43. Freeway to Tomorrow

“Here’s what we do.” Orson spoke to Augustin and Chief Morita in the Commodore’s office. “Throw a shindig to celebrate whatever, but make it exclusive, no market time, no other bars or restaurants open, only invite a few people. Think of some symbolic reason. That’ll lure the archers in. It’ll be too much for them to resist. But I’ll be waiting.”

“No,” Augustin said. “There are countless reasons not to do that, Captain. I’m sorry, but that’s an awful plan. You’ll need to come up with something else.” 

“I didn’t want to stress this,” Orson said. “But have you two thought about the implications of how knowledgeable these archers are? Either you’ve got a spy or spies working with them, or they have some kind of electronic info gathering method in your system.”

“My staff has conducted numerous interviews of our own, Captain,” Chief Morita said. “The implication that the archers have a mole has not escaped us. Our investigation into the espionage scenario began well before you were recruited.”

“And what if the spy is a member of your own security force?” Orson asked. “Were these people members of your team before you started this solar crawler business you’re running, or were some of them more recent hires?”

“Captain Gregory!” Morita said. “My team, my close team, are people I welcome into my complete trust. We are brothers and sisters, now.”

“And I don’t mean to insult anybody,” Orson said. “But none of us know what the archers want. So I see this two ways, either we take drastic action to stop them without bloodshed, even if that means messing with your business model. Or,” he shrugged. “We get comfortable with the idea of some bloodshed happening, either toward the archers or your guests.”

“You’re being paid tens of thousands of dollars to give us a simple ultimatum?” Morita said. “I cannot…”

“Wait,” Augustin said. “Let him say his piece.”

“We need to get to the bottom of this, and we’re running out of time,” Orson said. “Something is going down, soon. So we need to put out bait the archers can’t resist, like I said, while also removing their potential casualties. All you need is a reasonable cause to have a big celebration and you’ll be all set. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Well, we just made two deals that would help us cross the Mississippi,” Augustin said. “I wasn’t planning on announcing it just yet, but maybe…”

“Think about it,” Orson said. “That should be the hardest part. Then all you need is a carnival-like event to clear your guests out of here and a private, small celebration, inside, that will draw in the archers.”

“Let me see if I understand you,” Augustin said. “You want to use my investors and advisors as bait to lure in our enemies.”

“Sort of,” Orson said. “To be clear, I really doubt the archers will attack you. They’ll head for one of the crawler’s critical systems. They want an opening to do real damage, but they also want an audience for their attacks. We’ll make them think they’ve got both.”

“Then what?” Chief Morita asked. “If we can’t trust anyone not to be a spy for the archers, and you already don’t trust the Sabres Unlimited, we have no resources to perform an arrest. Do you plan on a full force attack against the archers? My security team is just that, security.”

“No, don’t worry about that,” Orson said. “We need a real explanation, so I’m going to capture some archers. But I’m going to need some cooperation from the two of you to make sure everyone stays safe.”

*          *          *

The first time Enoa managed a proper anemos air to water transmutation, she did it by accident. She tried to replicate the conditions that caused the water to appear on the floor, just like Orson asked her to.

But this time, Enoa felt the sudden sensation of cool water arriving in her cupped hands. Something about her new focus, knowing she had a role to play again in her adventures, gave her the will to properly perform the summoning

Keep it up (new user)! Your control is improving.

     RANK: Advanced Beginner

     LEVEL: 4

     SHAPE: Anemos

     MODE: Training

Enoa snapped back to reality. Sometimes the bracelet’s holograms gratified her, made her remember the truth of her progress, however incremental it may be, but other times it pulled her away. It woke her up. She had no control. Why had she agreed to help Orson? Could she still back out? She had to get out of this. She had to!

Enoa dropped the water she held into the large measuring glass she sat beside her. She didn’t bother checking the measurement on the side of the glass. This was the only sizeable amount of water she’d captured, in days, and she hadn’t even wanted to catch it.

She yelled and tore the bracelet from her wrist at right around the same time a knock came on the Aesir’s door. Enoa jumped. She knew Orson still had some security measures in place, in case of an actual breach of the ship, but she was still alarmed by the message that had been smuggled into the crawler. Someone had taped the letter to the wall, only feet from the Aesir, and she’d had no idea. The front external camera had picked up video of an archer taping the letter to the wall, but it wasn’t enough to give them any new information.

The knock came again and Enoa rose to her feet. She walked to the dashboard and found the right external camera feed. A young woman stood outside, dressed like she’d just walked in from the snow, in boots, a fluffy coat, and a knit hat.

Enoa considered the possibility that this new arrival could be an associate of the archers, on some covert mission against the Aesir. She retrieved her staff, before answering the door.

“Hello!” The young woman waved a gloved hand. “I’m Nozomi Morita. I’m Chief Morita’s daughter.” She extended her hand. Enoa shook it.

“Enoa Cloud,” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” Nozomi said. “I noticed earlier that none of the younger family – or people close to the invitees – were on the guest list for the Freeway to Tomorrow event, and I thought it would be fun to put something together.”

“That’s a nice idea,” Enoa knew she should say more, but the training left her feeling distant, groggy, like she’d just woken up. Her mind was addled. Should she invite Nozomi aboard the Aesir? No, what if she wasn’t who she said she was. Freeway to Tomorrow? Was that the fake event Orson was putting together to trap the archers?

“Uh,” Nozomi said. “Maybe we can invite people from the caravan, if we can do it safely. It’s so hard to be open with new people now, but there have to be so many people like us in the caravan who must want a chance to enjoy themselves and get away from how crazy everything is now. I don’t know, maybe we can think about something we’d like to do. The only group winter thing I can think of is snow tubing, but we obviously can’t do that here.”

“I…” Enoa said. “I’d have to think about it.” Was this her chance to get away from Orson’s plan? No, that’s ridiculous. Imagine saying, ‘I can’t help you stop a potentially violent crime. I have a party to go to.’ What was wrong with her? She’d been quiet too long again. Way too long. Why couldn’t she just find something to say? She never had trouble talking to people before. Was this all from her training or had she just become awkward, after years of staying cloistered in Nimauk? She never had any trouble talking to her customers.

“Well,” Nozomi said. “I’m open to ideas.”

“Me too,” Enoa said. Why did she say that? That wasn’t helpful. Even if this somehow was a way for her to get out of her job helping Orson, she was messing that up. Wake up! Wake up! But she still felt the imagined grass at her feet, like the afterimage of a dream, lingering after awakening.

“I mean,” Enoa said. “Thank you for the invitation. I’m sorry for not being very welcoming! I’m training, right now, actually. It takes a lot of meditation and leaves me pretty groggy.”

“That’s cool,” Nozomi said. “I’m sorry if I stopped by at a bad time.”

“Not at all,” Enoa said. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. When I’m able to think clearly, I’ll see what I can come up with. Thank you for all your work! I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate it.”

“Does that mean I have your help the night of the party?” Nozomi asked, hopefully.

Enoa knew she could probably back out of Orson’s plan. She wasn’t ready to use Shaping. She could tell him she wasn’t ready. He would understand.

No, no, she decided. She had to try to help. She owed it to herself to take some control in this adventure, no matter what happened.

“I’ll try to help you put this together,” Enoa said. “And I’d love to come along another time, but I’m helping Captain Gregory the night of the party.”

*          *          *

“I acted in accordance with the requisitions charter and the recruitment decree’s extraordinary measures clause. While there is no doubt that the independent campaign into Nimauk was a failure, this defeat was driven largely by the instability of the expert associate, Daniel Tucker, as opposed to any direct reflection or deviation from Corps guidelines and instructions.”

Kol Maros took a deep breath when he finished speaking. He hadn’t memorized his testimony, but he had rehearsed it, saying most of the same words a hundred different ways. He said them again and again, faster sometimes, solemn other times. Duncan and Max sat on the latter’s couch. They’d been there for hours, coaching Kol and listening to him practice his testimony.

“Overly confident,” Max said. “You need to sound certain of your innocence, but also saddened by the loss from the terrible situation.”

“Ahh!” Kol yelled. “That’s too subjective. We’ve done this all day, and you still hate it.”

“You’re getting worse,” Duncan said. “You remember what you want to say now, but you’re talking like a robot.”

“What?” Kol yelled again. “How do I sound like a robot?”

“There!” Max said. “Your outrage. I like that. You should be professionally outraged by what Divenoll is putting you through. You need to capture your spectrum of emotions, real emotions. You’re still an empathetic person, Kol, and if you can capture how you actually feel, alongside a professional demeanor, you will be more convincing. Find your integrity.”

“Even if they do lock me away,” Kol said. “It’ll be better than this… this rehearsal!”

Max gestured to the trunk-turned-coffee table in the center of the room. “Have some water. Take a deep breath. It’s okay. We’re getting there.”

Kol knew better than to argue with his brother. He took a sip of water, holding the glass to his lips longer than he needed to, long enough to regain composure. He set the glass back on the table.

“Are you ready?” Max asked.

“Yes,” Kol said, and began again. “I’d encountered rumors of the Dreamside Road for years, in official communications, references I didn’t fully understand.”

“And yet you pursued these rumors,” Max interrupted, filling the prosecutorial role. “Didn’t you?”

“Only in my capacity as Newtown Division Captain,” Kol said. “Newtown territory includes a series of warehouses that provide storage for the eastern Pennsylvania region. One of these houses an abandoned International Hierarchia Statute Association records annex. This location received a glancing blow from a Thunderworks rocket. My efforts to catalogue the remaining records are well documented.”

“But this has nothing to do with your failed pursuit of the Aesir!” Max yelled in a gruff voice, totally authentic in sound, but one very different from the usually buoyant quality of his voice. “Get to the point.”

“I’m going to assume all of you are familiar with Daniel Tucker…”

“Please,” Max said. “Are you going to give us new information or are you planning just to waste our time?”

“Daniel Tucker occasionally left Nimauk to make sure his remote town was still included in the coastal supply trips. Eleven months ago, a series of bribes Mr. Tucker made to cover his tracks were brought to my attention, after a parcel courier witnessed Tucker wielding his Shaping to fight off an attempted robbery. Within my duties as captain, it was my responsibility to address any anomalies the old IHSA would have monitored. At the time of my investigation, I of course didn’t know Tucker’s name, only his Master Nine moniker. But knowing that and the odd metal abilities he displayed, I was able to develop an educated theory.”

“At which point you contacted Tucker and… what?” Max up threw both arms in an exasperated gesture. “How did you go from investigating him to working alongside him?”

“I made contact by telegram, using the same system Tucker operated to contact PennFreight for distribution. When he attempted to intimidate me, I asked him about the Dreamside Road. After months of work, I slowly developed a reluctant correspondence. I think his supply trips were becoming difficult. He was obviously risking exposure, trying to keep his little town supplied, so eventually he became open to a partnership.”

“And was it his idea or yours to dress your forces in Halloween getups?” Max asked.

“It was mutual,” Kol said. “Tucker wanted Nimauk’s independence and to maintain his position in town, without his past and abilities being exposed. However, it was obviously my responsibility to bring Nimauk under Liberty Corps protection, especially if the Dreamside Road or other vital IHSA salvage were hidden there. We decided that the townspeople would be more open to a temporary Liberty Corps presence, if they were faced with an outside threat, rather than our usual requisitions procedure. Given Tucker’s incredible capabilities, it was necessary to maintain our partnership, and I believe a permanent arrangement could have been reached if not for events outside our control.”

“And you believe that this absurd display of overreach fell within the requisitions clause?” Max asked. “I never…” A slight beeping sound came from Max’s pocket. Max withdrew what looked like a vintage, blue pager. “Duncan, please do me a favor and run in the office over there. I have a fax coming in.”

“A fax?” Duncan said. “Who’s sending you a fax, someone in nineteen ninety-seven?”

“Someone who is helping us protect my brother.” He gestured to the small walk-in closet, a space he’d converted into a compact home office. “Please, Duncan. You were always the fastest of us, and you can definitely run faster now than I can roll.” Duncan chuckled. He stood and walked to the other room.  

“Records report… Operative Divenoll!” Duncan returned to the living area with a small stack of papers in his hands. “You’re looking through leaked IHSA files. What for?”

“Do you really think it’s wise to issue requests about Divenoll?” Kol asked. “That could bring some difficult attention on us.”

“Yes, I do think so. There’s something I really need to see.” Max reached out for the papers. “Thank you, Duncan.” Max flipped through the papers, clearly knowing exactly what he was looking for. When he found it, he fell totally silent. He drew a single paper from the stack and read it.

“What is this?” Duncan asked. “You’re scaring us, Max. Come on.”

“This is what I thought,” Max said. “Maybe bad news. Maybe useful. As early as fifteen years ago, Divenoll was appointed by the IHSA to seek out records of the Dreamside Road. His vendetta against Kol is not some display of Liberty Corps fealty.”

“Divenoll is after me because I made myself a legitimate rival,” Kol said.

“Shit,” Duncan said. “We’re so screwed, aren’t we?”

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