Enoa made sure she still had the electric stun device Orson had lent her. Then she retrieved the film projector and the selection of clips she and Orson planned to show the crowd. She plugged the projector into the industrial length extension cord Orson had left for her. Then she plugged the extension cord into the portable solar generator set aside for the video rig.
Enoa got a good grip on the assembled equipment. Then she rushed toward the ship’s door.
Before she got there, she spotted the small metal bracelet Orson had found in the hidden library.
“I need all the luck I can get.” Enoa set everything down. Then she picked up the bracelet and slid it onto her left wrist. It was a loose fit, too loose to wear. She couldn’t risk losing her aunt’s belongings.
But before she could remove it, the bracelet changed. It slipped through her fingers as it tightened. It was now snug to her skin, but not uncomfortable. Then the bracelet lit up, shining a blue light directly into her face. Enoa blinked. Why would her aunt leave her something like this? Enoa got a grip on the bracelet and tried to pry it off her wrist.
While she tried to figure out how to remove the bracelet, it beeped at her.
Enoa saw that the light from the bracelet was actually a projection. The odd piece of metal was sending out a blue-flickering hologram, floating in the air in front of her. The hologram displayed words. The bracelet was trying to talk to her.
|Welcome back to the GARNET System, Sucora! It has been 12,977 days since your last login. Would you like to continue?
|CURRENT LEVEL: 48
|Would you like to return to MAIN MENU?
The hologram device shut off. The light went out. The projection faded away. The bracelet became a lifeless piece of metal, once again. Enoa touched the bracelet with her other hand, searching for some way to reactivate it.
Before she could do anything, she heard the shouting.
A man screamed inside the gymnasium, though she couldn’t make out the words.
Enoa realized she’d forgotten herself. She’d forgotten the videos and the Liberty Corps and Tucker. She grabbed the film projector rig again and ran from the Aesir, letting the door lock behind her.
* * *
Captain Maros checked his Isodar, and his fears were confirmed. The device found no immediate signal and directed him back to the tunnel. The mausoleum was merely the entryway to the passage into the hidden room. He was too late.
Maros returned to the tunnel and screamed into the empty earth. He had failed. Two years of his life were gone with nothing to show for them. He had used every favor, every inch of leeway he’d earned as a young Liberty Corps officer. All of it had been thrown away, wasted.
Maros slammed his prosthetic hand into the wall. The hand didn’t feel pain, not fully, but its servos and pressure sensors were supposed to stimulate his nerves when he risked doing damage to the hand. He felt a slight prickle at the nape of his neck, the hand’s attempt to calm him down.
The hand’s reminder was nothing compared to the pain in his mind, the pain of his failure. Maros pushed his hand straight through the wall, through the shell of the secret tunnel, until the robotic digits’ dim sense of touch let him know he’d reached dirt.
Maros pulled his hand back. Soil began to siphon into the tunnel like sand into an hourglass.
His efforts might be wasted. They weren’t yet, not unless he spent the rest of the morning screaming like a petulant child.
Maros stormed from the tunnel. He returned to the library, reattached the cable to his belt, and tugged. He was raised back up out of the hidden room and onto solid ground.
“Thank you for your efforts.” Maros unhooked the cable and walked through the crowd of his men. “I appreciate your hard work and attention to detail.”
“Sir?” The drone pilot stepped up to him. “Has everything been explored? What are we doing now?”
“Explore all you like, but it appears empty.” Maros brushed past the man and up the cellarway stairs, on toward the street where his Humvee had been parked for him. “I need to get back to the Visitor Center.”
The trove was gone from its hiding place, but it hadn’t gone far.
* * *
Orson knew he had to leave the room as soon as possible, and there was no way he’d be leaving the gym without the Liberty Corps shooting at him.
So he thought about his options. He couldn’t leave through the loading door, no way. Some of the pursuing Liberty Corps would eventually go after Enoa and the Aesir. He had to buy her enough time to get back aboard before everything went belly up.
The gym’s hallway doors were likewise out of the question. First, he knew there were other hostage townspeople and travelers that way. He wanted to lead the militia away from civilians, not at them.
Second, the building was loaded in Cobalt Nine. Whoever the Shaper was, they’d managed to stow away little deposits of the metal everywhere. There were at least seven hidden metal deposits just in the gym. His mask’s HUD let him see the heat from the places where the metal was hiding. There could be more, but these were the locations currently active. The Shaper, Tucker or whoever, could attack from any of those places at any moment. At least, Orson was pretty sure that’s how it worked.
Orson’s available choices weren’t good, so he took the best one.
He flew into the center of the Liberty Corps position. A few of their riflemen did open fire on him, despite the darkness and Tucker’s order. Of course they did. How could they resist? But that’s why he flew. Their shots went up in the air. The crowd screamed beneath him, but their cries sounded like fear, not pain. He hoped no one was hit.
“Cease fire!” Tucker yelled. “You will stop now.”
A bullet struck Orson in the shoulder.
The shell didn’t puncture his armor, but it did knock him off course. His single repulsor couldn’t keep him balanced. Now he was aimed right at a crowd of festival-goers. A man grabbed his two children and hauled them to the floor. All three were dressed in colorful cartoony outfits Orson didn’t recognize.
Orson managed to redirect his fall so he landed on his left side, right in the center of the Liberty Corps spearmen. Orson held his sword, its flame blade away from his chest.
Orson jumped back to his feet. The spearmen rounded on him. They advanced in a circle, blades out. Orson saw the riflemen, trying and failing to get a clear shot at him. They’d formed up behind the spearman, but they didn’t risk firing on their own men.
Orson looked into the Liberty Corps lineup. His mask let him pick out Tucker on the fringes of the militia position. The Sight-Stealer stood near the suited official, shoulders slumped. His demonic debut performance had been cut short. Tucker caught Orson’s masked stare. That time, there was no feigned indifference in the man’s expression.
Orson fired his repulsor again, before the spearmen got in striking distance. The boot’s energy bore him up, away from the crowd, far above the gym floor, even above the stands. Orson wrenched himself around in midair. He aimed himself directly for one of the skylights.
He had no way to judge the trajectory of the shards that would fall when he cut his way out of the gym. Even his mask’s HUD couldn’t manage that many trajectory projections at once.
But the longer he was in the gym, the more likely it was that an innocent person would be hurt. It was almost miraculous bloodshed hadn’t started yet. The gunfire would begin again soon. He made a clear target with the fire sword in his hand.
Orson threw the sword up through the skylight, which fractured from the heat and fell in pieces. He looked away from them, letting his armored hood keep the shards away from his face. Even so, he felt multiple pieces pummel his shoulders as they fell. Some of the pieces might have lodged themselves in his coat. If he survived, he really would have a lot of sewing to do.
Orson cleared the falling shards and looked up. His sword was still ascending. He accelerated the booster and flew through the gym’s ceiling, just as the next torrent of screams and gunfire started below him. He rocketed out into the open air, free of the building.
He reached out and grasped his sword’s hilt, before the sword of fire began to descend.
Orson slowed the repulsor and allowed himself an instant’s relief. He’d never burned himself an opening and flew through it without slowing down. He landed on the gym’s rooftop.
He found a spot that wasn’t visible from the ground, inaccessible to gunfire. He also scanned the surroundings, letting his HUD search for possible heat signatures from hidden Cobalt Nine. He saw none.
Then Orson waited. He knew it was only a matter of time before the fight came to him.
* * *
“Maros, we need you back here now.” Tucker spoke through the young Captain’s radio. Maros had left it active for his entire journey from the remains of the antique shop. His forces at the Visitor Center had kept radio silence, just like he’d told them to, but Maros had a bad feeling, all the same.
“I’m already on my way.” Maros wasn’t far now. The buildings around him were entirely dark, thanks to Tucker’s efforts, but he’d memorized the town’s layout. He knew he had only two more blocks to drive, two blocks along the park, before he took a right and traveled up the wide hill for a mile. Then he would arrive outside the Recreation Complex. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything! I think your forces missed a town council member. We’re getting calls from neighboring law enforcement. Most of the crowd believes Webster. They booed our Sight-Stealer like he was a bombing comedian. Gregory parked his flying machine at the loading dock and got through my chain barricade. Now your men are shooting at him in the middle of the townspeople, thanks to Goes countermanding my orders. I need you to maintain control.”
“Why would you need me, Master Nine?” Maros made his associate’s codename sound as mocking as he could. He pulled the Humvee away from the park and onto the hillside road, only one mile to go. “You chose your recreation area because you have it rigged. Isn’t that where you’re strongest? Get rid of him.”
“That’s exactly my plan, but I can’t leave this gymnasium until I have someone else to take command. Goes doesn’t have the brains of a senile rat. I almost have a riot on my hands, and if I go to kill Gregory, what then? If people learn about me because of your scheme, boy, Gregory will not be the only one to die tonight.”
Enoa was too late. She watched helplessly, as Orson rocketed through the gym’s skylight.
* * *
The Liberty Corps forces scattered. All semblance of order and discipline ended. Some ran for nearby doors. Others barreled up the stands. All of them searched for a way to go after the wayfarer.
Only a few militia troops had the foresight to remain on the gym floor. There were little more than two dozen left, mostly spearmen. Enoa didn’t know whether they genuinely remembered to watch the townspeople or if they just doubted their own ability to catch Orson.
It didn’t matter. With so few Liberty Corps troops left behind, the locals finally had a real fighting chance.
Enoa planted the projector on the gym’s floor. She’d seen tables here before, the ones that usually dotted the edges of the gym at sporting events. If she grabbed one of those, she could get the projector high enough to aim the film toward the blank white wall on the opposite end of the long room. Would the projector beam be strong enough to reach there? She didn’t like the idea of having to move closer, into the mass of remaining Liberty Corps and angry travelers.
“Enoa,” a soft, strained voice called her name. “Thank God you’re alright.”
Webster approached from the bleachers, supported by two of the Merry Men. Robin Hood followed close behind.
“Kelly!” Enoa ran to the Sheriff. “What’s happened to you?”
“Tucker.” Webster said. “He has some… I don’t know how to describe it. It sounds insane. He can make things out of metal using only his mind. He broke my hand. The rest happened when I tried to free town council.” The Sheriff stretched out her arms, each was still cuffed by one half of a pair of handcuffs. Lengths of broken chain dangled from her wrists.
“We nabbed a pair of bolt cutters from a maintenance room in the hall.” One of the Merry Men had spotted Enoa eyeing the broken handcuffs.
“Thank you for putting yourselves in danger to protect Sheriff Webster.” Enoa smiled at the Merry Men. “Orson and I found out about Tucker.” She briefly eyed the film projector, still in its case. Then she looked back to the chaos in the room, the Liberty Corps troops still patrolling the stands, the prisoners shouting, everyone ignoring her. “We need to get somewhere safe, and then I need to get this film playing.”
“That’s just it,” Webster said. “I have an idea. I have the login to the old Wintertide Festival App. We can upload your film there. Then anyone who still has a phone will see it, and Tucker can’t stop it.”
“I forgot about the app! Everyone has that. Aunt Su used to offer daily coupon codes on there.” Enoa thought about the mess of controls and systems at the Aesir’s dashboard. “I don’t know if I can digitize the film, but that’s a great idea, and we’ll be safe back on the camper.”
“That’s the Wayfarer One flying ship?” Robin Hood looked over Enoa’s head toward the Aesir. “It looked bigger on TV.”
“Yeah, but it’s pretty tough.” Enoa thought she recognized Robin and at least one of the Merry Men, but it was difficult to tell in the half-light and with their odd costumes. “I guess we’d better get to work. That app idea might be the best way to get the films to everyone.”
“Stop right there!” A Liberty Corps spearmen shouted. He and three others advanced, blades drawn. “You’re under arrest.”
“Get back to your camper,” Robin said. “We can stall them for a while.” He and the Merry Men turned away from Webster and began advancing toward the Liberty Corps.
“You need to come with us.” Webster called after them, but she didn’t have the strength to actually fight. Enoa hated watching largely unarmed people advance on the militia forces, but she saw few options.
“We’ll get this all figured out back on the Aesir,” Enoa said. Webster didn’t protest as Enoa’s free hand took her under the arm and guided her back through the gym and the loading door. Enoa grabbed the projector equipment. Her hand ached, gripping both the staff and the film rig. “Will you be warm enough?”
“I still have my snow camo.” Webster shook her torn robe. “I’ll be fine.”
“Oh! That’s what that is.” Enoa led Webster toward the Aesir. The camper’s headlights were still lit, and they were bright enough that Enoa didn’t immediately notice the three shapes standing next to the ship. “I thought…” By the time the three shapes could be seen, it was too late to run away.
Captain Maros and two of his Liberty Corps spearmen stood beside the Aesir.
“Good morning, Miss Cloud.” The young captain reached to his hip and drew his pistol. He aimed it at Enoa’s chest. “Good morning, Sheriff Webster. I’m not going to hurt either of you, but in return for your safety, you’ll be delivering the trove to me.”