“You know it’s a bad idea, right?”
I look up. “Huh?”
It’s Pixie Cut, aka Faith, Val’s roommate. She’s leaning against the bookcase, staring at me. “You and Val. Bad idea. Going to end badly.”
“Who’s Val?” I say. “What do you mean?”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine. Play dumb. So long as you’re happy with Little Miss McCrazy, none of my business.”
I guess Val wasn’t kidding when she said she wasn’t popular with the other girls. “What’s your problem with her?”
“She’s just weird. That’s all. I’m surprised you two haven’t gotten caught yet, with as many cameras as there are around here.”
“No idea what you mean.”
The doors to the library swing open, and Val comes tumbling in, followed by a flurry of snow. “Whoo!” she says, shaking some flakes off. “Gareth, you are not …” She catches sight of Faith. “Oh. Um. Hi, Faith.”
“Whatever.” She pushes herself from the bookcase and moves out the door. “Dig your own grave.”
Val and I meet most of the time in the library. If Doc’s there, we keep it on the down low—sit at opposite ends of the desk, pretend to read the encyclopedias. But if he’s not, we cuddle by the DVD rack while she tells me about the different ones she loves and why. Or sometimes we go in the back by the fantasy lit books and I tell her about the different chivalric stories I like.
“Hey,” I say, one day. “I got something for you. Well, made, I guess …” I fumble in my coat pocket. “We did crafts in English class. Made pins based on some book we finished … I forget the details. Anyway, here you are.” I hold out my gift: a pin made of twisted wire. Two wings spreading outwards from a diamond.
She takes it from me. “A present you made in arts and crafts. So romantic.” She giggles. “Wow, though. This is really good for something you made yourself. Why the wings?”
“I was thinking of making an angel emblem. Like a coat-of-arms. You know, like what knights had on their shields?”
“What is it with you and knights?” she asks, looking at me. I still can’t decide what color her eyes are. Sky blue? Sapphire?
“Well … I mean, I just …” I hesitate. “It’s … y’know how I usually go by Gareth?”
“Right. Because it’s the only vaguely good one.
“Right. It’s this guy in King Arthur. He’s pretty badass; he starts out as this kitchen boy named Beaumains, but—”
She giggles again. “You sound like such a nerd.”
“Well …” I feel warm, but not embarrassed. “Yeah. I don’t talk about it much.”
“Mm.” She nuzzles into my side a bit more. My arm’s going a bit numb, and I’m gonna have to move it in a bit. Not yet though. “You’re really weird, you know that?” she says, offhandedly.
I’m not sure how to feel about that. Odd. I’d always thought I wanted someone to tell me I was weird. “What do you mean?”
“It just…” Her back rises and falls as she takes a breath. “Never mind. Hey,” she says, turning towards me. “You wanna go to the fight on Saturday? Watch some guys burn off their hormonal male aggression?”
‘That’s not what it’s about,” I say, though at this point I guess I don’t know what the fights are about. Getting noticed? Showing off?
“Sure that’s what it’s about,” she says. “Guys are all about being the biggest and the strongest. They’re all about power.” She pauses. “I guess they might also be trying to impress girls. Sex is the other thing guys are all about. Not… y’know. Love.”
“Aren’t you the expert on guys.” I roll my eyes. “Anyway, no. I can’t go. My friends and I are going out to the base this weekend.” Ms. Clerk’s history test finally pushed my grades to the point where I can get in.
“How’re you guys going to make him talk? Shove him against a wall, hold his head underwater, have Bally make him float in the air with his … stuff?”
“Um, no? Where’d that come from?”
“Just seems like the sort of thing you guys’d think of,” she says, looking down, a little bit embarrassed.
I guess Dolphin did suggest crushing the man’s bones one by one. And Mouse had some idea involving fingernails. “Sue’s got an idea,” I say.
“An idea?” She sounds skeptical. “Well. I’m guessing that idea could use a little female persuasion.”
“You want to come with us?”
“I’ve got the grades. I’m going anyway. Whether I go with you is your decision.”
“You’re gonna ditch on us as soon as we get to town, aren’t you?” says Ball Buster. He and Sue are the only other ones with high enough grades to get the pass. I sort of wish it’d been Mouse instead of Bally.
“No!” I say.
“Yeah, you are,” Sue says, chuckling. “F’real, man. Square be bailing as soon as we through the gates.”
“Boys.” Val grins at them. “Behave.”
“Oh, Heather said she’d meet us by barracks 3-A,” Ball Buster says as we’re walking. “Shouldn’t be hard to find.”
The base is nearly the size of the camp but with much taller buildings—rough, ugly concrete tenement buildings and warehouses made from corrugated metal. Snow-covered vehicles are parked in rows just inside the tall fence (with razor wire and watchtowers that guard the complex). It looks more like a prison than the camp does.
We stop at the gate, and the guard looks over our passes before opening it up. We walk through, stop in front of the second gate, and wait for the gate behind us to close before the gate in front of us opens. I notice machine guns on the watchtower, tracking our movements.
“This place is weird,” says Ball Buster.
The base itself is claustrophobic, with soldiers in blue, grey, and green coats crowding the plowed streets and ATVs beeping frenetically to be given room to drive. There’s an airhorn blast, and everyone crowds to the side to let a truck, on its grinding caterpillar treads, through the street.
“Anyone notice how everybody’s looking at us?” Ball Buster says, after walking a few moments.
The man on the street corner is watching us, head leaned back, cigarette smoke drifting out of his mouth. The knot of soldiers passing by seem to be glancing up at us an awful lot. One has his hand on his belt. The two men talking to the girl by the door to our left start to speak more quietly as we approach. Their eyes track us as we walk down the street. A little girl, half a street behind us, is openly staring at us, slack jawed.
“Huh,” I say.
Sue laughs. “Dang, I thought it was just me they was staring at, but they be looking at the both of you too, white boys.”
“Shut up,” Ball Buster says. “Wow. They really don’t like us, do they?”
“I guess,” I say. It’s a weird feeling. For the first time, I genuinely do feel like an alien, walking in a strange world surrounded by bizarre creatures staring at me.
Sue is chuckling and chuckling. Ball-Buster glares at me.
Heather meets us outside of a high-rise building of concrete, with balconies layered on top of balconies. “Hey!” she calls out brightly. “Eddie’s down by the docks. He’s a maintenance mechanic at one of the motor pools down there.”
We set off down the road. Heather leads, with Bally close behind, then Sue, and Val and I at the rear. I ought to be more involved, but all I can think about is Val’s hand, lying limp at her side, and my hand a few inches away.
Calm down, Chad. A base full of soldiers watching your every move is exactly the worst place to advertise your relationship.
Heather is asking Bally all about where he comes from and what it’s like there. He seems a little weirded out. “Why on earth are you so interested in my old town?” he asks.
She shies away a little. “Well, I’ve never really been outside of the islands.” She glances at the water with a faintly wistful look. “Must be fun. I mean, even just to have that much space! In Unalaska, it seemed like there wasn’t a spot where you couldn’t see the ocean.”
Heather leads us on a threading path through dozens of nearly identical warehouses, bringing us closer and closer to the water. You can tell there used to be a dock down there but also that someone aggressively destroyed it, leaving chunks of concrete sticking at odd angles through the ice.
“This is the one,” Heather says, leading us towards a motor pool back just a little bit from the harbor, with the letters “E-1203” emblazoned on the side.
I feel something grab my hand. Before I can even look down, Val’s pulling me into the shadow of a nearby building. “Val, what—”
“Sh!” Her hand slips over my mouth.
We watch the others enter the warehouse. Sue looks back, notes our absence, and rolls his eyes. He enters, and the door shuts behind him.
Val’s hand lets go. “Maybe your friend’s plan will work, and maybe it won’t,” she whispers. “But in any case, it can’t hurt to do some scouting while they’re distracting Heather’s boss. Come on.”
I follow her as she darts towards a door in the back of the motor pool. “What was that you said earlier about ‘female persuasion?’” I ask.
“There are many ways of persuading,” she says, kneeling down to look at the door. She pulls two thin metal tools from a coat pocket and after some fiddling with the lock, the door pops open.
“Where did you learn to do that?”
“Sister Artemis taught me.” She swings open the door and slips inside. “Don’t worry about it. Come on.”
I resolve later to ask Val about what exactly Sister Artemis taught her, but there’s not time for that right now. I dart behind her into the dark warehouse. The interior is stacked with crates, big plastic ones, positioned around two big trucks, also stacked high with crates. The tarp-covered thing in the exact center is a bit stranger. It’s shaped like a lozenge, but it’s the size of a Pontiac. It’s high up, too, like it’s on struts or something. There’s an abrupt flatness to the side facing the door, like a piece of the lozenge has been bitten off.
“What the heck is this?” I ask, pulling at the edge of the tarp.
“Careful!” Val grabs my hand. “We can’t disturb the setup, or they’ll know we were here. Leave everything just the way it is. Here, let me.”
She deftly undoes the fastenings and folds back a small section, just enough for her to bend down and under. Then she comes back up. “Take a look,” she whispers, holding up the tarp.
I bend around and over, trying not to look at what’s very obvious about Val in that position. Sure enough, the object’s on struts, but the lozenge itself is sleek and black. A few fins poke out towards the front. On the floor by where the front is suddenly blunted are a lot of black shards and some sort of conical shape.
“What the …?”
“It’s a smuggler’s submarine,” Val whispers. “Made out of plexiglass and insulation. But the front’s been smashed in.”
“So it’s broken?”
“Right now. Looks like they’re trying to fix it.”
I pull out, and I’m immediately confronted with Val’s face, grinning a few inches from me. “Hey you,” she says.
“Hey yourself,” I say, grinning back. Mission, Chad. Stay on the mission. “What’s in all these crates, do you think?”
Val looks a bit disappointed but glances over. “Not sure.” She fastens the tarp back in place. She’s being careful to put it back exactly where it was. “There’s DEP on the side, so they’re definitely supplies for Wolfe …”
“Wolfe’s organization is DEVAS,” I say, reaching over to unclasp the lid. “It must mean something different.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Food or electronics or something. But the cold glint of tiny knives in the gloom of the warehouse looks unnatural.
“Well, that looks weird,” Val says. “Why have a knife with such a tiny blade?”
“It’s a scalpel. I remember Doc using one on the soldier during surgery. The scalpel’s tightly pinched in place by the plastic tray. There’s a glass probe rod and a pair of gleaming tweezers locked in place next to it as well. Then there’s something next to it that looks like a tweezer but has a vise-like screw. “A distractor!” I whisper, a bit proud of having recognized it. I saw it in a book on neurological medical tools Doc was flipping through.
Val’s looking at something else. “A Newberry knife?” She reaches for something like a forceps with an unusually sharp pincher. “Why would they need …?”
The instant she picks them up, her hand snaps back and she hisses with pain. The forceps go tumbling through the air and clatter on the floor. We hear the talking in the other room stop instantly.
I don’t quite think through the next part. My body moves on instinct as I rush into Val, knocking her to the ground. My arms are around her as we roll under the truck, missing the tire by inches. I can feel a pipe from the undercarriage just inches from the back of my head.
Val’s white face is just below mine. Her eyes are wide, her mouth slightly open. Her chest heaves in and out, her throat constricting in time to the hot breath brushing against my face.
A man is walking between the trucks. Long, even steps that sound clearly on the concrete floor. I can see his boots, just a little past my feet, about at the tail end of the trucks.
I’m taking tiny sips of breath. My leg is in a horribly strange position. It hurts just to keep from moving. I can hear my heart pumping. He can’t possibly hear that. I hope.
The forceps are still lying on the floor, gleaming much less. They’ve rolled just under the lip of the truck, resting there next to some scattered shards of plastic. They should be out of sight. I wonder about the box I opened. Did I close the lid? I can’t remember having time to do that. But maybe I knocked it shut when I jumped Val?
Val’s blonde hair is splayed out on the floor, framing her face in gold. She’s just gazing at me. What color do you call those eyes? I can feel heat radiating off my face.
There’s the rustling of fabric, then I see part of the tarp slump to the ground. The footsteps turn, walk away. I hear the door of the office open again and shut.
For a minute, we don’t move. Val’s still looking at me.
I could… lean in… and…
I feel something. It’s the amulet. I’d forgotten I was even still wearing it, but now I feel it, pushing me. Nudging. You know what you should do.
I duck my head, just enough to dodge the undercarriage, and carefully push away from her with a grunt. As I’m crawling out from under the car, my hand brushes her side. It feels like electricity runs up my arm. The moment I’m out from the car, I slowly stand, and a long breath escapes me. “All right,” I whisper, with a careful peek at the office. “Looks safe for now.”
I reach down to help her out. From under the car, she stares at my hand for a moment, then looks up at me.
“Fine,” she says, then grabs my hand.
I pull her up. “We… uh… we need to go,” I say, looking away. “Back door, then work around to the front?”
Something in her voice makes me look back. “Are you mad at me?”
“Holy shit! You are.”
“No, I’m not!” she hisses.
“I’m not. I’m fine. Just peachy.”
“Did I do something wrong? With that whole—”
“Just forget about it already,”she says, pushing past me towards the door. “There’s nothing the matter.”
“No, seriously,” I say, following her out. “What’d I do?”
“Nothing. You did nothing.” Another huff. “You’re … not anything like you’re supposed to be,” she says, almost to herself.
Before I can ask her what the hell that’s supposed to mean, she’s pulling me through the door into the workshop office.
The mechanic, short and squat with dark greasy hair sticking out at all angles, is talking with the others. I’m guessing this is Eddie, Heather’s boss. “I do have … friends who sometimes do me favors,” he says. “And a neff could be a very useful … friend.”
“Okay,” Sue says. This was his plan. Seems to be working.
“Still.” Eddie taps his wrench against his palm. “You want something, right? You people ain’t exactly known for the goodness of your hearts. So what’s your piece of this?”
“We’d like you to set up a meeting with another ‘friend’ of yours,” Ball Buster says. “Someone who knows the waters around the island.”
Eddie’s wrench comes to rest in his palm. His gaze suddenly seems darker, and he looks at Heather. “And how to navigate them,” he says.
Ball Buster shrugs.
“Yeah,” Eddie says, dropping the wrench on the worktable. “That ain’t happening.”
Sue raises an eyebrow. “S’cuse me?”
“Listen,” says Eddie. “I ain’t never heard of no smuggler, a’ight? But even if I did hear of any such beast, he ain’t giving you no kind of way off the island. Trust me on this.”
“Why not?” I ask.
He smiles sarcastically. “Just trust me.”
“Lot to take on trust there, buddy.” Ball Buster has a hard look of his own. “Sure you don’t want to expand a bit? Explain why this island’s full of cruel dipshits?”
“I said all I’m gonna say.” Eddie leans back and folds his arms. “Figure the rest out yourself. You got a problem with me leaving it there, all I got to do is raise my voice, and this whole base comes down like brimstone on your merry little grudge match.”
He’s right. I think of all the faces moving around outside, the guns, the vehicles.
“No-one’s got a problem,” I say. “You’re being very unhelpful, but I’d guess that’s not unusual.”
“Yeah,” Ball Buster says. “Screw you, then.” He turns to the door.
A puffy-faced man comes rushing in. “Ed, I need—” He rams straight into Ball Buster. “Shit!” He stumbles back.
Ball Buster lurches back a few steps himself. “Excuse you,” he says, straightening.
“The fuck?” the man says, sizing Ball Buster up. “Ed, you servin’ neffs now?”
“They just barged in here. I told ‘em to leave.”
Ball Buster glares at him. “We’re leaving, all right,” he says. He moves to the door, but the man blocks his way.
“No, no, wait a bit. You need something? That why you’re here?” the man says, looking up at Ball Buster with exaggerated concern. “Wouldn’t want your lordships to be uncomfortable. That’s what this whole island is about, after all: keeping you warm and fed.” He pokes a finger into Ball Buster’s stomach.
“Hey man, they’re on their way.” Puffy Face’s friend, a ginger-haired private, tugs on his shoulder. “Just let ‘em clear out. They’re not worth the time.”
Ball Buster just looks down at Puffy Face. From what I know of Bally, I can just imagine the sneering lip, the light eye roll.
My first instinct is to look for Val. Gone. I glance just in time to see her pulling Heather towards the back. Good. I move behind Bally. This could get messy.
“Hope you’re telling your friends on Capitol Hill how hard we’re working for you,” the man says. “All you Freemason freaks. I mean, since clearly everyone wants to make sure you guys get the chance to take over all over again.”
“Church,” Ed calls. “You know the rules. Not in the store.”
“Seriously, man, let it go,” the friend says.
Church ignores him. “Unless maybe you already have taken over. Maybe your kind are still pulling all the strings, huh?”
“Our kind?” asks Sue. He didn’t like that comment at all.
Ball Buster lifts a hand and lightly brushes the man’s hand off him. “You’re in my way,” he says. His voice is a level of calm I’ve never heard before. It scares me. “I need you to move.”
“Just dirt beneath your feet, aren’t we!?” Church shouts. He’s reared up to his full height, shouting upwards into Ball Buster’s face, spraying spittle. “We’re not even worth your time, are we, Great Lord Pig!” He shoves Ball Buster to emphasize his point.
Ball Buster gives him a slight push.
Or at least, it’s a slight motion. But the way Church goes flying out the door makes clear there’s nothing slight about it. He slams into the snowbank on the other side, snow exploding in every direction.
Ball Buster snaps back his hand as if burnt. He doesn’t have the angle I do, so he doesn’t see Ginger Hair pulling out a pistol.
I don’t punch Ginger Hair, but I do grab the gun. It goes off as I’m wrenching it away, and Sue crashes back against the side wall. The gun in my hand crumples up like a plastic bottle. Ginger Hair yells and slugs me right across the face. Doesn’t particularly hurt, but almost on instinct, my fist whips back.
Nothing happens. My fist suddenly feels locked in place. It’s seized up like a rusty hinge. And almost before I can absorb that, Ginger Hair has punched me in the face again. Ball Buster grabs him around the waist and throws him to the floor.
There’s an ominous clickbehind us, and we turn to see Ed, leveling a shotgun at us. Sue, on the floor, already has his hands up.
“This is going to be our fault somehow, isn’t it?” I say. We’re sitting on the curb, looking across the road at Wolfe talking to Eddie and Church.
“Don’t know what you’re so happy about,” says Ball Buster, giving him a sharp jab in the ribs. “This stuff is bullshit, tell you what.”
“Fuck yeah, it’s bullshit.” Sue’s teeth gleam in his dark face. “It’s old-as-shit bullshit. Y’all seriously never gone into a store before and had some asshole pick a fight with you because he don’t like ‘your people’ before?”
“Don’t make this into a racial thing, man,” says Bally.
“Fuck else is it?” says Sue. “You don’t get it, do you? We’re the bad guys. The monsters. The great evil demons from ancient times just itchin’ to rip the world a new one. That’s us. That’s why Puffball be goin’ on about us being Mason-Dicksons or whatever the shit that was.”
“Freemasons,” I say. “He said Freemasons. I’m Dickson.”
“Freemasons, then. Whatever the shit that is. Apparently we’re going to take over. Or have taken over?”
“Someone mentioned them in class,” I say. “I think I heard Dolphin mention them once too—his dad was a member or something. It’s this whole conspiracy with the Templars and George Washington and the Illuminati and whatnot controlling the world. That’s what Puffball was on about us pulling all the strings.”
“Unless he just meant white people,” Sue says.
“He was white, moron,” says Ball Buster.
“Thought he was native,” Sue says. “All y’all look the same.”
“See: that is racist,” Ball Buster says. He looks around at the soldiers. “So we founded democracy. Well, that’s working out swell.”
“It ain’t so bad all the time.” Sue’s voice is still oddly lighthearted. He holds something up in his hand. “Check it.”
We look at what he’s holding: a blunt-nosed bullet. Looks like a 9mm round.
“Square,” he says, as I pass the bullet to Ball Buster. “You know you pulled that gun straight at me? Like I was looking that mother down the barrel when it went off.”
“Shit, man, I didn’t think—”
“We good. Moment of the fight. Ain’t on you. Point is, I should have gotten nailed right between the eyes. But I didn’t.”
“Wait,” Ball Buster says. “This is what got shot at you?” He holds up the bullet. “But it’s not even dented!”
Sue’s grinning to split his face. “Stopped a damn inch from my eye, brother. Me falling over? That weren’t no dodging. That was me being surprised as shit. Minute I did, the thing dropped out of the air like … a fish out of water or some shit.”
“No way,” Ball Buster says. “You’re bulletproof?”
“Some sort of field around me, man. Dunno if it’d work on that cold iron shit, but it dope, right?”
“It’s really dope,” Ball Buster says.
I feel a bit left out of the Lovefest here. “Let’s hope you don’t need to put that to the test,” I say. I give just enough of a nod to draw their attention to Wolfe, who’s finally walking toward us. She stops directly across from us, only a few paces away, her feet planted and her arms crossed. Her assistant Jonathon looms directly behind her, and there’s soldiers on either side.
“You should have stopped him,” she says to me, jerking her head at Ball Buster.
I sigh. Of course.
“Puffball started it.” Sue’s smile really isn’t helping our case.
“That’s not the point,” Wolfe snaps at us. “You know you’re not supposed to get in fights with people on base. Mr. Dikehouse, you need to keep your temper under better control, and if you can’t, Mr. Dickson, Mr. Wilson, you need to control it for him.”
“My temper was perfectly under control,” Ball Buster says.
“Three shattered ribs say otherwise,” Wolfe says.
“He’s lucky it’s not worse,” Ball Buster says.
“Dude,” I mutter. He’s really not helping.
Ball Buster keeps going. “So what am I: a giant pimply punching bag? Guy punches me, and I’m supposed to just stand there?”
“You’re twice his size and well over four times his strength,” Wolfe says. “You have plenty of options besides ‘throw him across the street.’ Walk away if you have to.”
I can feel Ball Buster stewing, his rage practically bubbling. But we all understand that no answer is best right now.
Wolfe sighs and pushes her glasses up her nose. “Mr. Dikehouse, you’re confined to quarters for three weeks, and you now have two demerits on your record.”
“Oh, come on!” Ball Buster says.
“Mr. Wilson,” Wolfe continues. “No recreational passes for a week. One demerit, and you’ve been taken down a letter grade.”
“I didn’t even do anything,” Sue says.
“I said already that you didn’t stop him. That’s enough. Sergeant Everett here will escort you back to base.” Grim Goatee, at her gesture, leaves off talking to Church and hurries over.
I can tell neither of the guys wants to ask, so I do. “And me?”
“You, Mr. Dickson,” she says, “I have other plans for. You are to accompany me back to the Tower.”
“Um. What?” “The Tower. The Administrative Centre at the back of the camp.” She jerks her head. “You’re coming back with me. Now get in the truck.”