Kol woke up, all at once. He jolted awake, but he couldn’t reconcile his memories with his location or with the IV trailing from his arm. He pushed himself onto his elbows. He was in an infirmary room, small and private, with only one bed and associated monitors.
“Look, the mighty Shaper lives!” Brielle sat in a chair on the other side of the room, assorted paperwork strewn across a table, in front of her. “We keep a supply of Neurzodone, as a precaution, like the Hierarchia did, but we’ve never actually had a case of Thought Fatigue before you. I’ll send a message to Duncan and your brother and let them know you’re okay. They stayed here for the first two hours, but they both needed their rest.”
Kol remembered what he’d done, the defeat of his assailant, but the memory was hazy. It was like a flying dream, something unbelievable, something impossible to replicate in real life. He tried to feel the part of his mind that had unleashed the energy that saved his life, but he couldn’t.
“What happened to me?” he asked. “Where are we?”
“Secure medical center.” She set her work aside. “It took the better part of an hour to get a clear answer out of your attacker, and we didn’t know if you had more people after you.”
“Do I?” Kol’s attacker hadn’t explained himself. He hadn’t seen the man’s face. He knew nothing about him, except his fighting ability – almost certainly Liberty Corps.
“We don’t think so.” Brielle walked to him. She removed the IV from the port in his arm. “Your attacker is a Lieutenant in the Blades Corps, Jason Gilford. He’s been stationed here for over a year. We’re holding him in one of the high security cells on the other side of the compound.” She sat sideways on his bed and rested her hand on his. “Are you alright?”
“I think I am. I don’t really know what happened. I tried to fight him with his own iron and then… something else happened. I don’t know what.”
“We’re going to work on that.” She slid her hand to his forearm. “You must have done something incredible to exhaust yourself that way.” She squeezed his arm. “I am so excited for you! You’ve been working so hard and now you’re going to have everything you deserve. Kol Maros – master Shaper who found the Dreamside Road.”
“That man, Gilford, he told me I killed his brother, but that’s… that’s not possible. Why did he believe that? What are the odds he’d be here?”
“You didn’t kill his brother. His younger brother, Jerred, died when Operative Divenoll sent that dropship to find the vessel Aesir. It was an awful tragedy, and Gilford must have lost his mind, wanting someone to blame.”
“And he blamed me. How many other brothers or friends are waiting out there to kill me instead of Divenoll?”
“You’re safe. No one will get to you with me here.” She slid closer to him, her back leaning against him. She moved her hand to the side of his head, fingers slowly brushing through his hair. “I’m sorry you were attacked in this base, but I’ll make it up to you. I’m going to personally watch over you.”
“You’re my bodyguard?” Kol held her hand with his prosthetic. It was a reflexive gesture, natural, even after so many years. He hoped the metal wasn’t too cold. “If we’re alone together for long I don’t think either of us will be ready to fight.”
“No? Do you think I’m too modest to fight someone naked?”
“I don’t think…” He planned to stop her with logic. Was Gilford a lone wolf, or had the attack against him been encouraged by someone? Was this another extension of the race for the Dreamside Road? Brielle herself had warned him about rivals. Could this be some action taken by Divenoll or another agent seeking the trove?
“If anyone comes after you,” she said. “I’ve been working on this technique, where I armor myself in my iron. That’s supposed to happen over my clothes, but it’s easier without them.”
She kissed him, and when their lips met, he was transported to a different time, a time of certainty. It had been a time when he’d felt certain in the Liberty Corps cause, in himself, in his path in life and his mission to make amends for destroying his own brother’s future. It was perfect nostalgia, free from doubt or fear or futility.
“I’m so relieved!” She laid her head on his chest. “You’re here and you’re safe and you’re finally Shaping. And we’re not in the same chain of command. There’s nothing wrong with us being together. I cannot believe how well this is working out.”
“Finally Shaping?” He laid his flesh-and-blood hand on the back of her head. “I’m glad I never heard you that impatient with me before I’d done it.”
“Don’t be offended!” She looked up at him. “Not everyone has to know how to Shape. None of us really knew how widespread it would be. It’s weird, isn’t it? The IHSA never managed to teach people Shaping the way the Liberty Corps has, even if real talent is rare. But everyone knows how hard you were trying and it just…” She groaned. “Do you really want to talk about this now? Or should we get out of here?”
Kol did want to talk about it. He wanted to talk about a thousand things, his Shaping the least of those, about his brush with death, about his hearing, about his failures, about the constant mysteries that had plagued him since Nimauk.
But she kissed him again, and Kol decided his disquiet could wait until the morning.
* * *
Orson slept poorly. He’d seen too much destruction, and held too many fears for the future, to sleep for long. Only physical exhaustion offered him extended periods of rest.
The aftermaths of battles were usually his best times for sleep, but not that night. The Liberty Corps complications had grown beyond the relief any single confrontation could offer him. He couldn’t rely on post-adrenaline rest, not with Governors and Barons of the Liberty Corps all operating to build an empire, build a government, like Pops had warned.
Orson had put his own life on hold to help stop Thunderworks, their masters, and the spread of IHSA power. Five years he’d given to his crusade. Five years had passed, five years when his old crewmates had retired to safety and real lives. Five of his years gone to fighting wackos, but the kind of enemies who had forced him from his home were a greater threat to the world than they’d ever been.
He gave up on sleep, at least temporarily. He pulled his exercise mat from its sealed bag beneath his bed. He quietly inched open the zippered bag, withdrew the mat, and crept out of his room.
Orson found Jaleel sitting at the cabin table, working by the light of a small portable lamp, an assortment of metal parts scattered around him, including his bow, arrows, and the looted spraystick. Jaleel waved to him.
Orson walked to the table. “Mind if I join you?” he whispered.
“Not at all.”
Orson sat across from Jaleel and looked at the array of parts assembled for his project. He saw several pieces of wiring, three long hinges, and dozens of small pieces that looked like individual zipper teeth. Jaleel was slowly threading wire between these pieces, one at a time.
“I need a quick-load system,” Jaleel explained. “I’ve wanted this since I saw what you have for your blaster, but mine needs to be way more complicated with all my arrows.”
“I can only imagine.”
Jaleel threaded the wire through another piece. “That’s why I’m still working on this at…” Jaleel looked at a tablet on the table. “Five forty-seven in the morning. Why are you awake too?”
“I get up around now almost every day to work out, until I’m tired enough to sleep again. I’ve been this way for years. Enoa seems like she has a pretty normal sleep schedule so I’m not used to running into anybody.”
“That sounds miserable. I’m just staying up because I’m afraid I might need this system soon, but I don’t think I’ll be finishing it this morning.”
“Hopefully you won’t need it. The Corwins have a couple big garages. We’ll hide the ship in one of those or head up to the hills where Kappa kept his base. No one would find us there. Then, while we wait to hear back from Eloise’s contacts, I can teach you and Enoa how to fly this bird.”
“Teach me to fly!” Jaleel dropped the threaded metal pieces onto the table.
“Keep your voice down. You’re like a kid on Christmas.” Orson shook his head. “I was debating what I’d do, and I thought about waiting. I drove the Aesir at your age, but I didn’t fly it, not for a while. But you guys depend on this boat too and if something happened to me, God forbid, you couldn’t even get away. I won’t have you two be sitting ducks, so yeah, I’ll teach you.”
“I’m gonna be a good pilot,” Jaleel said. “I modified all of the Archer aircraft, and I’ve been studying aerospace propulsion since I was fourteen. I will not let you down.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Orson chuckled. “But we’re taking this slow. And first we need to figure out the hideout plan with Eloise and her dad. We’re not going flying until tonight, so you’ll have to be patient, while we meet up with him and Eloise’s brothers. Rob and Alec are already gonna give me crap.”
“I’m still not sure if I actually hurt their feelings about this or if they’re just ribbing me, but I didn’t mention them at all in my memoir. They were away at college when I was first in Littlefield and it seemed weird to talk about them when they weren’t even there, but they won’t let me hear the end of it.”
“You don’t think they’ll have forgotten about that after two years, or whatever it’s been, since you’ve visited here?”
“Knowing them? They’ll definitely bring it up.”
Orson heard the faint, but unmistakable sound of a bunk door sliding open. He and Jaleel fell silent. Enoa walked from her bunk, still in pajamas.
“I’m sorry if we woke you,” Orson said.
“You didn’t.” She walked to the locker that held her aunt’s films, the projector equipment, and the screen. “I’ve been too stressed to sleep. I heard the two of you talking so I knew I was safe making noise to watch this.” She slid out a film.
“Are you getting the emergency combat movie?” Jaleel asked.
“I am,” she said. “If that Governor Sloan wants to hang us, we all have to be ready to defend ourselves.”
* * *
Duncan had received Brielle’s message. Kol was okay and well enough to be discharged. He’d suffered from the kind of magic-brain-fart from Shaping that she’d thought he’d had.
But he didn’t return to the suite. Either he was with Brielle – and good for them, if that were the case – or something new and terrible had happened.
He couldn’t worry about the possibilities. He needed sleep, but he’d begun sorting the case of Sucora Cloud’s papers while he waited for a status update about Kol’s health. He had no plans of sleeping before he’d finished.
The case’s contents seemed to match his previous assessment – financial records and bills. There were envelopes and folders of statements and expenses going back over forty years. Duncan saw some company transactions dating back to the Reagan Administration, when the statements referenced several members of the Cloud family, none of them Sucora.
But there was nothing about the Dreamside Road. Nothing about the IHSA or the Dreamthought Project or Shaping or other anomalies. Nothing useful. Duncan reached the bottom of the case. There was actually nothing of any worth there for them. He’d carried four decades of this woman’s electric bills for almost one thousand miles, for no reason.
Duncan sighed and began returning the papers to the case. Well, at least he could check off this box – Sucora Cloud really had nothing.
As a final precaution, he decided to go through the copy of the woman’s probated will, if only to be sure there was no mention of additional property, where IHSA goods might be hidden. When he opened the folder, he found a sealed envelope, face down on top of the legal documents.
The envelope hadn’t been mailed. It bore no address, no postage, only one marking.
One word was written on it – a name, the name.
Duncan tore open the envelope and began to read.