I’m not a hero. I don’t look like a hero, I don’t sound like a hero, my balls are not made of steel or even of an inferior softer metal. I’m not even remotely qualified for what I needed to do. But no one else would do it. Not because I’m unique in any way, but because nobody knows anything at all about what has to be done, or has means to make a difference. 

But the choice was not difficult. Actually there wasn’t really much of a choice. If I do it – I might survive. If I don’t – I will most likely not. So I had to try, if only to maximize my own chances of survival. So if I said that I decided to do it entirely for altruistic reasons, I would be lying. I really wanted to argue my way out of single-handedly going against armed terrorists with nuclear weapons. And I was scared shitless. But the truth was simple: I wanted to live, and if I could save others in the process of saving myself – it would be a bonus. Having a personal bulletproof shield also made this decision easier. Not that it wouldn’t still be dangerous, but at least it might not be outright suicidal. 

Soon we stopped at Timmies. It looked virtually empty. The quiet inside was only occasionally interrupted by the whirring and buzzing of the robo-chef. We quickly punched out our orders on the table’s surface, which Tia gracefully offered to pay for, as I still didn’t have any cash. 

While we were waiting for our meal I told Tia a condensed version of the whole story and its consequences. All in all, she took it well. She was silent for a couple of minutes and by the time we were buzzed to pick up our food, she started asking some very relevant questions.

“Art, are you sure you can trust Theo?” she said, biting into her curry chicken wrap. “Some things don’t add up in the story you just told. Do you realize that?”

“Look, Tia,” I said, thoughtfully sipping my coffee, “I have to decide if I can trust Theo’s information, and act accordingly. He could be the real deal, or otherwise, he could have been on the Horsemen’s side, trying to use me to advance their agenda. He has one thing going for him though: when push came to shove he shot at them and they killed him. So it doesn’t look like he was on their side, although I cannot entirely rule that out.”

“But if they had the artifact under surveillance, why didn’t they kill Theo when he was there? They made quite an effort to kill you after all.”

“I actually have a theory about that. As I have learned from the files, the next Progress Report is due to be transmitted home by the ship’s AI some time soon. And it would include information about the murders, which would create a huge scandal and the Horsemen’s operation would be blown. The plan would most likely still work, but I bet they would rather not turn their whole civilization into pariahs. They had to prevent the report from being sent. Having inferior technology they might not be able to hack the AI or destroy the ship. But if they would have captured one of the Advancers alive, he could possibly be persuaded to command the AI to hold the report or delete it altogether. Maybe also give them access to his ship, so the Horsemen could blow it up the old-school way, by planting explosives inside, or something like that. This might also explain why Theo had managed to escape alive while others could not: he was spared to be used for blocking the Progress Report transmission, but had managed to elude captivity.”

“But you are saying that they did actually kill Theo, why would they do a stupid thing like that if they needed him alive?”

I shrugged. “I suppose they killed Theo only because he started shooting first. They could not just stand there and die. They must have hoped to capture him alive in a surprise attack, but when it went south they had to react.”

“No, I don’t get it. Why would they let him go when he had showed up near the artifact? They tried to ram you and shoot you and kill you in several different and creative ways, and then they let him go? Just like that?” She sounded sceptical.

“I was a nuisance, so they’d rather have me killed, but Theo had to be apprehended alive, and remember, they only have four people on the whole planet. They would have hoped for their AI to tail him to where he lived, where they could apprehend him easily. Then I suppose either he had outsmarted them, or they had actually tracked him after all (and not me as Theo suggested), eventually coming to the cabin.”

“Hmm, I reckon you’re assuming quite a lot of things. Are you sure about that?”

“Tia, look at it this way: yes, I know that Theo may have engineered the whole thing. After all, those aliens had actually designed their bodies to pass as humans, and they have something that we can only call superpowers, including an almost superhuman ability to persuade people, which they have been using for centuries. I fully realize that if he wanted to, he could have convinced me that nuking Earth was the greatest idea since sliced bread. But even if we suppose for a moment that Theo was an evil mastermind, I don’t see how it changes anything.

If my theory is correct, I should act as if Theos information was veracious. Let me try to explain why. Even supposing he had organized the whole thing and as a result had manipulated me into acting in his interests, there is only one good outcome of radical Islamic terrorists coming here with nuclear weapons: somebody stopping them before they turn half the continent into a radioactive wasteland. Anything else would end badly. So if the ship and the weapons are real – I see no problem with stopping them, whatever his motive may be. As long as we prevent World War III and a billion deaths – I’m OK with whatever his hidden agenda could be. He might be an angel from space or the devil himself. Either way, I have to try and stop the apocalypse from happening.”

“OK, I see what you mean. So why are we going to wherever we are going?” 

“Ah! There is another important conclusion: as Theo is dead now, they might have stopped watching the artifact. Or at least it would be the last place they would expect me to go. And knowing what it is now, this is exactly where I’m going!”

“Don’t forget that I’m going with you. That is non-negotiable! But I have one more question. I’m sure you have thought about it, I know I would, but I can’t figure out why the hell aren’t you  just calling the police, the Pentagon or whatever authority you hate less. I mean, it’s one thing to tell about some invisible wall in the forest, they might not take you seriously, but it’s a completely different thing to leave a specific tip about nuclear weapons and terrorists arriving  on board a certain vessel. They would act on that, most likely. One squad of special forces in a helicopter would stop a civilian ship dead in the water. And there you go, apocalypse averted! Why the hell not? It certainly has better chances of success than a mad escapade of a geek and his girl”.

She bit her tongue and blushed.

“His girl?” I said, smiling.

“Oh, stop it. It was just a figure of speech. Geez, don’t get your hopes up.”

I kinda did get my hopes up, as it didn’t sound entirely convincing. It would be nice if we had a future, that is if we – and the Earth – survive this first. Tia was an amazing girl, almost too good to be true. I really had no idea such girls really existed. So I awkwardly said something to that effect. She blushed even more, and so had I. Such awkwardness coming from two adults was cute, I guess, if observed from the outside. But from the inside, I felt, once again, like a total idiot. I then defused the situation by telling a lame joke and we both chose to pretend this never happened. 

After we were done with our meal, I went outside to the empty parking lot with the gun case in my hand, while Tia made a detour to the ladies room. We didn’t have a lot of distance to cover, and I decided to check my rifle and make sure it was ready and loaded, just in case I needed it when I’m there. Making sure nobody was watching, I opened the case and stared inside in disbelief. There were two rifles in the case. And while the first one was a familiar sniper rifle I brought with me, the second one was a freaking Tavor TAR-21 mark IV assault rifle, with an electronic night vision zoom active scope, a suppressor, and several high capacity magazines neatly arranged in the foam around it. Holy shit!

I carefully closed the case and waited for Tia. She must have seen my face and asked “What’s wrong?” in a worried voice.

“Tia, why is there a special forces spec automatic assault rifle in your bag? I know a girl’s bag is  a proverbial Pandora’s box and can contain everything, but I did not expect that! I know you can’t get something like this in a gun store. I doubt you can even get it on the black market. You owe me an explanation. Now. Before we go any further.”

Her face went pale and had a painful expression on it.

“Shit! Art, don’t freak out, let me explain.” She said frantically, waving her hands in a stopping motion, with her palms turned towards me, as if to calm me down. It didn’t work. Then she paused, looked me in the eyes and continued. I saw a momentary spark in her eyes, signifying something important, but I had no idea what at that time. She said the following words slowly, emphasizing their significance, as if she wanted me to get more that she was actually saying. 

“Believe me, I wanted to tell you earlier, but I couldn’t. I was not allowed to. Now the situation dictates that I actually have to tell you the truth so that you remain cooperative and we continue towards our goal together. This truth is not going to be pleasant. But in a way I am glad that you found out.” 

All that went completely above my head at the time and I was totally clueless about what she was trying to say. Now that I think of it, it looks very likely that it was not an accident that I was left alone with a gun case and was able to discover her weapon. Let’s just leave it at that for the moment. Having said that phrase in a “you-know-what-I-mean” voice (which I didn’t of course), she continued in her normal voice.

“So here we go: when you said that you didn’t know before that girls like me exist, and that I am too good to be true – you weren’t exactly wrong. I like you, Art, I really do, but I’m not the girl you think I am. I’m with the ETTF and I was tailing you when we met. It wasn’t a coincidence. I was selected because I was your type, my appearance was carefully designed to get your attention. We hacked our way into your computer, and let’s just say we know your taste in girls, skipping the embarrassing details. I played the part as well as I could. I do like you, make no mistake about it, but I was on a mission.”

“But… The bus? How? And what the hell is the ETTF?”

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