“And the bathroom also has an emergency eye wash.” Orson flew the Aesir through the lower cloud cover, guiding their flight by the ship’s scopes and his visor’s HUD. They’d been traveling three hours. They left the cold Great Lakes far behind them. Miles below, the terrain changed from grasslands to an arid flat expanse. “But I really don’t know how to use the eye washer, so don’t get stuff in your eyes. We’re all adults here, right? We should, hopefully, be able to avoid most eye-related incidents.”
Orson pulled back on the wheel and sent them above the clouds. The windshield adjusted for the sudden, intense sunlight.
“I have some questions,” Jaleel said. “But it’s a little complicated.”
“We have a while before we get to the restaurant, go ahead.”
“Well, it’s not about the ship’s bathroom,” Jaleel said. “It’s about everything else. I don’t really get what the Dreamside Road is, who the Dreamthought Project was, how they relate to Thunderworks or the IHSA, or how magic, er, Shaping works. I thought the Sabre stuff was complicated, but that boiled down to ‘bad men have space armor’. I could deal with that.”
“Hmm.” Orson continued the Aesir on its level course above the clouds. “Enoa, we’ve talked about the old conspiracy. Did I explain it well enough to you?”
“I think I understand it,” she said. “The IHSA was an intergovernmental agency made up of people from all different countries. It seems like, at first, they genuinely wanted to keep people safe. I’m not sure what happened, but I guess they decided that all of the powers and certain technology and things needed to be studied, away from most people. But eventually, they wanted to control what they were studying. They wanted to use the power, not just keep it away from society. There was a program to teach normal people to use what you call magic, but eventually those people defected. When they left, they took a collection of powerful artifacts the Hierarchia thought could be weaponized.”
“And that’s the Dreamthought Project taking the Dreamside Road,” Jaleel said. “So the IHSA operated kinda like the SCP Foundation?”
“When you make your references, that you know I won’t possibly get,” Orson said. “What answer do you think I’ll give you?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Enoa said. “That’s a pretty reasonable comparison, as far as I know, except this was real. The IHSA was trying to quantify the phenomenon they studied.”
“If I can add some boring legislative crap,” Orson said. “Some crazy shit went down during World War Two, things the governments of the world couldn’t ignore. Almost all of the League of Nations countries signed the International Hierarchia Statute. It’s a really boring name, but it gave the Statute’s enforcement agency free rein to control anomalies, in secret. By the time I ran into them, they had militarized forces. They detained anything related to High Strangeness, human enhancement, other biological entities, technological leaps, like the Aesir…”
“Wow,” Jaleel said. “It sounds like a mess.”
“When I think about it, it makes some sense we wound up in the bad global state we did,” Orson said. “I think I have a chart stashed away somewhere about their study topics. I’m a guy with a flaming sword and a flying camper, so I operate right at the intersection of secret, but explained stuff and secret, but unexplained stuff. Would my elementary school-style word-web be helpful?”
“Yes,” Jaleel said. “That would be extremely helpful. Am I allowed to know a little bit more about how the two of you connect to this? Like, I want the full infodump, okay?”
“We can easily give you a summary that’s not, uh, infodump length,” Orson said.
“My aunt, Sucora, was a member of the Dreamthought Project,” Enoa said. “So was Orson’s mentor. I’m trying to figure out what my aunt’s role in all of this was. The IHSA believed certain people were more capable of learning Shaping than others, and they thought my aunt’s Nimauk heritage meant she’d be one of them. She said it had no tie to our culture, but she wanted me to learn Shaping, anyway. But that’s just me. Orson says he’s doing this out of pettiness.”
“Pettiness?” Jaleel asked. “I don’t follow.”
“I was being obnoxious when I said that to you, Enoa.” Orson lowered them back into the cloud cover. These were light-gray clouds, low precipitation, clear reception for the Aesir’s scopes. “But it’s mostly true. I know people that I really don’t want to get a treasure trove of artifacts with unexplained power. I got started in this business stealing from the Hierarchia, after they tried to destroy me. I outlived the bastards, but the job still isn’t done.”
“And how do Pops and this Eloise connect to it all?”
“There’s always been something of an underground adventure-industry,” Orson said. “We all got pulled into that business by getting screwed over by the IHSA, in one way or another. We started working together officially, when the League of Nations realized how out of control the IHSA had become and still wanted an off-the-books response force. Eloise was a community advisor because this rogue IHSA operative did freaky experiments in her town, poisoned their water, bred cryptid critters, you name it.”
“So there was a whole secret underworld of Fantasy adventures that slowly got lumped together with the space technology,” Jaleel said. “You were in an adventurers’ guild? This Eloise was a member of your group, and Pops was like the job-board guy?”
“Uhh, sort of,” Orson said. “We went through all kinds of crazy adventures back when it was still mostly underground. Most of our group retired or disappeared after Thunderworks, though. It’s just me now and gigs from Pops.”
“I think I’m getting it now,” Jaleel said. “All of this comes from the IHSA’s mission to control the high-concept shenanigans going on.”
“Pretty much,” Orson said. “There are some boring minutiae with the economics and some complicated issues with the different types of anomalies, but that’s mostly the size of it. It was all deniable to some degree until Thunderworks made the whole world face the music.”
“Wow,” Jaleel said. “I bet it took you a long time to win all the crazy gear you have. Was it mostly post-battle loot or was it given to you as payment?”
“It’s a big mix.” Orson sent the Aesir down below the clouds. Most of the ground beneath them was empty of settlement, but there was something in the distance, visible because of its contrast with the sparse landscape around it. “I solved a riddle with my buddy Ted, to get the sword. The boot and the HUD visor are loot. A lot of my minor weapons are gifts. My Stink Set was a present from the inventor. The coat armor is… complicated.”
“Thanks for lending us some armor, by the way,” Jaleel said. “I can’t believe how light it is! It’s like indestructible fabric – that’s a whole other conversation I want to have. What about the Aesir? Kash mentioned a scientist, Alice?”
“Yeah, I’m watching this boat for Alice Sun,” Orson said. “That’s complicated too, and that might be one of the stories that would take a really long time to tell.” He pointed out the windshield. “We’re just about there.”
“What about you, Enoa?” Jaleel asked. “Are you bonded to your staff Harry Potter-style?”
“I inherited all of my equipment,” Enoa said. “I didn’t even know I was connected to any of this until the Liberty Corps thought that my aunt hid the Dreamside Road under our property and burned my home to get at it. I’ve been studying Shaping for less than two months. Your guess, on most of this, is as good as mine.”
“I have questions about that, too,” Jaleel said. “It’s one thing to know that the world is full of all these concepts and another thing to be right up with it. Is it just me or is it pretty cool?”
“It’s definitely cool,” Enoa said. “Lately, I don’t think I’ve really appreciated the things I’ve done and learned because we’ve been in so much danger. It’s taking a while to become useful in situations, but it’s incredible how capable I feel, and it’s awesome seeing all these interesting places.”
“Watch out,” Orson said. “That’s how you find yourselves still flying around, like this, after almost twelve years.”
“Please, ” Jaleel said.
“I’m kinda stuck,” Enoa added. “Aunt Sucora robbed the IHSA. Either I’ll spend my life under the radar or I’m probably going to be involved one way or another.”
“There are ways out if you want out,” Orson said. “I know people who have managed normal lives, but I think, in your case, you might need to openly surrender your aunt’s remaining belongings for people to leave you alone.”
“I think I’d rather just learn to be really skilled,” she said. “Then I can travel wherever I want, whenever I want. Traveling’s the best part. I can’t believe I went five years without leaving Nimauk. I hardly ever left my street.”
“Well, now you’re thousands of miles from home and about to go somewhere new,” Orson said. “Full disclosure, I’m not sure how vegan-friendly this place is.”
“I had a big breakfast,” Enoa said. “I can get a soda if there’s nothing else.”
“They do have french fries.” Orson angled the Aesir down toward the road and the lone town on the small highway, beneath them. “There’s no sense setting down too far away to avoid notice. There aren’t many limits to visibility out here.”
“Where are we?” Jaleel asked.
“Eastern New Mexico.” Orson landed and waited for the Aesir to transition back into camper mode. Then he drove. “We’re at about the halfway point of the old Mother Road highway.”
The road was empty as they entered the small “city” of Halfpoint – population 110. Orson caught sight of at least one face stealing glances at them, as they passed. Other than that, there was no sign of another living soul, not even a car in sight. It was like a well-preserved ghost town.
“This reminds me of the last time we visited one of your favorite stops,” Enoa said. “This place screams Fort Mayhill.”
“Now that’s a reference I don’t get,” Jaleel said. “Does Mayhill mean bad?”
“Potentially,” Enoa said. “Maybe just fly us out of here?” But Orson had already parked in front of a small diner at the center of Halfpoint. A sign on the door read ‘open’, but there were no cars on the entire street. The Aesir sat alone.
Before he shut off the engine, a white-haired woman in an apron ran from the restaurant. She waved and approached the driver’s side front window. Orson rolled it down.
“You’ll want to clear out quick,” she said. “Today’s Requisitions Day. They’ll have that camper, if you’re not careful. Wouldn’t be the first travelers they left stranded.”
“My friends and I wanted to grab a bite to eat at your restaurant,” Orson said. “We won’t be in town long, and if there are bandits robbing you, we’re more than prepared to deal with it.”
“Deal with it?” the woman said. “Where are you coming from? You look like you’re headed west, but then you must have seen Governor Sloan’s men. They hold this road. ”
“This boat is stealthier than it looks,” Orson said. “We must’ve missed him. Who’s Governor Sloan?”
“Regional Governor of the Liberty Corps.” The woman’s expression changed from one fear to another. She looked at Orson and the Aesir and knew without doubt that something uncanny had rolled into her town. “There’s no way you missed Sloan’s men, and you better get out of here before they find you came this way without paying the toll.”
“Who are they to have a toll on this road?” Orson asked. “I don’t know Sloan, but I know the Liberty Corps, and I don’t recognize their authority to rob people or leverage money from travelers.”
“With that tone they’ll take more than your camper,” the woman said.
“Orson,” Enoa said. “Maybe we should listen to her. We don’t need another Mayhill.”
“What happened at Mayhill?” Jaleel asked. “C’mon, now I know how you feel with the references you don’t get.”
“This wouldn’t be Mayhill,” Orson said. “Don’t worry. This is more like a reverse-Mayhill, and we’ll talk about it before we do anything.”
“I’m guessing Requisitions Day involves them driving around from town to town taking things that don’t belong to them,” Orson said. “They probably drive this highway, right?”
“I won’t be seen talking to some transient with a death wish,” the woman said. “Jeanine’s husband was beaten for taking in travelers, without registering them, but you’ll get back on the road, if you know what’s good for you.” She turned away and walked at a quick pace to her restaurant.
“Wait,” Orson said. “I have one more question. Then I promise I won’t bother you anymore.”
The woman sighed and turned around. “What?”
“There was a roadside inn way back that way.” Orson pointed to the east. “The Halfpoint Lodge – is that still empty?”
* * *
“Sir,” Corporal Tag spoke through Lieutenant Rydel’s earpiece. “We have another automobile owner begging us not to take his car. It’s a nineteen eight-one. He says it’s a Buick, but it looks like it’s seen rough mod work.”
“Eighty-one?” Rydel laughed. “Let him keep it. If he wants to drive a forty-year-old car through the desert, he can be my guest.”
“It’s got a V8 engine,” Corporal Tag said. “I had Saclan look at it, and he says it’s good.”
“Oh,” Rydel said. “Then you’d better take it.” He tried to ignore the shouts coming over the radio. He got no reward for fielding the wailings and complaints of people whose property the Liberty Corps needed.
“He says he’s using the car to get to work in Albuquerque,” Tag said. “He says he has a job lined up, but he’ll have no way to get there if we gut his car.”
“Let him know the Liberty Corps is always looking for able-bodied men. The sooner our production capabilities are in order, and we have a registry of citizens for taxation – then requisitions can end. He can help us fix the problem. Rydel out.”
Rydel waited until the entirety of his seven-truck supply force and car carrier were back on the old Mother Road. He took a head count, before leading the whole procession west to the next town, Halfpoint. He drove alone. It was better for morale. The troops could be proud of their work without him looking over their shoulders. He could have time alone to nurse his inevitable migraine.
Rydel had led this operation every week for eight months. Nothing about this process concerned him, anymore, not even the occasional threats of violence. The locals, their citizens, knew better. And what transient could stand up against a thirty-troop operation?
Rydel wasn’t worried when the thick, black smoke rolled in from the south. That happened. So many drilling sites still burned, five years post-Thunderworks. Smoke was to be expected.
He wasn’t scared when his truck stalled, five miles outside Halfpoint. They were undersupplied with old vehicles and had too few mechanics or quality parts to go around.
Rydel slipped on his white officer’s helmet. “Maintenance, my truck stalled. What…”
“I’m out too,” one of his drivers interrupted.
“What the hell?” said another.
“Nothing. Just dead. This and the smoke. We’re all out. It can’t be a fluke.” That was Corporal Tag’s voice, the one who had taken the V8.
“Quiet!” Rydel shouted. “Tag may be right.” The smoke had thickened, growing from a haze to a cloud. It condensed enough to block out the sun. “We may be under attack. I want two teams…”
Screams erupted before he could say any more. Discipline broke. Rydel slammed his hand on the dashboard. These troops had no control, no will. If they’d been properly trained, it would be a different matter.
Rydel found his long-range radio and dialed it to the Western Barony’s emergency channel. But all that came from his radio was static.
Rydel drew his pistol. No one would get a jump on him.
Blue lights appeared, eyes, glowing through the thick smoke, approaching him. Rydel rolled down the window. He aimed his pistol at the lights. The smoke began to leak into the truck, but that was fine. His helmet would filter out the worst of it.
“Hands up, thief,” Rydel said. “Come any closer and you’re dead.” Rydel could hear a strange sound, a metallic footfall, but only every other step. The blue eyes came closer.
Rydel pulled the trigger of his pistol. Ping – nothing happened. A bad round? The eyes sped toward him. Their owner was running. Rydel had no time to consider what went wrong.
The truck’s door was thrown open. Gloved hands seized him.
* * *
“Just five more minutes.” Duncan worked to reassemble the terminal’s dismantled keyboard.
“You’ve said that at least three other times.” Kol stood by the door to the terminal’s main interface room. His squad held the control building, with trios at both primary entrances and a gunner operating the truck’s roof cannon. They held the position, and they’d held it for hours.
“This time I mean it,” Duncan said. “Right Bauer? We’re almost there. This terminal was in awful shape, way worse than the records showed.” Information Officer Bauer, a surly middle-aged man, said nothing.
They’d found the terminal interface dismantled, with all pieces lying apart from one another, including the main monitor’s screen. The work had been executed with precision, with care and time.
It took precision and care and time to reassemble it. Duncan and Bauer sat together at the room’s control table and slowly fit the device together, with nothing but the basic specs the Liberty Corps had provided them for the data extraction.
And when they made mistakes, they backtracked. Once they started almost from scratch. The hours stretched into the afternoon. Kol had allowed the rest of the squads to rotate and take meal and restroom breaks, as they waited. Luckily, the water was still connected.
“I don’t want to be here after the sun has set.” Kol exited the room and joined Max, in the hallway. His brother was reading a book, his wheelchair a few paces from the door, a bag of other books and papers on the floor beside him.
“Trust Duncan,” Max said. “Kol, you’re a soldier put to work rebuilding, but you need to get used to waiting. You’ll drive yourself insane without patience.”
“You were always good at keeping yourself occupied,” Kol said.
“What are you reading?” Kol asked. “Are you doing your research?”
“Okay!” Duncan called. “I think we’re ready. We’ll try inputting the search now. Would you like to do the honors, Officer Bauer?” Kol returned to the control room.
“Fine.” Bauer typed the coded keywords that would issue a search for files related to the Dreamside Road. He issued the search.
The primitive monitor was immediately filled with small file icons. Kol saw the number readout increase from 50 to 350 to 900 to 2,590 – higher and higher. The number settled on 10,891.
“Can we take that many?” Kol asked. “I thought you said three thousand files, at most.”
“It depends on the files,” Bauer said. “If they’re all text, it won’t be difficult. If there’s video… that’s a different story.”
“We have enough spare drives,” Duncan said. “We have…”
He was interrupted by the sound of Kol’s communicator. It chimed again and again – text-based messages, many of them, a dozen. Before Kol could lift the communicator from his pocket, it began to ring, a direct call. It was a transmission from Garrison Captain Schwartz. Kol accepted it.
“What the hell did you do?” Schwartz yelled.
“We’re finally pursuing the search,” Kol said. “We…”
“Shut up. Everything’s come alive out here, all the Thunderworks machines. We have severed arms crawling and heads rolling around. We have something pulling its way out of the earth.”
“This isn’t us,” Kol said. “We’ve done nothing to…”
“This just started. Tell me it’s a coincidence. Shut down your search and get the hell out of there… Oh, wait a minute. I understand. They’re after what you’re after.”
“What do you mean?” Kol asked. “What’s happening?”
“The three intact Striders just left their post by the wall,” Schwartz said. “They’re at full power, and they’re coming to you.”