“You’re a Nephilim?.”
Doc doesn’t even look up from the medical book he’s flipping through. “Yes,” he says.
For a moment I can legitimately not say anything. I just gape at him. He looks up and sees my expression.
“Technically,” he says, “the singular term is Nephil. Nephilim is plural.”
“Wha … how?” I ask.
I feel stupid. But he’s just taking it so calmly. Just looking through various medical tools and their uses. Forceps and distractors and endoscopic cameras … cameras! I glance towards the corner of the room. Shit! How could I be so stupid!?
“Don’t worry about them,” he says, smiling. “People are so rarely in the library, it’s not hard to come up with a spoofing reel that the guards will ignore.” He snaps the book closed. “You learn a few tricks at my age.”
The way he always stoops over. His loose-fitting shirts. His age. “Your museum,” I say. “Were you here when … there was the invasion?”
“I was here.” He fits the book onto the shelf. “I was here when we splashed through the freezing water to the land. I was here when red sprayed across the white snow. I saw a thousand men rush to meet their deaths on the hill you boys were fighting on.”
I feel vaguely chastised. “So how old are you?”
“Old.” He seems to think. “In World War I, I tended to men in the Argonne Forest. I became a doctor on the fields of Crimea, and I was with the Prussian horse at Vienna. In Malta in 1565, I stood against the Ottomans, much as I had done at Rhodes in 1480. I battled the Little Father of the Huns on the Catalonian Plains. I came to the Holy Land with the First Crusade, but I’d been there many years before, sent with the Gaulish auxiliary to the Roman forces. Before that …” He pauses, and frowns. “…I don’t recall.”
“So … pretty old.” I’m not really sure what else to say. “That … that amulet you gave me,” I say, tugging it out of my shirt. “There’s something special about it, isn’t there? ”
He nods. “Very special. Did you notice the inscription on the back?”
“I can’t read it. It’s gibberish.”
“Didn’t that strike you as odd?” Doc says, loosening his tie. “After all, Nephilim like ourselves can understand any language, spoken or written.”
“Um.” I blink.
“Ancient Mycenean Greek,” he says, leaning forward to tap the metal. “It should be Minoan, but there are no examples of that left. But Mycenean is close enough to our original tongue to supply the need.”
“What’s that … uh … supposed to …” I stop. Doc’s unbuttoning his shirt, which is kinda creepy, and I’m not sure if I’ve misread this whole situation.
But he stops at just two buttons in the middle of the shirt and parts the fold so I can see.
Sunk in the middle of his chest is a clear green stone. It glows with an inward light, pulsing slightly. There’s no sign of a scar or healing tissue around it. It looks almost like part of his body.
“The hole in a Nephil’s chest is not an accident,” Doc says. “It’s a design. A feature. A slot for the Nephil’s Orb.”
“The what now?” I say, tearing my eyes away from the glowing stone.
“An Orb. Much about the Nephilim can be likened to a computer. You can program languages and fighting moves into your being, with even blank implants like the ones they give you at the camp here. But an Orb … contains a Code.”
“A Code.” I feel like I’m just repeating words.
Doc nods. “A set of instructions, of pre-programmed moves, powers and behaviors. It’s like a blueprint; it gives guidance, direction to your abilities. Different Codes can grant wisdom, insight, the powers of flight, or of invisibility.”
He smiles and lifts his hand. The stone in his chest brightens, and the air around his hand seems to glow with a green light.
“Healing,” he says, looking at it fondly. “It’s proven useful from time to time.”
“Like with Sidewinder. And the guy with the ripped-out throat.”
“But … we … some campers … have already started … developing other powers. Without those.”
“Yes. Nephilim can develop many abilities. Some Codes carry imprints of the abilities—and behaviors—of the former Nephilim who bore them. Some by those who created them.”
“Like the Catholic Church.” He smiles at my reaction. “Ms. Clerk told you that we once served as their ‘warrior-monks,’ didn’t she?”
“You mean the Templars?”
“Hmph.” He looks a bit irritated. “There were others. But holy warriors, yes. While we served the Church, they provided us with necklaces like the one you’re wearing now.”
“This,” I say, holding up the amulet, “it gives you abilities? Why haven’t I gotten mine yet?”
“Because there are no Aptitudes coded into it,” he says. “The ones the Church provided were … more keyed to behavior than to Aptitudes.”
“Behavior?” I nearly drop the amulet. “Are these, like, mind-control things?”
“They … guide behavior. Not control it. You’ll be aware when it pushes for or against a sort of behavior. But it’s a pattern. Fighting’s not the only thing you need to have a pattern for.”
“Why would you wear these?”
Doc indicates the runes again. “These function as a limited sort of Orb, with an extremely basic blueprint to hold you together and augment abilities. They significantly lessen a Nephil’s weakness.”
“The time limit,” I say. “This is how I was able to fight so long.”
“I was thinking of the Nephilic Rot.” He shrugs. “But the two are related. Wolfe told you that the Rot was your body caving inwards. She was partly right. It’s your body degenerating under the force of your power. When you go Active, the power grows, and your body degenerates faster. When you stop, regeneration kicks in—somewhat. But your body will eventually degenerate completely.”
“But a Code stops it?” I hold the amulet.
“A Code stalls it. That necklace will give you perhaps twenty years more. The more complete Code you’d get from an Orb would give you several hundred years. Perhaps more.”
“The guards say we’ll be dead in a year.”
He looks genuinely surprised. “You shouldn’t be. The Rot generally doesn’t become a fatal problem until much later.”
“Then what happened to the boys last year?”
He looks thoughtful. “I can’t speak of that now. As for this speech from the guards … I don’t know. They might have been lying. The camp might be doing something to exacerbate the condition.”
“What, like to kill us? Why? Why do they hate Nephilim so much?”
I guess I’m hoping he’ll tell me there’s no reason. That it’s just fear of what they can’t understand or hatred of things different than themselves.
His eyes grow sad. “Our kind have committed great and horrible wrongs in the past,” he says. “The impact of our sins stretch even to the current day. Not all of us, it is true, and some of us have done our best to help more than to hurt. But even I…” He shakes his head. “I have done grievous deeds which I take no pride in.”
I swallow. My throat is thick with disappointment.
“But,” his face resumes it’s thoughtful look. “I doubt Wolfe would be intentionally killing you. No, this is likely something they’re not even aware they’re doing.” Picking up some more books, he starts to shelve them. “I will need to look into this. But … if you know anyone who’s falling to the Rot, badly … send them to me.”
“Won’t that be dangerous for you?”
“Extremely. But send them anyway.”
“Sounds like a pretty bum deal,” Dolphin says, throwing the necklace back at me. I catch it in mid-air. “And a load of mumbo-jumbo. I mean, runes?”
“Mycenean. I looked them up, they’re—”
“Dude, ancient languages aren’t going to put a dent in whatever neurological condition we have that makes us go crazy. Besides, Old Man Schaefer? A neff? As if a neff would willingly work here.”
“Or that Wolfe would let him,” Ball Buster agrees. “I’ll bet it’s some sort of trap.”
“Oh, for crying out … you think everything’s a trap,” I say.
“No-one just helps a person out,” Mouse says. “There are always strings attached. Okay, so Doc helped you out, but he did it by giving you a brainwashing necklace.”
“That’s not what it is. He—” But then I realize that telling them that Doc said it wasn’t isn’t actually going to help.
“That said,” Mouse continues, “whatever he’s trying to pull, if he really is a Nephil, then he’s one who’s managed to survive whatever’s killing the other campers. Might be worth investigating, at least.”
“Man, it don’t make sense, a’right?” Sue says. “Here’s this man with enormous superpowers, and he spends it as the substitute teacher at a prison in Alaska?”
“Square only saw him healing,” Mouse says. “He might not have superpowers. Or he could be a spy of some sort.”
“There is some weird shit going on,” Ball Buster says. “You hear that apparently there was some sort of electrical fire while we were out fighting? Must’ve been why Wolfe didn’t come down.”
“Oh!” Dolphin says. “Just heard some guys talking: Mole and Fish are going to have a fight out there again tonight. People are taking bets.”
“Fish?” Ball Buster asks. “Little scrawny kid with big glasses?”
Dolphin shrugs. “Maybe he thinks it’ll make him look cool.”
“Or he thinks he’ll get magic powers like our boy here.” Sue grins and gives Bally a punch. “Eh? Eh?”
“Mutant powers,” Ball Buster says with a mock-proud expression.
“Are we seriously forgetting the fact that there’s apparently an adult Nephilim working here who can answer all our questions?” I ask.
“I thought you said the singular term was ‘Nephil.’” Mouse says.
The bell rings.
“You’re way too gullible, Square,” Sue tells me as we get up from the table. “Can’t just believe everything the Man tells you.”
“So, you coming to Film Club on Thursday, tough guy?” Val whispers, as the movie in History class goes through medieval medical techniques. I can practically feel her hair brushing my ear. “Heard you guys did a number on Jack and his goons.”
‘Tough guy.’ No-one’s ever called me that before. I can’t quite squash the little grin it gives me. “Have to see,” I say. “We’re trying to keep a low profile.” Up the front of the class, the movie says something about preventing infection and shows a hot iron being applied to seal a wound. “Next time for sure, though.”
A low laugh. “You better…. You and those guys really are the Inseparables, aren’t you?”
I look back and she seems almost … vulnerable. She catches me staring and tries to laugh it off. “You just … you’re always doing things together, fighting together, hiding together. Backing each other up. You know. Inseparables.”
“I’ve never seen it,” she says. “I figured you guys would be constantly trying to one-up each other. Alpha male BS.”
I shrug. “Jackhammer backs his guys up too. It’s just what you do. Guys and girls have different sorts of friendships, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
There’s a sudden, savage bitterness there, and it takes me by surprise. “You? But you’re so …” c’mon Chad say it say it say “beautiful”how hard is that to freaking say. “…So blonde,” I say. Her face changes. Damnit, you idiot. “I mean, you just look like … you just seem like the sort of person who’d be really popular.”
“Yeah, most people think that,” she says. Her tone is strangely dark, angry. “The blonde cheerleader’s the super-popular one, right? Everyone knows it. But you know what? Turns out, everyone really hates the popular girl. Even her friends, who just want what she has.” Her fists are balled up on the desk. “Because they all think they’re the ones who ought to be popular.”
“So these bitchin ‘mutant’ powers,” Sue says, before we’ve even quite sat down at lunch. “Never had no warning or nothing?”
Ball Buster sighs as he drops down. “I guess … maybe? When we were moving in the girls, and I was throwing stuff up to you, it felt … weirdly light a few times. I just figured it was adrenaline, but … maybe it was an early sign.”
“So you … what, control gravity?” I ask. I’ve given up for the moment on convincing them about Doc. Maybe later. “Make some stuff float and other stuff drop?”
“Feels a bit more complex than that,” Ball Buster says, staring at his hand. “Like, gravity or not, I shouldn’t have been able to fling the memorial like that. Too much mass equals too much inertia. But apparently, the universe didn’t care. Seems like I just make the laws of physics give up.”
“Some sort of matter manipulation perhaps,” says Dolphin. “You actually make things less dense or have less matter in them, so they’re easier to move—or harder. Maybe you have some sort of dimensional dump …”
“Oh, it needs to be balanced,” Ball Buster says. “There was this huge pressure I felt with the monument—that’s why I couldn’t hold it, but I was playing a bit this morning, and apparently it’s easier to keep something floating if I make something else really heavy. Otherwise…” He makes a face, “…it feels pretty terrible.”
Dolphin raises an eyebrow. “Terrible, how?”
“Well …” says Ball Buster, then stops. “I mean, it sort of …” He stops again. “It’s kind of like a build-up …” He stops again, shakes his head. “Look, this is the only thing I can think of, but it feels like I’m constipated.”
“Dude!” We all recoil a bit.
“You didn’t have to put it like that,” Sue says.
“It’s what it feels like,” Ball-Buster says, flatly. “Also, Dolphin, I don’t think those stomach aches you’ve been getting are from the food, because last night was painful.”
“Please just tell me you’re not going to have explosive diarrhea or something if it doesn’t balance out,” I say.
“I can’t promise anything, because I don’t know. I will say one thing: it doesn’t seem like I can make objects much lighter or whatnot. Like, that memorial was a foot or so from the ground? Even something lighter, the highest I can get is three feet. I can throw it higher, but it’ll float back.”
“Our powers seem to have really weird limitations,” Sue says.
“Well, I started toying around a bit with mine too,” Dolphin says. “And here, watch this.” He grabs two glasses of water. “Here, stir this one,” he says to Mouse. Mouse looks slightly pissed, but does it.
It takes us a moment. Or maybe it takes him a moment to get it going. But the water in the second glass is swirling around just like the one being stirred.
“Mirroring vibrations,” he says when Mouse stops. “Works with the haptic sensing. Feel the vibrations with one, mirror with the other. Cool, right?”
“Dangit.” Sue leans over the cafeteria table. “All y’all getting superpowers is making me jealous as shit.”
“I don’t have powers either,” I remind him.
“Yeah, yeah.” He barely even looks at me. “But I wanna fly, man! Fly right out of here and out over that ocean!”
“What about becoming invisible?” says Dolphin, raising a suggestive eyebrow.
“Dude,” I say. “What difference would that even make? You’re always going for those sense-peep-show things anyway.”
Dolphin flushes and glares at me. “There’s something to be said for artistic appreciation, you know. And I might have other reasons.”
“Such as?” I ask.
“I know what I’d use it for,” Ball Buster says, before Dolphin can answer. “Sneak into Wolfe’s office. Hear what the Old Hag is planning.”
“Or sneak onto the helicopter,” Mouse suggests. “Though I guess none of us knows how to fly one.”
“Easy,” says Dolphin. “Hold the pilot at knifepoint, and say you’ll slice his throat if he doesn’t fly you out.”
“Wow. That got dark fast,” I say.
“Suddenly interested in the escape plan now that Daddy isn’t coming, eh?” Ball Buster asks.
Dolphin glares at him, and suddenly the glass right in front of Ball-Buster shatters.
“That’s the other thing I learned I can do,” he says.
Wednesday is when Street Rat comes back. I haven’t seen him since they busted him for hiding in the locker room.
“So, where were you, anyway?” I ask, as he sits down next to me.
“Detention. They had a procedure I had to undergo.” He speaks in a monotone.
There’s something off about him. He’s staring straight ahead at the teacher. He even looks like he’s taking notes, but from what I can see, his pencil is just tracing swirly shapes.
“Yo Square, my man, eyes front, m’kay?” Mr. Professor smiles at me. “You don’t want to miss this stuff about sound, all right? You ever hear that question, if a tree falls in a forest …”
“I heard Big Bear had a fight,” Street Rat whispers to me.
“Yeah. With Fluffmuffin.” The fights are becoming a thing, I guess. “Just one-on-one. But I heard Mole’s getting a gang together for a group fight … if you’re interested.”
“I’m good.” Again, the monotone.
There’s definitely something up. “Are you okay?”
He turns to face me, and his eyes … it’s weird. They’re just blank. No life in them at all.
“I’m fine,” he says.
I’m really not sure what to think. Sure, everyone was always saying Street Rat needed to calm down and straighten up, but this … I turn back around and try to focus on the class.
“… the tree creates vibrations, of course, but if no-one absorbs the vibrations, is it really sound?” Mr. Professor continues. “Like whoah, right? So, say you’ve got the tin-cup telephone, is it sound in the first can, or sound in the …”
Immediately after Phys Ed, I grab the guys and pull them into an empty classroom.
“But the girls …!” Dolphin says.
“Stop perving for a minute. This is important.”
“Is it about Street Rat?” Ball Buster asks. “Holy shit, he was creepy in PE. He barely was punching; Fish wiped the floor with him. The guys are starting to call him ‘Space Case.’”
“No,” I reply. “You know how when you’re a kid, you do that ‘telephone’ thing, with the two tin cans connected by a string?”
“No,” says Ball Buster.
“When’d you grow up: the 1950s?” Sue says.
“I got my first smartphone at six,” Dolphin says. “Some of my friends got them at four. Why would we have bothered with that?”
Mouse just looks confused. “What is this?”
Oh. Well, that fell flat. Thinking back, I guess I never did it either. “But you know what I’m talking about, right?”
Ball Buster shrugs. “Sure.”
“Fourth-grade teacher thought we’d think it was really cool.”
“Think what was really cool?” Mouse presses.
“It’s like a kiddie telephone,” I tell him. “The tin cans receive the vibrations and transmit them through the wire to the other tin can, so you can basically hear the person’s voice.”
“In my middle school class it was actually just because the other kids were always yelling really loud,” Dolphin says.
“Right,” I say. “Dolphin … you’ve practiced this … haptic sensing thing a lot, right?”
Dolphin grins just a little. “I don’t know that I’d say a lot …”
“Dude, don’t even try,” Ball Buster tells him.
“And you can mirror it. Do you think,” I say, handing him a tin can, “that you could feel out to the other tin can I left in Coach’s office and mirror what you’re ‘feeling’ to this exact can?”
“Ooh.” Ball Buster stands up. “Ooh, damn.”
Dolphin holds the can in his hand, considering. “A listening bug,” he says.
“We were talking about it in science,” I say. “Probably wouldn’t work over a long range. Might not be possible at all. I’m just curious if you can do it.”
“Hm. Well, let’s give it a shot.” Dolphin reaches out and takes hold of the can with one hand, then reaches out with his other hand to put it on the wall.
For a moment, there’s silence. “All right, I’ve got the other can.” More silence. “Okay. I … think I can feel the vibrations? I don’t know.”
“I guess it’s a lot finer detail than you’re used—”
“No. Hang on,” he says. “Let me—”
And then the can starts talking.
“—ist, Captain Handsome. Must you teach them all the different ways to kill people?”
We freeze at the voice.
“Wolfe!” says Ball Buster, taking his feet off the desk.
“Is she in there?” I ask.
“Sounds like it,” says Dolphin, deep in concentration. Mouse’s hand is also pressed to the wall.
“Hoooo shit,” says Sue. “Dang! Hanging out with you guys is the coolest.”
“Who’s ‘Captain Handsome?’” I ask. “Is that Coach?”
“I’ve taught them no lethal moves whatsoever.”Coach’s voice sounds a bit distorted, but it comes through well enough. “There’s nothing I’ve taught them that your guards can’t handle. And you approved of my teaching them martial arts.”
“To give them an outlet, yes.” Wolfe’s voice sounds irritated. “I’d assumed you would teach them one discipline, not twenty.”
The frustrated shrug is almost audible. “These kids learn fast. If I only taught one discipline, they’d lose interest in a week.”
“Just have them beat each other up for practice.” A new voice cuts in. “Isn’t that the point?”
This time I give a bit of a start. “Him too?” What’s Sergeant Grim Goatee doing in the office?
“Not the point, Sergeant,” says Wolfe. “Though perhaps a … useful side benefit.”
“Is that why you refused my incident report?” Coach’s voice sounds sarcastic. “No less than seven of my kids have shown up to practice this week with massive bruises and scars. There’s been some sort of fight. Possibly several.”
“Obviously,” Wolfe says.
“And you’re just not going to do anything about it,” Coach says. “Again.”
“Captain, by this point you should understand these boys better,” Wolfe says. “Of course the boys are going to fight. It’s in their nature, their species. If they weren’t doing it outside of camp, they’d be doing it inside.”
“Boys fight, sure,” Coach says. “I fight. Nothing wrong with friendly sparring; it can blow off steam. But one of my kids came to class in a back brace, and another had more cuts on him than a normal kid would survive.”
Grim Goatee speaks. Unfortunately. “But he did survive, right? Cry me a fucking river, Handsome.” I hear the name this time: Hussein. “You of all people should get why—”
“You shut the fuck up.” Coach sounds angrier than I’ve ever heard her. “We’ve been down this exact road before, Wolfe. Street Rat—”
“Watch yourself, Captain.” Even distorted, Wolfe’s voice cracks like a whip. “I’m well aware of my failures.”
Grim Goatee grunts. “As I suggested, ma’am, we could still put known participants into Detention. We have a few names.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. You’ve made your feelings abundantly clear already. We’re monitoring the situation. But the … new residents complicate matters considerably. DEVAS has decided to place them here, leaving us with little choice in the matter of their residence.”
“Again, who’s her boss?” I whisper. “The Secretary-General or whatever you guys said…”
“Sh!” Dolphin glares at me.
“The best we can do,” Wolfe continues, “is keep them safe from the boys. That means no fights in the camp.”
“But fights outside the camp are fine?” Coach’s sarcasm is perfectly clear, even through a tin.
“Realistic goals, Captain Hussein,” Wolfe says. “We only have so many soldiers. And after what happened to the girls’ camp …”
Silence. In the classroom, we all look at each other.
Coach speaks, and her voice is careful. “I haven’t been cleared for that information.”
“There’s no information to be cleared for, as I understand,” Sergeant Grim Goatee says. “Just that it wasn’t an accident.”
“We lost twenty girls in that flood.” Wolfe’s voice is hard and clipped. “I don’t think I need to tell you the implications of that. The dangers that raises.”
“Dangers?” says Sergeant Grim Goatee. “They’re dead.”
“If we’re lucky, yes. They might even stay that way. But it seems there was another organization involved. Similar to the attack on Pittsburgh.”
Pittsburgh. Where I was. I have a flashback to the boom, the way the lights flickered, the hurried way everyone was moving.
“I wasn’t cleared for that information either,” Coach says. “Should I be?”
“Not for the moment, but it’s a consideration. There’s been no repeat incidences of the saboteur from last year, so that was likely one of the boys moved off base. But there have been some strange reports recently. Nothing that would indicate an attack, but …” There’s the scrape of a chair being pushed back. “Understand that a fight outside the campgrounds is low on my list of priorities.”
Silence, followed by “Yes, ma’am.” Coach doesn’t sound happy.
A few steps on tile, then “You haven’t seen signs of unique powers, have you? Or heard of any displayed in the fight between Square and Jackhammer?”
“No. If I do, I’d tell you immediately,” Coach says. “I mean, so long as you’re still trying to stop the insanity, not just putting a spike between their eyes.”
“Captain.” Wolfe’s voice is dangerous. “I will not warn you again. There’s no space for insubordination here. We are on the edge of a knife.”
“Yes ma’am. No excuse, ma’am.”
“Very well.” The door slams, so loud that we each glance at the classroom door.
Dolphin takes his hand off the wall. Sue’s face is frozen, his arms balled at his sides. Mouse, squatting on his haunches, stares fixedly at the ground.
Ball Buster rubs his chin. “Fuck.”