“If you completed the transmutation,” Sucora said. “That’s the first step. Everything builds on that. That is the fundamental foundation to everything I learned and everything I’ll teach you. Take your time and only move on when you’re ready.”
Enoa didn’t know whether she was ready. Was the small amount of water she’d manipulated enough to move on, if only just to see the steps that lay ahead? This was the shortcoming of her pre-recorded training style. Enoa, ultimately, would be the final judge of her own progress.
“I want to take a little time to explain what you just did,” Sucora said. “I waited on purpose, because I’m afraid if I relate the theory of how Shaping works, it might take you away from your ability to actually do it.” She waved to the camera, waved to Enoa across the years. From her fingertips, water appeared in the air, drops of water that danced and wove between her fingers, bobbing up and down as they went, as if marching. Then the drops of water faded away, with brief, but visible, bursts of vapor.
“Some people learned better once we had a theory about the Shaping, what it really was – and that was the whole point, the IHSA wanted to quantify all of the anomalies they found across the world.” Sucora lifted her staff again and held it horizontal in front of her. With a slight whooshing sound, the staff collapsed back into a small handle. “I appreciate the merits of explaining mysteries and learning, but I have the best results when I feel like I’m tapping into nature, like I’ve found a secret.” She smiled. “Magic, if you like that name.”
Enoa assumed that the practical part of her lesson was complete, at least temporarily. She dried her hands on the towel she kept in her workout bag, and she turned back toward the screen.
“At the end of our project,” Sucora said. “It became the belief of the IHSA that most of what we know as magic, is actually, simply, an influence the human mind can exert on the bonds between the molecules and atoms around us, that we tap into the energy in the world, the power that exists everywhere. Of course, this doesn’t explain why most of us need to specialize in an element, or rarely, a handful of elements.”
Sucora raised her hand. The water drops coalesced again and resumed their little marching dance.
“When I say elements, I don’t mean the classical four or the periodic table. I mean the basic types of bonds we wielded in our studies.” Sucora closed her hand and the drops of water let out a burst of steam. When the steam cleared, Enoa saw the water droplets had all turned to ice. The ice melted away, and in a second burst of steam, the water transformed again. The steam spun in a slow, lazy circle above Sucora’s head, like a rough astronomical depiction of some distant galaxy.
“This is Anemos,” Sucora continued. “Greek for wind, even though that’s not really what this is. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, that a lot of the western culture that’s taken over is Greek and Latin-obsessed, even when it makes absolutely no sense.” She rolled her eyes, sarcastically. “Here’s how I reconcile it – Anemos is ephemeral and elusive, wind to water to ice, the constant cycle from sky to earth and back.” She drew her compressed staff. “Even this.” The staff extended. “Pressurized air.” She spun the staff. “Anemos is versatility, like us, like our people. The Nimauk’s embrace of change taught me a power that, let’s face it, is way more useful than the lugs I worked with who spent their days throwing rocks at each other.” She laughed, and Enoa laughed with her.
“I think it’s cooler too.” Sucora swung the staff through the air. “So, what do you think? Would you like to learn more?”
* * *
“Can we talk, a minute?” Orson asked. He found Commodore Augustin waiting for the Thopter when it returned to the Solar Saver crawler. Unlike the interior pad where the Aesir had landed, the Thopters parked on small helipads that extended horizontally from the crawler’s sides. The pads retracted back inside the crawler, once the Thopters had landed. “We need to go through some more details.”
“Yes.” She eyed him with an expression he could not read. “Yes, we do.” The Thopter pilot handed Augustin a thin file that the Commodore did not look at. “My office?” She didn’t look at the pilot, either.
“Sounds great.” Orson forced a smile. She nodded and led him away. Orson shifted his grip on the temperature-sealed case that still held his omelet and toast, ever since he’d left the Aesir. He’d hoped he’d finally have time for his breakfast, but he also hadn’t expected an opportunity to speak with Augustin. He assumed she’d be too consumed with the day’s events, the damage to the Outrider, and the disappearance of the Outrider’s escort.
Commodore Augustin entered one of the external maintenance passageways and wound along the outside of the bazaar. Orson had, over the years, encountered individuals who claimed special skills at reading people, knowing body language, even feeling moods in others. Orson had no such skills and could only wonder what Augustin’s response would be to his intention of investigating the archers’ claims.
Regardless, Orson wasn’t one to let himself be cowed by anyone’s displeasure. He’d known the luxury of true independence for too long.
“I rejected the top-floor office,” Augustin said. “It seemed better to me, somehow, that I would be surrounded by everyone who makes this operation possible, and by the machinery of the crawler.” They arrived at the end of the access hallway, and she unlocked a narrow door.
Augustin’s office was small, like most rooms aboard the crawler, but it maximized its space. The walls were lined with a complex filing system, with rolling carts full of individual drawers of files, like an adjustable miniature library. Her desk had a few personal touches, framed photos, and a vintage typewriter. Her window gave a modest view of the fields outside.
Orson noted that it had begun to snow again, and the local grasslands were slowly being buried. Orson was normally nonplussed by weather, but this consistent snow, following him everywhere, felt stifling. The grass still peeked through the slushy accumulation, but the white skies promised more precipitation. Orson wondered what would happen to the people slogging through the traffic, outside.
“Please, sit down,” Augustin gestured to a cushioned metal chair on the opposite side of her desk. She took her own seat.
“I do have some good news,” she said. “The Outrider’s security detail has been found about twenty miles back along the highway. Their truck’s been sabotaged, and all four officers were bound, but they’re unhurt.”
“That’s really good news,” Orson said. “It’s a cold day to spend tied up outside.” Orson removed his sword from his shoulders and sat, sheathed blade and his food case in his lap.
“Not too cold,” she said. “The archers left the heat running for them.”
“Well, they’re consistent,” Orson said. “They haven’t hurt anyone, and that’s really affected my attitude, but I’m sorry if my wording sounded like I’m on board with the archers. I figure there’s got to be some specific motive on their part. It might seem crazy to us, but…”
“But it’s serious enough for them to go to such lengths.” Augustin nodded. “I don’t disagree with you, Captain. You have no reason to be sorry. It’s difficult, though, after three bombings and today’s hijacking, to remember the Wuyar Archers are anything other than a problem to be solved.” She sighed and sat back in her chair. “I’ll send a page to Chief Morita, see if he’s free to chat, now.”
“Sounds good.” Orson considered saying more, launching right to the heart of his questions. He was still tired, emotionally drained from his ordeals in Nimauk and with the Liberty Corps pursuit. Even after a decade of adventures, those sagas had left him with a spiritual fatigue he was struggling to suppress.
He’d never been a political mastermind. His shrewdness was an acquired trait. He realized he didn’t know enough to boldly ask questions, but he had no hope of quickly resolving the archer mystery without his questions being answered.
“You heard my conversation with the archer,” he said.
“I did.” Augustin returned his gaze, still unreadable. Orson hoped she would offer something on her own about the names given by the archers or how she’d listened to the conversation, in the first place. She didn’t.
“Those names,” he continued, “Sabres Unlimited, Rojas Massacre, something about your deal with Mississippi? Ugh… let me start over. The first step I take in my jobs is motive. If there’s some antagonistic force, what do they want? Do you know what these archers want? I didn’t read every word of your report to Pops. I’m sorry if I missed something.”
“You didn’t miss anything,” Augustin said. “Their lack of motive is why you’re here. You have a history of handling really convoluted, difficult situations and untangling them, but you’re also good in a fight. I expected something strange from this because… Hm. I don’t understand the archers. They have put themselves in so much danger. Chief Morita has a very disciplined force. They have a secure paycheck and potential to live with minimal fears in a chaotic time, but…”
“The archers threaten that life openly,” Orson added. “They’d probably be treated better if they were just poor, desperate people looking for a score.”
“Exactly.” Augustin nodded. “I don’t want to put our personnel in that position. They’re good people. I love all our people. Well, by and large, but I know from myself, it’s hard to be level-headed when you’re getting hit this close to home.”
“I think everybody’s like that,” Orson said. “But, this might be more reason to take those archers seriously. They’re willing to be in constant danger. Imagine what would happen if the wrong person got ahold of them. They’re facing a situation where they’re constantly in danger, for no money, so far as we know, but they also have hurt no one.”
“I don’t disagree with your logic,” she said. “But it’s hard to follow through with that. I don’t know anything about a Rojas Massacre, but I don’t see how the potential roadway project – something that’s years away – or our negotiations to cross the Mississippi could attract this attention. And Sabres Unlimited have been wonderful to us. When you agreed to investigate all of it, my gut reaction was to think, ‘why is Gregory taking their side over ours, over what we’re trying to build’. I get your point, but that’s way too close to home.”
“Who are they, the Sabres?”
“They’re a global outreach group, or they used to be global,” she corrected. “They started as an organization devoted to worldwide fellowship by developing security capabilities for people in outlying areas. It was a little patrician and old-world patriarchal – but they approached me when I started looking into building the solar saver crawler and helped me.”
“A group about worldwide ‘fellowship’ calls themselves the Sabres?” Orson raised an eyebrow. “They picked a name that sounds awfully like a secret society or a mercenary crew. Do these security capabilities involve the movement of lots of money and lots of armed people?”
“No, no,” she said. “It’s more about education. They do just as much with what they call ‘civilization building’. They work on infrastructure, like roads. They build homes. They help establish farms.”
“I grew up near farms, and I never saw any sabres or swords of any kind, back home,” Orson laughed. “Still a weird name.”
“Well, the name comes from their origins in helping establish community protection. There’s no point having civilization, if you can’t protect it. And be that as it may, they were invaluable to me in starting this venture. They played a vital role in locating and… procuring the base transports for the crawlers.”
“They helped you… procure them?” Orson asked. “Would I be going too far by suggesting that their help and the procurement might have been, uh, morally ambiguous?”
“It was legal salvage,” she said, firmly. “They found an abandoned surplus yard, saw items they needed and knew we also needed rare machinery. They had the location. We had the labor force. It was a mutually-beneficial arrangement, but they are still the reason we have all of this, and they’ve asked for nothing since our initial bargain but a low rent space to do their community outreach, as we travel.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, that is a tricky place to be.”
“It is, as I said, way too close to home. It’s like the archers pointed a finger at a member of Adelyn’s family, and you were open to that possibility. I’m sorry if I was less receptive to your methods.”
“Do you…” she continued. “Do you really believe that a formerly global organization known for aiding the poor, actually building society from nothing, would massacre people?”
“Do I think the whole organization could be like that?” Orson shook his head. “Probably not. But do you have any idea how many hiding-in-plain-sight plots I’ve run into? Literally my first adventure happened because I was framed for a crime by a greasy, but very loved local businessman. My own father believed him over me.
“The latest adventure I had involved a plot between a militia with old IHSA tech, conspiring with a member of a town’s council. A lot of the town and their annual festival guests were held hostage, and that includes the legitimate law enforcement.”
“You and your team have given me no reason to doubt you,” Orson continued. “But in my experience, it could go either way in terms of these Sabre people. The archers could be nuts. But there could be something to what they’re saying. I don’t have anywhere near enough facts to make a reasonable guess.”
“But what do you plan to do?” She sat forward and placed her elbows on her desk.
“Go talk to them,” Orson said. “Be honest and nice and see what I can learn.”
“That’s a dangerous idea.” Chief Morita announced himself from the doorway. “Their support in the community is unimpeachable. Questioning them on the word of the archers would be difficult for your investigation and us for blessing it.”
“Bad PR,” Orson nodded. “Okay.”
“Beyond that,” Morita said. “It’s no secret they enabled this. Everyone with a job here and a livelihood knows about them. It’s actually dangerous.”
“Okay,” Orson said again. “Then I’ll combine my two investigations. I need to learn how the archers are getting in here, how they’re getting at you. So I’m going to interview managers or owners of every business with advanced access to maintenance passages and such. If I happen to swing by these Sabre people, then what can you do?” He shrugged.
“That won’t be popular,” Morita said. “But I have no other suggestions.”
“I guess we’re settled.” Augustin nodded. “You have our blessing, Captain. But please, be judicious. Be careful of how delicate everything is. Everything we’re building hangs by a thread.”
“I understand.” Orson adjusted his coat and collected his sword and his breakfast. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat my brunch before I get back to work.” She nodded. He stood. “Oh, one more thing. The archers obviously caused major property damage, but what would you do if we find out we are dealing with murders, or even with a massacre?”
“What do you mean?” Morita asked.
“What’s your procedure for major criminals?” Orson asked. “I saw your labor policy for shoplifters and petty crimes, but what do you do with someone who’s committed a felony?”
“We’ve never had anything more than a non-lethal stabbing,” Morita said. “My team is very proactive, and we delivered the accused in that case to the Great Lakes Alliance.”
“That’s a great record, and I hope you maintain it, but if there’s a well placed, difficult-to-try conspiracy,” Orson said. “People with a great public persona, what would you do? What will you do? If you’re at it long enough, here, it could happen.”
“I think,” Augustin said. “That your run-in with Cyprus Corporation may have jaded you.”
“So you do know my story!” Orson laughed without humor. “Think about it. If just suggesting that these Sabre people committed some crime is dangerous, how dangerous will justice be?”
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that,” Augustin said.
“Indeed,” Morita agreed.
“I’m all for the crazy archer theory, too.” Orson stood. “But…” He shrugged. “Food for thought.”
* * *
“Ugh!” Orson made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, as he came aboard the Aesir. “What’s with the humidity? It’s swampy in here.”
Enoa was pulled back from the mental glade, yanked out of her focused trance. She watched the single droplet of water that hung, suspended in the air between her fingers, vanish into steam.
“Don’t worry about the amount of water yet.” Sucora spoke in a soothing, level voice. “Just focus on maintaining it. You’re making it…”
“Oh shit,” Orson said. “Oh no, I’m so sorry!” He tried to sneak around her on his way back to his room, but she stood and shut off the film.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been at it since you left, anyway.” She felt a strange numbness, mentally and physically, like she’d just woken up from a long nap.
“You’ll have to tell me how it’s going, if you’re not too busy.” Orson walked to his room and dropped off his coat and most of his other gear. He returned carrying his temperature-controlled case.
She watched him pass by and sit down at the cabin table. “You still didn’t eat?”
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Good thing I ate overnight and had some cereal this morning. It’s been a pretty unfulfilling day.”
“Tell me about it.” She sat down opposite him.
“Bad, huh?” Orson brought out his omelet and the disposable plate from the brunch. He began to eat.
“It’s weird. It’s like having to mentally be in two places at once. It’s like I need to be awake and asleep at the same time, but not sleeping, because I’m still working. When I was eleven, my friend Megan tried to learn to sleep with her eyes open to prank her brothers, and she tried to get me to learn with her.”
“Did you learn to do it?” He took a bite from his toast and grimaced. “Soggy.”
“No, I never learned it,” she said. “But it feels a little like that.”
“Ew,” he said. “I wouldn’t like that, at all.”
“I don’t like it very much, either. I’m not sure if I’d be doing this if… I’m not sure I’d be doing this if Aunt Sucora tried to teach me while she was still with me. But after the conspiracy in Nimauk, I feel like I have to, like it’s my responsibility to learn.”
“I guess I understand.” He stood again. “That reminds me. I gotta get a message out to Pops’ folks for this whole thing with my investigation.” He walked to the front of the cabin and sat in the driver’s seat. He hit three switches at the long-range comm.
“Frosty’s Finest, LLC, no one is available to take your call,” a prerecorded voice answered. “But please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”
“Wayfarer’s Day Job, this is Wayfarer One,” Orson said. “Tell Pops he needs a new message. Everybody knows it’s him. Anyway, I hope you’re all doing well. Job’s alright, but I need a hand with something. Are you still compiling newspaper records? If you are, I have a few searches for you to make.”
* * *
The Safe Home for Retired Heroes was spread across more than one hundred buildings, most of them one-story, small structures. Few offered more square footage than Kol Maros’ apartment had. They were homey enough, though, sturdily built miniature ranch homes, but Kol had always viewed them as somewhat patronizing.
Max led them up the ramp into his unit. Kol and Duncan followed after him, clutching at most of his notes and paperwork. The overall mood had not brightened during the final leg of the train ride. Max had hardly spoken, since the discussion of their oath.
But this did not bother Kol. He was too consumed, remembering and replaying the events of the last weeks. Should he have stayed leader of Newtown and never pursued the Dreamside Road? Was that where his mistakes had begun, or were there ways he could have maneuvered the Nimauk situation without failing or compromising himself? Could he have seized Enoa Cloud and her property, justly? Could his forces have secured the Dreamside Road, or whatever relics Sucora had possessed, without his faustian bargain with Tucker. Kol didn’t know.
Max led them inside – or, he began to. He stopped when he noticed the small stack of mail that had been placed through the slot in his door. He leaned sideways and picked it up.
“I never get…” he said. “Oh.” He tore open one of the envelopes. “This is mostly official information from the Liberty Corps. Baron Weatherhold’s office had the local division drop off forms for me, as your representative.”
“What is it?” Kol and Duncan asked, at once.
“They’ve moved up your hearing.” Max slid to the side and looked at them over his shoulder. “It’s in six days.”