20. Advanced Beginner

Orson carried a lot of weapons.

It was rare he ever completed an adventure or finished one of his odd jobs without claiming some ‘useful’ souvenir from the experience. He’d started this practice by accident. He’d added item after item to the assortment of oddments he carried. Not all of them were weapons, but many of them somehow kept him alive.

Somewhere over his decade-spanning idealistic crusade turned treasure hunt, he’d started collecting on purpose. He’d gotten sentimental. Maybe it was all of his brushes with death, all the times someone had tried to kill him or hurt him or silence him, but he remembered each and every souvenir. He remembered each story, each destination on his journey.

Orson thought about his makeshift arsenal while he waited for the Liberty Corps to reach the roof of the gym where he now hid. He wasn’t totally sure how they would reach the roof. He assumed at least some of them would take the roof access stairwell, so he stood behind the stairwell opening. Any attacking troops would have to exit the stairs and turn completely around to see him.

But the Liberty Corps could also choose ladders or ropes or something else he hadn’t thought of. Orson had long ago learned to keep an open mind. Usually, it was better to see what his enemies could do before he made a move.

Orson even feared that the Liberty Corps might destroy the whole building, blow it up, or burn it, like Enoa’s shop. He listened and did not hear the sound of a large number of people on the move. He assumed the Liberty Corps would not explode the entire building and everyone in it, just to take a shot at him.

So Orson took a quick catalog of his weapons. He’d intentionally left his explosives behind. He was aiming for no property damage on this one. He had instead packed his full collection of non-lethal tchotchkes. Most importantly, he’d packed his Colchean man traps, his mobile stink set, and his kazoo. The mini solar cell, the one he used to fly his boot, could also power a number of light and non-lethal electric attacks.

Orson had been wearing his gloves on and off all night, but now he affixed the wiring from the cell into the trigger controls built into his left glove. It would’ve been life threatening and professionally embarrassing if he’d attempted to unleash his sunspot light blast, only to find that his controls weren’t plugged in.

Unfortunately, his mask HUD let him know that his power cell was already down to 62%. Normally, that would last him a month before he even had to worry about a recharge, but he wanted to save enough power to fly continuously. He didn’t want to be stuck on the ground with Tucker and his metal powers in play.


The rooftop stairwell opening exploded, in a shower of wood and metal and plaster. Sparks scattered in all directions. Orson fell back. He caught himself on his left side, careful to keep his burning sword’s blue blade away from the building’s surface. He didn’t need to deal with another fire. Orson jumped back to his feet.

He hadn’t heard anyone on the steps. His mask hadn’t shown any explosive agents on the other side of the door.

The Liberty Corps must have fired an explosive device from the bottom of the stairs.

The troops, a dozen or more, charged from the gaping hole in the roof. They were fully armored, helmets on, guns ready. Two of them spun, lights glowing from the ends of their rifles.

“We’ve got you now.” One of the troops yelled.

“Oh no, you found me!” Orson raised his left hand, palm out, in mock surrender. He waited just long enough for all of them to turn. Then he squeezed his eyes shut and triggered the solar cell in his belt.

The cell sent a blast of power through the apparatus inside his jacket and out through the hidden wiring that lined his left glove. The emitter sent out a 10,000-watt burst of light.

Every Liberty Corps soldier went flash blind, their vision obscured by a powerful afterimage. Some of them opened fire. They’d already aimed at him before they’d lost their sight. Orson ignited his boot, just a burst, enough to jump away from the bullets.

He had only a few minutes until the Liberty Corps troops would regain some vision. Then he’d likely have no choice but to do them harm. It would be them or him. He had little time and no extra power to waste.

Orson charged into the crowd of blinded troops, fourteen in total. He swung his sword, slicing the ends from lances, cutting guns in half, removing blades from knives and swords. Some of the blinded soldiers had enough foresight to fight him. Orson met their attacks with electric bursts from the solar cell. He was incredibly thankful their helmets didn’t adjust for his light attack. He shocked some with charged bursts from his left glove. Others he struck with his elbow or his fist, anything to knock them all down onto the rooftop. Some in their blind state knocked each other down, smacking into each other like foul-mouthed bowling pins.

Orson had no time to celebrate. Another squad of troops charged up the stairs, shouting. He didn’t know if they’d been holding back on purpose or if they were only just arriving. How many of them had decided to come after him and leave the crowd alone?

The man at the front of the line was a spearmen, a full head taller than Orson and much broader in the shoulders. He saw Orson and laughed. This trooper had been waiting to go up against the sword of fire. This trooper was confident he was the man who would teach the traveling clown some respect.

This trooper was wrong.

Orson dodged the man’s spear. Then he raised his right boot, drove his foot into the man’s armored chest, and ignited his booster.

The repulsor drove Orson back a step and threw the spearman down the stairs, screaming. He fell into the man behind him and into the man behind him and so on. A whole procession of troops yelled and fell backward, tumbling away.

Orson laughed, but not for long.

He scanned the rooftop for heat, looking for the Cobalt Nine. So far, he’d seen nothing, just the flattop gravel on the roof.

But then the whole surface beneath Orson’s feet was lit with the blurred red and yellow and orange signature of heat. Tucker’s will had awakened a circle of roof beneath him.

Orson needed to rocket away. His position had been compromised. It was time to go.

An error message appeared in front of Orson’s eyes, sent to him by his mask’s HUD.

It read, “You are now beneath fifty percent of your solar cell’s power. This message is a courtesy. Please be careful.”

Orson tried to blink away the message. Beyond the lettering, he could see a few of the Liberty Corps troops starting to get up. Hadn’t he disabled the error messages? He would’ve sworn he had. Damn updates had gotten to him again. The message didn’t budge.

Orson tapped at the side of his mask. The error vanished. His vision cleared, but it was too late.

Tucker attacked, sending a metal spike up through the roof, right into the side of Orson’s left boot. He triggered his right boot in response, just in time. He flew back, but the metal spike tore away a chunk of sole out of his other boot. If he’d been even a heartbeat slower, the metal would have met the instep of his left foot.

Orson tapped at his mask again. He needed to disable the error messages. He couldn’t have them sneaking up on him in the middle of a fight. What point were they if they got him killed?

But he didn’t have nearly enough time to get through his mask’s menu. A whole volley of blades, nine total, flew out from the roof, aimed up at him. Orson didn’t know how the councilman knew where he was, once he’d left the building’s surface, but his aim was true.

Orson dove to the side. He barely maintained control with his single booster. He almost spun down at the ground. The Cobalt Nine spikes soared away over his head, disappearing far above.

But as soon as the first round of metal blades had failed, Orson saw a flash of red, as heat lit up the entire side of the recreation center, only feet to his right.

Another round of metal spikes flew free of the building in all directions.

Orson dodged them all again by throwing his body through another torturous corkscrew. Afterwards, Orson purposely aimed back toward solid ground. He needed to find somewhere to land. He couldn’t afford to waste more solar power.

Tucker had begun his attack.

* * *

“There’s no treasure here.” Enoa released Webster’s arm. Then she stepped between the other woman and the Liberty Corps troops. She set down the film rig, got a firm grip on her aunt’s staff with her left hand and used her right to grab Orson’s stun box in her pocket. “I don’t know where they hid the Dreamside Road, but it isn’t here.”

“Don’t waste time.” Maros clicked off the safety on his pistol. “I saw the empty library. I saw your footprints, yours and Captain Gregory’s. Now lead me to what you found.”

“Library?” Enoa managed a genuine laugh. “That was old home movies. You came here for that? You did all of this for nothing.” She laughed again. She laughed because she knew, no matter what happened, Maros had failed. He had gone to all this trouble, clearly months of work, for no reason.

“I’ll need to talk with each of them privately.” Maros nodded to the two troopers flanking him. “Take them.”

Both of the spearmen advanced. Enoa felt Sheriff Webster step away from her, but she didn’t turn to look at the older woman. Instead, she sank into a crouch, her left side and the metal staff facing forward. Her right hand was still in her pocket, clutching at the stun box.

One of the two spearmen circled around her, either headed toward Webster or trying to flank her. Enoa didn’t wait to find out. She rushed at the other spearman, the staff pointed forward. The metal did nothing special when it hit the spear, and the Liberty Corps man laughed at her. He batted the staff aside and reached toward her.

Enoa pulled her hand from her pocket, primed the stun box, and then stabbed the little weapon into the spearman’s unarmored armpit. She pressed the activation button.

The man convulsed and shook. He writhed and fell backward away from her and the borrowed stunner. The man twitched, sliding through the icy slush on the ground, even without the stunner pressed to his flesh.

“Don’t come any closer.” Enoa pointed the stun box back at Maros. She glanced over her other shoulder, looking for the second spearman.

The other man advanced toward Webster. The Sheriff held a large rock in her unbroken hand. The spearman was too wary to immediately attack, but Enoa could see the exhaustion in Webster’s motions. She didn’t have much fight left.

“I’m assuming the Nation Industries electro-pulse guard was a gift from Captain Gregory.” Maros motioned to the stunner Enoa still held. “Did he tell you they’re only good for a single burst, per charge? If he did, excellent bluff, Miss Cloud.”

Enoa did not respond. She had nothing to say. Here she was, faced with the man who had destroyed her home, who had burned her whole life away. She had nothing approaching the quasi-military training he’d likely gone through, but he didn’t want to kill her. He wanted her help, but she wanted nothing from him but justice. Justice or revenge, truthfully, and she’d take whichever she could get.

“There was no reason this had to happen this way.” Maros shook his head. “All I want is to protect this place and rebuild. Everything I do is for the good of this nation and her people.”

“If you plan on attacking me,” she said. “Please just do it. Don’t force me to hear your lies and rationalizations.”

“I’m not lying.” Maros frowned. His shoulders slumped. He no longer stood with the obsessive purpose of the militia captain. Now he revealed the lost, tired young man, only in his early twenties, still unprepared for the realities of the wide world. “I’m…”

“Enoa, run!” Kelly Webster yelled. Enoa heard the Sheriff’s voice calling from far over her shoulder, but she didn’t have time to do anything. The rock Webster had been brandishing at the Liberty Corps spearman flew past Enoa and struck Maros in the shoulder.

Despite his armor, the strike from the rock and his distraction were enough to send the young captain stumbling back, slipping on the ice and mud in the parking lot.

Enoa didn’t consider running or hiding. She didn’t even consider returning to the Sheriff and aiding her friend. No, she had only one thought on her mind, fighting back against the man who had destroyed her home, who had taken away the only life she’d ever known.

Enoa rushed at Maros, before the young captain managed to regain his footing. She didn’t consider otherwise. She’d already begun running as soon as she’d seen the rock connect.

Enoa struck Maros, beat him with the staff. She didn’t know any magic or weird government ESP, but this was her only weapon. She wasn’t particularly strong even with the solid metal in her hand, but she was fast enough to hit Maros again and again as he struggled to regain composure on the uneven footing.

Enoa hit him eleven times, most in the chest, striking him with the sides of the staff and jabbing him with the odd forked ends at its point. She had no plan but to fight, to hit him and to keep hitting him. She didn’t think about what he’d do when he eventually regained his composure and his footing, driven to new purpose by anger and pain from the strikes that had landed between armor plates. Enoa’s attacks fell into a rhythm, almost a trance, like the Nimauk meditations and mental exercises her aunt had taught her, all breathing and purpose, everything focused on the present, with no fears for the future.

Something strange happened, something unexplained, something magical, something Enoa would never have believed before the night of surreal adventure she’d just lived.

A miniature explosion flowered from the edge of the metal staff, like the air around the device had combusted. Enoa didn’t expect the force of the blast or its recoil. She was driven back to the snowy ground, her legs and lower back suddenly drenched in slush.

But Enoa didn’t feel the worst of the blast. No, the brunt of the energy had unloaded on Captain Maros. The explosion shattered the young captain’s chest armor. Then the force of the blast threw him backward. The pistol fell from his hands, and he came to a skidding stop fifteen feet distant.

“Oh my God!” Sheriff Webster yelled.

Enoa did not respond. Her entire body had gone numb, all at once and completely, from her head to the tips of her toes. Her vision narrowed too, and she barely noticed, her mind still meditative and entranced and distant. Enoa tried to stand and immediately fell to her knees. She’d spent everything in that one burst of power, all her strength, all her will. She didn’t have long before exhaustion carried her away.

Before it did, the little metal bracelet she now wore projected a second hologram in her face. This one addressed her, directly.

You are not Sucora Cloud!
Welcome (new user) to the GARNET System!
Congratulations! Your focus is most impressive!
RANK: Advanced Beginner
LEVEL: 2 (estimated)
SHAPE: Anemos
MODE: Training
(Please return to MAIN MENU to input new user name.)

“Advanced beginner?” Enoa read the words. Her mind was too foggy to guess what that meant.

“Enoa!” Webster called her name.

Enoa collapsed before she could speak.

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