Chapter 1 - Out for a Stroll
The dark hulk of mass in the sky was always watching, always listening. Whether it was the light of a campfire or the screech of a shortwave radio, it was alert for the evidence of human activity. There were once many towns, some more fortunate than others. It had found many forgotten groups of people on its journey east. People with no clear direction or plan, trying to survive one day at a time. Even though the west coast had been devastated by tsunamis, there were a surprising number of survivors. These are what it was waiting for, the tell-tale signs that yet another gathering of people were struggling to see another day. That would get its attention.
Liam kept running. Up ahead, a tree branch loomed in the quickening dusk, like fingers outstretched to close around his throat. He ducked and grabbed the branch, letting it snap behind him. Even though he had no time to actually think, a smile crossed his lips as he heard the satisfying smack behind him and cry of pain from his pursuer.
Liam passed row after row of decaying homes. He was amazed what a few years of neglect could do to a neighborhood. Though he knew where he was going, he certainly wasn’t going to lead his chasers there, so he took the long route, hoping to ditch them somewhere along the way. It wasn’t safe to be this far out from the center of their makeshift “town within a town” and he knew it. He just hoped they knew it too, and that would be the end of it. He scrambled over broken walls and through the remains of picked over homes, burnt out husks of lives that now seemed so distant that they belonged to someone else. This had been his neighborhood, and he knew it like the back of his hand. The people behind him had probably never been here before—that gave him a clear advantage.
He ducked sideways into what had been an old garage and darted around the ruin of someone’s old Buick. It was just a hunk of metal now, half burned and torn apart by looters. He darted towards the back door, hoping he had given his followers the slip.
He looked through the broken panes of glass on the old door. Not seeing anyone, he pushed it open and peered out. Seeing nothing, Liam let out a long breath and pushed himself out of the doorway.
“Wump!” A heavy ham of a hand connected with his shoulder and back, swatting Liam like a bug from the other side of the door and sending him sprawling across the debris in the backyard. The blow had been intended to knock him to the ground, but Liam had always had been good on his feet. Even though it hurt like a son of a bitch, he danced it off and continued to run. The package he was clutching almost got away—he shifted his grip and sprinted to the fence across the yard.
“Come back here, you stupid little turd!” said the larger, obviously older boy that had almost gotten him down. “I’m not through with you yet.” The boy was huffing and wheezing and needed to stop before he popped something, but he kept coming like a freight train. Liam heard other voices coming from the right and howls when some his attackers found the rivers of broken glass from the three burnt-out cars in back of the Thompson’s house. He darted left, then right, and another left through yards and homes that had been familiar to him just a few years ago. The homes were like ghosts and rotting corpses now, many of them gutted and exposed to the unbelievably harsh conditions. This was his life now.
He rounded a final corner, knowing he had left the others behind in a maze of wreckage. They knew not to get too close now. His pursuers were from their own turf. It would be easier to navigate once daylight came, but they would have little hope of catching him now. He gave the secret whistle as he approached what had been a barber shop on Clover Street. Faces peered up out of doorways and broken windows, and a couple of people looked both ways and cautiously stepped into the street surrounding him.
Liam never looked forward to this part. He was a runner and really good at it being lanky and faster than most of the boys. Sometimes he didn't know why he stuck with this gang. He kept telling himself that he could make it on his own if he wanted to, but in this town at least, they offered a margin of protection and he had to play his part.
Anthony, a blonde haired boy of maybe eighteen, grabbed the package and peered inside under the faint light of the moon. Inside the bag was what Liam had risked his life for. There were four loaves of bread, not much bigger than bagels he could remember getting with his mom. Even though it was only three or so years ago, it was a memory that seemed to belong to someone else's life in a different era. Anthony grabbed one of the loaves for himself and tossed the bag to the remaining pack of boys. The bag ripped and torn pieces of bun went flying as the frenzy ensued. “What? No fishes?” mocked Anthony while Liam was still heaving to catch his breath. “I guess you can stay another night.” He grabbed a small piece from the hands of another one of the boys, a ginger whose freckles literally popped if his face wasn't so covered in dirt.
The kid protested “Hey!” but seeing Anthony’s glare, knew better than to go any further. Anthony wasn’t the most horrible person, but there was no mistaking who was boss and he liked it that way. Liam couldn’t recall the boy’s actual name but having such red hair, was given the name “Red”. He sulked back into the bowels of the shop that they made their home and base. When the group broke up and began to settle in for the night, Liam scooted over to Red. Looking around to make sure none of the bigger boys were watching, Liam pulled two more rolls out of his jacket and handed one to him. “Dang! Do you know what Anthony would do?” Red started, a little too loud for comfort.
“Just shut up and eat,” Liam hissed under his breath. “What Anthony don’t know won’t hurt him.”
Red devoured the roll in about three bites. Liam preferred to savor his; sometimes he thought it might be his last meal on earth. And Sometimes that didn’t seem so far from the truth. He fumbled in the darkness for the small niche in the wall next to where he made his nest, and he lit a small oil lantern with matches that he found in Mabel’s store months ago. Flickering yellow light exploded all around him.
After four months, the kids around him hardly looked up anymore. At first when he had joined their group, Anthony hadn’t wanted him making any light, but Liam convinced him that as long as they kept it in the back room, no one from the outside could ever see it. Liam also got his own supplies. He probably had enough lamp oil to last another year and plenty of matches that he shared with everyone, so in the end, Anthony relented and let him keep his night light. Of course, relenting came with warnings of not peeing the bed too.
Liam tried to get as comfortable as one could on a pile of rags on the floor of a drafty storeroom. He thought it was October, but it was beginning to be hard to tell. Liam just knew it was beginning to get cold at night again, and that meant even more discomfort. The constant storms didn’t help—he never remembered anytime when it stormed so much, and it meant even more kids would likely die. They had a couple of sick ones now that probably wouldn’t last another month without proper meds.
He knew this because his mom was a doctor and he had been around her work most of his life. If she was still here, she could help. She had been one of the only three pediatricians in town and had always been busy. Every kid in this barbershop had probably been a patient of hers. Now they were slowing dying. Liam held back the tears. She would have been horrified to see how they were living now. God, he missed his mom. Of course, he missed his father too, but Jonathan Waite had been away more than he was at home. He was the founder of Waite Aerospace, which made cool stuff for NASA and a lot of other space programs. At least, it used to.
Liam looked up at the fading picture thumb tacked to the wall over his makeshift bed, the one of him and his parents. He had not seen them since before the earthquake. That day was a little less than three years ago but was the strongest memory in Liam's mind.
His dad had been away on business, of course. Liam wasn’t sure where he was or what he was doing but from many of his parents’ conversations, he had a good idea his mom didn’t like it. Liam had ridden his bike to school that day. He was just finishing eighth grade.
They lived in a small community of Union Springs, Missouri, just west of St Louis. His dad always insisted in living there even though many of his billionaire friends chose to live in much more exotic surroundings. Some even owned their own islands. Jonathan Waite's home had been in the family for multiple generations and he had no desire to live anywhere else, and he had built his business nearby. Waite Aerospace was the family pride and joy. Headquartered in St. Louis, the company had offices, plants and research facilities all over the world but home was always Union Springs.
Liam's class had just finished lunch and they were lounging around. He had his tablet out and was showing off one of the moves he had mastered. Funny, now he couldn’t even remember the name of the game he had been playing. Everyone knew where they were and what they were doing when it occurred. The kids that were still in the building were buried alive. Liam thought they were the lucky ones—they died quickly.
Anyone that had been looking up at the time would have seen a brilliant flash of light. He could still feel the ground lurch under his feet. Literally, one moment you are bragging about a video game, the next you are lying on the ground fighting for the wind that was knocked out of your lungs and trying to find a safe place to crawl to. Interesting how priorities can change so fast. It felt like the ground just flipped over, comparable to one of those bulls at the rodeo. He had dropped his tablet and never saw it, or his friend, again.
The injuries on the playground were minor, broken bones, cuts, bruises. Liam saw things that the best therapists in the world would never be able to undo. About three-quarters of the kids of Union died in the collapsed school building that day. A few made it out. Red had been twelve at the time and had been just on his way to lunch. He still peed the bed.
Liam was sure his parents were still alive. The survivors from the school were rounded up by the adult staff that were still moving and hustled to a safe facility to get whatever first aid there was and wait for their parents. Liam had asked about his mom a number of times, but everyone always seemed too busy to really pay attention to him. They knew she was a doctor. The best answer he ever got from them was that she was probably treating injured children at another shelter and would be there as soon as she could get away. That line lasted for a couple of weeks when suddenly in the middle of the night, just when things were settling down into a routine, a gang of thugs burst into the shelter. They killed some of the adults that resisted and rounded up the rest into a truck and drove off into the night. Everyone else was left there to fend for themselves. More died. Eventually, as what little food they had started to run out, others would wander away at night and that’s just what Liam did.
He didn’t want to waste any more oil, so he turned down his lamp. His final thoughts before he fell asleep was that his parents were still out there, his mom being someone’s doctor or in a camp somewhere. They wouldn’t have killed her. Doctors were way too important. He always thought his dad would arrive one day and rescue him from all of it. In one of his better fantasies, his father would fly in via helicopter, storm the center of town, take out the self-imposed Mayor Curtis Manning in a flurry of bullets and the two of them would rise back up to the helicopter with one of those rescue lines, still shooting anyone that tried to stop them. Liam had lived in a bubble of moderate luxury most of his younger life, but he knew deep in his heart that no amount of money was going to fix this.
The floating behemoth, christened “Empress of the Sky,” slipped silently into the sky above Union Springs. It had been making toward St. Louis, Missouri but had to make a stop to try and pick up a very important individual if they could. It had been over two years, but Artemis owed him this if it was at all possible. Where are you, Jonathan? Captain Grumm always liked a grand entrance...
The bare inklings of dawn approached from the east. They seemed to be in a short lull between storms, but the clouds were always threatening. Suddenly, the sky erupted in a cacophony of light and sound that eclipsed even the best fireworks show. What was left of Union Springs was abruptly awakened and on its feet. Like a scene from one of those invasion movies, the gigantic vessel slowly descended from the clouds. Shots rang out, adding to the racket, but failing to stop the music. They were hearing the driving sound of The Star Spangled Banner played at a sound level that was reverberating off the nearby mountains. They forgot to fire their weapons.
Captain Artemis Grumm was observing from the bridge of the Empress as he watched the events below on the monitor screens. “Gets them every time,” he mused out loud. “They shot first. That’s a bad sign.”
Artemis always used this same entrance to try and judge the character of the people below before he put the lives of his crew at risk. It wasn’t going so well this time. It was just before dawn—he would let them stew for a couple of hours. It would give his team more time to collect information and separate the seeds from the chaff, so to speak.
“I agree, sir.” A figure appeared standing on the deck next to him. Flickering for a second like an old television set warming up, the holographic image was never completely solid, but nonetheless, pretty convincing. The bridge of the ship was an odd amalgam of components—the necessity of modern controls and holographic displays connected to an impossible number of gauges, dials and pipes under the facade of an H. G. Wells novel. The hologram spoke with a pleasing dialect more suited for a Highlands manor house than an airship. “There is an eighty-three percent chance this is not going to succeed.”
The first streaks of morning illuminated the airship as it hovered a couple of hundred feet off the ground. The people of Union Springs gathered in the makeshift square in the center of town, directly across from the flogging posts and the gallows, fresh with yesterday’s kill.
Liam and Red squatted in the shadows and peered up at the sight from between an upturned car and a downed power pole. They began to see the full expanse of the vessel hovering over them. Liam had never seen anything like it. He would have said it was as big as any ship on the ocean, but this one gave you the impression it was much more at home in the sky. It appeared to be built upside down, with massive observation decks looking downwards and colorful sails like an old schooner He couldn’t put his finger on it but it appeared even more out of place because it looked old., like something from a vintage movie. It had what looked like massive zeppelins for pontoons on either side. He recognized their shape from videos he had seen on the history channel and some of his dad's old movies. As the light continued to expand and shine on the town square and the people gawking up at the immense bulk over their heads it painted a sharp contrast between the gleam of the vessel and the grim conditions and squalor they lived in.
A voice bellowed out of the midst of the lumbering hulk in the sky: "Whoever speaks for this community, we request parley and will meet with you in one hour at the school, north of town."
Red turned to Liam. “First an earthquake, now aliens?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think aliens would make anything so queer looking.” Liam stated, not taking his eyes off the machine floating above the town. “I’m going to get closer. Stay here if you want.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that thing,” Red backed further into the shadows.
Liam was already half way down the hill. “Suit yourself,” he called out behind him.
Grumm put down the microphone, leaned against the control surface and turned to Kyton Davis, his first officer. “I hate this part most of all.”
Kyton turned his attention away from the controls. “Earlier drone video captures showed close-ups of some of the people in this town … what was it?”
“Yeah ...Union Springs looks to be pretty rough. So, why did Jonathan choose to live here of all places? This close to the epicenter, I’m surprised anyone survived at all.”
Grumm pushed himself away from the console, stood up and began pacing.
“You should have seen it before. Union Springs was a beautiful little town, right out of a Mark Twain novel. Jonathan was as sentimental as he was brilliant. The house he grew up in had been in his family since before the Civil War. I just don’t think he could bear to part with it.”
“How do you even know he is still here?”
Captain Grumm frowned down at the instruments again. “I don’t. Obviously we need him. Besides his expertise with this ship and its systems, he’s a good friend. I am personally indebted to him more times than I can count. If he is still alive and there is any way I can get him and his family out of this hell hole, I will do everything in my power to do so. Besides, he still has my key!”
The captain turned away from the console. “When money meant something, I was a philanthropist. I helped people from South America to Africa to Asia. I guess that spirit hasn’t left me yet, but it is getting damned tiring constantly seeing these people bite the hand almost every time, week after week. What are we doing wrong?”
“I don’t think we are doing anything wrong. People have just become so desperate. They are still living off shock, adrenaline and desperation every day. Most have lost their families and seen horrors beyond imagining. I think perhaps, that the Empress might be intimidating rather than a beacon of hope for these people."
“Does that mean we shouldn’t help?”
“Not at all! Of course, we should help. It may be that someday soon, we won’t be able to advertise ourselves so blatantly though, but hopefully we won’t have to. My engineers have the engines installed and primed. All we need now is the fuel and the key to start it all up."
"Jules, what is your progress on cracking the encryption keys?"
"Unfortunately Sir, the government was very serious about the keys for nuclear technology falling into terrorist hands. The NO2SKYNET act of 2027 made it exceedingly difficult to crack encryption keys. The fear was of course that an Artificial Sentient Being, such as myself, could easily decrypt existing ciphers and encryption keys."
Kyton replied with irritation. "We don't need a history lesson, Jules!"
"Yes sir, I have been working on decrypting the keys for 6 months and 14 days and I am approximately 1.4% finished. At this rate, it will take an additional 35.7 years to break."
The two men sighed in unison. Grumm spoke first. "Which means we really have to find that key."
Kyton added, "You know it could be anywhere of course."
"Yes, but most likely at Waite Aerospace. They were making it a physical key that would represent the spirit of the ship. Essentially a memory drive, of course, but one that was special and ceremonial. I can understand after the incident at Fort Hood why they would be cautious about giving AI access to nuclear technology. We almost lost it then when the AI was reprogrammed—which is why we have the regulation in the first place. Now, it’s just damn annoying. We know there is nothing unstable about Jules. Most of what happened then was overblown hype anyway."
The ghost-like apparition of the ship’s steward fidgeted as he spoke. "Thirteen people died, sir. I don't relish being singled out as a species either, but just as you will not give a gun to a serial killer, I'm just as glad as you are that nuclear weapons were kept out of the hands of terrorists, human or cyber."
"Eloquently put, Jules. Sometimes I forget how close to human you really are."
"Please sir, I fail to see why you need to insult me!"
Kyton directed the conversation back to the key. "So what does this thing look like then, anyway?"
"I have no idea. All I know is that it was going to fit in that slot on the console in the reactor room. It was his idea to make the first ship patterned in this Victorian fantasy tradition.” Grumm swept his hands in an arc. “He really favored it. I would suppose it would look like some kind of elaborate skeleton key."
"That’s not very practical."
"Nothing about Jonathan is practical. He led a very interesting and colorful life."
"Well, an ornamental skeleton key will stand out in a modern office building like a sore thumb. I hope we can find it."
“As do I, Kyton, as do I. Well, I guess you can send out the meet and greet any time.”
“Aye, Captain. Consider it done.” Kyton turned back to the controls and picked up his commlink and barked some orders. On the ground, a group of six men filed out of the launch that was tucked away behind the remains of the school and began picking their way towards the approaching crowd. These six complimented the four drones staked out at strategic high points around the gathering.
Grumm watched Mister Davis work. He then walked back through the open door leading out of the bridge. He thought Sometimes Kyton likes playing the role of the Executive Officer a little too much. He smiled to himself. Good thing he’s on our side. Grumm made his way to the forward observation deck to watch the proceedings unfold.
Liam had only been back to this place a couple of times since everything went bad. Being here and reliving memories twisted his guts and made him want to vomit. He took a cautious, meandering path between piles of rubble. The people he was running from last night would definitely be here, and he couldn’t risk being seen by them. Hanging was the usual punishment for stealing the town’s food. Of course, Liam knew most of the food never actually reached the town. The self-appointed leaders, Curtis Manning, Colonel Lewis and their men certainly saved the best for themselves.
He walked around the piles. It was too risky to go over and be spotted. Liam guessed he was near the old front entrance of the school on the opposite side from the playground. As he rounded a dune of rubble, tucked away from prying eyes was the strangest looking vehicle. When Liam was a kid, he had seen pictures of the kind of recreation vehicles that celebrities used. He had seen ads on TV and plenty of movies with them. His friend’s uncle even had one. He and his friends had played hide and seek in one that looked a lot like what was poking out from between the piles of tilted asphalt.
On closer inspection, though, this RV wasn’t exactly the same. First, it was large, like one of those movie star tour buses. Second, this one had tires that belonged on a military transport of some kind and it had what looked like stubby wings and... jet engines. “Huh...” muttered Liam, “This must be what these people came down from that ship in.”
Liam looked up at the hulking bulk above. As he was edging closer, he could hear someone coming from the right. He ducked back down behind some cinder blocks. He was close enough to hear conversation between two men, the one that just emerged into the clearing and one that was poking his head out the door on the side.
“Zak, make sure you keep this hunk running—if that’s even possible.” The man on the ground was obviously in charge. “The locals here don’t appear nearly as friendly as the ones we found in Kansas City.”
“Geez, we almost lost it in Kansas City. I’ve never seen Grumm that put out. I thought he was going to throw Sanchez overboard after we lost Michaels.”
“Just keep this thing running and keep your eyes peeled. Just because we aren’t military doesn’t mean we can’t act like it. Also, get that equipment hatch locked down. As soon as we find Doctor Waite, we are out of here.”
Doctor Waite? Liam was thoroughly confused now, but a plan quickly formed, and it was the most stupid idea of his life.
Commotion could be heard on the far side of the school. Suddenly, voices and gunshots. The man on the ground turned and ran towards the corner to see what had happened. At the same moment, the one named Zak heard a squawk from the vehicle’s radio and turned his head.
It was now or never. Liam broke cover and ran for the modified recreation vehicle. Zak saw him and fumbled for his sidearm. Liam yelled out, “I’m Waite…” He suddenly felt like someone shoved him from behind, and a searing pain in his shoulder. He fell to the ground, never hearing the crack of the rifle that had tagged him like a deer.
Zak saw Liam crumple to the ground and scrambled out. Ducking more fire, he dragged Liam to the safety of the launch and laid him down on one of the cots inside. Another one of the men jumped in.
“Zak, I’ll take care of the kid. You get this heap started. Who is he?”
“I don’t know. He came out of nowhere shouting ‘Wait, Wait.’ I almost plugged him myself, but someone over that rise got him first.”
“Stay with me, kid.” Liam felt someone ripping his shirt off and applying pressure and some kind of foam to the burning feeling in his shoulder.
Liam only half consciously heard and felt the vibrations of the engines throttling up. More panic buzzed around him inside the modified RV as more bodies piled in the door at the front. He could now hear boot steps around him and muffled talking. A couple of shots fired towards the vehicle and then Liam heard a hiss of air nearer to his ear, and then nothing more.
The magic RV plunged into the morning sky, moving much faster than one would have thought a Winnebago with wings could fly. He managed to croak out, “Liam… Liam Waite...” before the darkness overtook him.