Every single thing in Nile’s life is going to shit. Absolutely everything.
Her legs move stiffly and the fabric of her fatigues scratches like steel wool. Her heart is in her throat, in the place where there should be a scar, where the life poured out of her. She’s going to choke on it.
She walks--anywhere. Out of the center of camp, away from the stares.
They packed her bags for her. The people she stayed in for, when she didn’t have to, they sat and watched her like she was a stranger. And that doesn’t even touch what happened yesterday, what happened when she--
She finds an empty bench at the juncture of two shipping containers, and she sits and puts her earbuds in. Frank Ocean helps. A little.
She died. She was supposed to die. She was prepared to serve that way, confident that she would wake to her father’s voice. Instead, in the end there was only fear. And it hasn’t stopped since the moment she woke up in the medical tent.
And that dream… that woman’s eyes. She can’t translate any of this into anything that makes sense.
Shit. She is not where she’s supposed to be, and Mills and Baser look pissed. As Nile rises carefully, she wonders how far she can run before one of them takes her down.
Not far. They’ve got her boxed in, and anyway, it’s not as if there’s anywhere to run to.
“Wheels up on your ride,” says Baser.
Someone jumps down from one of the shipping containers and lands behind Mills, who falls to the ground. Before Nile can do anything, before Baser can fire his sidearm, the stranger pulls Baser down to connect face-first with his knee.
Training takes over. Nile grabs Baser’s sidearm, lifts it--and is disarmed so swiftly she might as well not have bothered. She looks up from the barrel that is now leveled at her face, into dark eyes. “Who are you?”
“Yusuf al-Kaysani,” he says. He lets the pistol down a hair. “If you come with me, I can give you answers.”
There’s something familiar about him, but Nile can’t place it. He’s tall, older than her, dark-haired and bearded. Civilian clothes and a leather jacket, too heavy for the desert.
She drops her gaze to the unconscious Marines at their feet. When he turns, she’ll bolt, and warn the sergeant there’s an intruder.
But the man reads this on her face. “Okay,” he says with resignation. He moves again, fast, and pain blooms at her temple, and Nile falls.
The shaking of the humvee wakes her. Al-Kaysani is driving, and going by the angle of the light, she’s been out for either a full day or less than an hour.
He didn’t tie her hands or feet. Some kidnapper.
Nile moves before she thinks: she kicks the tailgate latch until it falls open, and throws herself out into the dirt. Momentum keeps her rolling, but at last the world rights itself and she faces the cloudless sky. She lies panting in the tire tracks until she realizes the humvee has stopped too, and al-Kaysani is staring at her. Nile finds her feet and runs.
“Freeman!” al-Kaysani calls. “Freeman, don’t run. You’ll pass out before you get a kilometer.”
Nile bends down with her hands on her knees, gulps air. He’s right, but why he gives a shit is beyond her. She starts walking instead, head high. There’s a twinge in her leg--she tore something in the escape--but that fades away in seconds.
“Hey.” She hears him crunching sand in long strides behind her. Her knife waits in her hand, tucked at her side. “Would you stop a minute?”
When he grabs her shoulder, she spins and plants the blade in his chest.
He grunts a “Damnit,” but that’s all. He almost looks disappointed in her as he yanks the knife out.
Oh God, he’s like her. He was in her dream. Oh, God. She’s going to fucking hurl--
Not a lot comes up. She straightens up and stares at the hole in his shirt and the lack of blood.“Who are you?” she asks again.
He stoops a little to meet her eyes, not unkindly. “I meant what I said. If you come with me, I can help you understand what’s going on.”
Nile looks around them at the desert, at all the nowhere she has to go. When she turns back, he is waiting.
They get back in the humvee, Nile in the front seat this time. He points at the pack down in the footwell. She finds a bottle of water there. It’s hot but it tastes amazing anyway.
“So what’s going on?” she asks, once she’s washed the dust from her throat.
He unfolds a pair of round sunglasses that look like they’re from the sixties, puts them on, and drives. “You may have noticed you can’t die.”
“A gift of the battlefield,” he says. How incredibly pretentious. “There are others like us. Fighters, soldiers. They’re waiting in Paris; my pal Andrei will fly us there. Good guy.”
She takes a minute to soak all that up. It isn’t long enough. “Why is this happening to me?”
He spares her a glance. “Hmm. Did you pull wings off flies as a child?”
Nile recoils. “No.”
“Pee in a public pool?”
Oh, she’s had it. “You’re fucking with me,” Nile says. “I did die, and this is Hell, riding around Afghanistan being grilled about my past sins by some shitty Virgil.”
“You can call me Joe.”
“What do you and the others do, Joe?”
“Depends on the century,” he shrugs.
Joe shows his teeth. “It’s very cute that you think this is professional.”
“No, but maybe the others know what they’re doing.” A flash of irritation cracks his chummy facade. She wonders if he has any shame she can jab. Fighters and soldiers, he said. “Are you mercenaries?”
“It’s a little more complex than that.”
“Sure,” she says. “Whatever you need to tell yourself. How many people have you killed? Just averaged, across the centuries.”
His mouth twists. “Maybe Hell is riding around Afghanistan being judged by a US Marine. How many people have you killed, Freeman?”
She closes her mouth, hard. Joe doesn’t smile, but his satisfaction is palpable.
“We’re here,” he says a minute later, like the big-ass plane isn’t a giveaway.
Nile boards first, passing a few guys the Corps would love to know about with their Mad Max rigs. The plane definitely predates the Cold War. She eyes the stacks of coke, and looks back at Joe reprovingly. “This guy’s a drug runner.”
“Also the biggest opera fan you’ll ever meet. Here’s clothes,” he says, and goes outside to make a phone call.
Nile gets changed, then wipes the dust from her face with her uniform tee, dampened with what was left in the water bottle. She folds the fatigues according to regulation, focusing on the repetitive motion and the fabric under her hands--not on the fact that she has, of her own free will, walked onto an ancient drug-running plane bound supposedly for Paris with a man whose motives are still in question.
Joe returns with the opera-loving pilot. Andrei gets one engine started, and then, sluggishly, the other catches up. Nile unfolds a jumpseat and buckles her seatbelt. “Is this even safe?” she asks over the noise.
“The good news is that you can now walk away from any landing.” Joe settles onto a pile of bags beside her. He stows his sunglasses, unwraps a stick of gum, and offers her one; Nile shakes her head. “So, questions,” he says, chewing. “We have eight hours. Ask me anything.”
“How are you all in my dreams?”
“We dream of each other. They stop when we meet.”
Joe lifts his brows and takes a breath. “Well, there are several schools of thought--”
“Several? But you don’t actually know why?”
He looks mildly offended. Probably likes being interrupted as much as Nile likes having her questions go unanswered. The plane shudders around them, lifting off.
“None of us have had revelations in the desert, Freeman. From a utilitarian point of view, the dreams bring us together, which is the way we’re strongest. If one were inclined to be romantic about it, one could say it’s fate.” He has a trace of a smile as he digs in his pack and produces a black sketchbook. “But the other thing they do is give context. Help us understand each other.”
He opens the sketchbook. Nile looks, and then looks away from the image of her own empty eyes and spilled blood. Too soon.
She swallows. “Who are the others?”
He puts the sketchbook away. “Youngest to oldest, first there’s Booker. He’s two hundred and fifty. Very French.”
Nile tries to line up the numbers. It’s difficult when her whole brain is still shrieking about how fucked everything is, but the abacus beads slide into place eventually. “1812?” she says, and Joe nods. “And he was the youngest?”
“Before you, yes. Booker, as you may have guessed, is a literary soul. He is also passionate about football, anti-counterfeiting measures in paper currency, and cognac.” Well, now she knows who the man with the flask was. “Next is Nicky. He is nine hundred and fifty-one.”
“Holy shit.” And since Nicky would have been the one with the mole, she has context for Joe as well.
Joe smiles to himself, eyes very soft now. “Nicolò is the guiding moon, and the fire’s warmth. His heart overflows with kindness in a cruel and uncaring world.” There’s almost a melody to the words.
“Oh, so you’re gay gay,” Nile deadpans.
It earns her a laugh. “He is a marvelous sailor,” Joe goes on, “and he loves feeding people. If we time it right he’ll have supper ready when we get back.
“Then there’s me. I’m nine hundred and fifty-four. Poet, scholar, artist, master of the scimitar and several lesser blades.”
He waits as she thinks. “Then you and Nicky both--”
“Killed each other,” he confirms. “Siege of Jerusalem.”
Sweet Jesus. “And you aren’t the oldest?”
“That’s Andy. You’re going to love Andy. She is the touchstone, the lodestar. Since the beginning there was Andy.”
“The beginning,” Nile echoes, thinking of the woman’s eyes. “So we really never die.”
“No, we do. Like anyone else, we don’t know when. We just get a little more life than other people.”
“How old is she?”
Joe shakes his head. “If she ever tells you, let me know. There is not a language on Earth she doesn’t speak. She has a sweet tooth, but would never reveal such a weakness to a stranger, so hang onto that until you need to bribe her. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Start with your name,” he suggests.
“Nile,” she says. She looks down at her hands. “I’m twenty-six. I…” No matter what she tries to say, her thoughts take her the same direction. “I got people that love me. People that are gonna worry.” She breathes in, steadies herself. This is not the place to break down. “I’m a Marine. They think I went AWOL.”
“You’re one of us now,” Joe tells her. “We’ve got your back.”
He’s so sincere, she almost believes it. “Why did you come for me? Why not the others?”
His expression doesn’t change, but his eyes do. “We’re trying to keep a low profile. We just got off a job in South Sudan. Turned out it was a setup--someone out there knows what we are.”
Cold, metallic fear at the back of her mouth. “You’re bringing me to the others when you’re being hunted?”
“It’s like I said: we’re strongest together. Where do you think you would have ended up otherwise?”
Nile turns away, face burning.
Joe adds, “I promise you, Nile, you will look back on this as a blessing.”
“Man, can you stop talking for five minutes?” Nile snaps.
Joe furrows his brow, but leans back on the baggage. “Sure.”
She runs one hand over her face. Shit, she needs an out. Maybe she can find a parachute in all this junk and dive from the cabin door. The thought turns her stomach sour again; she never trained for airborne ops. But they’re five miles up in this sardine can, so what choice does she have?
Nile puts her elbows on her knees and folds her hands. Heavenly Father, show me the way out. Any way.
Something clinks nearby. She opens her eyes.
A length of black webbing dangles at her left, and its buckle and key jingle gently together. Beyond it, the pilot’s pistol waits in a holster on the back of his seat.
Nile resumes her posture. Dear God, that was fast. Thank you. Lord Jesus, give me strength.
Joe’s snore is audible over the engines. Amen, Nile finishes. Silently she takes off her seatbelt. She unclips the key and stuffs it in her folded fatigues, pulls the webbing from the tangle of cargo net, and loops one end through the tiedown behind the jumpseat. Joe is on his left side with his arm straight out beneath him. Nile holds her breath while she gets the buckle secured at his wrist, but he doesn’t move. A heavy sleeper, and he probably cut off circulation to that arm.
She turns her back on him and gets up for phase two. It takes a second to adjust to the unsteady floor, but she doesn’t stumble on her way to the pistol. She slips it out of the holster and points it at Andrei. “Hey,” she says.
Andrei turns, and the look in his eyes tells Nile this isn’t the first time this has happened to him. Nile lets him see her switch off the safety. “Find a place to land.”
Visibly sullen, he looks out at the mountains and then back at her. “Yeah, I’ll wait,” she tells him.
She has, she thinks (maybe a little giddily), all the time in the world now.
She hears a snort, and a solid thunk as the half-yard of webbing is drawn taut. A moment later Joe says, “How do you think this is gonna go?”
“It’s going anywhere but Paris,” she says over her shoulder.
“I mean after that. You have money? Documents? What’s your plan exactly?”
Nile clenches her jaw.
“You really should come with me, Nile.”
She looks away from the cockpit long enough to glare at Joe. “I liked you better when you were sleeping.”
Joe smiles at her. “You can shoot me for a couple minutes of peace and quiet,” he says, “or you can get the key and we’ll talk your options over.”
Nile shakes her head, facing Andrei and the horizon again. She loosens her shoulders. “I made my choice,” she tells him. “I’m not joining your merce--”
By the time she sees movement in her peripheral vision, it’s too late. He’s just tall enough to lunge feet-first with his arm behind him and hook his boot around her ankle. Nile lands hard on one knee, and she spins the pistol toward him, but he kicks her wrist and it flies out of her hand.
“Spasibo,” says Andrei.
“Pozhaluysta,” Joe answers. He rolls to one side and uses the webbing to haul himself up, eyes on Nile the whole time. “Please keep flying.”
Nile gets her feet under her and stays in a crouch as they consider each other. He’s obviously got reach and he would have strength too, but with his arm tethered, it’s more even.
She has speed. All she has to do is get past him. Simple.
She rushes him, shoulder connecting hard with his gut. Joe hits a window that’s already patched with tape. He shoves her aside, so she steers that momentum toward the rear of the plane, but then he trips her. Nile hits the stack of coke, knocking a few bricks loose.
Andrei expresses his displeasure by banking the plane. And it’s then, when Joe is wheeling for balance, that Nile lands a solid punch to his jaw. He staggers at the limit of the tether. Eyes burning, he gets a bandana from his pocket and spits into it: his chewing gum, some blood, and one tooth. Nile wonders how fast it will regrow.
He wads it up, tosses it aside, rolls his neck. Nile keeps up the appearance of readying for his next move a moment longer. Then she bolts, staying tight to the far side of the plane--and it works, she’s past him. She starts rummaging in the piles in the back. Joe says Andrei’s name, but Nile doesn’t look up; somewhere in here there’s got to be a parachute--
The gunshot is loud as hell in the tiny space. Nile drops before the pain sets in. Bastard shot her in the right calf. She turns to cuss him out, but it dies on her tongue.
Andrei is still aiming calmly, at her head this time, and Joe… at first it looks like he’s doing some kind of yoga pose against the jumpseat, his tethered hand underneath his boot. But then Nile realizes, just in time to turn away.
She can’t avoid hearing the crunch, though. Or the strangled sound Joe makes.
He walks toward her, left hand temporarily useless, but free of the webbing. “Listen, Nile,” he sighs. “When you meet the others, you’ll stop dreaming of them, and they’ll stop dreaming of you. Then it’ll be safe for you to disappear.”
That is not a guarantee of anything. If four of them decide it’s too dangerous to let Nile leave, she doesn’t have a chance.
Joe offers his good hand. She can hear the bones knitting in the other one.
She reaches up, and lets him pull her to standing. The bullet falls out of her leg. When she looks back, she finds a perfectly round hole in her jeans, a splash of blood, and no other sign it was ever there.
Joe is watching her. “That feeling,” he says, “when it’s all of us together? It’s good.”
“Must make you fearless.” What would she have done for Dizzy and Jay, if she’d known there was nothing that could hurt her for long?
“No.” He considers his hand, stretches it out, makes a fist and then relaxes it. Everything seems to be working again. “No, there’s always something to fear.” He returns to his spot and pats the jumpseat beside him.
Once Nile buckles in, Andrei goes back to ignoring her.
She turns to Joe. “So what do we have to fear?”
“Cages,” he tells her. “We can’t walk through walls. We can be locked up, forgotten, and lost for a very long time.”
The thought sends cold prickles down her spine. “Has that happened?”
“Once.” Joe keeps his gaze straight ahead, but doesn’t seem to see the far wall of the plane. “Quỳnh was her name. Back before me and Nicky, it was Andy and Quỳnh. They ran through the world together, fought thousands of battles side by side. She was a pit viper in a fight. A vibrant soul.
“It was 1612, England. Andy and Quỳnh were captured, and put on trial for witchcraft. They were executed; when they didn’t die it proved the case, and they got sentenced again and again. Eventually, the Church got bored. They shut Quỳnh inside an iron maiden, and they sent it to the bottom of the ocean.”
“She couldn’t… survive that,” Nile says, and it comes out half a question.
“No, that’d kill any of us. But however long she suffered, Andy suffered longer. She blamed herself for Quỳnh’s fate.”
“Why would she blame herself?”
He shakes his head. “All I know is that after Andy escaped, she would go days without speaking. She only ate to keep her strength up for the search. We never found Quỳnh. It was decades before I saw Andy smile again--even then she was never the same. She became… harder.”
“I’m sorry,” Nile says, because the grief in Joe’s eyes isn’t just for Quỳnh.
“It was a long time ago.”
“Does that make it easier?”
“A little.” He squints at her. “I had a point with this.”
“Fear,” Nile prompts.
“Right, don’t get caught. So you’re welcome.” Nile tilts her head. “For keeping you out of wherever the military was going to put you.”
Nile bristles. All she’s gotten from him is words. Beautiful ones, yes, but they have hours to go before she finds out if anything he’s told her is the truth.
That much, though… that much is true. She drops her shoulders and sighs, “Thanks, Joe.”
They’re crossing a graveyard in the shadow of Charles de Gaulle Airport when Joe says, “I’ll go first. We’re a trigger-happy bunch.”
Nile has her fatigues tightly under her arm; she’ll need them when she runs. It wouldn’t do to go home without her uniform, or wearing pants with a bullethole in them. “Seems like you let other people do your shooting for you,” she replies, and Joe grins at her.
But when he pushes the door of the clergy house open, it’s a sword pointing at him, not a gun. “Hey, boss.”
The sword lowers, and Joe waves Nile forward through the doorway, into the full force of the eyes from her dream.
“Everyone,” Joe says, putting a hand on her shoulder, “this is Nile. Nile, everyone.”
“Hi,” Nile says. She hasn’t managed to take her eyes off Andy yet. Andy doesn’t look old, of course, and yet she absolutely does. She looks like she’s seen a lot, like she’s lost more than anyone will ever have. She looks like she carries the world. It’s not just the way Joe poeticized her.
She looks tired, sharp, and dangerous.
Andy appraises Nile right back, then turns to Joe. “She stabbed you?” she says without inflection.
“Later, she punched me in the face,” Joe says, and only the pride in his voice keeps Nile from being livid at them talking like she isn’t right there.
That makes Andy smile, just a little, and for a second she looks like a person instead of an intensely judgmental statue. She deposits her sword in an umbrella stand by the door. “Glad you’re here, Nile.”
“Thanks,” Nile says. “I, uh, feel like I already know you all.”
“Joe has that effect,” says one of the men--Nile focuses beyond Andy and finds him in the kitchen. Nicky. “Are you hungry?” he asks, and Joe raises a knowing brow at her before he moves away.
“Sure,” Nile says, though she’s mostly tired. Her stomach has not unclenched since Afghanistan, and she didn’t let herself sleep on the plane, didn’t want to dream of them again.
“Any luck, Book?” Joe says, resting his hand on the back of the armchair where Booker sits.
“Ah, no.” Booker closes his laptop and gets up. “Guy’s a security expert. It’s gonna take time.”
“How soon can you get Nile a passport? Might need to cross borders fast.”
“I’ll fix one up after dinner, yeah?”
Joe nods, and goes to Nicky. What they do then barely even counts as PDA, but Nile looks away anyway, feeling like a trespasser when Joe slips his arms around Nicky’s waist. “You need to change your shirt,” Nicky says.
“I will not,” Joe answers.
Andy is still watching her. She nods toward the table. “You drink wine?”
There is a vampire joke to be made there, but it’s a little on the nose for present company. “When I can get it,” Nile says instead, and Andy smiles again, which feels like a prize.
Oh, no. Nope. She is not staying. She’ll eat their food, she’ll get some rest, she’ll act like One of Them for a night, and then she’ll slip away. Nile sets her fatigues down on the sideboard they use as a TV stand, and joins Andy and Booker at the table.
At the sight of dinner, she’s hungry after all. There’s yellow squash and tomato and pasta in a sauce that probably has more wine in it, and the wine itself is good. They eat mainly in silence, with a side of everyone openly scoping Nile out.
At least they don’t expect conversation. What would she even say? They’ve all been together two centuries, ten centuries. Do people like that comment on the weather?
“It used to take years to track a new one,” Nicky says once his plate is empty. “But here you are, and it hasn’t even been seventy-two hours.”
“Yeah,” says Nile. “Did you guys stalk my Facebook?”
“Booker did,” Joe says. “He sent me screenshots as I closed in. I particularly enjoyed your October 2018 post about that self-destructing Banksy piece.”
“Oh, okay creep,” Nile says, and Booker laughs into his wine.
Sitting still doesn’t come naturally to Andy. She eats standing at the counter. “We didn’t find Booker for decades,” she says.
“I didn’t want to be found,” Booker replies.
Nile peers at him. “Why?”
He only hesitates a second. “Because these people’s dreams were so messed up. You would not believe the shit I watched them do before I even met them.”
“Be glad you didn’t die a day earlier,” Joe tells her. “You would have gotten a dream about us all being slaughtered.”
Booker grunts, waves a hand while he swallows. “Be glad you didn’t die in ‘31,” he says.
Joe nods emphatically. “Brooklyn. Terrible job.”
Nile wrinkles her nose and searches for a reason why she would have even wanted to be alive in 1931.
“We were trying to infiltrate the Five Families,” Nicky tells her. “It went very wrong. All our covers blown at once--a total shitshow. The only thing we could think to do was shoot each other, and lie there waiting for everyone else to leave. That was the last time I killed Joe.” Joe winks at him, like it was a cute date.
“You get good at playing dead,” Andy says.
A horrified laugh bubbles out of Nile. If she doesn’t do something it will turn uncontrollable and hysterical, so she reaches into her pocket for her phone to show them the “mmm whatcha say” video. Seems like their kind of humor, and then they’ll be looking somewhere other than at her for a few minutes.
But of course her phone isn’t there; it’s back at Camp Leatherneck. Nile puts her hand over her mouth. God, they solve problems by dying. By dying and by killing. They break their own bones to get free. They shoot each other and themselves.
Is that supposed to be her?
“We shouldn’t lead with war stories,” Nicky says softly. “And I think you should get some rest. Come with me--I’ll show you.”
She follows. She’s tired to the bone. She can live with the barracks arrangement, the peeling wallpaper, the shitty mattress and ancient sleeping bag, even the rumble of jets every thirty seconds.
As Nicky closes the door behind him, Nile hears Joe say, “I’ll take first watch, boss.”
“I’ve got it,” Andy says. “I’ll get you after four hours.”
Nile can make it four more hours in their company. She doesn’t even take off her boots. She’s asleep before she’s horizontal.
She is underwater, deep, where it’s blue-black and the pressure would fill her ears if she had a body. She looks down into the darkness, at the cluster of air bubbles that rise with a vertical current from inside an iron coffin. She is in the coffin, fists and knees leaking blood into the water and then healing and then bleeding again. She is outside the coffin, and if she has the strength to look directly at the horrible death mask, she will see desperate and furious eyes behind it.
The screams stop. The eyes fade. And then it starts over.
Nile wakes, gasping. She’ll never have enough air again.
“What’s going on?”
A lamp comes on. “What happened, Nile?”
She balls her fists in the sleeping bag, and turns to look at Joe, who is blinking at her from the other side of Nicky. “You told me,” she pants, “you told me Quỳnh was dead.”
It hits him in the same moment Andy appears in the doorway. They’re all staring at her again. She isn’t sure what’s worse: the devastation in Joe’s eyes, or the resignation in Andy’s. As if she should have expected this, as if of course the world is this cruel.
“I feel her pain,” she says to Andy. “Her rage. She feels crazy.” It comes out full of blame, and she doesn't care.
Any second now, one of them will ask if she’s sure. If she didn’t just dream of Quỳnh because Joe told her about Quỳnh. And then she’ll have to deal with their doubt on top of their guilt.
She won’t wait for that. She pushes up from the mattress, and Andy doesn’t stop her from walking out. Nile grabs her fatigues on the way. There is a Canadian passport on top of them; she sticks it in her pocket.
Outside, the calm of the crickets in the dark is broken by the roar of jet engines again. She is going to walk into the airport and loiter there until someone lets her use their phone, and she is going to call her mom and beg to come home, then wait until her mom transfers money to whatever the French version of Western Union is. Then she is going to sleep on the plane and dream of drowning over and over, but at least she won’t dream of any of them.
She is going home, where she will disappear anonymously into Chicago and get some shitty job, doesn’t matter if it’s third shift janitorial as long is it makes her enough to repay the plane ticket and pitch in toward rent and go to the museum on weekends, and she is going to never leave home and never again have to think about killing, let alone dying on purpose.
“Nile,” Joe says.
She whirls on him. “A blessing, you said. There isn’t one good thing in any of this.”
“There are good things,” Joe insists, moving toward her through the weeds. “There have never been five of us before--not in all the time Andy has been alive.”
There have been five for two hundred years. But if she argues over that, they will be talking past each other. Nile didn’t come in a package deal with a soulmate, and cannot match his relentless good cheer at the bleakness of their lives. He has never been in her situation, or if he has, it’s been so long that he’s forgotten what it was like. “What the hell do I have to look forward to, Joe? Losing people, forever?”
Joe takes a breath, lets it out, and looks her in the eyes. “Nile, I and the others are on your side. You have us. Always.”
There is a bang from the clergy house, and then the unmistakable pop of gunfire. Her pulse loud in her ears, Nile crouches down in the weeds beside Joe, staring into the dark. He’s got a handgun ready, and his breathing has gone shallow.
In that, Nile hears the whistling emptiness of his promises that it’s safe for her to leave, that she’ll find good in this, and that she’ll always have them.
When it’s been quiet for a minute, he says, “Let’s go.”
She should run the other way. This could be her last chance.
Joe looks back imploringly.
Nile follows. She watches their six as he makes the entry, though it’s not like she could do anything if they were attacked. There are burn marks on the rug, and once she’s past the doorway--oh, damn.
“Andy? Nicolò?” Joe calls. He stops by Booker’s chair to see the mess, and winces. “Stay with him. See if you can wake him up.”
“Wake him up? From that?” It’s enough to make her doubt the mechanics of their immortality. If this wouldn’t kill them, Nile can’t imagine what would.
But Joe is already moving through the kitchen to the back room. His voice has gone thin with desperation. “Nicolò? Andromache?”
Nile sets her fatigues down, casts about in the scattered junk, and finds an old leather-bound book. Don Quixote. She holds it so the bottom corner of the spine faces out, and carefully nudges Booker’s shoulder, one of the few unbloodied spots on him. Nothing happens. She does it again.
Booker jolts forward and then falls back in the chair. He makes a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh, fff… ng. It hurts everywhere. How bad is it?”
Nile grimaces. “You ever watch Alien?”
“Fuck, am I John Hurt?”
“You’re hurt all right.”
Booker laughs, a wet and terrible sound. “It’s not always like this, now,” he says, gesturing at where his guts are slowly reuniting. Nile isn’t completely nauseated by the sight, and she doesn’t know how to feel about that. “Big wounds take longer to heal.”
“How many were there?” Joe says. He emerges with a sword on his back, and another at his hip. The fear Nile saw in his eyes has drained away, but nothing has replaced it.
“I don’t know,” Booker says.
“Where are they taking them?”
“I don’t know. I turned on the game. Andy was pacing, you know how she is. A grenade hit me--lost the plot after that.”
“It was Copley, though?”
“If it wasn’t, we’re in deeper shit than anticipated.”
Joe smiles without any humor. He gives Nile his handgun. “They’ll be back for the rest of us. When you’re healed up, come through the church and meet me at the car.”
“Wait, where are you going?” Nile demands, but Joe is already out the door. “The rest of us?” she repeats.
“They have no reason to know about you,” Booker says. “Just keep out of sight. Joe will handle it.”
How comforting. She turns back to look at the interior of the clergy house, which does not connect to the church in any way. “And we’re going through the church how?”
“Well,” Booker says, “when there’s no door, we tend to make our own. Cabinet left of the stove, second shelf.”
She retrieves a brick of plastic-wrapped C-4. “Glad I didn’t assume this was cheese.”
“That’s a mistake you only make once.” Booker takes it from her and starts dividing it. From the other side of the wall comes muffled gunfire. “Would you get the axe from the back room? It’s inside an instrument case. Andy would kill us if we left it.”
“Anything else?” Nile asks, laying the sarcasm on thick.
“There’s a change of clothes for you, under your bed.”
Nile finds the black padded case against the wall. She sets it on a mattress and unzips it enough to reveal a circular double axehead, edges honed silver. It’s obviously a custom job and recently made--none of their weapons could last that long--but just like Andy, it feels old. She zips it back up.
The clothes will do, not that she has time to change. When she comes out, Booker has a fresh shirt, a duffle at his feet, and charges wired up to the C-4. He listens, one ear pressed to the wall. “Fire in the hole,” he says, and Nile covers her ears and crouches down on the other side of the fireplace.
She feels the blast in her chest, and the room fills with dust. “Let’s go,” Booker calls.
Gun at the ready, she steps through the new doorway, into the remnants of a massacre.
There must be a dozen dead men scattered between and on top of the pews, all in black tactical gear. Nile takes a breath, and it’s a toss-up whether she’ll let out a string of curses, or something about the duality of man, or a long, silent scream.
Then Joe stands up at the back of the church. He’s got blood streaked across his face and a fresh bullethole in his shirt, next to where Nile stabbed him. A jet passes over, and the light comes through the stained glass window as he wipes his scimitar on the pants of a corpse. He meets Nile’s eyes once, then looks away.
“Not bad, mon frère,” says Booker.
Joe gives a weary nod. He follows Booker, and Nile follows him outside to an antique beemer parked in the courtyard. They load up; Nile gets in the back seat.
“Where to?” Booker asks.
“They found us here, they can find us anywhere.” Joe wipes his face, then turns to check on Nile. She stares him down until he faces front again. “Wherever, Book.”
Nile doesn’t speak a word for the whole drive. After a while she dozes, not deep enough to dream, and she wakes as they park by an abandoned petrol station. The day is dawning grey and drab.
Booker opens her door. “You speak French, right?”
She rubs at her eyes. “Oui.”
He unfolds a wad of cash. “There’s a Carrefour a mile up the road. Ten day rental, whatever you like as long as it holds five.”
“You should change here,” Joe adds, nodding toward a piece of plywood loosely covering the station door.
She’s too tired to resent the way they don’t ask and just assume she’ll do it all. Nile takes the money and the clothes, then ducks inside the station and finds a few square feet without used syringes. The cash and passport go into the pocket of her new jeans.
She walks on the shoulder for a mile, waving off motorists who ask if she needs help. According to the road signs, they’re just south of Calais. At the Carrefour she rents a luxury sedan and still has more than half the cash left over.
She pulls out of the parking lot and turns into the roundabout; only then does it occur to her that she could go the other direction. The cash isn’t enough to get her home, but it’s enough to get her back to Paris, and buy a night in a place with complimentary toothpaste and room service while she waits for a wire transfer.
A truck honks behind her--she’s gone around twice, very slowly. Nile exits the roundabout, back the way she came.
Not that it seems to matter to Joe at all, when she pulls up in the service station. He looks neither surprised nor pleased she returned for them--just transfers the weapons from one trunk to the other. He’s zipped a faded black hoodie on over his t-shirt. Something hard has settled in his eyes.
Nile starts to get out, but Booker puts a hand on the door. “No, you drive a while. Ever been on Le Shuttle?” She shakes her head. “This’ll be fun.”
It’s the most monotonous thirty-five minutes of Nile’s life. There’s a window in the train, level with her own, but of course all she can see out of it is the wall of the Chunnel for most of the trip. Joe goes to sleep, folded sideways across the back seat with his hood up. (Nile wants to warn him that even curls as relatively loose as his will get stuck in the unlined cotton--but he’s nine hundred and fifty-four, he can manage his own hair.)
And then they’re driving out into a foggy, soggy English morning. Booker tells her to stay on the M20 for an hour and a half. It turns into the A20, and one exit and three turns later they arrive at the Juliet safehouse, which has even less charm than the church.
Booker goes in to clear the place and Nile waits, listening to Joe slowly return to the land of the living. “We here?” he grunts, sitting up.
Nile nods. Booker comes back and waves them in. Nile brings his duffel, along with the axe in its case, and sets them down on a table made out of an old door. The space is big and open, only a couple broken skylights letting light in. It’s probably half asbestos and half lead paint, with a patina of black mold, but that hardly matters to them.
There is a printing press in one corner and engraving plates leaned beside it. Nile picks one up: a £50 note. The next plate is a woman’s face, but the engraving is unfinished.
Half a dozen swords, a bow, and one spear stand in the center of a tractor tire. Nile moves on to a stack of canvases and black sketchbooks. The first one falls open to a drawing of a foot emerging from under a sheet, and Nile closes it immediately. She takes a breath and opens it again to a different spot, hoping not to see any more of Nicky.
This page is all Andy. Thumbnail sketches and gestures, working up to the full drawing of her from the hips up. Her face is in profile and her body turns away as she swings the axe, which is rendered with heavy, bold lines, the graphite intentionally smudged to mimic motion blur. It’s beautiful.
Booker goes outside to warwalk for wi-fi. Joe carries in an armful of kindling and limbs, and dumps them in the fifty-gallon drum in the center of the warehouse. He takes an honest-to-God steel striker and a chunk of flint from his pocket, things Nile hasn’t seen since the SCA event she went to in high school, and strikes sparks into the barrel until it catches. Then he looks to Nile.
Like it matters. “No,” Nile says, “but fuck it.”
Joe laughs--short but genuine--and nods. “Yeah.”
Nile considers him. He called himself a poet, scholar, and artist first of all. And she saw what he did in that church, all those bodies. He is nearly a millennium old. How long would it take to define himself some other way?
How long will it take her?
“What’s your plan, exactly?” she asks.
Joe looks into the fire. “Get them back,” he says.
And that’s about as much as she expected. Would she stop at anything, if it was Dizzy and Jay?
“Oh, shit,” she blurts, and Joe glances at her. “My fatigues--I left them in Paris.”
“Okay?” Joe shrugs.
Before she can stop herself, she says, “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Joe’s face shuts down. The hardness is back in his eyes. “After a century or two,” he says, “you start to shed your attachment to things as transient as nations. Or is it that your mother told you to come home with your shield or upon it?” He shakes his head grimly. “We’re not going back for them.”
“No,” Nile says, “you just let it all rot behind you.” She tosses the sketchbook down with the others and stalks out the door.
She makes it around the corner of the warehouse before she slumps against the cracked wall, her hand fisted around her dogtags and cross. She can’t live like them. It isn’t about a nation, or even her mother--it’s one of the last connections she has to that life. She can’t start thinking of it all as just stuff to be discarded every time they have to move on.
Booker finds her there. He closes his laptop, sits beside her, and offers a flask. Nile shakes her head, so Booker takes a swig. “Just because we keep living,” he says, “doesn’t mean we stop hurting.”
Nile wipes her face. “Why us?”
He sighs. “Yeah. That way madness lies.”
“Thanks for the honest answer,” she says, and he has a good chuckle. She’s stuck here with two different flavors of Miserable Old Man, and just now she prefers this one, for whom depression isn’t a foreign country.
“Tell you what I do wonder: why you, and why now.”
For a minute Nile looks out at the yard of yellow grass, the blackberry patch, and the windbreak of trees and bushes around the perimeter that’s just starting to sprout fresh green leaves. “Why was Joe the one who came for me? Why not you, or Andy?”
Booker huffs. “Actually, we argued about whether to go after you at all.” At Nile’s questioning look, he adds, “It used to be safer, for us to be alone. But now there are cameras everywhere, cell phones are always listening, web searches get logged. Anyway. Joe was finishing his sketch, of our dream of you, you know, and he said he wasn’t going to leave you out in the cold, and when Andy didn’t say anything to the contrary, off he went.”
“I’m not what he hoped I’d be,” she says softly.
“Ah. He builds us all up to be mythic. No surprise he felt the same about you. You both try to find meaning, while the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do with--” he gestures between them--“all of this. But being here is enough. With Joe you don’t have to worry about expectations. It’s family.” He takes a drink. “Who else do you have, Nile?”
“My mom,” she says. “My brother.”
She shakes her head. “Killed in action when I was eleven.” Has the Corps sent a letter home? Are they mourning her now?
“I had three sons,” Booker says. “And the youngest one, Jean-Pierre, was the last one to die. He was forty-two when… when cancer took him. The only way is forward now.”
Nile peers at him. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll always and forever be the young woman right there. But everyone around you, everyone you love, is gonna grow old, is gonna… is gonna suffer, and is gonna die. And if you try to--if you try to touch their lives, well, they would get to learn your secret. They will beg you to share it with them, and you won’t be able to. And they won’t believe you, of course, and they will tell you that you don’t love them, or that your love is weak, or selfish. And you will never forget the hate and despair in their eyes. And you will know what it is to lose… everyone you’ve ever loved.”
Nile holds out her hand, and Booker puts the flask in it. She drinks and blinks back the sting in her eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”
“What’s the point of being surrounded by people several times older than you if they can’t help you avoid their mistakes?” He grunts as he stands and gathers his stuff. “You coming in?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Suit yourself,” he says, and he lets her be.
She stays until the sun is low on the other side of the warehouse, partly to see how long she can be still now. She has an awful lot of time.
Is this the closest thing she’ll ever have to a family from now on? Will she stay with them because, once they get Andy and Nicky back, her hands will be too bloodied to go home to her mother?
When she goes back inside, Joe has dug out a stash of protein bars that have yet to expire. It’s a lousy dinner. They turn in before it’s fully dark, for lack of anything better to do. Joe takes the first watch, and Nile falls asleep watching his back in the firelight through the rust holes in the drum.
She dreams. Not of the deep sea, but the Afghan militant, Sadeq. Two shots, quick kill. It’s loud and it lingers.
She wakes, gasping. A weak dawn comes in through the broken ceiling. Booker snores on; Joe is gone.
Nile goes out into the chill of morning. Joe is in the yard with a mat spread beneath him, facing southeast.
Nile crouches at the corner of the building and waits while he moves unhurriedly through two rakats. Finally he settles back on his heels and turns his head left and right, mouth moving, but the words are soft enough that she can’t hear them from here.
Then he turns his head left again, and nods her over. Nile kneels beside him in the wet grass. Joe has a fresh shirt on, but Nile is certain from one look at his face that he never woke Booker for a watch last night, and that won’t help him a bit when they find Copley.
She has to go--before she ends up doing something she doesn’t want to but thinks she has to. Before she ends up like him.
What she says instead is, “I only killed one person.”
Joe tilts his head but doesn’t look at her.
“The guy who killed me,” she goes on. “They try to condition us--thousands of hours of training. I was prepared, but I wasn’t ready. It would have been a blessing to die right after, like I should have, so I wouldn’t have to… live with it.”
Joe breathes in deep, and lets it out.
She knows what he hoped: that she would sit around the table with the others and feel invincible, and love them all like he does, and it would be enough for her to stay. Enough to justify whatever they have to do. But. “I can’t do this, Joe.”
He looks at her then, and the cloud in his eyes has lifted enough for him to see her. “Okay,” he says softly. He takes something from his pocket and holds it out to her.
Nile draws a shaky breath. “You have my phone?” Her mom and brother are still on the lockscreen. He’s put it in airplane mode, which is unexpectedly savvy of him. She unlocks it. The photos of her family, her dad, Dizzy and Jay, her music, it’s all there. She locks it again, looks down at her mother’s and Jordan’s faces.
She still has time with them.
“I meant to give it back in Goussainville, but stuff kept happening.” Joe looks up at the lightening sky. “The worst part is, if I hadn’t talked you into meeting everyone, we’d have a better shot at finding them now.”
She would still be dreaming of them. Nile suppresses a shiver. “You would have hated coming back to Andy empty-handed, though.”
“You’re right.” He rocks back onto his feet and takes the front two corners of the prayer mat with him, folding it neatly.
Nile looks up at him. “Are you gonna be okay?”
He gives her a hand up. “Of course,” he says, with a lightness that does not match his expression. He nods once, and turns back toward the safehouse.
She walks the other way. There’s a dirt path through the windbreak. When she’s far enough into the undergrowth that she can’t see the warehouse behind her, she goes to switch off airplane mode and dial her mom’s number. It’s the middle of the night in Chicago, but she won’t mind. Nile’s going to be the MIA that didn’t turn into a KIA. She’s going to be the family miracle.
Before she can unlock her phone, she hears gunshots from the warehouse.
She crouches, shuffling back down the path as far as she can while staying in cover. There’s a black van outside the safehouse, the kind that looks sleek while making it absolutely clear that it’s bulletproof inside and out. Two men, dressed business casual, stand beside it.
As they watch, another pair of men in black tactical gear walk Booker out between them and haul him into the van, while two more cover him with rifles. His wrists are ziptied and his feet are chained.
Before she sees Joe, she hears him. “--selfish piece of shit!” He walks hunched over from a healing wound, but the bullet clearly didn’t hit a lung. He’s still going as they lock up the van, muting his invectives inside.
The taller of the two civilians gets in the cab, but the other turns to look out at the yard--and his gaze falls on Nile’s hiding place. Shit.
“Copley,” calls the taller man, and reluctantly Copley gets in the van.
Nile waits until the dust of their passing has settled, then waits a little longer until her heart rate is under control. As she does, she switches her phone off airplane mode and watches roaming data kick in, only two bars but it will do. She googles Copley+security.
The first few results are for companies in the US and Canada, which would be too easy. The sixth is an obituary from two years ago. Concert pianist Iris Copley succumbed to ALS. She is survived by her husband James, a security consultant. Cards and flowers may be sent to the residence--an address in Surrey.
Which part of this took Booker so long?
It’s a terrible thought, the kind she can only consider because she hasn’t had the chance to know and trust all of them like family yet, but it gives her something to focus on.
Head high with the clarity that only comes from adrenaline and desperate situations, she walks into the safehouse. She finds the car keys where they fell on the floor. She gets the guns as well, and Joe and Nicky’s swords, and the axe in its case.
She’s on the M25 skirting most of London for nearly an hour before she turns off toward Surrey and Copley’s very public, very mappable address. The house is massive, almost industrial in its modernity.
Guy’s got a camera doorbell, but there’s no branding on it. Probably wired the place himself. Nile knocks.
He answers the door, and Nile lets him see her pistol. “You Copley?”
He gives her and the gun a long look, keeping his hands out, but makes no other move. Way more curiosity than good sense. “You were at the safehouse,” he says.
“Where did they take Joe? And Booker?”
“Are you… one of them?”
Nile hesitates, breath held, but she didn’t see any vans outside the house. She nods. “My God,” Copley says. “How long?”
“About five days.”
For a second there is a sort of feverish wonder in his eyes, and Nile thinks he might tell her to prove it, and then what the hell would she do? But it passes and he sobers. “Please come in.”
Nile waits; after a few seconds Copley steps away so she can get through the door without turning her back on him. He presses a panel on the wall, and the front door closes gently. The house is tidy and open. Natural light everywhere. More accessibility features besides the door panel, now that she’s looking for them. “Sorry for your loss,” she says.
Copley nods. “Follow me.”
He leads her down the hall to a wide white spiral staircase.
Nile has no interest in going farther into this house, but even less interest in letting Copley out of her sight. “Where are they?” she repeats.
“They’re in a lab, being tested.”
Motherfucker. Nile cocks the pistol, and Copley looks back over his shoulder, and amends, “Tortured.”
“Andy and Nicky too?”
With a sigh, Copley starts up the stairs, and Nile sure hates how they both know she isn’t going to shoot him. “Yes. Merrick only cares about her immortality. Not what she’s done with it.”
“What she’s done with it?”
But then she reaches the top of the stairs, and Nile sees what Andy has done.
The vastness of it. How much of it there is. Most of what Copley has on them is recent, from the advent of photography onward. Still it flows across seven panels, color-coded and arranged loosely by chronology and geography. And for every photograph there must be hundreds, thousands of people whose contact with Andy and Joe and Nicky and Booker went unrecorded. Nile reels at the scale of it.
“She saves a life,” says Copley, “two, three generations later, we reap the benefits.”
“She’s in it,” Nile breathes. “She can’t see it.” The long view is so much more than any of their lifetimes, any of their individual influence. It’s history being shaped like a river shapes a landscape.
Nile reaches the end of the panels and finds Copley there. “But you could,” she says. “You could, and you gave them up.”
“I thought it could be the end of disease. I thought it could be the end of suffering. She couldn’t talk at the end, my wife. She couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do… anything. It was supposed to be a gift to the world.”
“Wasn’t your gift to give.” Everything he’s seen, and he still has no vision. The waste of it, locking them up and cutting the immortality out of them when they can do so much--they’ve done so much.
God. She has to get them out.
Copley has been silent long enough that he might actually be critically reviewing his morals. At last he says, “Why would the immortality end?”
Her gut drops. “What?”
“Merrick said Andromache isn’t healing anymore.”
Why did she let him talk so long? There’s no time. “Is she alive?”
“I know where they are,” he says, and they go.
In the car as she checks and re-checks the guns, she says, “Tell me something, and tell me the truth. Did Booker have anything to do with this?”
Copley looks almost guilty. “You think I could have gotten this close without someone on the inside?”
Booker sat there just the day before telling her his whole tragic story, and he wouldn’t have blinked if she had been rounded up with them that morning. The duality of fucking man. “Why would he do that? They’re his family.”
“In a word? Grief.”
But Nile, too, is acquainted with grief. “Bullshit. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Copley is eyeing her again. “Do you suppose… Is there an upper limit? Can there only be five in the world at one time? You gained your immortality when Andy lost hers, yes?”
“Copley, this is not the time.” But, as he lapses into silence, Nile wonders.
Maybe it’s a matter of what will serve the world best in a given age. Maybe it’s a matter of old ways and new.
Maybe that’s a dangerous way to think of herself, or of their role in the world. As soon as they’re out and away, safe someplace Copley and Merrick don’t know about, she’ll find out if that matches any of Joe’s schools of thought.
“How old is Andy?” she asks Copley.
“She didn’t tell you?”
“We haven’t had a lot of chances to talk.”
He sidesteps the fact that this is partly his fault, and says, “At the absolute least: four and a half millennia.”
The words hit with almost physical weight. “Holy shit.”
“She is the archetype on which the Amazons were founded. The eternal warrior. A secret history, written in the margins--”
“Yeah, okay.” Best not to get him and Joe in a room together. She needs to get her head in the mission. She bends to pray. Dear God, let me get them out.
Presently Copley pulls the rental car up to the curb outside an absurdly tall skyscraper. It’s Sunday, which means plenty of street parking. He takes the duffle and Nile takes the axe. Joe and Nicky’s swords will have to wait in the trunk--there’s only so much steel she can bring with her. She stashes her phone there with them, back on airplane mode.
Copley gets her inside, but Nile does not take him with her--there’s no sense wasting one more life today. When she’s alone in the elevator, she rolls her neck and breathes deep. Her pulse is high again, adrenaline sharpening her focus to a fine point, a single objective.
She will not leave them in the cold.
Dear God, let me get them out.
The elevator stops at the fifteenth floor, and Nile steps out.
“Floor’s closed. How did you get up here?”
Three of them. They’re security, so maybe they’ll take her into custody. That might get her closer than she can get on her own. “Sorry,” she says, trying to scope how far back the hallway goes. “I was just--”
“Hands! Let me see your hands.”
Nile breathes in, and takes the rifle from behind her back.
Two shots, quick kill. The bullets hit her solidly in the chest and she falls back. She’s healing already, and it hurts, but she plays dead while one of them gets close.
They’re not interested in taking her alive, so it’s on.
A few minutes, one lost axe, and several bullets later, when she swipes Copley’s card and staggers into the lab and sees what they’ve done to Andy, Nile is glad she didn’t hold back.
“Nile,” Booker says, surprised. It’s gratifying that he didn’t expect this. “Behind you!”
Another damn bullet, but she’s getting better at keeping her feet under her. She returns fire and gets the door shut. Nicky shouts another warning, and she catches the wrist of a mad scientist before she can jab Nile with a syringe. Nile hits her with the butt of her pistol, and she goes down hard.
“There’s four shooters at the door,” she pants, “and more coming.”
She approaches Andy’s table. If it weren’t for the heart monitor, she wouldn’t expect a pulse; her chest barely moves. There are bandages taped across her torso and neck, and smears of blood the doctor didn’t bother wiping away in the same places on Nicky. “Andy?” Nile says, and Andy turns her head away. She looks hollowed out.
Nile stares at Joe, strapped to the table left of Andy. He and Booker are still clothed; the doctor didn’t have time to start on them yet. There’s a lot in Joe’s eyes, but mostly a plea.
“Andy,” Nile says again, opening the plastic buckles on the straps around her right arm. “I want to show you something you’ve never seen before. We gotta get out of here first, though.” Technically, Andy has seen everything on Copley’s bulletin boards, but maybe all at once, that will be worth something.
Andy lets a breath out through her nose, and opens her eyes to glare at Nile. “Don’t baby me, kid.”
Nile takes Andy’s hand, and puts a pistol in it. “Then get on your feet,” she says, in her best impression of a drill instructor.
The four shooters she’s been waiting for bust through the door, and Nile turns. She takes the two on the right, Andy the left. Smooth and clean, the work of a moment. She’ll be dreaming about it for a long time.
She undoes the straps on Andy’s legs, and turns to free Joe’s left arm. “It’s very good to see you,” he tells her. His eyes are smiling, though the rest of him isn’t.
“You’re damn right,” Nile says.
She moves on to Booker and gets one arm for him too, no more, no less. He’ll have to do the rest himself.
“No,” he says, “just leave me here.”
The drill instructor voice sticks. “No man left behind.” She goes to cover the door.
“There’s always a first time,” Joe calls, already across the room getting Nicky out. “He’s nothing but a traitor. If that’s what he--”
“Stop,” Andy sighs, and Joe does. She’s almost upright now, arm tucked against her side. “This is not the time for it. We don’t get a say in when it ends--we never have. But we can control how we live. And to be honest, Book, you and I? We’ve been doing a shit job of it. Now get up.” She takes the shirt Nicky brings her, and wraps her arms in black leather. “Let’s go. We stop Merrick here and now, or he never stops coming after us.”
Nile gets it, then: why they all follow her.
“Andy,” Nicky says, as Andy bends to take a clip off a dead guard, “are you sure?”
Andy stands slowly, pained and resolute. “This changes nothing. We walk out of here like always. Together. Let’s get this motherfucker.”
Nile knows how to take point on a fire team, how to breach a room. And she knows, when Joe urges them to cover Andy, how to do that in formation, from a hundred civilian escort drills in basic. The others do too, silently and effortlessly.
But Andy has no concept of how to be a civilian. She takes point right after Booker does, and they’re horribly exposed in a hallway when Nile catches up to the fact that Andy is dangling at the end of the line while everyone else looks the other way. She gets in front of her just in time.
Yep, it still sucks to get shot.
It sucks to be right next to a wall that blows up without warning.
It sucks to lose track of the person you’re supposed to be covering because Andy did it again, and to catch up only after she’s torn open God-knows-how-many sutures taking on a tank of a man single-handedly.
Nile shoots Joe a look when he jogs up to them. Lodestar this, sweet tooth that--he could have warned her Andy’s a pain in the ass.
Joe meets her eyes, weary beyond description. “What do you think?” he asks Andy. “Oslo, ‘67?”
“São Paulo, ‘34,” Andy says, holding out her hand for Nile’s gun.
Nile is about to ask whether they can translate for Chicago, ‘94 here, but Andy takes off yet again. Joe waits until Nicky and Booker go the other direction, then looks to Nile and mouths, Stay with her? And his eyes tell her that this is the most important thing in the world to him, second only to the man that’s moving away down the skybridge with fresh blood matted in his hair.
Under the heaviness of his trust, Nile nods.
Andy’s bleeding through two of her bandages. She only holds still long enough for Nile to see it while they’re waiting for the signal outside the penthouse door.
“I’ll make the entry,” Nile says, stooping to get the kevlar off a dead guard at their feet. “Stay tight to me, okay? I’ll protect you.”
Andy stops her, crouches beside her. Nile has gone into some dicey situations with Marines who figured they probably wouldn’t walk out, but this is the first time she’s looked into the eyes of someone who’s ready to die. “I go through first,” Andy says. “I always go first.”
Oh, she’s infuriating. “Andy, put on the damn armor--”
“It’s like Nicky said. If it’s my time, it’s my time.” Andy takes a grenade off the guard’s belt. “If this doesn’t work out… next time, you go first.”
That’s too much trust. Nile gets up, trying to shake the weight of Andy’s gaze. She breathes in and waits for the signal.
Gunfire. Shattering glass. Andy unpins the grenade and rolls it to the door.
In the dust and smoke, she covers Andy’s back as they clear the room. Or nearly. Joe has the last one, the man who waited with Copley outside the safehouse. Guy looks half dead already--Joe’s holding him up. “You shot Nicky,” he says. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
He moves so fast Nile can’t quite track it, but now the guy is on the floor with a snapped neck, and Joe is on his knees facing them.
Nile follows Andy forward, and stops to offer Joe a hand. He waves her off and stays there gulping air for a few more seconds.
From the floor below, Nicky shouts, “The elevator is going down! Merrick is getting away!”
Joe grabs her arm, and Nile hoists him up. “Go! I’ll stay with Andy.” He nods and takes a fresh gun with him.
Nile trails Andy to the broken window from Joe’s big entrance. She’s a little sorry she missed that, but she won’t request a reenactment anytime soon. “You okay?” she asks Andy.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Andy lies. “It just hurts. Actually, everything hurts.”
“Well, wait until tomorrow,” Nile says.
A smile spreads, slow and well-earned, on Andy’s face.
“Can’t wait.” Andy looks at Nile like she hasn’t really seen her before. “I wasn’t sure why you came along when you did. Tried not to think about it. But I get it now.”
“So there would be someone to get you out,” Nile says. It’s a little utilitarian, but the afternoon’s work speaks for itself.
Andy shakes her head, starts to answer--
“You selfish little bitch.” Nile whirls, and Merrick, or so she presumes, adds, “I will kill her.” He steps through the broken glass with a pistol he seems to know how to use and an axe he definitely doesn’t. He all but ignores Nile, getting close enough to Andy that he can’t miss, but she can’t reach him. “All the lives you could save,” he says. “Don’t you see what we could do here? You are priceless.”
“Hey Nile,” Andy says, calm as steel. “Brooklyn, ‘31.”
It takes her a second. (If she’d been there, she’d catch on faster. But who would want to be alive in 1931?)
She turns the pistol on Andy, shoots a hair behind her, and Andy plays dead. Merrick is quick--he fires on Nile and she falls back by the broken window, but keeps her head up because this part she wants to see.
Andy with that axe is a beautiful thing.
But Merrick still has the gun, and is struggling to lift it--Nile doesn’t wait for him to land a hit on Andy. She moves, feet first and then standing, another shot to the chest but she pins this bastard’s arm and lets momentum carry them both out of the building.
Shit. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Her guts stayed somewhere behind her.
It won’t hurt. She’ll die too fast for it to--
It hurts. Not the dying. But now… shit. There is a lesson in that, some moralizing cliché about how they have to go on living. A few more deaths and maybe it’ll reveal itself to her.
“Hey?” says Nicky.
Nile’s spinal column reconnects first.
She’s fucking not. She opens her eyes to find her fingers realigning under the skin. Beyond that, Joe and Nicky muscle the car door open. Beyond them, Booker watches the empty street.
“Faster than the elevator,” Joe says, his approval of her methods self-evident. Safety glass falls away as she gets up.
“It’s okay, Nile,” says Nicky.
“Ow,” she sighs, and takes Joe’s hand, reaching back with the other for the axe.
Andy is waiting when she’s free of the car, and Nile straightens away from Joe’s side, offering the axe to her. As she takes it back, her eyes are full of something that hurts to look at too long, but Nile holds her gaze until Andy smiles and puts her hand on the back of Nile’s head and draws her under her arm.
They load up the rental. Nile pauses at the door, looks up at where she jumped.
She kind of… fought gravity. And she didn’t win, not by most people’s definition, but she certainly walked away.
Joe was right. This feeling is good.
She gets in the car and, because it’s what she was raised to do, reaches for her seatbelt. Nile freezes with the buckle in her hand; she just fought gravity and now she is strapping herself into a car. She glances right to find Nicky watching. His lips curl just slightly, and he angles his leg away from hers so she can get to the socket.
Nile buckles in. At the sound, Joe finds her eyes in the rearview mirror. She shakes her head, cheeks aching from holding back a grin. Joe doesn’t smile, but his eyes do.
She leans her head back, and she’s asleep before they’re out of the city center.
They claim a table while Andy and Nicky get their drinks. Four seats only, by the window, where they can keep an eye on Booker.
“Out of curiosity,” Nile says, because she hasn’t seen Joe smile yet today, “if an immortal were to get their head cut off, and put in some other location indefinitely, what would happen? Asking for a friend.”
“I’ve never tried it,” Joe tells her. “But why run the risk of ending up with two of him?” And then he does smile, only when Nile does. But he looks out the window a moment later, and it’s gone, and Nile half-remembers something about how, when it comes to gallows humor, sometimes you are the hangman.
Andy and Nicky bring their drinks, and Joe takes his foot off the bench on the other side of the table so Nicky can sit. “Before we get started,” Nile says, “I’m recusing myself.”
“Uh-uh,” Joe says.
Nicky fixes her with a stare. “Your pain is not lesser,” he says.
She balks. “I wasn’t tortured, Nicky.”
“And none of us jumped off a high-rise,” Nicky says.
It is a real effort to keep her voice down. “Booker didn’t push me off!”
“No,” Joe says, “but he pushed you into having to rescue us all and ensure Merrick couldn’t pursue us, culminating with you diving into a car. Not to mention all the times you were shot. How many was it?”
Nile frowns at him. He knows damn well she lost count. Joe lifts a brow, and Nile sees what he won’t say aloud: that she suffered and she died, but she also had to kill. This, too, goes on the scale.
Andy says, “This happened to you, too, Nile. You vote.”
“I don’t know him like you know him--”
“That’s exactly why you vote,” Joe says.
This asshole. “You want my vote? I vote that he delivers an apology to each of us, personally, verbal and written, saying he owns what he did, he is filled with remorse, and he won’t do it again. That’s all.”
Nicky and Andy trade a glance she can’t read. Andy huffs. “She’s very young.”
“So’s Booker,” Nicky says.
Joe rotates his glass on its coaster. “He apologized in the lab, several times, to Andy. He was very very sorry. Presumably because she’s mortal now, not for the imprisonment and torture.”
Fuck it. Let them all think she’s soft. “Okay, that’s what I’ve got! I haven’t been tortured yet so anything I can come up with will be a little weak.”
“There would have been a table for you, if things had gone only slightly different,” Nicky says.
He’s right. There was a table waiting for her in Landstuhl, Germany. She carefully does not look at Joe. “If we talk about how things could have gone instead of how they did go, we’ll be in the weeds all day.”
“Agreed,” says Joe. “Then we can disregard that it was only supposed to be him in that lab. So. Based on what actually happened, what do we need, and what does Booker need?”
“Someone to talk to,” Andy says. She’s probably answering the second question first… but if Andy needs that too, they can find her someone.
“Rehab,” Nile says. A funny thing to say out loud in a pub, but just because they won’t die from alcohol poisoning doesn’t make it healthy.
“Both is good,” Joe says.
“Horse to water,” Nicky counters. He’s right. They can’t force Booker. Well, they could, but then it wouldn’t mean anything.
“Then what do we need?” Joe repeats.
Nile needed--no, deserved--a gentler introduction to this life. It’s too late to change what happened, but if there’s a way she can face what has befallen her and start to unpack it without having to think about survival, about saving everyone else, that’s what she needs.
Nicky says, “Time.”
Now none of them will look at Andy.
But Andy says, “He needs time, too. He never got to process… anything. Once we found him, it was war after war.”
“We just took a year, boss.”
“Longer,” she says. She looks to Nile, and Nile couldn’t look away if she wanted to. “I spent a long time alone before I met anyone like us.”
Nile isn’t sure if it was the time that made Andy debatably well-adjusted enough to not drag her three oldest friends into an attempted suicide. Still, the question begs to be asked. “How long?”
The silence that follows feels almost long enough. Nicky breaks it. “Five hundred,” he says.
Nile gets up from the table. Joe looks at her sharply. “We’re not done.”
She isn’t going to sit through a bidding war. “You heard my vote,” she tells him.
Joe turns to Andy, and Nile won’t wait for her permission either. She moves behind the bench, and Joe leans forward to let her out.
She meets Booker on the narrow porch that overlooks the Thames. “How’s it going?” he asks.
“They’re still deciding.” She leans back on the railing and looks in at the three of them. Unfathomably old. Old enough that it would be easy to assume the way they think is tribalistic and rigid and foreign, if she didn’t know better by now.
For all that they have a playbook of cities and dates to draw from, they’re fumbling through most of this shit as they go. Because as old as they are, some things are still unprecedented. Like the idea that one of them could ever sell the others out.
“There’s not much to decide--it’s not like they can kill me.” Booker turns to face the window with her, watches her turn her phone over and over in her hands. “They, ah… Nobody has converted your Facebook page to a memorial yet.”
Yet. “Yeah. I’m still deciding about that, too.” She swallows. “We went through it all when my dad died, so maybe it’ll be easier for them this time.”
Booker’s silence tells her it won’t.
She turns toward the Thames. Hates how weak her voice sounds, when it comes out. “I just really want to hear my mom’s voice one more time.”
“You’re a good kid, Nile,” he says. “You’re gonna be great for the team.”
She nods. Watches the river a while. When she looks back, Joe tilts his head at her. She leaves Booker outside.
Joe gets up to let her back onto the bench. “We split the difference,” he tells her.
“A hundred years,” says Nicky. “Then we meet with him and see what he’s done.”
That’s not splitting anything, so Nile doesn’t say anything. For a minute, neither does anyone else. “You’re waiting for me to agree?” she says at last.
“We don’t act without consensus,” Andy says.
“Well that’s some bullshit,” Nile tells her.
Nicky’s eyes get very wide, and Joe bites his lip, but Andy only lifts her brows and looks down at the tabletop. “We won’t act on this without consensus,” she finally concedes.
A hundred years. Nile can’t imagine that, yet. She looks out the window, but Booker has moved down to the shore. In a hundred years, everyone she loves will be gone.
Well, maybe not everyone.
She says to Joe, “It’s hard not to feel like I’m packing his bag.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “But he’s the one who has to carry it.”
Nile looks at him, at Nicky who left the most of himself in that lab, at Andy who won’t be there in a century to see what Booker does with that time. They’re all carrying it. It’s heavy.
“A hundred years,” she agrees.
The clergy house hasn’t been touched. Five days on, her fatigues are where she left them by the TV.
She brushes off as much plaster dust as she can and picks them up. Something falls out of them to bounce on the carpet. She bends to pick up the key from the plane--the one she never ended up using--and holds it out to Joe.
His eyes light with recognition and a single silent laugh shakes his shoulders. He takes it from her, clips it to the silver chain around his neck, tucks it into his shirt. “Hayati,” he calls, “did you know I fought Nile with one hand behind my back?”
“Of course you did,” Nicky says from the back room.
Nile picks up a few other things. The place they’re setting up is new-to-them, a little sparse. She finds the mug Andy used at that first dinner. A couple beeswax candles, which will not be parted from their holders. Don Quixote.
Joe considers the swords by the door, but they don’t meet his standards. Nicky emerges from the back room with a stack of paperbacks and neutral t-shirts, plus a favored quilt over his shoulder. “All right?” he asks.
Nile nods. She’s ready now.
“Thanks for the trip,” she says when they’re all loaded up.
“Sure,” says Joe, starting the car. “Kinda nice to say goodbye to the place.”
It is at that. The new safehouse has central heating.
It’s also two hours away, so this is a good time to start the conversation Nile meant to have on the way here, before Joe and Nicky got caught up arguing over buying gauze in bulk. “So Joe, if, for the sake of argument, some power chooses us for this life... would you say we’re chosen because of who we are, or who we have the capacity to become?”
Even from behind the driver’s seat, she can see the grin split his face. “I am so glad you asked,” he says. “In order to answer that with total certainty, I would like to introduce you to my beloved, Nicolò di Genova, who absolutely was not chosen for who he was at the time.”
Nile leans forward to look at Nicky. He glances at her and reddens, but doesn’t look away. “Wallahi, Yusuf,” he says, “you’ve brought home a new philosopher.”
They get back to the new place in the late afternoon. Andy’s on the foldout sofa, and she clearly has not been resting like they made her promise. She silently dares them to say anything, but Nile is in too good a mood to start with her.
She hands Andy a takeaway box from the bakery where she insisted on stopping. Andy opens it and looks from the tiramisu to Nile with open suspicion, but Nile doesn’t want anything from her. She goes to have a shower in an actual bathroom that was built within the last century.
When she comes out, she stops short and turns toward the kitchen instead, because it looks like Andy is finally asleep. She’s wrapped up in Nicky, who’s wrapped up in Joe. But Nicky sees her there of course, and thanks to whatever silent muscle twitch language they have invented over nine hundred years, Joe lifts his head. “Hey. We call this one the matryoshka.”
“Come on,” says Nicky. “Get in.”
Nile eyes them a minute longer. It does look comfortable.
So as not to wake Andy, she climbs over the arm of the couch and slides down between the back and Joe’s back. The springs creak in the foldout. When she lays down, there’s a bar directly under her ribs. Treacherous couch--this had better be worth it.
She stretches her arm beneath Joe’s, and can just reach Nicky’s side. She fills her lungs and lets it all out; the bar doesn’t dig quite so much then.
Joe crunches up so his feet rest on hers, which means Nicky has to fold a little more too. From the other side of him Andy mutters, “Nile’s too short to be big-matryoshka.”
“I won’t hear of it,” Joe says.
“He never talked back before you came along,” Andy says.
But Nile has only ever met one person more contrary than Andy herself, and no matter how long she lives, she doesn’t think that’s likely to change. “I don’t believe you,” she says, and holds all of them closer, feeling Nicky’s laughter under her palm.
Joe promised her good things, blessings.
She found them.