I clicked on the email.
All it said was “You know what to do,” and underneath that sentence there was a link to a Dropbox folder. I hesitated for a moment and then clicked on it. It opened to a web page that listed only one file in folder. It was called “Exposure.mpv.”
I’d heard of the video format. It only ran on the associated player and only worked once. No one knew who had designed it. The Double V forums were certain it was a known tech genius, but couldn’t agree on who.
Daniel’s bed creaked, and I heard him walk up behind me as I sat at the desk. “Maybe we should get Izzy. It’s only going to play once, and she’s got a great memory for sounds.”
“I can record it on anything that the PV player isn’t installed on,” I said. “Which means that the stealth suit works.”
“It still might be good to get a few of us in here in case the viral version messes things up.”
I considered arguing with him, but he was right.
About twenty minutes later, the room felt a lot smaller. We hadn’t called everyone, but we had filled the room. The laptop sat on the stone desk. I stood next to it, so as not to get in anyone’s way.
We’d ended up with almost all of the League that was in Stapledon plus a couple. Izzy stood off to the side with Daniel. Haley, Camille, Rachel, and Tara sat on my bed. Samita, Rod, Jaclyn and Courtney sat on Daniel’s. Travis stood next to the wall to my left next to Cassie. We were only missing Amy and Vaughn–and not for lack of trying. We’d already stuffed thirteen people in the room. Why not try for fifteen?
Cassie frowned, tapped her phone, and put it in her pocket. “You might as well show it. They’re ignoring us or they’re in one of the dead zones.”
I leaned across the desk and pressed play.
Adam appeared on the screen. He wore a black t-shirt, and sat on a wide bed. A picture of a field of yellow flowers hung on the white wall behind the bed. It looked like a hotel to me.
Adam’s mouth twitched, almost turning into a smile. “Hi Nick, and whoever else happens to watch this. There are some things that you have to know. First, I should apologize for setting the dragon on you. I didn’t have many allies capable of keeping the program busy except him, and well, it got out of hand. I didn’t expect him to try to kill anybody. I knew it was a risk, but I definitely didn’t expect him to hurt you that badly. I’m sorry. That’s what happens with allies though. You can’t ever quite trust them, but that could happen to anybody, right?”
“I’m sure,” Cassie muttered.
Adam grinned. “Now that we’ve taken care of the apology, I’ll explain what I was doing. I told you part of it in Earthmover’s dungeons, but now I’m going to give you the big picture. The Nine have their fingers everywhere–government, businesses, hero teams… Everyone knows it or at least fears it, but we haven’t been able to do much about it. The Nine kills anyone who gets very far.”
The picture wobbled as he backed up to lean his back against the bed’s headboard. “Sorry. Just a second… Where was I? Right. My plan. I’ve been searching for the chance to burn the Nine out somewhere and rebuild clean. The Coffeeshop Illuminati wanted the same thing, so we’ve been working together. Turkmenistan fell right into our lap, Especially once you created plans to take it over, it almost became easier to try it than not to.”
Courtney muttered something to Jaclyn. I didn’t catch most of it, but I did hear the word “bastard.” She turned away from Jaclyn to stare at the screen. Her mouth tightened.
Unaware, Adam continued, “Once the Illuminati and I decided which of your plans we’d use, I knew I’d have to keep you out of it. You and the teachers both. One word from the Rocket or any of the legacy League members, and Turkmenistan would be over. Whoever came up with those plans could shut us down so quickly I don’t want to think about it.
“So I used the fae to turn Denver into chaos while the VIP’s were here for the demo. That drew the teachers off. Then there was the compound itself. For that, I used Artaxus. The Unseelie Court has wanted a foothold in the mortal world for years. He wouldn’t be able to say no, and he didn’t. ”
Adam grinned. “And now none of it matters because we won. Turkmenistan’s in the hands of people we can trust. I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it’s not as if it won’t be on the news. Well maybe the fact that we’re pulling the strings won’t be on the news, but I’m sure you hate the Nine as much as we do. I hope you don’t distrust me enough to bring them back into power.
“Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I sent this to you at all. The answer is that I have a mission for you. Your mission is to go find out how deeply the Nine have infiltrated. They’ve been involved for years. Fortunately, you’ve got people you can ask. Ask Mindstryke or the Rhino about whether the world’s heroes have connections in the Nine. Dr. Nation might know too. After that, ask youselves if you can trust the traditional superhero community. If you can’t, talk to the Coffeeshop Illuminati. I’ve found them to be completely outside the Nine’s control.”
Then he said, “That’s all, folks!”
The screen went black.
Travis rolled his eyes. “That was obvious bullshit. If we had connections to the Nine, I think we would have noticed by now.”
I leaned over and closed out the browser window with the video. “It could be that there haven’t been many clues. When we went to rescue Cassie from Rook, there was this guy in Rook’s headquarters named Prentkoss or something like that. He was a Polish speedster. A hero. But he was fighting me with Rook’s people. I’ve always wondered why he was there. Direct connections between heroes and the Nine would explain it.”
Travis frowned. “Damn. Do you think it might be the Dominators? You know the Nine use them.”
I sat on the desk next to my laptop. “I don’t know. It could be, but I looked the guy up afterward. He’s still in Poland fighting crime. There’s no record of any scandal around him. In fact, he fought the aliens back in the 70s with our grandparents. There are pictures with him. He was on a Warsaw Pact team back then.”
Jaclyn sat up a little straighter on the bed, trying to meet everyone’s eyes. “I don’t think we’ve got a choice about pursuing this. I’ll ask my grandpa if he remembers Prentkoss when we get home. ”
A knock came from the door. Daniel said, “That’s Amy and Vaughn.”
Rod got up, and let them in. “You missed the video, but Nick said he was recording it.”
Vaughn cocked his head. “You recorded the Turkmenistan press conference? I’m sure it’s on Youtube by now.”
“Press conference?” I asked.
Cassie talked over me. “Not the press conference. I texted you about it.”
Vaughn shook his head as the door shut behind him. “I didn’t read the texts. We were busy watching the press conference on TV. The Illuminati aren’t taking over. They’re handing over the reins to local people.”
Amy brushed a bit of red hair out of her face. “I read the texts. We were on the way here, but we stopped in the lobby to watch the press conference. It’s not good news. I recognized one of the ‘local’ people they’re handing the country off to. It’s from my end of Faerie. In fact, I’ve fought it.”
Samita’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve fought it?”
Amy faltered. “Not me, precisely… I remember bits of the lives of all the other Bloodmaidens. It’s not exactly under my control, but I don’t need it to be. I’d remember that creature even if I weren’t the Bloodmaiden. He’s legendary. He was one of the creatures the first Bloodmaiden fought. He’s called ‘The Thing That Eats’.”
Rod shook his head. “And with a name like that, you know he’s not friendly.”
Amy laughed a little too hard. “Not in the least.”
Samita’s mouth dropped open. “The fae have a foothold. They didn’t get one here, but the Coffeeshop Illuminati gave them one there.”
Rachel’s voice cut through the conversation. “Nick, Vaughn and Amy should hear Adam’s message. You did record it, right?”
I had. It had more pops and bits of static than I would have expected, but the stealth suit had managed to record it.
I played it for them, and the group talked more.
We talked all night.