39. Transmutation

Enoa and Orson took an access corridor back to the Aesir. They’d departed the gathering as soon as Chief Morita had marshaled his forces on the ground. The journey back had been brief and quiet. Orson had received a set of keys from Morita and a small pamphlet of information, which he read intently.

The access passage ran around the perimeter of the bazaar. It was lit by overhead lighting that cast odd shadows through the girders that arced between the walls.

Enoa listened. She could hear motion in the bazaar, but the soundproofed walls offered no hint toward the spirit of the guests, now certainly aware of their danger. Did every person in that market have somewhere to go, where they might be reasonably safe? What about the shop owners? Some of the more notable businesses had their own exits into the access passage, but they saw only one shopowner as they passed, a haggard-looking man in an apron.

“I’ll find out whether you’ve been approved for the private room, where you can train.” Orson led her back onto the Aesir and set the cooler of food they’d been given onto the table.

“Are you headed out to look for those archers?” She sat down at the table and drew her fruit plate out of the cooler. She’d put it together while Orson had been planning logistics.

“That’s the gig.” He walked back to his bunk.

Enoa ate a strawberry. For some reason, she felt more fear than she had at any earlier point of her adventure. Even the showdown at the Nimauk rec center had been such a fast-paced, desperate endeavor that she’d had no time for fear. But now, she feared the constant state of danger and chaos that erupted around her. Was life dangerous everywhere? She feared learning how to maneuver her way through the weird world.

Most of all, she feared the start of her training. She feared her own expectations, Aunt Su’s expectations. She wanted to learn. She wanted to have learned, past tense. She wanted herself established, her uphill climb of learning and uncertainty concluded. Had Orson gone through this, once?

He emerged from his room, dressed in his usual gear, with his armored coat, his repulsor boot, and his sword at his back. “For now, this is your designated safe area. I’m still not sure if I can raise the shields in here, but our duralumin hull is really strong.” He forced a small laugh. “Try not to blow anything up.”

“Have a good day at work!” She tried to sound genuinely enthused and mostly sounded manic.

“Yeah, let’s see what these outriders are like.” He walked to the dashboard and pulled out one of the commlinks. Then he gathered a handful of other devices and loaded them into his pockets. “Do you remember how to get ahold of me with the dashboard comm?”

“I do,” she said. “You still need to teach me how to use the handsets.”

“The controls are mostly the same.” He took his own breakfast from the takeout bag and transferred it to a small, refrigerated case. “Why don’t you check in after a couple hours and try to use a handset, see how it goes?”

“Okay.” She ate a piece of apple. “Talk to you later. Be safe.”

“You too.” He walked from the ship, allowing the door to cycle shut behind him.

Enoa finished her food. Then she changed. She had purchased workout clothing for her training before she’d left home, an assortment of lightweight tops and shorts and leggings. She’d also bought two new sweatshirts, cheesy, souvenir sweatshirts from one of the small gift shops on the outskirts of Nimauk. These had been spur-of-the-moment purchases, and she’d probably wasted money, but she also had no idea what her new training would entail, and just seeing the familiar Wintertide Festival logo transported her back to comfort and safer times.

Enoa retrieved the used yoga mat her friend Megan had loaned her. She spread this out across free space on the Aesir’s floor. She sat her staff next to the mat. She knew she couldn’t do anything that might damage the Aesir, but she wasn’t sure exactly what the staff did, so she thought it was better to keep her eye on it. Then she set up the film projector and screen, before looking through her aunt’s films.

She and Orson had separated the films that contained evidence of IHSA activities from those that were recently recorded, those that had been left behind for her training. The Hierarchia films were noticeably older and the interior of the cases contained a small letter I. The training films, on the other hand, were all numbered. Enoa struggled to find the number one film. She knew she should take the time to put them all in order, but she wasn’t sure when she’d have the energy for such tedious work.

When she located the correct reel, she loaded it into the projector and officially began her training.

In the push to gather evidence against Tucker, she and Orson had quickly distinguished the two types of films. She hadn’t watched any of the training set. Enoa expected to see her aunt toward the end of her life, already ill or soon to be.

The image that appeared, projected on the screen, showed the Sucora from ten or fifteen years earlier, the way she’d looked in Enoa’s childhood. She stood in front of her desk, in the hidden room beneath the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea.

“Hey, kiddo,” Sucora said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see this. But I guess if I do show you, you’ll probably already know the full truth.” She ran her hand through her hair, then long enough to fall to the small of her back.

“When I ran away from the Dreamthought Project, I knew I would spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, but I never thought I’d have to fear normal people finding out what I’d been a part of, or worrying how you would learn about me. I thought my secrets were mine to keep… If you’re watching this in thirty years, a number of old IHSA files were just leaked, several thousand files, actually. It changed every one of my plans. If anything came of these events, I obviously don’t know, but this was the Tobias Nation leak, if that means anything to you. None of those files reference me or the Dreamside Road, but so many things have happened I would never have believed. I never thought…” She trailed off.

Sucora Cloud reached to the desk behind her and picked up a small silver object around the size of a television remote. She held the object out in front of her and waved it through the air. The object grew, extended, in the blink of an eye.

It turned into Sucora’s staff, Enoa’s staff.

Enoa ran forward and stopped the projector. She picked up the staff, held it, ran her fingers along the metal. She could feel no obvious seams or places the object might collapse.

Eventually, Enoa gave up and set the staff aside. She resumed the film.

“If someone leaks what we did,” Sucora said. “It was a different time. It was complicated. Who would ever think the IHSA would lose? But people wouldn’t understand, and I want to tell my side of the story, even if you’re the only one who will hear it, Enoa. And I want to show you the incredible things I’ve learned.”

Sucora propped the staff against the desk. She reached out her right hand, palm up.

A circle appeared in the air above Sucora’s hand. The circle moved, undulating slightly, like a bubble. Light reflected off of it.

Enoa thought the film had skipped. Sucora hadn’t moved. She had shown no signs of physical effort. Sucora had made something from thin air with as much strain as it would have taken her to flip a light switch. This was effortless control, magic by almost any definition.

“I’m not sure whether I’ll keep this power to myself,” Sucora said. “Or if I’ll try to teach you, if you’re interested. I’ve struggled with this your whole life. But… if you want to learn – let’s get started.”

Sucora extended her left hand. The bubble changed, twisted into a stream of running water. The water flowed, arced in the air between Sucora’s hands. When it reached her left hand, it swirled in a circle, once again becoming a transparent bubble.

“First, let’s look at how to transmute water from the air around you.”

* * *

Max spent the train ride verbalizing his legal strategy and writing it down. Duncan wasn’t sure whether the elder Maros brother was trying to explain his argument for the hearing, whether he was practicing his wording, or if Max was simply speaking his thoughts aloud.

“Ultimately,” Max said. “It comes down to whether we can convince the disciplinary board that Kol was within his rights in seeking out notable salvage from the IHSA. If we can do that, and they aren’t biased against him due to the amount of money spent on those aircraft, he should be acquitted.”

Duncan tried to pay attention, regardless of Max’s purpose, but he found that attention repeatedly drawn back to Kol. The younger brother had seldom spoken since their departure from Newtown. He stared out the window at the cold rain that flirted with becoming a snowfall. He watched the empty landscape, the scattered houses, the few vehicles on nearby roads.

“I think they’ll let me do the talking.” Max sat opposite them, in one of the booth spots that could be raised to accommodate a wheelchair. Every free space was loaded in his notes and paperwork. “But you should start thinking about your own statement, Kol.” The younger brother did not respond, his eyes still fixed out the window. “Kol, are you listening to me?”

“I…” he replied. “Of course, I am. I’m thinking about what I can say… say at the hearing.”

“What’s wrong?” Max asked. “You look like you snuck a third cookie. We can’t have you in your guilty place. There’s too much to decide.”

“I’m thinking about Enoa Cloud. We…” Kol rubbed at his eyes with his fists and took a deep sigh. “She lost her home because of the Liberty Corps. Just like I did. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m no different than that lieutenant, earlier, who threw me out.”

“Lost her home?” Max’s posture went rigid. His expression lost its energy, leaving him stone-faced. He reached for one of his files. Kol fell silent again, but now his attention was focused on his brother. Duncan also did not speak. He didn’t know what to say, either, and he knew better than to discuss certain Corps business with a civilian, even a veteran of the former Armed Forces.

The train sounded eerily quiet without Max’s voice. Few other passengers took that train, since the Liberty Corps had commandeered the rail line. The noises from the train’s machinery and the distant murmur of other people’s speech fell away into the background. Suddenly, Max flipping through files and pages became the only relevant sound. Duncan glanced at Kol and found his friend equally stony-faced.

“Your report.” Max drew out a page. “You state that the, and I’m quoting here, the ‘Sight-Stealers’ set Enoa Cloud’s home and place of business on fire.” Max set the relevant page on his lap. “Is this the truth?”

“The Sight…” Kol began. “Yes, yes, that’s the truth.”

“And you thought that it was reasonable to help this Tucker bamboozle the town of Nimauk in exchange for his help?” Max wouldn’t take his eyes from his younger brother’s face. “Is that right?”

“Tucker was the only thing keeping them safe,” Kol said. “He made sure they got most of the supplies they needed. That’s the only reason I discovered him, because he’d threatened someone to keep Nimauk in a supply loop from Philly and killed at least once to stop those supplies from being stolen. It seemed like…”

“And that justifies arson?” Max interrupted.

“No,” Kol said. “But…”

“That justifies displacing this poor young woman?”

“No,” Kol said. “I…”

“That justifies the potentially lethal force taken by your men against anyone who opposed them, when they were operating in secret, with no mandate, no lawful rule but the law of might? Do I have a clear picture of your thinking?”

“Now come on, Max.” Duncan sat forward. “You have your safe home, but it’s a rough world out there, now. It’s not like it used to be with civilized governments posturing and shooting spitballs at each other.”

“I remember you in diapers, Duncan.” Max did not look away from his brother. “Don’t try to talk down to me, like I’m a child. What oath did you swear, the two of you?”

“Our oath?” Kol raised his head.

“Yes,” Max said. “I couldn’t find a copy of it in your paperwork, and that surprised me.”

“What about it?” Duncan had a crumpled copy of the oath in his carryon bag. It had been there for years, since he’d forced himself to memorize it before he and Kol had taken the induction exam. Duncan had a strong suspicion he didn’t want Max to read it.

“Does the Liberty Corps still swear by the Constitution?” Max asked.

“No,” Kol and Duncan answered, as one.

“How about the Charter for the League of Earth’s Nations? That has some real wisdom in there.”

“No,” Kol said.

“The Geneva Conventions? International Law? Local Law? Basic morality?” They did not respond. He looked back and forth between the younger men. “Let me guess, your oath is to the Liberty Corps, itself, pure and simple, and whatever they tell you, goes. Corps Command could decide literally anything, and you would justify it and do it.”

“I’m not sure whether I’m staying with the organization,” Duncan announced. “But you’re not being totally fair, Max. The oath is just something that was instituted because it’s like the old world. What was there to swear on, a couple years ago?”

“Do you really believe that?” Max asked. “Any oath taken, just for the sake of having one, is no oath at all. Any oath taken without belief is no oath. Let’s be very clear, the Liberty Corps is not the military of the United States or of any other real nation.”

“Not everything the Armed Forces did was peachy, either,” Duncan said. “Same goes for all of our allies. We do what we have to do. I’m sure you did too, back when you were in intelligence.”

“I’m not arguing sainthood for myself or anyone I know,” Max said. “But there’s an inarguable difference between holding your morality and the innocent of your civilization in mind when you must navigate a morally challenging world and what the Liberty Corps is doing. I never burned down an innocent person’s home, just to get what I wanted. I will carry my failures with me, every day. The Liberty Corps dresses like we did and talks like we did, but you’re in a cult, boys.”

“Um.” A woman spoke from just behind Max. He started, surprised, and turned to find her there. He eyed her attendant uniform, blue, with a matching headband that was plainly designed to evoke a Liberty Corps rifleman’s helmet. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m very sorry,” Max said. “Just a heated discussion among family and friends. I apologize for the disruption.”

She looked from Max to Duncan and then to Kol. The younger Maros met her stare.

“It’s fine,” Kol said. “We’ve had a long few days.”

“Very long,” Max agreed.

“Of course,” she said. “Could I help any of you to some refreshments?”

“No, thank you,” Kol said.

“I’m all set.” Duncan tapped at the water bottle in the mesh holder on the side of his bag.

“I’d love a cup of tea, if you have it,” Max said.

“I’ll check.” She nodded and walked away, down the aisle.

“If I help you.” Max waited until the woman was out of earshot, before speaking. “If. Then you are done with the Liberty Corps.”

“Come on!” Duncan didn’t see much resistance coming from Kol. “We built Newtown Division. And regardless what oath we took, we’ve done good. We might leave, but we shouldn’t be forced into it.”

“I love you like family, Duncan,” Max said. “But I’m representing my brother. And if my brother wants my help with his hearing, this is my price.”

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