The sun rose and the dust of the previous night settled. The skyline was scarred, jagged like a sun-bleached jaw with missing teeth.
A confirmation had been sent to all bunkers: the Q had been neutralized; residents were now able to return home. Even with the announcement of what everyone assumed to be a hard-won victory on the part of the US or NATO, the city seemed to reverberate with quiet despair. Rescue crews excavated buried streets and collapsed buildings, attempting to unearth survivors and those who were not so fortunate.
One area near the lake, had been cordoned off for blocks, and no civilians were allowed near. Personnel in hazmat suits, stamped either with UN or NATO insignia, coasted in and out of the quarantine zone in large vans.
Samuel Walker arrived at the edge of the city, where a vehicle was waiting for him. He was driven past the quarantine line, then made to dress in a hazmat suit before he was shuttled farther. At the area’s center, he found what was already causing a ruckus among the American military. In the middle of an intersection, caution tape surrounded what Sam was told he would have to see for himself. Sitting upon a deep red stain that spread all the way to the sidewalks, torn sheets of gray-blue flesh covered fat lengths of intestines, among other multicolored organs. Snapped ribs and pallid hunks of bone jutted from the heaps, like the horns of a goat.
Taking time to study the mess, despite his nausea, Sam realized why it had been so difficult for others to describe. It wasn’t only that it was grotesque, but that this was all that remained of last night’s Q.
“I thought the Q were solid all the way through, like rocks,” one man said, his voice muffled by his mask. “But this… This looks like someone slaughtered a God damn pig.”
“More like a giant,” Sam said.
“There’s something else you should see,” another suited man said, directing Sam to a van.
Once inside, the doors were shut, allowing them to remove their masks. Sam was ushered to a monitor where a security tape was being examined. Without announcing himself, he watched the footage from over a couple of shoulders. He was told the feed came from one of the traffic cams outside, one which managed to survive the attack long enough to catch something interesting. The stuttering video showed a person stepping out into the middle of the intersection. The person then stood there for up to a minute before a massive face dipped down from the top of the screen. A ring of pale light surrounded the person’s feet—then the feed cut out.
“That’s all we could recover,” they told Sam. “We can’t identify who that is in the video, but we understand you came here looking for a psychic.”
“You think he did this,” Sam said, lost in the looping video.
“Considering what’s right outside this van, Doctor…”
Sam thanked them, then asked them to forward the video to his office, through the usual email address. He was then informed that the cleanup crew had already received orders from the Security Council: they were to recover everything they could of the cadaver, and ship the samples directly to a series of coordinates off the coast of Washington, DC, where they would be secured by NATO and taken to a classified location.
“And who gave these orders?” Sam asked, more out of curiosity than irritation.
One of the men grabbed a nearby clipboard and read off the directive. “The movement was authorized by the Security Council a few hours ago… But this was all requested by a… Doctor Walker. Um, Doctor Logan Walker.”
With a sigh, Sam said, “Of course he did. They want me to bring back the one who made this mess, so why not the mess, too, huh?”
Before anyone could ask questions, he slipped his mask and helmet back on, then proceeded out of the van, back to the vehicle which had brought him into the quarantine zone. His driver asked him where he wanted to go next. Sam thought this through. If his primary objective was to locate Lucas Weir, then there were some complications. Had he not seen the traffic cam footage, he might have guessed that Weir was in one of the underground bunkers. He could pull the reports from the night before and see which one had registered such a name in their head count. However, if the person in that video was indeed Lucas Weir, considering the time code on the recording, he likely did not make it to any shelter. Moreover, he was certain that, had the carcass in the street crushed him, the cleanup crew would have recovered the body by now. Of course, if Weir was responsible for this, he was unlikely to be killed by something so pedestrian—or at least so Sam reasoned.
One other option occurred to him, something gleaned from the case report.
The train system resumed service a few hours after residents were released from the bunkers; however, the buses were still not running. Having taken a train as far as he could, Harold felt there would be no harm in walking the remaining distance.
South Chicago had escaped relatively unscathed—indeed, had Harold not spent a sleepless night and morning in a cramped, underground shelter, he might have never known there was an attack. Yet the faces of each person he passed reminded him. Their eyes were instinctively wide, their movements erratic, as if having outrun—or at least eluded—the beast. For all he knew, perhaps some of them had narrowly escaped the Q. As for the rest—well, only estimates could be made at this stage. However, separate reports seemed to place the death toll somewhere in the hundreds, and while the numbers were likely to rise, in a city of one and a half million residents, these figures were optimistic. Though this was not to label so many deceased as negligible, let alone cause for celebration, Harold and countless others knew the night before could have been infinitely worse. Far too fresh in their memories were the initial attacks of 1987 onward, battles which could last for days if not weeks, and the constantly rising number of missing persons. No, there was no celebratory spirit in any person’s heart, though they recognized their fortune—perverse as the blessing was, they would receive it.
Harold thought to visit his apartment, but decided to visit the library first. One was certainly on the way to the other, and it would be wise to see if the building had taken any damage. Shaking his head at his own excuses, he blew away the debris from his true motivation: he had not spent the entire night worrying about himself, but his young friend. He knew Lucas would not have tried to make it to the same shelter as him, not after getting separated, but his mind wandered and he attempted to think only of the outcomes wherein Lucas found his way to safety. In any case, wherever the boy had landed, he would certainly do as Harold was—return to their mutual homestead.
The red-faced library appeared entirely untouched. With minor relief, Harold slipped the key to the double-doors from his pocket. As he approached, he heard his name. Turning about, he found precisely whom he had hoped would be there, though not at all in a state he had expected. His heart nearly stopped when he saw Lucas covered from head to foot in what appeared to be blood. Hoveling in utter exhaustion, Lucas lost balance; Harold caught him before he hit the pavement.
“God be good,” Harold exclaimed. “Come along, let’s get you inside.”
With Lucas’ arm over his shoulders, Harold opened the library doors. They made it past the lobby, where Lucas slumped to the floor, resting against the front desk, catching his breath.
“What happened to you?” Harold asked, having exhausted himself. “You’re all… All covered in…”
“I know,” Lucas panted, closing his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak further, but the words fell in unintelligible pieces from his lips.
Harold watched him like a bird over her nestling, while with vacant eyes, Lucas watched someone else in the distance. She had been so clear before, but now Sera was a blur. He didn’t have the strength to wonder why, not then. All he could manage were her words from the night before, and their moment in the chapel—he had broken through, and stumbled into a new world. Though he had no idea what that meant.
Lucas got back to his feet, then wordlessly made his way through the bookcases and to the spiral staircase at the back of the library. Leaving Harold at their base, he stumbled to the bathroom to shower. He didn’t wait for the water to heat up, nor did he bother to take off his clothes. He stepped under the showerhead and let the cold water stroke his face in thin waves, soaking his clothes. Slowly, he slipped out of his shoes, then his clothes, leaving them in the shower.
Staring down at his uncovered body, he watched the red stains gradually erode from his skin. The substance trickling down to the drain appeared entirely indistinguishable from blood. He had seen something similar, though not at this volume, when showering after a fight—but this wasn’t his blood. It wasn’t even human. As immobilized as he felt, all that worried him was that it had come from such a beast at all. He had seen all the propaganda of glory kills, NATO downing another Q in some remote region of the world, but none of them had ever bled. So why did this one have everything Lucas might find in himself—like a beating heart?
Drying himself quickly, he went to his room, slipped into fresh clothes, then climbed into bed. Not bothering to check his clock, he was not sure how long he slept, but it didn’t matter—like death itself, this decision to rest was no decision at all.
Using a couple of outdated maps, the driver eventually found the last open library in the wounded city of Chicago.
Stepping out of the dark SUV, Sam told his driver to wait at the end of the block, then watched the vehicle drive off. He stood before the library empty-handed, having left everything in the car. Loosening his tie under the sun, he knocked on the front doors. When no one answered, he pushed one of the doors open and stepped inside.
The lobby was spacious yet empty. He stepped across the marble floor, his dress shoes clopping, announcing his presence on his way to the main floor’s jungle of bookcases. There he found an old man he recognized from the case report.
“I’m afraid we’re closed for the day, sorry,” Harold said curtly to the suited gentleman before him. He then softened his tone. “But I hope you’ll come visit tomorrow—we should be open then.”
Absentminded, Sam found himself captivated by the open library. Like most developments in major cities of the industrialized world, it was apparently incomplete, yet functioning. Indeed, its incompleteness told a story, that there had been greater plans. Perhaps the Q had dashed those plans, perhaps the singularities—whatever the reason, seldom were such developments incomplete for manmade reasons. Pull the threads enough and they would often lead back to 1987.
“Excuse me,” Sam said at last, pulling himself back to attention, “but I’m not here for books.”
Harold straightened up. He seemed to grasp Sam’s meaning immediately. “It would seem the UN doesn’t even wait long after a tragedy before they come for… what they think is theirs.”
Sam scratched the back of his head, stifling a nervous laugh. “I understand Lucas was taken in yesterday.”
“They called it a ‘detainment,’ but I’ve seen wrongful arrests more than a few times in my life,” Harold said, keeping his voice down.
“I’m sorry for what they must have put the both of you through. The regional offices seem to have a penchant for—”
“Fanaticism?” Harold interjected.
With a smile, Sam conceded. “I was going to say zeal.”
Shaking his head, Harold said, “Now I should apologize. I don’t mean to be rude, but you understand we’ve had an eventful twenty-four hours.”
“I’m very much aware,” Sam said, shaking hands with Harold. “I hope it doesn’t sound empty, but I’m pleased to see your safe.”
“Yes, well,” Harold said, still soured from his walk back to the library. “Unfortunately, not all were so lucky.” He returned to the desk, removing the books Lucas had recovered yesterday from the system—much as it saddened him, he had no intention of digging them out from the wrecked embassy.
Hesitant, Sam joined him at the desk. “Before I came here,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “I was shown what remained of the Q.”
“And?” Harold said halfheartedly, engaged with the computer. “Is the thing dead or isn’t it?”
Recollecting the sight with a wince, Sam said, “It’s dead. And I believe we have Lucas to thank for that.”
Lifting his eyes, Harold returned his attention to his guest. “You believe Lucas had something to do with it?”
“I’ve had quite enough of UN cronies calling me ‘mister,’ thank you very much.”
“Harold, then.” Sam leaned over the desk, looking the old librarian in the eyes. “I believe Lucas killed that Q.”
They locked eyes for a moment, then Harold pulled away, returning to his work. “Nonsense. You NATO boys pretend human beings can slay monsters, but you can’t fool me.”
Steeling himself, though his heart beat faster, Sam said, “But Lucas isn’t ‘normal’; more politely and precisely, he possesses something more than people like you and me.”
Sizing Sam up, Harold said, “You think Lucas killed a Q? I saw that thing, Mister—…”
“Doctor Samuel Walker— er, I mean, please call me Sam.”
“Sam.” Harold leaned over the desk on his elbows, as if to make a final statement, which he would no longer debate. “I saw what tore this city apart. Big as an aircraft carrier, flew like a bird, and struck like Zeus—and you want to tell me that Lucas killed it?”
“What I’m saying,” Sam said, “is that about an hour ago, I saw footage taken from a traffic camera where the Q was killed. And I saw a young man of average height stand face to face with a Q. Currently, that Q is lying like roadkill in the middle of the Near North Side.”
“Then the man you saw in that video is dead,” Harold said, “and one of your own must have blown the Q out of the sky.”
“And how is that, sir?”
“Because it grabbed every bullet, missile, and bomb we threw at it from right out of the air and threw them right back at us.” Sam lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “Only a psychic could have killed that Q, and none of ours were even in the country at the time. And I only know of one other psychic.”
“The boy who stopped a moving truck with only his mind.”
Someone cleared their throat near the stacks, and both Harold and Sam jumped. They turned to find Lucas watching them. He stepped forward, as if to present himself.
“So I did kill it,” Lucas said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Sam seemed at a loss. Harold, however, was not so tongue-tied.
“This is Doctor Sam Walker,” he said, holding out a hand. “From the UN.”
“I know,” Lucas said, stepping closer. “I could hear you both from upstairs.” He turned to Sam. “Let me guess: if I don’t come along this time, you’ve got a team of guys with guns who’ll come in and take me by force.”
“I’m here alone, actually,” Sam said. “I thought that might be best, considering how you and Harold have been treated thus far.”
“But you are here to take me,” Lucas said. “Aren’t you?”
Sam dwelt on the question. Unable to sugarcoat the details, he said, “I suppose you know how this works… My superiors expect me to return with you.”
“Then they will be disappointed, won’t they,” Harold said. “Lucas has rights, both as a human being and as a citizen of the United States. You can’t take him against his will.”
“I’m afraid that’s not how the United States or the United Nations see things,” Sam replied softly. “According to UN Security Council Resolution 1961, in exchange for protection from the Q, all member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are required to contribute two percent of their GDP, as well as two percent of all adult males and females between the ages of eighteen and fifty for military service. Additionally, all members are to contribute all citizens with psychic abilities for research and combat. Unfortunately, in the US, refusing to comply is a federal offense.”
“I get it, you’ve got quotas,” Lucas said. “But none of that matters to me. I’m not going with you. And if your ‘superiors’ don’t like that, they can come arrest me themselves.”
“You won’t be sent to prison, Lucas,” Sam said. “If I don’t return with you, the kid gloves will come off. They’ll send an extraction team, and, if they feel they have to, they’ll twist every screw they can until you give in. They’ll shut down this library, imprison Harold, hunt you down… It’s ugly, and I would say unjust, but it’s how things are. They don’t want to punish you; they want you to go to war.”
“Why?” Lucas blurted, taking a step back. “What do they want from me? I’m a kid!”
“You’re a psychic,” Sam said.
“Just one,” Lucas said, his voice rising. “How can you miss just one?”
Sam lowered his gaze. The truth dawned on Lucas and Harold.
“NATO doesn’t have nearly as many psychics as they claim,” Sam confessed. “It’s a ‘noble lie’ meant to bolster confidence in our Esper Program—a bluff.” He looked them both in the eyes, individually, then added, “This is highly classified information. No one outside of NATO command or the UN Security Council knows this.”
“How many psychics do you have, then?” Harold asked.
Sam paused, then said, “Two.”
“Bloody two?” Harold sputtered.
“One from the Middle East, another from the United Kingdom,” Sam said. “Granted, depending on how broadly you define the term, we have several hundred psychics, maybe thousands. However, the grand majority of them have very weak abilities. Some can fold pieces of paper, others can lift small objects—with concentration and time. But only two have ever exhibited the kind of skill that gave us any inkling that they might be capable of combatting the Q… Well, now three.”
“You think I’m…” The words fell from Lucas’ mouth, though the thought never completed itself.
“Your case report was unique,” Sam said. “The very possibility that you could have stopped that moving vehicle… You showed promise. Last night only confirmed that suspicion.”
“Last night?” Lucas said.
“The Q,” Sam said. “You killed the Q.”
Lucas jolted, reviewing that moment: standing beneath one of the Q’s four faces, caught between two conflicting worlds, wondering if he was going to die—and then…
Folding his arms, Sam explained further, “When the Q appeared thirty years ago, they were made of flimsy materials, like carbon and iron. They were glorified sculptures. They could cause a great deal of destruction in a short amount of time, but we could dispatch them with some effort and artillery… However, about four years ago, a certain Q appeared at the border between Iraq and Kurdistan. It deflected everything we threw at it without ever physically touching a thing.”
“It was psychic,” Lucas said.
“Indeed,” Sam said. “Like last night’s Q, it was immune to conventional weaponry. No bullet or explosive came close. NATO was ready to abandon that sector… But then, an undocumented psychic pulled that Q out of the air and slammed it into the earth, killing it instantly.” He closed his eyes, caught between something of a frown and a hint of intrigue. “We had known about psychics for nearly twenty years, but we had never considered the possibility that they might be capable of taking on Q.” His expression grew darker. “We never thought that the Q would evolve, either.”
“So a psychic defeated that Q,” Harold said. “And in four years, you’ve only found one other like that one?”
“Well, two more now,” Sam conceded with a nod to Lucas. “But more and more Q are emerging with an inherent resistance to conventional weapons. Only psychics have proven capable of neutralizing them. They’re immune to the Q’s passive defenses, and they can turn their own psychic powers on them. The only issue is—”
“The only weapon you can use against the Q is in short supply,” Lucas said, furrowing his brow.
“That’s where we stand,” Sam said. “And that’s why NATO won’t rest until you cooperate, Lucas. It’s not militant greed or paranoia. By some unknown means, the Q have adapted to us, and we have somehow adapted to them. The only way we’re going to survive them is with people like you.”
Lucas thought he saw flashes of the church again. And among the pews was Sera, watching him. Her words from the night before rang through his head, arising from somewhere deep within: he had cleared the threshold. He followed the thought further, until he stood amid blurs and distortions. Reeling, he stepped back. Before either Harold or Sam could say a word, he fled into the stacks.
Harold and Sam looked at one another.
“Does it have to be this way?” Harold asked.
“I’m sorry, but yes.”
Without another word, Harold went after Lucas.
Keeping a slow pace, to not spook him, Harold listened carefully for his footsteps. He tracked Lucas to a side-wing, an alcove filled with several forgotten volumes, thick with dust. There, leaned against a bookcase, Harold found Lucas.
Behind closed eyes, Lucas could see Sera, who looked back at him with excitement and concern. Neither of them spoke, yet, inwardly, they both recoiled.
Harold eventually gravitated across the room to a book that caught his eye. He opened the aged cover and flipped through the pages, smiling on occasion at notes and highlights he himself had made. Lucas opened his eyes and surveyed his old friend, who appeared enraptured. Once Harold reached the end of the book, he set it back in its proper place—classics, where Homer’s Odyssey belonged.
“You know, I never did like their endings,” Harold concluded.
Confused, Lucas followed Harold, watching him pull another book from the shelf—a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid.
“I much prefer this over the others,” Harold continued. “An ending done right, I’d say.”
Smiling a little self-consciously, Lucas joined him. “What could you possibly have against Homer?”
“He has no grasp of the real world,” Harold said tartly. “Yes, Homer was writing myth and fantasy, as was Virgil, but that’s no excuse. The Odyssey is the pinnacle of unreality: Odysseus spends the entire narrative struggling against one enemy after another, in brave and manly fashion, only to return to Ithaca and rescue his lover Penelope from her suitors, successfully reinstalling himself as husband, father, and ruler. Then, at the behest of Athena herself, all conflict ceases.”
“What a monster,” Lucas said with a curled lip. “I can see why you hate him so much…”
“I don’t hate him,” Harold said, gently tapping him with the book’s spine. “I disagree with him; there’s a stark difference. But take Virgil as a counterexample: in his story, Aeneas did much the same as Odysseus, struggling bravely against his foes in order to find a home after the fall of Troy—only, he never really reaches that destination.”
“How does it end, then?”
“Have you worked here this long, and you still haven’t—?” Harold quelled his own indignation, then opened the book to its final lines. “In the end, Aeneas has his nemesis Turnus in his hands, pleading for mercy. With his spear raised, ready to avenge his fallen comrade, Aeneas slays Turnus and—! Nothing. The story ends.”
As incredulous as Harold was passionate, Lucas read the lines for himself. They were translated into the antiquated English publishers preferred in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but their meaning was clear. Harold was right—Aeneas made his kill, then the story abruptly ended.
“It’s like he just stopped,” Lucas said. “Sort of a crappy ending, actually.”
“For a Roman propaganda piece, it’s fine,” Harold said. “There are a few theories to explain it, of course. Perhaps there was an ending, and it was simply lost to centuries of poor bookkeeping. Perhaps Virgil never wrote an ending. In all honesty, I think I rather prefer the latter.”
Aghast, Harold said, “Homer thought the hero’s journey was one in which he ultimately defeated a great evil and lived happily ever after. You struggle and struggle, and then you live the rest of your life a king. But perhaps Virgil wasn’t so sure. Virgil dragged Aeneas by the tip of a stylus halfway across the Mediterranean in a quasi-Homeric adventure, only to learn what Homer never did.”
“Every man needs a good enemy. Period.” Harold grabbed Lucas’ shoulder. “When I first met you, I found you hiding in a dumpster, soaked to the bone, and angrier than a boy your age should ever be. You hated the world, and you were ready to take that out on anyone with a heartbeat—including me! But when I put you to work, I watched you change. The anger didn’t go away, but I watched you learn to tame it. You had something else you wanted, more than your anger: you wanted a stable life. And now you have it. I can see it in your eyes—that lull, that unspoken realization that now you’ve adapted, and so you’ve no more an enemy with whom to cross swords.”
“I’m happy here,” Lucas said, weakly. “I’ve never had a life like this, Harold—a home like this. Never.”
“And you will certainly never lose this home--never,” Harold said. “But hear this much: as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been a boy who found the greatest happiness when he was chasing something. The boy I found in the rubbish, that boy had found something—pain, misery, rage. But the boy I’ve seen in my library all these years was always seeking. And he knew how to smile.” Setting the Aeneid in Lucas’ hands, Harold held his old friends fingers in his own. “I’m not telling you to leave Ithaca, let alone to never return. Your Troy hasn’t fallen. I’m asking if you might rather find something else outside that home, out at sea.”
“You and I both know NATO will never let you stay here.” Harold bowed his head. “Whatever may lie ahead… You don’t have to experience this as a death sentence. This may very well be life itself inviting you to live with the passion and action you yourself are suited for.” He set the book aside, tightening his hold on Lucas. “You will always have a home here. But—for now—I believe you and I both know it’s time for you to begin another adventure.”
Staring down at the book, Lucas was lost. It was no platitude to call this place his home, and to call Harold by extension family; surrendering either felt like amputation. Yet, though he could not articulate it, he wanted to believe Harold—he chose to believe his oldest friend. With a deep breath, he decided—for now—to stop kicking.
Together, they rejoined Sam.
“How soon should we leave?” Lucas asked.
Taken aback, Sam said, “As soon as possible.”
Lucas left for the back of the library, taking an old backpack up to his room. And as he packed, Harold and Sam stood alone.
“You’ll take care of him, won’t you?” Harold asked.
“I will,” Sam said. “I’ll do my very best.”
Pursing his lips, stifling a swell of emotion, Harold nodded, then returned to his work.