The Solar Saver Crawler left two days later, taking with it the full caravan of followers and over two hundred new Collective employees. Commodore Augustin, Adelyn Castillo, the four Moritas, and the assembled Wuyar Archers, along with Jaleel’s parents and younger sisters, gathered on the crawler transport’s rear walkway, bidding farewell to a son and brother, to new friends, and to a harrowing chapter in their lives.
The silence settled in immediately. Pops’ personnel went back to their normal work. The Aesir was left alone in its snowy landing field, waiting for only a handful of logistics before its own journey began again.
“Alright.” Orson held his datapad, now displaying his ship supply lists. He knew his new crew members were both consumed with their own interests, but this final check was mostly for his benefit. “You two have your clothing, bedding, and all your various bathroom and toiletry supplies, right?”
“Yeah.” Jaleel was in the process of fitting multiple long cases inside one of the overhead lockers. “I have everything, boss. I don’t think we need to go through this a fourth time.”
Enoa did not reply. She sat on the couch, her Shaping bracelet in her lap. She’d found a small panel on the inside of the device and slipped it open. She was in the process of inspecting it.
“You need to let me take a look at your bracelet.” Jaleel watched her work. “Anything that small with a computer and a hologram projector is serious technology. You’re gonna want a better understanding of that thing than whatever RPG-magic information it gives to you when you put it on.”
“I know that.” Enoa set the bracelet aside. “It’s not like I don’t know. I just assumed my aunt’s movies would explain what it is.”
“What’s the matter?” Orson asked. “Did something happen with that bracelet?”
“No,” Enoa said.
“Yes,” Jaleel said. “Enoa, that thing knew you did magic when you weren’t wearing it, and it knew what kind of magic you did. If you’re going to wander around with the magic Pokedex device on your arm – a magidex – you gotta at least know what it’s called.”
“It knew what?” Orson asked. “I haven’t seen you wear that thing in a while.”
“I put it on for the first time since we left the crawler,” Enoa explained. “It showed me a hologram and complemented my Anemos combustion – I’m guessing it meant the one I used on Nalrik, but I wasn’t even wearing it then.”
“It knew she did magic when she wasn’t wearing it,” Jaleel said.
“Shaping,” Enoa corrected.
“Okay,” Jaleel said. “Shaping, sure. It detected her explosion hundreds of feet away. If her aunt isn’t gonna explain that thing to her, then we need to figure it out.”
“Yeah, that’s worth looking at,” Orson said. “Can you bring up old holograms? I only briefly got a look at that, and I honestly figured it was safe because Sucora left it for you.”
“If I can bring holograms back, I don’t know how.” Enoa fit the back on the bracelet and slipped it onto her wrist. It resized to fit her, but did nothing more.
“I have a picture of the hologram it showed her.” Jaleel fit a case inside the locker, then closed it. He pulled a smartphone from his pocket.
“When did you get a picture of it?” Enoa shot him an incredulous glance.
“If I see something weird or potentially dangerous, I get a picture of it. I’m sorry! I’ve been camera-ready since I was seven, when it got leaked that the IHSA met aliens. Going forward, I’ll ask permission to get pictures of your Shaping things.” He handed the phone to Orson.
|Fantastic combustion (new user)!|
|That’s a rare skill to master so early in your training, but be careful. It can be taxing without the proper control. Don’t get ahead of yourself!|
|RANK: Advanced Beginner|
“Yeah,” Orson said. “It’s pretty weird that it could sense you that far away. How does it sense you to begin with?”
“I don’t know,” Enoa said. “I really thought the films would tell me what it was and how to use it. Maybe they still will. Some of them have subtitles in my aunt’s tiny handwriting – there’s one about emergency combat I’m going to watch next.”
“Hmm.” Orson nodded. “We’ll need to figure it out. Now, let’s finish inventory.” Enoa and Jaleel groaned. “This is the last time we’ll go through this, I promise, but Pops is the best chance we have to resupply.”
“But I thought we were flying over old Route Sixty-six,” Jaleel said. “Isn’t that the big trade route again? They have to have some good stuff.”
“We’re flying over,” Orson said. “But only for part of the trip. With all the alliances and factions operating now, I’d really rather just bypass most of that. Okay, I resupplied the MedKit and added some emergency EpiPens.”
“I don’t have allergies,” Jaleel said.
“You don’t have allergies in the Midwest,” Orson corrected. “Who knows where we’ll wind up? All we need is to be in a rainforest and have some awful reaction to something hundreds of miles from the nearest drug store.” He tapped at the datapad. “Okay, do you two have a painkiller preference? I’m an ibuprofen man, myself, but we can get a second case if you respond better to acetaminophen or something else. Dr. Lopez also hooked us up with a very small supply of morphine, but it was expensive and difficult to get, and she gave me a whole page of warnings about it, so hopefully we’ll never need it.”
“How injured do you think we’re gonna get?” Jaleel asked.
The incoming-message chime sounded at the dashboard. Orson set the pad aside and hurried to the front of the cabin.
“Oh,” he said. “I heard back from my friend Eloise.” He accepted the call. “Hey, how are you? It’s great…”
“Typical Orson Gregory!” A woman spoke through the comm. “Only show up when you need something.”
“That’s not fair!” Orson said. “I’ve been tied up with this treasure hunt for months. You aren’t gonna believe some of the people after this thing, the stories I have to tell you…”
“Months?” Eloise replied. “Orson, I haven’t seen you in two and a half years.”
“No!” Orson said. “I was with you and your family on Thanksgiving, last year.”
“No,” she said. “That was three Thanksgivings ago.” Her feigned annoyance broke, and she laughed. “My dad kept saying ‘somebody finally got poor Orson. Somebody finally got him.’ But I assumed you were just being a lousy friend.”
“I’m sorry!” Orson said. “How is everyone? I didn’t mean to lose touch. It’s been a weird time, even for me. There’s a lot we need to catch up on.”
“Well, you can tell us all about it soon. Carlos can’t wait to meet you. All this time we’ve dated, and he’s never met anybody from our old crew. He’s only heard the stories.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him too,” Orson said. “You haven’t heard from anyone else either then?”
“I’ve heard from some of the others, but I haven’t seen any of them. How’s your new crew? Pops says you’re recruiting a band of warrior teenagers.”
“There’s only one teenager here!” Enoa called from her seat. “Gramps doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“I’m almost twenty!” Jaleel said.
“Gramps?” Eloise laughed. “I bet he loves that. I didn’t realize Orson had anyone else on the call. I’m sorry. I’m just trying to bother my old friend.”
“We bother him too,” Enoa said. “That’s no problem.”
“Speak for yourself,” Jaleel said. “I’m an excellent crewmember. Isn’t that right, boss?”
“Boss?” Eloise laughed. “Things really have changed for you, haven’t they?”
“Less than I’d like,” Orson said. “Eloise, this is the new crew, Enoa Cloud and Jaleel Yaye. Enoa and Jaleel, meet Eloise Corwin.”
“Hello,” Enoa said.
“Hi, fellow wayfarer,” Jaleel said.
“Nice to meet you, warrior children,” Eloise replied.
“You still talk to Pops?” Orson asked.
“I don’t hear from him too often,” Eloise said. “He called two days ago. I think he was making sure we hadn’t been murdered by wandering marauders, before you flew out here.”
“Oh,” Orson said. “Standard Pops.”
“Exactly. So you’re planning on being here tomorrow?”
“That’s right. We’re finishing our packing today and…”
“We finished our packing yesterday,” Jaleel interrupted. “He’s just forced us to check it all, fifteen times.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting the new crew,” Eloise said. “Some of the news I have to share with you isn’t too great, but it’ll be really good to see you again.”
“Yeah,” Orson said. “It will be good to catch up. Depending on timing, we might stop by the Midway, but we should get to you sometime tomorrow afternoon.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Eloise said. “Safe travels! I’ll talk to you then.”
“Right,” Orson said. “Bye.”
Orson switched off the comm and turned around in the driver’s seat. Jaleel had finished his packing. Enoa continued fiddling with her bracelet.
“Where were we?” Orson walked to his datapad. “That’s right, medical supplies.”
Enoa and Jaleel groaned again.
* * *
Kol’s squad had set out just after dawn, driving west and then south. The procession left the embattled northeast behind them, keeping to intact roads and routes controlled by the Liberty Corps.
Kol drove, allowing both Duncan and Max to turn to their reading. That suited him just fine. He’d spent enough recent time thinking, dwelling on troubling truths, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. The immediacy of driving kept him grounded, and his new rover effortlessly maneuvered even the snowiest roadways.
He’d managed to dig out a working pair of headphones. He listened to his Iron mantra tape and worked on breathing. He had to shed his doubt. Rule the mind. Command Iron.
Three times the procession stopped, twice at Liberty Corps outlier refueling stations, and also at a small diner and motel in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Most of Kol’s rover crews switched drivers, but he kept driving.
Kol had seldom left the Philadelphia region during his time as Newtown Division Captain. When he last traveled inland, the continent was still reeling from Thunderworks. Roads were at their worst. He and Duncan had driven as part of a fifty-vehicle-strong traveling-party, working to reach the Liberty Corps training grounds.
Since that time, roads had been rebuilt and cities had grown. His own native Philadelphia region’s population had never been higher.
Outlying regions, on the contrary, were empty. They passed town after town, deserted. Other than scattered farms and the assorted industrial plant, businesses that demanded space, nonessential settlements had evaporated. People sought safety in numbers, driving an urban influx, building metropolitan areas into city-states.
Kol wondered at the logic of that choice. The outlying areas had been more dangerous in the flailing, half-lawless aftermath of Thunderworks and destabilization. But for the well-prepared, weren’t such places safer? Thunderworks and their fleet of stolen IHSA warships had ignored anywhere that wasn’t a major governmental center, a military target, or connected to nationwide infrastructure or energy production.
The wide swaths of countryside Kol and his squad traveled were empty of both people and damage from the cataclysmic battles against Thunderworks. This was land that could be settled and lived on, land likely safer than many cities, now that the Liberty Corps worked to rebuild and maintain the highways that connected them. But it was abandoned. Nature reclaimed towns. The great forests of eastern North America had begun to grow again, for the first time in centuries.
The sun had begun to set, when Kol saw the first crater, on the outskirts of the Ozark Mountains. The crater was small enough that it could have been a natural formation or the result of reckless construction – at least it looked that way from a distance. The closer they drove, the stranger the ditch appeared.
No grass grew there. The five foot-wide trench was overgrown, but only by weeds. Some type of tangling, thorny vines and tall seed-pod bearing stalks grew there.
Under the foliage waited the remains of IHSA transports. Kol saw two tanks, a trio of cannon-mount mechs, and a rover of the same make as his own.
“We’re getting close,” Kol said. “This is where the Hierarchia Omega Sector tried to keep Thunderworks from reaching their storeroom. Imagine what it was like for those people, trying to fight forces using your own weapons against you.”
“Puts the Dreamside Road into perspective.” Duncan spoke without looking up from his papers. “If the Dreamthought Project had used the artifacts they stole, we’d be talking about them the same way we do Thunderworks.”
Kol saw in the rearview mirror that Max had looked up from his research. His brother did not speak.
“I’d start cleaning up, both of you,” Kol said. “It won’t be long now. The garrison prefab was built in a clear space in the old battlefield.”
More craters followed the first. Some were only feet deep, shallow enough that they could be the result of some landscaping project, rather than warfare. Others were true craters, rents in the earth, practically caverns, deep enough to hide buildings.
All of the holes meant death. All of the craters showed places where IHSA defenders had been struck down, blasted from the sky, annihilated with their own weaponry.
A head peered out of one of the craters. The head was the size of a small car, robotic, severed at the neck by repeated projectiles. It was propped against the edge of one of the small craters, its forty-foot body lying broken in many pieces. The head had been built a blank gray, but a wide, leering grin had been painted across the metal. The artwork was crude, but oddly lifelike in the half-light.
“Good.” Kol looked at the fallen machine for only a moment. “We’re almost there.”
* * *
The Aesir crew engaged in the ritual of good-byes. Once the Solar Saver crawler had gone, Enoa and Jaleel only had a handful of farewells to attend to, but the majority of the Heartland-6 crew gathered together to offer parting words to Orson.
“How long are your parents going to stay on the crawler?” Enoa finished locking away the clean plate from her breakfast.
“Only until Jordyn is settled in,” Jaleel said. “The crew quarters are too small for them to stay there for long, but I’m glad they went first. The crawler seems so freaky it’ll be a while before they realize I’m in a lot more danger than she is. I’m hopeful, though, that Pops and his information network will let me get messages back.”
“Yeah,” Enoa said. “Hopefully.” She’d had her own plans to keep up with current events in Nimauk, but she’d pursued nothing of the sort.
Her training and eventually her exhaustion had consumed her. She’d barely spared a thought for her home, except through the gift Orson had left for her, the day before – the painting he’d bought at Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea. Orson had set the depiction of the Nimauk Valley into a heavy black frame.
I thought you’d like a little piece of home. I’m sorry the Solar Saver job took a bit longer than expected. I hope I didn’t waste too many days out of your year away from home.
You did a lot of good. I don’t think I would’ve managed a (mostly) peaceful solution, without you.
Hopefully we’ll be back on track to finding that island soon.
With Jaleel’s help, Enoa had hung the painting beside her bed. She appreciated the gesture, but its presence gave her an odd feeling, nostalgia and fear, at once.
“Looks like more people are showing up to say good-bye.” Jaleel looked out through the windshield. “How many… Wait, those people have musical instruments.” He opened the Aesir’s side door. Enoa followed him, as he walked back out into the snow.
“What’s all this?” Enoa found an entire collection of musicians gathered there. A team of the Heartland-6 crew in gray coveralls and winter coats were assembling risers, nearby.
“Pops organized a performance of The Wayfarer March.” Orson stood outside in his new armored coat. He nodded to the crowd of musicians. Pops, Kash, and Doctor Lopez stood with him.
“We got the audio from the end of the Wintertide Festival,” Pops said. “And I don’t like some of it, so I’m staging another recording before you fly off. This way we can get some images of the musicians too, and transition from the live audio to a new studio recording. It’ll be useful for the film pitch.”
“The Wayfarer March?” Jaleel said. “Film pitch? I am so lost, right now.”
“The Wayfarer March is Orson’s theme song,” Enoa said.
“His theme song?” Jaleel said. “I think I’m more confused. What real people get theme songs? Professional wrestlers, maybe. Is Orson, like, John Cena, or something?”
“Orson’s theme is from a movie that didn’t happen, and it’s based on his memoir that made no money,” Enoa said. “At least, that’s as much as I know.”
“Frosty’s Finest Studios wanted to make some new movies for our drive-ins,” Pops explained. “We had a whole bunch of them planned, about Orson and his crew or Sirona Birgham with her fire sorcery. We thought we were safe starting with Orson – the world’s first Fantasy-Adventure Biopic. But that was not true, at least not then. Maybe we can get something off the ground, now.”
“What’s the Frosty’s Finest name all about?” Jaleel asked.
“I decided on that name when I owned the World’s Largest Snowman,” Pops said.
“That was yours?” Jaleel asked. “I heard of that.”
“Your greatest idea, Earl,” Kash said. “Rest in peace, you beautiful icicle.”
“Wait,” Jaleel said. “So everything here is named after weird or failed business ideas?”
“That’s enough out of you,” Kash said. “After Earl let you keep three pair of those magnetic boots to modify, you should be getting down on your knees, thanking him.”
“Easy, pal,” Pops said. “I like the kid’s audacity. He’ll need it where he’s going.”
“Can we go?” Enoa asked. “Or are you going to have us stand in a line, heroically?”
“I already have a heroic shot of the three of you from the security cameras in the Age of the Dinosaurs,” Pops said. “I have no problem if you’re ready to leave.”
“There’s no privacy with you at all, is there, Gramps?” Enoa smiled so he knew she was joking.
“You’ll be alright.” Pops smiled with her. “Be safe out there, Enoa.”
“Get out, while you still can,” Kash said. “Don’t get too caught up in Orson’s crazy quests.”
“This is equally my crazy quest.” Enoa finally felt properly recuperated, like the promise of a return to the road had relieved her of whatever fatigue remained from the battle. She felt even better than normal. Every time she weathered the Shaping exhaustion it was like some muscle in her mind grew back stronger. “Jaleel’s the one who’s been caught up. Warn him.”
“Don’t think I haven’t,” Kash said.
“Keep in mind what we talked about,” Dr. Lopez said. “And feel free to get in touch if anything happens where you need advice.”
“Thank you,” Enoa said. “It was nice meeting all of you.” She returned to the Aesir while Orson finished his good-byes, Jaleel resolved his half-argument with Kash, and the assembled musicians started warming up. Enoa thought she spotted several of the musicians who had formerly been aboard the Solar Saver Crawler, including the flute group, an electric string ensemble, and the horn section from the Bassam Band.
By the time the assembled musicians were gathered together, Jaleel had joined her in the Aesir. Two extra cushioned seats had been added to the front of the cabin. Jaleel sat in one of these, behind Enoa.
“After we leave here today,” he said. “We will start competing for shotgun.”
Enoa had no reply, and she didn’t need one. The ragtag orchestra began to play, loud enough with the external microphone active that she would’ve had to shout over them to be heard.
Orson stayed outside for the full performance of the march. Then he boarded and took the driver’s seat.
“There’s a narcissistic side to you,” Enoa said. “Do you know that?”
“I was gonna set you up with my theme song guy, but maybe I won’t.” Orson stared the takeoff cycle and hit the flight control. The Aesir lifted from the ground.
“Aesir, you’re clear for takeoff.” Pops spoke through the comm. “Good luck, kids.”
“Take care of yourselves.” Orson guided the Aesir into the sky, giving them all a great view of the six film screens, the snowy fields, and Route 66 stretching into the distance. “Do you think the musicians have an encore in them?”
“You’re unbelievable,” Enoa said, laughing. “Are you going to do this every time we leave somewhere?”
“Shut up,” Jaleel said. “Don’t upset him. I want a theme song too!”
The Aesir lingered to take in the first triumphant fanfare of The Wayfarer March’s encore. Then it blasted away, flying high above the road into the west.
* * *
Three Thunderworks Striders stood on the other side of the rebuilt wall into the enclosed compound. Their outer armor was weathered and muddy from five and a half years in the elements, but their eyes still glowed.
These Striders stood over twenty feet tall, enough for their heads to be visible over the old IHSA compound’s walls. Kol slept little the night before. The local garrison had given them lodging.
Kol could see the wall and the Striders from his bed. He saw their glowing eyes and they reminded him of something. He couldn’t put his finger on the memory, but it made him uneasy.
“Why didn’t the Liberty Corps clean up those androids?” Max asked, staring out the window toward the base and the Striders. “Why not collect them for study or destroy them?”
“Everyone’s a little scared of the Striders,” Kol said. “How many cities did those machines attack? If people knew the Liberty Corps was studying them, that would be terrible for public opinion. But they’re also IHSA-made, so why destroy them? I suppose Corps leadership decided it was better to study them here.”
“And you’re sure they aren’t active?” Max asked. “They have power of some kind.”
“They do have power,” Kol said. “But all reports mention the eyes and some slight motion. They aren’t destroyed, but they’re not fully active, either.”
Even in the morning light, the eyes had a piercing quality, as the machines stared at nothing.
“According to my information,” Kol spoke to his assembled forces. “The only automatons still intact were built for riot control by the IHSA’s Gamma Sector. If they are active, they will attempt to detain you in a torso-capture cell, for dissidents. They’re strong, but with weak spots at the joints.”
“We’ll drive in close to the old outpost’s terminal building and maintain armed positions while Operative Racz and Information Officer Bauer complete the data transfer. Any questions?”
The Crater Base observation crew watched them leave the prefab lodging and gather in front of the outpost’s walls. The local garrison said little and offered only general small talk. They had not mingled and had not associated with Kol’s squad. Kol doubted these men and women had anything to do with the research Brielle had referenced.
“Those machines haven’t walked on their own in half a decade,” Garrison Captain Schwartz had said. “My mission is to watch this place. I’m at no liberty to say more than that.”
Kol couldn’t ignore the sarcasm in the Captain’s voice. Were these individuals placed here as punishment, forced to operate in the shadow of such an eerie and threatening sight? Could this have been Kol’s fate if Czar Ilias had not intervened for him? But there was no point in speculating.
Kol’s squad scattered back into their rovers. All were now in their full armor. They kept their weapons ready. The truck team loaded and primed its roof gun.
“I think you should stay with the locals.” Kol found his brother preparing to enter the rover, by way of the rear modular ramp. “It could be dangerous.”
“I want to access the records.” Max ascended the ramp. “That’s why I came. I made a commitment to do this research. But if you order me to stay behind, Captain, I will of course comply.”
Kol looked at the Striders and their vacant expressions. He wasn’t prepared to deal with the complexity of emotions involved with leaving Max behind. It was overwhelming and a choice that ran counter to his better professional judgment.
“Have you kept up with your marksmanship?” Kol asked.
“I don’t have the accuracy I used to,” Max said. “But I’m sure I could hit a target the size of a building.”
“Very well.” Kol watched the rest of his squad prepare. He exchanged glances with Garrison Captain Schwartz. “Permission to enter IHSA Outpost Nu?”
Scwartz lifted a radio to his lips.
Kol climbed into his rover. He watched the new steel door, fitted to the broken cement wall, destroyed in the siege.
Duncan had a high-yield data retriever in his lap. He had his holstered pistol and another rifle, at the ready. When the door opened, Kol drove inside.
He immediately saw why this facility had been renamed Crater Base. The interior of the former outpost was now pockmarked like the surface of the moon. The craters were still littered with destroyed tanks and the broken pieces of Thunderworks drones and automatons.
Kol had seen the Striders’ glowing eyes over the wall and knew about the machines from pictures and recordings, but it had not prepared him for seeing them in person.
Kol couldn’t help but notice their detainment cells. They were transparent, bulletproof glass, designed to deter further resistance, designed for potential adversaries to see the fear in the eyes of those already captured. The IHSA had built their Striders to store captives in their see-through gullets. These were weapons of terror.
There were skeletons in those cells, dead captives. The prisoners wore old IHSA uniforms. They’d been caught some time before the machines deactivated after the Thunderworks motherships were destroyed. The prisoners had been left inside without food, without water.
“God almighty,” Max whispered. “They left them in there, all these years. Why?”
Kol shuddered at the thought and at the horrible irony of those deaths. He lead his squad deeper into the complex. The road, at least, was intact. Had the Liberty Corps repaired it or had the Thunderworks automatons and their masters left the roadway unmarred for some unknown purpose?
Kol could see the main terminal building grow in the distance, a low, squat, concrete structure with a rectangular satellite dish on the roof – not far.
In the rearview mirror, Kol saw one of the Striders turn its head to watch them drive away.