by Matt Appleby
Isobel Adler gets drawn into an insane adventure 472 years in the making.
|Author's Note: This is an uncompleted story I was working on a few months back. So far, I've written the prologue and 2/3 of the first chapter, and that's how I've left it for a while now. I still like the basic concept, but I'm not sure my execution is up to scratch, and to be blunt, I want to know if anyone thinks it's worth continuing.
As you might've guessed, this is an Assassin's Creed fanfic. It's in the 'elsewhere' style, detailing the adventures of a small Assassin team unrelated to the shenanigans of the main series. The specific concept is that I'm trying to depict what using an Animus would really be like: how it feels to run, sneak and fight through another person's memories. The story is intended to be enjoyed even by those who've never heard of the games, but, naturally, the more familiar you are with them the more you'll get the various subtleties. I'm torn on how well I've managed to achieve any of this so far, but that's why I'm leaving it for you all to judge.
I feel obliged to note that, even if I do continue with this story, I'm already working on another novel - "The Fourth Age: The Old Songs" - and I intend for that to remain my priority. In other words, don't expect frequent updates. Factor that into your decision-making as and where you like.
Well, that's it. On with the story so far...
Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was written by Matt Appleby, a lone individual with no specific religious faiths or beliefs.
The last thing I saw was a man stood by my front door. Then I slept. I don't know for how long. I didn't dream, or if I did I don't remember.
And now I'm waking up.
I'm stood in a room. It's round and big. I can't guess how big exactly, but I know I've seen smaller arenas. There are tiers leading up the wall, about half a dozen, too wide to be steps, and a high dome reaching overhead, with a round hole at the top. Everything's made of stone, cut from big blocks and left undecorated. The room appears to have been abandoned long ago. Rubble of assorted sizes is everywhere. A third of the floor is missing. I can't tell from here how deep the hole is, but I'm guessing it goes down a long way.
I'm not sure what colour anything is. The room is too bright. It's as if every surface is glowing from within, the light rolling out like a bank of fog. It should hurt my eyes, but it doesn't. Instead, the room feels...bleached, I guess.
I have no idea where I am.
“The Sequence isn't going to load, is it?”
“With these Synch rates? Not a chance.”
The voices are faint and distorted, like they're coming through an intercom. I can't quite tell what they're saying, and I doubt I would understand them even if I could.
“Crane did warn us. But it was worth a try.”
I turn around. Or at least I try to. The room takes a few seconds to catch up, and it spins around me in a jagged sort of motion. It feels almost like being drunk, but aside from being really confused, my head is clear.
I can now see two figures on the other side of the room. One is at least two feet taller than the other, but that's all I can tell about either of them. They're dancing around each other, or fighting, or something. They're both really blurry, and they keep jumping crazily, as if I'm watching a film that's constantly skipping.
I think I should be frightened, but I'm not. I don't know why.
“How far back will we have to go?”
“I'm not sure. But I think it'll take us a few days.”
I try walking towards them. With each step, the room swirls around me, and the two figures skip even more violently. After half a dozen paces, the room stretches like I'm walking forwards and backwards at the same time. I stop moving.
“That's if we include rest breaks. Which I recommend.”
One of the figures, the shorter one, turns to look at me. He doesn't have a face. There's faint bumps where eyes and a nose should be, but that's all. He just looks like a piece of cloth stretched over a frame. I know he's looking at me.
“Well, it's that or she has a psychotic episode.”
And now I'm starting to get scared. I try to take a deep breath, but I'm not even sure I can breathe in this place. I feel sick.
I still don't know where I am.
“What is this place?”
I think that's my voice. It's warped and crackling, and it sounds like it's coming from across the room, but I can recognise it as me.
“Great. Pull her out. I guess we're doing this the hard way.”
The two figures abruptly slow to a pause. A wave of light flows out from the far wall, and as it passes over me, the room changes. The solid surfaces become black outlines, as if I'm stood in some kind of wireframe model. I suddenly find myself thinking the words 'computer simulation'. But before I can think further, there's a second wave of light, and the wireframe disappears.
Then suddenly I'm somewhere else altogether. The floor, walls and ceiling are all the same blue-green colour, blending into one continuous surface. It could be a few metres across, or a few miles: there's nothing I can use to guess. There's a sun, or something like it, in front of me, up near the ceiling. It's casting large spots all around, almost like lens flares. It should be too bright to look at, but it isn't. Down by the floor is a sea of small lights. They're continually floating up and down, like some kind of abstract ocean.
I start walking forward. The sea of lights parts in front of me, none coming closer than about ten feet. Nothing whirls or jumps or lurches, but it doesn't make this any less strange.
“Where am I?”
I want to go home.
The room disappears. And now I'm waking up.
When I was in the middle of that...whatever the hell that was, I thought I was awake then, but I know what I'm looking at now is real. I'm in some kind of abandoned office building. The lights are out, and the only thing on most of the desks is dust. The blinds are closed, but I think it's night. I'm sat in a large red chair, which is tilted back about forty-five degrees and is, huh, really quite comfortable. My right wrist is surrounded by some kind of curved computer screen, and there's a needle stuck in my arm. It doesn't hurt, but I'm already dreading what happens when that changes. There are three other people in the room, each sat at a desk with a computer, and they're all looking at me.
The man in the middle smiles. He's Middle Eastern, maybe early '30s, well-groomed and wearing a dog-eared, reindeer-themed cardigan. His smile is really quite attractive.
“Sorry for the rude awakening.” He says. His accent is American, but that's as specific as I can get. “Before I introduce myself, I want to make sure I have my facts straight. Your name is Isobel Adler, you're twenty-six years old, you live and work in Cambridge, England, and you have spent the last three years as a receptionist at the UK headquarters of Abstergo Industries. Am I correct?”
I think that if I open my mouth now, all I'll do is vomit. So I just nod instead.
“Good. My name is Altair Espinosa. This is Arlie Dolan.”
“Hello.” Says the woman on my right, another American. She's wearing an expensive skirt suit, with minimal but skillfully-applied makeup. No jewellery that I can see. The oldest of us by a few years, though probably not all that many.
“And this is Johnathan Kartal.”
“Hi there.” Says the man on my left. He's French, I think. His 'Led Zeppelin' T-shirt is so faded that I can barely read it, and is at least twenty years older than he is.
“You're probably quite confused about now.” Altair says.
I almost laugh.
Altair goes to keep talking, then stops. “You're looking kinda pale.” He says after a moment. “Do you want something to drink?”
I nod. In turn, he nods to Arlie, who passes me a bottle of water. I'm normally a coffee person, but right about now, this water is the best drink in the world. Whilst I'm drinking, Arlie pulls the needle out of my arm. The feeling is unpleasant, but it doesn't actually hurt. Arlie takes back the empty bottle.
Altair smiles. “Better?”
“Good.” He scratches the back of his head, suddenly looking a little nervous. “Well, the short version is, we've kind of um...kidnapped you. Um...yes, I'd say that's the best way to put it.”
I suppose that was already obvious, but still, hearing the actual word is horrifying.
Altair quickly puts up his hand. “We're not going to hurt you. Funny as it might sound, we're actually the good guys.”
I can't say I find this even vaguely reassuring.
“You know, kidnapping isn't how we normally do things.” Altair continues. “We had this really great plan, but, well, time was against us, one thing led to another, and...here we are, I guess. The thing is, we really need your help. It's a matter of some urgency. Lives are at stake.”
There's a long pause. I think I'm expected to reply.
“Why me?” I eventually stammer out. “I'm just a receptionist. You said so yourself.”
Johnathan leans forward. “Nobody's 'just' anything, Miss Adler.”
“Quite so.” Altair says with a smile. “Okay, here's what I going to do. I'll tell you who we are, what we want you to do and why it's important that you do it. Once I've finished, if you still think I'm full of crap, you're free to leave.” He points to a dark corner of the room. “The door is just over there. But I highly recommend you don't walk through it.”
“Why?” I ask.
“A quick test first, if you'll humour me.” he pauses. “What colour am I?”
“I don't mean, 'what colour am I'. I can look in a mirror. What I mean is...every time you meet someone, you immediately think of a colour. Either blue, red, gold or white. You probably don't give this much thought. I expect you think everyone does it. They don't. Why, I'll get into later. But for now, when you look at me, am I blue, red, gold or white?”
You know, I really did think everyone did that. But you learn something new every day, I guess. As much as I want Altair to elaborate, he's already said he won't, so instead I just say...
Altair looks pleased, and relieved. “Good. You already trust me. That's going to save us all a lot of time.”
And...it's true. I do trust him. I have absolutely no reason to, but I've always known that a 'blue' person can be trusted, no matter how they appear.
Altair points to the chair I'm sat in. “Do you know what this is?”
“A few months ago, Abstergo put out a company-wide appeal for blood donations. You're one of the several thousand who responded. Do you remember?”
“Yes. But what's that got to do with anything?”
“Everything. The machine you're sat in is called an 'Animus'. Abstergo developed it back in the late '80s. We've...refined it since. It allows people to review genetic memories.”
“That's what I just said. Basically, we don't just inherit physical traits from our ancestors. We inherit their memories. All of them, right back to the very first proto-humans. And they're buried in our subconscious, waiting for the right tool to dig them out. The Animus is that tool. So if you wanted to know, for example, what your great-great-etctera-grandmother from Ancient Egypt got up to on the few days off she was allowed to have, you can just plug into the Animus, and it will be able to tell you.”
My first instinct is to laugh. 'Genetic memory' sounds like a load of New Age bollocks. But this seems like the right day to just shut up and go with it.
“So that...vision, I guess? That was the Animus?”
Altair nods. “Yes. We tried to load a memory that the machinery couldn't handle, and it crashed. My fault for being impatient, I guess. I apologise for putting you through that. The experience must have been frightening.”
There's nothing I can say that will adequately cover my feelings on the topic, so I don't say anything. From the way Altair winces, he seems to get the hint.
“As for the blood donations.” he says after a moment. “That was Abstergo attempting to gather samples of genetic memories. And when it came to you, they found something. Something they cannot be allowed to have.”
“You've been there three years. In that time, how many of your superiors have you associated with 'red'?”
“Most of them.”
I don't think I can argue with that.
“What have they found?” I ask instead. I don't want to know, but I guess I have to.
Altair scratches his head again. “I'd rather not say.”
“You'd rather not say?”
“No, I'd rather not. I've always believed that information learned is more valuable than information given. And even if that wasn't the case...if I told you now, you'd just think I was mad. I mean, you probably already do. I would, in your position. The point is, you're going to need proof of what I tell you when I come to tell it. That proof can only be found within the Animus.”
Well, he's right about one thing: I do think he's mad. Everything in this room is mad.
“Can you at least give me a hint?”
Altair is silent for a moment, then nods. “We're chasing a secret of great value. We're still not sure exactly what it is. Treasure, weapons, forbidden knowledge, all of the above. Something important enough to kill for, at any rate. Your blood sample only gave the most basic outline, so if we want to know more, and we really, really do, then we need the Animus. We need you.”
I think this is the point where I need to start paying more attention. “I'm guessing I'm the only one who can use the machine.”
“Correct.” Arlie says. She taps a pen on her desk for a moment. “It's your ancestor, your memories. You're the only one who can view them properly. But there's a problem. Certain memories are harder to load than others. You've seen what happens when we don't get it right.”
“Don't remind me.”
“It comes down to what's called 'Synchronisation'.” Arlie continues. “The more of your ancestor's life you run through, the easier it becomes to unpick that life from your own DNA. In order to load the key memory Sequence, the one where she actually found...this secret, we have to first load a number of Sequences that come before it.”
“Including the one we're really after? Ten. I'm afraid it's going to take a few days.”
I guess a part of me hoped this experience would be over quickly. I knew it wouldn't, not after everything else I've heard, but that kind of hope is hard to quash.
“Our offer still stands.” Altair says. “You can leave if you want. But again, I don't recommend it. Abstergo is after the same prize. The whole point of this misadventure is that, if there really is the kind of power to be found that we suspect there is, then there's no way that nest of vipers can be allowed to have it.”
He gives a grim smile. “If that doesn't convince you, bear in mind that Abstergo already know you're the key to winning the race. I mean, they're the ones who took the original blood sample. If you leave this building, you'll be walking straight into their clutches. And they won't be nearly as polite as we've been.”
When I left work at half-five this afternoon, I was expecting a Once Upon A Time marathon and some leftover carbonara. You know, a relaxing evening. Not all this insanity. But now that I'm here, what else can I do?
Also, Altair has a point about my employers. Does Abstergo torture people? I have no idea. But I can't shake the idea that they might.
“A few days, right?”
“Provided nothing goes wrong.”
I take a deep breath. “Okay then.”
Altair smiles. It really is very attractive. “Great. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to get started immediately.”
“Do you have any more questions?”
None that I seriously believe they'll answer. But I might as well ask anyway.
“Yes. Who are you people?”
There's a long pause. “Again, I'd rather not say.” Altair says after a moment. “But yes, I can give you a hint. We're part of a secret organisation, one that has existed for a long time, and has been involved in a lot of very strange things. Our purpose and values are pretty straight-forward, though they might not seem like it at first. From what little has already been analysed, the memories you're about to view should provide a good starting point. Until then, all you need to know is that we're much nicer than we appear.”
I'm still not entirely sure I believe that, but I keep the thought to myself.
“You sure you're ready, Miss Adler?” Altair says. “Last chance to say no.”
“Great.” He nods at Arlie. “If you don't mind doing the honours...”
Arlie nods back, and walks around to the chair. She picks up the needle, and after a brief pause, sticks it back in my arm. It really does hurt this time, but thankfully not for long.
“Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy...” Johnathan says, then laughs.
The world around me fades into white. And then the rabbit hole opens up beneath me.
I'm in the blue-green place again. Everything's the same. The sea of small lights, the giant unblinking sun. All of it the same.
Actually...no, not all. Before I got placed into the Animus, I was wearing a cheap grey skirt suit, none of the pieces matching, and I had red hair reaching below my shoulders. But now my hair is black and cut above my ears, and my clothes, if they are in fact mine, are like nothing I've ever encountered before. I'm wearing a long-sleeved shirt and trousers, with thick leather boots and a black, full-length leather coat. The coat is split at the back, just below the waist, and the sides curve up noticably at the bottom. Over the top is a black leather waistcoat, with an attached hood, and over the top of that is a cloth belt so wide it covers my entire waist. On the front of the belt is an ornate metal badge, featuring what looks like a heavily-stylised 'A'.
I can feel something underneath my sleeves. I lift them up to find, on both of my lower arms, a complicated-looking metal-and-leather apparatus. Central to each one is a knife, about six inches long and obviously very sharp. A strange instinct makes me flick my left wrist, and the knife springs out of its holder, nearly stabbing me in the eye. It slides back in a moment later, and I try very hard to forget I ever saw it. I fail.
What is this place, and what the hell am I wearing?
Altair and the others said I was going to be viewing the memories of a long-dead ancestor. I think on that, and then I look at the sea of lights, and the strange clothes I'm wearing, and those two weapons that I really don't like, and I suddenly find myself thinking the words 'loading screen'.
“Yes, that's exactly what this is.”
That's Arlie's voice, coming from both all around me and inside my head.
“This is how we communicate when you're inside the Animus. If you want to respond, just imagine yourself saying the words.”
'Imagine'. Right. Never been my strong-suit.
“...Can you hear me now?” I think after a moment.
“Loud and clear, Isobel. Now, the first memory Sequence is just about to load. Before it does, there's something I need to tell you. The Animus is a very complicated machine. It doesn't make you just watch your ancestor's memories. You have to re-create them.”
“That'll become obvious in a few moments. I've used this Animus myself. Not for anything very exciting, but I know how it all works. It's very simple.”
I guess I'll just have to take her word for it.
“Sequence 01 is loaded.” Arlie says. “Best of luck.”
Memory 01: Just Another Saturday Night
A wave of light washes over me, and suddenly I'm stood in a sea of green, in the midst of a giant black wireframe. I don't have time to work out what the wireframe represents, as only a second later another wave of light appears, and the sea of green disappears. In its place is...I know what I'm looking at isn't real, that it's just a creation of this Animus machine, but this place feels, to me, as real as anywhere I've ever been.
“That's because it is real.” Arlie says. “Or it used to be. Memories aren't usually created from nothing.”
It's the middle of the night, and I'm stood at the corner of a large square. It's mostly dirt, with a scattering of paving slabs. I'm somewhere inside a city, I don't know how big, long before the Industrial Revolution, completely surrounded by high, barren mountains. A few of the buildings around me are in the classic Mediterranean style, with white plaster and red tiles, but most are just wooden shacks of varying complexity. The only building higher than three stories is a church, on the opposite side of the square. An eagle slowly circles around the top of the steeple. There are no people nearby, at least none that I can see.
That's what I know to be real, or once-real. There's something else that I know isn't real: a disc hovering in the bottom-left of my vision, like a hologram. The picture inside is fuzzy to the point of being unreadable, but I get the impression that it's supposed to be a map. On the ring around the edge, pointing towards the church, is a stylised eagle. And now I also notice a horizontal white bar hovering around the top-left, divided into eight segments.
“Those are part of the Animus. Your ancestor lived in this area for years, knew it like the back of her hand. Acquiring that knowledge for yourself would use up time we simply don't have, so the map is there as a kind of shorthand.”
“But I can't read it.”
“Your Synch rate isn't high enough yet. We can fix that.”
“Okay. And what's this white bar for?”
“It's your health bar. We'll get to that later.”
I'm about to ask why, but then something else un-real appears. Hanging in the air in front of me are the words...
Quito, February 1541
They fade out after a few seconds, and then I see a green dot appear on top of the church. Above it is the word 'synchronise'.
“And that's how we get your map working.”
“I'm not very good at geography. Where's Quito?”
Johnathan jumps into the conversation. “Capital of Ecuador. This is 1541, so we're only...six years after it was first founded. We're in the age of the Conquistadors. A very exciting time, unless you were Incan. I'll give you more about the history as we go on.”
“Okay, this is how it works.” Arlie says. “You don't have to perfectly re-create everything your ancestor did. Just follow the markers the Animus sets out for you, and that will usually be enough. For now, you need to get to that green dot. Do you know how to free-run?”
“Well, you're about to get a crash-course.”
“It's fine. You might not know anything about free-running, but from what we can gather, your ancestor was an expert. And the best thing about the Animus is, it records muscle memory along with regular memories. All your ancestor's instincts, all the skills she picked up over her life, you can tap into them and use them for yourself.”
“I don't feel much like a free-runner.”
“It'll come to you.”
“If you say so.”
“Now, look to your left. There's a stack of crates up by the wall. Looks like a set of steps.”
I look to my left. There is indeed a stack of crates, leaning against a rough-looking, three-storey wooden building. And the crates do indeed look like a set of steps.
“Now run up the steps, and climb the wall.”
“I really don't think I can do that.”
“Sure you can. Just do what...comes naturally.”
I stare at the wall for a few seconds. Nothing comes to me. But then...I think there's something. I've felt it a few times since I got into the Animus. There's a little hook in my brain, pulling me towards ideas I know I've never had. An instinct that...isn't my own.
I don't know what to do, and I know exactly what to do.
I run up the crates, then use the momentum to scramble up the wall and grab onto the bottom of a first-floor window. I climb up a pair of closed wooden shutters and pull myself up onto a small balcony, then run up the wall of the top floor and onto the roof. The wooden tiles are a little slippery under my feet, but I stay upright without any trouble.
So, I just climbed my first building. Easy as pie.
“I said you could do it.”
“Yeah...I guess I can.”
“Now before you get too giddy,” Altair chips in, “that was only the first step. You've still got the thousand miles ahead of you.”
...And the good feeling has gone.
“Sadly, he's right. But for now, your objective is to just reach that green dot. You should be able to get there without touching the ground.”
A minute ago, I would've laughed at that. But now, I can't see it posing a problem at all. Even the prospect of climbing that church steeple, tall though it may be, doesn't scare me much. A lot can change in a minute.
I look out over the rooftops. There's half-a-dozen buildings between me and the church, all relatively close together. I start running. The first three buildings are wooden shacks like this one, built right next to each other, and I jump between them with no problems. The third one has a steeper roof, and I have to use my hands to pull myself up it, but that's easy enough. The next building is one of the Mediterranean-style ones, the plaster covering its bottom storey painted green. Its further away than the others, too far to jump, but there's a thick rope stretching across the gap. I run across without hesitation, crouching a little as I go, the rope not moving in the slightest.
“So who is this ancestor of mine?” I ask as I run. “Can you tell me now?”
“I guess we can.” Altair says after a moment.
Johnathan takes over. “You're currently in the memories of Carla Armando. Most of her biography is missing, but what we do know is that she was born in Valencia around 1520, she bought a one-way ticket to Havana around 1537-38, and she spent most of her life going under the alias 'Arnau'. Why this was the case, why she left Spain, where she learned to free-run, all of these are unknown.”
There's another cluster of wooden buildings, and between me and them is a tree. It's tall but thin, leaves only appearing near the top. The trunk splits in two half-way up, about level with me, and a skinny branch sticks out in my direction. I jump onto the branch, the wood bouncing a little under my weight, and I squeeze through the gap between the split trunk, resting my hands on the two halves as I go. I jump out of the tree, rolling as I land on the flat wooden roof a storey below.
“Maybe she just wanted some adventure.”
“That's also our guess. There was a lot of that going around in this time period. Also lots of gold fever, but the two are often connected.”
I jump between the various shacks and run across another long rope. Then suddenly, I realise I've already reached the church. I look back at all the buildings I just navigated, and...I just free-ran over two hundred metres like I've been doing it all my life. I'm not exactly unfit, I make an effort to go running in the local park most mornings, but I've never done anything even close to that before. It's insane. It's...amazing.
“I know, right? We weren't kidding about that muscle memory business.”
I look over at the church. There's one more gap to cross before I can scale it. It's pretty wide, but I think I can manage it. I run to the gap, then jump. There's a short but terrible moment when it looks like I won't make it, but then I grab hold of the overhanging roof and swing to a stop. The stone tiles shake a little, but they hold. After a second's pause, I pull myself up onto the roof.
The steeple is built onto the side of the church, about half-way along. The bottom half is painted red, the rest left as plain plaster. On the corner nearest me is a series of thin ledges that look like decent handholds, so I start climbing. The ledges stop about half-way up, but the windows on the belfry have some horizontal iron bars, so I continue up those and take hold of another ledge near the top. Around the corner is a short wooden beam, roughly triangular in shape, sticking out of the wall, and the green dot is hovering just above it. I'm guessing that's my target, so I shimmy around until I'm hanging off the ledge, then pull myself up.
From here I can get a pretty decent view of the city. Sixteenth-century Quito is a lot smaller than I expected, only going out half-a-dozen layers from the central square. But with the old buildings and the giant Andes all around me, the view up here is spectacular.
And then something happens. The supposed map that's been hanging around the corner of my vision, the one that's completely unreadable, suddenly fades into view. The street plan of Quito is laid out within the circle, clear as day.
“That's Synchronisation for you. Every time you climb a designated structure, more of the map will be revealed.”
Some writing appears in front of me. It says...
□ Infiltrate the villa
And then it's gone. A green dot appears over a building on the edge of the city. It's a large, expensive-looking structure, with a paved courtyard in the middle and surrounded by a high wall. Obviously a villa.
“So do I just climb back down?” I ask.
“Look below.” Altair says.
I do. There's a cart full of hay at the bottom of the tower, right underneath the beam I'm crouched on. It's horribly obvious what he's getting at.
“You're joking, right? I mean, free-running is one thing, but I'm going to break my neck. Or Arnau's neck. Someone's neck.”
“It's perfectly fine.” Arlie says. “Obviously Arnau didn't do this in real life. But the Animus uses these haystacks as a shortcut. You can jump without any problems.”
“That's easy for you to say.”
“You'll be fine.”
Very well then. I spread my arms and jump. For a few very long seconds, I look at the night sky above me and prepare to feel my back break. But it doesn't. Instead, I land in the cart with only the gentlest rustle of hay. I quickly pull myself out and plant my feet on the solid ground of the alley. My brain keeps spinning merrily.
“Okay, that was pretty impressive. Take a breath.”
I do as Arlie reccomends.
“How many times am I going to have to do that?”
“Probably a few. But you'll get used it.”
“Getting used to jumping off buildings isn't a good idea.”
I climb the building next to me, and once on the roof, look around for the villa. The green dot is back the way I came, plus a little further. Simple enough. I start running, jumping across gaps, ascend and descend buildings where needed, and in only a few minutes, I'm on the edge of Quito. I drop down off an awning, one that's surprisingly rigid, onto a patch of yellowed grass, the villa only about twenty metres away. On my map, the villa and its grounds are covered in a red square. Given my objective is to 'Infiltrate', I can guess what that means.
Just off to my left, there's a short piece of wooden scaffolding that goes halfway up the wall. I run across the grass, then scale the scaffolding and the wall. I hang off the other side, then drop into an alcove behind a tall stack of crates. A new symbol appears on my map, a red dot with a triangle sticking out of it. The dot is right next to me. I peek around the edge of the crates to see a man stood facing away from me, close enough to touch. He's obviously a soldier, with a thin yellow coat and one of those ridged metal helmets that seem endemic to Conquistadors. He doesn't seem to notice I'm here.
There's a second red dot above the soldier's head, along with the word 'kill'. I duck back behind the crates.
“What do you mean, 'kill'?”
“There's a knife hidden in Arnau's wrist.” Arlie says. “You saw it when the sequence was booting. Use that.”
“That's not what I meant.”
There's a long pause. Eventually, Altair comes on.
“You're not killing a real person. This is the Animus. At worst, all you're doing is killing the memory of a person. And this memory is nearly five hundred years old.”
It doesn't feel that way to me.
“Okay, think of it in more practical terms. You're not supposed to be in this area. If the guard sees you, he'll attack. And you can't get to the villa without getting past him.”
I look around the crates again. From the looks of things, Altair's right. It's about thirty metres from the wall to the villa itself, and these crates are the only cover. But I can't say that helps me, from a moral standpoint.
“I've never wanted to kill anybody.”
“And that's a good thing. It really is. But like I said, all you're doing here is replaying someone else's experiences. Your own hands will be clean.”
Over the last few hours, I've already done a few things I never expected to do, but I can't say I want this to be one of them. Then again, I was dumb enough to agree to this whole trip. I guess I don't have much choice. Again.
I reach back down into Arnau Armando's instincts, whatever they may have been, and strike. I stab the guard through the back of the neck, then grab his coat and pull him around into the alcove. The only sound is a thin 'shink' as the knife springs out of its holder and into the guard's flesh. The guard himself doesn't so much as gasp.
I look down at the body. His eyes are open, but his face is devoid of all expression. For my part, it doesn't hit me like I expected it to. I killed a man, and I don't really feel anything at all. Even that lack of response doesn't scare me too much. Maybe Altair was right, and this is five-hundred years past being my problem.
There's a second guard by the villa entrance, pacing back and forth across a wide archway. I whistle at him and spin out of view. On my map, there's a new dot-with-triangle, the point quickly turning to face me. It starts heading in my direction. When the guard gets to me, I kill him too, throwing the body on top of his colleague. That doesn't bother me much, either.
I run over to the archway, and through it to the courtyard. There's a fountain in the middle, a three-tiered marble thing, but otherwise nothing of interest. To the left, one of the ground-floor windows is open.
■ Infiltrate the villa
There's a brief flash of white, less than a second, and then I'm walking over to the window. Or rather, Arnau's walking. I don't have any control at all.
“Don't panic. This is just another part of the Animus. Most times, you just follow the set markers, but some memories are too complicated for that to be effective. The Animus itself takes over until those sections are complete. You just have to watch and wait, and you'll get control back soon enough.”
It's weird enough using a dead woman's instincts as my own, but her taking control of me completely? I really don't like this at all. But at least I'm not being told to stab people.
Like Arlie says, I watch and wait. Arnau crouches down by the window, then peeks over the edge. I'm guessing the room is some kind of study, based on the big oak desk and the high-backed chairs. There aren't that many books, but there is a massive battleaxe hanging on the wall. Two men are leaning over the desk, looking over various papers and charts. It's hard to make out much detail from this angle, but the two men are wearing expensive-looking clothes, and have large but neatly-trimmed beads.
“That's Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana.” Johnathan says. “The five Pizarro brothers were the ones who overthrew the Inca Empire, and between them founded a number of the cities in this part of South America. Gonzalo himself is currently governor of Quito, but is dreaming of bigger things. Orellana is one of the Pizarros' various cousins and a noble of lesser standing, but he's been with them since the beginning and is a highly-regarded lieutenant. Posterity is conflicted on whether Orellana was good or evil, but the Pizarros were considered monsters even by some of their own countrymen. And we're talking about Conquistadors here, so that tells you something.”
This isn't a period of history I've ever studied much, but yes, I do have an inkling as to what he means. The thought is not comforting.
“So the rumours are true, then?” I'm not sure which of the two men said that. They look kind of the same from here.
“They are. The staff fragment we found in Lima has no power worth speaking of, but its true nature is obvious. Before he died, the native who had it told us it came from a city beyond the mountains, one whose rulers possessed a great many complete artifacts. This is clearly the same city, and the same rulers, about which we have already heard so many stories. If the native was telling the truth, and by that point he had no reason to lie, then the city is real.”
“So the lost city of gold was construido por aquellos que vinieron antes? That would be quite a prize.”
“What did he just say?”
Arlie coughs. “My bad. The Animus has an automatic translation feature, which is why you're not hearing everything in sixteenth-century Spanish. But yeah, sometimes it craps out. Give me a second.”
That's only half of what I meant, but I guess I'll have to get back to the other thing.
“Here we go.”
“Do the Assassins know about this?”
And now there's subtitles. I've always wished I could have those.
“Most likely. But there are fewer than a dozen of the vermin in the entire of [New Castile], so they really can't do anything about it.”
Somewhere in the background, Altair laughs.
“Over the last ten years, we have taken from these Incas more gold than we could have ever dreamed of before. But beyond the mountains there is wealth and power to surpass even our already great achievements. All we have to do is find it. We will bring our order into a new age.”
“May the father of-”
I don't get to hear any more. Someone grabs me by the shoulder and violently throws me away from the window. I slide on my back across half the courtyard. I look up to see a guard stood over me. He's wearing a full-length yellow coat, and he's enormous, at least a foot taller than me and built like an ox. The axe he's carrying looks like it could kill me in one hit. Arnau pulls me – us – to our feet, and at that moment there's another white flash. I'm back in control.
The guard swings his axe into my head. I go spinning through the air and land in a heap. The most surprising thing is that I'm not dead. The second most surprising thing is that it doesn't hurt at all. In fact, apart from being knocked on my arse, the only difference is that my 'health bar' has just been cut by a quarter.
“Arnau didn't get smacked by an axe in real life. Whenever you take a hit that she didn't, your health bar drops. Take too many hits too quickly, you drop out of synch with the Animus, and you have to start the fight again.”
I slowly get back up. “You mean I have to fight this guy?”
“Look on your belt.” Altair says.
I do so. Hanging by my side is a pouch filled with what look like tiny round grenades. Have they been there all along? Hard to tell in this case. I take out one of the grenades and throw it at the guard. Maybe I should feel bad about this, but it's already obvious to me that there's no prizes on offer for fair play.
But the guard doesn't explode. Instead, thick smoke pours around him, and he starts coughing so violently he nearly bends double. Not what I expected, but still, not complaining.
“Now do what the objective says and run.”
I debate ignoring Altair and shanking the guard whilst he's still vulnerable. But...I don't like how easy murder has suddenly become for me. I've only been amongst these people for a few hours, and this is already how far I've gone. I need to male sure I don't get any worse.
I run past him and out of the courtyard. The stack of crates I hid behind earlier is still there, so I climb up them and jump across the alcove to the wall. I drop off the wall and land with a roll, then sprint across the grass to the nearest alleyway.
I turn a corner and lean against a wall, and then suddenly, the world freezes.
Everything fades to white.
Memory 02: Should You Choose To Accept It...
The world fades back in.
It's still night-time, and I'm stood in another alley. According to my map, I'm on the other side of Quito. The only feature around me of note is a large pigeon coop, standing against the wall of a building. There's a little door on one side, with a green dot and the word 'interact', which is perhaps the least helpful thing a computer has ever said to me. I notice one of the pigeons has a note attached to its leg, so I open the door and grab the bird. It makes disturbingly little fuss. I pull off the note and put the pigeon back.
The note reads:
There is a new development. Meet me as soon as possible. You know where.
On cue, a green dot appears in the distance. This Herrada's 'usual place', whatever it'll turn out to be, is noted on the map as being a large building just past the church.
□ Head to the rendezvous
Seems simple enough. I climb on top of the pigeon coop, the birds inside again barely reacting, and from there scale the wooden wall, using a few broken planks at handholds. Once on the roof, I start running towards the church.
“Altair?” I ask in my head.
“There's a question I asked before. You didn't really answer.”
“There may have been a reason for that. But go ahead.”
“They were talking about 'the lost city of gold'. My history isn't any better than my geography, but even I know what that means. You brought me here to find El Dorado.”
I jump from a wooden verranda onto an awning, then climb a window to a flat, white-painted roof. There's a tree between this building and the next, so I jump towards it, swing on a branch, then land on the next roof without slowing my pace. I run up the tiles, then turn right and run across a long rope. Altair still hasn't responded.
“Yes.” He eventually says. “We're trying to find El Dorado, and somewhere in Arnau Armando's memories is the key to its location.”
I've been kidnapped by the most mild-mannered gang in the world, strapped into a machine that lets me become my own ancestors, and I've become an expert on free-running and murder with no training whatsoever. I guess I shouldn't find that news hard to swallow. But still...
“Which is why I didn't tell you upfront. But we're not crazy, and we're not joking. El Dorado isn't just a myth. What little we've already seen of these memories tells us as much.”
“So you're...what, just gold-hunters?”
“No. This isn't about money. The 'artifacts' Pizarro and Orellana were talking about...I won't go into it right now, but suffice it to say, there's things in this world even worse than gold. And Isobel, I meant what I said before. Abstergo also knows about all this. They're after El Dorado too. That's something you should take seriously.”
I do. I really, really do. I mean, he'll admit to looking for a mythical city, but he still won't tell me what he means by 'artifact'? It's either really strange, or really bad. Why not both?
The church is coming up on my left. I run on past, then jump across an alley onto a ladder bolted to another building. From there, I climb to the top, and almost without realising, I'm at my destination. My rendezvous point turns out to be a cantina, a large, two-storey complex with plaster walls painted in a variety of bright colours. In the centre is a courtyard filled with round tables, but at this time of night the place appears to be empty. On the roof in front of me is a set of steps leading down and to the right, obviously going to the courtyard. I follow.
■ Head to the rendezvous
There's another flash of light, and Arnau takes over. On the left, previously obscured from where I stood on the roof, is a long bar with a plentiful supply of barrels and tankards. The barman is sat on a stool, seemingly asleep. There's only one other person here, sat at a nearby table. He's tall, so far as I can tell from this angle, slender but still obviously capable, and has the neat beard that I'm guessing is in fashion around these parts. His uniform is exactly the same as mine, except dark grey instead of white, and he has a short blue cloak hanging from his left shoulder. It doesn't take a great leap to assume this is de Herrada.
“Correct.” Johnathan says. “After they conquered the Incas in 1532, the Pizarros fell out with a business partner called Diego de Almagro. They fell out so badly, in fact, that it turned into a civil war. Almagro finally lost in 1535, and was executed for his troubles. Juan de Herrada here is the leader of the surviving 'Almagristas'.”
“At least, that's what you read in the history books.” Altair chips in. “Before all this is over, I suspect we might learn something different.”
Just how different would that get? I wouldn't be surprised if they turned out to be Martians.
Herrada nods at me, or rather at Arnau. “Thank you for coming.”
Arnau sits us down at his table. “What's the news, Mentor?”
It takes me a second to realise that Arnau has just spoken. Her accent is very obviously Spanish, though not to the point of parody, and is a little deeper than I was expecting. Whether it's her real voice or one she puts on, I can't tell. Both seem likely.
“Before I get to that, I have something for you.” There's a long, thin wooden box propped up against the table. Herrada picks it up and puts it front of me.
Arnau opens the box. Inside are two swords, each with a silver handle shaped like an eagle's head. They're both obviously very, very sharp, and when I look at them all I can think of is the night of my eighth birthday, when mum revealed she'd saved all year to buy me a dog and I was so happy I cried for an hour.
Is that my memory, or hers? I'm not even that sure on the difference.
“Okay, that's bad.”
“She'll be alright. There's always a wobble early on.”
“...Fine. But if she winds up on a kill-crazy rampage, I'm blaming you.”
Arnau picks up one of the swords, swings it around a few times, then gently puts it back.
“Thank you, Mentor.”
“Julio came through even faster than he said he would.” Herrada says with a smile. “And considering you're my best swordsman by some margin, I have to say I'm grateful. Just be more careful with these ones.”
“I will. I'm sorry, Mentor.”
“Apology long since accepted. But like I said, try to avoid those kinds of stunts. I'm not going to pay for a third pair.”
“I understand. Forgive me, but...you said there was a development.”
Herrada smiles again. “Never mastered small talk, did you? Okay then. Well, you're going to be needing those swords very soon. Since you interrupted their meeting the other day, Pizarro and Orellana have been very busy. They're already recruiting for their expedition.”
“I've heard those same rumours.”
“And those rumours are true. They'll be leaving by the end of the month. You, Arnau Armando, will be going with them.”
“The Templars might be blinded by gold-lust, but that hasn't made them stupid. If they believe there is something to these El Dorado stories, then perhaps it's time we started looking into this ourselves.”
“See? Even this guy agrees with us.”
“Sadly,” Herrada continues, “we just don't have the resources to mount our own expedition. Not even close. So our only choice is for you to join theirs.”
“Are you sure? I'm not really suited for that kind of...infiltration.”
“You prefer overt action, I agree. And you're very good at it. That's why I chose you. You'll be gone a long time. Over a year, probably closer to two. No one knows where you'll be going, or what you're going to find. But whatever it is, it'll be tough. Like I said, you're my best swordsman, barring those recent slip-ups. If anyone can survive, it'll be you.”
“I'm honoured that you think so, Mentor.”
Herrada shrugs. “Don't be. Odds are, I'm sending you into hell.”
Johnathan laughs. I can't say I feel reassured.
Herrada goes to keep speaking, but stops. “We've got guests.” He then says.
Arnau turns round. Four soldiers have just walked into the cantina. They're wearing the same helmets and yellow coats as the ones I stabbed earlier, and they're looking right at us.
“Juan de Herrada?” The one at the front says.
“And I've only been in town for a day.” Herrada says with a sigh. “Fine. Yes, that's me.”
The lead soldier draws his sword. “You're coming with us.”
“An interesting theory.” Herrada replies. He gestures at me. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all.” Arnau says. “I need to put Julio's work to the test.”
The lead soldier bangs his sword on the nearest table. “I said you're coming with us.”
“You'll blunt it if you keep doing that.”
Arnau stands up and picks up her swords. The other three soldiers respond by drawing theirs. They're not as nervous as they should be.
A flash of white, and I'm in control again. The soldiers now have red dots over their heads, each labelled 'kill'.
□ Defend Herrada
An interesting way to put it, but sure.
It's at this point that I realise something else: all four soldiers, from their day-glo coats to their battered helmets to their silly moustaches, they all look exactly the same. And not in a 'all soldiers look alike to me' way, but in a 'they took one guy and ran him through a photocopier three times' way. Like all those coloured dots and the map that keeps following me around, it's obviously another piece of Animus artifice. Maybe the computer's just lazy. I don't know. But it's obvious that, whatever they once might have been, these are not real people, and...I'm glad for that.
Once again, I look to Arnau for ideas, and through her, I strike first. I bring down both swords in an overhand strike, the right one missing and the left one slashing the first soldier across the chest. I attack again with my right sword, slashing down and across, then follow by cutting up with my left sword. I hack at his side with a left backhand, then slash across his head with my right, and finally bring the sword back across his neck. This last attack lifts the soldier off his feet, and he spins over into a heap on the floor. All of this took less than four seconds, and has left at least half his blood supply splattered around him.
His three comrades don't learn from this display. The second soldier attacks, but I block his sword with a force that spins him round and drops him to one knee. I jump forward, put my right sword to his neck and pull. He collapses onto his front in a spray of blood. The third tries to strike from behind, but I reach my right sword over my shoulder and block. I slash at his his chest with my left sword as I turn round, then follow with another from my right. As he bends over I grab his arm, then punch him in the face and stab him through the back, just below the shoulder blades. There's one guy left, so before he can attack I bring down my left sword on his skull, then pull it out and, as he falls over, swipe at him with my right.
And they're all dead. Just like that. Poor bastards didn't even get a look in.
■ Defend Herrada
Arnau takes back control. She holsters her swords, which are somehow clean of blood, sliding them through two leather loops attached to her belt.
Herrada looks at the carnage and raises an eyebrow. “Are you having a bad day or something?”
“You always said I should make sure.”
“Well, yes.” Herrada prods the lead soldier with his boot. “But did you really have to stab him six times?”
“He was still standing after the fifth.”
“I'm not sure how to answer that.”
There's a long pause. “I think we should get going, Mentor.” Arnau eventually says.
“Quite. I've left a supply chest not far from here, next to the old hideout. You're going to need what's inside. Once I've made myself scarce, I'll send another pigeon.”
“I'll be waiting. Good luck, Mentor.”
□ Find the supply chest
And I'm back in charge. The map says my objective is only a hundred metres away, which is the first piece of good news I've had in a while. I leave the cantina through the wide archway that is its front entrance. On the other side of the street is what looks like a primtive crane, holding a large bag above the roof level of a two-storey building. There's a cable running the full height of the crane, and thanks to the Animus it's glowing white. I jog over to the crane, and before I even think about how stupid this is, I hold the cable with my right hand and cut it with the hidden blade in my left. The bag drops to the ground, pulling me into the air as it goes. I land feet-first on the roof as the bag hits the street with a loud crunch.
“Nicely done.” Altair says.
“Well, I guess I'm supposed to be a ninja now.”
“I don't think Arnau has any shurikens, so not a ninja, no.”
“I can live with that.”
I hadn't pictured Altair as a guy who knew anything about ninjas, but you never can tell.
I can't see from here any building that looks like an 'old hideout', although...isn't that the point? Never mind. I start running in the direction indicated on the map, out towards the edge of the city. In less than a minute I find myself stood above a patch of dead ground, sandwiched between four shacks. There's an old-fashioned chest – although I guess not so old in 1541 – in the opposite corner, on top of a low wooden table. I drop to the ground and walk over.
■ Find the supply chest
The chest is locked, and I wasn't given a key, but I don't think Arnau was the kind of person to let that stop her. She pulls out a sword, rips the lock clean off its mounting, and kicks open the lid. Inside is some extra smoke bombs, which she quickly puts in our bag, and a few coils of rope with little knife blades tied to the ends. She pockets those as well, obviously knowing what they do, which is something I guess I'll find out for myself before too long. Along with these items, much to what I'm guessing is Arnau's excitement rather than mine, is a crossbow. It's small, easily wielded with one hand, and elegantly carved with floral-like patterns, with a tip shaped like an eagle's beak. Arnau picks it up, admires it for a few moments, then fixes it to her back. I'm not sure how, but it's becoming obvious that such questions don't matter in the Animus.
And this is the point where four more soldiers charge in. Considering what I did to the last bunch, it should probably be four hundred.
□ Kill the soldiers
I give the new arrivals a closer a look. Three of them are of the same...'model', I guess, as the ones before. One of these three is stood on a nearby roof, holding a crossbow of his own. The fourth guy is different: he isn't wearing a helmet, his coat looks a size too small, and he's wielding a knife in a classic crouched stance.
Before I get a chance to attack, a red target symbol appears over the crossbowman. A white line starts circling it, moving quickly. I have a matter of seconds before he shoots me. I don't know how much damage that will cause, and I don't want to find out. One of the other soldiers is within my reach, so I grab him, spin him round and pull him close. The crossbow bolt thuds into his chest, and I let him drop to the floor. The bowman starts to reload.
Whilst he does so, I strike at the knife-wielder. He blocks. I attack again, he blocks again. I don't waste my effort a third time. Instead, I pull on his arm and spin us both around. He ends up with his back to me, and I take advantage by slashing at his neck, first with my right sword then my left. This doesn't take his head off, as I kinda expected, but he still drops in a hefty splash of blood. By now the bowman is almost ready to fire again. The last soldier is too far away to grab, so I pull out my own crossbow and shoot him. I barely even have to take a second to aim, and I plug him square in the chest. He falls to his knees, and then pitches off the roof.
The last soldier wisely decides to turn and run. But my objective is to kill them all, so it looks like I'll have to chase him. Feels a little mean.
The soldier runs through an alley leading out of this building cluster. I follow, sprinting at full speed, but by the time I reach the street he's already out of sight. Luckily, he still shows up on my map. I head down another alley, a few metres to my right. I see him near the end, about to turn another corner. Just in front of me, on the left side of the alley, is a stack of crates covered in a white canvas. I run up them, then swing off a pole and land on a metal grate sticking out of the building. I climb up a street sign, then leap for the overhanging roof and pull myself up.
The map says my target isn't far away. I can see the red dot through a building in front of me. I jump over the alley, then turn left and run for the dot. The gap is bigger than I expected, and I only just manage to grab hold of the roof, but I'm on the building I want with only a second lost. I quickly run over to the other side. The soldier is below me, about twenty metres further up the street. I cross the gap to the next building, and drop down to a section that's a storey lower. At the end there's another alley, and on the other side there's another pole sticking out of the wall. I jump for it, then swing and land on the ground with a quick roll. The soldier is right in front of me now, almost within reach. There's a second for me to close the distance, then I throw myself at him and bury my hidden blade in his neck.
“You've got a crossbow.” Arlie says. “Why didn't you just shoot him?”
That's an excellent question.
“Don't know. Remind me about it next time.”
■ Kill the soldiers
I stand up and look around. I've got an audience. Only a small handful, four people at the most, but it's still the first civilians I've seen so far. They look shocked. I guess that's to be expected.