That morning I woke up to a flash of bright light that almost threw me off my bed.
In my confusion I started fumbling about, trying to figure out what was going on. Had we been attacked by someone? Was it Foxglove? Had someone left the stove on?
Was I being abducted by aliens?
Elskan popped into the view from the other side of the room with a terrified expression on his face. For some damned reason he was wearing black welding glasses. “Did I wake you up?”
“Of course you did! What did you do?”
“I thought it would be a lot weaker.” El put the goggles down and glared at me. “Do you wanna have a look?”
Still a little dazed and in nothing but my trunks, I got up from the floor and followed him to a table in the corner. All the usual junk had been tidied away and in the centre of various tools I couldn't identify and thick cables covering the workspace, perching in its place I could see the-
“It's pretty cool, right?”
“Is that...” I couldn't believe my eyes. What absolute lunatic would do something like this? “Is that one of the lightning bombs?!”
“Exactly, Tony,” Elskan replied, as if he were talking about nothing less than the weather. “You've got a good eye.”
“I thought we destroyed them!”
Now that I think about it, I shouldn't have been surprised. By now I've seen El lie and scheme so many times I'm astonished I still believed anything he said. I've seen him lie to the Rebels, lie to Ashley, lie to the other outlaws... Always for a good reason, true. But a bloody bomb!!?
“This is not the bomb in itself,” he assured me. “I have no intention on frying this place to a crisp. It's just the core of the technology that guy created. I mean, come on! This thing is revolutionary. Of course I had to steal one!”
I hate to admit my curiosity got the better of me and instead of getting cheesed off, I just moved closer to get a better look.
“What's this about, then?”
Seeing my interest, El stepped closer and his eyes flashed with excitement. “So, I took one from the pile before the whole place burned down, and I took the thing apart to see what was inside, because frankly I have no idea how he made it to work, and the problem is... I still don't know. There's a battery in there. Some custom kind that he must have made down in his basement. Then there's a visible transistor and a couple of wires leading into these huge red diodes, a bunch of other things connected so weirdly I can't even make them out and this ugly oversized coil right at the top… All the usual stuff. Except it's warped and weird and I can't make any sense of it.”
“And what are you going to do with it? Is it gonna power our wi-fi or what?”
“That would be pretty cool, but no. This design is only good for violent, uncontrolled outbursts of energy. Trying to power something with these batteries would be like trying to fry a steak with a nuke. I've got something different in mind.”
He reached into the jumble on his table and pulled out the very core of the strange device he managed to disconnect from its casing. It was pretty clear this wasn't his first hour working on this project. Einstein's dangerous invention had been newly fitted with a heavy plastic handle he must have made on his amazing 3D printer and a kind of a trigger you might expect to see on a gun, all held together with the help of a simple duct tape. There was no doubt that it was supposed to be some kind of a taser-like weapon. But was this invention really what it seemed to be?
“Go on and give it a try if you want to.”
I was already too deep into it to back out now and held the device in my hand with a trembling arm.
“Is there any way to aim it in any direction at all?”
That only earned me a shrug.
“It's electricity. Press that button and pray it's going to go away from us.”
Pulling the trigger, I braced myself for whatever was about to come. I winced and closed my eyes, clenching every muscle in my body in anticipation.
And nothing happened.
“Well, that was-”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when a loud bang echoed through the room and a flash of light burned a thin white line into my iris. I could still see it going from the device to one of the shelves as Elskan lunged forward with a cup of water in his hand to quench a couple of books that had managed to catch afire.
“That was something!” he grinned with satisfaction.
“Maybe you shouldn't test it in the middle of our extremely flammable room. And in the middle of our extremely flammable forest, at that. Or rather not at all.”
I didn't think I'd be able to sleep again after such an unusual awakening and spent the rest of our early morning watching him test the new invention in various ways, every one of them seemingly more dangerous than the last one. The terrible noise we made somehow didn't seem to alarm anybody else in the camp, thankfully. Elskan mingled with the bomb some more and then we departed to get our breakfast.
To my genuine surprise, I guess he must have kept his word and didn't tell anyone the truth about my sister. If he did, I was sure I'd be well on my way back to Nederstone in the back of the car.
Everyone just sat around like it was any other day. We caught Will and Manny in the middle of an especially heated 'forehead game', their brows adorned with little post-it notes that said: “Rake” and “Aardvark”. Mark was there too, sitting as close to the television as humanly possible, his glasses lying on the table. He had a note as well and it simply read: 'Mark', though at the moment he didn't seem interested in guessing it.
Seeing us approach, the young brothers grew silent and I saw them stiffen as Manny nudged William's shoulder.
Will stood up from the table and pulled his aardvark off.
“Can we have a word? Because the three of us have been thinking about something.”
“Sure…” My roommate appeared confused.
“Are we with the Rebels?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are we a part of their group? Because nowadays it feels like we're doing a lot of work for them. We had to solve that weird crime nobody seemed to wrap their heads around-”
“Sure,” El allowed.
“And we had to catch that crazy lightning bloke for them. The one that had two meters and built bombs.”
“You were not even a part of that one, but sure again...”
“And we took care of a lot of their problems, like when we helped those people in a retirement home and when Ms Rutterford's cat got lost and we found her on the roof of a mall and everything… So I guess that's what I'm asking about. Are we with the Rebels, or are we still a single group of outlaws?”
He got no definite answer outright as Elskan appeared to be looking over his shoulder into the distance with a blank stare of a distracted philosopher without actually listening to him. Then he blinked.
“You hang on that thought for a minute and we'll come back to it later. There's something we need to do right away.” He sat down in his seat and turned off the TV, ignoring Mark's loud complaints. “In the light of some recent revelations, I think we should expand our tiny territory beyond the reach of our traps to include the newly discovered hotel and anything else we might find along the way. For that reason, I'm going to assign expeditions to scout the area and map out anything that might seem out of the ordinary.” He looked from one of us to the other. “Any questions?”
Manny raised a hand as if he were in a class, the post-it note on his forehead flapping left and right. “Do we have to?”
“Listen, I tried to make it sound really fancy and whatever, but in reality, you're basically just gonna go for a walk and come back in a few hours to tell us what you saw. It's not that hard.”
“It sounds like fun.” Will tried to support the idea with a sour face.
“Thank you. I got the Rebels to print us some Google images of the forest from a bird's-eye view and we can scribble on them and write down anything that might sound useful. Now-”
He pulled out his phone to check something and rubbed his eyes. “Mark and William are going out for the first expedition because one of them has shown a remarkable amount of enthusiasm and the other one... has not. And I think that's going to balance out more than nicely.”
“What? Come on!” The doctor grumbled.
“You, Manny,” he turned to the younger brother. “You will stay here, fetch some water from the lake and make us some food so we have what to eat when we get back. That sounds fair?”
“And you-” It was finally time for me. “We're gonna go to the civilization. Go wake James up, will you? I've heard him complaining lately about being cooped up at home all the time, so let's get him out to get some sun.”
“Of course. Just-” I froze half-way through getting up from the table. “Erm...”
There were the two of us living in our separated one-room cabin. The young brothers had the smaller one, Mark occupied the tiny shack we used to use to store tools-
I'd never really stopped to think about it, but in all my time in the forest up to that point, I hadn't really been to James's room. Did he even have a room? I suppose he had to. It wasn't like he would sleep outside in the rain.
Elskan kindly directed me to the door on my left.
All this time he slept right next to the kitchen, by the shower.
From the outside I would have never guessed there was another room, and I found out why as soon as I opened the door. The place was tiny, more like a closet than any living space I have ever seen. The bed in itself took up half of the entire room, so that it was almost impossible to fit in two people at the same time. James slept curled up in his blankets, blissfully unaware of an intruder in his personal space, and I tried to squeeze myself onto the only piece of visible floor in between a wardrobe and a table with a still running laptop to poke his shoulder.
“So what is it we're doing exactly?” he asked sleepily only moments later, sitting in the passenger seat of our stolen car.
“We're getting some papers from the Rebels,” Elskan informed him, looking out of the window. “Maps, so we can better see what the forest looks like.”
“We could have done that on a phone, no?”
“Sure, but this is cooler.”
“We could ask them for some petrol too,” I proposed, poking the fuel gauge in front of me. “This car doesn't do a whole lot of driving around, but that doesn't mean it's inexhaustible.”
Looking at the dashboard, I had to once again remind myself of the dishonourable way in which we'd come to this car in the first place. We'd basically nicked it from some poor old-timer. The circumstances were dire and there was no other way, but still... the police were looking for us and we were incredibly lucky to meet my sister rather than some old bloke who would have reported us immediately. We got so close to being thrown back into prison…
Our actions were starting to have real consequences. That was scary.
To get into the underground, we used one of the older, unguarded entrances. Our pace was fairly brisk, the mood was good and it wasn't long before El started talking to his friend.
“The young ones were trying to bring something up in the morning.”
“I think they are a little confused about the nature of our relationship with those guys down there.” He nodded down the length of the tunnel while something splashed in the distance. A rat or a loose brick falling into the water. “Will seemed to be curious about whether we should identify as a part of their group. Like he kinda wanted to, really.”
“They are young and this is their town. It's only natural they would want to join some kind of resistance to help it.”
We walked a few steps in silence as the outlaw pondered his reply. “How about you? Do you feel like a Rebel, James?”
“I feel like a rebel every day, though probably not in the same sense.”
“So no inclinations to join any kind of resistance or whatever...”
“God no! We don't even belong in here.”
“What about you, Tony?” The question took me aback. I hadn't expected them to include me in their chin wag. “Do you feel like a brave revolutionary?”
“Well, I- from what I remember from school, revolutions don't always tend to go entirely smoothly,” I tried to dodge the question a little.
“That's a good point. I think we should have a talk with them when we get home. The Talk.”
“I'm not sure you know what that means,” James chortled.
“Of course I do!”
Something splashed again. This time a lot closer and louder, right beyond the bend of the path.
My simple assumptions were shattered when something clicked and were blinded by a bright column of light. Rats usually don't carry torches.
“Who are you?” a man's voice bellowed. Whoever he was, he managed to make it sound more like a command than a simple question.
“What the hell, mate!” I shielded my face, expecting one of the Rebels.
I wasn't expecting a soldier.
The orange and purple uniform and a helmet with shaded glasses, the bulletproof vest, the walkie-talkie on his belt and a handgun in his other hand. There was no doubt he was from Foxglove. The sight brought back all the memories of Lyonhall at once and our torch fell from my hand, clanking on the concrete and sinking deep into the sludge where it flickered and died.
For a second that seemed to last entire years, the four of us just stood there waiting for someone else to make the first move. My heart was pounding in my ears so hard I didn't even hear El draw his own weapon.
I have no idea where he got it from.
And just like that, we were in a stand-off.
The soldier didn't look worried. He wasn't pulling the trigger either, just squinted at us as if he'd forgotten his glasses, looking from one to the other rapidly, trying to make something out. Then his eyes widened and his mouth dropped, the barrel of his weapon fixed at Elskan.
“You? You! You threw me out of a car!”
James looked from one to another in utter confusion.
“What the hell?”
“Oh, yeah, I did.” El raised the gun a little higher.
“I should- I should shoot you right now!”
“But you're not shooting me! Why are you not shooting me? What are you doing in here?”
“What are you doing in here?” the man shouted, his voice echoing throughout the sewers, and in the blinding light of the torch, I realised who he was. There was no way I could remember his features, but this had to be the bloke who'd got stuck in the jeep with us when we'd escaped from Lyonhall and- yes, we'd actually thrown him out if I remembered everything correctly.
“Alright, alright,” the soldier eased his weapon. “I'll slowly put my gun down now if you promise not to do anything daft!”
To our immense surprise, he lowered the weapon down, set it on the concrete floor next to him and raised his hands above his head, staring us down the entire time.
“I don't want to hurt anyone and I'm not here on behalf of Foxglove. I took some serious risks coming down here alone-”
El and James exchanged a quick look, and the man took a deep breath.
“I want to speak with the Rebels.”
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This is where a cliffhanger would normally happen.
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We took him down with us, through the twisting tunnels and collapsed cellars of the last century. After we made sure he had no other weapons, James claimed the handgun the soldier set down for himself and I closed up the procession in the back, stumbling along while blood rushed to my head, unable to comprehend the full weight of the situation.
The man in front of us was a real soldier from the real army and from the real Foxglove down here in our tunnels, strutting around as if there was nothing wrong about it.
This place was supposed to be safe. They were never supposed to get here. They were never supposed to find it in the first place, and now one of them was being led right into the centre of it all.
I almost didn't register James saying, “Dude, where did you get that gun?”
“After our last incident with Einstein?” El replied. “I thought it would be for the best to take it wherever we go.”
“Well, good call.”
The rest of the way seemed almost like we were in some strange fever dream. I'm drawing a blank on how we got to the centre of the underground, hidden under the whole labyrinth of half-sunken tunnels. One moment we were descending some ancient-looking stairs and the next second James was already opening the familiar metal door.
All the usual chatter and laughter stopped the moment we entered. It reminded me of the first day we met the Rebels, except this time it wasn't suspicion and curiosity I read in their eyes. It was fear. People cringed away from us and hid behind doors as if we were some terrifying harbingers of apocalypse. I even saw Ashley in one of the rooms peeking at us with a bunch of kids hiding behind her back.
She didn't wave back at me.
If the size and the look of the place surprised our captive in any way, the soldier didn't let anything show. He simply ambled along ahead of us, watching every room with keen interest, seemingly unfazed, as if he already knew what to expect.
We found their leader in her claustrophobic little office, sitting behind her small desk, listening to the radio and going through some papers, whatever they might have been. James didn't even bother to knock.
Her smile melted in a second, and Tommy nearly fell as she tried to rise from the chair and dash backwards at the same time.
“Wh- What is this supposed to mean?” she stammered in her confusion, her eyes open wide and her hands trembling like she'd seen the death itself. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd see her like this.
“We'd love to know too,” El replied in a blank voice. “We found this guy up in the sewers. Claimed he wants to talk to you. If you have friends in the army now, you could have simply told us without giving us a heart attack.”
“What are you talking about? I've never seen this man before!” she shouted.
“Yeah. I was afraid of that…”
“Wait! Wait!” the soldier raised his hands up in defence. “I'm not here to hurt you! I've told you the company doesn't know I'm in here. I'm my own man, alright?”
“And we're supposed to believe that?”
“Come with me.” Tommy commanded, dragging James and the rest of us after her.
We locked the bloke up in the room while the four of us stayed outside to discuss this bizarre situation.
“This is the second time in the last few days that you've brought in some completely random and possibly dangerous man without any explanation whatsoever! What am I supposed to make of that?”
“It wasn't our fault!” James tried to defend us. “Not this time.”
“If you think about it, it wasn't our fault the first time either,” Elskan pointed out.
“I don't care who's fault what is, or... just... This-” She pointed to the closed metal door. “This is a fox. A real Foxglove soldier and you just led him straight in here! I'm going to have to... I-”
She seemed unable to process the situation, let alone start dealing with it in any way, and while James tried to calm her down, all Elskan seemed to want was to find some reasonable explanation in all this chaos.
“I thought you said you had your people in the army. Is he not one of them? And if not, then how did you get our papers back so quickly?”
“We do have people at Lyonhall! One cook and one old cleaning lady with an unhealthy tendency to kleptomania. We would never let an actual soldier in here!” She sighed and hid her face in her palms. “This is bad. This is really, really bad.” Tommy was clearly frightened, rocking back and forth and muttering to herself. It was the first time I'd seen her for more than just the leader of the Rebels, and as horrible as it was, somehow it made her so much more human.
“Well, he's down here now and we have to do something about it, whether we like it or not,” James spoke up.
“And what? What are we supposed to do?”
El cleared his throat. “I suppose we could always silence him for good, but…”
“Excuse me?” Tommy snapped out of her shock just long enough to glare at him.
“I mean, let's be honest with each other. We are all thinking the same thing, aren't we?” He shrugged. “Aren't we? And someone had to say it out loud. The only way to get rid of this guy is to-” Elskan ran a finger across his neck. “Get rid of him. If we let him go, he might tell the others, and this whole sewer deal you've got going on is finished. If you lock him up or whatever, Foxglove will come looking for their lost man and they will find us. The only way out of this is to kill him and toss him outside, but neither of us is a cold-blooded murderer, unfortunately for this situation, so… that's a bummer.”
“If he was sent by Foxglove, none of this makes any sense anyway,” James interrupted his train of thought. “They would already know he's down here. Which means the only real option we have is to get out of here as quickly as possible. They could be coming any second.”
“That all actually works for his version of the story, in a way.” I had to contribute with my own opinion.
“What do you mean?”
“If he was sent as some kind of a scout to... search the sewers or whatever, he wouldn't be alone to do it. Foxglove always sends like five people at once for a patrol. One bloke doesn't make any sense at all unless he really came in peace, as he claims.”
“That could just mean we've got four other blokes you haven't seen running about the underground,” the Rebel wailed. “Jesus Christ.”
“Tony does have a point though.” James had to agree with me. “The way things stand right now, it really does seem like Foxglove either turned into the most poorly organised military group in the world or the guy has, true to his words, come alone.”
“Could it be he's telling the truth?” I whispered. “Could he be here because of his own reasons?”
“I just find it hard to believe all this. Him telling the truth would be the best outcome out of this situation, of course.”
“Except even if he is telling the truth, we can never be on the safe side unless we test him or... torture him or something.”
The silence that followed was scary. The usual noises present in the underground had disappeared as the word of an infiltration spread around and people fled the place. A drop of water fell from one of the pipes on the ceiling and splattered with a quiet splash on the floor.
“Torture is not that bad of an idea.” El rubbed his chin.
“Bollocks!” Both James and I exclaimed at the same time, and Tommy looked at him with utter disbelief and crossed her arms on her chest. “I know he's our enemy, but this is just madness. None of us will torture him!”
“No, you won't. We will torture him,” El said with a strangely sadistic calmness in his voice.
“We? Are you kidding me?” James stared at him wide-eyed, as if he couldn't believe his friend was capable of such a horrible act.
“I'm perfectly serious, James.” And leaving him no other chance to protest, El shook his head with an obvious determination and turned to face Tommy. “You've got to have some sausages down here, haven't you?”
This was such a weird turn in the conversation it took the Rebel a moment to process it. “Are you hungry or what?”
“Work with me, woman. Do you have them?”
“I'm sure we do, somewhere.” Tommy eyed the rest of us uncertainly. “Why?”
“Go with James and get a full plate of them. I want half of them ready for lunch and half of them frozen,” Elskan ordered. “Chop, chop!”
I wasn't sure if he was going mad or if the thought of violence simply whetted El's appetite so much, and judging by the look on both of our friends' faces, I was sure they must have been thinking the same thing. The urgency in his voice must have convinced them to obey, however, because in a few minutes they were back with a plate full of juicy sausages and a crowd of a few remaining Rebels in tow, lured by the unmistakable sight of a person in charge.
“Now, Tony,” it was time for my part. “I need you to get me a hypodermic needle full of water and a cloth bag. Can you do that please?”
“Erm- And where do I get that?”
“I don't know. Humans have evolved to communicate, so go and ask someone.”
“I'm not sure we have a needle down here,” Tommy remarked, clearly still sceptical as to his methods. “I think you might be mistaking us for a hospital.”
“Something sharp and pointy, then. Like a pen or a toothpick.”
By that time, I suspected he was up something.
Apart from a few individuals, the halls and tunnels of the underground were empty. It only took one soldier to shatter the valiant resistance of the sewers to pieces. Getting both the items was a lot easier than I'd expected. I got the bag from the kitchen and a beautifully sharpened pink pencil from one of the children who'd stayed behind. When I got back less than five minutes later, I could see that the outlaw was already waiting by the door, being watched by a curious crowd.
“Now I'm the one to do it. He's already afraid of me because I threw him-” He glanced at the Rebel beside us. We still hadn't told her anything of our grand escape from Lyonhall, and to add any more worries on a day like this felt especially daft. “-a tantrum.”
“Let's do it,” I tried to cover for him.
The door opened with a slow creak and as if in a scene from some twisted thriller, El took the few items I handed him and the four of us stepped in to meet the disarmed fox.
Without the helmet on I could see he was way younger than I expected, blond, short-trimmed and his blue eyes shone for just a second before I slipped the bag over his head and we sat him down on a chair. All the while he appeared a lot calmer than I would have expected from a hostage.
“Look, I know what you're trying to do, but it's not going to work. I'm telling you the truth.”
Without a word of reply, El grabbed his arm and raised the pencil and as carefully as he could, he pricked him on the arm where a medical needle would normally go.
“What are you doing? What the hell is that?” There was a hint of panic in the soldier's voice now.
“That's just some midazolam. Don't worry about it.” Elskan put the instrument away. “How about you tell us some of the story while it works through your system?”
A few seconds went by in silence. “You people are mental. I'm telling you I'm here because I want to help you.”
“Anyone could say that. Especially someone caught on an enemy territory. Give us some details.”
“Details? I told you I'm here to help. What more do you want from me?”
“I want you to stop lying and tell me the truth.” His voice was a little shaky, I noticed. El was afraid, just as all of us, he was just doing his best to hide it. “How come Foxglove soldiers are all of the sudden allowed to stroll around on their merry way around town?” he brought up the point from earlier.
“I snuck out. Some of us have quarters in some of the confiscated buildings in the centre. I'm not proud of it,” he shrugged. “It's easier to get out when you're living in your own rooms than if I was stationed at Lyonhall. Some of the blokes will even cover for you if you buy them something on the way back.”
“So you went on a little walk to get some fresh air. In the sewers.”
“I knew where I was going. I've been trying to find you for a long time,” he squirmed in his seat, trying to locate the person he was supposed to be talking to. “I have relatives in this town and they told me about some secret underground group that feeds people behind our backs. Naturally, it sounded like rubbish. I thought it was just some weird urban legend until I started digging a little deeper and realised they weren't joking. That's how I found out you exist. No one else has any idea, as far as I know. No one in the whole company. You're safe.”
I glanced up at the outlaw to see his reaction. It seemed plausible enough to me. Not to him, though.
“Alright, then. Time for the sausages,” El whispered.
Curious as to what kind of madness was about to unfold, I watched as James took the plate with all the nutritious food and raised it up as if offering it to the hooded chap, even though he obviously couldn't see it. At the same time, Elskan grabbed the unfortunate soldier's left hand and forced him to touch the plate with his palm. To this day I'm pretty positive it was one of the strangest sights I have ever witnessed.
To my surprise, the man began to scream and the rest of the interrogation went by as if in some bizarre comedy. The incredible ritual was repeated over and over about four times in a row. Each time the outlaw asked the same question, each time the man touched the plate with immediate recoil and each time he answered with the same short explanation he'd been trying to convey from the beginning.
He was there to help us.
After the fourth time, as I was beginning to wonder if what I was seeing was real, the torture stopped and I was called to action.
“I think that's enough.”
I yanked the hood off his head and the mercenary blinked in the sudden flash of light.
“So, what do you think?” Tommy asked, and Elskan rubbed his hands together as one might do after a job well done.
“Sounds plausible enough to me.”
“Did you have to do that to me?” The soldier watched each of us in turn, studying our faces before looking down to inspect his presumably injured hand, where his sight finally fell on the sausages we weren't even arsed to hide. “What's this?”
“Just something for you. It's on the house,” El said. “You guys need a lot of protein, considering all the hard work you do for the public. Beating people up in the crowds, arresting random pedestrians…” he started counting down on his fingers.
“Not all of us are assholes, you know?”
“Alright... alright.” the Rebel took the lead now. “So, what is this all about? And don't try anything daft. We still don't entirely trust you.”
“I know how to help you. I- I know what you're doing down here. You want to help people and you're trying to feed them. That's a noble cause and I really like the spirit. If you would only allow me to be a part of the process, maybe we could do even more together.”
That was more than enthusiastic and seemed to take Tommy aback for a few seconds.
“I think we're fine as it is. We have our sources.”
“Do you, though? Let me tell you something. They send me out on a patrol every single day and from what I see on the streets... If I didn't know you existed, I wouldn't even notice you doing anything. And don't take that as a slight,” he added when he saw anger flash across Tommy's face. “I'm sure you are trying to help in every way you can, but this is a big town and for every person you feed, there's a hundred of them wandering the streets without a home, living day by day like it's the Middle Ages all over again. Just last night I saw two guys go knives out over a stupid bagel.”
“Why would you care?” James was still suspicious.
“I told you I have relatives who live here. Most of the other foxes are from all over the world.” He waved his hands around, completely breaking the act of a tough guy. “We have Americans, Canadians, people from Africa and even veterans from the Middle East... Compared to all of them I'm completely green.”
The soldier stopped, staring somewhere over my left shoulder.
“I... I joined Foxglove when they came to England because I thought... If we went to war, it might be better to be a part of a private service than to be sent to the front. I had no idea we would be stationed here and doing what we're doing to people.”
“Intriguing story,” Tommy nodded along, absent-mindedly. “Now this help you're talking about. What's it supposed to be?”
“Where do I start? Unlike you, the people who work for us never have to worry about starving. We get weekly supply deliveries from London.”
That was true. Compared to the poor bastards who lived on the streets, there was always a hot meal waiting for the soldiers at their headquarters, as both I and El could confirm. We shared some of the leftovers with them during our short time in the dungeons and although I couldn't exactly compliment the chef on his skills, it was definitely the first time in a long while I felt full.
“While we are supposed to guard these deliveries from any outside sources, nobody watches the guards themselves. The blokes on duty tend to take whatever they want before the car even reaches the kitchen,” he went on. “It's not any secret and literally everyone does it, so I figured it wouldn't bother anyone if I could maybe-”
“I'm gonna go ahead and stop you right there. We don't like to meddle with the army.”
“Luckily for you, they are not an actual part of this group,” Tommy jumped in, ignoring Elskan's hurt expression. “Go on, you've got my attention.”
“It's nothing horrible,” he tried to calm the upset outlaw down. “I figured I could just try and grab something extra. It could be a full bag or two each time I get the chance… and once I tell the others about our plan and manage to recruit more like-minded colleagues we could even-”
“Alright, now calm it down on that one.” When he tried to rise, Tommy simply pushed him back into his seat and turned to us. “Let's go and talk outside again. We're done here.”
“I can't believe it worked.” Once out of the door, Elskan dropped his persona of a merciless torturer. I could see his hands shaking. “I didn't think it would…”
“That bloke was screaming like we were really hurting him.”
“Yes. That's thanks to an effect called a thermal grill illusion. I've seen it in a video before.”
“So, no witchcraft?” I asked.
No witchcraft, I can assure you, and my handsome self from the future will now try and explain what happened.
The 'thermal grill illusion' is an effect that occurs when a person presses their hand against an interwoven grid of simultaneously hot and cold bars (such as a plate of mildly warm sausages), as explained to me later. The simplicity of it is fascinating in itself and its perfectly original use in this situation is yet another proof of my new friends' brilliance.
That being said, however, while the execution in this case might have been fantastic, torture is never a good method for getting information out of someone, whether it's real or not. Not only is it terrible but also terribly unreliable. We just didn't know that at the time.
“You can look it up if you want to. It's very much a real-life thing.” El finished his explanation just as Tommy returned to us.
“That was… scary.” She smiled as her lip twitched, finally letting all of her frustration show. “And you are one hell of an actor.”
“Oh, I'm definitely not. It had some flaws, but you let a lot of that slide when you're scared for your life. We didn't even tie him to the chair or anything, and none of us noticed.”
James scratched his elbow nervously. “I've never been this close to any of them before. What now?”
“It's not fun.” El and I could attest to that. “I suppose this is it for us, and let's hope we'll never see any of them face to face ever again. As for the Rebels, I'd probably advise you to keep this place clear until the boy proves he can be trusted. If you really want to try and work with him, that is.”
“I seriously appreciate all the help, but I don't need you telling me how to run my underground.”
That clearly wasn't a reaction the outlaw had expected. “Damn…”
“That might have been a little too extreme. I blame the fox for that one.”
“What are you going to do with him?”
“That plan he's got doesn't sound like it would help us with anything. While two bags of food every now and then could be nice, compared to the amounts we get from some of our other sponsors, it's pretty negligible. Having an actual soldier from the army on our side can't be for nothing, though, and I've already got some better ideas on how to use him.” She stretched out her hands excitedly. “Despite everything, this might end up being a pretty great day and, guys, erm… cheers. Seriously. I wouldn't know what to do without you.”
“It's been our pleasure.” James smiled.
“If there's anything else I can do for you…”
“Oh, yeah… we're here to pick up some maps, if you don't mind.”
On our way out, with my hands full of freshly printed papers, I lagged behind and stopped James at the door. There was something I needed to ask.
“I just can't wrap my head around this one thing.” I said. “Why the sausages? Why all the fuss and flare about it? Now that I finally have the time to think, there's a million easier ways to do it.”
“Well, Tony, there's something you need to understand about Elskan and I'm surprised you haven't noticed it yet.” James looked down the length of the tunnel at the departing outlaw. “If he can't do things as theatrically as possible, there's no damn point doing them at all.”
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Back home in the camp, we had a lot to talk about; the open-minded soldier and the fright he'd given us in the tunnels understandably became a big part of the conversation, but the main topic came when El called out to the whole group and gathered us all in the kitchen.
“Hey, Will! And everyone if you have a moment.”
“I've got one more thing to talk about today. You asked me in the morning if we belong to the Rebels and I promised I would think on it.”
“Yeah. We honestly thought you'd just forgotten about it.” Will frowned.
“Well, I did, initially, but it just came back to me and after a careful evaluation I think we should let the Rebels be the Rebels and remain our own thing, the way we like it.”
The statement was met with a wholesome agreement.
“They are cool and all,” Elskan went on, explaining his reasoning. “Tommy provides us with side quests and they gave us all these awesome things,” he gestured around the kitchen. “But they are a little too... how do I say this nicely?”
“Pissing their pants to try something more dangerous?” Mark tried to help him. “The boy scouts of modern England?”
“Boy scouts of modern England! That's a good one. And I feel like we are a little too badass to be scouts. We are the outlaws, after all. Everyone agrees?”
Another cheer from everyone in the room followed.
“And to celebrate the creation of our self-sufficient, independent group, I think we should get ourselves a name.”
“A name? We have names.” James pointed to his chest. “James, Tony, Will...”
“Yes. But I was thinking more of a group name, like the Rebels have. In the light of the recent discussions, I figured we could get our own identity to show that we are a separate thing. Like a band or something.”
“Like a group of superheroes?” Manny's eyes lit up.
“Yes! But no. We can't be superheroes. No one would take us seriously.”
“We are pretty merry...” I took the moment to share my sudden brilliant idea. “So how about the Merry Men?”
Everyone stopped in their tracks and there was a complete silence for a few seconds before the kitchen erupted into laughter.
“What kind of a daft name is that?” Will grinned at me as James nodded in agreement. “I think I'm usually a pretty nice bloke, but even I have to say that wasn't the best suggestion.”
“I understand,” I muttered under my breath. “I'll take that to my grave.”
Forest Gumps was yet another suggestion, along with the Jackdaws and a quite ambitious Night Watchmen. None of them seemed to strike the right chords, though, and what was originally a little more than a fun way to spend our evening soon grew into a serious debate. Names were being thrown left and right and the longer we discussed, the more we seemed to get caught up in the whole mess, until finally El decided to put an end to it.
“Alright…” he said, slamming down on the table. “This might have been a pretty horrible idea. If I'd known I was living with the most unoriginal bunch of outlaws anyone has ever seen, I would have chosen something myself.”
“As if that would be any better.” James aroused another wave of laughter.
“Fine.” El chuckled to himself as he stood up to turn on the TV. “Maybe rest a little and think on it then. There's no need to rush things. In the end, I'm sure we'll figure out something we can all be proud of.”ns22.214.171.124da2