Around three hours into our flight to California, Eliza left the room to get something to eat. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be fine. Or as fine as someone with a concussion can be.” Eliza looked at me hesitantly, then left.
Then everything became strangely sepia-toned and the edges of things began to flow like waves, like still-wet ink. Outside, the view of the sea was replaced with a familiar display of millions of lights, each a different color. The door opened and in walked two familiar people.
“Nathan,” Alma Hebert said. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, making contact with Alma’s dead gray eyes, but occasionally I looked at the huge man who’d come in with her. Ulfric Trollbjorn’s tall and sturdy frame was so huge he had to duck and twist to get through the door. Since he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, I couldn’t see his muscles, but I’d remembered them. They were big enough to be intimidating, but small enough for him to be as much dancer or runner as weightlifter. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“You know, don’t you?” Alma asked. As I stared at her, I noticed that occasionally there was a bit of a flicker where she went from appearing to be a healthy (if extremely pale) teenager/young adult to a more skeletal figure.
“I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about,” I said. Alma looked at me like I was an idiot. Then I remembered where I had seen those colored lights before. “Fuck. You’re their death goddess, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Alma said. “The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
“Right now,” I said, “nothing. This is a hallucination, right? Nothing I can do here.”
“Hallucination is a good enough term to describe what this is for your purposes, I suppose,” Alma said. “And, as near as I can tell, there’s a decent chance you’re right about not being able to do anything here.”
“Only decent?” I asked.
“The people at the IDRF,” Alma began slowly, as if not really being able to believe what she was saying, “the best and brightest Nowhere Island University had to offer in all their fields ruled physical methods pretty early. From what I can understand, though, this state can cause psionic backlash if I’m not-”
“What do you mean, ‘ruled out physical methods?’” I asked.
I was suddenly struck by a literal cold rage. The cold burned me and the impact of the literal waves of emotion radiating from Alma could be measured by my stomach turning. “They killed me,” Alma said, her voice even more monotone somehow. There was also a tightness about her face. “Starved me to death, then dropped my corpse into an incinerator. One of their few acts of mercy.”
She stopped. “Sorry, but I had a bad time with them. The question is, are you going to help?”
“Is this about the Architect?” I asked. “Because I’m not going to help you knock off one of the other thirds of the Final Prophecy.”
Alma was visibly confused. “What prophecy?” she asked.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was wild, hysterical laughter. Ulfric and Alma stared at me like I had just gone insane. Honestly, though, I’d probably lost it around Freshman year and people were just now realizing. “You really don’t know?” I asked. “Five hundred years, this has been around, and you’re telling me that you don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about?”
“No,” Alma said.
“Apparently,” I said, “there’s three people or entities that are coming. They’re going to have this big fight, and in the process, the whole world gets fucked. You’re number two.”
“I’m not trying to end the world,” Alma said, “I’m trying to save it. If the prophecy says anything else-”
“I believe you,” I said, “but your Dragon’s Teeth buddies? Those hallucinations that people around the world are getting? That doesn’t make you seem benign.”
“I’ve made mistakes,” Alma said, “but it’ll be worth it. If you’re smart, you’ll see someday.”
“Is this where you tell me I’m either with you or against you?” I asked.
“No,” Alma said. “This is where I tell you what I need. I need Mubashir.”
“How do you…? Why?”
“I’m psychic,” Alma said. “You, Mubashir, and his Al-Qaeda buddies walked into the Sun Tzu boy’s locker room. The Al-Qaeda terrorists are still there to this day.”
“Wait,” I said, “they’re… alive?” I remembered how those Al-Qaeda operatives had been twisted into tasteful, Arabic-inspired decorations.
“In a sense,” Alma said and shivered. “I can still feel them. One of the reasons I’m leaving NIU.”
“And why do you want Mubashir?” I asked.
“They’re coming,” Alma said. “There’s a reason the President created the Jason Project. Originally, I was just going to kill him, but when I got here, I found he couldn’t sleep. He’s spent his life running from something. That’s why he’s created the Jason Project, UNIX, the University… plans within plans, contingencies for contingencies… He’s scared, so I’m terrified.”
She leaned closer and touched my hand. It was as cold as a corpse’s “I need Mubashir. If I’m not strong enough, the world could end.” She got up and headed towards the door. Ulfric held it open for her. When she was at it, she turned towards me and said, “All you need to do to help save the world is make one introduction.”
“Is this where you pretend to walk out?” I asked.
“No,” Alma said. “I have things to do and I’m pretty sure you won’t help me. Yet.” Then both Ulfric and her walked down the hall, the world slowly fading back to normal. Her voice floated back to me, distorted and echoing. “Don’t worry, I’ll know when you change your mind.”
The room changed completely back to normal and suddenly I realized the tactic Alma was using on me. It was the same one that UNIX had used to get me to go to NIU. It was the same one Charlotte had used me to go to Japan. Then and there, I made the decision to not to give in. Every time I’d given into self-importance, I’d just brought more misery on myself.
Still, deep down, I wondered if Alma had some other way of convincing me. Or if she even needed to.