“How is Pacey?” Max asked. He and Duncan sat in the small common living area to the suite of rooms Kol had been assigned for his stay at the Highland Outreach Compound. A chessboard was set up between them.
“He’ll need significant physical therapy.” Kol shut the suite door and joined Duncan on the couch. He was still in his full armor and removed his helmet and sheathed sword, as he sat. “It was a miracle we all survived, but Pacey, Fitzsimmons, and the others won’t be joining us if we leave in the next few days.” He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. “Our squad might already be down to eight.”
“Eight and one advisor.” Duncan nodded to Max. “Our very stereotypical advisor, who really thinks that a board game can show how smart you are.”
“Not how smart,” Max said. “Everything we do in life happens within some parameters. Learning to wield strategy within those parameters is useful.”
Duncan moved a knight, using it to take one of Max’s bishops. “Are we analyzing the information here or going back home?”
“That depends whether we’ll need the records Divenoll’s office sent us,” Kol said. “Have you looked at the information you downloaded?”
“Not yet,” Duncan said. “We’ve been waiting for you and… No!” He watched as Max slid his queen across the board, taking Duncan’s knight. “How did I miss that?”
“You need to pay attention to the entire board.” Max pushed himself back from the table. “Well, Kol, since you’re home and we’ve all survived, I think I need some sleep. It’s going to be good resting without killer robots staring at us. Duncan, we’ll pick up our game tomorrow.”
“I’ll have a plan for you then,” Duncan said. “I’ll show you how well I figure things out in parameters.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Max maneuvered toward his bedroom. “Goodnight. You know where I am if you need me.”
“Goodnight,” Kol said. “Did you…” For the second time, he’d led Max into real danger. But Crater Base wasn’t his fault, was it? Who would have thought dangerous – and modified – machines, like those Striders, would be left operational?
“Yes?” Max looked over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kol said. “It can wait. Goodnight.”
“Night!” Duncan watched Max leave the room. “Well.” He spoke softly and wore a knowing smile. “I hope you had a productive evening.”
“Duncan, are you getting at something?” Kol asked. “I really don’t understand.”
“Sure you don’t.” Duncan rolled his eyes. “Ten minutes ago there was a little noise like somebody climbed in your window, but I can’t imagine who that might be. It definitely couldn’t be your girlfriend who runs this base.”
“I saw Brielle five minutes ago. She’s still filing reports.” Kol lowered his voice. “You actually heard someone in my room?”
“Yes.” Duncan jumped to his feet. “I’m serious, Kol, I heard someone in there.”
“Well, it’s not Brielle.” Kol stood too. “But remember what she said about rivals trying to steal our information, or sabotage us?”
“Shit.” Duncan reached down to the couch and grabbed his gunbelt. “But you don’t have any of the information in your room.”
“Evidently they don’t know that.” Kol drew his own pistol. “We’ll go to your room first and secure the files from Crater Base.” Duncan led the way to his room. They lit flashlights and looked around the darkened space. It was empty and barely large enough to hold both a bed and a dresser. They turned on the overhead lights and entered the room.
Duncan found the discs and drives from Crater Base, still in his backpack on the bed. He zipped the pack and threw it over his shoulders.
“Good,” Kol said. “I want you to check on Max. Make sure he’s safe. Then keep our information secure.”
“What will I tell Max?”
“No more than he needs to know. You’re our spy, Duncan, make something up. That’s your job.”
“You’re not actually planning on going in your room alone, with someone after us?”
“I am. Anyone pursuing the Dreamside Road is looking for standing. They’re ambitious. I need to beat them publicly. Fighting them alone is the best way to keep this from happening again. Call Brielle in three minutes. If I haven’t taken care of the intruder in that time, then I need help.”
“You’re a freaking lunatic.” Duncan shook his head. “Alright, kick some ass. I’ll call if I don’t hear.”
“Good.” Kol put on his helmet, returned the sword to his belt, and waited for Duncan to run to Max’s room. Then he walked to his own room, on the other side of the suite, and opened the door.
Kol’s room was slightly larger than Duncan’s, but the flashlight revealed a similarly empty space.
He turned on the ceiling lights and found a strange shape framed against the lighting. It was a bipedal shape, but it didn’t look quite human. The arms and legs were too long.
He had no time to speak or aim his gun. Something flew down and struck the pistol in the barrel. A knife blade was buried in the weapon.
Another blade flew from above, this one aimed at Kol’s face, but he expected the attack. His robotic hand caught the knife by the blade. He felt a tingling at the back of his neck – Shaped Iron.
A man fell from Kol’s ceiling. He wore all black and a goggled ski mask. Iron spikes extended from his arms and feet – anchors to keep him attached to the ceiling. He landed flatfooted on the floor, five paces from Kol. The spikes had retracted.
“Disarm yourself and raise your hands.” Kol tossed the knife aside and drew his sword. “In the name of…”
“My brother died because of you.” The man interrupted. He raised his right hand. With a single burst of heat, another knife appeared in his fist. “Czar Ilias might not bring you to justice, but I will.”
* * *
“Sorry it’s so late.” Orson followed Eloise onto the porch of the house. The wide windows’ drapes were closed, but warm light glowed at the edges. “We don’t want to bother you and Carlos. We’re totally fine staying in the Aesir and meeting up sometime tomorrow.”
“It’s not a problem,” Eloise said. “Carlos has a few minutes before his call moves out of range. We got a delivery of pastries from Teddy, if you’re hungry.”
“What?” Orson said. “Teddy does delivery now? Can I buy some of it off of you? I don’t plan on making any more local stops, and it’s over a year since I’ve had his baking.”
“I’ll share with you and the Wayfarer-Next-Generation, but it would break Carlos’ heart if I sold off our delivery.”
“Who is Teddy?” Enoa asked. “I think you’ve mentioned that name before.” She and Jaleel followed them onto the porch.
“I probably have,” Orson said. “He’s a very dear friend of ours. He saved my life.”
“A baker saved your life?” Jaleel asked. “Every minute is a new plot twist with you.”
“It was definitely a story,” Orson said. “How is Ted?”
“You need to go and see him,” Eloise said. “He misses you, y’know.” She opened the back door and was greeted with the sounds of barking and heavy running feet.
What appeared to be a Great Dane charged through the hardwood-floored entryway. When the dog arrived on the threshold, a ring of membranous flesh extended from his neck, like the hood of a king cobra or the neck frills of some lizards.
“Holy shit!” Jaleel yelled and jumped away. Enoa also stepped back. The animal bounded out the door and stood on its hindlegs, forepaws on Orson’s shoulders, licking at his face.
“Aww, Dino remembers his old pal.” Orson scratched the animal’s head, just in front of the raised crest. “Yes he does. Yes he does. Dino remembers his old buddy, Orson.”
“I’m sorry.” Eloise looked back to Jaleel. “I forget the fringe is a little startling. Dino’s seven and just about everybody who visits knows about him, before they get here. He’s a friendly dog.”
“That’s okay,” Jaleel said. “I should’ve figured. I just saw the, uh, what’d you call it – his neck, uh, thing. I saw that and panicked. I’ve only ever seen that in Jurassic Park.”
“You should’ve seen him when Orson and I found him.” Eloise invited them inside. Dino lowered his crest and followed after them, sniffing at the travelers. “He was half-starved, the poor buddy.”
“We thought he was one of Kappa’s leftover monsters,” Orson said. “That’s the guy I was telling you about.”
“Well,” Eloise said. “He is one of Kappa’s, but he’s a real sweetheart. We discovered a little population of these dogs, and we found homes for most of them. We think the fringe is supposed to help them hear better, like a big radar dish on their heads. But besides that, Dino’s a normal pup.”
“So there are still animals that this Kappa experimented on?” Enoa asked. The entryway led onto a small sitting room. It had cushioned wooden armchairs and a small couch.
“The Hierarchia never cleaned up any of their messes or cared for their creations.” Orson followed Eloise to a coat rack.
“I’m a bad influence on poor Dino.” Eloise scratched the dog’s ears. “Since the Liberty Corps business started, I’ve been nervous every time someone comes to the house. I think it’s rubbing off. He was never a suspicious kind of dog, even after all he’s been through.”
“It’s hard not to be suspicious with all the freaky crap going on now.” Orson tugged at his right boot. He wore one that matched his left, rather than the armored repulsor. The right boot looked almost new, a perfect black. “This thing still isn’t broken in.”
“Orson is real!” A tall bearded man entered the room. He wore a heavy sweater and wire-rim glasses.
“You must be Carlos?” Orson shook his hand.
“I am!” Carlos waved to the crew. “Carlos Albir.”
“Orson Gregory,” Orson said. “As you know. This is my new crew, Enoa Cloud and Jaleel Yaye.”
“Nice to meet you all.” Carlos shook their hands.
“I don’t know why you say Orson isn’t real,” Eloise said. “There are pictures of him and a lot of records with his name.”
“It annoys her when I say you aren’t real.” Carlos laughed, an infectious jovial laugh. “I guess I have to quit it now.”
“Sometimes I still question whether anything in my life is actually real,” Orson said. “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff.”
“And we’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, since we’ve known him,” Jaleel said.
“I’m my own strangeness magnet,” Enoa said. “I think that’s actually what drew in Orson.”
“That might make you the strangest of all,” Carlos said. “But maybe not. Orson, you sounded like you really wondered who I was, when I walked in.”
“No,” Orson answered. “But if I’m being honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me too much if you were a random guy who wandered in to see if I was a real person. That probably wouldn’t even crack the top ten weirdest things that have happened to me, especially after all the Thunderworks publicity.”
“It wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing today.” Carlos looked at the other Aesir crewmembers. “Sloan’s still talking about you guys. You did a lot of damage to his trucks. He said something about you losing the Liberty Corps a billion dollars, a few weeks ago. You’ve been busy.”
“Is he sending anyone to look for them?” Eloise asked.
“Not yet,” Carlos said. “He was still ranting when I finished my call. You might want to take a listen.”
* * *
The Shaper threw a knife. Kol dodged it, dropping to his left, into a crouch. The blade was so close to his right ear that he felt a burst of air from its passing. He wanted to speak to the man. Caused his brother’s death? Who was he?
Another two knives flew at him, before he could speak. He didn’t know where the Shaper was storing his iron supply, but he was effortlessly landing the Shaping transfers. The assailant had range and aim.
Kol jumped to his feet. He kept his sword and robotic hand forward. He batted another knife aside. It clattered, harmless, to the floor. Without the Shaper recovering his fallen weapons, he would eventually run out of his source. But he could have laced all of his clothing with iron. Kol had heard of such things in the upper echelons of the Liberty Corps
Kol decided his best chance was close-quarters fighting. He kept his right arm ahead to shield his neck and swung the sword at the Shaper when he was close enough.
The man put his hands together and produced a long cleaver. The blades met and the cleaver was thick enough to clash with Kol’s sword. The Shaper drew his left hand back and created another blade of the same size. He dropped down and stabbed at the inside of Kol’s knee.
Kol managed to parry the strike, but he gave ground and backed away toward the door. This man was faster than he was and with a good deal more martial-arts training. Kol had neglected his own fencing. Between planning the Nimauk operation and his hearing, he’d lost his edge. No more would he be the best duelist in his class of trainees, at least not with fighters like this man in the ranks.
But he had one advantage few other fighters could match.
Kol ran again. The Shaper shortened one of his blades and threw it. Kol struck it aside. The Shaper enlarged his second cleaver into a proper sword.
Kol struck the man’s sword in a two-handed swing. He put his full prosthetic hand’s strength into the strike. The Shaper had to add more iron to the blade to strengthen it, to keep it from shattering.
Kol removed his right hand from the hilt of his sword and took the Shaper by the throat. The man gagged.
“Yield!” Kol shouted. “I didn’t kill your brother. I’m no murderer. I fight only to rebuild this world. Who are you?”
The Shaper did not speak. He raised his arms and threw iron into Kol’s helmeted face. This wasn’t an attack of blades or daggers or spikes. This man had weaponized his blunt iron. He sent blocks of iron from his sleeves, flying at Kol.
Before Kol could act, the Iron formed a massive block around Kol’s helmet. The iron tried to force its way between his helmet and his armor. He shoved his head down against his chest, denying the Iron access to his throat.
The iron tightened. It didn’t immediately cut off his air supply, but it was only a matter of time. Everything went dark inside the block of iron, around his head. He reeled back, but he didn’t release the man. They grappled with each other, both suffocating.
Kol had no choice. This man had no intention of providing answers. Kol had not killed this man’s brother, but he would have to kill him.
But Kol struggled to breathe. He’d forced himself through four mental regimens, battling with his claustrophobia. After the accident, after losing his hand, Kol’s mind had rebelled at darkness. He’d slept with a nightlight until he went to Corps training.
Years and multiple mentally-intensive psychological courses fell away. Kol’s mind slipped into panic and disassociation. It was as if he viewed himself from the outside, his body unresponsive, hyperventilating. His grip on the Shaper’s neck slackened, though only by a fraction.
Iron forced its way between Kol’s prosthetic and the man’s neck. This man’s Shaping was art, another sense. The iron, under his control, changed form and rearranged effortlessly.
The iron around Kol’s helmet squeezed, tight enough that he heard the polycarbonate straining against the pressure.
The Shaper said something, but his words were muffled. Kol could not hear. Even sound was blocked by the mass of iron.
He could die this way, crushed, crushed the way he’d been after Thunderworks, crushed the way he’d been when he lost his hand.
Kol relived that immense weight on his hand. He relived the aftermath of the apartment collapse, when he first saw Max pulled from the wreckage, his legs misshapen.
In some ways, Kol had never left that place. A part of him would always be there, in the dark, in that broken shell of an apartment, where his childhood had died, where he had lost himself, where he’d failed Max. That was the moment of trajectory when his life changed.
He would not let it end in such a way. Kol needed to call to the iron too. He’d been trained. He’d studied. He’d fought with the metal, but he couldn’t do it before. He’d failed to rule his mind. He’d failed to command iron. Now was the time.
Shape or die.
Rule the mind! Kol didn’t have time for doubt. He didn’t have mental capacity for second thoughts. He didn’t have enough oxygen left to process more than one command. Already, he felt his mind growing distant and weaker as the iron block around his helmet cut off his air.
If he could command the Iron, he could tear it away from his helmet. He could breath. He tried to imagine the iron belonged to him. He tried to know that the iron belonged to him.
He imagined a separate wall of influence, a wall of his mind, between his will and the Shapers’. He used all his effort, all his strength, to insert his will between the iron and his helmet.
Shape or die. Rule the mind. Command iron.
Kol felt his focus slip away. He didn’t command the iron. This man did, this man who was killing him, who was crushing him.
No! Rule the mind. Shape or die.
Kol stopped thinking of iron. He stopped thinking about his weakening body or the armored throat under his fingers. He thought about wills. He could hear Max’s voice in his mind, “Everything we do in life happens within some parameters.” He had to fight within his parameters.
These were Kol’s parameters. His will had to overcome his enemy’s. Mind vs. mind.
He imagined his will between his helmet and his enemy’s will. It was a wall between him and the suffocating iron. He thought about the strength that could have saved him and Max years ago, the strength he’d wanted since he joined the Liberty Corps.
Kol made the wall. He had no choice. He owned his body. He ruled his mind.
Shape or die.
The iron broke away from Kol’s helmet. He gasped for air. He struggled to stay focused while his lungs demanded his entire attention.
For a moment, Kol thought his helmet’s lenses were broken. Everything around him was a blue haze of light, like a bright afterimage around his whole head.
But then Kol felt an electric tingling all over his body. He knew that the light was no afterimage. This was power, his power. Kol had Shaped, but not Iron.
“Impossible!” The man yelled. “I’ve studied you. You have no power.”
Kol needed to see and because he willed the light to be gone, the light wall cleared away.
The Shaper summoned another knife. Kol pulled his hand from the man’s throat and caught his wrist. He twisted. The Shaper’s arm broke with a sickening snap.
The man yelled but he also kicked, his foot aimed sideways, iron-bladed leg spike aimed at Kol’s side.
Kol caught the spike and snapped the iron free. He pulled on the man’s leg, forcing him close enough to drive his left fist into the Shaper’s face. The man fell backward. Kol caught him with his prosthetic and forced him to his knees.
Kol was dimly aware of the Shaper’s pained howling as he dragged him, still on his knees, into the common area.
He should have considered where Duncan and Max were. This man was capable of extreme techniques. Kol didn’t know for certain that the man had surrendered, but he couldn’t think about that.
An exhaustion suddenly spread over him, a second wave of numbness, but not from lack of oxygen. He didn’t know what it was. It was like a new wall was cutting him off from the world, but it was not a wall of his making.
Kol kept his grip on the squirming man, his grip actually tightening as his mind fogged.
Duncan ran into the room, gun drawn. Brielle and a contingent of her forces soon burst through the suite door. They spoke, but Kol was barely aware of the words or the sentiment. He heard Brielle’s voice, Duncan’s, Max’s.
But once he saw the Shaper was removed from his grip and hauled from the room, Kol’s consciousness surrendered to oblivion.
* * *
“We will not let this go. We’ll have Gregory strung up for interfering with official operations. That’ll learn them all some respect.” Sloan sounded exactly how Enoa imagined he would. He had a braggadocios quality to his voice that made him sound like a caricatured corrupt mayor from a low budget TV drama. “I’ll send for the Nine-flails in the morning.”
Eloise stood with Orson and Jaleel in the office Eloise shared with Carlos. It was a small room, but held two desks, a desktop computer with a half-dozen connected devices, and a bookcase along one wall. Their hosts stood on either side of a large black device with an antenna sticking out of the top. It issued a soft blue light as Sloan spoke.
“Nine-flails?” another voice asked. “He works directly for Baron Helmont. His movements and missions are open Corps record. Everyone will know about Rydel’s capture and how badly Gregory beat us.”
“You listen to this shit,” Sloan said. “Tell me we don’t want the Nine-flails.”
There was a click. Orson’s recorded voice began to speak – the message he’d left behind with the Requisitions Day caravan.
“Attention Liberty Corps forces,” Orson’s recording said. “Requisitions Day is cancelled. All official Liberty Corps operations are cancelled. You’re not safe. When you rob people and terrorize them, you aren’t safe. While you exploit the desperate, you aren’t safe. When you kill to build your empire, you aren’t safe. When I’m around, you aren’t safe, and you’ll never know where I’ll be. So while you’re with the Liberty Corps, you’ll never be safe. Surrender all Liberty Corps banners and colors. Lay down your armor and your arms. Walk away. Or you will never be safe again.”
“If you need to see what I do to people who prey on the defenseless,” Orson continued. “Just ask your Captain Maros. He’s in one of your northeast groups. He sent two Sun Talons and a Roger drop ship after me and bombed a community of innocent people. Now, all of that expensive tech is spare parts. The same will happen to you, to all of you, to any of you who operate as the Liberty Corps and think stolen weapons gave you the right to rule.”
“Feel free to share this around. This is the last warning I plan to give you. Gregory out.”
Both voices fell silent when the recording ended, leaving the office quiet.
“How did you get a Liberty Corps scanner?” Orson asked. “Considering what they’re talking about…”
“Shhh.” Eloise waved a hand at him.
“Governor, when was the last hanging around here?” the second voice asked.
“I think the nineteen-twenties,” Sloan answered. “It’s been too long, and I think the locals need a reminder of what happens to outlaws, so like I said, I’m sending for Nine-flails.”
“You’ll let me know what happens?”
“Everybody’s gonna know what happens,” Sloan said. “But I’ll keep you posted.”
“Please. Goodnight, sir.” The second man signed off. The Aesir crew and their hosts gave another moment of full silence, before speaking.
“You’re actually for real.” Carlos grinned. “Wow! I thought you were exaggerating, Ellie. You really did hang out with wild people.”
“Unfortunately,” Eloise groaned. “Orson, I know you meant well, but this could be bad, really bad. We’re treading lightly here. I’ve wanted us to join one of the Alliances for a year-and-a-half, but try getting Littlefield to realize how dangerous isolation can be. I finally got them on board with joining the Gulf Alliance and then Sloan came along. Two weeks ago, his Liberty Corps took control of almost all regional oil production, what’s left of it. Towns either join the Liberty Corps or go cold. So now I’m back to square one.”
“I thought you were mostly solar here,” Orson said. “You used that funding from the Feds after we stopped Kappa’s operation.”
“Ninety-percent of us are solar.” Eloise nodded. “But that only bought us time. Only sixty percent of our vehicles are electric. And are you really telling us Sloan won’t eventually notice this place? Sloan wants to control everything. If I can persuade a majority to join the Pacific Alliance, we may be protected. We have information to offer them. Every few years, we still find Hierarchia caches. And we captured the last Liberty Corps recon group that came through and gave them to the P.A. That’s also how we got our scanner. We have some bargaining chips.”
“I’m sorry for causing problems,” Orson said. “I saw Halfpoint getting robbed by those people and I couldn’t just sit there and watch with it.”
“I know,” Eloise said. “But everything’s a lot harder now. Littlefield still makes all major decisions by popular vote. Try persuading this town to join with an alliance run in California.”
“Try persuading your dad,” Carlos said. Eloise grimaced.
“How is your dad?” Orson asked.
“He’s getting around,” Eloise said. “He wants to see you and hear about your adventures, but this Liberty Corps situation is really scaring him. He’s just getting too old to be in constant danger.”
“We can hide the Aesir someplace out of town,” Orson said. “We’ll lay low, and we won’t stay long.”
“This is just like Trolley Town,” Enoa sighed. “They’re just going to keep coming. The Liberty Corps isn’t like Nalrik, where we can blow up their leader and have them go away. Seriously.”
“Blow up their leader!” Carlos yelled. “Even the new kids are nuts.”
“She’s oversimplifying.” Orson raised both of his hands. “The explosion wasn’t our fault. Enoa, we had a major company and, to some degree, the local law behind us with the Sabres. Totally different.”
“I don’t disagree with you,” Enoa said. “It’s just dangerous. The Liberty Corps wants to own this area. What if they go after the people of Halfpoint?”
“I’m on board with the Robin Hood stuff, boss,” Jaleel said. “Just for the record.”
“Alright,” Orson said. “I get it. The Liberty Corps wants to be the government. That’s what Pops said. We’ll have to be more careful fighting them.”
“We can figure this out,” Eloise said. “Maybe this is a good opportunity to formally join the Pacific Alliance. In the meantime, I read your information about finding that island at the Dateline.”
“Do you know someone who can help us?” Orson asked.
“I have a couple ideas,” she said. “I’ll send out messages, right away.”