An Evening at the Carnival with Mister Christian, Part II

Part 2 or 3

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Part III: The Ceremony of Innocence – Curse what deceives us in our dreaming… 

He stood on the bow of the rumbling dive boat, holding onto the painted galvanized rail as it pounded through heaving, wind driven swell, trying to make out the lights off Catalina’s Isthmus Cove. The man had just decided he was going to be seasick – and wanted to get as far away from his students as he could – and suddenly he leaned over the rail and retched, but nothing came up and he cursed his dehydrated gut, pulled out a roll of antacids from his jacket pocket and chewed a few, hoping to knock back the acid fueling this recurring storm.

He sensed one of his students nearby and tried to get his act together, but the combination of rolling swells and diesel fumes was a toxic mix, at least as far as his stomach was concerned, and he leaned over again as another wave hit…

“You feeling okay,” he heard a woman’s voice ask, and he shook his head, tried to remember her name.

“Not really. I think the water between Long Beach and Catalina is the best in the world for making me seasick. Every night I come out here…it gets me when the fumes hit.”

“Half the class is hurling over the rail out back,” she said, “so you’re not alone. Are you taking Maalox?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Here, take one of these?”

“These being?” he said as he held out his hand.

“Prilosec, a PPI.”

“That’s right. You’re a doc, aren’t you?” He popped the pill in his mouth and swallowed it dry, wishing he’d brought a bottle of water with him.

“Yup, but only in the minor leagues. Here, take that with some water,” she said, handing him an unopened bottle of ice cold water.

“Minor leagues? What’s that mean?” he sighed as he downed the bottle in one long pull.

“I work in Santa Monica, at one of those big HMOs. Doc in the Box, I think we’re called.”

“Twelve years of school to serve fast food medicine? Must be fun.”

“Not the words I’d choose, but it pays the rent. So. You don’t teach SCUBA full time?”

“Nope. LAPD.”

“Yikes. Bet that’s a fun job.”

“Not the words I’d choose, but it pays the rent.” He smiled at her, tried to stifle a toxic fuming burp but it hissed out between his tightly clinched lips. He shook his head and squinted as another wave of bile tickled his glottis, making his eyes water. “Sorry,” he groaned.

She looked at him for the millionth time, totally in lust with the guy. Really tall and almost too skinny, he looked like one hard muscle – coiled and ready to strike. His arms and legs were wicked hairy too, and, like the hair on his head, it was all dark blond heading fast for grayish-white. She guessed he was in his mid-fifties, but whatever he was, every time she looked at him she got weak in the knees and wet where it counted.

“You married?” she asked, looking out towards Catalina.

He chuckled. “Depends on who you ask.”

“Oh?”

“I was in the process of getting a divorce, but my wife was in an accident a few months ago, before the papers were final.”

“Hurt?”

“Killed. She and her boyfriend, out riding his Ducati on the Angeles Crest Highway at two in the morning. Hit a rock and lost it, into the guardrail. I think the tequila in their systems had something to do with it, but my guess is she died happy.”

“I seem to remember reading about that one…”

“A inglorious end to a somewhat glorious marriage.”

“Bitter?”

“You know? About the second week of academy one of our instructors told us that if our marriages weren’t rock solid we’d be divorced within two years. Ours just about got to twenty, so I wonder if that’d be considered semi-rock solid?”

“Twenty years? That’s pretty good these days…for anyone.”

The boat launched off a high swell and dove down into a deep trough, sending a wall of water all over the foredeck, drenching them both.

“We’d better move aft,” he said.

“I’m going to stay up here if you don’t mind,” she grinned. “It’s kind of exhilarating, I guess.”

He didn’t move, but he did turn around and look at her. Maybe forty, short as could be and stocky, built kind of like a fire hydrant, but with super cute, inquisitive eyes. He remembered thinking she wasn’t fat the first night at the pool; neither was she what most people would consider trim – these days, anyway. She looked fit and strong when they did their pool training, however, and she definitely wasn’t a wimp.

“Why’d you decide to take up SCUBA diving?” he asked her.

“I moved out here last year, and it seemed like the thing to do. I love the ocean, everything about it. I grew up north of Boston, and my parents were big sailors. We went sailing every weekend all summer, every summer, and sailed up to Maine around the Fourth every year, but it was too cold to do much diving. I tried snorkeling a few years ago and loved it, wanted to see more, but with school and all, then work, well, there just wasn’t time.”

“The water here isn’t particularly warm, you know?”

“What is out here this time of year?”

“Fifty, maybe fifty-two degrees. I hate to say it, but most of the old pros keep warm by peeing in their wetsuit right after they hit the water. The pee will keep you warm for a while, a few minutes anyway, and by that time your body heat will warm up the water inside your suit. The pee gets flushed within a couple minutes…after five minutes it’s all gone. Still, it’s kind of gross.”

“Someone else told me about that. Do you do that?”

“I don’t like being cold, so, uh, yes, I sure do.”

“Well, when in Rome…”

“It sounds bad, but you do it a few times and you’ll get over it. Really, unless you get right out of the water it’s all gone in a few minutes.”

“You said in class this first dive will be to around sixty feet or so?”

“We’ll drop anchor near some rocks, then go down to the bottom. Yeah, about sixty feet, and then we’ll visit Waldo.”

“Waldo?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I’ll introduce him to you.”

“Okay, sure. You say so…”

“So, what kind of doc are you?”

“Psychiatry,” she said, and he thought he heard a little defensiveness in her voice.

“Married?”

“You got to be kidding, right?”

“Why’s that?” he said, trying not to sound too ironic.

“I’m short, fat, Jewish, and a shrink. What a catch, right? Besides, I thought I might meet some nice west-side boys out here, taking this class…”

“You’re not fat.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“So…any luck?”

“You’ve got a lousy since of humor, you know?”

“Ah, you never know who you’ll meet out here. I’ve watched some pretty interesting hook-ups on these trips over the years…”

“Yeah? How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, let’s see. I went into traffic almost fifteen years ago, so…two years after that I finished the instructors course. I’ve been at it ever since.”

“You like diving that much?”

“I like the ocean in general, but I like being under a lot more. You know…all those Cousteau shows on TV growing up…”

“Me too. Seen many sharks over here?”

He chuckled again. “This is their home. We’re just visitors, if you know what I mean.”

“Is that a yes?”

“That’s a big yes, but as long as no one’s spear-fishing nearby it’s not that big a deal.”

“Great Whites?”

“Geesh, are you sure you wanna be out here?”

“No, no…I mean I want to see one.”

“A White?”

“Yeah, hell yeah.”

“Well, next time we take a trip out to San Miguel or Santa Cruz, you might want to tag along. If you want to see Blues, or some of the more ‘off the wall’ pelagic types, we’re running out to a site near San Nicolas in a few weeks. Assuming you pass this class, sign up for the next advanced class. We make our third and fourth dives out there.”

“What about the first two dives?”

“Santa Barbara. The small island. Really desolate, unspoiled. Amazing number of deep water species in both places, a lot of kelp diving too. Ah, there’s the Isthmus light, that flashing one, right over there,” he said, pointing. “We’ll drop anchor in about thirty minutes,” he said, looking at his watch. “Sun will be up by then, so call it an hour or so before we hit the water.”

A handful of his other students had been drifting forward, and he smiled. For some this was their first trip out to Catalina – and he could tell by looking at their faces how excited, and how nervous they were. They’d all been through two weekends of classroom study, as well as several pool dives, but there was always something about making your first ocean dive that caught first-timers off-guard. This was the real deal, and he’d had more than a few freeze up and call it quits before they ever hit the water.

“How deep is it here?” one of the younger kids said.

“Like I said in the class last week, out first dive this morning will be between sixty and seventy feet. Our second will be in much shallower water, around thirty, after our surface interval. And remember, we’ll do all our calculations manually today.”

“So, no dive computers?”

“Nope. Computers can break, remember? You always need to record your depths and times on a slate, just in case. ALWAYS. You’re going to be excited enough as is, so keep with your buddy and both of you make sure you remind each other to keep writing your times down, all the time. We’ll check your slates when we get down there, so if you haven’t written this stuff down, please don’t ask why you failed the class. Okay?”

He made eye contact with each of them…and everyone nodded understanding.

“We’ll have three Divemasters with us today; two are students and they’ll be getting their ‘student dives’ graded today – just like you. They’re in the orange wetsuits, so if you have any questions while getting suited up, ask them. Again, just like you they’re being graded on their understanding and the way they interact with you, so there are no stupid questions out here today. Again, please ask them, so if you don’t know XYZ? Just ask. If you’re not sure how to hook something up? Again, please ask. There are no stupid questions out here this morning, okay?”

Lots of stern expressions on the faces he looked at, and he nodded. “Good. Remember, this is serious stuff, the real deal, but it’s also a lot of fun. Learn the right way today and it’ll be something you can do the rest of your life; start developing bad habits today and you WILL get in trouble. As soon as the anchor’s down we’ll start suiting up, so please get some water on board now, two bottles at least. You don’t want to dehydrate down there, and remember, the compressed air in these tanks dries you out in a hurry. And remember what we said about peeing in the wetsuit? If you feel cold, just let it go.”

The group broke up and drifted aft, yet the psychiatrist stayed up front with him, enjoying the wind and the spray…and she looked back at the mainland, at the warm glow of the sun chasing the night away.

“It’s kind of cool out here…” she observed. “I wonder what it would be like to sail across the Pacific. You know, just leave one day and keep on going?”

He looked away. “I don’t know. My sister was into that, though.”

“Oh?”

“She was the family genius. Harvard, Georgetown, that kind of thing. Never knew what she did to make a living, but then about a year ago I learned she was in a mental hospital. Schizophrenia, they said. That’s what my mom told me, but I don’t know much about it.”

“She has a boat?”

“Yeah. Somewhere up in Seattle, big fat thing. I was appointed guardian a few months ago, and I really need to go up there and get things sorted out.”

“That sounds painful. Are you two close?”

“It is a long story, but there was this gap in time between when she and my other sister were born, and when I came along. Like seven years. I hardly knew her when she left for college, and I’ve rarely seen her over the years.”

“You’ve never seen the boat, then?”

He shook his head, looked away.

“Wow, sounds like a handful to take on. Have you visited her?”

“According to my mom, no visitors allowed.”

“After a year? That’s kind of odd.”

He nodded his head, still looking away from her. “Every thing about her life is weird. Always has been.”

“How so?”

He looked at the horizon and the navigation buoy, guessed they’d drop anchor in five minutes. “Well, I hate to break this up, but the crew will need to start doing there thing up here now. We’d better head back, get suited up.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

He looked at the skipper in the wheelhouse and waved, then went aft himself, stepping over the two dozen dive bags strewn out all over the aft deck on the way to his own. He peeled off his jeans and fleece, revealing a black and silver lycra body-suit; he pulled his Instructor’s wetsuit from the bag and pulled it on, then his booties. He circulated among his students, reminding them how to place their regulator valves and why to keep the octopus on the left side of their buoyancy compensation vests, and with the sun now up the air warmed quickly as he walked around the rolling deck.

“Wind’s picking up,” the skipper said as he came to the gate on the aft deck, “so it might get rough out here later this afternoon?”

“Another Santa Ana blowing in? You want to head over to the far side?”

“Might want to think about it. Could be hard getting beginners back onboard if it really picks up.”

“We okay for the first dive?”

“Should be.”

“Okay. We’ll get ’em in fast. First dive will be for thirty five minutes or so.”

“Right.”

He went to his dive masters and talked the plan over one more time, then stood in the middle of the deck and addressed his students. “Okay! Listen up! I want your tanks front and center, and I want to see your slates attached to your BCs. We’ll have twelve students, three dive masters and one instructor in the water. Sixteen people. Your two jobs are to keep track of your buddy, and to make sure you record your time of descent and time at maximum depth. We are going to head down to some rocks about fifty-five, sixty feet down,” then he held out a can of pressurized cheese-whiz spread. “When we’re down there, I want you to gather ‘round behind me, and I’ll introduce you to Waldo, then you’ll break off with your dive master for our exercises.”

Everyone looked at him, confusion clear as they tried to remember their pool dives.

“We’ll descend as a group, with two dive masters taking the lead, then you’ll follow immediately, with your buddy, one pair at a time. I’ll follow up with another dive master. It’s a sandy bottom with a few rocky outcroppings, so gather around ABOVE the dive masters down there, then let’s get ready to have some fun. Just a reminder…do NOT land on the bottom; adjust your BCs to hover at least five feet above the sea-floor. Any questions?”

He walked over to the trainee dive masters and talked over the plan one last time; one to stay with him, the other with their trainer, then he turned his eyes on them and addressed them sternly. “If you see panic in anyone’s eyes, pull them out and get them on the line and bring ‘em up.” He looked at them, made sure that point hit home. “Okay, let’s get ‘em in the water, and remember, keep them in a hover once we’re down there – we won’t be able to see a damn thing if they kick up a bunch of sand.”

The sun now well up in the morning sky, once all the students were in the water he signaled the first two dive masters to begin their descent. They grabbed a line running down to the bottom and deflated their buoyancy compensators and began a slow drop to the seafloor – even sixty feet down still clearly visible below. A few parrotfish drifted by as the first students took off, then he cleared the air from his BC and began his descent, writing on his slate he drifted down. He looked up and saw another group hit the water and swim off towards some kelp…

‘So far so good,’ he said to himself as he settled above the group. He porpoised over to the largest rocky outcropping and pulled the can of cheese-whiz from his BC, then tapped it on the rocks a few times. He turned, saw the group assembling behind and just above him, then tapped the can on the rocks again.

He peeked out then, first a shadow, then his head…

Waldo, an ancient moray eel poked his head out of the rocks and he squirted an inch long string of cheese onto his finger, then held it out. The old moray was shy at first, but came about a foot out of the rocks and gently took the cheese off his fingers. Moving slowly, he turned to a student and motioned her forward.

It was the shrink, he saw, and she held out her hand and he shot another inch of the goop onto her finger – and then Waldo drifted over and gently took it off. He could see the expression in her eyes, the wonder, the restrained excitement, and the moment reminded him why he still did this after so many years.

The other dive masters arranged themselves around the rock and pulled out cans of cheese-whiz – and then a half-dozen morays appeared. One by one, students got the opportunity to feed an eel, and as many times as he’d done this the magic of this moment, this interaction between species, never failed to amaze him. He hovered above the scene as his students ran through their exercises, keeping an eye on his watch until it was time to ascend, then he tapped on the rock with his dive-knife, signaled everyone to get ready, then pointed at the first dive masters to lead-off. He watched as everyone started their ascent, and when he confirmed the count he too started up.

He saw the shark then, a medium sized Blue, a predator, and he tagged his trainee and pointed, and they moved off to place themselves between the ascending group and the shark. It circled almost at the limits of their vision, looking for a weakness, then it turned and disappeared towards the kelp. He looked at his buddy and nodded, and they kept up an ultra-slow ascent until they were a few feet below the boat. He pointed at his buddy and indicated he should go up the ladder, and after she cleared the ladder, he went up too.

“There was a shark down there?” someone asked as he came up.

“Yup,” he said. “A little blue. Maybe seven, eight feet long. He kept his distance, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” the shrink said – and he laughed.

“I was a little preoccupied. Next time he comes around though, I’ll be sure to tap you on the shoulder.”

She laughed. “Guess the moral of that story is to keep your eyes open, huh?”

“I’d say so, but they’re predators, and they don’t like to advertise their presence.”

“Damn!”

“I wouldn’t sweat it too much. You dive around here regularly you’ll see plenty of ‘em.” He looked around the group, confirmed the head-count again. “Okay. Get your slates out and start calculating your intervals. Our next dive will be to thirty five feet, so tell me how long we can stay at that depth, and what our surface interval should be.”

He left them to it and walked up to the wheelhouse. “How’s it looking?”

“Small craft warning just popped on the VHF. Backside looks okay, but the wind is picking up fast. As soon as that other group gets back we’ll weigh anchor and head…”

“Shark!” someone yelled, and he ran back to the aft deck, saw one of the guys from that other group swimming for the aft platform, then…fifty yards out he saw another guy fighting off the blue, swinging away at it with a speargun.

“They’re spearfishing!?” he yelled, suddenly very angry. There was supposed to be no hunting when students were in the water, but that didn’t matter now. He ducked back into the wheelhouse and grabbed the SharkDart and ran aft, grabbed his mask and slipped his fins on as fast as he could after he dove in. Dart in hand, he slipped his snorkel in his mouth and porpoised out towards the stricken diver…

The shark was now circling warily about ten yards out; the guy had dropped his speargun – with a dead parrotfish still attached to the spear – and he was holding his arm, puffy-cloudy swirls of purplish blood drifting all around the guy. He took the cork off the dart and primed the cylinder, then dove down about twenty feet, keeping an eye on the shark now as it turned and sprinted in towards the cloud of blood.

He powered up, the dart ahead of him and he thrust it into the sharks belly when it was about five feet shy of the diver; when the dart compressed it discharged several pounds of carbon-dioxide into the shark’s abdomen, instantly causing all of the animals entrails to explode out it’s mouth…

He pulled the diver to the surface, inflating the guy’s BC as he pulled him to the swim platform; the dive masters pulled him aboard, cut off his gear and started assessing his wounds. He climbed up the ladder, doing his best to hide the dart, then he went to the wheelhouse and handed it to the captain.

“Did you get it?” the man asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. Stupid son-of-a-goddamned-bitch…” he thundered as the full fury of the adrenaline rush hit him, then he stomped out of the wheelhouse and made his way to the aft deck.

“Is his group all accounted for?” he asked as he looked at the guy’s wounds.

“No arterial bleeds, mainly superficial, but my guess is he’s lost a lot of blood.”

He walked back to the wheelhouse and told the skipper to call the Coast Guard. “Where’d they hide their spearguns?” he asked.

“Tossed ‘em over in a dive-bag while it was still dark, probably while we were anchoring.”

He shook his head. “I suppose they signed the acknowledgement form?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll take the paperwork.”

“Thanks, Spud,” the skipper said as he called the Coast Guard. He relayed the situation and their position, then signed off.

“You know, you’re the only human being left in the world who still calls me Spud?”

“It’s the only name that fits, Amigo. I sure ain’t going to call you Ted…”

He walked aft again; the stricken diver was trying to sit up, light-headed and in deep shock as he knelt next to him. “Let’s get him on the board, legs up until the coasties get here, spread some coagulant on that arm. Any family here with him?”

“Me…he’s my brother-in-law.”

“Okay, you need to get ready to go in with him. Coast Guard will fly him into Harbor Emergency, and they might ask for a relative to come along.”

“Okay.”

He pulled the kid aside. “Y’all signed a ‘no spearfishing agreement.’ You do know there’s going to be trouble?”

The kid nodded his head.

“That’s good.” He turned, saw the CG Blackhawk roaring across the water from Long Beach, and a minute later the flutterbug was hovering over the aft deck, a basket coming down. They loaded the guy into the basket and the pilot hauled him up, then the Blackhawk promptly turned back towards the mainland and roared off.

“Your lucky day, kid. No ride in the chopper for you.” He turned and walked forward to the wheelhouse. “I’ve had enough fun for now. Let’s head towards Avalon and see if we can meet ‘em halfway.”

“Will do; I’ll let ‘em know.”

He walked aft, saw his dive masters and the boat’s crew washing blood off the deck and shook his head. “Okay, y’all gather ‘round. We’re heading for Avalon, have some paperwork we need to do with the Coast Guard, then we’ll need to decide if we want to finish up our second dive or not. Anyone here too spooked to continue?”

Everyone’s hand went up and he laughed.

“Well, that takes care of that. We’ll schedule a make-up dive, probably a beach dive at Palos Verdes for next weekend. Any questions you have, let me know.”

A half hour later a Coast Guard 44 could be seen steaming their way, and fifteen minutes later they were alongside. Two uniformed men hopped over and he led them forward to the wheelhouse; he went over the incident, excluding use of the SharkDart, as the coasties filled out their forms.

“How’d you get rid of the shark?” one of them asked…

“Well-timed blow to the snout,” he said. “Works every time.”

“Yeah, sure. Okay, skipper. Sign here. Spud? You too.”

“Gotcha. You know what this Santa Ana is up to?”

“I’d get back across ASAP if this was my boat. 55-60 knots in the new forecast.”

“Okay,” the skipper said. “Thanks Chief.”

“Later.” They were gone in a flash and the dive boat turned to 30 degrees and began the long pounding ride back to Long Beach. He went forward and sat on a deck-box, sitting “Indian-style” as he leaned back and sighed, closing his eyes for the first time in a day.

“You wear a red cape on your days-off, I see.”

He opened his eyes, saw the shrink sitting beside him and he wanted to tell her to go away, but that just wasn’t in the job description. “Well, you got to see your shark, didn’t you?”

She burst out laughing and he looked at her. He liked her eyes, he reminded himself, and the way she carried herself, but her skin was pale…like too many years in the library, he guessed, but he liked her deep brown hair, especially when he saw red highlights shimmering in the sun. But her deep brown eyes, he thought, were really something special. He guessed she had been an athlete at one time; her legs looked powerful, her arms too, and he remembered she’d moved with confidence underwater.

“Yeah, guess so. Suppose I have to leave you a big tip, huh?”

“Sorry. Not allowed.”

“Well then, how about dinner?”

“What? Tonight?”

“Yeah. You booked already?”

“Kind of. I have an appointment with my bed starting as soon as I get home, and I was hoping for about twenty hours straight.”

“Too much. Not healthy for you.”

“Well, I’m on call at midnight, so I take what I can get.”

“Cops are on call? Wow…and I thought I was the only one to be blessed with that curse.”

“I work traffic, I think I mentioned. I’m the on-call accident reconstructionist tomorrow. Well, starting at midnight, that is.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Only the biggest, best fatalities, Ma’am.”

“Sheesh. Now I know that sounds like fun. How long have you been doing that?”

“Ten years?”

“How many fatalities does that work out to?”

“About a hundred a year, plus the other assorted major accidents, and accidents involving city personnel.”

“And you hold all that shit inside? For ten years now?”

He looked at her and smiled. “You get used to it.”

“No, you don’t. You might think you do, but Ted, you’re burning the candle at both ends.”

“I eat lots of Indian and Thai. The spices keep all those evil spirits away.”

“Do they, now? Well, I know a great place over by the Farmer’s Market…”

“Electric Karma?”

“How’d you know?”

He smiled. “I live a block away. Walk there for dinner at least eight days a week.”

“I live on Harper. You?”

“La Jolla,” he said, grinning. “Hey, neighbor!”

“Well, that settles it.”

“What?”

“Dinner, and I’m buyin’!”

“Yeah, okay, but I’ve forgotten your name…”

She scrunched up her face. “Class act, Tom.”

“Ted.”

They laughed. “And I’m Carol. Pleased to meet you – again,” she said, holding out her hand.

He took it. “So, I’m going out on a date with a shrink. Don’t that beat all?”

She held out her iPhone and swung it around. “No signal out here, huh?”

“About another hour, then you’ll get two bars.”

“Hope we can get a reservation?” she said.

“Unnecessary. I have one at eight.”

“No kidding…you ARE a regular!”

“Listen, if I don’t catch some shut-eye, I’m not going to make it.”

“There are a few bunks down below. Why don’t you go hit the rack?” she said.

“I might just do that,” he said, standing. He walked aft and ducked down below, then hopped on one of the pipe-berths and closed his eyes…

…and a few moments later he heard the boat’s engines backing down. He looked at his watch: he’d been down almost three hours – and now his head hurt.

“Too much carbon monoxide down here,” he grumbled as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He swayed as the boat bumped into the dock, then he crawled topsides.

The air was hot and dry, sure sign that an intense Santa Ana was howling, and someone had rinsed and packed all his dive gear. He saw Carol and she smiled at him, a big, bright warm smile. ‘Cute, too,’ he said to himself again as he walked over to his pile of gear.

“Sleep well?” she asked when he walked to the rail, looking on as dockhands secured the boat.

“Diesel fumes and sleep are natural partners,” he groaned. “Another hour down there and I doubt I’d ever see daylight again.”

“Not much better up here,” she said. “Headaches and seasickness for the last hour.”

He nodded, turned to face the group. “Okay people!” Ted said. “Gather round.” He waited until everyone was attentive, then continued. “Dive masters should have signed off on your dive this morning, but we have to get one more dive in before we can send your paperwork for certification. As I mentioned earlier, we usually do these over at PV, at Malaga Cove, up on the north side. Check the website tomorrow morning for the exact time, and this same crew of folks will be on hand, so memorize faces. Any questions or comments about the dive, direct them to my email. Any complaints about the day, same thing. Let ‘em rip. I know we had an unexpected incident, but truth be told it’s not all that unusual to have something like this crop up on these trips. Even so, this is the first shark attack I’ve ever seen out at Catalina, but we all know why that happened. Diving accidents happen because people make mistakes, and I hope you all learned something from this.”

He looked around, made eye-contact with all of his students, then nodded his head. “I’m glad y’all got to meet Waldo and his buddies, and I’ll see you at PV next weekend. Grab your gear now, and be careful making the jump to the dock. If you end up in the water, stay away from the piers and come to the swim platform back here and we’ll haul you up.”

He went forward and signed off on the trip, then walked aft to grab his gear. She was still there, waiting, when he got to his bag.

“What time was the reservation?” she asked.

“Eight, every Saturday night.”

“Wow. You’re not, like, in a rut or anything, are you?”

“I like predictability.”

“Safer that way?”

He shrugged. “My life is anything but predictable, or safe, but I like to anchor key days of the week in routines. Keeps me stable, I guess.”

She nodded her head, looked at his legs as he leapt across, and as he turned to look at her he held out his hand. There was a three foot gap between the hull and dock, and her bag weighed at least forty pounds. ‘Well, here goes…’ she said to herself as she leapt, but she came down awkwardly and began to tumble backwards…

…then she felt his hands on her shoulders as he pulled her back onto the dock, and she looked at him for a moment as he did. She felt something in his hands, a strength she was simply unfamiliar with, the kind of strength that comes from carrying impossible burdens all day, every day.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I know…you did that on purpose…”

“Nope. That was good ole Carol the Klutz. When I was a kid, my father threatened to trademark the name in my honor.” And I haven’t felt like that klutz in thirty years, she told herself. Why now?

He took her bag and carried it out to the parking lot. “Which one’s yours?”

“The silver Subaru,” she said, pointing to a newish Crosstrek. She used the remote to unlock the doors and start the engine, and he put her gear in the back and closed the hatch, then turned to her.

“So, you’re all set?”

“Yeah, thanks. I guess I’ll see you there?”

“Sure. I’m going to shower and rinse the gear…”

“You don’t need to. I did it, and put some silicone on your mask. It looked like it needed some.”

“Well, thanks. You sure you’re okay? You look a little light-headed?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll see you there. Bye…”

She rushed behind the wheel and turned the air conditioner to Max Cold and aimed all the vents at her torso. She knew her face was flushed without even looking in the mirror, and she felt the heat in her groin, too. She’d wanted to rape him right there in the parking lot, and the feeling had hit her hard, like a fast moving freight train coming out of nowhere in the night. His eyes were driving her mad, but so was feeling thirteen all over again!

She watched as he walked over to a huge white pickup truck and opened the back door. He tossed his gear inside and turned on the engine, then all the lights started flashing and he walked around the truck, checking each light for operation. He poked at a tire and got out a pressure gauge and checked them all, then he got behind the wheel and she followed him out of the lot.

‘What kind of person does that…’ she asked herself as she fell in behind him, and she soon figured out that following him was like following a Driver’s Ed car – speed nailed, and right on the limit – and not one turn signal missed. Following him was like an abject lesson on ‘How To Drive A Car Safely In Heavy Urban Traffic,’ and by the time he got on the 405 she was too amused to not follow him. Middle lane, speed pegged on the posted limit; he was rigidly following ALL the rules. “Well, he did say he was an accident investigator…” He turned east on the 10 then north on La Cienega, and finally a right on 3rd – and she was tempted to follow and see if he used his turn signal to turn into his driveway – but in the she end resisted the impulse.

Still, she didn’t know if he’d driven like that simply for her benefit – she assumed he knew she was following him, taking the same way home – or if he compulsively driving like a control freak. It had come as a surprise to learn he lived just a few blocks away, and she had been tempted to follow him just to see where he lived, yet she was half-ashamed of herself for even thinking that. She wasn’t some hormone addled thirteen year old, or so she told herself, yet when she thought about it, the last time she’d felt such an intense rush of lust had been in middle school.

So…she pulled into her apartment building’s little lot and parked in her assigned space, then went to the rear of the car and hauled the dive bag upstairs to her little flat and unpacked everything, rinsing her mask and snorkel again in her kitchen sink, then she showered, trying not to touch herself down there.

But that was becoming almost impossible, she thought as she dried herself off. She couldn’t get him out of her mind as she looked at the time on her iPhone again and again. More than an hour to go! She went to the closet, looked at her clothes. “Not too casual? Should I try for sexy?”

No, that’s not who I am, she told herself one more time. Stay true to who you are. Jeans, a white polo shirt and some white Adidas tennis shoes. Her ritual Saturday afternoon running around town attire…that’s it…stay true and have fun, but be yourself. She opened up her laptop and checked email, replied to a few from work about adjusting patient medications, then she turned on the TV and flipped through a few channels, settling on Real Time With Bill Maher. She laughed and shook her head at all the jokes about Trump and Sanders and the craziness of this never-ending campaign season, then looked at the time again and turned off the TV. She grabbed her wallet and a windbreaker and went downstairs, then walked the block and a half to the restaurant.

And of course, he was already there.

In jeans, a white polo shirt and white Adidas tennis shoes.

They laughed as he stood and pulled out her chair, and she cringed when she tried to remember the last time a guy had tried to do that for her. Still, she bit her tongue and held off commenting, smiled as she sat down. “What are you drinking?” she asked as she looked at his drink.

“Mineral water, slice of lime. Remember? I go on call at midnight.”

“Ah, well, I’ll have the same,” she said to the waiter. “Have you already ordered?”

“No, but I usually have the same thing. What about you?”

“Chicken Tikka Masala and Saag Paneer. Garlic Naan and then hot tea with dessert”

“Yup, it’s official,” he said. “This is weird.”

“You too?”

“Yup.” He laughed, watched her smile, then looked at her eyes again.

“So, let’s get this out of the way,” she sighed. “I’m a flaming liberal, a partisan feminist. I got a BA from Brown in Philosophy, then went to med school in Philadelphia. I work at an HMO because I get to see a lot of working people close to the edge, and I do time at a free clinic downtown every Thursday evening, working with the homeless. I haven’t been on a date in over, well, a few years, and have never been married. Now, you. You drive a pickup truck, like a little old lady I might add, so you’re a Republican, you graduated from high school and you have peculiar taste in clothes.”

He looked at her, his head cocked to one side a little, then he took a sip of water.

“I met my wife at Stanford. She was still an undergrad, I was finishing my Master’s, in History. I’m a democrat and plan on voting for Sanders. I like my pickup truck, I can’t help it. I’ve been cross-trained as a paramedic and work when I can at a couple of Catholic churches in South Central, mainly refugees from Latin America. I teach SCUBA diving and MSF courses on weekends, and I’ve slept with one woman over the last twenty years, and none since.”

“Fuck.”

“You make your living pasting labels on stereotypical behavior? Or is this just a hobby of yours?”

“I’m sorry…but what’s MSF?”

“Motorcycle Safety Foundation. I teach ‘newbs’ how to ride bikes.”

“That figures. You and your red cape.”

“Actually, we were having tons of motorcycle fatalities, and read that in a lot of cities like LA, when their city’s motorjocks got involved teaching these classes, the number of fatalities, even injuries, drops by over fifty percent. We’ve had a seventy percent drop in West LA. That’s hundreds of people a year not killed or injured. It adds to the workload in one way, but most of our motorcycle officers are teaching the classes now. It’s made a difference, and I’d rather teach than scrape kids off the pavement.”

“Do you want that cape to hang below the knee, or just above?”

He laughed. “You decide.”

“I already tried, and look where that got me.”

“In my business, stereotypes and labels get you in deep shit – in a hurry. Everyone’s a threat until proven otherwise.”

“What about me?” she said, looking him in the eye. “Am I a threat?”

He looked at her for a long minute. “Your eyes are honest. So are your hands. You don’t trust men easily, and haven’t figured out yet if you can trust me or not. You’re lonely, and wondering if you’ll always be alone, but you don’t take people for granted, either.”

“Okay, you can read me like a book. So, why can’t I read you?”

“Because you’re trying to read me the same way you read your patients. You’re trying to, well, stick labels on me. It’s not working because you work day in and day out with broken people, and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be around people who’ve got life dialed-in, people who are happy with themselves and not looking for other answers – ‘out there.’”

She nodded her head, looked down at her hands. “Okay,” she said softly. “I give.”

“None of which means a thing to me, Carol. You’re cute, you’re sweet, and I enjoyed talking with you last night. A lot, as a matter of fact.”

She looked up at him, nodded her head. “I did too. More than you know.”

“Okay, so where do you want to go from here?”

“Do you want to ‘go’ somewhere, Ted? With me?”

“I wouldn’t mind getting to know you, Carol, but maybe take it one step at a time. Who knows where? Okay?”

“I think I’d like that.”

Dinner came and they ate in silence, yet she kept trying to come to terms with him, and what she’d just learned about herself. She’d stuck her foot in her mouth but he’d let her off the hook, gently, then helped her recover and given her a way – not a way out – but a path forward. He was the real deal, she thought, the kind of guy she’d been looking for, and for a long time, too. She wondered how old he was…

He asked for tea, asked if she wanted some and when she said “sure” – he smiled then they sat and talked for another hour. About school, about life with his wife, about her death – the small stuff and the big things that had led them to the here and now, to dinner at this table, then he paid for the meal and stood, helped her up. Once out on the sidewalk he looked at his wristwatch, then up at the moon. He shook his head as he looked up at the milky, light polluted sky.

“What’s up?”

“Full moon. It’s going to be a busy night.”

“Could we walk for a while?” she asked.

“Sure. Where to?”

“Your place, maybe?”

He took her hand and they walked up to the light and crossed 3rd, then up La Jolla to his house. She looked at it and almost gasped; you didn’t buy a house like this in West LA without some real money, and cops didn’t make real money. Now she was beyond curious, yet she held her tongue again, until she got inside, anyway.

“Holy Fuck!” she cried. “This is nuts!” She walked around the living room, looking at the art on the walls, the furniture. All Mission style, not cheap knock-offs, either, just like this bungalow. It was the real deal; not simply well preserved, it was immaculate, a work of art.

“What?”

“This place, it’s just gorgeous.”

“When Sandy and I bought it…well, you should have seen it then. It was falling apart at the seams. I had this old pickup with a camper on it, and we slept out in the driveway for two years while we rebuilt it. Restored the garage first, turned that into a workshop, then I started in on the house.” He pointed to a stack of magazines. “Those became my bible. American Bungalow magazine, my idea storehouse; I built what I liked straight out of those.”

“God…the wood…what is it? Cherry?”

“Most of it, yeah. Some oak around the fireplace, and here,” he paused and led her in deeper into the house, “in the kitchen.”

“You built all this?” she said as she stifled another gasp.

“Yup. Follow me.” He led her from the kitchen down a long hall, but the hallway was a library, both side lined with cabinets under and continuous bookshelves above, and from there he led her into his bedroom.

She did gasp this time. The room was pure Japanese, austere, almost monastic in it’s purity, and it looked out on a small Japanese garden. “This is too much, Ted. It’s not simply perfect, it’s…I don’t know…it’s like you took the idea of “home” and crafted it into a reality few people can understand, let alone appreciate.”

“We could never find anything we liked. The only way forward was to dream it to life, then get to work and make it happen.”

“Now I understand the pickup truck…”

“Just another tool, Carol. Not some macho bullshit.”

She nodded her head, walked around the house while he pointed out things he’d made, pieces of furniture they found here and vases they’d found there, every thing told a story, a story about his life with Sandy. Yet even that story was odd, too. She’d abandoned him, this house, all these memories – and for what? Did his story add up, or what had she missed? And what was he leaving out…

“It’s almost midnight,” he said. “Just so you know, that phone is going to ring a minute before, and I’m going to have to leave.”

“I hate to ask, but is that what came between you and Sandy?”

“Maybe ten years ago that would have been true,” he sighed. “But the real truth is a whole lot more complicated. And she was as attached to her work as I am to mine. It was always that way, but more so the last, well, for several years.”

“What did she do?”

“She was a producer over a CBS, in the news bureau. It was 24/7/365, always working on stories, getting them on air, fighting budget cuts and managing egos. She loved it, by the way.” He went to his closet and pulled out his uniform, then his boots…tall riding boots that went up to the knee. He slapped some black polish on them and buffed them out, then pulled a pistol out a locked drawer and slid the thing into it’s holster.

“Geez, it’s hard to reconcile all the facets of your life,” she said, looking at this house, thinking about him out on the boat earlier that morning, and now this…the blue uniform, the boots and the gun.

“All those labels get in the way, don’t they?”

“They sure do, with you, anyway.”

His land-line phone rang and he picked it up, started writing on a notepad. “Okay, I’ll check into service here and head on out in about five minutes,” he said, hanging up the phone. “Well, that’s that.”

“The story of your life, huh?”

He grinned as he pulled on his boots, then he put on what he called his Sam Brown belt and secured it to another belt under. “Come on,” he said as he walked out the house to his garage. He opened the door and she saw the truck, and a police motorcycle beside it. He started the motor and pulled the bike into the driveway, turned on the radio and checked into service.

“I’d prefer you don’t walk home just now,” he said, looking down at his watch. “Just crash here. I ought to be back around seven or so. We can grab some breakfast then, if you like.”

“It’s only a couple of blocks…” she said, but she watched him shake his head.

“Look, even I don’t go out for a walk around here this time of night. I’d feel better, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Hit the alarm button just inside the door, on your right, then enter your name. If you have to leave for some reason, same thing. Hit the Leave button, then your name, and you’ll have thirty seconds to get out.” He pulled a key out of his pocket. “This is for you,” he said, then he pointed at the side door. “For that door only, okay?”

“You do think ahead, don’t you?”

“I find habits that keep me alive and stick to them. Not a bad thing, all in all. Now go inside, would you. I want to make sure you’re safe.”

She looked at him then, not quite knowing what to make of this suddenly overbearing cop. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see you in a few…”

When she closed the door behind him, she heard him take off – into the night – and then she shook her head, starting walking around the house again.

+++++

He rode up the 405 and got off on Mulholland, then turned west and found the wreck just a few hundred yards up the road. Firetrucks, ambulances, dozens of people still on the scene, waiting for him. Right in the middle of the intersection, Mulholland at Walt Disney, a teacher coming out of the little gated school, waiting at the light. The light turned, according to witnesses, and she pulled out into the intersection, then they saw this yellow car coming down hill “really fast” and it just plowed right into the teacher’s car. He walked around the scene with the first patrolman on the scene, a young girl with a snarky attitude. Probably her second year on the street, he thought, just when the first signs of burnout hit, and hit hard. Her marriage probably on the rocks as life on the street began to crush the life out of it, already bitter, all her idealism spent dealing with the garbage she had to handle night after night out here.

“What was the first thing you saw out here, when you first pulled up.”

“Sir?”

“What was your first impression?”

“Fucking waste of a Ferrari, sir.”

He laughed. “Okay, granted. What about the scene?”

“The skid marks, I guess.”

“Yeah? But this car has ABS and traction control. How do you explain that?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Driver overpowered the system, it couldn’t compensate. See the weird scuffing pattern of those tire marks?”

“Yessir?”

“He jerked for some reason, right there, launched the car into a four wheel drift. He didn’t have the stones to get it back under control, best guess. Or he was drunk.” He walked over to the Ferrari, according to the printout the girl handed him it was a 2016 Ferrari 488 GTB, probably one of the first to be registered in the country, then he looked at the name on the registration. “Fuck…is it him?”

“Can’t tell, sir, bodies are burned beyond recognition.”

“Anyone been up to the house?”

“No sir. Sergeant said…”

“I know, leave notifications to the Accident Investigator.”

“Yessir.”

He walked over to the driver’s door; firemen had pried it open enough to ascertain the driver was dead, his passenger too, then they had stopped what they were doing and waited for the AI to show up. He pushed the door open and bent close to the driver’s body. The girl had been thrown around by the impact but the driver’s pants were askew, the zipper down. He pulled out his SureFire and lit the scene with it’s powerful beam, and using a pencil he pulled the fly open. The man’s penis was gone, a slight trickle of blood still oozing from the stump.

“Anyone else been in here?” he asked. “Anyone else seen these bodies?”

“The firemen and paramedics.”

“Get ‘em over here. Now.”

“Yessir.”

He walked around to the girl; her face was badly burned, a few teeth missing too, then he shined the light into her mouth, saw the stump end the driver’s penis lodged in her throat and he stood up and turned away. There were a bunch of Fire Department jocks standing around looking at him by that time.

“Anyone see the driver? Up close?”

He heard a chorus of “Nope” “No, sir” and “Uh-uh” from them.

“How ‘bout the girl? Anything unusual? I don’t want to read any bullshit in the papers tomorrow. Am I clear? Spill it now if you have?”

Same thing. No one had seen a thing. “Okay, name and number to the patrolman here, including what you saw and what you did, and who was working with you here when you did it. Are we missing anyone?”

“No, sir. Everyone’s here.”

He turned and walked back to the bike; got an evidence bag and a hemostat, then his camera, an old EOS 1Ds with a data verification kit installed, and with a 50mm/f1.2L mounted on it. He slid the flash on and powered it up, then walked back to the scene.

“What’s your name?”

“Me, sir?” the patrolman said.

He looked skyward, shook his head. “Yes. You.”

“Simpson, sir. Luanda Simpson.”

“Been out here long?”

“No sir, ‘bout a year.” She was looking at the service stripes and commendations on his uniform, wondering if everything she’d heard about this guy was true. Ted Sherman was a legend, one of the most decorated veterans in the department, and she remembered his class in academy – the one on basic accident investigations – was one of her favorites.

“I think I remember you from academy. A couple of years ago, right?”

“Yessir. I thought your week was the best. I’d like to get into traffic someday.”

“Yeah?” He bent over the driver’s crouch with the camera and fired off a few shots. “Okay, I need you to lean over from that side and hold his zipper open.”

“Sir?”

“His dick’s gone, Lu. It’s lodged in her throat.”

“Oh, fuck,” she whispered.

“Lu, this one’s not just a wreck. Got it? This one’s politics. Might be the son of a former president involved, and that might not be his wife. Understand? We’ll be caught under a steamroller if either you or I make a mistake out here. Am I making myself crystal clear?”

“Yes, sir.” She leaned across the passenger seat and held the fly open, then he shot off a few more of the area around the wound.

He walked around to the passenger seat and tried to get a few shots inside her mouth, but he needed a macro lens for that and instead had her take the stump in the hemostat and pull it free of the mouth about an inch, then he took more images. “Okay, push it back down,” he said.

“Sir?”

“I think I want the ME’s office to take possession that.”

“If you don’t mind, officer, I think I should take possession of that.”

He turned around, looked at the black suit and the earpiece. “Need to see your ID, sir, if you don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” the man said.

“Fine. Get out of my crime scene, right now.”

“This is my…”

“What? This guy was yours, and you blew it? Last chance, Paco. Get out of my crime scene or you’re going downtown.”

“Try it…”

Sherman pulled his Sig and stuck it in the guys face. “Hands on the side of the car, now. Feet back and spread ‘em.”

“You are so going down.”

“And you’re a stupid mother fucker,” Sherman hissed. “Simpson, cuff him and get a unit to transport this man to County. Charge, interfering with a crime scene, attempting to coerce and official obstruction.”

“Yes, sir!”

Simpson cuffed the man, and then he began to change his tune. “Look, man, I’m sorry, maybe we could try this again…”

“Tell it to the sergeant at book-in. I’m sure he’ll be real attentive to your needs.” A patrol car pulled up and Simpson stuffed the guy in the rear seat and shut the door while he went around and told the transporting officer what was up.

“Get his supervisor’s name and number, get it to me out here before you book him.”

“Geez, is he Secret Service?”

“I have no fucking idea. I asked for ID and he told me to take a hike. He could be Jack the fuckin’ ripper, for all I know. Take an officer with you ‘til he’s booked-in, and give him a Miranda right now, then tell him to keep his fucking mouth shut ‘til he gets his phone call.”

They took off and he walked to his bike, picked up the radio’s mic and called in. “841.”

“841, go ahead.”

“841, I’ll need a watch commander this location, tell ‘em code two. I need a major crime scene unit here, and the senior medical examiner on duty, and I need ‘em right right here, right now.”

“841, at 0114 hrs.”

He walked back to the Ferrari, and over to Simpson. “No one touches this car or the people inside without my permission. If they try, warn ‘em once. Second warning they’re heading to the ME with your bullet in their face. Got it?”

“Yes, sir!”

He walked over to the other car and looked at the woman inside. Her body had literally been pulverized, her death instantaneous. He took more images, then back-tracked up the road shooting angles and skid marks, then he watched the traffic signals cycle through, timing the sequence before he walked back down to the Ferrari. Then he saw a van with a satellite dish on top pull around the traffic barricades and drive up to the scene; he walked right at it, the driver honking at him, yelling at him to get out of the way, just stopping in time to avoid running him over, but the front bumper knocking him in the knees.

Sherman walked up to the driver’s door and opened it, grabbed the driver by the shoulders and pulled him out, threw him face down on the pavement. He grabbed the guy’s right hand and cuffed it, then his left.

The reporter with him was screaming, telling him to stop…

“Did you tell this man to cross the barricades down there?”

“I did, but…”

“On the ground, Ma’am. Hands behind your back…”

“What? Listen…”

He pushed her down and zip-tied her hands and called for a transport unit, then checked the van for other people. He found a cameraman in the back and told him to get out and and lay down by his co-workers, then he zip-tied this one’s hands too.

“Who’s manning that barricade?” he called out, and an old veteran walked over. “Why did this happen? Why are these people up here, and who the fuck are you?”

“What?”

“This is a major incident scene. Did you let these people through?”

The man looked at Sherman’s name tag. “Uh, no sir.”

“How’d they get through?”

“I was helping a paramedic unit back out into traffic.”

“Okay.” He seethed, shook his head. “Move their van down to the parking lot,” he said, pointing, “and make sure both ends of this scene are secure. I mean SECURE. Call for more units if you need ‘em.”

“Yes, sir.”

He watched as the news crew was loaded into squad cars; he read off the charges to the transporting officers then walked back up the hill to the Ferrari. A parade of police units exited from the 405 and he watched as they made their way up the hill, and as they were challenged by the old veteran down at the barricades. The first car up was a Watch Commander’s Suburban, and he watched as Ellie Kingman got out and walked over.

“Situation?” she said.

“MVA, driver was, I think, President Smithfield’s eldest son, younger woman his passenger. His penis is in her mouth. Someone acting like Secret Service tried to interfere, didn’t produce ID when asked. He’s on his way downtown now, as is a news crew that busted through our barricade.”

“Okay. What do you need?”

“Crime scene and ME are on the way, but I need an airtight seal here, zero press while we get the job done. I need CID to get prints on all three people, and I want to know who that girl in the Ferrari is before I go up to the Smithfield house.”

“Who’s in charge here?” Kingman asked.

“I think I’m senior on the scene right now. You wanna take it? It’s gonna be heavy, could be a lot of fallout.”

She looked at him. “No problem. Yeah, I’ll take it.”

“Oh, Simpson over there?”

“Yeah, what about her?”

“A nice ‘attaboy’ in her in-box. She one of yours?”

She nodded, looked at him. “Wants to be in traffic.”

“She told me.”

“What do you think?”

“Another year she might be ready. Seemed a little burned out when I got here.”

“She needs to put in the time.”

He looked at the girl. Very few African-American females lasted out here, the institutional racism on the force was hard to ignore, but he also knew what these kids were up against. Kingman did too, on a more personal level. She was one of the first black Watch Commander’s in the department, and Sherman liked her. More importantly, she liked him, too, and knew she’d have his back on this one.

“Tell you what…why don’t you detach her from patrol for a few weeks. We’ll work traffic from a Suburban, I’ll watch her, give you a report, let you know if she’s ready.”

She smiled at him. “Thanks, Ted. I’ll take over now, you get to work.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

She smiled again, then turned and started chewing on the nearest patrolman she could sink her teeth into…while he walked up the hill, knowing none of it would ever happen.

+++++

The sun was coming up when he drove out Mulholland, this time with a Secret Service escort, and they led him to the Smithfield residence. Smithfield had served one term as governor of the state, and half a term as President before resigning, ostensibly for medical reasons, and he lived up here now, on a mountaintop looking out over the Pacific.

The old man was standing in front of his house as they drove up, still in a bathrobe and slippers, with a much younger Mrs Smithfield by his side. The President walked over and shook Sherman’s hand after he got off his bike.

“Let’s go inside, officer. Lot’s of drones fly over these days…no such thing as privacy anymore, I hear.”

“Yes sir.”

They walked to a huge study, the book-lined room wall to wall glass looking out over the Pacific. It was a room designed to impress, to awe, but Sherman wasn’t in the least impressed by this man. He was as corrupt a politician as any this country had ever produced, and he wanted to get this over with as soon as possible – keeping in mind the loss this man had to face now. It was his job to inform, to soften the blow if he could, and he was the one with the responsibility.

“I hear you had a few problems with one of my detail.”

“Yessir.”

“He’s being sent back to Washington for reassignment. Now, what do you know?”

“Sir, my investigation isn’t complete, but I am here to inform you that your son…”

“Is dead. Yes, I know that. Who was with him.”

“Sir…”

“Officer, please note, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you to tell me. I can make a world of shit roll down on you, so don’t waste my time, or yours.”

“I don’t have confirmation of her identity, but, well…” – he leaned over and put a copy of the woman license on his desk.

The old man picked it up and looked it over, then whistled. “Damn. She used to be one hell of an actress. So, what do you think happened?”

“You want it straight, or sugar-coated, sir?”

The old man looked up at him, his eyes now sharp as laser beams. “The report I read on you doesn’t do you justice, son. Give it to me straight and on the level, both barrels.”

“Her mouth, sir. His penis was lodged in her mouth. Best guess is he was doing about a hundred and forty when he popped his cork and lost control.”

The old man leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling, then he started laughing. “By God, when I go out I hope I have as much luck! A hundred and forty, you say?”

“Thereabouts, sir. That’s a rough calculation at the scene. I’ll refine that in my final report.”

”Any papers, documents or drives in the car?”

”No sir.”

“Anyone else hurt?”

“A woman, sir, also dead when officers arrived. A teacher at the Curtis School.”

“Damn. Any press?”

“A KTLA news crew blew our barricade. They were booked into County around 0300.”

“No shit? Well, damn it all, son, good for you. Someone with balls.” He sighed then, turned and looked out to sea. “Well, there’ll be hell to pay for fucking with the press. I’ll see what I can do to run some interference for you.”

“Thank you, sir. Anything else you need, here’s my card.”

The old man turned and took it. “Thanks, son. I appreciate your concern, and the job you did out there. Must be tough.” He sighed, wiped his eyes then walked to the glass, looked out at the sunrise. “Think you can find your way out?”

“Yessir.” He turned and left, his wife and a Secret Service agent met him by the entryway and walked him back out to his bike, the hostility in the agent’s eyes lingering, and fierce.

“It was his son then?” the woman asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. Justin.”

“How’d he take it?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am.”

She shook her head. “He’s not always good at showing his feelings, you know?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Here’s my card. If there’s anything I can do to help, just give me a call.”

She took his hand. “Bless you,” she said, and he looked away, closed his eyes to shut off the burning.

When she was well-away from the bike he started the motor and checked into service, then rode back down the private drive to Mulholland, a black Suburban a few hundred yards behind. Once he hit the pavement he accelerated away from them, seeing what they would do, but he didn’t see them again and rolled off the throttle. By the time he passed the accident scene a few minutes later all the glass and metal had been swept away – and it was as if nothing had happened there just a few hours earlier. Life had passed from three people’s brief existence, and the world had hardly blinked in their passing. Now an endless stream of cars passed over the spot on earth where time stopped, for them at least.

He took the 405 down to Sunset and went east to La Cienega and eventually pulled into his garage. He picked up his notes and the camera and went inside, put all the information in a locked drawer and walked quietly into the bedroom. Carol was on her side, eyes closed and mouth open, still dead to the world. He dumped his under clothes in the laundry basket and hung his uniform up to air out, then sniffed his bullet-proof vest. His nose wrinkled and he pulled the kevlar panels out of the liner and threw that in the hamper too, then carried the load to his washer and dumped it in. Once the load was running he went to the shower and stepped in, letting the warmth penetrate his neck and shoulders while he decompressed.

After he dried off he went to the bed and lay down beside Carol, and she woke with a start when she felt him beside her. She turned and faced him, saw his bare chest and lifted the sheets, took in his nakedness and smiled. Without saying a word she went under the sheets and took him in her mouth, and when he was ready she mounted him, began moving over him while he looked up into her eyes.

It didn’t last long, this first union, and she collapsed onto him, her breath ragged and spent.

“Good morning,” she said at last. “That was some breakfast. What time is it, by the way?”

“A little after seven, I think.”

“Rough night?”

He nodded his head. “Yup. Beyond bad.”

“And you can’t talk about it, right?”

“Right.”

“I can’t tell you how good this feels,” she said as she moved on him – with him still just inside.

“It is nice. I saw you laying there and smiled inside. You feel very comfortable to me.”

She looked at him long and hard then. “You’re not a ‘one night stand’ kind of guy, are you?”

“Never thought much of that. Seems more about power and conquest than sharing. Or about love.”

“You are different,” she sighed. “Not sure I’ve ever run across anyone quite like you before.”

“God, I hope not. Coming from a shrink, that wouldn’t exactly be a ringing endorsement.”

“Shrink, huh. Well, shall I call you a cop?”

“Better than ‘pig,’ I guess.”

“I never liked that one. A little too much disrespect for me.”

“More than a few of us have earned the name recently, from what I’ve seen on TV, anyway. But this ain’t Alabama, I guess. So, breakfast?”

“Have anything here?” she asked.

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, that sort of thing.”

“You’re not Jewish, are you?”

“Non-Practicing agnostic, formerly of the Lutheran persuasion.”

“And you keep bagels and lox around? What gives?”

“Sandy’s mom was Jewish, her father was English, C of E. Devout, hard core Christian.”

“You two didn’t get along, I take it?”

“Oh, no, I liked the guy. Very literate. Enjoyed our conversations – very much, as a matter of fact.”

“What was her mother like?”

“Brilliant musician. Sexy as hell, but a troubled soul.”

“Troubled?”

“Alcohol, sedatives. Very high strung, insecure about her looks.”

“What did she play?”

“Piano, for the most part, but viola – for the Philharmonic.”

“Wow…here in LA?”

“Yup. She also played clubs, jazz mainly. She had one hell of a voice. There’re a few pictures of her in the living room.”

“Sexy, you said?”

“She was a knockout.”

“And?”

“She came on to everyone, drove Ben out of his mind.”

“Everyone? You too, I take it?”

“Once, in front of the whole family. Drunk, trying to get Ben riled up.”

“Did it work?”

He shook his head. “Not a night I’d like to remember.”

“Have they passed?”

“Ben did, years ago. Sydney lives out near Pasadena, in a home there.”

“Did you see her, after Sandy passed?”

“Nope, she couldn’t, well…”

“Couldn’t?”

“Dementia. I’m not sure she knows what planet she’s on these days.”

“What about your parents?”

“My mom and sisters are up in Seattle.”

“That’s where you’re from? All of you?”

“Yup. Dad was a pilot in the war, then worked for Boeing after, on the 707 and 747 programs. An engineer, but he smoked a lot.”

“Cancer?”

“Yeah, a squamous cell carcinoma, in the gums. It spread to his tongue and the bone in his jaw, then went into the spine and it was off to the races after that. Painful, hard to watch.”

“I’ve never been up to Seattle. Is it as pretty as everyone says?”

“I’m supposed to say no, but that would be a lie. It’s gorgeous, not nearly as rainy as you think it is, and the Cascades are as pretty is any mountain range in Europe.”

“So, why LA? Sandy?”

“Yup. This was where she wanted to raise her kids.”

“That didn’t happen?”

“Ovarian cancer when we were still, well, when we were starting out.”

“Did you want kids?”

“I think it would have been fun, but I’d have rather lived on a farm up north than try that down here.”

“A farm?”

“Yup…I always wanted to raise dairy cows. I think in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what I would have done.”

“So? Why don’t you do that now?”

“Because I’m a cop. Through and through – it’s what I am now.”

“And that’s it? That’s all there is?”

“It’s who I am, Carol. That life shaped me into what you see.”

“Crime shaped you?”

He chuckled. “In a way, I guess. Helping people, helping them through the consequences of crime, maybe, that’s how I’d put that. But it’s more than that.”

“You almost make it sound like a noble endeavor.”

“When you understand the job, what it really takes to do it well, you begin to understand human dignity through that lens, and human depravity too, in all it’s disguises. And ugliness. But yes, I guess there is a bit of ‘noble’ in the things we do.”

“There seems to be so much racism out there these days…”

“I got shot once,” he said as he rolled over, pointing to a puckered scar just below his left kidney, “and I almost bled out before they got me to County-SC. I think they transfused four pints into me. Most of the blood they get down there comes from the homeless on skid-row, mainly blacks. Their blood is the same as mine. The nurses that took care of me down there were all black, and the care and knowledge they gave me, that they shared with me, was as good as any I’ve had anywhere else. I know racism exists, but I think that’s the least noble thing there is about the human race. I wish we could move beyond it all.”

“Did you ever see the movie Bulworth?”

“Hell yes. One of the best ever made, but that’s Beatty. He’s a class act.”

“You know him?”

“In passing, once or twice.”

“You meet a lot of interesting people out there?”

He laughed, thought about Smithfield this morning, and that Simpson kid. “Well, look, I’ve got to finish my report today, and do some chores too. So, breakfast?”

“Could we go over to the Farmer’s Market? There’s a place where I like to get breakfast on Sundays.”

“Yeah, sure. Sounds good.”

“And I’d like to stay with you today. I won’t be a bother, and I can help with the…”

“That would be nice.”

+++++

They sat at the counter in a little diner and drank fresh squeezed orange juice with their Eggs Benedict, and the more she talked the easier it became for him to listen, the more he enjoyed her company. She was effervescent, like champagne tickling his nose, while she talked about growing up back east, her narcissist sisters, then about the radical fringes at Brown and all the racial tension in Philly. She avoided almost all talk of work – aside from the barbarity imposed on people by insurance companies – and their endless bureaucracies.

It turned out she was fourteen years younger than he, and that she’d recently had it in mind to maybe try and have a kid, “but all this stuff about climate change and resource depletion has me thinking that’s a selfish course of action…”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, who wants to bring a kid into that kind of world?” she said.

“I think people were saying that in the 60s, about the bomb. And in the 30s, about the depression, and Hitler. The world’s always been a fucked up place, but somehow life goes on. Having kids is a part of the process.”

“Yeah, but these days they’re talking about life not going on, about the climate changing so fast it won’t sustain life. Not as we know it now, anyway…”

He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t, but if all the thinking people simply stop procreating? Then what? Who’s going to think our way out of all these problems?”

“I was watching a report last week, some real cheery stuff about depleted water resources and ocean acidification, and sometime in this century, for life to go on, the population is going to have to drop to like a billion or so. If there are ten billion people by then, that means each and every one of us is going to have to bury nine people… Can you imagine such a world?”

“No, but who can? I doubt we’ll need to, anyway.”

“I’m beginning to see more and more patients who are being consumed with these thoughts. I’m not talking about bus drivers and waitresses, Ted, I’m talking researchers at UCLA and NASA. If it was once a week I’d shrug it off, but sometimes I hear this a couple of times a day, from otherwise pretty well-adjusted people who are getting scared…”

“Thank god for Zoloft, huh?”

“Nope. Drugs work for biochemical imbalances within the brain…maybe…sometimes. They can’t do much for situational depression, unless an imbalance underlies the depression. That’s simply not the case with most of these folks. They’re scared, and they’re worried. The one common denominator is they think it’s happening a lot faster than anyone ever expected.”

“Okay. So?”

“Do you worry about it?”

“What? Climate change?”

“Yes!”

“I hate to fall back on clichés, but try this one on for size. Worry about the things you can change, and forget about the stuff you can’t.”

“Isn’t that just simple-minded denial. I mean…”

“I know what you mean. If society falls down around our ears, well, that’s that. The strong will pick up the pieces and carry on, the weak will be swept aside. It’s always been that way, and I guess that’s the way it will be when, or IF that happens.”

“So many of the people I talk to simply can’t face that prospect. If civilization falls, they’ll fall too.”

“Okay. Are you going to be able to change that? Can you make a difference?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if I buy into all of this stuff…”

“Well, my guess is simply this. By the time we know one way or the other, if collapse seems likely it will be too late to do anything about it. People with the emotional wherewithal will get it together and do what they can do to survive. The rest won’t. Personally, I’d rather to get on with living, whatever the circumstance.”

“Goddamn, I’ve heard there are people out here like you, but you’re the first one I’ve met.”

“People like me?”

“Builders. Doers. Optimists. Just not with your kind of eternal optimism.”

“Carol, you listen to people day in and day out with overwhelming emotional problems, and you help them figure out a way through the maze they’ve created for themselves. I deal with people day in and day out who are struggling through horrible, even savage emotional crises, only they don’t have someone like you with them in their corner, helping them fight their way back to the light. Personally, I’m glad you’re out there. In the end, you’re going to do a lot more good than harm.”

She was staring at him as he spoke, looking at his lips as they moved, and she felt herself struggling, fighting to hold back the tears. “Well, goddamn,” she said at last. “Bang, just like that…I’m sorry, but I just totally fell in love with you.”

He laughed a little, then looked at the look in her eyes. “Oh?”

“Yup. Totally. And I’m not kidding, either.”

“Why would you be kidding?”

She shook her head slowly, bit her lower lip. “I think it hit me out there on that boat Friday night. I mean, in the classroom I was simply drooling when I looked at you…”

He grinned, chuckled at that…

“But the ethic, the real life ethic I see in your house, the work you do out there on the street, then, well, that you get me. You really get life, don’t you?”

He shrugged…

“AND…you think I’m cute. I’m just as sorry as I can be, Ted, but you just turned my world upside down.”

He reached across the table and took her hand. “Nothing to be sorry about,” he sighed. “I’m having the best time with you…the best I’ve felt in years, really.”

“And you’ve got to get home and get to work, don’t you?”

“I need about four hours of desk time, finish up my laundry, do a little housework.”

“And I’ll start on that red cape.”

“Please do. Make mine extra long. You need anything from your place?”

She shook her head. “I’ll go home in the morning, if that’s alright with you.”

“Okay.” He looked at the bill and pulled out some money.

“We’re going dutch, okay?”

“Nope. I got this one, you get the next one. Works out in the end that way, and besides, I don’t like all that ‘accountant at the table’ routine.”

“Damn. Where have you been all my life…?”

“Out on the 405, waiting to write your ass a speeding ticket.”

She burst out laughing as he stood and she took his hand. “I’ve gotten a few, too.”

His work phone chirped and he sat back down, opened the connection: “Sherman.”

“Ted? Grover Smithfield, got a minute?”

“Yes Mr President.” He saw Carol’s eyes go wide at that. “What can I do for you?”

“Are you working on the report yet?”

“Breakfast right now, sir. But I’ll be on it all afternoon.”

“Mind if I come over and look it over this afternoon? Say around five?”

“Can’t really do that, sir. Not our protocol.”

“Understood. You talk to Kingman, have her call me when she’s done with you. I’ll see you at five, your place.”

The connection broke, and he looked down at his phone and scrunched up his nose.

“The President?” Carol asked.

“Smithfield.”

“Ugh. What a creep.”

He nodded while he hit Kingman’s number, and listened to it ring until she picked up.

“Sherman?”

“Captain?”

“Cooperate. That comes direct, from the chief.”

“He wants you to call him.”

“Will do. You send the file to the main server, and a copy to me before he gets there. Got it?”

“Yes Captain.”

“Ted, watch your six, just don’t let him bully you. That’s his MO, according to the chief.”

“I’ve seen him on TV.”

“Yeah… Bye.”

He put the phone away. “Playtime’s over. I’ve got to get to work.”

She saw the expression on his face and decided against saying anything until they got to his truck. “Man, I hate to say this, but I love this thing,” she said as she climbed up into the seat. “It’s like a Cadillac that ate a bucket of testosterone for breakfast.”

He laughed at that one. “Yup. That about sizes her up,” he said as he slipped behind the wheel.

“And that moonroof! It’s like stadium sized!”

“Want me to try the ejector seat now?”

When they got to the house he check tire pressures on the bike and plugged the battery charger into the socket, then went inside and straight to his desk. After his computer opened he plugged the EOS into it and pulled the images, then placed them into the report template. He went through the forms one by one, filled each out carefully, wrote out the narratives and supplemental reports, then he opened up a specialized spreadsheet program and began entering vehicle and environmental data, then skid-marks and all the displacement vectors he’d noted on his field diagram.

He whistled. 147 miles per hour, in a 35 zone. He formatted the information and put it into the primary report, then filed it on the main department server. No transmission errors, so he sent a copy to Kingman’s departmental email account. Again, no errors, and a minute later she called.

“Okay. Got it. I’m printing a copy and putting it in my safe.”

“Understood.”

She was gone, and he knew she didn’t have a safe, so it was going to an agreed upon file in records. Too many people were buying access to the department these days, and there was no telling what files might be scrubbed, or by whom. He burned copies to multiple flash drives and sealed them, then put them in his special places.

4:30 chimed on his phone; he shut the alarm, went to the kitchen and got a Diet Dr Pepper, then went to the bedroom.

“Smithfield will be here at five. You want to hang around back here, go to dinner after?”

“I feel like sushi.”

He leaned close, took a sniff: “Funny…you don’t smell like sushi?”

She snorted a laugh while shaking her head. “Goddamn, Sherman. You are quick.”

“Gotta place in mind?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Is that my shirt?” he said as he looked at her gray polo shirt.

“It’s not too big, is it?”

“Not really. It’ll sure cut down on clothing costs,” he chuckled.

“Don’t worry, I’ll more than make up for it with shoes. I must have fifty pair in my closet.”

“I suppose they’re all nice and practical?”

“Nope. Sky high heels. When you’re five foot one, every little bit helps.”

“Until your feet are ruined, anyway.”

“There is that.”

The doorbell rang. “Okay, shut the door. I’ll see you in a few.”

Smithfield came in with his Secret Service detail and another man, a lawyer, Sherman guessed.

“Finished up, son?”

“Yessir,” Sherman said, handing the old man a complete copy of his report.

“You got pictures of the, uh, the wound, and the missing…?”

“Not in the primary report, sir. Those are in a supplement that can not be released without a FOIA request. I’ve included a copy there for your team to go over.”

Smithfield and his lawyer exchanged looks, then the old man turned back to Sherman. “What about nature of the act itself. Is that in the report?”

“I didn’t witness the act sir. Such speculative information is always in the supplemental report. That could, however, still come out in a civil trial.”

“Oh, it will, it will. Well, I was most concerned about those two things, but I see you’ve handled the matter with discretion.”

“Standard operating procedure, Mr President. We’re not in the humiliation business…I just try to get to the truth of the matter.”

“Well, I appreciate the way you’ve handled this whole thing. From this, to the way you dealt with the press out there at the scene. I’ve let your chief know, as well. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, you just let me know. Okay?” The old man held out his hand and Sherman took it.

“Thank you, Mr President.”

His team walked him out to the motorcade, yet his lawyer remained behind.

“Chief said you’re the best they’ve got. I’m inclined to agree.” The man handed him a card. “This is your ‘get out of jail for free’ card, Sherman. The old man wasn’t just greasing the skids. You need help, you call me at this number, day or night, doesn’t matter. The cavalry will come. Got it?”

“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”

The man turned and left the house, and Sherman let out a long sigh as he turned and went back to the bedroom.

“Jesus H Christ,” Carol said as he came into the room. “I heard every word…that was some heavy attitude coming down in there.”

“How far away is this sushi place?”

“Close. Century City.”

“Let’s go. I want to be in bed by eight.”

“Right. Can you drive? Your hands are shaking…”

“I’m tired. I mean a wasted kind of tired.”

“I’ll drive, then.”

He handed her the keys. “No argument from me.”

She smiled, accepting his trust, wanting to live up to it as they walked out to the Ford, and she drove easily up to Santa Monica and on to Century City. They were early enough to get a parking place, but not early enough to avoid a wait, but it was a short one and they were seated after only a few minutes…

A harried waitress came by, took their orders for mineral water and sliced lime and left on the run, leaving them to look at glossy pictures of raw fish.

“Feeling adventurous?” she asked.

“Sort of. Nothing with tentacles, or liver, and I try to keep an eye on the mercury level.”

She laughed. “Got it. Mind if I order for both of us?”

He pushed his menu over to her. “It’s all you, kiddo. I’m a salmon fanatic, though. Just so you know.”

“Me too.”

“I hear wedding bells in our future,” he grinned.

“Do you?”

“I’m tired, and I know I’m going to regret saying this, but I feel so comfortable right now it’s driving me silly.”

“Hey, Vegas is only a five hour drive away!” she said, grinning.

“Now there’s something to think about.”

“You know, this is entirely too easy. Falling in love isn’t supposed to be like this, especially for a Jewish chick…we need lots more guilt and drama. Know what I mean?”

“I could have a nervous breakdown, roll around on the floor and pull out my weenie? Would that help?”

She shook her head. “No, that’s my job. You’re supposed to sit there like Billy Crystal. You know, When Harry Met Sally, when she gets off in the deli?”

“If you do that to me tonight I’ll will have a nervous breakdown, and I will roll around on the floor.”

“Okay…okay…let me put my vibrator back in my purse.”

“Did you bring a purse? I missed that.”

“I don’t own one.”

“What? Fifty pairs of shoes and not even one purse? What gives.”

“They’re nasty. Every female patient I have brings one in. They’re loaded with used tissues and full of filthy, rancid crap. You could start a plague with what’s in your typical purse. The idea of sticking my hand in one gives me the creeps.”

“Now I know I love you.”

She ordered and he didn’t pay attention; he leaned back and closed his eyes, tried to get the image of Smithfield’s penis out of his mind’s eye, the way it came out in the hemostat, the flesh a mottled purple, her mouth…

“Gah…!” He said, sitting bolt upright.

“What is it…? I thought you were falling asleep…”

“Oh, just something from last night, an image I can’t get out of my mind.”

She nodded. “If you ever want to talk about these things…?”

“No. I never want to. I’d like to push them out of my mind…forever…”

“So, Stanford? History? Tell me about that?”

“I did my undergrad there, then went into the Navy…”

“Oh? I don’t remember you mentioning that…?”

“Yup. Aviation, went into an anti-submarine squadron, flew for a few years – hated it, though. Carrier landings at night…really disliked that, can hardly get in an airplane anymore. So, thought I’d go back to school, thought I wanted to teach. Well, I met Sandy and we moved here. I was going to finish my PhD at UCLA, but by then I’d lost the spark. I think, really, a career in academia struck me as a waste of time. At the university level, it’s not always about teaching, so for me it was a ‘why bother’ thing. A friend from the Navy was with the department, he flies helicopters by the way, and he took me up, then got me out on some ride-alongs in squad cars. That was it for me. I loved it then, and I still do. The work, I mean. Every day is unique, no two are ever alike.”

“Lots of excitement, too?”

“The old saying is 99 percent boredom, and one percent terror. That’s about right, I’d say.”

“You’ve been shot? Once?”

“Twice.”

“Ever shot anyone?”

“Yup.”

“Killed?”

“As the proverbial door nail. I’ve also killed a Pit Bull. I felt bad about that one, though.”

“How many of your friends on the force have been killed?”

He looked away. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”

“Did that part of it get to Sandy?”

“Every part of it got to her. It gets to most wives…like I said, very few marriages survive more than a few years, and with female cops married to non-cops, it’s an almost hundred percent divorce rate – all across the country.”

“I know.”

“So, you sure you want to take up with someone like me?”

“I’m one hundred percent sure, Ted. I know the score.”

“Let me set you straight, then. You may think you do, but you won’t until you’ve lived with me a while. It’ll take almost as much out of your life as it’s taken from mine.”

“So, why keep doing it? You love it that much?”

“Like I said…it’s who I am now. But…”

Three platters came and he looked them over. “Geesh…hundreds of fish gave their lives for this feast…”

“Gad…I had no idea I ordered so much…”

“That’s the deal with this stuff,” he said as he piled a few pieces on his plate. “I can never get enough.”

“Well, let’s get to it.”

He mixed his wasabi with soy, then picked up a thin slice of ginger in his chopsticks and dipped it into the soy. He painted the mix onto a piece of salmon and picked it up, then noticed Carol looking at him.

“I’ve never seen anyone do it that way,” she said.

“Oh, this Japanese family I know. They taught me, told me it’s almost heretical to dip your piece directly into the soy.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Too much soy hides the flavor of the fish, something like that.”

She bunched her lips and shrugged. “Learn something new everyday I guess, but I really like the way the soy and wasabi tastes.” She tried it his way, then made a face. “Nope. Too much fish that way.”

He laughed a little, then dipped along with her.

“You’re doing that…why?” she asked.

“I like it too, but don’t like offending the sushi-chefs. Most of them cringe when they see us gaijin dipping away like this.”

She looked around, noticed the Japanese patrons were painting, not dipping, and she shook her head again. “Nope. I’m a Boston Jew, not a geisha. I can only bend so far.”

“Attagirl.”

She gasped, then her head canted to one side. “My dad used to say that to me, all the time, too. Weird flashback thing going on there, for a moment anyway.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah…like I was somewhere else…on our boat, maybe…” She shook her head. “Weird.”

“Flashbacks are like that. Sort of a déjà vu thing. Something activates that circuit and it’s like we’re back in that moment.”

“Yes, exactly. Did you take many life sciences classes?”

“A bunch, yeah. I thought about med school for a while, but couldn’t see myself doing the work. I always wanted to be outdoors, not in an office.”

“Well, I’d say you found your place in life.”

“I’d say that life found me. I just happened to be ready for it when it came along.”

“I can’t believe we ate all that fish,” she said a while later.

“No dessert for me, kiddo.”

She laughed. “Do you have tea at home?”

“Sure. Wanna wait, have some there?”

“It’s early. Why not?”

It seemed like a moment later he was in the kitchen, and he found the brewer and put on green tea while she went to the living room.

“Is this her? Sidney, your mother-in-law?”

He walked in, looked at the picture. “Yup, she was about my age then.”

“She seems familiar to me. Was she ever in the movies?”

“Two, I think. One with Gregory Peck, the jilted wife of a friend. Here’s the studio publicity still,” he said, opening up a photo album.

“Damn…she was gorgeous.”

“Too many demons, I guess. She might have made the big time, but back in those days she was drunk by noon.”

She shook her head. “You think she can’t recognize you now?”

“Last time Sandy and I went out there…well, it was a bad scene. Sandy cried all the way home.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Sandy? I don’t know how to answer that one, Carol. If there wasn’t that wall of betrayal, sure. But she gave up on us, she left for parts unknown, and I had to climb through that rubble before I could get back to the good stuff. I miss the memories, though.”

“You miss memories? How so?”

“Well, it’s that rubble, I guess.”

“Are you still mad at her about it?”

“More sad, I think. Sad that she gave up on us. Well, tea’s ready.” He poured two and they sat in the kitchen, contemplating the amber glow in their cups.

“Where are these from?”

“Hmm, what? The cups?” He watched her nod at him, then scrunched his face a little, trying to recall that day. “They came from a little Shinto shrine we found in the mountains outside Sapporo. The monks there operated a kiln, have for centuries, I think, making the same shape and pattern. We purchased several.”

“So…every picture tells a story?”

He nodded his head. “Maybe so. When you can find the right picture, I guess.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Hmm? Oh, I guess sometimes things are never what they seem, even in a photograph.”

“Okay. Tell me about the one thing you’d like to do before you die.”

“I wish I could, Carol, but I don’t know what that’d be. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do, well, maybe I didn’t set my sights high enough, but I feel like I’ve done most everything I ever really wanted to do.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, one night maybe ten years ago Hopie and I…”

“Hopie?”

“My sister, Hope. She’s the one in the…”

“Hospital?”

“Yup. She talked about sailing. Sandy and I listened to her, to the way she talked about that, then a few years later she bought that boat of hers…and I always wondered what that would be like.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I don’t know. This guy I used to fly with…he helped her pick out the boat. Last time we talked he and his wife were planning to take off – sail away and see the world. Haven’t talked to him in years, I don’t know if they ever got around to it, but we all talked one night about that kind of thing. Made an impression on me, I’d say that much.”

“It’s what I want to do. Have since I was a kid.”

“What? Sail away?”

“Uh-huh,” she sighed.

“That’s interesting. I remember you mentioning that…”

“Yes, it is. It’s beginning to feel like…”

“Something’s bringing us together, maybe?”

“When you said ‘attagirl’?” She paused, sighed. “Yes, that’s what hit me.” She was lost for a moment, drifting…

“What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?” she said, startled.

“It’s like you were lost for a moment, looking right through me.”

“I think maybe I was – I’m trying to understand something. You know, that first night in class I was drawn to you. Physically, I mean. I felt like I wanted to be near you, physically, so when we were at the pool, even in the pool, I tried to get as close to you as I could. Then the other night on the boat. Same thing. I put it off to you’re being the sexiest man alive…”

He turned red. “Don’t say things like that…”

“Oh really? You don’t get it, do you? There were four women in our class, and after that first classroom session we went out together and that’s all they wanted to talk about…”

“What? Me…”

“About how much they wanted to fuck you, Ted. Is that plain enough for you?”

He looked down, shook his head. “Bullshit…”

“No, not really. But when we got off the boat yesterday it was all I could do not to tear you apart right there in the parking lot. I’ve never wanted anyone so much in my life.”

“Look, this is making me a little, I don’t know, uncomfortable. That’s just not how I see myself…I never have.”

“Yeah, I know, Mr Modest. But I didn’t want you not understanding where I’m coming from.”

“Physically attracted, you mean?”

“Yes, but I think I’d also like you to appreciate how totally uncharacteristic of me this feeling is. Until I saw you, that first night in class, and it hit me out of the blue. I’ve actually been a little concerned about the reaction.”

“Concerned?” His phone rang and he looked at the CallerID display. “Sorry, I should take this.”

“Sure…”

“Hello…Mindy? What’s up? Yeah? What’d the docs say? Anything they want me to do? They do, huh. When? All of us, Tuesday morning? Okay, I’ll call in, see if I can get the time. Yeah. I’ll call you as soon as I know. Yeah. See you then.”

He rang off, put the phone away and then looked down – at his hands. “Well, shit,” he whispered. ‘So, we’re really going to do this…?’ he said to himself as he looked around the house.

“What is it?”

“Hopie. She stopped eating last week, started fading after three days so my sister got a court order, starting a feeding tube. Family conference called for Tuesday, up in Seattle. So that’ll mean Mindy and me, duking it out with the shrinks up there.”

“Would you like me to come with you?”

He looked at her, then down at his hands again before he shrugged, shaking his head slowly. “That’d be a helluva thing to ask of you, this early in the game.”

“And you really don’t know the rules of this game, do you?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I may be able to help with this better than most, you know?”

“Yeah, like you said. Things are kind of coming together in an odd way. Let me call in on this.” He picked up the phone and speed dialed the division office, and the sergeant on duty picked up.

“Jim? Ted. Uh, my sister has taken a turn and the docs want me up there Tuesday for a conference. Yeah, it’s finished, on the server. Okay, appreciate it. Yeah. You too.”

“And?”

“Taking the week off.”

“I just made reservations on Alaska tomorrow afternoon, return Friday evening. Shall I confirm?”

“Yup. Here’s my credit card…”

“I’ve got it.”

He started to protest but she held up her hand. “I have eight weeks of vacation accrued, and they’ve been begging me to take it. Guess that settles that.”

“You know what? Life can turn on a dime, in the blink of an eye. I get the feeling our lives just changed a hundred and eighty degrees.”

“I hope you don’t think I pushing in someplace where I don’t belong.”

“You know, I don’t. I really don’t. I feel like we’re on some kind of weird-ass magic carpet ride, and we’re together now. And that’s the way it’s going to be from now on, too.”

“About five minutes ago I looked at you and all of a sudden it felt like we’d been together forever. I know that sounds off the wall…”

He nodded his head. “This morning, when I got in and saw you there in bed, still asleep? Same feeling. Like your being there was the most natural thing in the world, like you’d been there forever.”

“Ted. Don’t take this wrong, but I know I love you. Whatever that word means, when I look at you right now that’s how I feel.”

He took her hand again, only this time he looked at it…the skin, the structure of it, even the fingernails he looked at seemed at once foreign – and familiar.

“Mon amour…”

“Il se sent si bon d’être à nouveau ensemble…”

“What?” he said. “Did you say something?”

“No…I don’t think so…? But…?”

He shook his head, saw they were back in the restaurant, not in the kitchen drinking tea, then he looked across at her. She looked confused, out of place, looking around the restaurant, unsure of herself.

“We were in the kitchen, weren’t we?” she said. “But I heard…music?”

“I thought so too…but…then I heard…French. Someone speaking French.”

They sat staring at one another for a moment, unsure of the world, and their place in it…

“Well yeah, okay. We’d better get home. I’m sure you have a few things you need to do at your place.”

“I can do them in the morning. You want me to drive again?” Words were echoes now, unsettling echoes…

“Uh, ya know…yes, if you don’t mind…”

“That just blows me away…”

“What?”

“In my experience, I’ve never known one guy who’d even consider letting me drive his car…”

“What? Why not…?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a trust thing, or maybe everyone I’ve ever dated had mondo-macho-control freak issues…”

“Is that, like, one of your technical psychiatric terms?”

She laughed. “I can’t believe I just said that…”

“Why? Hell, I could understand that one…but some of those other fifteen syllable words you were tossing around had me scratching my head.”

“Geesh, I hate jargon…I’m so sorry…” She looked around again, feeling like she was in a race, falling behind and trying to catch up…

He grinned. “Don’t be. It’ll take me a while, but I’ll catch up.” He stood and pulled out her chair, the feeling of déjà vu now overwhelming.

“A week ago I’d have chewed your head off for doing this…”

“What?” he said, looking around uncertainly at the room again.

“The chair thing. Now I want you to do it. In fact, I think I’d hate it if you didn’t?”

He helped her stand and they walked out to the parking lot, and he opened her door, helped her up then handed the keys to her – and again she smiled – but he felt like the tumblers to the universe had slipped, that something very wrong had just happened. Like an old vinyl record skipping over a bad scratch, they skipped sideways through time for a moment…

Traffic was heavy and she drove slowly, yet by the time she pulled into his drive he was snoring, his head leaning against the glass. She saw a button on the overhead and guessed, hit ‘1’ – and the garage door opened. After she pulled inside she turned off the motor and looked at him, really studied his features, and inside that moment the feeling of familiarity became almost overwhelming – like she had known him before, somewhere…sometime.

She got out and went around to his door and opened it slowly, and when the running boards moved into place she stepped up and kissed him gently on the lips.

His eyes opened, slowly, then he looked around, saw they were in the garage and sat up, startled. “Gah…what happened?”

“You need some sleep, kiddo.”

“Damn. Another first.” He undid his seatbelt and turned to face her. “Nice kiss, by the way. I liked that.” She stepped down and he slid into her arms. “Damn nice,” he said, taking her into a deep embrace.

“God, you feel so good…”

“Yeah? Well, give me few minutes, and I’ll make you feel a whole lot gooder…” He grinned and took her hand, led her to the bedroom, looking around as he walked, wondering if he was still asleep, and had this whole day simply been just a dream within a dream.

+++++

He remembered the approach to SeaTac, remembered the stormy nights landing at Whidbey Island in his S-3, his first night traps on the carrier off Astoria. The Alaskan MD80 was on an extended downwind now, and he could see the naval air station down there through the clouds, and those memories came back to him in a rush. Unwelcome memories, he thought, and he looked out over the wing wishing aircraft had never been invented. He hated them now, hated everything about the Navy, and their aircraft, and above everything else, he hated the goddamned Soviet Union.

“What is it?” he heard Carol ask – so he turned and looked at her.

“Lot of memories down there.”

“A few good ones, I hope.”

He smiled, saw an image of Sumner Collins floating in his life raft while he struggled to get back into his own raft, the shark’s gnashing teeth just inches from his face. He shook his head, oblivious to his own gnashing teeth – and Carol’s questioning glances – as the MD80 began a steep right turn onto base. He looked off into the twilight, could just make out Vancouver far away in the gloom…and the shape of Hopie’s plan hit him again. Then the flaps whirred and the leading edge flared, the aircraft slowing quickly now. Another sharp right onto final, and he looked down on Anacortes as it slid by under broken clouds – the other vital link in their chain, he thought. They passed over the big Boeing facility where his father used to work, and then their old house was down there in the trees – and he turned away quickly from those memories. Away from memories that never left, all born in that one goddamn house.

More flaps, then the gears came down, the MD80s nose dropping off sharply, then power coming up – and he could tell the FO up front was a rookie by the way the engines spooled up and chopped off. The nose went up, then down, too much rudder, slipping too far into a crab as a crosswind bit into the wings. Downtown looked busier than ever, more traffic on the 5 than he remembered, then sharp, rapid corrections as the rookie tried to calm down over the threshold. Hard landing, down real hard on the left main, a sharp bounce to the right, then the reversers cut in and the nose went down too hard as well – and he shook his head in disgust.

“Fuckin’ rookie,” he grumbled.

“What?” Carol asked.

“Goddamn terrible landing.”

“Seemed a little rough to me too.”

“Inexcusable.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Maybe they’re hiring,” she chided. “Want me to check?”

“Just get me off this goddamn thing. Never again, please? Maybe there’s a train…?”

“We’ll miss the class at PV if we walk back.”

“Fuck, goddamn shitty motherfuckin’ greenhorn pilots…” He growled as the pilot braked too hard at an intersection, the crossed his arms and looked up at the Seat Belts ON light. “Of course,” he groaned when it turned out there wasn’t an available gate, and the pilot announced they’d have to wait on the ramp for one to open up. Fifty minutes later he growled his way off the aircraft and walked up the Jetway, muttering ‘never again’ one more time. They walked down to the car rental kiosks by the baggage claim carousels, and they took the shuttle out to the rental lot a minute later.

“I thought you’d appreciate this,” Carol said when he saw a silver F150 waiting for them.

“Damn!” he said as he kissed her. “Must mean we’re going to build a treehouse or something.”

“What? Oh, a tool. Right, I remember now.”

He laughed. “Thanks. Well, let’s get this road on the show.”

She laughed again. “You know where we’re going?”

“Unfortunately, yes, I do.” He pulled into traffic and made his way to I-5, then turned north into the city. He got off on the north side of downtown and made his way to the Silver Cloud on the south side of Lake Union, and they checked-in and went up to their room. He opened the curtains and looked at the marina across the street.

“It’s over there, somewhere,” he said.

“What? The boat?”

“Yup.”

“Do we need to do anything there tonight?”

He shrugged. “Not if everyone does their job.”

“Okay. What about your sister? Need to call her?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Your mother?”

“That’s a definite no.”

“Know the name of the boat? We could go down and take a look now. Before tomorrow, you know? Wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

He looked at his watch. “You hungry?”

“A little. No rush.”

“Sure,” he said as he turned to his carry-on. He opened a flap and took out an envelope and put it in his coat. “Let’s go.”

They walked downstairs and crossed the street to the marina, then over to an entrance gate – where he pulled out the envelope. He squinted, entered a code on the keypad and the gate clicked open; he held it open for her and slipped through behind her.

“Slip G7,” he said. “Name is Hyperion.” They walked out a pier and found her, a huge, chunky beige colored thing, her name splashed across the stern in black and gold.

“Damn, pretty big boat for a single girl to handle. What is it, forty five feet or so?”

He shrugged. “Think so. Friend of mine recommended it to her, based on what she wanted to do with it.”

“That Sumner guy? What did she tell him?”

“She wanted to circumnavigate, go all the way around.”

“No kidding? Alone?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t talked much about it in a while.”

“But she talked to your friend about it? Did he ask you what you thought about her doing it?”

“No, not really. There was a boat show up here on the lake…”

“This is a lake?”

“Lake Union. You have to lock out of here. Ocean’s a couple of miles,” he said, pointing west, “that way.”

“Got the keys?”

He pulled out the envelope again, fished them out – just as a man walked over from a nearby boat.”

“Can I help you,” the stranger asked.

“You know Hopie?”

The stranger looked at him again. “You’re her brother? Tim?”

“Ted, and yes, I am.”

“How’s she doing?”

“I’m going out in the morning. And you are?”

“Nathan. Nate Strickland. I’ve been taking care of the boat. Keeping the batteries charged, washing her down, that kind of thing.”

“Ah, you are a friend of hers?”

“Yes, but only after she moved in down here. Look, there’ve been some characters looking around down here, poking around the boat…”

“Characters?”

“Well, black suits, those things in the ears, like the Secret Service guys wear?”

“Really? When did that start?”

“Yesterday, and again, this morning.”

“If you see ‘em around, would you snap an image?”

Strickland pulled out his phone and opened the Photos app and pulled up an image of the men he’d seen this morning, and one of their car, a black Suburban with federal plates on it. “Want ‘em?”

“Here’s my number.” The pictures arrived a second later and he saved them. “Thanks.”

Strickland smiled. “You staying down here?”

“Over at the Silver Cloud. I don’t know the first thing about boats.”

“Well, if you’ve got some time, I can show you around.”

“Sure, lead on.”

“You have the keys handy? Mine are back onboard?”

“Yup. Here-go”

“Well, first things first. This is an IP 445, uh, an Island Packet. It’s not quite fifty feet, draws around five feet. Two sleeping cabins, two heads, big galley and main saloon. This one’s got power everything, winches, windlass, even the halyard winch is electric,” he said as he climbed up into the cockpit.

“I vaguely remember. A friend of mine was here when she bought it…”

“That Collins fellow. I remember him. Real straight razor, that guy.”

“He is that.”

“You know him?”

“We flew together.”

“Navy? I think he mentioned he flew once. I did too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, A6Es, in VA-165.”

“A Boomer, huh?”

“Got that right, Amigo.”

“On the Connie?”

“Yup. You were an S-3 driver?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Wait…you’re riding motors, aren’t you? LAPD?”

“Yup.”

“I’m CID, Seattle PD.”

Sherman shook his head. “Small world, ain’t it?”

“Damn,” Carol said, “isn’t anyone going to introduce me to anyone out here?”

“Shit…Nate? This is Carol.” They shook hands and Nate looked at her, lingering on her legs.

“Well, let’s go below…” he said as he opened the companionway and lifted the boards out. “Watch your step,” Nate said as he led them below, and he flipped on lights at the chart table. “I have a girl come in once a month to dust, oil the teak, that kind of thing, but your sister’s been gone over six months now. Do you know what’s going to do with this thing? You know anything yet?”

“I think the broker is coming by later tonight, they’re going to move it someplace up north.”

“Oh, hell. Really? Well, sheets are clean. Hell, everything’s clean, but, well, you know Hopie.”

“Yeah. I’m sure you could eat supper off the bathroom floors.”

“The head. Just like flat-tops, Amigo. Heads, galleys, forepeak…all that nonsense, the whole nine yards.”

“Gee, great.”

They laughed.

“Anyway, everything’s controlled by these switches,” he said as he pointed at two panels full of breakers, “and the main battery selector is here…”

“I’m familiar with all this stuff,” Carol said. “What’s this?”

“I’ll leave you to it,” Sherman said as he walked aft, to Hopie’s cabin. There were a few books on the shelves, the drawers were still full of her clothing, the hanging locker too, but the head was spartan, and the galley bare aside from a few dry goods. He walked forward, looked around the cabin up there, all the cabinets and drawers bare, the huge head looked to have never been used. He shook his head as he looked around, wondered how well she sailed.

‘Indeed…’ he thought…‘So long ago, so far.’

He walked back to the chart table, watched Carol as she soaked up all the details of the ship’s systems. He sat down and pulled out his phone, was scrolling through his messages and emails when a news alert came through about some nonsense in Paris. He opened the story and read through it with growing horror…

“Have you two heard about this stuff going down in Paris?”

“Yeah, started a few hours ago…” Nate said.

“What happened?” Carol asked.

“Multiple terrorist attacks in Paris, some sort of hostage thing going down at a concert, maybe hundreds killed.”

“Oh, no,” she moaned. “What does that mean for you guys?”

“Oh, we’ll notch up security a bit, ports and airports, that kind of thing…” Nate said, and Ted nodded his head in agreement. “All in all, we act on hard intel more than we do to what happens over there.”

“She have a TV onboard?”

Nate shook his head. “Nothing. She even has the boat swept for bugs once a month.”

“What?” Carol asked, incredulous. “Why?”

Strickland shook his head. “Yo no se?”

“Paranoid?” she asked as she looked at Ted.

“You know, the thing about Hopie is that you think she’s paranoid, but after a while you begin to wonder if she’s being paranoid enough.”

Strickland looked at him when he said that, his eyes narrowing imperceptibly. “Do you know what she did? Who she worked for?”

“Nope. You?”

“No, she never said a word about it.”

“We all tried. No one ever succeeded.”

“How many languages does she speak?”

“Not sure. Stopped counting when she started spouting Mandarin one night.”

“She had people down here speaking Russian, all the European languages I know of, and a whole bunch of Middle Eastern shit. All kinds of ragheads came here last year, right before she, well, before she got sick.”

“Any Israelis?”

“Not sure. Why?”

Sherman shrugged and Strickland wondered again what this guy wasn’t saying.

“What do you want me to do if those ‘federales’ come back?”

“Leave ‘em alone. You’ll just stir up trouble if you fuck with them.”

“Okay. What about you two? You say you have a broker lined up?”

“Yup, if I remember his name I’ll text you. Fair enough?”

“Sure.”

“We’re going to walk up to dinner. What’s good around here?”

“What do you like, and how far do you wanna walk?”

“What’s close?” Carol asked.

“Crab place down a few blocks is okay. A coupe of other places by the museum, touristy though, and not all that good. Good Indian up the hill, but too far to walk.”

“Damn,” Sherman said. “I could…”

“What about tomorrow night? I’ll meet you at the Cloud and I can drive us up to a great place I know.”

“Sounds good,” Sherman said. “What time?”

“Seven be too early?”

“Perfect,” Carol said. “We should get going, Ted. I’m starving.”

“Y’all go ahead. I can lock up and shut things down.”

“Thanks Nate,” Ted said. “See you tomorrow…”

They walked topsides and hopped off the boat, and neither looked back as they walked out of the marina, so neither saw Strickland watching them, or saw him pull out his phone. He dialed a number just outside Washington D.C., a number in Langley, Virginia, and he only said two words before breaking off.

“Contact made.”

+++++

They made the drive out past Redmond the next morning, and found the hospital without too much trouble, but finding a parking space was another matter entirely.

“Geesh, are there really so many psychiatric patients?” Ted said as he circled through the lot again, finally diving into a just vacated spot.

“You have no idea,” Carol sighed. “After all the cutbacks to state facilities in the 80s, a lot of older institutions never really recovered, and the few that have are overrun on a daily basis. What time is the appointment?”

He looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes to spare. Okay. Any questions? Know what to do?”

“I’m good.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

“I love you,” she said.

He looked at her then, and nodded his head. “Well, to boldly go, as the man said.”

They walked around the hospital, looking around at the exits, then made it to the assigned conference room and walked-in a minute early, and Sherman did his level best to ignore the two women in the room glowering at him. “Cobra number one there,” he whispered as he sat across the table from them, “is my mother. Cobra number two is Mindy.”

A lab-coated physician and two nurses walked in right on time and took their seats; the physician had an iPad in hand and was apparently going through notes and lab-work, getting up to speed at the last possible moment. Carol looked at him closely, hardly believing what she was seeing, then the man looked up, his red-rimmed eyes the tell-tale sign she was looking for. Overworked and understaffed, this psychiatrist was in over his head. This would be easy, she thought.

“Well, let’s get this out of the way,” the physician said as he picked up a legal pad full of scribbled notes. “We’re here to talk about…uh…one Hope Sherman. She’s stopped eating, refusing liquids as well now for two days and we’ll begin to see signs of organ failure soon. We’d like to move her to hospice care if that’s all right with her family. Is her guardian here today?”

“I am.” Ted replied, looking the man directly in the eye. “Am I to understand she was being fed through a gastric tube?”

The man sifted through his notes, read for a minute…

“Oh, for heavens…” Mindy said. “Can’t we just pull the goddamn plug and get this over with? How long are you going to make her suffer!”

The psychiatrist looked up at that, looked at Mindy then shook his head, then he looked at Ted. “Yes, since late last week.”

“So,” Carol said, “what’s her status?”

“Ted? Who the fuck is this?”

“Well Mindy, this is Carol. She’s a psychiatrist I brought up here to help me make sense of your, well, of this nice situation we find ourselves in.”

“Fuck you, Ted. At least I was here.”

“We’re not going to let this conference devolve into a family slugfest,” the psychiatrist said. “Mr Sherman, as her guardian you have final say in these matters. Would you, and well, your psychiatrist like to join me? We’ll go see your sister now.”

“Alright.”

They stood and left the room, Sherman glad to be away from Mindy and their somnambulant mother. They walked in silence, Carol behind them now, watching, listening.

“That sister of yours,” the psychiatrist said at last, “if she says ‘pull the plug’ one more time…I just may kill her with my bare hands.”

“Get in line,” one of the nurses said.

“She’s got to wash the guilt off her hands one way or another,” Sherman said. “Killing Hopie would be the most efficient way she could do that now.”

“I know,” the psychiatrist said. “What a nightmare of a life she had. You know, I’ve never been able to get her to talk about what she did…you know, to make a living. I suppose you know?”

“No, sir. I have no idea.”

“Well,” the guy stammered, “that’s just extraordinary…I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“Well, you don’t know Hopie very well then, I guess.”

“She never really trusted me.”

He looked at this sniveling turd of a human being and smiled. “She was like that, I guess.”

“Well, here’s her room. I’d like to go in with you, if that’s alright.”

“Sure,” Ted said, “but could we…” He began talking, and Carol slipped into the room to see how bad off his sister really was.

They talked for a few minutes out in the corridor, then they walked in and Sherman tried to hide his feelings when he saw his sister. Carol came and took his arm as he walked closer, and he saw her nod once.

She was on her side, curled up in a fetal ball, a white sheet over her – yet even so he could tell she was emaciated. “How much does she weigh now?” Carol asked.

“Last time we weighed her…” a nurse began, “she was at eighty eight pounds. That was two weeks ago.”

“Height?”

“Five-ten.”

“Jesus…” Carol whispered as Ted knelt down beside his sister’s face.

Her eyes were wide open, unblinking as far as she could tell, and Carol watched as he oriented his face with hers, and he remained very still, letting her eyes seek out his own.

“Can we turn a few lights on?” Carol said, and she watched Hope’s face for any signs of recognition – or any reaction at all – but her wraith-like form seemed completely inert. Like an explosive gas, she thought, trapped in a bottle.

Then her eyes blinked.

“When’s the last time she spoke,” Carol whispered.

“About two weeks,” the nurse whispered back.

“Sumner?”

“No babe, it’s me, Ted.”

“Ted? You’re here?”

“I’m with you, babe.”

“Closer. Come closer.”

He leaned in, his ear almost on her lips.

“Got to get the stuff in the box,” she whispered. “Some stuff for you. A small box inside for him. Got to get it to him. He’ll know what to do.”

“Okay. What about you? Are you ready for this?”

“I’m done. I need to leave now.”

“You’re sure?” He leaned back and looked at her now, and she was smiling.

“Yes, I’m ready.”

“Okay. I just want to thank you for always being there for me,” he said loudly, so everyone could hear.

She barely nodded her head. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. I love you, kiddo, and tell Sumner I’ll see him again one day soon.”

“I know, babe. I know.”

“There’s so much light here…it’s beautiful.”

He took her hand, watched her take her last breath, and he held her as she fell away.

Carol seemed startled at the suddenness of this death, and she moved in with her stethoscope.

“Do you want me to resuscitate her,” he asked – and Ted shook his head.

“There’s no need now,” Carol said. “She was ready, and she left.”

“What?” the psychiatrist cried out. “What do you mean? That she chose the moment of her passing?”

Ted nodded his head. “You haven’t been around death much, have you?”

The psychiatrist shook his head slowly. “And you have?”

Ted stood and walked out of the room, back to the conference room, with Hopie’s team running after him, though Carol remained behind. He went into the room and walked right up to his remaining sister.

“She’s gone now. And just so you’re aware, I have all her documents. She’s left each of you exactly one penny. I’ll see that her lawyers get that mailed to you straight away.”

“Fuck you, Ted! I’ll sue, I’ll fuckin’ sue you for everything you have.”

He smiled at her before he turned and left the room. “She goes to the Neptune Society, for cremation. I’ll have her lawyer get all the paperwork from you, and I assume the funeral people will be here soon,” he said to her psychiatrist.

“I understand.”

“Watch out for cobras,” he said, pointing to the conference room as he walked out the building. Carol walked by the bewildered psychiatrist and shrugged, then ran after Ted, catching up to him as he got to the truck. He opened her door and got behind the wheel, and without uttering another word backed out and left the lot.

He watched a gray sedan pull out behind them and begin following him as he drove back into the city, and another gray sedan took over the tail as he exited the 5 and made his way down to the lake, and on to Westlake Drive. He pulled into a bank parking lot and backed into a parking place; he asked Carol to stay in the truck, that he’d be gone a few minutes.

Strickland watched from across the street, using a 300mm lens to photograph Sherman as he went into the bank, and again, as he came out 20 minutes later – with nothing in hand.

He followed them to a lawyers office out on Seaview Avenue, and they both went in that office, and didn’t come out for an hour, then two, and Strickland began to wonder what was going on in there when…

…a woman came out and got in the truck; she drove out to the airport and turned the vehicle in at the rental company lot, then left in a taxi – and he followed her all the way.

Strickland knew Sherman had shaken him then, and he wondered where they’d gone. He called Virginia again. “Lost them,” was all he had the nerve to say before he hung up.

+++++

Perhaps a mile away, two people slipped into an executive lounge at SeaTac and waited for their flight to be called, their IDs bogus, their names too. They flew to Los Angeles and were met by agents of the United States Secret Service and the FBI, but as soon as these agents discovered the two people were not who they were supposed to be, they were questioned and released.

Smithfield was informed. Sherman’s superiors in the LAPD were as well.

+++++

The Hyperion slipped quietly into Canadian waters a little after four in the morning, after motoring furiously north from Anacortes for almost eight hours.

“How’s she doing,” Ted asked.

“Still sleeping. I’ve got a heavy load of nutrients in her IV. She should be strong enough to fly in two or three days.”

“Well, we’ll know if we’ve pulled this off before then.”

His set waypoints in the chartplotter were reeling off one by one now, but making it into Canada was just the first phase in this evolution. Carol watched his expert seamanship and sail handling, amazed he was an even better sailor than her father, but then again, everything about him was that way. Just when she thought she knew him, he morphed again – into something new and magnificent – and terrifying.

She looked at the moon rising over the Cascades, and wondered about all that had happened the past few days. She was embarking on a strange new course in life, a course well away from everything she had ever known, heading off into a strange new world with this monumentally complex man – and his equally improbable sister.

+++++

Hyperion sailed under full main and genoa now, her sails pulling hard as Carol steered for the Lion’s Gate – and beyond, into the waterfront area along the north side of the City of Vancouver. She checked the chartplotter, adjusted the screen’s brightness as sunlight coursed into the cockpit, then she altered her course a little – to starboard – as a monstrously huge cruise ship appeared dead ahead, making for the bridge and presumably heading out to sea. Sherman was below with his sister; he had been talking with her for almost an hour, and Carol was enjoying this brief intermezzo at sea. Now that the sun was up – and the air growing warmer, she laughed with joy as the sun and spray filled the air with glittering diamonds. To simply be sailing again felt wondrous to her, but British Columbia looked even more insanely gorgeous than Maine. Steep-walled mountains, pine-covered and snow-capped, lined the looming shore, yet she looked up as a constant parade of wide-bodied airliners lifted from the nearby runway and climbed into the sky.

She could hardly believe what they were doing, let alone why, but none of that mattered to her now. Her life had grown tired and stale, her expectations had fallen so low – and now, this! She had no idea what his sister was or who she worked for, but she had friends. A vast network of friends – everywhere. Friends that could make things happen, but to Carol this little operation of hers seemed jubilantly, impossibly crazy, yet from the little she’d learned, it was apparent to her that it had been meticulously planned. And so complex it made her head spin.

Friends, indeed.

Timing meant everything right now, and she knew it. The series of deceptions Hopie and her team had engineered were stupefying in their complexity – but so far everything had gone off perfectly.

Just how many ‘friends’ did this woman have? What was so important about her? Still more intriguing? There was Ted, who’d carried on like he didn’t know anything, just like he had convinced her he didn’t know a thing about sailboats. Then, like everything else about him, he proved to be a master seaman…yet she had to admit he’d never deliberately tried to deceive her. He wore veils of silence so obscure she had simply filled in the blanks he left for her.

Deliberately?

She didn’t know, couldn’t tell.

She looked at the chartplotter, at all the depth contours growing crazy-shallow just yards to starboard, then she looked up at the sails and pulled the main in a little, hardening up on the wind. The cruise ship cleared the bridge and…altered course to port a little more and she looked at the radar, saw the new CPA and further adjusted Hyperion’s course a little, then, a few minutes later she hardened up to port and brought in the sails. The boat heeled a little more and their speed picked-up, just as Ted came up from below.

“How’s she doing?”

He nodded his head. “Okay, I think. Her mind’s still as sharp as a tack, but she’s weak. Weaker than I expected.”

“It’ll take all those anti-psychotics a week or so to half-life out of her system. I don’t know how she did it. Incredible mental discipline.”

“Well, going crazy was the only way she could get out of the mess she found herself in. I’m assuming they thought she’d never talk once she was out of the way like that, and even if she did no one would believe anything she said, but something’s changed. People started coming around a month ago, checking on her, asking questions, and she decided to put this plan into motion.”

“This Collins guy? She thinks he’ll help?”

“Oh…he will. If they get to her…well, he knows his life is as good as over if that happens. The Israelis are the only one’s who’ll help at this point, but only because they’ve got so much riding on the outcome.”

“I still can’t believe the stuff she was working on. It’s surreal.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Carol. And you don’t want to know.”

“I hear you.”

“Damn, that cruise ship is sure crowding us…”

“I can’t get much further out of the channel…water’s getting real thin over here – to the right.”

“Uh, go ahead and pinch in a little closer to port. Running aground is something we can’t afford to do right now.”

She adjusted her course more to the left, cutting closer to the cruise-ship’s stern. “It’s going to get rough when we cross that wake…”

“Everything’s secure down there. Go for a gap…”

“How far to the terminal?”

“About three miles, give or take. Marina first, though. Mosquito Creek, I think.”

She looked at the waves coming off the cruise ship and saw a smooth gap and slipped between the them, then she turned into the third, and last, wave – and crossed on a perpendicular course. The sails slatted and filled as Hyperion crossed into the turbulent air behind the passing ship, then Carol turned back on her original course and made her way under the massive bridge in mid-channel.

He ducked below and checked on his sister, grabbed a couple of Cokes and bounded back into the cockpit. “No problem,” he said. “Sound asleep now.” He picked up a cheap phone and turned it on, then punched a pre-programmed number. “We’ll be there at midnight,” he said into the phone, and then leaving it on he tossed the phone into the water; he looked at his watch and nodded his head.

Hyperion pulled into the little marina a few minutes before noon and two men came down and helped him get Hopie to a waiting car; Carol went with her to this car, and a third man went back to Hyperion with Sherman. While their car pulled out onto the street and drove away, he backed Hyperion out of the marina and headed across the channel to a crowded shipping terminal across the harbor. The man went below, walked around the interior, double checking for bugs or tracking devices and came up a few minutes later.

“She’s clean,” he said, shooting a thumb’s up.

Sherman nodded, noted his thick Israeli accent. He’d had the first transfer team check for bugs in Seattle – before they moved Hyperion to Anacortes, and the one they did find had been put on a random sailboat in the marina up there. Now he picked up another disposable phone and turned it on. He punched the pre-programmed number, then spoke one sentence: “We’ll be there tomorrow.” He tossed that one overboard and pulled up alongside a Liberian flagged freighter, a pair of aramid and kevlar lifting straps lowered from an onboard crane. He and the other man positioned the straps under the boat’s keel, then Hyperion lifted clear of the water and was raised onto deck, and from there onto a steel shipping cradle. The two dashed below and shut down all the ship’s systems as black tarps were draped across the boat; he and the Israeli walked down a ladder to the deck, then over to a boarding platform. They shook hands and Sherman walked down to street level and into a waiting car; from there he was taken to a hotel near the airport – and he walked directly to a room on the third floor. He was met by one of Hopie’s team there, and after a half hour of small-talk, she took him to another car, and on to another hotel. They sat in the hotel bar for a half hour, looking at the foot traffic in and out of the lobby, then she took a call and they left again. They drove around the airport to an FBO and then directly onto the ramp, right up to a waiting Gulfstream G650. He walked up the airstairs, noting the aircraft’s Swiss registration before he ducked and went into cabin; he smiled at Carol as he walked back and looked at Hopie; she was asleep on a portable medevac bed and he looked at the physician attending her and nodded his head, then he went forward and sat down, buckled in as the jet taxied out to the active runway.

The jet took off and turned northeast for a trans-polar departure, it’s flight plan showing Geneva, Switzerland as it’s destination. The two IDF pilots would change that destination as they approached the EU, and after fourteen hours in-flight the jet landed at an airbase near Tel Aviv. Hopie disappeared, while he and Carol were rushed to Ben-Gurion International, and once there they were hustled on to a direct flight back to Los Angeles, traveling under Israeli passports, he saw.

Carol showed up for their Saturday morning make-up dive at Malaga Cove a half hour before he did, and he launched into his pre-dive briefing without missing a beat. He yawned a few times, then led his students down to the beach and into the water. He swam out into the sea on his back, looking up at the sky, smiling at the ludicrousness of it all, then he felt Carol beside him in the water.

“You feeling okay?” she asked.

“Glad you slept on the flight?” he whispered coarsely.

“I’m still exhausted.”

He smiled. “You were wonderful.”

“What now?”

“The boat arrives in six weeks, right after Christmas.”

“So? Carry on like nothing happened ‘til then?”

“That’s the way this game’s gonna be played. Assuming no one wants to talk to us about – things.” He took his bearings and stopped. “Okay, y’all gather round,” he began, but he looked at Carol and smiled. “Alright…this dive will be down to thirty five feet. Once we get down there, we’re going to go through all our exercises. First thing, we’ll take off our vests, completely off, then we’ll put them back on – just like in the pool. Next, we’ll take our masks off, then put them back on and clear them…”

He led the class out of the water not quite an hour later, and he stood in knee deep water while he told them about the certification process, and upcoming classes, then the dive masters walked off with the group. to sign off on this dive and finish their paperwork. Carol walked ahead with the rest of the class, and he turned and looked out to sea, to the mountains beyond Santa Monica, above Beverly Hills. Beverly Glen, Benedict Canyon. He looked at the mountains, and felt something cold and vulnerable gripping his soul…‘what is that?’ he asked the passing sky. Something was gnawing at him now, something dark and unanswerable.

Then he felt something in the sand underfoot, something hard and unyielding, and he bent to see what is was. His hands brushed the sand away…

“Ah,” he said. “Driftwood.”

He was going to walk away, leave the wood where it lay, but he pulled at it and the piece slipped free of the sea and he picked it up.

“That’s a big piece…” he heard Carol say as he swished it around in the gently ebbing surf.

He stood, turned it over in his hands. “What do you make of this?” he said as he turned the wood over. “Looks like a fish?”

She walked back into the water, stood by his side. “Looks like a dolphin to me.”

“So worn down…wonder how long it’s been out here? It looks almost ancient…”

“You going to keep it?”

“Seems a shame to let it rot. Much more time out there and it’ll be gone, washed away forever.” He rinsed the last of the sand off the piece and tucked it under his free arm, then began the long slog back up to the truck, his dive gear in one hand and the unwieldy piece of driftwood in the other.

An hour later he was driving back through the westside, back to his house, and he put the driftwood over the fireplace. He showered and finished his laundry, changed the sheets and went out front to mow the lawn. A gray sedan drove by once and two men inside looked at him, scowling; Sherman looked up at them and waved.

“Ludicrous,” he said as he poured gas into the mower.

+++++

He walked up to Electric Karma just before eight, took his place at the usual dark corner table and ordered a mineral water and lime, then sat and looked out the window as Carol walked up to the door and came in. She waved at him, made a show of running into him and came to his table and sat across from him.

“Well, fancy seeing you here,” she said, meeting his grin with one of her own.

“Something to drink?” the waiter asked.

“The same, I reckon,” she said, pointing at Ted’s glass, and she waited for the boy to leave before speaking. “Did you get a nap in?”

He shook his head. “Grass was about a foot tall, and man, is it brown. Hope it rains around here soon.”

“It’s awful. Even the air smells bad. Dry and burned.”

“All the wildfires. Doesn’t look like the LA I knew twenty years ago…looks more like something out of Soylent Green.”

“Or Blade Runner.”

He laughed, looked towards the door. “Any trouble at your place?”

She shook her head. “No, and I go back to work Monday morning…just like nothing happened.”

“That’s because nothing happened.”

Two men in suits and dark glasses came in and looked at them, then took a seat near their table.

“So,” she said, “how do you think the dive went?”

“Good. You going to sign up for the advanced class?”

“You know, I think I will. Do I need any new equipment?”

“Oh, a couple of dildos, maybe an inflatable sex doll.”

She looked at him and grinned. “You’re kidding, right?”

He shook his head. “Nope, not at all.”

“I’ve never tried anal.”

“Uh, well, I uh…“

“Wanna give it a try tonight?”

He blinked his eyes rapidly, then scrunched up his face as he tried to ignore the two men in dark glasses. “Gee, let me think about that for a while, and I’ll get back to you in the morning.”

She laughed, then they ordered appetizers and some lamb.

She kept up with the salacious innuendo while they ate, putting on a good performance for their watchers. He finally leaned across and whispered in her ear…

She laughed loudly, then leaned back in her chair…

“Come on,” she said, “let’s go before I change my mind…”

He smiled at the two of them as they walked out the restaurant, and the two men just grinned and shook their heads, but he recognized the car parked out front. It was the same sedan that had driven by his house earlier that afternoon; he remembered the plates weren’t Federal issue, but from Nevada, and he wondered who was going to try to make contact first.

And how.

+++++

He drove into the Westside precinct house and got out of his truck, looked on at the morning shift streaming into the station – and he followed them in. Kingman was waiting for him there with Lu Simpson, standing outside her office, so he followed the Watch Commander into her office and sat, while Simpson remained out in the corridor, waiting, though the door was still open.

“Heard your sister passed away, Ted. Sorry.”

He nodded his head, looked away.

“Anyway, while you were gone I had a chance to talk with Officer Simpson about your plan. She seems amenable, and I’d like to detach her from patrol for a month, let her ride shotgun with you.”

“Okay.”

“You think she’s big enough for motors?”

“Captain?”

“Think she could make motorcycles?”

He shrugged. “I’ll know in two weeks. Any experience?”

“Nope.”

“Why? Why do it?”

“Pushing the envelope, Ted. Brave new world, and I need fresh faces to be a part of it.”

“Okay. Where’d she go to school?”

Cal State…Fullerton, I think. Criminal Justice with a minor in history.” Kingman smiled when she saw the look in his eyes. “Thought you’d appreciate that.”

“She seems like a good kid. How do you want me to handle the paperwork?”

“Reports come to me, I’ll pass ‘em along to division if she…well, if she does okay.”

“Got it.”

“When’s your next MSF class?”

“This weekend. I’ll see if I can squeeze her in.”

“Thanks. I’ve got you slated for days this week, evenings the next two, and you’ll finish up on nights just before Christmas, Monday through Friday, no on call. Won’t interfere with your vacation at all.”

“Got a Suburban for us?”

“Yeah, 2109. Has a full reconstruction kit in back, and an advanced life support bag.”

“She got any training?”

“Started EMT-1 but dropped; her husband got pissed.”

“Understood.” He knew that score.

“She’s all yours; try to bring her back in one piece.”

He smiled, stood to leave.

“Again, Ted. Sorry about your sister. If you need any time off, let me know.”

“Will do.” He walked out and found Simpson had been cornered by a sergeant and he paused, looked at her as she tried to handle the guy.

“Hey, Ted! You back from vacation? So, are you the poor prick taking LUANDA out this week?”

“That’s a fact, Jerry,” he said, trying to stifle the urge to kill the bastard. “We’d better go, Officer Simpson.”

“Y’all have fun out there,” the sergeant said. “Don’t eat anything I wouldn’t, Shermie.”

He felt her catch up to him and did his best to avoid looking at her, in effect putting her more on the spot than she must’ve already felt. Jerry Cantwell was one of the meanest pricks working the westside and his condescending racism was legendary. The fact that he’d made sergeant was a blemish on the department’s history, but right now his first concern was to get Simpson away from him, and he kept up a fast pace until they were out of the building.

“Okay, checking out an AI unit is a little different from a patrol car,” he began. “Aside from the the usual stuff, we’ve got a Reconstruction kit and an Advanced Life Support bag…”

“I thought you needed to be a paramedic to carry one of those with you…”

“Yup.”

“You mean…?”

“Paramedic III, fourteen years ago.”

“You were one of the first reconstructionists too, weren’t you?”

“Yup, I’ve also been to HRT and TAC schools. Best thing you can do at this stage of your career is to start hitting schools, meaningful schools, not bullshit stuff.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I take it your husband doesn’t approve?”

“Not exactly.”

He opened the back of the Suburban and pulled out the Reconstruction kit. “Okay. Basic surveying tools, spray paint, chalk and a shitload of cones and flares here,” he said as he pointed out all the stuff on one side of the huge case, “and spare forms here,” he added. “Camera and lenses here, and a portable drafting kit with tools in that black case,” he said, opening it up and checking it’s contents. He put everything back, then opened the ALS bag and checked contents. “Every shift, you check the black bag, and I’ve got the orange medical gear. Now, you check pressures and lights, then the fluids. I want all four tire pressures on the activity report too. Don’t fudge on me, cause I’ll check your work.”

“Yessir.”

He opened the door and started the engine, then turned on all the lights. A/C off and windows down, he got out and looked at her figures and double checked them, then initialed them and handed the form back to her. “You been to radar school yet?” he asked – and she shook her head. “Alright. You’re riding right seat today. Let’s hit the road, Jack.”

“Yessir.”

“We’re 841. Check us into service.”

“841, 10-8,” she said into the radio.

“841 at 0810 hours. 841, 10B at St Elmo and Vineyard, officers not yet on the scene.”

He took the mic. “841, code 3,” he said as he hit the overheads and siren. “You’ve got the times and service numbers on our sheet this week, but keep your eyes on me when we get there.”

“Yessir.”

“Oh…When we’re in here, it’s Ted.”

“Yessir.”

They heard units check out on the scene a minute before they arrived, and he saw paramedics running around in the street as he pulled to a stop in the middle of the intersection. A patrolman was walking their way, shaking his head – and Sherman sighed, got out and walked over to the scene.

Elementary school, crosswalk, seven year old Vietnamese kid cut between two parked cars away from the crosswalk. Teenaged girl driving an old VW Rabbit doesn’t see the kid and nails him as he darts out from between the two parked cars, loses control after impact and sideswipes three parked cars.

He walks over to the broken kid. Tiny, four feet, maybe sixty pounds. Jeans and blue plaid shirt, black sneakers, no socks, blood everywhere. Book bag, red, contents sprayed down the street. Kid knocked airborne from point of impact, into and through the windshield of a plumber’s van parked across the street. Paramedics placed him on the ground to assess. Good skid marks, glass fragments, witnesses.

Witnesses. Get ‘em with a patrolman and start getting names and contact info, basic statements.

He walks over to the Volkswagen; the girl behind the wheel is chewing gum and texting, both doors open. Short skirt, halter top, fishnets and black patent heels. Hispanic. She’s speaking Spanish slowly to someone on the phone, then looks up at him as he approaches.

“Gotta go now. Bye,” she says in Spanish.

“Morning,” he says as he kneels down beside her open door, sniffing the air. “My name’s Sherman, and I’m going to need your driver’s license, registration and proof of financial responsibility.”

She starts digging in the car’s glove box. “Oh, damn…” she says. “I can’t find ‘em.”

“Gotta purse?” he says, looking at a purse in the back seat. It’s too far away for her to get to easily, and he reaches for in for it and puts it up on the roof of the car. It’s too heavy, and he steps back to keep an eye on it while he looks at her.

She seems confused, evasive. “I’m not sure I brought it.”

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

“I’m not sure.”

He turns to Simpson, nods his head and she walks over to get a paramedic.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“Kid…ran out in front of me. That’s all I remember…”

“Any idea how fast you were going?”

“I don’t know. Thirty, thirty five.” Uh-huh, in a 20MPH school zone? Zero situational awareness.

He bends down again, smells something…alcohol? Medical alcohol? He sees a half dozen used alcohol swabs on the floorboard.

“Diabetico?”

“No way, man.”

“Was anyone in the car with you?”

“No. I was just on my way to school.” He looked around the interior again, couldn’t see any books or a book bag, but he saw what looked like a fresh bloody scab forming on her neck, over her carotid.

The paramedic arrived and he turned to stop her. “A little woozy,” he whispered. “My guess is heroin, maybe some other shit,” he said as he walked over to the witnesses, two teachers and a bunch of kids, as well as the school’s crossing guard. He interrupted the patrolman writing down names.

“Any of you see anyone else in the car with the driver? Maybe leave right after this happened?”

One of the teachers came forward, so did the crossing guard. “Two boys got out, wearing colors,” the teacher said. “They took off that way,” the guard said, pointing towards Saturn.

“How fast do you think she was going?”

“I don’t know,” the guard said. “Fast, like fifty or so, and she was talking on her phone.”

“That’s right,” the teacher said, crying now as she looked at the little boy’s motionless body. “I saw that too.”

“Okay, if you can remember what those boys looked like, what they were wearing, give that information to the officer. I’ll need to talk to each of you in more detail in a few minutes, but thanks for now.” He turned, asked the patrolman to put out an APB if there was enough to go on, then he walked over to the boy, now face up on a gurney in the middle of the street. Looking at the impact injuries on his left side, the lacerations from the windshield on his back…but he had a good idea now what had happened.

He just had to prove it.

The paramedic walked over to him. “I’d say she shot up with H about fifteen minutes ago. Nystagmus is all over the place, she seems in the zone, getting worse.”

He nodded his head. “Yup.” He jotted down the medic’s name and badge number, then walked over to the driver.

“So, who was with you? In the car?”

“I told you, man, weren’t no one with me.”

He knelt down beside her again. “Look at me.”

She turned her head a little and looked at him while he watched her eyes.

“That boy over there is dead. See him? Can you see him?”

She looked away, straight down the street.

“He shoulda watch more where he was goin’.”

“What’s your name?”

She shook her head, looked away.

“I’ll need you to step out of the car now, Ma’am.”

The girl shook her head again, moved her right hand quickly towards the ignition – and he literally jerked her out of the car and leaned her over the front of the car while he cuffed her.

Everyone was staring at the scene now, but Simpson was behind him now.

“Good call, sir,” she said. “We just got an APB out, too.”

He pulled out his voice recorder and placed it on the hood in front of her face and turned it on, then ran through the Miranda warning, asked the girl if she understood her rights.

Silence, blank stare.

“Okay, so who was in the car with you? You don’t, like, want to change your story now, do you?”

“Fuck you, Pig.”

“Music to my ears,” Sherman thought. “Now, would you tell me your name?”

“Eat shit, mother-fucker.”

He looked at Simpson and grinned while he shook his head.

“How much horse you shoot this morning?”

“Keep it up, Pig. My boys will find you and stick your fuckin’ ass.”

“Those the boys with you in the car?”

“Fuckin’ right, Pig.”

“Who’s gonna hit me? Mario? Jose?”

“No way, pig-fucker. Julio and Benito gonna find you and stick yo ass. Tonight, too, fucker…get your wife and kids and your fuckin’ dog, too.”

He picked up the recorder and walked away, spoke his name and badge number into the mic, then the date, time and location – then he shut it down. “Take her to county,” he said to a nearby officer, “after you finish the inventory. Oh, that purse was in the back seat, let me know if you find a DL – or anything interesting, like a gun.” He went to the back of the Suburban and opened the Recon bag and dug out the camera, then walked around the scene shooting everything he needed, explaining what he was doing as Simpson walked along beside him.

The officer who was going to transport the girl walked over and handed him her license, then showed him the purse. Several dime bags of heroin, two bundles of new insulin syringes in their packaging, rubber banded together – and a .32 caliber Saturday night special. He photographed these and wrote down the officer’s name and badge number.

“Surprised they left that,” he said to Simpson. “Got a service number yet?”

She read it off to him, then said “Got it?” to the transporting officer.

They cleared the scene almost two hours later and drove over to a burger shack by the freeway, then they walked up and ordered from the window before sitting at a shaded picnic table.

“So, first impressions?”

She shook her head. “Pretty cut and dried, skids were all after the impact.”

“How fast do you think she was going?”

“Forties, my guess.”

He nodded his head. “Mine too. So. What’s with your husband? ”

“We’re splitting up, says he just can’t take it. The hours. What he calls my ‘attitude’ – all of that shit.”

“Your attitude? What do you think he means be that?”

“I don’t know, Ted. He gets all up tight on me, all the time.”

“My wife had the same issue. Turns out I was having a hard time turning off my street personality when I got home at night.”

She looked away. “Yeah,” she said. “He said that to me once.”

“Think he might have a point?”

“Yeah, maybe, but he’s been disrespectin’ me, and the department, like all the time.”

“What’s he do?”

“Mechanic, at a Ford dealer in he valley. He was in the Navy for a while, a machinist.”

“Ever have trouble with the law?”

“When he was a kid, yeah.”

He sighed. “And you come home one day wearing a gun and a badge. Probably freaked him out a little, huh?”

“Yup.”

“So, is he filing, or are you going to?”

“He is.”

“Gotta place to stay?”

“My grand-mom’s.”

He went over and got their burgers, and they sat and talked about the accident scene for a while. This girl was depressed, he saw. She’d been picking her fingernails all morning, yet even so, she was attentive and focused when she needed to be. If she could keep it together during the divorce she might make it in the department, but so far she lacked the initiative to do traffic. ‘Maybe first day jitters…’ he told himself.

They sat in the Suburban under a shady tree and she wrote out their report, and when she finished the last narrative he filed it on the department server and forwarded a copy to Kingman, then sent her a quick email. “So far so good,” he wrote, and he got a quick “Thnx” in reply.

They worked radar out on Venice Boulevard the last hour of their shift, then drove back to the station. When everything was turned in and they’d changed, he said he’d see her in the morning and started to leave, but she followed him out to his truck.

“You doin’ anything now?” she asked when she caught up with him.

“Grocery store, cook dinner, wait for my girlfriend to come over.”

“I don’t have a car now.”

“Taking the bus?”

She nodded her head.

“Where you hangin’? Your grandmother’s, you said?”

“Pico and Normandie.”

“Maybe you should hang around, have some grub with us?”

She smiled, but looked down at the ground.

“Yup, you’re coming with me. You look like you need a beer or three.”

She put her gym bag in the back and hopped in, then they drove over to a grocery store near his house and picked-up some grub for dinner – three nice looking steaks and a pile of tiger prawns, then they drove over to his place and went inside. He fired off a quick heads-up to Carol then showed her around the house.

“Cool place,” she said. “I always liked bungalows. Cozy, like a home ought to be.” She looked wistfully at pictures on the wall in his study, stopped at several from his navy days. “You were a pilot?”

“Yup.”

“So, how come you’re a cop? I mean…”

“Beats working for a living.”

She laughed at that one. “Man…you’re nuts.”

“You want a brew?”

“Sure.”

They walked into the kitchen and he heard Carol’s Subaru pull into the drive, watched her read his text before she got out of the car – still wearing her lab coat, too, he saw, and those sky-high heels of hers.

“Hi!” Carol said as she came in. “And you must be Officer Simpson?”

“Lu, please.”

“Carol. So, how was your first day together?”

Simpson looked from Ted to Carol and back again.

“No secrets in this house, kiddo,” he said. “Get used to it.”

Simpson smiled. “You’re a doc?”

“Yup.”

“What kind?”

“Psychiatry.”

“Oh, shit,” she whispered.

He laughed, then Carol did too. Simpson looked betrayed – until he handed her an Oly and a pat on the back. “Let’s go light a fire,” he said as he led her to the patio. He poured charcoal into his funnel and lit it, then he watched and made sure the flame settled in while she looked around the narrow yard.

“Man…you’re living with a shrink?” she finally said. “What’s that like?”

“Yeah, keeps me on my toes. If she finds my snuff-porn stash, I’m toast.”

She laughed, but still looked unsure of herself.

“Kingman told me you’re interested in motors.”

She looked at him. “Not too many female motorjocks around, are there?”

“Nope. Ever ridden bikes before?”

“Nope. Horses, but no motorcycles.”

“Oh? You like horses?”

“No…I love horses.”

“Not many places to ride around here…where’d you…?”

“A teacher. Middle school. She got me into it, and I worked as a wrangler over at the park in college.”

“Good trails up there. Too many snakes for me, though.”

“There are a few…”

Carol came out and sat down with a glass of wine, and he excused himself to get the steaks and shrimp ready, leaving them to talk. He whipped up a homemade caesar salad and seasoned the steaks, then carried the steaks out and set them near the flames, looking at his watch as he sat back down. He took a slug from his bottle of Perrier and looked at Carol…still decked out in her five inch heels…and he shook his head. They were talking about horses and riding in Sequoia National Park and Lu was already opening up, cutting loose. He went in and got her another beer and turned the steaks, then put on the shrimp and seasoned everything with ginger, lime-butter and soy.

“‘Bout five more minutes,” he said to Carol, and they all went in and got plates and utensils – while Lu carried out the salad, and he dropped steaks and shrimp on plates and sat down, sighing to be off his feet for a while.

“This is unreal,” Simpson said. “The shrimp are so good…”

“Gotta keep your strength up,” he said. “Steak, twice a week. Salmon at least once a week, then just veggies and salad. Yogurt til your eyeballs turn green and pop out your head.”

“We eat a lot of Big Macs,” Simpson said, grinning.

“You’ll stroke out at fifty,” he said, and she nodded. “So, you want to try the motorcycle class? Next two weekends. I’ve got room for you.”

She nodded her head. “Yessir, I think I’d like to give it a try.”

“Okay. Beer holding up?”

“Yessir.”

He shook his head. “Look, Lu. No uniform, no sir. Makes me nervous, okay?”

She grinned. “Sorry, sir – uh – Ted.” She helped them clean up and he poured her three fingers of rum in a small glass of Coke, then left her with Carol while he went through his email. She was loopy when he walked her out to the truck, and he drove her to her grandmother’s house.

“I’ll pick you up at 6:45,” he said as she oozed out the truck, and she shot him a thumb’s up as she stumbled into the house. “Well, Mission Accomplished…” he said as he drove home.

“That kid’s wound tighter than a drum,” Carol told him when he walked in the door. “You trust her?”

“Lu? Yeah, she had a rough day. She’s had a rough life, too.”

“So I gathered. I’d put her on anti-depressants if she was mine. She’s flat. Flat as a pancake.”

“Ninety percent of the force ought to be on those goddamn things, but then no one would be able to shoot worth a damn.”

“That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?”

“Only if you wouldn’t mind burying a few thousand cops a year,” he smiled.

She was beginning to understand that particular smile. “My feet hurt,” she said.

“You know, those shoes probably make a lot of guys horny, but you’re going to ruin your feet. Here,” he said as he sat down on the bed, “give ‘em to me.”

She sat down and lay them across his lap, and after he peeled her stockings off he put lotion on them and started working her tendons and facia.

“Oh my gawd…” she moaned. “Don’t stop…please don’t stop…”

He laughed. “You know you’re getting old when the woman you’re with says stuff like that to a foot rub, instead of a…”

“Oh, that’s next on my list,” she said, almost purring. “Want me to put those shoes back on?”

He sighed, shook his head. “Do you really think men are so predictable?”

“Yup. I do.”

+++++

By Friday morning she had their routine was down. He picked her up, they talked all the way to the station and almost as soon as they checked in-service they were dispatched to a major accident – usually in or near a school zone, and more often than not with some kid hit in a crosswalk.

They walked out to the Suburban after briefing and checked their bags, and as soon as they checked-in dispatch called.

“841, go ahead.”

“841, 10 unknown, possible signal 1, vicinity of Cielo and Benedict Canyon. This is a patrol request for an AI and additional backup. They request code 1, possible suspects still in the area.”

“841, show us code 1.”

“What the fuck?” Lu said. “An unknown accident with a possible murder? And is this in-progress?”

“That’s the way I read it,” he said as he raced for Olympic. The morning traffic was still heavy – and he busted a few packed intersections under lights and siren, but he continued silent all the way to Santa Monica, picking up speed after they crossed Sunset Boulevard.

“841, be advised air units on the way, tactical callout requested by units on scene.”

“41.”

“Well, there goes the element of surprise…” she said.

“This smells like trouble,” he said as he took a left on Cielo. “Oh, fuck,” he said as he looked at the houses in the neighborhood. “This is same area where the Manson/Tate murders went down.”

“The what?”

He looked at her as he stopped behind three parked squad cars. “You ever heard of Charles Manson?”

“Fuck!”

“Get the AR out of the back, and the extra clips.”

“Yessir.”

“Keep your eyes open…” he said as he stepped out of the Suburban, just as a barrage of heavy automatic weapons fire cut loose up the hill. “Fuck!” he said as he ran to the back to the truck. He opened the doors and hauled out the AR-15, then pulled three clips out of the bag; he handed these to Lu and she took off into the trees. He pulled an ancient Remington 870 pump out and double-checked the tube, and racked the slide enough to see a chambered round. He counted ten rounds total – just as another round of heavy weapons fire erupted.

But…nothing on the radio…

What the fuck…

This was an ambush…

He dove into the front seat and got on the radio.

“841!”

“841, go ahead.”

“841, I think this is an ambush. Two bursts of heavy automatic weapons fire, and I’m not picking up anything on the radio…”

Another burst of fire, this time close by, and this time the windshield overhead exploded, raining shards down all over the seats, and all over his back.

“841, signal 33 shots fired, heavy weapons, air unit caution, need immediate backup!” He scrambled across the floorboard and out the passenger door and into the bushes; he saw Simpson laying face down in the dirt and grabbed the AR by her side –  and checked the safety. He heard running, two to three people running down the street, and he pulled himself through the dense brush over to a steep, rock-walled ravine – and he tried to get a view of the other patrol cars ahead of their Suburban.

He heard an impossible number of sirens coming up Benedict Canyon, then another burst of fire – and he looked up to see a helicopter taking fire, smoke pouring out the rear. He saw the shooter across the street, waiting in the bushes, and he brought the Colt’s sights up to his eyes and let off a three round burst. He jumped and scrambled through the brush as bullets slammed into the trees where he just had shot from, and he heard people speaking, but not in English. He saw a van racing down Cielo, heard it braking hard, saw three men running for the van – as he sighted in on them – he fired a three round burst – then another. Two down, the third looking for him – he fired into the driver’s door then felt something hit his shoulder. He was on fire, but now he saw the third guy running his way, his gun coming up…

Then the man stopped, began ejecting the clip from his weapon and Sherman stood up with the 870 pump and fired four rounds of double-00 buckshot at the man, at least two hitting the man in the face. The man staggered backwards and fell to the ground, just as the first of several dozen patrol cars screamed into view. He staggered down out of the bushes, pointed at the hillside across the street and officers began fanning out. He stumbled over to the Suburban and got on the radio.

“841, multiple officers down, get EMS and medevac aircraft up here code 3. Notify 100, CID and call the FBI.”

He slumped over the seat, then fell backwards onto the street. He put a hand out, tried to steady himself, but he felt light-headed, almost weightless as the sky started spinning.

“This isn’t so bad,” he said as he suddenly felt himself floating on a sea of warm light. “Nope, not too bad at all…I thought it would hurt a lot more than this…” He was looking up at the sky again, at a cloud passing on a warm breeze, and he was aware – for a moment – that it was getting hard to breathe, and he smiled for a moment, then closed his eyes.

+++++

She was sitting at a desk, re-reading an email, looking at the satellite imagery attached when a colonel in the Mossad came into the room.

He didn’t speak, didn’t dare interrupt her, but she looked up at him. “Yes?” she said, and the colonel had the impression a very old owl had just spoken to him.

“There has been trouble. In Los Angeles.”

“My brother?”

“He has been shot, there are reports he has been killed.”

She turned away, put her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes. “Find out what you can,” she whispered, then she turned to him and the fury he saw in her eyes was a fascinating, if dreadful thing to behold. “Minimal involvement,” she seethed. “See to it yourself. Find out who was behind it.”

When the man was gone she looked around the room, this little monastic cell of her own creation, and she cursed her body once again, cursed it for turning against her now. She turned the chair and motored out to the patio, looked out over the little village of Tarum to the vineyards beyond, then she cursed the day she’d been born – again.

The email burned in her mind. The imagery provided implications beyond merely staggering. “The power…” she whispered, “power to reshape entire worlds…and now this? What happened? Why did he…?”

She turned and looked skyward as an echelon of F-15s circled above, breaking off one by one to line up for their approach to Tel Nof. “And how many more people will die because of what I’ve done.” Operations lined up on the chessboard of her mind; her pawns sacrificed in the opening moves two years ago, her opponent taking them, falling for each one of her obscure feints – until someone inside betrayed her. Still, in this game family was supposed to be off limits, and with Ted down that could only mean one thing.

A new player had entered the game, and revenge was the oldest motive in the world, wasn’t it?

+++++

Carol sat in the surgical waiting room with the family members of the other wounded – and killed – officers, and with hundreds of uniformed officers all milling about the scene was subdued bedlam. A tall black officer, an older woman came over and sat by her.

“I hear you know Ted Sherman?” the woman asked.

Carol looked up and nodded. “We’ve been together a while. I went up with him to Seattle last week, to see his sister.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Do you know anything about Lu…about Officer Simpson?”

“She didn’t make it,” the woman said, looking away and swallowing hard. “How did you know her?”

“She’s been over to the house several times. I like her. A lot.”

The woman looked at her again. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

“I’m scared,” Carol said, looking down, putting her face in her hands, trying to choke off tears fighting for release, that wanted to spring free and carry her away to oblivion.

Then the room grew still as a surgeon walked into the room.

“Walker family?”

A woman and two children stood and he came over to them. “Let’s go to a conference room,” the surgeon said, and they walked away, heads down, shock settling over them…and the room grew quieter still.

Then an older black woman was standing in front of her…

“Are you Doctor Carol?” the woman asked.

“I guess so.”

“Lu was my granddaughter,” the old woman said. “She told me so much about you this week, and about Officer Sherman. She enjoyed talking to you both, and was as happy as I’d seen her in years.”

“I, uh, well, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Carol said.

“How is he?” The woman asked. “Any word yet?”

“No.”

Another wave of stillness, another surgeon standing by the door.

“Sherman family?”

Carol stood, and the officer by her side did as well.

“Here,” the woman said, and she led Carol to the conference room. They sat, Carol expecting to hear the worst…

“I’m Dr Curry,” the surgeon began. “Jeanie. Who’s who?”

“Ellie Kingman, Sherman’s watch commander. This is Carol, his girlfriend.”

“I’m a physician,” Carol said, out of the blue.

“Oh?” The surgeon said, and Kingman turned and looked at her anew.

“Psychiatry, at the West Pavilion.”

“Ah. Well,” Curry continued, “we resected Officer Sherman’s left brachial artery. Sorry, that’s what took so long. A solid-steel .223 round hit his left clavicle, bone fragments nicked the artery. Paramedics got expanders into him on the scene, or he’d have been in real trouble. An ortho is wrapping-up repairs to the clavicle right now, then I’ll go in and close. My guess is he’ll be in ICU for a couple of days, but you’ll be able to talk to him later tonight, or tomorrow morning.”

“He’s going to make it, then?” Kingman said, starting to cry.

“Yes, but as long as we’re here, my guess is he ought to retire after this. His left arm and shoulder will be very weak. Looks like he’s been shot twice before, too? Is that right?”

“Yes,” Kingman said.

“Well, maybe it’s time for him to take a break, try something new.”

“Any oxygenation issues, brain damage?” Carol asked.

“No, I talked with him a little before anesthesia, and he seemed intact, and there’ve been no issues during surgery, so I’d say he’s good. Well, I’ve got to get back. Stay here as long as you need to, and I’ll see you when he’s been moved to the recovery room.”

“Thanks, doctor,” Kingman said, then she turned to Carol. “You’re a doc? A psychiatrist? Where’d you meet?”

“One of his dive classes, couple of weeks ago.”

“Hmm. I’m surprised, really.”

“Surprised?”

“I thought, after Sandy and all that stuff…”

“I didn’t get the impression he was looking for anyone,” Carol said, laughing a little. “But when I met him? Gawd-almighty! I fell for him in about three minutes flat…”

Kingman laughed. “That’s Ted. So, you didn’t know Sandy?”

“No. Why?”

“Oh, she was something else. A real journalist, super smart, last of a breed. Sweet, too. I wouldn’t say this, but it’s only that you remind me of her in so many ways.”

“Oh?”

“Not physically. No…oh, there was something in her eyes, in yours too, and, oh, I don’t know. You just seem so familiar to me.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Carol blurted out, now feeling light-headed, almost spaced out as waves of relief finally broke over her.

“Let’s go get some coffee, maybe a breath of fresh air…”

They walked to the elevators and rode down to the main floor inside a gaggle of interns, then walked off in search of a coffee shop. They found a Starbuck’s off the lobby then walked outside, sat on a bench in the sun.

“So, what happened in Seattle?” Kingman asked.

Carol shrugged, bit her lower lip. “She seemed pretty far gone by the time we got there.”

“How was he – after, I mean?”

Carol looked away, hated these kinds of subterfuges. “He’s strong, more resourceful than I imagined.”

“Sounds like Ted. I wonder if he’ll want to retire after this one?”

“This one?”

“Third time for him, but nothing like this before.”

“What happened out there? Does anyone know anything yet?”

“Looks like our guys got there before they could hit the target.”

“I heard someone say it was an ambush?”

Kingman shrugged. “Way too soon to speculate. They’re still working on the scene up there.”

“Has anything like this ever happened before?”

“No. Not on this scale. Eight down in one incident? They were heavily armed, too.”

“What if it was an ambush?”

“Motive. I can’t think of a motive,” Kingman almost whispered. “Police are a hard target, not something terrorists would go after…”

“Revenge? Isn’t that the oldest motive?”

“Not like this. Revenge is very personal, usually directed at someone specific. Going after the department…just to make a statement…that just doesn’t make sense.”

“What if they were trying to get just one of the officers, one who responded?”

“Far-fetched. No one knows ahead of time who’ll be dispatched to a call like that. Still, Ted called it in as an ambush, and he called for the FBI to respond. My guess is he thought it was a terrorist incident.”

“Any idea who they were?”

“No.”

“I don’t know how you do it. All of you. I think about Lu and I just want to go away and crawl in a hole…god, she was such a sweet, screwed up kid.”

“Screwed up?” Kingman said – a little defensively, Carol thought. “How so.”

“Depressed. I mean, a bad kind of depression. I told Ted if she was a patient of mine I’d have had her on an anti-depressant.”

“Really? What did Ted have to say about that?”

Carol thought back, thought about his smile. “Something about half the department would need to be on them if I applied my usual criteria. I said something stupid then, something about that maybe not being such a bad thing.”

“And let me guess,” Kingman added. “He said if that happened a lot of cops would get killed.”

“Exactly. That’s just about exactly what he said.”

“It’s a thin line, Carol. After a few years on the street, lots of us walk a razor thin line between sanity and losing it completely. Being cynical, almost paranoid is part of the way you stay alive out on the street. Everyone you look at, everyone we deal with is a potential threat. Every call we respond to…well, it could be the last thing we ever do, and if you can’t hold that edge, if you let down your guard for just one minute you become a danger – not just to yourself, but to everyone you work with.”

“Such an impossible way to work, to live.”

“Yet if you’re on the street, it’s the only way you can stay alive. A conundrum, isn’t it? It’s why so many of our marriages come unglued. And why so many cops come unglued after they retire.”

“This is awful coffee, you know?”

Kingman laughed. “We better head back upstairs. I need to check in and see what’s going on.” They walked back through the lobby and took the elevator back to the waiting room…

“Oh, there they are,” Carol heard someone saying, and she turned to the commotion.

President Smithfield was coming her way, his wife too, and a phalanx of Secret Service agents surrounded them as they pushed their way across the crowded room, parting a path for the couple like an icebreaker.

“Which one of you is Sherman’s girlfriend?” the old man said, and Carol hesitated, then raised her hand.

“That would be me, sir.”

“Soon as we heard we came over. He’s okay, I hear?”

“Yes, Mr President,” Kingman said. “We have three confirmed dead, five wounded.”

“Suspects?”

“Four dead, sir. I understand Sherman got all four of them.”

The old man nodded his head. “Why am I not surprised?” He turned to Carol. “How long have you two been together?”

“Not that long, Mr President.”

“Well, the important thing is you’ll have a chance for more time together. You’ll be in our prayers, young lady.”

“Thank you, Mr President.”

He turned to Kingman again. “Ellie, I’d like a word with you, please…”

Carol turned and saw the surgeon, Dr Curry, coming from the OR, and he came over to her. “Come with me,” she said – looking at Smithfield and his entourage – and Carol followed her to the Post-OP ICU and into a cordoned off suite.

“He’s not quite out from under yet,” Curry said, “but I thought you’d like to see him for a second.”

“Yes, thanks.” She went to the side of his gurney, looked at him, trying her hardest not to cry. His eyes were still taped closed, a ventilator was still pumping air into his lungs, and she looked at the bank of monitor over his bed. Rhythm and sats all looked good, BP rock solid, and she held his hand, pressed a nail-bed and watched the blood rebound. There were pressure dressings on his left chest, and his left arm was bound tightly to his torso.

She remembered that morning, how they’d held each other after. How she loved him more and more with each passing day, and now, like lightning out of a clear blue sky – this. This was the reality of his work, his calling…and then she felt Curry’s hand on her shoulder.

“He’s going to be fine,” the surgeon said. “You ought to go home now, get some rest. Come back early later. He’ll be in the ICU soon, up on seven.”

“I…”

“You want me to call you? If anything changes?”

Carol got out her wallet, handed her a card, her shaking hands an embarrassment.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

She found Kingman waiting for her in the waiting room, and Carol thought she looked anxious now, maybe preoccupied was a better word, but she smiled when she saw Curry. “How is he?” Kingman asked, and Carol smiled, Curry too.

“He’ll be fine,” Curry said. “Was that Smithfield?”

Kingman nodded. “He came to check on us.”

Curry wondered just what the hell that meant, but let it drop. “Well, I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

“I need your personal cell,” Kingman said, and she said it to the surgeon in a way that left no doubt this was an explicit order. Curry wrote her number down and handed it to her, looking more than a little put out now. Kingman looked at her watch, then back to Curry. “Answer the call you get at seven this evening. It’s important.”

“Thanks again.” Carol said, and she watched as the surgeon abruptly turned and left. She turned back to Kingman, the question plain to see in her eyes. “Any news?”

“Not here. You ready to leave?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

“Parked in the garage?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, let’s get out of here. Now.”

+++++

Carol drove to the Westside station, following Kingman’s Suburban all the way, and once there Kingman parked and came to Carol’s Subaru.

“Drive,” Kingman said as soon as she was in the seat.

“Where?”

“Doesn’t matter.” She put her attaché case on the floorboard and opened it, pulled out an Iridium Sat Phone and extended the antenna, then plugged in a small box to the auxiliary port. She speed-dialed a pre-programmed number, then enabled the encryptor, waiting for it to connect with the unit on the other end of the call.

“Pull in, over there,” she said as the light on the unit went from red to green, then red again. “Go, one, go, go,” she said.

“Go two,” came the reply, over the phone’s speaker.

The light switched to green again.

“Hello? Ellie?”

“We’re here, both of us.”

“Carol?”

“Yes? Who’s this?” The voice sounded odd, metallic, and completely unrecognizable.

“Ellie will explain everything; just do what she says. Oh yes, I forgot to thank you last week, for your time on Hyperion. Goodbye for now.”

The connection cut, Kingman put the phone away. “We’re going to have to get you and Ted out of here, tonight.”

“Was that…?” She stopped when Kingman held out her hand.

“Don’t even say the name. Find a place for dinner. We have about an hour ’til I have to call Curry.”

Carol pulled out into traffic and drove to a place near her clinic; she parked and they went in, ordered and waited for the hour to pass, Carol growing more confused by the minute. Still, Kingman was a link to Ted, wasn’t she?

“I don’t suppose you want to tell me what’s going on?”

Kingman shook her head. “Can’t. Not now, not yet.” They ate in silence, and at seven she picked a disposable cell from her case and called Curry’s number.

“Curry.”

“Doctor, meet me at the Gayley entrance at eight.”

“Who is this?”

“Eight o’clock, doctor. Sharp.” Kingman broke the connection, then shook her head. “This isn’t going to work,” she sighed, then: “Okay, back to the medical center.”

Carol paid the bill and they walked out to her car, and they made it back to the Westwood area, and the UCLA Medical Center, with ten minutes to spare. She turned onto Gayley and drove north, until Kingman told her to stop. She looked at her watch, then the clock on the center console: “Be right there at five after,” Kingman said, pointing across the street as she got out of the car. “Now move, and keep an eye on your mirror.”

Carol drove off, wondering just what the hell she’d gotten herself into now.

+++++

Jeanie Curry knew better than to follow the police captain’s cryptic commands, but she’d seen the six o’clock news, heard the reports that the assailants had no records at all, nothing – not even fingerprints – anywhere. A commentator exclaimed it was like those four men had never existed. And then, what about Smithfield? What had he been doing up there?

‘No, something’s not right,’ she told herself, and that Kingman woman looked like she needed a helping hand…and like she meant business.

She walked out the Gayley entrance at 8:02, and Kingman walked up to her seconds after she appeared.

“Let’s cross the street.”

“Listen, I don’t know who the devil…?”

“You want to save Sherman’s life?”

“What’s going on?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Of course I do…”

“Then come with me.”

+++++

The Chief of Police held a press conference at ten the next morning, reading the names of the dead aloud before a sea of reporters, and into the record of the Department’s Fallen.

When he came to Theodore Sherman’s name Ellie Kingman broke out in tears, hiding her face from the world. Reporters and photographers gathered ‘round her after the ceremony, shoving microphones in her face, a barrage of flashes strobing the scene, and she tried her best to describe her feelings about yesterday’s events, and the loss of her very dear friend Ted Sherman, and so soon after his wife passed.

Three Presidents were on hand, in a show of solidarity some considered uncommon among the political class, yet many remarked that former President Grover Smithfield seemed overtly preoccupied, almost distracted, during the proceedings. Indeed, some said he appeared almost angry, yet no seemed to know of a good reason why.

Radar tracked a Swiss registered Gulfstream G650 from KBUR until it departed US airspace at 0937 hrs Mountain Time, crossing Montana on it’s way to Alberta, on a filed flight plan stating Zurich the primary destination, Geneva it’s alternate.

+++++

“Gulfstream 43 Golf, Ben Gurion approach, clear for a straight-in approach, land runway one-two, winds northeast at ten, altimeter two-niner niner-five. You’ll have company at your four o’clock through the ADIZ to the TDZ.”

“43 Golf.” The pilot switched off the autopilot; her co-pilot added ten degrees flaps, then dropped the landing gear.

“43 Golf, clear to land, and clear the active at Echo 2 Right.”

“Golf clear at Echo 2 Right.”

Carol and Dr Jeanie Curry buckled their seat-belts, looked out the large oval windows at the sleeping city just ahead – and as the sprawling beachfront seemed to reach out for them Carol felt another surge of apprehension. The Gulfstream was lined up now, yet still out over the Mediterranean for it’s final approach, and to her she felt this was the final approach to whatever life lay ahead. She leaned forward a little and looked out the window, was shocked to see two jets tucked in close to their jet’s right wingtip, and two more just a few hundred yards away. Military? Fighters?

Their sudden appearance only served to drive home the enormity of her departure from the United States. The stakes had been raised, and she turned back to look at Ted, and the medic tending him.

Had President Smithfield been responsible for the attack? The Israeli colonel sitting forward had seemed to imply as much, but then he had also explicitly stated that at least two of the men had been positively identified as Bulgarians, known agents of the Russian FSB. What exactly did that mean? That a former American President had collaborated with the current Russian government to take out a bunch of cops to get at Ted?

They idea was preposterous, and she knew it…so…why the escort? Why all the suspicion? What was happening? Why were all these Israeli warriors so on-edge? What did they know – that she didn’t?

And what was at stake?

She looked out the window again, looked down as a jagged edge of beachfront high-rises streak-by just below the wing, then a sea of city neighborhoods not so very different from those she had seen in Los Angeles – at least from the air – at least, she thought, in the middle of the night.

So many varieties of us, yet we’re all the same. Where did we come from?

Aren’t we all the same?

This last flight was beginning to feel more than a little surreal, too. Smooth, incredibly quiet compared to an airliner, but then there were those fighters hanging off their wingtip. What was the threat, because somebody must think we’re were still in danger? But from whom? And why?

The ground was reaching up quickly now, flashing strobes and glowing blue taxiways – and an El Al 767 holding short of the runway, it’s lights blinding her as they passed. Seconds later she felt the Gulfstream flare and land, and she looked out the window as the fighters peeled away and disappeared into the night, then as spoilers sprouted from the top of the wing. The engines dropped into reverse-thrust and roared into the night, and the seatbelt grew tight across her waist. Then sudden silence and gentle deceleration, a very smooth turn at the end of the runway – and then the jet slowed to a gentle stop beside a darkened hangar. She saw Land Rovers out there, and troops. Lots of troops – and all of them carrying machine guns, looking nervously into the night.

Curry was up the moment the jet stopped, checking Sherman’s vital signs, adjusting the drip on his IV and the flow of oxygen to his nasal cannula. She reached into a pocket, shined a penlight into his eyes.

“Shit,” she said, shaking her head as she reached for a syringe.

“What’s wrong?” The medic asked, and Carol looked on wide-eyed.

“His O2 sats are all wrong, his BP is too high. I must have missed a fragment, or the resection is failing.”

“Or pressurization rebound,” the Israeli medic added. “Not uncommon after a long flight like this, with someone in his condition, but I agree, he should go straight to the ER.”

“Is it close?”

The medic nodded his head, went forward and spoke to the pilot, and a moment later the air-stairs opened, flooding the cabin with very warm, very dry air. Escort vehicles and a military ambulance pulled up to the jet, and soldiers came thundering aboard; they rolled Sherman’s gurney to the door – and straight across into the waiting ambulance, that had somehow elevated and positioned itself by the open stairs. Curry and the medic hopped across and into the beast – then it drove off quietly into the night, leaving Carol and her Israeli escort alone in the cabin.

“We must leave, while it is still dark,” the man said, and she followed him down the stairs and into something that looked a little like an old-style Land Rover – except this thing was almost brand new and painted flat tan. Two – what, paratroopers? – sat in front, and three other vehicles, each identical to this one, formed up ahead and behind as they made ready to leave. The little convoy slipped through a heavily guarded gate and onto a narrow roadway, and she saw mountains ahead, their jutting profile highlighted by the pinkish-amber glow of the sun – still just below the horizon.

“Do you need air conditioning?” one of the paratroopers asked.

“I’m fine,” she said, but she felt anything but just then. She felt disoriented, alone and unsure of herself as she looked out yet another window – passing through farmland one moment, through  a small settlement the next, and then she saw blacked out buildings that looked oddly military in function – before rolling through more farmland.

‘I’m in a war zone,’ she said to herself. ‘In a war zone, a spectator looking at the world pass by through a parade of windows…’

Farm-village-farm-factory…this oddly variegated landscape was as disorienting as her mood, and nothing she saw made much sense to her American eyes – yet closing them didn’t help. After a half hour of this, her little convoy turned off the main road – and she saw a small sign indicating they had just entered the Tarum archeological settlement – ‘Whatever the Hell that is’ – she said to herself. They followed the lead Rover as it pulled onto an arcing, narrow street, then into a driveway. She saw a house: dark, austere, immensely plain looking and very small, and the colonel with her looked at his watch, then got out of the truck and opened her door, looking up at the last stars fading from the night.

Hills, low and rocky-tan, their flanks covered with wind-burned trees, and just up the nearest trail – a tank. Low and menacing, it’s barrel camouflaged with brush, She saw troops everywhere, under trees. Waiting. Watching her, and waiting, and she wondered why they were under trees when the sun was barely up…

“This way, please,” her escort said, and she followed him up to the house and waited while he fumbled with keys in the near darkness. He finally unlocked the door and walked inside, turning on lights as he entered, holding the door open for her, then quickly, too quickly, shutting it behind her.

The interior looked like something haphardly thrown together, a scrambled mess straight out of an Ikea catalogue – all bright primary colors and spare Danish lines – and even the air smelled like freshly molded plastic; the overall effect was simply devastating with it’s soul-crushing ability to render her soul speechless.

“This will be your new home,” the colonel said, beaming, his arms held expansively wide.

She looked at him, suddenly feeling an intense desire to drop dead on the spot, but she nodded her head. “Okay. Where’s the bedroom, and how do I find out how Ted is?”

“Bedroom, right this way,” he said, leading her into a ten foot by ten foot room decorated by someone who had obviously spent way too much time in an underground missile silo, and then she looked in the closet, saw clothes hanging on the rack that were – “Oh, what a surprise…” – just her size. Shoes too, nice, sensible flats and running shoes, also her size. Ted’s selection was beside her’s, right down to the same style of white Adidas tennis shoes he kept in his own closet back home. The sight filled her with dread, and a certain encroaching nausea. She felt a line of sweat bead on her forehead as a profound anomie settled over her, like a snowflake in August.

“The bathroom?”

He pointed and she walked in. All their usual toiletries, laid out in neat, orderly rows – ‘Ready for inspection, Sergeant!’

“This is a fucking nightmare,” she whispered.

“You’ve found everything in order?”

“Yes. Fine. What about Ted?”

“One of us will be out front at all times, and as soon as we know anything I’ll call you,” he said, pointing at a telephone on her bedside table. “We’ll bring Dr Curry out here as soon as we can.”

“Dr Curry? Why isn’t she returning to…?”

The man smiled, looking at her as if she was an extraordinarily slow child: “I doubt she will be returning anytime soon. It could be very dangerous for her.” He turned and left the house, and she turned and looked at the bed, at the barren concrete walls that suddenly felt more like a prison cell than a home. She walked over and looked out the front window, saw four men gathered beside their vehicles, smoking cigarettes – obviously talking about things inconsequential, each armed with heavy machine guns and with bulky night vision goggles perched on their khaki helmets.

‘I wonder…are they here to protect me?’ she whispered to herself. “Or to keep me here?” She looked around the surreal living room once again, the slick Scandinavian designs at odds with the painted cinder-block walls, and right then she decided sleep was the easiest course of action.

“As long as I don’t dream…” she said as she crawled off the find the nearest rock.

+++++

Jeanie Curry was beyond livid.

She had a full schedule of procedures on the books for the morning, and where was she? In Tel Aviv? Israel? What the hell was going on?!

Kingman had asked her to help with Sherman – just as she saw four men wheeling him into a waiting ambulance. Then the cop had asked her to get in the ambulance too – “To make sure he makes it to the airport” – and then? A twelve hour flight to Oslo, where they stayed on the ground just long enough to refuel, then another six hours crammed inside that hideous metal tube watching the cop’s condition deteriorate?

And then, on asking that someone tell her what was happening to her, she was – what? Escorted to a hospital, then shuffled off to a military convoy, and she was now being driven “up into the mountains”? Mountains? These people called the little anthills ahead ‘mountains’? Looking out the truck’s windows, she saw curiously arthropodal looking helicopters ranging ahead of their convoy – criss-crossing the roadway like they were protecting her, or trying to draw fire.

“Why all the helicopters?” she asked one of the soldiers, and he shrugged, then pointed at the skies overhead.

“F-15s up there too. I have no idea why.” He turned away from her, resumed scanning the road ahead.

Then she noticed the machine gun in his lap – and turned away, craned her head, looked out the window and up into the midday sky, shielding her eyes from the blistering sun. Yes, she saw little pinpoints circling high overhead…but, what could that mean?

Those cops up on Benedict Canyon? Someone had tried to kill Sherman.

An enemy of the State of Israel had tried to kill Sherman.

So Sherman was somehow of vital interest to the State of Israel. Or to someone who was.

Smithfield? Why was he at the hospital?

And she had been sucked into a goddamned subterfuge. Unwittingly, stupidly, carelessly.

“When can I leave?” she asked the soldier, but he just shook his head. “Couldn’t you just take me to the airport? Let me get on a plane?”

The same shrug again, but this time he spoke on his radio.

“Look, am I a prisoner? Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“We’re almost there.”

“There? What are you talking about? Where are we?”

He turned, and this time he looked right at her. “Home,” he said with a smile as he pointed at this tiny wisp of a village.

They were driving through what looked like a small settlement now, all the houses looked ten, maybe fifteen years old, yet they all looked alike – like hybrids of some sort, a union of house and bomb shelter, and each and every one of them was tiny. “You’ve got to be kidding me…” she whispered.

They pulled up to a house on a circle – ‘or was it a dead-end road?’ – and she saw troops everywhere – yet they appeared to be hiding, under trees, under awnings – always out of sight. And she’d seen at least three tanks hidden in the low, stunted trees around the settlement…

“Sorry,” the soldier said, looking at his watch. “Satellite overhead now.”

“A satellite? What’s…?”

“Russians. They take photograph now.”

“Russians?”

“Five more minutes, we get out. Need air conditioning?”

“Uh-huh, yeah, I sure do.” She was steaming now, and tried to hit a few pressure points on her wrist when she felt the first wave of a blinding migraine coming on.

The soldier got out a few minutes later and opened her door, and he led her up the gravel walk to the little house – then she saw Carol inside looking out a window at her, heading for the front door as soon as she recognized her.

The door opened, revealing another, much older soldier standing just inside the barely open door. The soldier escorting her handed this man a piece of paper and she was ‘allowed’ in – and once inside she stopped in her tracks and burst out laughing…

“This just gets better and better!” she bellowed – then she saw Carol – and right then she knew whatever else this might be, it was no joke.

+++++

Grover Smithfield sat at his desk, turned and looked over the Pacific spread out below, then he looked at the phone on his desk. He was worried now, and even though the wilting sorrow he still felt about his son’s death was never far away, his thoughts kept drifting back to Ted Sherman. ‘We should’ve kept tighter surveillance on him, never let this happen.’ Now things were getting complicated, and he wasn’t sure if she knew about these developments. Still, he had to trust her.

The encrypted phone on his desk beeped once, and he inserted his key – then, when the prompt came, he inserted his flash drive. When the light flashed green twice, he picked up the handset.

“Eagle,” he said.

“Roost Two.”

The line went dead and the shock of instant recognition hit him. He and Linda had either been, or were about to be exposed, again, but this time there’d be no hurried resignation, no helicopter waiting on the White House lawn to take him home.

No, this time there’d be a state funeral at Arlington, and he’d be the guest of honor. A silent, dead, guest of honor. And probably Linda, too. No wonder she’d been acting so strange lately.

‘I wonder how much she knows?’

He opened his laptop and then an encrypted partition, and he looked over the details of Roost Two and shook his head. He read through them again, committing each detail to memory, then he activated the worm, and bit by bit the entire contents of the Mac’s drives were obliterated.

He picked up the encrypted phone and put it in a nylon bag and went upstairs to talk with Linda, wondering all the way who was coming, and who’d get to them first.

+++++

Curry sat in the little living room on a bright red, yellow and blue sofa, her face in her hands now as the full force of her migraine hit. Carol looked on sympathetically, but she couldn’t relate: she’d never, ever had a headache, not even in med school. Still, when Curry got up and ran into the bathroom, she just looked at the colonel and shrugged.

“Can I fix you lunch?” the man asked, but Carol just shook her head.

“What are we waiting for?” she asked.

He pointed up at the sky. “Satellites.”

“Oh, that explains a lot,” she said, shaking her head again as her fingers fidgeted away restlessly.

“Russian reconnaissance birds, maybe American, too. We don’t exactly want them to know where you are. Yet.”

“Yet?”

“Uh-huh. We’re just moving a few pieces on the board right now. Shaking things up a bit.”

“You mean they can see us?”

“If I held a golf ball out with the number facing up, ten minutes later some troll in Moscow would look at it, be able to clearly make out that number…”

“Sweet. Sorry I asked.” She shook her head, tried to remember everything Ted had told her, but this was nuts. “You’ll pardon my asking, but you don’t exactly sound like you grew up around here…”

The colonel laughed. “Beverly Hills High, class of ‘87. USC, too, then the bug hit.”

“The bug?”

“I’m a Jew. This is my homeland.”

“You don’t miss it? California?”

He grinned, a handsome, becoming smile, just as Jeanie came back into the room. “I’d kill for a Tommy burger right now,” he said.

“The one on Beverly?” Curry said.

“That’s the only one there is, Ma’am, if you know what I mean.”

“A guy took me there once,” Jeanie said. “I puked for a week.”

“Not an LA girl, are you?” the colonel grinned.

“You got a name,” Jeanie asked, “or is that classified, too?”

“Ben. Ben Katz, but it used to be Kaye.”

“So, you went to SC?” Jeanie asked.

“Yeah, film school, if you can believe it.”

Curry shrugged. “Why not? Good place for that, good as any, I suppose. I did my undergrad there, but went to med school in San Francisco.”

“I know,” Katz said. “USF. My sister was two years behind you. Mimi Kaye. Remember her?”

“No kidding! Man, small world, isn’t it?”

He smiled again. “And you worked two summers at Disneyland, during your undergrad years, at It’s A Small World.”

Curry stared at him, not quite sure how mad she was yet, but she knew she was getting madder by the second. “So, who’ve I slept with the past year? Got that information handy?”

“As far as we could tell, no one.”

“You goddamn mother fuckers!” Curry screamed. “Tell me what the fuck’s going on, and I mean right now, or get me down to the fucking airport! Now!”

Katz laughed, then looked at his watch. “Okay.”

“What?”

“I said Okay. Let’s go take a peek behind the curtain first, Dorothy. Maybe you’ll find an answer that agrees with you.” He stood and led both of them to the door, then out to one of the ur-Land Rovers.

‘Funny,’ Curry thought, ‘how everyone keeps looking at the sky…’

They drove a few minutes from the house, then turned up a narrow dirt trail, past a sign declaring the area a restricted archeological site, then the truck turned into thick brush, into what looked like a cave. Twenty meters in they came to a reinforced concrete and steel gate and stopped. A soldier came out of the shadows and looked at the colonel’s ID, then waved them on. Another fifty meters down a steep ramp they came to a parking area, and Katz got out, opened Carol’s door, then walked around to get Jeanie’s, and then he led them to a simple steel access door across from the Rover.

He punched in a code and the door opened – revealing a long corridor beyond. A couple of turns – to confuse an intruder? – and he stopped outside just another door – and knocked.

The door hummed and unlocked, and Carol looked at cameras in the ceiling – and waved – then followed Katz and Jeanie inside.

Jeanie Curry’s first impression was that she’d somehow stumbled into an concrete aviary, and that there was a very big owl sitting behind the desk across the room. The woman was enigmatically ageless – yet somehow ancient, and she looked emaciated, almost terminally ill. And her eyeglasses. They seemed at least half an inch thick, making her eyes appear gigantic – yet eerily intelligent. There was a laptop on the owl’s desktop, and a large display on the wall behind her – that was now showing an image of earth – apparently from orbit.

“Hope?” Carol said as she peered at the owl. “Is that you?”

An owl named Hope, Curry said to herself. ‘This isn’t Oz…I’m Alice, we’ve just gone down the rabbit hole – and now I’ve found the Red Queen.’

“Carol? How are you?” the owl spoke in a clear, precise voice.

Curry pointed at the screen on the wall. “What’s this?”

The owl’s head pivoted and looked at the screen, the turned again; she looked down at the laptop and sighed, entered a command and the image zoomed to an image somewhere in a desert, and to what looked like a smooth tan crater in the middle of a graded plain. “The Negev,” the owl said, “south of here.” More commands, a deeper zoom. Curry thought she was looking at a radio telescope – only more massive, and made of concrete – then the owl entered more commands and the image flickered once, changed to show a white space station – apparently in orbit.

“This is the ISS, isn’t it?” Jeanie asked.

“No,” the owl said. “This is Hyperion.”

“Are those shuttles? I thought they were…?”

“Those? No. The Boeing X-37C. They were used to build Hyperion.”

“Is that what this is all about?” Curry said. “You’re building a secret satellite?”

The owl studied her for a moment. “How is my brother?”

“Your brother? Who…?”

“Ted Sherman, my brother, How is he?”

Carol moved to sit down; she’d heard the barest outline of the project before, but had never seen any images. She found the reality somewhat frightening, yet now Ted’s name was floating in the air, and she grew cold and still inside – while she waited for the answer to take shape…

“He’s, uh, I missed a bone fragment. He had a bleed on the flight, a bad one. We’ve made a repair, but we’re in a kind of ‘wait and see’ period right now. Bigger issue now will be if he throws a clot.”

“I see. Well, Dr Curry, what you’re looking at isn’t a satellite, not in the usual sense. It was originally conceived as a power station. It’s a fusion reactor, but there have been unanticipated consequences to it’s operation.”

“Fusion? You mean…?”

“It’s an Israeli project I’ve been involved with for a while, and it was deemed more appropriate to place the reactor in a geosynchronous, low-earth orbit, over the Negev. When operational, it was thought an intensely concentrated plasma beam would power the Negev facility, a conventional steam-turbine generator, and eventually dozens of reactors would be orbited above the earth, beaming limitless, clean power to harvesting stations like this one in the desert. We powered up the first reactor more than two years ago, then the plasma was released. This is what happened…”

She opened a file on the laptop, and moments later a new image appeared on the large screen, showing a Hyperion reactor in orbit, then – for a millisecond Curry could see a beam of intense power leave the satellite, arcing down like a fat laser into the desert. Then the entire facility simply disappeared, leaving a trail of distorted plasma on the screen.

“What happened? An explosion?”

The owl laughed. “I wish.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose, her eyes narrowed. “No, Dr Curry, it seems we opened Pandora’s Box with our first Hyperion.”

“Excuse me?”

“A lesson first. Jupiter, the planet Jupiter, orbits the sun not quite a half billion miles out, say an average 450 million miles away from the sun. Saturn’s orbit is not quite a billion miles, around 900 million miles, give or take. Uranus, by comparison, is a mere 1.7 billion miles away, while Neptune is a cool 2.7 billion miles away. Mars, by way of another comparison, is approximately 140 million miles away, the moon, a couple hundred thousand. Are we clear so far?”

“I suppose?”

“The speed of light is, approximately, 671 million miles per hour, so it takes light from the sun not quite an hour to reach Jupiter, a little over an hour to reach Saturn, and so on. When Hyperion went operational the reactor was designed to SCRAM, or to shutdown, automatically if our ground based signal was somehow lost. This system worked, the reactor shut down automatically, and the plasma beam shut down almost instantaneously, within 3.7 seconds. Are you following me so far?”

“Yes.”

“It took a while to locate Hyperion, and to reestablish a radio link again, but when we did we discovered something a little unusual.” She turned to the laptop and opened another image, a slide depicting the solar system ‘from above’ the plane of the ecliptic. “Hyperion came to a rest beyond Neptune’s orbit, and it traveled that distance in less than thirty seconds. Of some importance, despite the huge magnitude of both acceleration and deceleration, Hyperion was intact. Completely intact.”

“Was anyone onboard?”

The owl looked away, pinched her nose again. “Yes. Five astronauts. Two American, two Israeli, one from France.”

“Were they…?”

“Not right away. They had consumables, enough to last 180 days.”

“Dear God.”

“This was not God’s doing, Dr Curry. It was mine.”

+++++

“Jerry? Mrs Smithfield and I are going down to Santa Monica, to Abe’s house. I think we’ll have an early dinner with Abe and Morty, then maybe play some bridge.”

“You going to drive,” the head of the former President’s Secret Service detail asked, “or would you like one of us to take you down?”

“No, Jerry, why don’t you drive us? We’ll be down there a few hours, but I know you don’t want to miss the game, so come on back up here. I’ll call, have one of the guys come get us when we’re through.”

“Yes, Mr President.”

The Smithfields seemed a little overdressed for cards, but his head of detail dropped them off at his friend’s house just before five that afternoon, and the agent swept the massive house’s living room with his eyes, then he walked over to the broad windows looking down on the Riviera Country Club, saw a card table set-up just off the kitchen, outside on the poolside patio. He walked the perimeter of the house, satisfied the place was still secure, then got in his Suburban and drove back up Mulholland.

A gray sedan with Nevada plates drove by the house ten minutes later, and the two men inside smiled as they passed.

+++++

Carol looked at Hope, now thinking about Ted and the ambush. “Smithfield came to the hospital,” she said, “and downtown too, to the ceremony. Ellie thinks he had something to do with the shooting. What do you think? Is that possible?”

“Did she, now? Interesting. Funny, but interesting.”

“Funny? How so?”

The owl shrugged.

“Wait a minute,” Curry said. “The first Hyperion. You said the first…there’ve been more?”

The owl turned to her laptop and the exterior of the current satellite loomed on the screen once again, two X-37Cs docked to a toroidal platform attached to the main assembly. “This is the fourth, our most ambitious Hyperion yet. Larger, more advanced life support capabilities, better shielding. It will have a crew of twelve, in addition to it’s cargo.”

“Let me guess. Fertilized eggs. Like in Interstellar.”

“Interstellar?”

“The movie?” Curry said sarcastically.

“Really? Oh, I missed that one. But yes, eggs, for humans, livestock, even seed-stocks. The idea first appeared, incidentally, in 1960s science fiction.”

“You said this was the fourth…?”

“Yes. The second was a proof of concept flight. To Titan, and then, a return.”

“Unmanned?”

“No. A crew of three. All Americans on that one.”

“Unharmed.”

“From the flight, yes, but we were not fully prepared for the effects of cosmic radiation at these velocities.” She shook her head. “We do not expect to hear from the third flight, not until their return. Two astronauts, a husband wife team. This voyage is primarily to test shielding concepts and reproductive impacts.”

“Where’d they go? How far?”

“Oh, a candidate exoplanet approximately 26.5 light years away. The ship departed a little over a year ago.”

Carol looked up then. “And you removed yourself a year ago. Why?”

The owl laughed at that. “The Russians think Hyperion is was a weapon,” she looked out the window carved from the hillside, down to the vineyards across the valley. “In a way, they’re correct. If Hyperion succeeds, humanity moves beyond earth and out to the stars, but in one view only those people or races deemed acceptable to colonization will make the journey. A minor war broke out in our Congress as a result, in a senatorial committee anyway. Smithfield was responsible for securing funding for Hyperion, compartmentalizing knowledge within NASA and the ESA to prevent awareness of Hyperion’s real purpose from becoming known. He wanted to convene a panel of ethicists and geneticists to develop criteria for selecting potential colonists; the committee threatened impeachment proceedings. He’d kept so much US involvement hidden in black budgets, he knew they had grounds. But that’s not really why. He’s a good man, Carol. A good man trapped by dark forces operating within governments in both America and the EU. He’s also in danger. Whoever tried to take out Ted was trying to get to me, to get back at me. We don’t know who is involved yet, but I would assume it’s either Russia, or a faction within the US government.”

“So, that faction was trying to get at you a year ago?”

“They tried to kill me, yes. Elements within the CIA. That much is known, the confirmation came from Smithfield, before his resignation.”

“It’s so weird, he worked that accident a few weeks ago, with Smithfield’s son…?”

“What?” the owl said, sitting bolt upright in her chair. “What accident?”

+++++

The team had gathered on the fairway below the house; a small drone had just flown by the living room, imagery confirmed Smithfield’s presence on the patio. The man’s security detail was derelict, but that was no matter now, and speaking in his native Bulgarian he told his team to begin moving slowly up the hillside.

Ten minutes later they crawled into the back yard, slipped quietly through the landscaping around the swimming pool – then spreading out as they closed on the group playing cards on the patio. When they were ten or so meters away he signaled, and his team lifted their guns…

…and died. The Israeli team took them out in an instant, perhaps ten minutes after Smithfield’s Gulfstream lifted off from Burbank, it’s flight plan showing a destination of Hamburg, Germany. An hour before entering EU airspace the Gulfstream diverted to Paris.

+++++

Jeanie Curry sat on the back porch with Carol; Katz was inside cooking, doing his best to take care of these two physicians – but he knew he was failing – miserably. After they left Hyperion – that’s what everyone called Miss Sherman these days – he took them down to one of the vineyards and let them roam through the vines for a half hour, taste a few of the better reds, then he took them to a nearby food market…and now he was poaching salmon and roasting eggplant, drizzling olive oil and lemon on his cooling couscous. He fixed plates, carried them to the little dining room then went out to the porch.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said. “Come on in before the bugs have you for dinner.”

The women went inside; they sat and ate in silence, he remained in the kitchen, eating alone, until one of them, the Curry woman perhaps, called for him…

“You’re not joining us?” Jeanie asked.

“I didn’t want to presume…”

“Geesh, Ben, grab your plate and sit your skinny ass down.”

He laughed, came back a moment later and joined them. “We just received word that Smithfield got out just in time.”

Carol nodded. “Any word from the hospital?”

“Stable. Critical, but stable.”

Curry nodded her head. “Thought I had ‘em all. That last fragment was like a sliver from a fingernail clipping, and the bleed just didn’t show on anything.”

“Pressurization in the aircraft; that’d be my guess.” Katz said. “Bad luck.”

“Bad surgeon,” Curry said, getting down on herself.

“Great eggplant,” Carol said, wishing someone, anyone would talk about anything else.

“Ah, you know what?” Katz said. “We had a housekeeper, an old Italian woman when we were growing up. She cooked for us, five nights a week, and every Sunday night she made this eggplant. First thing she taught me to make, too.”

“It’s tender, yet so crisp. How’d she do it?”

“Slice it first, thin, then steam it with white wine and lemon juice. And only use fresh bread crumbs for your dredge.”

“So, she was your first love?”

“In a way, yes. She was the most incredible woman, though very old. Catholic, of course, and actually she was quite wealthy. She just loved taking care of kids, and cooking, of course. I don’t know how my parents found her, but she took care of me until she passed. I was a junior in high school by then,” he said as he looked over the memory. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t miss that woman.”

“You cook like this for your family?” Jeanie asked.

“No family. I stay with my sister and her kids sometimes, but I’m usually, well, like this – on a deployment of some sort.” He sighed, looked away for a moment. “Her husband was killed in the Gaza a few years ago, but I like helping with them when I can.”

“I know I asked, but do you miss America?” Carol asked.

“Sometimes, but after the Rams left LA? Who cared after that?”

“Yup, you’re an American,” Jeanie said. “Get rid of the NFL and NASCAR, and what would we have left?”

“Oh, that’s the thing with TV these days. We have the NFL channel over here, but football, er, soccer is more popular. Most of the guys I work with don’t know anything about it…all you see, they say, are the uniforms. Very dull. They are, of course, all morons.”

Carol looked up then. “The fourth trip. Who’s going?”

He looked away, shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“And that’s a lie,” she said. “Don’t do that to me again, Ben.”

“The list was decided long ago.”

“But Ted was on it, wasn’t he?”

Ben shook his head. “Too old. His piloting skills were considered, but no.”

“Zygotes,” Jeanie said. “Fertilized ovum. Can you imagine what those might go for?”

“What do you mean?” Carol asked.

“Hell, think about it? Want to raise money? Sell space on one of these Arks; you’re offering a shot not only at immortality, but immortality on another world. Or worlds. If the human biological imperative is simply reduced to procreation, about spreading your genes, spreading your seed throughout the stars has got to be the ultimate power trip.”

“Interesting,” Ben said, “but what if you ended up with planets loaded to the max with a bunch of hyper-competitive egoists. You’d be seeding a doomed series of societies, wouldn’t you?”

“Sounds like Smithfield was thinking along those same lines, maybe the owl was too.”

“The owl?” Ben shrugged. “What owl?”

“That woman in there, what’d you call her? Hopie? She looks like an owl.”

Carol and Ben laughed at that one.

“You know?” Carol said, “Maybe she kind of does right now, but ten days ago? No. She was just about dead.”

“Really?” Jeanie said, and Carol told her the tale she knew most about, about the trip from the mental facility to Vancouver.

“You mean, you were on that boat?” Ben asked. “You helped her get to Canada?”

“I did.”

“And you’d met Ted just a few days before…”

“He was the instructor in my dive class, we first met like three weeks earlier, but yeah, really just a few days together.”

“Interesting. Hit you hard, I take it.”

“What?”

“Oh, you fell for him pretty fast,” Curry observed. “So, I guess, then all this happened.”

“Yeah,” Carol said, looking around the little house, “this…happened…”

Ben cleared his throat and started clearing dishes, then he cleaned the kitchen while the physicians went back out on the patio. They saw more jets roaring north just then, several of them…

“It’s hot out here,” Carol said. “And the sun’s down but it’s still hot.”

“So, did you like sailing?”

“Yeah, ever since I was a kid. Parents took me out all the time; summers anyway.”

“I always wanted to learn. Sounds fun to me.”

“About the zygotes and ovums, and selling places on an Ark…were you serious?”

Curry shrugged. “Just seems like human nature to me. Everyone has an angle. Everyone’s in it for a buck.”

“But don’t you think that’s what got us where we are now?”

“I’m not a philosopher. Wow, look at all the jets up there…”

“I think Hopie’s a philosopher. I know Ted is. I wonder what they’d think of all that? Selling places, I mean.”

“Looking at that owl? I’d say she already has thought of that.”

Carol laughed. “An owl. I like that.”

“Something about that woman’s eyes. Almost inhumanly smart.”

“That’s what Ted told me once. She views the world like a chessboard. She was…”

Something instinctive hit, and both women ducked – just as three fighters roared by – just overhead, not a hundred feet above the treetops. “Fuck!” Curry screamed, watching as they disappeared, through the trees, their afterburners searing the night, the concussive shock-wave almost knocking them out of their chairs.

Ben ran out onto the porch, listened, then he dove for their chairs, pulled them to the ground and covered their bodies with his own…

The night sky lit up, then the ground lurched. Carol felt it then, a wave – like her skin was on fire, and then she had a hard time breathing. “It’s so hot…!” she screamed over the roaring wave…

Ben sat up, his back smoking now, the hair on the top of his head singed away, then he looked at the hill above the village and ran from the patio.

Curry sat up, shook her head, and Carol saw blood coming out of her left ear. Jeanie said something, but Carol didn’t hear a thing and shook her head. Carol rolled over and tried to stand up, but her legs weren’t working, and she consciously tried to think why.

“Shock,” she said, and she heard her own voice inside her head, but it was muffled, and now there was a warbling, high-pitched tone drilling a hole between her ears. She took a deep breath and pulled herself up, then helped Jeanie stand, and she turned for the house – but all she saw was fire.

“The house is on fire,” she heard her own voice say, and she pulled Curry away, away from the house and out into the little yard. Ben came running around the side of the house and he grabbed them, led them to one of the Rovers and stuffed them in the back seat. He started the engine and raced away from the village.

The air smelled like kerosene, and everywhere Carol looked trees and houses were on fire; when she looked into the night sky she saw a steady stream of fighters racing north and east, lines of blue-white flame tearing the night apart. She held on as he took a corner too fast, then they were in a tunnel…no, a shelter of some sort…and she saw dozens of women and children had already gathered there. Some people were badly burned…

Yet she saw no men.

Ben helped them out of the Rover then backed out slowly, leaving them to wonder just what the hell had happened.

“Whatever that was, it hit the hill above the village,” Jeanie said.

Carol struggled to understand, to think what that meant. “The owl. Hopie. She was under there, inside that mountain.”

A nurse was beside them a moment later, cleaning their skin and putting burn dressings on their scalps and shoulders, then Carol was aware she was laying on a cot, someone was putting a blanket over her as waves of chills shuddered through her body, and she recalled thinking how good it would be to sleep in peace – while the world outside burned.

+++++

The Owl…Hyperion…a very tired, very weak woman sat in the Bell 212 – looking down at Tarum and her hill, all of it on fire. The fuel-air bomb in the Russian Kh-55SM had been detected over Syrian airspace, and had initially been thought to be targeted on IS positions near Palmyra. Three IL-76 Mainstays had suddenly appeared over the Mediterranean and flooded all radar bands with powerful jamming, but a German-crewed NATO EC-135 AWACs bird burned through the jamming and spotted the Russian cruise missile as it crossed into Lebanese airspace. Warnings went out, fighters scrambled, then the Russians called the Israeli PM, declaring one of their missiles, targeting IS positions in Syria, had malfunctioned and was headed for the Golan. They were trying to abort the missile ‘even now’, they reported – right up until it detonated.

“Thank God,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesman would say later that morning on CNN, “it appears to have detonated near an unpopulated area.”

The Owl looked at the Israeli PM sitting by her side, looked at the expression of pure anger in his eyes, and she put her hand on his. “Patience,” she said. “Two more days. Three at the most.”

He nodded his head as the helicopter turned and skimmed low, just over rocks and trees on it’s way south, deep into the Negev.

+++++

The Israeli brigadier general looked over the latest Flash Traffic, read through it again to be sure he understood the directive, then walked back to President Smithfield and handed him the paper. He watched the old man rub his eyes, then read through the message.

“She’s okay?” he asked.

“Of course. She anticipated when they tried for you they’d go for her as well. Once they re-tasked that second recon bird yesterday, once her brother disappeared, she knew they’d make this kind of move.”

“What about the facility in the Negev?”

“Untouched. Two cruise missiles downed more than a hundred miles short.”

Hyperion?”

“An ASAT satellite is altering orbit for intercept. The Japanese will launch an interceptor within the hour to take that one out, we’ll follow through with an ASAT of our own in ninety minutes.”

“So, we’re at war. With Russia.”

The general shrugged. “Who’s at war with whom? No one knows what’s playing out up there. There will be no change in status.”

“I wonder what she’s going to do?”

Again, the general shrugged. “We’ll be in Paris within the hour. Le Bourget, I believe.”

“Very well. When will we make Tel Aviv?”

“It’s just a few hours more. We’ll top off our tanks and leave as soon as he’s on board. Mrs Smithfield? Do you need anything?”

The woman shook her head, looked out the window.

Attractive woman, the general thought. Too bad. But she was a spy, the insider who’d betrayed the president’s son, and ultimately, the president himself – and the project. She would be dead before the day was done, and he looked at her silk clad legs and ample cleavage – and he sighed again.

“Such a waste,” he said as he turned and went back to the cockpit.

+++++

She felt an alcohol swab on her arm and she tried to open her eyes, but all she felt was a wall of impenetrable darkness, then a pinch and sudden flowing warmth.

“Who…?”

“Dr Curry? Can you hear me?”

“Ben? Colonel Katz? Is that you?”

She felt his hand take hers. “Yes. Listen, you’ve got a few glass fragments, in your left eye. From the patio door, I think. We’re almost to the hospital, and we’ve got the best ophthalmic surgeon in the whole world standing by.”

“Oh?”

“Mimi, my sister. She’s really very good, by the way.”

“I bet she is. Would you stay with me, Ben?”

“Yes, of course, if you’d like me to.”

“I was going to ask you to stay with me. Last night, I mean.”

“Really? I was hoping you might.”

“Well, hope no more…” She squeezed his hand, and she felt his kiss, first on her hand, then on her forehead. “It’s so strange, this being blind. I think I don’t much care for the sensation.”

“You’ll be fine, Jeanie. I know you will.”

“What happened? Do you know what happened?”

“Someone tried to kill an owl.”

“Did they…?”

“No,” he whispered, “this owl is too smart, and her enemies too predictable.”

“What about Carol? Is she…”

“Mainly burns, not so bad as mine, however. We will all be in the hospital for a few days, I think.”

“The town? What about the people in that little town…?”

“I don’t know,” he lied, the memory too much to hold up to the light in that sundered moment. “We are almost there. The injection was, well, pre-anesthesia I think, but I don’t know those things. You will fall asleep soon. But I will be with you on the other side. Okay?”

“Okay. On the other side…” He felt her drifting away, then her hand squeezed his one last time – and he leaned over and kissed her again. Her skin felt cool and dry now, almost lifeless, and he turned and looked at the city, and all the impossible hate that surrounded it, wondering when it would all just simply stop.

+++++

The Gulfstream touched down, spoilers flared and reverse thrust roared, then the jet taxied between a row of hangers and executed a tight 180 degree turn. Two sedans approached and the jet’s air-stairs deployed; the general walked down the steps as the first car, a black BMW 5 series stopped by his side. The driver’s door opened and a woman got out from behind the wheel, and she walked over to the general.

“Corrine Duruflé, DGSE,” the woman said.

“Is that him?” the general asked.

“Oui. Are you certain she is involved? That we must do this?”

“Fingerprints are confirmed, and we’ve now traced her first steps into the United States almost thirty years ago. We need to know more, who her controllers are, and where this will lead us,” he said with a shrug, “Who knew about, uh, this attempt. And we are running out of time.”

“So, she was a Soviet plant?”

“It would appear so. Her so-called parents ran her. A young lieutenant in the KGB was their controller. A bright youngster named Putin, by the by, as things would have it.”

“Merde.”

“Yes, and so the worm turns.” He turned and looked at the man still sitting in the sedan. “Does he know why he’s here?”

“I’ve told him nothing. The past few weeks…well, they’ve been very uncomfortable for him. I’m not sure about his state of mind.”

“Well, Smithfield insisted we make contact with him. Bring him up, then we’ll be on our way.”

Corrine went back to the BMW and got behind the wheel. “Sumner, President Smithfield is onboard. He needs you now. There have been attacks.”

“I can’t leave now!” Collins said. “Leave Charley, alone? With Phoebe and Liz? You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“It’s very important, I think, or he wouldn’t ask.”

“He signed my goddamn retirement papers!”

“Sumner, please.” She looked at him, took his hand. “I’ll take care of Charley, if you’d like.”

He looked at her again. “There’s no way out, is there? There never was. This is the way it’ll always be.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. And she meant it, because she almost felt sorry for him. Almost…

He looked over at the Gulfstream, the Swiss registration number on the engine, watched the men from the refueling truck topping off the wing tanks, then he looked back at her. “You can’t run away from the past,” he said as he looked into her eyes, “because there ain’t no place that far away.” He sighed, he turned and smiled at her, and then began laughing hysterically. “You know who said that?” he asked as he wiped his eyes.

“No, Sumner. Who?”

“Uncle Remus. Look him up someday, would you? And remember him when you think of me.” He opened the door and slammed it shut, then sprinted over to the waiting Gulfstream and bounded up the stairs. As soon as he was aboard the air-stairs retracted and the engines spooled up.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Corrine said as she pulled away from the jet, and she watched as it taxied back to the runway – then roared back into the morning sky.

+++++

The Bell 212 hovered over the landing pad and touched down gently; the rear doors slid open, filling the cabin with air that was almost too hot to breathe. Men carried a wheelchair to the right side, instinctively ducking their heads while the main rotor spooled down. They helped the frail looking woman down into the chair and she rolled off towards a weathered and windblown shack a few meters from the pad. Two man ran after her, helped her inside, then the helicopter powered up and lifted off, circling the site once before turning and heading north.

Once inside –and out of the scorching heat – she waited for the elevator door to open, then rolled inside with her escort. After the doors hissed shut, she held her nose and cleared her ears as the car began it’s quarter-mile descent into the earth. The facility had originally been constructed as a command and control bunker, and indeed parts of it still functioned in that capacity. Israel’s 120 ICBMs lay buried in the desert, controlled from this facility, but now it was home to the most ambitious manned spaceflight program ever conceived.

She rolled into the Command Room, a kind of Mission Control suite, and she looked at four huge screens on the wall.

“Have you observed displacement yet?”

“Yes, as expected, but the effect is much larger than anticipated.”

“Show me.”

An overhead, down-polar view of the earth popped up on-screen, the earth’s Van Allen radiation belts clearly displayed, but instead of the expected equal distribution she expected to see there was an unusual pucker in the formation, and it was large. Larger than any before…

“We’re going to have a visitor,” she said gleefully, and the men and women in the room looked at her for a long time. They had never once seen a smile on her face, and they thought she looked odd…like a bird, perhaps an owl.

+++++

Collins stood in the galley, just aft of the cockpit, and read the dossier. He looked up, looked at the general, then back at Smithfield. “This reads like an old Cold War spy novel,” he said as he looked at the woman. “Fuck…great legs, too.”

The general leaned forward and whispered in his ear.

“Yeah?” Collins said, grinning. “Well, that may not be possible when I’m done. You have the bag?”

“Yes, here it is.”

Collins opened it, inventoried the techniques these implements would allow, then turned and read through the dossier one more time. “Well, let’s see how long she holds out.”

He walked down the aisle to President Smithfield and sat across from him. “Good to see you, sir,” Collins said, and the old man turned to face him, looked almost startled when he recognized who it was…

“Dear God, son, you didn’t have time to change?” Smithfield looked at Collins in his khaki cargo shorts and oil-splattered t-shirt, and then at his ratty boat shoes – and the old man almost shook his head with disgust.

“Sorry sir. It was warm out, and I was just getting to work on a bad fan belt when Corrine dropped by.”

“You still on that goddamn boat?”

“Yessir. Mr President, I’d like to have some time alone with your wife, if I may.”

The old man looked at her and shook his head, the sadness in his eyes plain to see. “Of course,” he said as he stood and went forward. Collins saw the old man’s hands were shaking now, and seeing this looming mortality filled him with dread. Smithfield had been a good president simply because he was a decent human being, but events always overtook decent men – and crushed them.

He turned and sat across from the old man’s ‘wife’ – if that’s really what she was, and he stared at her for several minutes, doing his best to unnerve her. “Mrs Smithfield? Linda? May I call you Linda?” he said at last.

“Yes, if you wish.” Her eyes were evasive, like a corned animal looking for an easy escape.

“Linda,” he began, holding up a file folder, “I’m looking over your history and I have a few questions.”

“I’m sure Grover can take care of those, young man.”

“Actually, Linda, I think I’m about fifteen years your senior.”

The woman turned and looked at him. “So you are,” she smiled.

“Let’s see, Linda Belinski, father Leonard, mother Laura, born Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania December 25, 1979. Oh, Merry Christmas, by the way.”

The woman stared at him. “I’m sure this is going somewhere?” the woman said. “But I’m tiring of this game, whatever it is you’re playing.”

“I don’t suppose the name Amalia Karlovna means anything to you?”

“No, of course not.” He saw her left eyelid twitch, then the left corner of her mouth.

“Josef, and perhaps Lara Karlovna? Ring any bells?”

She turned and faced him, looked him in the eye. “No.”

He pulled a syringe out of the bag, then a packet of alcohol swabs, and looked her in the eye. “The choice is yours, of course, but it will hurt much less this way.” He turned, saw the general standing in the aisle behind him, and he saw that she saw him too.

Without a word she held out her arm, and Collins found a vein and injected a small amount of amobarbital, then sat back and waited. Her eyes fluttered a moment later, then he hooked electrodes to her forehead and ankles and took a little metal box from the bag and hooked it to the leads. He turned it on and sent a small pulse of current to the leads; the effect was instantaneous, and horrifying. The woman’s body went rigid as a board, then her bowels and bladder emptied. He cut off the current and her body relaxed, then the woman turned her head and looked at him.

“Please…don’t…”

“Josef and Lara Karlovna. Tell me about them,” Collins said, only now he was speaking Russian.

“I don’t know such names,” the woman said, now also speaking in Russian.

He reached for the dial and the woman looked away; flying out the window would be such an easy escape, she thought, then the general lay her seat back, and extended the leg rest. Collins sent current to the leads and the woman’s back arched, and as he let off the current she screamed – filling the cabin with total despair.

When she came around she looked at him again. “Please do not do this to me,” she said in English.

He replied in Russian: “I’ll stop as soon as you answer my questions truthfully.” He moved and stood over her now, and with his mastery complete he spoke with pure malice as he looked down into her eyes. He held up a a piece of glass, in form and shape it looked exactly like a pencil, and he held this up to her eyes. “Do you see this?”

“Da.”

“I am going to place this up your urethra. Do you know what that is?”

“Nyet.”

“It’s where urine leaves the body. I am going to place this up your urethra, then turn on the current. Do you know what will happen then?”

Her eyes were saucers now, the terror he saw manifest in the writhing conflict she was experiencing…fight or flight…withhold or tell all I know…

He moved lower, took out a penknife and began cutting away her pantyhose.

“Alright…I will talk now. Please, no more…”

The woman talked all the way to Tel Aviv, and by the time they landed he was through with her, she had nothing left to tell. The President looked at the poor, wasted wretch he had once promised to love and cherish and obey one last time, then he left the Gulfstream, stopping only once to speak to Collins and the general at the bottom of the air-stairs. He shook Collins’ hand one last time, then whispered into the general’s ears, then the old man left, driving away in a convoy of Land Rovers.

“So,” the general said gayly, “you want to eat some Russian tonight?”

“No thanks, sir, I’m trying to quit.”

+++++

Colonel Katz – Ben – stood beside Carol in her room, the morphine finally tapering off now, but pain still obvious on her face. He reached out and felt the skin on her forehead: cold and clammy, and her BP was still very high.

She felt someone touching her face and opened her eyes, looked up and saw the Israeli colonel – and it all came back in a rush. The explosion, the wild ride to the shelter, the searing pain finally reaching her in the darkness, then the nurse by her side, an injection, and now here she was.

“You’re awake!” she heard him say.

“You’re very perceptive.”

“You’re also in Tel Aviv, at the Sourasky Medical Center. You have a few burns, and your left humerus was broken.”

She looked down, saw her plastered arm was taped to her torso. “Damn, and I use my left hand to pick my nose.”

“A pity. Need mine?”

She tried to laugh, but thought better of it. “So, what else is going on? World War Three, perhaps?”

He grinned. “No. Not yet.”

“Jeanie?”

“In the OR, glass fragments in both eyes. Burns, a few small fractures.”

Hyperion…what about Hope – Sherman?”

“Safe.”

“Where’s Ted?”

“Two floors below, still in ICU.”

“What about radiation?”

“Radiation?”

“Wasn’t that an atomic weapon of some sort?”

He shook his head. “Fuel air bomb. Like napalm, on steroids.”

“So, no radiation. What about the people in that town.”

“The town’s gone; I don’t know about casualties.”

“Was it the Russians?”

He shrugged. “Not my department.”

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she said – still in a daze. “I mean, really…what are we doing here? Why am I here?”

“I’m going to go check on Jeanie, and Ted. I’ll be back soon and we’ll talk more.”

“Jeanie, huh?” Carol said, grinning, but he was gone. When the door opened she saw troops stationed outside her door, and she remembered why she’d never be able to go home again.

He walked down to the ICU, found a high level security team in the corridor outside Sherman’s suite and groaned. “What now?” he said as he approached the room. A woman from the security detail stopped him; he presented his Hyperion ID and she let him pass.

Smithfield was in the room, yet Katz saw the man was alone and wondered where his wife was; Sherman was still out, his eyes still taped and a respirator breathing for him, and he walked over to the physician and nurse tending him.

“How’s he doing?”

The physician looked up at him, at the rank on his collar, then shrugged. “He’s thrown two clots, we’re treating with tPA.”

“Is he going to make it?”

The physician shrugged. “I doubt it, but you never know.”

Katz left the room and walked up to the OR floor and checked the status board; Jeanie was in recovery and he went to the information desk and asked to speak to Dr Kaye, then went and stood by a window, looked out over the city, and the beach beyond.

He saw her reflection in the window a few minutes later and turned.

“Little sister,” he said. “How did it go?”

“Good. No damage to the retinas, so she’ll be okay. Might need glasses, however, but too soon to tell.”

He bunched his lips, tried to hide his relief. “Okay,” he said.

She looked at him again, longer this time, looking at the fear in his eyes. “So, she means something to you, this one?”

He smiled, looked away, then back at her. “I could never hide things from you, could I?”

“Well, mother always wanted you to marry a doctor…but a gentile? She’ll be spinning in her grave.” She stood by his side and they looked out the window, and he put his arm around her. “Oh, little brother, when she’s better we’ll have you two over for supper.”

“I’d like that. When can I speak to her?”

“An hour, better if you wait two.”

“Okay. I’ve got to go…see you in a bit.”

He went back to the ICU, hoping to find Smithfield again, and he saw the old man talking to Sherman’s physician outside the suite. He walked up and looked at the old man, and then at the Mossad colonel by his side.

Smithfield looked at him as he walked up, looked at the expression in his eyes. “And you are?” the former president said.

“Sherman’s girlfriend is here, upstairs in the burn unit. I thought you’d want to know.”

“The burn unit?” he said, exasperated. “Was she…?”

“Yessir. Would you like to come with me?”

“I’ll be back in a moment,” Smithfield said to the physician, then he turned and followed Katz to the burn unit.

Carol turned to them when they walked in the room, and she seemed shocked to see the former president, almost as sad as he seemed to be when he saw her. “Hello,” she said when he got to her bedside.

“I’ve been to see Officer Sherman,” he began…

“Ted, sir. I’m sure he’d want you to call him Ted.”

He nodded. “Yes. He’s still not out of the woods, I’m afraid.”

She nodded, looked away.

“I feel responsible,” the old man said. “On his report, the report on my son’s accident…” Smithfield stopped, pinched the bridge of his nose. “He found the electronics had been tampered with, the so-called ‘drive by wire’ system. Uncontrolled throttle response, he called it in the report, but he dug through all that wreckage and found the module. How many investigators do you know would have done something like that?”

Carol looked at him, looked at the tears in his eyes and wondered where this was coming from.

“He found her fingerprints, you know,” the old man said, his voice cracking now as he choked back memories of Linda.

“Sir?” Carol said, now clearly concerned.

“My wife. She was Russian, a spy, as it turns out, trying to get to Hyperion, through me. When my first wife died, she moved in so fast… But she’d worked for me, for so many years. It felt so natural, her joining me.” He sighed, then took a deep breath and looked out the window at the sea, and the setting sun. “I wonder how many of us they’ve compromised like this, how deep their penetrations really go?”

“Mr President,” Katz began, “what are you thinking?”

“Hmm? Well…think of the implications, Colonel,” the old man said. “How many agents like her have been planted over the years? These operations go back to the Brezhnev era, perhaps even earlier, but almost all of the senior operations directorate of the old KGB is now in the Kremlin. Do you know, Lenin once said that when the revolution of the proletariat stalled, and by the way, he predicted it would, the party would need to appear to implode, and that would foster a false sense of security within the world’s remaining capitalist oligarchies? His words, by the way, not mine; his mind was pure, unrestrained Russian paranoia. Anyway, without the kind of political competition that communism provided, he told his pals that capitalist countries would then expand uncontrollably, and then be consumed when an even greater revolution of the proletariat occurred. That’s just pure Marx, Das Kapital, German rationalism given a healthy transplant of Russian fatalism. Yet, even so you can see it happening today. Hell, you can breathe it in the air, from Boston to Barcelona.”

“The end of history, indeed,” Katz said.

“Fukuyama? Decent analysis for his time, but no one beats History. She often has designs of her own, I’m afraid. Young lady, sorry, but a lot’s happened the last few hours, and I’m afraid things are only going to get more interesting tonight.” He took her hand, looked in her eyes. “I hope Officer…I hope Ted…pulls through.” He turned to Katz then: “Colonel? I need a secure COMMs facility. I need to talk to Hyperion actual.”

“Yessir. If you’ll follow me.”

Carol watched them leave, then turned to look out the window at the setting sun, burning so bright far beyond the edge of this world, then she wondered how many of them were out there – on the far side of the sky.

+++++

The X-37C launched from the Negev atop an Atlas Centaur rocket; fourteen hours later it autonomously mated to Hyperion’s docking platform, and twelve people disembarked. Sherman led them into the small base’s toroidal living quarters; the new crew held on while it spun up to .7g. An Autonomous Transfer Vehicle launched from the X-37s cargo bay and matched spin, then docked with the toroidal base while Sherman monitored magnetic fields around the earth – and the moon.

“They’re here,” she said. “Far side of the moon, stationary.”

“You don’t have the range for that kind of transfer.”

“Something tells me I won’t need it,” Sherman said as she looked at the hi-band radar.

“What is it? What do you see?”

Hyperion 3, if I’m reading the returns correctly, but the magnetic fields are changing again.” She smiled as she looked at the screen. “I love it when I’m right,” she whispered…

Hyperion Platform, this is Hyperion Base.”

Sherman looked at the rest of the crew. “Transfer now,” she said.

“But we’re not scheduled…”

“Transfer now, while we have time, before they have time to react. Prepare to launch as soon as you’re on board.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She smiled at the mission commander, a decent woman with an iron Will. She’ll need it, she said to herself, then she turned to the radio. “Actual to Base,” she said, “go ahead.”

“NORAD reports two ASAT launch vehicles leaving earth atmosphere, both from Baikonur II. You should have two hours fifty minutes before the first is in intercept range. KH-11 and KH-14s have preliminary indication multiple ICBMs are being readied for launch. The Americans have ordered their Ohios to MFD, and the Chinese have just filed a protest, noting American missiles are being fueled in their silos, the Malmstrom wing is mentioned.”

So predictable, she sighed. So childishly predictable.

“Notify me when they launch,” she said, smiling, then she switched to another frequency, and began transmitting in the blind – while at the same time she began the remote fueling sequence in the ATV.

+++++

Her eyes were bandaged, the nurse told her, and would be for a few days.

She asked about the retinas, and any vascular involvement, and the nurse told her to relax, the operation had gone well and no complications were foreseen.

“You have a visitor, not family. Would you like to see him?”

“Please…”

She cocked her head, listened to this new, unseen world, she was even conscious of sniffing the air and her mind’s ability to compensate became a sudden wonder…and she felt the change rush through her body.

‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘it’s him. He’s come to see me…’

‘See me…’

‘See me…what else do I see now? Something…someone…’

“Ben, I can’t see you…where are you?”

She heard his laugh, knew where he was now, and could even see the smile on his face, but there was something else, and someone else too.

“This is amazing,” he whispered, “this watching you watching me with your other senses. What do you see? Inside?”

She reached out, touched his face – ‘he’s so close! But so are they…’ – feeling small changes in air density as his words washed across her face. “I saw your lips, forming a smile out of nothingness, feelings leaping across space and time, like seeking like in the cold and the dark, life seeking life across the stars…”

“What?”

“I see life now. Out there…life…in the stars. But, it’s here now.”

“Who do you see, Jeanie? What is it…?”

“They’re here, Ben. They’re here, and they understand.”

“Understand? Jeanie? What are you talking about?”

“The owl…the owl knows, Ben. She’s talking to me now. To us, and for us. All of us. She’s talking to them now…”

Smithfield was beside her now, too, looking down at this woman, this blind woman. “How does she know?” he asked. “How did Sherman know you would tell us what’s happening – up there, and what’s going to happen – here?”

“They see. They understand. She wants me to tell you not to worry. It’s all a part of her plan.”

“Her plan?” Ben asked, looking at Smithfield, both men lost now.

“The first missiles have launched…targeted here, in the desert, and at America…”

Ben started to leave the room – but Smithfield held him back…

“Wait,” the old man said. “Just wait…it’s too late to do anything now.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Jeanie said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”

“But…”

“The ASATs have located the base…200 kilometers and closing now…impact in 17 seconds…”

“My God, Sherman is still up there,” the old man said, looking at Ben.

“10 seconds…”

“Call the Prime Minister!”

“Five seconds…”

“What could he…”

“Impact. Hyperion platform is destroyed.”

“What about all the missiles? Where are they?”

“Jeanie?”

“Dr Curry?” Smithfield said quietly, anxiously. “Can you hear me?”

“Jeanie…? Oh, Jeanie, where are you…?”

“…Ben…?”

“Jeanie, can you hear me?

“Yes, of course. Did you go away? I heard you, but then you were gone. Where are you?”

“Here…I’m right here.”

“Who’s with you…I sense someone’s with you now…?”

“A friend, Jeanie. Just a friend…”

“I was dreaming…having a dream. I could see so many things, so clearly…”

Smithfield walked over to the little window and looked out into the night sky. He looked up, expecting to see – any moment now – the arcing tracery of incoming ICBMs, then fierce glowing suns lighting up the night. He looked higher into the night sky, thought about Hope Sherman up there, dying alone in the womb of the infinite, in the cradle of all her dreams.

He wondered what it would be like to live in a world without Hope.

What would happen to our dreams now? Would we ever really be able to walk among the stars – without Hope?

What did she say when he talked to her, before she broke off the link?

“The stars are waiting, Grover. They’re waiting for us, but they won’t wait forever.”

Six Months Later

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 17 June, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning.

COG: at anchor;

SOG: 0.0 kts;

Temp: 71f;

Winds: light and variable, viz unlimited +10nmi;

Barometer 29.95 steady since 2300 hrs last night;

GPS: N43.12.02 W05.30.02.

Still anchored in the Calanque d’ en Veau. I took the tanks to a dive shop in Cassis yesterday, planning to make a few more dives later this afternoon. Weather holding, no rain in the forecast. Expecting to hear from Phoebe and Dr Mann today, if they’re going to come down for a visit. Kind of hope he does. There’s someone I want him to meet.]

Collins took Charley aft and she thought he was about to let her piddle on her astroturf pad, but he left it draped over the stern-rail – and she looked up at him like he had lost his mind. But then he looked at the sandy beach a hundred yards away and her heart leapt; then he ran – and dove off the stern, sliding noiselessly into the crystal clear water.

He surfaced and shook the water from his ears, wiped the stinging salt from his eyes then looked up at Charley. She was on point – her rear legs spread wide, her right front paw tucked up close to her breast, her nose aimed at him like a laser beam. He cupped his hands together and squeezed, launched a jet of water at her – and she lowered a bit more, the hair on the back of her neck rising too…and he turned around in the water…

And there she was, waiting for him.

Lovely to see you again, my friend,” he sang as he looked at the little markings under her eye.

She came and leaned into him, and he leaned forward too, resting his face on the side of her’s, the familiarity of her skin like a kiss now. He rubbed his hands against her face, then he turned back to Charley.

“Come on, girl. You can do it.”

Charley looked at him, then circled furiously, standing up once – conflict clear in her eyes.

He lowered the tone of his voice then, and she felt the way she never liked to feel, because she could never resist him then. “Charley. Come!”

This was imperative command, not a request…and she understood at once and launched herself off the aft deck – splashing down a few feet from him. He started swimming for the beach and she thrashed at the water, then settled down and swam along just behind him.

She sensed the other just beneath the water, then she saw the blowhole surface in front of her face, and when her feet and hands found new footing she relaxed. Clutching the fin, she scooted past him, riding the most wonderfully surreal surfboard in existence, and she turned and grinned at him – felt like singing, too…

He caught up with them in the shallows and played with them both along the water’s edge, then he pulled an old tennis ball out of his pocket and threw it far up the hill. Charley dashed up a steep, narrow path until she found the ball, then she turned and looked at him. He was staring now, far out to sea, then up, looking up to the sky, and she looked up too.

What is it? What does he see? What does he know?

She heard the other’s noises then, and turned to watch. She was on her side, looking up into the sky as well, then she slipped under the surface and was gone. Charley watched, wondered what it all meant, and wished she could understand the others – but their music was so strange.

“Come here, Charley girl,” she heard him say, so she grabbed the ball and took off down the trail, ran up to him and sat beside him. He gently took the ball from her mouth and tossed it back into the water, and they played for the longest time…until he heard Liz up on deck, calling her.

They swam out together, he doing a slow side-stroke, keeping his eye on her as she paddled alongside, then he lifted her up and put her on the aft platform. Once on deck he dried her off, and she turned on her back and let him rub her belly – the very best thing of all – then she hopped on deck and walked into the cockpit, feeling very proud of herself.

“I see your friend was back this morning,” Liz said.

“And I think you’ve been baking? Cherry?”

She shook her head. “Blackberry. That farmer’s market in Cassis is incredible. I don’t ever want to leave this place.”

“Nothing says we have to.”

“Are they up yet?” she whispered, nodding her head to the boat next door.

“I don’t think so. Haven’t seen anyone moving around just yet.”

“I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. All night long; in-out-in-out – my God, it sounded like the shower scene in Psycho. Please, tell me I don’t scream like that.”

“I frankly had no idea one woman could come so many times in one night. Hell, I lost count at fifteen.”

“Well hell,” she said, “he popped off at least three times.”

“I know. I was getting envious.”

She threw a hand towel at him. “You’re the same age! There’s no reason you can’t…”

The companionway hatch on the boat anchored next to their’s slip open, and the woman came up and shook her hair in the morning sun, then saw them and waved.

Liz waved back. “What’s her name again? I just can’t get it down…”

“Carol.”

“Seems nice, but why do I keep getting the impression they’re keeping secrets…?”

Collins shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because they are.”

“Well, I’ve got some fruit cut up. Want some?”

“Coffee, scones – and fruit? Wow. Breakfast of Champions! Sure, why not?”

“Sumner? What’s Hyperion?”

“What?” His mood turned serious, dark eyes glanced to her, and he looked her in the eye. “What do you mean?”

Hyperion? The name of their boat?”

“Oh. Some poem, I think, German, romantic. I really don’t remember.”

“Don’t you think it’s funny they just showed up here, and you used to fly with him and all?”

“It’s a small world, darlin’. Keeps getting smaller and smaller.”

She leaned close, then whispered. “Did you get any Viagra?”

He leaned back and smiled. “I’ll never tell.”

“Maybe after breakfast?”

“Now, there’s a thought.”

“I’ll go fix breakkie. Wanna eat up here?”

“Sounds good, darlin’.”

He watched her go below, then stood and stretched. He heard movement on Hyperion and saw Ted come up and stand in the light, that pink raspberry wound still livid on his shoulder. They looked at one another for a moment, then Collins pointed at the shore and Sherman nodded, walked aft and dove in; Collins shrugged and dove in, then Charley ran to the rail and watched them swim ashore, wondering if she should follow.

“How you feeling, Spud?”

“Man, I don’t know about this shoulder. Hurts like the devil when I move it just so.”

“Well then, don’t move it like that!”

“Shit, Sumner. You shoulda been a doctor.”

“Liz wants to know. Did you pop off two times last night, or three?”

“Shit, you could hear us?”

“Spud? I’m pretty sure people in Spain heard everything you two did last night. Now, what I want to know is this? What the fuck are you doing to her? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life!”

Sherman told him, omitting nothing.

“That’s it? That’s all you do?”

“Works every time. It’s never failed me once.”

“Well, I’ll be. Whodathunkit. Oh, well, I got the tanks refilled. Think Carol’ll want to come down with us?”

“Maybe. I’m expecting company in a few hours.”

“Oh?”

“A mutual friend.”

“Fuck. You don’t mean…?”

“Yeah. The old man. He called last night.”

“No shit? What’s he doing here?”

Sherman shook his head. “Dunno. Said he had something important to give me, then he hung up.”

“Oh, he always loved a mystery. So…how do you like the boat?”

Sherman turned and looked at it. “It’s nice. Bigger than I would’ve chosen, but it’s very comfortable when the wind kicks up. How long are you going to stay here?”

“I don’t know. A week, a month, maybe the rest of my life. What about you?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said as he looked skyward. “For some reason, Greece sounds right.”

“Lot of refugees around, so what ever you do, be careful.”

“You ever think about maybe some place like Tahiti?”

“That’s what Liz wants to do.”

“Yeah? Carol too.”

“It’s a long way, Spud.”

“Yeah? So? You gotta be somewhere next week?”

“Good point. Well said.”

They laughed. “Long way from the Navy, ain’t it? Do you miss it all?”

Collins looked back through time, at all the thing he’d done – and at all the things he wished he’d never done. “No, not really. Only thing I’m interested in now is breakfast. All those yesterdays, Spud, they seem so far away, so long ago.”

“Jenny?”

“Yeah. That’s the one hole in my life I can’t fix…the one memory that won’t let go, I guess.”

“Where’d you meet the girl?” Sherman asked, pointing at Gemini. “Sorry, can’t quite wrap my head around her name yet?”

“Liz? A friend of a friend; it just kind of happened.”

“Carol…just kind of happened, too. Life’s like that, I guess. When you think the shit can’t get any deeper, along comes a wind to lift you away from it all.”

“Sometimes it just pushes you deeper, Spud.” He looked up at the sky again, shook his head. “I was sorry to hear about your sister, by the way. Wish we knew what happened up there.”

“It’s probably better that we don’t.”

Collins looked at his old friend, nodded. “Maybe so, but I miss her.”

“She loved you two, you know. I think she cried for a week when she heard about Jenny.”

“Yeah?” He looked at Charley, standing now on the aft rail, looking at him. He could feel the need in those brown eyes…the need to connect, to love…to trust enough to love. He brought his fingers to his mouth and let slip a whistle, a real atomic bomb of a whistle, and Charley leapt back into the water. He saw sunlight explode like flying diamonds when she hit the water – and then she was gone.

Collins looked at the water where she’d gone in…it was smooth now… and he saw no trace of her. He pushed off – began swimming furiously towards the boat – and he could hear Sherman by his side, both of them now swimming out as fast as they could…

Then she was beside them. On the dolphin’s back again, grinning, her stumpy little tail beating the air so fast he could hardly see it…

They both stopped swimming then, and Sumner looked at Charley as she circled around them, in effect standing on the water. Sherman was treading water now too, looking at a dog riding on the back of a dolphin, his face scrunched-up like a wadded newspaper.

“Uh, is it just me, or did I just see your dog, uh…”

“What? Your dog doesn’t do that?”

“Uh, yeah. Well, I don’t have a dog…”

“Well hell, Spud…that was your second mistake…”

+++++

In the middle of the afternoon Sherman heard a helicopter flying beyond the entry to the cove, and he stood on Hyperion’s aft deck, looking past the narrow entry to the sea…and there, the sleek gray lines of a ship appeared.

“56,” he said as he looked at the numbers on her bow. “The old San Jacinto…I’ll be damned.” He watched as it’s helicopter swung over the cove, and he could see the men inside looking down at his boat, and Collins’ – before it dove and raced back out to sea. Further out to sea he could just make out the faint gray contours of several more ships, and at least one aircraft carrier, as they slipped eastward…

…then two gray rigid-hulled inflatables roared into the cove, and the helicopter reappeared, now hovering just beyond the steep white limestone walls of the entry. Helmeted men, manning large caliber machine guns, stood on the bows of the inflatables, their guns trained on Hyperion

Ted turned, looked at Collins standing in Gemini’s cockpit – apparently talking on a SatPhone – then watched as he went below…

He turned again, looked at the boats racing in, then he saw Smithfield and walked over to the boarding gate and waited. When it pulled alongside the old man waved. “Hop on,” the President called out over the engine noise, and when he was aboard the launch idled over to Gemini and Collins jumped aboard too, then the boat made it’s way to shallow water and beached on the sandy shore.

“Come on, you two.”

Smithfield was helped ashore by two Navy ratings, and as soon as both Collins and Sherman were ashore the boats withdrew back to the entry, blocking access – for the time being.

“How’re you doing, Ted? That arm any better?”

“Yes, Mr President. Thank you for asking.”

The old man nodded his head, then looked at Collins, dour respect in his eyes. “You look well.”

“I am, sir,” but he saw visions of the man’s wife pass between them and wondered if their relationship would ever be the same.

The old man looked around, saw a large rock and walked over to it; he sat and waited for them. “Goddamn hip’s going out. Some jack-ass surgeon wants to put a new one in. What would you do, Sumner?”

“Me? Hell, Mr President, that sounds about as fun as fucking a porcupine up the ass. I’d pass, tell ‘em to take hike.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Good for you, sir. Has it cut into your golf game?”

“Not yet. Guess when it does I’ll have to go see him again.”

“Yessir.”

“Sherman? I wanted to have a word with you, and I thought it best to do this one on one, but then I know you two have never kept stuff from one another. And, well…” He stopped, unzipped his windbreaker and pulled out a small iPad. He started it, then opened a file and handed it to him. “You two go find someplace in the shade and watch that, then bring it back to me.”

“Yessir,” Sherman said, and they walked over to the shade of a stunted tree and sat in the coolness.

“You ready for this?” Collins asked.

“You know what it is?”

“Nope. Do you play much chess?”

“Never got into it.”

Collins shrugged. “Too bad.”

Sherman looked at the black screen, then pushed the playback button.

Hopie. Sitting in a tight, dimly lit cabin, surrounded by a million lights and switches.

“Grover, assuming little brother survives those Israeli doctors, I want you to get this to him, but wait a few months, maybe next summer. I want you both to know the full extent of what’s happening up here…”

Sherman paused playback and looked at Sumner – who was looking at Smithfield. The old man was on a SatPhone, talking to God only knew who, but the old man was still dialed into the world, and always would be. Then Collins turned and looked at his friend.

“Better let me hold that,” he said, taking the screen from Ted. He resumed play…

Hyperion 1, our first launch, didn’t stop out here past Neptune. Those folks didn’t die out here, stranded. We deliberately launched for KIC 8462852. I’ll let that sink in for a moment, let you think about the implications of that. As you may recall, there was some controversy a few years ago about that system, about it’s irregular dimming, some discussion about Dyson Spheres and a massive array around the system’s primary. Anyway, Hubble imaged the system more than a decade ago, and Project Hyperion was born a few months after that.

“So, let’s cut to the chase. Hyperion 1 made first contact. Two and Three advanced our timeline, and their first emissary returned on Three. She, for want of a better word, returned to KIC a few weeks later, but we’ve been in discussions with them ever since. Once it became apparent both the Russians and the Chinese were growing suspicious of our activities, we discussed the possibility of an alliance. That’s when the shit hit the fan, little brother.

“So much has happened, so much I never expected.” She looked at something and flipped a few switches, her eyes darting about like an owl’s, then she turned back to the camera.

“The Russians just launched two ASATs, two Anti-Satellite weapons, so we know a full scale attack is likely, and, well, we’ve convinced our friends to intervene; I hate to say that was the plan all along, but it was an act of faith on our new friends’ part too. Simple as that, really. They took sides. Maybe they learned that from me, but I’m not going to be taking credit any time soon.

“So, Hyperion was never about fusion reactors and clean power. Hyperion has always been about exploration, and it inadvertently became about first contact. Now Hyperion is about colonization. We’re going there, and they’re coming here. They’re adept at terraforming, and they’re going to establish a colony on Mars, a research facility. We’ve been given a system under their control, and they’ll engineer three planets to suit our needs. It seems they want to study us, and they want us to study them. Frankly, I think it’s a little one-sided, maybe like when we traded beads and trinkets for Manhattan Island. I know, I know. Look how well that turned out for the local population…

“I suppose you think this is a gamble, that we’re gambling with the future of the human race, but when you understand the issues better I think you’ll agree with our present course of action.

“Those Russian ASATs will impact the platform in about ten minutes, so little bother, I’ve got to go. Looking at my current state of health, I probably won’t be coming back, but I’d like to see you again. I can’t say it any plainer than that.

“And, Sumner, I’m assuming your there. The one with two scars? Be nice to her. She’s been my friend for more than twenty years now, and she’s still very fragile. Maybe one day she’ll tell you what happened.

“Ted? I like Carol. I’d hang on to her if I were you.

“Bye for now. I love you all.”

The screen went dark, and Collins blinked his eyes rapidly for several seconds – then handed the iPad to Sherman.

“Did you ever meet Dr Curry?” Sherman asked, looking at Collins. “The doc who operated on me after that stuff in LA?”

Collins shook his head, now feeling light-headed – and very small.

“She called Hopie The Owl.”

Collins tried to laugh, but found he was crying. “Kind of appropriate, don’t you think?” He looked out at the cove, wondered where she was…

And Collins saw one of the boats beaching, the old man walking to it as two men hopped out and held the boat fast to the shore. “We’d better go,” he said, and they started walking back to the beach…

The old man held his hands out, and a young girl, a toddler by the looks of her, reached out and slipped into his arms. He put the girl down on the sand and she turned and looked at Collins, then she ran to him, and Collins staggered to a stop and fell to his knees when he saw her.

She stopped a few yards away from him, and even kneeling down she was not quite half his height – but what he saw was Jennifer. His Jennifer, only different now. Not a child, and not fully human. Sumner looked at the creature as the shock settled over him, as he felt this world spinning out of control, and the last thing he saw before the light consumed him was her right eye, and two small marks he saw in the shadows…

Part IV: Time, Like A River – They called for the harp – but our blood they shall spill

The Air Force C37A turned on base over Maryland’s ‘eastern shore’ – flying towards it’s next waypoint and now 4500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and Grover Smithfield looked down at Annapolis as the pilot configured flaps for the extended approach.

So many decades had passed, Smithfield thought as he looked down at the campus by the bay, since his class had first formed up on drill fields by the waterfront. JFK was in the inadvertent autumn of his presidency, and only a few of his teachers glimpsed the great dissolution that would follow Kennedy’s murder. One of his favorite instructors, a Navy captain who just happened to be a well regarded historian, remarked casually on the Monday after Kennedy’s assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald had just accomplished what all the navies and armies of Germany and Japan had failed to do in the second world war: in the span of a few brief seconds he had completely shattered America’s sense of itself. No matter who was ultimately held responsible, he saw Americans from that day forward drifting apart from one another, flying off to their polar extremes. “Belief is a fragile thing,” he said, “a shared set of ideas that can disappear in an instant – even in three seconds.” Smithfield remembered the captain’s office, and a little sign the man had hung on the wall above his desk. “History is the graveyard of tyrannies,” the little placard stated, and even now Smithfield recalled the captain had gone to work for first Nixon, then Ford, eventually ending his non-partisan career in the Carter White House. As Smithfield watch the campus slide away, he realized he had tried to emulate the man all his life.

But what had happened to that perspective over the years?

He sat in silence as the little harbor slipped away, then Washington’s eastern suburbs appeared through the trees, and he was looking at the captain’s rigid prediction that was even now coming true. Politics had devolved from the soft art of compromise to cold obstructionism. Compromise was considered evil, and thugs on the right and idiots on the left all sounded more and more – like what? Ignorant, or simply arrogant? Unwilling to even consider a thought that didn’t conform to a fixed set of ideas? Up here he could see better than ever how communities had grown into ossified extensions of ideology, yet even so, looking down on the Beltway in that moment, for some reason he remembered sitting in Sergey Gorshkov’s office one rainy May day in Moscow, listening to the old admiral expound on the role of Soviet seapower.

“The Soviet Union will collapse soon,” he’d said as their meeting drew to a close, and Smithfield had thought the man insane to speak those words aloud in that office – even if he was the architect of modern Soviet naval doctrine. “But I do not worry so much about that. Your Kennan predicted our collapse, in 1947, and he had it down almost down to the year. And he was correct, his working hypothesis was accurate, the whole Buddenbrooks analogy, how political cultures decay like families decay over time. But, Captain Smithfield, what troubles me most is what happens when your country grows ill. It will, you know, perhaps in your lifetime. That is the working assumption in the Kremlin, anyway.”

Smithfield’s Gulfstream made it’s last hard left onto final – and a half mile off their left wingtip he saw two F-16s, and he thought again of Israel. That beleaguered nation had been at war since 1947, since it’s modern inception – and keeping a strong military presence in the public eye was a vital fact of public life.

But here? In our skies? My, how times had changed. Was this what Gorshkov had been talking about?

Now it was routine for airliners approaching New England from Europe, or Alaska from the Orient, to find squadrons of interceptors waiting to ‘escort’ them through the relevant ADIZ. Terror alerts were taken seriously now – by the military, at least – because that was the reality of our post-modern ‘neoliberal’ existence. Newton’s Laws, Smithfield sighed, just couldn’t be ignored –  though the political world had tried often enough – only now actions and reactions were coming so fast there was no time to adjust, no time to plan. He’d found himself reacting to events all during his presidency, rarely catching up with events before the next calamity.

And now the extreme reaction to the Hyperion Contacts – as the current president called them – with ever more liberties curtailed, and the general population clueless about the facts. Still, almost seven months after Hope Sherman’s ‘disappearance,’ information about the project within the intel community had been rigidly compartmentalized. Of more importance, information had been stopped before reaching the greater political hierarchies within the American congress, let alone the European Union and Russia. As a result, only a handful of people around the world had any idea what had happened last Christmas – in space, between the earth and her moon. So focused had those governments been on the threat of expanding Islamist terror, the idea that the Hyperion Fusion Project had been a ruse, and that so-called ‘First Contact’ had already occurred, remained a great unknown.

The fact that Russia’s intercontinental missile force had been neutralized in an instant completely altered the role of the military, and an early Cold War hysteria gripped planners in the Pentagon and the Kremlin – “Flying Saucers and Death Rays, oh my!” – yet countering this new threat became the next mission. Planners and designers from Boeing and Grumman and Sukhoi hypothesized and groused – because no one knew what the threat was – not what the threat looked like, or even what “their” capabilities were. These planners and designers just shrugged and shook their heads and wondered how best to spend the billions of dollars suddenly knocking on their doors.

So the race was on: how to assess the threat became the next great game, and the President called Smithfield, or, rather, he had called the Prime Minister of Israel…

…and now, here he was…walking down air-stairs on a torrid July afternoon to a convoy of waiting Suburbans. Turning out of Joint Base Andrews onto Pennsylvania Avenue, four black Suburbans and eight motorcycles in line, making the half hour drive through the city to the Big House; once past the Beltway the traffic grew oppressively heavy, the edifice of empire everywhere he looked, while legions of homeless and the infirm lay in every shadow. The city was, Smithfield thought, still the living embodiment of extreme contradictions, and then, the white Capitol Dome looming just ahead out of a thick, brown haze. Perfect, he thought. So few with so much.

The House was unchanged, he saw, but security was oppressive now; not even one tourist on the sidewalk waiting for a tour; those had been suspended for the time being. Snipers not visible either, but he knew they were up there, watching this arrival. Through the White House gates and out of the Suburban, then he heard a formation of jets overhead and didn’t even bother looking at them; he saluted the pair of Marines by the entry and saw Paul Kirkland, the President’s National Security Advisor, waiting, and they walked together to the West Wing, and to The Office.

The President looked much older now, and uncharacteristically tired, his face lined with cares he’d never imagined seven years ago, and Smithfield smiled. He paused, looked at a sword on the president’s desktop, a simple Samurai’s sword, and Smithfield thought it looked ancient, indeed, it’s silvered steel now almost elegant with it’s patina of age – and use, perhaps – yet the President pointedly didn’t stand, and barely acknowledged his predecessor’s presence in the room.

Smithfield listened as FDR’s old clock beat away on the bookshelf across the room, and still the President simply continued looking at the sword, his eyes fixed on the cold steel, while Smithfield remained standing. The old man wasn’t aggravated by this breach of protocol – no, he was simply more interested in the mood he felt in the room. Oppressive curiosity, perhaps? With a lingering sense of despair?

“Japanese Ambassador just left,” the President finally said, slowly looking up at the previous occupant of this office. “Symbolic, don’t you think?”

Smithfield glanced at Kirkland, then back at the President; Kirkland shrugged, rolled his eyes, so Smithfield sat down across from the President. “Why symbolic? Think he wants you to commit seppuku?”

The President shook his head then, and chuckled. “Wouldn’t be surprised, Grover. Not a bit surprised.”

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Have you been out there yet?”

“Sir?”

“KIC 8462852, the system. Have you been out there yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Really? I’m surprised.” The President was staring at him, as if taking the measure of his predecessor once again.

“Oh? Why’s that, sir.”

The President turned in his chair and looked out the window. “Don’t you want to?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President steepled his hands in front of his face, took a deep breath. “That ship of there’s. The one on the far side. Have you seen it, know it’s capabilities?”

Smithfield shook his head. “No, I haven’t, and I don’t.”

“Well then, that’s going to be a problem.”

“Yessir. I understand.”

“Oh? Do you really? We’re confronting a hostile species that has demonstrated the capability to neutralize all our offensive and defensive weaponry. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President turned to face his desk again, yet once again he looked at the sword as he spoke. “Interesting. I never took you for a fool.”

“Was there anything else you wanted to talk about while I’m here?”

The President looked up at that. “Such as?”

Smithfield shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Who goes next, on what ships? How we go about setting up colonies on new worlds? Things like that.”

“You mean, of course, that we tell the people? Let the people know who’s up there, what they’re capable of doing to us?”

Smithfield looked at the man, at the lack of imagination he saw in his eyes. “Why not tell them the truth? What they have to offer us.”

“What’s wrong with you, Grover? Have you gone soft in the head?”

Smithfield smiled, looked him in the eye. “Maybe so.”

“You’re dead, I guess you know?”

“Sir?”

“After all that nonsense out in Santa Monica, the funeral at Arlington. The country thinks you’re dead. Maybe a handful of people in the world know you’re still alive. Have you considered your position?”

“Ah.”

“I have reports you’ve been with them.”

“Sir?”

“Well? Have you met them? The aliens?”

“Yessir. Several of them, as a matter of fact. About all I can add is that, in my opinion, you have no reason to fear them.”

The President snorted derisively. “Do we need to send you down to Cuba? Maybe for a little R&R at a little naval base we still have down there?”

“That’s your prerogative, Mr President. But I’d recommend against that course of action.”

“Would you, now? So you do know a few of their tricks. Well, it occurred to a few of our people across the river you might say something like that; in fact, I think more than a few were kind of hoping you’d imply a threat of one kind or another.”

“Yessir, I imagine they have. That’s understandable.”

“So? No hard feelings?”

Smithfield smiled, and stood…

…And the national security advisor shouted into his handset, screamed for the president’s secret service detail to get to the room – ASAP –

The team entered the room, found Kirkland open-mouthed down on the floor, pointing at the president’s desk, but both men were gone, nowhere to be found – they had simply vanished – but why was Kirkland down there on the floor? When the head of detail ran closer, he saw Kirkland was kneeling, his hand out, talking to what he at first thought was a toddler – a blue-skinned girl, perhaps two feet tall, and then she too was gone – leaving a thousand questions hanging in the air – apparent.

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 July, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning.

COG: at anchor, Ile du riou , calanque des contrebandiers

SOG: 0.0 kts;

Temp: 83f;

Winds: NW at 15, viz unlimited +10nmi;

Barometer 29.98 and rising;

GPS:  43°10’26.16″N | 5°23’11.17″E

We are still anchored inside the Calanque des Contrebandiers, aka smuggler’s cove, effectively in another world yet only six miles from Marseilles. Liz is turning out to be a decent diver, both she and Carol are spending lots of time down there – two hours yesterday – while Ted remains preoccupied and sullen for the second day running. We’re warped to limestone walls, some of the pitons we found are still secure, and we’ve been checking the ones we set a couple times a day. A late-season ‘mistral’ blew through yesterday yet we were snug in here, unaffected by wind or waves, while a few hundred yards away the sea looked like a washing machine. I remain wary as we’re roped off in here with zero maneuvering room, but we’re practically invisible, and the mood is magic, esp. at sunset, when the limestone cliffs glow an incredible orange.]

Gemini lay ‘at anchor’ within a narrow finger of water, a hidden treasure Collins had learned about from a local at the marina in Cassis. They’d taken Hyperion over for a haul-out, to get her bottom painted and anodes checked, and to refill the SCUBA tanks once again, so the four of them decided to spend a few days over on the island until Hyperion was ‘ready to go’ again. He’d just managed to get Ted out into the sun, and now they were taking the Zodiac over to les Empereurs with masks, fins and snorkels, yet their conversation so far had been brief – though telling.

“You seem down, almost out of it…” Collins asked, setting a little anchor on the sandy bottom near the rocks.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about Hope. I worry about her, you know?”

“I know, Spud. I think we all do. What does Carol think about all this?”

“She misses LA, her work. Hell, I do too.”

“No shit? You’d rather be back on the streets – than here?”

Sherman nodded his head, looked away. “I wasn’t really ready to retire, whatever the hell that means. Sitting around doing nothing, drinking fruit punch and watching sunsets.”

“Well hell, why don’t you go back?”

“I’m dead, remember? Buried, at Forest Lawn. My name’s been chiseled on a wall, too.”

“You have a house there, don’t you?”

“I did, yes. A friend is renting it, from – ‘my estate.’” He spit out those last two words angrily, looked back at the island.

Collin’s snorted. “It’s hell being dead, ain’t it, Spud.”

Sherman looked down into the water. “So, what’s down here?”

“Fuck if I know. Looks like it falls off fast. What does it show on the chart?”

“Sharp drop to 110 feet, a shelf on this side, then another steep drop-off. Real deep after that.”

“Well, I can see the bottom. Thirty feet, anyway…looks like some coral, too…”

They both heard it then. The wump-wump-wump of a helicopter, turbine driven and making for the island at high speed.

“There he is,” Collins said, pointing at the MH-60S Knighthawk as it skimmed the surface, heading straight for the cove where Gemini lay tethered to the rock. He turned the outboard’s tiller and rolled the throttle open and the Zodiac began bouncing across the lite chop, back to the cove.

+++++

“There they are, over there,” the gunner onboard the Knighthawk said, pointing at the inflatable that had just pulled away from a rocky, crown-shaped islet. “Both of them.”

The helicopter wheeled around and bore in on the Zodiac, then arced alongside as they skimmed along just above the water, it’s two gunners leaning out the door, taking aim at the men in the Zodiac.

+++++

“They don’t exactly look happy to see us, Spud.”

“I do believe that one in back is going to shoot us, Sumner…”

“Oh well…that’s too bad.”

The rear gunner disappeared, then the man by his side vanished as well.

“Ain’t life a bitch, Spud?”

“I think that Rotorhead just shit his britches.”

Collins could see Gemini’s mast jutting above the rocks now, and he slowed down to make the sharp turn into the narrow-walled cove. “Wonder what that was all about,” he said, watching the helicopter turn and head back out to sea.

“Someone’s not happy.”

“Uh-huh. Well, Spud, this ain’t gonna make ‘em any happier.”

Sherman looked at the girls standing on the aft deck; Liz and Carol waiting with arms crossed, Charley sitting beside Liz with a grin on her face, and then he saw the one they called Jenny. She was standing there too, her face impassively still, which, he knew, meant absolutely nothing. And he could just see someone sitting in the cockpit…a man…no, two men.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

Collins perked up when he heard that, looked at the cockpit. “Damn. It’s Smithfield. And who’s that with him? Oh not…no…”

“Shit…that explains the helicopter.”

“Yup.” Collins tied-off the Zodiac and they both climbed aboard.

The Presidents, both of them, were sprawled-out in the cockpit, both deep in shade and both locked in twitching silence.

And Collins saw she was beside them now, the little blue one he called Jennie, and the sight of her still unnerved him, left him feeling more than a little dazed and confused. She was sitting on a hatch, looking at Sumner as he crawled over the coaming, and as he sat she ‘spoke’ to him – in her halting, fine-pitched voice.

“The effect of transfer is still hard for me to watch – like sitting on a rattlesnake, Smithfield told me,” she said. “We are sorry.”

“I know just how they feel,” Collins said, looking from her to President Smithfield. Perfectly human – aside from the pale, almost translucent blue of her skin. No hair – yet, she said – though maybe in time. She’d let him measure her once: 26 inches tall, 17 pounds, eyes the most piercing green he’d ever seen in his life. Fingers, toes: perfectly human – yet no breasts, absolutely no outward signs of function or gender – no anus, no vagina or penis. Completely asexual, yet even so Jennie was decidedly female –  and ‘she’ self-identified as such, too.

And the ‘we are sorry’ was still discomforting, as well. They had no word for ‘I’, never identified as just one self – always as part of a collective. Linked, from creation onwards to their local community. No birth referred to, and no parents – simply to creation…

“This man’s group was going to imprison Smithfield, forcibly. We decided intervention was necessary. Sorry,” the urJennifer said, “but life’s a bitch.”

“I see. This might cause a few problems.”

“We have anticipated. The word Hope used is ‘clusterfuck.’ Does this mean something to you?”

“Yup, that’s the word. Can you send this one back?” Collins asked, pointing at the current President.

“Many vessels approach now, by both air and sea. Would it not be better to keep him here? Or should we place these vessels into a low earth orbit?”

“Let’s not do that, okay? Ted, would you help me with him; let’s get him into the Zodiac and run him out there.”

Sherman was chewing a fingernail, looking at four Hornets circling the island at about 15,000 feet. “Sounds like a plan,” he said as he and Collins helped the (current) President stand…

“Where am I?” the President mumbled as he looked down at his pants. “I think I had an accident.”

Sherman ignored him, helped him into the inflatable, then steadied the boat as Collins hopped aboard. They puttered out of the cove and into the open sea, and immediately saw an aircraft carrier and five frigates steaming their way.

“Put him up front, so they can see him,” Collins suggested as he steered back towards the crown-shaped rocks. Seconds later the F-18s broke off and headed out to sea, while just a few yards away Collins noticed a periscope off to his right – then he looked on as the sub’s sail broke surface, it’s huge black hull surfacing alongside his 12 foot long inflatable boat.

“Come alongside,” Collins heard over the sub’s hailing speaker, and he watched as sailors swarmed on deck, dropping a boarding net over the side. Marines followed, their M-16s still slung, and two of them came down the net to secure the Zodiac alongside. Collins looked up the wet black hull, saw the ship’s C.O. heading down the net and groaned.

The Marines secured a line to the President and helped him aboard as the sub’s skipper hopped into the Zodiac.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where, sir?”

The man pointed at the little cove. “Smithfield,” was all he said.

Collins turned back to Gemini and they pounded through wind-driven waves to the island, arriving soaking wet and cold…only now he saw Smithfield was waiting for them, standing on the aft deck.

“No weapons, Captain,” a still-dazed Smithfield said plainly, and the captain just held out his hands.

“You’re welcome aboard, then.”

The captain hopped across to the aft platform, waited for Collins and Sherman to come up, then they all crawled into the cockpit. Liz popped up through the companionway, passed up a tray of fresh fruit, then carried up a pitcher of margaritas and put them onto the cockpit table.

“Alright, Captain,” Smithfield said slowly, “you called the meeting, so fire away.”

“Yes, Mr President…uh, is that one of them, sir?”

“That’s Jennifer. I’m not sure who she represents, but whatever you need to say, it probably needs to be said in front of her.”

“Was she responsible for this?”

“What? Removing me from the west wing after that son of a bitch threatened to throw my ass in Guantanamo? Yeah, I guess she is.”

“He what, sir?”

“You hard of hearing, skipper?” Collins asked.

The captain turned red. “You’re Collins, aren’t you?”

“That’s a fact.”

The captain looked him over, tried to reconcile the man’s dossier with what he saw now. “Well, the Joint-Chiefs wanted me to pass along a request: don’t do this again, okay?” He turned and looked at Jennifer. “It would be helpful if…”

“Captain,” Jennifer spoke now, and her voice dripped with power, “we are allied with Hyperion. That is all. If your group moves against Hyperion, we move against your group.”

“Our group? You mean…?”

“The United States, captain,” Smithfield said. “As her group has already demonstrated their capabilities in this regard, I think it sound advice.”

“If you seek a change in status, captain,” Jennifer said now, “please relay the request through this group.”

“What?”

Smithfield sighed. “If the President, or the Joint Chiefs – or whoever happens to be running the country right now – wants to negotiate with this group, you’ll need to get in touch with me. We’ll arrange a meeting.”

“So, you’re with them, Mr President?”

“Nope. We just happen to have a mutual set of interests, captain, that’s all.”

“Mr President, are you free to leave here and come with me?”

“Of course, but why the hell would I want to do that. I’m not particularly fond of Cuba, or for that matter, the climate in DC these days.”

The captain reached in his pocket and placed a transmitter on the table, then he switched it off. “I’ll probably be shot for this, but sir, can you tell me what the hell’s going on?”

Smithfield looked at the transmitter, then at the captain – and as he looked up he shook his head, turned to ‘Jennie.’ “I think it’s time we left,” he said, and in the blink of an eye both he and Jennie disappeared.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” the captain said. “Do they keep an eye on you all the time?”

Collins shrugged. “I have no idea,” he replied, not wanting to fall into that trap. “Can I run you back out?”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, smiling now as he pointed to several Navy inflatables roaring towards the cove. “I reckon we’ll just take you four into custody.”

Collins shook his head again. “Y’all better get it together real soon, ‘cause this is getting old, and our friends are going to start thinking you’re just stupid.” He leaned over, looked into the sky above the island, then motioned the sub captain to come out from under the awning and take a look.

The skipper of the USS Montpelier stared open-mouthed at his ship, all 362 feet of her, now hovering hundreds of feet above the island, then – his eyes round as saucers – he nodded at Collins: “Okay. I’ll relay the message.”

“They seem to have a pretty good handle on things, captain. Shooting the messenger isn’t going to solve anything.”

“What about my ship?”

“What about it?”

The skipper looked up again – and she was gone. He turned, saw his ship a mile offshore and felt sick to his stomach.

“You know,” Collins said as he looked at the man, “they usually want to park things like that in orbit. They have no idea how or even why we’d spend so much money on something dedicated to defense, and they seem almost annoyed a machine so big does so little, that our ships can’t leap from the sea to space. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve realized yet just how stupid we are, technologically speaking. You might pass that thought along, too.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. Here’s your transmitter. Don’t forget,” Collins said as he tossed it back to the man, “to mention this was not appreciated, too.”

The skipper looked at Collins one last time. “Whose side are you on, Collins? Really?”

“Mine. Humanity’s, even yours, when you get right down to it.”

“So, you’d take sides against us, your country, over the Russians or the Chinese?”

“The Russians and the Chinese aren’t acting in the best interest of humanity, and our allies know that.”

“They do? So, why did they come here?”

“I think they’re curious, but really, beyond that I have no idea.”

“Curious?”

“When I figure that one out, skipper, I’ll let you know.”

“If they let you,” the captain said under his breath, as he stepped onto one of the Navy inflatables. He looked up at Collins one more time, shook his head then left.

+++++

Hyperion Five was tumbling now, just barely under control, and Hope Sherman wished her brother – or Sumner, really – was here now to help fly this thing. She wasn’t a pilot, had never been a pilot; she counted on the ship’s computers to take control during maneuvers like this…only the computers seemed to get more freaked out by trans-light speed dilation effects than even she did. She re-booted systems one by one, and they chirped back to life one by one, only very slowly now, and she put them through simple routines to check accuracy before turning even basic operations over to them.

She saw poor, doomed Phobos ahead through the single ovoid viewport, then their colony ship – in geosynchronous orbit above the Martian poles – with four space elevators already running huge quantities of material down to the planet’s surface.

Finally, computer links were established and Sherman’s Hyperion began slowing, the ship’s tumbling ceased, and she could just make out a docking platform on the colony ship – almost identical to the platform destroyed last year – with three Hyperion vessels already mated there. Five began it’s autonomous approach now; she heard thrusters popping, watched minor attitude corrections on her primary display, then a docking monitor superimposed over the platform. She watched as ILS vectors appeared, felt rapid course corrections as docking hatches began to line up, and then, with one last gentle bump, ‘positive contact’ and ‘hard seal established’ annunciator lights appeared on the primary display.

She watched pressures equalize, then the computer cycled the airlock, and she saw Sara Green on the monitor, no helmet, no spacesuit, and she flipped the safeties to clear the airlock. Green entered the primary airlock, started the equalization process anew, then entered Five’s cabin.

Sherman could tell something was wrong; the expression on her face, in her eyes was all wrong.

“What’s happened?” Sherman asked as soon as the other woman was inside her pod.

“The Phage. We have more reports ready, but they’re headed for this system, still sub-light but speed is picking up.”

“The timeline? Have the Vulcans advanced it yet?”

“Moe is convinced we need to advance the schedule, and he wants another colony ship here, like yesterday. Larry and Curly remain unconvinced, they don’t see any need to worry at this point.”

“I wish we’d named them something else,” Sherman sighed.

Green smiled. “I never saw those programs, so the names meant nothing to me. Then Hayden showed me a couple of episodes. Singularly appropriate, I think. Are you sure you want to call them Vulcans?”

“People will be able to relate to them better that way, at least before they see them. Once that happens, shit’s going to hit the fan no matter what we call them.”

“Klaatu barada nikto.”

“Exactly. Unreasoning panic, all human paranoia manifest and come to life.”

Green sighed too. “Nothing compared to the Phage. Damn, where’d we be without their help?”

“Extinct,” said The Owl.

+++++

‘Jennie’ was back on Gemini, sitting on the chart table waiting for Collins, her legs crossed ‘Indian-style’ with her elbows resting on her knees, and Sumner laughed when he came below and found her sitting there…

“Well hello there, Tink!”

“Tink? I thought you wished to call me Jennie, or Jennifer?”

“Right you are, but you remind me of a character in a story. Remind me to tell you about Peter Pan someday.”

“I will. I never get over watching you laugh.”

“Oh?”

“I am simply a communicator, yet even so I have no analogue of laughter when I relay our conversations. Laughter, humor,” she said, shrugging her shoulders with her palms now up, facing the sky, “they’re all Greek to me?”

Collins laughed again. “You’re developing a sense of humor too, I see.”

“If you spent all your time around Smithfield, I suspect yours might develop as well.”

“Stop it,” Collins laughed as he shook his head.

“You see? Here’s another example of the inherent conflict of expression in your language. You tell me to stop it, yet you laugh, an expression of pleasure. The complexity of neuronal responses is staggering, and at times the interplay of ideas and language is most upsetting to me.”

“Well, you’re understanding seems to be improving.”

“In English, yes. French is not too bad, but Hebrew? You can not swear in Hebrew, apparently, without using your hands. This causes headaches, nausea, death-wish.”

“Probably has for three thousand years.”

“Collins? May we mate?”

“Excuse me?”

“Not physically, you idiot. May I have some of your genetic material?”

Collins’ laughter was loud enough to cause Liz to poke her head out of the aft cabin. “What are you two talking about now?”

“Sex, mating, procreation, genetic co-mingling,” Jennie said. “I asked Sumner if I could have some of his genetic material.”

“Oh, did you now? And Sumner? How are we going to go about doing that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea, but maybe you could give us a hand?” He looked at Liz, at the expression of withering contempt in her eyes – then he turned to Jennie and whispered: “Uh, now would be a good time for some humor.”

“Ah yes. I see. Perhaps, Liz, I could get some of your genetic material too?” Jennie looked at Sumner – who was now frowning, his face scrunched up like he’d just eaten a lemon – then at Liz – who was now staring at ‘Jennie’ with an odd smile on her own face.

“Oh no. Far be it for me to come between you two.”

“Liz,” the urJennie said, “they’re going to send you to a punitentiary, for punishment.”

Liz groaned, shook her head and walked back into the cabin.

“So, what’s this all about,” Collins asked.

“As I have explained, we are highly differentiated, genetically manipulated to fulfill specific tasks. Language skills for communicators, size and strength for those who work with heavy industrial machines, intellectual capacity for academic theorists and educators…”

“Attractiveness for the procreation class?”

“We do not conceive, or procreate in the manner you do. I think you call it asexual reproduction, but there is no absolute analogue. And Smithfield implies that at his age all his activities are asexual, and this has caused some concern among our scientists.”

“It does me too. Frequently.”

“Ah.”

“Are you serious? About wanting genetic material?”

“It has been done many times,” she said, “on this planet.” She looked at him now, studying his reaction carefully.

“Oh? When?”

“A long time ago. An hour, perhaps more.”

He looked at her now, wondered where this was going.

“We have manipulated genomes on this planet.”

He felt pressure closing-in when he heard those words, then he pointed at the two marks under her left eye – and she nodded her head.

“These are not what they appear to be,” she said, touching her face. “These are sensory organs, and the spots under the right eye…”

“Sensory…? You have eyes, a nose, and ears…?”

“These are…geospatial might be the most appropriate term. But we can see past time, as well.”

“Past time? I don’t understand.”

Jennie looked at him and sighed. “Some of us, communicators mostly, can see time, almost like you see a river. Some can see up the river, and down.”

“You mean the past? And the future? You can see the future?”

“Me? Yes, but this is a recent genetic variation. Very few communicators have this ability. It is dangerous, the word is…”

“Paradox.”

“Yes, just so. Exactly.”

“Jenn? Do you know what is going to happen, here, on Earth?”

She looked away, then looked to the southern sky. “We are too far north to see the danger, but it comes from what your astronomers have termed C99, the Coalsack Nebula.”

“The danger?”

“It, or perhaps they, have been named the Phage, by Ted’s sister – the Owl. They absorb planets. Planets with sentient species. They remove life, advanced lifeforms. We have observed these activities many times.”

“Many times? Why have they not bothered your civilization?”

“The reason should be obvious. We do not attract their attention.”

“So, they have left you alone? Not attacked your system?”

“Many inhabited worlds are benign. We have observed that those attacked are deemed irrational.”

“Irrational – worlds?”

“The beings. They become irrational, they attempt to spread their irrationality between stars. The Phage react to this threat – and stop it.”

“What do you mean by – irrational?”

“The Will to conflict, to spread conflict. You might call conquest. Also, theological constructs have been considered irrational.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, I know. Sherman had difficulty with the idea too, but ultimately she found the notion amusing.”

“She would.”

“Ah, there’s another interesting construct. Sarcasm.”

“You don’t lie, do you? Or evade the truth?”

“No. What is the point?” Collins’ scrunched face was all she needed to see to understand the point was lost on him. “Lies are deception, and yet all deceptions fail in the end. Suspicions deepen, even political subterfuge crumbles. From what I have assimilated so far, I’ve seen that your history is filled with lies, deceptions. Some accidental, many willful.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Collins said, and he watched her watching him. Communicators would almost certainly be adept at reading all kinds of language, wouldn’t they? Even body language? And if they could “see” the future, was there anything anyone could do they hadn’t already seen? “So? How long have you been manipulating genomes?”

She made the jump without batting an eye. “Human? After your last Ice Age. We manipulated the atmosphere, and the waters of the oceans, using several intermediate sized meteoroid impactors. To preserve…”

“The experiment?”

“No. Our destiny is inextricably linked to another species, so our manipulations with humans have been limited to a few.”

“My dolphin,” Collins said, sitting bolt upright. “She has the same markings. On her face.”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean? Is she…has she been genetically manipulated?”

“Of course. She is not the only one.”

“What has she been manipulated into?”

“A hybrid, a cross between her species and my own. She is a communicator.”

“What?”

“Her kind can maintain an active link to any communicator, anywhere. And it is from her species that we found the ability to see through time.”

“WHAT?”

“Her’s is a unique species, Sumner. When we came to this world, when we first came to study life here, we had little interest in any other species. We came first to catalogue lifeforms, yet we continued to study – her kind. When the true significance of their ability became apparent, after we developed the first hybrids, we came to preserve habitat. When the Phage became aware of the inherent irrationality of this ability, we were able to see, through their mind’s eye, that the Phage are coming – right here. We have come now, to this system one last time – in an effort to save them.”

+++++

Corrine Duruflé sat in the back of a yellow and black utility company van, an old, beat-up Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ class model – watching an apartment building on the left side of the Rue Albert Einstein, in the town of St Denis. The Parisian suburb had developed a reputation over the last few years as a haven for Islamist terror cells and perhaps, she thought, it was the proximity to the old cathedral, the first true gothic cathedral in Christendom, that made them feel safe and at ease while they drew up plans for their assaults on Christian infidels. That might have worked in the beginning, but as pressure from law enforcement grew these groups moved – first to the south, to Lyon, and then north, to Brussels, after the attacks of last December. And her Directorate had watched quietly as a new group returned to St Denis, and that her quiet streets were growing ‘popular’ again. More attacks would surely follow…

A direct metro line to the heart of Paris might have been one reason, but the working hypothesis was that there must still be a network of some sort still in place – and that was obviously of most importance to the Directorate – and two days before drones had sniffed the tell-tale signature of radioactive material in the air near the cathedral. Not medical material, that much was immediately obvious, and no known transits of waste through the area were on the books, so the obvious supposition was that this group had gathered enough material for a dirty bomb – and they were assembling the device now.

CCTV cameras throughout the area were now being monitored day and night, more sniffer drones criss-crossed the area through the night, triangulating patterns in the air, narrowing the search perimeter, and now Duruflé was parked outside a pale gray apartment building monitoring live CCTV feeds, while two specialists from ASN, the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, watched readouts spike and fade…

“Best guess,” one of the techs said, “is this top floor unit – right here – ” pointing at an image on her screen. “The one with the telescope on the balcony. Concentrations are heaviest in the air just above this unit.”

Corrine looked at another screen. The apartment was leased to a physics professor, a woman from Grenoble married to a Saudi national. She ran a search, read the dossier then looked at her watch, called the university where the woman was employed and asked to speak to her department chair. She introduced herself as a reporter for Agence France-Presse working on a story, and understood the professor was well regarded in the field, and she wondered if the Chairman could facilitate an interview.

“I would be happy to, madame, but the professor has not been in class for the last week, and has not called in…”

She left her name and number, then rang off. She called headquarters, relayed all she knew.

“Approaching the residence will be next to impossible,” she advised. “Too many known elements are in the area, warning would be instantaneous. Even something as ridiculous as an airstrike would be counter-productive, radiation would be released on an even more massive scale.”

“The decision has been made. A NATO Predator will fire a modified Dart. A biologic agent, a neural-disruptor will be released, death will result in less than two seconds. To soon for anyone to react.”

“The area we can expect to see fatalities?”

“The approximate kill radius could be up to a kilometer, depending on winds, perhaps two on one lobe.”

“Laser designator?”

“Yes, the team is on the way.”

“I see.”

“Clean up your site and leave the area, and do so immediately.”

“Yes, director.”

+++++

Jennie’s head snapped away from their conversation, a sudden, jarring discontinuity – like she was receiving a message of some importance. He was getting used to these interludes – when she was receiving information from…somewhere.

“A nuclear device will detonate. In five minutes, thirty eight seconds.”

“Where?”

“Paris. Just north of Paris.”

“Can you stop it?”

“Of course.”

“Would you do so now, please?”

Jennie jerked away for a moment, then looked back at him. “There is an incoming projectile. Shall I stop this as well.”

“Here’s what I’d like you to do,” Collins said, grinning.

She smiled her understanding when he finished, and for a moment she simply looked away.

◊◊◊◊◊

When the Dart failed to detonate, Duruflé and two assault teams ran up to the fifth floor apartment – and crashed through the door. Tools scattered everywhere, take-out food containers piled on a small table just off the kitchen, the professor’s duct-taped and shackled body hustled quickly from the building, but no terrorists – and no terrorist’s bomb – were anywhere in the vicinity. The 20 kiloton warhead – recently acquired from Russian agents in Belarus – had simply disappeared too.

Duruflé had no way of knowing the warhead had appeared moments before – inside the Kremlin – in the old Armoury Museum, resting gently inside a large, trough-shaped urinal in the men’s room near the museum’s main exit. Four of the five terrorists appeared at the First Southern Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, in the middle of a Gay Conversion Therapy workshop, while the fifth terrorist, and the leader of the group, appeared – naked – on stage at a Klan rally in Tupelo, Mississippi – his mutilated body found later that afternoon in a dumpster behind a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken take-out restaurant.

+++++

‘What about the future?’ Hope Sherman wondered. ‘If the past casts a shadow so deep it reaches the future,’ she thought as she looked at Moe and Larry, grasping for context, ‘what then of the future? Can the future cast a shadow on the present? To the past, in effect? Can the past really become so fluid?’

Moe’s ‘body’ shifted slightly as he/she/it pondered her thoughts – and Hopie once again ‘felt’ the impression he/she/it was looking at her, trying to come to terms with her thought processes. Ten meters tall, his body roughly pyramidal in shape and perhaps fifteen meters circumference at the ‘base’ – his scaly ‘body’ did not move, not at all. This ship had, in effect, been built around him, so that he was physically connected to the ship in almost every conceivable way. And the scales on his body? Those had been hardest for her to get used to.

Translucent blue near the top, then reds and browns in progression the lower she looked, the scales detached frequently and zoomed away on some errand or task. The blues were of course communicators, the browns negotiators of some sort, while the reds were somewhat analogous to a security team. All genetic hybrids, all hyper-specialized entities with essentially no free-will of their own, the ‘scales’ resided on Moe’s ‘flesh’, drawing energy, taking sustenance from ‘him.’ A part of him, in other words, yet somehow not quite.

She still found the idea disturbing, just as she had the first time she saw one detach and zoom away, when she first encountered one of the Masters.

A blue scale detached from Moe and drifted down to her lap – and she tried not to recoil at the sight of this new one. Two feet tall, he was a miniature of her brother Ted, only hairless and translucent blue. His voice even sounded somewhat Ted-like, though diminished by stature, and now he sat cross-legged on her thighs.

“Hey kiddo,” this ur-Ted said, his familiar mannerisms completely unnerving her. “We need to talk.”

“Do we?”

“About the Phage. Wanna go grab something to eat?”

She turned in her chair, rolled from the chamber – trying to hide her face from him. She knew they were getting better at reading emotions through body language and understood the implications of that mastery, but her mission here was a tenuous one, her grip on Moe’s loyalty conditional. She had to keep this alliance together at all cost, yet the communicator’s presence was jarring – and Moe would know that, instantly.

‘Deliberately so?’ she wondered. Keeping your adversary off-balance was a key tactic in any negotiation. ‘Well, that answers that question…’ But of course, now he knew her thinking too.

She rolled to the living module off the docking platform and cycled the airlock, went inside her private cubicle.

“What would you like?” ur-Ted asked. “Burger and fries again, a chocolate malt?”

“How about eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, from the Place Pigalle at the Pike Place Market?”

“You’re homesick today, aren’t you?”

The plate appeared on her table a second later.

“I need a fork and knife, please.”

And there they were. She picked them up, started on her breakfast.

“The Phage are now at light-speed times ten to the fourth. At that velocity that will reach this system in twenty years, but they are still under heavy acceleration. We will revise their arrival time when we have more accurate data.”

“Okay. So what’s bothering Moe?”

“There is no work underway on colony ships for your people. What you call political gridlock has stalemated all your governments. There are threats. Much posturing, that which you attribute to too much testossterone. Attempts have been made on Smithfield’s life, also on both Collins and your brother. There appears to be no awareness among vast numbers of your population of our existence, while various political factions are uniting against our alliance. We think this is pointless, we think a renegotiation of terms is warranted.”

“I do too.”

“Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly? You do too?”

“Yes. And I have an idea…”

+++++

Perhaps controllers under Cheyenne Mountain were first to spot the object, or those at Baikonur II were first, but within moments NORAD increased it’s defense posture from DEFCON 4 to 2 – and Secretary of Defense Donald Burke notified a still-shaken president that the Hyperion Contact was emerging from behind the moon. Twenty minutes later, NORAD radar sites along the Labrador Sea picked up seven new targets in formation – and all had simply appeared ‘out of nowhere’ – and all were now closing on earth.

“How big are they?” the president asked Paul Kirkland, his National Security Advisor.

“The Dark Side object appears to have a diameter of roughly twenty miles; the seven new targets appear identical in size, but their field displacement is different – heavier mass I’m told.” Kirkland’s encrypted line to NORAD chimed again, and he answered, listened to the general in command as he updated information, then Kirkland cut the connection. “Mr President, a ninth object has appeared. About 5800 miles above Antarctica. Uh, sir, the apparent diameter of this ship exceeds 1500 miles.”

The president turned and looked over the White House lawn. “Did you say 1500 miles?”

“Yessir.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yessir.”

“Stationary?”

“No, sir. Descending, moving north northwest, projected to skirt the Chilean and Peruvian coasts, then continue offshore until it moves up our Pacific coast.”

“Interesting.”

“Mr President?”

“No way we’ll be able to keep a lid on this any longer. My guess is they’ll pull an Independence Day. Position over our major cities, try to scare the shit out of the general population.”

“That’s a possibility, sir.”

“Okay. Let’s prepare to shut down the stock exchanges, close the banks. Three hundred dollar ATM withdrawals only, initiate full DEFCON ONE guidelines.”

“Air traffic, Mr President?”

“I said full DEFCON guidelines, Paul. Air and rail traffic, shut down the interstates, activate the emergency broadcast network. Full emergency food distribution using the National Guard, the whole nine yards.”

“Martial Law, Mr President?”

He leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling. “Let’s see if we can get the media to contain the story before we go with this, but if a panic starts, we’ll give ‘em a half hour then pre-empt, cut ’em all off and announce. Just replay the policies on air,” the president said, “give people a few days to habituate, get used to the threat…”

“If we have that long, sir.”

“Oh, we have time. Remember what Smithfield said? What he said we should do? ‘Tell ‘em about building ships. Let the people know’ – remember? This is a pretty good opening move; cut off our policy options, incite hysteria, breakdown public confidence in national institutions. Yes…an interesting first move.”

“And? How do you want to counter it?”

“Counter it? Are you kidding me? That’s the goddamn Death Star up there, Paul. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do – that wouldn’t simply piss them off.”

“So? How do we defend against them?”

“We listen. Listen and learn, because that’s about all we can do. If we make a stupid move they’ll shut us down. They’ll begin a disinformation campaign. We’ll lose that, too.”

“How do you know that, Mr President?”

“Because that’s what I’d do,” he said, pointing at the sky, “if that was me up there – with five Aces tucked up my sleeve.”

+++++

Amanda and her friends were in a funky-festive mood – but finally, it was time to celebrate! After being grounded the first month of summer vacation, this was her first night out, and her mom had just dropped her off for a sleepover at Kiley’s mom’s house. Amanda and Kiley had been best friends all through elementary and middle school – but next year? The really big adventure started: High School! Still, she was pissed – her mom had nearly ruined everything, caught Kiley and all her friends in the pool out back the afternoon school let out – with a bunch of beer – and Justin Landry, with his hands where they weren’t supposed to be. Now, after spending a month at the Westside Pentecostal ‘Vacation Bible School’ – she was…free at last–Gawd-almighty–free at last!

“So, what’d they make you do there?” Kiley asked.

“If I ever see another Charlton Heston movie again, I’ll die…”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter…I hear the fifth Independence Day sequel is pretty good…think we can get your mom to take us? I think it’s playing at the Westside Galleria?”

“Uh-huh…and Justin’s going to be there too, I suppose?”

Kiley’s mom was so-o-o kewl! Dropped them off with plenty of money to see the movie – even some leftover for snacks, but Look At That Line! Sheesh! The four thirty showing was sold out, so now they’d have to wait a whole fifteen minutes to get into the four forty-five! And…where was Justin?

Then people were gasping, looking at the sky and pointing, so of course Amanda and Kiley turned and looked too. No boiling, flaming clouds this time, just a really big – spaceship – looking thing. She yawned, looked around – hoping Justin was going to make it in time for the show, then turned back to look at the advertising thingy up there floating by.

“Man,” she heard someone say, “I wonder how much the studio had to pay for that thing?”

“Gets your attention though…” someone else said.

“Wow!” Justin said, and Amanda wheeled around to see him and did her best to appear bored. “That thing’s really big.”

“Just one of those blimp things. No big deal…”

But the mass of the ship was huge, and as no measurement protocol was available to quickly calculate a mass this large, let alone distortions to the earth’s ‘gravity well’ it’s passing caused, what happened next came as a surprise. As the ship closed on the southern California coast, people, cars, cats and dogs – even garbage – anything and everything not firmly affixed to the earth – began to float free – weightless as the ship passed.

And as the ship faded from view, still heading north along the coastline, the temporary distortions in the earth’s ‘gravity well’ dissipated, and everything and everyone simply settled back to the surface…

“Wow, that was SO kewl…” Amanda said. “I hear they’re going to – like – have a ride like that at Magic Mountain this summer! Oh! This is going to be such a – kewl – summer!”

And so she and Kiley – and Justin – walked into the theater, all jazzed about seeing a bunch of aliens coming back to earth on the silver screen – “I bet they’re really going to kick ass this time!” she said – all while Justin wondered if he’d be able to slip a finger inside…

+++++

News outlets were curiously silent about these brief sightings, and what imagery and commentary that did “come out” did so through less conventional ‘online’ channels. Most of this smartphone based imagery was grainy enough to allow experts to debunk the entire affair, and reports of distorted gravity were put down to h-h-hysteria – and nothing more.

The President had called in a lot of favors to get this done, and he was happy with the results. “Money well spent,” he told his staff.

+++++

Hope Sherman conferred with her translator, her urTed, or as Sumner liked to call her brother – Spud. The eight remaining transports – Moe’s colony ships – had been given coordinates and times, and Sherman smiled at the allegorical significance of her choices. Moe apparently had a sense of humor too…either that, or he was a real gambler.

+++++

Heavy thunderstorms appeared over the Eurasian landmass, torrential rains began that afternoon, and the largest displays of undulatus asperatus clouds ever recorded followed during the evening. The eerie formations unsettled people from the Russian steppes to the desert regions south of Tehran. The fearful faithful gathered and pointed at the sky, sure that God was about to visit a mighty wrath on all mankind.

The first ships, completely invisible to radar, appeared over Tehran and Moscow in the deep of night, and not a half hour later over Mecca and Jerusalem. St Peter’s in Rome and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg followed. One more appeared before sunrise over a forest glade in the foothills of the Himalayas, and later that morning, at noon local time, the last ship drifted into place over a small Shinto shrine not far from Osaka.

The significance of these locations was not lost on the world’s religious leaders, and within hours almost the entire population of the earth was on their knees, praying to objects in the sky, asking for forgiveness – all wondering what they had done to anger their God – and what might happen next.

And yet the objects remained motionless – and silent – for days, then weeks.

And during this period, all the earth’s mammalian marine life swam to seven points in the seven seas, and they waited in quiet depths, perhaps not knowing what was coming, but completely unconcerned about their future.

+++++

“The Phage. They approach at velocities we have never seen. It is a matter of weeks now, before they arrive.”

Hope Sherman looked at Spud as he paced back and forth on her bed, looking for all the world just like Ted now. There was hair on his head now, his genetically derived illusion almost complete.

“So, is there still time?” Sherman said.

“Your leadership is paralyzed. Industries have collapsed, even agricultural productivity has ceased. Your people continue to pray – even as they starve to death. This is the most irrational display we have ever seen, and it may account for the increase in velocity we have noted. The Phage will not let this force spread among the stars.”

“The colony ships?”

“Perhaps, but you know how the Master’s feel about this.”

“I do, but…”

“But you feel responsible. You think that if you’d never built Hyperion, none of this would have happened.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps. Yet the Phage would have noticed such an intense and irrational discontinuity sooner or later. Perhaps we could have completed our mission without your assistance, yet time distortions from your seas completely altered our plans. Your arrival made our intervention necessary. We are grateful.”

“But not enough to…?”

“We will try. That is all we can say now. We will try.”

Hope Sherman looked at ‘her Spud,’ her translator, and wondered what he felt about humanity, yet at times like this she asked herself if he felt anything at all. As just one small part of a larger, rapidly evolving organism, one with the constant input of hundreds of translators and negotiators passing every waking moment, Sherman was amazed Spud could sort through the incoming data fast enough to form even one coherent sentence – let alone help formulate long term strategies. Yet she had to consider when she was talking to Spud she was also in direct contact with Moe – who was himself linked to Masters across the galaxy. The concept was almost impossible to wrap her head around, and even after months among them it still troubled her, yet she found the process oddly comforting. When she spoke with Spud she wasn’t getting one point of view – she was getting hundreds – simultaneously. ‘Spud’ essentially collated data and presented a consensus point of view, with his Master, the one she called Moe, though he/she/it was, in effect, commanding what was relayed, what she heard.

And what she’d heard still troubled her.

Humanity was irrelevant to the ‘Vulcans,’ a sideshow before the main event. There was one ‘extra’ colony ship available to transport humans, as well as space on the large command ship that had off-loaded cargo on Mars. Perhaps two million people could be resettled.

But who? Who would go?

And who would choose?

+++++

ur-Jenn sat on Sumner’s lap, in her way trying to console him. Liz and Carol looked at one another, then Ted stood and walked to the rail, hopped over to Hyperion and disappeared below.

“So? That’s it? These hell raisers, the Phage? They get here in a few weeks, find the remains of the human race and lay waste to the planet? Is that what you’re telling me is going to happen? The human race ends in a few weeks, maybe a month from now?”

“As I said, there may be room for more of you. Perhaps two million humans in total, more if we have less mass to move. A world is being prepared even now, but there is no guarantee the Phage won’t respond to your movement. We must keep the others on a different world, an ocean world well away from your new world. We must protect them at all cost, but you will be on your own – once we’ve helped you re-establish industry and agriculture. What you do with this new world will be your species future, or perhaps it’s legacy.”

Carol stood and walked over to Hyperion, leaving Liz and Sumner to look away into the night sky. Sumner felt her leave then too, his Jennifer, and he wondered where she went, and why – but it didn’t matter now. Nothing at all really mattered.

He, his people, even this world – had just been sentenced to death – and now they humanity came to rest in this, their collective twilight, watching the last of the sun fade against the purple mountains majesty of their homes.

And their last trip to Cassis had been spooky, almost terrifying, with only a few farmers present selling produce and roving bands pillaging everything unguarded. For the past several days they had diving for fish – and finding nothing – yet now he understood why…

“Perhaps? Is that what she said?” Liz asked.

“Yup – if things work out, maybe two million.”

“Seems kind of small, when you think about it.”

“Hmm? What’s that,” Sumner said, lost in a passing thought.

“Two million people, out of almost nine billion? That’s not a lot, is it?”

“It’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Who will they choose?”

“I have no idea,” but he knew the ideal candidate would be young enough to propagate the species, and intelligent enough to be valuable to a re-emergent technological society. ‘That leaves me out, too,’ he told himself.

Liz stood and walked forward to the bow pulpit. She held onto the rail as she looked up into the sky, while Charley came and settled on Sumner’s lap. The pup looked up into his eyes and licked his chin, then the tears that rolled down his face.

He heard Carol running through Hyperion, heard her running up the companionway steps up and into the cockpit…

“He’s gone!” she screamed.

Sumner stood after Charley barked and jumped from his lap. “Who? Ted?”

“Smithfield was down there, and his sister too, and when I came in they all just disappeared!”

“Well, hell,” Sumner Collins said as he walked aft, grinning. “Hopie was here? Ain’t that grand?!”

Then he too turned to the stars – and he laughed at them – while he shook his fist at the night sky.

Then he felt her there, down there in the sea – and he turned and looked at those two scars glowing in the night. He dove off the stern, dove deep – so deep he felt his lungs about to burst – and when he saw her there beside him he knew she would never leave him.

+++++

Ted Sherman and his sister, Hope, as well as a startled Grover Smithfield, blinked into existence on the new Hyperion loading platform, the one attached to ‘Moe’s’ command ship, still in Mar’s orbit. They made their way to the hastily constructed conference room off Hope’s sleeping cabin and sat around an oxygen polisher – that now performed double duty as a table.

“This is your meeting, Grover. What’s on your mind?” Hopie said as she looked at him.

“The final figure is 1.2 million people. That’s it. That’s all they’re able to transport. That means nine billion people are at risk.”

“The terraformed world they’ve chosen for our people,” Hope sighed, “the one that’s immediately habitable, is a quarter the size of our moon. Within decades we’ll reach it’s peak ability to sustain life. Within one hundred years we’ll have to be prepared to send out colonists, or our population growth will cause another implosion.”

“I understand that,” Smithfield sighed. “But do you understand – seven billion people? That many people are going to die if we can’t…?”

“I do,” Hope said. “What would you have me say?”

“We have to find another world. Another Earth, someplace else for us to go.”

She looked at Smithfield, knew what he wanted, but she’d exhausted those possibilities weeks ago. Humanity had exhausted this planet, and even without the Phage it’s time here was limited. Population explosion, resource depletion, climate change…earth really had become a paradise lost.

Yet Ted was looking at his sister just then, just as Hope’s ‘urTed’ translator blinked into the room. Ted had never seen his doppelgänger before, though he had almost gotten used to the ur-Jennifer that always seemed to be somewhere close to Sumner; now, seeing his near self in such close proximity was unsettling – and he instinctively pulled away from ‘it’.

Hope, of course, smiled at his discomfort, at least until the ur-Ted began speaking.

“The human population on the surface has reduced by 3.4 billion. A religious reaction, but starvation, panic, sudden military interventions have been observed. By the end of this week we project more than 5 billion will have perished. We are authorized to tell you that three new colony ships will arrive, room for twenty million people has been developed on a system of synthetic moons. These moons orbit in a system where three planets are being terraformed. It is possible these worlds will be ready for human habitation within ten standard years.”

“By Golly,” Smithfield said, “that’s wonderful news. How can we express our gratitude?”

The urTed looked at Smithfield, his eyes sad, full of pain. “There will be a price, a set of conditions,” he said, his voice now dull and flat. “We are sorry, but this must be. We cannot risk attracting the Phage.”

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 August, 1430 hrs GMT. 

COG: moored, Marseilles, old port;

SOG: na; 

Temp: 107F;

Winds: SSW at 22kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:  43°17’38.04″N   5°22’0.21″E.

Still unseasonably hot. Very dry wind coming off North Africa, last night the low temperature was 97F. Almost no food available in the city, but there is power, and we have been able to fill the diesel tanks.]

Sumner Collins had just finished moving Gemini back to the relative safety of the marina in Marseilles’ old port, a deeply sheltered harbor almost completely surrounded by the oldest part of the city, yet now he was uneasy, felt like he was being watched all the time. Ted had been gone for weeks now; he had disappeared that night with Hopie and Smithfield, leaving Carol alone on Hyperion for several days – and then she too had simply vanished. Last week he’d heard what he thought was a thunderclap and gone on deck to check the sky – only to find Hyperion gone. One minute the boat was there, then clap-boom – she was gone. The event had seriously unsettled him, enough to consider moving back to ‘civilization.’

Liz had grown increasingly despondent after the ur-Jenn’s revelation the Phage were coming, and much sooner than expected, yet she rallied for a time – with Carol’s help. She assumed if there was room for older people she might find a way off-world, she might survive the coming of the Phage – and then Carol vanished. Liz fell into a downward spiral after that, and was sleeping into mid-afternoon most days now, and rarely eating. She helped when she could but the sense of onrushing doom left her paralyzed more often than not, and for days at a stretch.

Then Liz watched as Sumner grew increasingly disenchanted with the idea leaving, of ever living anywhere but Earth. He said there was no room ‘for people like me’ – out among the stars, and when she’d asked what he meant by this, about what exactly he he thought he’d done to exclude a future together, he’d grown sullen and withdrawn – and she shut down further. She’d noticed he’d fallen into spells like this, ever since he’d come back from Israel, and while she didn’t understand – she couldn’t get him to talk about what happened, either.

And by this point, only Charley seemed to exercise any sort of hold on Sumner, and their unique bond only seemed to grow stronger with time – even as Liz’s hold on Sumner seemed to diminish – especially after Hyperion vanished. She didn’t truly understand Charley or what the pup meant to Sumner, or how he would – in effect – choose a dog to confide in over her, yet that’s what it felt like. She grew more distant and depressed – causing Sumner’s further withdrawal – and the cycle spiraled beyond their ability to control.

Food had became harder to find after the arrival, farmer’s markets were overrun as fuel dependent transportation and distribution networks broke down. Pelagic sea life had all but disappeared, but Sumner soon found shellfish and after that they were feasting on crab and oysters almost every meal – and an occasional lobster could be had with patience – but even that diet grew stale after a week.  On top of it all, he had to run the engine to make water, and as that bit into their fuel reserves it meant they had to find fuel. And fuel was running out, getting harder to find.

So, the zero-sum end game that the ur-Jenn laid out for them was slowing coming to pass, only quicker than expected. Collins listened to the world’s death throes on his single side band radio night after night; stories of heroism filled the airwaves – but he saw little evidence of that on the streets. Tens of millions of people on their knees, overwhelming helplessness the order of the day, and yet, of all the nations of the earth, only one seemed to soldier-on almost completely unaffected by the peculiar fatalism sweeping through the remaining people of the Earth. America, and to a lesser extent Canada, had proven more resilient to the religious fatalism sweeping the eurasian landmass, but only just.

One day Collins walked along the waterfront until he came to the Cathédral de Major, Marseilles’s largest cathedral, and he looked at it’s odd mishmash of styles, then at the hundreds of uncollected bodies on the plaza surrounding the building. He heard singing inside and walked past the dead and the dying until he gained the entry, and at the entry he pulled a woman’s bloated body from the door and walked inside.

There were no people inside, no one sitting in the pews – not one soul listening to the music, but he walked inward between rows of pews to the transept – where he paused and looked up – then he walked deeper into the building, to the choir. He watched an immaculately dressed choir of men and women singing, watched a string ensemble nearby accompanying the organ, and found a place in the shadows to sit and listen.

He drifted within the music, sat and fell into the arms of that spirit which is ultimately most human, and he found he almost felt like crying as the music washed over his parched soul. He knew the music, music somewhere from his past, a piece the Jennifer had loved, perhaps. It was Duruflé’s Requiem, and the choir was moving into the Paradisum, those final few moments of the piece – long regarded as the most intimate ever scored, the composer’s intent to unleash the music of heaven on those clinging fast to life.

As Sumner Collins drifted he wondered when he’d lost his faith – indeed – if he’d ever possessed anything resembling faith. He’d spent his entire life hurting people – killing so many, torturing more than a few – and now, listening to this music he wanted to know why he’d done those things. Why he’d turned away from beauty, from love. Why he’d embraced such infinite darkness – in the name of – ? What? A Father? His country? He didn’t feel like a murderer, yet he was, and in the worst possible way. He’d found no enjoyment in his actions, only a sort of grim satisfaction when the ends proved the means justified, and he’d marched right along to the anthems of this chosen life – like any good soldier.

But that hadn’t always been the case, had it? He thought back to Smithfield’s wife, to her easy capitulation over the Atlantic, and he contrasted that experience with hundreds of others in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each human disintegration had been burned into his soul, each broken body was superimposed over his own, and there were times now when he lost track of himself, when he felt his own decomposing soul atop the piles of his victims. Was this, he wondered, what it felt like to take another’s life – in the name of some greater good?

The last chords of the requiem washed through the cathedral and broke over his soul, cast him adrift as voices drifted off into evening aires. He felt all his tears just then, the tears he’d held in check for so many years. First Jennifer, then Charley and Deborah, and now he could feel Liz falling away, falling into her own peculiar darkness – only now he felt completely powerless to do anything but watch his life unfolding in the last warmth of twilight. He’d done everything he could to help Jennifer, everything to save her life, then when that was not enough he’d been content to ease her suffering. Because nothing, nothing he did mattered, and in the end death came for her. And Deborah’s hallucinogenic passing, with something akin to Debussy at her side, with Lennon beckoning from the shadows? What did it all mean?

He stood after a while, saw the choir had already left and he wondered how long he’d been sitting in the darkness. He thought of Phoebe, lost up there on the Norman coast with that lip smacking psychiatrist…and he wanted to see her again, hold her when the time came…but no, she’d finally found someone to hold, as her own night came. He’d talked to them last week, heard her playing the Orgeron piece once again while he talked to Mann, and Collins knew he couldn’t ever say goodbye. They were too close for such expressions, so thoroughly conjoined words would never suffice.

Why, he wondered as he looked up at the vaulted ceiling, was it irrational to believe in something greater than ourselves? Why had the visitor’s ships descended upon and hovered over humanity’s symbols of mystery, the home of all her irrational imaginings? Had those alien minds known that earth’s people had already reached a tipping point of dissolution, that humanity had arrived at that point where faith unquestioned so long simply snapped under the weight of it’s inherent contradictions? Had those distant minds known that the human spirit was, in the end, doomed to fade away when fantasy overwhelmed reality?

+++++

And why was it was that not one of their huge ships had settled over an American city?

Was it that the people of the Americas were isolated in other ways – by their oceans, perhaps, or the relative newness of their civilizations. The people of North America, in particular, had seemed to grow ever more resilient when they looked at the ships over Rome and Jerusalem, Mecca and the Himalayan foothills. Their faith, the ‘Vulcans’ sensed, seemed rooted more in themselves, more in the material world than in something so nebulous as God, and the ‘Vulcans’ realized they were looking at perhaps the most utterly human of all the varied races they’d observed on this planet.

And yet they looked down on these Americans with understanding. They’d been like that too, once, and they knew from their own troubled experience all the outcomes that might have been – had these Americans been allowed to move off into the stars. But they were too much a threat, their unique fusion of the rational and the mystical – their fatalism far too dangerous to cast loose among the stars. In the end, the Masters decided only a relative few would be taken aboard the colony ships.

Because most of all, the ‘Vulcans’ remembered a time when the Phage had very nearly found them. When they’d first achieved a level of technological expertise that permitted spaceflight, before the time when population pressure and resource depletion had very nearly caused a complete collapse of their homeworld.

And yet, these ‘Vulcans’ thought, the people of this planet had absolutely no idea what was coming their way. Or why. Now the ‘Vulcans’ wondered what they might have done, once upon a time, if they had been so ignorant of the reality closing in around them. If they’d looked with wonder and awe upon the vast fields of stars around their homeworld – until it was too late to act on the realities they were so blissfully unaware of.

And then, after weeks of silence, after endless days and nights while millions of people stared unknowingly at huge, silent starships, each of the eight ships moved away silently – in the light of day – and hours later settled over spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from land. In the middle of the seven seas, or so it was reported. The ships settled into the waters of the earth’s oceans – and disappeared. Lost in frantic despair, the remaining people of the earth looked at broadcasts of the ships moving out to sea – and those still living wondered what it all meant. When the ships did not reappear there was a sudden, final collapse of the human spirit.

And in the emptiness that followed, the remaining few wondered if there had indeed ever been any meaning to human suffering. Had all mankind’s wars been in vain? Was music, all painting and sculpture simply meaningless? Would there be nothing left of humankind to say to the universe – We were here?!

And that night, while many of the earth’s people slept, something happened. The broadcast simply crushed all other programming, pushed it aside, moved it away, and for the very first time the people of earth listened to a voice from the stars.

The President of the United States of America was sitting in his office, in the West Wing of the White House, when the broadcast started playing. He was not amused, and appeared to be in no mood to listen.

+++++

An owl – and a fairy.

That’s what many people thought they were watching when the broadcast commenced. They were looking at an owl, and someone – or something – that looked, perhaps, a little like the Tinker Bell they pulled free of childhood memories.

And the owl was staring at them. Benevolently, perhaps, but people saw sadness, even a little wisdom in her eyes.

But then the owl spoke.

“Good evening, my name is Hope,” the owl began incongruously, “and I am speaking with you tonight from a ship in orbit above the earth, 4,000 miles above Antarctica. Tonight I have a story to tell you, a most unhappy story, a story with a sad ending – for most of us – ”

And the owl told them of the people in the starships, people from another world. She told them of a race of people she’d come to call the Vulcans, because, she said, these beings seemed to be guided more by principles of logic than emotion, and that this race had millennia ago turned away from irrationalism and mysticism. They had become explorers, as once the people of earth had been, and, perhaps, how we might be once again.

So, they were explorers, she told humanity. Seekers. A People willing to reach beyond themselves – into the unknown. As we had been not so long ago, before that spirit was consumed by fantasy and illusion.

She told the people of earth a little of what she knew about the people who built these ships, the ships that had settled over the earth’s religious centers. They were a race that had moved out into the stars tens of millions of years ago, a people who took worlds and remade them when they expanded outward, into the systems beyond their Homeworld. This race, she told the people of the earth, now counted thousands of planetary systems as their own, and she spoke of the literally millions of planets they now traveled between. She spoke of having visited several of these worlds, and she tried to convey the majesty of the places she beheld, and the people who had made them.

And then she told them of the Phage:

“There is a force in our galaxy,” she began, “that appears to exist for no other purpose than to eliminate irrationalism, in whatever form it takes.” She paused, let the words sink in. “Religion is one such force,” she said, “but the Vulcan’s seem to have accepted that this form of thought is self-limiting, that religious cultures always collapse as various inherently contradictory and self-destructive impulses overwhelm other cultural institutions, and the Vulcans have accepted for some time our species now approaches such a fate. The Vulcans do not think we will escape our destiny, but they are prepared to offer a refuge – of sorts – for some of us. That said, the Vulcans did not come to our earth to rescue humankind. There is another species on our planet, one even more irrational than humans, but one which possesses – a power – that the Vulcans want to preserve. They are now taking steps to insure the continuity this species.

“One week from today the Vulcan mission on earth will be at an end. One week and one hour from now those humans whom the Vulcans have chosen will be taken from this planet. The final number chosen is not known yet, as even now the Vulcans are gathering resources to save as many humans as they can. Some of you will be resettled on planets the Vulcans have already established, some will be housed in temporary facilities around worlds that are still being terraformed, but the vast majority of people still alive now will – not – be – transported. Those people not chosen next week will remain here on earth, and you will be here – on earth – when the Phage arrive.

“And the Phage will arrive soon after the Vulcan’s depart. The exact time of their arrival is not known, but it could be as soon as a ten days, perhaps as long as two weeks – so, three weeks from today. The Vulcans have observed, from afar, what the Phage do to the worlds they target – and they have taken steps to observe what happens to earth. They have advised me there is no chance of survival, that there is no weaponry powerful enough to defeat this force.

“Yet there remains an outside chance the Vulcans will be able to relocate more of us before the Phage arrive. If this appears likely, there will be one more broadcast after The Departure.”

The owl named Hope looked out at the people she addressed, then stoically added “Goodbye to you all,” before the broadcast faded away. Normal broadcasts around the world resumed, and while a curious sense of Hope prevailed, people began to look up into the night sky with more than just curiosity and wonder.

Those people who paused to stare into space now did so with hearts full of darkness – their minds full of something unfettered and wild – something now well beyond fear.

+++++

Sumner felt the sense of finality everywhere he walked now, and the few people he did run across seemed to waver somewhere along this newly discovered – and indifferent – razor’s edge.  Faces, he saw, hovered between dread and nothingness, though the few people he knew passed on reports they’d heard from the handful of observatories still operating: the Coalsack Nebula had roughly tripled in size, while Doppler and angular velocity measurements indicated that whatever was coming to earth was coming – ‘from right there, in the middle of Caldwell 99’ – and it was coming fast.

Most people on earth had been too far north to observe the looming cloud, but when simulations revealed the Coalsack’s change in apparent magnitude fear turned to panic, panic to hysteria and, finally, hysteria into a sort of resignation that bordered on listlessness.

Then people in the northern hemisphere began to make out the pure blackness of the Coalsack. One night the southern horizon went dark; the next night the blackness filled the half the night sky, well into mid-northern latitudes…

…and three nights later more than two thirds of the northern sky was obscured by the vast, expanding Coalsack, yet the shattered remnants of humanity who stared into the night sky were no longer afraid.

These people had endured too much over the past several weeks to experience fear as anything other than a pale, washed-out emotion, an emotion no longer able to command their attention for very long. Simple fear, Collins knew all too well, is what people experienced when they still had some hope for the future, and that when hope is at long last gone, so too is fear. Nothing remains, nothing but the last grudging acceptance of an imponderable fate, and as earth’s remaining people stood out under the night sky, watching vast fields of stars simply smudged out of existence before the advancing cloud, they could at last see the form death would take in it’s final confrontation with life on earth.

+++++

Exactly one week after the owl spoke people began ‘winking’ out of existence, and within hours a pattern to these disappearances began to emerge. Younger women disappeared at twice the rate men did, yet the physically infirm? None at all disappeared. Scientists, physicians, engineers and builders of all sorts vanished immediately, while prisons and shelters for the indigent remained untouched. A literal handful of people over forty vanished, yet even those older people who disappeared were notable for their intellectual ability, while almost a half million academically undistinguished men, most involved in the construction trades, vanished immediately as well. Philosophers by the thousands vanished, yet not one lawyer was unaccounted for after that long day’s journey into night.

And then the owl announced herself again. American and Canadian farmers and ranchers, she said, those few still alive, had 24 hours to tend to their affairs and get ready for transfer, and these men and women were to gather their herds and seed-stocks immediately. After a final farewell, she was gone again.

Librarians went to their libraries the next morning, only to find shelves had been picked over. Laboratories were similarly ransacked, and factories too. The means to pick up where humanity had left off were already aboard the ‘Vulcan’s’ ships, and a half day later the last ‘essential’ people were gone.

And those remaining on earth woke to yet another new reality.

There was no escape now. Whatever the Phage were, they were close – their arrival imminent. Food had all but disappeared, and now there were no means to produce more. Cities grew dark when power plants failed, all means of transportation ground to a halt within a few hours and people seemed to retreat further into themselves.

Families and communities gathered in the night. They built fires and told stories, and listened to one another as they never had before. That thing called love was on full display now, and at long last people reached out to one another…they reached out while they looked up at the night sky, a remembering long overdue.

And soon the vast black cape of the Coalsack had swung ‘round and blotted out the entire night sky; only the Sun and her planets remained visible now, and most people felt the looming darkness had become a metaphor of the future. Still, they took some comfort from Jupiter and Saturn and all earth’s celestial neighbors…

…and then – Neptune disappeared…

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 21 August, 0730 hrs GMT – 1. 

COG: 200M, 200 yards off l’île de la Tortue, departing Marseilles;

SOG: 5.3kts; 

Temp: 97F;

Winds: NNW at 12kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:   43°12’55.54″N   5°19’17.12″E.

Cooling out now as much of the sun’s light is obscured, though it’s still warm enough out. Cool, dry wind coming off the Alps, last night the low temperature was 93F – the lowest it’s been in months. No food available anywhere now, anywhere; I would have expected riots under other circumstances, but most people have simply retreated indoors to wait for the inevitable. A neighbor on the boat next to Gemini stood outside and watched with us two nights ago, and we watched the Coalsack for a half hour or so. He’s was from the UK and planning to return, to be at home when it happens, but frankly, I don’t think he has time and told him just that. At any rate, he left yesterday morning, and Liz went with him. She said she wanted to be home too, and I felt ambivalent as I watched her leave. C’est la vie, I suppose. Charley and I sat up last night and we’d been watching the sky for a while when my old friend turned up, my dolphin. I jumped in the water with her, and I don’t know, but I had the damnedest feeling she was talking to me. It’s never felt that way before…not like the way it was last night.]

Collins felt Liz’s departure acutely today, and he drifted back to that time north of Bermuda after Charley passed – and the dolphin took her from him – carried his friend into the night. He recalled falling into absolute loneliness when he watched her body fall away into the depths, crushing all hope from his life. Yet when the dolphin returned she had sensed his despair, and she’d stayed with him, swimming lazily alongside Gemini day after day. He recalled how he’d dropped sail from time to time, how she’d consoled him when he joined her in the water.

And then, she appeared the night Liz left –

He’d been sitting on the aft deck looking at the moon rising over the old city, surprised at how utterly quiet the night was. No cars or buses, no trains leaving the station, and only a very few people out – and those few he saw stopped to stare at the black veil of the night – when he heard a commotion in the water and saw her dorsal fin slicing through the inky blackness.

She was there, only agitated, so he jumped into the water beside her and held her for what felt like hours, and when she leaned against him he heard little moaning sighs coming from deep within – and he could see fear reflected in her eyes. When at last she calmed down he felt her communicating – with him. Definitely a link of some sort, then he felt visions – before he saw them in his mind’s eye. Swimming one moment – underwater amidst vast schools of fish – and then adrift among stellar nurseries. Tumbling endlessly among vast fiery nebulae, the Coalsack turning to follow as she ran.

And then, in a voice as clear as any he’d ever heard: “We must leave. You must follow.”

He pulled back from her, looked her in the eye.

“We must leave, now?” he repeated back to her.

She became very agitated as he spoke, swam away at an impossible speed – then turned and rocketed back to his side.

“Now? We must leave now?”

And she nodded her head, almost hysterical now – then her body rose almost completely out of the water and grew quite still.

Collins turned and followed her eye, and he saw a woman on the dock behind Gemini.

At first he didn’t recognize her, but he could see the woman was terrified – shivering and terrified. She was standing knock-kneed, her arms crossed protectively over her breast, her hands crossed on her shoulders…

He felt the dolphin pushing him, pushing him to the dock, so he swam to the aft platform and pulled himself up into the night and jumped across to the dock…

And he found himself face to face – with Corrine Duruflé.

She was aghast, trembling uncontrollably, her face awash with tears.

“Corrine?”

Nothing. No response – yet he saw her eyes were almost crossed, focused somewhere above, perhaps on the enveloping Coalsack.

He turned and looked up into the night again, and saw ragged orbs of red streaking towards earth.

+++++

A few minutes later he was steering Gemini through the outer harbor, motoring to the southeast under autopilot while he wrapped Corrine in a blanket – but he’d yet no see a change in her. He’d helped her into the cockpit and cast off lines, getting underway as quickly as he could. Once they were clear of the l’île de la Tortue the dolphin turned almost directly east, and Gemini followed.

At one point he saw missiles arcing up into the blackness – but whatever they were, whoever had launched them – they simply disappeared. He saw no detonations, heard no explosions. The red orbs remained, only now there were more of them.

They motored out of Marseilles, sailed towards the calanque where he and Liz – and Ted and Carol – had been anchored just a few months back, and still Corrine seemed lost to this world. By mid-morning, though the sun’s light was almost gone the wind picked up and Gemini was broad-reaching under a full main and 120% genoa, barreling along at an honest eight knots. He went below and fixed sandwiches, poured two Dr Peppers and carried them back up into the cockpit.

He held the sandwich under Corrine’s nose and she sniffed at it, shook her head for a moment then stared at Sumner…

“Who – what are you doing here?” she said at last

“Who, me? What am I doing here?”

“Yes, you.”

“Well, take a look around.”

Corrine looked at him, then around the boat. She turned and looked at the shoreline about five miles off – and seemed completely disoriented.

“Where am I? Am I dead?”

“Not as far as I can tell, but I’ve had my doubts. We’re about a third of the way from Marseilles to Toulon, sailing east, following my friend there,” he said, pointing at his dolphin.

Corrine stood and looked at the dolphin. “Your friend?”

“Yes. She’s my friend. You remember? From Honfleur?”

“So. I am dead. Or I am having a, what is the word, a…?”

“A nightmare? No, I don’t think so. And no, you’re not dead, and as far as I can tell you’re wide awake now. What’s the last thing you remember?”

She looked around again, as if taking her bearings one more time – just to be sure. “I was home. Things are very bad there. Fire…fires everywhere, unimaginable riots. The police and fire brigades finally gave up. I was near the Bastille, near the marina. I went down to see if you might have returned…”

“You know, you’re the only woman I know who’d dress for the end of the world in five inch heels.”

She looked down at her shoes and laughed. “Old habits, Sumner.”

“I remember you saying once you’d like to get away from it all, maybe sail with me to Polynesia.”

“Ah. Is that why I’m here? I think I said we’d end up together, didn’t I?”

He shook his head, looked up at the sky: the red streaks clear now in the fading light of the sun, only now the sky had taken on an oddly variegated violet hue, the sea an even more peculiar, purple-gold color that was now oddly streaked.

“Oh, over there,” she said suddenly, pointing off the port quarter. “Another dolphin!”

Collins turned and saw this new one, then turned and looked aft…

Yes, there she was. Hyperion – under full sail, about two hundred yards astern – with Carol at the wheel and Ted cleaning-up lines on the foredeck…

And was that Hopie sitting on the aft rail – looking at him?

+++++

Hyperion and Gemini followed the dolphin past the rocks, around the little lighthouse and beyond, into the tiny, protected harbor that revealed itself beyond cliffs of granite and pine. The village of Portofino looked empty, almost deserted, yet Collins could see one sailboat tied bow-to the seawall just ahead. It was an old Hinckley, blue-hulled and elegant, one of the Southwester’ 42s he’d admired along the Maine coast decades ago, and now he looked through his binoculars at the boat. The name on the stern: Springer, and he saw the companionway hatch lay open – and a very small brown and white pup sitting under the dodger. When the pup saw him, or rather Gemini and Hyperion, sailing into the harbor it stood and started barking. Even through his field glasses, Collins could see the hair on the back of the pup’s neck standing on end, and he smiled – until Charley saw the pup and ran up to the bow.

And now it was a contest of wills…

Then he saw a man come up from below, binoculars in hand and moving to the aft rail of his boat. Soon they were looking at one another – through their binoculars – sizing up whatever threat might exist – but among Springer owners? There was a kind of universal bond between such people, wasn’t there? No, the man put his glasses down and moved off to the seawall, presumably to help him secure dock-lines, but well before Gemini pulled into the harbor he saw more dolphins circling in the water behind the other man’s boat. Five, no – six of them – and when ‘his’ dolphin saw the new pod it rocketed off into the harbor for a reunion of infinite joy.

And the man on the stone quay stared at this new dolphin, then back at him – and Collins could see things beginning to fall into place – for them both – and when he saw the man visibly relax he did too. Collins swung the bow around and coasted to a stop in the middle of the harbor, then used the thruster to line up with the quay as he backed-down, dropping an anchor on the way in. He brought Gemini to a stop about a meter off the stone wall, then hopped back to toss his lines over to the man on the quay. After checking the lines and setting the anchor he cut the engine, then looked around the harbor for other people, but apparently the man standing quayside was the only soul remaining.

“Sumner Collins,” he said when he hopped over to the quay and he held out his hand.

“Tom Goodwin,” the man said, taking his hand.

“Is this place as empty as it looks? We haven’t seen another vessel since we left Marseilles.”

“Not many people left,” Goodwin said, shaking his head slowly. “About half the people in town passed within a week of the arrival, like someone flipped a switch. People stopped eating and drinking, and it didn’t take long after that.”

“Same thing in southern France. Folks just stopped caring.”

“Not up north; not last night,” Goodwin said.

“Oh,” Collins said, “what’s happened?”

“The Russians and Chinese started lobbing nukes last night night, at America and Germany for the most part. Nobody up there stopped them this time. The US counterstrike is still underway.”

“What?!”

“Shortwave broadcasts this morning said most of the world’s major cities are toast, missile silos too. Bombers should be reaching their targets over the next few hours; that’s the word on the nets, anyway.”

“Damn. It’s not enough we have some sort of galactic plague bearing down on us. We had to go and do their work for them?”

Goodwin shrugged. “That dolphin with you?” he asked as he turned to the commotion behind their boats.

“Yup. She’s been with me for a few years.”

Goodwin nodded his head. “These guys have been with me a while, my father before me. I think they’ve been waiting for your’s to get here.” Collins looked at Goodwin as his eyes followed Hyperion into the turning basin, and as he recognized Hope Sherman in her wheelchair by the aft rail he seemed to stand a little straighter, grow a little more self-conscious. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably.”

Goodwin looked from Sherman to the dolphins in the water: they were all silent now, staring at the old woman on the aft swim platform as she talked to them. Sumner watched as she talked to one of the dolphins – like it was an old friend – and he grew cool inside, and light-headed, as he considered the implications…then he looked up at the sky.

Though it was not quite noon the sky was rapidly turning dark, a misty shade of purple-gray, and everywhere he turned he saw a world turned inward on itself, a ruined landscape bathed in splotchy shadows by the unsettled, purple light. The inrushing red streaks were more prominent now too, and while they’d not yet reached earth, for the first time he thought he could hear something of their coming in the air. Almost like static, like someone up in the sky was ripping apart an infinitely long cardboard box – and this sound was something new – like it had just started. Hope Sherman sat and looked at the sky, the dolphins off Hyperion’s stern leaned back too, and they looked up into the unknown, then at one another.

Collins looked at the dolphins now too, at his companion and her – what? – friend? floating in these odd, otherworldly colors, and he wondered why they hadn’t left with the others. He looked at them anew, and wondered what role they’d come to play in this looming death, then he helped Ted tie Hyperion to the quay.

Soon everyone was on the stone dock, and Goodwin looked at Hope Sherman like he knew her, like maybe they’d met somewhere before.

“I think we’re running out of time,” Hope said from her wheelchair – as she looked at Tom Goodwin. “Are you ready?”

He nodded his head, now feeling – almost – a sense of déjà vu. “Follow me,” he said, but he heard music just then…random words sailing through his mind’s eye…cellophane flowers and newspaper taxis…and he felt the sun on his face. Not the sun now, not that purple, washed out orb… No, memory far away was calling him. A memory not his own…

Collins felt lost when he heard that last exchange, when he realized Goodwin and Hopie knew one another, and he hung back and watched as their little group took off to the east, walking along tree-lined paths away from the harbor. He looked at Goodwin as he pushed Hopie’s wheelchair along the hilly, cobbled lane, and he only grew more confused. Soon they were walking along the spine of the ridge that led out to the point, and to the open sea.

Collins saw rocks down below, small tidal pools nestled crater-lakes among them, then he saw the gathering – the dolphins, all of them – as they rounded the point and came to one of the rock-lined pools. They looked up expectantly as Goodwin lifted Hopie from her chair, and Collins helped steady them as the group inched through the rocky outcroppings down to the closest pool. Gathered by the water after a few minutes, their audience watched as, one by one, the humans took off their clothes…

…then Collins saw two other people were already in the water, waiting for them…

…seven humans, and seven dolphins…

The sky was black now, though it was just mid-afternoon, and vivid red clots began to take shape in the milky sky, drifting slowly through clouds, coming for the waiting remnants of humanity. The tearing sound grew louder now, and was growing more so by the moment; when Collins looked up the red-streaks seems somehow alive, and clouds seemed to run from the heat. Soon everywhere Collins looked he saw a world on fire…mountains, forests, towns across the bay…all lost under torrents of lava-like flame, and for a moment he had the impression the earth was being purified, like a cosmic reset button had just been punched…

And then they were together, in the sea, and the dolphins began moving among them.

Circling. Very. Fast.

Sumner Collins was aware of a sudden growing light, and with his passing the earth grew very still.

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