Orson threw himself sideways. He used the boot to launch himself rightward, blasting away from the attack.
Before he reached the ground, Orson found Tucker waiting for him, already standing exactly where Orson had been headed. The man moved at an astounding speed, like all the metal in the ground was propelling him forward, in perfect, frictionless grace. Tucker extended both arms, blades pointed outward.
Orson raised his sword. He sliced the points free from both metal arms. Tucker made no sound. The burning cut to the metal seemingly did not harm him, and the metal on the rest of his body rippled and reformed until new blades appeared on the ends of his arms. But Tucker did not advance a second time.
“I heard of you, years ago.” Tucker spoke, his face still obscured by the metal. “After you fought Omega and Bolon and the Thunderworks, the rest of the Hierarchia acted like you were some unknowable force of nature, but you really have no special abilities at all, do you?”
“Well,” Orson considered this. “I’m a pretty clever guy, and I work out most days, so there’s that.” He shrugged. “But otherwise I’m one hundred percent homegrown human being without any other bizarre stuff going on.”
“Then the stories about you are lies.” Tucker laughed. “They say you faced the Supreme Commander of Thunderworks totally alone, blade to blade, but there’s no way you managed that.”
“That one actually isn’t quite true,” Orson conceded. “When I fought the General, he had his automaton bodyguards with him too.” He swung the fire sword. He aimed the strike directly at Tucker’s face, enough to send the metal wielder gliding away.
But this reversal lasted only an instant. Tucker’s metal armor thickened, a solid mass of spikes and blades. He finally had enough armor to overcome his clear wariness of the fire sword, and he rushed Orson again and at the same time formed more metal spikes from the ground.
Orson hadn’t expected the multidirectional onslaught. He ignited his repulsor again and blasted away. Anywhere on the ground was unsafe with Tucker’s unending barrage. Orson checked his power levels and was dismayed to find a low power warning waiting for him – only nineteen percent remaining. How had that happened? Now he’d need to use the repulsor strictly for its intended purpose, why he’d acquired the device in the first place. It let him do the kind of long distance jumping usually only found in comic books and video games.
Tucker was on him as soon as he touched back down, sending blades from the earth rushing toward him, still in his spiked Cobalt-armored shell. Orson took one of the metal spines in the coat. He felt the metal actually vibrating inside the fabric, searching for some crack or crevice in his armor. The metal was seeking an opening to stab him.
Orson yelled, no heroic call. He let all of his rage fill the sound. His time had been wasted too. He’d come all this way and found nothing but films and some other asshole trying to become a small town dictator.
Orson let loose on Tucker with his own barrage, striking the metal with the sword of fire. The metal gave way under the blade every time. He sliced through metal spikes and layers of armor, cutting deeper with every swing. Tucker’s ground barrage ceased as the Councilman’s focus was consumed with mending and adding layers to his personal armor.
Orson yelled again, howled and then laughed. Tucker had an almost unbeatable weapon when fighting on his terms. How can you fight someone when the ground isn’t safe?
“Do you want to know how I win fights against people who are on the sliding scale of magic skills and powers?” Orson advanced yet further. He batted aside spikes every time his mask’s HUD flashed red, fighting his all for the first time since he’d come to Nimauk. If Orson had to cut down Tucker to end the battle, well, Orson wasn’t willing to let himself be skewered.
Tucker did not answer his question. He sped away from Orson, trying to gain enough distance from the fire sword to once again unleash his ground spikes.
Orson didn’t let him. He jumped over Tucker’s head with another propelled burst from the repulsor. He struck Tucker’s armored side in a swing that could have cleaved the man in two.
Tucker’s mental instincts were instantaneous. The rest of his body’s armor poured toward the cloven opening burned by the sword. Tucker had to displace so much of his armor that his left shoulder and face were visible. Orson hoped this would happen.
Orson lashed out with his left fist. He had a practiced left hook, after years of using that fist to complement the sword strikes from his right hand. The fist took Tucker in the cheek, a blow that sent the Shaper staggering away, his eyes squeezed shut.
For a glorious instant, the metal liquefied again and began to fall away, pooling at Tucker’s feet. He fell backward in surprise from the blow, but then he regained his attention. The metal began to congeal across his body, reforming his suit of armor.
“Powers like yours are deadly and terrifying.” Orson smiled at Tucker. “But most of the time they’re just gimmicks. Under that metal, you’re made of meat and bone just like the rest of us.” Orson tapped himself on the chest. “And unlike me, you’re not a very good fighter when you’re too busy protecting yourself, are you?”
Tucker reformed the metal across his face and attacked from a distance, firing dozens of miniscule shards of metal.
Orson knew he needed to keep Tucker close. The metal wielder was much more dangerous from a distance. Orson let his HUD predict which shards posed a threat to him.
Then Orson jumped into the hail of metal.
* * *
Daniel Tucker had not been physically hurt by another person in over eighteen years. The metal was there to protect him. It was always there, only a thought away. His reflexes were precise, honed by his decades of constant training.
Once, his reflexes had literally been too good. Tucker had tripped while helping clean up the annual Nimauk Independence Day Cookout. He’d been moving tables with the rest of the officials and event volunteers. While helping to carry a long table with an intern, Tucker had slipped on a discarded rag. His reflexes took over, and the deposit of Cobalt Nine that always lined the inside of his clothing poured out through his buttoned shirt and solidified into a pillar of metal that caught his fall.
It had been difficult to convince the intern’s parents and the relevant authorities that the boy had suffered a nervous breakdown. But once Tucker was done with him, the boy genuinely needed psychiatric help. That had been the closest he came to discovery, but he’d evaded that, and he would evade Orson Gregory.
Tucker was a high level Journeyman in the old Dreamthought Project Garnet system database, Level 41, as of the final shutdown. He’d progressed since then, but had not sought out further assessments for fear of drawing unwanted attention. Level forty-one was one achievement away from mastery, one level away from the inarguable validation he’d sought since his earliest memories. He was unwilling to risk his stable life in Nimauk for that validation, but he had still formally mastered dozens of individual techniques for his arsenal, unique uses of his one-of-a-kind abilities.
Tucker used the Hailing Mortar, Vlad’s Cavern, and the Swinging Sidewinder. These techniques were quick and brutal, designed to impale. He aimed always for the gaps in the wayfarer’s coat, at his mask and between his legs.
But Orson dodged these assaults with seeming ease. He jumped away or cut away from all of these moves, always angling closer and closer to Tucker.
Tucker knew that the wayfarer had discerned the truth of things – that Tucker’s best offensive moves, the flashiest and the deadliest, were ranged attacks. He could kill up close, absolutely, but in the personal dance of blades and fists, he had nothing to counteract Orson’s fire sword.
And Orson never stopped advancing long enough for Tucker to really come at him with one of his more complicated combination moves. There was no way he’d manage the Big Glad Wolf or the Feet Eater, not a chance, not even worth trying.
Tucker needed a move with enough metal to fight Orson blade-to-blade, but also at an advanced range. But that would mean using the Gigadeath, the master move he’d been practicing on and off for twenty years. Could he…
Orson ignited his boot again and came leaping across the pavilion space toward him. Tucker held him at bay with another volley of the Hailing Mortar, but only barely. None of his techniques could be used twice. Orson learned. This time, none of the metal shards reached his coat. Orson dodged most and batted the others out of the way.
“Oh yeah!” Orson called, after the last metal shard melted away on the sword of fire’s edge. “That’s what I’m talking about. Just like they used to do, back home, at Fenway.”
Yes, Tucker decided, there was something perfect and poetic about killing Orson Gregory, longtime enemy of the IHSA, with his ultimate technique. Butchering Orson would be his final deed before achieving mastery. None of his old trainers or teachers still lived. Tucker was certain they’d all perished in the Thunderworks purge, but he would know, and that was enough.
Tucker sent a last volley of Hailing Mortar, knowing it would give the wayfarer yet more time to showboat and make self-satisfied remarks. Then he called the metal back to him, all of the Cobalt Nine in range. He ordered it from all over the pavilion, from the trees, the meditation garden. He called the metal from everywhere he could reach and maintain focus. He called all the metal he could control, and more.
When Orson batted the last of the metal shards away, Tucker allowed his wall to fall, the one that he’d made to obscure their battle from the view of the bystanders. Tucker didn’t know how he’d cover up what he was about to do. Maybe he’d say Orson was actually colluding with the Liberty Corps and he, Daniel Tucker, had saved everyone.
When young Captain Maros had approached him, seeking a formal partnership, Tucker had thought he’d received a golden opportunity. Here was a way to maintain the fraying supply chains into Nimauk, solidify his control over town, and keep outside control to a minimum. But that plan had failed. Perhaps a new arrangement was in order, one where he would keep no more secrets, one where his powers would be in the open and cherished and celebrated. Why had he never before considered this possibility?
“Why are you just standing around, Tuck?” Orson approached him, cautious, clearly wary. “Are we done yet?”
“Soon.” Tucker laughed. “But first, I’m going to show you something no one’s ever seen before.”
* * *
Enoa insisted Deputy Nesta lead her forward between the trees, toward the pavilion and toward Orson’s battle with Tucker.
“He’s saved my life half a dozen times since I met him last night,” she’d said. “I won’t abandon him now.” Nesta had relented, and they arrived, along with a full procession of spectators, travelers, locals, and even law enforcement.
They all arrived at the edge of the pavilion just in time for the wall of Cobalt Nine to liquefy. The metal melted into a pool on the ground and ran away, though not downhill, but rather toward the pavilion, toward Tucker.
“Stay back, everybody.” Orson waved to the crowd. “He’s doing something new.”
Enoa got a good look at the sword of fire. Suddenly, she was transported back in time. A memory rose to the forefront of her mind, an experience she’d totally forgotten. She remembered watching the news coverage from Norlenheim, from the final battle with Thunderworks. Aunt Sucora had been with her, still strong, and some local friends, as well. After the Thunderworks attack on the eastern seaboard, they’d broken out the old antenna and gotten some of the strongest reception in town.
Enoa remembered the grainy footage from the Thunderworks battle, the towering ships raining fire, the many bizarre powers revealed to the world, the carnage. But she also remembered the sword of fire, the blue burning light. Enoa remembered seeing Orson – it must have been him – charging across the old television screen, locked in combat with Thunderworks automatons.
Orson noticed her staring. He offered a small wave.
“How are you guys?” Orson didn’t turn away from Tucker, a second time. He watched as the metal-coated man stood still, summoning his Cobalt Nine.
No one could reply. Tucker had finished gathering metal.
The Cobalt Nine formed in an orb around Tucker, freestanding and growing. Everyone in the crowd shut up and backed away from the scene. Orson raised his sword.
“I just want you all to know,” Orson addressed the crowd. “I’m likely going to need to say some really messed up stuff to this guy, and I’m sorry for that.”
“Whatever you’re gonna do,” Webster called to him. “You’d better get a move on.”
Tucker’s orb changed shape, growing into a great form, a fifteen-foot form, with rippling, spiked metal limbs. The shape grew until it scraped up against the roof of the pavilion, sending splintered wood in all directions. Orson jumped out of the way of falling timber. The crowd fell back even further.
“You shouldn’t have come here.” Tucker’s muffled voice came from the amorphous head of the metal monster. “I will go to any lengths to protect this town.”
“You’re starting to sound like your Sight-Stealers.” Orson shouted up to him. “Is this part of that play again? I guess we know who wrote the dialogue for…”
Tucker surged forward, sending a five-foot mass of undulating blades, down toward Orson. The wayfarer leapt out of the way, back from Tucker’s monstrous armor. The concrete shattered in a dozen pieces where the metal mass struck it.
“You had no idea what you were getting into, coming here.” Tucker shouted. “You forced me to reveal the truth. I always feared I wouldn’t be accepted after what happened to me, what I am. You made me show myself, but it will be worth sacrificing my privacy to protect my town.”
“Again,” Orson said. “I’m sorry about what happened to you, but really, do you have to spout this crap for the cameras? They don’t believe you.”
“I survived pain you can’t even imagine,” Tucker said. “And I’ll survive you, some lost outlaw who lies about being a hero. You have no idea.”
“No,” Orson laughed. “It’s you who doesn’t have a clue. To you, this is your master plan, ten-to-fifteen years of scheming and work. But to ME? I get into situations like this at least six times a year. There’s always a folk monster invasion or some conspiracy cult after a whatsit or some bizarre sorcerer on a rampage. This situation is tiring, but it’s nothing new. I show up. I figure it out. I stop it. And I’ve done this every other month or so for five years, for the five years since I personally fought the leader of Thunderworks. Tucker, your blob monster move is terrifying to the tourists, but to me, you’re just my January-February Bi-monthly Wacko. And I know exactly how I’m about to end this fight.”
Orson’s boast elicited quite a few cheers from the crowd, yet Enoa couldn’t help but notice how terribly small the wayfarer looked beside Tucker’s monster form. To her, even the sword of fire looked like nothing more than a blue candle, compared to the spiked behemoth Tucker had become.
Tucker howled and dove his entire metal form toward Orson.
Orson rose to meet him.