24. A Year and a Day

Enoa found the Aesir unlocked. The camper was parked in the VIP lot where it had been sitting since Orson drove it down from the rec center, the week before. Seen in full daylight, Enoa got a closer look at the bizarre vehicle. It had once been painted black, but most of the paint had been burned or chipped away, revealing a chrome finish beneath. Some of the innumerable bumper stickers were likewise unreadable. Enoa eyed a few of the magnets and stickers that could be read. ‘My other car is a car!’ said one, ‘I survived the Blitzkrieg and all I got was this lousy sticker,’ read another. Enoa was trying to make out the writing on a sticker in the shape of a snowman, when the ship’s door opened ahead of her.

“How was your week?” Orson stood at the top of the camper’s steps. He held a small bottle and paintbrush. His hair was swept back away from his face.

“I didn’t take you for an artist.” Enoa didn’t see an easel or canvas or any sign of what Orson could be painting.

“I’m really not,” he said. “Come aboard, you’re letting the heat out. I’ll show you the new marker if you want to see it.” She stepped inside, and he swung the lever to close the door behind her. Then he led her to the Thousand-Point Compass. “Don’t go near it too quickly or it might throw off the paint.” He pointed to the top of the compass, the layer that detected Cobalt Nine.

Enoa leaned in. She saw that Orson had painted one of the four spikes at the end of that compass layer. He’d made a tiny crude rendering of the cloud in crescent moon symbol that now hung around her neck, her aunt’s key to the Dreamside Road treasure.

“It’s pretty basic, but I do them for all of the Compass points I explore.” He pointed to one further down on the device. Enoa saw the depiction of what looked like three crossed lightning bolts in front of a snowflake. “I fought a Nuberu in the north of Spain last summer. This row of the compass points to their freaky electromagnetic effects, among other things.” He pointed to another one, with the image of a long, dark object, shining light down on a mountaintop. “That one’s rough. It was my first one, after the fight with Thunderworks. I need to redo it eventually.”

“This is how you knew I was on my way.” Enoa pointed back up at the one that now bore her aunt’s symbol.

“Yeah.” Orson laughed. “It spun around and nearly smacked me in the face.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He waved his hand at her. “I’d much rather have it be you visiting than Tucker escaping his cell. Fighting with him is not something I want to do a second time.” Orson sat down in one of the Aesir’s plush armchairs.

“How’s your shoulder?” Enoa took the wordless invitation and sat in the camper’s couch, facing her host.

“Not bad,” he said. “For a knife wound. In a few months, it’ll just be one more scar and another crappy story.” He gestured to her left side. “How’s yours?”

“Fine. I’m mostly recovered from whatever weird fatigue I had after the explosion I made. Sorry I couldn’t help you and Kelly find the Cobalt Nine. How did that go?”

“It was no problem,” he said. “Webster rounded up a couple Deputies, and we drove all through the county. Every time we found a pocket of the stuff, we dug it up and removed it, unless it was in a wall or something, and then I melted it with my sword. They’re still looking for a way to neutralize it and turn it back into its trace metals. Sheriff Webster confiscated one of the Liberty Corps detectors, though, so that should help.” He massaged his temples. “But it’ll be a long while until they can give Tucker a real trial here or anywhere, really. That’s a whole legal nightmare. I have mixed feelings about frontier justice, but then again, you and I both know Tucker isn’t innocent.” He sat back in the armchair.

“So you’re really leaving?” Enoa looked around the camper’s cabin. Other than Orson’s painting supplies, most of the wayfarer’s belongings had been put away in the locked cabinets.

“Tomorrow night,” he said. “At closing ceremonies. Oh, make sure you go to that, by the way. There’s a little surprise for you.”

“I…” Enoa had always been at home in Nimauk. She’d never needed to worry about getting anywhere else. “I would still like to come with you, if you plan to visit the Island Hidden at the Date Line, if I’m welcome.”

“Are you sure you want to come along? I get grumpier and weirder the more you know me.”

“Weirder?” She smiled. “No offense, Captain, but I doubt that very much.” He smiled with her.

“The world out there is dangerous.” He pointed his right thumb at the Thousand Point Compass. “I’ve been led some strange places chasing the Dreamside Road. I can’t guarantee your safety. Tucker won’t be the only paranormal showdown we have on this trip. I’d bet on that.”

“Well, with Tucker and the Liberty Corps, you couldn’t keep me safe here, either. Nowhere.” Enoa thought of her now distant ancestors, those who lived and thrived before the European invasion. Their world had been full of wonder and power, a wide-open world of enchantment and danger. She dreamed of those days, of course she did, but now confronted with the wild present, she felt a twinge of fear.

“That’s fair,” Orson said. “Have you settled everything here?”

“Building insurance doesn’t really exist, anymore.” She shrugged. “But I had tarps fit over the remainder of my shop. I sold half my inventory, in bulk to other businesses. That will pay for either my rebuilding or my travel expenses. I put the rest of my inventory into storage, relatively cheaply. I leased the storage space for a year and a day. I think by then I’ll either be back here or be dead.”

“A year and a day?” Orson nodded. “Very ‘fairy tale’ of you. If you spend your savings on this trip, you’re really banking on us succeeding and finding real treasure.”

“Not really,” she said. “Lots of storytellers come through here. If I return after a year’s worth of adventures, I can market that, if nothing else. But maybe I will find treasure out in the world.” She laughed. The logistics were mostly behind her. Now, ready to leave, on the brink of adventure, she wanted nothing else.

“I hope your stories wind up being more lucrative than mine,” he chuckled. “I’ve had nothing but bad luck with that.”

“Well, you’ve been traveling for, what did you say, ten years? If nothing else, I’m sure we’ll find something.”

“Well.” He scratched the back of his head. “I’ve found some valuable knick knacks, sure, but usually not the kind of treasure that pays your bills or keeps food on your table.” He grimaced, his voice turning serious. “And it’s always dangerous. It’s always strange.”

“Hopefully, that won’t be much of a problem, not for long.” Enoa thought of the staff that waited for her with the rest of her luggage. “As soon as we get on the road,” she said. “I’m going to start watching the old films we found. I’m going to learn the power my aunt found, before me.”

* * *

“Did he accept the deal?” Orson arrived in the long, low hallway that sloped down into the Nimauk town office’s basement level. There was a closed door at the far end of that hall, with a bench across from it. Kelly Webster sat on this bench, reading a newspaper, one-handed. Her right arm and hand were encased in a thick black cast, covered in various colored ink signatures and well-wishes.

“He told the council he won’t finalize things without you here.” Sheriff Webster set her folded paper aside. “He says he knows the deal was your doing.”

“I really doubt he called to say thank you.” Orson arrived beside the bench. “What do you think, does he have some weird parting threat he wants to make?”

“He’s hardly spoken to anyone all week,” she said. “He’s one of the few people in town who actively has an attorney on retainer, but he wouldn’t even call for her. Only you.”

“Well, that’s just fine by me. I really need to talk to him before I leave town, and I’ve been putting it off. I’ve been in no mood for stressful experiences since that freakazoid stabbed me.”

“I don’t blame you.” She reached down beneath the bench and retrieved a thin manila folder. “Before I forget, here’s everything I could dig up about the late Archie Grant. I’m not sure I would’ve found anything at all if you and Enoa hadn’t provided his name. I have some local newspaper records, but otherwise he’s a ghost. No regional phone book listings, nothing in the remaining digital records I can still access. Either he lived under an assumed name, Archie Grant was an assumed name, or he lived completely under the radar, even before the shutdown.”

Orson opened the manila folder and found only two papers inside, both scans of brief newspaper clippings. The first bore a picture showing a smiling clean-shaven man of around middle-age. Decades younger and beardless, he looked little like the image Sucora had provided in her film.

Both articles were taken from the Nimauk Valley Gazette.

The first was dated February 4, 1984:

Tourist Guesses Exact Number of Fat Pawns in Jar!

Archie Grant, a tourist vising our annual Wintertide Festival, has guessed the exact number of our local beloved confectionary in the annual charity guessing game. Mr. Grant guessed the exact right number – 937! Fat pawns have been made locally in the Nimauk valley since 1865. Fat’s Candy has supported this community for over a century and run their annual guessing game since 1926. No one has ever had the privilege to guess the exact right number of Fat Pawn candies!

But this strange happenstance got even stranger! Another competitor, who asked not to be named for our reporting, had guessed 935, and challenged the fairness of the competition. Fat’s Candy’s local reputation is beyond reproach, but Mr. Grant kindly agreed to a run-off Fat Pawn guess between himself and the challenger. In a twist no one could have imagined, Mr. Grant succeeded in exactly guessing the number of Fat Pawns a second time! He accompanied this second guess with a very generous donation…

Orson glanced to the second scan. It was a brief letter to the editor about authentic Nimauk cultural representation in town events, dated September 7, 1988. This one Orson did not immediately read.

“These were the only references to Archie Grant I could find,” Webster said. “You said Sucora claimed Grant resided in the Poconos, but that’s almost no help if his name doesn’t appear in the remaining records I can access from Nimauk. I plan to get in touch with the authorities in the other two counties on the passenger train line, but that will take time.”

“I hope if he has a real next of kin, you find them.” Orson set the folder back on the bench. “I’ll pass this along to Enoa when I see her again.”

“That would be great. It was kind of her to give him a resting place in her family mausoleum.”

“Enoa thought her Aunt Su would want that,” Orson said. “If you find his people or if anything else happens where you need us, I’ll leave the satellite line of my business manager. He’s able to contact me.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m certainly going to keep trying to find Mr. Grant. He gave his life, in part to help this community.” Webster stood up from the bench. She drew a key ring from her belt and unlocked the plain door.

“I’m guessing Tucker wants me alone?” Orson asked.

“He hasn’t said so much as two words to me all week.”

“Okay.” He walked through the door and into a small antechamber, set between the hallway and the modified holding area, created for prisoners in solitary confinement.

Tucker looked through a thick window in the door on the opposite wall of the antechamber. Orson could see nothing but the man’s face. He offered a small nod and walked into the center of the room. Behind him, Webster closed the antechamber door.

“So,” Orson spoke, knowing the microphones on either side of the cell widow would let them hear each other. “What do you want?”

“I want to talk. I haven’t had a real conversation about the truth of the wider world since the shutdown. I never broke cover. And today’s the first day since our fight that my captors haven’t had me medicated. I want to talk before you leave, as you inevitably will.”

“You wouldn’t have been drugged that long if you didn’t put your damn metal literally everywhere. Fine, we’ll talk. But for every subject you want to discuss, I get to ask you a question of my own.”

“Agreed.” Tucker returned Orson’s slight nod. “Do you have any knowledge of the Northeast Alliance? The supply chain into Nimauk is dying. In another year, maybe two, even my old connections wouldn’t have kept us on the priority list for supply distribution.”

“I’ve been out of the states for the better part of a year. I don’t know anything about the current political structure other than the four alliances trying to rebuild the states, Northeast, Gulf, Great Lakes, and Pacific.”

“And the Liberty Corps,” Tucker said. “They’re filling the void for a lot of lost people. If the alliances don’t act quickly, there will be a militarized IHSA growing right under their noses. There isn’t a town in eastern Pennsylvania or New Jersey that they haven’t visited to make friends and make alliances.”

“Is that why you joined with Man Bun?” Orson hadn’t expected Tucker to be this forthcoming. He’d already half-answered one of the things Orson had wanted to ask him. “You went the way the wind blew?”

“Partly,” Tucker said. “The reality of the current world has been creeping in for years. Even with my Cobalt Nine traps, it’s been getting harder to stay aware of large groups trying to enter town. With me in here it will only be a matter of time before a desperate raiding party from the starved Midwest gets through the meager law enforcement defenses. And if that doesn’t happen, it’s only a matter of years before the food gets scarce. The Alliances talk about rebuilding, but everything I’ve seen tells me that we have years, at most, before we go off the cliff, so to speak. Then everyone will have to face the truth that the world as we knew it is gone.”

“If you were honest with these people, you could’ve been their greatest protector. You could’ve been a real-life superhero. Imagine the good you could’ve done working with them openly.”

“I was here for almost ten years before Thunderworks,” Tucker said. “There wasn’t one member of the old Dreamthought Project who didn’t have an agent living near them and watching them. Sucora Cloud was my job. That doesn’t lend itself toward community trust.”

“But Sucora didn’t know,” Orson said. “Why weren’t you more active if you thought the actual Dreamside Road was here?”

“What makes you think I want the Dreamside Road to be found by anyone?” Tucker asked. “I couldn’t care less, not until I got the potential deal with Maros. Like I said, Sucora was just my job. I visited her shop every week. I made my reports. I lived here and worked where I was sent. I didn’t run for office until the world was already falling apart, and I didn’t start hiding Cobalt Nine where Cloud would sense it until after Thunderworks. By then, I knew I had to act, but if she felt me, she didn’t let on. Maybe the cancer had started by then. I don’t know. We were never close.”

“After Thunderworks, with the two of you together, you could’ve protected this town – two magic masters together. Now, even if you spend the rest of your life helping them, you’ll be doing it from captivity.”

“When you call it magic, you sound even dumber than you are.” Tucker laughed. “I’m not sure how much longer the rest of my life will be.” He grinned. This was the furthest expression possible from his amiable politician persona. The smile was half-mad, the look of someone who had spent their whole life drowning in lies, finally permitted to speak the truth. “There’s just enough Cobalt Nine in my body to make sure I always have a choice. Even the monitors they buried in my arms and legs can’t stop that.” He pressed at his forearms, where the lights blinked when he used his abilities.

“The captive Liberty Corps troops say you believed you’d be put in charge when they took over the town,” Orson said. “Did you really believe that too? How would stupid Man Bun be able to do that for you?”

“Kol Maros has connections all the way to the top of the Liberty Corps. If he hadn’t failed so miserably, he’d be in a position to fulfill his promises. As it is now, the whelp is about to fall from grace.”

“You think the Liberty Corps are real players, but I’ve never heard of them. This whole situation makes me feel like I was gone much longer than a year. Who the hell are they?”

“They’re a surviving remnant of the old Hierarchia, the bosses are, anyway. They wield the militarized government secrets that managed to survive Thunderworks, and they’ve salvaged much of the armament that wasn’t destroyed, as well. It’s taken them five years to build up a contingent of mooks to fight for them, but it was all just a matter of time. They have millions of weapons and their patriotic name. Every desperate person who can fight, every impressionable kid without a future, and every rabid wannabe-killer with a hard-on for an American Empire will fall in line for the Liberty Corps. The alliances better rebuild fast, or the Corps will have a hundred-thousand-strong fighting force, wielding Shaping, and other powers, and weapons the world hasn’t seen since Thunderworks.”

“After what the International Hierarchia did to you, why would you join the Liberty Corps? Don’t you have any self-respect at all?” Orson had seen nothing so far that made him think the Liberty Corps was any greater than the other petty bands of armed losers he’d been encountering for years. But Tucker was a real-deal operative, inarguably. He needed time to think.

“What other option was there?” Tucker laughed again. “After the Dreamthought Project did their stealing, everything left was scattered between almost twenty vaults all over the country. And at that time, I didn’t have all that much Cobalt Nine. I was their killer. I didn’t rank high enough to be properly weaponized.”

“Why didn’t you join the Dreamthought Project? They had their truce with the IHSA and the League of Nations. Why couldn’t…”

“A truce!” Tucker raised his voice loud enough that it echoed around his cell. “If the Hierarchia was bad enough to flee and rob, why did they make a truce? If they were so powerful, why did they live for thirty years under a truce? Why did they abandon dozens of children to experimentation? The Dreamthought Project saved their own asses, and they succeeded because the Hierarchia had already amassed the most powerful collection of items this world has ever seen, objects that could destroy this world a hundred times over. My one joy in all of this was knowing I managed to kill just one member of their project. Grant and Cloud are dead. And Cloud’s death was even better. I’m sure the experiments they did got that cancer started inside her.”

“I knew members of that project,” Orson said. “And cowardice doesn’t represent those people or their actions. Sucora Cloud left a message for Enoa. She said she thought they got all the kids out. I can’t speak for Archie, but they thought all of you were saved. I believe they would have worked to save you too, if you’d let them. Just like I believe at least some of the people of Nimauk are decent and would have fought alongside you, if you gave them the chance.” Tucker turned away from the window. “I have one more question before I leave you and your foaming mouth alone.”

“You can leave now.” Tucker kept his back to Orson. “You’re not what I thought you were. How does someone who was totally ostracized by his own community keep such naiveté? You were cast out. You were a throwaway, collateral damage.” He laughed. “That’s what you were supposed to be when Damien Cyprus used you. I know your story, Gregory, even if I didn’t recognize your face when I first saw you a week ago. You were collateral damage who fought back, but you’re still hopelessly naïve.”

“One last question,” Orson said. “Then I’ll let you decide whether you’re going to take the deal and help this town you’ve hurt so much in exchange for a comfortable captivity or… whether you’ll take the other way out.” Tucker did not speak. “I need to know the particulars of the Dreamside Road. I’ve been searching for over a year and have no real information.” Tucker still said nothing. “If I find it, I will use it to make sure that the IHSA and the Thunderworks and the people who hurt you never return to this world. What’s in the trove?”

“I have no idea.” Tucker returned to the window and gave another of his mad grins. “But I’ll tell you one last thing. You’ll find much worse than me if you try to seek out the Dreamside Road.”

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