“I heard you were taken into protective custody.” Mary Young had been a staple at local events since Enoa’s early childhood. She didn’t know the older woman well, but almost everyone in Nimauk recognized each other on sight.
Enoa had no hope of escape without detection. She had no hope of vanishing. She didn’t know how Young felt about the Liberty Corps. She didn’t know Young well enough to predict her thoughts on any subject, but there was no way the volunteer would keep this encounter a secret.
The screams from the hilltop spared Enoa from speaking. Young wheeled back toward the dirt road, taking her flashlight beam with her. Even by that light, the gas cloud could be seen, slowly spreading across the hill.
“Won’t this night ever end?” Young asked. More screams came and the Liberty Corps members shouted. Engines revved. There were vehicles moving up on the hilltop. At least one jeep had parked at the top of the dirt road.
Orson was cut off. He could never reach her now.
Enoa fumbled in the darkness, searching for the RV’s door handle. What were the chances the strange man had left his vehicle unlocked?
She found the door’s frigid metal handle. She pulled on it, but it didn’t budge. Of course not.
What had she been thinking? She didn’t know how safe she would be in Liberty Corps custody, but she would undoubtedly be safer than she was now, having evaded and resisted their attempt to apprehend her. Now, she was stranded, by the river, with no hope of escape.
“What’s going on, Enoa?” Young turned the flashlight back toward her. “I’m sure I heard you were brought in for protection. But now you’re here with this weird camper boat. I met the man who drove this. Do you know him? I’m here to give him his change. I was afraid he’d be gone. He paid double for parking! All weird types are here tonight, but now this riot, this violence, these angry security men. I thought it wouldn’t be like this for us. Even after these last few years, I thought we were different.” She stared at Enoa, clearly expecting answers or insight.
“I’m okay.” Enoa spoke only slowly. Screams still called down from the hill. “I actually have protection.”
Enoa was once again spared from delivering a proper answer. Something, some shape, as big as the palm of her hand, came scuttling into the circle of flashlight illumination. Both women jumped away from the creature.
The bug, if bug it was, had a shiny carapace and several quick legs. The creature leapt onto the side of the RV. At face level, Enoa saw the creature’s body shine in the light, shine like metal, moving like something mechanical. The strange thing raced up onto the camper’s roof.
Young screamed. “Dear God! Horrible! What in heavens is that?”
Enoa had her own hunch, now. The RV, Orson’s RV, was a boat, Young had said. It could drive on the water.
Before Enoa could follow her thoughts to their logical conclusion, the RV came alight with a warm, cozy, yellow illumination. Then the RV roared to life with a great, thunderous revving sound.
Young jumped away from the light and noise, clutching both arms to her chest. Enoa also stepped back, just in time for the camper’s door to swing out toward her.
Inside, she could see a plush couch, several chairs, a whole row of computer screens, and a wobbling chrome thing that looked like a modern-art sculpture of a pine tree.
Enoa stepped toward the RV. Should she wait for Orson to get aboard? She still didn’t see how he’d get past the Liberty Corps, but he’d been full of surprises all night. She didn’t know what she should do.
“I’d stay away from that.” Young said. “This thing is weird, and it looks familiar to me, like it’s something I saw in the news. The traveler who drove it, did you say you know him?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “He seemed nice enough, but he could be some fugitive, some murderer for all I know.”
Gunfire sounded on the hill, sustained gunfire. More shouts too, yells, and screams. But one sound, a repeated yell, briefly rose above the noise.
“Get in! Get in! Get in! Get in!”
Enoa didn’t know Orson’s voice well enough to recognize it under duress, through gunfire, through fear. But just then, the RV began to edge forward, crawling toward the river on its own.
Enoa didn’t need to be told twice. She ran to catch up with the camper and its open, welcoming door.
“Where are you going?” Young called after her. “What’s happening?”
“Be safe!” Enoa shouted over her shoulder to the frightened volunteer. “Have a good night! You’ll be safer without me around.”
Enoa dove into the camper, only feet from the water’s edge, her backpack and other bags landing across her back. She slid a foot across the vinyl floor. Inside, Enoa forced herself onto her elbows and looked around. She saw the whole front of the camper was loaded with blinking green lights, monitors and screens, as well as more controls than any camper, even an amphibious one, rightly needed. She saw the chrome pine tree, which spun in slow circles. She saw the neatly furnished living area, filled with several chairs, presumably bolted to the floor. Beyond that was a small kitchenette and walled off compartments, storage or living quarters, probably.
Enoa wriggled free of her packs. She stood and looked back toward the hill, toward Ms. Young, and the fights in the park. She expected to see Orson charge free of the Liberty Corps ranks, running and shouting, legions of men chasing him, before heroically jumping aboard at the last second.
That didn’t happen.
The RV rolled into the water with no sign of the traveler.
Enoa considered jumping out again. Her water craft experience extended no farther than the rafting trips she’d taken, while camping, the better part of a decade earlier. She couldn’t drive some amphibious RV down a river with the Liberty Corps after her. Without Orson she didn’t stand a chance.
The RV shut off, went totally quiet. Enoa looked at the camper’s dashboard again. The many lights had gone out, although she noticed for the first time that there was a key in the RV’s ignition. The key was on a ring with a thick shiny fob, the same color as the creature that had startled her and Ms. Young.
Orson had sent the keys. He clearly had a plan. Could some autopilot drive her down the river? She just wanted some explanation, anything.
Enoa jumped when the RV came to life again. Everything wobbled around her. Enoa grabbed her bags before they could slide toward the open door. She backed away and fell into the camper’s sofa, set against the opposite wall.
The dashboard lights lit up, blue this time. Then the camper pushed away from shore and started off onto the river. The door automatically swung closed before any water sloshed aboard. Enoa had lost her chance. Whether Orson arrived or not, she was stuck.
“Light ‘em up. Light ‘em up!” A command called out from the hilltop. Gunfire sounded again, but this time it was many guns, dozens, blasting. This was not a warning. They were shooting to kill.
Enoa didn’t get to worry or formulate any kind of conjecture. She looked through the round window in the top of the door.
Something, someone, rocketed off the ground and flew high above the hilltop. The gunfire got even louder. The Liberty Corps forces on the hill were trying to aim at the flying thing, trying to shoot it. They were failing.
Enoa saw the flying shape launch itself closer. The shape resolved in her vision, illuminated by the light of its propulsion, until she understood that the flying shape was a flying man.
Orson flew free of the Liberty Corps ranks, light and fire blasting from the bottom of his mechanical boot. He’d pulled his other armor-less leg up inside his billowing coat. He didn’t fly gracefully. He didn’t fly with power or majesty, some pulp character, invincible or heroic.
But he did fly. He flew out of reach of the Liberty Corps. Dozens of armed troops, surprised and then furious, tried and tried and failed to shoot him from the sky. Enoa heard their shouting, their rage, their frothing anger at their ongoing failure.
Orson crested his high arc, up above the river. Then he passed out of sight.
A small round hatch opened in the RV’s ceiling. Enoa didn’t even bother feeling shocked about this. She was still too numb.
Orson dropped through the ceiling with a metallic clunk. The hatch cycled closed above him. He charged forward to the camper’s dashboard. He pulled his sword belt over his head and slid the sheathed weapon into a trio of hooks along the wall. Then he slipped his mask down onto his chest and settled into the driver’s seat, before belting himself in place.
“Why don’t you come on up here?” He waved at the front passenger seat. “Sorry for running late. Things got a little hairy back in the park. I think Man Bun pulled this whole crackdown just to catch little old me.”
Enoa edged forward. She expected the floor to wobble under her feet. It did bob up and down, ever so slightly, but everything moved far smoother than Enoa had imagined. She took the passenger seat, her backpack, shopping bags, and her aunt’s walking stick situated between her knees.
“You scared me half to death.” She buckled her own seatbelt. “What would I have done if you didn’t have a camper boat and a jet boot?”
“That depends.” Orson spun the steering wheel and turned them properly down the river. “Do you have any boating experience?” Then he leaned back toward her and extended his hand. “I almost forgot.”
“Forgot what?” She tentatively shook his gloved hand.
“To welcome you aboard the Aesir. It’s been just me aboard for a long while.”
“The Aesir?” Enoa had heard that weird word before. She definitely had.
“Yeah, I know.” Orson shrugged. “It’s a pretentious name for a ship. I forget that, seeing as I’ve been roaming around in this thing on and off for over a decade. It’s named after some Norse story, the guys the Vikings prayed to or something like that.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
Enoa didn’t get to explain what she meant. Bullets struck the water, just beside the Aesir. The Liberty Corps, firing from the shore, had missed, but not by far.
“Damn!” Orson turned a dial beside his steering wheel. “I’m gonna have to waste a little energy to power up the shields. Then I guess you’d better hang on.”
“Hang on?” Enoa tightened her seatbelt as far as it would go.
“Yeah.” Orson reached for a lever on the wall beside him. “Water takeoffs are a real bitch.”
“Takeoffs.” He grinned and pulled the lever.
Enoa felt like something slammed into the floor beneath her feet. With an audible splash, the Aesir left the river and glided above the rushing water. Orson began to laugh.
But then the RV let out a strange descending whine. His laughter turned into a groan, and the Aesir flopped into the water, hard. Enoa briefly saw beneath the water’s current.
“Shit!” Orson pressed his hand to his face. “I never switched the solar cells.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood, leaving the wheel untended.
“Where are you going?” She shoved against her own seatbelt, pushed as far as it would move. She watched him run toward the back of the camper. “Don’t you need to, I don’t know, drive?”
“Uh.” He looked back at her. “I need to get a new battery, but if you do have boating experience, feel free to slide on over. It’s a pretty easy setup, really.”
Orson left her alone in the front of the cabin.
* * *
Every one of the stories was true.
“I want our boats in the water.” Liberty Corps Captain Maros had arrived at town square four minutes earlier. He’d been just in time to see the standoff with Orson, to see Enoa’s escape, to see the RV on the water.
So, this was Orson Gregory, after all.
Maros knew he had about thirty seconds to marshal his forces before Gregory slipped away. Now, he had to remember everything he could from those strange old conspiracies, about the wayfarers who wandered the back roads of America, before everything had gone wrong in the world.
“I want the entire war force tracking him from the shore, and I need both our long range guns online.” Maros didn’t know all the names of the men he was leading. Many had been summoned from outside divisions, cycled into Nimauk specifically to help his command with the current operation. Maros worked to keep his voice steady, certain. They all had every reason to be worried, but he couldn’t let that enter his voice.
“Both, sir?” Lieutenant Goes usually served in a separate company, based well to the north, in New England. Maros knew his name, but little else about him. Goes, like most Liberty Corps officers, was at least a few years older than Maros. It was not unusual for the young captain to be forced into explaining his commands twice.
“This is Orson Gregory we’re dealing with, AKA Wayfarer One.” Maros would not make the mistake of underestimating a living folktale. “Have you ever heard of the Aesir?”
“Yes, sir.” Goes went stiff, visible even through his white helmet and armor.
“We need to be ready for anything.” Maros faced the river, where the strange vehicle floated, out of sight. “In the stories I’ve heard, the Aesir can fly.”