“Are you ready to get started?” Kelly Webster found Enoa in a small room behind the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea’s storefront. She was safely out of sight of the Liberty Corps. The stockroom also offered access to the building’s enclosed staircase, leading down to the basement and up to the Cloud family living quarters.
Enoa was not ready. She’d assembled her clothing, supplies for days, and her Aunt’s heirlooms, but only half of these items were in her backpack. The others she’d stuffed into two of her store’s plastic shopping bags, logo emblazoned on each side. She’d carried the bags along, cramming them with clothes and toiletries and assorted oddments. Her skin had broken out into a sweat. A cold clamminess overtook her. Orson’s fifteen minutes had passed sometime ago, but she was still unfinished, unprepared for whatever surreal adventure waited for her.
“There’s no way this will all fit out the window without being noisy.” Enoa shook her head, breathless.
“Once I chase Gregory, there will be much noisier things than you,” Webster said. “Either way, you need to go. He’s picked a painting to use as part of his diversion.”
“Which one?” Enoa clipped the two shopping bags to her hiking pack and slid her arms through the straps. She lifted the whole conglomeration of bags onto her back.
“That tiny sketch of the river. He says he needs something that he can fit into his pocket once they start to chase him.” Webster motioned to the pack. “Are you sure you can lift all that?”
“I have to.” Enoa shouldered the pack and tightened the straps so the weight fell evenly. The straps themselves would still bite into her shoulders, but that couldn’t be helped. “I just have to hope Captain Gregory starts a loud enough commotion for me to get out without being noticed.”
“You also have to hope that he’s legitimate,” Webster said. “And he’s not just some art thief.”
Enoa nodded, but she didn’t let her mind dwell on that possibility. What would she do if she reached the river and there was no RV? She looked around and made certain she’d packed all the items she’d assembled, clothes and books and overnight supplies and small trinkets. Everything was packed but her Aunt’s walking stick.
Enoa had seldom held the walking stick. It had been an unspoken rule that this object did not belong to her and was not hers to touch. Now, she didn’t want to touch it. She didn’t want to take it with her. Taking it felt like leaving, felt like abandoning her home.
Maybe it was the adrenaline flooding her body or the general fatigue of her recent stress, but the walking stick now felt odd to her touch. The metal felt warm, like it had sat outside on a summer morning. That warmth raced from the metal and along her fingertips, a sensation both shocking and comforting.
“Gregory is going to walk out of here, with the painting in a shopping bag, so it looks like he bought it. He’ll be casual until he gets past their armed line.” Sheriff Webster interrupted the instant of strange reverie the walking stick had awoken in her. “When you hear me chase Gregory, you get out of here.”
“Right.” Enoa wanted to say more. She felt like she had to come up with something memorable and storybook inspiring, but nothing came to her. “Thanks, so much.”
“Of course.” Webster approached and helped Enoa slip the walking stick through a loop in the backpack, tightening the velcro. “We’ll get this sorted out. Now go.”
Enoa didn’t have to be told twice. “Please lock the door on your way out.” She didn’t return to her storefront, which was still watched by the Liberty Corps. She left the room.
Enoa again tightened her backpack’s straps and took the stairs down to the basement storeroom. She didn’t want to use her flashlight, but she couldn’t risk leaving a building light on, in her absence.
She dialed the flashlight down to its lowest illumination and wove her way through the neatly stacked boxes, ignoring the stairs that led to the outside cellar door. These stairs led directly to the center of the Liberty Corps line and was the exact opposite of where she hoped to go.
She reached the far side of the room. A small window was set into the top of the wall. It looked out on the shop’s small backyard and the thin unpaved pathway that skirted the hillside and wound all the way behind the business district. It had been over five years since Enoa had left the house through the basement window. What would she do if she couldn’t climb the metal shelving at the wall, beneath the window? What if she didn’t fit through the window?
“He stole a painting!” Sheriff Webster yelled, her voice muffled, shouting down from the storefront, ten feet above Enoa’s basement escape route. “Someone catch him. Don’t let him get away!”
She had to save herself, her home, the home of her ancestors. Enoa was the last of the Cloud family, and she would represent them well. She promised that to herself. She made that promise to the quiet part of her mind where she sometimes spoke to her family, so many people who she had lost, so many who were gone.
Enoa climbed the metal shelving. She unlocked the small window with a twist, lightly pushed it open, before finally crawling atop the shelf. Slowly, she edged forward and squirmed out the opening, inch-by-inch, on her belly.
Her head was clear. She looked out into the darkened yard.
“You stay here!” A man yelled. “Keep squads two and three. We will give pursuit.” Engines roared and revved. Many feet stamped across the pavement, through the snow, across the icy ground. The noise grew almost to deafening levels, even forty feet away, half underground.
None of the Liberty Corps could be seen, other than the distant flashing of the lightbars on some of the security vehicles. Nothing else could be seen. All else was in darkness.
Enoa crawled forward until she couldn’t. Her backpack stuck. She reached out her hands, pressed her bare palms to the small strip of snow that hugged the side of her home. Why hadn’t she packed gloves? She got a firm grip on the ground and pulled herself forward, trying to slip the backpack and connected bags free of the window.
Her backpack let go. It unzipped, spilling out two pair of socks, rolled into balls. More items threatened to slide free.
Enoa fought silent panic. Meanwhile, the world around her had gone utterly quiet. Whatever Liberty Corps response was headed after Orson, it had gone. The diversion was finished and she was still stuck.
When she’d last used this window to sneak out of the house, she’d been fifteen and the world was a good deal less crazy. Whose party had she broken curfew to attend? Now, it didn’t matter, and she couldn’t remember. Five years was a lifetime ago. Hell, yesterday was a lifetime ago.
Enoa eased her arms free of the backpack. She forced herself to keep her breathing level and quiet. She winced at the rustling sound her body made as she slid free of the backpack and the window.
Enoa stopped, once she was free. She waited, lying pressed into the crunchy layer of refrozen snow. She listened. The Liberty Corps members, those still present, spoke words she couldn’t hear. They hadn’t heard her. Enoa strained to pick out Kelly Webster’s voice, but she could not.
Quickly, Enoa turned around, retrieved her pack, bags, and fallen sock rolls. After another several heartbeats of silent struggle, she re-zipped her backpack and closed the window.
Enoa walked on tiptoe, trying not to loudly puncture the top layer of snow, until she left the shop behind her, until she reached the tree-lined hillside. Then she ran, skirting the edge of the thin alley that curved up above the line of shops on High Street. She knew the way well, but the path was entirely dark. Even after spending her whole life in the neighborhood, she still couldn’t move nearly as fast as she’d hoped or expected. She still wouldn’t risk the flashlight and twice slipped on unseen ice patches.
Distantly, more gunfire sounded. She heard sirens, yelling. Enoa didn’t dare stop, but she thought she could hear or imagined she heard the echoing thunderous sounds of Orson’s strange metal boot.
Enoa reached the westernmost flagstone path. There were several such stairs, built into the hills throughout town. If her reckoning was correct, this path would lead her right down the hill, well out of sight, all the way to the edge of the park.
Orson said his RV was parked in the riverside lot. This was probably the worst place he could have chosen. Orson would need to cross town square to get to his camper. That was entirely unavoidable. Also, Orson would need to drive them up through town square to escape. She had no idea how he intended to manage that, but he’d so far given her no reason to doubt him.
Enoa focused on reaching the RV. When she got there, then she’d think about the rest.
She arrived at the foot of the flagstone path, still in almost total darkness. A half-dozen dimly lit streetlights stood along the edge of the park.
Ahead of her, between the trees and still quite a distance away, Enoa heard shouting, many voices. These weren’t the uniform voices of Liberty Corps soldiers. This was random, a group of people still in the park. After the evening she’d just had, Enoa didn’t even try determining why they were shouting, what had happened. Anything was possible.
Enoa used the commotion.
The road between the flagstone path and the furthest edge of the park remained empty. Enoa crossed to the park and walked under the first line of trees. She was still in total darkness and walked on the balls of her feet, searching the ground ahead of her for roots, ice, or uneven pavement. Somewhere, away to her left, the shattered remains of the destroyed train still lay, unseen.
Enoa was now only dozens of feet from the other end of the park, from the small dirt road that ran down to the river, to Orson’s RV.
What would she do if the Liberty Corps or the town council or someone had taken the strange man’s camper? No, she wouldn’t think about that.
“We are not going with you!” A man’s voice screamed. The air had gone totally still. Enoa heard the shout clearly, even over the hundred-foot distance. The trouble was happening over toward the festival stage. Other distant voices responded, saying words she could not hear.
Enoa reached the far end of the park and saw no one. She reached the hillside dirt road and saw no one. She descended the hill and saw no one.
There, down by the water, Enoa saw what could only be Orson’s camper.
The light was faint, only stars. The moon could not be seen. But even by starlight, Enoa knew she was seeing something strange, something special, something just as bizarre as the man who drove it.
Enoa approached the camper. She couldn’t read the strange writing covering its sides, but the outlandish vehicle tickled at something in the back of her memory. What could this surreal situation possibly remind her of?
Suddenly, the whole side of the RV lit up. Someone was shining a light on the camper. Someone was shining a light on her.
Involuntarily, Enoa turned around to face the light. Someone stood there, shining a flashlight in her face. She couldn’t see them, but they could see her.
“Enoa?” Ms. Young, the volunteer, said. “What are you doing here?”
“Power to the people!” Orson shouted as he ran through the crowds in the park. “Vive la Fest!”
The Liberty Corps squads had stopped chasing him, somewhere back up the hill. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t like it. He also couldn’t stop and think or plan or reconsider. This actually scared him.
Orson was seldom afraid. He’d been attacked so often over the last decade that it didn’t bother him. Orson lived a troublemaker’s life. Consequently, people often wanted to do him harm, to kill him, sometimes. Orson did his absolute best to make sure they didn’t succeed. So far, he had an excellent track record of not dying, 100%.
However, he did fear what he couldn’t control. What if the Liberty Corps had captured Enoa mid-escape? What if she got lost and never met him down by the river? What if the Liberty Corps got around him and cut both of them off from the river, before he could manage their watery escape?
Put simply, Orson had no control over these things. He had created the absolute best plan he could think of, the very best one. There hadn’t exactly been many choices available to him that didn’t involve dismembering at least some of the Liberty Corps attack squad.
Now, Orson had no choice but to follow through with his plan, commit to it as best he could, and work his hardest to see that he didn’t die and that Enoa didn’t die or get captured.
Orson also hoped that none of the Liberty Corps would be getting dismembered, that night. He didn’t care for the paramilitary troops, and he wasn’t totally committed to their safety. The Corps troops had shot at him, and Orson enjoyed some fights, but he liked the art to them, his practiced skills, his ingenuity, not the violence or the moments of brief, mundane cruelty. But morality aside, dismemberment usually caused situations to become more complicated, not less so.
Orson had already stayed up all night, the previous night. He’d wanted to arrive in Nimauk in time for the festival. He’d managed that, but now he faced a second sleepless night. He didn’t need complicated situations.
So, wanting a new diversion, Orson charged right through the ranks of the crowds in the park.
Some of the travelers cheered. They had gathered a group of people, almost sixty-strong. They faced a Liberty Corps squad, only six men, but more would follow. Orson didn’t doubt that.
He didn’t want to endanger these people. He really did not, but he had an odd feeling, a tingle between his shoulder blades, a hunch. Orson’s hunch told him that Enoa was somehow tied to everything happening in Nimauk. His hunch told him that she was necessary to setting things right. Orson lived by his hunches. He gambled his own life for his hunches. He hoped he hadn’t just gambled other lives for this hunch, as well.
Regardless, Orson doubted the Liberty Corps would be so brazen as to fire on the crowd of travelers. Even in those suspicious times, a full mob of the festival-goers and townspeople could easily drive the militia from the town. They were scary in their bright armor, but they were vastly outnumbered if everyone else allied against them.
Orson was right, the Liberty Corps didn’t shoot at the crowd.
They gassed them.
Orson had pulled his mask down over his eyes and his air-filtering bandana over his mouth. He’d done this as soon as he’d passed Captain Maros, back up the hill. As always, his preparedness saved him.
His mask’s motion sensor caught sight of the gas cloud, moving in. It was almost too dark to see it. Without his mask, Orson would have heard the screams before he saw the gas, whatever it was.
The crowd of festival guests and angry locals scattered in all directions, yelling, their line broken, their anger turned to fear. Orson followed the mass of bodies, until their numbers dwindled to the point where he was visible among them. Then he pressed himself against a tree and crouched down.
He let his mask scan the outer edge of the park. He wasn’t far from the road down to the river. He wasn’t far from escape.
But the Liberty Corps war force had arrived in full, a hundred strong, spread out to surround the park. A line of men and trucks and raised barricades barred all passage away from town square. They wore their helmets, their faces covered, their faces totally protected from the gas attack.
Even the little path down to the river was guarded by ten men and a jeep with a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back.
Orson knew things were about to get complicated and memorable. They were probably about to get violent.
He rooted through his pockets, searching. He drew his spare keys from an inside pocket and pressed the little ring to the ground without burying it in snow. He ran his fingers along the keys to the camper’s outer door and its ignition. Then, he watched as a handful of small, metal legs sprouted from the small fob at the base of the key ring.
The keys ran off, toward the river and the camper and hopefully Enoa. Orson wasted another heartbeat hoping Enoa had arrived safely. What would he do if she weren’t waiting for him? How could he ever hope to find her?
When Orson stood again, his Heads-Up-Display did a quick headcount on the men standing at the top of the dirt road. Twenty now. Another armed jeep had arrived. They had a full barricade. There was absolutely no way Orson could sneak or bargain his way through them. He had a second hunch, one he didn’t doubt. He was sure the militia’s overzealous response was aimed at catching him, personally.
Screams echoed out again, elsewhere in the park. The Liberty Corps were closing in. He had to move.
Orson adjusted the strap on his sword’s hilt. Then he adjusted the great metal boot on his right foot. He found the hidden control pad, built into the armor. He pressed three buttons.
Orson reassured himself that no matter what was about to happen, it would likely be over sometime in the next ten minutes. And no matter what, it wouldn’t be boring.
He stepped free of the forest, stepped free of the park, and walked slowly but firmly toward the line of Liberty Corps shock forces. The militia troops heard him first, heard his footfall. Then they saw him, walking through the gas, the eyes of his mask glowing, his sword ready.
Either some of these men were about to face dismemberment, or Orson was about to fly.