armor’s weak point.
The armored man swung his arm cannon, robot spider and all, like a club. He slammed the barrel into Enoa’s shoulder, throwing her against the nearest tree. The stun box fell from her hand, but she kept her grip on her staff.
“You die next, Pocahontas,” Nalrik said. “I can’t wait to show your corpses to Gregory.”
Enoa wasn’t a brawler, and she wasn’t used to being hit, especially not with ferocity and hatred and hundreds of pounds of muscle and robotic armor. She gasped. The world spun. The raincoat protected her when she struck the tree but her shoulder ached where Nalrik had hit her. Did Orson hurt when the armor was driven into his flesh?
Wamp. Wamp! Jaleel fired the spraystick at Nalrik, sending drills futilely bouncing through the trees. The armored man stepped away from Jaleel, walking back into the foliage. He raised his left arm.
The arrow fell from the arm cannon. The spider had finished its work, and it scuttled out of the way.
Enoa jumped to her feet. She forgot her injury. The sudden panic gave her new clarity. Destroy the arm cannon. Destroy the arm cannon! Make the air around it explode. No balloon of air, make the molecules of oxygen combust, make Anemos come alight with power. Use the power she’d earned against the weapon Nalrik had stolen.
Enoa brandished her staff. Nalrik stood only feet from her, but she’d been all but forgotten.
“You want to stay still, boy,” Nalrik said. “You’ll die faster if you’re obliterated all at once.”
Jaleel fumbled on the ground with his arrows. Was he madly seeking another ‘fire extinguisher’? Enoa ignored this. Up close, small lights were visible on the arm cannon. Was it recharging? Was it doing some diagnostic before it vaporized Jaleel? Enoa ignored this.
Enoa ignored everything but turning the air at the point of her staff into a targeted explosion. She was a Shaper, a pupil of Sucora Cloud and the Dreamthought Project. She had been trained in meditation since childhood. If Nalrik killed Jaleel, he would surely turn on her next or soon. She knew she had no future, no inheritance, nothing without destroying the cannon. That was all that mattered.
Enoa yelled. It was good to yell. Her voice sounded strong in her own ears. Nalrik wheeled toward the sound. He didn’t aim the cannon toward her. She was too close. She was close enough to hear its hum.
Nalrik swung his cannon like a club for the second time. Enoa was ready. The cannon met the end of her staff. Enoa wielded Anemos. She Shaped the air. It exploded.
The explosion emerged from the staff and threw Nalrik ten feet across the clearing.
He came to a stop when he crashed into an unmoving animatronic dinosaur, just beyond the tree line. This animatronic was mostly melted, all its inner workings exposed. Nalrik’s armor had protected him, but his shoulder hung at an odd angle. Even the stolen armor hadn’t been enough to spare him from the full force of the blast directed at his arm.
Nalrik struggled to raise his cannon. Even from that distance, Enoa could see the damage she’d done to the weapon. The metal had crumpled in places, like a half-crushed soda can. Bits of glowing wiring were exposed, like he was another of Kash’s damaged animatronics. But he raised the cannon all the same. The robot spider ran down his shoulder and probed at the cannon.
Enoa slid to her knees. No, no, she had to fight the exhaustion. She’d been doing so much better. She’d gotten so much stronger. She was used to the Shaping now. It shouldn’t weaken her any more.
“Come on, Enoa.” Jaleel arrived at her side before she noticed him. “We need to get out of here. Come on.” He put her free arm over his shoulder and tried to stand with her, but she was dead weight. She had no strength.
Enoa watched, her mind blurred, as the robot spider danced along the arm cannon, pressing loose panels into place and smoothing out the broken metal. “Come on, Enoa.”
“Wow, she did it again.” Orson also arrived in the clearing.
“Where were you?” Jaleel asked.
“Her explosion distracted that other Sabre long enough for me to take out his shield,” he replied. “Guy didn’t put up much of a fight after that.” He pressed his hand to Enoa’s shoulder. She knew she should speak, but she couldn’t find the words. “Shit. She can’t stand when she’s like this.”
“But we have to go!” Jaleel hissed. “Nalrik will fire again.”
“He’s gonna try,” Orson whispered. “That’s for sure.” He lifted Enoa to her feet. There was no strength there, but his. She couldn’t really walk. Everything had gone into the strike. “We need to get as far away as possible before Brettsy tries to shoot us.”
“What do you mean?” Jaleel asked.
“I’ll explain it if we live,” Orson said. “My HUD’s getting some crazy readings. Enoa, can Jaleel take your staff? He’ll be careful, right Jaleel?” She couldn’t fight regardless, and Orson passed the weapon to Jaleel. Then he lifted her. He tried a princess carry, but her arms fell limp at her sides when she tried to reach around his neck. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her like she was some obscenely large infant. “Sorry about this, but we need the coat between us and him.”
“Running away, Gregory!” Nalrik yelled. “Coward bitch. Come back and fight me. I’ll shoot you in the back if you run. How do you want to die, Gregory? How do you and your children want to die?”
“Come on.” Orson ran, Jaleel beside him. They rushed through the trees. They’d gone only five steps when a horrific metal-on-metal grinding began behind them.
Enoa felt herself slipping, her body falling away from Orson. But then he caught her around the stomach. She saw him grab Jaleel in the same way.
“What are you doing?” Jaleel yelled.
“Die coward!” Nalrik screamed.
Orson pressed his boot against the ground. Its repulsor didn’t fire, but it increased his strength enough to take one great leap behind a tree.
Orson forced them to the ground. He fell on top of them and sheltered their heads with his armored sleeves.
An explosion tore through the fake forest, a blast so hot and bright that Enoa felt the warmth and saw the light even with her face against the turf forest floor.
Enoa thought fleetingly that Nalrik’s beam had consumed them.
But the heat and light didn’t grow, and she felt no more pains than the ones she’d endured in her falls. Nalrik’s weapon had not fired, but it had exploded.
Knowing they were alive, all of Enoa’s energy left her. Her vision faded into darkness.
* * *
“We need to get her back to the Aesir,” Dr. Lopez said. “Her vitals are still erratic. This wasn’t just exhaustion. There’s a physiological element to it.”
Enoa heard the words, but she didn’t want to speak. She didn’t want to move. Her exhaustion had left her, but now she hurt. She ached. She’d been placed somewhere cushioned and soft.
“What, did she have some kind of seizure?” Orson asked. “She’s okay though? Do you think this happens every time she has a major Shaping exertion?”
“I’m really in no place to comment on that,” Lopez said. “Even after all my years treating individuals with mutations and unusual abilities, I’ve never seen this before.”
“So it is like magic,” Jaleel said.
“I don’t use that word,” Lopez said.
“You and Jaleel can take her back to the ship,” Orson said. “I’m staying with Brett and his men until the security crew comes to collect them.”
“Collect them?” Enoa opened her eyes. She was lying on the employee breakroom’s couch cushions. It had the same suspicious, dark stain she’d noticed while she, Jaleel, and Kash had hidden in there, during the battle with Nalrik’s men.
She was back on the forested path, but didn’t realize it at first. The objects around her didn’t look like trees. They were pencil thin and metal, like a room of TV antennas. “How long…” She tried to sit up, but the room spun. Dr. Lopez attempted to force her back down, but she shook her head. “No, I want to look around. I’ll be fine. It’s not as bad as it’s been before.”
To her left, all of the fake trees and grasses and dinosaurs had been destroyed, had melted down to their metal components. Between the trees, five figures lay prone – the Sabres.
They weren’t wearing their powered armored. They’d been stripped down to black jumpsuits, their armor and weapons piled a short distance away. One of the five was covered, the one who had died. The others were bound at their wrists and ankles.
All except Brett Nalrik. His left arm extended only inches from his shoulder. It was heavily bandaged, and he was unconscious, probably sedated.
“We did it,” Enoa said.
“You did it.” Jaleel leaned down at the armor pile and picked up a pair of the Sabre’s boots. “You made Nalrik’s cannon explode! It was incredible! It was like a finisher from Mortal Kombat. You made his own armor blow up!” Dr. Lopez scowled at him. “I mean, it was a very impressive thing, but, uhs, pretty regrettable that the murderous wacko got maimed.”
“We need to monitor your vitals.” Dr. Lopez turned back to Enoa. “Orson told me about this Shaping that you’re studying with your aunt’s films. I have experience dealing with power-based anomalous health issues, and I’d like to take a look at you. We might get some information that will help keep you safe.”
“Okay,” Enoa said. “There…”
“If you’re moving her, you’d better do it,” Kash called from the trail. “The Quebec security people are here, flying around all important in their helicopters and airships. They’ve already processed the Sabres that the local teams and the Archers rounded up outside.”
Everyone looked in his direction. At first, Enoa wasn’t sure what she was seeing. She saw Kash, but he was riding something, bobbing up and down, as he approached. At first, she thought he was perched atop an ostrich or another large bird.
Kash rode one of his dinosaurs, a feather-covered creature with a long tail and nasty claws at its feet.
“Did you make that?” Jaleel asked.
“I did,” Kash said. “But stop ogling my work and finish collecting the armor. We don’t want it finding its way into a government vault or getting picked up by some loony new regime. It’s much safer with us.”
“I’m sorry,” Jaleel said. “But that thing is so cool. You built a velociraptor to ride!”
“Actually, it’s only about eight-five percent mine,” Kash said. “I couldn’t get the steering right. But I like Giselle here. She’s so pretty.”
“Alice’s work?” Orson asked.
“Alice?” Jaleel asked.
“Alice Sun. The mind behind the Aesir. Learn the name.” Kash inspected Jaleel’s work. The younger man loaded the majority of the armor, breastplates, helmets, gauntlets, blasters, and all, into a wheeled dumpster. He began to roll the dumpster away.
“Best to get it out of sight before the Mounties arrive.” Kash eyed the fallen crew. “You’re going to have a hard enough time explaining how you did this to them.”
“You helped,” Orson reminded him. “That was a good shot with the stun gun.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Kash pointed at Nalrik. “Who did that? Orson, your new crew is scarier than the last one.”
“They’re here.” Lopez pointed with two fingers back along the path. “And behave yourselves. They’re nice people.”
A team of a dozen people wearing police-style jackets moved along the path, guns drawn. They proceeded in near silence, until they came in sight of Kash on his velociraptor, Orson in his metal coat, and the line of wounded Sabres, some of them dismembered.
A man stepped forward from the group of security personnel. “We were told Commodore Augustin was working with a contractor pursuing the Sabres.” He spoke with a slight French-Canadian accent. “Where’s the rest of your team?”
“It’s just us,” Orson said.
“But how?” he asked. “I spent all day researching the Sabres and their technology. How could…”
“You saw the camper outside,” Kash said. Maybe it was his dinosaur steed, but everyone fell silent when he spoke. “Didn’t that give you a clue who’d come here to clean up this mess? Well, figuratively. My poor dinos…” He looked around the annihilated forest and sighed.
“The camper?” the lead man said. “I saw the heavily-modified custom…”
“Custom!” Kash said. “That’s the Aesir! You know that name, right?”
“Yes, of course,” the lead man answered.
“What’s going on?” Jaleel returned, threading his way through the trees, the dumpster nowhere in sight.
“Shhh.” Orson waved at Jaleel. “Don’t interrupt. He’s hyping us.”
“You should realize how lucky you are,” Kash said. “But I’m always in a good mood after a caper, especially when there’s a lawsuit involved, so I’ll spell it out for you. Tonight is a very special occasion. For the first time in five years, the Aesir has a crew.”