He gave us all of 24 hours before he began planning for the next raid.
“Maddock, North Dakota” he announced over breakfast, “Extraction center. Our ETD is next Tuesday.”
“Um…” I put down the pancakes on my fork, “Good morning to you, too.”
Ishmael said nothing, but it was amazing how me managed to look cool even while eating my Mom’s buttermilk flapjacks.
“I don’t mean to be the Negative Nancy,” I conitnued, looking around the table at several uncomfortable faces, “but if I remember correctly, we just very nearly avoided getting our butts barbecued on the last run yesterday.”
Ishmael glared me down, still chewing.
“Something went wrong. We really should find out what happened so we don’t, you know, massacre ourselves this time out.”
Ishmael finished his breakfast and left the room. I groaned into my apple juice.
“Ugh… as always, Mr. Shoot First, Ask Questions Later.”
“I think it is more like Shoot First and Shoot Later,” Brigitte grumbled from the other side of the table.
“So is anyone going to ask the questions?” I asked to the entire table, annoyed. Even the warrior priest cast an uneasy eye at the woodgrain. I threw up a massive, huffy sigh and dove back into my pancakes.
“Priest, honey…” my mother asked, confusing the ACTUAL priest at the table, “You’ll get a stomach ache.”
“Good!” I grunted around a mouthful, “I’ll need to be sore and pissed off when I go and talk to him.”
“You’re going to…?” Octavia asked, her bright blue eyes wide open in shock.
“I have to, don’t I?”
Again, uneasy looks all around.
“That’s what I thought.”
It still took me about three hours to work up the courage to find him. He was nowhere to be found, which was pretty normal, but I got it on a tip from Aonghus that he was out at his workshop.
“Do you mind if I go out there? I mean, I’ll probably be right in the thick of all your… stuff.”
“Ye’ll be fine, laddie,” Aonghus chuckled, “There’s not much in my place you could turn into something dangerous.”
He thought for a moment, and his smile faded slightly.
“Just don’t go in the fridge.”
I wasn’t planning on it… but now I want to know.
“If I know him, he’ll be out in the scrapyard.”
“What would he want in a scrapyard?” I asked, my mind still in the fridge. Aonghus’ smile returned as he obviously knew something I didn’t.
I spent the whole, long, underground trip to Aonghus’ workshop wondering what he could possibly mean by practice. About two-thirds of the way there, I started to hear what sounded like explosions above me, and it did little to put my fears to rest over what exactly that faerie was up to. I finally opened the door into Aonghus’ basement and heard another noise, much louder now than before. Now that I was out of the tunnel, I could distinctly hear that awful, raucous screeching sound you get when metal hits metal. Oh boy, I thought, this ought to be fun. And unstable winged man in a junkyard hurling metal objects about loud enough to be heard ten feet underground. Why did I decide to do this again? Right, because everyone else are pussies. Also, and I am man enough to admit it… I was worried about him.
I hadn’t gotten a chance to see the rest of Aonghus’ house, and I was not surprised by what I saw. There were mechanical parts piled everywhere throughout the kitchen and what I assume had once been the little post-war ranch dining room, but as I headed out the back of the small one-floor house I caught a glimpse of what was quite possibly the coziest looking living room I’d ever seen. One well-loved and overstuffed armchair sat in front of an old cabinet television with nothing but warm, thick carpeting and pine paneling between them. On an opposite wall, there seemed to be technical manuals for everything ever created on a massive bookshelf (probably homemade as well) all stacked neatly and probably alphabetized. I wanted to keep looking, but another rending noise called out from the backyard, so I slid open a well worn patio door and entered into what would charitably be called a backyard and not charitably be called a scrapyard the size of a football field.
I could see why Aonghus lived where he did: anywhere else in the larger Philly area and they would have shut him down for having a yard like this, but… well, the recession caused a lot of industrial areas to empty out, and the cops weren’t exactly going to come out here and answer a call from no one about a place where no one lived. I followed the noises as best I could around piles of car… things and mechanical… stuff, whatever the hell they were until I could start to make out what sounded like faint talking… but it wasn’t the voice I expected to hear. I started walking a little slower and a little more carefully as the voices got a little bit louder.
“You don’t have to push yourself like this, you know.”
I know that voice. Immediately my mind was drawn to blonde hair, dark roots… and a couple of other things.
“Yes I do,” came a familiar growl, followed immediately by another shriek of metal. I chanced a peek around a pile of stuff to see Ishmael currently pulling his right hand out of what looked like part of a car.
“So, what’s that?” Xandra asked, unimpressed.
“What does it do?”
He did not sound happy. He tossed the oil filter at Xandra, who neatly ducked as it sailed over her head.
“Y’know, you don’t always have to do all this ‘Lone Wolf’ bullshit,” Xandra drawled out, as if bored, “You’ve got a miniature army at your back, now, it doesn’t exactly fit anymore.”
“I’ve been alone since I was eight,” Ishmael said bitterly, arms akimbo as he glared at the ruined Mazda in front of him. With two deft punches, he seemed to penetrate the very steel of the car with his bare hands, tossing other little parts here and there. He was Evaluating: seeing at the tiniest of levels the weaknesses of every structure and how to destroy them. There were no bruises on his hands, no blood. The grimace on his face was there by choice.
“I’ve been running from the AE ever since. I’ve known thousands of people in hundreds of cities, and I’ve seen more die than I’ve killed… and I’ve killed a lot.”
Xandra scoffed, obviously trying to play it cool.
“There was one agent, he found me in Minnesota. I was fourteen, washing dishes at a supper club. I felt the room go a little dark as he walked up behind me, but I was always prepared. I always kept five coffee mugs in the sink at all times, just for a guy like him. When he tried to take me, I gave him a fist full of ceramic; he was dead before he hit the ground. They didn’t think a kid could do what I could, see where to kill, how to kill… and they didn’t think that I’d know why to kill. To survive. To escape. To get revenge.”
“Y’know, I wasn’t really allowed off the family compound as a kid,” Xandra sighed, “So I watched a lot of movies. And from what I saw, revenge was never a good thing.”
“Hh,” it was Ishmael’s turn to scoff as he drove his foot perfectly through a headlight. With a twitch of his wiry thigh, the front quarter of the car exploded into shrapnel and dust… and none of it went where he didn’t want it to. Xandra sat firm on top of an old empty chemical barrel, knowing he wouldn’t hurt her. I got the feeling she’d done this before.
“Your parents were millionaires, Xandra,” he said, facing away from the both of us, his fists clenched at his side, “my parents were murdered.”
“My parents were murdered,” Xandra shot back in a tone that mocked his gravely voice, “Do you have to talk like that all the time? Just you and me here.”
Not exactly. Ishmael did the closest thing I’d ever heard him do to a laugh, a low, rasping hiss, brittle but mocking.
“It was my birthday when they came for me. For my family,” he said, still facing away, “They got us when we were cutting my damn cake. I was about to blow out the candles, and I saw, in the reflection of my mother’s glasses… the petrol bomb.”
There was a silence there when nothing could be heard but the wind.
“I saw it first… and I ducked. I got down under the table, but my family… they weren’t so lucky. Near as I could figure, they were all too busy watching me blow out the candles. I hid under that table as they all burned to death: I heard their screams, I heard my mother called out for me to get out, but I couldn’t… I was too scared. Within minutes, the whole house was in flames. It was a hit: half the community was to teach those Mythics a lesson. And as I crouched under that table, too scared to move, breathing in the fumes of the plastic cups and the plastic plates and the plastic tablecloth, all of them burning… I got this voice. So yes, Xandra…”
He turned around again with a face like death itself.
“I do have to talk like this.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Xandra actually sounded taken aback, “I’m… I’m sorry. I thought you were just trying to be, y’know, manly… every night, afterwards, I thought you were just trying to be cool.”
“This is cool… Hh.”
Wait a minute… afterwards WHAT?
“And I told myself,” Ishmael looked back to what was left of the car, his voice seething, “I told myself I’d never be a coward, like I was that day, ever again. I would be the one fighting, always fighting, until the day I died… because I failed my family that night. I have to make it up to them. If I don’t spend every day fighting everything I can, I am not doing them justice. My mother, father, my family… all of them. I have to fight. I have to do this!”
He thrust his fist forward once more, and the rest of the car vanished into dust. It was then I really understood: he wasn’t thinking he had to send us to North Dakota as soon as possible because WE failed… it was because HE failed. I couldn’t help it, but a sigh shook itself loose from me from the very bottom, and it dislodged a few pieces of scrap that clattered to the ground and caught his attention.
“John, is that you?”
I shuffled out from behind the junkpile like a kid caught napping in class.
“Yeah… yeah, it’s me.”
“Well, come on and join us,” Xandra said with sarcastic joy, “We’re all airing our dirty laundry out here. I’m about to tell Ish here how money killed my family… except the bastards are still here.”
Ishmael said nothing, he merely scouted the area for more junk to “practice” on.
“Well,” I shrugged, trying to pretend like I hadn’t just been spying on them, “Not much to tell. Dad died before I was born. I broke my collarbone once going over my handlebars. Uh…”
“Still a virgin?” she asked quickly with a too obvious wink.
“If you must know… no.”
“Ohh,” her wink traveled down and became a grin, “Maybe you could teach me something…”
I felt my face go beet red, but it was quickly drained of color as a piece of sheet metal off a truck came whizzing past between us, embedding itself in the ground. I turned to see Ishmael, unapologetic, staring me down. Um, point taken, I suppose.
“What are you doing here.”
He didn’t say it as a question, more like an annoyance.
“Well,” I took in a deep breath, chancing a glance at Xandra who goaded me on with a nod, “No one agrees that we should be on the road so soon. There’s a feeling around the group that we need to evaluate…”
I winced as I used the word. Stupid idea.
“We need to… look and see what went wrong.”
Ishmael didn’t even wait a second.
“I’m in charge here, and I do the evaluating. Any of you are welcome to leave at any time, if you disagree. We will arrive in Maddock next Tuesday.”
“Come on!” I heard myself whining, “aren’t we a team? Shouldn’t we talk about this?”
“As you were eavesdropping,” he shot back, peeved, “You’ll know that I don’t consider this a team. This is my fight, and you’re helping me.”
“Do you have to be so damn stubborn?!”
Xandra snorted a bit at that one. I looked over to her and she had a knowing smile.
“Trust me, John. Once he sets his mind on something…”
“I’m not sure I want to know anymore, please.”
She chuckled a low, tenor chuckle as my face went red again. Ishmael, as usual, rained directly on the parade.
“I have spoken to the Empath, and we are in agreement: you all have too much fear of what could happen. As soon as you purge your fear, like I have, then you can make decisions.”
I wanted to say “Jackass” or “Prick” or any number of things, but I couldn’t.
“Now, leave me alone… both of you. I need to work.”
Xandra just solemnly nodded, and we made our way back through the house and into the tunnel.
“Don’t worry,” she said casually, “He’s always like this after he gets off, too.”
“Aaagh! I didn’t need to know that!”
She chuckled again, and we kept on walking until a question bubbled to the surface.
“What did he mean by an Empath, anyway?”
“Oh, you didn’t notice?” Xandra replied, a little amused, “Octavia. She can see our feelings, our emotions. That’s why she’s the User. She probably knows what you’re thinking better than you do.”
“Oh, great. A mind reader AND a shapeshifter.”
“And never the two shall meet,” Xandra shot back dryly, “Those two are gonna bitch-fight it out soon, trust me.”
“Such a great team we have… oh WAIT, we aren’t a team, right?”
“Don’t let him get to you,” Xandra patted my shoulder, “As you heard, he’s got a lotta shit on his plate.”
“He’s got a whole frickin’ buffet,” I grumbled as we entered back into my mother’s basement. Xandra headed over to her door, pausing a bit with her hand on the knob.
“Hey, John… I know YOU’RE not an Empath, but can you tell what I’M thinking?”
I’m a pretty dense guy, but even I could pick it up. She was braced against the door, one leg up, her head tilted downward but her eyes glancing up like a begging puppy. I told myself I couldn’t, I shouldn’t… because that guy in the big black coat might just impale me on a crankshaft or whatever he just pulled out of a damn Volvo or something if I even touched her. That’s what I told myself, but in all honesty it was the first time I found myself in that… y’know, situation… and found myself completely unattracted to what should have been a very attractive woman. All I could think of was Ishmael, and that was something that confused me even more.
He gave us all of 24 hours before he began planning for the next raid.