Return to And the stately ships go on to their haven under the hill (fiction)

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That night, as I settled into my old room, Riis knocked on the door. I stood and opened it to find her standing outside grinning at me. I sighed and stood back to let her slouch into the room and sprawl onto the bed I’d just been sitting on, taking up all of it. I closed the door and turned the too-small chair away from the desk and sat on it backwards to face her. She put her arms behind her head and blinked expectantly at me.

“Hi Riis.”

“Hi Top. How are you? It’s so nice to see you. It’s nice to see you too. Gee, thanks for saving my life, again.”

“For the zillionth time,” I added, the answering grin coming despite my efforts to remain stonefaced.

“Ha. See? I knew you were still in there somewhere. You’re so welcome, little brother.”

I rubbed my face. “It’s been a week, Riis.”

“I guessed that, Top.” She sat up, the big-eyed welcome act half-fading. “What the hell is going on? And, wait, before we get there, who’s going to come looking for those fuckers in the flitters?”

“I-” I stopped and thought about it. “I don’t know. I don’t think anybody, but I don’t know.”

“Government?

“Possible. I honestly don’t know, Riis.”

She nodded. “Do I call out the Watch for this?”

“It can’t hurt to be on the lookout. Besides, you weren’t exactly subtle. I’d guess the neighbors know something’s up.”

“Yeah. I’ve had a couple of calls already.” She looked out the small dormer window towards the God Road, invisible in the dark across the valley mouth. “I told them some flatlanders had a problem with my brother.”

“How’d they take that?” I asked.

“Oh, you know. The Alexes wanted to be sure I’d sent a crew out to check for fires, and the Newlands wanted to know if they should bring up their alarms. I told ‘em I’d ask but that it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed my face again, feeling the muscles in my neck tighten into patterns of stress that I thought I’d finally managed to lose. The house was bringing them back again, the house and the old concerns of violence and intrusion. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Stop thanking me, you ass. You’re family.”

“How’s the farm?”

She accepted the change of subject. “Oh. Doing fine, actually. We put up another four domes for specialty items, I mean ones with temp and humidity requirements, and they’re doing really well. We’re shipping as far away as Chicago now.”

“Dad would be really, really proud,” I said quietly.

“Yeah.” She looked down for a second. “He’d have been prouder if you’d been here running it.”

“No, he wouldn’t, because I’d have flubbed it by now. You know that.”

“You wouldn’t have flubbed it. You’d know more than I do about this stuff by now.” She was looking out the window again.

“Maybe, Riis. But I’d be hating every minute of it and trying to figure out how to get away, and you’d be hating me for being here and not wanting it.”

“Probably.” She looked back at me. “I don’t actually mind it, you know? I thought I’d hate it, like you did. I really did. But I don’t.”

I threw up my hands. “The world shudders. Riis Eckhardt discovers that she’s her father’s daughter.”

That got a laugh, finally. “Ass.” Then she threw my pillow at me. I caught it and threw it back, and we looked at each other for a bit, unaccustomed to the quiet comfort of the situation, until I remembered why I was there.

“So, about the flitters.”

“Oh, them. Yes.” She sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I want to show you something, dummy. You can explain yourself there.”

“Okay, okay.” I got up and put the chair right, then followed her out of the room and back downstairs. She picked up her gunbelt from its hook as we left the house, buckling it around her waist as we started across the lawn towards the barn where I’d left the Toyota. The soft noises of a Vermont night rose around us as we left the pool of light around the house’s lit windows - insects, grass and trees rustling in the breeze, and from the far side of the house the muted sounds of an industrial farm. Livestock and machinery called to each other from the complex of lit stylic domes that was visible only as a glow beyond the house until we got far enough that the tops of the structures peeked over the roof, bright white alien tits rising from the New England countryside.

The barn looked the same as I'd remembered it - a huge structure from the original working farm, it sat between the house and the large grass meadow which Riis kept as a runway. She had the crews graze the sheep on it periodically - it was cheaper than fueling and maintaining a mower, and they kept it cropped nice and short in the summer. “Hey, Riis, do you fly in the winter?”

She was tugging the barn door open. “Yeah, but not from here.”

“Where?”

“Heh. Get in your car.”

I shrugged and tabbed the Toyota’s remote. At the end of the barn, it lit up welcomingly, purples and blues of interior instrument illumination mixing with the whites of the running lights and the softer white traceries of scripplepaint along the sides outlining panels and doors. In the center of the building, directly in front of the small door we’d entered through, the dark shape of Riis’ beloved P-51 Mustang hulked in its stall, smelling of the avgas I’d pumped into it and (still) of the cordite that had been trailing from the cartridge ports in its wings. While I’d fueled it, Riis and Chit had brought out an arming cart and used the crank-handled device to feed .50-caliber Browning rounds and what looked to be 20mm cannon shells into the ammunition chutes. Chit had cheered up immediately on peering into the wing ports and started mumbling things with Riis which sounded like ‘Hispano-Suiza’ and ‘Rolls-Royce Merlin’ and the like. He still wasn’t talking to me much, but I figured he’d get over that.

We walked past the dark and menacing shape, its canopy slid back and Riis’ yellow helmet waiting in it, and I popped the doors on the Toyota. Riis slid into the passenger seat and I did a quick preflight before joining her. The car reported that it was fine despite my strenuous demands on it the night before, so I opened the vehicle door in front of it and got in. “Where to?”

“The God Road. The back fields.”

I shrugged and spooled up the fans. The Toyota slid out into the night and lifted, rotating as it did so to put its nose towards the old Interstate. Riis spoke quietly into a small earpiece, checking in with the house crew, and the lawn lights blinked twice. She nodded and looked up. “Okay. Head for the old off ramp, then follow the road north. There’s a field prepped for corn just north of that, on our side, and there’s an equipment shed at the north end of that.”

“Jawohl, fraulein GPS.” I swung the nose of the car on memories and juiced the turbines. The Toyota pressed us back into our seats with a baritone roar and boosted for the highway. I looked over. Riis was grinning. “You like my car?”

“I like anything fast, little brother. You know that.”

“Yeah.” I laughed. “You ran me over with that tractor proving it.”

“God, you’ll never let me forget that.” She punched me in the shoulder - lightly, since I was flying - and pointed. “There, the green light, that’s the shed.”

I nodded and told the car about it. The carcomp reported that it saw the building on millimeter-wave and that there was a pad in front of it, and asked if I wanted it to land us. I acquiesced, and it immediately throttled back the turbines in mechanical commentary on my driving before settling us towards the still-invisible pad with nary a quiver. Riis tapped her earpiece twice and a circle of lights glowed on the ground below us, a cross of white and green in the center; I let the car figure it out, and it grounded us directly in the middle without a shudder and spooled the turbines down. We got out and I told the car to spool down the fans but to stay warm.

“So what’s going on?” Riis asked as we walked towards the shed, which was really barn-sized, a few dozen meters distant.

“Remember when I yelled at you that I was going flatland because things were more civilized down there?”

She snorted.

“Yeah. Okay. So I was wrong.”

“I won’t say I told you so because I don’t have to. What happened?”

So I found myself explaining about Jayanta and the Founders to my big sister, which wasn’t as hard as I’d thought because she turned out to know a lot more than I thought she did about the Ouroverse and its culture. She knew that I was an Op for a living, and had always known I was into metalogic, but I’d never told her about Mikare, and the breadth of her knowledge surprised me as we entered the shed and sat down in the supervisor’s small office there. She made coffee as we talked.

“So if this Mikarecursore character and his crew doesn’t help the Founders reset the Ouroverse, the whole thing could collapse? And the Founders want you to talk to Mikare to get it together?”

“Basically, yeah.” I was cradling a cup of Riis’ usual evil coffee. She’d drained about half of hers.

“Or you could tell me the truth.”

“What?” I looked up.

“You know. That you’re really Mikarewhosis, and the Founders came to you because they want you to do the reset.”

“I didn’t say-”

“No. You didn’t. God. You think I don’t know what my brother does?”

I shook my head and looked at the coffee cup. “Shit.”

“What?”

“I hope I’m not that easy for just anybody to figure out,” I said, and drank.

“Well, I had a big advantage.”

“What?”

“Just anybody didn’t have a ‘please open this secret password file in case I die’ card.”

I glared at her. “Damn it, Riis, I meant that to be used-”

“I know you did, little bro, but believe me, I had reason.”

“What reason?” I was pissed, and put the coffee down on the desk so I could glare properly, crossed arms and all.

Riis sighed and put hers down as well. “Mostly so I could use your passwords to send you a file just like it, but encrypted. And - well, I’m your sister. I’m nosy. Sue me. I used them to talk to your answering system at home, and it’s not just an answering system, is it?”

I realized what had happened, and that it was typically my fault for not thinking of it. “No. He’s not. You talked to Mikare, didn’t you, because you logged in with my emergency password and he answered.”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” I was less annoyed with her, but more so with myself. So much for my vaunted paranoid preparation. “I set him up to only talk to you if you logged in with that password because I assumed I was in trouble or dead, and you’d gone to the loft. I completely forgot to put in a check if I was still okay before he revealed himself.”

“So whose fault is it?”

“Yeah, yeah.” I sat there for a second, trying to think of what else I’d done that had been stupid. Nothing leapt to mind, which wasn’t reassuring. “What were you trying to encrypt to send me?”

Riis stood up. “Come on.”

I rose to follow her, and we left the small lit office cubicle. Threading our way between parked farm machinery, we headed towards the back of the building. Bales of seed and hay were stacked where the machines could load them easily. Riis stopped at one side of the wall of sweet-smelling haybales and shoved, hard. Three of them swiveled inward, mounted on something. I looked at her, expressionlessly, and she shrugged before ducking into the dark opening that they left. I followed.

The door led to a large open space which, I realized, was cut into the hill that the building sat against. A light flared next to me, which was Riis turning on a hand torch. She took my hand and walked along the wall towards what looked like a set of metal stairs like you’d find on an industrial structure. Large shapes interrupted the darkness around us, stacked on pallets and shelving around the wall. I could vaguely make out what looked like large nanofabbers and esoteric machine tools in the center of the space as we ascended two or three stories to the roof of the storage area. It was braced earth, I noted as we continued through a cut in the ceiling along a long straight section of stairs.

The stairs ended in a locked door, which Riis opened with a key. Once through, into another dark and echoing space, she moved to the wall near the stairway top and I heard the echoing bang of an industrial switchbox. The ceiling flared to life with the characteristic sharpness of high-grade scripplepaint, shining white on the four shapes resting quietly on the concrete floor on which I stood.

“Riis-” I hadn’t realized I’d spoken, or that I’d moved forward, until my right hand came to rest on the metal surface of the nearest one. It felt real, cold underneath my fingers. I turned. She was still by the light switch, a proprietary smirk on her face as she surveyed the enormous space which, I realized, had to also be cut into the hillside farther up. The wall facing the direction from which we’d ascended had lifting doors cut into it at at angle, an angle which would mimic the hill’s, and the shapes sat before the four of them.

They were painted camouflage on top and gray-blue on the bottom. Small iconography was scattered across their surface. I knew how old they were, but that didn’t in any way detract from their air of threat. The four F-16 Falcons were chocked down, with the myriad REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT tabs that working aircraft accumulate hanging from them, but they looked quite functional.

“Riis, what. The. Fuck.” I looked at her, hard. She shoved off the wall and sauntered over to the fighter I was standing next to to run a hand lovingly along the leading edge of the wing.

“You like my babies?”

“Yours? What do you mean, yours?”

“Mine. What do you think I mean?”

“Riis, where the hell did these come from?”

“They’re Vermont ANG. From before Downtime.”

“Duh from before. Vermont National Guard? Those were all destroyed overseas or at Burlington when the hangars went up.”

“Obviously not. We checked airframe numbers. These four were at Burlington, at least, according to records and witnesses.”

“Where did you get them?” I didn’t mean to shout, but it came out as one.

“Calm down. Through friends in the local Wings. And the New Coast gov knows. I’m militia.”

“Oh, Christ.” I groaned and looked around for somewhere to sit down. There was a power cart nearby, so I sat on that and put my head in my hands.

“Top, what the hell is wrong with you?” Riis sounded annoyed. She was standing over me, hands on hips, when I looked up again. “This doesn’t concern you if you don’t want it to. I’m responsible for the farm, remember? And I should point out, oh paranoid one, that one of my paranoias just saved your ass.”

“Yes. I know that. But that...that was personal, Riis. Not...” I waved at the four jets sleeping in the hillside. “Not somebody’s agenda!”

“Fuck agendas. They’re mine because I protect the valley. You know that. I got spares for them, I got half their original crews working for me on the farm crews, and we can have all four armed and up in ten minutes from scramble. You’re not the first one to come home with problems, Top, and you sure won’t be the last. Yours was one of the biggest to date, but if there’s bigger, then the stick is here.”

I just looked at her for a second. Then I said “And you’re going to be a private air force? Think about it a second, Riis, Why did whoever hid these during Downtime hide them? Why’d they give them to you?”

“They didn’t give them-”

“Whatever. They didn’t have to come your way. Sure, you’re the best pilot I’ve seen; sure, you’re active in Wings, and sure, you probably know more about combat flying than most of the people in the northern New Coast. But why give you these? Because somebody wants them available. Whoever had them wants them available. And that means they think they might be needed.”

She glared at me. “Then they’ll be ready.”

I held up my hands. “Look, I don’t want to have the fight again, Riis. You were right, and I came running home because I was wrong the last time.” I dropped my hands and looked at the airplanes for a minute. Riis sat down next to me. I cleared my throat, then asked, “The doors lead out onto I-91?”

She stirred. “Yeah. The Interstates had to have straight stretches of a mile in length every few miles, by law, so the government could use them as emergency landing strips.”

I grinned at that, despite the situation. “The Minutemen live, but they ain’t their former self. Ten minutes, huh.”

“Ten minutes.” Riis grinned back. “I’m Valley One. Valley Two through Four are flown by crew chiefs from the farm. Two and Three are the sons of the original pilots. Four is a local boy, car nut like you. He’d always dreamed of flying a burner. I think he’d have offered to be my slave when I finally approached him.”

“Poor bastard. I know you like slaves.”

Riis’ look turned evil. “Yeah. But he’s not a girl.”

I laughed. “Lucky for him. So what else?”

She shrugged. “The shed below, and a few others around the farm, have a bunch of gear in them. This one is mostly support gear for the planes, but the others have some heavy stuff in them for ground work. There’s six armed flitters, nothing as hot as yours, but they all blend in locally, and the twelve we use for actual work which can have stuff hung on them in a hurry if we need to.”

“Have you needed to?”

“No, not the whole package. There were a couple of incursions across the Lake from New York Upland that we got called in for. Local stuff, quiet. No planes, we’ve never used them in combat.”

“Do the other side know you have them?”

“They know somebody over here has something, because they’re not too stealthy, but we’re pretty sure they don’t know where they live. The valley’s pretty bad for ground search here, and we only fly during really heavy cloud cover, with lots of other stuff out to confuse eyes.”

“How do you handle fuel?” I was curious, knowing how much the F-16s would burn in the air.

“We’ve got four heavy-duty catstacks doing nothing but make JP-8. There’s a tank farm underground behind the hangar. The thermal bloom from the catstacks is vented through a radiator underneath the biofuel reactor we use to process the farm waste and the manure; that runs just under burn temp anyway. The tanks are full, so we only have to run them intermittently when we train.”

“Pretty slick,” I admitted.

“Hey, it’s me.” Riis punched me in the shoulder again. I rubbed it, exaggerating my wince. She laughed.

We stood and headed for the stairs. Riis shut the lights off, and I was left looking into blackness and imagining the four airplanes crouching there quietly, sharp nose probes extended eagerly towards the clean air beyond the doors, bellies filled with carefully assembled death and the hangar full of the sharp smell of their fuel, their carefully assembled life.

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