“For the twelfth time, I’m just a high school senior.”
The water glass set before me looked quenching but I wasn’t about to place it against my parched lips – not after seeing what they used to subdue Eran and my friends. After breaking through Ms. Beedinwigg’s office window, they sent weaponized darts into the chests and shoulders of everyone in the room. I was the sole exception, getting a front row seat at seeing the people I love crumple to the ground like ragdolls. Eran was stepping in front of me when the dart hit him above the collarbone. He didn’t even have time to pull the needle from himself before dropping to the tiled floor. I screamed and ran for Eran when something tripped me. I fell forward, the weight of various ropes suddenly straddling my back. I reached for them and my fingers found freedom through the holes only to be held back by the webbing. It was an old-fashioned net they’d thrown over me and, in my thrashing, I’d managed to entangle every one of my limbs against it. Screaming, I was lifted onto someone’s shoulder, where I attempted to strike our kidnappers. The net effectively kept that from happening and I was tossed into the Chinook helicopter where my head was bagged and I was given just the rotor blades’ pulsating sounds and the lift and lurch of flight to calculate where they were relocating me. No one spoke the entire duration, which I estimated was just over an hour. Only me. I spent the time warning them – repeatedly – to release me before they endangered themselves. I’m sure that got a few genuine grins. Then I was hauled out of the chopper – again over someone’s beefy shoulder – and carried inside, where they dropped me into a chair, zip-tied my hands behind me, pinching off my appendages and restraining me from attacking them when the hood was pulled free of my head.
I expected to see a grungy, vacant room with blood-stained floors below flickering halogen lights – only the fact that the chair they set me in was made of plump leather kept me guessing. When they pulled the hood off, I found they had carried me into a bright, modern conference room with a series of flat-screen televisions across the upper part of the walls. The twenty-person table was made of polished, solid wood, and the water in my glass was crystal clear and cool enough to form condensation. When the Paper-Pusher came in, dressed in military fatigues and introducing himself as Captain Benson, he offered me a warm meal, which I declined. He then tried to get on my good side, which didn’t work, and had failed impressively at even getting me to provide my name.
“Once again,” I said, sighing from tedium, “you need to explain to the one in charge … before my boyfriend revives –”
“I’m the one in charge.”
“No, you’re a paper-pusher, and you’re going to get the other men in this facility hurt if you don’t listen to me. When my boyfriend wakes up –”
“If you’re nothing more than high school seniors, as you say you are, I will have nothing to worry about with your boyfriend. He’s secure.” The man appeared to be about thirty and wore a moustache to make himself look older and more authoritative. It didn’t work. He’d been trying to impress on me his superiority since he’d entered the room several hours earlier. That didn’t work either.
“NO,” he barked, his patience finally wearing down, “you listen to me. This will move a lot faster if you drop the act and admit the truth about who you really are.”
“Like. I. Said.” I leaned over the table to shorten the distance between my glare and him. “I. Am. A. High. School. Senior.”
The Paper-Pusher exhaled irritably and opened his mouth, his eyes chilling into anger. But his rebuttal was cut short by the door opening and another armed man walking in. Wearing a green military dress uniform with a green-beige button-down shirt and matching tie – and being decorated with four stars down his shoulders and six rows of military-designated ribbons across the left side of his chest – he was clearly of a higher rank. But it was his demeanor – grave but earnest – the kind Eran would take a second look at, that told me the man led others and protected those others with profound duty.
Paper-Pusher met the man a few steps into the room and muttered, “I don’t know why we kept her conscious.”
“So she couldn’t inform her friends in the afterlife,” the man said, intentionally loud enough for me to overhear.
He caught my slight bristle at his reply and I silently cursed myself. Those words would have no meaning to an ordinary high school senior, but he knew they would with me, and therefore he knew about me.
My immediate instinct was to retort that now I knew why they hadn’t knocked me insentient with a poisoned dart, with only a potent dose of willpower to hold me back. I remained silent and a thought traveled through my head: Eran would have been awestruck.
“Benson,” the man said, clapping a weathered hand on Paper-Pusher’s shoulder, “take a break.”
“Yes, sir.” Paper-Pusher saluted the man but stopped at the door, on guard.
“Benson, there’s some pretty good donuts in the commissary.”
It was a hint and we all knew it.
“But, sir, you-you want to be left alone?”
“With one of them?”
I didn’t like his tone and narrowed my eyes to show it.
“She’s not the one I’m concerned about.”
My thoughts skidded to a stop at Eran and the commander knew it. “Benson,” he warned and the man left the room promptly.
“He’s still not conscious,” the commander informed, “but he will be shortly.”
“If you hurt him…” I seethed, anger swallowing me whole.
“We haven’t.” The man took a seat just one chair down from me. “I heard you two were close.” I wanted to tell him that was an understatement but the less I said the better.
He stopped to appraise me further, as I did the same with him, feeling like each of us were sizing the other up. He was maybe sixty years old, but the wrinkles adorning his mouth, forehead and chin could just as easily have been the results of experience in battle. I’d seen it before, soldiers returning home with lifeless expressions. Over time, the life returned but it was a veiled light through hardened expressions. This man seemed to have found some peace after all he’d seen, given that just above a stern set of lips sat battered, sympathetic eyes.
“My name is John.”
“What rank do you hold, John?”
“Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The rankings used for your kind are still unclear to us, but –”
“I’m familiar with your title.” In fact, I was sitting before the most senior and highest-ranking officer in all of the United States Armed Forces. “You work for the President … and the Secretary of Defense.”
“I counsel them.”
His reply impressed me. Whether by principle or out of pure honesty, he made no effort to grandstand, and because of it he had done what Paper-Pusher had failed to do – disarm me a notch. Then he almost entirely defused me. Leaning forward until his elbows were on his knees, he took on the persona of an old friend in a private conversation as he delivered a frank and passionate plea.
“We need your help, Magdalene.”
I blinked back my shock but made no effort to respond.
“The world faces a threat that we, humans, are not yet prepared to handle. We’ve known this for some time, which is why we have been watching you for some time –”
“You’ve been watching me?” My next thought was ‘How did Eran not know?’
Without pausing to explain, he continued, “We have some understanding of you and your kind, but our knowledge of what you call the Fallen Ones is limited, at best. We have been aware of this hidden, elusive threat but they have been evasive and therefore difficult to study. Now one has emerged from obscurity. That is why we need your help. To subdue the threat. We want to work with you.”
“You have an interesting way of asking,” I snapped.
“Granted, you may be less willing to provide it after the way your friends –”
“My loved ones,” I corrected.
He nodded, duly chastised. “Have been treated.”
“Treated?” I demanded. “They were assaulted. With poisoned weapons. And are now being held against their will.”
“A measure I personally apologize for, taken strictly for our safety.”
“A simple invitation would have been fine,” I retorted. “You wouldn’t have had to fear us then.”
His face tightened at my last word, which accurately conveyed the uncertainty of his future. Restrained in tone and manner, he asserted, “We couldn’t be certain how you might unleash your abilities when we approached you.”
“That doesn’t address my concern,” I remarked coldly.
“Right,” he said, sitting back in his chair, one arm leisurely lifted to rest on the table. “Your loved ones will be released.”
“When they regain consciousness.”
“All of them?” I demanded. Or maybe you expect to keep a few of us hostage until the rest of us do your bidding, I thought.
His eyes, that had conveyed kindness earlier, now belied him. “Of course.”
“I want to see Eran.”
“That can be arranged.”
The emotion fled from his soft eyes, leaving only coldness.
Realizing he could just as easily leave my loved ones locked away, I conceded slightly. “Please.”
“I’ll see what I can –”
“You’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” I retorted. “You’re telling me that someone has power over you and your interests?”
I was playing a delicate game, I knew, testing the line with a man’s ego, a man who had already proven that self-image wasn’t as important as getting the job done.
“Power fluctuates, Maggie,” he said, using my informal name. “Sometimes you hold all the cards and sometimes you don’t.”
It was both a veiled threat and meant to send clarity on my situation. He could not be swayed through ego. There was too much at stake. His own people’s lives, in fact. He was also pointing out that I was currently in the latter position, the one without the power.
“From what I’ve been told,” he said steadily, eyeing me like a snake, “and keep in mind that I have yet to see it myself, you and Eran attempt to protect the human race. It’s the only reason I’m spending any time with you at all. Now that we’ve both made requests, I’ll actively try to fulfill yours, then we’ll see if you’re as benevolent as you’ve portrayed yourselves.”
He stood quickly, his lean, muscular body effortlessly sending him into a towering posture. He paused to stare down at me, making me begin to contemplate defensive maneuvers, which somehow he could see happening.
“We have more to fear from you than you do from us,” he stated plainly, pivoted on his heel and marched out the door.
Paper-Pusher re-entered the room, standing at ease beside the door, a smug grin on his face as he watched me. That expression faltered and then fell away completely when the building shook around us a few minutes later. The chair I sat on rolled slightly on its wheels as Paper-Pusher lowered his head and curiously stared at the ground. The next vibration rattled the walls, upsetting the television screens mounted there, creaking in protest. A series of tremors followed, oscillating the floor and sending compression blasts through the air. As I stared at the door, Paper-Pusher mounted his rifle to his shoulder.
“That won’t help,” I advised.
“Do you know what it is?” he asked, noticeably panicking.
“This is supposed to be a secure building, correct?” I asked, nailing down the source of his fears.
I simply smiled back.
“What is that? WHAT IS THAT?” he screamed.
Then the door exploded open, crumpling like a tin can and flying free from its hinges, slamming against the adjacent wall. There in the broken archway stood Eran, fists clenched, nostrils flared, shoulders heaved forward. He had not extended his appendages just yet, not feeling the need for them, evidently, but that made him no less intimidating. He entered with the ferocity of an enraged bear, marching directly past Paper-Pusher.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his eyes already scanning my body for injuries.
“Behind you,” I warned.
Eran continued his pace as Paper-Pusher aimed the rifle at his back, but before Paper-Pusher could fire his weapon, it was yanked from his hands by Eran’s invisible force over metal and hit the wall with enough energy to bend the barrel and leave a puncture where it hit clear through the plaster to the building’s interior piping.
Eran broke the plastic at my wrists and then his arms were around me, warm and safe, like a blanket on a cold night. I breathed him in, closing my eyes, melting against him, my hands finding the muscles along his back and reminding me that strength was securing me now. I could have stayed that way for hours but he adjusted slightly. I moaned and he kissed me on the crown of my head before rotating to stand in front of me, facing the door...
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