13. The Cloudside Key

Orson held up the top level of his compass. It pointed straight ahead.

He fought the urge to run, to charge forward. The answers were his to find, mysteries he’d chased since he was a teenager. He’d been formally hunting this particular prize for a year, but his search was much older than that. The search was a part of his life, part of his truth, part of him. How would he feel when that journey came to an end?

“Is there a reason we’re walking this slowly?” Enoa asked. “I thought we were in a hurry.”

“We are.” They couldn’t rush ahead. He knew better. He’d learned that lesson, faced that danger. “But I need to be sure the tunnel isn’t booby-trapped. I doubt it. I think you’re supposed to find this place, but who knows?”

“Booby-trapped?” She sounded incredulous, but she stopped walking and let him take a larger lead. “What, is a boulder going to come down and chase us?”

“Who knows?” He said again and laughed. “We’re about to find out.” Orson scanned the walls, floor, and ceiling with his HUD and with his own senses. There was no sound but their own footsteps and the whine of the overhead fluorescent lights. He felt nothing, smelled nothing, and saw nothing but the long tunnel.

Then they reached the door.

Orson waited for Enoa to catch up. He tried the knob – locked. Before Orson could say anything, she selected a key from the key ring and fit it into the lock. The doorknob turned.

“There’s a second extra key like the one for the mausoleum door.” Enoa pushed the door open.

The room before them didn’t hold relics from a dozen far-flung cultures, none of the artifacts Orson hoped to see. It didn’t hold treasures of the old Nimauk, items stolen from the local people.

The room was a library, brick-walled, also lit by the same fluorescent lighting.

Orson waited before entering. He held out his left arm so Enoa didn’t pass him. He let his senses and his gadgetry look at the room, as well. Nothing. He nodded.

They entered and viewed the half-dozen shelves, spread through the small square space. These shelves didn’t hold books. None of them did. They each held several round metallic disks, each about a foot in diameter.

Orson looked at his compass. It pointed away from the shelves. It swung in a lazy circle, aiming him toward a desk, set against the wall opposite the disk library.

“Could this really be the place?” Enoa stood on her tiptoes, likely hoping to see something more interesting hiding behind one of the shelves. “I expected it to be shinier with all the times you’ve mentioned treasure.”

“I use the word treasure really loosely. Not everything worth finding is gold and jewels.” Orson walked over to the desk, a small wooden model. “But I don’t understand this either.” Just to be sure, he walked to the opposite side of the room to see where the compass would point.

The needle spun in his hand and pointed right back at the desk.

“Either that desk isn’t made of wood or there’s something in one of the drawers.” The desk had three drawers, each sporting a worn metal handle.

“I expected the treasure to be…” Enoa walked toward the desk. “I didn’t think it would fit in a drawer.”

“Me neither.” Orson walked ahead of her and stuck out his arm again. “Let me check it out first, okay? I think you were supposed to find this place, but I’d rather be safe. None of this is what I expected.” She nodded and took a step back.

Orson reached out and slid open the top drawer.

It was empty.

Orson reached inside. He slid his fingers along the grainy wooden surface, nothing hidden. He traced the edges of the drawer, seeking any sign of a false bottom, anything out of the ordinary. Nothing.

He closed the first drawer and opened the second. Also empty. Orson traced his fingers through this second drawer, as well, with the same results.

He opened the third.

Two things were inside, a small unmarked envelope and one of the round metal containers, this one about half the size. Orson drew both from the drawer, before closing it again. He gave both items a quick once over, before handing the envelope to Enoa.

Once he did, Orson noticed a little sticky note affixed to the metal container. The note said:

Watch this one first. It will confirm Archie’s identity.

“Do you know anyone named Archie?” Orson angled the metal case toward Enoa. She was busy fumbling with the envelope.

“There’s something solid inside here.” Enoa almost dropped the envelope when she saw the writing on the container. “That’s my Aunt Su’s handwriting! I figured this place was hers. I didn’t know why anyone else would build a secret room under my house, but no, I don’t know any Archie.”

Orson nodded. He found a lip on the metal disk and pried it open, revealing a reel of film.

“Watch this one first.” Orson shut the case again. “These are all films. Why would my compass point to films?” He lifted the small spiked top. It spun around the room but eventually settled towards the envelope in Enoa’s hands. “May I?” She nodded. He searched his pockets, removing a few oddments, before bringing out a pocketknife. Enoa handed him the envelope, and he cut through the top in one quick slice.

Orson held the envelope open with his fingers and peered inside. He frowned.

“What’s wrong?” Enoa didn’t want any more bad surprises. Why would her Aunt Su leave her a room full of old-fashioned film and some little envelope? Who the hell was Archie?

“Take a look.” Orson handed the open envelope back to her. “It’s yours.”

Enoa took the envelope and reached inside. There was no note, no message at all, just a small metal something. She drew it out.

It was a medallion, just like the necklace Orson wore, except the pendant was different. It still had a crescent moon design, but this one held a small cloud symbol, as well, instead of the medieval tower Orson’s depicted.

“Another key.” Orson lifted his own necklace, drew it out from under his clothing. She held out the new key by its chain. As if magnetic, the two circles of metal lifted from their owners’ hands and stretched toward each other. Some power or energy drew them together.

“I wonder.” Orson pulled the necklace back. Then he walked to the nearest wall. He held out the pendant. First, it did nothing, but finally, when the metal of the necklace hung only inches from the wall, the metal floated and stretched out. The pendant reached to the wall with the same power that bound the medallions together. “The wall’s made of the same stuff as the necklace. Or at least it has trace amounts. That must be why my compass spun around upstairs.”

“What does it all mean?” Enoa had hoped for something personal. No, not hoped. She’d expected something personal, some last message from her aunt, some proper explanation for everything that had happened to her in the last several hours. “We need to watch that movie.”

“We do.” Orson began walking through the shelves. He didn’t touch any of the films, but he looked at them. He bent down and examined some individually.

“I’m guessing you don’t have any way to look at them on the Aesir?”

“I don’t,” Orson said. “I have lots of video players, even laser disc, but no old-school theater setup. Wait.” He walked past the far end of the shelving. “Your aunt was prepared for you.”

Enoa walked through the line of films, marveling at this odd room. It was a good bit larger than it looked. She saw several dozen movies there. What were they? There must be hundreds of hours recorded, minimum.

She reached the end of the line of shelving. On the other side of the room, she found a film projector. It was perched on top of a wheeled cart. A black bar hung from the top of the opposite wall. It looked like the housing for a screen, the kind that her grade school classrooms used to have.

Enoa examined the projector. She had no idea how to use something like that. She ran her hands over the mechanism.

“Do you mind if I watch with you?” Orson had approached the far wall. He’d begun to lower the screen. “I have a feeling we both need to be informed about all this to solve the mystery in town.”

“I don’t think I mind.” Enoa didn’t know enough about what was happening to be certain. She’d been totally lost, totally confused, all night.

Before she said anything more, the silence was broken by a rumble, the thrum of an engine. The rumbling noise then moved closer to them, getting louder and louder, approaching the shop from the street outside.

“Is that…?” Enoa asked.

“I think so,” Orson said. “The Liberty Corps is about to start digging.”

* * *

Sheriff Webster planned to call the power company and water authority. Both had struggled these last few years, fighting to keep their infrastructure current, efficient, and operational, with almost no help from the outside world.

She couldn’t get a dial tone. Phones were out, as well. She and Deputy Nesta were entirely alone. Everything was up to them.

As if in response, a door slammed shut, somewhere in the distance. The local offices hadn’t been properly refurbished in decades, and most of the hallway doors closed in great echoing booms.

Someone else was in the building. Maybe it was only the lateness of the hour that kept her from getting help. Maybe everything was fine.

“Sheriff?” Deputy Nesta spoke through the radio at Webster’s hip. “Can I have your attention?” She removed the radio from her belt and lifted it to her mouth.

“What’s the problem?” She could hear from the tone of his voice that something wasn’t right, yet another strange happening, another problem on this awful, endless night.

“Councilman Tucker just arrived on this floor and it looks like he’s about to enter the holding area. Should I page him?”

“No, I’m going.” Webster didn’t draw her sidearm, but she unclipped it in its holster. Then she rushed through her office door and down the hallway. When she arrived in the holding area entrance, she found that Councilman Tucker really had been the new arrival.

Webster had never before seen the young councilman in her area of the building. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. How did he know to go right to the cells she’d just filled with Liberty Corps men?

Tucker approached the cell where Captain Maros was waiting. The Liberty Corps Captain sat, back straight against the wall. His eyes were closed, but he was alert and focused.

“I sent the excavation team as soon as I saw that you were detained.” Tucker tapped at the cell’s bars until Maros met his gaze. “We should have the trove soon.”

Maros did not respond. He looked to Tucker and then past him to the Sheriff. He made eye contact with Webster as she entered the room, hand hovering at her waist.

“Councilman Tucker,” she said. “You’re…”

“Hello, Kelly.” Tucker drew a metal cube from his suit jacket’s inner breast pocket. “I was hoping I’d run into you here.” He pressed the cube to the holding cell’s key lock.

“Don’t move.” Webster drew her pistol. She aimed it at Tucker, a man she’d worked with for eight years, someone she’d known for most of her professional life.

“Put your gun away.” Tucker still didn’t face her. “It won’t do you any good.” He twisted the cube. With a click from the antique lock, Maros’s cell door opened.

* * *

Orson and Enoa loaded up the tech cart with films. They managed to fit six of them on the lower level, beneath the projector. Orson had also dislodged the screen from the wall and held it, with effort, under his right arm.

The full cart weighed over one hundred pounds. The projector weighed an additional ten. They each took one end of the cart. Orson faced the hidden library. She faced the mausoleum. They wheeled it into the long passageway. Enoa saw Orson struggle to grip his end with the screen under his arm. She tried to guide the cart, to do more than her share of the steering, but she could hardly turn it without his help.

Then they hit the rough patch, a section of the floor that wasn’t quite smooth. The cart came to a sharp stop. Orson slipped and dropped the screen, sending a nasty sound echoing out through the tunnel.

“We’ll need to lift it.” He whispered and got a new grip on the screen. “On three.” He counted. Even after pushing the cart halfway back to the mausoleum, Enoa was astounded by the weight of it, but she thought of the Liberty Corps destroying her home. She thought of the remaining tapes, dozens, at least three more trips. They had to get them all. The Liberty Corps, they’d done all of this to get these films. Her home could still be irreparably destroyed by their efforts. Well, she promised herself she’d see to it that they left empty handed.

Enoa lifted her end. Orson lifted his, essentially one handed. They advanced again in short, awkward, jolting steps. Orson looked at the floor.

“It looks better here,” he said. “Let’s set it down really, really gently.”

Enoa’s arms were begging for relief, but they guided the cart back to the floor. It didn’t make a sound. Compared to the effort of carrying the cart, pushing it was nothing at all. They cleared the rest of the tunnel. The mausoleum floor was also mercifully smooth.

The snow outside fell harder, burying everything in a heavy, slick whiteness. She couldn’t see the ground and they didn’t dare roll the cart off the step, for fear of alerting the Liberty Corps. They lifted the cart a second time.

Enoa slipped as she stepped down from that ledge. The cart slammed down onto the path, but its sound was muffled by the snow, letting out only a dull crack. She fell against the cart, and slipped no farther.

“Are you okay?” Orson asked. She nodded. “Good. We’re almost there.” The rest of the journey to the Aesir worked well. The wet snow was surprisingly easy to maneuver with the heavy cart’s wheels. When they reached the camper, Orson opened the door, slid the screen inside and did more than his share of the lifting as they brought the films aboard. They placed the canisters and the projector on the RV’s floor.

“Should we take the cart back to carry the rest of the films?” Orson asked her. “Do they look stackable to you?” He set three of the film canisters in a pile and lifted. He shook his head. “Let’s go with the cart.”

They took the cart, wildly lighter while empty, and hurried back into the mausoleum, down the passage, and into the library, moving as fast as they dared.

By the time they returned to the secret room, they heard more thrumming engines had joined the first. Enoa barely restrained herself from screaming. They loaded the cart in silence. Orson again took the front of the cart. Enoa took the back. It was easier this time, even with films precariously perched on the open top of the cart. Luckily, the bottom section had enclosed sides.

They knew the location of the rough spot and avoided it, but it still wasted valuable time, minutes, maybe. Enoa couldn’t help but think of the dozens of films still in the library.

They needed five trips, until all of the films were spread out on the Aesir’s floor. It left a great mess, a mess that would need to be dealt with before Orson flew them away again. They’d gotten lucky that the Liberty Corps hadn’t discovered them, but it was only a matter of time before the militia burst into the hidden room.

“I’ll make a final sweep.” Orson readjusted his coat. “See if I can break into Liberty Corps radio chatter. I think it’s weird they haven’t gotten started yet.” Orson retrieved a black box from the underside of one of the Aesir’s green-lit panels.

“What’s that?” Enoa eyed the box.

“Modified radio transceiver.” Orson turned a dial on the box’s surface. “Helps you find transmissions and listen in. It’s old spy tech.” He looked up toward her. “Do you see the closet to the left of the couch there? It’s empty so it should be unlocked. Would you please get some of the films packed in there? I want to get back up to that hilltop before you start watching them.” She nodded, and he headed back to the tunnel.

Orson was lousy at using the transceiver. The device was supposed to let out little beeping noises when it was tuned to a frequency close to one experiencing a significant broadcast. It was like the box would say, “warmer, warmer, warmer” until its user could find occupied radio channels.

Orson fiddled with this box as he advanced down the tunnel, pulling the cart with his free hand. No beeps and no boops. As per usual, all Orson managed to find was a lot of static. He muttered and cursed at the transceiver under his breath.

Beep. Beep. Beep. The box came alive with sound. Its buttons suddenly glowed yellow. Orson spun the dial, just as he reached the door into the now empty library.

“I hate waiting here,” a voice spoke through the box. “When can we expect to proceed? Over.”

“I can’t say, for sure,” another voice answered. “Master Nine told us to hold until Maros gave the order. They’re trying to coordinate with the team at the Visitor Center. Half the town is over there, and they’re giving the local division a hard time. Over.”

Orson entered the library, the thrum of engines still intense above him. He assumed that the first speaker was situated somewhere in Enoa’s basement, waiting to begin the dig. Orson didn’t know why the sound of the engines wasn’t also bleeding into the radio recording. He had to press the transceiver to his ear. Otherwise, he would’ve missed half of the conversation.

Orson threaded through the bookshelves, looking below each shelf, sweeping the room to make sure nothing had been left behind. He progressed around the library, tapping on the walls, searching for some hollow or secret area. It wouldn’t do for him to miss the real treasure, if there were more to find.

“I wish they’d get a move on.” The first voice spoke again. “This trove is the only reason we’re here. I don’t see why we’re wasting so much time worried about the town and its festival. Over.”

Orson wished he’d had some kind of recording device. If he did, he’d likely have more than enough proof to enable a proper investigation into the Liberty Corps. The sooner he dealt with the militia, the sooner Orson could start worrying about why his compass had pointed him three thousand miles just to find a necklace and some old movies. He could start wondering why the walls all gave off the same energy field and where the actual treasure was. Orson hadn’t had time to feel disappointed. He knew he would, eventually, assuming he lived long enough.

“Just get started,” the second voice said. “Is Maros going to say no at this point? It’s a little late for that, now that he’s got the Sheriff on him. Over.”

Orson walked through the room, made sure there was nothing lying around. He was about to run back through the tunnel. He had no way to hide the passage. They could easily find the Aesir, once they’d found the hidden library. And he definitely didn’t need…

Wait – Orson saw a shape under the desk. He crouched down, leaned forward. He got down on his knees and stretched his arm toward the object.

Orson drew out what looked like a thick metal bracelet. It was black and blue and bore the same crescent moon and cloud symbol that was on the necklace Enoa had received. Orson didn’t know what it was, but he knew he didn’t want the Liberty Corps to get it.

“You’re right,” the first man agreed. “I’ll give Master Nine a minute or two to bust Maros out of jail. Then I’m moving in. Over and out.”

Orson made sure there was nothing else under the desk. Then he sprinted from the room. He sealed the library door behind him and closed the mausoleum’s slab door when he reached it. Orson locked the mausoleum and ran to the Aesir.

Before he could get aboard, Orson heard speaking. He couldn’t make out the words, but someone was talking, someone on the Aesir.

He ran inside and found that Enoa had mounted the screen at the top of one of his rows of cabinets. The screen was fully extended. The film projector was playing. Enoa had successfully fitted the small film into place.

“If you’re seeing this, I’m so, so sorry, kiddo.” The woman on the screen had to be Enoa’s aunt. Sucora Cloud had the same nose and chin as her niece and a similar build. The elder Cloud stood in the secret room beneath her shop, the same film library they’d just emptied.

Su Cloud sighed. “If you’re seeing this, that means I was a coward. It means that I failed you.” She ran her hands over the top of her head, her hair buzzed very short. “I left you before I could explain myself and before I let you know how important you are and how much danger you’re in.”

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