The IHSA had built their automatons to fix themselves when compatible parts were detected. After they’d been stolen by the Thunderworks terror operation, this programming remained in effect.
Kol watched the two remaining Striders search the field of craters looking for replacement arms and connecting ligatures.
There was a large selection. All of the automaton pieces with any means of locomotion gathered at the edges of the shield. None were whole, other than the Riot models Kol’s squad had battled, but the others formed a macabre mob of half-robots and severed limbs. There was even one decapitated, yet determined, head, which had maneuvered along the road, dragging itself by a piece of attached shoulder.
The two whole Striders picked their way through these pieces, searching for compatible replacement limbs, like wriggling LEGOs.
Kol watched the Striders work until they’d found replacements for two of the damaged Strider’s missing arms. They weren’t a perfect fit. One hand ended in a serrated blade, rather than fingers.
The sun had long since set, and Kol was tired of straining his eyes, following the murderous machines with wary curiosity.
“You’ll let me know if anything happens?” Kol stepped out of his rover, leaving Private Hollin alone. The rovers had been mercifully undamaged and offered as good a lookout post as any.
“Of course, sir,” Hollin said.
Kol nodded and left him to his work. He averted his gaze from the shimmering energy field that had saved them from the machines. He was tired of looking at it. He was tired of thinking about it.
Kol entered the terminal building and walked down the hall, in no particular hurry to locate the rest of his company. He was much too preoccupied feeling miserable. This was his second field mission. So far, it had failed as badly as the first.
Kol was relieved to find Duncan and Max alone in the terminal room. The main monitor was now dark. Duncan stood behind it and the partially disassembled interface. He was unplugging it from the wall, one connector at a time.
“You’re disconnecting?” Kol removed his helmet. “What about Max?”
“I’m finished.” Max held up a small plastic bag. Three discs were inside. “I think I have what I need. Better to put things back to the way we found them.”
“I don’t think the Striders are going to go on their merry way just because you take the terminal apart,” Kol said. “Whatever in that search drew them here is keeping them around.”
“It got rid of them once.” Duncan continued his work.
“We can’t be certain why they gave up last time,” Kol said. “It could be they only wait so long before going into some kind of standby mode. It could be they were only supposed to support a force of human-sized automatons and after they captured all of the IHSA personnel, they wandered off. Someone was left inside those machines all this time.”
“The IHSA wouldn’t just run away while the shield was active,” Duncan said.
“Not unless they realized no help was on its way,” Max said. “It’s entirely possible the corpses inside the Striders are the former crew and support staff of this facility.”
“Don’t tell that to Kol.” Duncan finished dismantling the monitor. He inspected the collection of pieces. “He’ll give up on his plan to rush those things and force us to stay in here even longer.”
“I would wait for rescue until our supplies dwindled, but Team Four still hasn’t determined how to find the shield power levels. Unless we get a useful update from Captain Schwartz, I’d rather plan for an engagement on our terms than be caught without the shield.”
“How many plans do you have?” Duncan asked. “There are an awful lot of ways this could go down.”
“I imagine the Striders will stay out there waiting for us until we make our move,” Kol said. “I’m still figuring out what we’ll do if they leave.”
“Well.” Duncan stacked a few items from the monitor’s controls, leaving it approximately how he’d found it. “Bauer went to look through the file index and make sure there was nothing we missed. I need to scan for outgoing signals, just in case. You should come along. Maybe you’ll have inspiration.”
“Are you well enough for us to leave?” Kol watched his brother sort through his stack of notes.
“I’m fine, Kol. Really, I am.” Max returned to his reading. Kol looked at his brother, but he was as unreadable as always.
“Let’s go.” Duncan picked up his backpack and walked through the terminal room. Kol followed after him, heading through the door and traveling to the end of the corridor in silence.
“Well, what did you need to tell me?” He’d known Duncan long enough to be sure his old friend wanted a word in private.
“I have five discs all about Sucora Cloud.” Duncan rounded the fork in the hallway and stopped at a table. He removed his backpack and opened its front pouch. “All of these are files about her, her old IHSA experiments, her educational research, Tucker’s logs. She was really important, Kol. And she wasn’t the only recurring name. They’re not referenced as such, but I think with a little work I’ll be able to figure out exactly who hid the Dreamside Road.”
“And why did you need to pull me out here to tell me that?”
“I know it’s been rough on your conscience, but we did what we needed to do to investigate Sucora Cloud. She was a traitor and you did what you had to do to pursue that angle.”
Kol did not speak. He remembered the shelter in Wilson Analytics, the home of the dispossessed, the families moved for the greater good of the Liberty Corps effort.
“Now, maybe Enoa didn’t do anything wrong, but maybe she did.” Duncan said. “We didn’t know she was a Shaper. Even when we had our Shapers after her and they thought they could feel her mental ability, we didn’t believe. But there was something else going on, and you have to take that into account.”
Kol saw the rage in Enoa’s eyes as she pummeled him with her staff.
“I’m glad you didn’t say this in front of Max. He wouldn’t understand where you’re coming from.” Kol clapped his friend on the shoulder and turned back down the hallway.
“Come on, Kol,” Duncan said. “I’m trying to help you. Things were terrible in Nimauk, but that was all Tucker. He was the killer. He destroyed the train and insisted on trapping everyone. You did the right thing.”
“Duncan, we committed arson. If we were pre-Thunderworks law enforcement or military officers, we would have lost our posts. We could have been prosecuted. If we have to burn our way to the Dreamside Road…”
Kol’s earpiece chimed. He nodded to Duncan and accepted the transmission.
“Sir,” Private Hollin said. “Something is arriving outside. I think it’s a hovercraft or an airship of some kind. The shield’s interfering with our scanners, but it’s drawing the attention of the Striders.”
“Friend or foe?” Kol asked.
“I don’t know, sir,” Hollin said. “Wait! They’ve begun firing on the automatons. It seems…”
“I’m on my way.” Kol pulled on his helmet. He spoke into the squad channel. “Attention. We have new arrivals combatting the Striders. Full precautions – we need everyone at their stations.” He ran down the hallway and heard the sound of footfalls, as Duncan followed him.
“What’s happening?” Max left the terminal room and waited in the corridor.
“New arrivals,” Kol said. “Unknown so far. Stay…” Max didn’t let him finish the sentence. He started his wheelchair’s motor and followed after Kol, as well. Rather than wait and argue with his brother, Kol hit the automatic door activation on his way out to the driveway.
Kol saw the lights from the hovercraft, spotlights illuminating the Striders and assorted writhing limbs. Heavy fire left weapon emplacements across the bottom of the hovercraft, striking the severed automaton pieces with targeted fire. The field was soon soaked in the Striders’ yellow oil.
The two intact Striders grabbed the hovercraft, wrapping their arms around it. The automatons strained against the vehicle. They pulled, trying to drag the ship down to the ground.
All twelve of their hands were severed and fell in smoking pieces. The automatons stumbled away from the hovercraft.
Kol heard shouting, several voices coming from the hovercraft. He couldn’t make out the words, but he could see open doors in the side of the vehicle and figures standing there, looking down at the automatons.
Metal spikes poured from the interior of the hovercraft, pummeling the armless machines. The aim from the ship was good, all targeted at the Striders’ heads. Not one of the spikes strayed to the capture cells.
Kol felt a slight tingle at the nape of his neck, like he was alive with static electricity, and he’d shock the next thing he touched.
He’d felt that sensation only a few times, only fleetingly, half-imagined. But now it was stronger, undeniable.
These people were Shapers. Kol was all but certain he knew at least one of them.
The Striders fell to the ground, their heads and necks reduced to pincushions of spikes – iron spikes.
Kol’s squad cheered. They clapped and stomped their feet.
“That might be premature.” Max spoke at a normal volume, but everything was so loud, it was unlikely anyone else heard him.
“No,” Kol said. “They’re friends.”
The hovercraft floated low over the grassy field. Six figures jumped from the craft and landed amid the mechanical carnage. All of them Shaped weapons. They produced swords and knives, an axe, and a double-edged javelin. They walked together in a tight formation, maneuvering toward the shield in a circle. No further automatons rose to attack them.
The Shapers examined the downed Striders’ capture cells. The javelin-wielder broke off from the group and walked up to the shimmering shield. She removed her helmet. Her face and voice were distorted by the energy shield, but Kol would’ve known her just from the inflection of her voice. He also approached the shield and removed his helmet.
“Captain Maros,” Gabrielle Rinlee said. “I’m happy to see you alive. My team and I have resolved the automaton threat.”
* * *
A small road branched off from Route 66 and stretched out into the desert. It led to the unincorporated community of Littlefield. The village looked little larger than Halfpoint, but it was hard to tell. All communities in that region looked miniscule compared with the vast desert around them. Enoa wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to the landscape.
The cluster of Littlefield’s lights looked impossibly small against the flatlands, in all directions. Orson guided the Aesir down and around the village in a wide arc. He landed on a dirt road on the far side of the community. He drove them into the village, trundling across the uneven surface.
“Littlefield has been out of the way since old Sixty-six was bypassed,” Orson said. “They’re self-sufficient and the shutdown hasn’t affected them too badly. Or at least it hadn’t, as of a couple years ago.”
“I thought you said you saved this place?” Enoa now sat in the copilot’s seat. “Why are we sneaking in?”
“I never take the main road,” Orson said. “This is an unusual place. There’s always been a segment of Littlefield that wanted to stay isolated, and they’ve been pretty culty in the past. It’s best I keep to the people I know and who I know like me.”
“Define culty,” Jaleel said.
“They conspired with Kappa. He was a lettered, but disgraced local Hierarchia operative. This guy and his followers tried to take over the town. They planned to unleash a private zoo of cryptid creatures on the area, a lot of them bred by Kappa. He also wanted to experiment on my friend Sirona.”
“You mean your girlfriend Sirona?” Enoa asked.
“She wasn’t my girlfriend yet, but Kappa was the first person we fought together.” Orson drove into the village, where the roads were a marked improvement. Few of the buildings were lit, where Orson maneuvered the Aesir along the edge of town.
“I don’t know,” Jaleel said. “This sounds like some Stephen King story. Cults and experiments – you’re sure it’s not like that anymore?”
“Most everybody who was involved in that is dead,” Orson said. “But they say you can’t kill ideas. I’m thinking they’d prefer to be left alone, and they’d fight the Liberty Corps for trying to take over, but there’s no accounting for stupid or crazy people.”
“I don’t read horror books,” Enoa said. “And the only scary movies I like are the dumb schlocky ones.”
“I like scary stories,” Jaleel said. “But I don’t want to live one, and I don’t know what’s real anymore. Southwest desert, this is supposed to be chupacabra heaven.”
“Relax, okay.” Orson drove them onto another street, wider, a more important thoroughfare through town. Most of the buildings they passed were residential, but his street also featured a small business district, an apothecary, a grocery, a shoe-store, the usual places. “After that first adventure, I’ve never had anything but great times in this town. I also take the back way because I don’t want to bring unnecessary attention to them, like after today.”
Orson had a small handwritten note clutched in his right hand. He slowed the Aesir to a crawl and glanced at the paper. He looked at each street they passed.
“Eloise was still living with her dad when I was last here,” he said. “I need to find the place she has with Carlos.” He nodded to a one-lane road. “Here it is – Cherry Lane.” He pulled the Aesir into a tight curve and turned onto the small street. Two blocks later, Orson pulled up alongside a fenced property.
Almost immediately, a woman in coveralls and boots walked through a gate in the fence and up to the driver’s side. She had her curly hair tied back in a style that left longer strands at either side of her face.
Orson rolled down the window. “Hey, Eloise! How are you? Did you get my message?”
“Orson, what did you do?” Eloise Corwin asked. “The Liberty Corps scanner’s been freaking out about you all day. You blew up their artillery.”
“Liberty Corps scanner?” Orson said. “You know about them?”
“You’ve really been out of the loop, haven’t you?” She leaned to the side. “Hello, young wayfarers! You look like you’re getting a hang of Orson’s antics.”
“It is always a thrill ride,” Enoa said.
“I blew up a railgun,” Jaleel said. “It was awesome!”
“Congratulations,” Eloise laughed.
“Why do you have a Liberty Corps scanner?” Orson put the Aesir in park and leaned up to the window. “Pops was all worried about them too.”
“The Gulf Coast Alliance is falling apart,” Eloise said. “Governor Sloan claimed all of the supply routes for the Liberty Corps. He sent trucks through a few days ago to welcome us to his jurisdiction.”
“Prick,” Orson said. “Well, we destroyed some major shit of his.”
“You sure did,” she said. “Let me open the gate, all the way. You should be able to fit into the back yard. You better park in there. Once Carlos is done calling home, he’ll want to meet you guys. I have a feeling we all have some stories to tell.”
* * *
“We’ve recovered your men from the capture cells.” Brielle Rinlee escorted Kol’s squad onto the hovercraft – a lenticular-class carrier, the Partizan. The craft had landed, once they’d closed down and cleared out of Crater Base. It was a much larger hovercraft than it had appeared during the attack on the automatons.
Kol had led his squad aboard the craft. They drove their rovers inside. “Your demolitions officer, Pacey, is stable, but he has at least fifteen broken bones.”
“Let me know when I can see them,” Kol said.
Brielle sat in the front passenger’s seat, until they were aboard. Then she’d directed her forces in locking the rovers into place. The hovercraft had also lowered a winch and tow-cable, strong enough to pull the remains of their truck onboard.
“There’s a lot to get squared away.” Brielle stepped out of the rover. The interior of the cargo hold was matte black and mostly empty. All of Kol’s teams remained in their rovers. “I’ll try to find everyone actual seating, but first, Kol, you’ll need to fill out full manifest paperwork.”
“I have an extra copy of my manifest, somewhere.” Kol turned to the back seat. “Operative Racz, can you take a look for that?”
“Yes, sir.” Duncan began to search.
“Fantastic,” she said. “You could technically stay back here for the whole flight, but that wouldn’t be as comfortable.”
“Thank you for assisting us, Major Rinlee,” Max said. “While my brother may speak for his full force, as a current civilian I need to express my own gratitude.”
“Major Rinlee?” Duncan said. “When did that happen?”
“When Baron Helmont promoted me to run the Central Outreach Office.” She shrugged, also raising her shoulder rank insignia. “You’re very welcome, Captain Maros. Your brother tells so many wonderful stories about your service and about you, personally. It will be confusing with two Captain Maroses, although your former Naval Captaincy is obviously a much higher rank than Kol’s with the Liberty Corps.”
“Obviously,” Kol said. “But I’m guaranteed a promotion once we’ve secured the Dreamside Road.”
“Kol speaks very highly of you, Major,” Max said, “especially your work ethic.”
“Does he really?” She looked between the brothers. “I’m not sure whether I believe you, but it’s reassuring to know eloquence runs in the family.” She offered a nod and then turned back toward the front of the hold.
“Major,” Kol called to her. “Thank you, again. Leaving Crater Base would have been an ordeal for us, maybe a deadly one, without your help.”
“It was my pleasure,” she said. “Although, I do have to warn you. After your clash with Operative Divenoll, everyone knows about your mission to find the Dreamside Road. You might have the formal command to locate it, but the number of Corps members who want to win it for Czar Ilias just tripled.”
“They can’t steal our mission,” Duncan said.
“No, but they can steal your data or interfere. I’d keep a close eye on anything that you can’t duplicate. Well, I’ll see you soon.” She walked away, through the hold.
* * *
Investigating Researcher Nine started work six hours early. He’d awakened to a yellow alert and a blaring alarm from his communicator.
In his other life, IR-9 was supposed to go with his wife for her third ultrasound, in the early morning. The pregnancy was high risk. They’d tried so many times. They didn’t want to get their hopes up, but they were closer than they’d ever been.
In his other life, he would never neglect his wife. He would never leave her when she went to the OB-GYN. He could only imagine what his mother-in-law would say.
That other man’s mother-in-law didn’t understand, but his wife did. When an alert came through and it was yellow level or higher, there was no refusing it. He would be reading reports for the rest of the night, the rest of the A.M.
When he was working, he stopped being that other man. He became IR-9, and IR-9 didn’t have a child on the way. IR-9 would never marry. IR-9 had loyalty only to his work. He watched sensor feeds and data reports from a room full of monitors and scientific readouts. The other man could wait to learn about the health of his child.
It was only by the will of IR-9’s employer and protector that they had a home or medical care.
When IR-9 arrived at his station of monitors, he saw that the Strider automatons left to guard the Crater Base terminal had been destroyed. The automatons were destroyed by the Liberty Corps, and that deserved special attention.
IR-9 worked in data analysis and reporting, but he had too few details about the current deal with the Liberty Corps to provide useful commentary. He said as much to his employer.
The Gamma-model Riot Defense Striders protecting the Crater Base facility have stopped transmitting. Our Liberty Corps source claims that a team from their Outreach Division, equipped with six Shapers, destroyed the automatons.
I was under the impression that the Liberty Corps already had all of the information at Crater Base. I thought Baron Helmont had your permission to study the Striders at the base. Normally, I would immediately dispatch more automatons to defend the site, but I’m unsure how to proceed under the circumstances.
I appreciate any guidance you can provide.
IR-9 wondered about the other man’s wife. Would she decide to learn the sex of their baby? They’d talked about it. She hadn’t decided, but it was her choice as far as the other man was concerned.
IR-9 shouldn’t let himself dwell on his other life. This time did not belong to him. This time was his commitment to society, to building a new world for his family, a future for the unborn.
He turned to his other sensors. They weren’t yet due for readings until later that afternoon, but he decided to check them an extra time.
He worked through the night, monitoring the other sites too valuable to destroy and too important to leave unguarded. He watched the automatons they’d sent to a dig site in Antarctica. He followed the seeker probes scanning the Thunderworks wreckage outside the small city of Norlenheim. He monitored the updates on a manhunt in Micronesia. IR-9 tried to avoid his time readout. He tried not to think about the other man’s wife.
Many reports later, dozens maybe, a new message appeared on the plaintext window. The message was written by his employer and protector.
Thank you for bringing the destroyed Striders to my attention. I will personally contact Czar Hawthorne about this matter.
I must also commend your loyalty and commitment. If the New Order had already risen, you would not be working now. You would be Named and with your family. But this is only the beginning, and you are needed where you are.
I want to honor your commitment to the future. I have good news for you, and I will refer to you by Name. Please delete this message after reading, as per protocol 5.
Peyton, I will not force you to wait through your entire shift to learn the results of the ultrasound. Your wife is pregnant with a female child. Both are in perfect health.
Thank you for your oath, Peyton. You are building a better world for your family and offspring.
IR-9, you will await further instruction about Crater Base.
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