Ok, re-reading that first chapter, I think you might have a few questions. Some of them being “Who is this guy telling this story?” “What is this place?” “Is he some kind of spy? If so, who’s he spying for?” Well, I apologize for that, and I guess I can answer now.
My name is Nathan Jacobs, the kid with two first names. Most of the time, I live in Maynard, Massachusetts, on the East Coast of the United States of America. It’s quite a nice place, not the kind of place an aspiring mercenary lives. For one thing, it’s really quiet.
Too quiet, I guess, and not in the sense that you’re about to get ambushed. I mean, I love that town, but it’s the kind of place where most of the people have lived there for generations and everyone seems to be either middle or working class. Also, a good chunk of what you need is either in town or close enough so that you don’t feel like leaving it.
I guess what I’m trying (and failing) to do is blame my lack of direction on the town, or on anyone other than me. I wanted to do something that got me as far away from Maynard and my family as possible, not because I hated them, but because they were all I had ever known. I mean, if you’ve only ever lived in one place for sixteen out of the eighteen years you’ve been alive, can you really say you love it?
The thing is, I did have a plan. I decided I wanted to be a game developer. I loved video games, and had some cool ideas for a few. Then I went to a camp for that for two years. No one listened to me, and at the end of each session, I still had no idea on how to use the programs, unless you counted a growing frustration with them as “learning.”
That left me frantically searching for my purpose, something you apparently are supposed to have figured out by eighteen, despite not being considered mature enough to drink by the law. That’s when UNIX came to my school’s career fair.
Bizarrely enough, there was one of the world’s premiere paranormal law enforcement organizations recruiting in my school’s gym and sitting on a plastic folding table with a home-made cardboard display like they were kids doing a science project. I mean, the Maynard Police and Fire departments and the local chiropractor you can kind of see, but people who fight rogues? Those guys should have enough money to put on TV adds during the Superbowl, not have little cardboard stands with clearly amateur charts and hand-drawn anime characters.
I decided to talk with them. I mean, how could you not? There they were with the suits, sunglasses and single earbud and everything. Before I could say anything, the shorter one stood up and said in a slight accent, “Hi, we’re here from United Nations Investigations, Extranormal. We’re here on a PR mission.”
“So, you guys aren’t actually field agents, just PR?” I asked, feeling slightly disappointed. The other one, slightly taller responded in a British accent, “All agents have mandatory PR training. We are, after all, expected to work with civilians.”
“Did you guys make the poster board yourself?”
“It was his idea,” the British one said, pointing at the Asian one.
“And it wouldn’t have turned out so well if not for your help,” he replied teasingly. “I must admit, I never would have thought of UNIX-tan.” It struck me as kind of odd how similar they looked. They were both in their mid-thirties and dark-haired. They also looked fit but not buff, and their suits were the exact same. Also, the British one looked like he was going to return his partner’s needling.
To prevent the conversation from becoming derailed before it could begin, I held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Nate. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself sooner.” They both smiled. The Asian one shook my hand first. “I’m Agent Takashi and this is Agent Brosnan.”
“And please,” Agent Brosnan said as he gripped my hand, “no James Bond jokes. I can assure you I’ve heard them all.” Looking back on it, there was something weird about their handshakes. What I do when I shake hands with someone is I start off with a medium grip. Then, if their grip is harder, I grip harder and if their grip is looser, I grip looser. This time, I noticed with both of them what it was like to be on the receiving end of that.
“Kind of odd that you’re here,” I said. “We don’t get very many UNIX agents around here.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Agent Brosnan said with disgust. “Your country has the most annoying habit of not letting other people help. But when some other country has some nice, juicy oil you go in to ‘spread Democracy.’”
“Or maybe the US doesn’t let us in because someone is so rude,” Takashi said, elbowing Brosnan.
“He does have a point,” I said, “Depending on who we elect.”
“Very self-aware of you, Nate,” Brosnan said.
Takashi cut him off. “It’s a bit more than that,” he said. “People here, err, in this country, have a tendency to react badly to any kind of foreign power telling them what to do.”
“For instance,” Brosnan said, “one town in California threatened to lynch us if we attempted to recruit there.”
“There probably some Californians who could have predicted that for you,” I said. “But that’s why you’re recruiting in the US, right?”
“There are other reasons…” Takashi said hesitantly. “We could talk about in more detail when school gets out. If that’s ok with your parents, that is.”
“It’s a half-day,” I said, “so school gets out at 11:30. And I’m eighteen, so I don’t think I need permission.”
“Excellent!” Brosnan said. “Your town has quite a few lovely little restaurants that I would like to try. I’ll buy.”
And that was how I found myself sitting at the River Rock Café, eating a burger and listening to their plan for me. “You are correct,” Takashi said, “that we want to get more American agents and coverage. Your government is developing several anti-extranormal authorities, very good ones, in fact. That being said, none of them are quite enough to stop or contain a Force 2 Event.”
For those of you who don’t know, usually when two super-beings fight or an act of God occurs, certain pundits will label it a Force 0.1 to a Force 1 Event. The gold standard, apparently, was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima as it completely destroyed the city. The first time I heard of a Force 2 Event was Hurricane Sandy. People were arguing whether or not it was a Force 2 Event because it had destroyed a good chunk of the East Coast. The general consensus, though, was it was still a Force 1.
“But aren’t the possibilities of that happening really remote?” I asked. Brosnan was about to speak up, but Takashi leaned in close. “We can’t tell you that.” He leaned back.
I was about to ask why. Then I realized why. If they could tell me without any form of lying that there was no way a Force 2 event could happen, and in no way were there any close calls, he would be trumpeting it up and down the street.
“Oh.” I said. What else could you say?
“The reason why American coverage is so essential,” Bronson added, “is that any Force 2 Event or even a significantly disturbing Force 1 event can cause massive panic if not handled effectively. Based on, well, the previous decade, a panicking America can cause massive amounts of damage.”
“Trust me on this,” Takashi said, “America doesn’t panic. America wreaks vengeance.”
“Nitpick, nitpick, there you go nitpicking,” Bronson said, attempting to sound flippant. I had the suspicion that if I could see his eyes behind his sunglasses, they’d be screaming. “Anyway, there’s also the Domino Effect. Except this time, instead of Communism, we’re talking about panic. If a Force 2 or 3 Event happens in your nation without warning, other countries will get… excited as well. In the time it takes for the US to heal and for UNIX to get it, Russia and China working together, many other countries will be panicking. Imagine: the nations of the world frantically scouring their borders for potential time bombs, attacking each other in bouts of paranoia… Honestly, admitting how close we’ve come to Force 2 to 5 Events would probably be preferable. The worst case scenario then would be a few regimes being changed.”
I sat in silence, then I spoke. “So, I figure the long-term goal in telling me this is get me to college, take some sort of law or science degree, then I’ll join UNIX’s American wing.”
Takashi sighed subtly. “Yes,” he said, in a seemingly nonchalant way, “I suppose that’s the long-term goal.”
“Yuki,” Brosnan said admonishingly, “let him ask about the short-term before you give up.” Takashi stared at Brosnan in surprise. Then he turned back towards me. “So, what do you think will happen in the short-term?”
“Well,” I said, “there are probably dozens of arguments you could have used to get me on board.” I leaned in close to whisper, “but instead you deliberately came as close to saying that Force 2 Events are an everyday occurrence as possible without actually saying it…”
“Don’t whisper,” Brosnan said. “It tends to attract more attention than talking about something out loud.”
“Sorry,” I said, leaning back and raising my voice to the minimum amount needed for them to hear me, “It’s just… I get the feeling that was something you really shouldn’t have told me. Is that better?”
“Yes,” Takashi said. “Remember, it is better to hint than to whisper. Also, read and shape the air, don’t clear it.”
“Anyway,” I said, “telling me that speaks of… well, desperation seems too strong a word. After all, we could just leave here and pre… I mean, say we simply had a thought-experiment. But your… not-desperation, I guess, speaks of short-term. Do you want me to guess?”
“Personally,” Brosnan said, “I’m convinced, but I do believe Agent Takashi would like to hear an educated guess.” Takashi nodded. “That is correct.”
I took a moment to consider the phrasing. An educated guess could possibly be different than a normal guess to them. How? My best guess: if I just randomly said something out of the blue, even if it was right, I would fail. As any math teacher would say, I had to show my work.
“First off,” I said, starting with the obvious, “you seem to want me to start early. I can’t say you’ve offered me definite proof, but your strategy seems to be ‘bring him on board and hope he follows.’” I thought about asking if I was right, but something told me I’d fail this test of theirs if I asked. That brought me to my next point.
“Actually,” I said, “you’ve been testing me ever since we met, haven’t you? That’s another reason to assume you’re offering me a job right now.” I was annoyed, but in the kind of way that made me want to ace their stupid test, not the kind that made me throw down my half-eaten burger and storm out.
Collecting myself, I continued. “As to what kind of job it is, well, let’s think about what I’ve been tested for. You wanted to see my ability to see the big picture. I don’t think I did very well on that, so that leaves out being some kind of analyst. What I’m doing much better on is my ability to, as Agent Takashi said, ‘read the air.’ So, what you want me to do is something more… people-oriented, and quite a bit closer to the field.” I resisted adding “know what I mean?” I was going to shape the air, not clear it. Takashi smiled slightly. He had gotten it.
“As to where I would be doing this job,” I said, trying desperately to think, “I’ll need a moment to think that over. I’m pretty sure I have time to answer that, but my burger and fries are getting cold.”
“I don’t know,” Takashi said, “Do we have time?”
I kind of snapped. It would have sounded polite to a passer-by, but in context my voice was dripping with venom. “Honestly, unless I’m reading you wrong, you two have personally worked your way from Cali all the way here, searching for someone who fits your criteria. If you have that kind of time, you definitely have time for me to eat my food before it gets cold and disgusting.”
I leaned forward. As I did, I realized I was shaking with anger. “You know what?” I whispered dangerously, “I think you are desperate. Why? Because you ran out of candidates.” Takashi looked like he had been slapped. I leaned back, taking a deep breath before the dam burst any more. I really wanted to lay into him and call him out on his bullshit, but I wanted to win now, more than anything. If I exploded, I would lose.
I took a sip of my coke (or was it Pepsi? Screw it, doesn’t matter) then said, “You should eat, too.” While I ate, I thought. This made my eating slower than usual. So, I knew they wanted me to be a spy. The question was, who would I be spying on? I doubted anything in the previous conversation had any hints to give me, or at least none that I would pick up on in time. Instead, I would focus on what I knew about spies.
First off, where would they recruit me, normally? Easy, in every spy book I owned, spies typically got recruited in college or the army. People in college were young, so it would be easy to do a background check. They were smart, which was always a plus. Also, their major and clubs they joined said a lot about them and it would be easy to check that. So why target me? Or, in less egotistical terms, why target a High School student? That was a better way to ask the question, actually. They’d looked through a lot of schools to find a candidate, but it sounded like they were targeting High Schoolers at career fairs. Then I remembered how Takashi reacted to what I said about college.
“You don’t want me to go to any college,” I said in dawning comprehension. “You want me to go to a specific one.”
“I think he passes,” Brosnan said, “but if you disagree…”
“No,” Takashi said, “He got farther than anyone else. He may have lost control for a moment, but he got me off-balance, then recovered.”
“Sorry about that,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry,” Brosnan said as he reached into a messenger bag for a large envelope, “because you win!” As I took the envelope, he said, “By the way, Nate, we never got your last name.”
I smiled. “It’s Jacobs,” I said, “Nathan Jacobs.”
That’s when Takashi imitated the opening trumpets to the James Bond theme. Brosnan elbowed him. “Oi,” he said, “that’s my song, you wanker.”
I waited till I got home to open it. Inside were two flyers and two letters. The flyers were for a place called Nowhere Island University. They looked mostly the same. One, however, was the truth. The other was what you showed to your parents. I picked up a letter, the one without official letterhead. It read as follows:
Dear Random Teenager:
Congratulations on impressing us with your skills. As you have guessed, we want you to infiltrate a very specific university. Nowhere Island University is not a normal higher learning institution. Ever since UNIX’s inception, we have been encountering their graduates in the field. They range from soldiers with training surpassing that of your Delta operators and SEAL commandos to criminal masterminds to disturbingly brilliant scientists. Recent intel even suggests that they have even begun to train parahumans.
While it would be more expedient to destroy it, we believe that they have certain safeguards in place, mostly legal. The problem is that its graduates are everywhere, and many of them possess wildly different goals. Some are revolutionaries, looking to up their game. Some are criminals looking to make money. Others still are simply motivated by pushing the boundaries of science, no matter the cost. Even more disturbing is now a growing percentage seem to have super-powers.
All of that, though, pales to the possibility that there are graduates of NIU or their projects unaccounted for. Some of these people and materiel could quite possibly be capable of causing a Force 1 Event or higher. Also, the possibility of having an ally educated by that place is quite an intriguing possibility. To that end, we would like you to enroll as yourself. The fliers included will give you the necessary information. We have also included a scholarship acceptance letter from The Lawmen of NIU, an alumni organization that is giving out scholarships. It appears they’ve offered you a chance at a free ride if you submit yourself to certain tests. We suspect you’ll pass them. After passing, you will then join the Elite Infantry single semester program, or “undecided,” as the pamphlet lists it.
If you have any questions about the legitimacy of this operation, we recommend you call or email our tip hotline and tell them people claiming to represent the organization have recruited you for Operation Rider. We will not give you a number, since you will dismiss it as a lie or if you lose the letter, someone else will find it and potentially compromise the operation. Even if you decide not to accept our offer, we would like you to destroy this letter after reading it.
One final note, as well as giving you the education, we are prepared to compensate you generously. Up to a hundred thousand American dollars for each semester you complete seems reasonable.
Hoping to see you soon,
Needless to say, I accepted. I mean, if someone offered you a hundred grand to potentially avert World War Three, wouldn’t you take it? I did make sure they were who they said they were, of course, and they were legit. At least, as legit as you could get when hiring eighteen-year-olds to spy on a university. Surprisingly, the hardest part was convincing my parents that Nowhere Island University was the place for me.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I ended up in Northern Island University with nothing but a diary, a few pencils, and a pencil sharpener.