It took over an hour for Sheriff Webster to execute her rescue plan.
She had spent a half hour fleeing to her home, using only back alleys and paths. She’d cleaned the wound on her hand. Then she got that hand in a splint and bandages
Webster prepared her own personal sidearm. Along with it, she packed extra ammunition, a Taser, two pairs of handcuffs, two pepper spray bottles, and her bolt cutters. The items that didn’t fit on her belt she threw in her backpack.
Next she drove her personal jeep through the single lane snow-covered dirt roads in the hills around town. She drove far out of her way, through the forested pitch-black darkness, until she arrived in the overgrown derelict butterfly garden that sat beside the Visitor Center.
Webster struggled through the piling snow and tall dead foliage. She wanted to blend in and had managed to find white gloves and white sweatpants, but owned no white tops that suited the cold and settled for a pale pink sweater. All of this she wore over her regular Sheriff uniform. The snow was too deep for sneakers so her green boots had to do. She donned her late father’s light gray ski mask and threw an old white terry-cloth robe over everything. Up close, she looked ridiculous, slogging through the dead plant life and knee-high snow, her right hand held tight to her chest. But she was warm.
The journey through the butterfly garden took an additional half-hour, a half-hour of adrenaline. Every falling clump of snow or bounding animal sent her into a frenzy of nervous energy.
Webster arrived at the tree line, looking down on the recently built Visitor Center, a plain brick building with dozens of windows. The focus had been on offering views of Nimauk’s natural beauty, not on architectural features. Many of these windows were blocked by tarps or sheets, blacked out. A handful of windows emitted pale light, the first light that she’d seen in hours. She heard the distant rumble of motion and talking. She heard people. Many people had been hidden away inside the center, just like Deputy Nesta had warned her.
Before she could find cover at the hilltop, a company of Liberty Corps forces emerged from the Visitor Center, a dozen strong, armed, and noisy. They walked less than fifty feet from her. At that distance, she didn’t know how much cover her camouflage would offer. She had nowhere to hide and didn’t dare move.
Webster was not a great shot with her left hand. With her right she’d been a decorated markswoman, ready to fire to incapacitate. With her left, her aim was not so precise.
“Can you believe they’re only starting now?” One of the Liberty Corps members yelled. “We’ll be babysitting here all day. All this is wasting time. Maros had no right making this dumbass deal. If we came in here some other time, we’d just take what we’re looking for.”
“Put down a couple locals if we gotta,” said another.
“Right, good target practice,” the first said. “When I got the transfer slip on Monday, I hoped this whole thing was just another drill.”
“Or a shit joke,” a third said. They laughed in response, but their voices faded away as they piled into trucks and Humvees and drove from the parking lot. They never saw Webster.
The Sheriff found a large rock to obscure her. She also took advantage of the snow and iced her broken hand as she waited.
Webster observed the Visitor Center until the sky began to lighten, from black to a dark purple. Within an hour, the light would grow, the sun would rise, and she would have lost her chance to sneak into the Visitor Center.
But she’d learned. She now knew where the town council had been taken for “shelter”. She overheard two Liberty Corps men escorting Councilman Blue, his wife, and their three children from the parking lot.
The town council was in the conference room, a venue businesses rented for events. That room offered a well-lit location with a view of the rolling hillside and the town, far below.
Webster hesitated, alone. This was her only chance. There was no telling what the Liberty Corps would do if allowed an entire day’s control over the town.
Webster found a side door unlocked. This entrance led onto an enclosed stairwell, with glass walls and heavy concrete steps. Her boots were snow-covered and made loud clanging noises on the metal plate in front of the door, but once she’d brushed them off and reached the stairs, her steps made almost no sound.
She ascended the stairs, up one flights, until she reached the carpeted hallway that led to the conference room. The stairwell was dimly lit, like most of the building, due to the limitations of generator power.
One Liberty Corps guard watched the hall, situated in an alcove halfway between her and the door to the conference room. The guard wore armor but no helmet.
“I don’t see why in hell I need to be here,” a man spoke, not a voice Webster recognized. “I haven’t been on the council since two thousand and seven.”
“You were on the safety list,” the Liberty Corps guard replied. “We were told to protect you. You’re safe now from the Sight-Stealers.”
“There are no Sight-Stealers,” the man said. “The town made them up back in the fifties to help sell the festival. If you’re gonna lie at least do your homework, son.”
“You need to go back in the conference room and wait with the others.” The Liberty Corps guard stepped from his alcove, one hand raised.
“I don’t think I will,” the man said.
Webster edged to the doorway and recognized a face she saw almost every day in the framed portrait-style photo that hung on the interior of the town offices – honorary Emeritus Councilmember George “Georgie” Lawson. He’d been retired for most of Webster’s time as Sheriff. Since destabilization, the widower spent the better part of the year with family somewhere out of state, she couldn’t remember where.
“You don’t want me to put you back in that room.” The Liberty Corps man shoved Lawson, pushing him back a step. The guard turned his back fully to the hallway door and to Webster.
She rushed the guard and fired her taser at him. Operating the taser with her left hand, only one of the prongs took the guard in the gap between his breastplate and right shoulder pauldron. He fell to the floor before he could call for help.
Lawson gasped and backed away. Webster couldn’t imagine how insane she must appear, all in white, masked, bathrobe trailing behind her as she attacked. She’d hoped to speak words of encouragement to Lawson. He obviously still had connections if Tucker thought to detain him, but the Liberty Corps guard began to struggle and roll and moan. She fell on top of him, placing her left hand over his mouth to keep him from crying out. The guard rolled onto her broken hand. Her eyes watered. She fought her own urge to yell. All thought of speech left her mind.
Webster tore the ski mask from her head and tried to force the cloth into the guard’s mouth. He kept turning his head away from her one useful hand. She needed to keep him from screaming, but she didn’t have the strength to force the mask between his teeth.
“Sheriff?” Lawson whispered from the opposite wall. “Is that you, Webster?”
The guard thrashed and rolled onto her right hand a second time. Her grip slackened.
“Hah!” The guard let out a yell, half a cry for help. The guard fell quiet when Lawson sent his booted foot into the man’s side.
Webster ripped the tape from the roll she’d clipped to her belt and slapped the adhesive over the guard’s mouth. The man struggled even more, letting out moans and slurping sounds. He rolled onto her broken hand a third time. Webster winced, but did not lose her grip again. Pain raced from the hand and up her arm.
Her vision was swimming from the pain, by the time she and Lawson got the Liberty Corps man’s hands in one of her two pair of handcuffs.
The guard never stopped thrashing, not even when she got her wrists under his armpits and began to drag him back toward the alcove where he’d been standing guard. Lawson had apparently figured out the plan and took hold of the guard’s flailing ankles. If she remembered correctly, there was a closet where they could stick him, a place where he could be kept until she and the town council were long gone.
Even with Lawson’s help, Webster wasted vital time and priceless strength hauling the man, dragging him inch-by-inch back through the alcove, her right hand searing the entire way.
They taped the guard’s ankles together and locked the door, forced it shut against the struggling form of the Liberty Corps guard. Sheriff Webster sagged against the wall. She had no idea how she could fight any more.
“Nice work,” Lawson said. “I like your bathrobe. Did they get you out of bed, too?” He laughed. “I’m thinking there’s something strange going on. I didn’t expect to see you here tonight. They said you’d been dragged off by spooks.”
“Spooks? No, it’s complicated.” Webster had rehearsed what she planned to say, no talk of magic or folktales, just the facts. The Liberty Corps wanted something hidden in town. Tucker wanted… That’s where it all fell apart. She wasn’t entirely sure what Tucker wanted. “I’m here to get the town council. The threat to town was manufactured by the Liberty Corps. Officially, Tucker brought them in. They’re looking for something, but I don’t know what they’ve offered Tucker.”
“Well, I didn’t plan on staying here anyway,” Lawson whispered. “But after that fella gave me such a hard time, I’m ready to believe you. I never cared for Daniel Tucker. Listening to that phony voice of his is half the reason I stopped going to meetings. I can’t speak for the rest of ‘em. Tucker’s got them scared half to death of fake spooks, but unlike them I haven’t spent every waking minute of these last five years in Nimauk. I’ve heard the horror stories about militias and glorified bandits taking over towns.”
“I don’t know,” Webster retrieved her mask from the floor. “I appreciate your support, but I need to try to get their help. I wanted to call in the rest of the county’s law enforcement, but the phone lines are dead. Talking to them in person is my best shot.”
“You’re more than welcome to use my satellite phone,” he replied. “Trudy makes me keep it on me when I’m home alone. Hate the damn thing. I never got the hang of touch screens, but it’s on the Northeast Alliance Satellite Network, not the Nimauk lines. I doubt Tucker interfered with the rest of the county’s phones, too much attention from that. If I get the other police departments involved would that help?”
“It would.” Webster was more and more aware of the time that was passing. The sun would soon rise, at which point any hope she had of rescuing the council would likely be gone. “But I can’t take you. I need to talk to the council and my only vehicle is miles away through over a foot of snow.”
“I’ll just have to take my chances,” Lawson said. “I planned to go out the back lot when the Liberty Corps fella stopped me, and I’ll go out the back lot now. I drove here. They were just a, erm, an escort.”
“Thank you.” Webster didn’t know what else to say. “I saw a large group of Liberty Corps forces leave here, but don’t put yourself in any danger.”
“What are they gonna do to me?” He chortled. “I’m already up half the night. Can’t catch a wink these days. Maybe this will give me something to be tired about. Are the extensions for local police the same or…?”
“Yeah, they’re the same.” Webster thought her way through Nimauk County’s four boroughs and three townships. “You should be…”
“You better get a move on.” Lawson started down the hall. “Sun’s coming up. Good luck.” He walked to the end of the hallway, toward the stairs.
“Thanks,” she said again. “Good luck yourself.”
Sheriff Webster stepped into the conference room. The town council and their families stood clustered together. Their children slept, most of them, curled up on small cots and bedrolls set on the far side of the room. The adults whispered and spoke among themselves. Webster was noticed before she could speak.
“Kelly?” Councilwoman Amaren looked at Webster, confused, like the Sheriff had returned from the dead. Her absurd camoflage and the way she obviously favored her hurt hand did nothing to make her appearance less startling. “What are you doing here? Dan Tucker told us that you’d been taken away. He said you’d been taken by the Sight-Stealers.”
Webster held a finger to her lips to quiet the crowd. “There are no Sight-Stealers,” she whispered. “Listen, things are awful in town but it’s all a plan to steal from us and the festival. I have proof, but I need all of you to come with me now. Quickly, before they find us.”
Webster had feared this moment. What would she do if they refused? She’d had no way to bring evidence with her. They might not trust her. They might be unwilling to leave their families. She had no way to transport them all. Between the council members, their spouses, their children, and a few elderly relatives, they were pushing forty people. How would she get them all out?
“They’ve already burned down Enoa Cloud’s shop, but I’m not sure what exactly they’re looking for.” Webster saw the town council step away from her. The officials huddled together toward the far wall and edged closer to their sleeping children. “No, you need to listen. We need to go.”
Webster realized then they weren’t moving away from her, they were moving away from the door.
The Sheriff turned and found Councilman Daniel Tucker walking down the hallway toward the conference room. His arms didn’t glow. He wasn’t disheveled from pursuing her or Deputy Nesta. He looked good. He was properly groomed, in a full suit. Five armed and helmeted Liberty Corps troops followed him.
“Kelly.” Tucker shook his head. “Why did you come back?”
* * *
Orson and Enoa dug into the old IHSA film logs. They watched films of adults sitting in circles, meditating with suction cups and wires trailing from their heads. Only twice did the films they watch show anything paranormal, anything magical. A young clean-shaven man held a glowing light in his hand, freestanding energy, uncontained by glass or metal.
And they saw a young Sucora Cloud, her signature metal walking stick held in both hands. Around her, a handful of other people stood, also holding similar implements, made of metal or wood. Sucora struck a green crash test dummy with the metal rod. An explosion issued from the device with a roar that, even through the film, made Enoa jump. The dummy flew several feet backward, skidding along the floor of the low-ceilinged room where the young people trained.
The walking stick was no walking stick at all. It was a staff, like a wizard’s from some fantasy movie. Enoa found the display oddly fulfilling, but all of it was useless for pursuing justice in town.
Then they found the film of the children, a short clip, sandwiched between more films of meditation circles, made up entirely of pajama-clad adults.
Small children stood in a line. All wore their hair in the same bowl cut. They ranged in age from their late teens, barely younger than Enoa, all the way down to grade-school-aged kids. They were dressed in white, wearing short-sleeved shirts and shorts. For the most part, they looked nothing alike. Many races were represented, many ethnicities, but all of the children had weary, hopeless eyes.
That was not all they shared. Their bare arms and legs were covered in round markings. The footage wasn’t clear enough to show whether these markings were tattoos or welts, but they glowed. The marks gave off light.
Some blinked blue. Some blinked red. But they all gave off illumination again and again in a nauseating lightshow.
Each child in turn approached a small cubic piece of metal, set onto the floor. The child would raise their hands. They would yell and clearly strain, veins bulging in their limbs and face.
But they all failed to do anything to the cube, except one small boy, younger than the rest.
When the boy approached the metal, he didn’t strain or yell or struggle. He lifted his hand. He called to the metal. The metal answered him and reshaped itself. First the cube shimmered and transformed into a sphere. Then the metal twisted and transformed into the rough likeness of what Enoa thought was an airplane.
“Do you think we can zoom in on the kid’s face?” Enoa stood and stopped the projector. “If we can keep track of all the ones who were good at the Shaping, maybe we can figure out who the agent is in town.”
Orson didn’t get a chance to answer her.
“We’ve got her!” A voice shouted from the front of the Aesir. “It’s finally done. We’ve got her.” Orson ran from the couch. He rushed to the front of the ship and retrieved his transceiver box. Even with the volume turned down, the device still issued shouting from the Liberty Corps channel.
“Now it doesn’t matter what anyone wants,” another voice answered. “We can take as long as we need with the excavation. There’s no one to cause trouble with all town officials detained. Webster was the last one.”
“Orson, do you have some way to record what they’re saying?” Enoa shut off the projector. Its image of the children vanished. “I think we’re going to want this recorded.”
“What’s the law like around here?” Orson stood and walked to one of the green-lit control panels. “I can get a recording, but it might not be enough to send them away from town.”
“They have Kelly now,” Enoa said. “She’s the head of our county law enforcement and there’s nothing state-level above her, not anymore. They have the town government. I don’t think the law is going to stop them. We haven’t dealt with much crime here in Nimauk, even with the world so messed up, but I think our good record just ended.”
“If we go that way…” He looked to the front of the ship again. He glanced toward his sheathed sword, the sword that allegedly was made of fire. “I can almost guarantee you it’ll be a fight.”
“All we need to do is turn the town and the festival crowd against this militia,” Enoa said. “Even with the Shaper person they’re outnumbered. They won’t stand a chance against everyone.”
“I don’t know.” Orson returned, holding something in his hands. “This little microphone dumps right to a file on the Aesir’s main computer.” Orson set the mic down next to the transceiver box and switched it on.
“Maros is still upset about the dig. He says the signal got fainter.” A new voice commented from the transceiver. “He’s not available right now, but I can get him.”
“No,” the first Liberty Corps man answered. “There’s no rush. We have everything we need up here. Tucker can take care of things with the Sheriff. Even if she tries to warn these people. They won’t believe her once Master Nine is through with them.”
“Master Nine?” Enoa said. “Are they still talking about Tucker?”
“I think so.” Orson held up his hand. “We’re being recorded too.” She nodded and stopped talking. She walked further back into the ship. He could tell she wanted him to follow her. He was careful to step quietly enough to leave little or no disturbance on the microphone. He joined her over in the kitchenette.
“If Tucker is the one who can control that Cobalt, can we fight him?” Enoa whispered. “Are we ready?”
“Tucker might just be corrupt.” Orson shrugged. “But if he’s magic, I’ve got a few ideas. Are you ready? You’ll be in some danger if you come along.”
“I don’t know.” Enoa remembered the film of Sucora Cloud and the explosion she conjured from her staff, the same weapon Enoa had carried from her home before it burned. The staff also sat in the front of the ship, propped beside Orson’s sword. “This is my home. I need to defend it, if I can. I just don’t want to put you in danger. This isn’t your fight.”
“Well.” Orson said. “I was thinking about kicking back and ordering room service, have a nice breakfast before hitting up that festival, but I guess I can go to the death battle instead. Are you sure this is what you want?”
“I am.” She was sure.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go be heroes.”