Orson stayed quiet and out of Enoa’s way. He led her back to the Aesir, ushering her away from the sight and smell of smoke as fast as he could manage. She still didn’t speak, when they arrived back aboard, so Orson had gone into his bunk in the rear of the ship, after he’d gotten the soup ingredients all ready and cooking. Enoa needed space to experience the full spectrum of her horror. She needed to feel sorrow, despair, and fury. If she didn’t, if she couldn’t come to terms with her anguish, she’d be no good to anyone, not that night. So Orson made himself scarce, as scarce as was possible on the RV.
Enoa, for her part, didn’t notice Orson’s courtesy. She had too many memories to relive. She saw the few scattered moments her toddler brain had saved, memories of her birth parents. She relived the fifteen years she and Aunt Su, Sucorra Cloud, had spent together, all the ways Su had tried to teach her about Nimauk culture. She’d been so bored. She’d ignored so much of it. What was wrong with her? Why did it take the end of her world, losing everything, to become the person she always should have been?
Then ordinary, mundane memories began to overwhelm her mind’s capacity for pain. Her bedroom was gone, taking with it all her clothing, the last bottle of her impossible-to-find perfume, her books, her vintage Playstation, and her attempts at watercolor. The living room chair where she’d learned to read, where she’d slogged through homework; it was gone. The gorgeous third-story tower, with the windows that looked out on the Nimauk river valley, that looked out on the same hills her family had observed for millennia – the river and hills and trees remained, but the longtime physical home of the Clouds was gone. The first twenty years of her life had ended with it. That book was closed now, its ink dry.
All those memories now ended in fire. She’d hoped her hunch would be proved wrong, so she’d forced Orson to show her the view through his mask. She’d argued away his protestations and forced herself to view the blaze through his magnified goggles. The truth was undeniable. Fire was how that story concluded, the story of her family, burning. All of their heirlooms, all those living memories, other than the scattered items she’d taken before her flight from the Liberty Corps, it was all destroyed, gone forever.
The Liberty Corps – they had done this. Enoa clenched her hands into fists so tightly her knuckles ached. She tensed her entire body, her shoulders and knees, even the muscles in her neck and face. They had taken everything from her, everything.
An hour passed for Enoa, as she sat there in brooding, violent thought, until she was overcome with exhaustion. She sagged against the couch, surprised to find her back sweaty and all her body’s muscles sore. She was rubbing at her shoulders when Orson returned.
“I’m headed to do some recon, in a minute.” He scooped himself a bowl of soup with an oversized ladle. He tasted it and nodded. Then he ladled out a second bowl and retrieved a loaf of bread. “You can eat where you are or I can set a place for you at the table.”
“Table, I guess.” She stood. Damn, even her legs hurt. She guessed the day’s madness had finally caught up with her.
“Okay.” Orson placed the food down at the kitchenette table. Enoa sat in one of the adjacent chairs. “I don’t know what you’d like to drink. I have water, obviously, and some generic sodas. It turns out looters don’t favor off-brand stuff, so that’s all I could find.”
“Water’s fine.” Enoa didn’t know if she could eat. Underneath her stress and fear and sadness, her body surely needed nourishment. Orson poured her a glass of water and set it on the table beside her food.
“I also need some coffee to stay awake for another night.” He retrieved a small tin from the cupboard. “Do you want some? I can have it ready for you for when you’re done.”
“You have coffee?” She immediately looked up from her food, before tasting it. “I haven’t had coffee in almost two years.”
“I have a ton, now. I just ran off some bandits for a family-owned coffee farm down in the Bahamas.” He poured himself a glass of water. “Be aware though I don’t have sugar. I just have a box of Happia packets.”
“That’s a generic sweetener. No good, in my opinion. It doesn’t always melt in the coffee, and it coats my teeth.”
“Honestly, after two years, if it’s coffee, I don’t care what sweetener you have.” Enoa began to eat. The soup tasted good, better than she’d expected, but the flavors of onion and tomato and of the noodles, cooked in the seasoned vegetable broth, were not enough to pull her away from her grief.
“Thank you,” she managed.
“Sure thing.” Orson walked to one of the computer terminals in the wall. With the press of a small button, music played, projecting softly down from the speakers in the ceiling, light piano music. Enoa knew the tune, from a song as melancholy and nostalgic as the turning of seasons, but without the lyrics she couldn’t place it.
“Okay.” Orson had already finished eating. His bowl was already empty. He’d eaten his piece of bread and downed his glass of water. He’d begun to brew the coffee. “I don’t have a lot of time. I need to do some recon, like I said, down into town, see if I can figure out how we can get to the treasure.”
“I’m going with you.” Enoa considered standing, but her sore legs argued against it. “We need to take the fight down to the Liberty Corps if they have a problem with me seeing my home. There’s no way this ship of yours isn’t armed.”
“No.” Orson shook his head. “We could lead them right to what they want, and we still don’t know who’s behind this, the real power that destroyed that train.”
“You’ve faced worse than the people who did this,” she said.
“Probably,” he said. “But I managed things like that because I make sure I’m prepared. I make sure I know who and what I’m dealing with, and right now, I don’t know nearly enough.”
“We have to go now, if there’s anything that can be saved… If you won’t take me, I’m going myself.”
“Terrible idea. It’s your choice, but do you want to throw your life away or wind up helping them, or do you want to actually stick it to these pricks?” She did not reply. “I’m no fan of sneaking around, but I’m pretty good at it. It’ll be faster and safer if I go alone, unless you know of anywhere I might find underground hatches or passageways, any nearby sewers, sub-basements or other subterranean stuff. I can follow the compass, but anything that’ll get me started is a big help.”
“Not off the top of my head. I know every item in the building, even all my back inventory, and there’s just nothing like that.”
“Think about it, if you’re up to it.” Orson donned his boots. “If I find something, I’ll come back and get you.” He adjusted something on the big metal boot. Then he threw his great coat over his shoulders, fitting his arms through the sleeves carefully, like he was afraid the garment might tear. He buckled his sheathed sword at his back. “If you can’t think of where it might be, and I can’t find it, I’m gonna wind up breaking into the town’s records annex.”
“Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?” She set her spoon aside. “Then you’d have the Sheriff’s Department after you too.”
“I’m hoping I won’t have to.” Orson lifted his walking key ring and slipped it into a coat pocket. “But if I do, I’ll either be dead or out of town before that becomes an issue.” He grinned. “If you stay here, you should be safe. The Aesir knows to open fire rather than get boarded.”
“It shoots at people, automatically?”
“Yep.” He walked to the coffee pot, but then veered away. He headed toward the back of the Aesir, to his cabin.
Orson returned almost immediately, holding a device that looked like a TV remote with a clothes hanger sticking out the front end.
“This is a little stunning doodad.” He flipped the device around in his hand and held it, handle first, toward Enoa. “In the wild unlikelihood that somebody gets in here, zap them with this.” She took it. “Just hit the little ‘on’ switch, give it three seconds, and stick the metal end against them somewhere unpleasant.”
“Thank you.” She set it down on the table beside her bowl.
“It’s only got enough charge for one big zap.” He poured himself coffee into a tall thermos and clipped this thermos to his belt. “I charge it from the ship’s main battery, so don’t waste it.” He pointed to the coffeemaker. “The rest here is all yours. The box of Happia is up in the cupboard.”
“Orson.” She did stand then, forced her legs to hold her weight.
“If you see anything, if any of my things…”
“I’ll bring them with me, don’t worry.” Orson gave her a mock two-finger salute. Then he opened the ship’s door, revealing a light but steady rainfall striking the hillside, freezing on contact.
Orson pulled a hood up from the neck of his coat and clipped it to the sides of his mask. He placed the bandana over his mouth. Covered and armed, he stepped out into the storm.
Orson looked prepared to say something. He wavered in the doorway, but all he said was, “See you real soon.” Then he shut the door behind him, leaving Enoa alone with her thoughts and memories.
* * *
Sheriff Kelly Webster met her backup, Deputy Zachary Nesta, at the top of the Nimauk observatory path. She wore a plastic poncho, navy blue with her office logo emblazoned across the back.
Rain pelted down from the sky, fat droplets that splashed and froze everywhere, a heavy, loud rainfall. The rain had intensified and now blasted the land beneath them with a nearly torrential downpour. If the temperature dropped, as it likely would, the whole valley would be buried in snow.
“Sorry I had to wake you. I really appreciate you being here.”
“Of course.” Nesta stepped close enough for Webster to see his face beneath his own windswept Sheriff’s Department poncho. “Although, I wish you would’ve picked somewhere less, uh, exposed.” Nesta was a lifelong Nimauk resident. He’d married a local woman. Together, they were raising a local child.
“I’m sorry to force you up here.” Webster frowned at the sky. “But I’m not sure who I can trust. I chose you because of your community roots. I have to trust that you want what’s best for this community, what with your daughter growing up here.”
“You can count on that, Sheriff.” Nesta smiled. “Wendy and I have a little boy on the way, too. I’ll need ole Nimauk to stay standing for at least another nineteen years.”
“Congratulations!” Webster smiled with him. “That’s the first good news I’ve heard all day. And I hope not to keep you from your family too long, but we need to look into the fire at the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea. It can’t be a coincidence. Enoa’s shop burns down the same night she flees from the Liberty Corps.”
“I thought the Liberty Corps was assisting with the investigation into the fire.” Nesta had been off all night. He hadn’t seen the Liberty Corps’ display of force toward the festival guests who’d refused to leave the park. But he must have heard their pursuit of Orson and Enoa. Even people in the far rural outskirts of town heard the chase and the immense gunfire.
“Officially, they are. But they’ve established a complicated relationship with our town officials. Do you remember Detective Keel, or was he before your time?”
“I remember his removal.” Nesta shrugged. “I never knew the details.”
“Misconduct conviction.” Webster shook her head. “Tricky situation, but the Liberty Corps found him a position. He’s serving with them as a Lieutenant. They’ve recruited all three of the officers who’ve been removed from service in Nimauk, in recent years. And that’s just the start of the trouble with these people.”
“You said we’re looking into the antique shop fire.” Nesta said. “Am I correct in believing we’re really looking into the Liberty Corps?”
“We’re headed to High Street.” Webster gestured down the hill, toward one of the flagstone paths, a route that would lead them right to the remains of Enoa’s shop. “I’ll tell you the rest on the way.”
* * *
Orson found the antique shop empty.
Burned and destroyed, yes, that too. But mostly, the building was empty. There were no piles of ash where papers had been, no charred furniture, no liquefied mounds of plastic from a television or computer. Nothing like that to be found. The walls were burned, other than the original brick – as well as the exterior of the adjacent buildings – but there were no slagged antiques or melted pottery lying around in the store inventory. Part of the roof was gone, the upper stories seemingly empty. The storefront shelving was also empty. The building didn’t look like a store with an attached residence. The building looked long vacant, its mostly brick exterior still strong.
Someone had emptied everything, stolen everything. Whatever their motives for burning the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea, the Liberty Corps clearly wanted to cover their bases. Enoa’s belongings, or at least many of them, had not been destroyed.
Orson had hesitated stepping inside. Even covered head to toe, his coat was drenched, sopping with water. There was no avoiding tracking water through the destroyed building, but he quickly saw the holes, burned open, blazed clear to the roof, rain water dripping down multiple stories and falling in showers scattered around the storefront, before freezing. Soon, the leaking water would transform the floor into a skating rink.
Orson checked the compass. It still spun in continuous, lazy circles. The real prize had not been taken. He wandered through the broken store, shelves reduced to tinder. He found the stairwell still intact, one flight leading down to the basement, the next up to Enoa’s living area. He’d been able to look through holes in the first floor ceiling, but he decided to check out the second story further, best to be certain.
There could be an entrance to the treasure down in the basement, and once he found that, he knew he wouldn’t return to investigate the disappearance of Enoa’s personal belongings. Besides, Enoa had described her escape through the basement. Orson knew he had a potential exit waiting for him there.
Orson started up the stairs toward the second floor and Enoa’s living space.
He’d only gone five steps before he heard voices, hushed speaking, coming from the burned open entryway into the storefront. He crept onto the next landing and tapped at the side of his mask’s eyes, extinguishing the blue glow the lenses gave off. Thankfully, the stairwell was an interior structure and had no windows. He would not be seen, could not be seen, so he listened.
“Do you have experience with investigating fires?” A man’s voice spoke, not a voice Orson knew. He sounded concerned, not afraid, just troubled.
“No.” Sheriff Webster said. “We always had experts from the state come in to take a look. We only had two suspected potential arson incidents in all my years serving. And before you ask, I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it. All I know is the Liberty Corps caravan that’s been planted out here since they followed the fire department has finally cleared out. Either now’s our chance or they’re up to something new.”
“Alright,” the man said.
Orson listened to them walk. They said no more. All the further sounds they did produce vanished into the din of the still escalating rainfall.
“This sign says books,” the unknown man said. “Shouldn’t there be more ash if a whole shelf of books got burned up?” Orson heard footsteps, hurried footsteps, louder than the rain.
“Why is it still beeping?” Liberty Corps Captain Maros spoke loudly, as he entered the shop. He walked and talked openly. Either he didn’t expect to be overheard or the rain’s deafening volume was forcing him to raise his voice. Orson also heard the Sheriff and her associate’s quick, soft steps. They were headed toward shelter, toward the stairwell, the same stairwell where Orson was hidden.
Orson wasn’t sure how the Sheriff would feel about his sudden, suspicious appearance. He didn’t know if he could trust her associate. He turned toward the stairs, the flight of steps that lead further up to Enoa’s living quarters.
Orson knew his right footfall was too loud. It would be heard, even if he tried to stay quiet, even with the sound of the rain. The Strateri booster that enabled his flight was just too loud for that kind of close quarters stealth.
“It shouldn’t be beeping.” Another Liberty Corps man entered the store with Maros. Orson didn’t know the voice. “The treasure should be hidden in all the goods we cleared out of here. It must be broken.”
Orson got a grip on the stair’s railing. He placed his weight on the bannister, pleading with it to stay upright. Then he stepped forward, headed up the stairs. He placed as little weight on his right boot as possible.
“Master Nine invented this detector.” As Maros walked into the store, Orson could indeed hear a slight metallic beeping, a constant, insistent sound. “The items we’re looking for are still here. They must be hidden somewhere close.” The beeping only got louder.
Orson reached the top of the steps, just in time for the Sheriff to arrive on the lower stair, only feet away from where Orson had just been standing. Orson finished creeping to the top of the steps and came to a stop, crouched down beneath a tall window, its glass shattered. Driven by the wind, rain began to pelt him in the back of the hood. He ignored it.
“We’ll have to fine tune our readings from the detector,” the other Liberty Corps man said. “Most of the superstructure of this house is still strong, strong enough to hide the treasure. We can make incisions…”
The Liberty Corps men walked closer. The cops edged further up the stairs. Orson pressed himself against the wall beneath the broken window.
“We have no time for that,” Maros said. “Even with us sequestering the locals and the festival guests in the visitor center, we won’t keep scrutiny away for more than a few hours. We can’t do a thorough search. We’ll have to excavate the grounds of the property, and if we still didn’t find the Trove, we’ll need to disassemble this building brick-by-brick.”
“Should I issue the order to our demolitions team?”
“No,” Maros had reached the edge of the store room. In only a few feet, he would be capable of seeing the Sheriff. She and her associate had nearly reached the lower landing. Soon, both of the hidden parties might be exposed.
“I want to make a quick sweep of the property,” Maros continued. “It should take no more than a few minutes. Then we can send out the order.” He reached the bottom of the stairs.
A crash sounded below him. Orson didn’t know whether the cops had been discovered, or if the Liberty Corps had accidentally caused some damage to the house, but he knew his one chance had come.
Orson jumped to his feet. He activated the lens lights in his mask, sending blue illumination out into the rainstorm. Then he reached down and powered on the booster in his right boot. He pressed his left foot to the windowsill.
Orson ignited the repulsor in his boot and let the full force of the rocket carry him out the window, across the small alley, and down through the trees at the top of the hill. The downpour blasted down at such a fever pitch, Orson could hardly hear the sounds of his own flight.
The entire journey lasted less than ten seconds. He felt satisfied that no one else had heard or noticed his escape. Orson landed at the top of the hill.
Flying with one rocket offered poor balance. He’d never practiced enough to gain proper mastery. The metal boot, repulsor deactivated, slipped on the thin ice that had formed at the top of the hill, between the trees.
Orson fell onto his back, coat slamming down into the wet earth as he slid down the hill, away from High Street and the line of shops, blind from the rain.
He didn’t shout or cry out. This wasn’t the first time Orson had tumbled, disoriented, down a muddy ravine. The weather was worse, this time, but at least no one was shooting at him. He didn’t make any sound until he came to a sudden hard stop against something metal, a fence by the feel of it.
Orson groaned then and got to his feet, shaking his head. He wiped at his mask with the back of his gloved hands. Even with the waterproof coating of the mask’s lenses, the rain was almost too intense to see.
Once his vision cleared, Orson saw that tombstones and grave markers of all kinds covered that entire expanse of land. Orson had slid into Nimauk’s main cemetery.
Not wanting to risk going back the way he came, Orson walked along the fence, until he found a break in the metal barricade, only a few feet away.
Orson entered the graveyard, the fencing on his right, a huge stone structure on his left. The stone looked wide and flat from the other side of the fence, but as he got closer, Orson saw that it was a mausoleum. He wondered what someone had to do to get such prime burial real estate, overlooking the entire graveyard.
He noticed a handful of other mausoleums scattered about, but this one was set right against the sloping hill, a deep structure, built partially under the ground.
Orson shined his mask lights at the tomb.
Cloud – the name was written over the mausoleum’s sealed doorway. Beneath it there was writing in a language Orson didn’t recognize. Beside that, there was what he assumed to be a translation. “In recognition of all they have done for us and all that they still do. May this honored ground offer an eternal home to the Cloud Family.”
Orson judged the distance between the mausoleum and the line of shops. He realized that this tomb was likely level with ground beneath the antique store.
With any luck, his many months of searching had come to an end.