Even through the paper, even through her coat, Valentina could smell the sausage. This strange black man was still making his odd proposition, but she had to concentrate on what he was saying and not think about the taste.
The sun had set and it was dark enough for her to get back to her people. There were still enemy snipers out there and there was no guarantee of safety at any time of the day, but she knew the shadows of this shattered city well enough to get back with little risk.
She risked the view and looked up over the edge of the broken wall of the building. She looked out over the city and saw the fire on the eastern side was still burning strong, sending flames high into the sky. There was gunfire somewhere and a crying child, lost somewhere in the dark.
She was lost in the pain of her city for a moment and it took her a while to notice that the black man had stopped talking and seemed to be waiting for an answer.
'I'm sorry,' she said, even though she had no idea what she was apologising for. 'What was that?'
'I'm saying we can take you and your family out on the Underground Railroad. Tomorrow morning. We have three cars heading to Tunisia, and can take 65 of your people out of here.'
'And then what?'
'Tunisia is just a stopover. You will all, of course, be free to go where you want, but I think most of you would come into the organisation and head off to the training compound in the Australian outback. We could always use more agents and staff. The war is keeping us all so busy.'
Valentina just felt terribly tired and sighed. She glanced out into the street and saw a figure moving along the edge of a wall. Even from here, she could recognise a German helmet.
'You're not convinced.'
She watched the figure move slowly and raised her rifle to put him in her sights. She spoke without taking her eye from her scope. 'No, I'm not convinced. You are treating this so lightly, as if we could all just go away. Life doesn't work like that.'
'Not all the time. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't, or that we can't try.'
'And you're willing to get us all out of this city, just through the enemy lines as if they were paper.'
'Our organisation has access to an underground rail system that goes all over Europe. It's been there since the mid-1700s, apparently.'
The figure on the street paused in a doorway. Valentina wondered idly what he was doing in the street. It didn't matter. She placed her finger on the trigger. 'And all this for me? This sounds very expensive. And complicated.'
'It's not that complicated. You're that good. We want you. We need you.'
'You're talking such rubbish. I'm not that important.'
'Oh Val,' said N'buli in a voice that tugged at her heart. 'You really are. You're in the most dangerous place on Earth during its most dangerous time and you're refusing to give in to your own inhumanity. You have the ability to kill more people than anyone else in this shattered city and fire less fatal shots than any other sniper.'
'This is hell,' said Valentina. 'You can't kill anybody who is already dead.'
He just smiled again. 'There is so much beauty away from all this death and destruction. There are people out there who don't want to play this endless cycle of retribution and vengeance. There are places you can go where you can let it all fade away. It's easy. You just let go and come with me, and then we can come back and help everybody else.'
Valentina watched the figure in the street cross the broken road, only to stop and look up at the sky. Her finger moved away from the trigger and she placed the rifle at her feet. 'I'm so, so tired.'
She sank to the floor and put her head in her hands. 'I don't want to do this any more.'
'Of course you don't,' said N'buli, moving over to Valentina and placing a hand on her shoulder. 'None of us do.'
She looked up at him. 'You have space to get 65 people out of this shit-hole on your train?'
'I have 72 that need to come with me. That's everybody in my building.'
N'buli let loose with that smile again. 'Some of them might have to stand for a while, but I think we can squeeze them all in.'
'Good. So we go? Now?'
'In a minute,' said N'buli with a conspiratorial wink. 'But first there are some other kids who also need a hand out of this hellhole, and there is one over there who has a sore hand. He's first on my list.'
'You're just going to wander over to the German lines, steal an indentured child from them and get away.'
N'buli laughed softly at some private joke. 'It's okay. I do this sort of thing all the time.'
Dave took a long, long drag on his pipe and held it in as long as he could, as he considered what the man on the television was telling him.
'So,' he finally said between puffs of smoke, 'you want me to chuck my job in and come work for you guys?'
'It's not really work as you know it. We'll find a good use for your skills and pay you shitloads of money for them, but most of your time will belong to yourself.'
'Skills? What fucking skills?'
By now, the black man's features were clear, although the computer background around him remained as blocky as ever. 'You're more talented than you think. Remember the induction test you took on the first day of school?'
'What? I was five on my first day of school. I don't remember anything like that.'
'Nobody ever does. But even at that age the indicators were all there.' The black man sat back down on the pixelated throne behind him, and reached inside his coat pocket, pulling out a piece of paper that he started to read out loud. 'David shows uncommonly strong persuasive abilities, combined with a natural charm that means he is never likely to lose any kind of argument. Even if he is wrong about something, he will be able to convince the other person that he has a point.'
'I got the highest score in the school debate in my last year at high school,' said Dave.
'That's what I'm talking about. An ability like yours is a lot rarer than you think. We have the muscle, we have the smarts, but we can always use a good talker.'
'Now you're just making me shy.'
Dave thought about filling up his cone for another go, but figured he'd probably had enough. 'All right, so you guys want me to come join your outfit?'
'We think you could make a valuable contribution.'
'And you're... what? Government?'
'No,' said the black man. 'We’re beyond governments. Every world leader is aware of our existence, but we find things work much easier if we remain a secret to the general public. LOVE operates in all countries, in all environments, for all reasons. We will not tolerate bullying, violence or slavery in any way, shape or form. We operate on a platform of pacifism, compassion and, well, love.'
'Sounds like a dodgy conspiracy theory,' said Dave
'We are a conspiracy theory,' said the black man. 'We're the ultimate conspiracy, but that doesn't mean we're not nice people too.'
Dave was getting annoyed, even if he couldn't quite figure out why. 'Really? If I'm so good at talking, how come I'm working in a slaughterhouse for the bare minimum? How come I've got three dollars and fifty three cents in my bank account until next Tuesday? How come I've got no girl, or car, or anything except my cat Moe? How come I've never gone any further than anybody else I know?'
'Beats me, maybe nobody gave you the chance. Come on. What are you doing with your life, Dave?'
'Too much drugs, based on current evidence.'
N'buli smiled, and his smile filled the whole screen. 'Wouldn’t you rather save the world?'
The boy in the bed next to N'buli died shortly after the nurses turned out the lights, his laboured breathing ending with a final sigh.
N'buli thought about calling a nurse back in, but it hardly seemed to matter. The boy didn't mind. He'd only been admitted to the hospital the day before last, and had never regained consciousness. Considering what had happened to his face, N'buli thought that was a blessing.
The wounds N'buli had received during the attack on the German lines were almost healed and the doctors told him he would be fit enough to return to the front line soon. He asked them where he would go, now that his platoon had been wiped out, but they just smiled and told him not to worry about that.
The other men in the ward hadn't seemed to notice the boy's death and slept on. N'buli lay in his bed, but his mind wouldn't stop racing.
N'buli didn't want to go back to the front. He didn’t want to go back to the war. But he couldn't see any other way around it. He'd heard stories about other soldiers who had tried to run, and how they had been caught and executed by their own side. Any possibility he could think of led to a wasteful death.
So he was slightly surprised to find himself slipping out of bed and walking down the ward. It was a warm night and there was an open window down the end of the room, and N'buli climbed through it, dropping down a floor to land softly on the hospital garden lawn.
The hospital was located far behind the trenches, but in the silence of the night, N'buli could hear the sound of war from far away. The facility had been set up in an old manor house that had somehow escaped the fighting and the lawns were kept in immaculate condition by an old Scottish gardener that N'buli had seen pottering around in the day. One of the other wounded soldiers had mentioned to N'buli that the gardener was named MacGregor, but he had never actually spoken to the man.
The garden was also full of wounded men during daylight hours, sitting around in wicker chairs, somehow hoping the sunlight could repair their wrecked bodies. But there was nobody around at this hour, and the sounds of far away battles faded away, leaving him alone in the quiet night.
N'buli almost jumped out of his skin when he heard the voice. There was somebody sitting in one of the wicker chairs on the far side of the lawn, his face hidden in the darkness.
N'buli thought he should head back to the ward and back to his bed, but found himself wandering over to the man in the chair. As he got closer, he recognised him.
'You were there, in the trench.'
'That's right, N'buli,' said the young Asian man with the old eyes, gesturing towards the nearest chair. 'How are you feeling?'
N'buli sat down and realised the man was talking to him in his native language. 'Better.'
'Good, good. You were looking pretty bad there for a while, but I knew you would pull through. People like you always do.'
'People like me?'
The Asian man just smiled and looked up at the sky. The clouds had cleared away and the stars were out. 'My name's Chang Tzu, but you can call me Chang. It's a beautiful night, isn't it?'
N'buli shrugged. 'Could be better.'
'Looking up at these stars, it's almost easy to forget that the war is going on, just down the road. So much waste. So much stupidity.'
'But it is,' said N'buli.
'Yes,' said Chang. 'We do our best to try and avoid these terrible events, but we don’t always succeed.'
Chang leaned in closer. 'What if there were a group of people who were dedicated to reducing as much of this death and horror as possible? What if you could do some good in all this bad?'
'I would think you are mad.'
Chang laughed, and the noise reverberated around the empty garden. 'And you would probably be right. But that doesn't make it any less true.'
N'buli didn't say anything and Chang continued. 'I know what you did in the German trench. You faced down a dozen enemy soldiers and took them all down without killing a single one of them. Why?'
'Why did you let them live? They had killed all your friends, and they were your enemy. You could have slaughtered them all.'
'There didn't seem to be much point.'
Chang leaned back in his chair. 'No, there wasn't. But there was something more to it than that.'
'What do you mean?'
Chang ignored his question. 'You don't have to go back to the lines. You can come with us.'
'The gardener - MacGregor - and I are part of that group. He's due to head back to the new academy outside Alice Springs soon, he can take you along.'
N'buli felt light headed, even in the chill of the night air. He stood up from the chair. 'You can take me away from all this?'
'No,' said Chang with a firm shake of his head. 'You come with me and you'll never get away from this horror. You'll be right in the middle of it for the rest of your life, doing your best to stop the pain and suffering.'
'What's in it for me?'
'Oh, trust me. It'll be fun, more fun than you ever expect. There will also be heartbreak, but you'll be working to bring it all to an end. One day, it will all be done.'
'And until that day, you will need me to go out there and save people? That's what it's all about?'
'That's what it's all about,' said Chang. 'Does this mean you're going to come with us?'
N'buli stood up from the chair and faced the battle lines. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of people out there, suffering for causes they barely understood. If there was even the slightest chance he could stop it all from happening, he had to take it. He had no choice.
He turned back to Chang and smiled, an expression he had not used in quite some time.
'Sure. Why not?'