“If you need the Aesir or Captain Gregory in one piece for your investigation, it’d be a good idea to get here in the next couple days – stop.” The Lieutenant read Sloan’s telegram. “Gregory needs to be publicly strung up. His ship needs to be destroyed. We need to make an example of him – stop. After the damage he did to my supply and defense convoys, he left me no choice – stop.”
Kol and Duncan joined Brielle in her command room – essentially a standard conference room with multiple walls of monitors. Brielle had hardly spoken since they left the suite. She would not meet Kol’s eyes.
“I’m writing as a courtesy to you and your official mission from Czar Hawthorne – stop. In return, I want to bring you onboard as an adviser – stop. This way, we both get what we want – stop. I have agents moving on Gregory and his crew right now, so get back to me fast – stop.”
“Governor Sloan also sent a tight-beam, encrypted listing of his resources and some intelligence about Littlefield, New Mexico, where Gregory and his crew are hiding.” The Lieutenant switched to another piece of paper. “He’s requested the help of Sir Nine-flails and his squad. He also has two other squads of outside special operatives flying in. He has three hundred of his own troops available, including two tanks, three cannon-mount mechs, and a second railgun. On the other side, it’s believed Corwin has seventy potential fighters, an unknown number of armed trucks, and the Aesir. They’re hoping to capture a member of Gregory’s crew and use the hostage to keep him close. Then catch Littlefield in an ambush. Kill all opposition and claim the town as an outpost.”
“Kidnap one of his crew?” Kol said. “Gregory has Miss Cloud, who else?”
“Sloan’s report mentions a young Black man with him,” the Lieutenant said. “He has not been identified.”
“Nine-flails isn’t enough,” Kol said. “I’ve seen video of Nine-flails. He’s nothing compared to Tucker and Gregory bested him. Sloan’s better move would be to report this to Baron Helmont’s office for piracy, leave it to our actual infantry. This isn’t a job for regional security. Once Helmont apprehends Gregory, then Sloan can try to recruit Littlefield without putting guns to their heads.”
“No way Sloan goes for that,” Brielle said. “He’s trying to establish himself as a regional leader. He can’t call in the infantry for one man. Other than his weapons, Gregory is just a man.”
“A man who fought the Supreme Commander of Thunderworks and won. He lives up to his reputation. You don’t need to be a Shaper or an old-world sorcerer to be dangerous.”
“Without his ship and his hardware, he’d be useless,” Brielle said.
“He’s a good fighter, and he’s a smart fighter. I’ll send Sloan the video we have of Gregory’s battle with Tucker. He can see for himself how badly he needs the national Liberty Corps.”
“Why are you so scared of him?” Brielle’s voice was still harsh from the argument with Max, and she snapped now. She spoke with real contempt.
“I’m not scared of him. I have a healthy wariness of him. If I went on safari, I wouldn’t poke a lion with a stick. That’s what Sloan is doing here. He’d be better off taking care of Gregory another way and incentivizing recruitment into our ranks. His style of requisitions, without any analysis of how it impacts the communities he wants to rule – that will destroy lives. He’ll have armed rebellion on his hands with or without Gregory.”
“You have to go there,” Brielle said. “Giving a lecture like your brother, from hundreds of miles away, doesn’t help anyone.”
“At the very least,” Kol said. “I’ll eventually have to go after Gregory to get Cloud’s key, but I’m not going to put my name on another failed attempt to bring him to heel. He’s international, and until we treat him as such, we’ll only embarrass ourselves. I’m not going to watch more good men like Gilford’s brother have their lives thrown away.”
“This situation can’t be compared to what Divenoll did,” Brielle said. “This isn’t Gregory being chased as a lead in an investigation. He chose to obstruct requisitions. He resisted arrest. He killed our troops. Sloan definitely needs to make an example of him.”
“He’s starting a fight he can’t win,” Kol said.
“So you’d just call Helmont and do nothing to oppose Gregory, yourself? I never thought you’d be weaker after learning Shaping. What did Gregory do to you to make you a coward? Or was it that Cloud girl? Or Divenoll?”
Kol didn’t immediately respond. Anything he said, risked making the rift with Brielle permanent.
“You want to know what’s changed? We came to the Liberty Corps to be safe and to give safety to others, so we’d never be helpless again. But we were blinded by that promise. We were made to feel invincible and that we could do no wrong, while we served the Liberty Corps. My eyes were opened since the Nimauk mission. Just joining the Liberty Corps is not a promise of safety or of anything else. Every time the Liberty Corps has fought Orson Gregory, our people are the ones who die.”
“You’re surrendering the safety of Sloan’s territory, because Gregory won three fights that played to his strengths?” she asked. “We have every advantage, this time.”
“I know what we need to do.” Duncan spoke before Kol could say more. “The Sucora letter confirms that we really have no interest in the films Enoa received. We don’t need anything from them, but the key.”
“What are you suggesting?” Kol asked.
“I’ll get to this Littlefield and steal Cloud’s key, before Sloan attacks. Then we get what we need and aren’t caught up in another fight with Gregory.”
* * *
“And this one monitors the G-forces?” Jaleel pointed to a gauge on the dashboard. He sat in the Aesir’s copilot’s seat.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Orson nodded. “Well, I guess we’ll give this a whirl. Enoa, are you sure you want to sit this one out? You could go first.”
“That’s okay.” Enoa sat behind them. “I want to practice my aunt’s defensive techniques, and I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’ll have to do the flight training another time.” She stood and collected her staff. She’d been waiting all day to work with the film. As enjoyable as it was to have a normal non-adventurous day with Carlos, Eloise, and her father, hiding out had gotten Enoa no closer to the level of security she wanted.
“You have your comm?” Orson stood too. He helped her take the projector, screen, and emergency water jug out onto the dusty hill where they’d landed the Aesir. There once had been an entire underground warren of rogue laboratories, hidden there. It was all gone, save for a narrow chute into the earth, at the top of the hill.
“Have fun magicing!” Jaleel called and moved into the pilot’s seat.
Enoa worked with Orson on the jury-rigged stand for the screen, forcing its legs deep into the sandy ground. She set up the projector, the portable power supply, and the film. Orson plugged in a tall, portable lamp near her training site.
“Call us if you need anything.” He was walking back toward the Aesir, when the shape flew from the roof and landed at his feet. “Not you again!”
It was the aeropine from the truck. It waddled toward Orson, chattering.
“Could this be a different one?” Enoa looked around. “Pedro mentioned there being more.”
“I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never seen one of these before,” Orson said. “It must have flown onto our roof after Pedro got it out of the truck. Now it’s stowed away with us.”
“If the little guy lives in town, maybe we should take him back with us whenever we go. Can aeropines feed themselves out here in the desert?”
“The lab buried under our feet is where they came from.” Orson looked at the animal. “There’s probably more to eat out here. But to be fair, I don’t know anything about them. I don’t want to leave anything stranded, but in town or near the farms, these critters have to be a problem. And he’s so pushy. That’s asking for trouble with people.”
The animal walked toward him, but he backed away. “Do you think you’ll be okay with this guy roaming around?” Orson stepped up into the Aesir.
“I think so.” Enoa could not imagine the almost cartoonish animal willfully attacking someone. “I have no food, but I don’t mind him. He seems really sweet, like he’s already somebody’s pet, and he’s looking for attention.”
“Alright, well call us if you need us.” Orson shut the Aesir’s side door.
Enoa waited for the Aesir to fly away. It was not a smooth ascent. The whole ship rocked back and forth. She imagined Orson and Jaleel both shouting, as the latter piloted them into the distance.
She checked on the aeropine, but the animal came no closer. It sniffed the ground where the ship had been.
Satisfied, she started the film and began her meditation, working with the decade-old recording of Aunt Sucora. She followed along with Sucora’s breathing. It was habit now, following the mental exercises she’d always done into the spiritual place where Shaping was possible.
“The Midnight Sight is the simplest of these techniques,” Sucora said. “We’ll begin there. Eventually, you’ll transmute the moisture from the air directly into fog, but I think it’s best to start with your water supply.” Enoa reached to the side and unscrewed the top off the three-gallon water jug Orson had provided.
“You’ve done a lot of work on transmutation, and that’s all you’re doing here,” Sucora continued. “But slower. You need to slow down the process and that’s where things get tricky. Just like weightlifting, moving slower is actually harder. There’s no need to hurry. There’s no need to strain. Just begin with water and transmute it back into the air, but don’t let it dissipate. Keep the air tight together. This takes some trial and error, but…”
“I have a gun pointed at you.” A man’s voice spoke from her left. “You’re going to drop your staff and lift your hands. I’m not going to hurt you, if you don’t fight.”
Enoa jumped. She had heard no one approach. She’d heard no one at all, since the Aesir left. Had she immersed herself too deeply in her meditation that she’d lost sense of her surroundings?
She opened her eyes. Her mind was still in the divided place, the place of mental control, where she didn’t need to fear most guns. She released her staff, raised her hands, and stood.
“Don’t worry if you can’t maintain density.” Sucora’s recording continued, unwatched. “That comes with practice.”
Enoa faced her attacker. He wore what appeared to be standard military-style gear, black vest and helmet, orange goggles. He had an oversized pack with metal appendages dangling from the back. He held a rifle in his hands, aimed at her chest. A pistol was holstered at his belt.
Who was this man? What did he want? Enoa could not afford to let her mind panic or even to question her situation. She was already prepared for Shaping and, as always, wore the stun box at her belt.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” Enoa’s voice came out flat and monotone. She always sounded off with her mind divided.
“You’re one of Gregory’s pups,” he said. “Now turn away from me and put your hands on your head.”
“How stupid are you, girl? I have free reign from the governor of this territory. You’ve thrown in with an outlaw. That means no law protects you if you end tonight full of bullets. Do you hear me?”
“You work for Sloan. He has no idea who he’s dealing with. He put you in a lot of danger, but if you leave now, you won’t be hurt.”
“Are you blind?” The man gestured with the gun. “Hands on your head or I shoot you.”
The film continued to play. “Now, I want you to hold the moisture around you,” Sucora said.
Enoa walked toward her attacker. She palmed her stun box in one hand and her comm in the other. The man didn’t warn her again. He pulled the trigger. As expected, the rifle didn’t fire.
The man drew his pistol and ran backward. When he found his pistol likewise wouldn’t fire, he sprinted, rushing down the long-sloped hill, toward a mound of rocks, in the distance.
Enoa activated her comm and let the man run away. She didn’t think she could’ve caught him, and if he had a weapon she couldn’t disable, she’d need backup either way.
“Wayfarer Two to RV.” She spoke into the comm. “I’m under attack, someone…” Nothing came from the line but a shrill whistle. “Hello, RV. RV!” She heard a muffled sound from the comm, more static or speech? Enoa didn’t know.
Now, it was her turn to run. She charged back to the film rig. She shut off the projector and the lamp, leaving everything in darkness. Was she being jammed? She didn’t know anything about that. She didn’t know enough to act.
She collapsed the projector. She couldn’t endanger her aunt’s film.
Spotlights lit to her left. She heard the crunch of boots through the dirt. The man was returning. Enoa threw herself to the ground. If she’d had just a little time to do the emergency combat training, this guy would be no problem.
She could see him, thirty feet distant. The spindly arms on his pack were standing out in all directions. Each had a lamp at the tip and round protrusions, probably gun barrels. If it was some kind of firearm, she could probably disable it, but she’d never seen anything like it before.
Enoa heard a chattering sound behind her. She couldn’t see it, but she thought the aeropine was approaching, slowly waddling closer in the darkness. Could the animal see her? She’d been under the impression that porcupines had terrible vision, but then again, other porcupines couldn’t fly. Who knew what the aeropine could and could not do?
“If you want to walk away from this,” the man shouted. “Show yourself. Or I’ll shoot you when I see you. You won’t stop my new toy, will you, witchy girl?”
Enoa didn’t move. The man would hear her. She fought to maintain her concentration, ready to stop any of the four waving, mechanical arms. She pulled her cloak around her. She’d hate to see the cloak shredded like Orson’s old coat had been, but, if she could get close, this man’s neck was exposed for the stunner.
The aeropine walked near enough to Enoa that she could hear his small footfalls, and he kept right on chattering. He was surprisingly loud.
Enoa did not speak. She began to creep away from the man, leaving her film equipment behind. The aeropine did not seem to follow her.
Enoa kicked the full jug of water. It didn’t budge, but the noise was unmistakable.
The man didn’t speak, but she heard his booted steps quicken, as he approached. The waving arms began scanning the ground, near where she’d been.
Enoa gathered her staff and her stun box. She thought about her anger at Nalrik, what it had felt like to destroy the cannon. This man deserved the same, but she felt her mind slipping away from her place of control and strength. She could not maintain her mental discipline.
The aeropine chattered. Enoa heard him walking away from her. The animal was now meandering directly at her attacker.
“Ugh, what the hell?” the man said. “Move it, hog.” The aeropine yelled when the man kicked him. Enoa heard the man’s boots as he brushed through her film equipment. She rose into a crouch.
“There you are.”
All four of the arms swung toward her. Enoa lowered her head and charged, keeping her armored hood toward the man. She hadn’t regained her anger or clarity or focus, but this had to be enough, pummel him with the staff or stun him. That’s all she needed. He seemed to be no advanced fighter, just some man sent by Sloan.
Before Enoa reached the man or he could open fire, she heard an approaching shriek, a broad, echoing sound. Enoa paused, flinching away from the shockingly loud, sudden noise.
The man screamed, a cry of great pain that intensified into a wail. He sounded overwhelmed, agonized. The mechanical arms flailed, opening fire into the air. Something about his pain or his physical reaction had sent the mechanical limbs into a panic.
Enoa ran, crouched low to avoid the spray of projectiles. There, in the waving lights, still saw the aeropine, rolled into a ball, quills sticking into the back of the man’s knee, right through his pants. The man’s leg trailed blood, everything below the knee shredded by the aeropine’s attack. The animal seemed to have rolled right up the back of the man’s leg. He dug at the aeropine with gloved hands, trying to pry it away.
Enoa used the man’s distraction and shoved the stun box into the side of his neck. She triggered it. He fell onto his side, shaking, projectiles still firing into the air or above his prone head.
Enoa pulled away the stun box and jumped back from the man. She looked down and found the aeropine had released the man’s leg, but was still curled up, quills out.
The gunfire didn’t cease. The pack sent bullets across the ground.
She tried to concentrate on the combustion within the weapon pack, but she could find no sense of any reaction. Was this weapon another experiment, like the railgun, that didn’t have an oxidizer?
Enough – Enoa drove her staff into the man’s backpack. It didn’t issue a full blast, but the burst of hot air broke a hole in the machine’s metal casing. The arms stopped waving and firing. The man’s shaking also ceased.
The aeropine was still curled up. “Thank you, spiky friend.” She lit her mini flashlight. “You saved me! I would’ve been in a lot of trouble, without you.” It was hard to tell in the partial light, but she thought she caught the animal peeking at her through his quills.
She tried to remove the machine pack from the man’s back, but no luck. She’d need to roll him around to disentangle him from it, and he felt like he weighed twice what she did.
By the time she’d given up and sat down on the dusty ground, the Aesir descended from the sky, landing beside her. Orson and Jaleel ran from the ship. Blue light lit the dusty hillside from Orson’s unsheathed sword and his visor. Jaleel followed him, bow ready.
“Are you okay?” Jaleel aimed an arrow toward her attacker.
“What happened?” Orson turned his head in a slow circle, probably scanning for more assailants. “Aesir’s computer detected gunfire. Why didn’t you call us?”
“That man was here kidnap me!” She said. “I tried to call after I stopped his guns, but all I heard was a weird sound. When the man came after me again with that gun backpack, I couldn’t stop it. I don’t know if it’s a weapon without combustion or if I just lost concentration, but I think he would’ve taken me without the aeropine’s help. He got the man’s leg with his spines and gave me time to stun him.”
“The aeropine?” Orson asked. The odd animal knew he’d been acknowledged. He uncurled and began chattering again, as if telling his side of the story. “It is you again.”
“He’s a sweet little guy,” she said. “He saved me!”
“Wow,” Jaleel said. “Look at this dude’s leg. It looks like a shark grabbed him or something. Oh, aeropines are totally Pokemon. We have to take him with us.”
“Pets on the Aesir are an awful idea. We’re in constant danger.” Orson sheathed his sword and forced Sloan’s man briefly onto his stomach. He pulled the pack off of him and then rolled him back onto his side.
“Yeah, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a weapon like that before.” Orson began searching the man’s pockets.
“And the aeropine isn’t in constant danger, as a wild animal?” Enoa said. “If he can be trained, and he doesn’t destroy our things or hurt the ship, then I want him.”
“Do aeropines go for walks or do they use litterboxes?” Jaleel pointed his index finger toward the aeropine. The animal raised a paw toward him.
“There probably aren’t standard care methods for hybrid animals,” Orson said. “Kappa made the aeropines, and look at what this one did to Sloan’s guy! What if we scare or annoy this animal?”
“That guy kicked him! We wouldn’t be mean to him. Why are Dino and the radar-dish dogs okay but an aeropine isn’t?”
“Because Dino is mostly a normal dog, and we don’t even know what DNA is in this little thing. He seems friendly, but we’d have a lot to figure out if you want a pet.” He pulled two items from the attacker’s pockets. “This is why you couldn’t reach the ship – code scrambler. Sloan must be well supplied, and… Oh, shit!”
“What’s wrong now?” Jaleel asked.
“Transponder.” Orson lifted a small cylinder. “Sloan will know exactly where his man is and where he’s been. This just got a whole hell of a lot more complicated.”
“Sloan found us after only one day?” Jaleel said. “We suck at hiding.”
“This guy must’ve tracked us, somehow, yeah,” Orson said. “I think we brought major trouble down on Littlefield.”
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