Kol returned to his office, Arlene Greco’s photo album stowed in the glove compartment of his newly-assigned rover. He considered the old woman’s life and the strong likelihood that he’d never see her or hear of her again.
He found the rest of his convoy parked outside, two more rovers and an armored supply truck, awaiting their departure the next morning. But none of the personnel from his company were present. They’d finished their work and their packing. Kol parked his rover at the head of the line.
By the time he’d parked, Duncan and Max had left the small outbuilding that contained his office. They worked their way across the twilit lot toward him, weaving through Corps personnel from other divisions. They’d been waiting for him. Duncan held two boxes. Max had attached small baskets to his wheelchair’s arms. Both were filled with supplies.
“You run off all day, and I get to be your social secretary,” Duncan called. “How is Mrs. Greco?”
“They have no idea where she is.” Kol exited the rover. “They have no records. They have no information about anyone. She could have been pulled out of that building at knifepoint and the worthless squad defending it wouldn’t even notice.” He looked around at the other men and women at work. Two Rifle Corps members turned at the sound of his raised voice. “I’ll tell you more when we’re packed.”
“They don’t have anyone handling the relocation, who you could ask?” Max asked.
“I started an inquiry about the relocation, with their Captain Rolf, but they could just as easily ignore it. I’ll be at least two states away by the time anyone of real authority sees it.” Kol knew he had his own packing to do, and he’d prevented Duncan and Max from finishing their preparations. It was a poor way to begin his new command, but he couldn’t silence his misgivings.
“Uh, well I do have some good news,” Duncan said. “Do you remember last year when Eastern Command had us position those pylons outside town?”
“Vaguely?” Kol said. “Why?”
“They were finished last month, a whole communication line from here to the Mississippi. Now we have an active terminal and limited internet. And,” Duncan pointed at him. “You just got a message from Brielle.”
“Brielle?” Kol flipped the switch that raised the rover’s rear hatch. “I’m sorry I was gone and you couldn’t pack.” He walked to the back of the rover and slid aside the two boxes of necessary paperwork they needed for the trip. “How’s Brielle?”
“Who’s Brielle?” Max began to remove the small supply boxes from his baskets and slid them into the rover.
“Gabrielle Rinlee. She worked with us during our organizational training,” Kol said. “She taught us about recruitment and grassroots communication techniques, everything we needed to start our division.”
“Ah.” Max nodded and moved another case into the rover. “Your instructor.”
“She held the same rank as the other division captains.” Kol took one of the boxes from Duncan and packed it away. “Her role was necessary, but informal.”
“Come on, Kol.” Duncan set down his other box. “She was definitely your instructor. Remember all the times you had those private study…”
“Think about what you want to say.” Kol interrupted him, pointing his prosthetic index finger at Duncan. “It might be a violation for me to lay a hand on you, but she’d knock your lights out for disrespecting her.”
“I’m teasing!” Duncan raised both hands. “Not disrespect. I’m all for the two of you uptight hard-asses getting together. Maybe you’d both learn to smile more.”
“Was this a long-term relationship?” Max asked.
“You really didn’t tell him about Brielle?” Duncan said. “That’s cold. What would she say if she knew about that?”
“She’d have a good deal more to say if I acted like there was any commitment between us. When we met, everything was still ready to fall apart at any time. It really seemed like the end of the world. We needed…” He cleared his throat. He didn’t need to have this conversation with Max present. “What did she want?”
“She’s got some warning about Crater Base,” Duncan said. “You’ll have to talk to her.”
“I’ll call her once we finish packing.” Kol looked around the lot. There were only a few vehicles still in the area. That would make maneuvering easier for Max.
“I can stay here.” Max watched him. “You can take the boxes, and I can put them inside the rover. That should save time.”
“Cool.” Duncan started back toward the office complex.
“We’ll be right back.” Kol followed him, crossing the loading area and arriving in the hallway outside his office. Dozens of boxes still waited there, almost all bearing the old IHSA shield design. “Why didn’t the others pack their supplies?”
“They did,” Duncan said. “Most of the boxes are emergency overnight kits, to be stored in the truck. The water supply needs to be loaded on there first to fit in the dispenser tank, and that won’t be delivered until tomorrow morning.” He walked to the pile of boxes and selected a small translucent bin with a green lid.
“What’s that?” Kol reached into his pocket. He thought he still had a copy of the manifest they’d prepared.
“This is the paperwork we kept from the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea operation,” Duncan said. “With your hearing, we still haven’t examined it.”
“It wasn’t returned?” Kol said. “I thought we gave back all of Enoa’s things.”
“This isn’t Enoa’s,” Duncan said. “Relax. This is her aunt’s. It’s probably all business records, but we need to be sure, right? That’s who’s important. Gregory and Enoa can go around fighting bandits all they want, and meanwhile, we’ll get to the Dreamside Road. Then we’re all doing what we’re good at.”
“For God’s sake, Duncan. When were you going to tell me you had this, when the Aesir flew in to gun us down?”
“I did tell you, and you weren’t too scared of the Aesir to chase after it in that Sun Talon. Ugh, what’s gotten into you? When you were in ambitious Captain Maros mode, you moved Heaven and Earth to do what you needed to do, but since Divenoll, you’re so scared. You won. You have a new position. You have a better position for what really interests you. Act like it.”
“I just didn’t know all the details.” Kol thought about Max, waiting to help them load the boxes – each and every box – into the rover. “Fine. We’ll take this, but it goes last and Max cannot see it. Not ever.”
* * *
The drop of water floated in the air in front of Enoa’s face. She focused on the water, on the air around it, feeling the molecules condense into the liquid and evaporate back again, over and over. She manipulated the cycle.
The electrodes were cold against her forehead. Enoa tried not to think about them or anything else in Dr. Lopez’s small office, inside the Heartland-6 complex. She was succeeding. It had become easy for her to focus, to keep her mind in the divided place of Shaping, thinking only about what she wanted to think about. She looked at the water with her eyes and with her mind.
“Alright, I should have everything I need,” Dr. Lopez said.
Enoa released the water and it faded away, as vapor. She waited for Dr. Lopez to remove the odd wired headgear.
“So this is like an EEG?” Enoa asked.
“This is a modified EEG,” she replied. “It focuses purely on what the different parts of your brain are doing. Give me one moment to generate and review your scans.”
Enoa watched the doctor leave. She had no reason to distrust her aunt’s teachings, but the test made her nervous. She imagined Lopez letting her know that her Shaping actually came from some malignant tumor or other harmful abnormality.
Dr. Lopez returned quickly with Enoa’s scans. The doctor grabbed a folding chair from the wall and took a seat next to her.
“Am I going to live?” Enoa asked. Lopez laughed.
“Nothing abnormal.” She lifted two scans for Enoa to see. One showed a brain – her brain – with some sections lit with color. The other scan consisted entirely of squiggly lines. “I’m actually incredibly surprised how normal everything looks. In fact, the only unusual activity I see is in the cerebrum.” She pointed to part of the brain scan. “This is the area of your brain that control speech. Look at all of the intense activity happening here.”
She pointed to one other place, just behind Enoa’s ears. “That’s the Wernicke’s area, in your temporal lobe. It controls processing speech and sound. It’s an essential part of language and communication.”
“When you perform your Shaping, do you think of it as speech? I’m trying to understand what’s happening, and I have to say, most of what you would think of as mental abilities happen in the cerebellum, the motor cortex, or the amygdala. In all of my studies, all of the – and I’m sorry for the term, but there is a real lack of clinical terminology in this field – all of the anomalous abilities I’ve studied, what people call magic, is bound to memory and intense emotion.”
“But your Shaping isn’t like that. What you’re doing is closer in brain activity to someone giving a complicated lecture or a speech. Does that make sense?”
“It makes some sense,” Enoa said. “My aunt, who made my training films, she said that Shaping is speaking to the Earth. I thought she was just trying to be poetic, to get me to think the right way to do it, but maybe she was right? Do you think I have anything to be worried about? It might be different for the really difficult Shaping.”
“It might be, but my first instinct is to say it’s not dangerous to you.” Lopez pointed to the scan with the squiggles. “The actual activity of your brain isn’t anomalous, only intense. If you were staying here longer, I would perform more tests, including scans while you work more strenuous Shaping. But at this point, I’d say cautiously, that as long as you proceed with care for your well-being, this doesn’t seem to be hurting you.”
“Okay,” Enoa said. “Thank you for your help.” Enoa thought of Tucker and his attacks on Orson or the way he’d been tortured as a child. She thought of her own power. She wondered what the scan would have shown if it were taken when she’d beaten Captain Maros or when she’d fought Brett Nalrik.
* * *
“There’s the golden boy.” The small image of a woman resolved on the screen of Kol’s personal terminal. The image was blurry, pixelated. The resolution was just good enough for Kol to see her vague outline, also dressed in a white Captain’s uniform. He saw the distinct shade of her dark-blonde hair. “He’s here to grace a mere mortal with his presence.”
“If you’re talking about my reassignment, I didn’t ask for it.” Kol defended himself only half-heartedly. He knew Brielle was the last person who would judge him poorly for his ambition.
“I thought you were actually dead,” she said. “I thought they’d have you cleaning latrines at Outpost Z. But I called you for a reason, and I need to get to that before I lose you.”
“Lose me? My recovery squad is leaving on a mission tomorrow morning. I don’t have to go anywhere. You have me as long as you want.” Kol sat alone in his new quarters, now formally housed in the Philadelphia Liberty Corps Complex. He still wore his uniform, but only because he couldn’t be sure who else might see his call with Brielle or who else might be observing all communications through the pylon network.
“You’re cute,” she said. “That’s not what I mean. This call will drop. I called my parents yesterday, and my dad sounded like he was in a wind tunnel, for no reason, and then I couldn’t get them again. This was still the best way to reach you. I had to let you know I’m worried about your mission to Crater Base.”
“How do you know where we’re going? Is there a listing?”
“I’ve been watching for your name in official logs. I’ve been looking for any news about you, ever since Duncan asked me to represent you at your hearing.”
“He asked you?” Kol asked. “Did you turn us down?”
“Of course not! I just can’t leave here for weeks.”
“Duncan asked my brother behind my back too.”
“Stop interrupting!” Brielle raised her voice, still cheery, humored. “Listen to me, Kol. I’m not going to say anything about…” The blurry image vanished. Kol saw a dark screen and heard only static.
“See!” Brielle reappeared, now even blurrier. “I’m not calling to catch up, even though you owe me the story of how you got into trouble with an intelligence operative stationed two thousand miles away from you. I’m calling because you need to change your travel plans. Eastern Division has been experimenting on the Thunderworks automatons that are still at Crater Base. Allegedly, some of them are active. The local garrison is no longer staying onsite. That’s all off the books, but I sent a delivery team to them last month, and they came back talking about the eyes on the androids glowing.”
“I was told those machines hadn’t moved in five years. We’re scheduled to stay onsite with the garrison, but that’s only because of the distance. We shouldn’t need to be there more than a couple hours to do a search and data withdrawal from the terminal.”
“I don’t want to step on your toes, but twelve men isn’t enough to deal with a Thunderworks Strider, without major armament. You need to come to my outreach compound. We can supply you. We have disruption grenades and signal jammers that could get you past those automatons, if they are a threat.”
“How will I make a case for traveling over two hundred miles out of my way to get supplies, because of an off-the-books research project? There’s no way, given our history, given…”
“Given the fact that you’re noisy and you were repeatedly caught leaving my quarters at unseemly and suspicious hours of the night?”
Kol couldn’t see her expression, but he imagined her smile.
“We’re not in the same company anymore,” she said. “There’s nothing unprofessional about an Outreach force aiding Recovery. Please. I don’t want to see you hurt by something bigger than you. I thought your career would be destroyed at your hearing. Then, I couldn’t do anything to help. Now, I can.”
“If I accept your help, then we’d be professionally associated again. I don’t want that. I was looking forward to seeing you, as a Captain in my own right, and buying you a drink. Maybe…”
“It’s cute when you try to play coy, but you need to talk faster.” She laughed. “Our connection will drop again! Your chivalry is still not enough to sweet-talk your way out of accepting my help. I’ve seen those Thunderworks monsters. I won’t let you go to them unprepared.”
“And I’ve seen my share of monsters too, since we’ve been together.” The reception cut out again, long enough for him to consider his plans. He spoke again when the grainy image returned. “You could do one thing for me.”
“If it’s another weak attempt to get away from my help, I’ll hit you when I see you again.”
“Could you send me the specifications for the Thunderworks automatons studied at that base? I need to know what I’m up against.”
* * *
“Have you changed your mind, Captain Gregory?” Adelyn Castillo called down the long table toward Orson. The Commodore’s Lounge was crowded – over one hundred guests at many tables, live music, and a constantly replenished buffet. The reception extended through the majority of the crawler’s ten-level bazaar. A portion of the bazaar’s customers were randomly invited to the top-floor celebration, alongside Collective leadership.
The crawler had arrived the day before, completing its journey only four days late.
“Have I changed my mind about what?” Orson hadn’t expected to be called out. He was seated toward the middle of the long table and had to shout over a variety of conversations, to be heard. The surviving members of the Solar Saver Board of Directors were all present at the main table – excluding Arnold Chambers, who was still recovering. Several Great Lakes Alliance representatives were also present.
“You were distrustful of the Solar Saver Collective during your investigation,” Adelyn said. “And I’m curious if that’s changed. Everything came to a successful resolution, and I think it made a great case for the community that can be built here.”
“I’m very happy that things are resolved well,” he answered. “And I, um, I wish everyone the very best of luck with your new business plans. I think we should all be relieved and grateful for how it all went.”
“How very noncommittal of you,” Commodore Augustin said. “Come now, Captain, you don’t work for me anymore. Do you still think an organization of this size is doomed to become a problem?”
“I think there will inevitably be problems, yeah.” Orson shrugged. “But don’t ask my opinion. My job is to deal with the worst things in the world.”
“Exactly! Don’t listen to him!” Kash yelled from the next table, where a group from the Heartland-6 had been seated. “This is a man who is at his most excited when he’s in danger, and he’s not happy unless he has four or five people trying to shoot him. Everything here is too successful for him to know what to do with himself.” The engineer was seated between his two nephews, at a table filled primarily by Pops’ extended family: his wife, Jen, their three children and their spouses, and most of their grandchildren.
“Mr. Armstrong may be on to something.” Chief Morita sat between his wife and his very bored-looking son. Nozomi’s seat was empty. She and Enoa had left the table as soon as pre-banquet speeches and the first course of the meal had come to an end. “Captain Gregory is quick with a joke when he’s in trouble, but he’s acted quiet and reserved all evening.”
“I think I’m a pretty cheerful dude, given what my job is,” Orson said. “You all want my endorsement, fine. You can quote me – the Solar Saver Collective is a great idea for our difficult time, as long as they aren’t currently being infiltrated by a criminal conspiracy. Are you all happy, now?” The members of the board who knew him best laughed, but the rest of the table received his comments in silence. Commodore Augustin rolled her eyes.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen.” Pops wiped his mouth and stood from his seat. “I’ll take Orson off your hands before he brings down the mood of the whole night. I’ve wanted a tour of the bazaar for a while, but my incredible discipline and patience wasn’t passed down to the grandkids. Orson can come along instead.”
“It really was a pleasure to help you fix this difficult situation.” Orson set his napkin beside his empty plate and stood. “If I don’t see you again before you head out,” he offered one of his two-fingers salutes. “Safe travels.”
“You didn’t get to see us make one of our deliveries,” Augustin said. “I think you’d appreciate the machinery of the delivery system.”
“Another time I guess.” He adjusted his suit jacket, an odd thing for him to do, without armor hidden in the fabric.
Chief Morita’s son, Ichiro, called down the table. “Captain Gregory, may I please have another ride in the Aesir,before you leave?”
“If it’s alright with your parents and one of them comes with you, then I’m free all afternoon tomorrow. Come by whenever you want. The area around here looks pretty cool with all the snow.”
“Yay!” Ichiro cheered.
“Thank you,” Chief Morita said. “It’s been an honor working with you, Captain.”
“The honor was mine,” Orson said. “Good night, everyone.”
“Are you ready?” Pops stood beside him.
After a chorus of ‘good nights’ from the various Solar Saver Board members, Orson followed Pops from the lounge, taking the wide stair past security, into the bazaar.
The top level of the bazaar was deafening. Food stall vendors shouted, offering noodles, hot dogs, Chicago deep-dish pizza, and assorted fried foods, creating a background cacophony to the revelry. The arts stalls and other vendors could hardly keep up with the noise of the late-dinner shouting, but there were currently more than enough customers to go around.
Orson caught sight of a large gathering at an arcade. He spotted Enoa, Nozomi Morita, Jaleel and a whole collection of their contemporaries, Collective crew kids and Archers alike, most now wearing Collective badges on their shoulders. They were all involved in some kind of group dance game. Neither of Orson’s young crewmates noticed him, and he followed after Pops.
Pops did not walk toward any of the art stalls or attractions. He maneuvered his way through the crowd with the subtle grace of a longtime city resident. This was a skill Orson had never acquired, and he followed in Pops’ wake.
“You’re not planning to look around?” Orson asked.
“I’d like to,” he said. “But we have business that could take a long while.”
“We need to figure out your equipment for your journey. You’re leaving soon, correct?”
“I am. This has already taken too long.”
Pops nodded. “The Wayfarers Highway awaits.”
Together they maneuvered their way to the stairwell, past cries for goods and foods and trinkets, past an acoustic guitar trio and a South American pan flute ensemble, past a familiar man in a circus ringmaster uniform, “NetPass sold here! Explore the NewNet! Civilization has returned!”
Pops led Orson away from the music and the noise of returning society, until the booming sounds of the huge gathering faded to a distant rumble. They exited the crawler at the ground level and trudged through the snow toward the Heartland-6 complex.
“The magnet boots Mr. Yaye stole from the Sabres have been resized.” Pops spoke only when they stepped inside the trailer that hid his workshop. The interior of the long building was dominated by a tiled hallway, decorated with classic movie posters.
“Mr. Yaye has been approved to spend his ten month work agreement as a crewman aboard the Aesir. Enoa’s cloak has been lined with some of your extra armor. Mr. Yaye’s archer suit can also be adapted, but that will use up the majority of your armor reserve. You won’t have the stash you used to. The remainder probably isn’t enough to line your suit jacket.”
“That’s fine.” Orson followed Pops until they reached the maintenance room at the end of the hall. “It’s getting worse out there.”
“And you’re getting older.” Pops chortled. “Things start to seem more dangerous when you’re actually in charge. You’re a real captain now.”
“I guess.” Orson followed Pops into a small closet. The room was hardly large enough for them to stand side-by-side, filled with mops and brooms, shelves of toolkits, racks of wrenches, cases of nails of all sizes. Pops slid the collection of mops aside until he could reach a dual outlet, at the wall. He removed the outlet’s plating. Beneath it, waited a number pad. Pops input the passcode, then leaned forward, toward a hidden retinal scanner. One of the shelves slid aside, revealing a cramped elevator. They stepped inside.
“I had your guidance system updated too,” Pops continued. “It’ll take practice, but you should have an easier time wielding your blasters and operating your repulsor at the same time.”
“Thank you,” Orson said. “I never used to fly the way I’ve had to, lately.”
The elevator descended to the secret sub-basement where Pops hid his workshop.
“Oh, and I hired Mr. Chet Hubbard, that fellow you saved in Trolley Town. Turns out he’s a wiz at electrical maintenance, so that should work out for us and him.”
“Great,” Orson said. “I’m glad I could help that guy I still don’t remember.”
The elevator opened onto the workshop. This room didn’t look like the interior of some drive-in movie theater. It was lined with transparent cases of weapons and equipment, computers, blasters, explosives, and other locked, vault-like doors. One entire suit of Strateren armor now stood inside one such case.
“Why did you really bring me here?” Orson stepped out of the elevator. “You didn’t walk me over here in the middle of the party just to give me routine updates. What’s the big secret?”
“We need to talk while we’ve got the chance.” Pops walked to one of the vaults and keyed a code on its lock. It swung open, and he drew out a tall block of black stone. It looked like obsidian with a gemstone embedded in each side. The gemstones glowed with an ominous red light, almost volcanic in appearance. Pops set the object on one of the workbenches in the center of the room.
“What are you doing with that, here?” Orson raised his voice, without thought. “I shouldn’t even have that, now. That was supposed to stay buried in California.”
“Red gave you this lantern for a reason.” Pops stepped away from the object. “She wanted to keep you safe, then. I’m sure she still does.”
“Sirona wouldn’t…” Orson walked away from Pops until he found the words. “That’s the thing with you, sometimes. You act like you know what’s best for everybody. She gave me the lantern because I had Thunderworks trying to kill me, but they’re gone. There’s no one that dangerous in the whole world, now.”
“The Liberty Corps could become that dangerous.” Pops kept his voice level and calm. He didn’t shout.
“I know that tone of voice,” Orson said. “I think that’s bullshit, but fine, I’ll listen to you. How on Earth would the Liberty Corps get that dangerous?”
“There’s been a lot of major tech sitting around these last few years, and you’ve seen what just a little bit of that can do in the hands of somebody like Nalrik. That’s not even accounting for Shaping and other powers popping up everywhere. Imagine that on the scale of a whole world. And from what I’m hearing, the nucleus of the Liberty Corps is made up of old IHSA. There is every chance that they will become the dominant government on this continent, and there are rumblings of similar groups forming all over the planet.”
“They still wouldn’t be Thunderworks,” Orson said. “The production lines are destroyed. Even if they’ve secretly done nothing but rebuild the factories, it could take decades to get that kind of might.”
“There’s more than one kind of strength. For all your issues with the old Hierarchia, you don’t know what it’s like to have the government against you, the actual, lawful government. You’ve fought mostly terrorists or criminals, not the people who make all the rules. You don’t know what that is.”
“I don’t know what that is?” Orson asked. “I think I got a pretty good idea of that when I first left home.”
“No. That was nothing. You’ve got absolutely no goddamn idea what that can be. Look at me, Orson. I’ve lived most of my life under a name the Hierarchia forced me to use.” His voice changed when he shouted. Pops spoke with just a tinge of an accent, just a hint of the man he once had been, long buried, long gone. Orson had never heard his benefactor drop character, and he gave up any attempt at argument.
“They owned me,” Pops said. “I passed on the name they gave me to my children. No one will ever know Kieran O’Fay, and none of my descendants will ever have my name. That’s the kind of power that only governments have. That’s the kind of power millions of scared people can give to the Liberty Corps. Compared to that kind of danger, this little lantern is nothing. Your ex-girlfriend is the least of your worries.”
“I’m sorry. I just feel like this is a betrayal of her trust. I’ll think about it…”
“There’s more.” Pops raised his right hand. “While I’m yelling at you, I might as well get all the shouting done at the same time. What the hell is the Dreamside Road? I know you’re chasing after this thing because HE was after it, but that’s not good enough.”
“It’s the treasure trove that the…” Orson began.
“That the Dreamthought Project stole from the Hierarchia and the League of Earth’s Nations.” Pops nodded. “I know, but what is it? What will you do if it’s a history museum’s worth of artifacts? Hide them someplace else? Destroy them so they can’t fall into the ‘wrong hands’? Will you stay with them forever to guard them? Just because the most dangerous people in the world wanted this treasure, and you helped defeat them once, that doesn’t mean you’re the right person for this.”
“Fine.” Orson threw his arms in the air. “What do you want from me, Pops? Do you want me to pack it in, write a nice apology to the Liberty Corps, send them a fruit tray, and spend the rest of my days hiding somewhere?”
“Of course not,” Pops said. “But there’s a lot to consider, so you’d better start now, and you better take any weapon, anything that could help you. This Dreamside Road is like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”
“What do you think I should do?” Orson walked past Pops toward the locked safe that had held the lantern. From inside he brought out a steel gray case lined with heavy foam.
“I think you should go into this with your eyes open. Look at what stealing the Opal did to change your life.”
“You can’t compare me to the kid I was at eighteen.”
“No, because for the most part, you’ve grown a lot in the last eleven or twelve years. It’s my job to keep you honest. I didn’t learn my lessons when I was young. I always wormed my way out of trouble, until I couldn’t. If thirty-year-old me was standing in your shoes, I’d jump in with both feet and find myself in a bad position, and I want better for you. Every time you go up against somebody like the Five Point Palm or that Tucker you told me about, I think, ‘well, this is finally the time one of those super-powered freaks kills him’. You’re just a man, not some supernatural anomaly. You’ve given up so much already, and I want to see you live long enough to retire off into the sunset.”
“I appreciate your advice, Pops, as always.” Orson set the case on the workbench beside the lantern. He lifted the stone by its thin handle and held it, felt the heat radiating from the glowing red stones. Then he set the lantern into the padded case. “But you worry too much.” He sealed the case. “You know what a careful guy I am.”