15. Master Nine

Sheriff Webster couldn’t remember the last time she’d run away from something. She rarely ran at all, these days. Most of her work was mediation, keeping tempers calm as the wild world closed in around old Nimauk. But occasionally, when the rare traveler or desperate local, driven to crime, led her on a chase – she rose to the occasion, always.

But running from someone… That’s a different business. She knew Tucker’s metal could strike her long range. He could attack quickly. He could attack without warning, except for the blue and red lights.

She’d only gone a couple dozen steps when she saw those flashing lights reflecting on the well-waxed floor at her feet. She threw herself to the side, stopping her fall with her uninjured hand.

Nothing hit her. No metal soared over her head. Why could she see the strange lights, if Tucker wasn’t attacking?

“Stay down, boss!” Nesta shouted.

Webster looked up and saw the Deputy crouched in the entrance to the AV room, both hands on his pistol. He fired twice.

She wheeled around and looked toward Tucker for the first time since she’d fled the holding area.

Tucker was totally blocked from view by a wall of that same metal. She didn’t know where it came from, but she could see, even from several feet away, the two bullets embedded in the shield. If the shells had done anything to harm the magic metal, the wall didn’t show it. So the lights began whenever Tucker used his odd ability, not just to attack.

Tucker’s defensive wall began to shimmer and ripple, began to change, but before it did, Webster rose back to her feet and rushed down the hall toward Nesta. His eyes were wide, staring openmouthed. He didn’t offer any comments to Tucker. He said nothing to the man they’d both thought they knew.

Webster reached her deputy, and they charged into the AV room. Nesta slammed the door behind them, allowing the magnetic lock to activate. Then he ran to the series of computer terminals. He looked at the holding area. The Liberty Corps men were still in their cells.

But Tucker was right outside the door, their door, and from the odd distortion on the video, the lights had started flashing and blinking from his arms.

Nesta reached behind the wall of terminals. He groaned and with one great pull, he unplugged them all. Their screens went dark. No one would be following their movements from the feeds. No one had the restart access code, no one but them. Then again, no one was supposed to have magic metal-kinetic powers, either.

Nesta ran to the far side of the room, where a narrow door was blocked by a chair and three boxes of old unsorted notes, clerical filings that had never been properly stored.

“Can the old stairwell hold us both?” Webster pointed to the second door, the door that led to the rickety wooden emergency staircase, an artifact from the building’s construction, well over a century earlier. “Nobody’s been on that thing in years.”

“It’ll have to.” Nesta pulled the boxes and the chair aside. He opened the door and held it open. He motioned for her to go ahead of him.

Something struck the hallway door. It rattled with such force that the tables and chairs shook, sending pens and papers scattering in all directions. Even the filing cabinet drawers danced in place.

Tucker was about to come through.

Webster didn’t hesitate. She ran onto the stair landing and lit the miniature flashlight she always kept, standard issue equipment in their department. The light revealed a maze of webs and gargantuan shadows from creatures desperate to avoid the light.

Nesta shut off the AV room lights and pulled a desk chair with him as he closed the door. He lit his own flashlight and propped the chair against the closed door, one more brief obstacle for Tucker, another handful of seconds for their escape. In almost total darkness, they were surrounded by macabre wriggling shadows. Even with Tucker’s imminent arrival, they both recoiled from the unavoidable tangle of sticky threads.

Another crash sounded, and Webster led the charge down the revolting passage. Even the way the ancient wooden steps swayed from their footfalls offered no more than a moment’s alarm. Webster held her flashlight between the thumb and forefinger of her wounded hand, just so her free hand could keep hold of the smooth wooden railing.

Crash! Even as they reached the foot of the stairs, they heard Tucker burst into the AV room.

They rushed through the bottom door into a remodeled side hallway off the building’s main foyer. A wall of glass looked out on the festival grounds, train station, and the railed drop-off. None of these things could be seen in the blackout.

Together, they blocked the bottom door of the old stairwell with a desk and two chairs. It would certainly not be enough.

“I’ll stall him while you leave the building.” Nesta pointed toward the far end of the side-hallway, where an emergency door exited onto the building’s grounds. “I think the Liberty Corps have been taking everyone to the Visitor Center. I was perusing video while you were trying to call out. I would have told you sooner if Tucker hadn’t turned up.”

“I won’t leave you here.” Webster looked to the lousy barricade they’d left at the small out-of-service stairwell door. “You need to come with me.”

As if on cue, a crash blasted down from somewhere above them. Tucker must have forced his way onto the emergency stair. It would not be long now. He would be on them.

“Boss, ma’am.” Nesta pulled a web from the side of his face. “I don’t think the two of us are arresting Tucker without backup. He has this whole town, but I think he still wants to be a little covert. He didn’t kill you, and he won’t kill me.”

“I don’t leave people behind.” She wavered. She thought she could hear footsteps on the stairs. Her mind, unbidden, created an image of Tucker advancing down the dark steps, watching his footing by the light of his own arms.

“You aren’t leaving me behind.” Nesta nodded. “I’m choosing to stay. Everyone needs their Sheriff. I’m just a deputy.” A crash sounded against the bottom stair door. One of the two chairs fell away. “Please go! I’ll be alright.”

Nesta raised his gun toward the door. He fired through the wood. Ding! The bullet struck metal.

Webster ran through the emergency exit. She charged across the snow, her feet slipping through the slushy accumulation. She would leave footprints. She knew she would, so she ran faster and harder and kept her footing, until she arrived back on the darkened street. She was headed nowhere in particular, no idea what her next move could be.

She heard gunshots sounding well behind her, in the municipal offices. She didn’t dare look back. If she did, she knew she would see the blue and red lights glowing out from the windows.

* * *

Orson gave Enoa privacy once again. He sat in his driver’s seat fiddling with the transceiver box. He wore vintage fuzzy red headphones, the other end plugged into his device.

Enoa fretted and paced around the cabin. She walked in a wide arc from the small bathroom in the back of the Aesir, then passed through the kitchenette and finally the living area. She wove between chairs and equipment, all bolted to the floor. She walked back and forth, through those thirty feet of ship.

Emotionally, she’d gone numb. The last revelations about herself, about her family and her future were too much for her to process. She needed time she didn’t have. She needed knowledge she couldn’t learn. She needed that letter; the letter Aunt Su had left for her. But it had almost certainly burned in the fire. Her answers were lost, except for the contents of the films.

“I think the videos are proof.” Enoa walked up to Orson, where he sat fiddling with the transceiver. Enoa didn’t know how long she’d walked in silent consideration, but Orson responded right away.

“What’s up?” He pulled the headphones from his ears.

“I think the videos probably have enough proof to show there’s a conspiracy going on in town,” she said. “I think if we’re tricky, we can use it to find the government Shaper and force the Liberty Corps out of town.”

“I think so too.” He set the transceiver aside. “Oh hey, I almost forgot.” He reached into the ship’s glove compartment and removed a small blue and black bracelet. “I found this back in your aunt’s library. I forgot all about it, but it’s yours, now, obviously.” He handed it to her.

The bracelet’s metal was cool, but its touch offered her the same rush of warmth her aunt’s metal walking stick had caused. How much else didn’t she know? She turned the bracelet around in her hands.

“I guess we need to get started on the videos,” she said.

“Are you sure you’re up to digging through it now?” Orson furrowed his eyebrows in a way that made it really clear he didn’t think she was up to much at that moment. “You’ve had a rough night.”

“I have to be up to it.” She nodded. “Let’s do it.”

“That’s your choice.” He stood and led her back to the closet where she’d stowed the film equipment. He carefully opened the door. The whole storage area was packed tightly, full to the ceiling. It wasn’t fun packing it away, and it wouldn’t be fun unpacking it. “We have a lot to watch.”

* * *

“I’m leaving.” Maros led Lieutenant Goes from the Nimauk Municipal Building. They walked down the main stairs and took the route through the offices, out the primary doors of the foyer. They’d waited in the cells for fifteen minutes and after no word had come from Tucker, they left. They had work to do.

“Should we have waited for Master Nine?” Goes looked around the foyer. There was no sign of Tucker.

“I need you to check on the Visitor Center.” Maros pointed up toward the outskirts of town, where a wide modern road led to a scenic overlook, usually offering many of the town’s recreational attractions. “We need to be sure everything is secure.” He nodded toward the floor, several feet away. The tile there was stained dark. It was stained with blood. “I don’t think the local law enforcement will be an issue, but we need to be sure.”

“What about you? You should be there. You’re the one who made this deal with Master Nine. You’re the only one of us he’ll listen to.”

“I don’t trust Nine any more than you do, but I have the excavation to lead.” Maros shrugged. “Go to the Visitor Center. That’s an order. I need someone there, just in case. If the worst happens, I need both you and Master Nine present with the locals while I lead the dig.”

“Why do we need Tucker now? The town is already under our control.”

“When Orson Gregory interferes again…”

“When?” Goes shook his head. “We ran him off. What can he do against all of us?”

“He’ll try something. I’ve no doubt, but when he does, Master Nine will kill him.” Maros did not wait for a response. He ran from the building, aiming back up the street, toward the excavation site.

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