Chapter 27:

The Ebb Tide VIII - "Good Men"

Destiny Marine

The scene of Jackson falling with his grenades reminded Isaac of the stories of angels falling from the Skyfather's Paradise. They didn’t fall as explosively, however, nor had he ever been in a life or death fight with them.

“The fall might kill him!” Isaac realized. They wanted at least one of Panama or Jackson alive; with Panama floating face-down in the water, Jackson was their last option. “Babs, knock him away from the grenades with your wind, I’m going to try and catch him!”

Babs looked at the array of falling grenades incredulously. “There’s like three dozen of them all falling around Jackson. My wind isn’t precise enough to pick him out individually - we need to find cover!”

Crates tumbled and cracked as Isaac kicked and punched them over to form a makeshift staircase out of the death funnel maze. “We can do it! I thought you weren’t the kind of person to back out of a challenge.”

Babs gritted her teeth, but the look on her face indicated Isaac had her. As Isaac leapt up the pile of crates, a new gust of wind blew around the hold, snaking its way up to Jackson. The wind picked him out of the field of grenades, but it took four of five of the explosives along with it. Their target was now about halfway down the hold. The wind died down just as Jackson and the inadvertently captured grenades separated themselves from the array; Babs herself, on the ground below, had to flee from the oncoming rain. The majority of the grenades reached the ground and exploded on impact, creating a huge fireball directly below Isaac as he leapt off the pile, intent on diving through the remaining grenades to catch Jackson and get him out of harm’s way.

As Isaac leapt through the air, he frowned as realization struck him. Rather than dive headfirst into Jackson, he instead angled himself so his shoes would make contact first. Isaac slipped through the remaining grenades and arrived at Jackson. As expected, he went right through him. Jackson had done it again: create a big spectacle to draw Isaac’s attention away from his real location. But this would be the last time.

Jackson had indeed fallen from his rope hold on the ceiling. And those grenades were real. But the Jackson in question was fake, designed to throw Isaac off his trail while he fell in a different direction. But Isaac felt an odd rustle in the air; nearby, a shifting painting designed to mimic the background of the cargo hold it descended towards the ground. Isaac followed that irregularity down to the floor. When it reached the ground, Isaac landed right on top of the irregularity, smashing his fist right into where Jackson’s head would be.

The illusion broke. The real, real Jackson came back into view as he and Isaac collapsed in a heap. Isaac was on top of him, gripping the collars of his bomber jacket, and only had a moment to see the wide, surprised look in Jackson’s eyes before punching his lights out.

The imperfections of Jackson’s stubble and ragged parts in his coat let Isaac breathe a sigh of relief. This was truly him. With the target truly unconscious below him, Isaac caught his breath and wiped his face. Around him, the grenade explosions had carved up much of the death funnel maze, with wood and splinters and big piles of grain littering the ground. Babs emerged from one of those piles; she stumbled a bit from the concussion of the grenades, but otherwise, she looked no worse for the wear.

“We caught him alive?” she asked in disbelief as she arrived next to Isaac. After a moment, she smiled and patted him on the back. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I have my moments,” Isaac said with a wry grin. He handed him over to Babs; she got to work using rope to tie his hands behind his back and his legs together. While she tied the knots, Isaac looked at where he and Jackson landed. A few dud grenades landed ominously close to them, but a new sight distracted him entirely; right in front of them, previously covered by the now-devastated death funnel crate maze, was a large metal container. Zhanghai characters etched in black covered the side; Isaac couldn’t read what they said.

“I’m going to check this out,” Isaac said as Babs continued her work. Leaving the two against the side of the container, Isaac moved to the front end. Energy radiated from the container, making Isaac feel tingles up and down his body. When he touched the door handle, a slight shock went up his arm. With gritted teeth, he forged on and pressed down on the handle; the doors creaked and groaned as Isaac opened them, blocking his view of Babs and Jackson. However, that didn’t matter, since what was inside blocked Isaac’s view of the world around him.

Well, view wasn’t the right word. All five senses felt overwhelmed by the large crate inside the container and the juxtapositions it created - a sweet metallic taste, a low droning harmony. Energy constantly poured from it, blanketing Isaac, as if putting him in a trance. The only two things in the world at the moment were Isaac and the crate. He hesitantly reached a hand toward it; before he touched it, he saw the symbol on its side. He had never seen one like it before - it consisted of a small black circle surrounded by three black squarish-looking shapes arranged equidistant from each other.

The crate continued to call for him. But before he could open it, Isaac heard Babs scream for him, and then everything exploded.


When Isaac awoke, he was outside the hypnotic container, which had now caved-in and crushed its contents entirely. He no longer felt the call of the crate inside - it must’ve been destroyed along with the container. Red tinged his vision, and his ears constantly rung with a low humming sound that blocked out everything else. His whole body felt alien; it took him a moment to realize his own arm was draped around Babs’ shoulder as they limped out of the cargo hold.

As his focus returned, Isaac could read a little of her lips. She spoke rapidly, as if rambling - Jackson had a time-delayed suicide explosive below his vest she caught too late; she was able to protect herself with her breathing power, but couldn’t save Isaac or the container; she was sorry. Reed and Isaac both won their fights while she failed her only responsibility.

Isaac tried to speak. He wanted to say that that damned Jackson got them one last time. That it wasn’t just his victory - Babs played a crucial role in it as well. And how, compared to all those slaughtered marines, Squad 3 making it out alive felt pretty good, even if they lost Panama and Jackson, who would’ve been two crucial sources of information. But no words came out of his mouth; the blast had created a disconnect between his thoughts and ability to speak.

As he struggled to stay conscious, Babs found the spare exit Reed predicted. They moved through empty boiler rooms and extra storage - Panama and Jackson were truly the last two crewmates they needed to defeat on the ship. As they moved throughout the compartments, his overwhelmed senses gradually came back to him - he heard steam hissing from valves and the red tinge slowly disappeared from his vision. Marines suddenly flooded past them, heading toward the cargo hold. Some offered to help, but Babs and Isaac, after what they just went through, stuck together.

However, it took all his strength to just keep walking. By the time they made it back to the ship’s deck, Isaac only had enough time to appreciate the sunlight before falling into the arms of a waiting medic.

Isaac must’ve mumbled this last part aloud, since the medic looked at him with a proud snarl. The last thing Isaac heard was, “Kid, I am not a medic. I’m a corpsman.”


When Isaac awoke again, his head absolutely throbbed in pain and an unfamiliar ceiling came into view. He rubbed his temple and slowly sat up in the bed - yes, he was in a bed, and probably a hospital one at that. The view out the window confirmed this as being inside the Fore River marine barracks. Sounds of muffled frustration drifted through the room. Isaac wasn’t alone in here; in the next bed over, Reed played rock-paper-scissors with Babs, who sat on a stool between their beds. Based on the slight twitch in Reed’s eye, she must’ve been consistently losing.

Her eye then shifted when she noticed Isaac had awakened. Based on all the movies he saw, Isaac expected to be rushed by a hug and tears to streak down faces and all that jazz, but instead, Reed just pointed at him with a smirk.

“Look who finally woke up. You know, when I lost most of my insides, I didn’t even pass out. What a pussy.”

Babs lightly touched a heavily bandaged part of Reed’s stomach. She immediately burst into tears. Babs left Reed to her sobbing and half-looked at Isaac, half-looked at the floor. “I’m sorry. I almost got you killed.”

With a dull ache, Isaac raised his hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’m alive, and you’re alive, and that’s all that matters.”

When Reed looked at him with a pained expression, it was Isaac’s turn to smirk. She looked back down at her bandaged stomach. “I’m glad we’re all alive, too.”

Having broken through her melancholy, Babs punched the air. “Squad 3 lives to fight another day!”

As the three laughed, the door to the room opened. Lieutenant Derry stepped inside, a relieved expression on his face and a binder in his hands. “After losing all those marines today, I’m glad I didn’t lose you kids, either." He hastily rubbed the back of his neck, then looked at them like equals. "Sorry. Not kids. You’re men. Good men. All of you.”

The three gave dutiful salutes (with a slight delay on the part of Reed and Babs). Derry returned it in full respect, then gestured at the door. “You oughta get on this next train, Babs. General Stockham wants a report right away.”

Babs slid off her seat and took the binder. “But we didn’t get a report from Reed and Isaac yet.”

“Those two shouldn’t be moved until tomorrow,” Derry told her. “When they’re good to leave, they’ll take the train up and give their own reports to Stockham.” He looked at her sympathetically. “I know you don’t want to leave them, but Stockham is not a man to keep waiting. And besides - I’ll take good care of them. We have board games here. They don’t call me ‘Checkers Derry’ for nothing!”

Isaac had never heard anybody ever refer to him as Checkers Derry, but he supposed that he only knew the guy for two days now. But with that out of the way, Babs looked back at her squadmates and bade them farewell. She tried to hide it, but Isaac had gotten good at looking through illusions - there was a layer of guilt in her eyes. Isaac wondered if, had he been in her shoes, he would’ve felt guilty, too. He didn’t have an answer, and she left.

A few minutes later, Derry came back in with two glasses of water. In that span of time, Reed had lit another cigarette, so Derry opened a window.

“Alright, I know you’re both excited to play a game with Checkers Derry,” he said (they weren’t), “But I figured I oughta catch you two up to speed on what happened.” According to the lieutenant, the losses suffered by his platoon caused him to call in the reserve platoon. By the time they arrived, the crewmates had all been defeated, so the reserves aided in getting the casualties to medical care.

“Where are all the casualties?” Isaac asked, since he and Reed were the only occupants in this room.

“Cultivators and normal marines are placed in separate rooms,” Derry explained. His voice sounded oddly delicate. “You see, modern medicine still isn’t sure if any diseases and whatnot would cross over from cultivator to…human.”

Isaac just nodded at that. After an apologetic look, Derry summarized what happened next - the ship’s gauges and meters in the bridge indicated a flooded compartment, so they found the alternative route and brought Reed back to the surface. When Babs and Isaac were found safe and sound as well, the marines continued their investigation into Jackson’s cargo hold.

“And, out of the wreckage, we found a huge score of these.” Derry held up a small pill Isaac recognized as a Saint Grass pill. “The Melusine was smuggling them in, all right, and it was a huge haul! It was quite a cutthroat crew, too - the first mate killed the captain, just like that, because the captain was just a figurehead, a yes man, for official purposes. Panama and Jackson were the real leaders. Unfortunately, both died. I got some idea from Babs, but what happened down there?”

Reed went first, but once she described how Panama allegedly broke down into tears over her decisive counter-monologue, Isaac butted in and took over. Once he finished, he remembered an additional detail. “I know you guys found all the smuggled pills, but did you come across any weird containers?” Derry gave him a puzzled look, so Isaac continued. “Maybe I could only feel it because I’m a cultivator, but one container…I felt like it was calling for me. It put me in a trance. But before I could see what it was, Jackson blew himself up, with the container along with it. The only clue I found was this funky-looking symbol.”

He tried to explain the shape of it, but Derry and Reed just gave him puzzled looks. Realizing it would be easier to draw, Isaac got Derry to retrieve a pen and paper for him. He drew the symbol again - the weird circle and three surrounding shapes.

The puzzled look remained on Derry’s face. “Huh. I’ve never seen this symbol either.”

“Let me check,” Reed offered, a smug aura emanating from her. “I’m kind of smart, no big deal, so I bet I can solve-”

When she looked at it, she immediately stopped talking. She didn’t appear scared, but Isaac recognized a “this is worse than I expected” kind of look on her face.

Reed handed the paper back to Isaac. She spoke slowly and clearly.

“This is the symbol for atomic weaponry.”