Orson knew Tucker was leading him somewhere, somewhere away from the rec center. Whenever Orson aimed himself back toward the recreation complex, a metal blade would launch itself out of a park bench or the walls of the gym building.
He’d gotten lucky so far. He’d dodged everything thrown at him, but unfortunately Tucker was not his only concern. Just about every living thing outside the Nimauk Visitor and Recreation Center wanted to kill Orson. Ten Liberty Corps riflemen had charged at him, stumbling and sliding from the building the second before Orson touched back onto the ground.
The riflemen opened fire on sight. Orson hadn’t yet adjusted his bearings. He hadn’t been able to get a look at his surroundings. He hadn’t been able to properly scan for Cobalt Nine.
One of the bullets took Orson in the shoulder. It tore through the fabric of his coat but bounced off of the armor hidden inside.
Orson raised his left hand, closed his eyes, and let out another flash from the solar cell. The Liberty Corps troops yelled, blinded and disoriented. Orson took a brief glance at the tear in his coat. The bullet had left an actual gaping opening, one that flapped in the slight winter breeze. If Orson wasn’t careful, the whole coat would tear to shreds and he’d be left with nothing but the armor and framework underneath. If Orson didn’t die he likely had a full day of sewing ahead of him.
Orson ran forward into the assembly of Liberty Corps troops. He treated these like the forces he’d encountered on the roof, using his sword to destroy their weapons. He poured a little more power into his electric shocks and used more force as he hit them. None of this group put up much of a fight blinded, and soon they were all down. But this was only a fraction of Corps forces present at the rec center. If the remaining fifty or so rushed him at once, he’d never reach Tucker.
Orson did not have even a full heartbeat to relax. He didn’t have time to recognize the flash of red heat in his goggles before a spear of metal erupted toward him. His reflexes were quick enough that he instinctively threw himself to the side.
He regained his footing and took a look around. The main rec center was still in sight, its windows lit. He quickly scanned the building for signs of oncoming attack and found none. To his left was a small sitting area, with tables, benches, and a water fountain. Tucker had hidden one of his metal traps in the fountain. Orson saw the spike sticking straight out from just beside the nozzle.
Orson’s mask flashed red. He turned to the side, expecting another attack of spikes, sent at him from the gym building or from beneath a tree, or somewhere equally ridiculous.
One of the Liberty Corps men, trained in the iron shaping, had either recovered or was never blinded by Orson’s light flash. The man had summoned a small knife in a burst of heat. He charged forward.
The man nearly slammed the knife into Orson’s unarmored left calf, before Orson sliced the knife in two and drove his elbow into the man’s face.
“I don’t know who the Liberty Corps has teaching stealth.” Orson looked down at his latest attacker. “But running like you’re losing your pants ain’t it, pal.” The man jumped to his feet, but met Orson’s fist and landed back in the snow.
What an absolute nightmare. Orson needed to find Tucker before the incapacitated troops recovered enough for round two. If this fight went on much longer, Orson knew he’d have no choice but to actually harm the Liberty Corps forces, regardless of the negative effects it could have for the townspeople.
Another round of Liberty Corps troops advanced from around the side of the gym building. Under normal circumstances, Orson would have found some decent hiding place and attack these troops one at a time. But with Tucker throwing metal spikes at him out of basketball hoops and bird feeders, he couldn’t pursue his usual course of action.
Orson checked his HUD status symbol and found he had forty-one percent power remaining. He hated wasting more energy, but this group was larger, almost two-dozen troops, at least five with rifles. Orson raised his hand, ready to send out another blinding light.
But before he could, a new crowd rushed from the rec center. This group wore costumes, vampires and zombies and werewolves. A contingent of festival-goers had broken free of the gym and were rushing the Liberty Corps, brandishing makeshift weapons, baseball bats and hockey sticks, probably all items discovered in some back closet of the rec center.
Orson charged into the ranks of the Liberty Corps before they could notice the new arrivals. Another bullet took him in the coat before Orson could drive the fire sword through the barrel of the shooter’s rifle.
“You know what?” Orson charged the solar cell in his left glove, just enough to send a searing shock into the shoulder of an attacking spearman. “I really didn’t want to start a whole thing and actually hurt people, but I really should have packed my blaster. If I zapped one or two of you assholes, maybe you’d think twice before terrorizing any more small towns.” He seized a rifleman’s weapon and slammed the stock into the unarmored space under his chin. The man gasped and fell to the side.
Orson had succeeded in keeping the attention of the Liberty Corps crowd, even as the band of travelers began their haphazard attack on the outer band of spearmen. The majority of the remaining Corps force, seven spearmen and two more riflemen, surrounded Orson, all getting into position around him. What’s more, the riflemen stood to his either side, making it impossible for his HUD to predict both of the ballistics trajectories, at once.
“Everybody without a helmet blink!” Orson let out another blinding light. He could do no more than hope. He heard the yells from his targets, whether intended or not. Orson struck one of the riflemen with a jet from his boot, sending the other man tumbling away from him. The other shooter opened fire before Orson could reach him. The shots were haphazard. Orson couldn’t tell if the man were merely a bad shot, or if the light flash had blinded him. Orson threw himself to the ground, away from the spray of bullets.
The rifleman didn’t fire a second barrage. One of the travelers, a big, well-muscled visitor in a wolf man costume, charged from behind the gunman and delivered blows to the warrior’s back and neck with the curved edge of his hockey stick.
The wolf man had weight to his blows. He was strong, but he had no technique, no finesse, and the scattered blows from his hockey stick did nothing but keep the trooper off balance. The rifleman spun around. The wolf man had maybe five seconds before he got a stomach-full of lead.
Orson ignited his boot and used it to jump the distance to the Liberty Corps gunman. Orson lashed out with the sword of fire and delivered a strike to the gunman’s shoulder armor. The sword cut through the armor like butter. The Liberty Corps man felt the heat as the blade poked him. Orson had practiced this twist and did the man no major damage, but the warrior fell to the ground, howling. Orson arrived in front of the wolf man.
“What the hell!?” The wolf man rounded on Orson. “We tried to help and you blinded us too.”
“Sorry for that,” Orson said. “I appreciate the effort, but you didn’t leave me a lot of options, and it should wear off soon. I figure if I permanently maimed one of their guys, I’d only make things worse with these Liberty Corps people.” He looked around. The Liberty Corps troops were down, blinded or pummeled into submission. Mercifully, these fighters weren’t professionals.
“Take your friends and get out of here.” Orson pointed his thumb away from the rec center, toward the road and the town proper. “You’ll do the most good just by getting away safely.”
“We have every reason to fight too.” The wolf man sounded only angrier. Orson considered shouting back. He had no time to deal with the local tourists, but instead of yelling, Orson took a second look around. For the first time since the Liberty Corps had found him on the roof of the rec center, the outside world had gone quiet. Tucker had stopped attacking.
Orson saw little of the heat from Tucker’s metal abilities. He’d backed off. He didn’t want to be seen or discovered.
“You have absolutely no right…” The wolf man was still yelling.
“Actually,” Orson interrupted. “There is one way you could really help.”
“What?” The wolf man shouted loud enough that Orson couldn’t tell whether the other man was asking him how to help or if he just planned to continue his tirade.
“Do any of you have cameras or devices with cameras?” Orson looked around at the odd tourist cosplay conglomeration that had surged from the rec center to ‘help’ him.
“I do,” a skinny young vampire answered. “I’ve got a GoPro.”
“Good,” Orson said. “I need you all to chase me.”
* * *
Captain Maros awoke when the four strong hands hauled him onto the stretcher. Maros was soaked to the skin. The warmth from his body had melted the snow around him. The chill water had then seeped between the plates of his remaining armor, soaked into his clothing, and froze his flesh.
Maros shivered so hard it was almost a convulsion. His teeth chattered. A gloved hand pressed down across his mouth.
“Keep still, Kol.” Duncan removed his glove from his friend’s mouth. “We’re getting you out of here before that Cloud girl kills you.”
“Kills?” Maros looked down at the mangled mass of metal that had once been his breastplate. Beneath that, the tunic of his uniform was burned clear through to his skin, where his chest was visible, his flesh red and raw and burned. Seeing the wound, his body remembered the pain. His eyes watered. He fell back to the stretcher, and he bit his lip to keep from calling out.
“Listen close,” Duncan whispered. “I have a group of the boys keeping the Sheriff busy, just long enough for me to take care of you. Then we’re falling back. I’ve recalled everyone.”
“Falling back?” Maros grabbed Duncan’s arm. “No. No, we’ve worked too hard…” Maros looked to his feet, where another white armored officer had the other end of the stretcher.
“Kol, either the Dreamside Road isn’t here or it’s on that Aesir,” Duncan said. “We have a full scale riot on our hands and the police departments from four towns descending on this place. Either we back off or we gun down half the county.”
“We can’t…” Maros let himself fall back against the fabric of the stretcher. He let the pain wash over him, the searing in his chest, and bruises to his neck and back and shoulders from the fall. “We can’t give in.”
“We’re not,” Duncan said. “We’re just waiting until Master Nine kills Captain Gregory, just like you planned it.”
* * *
Daniel Tucker knew that Orson Gregory was headed toward him.
Tucker, former agent of the IHSA’s Dreamthought Project, had never gotten rusty. Even when the monthly check-ins from Montauk Command ceased and no more covert orders arrived outside his door in the dead of night, Tucker still waited, still trained. Once he’d been a single spoke of a global organization. Now, he was a one-man operation, a secret from the old world, still lurking, alive and strong and well hidden in rural America.
Tucker felt the metal, his metal, hidden in a hundred shadowy recesses of the recreation complex. Years ago, he decided that he liked his assigned post. He liked the scenery and the peace and even the people. Yes, he enjoyed the town of Nimauk enough to stay forever. He liked Nimauk enough to keep the town, even with the Liberty Corps breathing down his neck. He hadn’t enjoyed much in his life, not to this degree, and he wasn’t about to let anyone take that from him.
Tucker communicated with the metal naturally and fluently. The metal spoke to him and kept him informed, the same way most people receive subconscious sensations and information from their limbs. The metal was part of his mind, a true sixth sense.
Tucker knew when Orson was in the presence of Liberty Corps troops. He knew when the wayfarer was in conversation with festival tourists. He detected every motion from Captain Gregory. Tucker sensed vibrations, the energy that reverberated through the earth and through Tucker’s metal.
Tucker could always pinpoint Orson’s location from the footfall of the traveler’s strange powered boot. It was unique and made it very easy to locate the stranger, even in a large group.
Tucker felt the crowd of people, Liberty Corps members, surely, rush from the rec center and chase Orson. The wayfarer fled away from them as the crowd unloaded a hail of bullets in his general direction. Tucker could tell when and where gunfire had occurred, but his awareness of aerial projectiles was severely limited. Still, he had no doubt that the Liberty Corps squad had failed to subdue the strange traveler.
Orson kept running and running, away from the rec center, straight toward Tucker, himself.
Tucker hadn’t intended to reveal his skills, not even to most of his ostensible allies in the Liberty Corps. As of that morning, fewer than ten living people knew about his sixth sense, and he didn’t care to add to that number.
But Tucker had failed to kill Orson. Some gadget or ability of the wayfarer’s had allowed him to dodge Tucker’s barrage. He’d survived traps and attacks that should have killed him. These were techniques Tucker had used to kill special forces-level warriors, trained and paid killers, but they hadn’t worked on Orson Gregory. Maybe it was best if he met Orson and his Liberty Corps pursuers face-to-face.
Tucker removed his jacket and tie. He set them aside on one of the pavilion’s wooden picnic tables. Then he stretched. He stretched his physical body, his arms and legs and shoulders. He stretched his sixth sense, feeling the metal in the floor, supports, and roof of the pavilion. He felt the metal hidden in the path between the trees and hidden in the ground between the trees’ roots.
Tucker was a Journeyman Rank Shaper, the only person to ever master the IHSA manmade isotope. He was the only survivor, the only wielder. It had been many years since he’d fully used his sixth sense, and he almost relished the opportunity.
Tucker heard the yelling and shouting and gunfire, first in the distance. The sound grew louder and closer. Tucker felt Orson’s booted footfall in the lead. He sensed the crowd behind him. It was time.
Tucker had no interest conversing with Orson. He just needed to kill him. He reached to the metal, constricting its molecules in the ground beneath his feet. He’d skewer the wayfarer, kill him before the obnoxious traveler spoke so much as a word.
But before Tucker launched his attack, Orson and his pursuers charged into view. Tucker saw them. The crowd who chased Orson was not composed of Liberty Corps members.
These people were both tourists and locals, dressed as monsters, werewolves and vampires and spooks of all kinds. They brandished guns and spears, surely lifted from beaten Liberty Corps members.
And the other members of the crowd held cameras and phones and other video recording devices. All of these devices were aimed at Tucker.
“Tucker,” Orson said. “It’s over.”
* * *
“I knew you’d never let me get close to you unless you had me outnumbered and on the ropes.” Orson hoped that the crowd listened to his instructions and stayed well away from Tucker. Orson knew that the only nonviolent answer to Tucker was the Councilman’s fear of exposure. “I’m here to offer you an opportunity.”
“An opportunity?” Tucker relaxed his shoulders. He furrowed his brow. He visibly stepped back into the role of the concerned, earnest public official. “I’m afraid after your rabblerousing demeanor tonight, I am not interested in anything you have to say. I have every intention of calling for my Liberty Corps security to apprehend you and return these guests back to safety.”
“Are we still doing this?” Orson asked. “Come on. You’re standing here in this little picnic area while this wacky fantasy battle is going on. Why are you here if not to use your metal powers to attack me from a safe distance?”
“I’m not sure if you’re lying to these innocent people you’ve lured here,” Tucker said. “Or if you’re mentally ill.”
“Not lying and not ill,” Orson said. “Well, actually, I have this weird queasy feeling. I don’t know if it’s the danger or if it’s from the lack of sleep. I just really don’t feel like a whole battle right now because you’re a talented guy, Tucker. That’s undeniable. If you got ahold of me ten years ago, you would’ve made mincemeat out of me. Hell, even five years ago I would’ve had a rough time… Anyway, here’s my point, I know what the old Hierarchia was like. I know I can’t even imagine what they put you through, and I’m so sorry. I’ve been on the receiving end of their plans once or twice, and I don’t know what desperate, warped shit I might do if they had me for years.”
“Hierarchia?” Tucker said. “I’m not sure what you’re…”
“Get out of here, man,” Orson said. “Seriously. It’s a shame you threw away the home you had here to help the Liberty Corps look for buried treasure, but the jig is up. I can’t force the town to accept you back or forgive you, and I wouldn’t if I could. But it also falls to me to beat you up if you refuse to leave, so I’m giving you this last chance to walk away.” Tucker said nothing. He did not move. “Please. I’m tired. You must be tired. Let’s call it a night.”
Orson saw the red glow of heat from the metal hidden at his feet. He considered jumping back, toward the people he’d recruited and toward safety. He didn’t do this. Orson leapt forward, sword of fire still in hand.
A wall erupted from the ground, between Orson and the costumed crowd, a wall of solid metal, opaque. The wall stood ten feet tall and fifteen feet across, blocking passage along the path to the pavilion.
“I guess that’s a no.” Orson sighed and walked forward. “I didn’t expect anything different.”
“You think their video cameras are enough to force me from my home?” Tucker asked. “I’ve lived in this town for more than ten years. I know its people. The Hierarchia trained me for twenty more. Nothing will be known that I don’t want to be known.”
Tucker spread his arms and they began to glow, winking red and blue light. Liquid metal poured from the earth at his feet, oozing up over his body. Tucker was engulfed in metal. All that could be seen of him was the glow from his arms and from his legs, as well. The metal solidified, visibly, until Tucker was coated in a suit of armor. In the place of hands, long spikes extended from his arms.
Orson saw another flash of heat in his HUD, not from Tucker, but from the ground. An entire row of spikes erupted from beneath the concrete floor of the pavilion and shook the earth as they blasted out toward Orson.
* * *
Enoa’s head swam, her thoughts muddy and disjointed. Pain, she felt sharp, immediate agony in her left shoulder. She tested the fingers of her left hand. They moved, but slowly. Someone was touching her face, a hand, warm and calloused.
“Enoa?” Sheriff Webster’s voice came from above her. “Enoa, are you alright? Can you hear me?”
Enoa opened her eyes. She was still on the ground. Something lay behind her head, firm, but softer than the ground, a backpack or bag, maybe.
“What happened?” Webster brushed the hair out of Enoa’s face. “What did you do to Captain Maros?”
Maros? Enoa remembered the fight, the explosion. She remembered the magic. She remembered her magic, because surely that’s what it was. She’d made an explosion like her aunt, even the weird bracelet had known. Enoa leaned up toward the spot in the muddy distance where Maros had fallen after the explosion. The ground there was empty, visible in the growing early morning light.
“I don’t…”Enoa began.
“Sheriff!” A younger man approached, dressed in a Sheriff’s Department poncho. “The Liberty Corps has pulled out of the rec center. We’re processing the stragglers.”
“How are you, Mr. Nesta?” Enoa forced her eyes to focus on the man’s face, beneath his hood.
“What about Tucker?” Webster asked her Deputy.
“I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep,” Nesta said. “Sheriff, ma’am, I actually came here to tell you about Tucker. He’s fighting Captain Gregory. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”