The day you march away let the sun shine,
Let everything be blue and gold and fair,
Triumph of trumpets calling through bright air,
Flags slanting, flowers flaunting not a sign
That the unbearable is now to bear,
The day you march away.
- Grace Ellery Channing
A knock on the door startled them into consciousness. Keira hastened to the cover of the bathroom while she listened to Aiden answer the door.
“Can I do something for you, Kevin?” Aiden’s voice was cool, authoritative. It was the same unwelcome, impatient tone a door-to-door salesman might receive.
“Commander Jackson wishes me to inform you that you and Omega-two have been listed.” Kevin sounded very nervous. She smiled a little, picturing Aiden, in his pyjamas, his arms folded over his chest, looking down on an older man and actually making him nervous.
“Why did Commander Jackson send you to tell me this?”
“Because-” Kevin paused, as if unsure how to address him. “I’m on your team.”
“You?” Aiden was incredulous. “How large will the team be?”
The question seemed to surprise Kevin, because his inflection was a question when he replied. “Four.”
There was a pause. “And who are the other two?”
Now Kevin seemed even more confused. “Well, there’s Omega-two, of course, and Martin Littleton.”
Another pause. “When is deployment?”
“Today. Twelve-hundred hours. I was asked to escort you and Omega-two to a debriefing in Building Six.”
The smile slipped from Keira’s face. Deployment. That’s what they’d been ‘listed’ for.
“Tell Jackson that Omega-two is better off knowing nothing. You will debrief me here in one hour, once I have her under control.”
“Are you certain?” Keira could hear the uncertainty in Kevin’s voice.
“Just do it.”
The door slammed closed.
Keira sank to the floor. Head in her hands, back on the cabinet, feet touching the wall. She glanced at the watch on her wrist. It was after six o’clock in the morning. In less than six hours, she would be heading to war.
No more games, no more preparation. No more pretending that maybe they wouldn’t actually use her for their intended purpose. She would have to stay alive amidst real bullets and maybe even kill. No, she would never kill. So most likely, she would just be killed.
The Tattoo on her wrist burned. Property Of. She would do as they asked.
Somewhere in the distance, a door creaked on hinges, but she was busy preparing for her date with the executioner. Her name was called. Did he not have the decency to allow her this last moment to collect herself, to say final prayers or make peace or whatever it was one did before they were sent to their deaths?
Crouching in front of her now, his hand on her arm, unwittingly covering the tattoo, soothing in a way she didn’t want.
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked, shoving his hand away.
He stepped back, closed the door, and left her alone.
She wondered what they would do if she just sat here on the cold bathroom tile and refused to move. Would they drag her, kicking and screaming? Would they leave her there? Would they kill her?
It was none of those three. They would do what they always had. Threaten her family. As she rose and washed her face with cold water, put her hands on the door, turned the knob, she wondered just how far she would bend in order to protect them.
He was sitting on the bed, his fingers interlaced.
“I’m better off knowing nothing?” she hissed.
Instead of answering, he replied, “Can you send an email without using your own account?”
She froze. Since she’d arrived, she’d wished desperately for a way to reach her family, to tell them at least that she was alive. However, the Paragons were not allowed to use computers unless under strict surveillance. Now she understood: Aiden had told the young man to give them an hour. Jackson, King, and everyone else would be at the debriefing, leaving a single precious hour for them to check the Internet.
She nodded, unable to speak as conflicting emotions raged.
He did not meet her eyes, did not try to touch her as they moved along, and she was grateful. The very presence of him repulsed her, but she was grateful. She watched the set of his back as she trailed him, noticed the rigidity in his step. It wasn’t the stoop of guilt, it was the stiff posture of someone furious. Was he angry with her for her reaction? If he was, it only served to confirm how little he understood her despite being able to read her mind. Yet if he felt no shame for her position, why would he have taken this chance for her?
They walked quickly, but casually, through to building six. The building was dark. Presumably, they were all in building one, listening to the debriefing. Only specialists and the Paragons worked in building six. Glancing over his shoulder, he pushed open the door, and slipped inside, Keira following.
He went straight to King’s office. Keira lingered at the door nervously, when Aiden turned to look at her. “They check other computers regularly to make sure that we’re not using them. He wouldn’t expect us to have the… audacity to use his own.” He smiled his sly grin, but it was half-hearted.
She bit her lip, remembering his lashes, but followed him to the computer and watched as he typed in the password.
“His first wife,” Aiden said distractedly. “Died of breast cancer five years ago.”
Keira felt a twinge of sympathy for King. She transferred it to his dead wife. “I didn’t know he was married.”
“Seven kids. Six with the first, one with the second.”
“That man has children?”
“Yes. Seven. People aren’t black-and-white caricatures, Keira. Now, do you want to send an email, or not?” He stood up, and held out the leather chair for her.
She sat down uncomfortably, and looked up at him.
Understanding the meaning of her look, he nodded and said, “I’ll be watching for anyone. Don’t use your own account, and don’t send an email directly to anyone in your family; they’ve got their emails monitored.” Catching her horrified expression, he remained unrepentant. “What did you expect? Wipe the history when you’re done. Ten minutes.”
The desktop was a photograph of six children ranging in age from teenagers to toddlers. They all had blonde hair and big smiles, and a pretty blonde woman held the youngest, her teeth shining bright white and her eyes gleaming. A real American family, Keira thought acerbically, though it disturbed her to know that the patriarch of this family was the same man who yelled obscenities and ordered she be shot at with bullets.
In the corner of the desktop, an icon captioned Dead Ragheads caught her eye. Having been raised in a home where epithets were shocking and carefully avoided, Keira’s eyes could not accept such a politically incorrect word in 11-point white Calibri. The light from the offensive ordering of that string of letters travelled to her retina, along the optic nerve, and somewhere en route, morphed into a bright red, pulsing emblem in some abhorrent font, probably Comic Sans, overwhelming her brain with disgust.
In fact, the word was enough to offend her in a way that no personal insults had since she’d arrived. She clicked on the icon.
It was an email King had received from one of his mercenaries, with a message: For a laugh, when you’re so inclined. King hadn’t even bothered to change the formatting before saving it to his desktop. She opened the attachment, and her hand came to her mouth to stop from crying out.
She bit down hard on the web of skin between her thumb and index finger as she stared at the photograph. A dead man, face down, blood smeared on the sandy ground. In the next shot, the man was flipped over, his jacket and shirt removed to show the bullet wounds in his chest. He wasn’t a man; he was only a boy, younger than Keira. In the following photo, the boy, completely naked and covered by only a jacket, lay prone. A soldier held up by the boy’s head by his curly, bloodstained hair and grinned at the camera, his free thumb pointed up in self-congratulations.
She bit down harder, nearly choking on her own blood as she saw the subsequent image: another soldier, cigarette burning between his thumb and forefinger as he crouched next to the carnage of what was once a body; a blackened ribcage sprawled open above a pair of bloodied linen pants. Two dead men, tied up at their wrists with their backs together, both shot in the head. A severed head. The lower half of a stocking-clad leg, the foot still in the black shoe with a slight heel and a daisy imprinted into the leather strap.
She was furious. Forgetting all plans, she navigated to the website James had started. It was a site that not only provided tide and weather information for Licksy’s (but never coordinates), but also commentary on the lives of surfers who frequented the beach; their exploits in the waves or with the Heron’s bartending staff. No one knew who ran the site, and James would surely not have been half as popular had he been outed. To maintain secrecy of the site, he used his IT prowess to ensure that the IP addresses of any administrators who logged on were untraceable. Keira helped James run the weather and tidal portion of the site, and as such, she could log in as an administrator. That was how she had planned to send her email, and how her fingers and fury were now planning to do much worse.
Acting quickly, she attached the file, and wrote a quick message.
Don’t open the attachment at home. Go to Seattle for the weekend, and open it there. Send it – including the email address attached- to a news outlet. Tell them to look into Bruce Harper’s continued involvement with Jadis. Choose something Seattle-based, and don’t leave them any contact information. Wipe your history, and then forget about it.
Tell my parents that I’m grateful for all they did for me. I do my best, but it’s hard to be good. Tell Iona to go to Emily Carr. Tell Ethan that I miss him, and I hope that all of his dreams come true, but not to wait for me, because I can’t come home.
Be brave, James. Remember to be brave.
Get rid of this message when you’re done, and don’t reply.
It was all she could say. Without signing off, she sent the message, erased the history, and shut down the computer. She felt a pang of fear for James as she walked out of the room. But it was done.
Aiden was waiting in the hall. He nodded, and led her back to the room, where she sat on her bed, and he sat across from her, their eyes locked, until the knock on the door told them it was time to go.
They walked out onto the runway at the eastern edge of the camp. A large, brown military aircraft had been taxied out of the hangar, and was stationed in the middle of the tarmac, and a group of twenty, including the eleven Paragons, were loading themselves into it. Unlike the stairs that led up to narrow doors of a civilian plane, this plane opened like a hatch from the rear, in order to accommodate cargo. Apart from her trip to Virginia, which didn’t count because she’d been entirely unconscious, Keira had never been on a plane before. She realized very quickly that her first time would not be very comfortable.
Jackson handed her off to Sam and Cass, before turning on his heel and marching away. Sam nodded, but neither said a word. Cass handed her a life jacket and told her to put it on, which she did. Then he handed her a pair of enormous headphones, which she doubted very much were for watching movies, and told her to put those on. Finally, and most disconcertingly, he handed her a helmet, and told her to put that on. She doubted a helmet would do much good in the event of a crash. Regardless, she thanked him, and he led her up the ramp into the plane.
It was essentially a metal cavern, with a row of seats on either side, facing each other. The others were already seated and strapped in with restraints that criss-crossed over their chests, which did nothing to ease her nerves. She took her seat next to Colton, who didn’t bother to grin, and Aiden took his seat next to her. After a moment of struggling with the unfamiliar fetters, Aldous strapped her in, and she tried not to recoil at his touch.
She’d always imagined that the first time she flew, there would be packs of peanuts, a movie playing, and an aerial view that surpassed her imagination. But there were no windows in this plane. Track sat across from her, and she recalled the night that Aiden had beaten him to a pulp. He stared at her openly, watching her discomfort as the doors closed on the last chance she had of turning back. She wanted to close her eyes and wait till it was over, but Track’s disconcerting stare frustrated her. She glared back at him. He had sharp, thin features, a high brow, and a chin that looked as if God had pressed his thumb into it. His eyes were a bright, curious blue, and he seemed not to mind that she was obviously uncomfortable. If anything, her discomfort intrigued him most.
To avoid his ogling, she closed her eyes, only to see the photographs on King’s computer. She opened them again, and steeled her gaze against Track’s. After a minute, he looked away.
The plane started with a muffled roar. She held her breath as they taxied, picking up speed until it reached its limit, and the plane tilted upward. She had the odd sensation that all of her organs were floating upward inside her, but the rest of her body was strapped down. It was a bit like being in an elevator, only a million times worse.
Once they were airborne, the feeling settled and she let out a long breath. The creep was still staring at her. She closed her eyes, and felt a sudden calm pass through her. Knowing it was Aiden trying to make her comfortable, she let him in on her thoughts, on the creep, on the images of severed limbs and blood and atrocity running through her mind. He just accepted them without trying to make her feel better.
At some point, she must have fallen asleep, because Aiden was nudging her.
“Get ready for landing,” he said.
If take-off was bad, landing was perhaps one of the worst experiences of Keira’s life. The plane dropped in precipitous bounces over fifteen minutes, culminating in a screeching halt, from two hundred miles an hour to zero in less than five seconds. It felt like half of her body had landed with her, but she’d left the other half somewhere in the air.
She unstrapped her belt hastily, despite her shaky hands. She needed to get off of the plane. Her legs wobbled as she stood up.
“It’s only a refuel stop,” Aiden said, one hand on her wrist. “We’re not there yet.”
She couldn’t answer. Her mouth was filling with saliva, a sure warning sign. Keira estimated she had about twenty seconds before her stomach turned on her.
The hatch opened painfully slowly, and the rush of air was bone-chilling and refreshing, but it wasn’t enough. Her stomach gurgled impatiently. Not heeding the calls of the soldiers, she stumbled out of the plane and onto the tarmac, running blindly for twenty meters onto soft grass. She fell on her knees, and emptied her stomach.
Hearing a familiar laugh, Keira stood up, wiping the remnants of her last meal from the side of her mouth as Sam patted her back with unnecessary force. She stumbled and nearly stepped in her own emesis. She turned on him angrily, but he was grinning too hard to notice.
“Smooth flight?” he smirked.
“Where am I?”
“Near Sheffield.” He crossed his enormous arms over his chest. “You weren’t at the debriefing. We’re picking up two agents. M16 want to be brought into the fold, which is understandable, considering they hired us in the first place.”
“Which means you need to get back on the plane,” Cass was there now.
“Oh come on, let her have some air,” Aiden was suddenly beside her. “It’s not like King’s here to get us in trouble. They’ll just assume she’s non-combat, like Iris and Lin.”
“Where’s King?” Keira asked, slightly confused.
“He can’t come on tour,” Frankie said.
“Why not?” she asked curiously.
“There was an incident involving Suspiral men a few months ago. Too many civilians died, and Suspiral contracts have been suspended for the time being.” Frankie glanced meaningfully at Aiden. “Suspiral’s been the go-to contractor for years, and they can’t afford to lose the specialists they’ve trained. So they use Suspiral men, but under the MBB Company banner. That’s the beauty of sub-contracting.”
Keira was confused about how the three companies seemed to act as one.
Frankie explained, “Jadis owns most of MBB’s stock, thereby virtually owning the company. Jadis builds oil wells for oil companies. They don’t actually drill the wells, but they get them built. Most of the new wells in Iraq are drilled by Jadis. This requires security though, because a lot of angry Iraqis try to blow up the wells. That’s the beauty of owning MBB. Mills, Black and Branch is a research and development company; they manufacture weapons and engineer oil field innovation. They also build camps for soldiers and provide paramilitary support. Basically, they’re involved in anything to do with war and oil, from the ground up. This comes round, because even though Jadis is paying MBB, they’re actually taking back those profits, because they own MBB.”
“Where does Suspiral come into all of this?” Keira asked.
Colton answered this time. “Suspiral attracts the best soldiers to work for them, and they have the best camp in the country.” Keira raised her eyebrows, dubious that the prison she’d lived for the past month could be considered that way. Colton continued, “Harper, on the other hand, has the advantage of being able to decide, on a national level, who profits from war. In return for the use of Suspiral’s men whenever he pleases, as well as a place he can keep us tucked away that’s not officially affiliated with him, Harper can offer Suspiral the best security contracts, and the ability to work with MBB. These mercenaries are all Suspiral-affiliated, but they often work for MBB, just as we will often work on official Suspiral missions. It works… synergistically.” Colton bit his lip. “I think that’s the word Jackson used.”
It was a brilliant scheme, Keira noted. Not only was Jadis – and Harper – making money from the plunder of war, but they were also making money by making war.
They rest had all gathered, stretching and talking on the grass about fifty meters away. Sam and Cass went to join them, not wanting to be near Keira and her vomit, leaving her with the twins and Aiden. The other mercenaries stood at a distance, wondering at the odd group they’d been given the privilege of working with. Aldous came over to check on them, nodding at the Epsilons as they passed.
“Civilian planes are nowhere near as bad as the freighter,” Aldous told her. He held out some tissue for her, and she thanked him.
Keira took a deep breath, and studied her surroundings. In the dark, the land was difficult to distinguish, but she could make out a large city by its twinkling lights in the distance. It was upsetting to know that this was all she would see of England.
Aldous went on, “We’ll be deployed to Camp Haywood near Gardez. As you know, the Kappas have identified Kareem bin Mansoor, but Jadis had been reticent to share the information with any secret service initially. Now that contracts have been signed, we’re going in for extraction.
“The unusually large number of mercenaries –” he gestured back towards the twenty men hanging out by the plane “– involved in the mission is a reflection of the unusually large number of insurgents guarding the caves where Mansoor is hiding. It’s no longer a program to take him out: we’re going to take out the entire network. We’ll arrive in Kabul, where we’ll meet up with Jackson, our Afghan liaison and the CIA agent who would be ‘running’ the mission.” He made quotation marks with his fingers, and the twins laughed. “From there we’ll travel to Gardez, the base from which they would complete the mission.” Aldous put a hand on Keira’s shoulder. “Normally, we don’t include women in combat missions, but you’ve proved yourself an exemplary fighter.”
“She’s not trained,” Aiden argued.
“Doesn’t matter. With your combined talents…” he gave them a long look, hoping they might let him in on the secret. They did not. Aldous continued, unperturbed, “You’re both of unequivocal value. You can talk to Jackson about it if you want when we arrive, but I wouldn’t bother.” He glanced over his shoulder. A serious young man with sandy-blond hair, perhaps in his mid-twenties, was waiting beside the plane, his eyes trained on them curiously. Beside him, an authoritative-looking bald man waited impatiently. “There’s the MI6s. I’ll go meet them. Don’t worry,” Aldous smiled at Keira, “You’ll be great.” Then he glanced sternly at the young men. “Try not to act like… teenagers.”
“But Alpha-one!” Frankie called as Aldous walked away, none too quietly, “They are teenagers.”
Aldous looked back furiously. The twins burst into laughter. It was funny, in a pitiless way, because although it was true, no one would believe them.
They were called back into the plane shortly thereafter. Keira steeled herself for take-off, but found it better the second time, when she knew what to expect. Once it was over, though, she kept her eyes closed, imagining the softness of moss against her fingertips, the smell of cedar bark. It so quiet she could hear the sound of an eagle’s wings, beating in the sky above.
Their hands were touching. Furious at having inadvertently shown Aiden her secret place, she demanded, “Show me something.”
He closed his eyes. She saw black cliffs tumbling into blue water. An odd black sheep with a wind-swept coat. A house built into a green hill, its roof made of the same grass that encircled it.
“Faroe Islands. Training exercise four years ago. Your turn.”
Keira frowned, self-conscious. “Not fair. I’ve not been anywhere.”
Twisting her lips in concentration, she thought of cold salt spray as she moved with the waves, the exhilarating sensation of tumbling underwater- going round and round- as she was overcome by the ocean’s power.
Confusion flowed from him. “You liked that?”
She grinned sheepishly. “It was like going around inside a washing machine.”
There was the strange sensation of an inner laugh, and then he closed his eyes. Heat rising off sand dunes, swirling in golden blurs. A camel, spitting on Iris, her face red with fury. Apollo and Aiden, doubled over with laughter.
They kept it up, sharing memories of favourite places or moments or thoughts. Sometimes the images were purposefully presented, others unwillingly conjured. A patch of berries. A grizzly snatching a salmon in its mouth. A boisterous bazaar. A herd of elephants. A particularly good meal. She thought of them; her sister’s sure strokes of paint over canvas, her mother’s hands digging through the garden, her father’s fingers tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the Beach Boys. Melted marshmallows at a bonfire; James and Sam fighting over roasting sticks; Ethan’s laughter.
“Sorry,” she whispered, as Aiden shifted uncomfortably. Then she realized she shouldn’t be sorry, why should he be upset over images of her friends and family?
“Your turn,” she demanded.
Keira saw sunrise over mist-blurred mountains, a world upside down, burnt orange above blue, and it seemed vaguely familiar, if not for the colours. Abruptly, it changed to a field of waving, golden wheat, a bright, blue sky overhead and a beating sun.
“Hey, where was the first one?” She forced him back to the memory, and in her mind she was sitting next to him, and they were speaking aloud as they took in the sunrise.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, turning to her in their shared daydream. The lower half of the view was obscured as he tried to push her out of the memory.
“Mount Isis,” she remembered persistently. “That was the view from the place where we camped. Where was I?”
“Unconscious. That’s why it was such a good memory.”
“Jerk.” She elbowed him, pushing them both back into the present, and crossed her arms over her chest. No more games. When she gazed across the plane, she saw that the others had fallen asleep, their heads tipping at odd angles against the restraints of their belts. Apollo was staring at her, a quizzical expression on his divine face.
She nudged Aiden and nodded towards Apollo, who was no longer staring at them.
“What?” He glanced over at Apollo. “He’s not a worry. Even if he did suspect about us, he’s the one person who would never tell.”
Aiden grabbed her hand. They were standing in a room now, behind a glass wall, watching as Apollo argued with some unknown military man. Before them was a man on his knees with his wrists tied behind his back. Both of his eyes were swollen shut, and blood was pouring from his nose. His hair, the collar of his shirt, his face, were all dripping wet, and there was a large bucket of water in front of him. Waterboarding, Keira thought, remembered the name for that type of torture.
“You didn’t need to do this,” Apollo was saying.
“He wasn’t cooperating,” the man explained.
“You should have waited for me,” Apollo reprimanded him.
“He would tell us nothing,” the man went on.
“No matter what you did to him, that would not have changed,” Apollo said quietly, before taking a seat in front of the tortured man.
In the room behind the glass wall, Aiden turned to her and watched her repulsion. She looked up at him, and waited for an explanation. Aiden kept his eyes on her, but nodded towards Apollo. Apollo knows the value of a secret.
Having eaten nothing in hours, she did not vomit the next time they landed. Her legs were weak, though. Apollo came over and passed her a bottle of Gatorade.
She thanked him and drank deeply. As the hatch opened, Aiden reached into the pocket of the rucksack he had packed for her. He pulled out a pair of expensive-looking, black sunglasses and handed them to her.
“Put these on,” he told her. “You can take them off inside, but don’t make eye contact with anyone.”
The air was bitingly cold, and very thin. She took a deep breath, trying to take in every scarce molecule of available oxygen. The familiar feeling of nose hairs freezing to icicles as she inhaled was a welcome one, though she knew she was far from home.
They’d landed at another base, but this one was not far from the city. The city itself was row upon countless row of tan blocks with empty windows, rolling up onto similarly coloured hills that circled the city like a bowl, giving the appearance of a giant, punched-in anthill. The city seemed as old as the mountains, and years of war and hunger had caused it to fall into disrepair.
Occasionally, a building would be painted white, bright turquoise or pale pink, but the paint would be peeling, or a portion of the building crumbled, and the colour had faded. It didn’t matter; beyond the hills were magnificent, snow-capped mountains that rose into the air, brandishing their majesty like a defiant fist.
When she imagined Afghanistan, her mind conjured explosions, poverty, and dust. She’d never thought it would be this lovely.