He turns toward me. His eyes are like turquoise and they are boring into me, making my knees go a little weak. I make a fist and push my short nails into my palm. “What if I say no?”
“Please don’t do that,” I plead. There must have been something in the tone of my voice because he nods his head slightly. “All right,” I say softly, “my friends are going to come over here from behind that rock. Don’t be freaked out. They have guns, but it’s just standard procedure. That being said, don’t, like, make any crazy sudden moves.”
“Given that I can barely feel my arms or my legs right now, I don’t think that will be a problem,” he says, and stands perfectly still.
“Hey, guys, I think we’re ready to go back up to Base. We just need to get a reading.” Boone, Henry, and Violet pop up from behind the rock and make their way toward us, much faster than I would have liked them to. I can see him tense up beside me. But Boone, with his open face and his casual body language, immediately changes the energy among us all.
“Hey, man,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m Boone and this is Violet, Henry, and of course you’ve already met Katniss.”
Vi stifles a giggle.
“Your name is Katniss? Seriously?”
“No, it’s not. That’s Boone’s idea of a joke. My name is Ryn.” I hold my hand out and he shakes it and smiles genuinely.
“Ezra, great!” Boone says. “Okay, we’re all friends now and we’re gonna get outta here ’cause, I’m not gonna lie, this particular spot is very not safe. All I need to do before we leave is use this little machine,” he says, holding up a small silver box about the size of a phone, “to make sure you aren’t radioactive. It’s cool, right?”
Ezra gulps, and his eyes widen in alarm. “Why would I be radioactive?” Boone doesn’t answer his question, nor does he wait for permission; he just waves the machine up and down over Ezra’s body. He looks at me, wondering if Boone is kidding again. I mouth the word sorry to him and then crane my neck and look at the interface. It’s blue. Ezra is fine, which I pretty much knew, but in our line of work you can’t take anything at face value.
Even a face as gorgeous as Ezra’s.
I suppose I was distracted by what I had just done, and that being so close to Ezra threw my senses totally out of whack, because I’m a bit surprised when he points at The Rift and says, “Why is it doing that?”
I glance over, and my eyes widen: The Rift has escalated to Stage 3. We all look at each other for a moment. This is how quickly things can go wrong here. This is how stupid mistakes can get people killed. I enable my audio right away, report to Command, and I’m instantly treated to an onslaught of expletives from Applebaum.
“We need to get to cover,” Henry says calmly, but I can hear the strain in his voice. He’s pissed. I feel a pang of guilt that my rash decision to come out and meet Ezra alone has now put us all at risk. I sweep it away. I can’t afford to feel anything right now. I have to let my training take over and go back to being a soldier. The Rift doesn’t usually open up again so quickly, but of course, this would be the day it does.
“There’s no time, everyone, just hold your positions. It could be a dog for all we know. Just calm down and keep your hand on your weapon. Do not draw, though. Repeat: Do not draw your weapons,” I say with authority. “The Nests have eyes on our situation and can provide ample backup if we need it.” My team listens to me, and Ezra to his credit is also standing perfectly still. A lot of other people would have run, so his staying says something about him.
Of course, he could be doing the whole deer-trapped-in-headlights routine. That happens sometimes, too.
The Rift turns to deadly black and seven men come tumbling out. They aren’t Karekins, so at least there’s that. But they are very large. They have fair skin and long beards, and long hair, though some have pulled it back in rows of braids. They are wearing leathers and pelts. They are armed with an assortment of weapons, some axes, some broadswords. Each is holding a wooden shield with enough decoration and symbology to give me a clue. Apparently Ezra has the same idea as I do.
“Are those Vikings?” he says incredulously.
“Yes, it seems like … yes, those look like, uhh, Vikings.” I take a step forward, but I do not reach out my arms. If they are anything like the Vikings we had on our Earth, they will not respect passivity.
I put my hands on my hips and give the newest Immigrants what I can only describe as a Peter Pan stance. “Legg ned våpnene. Jeg gir deg kun en advarsel. Legg ned våpnene nå!” Which roughly translates into: Put down your weapons. I’m not going to give you another warning.
“You speak Viking?” Ezra asks, noticeably shocked. I would argue that the fact that I speak Norwegian is far less fantastic than the fact that real-life Vikings have just tumbled through a Rift of time and space, but bantering seems inappropriate. The warriors shout and shake their weapons.
“Vi har visst dødd og er kommet til Valhalla. Det er vår rett til å ta våre våpen til Odin selv, for å bevise at vi er krigere. Vike trollkvinne!”
Boone can’t stop the laugh that escapes full throttle out of his mouth.
“What did he say?” whispers Ezra.
“They think they’ve died and have arrived at Valhalla. They need their weapons to prove what hard-asses they are to Odin. They also say I’m a witch or demon.” I wonder if Ezra thinks that we’ll just shoot them. I know that would probably be my initial thought if murderous warriors just popped out in front of me. As easy as shooting them would be, though, things don’t work that way. We don’t kill people without prejudice. It was our scientists who created this Rift, and the thirteen others around the world, albeit accidentally. I mean, I think it was an accident. That’s what we were told. ARC has never fully explained the experiment, and even though we all have advanced intellects capable of understanding the complexities of the exact cause, we’ve never been given the full debrief. It’s been deemed top secret, above our security clearance. I guess they don’t want us Citadels blaming any one scientist specifically. Which is ridiculous. As members of ARC, we collectively shoulder the responsibility for what happens with The Rift. We are way past finger-pointing.
Again, though, how or why this happened doesn’t matter. It’s our fault these men are here. It’s our fault that their communities will be broken and their children will grow up without fathers. You can’t point a gun at someone and pull the trigger to solve this kind of problem, especially when they can’t even wrap their minds around what a gun is, let alone the circumstances that led them to be here. We could tranquilize them—in fact, that’s exactly what we used to do. But then we figured out (through trial and error and the input of many anthropologists) that, in cases like this, these men must be defeated on their own terms. They have to be given a fighting chance so that their surrender will be lasting. I don’t love combat, but I am good at it, especially hand to hand. Everyone gets a boost when they do something they are really good at. I’m no exception. And these guys … it’s pretty clear they like a good throw down. Their body language is defiant, tensed. They are ready to bring it.
So am I.
“Vi, stay here with Ezra. Make sure he’s covered.”
Violet nods and stands in front of him, her hands on her rifle, but as ordered does not draw it. The three of us who remain walk just a few steps forward, and I see out of the corner of my eye Violet backing up, taking Ezra farther away from where the action is bound to happen. We don’t run at the men, because we want them to come to us, away from The Rift. The men are screaming in Norwegian and pounding their swords against their shields. As annoying as it is, it’s better than getting an earful from the colonel. Applebaum is blessedly silent. He knows well enough not to try to talk to me with the threat right in front of us, though I know he’ll go ballistic on me once we return to the base. Now we just have to make sure we make it back to the base.
The Vikings begin to move forward, and I take a deep breath. Good. They are gaining distance from The Rift. When we are about twenty feet apart, one of the men throws his ax and it hurtles toward me. I catch it easily with one hand and for a moment the seven men are silent. I turn around and throw the ax in the opposite direction, much farther than he could have thrown it, right into a tree trunk. The Vikings charge anyway.
I have to give them bravery points for that.
The whole encounter lasts less than two minutes. I leap ten feet into the air and use a tree as leverage to make another jump down onto two of the men. I land squarely on the chest of one and kick out hard into the groin of the other. The one on the ground is unconscious. I have just enough time to turn him over and make sure there is no blood, that he hasn’t hit a rock. Nope. Just your basic traumatic head injury. The one I kicked has recovered somewhat and lunges toward me. I see both Henry and Boone a few feet away. Henry actually picks up one of the men by the throat and lifts him high enough to throw a few feet. Boone blocks and parries the weapons easily. We all move so much faster than them, it’s hardly a contest.
The Viking who lunges at me flips his shield up, presumably to use as a sort of battering ram to knock the wind out of me. I dance easily away, sidestepping him and ending up at his back. I jump on him from behind and wrap my arms around his neck. He tries to shake me loose, but I am so much stronger than he is. I know this shocks him. He probably thinks that women are feeble. I feel a sense of satisfaction as he begins to go down, but this is quickly replaced with the knowledge that he also thinks I’m some sort of demon guarding the gates to his afterlife. This one act of overpowering him is unlikely to change his views on women, but he’ll learn soon enough when he gets to the Village. He passes out in my arms and I let him drop to the ground. When I look up, I see that all the Vikings are similarly disabled. I hear Applebaum through my earpiece calling for two teams in the Nest to assist. Eight soldiers jump from their perches high atop the trees and land softly behind us. We begin to zip-tie the Vikings’ hands and pull each of the men to their feet. They are dazed and defeated, all of their bravado washed away. I notice the youngest one, probably close to my age. A single tear falls from his eye. If this was their great test, they have failed. All hope must be lost for them now. As my adrenaline recedes, I feel for this young man. I look over at Ezra and my heart breaks a little more. We haven’t killed anyone, but in a way they are all dead. As soon as they entered The Rift they were reborn into a new life. Ezra’s won’t be as bad off as the poor Norsemen. Still, for the first little while, maybe for a long while, they will all be walking ghosts trapped in a new world that will take them years, if not their lifetimes, to understand.
I walk over to Ezra and Violet. “Come on, I’ll take you to transport,” I say wearily. I’m usually pumped after this kind of exercise, but looking at these newest arrivals I just feel kind of sad. “Violet, we still have another couple hours on duty. Can you get Boone and Henry and go back to our post? I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Sure,” she says softly with a smile. Vi is a lovely person. It’s an old-fashioned word, but that’s what she is. Lovely. Not a mean bone in her body. What we do, who we are, is harder for her than anyone. The only thing that keeps her going is the knowledge that she saves way more lives than she is forced to take. She gives me these few moments with Ezra without making any kind of big deal about it, and I love her for that. She squeezes my shoulder and walks back down toward the big rock.
Ezra and I head for a separate transport vehicle. He will not be going back to base in the same car as the Vikings.
“So …” he says, drawing out the word, “skill set.”
I chuckle. “Yep.”
Ezra lifts up both hands and wiggles his fingers. “Thanks for not zip-tying me.”
I keep my eyes on the ground. I don’t want to look at him. I don’t want to face any more questions, but I know they are coming.
Sure enough, he asks, “Where are they taking me? And when will I be able to go home?” He stops walking and so do I. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I finally look him in the face, deep into those gorgeous blue eyes of his.
“Oh, Ezra, I’m … sorry,” I whisper. I don’t need to say anything more. He still doesn’t know the specifics, but he knows enough now.
He bites his lip and nods. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. Thanks for being nice.” And then, out of nowhere, he pulls me toward him. He is hugging me. It’s not a sexual embrace, but it’s not exactly brotherly, either. It’s a good thing that I had been feeling so sad; it takes a while for my body to get the signal from my brain that our skin has made contact and my face is now in the crook of his neck, and to notice that smell of his, a spicy earthiness mixed with his fear and wonder and the purity of The Rift. I have just enough time to pat him lightly and step back. We walk a couple more minutes in silence until we are just a few feet from the jeep.
“Just promise me that this won’t be the last time I see you?” It’s a statement, not really a question. Ezra’s intake coordinator, Kendrick, is standing right behind us. I look over at him, and he raises his eyebrows. I stop for a minute and wonder why Ezra would ask me this. Does he like me? Does he think we can hang out later or something? He just saw what I did to those two Vikings. Didn’t that freak him out? Or maybe it’s because I was just the first person he saw when he got here and I was nice.
“Yeah. Okay,” I say, and Kendrick gives me a stone-faced look. “Ezra—sorry, what’s your last name?”
“Is that Arabic?” I ask, because it would explain his remarkable coloring.
“Well, yeah, my dad is Moroccan and my mom is American.”
“Cool. Well, this is Kendrick. Kendrick, this is Ezra. Kendrick is going to be your main guy here for a while and answer all those questions you must have.” Kendrick is one of the better intake coordinators. He has a calming vibe about him and is pretty much a straight shooter.