The chimera of dawn breaks just over the horizon, spilled over the clouds dangling at the edge of the world and pouring into the desert basin where the two men stand, surrounded by nothing. Isaac's eyes scan the sky every few minutes; he checks his fancy watch while Anatolius scrutinizes his environment with only the slightest air of trepidation. They were somewhere east of Vegas in what had once been New Mexico, now a nameless stretch of arid landscape where no man roamed. This was a place where only death walked freely; calcified mementos of bones and dust left in its wake. The alien-looking sky casts them in a pinkish light.
"ETA in two minutes," Isaac says.
He brushes a layer of dirt from his jacket. "Our nearest base is north of Tierra Amarilla. Until the whole of Nevada is under our control, we can't risk giving away our presence, or a demonstration of our resources. Especially with where we're going."
"I'm not sure exactly where that is."
"Our HQ. Straight to the heart of our operation. You've proven yourself dependable and more than qualified, now our leaders want you to see what we're made of."
The man hears a faint rumbling at the edge of the east end of the basin. Rising over the sun's peaking crescent is a vertibird, bigger than any he's ever seen. It skims only spans above the ridgeline like a bird of prey and descends into the basin, angling upwards again as it approaches them.
Instinctively, Anatolius tenses up. This is it. The point of no return. Months of tracking, retracing, gaining and losing leads, all led to this strange turn of events. He was still with the Legion, but he had options, unexpected avenues. He was a free agent now. Free, even as he felt the noose of coming war tighten around his neck.
In a rumble of engines and servos, the avian-shaped vertibird loops around and touches down in a veil of sand and dirt. A loading ramp drops from the modified cargo bay.
"After you," says Isaac, his coat whipping violently in the gale-force wind.
It's dark inside, spacious and accommodating with chairs lining the walls and space in the middle for vehicles or supplies. Anato straps himself in, Isaac across from him. It isn't like any vertibird he's ever come across- readout panels glow on the walls showing altitude, internal and external pressure, with an array of systems built to monitor and make changes as needed. And of all things, it was outfitted with a fusion drive.
"Your technology is impressive, Greyrunner. Did your organization create these autonomous systems, or were they salvaged from the Great War?"
"Glad you noticed," he crosses one leg over the other. "We built this unique model of vertibird about ten years ago with our new automated technologies we developed ourselves. It was mostly due to our robust manufacturing infrastructure that we were able to pull off mass production. Logistics can be tricky when the world has ended, but we have plants all over the world, mostly underground. The rest, well… you'll see."
"So I will," Anatolius replies.
A few minutes tick by as he tries to relax. Suddenly the temperatures drops, then compensates. The cabin pressurizes. A few minutes more and turbulence wracks the ship.
Glancing at one of the readout displays, Anato's eyes widen.
54 km… 55 km… 56 km…
They were leaving the earth's atmosphere.
Noticing his apparent confusion, Isaac chimes in. "Ah yes. I suppose I should mention that our headquarters isn't exactly on the ground." He chuckles, almost playfully, as if excited to explain to an outsider. "Don't worry, it's only weird the first time."
The man continues to gawk at the readout. "I… I don't understand. How is this possible?"
Isaac fidgets with a holographic datapad of some kind. "Some basic astrophysics, trillions of dollars of resources, and a little elbow grease… ah." He presses a button, and a metallic woman's voice fills the cabin.
"Unlocking bay windows. Preparing for suborbital entry."
With a loud clickkk the slats of metal behind both their heads slide back and reveals a scene Anatolius would never expect any living human would ever see. The mesosphere glows blue around them, sandwiched against the visible crescent of earth below and the black void of space above. In the sunrise, the troposphere glimmers deep hues of orange beneath the opalescence.
If Anatolius had to describe it, this would be the place where gods roamed over men.
"It is… remarkable."
Isaac smiles, enjoying the adjacent view. "Isn't it? Wait till you're commuting- it never really loses it's charm."
"How far are we going?" He checks the readout. 107 kmand counting.
"Just past the exosphere. You'll see soon enough."
They pass the 200 mark in silence. The turbulence eases as the thrusting of the space-worthy vertibird drifts through the blue-black haze of suborbital atmosphere and finally, out into space. The ship becomes weightless. Internal gravity compensators ping on.
"Setting course for Argo Station using current trajectory."
"That is our destination?"
Before he gets his answer Anatolius sees something through the long starboard window, right as the ship angles itself towards it. A massive arm-like appendage, metallic in color but not like any material he's ever seen. He thought he saw hundreds of lights dotting the surface.
"Yep. Here; you won't be able to see much of it from this angle, so I'll link the readout to the bird's optical instruments. It's usually for automatic detection of foreign objects like asteroids, but sometimes it gives a nice view."
The screens turn into a live-feed of what would be the view from just beneath the cockpit- the pilot cabin itself is separated from their cabin by a metal sliding door, and Anatolius wondered if there was an actual pilot flying the vertibird or if the flying itself was also automated. But as he watched one of the screens the very thought left his mind as if it were never there.
Argo Station looms in the distance, imposing; an indomitable feat of space-worthy architecture beyond anything he had ever even thought of before. Enormous spiral arms that looked as if they could hold entire civilizations rotate around a central cylindrical axis, bulging in the middle and tapering off into a beveled vertex on top and another series of smaller rings on the bottom, all set in fixed orbit above the earth. As a kid, Anatolius had read sci-fi comics he'd bartered for when his tribe entered small settlements to trade, and he'd learned the basics of science and astronomy with his more tech-savvy friends. He'd always had a vivid imagination until his life became what it was, but this…
This is something beyond his wildest dreams. He is looking at the impossible incarnate.
"Engaging suborbital thrusters. ETA to Station entry is five minutes."
A knot forms in his stomach. He looks to Isaac, who smiles reassuringly.
"If you're nervous, don't be. Once you're inside it all makes a lot more sense. After you meet the bosses, you'll get a tour, and I'll explain our operation to you before you become a part of it."
The space station grows larger as the vertibird maintains its course, then suddenly lurches violently, jolting Anatolius in his seat. "What was that?" He asks warily.
"Argo Station's sheer mass generates its own gravity. Before, when we were still in development, our earlier birds got stuck in orbit because their thrusters were too weak," Isaac chuckles. "Oh how far we've come since then."
The Frumentarii studies the Greyrunner base, able to see the small details as they neared just a few miles of one of the arms. Other ships fly around it, buzzing around docking bays and appendages jutting out of the numberless patchworks and hubs- and that was just one arm. Seven others spun in slow rotation above and below around the main citadel, all of them just as mind-boggling as the last. The vertibird angles towards one of the larger hangars.
"ETA to station entry, thirty seconds."
The docking port glows white, dotted with other ships and people, probably technicians. Soon it swallows the viewscreen, the view from the windows, lighting up the cabin with a fluorescent glow. They were in.
Appendages come out from the grey walls of the docking bay and latch onto the vertibird, holding it in place while magnetic clamps attach. A tremor runs through the ship.
"Well, Anatolius, we're here," Isaac says, standing up. The ramp slides down and more light fills the compartment as Anato springs to his feet, running a hand along his pistol for comfort. This is it.
Et sic incipit…
Following Isaac, he heads down the ramp, eyes adjusting, and takes his first steps in a whole new world.