Have you ever been away from someone for so long that you’ve completely changed? That’s what it felt like coming back home for the summer. Last year, I had been Nathan Jacobs, that quiet kid in High School people seemed to like, or at least tolerate. Now, I was Nathan “Killer” Jacobs, an almost burned out shell of a human being who had killed more people than he could count.
The thing is, I could have avoided it all. All I needed to do was tell Agents Brosnan and Takashi from the United Nations Investigations, Extranormal (UNIX for short) to fuck off when they offered to pay me for spying on what they made out to seem like a hive of mad science and supervillainry. I specifically should have called bullshit on the idea that they would pay an out-of-shape eighteen-year-old with no investigative experience a hundred thousand a semester to search for region-destabilizing time bombs. It burned me even more because it turned out that I and another one of the people infiltrating had been set up to die so that the other two infiltrators could live. We also hadn’t been sent to find forgotten experiments that could end the world, but useful tech that UNIX needed but didn’t want to pay for. Hell, John and I had even been told that there were only three infiltrators.
In fairness to UNIX, the place they had sent us to was something that needed to be taken down. Nowhere Island University really is kind of a hive of mad science and supervillainy. There are plenty of good people and a ton of average people, but the system had been designed by President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell. That made it inherently evil.
I was unsure of the purpose of NIU, apart to benefit The President, but I did know that it could be quite deadly. For instance, two of the sub-schools, The Academy of Military Science and Shadowhaven, had a special first semester for its students. It was called Hell Semester and it was designed to kill forty to fifty percent of the students. In Hell Semester 2015, its final served a double purpose of purging an embarrassing contingent of students.
I noticed, from my limited interactions and observations, that The President could abide many things, but the things he couldn’t abide were punished harshly. For instance, when he had caught John and me, he had spared our lives and suggested we work for him. When the Grenzefrontier had invaded NIU, he had imprisoned them and offered to release them when they renounced National Socialism. A few minutes later, he had literally set some students who had spied for the Grenzefrontier on fire.
Speaking of the Grenzefrontier, the world had also changed while I was away. ISIS had taken more territory and committed several high-profile terrorist attacks. Despite this and their obsession with ancient prophecies, the Grenzefrontier had ISIS beat for craziest an most dangerous terrorist group by a) taking territory in Germany and South America, b) trying to take territory in the US and c) being actual Nazis who had colonized a planet using teleporter technology.
However, they both paled in comparison to the group I had been sent by The President to investigate. Calling themselves The Dragon’s Teeth (we had nicknamed them the Deets,) all we knew going in was that they were a clone army with advanced tech who might have come from the same planet as the Grenzefrontier. There was also someone who said that they might have worked for someone or something who was prophesized to end the world.
What we had learned was even more disturbing. Despite fighting against a respectable military force, they had been holding back. In fact, the Deets had slowly moved from a guerrilla war, to an actual war without airpower on their side, to debuting some kind of gunship/transport VTOL to try and stop us from leaving. A few days after that, they had made themselves known to the world in a dramatic fashion by dragging a kicking and screaming North Korean soldier back across the DMZ.
The real kicker was that I had no one to talk to. All my friends at NIU were pretty much unreachable, due to criminal pasts, distance, or security reasons. Everyone I knew from before NIU was deliberately kept in the dark about what exactly NIU was. They thought I was in mostly normal school, albeit one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
That wasn’t to say no one suspected anything. My dad, as usual, had work to do, and my mom had been shanghaied into teaching an ESL camp at her school, but my sister was at home the vast majority of the summer.
I was writing down some vague allusions to my recent experiences in a diary sometime in July when Esther walked into the room where I was writing. “Hey,” she said, “we need to talk.”
“What is it?” I asked, closing my notebook. It was a jumble of words, basically, but I didn’t want to take chances.
“Look,” she said, her brown hair, ice blue eyes, and her round cheeks similar to my own face, “we both know that you’ve changed since you got back from college.” I was about to say something, but Esther plowed on. “Yeah, people change when they get back from college, but they don’t end up coming back with a limp. Also, that line about being used to going to sleep later at college? I don’t buy it.”
It was amazing how intelligent Esther was. I thought that I had hidden my nightmares and constant pain in my chest. Hell, even I hadn’t noticed that I still occasionally limped. The limp and the nightmares were from the Hell Semester final.
It took me a while to think up what I was going to say. “I won’t lie to you,” I said, “but I can’t tell you the truth.”
“Please don’t tell me you’ve been hanging out with supervillains or something,” Esther said. I opened my mouth, remembered my promise, then closed it again, remembering my promise not to lie to her. Esther sighed. “Just out of curiosity, Nate,” she asked, “how thoroughly did you think this through?”
I turned to look her in the eye again. “Listen, Esther,” I said, “What I’m doing is to keep you, mom, and dad safe. Plus a few more people.”
Esther threw up her hands. “Then tell the CIA! Tell UNIX! Even tell some local superhero organization like the Minutemen!”
“Look,” I said, trying to explain my position, “I admit, I’m not a Parahuman. I’m not a superhero.” I paused, trying to figure out why I was doing this, or what I could do that no one else could. “But,” I said, after less than a second, “I discovered at college that I can do things only a few other people can do. I wouldn’t call it a power… more like a set of skills. I’ll admit, NIU is pretty dangerous, but being there gives me an opportunity to change things.”
After a moment, Esther asked, “How many other people are in your program?”
“After the first semester,” I said, “under five hundred.”
“You do realize,” Esther said, “that only one of them is my brother.”
I got up and hugged her. She returned the hug, squeezing me tightly. “Hey,” I said, “I’m gonna be fine.” It was probably the cockiest thing I’ve ever said. I’d probably had as many near-death experiences as I had killed people, and as many enemies as I had friends.
Esther, being smarter than I was, responded with, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We let go of each other. “I won’t tell mom and dad. Yet. Just don’t do anything too stupid.”
I considered assuring her, then I admitted sheepishly, “It’s a little too late for that. But I am getting smarter about this.” Just as I said this, my cellphone rang. I picked it up. “Hello,” I said. “Who is this?”
“We met at Providence,” a familiar voice said. “You might want to take a walk downtown. Maybe buy something at the CVS.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be there in a bit.”
“Who was that?” Esther asked.
“Something we were just talking about,” I said. “You want something from CVS?”
“If you live,” Esther said half-jokingly, “I’d like some chips.”
The person on the other end was a… well, I’d hesitate to call him a friend. He was an FBI agent who had investigated when I had been involved in an early Grenzefrontier attack. He had interrogated me, and somehow knew more about NIU and the UNIX infiltration than I did. Recently, I had found a way to sneak a copy of the report on the situation in Korea to him.
I went to leave, my chest twinging as I walked down the unevenly paved streets. It took me around twenty minutes to get to the CVS in downtown. Out in the parking lot was Agent Hicks in all his glory. Despite being somewhat old for an FBI agent (given away by his short, white hair) he was still very muscular and alert. His clothes were a happy medium between casual and formal.
“Jacobs,” he said, as I got there. Just my name, not anything else. From what I could tell, that was his way of being neutral. He did give me a polite nod, so that was nice.
“Mr. Hicks,” I said, nodding in acknowledgement. I didn’t mean the lack of title as a lack of disrespect. It was more a security concern. At some point, apparently when I was in high school, Maynard had been taken over by a group called The Jade Empire. I had discovered one of my old schoolmates had joined up with them. This was when he and some Jade Empire goons saved me from one of my former UNIX handlers.
You know, saying that makes me realize how weird my life was.
After our introductions, we began walking down the street towards the McDonald’s at the end of the street. “So,” I asked Agent Hicks, “Did you get my letter?” By letter, I meant a flash drive I had dropped on the tarmac of the airport when I got back for the summer. The laptop I had used to make the copy had suffered an unfortunate accident on the way back. Luckily, I had made enough money bartending last semester to replace it. Contacting Agent Hicks to let him know about the drop had involved going through an intermediary to deliver a vague message. If he had somehow screwed it up…
“There was some competition,” Agent Hicks said, “but we got it.”
“What kind of competition?” I asked.
“The kind that paid for your lawyer,” Agent Hicks said.
I groaned. After the incident which had introduced me to Agent Hicks, Jennifer Kagemoto, fellow student at NIU, supervillain, and daughter of the leader of the Boston/Worcester Yakuza, had somehow realized I was in custody and sent a lawyer.
“Listen,” I said, “I didn’t…”
“I know,” Agent Hicks said, right before we crossed the street, “but you’ve attracted too much attention. If I were you, I’d transfer out of school and forget all about this.”
I bristled a bit. I had just had this exact conversation with my sister. I swallowed my protest. Instead, when we were across the street, I asked, “So, was my information any good?”
Agent Hicks shook his head, “Listen, Jacobs, your heart’s in the right place, but the company that could actually use this information is not one you’d want to deal with.” He stopped, and turned to face me. “You do realize,” he said, “Everyone is using you for their own personal benefit. UNIX, NIU, Kagemoto, hell, I’m using you because I have a grudge against UNIX.”
“That’s ok,” I said. “I’m using all of you, too. Now get that information somewhere where…”
I was interrupted by a familiar roar. In an instant, I found myself lying flat on my face. Gunfire? I thought, barely able to hear myself due to the roar, shattering glass, and screaming. In Maynard? That isn’t possible…
Before I could come to terms with what happened, the shooting stopped. There was a stunned silence. This was the kind of thing that happened in Chicago or LA, not in a mostly middle and working class town of ten thousand. As I got up, making sure that the hood of my sweatshirt was over my head, I saw that Agent Hicks’ hand was gripping what looked like a Glock.
“Yeah!” a voice called out, “You better run! Fucking bitch-ass cowards!” I looked down the street to see one of my former classmates from Maynard High waving what looked to be a Broomhandle Mauser.
He was standing in front of a café that was just across the street from the CVS I had met Agent Hicks at. Lying in front of the café was a body slumped on the ground. Behind that, at an intersection, was a Maynard police SUV, its window sporting several bullet holes in the windscreen.
I looked at Agent Hicks. “I can’t be here,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “Get out of here. I’ll cover for you.”
“Thanks, man,” I said. As I hurried back home, I suddenly began to wonder if everything I was fighting for would be there when I was done… or if it had even existed in the first place.