Kol Maros arrived at the front desk of the suburban office complex-turned-shelter that the Liberty Corps used to house displaced individuals. It was a plain building that still sported the old signs from its days as an analytics firm. The Wilson Analytics headquarters showed no exterior damage, but the waiting room was strewn with mismatched chairs and stacks of loose-leaf papers.
“I’m here to see your resident, Arlene Greco.” Kol approached the desk. The Liberty Corps Lieutenant who sat behind the desk wore his uniform tunic with sleeves rolled up and collar unbuttoned. He leaned back in his desk chair, boots up on the desktop, reading a rolled up magazine.
“Relative?” The Lieutenant didn’t look up. “We don’t let people in who aren’t relatives.”
“What division do you represent, Lieutenant?” Kol asked. “Who trained you to ignore the door of the building you’re defending? Or are you an idle thief who stole that uniform? You wear it like one.”
The man looked up. His eyes scanned Kol’s pristine white uniform. He jumped to his feet, almost knocking his chair over as he did so.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the Lieutenant said. “No one has come by all day.”
“And if I were the head of a force of marauders,” Kol said. “Would you have acknowledged the threat before I slit your throat?” The man didn’t speak. “You still didn’t answer my question. What division do you represent?”
“Phoenixville, sir,” the Lieutenant said.
“I have known Mrs. Greco for years,” Kol said. “Why is only family allowed here? This should be home to the people who were moved to support our defensive efforts. They’re residents, not prisoners.”
“I know they’re residents,” the Lieutenant said. “I didn’t make regulations, sir. We can’t have too many visitors. It’s not safe with the Northeast Alliance attacking our supply lines. But I can take a message for this Gecko lady.”
“Greco,” Kol said. “Her late husband was Italian, not a lizard. I’m not interested in leaving a message. Maybe if you were attentive and did your job, it would be perfectly safe for any number of guests to come here. As I said, I’ve known this woman for years, and I want to speak to her and make sure she’s properly treated.”
“No, sir,” the other man said. “That’s just not possible. I can’t deliver on that request.”
“Lieutenant,” Kol said. “As Captain in the Recovery Corps, I’m not asking you. You will find me your resident, Arlene Greco.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Permission to send a call to find Mrs. Greco, sir?”
“Granted.” Kol nodded.
The Lieutenant grabbed the phone from the desk. It was probably a local hookup through the complex. He dialed a number. “I’ve got a Captain Kol Maros looking for Arlene Greco.”
Kol watched the Lieutenant, as they waited. With poor information and supply chains, it was unavoidable that Liberty Corps Divisions would vary in competence. But this display transcended even Kol’s wildest visions of ineptitude.
“Mrs. Greco left a few days ago.” The Lieutenant moved the phone’s handset to his shoulder. “She was in cubicle seventy-three, and that’s a young couple now.”
“What? Where did she go? Do you have a way to contact her? Her home of thirty years is occupied by one of our advance companies. She has nowhere else to go.”
“Maybe she has family you don’t know about?”
“What’s your name, Lieutenant?” Kol asked.
“Second Lieutenant Kyler Brooks.”
“I don’t know who trained you, and I intend to find out,” Kol said. “Operating this facility without any records is disorganized and negligent, but it’s obvious you’re incapable of anything more than the most simple tasks. So you will bring me on a tour of your facility, starting at cubicle seventy-three.”
“I’ll have to call that in to my superiors if you wanna go that way,” the reception officer said. “And that could take days.”
“And who is your superior?” Kol asked
“Captain Jeremy Rolf.”
“I’ll call him personally when my tour is complete. I almost lived here, myself. Now, show me through the place that could have been my home.”
Lieutenant Brooks resisted him no further. He fussed with his uniform, adjusting his sleeves and collar, and issued a call to one of his fellows that another representative would be needed at the desk.
Kol followed the other man through the building. The interior was bog standard office space, fluorescent lighting, carpeted floors, and padded dividers between cubicles. But the cubicles had been rearranged into small walled sections. None had their own ceiling, but the residents did have their own spaces, equipped with makeshift sliding doors. All floors shared restrooms and other facilities.
Obsessed with his own hearing, Kol had learned little about the requisition and relocation programs. He didn’t know the extent of the operation, the number of people or families moved. He had no numbers or statistics, but the scope of the human dispossession floored him.
Each of the eight stories held twenty cubicles. Most were closed, but Kol saw scattered people in the open. A line of young families waited to enter a bathroom. Children cried. A small squabble had broken out over soap.
Nearby, two old men attempted to fix a stove, an antique white model, dented in several places, looking conspicuous in a far corner of the converted room, in a spot where the carpet was ripped, exposing the linoleum floor beneath.
Most of the residents averted their gaze as Kol and Lieutenant Brooks passed on their way. One tall, bald, dark-skinned man made eye contact with Kol. The man peered through an open cubicle door, one of his eyes bruised shut and purple.
When they reached cubicle seventy-three on the fourth floor, a young woman worked with two children, hanging laundry on a line hung across the cubicle’s open doorway. Both children were small enough that they hid behind their mother’s hip when they saw the approaching officers.
“Hi there.” Kol offered the children a wave with his left hand.
“Hello,” the woman said. “Are you here because of my request? I’m so sorry to bother you, but the hot water isn’t working in the washing machine on the third floor ladies’ room. My husband would like to fix it. He’s a plumber, but he was told he couldn’t tamper with it and…”
“That’s policy, for now,” Lieutenant Brooks said. “No…”
“On the contrary, Lieutenant, this man should be commended for his initiative.” Kol tried to strike a delicate balance – verbalize enough anger to silence the Lieutenant, but not so much to alarm the woman or her children. He looked at Brooks until he was certain he would not speak again. “We appreciate his hard work. I will personally make sure he is properly compensated for his time.”
“Thank you.” The woman spoke with hesitance. She surely noticed the tension between the men.
“Do you know a Mrs. Arlene Greco?” Kol asked. “She was staying here until recently, in the space that’s now yours.”
“Are you a friend of hers?” she asked. “I’ve been asking around. She left a few bags behind, small things, some canned goods and cereal, but there’s a little photo book mixed in, and she should really get everything back.”
“I was one of her tenants,” Kol said. “I don’t know of any surviving family, but I am trying to find her.” The woman disappeared from view with her children, and Kol approached the cubicle. He tried to observe the space without further violating this family’s privacy. Most bathrooms were larger. Two cots stood inside. The rest of the space was packed with bags and boxes, luggage, a lifetime crammed in around them.
The woman returned with a small scrapbook. Kol took it and opened it. He saw a black-and-white image of a young couple, Arlene Greco and her husband, Giorgio. They stood smiling on a beach, looking across the years from happier times, easily sixty years earlier.
“If you know her,” the cubicle seventy-three resident asked. “Can you see this gets back to her? I have some of the canned goods too, but I’m afraid my boys took the cereal. I’m sorry!”
“I’m not sure what I can do,” Kol said. “I deploy tomorrow morning, and I don’t want to leave town with her things, but if we really can’t find her, I suppose it’s better for someone who knows her to have it.”
* * *
Enoa had held high hopes for the days after the battle with Nalrik’s crew. Initial film screenings had begun at the Heartland-6 complex – endorsed by the Great Lakes Alliance, in an effort to foster the appearance of normalcy. Nozomi Morita was planning an event for the arrival of the Solar Saver crawler in the area – possible now that the steering wheel had been replaced.
Enoa had also discovered one of her training films, number seven, was subtitled “Shaping in combat, emergency resource”.
Enoa pursued none of these things. She slept a lot, and she felt surly and frustrated by the time she spent sleeping. But this did not stave off her lingering fatigue.
She finally agreed to schedule an appointment with Doctor Lopez. The woman’s bold claims of understanding biological differences in individuals experiencing phenomenon were too potentially useful to ignore. Enoa couldn’t pass up the opportunity, as nauseated as she felt at the thought of bizarre medical tests or sitting around with suction cups on her head.
Enoa was half-sleeping when the final denouement of the Solar Saver adventure began. She’d wanted to spend that morning watching the emergency fighting film, but instead she’d dozed off.
“Enoa.” Orson spoke softly and knocked on the door to her bunk. “I have good news, if you’re awake.”
“Yeah.” She stretched as much as possible in the small space. “Good news might wake me up.”
“The Great Lakes defense force went to the Sabres Unlimited base. They freed the Archer hostages and arrested the Sabre defenders there. It’s over. Once the crawler is repaired and finishes the trip to meet us, our job is done.”
“Then we’re moving on?” Enoa sat up. Aboard the crawler, she hadn’t been focusing on the journey to the hidden island and the Dreamside Road. This distraction offered her enough distance to begin her training and enough danger to focus her will.
“Yeah. As soon as we get our supplies together and make sure the Aesir is in tip-top shape, we’ll be moving on. That’s actually my second bit of good news – we can collect our payment tokens. Do you want to take a walk to Augustin’s field office in the little bistro Adelyn owns?”
Enoa opened the bunk door. Orson stood outside. He wore a sweater and jeans. As always, Enoa felt taken aback, seeing him when he didn’t have his sword or assorted regalia.
“The job really is done if you don’t have your armor on.” She planned to say more, but she yawned, one of the all-consuming yawns that make speech impossible.
“The armor is being fitted into a new coat. I feel like I’m running around naked.” He rubbed his hands to his shoulders. “So what do you say – should we go get our money?”
“Sure. We can do that, once I have a chance to get ready.” She hadn’t left the Aesir in more than a day, and as much as she wanted to break free of the cycle of loafing she’d entered, suddenly preparing to leave seemed daunting. “That could be a while.”
“Take your time. We’ll go whenever you’re ready.” He left her doorway and walked to the camper’s windows, opposite the armchairs. He opened the drapes, revealing a soft snowfall outside, tumbling from heavy, gray clouds. Orson sat and watched the weather.
Enoa showered, hoping the heat would help her escape her malaise. She knew from her previous, overwhelming Shaping exertions that only time spent recuperating could return her to herself. She dressed warmer and casually, in a sweater and snow boots, but still took her staff. The staff meant more to her than weaponry or armor.
“Is it safe out there?” Enoa grabbed a coat and joined Orson at the door. “I still don’t know what the rules are outside Nimauk. Are there… bandits?”
“It’s probably pretty safe, especially in the middle of the day. We’re close to the city, and it’s the seat of the Great Lakes government, so they’ll be trying to project strength.” Orson tugged at his coat sleeve. “I’ve got my blaster and some stinks, in case I’m wrong. I can get a blaster for you too, out of storage, if you want one. You’re a good shot with the roof gun.”
“I’m not sure I’m with it enough to learn a new weapon, if I don’t have to.” Enoa imagined herself with weaponry hanging from her belt. “Maybe some other time.”
“Suit yourself.” Orson keyed open the hatch. The landing field was filled with fresh snow. The Solar Saver Collective planes had departed, days ago. The Aesir now sat alone. Without Pops’ personnel milling around outside, the scene looked like any other camper parked in a mostly-vacant lot.
Before they could step outside, a waving figure caught their attention.
“Hi!” Jaleel stood on the far side of the landing area, his coat bearing more than a few minutes of snow accumulation. The snow at the ground was crushed, stamped down from his pacing. “I’m glad I caught you.”
“What are you doing? You’re in the wrong season to be a scarecrow,” Orson said.
“Uh,” Jaleel said. “I’m uh…”
“Are you looking for one of us?” Orson tried to help him. “Or are you just eyeballing my ship?”
“A little of both,” Jaleel said. “I want to talk with both of you.” He began walking toward them. “The security guys rescued Hayley and Raf today, and it looks like our settlement with the Collective’s acceptable to everybody.”
“Congratulations,” Orson said. “We were ready to leave, but I think we can wait until you tell us what’s up.”
“Fine with me.” Enoa stepped out of the way so Jaleel could come aboard.
“That’s actually what I’m here about.” Jaleel breathed deeply and frowned, like he’d been sent to share terrible news. “Mr. Chambers is paying most of our damages, but we’re still supposed to work for the Collective as part of the settlement. We’ll be paid for our work, since we’ll be aboard the crawler all the time, but I don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t think we’re really the ones to talk to about that,” Orson said. “Is this a moral thing or…”
“I want to work for you, instead,” Jaleel said. “I want to go with both of you on your adventures, join your crew.”
“You shouldn’t listen to Kash,” Orson said. “He seems analytical, but he’s got a really romantic view of the world.”
“It’s not him,” Jaleel said. “My whole life was about building and inventing, but I’m seeing now, as much as I want create things, the job I really want is the one you have.”
“I’m between jobs right now,” Enoa said. “But I don’t think you know much about selling antiques.”
“You’re making fun of me.” He shot her a pained expression. “I want to be a captain someday, captain of a ship like this one. This world’s a mess, and it’s been a mess for a long time. I think that’s where I can really make a difference. I’m a builder, but with the Archers I got used to making things for our adventures, not designing corporate infrastructure.”
“It’s safer building the infrastructure,” Orson said. “This fight with the Sabres was the fourth major conflict I’ve had this year and Enoa’s third, and it’s only March.”
“But I do my best work adventuring,” Jaleel said. “The world needs more wandering heroes too, ronins or Jedis or gunslingers, or whatever you want to call them. I need to spend the next while training in a crew of adventurers, so I can become a captain myself, one day.”
“I don’t know if it’s possible for you to work for me in your agreement,” Orson said. “I’ve never been an employer. Plus, how old are you? Are you even a legal adult? Nobody can join the crew if I’d need to ask for a signed permission slip, first.”
“I’ll turn twenty in a month,” Jaleel said.
“Oh,” Enoa said. “We’re closer in age than I thought.”
“Do I look like a kid to you guys?”
“You look young,” Orson said. “That’s not a bad thing. I was your age when I started out.”
“Don’t worry about Orson,” Enoa said. “He’s about eighty on the inside.”
“I’m no older than seventy-nine, spiritually,” Orson said. “If this isn’t too tough to put together, I’ll give you a firm maybe.” Orson exchanged glances with Enoa. “We’ll have to talk about it too, obviously.”
“Yeah, I don’t know.” Enoa could not resist the urge to mess with Jaleel. He was so intense. “It’s already pretty cramped here, and it might upset the balance we have, with two stinky men living onboard.”
“I’m super tidy and do more than my share of household work,” Jaleel said. “Ask my sisters. Plus I can fix things. My only big downside is sometimes my experiments get noisy and…”
“I’m messing with you.” Enoa raised her hands. “I’d be happy to have you, as long as we’re not breaking the law or anything like that. I don’t really do that end of things, and it’s not my decision.”
“That’s the problem,” Orson said. “I don’t do the legal end either. AND, there’s one other thing. Enoa and I are on something of a secret mission, and we’ll have to figure out how much you get to know.”
“You’re on a secret mission?” Jaleel asked. “What have you been doing with the Solar Saver?”
“A really long detour,” Enoa said.
“Enough to get us some cover from dangerous people chasing us,” Orson added. “And I have to assume they’re still after us.”
“Woah,” Jaleel said. “After everything with the Sabres, this was you avoiding dangerous people. Maybe I shouldn’t get in the middle of this. There’s a lot going on here.”
“I tell you what,” Orson said. “We’ll think about your offer, Jaleel, while I see if it can happen. You have time too, until you’d have to make a final decision. The crawler hasn’t even gotten here yet. And, besides, I’m getting way too hungry to worry about the law. Y’know, Enoa and I were just headed to get our payment tokens from Commodore Augustin. I’ll find out if Ms. Castillo’s bistro is open yet, and if it is, we’ll all go get a bite to eat, my treat.”
“I’m starving,” Jaleel said. “But I’ll have to get that suit you bought me if we’re visiting anywhere fancy.”
“Do I look like I’m dressing up?” Orson asked. “Castillo’s new place is supposed to be pretty casual. Her ritzy location is actually in the city.”
“Really? I could definitely go for something. I spent my whole day waiting to hear what happened with my friends, and then I had to figure out what to say to you.”
“That’s perfect then.” Orson walked to one of the closed cupboards at the wall. “Adelyn left me a menu for the place after we got here. Let me see if I can find it. It’s a pain storing things here, I’ll warn you in advance. When I first got this boat I left papers sitting around and had a nasty surprise the next time I flew anywhere. It looked like somebody blew up one of those newspaper carts.”
“Hey, Orson,” Jaleel said. “This is a total change of the subject, but how did you get Nalrik’s men to give you the location where they were keeping the hostages? I thought they were all major Sabres or mercenaries with hush money or whatnot.”
“Oh they are.” Orson continued to rifle through the papers in the cabinet. “But I told them they had to either give me the location of the hostages or I’d give them to Enoa and she’d start blowing up body parts.”
“You didn’t!” Enoa said. “I’m going to have the law after me now. Nalrik only lost his arm because he kept trying to use the broken cannon. I can’t just blow up people’s arms.”
“Not yet,” Orson said.