Being considered ‘unnamed’ didn’t mean the same thing in VILE as it did in the outside world. Out there it meant a person without worth. Here it simply meant you were a member of the support corps; a grunt, or a shirt, who hadn’t taken on a named, solo henchman status.
Blue shirts made up the bulk of these; custodians, mechanics, cooks, pilots, all the vital roles needed to keep this stateless state running. Some groups gave themselves their own colours. The cooks chose white, the IT chose grey, but overall they were lumped together as blue, except one faction.
Carmen’s security, the black shirts.
Neb exhaled a stream of warm breath into the chilled, impromptu morgue at the back of the MAMBA. When she’d first gotten on board she’d been tempted to hole up in her room and punch her bed until the anger subsided, but more pressing duties took precedence. Now her work was done and she was here, trying to make sense of the night.
“You okay?” came a voice behind her, and the small woman turned to find the guard she’d just tended to had come in behind her.
Neb looked back with a grim smile and nodded. “Yeah, just...you know. Sending them off.”
Ara Chung stood beside her, one hand on hip, a bottle of beer in the other. “Same.”
For a long moment they said nothing, the puffs of steam drifting from their lips the only movement in the room until Neb wiped her nose. “Did you know them?”
“Well enough,” Ara replied. “Wu is from the states, came here after he got mixed up in some cartel stuff. Jing Lan is from Vietnam I think. I just met him on this mission.” Her voice dropped and she took a sip from the bottle she was carrying. “Said he just got married to someone else here. Fucking sucks, but I mean… it comes with the job.”
The girl half turned. “You guys are black shirts, right?”
The taller woman cocked a brow. “Yeah, aren’t you?”
Neb shook her head as she leaned against the wall of the hull. “Nah… Always wanted to be one, though, be what kept her safe. I tried to get in when I was a blue, but I couldn’t pass the physical. I’ve always looked up to you guys.”
“Could have fooled me. You saved my ass out there,” the Korean replied, then took another sip before offering the bottle. “I brought this to pour one out, but I don’t think the boss would like that, so I’m drinking it instead. Want to help?”
The girl usually didn’t drink beer, but for whatever reason the taste didn’t matter. “How did you get here?”
Ara’s eyes clouded. “My parents and I escaped North Korea when I was really young. Maybe it’s just paranoia, but I’m always afraid I’ll get taken back. Can’t get me if I’m here, right? Silly, but still.”
Neb shook her head solemnly. “Not silly at all. Not at all…”
Another long pause, another long sip by the far more athletic woman. “This place keeps the beer cold at least…. So wait, are you still a blue or did you get named?”
“Used to be a blue shirt in the UK. Mechanic. Those were good times…. But then I filed for a name so I could do my own stuff.”
The guard cracked a smile. “Love it. Not everyone does the pun name.”
“Pun names are classic. It was pun or nothing.”
The two bumped fists, then settled back into reflective silence, occasionally passing the bottle back and forth.
“I miss it though, being a shirt,” Neb said after a time. “I miss the group. Being named is for people that really like doing the thief thing. I was never into that.”
“Then why get named?”
“To be a doctor, mostly. Other stuff too, but a lot that.”
At that Ara flexed her arm. “Neb, maybe it’s the pain meds or whatever you put on here, but feels like there’s nothing wrong under these stitches. And I’ve been cut up a lot. You’re going to be a great doc. You should doc with the black shirts, you know? I bet you could talk the boss into it.”
The girl smiled gently at the mouth of the bottle in her hand. There was nothing wrong under Ara’s stitches, not anymore, but no one needed to know that. “You really think Carmen would let me work with you guys?”
The Korean stretched and took back the now nearly empty bottle, then gave her a heavy pat on the shoulder. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re already one of us.”
A journal by Flag and Neb
Flag would never admit it, but he was thankful that the “doctor” had come in when he did, for the jester - with all his talk about the proper way to do things - seemed unable to handle himself politely in a hospital situation. While everyone was focused on what Phillipe had to say, the sorcerer took the opportunity to slip out of the room and make his way to the cafeteria a level down.
He could never really pin down why, but Flag wasn’t particularly fond of Stone Harbor and rarely ever visited it in the time that it served as VILE’s headquarters.
"Are you out here for a reason, or couldn't you sleep to the freezing lull of such a loud ocean?"
The memory - and the musical voice behind it - jumped into his mind and he smiled faintly. Perhaps her observation had pinned that down. Regardless, Carmen was the only reason that he ever willingly came to the island.
Unfortunately, she was not here now.
He sat down at a table and leaned against the wall to contemplate what he was going to do next. Somehow the idea of going back to Leo’s seemed out of the question. This was a pity, for the old bookman would love to hear about the collection that they had just obtained.
He would also scold me for not having something proper to keep them in. Flag chuckled at the thought of Leo staring him down from underneath those bushy eyebrows and realized that he very much would like to have a quiet drink with a kindred spirit again; someone that also realized that the only good things about people were the stories that they left behind.
The sorcerer left the theater and wandered around the island for a while, trying to find a container that would be suitable for protecting the rare collection from the hazards of travel. Eventually, he found a leather case in an abandoned fishing store of all places.
When he returned to the tiny hospital wing of the converted theater, he was pleasantly surprised to find that he had missed the jesters exit. He knocked on the door to announce himself before entering to see Neb sitting on the bed, attempting to read, but looking far more perplexed than seemed right.
Neb had certainly tried to get back to her studies, but Joe had inadvertently stirred her up too much to do so, and she took the offered opportunity to vent without giving full thought to who she was venting it to.
“Man, like, I don’t know. Close the door, I got to say some things.”
Flag backed up to nudge the door closed before handing the leather case to Neb, assuming that she'd understand what it was for. He then took a seat in the chair that he had occupied before the jester had arrived.
The woman looked the box over quizzically, then eventually got it and slipped her current volume inside. “So like,” she started, then paused to find a starting point in the flurry of angst.
“Joe came in, and that was cool, you know? Visiting is cool, and I felt bad that he almost got it. That was my fault, and I paid for it.” She pointed at the bandage on her arm. “But then he’s like, ‘Carmen would have done better. Carmen would have had a million backup plans’. I don’t think that’s true. I think Carmen would have had the sense to leave Bran alone. Joe didn’t have to come. What else could I have done?”
Flag raised an eyebrow at her and shrugged. "Does it really matter at this point?"
Neb leaned her head back and sighed. “No….”
Then she looked back up again. “This.. is going to sound like a weird question, but...you think that Joe has got something extra going on? Like, supernatural?”
A small laughed escaped the sorcerer as the irony of the question hit him, but he shook his head. "Perhaps not more than anyone else in Carmen's employ."
“So the answer is yes,” she replied dryly “But really, like…”
She dropped her voice. “He started asking questions about the books, so I straight up told him I wanted them for immortality, because who’s going to take that seriously? But he got on about it! I kept trying to change the subject but he wouldn’t let go. So I let him talk, and he had so much to say on it. It felt like he wasn’t even talking to me.”
Flag blinked and looked away. "While I can agree that he was worked up about something, I'm afraid that I am having a hard time following what you are saying."
“What I’m saying is, why? It’s almost a ‘thou dost protest too much’ sort of thing, and I’m left wondering if Joe knows about something I can use. He says no, but of course he says no. Do you pick up anything on him?”
"Am I supposed to detect something?"
Neb waved her good hand. “I don’t know. You’re a smart guy, you notice things. ...I’m assuming by this lack of reaction that you haven’t,” she ended with an air of defeat. Somehow, Joe not hiding something behind his speech made her feel even worse.
“He was going on about how much it would suck, all the ways it would suck. Who would want that, who would choose that if they had the chance? What does he know if he doesn't know?”
She went silent in her bitterness. “What do you think, magic man? Why haven’t you gone after it?”
Now that he was finally able to figure out what it was that Joe had said to the girl, he was able to guess why she was frustrated - and in part why he might have been as well. Aside from whatever Neb offered him, there was no payout for him. His tirade simply could have been due to that. He should have taken more.
Immortality is an easy thing to have a high opinion on. For the most part, it's theoretical and philosophy could be drawn from any number of movies on the subject. Flag's experience with it came from a different source and his thoughts resonated in his answer. "I can't truly say that I haven't, but it wasn't an active pursuit."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "And what?"
Neb sighed inwardly. If Joe saying too much was the problem before, this was by far the opposite. “Why not? Why didn’t you actively pursue it? What did you see that made you turn away?”
"Nothing made me turn away. It was a more a side effect of things that I did." He gestured toward her. "You've stated that you remember a timeline alternate to this one as well, so - in a manner of speaking - You've experienced it too."
“Restarting time over and over isn’t what I mean. I mean not aging and living past your natural lifespan. You know you could do it, but-” She stopped short. Her heart slammed in her chest and she slowly backed away from that edge. “But you seem like you don’t want that. And that’s unusual. Joe’s speech was unusual. I feel like I’m missing something that I should know.”
"I'm not sure about that. Not wanting to die seems pretty natural."
“All the more reason why I’m wondering why you haven’t actively sought it. You’re someone who doesn’t enjoy dying, in my observation.”
Another sarcastic chuckle left him. "True enough, though by my count I've.." He paused to mentally count on his fingers and seemed to waver on the number four and five; momentarily troubled by the indeterminable number. "Died at least four times. Possibly a fifth." He leveled his gaze at her. "Each before starting time over again."
The girl’s mouth hung slightly open in shock as she inserted this critical information into the grand machine of life, then took stock of what came of it.
“You...died?” She finally managed to respond. “You died that day? And you’ve done this four times?”
She pressed her hand against her face and pushed it up through her remaining hair. “Going home was worth more than immortality, and you couldn’t have both. Is that it?”
Flag didn't even try to hide his expression as he corrected the term the girl used with the truth. He then sighed, nodded, and decided to voice it to save her from asking. "Being with my wife is worth more to me than immortality. Yes."
Neb’s thoughts derailed as the sorcerer showed his heart, but honored as she was by his seeming trust, she kept on her guard. Flag required a certain amount of conversational skill that she knew she lacked, and a wrong word now could ruin everything.
“You said she might be here,” she offered gently.
He nodded while dropping into his thoughts, chewing lightly on his lip as he did so.
“How did you get here?” she ventured further. “Could she have come the same way?”
"That's likely, " He shot Neb a glance, "if it's true."
Flag shifted in the chair and eventually decided that it was uncomfortable and stood. "She may have even arrived here before me."
The urge to throw herself at his cause was overwhelming, and it took her a considerable amount of effort to beat it into submission. Flag. Is. Dangerous. Dammit! She rubbed her face again in an effort to clear her mind, but a new thought refused to leave.
Over the years she’d studied Flag’s journal to hell and noticed his time spell’s target dates were set years before his last entry on his home planet. That discrepancy had long nagged at her, but now it made sense. His wife had left long before he had. “Do you know how you got here?”
A scowl erased the contemplation on his features and he looked away from her. "Not entirely."
Neb wracked her brain for one more lead, unwilling to push him any further. He had been found injured, meaning that what sent him here hadn’t been a good experience. She also knew he’d looped time three times that she knew of from the journal. That counted for three deaths, unless there were others that weren’t recorded. He was hesitant about the fifth. He didn’t know. Not entirely.
“Was it your choice?”
Flag slowly brought his gaze back to her, trying to remember why they started on this conversation before recalling that it was because the girl was flustered about her own quest and was now measuring it's value against his. Or perhaps it was simply that he was, but answering her curiosity seemed more worth it than not.
"It was not."
The woman closed her eyes and exhaled. He’d come here through death, or close to it. They both had; his wife having been so a long time before he had.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I hope you find her here.”
She took a solemn drink of water, then offered it to him. “I, uh….can see why immortality wouldn’t interest you.”
He quirked a brow up at that, but waved it off. "My lack of interest shouldn't dissuade you from yours... which I don't think you've ever said."
Neb let out a nervous laugh of relief as the tension defused. “I did tell you some. When you rebooted all of us, I realized how much of my life I had wasted, and how little I’ll have left once the cancer gets going. That’s the simple answer, but...”
She hesitated and picked at her bed sheets as she debated how much to say. Sometimes I hate that you’re the only person I can talk about this with.
“I don’t know why I can fix things. Maybe I was engineered to do it,” she started as she stared at her hands. “But I'm going to tell you a secret, Flag. I don’t really want to be a healer.
"Sure I like making people feel better. I like being helpful, but being around people is so hard. If I could do anything, I would hide in the mountains for the rest of my life, but that’s too damn selfish. I can’t waste a gift like this. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself."
Her gaze drifted off to the side. "So I’ll stay alive, making myself stronger, more useful, try to fix as much pain as I can. I haven’t really thought that far out yet. I need more time for that too.”
Then she clenched her hands slightly. “And that’s what makes me mad about what Joe said. You think I want to stay here forever? Like I’m doing it for fun? Maybe there’s a reason I have to stay here that I can’t talk about, you know?”
He knit his brows together when she said that she didn't want to heal people, but unfurled them again when she continued. "If you want to declare it a divine mission, I won't stop you. It's honestly as good a reason as any."
“Yeah, it’s kinda that, but…” She paused. She knew she was saying too much, but it felt so good to tell someone what had been resting at the bottom of her heart like a stone. “If I could really achieve….if I could really heal…”
The look in the woman’s eyes grew distant. “If I could take away the pain deep inside... But the brain is so complicated. It’s not like pinching off an aneurysm or clearing a toxin. It’s deeper. That’s the highest level. That’s the Grail. If I have to have this power, then... that’s what I want to do with it.”
The sorcerer leaned back against the wall and offered a complacent shrug, using the gesture to give her the encouragement that she seemed to want from him. "Then, go for it."
TO BE CONTINUED!
(A Joe and Neb post)
Once it was clear that Neb would survive her ordeal and the arrow had been pried out of her shoulder, the tiny woman was moved out of the admittedly creepy basement medical center and into a bare bones hospital room on the second floor. It didn’t have much, but she didn’t need much past time to heal and her thyroid medication.
And her torc, which now sat on the floor next to a weird-looking box that served as an adaptor for the electric outlet it was plugged into. Once the thing was charged and she could wear it again, her heal rate would be much faster, but for now she was stuck here, doing it the normal way.
“We really have to stop meeting like this.”
The statement was punctuated by a mirthful chuckle as its originator stepped into the room. Having changed out of his ‘mission attire’, Joseph Kerr was now sans mask and clad in a long sleeved turtleneck paired with black jeans.
“Apologies for disturbing your rest but someone couldn’t wait to visit.” Emphasizing on the noun, Joseph looked pointedly towards his right from which an orange blur rushed onto the bed. The Jester smiled in amusement as he silently took in Carmine’s attempt to smother Neb with her cuteness.
Neb laughed as the cat curled up in her lap. For a moment she felt almost normal, and was reluctant to let that moment, nor the cat go.
“So weird seeing you in normal dress, man,” she said as she pushed away the book she was slowly translating. She was about to ask where Flag was, but suddenly she didn’t want to know. She wasn’t ready to think about him yet, and the woman stared at the top of the cat’s head to hide her fleeting discomfort. “What happened with Bran? Did we run him over with the plane? I couldn’t see.”
Hiding his discomfort at the topic behind his smile, Joseph reached out to stroke Carmine for a few second before replying in what he hoped passed for a mirthful tone.
“I wish I could give you a play-by-play but truth is I didn’t see much either; I was far too preoccupied with the flight controls during that moment. Maybe Flag would be able to fill you in better. Don’t worry though, as far as I recall, Bran got out pretty much unscathed, which is unfortunately more than I can say for you.”
At the last part of that statement, Joseph’s expressions turned serious.
“I’m sorry that you’re in this bed because of me. Don’t get me wrong, it means a lot to me that you’ll always have my back, just like I’ll always have yours.” Joseph paused to squeeze Neb’s hand gently and let out a small but warm smile before continuing.
“I’m just really sorry that my lack of foresight and improper planning got you hurt. This would never have happened if it had been Carmen leading the mission; she always plans for everything.”
Neb bristled, and whatever warm feelings had been growing in her heart went cold. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that so?”
The woman knew it was an innocent statement but it struck a nerve nonetheless, and she sat up as straight as her injuries would allow.
“I did everything that could have been done for this heist.” she said angrily. “Bran’s been a fuuking nightmare that I’ve been trying to avoid because I knew his basement was going to be full of crap. There was no way to know how much unless you were Bran himself, so that’s why we sent in the drone. That’s why we shut off the power. That’s why we waited until we knew he’d be at a function. That’s why we cased the place as much as we could when we laid the explosives. That’s why I sent the first book in with a tracer. This-”
Neb pointed the wrappings on her arm, “-has nothing to do with lack of planning. This happened because Bran’s insane, apparently also has a teleporter, and that you didn’t listen to me after I told you a million times that Bran is whacko. Would you have listened to me if I was Carmen?”
Then she fell back on her pillow and exhaled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. I took every precaution I could to keep the two of you safe, but I didn’t count in your lack of battle experience. That’s on me. I’m sorry.”
She closed her eyes. “I can’t wait until I’m out of this business.”
Joseph paused to let the weight of her words sink in. He had not anticipated such a passionate response from Neb and many of her points stung home.
Gathering his thoughts, he began an honest and measured response.
“Let me first state unequivocally that I do not blame you for anything. Second, you may have been team leader but I was the senior agent on the team. It was my responsibility to ensure safety for the team and I messed up.”
Joe paused again to stroke Carmine and gather his thoughts.
“Yes, you did do everything you could on your end, but I could have done more. There were other, more dangerous gadgets I could have brought that might have helped us but I didn’t; You rightly pointed out that I failed to account for his insanity, foolishly believing that as an ACME he would have a strict ethos that we could rely on. That’s on me, for being stubborn.
More infuriatingly for me, I failed to make a plan B; and having worked with Carmen, I should have known better. It’s part of why she’s the best, you know; she always has a plan B, and C, and D, and well, you get the idea. She has the ability to plan for every outcome in any mission or heist. That’s why she’s such a great leader, and why I trust her so implicitly.
That’s not a knock on you. You’re shaping up to be a capable and great leader in your own right. If anyone should be contemplating stepping away from the grand ol’ game, it’s me, not you.”
Sighing, Joseph Kerr took a seat on the chair that was beside the bed and looked at Neb with a melancholy expression.
“This ‘business’ as you call it, was never a mere vocation or a means to earn a living for me. It’s equal parts artistry and challenge, a game where the test of skill is in itself the real prize. I’d like to believe that it’s the same for Carmen as well, and I’d like to think that’s the reason VILE has never been about the loot.
Sadly, the game’s changing, and I’m not sure I can change with it. I’m cut from the old cloth, the old breed of grifter; I identify with the days gone by when a thief wasn’t just a petty criminal but a skilled professional with a code of honour; the cops used to be more honourable also, sanctity of life was acknowledged and upheld by both factions.
These days, that concept seems to have become foreign. Criminals these days are scum and cops turn to violence and killing all too readily.
Maybe I’m too idealistic, maybe I’m just too stuck in the past. What do you think?”
Neb’s face softened and she exhaled slowly as she put her hand on Joe’s. “Oh Joe….”
She paused as she sorted through her two timelines for the correct one, then readjusted herself in bed.
“Thieves were always petty criminals. Carmen made an alternative through the sheer force of being Carmen, and by ACME’s willingness to hold their fire. This game is an anomaly. It only exists around Carmen, and it will likely disappear when she does. That said, even within the official teams, not everyone will play straight. Never assume that just because someone is ACME or VILE that they’re safe. No one is truly safe, Joe. You have to look out for yourself, always.”
The woman removed her hand and rubbed her shoulder. “As for stepping away, if you’re enjoying yourself, there’s no need to. Her game suits you well, so with a boost of survival instinct, you should be fine.
Me… I was never really a thief. I stayed with VILE to hide and provide background support as a grateful refugee. I told Carmen as much. She thought it was funny… I think.”
Neb’s voice lowered and her gaze slowly drifted out the window. She’d never truly gotten over Carmen’s disappearance in her first life. It wasn’t something she’d admit to, or even think about. The master thief was supporting her even now, with this care, in this safe house, and Neb was grateful for it, for all of it, yet the sharp sting of betrayal of the trust remained, and in her second turn she’d subconsciously distanced herself because of it.
The familiar ache rose again and the woman changed the topic. “If I could have gotten those books from Bran legally I would have, but he’s a f*cking jackass that buys up every damn thing I need and doesn’t share, so he left me with no choice. I was tempted to send someone else, but this is my thing. I’m not going to get someone killed for my thing. I either do it myself or not at all. Flag came along because....”
She didn’t want to think about why he came. It probably wasn’t good.
“-I have no idea, but I wasn’t going to say no. I needed the help and I knew he could take care for himself.”
She turned back to her fellow with a shade of guilt. “I asked if you wanted come because the Carmen stuff has been slow and I thought it might be fun for you, you know? You were already helping me with the book tracker and the origami robot thing. I knew it was more dangerous than your usual job, possibly something Carmen may not have even attempted due to the lack of precise knowledge of the house, but…”
She paused before going further, not wanting to rehash what had already been said. “You were a tremendous help. I’m sorry I almost got you killed.”
The woman lapsed into silence again as she pet the cat on her lap, not at all sure she deserved its comfort.
As much as Joe would have loved to argue the point about the history of the fine art of grifting and gentlemen thieves, Neb’s last statement and her seemingly forlorn look silenced him.
It was at times like these that he was reminded why he was originally drawn to the young woman; he recalled how he had chanced upon her all alone in a corner of the old headquarters, alone and lost, unsure of what this new life would hold for her. She needed a friend, a guide into this family of thieves; he was taken it upon himself to be that friend. Maybe that was what was needed here, not a mission debrief, not an apology, just friendship.
With a small smile, he reached over to stroke Carmine before letting his smile bloom into warm, welcoming grin.
“Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t the first time we’ve worked together and hopefully, it won’t be our last.”
After a brief pause of amiable silence, Joseph continued, attempting to switch topics.
“So about those books, never really took you for a bookworm. What’s the deal with those?”
Neb’s mind went blank and she stared dumbly at him. She’d had a whole explanation rehearsed for if Joe, or anyone for that matter, asked her why she was risking her life for some old books, which would not reveal her carefully guarded secret, but now, of course, it was gone.
Her mind raced as she tried to pull together another ironclad alibi, but perhaps the truth would serve even better.
“It’s for immortality,” she said flatly.
Joseph blinked at her in confusion. “You mean like a lasting legacy as the world’s greatest book thief? Or were you planning to write your own series of best sellers so that we’d always remember you?”
“Nope. I mean the real deal. Live forever. Or not really forever. Forever is a long time and I don’t want to be here when the sun eats the planet. Maybe like, a thousand years, or a few hundred. Depends how it goes.”
“You seem to have good faith in being able to achieve it. Given what we’ve seen in our line of work, maybe you’re onto something; who knows? I just have one question really,” Joseph looked Neb straight in the eye and before continuing in a soft but firm tone,
“Have you thought this through properly?”
“Yeeeeeeeeeeessssss?” Neb answered with a cocked eyebrow. She didn’t mean to be rude, but she chafed at having her judgement questioned again. “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Bran Flakes’s house of horrors if I wasn’t serious about- Wait...”
Something Joe said cut through her indignation and she squinted at him. “What do you mean, ‘what we’ve seen’?” What have you seen?”
“Not the point. And you missed the point of the question too. I wasn’t questioning if you were serious about trying to pursue this, I know you better than that. I want to know if you thought about ALL the ramifications of becoming immortal, or at least living on for hundreds, if not thousands of years?”
Joseph paused and placed a hand on Neb’s shoulder.
“I know I can’t stop you from pursuing anything you’ve got your heart set on, but as your friend, I don’t want you jumping into this with tunnel vision and literally living to regret it later.”
Neb frowned at the dismissal of her question. Any other brushes with the paranormal the man had had could hold useful information, and she made a point to press the issue later. Now she cocked her eyebrow at him as she tried to suss out exactly what was going on here.
“You sound like you’ve thought a lot about it…” she answered hesitantly, “Like, a real lot.”
She studied him a moment longer, then leaned in conspiratorially, “Are you immortal?”
Joseph let out a hearty laugh at Neb’s query.
“If I was, I wouldn’t have been dodging every time someone tried to take a shot at me.”
Looking at the scar on left arm, Joe’s expression turned oddly sentimental.
“Nope. I’m a hundred percent mortal, and I’m perfectly content to stay that way. You, on the other hand, seem to have other ideas.”
Neb stared at his scar. It all went the same way, right down to that, she thought dully. Her absence had changed little to nothing, unless Olga was still at large. That was something to ask Flag about. Later.
“Jeeze, Joe, we got to get you a suit of armor,” she replied with a weak laugh. “Although I think we got a guy who wears armor as his thing. VILE Knight. Is he still around?” she added in a bid to change the subject.
“You mean Sir Vile? If I recall, I read something about his status while Patty and myself were shutting down the old base; something about going on sabbatical when the boss put a stop to the whole ‘messing about with time’ business. Pity that, he’d make a natural casting choice for some of the plays we’re supposed to do next season.”
After a brief moment of chuckling at something to himself, Joseph turned his attention back to Neb.
“Speaking of messing with time, why is it you want to be immortal again?”
“Again? I haven’t managed it the first time yet.”
Joseph responded with a deadpan look. “Funny, I thought jokes were my schtick.”
Carmine responded with a snigger which earned her a raised eyebrow from the Jester. “Et Tu Carmine?”
Being met with only more sniggers, Joseph shook his head before turning his attention back to Neb.
“Seriously though, in this Jester’s humble opinion, the whole immortality idea is overrated.”
It had been a dumb joke, but it had also knocked her partner just enough off track to make her comfortable again.
“Well you’re in luck there, mate. Just don’t go running too hard in the opposite direction,” she replied with a smile. Then, once again, something Joe said gave her pause, and she truly began to suspect the man of hiding supernatural endeavors of his own. “What was that about messing with time?”
“Didn’t you read up on VILE history as part of your training? Anyway, the gist of it all is that a few years back, Carmen tried to take the game to the next level by using a time travel device to steal items from history. Eventually, after a few misadventures, both ACME and VILE came to the agreement that time travel was too risky and both sides banned the use of time machines. Come to think of it, don’t know why ACME had a time machine to begin with. Huh.”
Filing that last thought away for later, the Jester turned his attention back to Neb.
“Anyway, it was all before my time. If you want the juicy details, you’ll need to ask someone else. And yes...I know you’ve been trying to deflect”
Joseph stuck out his tongue in an impish gesture before continuing.
“So just out of utter curiosity, what kind of immortality does the book promise in the first place?”
Neb stared at him.
We had time machines? And we hadn’t been used to stop Hitler? How could anyone have a time machine and not try to stop a tragedy with it? Unless you were Flag and didn’t give a damn, but then why the hell hadn’t he just used the machine to go home instead of all that other crap? And why did ACME have one?
Probably to stop Hitler.
The woman rubbed what short, grey hair was still left on her head, then glanced at the man watching her expectantly beside the bed.
The answer to his latest question ran through the heart of her secrets and she thought to throw him off again, but he was like a dog with a bone. Even if she shut the conversation down, it was bound to come back again, and she couldn't help but be curious by now. Neb exhaled a sigh of defeat.
“Alright Joe, this might be the painkillers talking or I might be reading too much into your words, but I’m getting the feeling there’s something you want to tell me about immortality?”
Raising an eyebrow, Joseph began in a slow, measured tone.
“First off, I am genuinely curious as to what kind of immortality the book promises. Is it the type whereby you never grow old or the type whereby you won’t die but you’ll still grow old? Because in my opinion, it would suck being stuck as an old man for hundreds of years.”
Joseph let out a dramatic shiver as he continued somewhat lightheartedly.
“Can you imagine sufferings hundreds of years of arthritis and dementia? I’d much rather be locked up by ACME, thank you very much.”
The Jester’s tone then shifted to a more serious one.
“More importantly though, say the book gives you the ability to stay young forever and never die; that’s a double-edged sword right there. Sure, you’d have all the time in the world to do things, but you’d have no one to truly share them with; you’d never be able to have meaningful relationships because everyone else would grow old whilst you stayed eternally youthful.”
Joseph paused slightly for dramatic effect before carrying on painting the disturbing picture.
“You’d be able to accomplish many things, but I’d imagine they’d lose their meaning to you after awhile; it’d probably get boring and tedious waking up everyday. You wouldn’t be afraid of anything anymore since nothing could kill you but that would also take the fun out of life since there’s no danger of yours ending.”
Looking Neb in the eye, Joseph smiled warmly before finishing.
“You’re free to believe what you want and do what you think is best, but in my personal opinion, what makes us human is our mortality; the very awareness that we will eventually die one day, could eventually die at any time. Mortality is what makes us cherish relationships, make memories, love the people we love, be driven to accomplish something, be prompted to be kind and helpful; all because we know we all have a limited time and need to make the most of it. To live without that? That isn’t living anymore, that’s just...torture, a never-ending purgatory of futility and boredom.”
The small woman remained silent throughout, clenching and unclenching her fists as she repeated over and over to herself, He’s just trying to help, he’s just trying to help. After all, it wasn’t his fault he had to make assumptions when she wouldn’t give him any solid information. There was no way for him to know how much sorrow and anger was wrapped up in her decision when she didn’t wish to show it. Still, she felt the need to respond, so with careful deliberance she picked up the cat on the bed and held it close as she lay back on the bed.
“I told you I didn’t intend to stay more than a thousand years,” she replied wearily as she gazed at the ceiling. “Immortality doesn’t necessarily mean invulnerability. In my case, it won’t. It will be a constant struggle to maintain it, and to be honest, my heart’s not fully in it. But I’ll pursue it the best I can, for reasons I can’t tell you.”
Neb half turned to him them. “And what’s wrong with befriending someone you know you’ll outlive? We do it all the time, with our elders, with our sick. You’re doing it right now, with me. I don’t have much time left unless I make this work.” She gestured to the book on the floor. “It won’t give me forever, but I don’t need forever. I just need time. Time enough.”
Seeing that Neb was set in her decision, Joseph decided to leave her in peace, but couldn’t stop himself from leaving one last parting shot. “It is not death that we should fear Kid, it is not living life to its fullest and cherishing every moment while we can.”
Smiling, the Jester donned his mask once more and left with Carmine in tow, vanishing into the secret halls of Stone Harbour.
Neb stared blankly at the door he'd left from. “What the hell...?”
It was as if he hadn't heard a thing she said after the word ‘immortality’, not even the sizable hint that she'd finally dropped that she was dying. Something about the subject of eternity had triggered the man so much that he'd been compelled to pontificate, but why remained a mystery. The lot of it left her unsettled, and Neb squinted suspiciously at the door the jester had left through.
I bet he is immortal. I mean, why not? Given what we’ve seen in our line of work... she thought as she fished her book off the floor with her good arm. “He could have at least let me keep the cat.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
(This entry was written a while ago by Neb, Flag, Joe, and Dr. Roux.)
Neb had maintained a hint of a smile as the plane gained altitude.
She had little doubt of Flag’s assessment that she'd been poisoned, and knowing Bran, it was probably a fatal. She wasn’t ready to go by any stretch of the imagination, but at least she’d gone down in a blaze. She was leaving this world amongst friends, and she’d managed to steal something from fuuking Brychanson before she did, even if she never got to enjoy her prizes.
With the last of her strength she curled her fingers around a fold in Flag’s pant leg. Always thought you’d be the one to take me out of this world, she thought as she drifted away. Guess I was wrong…
- - -
And then she woke up again.
She wasn't entirely sure. All around was swirling black, and when she tried move within it, nothing happened.
Am I dead? Is this what dead is?
The pain of the arrow buried in her shoulder arrived at the edge of her consciousness, followed by the scent of blood, wet earth, and...antiseptic. The steady beep of a heart monitor, an IV line in her arm-
No no no nonono….Where am I? Who has me? What did you do to me?! She shouted, but nothing came out, and the heart monitor’s staccato increased as she scrambled to remember how she got here.
Pain in shoulder, arrow, Bran. Was she with Bran? No, Flag got her. She was with VILE then, unless something else happened after she blacked out. There was no way to tell, and in desperation she turned to the mantra that had gotten her through the roughest patches of the past nine years:
What would Flag do?
He’d probably just lie here, being very angry.
That wasn't much of a plan, but it was better than nothing.
Fuuk this... she thought tentatively as she kicked an imaginary rock in her mind. Fuck this shit. Fuck this shit right here! Fuck all this, and fuuk you, yeh fuuking Bran! With yer fecking bow, like some goddamn bloody wazzock-
- - -
The unearthly, almost hypnotic, hum of medical devices filled the air, accented by the percussion of soft breathing and the occasional clunk of a tool. The room, simply dubbed ‘Medical’, made most VILE Agents uneasy for some reason or the other; standing in the doorway, Joseph Kerr was inclined to agree with them.
On the rare occasions that VILE agents caught a nasty bug or simply suffered the odd cut/fracture, they were usually referred to the local physician for treatment; heavier injuries or more curious ailments however, required a trip to the refurbished underground chamber that served as VILE’s private medical center.
Similar in size to the chamber that served as Dr Bellum’s laboratory, ‘Medical’ was furnished much like a miniature hospital, complete with an X-Ray room and a fully stocked surgery; the ‘iconic’ hospital bouquet of Bleach, Formaldehyde and the occasional touch of Eau De Vomit adorned the room, adding to the grim, disconcerting atmosphere of the place.
Joseph Kerr watched uneasily as his comrade lay haplessly in one of the beds, hooked up to various monitors and IV drips; his dour mood was summed up perfectly by the melancholy’ mew’ that drew his attention.
“I know Carmine, I’m worried about her too.”
Kneeling down to give her some affectionate rubs, the Jester smiled briefly as he observed the feline’s antics;
“Sorry. You know the rules, Carmine. You’re not allowed in Medical. Go and play somewhere else, I’ll come update you later.”
Letting out a mournful ‘meow’, Carmine gave Joseph an affectionate rub before running off back to the main area of the theatre.
Stone Harbor could arguably be VILE's nicest base to date. The town had a culture of its own to assimilate into, there were plenty of abandoned structures to move into, and an abundance of necessary resources on hand. Flag wanted to like it, but he just couldn't.
At first his discomfort with the place seemed completely irrational, but as Carmen had once pointed out, it was loud. The ocean waves battered the island from all directions and the wind whistled pretty much everywhere. While it could be tuned out, it took effort.
The subterranean levels were easier for him to handle on a noise level. However, what they lacked in white noise, they made up for in atmosphere. The science labs smelled acrid with ozone and the "medical room" smelled like a hospital. Both consisted of the weird and experimental.
Between the two, Flag preferred the wonder and enthusiasm of the science-side, but he more often found himself in the weird tension of the medical side. This time the sense of lingering worry and tension came from the Jester sitting not far away from the foot of the runt's bed.
Flag had occupied that seat, reading through the books that Neb stole, before he had had to answer a call of nature. It frustrated him now that he would not be able to continue his reading, but he didn't let this show. Instead he nodded a greeting, turned, and leaned against the wall.
Time seemed to stand still as Joseph and Flag watched over their comrade; stoic silence serving as the backdrop for uncertainty, regret, curiosity and frustration. The occasional exchange of subtle glances served as the only reprieve for the duo who seemed otherwise intent on willing Neb to fight through her incapacitation.
Since returning from their mission, Joseph knew that he would have to hash things out with his counterparts; given that one was currently indisposed, he had wanted to wait till a more suitable time. Now, with the tension palpable in the room, he was reminded of the volatility of its occupants; perhaps it would be more prudent to deal with one at a time.
Finally, the Jester broke the stalemate and signaled the silver-haired enigma to follow him outside Medical.
Looking Flag in the eye as best he could, Joseph addressed him in a deceptively calm voice.
“You clearly have something to say to me, so let’s hear it.”
Flag quirked an eyebrow and narrowed his slitted eyes on the jester before him. While he could comment on the evening, he really didn't feel that there was much of a point to it outside of a debriefing. The Sivoan simply wanted it to be over with; to have all the ends wrapped up. This was impossible so long as the runt was incapacitated... and now apparently without a confrontation.
"What do you want to hear?"
Keeping his tone neutral, Joseph began pulling the band-aid off.
“For starters, what was up with the electrocution attempts? I’m pretty sure we have a “no killing” policy around here.”
"I didn't kill him. I took away his vantage point." Flag responded coldly.
Joseph retorted with a roll of his eyes, “Only because you missed.”
Doing his best to keep his tone even, the Jester looked Flag square in the eyes.
“Look, I’m not an idiot. I know you’ve got some sort of powers; I don’t really care to know the full details, nor do I need to know if the rumours of your origin are true. What I do need to know is that you won’t pull stunts like that as long as you’re working with us; if you’re gonna stick around with VILE, then you need to play by our rules. I won’t have your careless disregard for life send hapless ACME agents to an early grave.”
Flag didn't move as he continued to stare Joe down. "I honor what Carmen requests of me, but I owe no special favors to ACME. So long as they continue to excessively arm their detectives, I will prepare accordingly.”
“That’s the problem right there, you combat brawn with brawn; we combat brawns with brains. We’re thieves, not soldiers; we take pride in outwitting our opponents at every turn of the game.”
A mirthless "heh" left Flag before he could rein it in and he crossed his arms as he nodded toward Neb in the bed. "That worked so well."
He dropped his hands again and hooked his thumbs into his pockets. "Answer me this. When was the last time you dealt with an archer?"
“Back when I had a stint in the circus.” Noticing the deadpan look, Joseph was quick to append his statement.
“I wasn’t kidding. My first stint as a thief was with a circus of performers who also moonlighted as thieves. Back then, I knew a guy who entertained using archery tricks.”
"Then you should be aware that arrows arc and a good archer can control how. Even hidden, we were dead as long as he knew which stones we were behind." Flag lifted his eyes to look over the Jester and into the room beyond. "I didn't miss. With him on the ground, all we had to do was make sure he didn't know where we were until Ki—Neb brought the plane in."
Flag cast his eyes downward. "He loosed his arrow at you despite your wit. If it weren't for her, you'd be in that bed."
Looking at the bed, Joseph exhaled before replying calmly.
“Believe me, I’m grateful for her actions. I went out in the open because I was trying to stall him, confuse him; no self-respecting hunter/warrior takes out a surrendered target.
Also, in case you didn’t notice, he had me and Neb dead to rights very early on but didn’t fire on either of us; he was looking for you. I read his eyes; he was assessing the situation, being extremely cautious. As long as we had appeared passive, I should have been able to stall him out till the plane came.”
Turning to Flag, he continued.
“Look, I get that you were trying to solve the issue the way that you saw fit but that’s the issue right there, the way you see fit differs from what the rest of us see fit. You could have killed the archer, if not for the bolt then from the fall; he was damn lucky to survive that.
You were thinking of us, and I appreciate that, but good VILE agents know to assess the situation and figure a way that everyone can get out unscathed, ACME and VILE.”
Self-respecting hunter? Flag went to mock the notion by pointing out that the man had a death maze under his house and a ready means of hiding bodies; that he also sent killer robots after them and followed up with an intentionally poisoned arrow after all of that had failed, but was cut off by the jester's continuance.
"You knew what he was thinking? Your gift of telepathy is astounding." Flag said as he rolled his eyes. "So what would you be saying now if the previous owner of the books had not been ACME, as you've so clearly emphasized, and were say... mafia?" The sorcerer took a step forward. "I'd be justified then, right? At this point, your words are hypocrisy. I explained my actions. Whatever organization he belonged to was not a factor in my decision to protect us and it is concerning that it is such a weight on you."
Seeing as the message was clearly not getting through, Joseph’s frustration started to boil over.
“Funny you should mention the Mafia. Let’s also add the Irish Mob, the Russian Mob, the Chinese Triads and the Mexican Cartels while we’re at it. Just like them, VILE is a criminal organisation with an enormous network and vast resources and just like them, we face off with ACME all the time. But you know what sets us apart from all of them?
Our wits. Everything they are famous for, we could easily pull off, and arguably outshine them, but we don’t; however, can they steal the Eiffel Tower without damaging it? I think not. Can they make Angkor Wat magically disappear? No. We can. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.
We don’t need firepower and might to secure our standing; We don’t run on fear; we run on respect. We pride ourselves on our ability to outthink and outwit any opponent, no matter how tough.
ACME doesn’t fear us, and they shouldn’t have to; Despite the fact that we have arguably more resources and capability than all the mobs combined, they know they’re safe no matter what our schemes, because they understand that we’re not like everyone else.
We’re above killing, we’re above drugs and guns and human trafficking and all that other crap; we’re not in this for money or for ourselves.
VILE has always and will always be in this for the love of the game, nothing more and nothing less. No matter how dangerous our foe, the rules of the game never change - no killing. Against bloodthirsty foes I might resort to non-lethal force in order to incapacitate but I will never kill.
The day that I break that oath in order to survive, is the day I turn myself into ACME and ask them to throw away the key, because I’m no longer fit to play the game.”
Pausing, Joseph lowered his voice and looked Flag square in the eye before continuing slowly
“No opponent of ours, ACME or otherwise should have to die for this game…”
Joseph turned back to look at Neb through the glass as he finished in almost a whisper,,
“...that’s our burden to bear.”
Flag had to stifle a laugh as the jester got himself worked up. It wasn't that the Sivoan didn't understand what was being said, he just didn’t agree with it, preferring efficiency over style and finding that violence was often very efficient in his dealings.
But, perhaps for the first time, he could see why Carmen brought Joe into the team. He could be a decent faceman.
They both failed tonight, however. Efficiency would have been doing more reconnaissance on the mansion; discovering the cave that lead directly to the study from the graveyard and entering the labyrinth from there. Showmanship would have been better executed with a planned distraction that would have made a grab-and-run heist go unnoticed.
They all should have asked for help beforehand, but they all had been to proud to do so.
He had contemplated this at length while he had been flipping through their loot and came to terms with it as best as he could. It finally seemed that Joe was done throwing blame via rhetoric and was accepting the situation as well.
Flag sighed, acknowledging only the last bit of the jester's tirade. "Yeah."
Alone in his laboratory, VILE’s lead doctor looked at samples from the patient and established the toxin to be a derivative of coniine. This was common enough for arrows, but the doctor was not in the habit of questioning attackers. His job was to restore life, wherever possible. When he was done with analysis, Acton Roux sealed his face with the now famous mask and goggles, and proceeded to his patient.
Upon entry, he nodded a greeting to both men before him.
“It is hemlock, plain and simple,” he stated, “she is likely fully conscious. We keep the young lady hydrated and breathing, she should be able to battle this on her own.”
He proceeded to check her status. Symptoms were consistent with hemlock poisoning. With time, she should wake on her own. Perhaps as quickly as the next few hours.
“I will monitor her until she wakes, you both may remain, of course.”
‘He would use hemlock, fucking nob,’ Neb thought dryly as she tried to speak again. Brychanson was a chronological paradox in all ways; with ancient castle filled with high tech dungeon traps, armed with a longbow and modern arrow, tipped with an old poison that she had little doubt was synthetic, just to keep the pattern.
If she could have heard Flag’s conclusion that the job had been botched, she would have vehemently disagreed. She’d done as much reconnaissance possible for a private household as bizarre as the Welshman’s, and prior experience taught her that there was no surefire distraction that would worked on him. The man seemed to have his own illogical brand of magical timing and intuition, something she wouldn’t put past him actually having considering that she and Flag could claim the same.
And then, of course, there was the fact that Brychanson was crazy. There was no reason for him to come after them with, of all things, a longbow, especially after Joe declared himself unarmed. They’d gotten into the castle, stolen the treasure, and got out alive. That was all you could ask for from an attack on Castle Branula and they’d done it. In her eyes, the mission was a success.
Except for one thing.
She had warned both her colleagues thoroughly that they were going up against a madman, but only one of them seemed to understand. It wasn’t Joe’s code of nonviolence that troubled her, but his seeming lack of survival instinct. Even now the Jester tempted fate by poking at an already irritated Flag, and she was dearly grateful that the silver-haired man wasn’t reacting as he could have.
Neb frowned inwardly. She should never have allowed Joe into something so dangerous. He was a sweet man, meant for more playful, honor-bound, intellectually-driven environments with a more level-headed opposition like ACME.
Bran’s temple of doom was no place to bring a man like that. Even if Bran was ACME, (and of that she wasn’t so sure), that didn’t count for much. Lee Jordan was ACME too, and he was clearly a psychopath.
At least the punishment landed on the right person, Neb thought grimly as she pushed at the poison’s grip. Fuuking Bran. Stupid fuuking Bran with his fuuking arrow. Was probably showing off for his girlfriend, what a big man he is, with his big ass bow and his big ass poison arrow. Ooh look at me, shooting these unarmed thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevvvvvvvessss I’m so brave, standing out it the open like a twat when these thieves is so dangerous goddam-
“...fucking Bran!” she muttered aloud, at last.
TO BE CONTINUED!
Despite having traveled by air, it took Neb the totality of her four day travel allotment to get back to her apartment. Traffic led to missed flights that collided with delays until she was sure she’d accidentally angered some god. Still, she reasoned as the taxi brought her closer to home, surely she’d make it to her apartment before Flag.
In truth her apprehension had nothing to do with its appearance, but what she’d left visible. Everything of value to your average thief was safely stored, but the one entering wasn’t just anyone.
Neb smiled at the irony of her nervousness. She’d often wondered what the silver-haired man would think of the bits and pieces she’d made of his work, but that was when he was a distant ghost. Now he was very real, and she couldn’t remember exactly what she’d left in his line of sight.
* * *
To the various members of VILE, San Francisco was famous for being ACME's home town. To others it was famous for a bridge, theater, and fog - the latter of which Flag had to deal with for nearly two hours because of an accident on interstate 80 in the early morning hours. This did not help his mood when he finally arrived at the building the card had directed him to.
He should have recognized the address as having belonged to the apartment building that Carmen appropriated long before they met. It had been offered as a place for him to stay while they plotted out the tower heist (the first time) and he turned it down in favor of staying someplace where he could see ACME headquarters unhindered. Of course now even the distance of the VILE building didn't matter. It too stood in the shadow of Accolade.
Flag stashed the car in a parking garage down the street and made his way to the apartment of the new age healer, book in hand. The sooner he exchanged this thing for his journal, the better.
He hated San Francisco.
* * *
Neb loved San Francisco, if only for the sublime satisfaction she got from living in ACME’s shadow. After a wasted lifetime of hiding from them on every level, it felt freeing (and perpetually entertaining) to wander around their common areas. While technically they were still a danger to her, that knowledge was tempered by memories of those she fought beside in wasteland at the edge of the world.
The woman smiled slightly as ACME’s tower came into view, then continued constructing a mental task list of everything she needed to do before Flag’s arrival. There was a decent amount to stash, but she’d only need about twenty minutes to-
“Oh for f*ck’s sake…” She muttered as the taxi pulled up to its destination.
The silver-haired man was already waiting outside.
Neb grabbed her bag and hastily paid the driver, tipping well as usual as per her custom. Then she exited the car and walked briskly to the door of the building, flashing him a quick smile as she passed him.
“Stuff happened,” she said preemptively as she pressed her thumb to a biometric reader. The door beeped as it unlocked, and she opened it wide for him to reveal several flights of stairs.
“I’m on the top floor, so you can use the little elevator installed over there if you want to.”
From her curt greeting and general air of frustration, he assumed that she wanted the stairs to herself. "Okay. See you at the top."
The elevator was slow, installed for her less-abled patients, and she skipped stairs as she bounded to the top to gain just a few precious seconds before he got to her door. Another thumb scan and two key turns got her in, and she immediately scanned the living room for anything that could incriminate her in his eyes. The seemingly nonsensical scrolls and notes on the walls that she’d put up for ambiance would be legible to him, and after she’d given him up for dead they’d become more heartfelt.
Down the hall she heard the bell of the tiny elevator and the sound of heavy boots on old wood. Her time almost up, Neb snatched two scrolls from the wall and a pile of papers from the floor and hastily tossed them into her bedroom as Flag appeared in the door frame.
“Welcome to my abode,” she said cordially, hoping her initial panic was not as obvious as it felt.
It totally was. In her haste to do whatever it was before he arrived, she had knocked her wig off and the gray mess underneath it was in total disarray. The apartment didn't fair much better and Flag assumed that the girl's frenzy up the stairs was due to this until he saw a sketch of his former visage on the wall with the letters WWFD underneath.
"I see I left an impression." He grumbled as he stepped through the door and into the living room office. As predicted, he noticed the scroll-like posters of his native handwriting, one of which contained the weird oath that she had tattooed on her arm. Another was an attempt at poetry that didn't translate at all. These didn't concern him as the his journal pages that hung between them. He hoped they weren't original.
Neb continued to stash what she could as he looked around, for the less Flag knew, the better off one generally was. But there was still the matter of retrieving his journal, and that would be a difficult trick to hide.
For now the man was attempting to make sense of a scroll on her wall. He wouldn’t be able read it easily. The poem was drafted after she’d decoded his alphabet, but before she learned the language itself, making it a mix of smaller, easier Sivoan words and phonetically spelt English.
Seeing him beside it now gave her pause, and as she stilled to catch her breath, she reread it over his shoulder:
They will ask me, no doubt,
why I stood so close,
Despite what I knew, first hand.
You are fire,
Quick and searing,
Wild and uncaring,
And for this I should keep you away,
That fire lit the path ahead,
Thawed my muscles so they may move.
Tempered the metal of my will,
And distilled what I needed to consume.
It is from your blaze I rose anew,
And for this I risked destruction,
More for me to gain than lose,
In the bounty of your fire
She crossed the room in thought. The less Flag knew, the better; but exposure to his element had ultimately been to her benefit, and now she wondered just how much further he could take her.
“An impression? You could say that.” Neb reopened her bedroom door. It was dark, the blinds pulled shut against peeping eyes, and consisted little more than a mattress on the floor with some medical monitors beside it, a dresser covered in wigged heads, and a pile of clothes and papers that she was now pushing into the closet.
Then she pulled the bedroom carpet away, revealing a flat metal ring four feet in diameter with a bundle of wires and cables running from it. The woman flipped a few switches on a console nearby and watched with growing excitement as the ring hummed to life, the soft glow emanating from it casting the room in a dull red.
Thin red lines of light reached towards her as she stepped within the ring. There she knelt amongst them and opened a sterilized hypodermic needle pack.
“Let me just get your journal then,” she said as she pricked her finger. Her blood touched the knot of light growing at her feet, and in a flash she was gone.
She reappeared in a large, concrete room filled with machinery and clearly labeled drawers. Everything she couldn’t afford to lose she stored here, an underground vault with only one way of entry; the teleportation ring that only worked for her. Getting here had been the warp’s original purpose, but she’d since expanded its network to include a handful of far-flung locations.
Neb half tripped off the pad with a groan. Traveling this way was hard on the body, but it was worth it.
Finding Flag’s journal was easy. After she’d scanned and reproduced it, she’d kept it safe in a heavy, hand-carved box upon a podium. It was her most precious possession; the root of her work, and until now, the only proof she had that the silver-haired man had ever existed.
She lifted it from the box with reverence, then reactivated the ring with her still bleeding finger and she reappeared her room again. There she took a few steps forward, then fell face first onto the conveniently placed mattress nearby.
“Just a minute,” came her muffled voice.
Had the morning not wore on him the way it did, he could have laughed at the girl. He was no stranger to the effects she felt, but had she used her brain, she wouldn't have to suffer them at all.
"All of these teleportation options out there, and you imitate mine." He walked over and dropped the codex on her. "You chose poorly."
“Yours was the only one available,” Neb said groggily as she rolled over on her back. “The other ones were busted up by someone.” She raised her eyebrows at him for added emphasis, then sat up and picked up the codex. “Whatever. There might even be something I can use in here to...”
She trailed off. It was the first time she’d actually gotten to see it up close, and for what it should have been, it was far too thin.
“Are you. F*cking. Kidding me?” The woman asked slowly as she carefully turned the pages. “It’s just the goddamned index!” She fell back on the mattress with an agonized groan. “It says there’s three other books in here, so where the hell are-?” The colour drained from her face. “He has them. He has the others. F*cking. Bran.”
She put her hands over her eyes in thought. Bran’s mansion was said to be a literal gauntlet and she didn’t even know where in the place he’d store what she wanted. If she could send in a drone or a tracking..…
Neb held up the index. “Hey, how much would it cost me to get you to fix this?”
"A decent amount." He glanced at the book in her hands. Over the past few days he had had ample opportunity to inspect the damage done to it, and frankly, he was offended by it. "You'll have to cover supplies as well."
“I got supplies in here, and I can wire you the money now. Can you start today?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to another and crossed his arms. "No."
Neb sighed heavily as she got up, then edged her way past him so she could study her book in better light. “Hear me out. If we fix this ourselves and plant a tracker in it it, it will lead us right through his maze of a house to the rest of the set. But for that to work, it has to be fixed, wired and delivered to Bran before Leo realizes it’s gone. If I have to try to fix myself, I will.
She turned back and handed him the index. “But it deserves better than that.”
Flag had taken her trek through the rooms as an opportunity to retrieve his journal from the mattress. Contrary to her request, he had tuned her out with the intention of leaving now that the exchange was finally complete, but snapped back to attention when she threatened to attempt repairs herself.
Before he could scold her for such a thought, she handed the codex back to him and he had to try and replay what she said in his mind, succeeding only with the electronic side of the plan. "Do you have such a tracker?"
“I have a few, but Joe probably has something better, maybe even a collapsible drone. I ran into him in Vegas and he’s ready for some action. I just have to give the word. You in?”
She met his eyes. “Or do you have something else to do today?”
"Yeah. Coffee." He pushed past her, shoving the codex back into her arms as he did so. He was almost out of the apartment when the weight of the burning bridge between him and Leonard fell on his shoulders, causing him to stop.
Stupid as the girl’s plan was, he could use it to ensure further collaborations with the book repairman by finishing this job for him - a potentially welcome notion considering the horrifyingly goopy mess that was lined up ahead of it.
"Fine, but let me check out a spare suite first. This," He waved his hand around to indicate the atmosphere of her apartment, "is overbearing. I can't work here."
And with that, he left.
Neb exhaled slowly, then flopped on the couch. The place wasn’t usually in such a disarray, but before the failed book heist she’d been holed up in there for several months, bent over her work. That her de facto mentor didn’t seem interested in any of it stung, but that was Flag. Dreadfully practical.
At least she’d managed to keep him in her loop without having to go back on her word. Having his help against Bran would help immeasurably, and for a brief moment she’d considered tossing his journal back in the vault to get him to do so, but that wasn’t how she rolled. Besides, he wasn’t the only one she wanted on this job.
The woman pulled out her phone and placed a call to Vegas.
TO BE CONTINUED!
[written by @Kid Kidman and @Joe Kerr]
Las Vegas has always been known for some weird and outlandish sights; a natural wild child borne of the ‘go big or go home’ and ‘campy glitz’ attitudes exuded by every single casino dotting the strip.
Perhaps this was why no one seemed to bat an eyelid at the sight of a small orange cat weaving seamlessly through the endless barrage of patrons on the casino floor. The feline would continue her journey before coming to a stop at the feet of a short man in a perfectly tailored suit.
The man smiled before reaching down to scoop up and stroke the cat who had started to polish his Italian leather shoes with her tail.
“And what mischief have you been up to again, Carmine?”
Joseph Kerr laughed as said feline let out an innocent ‘meow’ in response. He continued to stroke her auburn fur as he strolled around the establishment, his eyes never ceasing from their task of scanning the floor for troublemakers.
It was common knowledge in Vegas that 5 years ago an unnamed multinational corporation had bought over The Mirage from its former owners; however only a select few knew that corporation was actually VILE, or rather, one of its shell companies.
The Mirage had since served as VILE safehouse and regional base; the hotel and casino itself were perfectly legitimate but the same couldn’t really be said for some of its VIP guests. A small handful of VILE Agents also took turns in managing the establishment and ensuring that it was run properly and ‘above board’. The irony was never lost on Joe whenever he or his fellow VILE colleagues had to throw out various people for attempting to cheat the system and steal from the casino.
Carmine, for her part, seemed to love popping into rooms unannounced and conducting her own ‘inspections’.No one seemed to mind her though, most guests just thought of her as the hotel mascot, and an unannounced visit from her was even said to be a sign of good luck (Joe had started that rumour as a joke but it had somehow taken on a life of its own and become part of the local lore).
* * *
Neb was still sore, but driving today had been far better than it would have been last night. For one thing, she’d actually achieved her goal by hanging around. Almost. Maybe.
She bit her lip in consternation as she looked at the room service menu. She’d originally planned on grabbing the book and riding off into the sunrise, but now Flag was involved, and even though she’d managed to get Flag involved, she’d also gotten Flag involved.
“Balls.” she muttered ambivalently.
After leaving her loaner bike at a small airstrip a half hour out of Burrows, she’s hopped a small plane headed for Las Vegas, as nothing leaving the small airstrip would be able to manage a direct flight to San Francisco. That had cost her time enough, but another wave of storms had stalled her progress further, and so she had no choice but to crash at VILE’s outrageous oasis. Now she only had two more days to get to her apartment before Flag did, a matter of utmost importance.
She had to clean it first.
Neb rolled off the plush bed onto the floor. Despite how tired she was, she couldn’t fall asleep. The whole place was electric. The woman dragged herself over to the backpack she’d left at her bike the night before and from it she pulled a pair of tights, an over-sized shirt, and a short, black bob wig.
She put on the lot and checked herself in the over-sized mirror. “Good enough,” she said, then left the room for a place to eat.
Downstairs was a madhouse. For someone who was now more or less a hermit, it was overwhelming, but for some reason it didn’t bother her as much as it should. A part of her had woken up, and it was hungry for stimuli.
After roaming the glitz for a good half hour, she felt something bump up against her leg and looked down to find a red-haired cat. Neb smiled at it wryly. “Aye cat, smell the other cat on me?” she asked it, then scanned her surroundings. “Where’s your partner at?”
The sight of Carmine putting on the charms for their VIP guest made Joseph crack into a wide smile. He had sent his feline assistant ahead to look out for their mutual friend while he settled some unruly business in the casino.
Joe shook his head as he recalled the enraged couple that had been caught counting cards. While the skill was admirable and totally legal, it was also forbidden under an unwritten rule in every casino in Vegas, and the Mirage was no exception.
After a lengthy discussion, the pair had been allowed to leave with their winnings intact. What Joe had neglected to mention though, was that as per Vegas’ unwritten law, he had forwarded their details to every casino in town; they were effectively blacklisted. Like everyone else before them, they would learn the hard way that the house always wins, always.
Carmine’s calls broke Joe out of his stupor as he reached his intended target. Smiling, he addressed his special guest.
“Good to see you up and about; I trust the room was to your liking?”
“Hey Joe!” Neb greeted him warmly as she went to embrace him, a response that surprised her. Usually she hung back, uncomfortable and reserved around other people as she became more reclusive, but now she felt at ease, or at the very least, no longer cared. “Any room with hot water, a bed, and a door that locks is a luxury to me, so yes. Only thing it lacks is food. Could you direct me to some?”
A short walk and a couple of chuckles later, the duo found themselves seated at one of the more secluded tables of the all-you-can-eat buffet in the casino.
Carmine mewled serenely as she lay on Joseph’s lap, curiously eyeing the intriguing woman seated opposite her. Joseph Kerr merely smiled as he observed his old friend tuck into her meal.
Over the last few years, she’d blossomed from a shy girl into a confident thief, one who was more than a match for any ACME Gumshoe; In his opinion, Neb had not only talent but a natural flair and passion for their chosen profession, so much so that she might even become heir to the throne. His only worry though, was that she had also started to become a little more reckless lately, and recklessness was a fatal trait for a thief.
“So Neb, been keeping busy? I know ‘business’ hasn’t exactly been booming this year.
Buffets were the best. You could pick out which things you wanted, as many things as you wanted, and how much of each thing you wanted. It was, to her, the epitome of freedom. Pudding and spaghetti on the same plate? No problem. Salad made entirely of shredded cheese and croutons? No problem. Mix the soups together to make an ultra soup? Also not a problem.
Neb did all three.
“Business?” She asked as she tried to corral the last of her croutons onto her fork. “If you’re talking about Red Hat, then nah. There hasn’t been for anyone, that I know of.” A trace of a shadow flitted across her face, then disappeared. “But that’s all right. I got my own stuff going on.”
“Oh? Freelancing are we? Sounds interesting; always good to keep the hands busy and the mind sharp.” Joe paused to give Carmine a few affectionate strokes, receiving a plethora of well-pleased purrs for his troubles.
“Would you happen to require some assistance on your venture? My ‘tenure’ here at the hotel ends after tomorrow so I have a pretty empty schedule for the rest of the week. And I’m sure Carmine here, would appreciate a change of scenery.”
A chorus of meows confirmed the opinion.
Neb raised an eyebrow. “I dunno. How bored are you? After I get this book from Flag in San Francisco, I’m just going to be doing more hardcore research in my apartment. Might have to steal some stuff after that, though.”
So Flag was somewhat involved? As far as Joseph knew, Flag was one of the more eccentric members of their group; a book from him would probably not be your regular off-the-shelf type of text. This venture was already intriguing.
“I’m always up from some ‘item reappropriation’. Though the fact that Flag is involved intrigues me. I thought you were afraid of the guy? I certainly never pictured you as the type to like his literary stylings either.”
The woman paused mid forkful as her brain roared with laughter. “Um… well, actually,” she said as she fumbled for an answer. Then she put down her fork. “Wait, what makes you think I’m afraid of him? I’ve spent years just trying to find the guy. How did you find him first?”
“I don’t know Neb, for some reason I have this fuzzy memory of you being slightly wary of him. Then again, it may have been a dream. Weird dream though, for some reason I kept calling you ‘Kid’.”
The VILE Jester pondered for a little while before shrugging it off. “Eh, must be the Vegas air getting to me. I really should get that change of scenery.” Joe took Carmine’s mewling as her vehement agreement.
“Oh, and as far as Flag goes, who said anything about finding him? Last I heard, he didn’t want to be found so I thought it prudent to leave him be. Ran into him once or twice over the years though; small world, I guess.”
Neb looked at her plate thoughtfully, then signaled for a waiter.
“Give me your fruitiest cocktail, please,” she asked grandly, then leaned back and took in her surroundings. The restaurant was fancy enough, comparatively quiet, and the mix of mirrored low light and classic lounge music put her strangely at ease. Her gaze drifted upon the suited man and his familiar seated across from her.
‘He somewhat remembers me too. That’s interesting…’ she thought as her drink was placed in front of her, and she sipped it as she debated her next move.
Joe was a kind soul, lively and full of humour. She’s taken a metaphorical bullet for him once, while he had taken a literal one in Kamchatkan wastelands. She hoped he didn’t remember either.
“I used to go by that name when I was in training, so you might have heard it then. One of the pitfalls of being short.” Neb replied cordially. “As for Flag, it’ssssss….complicated.” She paused to take another sip. “We got a long, weird history. Not sure what else to say there. Don’t worry about him, though. He’ll disappear back into the aether once we switch books.”
“Disappear into the aether? You make it sound like Flag’s some sort of other-worldly sorcerer. You wouldn’t be trading spellbooks with him, would you?”
Neb looked at him blankly. “Yes. Yes to all of that.”
For a brief moment, silence reigned as Joe just looked at Neb with an equally blank stare, trying to decipher if she was joking.
Without warning, the silence was shattered an annoyingly loud shriek in the background; Joseph turned around to see a casino employee run toward him. Apparently, some woman just struck the elusive million dollar jackpot off the one-armed bandits.
Sighing, Joseph turned back to address Neb.
“You’ve got me intrigued, old friend. My offer still stands if you want it, think about it and let me know. Meanwhile, if you excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”
Joseph got up as Carmine leapt off him and ran ahead; just before he was about to give chase to his feline assistant, he turned around, “Oh, by the way the meal and drink are on the house. Enjoy yourself.”
“Uh…” Neb replied as she watched her fellow run off. She’d have to track him down later. Sleep had finally shown itself, and she only had five hours until she’d be back in the air again...
TO BE CONTINUED!
Despite the brat keeping her promise, Flag had been unable to sleep. The awareness of a familiar stranger in his room mingled with his regular series of unsettling dreams and left him lying awake for uncomfortable stretches of time. When the sky had started to turn blue, he had given up the fight to suspend consciousness and decided to go ahead and set out on the task he volunteered for.
Scott's Square Truck Stop was exactly as advertised; a small square building in Logansport where people could stop to fuel their vehicles and pick up whatever they needed for their trip. The car needed gas and he needed bagels.
By the time that he had returned to the street in Burrows, the sun had managed to break past the horizon. It was still early, but Leonard was a morning person, which he hoped would work to his advantage today.
He rapped on the door to the little book shop. "Hey Leo. I brought you a bagel."
He was greeted with silence, to which he responded by knocking again.
This time he heard movement inside the shop; distant at first but then just on the other side of the door. "Two bagels, actually."
"I told you to leave."
"I did. I came back... with bagels."
A long silence, followed by "what kind?"
"Damnit. Come in."
Flag could hear the locks sliding open and he shook his head. As the previous night indicated, the locks could be the most amazing door guards in the world, but if the windows were unprotected, they did no good.
"What was that last night?" The shopkeeper inquired as he let his associate in.
"My business, as you stated." Flag sighed.
"Then why are you here?" The shopkeeper eyed him as he pulled the first bagel out of the bag.
"Forgot my bone folder."
"You know that you can buy those anywhere, right?"
"Yes and 'anywhere' happens to be over an hour away. You're right here."
"Yeah yeah. Get it and go."
Flag left the man to his breakfast and stepped into the back room where his scuffle with Neb took place. Nothing was out of place, which meant Leonard had gone through and sorted it all out, but the smell of the girl's smoke bombs lingered.
She had mentioned that she had dropped a taser, but he couldn't see where. Probably Leo's by now, he mused and made his way over to the queue shelves, where he would have realistically left the folder had he not already stuffed it into his satchel.
There sat the million-dollar book with the scratched and bent cover that wound up being the cause of this whole mess. It was large, but thin and in a single, fluid movement, it was removed from the shelf. He tucked it into the back of his pants, under the suspender straps he had worn just for the task, so that it sat flush against his back and was invisible when he adjusted his dark t-shirt over it.
He then pulled the piece of bone used for folding paper from the top of his boot and returned to the little room at the front of the shop, where he held it up. "Thanks Leo. See ya whenever."
The man waved him off between bites, completely unaware that he had just been robbed.
* * *
Neb had slept soundly at first, but then the dreams came, building in violence like storm clouds until they pushed her awake. She’d open her eyes, make sense of her surroundings, check to see where Flag was in relation to herself, then go back to sleep, until after several turns of this she woke to find him gone.
“What the hell?” she mumbled as she shambled across the room to the window. His belongings were still there, so he couldn’t have gone far. Then she froze.
He didn’t go out and get the f*cking thing now, did he?
The man Flag had described Leonard to be was meticulous with his books and was sure to notice one that valuable missing. She didn’t want to be around when he did.
“F*cking Flag what the f*ck, man, you couldn’t give me a warning?” She swore under her breath as she threw her clothes on. Then she went to the door, but paused, conflicted. The man wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t necessarily on her side, either.
After five minutes of agonizing debate and much more swearing, the woman returned to the couch to wait.
* * *
Flag parked his car around the front of the BnB so that he could check out with the owners and deposit the keys. He then went around back and barged into the room where he left Neb to sleep
"Good. You're up. Time to go."
“He’s not out there with his shotgun, is he?” She asked flatly as she went to the door.
"Yes and he brought his army with him." He stated as he shut the door behind them. There was nobody outside but an elderly woman walking a dog down the street.
He led Neb to where he parked his car and opened a door for her. "What cornfield did you park your bike in?"
“The one closest to here. Like, pretty much over there.” She gestured to a field across the street. “I could just walk, provided Leonard isn’t a problem.” She paused to catch his eye. “Is there any reason why Leonard might suddenly become a problem?”
He shrugged with one hand as he leaned on the car door. "I suppose that would depend on how fast he eats."
Flag's unusually light mood turned heavy as he considered Neb's words. She had offered him payment for the book he pilfered, but as he thought it over, he realized he didn't want money. He wanted something more personal. "I'd like my journal back."
She smiled briefly as she put together he’d done, then frowned at his demand.
“I don’t exactly have that on me,” She said as she glanced at the entrance of the bookstore. Much as she hated to leave the book, there was no time to debate this change of payment and no way she could fight him for it. With a sigh she opened her wallet and handed him a business card for a New Age healer. “If you want it, you’re going to have to come to my apartment in San Francisco.”
Flag looked at the card, looked back at Neb, looked at the card, and looked back at her. He then shook his head and pocketed it, laughing with only his eyes as he pushed the passenger door shut. He didn't like the idea of being in ACME's shadow, but the venue was absurd enough to be beneath their watch. "Fine. I'll see you there in 4 days."
TO BE CONTINUED!
Flag was standing by the door, watching the rain in silence. When "Neb" came out he fell in step with her and walked to the car.
"I forgot I drove you here."
The woman joined him in the car, then she gently put her hand on the wheel.
He glanced over at her, but otherwise said nothing.
“What you were trying to do that night? I thought you meant to go home, but time unwound instead.”
"Yeah. That's what I wanted to happen." He put the car into reverse and eased it out of the parking spot. "Had to go back for that."
She paused to process this. Either he had not gone back far enough, or if he had, he’d been spat forward again. “You didn’t go for the diamond this time around. You aren’t going to try again?”
A small laugh escaped him. "I acquired the diamond. After the auction, same as I did before."
“But you weren’t there-” She started, then sighed. It didn’t matter. “Then why didn’t you look for me?”
He frowned at that, not totally sure why she would expect him to seek her out, but then he remembered the inscribing ritual and the part she had played in it. "I decided not to try again."
“You aren’t?” She asked, stunned. He’d dragged himself (and a few people) through hell to get back to his wife. It didn’t make sense that he’d just give up now. “But your-” Survival instinct kicked in “-home, you don’t want to go back?”
"'Home' would be my wife and the ritual revealed that she might have arrived here, but in a different manner than I did... but I'm not sure." He pressed his lips together till they formed a thin line. "Verifying this has been difficult."
Neb watched his face carefully. “What did you see?”
He kept his eyes on the road. "Enough."
In his voice she felt the black, acrid plumes of pain she’d witnessed in him during the inscription ritual. She nodded her comprehension, then gazed out to the endless rows of corn flowing by them in silence.
“The diamond, do you still have it?” She asked eventually.
"No." Flag shook his head. "I broke it down and made it into a pair of earrings and a necklace... I gave them to Carmen."
She didn’t know what to say this, nor how to react to the mysterious twinge of jealousy she felt in some shadowy corner of her heart. ‘That was our diamond. We made that. We could have made something else with it it, and you gave it to someone who helped shoot you? Wait...but Carmen....’
Her head swam with emotion and alcohol.
“That was very kind of you,” she managed. That he could still feel kindness was a good sign at least. “You seem like you’re doing okay this time around.”
"You too." He replied as he exited the highway and turned down the street that would bring them into Burrows again.
“Thank you,” she said as she looked at her hands. A faint smile came to her lips. “You gave me back my life. If I hadn’t met you, I would have gone on wasting it, and because of you I’ve been able to do much of it over. I know it wasn’t your intent, but thank you.”
As the car rolled down the street for Leonard's book repair, Flag noted that the shop's owner hadn't left yet. He would probably stay in the shop for days to make sure that nothing happened to it. It had been been a long time since it had a break-in and it had never had a break-in as intense as the one earlier.
The Sivoan smiled a little, but not even he was sure if it was the conversation or the idea of Leo trying to sleep at his desk while manning a shotgun that cause it.
He slowed the car to a stop once he past the shop, but hadn't made it quite to the driveway of his BnB. "Did you have a vehicle?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw his touch of a smile and hers deepened. Then his question registered and her face fell. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes in mock despair.
“Motorcycle in a corn field.”
A wet cornfield. A wet, muddy, dark cornfield. She could track its location with her phone, but it would still be wet, and muddy, and she would have to wait with it at least a few hours before she felt sober enough to drive it.
That was the problem with mixed drinks. You forgot how much alcohol was in them until it was too late.
“You don’t think I could just sleep in your car, do you? I’m willing to pay you for it.”
For some reason he had envisioned her with one of those cars that looked like a roller skate, or a toy. Something beat up but somehow still able to manage distances.
He rolled his eyes and pressed on the gas enough to finish his drive. "There's a couch in my room. You can use that."
For the second time that night, the woman was overcome with joy. There was always the risk her bike could be harvested the next morning, but at the moment she just couldn’t bring herself to care
“Christ, thank you so much.” she said as she half slid out of the car. She looked up at the BnB. Flag had never ‘lived’ anywhere in the time she’d known him, and was immediately intrigued by what a place he ‘lived’ in would look like. “How long you been here?”
Her question followed him out of the car and he had to lean back in to grab his satchel. He used the opportunity to answer. "Three weeks. Leaving tomorrow. "
“What? But why?” She asked as she followed him in. “This is such a great gig.”
He leveled his gaze at her over the car. "My business with Leonard ended prematurely."
“Blah. That wasn’t your fault. He should give you a raise for defending the place.”
Flag smirked at the sentiment, but shook his head. "He'll get over it and I'll be back. Our work is too intertwined."
He unlocked the door of a room that appeared to exist solely for the purpose of being rented out. It had a small bathroom, a mini fridge, and a microwave. There was a bed along the back wall and a couch immediately to the left of the door. There was no door into the rest of the house and very little evidence that Flag had been staying there.
"I think there are blankets in the cabinet there." He pointed to a wooden box that doubled as a table next to the couch.
Neb pulled a blanket from its compartment. It wasn’t the most luxurious thing, but it was warm and fairly soft, and that was good enough. “And you’re saying that even though he fired you for stopping me from stealing the book, I can go in tomorrow and he’ll photocopy it for me?”
He looked up from unbuckling his boots. "What? You think he saw what you look like?"
“I’m kinda tiny. You don’t think he’ll get suspicious if a tiny person shows up asking for a book the night after you body-slammed one in front of him?”
He shrugged and removed a shoe. "You can wait if you want, but he'll blow a hole in ya if you try sneaking in again. If you go tomorrow, he'll be too focused on preventing any potential smoke damage to really read into it."
The other boot came off. "Don't mention me and don't ask to touch the book and you'll be fine."
Neb had watched him take off his boots a million times in another life, and the familiarity of it made her feel more at home here in this spartan room than anywhere else she’d been in a long time.
She went to take off her coat again, paused, then shrugged her shoulders and let it go, along with the rest of her wet clothes, and laid them out over the edge of the couch. That left her in the tank and boxers the man had seen her in just as many times, but if he looked at her now, he’d find a few things had changed.
Over the years she’d gained many more scars, a bit of metal, and about a dozen tattoos. The scars were a mix of things; accidents, surgery, self-experimentation. Around her neck was a torq made of semi-flexible, experimental alloy that terminated at each end with a small, flat disk that lay flush beneath her collar bones, held in place by magnets through the skin, and tattoos sprinkled throughout that ran the gambit of light-hearted to deeply meaningful, most being the latter.
Flag generally didn't have an opinion of tattoos. The ones now exposed on her arms, however caught his attention. There was a weird bit of prose, repeated three times on her arm, in different languages - two of which he understood.
Despite how you are or what you
might become, I am your ally.
If you don’t get home, come to me.
While he didn't fully understand the relevance of the words, he found himself amused to find that the girl had adhered to her source for the words as tightly as she did. The subtle nuances in the shape of the letters were definitely reminiscent of his handwriting. "I see you found my journal."
The humor that should have been in his voice had run out as he observed the triangle and circle combination that served as the base for many of his rituals. He had noticed this first and distracted himself with the wording above it, but he was back at it. "I hope you understand that most of it's garbage."
Neb sat on the couch, subtly pleased that he’d noticed any of it. She looked at her arms pleasantly. “I wouldn’t say that. I understand that much of what you have in there doesn’t carry over to this world, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely without merit.”
She looked up at him and pointed to her oath. “Did I translate this correctly? I deciphered the alphabet myself, but I needed help with the linguistics.”
"It's like a child's phrasing, but workable." He pulled his shirt over his head and stood with his back to her, debating if he should just go to bed, or take a shower first. It was the last night he'd get to use either, but he was tired, had a guest, and couldn't sleep as he liked. The bed won.
Neb smiled brightly to hear she had succeeded from the only person who could ever truly tell, but it disappeared the moment Flag exposed his back.
Oh god, Flag…
It was covered, almost blanketed in scars; the brutal testament of his former life as a slave.
She’d seen glimpses of them before, but his long hair had always hidden their true extent. Now they were plain to see. She stood up reached out her hand without thinking, aching to take them away.
“The scars on your back, let me fix them.” She stated, awkward but bold as her heart raced in her chest. “I’ve wanted to for a long time. I’m powerful now. Please, let me try.”
An exasperated sigh emanated from his corner of the room. "If I wanted them fixed, I'd have had them fixed when I had my surgeries."
“I, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
"Why did you get tattoos?"
“I wanted to reclaim my body, make it how I want it to be." She said defiantly, then hesitated before quietly adding; "Not how they made it.”
"Well, my scars are the direct results of decisions that I made." He paused folding his shirt to put emphasis on his self reference. Once he was sure that she understood that he was talking about nobody other than himself, he set his shirt on the bed and clicked off the light. "It doesn't matter how I got them. They're mine."
Neb sat down, still at a loss. Even if he had done something that prompted his captors to beat him, the beatings themselves were not his choice. His slavery was not his choice. She sighed inwardly but said nothing further. If he was at peace with his scars, that was all that mattered. “Good night, Flag.”
The woman then curled up on the couch, and as she listened to the rain on the roof her mind drifted back to the Antheon Codex. If Flag hadn’t been there tonight she’d have it by now, but then she wouldn’t have him. That was a fair enough trade.
A moment passed.
Dammit, I need that f*cking thing!
No matter. She’d go to the store tomorrow and ask the man to take pictures of...which pages? How would she know what she needed without touching it? The book was large and the ink was faint. She needed scans, good ones, and lots of them. She needed the whole book, and she needed time.
The woman eyed her clothes on the couch. The alarm was still offline, and at least now she knew there was someone inside ahead of time. But that someone had a gun, her taser was missing, her goggles were broken, and she had left her book box in the store.
She looked at her right hand and sighed. I guess I’ll have to be extra awesome then…
“Flag, do you know where in the store the Antheon codex is, and how long it will take for it to be repaired?”
"Is it the red one?"
She deadpanned in the dark. How am I supposed to know if it's the red one? "Dark red, yeah. It has scratch marks on the cover, and one bent corner.”
"The scratches can be fixed in almost no time, but the bent corner means the leather hardened and will need to be treated specially... it'll take quite a bit of time." He stopped his speculation and took a deep breath before continuing to speak. "There's also a horrible mess lined up ahead of it."
Neb looked at the ceiling guilty. “Sorry about that…” she said, although secretly relieved to hear she had bought more time. “Will the books be okay? Those mini stuns are pretty mini.”
"That, I don't know... What do you need the codex for?"
The woman arched her brows, surprised that he cared to know. “It has plans for a machine I need to build,” she replied vaguely.
"Has it been built before?"
She sat up on the couch. “I don’t know for sure. The way it’s been referenced it sounds like a theoretical device,” she said, then paused to tap the torc around her neck, “But theoretical hasn’t been an issue for me so far.”
Of the many things she’d created using Flag’s journal, the torc was her greatest achievement so far. After years of painful trial and error, she’d finally managed to replicate the override Flag had performed on her during the amulet ritual, but even though it granted her formidable power, there was a catch.
She could heal everyone but herself, and that was going to be a problem real soon.
As if on cue, the phone in her laid-out pants began to vibrate. She checked her watch and sighed.
“Have I ever told you my original name?” She asked as she dug out a small envelope that contained her thyroid pills.
"I do not believe so."
“Seryy Pripyat; after how I look and where they found me after Chernobyl melted down. Judging by my hair, I got a pretty good dose, and if you factor in what else they did, I’ll be lucky to live into my sixties.” The woman raised her right arm. “That’s not nearly enough time.”
A dull blue glow awoke beneath the right side of the torc. From there it traveled slowly upward along set paths beneath her skin until it reached her fingertips.
“I’ve achieved so much in these nine years,” she said as she watched it climb. “If I had more time, who knows where I could take this?”
The the light faded away and the woman got up to get water.
“I’ve been trying to create of a passive cellular re-generator to slow my decay,” she continued from the bathroom, “but even if I that does work, it’ll do nothing against cancer.”
She swallowed her pills, then returned to the main room. “If I could actually actively heal myself like I do to others, though, I’d be practically immortal,” she said with a cracked a half smile, “but for me, that’s like trying to see my face without a mirror. I need to build a mirror.”
She pointed out the window in the direction of the book store. “And the Antheon will show me how.”
He couldn't help but laugh at the irony the girl presented. In his lifetime, he had only ever met two regenerative healers and they were the polar opposites in terms of their abilities. One could only heal herself (and was in fact immortal because of it) and the other was here, in his room, complaining about not being able to do what the other could.
The brat had the better deal, but he suspected that she would never be convinced of that. Had she indicated at all that she could heal herself, she would have been cut open and experimented on far more relentlessly than she had been. He knew. It's what he did to the immortal.
The fact that a potentially willing subject, with access to a journal containing ALL of his notes, waltzed back into his life was frustrating. On the one hand, he wanted to forget everything from his previous lives and settle into a routine that allowed him to quietly watch over the one he loved, but on the other hand...
"If I get the book for you, will you let me sleep?"
Whether it was loneliness, the need to bond with someone who shared the rarer, oh so consuming aspects of her life, or just flat out stupidity, the woman wasn’t sure, but as she watched the man consider her words, she found herself regretting having shared so much. Then he offered to get the book for her, and she was even less sure how to proceed.
Neb inhaled, then let it go with a faint smile. I either drank too much or too little tonight.
“I would have let you sleep anyway, but if you got the book for me, I’d be happy to pay you for your trouble.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
Oh come on! She thought bitterly. ‘That hand?’
He had grabbed her wrist through her coat, and no matter how she tried to shift his grip, she could not make contact with his skin.
“I just wanted to see a book. I was even going to bring it back once I scanned it.”
"That's the worst lie I've ever heard."
It really was. Even though it wasn't a service Leonard offered, the old man had copied his fair share of things. Once he had scanned a bunch of images from an eighteenth century Kama Sutra book and sold them on coasters at the local art fair. If she really just wanted to look at a book and photograph some pages, she probably could have asked.
"You're overdressed for something that mundane." He tugged up on her pinned arm hard enough to make it pull uncomfortably on it's socket. "One more time. Who are you?"
She grit her teeth in pain. If he wanted a name, fine.
“Neb. My name is Neb. And I’m not lying. Once the book leaves here it’s going to a private collection and I’ll never get my hands on it. I just need if for a few nights to scan. Then that jerkass can have it.”
The stupidity of the situation slowly washed over him and he loosed another native curse under his breath. He let go of her arm and backed away, stating "you could have asked."
The woman sprung around the moment he released her, then stared at the man incredulously through the darkness.
“What? Are you serious? You guys would just let me read an ancient text that a rich guy spent millions on to win, and is probably giving you a million more for you to fix?”
He shrugged. "With this business, the value is in actually possessing the original book. Chances are the words have already been re-published."
Flag glanced at the door and sighed. "Too late tonight. Come back tomorrow, dressed casually, and ask him. I won't be here."
The man had only turned his face towards the light of the door for a moment, but long enough for the many hints throughout the night to lock into place. Her face softened as her heart sped up.
“Please… let me see your eyes.” She asked quietly.
He looked back at her before he fully processed her words. "What?"
After nine years without a sign, she had given up ever seeing him again. It had taken everything she had to bury him so she could to move on, yet still she saw him in places she shouldn’t. Then, all of a sudden, here he was.
The silver-haired man.
Tears stung the corners of her eyes.
“Flag?” Neb asked in a broken whisper.
His suspicions about her being an ACME agent went right out the window with the sincere familiarity in which she said his name. His real name. No. This was someone he should know, but he still had trouble placing her. As he ran through a mental index of the people he had dealt with over the past several years, he realized that this might be someone he technically never met.
"Yeeesss...." He volunteered cautiously.
A brilliant smile flashed across her face.
"You’re alive!” She cried, and in a burst of reckless abandon she threw her arms around him, squeezing him fully into her reality. “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.” She repeated into his chest.
Then she stepped back abruptly. He wasn’t supposed to still be here.
The wind picked up, stealing the sweat from her face. The woman looked him over in the dark as best she could. Something was wrong.
“Your hair, your ears." She murmured softly. Judging by the pants he wore, his tail was gone as well, and her face grew tight with concern. What happened to you?
Neb exhaled slowly, then took another step back and smoothed out her jacket. “I’m sorry I- it’s just been so long.”
The girl had backed away before he could push her off of him, almost as if she had expected the rude gesture. This made him level his gaze at her and set his jaw in thought. Words aside, she definitely knew him.
It wasn't that he didn't recognize her either. He was just surprised that she was as aware of him as she was. Over the last several years, he had met only one other person that could recall a different timeline and he was certain that her remembrance was of his direct influence.
He shrugged "I'm not sure how long you mean as it technically never happened."
Neb laughed as she put her glove back on. “So you do know who I am? Good. I was worried I’d have to continue carrying these extra nine years by myself.”
She took her cap off, letting her wild grey dance in the breeze. It was smooth and soft as hair should be, not the rough mess it was before. “Although I suspect Carmen also remembers something, but I never felt comfortable bringing it up. You know how she is.”
He shrugged. Flag had spoken early-on with Carmen about the direction of future events, but aside from making sure certain things happened, they didn't discuss much about what she knew of previous timelines.
Being at the center of events each time, he remembered a jumble of everything, from every repetition of this handful of years - including a tiny little shared memory from the last time around that changed everything for him. He often wanted to ask Carmen about it, but never did. "Yeah. I know how she is."
“Hmmm…” Neb hummed near imperceptibly. He hadn’t denied it, nor made even the slightest indication that the idea surprised him. “And Chase, does he remember?”
"I doubt he has the capacity to remember much." Flag muttered before shrugging.
“If Carmen can, shouldn’t he?”
Flag shrugged and flittered his hand; dismissing his bad joke about the director's intelligence. Any joke you had to explain was a bad one. "Don't worry about it."
He shifted his satchel to the other shoulder and turned towards the street. He did not extend an invitation for her to come with him, but he didn't wave her off either and that was close enough.
Neb watched him turn to leave, then glanced in the direction of her stowed bike and groaned inwardly. Her body damage would heal faster than most, but she’d just been effectively slammed into a concrete floor. The vibration of a motorcycle was not something she wanted to endure right now, and in all honesty… she wasn’t ready to let him go.
“Hey, want to get a drink?” The woman called after him. “Anywhere in walking distance?”
He hadn't really made any plans for the evening, but he had settled on the idea of reading in his rented room until he fell asleep. The attack hadn't let him pick a book for this. "We can do that, but there's nowhere that close. I'll drive."
She followed him to a black sedan parked in the lot across the way. “I assume you have a place you like?”
"Not really. It's just the only place open."
* * *
Burrows was little more than a stretched out suburban neighborhood. It had a post office, a fire station, and a few random privately owned businesses. It lacked in everything else and if anyone wanted to do anything outside of their own residence, they had to leave town.
The next nearest municipality was Logansport, which was considerably larger, but still small compared to what they both were used to.
Out in the rural Midwest there were few streetlights and fewer cars this time of night, making it a dark, meditative ride.
Neb smiled gently as the first few drops of rain tapped the windshield. She often let the ghost of the silver haired man drift into a seat beside her when she traveled alone. Now he was truly here.
In the short 15 minute jaunt, the sky finally opened up. "Might want to leave your electronics in the car." Flag said as he parked.
“Not much to leave that isn’t already busted,” the woman said ruefully as she tossed her goggles on the floor of the backseat. The only other substantial piece of equipment she had had with her was the taser, which was probably wedged under a bookcase somewhere after it shot out of her hand when she hit the floor.
The Bungalow Tavern was like any other little bar; dimly lit with wood paneling and beer signs throughout. There was almost no one else there, but she still chose a table in the back. Flag, as usual, didn’t care.
“I’m getting food too. You want something? I’m paying.” She said as she offered him the laminated table menu.
Even though it had been hours since he had last eaten, he didn't find anything on the menu particularly appealing. After a while, he settled on a bread-heavy appetizer and grabbed the taps menu from the box at the end of the counter. Aside from placing his order, he didn't say anything.
Neb studied her fellow from beneath her damp hair, calculating her next words. Getting a meaningful conversation out of Flag was as difficult as cutting a diamond. One had to strike just right to keep going, and one wrong one would ruin it. There was no easy way to start. The man didn't tolerate small talk.
She’d start with what she wanted to know most.
“Where have you been all this time?”
Flag regarded her as his cider beer was placed in front of him. It had arrived before his food and that somehow annoyed him, but as he hadn't specified that he wanted to ingest both together, he let that subject be in favor of pondering her question.
It was hard to explain. Many of the events of the past timeline had happened again and he was a major factor in making sure they happened. This meant that he had to re-live some of those events himself, but because he knew what was going to happen he was able to set himself up better for them.
"Many of the same places... but perhaps somewhat to the left."
She lowered a brow slightly, unfamiliar with the phrase. “To the left as in…?”
He took a sip of his beer and narrowed his eyes at her. He was intentionally being vague but was starting to find her inability to read beyond the face value of words a problem.
"I'm saying that if you were really looking for me, and have the memories you claim, you should have been able to find me. I was there."
Neb took a sip from her cocktail. It wasn’t the most impressive drink in the house, but she’d gotten hooked on them from her time on the Island, and had no intention of hiding it.
“I’m not bothering you with questions for fun, so at the risk of looking stupid, I want to be sure of your answers.” She said calmly as she stirred her drink. “As for claiming memory, that’s tricky. It’s come back gradually, and it’s only been the past few years that I’ve been fairly certain of what happened.”
She paused to nod her thanks as the waitress put their food down in front of them.
“But by that point, no agent had heard of anyone with your...unique description, and I didn’t push it because I sounded crazy. So while I knew for you’d existed here once, I didn’t know if you still did.”
She ate one of her curly fries, then offered him one. “Are you even with our group?”
"Yes. I still contract with VILE if that's what you're getting at." Flag wondering momentarily if she wanted him to brandish a VILE membership pin, or something equally absurd. He then rolled his eyes and took another sip of his beer.
The woman winced as he said the name out loud. It probably didn’t make a difference with only three other people, but she didn’t want to risk it.
For a while she didn’t say anything, allowing him to finish his beer before she spoke again. “Flag… If it’s not too sensitive a subject, what happened to your ears? ”
"Surgery. Several years back." He said between bites. "To blend in."
Neb exhaled in relief. It had been his choice.
Then she tugged at her collar. The heat from the alcohol was making the padded leather unbearable, but she hesitated to remove it. The tank top she wore underneath hid most of her surgery and tattoos, but it didn’t hide everything.
Like he’ll notice. Neb thought with an inward laugh and pulled it off, but quickly draped it back over her shoulders all the same.
Then she gazed at his empty bottle. It took him a while to get drunk, and she wasn’t sure one bottle would be enough for the questions she really wanted to ask.
“Still hate contacts, though, huh?” She tossed at him instead.
Flag merely eyed her as he munched on his food. He knew that was a filler question and he wasn't going to justify it with a response.
It took her another five minutes of absent eating before she felt ready.
“What happened on the island?” She asked, her eyes meeting his. “I heard gunshots, and then the tape runs out.”
Flag was silent for a long while as he remembered the events that lead up to him being shot and a cynical smiled played at the corners of his mouth. His weird bio-cybernetic time ritual hadn't gone the way he had planned, but it worked anyway... well, mostly.
Explaining what happened had proved to be impossible without being able to show the elaborate transformations done to the pacific island itself (things that have never happened). The mercenary group in Russia had gotten close with their volcanic bunker, but they hadn't known that and now it was gone too.
He broke eye contact and regarded the rest of his food with disinterest. "Nothing happened after that."
It was an odd statement, but true. Nine or so years prior to that, anyone receptive enough would have had a crippling sense of deja-vu. Not Flag though, he was bleeding out on the floor at Carmen's feet for the fourth time he could remember.
The woman kept her eyes on him.
“Who shot who?” She asked quietly.
"Why does that matter?"
“Because I want to know.”
In the weird hindsight of past non-events, he found himself defensive of her questions. Initially he thought this was because of the mild embarrassment he felt at having been slain by the director, but as he thought about it, he realized it was a word that she used.
She had "heard" the gun shots. She was on the island - Yes, she even said as much. He narrowed his eyes on her as the full realization of unspoken events dawned on him. "You were why she was there..."
The bar around her cooled instantly.
At first she held her gaze, but it slowly drifted to her empty glass as she sought the memory of the Last Day.
In truth, Chase had been why Carmen was there, not her. While she had been the one to voice concern, the thief hadn’t shared it until the ACME director was mentioned. It had bothered her that Carmen had appeared more worried about Chase than Flag, and she wasn't sure how much it would bother him too.
“Carmen does what she wants.” She said wearily. “I was worried about you after you nearly killed us both with the amulet ritual, but I was in no position to say anything, so I told the only person I thought you’d listen to. She left me at the plane. I don't know what happened to you after that.”
It was funny how something that (never)happened so long ago could hurt like a fresh wound with new information. It took a lot of willpower to stop himself from reaching across the table to strangle the messenger. She was right. Carmen did what she wanted.
"The director shot me." He muttered as he stood up. "She... helped."
He left the table then and went outside.
Neb felt the blood leave her face. She what...?
That didn’t make sense. Flag was Carmen's comrade. Chase never carried a gun. Even if Flag had brought it on himself (and she was somewhat sure he had), it pained her deeply to hear he’d been hurt.
She bit her lip as she looked at the door Flag had left through, unsure how to proceed. She had been with him long enough to recognize when he was holding back the urge to kill someone. It was dangerous to follow, but she didn’t want to leave him out there alone.
“Everything okay here?” the waiter asked from above.
The woman smiled uneasily. “Yeah, fine. Can I pay the bill up front? I have to leave.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
The tiny shop in Burrows, Indiana barely lived up to its status as a bookstore. In reality, it was an online service piped through an office that attached to a rented storage facility. A secondary storage unit had been converted into a repair shop for paper goods.
Flag had gotten to know the place fairly well because of his book collection business. Leonard, the shop owner, was a genius at repairing and restoring antique books. He was also one of the few authorities able to verify the authenticity of the items he repaired, which wound up being quite an asset to the Sivoan's trade.
Unfortunately, the business of book collecting had taken a dive over the past several months, leaving Flag without much to do other than possibly returning to VILE for a distraction; an option that he didn't particularly want to entertain due to personal reasons. Luckily for him, Leonard had need for an assistant to either repair books or run "the shop." Flag chose the former and had settled temporarily into the position.
He had just finished hand-stitching the spines on a small stack of books and was taking them to the office for inspection when he noticed that it was about to rain.
Guess I'll help Leo pull orders. He mused and he rushed to protect the volumes he carried from the afternoon storm.
* * *
A small form in dark motorcycle gear stole behind the back of the store. She belonged to a much larger group that shared her profession, and while once upon a time she’d never worked without them, these days she preferred to work alone.
It was easier when she didn’t need a name.
She'd shrugged off her old one once she began to remember who she used to be, but any new name she'd come up with seemed just as pointless. Using her original name was out of the question, so she made up new ones as she went along. Currently it was Nebuchadnezzar Ulyss, or, (in proper VILE fashion), Neb Ulyss.
Things had gone somewhat normally for a while after the reset, but every year it got harder for her to relate with the rest of humanity, until she found it easier to drift on alone towards a new, audaciously fantastic goal.
Usually Neb could track down most of the information she wanted from the comfort of her computer in some geographically remote location, but every so often she needed to acquire something tangible, and often that tangible thing was not publicly accessible.
“Damn rich people,” she muttered as she carefully undid the cover of the control panel for the book shop’s security system. She had considered just killing the power to it, but that would raise an alarm by itself. Annoying as playing with a live electrical device was, it was still easier than what she’d have to brave if she tried to steal this codex straight from its new owner, Bran Brychanson.
The Antheon Codex was an unusual book with an unusual history that she had been lucky enough to add to before it passed from auction dealer to Brychanson. After failing to outbid the Welshman, she’d managed to cause superficial damage to the book itself, all but assuring that it would pass through here eventually.
All she’d had to do is wait, disrupt the alarm’s ability to send out a call for help, then leisurely take what she pleased. It wasn’t as if there were any guards posted.
Once sure of her work, she picked the lock and slipped inside.
Flag had come in to the sounds of a Leonard lamenting over the stupidity of people that kept his business afloat. This time his complaints oriented around a idiot that had attempted to recondition a leather bound bible with petroleum jelly.
The bookbinder had wiped off as much of the offending goo as he could and separated the text block so that it would not absorb any more oil. It was this that he handed back to Flag as he approached with his own stack. "Hey Eric, can you put this on the red shelf?"
[Eric] quietly added the block to the stack he had in his arms and set the whole bundle on the shelf marked for cover repair. "I put the other cores there as well. Look them over when you can. I'm gonna call it a night." It was obvious that he wouldn't be of much more help around the shop tonight.
The Sivoan typically stashed his personal effects in the main storeroom. This was so that he'd be able to peruse the shelves on his way out each night. In the rare event that he found anything interesting, he'd check it out for a night or two. Tonight it wasn't a book that caught his attention. It was a sound.
Instinct put him on high alert and he narrowed his profile by pressing against a cabinet. After a long moment of silence, he grabbed the bladed arm of a broken paper cutter that had left on the desk and paced the private library. "Someone back here?"
Somewhere across the room, the woman also pressed against a cabinet, her heart pounding. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here. She’d have to take them out. Neb reached into her jacket pocket for a modified flashbang, then paused.
The voice sounded familiar, but she always thought voices sounded familiar. Having multiple timelines made things difficult that way.
She listened for the other to move again so she could pinpoint his position, then tossed the stun grenade his way.
He heard the canister hit and recognized the sound simply as bad. Reflexively, he cursed in his native tongue and dropped to the ground, covering his eyes as the concussive blast hit his ears. That was when the smell of ammonia hit him and he realized what was going on. “Are you stupid?!” He shouted in rage even though he couldn’t hear himself. “There’s nothing but books in here!”
“Oh calm down, it’s mostly smoke,” the woman called back, even though she was sure he couldn’t hear her. She hoped he couldn’t hear her. She flipped on her goggles to seek out heat and found what she was looking for through the smoke, yet even as she sped towards it, something clawed at the back of her mind.
That voice. That angry, pissed off voice.
Now was not the time. Neb got behind him and jabbed the prongs of her taser into his back.
Flag was surprised more at the speed of the trespasser than he was at the electricity coursing through his body. In fact it was almost a pleasant feeling in the familiar sense, but his rage at being attacked prevented him from enjoying it. Instead he acted on his knowledge of his assailant’s location and channeled the electricity through the cutter arm in his hand, which he then aimed at her head.
‘What the hell?’
Neb pulled away immediately when the man failed to fall. She was unable to see what he held with her heat vision on, but by the way he lifted it, it had to be heavy and a decent length.
She wouldn’t be able to clear its range in time, so ducked under his arm as it swung wide, then seized his arm with her left hand as she came up inside and thrust her right under his chin as hard as she could.
He was already moving upward when the punch connected, so he didn't feel the full impact that his attacker intended... but it still hurt.
Oh f*ck this.
With his captured arm already half way around them as per their own doing, he dropped the blade and caught his assailant around the waist and hauled them over his shoulder. He then threw himself backwards, twisting so the trespasser was the only one who would fully impact the floor. It was as they were falling that he caught sight of Leonard entering the room with his shotgun at the ready.
For a moment Neb lay dazed on the floor, half bent up in pain. Nothing felt broken, but getting up was going to be difficult.
Dammit, what the hell was wrong with my taser? she thought as she pulled off her goggles, no longer functional after their impact with the ground. Only then did she notice that there was another person in the room, and he had a gun.
"Eric. I told you to keep your business out of mine." Leonard stepped into the aisle that lined the book stack. He kept the gun trained in between the two targets, ready to shoot either if he needed to.
Flag rolled his eyes. "I don't think this brat is my... " He cut himself off as he realized the girl next to him had a vague air of familiarity that he couldn’t quite place. Then he realized that she had moved and been over-equipped like an ACME agent. "Whatever. I'm leaving."
As he stood up he less than gently nudged the intruder with the toe of his boot. "Outside."
A memory shimmered to the surface as she felt the man’s boot against her shoulder, but it faded just as quickly beneath the urgency of the situation. With as little show of pain as possible Neb rolled over onto her knees, then patted her reinforced motorcycle jacket gratefully as she stood. There was a reason she wore this, aside from the fact that she actually rode a bike, and as she ran a quick system check of her implants she knew it hadn’t failed her tonight.
But something else had.
'Dammit, this shouldn’t be happening,’ she thought as she followed the man out. ‘The ol' daze-n-taze always works. He should be tied up in a closet, not chucking me on the floor.’
He clearly knew how to fight, and in her current state she was no match. She only had one other option, and reluctantly removed the glove on her right hand.
The unmistakable sound of a shotgun cocking its ammo into place resonated behind them "nothing funny missy. Just get outta here."
Neb raised her hands in surrender as she walked off, right hand bare.
Flag had overheard the commotion behind him and glanced over his shoulder at her as he grabbed his satchel and hoisted it over his shoulder. He exited the building first, but knew that Leonard wouldn't follow them out the door.
When the girl came through, he grabbed the wrist of the uncovered hand and pinned her arm behind her and he shoved her up against the wall.
"Who are you?" He growled in her ear.
TO BE CONTINUED!
The girl balled her fists in frustration. "I don’t know, I just woke up here one day with these scars all over. I don't know where they came from, but they came from somewhere, and I'm afraid of somewhere, because that's where the scars came from."
Flag smirked. "Scars are a story of survival. Why be afraid of something that you've already overcome?"
Kidman poked at her cup of coleslaw. “You’re the person most like me that I’ve ever met, and you seem to stand on your own. I want to do what you do.”
"What's stopping you?"
“I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t even have real name.”
He genuinely laughed at her dilemma. "You're kidding, right? That's an advantage. You can become anyone you want; do anything you want. Our 'organization' is a resource for facilitating just that."
He loosed a quiet, mirthless laugh at his own situation before he spoke in an equally abhorrent tone.
“We have a lot in common, but the big difference between us is that I have no sense of entitlement to the hospitality of others. How you can expect charity - especially being a former slave as you claim - is well beyond my understanding. VILE's shadow provides food and a home. If you call that 'nothing,' then you're delusional and will never be satisfied."
“Have you always been so strong?” The girl asked.
Flag raised an eyebrow at her as he took a bite of his sandwich, then returned his attention to the bridge. "I'm not afraid of failure, if that’s what you're trying to ask."
New present day, eight years sooner, eight years later.
A woman with punk-cut hair chewed on a toothpick as she tinkered with one of the many odd devices that littered her small apartment. An episode of Mystery Science Theatre played in the background. A breeze drifted in through a window propped open with an empty Dr. Pepper can, gently lifting the gathering beads of sweat on her forehead as she etched a series of lines into a piece of quartz with a high-powered laser. She was lean and tan, with an old tank top and ripped jeans, her usual uniform. She had a tattoo of a flower under her right collar bone, and if her shirt was off, one would see a few more small tattoos on her back, their meanings only clear to her and possibly one other.
The space around her was cluttered but clean enough. There were some cracks in the paint, the fixtures were most likely the ones the place was built with, some tiles were missing in the bathroom, the furniture salvaged from thrift stores and roadsides, but Kidman liked things with a history. They were old and tired, but unique, and while the striped couch in the living room may have threadbare armrests, it was comfortable.
Tucked within the vintage shelving units of her narrow work room was an impressive array of technology. Chain lights snaked around a small vending machine filled with Skittles, and the glow of a lava lamp undulated on the ceiling.
It looked like any tech junkie’s haunt, a mix of expensive, state of the art tools and empty Cup o’ Noodles, but if one really wandered around, studied the papers tacked to her walls, the books piled about, they would notice a veil of strange. Some of the texts were ancient and sealed in climate-controlled boxes. The papers on her desk were written in languages not spoken, labeling mathematical diagrams labeled in unknown alphabets, a triangular symbol repeated throughout.
Kidman popped her gum again as she absently echoed the television. Popping gum probably wasn’t the best thing to do while using a high-powered laser, but she had steady hands, and if the quartz cracked, she’d just get another point. Worrying was a waste of time. She had wasted ten years doing so, but the silver-haired man had given eight of them back.
The woman smiled gently beneath her welding goggles. She knew he could care less that he had, or how much of her he had inadvertently restored with his blunt, curt manner and single-minded quest for home.
She hadn’t been aware of that at first. Sometime around 2006, after two years in hiding she suddenly found herself feeling more disheveled than usual, then caring less about it. She still had the same mess of vague memories, the same scars, the same unusual gift, but for some reason it all felt old hat and she just couldn’t be bothered. She rejoined her fellows, passed her training and became a full henchman of VILE later that year.
Over time her memories began to connect into a semblance of an alternate history, and while that had bothered her at first, she instinctively pushed it all off as irrelevant. But there was one aspect of it she felt compelled to keep.
The silver-haired man.
He had glanced off the sides of her dreams from the beginning, a tall man with long silver hair and eyes of fire. Even before she could remember who he was, she knew he was important to her. When a mysterious black book surfaced in Antarctica she somehow knew it was his. It felt familiar, necessary, and she stole it as her own.
Over the years Kidman had studied it to hell. She scanned every page of it, printed them out, laminated them and placed them in a binder so she could scour the thing without damaging it, slowly deciphering his alien script until she could comprehend what the lot of it meant, then educating herself on the maths needed to understand it. She was surprised to find the subject matter suited her, and she pushed her gift and his research as far as she could.
Her apartment was littered with the results.
Kidman turned the laser off and peeled her goggles off her face. Even with their protection her eyes had begun to hurt and she rubbed them with the palms of her hands. Then she looked at the crystal she had been working on.
“Only nineteen more to go.” She said as she referred to her most recent printout, then glanced at a sketch of the silver-haired man that she had taped to one of the nearby shelves. Whenever she found herself backsliding she would think of what the silver-haired man would do. She would always find her footing, and after so many years he had become a somewhat cranky, unwilling guardian demon.
Her part in his final dance had only become clear recently, and even though she now knew he had nearly killed her in the process, in their few seconds of fusion she had felt his life with hers, his pain with hers. He was part of her now, and it had been painful to learn so much about their alternate history together now that he was gone.
Whether he had died or made it home, she did not know, for in the new eight years she hadn’t heard of him. When she had become certain enough that the man might exist, she had furtively asked around as to whether anyone knew of a man with long silver hair or cat-like ears. The answer had always been no, but a few reported seeing a tall man with fiery eyes, and she began to steal anything she thought he might want to lure him out.
If the silver-haired man was out there, she was sure he would notice eventually. In the meantime she pursued her own experiments.
Kidman smiled as she examined the rock in her hand.
“Be well, you jerk, wherever you are...”
TO BE CONTINUED!
June 4th, 2005
VILE Maintenance and Repair
Yorkshire England, UK
"And that is why Batman is better than Superman." The grease-covered mechanic declared to his fellow grey-shirts. To this Kidman nodded absently, only half listening to Ted's pop-culture debate of the day as she dozed on the garage counter. It was a lazy summer day in the dales, with the scent of warm hay drifting in through the windows, carrying with it the steady hum of distant engines and the muted staccato of construction work.
Suddenly a scream ripped through the afternoon's comfort, and the group bolted from the garage to find another grey-shirt huddled over a body down the slope. "Someone get a medic!" He cried over his shoulder as he struggled to staunch the flow of blood rushing from his partner's neck. "Nailgun slipped, got ‘er in the neck. Think it hit somethin' big."
Kidman hung back as the others rushed in, but the crowd soon pushed her forward until something began to tick at the back of her mind, and when she moved again it was on instinct alone. No one saw the girl slip into the fray, her pale hands quickly lost amongst the others pressing the bloody shirt against the woman's neck. It was only after the medevac completed and the crowd dispersed that she was noticed, slumped over and unresponsive in the bloodied dirt.
Several hours later, a small group of grey-shirts sat around in sickbay, tossing playing cards into a hat.
"Hey, hey Kid. Hey. Hey. Hey." One of them kept up until a second jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
"Stop it, Tony, that's annoying."
"Your face is annoying."
The girl stirred awake in the cot beside them. "...Who's a what now? she asked blearily as her teammates came into view.
"Ted. His face annoying." Tony replied flatly as he scratched his scraggly beard. "What the hell happened to you? I didn't know you was afraid of blood. Probably shouldn't look at your hands."
Kidman held them up with some difficulty, for her whole body felt as if it was filled with wet sand. "Oh, that's not my blood. Is the lady okay?"
"Why'd you pass out, then?" The man pressed, ignoring the second question.
The girl frowned as she sifted through what little she remembered. "I think I used too much thought to fix the hole. Is the lady okay?"
"It don't really take much thought to hold a shirt down-" he got out before Ted elbowed him in the ribs a second time. "Jesus, Tony. Kid nearly saw somebody die, okay? Drop it."
Rum, a larger man with a warm, deep voice gently pushed Tony aside. "Jan'll be fine, hunny. They thought something major got cut, but it just passed over. A miracle, they're saying, ‘cause where it hit, it shoulda got somethin' real bad."
"Bloody." The last man, Boulder, muttered in disbelief. "Crazy how that stuff ‘appens."
Kidman looked at them quizzically. "It did cut open. We just closed it is all."
The others looked at each other with uncertainty until Tony asked the obvious. "We did what now?"
"You know, when you.... you show the pieces to grow back. With thoughts." She hazarded, trying to demonstrate with her hands. The girl wasn't entirely sure what she had done, but it didn't seem the sort of thing that would be unusual, just difficult and exhausting. "And not you guys. The man next to me."
Tony scratched his head.
"You mean the guy that was with her? He wasn't healing her with thoughts, Kid. He was applyin' pressure to stop the blood. Don't you know first aid?"
"But I... Are you sure?"
"Oh my god, are you serious?" The thin man asked incredulously and laughed until he noticed the head mechanic's threatening glare. "Okay, okay, but seriously, people can't heal with thoughts."
Kidman stared at her hands as something ominous rippled in the depths of her mind. "But..."
Rum patted the girl on the shoulder sympathetically. "Ahm sorry, hunny. People can't do that sort of thing, but don't worry much about it. Jan'll be fine. Go have a wash off an' get some sleep. You had a rough day."
"You're better off without havin' magic powers anyway." Tony said as he lit a cigarette. "‘Cause if you did, they'd lock you in a lab and do tests on you." He let go a puff of smoke. "Forever."
Kidman stood in the shower for what seemed like hours that night, attempting to match two realities without success. The reconstruction of the arterial wall was real, she was sure of it. She had felt the structure of it though tiny, invisible hands guided by other tiny, invisible hands. Even in her fractured state of conscious she had still been awake, operating through the touch of those hands.
‘But if people can't heal with thoughts, why can I?' She thought as stepped out into a bathrobe. ‘I'm just like everybody else.'
She caught sight of herself in the mirror, and for the first time, really looked.
A growing mystery looked back.
Grey hair wasn't like everybody else. She hadn't seen in on any other young person save for those in cosplay magazines, but by now she knew they were merely wigs. Her scars weren't commonplace either, and persons she did see them on often spoke of frightening origins.
‘Then where did all of mine come from? How... Why...?'
The bathroom grew colder and dimmer as Kidman traced the lines on her face.
‘What... happened to me?'
Her missing memory never mattered before, but now as she desperately cast about the inky depths for answers, a dearer horror made itself known.
There was nothing there.
Nothing at all.
July 13th, 2003
Yorkshire England, UK
The girl wasn't found until nightfall when the scent of food lured her to the cafeteria. Several men in blue-grey uniforms lingered in the doorway, watching, puzzled, as this small person tried to squeeze her way though as if they weren't there.
"Hey, hey, who are you? You can't just come in here." one said, trying to block her path without touching her. The girl looked at the man in front of her blankly, then pointed at the pasta on another's tray inside.
"You don't talk?", he asked, but the girl just kept pointing at the pasta until the man scratched his head in defeat. "Anyone else know what the hell is going on here?"
"Jesus, looks like she fell in a chipper-" added a second but cut off as the girl finally slipped through and tried to get behind the lunch counter. The first rubbed his temples and sighed. This was one of those situations that called for the police, but that wasn't how things were done around here.
"Somebody get this kid some medical and some food- Hey, you can't just take that!"
Kidman's first, and perhaps only theft at VILE; a handful of pasta.
None of the grey-shirts in VILE's Maintenance and Repair enclave were sure what to do with the mute foundling, and after days of not knowing, they stopped caring, coming to accept the girl as part of the scenery. At first the she simply wandered around camp, but the girl's curiosity led her to be drafted into small tasks, and from those she mastered larger ones. 'The kid' soon became Kid, her last name added later when a half-joke about Nicole Kidman stuck.
It took several months before Kidman became aware of what VILE actually was, and by the time, she didn't care. Theft wasn't presented as a terrible crime, but rather a daring, fantastical game that their awesome and benevolent leader played against the world.
After a while Kidman's naivety wore away, although she maintained a healthy level of pride. Her wounds healed into scars, she relearned how to speak, albeit with a strange accent at first, caught up with objects of everyday use, such as shoes, and eventually grew to function on a level that was fairly close to everyone else.
It never occurred to her to question the condition she had entered VILE in, nor what brought her to VILE in the first place. No one asked either, for VILE was not the sort to pry, and no one felt comfortable approaching what, by her appearance, was obviously a traumatic history.
Yet to Kidman, it wasn't obvious at all. She saw many people on base with scars, and more than a few with grey hair. She had even seen pictures of young girls with silver hair and large eyes in magazines. If it was in a magazine, it had to be normal, and hence she found no reason to think on it further.
She had her uniform, her alcove above the garage, her teammates, her leader, her pasta. It was more than enough to satisfy and for nearly two years Kidman and very, very happy.
Extra funs: A fairly accurate chronicle of what Kidman did as a stormtrooper VILE grunt her first few years.
(Click here to view them in order.)
July 13th, 2003
Yorkshire England, UK
For the first few minutes that was all the girl could perceive. Then the wind, the heat of the sun, the scratch of the bramble she lay in, and finally, pain. So much pain. She sat up slowly and gazed out over her surroundings. Squares of green and brown sprawled out before her, walled with stone and endless sky and for a long while she simply watched the grass move in waves with the wind, her mind empty of thought save for the barest of them.
The girl hesitantly pulled herself from the scrub, fell, then succeeded the second time. The vaguest of memories offered her what information it could as she surveyed the space around her.
'Field. This is a field. Bushes. Grass.'
She looked at her hands, then at her clothes, a white t-shirt and striped pajama pants. They did not feel familiar to her, but nothing did, and the fact that they were now torn and stained with blood somehow didn't concern her. Even the sense of urgency that flitted at the edges of her mind was too far from her reach. Like a dream, it was simply how it was.
It gradually occurred to her that standing in a field was not achieving much and she slowly picked her way across the moor until she came to a narrow dirt road.
‘Roads go places.'
This road was upon a particularly steep hill, and so the obvious direction to go was down it. Whether she walked for minutes or hours, she didn't know. Clouds came and went, bringing a touch of rain and a gust of wind before the sun poked out again. She had no idea where she was going, only that she should continue on, until by and by she came upon dilapidated shack where a man in worn overalls and a checkered shirt reclined in a rocking chair, a beer in hand and radio at foot.
The girl stared at him.
The man stared back. "The hell happened to you? You fall in a chipper? Wots with tha hair o' yor?"
She cocked her head but said nothing, for while the words made sense to her, she couldn't quite place their meanings.
The man stood up to get a better look. "You speak English? Jeeze you're a right mess. Wotcher name, kid?"
The girl sensed that a response was expected but now realized she couldn't find her own words, and soon grew visibly frustrated in her efforts
The man sighed. This was one of those situations that called for the police, but that wasn't how things were done around here. He pulled a transceiver out of his pocket.
"Hey Yeller, I got a situation up front. Some beat up kid just wander' in, don't speak a lick."
A fuzzy sound answered back and an argument commenced, but this was of no interest to the girl and so she wandered past him unnoticed, down the path beyond.
July 13th, 2003
Yorkshire England, UK
The two men in white coats moved like ghosts in the dark, removing IVs and monitors with expert speed. They took one last note of vitals, then hastily wrapped the thin figure on the bed in her own sheets.
"She's heavier than she looks." Emmet Clark whispered as he lifted the bundle over his shoulder. "Are you sure we can't reverse the dose enough to have her walk?"
Charles Winsor's weather-worn features wrinkled as he chuckled mirthlessly. "If we could do that, we wouldn't be here, would we?"
"Point." The shorter man agreed as he edged the body through the door. The power would only remain off for so long. They had to move now.
Getting into the girl's cell was easy. They were assistants to the team assigned to her, and overall security was surprisingly lax for what the Rowen Research Institute held. The Grey Girl was said to be capable of amazing things, when they could get her to do them. Despite having lived almost entirely in captivity, the girl was feral, barely spoke, and offered up such wild resistance that she was often drugged to make her manageable.
"She's just a little thing, though," Clark continued in a hoarse whisper as they made their way through the winding halls. "How much damage can she do?"
"Ever get mauled by a cat?" Winsor replied with a grim smile. "They're too soft on her here. We'll devise a more suitable method of controlling her. Otherwise she's a waste."
He paused to scan the lobby ahead. Around him came sounds of confusion from patients and nurses while flashes of torch lit random corners, but otherwise all was quiet.
"We're clear." Winsor motioned to the front door. "Come on."
Outside it was cool and damp with the scent of rain, and the mud sucked at their boots as they stole through the parking lot. Clark all but tossed the limp body into the back seat of Winsor's old Renault, and after a brief debate over how to secure her, they opted out altogether before speeding into the night.
Winsor blinked as he tried to keep focused.
Their contact was supposed to be only a two hour drive from Rowen, but unforeseen detours had slowed them down, to the point that by hour three they were still driving through the endless moors of northern England. By day the wild hills of fern and heather held a raw beauty but on a dreary night like this they were a monotonous roll of black on black.
A soft moan came from the backseat.
"Damn it, the stuff's wearing off, and we aren't even close yet." he muttered as the road wore on beneath his headlights. "Clark.... Clark! Wake up. Give her the booster."
"Huh?" Oh bloody, it's past her dose."
The man beside him drowsily rummaged through his medical kit. "Where is that bloody thing?" He held up a syringe. "Is it this one?"
"For god's sake, man." Winsor said irritably as he glanced at it. "How can you not know by now which-?"
Suddenly he saw something long and black slide into the road ahead.
"Holy mother of, what the bloody **** is th-?!" He cried as he swerved to avoid it, but the wet road took him too far and they hit the embankment with terrible force. The car launched, flipped, then tumbled down the ravine until it wedged on its side. The metal groaned a second longer, then fell silent to the steady patter of the rain.
After a time the wreck creaked again and a body fell through the open passenger door into the mud. The slim shadow from the road returned, drawn by the bloodied rainwater flowing through the grass, and it investigated with its tongue until the girl opened one grey eye. The two regarded each other a moment before the snake turned back to the field.
‘Follow', the girl thought in a singular haze, and she half crawled, half stumbled after it into the darkness, until at last she collapsed amongst the bramble.
Blue and red emergency lights flickered against the brush as paramedics recovered the two unconscious passengers found in the wreckage. Once they were certain they had found all there was to find, they set off for the nearest hospital, and as their sirens faded away into the wild grey hills, the Grey Girl slept her first night in peace.
Separate names with a comma.