“To this day, none know what happened,” Storyteller continued, drawing his audience in still further. “Some say it was the weapons of the old world, finally loosed form their old slumber. Others claim it was something new entirely. But all agree that on that day, and many since, the sky appeared to all the world like it had been sundered by flame.”

“I’ve met people who lived through it,” said Trixie. “Don’t think they’d even agree on that much.”

“I like Storyteller’s version better, even if it is a little embellished,” Kayla retorted.

“When Jasper left seeking the Legion, he claimed that a secondary purpose of his journey would be to learn the true story of those dark days, when so many died and so much changed,” Storyteller continued.

“What do you think happened?” Trixie cried.

Without skipping a beat, Storyteller responded. “I’m of the opinion that the world had grown hungry for the stories of old, which we still hear today. Stories of bravery, of heroism, of danger. The world wants us to tell stories like that, and to live them.”

“Who’s next on the list?”

“Nurse Rosa Archetti.” Binghamton shuffled the manuscript pages. “Looks like she’s the only lady on the list.”

“I see,” said Carruthers, stroking his chin. “And what’s she done to earn a place on the list with Luchini and Carducci and the other war criminals?”

“Says here she was in charge of the nursing staff at a POW camp in the north,” said Binghamton. “We have consistent reports from prisoners there that indict her.”

“Aw, what for? Stealing the chocolate our of their Red Cross packages?”

“Uh…no,” Binghamton said. “Seems she forcibly and systematically euthanized sick POW’s to reduce their strain on the medical corps and to leave more supplies for the war effort.”

“Shit,” Carruthers muttered. “Figures the one I poke a little fun of would be up for something like that. Let’s reel her in.”

The far northern realm of Sannikov, the only remaining bastion of civilization in our world after the great conflagration. Even in the shadow of such destruction, war rages on between two mutually hostile groups: the Daqin in the north, and the Seres in the south. Its cause long forgotten, the conflict serves only to threaten the fragile embers of civilization that still flicker.

Despite the relatively small population and land,the fighting was nevertheless fierce and seesawed back and forth with no real gains.

That is, until recently.

Soldiers of Daqin have recently been emboldened, attacking with complex strategies and new weapons never before seen, or imagined, in Sannikov. Suddenly, the war seems in danger of ending not in stalemate but in the annihilation of Seres and all its people.

“Hah,” Schroeder said. “People hear ‘air cav’ and they get to thinking about Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Ride of the Valkyries. Attacking a beach just to do a little military surfing.”

“It’s not?”

“It’s ‘air assault’ now, for one,” said Schroeder. “Not air cav. No more foofy blue hats or buglers for us. Not to mention that half the stuff they showed in the movie you couldn’t have gotten away with even in ‘Nam, and stuff you could get away with in ‘Nam will have you up against a wall these days.”

“So what is the same, then?”

“Speed. We get in quick, get out quick, and leave a lot of oily smoke on the way. That part’s never changed.”

Meediv balked at the suggestion. “We agreed upon our price earlier,” he said.

“Yes, but that was before you delivered the merchandise. You broke the first and oldest rule of the business: don’t deliver the guns and ammunition at the same time.”

Ogaden’s men had surrounded Meediv by this point, holding the assault rifles they had just been sold.

“Take this as a friendly lesson,” Ogaden said, clapping Meediv on the back. “The next time you sell weapons, you won’t make the same mistake thanks to this generous gift. Unless you’d prefer to experience the irony of being shot with your own guns, of course.”

The star Utose 621 beats down on you as you make the long trek to Boomerstown. You’ve only ever come this way in a hoverrig, which only seems to take an instant compared to the endless weary trudge you’re enduring. But both your satellite uplink and the tracks from Hawser’s dirtrover are pointing you in the same direction.

Some miles down the road you come to a crossroads. The dirtrover tracks veer to the left, toward the small mining settlement of Oreo, but strangely your satellite uplink shows Hawser as continuing straight. You pause, puzzled at the disagreement, only to notice that the smoke rising from the ruins of your home has stopped–someone must have arrived to douse the blaze in Reacher’s Hope. It might be rescuers, or even the Rangers.

As you ponder this, you see a hoverrig approaching from the direction of Oreo, headed to the Transplant Wilderness that lays to the east. It might be possible to thumb a ride, if the driver is going slow enough, and it would sure be a load off your tired legs.

If you continue to follow Hawser’s satellite uplink trail toward Boomertown, turn to page 187.

If you decide that the satellite is malfunctioning and follow the dirtrig tracks toward Oreo, turn to page 62.

If you turn back toward Reacher’s Hope in search of whoever put out the fire, turn to page 79.

If you wait at the crossroads until the hoverrig bound for the Transplant Wilderness arrives, turn to page 12.

Muriel managed one final twist of the music box’s spring before her strength deserted her.

But it was enough.

The box sprung open on the ground where she lay in a spreading pool and began to plink out its simple melody. According to those that heard it, though, the sound quickly became far warmer and richer, almost like a harp or piano. Its music also spread far beyond what normal acoustics should have allowed–in addition to the Public Safety officers near Muriel, it could be heard by government troops in the base and on the firing line, along with their Revolutionary Guard opponents on the other side. Even riot police moving against a hostage situation twenty miles away, along with the hostage taker, reported hearing something.

The effect on all of them was the same: a feeling of overwhelming peace, safety, and tingling warmth like being held in an unconditionally loving embrace. Weapons clattered to the ground. Helmets were pried off to allow the divine sound to be heard with greater clarity. Many fell to their knees or wept openly.

One of the Public Safety officers approached Muriel and held out his hand. Weakly, she grasped it, and smiled–the last thing she was ever to do.