Part Three: Airborne
David Bernard shivers in his seat and tries not to show it. The cargo plane isn’t particularly well insulated or heated—enough to keep them from freezing to death, but not much more than that. LaFleur emerges from the cockpit, nods to David, and motions for him to follow as he passes. David gets up, stretches, and follows LaFleur into the cargo area. It’s even colder here. LaFleur, characteristically, doesn’t look the slightest bit uncomfortable.
“It’s time to tell you what we’re doing,” he says.
David nods once and pulls out his notepad from his vest.
“We’re going to try to get to Port Libertad,” LaFleur says. “Unfortunately, there’s no available map, and a compass is going to be useless, but it’s on the west side of the island…”
“Why no map?” David asks.
“Because the island isn’t actually here.”
David looks up sharply. “It isn’t here?”
LaFleur nods. “It’s my fault, I’m afraid.”
David stops writing and puts his notepad away. “Maybe you should talk a little before I start taking notes.”
LaFleur nods. “Quite. Well, once upon a time there was a lovely island in the Caribbean called Esperanza—that means ‘Hope’ in Spanish. That’s what attracted me to it. That, and a very unstable government…”
David shakes his head. “I’ve never heard of this island.”
“There’s no reason you would,” LaFleur says. “I’ll explain. Just… bear with me until then.”
“In those days I was… not the man I am today. I had the same ideal—the same desire to save the world from its own destruction—but I was willing to do whatever I deemed necessary to achieve it. In the 60s I decided the best way to show the world I was serious was to run my own country. So Overmind conquered Esperanza, and the United States found itself having to deal with Cuba and a country run by a ‘supervillain.’ They did not react well.”
“I’ll bet,” David says.
“I managed to get a little breathing room in the beginning. I made public proclamations against communism, and for a while that was enough to keep the United States away. It wasn’t hard to do—I had no particular love for the Soviet Union and certainly opposed its expansionist policies, not in the least because they conflicted with mine. I was content to wait, however—I focused on the country I had, worked on rebuilding it, modernizing it, educating the citizenry. I did well. Esperanza became a source of envy the world over… which wound up causing even more problems. The civilized world is willing to tolerate a despot, so long as he rules over squalor. If he should build anything of any lasting value… well, then he suddenly becomes dangerous.”
When he was on the force, David had access to plenty of files on Overmind. His tactics were considered unusual—he showed a great deal of restraint for a criminal, always working to minimize civilian casualties, and on more than one occasion abandoning an operation when it became apparent that continuing would result in significant loss of life. There was significantly less information on what he, personally, could do: he was definitely a metahuman, and appeared to possess an abnormally high intellect. There were also reports of him being able to teleport (something David had seen first-hand) and alter his appearance (something David had not, at least to his knowledge). Little else was known, but in every report there was one point that never wavered.
“I’m pretty sure they always thought you were dangerous.”
LaFleur smiles thinly. “Perhaps. They weren’t wrong. But the timing was inconvenient—Esperanza was working. There were dissidents, but very few. People were genuinely better off. Disease was falling. Infant mortality was virtually non-existent. Most of the latest generation were well-educated. I was winning diplomatically, and I was making enemies determined to undermine all of it.”
It’s the first time David has ever seen LaFleur angry. His voice, usually mild and courteous, is hard and unyielding. All emotion fades from his face, but his eyes are very, very sharp.
“It wasn’t only the CIA. They were quite good at destabilizing countries at the time, of course, but there were others who had a similar interest. I’d been expecting this, but I didn’t expect all of them at once. Suddenly I found my country and my people—I’d starting thinking of them as my people at that point—engulfed in chaos and suffering. I took drastic measures: I offered amnesty to any metahuman criminal who was willing to fight for my country and follow my rules. This was an imperfect solution, of course—most criminals are criminals precisely because they possess qualities that make them poor employees—but for the most part I was able to direct their energies away from my people. Still, it wasn’t enough. I needed more. That’s when I discovered magic.”
LaFleur sighs. “Rather, that’s when it discovered me. I didn’t really know what it was in those days. I didn’t believe in it. I thought that old stories of witches and wizards and spells were the result of ignorant, fearful men and women persecuting metahumans who didn’t quite understand what they were. There’s probably more truth to it than not, but one day I was approached by a robed man who offered to give me access to powers ‘unknown by mortal men.’ I was intrigued, not the least since he’d somehow managed to slip past my security undetected. I agreed to become his student. I expected little of it. But he was right—he introduced me to power I have never seen equaled, either before or since.”
“I thought you said people who use magic don’t share their knowledge freely,” David says.
“They don’t,” LaFleur says. “But I didn’t know it at the time. The man who became my teacher claimed he wanted Esperanza to prosper. I believed him, and began to learn. I learned a great deal, became quite powerful, and suddenly the enemies who had tried to bring me down in secret were forced to step into the open. Almost thirty years after I had taken over that island and recast it in my own image, I learned that an invasion force was massing against me. I had little time to prepare or react—barely enough time to try to evacuate the island before the armies came down on us. That’s when my teacher suggested a spell that would call forth an army out of the oceans—a spell that would unleash a power into the world that I could wield to defend my island.”
He falls silent then, and looks away.
“What happened?” David prompts.
“I trusted him,” LaFleur says. “So I cast the spell. It was… extraordinarily difficult. It didn’t occur to me to be suspicious when my teacher just happened to have all the materials we needed for the ritual. It didn’t occur to me to be suspicious when other ‘students’ of his appeared to assist us in the casting. I was too focused on saving my island. So I cast the spell, and then I went to my room and that’s when the news came in.”
LaFleur’s gaze grows distant.
“Out of the oceans they came. Their numbers were legion. The first news reports were alarming, but people thought they could be contained. Initial forays by the military were encouraging. The creatures weren’t immortal. They could be killed. But they could kill in turn, and they kept coming. That’s what I had called forth: an unending wave of hungering things, intent on devouring the world. There were more of them than there were weapons. There were already reports of nuclear powers turning their arsenals on their own coastlines in a desperate attempt to stop them…”
His eyes glisten.
“I do not consider myself a good man, Lieutenant. I am not a hero. And then—in those days I was far worse than I am now. But even then, my overriding passion was to prevent the world from being destroyed by men who had the ability and willingness to create mustard gas and everything that followed. And yet, for all my desire to prevent that destruction, I had just destroyed the world myself. And in doing so, I finally recognized exactly what magic was: a power anathema to our world, a power that could not love, could not dream, could not know mercy or laughter or justice. It was not a tool that could be used to save the world, it was merely a weapon for destroying it.”
“You talk like it’s alive,” David says.
“It is,” LaFleur says. “Not in the way you and I live. It is far more alien than that. I told you once before, magic is as much a religion as it is a discipline—the magician wants magic to serve him, to be the tool he uses to get what he wants, but in order to do that he must find a way to get magic to serve him while remaining true to its own nature. To do this, the magician must study that nature. This often drives them mad.”
“When I learned what I’d done,” LaFleur says, “I set about undoing it. It wasn’t easy. Magic does not like to be unraveled—the more powerful the spell, the more it resists unraveling. The spell we had just cast was… very powerful. The only way I knew to save the world was to escalate the atrocity against it.”
“What did you do?” David asks.
“I had been a voracious student of magic,” LaFleur says. “I was a fool, I didn’t understand it, at its core, but I was very good at using it. And I’d long since been unwilling to restrict myself to my teacher’s lessons. Once I learned about magic I made it my business to collect as much lore as I could. I had a spell so terrible I kept it in my private vault only to ensure nobody else ever used it. That is what I cast.”
“But what did you do?”
“I unmade them,” LaFleur says. He looks old, his face craggy with guilt and resolve. “The spell changed time. At the moment this universe came to be, something shifted in just the right way to prevent the island from even being formed. There is no Esperanza in this world, there never was. Only a remnant of that island remains—the last day of its life, looping endlessly, occasionally appearing in this world to trap unwary travelers. A boat disappears, a plane disappears, and they call it the Bermuda Triangle. But they don’t remember Esperanza. I am the only man alive to remember the island that was there, and the people who were on it.”
David turns away from the man’s grief.
“We need knowledge,” LaFleur says, pushing on. “Curveball’s encounter with the rune-covered man is troubling. Healing is not normally within magic’s nature. If it can heal a man, that effect is incidental to its true purpose, and if its incidental effect is as powerful as Curveball claims, then its true purpose must be terrifying. I have—had—an extensive library on the island. In my palace, in the mountains overlooking the capital. We need those books.”
A buzzer sounds, and a yellow light set over the door begins blinking.
“We’re almost at the jump point,” LaFleur says. “Let’s get ready.”
They get into their parachutes and check their gear. LaFleur looks painfully frail in his parachute.
“You’re a metahuman,” David says. “The files I read on you say you teleport. Why don’t you just teleport onto the island?”
LaFleur smiles lightly. “Physics, mostly. I can’t shed velocity. If I’m traveling in a plane moving at two to three hundred miles an hour, and I teleport to a fixed point, I will still be traveling at two to three hundred miles an hour. It’s a common limitation with teleporters. It wouldn’t end well.”
“No,” David agrees. “All right. Anything else?”
“Yes,” LaFleur says. He stares at David intently. “And it’s very important. I’ve already said that magic is alive, after a fashion. It adapts. That means the spell that I originally cast—the one that sought to remove the island from reality altogether—has very likely changed, and has become the thing that is preserving what is left of it. That means it will react to intruders.”
“Send goons after us?” David asks. “Cultists?”
“No,” LaFleur says. “Too complicated. The simplest thing to do would be to absorb us into itself. Trap us in its world. You’ll need to be wary of that possibility. Fight it.”
“OK… sounds fun.” David checks the straps to his parachute for the seventh time. LaFleur does the same.
“If it’s become the thing I think it is, it will seek to minimize and assimilate disruption. After we jump it’s likely we’ll be separated.” The plane labors suddenly as it gains altitude—setting them up for the jump. LaFleur has to raise his voice to be heard over the engines. “I’m sorry for that. It’s going to be a difficult transition…”
David gives him the thumbs up to show he understands.
“Try to go to Port Libertad,” LaFleur says. “From there, take the highway to the capital. Go to the public library. We’ll meet there.”
The flashing yellow light turns red.