Ginger and Tino returned to the Green Otter after church at 2:5:50 and headed up to Jasp's room; Jasp himself returned ten centhours later.
"So," said the LandOrder liaison, "I contacted don Holdup, and met with his chief spy. I'm afraid they have no idea how InterGang became aware of our presence, nor did I uncover anything through my own observations. But naturally we can't expect to have all the answers handed to us, whenever we have questions. Spies will be spies, and InterGang's are just as good as ours. Sometimes they'll know more than we do, sometimes less. Anyway, it doesn't matter; whether or not we know the precise details of what they know and how they learned it, our situation remains the same. The docks are being watched, so I suppose we'll just have to fly. No big deal. At least we know they're watching, and that beats not knowing."
"I suppose don Holdup didn't offer any help in distracting them?" asked Darius.
"He wishes us luck, but there are other matters for him to attend to. We can't expect any branch of LandOrder to drop whatever they're doing to help us."
"Of course not. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that. But it can't hurt to ask." After a brief pause, he said, "Well then, if no one has any better ideas, flying it is." When no one spoke up, he said, "Okay, everyone... back to our rooms, get packed, and meet at the wagon."
And so, they returned the striders to the rental agency; then, with Darius and Jasp at the helm, they took off. They kept above the clouds, and took a course away from any docks. It was too much to hope that InterGang's spies wouldn't have seen them leave, but at least there was a chance they might avoid making it obvious what their next stop was to be. Once they were a few miles from the island, they adjusted their course to head for Near Land, and Tanq.
After a few hours of uneventful flight, everyone had become quite relaxed about both InterGang, and flying over water. Several more hours of smooth travel passed before they sighted Tanq, at about fifteen centhours to midnight.
Tom and Alecstar had been taking their turn in the cockpit for the past two hours, comparing notes on silent brooding and the like. In the past couple of weeks, they'd found they had much in common, and were becoming good friends. They liked the fact that whenever either of them served in adventuring groups, their companions tended to describe them in much the same way. Every group, they felt, had to have various types in them, and Tom and Alecstar were one of those types.
Tom was just giving another example in the case he'd been making that he was the broodier, more curmudgeonly of the two of them, when their destination came into view. He called over his shoulder to alert the others, "We're here."
Alecstar said, "More curmudgeonly, maybe. But I'm broodier. I'm certainly more quiet, introspective. The trouble is that so many so-called 'normal' types tend to see someone who doesn't talk much or get involved a lot, in much the same way as they see someone who grumbles and complains a lot."
"Are you saying there's no truth in their assessment?"
"Oh, sometimes, certainly there is. But not always. There are different levels and types of antisocial behavior, you know, and there may be different reasons behind it...."
While they continued their discussion up front, in back Emma woke up Cameron. "We're coming into Tanq soon," she said.
He sat up and rubbed his eyes. "O(yawwwn)kay. Um." He drank from his waterskin (which was presently filled with sprayberry juice), drowsily expecting water, and nearly choked at the bittersweet taste that greeted him. "Ugh," he commented with a grimace. "Good for restoring vitamins, but...." He sighed. "Anyway, I guess I should do my job." He closed his eyes and concentrated on the village ahead, especially its docks. He found his efforts were definitely being blocked.
Scrambling around to poke his head into the cockpit, he addressed the pilots. "Guys, be ready for trouble. I can't see anything; there must be something someone doesn't want me to see."
"We'll keep our eyes open," said Alecstar. "Meanwhile, you make sure everyone's awake and alert back there."
Cameron nodded and went back to see to that. Emma was the only other one up, and she helped wake the others and let them know what was going on.
Once Darius had rubbed the sand out of his eyes and had a sip of water, he took charge. "Let's unfurl the carpets, people, just in case. Everybody know who they're traveling with, if we have to abandon, um, ship?" They all nodded. "Good, then stick with your buddies. We don't want to lose any time in an emergency. After the carpets are unrolled and ready, gather any absolute necessities to bring with you. Travel light."
Darius grabbed his backpack and a carpet off the wall, then went to sit directly behind the cockpit. "If we have to bail, you two are with me," he said. "How's it look?"
"We're coming in close now," said Star. "No sign of any trouble yet. Pretty dark, though, aside from the lighthouse and a few lamps here and there about the docks. And the night-vision spells Cameron provided don't help that much, in my humble opinion." (Of this opinion, Tom nodded his agreement.)
"Okay." Darius went to work unfurling his carpet.
As they were about five centhours from landing, wagons suddenly flew up towards them seemingly out of nowhere, firing small cannon at them. Tom, only having flown for a couple of weeks, froze up. But Alecstar immediately took evasive action. A moment later, Jasp appeared and ordered Tom out of the cockpit, so he could take his place. Tom joined Darius, watching the pilots from behind.
Star asked Jasp, "I suppose this thing has some kind of weaponry? And shields?"
"The shields came on automatically when sensors detected incoming fire. As for weapons, let me worry about that. You just concentrate on flying." Jasp pulled a lever, and a new control panel opened up in front of him. "I really should have taken the time to train all of you in how to work these systems, but too late to worry about it now." He began pushing buttons, turning dials, and flipping switches.
Fireballs began shooting from the wagon, and Star asked, "Those magical weapons?"
"Yes, of course."
"We have very good Sorreters."
A cannonball thudded into a back corner of the wagon, jarring everyone. "I thought you said we had shields?"
"Something's not right-" Jasp said with a frown.
Tom tried to make himself useful by inspecting the point of impact. "Damage seems minimal," he reported. "At least the shields aren't totally offline."
Alecstar did his best to get the enemy into Jasp's line of fire. Jasp fired a cannonball, then hit the reload button. "How many rounds have we got, anyway?" Star asked.
"Two mini-cannon with three shots each; plus ten fireballs in front, ten in back; and two flechette bombs."
Jasp fired another fireball, and seconds later, everyone could either see or hear an explosion ahead.
"Direct hit," said Star. "He's falling."
"There's another wagon directly behind us!" Tom shouted. Jasp fired a rear fireball. "He did some quick maneuvering; you just grazed him."
"More wagons coming from the ground," said Star, taking them higher to avoid a cannonball.
"Great," muttered Darius. "Everybody ready with those carpets?" Everyone responded affirmatively.
"Wait!" cried Ginger suddenly. "Those new wagons aren't InterGang! They're-"
She was interrupted by a booming voice, apparently being amplified by some magical device none of them had ever heard of. "Attention combatants. This is the Tanq Coast Guard. You are ordered to cease and desist all hostile actions, land your vessels, and surrender to our authority until the police arrive. If you fail to comply, we are authorized to open fire."
"Jasp," said Darius, "retract weapons. Alecstar, take us down." The two of them immediately complied.
The Chaos's wagon slowed and began its descent, heading toward the line of hovering Coast Guard wagons. But just before they reached the line, an enemy fired on them, scoring a direct hit.
"I've lost control!" shouted Star.
"Ready to bail out, everyone!" Darius commanded.
When Alecstar reported, "We've passed under and behind the line," Jasp lowered the shields, and set impact screens to raise automatically once they were out. They all boarded their carpets and flew from the wagon, heading as quickly as they could for the ground. Behind them they heard the blasts of fireballs being fired. They turned to see some of them impact on their wagon as its freefall accelerated. The Coast Guard opened fire on InterGang; two wagons fell, the rest fled.
The Coast Guard wagons formed a protective circle around the descending carpets, until they all reached the ground and disembarked. A man in uniform approached the adventurers.
"I am captain Zaylor Coastal. Would one of you like to tell me what all this was about?"
Darius stepped forward. "My name's Darius Lonewander. My companions and I..." he tried to think up a believable excuse, but couldn't. Shrugging, he said, "We seem to have incurred the disfavor of InterGang, a few villages back. That's why we were forced to fly instead of taking a ferry; they were watching all the docks for us at Jump Village."
"Mm-hmmm. And how did you happen to earn this 'disfavor'?"
"It's rather a trifling matter, so it seems. Some of my friends were performing at an inn- they're musicians- when one of InterGang's enforcers started a brawl, apparently just because he was drunk and didn't like one of their songs. We all joined in to help our friends, and the enforcer's associates joined in after that, and we ended up barely escaping with our lives."
"And this was in which village?"
"And gangsters from other villages have kept track of your movements and even gone so far as to try to kill you, all because of one brawl?"
"Hey, it sounds just as crazy to me as it does to you. But I guess there's a reason they're not allowed to get emotional stamps," he said, twirling a finger beside his temple.
"Uh-huh. Well, you can wait here and tell your story to the police when they show up. It should only be a few centhours. We'll stick around until then."
"Thanks. I mean, in case InterGang comes back, it's nice to have some protection around. ...Do you mind if we inspect our wagon?"
The captain sighed. "I guess not. Anyway, we've got to go check out the enemy crashes, see if there's anyone to take into custody for questioning." The captain turned and walked away.
Darius started in the direction of the nearby crash, and Jasp, Alecstar, and Cameron followed him.
"Screens down," said Jasp, hoping the voice command function was still operational. Apparently it was, as the magical bubble surrounding the wagon disappeared.
They moved in closer, walking around it and checking inside. "Well," said Jasp, "it doesn't look too bad structurally. Gonna need a few small repairs, shouldn't take more than a day or two."
"I'll divine for magical damage," said Cameron. He climbed up to the cockpit, sat down, closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples before concentrating and slowly moving his hands in roughly circular motions above the instruments. After a few centhours he stopped, got out of the cockpit and stood frowning before his friends.
"Well, what's the verdict?" asked Jasp.
"This isn't really my forte, of course. A mechanical Sorreter could tell you better than I can, but I can definitely tell you the magical damage is worse than the structural. I get a sense those fireballs were more than they seemed; I think they were designed specifically to disrupt magic. In fact, I think each one was designed to disrupt a specific magical system. We're lucky, in that it seems the one aiming for the impact screen spell didn't hit. I think we're going to have to have the spells that were disrupted replaced entirely, instead of just repaired or recharged. I keep saying 'I think,' because one disrupter that apparently just grazed its target was, I think, designed to cover any trace of evidence of... well, of all the stuff I think. If it had hit dead on, I wouldn't even have these guesses for you. As it is, everything seems fuzzy and uncertain to me."
"That's okay," said Darius. "We'll get everything fixed, or replaced, as needed. It'll be okay."
"It's very interesting, though," said Jasp. "Their Sorreters are making strides we had no knowledge of. And I get the idea they may have been aware of more of our developments than we thought they were. I'm going to have to call Primus and tell him about this. If you'll excuse me." He wandered back to his carpet to get a t-mail bubble.
Before he could use it, the police showed up. Silently cursing at the delay, Jasp tucked the bubble into a pocket to use after they left. Darius headed over to talk to the officer in charge, who took notes concerning the incident, the alleged cause of it, and everybody's names. The officer told them all not to leave town; they'd probably have questions for them later. Then the police took one InterGang crash survivor into custody; apparently no gangsters had died when their wagons crashed, but most of them had somehow escaped, either on carpets or by translocating.
After a little more inspection, the adventurers decided the wagon was probably sound enough to make a short trip over land, at least to get into town and to a garage. They hired a team of striders to pull them, packed the carpets back into the wagon, and went on their way. The garage was closed for the night, and they ended up sleeping outside it in the wagon, taking turns on guard duty.
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