I wake up in bed. A bed, anyway. It’s soft and white and definitely not mine. The room is dimly lit, but you can see it’s a lot of hard surfaces. Very clinical.
Hospital. Must be the clinic on camp.
I look around, though, and I revise that. One entire wall is the thick glass I’ve seen before. There’s cameras and a few devices I don’t recognize hanging from the ceiling. And my left arm is attached by a very solid-feeling handcuff to the bed.
Some sort of cell. But if they wanted me dead, they’d hardly have me in a hospital bed with—I check my left—an IV drip. So, good news, I guess.
I sit up and look out the glass wall. It’s similar to the cell in Pittsburgh, with a room exactly the same on the opposite wall. Actually, it looks like a hallway, with a lot of these cells lining the walls. Is this Detention? How many people do they think they’ll need to lock up?
That’s when I notice that there’s already someone in the other cell. Doc Schaefer.
“Ah, Dickson, you’re awake,” he says. His voice is remarkably clear.
“Yeah,” I say, looking around. “Guess I am.”
“The helicopter fell on you after your friend threw you into it,” he says. Doc’s sitting in a chair in the opposite cell. It looks as though his hands are chained to the chair, but in the dim light it’s hard to tell. He’s just got them hanging loosely from the arm rest, like he’s talking philosophy or something. “Crushed a number of your bones. And your rib cage was stove in, so that also had to be attended to.”
“Oh. I … healed from all that?”
“Well, I had to set your bones and do emergency surgery for the rib cage. But yes.”
“So … why are you in a cell?”
“I’m a Nephil.” He shrugs. “Worse, they believe I’m a Nephil spy, as I’ve been employed here for the past three years.”
“You lifted the desk off Headmistress Wolfe. And … you healed her, didn’t you? She had all sorts of glass shards stuck in her. You used your powers for that?”
“Yes. It’s all on tape, but she was conscious for much of it, also.” He purses his lips. “Amazing constitution, that woman. Not hard to believe she was in special forces.”
“And they locked you up? For saving her?”
“They locked me up for spying on them for three years and for being exactly the sort of fallen monster they’ve sworn to contain.” He wags his head at me. “Headmistress Wolfe is not one to let personal favors override security concerns.”
It still doesn’t seem fair, but I sense he isn’t interested in talking about it. I look around. “Where’s Dolphin? Is he locked up down here too?”
“No,” says Doc. “He’s dead.”
The news doesn’t have the punch I’d expect. It feels more like a side detail of this world I’ve woken up in. The whole thing seems surreal and bizarre, and even though I tell myself I ought to be really shaken up about his death, it doesn’t really hit home. And also, he turned out to be a psycho. “Huh,” I say.
“They shot him after you pushed the hostage out of the way,” he says. “He was hit forty-three times with lead bullets, enough to incapacitate him so they could put a cold-iron spike between his eyes.”
That feels more real. “Fuck.”
I stare at him. “We’re locked up in a prison hospital, probably facing death, my friend just got a spike put through his brain, and you’re scolding me about my language?”
“It’s unprofessional and unbecoming. And it won’t affect how dead your friend is.”
That reminds me. “There was a guard … Sergeant Red Spruce?”
“The one who cleared you? I’m afraid she’s dead too. Her skull was crushed.”
I close my eyes. “Fuck.” I slump back in bed. There’s an actual, physical hurt. Red Spruce was cool.
For whatever reason, Doc doesn’t correct me this time. There’s a few moments of silence. “I feel a bit responsible for Dolphin,” I say, after a while. “If I hadn’t pushed the hostage out of the way—”
“If you hadn’t pushed the hostage out of the way, your friend would have killed the hostage out of spite and then been gunned down,” Doc points out. “He was desperate and spoiled, friend or not.”
I feel like I ought to argue, but I can’t. I look down at my chest. Nothing’s there. The hole looks larger than ever, but the index card—probably torn—with my Code is gone. They probably took it with the rest of my clothes. “What happened to the hostage?”
“He was cut down in the crossfire,” Doc says.
That hurts too. In a different way. I just feel hollow. “Well … guess that whole thing was pretty pointless, then.”
“On the contrary. You saved them. The fact that they were killed soon afterward is not your fault. You acquitted yourself with honor and defended the defenseless.” He adjusts himself in the bed. “You did very well.”
That helps, but I still feel bad. “Crossfire, huh? Big Bad Wolfe’s not much one for workplace safety, is she?”
“I don’t think you appreciate Wolfe’s position,” Doc says. I’ve figured out why his voice is so clear—it’s coming through a speaker. Wonder why they set it up like that. “She believes she’s saving the world by keeping you here. Anyone who escapes could cause colossal death and destruction. There are some who think Nephilim would take over the world if given the chance.”
“Could we even do that?”
“It would be long, painful, very bloody, and probably involve a lot of near misses. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. We have caused great pain and suffering in the past.”
I try to slump deeper in the bed. “I haven’t. I haven’t done anything. I don’t want to do anything. All this stuff because of how terrible my ancestors were or weren’t, or all the bad stuff I might do…. I didn’t ask for any of this crap!”
“Does anyone ask for the misfortune they receive?” Doc’s voice sounds amused. “Or the ancestors they inherit?”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“No, I suppose not.” Doc gives me a wry smile. “Suffering is woven into the fabric of life. It’s impossible to be in the world and not suffer. What one asks or does not ask for, what one deserves and does not deserve has little to do with it. It’s unfair, but that’s life.”
“It just … I saved that guy. That hostage. That’s what you’re saying, right? I saved the kids at my school. I feel like that should count for something!”
“Is that why you saved them? For gratitude?”
“It would be nice!”
“It would. There are many things that would be nice. But seeking gratitude is a fool’s game—and a very disappointing one.”
I huff. “Is it wrong?”
“No,” he says. “All men hunger for respect. The quest for gratitude… it is not so different from those boys hurling against each other in the arena, seeking respect of another sort.” He shrugs. “But it is fleeting. One should not be so weak as to let a flimsy thing like ingratitude or scorn stop them from doing the right thing. They should aspire to the right thing itself.”
I frown. “I get you’re talking about your Code things again, but they don’t seem to be reliable ‘right thing’ indicators. That one you gave me tore apart—probably because I attacked Dolphin, I’d guess. Not great for ‘Loyalty’ or ‘Friendship.’”
“Codes themselves are no more infallible than the person who made them.” Schaefer agrees. “But they aspire to the right thing. A Code grows more powerful the closer it comes to the perfect form.”
“Which is?” I ask. But Schaefer doesn’t answer. I sigh. “Did you save Wolfe because of your Code? It wouldn’t let you just … let her die?”
“Correct. It was a physical compulsion. I’m not sure I could have resisted if I tried.” Doc spreads his hands (as well as he can—they’re definitely cuffed to the chair). “She was my employer—my patron. I was bound to her in service. I couldn’t let her die.”
“She’s treated you horribly, and she’s going to kill you. And her life was worth blowing your cover?”
“Questions of worth are a slippery slope. A life is a life. If it were a battle, it would be one thing, but … I help. I protect. I heal. I do not determine ‘worth.’ Perhaps, if I’d stopped you, I could have saved the three men on the rooftop. Perhaps not. Perhaps fighting you and your friend would have resulted in more deaths. It’s best to keep one’s moral code simple and stick to straightforward principles. Someone was hurt. I helped them. Who they were is irrelevant.”
I close my eyes. “Do we really need to talk about this?”
“Yes. Because we may not be able to talk about it later.”
I look at him.
“I’m a Nephil spy,” he reminds me. “I know all sorts of things about the Nephilim. They’re likely planning to ship me out as soon as they can get an air convoy together. Where, I have no idea—presumably some government facility that handles such things.”
I sit up. “You can escape though, right?”
“The building, possibly.” He looks around the cell. “But certainly not without killing some people. This is quite a secure facility. And then where would I go? An adult Nephil, loose on an island with a bunch of adolescents.… DEVAS would most likely destroy the place with nuclear weapons.”
Yeesh. “You think?”
“We don’t have time to talk about that. They’ll come for me soon. Listen. I’ll no longer be able to help you. I don’t even know what they’ve planned for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I meant to arrange something, but that’s no longer a possibility. So listen. When you return to the outside world, you must seek out Marienburg. Marienburg will be able to help—”
He stops as the lights in the hall come on. We both sit, silently, as a cordon of blue-camo-clad guards file down the hallway. Wolfe walks up behind them and looks first at him, then at me.
“Don’t stop on our account,” she says. “We’ve got listening bugs all over these cells. The whole point in setting up the speakers was to get you to talk.” She pauses outside the cell and looks in on Doc. “You’re an interesting man, Dr. Schaefer—if that is your name.”
“It’s a sufficiently common name,” Doc smiles. “There was no need to change it.”
Wolfe looks unimpressed. “You knew the whole time we were listening in. That whole speech about not judging who to save: that was for our benefit, wasn’t it? Trying to convince us you’re just a harmless old man who we don’t need to worry about.”
“It’s a sad world that cannot believe in virtue, but reasons it must be a lie.” Doc looks thoughtful. “Is the truth so hard to believe, Headmistress Wolfe?”
“In this circumstance, the truth is unimportant, Whoever-You-Are.” Wolfe nods to a guard, who palms the access panel next to Doc’s cell. The whole glass wall rises into the ceiling. “Whether you’re as harmless as you pretend to be, or a manipulative spy who knows how to sweet talk, you’re too powerful to remain here and definitely too powerful to be set free.”
“Hmm.” Doc just nods.
“You’re not serious about this, are you?” I say. “Hey!” This time I shout, and Wolfe actually does turn to look at me.. “You’re going to lock him up someplace else? You realize he could have killed you and your men ten times over if he’d wanted to?”
“Forgive me, then, if I don’t give him the chance to change his mind about that.” Behind Wolfe, the guards are maneuvering Doc into a wheelchair. “I am not in the business of relying on people’s goodwill.”
I pull at my restraints. “This is insane!”
“For the record, your friend was correct about why I do this,” she says, stepping closer to the glass. “I’m not particularly eager to be the babysitter of a flock of hormonally raged teenage boys. But it’s us or you.”
“How does that make sense?”
“How? Let me clarify. You just heard that your friend died. One of the friends you’ve been spending time with constantly since you got here. And your reaction is that you ‘feel sort of responsible.’”
“I guess? I mean, he was kind of a bastard.”
“This. This right here.” Wolfe points at me, leaning in towards the glass. “That is not how a human would react to a friend dying. Your kind … it’s like you don’t even have emotions. A race of psychopaths.”
“You just lost three or four soldiers. One of them was shot up by your own men,” I say, still straining against the cuffs. “You don’t look too broken up either.”
She leans back. “Soldiers die. It’s what they sign up for. My men died doing their duty, and I’m proud of how they held the line against you.”
“Why?” I explode.
“Because you and your kind threaten the fate of the human race by your mere existence.” Her teeth bare. “You’ve been on this earth four thousand years at least, and your genetic code is unchanged. You’ve intermingled with humans. You’ve had children with them.” She tilts her head. “Every other race, that would result in half-breeds, a balance of genetics, but no, you … your kind, it’s all or nothing. There’s no mix of human traits and Nephilim traits; instead, the human genome gets entirely wiped out. Your very genes threaten the human race. If it weren’t for the Catholics making all your kind swear a vow of celibacy for the past seven hundred years, you’d probably have replaced us all by now.”
“That’s not exactly how it works,” Doc says, mildly, from his wheelchair.
“Really?” Wolfe turns to look at him. “Then I look forward to reading all about the secrets they force out of you about how it does work.” She steps up to him. “I don’t know what you are—alien lifeform, genetic disease, or magical superbeing. What I do know is that you’re a threat—a threat to everything I’ve ever known or esteemed. I’ll die before you get a chance to touch my world.”
“An admirable goal,” says Doc. His face doesn’t betray if he’s being sarcastic or not.
Wolfe stares at him, possibly trying to work out the tone of his last comment. “Gag him,” she says, turning to the guards. “I don’t want to find out he can breathe fire or mind-control people with his voice when we’re halfway to the carrier.”
“What about me?” I ask. “Am I going to the carrier?”
“Don’t be so eager,” she says. “I don’t have time to deal with you right now. I suggest you lie still and rest.” She looks back to the chair and the now-gagged Doc. “Take him to the convoy.”
It’s stupid, and pointless I know, and I’ve already tried once. But even so, I can’t help struggling, yanking on the manacles. I can’t stop screaming at them as they push Doc down the hallway.
Wolfe doesn’t even look around as they disappear from my sight.
I’m visited by two doctors later. They don’t answer any of my questions. They just draw blood (the needle really hurts), check my heart rate, make some notations on a clipboard. Oh, also they replace the catheter. Holy crap! How embarrassing. I guess you can’t have a prisoner getting up to use the bathroom, but even so … I hope I’m not going to be here for very long.
A nurse stops by with some food. Not sure what the point is, but it’s mostly tasteless tuna salad. I eat it off the Styrofoam plate with the plastic spork they give me. She watches me the whole time and takes the plate from me when I’m done. It’s not until later that I wonder if the food was drugged.
When I wake up, the bed’s moving. I see the doors flashing past—clear glass doors that show open rooms with beds surrounded by all sorts of random equipment. Not cells but operating rooms. A lot of operating rooms.
Why’s the bed moving? Wait. Not a bed. I’m on a stretcher now, my hands and legs still chained to the sides. There are dark shapes pushing it down the hallway. There’s something stuck in my throat. I try to cough it out and realize it’s hard and leathery. It’s a gag.
“Oh, look. Little Rambo’s awake.” One of the dark shadows is looking at me. The dim light of the hallway reflects off red lenses, but I’d know that voice anywhere. Sergeant Grim Goatee gives me a mirthless grin. “We’re going for a ride, neff.”
I try to tell him to fuck off, but the gag’s in the way. The bed bumps over some sort of strip on the floor, and we enter a small room. An elevator. I watch as they hit the button. We’re going up?
What the fuck is even going on here? Wolfe would be with them if they were taking me to the carrier. I’m pretty sure Wolfe would be here if they were doing anything with me.
Anything they were supposed to do, anyway.
A nasty thought spreads in my mind. I start to tug on the cuffs.
“Calm down, neff,” Grim Goatee says.
Fuck calm. I tug harder. The cot’s not as sturdy as the bed. I feel the handle of the stretcher give, a little.
“I said, ‘Calm the fuck down.’” He turns to me, pressing down my arm with his hand.
I throw him off. Even manacled, I can do that. It feels good for about five seconds before I feel a pinch in my neck and look round to see another guard withdrawing a needle.
The hallway fades black around me.
It’s cold when I wake up. Bitter cold. I’m lying in wet snow. I’m in a drafty hospital gown that doesn’t even have a proper bottom to it. Dark wind is howling all around.
“About time,” Sergeant Grim Goatee says.
The cuffs and gag are gone, at least. I get up. Grim Goatee’s sitting on the tailgate of one of the snow trucks, surrounded by the other guards. There’s about two dozen of them in a loose ring around me. Some are on snowmobiles.
“We’ve been freezing our asses off here for nearly half an hour, neff,” Grim Goatee says, standing up. “Could’ve been avoided if you hadn’t been such a little bitch about getting woken up.”
I feel naked. I practically am—the hospital gown is basically a paper towel only wrapped around some of me. “Wolfe doesn’t know you’re doing this, does she?” I ask.
“Heh.” Grim Goatee’s mouth twitches in a smile. “Wolfe’s accompanying your little spy doctor friend as far as they’ll let her. Vancouver at least. Won’t be back until tomorrow. We even got rid of the implant for you so she won’t know where you were.”
I pat my chest. There’s a section wrapped all in gauze. “The implants … the ones you gave us. That’s where the trackers were.”
“You’re welcome, ass-wipe.”
“What am I supposed to thank you for, exactly?”
“Wolfe was thinking about having you castrated. I’m practically doing you a favor, dragging you out here.” His laughs sounds as dry as sandpaper.
“You’re going to kill me.”
He smiles. It’s not a pleasant smile. “Those guards you killed had friends. And a lot of us have been itching for a while to see you taken down a peg or twelve.”
I focus on my hands.
Two bowie knives flame into life in my hands. I’m a little disappointed—I was really hoping for machetes—but the way the guards suddenly scramble backwards is very gratifying.
“So,” I say. “Who’s first?”
“Yeah, we’re totally planning to go head-to-head with the super-strong alien mutant.” Grim Goatee rolls his eyes. He hasn’t budged from his position on the ambulance. “Neat trick with the swords, shit for brains. When Wolfe finds out another one of you was hiding powers, she’s definitely going to enact the plan. But you do realize we all have guns, right?”
“Yeah, and then Wolfe finds me with a cold spike through my head,” I say, swords still out. “What’re you going to tell her when that happens?”
“We’re not going to tell her anything.” Grim Goatee and the other guards start to get in the truck. “Make it quick.”
I’m not sure who he’s talking to until four of the figures, who I’d taken to be guards, step into the light, and my heart goes a little dead inside. Icepick. Viper. Fluffmuffin. Jackhammer.
I turn to face them as the guard’s ATV drives off into the snow. “No Sidewinder?” I ask.
“Screw Sidewinder,” Jackhammer says, his fists hardening into granite. “He wants to spin your story and cover for how you’ve been hitting on my girl: that’s his grave.”
“Val’s playing you, man.”
Jackhammer just growls. Icepick’s hands start to glow, Fluffmuffin’s body starts to bulge outward, and Viper’s fingers grow long and sharp.
I ready myself in a tae kwon do stance, but I don’t have a lot of hope.
“You’ve had this coming a long time,” Jackhammer says, as he and his goons start to walk towards me. “And I’m going to enjoy it.”
And then people start to drop out of the sky.
There’s no other way to describe it. One moment, Viper’s walking towards me, claws out. The next moment, six figures in long, heavy coats are crashing into the snow between us, kicking up powder four or five feet into the air. The air’s thick and blurry with snow, but I can still see the newcomers’ dark outlines etched against the white. They’re tall and muscular. The one closest to me has a mohawk. The one just past him is covered in dreadlocks. On the other side of the clouds of snow, I get a flash-frame of Jackhammer and the others, looking startled.
Then the guy in the lead suddenly has two flaming swords in his hands. The others are already pulling glowing weapons from their coats. It’s hard to get a look at them. Clubs? Batons? Nunchucks? But the lead guy’s already busting into Jackhammer, shouting “Traitors! Turning on your own kind.… Lapdogs!”
Jackhammer and the others rally well. Fluffmuffin, nearly twice the size he used to be, charges at two of them with a roar, while Icepick lets loose with some sort of energy blast. Viper starts to slash away at one of them, and I can see Jackhammer’s turned nearly entirely to stone—he must have been practicing since the last fight.
It barely matters. Icepick suddenly clutches his head and falls over, and Fluffmuffin gets blown over backwards by a wall of concussive force. Long tentacles of pure shadow whip out and wrap themselves around Viper.
Jackhammer never has a chance. I mean, he’s not getting cut—stone skin, after all—but the leader is absolutely bashing him with those flaming swords of his. Left, right, left … the long-coated guy whips back both swords and slams Jackhammer right in his granite-covered face. The sheer force sends Jackhammer flying backwards nearly ten feet before he crashes into the snow.
Jackhammer slowly picks himself up. The rest of his gang is drawing back to his position.
“Run, bitches,” the leader says, his twin swords flickering. “Run like the punk-ass dogs you are. Back to those weak little shits you’re running errands for.”
Jackhammer wipes his mouth. He has to know he’s lost.
“Try that again!” Icepick is champing at the bit. “Go ahead. Just try, motherfucker!”
“Shut the fuck up, Ice,” Jackhammer tells him. He looks past the guys to me. “Don’t think we’re done with you, Square.”
The leader of the strangers stamps in the snow, sending it twenty feet high. “Go!” He shouts.
Jackhammer and the other guys don’t exactly run. They’re too dignified for that. They just sort of back away into the darkness, calling out insults as they go, maintaining their dignity. “Fuckers!”, “Pompous airheads!”, “Dickwads!”, “Fags!”
The leader actually takes a step forward, but another of the party—the muscular black kid with the purple dreads—grabs him by the arm. “Man, forget them,” he says.
The leader shrugs off the arm, but he nods. “Quite a night, huh?” He smiles at me.
I really don’t know this guy at all. He’s pale, with blonde hair shaven close to the skull, with gleaming eyes sunk deep back. His unbuttoned coat shows a chest that’s totally bare in the cold wind, marked only with a tattoo of a great red cross. It’s directly over the very noticeable indent in his chest.
“I guess,” I say.
“I’m Shadow, by the way.” Clearly, he already knows the thing about names. “Sounds a bit edgelord, right? Not my choice. The guys thought it would be funny.”
“It is,” says one of the other guys. “It’s fucking hilarious, Shadow.”
“Screw you, asshole,” Shadow calls back. He faces me. “Whatever. Not much better than ‘Square’, I guess.”
“You know me?”
“We saw the escape attempt you and your friend made. Pretty ballsy move. We would’ve helped, but it was practically over by the time we even noticed what was going on. Our bad on that one…. And your friend. Is he dead?”
His teeth flash white in a snarl. “Typical,” he says. “Too afraid of true strength. A guy shines too brightly, and they have to extinguish him. People in general are like that.”
I’m not sure where this conversation is going, or how I feel about it. “Who are you guys?” I ask.
“Us? We’re Templars, Square. Like you.”
His swords flare into life again. For the first time, I get a good look at them. Six of them, all in dark clothing. Some are wearing long coats, some are wearing vests, but all of them are bare-chested, the cross-indents fully on display. They’ve gotta be cold. A couple are wearing necklaces set with glowing red stones. Some have the red-cross tattoo, and some just have what looks like red paint smeared in a great cross over their skin.
I recognize that cross. It’s the same as the ring I picked off the beach. The Templars.
“We’re an order, Square,” Shadow says, fingers tracing the indent. “Our kind. Or we used to be. We were the rulers, the heroes, the great men of the old world. The Catholics tried to control us, but we smacked them down. King of France tried to kill us, but we pulled the wool over his eyes. We just went underground and came back stronger and smarter. We were the Templars,” he whispers. “The Masons, the Illuminati. We were kings.”
“Awesome.” Kinda wondering if this guy actually knows about the Masons or is just guessing, but I don’t interrupt.
Then his mood seems to sour. “We gave them democracy,” he says. “You know how unusual that is? For people to give up kingship, give up power? Masons like Washington and Franklin, they made democracy happen and gave the power over to the humans. And those little shits turned on us.”
He steps forward, looking past me, towards the camp. “And now they lock us up in camps, watch us with guns. Whatever we say, whatever we do, everything’s always our fault. We’re always the monsters, they say! When we fucking made the world they live in!”
I think I took a step back at some point. Not sure when.
Shadow seems to calm a bit. “These pricks here,” he says, nodding in the direction of the camp. “Always saying you’re a monster. You’re not. You’re special. That’s why they hate you. You’re stronger, smarter, faster than any of them. You’re a king, Square. We all are. They owe so much to us, and they lock us up in cages.”
I see on his face his pain, his weariness.
My chest feels warm. “What do you want?” Not the most original question, but it’s on my mind.
“So much. Justice for our people, mostly. To be thanked and acknowledged for who we are, what we’ve done. But that doesn’t seem like it’s coming anytime soon.” A bitter laugh. “Who the fuck cares, right? For now, all I want is for you to know you’re not the monster they’ve painted you as.”
“Right on.” I should really do something about that sense of sarcasm.
“Fine. Don’t believe me. It’s true. I mean not gonna lie: wouldn’t say no to you joining us—you’ve got more balls than those bitches back there. And hey.” He looks down at the flaming bowie knife I’ve got in my hand. “We can always use another Swordsmith.”
I can’t help but smile at that.
“But hey, buddy. Not gonna push it. You’ve got a lot on your mind right now, I bet. But let me help at least. I can get you a boat.”
“West side of the island. Hidden in a small bay. Any true Nephil ought to be able to find it. Take it wherever you want. If you’re interested, our extraction point is over on Bering Island. We’ll be leaving in a week from now, but it’s about two days ride, so … if you want to come, better start fast.”
“Two days on the water?” I echo. “You can’t be serious. They’ve got trackers and helicopters and stuff.”
He walks away. “You’re a smart guy. Figure it out. But this might help.” He gestures to one of the other guys, who tosses him the weird necklace-with-a-red-stone. He chucks it over to me, and I catch it.
“Think it over,” he says.
He seems to crouch a little, and then he’s jumping higher into the air than I would have thought possible. As are all the others, long leather jackets streaming behind them in the snow …
And they’re gone.
I can’t help it. I think: That’s awesome.
But I need to go. Grabbing the chain, I loop the whatever-it-is around my neck.
Instantly, my breath feels lighter.