Part 5: Nicholas
a short story series by lawton von emelen
All the gear really weighed heavily on Nick’s shoulders tonight, especially more so than other nights.
Captain Nicholas Berger and his squad of mercenaries had been trailing this specific group of slaves travelling northward for quite some time. He hadn’t taken a shower in a week. Neither had the rest of his team. They were hungry, sweaty and nearly two hundred years in the past.
For some reason, his team liked to call him ‘The Burger,’ as some sort of endearing nickname. It only annoyed Nick. “Stop calling me that,” he said to Phil, the one Nick knew the least out of his squad. “You’re making me hungry. Stop making me hungry, Phil.”
Phil raised his hands in concession. “Fine,” he stated.
It was nighttime, and the squad of four were keeping a low profile as they snuck through the shrubbery, maintaining a minimum distance of fifty yards from the runaway slaves at all times. Reuban, the black self-proclaimed historian of the group, kept bothering Nick to confirm if it really was Harriet Tubman leading the group of runaways they were tracking.
“For the final time this week, I don’t know,” Nick said.
“There’s got to be some way of finding out, right?” Reuban asked. “She is one of the most heroic figures of the nineteenth century. To even get a glimpse of her would be an accomplishment.”
“We’re not here for AP History, Reuban.”
“Yes, yes,” Reuban yielded.
“Does anyone here need a reminder of why we’re here, in Harford County, nearly two centuries in the past?” Nick asked the group, knowing the answer was rather obvious.
All three of them, including Dirk the marksman, conceeded “no”.
Good then, thought Nick. His squad was not the first sent into the past by Clairvoyance, and not likely the last; what with the discovery of time-travel (and its immediate monopoly by the corporation). Clairvoyance devoted its enormous war chest to traveling into the past. Their sole reason, however, was strange. Rather than meeting Jesus Christ, or perhaps the ancestors of humanity, Clairvoyance instead invested its time and resources to discovering more about some herb. A golden herb, apparently, was what Nick and his squad had been told before hurling themselves through the time portal and ending up in 1858. Their more direct mission was finding a specific slave, one of the runaways that Nick and his team were tracking, one who Clairvoyance stressed would be crucial to the company’s plans.
He had heard stories from deranged survivors of time travel. Nick chalked it up to insanity by means of meddling with the past, but the stories were interesting anyway. Those he listened to spoke of golden-eyed individuals who crashed into their squads and teams with immense fervor and dexterity, annihilating their group within seconds, or minutes if they were unlucky.
This was Nick’s first journey into the past, and what he considered to be probably his only time; given that everyone who returned had become insane. He figured he didn’t stand much of a chance of sane survival. A lot of money was being given to his grandmother up in Michigan, who was fumbling around in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Nick felt pretty crummy for not visiting her often enough and, as there were no other immediate family, his payment for the job was going to her care. He had an eerie feeling he wouldn’t be needing the money.
“Keep your safeties off,” was Nick’s hourly reminder, although the men were so sure that their safeties were off that they didn’t check. They were moving faster, for the runaways ahead were also moving faster, at a surprisingly rapid rate. Nick was confused: other reports noted that the runaways were quick in order to put distance between them and the hounds, yet not so quick as to give a military-trained pursuit party from the Clairvoyance any trouble in sticking with them. Realizing that they had had to put an unprecedented amount of effort into maintaining sight of the runaways, Nick’s instinct told him that something was amiss.
“Make sure your safeties are off,” Nick repeated.
“Captain,” Dirk remarked, “you said that a minute ago-”
“I’m serious. Something’s up.”
* * * *
Nick barely registered another thought before he heard a sickening slice, as a golden playing card swiped through the air in a circle around the group just after slashing Phil’s throat. Phil collapsed onto the ground, eyes rolling back into his head. The three remaining mercenaries pointed their guns and followed the card with their sights, trailing it back to the darkness to the left of them. An index and middle finger caught the luminous ace from mid-air; just behind it, two eyes gleamed in the brush.
Nick promised that if he made it out alive, he would buy every single survivor of the time portal six drinks each.
“Semi-auto, men!” Each of the mercenaries opened fire at the golden-eyed intruder, who darted between trees and bushes, while golden playing cards fired like missiles from the obscurity. Reuban didn’t last long; only a few seconds after Reuban’s knees buckled under his lifeless corpse, Dirk was impaled twice by a glowing jack. Nick was the unlucky one.
Nick weighed his options: attempt to fight this anomaly (and probably die), or run and attempt to report back to his superiors on what he saw. Narrowly avoiding the loss of his ear, he chose the second option and ground his toes into the soil, sprinting away.
Glowing cards sailed past him, slicing at the branches above him, which fell down and impeded his escape. Due to his deathly curiosity, Nick glanced back at his pursuer; he was most definitely a man, in what seemed to be a long coat that gave him the form of some sort of wraith. That split second that Nick spent to glance back cost him his freedom; he was whacked in the face by a particularly large branch that fell from above, knocking him down. As quickly as he fell, cards swooped in with their whistling tunes of doom, slashing at the front and back of one of his knees. There was no way, Nick realized, that he was getting out of this now.
He braced for inevitable death by iron playing card, but all he heard was footsteps. The golden-eyed figure drew closer with a determined frown. Within three feet of Nick, the figure knelt down and raised both of his hands, calling back the cards that were still fluttering about independently. Once caught, he buried them in his pockets, before placing an arm on his knee.
“You’re not the first,” the figure said in a Scottish accent, “and you won’t be the last, aye?”
Nick nodded. He didn’t know what else to do but nod in agreement. The golden-eyed man wasn’t wrong.
“I’m a rather arrogant individual, but I’ll let that go for just a few moments here,” the man said. “I will let you live and you will answer my questions. In return, because I’m feeling generous tonight, you will be allowed to ask one question of me.”
It was impulsive. Definitely not the right question to ask, but Nick asked it anyway. “Who are you?”
“I am The Gambler,” was the reply. “Now you will answer my questions.”
Nick nodded while clutching his knee. He didn’t know how sharp cards could really be.
“Who trained you?” The Gambler asked.
“The United States Marine Corps,” replied Nick, in bated breath.
“How far in the past are you?”
“One hundred and seventy-seven years.”
“How many men are in your team?”
“Just the other three . . . that you killed . . . ”
“No no no,” corrected The Gambler, “that they killed. You know who I am referring to by they, right?”
Nick had a feeling that The Gambler was talking about Clairvoyance. How did he know what Clairvoyance was?
“What was your mission?” continued The Gambler.
“Our mission . . . is . . .”
“No, was, laddie,” corrected The Gambler again. “You can consider your mission failed. I want to know what it was.”
“Our mission was to find a certain slave, who was named Adam,” Nick reported.
The Gambler paused and stared at Nick for a moment. Nick wasn’t sure whether The Gambler could see his soul or not. He wasn’t sure whether The Gambler was capable.
“To find a slave named Adam?”
Nick took a moment to find the right words.
“Why?” The Gambler pushed urgently.
“He’s vital to my employer’s concerns, that’s all I know.”
“Vital to your employer’s concerns?” The Gambler repeated.
“Yes. That’s all I know.”
The Gambler paused for another moment before rising. “Here’s what I’m going to do. You crawling around here with futuristic gear and technology for someone to find will not bode well. Thank God you idiots hadn’t been found yet by anyone from this time period. You’re going to do the right thing and get rid of all your gear. Throw it in the river. Then haul ass back to wherever you came from and never return. Feel free to pass the message along to your employer.”
Nick didn’t need to be told twice. At once, he began crawling toward the foliage. Once The Gambler was satisfied Nick was going to do as he was told, The Gambler disappeared in a phantasmal burst of lustrous energy.
He reappeared a minute or two later a few miles away, at his encampment with Adam and Leo. He wiped his brow and took a seat on a felled log Leo had hauled to serve as seating. Adam looked up at The Gambler as he arrived. “Anything new?” Adam asked.
“We’re a bit more clear on what they want,” The Gambler responded.
“Which is what?”
Adam stared hard at The Gambler for a few moments before asking his next question. “Why me?”
“My theory: you’re relevant in nearly two hundred years. This means you’ve become a Godsblood, being immortal, and you’re involved in some way in nearly two hundred years.”
“I wonder why?” Annalise’s voice echoed within Adam’s mind. Adam flinched at the sound of her voice. He kept forgetting that Annalise’s soul was temporarily hitching a ride with him.
“I have the same question,” Adam agreed.
“They might fear you,” Leo reasoned.
“Adam is a man of will and heart. No one will fear him; they will respect him, for he is not an evil person,” The Gambler argued.
“I like the sound of that,” Adam said, “but if not fear, then what?”
“They may fear you in a different way,” Leo continued. “They may fear your power for what good it will do the rest of the world, and they have some reason to keep the world as it is in the future.”
“That’s not a terrible theory,” Adam replied.
“Which is why I said it.”
“The last few teams we’ve encountered were after something else though,” said The Gambler. “They were after the herb.”
“The herb?” Adam asked.
“We forgot to explain the herb to you,” Annalise sighed.
“We forgot to explain the herb to you,” said The Gambler, eliciting another annoyed sigh from Annalise. “The herb is called Godsblood. It’s a golden herb that invigorates life around it and secretes a golden liquid. When ingested, you ascend to become a Godsblood.”
“That isn’t like any plant I’ve heard of,” said Adam.
“Indeed, indeed. She sighed, didn’t she?”
“Yes. I have a sense about these things.”
“You’re too full of yourself, honestly,” retorted Annalise.
Adam shook his head. “So they’re looking for the herb, and they’re looking for me too. That means they’re at least aware of the Godsbloods.”
“Yes,” said Leo.
“Where is the herb?”
“I don’t know what the area is called,” said Annalise. “I do know it was near a waterfall.”
“Annalise says it’s near a waterfall, and that’s all she knows,” Adam repeated for The Gambler and Leo.
“This whole ‘only Adam can hear Annalise’ thing isn’t doing it for me,” said Leo.
“Shh, no one cares,” replied The Gambler. “We’ve got a plant to find, an Adam to ascend, time-traveling warriors to fight and chicken to eat. And, as our stomachs tell us, we’re all out of chicken. Let’s do this.”