“It’s so good to see you’re okay!” Max had a tray across his lap. He’d been eating breakfast, book in hand, but he set the book aside when Kol entered the suite. “Major Rinlee called to let me know you’d been discharged, but it’s another thing to see you.”
“It’s good to be okay.” Kol tried to smile convincingly, but he watched Duncan and Sucora’s letter out of the corner of his eye.
Max placed his breakfast on the coffee table. Kol walked to his brother, and they embraced. He was surprised by Max’s tight grip on his shoulders.
“It’s hard to realize I couldn’t have protected you from that man,” Max said. “In my mind, I still see you as the boy I took care of, not the soldier who can protect himself and wouldn’t need his big brother’s help even if…” He grimaced.
“What’s new?” Max nodded to Duncan, who was crouched beside his pack, fitting the letter back into an envelope. Even from that distance, Kol could read the name written there – Enoa. Surely Max could too.
Kol tried to keep the frustration from his voice. “We have some clarification for an old, dead lead. Nothing new.” He briefly locked gazes with Max. His brother’s expression had changed, returned to his distant, intelligence-officer demeanor.
Max nodded. “Well,” he said. “I should leave you to your work.” He abruptly turned back and collected his book and his breakfast. He returned to his room without speaking another word.
* * *
“I hate hiding.” Orson unbuckled himself from the jumper seat, as soon as the truck came to another stop.
“At least this way, we might not have to get into another fight,” Enoa said.
“I prefer having a fight I can’t avoid, to hiding and being on edge.” Orson didn’t feel like waiting. When he heard Pedro climb up to the truck, he opened the container door.
Something flew at him.
Orson was used to things being launched or thrown at his face. It was a professional hazard. But usually, he had at least a vague idea of what was heading his way.
Not this time. Blinded by sunlight, Orson got only the briefest impression of a round body with leathery wings, before he leaped aside.
By then Enoa and Jaleel had noticed the thing too. Both yelled and also jumped away.
“What the hell?” Orson pressed himself back against a wall. He drew up his mask and lit the goggles. He saw it.
It was an animal. It was a little over a foot in length and had small limbs with wide webbing between them, like odd bat’s wings. Its back was loaded in long spines that reflected the light of Orson’s goggles.
The animal had flown from the doorway and landed on one of the loaded crates, in the container. It was seemingly attempting to get inside it, prying and pushing at the box, with its small limbs.
“Is that a flying porcupine?” Jaleel stepped closer to the animal. It spun toward him and issued a small squeaking sound. He jumped back.
“We call them aeropines.” Pedro stepped back into the truck. “Sorry about it being in here. I usually have one of the boys put on the leather suit and clear out any stowaways.”
“Aeropine?” Jaleel asked. “Is this another of those animals Kappa made?”
“I think so,” Pedro said. “I started working here after that went down. These weird animals have lived here longer than I have.”
“You never asked why there are flying porcupines?” Jaleel asked.
“Sorry about him.” Orson motioned to the doorway. “Let’s just get out of here before more things jump at us, okay?” The others followed after him, but stopped in their tracks when the aeropine flew from the crate. It glided across the space and landed between Enoa and Jaleel. Both stepped away from the animal. It looked up at Jaleel, the spines flat at its back.
“This guy’s pretty cute,” Jaleel said. “Are they friendly?”
“I really couldn’t say,” Pedro said. “Some people say they are. He’s probably looking for fruit. We don’t hurt them on purpose, when we see them, and I know of one lady who keeps a couple of these, but I know more people who’ve gotten some nasty quill marks from them.”
“Yeah, Jaleel,” Orson said. “Just step around him and let’s go. Pull your mask up. He shouldn’t be able to get through your armor and gear.”
“He looks like a Pokemon,” Jaleel said. “I always wanted Pokemon to be real.” The animal let out another small squeak. “I’m sorry little Pokemon, but I have to go work. We’re being chased by bad men.”
The aeropine spun to face Enoa. It made the same squeak. It walked toward her on its hind legs, rubbing its forepaws together.
“Aww, he’s adorable,” Enoa said. “How sharp are the quills?”
“Okay gang,” Orson said. “I really…”
The interaction with the odd animal was cut short by the sound of another approaching vehicle. Pedro jumped from the truck.
“C’mon.” Orson watched his crew until they maneuvered around the aeropine and followed him. They were back outside of Eloise’s and Carlos’s fenced yard.
A jeep had parked beside the box truck that held their shipping container. The Corwin name was emblazoned across the side in bright yellow lettering. A white-haired, broad-shouldered man stepped from the jeep. He also wore the Corwin coveralls, but his had small faded patches on the shoulders.
“Mr. Corwin,” Orson jumped from the truck and offered his hand to the older man. “It’s really good to see you, sir. I’m sorry for bringing the Liberty Corps to Littlefield.”
“Don’t be worried over it.” Corwin shook his hand. “This was a long time coming. On the other hand, I must say Orson, when you stop by, you’ve got a way of speeding up the inevitable.”
“I guess I do.” Orson looked back to Jaleel and Enoa stepping out of the truck. “This is my new crew. Enoa Cloud and Jaleel Yaye, meet Mr. Robert Corwin.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.” Enoa shook the elder Corwin’s hand, as did Jaleel. “Orson speaks very highly of you and this town.”
“Orson’s a good guy.” Corwin grinned and clapped Orson on the coated shoulder. “That’s how he makes up for dressing up for Halloween every night of the year.”
“This stuff keeps me safe,” Orson said. “You’ve seen some of the weird crap that’s come after me.”
“I have.” Mr. Corwin’s smile left his face, making him appear years older. “We need to talk about the Liberty Corps.”
“What happened?” Orson asked.
“Nothing I didn’t expect,” Corwin replied. “We’ve finally got a direct threat from Sloan’s office. I’ve been dragging my feet for months, but I’ve finally got to pick the lesser poison. Join the P.A. or bow to the Liberty Corps.”
* * *
Bartholomew Trivett had spent twenty years working as a bail bondsman in the state of New Mexico. He’d liked that work. It flexed the inquisitive part of his brain without taxing him, without forcing him to navigate the procedural labyrinth of policing.
But those days were gone, mostly because the criminal justice system died with the state government. Now, he’d heard rumblings of similar work to be found in the Alliances, especially the P.A., with their thousands of miles of remote wilderness. The west had become a frontier again. Any new government needed able hands to keep the territory safe.
Trivett, Bart to his friends, would have preferred the bondsman work the Alliances offered, but he owed a debt to Governor Kent Sloan. That man had hired him when there was virtually no work on the enforcement side of the law, and even fewer laws being enforced. Trivett was a loyal man, and besides, with Sloan and the Liberty Corps after them, he doubted the Alliances would be a factor for long. And with the way Sloan paid him, he was starting to prefer his new post-shutdown life.
So when he got the Governor’s telegram at four in the morning, Bart Trivett began the routine that had dominated his professional life. He kept extensive personal files, the one saving grace of his packrat nature. He kept newspapers from across the state, across the southwest, even national and international records.
It wasn’t hard to find the Aesir in his system. His business had bailed out two of the men, charged by the state, in the conspiracy orchestrated by the IHSA operative, Kappa. Trivett knew to begin his search with the Corwins of Littlefield.
To do that properly, he’d bundled up, chosen his favorite boots, packed his advanced gear, and driven to the Liberty Corps regional archives. They’d only recently begun stockpiling old governmental records, but it didn’t take Trivett long to find the old state property-tax records. Even folks in unincorporated places had to pay somebody. No one can hide from their money. That one fact was the greatest tool in Trivett’s arsenal. In a matter of minutes, he had a list of twenty-five properties paid for by the Corwin Family Farms, LLC or a connected company. Easy.
Next came the hard part. Trivett knew his home territory. He knew the little hundred-person villages and townships, the kind of places where everybody knew everybody, and strangers stuck out.
But Trivett also knew how to stay under the radar. He knew what to wear and what to drive. He knew how to talk and how to walk. He knew how to fight, too, but it rarely came to that.
Today was just for information, but he’d still packed the four-arm autogun Governor Sloan had lent to him. There was no harm in being careful. The computerized weapon, inherited from some old government project, fit neatly in the rear of Trivett’s truck. He’d attached the roof to the back, just in case.
Trivett drove two hours to arrive in Littlefield. He didn’t drive in from old 66, no, sir. He drove out of his way, taking the small game roads south, approaching the suspicious little village from the north.
No one noticed him. None of the handful of cars or pedestrians paid him any more than a glance, as he wound his way through the outskirts of town.
Trivett liked learning. He always had, and he enjoyed testing out the new toys Governor Sloan sent his way, as he went about his work. But this was an old-fashioned job. He had a printed map of Littlefield, an aerial view, the Corwin properties highlighted. He checked them off as he went, each time he passed a warehouse or family home, that clearly showed no sign of the Aesir.
But then he found a promising lead. One of the properties had a suspicious gathering outside. It was a residential home with pre-shutdown taxes paid by the primary Corwin LLC.
Trivett grabbed his monocular. He saw the box truck and the Corwin jeep. He saw Mr. Corwin himself and the strange trio of young people.
When the long-haired man turned, Trivett recognized Orson Gregory.
All before lunchtime – he smirked. It was good to be skilled at his job.
Trivett reached into his pocket and drew out the homing beacon Sloan made him carry. He triggered the off switch, just once. Then he allowed it to transmit again. It was a subtle signal and one probably unnoticed by any nearby transmission-detectors.
But Sloan’s analysts would see it.
They would soon know that Trivett had already found the Captain of the Aesir.
* * *
“Most of the records we have are focused on the Dreamthought Project members who were observed in the U.S.” Duncan had setup his laptop, connecting it to the IHSA drive-reader. Kol sat beside him at the suite’s kitchen table. Together, they’d begun to peruse the records downloaded at Crater Base.
“I see a lot of the names we found in the warehouse index.” Duncan scrolled through the list. “Montgomery, Grant, Perez, Buckthorn – lots of the same names. No mentions of Cloud. It looks like she stayed in Nimauk after the project defected.” He reached down to his backpack and retrieved a folder of notes. “Unless Sucora really was a lettered operative.”
“I know almost nothing about the lettering process,” Kol said. “Some of their leadership went by letters, instead of names – Greek letters, I think, in this country. But I don’t know any more than that. What information do we have about their command structure?” He heard Max moving in his room, his brother probably working on his own project.
“Most of the IHSA command structure was classified then and is still classified in Corps record-keeping. We might need to put out a formal request, if we want to learn more.”
“We might have to. Understanding IHSA procedure might help us learn the depth of the Dreamthought Project’s betrayal. Their defection is obviously central to the investigation, and there’s so much we don’t understand. Why did the IHSA just let these people rob them and walk away? A lot of them seem like they lived normal, public lives. Sucora went back to her hometown where everyone knew she came from. They sent Tucker to watch her, but nothing overt. It all sounds significantly more complicated than we know.”
“It’s all really weird. Do you think you could write to Lost Park about it?”
“Maybe,” Kol said. “I’m hesitant to use that connection. If Corps Command is maintaining those secrets, we might not want to dig into that issue. Besides, my connections are a card I shouldn’t overplay, at least not until I deliver major results from this operation.”
“Fair.” Duncan scrolled further through the records, stopping on an image of a young Sucora Cloud, dressed in black, staff in hand.
Even her posture was like Enoa. Kol looked at young Sucora’s eyes. It brought to mind Enoa’s hate-filled stare and her onslaught against him, using that same staff.
“So what was the big discovery?” Brielle entered the suite, carrying a briefcase. She set it down beside the table and sat in a chair opposite them. “Or is that a mission secret?”
“For now…” Kol needed to talk to Brielle about Nimauk, but that had to happen without Duncan and without Max potentially listening in. He needed that conversation to happen when they were alone, without any professional reserve or decorum. “The lead explains a situation that happened earlier in our investigation, but it hopefully won’t affect our future plans to any significant degree.”
“Wow,” she said. “I have no idea what that means.”
“Kol got blasted by this girl,” Duncan said. “And it turns out she’s a Shaper prodigy. Now we know why she’s so dangerous.”
“Do you mean a girl, like a child, or a girl, as in a woman?”
“A woman,” Kol said. “She couldn’t be that much younger than me, if she is, at all.”
“And she blasted you? How?” Brielle spoke in a neutral tone. Kol couldn’t tell whether she asked with sarcasm or from concern. Her professional façade was unreadable and had, if anything, gotten stronger. His personal relationship with Brielle offered him little insight into the intentions of Major Rinlee. “Is this young Shaper a problem that could be solved by me and my Shapers?”
“I’m hoping she isn’t a problem,” Kol said. “Just an unfortunate situation where people who don’t need to be enemies find themselves at cross-purposes.”
“You’re way more optimistic about this than I am,” Duncan said. “We’re definitely enemies.”
“I still hope not to see her again.”
“What did this woman do to scare you so much?” Brielle asked.
“It’s not fear,” Kol said. “I regret how things transpired.”
“Should we let her read it?” Duncan asked. “I’m not sure of the protocol for this.”
Kol knew he could permit Brielle to see the letter. Since his special assignment, he had free reign to seek out whatever help he saw fit. But he didn’t want Brielle to enter the Nimauk discussion this way. He wanted Brielle’s opinion, but without the complications of her ambition or her command.
“I’d really rather talk about this later.” Kol knew he’d taken too long to respond. “This is a difficult situation, morally, and I’d rather discuss it in private. Maybe after your inspections tonight, we could get dinner, and I could tell you about it then.”
“Tonight’s no good,” Brielle said. “If this is a need-to-know situation, I won’t be offended.”
“Fine.” Kol nodded to Duncan. “Show her.” Duncan retrieved the main page of the letter and handed it to Brielle. She read. Kol looked back to his work and notes, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything other than Brielle’s eyes scanning the page.
“This is the traitor whose property you burned?” Brielle set the letter aside. “And the letter was from the information recovered at her property?” Kol nodded. “I’m not seeing the big issue you have in this situation.”
“I didn’t consider the affect of my investigation on her niece,” Kol said. “I was only concerned with the defector, but Sucora’s dead. It isn’t her property. It was Enoa’s – her home and her family business. If someone burned my home, I don’t know how I would respond. I’m not sure I would care what legal authority they had.”
“Cloud was a traitor and a powerful traitor.” Brielle said. “You couldn’t be sure she hadn’t booby-trapped the property. You couldn’t be sure how the locals would respond, and you had Master Nine breathing down your neck. I really don’t see anything you could have done all that differently.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling him,” Duncan said. “He’s been so upset about this, but what choice did we have?”
“Well.” Brielle passed the letter back to Duncan. He laid it on the table. “Here’s an easier issue.” She opened her brief case and took out a small packet of papers. “I need a brief written statement from you about Gilford’s attack.”
“I’m assuming I’ll need to be available if this goes to trial.” Kol took the forms and set them on the table. He turned to his own notes to search for a pen.
“With your testimony of the attack and our recordings of Gilford’s statements,” Brielle said. “There won’t need to be a trial. His case can move directly to sentencing.”
“He pled guilty?” Kol asked.
“After all of the evidence we have against him, we don’t need a plea. All we need is your eyewitness testimony of the attempt. Attempting to kill a Corps officer in the Western Barony could get him a listing on the Plummet Ledger, but regardless, he’ll never go free. You’re safe.”
“The Plummet Ledger?” Kol asked. “I don’t know what that is. I don’t remember reading about that in the Disciplinary Manual.”
“It won’t be in the Manual until the next edition is printed,” Brielle explained. “It’s Baron Helmont’s personal judgment. He adds to the ledger only in the most severe cases, but I think this will apply.”
“But Gilford doesn’t get to make a case for himself?” Kol asked. “He doesn’t get to try to prove I killed his brother? It would still be vigilantism, but…”
Kol stopped speaking when he heard Max’s door swing open. He didn’t turn toward the sound, but he heard the wheelchair against the tile floor. Max was coming closer. This was all Kol needed, a theoretical discussion of criminal justice, between Max and Brielle.
“You didn’t kill his brother!” Brielle said. “What’s gotten into you lately? Seriously, this man tried to kill you. If you hadn’t had a Shaping Revelation in some weird skill I’ve never even heard of, Duncan, or Captain Maros, or I would have found you dead there, suffocated.”
“I know that,” Kol said. He stopped and looked back at Max, who was staring at the laptop screen and Sucora Cloud’s face.
“I’m taking another trip to the coffee pot,” his brother moved on. “Don’t worry about me.”
“If you know he tried to kill you, and he admits to trying to kill you, and you did nothing wrong,” Brielle said. “Really, Kol, what’s the issue here?”
“He should have a chance to make an argument for himself,” Kol said. “He should have a chance at a defense. Who’s to say I’m not lying. Maybe I know Gilford, and we’re rivals, and I want him gone. So I staged the attack. I drugged him, or used some secret ESP, that no one knows I have, to make him think I killed his brother. Or imagine the things I’m sure Divenoll said about me. Imagine the accusations he would’ve made up, if I had no chance to defend myself. We need the legal process more now.”
“But it’s not like that,” Brielle said. “And we’re not in a position to hold trials for cut-and-dried cases like this.”
“We have to be,” Kol said. “This system can be abused, even if I’m not currently abusing it. Everything comes down to the judgment of a handful of people. We all make mistakes. I’ve done nothing for months but make mistakes. What if Divenoll tricked him into attacking me? What if he had a head injury during training? We don’t know enough about his motives. There needs to be an investigation, and he needs a trial with representation unless he pleads guilty, without coercion.”
“If you want a trial for Gilford,” Brielle said. “You can make that happen with your statement. If you say he attacked you, with intent to kill, further motive and further details don’t matter. You’d need to claim confusion of the attack and submit to a psychological evaluation. Then you won’t be investigating the Dreamside Road or anything else.”
“I think you need your head looked at no matter what,” Duncan said. “You sound like Max, acting like the world can work in the nice way it used to. Sorry, Max…” He fell silent when he looked toward the older brother. Everyone did.
In the discussion, no one had noticed Max situate himself beside the table and take Sucora’s letter. He was reading it.
Kol felt his stomach drop away. This was everything he’d hoped to avoid. He should be ready for a defense of his actions – truly, what else could he have done to pursue the Dreamside Road in Nimauk? But as Max read the letter, Kol was again the little boy who’d broken a window playing baseball with his friends, only to be caught by his already-teenaged brother.
“Sorry, Max,” Duncan leaned forward and grabbed the letter. Max didn’t release it. “Max, this is part of our investigation. It’s evidence.”
“It isn’t.” Max did not release the paper until he finished reading. Then his fingers parted and allowed Duncan to pull it away.
“What?” Duncan said. “Yes it is.”
“It isn’t evidence. If it were evidence, you would have retrieved it as part of a legal and formal investigation. You wouldn’t have stolen it in the dead of night, hiding behind arson to get away with it.”
“That was Tucker’s idea,” Duncan said. “He was the one who pushed the Sight-Stealer shit on us.”
“You’re using, ‘He made me do it’?” Max asked. “You knew better than to say such a thing, as a six-year-old. How did you plan to cover up burgling Enoa? Or would you have strong-armed the town and forced your way into this young woman’s home?”
“We weren’t going to let the Dreamside Road stay hidden under some antique store,” Duncan said. “It’s horrible for Enoa that it wasn’t there, but she shouldn’t have resisted detainment. She should have helped us. Anything that happened after that point was on her.”
“So, she had no right to private property?” Max asked. “And why should she submit? According to the records we talked about for Kol’s hearing, Enoa first heard of the Liberty Corps the same night you destroyed her home. Anyone can say they have lawful authority.”
“But we did!” Duncan said. “We worked for Tucker.”
“Tucker, the conspirator who murdered at least seven people to cover for his crimes?” Max asked. “You were extra security, that’s it. The real law enforcement arrested my brother for his connection to the arson. Your expectation for Enoa to follow your word only holds water if the Liberty Corps were actually the lawful investigating or policing authority, and you’re certainly not.”
“What?” Brielle wasn’t looking at Max. She was staring at Kol, and her expression had actually grown colder, despite the heat he could feel radiating from her. “Captain, we are the only law left. We are the only civilization left. Without the Liberty Corps you would be dead at Crater Base.”
“Without the Liberty Corps,” Max said. “I strongly doubt those automatons would have been standing guard, full of corpses, five years after Thunderworks.”
“I had hoped when you came to stay here, you’d be a voice of reason,” Brielle said. “Someone of your…”
“I am a voice of reason,” Max interrupted. “I don’t know your story, Major. But before the last few years, only the world’s worst regimes tried to use the governmental authority to protect themselves, while at the same time wielding criminality, when convenient. And the Liberty Corps is not the only law. There are several groups attempting to restore our homeland as it once was. By all accounts, the Liberty Corps is a dangerous threat to that process.”
“A threat to that process?” Brielle’s voice changed too. She spoke in a harsh tone, almost a growl. “The old governments failed. The military you served failed to protect us! You were safe hiding away in an intelligence base, while the rest of us were butchered by Thunderworks. They took my grandparents! They were pulled from the walls of their home. We never found the bodies. Maybe they were harvested. Maybe they died another way, but they’re gone. They’re gone because your Navy surrendered Oak Island. The Liberty Corps would never do that.”
“The Liberty Corps would have forced your grandparents into the street to repurpose their homes into defensive positions. Ask Kol about Mrs. Greco.” Max raised his voice so he couldn’t be interrupted. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Major. I sincerely am, but I do understand loss. When Thunderworks launched its ambush, I was a Lieutenant Commander. In the next six days, after three direct attacks on Naval Intelligence, I received two battlefield promotions. I spent only seven days as Captain Maros before losing the use of both my legs. In that time, I also lost both of my parents. I understand loss very well, Major.”
All parties fell silent. Kol tried not to look at anyone. He was staring down a nightmare, a worst-case situation. And so soon! They hadn’t even been there a full day. More mistakes. More errors. Why couldn’t he pull out of free fall? He needed solid ground.
The suite door opened again. An Outreach Command Lieutenant – years older than Kol and likely older than Brielle – stepped inside and faced them until she acknowledged him.
“Yes, Lieutenant?” Brielle’s voice had returned to her standard professional cool. “What is it?”
“Message, ma’am,” he said. “We’ve received a telegram from Regional Governor Kent Sloan of the Southwest Trade Corridor.”
“What does he need?”
“The message isn’t for you, ma’am,” the Lieutenant said. “It’s for Captain Kolben Maros.”
* * *
Trivett pulled his truck off of Cherry Lane. He found a sandy lot, situated beside an old ranch house, apparently abandoned. He parked there, still innocuous, still out of mind. But it was a spot where he would see anyone leaving the Corwin building.
Trivett was good at waiting. His eyes weren’t as sharp as they’d been twenty years earlier, but his ears still were. He functioned well on little sleep and he’d found a few dog-eared, paperback, crime novels, in an abandoned Route 66 gift shop. They’d keep him company if the Corwins planned on spending their day at the house.
Trivett had only been parked outside for forty minutes when his communicator chimed.
That was unexpected. No one, but Sloan’s people, had corresponding devices. Why would the Governor’s office call him? Why would the Governor’s office risk his detection?
“Hello,” Trivett said.
“Bart!” Governor Sloan called his name. “Change in plans.”
“What can I do, sir?”
“Finding the Aesir isn’t enough,” Sloan said. “We can’t let the Aesir leave my jurisdiction. We need to do more than bring the law down on Corwin.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Stay on them. Watch them. We have to find some way of keeping Gregory here for the Nine-flails.”
Trivett thought about the two young travelers who’d stood on either side of Gregory, the young pups following in his wake.
“If I take one of his people,” Trivett said. “How close can you be to offer me back up?”
“We can have a full platoon off State Road sixty-five.”
“Then I have something in mind,” Trivett said. “I’ll get you what you want, Governor, as always.”