It starts with the Rodin.
After a job gone south, too many people and too many cameras, they’re back in Andy’s mine until Copley can scrub their tracks. Nile shakes out a bedroll and sighs when she sits down, though it’s been close to a year since she has experienced soreness. She’s starting to forget what it feels like, pain that lasts longer than a flaring white instant.
Beside her, lantern light plays over bronze. The bust seems almost to breathe. “It belongs in a museum,” Nile says, mostly to herself.
Andy looks up from where Joe is helping her change bandages. “No,” she says.
Nile was joking, and she’s certain at this point that they get most of her pop culture references and they’re just feigning ignorance. But at Andy’s flat affect, she finds she isn’t joking anymore. “It’s a piece of history, Andy. It should be seen. The last time a genuine Rodin was out there was 2008, and it went to a private buyer.”
“That’s not a piece of history,” says Andy, tearing off the end of the tape over her dressing. “That’s me. Those are my breasts.”
Nile bites her lip against the reflex to laugh, and catches Nicky doing the same behind the book he’s pretending to read. “Well,” she tries, “you can’t take them with you?”
For a minute all is stillness, and a flame flickers in Andy’s narrowed eyes. Then she drops her head, but not before Nile sees the smile making her cheekbones pop. Joe snickers and gets up, wiping his hands.
“Witnessing?” Andy says.
“Witnessing, boss,” says Joe, and Nicky sets the book aside to watch.
Andy gets out the airline-serving-size bottle of shitty grain alcohol they keep in the first aid kit. She doesn’t drink much these days, either because Booker’s not around, or because her liver doesn’t regenerate anymore.
“My oath,” Andy says, uncapping the bottle.
Nile sits up straighter, hands on her knees. Whatever this is, much like the mine, it goes back a long way.
“Upon my final death, I bequeath Andronika to Nile Freeman, to donate to whichsoever institution--”
“The Art Institute of Chicago.”
“To the Art Institute of Chicago,” Andy echoes, “so that my breasts may be culturally appreciated in perpetuity.”
She tips the bottle and lets out three drops. As they fall to the stone floor, Joe and Nicky rap their knuckles on the nearest pieces of metal: the other lantern for Nicky, the oxidized helmet for Joe. One rap for each drop. In another time, they might have struck their swords on shields.
Andy downs the rest of the bottle and lays back on her bedroll with a grunt. The charge that filled the room fades back into antiquity. “If they ask,” Andy says, “the provenance is inside the base. He wrote me a letter. Or Rilke did, and he just signed it.”
Nile is already reaching for the bust. “You don’t get to read it until I’m dead,” Andy warns. Nile lets her hand drop.
When she dreams that night, it might be Andy dreaming for all of them: spears and shields and alabaster forms that inhale and exhale as they are carved out into freedom.
Nile wakes in perfect darkness in the mine, but she can feel the way forward.
“It seems,” says Copley, “somehow off-brand.”
“Is brand a thing we’re worried about?” Joe asks.
Copley lifts both hands, conceding this. “I only mean it's a higher profile than usual.”
He has taken down the link boards--or at least the old contents of the link boards, now that he has primary sources who will answer all his questions. Instead, pins and strings web across a map of Europe, tracing human trafficking rings to smugglers in international waters. There are a handful of pins around the coast of England that have all been no-joy results.
Nile stands straight. She is not here for Copley’s permission, but if anyone involved has doubts, it jeopardizes the entire job. “When I joined up, I was told we fight for what we believe is right.”
Copley glances to the brief she gave him, and then, with deference, to Andy.
“It’s Nile’s job,” says Andy, “start to finish. But we’re all in.”
Copley nods at Nile. “I’ll get you what you need.”
They start with the stun batons. Those arrive in four high impact black plastic cases, two batons each, cushioned in anti-static foam. They’re shorter and lighter than an M4, but they do have a weight to them. Still, the others look dubious as Nile distributes them in Copley’s back garden.
“The guards and cops will shoot to kill,” she says, “so cover Andy.”
“You’re not going to tell me to sit this one out?” Andy jabs experimentally with one baton.
Nile shakes her head. “No one’s Greek is better, anyway,” says Joe.
Andy grimaces. “Which will be useful when we start an international incident.”
“We will be properly armed once it’s all over, yes?” Nicky says.
“Copley’s handling the transport of your gear,” Nile assures him. “Turn the voltage down to minimum with the dial on the pommel. It shouldn’t-- fuck!” Even on low and through her jeans, it sears her skin, rattles every nerve, and finally numbs her leg. She drops to the turf.
“You okay, Nile?” They’re all standing over her, and even though their expressions show only concern, she’s never felt so judged in her life.
“Great,” she pants through her locked jaw. Andy helps her up, and Nile limps on her own a few steps and turns away to wipe the sweat off her face. “Pair off. And don’t fall into Copley’s irises if you can help it.”
She turns back to find Joe and Andy already dancing. Nicky attempts, poorly, to juggle his batons as he waits. “When you’re ready,” he tells her.
Nile nods. She made it to green belt in the MCMAP, and the knife skills will probably translate. She assumes a stance, powering through the pins and needles in her leg. At least the burn has already healed.
Nicky moves forward with his right arm classically en garde. Nile hasn’t even shifted her weight before he’s in and past, hitting her gut hard enough to bruise if she still did that kind of thing. But without using the shock, all he’s done is piss her off. When he starts to turn, Nile reverses her grip and gets him in the small of the back.
He stumbles, but keeps his feet under him. “I just hit you!”
“If you don’t zap me, it’s not a hit.”
“Do you think Joe and Andy are zapping each other?”
But no sooner does he protest than they hear an electric crackle, and then a cackle from Andy. Nile isn’t sure whether it means she was giving or receiving, and she’s too afraid to check. “Come on, man.”
“Okay,” he says, and he does, left hand leading. Nile lands a hit over his median nerve as he starts to move behind her.
She slaps the baton out of his right hand, but of course now he’s only fifty percent less armed. With considerably more dexterity than he demonstrated while juggling, Nicky tosses the baton from his numbed left hand to his right, which is already in position over her other shoulder. It’s smooth but it leaves her access to his side, so Nile stuns him between the ribs just as he brings his baton down on her shoulder and puts her arm out of commission.
They both fall to the grass to recover. Shit, it hurts. “That was good,” Nicky laughs.
From the other end of the lawn, Joe groans, “I will find something you love and I will kill it.”
Nile looks up at the sky and waits to get feeling back in her arm. “You weren’t much older than me when you died the first time, were you?”
“Not much. I was thirty,” Nicky says. “Joe was thirty-three. I thought it was terribly symbolic at the time.” He’s already rolling back to his feet. “Did you know Søren Kierkegaard’s father believed all his children would die by the age of thirty-three?”
Oh, here it comes. “You knew Kierkegaard.”
Nicky reaches down to haul her up. “He and Joe liked the same cafe. Such bleak conversation. They don’t get enough sun in Denmark. Go again?”
They circle a little, and Nile isn’t sure whether that’s a sign that she’s getting more cautious, or she just has less to prove. She tries a couple feints, but he doesn't fall for them. “Why did you go off to war?”
“Which time?” Nicky asks, sidestepping her real attack and tazing her between the shoulderblades.
Elbows on knees, Nile stops to catch her breath. “You know. Don’t tell me it was too long ago to remember.”
“It wasn’t. When enough people say something is the will of God, you start to believe it, above what you know is true. I believed it enough to leave a place where the only thing I had to do was show love, and go to a place where the only thing I could do was kill.”
Nile straightens, and faces him. Nicky watches her evenly. “Why did you go off to war, Nile?”
I didn’t, she wants to say, and, it wasn’t war, but it sticks in her throat. What would she gain from lying to herself now?
To avoid the answer, she kicks out his knee and sticks a baton beneath his collarbone. He yanks her down too, even as the shock makes his teeth chatter. Nile starts to crawl away but Nicky’s baton finds the back of her calf, and pain and numbness shoot upward. “You thought it was right,” he coughs.
She thought she was honoring her father. She thought she could do good.
“But then you see the truth,” Nicky says, “and you start to question whether you have discernment at all.”
She couldn’t have done good there. But if she hadn’t gone to war, she would never have made it to this life.
He gets up, and Nile’s leg is still useless, so she staggers over on one knee and stuns the top of his foot, and Nicky sits down in the grass. “These are fun,” he says, setting the batons aside. Nile is starting to like them too.
“I know what’s right,” she tells him. She has discernment.
Nicky nods. “I know you do.”
“Go again,” Nile says, and they do.
This is the easy part. Once the crates come in, she has to teach them how to move marble without chipping it.
The guards, it turns out, are nothing to write home about. It’s the Chinook that really draws attention, sitting on the roof of the British Museum in the middle of the night, bold as you please.
There’s no way around that. It takes a full hour to remove everything from the walls and plinth, pack them into the crates, and winch them up through the skylight. By then there’s one police helicopter and three press drones hovering overhead, plus some ineffectual ground pursuit.
Copley remotely commandeers one of the drones as they’re making their escape, and he flies it right in through the side door of the police helicopter. The last they see of the cops, the chopper is going into a spin over the darkened landscape outside London. Pretty badass, honestly. They owe him a beer.
At an airstrip in northern France they transfer everything to Andrei’s plane, and Nile dozes uneasily as they fly south and east toward the dawn. And then they camp outside Thessaloniki until it’s dark again, when another Chinook carries them to the Acropolis Museum. Their gear waits in the chopper, though they’re strictly non-lethal for a little while longer.
Drop off goes much faster. They leave the crates on the roof; the Parthenon Gallery is on the top floor anyway. The Hellenic Police barely have a chance to scramble before the chopper dusts off.
Andy hands her the burner phone. “Call it in,” she says.
Nile dials Copley’s secure line and plugs her ear against the noise of the rotors. “It’s done,” she says when he answers.
“Copy that,” says Copley. “Enjoy Greece, Ms. Freeman. When you’re back, we should discuss the Ishtar Gate.”
That would be a job. Something for a long holiday weekend, maybe.
Nile hangs up and waves the phone at Nicky. He lifts his rifle. “Pull,” he calls. Nile flings the phone out of the chopper sideways like a frisbee. Nicky fires, and bits of circuitboard rain down over Vouliagmeni Lake.
“I can’t believe we’ve never tried that before,” Andy says, barely audible. She’s leaning against the headrest in apparent exhaustion, but Nile has learned to recognize it as satisfaction.
“All of it.”
They squat at the Whiskey safehouse, south of Athens. For a while, England grumbles. The Acropolis Museum understands the British Museum’s frustration, truly, but they see no reason to relocate the marbles now that they’re finally home. The Guardian publishes a think piece titled “Maybe It Was Time.” #StealEverythingElseBackToo starts trending. Nothing much comes of it.
When they’re confident no one is going to war over the Parthenon Marbles, they take a car to Kalamata, and Nile gets to swim in the Mediterranean. It’s pretty great, and she’s floating on her back on a calm blue sea when she realizes that one day, she’s going to make an oath about something, and she’ll pour four drops out of her drink.
Another day, much longer from now, six drops. And maybe someone will be there to touch the nearest piece of metal, and maybe they won’t be, and she’s going to have to live with that.
Joe is sketching on the beach, Nicky asleep in the sand beside him. Andy sits close by but separate under an umbrella--going back to burning in the sun has been a rough transition. Nile gets out of the water and joins her, conscious that that puts her in Joe’s sketch. “How many times have you been here?”
“A lot,” says Andy, her eyes on the horizon.
It’s a comfort that they don’t forget things. It would be too easy if they did. “Has it always been this nice?”
Nile watches her eyes, and wonders if Andy is seeing herself as muse or fate, someone who wipes out images of herself or someone who lets them live on in oil and bronze and graphite, someone who has seen everything or someone Nile can still surprise.
As clearly as Andy can see the past, Nile can see a day one century or five from now, when she’ll step through broken glass into the lobby of what used to be the Art Institute of Chicago, and find Andronika and carry her out for safekeeping until there is somewhere else to put her.
Civilization comes and goes. Most of the things that go with it are lost. But every once in a while, something can be brought home.
Nile will see it done.